Luckily, Percy didn't need finding; just as Poseidon asked, the doors opened and Percy slouched in. Everyone watched him sit down next to Annabeth, who patted his arm. Apollo began reading.
I had weird dreams full of barnyard animals. Most of them wanted to kill me. The rest wanted food.
"Even for you, Perce, that's an odd dream," snickered Travis.
I must've woken up several times, but what I heard and saw made no sense, so I just passed out again. I remember lying in a soft bed, being spoon-fed something that tasted like buttered popcorn, only it was pudding.
"Sounds delicious," Ron admitted.
The girl with curly blond hair hovered over me, smirking as she scraped drips off my chin with the spoon.
"Aw, Annabeth's feeding you?" Aphrodite cooed.
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "Chiron made me."
When she saw my eyes open, she asked, "What will happen at the summer solstice?"
"How was I supposed to know?" Percy demanded.
"I have don't know! I had to ask before Chiron arrived!" Annabeth replied defensively.
I managed to croak, "What?"
She looked around, as if afraid someone would over hear. "What's going on? What was stolen? We've only got a few weeks!"
"I'm sorry," I mumbled, "I don't..."
Somebody knocked on the door, and the girl quickly filled my mouth with pudding.
The next time I woke up, the girl was gone. A husky blond dude, like a surfer, stood in the corner of the bedroom keeping watch over me. He had blue eyes — at least a dozen of them — on his cheeks, his forehead, the backs of his hands.
"Argus!" cheered the demigods.
When I finally came around for good, there was nothing weird about my surroundings, except that they were nicer than I was used to. I was sitting in a deck chair on a huge porch, gazing across a meadow at green hills in the distance. The breeze smelled like strawberries.
Travis drooled. "Strawberries."
Connor and Lou Ellen snickered at Katie. All the demigods watched her in amusement.
"Okay!" Katie jumped up. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing," Connor replied.
There was a blanket over my legs, a pillow behind my neck. All that was great, but my mouth felt like a scorpion had been using it for a nest. My tongue was dry and nasty and every one of my teeth hurt.
"Ow," winced Harry.
"It didn't feel like marshmallows," Percy said truthfully.
"I'd expect not," Hermione replied.
On the table next to me was a tall drink. It looked like iced apple juice, with a green straw and a paper parasol stuck through a maraschino cherry. My hand was so weak I almost dropped the glass once I got my fingers around it.
"Careful," a familiar voice said.
Grover was leaning against the porch railing, looking like he hadn't slept in a week. Under one arm, he cradled a shoe box. He was wearing blue jeans, Converse hi-tops and a bright orange T-shirt that said CAMP HALF-BLOOD. Just plain old Grover, Not the goat boy.
"GOAT BOY!" yelled Thalia and Nico together.
"Argh," Grover groaned, slamming his head onto the table.
So maybe I'd had a nightmare. Maybe my mom was okay. We were still on vacation, and we'd stopped here at this big house for some reason. And...
Harry sighed. "Don't even bother."
Percy nodded. "I know."
"You saved my life," Grover said. "I ... well, the least I could do ... I went back to the hill. I thought you might want this."
Reverently, he placed the shoe box in my lap.
Inside was a black-and-white bull's horn, the base jagged from being broken off, the tip splattered with dried blood. It hadn't been a nightmare.
"The Minotaur," I said.
"Did you NOT hear your mother explain to you about names having power?" asked Thalia.
"I was in shock!" replied Percy defensively.
"Um, Percy, it isn't a good idea—"
"That's what they call him in the Greek myths, isn't it?" I demanded. "The Minotaur. Half man, half bull."
Grover shifted uncomfortably. "You've been out for two days. How much do you remember?"
"My mom. Is she really ..."
He looked down.
"It wasn't your fault, Grover," said Percy as Grover opened his mouth to apologize.
"Yes, it isn't," said Sally, and Grover smiled shyly.
I stared across the meadow. There were groves of trees, a winding stream, acres of strawberries spread out under the blue sky. The valley was surrounded by rolling hills, and the tallest one, directly in front of us, was the one with the huge pine tree on top. Even that looked beautiful in the sunlight.
My mother was gone. The whole world should be black and cold. Nothing should look beautiful.
Harry sighed. "I know how that feels."
"We all do," said Annabeth. "Almost every demigod..."
