Chapter Nineteen: The Measure of a Man; That Is, a Man as Well as Man pt. 3
The sun was already dipping in the west, and their time was running out. The shopping center pier was far behind them as they jogged along the waterfront, but the Golden Gate Bridge was a lot farther than they initially estimated.
"We will never make it," Zoë fretted, eyes on the distance, brows furrowed. "We are moving too slow. But we cannot leave the Ophiotaurus!"
"Moo-oo," Bessie lowed. He swam next to them as they went.
"I don't get it," Percy said. "Why do we have to get there at sunset specifically?"
"The Hesperides are the nymphs of the sunset," Annabeth explained. "So, we can only enter their garden as day changes to night."
"What happens if we miss it?" Nico asked, panting lightly.
"Tomorrow is winter solstice," Zoë said solemnly. "If we miss sunset tonight, we would have to wait until tomorrow evening. And by then, the Olympian Council will be over. We must free Lady Artemis tonight."
"We really need a car," said Thalia.
"But what about Bessie?" Percy asked.
Grover stopped in his tracks.
"I've got an idea! The Ophiotaurus can appear in different bodies of water, right?"
"Well, yeah," said Percy. "I mean, he was in Long Island Sound. Then he just popped into the water at Hoover Dam. And now he's here."
"So maybe we could coax him back to Long Island Sound," Grover said. "Then Chiron could help us get him to Olympus."
"But he was following me. If I'm not there, would he know where he's going?"
"Moo," Bessie said forlornly.
"I . . . I can show him," Grover said. "I'll go with him."
This was pretty brave of him — Grover was no fan of the water. He'd almost drowned last summer in the Sea of Monsters, and he couldn't swim very well with his goat hooves.
"I'm the only one who can talk to him," Grover said. "It makes sense."
"I should go, too," said Naomi. Wide eyes swung to her. "It makes sense," she continued. "With this blasted broken arm, I've been an active liability. Not to mention I'm also slowing us down."
There were winces. They reason they'd been jogging instead of outright running was because they didn't want to jostle Naomi's injuries. They didn't hold it against her, of course, but she wasn't wrong when she said their pace was being affected by her.
Zoë made a reluctant face, but she agreed.
Grover bent and said something in Bessie's ear. Bessie shivered, then made a contented, lowing sound.
"The blessing of the Wild," Grover said. "That should help with safe passage. Percy, pray to your dad, too. See if he will grant us safe passage through the seas."
How could they possibly swim back to Long Island from California? Then again, monsters didn't travel the same way as humans.
Percy concentrated on the waves, the smell of the ocean, the sound of the tide.
"Dad," he said. "Please, help us. Get the Ophiotaurus, Grover, and Naomi safely to camp. Protect them at sea."
"A prayer like that needs a sacrifice," Thalia warned. "Something big."
Percy thought for a second. They didn't have much on them to sacrifice. . . .
He took off his coat.
"Percy," Grover said in a hush. "Are you sure? That lion skin . . . that's really helpful. Hercules used it!
As soon as those words were out, Percy was struck by realization.
He glanced at Zoë, who was watching him carefully. He realized he knew who Zoë's bastard of a hero had been — the one who'd ruined her life, gotten her kicked out of her family, and never even mentioned how she'd helped him: Hercules.
Jeez — what was it with old-school demigods being such awful jerks? Okay, 'hero' didn't mean the same thing back then, and it was hardly the same word in English as it was in Greek, but surely it implied some level of decency?
"If I'm going to survive," Percy said, "it won't be because I've got a lion-skin cloak. I'm not Hercules."
He threw the coat into the bay. It turned back into a golden lion skin, flashing in the light. Then, as it began to sink beneath the waves, it seemed to dissolve into sunlight on the water.
The sea breeze picked up.
Grover took a deep breath.
"Well, no time to lose."
He jumped in the water and immediately began to sink. Bessie glided next to him and let Grover take hold of his neck. Naomi, on the other hand, carefully lowered herself into the water and tread water calmly as she hooked her uninjured arm around Bessie as well.
"Okay, um . . . Bessie?" Grover said. "We're going to Long Island. It's east. Over that way."
"Moo-oo?" Bessie said.
"Yes," Grover answered. "Long Island. It's this island. And . . . it's long. Oh, let's just start."
Bessie lurched forward. He started to submerge and Grover said, "Can't breathe underwater! Just thought I'd mention—" Glub!
