I can honestly say that the next two days were the most awkward and uncomfortably tensioned of my life, and that's including the time I walked in on my mom and one of her boyfriends in the living room when I was seven.
Nico and I weren't talking at all now. So far I hadn't spoken a word to him for thirty-six hours , fourteen minutes, fifty-three seconds and counting (after a while, I didn't have anything better to do besides count). Even so, the tension was so thick it wouldn't be long until we suffocated on it.
"Almost there . . . almost there . . . almost there . . ." I chanted through gritted teeth, my grip on the steering wheel so tight my knuckles were white and I was surprised the wheel hadn't broken into pieces yet.
"Can 'there' be a bathroom, please?" Percy asked, a pained look on his face.
I kept my glare on the road. "You're supposed to be good with water. So hold it."
"My powers don't extend to that."
"Then your powers suck."
"Percy, tell her she's been driving nonstop for eight hours since six in the morning," Nico said, his voice bored.
"Go kill whatever is making that noise in the back seat," I said to Percy.
"Um, I don't want to."
"Too bad," I retorted. Percy gave me a tired look. Suddenly I felt guilty; I'd dragged him into a quest when he'd just gotten some peace, and now Nico and I were playing tug-of-war with him and forcing him to be the mediator when he probably didn't even want to be saving the world again. "Sorry," I said quietly. To pass over the sappy moment, I continued, "So what did the scum say?"
"He said that you've been driving nonstop for eight hours since six in the morning."
"Then tell him that I'm not stupid like some people and that he can shut his trap if he wants to keep it."
"Do I have to?"
I kept the accelerator floored while Percy relayed my message to the back seat. The sooner we got this quest over with, the better.
"Are we any closer to a bathroom? Or a city? Or civilization?" Percy asked imploringly for the fifth time in two minutes. He was practically hopping up and down in his seat. "I mean, you've been driving like crazy for hours!"
"Then you shouldn't have let me drive," I snapped.
"Percy's head would have been bitten off if he took the driver's seat," Nico called helpfully.
I almost decided to take out my spear and stab it through his stupid head right then and there, but settled for chucking the nearest heavy object into the back seat, which happened to be the GPS. Not like we needed it anyway.
"Okay," Percy announced, rubbing his hands together. "This is what we're going to do. Thalia, get in the back. Nico, be quiet and don't agonize her. Me, I am driving. Pull over, would you?"
"Do it," Percy said, unusually insistent. "Come on; just make all our lives easier."
I opened my mouth for another 'no', but it turned into a yawn instead. Suddenly I was aware of how sore my eyes were from the glare of the road, and that my finger muscles would probably never move from their curled position around the wheel again. And my lower body was more or less completely numb.
"Fine," I muttered, biting down another yawn and feeling my eyelids shutting on me. The truck screeched to the side of the road without slowing down. Slamming the door behind me, I blinked in the sudden brightness of the afternoon desert sun. Black tire marks stretched for ten feet on the asphalt.
Styx, I was so messed up.
With a suppressed sigh, I pulled open the back door and climbed in, hissing as the hot metal burned the skin on my hand. Nico didn't bother moving from his spot in the middle seat, instead assessing me coolly through his lashes and playing with one of his earbuds. I narrowed my eyes and slouched. His lip quirked.
It stayed that way for another hour or two. Nico would look at me through the corner of his eye, I'd glare at him, and he'd give me a half-smirk. When it happened for the nth time, I threw my head back, grimacing at the ominous cracks it got me when I stretched. Nico dodged my elbow.
Resting my head on the hot glass of the window, I closed my eyes almost all the way and crossed my legs to minimize the space I took up. It wasn't that I didn't want to sleep, because I did, but I was bordering on paranoid when it came to being in close proximity with Nico.
At the moment, six inches was way too little space between us.
"Had your eyes wide open . . ."
The sound leaked out of one of his earbuds. Glancing at him, I saw that his fingers were frozen around the cord. He was staring straight ahead, lips pressed tightly together.
