The Titan’s Curse – Chapter 4: THALIA TORCHES NEW ENGLAND

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

Chapter 4: 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.”

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?”

Nico shook his head. “No.”

“Well then, just think of it as a really powerful, really dangerous solar car.”

“Can I drive?”

“No. Too young.”

“Oo! Oo!” Grover raised his hand.

“Mm, no,” Apollo said. “Too furry.” He looked past me and focused on Thalia.

“Daughter of Zeus!” he said. “Lord of the sky. Perfect.”

“Oh, no.” Thalia shook her head. “No, thanks.”

“C’mon,” Apollo said. “How old are you?”

Thalia hesitated. “I don’t know.”

It was sad, but true. She’d been turned into a tree when she was twelve, but that had been seven years ago. So she should be nineteen, if you went by years. But she still felt like she was twelve, and if you looked at her, she seemed somewhere in between. The best Chiron could figure, she had kept aging while in tree form, but much more slowly.

Apollo tapped his finger to his lips. “You’re fifteen, almost sixteen.”

“How do you know that?”

“Hey, I’m the god of prophecy. I know stuff. You’ll turn sixteen in about a week.”

“That’s my birthday! December twenty-second.”

“Which means you’re old enough now to drive with a learner’s permit!”

Thalia shifted her feet nervously. “Uh—”

“I know what you’re going to say,” Apollo said. “You don’t deserve an honor like driving the sun chariot.”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

“Don’t sweat it! Maine to Long Island is a really short trip, and don’t worry about what happened to the last kid I trained. You’re Zeus’s daughter. He’s not going to blast you out of the sky.”

Apollo laughed good-naturedly. The rest of us didn’t join him.

Thalia tried to protest, but Apollo was absolutely not going to take “no” for an answer. He hit a button on the dashboard, and a sign popped up along the top of the windshield. I had to read it backward (which, for a dyslexic, really isn’t that different than reading forward). I was pretty sure it said WARNING: STUDENT DRIVER.

“Take it away!” Apollo told Thalia. “You’re gonna be a natural!”

I’ll admit I was jealous. I couldn’t wait to start driving. A couple of times that fall, my mom had taken me out to Montauk when the beach road was empty, and she’d let me try out her Mazda. I mean, yeah, that was a Japanese compact, and this was the sun chariot, but how different could it be?

“Speed equals heat,” Apollo advised. “So start slowly, and make sure you’ve got good altitude before you really open her up.”

Thalia gripped the wheel so tight her knuckles turned white. She looked like she was going to be sick.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” she said shakily. “N-nothing is wrong.”

She pulled back on the wheel. It tilted, and the bus lurched upward so fast I fell back and crashed against something soft.

“Ow” Grover said.

“Sorry.”

“Slower!” Apollo said.

“Sorry!” Thalia said. “I’ve got it under control!”

I managed to get to my feet. Looking out the window, I saw a smoking ring of trees from the clearing where we’d taken off.

“Thalia,” I said, “lighten up on the accelerator.”

“I’ve got it, Percy,” she said, gritting her teeth. But she kept it floored.

“Loosen up,” I told her.

“I’m loose!” Thalia said. She was so stiff she looked like she was made out of plywood.

“We need to veer south for Long Island,” Apollo said. “Hang a left.”

Thalia jerked the wheel and again threw me into Grover, who yelped.

“The other left,” Apollo suggested.

I made the mistake of looking out the window again. We were at airplane height now—so high the sky was starting to look black.

“Ah…” Apollo said, and I got the feeling he was forcing himself to sound calm. “A little lower, sweetheart. Cape Cod is freezing over.”

Thalia tilted the wheel. Her face was chalk white, her forehead beaded with sweat. Something was definitely wrong. I’d never seen her like this.

The bus pitched down and somebody screamed. Maybe it was me. Now we were heading straight toward the Atlantic Ocean at a thousand miles an hour, the New England coastline off to our right. And it was getting hot in the bus.

Apollo had been thrown somewhere in the back of the bus, but he started climbing up the rows of seats.

“Take the wheel!” Grover begged him.

“No worries,” Apollo said. He looked plenty worried. “She just has to learn to—WHOA!”

I saw what he was seeing. Down below us was a little snow-covered New England town. At least, it used to be snow-covered. As I watched, the snow melted off the trees and the roofs and the lawns. The white steeple on a church turned brown and started to smolder. Little plumes of smoke, like birthday candles, were popping up all over the town. Trees and rooftops were catching fire.

“Pull up!” I yelled.

There was a wild light in Thalia’s eyes. She yanked back on the wheel, and I held on this time. As we zoomed up, I could see through the back window that the fires in the town were being snuffed out by the sudden blast of cold.

“There!” Apollo pointed. “Long Island, dead ahead. Let’s slow down, dear. ‘Dead’ is only an expression.”

Thalia was thundering toward the coastline of northern Long Island. There was Camp Half-Blood: the valley, the woods, the beach. I could see the dining pavilion and cabins and the amphitheater.

“I’m under control,” Thalia muttered. “I’m under control.”

We were only a few hundred yards away now.

“Brake,” Apollo said.

“I can do this.”

“BRAKE!”

Thalia slammed her foot on the brake, and the sun bus pitched forward at a forty-five-degree angle, slamming into the Camp Half-Blood canoe lake with a huge FLOOOOOOSH! Steam billowed up, sending several frightened naiads scrambling out of the water with half-woven wicker baskets.

The bus bobbed to the surface, along with a couple of capsized, half-melted canoes.

“Well,” said Apollo with a brave smile. “You were right, my dear. You had everything under control! Let’s go see if we boiled anyone important, shall we?”

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