Following being nearly dragged to the Apollo cabin medics and doused with a bucket of water, Merri took a moment to really look around the camp as she followed Annabeth, Percy and Tyson to the Big House. She really felt blind now. It astounded her how she had not noticed the change in the air or seen armed nymphs. The forest itself was sickly looking, for Pete's sake!
Campers and satyrs were running all around, stockpiling weapons and organizing patrols. In the expanse of one year, the camp turned from a safe and reasonably happy place for half-bloods to something akin to a military school.
Apparently, none of that bothered the young Cyclops as Tyson was fascinated with everything he saw and frequently asked Percy what everything was, to what the teen patiently answered. "Whatsthat!" Tyson asked, looking at the cabins.
"Those are cabins for the campers," Percy told him. "If they don't know who your Olympian parent is, they put you in the Hermes cabin - the brown one over there - until you're determined. Then, once they know, they put you in your dad or mom's group."
Tyson looked at him in awe. "You... have a cabin?"
"Number three," Percy pointed at the low sea stone building.
"You live with friends in the cabin?"
"Well, it's just me and Merri-"
"It's 'Merri and I', Perce," Merri was quick to correct to what Percy shot her with an annoyed look. "What?! It's subconscious! I can't help it to correct people when I hear something like that." Percy and Annabeth rolled their eyes at the older girl while Tyson chuckled next to her.
When the quartet got to the Big House, they found Chiron in is apartment, listening to 1960s music, that seemed like something Merri's grandpa enjoyed, while packing his saddlebags up. Merri had no trouble voicing her opinion of the centaur's taste in music as often as possible.
The moment Tyson saw him, however, he froze and cried: "Pony!" with a look so priceless, Merri internally berated herself for not having a camera on hand. She made an internal note to always carry one with her from this day onwards.
"You planning on going away, Chiron?" she asked while looking over a random Sinatra record.
The moment Merri ended her sentence, Annabeth ran up to the centaur and hugged him around the waist. "What's going on, Chiron? You're not really... leaving, are you?" The shakiness in the girl's voice was not surprising as she thought of Chiron as her second father.
Chiron gently ruffled Annabeth's blonde hair and smiled at the four teens. "Hello, child. Merriall, always a pleasure to see you. And Percy, my goodness. You've grown over the year."
"Clarisse said you were...," Percy started "That you were, um..."
"Fired." Chiron finished for him. "Ah, well, someone had to take the blame. Lord Zeus was most upset. The tree he'd created from his daughter's spirit, poisoned! Mr. D had to punish somebody."
"Besides himself, you mean," Percy growled.
Merri rubbed her chin in thought while leaning on a table. "What I don't understand is why you of all people. You'd be the last person to try and do something like this."
"Nevertheless," Chiron sighed, "some in Olympus do not trust me now, under the circumstances."
"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me!" Merri practically jumped away from the table. "Still?! Really?! Well, aren't they just a bunch of hypocrites."
Chiron said nothing, simply stuffed a Latin-English dictionary in a bag with Frank Sinatra playing in the background. Tyson was still staring at the centaur in amazement, whimpering like he wanted to pat the immortal creature's flank but was too frightened to approach him. "Pony?"
Chiron sniffed. "My dear young Cyclops! I am a centaur."
"Chiron", Merri started. "What exactly happened to the tree?"
He shook his head sadly. "The poison used appears to be from the Underworld. Some type of venom even I have never seen. It must have come from a monster quite deep in the pits of Tartarus."
"Then we know who's responsible!" Percy exclaimed. "Kro-"
"Do not invoke the titan lord's name, Percy. Especially not here, not now."
"But last summer he tried to cause a civil war in Olympus! This has to be his idea. He'd get Luke to do it, that- "He cut himself off after his eyes caught Merri's.
Last summer, during their fight for Zeus' Master Bolt, Luke uncovered to Percy that he was actually working for Kronos, the king of titans.
