Demigod dreams suck.

See, they can't just be nice dreams like having a barbecue or a luau on a monster-free beach somewhere. Demigod dreams have to be visions and omens and stuff about evil stuff making plans to destroy you. And even if it is a nice-looking dream, it's probably of a paradise where you're going to die.

This time, I was standing on a lush, grassy hill with wildflowers bending in the breeze. A huge oak stood on the crest of the hill, and a motherly-looking woman in a green and brown robe stood under it, fingertips pressed together under her chin. She was looking past me expectantly. I turned.

A young woman was rapidly scrambling up the hill. She had dark eyes filled with fear, and her long black hair was woven in a simple plait. A bundle wrapped in pink cloth was clutched to her chest. Black tufts of hair bounced out from inside the bundle, and I realized it was a baby.

Breathing hard, she hitched up her white robe and stumbled up the last few feet to where the woman in brown and green stood waiting, tapping her fingertips together.

"Please," she gasped, "please keep him safe. Kronos will only be fooled so long."

The older woman nodded in acceptance. "Let me see, daughter." She held out her arms for the baby, which was dutifully dropped into them.


"This is the youngest son, yes?" A son? Wrapped in a pink blanket? That seemed a little mixed up to me.

"His name is Zeus," the young woman said, leaning against the tree. She maintained a certain grace and power, even though she was bent double and her face showed nothing but anguish.

"Shine," the old woman mused. "Fitting, that he is the one to overthrow my son."

Rhea looked really desperate now. "Please, Mother Gaea, he is only a boy. You cannot kill him!" Tears welled up in her eyes.

"That was never my intention," Gaea said emotionlessly. "Very well." She waved a hand, and an elaborately carved wooden cradle materialized, suspended from one of the oaken branches by strands of twine. Placing baby Zeus in it, she turned back to Rhea.

"Kronos, however cruel a ruler, is my son. If he," she jabbed a gnarled thumb over her shoulder at the peacefully sleeping god, "treats his father the way Kronos did his father, my wrath will be brought upon him." Rhea nodded vigorously, fearful yet still reassured.

Still stony-faced, Gaea turned into a flurry of dirt, like her molecules were being unglued, and disappeared into the clear sky.

Rhea crossed over to the cradle, and reached out a hand to the baby, caressing the black locks of hair.

"Don't be your father," she murmured. She gave one last fleeting look around at the hillside, and then she too vanished into the sky. The scene shifted.

I was back on Alcatraz Island, in the mansion floating above the prison. The vampire ninja in white, Rhea, was running through the darkened hallways, hair wildly whipping back and forth as she sprinted silently through the corridor.

"Blast that Mnemosyne, always having to sneak around," she muttered to herself, sharply turning into a room. Wrenching open a drawer of a magnificent ash wood dresser, she rummaged through the knicknacks in it before slamming it shut. Oddly enough, it didn't make a sound as it closed with such force the entire dresser shook.

Jerking on the intricate metal handle of another drawer, she snatched something out of it and clutched them to her chest, looking around wildly and bolting out of the room.

The drawer creaked closed ominously by itself.

"This time we actually made it in and out of a building without blowing it up," Percy said in amazement after we'd stopped by Starbucks to get some nourishment. I nodded in agreement.

"So," Nico said, looking around. "What now?"

"We go west. Duh," I said, starting in a random direction.

Nico coughed and pointed the other way. "That way's the shortest out of the city."

"I knew that," I muttered.

Luckily for us, we found an abandoned truck behind Starbucks that still had the keys in the ignition. Percy wouldn't let either me or Nico drive, because he said that he had a license and we weren't sixteen yet.

I regretted letting him drive as soon as I saw his definition of "fast".

"W-Would you slow d-down already!" I said, clinging onto the door handle for dear life and trying not to bite my tongue. Who knew how bumpy the highway was in New Orleans? Percy eased on the accelerator, and the ride smoothed a little.

"We're in a hurry," he said, peering out the windshield. Nico grumbled in the backseat.

By nightfall, we'd made it past Dallas, Texas, and were somewhere in Sweetwater. We decided just to set up camp and sleep in the back of the truck after parking it in an isolated thicket by the river.