Sirius pulled Harry closer to him. "I'm right here if you need to talk," he said quietly to Harry, who smiled gratefully up at him.
He moaned, stomping his foot so hard it came off.
Hermione blanched. "What?" she asked.
I mean, the Converse hi-top came off. The inside was filled with Styrofoam, except for a hoof-shaped hole.
"Ohhhh," Hermione nodded. "I understand now."
"Oh, Styx!" he mumbled.
"Styx means 'shi-OW!" Ron yelled as Hermione slapped him.
"Yes, Ron, it does," nodded Rachel.
Thunder rolled across the clear sky. As he struggled to get his hoof back in the fake foot, I thought, Well, that settles it. Grover was a satyr. I was ready to bet that if I shaved his curly brown hair, I'd find tiny horns on his head.
"Yep!" Grover smiled proudly as everyone tried not to laugh. "What?"
But I was too miserable to care that satyrs existed, or even minotaurs. All that meant was my mom really had been squeezed into nothingness, dissolved into yellow light. I was alone. An orphan.
Harry flinched. "Orphan," he muttered. Sirius frowned at Remus, who came over as well.
"You have Gabe," Nico said. "I didn't have anyone but my sister who was killed on the quest YOU interfered in." Percy looked at him. "I'm sorry-"
Nico sighed. "Never mind. I shouldn't be blaming you." He turned to Zeus. "Thanks for killing my mom, Zeus!"
I would have to live with ... Smelly Gabe? No. That would never happen. I would live on the streets first. I would pretend I was seventeen and join the army. I'd do something.
"You must really despise Gabe," noted Luna.
"Yeah," Percy nodded. Sally frowned.
"I'm sorry, Percy," she said.
Grover was still sniffling. The poor kid — poor goat, satyr, whatever (Grover nudged Percy with a smirk on his face) — looked as if he expected to be hit.
I said, "It wasn't your fault."
"Yes, it was. I was supposed to protect you."
"Did my mother ask you to protect me?"
"No. But that's my job. I'm a keeper. At least... I was."
"But why ..." I suddenly felt dizzy, my vision swimming.
"You'd better slow down," warned Fred.
"Yeah, you might vomit," finished George.
"Which would be bloody brilliant," they said together.
"They make no sense," Hermione told Percy. "Ignore them."
"Don't strain yourself," Grover said.
"Thanks, Grover," Percy said. "Though I don't listen to you anyway."
"Here." He helped me hold my glass and put the straw to my lips.
I recoiled at the taste, because I was expecting apple juice. It wasn't that at all. It was chocolate-chip cookies. Liquid cookies.
"Liquid cookies?" Ron groaned. "Sounds delicious. I'm STARVING!"
"YOU JUST ATE!" Hermione said.
"So?" Ron asked blankly.
And not just any cookies — my mom's homemade blue chocolate-chip cookies, buttery and hot, with the chips still melting. Drinking it, my whole body felt warm and good, full of energy. My grief didn't go away, but I felt as if my mom had just brushed her hand against my cheek, given me a cookie the way she used to when I was small, and told me everything was going to be okay.
Sally had tears in her eyes. "Oh, Percy..."
"It tasted delicious," Percy said, smiling weakly.
Everyone looked sadly at the two, and Apollo slowly began reading again.
Before I knew it, I'd drained the glass. I stared into it, sure I'd just had a warm drink, but the ice cubes hadn't even melted.
"How peculiar," Luna said dreamily.
"Was it good?" Grover asked.
"What did it taste like?" He sounded so wistful, I felt guilty.
"Sorry," I said. "I should've let you taste."
His eyes got wide. "No! That's not what I meant. I just... wondered."
"Chocolate-chip cookies," I said. "My mom's. Home made."
He sighed. "And how do you feel?"
"Like I could throw Nancy Bobofit a hundred yards."
"That's good," he said. "That's good. I don't think you could risk drinking any more of that stuff."
"Why not?" Ron asked, frowning.
"'Cause it'd make him burst into flames," Thalia said. Ron gulped as she continued, "As tempting as that sounds, Poseidon might cause a tsunami that'd destroy the east, and that wouldn't be very good, would it?"
"Glad I'm loved," Percy grumbled, but he was smiling.
"What do you mean?"
He took the empty glass from me gingerly, as if it were dynamite, and set it back on the table. "Come on. Chiron and Mr. D are waiting."
The porch wrapped all the way around the farmhouse.
