I shrugged. "Well, maybe not to his face, anyway."

"Sally?" Mr. Blofis called from our living room. "You need the green binder or the red one?"

"I'd better go," she told me. "See you for Christmas?"

"Are you putting blue candy in my stocking?"

She smiled. "If you're not too old for that."

"I'm never too old for candy."

"I'll see you then."

She waved her hand across the mist. Her image disappeared, and I thought to myself that Thalia had been right, so many days ago at Westover Hall: my mom really was pretty cool.

Compared to Mount Olympus, Manhattan was quiet. Friday before Christmas, but it was early in the morning, and hardly anyone was on Fifth Avenue. Argus, the many-eyed security chief, picked up Annabeth, Grover, and me at the Empire State Building and ferried us back to camp through a light snowstorm. The Long Island Expressway was almost deserted.

As we trudged back up Half-Blood Hill to the pine tree where the Golden Fleece glittered, I half expected to see Thalia there, waiting for us. But she wasn't. She was long gone with Artemis and the rest of the Hunters, off on their next adventure.

Chiron greeted us at the Big House with hot chocolate and toasted cheese sandwiches. Grover went off with his satyr friends to spread the word about our strange encounter with the magic of Pan. Within an hour, the satyrs were all running around agitated, asking where the nearest espresso bar was.

Annabeth and I sat with Chiron and some of the other senior campers—Beckendorf, Silena Beauregard, and the Stoll brothers. Even Clarisse from the Ares cabin was there, back from her secretive scouting mission. I knew she must've had a difficult quest, because she didn't even try to pulverize me. She had a new scar on her chin, and her dirty blond hair had been cut short and ragged, like someone had attacked it with a pair of safety scissors.

"I got news," she mumbled uneasily. "Bad news."

"I'll fill you in later," Chiron said with forced cheerfulness. "The important thing is you have prevailed. And you saved Annabeth!"

Annabeth smiled at me gratefully, which made me look away.

For some strange reason, I found myself thinking about Hoover Dam, and the odd mortal girl I'd run into there, Rachel Elizabeth Dare. I didn't know why, but her annoying comments kept coming back to me. Do you always kill people when they blow their nose? I was only alive because so many people had helped me, even a random mortal girl like that. I'd never even explained to her who I was.

"Luke is alive," I said. "Annabeth was right."

Annabeth sat up. "How do you know?"

I tried not to feel annoyed by her interest. I told her what my dad had said about the Princess Andromeda.

"Well." Annabeth shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "If the final battle does come when Percy is sixteen, at least we have two more years to figure something out."

I had a feeling that when she said "figure something out," she meant "get Luke to change his ways," which annoyed me even more.

Chiron's expression was gloomy. Sitting by the fire in his wheelchair, he looked really old. I mean… he was really old, but he usually didn't look it.

"Two years may seem like a long time," he said. "But it is the blink of an eye. I still hope you are not the child of the prophecy, Percy. But if you are, then the second Titan war is almost upon us. Kronos's first strike will be here."

"How do you know?" I asked. "Why would he care about camp?"

"Because the gods use heroes as their tools," Chiron said simply. "Destroy the tools, and the gods will be crippled. Luke's forces will come here. Mortal, demigod, monstrous… We must be prepared. Clarisse's news may give us a clue as to how they will attack, but—"

There was a knock on the door, and Nico di Angelo came huffing into the parlor, his cheeks bright red from the cold.

He was smiling, but he looked around anxiously. "Hey! Where's… where's my sister?"

Dead silence. I stared at Chiron. I couldn't believe nobody had told him yet. And then I realized why. They'd been waiting for us to appear, to tell Nico in person.

That was the last thing I wanted to do. But I owed it to Bianca.

"Hey, Nico." I got up from my comfortable chair. "Let's take a walk, okay? We need to talk."

He took the news in silence, which somehow made it worse. I kept talking, trying to explain how it had happened, how Bianca had sacrificed herself to save the quest. But I felt like I was only making things worse.

"She wanted you to have this." I brought out the little god figurine Bianca had found in the junkyard. Nico held it in his palm and stared at it.

We were standing at the dining pavilion, just where we'd last spoken before I went on the quest. The wind was bitter cold, even with the camp's magical weather protection. Snow fell lightly against the marble steps. I figured outside the camp borders, there must be a blizzard happening.

"You promised you would protect her," Nico said.

He might as well have stabbed me with a rusty dagger.

It would've hurt less than reminding me of my promise.

"Nico," I said. "I tried. But Bianca gave herself up to save the rest of us. I told her not to. But she—"

"You promised!"

He glared at me, his eyes rimmed with red. He closed his small fist around the god statue.

"I shouldn't have trusted you." His voice broke. "You lied to me. My nightmares were right!"

"Wait. What nightmares?"

He flung the god statue to the ground. It clattered across the icy marble. "I hate you!"

