Okay, so it's been nine-ish months since I last updated and the world is not in a great place right now. Enjoy the chapter, and I hope you all stay safe and healthy and isolate yourselves as much as your individual circumstances allow.
There's a fair bit of worldbuilding in this one, and more extensive story notes than usual. (You all like worldbuilding, right?) The hardest parts were the Australian mythology sections; it was hard to research and wrap my head around, and I'm still not sure how well I managed. Thank you to Ravaelt for proofreading that part.
Turkey, March, two years after the end of the Second Olympian War
The ruins of Troy were underwhelming.
It was a lot smaller than I'd pictured and had been destroyed and rebuilt a bunch of times over the millennia. Most of the bits of rubble that were still recognizable were from the Roman settlement of Illium. I wandered behind a tour group through the dig sections from Troy Seven, the one that had probably been the Troy of the Illiad, but it was a fairly unimpressive row of trenches with piles of earth and stone.
I wasn't quite sure what I'd expected besides the normal tourist experience. The same thing I'd expected on Mount Toubkal and Mount Olympus, probably. Something left from the legends that had been made here.
But two-and-a-half years ago I'd met Achilles and immediately suggested a different choice of footwear. I knew where the magic had gone. I took my phone back out and tried to pay attention to the history.
I said good-bye to the guide a couple of hours later and wandered out the gate in the light of the setting sun. I paused to get a picture of the replica of the Trojan Horse with some other tourists waving from the stomach, and headed in the direction of the coastal plains, where I'd left Mrs. O'Leary.
It was a quiet evening. The road I was on bordered a river that flowed down to the lands where the actual battles had been fought. The Firefly was anchored a bit offshore, and I'd be swimming out to it, not flying, since Blackjack had run into the local pegasus herd this morning. I'd given him an extra grooming, got out his new Chimera-tooth necklace, and made plans to meet up in Istanbul.
An owl swooped past me silently as the scattered streetlights on the road started to turn on. I was internally debating between cooking on the ship or finding a restaurant in the nearby town when I felt the movement of air close- too close- behind me. It was enough.
I twisted as I went for Riptide, letting the thing that looked like it just been an owl hit my shoulder instead of the neck-break it had been aiming for. It bounced off, staggering me with it's weight, and screeched as it flapped back and hit the ground in a crouch. Its transformation finished and it snarled at me, showing an impressive pair of fangs in a hideously corpse-pale face.
...okay. I didn't have any garlic on me, but pointy things in the heart were supposed to work pretty well, right?
"Edward Cullen, you are not," I told it. It decided to take offence at the comparison and lunged at me. It dodged my first swing with inhuman speed and grace, darted in, and immediately chipped a fang on the arm I had up to protect my throat. It was over pretty quickly from there.
"Now that's a curse I haven't seen in a long while," a deep voice murmured.
I jerked and looked in the direction of the river, where a shirtless man with a laurel wreath around his head was leaning over the riverbank and looking at me with raised eyebrows. He had a greying brown beard and mustache, and when he hoisted himself over the bank of the river, I saw that his bottom half was some sort of water snake. "You'd be Poseidon's boy, then. Visiting the ruins?"
"I… yeah. Yes, I'm Percy Jackson." I left the fangs where they'd dropped, wiped the dust off my sword, and tried to remember this guy's name from the map. "...Do you get vampires here often?"
"Mhachkay," the river god corrected. "More often in recent centuries. Time was, the worst you had to worry about with the local owls was not offending Athena. Now it seems like every other bird is a risen corpse."
I was saved by the sign on a nearby footbridge. "You're the Karamenderes River, right?"
"These days I am," he said. "I've had a few names over the centuries. They called me Scamander, back when the Greeks came to get back that Spartan girl."
"You've been here that long?" I looked back the way I'd come. "What was it like? It's kind of hard to tell."
"Well, everything was smaller back then," Karamenderes said, coiling up his lower half and looking happy I was interested. "Ten thousand people were packed into about fifty acres, and that was enough to make it a major city. The walls, though- those were legendary. Your father built them, you know. Twenty feet tall, with towers that stretched up to thirty feet."
I actually knew that story. My dad had been on punishment duty for trying to overthrow Zeus. Couldn't say I blamed him, Zeus had probably had it coming. "Didn't the king stiff him on the payment?"
"And the moron got a sea serpent for it." Karamenderes chuckled. "Didn't learn his lesson, either. When Heracles wandered by and killed the thing, Laomedon tried to avoid paying him too, so Heracles attacked the city and killed all of Laomedon's sons except Priam."
Hercules again. He really did pop up everywhere. I decided to change the subject. "Were you involved in the war?"
"Well, I washed Achilles out to sea once. Your father and Athena made sure he didn't drown, and Hera got Hephaestus to dry out my flood."
"So you joined the Trojan side?"
"No, I mostly stayed to myself except for that one time- there wasn't much point when fighting on either side got the other half of the Council mad at you." Karamenderes snorted. "Achilles was a piece of work, though, I gotta tell ya. He went nuts after his boyfriend died, started killing every Trojan he found. I told him to do it on dry land and stop clogging my river up with bodies, and he tried to attack me instead. So, giant waves."
