“Tyson,” I said, “we’re turning around!”
“Going the wrong way?” he asked.
“Always,” I grumbled, but I steered the chariot toward the stands.
Annabeth rode right next to me. She shouted, “Heroes, to arms!” But I wasn’t sure anyone could hear her over the screeching of the birds and the general chaos.
I held my reins in one hand and managed to draw Riptide as a wave of birds dived at my face, their metal beaks snapping. I slashed them out of the air and they exploded into dust and feathers, but there were still millions of them left. One nailed me in the back end and I almost jumped straight out of the chariot.
Annabeth wasn’t having much better luck. The closer we got to the stands, the thicker the cloud of birds became.
Some of the spectators were trying to fight back. The Athena campers were calling for shields. The archers from Apollo’s cabin brought out their bows and arrows, ready to slay the menace, but with so many campers mixed in with the birds, it wasn’t safe to shoot.
“Too many!” I yelled to Annabeth. “How do you get rid of them?”
She stabbed at a pigeon with her knife. “Hercules used noise! Brass bells! He scared them away with the most horrible sound he could—”
Her eyes got wide. “Percy … Chiron’s collection!”
I understood instantly. “You think it’ll work?”
She handed her fighter the reins and leaped from her chariot into mine like it was the easiest thing in the world. “To the Big House! It’s our only chance!”
Clarisse has just pulled across the finish line, completely unopposed, and seemed to notice for the first time how serious the bird problem was.
When she saw us driving away, she yelled, “You’re running? The fight is here, cowards!”
She drew her sword and charged for the stands.
I urged our horses into a gallop. The chariot rumbled through the strawberry fields, across the volleyball pit, and lurched to a halt in front of the Big House. Annabeth and I ran inside, tearing down the hallway to Chiron’s apartment.
His boom box was still on his nightstand. So were his favorite CDs. I grabbed the most repulsive one I could find, Annabeth snatched the boom box, and together we ran back outside.
Down at the track, the chariots were in flames. Wounded campers ran in every direction, with birds shredding their clothes and pulling out their hair, while Tantalus chased breakfast pastries around the stands, every once in a while yelling, “Everything’s under control! Not to worry.’”
We pulled up to the finish line. Annabeth got the boom box ready. I prayed the batteries weren’t dead.
I pressed PLAY and started up Chiron’s favorite—the All-Time Greatest Hits of Dean Martin.
Suddenly the air was filled with violins and a bunch of guys moaning in Italian.
The demon pigeons went nuts. They started flying in circles, running into each other like they wanted to bash their own brains out. Then they abandoned the track altogether and flew skyward in a huge dark wave.
“Now!” shouted Annabeth. “Archers!”
With clear targets, Apollo’s archers had flawless aim. Most of them could nock five or six arrows at once. Within minutes, the ground was littered with dead bronze-beaked pigeons, and the survivors were a distant trail of smoke on the horizon.
The camp was saved, but the wreckage wasn’t pretty. Most of the chariots had been completely destroyed. Almost everyone was wounded, bleeding from multiple bird pecks. The kids from Aphrodite’s cabin were screaming because their hairdos had been ruined and their clothes pooped on.
“Bravo!” Tantalus said, but he wasn’t looking at me or Annabeth. “We have our first winner!”
He walked to “He finish line and awarded the golden laurels for the race to a stunned-looking Clarisse.
Then he turned and smiled at me. “And now to punish the troublemakers who disrupted this race.”
Chapter Seven: I Accept Gifts From A Stranger
The way Tantalus saw it, the Stymphalian birds had simply been minding their own business in the woods and would not have attacked if Annabeth, Tyson, and I hadn’t disturbed them with our bad chariot driving.
This was so completely unfair, I told Tantalus to go chase a doughnut, which didn’t help his mood. He sentenced us to kitchen patrol—scrubbing pots and platters all afternoon in the underground kitchen with the cleaning harpies. The harpies washed with lava instead of water, to get that extra-clean sparkle and kill ninety-nine point nine percent of all germs, so Annabeth and I had to wear asbestos gloves and aprons.
Tyson didn’t mind. He plunged his bare hands right in and started scrubbing, but Annabeth and I had to suffer through hours of hot, dangerous work, especially since there were tons of extra plates. Tantalus had ordered a special luncheon banquet to celebrate Clarisse’s chariot victory—a full-course meal featuring country-fried Stymphalian death-bird.
The only good thing about our punishment was that it gave Annabeth and me a common enemy and lots of time to talk. After listening to my dream about Grover again, she looked like she might be starting to believe me.
“If he’s really found it,” she murmured, “and if we could retrieve it—”
“Hold on,” I said. “You act like this … whatever-it-is Grover found is the only thing in the world that could save the camp. What is it?”
“I’ll give you a hint. What do you get when you skin a ram?”
