Percy stuffed a water bottle into his rucksack and swept the stack of drachma off the beside table, thrusting them into the inside zip pocket.
A fist banged on the door.
Damn. He pulled his duvet over his bag and tugged the door open.
Thalia glowered at him. ‘Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon. You’re meant to be at our meeting with Chiron.’
‘I’m not coming,’ Percy said. ‘I’m going to find Annabeth.’
‘No you’re not.’ Thalia crossed her arms. ‘I spoke with Chiron. We don’t know where to even start.’
‘That doesn’t mean we can’t start looking,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t asking for your permission, either.’
‘We have to wait for Artemis to return.’ Thalia clenched her jaw and the hairs on Percy’s arm’s rose. ‘If you go out there, you’re just endangering yourself and anyone you drag with you.’
‘You can wait.’ Percy snatched his bag out from under the duvet and swung it over his shoulder. ‘I’ve been made promises by Olympians before.’
‘You’re not going.’ Thalia shoved his bag off his shoulder and pulled her can of mace out of her pocket. ‘And I’m older than you, I know way more about Olympians and monsters.’
‘You’re standing over a lake,’ he said. ‘Think hard about that before you start a fight with me when we should be out looking for Annabeth.’
She ground her teeth and stuffed the can of mace away. ‘Come to the meeting. If you want to leave after speaking to Chiron, I won’t stop you, but listen first!’
Percy weighed that up. ‘Fine.’ He tossed his bag onto the bed. ‘Let’s go then.’
She turned on her heel and swept toward the Big House. ‘I can’t believe you lied to me about being unclaimed.’
‘I didn’t.’ He shrugged. ‘You just assumed.’
‘And what? I was supposed to tell you anything you want to know?’ Percy snorted. ‘Arrogant much?’
Thalia threw a glower over her shoulder and kicked the door open, stomping through to the small group of demi-gods surrounding the table. Mr D sat at one end, staring out the window and sipping Diet Coke from a can. The dark-haired huntress of Artemis rested her heels on the table, tapping her nails on her silver tiara.
‘Found him.’ Thalia dropped into a seat. ‘Someone could’ve told me he was a son of Poseidon before I went all the way to Hermes’s Cabin.’
Clarisse laughed. ‘Everyone knows, Sparky. How don’t you?’
‘Poseidon,’ the huntress murmured, her expression darkening. ‘Another of his rare sons.’
Chiron cleared his throat. ‘This isn’t the time for squabbling, heroes. One of our own has been taken, one you all owe a great deal to, and I fear dark times are ahead of us.’
‘I want a quest,’ Percy said. ‘I want to go and find her.’
The huntress tutted. ‘Foolish boy. If Lady Artemis cannot save thy companion, how dost thou expect to?’
‘I’d rather try than not.’ He hunted for her name. ‘If Artemis keeps her word, Zoe, then I’ll just come back.’
‘If? If?!’ Zoe swept her heels off the table and jumped to her feet. ‘Thou darest—’
‘It’s been two days,’ Percy said. ‘Where is she?’
‘My lady will have a good reason—’
Thalia snorted. ‘Yeah, she’s probably holding Annabeth hostage because she refused to betray her friends and join your little girl scouts group.’
‘Thalia,’ Chiron chided.
‘Like she wouldn’t do it,’ Thalia retorted.
‘She’ll be safe with us,’ Zoe hissed. ‘Happy.’ She thrust a finger at Percy. ‘If she stays with him, she’ll die or end up miserable and alone. That’s what happens to girls who trust heroes.’
‘Like you’d know,’ Thalia jibed. ‘You’re a fanatic. I bet some boy pulled your hair once and you ran crying to Artemis because you thought you had cooties.’
Zoe’s face hardened. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn thee, Thalia Grace.’
Mr D crushed his Diet Coke can in one hand and tossed it over the table; it thudded into the bin beside the door. ‘If you brats can’t squabble quietly, I’ll turn you into something less annoying. Sea urchins, maybe.’
‘We will wait a few more days,’ Chiron said. ‘If we’ve heard nothing then, perhaps we ought to ask the oracle.’ He glanced along the table. ‘And since tempers are running high, we’ll have a game of capture the flag in a few minutes, so you can get it out of your systems without having a brawl in the middle of camp. You all know what happens to those who break the rules of the game, so I’m sure I don’t have to reiterate them to you.’
Zoe smiled. ‘We look forward to extending our winning streak.’
Thalia ground her teeth. ‘I’m going to wipe that smug smirk off your face, princess.’
Percy sighed and turned away. I knew this would be a waste of time. We never agree on anything.
‘Percy.’ Chiron trotted after him and drew him aside. ‘I’ve locked the door to the attic, if you were thinking about going upstairs.’
‘I was.’ He smothered a flash of frustration as Clarisse and Thalia drifted past. ‘Why are we waiting? Why not ask the oracle now?’