"He regretted it all, I think," I said, remembering the ancient warrior haunting a riverbank for millennia, warning new generations of heroes away from his fate. "We met at the Styx, and he tried to warn me off. He wasn't happy about how it all turned out."
"Really? There's not much point being sorry after the fact. Achilles chose his fate before he even got on the ships. His mother prophesied that he could have either a long and happy life in obscurity, or Troy, death, and eternal glory. And Achilles was a very proud man." Karamenderes peered at me in the dim light, eyes sharp and eyebrows raised. "So even after being warned away, you still jumped in the Styx?"
I shrugged. "We were at war. It saved a lot of lives."
The river god grunted. "Hold on to that, then. You've made your choices, just don't regret things when it's all over."
"I don't think I could," I said honestly. People kept calling it a curse, but jumping in the Styx had worked.
We talked for a bit longer, long enough for Mrs. O'Leary to get bored chasing rabbits and come find me. Karamenderes had some interesting stories; apparently Odysseus had been vicious when he got his revenge against the guy who'd dragged him along on the war. He waved goodbye as Mrs. O'Leary and I headed down towards the coast and the Firefly.
That night, I slept deeply, and my dreams were filled with swords and fire and the sound of birdsong.
The next morning, I looked at Manannan's apple branch, sprouting with nine silver buds and exactly zero apples. It… might have been Blackjack and his new friends? The herd had been planning on heading north yesterday, but if they'd still been in the area they could have swung by for breakfast.
It was odd that I hadn't woken up, though. I was usually pretty good at telling when people were on my ship. If it had been Blackjack, it was even odder that he hadn't woken me up himself.
Later in the morning, I was leaning against my rarely-occupied helm as the Firefly passed through the Dardanelles, the ancient Hellespont. Sailing northwards here was tricky, and I was already going against the wind and current and having to stay out of the shipping lanes; I didn't want to have to worry about any nearby ships glancing over, seeing me in my hammock, and calling the coast guard.
I let my attention wander from my ship to the ones nearby, shifting through the enormous oil tanker passing to port and the smaller yachts in front and behind, then focusing deep below me. There were a lot- two hundred and sixteen - of wrecks down there, mostly sunk about a century ago. World War One, probably sunk in the Battle of Gallipoli. I considered anchoring and diving down to get a closer look, but- no. I'd be passing through here again and wouldn't have to focus nearly as much on the Firefly on the way out.
I spent a couple of days leisurely sailing counterclockwise around the Sea of Marmara rather than cutting straight across to Istanbul. After I made it there and anchored in the marina that would be my base for the next few days, I finally put my international driver's license to good use and rented a car.
After the second time the guy in the cross-street ran a red light and the third time the guy behind me insulted my mother when I didn't slam the pedal the second the light turned green, I decided I did not appreciate Blackjack enough. This was a nightmare, and I'd learned to drive in New York City.
I did finally manage to get to the Hagia Sophia and get pictures of it and of the neighboring Sultan Ahmed Mosque before the tourists got kicked out for the afternoon prayers. I wandered down the streets and past the fenced-off ruins of an old Roman-style forum before coming to a large open area, called 'Freedom Square' according to my phone.
Before I got into the square, though, I was blocked by a ghost, of the type I'd caught occasional glimpses of in Italy, who looked like he'd just stepped off the Byzantine mosaics in the Hagia Sophia. He was blind, with eyes trailing tears of blood that dripped off his face and disappeared without ever hitting the pavement. Despite that, he didn't seem to have any problem seeing me.
"Hold, demigod," the ghost said theatrically, and unsheathed the sword at his side and pointed it at me. "Who are you, and who is your parent?"
"Percy Jackson," I told him, and, not really liking the whole sword thing, "son of Sally Jackson."
That made him pause. He raised his bushy eyebrows at me. "You know what I meant."
"Yeah, but my mom's awesome. Maybe you should be specific."
"Very well, son of Sally," he said, brandishing his sword dramatically, "then who is your divine parent, and are you a student of Chiron?"
"Poseidon," I said curtly, "and I went to Camp Half-blood, yeah. Who are you?"
"Excellent! I am Alexios the Fifth, emperor and autocrat of the Romans," the Greek ghost said to me in Greek, "and son of Athena. So long as you are no child of the Latins, you are welcome in Constantinople, Percy Jackson!"
There wasn't much resemblance. I wondered if his eyes had been grey once.
"They, ah, don't call it that anymore," I told Alexios. "I don't think it's the 'Latins' you should be worried about."
"Hah! The Turks!" He sheathed his sword with a flourish. "They were scavengers, just picking over a carcass! It was the Latins that destroyed us, boy, mark my words. The Roman Empire fell to the Crusades, not the Sultan."
"...you're speaking Greek," I pointed out.
"What does that have to do with anything?" he asked blankly.
I decided not to go there.
"They claimed to be here to restore Prince Alexios to the throne, but treachery hid in their hearts! My mother warned me herself- the Doge of Venice, the son of Mercury, wanted to destroy us from the start, wished to take our wealth and history and make it his own! Never trust a Latin, she told me, and she was right!"
