I know what you’re going to ask.
‘Percy Jackson, why are you hanging from a Times Square billboard without your jeans on, about to fall to your death?’
Good question. You can blame Apollo, the god of music, archery and poetry – also the god of making me do stupid quests.
This particular disaster started when I brought my friend Grover some aluminium cans for his birthday.
Perhaps I should mention... I’m a demigod. My dad, Poseidon, is the lord of the sea, which sounds cool, I guess, but mostly it means my life is filled with monster attacks and annoying Greek gods who tend to pop up on the subway or in the middle of maths class or when I’m taking a shower. (Long story. Don’t ask.)
I figured maybe I’d get a day off from the craziness for Grover’s birthday, but of course, I was wrong.
Grover and his girlfriend, Juniper, were spending the day in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, doing naturey stuff like dancing with the local tree nymphs and serenading the squirrels. Grover’s a satyr. That’s his idea of fun.
Juniper seemed to be having an especially good time. While Grover and I sat on the bench together, she frolicked across Long Meadow with the other nature spirits, her chlorophyll-tinted eyes glinting in the sunlight. Since she was a dryad, Juniper’s life source was tied to a juniper bush back on Long Island, but Grover explained that she could take short trips away from home as long as she kept a handful of fresh juniper berries in her pockets. I didn’t want to ask what would happen if the berries got accidentally smashed.
Anyway, we hung out for a while, talking and enjoying the nice weather. I gave Grover his aluminium cans, which may sound like a lame gift, but that’s his favourite snack.
He happily munched on the cans while the nymphs started discussing what party games we should play. Grover pulled a blindfold out of his pocket and suggested Pin the Tail on the Human, which made me kind of nervous since I was the only human.
Then, without warning, the sunlight brightened. The air turned uncomfortably hot. Twenty feet away, the grass hissed and a cloud of steam whooshed up like somebody had opened a big pressing machine at a laundromat. The steam cleared, and standing in front of us was the god Apollo.
Gods can look like anything they want, but Apollo always seemed to go for that I-just-auditioned-for-a-boy-band look. Today he was rocking pencil-thin jeans, a skintight white T-shirt and gilded Ray-Ban sunglasses. His wavy blond hair glistened with product. When he smiled the dryads squealed and giggled.
‘Oh, no...’ Grover murmured. ‘This can’t be good.’
‘Percy Jackson!’ Apollo beamed at me. ‘And, um, your goat friend –’
‘His name is Grover,’ I said. ‘And we’re kind of off duty, Lord Apollo. It’s Grover’s birthday.’
‘Happy birthday!’ Apollo said. ‘I’m so glad you’re taking the day off. That means you two have time to help me with a small problem!’
Naturally, the problem wasn’t small.
Apollo led Grover and me away from the party so we could talk in private. Juniper didn’t want to let Grover go, but she couldn’t argue with a god. Grover promised to come back safely. I hoped it was a promise he’d be able to keep.
When we got to the edge of the woods, Apollo faced us. ‘Allow me to introduce the chryseae celedones.’
The god snapped his fingers. More steam erupted from the ground and three golden women appeared in front of us. When I say golden, I mean they were literally gold. Their metallic skin glittered. Their sleeveless gowns were made from enough gilded fabric to finance a bailout. Their golden hair was braided and piled on top of their heads in a sort of classical beehive hairdo. They were uniformly beautiful and uniformly terrifying.
I’d seen living statues – automatons – many times before. Beautiful or not, they almost always tried to kill me.
‘Uh...’ I took a step back. ‘What did you say these were? Krissy Kelly something?’
‘Chryseae celedones,’ Apollo said. ‘Golden singers. They’re my backup band!’
I glanced at Grover, wondering if this was some kind of joke.
Grover wasn’t laughing. His mouth hung open in amazement as if the golden ladies were the largest, tastiest aluminium cans he’d ever seen. ‘I – I didn’t think they were real!’
Apollo smiled. ‘Well, it’s been a few centuries since I brought them out. If they perform too often, you know, their novelty wears off. They used to live at my temple in Delphi. Man, they could rock that place. Now I only use them for special occasions.’
Grover got teary-eyed. ‘You brought them out for my birthday?’
Apollo laughed. ‘No, fool! I’ve got a concert tonight on Mount Olympus. Everyone is going to be there! The Nine Muses are opening, and I’m performing a mix of old favourites and new material. I mean, it’s not like I need the celedones. My solo career has been great. But people will expect to hear some of my classic hits with the girls: “Daphne on my Mind”, “Stairway to Olympus”, “Sweet Home Atlantis”. It’s going to be awesome!’
I tried not to look nauseous. I’d heard Apollo’s poetry before and, if his music was even half that bad, this concert was going to blow harder than Aeolus the wind god.
‘Great,’ I said half-heartedly. ‘So what’s the problem?’
Apollo’s smile faded. ‘Listen.’
He turned to his golden singers and raised his hands like a conductor. On cue, they sang in harmony: ‘Laaaa!’
It was only one chord, but it filled me with bliss. I suddenly couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing. If the golden singers had decided to tear me to pieces at that moment, I wouldn’t have resisted, as long as they kept singing. Nothing mattered to me except the sound.