Under they went, and Percy hoped his father's protection would extend to little things, like breathing.
"Well, that is one problem addressed," Zoë said. "But how can we get to my sisters' garden?"
"Thalia's right," Percy said. "We need a car. But there's nobody to help us here. Unless we, uh, borrowed one."
Sure this was a life-or-death situation, but still, it was stealing, and it was bound to get them noticed.
"I . . ." Annabeth began, looking torn. She tugged on her ponytail. "I don't like it, but I have an option."
That option turned out to be her father.
After all the griping Annabeth had done about her father, it turned out he wasn't anywhere near as awful in personality as she painted. The man who answered the door and greeted all six of them clustered on his front porch was obviously dotty, but he seemed pretty nice. Really into planes and re-enacting battles with toy soldiers, but nice.
The entire family actually seemed rather nice. Annabeth's two little half-brothers, the twins Matthew and Bobby, were what you'd expect when you thought "Annabeth's baby brothers." Her stepmom wasn't bad either — at least not upfront in an obvious way; she was a pretty Asian woman with red highlights in her hair done up in a bun, and even after she saw they were with Annabeth she offered them refreshments.
It didn't look like a house they'd just moved into, either. There were LEGO robots on the stairs and two cats sleeping on the sofa in the living room. The coffee table was stacked with magazines, and a little kid's winter coat was spread on the floor. The whole house smelled like fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies. There was jazz music coming from the kitchen. It seemed like a messy, happy kind of home — the kind of place that had been lived in forever.
Soon enough, with all of them munching on cookies in Dr. Chase's study and Dr. Chase seated in a leather recliner, they got to the point of their visit.
"Sir, we need transportation to Mount Tamalpais," Zoë said. "And we need it immediately."
"I'll drive you! Hmm. . . . It would be faster to fly in my Camel, but that only seats two."
"Whoa, you have an actual biplane?" Nico asked, impressed.
"Down at Crissy Field," Dr. Chase said proudly. "That's the reason I had to move here. My sponsor is a private collector with some of the finest World War I relics in the world. He let me restore the Sopwith Camel—"
"Sir," Thalia said. "Just a car would be great. And it might be better if we went without you. It's too dangerous."
Dr. Chase frowned uncomfortably.
"Now wait a minute, young lady. Annabeth is my daughter. Dangerous or not, I . . . I can't just—"
"Dad, it's fine," Annabeth said, cutting him off. "Dangerous for us is, like, two or three times as dangerous for you."
"And I can drive, sir," Zoë said. "I'm not as young as I look. I promise not to destroy your car."
The door to the study open, revealing Mrs. Chase with a tray of drinks.
"What's this about?" she asked, her eyebrows knit.
"Annabeth and her friends are on a quest," Dr. Chase said, "to retrieve a goddess from Mount Tam. I would drive them, but . . . apparently it's no place for mortals."
It sounded like it was really hard for him to get that last part out.
They waited for Mrs. Chase to say no. I mean, what mortal stepparent would allow a bunch of underage teenagers to borrow their car? Surprisingly, Mrs. Chase nodded.
"Then they'd better get going."
"Right!" Dr. Chase jumped up and started patting his pockets. "My keys. . . ."
His wife sighed.
"Frederick, honestly. You'd lose your head if it weren't wrapped inside your aviator hat. The keys are hanging on the peg by the front door."
"Right!" Dr. Chase said.
Zoë finished off her soda and bowed to them.
"Thank you both. We should go. Now."
We hustled out the door and down the stairs, the Chases right behind us.
"Annabeth" Mrs. Chase called as they were leaving, "Annabeth, dear . . . you still has a home here, alright? Please, remember that."
Annabeth didn't answer in words, but she looked at her stepmother and nodded stiffly.
They ran out to the yellow VW convertible parked in the driveway and squeezed in. The sun was going down.
"Can't this thing go any faster?" Thalia demanded.
Zoë glared at her.
"I cannot control traffic."
"You both sound like my mother," Percy said.
"Shut up!" they said in unison.
Zoë weaved in and out of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. The sun was sinking on the horizon when they finally got into Marin County and exited the highway.
The roads were insanely narrow, winding through forests and up the sides of hills and around the edges of steep ravines. Zoë didn't slow down at all.
"Why does everything smell like cough drops?" Percy asked.
"Eucalyptus." Zoë pointed to the huge trees all around them.
