The Titan’s Curse – Chapter 15: I WRESTLE SANTA’S EVIL TWIN

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Chapter 15: I WRESTLE SANTA’S EVIL TWIN

“Tell me when it’s over,” Thalia said. Her eyes were shut tight. The statue was holding on to us so we couldn’t fall, but still Thalia clutched his arm like it was the most important thing in the world.

“Everything’s fine,” I promised.

“Are… are we very high?”

I looked down. Below us, a range of snowy mountains zipped by. I stretched out my foot and kicked snow off one of the peaks.

“Nah,” I said. “Not that high.”

“We are in the Sierras.'” Zoe yelled. She and Grover were hanging from the arms of the other statue. “I have hunted here before. At this speed, we should be in San Francisco in a few hours.”

“Hey, hey, Frisco!” our angel said. “Yo, Chuck! We could visit those guys at the Mechanics Monument again! They know how to party!”

“Oh, man,” the other angel said. “I am so there!”

“You guys have visited San Francisco?” I asked.

“We automatons gotta have some fun once in a while, right?” our statue said. “Those mechanics took us over to the de Young Museum and introduced us to these marble lady statues, see. And—”

“Hank!” the other statue Chuck cut in. “They’re kids, man.”

“Oh, right.” If bronze statues could blush, I swear Hank did. “Back to flying.”

We sped up, so I could tell the angels were excited. The mountains fell away into hills, and then we were zipping along over farmland and towns and highways.

Grover played his pipes to pass the time. Zoe got bored and started shooting arrows at random billboards as we flew by. Every time she saw a Target department store—and we passed dozens of them—she would peg the store’s sign with a few bulls-eyes at a hundred miles an hour.

Thalia kept her eyes closed the whole way. She muttered to herself a lot, like she was praying.

“You did good back there,” I told her. “Zeus listened.”

It was hard to tell what she was thinking with her eyes closed.

“Maybe,” she said. “How did you get away from the skeletons in the generator room, anyway? You said they cornered you.”

I told her about the weird mortal girl, Rachel Elizabeth Dare, who seemed to be able to see right through the Mist. I thought Thalia was going to call me crazy, but she just nodded.

“Some mortals are like that,” she said. “Nobody knows why.”

Suddenly I flashed on something I’d never considered.

My mom was like that. She had seen the Minotaur on Half-Blood Hill and known exactly what it was. She hadn’t been surprised at all last year when I’d told her my friend Tyson was really a Cyclops. Maybe she’d known all along. No wonder she’d been so scared for me as I was growing up. She saw through the Mist even better than I did.

“Well, the girl was annoying,” I said. “But I’m glad I didn’t vaporize her. That would’ve been bad.”

Thalia nodded. “Must be nice to be a regular mortal.” She said that as if she’d given it a lot of thought.

“Where you guys want to land?” Hank asked, waking me up from a nap.

I looked down and said, “Whoa.”

I’d seen San Francisco in pictures before, but never in real life. It was probably the most beautiful city I’d ever seen: kind of like a smaller, cleaner Manhattan, if Manhattan had been surrounded by green hills and fog. There was a huge bay and ships, islands and sailboats, and the Golden Gate Bridge sticking up out of the fog. I felt like I should take a picture or something. Greetings from Frisco. Haven’t Died Yet. Wish You Were Here.

“There,” Zoe suggested. “By the Embarcadero Building.”

“Good thinking,” Chuck said. “Me and Hank can blend in with the pigeons.”

We all looked at him.

“Kidding,” he said. “Sheesh, can’t statues have a sense of humor?”

As it turned out, there wasn’t much need to blend in. It was early morning and not many people were around. We freaked out a homeless guy on the ferry dock when we landed. He screamed when he saw Hank and Chuck and ran off yelling something about metal angels from Mars.

We said our good-byes to the angels, who flew off to party with their statue friends. That’s when I realized I had no idea what we were going to do next.

We’d made it to the West Coast. Artemis was here somewhere. Annabeth too, I hoped. But I had no idea how to find them, and tomorrow was the winter solstice. Nor did I have any clue what monster Artemis had been hunting. It was supposed to find us on the quest. It was supposed to “show the trail,” but it never had. Now we were stuck on the ferry dock with not much money, no friends, and no luck.

