The Sea of Monsters – Chapter 7: I Accept Gifts From A Stranger

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Chapter 7: I Accept Gifts From A Stranger

The way Tantalus saw it, the Stymphalian birds had simply been minding their own business in the woods and would not have attacked if Annabeth, Tyson, and I hadn’t disturbed them with our bad chariot driving. 

  This was so completely unfair, I told Tantalus to go chase a doughnut, which didn’t help his mood. He sentenced us to kitchen patrol—scrubbing pots and platters all afternoon in the underground kitchen with the cleaning harpies. The harpies washed with lava instead of water, to get that extra-clean sparkle and kill ninety-nine point nine percent of all germs, so Annabeth and I had to wear asbestos gloves and aprons. 

  Tyson didn’t mind. He plunged his bare hands right in and started scrubbing, but Annabeth and I had to suffer through hours of hot, dangerous work, especially since there were tons of extra plates. Tantalus had ordered a special luncheon banquet to celebrate Clarisse’s chariot victory—a full-course meal featuring country-fried Stymphalian death-bird. 

  The only good thing about our punishment was that it gave Annabeth and me a common enemy and lots of time to talk. After listening to my dream about Grover again, she looked like she might be starting to believe me. 

  “If he’s really found it,” she murmured, “and if we could retrieve it—”

  “Hold on,” I said. “You act like this … whatever-it-is Grover found is the only thing in the world that could save the camp. What is it?”

  “I’ll give you a hint. What do you get when you skin a ram?”

  “Messy?”

  She sighed. ” A fleece. The coat of a ram is called a fleece. And if that ram happens to have golden wool—”

  “The Golden Fleece. Are you serious?”

  Annabeth scrapped a plateful of death-bird bones into the lava. “Percy, remember the Gray Sisters? They said they knew the location of the thing you seek. And they mentioned Jason. Three thousand years ago, they told him how to find the Golden Fleece. You do know the story of Jason and the Argonauts?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “That old movie with the clay skeletons. ”

  Annabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh my gods, Percy! You are so hopeless. ”

  ”What?” I demanded. 

  “Just listen. The real story of the Fleece: there were these two children of Zeus, Cadmus and Europa, okay? They were about to get offered up as human sacrifices, when they prayed to Zeus to save them. So Zeus sent this magical flying ram with golden wool, which picked them up in Greece and carried them all the way to Colchis in Asia Minor. Well, actually it carried Cadmus. Europa fell off and died along the way, but that’s not important. ”

  “It was probably important to her. ”

  “The point is, when Cadmus got to Colchis, he sacrificed the golden ram to the gods and hung the Fleece in a tree in the middle of the kingdom. The Fleece brought prosperity to the land. 

  Animals stopped getting sick. Plants grew better. Farmers had bumper crops. Plagues never visited. 

  That’s why Jason wanted the Fleece. It can revitalize any land where it’s placed. It cures sickness, strengthens nature, cleans up pollution—”

  “It could cure Thalia’s tree. ”

  Annabeth nodded. “And it would totally strengthen the borders of Camp Half-Blood. But Percy, the Fleece has been missing for centuries. Tons of heroes have searched for it with no luck. ”

  “But Grover found it,” I said. “He went looking for Pan and he found the Fleece instead because they both radiate nature magic. It makes sense, Annabeth. We can rescue him and save the camp at the same time. It’s perfect!”

  Annabeth hesitated. “A little too perfect, don’t you think? What if it’s a trap?”

  I remembered last summer, how Kronos had manipulated our quest. He’d almost fooled us into helping him start a war that would’ve destroyed Western Civilization. 

  “What choice do we have?” I asked. “Are you going to help me rescue Grover or not?”

  She glanced at Tyson, who’d lost interest in our conversation and was happily making toy boats out of cups and spoons in the lava. 

  “Percy,” she said under her breath, “we’ll have to fight a Cyclops. Polyphemus, the worst of the Cyclopes. And there’s only one place his island could be. The Sea of Monsters. ”

  “Where’s that?”