For those not familiar with the myth, Kronos is the father of most of the twelve Olympian gods them being: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. Due to a prophecy of one of his children dethroning him, Kronos swallowed them all upon birth. When Zeus, the youngest, was born, his mother, Rhea, gave Kronos a stone in place of the baby god while she sent her son to be raised in the mortal world. In short, when Zeus was all grown up, he gave his father a potion which forced the titan to throw all his children up. Since they are immortal, instead of being digested in is stomach, they grew and matured. Finally free, Zeus and his siblings waged war on the titans and came out victorious. Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, took Kronos' scythe, chopped him into tiny pieces and locked him up in a sarcophagus, which they threw into the deepest depths of Tartarus. But, since he's immortal, he is still alive, in eternal pain, and plotting on returning and exacting his revenge on Olympus. He may not be able to do anything on his own, but he is still good at twisting the minds of others to do his bidding.
Anyhow, back to the present.
"Perhaps," Chiron said. "But I fear I am being held responsible because I did not prevent it and I cannot cure it. The tree has only a few weeks of life left unless…"
"Unless what?" Annabeth asked. Merri, too, looked intrigued.
"No," Chiron said, shaking his head. "A foolish thought. The whole valley is feeling the shock of the poison. The magical borders are deteriorating. The camp itself is dying. Only one source would be strong enough to reverse the poison, and it was lost centuries ago."
It was as if something suddenly clicked inside Merri's head and she threw a wide-eyed look at Chiron, her green eyes looking almost blue and swirling with recognition. "Quod ais te putare dicere? (Are you saying what I think you're saying?)" she asked in fluent Latin. When Chiron nodded somberly, she continued to mutter to herself, still speaking in Latin and drawing weird looks from Percy and Annabeth, seeing as the two had quite the trouble with understanding the older girl even though they knew quite a bit Latin. Merri was recollecting the story to herself in an attempt to find any clue she could about the object they needed.
In the meantime, Chiron had finished packing and turned to Percy. "Percy, you must promise me that you will not act rashly. I told your mother I did not want you to come here at all this summer. It's much too dangerous. But now that you are here, stay here. Train hard. Learn to fight. But do not leave."
"Why?! I want to do something! I don't see you babying Merri so much and she's barely a year older than me! No, I can't just let the borders fall. The whole camp will be-"
"Overrun by monsters," Chiron calmly finished for him. "Yes, I fear so. But you must not let yourself be baited into hasty action! This could be a trap of the titan lord. Remember last summer. You almost lost your life."
"And why aren't you telling any of this to Merri? She's still my sister." The girl in question was still pacing on the side, muttering to herself, unknowingly switching from Latin, to English, to Greek, to French, but a part of her attention was focused solely on the other occupants of the room.
Chiron sighed. "Merriall has been a camper here longer than anyone, including Annabeth. She has more experience in dealing with monsters as well as a better grasp on her abilities. She is, also, not as impulsive as you and can be trusted not to do anything rash." Finishing his explanation, Chiron turned to Anabeth, who was trying hard not to burst into tears. "You stay with Percy, child. Keep him safe." With a glance to Merri, he whispered and them continued in his normal tone: "Keep them both safe. Remember the prophecy."
"Um…" Percy said. "Would this be the super-dangerous prophecy that has me in it, but the gods have forbidden you to tell me about?"
"Right. Just checking."
"Chiron..." Annabeth said. "You told me the gods made you immortal only so long as you were needed to train heroes. If they dismiss you from camp-"
"Swear you will do your best to keep those two from danger," he insisted. "Swear upon the River Styx."
"I-I swear it upon the River Styx," Annabeth said.
Thunder rumbled outside. 'I don't think she knows what she just got herself into,' Merri thought with a small sigh.
"Very well," Chiron said. He seemed to relax just a little bit. "Perhaps my name will be cleared and I shall return. Until then, I go to visit my wild kinsmen in the Everglades. It's possible they know of some cure for the poisoned tree that I have forgotten. In any event, I will stay in exile until this matter is resolved... one way or another."
As Annabeth tried to choke down a sob, Chiron awkwardly patted her shoulder. "There, now, child. I must entrust your safety to Mr. D and the new activities director. We must hope... well, perhaps they won't destroy the camp quite as quickly as I fear."
"If only we were so lucky, Chiron," Merri quipped.
"Who is this Tantalus guy, anyway?" Percy demanded. "Where does he get off taking your job?"