After a brief discussion, we agreed that we needed to figure out just what this mystery monster was.

“But how?” I asked.

“Nereus,” Grover said.

I looked at him. “What?”

“Isn’t that what Apollo told you to do? Find Nereus?”

I nodded. I’d completely forgotten my last conversation with the sun god.

The old man of the sea,” I remembered. “I’m supposed to find him and force him to tell us what he knows. But how do I find him?”

Zoe made a face. “Old Nereus, eh?”

“You know him?” Thalia asked.

My mother was a sea goddess. Yes, I know him.Unfortunately, he is never very hard to find. Just follow the smell.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Come,” she said without enthusiasm. “I will show thee.”

I knew I was in trouble when we stopped at the Goodwill drop box. Five minutes later, Zoe had me outfitted in a ragged flannel shirt and jeans three sizes too big, bright red sneakers, and a floppy rainbow hat.

“Oh, yeah,” Grover said, trying not to bust out laughing, “you look completely inconspicuous now.”

Zoe nodded with satisfaction. “A typical male vagrant.”

“Thanks a lot,” I grumbled. “Why am I doing this again?”

“I told thee. To blend in.”

She led the way back down to the waterfront. After a long time spent searching the docks, Zoe finally stopped in her tracks. She pointed down a pier where a bunch of homeless guys were huddled together in blankets, waiting for the soup kitchen to open for lunch.

“He will be down there somewhere,” Zoe said. “He never travels very far from the water. He likes to sun himself during the day.”

“How do I know which one is him?”

“Sneak up,” she said. “Act homeless. You will know him. He will smell… different.”

“Great.” I didn’t want to ask for particulars. “And once I find him?”

“Grab him,” she said. “And hold on. He will try anything to get rid of thee. Whatever he does, do not let go. Force him to tell thee about the monster.”

“We’ve got your back,” Thalia said. She picked something off the back of my shirt—a big clump of fuzz that came from who-knows-where. “Eww. On second thought… I don’t want your back. But we’ll be rooting for you.”

Grover gave me a big thumbs-up.

I grumbled how nice it was to have super-powerful friends. Then I headed toward the dock.

I pulled my hat down and stumbled like I was about to pass out, which wasn’t hard considering how tired I was. I passed our homeless friend from the Embarcadero, who was still trying to warn the other guys about the metal angels from Mars.

He didn’t smell good, but he didn’t smell… different. I kept walking.

A couple of grimy dudes with plastic grocery bags for hats checked me out as I came close.

“Beat it, kid!” one of them muttered.

I moved away. They smelled pretty bad, but just regular old bad. Nothing unusual.

There was a lady with a bunch of plastic flamingos sticking out of a shopping cart. She glared at me like I was going to steal her birds.

At the end of the pier, a guy who looked about a million years old was passed out in a patch of sunlight. He wore pajamas and a fuzzy bathrobe that probably used to be white. He was fat, with a white beard that had turned yellow, kind of like Santa Claus, if Santa had been rolled out of bed and dragged through a landfill.

And his smell?

As I got closer, I froze. He smelled bad, all right—but ocean bad. Like hot seaweed and dead fish and brine. If the ocean had an ugly side… this guy was it.

I tried not to gag as I sat down near him like I was tired. Santa opened one eye suspiciously. I could feel him staring at me, but I didn’t look. I muttered something about stupid school and stupid parents, figuring that might sound reasonable.

Santa Claus went back to sleep.

I tensed. I knew this was going to look strange. I didn’t know how the other homeless people would react. But I jumped Santa Claus.

“Ahhhhhl” he screamed. I meant to grab him, but he seemed to grab me instead. It was as if he’d never been asleep at all. He certainly didn’t act like a weak old man. He had a grip like steel. “Help me!” he screamed as he squeezed me to death.

“That’s a crime!” one of the other homeless guys yelled. “Kid rolling an old man like that!”

I rolled, all right—straight down the pier until my head slammed into a post. I was dazed for a second, and Nereus’s grip slackened. He was making a break for it. Before he could, I regained my senses and tackled him from behind.

“I don’t have any money!” He tried to get up and run, but I locked my arms around his chest. His rotten fish smell was awful, but I held on.