  She stared at me like she thought I was playing dumb. “The Sea of Monsters. The same sea Odysseus sailed through, and Jason, and Aeneas, and all the others. ”

  “You mean the Mediterranean?”

  “No. Well, yes … but no. ”

  “Another straight answer. Thanks. ”

  “Look, Percy, the Sea of Monsters is the sea all heroes sail through on their adventures. It used to be in the Mediterranean, yes. But like everything else, it shifts locations as the West’s center of power shifts. ”

  “Like Mount Olympus being above the Empire State Building,” I said. “And Hades being under Los Angeles. ”

  “Right. ”

  “But a whole sea full of monsters—how could you hide something like that? Wouldn’t the mortals notice weird things happening … like, ships getting eaten and stuff?”

  “Of course they notice. They don’t understand, but they know something is strange about that part of the ocean. The Sea of Monsters is off the east coast of the U. S. now, just northeast of Florida. The mortals even have a name for it. ”

  “The Bermuda Triangle?”

  “Exactly. ”

  I let that sink in. I guess it wasn’t stranger than anything else I’d learned since coming to Camp Half-Blood. “Okay … so at least we know where to look. ”

  “It’s still a huge area, Percy. Searching for one tiny island in monster-infested waters—”

  “Hey, I’m the son of the sea god. This is my home turf. How hard can it be?”

  Annabeth knit her eyebrows. “We’ll have to talk to Tantalus, get approval for a quest. He’ll say no. ”

  “Not if we tell him tonight at the campfire in front of everybody. The whole camp will hear. 

  They’ll pressure him. He won’t be able to refuse. ”

  “Maybe. ” A little bit of hope crept into Annabeth’s voice. “We’d better get these dishes done. 

  Hand me the lava spray gun, will you?”

  That night at the campfire, Apollo’s cabin led the sing-along. They tried to get everybody’s spirits up, but it wasn’t easy after that afternoon’s bird attack. We all sat around a semicircle of stone steps, singing halfheartedly and watching the bonfire blaze while the Apollo guys strummed their guitars and picked their lyres. 

  We did all the standard camp numbers: “Down by the Aegean,” “I Am My Own Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandpa,” “This Land is Minos’s Land. ” The bonfire was enchanted, so the louder you sang, the higher it rose, changing color and heat with the mood of the crowd. On a good night, I’d seen it twenty feet high, bright purple, and so hot the whole front row’s marshmallows burst into the flames. Tonight, the fire was only five feet high, barely warm, and the flames were the color of lint. 

  Dionysus left early. After suffering through a few songs, he muttered something about how even pinochle with Chiron had been more exciting than this. Then he gave Tantalus a distasteful look and headed back toward the Big House. 

When the last song was over, Tantalus said, “Well, that was lovely!”

  He came forward with a toasted marshmallow on a stick and tried to pluck it off, real casual-like. But before he could touch it, the marshmallow flew off the stick. Tantalus made a wild grab, but the marshmallow committed suicide, diving into the flames. 

  Tantalus turned back toward us, smiling coldly. “Now then! Some announcements about tomorrow’s schedule. ”

  “Sir,” I said. 

  Tantalus’s eye twitched. “Our kitchen boy has something to say?”

  Some of the Ares campers snickered, but I wasn’t going to let anybody embarrass me into silence. I stood and looked at Annabeth. Thank the gods, she stood up with me. 

  I said, “We have an idea to save the camp. ”

  Dead silence, but I could tell I’d gotten everybody’s interest, because the campfire flared bright yellow. 

  “Indeed,” Tantalus said blandly. “Well, if it has anything to do with chariots—”

  “The Golden Fleece,” I said. “We know where it is. ”

  The flames burned orange. Before Tantalus could stop me, I blurted out my dream about Grover and Polyphemus’s island. Annabeth stepped in and reminded everybody what the Fleece could do. It sounded more convincing coming from her. 

