The Titan’s Curse – Chapter 9: I LEARN HOW TO GROW ZOMBIES

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Chapter 9: I LEARN HOW TO GROW ZOMBIES

The thing about flying on a pegasus during the daytime is that if you’re not careful, you can cause a serious traffic accident on the Long Island Expressway. I had to keep Blackjack up in the clouds, which were, fortunately, pretty low in the winter. We darted around, trying to keep the white Camp Half-Blood van in sight. And if it was cold on the ground, it was seriously cold in the air, with icy rain stinging my skin.

I was wishing I’d brought some of that Camp Half-Blood orange thermal underwear they sold in the camp store, but after the story about Phoebe and the centaur-blood T-shirt, I wasn’t sure I trusted their products anymore.

We lost the van twice, but I had a pretty good sense that they would go into Manhattan first, so it wasn’t too difficult to pick up their trail again.

Traffic was bad with the holidays and all. It was mid morning before they got into the city. I landed Blackjack near the top of the Chrysler Building and watched the white camp van, thinking it would pull into the bus station, but it just kept driving.

“Where’s Argus taking them?” I muttered.

Oh, Argus ain’t driving, boss, Blackjack told me. That girl is.

“Which girl?”

The Hunter girl. With the silver crown thing in her hair.

“Zoe?”

That’s the one. Hey, look! There’s a donut shop. Can we get something to go?

I tried explaining to Blackjack that taking a flying horse to a donut shop would give every cop in there a heart attack, but he didn’t seem to get it. Meanwhile, the van kept snaking its way toward the Lincoln Tunnel. It had never even occurred to me that Zoe could drive. I mean, she didn’t look sixteen. Then again, she was immortal. I wondered if she had a New York license, and if so, what her birth date said.

“Well,” I said. “Lets get after them.”

We were about to leap off the Chrysler Building when Blackjack whinnied in alarm and almost threw me. Something was curling around my leg like a snake. I reached for my sword, but when I looked down, there was no snake. Vines—grape vines—had sprouted from the cracks between the stones of the building. They were wrapping around Blackjack’s legs, lashing down my ankles so we couldn’t move.

“Going somewhere?” Mr. D asked.

He was leaning against the building with his feet levitating in the air, his leopard-skin warm-up suit and black hair whipping around in the wind.

God alert! Blackjack yelled. It’s the wine dude!

Mr. D sighed in exasperation. “The next person, or horse, who calls me the ‘wine dude’ will end up in a bottle of Merlot!”

“Mr. D.” I tried to keep my voice calm as the grape vines continued to wrap around my legs. “What do you want?”

“Oh, what do I want? You thought, perhaps, that the immortal, all-powerful director of camp would not notice you leaving without permission?”

“Well… maybe.”

“I should throw you off this building, minus the flying horse, and see how heroic you sound on the way down.”

I balled my fists. I knew I should keep my mouth shut, but Mr. D was about to kill me or haul me back to camp in shame, and I couldn’t stand either idea. “Why do you hate me so much? What did I ever do to you?”

Purple flames flickered in his eyes. “You’re a hero, boy. I need no other reason.”

“I have to go on this quest! I’ve got to help my friends. That’s something you wouldn’t understand!”

Um, boss, Blackjack said nervously. Seeing as how we’re wrapped in vines nine hundred feet in the air, you might want to talk nice.

The grape vines coiled tighter around me. Below us, the white van was getting farther and farther away. Soon it would be out of sight.

“Did I ever tell you about Ariadne?” Mr. D asked. “Beautiful young princess of Crete? She liked helping her friends, too. In fact, she helped a young hero named Theseus, also a son of Poseidon. She gave him a ball of magical yarn that let him find his way out of the Labyrinth.

And do you know how Theseus rewarded her?”

The answer I wanted to give was I don’t care! But I didn’t figure that would make Mr. D finish his story any faster.

“They got married,” I said. “Happily ever after. The end.”

Mr. D sneered. “Not quite. Theseus said he would marry her. He took her aboard his ship and sailed for Athens. Halfway back, on a little island called Naxos, he… What’s the word you mortals use today?… he dumped her. I found her there, you know. Alone. Heartbroken. Crying her eyes out. She had given up everything, left everything she knew behind, to help a dashing young hero who tossed her away like a broken sandal.”