“I don’t want money,” I said as he fought. “I’m a half-blood! I want information.'”

That just made him struggle harder. “Heroes! Why do you always pick on me?”

“Because you know everything!”

He growled and tried to shake me off his back. It was like holding on to a roller coaster. He thrashed around, making it impossible for me to keep on my feet, but I gritted my teeth and squeezed tighter. We staggered toward the edge of the pier and I got an idea.

“Oh, no!” I said. “Not the water!”

The plan worked. Immediately, Nereus yelled in triumph and jumped off the edge. Together, we plunged into San Francisco Bay.

He must’ve been surprised when I tightened my grip, the ocean filling me with extra strength. But Nereus had a few tricks left, too. He changed shape until I was holding a sleek black seal.

I’ve heard people make jokes about trying to hold a greased pig, but I’m telling you, holding on to a seal in the water is harder. Nereus plunged straight down, wriggling and thrashing and spiraling through the dark water. If I hadn’t been Poseidon’s son, there’s no way I could’ve stayed with him.

Nereus spun and expanded, turning into a killer whale, but I grabbed his dorsal fin as he burst out of the water.

A whole bunch of tourists went, “Whoa!”

I managed to wave at the crowd. Yeah, we do this every day here in San Francisco.

Nereus plunged into the water and turned into a slimy eel. I started to tie him into a knot until he realized what was going on and changed back to human form. “Why won’t you drown?” he wailed, pummelmg me with his fists.

“I’m Poseidon’s son,” I said.

“Curse that upstart! I was here first!”

Finally he collapsed on the edge of the boat dock. Above us was one of those tourist piers lined with shops, like a mall on water. Nereus was heaving and gasping. I was feeling great. I could’ve gone on all day, but I didn’t tell him that. I wanted him to feel like he’d put up a good fight.

My friends ran down the steps from the pier.

“You got him!” Zoe said.

“You don’t have to sound so amazed,” I said.

Nereus moaned. “Oh, wonderful. An audience for my humiliation! The normal deal, I suppose? You’ll let me go if I answer your question?”

“I’ve got more than one question,” I said.

“Only one question per capture! That’s the rule.”

I looked at my friends.

This wasn’t good. I needed to find Artemis, and I needed to figure out what the doomsday creature was. I also needed to know if Annabeth was still alive, and how to rescue her. How could I ask that all in one question?

A voice inside me was screaming Ask about Annabeth! That’s what I cared about most.

But then I imagined what Annabeth might say. She would never forgive me if I saved her and didn’t save Olympus. Zoe would want me to ask about Artemis, but Chiron had told us the monster was even more important.

I sighed. “All right, Nereus. Tell me where to find this terrible monster that could bring an end to the gods. The one Artemis was hunting.”

The Old Man of the Sea smiled, showing off his mossy green teeth.

“Oh, that’s too easy,” he said evilly. “He’s right there.”

Nereus pointed to the water at my feet.

“Where?” I said.

“The deal is complete!” Nereus gloated. With a pop, he turned into a goldfish and did a backflip into the sea.

“You tricked me!” I yelled.

“Wait.” Thalia’s eyes widened. “What is that?”

“MOOOOOOOO!”

I looked down, and there was my friend the cow serpent, swimming next to the dock. She nudged my shoe and gave me the sad brown eyes.

“Ah, Bessie,” I said. “Not now.”

“Mooo!”

Grover gasped. “He says his name isn’t Bessie.”

“You can understand her… er, him?”

Grover nodded. “It’s a very old form of animal speech. But he says his name is the Ophiotaurus.”

“The Ophi-what?”

“It means serpent bull in Greek,” Thalia said. “But what’s it doing here?”

“Moooooooo!”

“He says Percy is his protector,” Grover announced.

“And he’s running from the bad people. He says they are close.”

I was wondering how you got all that out of a single moooooo.

“Wait,” Zoe said, looking at me. “You know this cow?”

I was feeling impatient, but I told them the story.

Thalia shook her head in disbelief. “And you just forgot to mention this before?”

“Well… yeah.” It seemed silly, now that she said it, but things had been happening so fast. Bessie, the Ophiotaurus, seemed like a minor detail.