Then the golden girls went silent. The feeling passed. Their faces returned to beautiful, impassive metal.
‘That...’ I swallowed. ‘That was amazing.’
‘Amazing?’ Apollo wrinkled his nose. ‘There are only three of them! Their harmonies sound empty. I can’t perform without the full quartet.’
Grover was weeping with joy. ‘They’re so beautiful. They’re perfect!’
I was kind of glad Juniper wasn’t within earshot, since she’s the jealous type.
Apollo crossed his tanned arms. ‘They’re not perfect, Mr Satyr. I need all four or the concert will be ruined. Unfortunately, my fourth celedon went rogue this morning. I can’t find her anywhere.’
I looked at the three golden automatons staring at Apollo, quietly waiting for orders. ‘Uh... How does a backup singer go rogue?’
Apollo made another conductor wave, and the singers sighed in three-part harmony. The sound was so mournful my heart sank into my gut. At that moment I felt sure I’d never be happy again. Then, just as quickly, the feeling dissipated.
‘They’re out of warranty,’ the god explained. ‘Hephaestus made them for me back in the old days, and they worked fine... Until the day after their two‑thousand-year warranty expired. Then, naturally, WHAM! The fourth one goes haywire and runs off to the big city.’ He gestured in the general direction of Manhattan. ‘Of course, I tried to complain to Hephaestus, but he’s all, “Well, did you have my Protection Plus package?” And I’m like, “I didn’t want your stupid extended warranty!” And he acts as if it’s my fault the celedon broke, and says if I’d bought the Plus package I could’ve had a dedicated service hotline, but –’
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ I interrupted. I really didn’t want to get in the middle of a god-versus-god argument. I’d been there too many times. ‘So if you know that your celedon is in the city, why can’t you just look for her yourself?’
‘I don’t have time! I have to practise. I have to write a setlist and do a soundcheck! Besides, this is what heroes are for.’
‘Running the gods’ errands,’ I muttered.
‘Exactly.’ Apollo spread his hands. ‘I assume the missing celedon is roaming the Theater District, looking for a suitable place to audition. Celedones have the usual starlet dreams – being discovered, headlining a Broadway musical, that sort of thing. Most of the time I can keep their ambitions under control. I mean, I can’t have them upstaging me, can I? But I’m sure without me around she thinks she’s the next Katy Perry. You two need to get her before she causes any problems. And hurry! The concert is tonight and Manhattan is a large island.’
Grover tugged his goatee. ‘So... You want us to find her, while you do soundchecks?’
‘Think of it as a favour,’ Apollo said. ‘Not just for me but for all those mortals in Manhattan.’
‘Oh.’ Grover’s voice got very small. ‘Oh, no...’
‘What?’ I demanded. ‘What oh, no?’
Years ago, Grover created a magic empathy link between us (another long story) and we could sense each other’s emotions. It wasn’t exactly mind reading, but I could tell he was terrified.
‘Percy,’ he said, ‘if that celedon starts singing in public, in the middle of afternoon rush hour –’
‘She’ll cause no end of havoc,’ Apollo said. ‘She might sing a love song or a lullaby or a patriotic war tune, and whatever the mortals hear...’
I shuddered. One sigh from the golden girls had plunged me into despair, even with Apollo controlling their power. I imagined a rogue celedon bursting into song in a crowded city – putting people to sleep, or making them fall in love, or urging them to fight.
‘She has to be stopped,’ I agreed. ‘But why us?’
‘I like you!’ Apollo grinned. ‘You’ve faced the Sirens before. This isn’t too different. Just put some wax in your ears. Besides, your friend Grover here is a satyr. He has a natural resistance to magical music. Plus he can play the lyre.’
‘What lyre?’ I asked.
Apollo snapped his fingers. Suddenly Grover was holding the weirdest musical instrument I’d ever seen. The base was a hollowed-out tortoise shell, which made me feel really bad for the tortoise. Two polished wooden arms stuck out of one side like a bull’s horns, with a bar across the top and seven strings stretching from the bar to the base of the shell. It looked like a combination harp, banjo and dead turtle.
‘Oh!’ Grover almost dropped the lyre. ‘I couldn’t! This is your –’
‘Yes,’ Apollo agreed cheerfully. ‘That’s my own personal lyre. Of course, if you damage it, I’ll incinerate you, but I’m sure you’ll be careful! You can play the lyre, can’t you?’
‘Um...’ Grover plucked a few notes that sounded like a funeral dirge.
‘Keep practising,’ Apollo said. ‘You’ll need the lyre’s magic to capture the celedon. Have Percy distract her while you play.’
‘Distract her,’ I repeated.
This quest was sounding worse and worse. I didn’t see how a tortoiseshell harp could defeat a golden automaton, but Apollo clapped me on the shoulder like everything was settled.
‘Excellent!’ he said. ‘I’ll meet you at the Empire State Building at sunset. Bring me the celedon. One way or another I’ll persuade Hephaestus to fix her. Just don’t be late! I can’t keep my audience waiting. And remember – not a scratch on that lyre.’
Then the sun god and his golden backup singers disappeared in a cloud of steam.
‘Happy birthday to me,’ Grover whimpered and plucked a sour note on the harp.