  “The Fleece can save the camp,” she concluded. “I’m certain of it. ”

  “Nonsense,” said Tantalus. “We don’t need saving. ”

  Everybody stared at him until Tantalus started looking uncomfortable. 

  “Besides,” he added quickly, “the Sea of Monsters? That’s hardly an exact location. You wouldn’t even know where to look. ”

  “Yes, I would,” I said. 

  Annabeth leaned toward me and whispered, “You would?”

  I nodded, because Annabeth had jogged something in my memory when she reminded me about our taxi drive with the Gray Sisters. At the time, the information they’d given me made no sense. But now …

  “30, 31, 75, 12,” I said. 

  “Ooo-kay,” Tantalus said. “Thank you for sharing those meaningless numbers. ”

  “They’re sailing coordinates,” I said. “Latitude and longitude. I, uh, learned about it in social studies. ”

  Even Annabeth looked impressed. “30 degrees, 31 minutes north, 75 degrees, 12 minutes west. He’s right! The Gray Sisters gave us those coordinates. That’d be somewhere in the Atlantic, off the coast of Florida. The Sea of Monsters. We need a quest!”

  “Wait just a minute,” Tantalus said. 

  But the campers took up the chant. “We need a quest! We need a quest!”

  The flames rose higher. 

  “It isn’t necessary!” Tantalus insisted. 

  “Fine!” Tantalus shouted, his eyes blazing with anger. “You brats want me to assign a quest?”

  “YES!”

  “Very well,” he agreed. “I shall authorize a champion to undertake this perilous journey, to retrieve the Golden Fleece and bring it back to camp. Or die trying. ”

  My heart filled with excitement. I wasn’t going to let Tantalus scare me. This was what I needed to do. I was going to save Grover and the camp. Nothing would stop me. 

  “I will allow our champion to consult the Oracle!” Tantalus announced. “And choose two companions for the journey. And I think the choice of champion is obvious. ”

  Tantalus looked at Annabeth and me as if he wanted to flay us alive. “The champion should be one who has earned the camp’s respect, who has proven resourceful in the chariot races and courageous in the defense of the camp. You shall lead this quest … Clarisse!”

  The fire flickered a thousand different colors. The Ares cabin started stomping and cheering,

  “CLARISSE! CLARISSE!”

  Clarisse stood up, looking stunned. Then she swallowed, and her chest swelled with pride. “I accept the quest!”

  “Wait!” I shouted. “Grover is my friend. The dream came to me. ”

  “Sit down!” yelled one of the Ares campers. “You had your chance last summer!”

  “Yeah, he just wants to be in the spotlight again!” another said. 

  Clarisse glared at me. “I accept the quest!” she repeated. “I, Clarisse, daughter of Ares, will save the camp!”

  The Ares campers cheered even louder. Annabeth protested, and the other Athena campers joined in. Everybody else started taking sides—shouting and arguing and throwing marshmallows. I thought it was going to turn into a full-fledged s’more war until Tantalus shouted, “Silence, you brats!”

  His tone stunned even me. 

  “Sit down!” he ordered. “And I will tell you a ghost story. ”

  I didn’t know what he was up to, but we all moved reluctantly back to our seats. The evil aura radiating from Tantalus was as strong as any monster I’d ever faced. 

  “Once upon a time there was a mortal king who was beloved of the Gods!” Tantalus put his hand on his chest, and I got the feeling he was talking about himself. 

  “This king,” he said, “was even allowed to feast on Mount Olympus. But when he tried to take some ambrosia and nectar back to earth to figure out the recipe—just one little doggie bag, mind you—the gods punished him. They banned him from their halls forever! His own people mocked him! His children scolded him! And, oh yes, campers, he had horrible children. Children—just—like— you. ”

  He pointed a crooked finger at several people in the audience, including me. 

  “Do you know what he did to his ungrateful children?” Tantalus asked softly. “Do you know how he paid back the gods for their cruel punishment? He invited the Olympians to a feast at his palace, just to show there were no hard feelings. No one noticed that his children were missing. And when he served the gods dinner, my dear campers, can you guess what was in the stew?”

