“Well, I haven’t actually ever driven to Camp Jupiter,” I admitted. “Usually I descend from the heavens in my glorious sun chariot. But I know the Caldecott Tunnel is the main entrance. There’s probably a sign. Perhaps a Demigods Only lane.”
Meg peered at me over the top of her glasses. “You’re the dumbest god ever.” She raised her window with a final Reeee. SHLOOMP!—a sound that reminded me uncomfortably of a guillotine blade.
We turned west onto Highway 24. The congestion eased as the hills loomed closer. The elevated lanes soared past neighborhoods of winding streets and tall conifers, white stucco houses clinging to the sides of grassy ravines.
A road sign promised CALDECOTT TUNNEL ENTRANCE, 2 MI. That should have comforted me. Soon, we’d pass through the borders of Camp Jupiter into a heavily guarded, magically camouflaged valley where an entire Roman legion could shield me from my worries, at least for a while.
Why, then, were the hairs on the back of my neck quivering like sea worms?
Something was wrong. It dawned on me that the uneas- iness I’d felt since we landed might not be the distant threat of Caligula, or the old Titan base on Mount Tamalpais, but something more immediate . . . something malevolent, and getting closer.
I glanced in the rearview mirror. Through the back window’s gauzy curtains, I saw nothing but traffic. But then, in the polished surface of Jason’s coffin lid, I caught the reflection of movement from a dark shape outside—as if a human-size object had just own past the side of the hearse.
“Oh. Meg?” I tried to keep my voice even. “Do you see anything unusual behind us?”
“Unusual like what?”
The hearse lurched as if we’d been hitched to a trailer full of scrap metal. Above my head, two foot-shaped impressions appeared in the upholstered ceiling.
“Something just landed on the roof,” Meg deduced.
“Thank you, Sherlock McCaffrey! Can you get it off?”
That was an annoyingly fair question. Meg could turn the rings on her middle fingers into wicked gold swords, but if she summoned them in close quarters, like the interior of the hearse, she a) wouldn’t have room to wield them, and b) might end up impaling me and/or herself.
CREAK. CREAK. The footprint impressions deepened as the thing adjusted its weight like a surfer on a board. It must have been immensely heavy to sink into the metal roof.
A whimper bubbled in my throat. My hands trembled on the steering wheel. I yearned for my bow and quiver in the backseat, but I couldn’t have used them. DWSPW, driving while shooting projectile weapons, is a big no-no, kids.
“Maybe you can open the window,” I said to Meg. “Lean out and tell it to go away.”
“Um, no.” (Gods, she was stubborn.) “What if you try to shake it off?”
Before I could explain that this was a terrible idea while traveling fifty miles an hour on a highway, I heard a sound like a pop-top aluminum can opening—the crisp pneumatic hiss of air through metal. A claw punctured the ceiling—a grimy white talon the size of a drill bit. Then another. And another. And another, until the upholstery was studded with ten pointy white spikes—just the right number for two very large hands.
“Meg?” I yelped. “Could you—?”
I don’t know how I might have finished that sentence. Protect me? Kill that thing? Check in the back to see if I have any spare undies?
I was rudely interrupted by the creature ripping open our roof like we were a birthday present.
Staring down at me through the ragged hole was a withered, ghoulish humanoid, its blue-black hide glistening like the skin of a house y, its eyes filmy white orbs, its bared teeth dripping saliva. Around its torso uttered a loincloth of greasy black feathers. The smell coming off it was more putrid than any dumpster—and believe me, I’d fallen into a few.
“FOOD!” it howled.
“Kill it!” I yelled at Meg.
“Swerve!” she countered.
One of the many annoying things about being incarcerated in my puny mortal body: I was Meg McCaffrey’s servant. I was bound to obey her direct commands. So when she yelled “swerve,” I yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. The hearse handled beautifully. It careened across three lanes of traffic, barreled straight through the guardrail, and plummeted into the canyon below.
