Piper sighed. “They’re just nymphs, Leo.”
Leo gestured frantically at her to stay down. He whispered, “Crazy cousins!”
Piper’s eyes widened.
As the nymphs got closer, Leo started to notice odd details about them. Their staffs weren’t torches. They were twisted wooden branches, each topped with a giant pinecone, and some were wrapped with living snakes. The girls’ laurel wreaths weren’t wreaths, either. Their hair was braided with tiny vipers. The girls smiled and laughed and sang in Ancient Greek as they stumbled around the glade. They appeared to be having a great time, but their voices were tinged with a sort of wild ferocity. If leopards could sing, Leo thought they would sound like this.
“Are they drunk?” Jason whispered.
Leo frowned. The girls did act like that, but he thought there was something else going on. He was glad the nymphs hadn’t seen them yet.
Then things got complicated. In the woods to their right, something roared. The trees rustled, and a drakon burst into the clearing, looking sleepy and irritated, as if the nymphs’ singing had woken it up.
Leo had seen plenty of monsters in the woods. The camp intentionally stocked them as a challenge to campers. But this was bigger and scarier than most.
The drakon was about the size of a subway car. It had no wings, but its mouth bristled with daggerlike teeth. Flames curled from its nostrils. Silvery scales covered its body like polished chain mail. When the drakon saw the nymphs, it roared again and shot flames into the sky.
The girls didn’t seem to notice. They kept doing cartwheels and laughing and playfully pushing each other around.
“We’ve got to help them,” Piper whispered. “They’ll be killed!”
“Hold on,” Leo said.
“Leo,” Jason chided. “We’re heroes. We can’t let innocent girls—”
“Just chill!” Leo insisted. Something bothered him about these girls—a story he only half remembered. As counselor for Hephaestus cabin, Leo made it his business to read up on magic items, just in case he needed to build them someday. He was sure he’d read something about pinecone staffs wrapped with snakes. “Watch.”
Finally one of the girls noticed the drakon. She squealed in delight, as if she’d spotted a cute puppy. She skipped toward the monster and the other girls followed, singing and laughing, which seemed to confuse the drakon. It probably wasn’t used to its prey being so cheerful.
A nymph in a blood-red dress did a cartwheel and landed in front of the drakon. “Are you Dionysus?” she asked hopefully.
It seemed like a stupid question. True, Leo had never met Dionysus, but he was pretty sure the god of wine wasn’t a fire-breathing drakon.
The monster blasted fire at the girl’s feet. She simply danced out of the kill zone. The drakon lunged and caught her arm in its jaws. Leo winced, sure the nymph’s limb would be amputated right before his eyes, but she yanked it free, along with several broken drakon teeth. Her arm was perfectly fine. The drakon made a sound somewhere between a growl and a whimper.
“Naughty!” the girl scolded. She turned to her cheerful friends. “Not Dionysus! He must join our party!”
A dozen nymphs squealed in delight and surrounded the monster.
Piper caught her breath. “What are they—oh, gods. No!”
Leo didn’t usually feel sorry for monsters, but what happened next was truly horrifying. The girls threw themselves at the drakon. Their cheerful laughter turned into vicious snarling. They attacked with their pinecone staffs, with fingernails that turned into long white talons, with teeth that elongated into wolfish fangs.
The monster blew fire and stumbled, trying to get away, but the teenage girls were too much for him. The nymphs ripped and tore until the drakon slowly crumbled into powder, its spirit returning to Tartarus.
Jason made a gulping sound. Leo had seen his friend in all sorts of dangerous situations, but he’d never seen Jason look quite so pale.
Piper was shielding her eyes, muttering, “Oh, gods. Oh, gods.”
Leo tried to keep his own voice from trembling. “I read about these nymphs. They’re followers of Dionysus. I forget what they’re called—”
“Maenads.” Piper shivered. “I’ve heard of them. I thought they only existed in ancient times. They attended Dionysus’s parties. When they got too excited…”
She pointed toward the clearing. She didn’t need to say more. Brooke the naiad had warned them. Her crazy cousins ripped their victims to pieces.
“We have to get out of here,” Jason said.
“But they’re between us and Buford!” Leo whispered. “And we’ve only got—” He checked his watch. “Thirty minutes to get the syncopator installed!”
“Maybe I can fly us over to Buford.” Jason shut his eyes tight.
Leo knew Jason had controlled the wind before—just one of the advantages of being the über-cool son of Zeus—but this time, nothing happened.
Jason shook his head. “I don’t know…the air feels agitated. Maybe those nymphs are messing things up. Even the wind spirits are too nervous to get close.”
Leo glanced back the way they’d come. “We’ll have to retreat to the woods. If we can skirt around the Maenads—”
“Guys,” Piper squeaked in alarm.
Leo looked up. He hadn’t noticed the Maenads approaching, climbing the rocks with absolute silence even creepier than their laughter. They peered down from the tops of the boulders, smiling prettily, their fingernails and teeth back to normal. Vipers coiled through their hair.
