The other skeletons opened fire. I raised my lion coat for protection, but I didn't need it. The bronze angels stepped in front of us and folded their wings like shields. Bullets pinged off of them like rain off a corrugated roof. Both angels slashed outward, and the skeletons went flying across the road.

"Man, it feels good to stand up!" the first angel said. His voice sounded tinny and rusty, like he hadn't had a drink since he'd been built.

"Will ya look at my toes?" the other said. "Holy Zeus, what were those tourists thinking?"

As stunned as I was by the angels, I was more concerned with the skeletons. A few of them were getting up again, reassembling, bony hands groping for their weapons.

"Trouble!" I said.

"Get us out of here!" Thalia yelled.

Both angels looked down at her. "Zeus's kid?" Yes!

"Could I get a please, Miss Zeus's Kid?" an angel asked.

"Please!"

The angels looked at each other and shrugged.

"Could use a stretch," one decided.

And the next thing I knew, one of them grabbed Thalia and me, the other grabbed Zoe and Grover, and we flew straight up, over the dam and the river, the skeleton warriors shrinking to tiny specks below us and the sound of gunfire echoing off the sides of the mountains.

FIFTEEN

I WRESTLE SANTA'S EVIL TWIN

"Tell me when it's over," Thalia said. Her eyes were shut tight. The statue was holding on to us so we couldn't fall, but still Thalia clutched his arm like it was the most important thing in the world.

"Everything's fine," I promised.

"Are… are we very high?"

I looked down. Below us, a range of snowy mountains zipped by. I stretched out my foot and kicked snow off one of the peaks.

"Nah," I said. "Not that high."

"We are in the Sierras.'" Zoe yelled. She and Grover were hanging from the arms of the other statue. "I have hunted here before. At this speed, we should be in San Francisco in a few hours."

"Hey, hey, Frisco!" our angel said. "Yo, Chuck! We could visit those guys at the Mechanics Monument again! They know how to party!"

"Oh, man," the other angel said. "I am so there!"

"You guys have visited San Francisco?" I asked.

"We automatons gotta have some fun once in a while, right?" our statue said. "Those mechanics took us over to the de Young Museum and introduced us to these marble lady statues, see. And—"

"Hank!" the other statue Chuck cut in. "They're kids, man."

"Oh, right." If bronze statues could blush, I swear Hank did. "Back to flying."

We sped up, so I could tell the angels were excited. The mountains fell away into hills, and then we were zipping along over farmland and towns and highways.

Grover played his pipes to pass the time. Zoe got bored and started shooting arrows at random billboards as we flew by. Every time she saw a Target department store—and we passed dozens of them—she would peg the store's sign with a few bulls-eyes at a hundred miles an hour.

Thalia kept her eyes closed the whole way. She muttered to herself a lot, like she was praying.

"You did good back there," I told her. "Zeus listened."

It was hard to tell what she was thinking with her eyes closed.

"Maybe," she said. "How did you get away from the skeletons in the generator room, anyway? You said they cornered you."

I told her about the weird mortal girl, Rachel Elizabeth Dare, who seemed to be able to see right through the Mist. I thought Thalia was going to call me crazy, but she just nodded.

"Some mortals are like that," she said. "Nobody knows why."

Suddenly I flashed on something I'd never considered.

My mom was like that. She had seen the Minotaur on Half-Blood Hill and known exactly what it was. She hadn't been surprised at all last year when I'd told her my friend Tyson was really a Cyclops. Maybe she'd known all along. No wonder she'd been so scared for me as I was growing up. She saw through the Mist even better than I did.

"Well, the girl was annoying," I said. "But I'm glad I didn't vaporize her. That would've been bad."

Thalia nodded. "Must be nice to be a regular mortal." She said that as if she'd given it a lot of thought.

"Where you guys want to land?" Hank asked, waking me up from a nap.

I looked down and said, "Whoa."

I'd seen San Francisco in pictures before, but never in real life. It was probably the most beautiful city I'd ever seen: kind of like a smaller, cleaner Manhattan, if Manhattan had been surrounded by green hills and fog. There was a huge bay and ships, islands and sailboats, and the Golden Gate Bridge sticking up out of the fog. I felt like I should take a picture or something. Greetings from Frisco. Haven't Died Yet. Wish You Were Here.

"There," Zoe suggested. "By the Embarcadero Building."

"Good thinking," Chuck said. "Me and Hank can blend in with the pigeons."

We all looked at him.

"Kidding," he said. "Sheesh, can't statues have a sense of humor?"

As it turned out, there wasn't much need to blend in. It was early morning and not many people were around. We freaked out a homeless guy on the ferry dock when we landed. He screamed when he saw Hank and Chuck and ran off yelling something about metal angels from Mars.

We said our good-byes to the angels, who flew off to party with their statue friends. That's when I realized I had no idea what we were going to do next.