“I am a fool,” Zoe said suddenly. “I know this story!”

“What story?”

“From the War of the Titans,” she said. “My… my father told me this tale, thousands of years ago. This is the beast we are looking for.”

“Bessie?” I looked down at the bull serpent. “But… he’s too cute. He couldn’t destroy the world.”

“That is how we were wrong,” Zoe said. “We’ve been anticipating a huge dangerous monster, but the Ophiotaurus does not bring down the gods that way. He must be sacrificed.”

“MMMM,” Bessie lowed.

“I don’t think he likes the S-word,” Grover said.

I patted Bessie on the head, trying to calm him down. He let me scratch his ear, but he was trembling.

“How could anyone hurt him?” I said. “He’s harmless.”

Zoe nodded. “But there is power in killing innocence.

Terrible power. The Fates ordained a prophecy eons ago, when this creature was born. They said that whoever killed the Ophiotaurus and sacrificed its entrails to fire would have the power to destroy the gods.”

“MMMMMM!”

“Um,” Grover said. “Maybe we could avoid talking about entrails, too.”

Thalia stared at the cow serpent with wonder. “The power to destroy the gods… how? I mean, what would happen?”

“No one knows,” Zoe said. “The first time, during the Titan war, the Ophiotaurus was in fact slain by a giant ally of the Titans, but thy father, Zeus, sent an eagle to snatch the entrails away before they could be tossed into the fire. It was a close call. Now, after three thousand years, the Ophiotaurus is reborn.”

Thalia sat down on the dock. She stretched out her hand. Bessie went right to her. Thalia placed her hand on his head. Bessie shivered.

Thalia’s expression bothered me. She almost looked… hungry.

“We have to protect him,” I told her. “If Luke gets hold of him—”

“Luke wouldn’t hesitate,” Thalia muttered. “The power to overthrow Olympus. That’s… that’s huge.”

“Yes, it is, my dear,” said a man’s voice in a heavy French accent. “And it is a power you shall unleash.”

The Ophiotaurus made a whimpering sound and submerged.

I looked up. We’d been so busy talking, we’d allowed ourselves to be ambushed.

Standing behind us, his two-color eyes gleaming wickedly, was Dr. Thorn, the manticore himself.

“This is just pairrr-fect,” the manticore gloated.

He was wearing a ratty black trench coat over his Westover Hall uniform, which was torn and stained. His military haircut had grown out spiky and greasy. He hadn’t shaved recently, so his face was covered in silver stubble. Basically he didn’t look much better than the guys down at the soup kitchen.

“Long ago, the gods banished me to Persia,” the manticore said. “I was forced to scrounge for food on the edges of the world, hiding in forests, devouring insignificant human farmers for my meals. I never got to fight any great heroes. I was not feared and admired in the old stories! But now that will change. The Titans shall honor me, and I shall feast on the flesh of half-bloods!”

On either side of him stood two armed security guys, some of the mortal mercenaries I’d seen in D.C. Two more stood on the next boat dock over, just in case we tried to escape that way. There were tourists all around—walking down the waterfront, shopping at the pier above us—but I knew that wouldn’t stop the manticore from acting.

“Where… where are the skeletons?” I asked the manticore.

He sneered. “I do not need those foolish undead! The General thinks I am worthless? He will change his mind when I defeat you myself!”

I needed time to think. I had to save Bessie. I could dive into the sea, but how could I make a quick getaway with a five-hundred-pound cow serpent? And what about my friends?

“We beat you once before,” I said.

“Ha! You could barely fight me with a goddess on your side. And, alas… that goddess is preoccupied at the moment. There will be no help for you now.”

Zoe notched an arrow and aimed it straight at the manticore’s head. The guards on either side of us raised their guns.

“Wait!” I said. “Zoe, don’t!”

The manticore smiled. “The boy is right, Zoe Nightshade. Put away your bow. It would be a shame to kill you before you witnessed Thalia’s great victory.”

“What are you talking about?” Thalia growled. She had her shield and spear ready.

“Surely it is clear,” the manticore said. “This is your moment. This is why Lord Kronos brought you back to life. You will sacrifice the Ophiotaurus. You will bring its entrails to the sacred fire on the mountain. You will gain unlimited power. And for your sixteenth birthday, you will overthrow Olympus.”