My legs felt wobbly, trying to walk that far. Grover offered to carry the Minotaur horn, but I held on to it. I'd paid for that souvenir the hard way. I wasn't going to let it go.
"Very determined and stubborn," Hermione mused. "You could pass as Harry with a scar and glasses."
"And a British accent," Annabeth reminded her.
"Wait..." said Travis. "Harry's like Percy, Hermione's like Annabeth, Ron's like Grover, I'm like Fred, Connor's like George, Dumbledore's like Chiron-"
"Wow, you're right," agreed Hermione, her eyes wide. "Let's compare later, though. I want to see what happens!"
As we came around the opposite end of the house, I caught my breath.
We must've been on the north shore of Long Island, because on this side of the house, the valley marched all the way up to the water, which glittered about a mile in the distance. Between here and there, I simply couldn't process everything I was seeing. The landscape was dotted with buildings that looked like ancient Greek architecture, an open-air pavilion, an amphitheater, a circular arena, except that they all looked brand new, their white marble columns sparkling in the sun. In a nearby sandpit, a dozen high school-age kids and satyrs played volleyball. Canoes glided across a small lake. Kids in bright orange T-shirts like Grover's were chasing each other around a cluster of cabins nestled in the woods. Some shot targets at an archery range. Others rode horses down a wooded trail, and, unless I was hallucinating, some of their horses had wings.
"Like Beauxbatons," said Ron. "Right?"
"With Fleur Delacour," grinned Fred.
"Zat French girl Bill eez een love weeth," George added in a surprisingly good French accent.
Down at the end of the porch, two men sat across from each other at a card table. The blond-haired girl who'd spoon-fed me popcorn-flavored pudding was leaning on the porch rail next to them. The man facing me was small, but porky. He had a red nose, big watery eyes, and curly hair so black it was almost purple. He looked like those paintings of baby angels — what do you call them, hubbubs? No, cherubs. That's it. He looked like a cherub who'd turned middle-aged in a trailer park.
"PETER JOHNSON!" Dionysus yelled.
"Sorry," Percy said, leaning back in his chair. "I was twelve."
He wore a tiger-pattern Hawaiian shirt, and he would've fit right in at one of Gabe's poker parties, except I got the feeling this guy could've out-gambled even my step father.
"That's Mr. D," Grover murmured to me. "He's the camp director. Be polite. The girl, that's Annabeth Chase. She's just a camper, but she's been here longer than just about anybody. And you already know Chiron..."
He pointed at the guy whose back was to me.
First, I realized he was sitting in the wheelchair. Then I recognized the tweed jacket, the thinning brown hair, the scraggly beard.
"Mr. Brunner!" I cried.
The Latin teacher turned and smiled at me. His eyes had that mischievous glint they sometimes got in class when he pulled a pop quiz and made all the multiple choice answers B.
"Nice one, Chiron," Annabeth said. Chiron smiled at her.
"Ah, good, Percy," he said. "Now we have four for pinochle."
He offered me a chair to the right of Mr. D, who looked at me with bloodshot eyes and heaved a great sigh. "Oh, I suppose I must say it. Welcome to Camp Half-Blood. There. Now, don't expect me to be glad to see you."
"He reminds me of Snape," Ron muttered to Hermione, who nodded, giggling.
"Uh, thanks." I scooted a little farther away from him because, if there was one thing I had learned from living with Gabe, it was how to tell when an adult has been hitting the happy juice. If Mr. D was a stranger to alcohol, I was a satyr.
Everyone burst out laughing.
"Annabeth?" Mr. Brunner called to the blond girl.
She came forward and Mr. Brunner introduced us. "This young lady nursed you back to health, Percy. Annabeth, my dear, why don't you go check on Percy's bunk? We'll be putting him in cabin eleven for now."
Annabeth said, "Sure, Chiron."
She was probably my age, maybe a couple of inches taller, and a whole lot more athletic looking. With her deep tan and her curly blond hair, she was almost exactly what I thought a stereotypical California girl would look like, except her eyes ruined the image. They were startling gray, like storm clouds; pretty, but intimidating, too, as if she were analyzing the best way to take me down in a fight.
"That's exactly what I was thinking," Annabeth said. "Well, not exactly..."
"Wha?" asked Percy.
"Never mind," Annabeth replied.
She glanced at the minotaur horn in my hands, then back at me. I imagined she was going to say, You killed a minotaur! or Wow, you're so awesome! or something like that. Instead she said, "You drool when you sleep."
