"What do I have to do?"
"Say this," Zoe told her, " 'I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis.'"
"I… I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis."
"'I turn my back on the company of men, accept eternal maidenhood, and join the Hunt.'"
Bianca repeated the lines. "That's it?"
Zoe nodded. "If Lady Artemis accepts thy pledge, then it is binding."
"I accept it," Artemis said.
The flames in the brazier brightened, casting a silver glow over the room. Bianca looked no different, but she took a deep breath and opened her eyes wide. "I feel… stronger."
"Welcome, sister," Zoe said.
"Remember your pledge," Artemis said. "It is now your life."
I couldn't speak. I felt like a trespasser. And a complete failure. I couldn't believe I'd come all this way and suffered so much only to lose Bianca to some eternal girls' club.
"Do not despair, Percy Jackson," Artemis said. "You will still get to show the di Angelos your camp. And if Nico so chooses, he can stay there."
"Great," I said, trying not to sound surly. "How are we supposed to get there?"
Artemis closed her eyes. "Dawn is approaching. Zoe, break camp. You must get to Long Island quickly and safely. I shall summon a ride from my brother."
Zoe didn't look real happy about this idea, but she nodded and told Bianca to follow her. As she was leaving, Bianca paused in front of me. "I'm sorry, Percy. But I want this. I really, really do."
Then she was gone, and I was left alone with the twelve-year-old goddess.
"So," I said glumly. "We're going to get a ride from your brother, huh?"
Artemis's silver eyes gleamed. "Yes, boy. You see, Bianca di Angelo is not the only one with an annoying brother. It's time for you to meet my irresponsible twin, Apollo."
THALIA TORCHES NEW ENGLAND
Artemis assured us that dawn was coming, but you could've fooled me. It was colder and darker and snowier than ever. Up on the hill, Westover Hall's windows were completely lightless. I wondered if the teachers had even noticed the di Angelos and Dr. Thorn were missing yet. I didn't want to be around when they did. With my luck, the only name Mrs. Gottschalk would remember was "Percy Jackson," and then I'd be the subject of a nationwide manhunt… again.
The Hunters broke camp as quickly as they'd set it up. I stood shivering in the snow (unlike the Hunters, who didn't seem to feel at all uncomfortable), and Artemis stared into the east like she was expecting something. Bianca sat off to one side, talking with Nico. I could tell from his gloomy face that she was explaining her decision to join the Hunt. I couldn't help thinking how selfish it was of her, abandoning her brother like that.
Thalia and Grover came up and huddled around me, anxious to hear what had happened in my audience with the goddess.
When I told them, Grover turned pale. "The last time the Hunters visited camp, it didn't go well."
"How'd they even show up here?" I wondered. "I mean, they just appeared out of nowhere."
"And Bianca joined them," Thalia said, disgusted. "It's all Zoe's fault. That stuck-up, no good—"
"Who can blame her?" Grover said. "Eternity with Artemis?" He heaved a big sigh.
Thalia rolled her eyes. "You satyrs. You're all in love with Artemis. Don't you get that she'll never love you back?"
"But she's so… into nature," Grover swooned.
"You're nuts," said Thalia.
"Nuts and berries," Grover said dreamily. "Yeah."
Finally the sky began to lighten. Artemis muttered, "About time. He's so-o-o lazy during the winter."
"You're, um, waiting for sunrise?" I asked.
"For my brother. Yes."
I didn't want to be rude. I mean, I knew the legends about Apollo—or sometimes Helios—driving a big sun chariot across the sky. But I also knew that the sun was really a star about a zillion miles away. I'd gotten used to some of the Greek myths being true, but still… I didn't see how Apollo could drive the sun.
"It's not exactly as you think," Artemis said, like she was reading my mind.
"Oh, okay." I started to relax. "So, it's not like he'll be pulling up in a—"
There was a sudden burst of light on the horizon. A blast of warmth.
"Don't look," Artemis advised. "Not until he parks."
I averted my eyes, and saw that the other kids were doing the same. The light and warmth intensified until my winter coat felt like it was melting off of me. Then suddenly the light died.
I looked. And I couldn't believe it. It was my car. Well, the car I wanted, anyway. A red convertible Maserati Spyder. It was so awesome it glowed. Then I realized it was glowing because the metal was hot. The snow had melted around the Maserati in a perfect circle, which explained why I was now standing on green grass and my shoes were wet.
The driver got out, smiling. He looked about seventeen or eighteen, and for a second, I had the uneasy feeling it was Luke, my old enemy. This guy had the same sandy hair and outdoorsy good looks. But it wasn't Luke. This guy was taller, with no scar on his face like Luke's. His smile was brighter and more playful. (Luke didn't do much more than scowl and sneer these days.) The Maserati driver wore jeans and loafers and a sleeveless T-shirt.
"Wow," Thalia muttered. "Apollo is hot."
"He's the sun god," I said.
"That's not what I meant."
"Little sister!" Apollo called. If his teeth were any whiter he could've blinded us without the sun car. "What's up? You never call. You never write. I was getting worried!"
Artemis sighed. "I'm fine, Apollo. And I am not your little sister."
"Hey, I was born first."