  No one dared answer. The firelight glowed dark blue, reflecting evilly on Tantalus’s crooked face. 

  “Oh, the gods punished him in the afterlife,” Tantalus croaked. “They did indeed. But he’d had his moment of satisfaction, hadn’t he? His children never again spoke back to him or questioned his authority. And do you know what? Rumor has it that the king’s spirit now dwells at this very camp, waiting for a chance to take revenge on ungrateful, rebellious children. And so … are there any more complaints, before we send Clarisse off on her quest?”

  Silence. 

  Tantalus nodded at Clarisse. “The Oracle, my dear. Go on. ”

  She shifted uncomfortably, like even she didn’t want glory at the price of being Tantalus’s pet. “Sir—”

  “Go!” he snarled. 

  She bowed awkwardly and hurried off toward the Big House. 

  “What about you, Percy Jackson?” Tantalus asked. “No comments from our dishwasher?”

  I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of punishing me again. 

  “Good,” Tantalus said. “And let me remind everyone— no one leaves this camp without my permission. Anyone who tries … well, if they survive the attempt, they will be expelled forever, but it won’t come to that. The harpies will be enforcing curfew from now on, and they are always hungry!

  Good night, my dear campers. Sleep well. ”

  With a wave of Tantalus’s hand, the fire was extinguished, and the campers trailed off toward their cabins in the dark. 

  I couldn’t explain things to Tyson. He knew I was sad. He knew I wanted to go on a trip and Tantalus wouldn’t let me. 

  “You will go anyway?” he asked. 

  “I don’t know,” I admitted. “It would be hard. Very hard. ”

  “I will help. ”

  “No. I—uh, I couldn’t ask you to do that, big guy. Too dangerous. ”

  Tyson looked down at the pieces of metal he was assembling in his lap—springs and gears and tiny wires. Beckendorf had given him some tools and spare parts, and now Tyson spent every night tinkering, though I wasn’t sure how his huge hands could handle such delicate little pieces. 

  “What are you building?” I asked. 

  Tyson didn’t answer. Instead he made a whimpering sound in the back of his throat. 

  “Annabeth doesn’t like Cyclopes. You … don’t want me along?”

  “Oh, that’s not it,” I said halfheartedly. “Annabeth likes you. Really. ”

  He had tears in the corners of his eye. 

  I remembered that Grover, like all satyrs, could read human emotions. I wondered if Cyclopes had the same ability. 

  Tyson folded up his tinkering project in an oilcloth. He lay down on his bunk bed and hugged his bundle like a teddy bear. When he turned toward the wall, I could see the weird scars on his back, like somebody had plowed over him with a tractor. I wondered for the millionth time how he’d gotten hurt. 

  “Daddy always cared for m-me,” he sniffled. “Now … I think he was mean to have a Cyclops boy. I should not have been born. ”

  “Don’t talk that way! Poseidon claimed you, didn’t he? So … he must care about you … a lot…. ”

  My voice trailed off as I thought about all those years Tyson had lived on the streets of New York in a cardboard refrigerator box. How could Tyson think that Poseidon had cared for him? What kind of dad let that happen to his kid, even if his kid was a monster?

  “Tyson … camp will be a good home for you. The others will get used to you. I promise. ”

  Tyson sighed. I waited for him to say something. Then I realized he was already asleep. 

  I lay back on my bed and tried to close my eyes, but I just couldn’t. I was afraid I might have another dream about Grover. If the empathy link was real … if something happened to Grover … would I ever wake up?

  The full moon shone through my window. The sound of the surf rumbled in the distance. I could smell the warm scent of the strawberry fields, and hear the laughter of the dryads as they chased owls through the forest. But something felt wrong about the night—the sickness of Thalia’s tree, spreading across the valley. 

  Could Clarisse save Half-Blood Hill? I thought the odds were better of me getting a “Best Camper” award from Tantalus. 