Hermes' kid, I translated mentally. It looked like the names of the gods hadn't completely gone back to their originals by this guy's time, though the shift must have started sometime in the Middle Ages. It wasn't unusual for demigods in opposing positions of power to fight for their country, it had actually been a major problem in World War II, but… "Wait, they wanted to put you on the throne, and you're complaining about them?"
"Of course not!" Alexios said, insulted. "They were brought here by Alexios the Fourth, who betrayed his people by bringing a foreign army into the empire. I had nothing to do with it! After a few months with them here the city had become entirely unlivable, you wouldn't believe the riots. I took the throne from the traitor emperor with my mother's blessing and armed the city against the Latins!"
I looked at his ruined eyes. "And how'd that go?"
He deflated. "Well, better than if we had been completely unprepared. We gave them a fight, at least."
"I'm sure you did," I said politely. "And is there, um, anything that's keeping you here? From passing on and going to Hades? Charon would probably accept my credit card, if you'd like some help getting across the river."
"Iron will, Percy Jackson, nothing but iron will and determination! While I still walk this city, no child of the Latins will have peace here!" Alexios declared.
"...right," I said slowly. "I guess I'll let you get back to that, then. Good luck finding them."
"Thank you, and give my greetings to Chiron. And remember- never trust a Latin!" The ghost turned and continued across the square, fading into translucence halfway. I shook my head and turned around, back to where I'd parked. I should return the car before rush hour started anyway.
"Oh Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow. Please accept my offering. Show me Blackjack."
The drachma fell through the sea spray and bounced, unaccepted, on the deck.
Blackjack was late.
Back at Troy, we'd agreed to meet up in a week. That had passed two days ago. I hadn't been worried yesterday. It was spring, and some of the mares in the herd had been very pretty. But he hadn't shown up today either, and Iris Messages weren't connecting, to him or to any of the herd he'd been travelling with.
There were reasons besides… the obvious… that an Iris Message might not go through. I'd met Manannan, ridden with the Wild Hunt. Talked to Nico about the limits of his father's power. Heard from Chrysaor that he'd prefer to stay trapped in the Mediterranean, rather than brave the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean beyond it. There were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my mythology, and when he really got going Blackjack could fly across a continent in a few hours. Maybe Iris just couldn't find him.
I hoped it was that simple.
The sun was setting, and any rainbows I could make now might not last a full Message, but unlike Blackjack Rachel had a cell phone. The call went to voicemail, and I asked her to give me a call when she was able.
She didn't call back immediately, maybe still in class. I paced the deck for a bit, hoping that Blackjack would suddenly fly over the horizon to mock me for worrying about him, and eventually flopped into the hammock and started figuring out how to record phone calls. By the time I'd worked it out I'd settled down enough to start yawning despite my tension.
I shook my head in irritation and called a wave over the side to wake me up. The spray from the wave also woke up Mrs. O'Leary, who whined at me before curling back up on her boar-skin dog bed and falling back asleep.
The water had helped, but not enough, and pretty soon I was yawning again and pacing the deck to keep myself awake. I took out my phone again to see if Rachel's afternoon classes would be over by now. Maybe she just hadn't noticed my call.
It was barely 8:30.
I was suddenly fully awake. When I focused on my surroundings I could hear a crooning, almost overwhelmed by the background noise of waves against my hull and the distant sounds of a city at night. The more attention I paid to it the heavier my eyelids got, and I casually took Riptide out of my pocket.
I settled against Mrs O'Leary and pretended to fall asleep while I used the cover of her body to uncap my sword. Each time I felt myself nodding off, I squeezed my hand around the bare blade until I was awake again.
Pretty soon after I stopped moving around, a glowing shape detached itself from a neon restaurant sign on shore and glided towards the Firefly. It was a peacock-sized bird, orange and red with flames flickering along its wings and tail feathers. I tensed as it came onto the ship, but the bird didn't attack. After a wary glance over at us to make sure I was still 'asleep', it made a beeline- birdline? - for the apple branch.
Oh. It had been nine days since Troy. The apples didn't really stack like that for me or Blackjack, but maybe the bird could eat a lot of food at once without any problems. Or it had a pocket somewhere- the apples didn't go bad that I'd noticed yet.
"Hey," I said, capping Riptide.
The background crooning turned into a startled screech that left me wincing as the bird bolted back into the air. It was fast, but Lucky had been faster, and the bird didn't have any better luck than he had. I wrapped it up as gently as I could as its flames went white-hot and its cries shriller. "Whoa. Hey. Relax, I do not care about the apples, I've been giving them to homeless guys anyway-"
Eventually it tired itself out enough to hang limply from the mast. I came closer, hands empty and outstretched. "It's okay. Take as many apples as you want. Just stop trying to put me to sleep, alright? I'm expecting an important call. Nod if you understand me."
After a long pause, the bird nodded. Which was nice, I wasn't sure what language I'd been speaking just then but it wasn't the Turkish I'd been speaking for the last week. I hoisted it on top of the apple branch and let the ropes unravel.
The bird shook itself to smooth its feathers and settled down onto the branch, staring at me with its head cocked. After a minute, it shook its tail to detach one of its long fiery feathers, which floated down to my feet.