"We're twins! How many millennia do we have to argue—"
"So what's up?" he interrupted. "Got the girls with you, I see. You all need some tips on archery?"
Artemis grit her teeth. "I need a favor. I have some hunting to do, alone. I need you to take my companions to Camp Half-Blood."
"Sure, sis!" Then he raised his hands in a stop everything gesture. "I feel a haiku coming on."
The Hunters all groaned. Apparently they'd met Apollo before.
He cleared his throat and held up one hand dramatically.
"Green grass breaks through snow.
Artemis pleads for my help.
I am so cool."
He grinned at us, waiting for applause.
"That last line was only four syllables," Artemis said.
Apollo frowned. "Was it?"
"Yes. What about I am so big-headed?"
"No, no, that's six syllables. Hmm." He started muttering to himself.
Zoe Nightshade turned to us. "Lord Apollo has been going through this haiku phase ever since he visited Japan. 'Tis not as bad as the time he visited Limerick. If I'd had to hear one more poem that started with, There once was a goddess from Sparta—"
"I've got it!" Apollo announced. "I am so awesome. That's five syllables!" He bowed, looking very pleased with himself.
"And now, sis. Transportation for the Hunters, you say? Good timing. I was just about ready to roll."
"These demigods will also need a ride," Artemis said, pointing to us. "Some of Chiron's campers."
"No problem!" Apollo checked us out. "Let's see… Thalia, right? I've heard all about you."
Thalia blushed. "Hi, Lord Apollo."
"Zeus's girl, yes? Makes you my half sister. Used to be a tree, didn't you? Glad you're back. I hate it when pretty girls turn into trees. Man, I remember one time—"
"Brother," Artemis said. "You should get going."
"Oh, right." Then he looked at me, and his eyes narrowed. "Percy Jackson?"
"Yeah. I mean… yes, sir."
It seemed weird calling a teenager "sir," but I'd learned to be careful with immortals. They tended to get offended easily. Then they blew stuff up.
Apollo studied me, but he didn't say anything, which I found a little creepy.
"Well!" he said at last. "We'd better load up, huh? Ride only goes one way—west. And if you miss it, you miss it."
I looked at the Maserati, which would seat two people max. There were about twenty of us.
"Cool car," Nico said.
"Thanks, kid," Apollo said.
"But how will we all fit?"
"Oh." Apollo seemed to notice the problem for the first time. "Well, yeah. I hate to change out of sports-car mode, but I suppose…"
He took out his car keys and beeped the security alarm button. Chirp, chirp.
For a moment, the car glowed brightly again. When the glare died, the Maserati had been replaced by one of those Turtle Top shuttle buses like we used for school basketball games.
"Right," he said. "Everybody in."
Zoe ordered the Hunters to start loading. She picked up her camping pack, and Apollo said, "Here, sweetheart. Let me get that."
Zoe recoiled. Her eyes flashed murderously.
"Brother," Artemis chided. "You do not help my Hunters. You do not look at, talk to, or flirt with my Hunters. And you do not call them sweetheart."
Apollo spread his hands. "Sorry. I forgot. Hey, sis, where are you off to, anyway?"
"Hunting," Artemis said. "It's none of your business."
"I'll find out. I see all. Know all."
Artemis snorted. "Just drop them off, Apollo. And no messing around!"
"No, no! I never mess around."
Artemis rolled her eyes, then looked at us. "I will see you by winter solstice. Zoe, you are in charge of the Hunters. Do well. Do as I would do."
Zoe straightened. "Yes, my lady."
Artemis knelt and touched the ground as if looking for tracks. When she rose, she looked troubled. "So much danger. The beast must be found."
She sprinted toward the woods and melted into the snow and shadows.
Apollo turned and grinned, jangling the car keys on his finger. "So," he said. "Who wants to drive?"
The Hunters piled into the van. They all crammed into the back so they'd be as far away as possible from Apollo and the rest of us highly infectious males, Bianca sat with them, leaving her little brother to hang in the front with us, which seemed cold to me, but Nico didn't seem to mind.
"This is so cool!" Nico said, jumping up and down in the driver's seat. "Is this really the sun? I thought Helios and Selene were the sun and moon gods. How come sometimes it's them and sometimes it's you and Artemis?"
"Downsizing," Apollo said. "The Romans started it. They couldn't afford all those temple sacrifices, so they laid off Helios and Selene and folded their duties into our job descriptions. My sis got the moon. I got the sun. It was pretty annoying at first, but at least I got this cool car."
"But how does it work?" Nico asked. "I thought the sun was a big fiery ball of gas!"
Apollo chuckled and ruffled Nico's hair. "That rumor probably got started because Artemis used to call me a big fiery ball of gas. Seriously, kid, it depends on whether you're talking astronomy or philosophy. You want to talk astronomy? Bah, what fun is that? You want to talk about how humans think about the sun? Ah, now that's more interesting. They've got a lot riding on the sun… er, so to speak. It keeps them warm, grows their crops, powers engines, makes everything look, well, sunnier. This chariot is built out of human dreams about the sun, kid. It's as old as Western Civilization. Every day, it drives across the sky from east to west, lighting up all those puny little mortal lives. The chariot is a manifestation of the sun's power, the way mortals perceive it. Make sense?"
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