The sound of a conch horn blowing across the valley seemed to startle the younger campers, while Merri simply threw a quick glance over her shoulder, in the directing the sound had come from. They hadn't realized how late it had gotten. It was time for the campers to assemble for dinner.
"Go," Chiron urged them. "You will meet him at the pavilion. I will contact your mother, Percy, and let her know you're safe and with Merriall. No doubt she'll be worried by now. Just remember my warning! You and your sister are in grave danger. Do not think for a moment that the titan lord has forgotten about either of you two!"
With that, he clopped out of his apartment and down the hall, Tyson calling after hi, "Pony! Don't go!"
"Well, that wasn't ominous at all," Merri remarked sarcastically while rubbing Tyson's back as he was bawling his eye out almost as bad as Annabeth. The blonde's reaction was completely understandable; she'd just lost her father figure and they were practically at war with one of the biggest enemies their ancestors had ever faced. Percy approached her and tried to tell Annabeth that it would all be okay, but the look in his eyes said that he didn't completely believe it himself.
The sun was setting behind the dinning pavilion as the campers were leaving their cabins. After promising to talk to Percy later, Annabeth went off to join her sibling from the Athena cabin – a dozen or so boys and girls with blond hair and gray eye like her. Annabeth wasn't the oldest but she'd been at camp more summers than anyone, excluding Merri who had been there a year or two more.
Next came Clarisse, leading the Ares cabin. Her arm was in a sling and there was a nasty gash on her face, but otherwise her encounter with the bronze bulls seemed not to have fazed her at all. Someone had taped a piece of paper to her back that said, You moo, girl! But no one in her cabin was bothering to inform her of this.
After them came the Hephaestus cabin – Merri's grandfather's half-siblings – six of them led by Charles Beckendorf, a big African American guy with hand the size of catchers' mitts and a hard and squinty-looking face from working in the forge all day. He was a nice enough guy once you've made the effort of getting to know him – like many had learned was the case with Merri as well – and most just called him by his last name. There was a rumor that he could make anything as long as you gave him metal to work with. It didn't matter if it was a sharp sword, a robot warrior or a bloody singing birdbath for your grandmother's garden. Whatever you wanted, he could make. Or so the rumor stated.
Slowly, the other cabins filed in: Demeter, Apollo, Aphrodite, Dionysus. Naiads came up from the cane lake. Dryads melted out of the trees. From the meadow came a dozen satyrs, but Merri took notice of Grover's absence.
While they worked all kinds of odd jobs for Mr. D, at the camp, the satyrs' most important work was in the real world. They were seekers, going undercover into schools all over the world, looking for potential half-bloods and escorting them back to camp. It was how most of the campers, including Percy, came to know of their godly heritage. Merri, on the other hand, was flown to the US with her grandmother after a Fury had attacked Merri and rendered her grandfather paralyzed from the waist down. Fearing for their granddaughter's safety, the Rafters took a seven-year-old Merri to Long Island and to the camp, where they too had once trained, and entrusted her into Chiron's care. Merri had been coming here, every summer ever since. Her clay bead necklace, which she was rarely seen wearing, had more beads than any other, including Annabeth's.
After the satyrs filed in, the Hermes cabin brought up the rear. They were the biggest cabin, taking in both Hermes' claimed children and all other newcomers until they are claimed. Last summer, they had been led by Luke, who'd fought on top of Half-Blood Hill with Annabeth and Thalia, and who'd been the first person to befriend Merri. Up until last year, Merri had been a member of the Hermes cabin until she was claimed by Poseidon, following her and Percy's return from New York and the return of Zeus' Bolt.
Now, the Hermes cabin was led by Travis and Connor Stoll. They weren't twins, but they looked so much alike it didn't matter. Both were tall and skinny, with mops of brown hair hanging in their eyes. They wore those atrocious orange Camp Half-Blood T-shirts and had those elfish features all Hermes' kids seemed to possess: upturned eyebrows, sarcastic smiles and a gleam in their eyes whenever they looked at someone – like they were about to drop a firecracker down your shirt.
The moment all the campers had filed in, Percy and Merri led Tyson into the middle of the pavilion. Conversation faltered. Heads turned. Someone from the Apollo table murmured, "Who invited that?"