I picked the feather up, and immediately dropped it when a woman's voice said, You are welcome.
The bird gave a reproving chirp, and I picked the feather up again. "Was that you?"
Yes. You have been kind, traveler, and kindness must be repaid. Hold my feather, and you will understand the speech of birds. Wave it, and so long as I am near enough to hear I will respond to a call for aid.
So I could now understand birdsong, as long as I was carrying a six-foot-long feather that was also on fire. And, really, speaking to fish wasn't as useful as you'd think, and if I weren't travelling with Blackjack I'd barely ever use my horse-whisperer powers. I wasn't sure understanding birds would be useful enough to make up for extending my reluctance to eat a tuna sandwich to Chicken McNuggets.
It was a nice gesture, though, and she probably knew more about the area than I did, which could be useful right now. "Actually, the only thing I'd need help with is finding a friend of mine- I don't know if you've seen him? A large black pegasus stallion, probably travelling with the Black Sea herd?"
She hesitated, then shook her head.
Seen him, no.
But Granny Horror has reformed after that mess with Prince Ivan a few centuries ago. The steeds she raises are legendary, and she is trying to reform her herds. All free-roaming horses are in danger from her right now.
"Granny Horror?" I repeated. The name that left my lips was 'Baba Yaga'. At least I knew what language I was speaking now. "Where does she live?"
In the forests of the north, past the River of Fire, in a house standing on a pair of chicken legs.
That sounded promising, in that it sounded like somewhere Iris Messages would maybe not be able to reach and I was willing to hope. I opened my mouth to ask more, but was interrupted by my phone. Rachel, returning my call.
"Hey, Percy, what's up?"
"Blackjack's missing. I think I need a prophecy," I said grimly.
Her voice turned serious. "Let me get somewhere alone. What happened?"
I gave her the story while she found an empty unlocked classroom. I hesitated, but in the end didn't mention the bird munching on an apple in front of me and didn't give her the name of the witch that might have kidnapped Blackjack.
"Okay, I'm ready. Go ahead," she said.
A scratching came from the side of the boat. I wasn't wearing my headset. "Just a minute."
I walked over and glanced down. A startled telekhine looked up at me, the first of several I could feel around the hull. I let my 'voice' resonate through the ship and the surrounding water.
I've had a bad day. Think very carefully about what you're about to try.
The telekhine I was looking at hesitated, then carefully lowered itself back into the water. Its pack followed its lead.
I set my phone to 'record', then raised the phone back to my ear and asked, "Where's Blackjack?"
Rachel exhaled sharply and spoke in the voice of the Oracle of Delphi.
Mercy to others shall guide your way
Until you pass the Night, Dawn and Day
The hag of the forest, your friend shall keep
Unless she's returned to deathless sleep
It was about as straightforward as I'd ever heard a prophecy be, and my shoulders slumped in relief. Blackjack was alive. Probably not doing great, probably not happy with the world, but alive and likely to stay that way.
"Percy? How did it go?" Rachel asked.
"Great. He's alive, and I know where to look for him. Thank you, Rachel, thank you so much," I said.
"Anytime, Percy, and I really mean that. Let us know when you find him," she said. I appreciated the 'when'.
After she hung up, I listened to the prophecy again, and looked up at the bird I'd just shown mercy to after she'd tried to drug me. I said in Russian, "So, I need a guide, and those apples regrow daily. You interested?"
The old witch eats the young men who seek her out, traveler.
I smiled humorlessly. "I'm pretty chewy. Are you in or out?"
The bird dipped her long neck.
In, as far as I am able to travel with you. I am the Firebird.
I nodded sharply. "Thanks, and welcome aboard. My name's Percy Jackson."
The Firefly unmoored and my sails unfurled, catching the wind to take us north, into the Black Sea.
The Blessed Isles, Irish Sea. Late August, five years after the end of the Second Olympian War.
Near the shore of the shaded pool, a juvenile salmon nibbled on a small hazelnut, the last of nine, as gently swirling currents kept the rest of the shoal away from her meal. The final bite disappeared in her mouth, and she froze for a long minute.
With a final full-body shiver, the Bradan Faesa swam upwards, towards the god on the banks of the Well of Wisdom that had been feeding the young salmon hazelnuts the entire day.
You're supposed to let that happen naturally, they said reproachfully.
"There's no time for that," Manannan said. "Events are picking up. I need you awake."
You do? the Salmon said, startled, and then, Oh! Of course, my lord!
"The Morrigan spent a week sharpening her spear before putting it away in disgust, and I got a visit from Neptune about his son. What's he been doing?"
The Salmon of Wisdom made an embarrassed wiggle and said, Ah. Well. More of a 'who', really…
Ten minutes later, they ended with,
-and so he's begun a long-distance learning course with the Muse of Astronomy.
Manannan leaned back against the hazel tree on the bank, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "What's his membership status?"
Irreproachable. He rides out with horse and hound at least weekly and has Hunted the monsters of legend in every land and ocean he has visited, from the Chimera in Rome to the demon Chi You in China. Cernunnos himself is in more danger of losing his membership than Perseus Jackson is.
