"So we already know we're going to Alcatraz because of the first line. Wait, are you sure it's Alcatraz?" Percy cringed.
We were sitting in a triangle on Percy's bed: him at the head, me a little way to the side, and Nico at the foot. We'd sort of explained the whole situation to Percy's mom and stepdad, and they agreed to let us stay. In fact, Mrs. Jackson was more than willing to give me the spare bedroom, saying it wasn't appropriate for me to have to bunk with two boys. I readily agreed with her.
"Yes, I'm sure. Its nickname is 'the rock', and with the word 'prison' in there, it's pretty much guaranteed to be Alcatraz Island," I replied.
Nico spoke up. "Line two: Face the queen of the broken clock. Do we know of any queens of broken clocks?" All of us shook our heads.
"Does it mean like a goddess?" Percy asked.
"I don't know," I said.
"There has to be a goddess of clocks. I mean, there's one for doorknobs!" Percy said, scratching his head. Nico slumped onto his side and rolled off the bed onto the bean bag chair in the corner.
"I want to die," he moaned. "Gah . . ."
"Isn't that ironic," I murmured. Nico glared at me from under his flopping bangs.
"I give up. Let's just sleep, and start again tomorrow morning," Percy complained. He flopped backwards onto his bed, throwing an arm over his eyes. I decided to follow their lead and went to the other bathroom to clean up, because I knew I wasn't going to be particularly hygienic for the next couple of days or weeks.
Dawn found me curled up in the spare bed, sleeping peacefully for what was probably the last time in my life.
"Morning, people!" Percy grinned at us brightly from the other side of the kitchen table. Nico was wolfing down his chocolate pancakes, completely ignoring the bowl of cereal he'd pushed to the other end of the table.
"Morning to you too, Percy. Now, how are we getting to Alcatraz?" I asked, biting my own pancake. Mrs. Jackson was the best cook in the world.
"I can't shadow travel; I've never been to Alcatraz," Nico mumbled from around his breakfast. I shook my head in agreement.
"And you'll get too worn out," Percy said. "Hey, how far is the biggest distance you've ever traveled?" Then he paused. "That didn't make sense to me. Okay, so where's the – no, what's the – I think I'm still asleep," Percy yawned, shaking his head.
I grinned. "I think you mean 'What's the furthest you've ever traveled,'" I said, looking between Percy and Nico. The son of Hades cracked a rare smile.
"China. But that was unintentional, and I passed out for a week and a half afterwards."
"Then how about the subway? Or a train?"
"Okay, I guess . . ."
"Sure. But aren't we going to potentially blow it up?"
"Blow up the subway?"
"It could happen."
"'Nico Di Angelo: World's Leading Optimist'."
Percy grinned at my remark. "I think it comes from being the son of the death god."
"Not death god," Nico corrected. "Ruler of the Underworld. Which makes me the Prince of the Underworld. You must call me Lord Nico down there."
"I thought you were the Ghost King," Percy said.
"Oh yeah, that too."
"Have you discovered modesty yet, Ghost King?" I asked, snickering.
"The subway it is, since flying is obviously out of the question." All three of us gave a little shudder, though I tried to hide mine as best as I could. Nico didn't need to know anything about me and heights. It was bad enough that Percy did, but I could trust him to keep a secret.
"How did we even get so far off topic?"
"I think it comes from being dysfunctional, ADHD teenagers that just so happen to be more abnormal than the normal abnormal."
"Is there such thing as a normal abnormal?"
All three of us shrugged, and rose from the table. "Mom! We're leaving!" Percy called down the hall. He hastily scribbled a note saying he'd Iris message when he could, and the three of us trooped out into New York City.
After sitting and doing nothing on the subway for three hours, I was hungry.
I grabbed the worn black handle of my backpack, pulled it over, and unzipped it. Looking inside, the first thing I saw was a pair of curved, reflective black sunglasses. They looked extremely expensive and probably were the best quality invented yet.
They weren't my sunglasses. Mine were just the standard sporting ones with a translucent smoky gray rim, and had UV protection. They weren't reflective, and they certainly didn't cost as much as the ones in my backpack probably did.
