"Yes, child." He paused, as if choosing his words carefully. "There is a place where spirits go after death. But for now ... until we know more ... I would urge you to put that out of your mind."
"What do you mean, 'until we know more'?"
"Come, Percy. Let's see the woods.". . ..
As we got closer, I realized how huge the forest was. It took up at least a quarter of the valley, with trees so tall and thick, you could imagine nobody had been in there since the Native Americans.
Chiron said, "The woods are stocked, if you care to try your luck, but go armed."
"Stocked with what?" I asked. "Armed with what?"
"You'll see. Capture the flag is Friday night. Do you have your own sword and shield?"
"No," Chiron said. "I don't suppose you do. I think a size five will do. I'll visit the armory later."
I wanted to ask what kind of summer camp had an armory, but there was too much else to think about, so the tour continued. We saw the archery range, the canoeing lake, the stables (which Chiron didn't seem to like very much), the javelin range, the sing-along amphitheater, and the arena where Chiron said they held sword and spear fights.
"Sword and spear fights?" I asked.
"Cabin challenges and all that," he explained. "Not lethal. Usually. Oh, yes, and there's the mess hall."
Chiron pointed to an outdoor pavilion framed in white Grecian columns on a hill overlooking the sea. There were a dozen stone picnic tables. No roof. No walls.
"What do you do when it rains?" I asked.
Chiron looked at me as if I'd gone a little weird. "We still have to eat, don't we?" I decided to drop the subject.
Finally, he showed me the cabins. There were twelve of them, nestled in the woods by the lake. They were arranged in a U, with two at the base and five in a row on either side. And they were without doubt the most bizarre collection of buildings I'd ever seen.
Except for the fact that each had a large brass number above the door (odds on the left side, evens on the right), they looked absolutely nothing alike. Number nine had smokestacks, like a tiny factory. Number four had tomato vines on the walls and a roof made out of real grass. Seven seemed to be made of solid gold, which gleamed so much in the sunlight it was almost impossible to look at. They all faced a commons area about the size of a soccer field, dotted with Greek statues, fountains, flower beds, and a couple of basketball hoops (which were more my speed).
In the center of the field was a huge stone-lined firepit. Even though it was a warm afternoon, the hearth smoldered. A girl about nine years old was tending the flames, poking the coals with a stick.
The pair of cabins at the head of the field, numbers one and two, looked like his-and-hers mausoleums, big white marble boxes with heavy columns in front. Cabin one was the biggest and bulkiest of the twelve. Its polished bronze doors shimmered like a hologram, so that from different angles lightning bolts seemed to streak across them. Cabin two was more graceful somehow, with slimmer columns garlanded with pomegranates and flowers. The walls were carved with images of peacocks.
"Zeus and Hera?" I guessed.
"Correct," Chiron said.
"Their cabins look empty."
"Several of the cabins are. That's true. No one ever stays in one or two."
Okay. So each cabin had a different god, like a mascot. Twelve cabins for the twelve Olympians. But why would some be empty?
I stopped in front of the first cabin on the left, cabin three.
It wasn't high and mighty like cabin one, but long and low and solid. The outer walls were of rough gray stone studded with pieces of seashell and coral, as if the slabs had been hewn straight from the bottom of the ocean floor. I peeked inside the open doorway and Chiron said, "Oh, I wouldn't do that!"
Before he could pull me back, I caught the salty scent of the interior, like the wind on the shore at Montauk. The interior walls glowed like abalone. There were six empty bunk beds with silk sheets turned down. But there was no sign anyone had ever slept there. The place felt so sad and lonely, I was glad when Chiron put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Come along, Percy."
Most of the other cabins were crowded with campers.
Number five was bright red—a real nasty paint job, as if the color had been splashed on with buckets and fists. The roof was lined with barbed wire. A stuffed wild boar's head hung over the doorway, and its eyes seemed to follow me. Inside I could see a bunch of mean-looking kids, both girls and boys, arm wrestling and arguing with each other while rock music blared. The loudest was a girl maybe thirteen or fourteen. She wore a size XXXL CAMP HALF-BLOOD T-shirt under a camouflage jacket. She zeroed in on me and gave me an evil sneer. She reminded me of Nancy Bobofit, though the camper girl was much bigger and tougher looking, and her hair was long and stringy, and brown instead of red.
I kept walking, trying to stay clear of Chiron's hooves. "We haven't seen any other centaurs," I observed.
"No," said Chiron sadly. "My kinsmen are a wild and barbaric folk, I'm afraid. You might encounter them in the wilderness, or at major sporting events. But you won't see any here."
"You said your name was Chiron. Are you really ..."
He smiled down at me. "The Chiron from the stories? Trainer of Hercules and all that? Yes, Percy, I am."
"But, shouldn't you be dead?"
