FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

PJO/HoO: The Belly of the Beast, Chapter Four: The Quest Gets Off To a Perfect Start

All right, that one came out fast enough. (I was kind of in a hurry to get to an introduction...)

FOUR:
The Quest Gets Off To a Perfect Start


We left the temple without saying much after reading the prophecy and wound through the streets of the city to the far side, heading for Bobby's house. The Pomeranian line, dotted with its busts of Terminus, stretched away. Terminus never bothered people on the way out of the city.

"He didn't ask about your, uh, cash flow," Dakota mentioned, jerking his chin at one of the statues.

I hadn't thought about it. Terminus was usually pretty good about stopping any weapon from crossing the line, but he hadn't asked about my coin. I'd brought it over the line several times. Maybe, because it came from the gods, Terminus didn't mind. Or maybe its disguised form didn't register as a weapon for him. I wondered if there was an advantage to that. I'd have to try carrying it across in sword form sometime, just to see what he'd do.

"Hmm," I said.

"A man of many words," Bobby muttered.

He moved into the lead as we crossed, loping along the dirt road that led to the odd farms that surrounded the city right up to the point where the enchantment ended. A messenger on a bike passed us, headed back to town. Some of the crops came back into the population, others were sold. Bobby's dad raised some of the unicorns the camp used, along with a barn full of dairy cows.

It's that one," he said unnecessarily, pointing to a house and barn surrounded by unicorns that ran through the pastures. When I'd met Mr. Botolph in town, I'd known he was a farmer, but it didn't connect in any real way until Bobby opened the gate and led us down a dirt driveway toward the barn. Mr. Botolph, wearing overalls and heavy farm boots, was pouring water into a sluiceway that led down among the feed bins.

"Hello, boys," he said. "I heard the Senate meeting went in your favor."

"Already?" I asked.

"Word travels fast among parents," he said. "Bobby's mom works with the husband of one of the ex-senators -- you remember Mr. Greene, Bobby?"

Bobby nodded, but when his father's back was turned, he shrugged extravagantly.

"Anyway," Mr. Botolph said, "Mr. Greene's wife dropped in right away to tell your mom that you were questing these days. She sent me a messenger. Just left. I gave him some fresh blackberries. You might have seen him on the road. We're proud of you."

Bobby blushed. "Uh, thanks."

"When will you be leaving?"

"Tomorrow after breakfast."

"Ah, always the hurry in the legion. Do you think you could get leave for the evening? Your mom and I would love to see you off, and your transportation is right here." He gestured to a farm truck that looked like it might have been new when Bobby's grandfather was in the legion, then looked at Dakota. "You sure you can drive it?"

Dakota nodded. "It's a beaut. I love trucks. Stick shift?"

"You know it."

"Sweet."

"You know cars?"

"My mom wouldn't let me get my license until I knew what was under the hood."

Mr. Botolph smiled. "She a mechanic?"

"Caterer," Dakota said, grinning. "But, you know… she has to drive the catering truck, and people get really snippy if their wedding reception gets off to a late start because the caterer didn't keep her truck in working order."

"Makes sense."

We were able to get leave for the night, and we ate supper with Bobby's parents. Mrs. Botolph came back from her job in New Rome with all of our letters of introduction, should we need the help of a legionnaire while we were traveling. She had bright blue Jovian eyes like mine. She said she didn't have any particular powers, unless you counted being able to predict thunderstorms before the meteorologists got around to it. She didn't know what powers her demigod ancestor had possessed on that side, though another ancestor was a daughter of Pales, which was probably why she was good with the livestock.

"She is, too," Mr. Botolph said, reaching over to squeeze her fingers. "Never did see anyone better with animals."

Bobby made a show of making a gagging sound and Dakota looked bored, but I was fascinated. I'd never actually spent the night in a house with a family. Was this how they were supposed to work, with the parents still flirting with each other while their teenage son ate supper? The littler kids, who hadn't signed on for legion work yet, had household duties. Bobby's little sister had to take the family dog for a walk, and his little brother had to wash the dishes. Later, we all watched movies on the television. Bobby ended up wrestling his sister (her name was Susannah) for the remote control, but for the most part, everyone got along. Dakota and I played rock-paper-scissors to decide who'd get the guest room, and he won. I would sleep on the pull out sofa. Bobby'd be in the room he'd slept in as a child.

I almost asked if I could see it, but I decided it would come out weird, like I was an archaeologist or something, trying to suss out just what it was that this tribe did in its secret space.