"What you don't understand is I'd –"
The music was abruptly cut off as Nico ripped the cord out of his iPod, automatically putting the song on pause. His eyes slid to me for a brief second, then back to his white-knuckled grip on the electronic.
Stomach churning, I sank even further into the seat and squeezed my eyes shut.
I was confused for a few moments after I woke up, mostly because I didn't remember falling asleep. And because my face wasn't pressed to hot glass.
Instead, it was resting on smooth, cold leather.
Cracking open one eye, I took in as much as I could through my lashes. Messy black hair obscured my vision, but that didn't make sense, because my hair wasn't long enough to even reach my cheekbones, and it was usually too wild to get in my face anyway. I was wearing a T-shirt, too, not a leather jacket (even if I was, I'd have to bend my neck at a killer angle to rest my head on my own shoulder).
So . . . I had somehow shifted in my sleep so that I was using Nico as a pillow.
Well, this was awkward.
My whole body tensed as a shadow passed over the car. Nico turned his head to look at me, eyebrows raised and a smirk playing across his lips.
I shook my head, pushing myself up a little too forcefully. Like you'd care, I thought. I tensed again, sensing that something was off.
"What?" Nico asked, studying my face carefully. I shied away from his gaze and looked out the window, catching a glimpse of the same razor-sharp shadow whipping across the ground next to the road. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
"Get down!" I shouted, yanking both of us down as the glass on Nico's side of the car exploded. Slapping my bracelet, I smashed through my window as he sliced our seat belts in one coordinated move. We tumbled through the jagged opening as Percy slammed on the brakes with a shout and got out through his door. Landing on my shield together, Nico and I skidded for a couple feet, the metal sparking against the asphalt.
"Holy Poseidon!" Percy shouted, rolling into prickly bushes as a clawed foot crushed the roof of the car like a soda can. I saw the gleam of bronze slash upward even as I began sprinting toward him, Nico sticking to me like, well, a shadow.
The shriek ripped through the hot, dry air. It was so loud and high-pitched it shattered the remaining glass in the windows and made my eardrums wish they'd never been born. Or made. Could eardrums be born?
All three of us hit the dirt, desperately pressing our hands to our ears in a failing attempt to block out the horrible noise. Sand flew into my face as a giant feathered wing swept toward Nico and I, closely followed by a hooked bronze beak and a beady black eye. I froze for a moment at the intelligence the giant bald eagle stared at me with.
My ever helpful brain drew an exaggerated Grinch-worthy eyebrow and evil grin on it mentally. Shaking it off, I leapt to the side, brandishing my spear with a "Hi-yah!" The eagle squawked indignantly, pushing off the ground and beating its wings powerfully.
"What the Hades is that?" Percy shouted, ducking sharp feathers and wickedly curled talons. The eagle released another screech that would've made Apollo's sonic arrows bright green with envy.
"Just fight it!"
"It's going up!"
The monstrous bird was rising higher and higher into the air, settling into a predatory circle. The three of us moved toward each other uneasily until we were back to back to back in a triangle, heads tilted back to look upward.
"Styx," Nico muttered. His bangs were plastered to the side of his face with sweat from the merciless sun. My thin T-shirt was getting uncomfortably hot, too. "It's coming for me."
I understood in an instant. "I can fight my own battles," I growled to the sky, infuriated that I'd only get his attention when something like this happened. "Especially this one!" The eagle gave a loud, piercing cry, as if it disagreed with me.
"Guys," Percy said cautiously, "is there something I'm missing here? Because I want to know what's going on. Right now."
"SCATTER!" I tackled Nico to the ground, throwing Aegis above us – and not a moment too soon. The eagle pulled out of its dive-bomb at the last second, realizing that it couldn't punch through my shield to get to its target. Its hind talon still hit us with enough force to send us reeling through the brush.
"Ah!" Nico hissed in pain. I scrambled to my feet, casting a glance upward. A winged silhouette against the blinding sun assured me that I had a couple seconds until the monster's next attack. I turned back to the ground, deliberately kneeling so that my shadow fell over Nico's face.
