Thalia spat at him.

The General chuckled. "So much for old friends. And you, Zoe. It's been a long time. How is my little traitor? I will enjoy killing you."

"Do not respond," Artemis groaned. "Do not challenge him."

"Wait a second," I said. "You're Atlas?"

The General glanced at me. "So, even the stupidest of heroes can finally figure something out. Yes, I am Atlas, the general of the Titans and terror of the gods. Congratulations. I will kill you presently, as soon as I deal with this wretched girl."

"You're not going to hurt Zoe" I said. "I won't let you."

The General sneered. "You have no right to interfere, little hero. This is a family matter." I frowned. "A family matter?"

"Yes," Zoe said bleakly. "Atlas is my father."



The horrible thing was: I could see the family resemblance. Atlas had the same regal expression as Zoe, the same cold proud look in his eyes that Zoe sometimes got when she was mad, though on him it looked a thousand times more evil. He was all the things I'd originally disliked about Zoe, with none of the good I'd come to appreciate.

"Let Artemis go," Zoe demanded.

Atlas walked closer to the chained goddess. "Perhaps you'd like to take the sky for her, then? Be my guest."

Zoe opened her mouth to speak, but Artemis said, "No! Do not offer, Zoe! I forbid you."

Atlas smirked. He knelt next to Artemis and tried to touch her face, but the goddess bit at him, almost taking off his fingers.

"Hoo-hoo," Atlas chuckled. "You see, daughter? Lady Artemis likes her new job. I think I will have all the Olympians take turns carrying my burden, once Lord Kronos rules again, and this is the center of our palace. It will teach those weaklings some humility."

I looked at Annabeth. She was desperately trying to tell me something. She motioned her head toward Luke. But all

I could do was stare at her. I hadn't noticed before, but something about her had changed. Her blond hair was now streaked with gray.

"From holding the sky," Thalia muttered, as if she'd read my mind. "The weight should've killed her."

"I don't understand," I said. "Why can't Artemis just let go of the sky?"

Atlas laughed. "How little you understand, young one. This is the point where the sky and the earth first met, where Ouranos and Gaia first brought forth their mighty children, the Titans. The sky still yearns to embrace the earth. Someone must hold it at bay, or else it would crush down upon this place, instantly flattening the mountain and everything within a hundred leagues. Once you have taken the burden, there is no escape." Atlas smiled. "Unless someone else takes it from you."

He approached us, studying Thalia and me. "So these are the best heroes of the age, eh? Not much of a challenge."

"Fight us," I said. "And let's see."

"Have the gods taught you nothing? An immortal does not fight a mere mortal directly. It is beneath our dignity. I will have Luke crush you instead."

"So you're another coward," I said.

Atlas's eyes glowed with hatred. With difficulty, he turned his attention to Thalia.

"As for you, daughter of Zeus, it seems Luke was wrong about you."

"I wasn't wrong," Luke managed. He looked terribly weak, and he spoke every word as if it were painful. If I didn't hate his guts so much, I almost would've felt sorry for Kim. "Thalia, you still can join us. Call the Ophiotaurus. It will come to you. Look!"

He waved his hand, and next to us a pool of water appeared: a pond ringed in black marble, big enough for the Ophiotaurus. I could imagine Bessie in that pool. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I was sure I could hear Bessie mooing.

Don't think about him! Suddenly Grover's voice was inside my mind—the empathy link. I could feel his emotions. He was on the verge of panic. I'm losing Bessie. Block the thoughts!

I tried to make my mind go blank. I tried to think about basketball players, skateboards, the different kinds of candy in my mom's shop. Anything but Bessie.

"Thalia, call the Ophiotaurus," Luke persisted. "And you will be more powerful than the gods."

"Luke…" Her voice was full of pain. "What happened to you?"

"Don't you remember all those times we talked? All those times we cursed the gods? Our fathers have done nothing for us. They have no right to rule the world!"

Thalia shook her head. "Free Annabeth. Let her go."

"If you join me," Luke promised, "it can be like old times. The three of us together. Fighting for a better world. Please, Thalia, if you don't agree…"

His voice faltered. "It's my last chance. He will use the other way if you don't agree. Please."

I didn't know what he meant, but the fear in his voice sounded real enough. I believed that Luke was in danger.

His life depended on Thalia's joining his cause. And I was afraid Thalia might believe it, too.

"Do not, Thalia," Zoe warned. "We must fight them."

Luke waved his hand again, and a fire appeared. A bronze brazier, just like the one at camp. A sacrificial flame.

"Thalia," I said. "No."

Behind Luke, the golden sarcophagus began to glow. As it did, I saw images in the mist all around us: black marble walls rising, the ruins becoming whole, a terrible and beautiful palace rising around us, made of fear and shadow.

"We will raise Mount Othrys right here," Luke promised, in a voice so strained it was hardly his. "Once more, it will be stronger and greater than Olympus. Look, Thalia. We are not weak."