I settled in on the sofa and tried to watch television alone, which Mrs. Botolph said was the big advantage of being out there, but I couldn't find anything I wanted to watch. We didn't get cable inside the barriers, and the reception on the other stations was terrible. I put in a movie after a while, about four boys walking on a set of train tracks. It was pretty good, but I was used to falling asleep early, and I was out like a light long before they got to their destination.

There was a household alarm clock that went off at dawn the next day, playing reveille in a kind of snappy, jazzy way. Bobby came downstairs with his duffel already over his arm, and Dakota came out of the bathroom, slurping freshly made Kool-Aid out of his flask. I got my things ready while Mr. Botolph went over last minute truck instructions with Dakota, then we all piled into the front seat, our duffel bags secured down in the truck bed.

By the time the sun was all the way up, we were on the road, the truck chugging out through the Caldecott tunnel toward Berkley on Route 24. We got some weird looks at the truck, which belched nasty exhaust every now and then if Dakota went too fast.

"I bet you could have gotten plane tickets," Bobby said, fiddling with the radio now that we were clear of camp. He found some hip-hop coming out of Berkley. "We could just drive to the airport, get on a plane, and fly to Oregon. Or you could fly us yourself."

"I can't fly. We need to get that straight. I can't fly, and I don't do lightning strikes."

"Either one would be pretty handy," Dakota said. "Which way do you want to go?"

"North."

"I mean, which road? Inland's faster."

I shook my head. "Let's stick by the sea, in case the monster moves."

"Route one," Dakota said. "Check."

"Can we swing close to Mount Tam?" I asked.

"What?"

"Just wondering. It's not seriously out of the way."

"I knew it," Bobby said. "Jason's going to save the day. Are you going to check and make sure Atlas is still holding up the sky?"

A part of me wanted to. I knew he was up there, and I'd always wanted to see how that worked. But that was way outside mission parameters, and I figured we'd know if he let go of the sky. I wasn't sure how we'd know, since as far as I know, the sky is always touching the earth, but the myths always made sense somehow, and they seemed to think it would be pretty catastrophic. It was supposedly the reason they'd built Camp Jupiter there -- so that, in case of emergency, they could send in the legion.

There was no emergency here, just a deep sense of gloom.

I shook my head. "We don't have to go all the way up. Just as close as the road gets us. I want a look at that storm."

It took a good while for Dakota to navigate down across the bay. We got caught in the morning traffic around San Quentin, then turned south, so we could pick up Route 1 in Manzanita. Route 1 took us on a looping, scenic trip west through Mill Valley and the Marin headlands, finally passing the entrance to Mount Tamalpais State Park, but, to my disappointment, there wasn't much of a view. I could feel, somehow, that we were closer to the sky as such here. There was a certain heaviness to the air, a sense of land's end above, as well as to the west. But there wasn't anything to see.

"That's a whole lot of nothing," Bobby said, looking up the road as Dakota came to a stop.

There was a choppy noise up the hill, and a small motorbike appeared. The rider came closer to us, and finally pulled up beside the truck. I thought he might be a park ranger, but he wasn't dressed as one. He was a college-aged guy who looked pretty sick, actually. He had a big red scar running down the side of his face.

"Looking for something?" he asked in a voice that suggested we'd better not be, which made me even more curious.

"Should we be?" I asked.

His eyes were crawling over the truck. They finally found something he wanted to see, and he smiled, his face suddenly becoming open and cheerful. "Nah," he said. "Except the wonder of nature. But you're from here, aren't you?" he asked, and pointed at the back of the truck. The license plate, I guess.

"All my life," I said.

"So you've probably seen everything. Me? I'm a tourist. Guess you must see a lot of us out here!"

"Not that many, really. What's up there?"

His smile got wider. "Just the top of the world. That's all. You going into the park?"

I wanted to say yes. I wanted to see if he'd let us by. But I had a schedule, and a mission I was actually supposed to be working on.

"No," I told him. "Guess not."

"Miles to go, huh?"

"Miles and miles."

He nodded sympathetically. "You'd probably get places quicker on the inland highways," he said. "Just bringing it up. If you've already seen the ocean, you may as well go fast."

"Thanks for the advice," I said. "But I think we'll stick to the coast road."

"Your call, man."

We all sat awkwardly, wondering who was going to go first. The boy finally revved his bike and disappeared up a side road.

"Granolas," Dakota said, rolling his eyes. He shifted the truck and got us moving again. He pulled on past the mountain. Bobby started singing camp songs, and after a while, we were all singing them. Whatever else was going on, we were out of camp and out on our own.