"Where?" I fumbled with the tiny bottle of hand sanitizer I kept hooked to the loop of my jeans, urging my fingers to move faster.
"I'm fine. Don't bother." Nico tried to push himself up, but thudded back to the ground with a curse.
"That constipated look on your face begs to differ, stupid. Where?"
"I'm FINE," he said through gritted teeth.
"No you're NOT," I countered, bordering on shocking him senseless just to make the job easier.
"I don't need your help, alright!"
"Why don't I just leave you here to bleed to death, then?"
"Why don't you?"
I opened my mouth for a retort, but my vocal cords froze. Why didn't I just leave him here to bleed to death, if he didn't want me there? Come to think of it, why was I trying to help in the first place after he said what he had?
For once, I didn't have an answer.
The nectar bottle was weakly pulled from my hand. A gasp drew my attention back down. In an instant, Percy was next to me, taking the bottle from Nico and forcefully twisting the cap off. I caught the scent of hot chocolate from the emergency nectar.
Nico's face twisted when I tugged up his shirt, far beyond caring that I didn't like him right now. I drew in a breath. The cut wasn't deep enough to be fatal, but it stretched from his side to the middle of his chest, following the curve of his bottom rib.
"Thalia," Percy muttered, concentrating on washing out the wound with a shred of fabric dipped in the nectar. "Watch the bird. I'll take care of this."
I stood up, suddenly itching for a fight. In the back of my mind I knew that I should have been tending to Nico, since out of the three of us I probably had the most experience with medical stuff. But if Percy had wanted me to do it, he would've said so, so I trusted that he knew what he was doing.
"More nectar," I heard one of the two mumble behind me.
I sprinted the little distance across the road to the crushed remains of the car. Tossing my spear to my shield hand, I stuck my arm through the twisted, glassless window frame and rooted around for any of our backpacks. Just as I worked a bottle of nectar out, the eagle's shadow swooped over me, whipping my hair back and gritty dirt into my face.
"You want him?" I screamed at it, the outline of the bird burned into my vision. "You want him? Then BRING IT!"
The eagle shrieked and began another nosedive. From here, I couldn't tell which one of us it was after, but I was betting Nico.
In a storm of brown and white feathers as long as my arm, the monster descended again. Its wingspan stretched twice the length from me to Percy and Nico, which was a good fifteen feet. Fighting my way through the feathers, I slashed blindly with my spear until it hit something solid, but hollow – bird bones. I stabbed upward, shielding my face with Aegis and sending a burst of electricity up the spear.
The sheer size and force of the eagle's spaz attack knocked me to the ground. The asphalt met the back of my head in a rather unfriendly way, and the sudden jarring made me drop my spear. I coughed, rolling backward to get out of the frantically beating wing's way.
"I'm not a fish! I don't smell like a fish! Why do you eagles eat fish anyway? TAKE THAT!"
Running toward Percy's voice, I snatched my spear from under the eagle's long tail feathers, narrowly avoiding getting shish-kebabbed by its lengthy, crooked back talon. Suddenly I was pulled down into the shrubbery. A powerful wing sliced through the air where my head was moments ago, spattering me with blood.
"How is it?" I asked Nico shortly. He got to his feet a little shakily.
"Nectar fixed it up." He winced as he bent over to pick up his sword. "Still stings a bit, though."
I twirled my spear and slammed the butt of it into the ground. "Come on."
Percy came jogging out of the dust, Riptide in hand. "Hey," he coughed. "I got its wing." We backed up a couple feet to a safe distance to get our first good look at the monster.
It was like a gigantic eagle version of a Stymphalian bird – bronze talons, bronze beak, beady red eyes. One massive wing was dripping with golden blood from a slice running the length of it, and the other had ruffled, smoking feathers. Its legs were covered in scratches, and the talons tipping it gouged deep marks into the asphalt with a sound like nails on chalkboard. The white feathers on its head weren't very white anymore, instead streaked with grit and blood. It opened its beak, revealing a bright red mouth and a pointed tongue, and screeched.
