I dreamt of the centaur again that night. I was sitting by a campfire on a log. A nine-year-old girl was tending to the flames; she offered me a warm, gentle smile. "Nice to meet you, Percy," she said in a soft voice that seemed to suck out all my stress and worry of the last few days. "You're here for Mr Brunner right?"
I didn't know how to respond.
"Oh, sorry," she muttered with a giggle. "Forgot, you won't know. Well, Mr Brunner wanted to speak with you again. Here you go," she said before handing me a home-cooked casserole. "It's not real food of course but I hope you still enjoy it."
I nodded and thanked her. She was so nice. She reminded me of my mother and had the same effect on me. All my worries seemed to vanish when the girl smiled at me.
A new voice spoke behind me. "Hello again, Percy. It's good to see you again." I turned to face the centaur from my other dreams. His kind, wrinkled face still looked at me like I was the most important person to him but not because of my lineage. He still wore his tweed jacket and his scruffy beard hadn't changed.
"Mr Brunner? Why am I here?"
He smiled. "Well, isn't that the question we'd all like answered," he responded. "Why are any of us here?"
I sighed, knowing the answer he wanted. "To serve the gods?"
"Well, Mr Jackson, I wouldn't answer so quickly. If that's not the answer you want then perhaps it's the wrong one."
I nodded, not fully understanding what he was saying. "Why did you want to talk to me?"
"I wanted to guide you," he responded. "You're still so young, Percy. And you're going on a quest to save the world. You're only twelve and you've been on the run for months. And you've lost your mother which, for anyone, would be enough of a burden. I wanted to offer you guidance. If you want, I can help you through your adventures."
"Why though?" I asked.
"Well, many reasons. The main one is I can't leave all you young heroes to fend for yourself. You know now how dangerous it is and without proper guidance, you would have died."
I nodded in agreement.
"So, Percy, do you wish to accept my offer? I won't be able to stop your bad dreams but I can try and guide you through them, help you understand them and to a certain extent I might be able to protect you from the brunt of it."
Again, my mind went back to Luke and the advice he'd given me. "Are you a god?"
Mr Brunner smiled. "Not at all, my young hero. I am a centaur and I was granted this opportunity to help guide heroes thousands of years ago by lady Hestia over there." The girl waved at me.
"And what do you want back?"
"Nothing. I just want to be able to help you through your journey and help you decide what the right decision is. It has always been my desire to help young heroes like you. I swear upon the River Styx." There was a crack of thunder somewhere off in the distance.
I nodded, satisfied by the answer. "Then yes, please. Thank you, Mr Brunner." I'd wanted to accept his help: he'd seemed so nice and he made me feel comfortable but I had felt like I shouldn't because if he had been a god I would have been in his debt.
Mr Brunner smiled. "It's no problem at all, Percy."
I nodded. "What happens now?"
"Well, Percy, now you wake up. But first, I'll tell you this. Annabeth was right, prophecies can be misleading. Don't get caught up on what you think they say."
I nodded and the world slowly started to disintegrate around me.
"Till next time." Mr Brunner waved goodbye.
I blinked and I was back on the train. My head was now resting on Annabeth's lap and my feet were on the seat, the shoes removed. I sat up blearily but for once on this quest, I felt well-rested. My sleep hadn't been interrupted by any nightmares. I looked over at Annabeth who smiled at me.
"Have a good sleep?"
I nodded. "Best yet. What's for breakfast."
She shrugged. "If you can find it you can eat it." She glanced at the couch as if she was considering the nutritional value of dirty fabric.
We spent the rest of the day in the carriage, trying to keep ourselves occupied. At one point we played noughts and crosses in the condensation on the window but I never won.
As I watched the lights of Denver get closer, my stomach grumbled and I sighed. We hadn't eaten anything since the night before in the dining cart. It was definitely not the longest I'd gone without food but still.
As the train came to a halt and we all debarked, we began planning our next move.
"I want to contact Luke," Annabeth said. "Let him know we're ok and tell him about your talk with the river spirit."
I nodded. "Right. We need to find a rainbow then."
