Thalia shook her head in disbelief. ‘And you just forgot to mention this before?’
‘Well… yeah.’ It seemed silly, now that she said it, but things had been happening so fast. Bessie the Ophiotaurus seemed like a minor detail.
‘I am a fool,’ Zoë said suddenly. ‘I know this story!’
‘From the War of the Titans,’ she said. ‘My… my father told me this tale, thousands of years ago. This is the beast we are looking for.’
‘Bessie?’ I looked down at the bull serpent. ‘But… he’s too cute. He couldn’t destroy the world.’
‘That is how we were wrong,’ Zoë said. ‘We’ve been anticipating a huge dangerous monster, but the Ophiotaurus does not bring down the gods that way. He must be sacrificed.’
‘MMMM,’ Bessie lowed.
‘I don’t think he likes the S-word,’ Grover said.
I patted Bessie on the head, trying to calm him down. He let me scratch his ear, but he was trembling.
‘How could anyone hurt him?’ I said. ‘He’s harmless.’
Zoë nodded. ‘But there is power in killing innocence. Terrible power. The Fates ordained a prophecy aeons ago, when this creature was born. They said that whoever killed the Ophiotaurus and sacrificed its entrails to fire would have the power to destroy the gods.’
‘Um,’ Grover said. ‘Maybe we could avoid talking about entrails, too.’
Thalia stared at the cow serpent with wonder. ‘The power to destroy the gods… how? I mean, what would happen?’
‘No one knows,’ Zoë said. ‘The first time, during the Titan war, the Ophiotaurus was in fact slain by a giant ally of the Titans, but thy father Zeus sent an eagle to snatch the entrails away before they could be tossed into the fire. It was a close call. Now, after three thousand years, the Ophiotaurus is reborn.’
Thalia sat down on the dock. She stretched out her hand. Bessie went right to her. Thalia placed her hand on his head. Bessie shivered.
Thalia’s expression bothered me. She almost looked… hungry.
‘We have to protect him,’ I told her. ‘If Luke gets hold of him –’
‘Luke wouldn’t hesitate,’ Thalia muttered. ‘The power to overthrow Olympus. That’s… that’s huge.’
‘Yes, it is, my dear,’ said a man’s voice in a heavy French accent. ‘And it is a power you shall unleash.’
The Ophiotaurus made a whimpering sound and submerged.
I looked up. We’d been so busy talking, we’d allowed ourselves to be ambushed.
Standing behind us, his two-colour eyes gleaming wickedly, was Dr Thorn, the manticore himself.
‘This is just pairrr-fect,’ the manticore gloated.
He was wearing a ratty black trench coat over his Westover Hall uniform, which was torn and stained. His military haircut had grown out spiky and greasy. He hadn’t shaved recently, so his face was covered in silver stubble. Basically, he didn’t look much better than the guys down at the soup kitchen.
‘Long ago, the gods banished me to Persia,’ the manticore said. ‘I was forced to scrounge for food on the edges of the world, hiding in forests, devouring insignificant human farmers for my meals. I never got to fight any great heroes. I was not feared and admired in the old stories! But now that will change. The Titans shall honour me, and I shall feast on the flesh of half-bloods!’
On either side of him stood two armed security guys, some of the mortal mercenaries I’d seen in D.C. Two more stood on the next boat dock over, just in case we tried to escape that way. There were tourists all around – walking down the waterfront, shopping at the pier above us – but I knew that wouldn’t stop the manticore from acting.
‘Where… where are the skeletons?’ I asked the manticore.
He sneered. ‘I do not need those foolish undead! The General thinks I am worthless? He will change his mind when I defeat you myself!’
I needed time to think. I had to save Bessie. I could dive into the sea, but how could I make a quick getaway with a two-hundred-kilogram cow serpent? And what about my friends?
‘We beat you once before,’ I said.
‘Ha! You could barely fight me with a goddess on your side. And, alas… that goddess is preoccupied at the moment. There will be no help for you now.’
Zoë notched an arrow and aimed it straight at the manticore’s head. The guards on either side of us raised their guns.
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Zoë, don’t!’
The manticore smiled. ‘The boy is right, Zoë Nightshade. Put away your bow. It would be a shame to kill you before you witnessed Thalia’s great victory.’