We'd made it to the West Coast. Artemis was here somewhere. Annabeth too, I hoped. But I had no idea how to find them, and tomorrow was the winter solstice. Nor did I have any clue what monster Artemis had been hunting. It was supposed to find us on the quest. It was supposed to "show the trail," but it never had. Now we were stuck on the ferry dock with not much money, no friends, and no luck.

After a brief discussion, we agreed that we needed to figure out just what this mystery monster was.

"But how?" I asked.

"Nereus," Grover said.

I looked at him. "What?"

"Isn't that what Apollo told you to do? Find Nereus?"

I nodded. I'd completely forgotten my last conversation with the sun god.

The old man of the sea," I remembered. "I'm supposed to find him and force him to tell us what he knows. But how do I find him?"

Zoe made a face. "Old Nereus, eh?"

"You know him?" Thalia asked.

My mother was a sea goddess. Yes, I know him.Unfortunately, he is never very hard to find. Just follow the smell."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Come," she said without enthusiasm. "I will show thee."

I knew I was in trouble when we stopped at the Goodwill drop box. Five minutes later, Zoe had me outfitted in a ragged flannel shirt and jeans three sizes too big, bright red sneakers, and a floppy rainbow hat.

"Oh, yeah," Grover said, trying not to bust out laughing, "you look completely inconspicuous now."

Zoe nodded with satisfaction. "A typical male vagrant."

"Thanks a lot," I grumbled. "Why am I doing this again?"

"I told thee. To blend in."

She led the way back down to the waterfront. After a long time spent searching the docks, Zoe finally stopped in her tracks. She pointed down a pier where a bunch of homeless guys were huddled together in blankets, waiting for the soup kitchen to open for lunch.

"He will be down there somewhere," Zoe said. "He never travels very far from the water. He likes to sun himself during the day."

"How do I know which one is him?"

"Sneak up," she said. "Act homeless. You will know him. He will smell… different."

"Great." I didn't want to ask for particulars. "And once I find him?"

"Grab him," she said. "And hold on. He will try anything to get rid of thee. Whatever he does, do not let go. Force him to tell thee about the monster."

"We've got your back," Thalia said. She picked something off the back of my shirt—a big clump of fuzz that came from who-knows-where. "Eww. On second thought… I don't want your back. But we'll be rooting for you."

Grover gave me a big thumbs-up.

I grumbled how nice it was to have super-powerful friends. Then I headed toward the dock.

I pulled my hat down and stumbled like I was about to pass out, which wasn't hard considering how tired I was. I passed our homeless friend from the Embarcadero, who was still trying to warn the other guys about the metal angels from Mars.

He didn't smell good, but he didn't smell… different. I kept walking.

A couple of grimy dudes with plastic grocery bags for hats checked me out as I came close.

"Beat it, kid!" one of them muttered.

I moved away. They smelled pretty bad, but just regular old bad. Nothing unusual.

There was a lady with a bunch of plastic flamingos sticking out of a shopping cart. She glared at me like I was going to steal her birds.

At the end of the pier, a guy who looked about a million years old was passed out in a patch of sunlight. He wore pajamas and a fuzzy bathrobe that probably used to be white. He was fat, with a white beard that had turned yellow, kind of like Santa Claus, if Santa had been rolled out of bed and dragged through a landfill.

And his smell?

As I got closer, I froze. He smelled bad, all right—but ocean bad. Like hot seaweed and dead fish and brine. If the ocean had an ugly side… this guy was it.

I tried not to gag as I sat down near him like I was tired. Santa opened one eye suspiciously. I could feel him staring at me, but I didn't look. I muttered something about stupid school and stupid parents, figuring that might sound reasonable.

Santa Claus went back to sleep.

I tensed. I knew this was going to look strange. I didn't know how the other homeless people would react. But I jumped Santa Claus.

"Ahhhhhl" he screamed. I meant to grab him, but he seemed to grab me instead. It was as if he'd never been asleep at all. He certainly didn't act like a weak old man. He had a grip like steel. "Help me!" he screamed as he squeezed me to death.

"That's a crime!" one of the other homeless guys yelled. "Kid rolling an old man like that!"

I rolled, all right—straight down the pier until my head slammed into a post. I was dazed for a second, and Nereus's grip slackened. He was making a break for it. Before he could, I regained my senses and tackled him from behind.

"I don't have any money!" He tried to get up and run, but I locked my arms around his chest. His rotten fish smell was awful, but I held on.

"I don't want money," I said as he fought. "I'm a half-blood! I want information.'"

That just made him struggle harder. "Heroes! Why do you always pick on me?"

"Because you know everything!"

He growled and tried to shake me off his back. It was like holding on to a roller coaster. He thrashed around, making it impossible for me to keep on my feet, but I gritted my teeth and squeezed tighter. We staggered toward the edge of the pier and I got an idea.

"Oh, no!" I said. "Not the water!"

The plan worked. Immediately, Nereus yelled in triumph and jumped off the edge. Together, we plunged into San Francisco Bay.

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