We didn't use Iris messages very often; we didn't need to. But Luke had made absolutely sure very quickly that I knew how to use them. A week after we met he taught me how to use them and told me to always have a spare drachma on me. 'In case we get split up, this is the safest and most reliable way of contacting the others. This could legitimately save your life one day,' he'd told me as I'd stared in awe at the live view of the Grand Canyon.
We wandered downtown for about half an hour trying to find something we could use to create a rainbow. The air was hot and dry which was disconcerting after the humidity of St Louis. Everywhere I looked, the Rocky Mountains were looming over us like a tidal wave that could crash into us at any time.
Eventually, we found an empty do-it-yourself car wash. We took the furthest stall and kept an eye out for cop cars. Not only was I a fugitive wanted for blowtorching a national monument, but we were three adolescents hanging out in a car wash with no car. If that didn't look suspicious then I was a satyr.
"We need 75 cents. I've only got two quarters," Grover muttered. He turned to Annabeth.
"Don't look at me. The dining cart cleaned me out."
I fished out my last bit of change and handed Grover another quarter. Now I only had two nickels and a drachma from Medusa's lair plus the bonus drachma Luke made me carry around at all times in case of emergencies.
He put the setting to fine mist and began spraying. A rainbow appeared in front of us.
I handed Annabeth my spare drachma and she flicked it into the rainbow. "Oh, Iris goddess of rainbows, accept my offering." The coin vanished. "Luke Castellan, Long Island."
The rainbow shimmered and Luke appeared in front of us. He didn't appear to have noticed us and was washing dishes in a creek. "Luke!" I called.
He span around quickly and a wide grin spread on his face. "Percy! Annabeth! I'm so glad to see you're both ok." Then his face quickly moved to concern. "Is everything ok? Where's Grover?"
"I'm over here," Grover said from his spot holding the pump. He shifted so that Luke could see him before moving back.
Luke sighed in relief. "So, what's up guys?"
Before we could start telling him a big Lincoln Continental pulled in with its stereo turned up on full blast. As it took the stall next to us, the base from the subwoofers vibrated so much that it shook the pavement.
"What's that noise!?" Luke shouted over the music.
"We'll deal with it," Annabeth shouted back. "Grover, give Percy the nozzle and come with me."
Grover did as he was told before following Annabeth to the next stall. I held the nozzle out to the side so I could keep the rainbow going while still being in Luke's line of view.
"So, Percy. What's going on with you?" Luke shouted.
I told him pretty much everything, including about the dreams. It felt so good to see him again. When I got to talking about the gifts he scowled.
"You remember what I told you, right? About not trusting gods?"
"Yeah. I'm gonna be careful."
I hadn't realised how much time had passed before the one-minute warning beeper went off."
"Look," Luke said. "I wish I could be there with you. It's torture sitting here knowing you're all out there on your own. But Percy, it had to be Hades who stole the bolt. The Winter Solstice meeting is the only time he can come to Olympus."
"But I thought gods couldn't take each other's symbols of power directly."
Luke hummed in agreement. "But he has the Helm of Darkness. You'd have to be invisible to get away with something like this." We were both silent for a minute. "Oh… hey. I didn't mean Annabeth. I mean, we both know her. She's like a little sister to me. She'd never do something like that."
I nodded and just then the music stopped. A man screamed in terror and the Lincoln screeched out of the car wash and hurtled down the road.
"You'd better go see what that was," Luke told me. "We both know what Annabeth is capable of. Oh and, hey, are you wearing the flying shoes? I hope you got more use out of them than I would have."
"Oh… yeah, they've come in really handy. Wouldn't be here without them," I told him, trying to not sound like a guilty liar
Luke smiled and nodded. "Glad to hear it. It makes me happy to know that I can still help, even if in some indirect way."
The mist shut off and the image started to dissipate.
"Well, good luck to you all. And tell Annabeth it will be better this time. No one will get injured or turned-"
The connection cut off and the image vanished. I was left standing alone in an empty stall.
Annabeth and Grover came up laughing and I turned to face them. "What happened?" I asked.
