She caught my eyes, managed to choke out one last word: "Go!"
Then, with an angry roar, the monster closed his fists around my mother's neck, and she dissolved before my eyes, melting into light, a shimmering golden form, as if she were a holographic projection. A blinding flash, and she was simply ... gone.
Anger replaced my fear. Newfound strength burned in my limbs—the same rush of energy I'd gotten when Mrs. Dodds grew talons.
The bull-man bore down on Grover, who lay helpless in the grass. The monster hunched over, snuffling my best friend, as if he were about to lift Grover up and make him dissolve too.
I couldn't allow that.
I stripped off my red rain jacket.
"Hey!" I screamed, waving the jacket, running to one side of the monster. "Hey, stupid! Ground beef!"
"Raaaarrrrr!" The monster turned toward me, shaking his meaty fists.
I had an idea—a stupid idea, but better than no idea at all. I put my back to the big pine tree and waved my red jacket in front of the bull-man, thinking I'd jump out of the way at the last moment.
But it didn't happen like that.
The bull-man charged too fast, his arms out to grab me whichever way I tried to dodge.
Time slowed down.
My legs tensed. I couldn't jump sideways, so I leaped straight up, kicking off from the creature's head, using it as a springboard, turning in midair, and landing on his neck.
How did I do that? I didn't have time to figure it out. A millisecond later, the monster's head slammed into the tree and the impact nearly knocked my teeth out.
The bull-man staggered around, trying to shake me. I locked my arms around his horns to keep from being thrown. Thunder and lightning were still going strong. The rain was in my eyes. The smell of rotten meat burned my nostrils.
The monster shook himself around and bucked like a rodeo bull. He should have just backed up into the tree and smashed me flat, but I was starting to realize that this thing had only one gear: forward.
Meanwhile, Grover started groaning in the grass. I wanted to yell at him to shut up, but the way I was getting tossed around, if I opened my mouth I'd bite my own tongue off.
"Food!" Grover moaned.
The bull-man wheeled toward him, pawed the ground again, and got ready to charge. I thought about how he had squeezed the life out of my mother, made her disappear in a flash of light, and rage filled me like high-octane fuel. I got both hands around one horn and I pulled backward with all my might. The monster tensed, gave a surprised grunt, then—snap!
The bull-man screamed and flung me through the air. I landed flat on my back in the grass. My head smacked against a rock. When I sat up, my vision was blurry, but I had a horn in my hands, a ragged bone weapon the size of a knife.
The monster charged.
Without thinking, I rolled to one side and came up kneeling. As the monster barreled past, I drove the broken horn straight into his side, right up under his furry rib cage.
The bull-man roared in agony. He flailed, clawing at his chest, then began to disintegrate—not like my mother, in a flash of golden light, but like crumbling sand, blown away in chunks by the wind, the same way Mrs. Dodds had burst apart.
The monster was gone.
The rain had stopped. The storm still rumbled, but only in the distance. I smelled like livestock and my knees were shaking. My head felt like it was splitting open. I was weak and scared and trembling with grief I'd just seen my mother vanish. I wanted to lie down and cry, but there was Grover, needing my help, so I managed to haul him up and stagger down into the valley, toward the lights of the farmhouse. I was crying, calling for my mother, but I held on to Grover—I wasn't going to let him go.
The last thing I remember is collapsing on a wooden porch, looking up at a ceiling fan circling above me, moths flying around a yellow light, and the stern faces of a familiar-looking bearded man and a pretty girl, her blond hair curled like a princess's. They both looked down at me, and the girl said, "He's the one. He must be."
"Silence, Annabeth," the man said. "He's still conscious. Bring him inside."
5. I PLAY PINOCHLE WITH A HORSE
I had weird dreams full of barnyard animals. Most of them wanted to kill me. The rest wanted food.
I must've woken up several times, but what I heard and saw made no sense, so I just passed out again. I remember lying in a soft bed, being spoon-fed something that tasted like buttered popcorn, only it was pudding. The girl with curly blond hair hovered over me, smirking as she scraped drips off my chin with the spoon.
When she saw my eyes open, she asked, "What will happen at the summer solstice?"
I managed to croak, "What?"
She looked around, as if afraid someone would overhear. "What's going on? What was stolen? We've only got a few weeks!"
"I'm sorry," I mumbled, "I don't..."
Somebody knocked on the door, and the girl quickly filled my mouth with pudding.
The next time I woke up, the girl was gone.
A husky blond dude, like a surfer, stood in the corner of the bedroom keeping watch over me. He had blue eyes— at least a dozen of them—on his cheeks, his forehead, the backs of his hands.
* * *
When I finally came around for good, there was nothing weird about my surroundings, except that they were nicer than I was used to. I was sitting in a deck chair on a huge porch, gazing across a meadow at green hills in the distance. The breeze smelled like strawberries. There was a blanket over my legs, a pillow behind my neck. All that was great, but my mouth felt like a scorpion had been using it for a nest. My tongue was dry and nasty and every one of my teeth hurt.