I was getting really sick of its screeches.
When my eardrums had stopped ringing, the eagle hopped forward, wings outstretched. It regarded Nico with a triumphant gleam in its eye, and brandished the bloody wing.
"Ichor," Nico said, wiping the golden blood off his face.
"Great," I added, scowling.
"We can't kill it," Percy finished, shifting his sword from hand to hand.
"But we can wound it enough so that it can't move," I suggested.
Apparently, the eagle didn't like it, because it insisted on another murder attempt on my ears.
"Or . . ."
"Or we could tame it."
Nico and I turned to Percy with disbelieving expressions. "Tame that thing?" he asked.
"Wait a second. We did it with the Eury-whatever boar." I pointed to Percy, who nodded. "That might actually work, except this time it's after Nico's guts."
"I'd like to keep my guts in my body, thank you very much."
The eagle hopped forward again. We stepped back.
"We do need transportation," Nico said dubiously. "But riding that means flying."
Thinking about flying on a wild eagle that could easily dump us off its back and then eat us didn't do anything good for my fabulous lunch of granola bars three hours ago.
Percy snapped his fingers, then quickly leveled his sword when the eagle's attention shifted to him, alerted by the sound. "I got it. We can, um, cut up its wings, so it can't fly, and ride it! I've heard of people riding ostriches, and Thalia and I have ridden a boar before, so why not an eagle?"
"There's one little problem with that plan, Kelp Head." I pointed to the already healing cuts monster's wings with my spear. "It's got ichor."
"But," Nico picked up, "it'll take a while to heal a tendon. I vote Thalia goes and slices."
"I vote you go and get sliced." Because seriously, I didn't want to go anywhere near that giant bundle of malice and feathers.
"Eagle. Zeus. You. Bird. Go," Nico said shortly by way of explanation, giving me a push. I scowled at him, but the eagle had already fly-hopped up to (or down to?) me. If birds could snarl, this one certainly was.
"All right, then, birdie," I muttered. "Just you and me." The bird and I had a brief staring contest, which wasn't so much a staring contest as an I'm-gonna-eat-you-no-you're-not silent message glare exchange.
Abruptly, the eagle reared back like it was going to peck at me and smush me into a little spot of demigod on the pavement. Seizing the chance, I ducked under the hard, primary flight feathers and leapt onto the eagle's back, praying that it wouldn't take off before I could get to its wing. I would die if it launched into flight, and probably out of my fear of heights rather than falling off and cracking my skull open.
Fortunately, that didn't happen. What did happen was that the monster decided to have another spaz attack. In a flurry of feathers and dust, I found myself Aegis-less and gripping the joint where its wing met its shoulders with both knees and one hand. I gritted my teeth to make sure I didn't bite my tongue off with the way I was bouncing around. It was only pure luck that I managed to cut the tendon in its wing I was going for, albeit messily.
My muscles gave in at the sight of the ground bobbing up and down ten feet below, and I tumbled off the eagle with just enough momentum to keep rolling until I was too far to get beat up by the eagle's wings. Shakily, I made my way back to the boys, after taking several deep breaths and trying really hard not to puke.
"Thanks so much," I muttered to Nico.
"You're welcome," he shot back.
"Original, Ghost King."
Nico opened his mouth for another retort, but Percy clamped his hand down over it. "One wing enough?" he asked.
I jerked my head 'yes'. "Should be. Getting it to stop is opening a whole other can of worms." I cursed as I spotted the glint of my shield flying through the air. "Heads up!" The metal passed so close over our heads it ruffled my hair.
"Man, how long until it calms down?" Percy squinted against the setting sun at the eagle, which was still spazzing out.
I shrugged. "Couple centuries, maybe." At the look on his face, I added, "Until it stops trying to find us and put us through its digestive system. I'd say at sundown we can start riding it." We stared at the eagle, which was trying attempt after attempt to lift off and spiraling down with an agitated squawk each time.