Exhausted as I was, I still managed to dream.

It was sometime in the winter. I wasn't sure which winter it was; the years had already started to blend into an unending cycle of shoot, skin, sleep, repeat. I remembered it because there weren't so many monsters around, and most of the Hunters were carefree, except for the pessimistic one whose name I could never remember.

The forest we'd stopped in was an icy woodland palace. Leaves were suspended in frost crystals, and tree trunks and branches were coated in a slick sheen of ice, reflecting the moonlight off the glossiness of it all. The tents were set up by a small lake, murky green under a thick layer of ice with bubbly shapes frozen in it from when a flash freeze hit. It was pretty in an innocent way, and the darkness posed no threat to the band of girls camping in it.

One of them, Olive I think, dumped her stuff in a tent as soon as it was set up, then rubbed snow into the soles of her furry boots. She took off running toward the lake, gleefully shouting as she slid gracefully across the thick ice to the other side and back. A couple of the other Hunters, including me, laughed and joined in.

"Hey, Thalia! Watch me!" Olive giggled and pirouted at the edge of the ice. I grinned, even though I felt like my nose had frozen and broken off. It had been a long time since I'd gotten any fun, what with the war and everything. I think that was when I realized the Hunters really were one big happy family.

"That's nothing!" Ari waved Olive's performance away with a dismissive hand. I slid over to see what she had in mind. The Hunter started skating in a wide circle, elaborately jumping and sliding backwards sometimes.

"See?" she called, crossing her arms with a smug expression, like she was waiting for her gold medal. Suddenly something threw her off balance, and her slide faltered as she tripped over a lump of ice. Ari went flying off the surface of the lake, crashing into a huge, fluffy snowdrift and making an Ari-shaped hole in it.

"Hey, Ari! You alright?" I peered into the gap in the snow. Ari's eyebrow rose slightly, and like the mischief maker she was, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the snow with her. I grinned after spitting out a mouthful of the wet stuff, and tried to get the fluffy cold flakes out of my jacket with a frozen hand.

I woke up fitfully, pushing against the confines of the sleeping bag. It wasn't even sunrise yet, and I was frozen stiff because the zipper had become undone in the middle of the night. I guess that explained why I had been dreaming about winter. But how the heck was it freezing cold in Texas in the middle of the summer?

Pressing into my back, Nico stirred. I'd probably woken him up by punching him in my sleep.

"Hey," he murmured sleepily. "You 'kay?"

"Yeah," I reassured him quietly, shivering. "I'm okay."

"Bad dreams?"

"You could say that."

Nico rolled over and threw an arm over my side; whether to soothe me or for warmth, I wasn't sure. Either way, I stiffened. I wasn't afraid of anything. Okay, almost anything. And I'll admit it: One of those things was getting my hopes up, only to have them shoved through a blender time after time.

Like what I was afraid was happening now.

Stupid life.

I guess I must've said that out loud, because Nico shifted next to me and said quietly, "I know."

I shook my head, not turning to face him. I shut my eyes tightly, afraid of him seeing the emotions running through me. When I spoke, my voice was harsh.

"No you don't. When you grow up the way I did, you learn a lot. But it's not the things you want to learn – not the things you should learn. When you grow up the way I did, you see a lot, too, but not the sights you want to see. Not at that age . . ." I nearly added, You're lucky you don't remember. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like I was coming down with something.

"Why did you quit the Hunters?" The question took me by surprise. I was silent for a long time, thinking about how to respond. It wasn't me quitting so much as some unknown force making me quit and then Artemis kicking me out.

Finally I just avoided the question. "Shouldn't you know?"

"I only saw that your soul didn't have that silvery aura around it. It doesn't tell me how you lost it."

"Whatever. It's none of your business," I snapped, but it lacked its usual edge. My voice sounded too tired to hold any sting in it.

Nico's hand stopped its movement up and down my arm. Rustling behind me indicated that he'd gotten up.

"We've got a long day. Come on," he said, offering me a hand. Reluctantly I took it and allowed myself to be pulled up.

Progress was progress, but I vowed that I wouldn't let it become anything else.

"Arizona is boring," I complained. "It's just sand and cacti and stuff."

