“Wait a minute. This Cyclops thinks you’re—”
“Yes!” Grover wailed. “He thinks I’m a lady Cyclops and he wants to marry me!”
Under different circumstances, I might’ve busted out laughing, but Grover’s voice was deadly serious. He was shaking with fear.
“I’ll come rescue you,” I promised. “Where are you?”
“The Sea of Monsters, of course!”
“The sea of what?”
“I told you! I don’t know exactly where! And look, Percy … urn, I’m really sorry about this, but this empathy link … well, I had no choice. Our emotions are connected now. If I die …”
“Don’t tell me, I’ll die too.”
“Oh, well, perhaps not. You might live for years in a vegetative state. But, uh, it would be a lot better if you got me out of here.”
“Honeypie!” the monster bellowed. “Dinnertime! Yummy yummy sheep meat!”
Grover whimpered. “I have to go. Hurry!”
“Wait! You said ‘it’ was here. What?”
But Grover’s voice was already growing fainter. “Sweet dreams. Don’t let me die!”
The dream faded and I woke with a start. It was early morning. Tyson was staring down at me, his one big brown eye full of concern.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
His voice sent a chill down my back, because he sounded almost exactly like the monster I’d heard in my dream.
The morning of the race was hot and humid. Fog lay low on the ground like sauna steam.
Millions of birds were roosting in the trees—fat gray-and-white pigeons, except they didn’t coo like regular pigeons. They made this annoying metallic screeching sound that reminded me of submarine radar.
The racetrack had been built in a grassy field between the archery range and the woods.
Hephaestus’s cabin had used the bronze bulls, which were completely tame since they’d had their heads smashed in, to plow an oval track in a matter of minutes.
There were rows of stone steps for the spectators— Tantalus, the satyrs, a few dryads, and all of the campers who weren’t participating. Mr. D didn’t show. He never got up before ten o’clock.
“Right!” Tantalus announced as the teams began to assemble. A naiad had brought him a big platter of pastries, and as Tantalus spoke, his right hand chased a chocolate eclair across the judge’s table. “You all know the rules. A quarter-mile track. Twice around to win. Two horses per chariot. Each team will consist of a driver and a fighter. Weapons are allowed. Dirty tricks are expected. But try not to kill anybody!” Tantalus smiled at us like we were all naughty children. “Any killing will result in harsh punishment. No s’mores at the campfire for a week! Now ready your chariots!”
Beckendorf led the Hephaestus team onto the track. They had a sweet ride made of bronze and iron—even the horses, which were magical automatons like the Colchis bulls. I had no doubt that their chariot had all kinds of mechanical traps and more fancy options than a fully loaded Maserati.
The Ares chariot was bloodred, and pulled by two grisly horse skeletons. Clarisse climbed aboard with a batch of javelins, spiked balls, caltrops, and a bunch of other nasty toys.
Apollo’s chariot was trim and graceful and completely gold, pulled by two beautiful palominos. Their fighter was armed with a bow, though he had promised not to shoot regular pointed arrows at the opposing drivers.
Hermes’s chariot was green and kind of old-looking, as if it hadn’t been out of the garage in years. It didn’t look like anything special, but it was manned by the Stoll brothers, and I shuddered to think what dirty tricks they’d schemed up.
That left two chariots: one driven by Annabeth, and the other by me.
Before the race began, I tried to approach Annabeth and tell her about my dream.
She perked up when I mentioned Grover, but when I told her what he’d said, she seemed to get distant again, suspicious.
“You’re trying to distract me,” she decided.
“What? No I’m not!”
“Oh, right! Like Grover would just happen to stumble across the one thing that could save the camp.”
“What do you mean?”
She rolled her eyes. “Go back to your chariot, Percy.”
“I’m not making this up. He’s in trouble, Annabeth.”
She hesitated. I could tell she was trying to decide whether or not to trust me. Despite our occasional fights, we’d been through a lot together. And I knew she would never want anything bad to happen to Grover.
“Percy, an empathy link is so hard to do. I mean, it’s more likely you really were dreaming.”
“The Oracle,” I said. “We could consult the Oracle.”
Last summer, before my quest, I’d visited the strange spirit that lived in the Big House attic and it had given me a prophecy that came true in ways I’d never expected. The experience had freaked me out for months. Annabeth knew I’d never suggest going back there if I wasn’t completely serious.
Before she could answer, the conch horn sounded.
“Charioteers!” Tantalus called. “To your mark!”
“We’ll talk later,” Annabeth told me, “after I win.”
As I was walking back to my own chariot, I noticed how many more pigeons were in the trees now—screeching like crazy, making the whole forest rustle. Nobody else seemed to be paying them much attention, but they made me nervous. Their beaks glinted strangely. Their eyes seemed shinier than regular birds.
Tyson was having trouble getting our horses under control. I had to talk to them a long time before they would settle down.