Merri immediately shot an icy glare at the person. "I heard that, kid!" she said pointedly.
From the head table a familiar voice drawled, "Well, well, if it isn't Peter Johnson. My millennium is complete."
"Percy Jackson… sir," the boy in question grit through his teeth from Merri's side.
Mr. D sipped his Diet Coke. "Yes. Well, as you young people say these days: Whatever." Behind him, a nervous-looking satyr was peeling the skins off grapes and handing them to Mr. D one at a time.
Mr. D's real name is Dionysus; the god of wine and insanity. Zeus appointed him director of Camp Half-Blood to dry out for a century – a punishment for chasing a wood nymph Zeus had had his eye on. Yeesh!
Next to him, where Chiron usually sat - or stood, depending on which form he was in at the moment- was a horribly thin, pale man in a threadbare orange prisoner's jumpsuit with a number over the pocket that read 0001. He had blue shadows under his eyes, dirty fingernails, and badly cut gray hair (weed whacker style). This could only be Tantalus.
"These two," Mr. D told him, pointing at the green-eyed siblings, "you need to watch over. Poseidon's children, you know."
"Ah! The girl and the dark-haired boy." The tone he'd used made it clear that they had already discussed Merri and Percy over in great detail.
"I am Tantalus," he introduced himself with a cold smile. "On special assignment here until, well, until my Lord Dionysus decides otherwise. And you, Perseus Jackson and Merriall Rafter, I do expect you to refrain from causing any more trouble."
"Who? Trouble? Us?" Merri said overdramatically, sarcasm practically pouring from every word. "Never! Why, my brother and I are just a pair of little angels!" She even threw in an innocent bat of her eyelashes and a puppy-eye-look.
Mr. D snapped his fingers and a copy of the New York Post appeared on the table. There was Percy's yearbook picture on the front page. The headline took a bit concentration to make out but the gist of it was: Seventeen-Year-Old Lunatic Torches Gymnasium. Merri gave her half-brother a look that screamed 'Seriously?!'
"Yes, trouble," Tantalus said with satisfaction. "You caused plenty of it last summer, I understand."
A satyr inched forward nervously and set a plate of barbecue in front of Tantalus. The new activities director licked his lips. He looked at his empty goblet and said, "Root beer. Barq's special stock. 1967."
Remembering who Tantalus was, Merri crossed her arms with a smirk. "Well, this is gonna be interesting," she quietly muttered. Percy must've heard her as he gave her a confused look. She merely gestured for him to watch Tantalus.
The glass filled itself with foamy soda. Tantalus stretched out his hand hesitantly, as if he were afraid the goblet was hot.
"Go on, then, old fellow," Mr. D said, a strange sparkle in his eyes. "Perhaps now it will work."
Tantalus grabbed for the glass, but it scooted away before he could touch it. A few drops of root beer spilled, and Tantalus tried to dab them up with his fingers, but the drops rolled away like quicksilver before he could touch them. He growled and turned toward the plate of barbecue- he picked up a fork and tried to stab a piece of brisket, but the plate skittered down the table and flew off the end, straight into the coals of the brazier. Meat committing suicide. There's a first time for everything.
"Blast!" Tantalus muttered.
"Ah, well," Mr. D said, his voice dripping with false sympathy. "Perhaps a few more days. Believe me, old chap, working at this camp will be torture enough. I'm sure your old curse will fade eventually."
"Eventually," muttered Tantalus, staring at Dionysus' Diet Coke. "Do you have any idea how dry one's throat gets after three thousand years?"
"A just punishment, if you ask me," Merri said with a serious face.
Tantalus threw a venomous look at the auburn-haired girl. "Well, no one asked you, now did they?"
"You're that spirit from the Fields of Punishment," Percy exclaimed. "The one who stands in the lake with the fruit tree hanging over you, but you can't eat or drink."
Tantalus sneered at him. "A real scholar, aren't you, boy?"
"You forgot about the huge boulder hanging over," Merri added. "The one that's about to fall and crush him any second."
"I didn't see any boulder there."
"Oh, trust you me, it's there."