Dude, this isn’t cool
Dude just tried to eat my dude
That’s my dead dude, dude
I like flying cars. I prefer it when the car is actually capable of flight, however.
As the hearse achieved zero gravity, I had a few microseconds to appreciate the scenery below—a lovely little lake edged with eucalyptus trees and walking trails, a small beach on the far shore, where a cluster of evening picnickers relaxed on blankets.
Oh, good, some small part of my brain thought. Maybe we’ll at least land in the water.
Then we dropped—not toward the lake, but toward the trees.
A sound like Luciano Pavarotti’s high C in Don Giovanni issued from my throat. My hands glued themselves to the wheel.
As we plunged into the eucalypti, the ghoul disappeared from our roof—almost as if the tree branches had purposefully swatted him away. Other branches seemed to bend around the hearse, slowing our fall, dropping us from one leafy cough-drop-scented bough to another, until we hit the ground on all four wheels with a jarring thud. Too late to do any good, the airbags deployed, shoving my head against the backrest.
Yellow amoebas danced in my eyes. The taste of blood stung my throat. I clawed for the door handle, squeezed my way out between the airbag and the seat, and tumbled onto a bed of cool soft grass.
“Blergh,” I said.
I heard Meg retching somewhere nearby. At least that meant she was still alive. About ten feet to my left, water lapped at the shore of the lake. Directly above me, near the top of the largest eucalyptus tree, our ghoulish blueblack friend was snarling and writhing, trapped in a cage of branches.
I struggled to sit up. My nose throbbed. My sinuses felt like they were packed with menthol rub. “Meg?”
She staggered into view around the front of the hearse. Ring-shaped bruises were forming around her eyes—no doubt courtesy of the passenger-side airbag. Her glasses were intact but askew. “You suck at swerving.”
“Oh, my gods!” I protested. “You ordered me to—” My brain faltered. “Wait. How are we alive? Was that you who bent the tree branches?”
“Duh.” She flicked her hands, and her twin golden scimitars flashed into existence. Meg used them like ski poles to steady herself. “They won’t hold that monster much longer. Get ready.”
“What?” I yelped. “Wait. No. Not ready!”
I pulled myself to my feet with the driver’s-side door.
Across the lake, the picnickers had risen from their blankets. I suppose a hearse falling from the sky had gotten their attention. My vision was blurry, but something seemed odd about the group. . . . Was one of them wearing armor? Did another have goat legs?
Even if they were friendly, they were much too far away to help.
I limped to the hearse and yanked open the backseat door. Jason’s coffin appeared safe and secure in the rear bay. I grabbed my bow and quiver. My ukulele had vanished somewhere underneath the inflated airbags. I would have to do without it.
Above, the creature howled, thrashing in its branch cage.
Meg stumbled. Her forehead was beaded with sweat. Then the ghoul broke free and hurtled downward, landing only a few yards away. I hoped the creature’s legs might have broken on impact, but no such luck. It took a few steps, its feet punching wet craters in the grass, before it straightened and snarled, its pointy white teeth like tiny mirror-image picket fences.
“KILL AND EAT!” it screamed.
What a lovely singing voice. The ghoul could’ve fronted any number of Norwegian death metal groups.
“Wait!” My voice was shrill. “I—I know you.” I wagged my finger, as if that might crank-start my memory. Clutched in my other hand, my bow shook. The arrows rattled in my quiver. “H-hold on, it’ll come to me!”
The ghoul hesitated. I’ve always believed that most sentient creatures like to be recognized. Whether we are gods, people, or slavering ghouls in vulture-feather loincloths, we enjoy others knowing who we are, speaking our names, appreciating that we exist.
Of course, I was just trying to buy time. I hoped Meg would catch her breath, charge the creature, and slice it into putrid ghoul pappardelle. At the moment, though, it didn’t seem that she was capable of using her swords for anything but crutches. I supposed controlling gigantic trees could be tiring, but honestly, couldn’t she have waited to run out of steam until after she killed Vulture Diaper?