Manannan nodded in satisfaction. "Good. Keep an eye on him and let me know when he leaves the West again, and when the Eastern gods make their move."
Manannan strolled off towards the distant sounds of song and laughter. Behind him, the Salmon soared into the air once, then settled back into their shoal of siblings and focused on the changes in the world since their last death.
We'd spent most of September hopping between ports going counterclockwise around the continent. The 'family visits' had thankfully dropped off after getting to land, except for the occasional random interrupt by Ares. At the moment, the Firefly was anchored an easy swim away from the shallow seagrass beds of Shark Bay Marine Park, which had a huge number of dugongs and the largest hippocampus herd I'd ever seen. All the grazing sea-cows and horse-fish would come over to say hi whenever I was in the area, and I was pretty sure that the occasional passing boaters saw them all as dugongs.
Are you packed, Boss? Blackjack asked.
"Yeah, I'm ready," I said, strapping my pack onto my back. Food wasn't a problem, with Uke Mochi's and Inari's gifts securely wrapped in the tablecloth I'd picked up in Russia, so it was just my camping gear, clothing, and first-aid kit. So far, we'd mostly stayed within an hours' flight from the coast; this was our first extended trip into the outback.
The first couple of hours on the way to Alice Springs, a town in the center of the continent, was spent flying over bushes that gradually got thinner. This part of the country was desert, according to the guidebook, though it didn't look much like the Sahara or Gobi. We kept on going until I saw the glimmer of water in front of us. A large lake, probably almost a hundred miles long, surrounded by sand and glittering salt.
I tapped Blackjack on his shoulder and pointed, and he lowered his altitude so we could land. We were circling low and coming in for a landing near a posted sign. The low height was probably the only thing that saved Blackjack's life when a wall of wind came out of nowhere and slammed into us.
I was almost tossed off Blackjack completely as he flapped frantically to stay in the air. He called out, Hang on!
"Aim for the water!" I yelled.
I'd be fine. It was a saltwater landing. I concentrated, trying to give some of that immunity to Blackjack in the few seconds we had left, but I don't think I managed to do anything. I'm pretty sure his landing was just good flying.
I let myself fall off when we hit the surface, and floated up next to Blackjack, using the water to support us both. It was slightly too deep to make it comfortable to stand. "Are you alright?"
I think so, but I don't want to try flying out. Where'd that wind come from?
I shrugged and went underwater to check his legs and make sure he really hadn't broken anything. I'd just finished (and found nothing, we'd been incredibly lucky) when a hand wrapped around my ankle and pulled down.
There was nothing under me. There wasn't room- the water just wasn't that deep.
Or at least, it hadn't been.
The creature dragging me down was human-shaped, except for the hook-like claws shredding my jeans and the sharp fangs studding his creepy smile. There were three more floating below us, a man, woman, and child wearing bits of old and ragged clothing.
I kicked the first monster off and pulled out Riptide, but hesitated when I saw the kid behind her… parents, probably.
She was wearing a pair of Nikes, the only part of her clothing that hadn't been torn like the legs of my jeans. I doubted she'd gotten them at a department store.
They fit her perfectly.
The little girl saw me looking at her and her smile widened. "We'll eat you."
...aaand my moment of doubt was done. A wall of water slammed into the monsters from behind and below, pushing them up to where I was waiting with Riptide.
I left the kid for last. It wasn't a tactical decision, even though she was definitely the least threatening of the monsters. I just… didn't want to kill her. It was a relief when she decided to swim away, into the depths of a lake that had been at most seven feet deep when we landed.
Below her, I saw the surface of an enormous bubble covering an entire village of the creatures. The littlest monster squeezed through the top of the bubble and dropped down, screeching loudly enough to be heard throughout the lake. The ones in the streets looked up and started marching.
I popped up next to Blackjack. "Out of the water."
What was that howling?
A wave propelled us towards dry land while I described the monsters to Blackjack. If I'd been alone, I'd have stayed underwater, but I didn't want to balance fighting off water monsters with trying to make sure Blackjack didn't drown or get eaten. I swung onto his back once we reached the nearest salt flat and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the pack I was still wearing- something covering my back vs. the weight throwing off my center of balance- and decided to leave it on.
The first monsters, probably ones that had already been near the shore, surfaced and came at us, claws outstretched.
Hold on, boss!
I clung onto his neck as Blackjack reared and caved in the skull of the nearest monster, then pivoted and collapsed another's chest with a wing strong enough to carry half the weight of a large horse.
Pegasi don't fight on the ground often. When demigods fought, the pegasi were aerial scouts and rapid transport- the closest we'd had to a cavalry at the Battle of Manhattan were the Party Ponies. Fighting from horseback is hard without stirrups, and pegasi don't wear saddles. They just don't.
But 'hard' doesn't mean 'impossible', and Blackjack was trained for this. I wrapped my free hand in his mane, clenched my legs tight, and took care of the monsters that tried to come at him from behind.
The first cluster of monsters died fast, and Blackjack started running for the sandy shore of the lake. More monsters emerged from the inlet bordering our saltbank; half of them were promptly washed back into the lake by the wave that surged over them. The rest were bowled over or trampled when Blackjack spread his wings again and charged.
