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The Staff of Serapis

Rick Riordan

  UNTIL SHE SPOTTED the two-headed monster, Annabeth didn’t think her day could get any worse.

  She’d spent all morning doing catch-up work for school. (Skipping classes on a regular basis to save the world from monsters and rogue Greek gods was seriously messing up her GPA.) Then she’d turned down a movie with her boyfriend, Percy, and some of their friends so she could try out for a summer internship at a local architecture firm. Unfortunately, her brain had been mush. She was pretty sure she’d flubbed the interview.

  Finally, around four in the afternoon, she’d trudged through Washington Square Park on her way to the subway station and stepped in a fresh pile of cow manure.

  She glared at the sky. ‘Hera!’

  The other pedestrians gave her funny looks, but Annabeth didn’t care. She was tired of the goddess’s practical jokes. Annabeth had done so many quests for Hera, but still the Queen of Heaven left presents from her sacred animal right where Annabeth could step in them. The goddess must have had a herd of stealth cows patrolling Manhattan.

  By the time Annabeth made it to the West Fourth Street station, she was cranky and exhausted and just wanted to catch the F train uptown to Percy’s place. It was too late for the movie, but maybe they could get dinner or something.

  Then she spotted the monster.

  Annabeth had seen some crazy stuff before, but this beastie definitely made her ‘What Were the Gods Thinking?’ list. It looked like a lion and a wolf lashed together, wedged butt-first into a hermit-crab shell.

  The shell itself was a rough brown spiral, like a waffle cone – about six feet long with a jagged seam down the middle, as if it had been cracked in half, then glued back together. Sprouting from the top were the forelegs and head of a grey wolf on the left, a golden-maned lion on the right.

  The two animals didn’t look happy about sharing a shell. They dragged it behind them down the platform, weaving left and right as they tried to pull in different directions. They snarled at one another in irritation. Then both of them froze and sniffed the air.

  Commuters streamed past. Most manoeuvred round the monster and ignored it. Others just frowned or looked annoyed.

  Annabeth had seen the Mist in action many times before, but she was always amazed by how the magical veil could distort mortal vision, making even the fiercest monster look like something explainable – a stray dog, or maybe a homeless person wrapped in a sleeping bag.

  The monster’s nostrils flared. Before Annabeth could decide what to do, both heads turned and glared directly at her.

  Annabeth’s hand went for her knife. Then she remembered she didn’t have one. At the moment, her most deadly weapon was her backpack, which was loaded with heavy architecture books from the public library.

  She steadied her breathing. The monster stood about thirty feet away.

  Taking on a lion-wolf-crab in the middle of a crowded subway station wasn’t her first choice, but, if she had to, she would. She was a child of Athena.

  She stared down the beast, letting it know she meant business.

  ‘Bring it on, Crabby,’ she said. ‘I hope you’ve got a high tolerance for pain.’

  The lion and wolf heads bared their fangs. Then the floor rumbled. Air rushed through the tunnel as a train arrived.

  The monster snarled at Annabeth. She could’ve sworn it had a look of regret in its eyes, as if thinking, I would love to rip you to tiny pieces, but I have business elsewhere.

  Then Crabby turned and bounded off, dragging its huge shell behind. It disappeared up the stairs, heading for the A train.

  For a moment, Annabeth was too stunned to move. She’d rarely seen a monster leave a demigod alone like that. Given the chance, monsters almost always attacked.

  If this two-headed hermit crab had something more important to do than kill her, Annabeth wanted to know what it was. She couldn’t just let the monster go, pursuing its nefarious plans and riding public transportation for free.

  She glanced wistfully at the F train that would’ve taken her uptown to Percy’s place. Then she ran up the stairs after the monster.

  Annabeth jumped on board just as the doors were closing. The train pulled away from the platform and plunged into darkness. Overhead lights flickered. Commuters rocked back and forth. Every seat was filled. A dozen more passengers stood, swaying as they clung to the handrails and poles.

  Annabeth couldn’t see Crabby until somebody at the front yelled, ‘Watch it, freak!’

  The wolf-lion-crab was pushing its way forward, snarling at the mortals, but the commuters just acted regular-New-York-subway annoyed. Maybe they saw the monster as a random drunk guy.

  Annabeth followed.

  As Crabby prised open the doors to the next car and clambered through, Annabeth noticed its shell was glowing faintly.

  Had it been doing that before? Around the monster swirled red neon symbols – Greek letters, astrological signs and picture writing. Egyptian hieroglyphs.

  A chill spread between Annabeth’s shoulder blades. She remembered something Percy had told her a few weeks ago – about an encounter he’d had that seemed so impossible she’d assumed he was joking.