"Classic," said Fred and George.
Then she sprinted off down the lawn, her blond hair flying behind her.
"So," I said, anxious to change the subject. "You, uh, work here, Mr. Brunner?"
"Not Mr. Brunner," the ex-Mr. Brunner said. "I'm afraid that was a pseudonym. You may call me Chiron."
"Okay." Totally confused, I looked at the director. "And Mr. D ... does that stand for something?"
Mr. D stopped shuffling the cards. He looked at me like I'd just belched loudly. "Young man, names are powerful things. You don't just go around using them for no reason."
"I was ELEVEN!" Percy yelled once more.
"Oh. Right. Sorry."
"I must say, Percy," Chiron-Brunner broke in,
"Chiron-Brunner?" Annabeth demanded. "Are you serious?"
"No, I am," Sirius grinned.
Professor McGonagall rolled her eyes. "Mr. Black..."
"I'm glad to see you alive. It's been a long time since I've made a house call to a potential camper. I'd hate to think I've wasted my time."
"My year at Yancy Academy, to instruct you. We have satyrs at most schools, of course, keeping a lookout. But Grover alerted me as soon as he met you. He sensed you were something special, so I decided to come upstate. I convinced the other Latin teacher to ... ah, take a leave of absence."
I tried to remember the beginning of the school year. It seemed like so long ago, but I did have a fuzzy memory of there being another Latin teacher my first week at Yancy. Then, without explanation, he had disappeared and Mr. Brunner had taken the class.
"You survived the Mist?" asked Chiron, surprised.
"I guess," Percy muttered.
"You came to Yancy just to teach me?" I asked.
Chiron nodded. "Honestly, I wasn't sure about you at first. We contacted your mother, let her know we were keeping an eye on you in case you were ready for Camp Half-Blood. But you still had so much to learn. Nevertheless, you made it here alive, and that's always the first test."
"That's a very dangerous test," gulped Ron.
"Grover," Mr. D said impatiently, "are you playing or not?"
"Yes, sir!" Grover trembled as he took the fourth chair, though I didn't know why he should be so afraid of a pudgy little man in a tiger-print Hawaiian shirt.
"That's very offensive Pedro," Dionysus said, playing with his soda can. "Disrespect me again and I will turn you into a hamster and have Ares run you over with his Harley."
"You do know how to play pinochle?" Mr. D eyed me suspiciously.
"I'm afraid not," I said.
"I'm afraid not, sir," he said.
"Sir," I repeated. I was liking the camp director less and less.
"We all do," said Travis.
"He called me Caitlin!" said Connor.
"Well," he told me, "it is, along with gladiator fighting and Pac-Man, one of the greatest games ever invented by humans. I would expect all civilized young men to know the rules."
"Well, Percy isn't exactly civilized," grinned Beckendorf.
"I'm sure the boy can learn," Chiron said.
"Please," I said, "what is this place? What am I doing here? Mr. Brun — Chiron — why would you go to Yancy Academy just to teach me?"
Mr. D snorted. "I asked the same question."
The camp director dealt the cards. Grover flinched every time one landed in his pile. Chiron smiled at me sympathetically, the way he used to in Latin class, as if to let me know that no matter what my average was, I was his star student. He expected me to have the right answer.
"Like what Dumbledore expects from me," Harry sighed.
Dumbledore sighed. "I am sorry, Harry."
"Percy," he said. "Did your mother tell you nothing?'
"She said ..." I remembered her sad eyes, looking out over the sea. "She told me she was afraid to send me here, even though my father had wanted her to. She said that once I was here, I probably couldn't leave. She wanted to keep me close to her."
"Typical," Mr. D said. "That's how they usually get killed. Young man, are you bidding or not?"
"What?" I asked.
He explained, impatiently, how you bid in pinochle, and so I did.
"I'm afraid there's too much to tell," Chiron said. "I'm afraid our usual orientation film won't be sufficient."
"That's why you were so clueless and had no idea about anything whatsoever," Annabeth said.
"Yeah," Percy said.
"Orientation film?" I asked.
"No," Chiron decided. "Well, Percy. You know your friend Grover is a satyr. You know—" he pointed to the horn in the shoe box — "that you have killed the Minotaur. No small feat, either, lad. What you may not know is that great powers are at work in your life. Gods — the forces you call the Greek gods — are very much alive."