She sighed. ” A fleece. The coat of a ram is called a fleece. And if that ram happens to have golden wool—”
“The Golden Fleece. Are you serious?”
Annabeth scrapped a plateful of death-bird bones into the lava. “Percy, remember the Gray Sisters? They said they knew the location of the thing you seek. And they mentioned Jason. Three thousand years ago, they told him how to find the Golden Fleece. You do know the story of Jason and the Argonauts?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That old movie with the clay skeletons.”
Annabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh my gods, Percy! You are so hopeless.”
”What?” I demanded.
“Just listen. The real story of the Fleece: there were these two children of Zeus, Cadmus and Europa, okay? They were about to get offered up as human sacrifices, when they prayed to Zeus to save them. So Zeus sent this magical flying ram with golden wool, which picked them up in Greece and carried them all the way to Colchis in Asia Minor. Well, actually it carried Cadmus. Europa fell off and died along the way, but that’s not important.”
“It was probably important to her.”
“The point is, when Cadmus got to Colchis, he sacrificed the golden ram to the gods and hung the Fleece in a tree in the middle of the kingdom. The Fleece brought prosperity to the land.
Animals stopped getting sick. Plants grew better. Farmers had bumper crops. Plagues never visited.
That’s why Jason wanted the Fleece. It can revitalize any land where it’s placed. It cures sickness, strengthens nature, cleans up pollution—”
“It could cure Thalia’s tree.”
Annabeth nodded. “And it would totally strengthen the borders of Camp Half-Blood. But Percy, the Fleece has been missing for centuries. Tons of heroes have searched for it with no luck.”
“But Grover found it,” I said. “He went looking for Pan and he found the Fleece instead because they both radiate nature magic. It makes sense, Annabeth. We can rescue him and save the camp at the same time. It’s perfect!”
Annabeth hesitated. “A little too perfect, don’t you think? What if it’s a trap?”
I remembered last summer, how Kronos had manipulated our quest. He’d almost fooled us into helping him start a war that would’ve destroyed Western Civilization.
“What choice do we have?” I asked. “Are you going to help me rescue Grover or not?”
She glanced at Tyson, who’d lost interest in our conversation and was happily making toy boats out of cups and spoons in the lava.
“Percy,” she said under her breath, “we’ll have to fight a Cyclops. Polyphemus, the worst of the Cyclopes. And there’s only one place his island could be. The Sea of Monsters.”
She stared at me like she thought I was playing dumb. “The Sea of Monsters. The same sea Odysseus sailed through, and Jason, and Aeneas, and all the others.”
“You mean the Mediterranean?”
“No. Well, yes … but no.”
“Another straight answer. Thanks.”
“Look, Percy, the Sea of Monsters is the sea all heroes sail through on their adventures. It used to be in the Mediterranean, yes. But like everything else, it shifts locations as the West’s center of power shifts.”
“Like Mount Olympus being above the Empire State Building,” I said. “And Hades being under Los Angeles.”
“But a whole sea full of monsters—how could you hide something like that? Wouldn’t the mortals notice weird things happening … like, ships getting eaten and stuff?”
“Of course they notice. They don’t understand, but they know something is strange about that part of the ocean. The Sea of Monsters is off the east coast of the U.S. now, just northeast of Florida. The mortals even have a name for it.”
“The Bermuda Triangle?”
I let that sink in. I guess it wasn’t stranger than anything else I’d learned since coming to Camp Half-Blood. “Okay … so at least we know where to look.”
“It’s still a huge area, Percy. Searching for one tiny island in monster-infested waters—”
“Hey, I’m the son of the sea god. This is my home turf. How hard can it be?”
Annabeth knit her eyebrows. “We’ll have to talk to Tantalus, get approval for a quest. He’ll say no.”
“Not if we tell him tonight at the campfire in front of everybody. The whole camp will hear.
They’ll pressure him. He won’t be able to refuse.”
“Maybe.” A little bit of hope crept into Annabeth’s voice. “We’d better get these dishes done.
Hand me the lava spray gun, will you?”
That night at the campfire, Apollo’s cabin led the sing-along. They tried to get everybody’s spirits up, but it wasn’t easy after that afternoon’s bird attack. We all sat around a semicircle of stone steps, singing halfheartedly and watching the bonfire blaze while the Apollo guys strummed their guitars and picked their lyres.
We did all the standard camp numbers: “Down by the Aegean,” “I Am My Own Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandpa,” “This Land is Minos’s Land.” The bonfire was enchanted, so the louder you sang, the higher it rose, changing color and heat with the mood of the crowd. On a good night, I’d seen it twenty feet high, bright purple, and so hot the whole front row’s marshmallows burst into the flames. Tonight, the fire was only five feet high, barely warm, and the flames were the color of lint.
Dionysus left early. After suffering through a few songs, he muttered something about how even pinochle with Chiron had been more exciting than this. Then he gave Tantalus a distasteful look and headed back toward the Big House.