By late afternoon the next day, Merri was well on her way to Long Island. Most of the near 4 hour long drive was behind her and she was currently sitting up on the deck of the ferry, listening to her iPod, singing the song under her breath and simply enjoying the feel of the salty breeze and warm sun on her face. Before she'd left Boston, she'd asked Mrs. Landsbury, her elderly landlady, to water what little plants she had in her apartment and to take care of her cat, Lucy. While the woman immediately accepted the task of caring for Lucy, the blond Norwegian Forest cat was not as pleased with her accommodations and spent almost half an hour trying to somehow sneak into one of her owner's bags with no success.
Merri pointed her green eyes onto the horizon and watched the rolling waves with detached interest just as her track changed to Aimer's LAST STARDUST, a track from the anime Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and she hummed the words.
Furishikiru tsuyoi ame
Egaita yume no hate
Furueru kata nurashi
Surikireta chiisana te
Sukima wo umeru made
Iro no kieta kioku
Alright, now would be a good moment to mention that, despite her great love for old rock classics, Merri is by no means immune to the catchyness of anime tracks and has quite an assortment of music from her favorite shows and movies. If anyone asked, she blames her uncle Cole for her addiction.
Kizutsuku no ga
Sadame da to shite mo
Kokoro wa mada iro wa hanatsu
Hai ni nare
Dust to dust
Itsuka no yowasa e
Kizu darake no
Garasu no kokoro ga
Wasurekaketa netsu wo tomosu
Saigo no Stardust maiagare
Dust to dust, ash to ash
Negai no hahen yo towa e
Following her disembarking from the ferry, Merri proceeded to drive herself straight to the camp. Thinking back on it, this would be the fist time she came to camp alone. Previous years, her mum, Jane, would fly to New York with her and then drive her there. This year Merri was on the East Coast for the most of the year and so came by herself.
She parked her Impala next to the bus that was occasionally used to transport campers to and from camp. The thing was usually driven by Argus, a large blond guy with most of his body covered by eyes. He never spoke which prompted a rumor that he had an eye on his tongue as well. Merri shivered every time she thought of that.
Merri locked her car after grabbing the two large bags of stuff she'd brought. Not all of it were her clothes and comics (and graphic novels, of course) but also some small gifts she's brought for Percy, Grover and Annabeth.
The camp hadn't changed much since last summer, she noted. The cabins still formed the U around the fire. The dining pavilion still had no roof above it making her wonder for the thousandth time how it never rained during lunch, before she remembered that the weather was controlled within the barrier surrounding the entire camp.
The only visible difference was that Cabin 3 now actually looked lived in with not one, but two Poseidon's children; both of whom were claimed the year before.
Percy was made cabin counselor, despite Merri being a camper longer than he was, because he was claimed before her. Not that she minded. Unlike her, Percy was a natural leader and more charismatic than she was. She was more suited for following orders than making them.
She dumped her bags at the foot of her bunk, the one closest to the back window, and went to the bathroom to freshen up a bit. After splashing some cold water on her face, Merri tied her hair in a messy braid down her back and took off her hoodie, leaving her in a white tank, jean shorts and her red chucks.
On her thigh was a nasty jagged pale line while her forearms sported light burn scars, both results of her fight with Luke last summer when he fired Zeus' master bolt at her and she was too slow to defend herself. The line on her leg throbbed during sudden weather changes. She, also, had greatly reduced sense of touch on the burned expanse of her arms. Merri was just glad her hands had no leftover damage since they got the worst of the burn.
Tired, Merri threw herself on top of the covers. She was asleep before she even hit the pillow.
She awoke after an unknown amount of time to the sound of loud crashes and the yelling of other campers. Presuming it was some kind of an exercise devised by Chiron, Merri took her sweet time getting off her bed and stretching. A quick glance to the small clock next to her bed told her she was only asleep for about two hours. Swapping her shorts for a pair of cargo pants, Merri exited the cabin and was met with a completely unexpected sight.