“That’s wrong,” I said. “But that was thousands of years ago. What’s that got to do with me?”

Mr. D regarded me coldly. “I fell in love with Ariadne, boy. I healed her broken heart. And when she died, I made her my immortal wife on Olympus. She waits for me even now. I shall go back to her when I am done with this infernal century of punishment at your ridiculous camp.”

I stared at him. “You’re… you’re married? But I thought you got in trouble for chasing a wood nymph—”

“My point is you heroes never change. You accuse us gods of being vain. You should look at yourselves. You take what you want, use whoever you have to, and then you betray everyone around you. So you’ll excuse me if I have no love for heroes. They are a selfish, ungrateful lot. Ask Ariadne. Or Medea. For that matter, ask Zoe Nightshade.”

“What do you mean, ask Zoe?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Go. Follow your silly friends.”

The vines uncurled around my legs.

I blinked in disbelief. “You’re… you’re letting me go? Just like that?”

“The prophecy says at least two of you will die. Perhaps I’ll get lucky and you’ll be one of them. But mark my words, Son of Poseidon, live or die, you will prove no better than the other heroes.”

With that, Dionysus snapped his fingers. His image folded up like a paper display. There was a pop and he was gone, leaving a faint scent of grapes that was quickly blown away by the wind.

Too close, Blackjack said.

I nodded, though I almost would have been less worried if Mr. D had hauled me back to camp. The fact that he’d let me go meant he really believed we stood a fair chance of crashing and burning on this quest.

“Come on, Blackjack,” I said, trying to sound upbeat. “I’ll buy you some donuts in New Jersey.”

As it turned out, I didn’t buy Blackjack donuts in New Jersey. Zoe drove south like a crazy person, and we were into Maryland before she finally pulled over at a rest stop. Blackjack darn near tumbled out of the sky, he was so tired.

I’ll be okay, boss, he panted. Just… just catching my breath.

“Stay here,” I told him. “I’m going to scout.”

‘Stay here’ I can handle. I can do that.

I put on my cap of invisibility and walked over to the convenience store. It was difficult not to sneak. I had to keep reminding myself that nobody could see me. It was hard, too, because I had to remember to get out of people’s way so they wouldn’t slam into me.

I thought I’d go inside and warm up, maybe get a cup of hot chocolate or something. I had a little change in my pocket. I could leave it on the counter. I was wondering if the cup would turn invisible when I picked it up, or if I’d have to deal with a floating hot chocolate problem, when my whole plan was ruined by Zoe, Thalia, Bianca, and Grover all coming out of the store.

“Grover, are you sure?” Thalia was saying.

“Well… pretty sure. Ninety-nine percent. Okay, eighty-five percent.”

“And you did this with acorns?” Bianca asked, like she couldn’t believe it.

Grover looked offended. “It’s a time-honored tracking spell. I mean, I’m pretty sure I did it right.”

“D.C. is about sixty miles from here,” Bianca said. “Nico and I…” She frowned. “We used to live there. That’s… that’s strange. I’d forgotten.”

“I dislike this,” Zoe said. “We should go straight west. The prophecy said west.”

“Oh, like your tracking skills are better?” Thalia growled.

Zoe stepped toward her. “You challenge my skills, you scullion? You know nothing of being a Hunter!”

“Oh, scullion You’re calling me a scullion? What the heck is a scullion?”

“Whoa, you two,” Grover said nervously. “Come on. Not again!”

“Grover’s right,” Bianca said. “D.C. is our best bet.”

Zoe didn’t look convinced, but she nodded reluctantly. “Very well. Let us keep moving.”

“You’re going to get us arrested, driving,” Thalia grumbled. “I look closer to sixteen than you do.”

“Perhaps,” Zoe snapped. “But I have been driving since automobiles were invented. Let us go.”

As Blackjack and I continued south, following the van, I wondered whether Zoe had been kidding. I didn’t know exactly when cars were invented, but I figured that was like prehistoric times—back when people watched black-and-white TV and hunted dinosaurs.