He’s a monster, lord! they complained to me.
He’s a son of Poseidon, I told them. Just like … well, just like me.
No! they insisted. Monster! Horse-eater! Not trusted!
I’ll give you sugar cubes at the end of the race, I said.
Very big sugar cubes. And apples. Did I mention the apples?
Finally they agreed to let me harness them.
Now, if you’ve never seen a Greek chariot, it’s built for speed, not safety or comfort. It’s basically a wooden basket, open at the back, mounted on an axle between two wheels. The driver stands up the whole time, and you can feel every bump in the road. The carriage is made of such light wood that if you wipe out making the hairpin turns at either end of the track, you’ll probably tip over and crush both the chariot and yourself. It’s an even better rush than skateboarding.
I took the reins and maneuvered the chariot to the starting line. I gave Tyson a ten-foot pole and told him that his job was to push the other chariots away if they got too close, and to deflect anything they might try to throw at us.
“No hitting ponies with the stick,” he insisted.
“No,” I agreed. “Or people, either, if you can help it. We’re going to run a clean race. Just keep the distractions away and let me concentrate on driving.”
“We will win.’” He beamed.
We are so going to lose, I thought to myself, but I bad to try. I wanted to show the others … well, I wasn’t sure what, exactly. That Tyson wasn’t such a bad guy? That I wasn’t ashamed of being seen with him in public? Maybe that they hadn’t hurt me with all their jokes and name-calling?
As the chariots lined up, more shiny-eyed pigeons gathered in the woods. They were screeching so loudly the campers in the stands were starting to take notice, glancing nervously at the trees, which shivered under the weight of the birds. Tantalus didn’t look concerned, but he did have to speak up to be heard over the noise.
“Charioteers!” he shouted. “Attend your mark!”
He waved his hand and the starting signal dropped. The chariots roared to life. Hooves thundered against the dirt. The crowd cheered.
Almost immediately there was a loud nasty crack! I looked back in time to see the Apollo chariot flip over. The Hermes chariot had rammed into it—maybe by mistake, maybe not. The riders were thrown free, but their panicked horses dragged the golden chariot diagonally across the track.
The Hermes team, Travis and Connor Stoll, were laughing at their good luck, but not for long. The Apollo horses crashed into theirs, and the Hermes chariot flipped too, leaving a pile of broken wood and four rearing horses in the dust.
Two chariots down in the first twenty feet. I loved this sport.
I turned my attention back to the front. We were making good time, pulling ahead of Ares, but Annabeth’s chariot was way ahead of us. She was already making her turn around the first post, her javelin man grinning and waving at us, shouting: “See ya!”
The Hephaestus chariot was starting to gain on us, too.
Beckendorf pressed a button, and a panel slid open on the side of his chariot.
“Sorry, Percy!” he yelled. Three sets of balls and chains shot straight toward our wheels.
They would’ve wrecked us completely if Tyson hadn’t whacked them aside with a quick swipe of his pole. He gave the Hephaestus chariot a good shove and sent them skittering sideways while we pulled ahead.
“Nice work, Tyson!” I yelled.
“Birds!” he cried.
We were whipping along so fast it was hard to hear or see anything, but Tyson pointed toward the woods and I saw what he was worried about. The pigeons had risen from the trees. They were spiraling like a huge tornado, heading toward the track.
No big deal, I told myself. They’re just pigeons.
I tried to concentrate on the race.
We made our first turn, the wheels creaking under us, the chariot threatening to tip, but we were now only ten feet behind Annabeth. If I could just get a little closer, Tyson could use his pole….
Annabeth’s fighter wasn’t smiling now. He pulled a javelin from his collection and took aim at me. He was about to throw when we heard the screaming.
The pigeons were swarming—thousands of them dive-bombing the spectators in the stands, attacking the other chariots. Beckendorf was mobbed. His fighter tried to bat the birds away but he couldn’t see anything. The chariot veered off course and plowed through the strawberry fields, the mechanical horses steaming.
In the Ares chariot, Clarisse barked an order to her fighter, who quickly threw a screen of camouflage netting over their basket. The birds swarmed around it, pecking and clawing at the fighter’s hands as he tried to hold up the net, but Clarisse just gritted her teeth and kept driving. Her skeletal horses seemed immune to the distraction. The pigeons pecked uselessly at their empty eye sockets and flew through their rib cages, but the stallions kept right on running.
The spectators weren’t so lucky. The birds were slashing at any bit of exposed flesh, driving everyone into a panic. Now that the birds were closer, it was clear they weren’t normal pigeons.
Their eyes were beady and evil-looking. Their beaks were made of bronze, and judging from the yelps of the campers, they must’ve been razor sharp.
“Stymphalian birds!” Annabeth yelled. She slowed down and pulled her chariot alongside mine. “They’ll strip everyone to bones if we don’t drive them away!”