The campers were fighting two elephant-sized bronze bulls on Half-Blood Hill and, to make matters worse, the bulls just had to breathe fire. The real problem, however, was the fact that the bulls were raging around the great pine tree. The magical boundaries around the camp were supposed to stop any kind of monster from passing Thalia's tree and entering camp grounds and, yet, here were these overgrown metal cows basically running circles around the tree all the while fighting off about a dozen of armed campers.
"They just had to breathe fire," Merri grumbled to herself and started marching in the direction of the battle.
A gruff, female voice Merri had no problem recognizing, shouted, "Border patrol, to me!" The words slightly confused Merri. 'Since when do we have border patrol.'
The voice Merri heard belonged to none other than Clarisse La Rue, a buff daughter of Ares with stringy brown hair and a penchant for wearing camouflage clothes. She was, in addition, one of the camp's biggest bullies and mostly liked to torment Percy with the help of her siblings, the reason remaining a mystery to Merri. Supposedly had something to do with a toilet but she wasn't completely certain. Still, Clarisse liked to stay away Merri after the redhead broke her nose a few years back.
Seeing Clarisse's warriors scattering and running about in panic, Merri sighed to herself. The brunette was fighting one of the bulls with a broken spear, the other end jammed into the joint of the animal's shoulder. There was one guy running in circles and doing his best impression of a windmill while the horse-hair plume on top of his helmet burned like a fiery Mohawk.
Concentrating, Merri summoned a large amount of water from the surrounding grass, trees and, even, the air. As the liquid circled her reminiscent of transparent tentacles, the vegetation turned brown and dry. She focused on compressing the water into seven bowling-ball-sized orbs, which floated around her, and tapped one of the charms on her bracelet, turning it into a sword and ran up the hill in Clarisse's direction. The brunette was organizing her troops into a phalanx but, unfortunately, only mustered six campers while the other four were still running around.
Annabeth appeared from the other side of the hill and started taunting one of the bulls into chasing her before promptly pulling out her baseball cap and turning invisible, completely confusing the bull. The other bull was charging at Clarisse at deadly speed, opening its hinged mouth and sending a column of flames at the phalanx. As the warriors were trying to hold their positions, the other bull lost interest in chasing Annabeth around and turned on Clarisse's unprotected side.
In that moment, Merri could've sworn she heard Percy yell a warning at Clarisse, startling the girl. Without thinking, Merri sent three of her condensed water-orbs flying at the second bull with break-neck speed, the force of their blow sending the bull flying through the air and it landed a few yards away on its side. The first bull still breathed fire at the phalanx, the shields of the campers turning red from the heat before they started melting off their arms. Startled, the warriors dropped their weapons and ran for it while the second bull got back on its feet and ran right back in for the kill, the target being Clarisse.
While Merri was busy blasting water at the first bull in an attempt to keep it at bay, Percy passed his sister's side, grabbed Clarisse by her armor and dragged her out of the second bull's path. As the bull passed them, Percy swung Riptide and cut a gash in the bull's flank. Sadly,the thing merely creaked and kept going. Merri would've kept a closer eye on her brother if she didn't already have her hands full with the bronze monstrosity before her.
As the first bull was making a wide arc and aiming itself at Percy, slightly slowing down as it neared the invisible protective line before breaking through it and continuing on, Merri tapped another one of the charms on her bracelet, the sword in her hand swapping place with a bronze bo-staff she expertly twirled in her hands, four of her orbs turning into blades of water she sent at the monster. That may not have done the damage she was hoping for but it did help in throwing it off course and making large indents in its side. Whenever the thing ran at her, she rolled to the side, she felt the heat of its metal 'skin' practically burn the skin making her flinch. Merri could feel the strength slowly draining from her and she was starting to get sleepy as the moments passed by. With all th packing she did yesterday, the drive here and the total of three hours sleep, the redhead was feeling exhausted but kept on fighting th bull if only to give Percy a chance to defeat the one on his tail. At one moment, Merri was half a second too slow to jump out of the bull's way and resorted t making a shield f hardened water in front of her to cushion the impact with the monster.