  I got out of bed and pulled on some clothes. I grabbed a beach blanket and a six-pack of Coke from under my bunk. The Cokes were against the rules. No outside snacks or drinks were allowed, but if you talked to the right guy in Hermes’s cabin and paid him a few golden drachma, he could smuggle in almost anything from the nearest convenience store. 

  Sneaking out after curfew was against the rules, too. If I got caught I’d either get in big trouble or be eaten by the harpies. But I wanted to see the ocean. I always felt better there. My thoughts were clearer. I left the cabin and headed for the beach. 

  I spread my blanket near the surf and popped open a Coke. For some reason sugar and caffeine always calmed down my hyperactive brain. I tried to decide what to do to save the camp, but nothing came to me. I wished Poseidon would talk to me, give me some advice or something. 

  The sky was clear and starry. I was checking out the constellations Annabeth had taught me—Sagittarius, Hercules, Corona Borealis—when somebody said, “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

I almost spewed soda. 

  Standing right next to me was a guy in nylon running shorts and a New York City Marathon T-shirt. He was slim and fit, with salt-and-pepper hair and a sly smile. He looked kind of familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. 

  My first thought was that he must’ve been taking a midnight jog down the beach and strayed inside the camp borders. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Regular mortals couldn’t enter the valley. 

  But maybe with the tree’s magic weakening he’d managed to slip in. But in the middle of the night?

  And there was nothing around except farmland and state preserves. Where would this guy have jogged from?

  “May I join you?” he asked. “I haven’t sat down in ages. ”

  Now, I know—a strange guy in the middle of the night. Common sense: I was supposed to run away, yell for help, etc. But the guy acted so calm about the whole thing that I found it hard to be afraid. 

  I said, “Uh, sure. ”

  He smiled. “Your hospitality does you credit. Oh, and Coca-Cola! May I?”

  He sat at the other end of the blanket, popped a soda and took a drink. “Ah … that hits the spot. Peace and quiet at—”

  A cell phone went off in his pocket. 

  The jogger sighed. He pulled out his phone and my eyes got big, because it glowed with a bluish light. When he extended the antenna, two creatures began writhing around it—green snakes, no bigger than earthworms. 

  The jogger didn’t seem to notice. He checked his LCD display and cursed. “I’ve got to take this. Just a sec …” Then into the phone: “Hello?”

  He listened. The mini-snakes writhed up and down the antenna right next to his ear. 

  “Yeah,” the jogger said. “Listen—I know, but… I don’t care if he is chained to a rock with vultures pecking at his liver, if he doesn’t have a tracking number, we can’t locate his package…. A gift to humankind, great… You know how many of those we deliver—Oh, never mind. Listen, just refer him to Eris in customer service. I gotta go. ”

  He hung up. “Sorry. The overnight express business is just booming. Now, as I was saying—”

  “You have snakes on your phone. ”

  “What? Oh, they don’t bite. Say hello, George and Martha. ”

  Hello, George and Martha, a raspy male voice said inside my head. 

  Don’t be sarcastic, said a female voice. 

  Why not? George demanded. I do all the real work. 

  “Oh, let’s not go into that again!” The jogger slipped his phone back into his pocket. “Now, where were we … Ah, yes. Peace and quiet. ”

  He crossed his ankles and stared up at the stars. “Been a long time since I’ve gotten to relax. Ever since the telegraph—rush, rush, rush. Do you have a favorite constellation, Percy?”

  I was still kind of wondering about the little green snakes he’d shoved into his jogging shorts, but I said, “Uh, I like Hercules. ”

  “Why?”

  “Well … because he had rotten luck. Even worse than mine. It makes me feel better. ”

  The jogger chuckled. “Not because he was strong and famous and all that?”

  “No. ”

  “You’re an interesting young man. And so, what now?”

  I knew immediately what he was asking. What did I intend to do about the Fleece?

  Before I could answer, Martha the snake’s muffled voice came from his pocket: I have Demeter on line two. 