"The stuff koala bears eat?" said Nico.
"And monsters," she said. "They love chewing the leaves. Especially dragons."
"Dragons chew eucalyptus leaves?"
"Believe me," Zoë said, "if you had dragon breath, you would chew eucalyptus too."
Ahead of them loomed Mount Tamalpais. In terms of mountains, it was a small one, but it looked plenty huge as they were driving toward it.
"So that's the Mountain of Despair?" Percy asked.
"Yes," Zoë said tightly.
"Why do they call it that?"
She was silent for almost a mile before answering.
"After the war between the Titans and the gods, many of the Titans were punished and imprisoned. Kronos was sliced to pieces and thrown into Tartarus. Kronos' right-hand man, the general of his forces, was imprisoned up there, on the summit, just beyond the Garden of the Hesperides."
Clouds seemed to be swirling around its peak, as though the mountain was drawing them in, spinning them like a top.
"What's going on up there?" Nico wondered. "A storm?"
Zoë didn't answer. Percy got the feeling she knew exactly what the clouds meant, and she didn't like it.
"We have to concentrate," Thalia said. "The Mist is really strong here."
"The magical kind or the natural kind?" Percy asked.
The gray clouds swirled even thicker over the mountain, and they kept driving straight toward them. They were out of the forest now, into wide open spaces of cliffs and grass and rocks and fog.
Percy happened to glance down at the ocean as they passed a scenic curve, and he saw something that made him jump out of his seat.
But they turned a corner and the ocean disappeared behind the hills.
"What is it?" Annabeth asked.
"A big white ship," Percy said. "Docked near the beach. It looked like a cruise ship."
Annabeth's eyes widened.
"Luke's ship?" she breathed.
Percy wanted to say he wasn't sure. It might be a coincidence. But he knew better. The Princess Andromeda, Luke's demon cruise ship, was docked at that beach. That's why he'd sent his ship all the way down to the Panama Canal. It was the only way to sail it from the East Coast to California.
"We will have company, then," Zoë said grimly. "Kronos' army."
Suddenly, the hairs on the back of Percy's neck stood up.
Thalia shouted, "Stop the car. NOW!"
Zoë must've sensed something was wrong, because she slammed on the brakes without question. The yellow VW spun twice before coming to a stop at the edge of the cliff.
"Out!" Thalia opened the door and we all scrambled out.
The next second: BOOOM!
Lightning flashed, and Dr. Chase's Volkswagen erupted like a canary-yellow grenade. They probably would've been killed by shrapnel except for Thalia's shield, which appeared over them. There was a sound like metal ram, and when they opened their eyes, they were surrounded by wreckage. Part of the VW's fender had impaled itself in the street. The smoking hood was spinning in circles. Pieces of yellow metal were strewn across the road.
Percy swallowed the taste of smoke out of him mouth, and rolled off of Annabeth who he'd landed on. He looked at Thalia. "You saved our lives."
"One shall be struck down by a parent's hand" she muttered. "Struck down. Curse him! He would destroy me? Me?"
It took Percy a second to realize she was talking about her dad.
"Oh, whoa, that couldn't have been Zeus's lightning bolt," Percy denied. "No way! He wouldn't have gone through the trouble of having those statues save us at the dam just to kill you now!"
"Whose, then?" Thalia demanded.
"I don't know. Zoë said Kronos' name. Maybe he—"
"Wait," Annabeth said, coughing. "Where are the others?!"
Percy, Annabeth and Thalia clamored up to their feet and ran around the blasted VW. There, opposite of where they'd fallen and just at the cliff's edge, was Heri huddled protectively over Nico, who was curled up on his side. At first, it looked like they'd been lucky — they were both still breathing, so the debris must have missed them completely — but it was apparent in the next second that that was not the case. The back of Heri's jacket and shirt was totally shredded and burned.
"Oh, my gods!" Thalia cried as they lurched forward to help.
Zoë appeared then, yanking on Thalia's arm and hissing, "Silence, fool! Do you—?!"
"Oh, my gods, Zoë, have a freaking heart!" Annabeth snapped, kneeling beside Heri.
Heri rolled off Nico with a gasp, sitting hard on her rear beside him.
"You didn't hit your head, did you?!" she cried, pulling his torso into her lap and running her hands carefully over said head.
Nico was looking up at her with the same adoring expression Percy had seen before when she told him back at camp that she would follow him to keep an eye on Bianca, but now it was just as awed.