"You must've done something really horrible when you were alive," Percy turned back to Tantalus, mildly impressed. "What was it?"
Tantalus' eyes narrowed. Behind him, the satyrs were shaking their heads, trying to warn Percy.
"I'll be watching you, Percy Jackson," Tantalus said. "I don't want any problems at my camp."
"Your camp already has problems… sir."
"Oh, go sit down, Johnson," Mr. D sighed. "I believe that table over there is yours. Take your harpy of a sister with you, please."
Percy was seething as he turned to their table, while Merri was muttering an extremely long string of what seemed to be curses in French. He motioned for Tyson to follow them.
"Oh, no," Tantalus said. "The monster stays here. We must decide what to do with it."
"Him," Percy snapped. "His name is Tyson."
Tantalus raised an eyebrow.
"Tyson saved the camp, today," Merri said. "He pounded those bulls. Had he not, they would've burned this whole place to the ground."
"Yes," Tantalus sighed. "and what a pity that would've been."
"Leave us," Tantalus ordered, "while we decide this creature's fate."
Tyson looked at Percy in fear.
"I'll be right over here, big guy," Percy promised. "Don't worry. We'll find you a god place to sleep tonight."
Tyson nodded. "I believe you. You are my friend."
Percy trudged over to the Poseidon table with a guilty look and slumped onto the bench. Merri plopped herself across from him. A wood nymph brought a plate of Olympian olive-and-pepperoni pizza for Percy and a bacon-cheeseburger nearly the size of a handball with a large side of curly chilly-fries for Merri. The girl was practically drooling at the sight of her dinner. As was customary, she got up with her plate and scraped off most of her fries into the flames of the bronze brazier. Next to her, Percy mimicked her actions.
"Poseidon," they said, "accept my offering."
'And, please, send some help as well. I fear we may be a bit in over our heads with this,' Merri prayed silently.
The smoke from the burning pizza and fries changed into the smell of clean sea breeze with wild flowers mixed in. Still, neither half-blood knew if their father was really listening.
The two went back to their seats. Merri was just about to take a bite out of her food, when Tantalus had one of the satyrs blow the conch horn to get the campers' attention for announcements. She reluctantly put her burger back on her plate and turned to Tantalus but still throwing looks of yearning to her food. She silently swore revenge on the new activities director if her food went cold during his announcement.
"Yes, well," Tantalus said, once the talking had died down. "Another fine meal! Or so I am told." As he spoke, he inched his hand toward his refilled dinner plate, as if maybe the food wouldn't notice what he was doing, but it did! It shot away down the table as soon as he got within six inches.
"And here on my first day of authority," he continued, "I'd like to say what a pleasant form of punishment it is to be here. Over the course of the summer, I hope to torture, er, interact with each and every one of you children. You all look good enough to eat."
Dionysus clapped politely, leading to some halfhearted applause from the satyrs. Tyson was still standing at the head table, looking uncomfortable, but every time he tried to scoot out of the limelight, Tantalus pulled him back.
"And now some changes!" Tantalus gave the campers a crooked smile. "We are reinstituting the chariot races!"
Murmuring broke out at all the tables – excitement, fear, disbelief.
"Now I know," Tantalus continued, raising his voice," that these races were discontinued some years ago due to, ah, technical problems."
"Three deaths and twenty-six mutilations," someone at Apollo table called.
"Yes, yes!" Tantalus said. "But I know that you will all join me in welcoming the return of this camp tradition. Golden laurels will go to winning charioteers each month. Teams may register in the morning! The first race will be held in three days time. We will release you from most of your regular activities to prepare your chariots and choose your horses. Oh, and did I mention, the victorious team's cabin will have no chores for the month in which they win?"
An explosion of excited conversation – no KP for a whole month? No stable cleaning? Was he serious? Merri scoffed and turned back to chomping up her burger. "Count me out, I'm not suicidal," she told Percy when he gave her an excited look. "I'm surrounded by idiots," she muttered to herself.
"But, sir!" Clarisse said. She appeared to be nervous, but stood up to speak from the Ares table, regardless. Some campers snickered when they saw the paper still stuck to her back. "What about patrol duty? I mean, if we drop everything to ready our chariots-"
"Ah, the hero of the day," Tantalus exclaimed. "Brave Clarisse, who single-handedly bested the bronze bulls!"