The force of the hit sent a strong vibration through her bones. Merri flew through the air, slamming her back into a tree. before she had the chance to fully regain her senses, the bull changed direction and headed straight for the disoriented girl. She tried to judge the distance between herself and the bull which proved to be difficult since she could see three of them. At, seemingly, the last minute, she managed to roll out of its way. The thing rammed itself into the tree, which groaned loudly before falling over from the force of the impact.
Merri was still dizzy and seeing double but she could discern bot Annabeth and Percy yelling at someone named 'Tyson'through the sound of something hitting metal. In the meantime, Clarisse managed to get to Merri's side and impale one of the bulls through its hind leg with a spear. With her vision slowly returning to normal, she could see that this wasn't the bull that almost ran her over; this one had a hug gash in its side and half of its snout was cut off. She had no doubt that this was the bull Percy was fighting; they must've swapped places while she was disoriented. The bull was trying to run in circles, moving slowly like a deranged version of a merry-go-round animal.
Clarisse pulled off her helmet and marched passed Merri, who was sitting on the ground ad holding a large ball of ice to her head, and towards Percy, Annabeth and a tall, brown-haired boy wearing the same tie-dyed t-shirt Percy had. Parts of Clarisse's brown hair were smoldering but the girl seemingly ignored it and started yelling at Percy. "You-ruin-everything! I had it under control."
Annabeth grumbled, "Good to see you too, Clarisse."
"Don't ever, EVER try saving me again!" Clarisse screamed. Merri simply flopped on her back, still holding the ice ball closely tote bump that was starting to form on the back of her head. For the love of her,she couldn't figure out why it was always her head that got hurt while she fought a monster. The Fury when she was seven-she got a concussion. The Manticore when she was twelve- concussion. Te Hellhound when she was fourteen- concussion. The Hydra last year- concussion. And she was pretty sure she had one now. This would be the fifth time she got a concussion in her life. She was surprised there was never any lasting brain damage or she'd most likely be eating on a straw by now. Must be a half-blood thing.
"Clarisse," Annabeth sighed, "you've got wounded campers."
That seemed to sober her up and her expression morphed from livid to concerned. Say what you will about Clarisse, but she cared about her soldiers.
Jokingly, Merri rose her free arm into the air and waved it. "Wounded camper, right here." Both Percy and Clarisse approached her with worried faces, inspecting the lying redhead.
Clrisse was the first to speak to her. "You okay, Dundee?"
"I'm fine," she said. "I think i may have another concussion but other than that I'm just peachy. I'll just have this knucklehead bring me bucket of water and I'll be as good as new," Merri pointed at her brother before looking back at Clarisse. "You, however, have others to take care of so scram before I stop seeing double and make you."
Clarisse snorted at her before turning to Percy. "I'll be back," she growled at the boy and proceeded to march off to asses the damage the two rampant bulls did to her soldiers.
"See you later, Terminator,"Merri yelled after her and chuckled when she heard her yell back something that sounded suspiciously like "Screw you!" in ancient Greek.
From her position on the floor, Merri saw Annabeth and the tall unknown boy near them. Percy turned around and looked at the boy.
"You didn't die," he said.
The boy looked down as if embarrassed. "I m sorry. Came to help. Disobeyed you."
"My fault," Annabeth interjected. "I had n choice. I had to let Tyson cross the boundary line to save you. Otherwise, you would've died." Her words sparked something in Merri's mind but only turned into a headache wen she tried to think about it. Percy must've noticed the same thing she did.
"Let him cross the boundary line? But-," he stammered. "Merri, what's she talking about?"
Merri closed her eyes and grumbled, "Cant't think. Head hurts." Percy sighed at her.
"Percy," Annabeth spoke, "have you ever looked at Tyson closely? I mean... in the face. Ignore the Mist, and really look at him."