Wait. Vulture diaper . . . I took another look at the ghoul: its strange mottled blue-and-black hide, its milky eyes, its oversize mouth and tiny nostril slits. It smelled of rancid meat. It wore the feathers of a carrion eater . . .
“I do know you,” I realized. “You’re a eurynomos.”
I dare you to try saying you’re a eurynomos when your tongue is leaden, your body is shaking from terror, and you’ve just been punched in the face by a hearse’s airbag.
The ghoul’s lips curled. Silvery strands of saliva dripped from his chin. “YES! FOOD SAID MY NAME!”
“B-but you’re a corpse-eater!” I protested. “You’re supposed to be in the Underworld, working for Hades!”
The ghoul tilted its head as if trying to remember the words Underworld and Hades. It didn’t seem to like them as much as kill and eat.
“HADES GAVE ME OLD DEAD!” it shouted. “THE MASTER GIVES ME FRESH!”
I really wished Vulture Diaper wouldn’t scream. It didn’t have any visible ears, so perhaps it had poor volume control. Or maybe it just wanted to spray that gross saliva over as large a radius as possible.
“If you mean Caligula,” I ventured, “I’m sure he’s made you all sorts of promises, but I can tell you, Caligula is not—”
“HA! STUPID FOOD! CALIGULA IS NOT THE MASTER!”
“Not the master?”
“NOT THE MASTER!”
“MEG!” I shouted. Ugh. Now I was doing it.
“Yeah?” Meg wheezed. She looked fierce and warlike as she granny-walked toward me with her sword-crutches. “Gimme. Minute.”
It was clear she would not be taking the lead in this particular fight. If I let Vulture Diaper anywhere near her, it would kill her, and I found that idea 95 percent unacceptable.
“Well, eurynomos,” I said, “whoever your master is, you’re not killing and eating anyone today!”
I whipped an arrow from my quiver. I nocked it in my bow and took aim, as I had done literally millions of times before, but it wasn’t quite as impressive with my hands shaking and my knees wobbling.
Why do mortals tremble when they’re scared, anyway? It seems so counterproductive. If I had created humans, I would have given them steely determination and superhuman strength during moments of terror.
The ghoul hissed, spraying spit.
“SOON THE MASTER’S ARMIES WILL RISE AGAIN!” it bellowed. “WE WILL FINISH THE JOB! I WILL SHRED FOOD TO THE BONE, AND FOOD
WILL JOIN US!”
Food will join us? My stomach experienced a sudden loss of cabin pressure. I remembered why Hades loved these eurynomoi so much. The slightest cut from their claws caused a wasting disease in mortals. And when those mortals died, they rose again as what the Greeks called vrykolakas—or, in TV parlance, zombies.
That wasn’t the worst of it. If a eurynomos managed to devour the flesh from a corpse, right down to the bones, that skeleton would reanimate as the fiercest, toughest kind of undead warrior. Many of them served as Hades’s elite palace guards, which was a job I did not want to apply for.
“Meg?” I kept my arrow trained on the ghoul’s chest. “Back away. Do not let this thing scratch you.”
“Please,” I begged. “For once, trust me.”
Vulture Diaper growled. “FOOD TALKS TOO MUCH! HUNGRY!”
It charged me.
The arrow found its mark—the middle of the ghoul’s chest—but it bounced off like a rubber mallet against metal. The Celestial-bronze point must have hurt, at least. The ghoul yelped and stopped in its tracks, a steaming puckered wound on its sternum. But the monster was still very much alive. Perhaps if I managed twenty or thirty shots at that exact same spot, I could do some real damage.
With trembling hands, I nocked another arrow. “Th-that was just a warning!” I bluffed. “The next one will kill!”