How old was Zoe? And what had Mr. D been talking about? What bad experience had she had with heroes?

As we got closer to Washington, Blackjack started slowing down and dropping altitude. He was breathing heavily.

“You okay?” I asked him.

Fine, boss. I could… I could take on an army.

“You don’t sound so good.” And suddenly I felt guilty, because I’d been running the pegasus for half a day, nonstop, trying to keep up with highway traffic. Even for a flying horse, that had to be rough.

Don’t worry about me, boss! I’m a tough one.

I figured he was right, but I also figured Blackjack would run himself into the ground before he complained, and I didn’t want that.

Fortunately, the van started to slow down. It crossed the Potomac River into central Washington. I started thinking about air patrols and missiles and stuff like that. I didn’t know exactly how all those defenses worked, and wasn’t sure if pegasi even showed up on your typical military radar, but I didn’t want to find out by getting shot out of the sky.

“Set me down there,” I told Blackjack. “That’s close enough.”

Blackjack was so tired he didn’t complain. He dropped toward the Washington Monument and set me on the grass.

The van was only a few blocks away. Zoe had parked at the curb.

I looked at Blackjack. “I want you to go back to camp. Get some rest. Graze. I’ll be fine.”

Blackjack cocked his head skeptically. You sure, boss?

“You’ve done enough already,” I said. “I’ll be fine. And thanks a ton.”

A ton of hay, maybe, Blackjack mused. That sounds good. All . right, but be careful, boss. I got a feeling they didn’t come here to meet anything friendly and handsome like me.

I promised to be careful. Then Blackjack took off, circling twice around the monument before disappearing into the clouds.

I looked over at the white van. Everybody was getting out. Grover pointed toward one of the big buildings lining the Mall. Thalia nodded, and the four of them trudged off into the cold wind.

I started to follow. But then I froze.

A block away, the door of a black sedan opened. A man with gray hair and a military buzz cut got out. He was wearing dark shades and a black overcoat. Now, maybe in Washington, you’d expected guys like that to be everywhere. But it dawned on me that I’d seen this same car a couple of times on the highway, going south. It had been following the van.

The guy took out his mobile phone and said something into it. Then he looked around, like he was making sure the coast was clear, and started walking down the Mall in the direction of my friends.

The worst of it was: when he turned toward me, I recognized his face. It was Dr. Thorn, the manticore from Westover Hall.

Invisibility cap on, I followed Thorn from a distance. My heart was pounding. If he had survived that fall from the cliff, then Annabeth must have too. My dreams had been right. She was alive and being held prisoner.

Thorn kept well back from my friends, careful not to be seen.

Finally, Grover stopped in front of a big building that said NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM. The Smithsonian! I’d been here a million years ago with my mom, but everything had looked so much bigger then.

Thalia checked the door. It was open, but there weren’t many people going in. Too cold, and school was out of session. They slipped inside.

Dr. Thorn hesitated. I wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t go into the museum. He turned and headed across the Mall. I made a split-second decision and followed him.

Thorn crossed the street and climbed the steps of the Museum of Natural History. There was a big sign on the door. At first I thought it said CLOSED FOR PIRATE EVENT. Then I realized PIRATE must be PRIVATE.

I followed Dr. Thorn inside, through a huge chamber full of mastodons and dinosaur skeletons. There were voices up ahead, coming from behind a set of closed doors. Two guards stood outside. They opened the doors for Thorn, and I had to sprint to get inside before they closed them again.

Inside, what I saw was so terrible I almost gasped out loud, which probably would’ve gotten me killed.

I was in a huge round room with a balcony ringing the second level. At least a dozen mortal guards stood on the balcony, plus two monsters—reptilian women with double-snake trunks instead of legs. I’d seen them before. Annabeth had called them Scythian dracaenae.

But that wasn’t the worse of it. Standing between the snake women—I could swear he was looking straight down at me—was my old enemy Luke. He looked terrible. His skin was pale and his blond hair looked almost gray, as if he’d aged ten years in just a few months. The angry light in his eyes was still there, and so was the scar down the side of his face, where a dragon had once scratched him. But the scar was now ugly red, as though it had recently been reopened.