"N-no, I'm fine . . ." he stammered.
"How did you survive that?" Percy breathed, dropping down and grasping both of them by the shoulder.
"Heri, how are you not mince meat?!" Annabeth demanded, eyes wild. "We only survived because of Thalia's shield — you took it strai— You're still on fire—!"
Percy patted down Heri's back frantically, snuffing out the last of the smoldering there.
"You're just a little scratched up," said Thalia, unblinking.
And this was true. Beside her destroyed jacket and ruined shirt, Heri's skin wasn't even torn — there was no blood at all, no burns on her flesh.
Heri arched and reached her hands up in a stretched. She turned her torso this way and that experimentally, testing her range of motion. Arms coming back down, she shrugged.
"Heri is very durable," she said proudly, as if talking about an expensive set of car tires. "Very hard to break. Good for using as a shield."
"'Good for'—" Thalia sputtered. "Is your godly parent Celestial Bronze?!"
"Hephaestus, maybe?" Annabeth speculated. "Some of them can be fire-resistant, right?"
"What — like Beckendorf?" said Percy. "He's not— Wait, is he?"
"It's pretty rare," Annabeth admitted. "It's basically a myth."
"Even if they were fire-proof, that doesn't mean being exploded-projectile-metal-proof, too," Thalia pointed out. "She's not even bruised!"
"We don't have time for this!" Zoë hissed. "If we're still alive to talk, you can discuss this later!"
"You mean we're here?" asked Nico, propping himself up on an elbow. He and Heri got back on their feet, not much worse for wear.
"Very close," she confirmed. "Follow me. And be quiet — we don't want to wake Ladon."
"I think the exploded car might have ensure that even without us," Thalia muttered.
Zoë shot her a look and let them all forward.
Sheets of fog were drifting right across the road. Zoë stepped into one of them, and when the fog passed, she was no longer there. Those that remained looked at each other.
"Concentrate on Zoë," Thalia advised. "Just focus on following her. Go straight into the fog and keep that in mind."
"Hold hands, maybe?" suggested Heri. She took Nico's right away and offered her free one out.
Percy took that hand and took hold of one of Annabeth's as well. Annabeth, in turn, grabbed onto Thalia.
"This works, too," Thalia nodded.
She stepped into the fog as well, into the Mist, and the rest followed.
When the fog cleared, they were still on the side of the mountain, but the road was dirt. The grass was thicker. The sunset made a blood-red slash across the sea. The summit of the mountain seemed closer now, swirling with storm clouds and strange, heavy power. There was only one path to the top, directly in front of them. And it led through a lush meadow of shadows and flowers: the garden of twilight, just like Percy had seen in his dream.
If it hadn't been for the enormous dragon, the garden would've been the most beautiful place they'd ever seen (and even then, the dragon was, objectively, pretty cool, too). The grass shimmered with silvery evening light, and the flowers were such brilliant colors they almost glowed in the dark. Stepping stones of polished black marble led around either side of a five-story-tall apple tree, every bough glittering with golden apples — and that wasn't 'gold' meaning yellow golden apples like in the grocery store, these were real golden apples. It was indescribable why they were so appealing, but as soon as the fragrance of them hit the nose, anyone who smelled it knew that one bite would be the most delicious thing they'd ever tasted.
"The apples of immortality," Thalia said, awed. "Hera's wedding gift from Zeus."
Percy wanted to step right up and pluck one, except for the dragon coiled around the tree.
Now, in terms of dragons that existed in the world, Percy doubted that any that may have existed could have possibly be as terrifying as the one before them. The serpent's body was as thick as a booster rocket, glinting with coppery scales. He had more heads than could be counted, as if a hundred deadly pythons had been fused together. He appeared to be asleep. The heads lay curled in a big spaghetti-like mound on the grass, all the eyes closed.
The shadows in front of them began to move. There was a beautiful, eerie singing, like voices from the bottom of a well. Weapons were reached for, but Zoë held up a hand signaling halt..
Four figures shimmered into existence, four young women who looked very much like Zoë. They all wore white Greek chitons. Their skin was like caramel. Silky black hair tumbled loose around their shoulders. It was strange, but none of the demigods present had realized how beautiful Zoë was until they saw her siblings, the Hesperides. They looked just like Zoë — gorgeous, and probably very dangerous. (It was probably because Zoë's awful attitude and sour personality superseded her aesthetic appeal to the point that she came off as just as balanced-proportioned at best.)