On the table next to me was a tall drink. It looked like iced apple juice, with a green straw and a paper parasol stuck through a maraschino cherry.
My hand was so weak I almost dropped the glass once I got my fingers around it.
"Careful," a familiar voice said.
Grover was leaning against the porch railing, looking like he hadn't slept in a week. Under one arm, he cradled a shoe box. He was wearing blue jeans, Converse hi-tops and a bright orange T-shirt that said CAMPHALF-BLOOD. Just plain old Grover, Not the goat boy.
So maybe I'd had a nightmare. Maybe my mom was okay. We were still on vacation, and we'd stopped here at this big house for some reason. And ...
"You saved my life," Grover said. "I... well, the least I could do ... I went back to the hill. I thought you might want this."
Reverently, he placed the shoe box in my lap.
Inside was a black-and-white bull's horn, the base jagged from being broken off, the tip splattered with dried blood. It hadn't been a nightmare.
"The Minotaur," I said.
"Urn, Percy, it isn't a good idea—"
"That's what they call him in the Greek myths, isn't it?" I demanded. "The Minotaur. Half man, half bull."
Grover shifted uncomfortably. "You've been out for two days. How much do you remember?"
"My mom. Is she really ..."
He looked down.
I stared across the meadow. There were groves of trees, a winding stream, acres of strawberries spread out under the blue sky. The valley was surrounded by rolling hills, and the tallest one, directly in front of us, was the one with the huge pine tree on top. Even that looked beautiful in the sunlight.
My mother was gone. The whole world should be black and cold. Nothing should look beautiful.
"I'm sorry," Grover sniffled. "I'm a failure. I'm—I'm the worst satyr in the world."
He moaned, stomping his foot so hard it came off. I mean, the Converse hi-top came off. The inside was filled with Styrofoam, except for a hoof-shaped hole.
"Oh, Styx!" he mumbled.
Thunder rolled across the clear sky.
As he struggled to get his hoof back in the fake foot, I thought, Well, that settles it.
Grover was a satyr. I was ready to bet that if I shaved his curly brown hair, I'd find tiny horns on his head. But I was too miserable to care that satyrs existed, or even minotaurs. All that meant was my mom really had been squeezed into nothingness, dissolved into yellow light.
I was alone. An orphan. I would have to live with ... Smelly Gabe? No. That would never happen. I would live on the streets first. I would pretend I was seventeen and join the army. I'd do something.
Grover was still sniffling. The poor kid—poor goat, satyr, whatever—looked as if he expected to be hit.
I said, "It wasn't your fault.". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Yes, it was. I was supposed to protect you."
"Did my mother ask you to protect me?". . .
"No. But that's my job. I'm a keeper. At least... I was."
"But why ..." I suddenly felt dizzy, my vision swimming.
"Don't strain yourself," Grover said. "Here." He helped me hold my glass and put the straw to my lips.
I recoiled at the taste, because I was expecting apple juice. It wasn't that at all. It was chocolate-chip cookies. Liquid cookies. And not just any cookies—my mom's homemade blue chocolate-chip cookies, buttery and hot, with the chips still melting. Drinking it, my whole body felt warm and good, full of energy. My grief didn't go away, but I felt as if my mom had just brushed her hand against my cheek, given me a cookie the way she used to when I was small, and told me everything was going to be okay.
Before I knew it, I'd drained the glass. I stared into it, sure I'd just had a warm drink, but the ice cubes hadn't even melted.
"Was it good?" Grover asked.
"What did it taste like?" He sounded so wistful, I felt guilty.
"Sorry," I said. "I should've let you taste."
His eyes got wide. "No! That's not what I meant. I just... wondered."
"Chocolate-chip cookies," I said. "My mom's. Homemade."
He sighed. "And how do you feel?"
"Like I could throw Nancy Bobofit a hundred yards."
"That's good," he said. "That's good. I don't think you could risk drinking any more of that stuff."
"What do you mean?"
He took the empty glass from me gingerly, as if it were dynamite, and set it back on the table. "Come on. Chiron and Mr. D are waiting."
The porch wrapped all the way around the farmhouse.
My legs felt wobbly, trying to walk that far. Grover offered to carry the Minotaur horn, but I held on to it. I'd paid for that souvenir the hard way. I wasn't going to let it go.
As we came around the opposite end of the house, I caught my breath.
We must've been on the north shore of Long Island, because on this side of the house, the valley marched all the way up to the water, which glittered about a mile in the distance. Between here and there, I simply couldn't process everything I was seeing. The landscape was dotted with buildings that looked like ancient Greek architecture—an open-air pavilion, an amphitheater, a circular arena—except that they all looked brand new, their white marble columns sparkling in the sun. In a nearby sandpit, a dozen high school-age kids and satyrs played volleyball. Canoes glided across a small lake. Kids in bright orange T-shirts like Grover's were chasing each other around a cluster of cabins nestled in the woods. Some shot targets at an archery range. Others rode horses down a wooded trail, and, unless I was hallucinating, some of their horses had wings.