I stared at the others around the table. I waited for somebody to yell, Not! But all I got was Mr. D yelling, "Oh, a royal marriage. Trick! Trick!" He cackled as he tallied up his points.
"Mr. D," Grover asked timidly, "if you're not going to eat it, could I have your Diet Coke can?"
"Do cans taste good?" Ron asked Grover.
"Yeah, I suppose," said Grover.
"Eh? Oh, all right."
Grover bit a huge shard out of the empty aluminum can and chewed it mournfully.
Everyone stared at him, and Grover turned pink.
"What?" he asked defensively. "They taste good! And they're very nutritious!"
"Wait," I told Chiron. "You're telling me there's such a thing as god."
"Well, now," Chiron said. "God — capital G, God. That's a different matter altogether. We shan't deal with the metaphysical."
"Metaphysical? But you were just talking about—"
"Ah, gods, plural, as in, great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus. That's a smaller matter."
"You're probably confusing him," Sally told Chiron.
"SMALLER MATTER?" Zeus bellowed.
"Forgive me, Mrs. Jackson and my lord," said Chiron.
Zeus grumbled and Sally smiled at him.
"Yes, quite. The gods we discussed in Latin class."
"Zeus," I said. "Hera. Apollo. You mean them."
And there it was again, distant thunder on a cloudless day.
"Young man," said Mr. D, "I would really be less casual about throwing those names around, if I were you."
"But they're stories," I said. "They're myths, to explain lightning and the seasons and stuff. They're what people believed before there was science."
"Still confusing me," Percy said.
Chiron sighed. "Maybe I should've shown you the orientation film."
"Yeah, you should've," said all the demigods.
"Science!" Mr. D scoffed. "And tell me, Perseus Jackson" — I flinched when he said my real name, which I never told anybody — "what will people think of your 'science' two thousand years from now?" Mr. D continued. "Hmm? They will call it primitive mumbo jumbo. That's what. Oh, I love mortals — they have absolutely no sense of perspective. They think they've come so-o-o far. And have they, Chiron? Look at this boy and tell me."
"Hey," said Percy. "I just beat a Minotaur and Fury! Give me a break!"
I wasn't liking Mr. D much, but there was something about the way he called me mortal, as if... he wasn't. It was enough to put a lump in my throat, to suggest why Grover was dutifully minding his cards, chewing his soda can, and keeping his mouth shut.
"Just follow Grover's advice," said Annabeth. "Please, Percy, tell me you did."
Percy ducked his head and mumbled something like, "When you disappeared."
"Percy," Chiron said, "you may choose to believe or not, but the fact is that immortal means immortal. Can you imagine that for a moment, never dying? Never fading? Existing, just as you are, for all time?"
"That's a scary thought," said Percy. "Me existing for all eternity."
"It is a scary thought," agreed Nico, shuddering. "Like Thalia existing for all eternity."
Thalia slapped him.
I was about to answer, off the top of my head, that it sounded like a pretty good deal, but the tone of Chiron's voice made me hesitate.
"You mean, whether people believed in you or not," I said.
"Exactly," Chiron agreed. "If you were a god, how would you like being called a myth, an old story to explain lightning? What if I told you, Perseus Jackson, that some day people would call you a myth, just created to explain how little boys can get over losing their mothers?"
"Chiron!" Sally said, shocked.
"No offense, but that was below the belt," said Poseidon.
"It was," Percy agreed.
"I'm sorry, Percy," said Chiron.
My heart pounded. He was trying to make me angry for some reason, but I wasn't going to let him. I said, "I wouldn't like it. But I don't believe in gods."
"Oh, you'd better," Mr. D murmured. "Before one of them incinerates you."
"Dionysus," Poseidon said warningly.
Dionysus rolled his eyes.
Grover said, "P-please, sir. He's just lost his mother. He's in shock."
"Thank you, Grover," Sally said. Grover blushed.
"A lucky thing, too," Mr. D grumbled, playing a card. "Bad enough I'm confined to this miserable job, working with boys who don't even believe."
He waved his hand and a goblet appeared on the table, as if the sunlight had bent, momentarily, and woven the air into glass. The goblet filled itself with red wine.
"Dionysus," Zeus said.
"My mistake," Dionysus replied.
My jaw dropped, but Chiron hardly looked up.
"Mr. D," he warned, "your restrictions."