Frowning, I shook the bag, listening for the crinkle of chip bags, but hearing none. I looked inside it again. The sunglasses had shifted out of sight, but I spotted a sleek black iPod in its place.
What the heck?
I didn't own an iPod; I'd never been able to afford one on the run, and having music blasting in your ears while hunting down monsters was neither successful nor practical. Ignoring how rude it was to look through people's stuff, I scrolled through the music on the iPod. Nearly all of it was songs about death, which was a huge clue in itself. I found a couple Green Day songs I liked in the favorites list.
Tossing the iPod back into the backpack, I dug around in it some more. It wasn't until I saw the black T-shirt that was obviously too large for me that I realized this wasn't my backpack.
I saw Nico looking at me out of the corner of my eye, his expression confused. He picked up the black backpack sitting on the seat next to him and unzipped it. His eyes widened, and his cheeks turned a little pink.
"Thalia," he began hesitantly, "You have my backpack." I looked at the bag I was holding again, and realized it wasn't as worn as mine. It was also a little heavier.
And yeah, it was Nico's backpack.
My ears turned hot, and I hurriedly tossed the bag across the aisle back to Nico. He threw mine over, and I looked at the first thing inside. Oh.
Now I knew why Nico was in such a rush to give it back.
"Percy," I said, "you mixed up our bags, didn't you?" Percy looked from me to Nico and back, looking nervous.
"Well, you were in the bathroom, and Nico was getting some money for the snack machine and both of your guys' backpacks look exactly the same, and – it's an easy mistake!" he yelped. I rolled my eyes, my ears still burning, and fished out the chips I was looking for. I shoved the backpack behind me and stared out the window for the next two hours, eating the chips I'd gone through so much trouble to get.
Centaur. Centaur. Centaur kid. Centaur. Giant fox. Centaur – giant fox? I squinted at the grassy scene outside my window, but anything I thought I saw had vanished. I went back to counting centaurs until the view was replaced by the tunnels of the subway.
We'd made our way out of New York, and were somewhere in Pennsylvania by midday. We'd switched trains a couple times to throw monsters off our scent, and crossed water for good measure.
"Attention passengers. We are arriving at our next stop in the city of Harrisburg. Please be careful when leaving the train. Thank you, and have a good day," the conductor droned over the speakers. I double checked my stuff was in place.
"I gotta go to the bathroom," Nico said, standing up and hefting his backpack. Percy and I stood up as well.
"Let's try not to blow up the capitol of Pennsylvania by going to the bathroom, okay?" I said, stepping off the train. The other two followed.
Leaning against the wall by the bathrooms, I waited impatiently. Percy fidgeted next to me. I scanned the people passing by, and noticed an old woman in a wrinkly green knitted sweater holding the leash of the biggest bloodhound I had ever seen, which was weird, because dogs weren't allowed in the station.
The lady looked at me with beady eyes, and I shuddered. The dog growled, but not a single other person noticed. It shook its head, and the chain link collar jingled almost menacingly. A cold shiver traveled down my spine.
"Come on, let's go," Percy broke into my thoughts. I gave myself a shake, and led the way out of the station into open air.
A low, dark gray bank of clouds was slowly but surely making its way across the city, turning the river next to it into a churning blue-gray sheet and sealing the inhabitants under a smothering layer of solid mist. It looked like Daddy dearest wasn't happy about something, and I had a sinking feeling that it had to do with me.
I started walking briskly towards the nearest bus stop, planning on getting onto the next one, despite the fact that demigods and buses didn't mix well. It usually ended up with the bus getting decapitated and the demigod running.
The little group by the bus stop slowly gathered into a crowd of fifteen or so people. An old lady came up to me.
"Has the bus come yet?" she rasped.
"No," I snapped. The woman's eyes glinted. Looking at her more closely, I realized she was the same woman from the train station, but her sweater was now deep plum, and her enormous dog was nowhere to be seen.
The woman turned away. I saw the crowd part before her, people texting on their Blackberries moving to the side without glancing up. The blanket of clouds dropped lower.
Flanked by Nico and Percy, I boarded the bus.
Worst choice ever.