"Arizona is terrible," Nico agreed. "I hate all this light."

"Arizona is where you are gonna stop arguing because this stupid thing is going to run out of gas in about three minutes," Percy groaned, banging his invulnerable head on the steering wheel, even though we were driving at eighty miles per hour on a deserted road with pointy plants on either side of it.

"I was agreeing with her," Nico protested, pointing at the back of my head.

I slapped his hand away. "Since when do you agree with me?"

"When the world is about to be flattened into a pancake."

"What did I do to deserve this?" Percy asked, theatrically shaking a fist at the sky. I snickered.

"Let's see, you rescued Annabeth, rode a flying pig, defended Olympus, destroyed a Titan army, bathed in the River Styx, and recently started going out with the coolest girl at camp. Don't you think you need some misery to brighten up your life?" I paused. "Not so recently, actually. Immortality does that to you." A scowl passed over my face momentarily, but I replaced it with a smirk.

"Fun," Nico said from the back seat as we passed another ghost town. "We get to crash in a bunch of moldy wooden houses built fifty years ago. I'm loving this gods-forsaken desert."

Percy squinted out the bug-splattered windshield. "Hey, was that a giant gecko I just saw over there?"

I leaned forward and tried to see something through the rippling of the heat waves. "No idea. Do geckos even live in the desert?"

"Maybe the heat is getting to your head," Nico suggested, kicking the back seat air conditioning controls. "Stupid thing's broken."

"Because you kicked it, dimwit," I said. "Percy, find a decent hotel."

"Yes ma'am," Nico snickered. I rolled my eyes at him and made a face.

Percy sighed. "Real mature, guys. Real mature."

We eventually did find a decent hotel room, with a TV and two beds and a couch that could be pulled out to make a third bed. It was a little dusty, and I found a (spiderless) spider web in one of the upper cabinets, but it worked. Percy had gone out to look for a supermarket, saying we needed more snacks and stuff. Personally, I thought he needed some time to himself, so I didn't protest.

I sprawled on the bed I'd called dibs on, propped up on the pillows, flipping through the channels on the TV. I paused on Spongebob for a few seconds, then kept channel surfing. The bathroom door creaked open, spilling yellow light into the room, even though it was late.

"Hey," Nico said, plopping down on the bed next to me. He must've just gotten out of the shower, because his long black hair was wet and dripping onto the shoulder of my T-shirt.

"What do you want now?" I snapped tiredly. Nico recoiled.

"I thought I might make an effort to get along without arguing, but seriously, forget it." He made to get up. I grabbed his arm.

"No, wait. I'm sorry. I'm just tired . . ." I trailed off. Nico settled back down beside me. We lounged there for some time, the silence between us almost peaceful for once. It was . . . nice.

"These guys are idiots," Nico finally said after a while of us staring at National Geographic. It showed a jeep mounted with a bunch of wacky weather equiptment – mostly weather balloons, as far as I could tell – driving on a desolate road toward the horizon where a thunderstorm was brewing. "Who the heck would try and get electrocuted on purpose?"

"I once stuck my finger in a light socket," I said absently, watching as the weather balloon floated out of sight into the dark clouds, only to get hit by a blast of lightning.

Nico looked at me like I'd just announced I needed him to bake me pink sugar cookies. "Why would you do that?"

"Because my finger fit in the socket. Duh." We snickered at the expressions on the meteorologists' faces as the thunderstorm suddenly cleared up, revealing clear blue sky.

I snorted. "They have no clue."

"I bet even I could do a better job," Nico scoffed.

"You could not. You'd get fried to a crisp within ten miles of one of those temper tantrums. You'd never catch a storm, or whatever those confused mortals are doing."

Nico looked at me slyly out of the corner of his eye and pushed his wet bangs out of his face. "I'd catch one eventually."

I frowned at him. "What do you mean?" He was almost uncomfortably close now.

Nico wordlessly answered my question by kissing me.

I was stunned into sitting there, shocked, until common sense shook me into jerking away from him. What was he doing? He'd just . . . He'd just . . . I couldn't wrap my mind around it.

"Did you just . . ."

"Kiss you? Yes." Nico raised an eyebrow. "Why, is there a problem with that?"