Th mention of the Mist had Merri opening her eyes and looking the boy,identified as 'Tyson', right in the eyes. Being a descendant of three Olympian gods made it easier for her to see through the Mist than it would be for some other half-bloods. She gave Tyson a good look. He was about two meters tall, broad shouldered, with a mop of messy brown hair which hung sightly in his face. When she looked at his face, however, she was astound to find that the boy only had one eye. The said eye was placed in the middle of his forehead, had thick lashes and was calf-brown in color. There were also big tears trickling down his cheeks on either side.
The boy was a Cyclops.
"Is it just me," Merri blurted, "or is he a-?"
"Cyclops," Annabeth finished.
"Oh, so I didn't hit my head as hard as I thought," the Australian mused. Percy was still too stunned by what he saw to say a word.
"He's still just a baby, by the looks of him," Annabeth explained. "Probably why he couldn't get past the boundary lines as easily as the bull. Tyson's one of the homeless orphans."
That's when Percy's brain finally rebooted and his mouth became functional again. "One of the what?"
"They're in almost all the big cities," Annabeth continued distastefully. "They're... mistakes, Percy. Children of nature spirits and gods... Well, one god in particular, usually... and they don't always come out right. They get tossed aside. They grow up wild on the streets. I don't know how this one found you, but he obviously likes you. We should take him to Chiron, let him decide what to do."
"I sure hope you're planning on doing that after you've taken me to our cabin and sprinkled me with water like a damn daisy!" Merri quipped from the ground. "I mean, I'm still hurt here, and gross, and tired, and want to take a shower, and dizzy, and seeing double- no, scratch that, triple- and am sure that both Percy and Tyson would like to get some rest and have some time to process this whole thing, which leaves me with one small question: Who's gonna carry me back to cabin three?!" She scanned the stunned trio and spoke to Tyson. "Tyson, would you be sweet and help me up? Percy's got a banged up leg which I'm not sure is stale enough to hold both of us, and I don't like Chase enough to ask for her help- no offense, Chase."
Annabeth shrugged. "None taken. You're not my favorite person either."
"Glad that we're on the same page here. So, Tyson?" The Cyclops shyly nodded before bending down and slowly pulling the redhead up to lean on him for support. "Thank you very much," she said patting one of his shoulders.
"Okay," Percy said, "but what about the fire? How did Tyson not get burned when the bull shot it at him?"
"He's a Cyclops," Merri said. "They work the forges of the gods. They have to be immune to fire given that getting burned is an occupational hazard."
Annabeth nodded, "That's what I was trying to tell you earlier."
Clarisse came back over,wiping soot off her forehead. "Jackson, we need to carry the wounded back to the Big House, your sister included, and let Tantalus know what's happened."
"Tantalus?" Merri and Percy asked at the same time. "If that's a joke, Terminator, it's not funny," Merri said with a grave look.
"He's the activities director," Clarisse responded.
"Chiron is the activities director," Percy insisted. "And where's Argus? He's head of security. He should be here."
"I did find it a bit strange that I've seen neither of the two when I arrived earlier," Merri confirmed.
Carisse made a sour face. "Argus got fired. You three have been gone too long. Things are changing."
"What about Chiron? He's trained kids to fight monsters for over three millennium. He can't simply be gone! What happened?"
"That happened," Clarisse snapped and pointed to Thalia's tree.
The story behind the tree's importance is one well known among all campers. Roughly six years ago, Grover led Annabeth, Luke and Thalia to Camp Half-Blood with an army of monsters on their tail. When they were cornered atop Half-Blood Hill, Thalia, the daughter of Zeus, made her last stand to give her friends time to get to safety. In the battle, she was mortally wounded and, as she lay dying, her father, Zeus, took pity on her and turned her into a pine tree. Her spirit reinforced the magic borders around the camp, protecting it from all monsters. Ever since, the pine had been there, strong and healthy.
But now... Now, its needles were dry and yellow, and a pile of dead ones littered the base of the tree's trunk. In its center, three feet from the ground, was a bullet-hole-sized puncture mark, oozing green sap.
That explained why the borders were suddenly failing. Thalia's tree was dying.
It had been poisoned.