Not A Bad First Day
The rain began to let up as they trio trudged through the woods until Percy saw lights up ahead and Artie said he smelt fast food which did wonders to speed Annabeth and Percy on their way. They eventually came to a deserted road with an abandoned gas station, a bill board for a 1990's movie, and one open business which was the source of the light and more importantly the smell of food. Unfortunately it wasn't a restaurant like Percy and Annabeth had hoped for. It looked like one those curio stand you find on the side of empty roads that sold hand made lawn flamingos and native American knick knacks. The main building was a low worn warehouse surrounded by acres of statues. Above the entrance gate was a red neon sign. Due to his dyslexia, Percy couldn't make out the red cursive writing.
"What does it say?" he asked Annabeth.
"I don't know." she answered. "Artie?"
Artie shrugged, "It could say 'Shortcut To Underworld' for all I know."
Percy and Annabeth crossed the street and walked through the front lot to the entrance as Artie brought up the rear. As they walked past statue after statue, Artie could help feeling uneasy. He had been ambushed enough times in his life to know when to trust his instincts, then gain those same instincts caused him to overreact. It was those same instincts that taught everyone not to tap his shoulder from behind unless they wanted a broken finger or wrist. Artie had done his best to learn to relax but every night his still slept with a knife in hand and his back against a wall, jumping awake at the slightest noise. Still, Artie thought, better safe than sorry.
"Let's turn back." said Artie. "This place feels off."
"The lights are on." said Annabeth. "Maybe it's open."
"Snack bar?" asked Percy.
"Snack bar." she answered.
They continued walking and stopped at the front door. Artie did his best to calm his nerves, but it was a hard fight. This place had all the tell-tale signs of an ambush. It was deadly silent which was strange. At the very least there should have been crickets or small animals scampering in the woods. That was another sign. As they reached the road Artie thought it was strange that the few animals they had come across,were running away from this place, as if they knew it was a place to avoid.
Percy raised his hand to knock when Artie stopped him, "Stop! It's a trap."
Annabeth gave him a look, "A trap?"
"I smell monsters too." Artie added.
"All I smell hamburgers." Percy said.
"Yeah." agreed Annabeth. "You're nose is still clogged up those Furies."
Percy turn to knock when the door opened and revealed a middle eastern woman, or it was a fair assumption to make. She wore a long black gown that covered everything except her hands, which were well manicured but wrinkled. Artie and Percy guessed her to be an older woman, a grandmother perhaps. On her head was veil that hid her face from view. You just make out her eyes behind a layer of black gauze.
Her accent only seemed to reinforced that she was middle eastern. "Children, it is too late for you to be all alone. Where are your parents?"
Annabeth hesitated, "They're . . . um . . . "
"We're orphans." said Percy.
"Orphans?" asked the woman. "Oh my dears. Surely not."
"We were separated from our circus caravan." continued Percy. "The ring master told us to meet him at the gas station if we got lost, but I think he meant another gas station. Is that food I smell?"
"Oh my dears." the women said." You must come in, poor children. I am Aunty Em and this is my garden emporium. Please to go to the back of the warehouse. There is a dining area."
They thanked her and walked inside. Artie still could not shake the feeling he was in danger. It's just statuary place, he told himself. The worst thing in here is ugly ceramic gnomes. Artie was too busy convincing himself, he failed to notice Aunty Em had locked the door behind them. Percy and Annabeth were too occupied talking to notice either.
"Circus caravan?" Annabeth whispered to Percy.
"Always have a plan right?" he answered.
"You're head is so full of kelp."
They reached the dining areas and saw that It had everything you could want. A grill for burgers with a soda fountain and a nacho cheese dispenser. There was pretzel heater and a deep fryer for french fries and onion rings. There were even several steel picnic tabled in case a lot of people showed up. Aunty Em walked behind the counter and motion for them to sit.
"Um, we don't have any money ma'am." said Artie,
Percy was about to elbow him in the ribs when Aunty Em said, "No no children. No money. This is a special case. It is how you say, my treat."
"Thank you ma'am." said Annabeth.
Suddenly Aunty Em stiffened, as if Annabeth had done something wrong, but relaxed just as quickly. "Quite alright, Annabeth. You have such beautiful gray eyes child."
Artie blinked as Aunty Em disappeared behind the counter and began cooking. Maybe he missed it when he was trying to relax his nerves, but he was sure they hadn't introduced themselves. They had to have done so at some point, he reasoned. Nothing else explained how she knew Annabeth's name. He then looked down and saw he was still using his tank top as a bandaged on where the Fury sank her teeth into his shoulder.