I rolled off the bed and started pacing, brow furrowed and staring at my boots. "Yes. Yes, yes, yes, there is a problem with that. You – me – I –" I jerked my finger back and forth between us unconciously. "Holy Tartarus, what am I supposed to make of this?"

Nico watched me with an amused look on his face. "Kiss me again?"

I shook my head. "No, I can't. I'm not . . . I mean, it's – It's you!" I finally burst out.

"What about me?" His amused look had been replaced by one of confusion and hurt.

"You kissed me!"

"Yeah, we've established that, can we move on now?"

I stomped over to the bed. "You don't get it. Do you know how much it'll hurt if somebody decides to beat up THAT again?" I pointed at my heart. "No! That's why I keep everyone away! That's why I joined the Hunters! And now that I've quit, you come along, and with my luck you're going to stomp me into the dirt!"

"I would never do that!" he objected, his eyebrows raised in shock.

"And I know that how?" I asked quietly, solidly meeting his dark eyes.

Nico opened his mouth, then closed it, looking around the room as though searching for the right words to say. I took his silence as an answer in itself.

"Don't try it again," I said, crossing the room and opening the door. Maybe a Coke would help calm me down.

"You're still sore over Luke, aren't you." Nico's voice carried clearly across the room, hints of anger and scorn embedded in it, like somebody had insulted him.

I slowly turned my head to look at him. I wasn't sure what my face showed. Anger, fear, hurt? Whatever it was, it told him that he'd crossed a line that I'd solidly glued down and gone over with marker, and for good measure, hammered a fence with barbed wire on top of.

"Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not," I said, masking my hurt with scorn. "But why should you care?"

"I'm sorry," he whispered, mortified. "I didn't mean to -"

I shoved away his apology. "You never mean to! Nobody ever means to hurt people, but they do it anyway. And you know what?" I glared at him, my vision starting to blur with tears I didn't want to be there and refused to let fall.

Nico shook his head wordlessly, his face still stricken.

"You can walk around with your expensive stuff and your smooth-talking Italian, but under all that, you're just another jerk." I pointed to the door. "Get out of my room."

I closed my eyes, rubbing them with clenched fists, and when I opened them again, Nico was gone.

When he silently slipped under the covers of the bed farthest away from me at one in the morning, I feigned sleep and stared at him through slitted blue eyes for the rest of the night.

"Guys," Percy pleaded for the umpteenth time, "what happened while I was gone last night? You're both out of whack."

"Sure, Percy, I'm out of whack," I snipped. Jerking a thumb over my shoulder, I continued. "That halfwit you call a friend drove me to it."

"You've got it wrong," Nico's voice said, ever sarcastically. "You were already out of whack. I just gave you a good little push into complete loss of sanity range."

"Says the guy whose siblings ended up buying their own personal asylum. It's a genetic deformation."

"If I reach the edge of insanity, I'll go back, drag you there, then push you over it and run away laughing."

"Not if I chuck you into Tartarus first. See if your big scary daddy can save you from that."

"If you ever set foot in the Underworld, it'll be because I'm tying you up and throwing you in a cell in my father's palace. I hear he's upgraded it so you get stale water every fifty years."

"What a comfort. Now if you don't shut your reckless mouth, I'll do it for you, jerk."

"STOP IT!" Percy finally exploded, slamming his hand onto the steering wheel. "You guys are both acting like kindergarteners!"

"Kindergarteners with serious threats," Nico put in. I gave him my best glare and sneer combination.

"Still kindergarteners! Now pull yourselves together, because we're finishing this quest and that's that!" Percy punctuated this by flooring the accelerator for a couple seconds. I thanked the gods that there were no other cars on the road, then went straight back to sulkily fiddling with my bracelet.

"Fine," I said at last, keeping a dangerously loose hold on my temper. "For you, Percy. And for the quest. And none of us are quitting, and none of us are chickening out." I directed the last two words at Nico, who was slouching in the back seat, but he sensibly kept his mouth shut. But I didn't fail to notice his mood growing darker by the second.

Then again, I wasn't afraid to follow through on my threats.

I'm seriously starting to lose interest in this.