Barely fifteen minutes into the ride, the bus broke down, the smell of sulfur billowing inside the stuffy bus. Exhaust swirled in the air. The driver cursed and hobbled the bus to the side of the road. Everyone filed out. I figured we were about fifteen miles away from where we'd started.
No way an old mortal granny could've walked fifteen miles fast enough to meet us where we broke down. But she was there anyways, her oversized bloodhound loping in circles around the bus, its leash unhooked.
One look at Nico and Percy told me they were thinking the exact same thing: run. We slipped as casually as possible away from the group, blended into the afternoon buzz in the city, and ran. I wasn't sure how far, but I counted at least six blocks without pausing.
"What do you think it is?" Percy panted when we stopped inside a shopping mall. Nico bent double, catching his breath.
"Nothing I've ever seen before," I wheezed, clutching my side. "Come on, we should –"
Just then the hound dog bounded through the automatic sliding doors, nose in the air. It spotted us, with eyes glowing an evil looking purple-red. It leaped and weaved its way through the crowd, which started muttering in annoyance. Nimbly dodging the throng of shoppers, it headed straight for us.
"Go," I finished, a little late. Percy uncapped Riptide, getting into a defensive stance. I pulled out my spear.
The dog started growing until it was the size of Cerberus, minus two heads. Its neatly clipped toenails elongated into wickedly sharp black claws, and its slobbery fangs grew to at least a foot long. I could see a tag the size of a textbook dangling from its chain link collar with letters big enough for even my dyslexia to work through easily: Laelap. Call Tartarus if being chased by it. Excruciatingly painful death may occur if call is not placed in time. It was followed by possibly the longest and most complicated number I'd ever seen, not counting Pi. The fur along its back bristled, and even its floppy ears perked up at the prospect of fresh demigod. It was so big there was no way it would fit back out of the door.
"Guys! The door!" I yelled, and sprinted towards it, shoving over innocent bystanders laden with bags. The hound howled in anger and sprang, easily clearing the space. The shoppers started shrieking; with horror or delight, I wasn't sure. I guessed they saw a magic trick put on by an absent magician or something.
The dog landed right in front of the doors, its underbelly easily brushing the top. It ducked its head and snarled at us, the reek of carrion on its breath. Without missing a beat, I dove to the polished tile floor and slid out under its belly. Percy and Nico followed suit.
"I think – I know – what this – is!" Nico shouted behind me. "Laelap!"
"What?" Percy yelled back. We were dashing through the parking lot now, hoping that the giant dog wouldn't fit through the doors. No such luck.
With an explosion only slightly less forceful than a hydrogen bomb, the entire front of the mall exploded, showering us with bike-sized chunks of shrapnel. The furious baying of the dog sounded behind us, laced with wailing alarms and flashing red lights.
I hollered to Percy, "Laelap! The dog that always caught its prey! It's chasing us!"
"You mean it's chasing YOU!"
"Nico, you pessimist! Now I'll die an excruciatingly painful death!" I tried to recall how Laelap was killed in the myths. No hero had ever conquered it . . .
It had something to do with a fox. A fox that was never caught – the Teumessian fox. The Hunters had once encountered the giant fox, but Artemis had waved us off before we could get caught up in the chase, telling us it was useless to hunt it. It still roamed free across the US.
I remembered seeing a giant fox out the window of the train. It was a desperate hope, but the best one any of us had.
"I saw the fox!" I gasped to Percy, who had caught up with me. He looked at me like I'd gone crazy.
"Just follow me," I grumbled, increasing my stride to pull ahead. We rounded a corner, and I saw the edge of the city just ahead of us. Pedestrians shouted, annoyed, as we whipped by. I headed for the place I saw the fox – in a sparse forest.
Forest . . . AHH!
I skidded to a halt right in front of the first tree, just barely managing not to concuss myself on it. Percy shot by me, and I grabbed his arm. Nico crashed into me from behind, sending the three of us reeling through the forest.
A brown nose poked through the underbrush. I jumped away from it, because it was about four times bigger than an animal nose should be.