No one spoke. It made terrible sense. Thalia was only two days away from turning sixteen. She was a child of the Big Three. And here was a choice, a terrible choice that could mean the end of the gods. It was just like the prophecy said. I wasn’t sure if I felt relieved, horrified, or disappointed. I wasn’t the prophecy kid after all. Doomsday was happening right now.

I waited for Thalia to tell the manticore off, but she hesitated. She looked completely stunned.

“You know it is the right choice,” the manticore told her. “Your friend Luke recognized it. You shall be reunited with him. You shall rule this world together under the auspices of the Titans. Your father abandoned you, Thalia. He cares nothing for you. And now you shall gain power over him. Crush the Olympians underfoot, as they deserve. Call the beast! It will come to you. Use your spear.”

“Thalia,” I said, “snap out of it!”

She looked at me the same way she had the morning she woke up on Half-Blood Hill, dazed and uncertain. It was almost like she didn’t know me. “I… I don’t—”

“Your father helped you,” I said. “He sent the metal angels. He turned you into a tree to preserve you.”

Her hand tightened on the shaft of her spear.

I looked at Grover desperately. Thank the gods, he understood what I needed. He raised his pipes to his mouth and played a quick riff.

The manticore yelled, “Stop him!”

The guards had been targeting Zoe, and before they could figure out that the kid with the pipes was the bigger problem, the wooden planks at their feet sprouted new branches and tangled their legs. Zoe let loose two quick arrows that exploded at their feet in clouds of sulfurous yellow smoke. Fart arrows!

The guards started coughing. The manticore shot spines in our direction, but they ricocheted off my lion’s coat.

“Grover,” I said, “tell Bessie to dive deep and stay down!”

“Moooooo!” Grover translated. I could only hope that Bessie got the message.

“The cow…” Thalia muttered, still in a daze.

“Come on!” I pulled her along as we ran up the stairs to the shopping center on the pier. We dashed around the corner of the nearest store. I heard the manticore shouting at his minions, “Get them!” Tourists screamed as the guards shot blindly into the air.

We scrambled to the end of the pier. We hid behind a little kiosk filled with souvenir crystals—wind chimes and dream catchers and stuff like that, glittering in the sunlight. There was a water fountain next to us. Down below, a bunch of sea lions were sunning themselves on the rocks. The whole of San Francisco Bay spread out before us: the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the green hills and fog beyond that to the north. A picture-perfect moment, except for the fact that we were about to die and the world was going to end.

“Go over the side!” Zoe told me. “You can escape in the sea, Percy. Call on thy father for help. Maybe you can save the Ophiotaurus.”

She was right, but I couldn’t do it.

“I won’t leave you guys,” I said. “We fight together.”

“You have to get word to camp!” Grover said. “At least let them know what’s going on!”

Then I noticed the crystals making rainbows in the sunlight. There was a drinking fountain next to me…

“Get word to camp,” I muttered. “Good idea.”

I uncapped Riptide and slashed off the top of the water fountain. Water burst out of the busted pipe and sprayed all over us.

Thalia gasped as the water hit her. The fog seemed to clear from her eyes. “Are you crazy?” she asked.

But Grover understood. He was already fishing around in his pockets for a coin. He threw a golden drachma into the rainbows created by the mist and yelled, “O goddess, accept my offering!”

The mist rippled.

“Camp Half-Blood!” I said.

And there, shimmering in the Mist right next to us, was the last person I wanted to see: Mr. D, wearing his leopard-skin jogging suit and rummaging through the refrigerator.

He looked up lazily. “Do you mind?”

“Where’s Chiron!” I shouted.

“How rude.” Mr. D took a swig from a jug of grape juice. “Is that how you say hello?”

“Hello,” I amended. “We’re about to die! Where’s Chiron?”

Mr. D considered that. I wanted to scream at him to hurry up, but I knew that wouldn’t work. Behind us, footsteps and shouting—the manticore’s troops were closing in.

“About to die,” Mr. D mused. “How exciting. I’m afraid Chiron isn’t here. Would you like me to take a message?”

I looked at my friends. “We’re dead.”