  But now …

  She pushed through the crowd, following Crabby into the next car.

  The creature’s shell was definitely glowing brighter now. As Annabeth got closer, she started to get nauseous. She felt a warm tugging sensation in her gut, as if she had a fishhook in her belly button, pulling her towards the monster.

  Annabeth tried to steady her nerves. She had devoted her life to studying Ancient Greek spirits, beasts and daimons. Knowledge was her most important weapon. But this two-headed crab thing – she had no frame of reference for it. Her internal compass was spinning uselessly.

  She wished she had backup. She had her cell phone, but, even if she could get reception in the tunnel, whom would she call? Most other demigods didn’t carry phones. The signals attracted monsters. Percy was way uptown. The majority of her friends were back at Camp Half-Blood on the north shore of Long Island.

  Crabby kept shoving its way towards the front of the train.

  By the time Annabeth caught up with it in the next car, the monster’s aura was so strong that even the mortals had started to notice. Many gagged and hunched over in their seats, as if someone had opened a locker full of spoiled lunches. Others fainted onto the floor.

  Annabeth felt so queasy she wanted to retreat, but the fishhook sensation kept tugging at her navel, reeling her towards the monster.

  The train rattled into the Fulton Street station. As soon as the doors opened, every commuter who was still conscious stumbled out. Crabby’s wolf head snapped at one lady, catching her bag in its teeth as she tried to flee.

  ‘Hey!’ Annabeth yelled.

  The monster let the woman go.

  Both sets of eyes fixed on Annabeth as if thinking, Do you have a death wish?

  Then it threw back its heads and roared in harmony. The sound hit Annabeth like an ice pick between the eyes. The windows of the train shattered. Mortals who had passed out were startled back to consciousness. Some managed to crawl out of the doors. Others tumbled through broken windows.

  Through blurred vision, Annabeth saw the monster crouched on its mismatched forearms, ready to pounce.

  Time slowed. She was dimly aware of the shattered doors closing, the now-empty train pulling out of the station. Had the conductor not realized what was happening? Was the train running on autopilot?

  Only ten feet away from it now, Annabeth noticed new details about the monster. Its red aura seemed brightest along the seam in its shell. Glowing Greek letters and Egyptian hieroglyphs spewed out like volcanic gas from a deep-sea fissure. The lion’s left forearm was shaved at the wrist, tattooed with a ser
ies of small black stripes. Stuck inside the wolf’s left ear was an orange price tag that read $99.99.

  Annabeth gripped the strap of her backpack. She was ready to swing it at the monster, but it wouldn’t make much of a weapon. Instead, she relied on her usual tactic when facing a stronger enemy. She started talking.

  ‘You’re made of two different parts,’ she said. ‘You’re like … pieces of a statue that came to life. You’ve been fused together?’

  It was total conjecture, but the lion’s growl made Annabeth think she’d hit the mark. The wolf nipped at the lion’s cheek as if telling it to shut up.

  ‘You’re not used to working together,’ Annabeth guessed. ‘Mr Lion, you’ve got an ID code on your leg. You were an artefact in a museum. Maybe the Met?’

  The lion roared so loudly Annabeth’s knees wobbled.

  ‘I guess that’s a yes. And you, Mr Wolf … that sticker on your ear … you were for sale in some antiques shop?’

  The wolf snarled and took a step towards her.

  Meanwhile, the train kept tunnelling under the East River. Cold wind swirled through the broken windows and made Annabeth’s teeth chatter.

  All her instincts told her to run, but her joints felt as if they were dissolving. The monster’s aura kept getting brighter, filling the air with misty symbols and bloody light.

  ‘You … you’re getting stronger,’ Annabeth noted. ‘You’re heading somewhere, aren’t you? And the closer you get –’

  The monster’s heads roared again in harmony. A wave of red energy rippled through the car. Annabeth had to fight to stay conscious.

  Crabby stepped closer. Its shell expanded, the fissure down the centre burning like molten iron.

  ‘Hold up,’ Annabeth croaked. ‘I – I get it now. You’re not finished yet. You’re looking for another piece. A third head?’

  The monster halted. Its eyes glinted warily, as if to say, Have you been reading my diary?

  Annabeth’s courage rose. Finally she was getting the measure of her enemy. She’d met lots of three-headed creatures before. When it came to mythical beings, three was sort of a magic number. It made sense that this monster would have another head.

  Crabby had been some kind of statue, divided into pieces. Now something had awakened it. It was trying to put itself back together.

  Annabeth decided she couldn’t let that happen. Those glowing red hieroglyphs and Greek letters floated around it like the burning cord of a fuse, radiating magic that felt fundamentally wrong, as though it were slowly dissolving Annabeth’s cell structure.