Next to him, sitting down so that the shadows covered him, was another man. All I could see were his knuckles on the gilded arms of his chair, like a throne.

“Well?” asked the man in the chair. His voice was just like the one I’d heard in my dream—not as creepy as Kronos’s, but deeper and stronger, like the earth itself was talking. It filled the whole room even though he wasn’t yelling.

Dr. Thorn took off his shades. His two-colored eyes, brown and blue, glittered with excitement. He made a stiff bow, then spoke in his weird French accent: “They are here, General.”

“I know that, you fool,” boomed the man. “But where?”

“In the rocket museum.”

“The Air and Space Museum,” Luke corrected irritably.

Dr. Thorn glared at Luke. “As you say, sir”

I got the feeling Thorn would just as soon impale Luke with one of his spikes as call him sir.

“How many?” Luke asked.

Thorn pretended not to hear.

“How many?” the General demanded.

“Four, General,” Thorn said. “The satyr, Grover Underwood. And the girl with the spiky black hair and the—how do you say—punk clothes and the horrible shield.”

“Thalia,” Luke said.

“And two other girls—Hunters. One wears a silver circlet.”

“That one I know,” the General growled.

Everyone in the room shifted uncomfortably.

“Let me take them,” Luke said to the General. “We have more than enough—”

“Patience,” the General said. “They’ll have their hands full already. I’ve sent a little playmate to keep them occupied.”

“But—”

“We cannot risk you, my boy.”

“Yes, boy,” Dr. Thorn said with a cruel smile. “You are much too fragile to risk. Let me finish them off.”

“No.” The General rose from his chair, and I got my first look at him.

He was tall and muscular, with light brown skin and slicked-back dark hair. He wore an expensive brown silk suit like the guys on Wall Street wear, but you’d never mistake this dude for a broker. He had a brutal face, huge shoulders, and hands that could snap a flagpole in half. His eyes were like stone. I felt as if I were looking at a living statue. It was amazing he could even move.

“You have already failed me, Thorn,” he said.

“But, General—”

“No excuses!”

Thorn flinched. I’d thought Thorn was scary when I first saw him in his black uniform at the military academy. But now, standing before the General, Thorn looked like a silly wannabe soldier. The General was the real deal. He didn’t need a uniform. He was a born commander.

“I should throw you into the pits of Tartarus for your incompetence,” the General said. “I send you to capture a child of the three elder gods, and you bring me a scrawny daughter of Athena.”

“But you promised me revenge.'” Thorn protested. “A command of my own!”

“I am Lord Kronos’s senior commander,” the General said. “And I will choose lieutenants who get me results! It was only thanks to Luke that we salvaged our plan at all. Now get out of my sight, Thorn, until I find some other menial task for you.”

Thorn’s face turned purple with rage. I thought he was going to start frothing at the mouth or shooting spines, but he just bowed awkwardly and left the room.

“Now, my boy.” The General turned to Luke. “The first thing we must do is isolate the half-blood Thalia. The monster we seek will then come to her.”

“The Hunters will be difficult to dispose of,” Luke said. “Zoe Nightshade—”

“Do not speak her name!”

Luke swallowed. “S—sorry, General. I just—”

The General silenced him with a wave of his hand. “Let me show you, my boy, how we will bring the Hunters down.”

He pointed to a guard on the ground level. “Do you have the teeth?”

The guy stumbled forward with a ceramic pot. “Yes, General!”

“Plant them,” he said.

In the center of the room was a big circle of dirt, where I guess a dinosaur exhibit was supposed to go. I watched nervously as the guard took sharp white teeth out of the pot and pushed them into the soil. He smoothed them over while the General smiled coldly.

The guard stepped back from the dirt and wiped his hands. “Ready, General!”

“Excellent! Water them, and we will let them scent their prey.”

The guard picked up a little tin watering can with daisies painted on it, which was kind of bizarre, because what he poured out wasn’t water. It was dark red liquid, and I got the feeling it wasn’t Hawaiian Punch.

The soil began to bubble.

“Soon,” the General said, “I will show you, Luke, soldiers that will make your army from that little boat look insignificant.”