Mr. D looked at the wine and feigned surprise.
"Dear me." He looked at the sky and yelled, "Old habits! Sorry!"
"Zeus doesn't believe you," Apollo and Hermes sing-songed.
"Oh, shut it, Alissa and Hannah," said Dionysus.
"He does that to gods too?" Neville asked, confused.
"Only when they irritate me," Dionysus replied.
Mr. D waved his hand again, and the wineglass changed into a fresh can of Diet Coke.
"Transfiguration?" Hermione guessed.
Athena nodded. "You wizards and witches would call it that."
He sighed unhappily, popped the top of the soda, and went back to his card game.
Chiron winked at me. "Mr. D offended his father a while back, took a fancy to a wood nymph who had been declared off-limits."
"A wood nymph," I repeated, still staring at the Diet Coke can like it was from outer space.
"Yes," Mr. D confessed. "Father loves to punish me. The first time, Prohibition. Ghastly! Absolutely horrid ten years! The second time — well, she really was pretty, and I couldn't stay away — the second time, he sent me here. Half-Blood Hill. Summer camp for brats like you. 'Be a better influence,' he told me. 'Work with youths rather than tearing them down.' Ha. Absolutely unfair."
Mr. D sounded about six years old, like a pouting little kid.
"Hey!" Dionysus pouted. "I did not!"
"Yeah, you did," nodded Percy.
"And ..." I stammered, "your father is ..."
"Di immortales, Chiron," Mr. D said. "I thought you taught this boy the basics. My father is Zeus, of course."
"Well, I didn't see that stupid orientation film," Percy said.
I ran through D names from Greek mythology. Wine. The skin of a tiger. The satyrs that all seemed to work here. The way Grover cringed, as if Mr. D were his master.
"You're Dionysus," I said. "The god of wine."
"Did two people not numerously tell you that names have power?" asked Ginny.
Percy huffed and folded his arms over his chest.
Mr. D rolled his eyes. "What do they say, these days, Grover? Do the children say, 'Well, duh!'?"
"Y-yes, Mr. D."
"Then, well, duh! Percy Jackson. Did you think I was Aphrodite, perhaps?"
Aphrodite chucked her lip gloss tube at Dionysus's eye. "OW!" She grinned, satisfied.
"You're a god."
"A god. You."
The other Olympians snorted.
Dionysus's eyes flickered with fire.
He turned to look at me straight on, and I saw a kind of purplish fire in his eyes, a hint that this whiny, plump little man was only showing me the tiniest bit of his true nature. I saw visions of grape vines choking unbelievers to death, drunken warriors insane with battle lust, sailors screaming as their hands turned to flippers, their faces elongating into dolphin snouts. I knew that if I pushed him, Mr. D would show me worse things. He would plant a disease in my brain that would leave me wearing a strait-jacket in a rubber room for the rest of my life.
Everyone shivered and shuddered at the thought.
"Would you like to test me, child?" he said quietly.
"No. No, sir."
The fire died a little. He turned back to his card game. "I believe I win."
"Not quite, Mr. D," Chiron said. He set down a straight, tallied the points, and said, "The game goes to me."
I thought Mr. D was going to vaporize Chiron right out of his wheelchair, but he just sighed through his nose, as if he were used to being beaten by the Latin teacher.
"Over and over," Dionysus grumbled.
"Get used to it, because Chiron rocks the pinochle table," grinned Travis.
He got up, and Grover rose, too.
"I'm tired," Mr. D said. "I believe I'll take a nap before the sing-along tonight. But first, Grover, we need to talk, again, about your less-than-perfect performance on this assignment."
Grover's face beaded with sweat. "Y-yes, sir."
Mr. D turned to me. "Cabin eleven, Percy Jackson. And mind your manners."
He swept into the farmhouse, Grover following miserably.
"Will Grover be okay?" I asked Chiron.
Chiron nodded, though he looked a bit troubled. "Old Dionysus isn't really mad. He just hates his job. He's been ... ah, grounded, I guess you would say, and he can't stand waiting another century before he's allowed to go back to Olympus."
"Why us?" the demigods all asked Zeus. Zeus sighed.
"Dionysus hates demigods, so it's punishment for him," Zeus explained.
"And for us!" said Silena Beauragard.
Zeus waved his hand. "Read."
"Mount Olympus," I said. "You're telling me there really is a palace there?"