  ‘You’re not exactly a Greek monster, are you?’ she ventured. ‘Are you from Egypt?’

  Crabby didn’t like that comment. It bared its fangs and prepared to spring.

  ‘Whoa, boy,’ she said. ‘You’re not at full strength yet, are you? Attack me now, and you’ll lose. After all, you two don’t trust each other.’

  The lion tilted its head and growled.

  Annabeth feigned a look of shock. ‘Mr Lion! How can you say that about Mr Wolf?’

  The lion blinked.

  The wolf glanced at the lion and snarled suspiciously.

  ‘And, Mr Wolf!’ Annabeth gasped. ‘You shouldn’t use that kind of language about your friend!’

  The two heads turned on each other, snapping and howling. The monster staggered as its forearms went in different directions.

  Annabeth knew she’d only bought herself a few seconds. She racked her brain, trying to figure out what this creature was and how she could defeat it, but it didn’t match anything she could remember from her lessons at Camp Half-Blood.

  She considered getting behind it, maybe trying to break its shell, but before she could the train slowed. They pulled into the High Street station, the first Brooklyn stop.

  The platform was strangely empty, but a flash of light by the exit stairwell caught Annabeth’s eye. A young blonde girl in white clothes was swinging a wooden staff, trying to hit a strange animal that weaved around her legs, barking angrily. From the shoulders up, the creature looked like a black Labrador retriever, but its back end was nothing but a rough tapered point, like a calcified tadpole tail.

  Annabeth had time to think: The third piece.

  Then the blonde girl whacked the dog across its snout. Her staff flared with golden light, and the dog hurtled backwards – straight through a broken window into the far end of Annabeth’s subway car.

  The blonde girl followed it. She leaped in through the closing doors just as the train pulled out of the station.

  For a moment they all just stood there – two girls and two monsters.

  Annabeth studied the other girl at the opposite end of the car, trying to assess her threat level.

  The newcomer wore white linen trousers and a matching blouse, kind of like a karate uniform. Her steel-tipped combat boots looked like they could inflict damage in a fight. Slung over her left shoulder was a blue nylon backpack with a curved ivory stick – a boomerang? – hanging from the strap. But the girl’s most intimidating weapon was her white wooden staff – about five feet long, carved with the head of an eagle, the whole length glowing like Celestial bronze.

  Annabeth met the girl’s eyes, and a feeling of déjà vu rocked her.

  Karate Girl couldn’t have been older than thirteen. Her eyes were brilliant blue, like a child of Zeus’s. Her long blonde hair was streaked with purple highlights. She looked very much like a child of Athena – ready for combat, quick and alert and fearless. Annabeth felt as if she were seeing herself from four years ago, around the time she first met Percy Jackson.

  Then Karate Girl spoke and shattered the illusion.

  ‘Right.’ She blew a strand of purple hair out of her face. ‘Because my day wasn’t barmy enough already.’

  British, Annabeth thought. But she didn’t have time to ponder that.

  The dog-tadpole and Crabby had been standing in the centre of the car, about fifteen feet apart, staring at each other in amazement. Now they overcame their shock. The dog howled – a triumphant cry, like I found you! And the lion-wolf-crab lunged to meet it.

  ‘Stop them!’ Annabeth yelled.

  She leaped onto Crabby’s back, and its front paws collapsed from the extra weight.

  The other girl yelled something like: ‘Mar!’

  A series of golden hieroglyphs blazed in the air:

  The dog creature staggered backwards, retching as if it had swallowed a billiard ball.

  Annabeth struggled to keep Crabby down, but the beast was twice her weight. It pushed up on its forelegs, trying to throw her. Both heads turned to snap at her face.

  Fortunately she’d harnessed plenty of wild pegasi at Camp Half-Blood. She managed to keep her balance while slipping off her backpack. She smacked twenty pounds of architecture books into the lion’s head, then looped her shoulder strap through the wolf’s maw and yanked it like a bit.

  Meanwhile, the train burst into the sunlight. They rattled along the elevated rails of Queens, fresh air blowing through the broken windows and glittering bits of glass dancing across the seats.

  Out of the corner of her eye, Annabeth saw the black dog shake off its fit of retching. It lunged at Karate Girl, who whipped out her ivory boomerang and blasted the monster with another golden flash.

  Annabeth wished she could summon golden flashes. All she had was a stupid backpack. She did her best to subdue Crabby, but the monster seemed to get stronger by the second while the thing’s red aura weakened Annabeth. Her head felt stuffed with cotton. Her stomach twisted.