"She might be alive," I said desperately. "I don't know for sure—"

"She's dead." He closed his eyes. His whole body trembled with rage. "I should've known it earlier. She's in the Fields of Asphodel, standing before the judges right now, being evaluated. I can feel it."

"What do you mean, you can feel it?"

Before he could answer, I heard a new sound behind me. A hissing, clattering noise I recognized all too well.

I drew my sword and Nico gasped. I whirled and found myself facing four skeleton warriors. They grinned fleshless grins and advanced with swords drawn. I wasn't sure how they'd made it inside the camp, but it didn't matter. I'd never get help in time.

"You're trying to kill me!" Nico screamed. "You brought these… these things?"

"No! I mean, yes, they followed me, but no! Nico, run. They can't be destroyed."

"I don't trust you!"

The first skeleton charged. I knocked aside its blade, but the other three kept coming. I sliced one in half, but immediately it began to knit back together. I knocked another's head off but it just kept fighting.

"Run, Nico!" I yelled. "Get help!"

"No!" He pressed his hands to his ears.

I couldn't fight four at once, not if they wouldn't die. I slashed, whirled, blocked, jabbed, but they just kept advancing. It was only a matter of seconds before the zombies overpowered me.

"No!" Nico shouted louder. "Go away!"

The ground rumbled beneath me. The skeletons froze. I rolled out of the way just as a crack opened at the feet of the four warriors. The ground ripped apart like a snapping mouth. Flames erupted from the fissure, and the earth swallowed the skeletons in one loud CRUNCH!

Silence.

In the place where the skeletons had stood, a twenty-foot-long scar wove across the marble floor of the pavilion. Otherwise there was no sign of the warriors.

Awestruck, I looked to Nico. "How did you—"

"Go away!" he yelled. "I hate you! I wish you were dead!"

The ground didn't swallow me up, but Nico ran down the steps, heading toward the woods. I started to follow but slipped and fell to the icy steps. When I got up, I noticed what I'd slipped on.

I picked up the god statue Bianca had retrieved from the junkyard for Nico. The only statue he didn't have, she'd said. A last gift from his sister.

I stared at it with dread, because now I understood why the face looked familiar. I'd seen it before.

It was a statue of Hades, Lord of the Dead.

Annabeth and Grover helped me search the woods for hours, but there was no sign of Nico di Angelo.

"We have to tell Chiron," Annabeth said, out of breath.

"No," I said.

She and Grover both stared at me.

"Um," Grover said nervously, "what do you mean… no?

I was still trying to figure out why I'd said that, but the words spilled out of me. "We can't let anyone know. I don't think anyone realizes that Nico is a—"

"A son of Hades," Annabeth said. "Percy, do you have any idea how serious this is? Even Hades broke the oath! This is horrible!"

"I don't think so," I said. "I don't think Hades broke the oath."

"What?"

"He's their dad," I said, "but Bianca and Nico have been out of commission for a long time, since even before World War II."

"The Lotus Casino!" Grover said, and he told Annabeth about the conversations we'd had with Bianca on the quest. "She and Nico were stuck there for decades. They were born before the oath was made."

I nodded.

"But how did they get out?" Annabeth protested.

"I don't know," I admitted. "Bianca said a lawyer came and got them and drove them to Westover Hall. I don't know who that could've been, or why. Maybe it's part of this Great Stirring thing. I don't think Nico understands who he is. But we can't go telling anyone. Not even Chiron. If the Olympians find out—"

"It might start them fighting among each other again," Annabeth said. "That's the last thing we need."

Grover looked worried. "But you can't hide things from the gods. Not forever."

"I don't need forever," I said. "Just two years. Until I'm sixteen."

Annabeth paled. "But, Percy, this means the prophecy might not be about you. It might be about Nico.We have to—"

"No," I said. "I choose the prophecy. It will be about me."

"Why are you saying that?" she cried. "You want to be responsible for the whole world?"

It was the last thing I wanted, but I didn't say that. I knew I had to step up and claim it.

"I can't let Nico be in any more danger," I said. "I owe that much to his sister. I… let them both down. I'm not going to let that poor kid suffer any more."

"The poor kid who hates you and wants to see you dead," Grover reminded me.

"Maybe we can find him," I said. "We can convince him it's okay, hide him someplace safe."

Annabeth shivered. "If Luke gets hold of him—"

"Luke won't," I said. "I'll make sure he's got other things to worry about. Namely, me."

I wasn't sure Chiron believed the story Annabeth and I told him. I think he could tell I was holding something back about Nico's disappearance, but in the end, he accepted it. Unfortunately, Nico wasn't the first half-blood to disappear.

"So young," Chiron sighed, his hands on the rail of the front porch. "Alas, I hope he was eaten by monsters. Much better than being recruited into the Titans' army."

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***