Through her giggles, Annabeth managed to explain how, after she'd argued with them a bit, one of them had tried to fight her and she snapped their finger. They'd quickly scarpered after that.
"What did Luke say?" Annabeth asked.
"Oh. Not much."
I smiled at the thought when something crossed my mind. I walked to the neighbouring stall that they'd been in a checked the machine. The green light was blinking meaning it was ready to wash. A sly grin spread on my face. "Hey, Annabeth. Come and have a look at this," I called as I set it to a jet.
"What is it?" She asked. As she rounded the corner, she saw me holding the nozzle and a look of realisation crossed her face moments before I pressed the trigger and sent a stream of water straight at her.
When I stopped spraying she was soaked and wore a glare worse than Thalia's shield. "Percy!" She screeched as I burst out laughing.
I probably should have thought it through a bit more though because she stormed towards me, snatched the nozzle out of my hand and turned it on me.
You might be asking, 'why didn't you just keep yourself dry like you did at the Arch?' And, to be honest, I was asking myself that same question afterwards. But it was fun.
We both wrestled for control of the nozzle, trying to point it at the other. By the time the hose switched off we were both drenched and were laughing so hard we didn't even notice Grover standing off to the side, also laughing.
"If you guys have finished," he said as he caught his breath, "I think we should get something to eat."
We glanced at each other and nodded, still grinning widely.
A few minutes later we were sat in a booth in a gleaming chrome diner. I'd managed to dry myself and Annabeth off on our way here which she was very grateful for ('it's about time, Lady Seaweed Brain.' 'You're so very welcome Sir Owlface.') and now we were sat next to each other with Grover in the seat across from us. Families around us were enjoying their burgers and fries and other meals.
A waitress came up to us and eyed us sceptically. "Well?"
"Um," I glanced at Annabeth and Grover awkwardly. "We'd like to order some food."
"You got money to pay for it?"
I hesitated, trying to come up with a sob story to tell the waitress. Before I could speak, we heard an enormous roar from outside and turned to see a motorbike the size of a baby elephant pulling into the parking lot.
All conversation in the diner stopped. The motorcycle's headlight glared red. Its gas tank had flames painted on it, and a shotgun holster riveted to either side, complete with shotguns. The seat was leather-but leather that looked like ... well, Caucasian human skin.
The guy on the bike would've made pro wrestlers run for Mama. He was dressed in a red muscle shirt and black jeans and a black leather duster, with a hunting knife strapped to his thigh. He wore red wraparound shades, and he had the cruellest, most brutal face I'd ever seen- handsome, I guess, but wicked-with an oily black crew cut and cheeks that were scarred from many, many fights. As he walked into the diner, a hot, dry wind blew through the place. All the people rose as if they were hypnotised, but the biker waved his hand dismissively and they all sat down again. Everybody went back to their conversations. The waitress blinked as if somebody had just pressed the rewind button on her brain. She asked us again, "You got money to pay for it?"
"It's on me," the biker said in a gruff voice as he took a seat in the booth. He was too large for the seat and ended up squishing Grover into the wall.
He looked at the waitress who was staring at him open-mouthed. "You still here?" He asked. He pointed at her and she turned as if she was spun around and marched off to the kitchen.
The biker looked at me. I couldn't see behind his glasses but bad feelings were churning in my stomach: anger, resentment, bitterness.
"So, you're old Seaweed's kid, eh?"
I probably should have been surprised or scared but I felt like I was staring at Gabe. I wanted to rip this guy's head off. "What's it to you?" I demanded.
"Percy," Annabeth warned. "This is-"
The biker raised his hand. "It's fine, I like a little attitude. As long as you remember who's boss. You know who I am, little cousin?"
I thought about everything Annabeth had taught me about all the gods. There was only one god I could think of that could match this description. "You're Ares, god of war."
Ares grinned. He pulled his glasses down a bit and looked over the top. He didn't have eyes, just empty sockets that glowed with miniature nuclear explosions. "That's right kid. Now, as to why I'm here, I've got a little proposition for you."