  She lost track of time as she wrestled the creature. She only knew she couldn’t let it combine with that dog-headed thing. If the monster turned into a complete three-headed whatever-it-was, it might be impossible to stop.

  The dog lunged again at Karate Girl. This time it knocked her down. Annabeth, distracted, lost her grip on the crab monster, and it threw her off – slamming her head into the edge of a seat.

  Her ears rang as the creature roa
red in triumph. A wave of red-hot energy rippled through the car. The train pitched sideways, and Annabeth went weightless.

  ‘Up you come,’ said a girl’s voice. ‘We have to move.’

  Annabeth opened her eyes. The world was spinning. Emergency sirens wailed in the distance.

  She was lying flat on her back in some prickly weeds. The blonde girl from the train leaned over her, tugging on her arm.

  Annabeth managed to sit up. She felt as if someone was hammering hot nails into her rib cage. As her vision cleared, she realized she was lucky to be alive. About fifty yards away, the subway train had toppled off the track. The cars lay sideways in a broken, steaming zigzag of wreckage that reminded Annabeth of a drakon carcass (unfortunately, she’d seen several of those).

  She spotted no wounded mortals. Hopefully they’d all fled the train at the Fulton Street station. But still – what a disaster.

  Annabeth recognized where she was: Rockaway Beach. A few hundred feet to the left, vacant plots and bent chain-link fences gave way to a yellow sand beach dotted with tar and trash. The sea churned under a cloudy sky. To Annabeth’s right, past the train tracks, stood a row of apartment towers so dilapidated they might’ve been make-believe buildings fashioned from old refrigerator boxes.

  ‘Yoo-hoo.’ Karate Girl shook her shoulder. ‘I know you’re probably in shock, but we need to go. I don’t fancy being questioned by the police with this thing in tow.’

  The girl scooted to her left. Behind her on the broken tarmac, the black Labrador monster flopped like a fish out of water, its muzzle and paws bound in glowing golden rope.

  Annabeth stared at the younger girl. Round her neck glinted a chain with a silver amulet – a symbol like an Egyptian ankh crossed with a gingerbread man.

  At her side lay her staff and her ivory boomerang – both carved with hieroglyphs and pictures of strange, very un-Greek monsters.

  ‘Who are you?’ Annabeth demanded.

  A smile tugged at the corner of the girl’s mouth. ‘Usually I don’t give my name to strangers. Magical vulnerabilities and all that. But I have to respect someone who fights a two-headed monster with nothing but a rucksack.’ She offered her hand. ‘Sadie Kane.’

  ‘Annabeth Chase.’

  They shook.

  ‘Lovely to meet you, Annabeth,’ Sadie said. ‘Now, let’s take our dog for a walk, shall we?’

  They left just in time.

  Within minutes, emergency vehicles had surrounded the train wreck, and a crowd of spectators gathered from the nearby apartment buildings.

  Annabeth felt more nauseous than ever. Red spots danced before her eyes, but she helped Sadie drag the dog creature backwards by its tail into the sand dunes. Sadie seemed to take pleasure in pulling the monster over as many rocks and broken bottles as she could find.

  The beast snarled and wriggled. Its red aura glowed more brightly, while the golden rope dimmed.

  Normally Annabeth liked walking on the beach. The ocean reminded her of Percy. But today she was hungry and exhausted. Her backpack felt heavier by the moment, and the dog creature’s magic made her want to hurl.

  Also, Rockaway Beach was a dismal place. A massive hurricane had blown through more than a year ago, and the damage was still obvious. Some of the apartment buildings in the distance had been reduced to shells, their boarded-up windows and breeze-block walls covered in graffiti. Rotted timber, chunks of tarmac and twisted metal littered the beach. The pylons of a destroyed pier jutted up out of the water. The sea itself gnawed resentfully at the shore as if to say, Don’t ignore me. I can always come back and finish the job.

  Finally they reached a derelict ice-cream truck half sunken in the dunes. Painted on the side, faded pictures of long-lost tasty treats made Annabeth’s stomach howl in protest.

  ‘Gotta stop,’ she muttered.

  She dropped the dog monster and staggered over to the truck, then slid down with her back against the passenger’s door.

  Sadie sat cross-legged, facing her. She rummaged around in her own backpack and brought out a cork-stoppered ceramic vial.

  ‘Here.’ She handed it to Annabeth. ‘It’s yummy. Drink.’

  Annabeth studied the vial warily. It felt heavy and warm, as if it were full of hot coffee. ‘Uh … this won’t unleash any golden flashes of ka-bam in my face?’

  Sadie snorted. ‘It’s just a healing potion, silly. A friend of mine, Jaz, brews the best in the world.’