"Yippee," Nico said moodily. "We get to be eagle cowboys in the middle of the night."
After retrieving our now extremely smushed, crumpled, and beat up backpacks from the wreck of the car and collecting some dry shrub to burn, we set up camp for the next couple of hours until sundown came. The sky was clear for the first time all week, so we could see the early stars. It was only punctuated by the occasional CAW of frustration from the eagle.
"You know, this might actually be relaxing, except for the ginormous bird freaking out over there," Nico commented, lying on his back with his legs outstretched and his hands behind his head.
"Percy, hand me that soda can, would you?" I reached around the fire for an empty can of Pepsi, but drew back my hand when my sleeve came too close to the flames. "I don't want to burn up."
"Wouldn't that have already happened with all the electricity in you?"
I snorted. "I'm not a piece of wood. Water."
Nico tossed me a bottle. "Where are my thanks?"
"In the trash can." I opened the bottle and poured some water into the soda can. "Hey, do those spitfires with the forked branches actually work?"
"I dunno. Never tried," Percy replied. I held the can of water over the flames experimentally, to see if the flames were hot enough to get steam. It was, but the heat spread to the aluminum and burned my bare hand.
"Anybody got cloth?" I asked, shaking my hand vigorously and hissing at the sting.
"You want the rest of my mutilated shirt?" Nico asked, tossing me a skull T-shirt that was sliced so badly it was held together by what probably totaled to an inch of fabric.
"Your shirt." I shrugged and wrapped the dark cloth around the aluminum, being careful not to catch it on fire. After a few seconds of holding it above the fire, the steam began rising again. The last rays of golden sunlight caught it perfectly. "Drachma."
"How much are you going to give me for it?" Nico smirked. I rolled my eyes. He pulled a drachma out of his pocket with a little difficulty and tossed it through the mist. At least it saved me the trouble of doing that.
"O Iris, goddess of the rainbow, accept my offering. Show me Annabeth Chase, at Camp Half-Blood," I said, hoping that the setting sun wouldn't cut the message short.
The mist shimmered with the rainbow, and a picture of the pier with the beach and forest behind it appeared. Annabeth was nowhere to be seen.
"Thalia? Thank the gods, you're okay." Her voice came from the image, but I still couldn't see her. Then I laughed.
"Yankees cap, huh?"
"Oh, I forgot," Annabeth said sheepishly, shimmering into view as she pulled her invisibility cap from her head. Her blonde curls whipped from side to side as she looked around. "It's almost curfew. Where's Percy?"
Percy was at my side in an instant. "Right here, Wise Girl." He grinned, his face relaxing immediately. I'll admit I was jealous that he could just look at someone and forget all his worries like that. I almost snapped my fingers for emphasis on my thought.
"Good, you're not dead, Seaweed Brain," Annabeth said, though she was grinning in relief too. "And Nico?"
"What he said." Nico waved two fingers at the Iris-message.
"So. Any particular reason for calling? The harpies'll be out soon, I'm skiving off on reports, and I've got Chiron and Dionysus convinced you're down in the Underworld, you're visiting your mom, and you're staying at my place," Annabeth started briskly, pointing to each of us in turn. "How's it going? Where are you guys, anyway?"
I started to say that we were absolutely perfectly fine, which was a total lie, but Percy beat me to it. "We've made it to Arizona. We got attacked by this giant eagle, but none of us know what it is," he explained, waving a hand in the direction of the bird. By now, it had settled to weakly cawing and flapping its good wing.
Annabeth frowned. "It's too dark to see from my end. Describe it, would you? I know a couple of myths that mention an eagle."
"Well, it's big," Nico began. "And vicious. It tried to slice me open."
"It succeeded in slicing you open," I corrected. Annabeth blew out an exasperated breath, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.
"Sorry, but I need a better description than that," she laughed. The three of us started talking at once, all trying to cram in our part. Annabeth held up a hand. "Okay then. Thalia, you tell."