A little south of Stinson Beach, Dakota glanced down at the dashboard and muttered, "We might have a problem. Engine light's on."

We should have stopped in the town. Instead, Bobby smacked the dash with his fist. The light went out, and he said, "It does that all the time. Don't sweat it."

It worked at first. The truck continued to run, and the light stayed out. We went back to singing as we passed about a dozen places called "Gulch," and swung inland for a while. We finally hit the coast permanently at Bodega Bay. Bobby suggested that we go by a stuffed animal to sacrifice to Neptune -- "You know, just to ask for a good trip, and maybe a monster or two" -- but I convinced him that throwing a bunch of synthetic stuffing into the ocean was maybe not the best way to suck up to the sea god.

We stopped for lunch in town, even though it was still kind of early, and topped off the gas tank. There was a lot of ground to cover, most of it dotted with tiny little towns where we might or might not find a place to refuel ourselves and the truck. Bobby tried flirting with a waitress, who was unimpressed, and asked us what we were all doing out of school.

It wasn't far past Bodega Bay that the engine light went on again.

"I better slow down," Dakota said.

Bobby slapped the dash, and the light went out again, but this time, it flickered back to life almost immediately.

"This could be a problem," Dakota told me. "The engine light… it's not a good thing."

"Even I know that."

"Maybe we can still make it. I can get the car fixed in town while you guys are off questing. I mean, this part of it's my job, right?"

"Yeah…"

I saw a sign for a town called Jenner coming up, and I thought maybe we should swing in and get the truck looked at. I really did think about it.

But getting stuck on the road in Mr. Botolph's old truck was just the sort of thing Octavian would find every opportunity to lord over us. We'd have to call the Senate for funds before even getting to the monster (which might or might not exist).

So I let Jenner slip on by us. And Timber Cove. And Sea Ranch. We kept talking, not singing. Bobby pointed out an old fashioned ship that someone was sailing down the coast -- a big wooden job with white sails, like a pirate ship. Must have been one of the weird collectors or historical reenactors.

The truck was shaking quite a bit now, occasionally making loud, clanking sounds. We were no longer singing.

A few miles past a little bend in the road called Gualala, right after we passed some incredibly expensive looking houses north of town, the truck gave one mighty shudder and stalled, belching black smoke out of its tailpipes and steaming up under the hood.

We looked at each other.

Bobby groaned.

Dakota got out of the front seat and popped open the trunk. "I'll see what I can do with it." He looked around. "Maybe we should get it off the coast road, though. It's pretty narrow. There's a service road down there." He nodded to our left, where the Pacific stretched out to eternity after a thin slice of sloped land. A beaten dirt path led to some abandoned-looking shacks.

I got out and helped Dakota push while Bobby steered, and we wound up in a grassy area outside a shed.

Dakota got an oily toolbox from the back of the truck and leaned back over the engine. Bobby went over to help.

I knew nothing about cars.

Some quest leader.

"I don't know if we can fix this," Dakota said.

"Sure we can!"

"Come on, Botolph, the thing's breaking down."

"Are you insulting my dad's truck?"

"I doubt he's tried to get it this far for a while. Jason, do you have… well, any phone or walkie-talkie or anything? Is there a CB in the truck?"

I had no idea what a CB was, but Bobby said there wasn't one. He was getting frantic, and defensive.

"Hey," Dakota said. "Come on. You know this truck. Give me a hand here."

I mentally thanked him for keeping calm, and put my head in my hands to think. We had to contact someone. It would be even worse than asking for repair money. It would be asking for that and getting a tow from some old legionnaire. And who knew where there was one around here? I'd have to actually call camp.

But it had to be done. "I'm going back to one of those big houses," I said. "I'll take the letters and see if I can get someone to come help us. You two keep working on it."

"Yes, sir," Dakota said absently.

"Sure thing," Bobby added.

I looked in the side mirror on the truck. My hair was in disarray, my face was red with heat from the truck, and I generally looked like a vagrant.

They'd definitely welcome me up in the rich houses.

There was nothing for it.

I went back up to the main road, and about a mile south. The first road I saw had three houses at the top of it, but I didn't turn up it. I'm not sure why. Something just kept my feet moving to the south. I stopped at the base of the next turn off. There was only one big house here, with a big barn that I guessed was for show, since there were no animals.

Lupa the wolf-goddess doesn't teach us not to use logic. Logic is a fine tool when there's nothing to work with. But by the time anyone gets to Camp Jupiter, he or she has been taught to trust instinct, especially in situations like this. My instinct told me that this farmhouse was the place to be.