“Hello!” The girl in the blood-red dress beamed at Leo. “Are you Dionysus?”
There was only one answer to that.
“Yes!” Leo yelped. “Absolutely. I am Dionysus.”
He got to his feet and tried to match the girl’s smile.
The nymph clapped her hands in delight. “Wonderful! My lord Dionysus? Really?”
Jason and Piper rose, weapons ready, but Leo hoped it didn’t come to a fight. He’d seen how fast these nymphs could move. If they decided to go into food-processor mode, Leo doubted he and his friends would stand a chance.
The Maenads giggled and danced and pushed each other around. Several fell off the rocks and landed hard on the ground. That didn’t seem to bother them. They just got up and kept frolicking.
Piper nudged Leo in the ribs. “Um, Lord Dionysus, what are you doing?”
“Everything’s cool.” Leo looked at his friends like, Everything’s really, really not cool. “The Maenads are my attendants. I love these guys.”
The Maenads cheered and twirled around him. Several produced goblets from thin air and began to chug…whatever was inside.
The girl in red looked uncertainly at Piper and Jason. “Lord Dionysus, are these two sacrifices for the party? Should we rip them to pieces?”
“No, no!” Leo said. “Great offer, but, um, you know, maybe we should start small. With, like, introductions.”
The girl narrowed her eyes. “Surely you remember me, my lord. I am Babette.”
“Um, right!” Leo said. “Babette! Of course.”
“And these are Buffy, Muffy, Bambi, Candy—” Babette rattled off a bunch more names that all kind of blended together. Leo glanced at Piper, wondering if this was some sort of Aphrodite joke. These nymphs could’ve totally fit in with Piper’s cabin. But Piper looked like she was trying not to scream. That might’ve been because two of the Maenads were running their hands over Jason’s shoulders and giggling.
Babette stepped closer to Leo. She smelled like pine needles. Her curly dark hair spilled over her shoulders and freckles splashed across her nose. A wreath of coral snakes writhed across her forehead.
Nature spirits usually had a greenish tinge to their skin from chlorophyll, but these Maenads looked like their blood was cherry Kool-Aid. Their eyes were severely bloodshot. Their lips were redder than normal. Their skin was webbed with bright capillaries.
“An interesting form you’ve chosen, my lord.” Babette inspected Leo’s face and hair. “Youthful. Cute, I suppose. Yet…somewhat scrawny and short.”
“Scrawny and short?” Leo bit back a few choice replies. “Well, you know. I was going for cute, mostly.”
The other Maenads circled Leo, smiling and humming. Under normal circumstances, being surrounded by hot girls would’ve been totally okay with Leo, but not this time. He couldn’t forget how the Maenads’ teeth and nails had grown just before they tore the drakon to shreds.
“So, my lord.” Babette ran her fingers down Leo’s arm. “Where have you been? We’ve searched for so long!”
“Where have I—?” Leo thought furiously. He knew Dionysus used to work as the director of Camp Half-Blood before Leo’s time. Then the god had been recalled to Mount Olympus to help deal with the giants. But where did Dionysus hang out these days? Leo had no idea. “Oh, you know. I’ve been doing, um, wine stuff. Yeah. Red wine. White wine. All those other kinds of wine. Love that wine. I’ve been so busy working—”
“Work!” Muffy the Maenad shrieked, pressing her hands over her ears.
“Work!” Buffy wiped her tongue as if trying to scrub away the horrible word.
The other Maenads dropped their goblets and ran in circles, yelling, “Work! Sacrilege! Kill work!” Some began to grow long claws. Other slammed their heads against the boulders, which seemed to hurt the boulders more than their heads.
“He means partying!” Piper shouted. “Partying! Lord Dionysus has been busy partying all over the world.”
Slowly, the Maenads began to calm down.
“Party?” Bambi asked cautiously.
“Party!” Candy sighed with relief.
“Yeah!” Leo wiped the sweat off his hands. He shot Piper a grateful look. “Ha-ha. Partying. Right. I’ve been so busy partying.”
Babette kept smiling, but not in such a friendly way. She fixed her gaze on Piper. “Who is this one, my lord? A recruit for the Maenads, perhaps?”
“Oh,” Leo said. “She’s my, uh, party planner.”
“Party!” yelled another Maenad, possibly Trixie.
“What a shame.” Babette’s fingernails began to grow. “We can’t allow mortals to witness our sacred revels.”
“But I could be a recruit!” Piper said quickly. “Do you guys have a website? Or a list of requirements? Er, do you have to be drunk all the time?”
“Drunk!” Babette said. “Don’t be silly. We’re underage Maenads. We haven’t graduated to wine yet. What would our parents think?”
“You have parents?” Jason shrugged the Maenads’ hands off his shoulders.
“Not drunk!” Candy yelled. She turned in a dizzy circle and fell down, spilling white frothy liquid from her goblet.
Jason cleared his throat. “So…what are you guys drinking if it isn’t wine?”
Babette laughed. “The beverage of the season! Behold the power of the thyrsus rod!”