A huge fox head pushed its way through the vegetation. The rest of its towering body followed suit. It stood a couple feet shorter than Laelap, its body reddish gold with black feet and dark tipped ears. The end of its tail was black as well. Its amber eyes regarded us with a mix of curiosity and laziness. If you shrank it down, it would be no different from every other fox in the world. It was the Teumessian fox, all right.
Suddenly the fox's ears pricked up. Distant whining of alarms and sirens were drowned out by an immense crashing: Laelap had found us.
Growling savagely, the beast charged us at top speed, which was about as fast as the JR-Maglev, the fastest train in the world. Its huge paws struck up duststorms choked with leaves from the forest floor, clogging the air. I launched myself to the side, screaming, "Catch the fox!" at the top of my lungs. Percy and Nico looked at me like I'd officially lost it, then followed my lead and dove to the forest floor.
Laelap regarded me with evil purple eyes, torn between eating me and obeying my order. I took a leaf out of Annabeth's book and got to my feet. I spoke in a loud, steady voice, "Catch the fox." I'd never owned a dog, but I used my best obedience voice on the monster.
Laelap growled at me one more time, sent a bucketful of slobber my way, and let out a feral howl as it leapt for the Teumessian fox. The fox let out a surprised whine, then turned tail and nimbly fled. The massive hound dashed after it.
Suddenly, a bolt of power resonated through the entire city. Before me stood two normal-sized statues of a fox and a hound, frozen in action. They shimmered, and dissolved into silver dust. I remembered what had happened to Laelap and the fox in the myth.
Laelap had been set to catch this very fox millennia ago, but their destined fates created a paradox: the hound that always caught its prey hunting the fox destined to never be caught. Zeus, on the brink of insanity, turned them both to stone and placed them in the sky. I had absolutely no idea how they got out of the sky, but they were back in the heavens where they couldn't eat or evade me.
A squirrel pattered down the tree trunk and bared its gnawing teeth at me. I fairly screamed.
Nico grabbed my arm. "It's just a squirrel, Thalia."
I shook my head. "No, it's not just a squirrel. It's out to get me."
Percy looked at me strangely. "Thalia, it's a squirrel. How much harm can it do?"
I shuddered. "More than you want to know." The squirrel pattered to stand right in front of me, and bared its teeth again. I shrieked and leapt backward.
"We're getting out of this forest!" I said frantically, then, holding both the boys' forearms in a death grip, I ran as fast as I could back to the city.
"What is your problem?" Nico asked, half irritably, half threateningly. I spun around and faced him.
"You want to know what my problem is? Fine! Did you know I'm the only girl to ever survive after being kicked out of the Hunt?" I asked, almost wildly. "Of course Artemis would hate me! That forest is part of her territory. Next time, she'll do much worse than sending a buck-toothed squirrel to chew off my head!" Percy looked at me with a mix of understanding and amusement. I pointed a finger at him. "Don't say a word."
A howl sounded from the woods behind us. I saw dark shapes lumbering between the tree trunks. Dread settled in a cold, hard lump in the pit of my stomach.
I got that a certain few gods wouldn't want a certain few demigods traveling together. Hades was even mad enough to send a monster that caught whatever it chased after me. I didn't want to think about what Zeus might have in store for the son of Hades traveling with his daughter. And now that I'd trespassed into Artemis's domain, she was bound to send her subjects after me as well.
"Nico," I said slowly, "shadow travel us out of this city. But only out of the city." Nico nodded, and walked briskly to a deserted alley. I braced myself and gripped his forearm, Percy doing the same on the other side.
Nico closed his eyes, and in a moment, we emerged somewhere I'd never been to before. I was lying on top of something cold and hard that was angled in a way that didn't make my back happy in the least. Groaning, I rolled over, fell off whatever I had been lying on, and landed in warm sluggish mud.
Sputtering, I dug my heels into the ground. Looking around, I saw that we were in a cemetery . . . or at least I thought it was a cemetery. It didn't have any tombstones as far as I could see, only crypts – some crumbling, some white marble, and all of them spattered with mud on the bottoms.