Carefully, he unwrapped his shoulder and slipped it on his shirt. The bleeding had stopped which worried him. A wound this bad shouldn't heal that fast without proper treatment. He was fairly sure Furies weren't venomous, but gods only knew what kind of germs they carried. He only hoped that the Fury was just as worried about the chunk he ripped out. He touched his shoulder and found it sensitive and warm to his touch. That's it, he decided, he was going to treat his shoulder first thing in the morning.
Before long Aunty Em returned with plastic trays heaped with double cheeseburgers, vanilla shakes, and XXL servings of french fries. Percy was halfway through his burger when he remembered to breath as Annabeth slurped her shake and Artie picked at his fries, too nervous to dig in.
He lifted his head suddenly, "Anyone else hear a hissing noise?"
"Hissing?" asked Percy.
"Yeah, kinda like a bunch of snakes mixed together."
"Perhaps you hear the deep fryer oil." offered Aunty Em. "You have keen ears, Artemis."
"They've come in handy." said Artie. "I don't like for people to sneak up on me."
"That's admirable." said Aunty Em. "But please, relax."
Artie nodded and did his best to focus on his food and not the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach or that annoying mental itch in the back of his head.
Satisfied with a full stomach, Percy decided to make small talk with their hostess. "So you sell gnomes?"
"Oh yes." said Aunty Em. "And animals. And People. Anything for the garden really. Statuary is very popular, you know."
"A lot of business on this road?"
"Not since the highway was built. Most don't come this way anymore, so I must cherish every customer I get."
Unable to shake to the feeling he was being watched Artie looked behind him. It was a statue of a little girl with an Easter basket. Artie was amazed at the detail and wondered how talented one would have to be to match it. He guessed only Beckendorf from the Hephaestus could match her skill. The only thing that seemed off was the face. She looked startled, like someone had snapped a picture of her while she wasn't looking.
"Ah." said Aunty Em sadly. "You notice some of my creations don't turn out well. The face is always the hardest to get just right. Always the face, always."
"You make these yourself?"
"Oh yes. For a while I had two sisters who would help me, but they have passed on. That is why I make statues, they are my company." explained Aunty Em sadly.
Annabeth froze mid bite as Artie sat forward and asked, "Two sisters?"
Artie wasn't sure why this caught his attention, but he was sure it was important and apparently so did Annabeth since she watched Aunty Em with new found interest. That mental itch was becoming more like fly buzzing near his ear, hard to ignore. Clearly he was missing something.
"It's a terrible story." Aunty Em said. "Not one for children."
"Please go on." insisted Annabeth.
"You see Annabeth," she began. "A bad woman was jealous of me, long ago,when I was young. I had a . . . boyfriend, you know, and this woman was determined to break us apart. She caused a terrible accident. My sisters stay by and shared my misfortune as long as they could, but eventually they passed on. I alone survived, but at such a price. Such a price."
If this was a cartoon, Artie was sure his head would turn into a red swirling light and a loud siren. It wasn't just his nerves, They were in danger the second this old lady answered the door and invited them inside. Artie imagined a small version of himself on his shoulder holding a picture of a donkey, like something out of an old cartoon. Maybe if he stayed calm and didn't let on he knew who she was, then they might be able to leave without a fight. Somehow he really doubted it.
Annabeth poked Percy, "Percy, maybe we should go. I mean the ringmaster will be waiting."
"Such beautiful gray eyes." She told Annabeth again. "My stars, yes, It has been a long time since I've seen gray eyes like those."
She reached out to touch Annabeth's cheek, but she stood abruptly, "We really should go."
"Yes!" agreed Artie jumping to his feet rather quickly, eager to leave. "The ringmaster is waiting. We'll have to clean out the tiger cage if we're late."
Aunty Em began pleading sweetly, "Please, I so rarely get to be with children. Won't you please stay for a pose?"
"A pose?" asked Artie.
"A photograph." explained Aunty Em. " I will use it to model a new statue. Everyone love children, you see."
Artie was about to speak when Annabeth said, "I don't think we can ma'am. Come on, Percy -"
"Sure we can." assured Percy, getting a little annoyed that Annabeth was being rude to a sweet old lady that had just fed them. "It's just a photo, Annabeth. What's the harm?"
"Yes, Annabeth." purred the woman. "No harm."
Artie would have smacked the back of Percy's head, but Aunty Em separated them as she led them back into the front lot filled with statues. Annabeth also seemed to be on edge, but she kept quiet, no doubt forming a plan, hopefully better than his. Maybe plan was a bit of stretch. So far his plan consisted of faking a yawn and drawing an arrow from his quiver, making sure Aunty Em didn't see it. For whatever reason, she seemed more focused on Percy and Annabeth which was fine by Artie.
Aunty Em stopped at a bench. "Now I'll just position you correctly. The young girl in the middle with a gentleman on either side."
"Not much light for a photo." remarked Percy.
"Oh, enough." she assured. "Enough light for us to see each other."
"Where's your camera?" asked Artie, uneasy.