Chiron paused, as if the question intrigued him. "I honestly don't know about should be. The truth is, I can't be dead. You see, eons ago the gods granted my wish. I could continue the work I loved. I could be a teacher of heroes as long as humanity needed me. I gained much from that wish ... and I gave up much. But I'm still here, so I can only assume I'm still needed."
I thought about being a teacher for three thousand years. It wouldn't have made my Top Ten Things to Wish For list.
"Doesn't it ever get boring?"
"No, no," he said. "Horribly depressing, at times, but never boring."
Chiron seemed to turn hard of hearing again.
"Oh, look," he said. "Annabeth is waiting for us."
* * *
The blond girl I'd met at the Big House was reading a book in front of the last cabin on the left, number eleven.
When we reached her, she looked me over critically, like she was still thinking about how much I drooled.
I tried to see what she was reading, but I couldn't make out the title. I thought my dyslexia was acting up. Then I realized the title wasn't even English. The letters looked Greek to me. I mean, literally Greek. There were pictures of temples and statues and different kinds of columns, like those in an architecture book.
"Annabeth," Chiron said, "I have masters' archery class at noon. Would you take Percy from here?"
"Cabin eleven," Chiron told me, gesturing toward the doorway. "Make yourself at home."
Out of all the cabins, eleven looked the most like a regular old summer camp cabin, with the emphasis on old. The threshold was worn down, the brown paint peeling. Over the doorway was one of those doctor's symbols, a winged pole with two snakes wrapped around it. What did they call it... ? A caduceus.
Inside, it was packed with people, both boys and girls, way more than the number of bunk beds. Sleeping bags were spread all over on the floor. It looked like a gym where the Red Cross had set up an evacuation center.
Chiron didn't go in. The door was too low for him. But when the campers saw him they all stood and bowed respectfully.
"Well, then," Chiron said. "Good luck, Percy. I'll see you at dinner."
He galloped away toward the archery range.
I stood in the doorway, looking at the kids. They weren't bowing anymore. They were staring at me, sizing me up. I knew this routine. I'd gone through it at enough schools.
"Well?" Annabeth prompted. "Go on."
So naturally I tripped coming in the door and made a total fool of myself. There were some snickers from the campers, but none of them said anything.
Annabeth announced, "Percy Jackson, meet cabin eleven.
"Regular or undetermined?" somebody asked.
I didn't know what to say, but Annabeth said, "Undetermined."
A guy who was a little older than the rest came forward. "Now, now, campers. That's what we're here for. Welcome, Percy. You can have that spot on the floor, right over there."
The guy was about nineteen, and he looked pretty cool. He was tall and muscular, with short-cropped sandy hair and a friendly smile. He wore an orange tank top, cutoffs, sandals, and a leather necklace with five different-colored clay beads. The only thing unsettling about his appearance was a thick white scar that ran from just beneath his right eye to his jaw, like an old knife slash.
"This is Luke," Annabeth said, and her voice sounded different somehow. I glanced over and could've sworn she was blushing. She saw me looking, and her expression hardened again. "He's your counselor for now."
"For now?" I asked.
"You're undetermined," Luke explained patiently. "They don't know what cabin to put you in, so you're here. Cabin eleven takes all newcomers, all visitors. Naturally, we would. Hermes, our patron, is the god of travelers."
I looked at the tiny section of floor they'd given me. I had nothing to put there to mark it as my own, no luggage, no clothes, no sleeping bag. Just the Minotaur's horn. I thought about setting that down, but then I remembered that Hermes was also the god of thieves.
I looked around at the campers' faces, some sullen and suspicious, some grinning stupidly, some eyeing me as if they were waiting for a chance to pick my pockets.
"How long will I be here?" I asked.
"Good question," Luke said. "Until you're determined."
"How long will that take?"
The campers all laughed.
"Come on," Annabeth told me. "I'll show you the volleyball court."
"I've already seen it."
"Come on." She grabbed my wrist and dragged me outside. I could hear the kids of cabin eleven laughing behind me.
When we were a few feet away, Annabeth said, "Jackson, you have to do better than that."
She rolled her eyes and mumbled under her breath, "I can't believe I thought you were the one."
"What's your problem?" I was getting angry now. "All I know is, I kill some bull guy—"
"Don't talk like that!" Annabeth told me. "You know how many kids at this camp wish they'd had your chance?"
"To get killed?"
"To fight the Minotaur! What do you think we train for?"
I shook my head. "Look, if the thing I fought really was the Minotaur, the same one in the stories ..."
"Then there's only one."
"And he died, like, a gajillion years ago, right? Theseus killed him in the labyrinth. So ..."
"Monsters don't die, Percy. They can be killed. But they don't die."
"Oh, thanks. That clears it up."
"They don't have souls, like you and me. You can dispel them for a while, maybe even for a whole lifetime if you're lucky. But they are primal forces. Chiron calls them archetypes. Eventually, they re-form."