When we'd finally made it to shore, I tugged on Blackjack's mane and he came to a stop next to the sign we'd originally been aiming for. I hopped off.
You sure, boss?
"They've killed kids."
Oh, he said quietly.
He knew the drill by now and cantered further into the desert to wait for my whistle. I turned around and glanced at the sign.
'Lake Disappointment'. It fit.
I didn't go back into the water. I wasn't going to swim down to that village in the bubble and hunt down every inhabitant. There were lines, even for monsters.
The ones that were surfacing and coming ashore, though, I could be pretty sure were up here because they wanted to eat me. I didn't have any problem taking them out of the picture for a while.
I stepped back onto the salt flat, raised Riptide, and began.
The next day at the Alice Springs Visitor's Center, a few questions about the folklore of the lake got me a name for the monsters- Ngayurnangalku, which basically meant 'they'll eat me'.
Good name, Blackjack remarked when I relayed that.
"They just live in that one lake, it sounds like. We shouldn't have a problem anywhere else." We'd avoided flying over any other ponds and streams yesterday, just in case the 'blown down over water' thing was a constant in the area.
We spent the first couple of days in Alice Springs visiting the wildlife reserves and Aboriginal art museums and galleries; I thought Rachel would like this year's Christmas present. We went from there to the mountain ranges and canyons within a couple hundred miles of the town, with the occasional short shadow-hop back to town for dog food.
In early October, at a campground in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, I woke up before dawn and crawled out of my sleeping bag; the spring mornings were still cold enough for me to want one. After dressing in the dark, I shoved my shoes on, crept past a slumbering Mrs. O'Leary, and poked Blackjack awake.
Sunrise over the giant solitary rock formation Uluru was as spectacular as advertised; after watching (and photographing) the changing colors of the sandstone in the mist, we landed, had breakfast, and began an overland stroll to the neighboring Kata-Tjuta rock domes, about sixteen miles away.
About halfway there, I tapped on Blackjack's shoulder. "There's a water source nearby. You thirsty?"
I could drink something.
Weirdly, I couldn't tell where the feeling of 'water' was coming from, but when I concentrated a trickle of pure water started pooling in the rocks of a nearby dry streambed a few seconds later.
I steered us over, and after Blackjack had finished drinking I reached down to fill my own bottle. I touched the streambed for the first time, and saw-
-a giant snake, skin shimmering in all colors of the rainbow, moved across the continent churning up the land. Rain filled the twisted paths behind them, and the rivers were born.
They glanced to the side and saw me, next to them and ages away. As they moved past, their tail flicked out and slammed into me-
and I was thrown back, away from the rain and the river. I landed flat on my back and gave out a strangled yell of pain as my vision blacked out from the impact.
My eyes cleared. The sky was blue. No rainclouds. The sun was bright above me.
I lay there, shivering, as Blackjack cantered over to me.
Boss! What happened?
"Give… give me a minute," I said shakily. I waited for the throbbing in my mortal spot to fade and managed to sit up, still shivering. Rainwater dripped off of my hair and onto my shaking hands as I tried to process the… dream? Vision?
So. That had happened.
That had happened a long time ago, I was pretty sure.
My baseline for 'older than dirt' was anything from before the Titans, and I hadn't met many beings that qualified. Nekhbet, the Egyptian vulture goddess. A lady in a brief encounter in Iran. That was pretty much it, and the snake had been much, much older than either of them. Their trip across the continent had happened tens of thousands of years ago. It was, somehow, still happening, and it would be for as long as the traces of the snake were carved into the land.
I looked back at the stream, where ancient rainwater was already sinking into the soil. I wasn't thirsty anymore.
"Let's get back to camp, Blackjack."
Alright, he said, unusually subdued, and knelt down so I could get on his back without moving too much.
We'd be hauling along our own water, the next time we went out.
New York, Mid-December, five years after the second Olympian War
Jason blinked, and looked around. He was standing next to a triumphal arch of white marble. A carving of President George Washington was directly in front of him, holding a book with Exitus Acta Probat written on the cover.
'The end justifies the deed.'
A puckish black-haired young man a few inches shorter than Jason came up to him and grabbed his upper arm, tugging him through the arch. "Come on, man, the final starts in ten."
"I… final? What final? Where am I?"
"Funny, but seriously, you might be able to be late, Phillips likes you, but he's not going to do me any favors. Argue with a guy one time about 'wine-dark seas' and color perception and he never forgets it. Stupid language credit, this was supposed to be an easy A..."
Jason trailed after the chattering guy, bewildered, and soon found himself sitting in a classroom he'd never seen before, taking a test packet from a professor he'd never met, for a test he hadn't studied for on a language he didn't speak.
He might be in a nightmare. He was sure, somehow, that he'd had dreams this vivid before.
He waited a couple of hours, until the student who seemed to recognize him was packing up, then handed in his unmarked test and followed him out.
"So, what'd you think?"
"It was all Greek to me," Jason answered honestly.
Black-hair rolled his eyes, snorting. "Never heard that one before."
He turned to go down the hall, but was stopped by Jason's hand on his shoulder. "I don't know who you are."