Aunty Em ignored the question and stood back to admire the shot. "Now the face is always the most difficult. Can you all smile for me please? A large smile."
Artie noticed the cement satyr next to him, frozen in terror. "That looks a lot like Grover."
"Artemis!" chastised Aunty Em. "Look this way please."
That stone satyr looked to real just to be a statue. If Artie was right about who this lady was, then he knew why she still didn't have a camera in her hands. He forced himself to wait for the right opportunity to fire his arrow, hopefully his hands wouldn't shake and take too long to fire.
"I will be just a moment." said Aunty Em. "You know, I can't see very well in this cursed veil . . . "
Artie let the arrow drop till he was holding the very end with his fingertips just as Aunty Em reached up behind her head to remove her headdress. He took a deep breath and opened his left hand where a polished silver ring rested on his ring finger.
What happened from there, happened in slow motion.
Annabeth tackled Percy to the ground just as his silver ring sprang into a silver hunting bow, a gift from his mother. The bow was, of course, magic. From a small a silver ring, a bow appeared in Artie's hand. At the bow's full size, it was little over two meters tall which was needed greatly for great distances. Artie had learned it was made to resemble a samurai's Yumi bow, though it had delicate Greek carvings running down the length of the bow's limb, depicting a group of hunters running through a forest with a star filled sky.
In the time it took for Annabeth to tackle Percy to the ground, Artie closed his eyes and loosed the arrow. Artie didn't dare open his eyes for two reasons. First, he hand no desire to be turned into stone by Medusa's gaze. Second, he would have succeeded in blinding himself as well as Medusa. He done that already once, when he first got the quiver and while it was temporary, he didn't want a repeat mistake.
A half second later he heard a faint explosion followed by a bellow from a blinded Medusa. Artie guessed Medusa was stumbling backward from the receding footsteps and the the sound of hissing snakes growing slightly fainter. The solar arrow, as he called it, would level out the playing field for a few seconds. They couldn't see Medusa but she wouldn't be able to see them, giving them a chance to form a plan. Artie drew another arrow, nocked it, and tried to zone on Medusa position from the sound of her hissing hair.
"Do you really wish to help the gods?" she asked. "Do you know what awaits you on this foolish quest, Percy? In the Underworld? It would be better if you became a statue. Less pain, Percy, less pain."
Artie smiled a shot another arrow. He heard his arrow slice through something and shatter on a statue behind her. He would have opened his eyes, but the angry hissing was still there.
"How dare you?" Medusa demanded. "No one cuts my hair! No one!"
"I'm sorry. Let me even that out for you." said Artie as fired more arrows at random, hoping to get a lucky shot.
Clearly Artie's luck had run out. He heard his arrows race past as Medusa ran towards him. Instinctively Artie stepped back just as something slashed an inch from his face. He reached for an arrow just as something smashed into the back of his head, sending him to floor. In his haste to avoid getting slashed to ribbons, Artie had backed up into a statue. Taking the advantage, Medusa hauled Artie to his feet and embraced him.
Part of Artie wondered why the most famous and hideous of the three gorgon sisters was giving him a hug, like she was greeting a grandson. The rest of him struggled against his iron grip. With her face inches from his, her hair sounded like a radio with nothing but static. Although this static ran across his face and snapped by his ear.
"Don't be shy guys." Artie called out. "Feel free to tag in anytime now."
Even with eyes closed Artie could feel several snakes slithering around his injured shoulder which felt inflamed and sensitive. The sensitivity became apparent when he felt at least three sink their fangs into it. He screamed as he felt them inject liquid, venom part of him realized.
"The first child of the moon." sneered Medusa. "I expected more."
"Expect this!" snarled Artie as he drew his head back, intending to headbutt her nose back into her head.
Then something unexpected happened. Artie heard it a split second before he was planning his head forward. With his eyes still closed,Artie a swish which was quickly followed by a sickening shlock. Artie felt something bounce of his chest and land at his feet as Medusa's grip vanish as the hissing was replaced with the sound of wind escaping a cavern, the sound he had come know as a monster disintegrating.
Artie was about to look down when Annabeth cried,"Don't look!"
Percy kept his gaze towards the sky as Artie looked away. Annabeth bent down and carefully wrapped Medusa's head in her veil, making sure not to look at it. She let them know it was safe once she finished. Percy sighed a breath of relief while Artie steadied himself with a nearby statue.
"So we have Athena to thank for that." said Percy.
Annabeth flashed him an irritated look," It was your dad actually. He . . . ."
"It was both their faults!" snapped Artie.
"What?" they asked.
"I'm not gonna say what Percy's did was right, but Athena clearly over reacted" said Artie. "Now if you two would be kind enough to stop arguing, We have to decided we're gonna do with the head, cause I'm not gonna lug that thing all they way to LA."