‘This is a stupid quest.’ Percy tramped across the red-cup strewn dance floor, winding through couples and grimacing at the hammering bass of the speakers. ‘What’s the one place demi-gods don’t do well? High school? Where do we always seem to end up? High school.’
‘Would you shut up,’ Thalia hissed. ‘We have a job to do. If what Grover said is right, then the vice-principal won’t have been fooled by my mist trick and knows who we are.’
Percy spotted Dr Thorn leading two children out the far side of the dance floor. ‘That way.’
‘You’re not the leader,’ Thalia snapped. ‘Where’s Annabeth?’
Percy strode back across the dance floor, shoving through the dancers. ‘Come on.’
He spun around.
Dancing figures surrounded him in the flashing lights.
‘And now she’s disappeared.’ Percy frowned, unease knotting in his gut. ‘If I go alone, it probably won’t end well.’
But if I don’t go, then those two demi-gods are probably going to get eaten by whatever a manticore is. He forced his way across the dance floor and out through the side exit. Why couldn’t it have been one of the monsters I know from Gabe’s stories?
Dr Thorn’s tall form flickered through the trees as he led the two children away into the woods. Percy broke into a run, stumbling over roots and slipping in the mud, branches whipped across his face and smacked into his chest and arms.
He burst into a clearing, skidding out in front of the two children. Dr Thorn whirled, something dark flashing from behind him.
Percy stepped in front of the boy and a lance of agony exploded through his shoulder. A hot damp soaked into his t-shirt and blood trickled down his side beneath. Ouch. He held his breath, shoving the throb of pain down.
‘Who are you?’ Dr Thorn demanded, staring at him with large, dark eyes. ‘You’re a demi-god, I can smell it.’
‘What’s a demi-god?’ A numbness crept through his shoulder and he clenched his jaw, ripping the thick spike out in a burst of searing agony. ‘Who are you?’
The world spun behind Dr Thorn, his mouth moved, but everything turned quiet, as if his head had been plunged underwater.
Poison. Percy took light shallow breaths and waited for it to settle, fumbling for Riptide with his left hand. And my right arm is useless with such a big hole in my shoulder. Best to play for time..
‘The Great Stirring is upon us,’ Dr Thorn declared. ‘And this time, I will take my place in the legends.’
‘I’m sorry, I got a bit dizzy for a second, do you mind saying that all again?’ He clutched the pen tight and sucked in a deep breath. ‘I lost you up until you said something about a great stirring. Do you have a great big spoon to do your great stirring with?’
Dr Thorn’s eyes darkened and swelled large. ‘I’m going to eat you, demi-god.’
Percy clicked his pen, extending the bronze xiphos out in his left hand. ‘Not if I eat you first.’
Dr Thorn blinked. ‘What?’
‘What?’ He grinned at the sound of footsteps beneath the trees.
Dr Thorn’s skin split open, peeling back from his huge, dark eyes. A maw of needle-like teeth gaped beneath it and a slim, whip-like tail sprouting dark spines rose over his head.
‘I don’t like manticores,’ Percy said, gritting his teeth and dragging the girl behind him with his injured arm. ‘I like them even less than English Literature.’
‘Who are you people?’ the girl asked, clutching the boy to her side.
‘If we live, I’ll tell you.’ He watched the tail rise and smothered a stab of fear. ‘If we don’t live, don’t worry about it.’
A hail of dark spines streaked toward him. Silver arrows snatched them from the air halfway, thudding into the dirt, and Annabeth and Thalia burst out of the trees behind him. The manticore hissed and whirled around. A high, clear horn sounded somewhere in the trees and silver-clad girls prowled into the clearing’s far side.
‘Hunters of Artemis,’ Thalia muttered, glaring between them and Perseus. ‘Why did you run off, Percy?’
‘I didn’t like the music.’ He waved the girl and the boy back as Annabeth darted to his side. ‘I think it was some kind of punk rubbish.’
Thalia’s eyes flashed. ‘You just wanted the glory for yourself!’
‘You’re hurt.’ Annabeth bit her lip, her grey eyes staring at the damp patch on his t-shirt. ‘Percy—’
The manticore lunged, snatching Annabeth from his side and bounding into the dark.
Percy stared after it. It took her. His shoulder burnt, throbbing in time with the pounding of his heart. Stop hurting. There’s no time for you to hurt.
‘Come on.’ He staggered after the manticore.
‘Foolish boy.’ A dark-haired girl wearing a gleaming silver tiara barred his path with her bow. ‘Thy companion and the manticore have vanished by magical means. Catching them is beyond thee.’
He balled his fists. ‘That doesn’t mean I can’t try.’
‘Lady Artemis will help thy companion.’ The girl’s tone cooled. ‘If thou involve thyself, thy companion will die. It is the fate of girls foolish enough to trust in heroes.’
‘A goddess can’t interfere alone, so unless I’m there, nobody will help Annabeth!’
Percy shoved her bow aside with blood-drenched fingers. ‘I’m going.’
He found himself staring into a pair of silver eyes as bright as stars, the light of the heavens burnt in them, swirling like molten steel.
Artemis. His feet ground to a halt.
‘The hunting of all wild beasts is my domain, Perseus. I can do as I please with the manticore.’ Artemis strode into the clearing, lithe as a leopard, silent as a hawk on the wing. ‘And you will likely bleed to death long before you are close to enough to try to help your friend.’
Percy swallowed. ‘That doesn’t matter.’ He managed another step. ‘I’m…’
Artemis’ silver eyes narrowed a fraction. ‘I will find her and I will help her. I am the patron of maidens. You have my word, Perseus.’
Like I had Hades’s word? A solemn oath? He clenched his jaw against the burning ache in his shoulder. I guess I have no choice.
‘Fine,’ Percy said.
The dark-haired girl stiffened. ‘My lady—’
‘Zoe.’ Artemis pointed into the trees up the slope. ‘Make camp. I wish to speak to Perseus. Alone.’
‘But…’ Zoe twisted her hands around her bow. ‘Yes, my lady.’
The hunters faded into the trees.
Artemis crooked her finger and drew back into the woods. Percy let Riptide blur back into a pen, sticking it into his pocket and trailing after her.
‘What did the manticore say to you, Perseus?’ Artemis asked.
‘Something about the Great Stirring and taking its place in legends.’ Heat crept onto his cheeks. ‘I was poisoned at the time, so I didn’t hear all that well.’
‘There is a stream down the hill.’ Artemis pointed down through the trees. ‘Can you heal yourself?’
‘Do so.’ She slipped away through the trees without a sound.
Percy crunched and squelched his way down to a small gushing brook beneath a tangle of brambles and long grass, dipping his right hand into the cool water.
The pain faded and a quiet, grim resolve rose to replace it.
I’ll find you Annabeth. I swear it.