‘Because it’s growing increasingly dangerous beyond the borders of the camp,’ Chiron replied. ‘Nobody should leave without a very good reason.’
‘I think this counts as a very good reason,’ Percy said. ‘Without Annabeth, I’d be dead and Olympus would be at war with itself.’
‘I do not think Luke will allow her to be harmed,’ Chiron said. ‘Perhaps I’m still thinking of him as the boy he was, but I can’t imagine him letting his first friends die.’
‘He tried to send me down to Tartarus to Kronos.’ Percy strode out, pausing before the large huddle of demi-gods between the tables. ‘I don’t think he’s how you remember him, Chiron.’
‘Perhaps not,’ Chiron murmured. ‘But what would we be without hope.’
‘Oi!’ Thalia waved him over. ‘Get over here. We’re going to wipe the smile off that prissy little princess’s face.’
‘Why do you hate her?’ Percy asked.
Thalia’s face tightened. ‘I’ve met her before. She tried to make Annabeth and I leave Luke and join her little group of girl scouts. There were monsters trailing us, Luke would’ve died.’
‘And she thought that was okay?’ Percy frowned. ‘Although, given what he’s done…’
‘She didn’t know that then!’ Thalia balled her fists until they turned white. ‘She would’ve left him because he’s a boy and she hates boys. She’s just a smug bitch.’
‘Feel free to zap her, I suppose,’ Percy said. ‘Just not too hard unless you want to be cleaning up after the harpies.’
‘Oh I’m going to zap her.’ Thalia grabbed Clarisse’s arm and hauled her into the conversation. ‘Percy will run defence by the creek, I’ll run offence and find Zoe. Clarisse and her siblings are with me.’
Clarisse grinned and brushed Thalia’s arm away. ‘You’re going to get left in my dust, Sparky.’
‘Fine by me,’ Percy said. ‘It’s just a game, anyway. It doesn’t matter. The important fight is out there.’
Thalia glared. ‘It’s important because we have to win! They think they’re so much better than us just because they abandon their friends and family!’
‘Just defend the flag, prissy,’ Clarisse said. ‘Try not to get beaten up by some little girls or it’ll make me look bad for losing to you.’
‘This is stupid.’
Chiron sounded his horn. ‘As you all seem to have realised, we’re about to have a game of capture the flag. I realise tensions are running high, but I expect this game to be held in the spirit of friendly competition in which it is intended. Those that can’t manage this know what will happen.’
‘Harpy duty.’ Someone sniggered. ‘Worth it to beat the Hunt, you don’t really need all your fingers.’
‘Okay.’ Chiron pointed the horn at the trees. ‘Mr D has kindly set up the game, so let’s get started. When the horn sounds, it begins!’
Percy started toward the trees.
A hand latched onto his arm. ‘Can I come with you?’
The dark-haired, dark-eyed boy stared up at him. ‘Bianca doesn’t talk to me anymore. Nobody talks to me.’
‘Nico, right?’ Percy knelt down. ‘You’re a bit young for this game, I’m afraid. In a couple of years, you and I can fight side by side, but not just yet.’
‘But—’ his lip trembled ‘—but then what am I meant to do?’
‘Watch with Chiron,’ Percy said, jumping back to his feet. ‘It’s not safe for you to play yet, you could get hurt. Come find me afterward and I’ll tell you all about anything you want to know.’
‘Thanks, Percy,’ Nico muttered, staring after the silver figures vanishing into the trees. ‘Is my sister okay?’
‘She hasn’t spoken to you?’
‘Not since you saved us from Dr Thorn,’ Nico whispered. ‘Does she not like me anymore?’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ Percy said. ‘I can’t promise anything, though. They don’t really listen to me. The only person that really listened to me is Annabeth. And Grover, wherever he’s gone.’ He pulled Anaklusmos from his pocket and extended it into a blade. ‘I’ve got to go play, Nico. I’ll catch you later.’
He strode into the woods, feeling the weight of Nico’s eyes on his back every step of the way.
A cluster of demi-gods surrounded the flag on the creek bank, gesticulating wildly. Their shouts rang out over the dark water of the creek and the rough stretch of pebbles between the steep banks.
‘Move over there.’ Malcolm rolled his grey eyes and pointed at the treeline. ‘They’re archers, if we all stand down here it’s just going to be target practice for them.’
‘You’re not in charge of defence,’ someone called out. ‘Percy is.’
‘I’m not much of a strategist,’ Percy said. ‘Do as Malcolm says, he didn’t get those grey eyes and that blonde hair from the goddess of I want to lose at capture the flag.’
A reluctant murmur rumbled through the huddle and Malcom directed them around the clearing. Percy watched the shuffle off to various points just inside the treeline.
‘You should stay in reserve,’ Malcolm said, pointing across the creek. ‘Behind the rocks. That way, if they beat us, you can get them while they’re crossing the creek to grab our flag.’
‘Sounds like a plan,’ Percy replied.
Annabeth’s gold curls and grin hung before his mind’s eye.