The long dirt driveway snaked up to it through a tunnel of trees. My feet puffed up little bits of dust as I went, so by the time I got to the front porch, I figured I looked like I'd been in a mud bath. I rang the bell. No answer.

Of course.

I went down the front stairs and around to the back. There was a clothesline here, which bore a single set of girl's clothes -- a completely tattered denim skirt, a pair of bright red stockings with holes at the knees, and a ruffled white blouse.

I frowned. It didn't seem like the kind of thing that would be in a country house that commanded what had to be a great view of the Pacific from the upper floors.

"Hello?" I called.

No answer.

I went to the back porch, which had just a screen door, and knocked again. "Hello? My name is Jason Grace. I need to call… could I use your phone? My friends are stuck down on that service road -- just north of here? -- and our truck broke down."

Again, no answer.

I tried the door. It was locked with a hook latch from the inside. For a minute, I thought that was suspicious, but of course, if they'd left via the front door, this one would have been locked. Through the door, I could see into the kitchen. There was a picture of two happy looking men taped to the fridge. One of them was holding a new baby.

I looked again at the clothes on the line. Battered clothes. Girl's clothes. Not baby clothes. Not men's clothes.

So they have a niece, and she's here visiting. And they're crunchy granola types who don't believe in washers and dryers. And…

And those clothes were wrecked.

I took a few steps out into the yard. "Hello?" I called again. "Is anyone here? I'm not going to hurt you."

No one answered.

I went toward the barn.

I did see the car -- give me that, all right? -- and I even looked at it. It was a nice little convertible. There were no keys in it, and it looked like the back wheels were up on blocks.

I went into the barn.

It wasn't exactly for show, but it wasn't a real barn, either. Instead of animals in stalls and lofts full of hay, it was loaded with old furniture in various stages of refinishing. It was a business, and that meant there might even be a phone out here. I searched the first floor and found nothing, then climbed a ladder up to the loft.

There was a nest here.

It was an office, obviously. I guessed it hadn't been used for a while. The desk was strewn with invoices. There was also a receipt for a cruise impaled on a spike. The dates on it were last summer, so the family should have come home by now. They were supposed to take the Princess Andromeda on "an unforgettable Caribbean Cruise," due back in June.

But wherever they were, their office had become a home for someone else. Drop cloths from the workshop downstairs had been spread out to make a bed. Cans of food and drinks were stacked in the shadows. There were girl-things on the desk now -- a hairbrush, some little rubber bands, and three pairs of earrings. Little chain bracelets were tangled around each other on top of an inventory book, and a bottle of strawberry lip gloss almost rolled off the edge when I bumped it.

When I bent down to catch it, I saw the phone jack. There was something plugged into it.

I put aside the mystery of the girl and found the phone cable with my fingers. It crossed behind the desk and dropped down a beam into the workshop.

I climbed down the ladder again, wondering what I'd missed. It took a few minutes to find the beam, but I finally saw it. The phone cable had been secured tightly enough to it that it effectively disappeared, especially as it had been painted.

At the base of the beam sat an old roll-top desk.

I opened it and, to my great relief, found a telephone. It was an antique, like everything else here, or at least it looked like one. It had a rotary dial, but when I spun the first number, a cunningly hidden digital display came up under the handset.

I dialed the rest of the number to the legion headquarters.

There weren't many phones at Camp Jupiter, because of the monsters, but there was a communications center for emergencies, always staffed by a centurion. I'd done the duty myself sometimes. The phones never rang, so whoever was there was probably bored stiff.

"Headquarters," someone answered, and I felt my relief come out in a long sigh.

"Gwen?" I asked.

"Jason? You've only been gone since this morning. What happened? Why are you calling?"

I told her, as briefly as I could.

"And you don't have a list of handy legionnaires?"

"I do in Winchester Bay," I told her. "But out here? Are there any legionnaires? I mean, we have enough money with us to broker transportation, if someone can meet us here."

"I'll see what I can find." She shuffled through something on the other end, probably the master reserve list of retired legionnaires. "I've got nothing closer than Stinson Beach," she said. "Give me the coordinates and I'll --"

Outside, an engine screamed.

"Gwen, I better go."

"Jason --"

"I'll get back in touch."

There was a thump as the convertible came off of its blocks.

I ran outside in time to see the car peel out from behind the barn, screaming toward the coast with a plume of dust in its wake.
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