"Nico di Angelo, I swear, if you put me on that crypt on purpose I will slaughter you," I muttered, peering through the gloom. The weather hadn't changed, which probably meant we were still in Harrisburg. I squinted at the writing on one of the tombs, my dyslexia and the dimness making it hard to read, but I figured it out. It only took me about twenty minutes.
The writing was French.
"Hey," a voice said right next to me. "Where's the exit?"
I jumped and spun around, kicking up mud, my hand going for my bracelet. But it was just Percy. He didn't have the least amount of mud on him, whereas my side was covered in it.
"Uh, the exit? I've never been here before. Cemeteries aren't really my thing," I said, going back to looking around. I heard a faint rustle to my right. I marched that way.
Nico was slumped against a particularly crumbly crypt. He was lying on a patch of dry grass, which meant he was also mud-free. He opened his eyes.
"Are we in China?" he said around a yawn. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and promptly started laughing at my appearance, until I socked him in the stomach.
"No, we're not in China. Why do you ask?" Percy said, looking at him curiously.
"I always seem to end up there when I mess up."
"Then you must've messed up differently this time, because I think we're in France." I pointed at the French writing on a crumbling tombstone nearby. Nico squinted at the marker. He sighed in relief.
"Why are you happy that we're in France?" I asked, miffed.
"I'm hardly ever happy nowadays. But if I were, I'd be happy because we're in New Orleans. They have some nice graveyards." Nico stumbled, his eyelids half-closed.
"New Orleans? As in the other side of the U.S. from Pennsylvania New Orleans?" I looked at him sharply.
"Yeah. How many other New Orleans do you know?" He covered a yawn with his hand.
"I told you OUT OF THE CITY!" I yelled. No wonder Nico was so tired he could barely stand. I was no expert in judging the effects of shadow-traveling, but doing it from the East coast to the Gulf of Mexico while bringing two passengers had to be rough. I calmed myself. Yelling wasn't going to help Nico.
Percy had already swung off his backpack and brought out his canteen of nectar. I rushed over just as Nico toppled to the ground, but I caught him with my arms around his chest. Percy dribbled some nectar into his mouth, and he perked up, a little more awake. I pushed him onto his feet. Disappointment passed through Nico's face for a brief moment.
"Come on, if we're in New Orleans, we might as well make the best of it." Percy herded us around the cemetery. "The exit's gotta be around somewhere . . ."
Smirking, Nico pointed left. "It's that way."
"You could've told us that earlier." Nico's smirk slid off his face. I imagined an unheard plop as it joined the mud on the ground.
"Yes. I could've."
Fifteen minutes later, we found a motel that wasn't too expensive for our costs. I went to the ladies' room to wipe the mud off my favorite jacket. When I got back, the guys had just finished checking in.
"Hey," Percy said, looking at a paper. "We're room 402. Fourth floor."
I frowned. "One room?"
"Yeah. Two beds. Sorry."
I shrugged, unfazed. "Okay. Nico gets the floor."
"Percy gets the floor."
"You guys do rock paper scissors to decide which one gets the floor, because I am not sharing a bed with either of you."
"You get the floor."
"No," I said lightly, pressing the elevator button.
The boys went through seven games of rock paper scissors waiting for the elevator, thirteen on the elevator, and eighteen on the way to the room. Percy finally won the forty-second game by using a finger gun, but Nico called it a cheat, so they went back to playing.
"Ha! I win! Fifty-seven to fifty-six and a half!" Nico exclaimed. I looked at them quizzically.
"How do you win half a game of rock paper scissors?"
"Nico said that I can count the finger gun round as half a game, but he won, so he gets the floor," Percy explained.
Nico arched his eyebrows. "I won, so I get the bed, not the floor!"
"We agreed on the winner gets the floor!"
"Since game forty-two!"
"Rematch! This time winner gets the bed!"
I laughed for the first time in a long while. It felt good to be carefree for once. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so relaxed, unburdened of any responsibility.
Rummaging through my bag, looking for my comb, I unzipped a pocket and something fluttered onto the bedspread. It was the picture of Luke and Annabeth. Tracing the smiles on their faces with a finger. I realized I did remember the last time I had been truly happy. It was with them.
I wondered if I'd ever have anyone like that again.
I feel especially proud of this chapter . . .