  “Not now,” the jogger said. “Tell her to leave a message. ”

  She’s not going to like that. The last time you put her off, all the flowers in the floral delivery division wilted. 

  “Just tell her I’m in a meeting!” The jogger rolled his eyes. “Sorry again, Percy. You were saying …”

  “Um … who are you, exactly?”

  “Haven’t you guessed by now, a smart boy like you?”

  Show him! Martha pleaded . I haven’t been full-size for months. 

  Don’t listen to her! George said. She just wants to show off!

  The man took out his phone again. “Original form, please. ”

  The phone glowed a brilliant blue. It stretched into a three-foot-long wooden staff with dove wings sprouting out the top. George and Martha, now full-sized green snakes, coiled together around the middle. It was a caduceus, the symbol of Cabin Eleven. 

  My throat tightened. I realized who the jogger reminded me of with his elfish features, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes…. 

  “You’re Luke’s father,” I said. “Hermes. ”

  The god pursed his lips. He stuck his caduceus in the sand like an umbrella pole. “‘Luke’s father. ’ Normally, that’s not the first way people introduce me. God of thieves, yes. God of messengers and travelers, if they wish to be kind. ”

  God of thieves works, George said. 

  Oh, don’t mind George. Martha flicked her tongue at me. He’s just bitter because Hermes likes me best. 

  He does not!

  Does too!

  “Behave, you two,” Hermes warned, “or I’ll turn you back into a cell phone and set you on vibrate! Now, Percy, you still haven’t answered my question. What do you intend to do about the quest?”

  “I—I don’t have permission to go. ”

  “No, indeed. Will that stop you?”

  “I want to go. I have to save Grover. ”

  Hermes smiled. “I knew a boy once … oh, younger than you by far. A mere baby, really. ”

  Here we go again, George said. Always talking about himself Quiet! Martha snapped. Do you want to get set on vibrate?

  Hermes ignored them. “One night, when this boy’s mother wasn’t watching, he sneaked out of their cave and stole some cattle that belonged to Apollo. ”

  “Did he get blasted to tiny pieces?” I asked. 

  “Hmm … no. Actually, everything turned out quite well. To make up for his theft, the boy gave Apollo an instrument he’d invented—a lyre. Apollo was so enchanted with the music that he forgot all about being angry. ”

  “So what’s the moral?”

  “The moral?” Hermes asked. “Goodness, you act like it’s a fable. It’s a true story. Does truth have a moral?”

  “Um …”

  “How about this: stealing is not always bad?”

  “I don’t think my mom would like that moral. ”

  Rats are delicious, suggested George. 

  What does that have to do with the story? Martha demanded. 

  Nothing, George said. But I’m hungry. 

  “I’ve got it,” Hermes said. “Young people don’t always do what they’re told, but if they can pull it off and do something wonderful, sometimes they escape punishment. How’s that?”

  “You’re saying I should go anyway,” I said, “even without permission. ”

  Hermes’s eyes twinkled. “Martha, may I have the first package, please?”

  Martha opened her mouth … and kept opening it until it was as wide as my arm. She belched out a stainless steel canister—an old-fashioned lunch box thermos with a black plastic top. The sides of the thermos were enameled with red and yellow Ancient Greek scenes—a hero killing a lion; a hero lifting up Cerberus, the three-headed dog. 

  “That’s Hercules,” I said. “But how—”

  “Never question a gift,” Hermes chided. “This is a collector’s item from Hercules Busts Heads. The first season. ”

  “Hercules Busts Heads?”

  “Great show. ” Hermes sighed. “Back before Hephaestus-TV was all reality programming. Of course, the thermos would be worth much more if I had the whole lunch box—”

  Or if it hadn’t been in Martha’s mouth, George added. 

  I’ll get you for that. Martha began chasing him around the caduceus. 

  “Wait a minute,” I said. “This is a gift?”

  “One of two,” Hermes said. “Go on, pick it up. ”

  I almost dropped it because it was freezing cold on one side and burning hot on the other. 