Vulture Diaper made a gurgling noise deep in its throat. I hoped it was a delayed death rattle. Then I realized it was only laughing. “WANT ME TO EAT DIFFERENT FOOD FIRST? SAVE YOU FOR DESSERT?”
It uncurled its claws, gesturing toward the hearse.
I didn’t understand. I refused to understand. Did it want to eat the airbags? The upholstery?
Meg got it before I did. She screamed in rage.
The creature was an eater of the dead. We were driving
“NO!” Meg shouted. “Leave him alone!”
She lumbered forward, raising her swords, but she was in no shape to face the ghoul. I shouldered her aside, putting myself between her and the creature, and fired my arrows again and again.
They sparked off the creature’s blue-black hide, leaving steaming, annoyingly nonlethal wounds. Vulture Diaper staggered toward me, snarling in pain, its body twitching from the impact of each hit.
It was five feet away.
Two feet away, its claws splayed to shred my face.
Somewhere behind me, a female voice shouted, “HEY!”
The sound distracted Vulture Diaper just long enough for me to fall courageously on my butt. I scrambled away from the ghoul’s claws.
Vulture Diaper blinked, confused by its new audience. About ten feet away, a ragtag assortment of fauns and dryads, perhaps a dozen total, were all attempting to hide behind one gangly pink-haired young woman in Roman legionnaire armor.
The girl fumbled with some sort of projectile weapon. Oh, dear. A manubalista. A Roman heavy crossbow. Those things were awful. Slow. Powerful. Notoriously unreliable. The bolt was set. She cranked the handle, her hands shaking as badly as mine.
Meanwhile, to my left, Meg groaned in the grass, trying to get back on her feet. “You pushed me,” she complained, by which I’m sure she meant Thank you, Apollo, for saving my life.
The pink-haired girl raised her manubalista. With her long, wobbly legs, she reminded me of a baby giraffe. “G-get away from them,” she ordered the ghoul.
Vulture Diaper treated her to its trademarked hissing and spitting. “MORE FOOD! YOU WILL ALL JOIN THE KING’S DEAD!”
“Dude.” One of the fauns nervously scratched his belly under his PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF BERKELEY T-shirt. “That’s not cool.”
“Not cool,” several of his friends echoed.
“YOU CANNOT OPPOSE ME, ROMAN!” the ghoul snarled. “I HAVE ALREADY TASTED THE FLESH OF YOUR COMRADES! AT THE BLOOD MOON, YOU WILL JOIN THEM—”
An Imperial gold crossbow bolt materialized in the center of Vulture Diaper’s chest. The ghoul’s milky eyes widened in surprise. The Roman legionnaire looked just as stunned.
“Dude, you hit it,” said one of the fauns, as if this offended his sensibilities.
The ghoul crumbled into dust and vulture feathers. The bolt clunked to the ground.
Meg limped to my side. “See? That’s how you’re supposed to kill it.”
“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled.
We faced our unlikely savior.
The pink-haired girl frowned at the pile of dust, her chin quivering as if she might cry. She muttered, “I hate those things.”
“Y-you’ve fought them before?” I asked.
She looked at me like this was an insultingly stupid question.
One of the fauns nudged her. “Lavinia, dude, ask who these guys are.”
“Um, right.” Lavinia cleared her throat. “Who are you?”
I struggled to my feet, trying to regain some composure. “I am Apollo. This is Meg. Thank you for saving us.”
Lavinia stared. “Apollo, as in—”
“It’s a long story. We’re transporting the body of our friend, Jason Grace, to Camp Jupiter for burial. Can you help us?”
Lavinia’s mouth hung open. “Jason Grace . . . is dead?”
Before I could answer, from somewhere across Highway 24 came a wail of rage and anguish.
“Um, hey,” said one of the fauns, “don’t those ghoul things usually hunt in pairs?”
Lavinia gulped. “Yeah. Let’s get you guys to camp. Then we can talk about”—she gestured uneasily at the hearse—“who is dead, and why.”