"A huge one," said Annabeth. "It's so beautiful."
"Well now, there's Mount Olympus in Greece. And then there's the home of the gods, the convergence point of their powers, which did indeed used to be on Mount Olympus. It's still called Mount Olympus, out of respect to the old ways, but the palace moves, Percy, just as the gods do."
"You mean the Greek gods are here? Like ... in America?"
"Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West."
"Come now, Percy. What you call 'Western civilization.' Do you think it's just an abstract concept? No, it's a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn't possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated. The fire started in Greece. Then, as you well know — or as I hope you know, since you passed my course — the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. Oh, different names, perhaps — Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on — but the same forces, the same gods."
Thalia shifted slightly.
"You okay?" Annabeth asked her.
"'Course," she said. (A.N. Heroes of Olympus hasn't happened, but Thalia remembers Jason.)
"And then they died."
Everyone groaned and facepalmed.
"You are SO stupid," Thalia groaned.
Everyone was groaning and commenting while Percy, red, fired back protests.
"Died? No. Did the West die? The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. They spent several centuries in England. All you need to do is look at the architecture.
"England? Really?" asked Hermione, surprised.
"Of course, Ms. Granger," said McGonagall.
"Your first name's Minerva, is it not?" said Athena. "Minerva is my Roman form. Obviously your mother has heard of Roman Mythology."
"Yes, she has," said McGonagall. "She named me that because she thought I was always wise."
"You are, Minnie!" said Sirius.
"Mr. Black, please refrain from calling me 'Minnie'," McGonagall said sharply.
"Whatever you say, Minnie," Sirius grinned.
People do not forget the gods. Every place they've ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings. And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States. Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus. Look at the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington. I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not prominently displayed in multiple places. Like it or not — and believe me, plenty of people weren't very fond of Rome, either — America is now the heart of the flame. It is the great power of the West. And so Olympus is here. And we are here."
"WHOO! AMERICA! DEMIGODS!" the demigods, satyr and Oracle yelled.
The students laughed.
It was all too much, especially the fact that I seemed to be included in Chiron's we, as if I were part of some club.
"Who are you, Chiron? Who ... who am I?"
Chiron smiled. He shifted his weight as if he were going to get up out of his wheelchair, but I knew that was impossible. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
"Who are you?" he mused. "Well, that's the question we all want answered, isn't it? But for now, we should get you a bunk in cabin eleven. There will be new friends to meet. And plenty of time for lessons tomorrow. Besides, there will be smores at the campfire tonight, and I simply adore chocolate."
"Like Remus," said Tonks.
"Like Dumbledore and lemon drops," said Fred.
And then he did rise from his wheelchair. But there was something odd about the way he did it. His blanket fell away from his legs, but the legs didn't move. His waist kept getting longer, rising above his belt. At first, I thought he was wearing very long, white velvet underwear,
Everyone cracked up as Percy slammed his head down onto the table, groaning.
"You were s-so stupid, P-percy," Nico said while laughing his butt off.
but as he kept rising out of the chair, taller than any man, I realized that the velvet underwear wasn't underwear; it was the front of an animal, muscle and sinew under coarse white fur. And the wheelchair wasn't a chair. It was some kind of container, an enormous box on wheels, and it must've been magic, because there's no way it could've held all of him. A leg came out, long and knobby-kneed, with a huge polished hoof. Then another front leg, then hindquarters, and then the box was empty, nothing but a metal shell with a couple of fake human legs attached.
"Yay, a centaur!" beamed Luna. Suddenly, the doors opened. Umbridge walked in angrily.
"Mr. and Mr. Weasley," she said.
"I wondered where she was," Hermione said.
"You're the only one who cares," replied Ron.
"Hi, Umbridge," said the students.
"Mr. and Mr. Weasley locked me in my office!" she exclaimed. "Detention!" She looked at Chiron, the Olympians and the demigods. "Who might they be, Dumbledore?"
So Dumbledore explained everything and Umbridge sat at the teacher's table huffily.
I stared at the horse who had just sprung from the wheelchair: a huge white stallion. But where its neck should be was the upper body of my Latin teacher, smoothly grafted to the horse's trunk.
"What a relief," the centaur said. "I'd been cooped up in there so long, my fetlocks had fallen asleep. Now, come, Percy Jackson. Let's meet the other campers."
"I'm done," Apollo said.
"I'll read!" said Nico.