Thalia gripped her spear. She looked like her old angry self again. “Then we’ll die fighting.”

“How noble,” Mr. D said, stifling a yawn. “So what is the problem, exactly?”

I didn’t see that it would make any difference, but I told him about the Ophiotaurus.

“Mmm.” He studied the contents of the fridge. “So that’s it. I see.”

“You don’t even care!” I screamed. “You’d just as soon watch us die!”

“Let’s see. I think I’m in the mood for pizza tonight.”

I wanted to slash through the rainbow and disconnect, but I didn’t have time. The manticore screamed, “There!” And we were surrounded. Two of the guards stood behind him. The other two appeared on the roofs of the pier shops above us. The manticore threw off his coat and transformed into his true self, his lion claws extended and his spiky tail bristling with poison barbs.

“Excellent,” he said. He glanced at the apparition in the mist and snorted. “Alone, without any real help. Wonderful.”

“You could ask for help,” Mr. D murmured to me, as if this were an amusing thought. “You could say please.”

When wild boars fly, I thought. There was no way I was going to die begging a slob like Mr. D, just so he could laugh as we all got gunned down.

Zoe readied her arrows. Grover lifted his pipes. Thalia raised her shield, and I noticed a tear running down her cheek. Suddenly it occurred to me: this had happened to her before. She had been cornered on Half-Blood Hill. She’d willingly given her life for her friends. But this time, she couldn’t save us.

How could I let that happen to her?

“Please, Mr. D,” I muttered. “Help.”

Of course, nothing happened.

The manticore grinned. “Spare the daughter of Zeus. She will join us soon enough. Kill the others.”

The men raised their guns, and something strange happened. You know how you feel when all the blood rushes to your head, like if you hang upside down and turn right-side up too quickly? There was a rush like that all around me, and a sound like a huge sigh. The sunlight tinged with purple. I smelled grapes and something more sour—wine.

SNAP!

It was the sound of many minds breaking at the same time. The sound of madness. One guard put his pistol between his teeth like it was a bone and ran around on all fours. Two others dropped their guns and started waltzing with each other. The fourth began doing what looked like an Irish clogging dance. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so terrifying.

“No!” screamed the manticore. “I will deal with you myself!”

His tail bristled, but the planks under his paws erupted into grape vines, which immediately began wrapping around the monster’s body, sprouting new leaves and clusters of green baby grapes that ripened in seconds as the manticore shrieked, until he was engulfed in a huge mass of vines, leaves, and full clusters of purple grapes. Finally the grapes stopped shivering, and I had a feeling that somewhere inside there, the manticore was no more.

“Well,” said Dionysus, closing his refrigerator. “That was fun.”

I stared at him, horrified. “How could you… How did you—”

“Such gratitude,” he muttered. “The mortals will come out of it. Too much explaining to do if I made their condition permanent. I hate writing reports to Father.”

He stared resentfully at Thalia. “I hope you learned your lesson, girl. It isn’t easy to resist power, is it?”

Thalia blushed as if she were ashamed.

“Mr. D,” Grover said in amazement. “You… you saved us.

“Mmm. Don’t make me regret it, satyr. Now get going, Percy Jackson. I’ve bought you a few hours at most.”

“The Ophiotaurus,” I said. “Can you get it to camp?”

Mr. D sniffed. “I do not transport livestock. That’s your problem.”

“But where do we go?”

Dionysus looked at Zoe. “Oh, I think the huntress knows. You must enter at sunset today, you know, or all is lost. Now good-bye. My pizza is waiting.”

“Mr. D,” I said.

He raised his eyebrow.

“You called me by my right name,” I said. “You called me Percy Jackson.”

“I most certainly did not, Peter Johnson. Now off with you!”

He waved his hand, and his image disappeared in the mist.

All around us, the manticore’s minions were still acting completely nuts. One of them had found our friend the homeless guy, and they were having a serious conversation about metal angels from Mars. Several other guards were harassing the tourists, making animal noises and trying to steal their shoes.

I looked at Zoe. “What did he mean… ‘You know where to go’?”

Her face was the color of the fog. She pointed across the bay, past the Golden Gate. In the distance, a single mountain rose up above the cloud layer.

“The garden of my sisters,” she said. “I must go home.”

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20