  The weird thing was, when I turned the thermos, the side facing the ocean— north—was always the cold side…. 

  “It’s a compass!” I said. 

  Hermes looked surprised. “Very clever. I never thought of that. But its intended use is a bit more dramatic. Uncap it, and you will release the winds from the four corners of the earth to speed you on your way. Not now! And please, when the time comes, only unscrew the lid a tiny bit. The winds are a bit like me—always restless. Should all four escape at once … ah, but I’m sure you’ll be careful. And now my second gift. George?”

  She’s touching me, George complained as he and Martha slithered around the pole. 

  “She’s always touching you,” Hermes said. “You’re intertwined. And if you don’t stop that, you’ll get knotted again!

  The snakes stopped wrestling. 

  George unhinged his jaw and coughed up a little plastic bottle filled with chewable vitamins. 

  “You’re kidding,” I said. “Are those Minotaur-shaped?”

  Hermes picked up the bottle and rattled it. “The lemon ones, yes. The grape ones are Furies, I think. Or are they hydras? At any rate, these are potent. Don’t take one unless you really, really need it. ”

  “How will I know if I really, really need it?”

  “You’ll know, believe me. Nine essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids … oh, everything you need to feel yourself again. ”

  He tossed me the bottle. 

  “Um, thanks,” I said. “But Lord Hermes, why are you helping me?”

  He gave me a melancholy smile. “Perhaps because I hope that you can save many people on this quest, Percy. Not just your friend Grover. ”

  I stared at him. “You don’t mean … Luke?”

  Hermes didn’t answer. 

  “Look,” I said. “Lord Hermes, I mean, thanks and everything, but you might as well take back your gifts. Luke can’t be saved. Even if I could find him … he told me he wanted to tear down Olympus stone by stone. He betrayed everybody he knew. He—he hates you especially. ”

  Hermes gazed up at the stars. “My dear young cousin, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the eons, it’s that you can’t give up on your family, no matter how tempting they make it. It doesn’t matter if they hate you, or embarrass you, or simply don’t appreciate your genius for inventing the Internet—”

  “You invented the Internet?”

  It was my idea, Martha said. 

  Rats are delicious, George said. 

  “It was my idea!” Hermes said. “I mean the Internet, not the rats. But that’s not the point. 

  Percy, do you understand what I’m saying about family?”

  “I—I’m not sure. ”

  “You will some day. ” Hermes got up and brushed the sand off his legs. “In the meantime, I must be going. ”

  You have sixty calls to return, Martha said. 

  And one thousand-thirty-eight e-mails, George added. Not counting the offers for online discount ambrosia. 

“And you, Percy,” Hermes said, “have a shorter deadline than you realize to complete your quest. Your friends should be coming right about … now. ”

  I heard Annabeth’s voice calling my name from the sand dunes. Tyson, too, was shouting from a little bit farther away. 

  “I hope I packed well for you,” Hermes said. “I do have some experience with travel. ”

  He snapped his fingers and three yellow duffel bags appeared at my feet. “Waterproof, of course. If you ask nicely, your father should be able to help you reach the ship. ”

  “Ship?”

  Hermes pointed. Sure enough, a big cruise ship was cutting across Long Island Sound, its white-and-gold lights glowing against the dark water. 

  “Wait,” I said. “I don’t understand any of this. I haven’t even agreed to go!”

  “I’d make up your mind in the next five minutes, if I were you,” Hermes advised. “That’s when the harpies will come to eat you. Now, good night, cousin, and dare I say it? May the gods go with you. ”

  He opened his hand and the caduceus flew into it. 

  Good luck, Martha told me. 

  Bring me back a rat, George said. 

  The caduceus changed into a cell phone and Hermes slipped it into his pocket. 

  He jogged off down the beach. Twenty paces away, he shimmered and vanished, leaving me alone with a thermos, a bottle of chewable vitamins, and five minutes to make an impossible decision. 

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