"Sisters," Zoë greeted cautiously.
"We do not see any sister," one of the girls said coldly. "We see five half-bloods and a Hunter. All of whom shall soon die."
"You've got it wrong." Percy stepped forward. "Nobody is going to die."
The girls studied him. They had eyes like volcanic rock, glassy and completely black.
"Perseus Jackson," one of them said.
"Yes," mused another. "I do not see why he is a threat."
"Who said I was a threat?"
The first Hesperid glanced behind her, toward the top of the mountain.
"They fear thee. They are unhappy that this one has not yet killed thee," she said, and pointed at Thalia.
"Tempting sometimes," Thalia admitted. "But no, thanks. He's my friend."
"There are no friends here, daughter of Zeus," the girl said. "Only enemies. Go back."
"Not without Artemis," Zoë said. "We must approach the mountain."
"You know he will kill thee," the girl said. "You are no match for him."
"Artemis must be freed," Zoë insisted. "Let us pass."
The girl shook her head.
"You have no rights here anymore. We have only to raise our voices and Ladon will wake."
"He will not hurt me," Zoë asserted.
"No? And what about thy so-called friends?"
Then Zoë did the last thing any of them expected. She shouted, "Ladon! Wake!"
The dragon stirred, glittering like a mountain of pennies. The Hesperides yelped and scattered.
The lead girl said to Zoë, "Are you mad?"
"You never had any courage, sister," Zoë said. "That is thy problem."
The dragon Ladon was writhing now, a hundred heads whipping around, tongues flickering and tasting the air. Zoë took a step forward, her arms raised.
"Zoë, don't!" Thalia said. "You're not a Hesperid anymore! He'll kill you!"
"Ladon is trained to protect the tree," Zoë said. "Skirt around the edges of the garden. Go up the mountain. As long as I am a bigger threat, he should ignore thee."
"'Should,'" Percy echoed. "Not exactly reassuring."
"It is the only way," she insisted. "Even the four of us together cannot fight him."
Ladon opened his mouths. The sound of a hundred heads hissing at once sent shivers down their back, and that was before his breath hit them. The smell was like acid. It made eyes burn, skin crawl, and hair stand on end. Percy remembered the time a rat had died inside his apartment wall in New York in the middle of the summer. This stench was like that, except a hundred times stronger, and mixed with the smell of chewed eucalyptus.
He wanted to draw his sword. But then he remembered his dream of Zoë and Hercules, and how Hercules had failed in a head-on assault. He decided to trust Zoë's judgment.
Thalia and Annabeth went left. Percy, Heri, and Nico went right. Zoë walked straight toward the monster.
"It's me, my little dragon," Zoë said. "Zoë has come back."
Ladon shifted forward, then back. Some of the mouths closed. Some kept hissing. Dragon confusion. Meanwhile, the Hesperides shimmered and turned into shadows.
The voice of the eldest whispered, "Fool."
"I used to feed thee by hand," Zoë continued, speaking in a soothing voice as she stepped toward the golden tree. "Do you still like lamb's meat?"
The dragon's eyes glinted.
They were about halfway around the garden. Ahead was a single rocky trail leading up to the black peak of the mountain. The storm swirled above it, spinning on the summit like it was the axis for the whole world.
They'd almost made it out of the meadow when something went wrong. The dragon's mood shift. Maybe Zoë got too close; maybe the dragon realized he was hungry — whatever the reason, he lunged at Zoë.
Two thousand years of training kept her alive. She dodged one set of slashing fangs and tumbled under another, weaving through the dragon's heads as she ran in our direction, gagging from the monster's horrible breath.
Percy and Thalia drew their weapons to help.
"No!" Zoë panted. "Run!"
The dragon snapped at her side, but Zoë was pushed out of the way by Heri, who simultaneously kicked the snout of the attacking head. They cried out for her to get back while Ladon was startled from her sudden strike, but the words choked out and died in their throats.
A monstrous hiss roared out of Heri's mouth.
Ladon was confused. The creature before him was no dragon. It was no drakon. It was not basilisk, nor gorgon, nor lamiae, nor dracanae. It was no serpent, no reptile of any kind. And yet it spoke.