He gave Jason a crocodile grin. "Sure. I'm not your roommate, I'm a monster in disguise."
"Stop." Jason had just met him but could already tell that his default response was set to 'smartass'. "I do not know your name."
"...I'm Leo Valdez," the guy said, sobering and steering him to a nearby bench to check his eye dilation. "Your roommate. Dude, what were you doing last night? Did you go to any weird parties? If you've overheard me and Piper talking about Greek life, I've gotta tell you, that is really not what we meant-"
"Leo, great," Jason said, batting away his hands. "Leo. What's my last name?"
He had been going to try on that test. He'd stopped at the first line.
"It's…" Leo trailed off, starting to frown.
Jason's shoulders slumped. "You don't know either."
"It'll come to me, give me a minute!"
"Seriously," Jason said, "are we friends?"
"Last I checked." Leo didn't sound as certain as before, though. He'd pulled a phone out of his toolbelt- a toolbelt Jason hadn't noticed before, although now it stood out against his jeans- and was flipping through his contacts. "...I don't have your number."
"When did we meet? What did we talk about?"
Leo's expression was grim. "It was a long time ago, I don't remember. We've known each other for years."
Jason looked at him. Leo was facing him in a stance Jason instinctively recognized as combat-ready, weight on the balls of his feet and his free hand in the pouch hanging from his belt. Jason didn't think he wanted to know what Leo had in there. "You don't believe that either."
"Starting to wonder, yeah." He finally selected a number. "I'm calling Piper."
"Our roommate, and by that I mean her dad got her a Greenwich apartment and we are shamelessly mooching. She's better at the whole… details thing than I am."
A woman answered the phone, and after explaining the situation Leo asked, "So, do you remember how we met Jason?"
Her voice was tinny through the speaker. "The Wilderness School, back when we were fifteen. We all decided to live together when we got into college."
"Piper," Leo said slowly, "we hated that place. Hated it so much. When Coach told us about Camp we left and never looked back. And how did we keep in touch with Jason? None of us had phones or computers."
"We wrote… letters?" Her voice turned confused as she listened to herself say that three teenagers in the twenty-first century had kept in contact through snail-mail for years. "...we've been Misted."
"We've been Misted," Leo agreed. "Meet us in Washington Square?"
"I'm on my way. I'll give Coach a call, too, he's in town today to pick up a package."
"'Misted'," Jason repeated as Leo hung up. "What does that mean?"
The phone disappeared into Leo's toolbelt. Leo didn't relax his wary stance as he said, "It means someone is messing with our memories. Piper and I are better at noticing stuff like that than most mortals would be, but we're not completely immune. And most of the things that would be able to do that to us aren't friendly."
'Mortals'. Jason didn't ask. Didn't need to. "We're not human."
That quicksilver grin returned. "Well, I'm not. Not by half. The jury's still out on what you are. Do you remember anything?"
Long black hair. Flashing dark eyes. Strength under pressure and courage to share.
He raised the thin gold chain around his neck. Only one object was strung from it- a gold engagement ring, engraved with two joined hands.
Author's Notes: And we're finally getting to Heroes of Olympus! Sorry to The Lost Hero fans, but this is and will remain a Percy-centric story. The quest is happening off-screen between chapters. The major TLH changes I probably won't be able to work mention of into the story are: 1) Tristran McLean was not kidnapped, because Piper has been responsible for her brothers and sisters for four years and still has a fairly distant relationship with her father, so Gaia just didn't bother, and 2) Piper's implanted memories of Jason are entirely platonic, because for all of her faults Juno is the goddess least likely to encourage cheating on your fiancé.
Mhachkay- The vampire-equivalent in Turkic folklore. If someone who is born with two hearts and two souls dies, one of the souls will pass on, and the other will cause the body to rise from the dead unless the corpse is decapitated before burial. They fly around at night as owls and prey on the blood and organs of the living. I have no source that says that garlic would be an effective repellent, but swords to the heart are a pretty standard cure for most variants of undead bloodsucker.
Karamenderes- Directly inspired by Kate Beaton's Hark, A Vagrant! #373, Rage of Achilles. Strongly recommended.
The Byzantine Empire was not actually called that by the inhabitants; they were what was left of the eastern Roman Empire and just called themselves Roman. The city Constantine chose for his capital was originally called Byzantium, and later historians used the name to distinguish the Roman Empire in the east from the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Empire of antiquity. In-story, Olympus moved to Constantinople shortly after Constantine did, and stayed there for the rest of the millennium, but had moved to Venice by the time of the Fourth Crusade.
Culturally, the eastern empire was much more heavily influenced by Greece and the Asian provinces than the western half of the empire had been before it fell, and the official language of government was formally switched to medieval Greek in the seventh century. It had probably been building since the administrative split of the Roman Empire into east and west, but I'm pegging that as the point where the multiple personality disorder of the Greco-Roman pantheon was fully actualized.
In The Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders never actually made it to the Holy Land and instead pillaged and burned the largest Christian city in the world. It is one of history's stupider episodes, to the point I figure that blaming it on demigod rivalries brought about by the multiple personality disorder of pagan gods makes about as much sense as anything that actually happened.