Before he could go any further, the waitress came back with heaping trays of burgers, fries, onion rings and chocolate shakes. Ares handed her a handful of golden drachma.
"But these aren't-"
He pulled out a knife and started cleaning his nails. "You got a problem, dear?" he growled.
The waitress shook her head, hurrying off with the gold.
"You can't just do that," I told him, beginning to hate this god more and more. "You can't threaten people with a knife."
Ares laughed. "Are you kidding? I love this country. It's the best place since Sparta. Don't you have a weapon? You should do. It's a dangerous world out there. Which brings me back to my proposition. I need you to do me a favour."
"What favour could I do for a god?" I asked.
"One that he can't be bothered doing himself. Here's the deal, I was on a, ah… date with my girl to an abandoned water park in town and we got interrupted. I left my shield behind and I need you to go and fetch it for me."
"Why don't you go get it yourself?"
The explosions in his eyes glowed a little hotter. "Why don't I turn you into a prairie dog and run you over with my Harley? Because I don't feel like it. At least, not yet. Keep pushing your luck and I might just consider it. I'm giving you the opportunity to prove yourself, Percy Jackson. Are you gonna prove to be a coward?" He leaned forward. "Or maybe you only fight near a river where you've got your dad to protect you."
I wanted to punch this guy in the face. The fact that he was a god only made things worse. But the look on his face made it clear that that's what he was waiting for. He was using his powers to elevate my emotions and would be happy to see me react; I refused to give him the satisfaction.
"What interrupted your date? What could scare a god so much that they refuse to go back to a water park?" I asked.
He glared at me and I knew I'd hit a nerve. Behind his bared teeth there was a hint of nervousness. "It's none of your business. What do you say?"
"We've already got a quest," I told him, not wanting to get mixed up in whatever trouble he'd got himself into.
"I know all about your little 'quest'. When the lightning bolt first disappeared, Zeus sent out his best people: Athena, Apollo, Artemis and me, naturally." He smirked. "If I couldn't sniff out a weapon that powerful, you've got no chance." His gaze turned hungry at the mention of the Bolt. "But, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. After all, I'm the one who told your dad that it was old Corpse Breath."
"You told Poseidon that it was Hades? You're the reason I've got this stupid quest?"
"What can I say? I'm a generous guy! Just do this little job for me and I'll give you some help on your quest: give you a ride west."
"We're doing fine by ourselves," Annabeth responded before I could say anything.
Ares laughed. "Yeah, right. That's the best joke I've heard in centuries. Here you are, no money, no food, no supplies of any kind, no way west and no idea what you're gonna do when- no, if- you get there. Face it, you're gonna need my help. And besides, I might share something that you need to know, something about your mom."
"My mom?" I asked.
He smiled. "That got your attention. The water park is in downtown Denver. Look for the Tunnel of Love ride. And before I go, just a bit of healthy advice. Not all gods are as forgiving as me. If I had been Hades or Athena or Zeus, maybe, you would be nothing more than a pile of ash by the time this conversation was done." I knew he was right. "Meet back here when you're done. Don't disappoint me."
With that, he vanished.
I turned to my friends who still looked a little shaken. Now that he was gone, most of the anger had drained out. I bet he loved messing with people's emotions. That was his power, cranking up passion until people could no longer think.
"This is bad," Grover moaned. "This is really, really bad. Ares sought you out."
"Why don't we just forget about him?" I asked. "Just leave and carry on with our vital and time-sensitive quest?"
"We can't do that, Percy. As much as I hate Ares, we can't ignore a god unless we want some really bad luck. He wasn't joking about turning you into a rodent."
I sighed. "Of course. Because nothing's more generous than threatening us into helping him because he's lazy and a coward." There was a flash of thunder. "Yeah, I said it!"
Grover gave me a wary and pained look but when I turned to Annabeth I could see the smirk twitching on her lips, despite the disapproving glare she was trying to give me.
"So, what do you think scared him off?"
I knew immediately I wasn't going to get a satisfactory answer. "We'll have to find out," Grover said, confirming my suspicions.