§STAND DOWN!§ it thundered at him. §BACK AWAY FROM MY ALLY!§
It was two-legged, but not one of the garden's nymphs. It was an intruder in the shape of a human, but no godspawn spoke serpent — not in his millennia of experience.
§What sort of creature is this?§ he hissed at it, heads rearing.
§Back away,§ it repeated, snarling at him, lifting one of its little fists as if to threaten him. Such a gesture would have been laughable if it wasn't for the strange spark of pink energy flickering at said lifted limb. §We have no quarrel with you. We want nothing with what you guard. Do not attack!§
§What are you?§ he asked again, unsure if he should advance or retreat. It was very tiny, but he had no knowledge of what powers such a thing might hold. His job was to guard the Apples of Immortality — it would not do to clash with an unpredictable foe.
§This one is no threat. This one is no rival. This one wants nothing from you. We will pass without attack as long as you do not attack as well.§
As it said, none of its comrades approached the tree, not after the former Hesperid was driven off. The thing came with godspawn, and they looked like they would taste decently, but Ladon wasn't sure about the thing itself. The strike it landed against his snout was beyond that of mortal strength — beyond some godlings.
Ladon backed towards his tree, keeping all eyes on the brightly-colored thing.
§Leave, then,§ he growled at it, re-curling around his tree. §Leave and do not come back.§
§We may pass again when our task where we are headed is done,§ it told him, backing as well, §but we will not approach any further than we must to return from where we came when we do. Do not engage us and we will not engage you.§
Ladon hissed at it in irritation for suggesting he would follow instruction from it, but he let it and its companions retreat uncontested.
As it finally turned away from him, he caught whiff of a sweet mix of scents not native to the garden — asphodel, poppy, and pomegranate. What a strange creature to be so lively-colored but smell of the Underworld. But also . . . chasteberry? Strange indeed.
The dragon had retreated. They were sprinted up the mountain uncontested because the dragon had retreated. They were freely running pass the Garden of the Hesperides, and the dragon that could have easily eaten them all hadn't pursued them, not even to finish off Zoë who it had originally snapped at.
The Hesperides resumed their song in the shadows behind them.
"What in the gods' name was that?!" cried Annabeth, panting lightly, looking over her shoulder at Heri. "What did you do?!"
"Heri can talk to snakes and stuff!" said Heri brightly, not winded at all, looking and sounding like she was on an afternoon jog. "Heri told him to leave us alone!"
Okay, there were several things wrong with that.
Heri was getting weirder and weirder. Percy could talk to horses and aquatic animals because of his dad, but he'd never heard of any other sort of demigod that could talk to other animals. Well, the Hunters could because of Artemis, but Artemis vowed to never have children, and even if she did have children, wouldn't those children talk to all animals, not just reptiles? Had some god created snakes like Poseidon created horses? But it would have to be a minor god in that case — if Percy didn't know about them, then he didn't learn about them in Chiron's class before, and Chiron had really gone into the main Olympians. . . . But Grover said Heri was powerful, so wouldn't that mean she has to have come from one of the main Olympians? So maybe snakes were the sacred animal of some god? Ugh, but owls were sacred to Athena, and Annabeth definitely would have mentioned it if she could talk to owls!
"Why would he even listen to you?!" demanded Thalia after a round of sputtering from everyone.
"Well, Heri asked very nicely. . . ."
"That was nicely?!"
"Focus!" Zoë snapped at them.
Thalia shot her an incredulous glare and said, "You seriously don't—?!" but Zoë cut her off with, "Miscellaneous concerns can wait!"
At last, they reached the top of the mountain. There at the summit were ruins, blocks of black granite and marble as big as houses. Broken columns. Statues of bronze that looked as though they'd been half melted.
"The ruins of Mount Othrys," Annabeth whispered in awe.
"Yes," Zoë said. "It was not here before. This is bad."
"What's Mount Othrys?" Nico asked, taking the question right out of Percy's mouth.
"The mountain fortress of the Titans," Zoë said. "In the first war, Olympus and Othrys were the two rival capitals of the world. Othrys was blasted to pieces."
"But . . ." said Percy, "how is it here then?"
They picked their way through the rubble, past blocks of marble and broken archways.
"It moves in the same way that Olympus moves," Zoë explained. "It always exists on the edges of civilization. But the fact that it is here, on this mountain, is not good."
"This is Atlas' mountain," Zoë said. "Where he holds—" She froze. Her voice became ragged with despair. "Where he used to hold up the sky."