"Why not me?" Percy complained. "I'm your boyfriend."
"With a brain full of seaweed," she teased. "You can go after."
I nudged Percy. "I'm better than you," I mock boasted, then dropped back to being serious. "The eagle. It looks like a bald eagle, with bronze talons, a bronze beak, red eyes, a thirty-foot wingspan. Brown and black feathers on the body, white on the tail and head."
"And ichor," Nico put in.
"And ichor," I amended.
Annabeth tapped her faded, navy blue cap against her bottom lip, frowning. "It's immortal. That narrows it down. Just a second." She closed her eyes. I could almost hear the gears whirring as she sorted through files of information stored in her head, except that Nico's quiet breathing over my shoulder blocked it out.
"I got it. A theory, at least," Annabeth announced, opening her eyes. "That's probably the Caucasian eagle. One of Echidna's brood."
Percy shuddered. "I don't want to know who the father was."
"Some of the myths say it was sent by Zeus to eat Prometheus's liver every day," she continued.
"But Prometheus said that those were the vultures when he gave Percy Pandora's pithos. Jar. Whatever," I said, looking to Percy for confirmation. He nodded.
"It could be both," Annabeth said dubiously. "Wait a sec." Her eyebrows drew together in thought. "There's also a really small story – you know the Ophiotaurus?"
"Bessie?" Percy asked.
"Sure." Annabeth smiled at the shortened name. "Zeus sent an eagle to snatch his entrails before they could be sacrificed in the first Titan war, right? The myths don't go into detail about the eagle, but it's possible that that's it," she jerked her chin at the restless shape behind us. "It would explain how it went after Nico especially."
"Thanks," Nico grumbled.
"No problem. Thalia, I want to talk to you," Annabeth stated. She glanced between me and Nico suspiciously.
"Sure." I shrugged.
"Oh," Nico said after an awkward pause. "I'll just, um, go look at the eagle."
Percy started after him. "I'll make sure it doesn't eat him."
As soon as the boys were out of earshot, Annabeth said quietly, "What's going on?"
I shifted, knowing she'd recognized the tension between Nico and I. "What do you mean, what's going on? We're fine. All three of us."
"Thalia." She raised her eyebrows.
"Annabeth." I crossed my arms, pressing my lips into a thin line.
"Tha-alia," she sing-songed, smirking.
"Annabeth," I scowled.
"Thalia." She used her conscending tone.
"Annabeth," I whined.
"Thalia." She looked at me expectantly.
I threw up my hands. We didn't have enough Iris-messaging time to keep this up. "It's Nico, all right? We got in an argument. The big guy up there tried to get rid of him. End of story."
Annabeth's lips formed into an 'O' of understanding. "Offended you, didn't he?"
"You could say that," I muttered, casting my eyes downward.
"Hey, when you guys get back, you're giving me the full story."
My lips tugged themselves into a smile. I could still see a tiny bit of the stubborn seven-year-old Annabeth I remembered best in her. "Never."
"Oh, it must have been bad . . . Want me to guess?" The mood lightened with her playful smile.
"Oh, no. No no no no no," I laughed, though I was actually a little worried she would figure it out. Before I could say more, the steam dissapated along with the last rays of the sun. The last thing I got from Annabeth was a knowing wink before the image faded.
"Hey, you two! Get your butts over here; I'm not carrying all three bags," I called to the boys, who took their sweet time walking over. I tossed them their backpacks and put out the fire, kicking dirt over the ashy remains.
There was only one little problem when we reached the eagle: It was sitting on a pile of shrub and Joshua trees and sand with its head tucked under its good wing.
"Rock paper scissors on who gets to wake it up?"
"We could postpone eagle cowboy time to morning instead."
"We might as well rock paper scissors on who gets to be bird food."
"Way to go, birdie."
I'm seriously considering putting this on hiatus. Or discontinuing it. Working on some other projects right now, and this just kinda lost its appeal.