He pointed toward the ocean, and my heart fell. Marching up the side of the mountain, from the beach where the Princess Andromeda was docked, was a great army. Dracaenae and Laestrygonians, monsters and half-bloods, hell hounds, harpies, and other things I couldn't even name. The whole ship must've been emptied, because there were hundreds, many more than I'd seen on board last summer. And they were marching toward us. In a few minutes, they would be here.

"This is only a taste of what is to come," Luke said. "Soon we will be ready to storm Camp Half-Blood. And after that, Olympus itself. All we need is your help."

For a terrible moment, Thalia hesitated. She gazed at Luke, her eyes full of pain, as if the only thing she wanted in the world was to believe him. Then she leveled her spear. "You aren't Luke. I don't know you anymore."

"Yes, you do, Thalia," he pleaded. "Please. Don't make me… Don't make him destroy you."

There was no time. If that army got to the top of the hill, we would be overwhelmed. I met Annabeth's eyes again. She nodded.

I looked at Thalia and Zoe, and I decided it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to die fighting with friends like this.

"Now," I said.

Together, we charged.

Thalia went straight for Luke. The power of her shield was so great that his dragon-women bodyguards fled in a panic, dropping the golden coffin and leaving him alone. But despite his sickly appearance, Luke was still quick with his sword. He snarled like a wild animal and counterattacked. When his sword, Backbiter, met Thalia's shield, a ball of lightning erupted between them, frying the air with yellow tendrils of power.

As for me, I did the stupidest thing in my life, which is saying a lot. I attacked the Titan Lord Atlas.

He laughed as I approached. A huge javelin appeared in his hands. His silk suit melted into full Greek battle armor. "Go on, then!"

"Percy!" Zoe said. "Beware!"

I knew what she was warning me about. Chiron had told me long ago: Immortals are constrained by ancient rules. But a hero can go anywhere, challenge anyone, as long as he has the nerve. Once I attacked, however, Atlas was free to attack back directly, with all his might.

I swung my sword, and Atlas knocked me aside with the shaft of his javelin. I flew through the air and slammed into a black wall. It wasn't Mist anymore. The palace was rising, brick by brick. It was becoming real.

"Fool!" Atlas screamed gleefully, swatting aside one of Zoe's arrows. "Did you think, simply because you could challenge that petty war god, that you could stand up to me?"

The mention of Ares sent a jolt through me. I shook off my daze and charged again. If I could get to that pool of water, I could double my strength.

The javelins point slashed toward me like a scythe. I raised Riptide, planning to cut off his weapon at the shaft, but my arm felt like lead. My sword suddenly weighed a ton.

And I remembered Ares's warning, spoken on the beach in Los Angeles so long ago: When you need it most, your sword will fail you.

Not now! I pleaded. But it was no good. I tried to dodge, but the javelin caught me in the chest and sent me flying like a rag doll. I slammed into the ground, my head spinning. I looked up and found I was at the feet of Artemis, still straining under the weight of the sky.

"Run, boy," she told me. "You must run!"

Atlas was taking his time coming toward me. My sword was gone. It had skittered away over the edge of the cliff. It might reappear in my pocket—maybe in a few seconds—but it didn't matter. I'd be dead by then. Luke and Thalia were fighting like demons, lightning crackling around them. Annabeth was on the ground, desperately struggling to free her hands.

"Die, little hero," Atlas said.

He raised his javelin to impale me.

"No!" Zoe yelled, and a volley of silver arrows sprouted from the armpit chink in Atlas's armor.

"ARGH!" He bellowed and turned toward his daughter.

I reached down and felt Riptide back in my pocket. I couldn't fight Atlas, even with a sword. And then a chill went down my back. I remembered the words of the prophecy: The Titan's curse must one withstand. I couldn't hope to beat Atlas. But there was someone else who might stand a chance.

"The sky," I told the goddess. "Give it to me."

"No, boy," Artemis said. Her forehead was beaded with metallic sweat, like quicksilver. "You don't know what you're asking. It will crush you!"

"Annabeth took it!"

"She barely survived. She had the spirit of a true huntress. You will not last so long."

"I'll die anyway," I said. "Give me the weight of the sky!"

I didn't wait for her answer. I took out Riptide and slashed through her chains. Then I stepped next to her and braced myself on one knee—holding up my hands—and touched the cold, heavy clouds. For a moment, Artemis and I bore the weight together. It was the heaviest thing I'd ever felt, as if I were being crushed under a thousand trucks. I wanted to black out from the pain, but I breathed deeply. I can do this.

Then Artemis slipped out from under the burden, and I held it alone.

Afterward, I tried many times to explain what it felt like. I couldn't.

Every muscle in my body turned to fire. My bones felt like they were melting. I wanted to scream, but I didn't have the strength to open my mouth. I began to sink, lower and lower to the ground, the sky's weight crushing me.

Fight back! Grover's voice said inside my head. Don't give up.

I concentrated on breathing. If I could just keep the sky aloft a few more seconds. I thought about Bianca, who had given her life so we could get here. If she could do that, I could hold the sky.