Please be okay.
‘I’ll get in position,’ he said, turning away and jumping across the rocks to the far side of the creek.
Malcolm frowned, bending down and kicking the first of the rocks under the water. Percy watched him walk across the stones into the trees at the edge, taking a seat on the stones and resting Anaklusmos on his lap.
Chiron’s horn rang through the trees and a faint clamour rose from the trees beyond the creek. The shouts grew closer and louder, swords rang from just beyond the far bank, arrows whistling down onto the stones to burst in spatters of silver paint.
Percy held his breath as the cries of disappointment faded away.
Malcolm jumped down onto the rocks, sword in hand. Silver paint trickled down the aspis shield on his arm and dripped onto the rocks.
‘Cowards,’ he called, backstepping toward the water. ‘There’s only one of me. You can come out from behind the trees!’
A quartet of silver figures prowled from the shadows and dropped down onto the pebbles, bows raised. Malcolm bent into a half-crouch behind his shield, ducking down behind it as the arrows pinged off the bronze in splashes of silver.
‘Come on,’ he yelled, taking one step back into the creek. ‘Four on one and you still aren’t brave enough to pull out those butter knives.’
The four girls glanced at each other and sprang forward. Malcolm shoved the aspis into the first one and knocked her down, cutting the knives from her hand and stepping back into the middle of the water. The other three splashed after him, dragging his shield away and holding him at knifepoint.
‘You got me,’ he said.
The girls grinned.
‘Go on Bianca,’ the blonde said. ‘You can get the flag, we’ve all done it once already.’
Percy stood up from behind his rock and jumped down onto the beach. ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ve not quite won yet.’
Bianca bit her lip. ‘I don’t want to fight you, you saved me and Nico.’
‘It’s just one boy.’ The blonde rolled her eyes. ‘You might get one of us, if you’re actually any good with that sword.’
‘I like to think so,’ Percy said, strolling to the creek’s edge. ‘But you’re more than welcome to come and fight out.’
‘Sure.’ The blonde girl leapt along the rocks and lunged with both knives.
Percy parried them away and shoved her back into the creek. He stepped after her as she scrambled to her feet, spitting water and swearing under her breath, and rested Anaklusmos’s tip on her stomach.
‘Shit.’ She slapped the blade away with her arm. ‘I’m out. Get him, girls.’
Bianca and the other girl stumbled and slipped across the stones toward him.
He spun Anaklusmos in his hand. ‘I don’t suppose you know what happened to Thalia and Clarisse?’
‘They ran into trouble,’ the other girl crowed. ‘Charging across broken ground toward the best archers in the world isn’t very smart.’
‘Sounds like something I’d do.’ Percy grinned. ‘She’s probably trying to zap Zoe, wherever she is.’
Bianca lost her balance with a squeak, slipping to one knee. Percy danced through the water, feinting right with a twist of his wrist and sweeping the leg out from under the other girl. Bianca staggered upright, raising her knives, both eyes closed.
‘You’re out.’ He side-stepped and tapped her on the shoulder with Anaklusmos. ‘And you should really talk to your brother. He’s starting to think you hate him.’
Something smacked into his stomach in a spatter of silver, driving the wind from him.
‘Do not listen to this boy, Bianca.’ Zoe dropped from the trees as quiet as a cat and stalked forward. ‘Thou knowst Nico is not one of us.’
Percy wiped silver paint off his chin. ‘He may have cooties, but I think he’s actually quite upset. It’s not fair to just drop him and vanish, Bianca. You don’t even know when you’ll see him again.’
‘Be quiet, boy.’ Zoe strode across the rocks. ‘Thou failed to win even a simple game. Thy chances at saving anyone are next to nothing.’
Rage swelled within him, rising like a smooth, dark wave from the ocean’s surface.
A shadow fell over them.
‘Get away from the water,’ Zoe snapped, raising her bow.
Cool drops fell upon Percy’s hand.
He glanced up.
The creek hung over them; its waters roiling like they were caught in a storm. He took a deep breath and smothered his anger, pushing the wave back down into the sea and letting the water splash back down into the creek bed.
‘You’ve won,’ he said, tucking Anaklusmos away in his pocket. ‘Well played.’
Zoe stalked past him and snatched the flag. ‘Thou art a child, more apt to be swinging a stick than that blade, of course thou lost.’
‘So gracious in victory,’ Percy said. ‘You must be the life of the party in the Hunt.’
Her dark eyes flashed. ‘As if thou wouldst not have gloated hadst thou won.’
‘I’m not really into gloating,’ Percy said, turning to Bianca. ‘Seriously, Bianca, talk to Nico. He needs to understand your decision before you leave.’
Faint creases wrinkled Zoe’s brow beneath her silver tiara. ‘Go back to your team, Perseus. Thou hast lost.’
‘It’s just a game.’ He strolled along the creek and jumped up onto the bank, heading back toward the faint sound of chatter and laughter.