Clarisse blinked, then blushed. "Um, I didn't-"
"And modest, too," Tantalus grinned. "Not to worry, my dear! This is a summer camp. We are here to enjoy ourselves, yes?"
"But the tree-"
"And now," Tantalus said, as several of Clarisse's cabin mates pulled her back into her seat. "before we proceed to the campfire and sing-along, one slight housekeeping issue. Percy Jackson, Merriall Rafter and Annabeth Chase have seen fit, for some reason, to bring this here." Tantalus waved a hand toward Tyson.
Uneasy murmuring spread among campers. A lot of sideways were directed at the siblings. Percy looked like her wanted to kill Tantalus. Merri was still busy devouring her burger, but made time to send a challenging and murderous look at everyone; an especially cold one was reserved for Tantalus.
"Now, of course," he said, "Cyclopes have a reputation for being bloodthirsty monsters with a very small brain capacity. Under normal circumstances, I would release this beast into the woods and have you hunt it down with torches and pointed sticks. But who knows? Perhaps this Cyclops is not as horrible as most of its brethren. Until it proves worthy of destruction, we need a place to keep it! I've thought about the stables, but that will make the horses nervous. Hermes' cabin, possibly?"
Silence at the Hermes table. Travis ad Connor Stoll developed a sudden interest in the tablecloth. They couldn't be blamed, though. The Hermes cabin was always full to bursting. There was no way they could take in a six-foot-three Cyclops.
"Come now," Tantalus chided. "The monster may be able to do some menial chores. Any suggestion as to where such a beast should be kenneled?"
Suddenly everybody gasped. Merri rose hear head at the sound, her hands relaxing – during Tantalus' speech, she was clenching them so hard, her nails broke skin and, now her palms were streaked with blood from the cuts.
Tantalus scooted away from Tyson in surprise. There was a glowing green holographic image floating above Tyson's head, one Merri was very familiar with. 'So I was right,' Merri thought to herself. A quick glance to Percy showed him to be completely shocked.
Swirling above Tyson was a green trident – the same symbol that had appeared above both Percy and Merri on the days Poseidon had claimed them as his children.
There was a moment of awed silence.
Being claimed was a rare event. Some campers waited in vain for it their whole lives. It had taken eleven years since she had first come to the camp, for Poseidon to claim Merri. And, even then, he did it only after she took part in the quest to return Zeus' Bolt. When she was claimed, everyone stood with shocked expressions. When Percy was claimed, a week-or-so before Merri, everyone had kneeled reverently. But now, they followed Tantalus' lead, and he roared with laughter. "Well! I think we know where to put the beast now. By the gods, I can see the family resemblance!"
Everybody was laughing except Annabeth and a few of Percy's other friends.
Tyson didn't seem to notice. He was too mystified, trying to swat the glowing trident that was now fading over his head. He was too innocent to understand how much they were making fun of him, how cruel people were. He may, technically, be a monster but, in reality, humans can be the worst monsters ever.
With a frustrated sigh, Merri rose from her seat, leaving her half-eaten burger, and went to Tyson's side. She placed a warm smile on her face, gently putting her hand on his shoulder to get his attention. "Sweetie, why don't you go sit with Percy over there?" she said when he took his eye off the trident and looked at her. "I'll get you something to eat and, then, Percy and I will show you where you're going to be sleeping from now on. That sound okay with you?" Tyson nodded and went to sit next to Percy with a large smile on his face. The moment he was out of earshot, Merri turned to Tantalus with a dark look.
"Pull something like that again and you'll wish you'd stayed in the Underworld, is that clear?"
"Are you trying to defend a monster, little girl?" Tantalus asked, condescendingly. Merri gave him a look of repulsion.
"The only monster I see here, is you."
Merri turned back to her table, shooting glares at everyone who had laughed at Tyson on her way. One by one, all lost their smiles and quietly returned to their food with looks of guilt or heavy discomfort.
Sitting down in front of her burger, she turned to Tyson. "From now on, you sleep in our cabin."
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