Luke clenched his fists. “I’ve spent a year training my forces! When the Princess Andromeda arrives at the mountain, they’ll be the best—”

“Ha.'” the General said. “I don’t deny your troops will make a fine honor guard for Lord Kronos. And you, of course, will have a role to play—”

I thought Luke turned paler when the General said that.

“—but under my leadership, the forces of Lord Kronos will increase a hundredfold. We will be unstoppable. Behold, my ultimate killing machines.”

The soil erupted. I stepped back nervously.

In each spot where a tooth had been planted, a creature was struggling out of the dirt. The first of them said:

“Mew?”

It was a kitten. A little orange tabby with stripes like a tiger. Then another appeared, until there were a dozen, rolling around and playing in the dirt.

Everyone stared at them in disbelief. The General roared, “What is this? Cute cuddly kittens? Where did you find those teeth?”

The guard who’d brought the teeth cowered in fear. “From the exhibit, sir! Just like you said. The saber-toothed tiger—”

“No, you idiot! I said the tyrannosaurus! Gather up those… those infernal fuzzy little beasts and take them outside. And never let me see your face again.”

The terrified guard dropped his watering can. He gathered up the kittens and scampered out of the room.

“You.'” The General pointed to another guard. “Get me the right teeth. NOW!”

The new guard ran off to carry out his orders.

“Imbeciles,’ muttered the General.

“This is why I don’t use mortals,” Luke said. “They are unreliable.”

“They are weak-minded, easily bought, and violent,” the General said. “I love them.”

A minute later, the guard hustled into the room with his hands full of large pointy teeth.

“Excellent,” the General said. He climbed onto the balcony railing and jumped down, twenty feet.

Where he landed, the marble floor cracked under his leather shoes. He stood, wincing, and rubbed his shoulders. “Curse my stiff neck.”

“Another hot pad, sir?” a guard asked. “More Tylenol?”

“No! It will pass.” The General brushed off his silk suit, then snatched up the teeth. “I shall do this myself.”

He held up one of the teeth and smiled. “Dinosaur teeth—ha! Those foolish mortals don’t even know when they have dragon teeth in their possession. And not just any dragon teeth. These come from the ancient Sybaris herself! They shall do nicely.”

He planted them in the dirt, twelve in all. Then he scooped up the watering can. He sprinkled the soil with red liquid, tossed the can away, and held his arms out wide. Rise!

The dirt trembled. A single, skeletal hand shot out of the ground, grasping at the air.

The General looked up at the balcony. “Quickly, do you have the scent?”

“Yesssss, lord,” one of the snake ladies said. She took out a sash of silvery fabric, like the kind the Hunters wore.

“Excellent,” the General said. “Once my warriors catch its scent, they will pursue its owner relentlessly. Nothing can stop them, no weapons known to half-blood or Hunter. They will tear the Hunters and their allies to shreds. Toss it here!”

As he said that, skeletons erupted from the ground. There were twelve of them, one for each tooth the General had planted. They were nothing like Halloween skeletons, or the kind you might see in cheesy movies. These were growing flesh as I watched, turning into men, but men with dull gray skin, yellow eyes, and modern clothes—gray muscle shirts, camo pants, and combat boots. If you didn’t look too closely, you could almost believe they were human, but their flesh was transparent and their bones shimmered underneath, like X-ray images.

One of them looked straight at me, regarding me coldly, and I knew that no cap of invisibility would fool it.

The snake lady released the scarf and it fluttered down toward the General’s hand. As soon as he gave it to the warriors, they would hunt Zoe and the others until they were extinct.

I didn’t have time to think. I ran and jumped with all my might, plowing into the warriors and snatching the scarf out of the air.

“What’s this?” bellowed the General.

I landed at the feet of a skeleton warrior, who hissed.

“An intruder,” the General growled. “One cloaked in darkness. Seal the doors!”

“It’s Percy Jackson!” Luke yelled. “It has to be.”

I sprinted for the exit, but heard a ripping sound and realized the skeleton warrior had taken a chunk out of my sleeve. When I glanced back, he was holding the fabric up to his nose, sniffing the scent, handing it around to his friends. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I squeezed through the door just as the guards slammed it shut behind me.

And then I ran.

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