To sum up, the Fourth Crusade was gathered and needed to get to Egypt. Venice had the shipping but was charging a hefty fee that the Crusader lords couldn't pay. Meanwhile, Emperor Isaac II in Constantinople had been overthrown, blinded, and imprisoned by his brother in 1195. Isaac's son eventually managed to escape and head west, and in 1203 said he'd pay for the Crusader's ride if they helped him get the throne back from his uncle (along with some other promises, like resolving the schism between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches in favor of the Pope). They accept, the Crusade diverts to Constantinople, Uncle Usurper flees the city after a short siege, and Isaac II is reinstated with his 21-year-old son as co-emperor in August of 1203.
So far so good, but Uncle Usurper took a decent bit of the treasury with him when he left. The prince / new co-emperor was only able to raise about half of the money he owed the Crusaders, and after he brought a Latin army to the gates he wasn't exactly the most popular man in Constantinople. A few months and several riots later, he and his dad are overthrown again, this time by our guest star in this chapter. By April 1204, everyone who had promised the Crusaders anything was dead, and they were still outside the walls. They attacked on April 8 and made it into the city on the 13th.
All of these people- Uncle Usurper, Prince Co-Emperor, and Guest Star- are named Alexios, by the way. They are Emperor Alexios III, IV, and V respectively.
Anyway, in the aftermath, most of the empire was split between the Venetians and various Crusader Lords, with a few remnant Byzantine states on the outskirts. One of the remnants, the Empire of Nicaea, reconquered Constantinople about sixty years later and declared the empire restored, but it never recovered and didn't have the military strength or internal unity to stop the rising Ottoman Empire from gradually biting off chunks of territory. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II showed up at the gates, and now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople.
Alexios V- Born Alexios Doukas, of a parentage that has been lost to history, though he may have been a second cousin to Prince Co-Emperor. He was a royal advisor and was noted by contemporary historians for his intelligence and anti-Latin sentiment. After the fall of Constantinople, he fled to the court of the exiled Uncle Usurper. Alexios III eventually decided he wanted nothing to do with Alexios V, blinded him, and handed him back to the Crusaders. They executed him by throwing him off the now-ruined Column of Theodosius in what is now Freedom Square. As a lar, he is proud to consider himself the last Roman Emperor, and ignores the more valid claim of Emperor Constantine XI, who led the legendary defense of Constantinople against Sultan Mehmed II.
The Doge of Venice- Enrico Dandolo, no friend of the Byzantines. Whether or not Athena/Minerva was correct that he wanted to conquer Constantinople before Alexios IV died, he certainly did after. The Venetian forces in particular were more focused on the pillaging than the burning of Constantinople, and many Byzantine artifacts were brought back to Venice after 1204. He died in 1205 at 97 years old and was buried in the Hagia Sophia.
That mess with Prince Ivan- Marya Morevna, an interesting intersection of the Koschei and Baba Yaga legends. After Queen Marya Morevna imprisons Koschei, her husband Ivan Tsarevitch accidentally frees him a decade later and Koschei promptly kidnaps Marya Morevna. To get her back Ivan eventually has to go to Baba Yaga's place to get a mount capable of outrunning Koschei's horse. She agrees to give him one if he can watch her horse herd for three days. This was intended to be an impossible task, but he succeeds with the help of the friends he made along the way. Baba Yaga wanted to eat him anyway, but Ivan snuck out with the horse he needed, and Baba Yaga died in the River of Fire on the way out of her home while in hot pursuit. Ivan went on to rescue his wife and kill Koschei.
Lake Disappointment / Kumpupintil- a salt lake without any outlets, fed entirely by creeks in the wet season and depleted through evaporation. At that time of the year the lake would likely have been bone-dry, so some artistic license is taken. The English name was given to it by an explorer who was hoping to find an inland source of freshwater by following the creeks that fed into it, and found Kumpupintil instead.
Ngayurnangalku- In the mythology of the local Martu peoples, these are cannibalistic spirits that live under Kumpupintil in a world where the sun never sets. They are believed to have the power to pull aircraft out of the sky. For the Ngayurnangalku, eating people is a choice, not a necessity; the ones that didn't want to eat humans split from the group long ago to dwell in fresh-water sources elsewhere on the continent.
Dreamtime / The Dreaming- the most common English translation for the timeless otherworld/everywhen of Australian Aboriginal mythology. Living creatures and the features of the land were, are, and will be created by ancestral spirits and heroes that made legendary journeys across Australia. Australian culture is somewhere between forty and seventy thousand years old, and the tales of the Dreamtime are preserved by a meticulously remembered oral tradition that credibly describes the sea level rise and the loss of land bridges to the neighboring islands at the end of the last Ice Age.
Percy stumbled into a legend, as he does, and was immediately tossed back out again- rather gently, under the circumstances.
The Rainbow Serpent is one of the most recognizable Aboriginal legends, and is one of the few motifs common to ethnic groups across the continent. The specific legends vary with the region, but the Rainbow Serpent is typically associated with water, often making rivers and gorges with their trips across the land and creating storms and rain when annoyed.