They had reached the summit. A few yards ahead of them, gray clouds swirled in a heavy vortex, making a funnel cloud that almost touched the mountaintop, but instead rested on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old girl with auburn hair and a tattered silvery dress: Artemis, her legs bound to the rock with celestial bronze chains.
"My lady!" Zoë rushed forward, but Artemis said, "Stop! It is a trap. You must leave now!"
Her voice was strained. She was drenched in sweat. None of them had ever actually seen a goddess in pain before, but the weight of the sky was clearly too much for Artemis.
Zoë was crying. She ran forward despite Artemis's protests, and tugged at the chains.
A booming voice spoke behind them: "Ah, how touching."
A skyscraper of a man was standing there in a brown silk suit. There was something about his entirety that made him seem like a living statute, even moreso than the metal angels from the Hoover Dam — it was probably the extreme level of muscles, huge shoulders, brutal face, and trashcan lid-sized hands that look like they could snap a flagpole like a toothpick. At the guy's side were Luke and half a dozen dracanae bearing the golden sarcophagus of Kronos. Bianca stood at Luke's side. She had her hands cuffed behind her back, a gag in her mouth, and Luke was holding the point of his sword to her throat.
"LET GO OF MY SISTER!" Nico cried. He looked like he wanted to charge in despite the danger, but Heri held his wrist securely and tugged him behind her.
"Luke!" Thalia snarled. "Let her go!"
Luke's smile was weak and pale. He looked even worse than he had in D.C. when he sicced the skeleton soldiers on Percy.
"That is the General's decision, Thalia," he said, looking at them with unfeeling eyes. "But it's good to see you again."
Thalia spat at him.
The General chuckled.
"So much for old friends. And you, Zoë. It's been a long time. How is my little traitor? I will enjoy killing you."
"Do not respond," Artemis groaned. "Do not challenge him."
"Wait a second," Percy said. "You're Atlas?"
The General glanced at him.
"So, even the stupidest of heroes can finally figure something out. Yes, I am Atlas, the general of the Titans and terror of the gods. Congratulations. I will kill you presently, as soon as I deal with this wretched girl."
"You're not going to hurt Zoë!" Percy said. "We won't let you!"
The General sneered.
"You have no right to interfere, little hero. This is a family matter."
"A . . . A family matter?"
"Yes," Zoë said bleakly. "Atlas is my father."
The horrible thing was that the family resemblance was easy to see. Atlas had the same regal expression as Zoë, the same cold proud look in his eyes that Zoë sometimes got when she was mad, though on him it looked a thousand times more evil. He was all the things offensive about Zoë, with none of the things you could come to appreciate later.
"Let Artemis go," Zoë demanded.
Atlas walked closer to the chained goddess.
"Perhaps you'd like to take the sky for her, then? Be my guest."
Zoë opened her mouth to speak, but Artemis said, "No! Do not offer, Zoë! I forbid you."
Atlas smirked. He knelt next to Artemis and tried to touch her face, but the goddess bit at him, almost taking off his fingers.
"Oh-ho," Atlas chuckled. "You see, daughter? Lady Artemis likes her new job. I think I will have all the Olympians take turns carrying my burden, once Lord Kronos rules again, and this is the center of our palace. It will teach those weaklings some humility."
Percy looked at Bianca. All Percy could do was stare at her. Hr hadn't noticed before, but he black hair was now streaked with gray.
"From holding the sky," Thalia muttered in a dawning tone, observing Bianca as well. "The weight should've killed her."
"I don't understand," Percy said. "Why can't Artemis just let go of the sky?"
"How little you understand, young one. This is the point where the sky and the earth first met, where Ouranos and Gaia first brought forth their mighty children, the Titans. The sky still yearns to embrace the earth. Someone must hold it at bay, or else it would crush down upon this place, instantly flattening the mountain and everything within a hundred leagues. Once you have taken the burden, there is no escape." Atlas smiled. "Unless someone else takes it from you."
He approached them, studying Thalia and Percy.
"So these are the best heroes of the age, eh? Not much of a challenge."
"Fight us," Percy goaded though he knew to do so would be likely worse than facing Ares. "And let's see."
"Have the gods taught you nothing? An immortal does not fight a mere mortal directly. It is beneath our dignity. I will have Luke crush you instead."
"So you're another coward," Percy scoffed.
Atlas's eyes glowed with hatred. With difficulty, he turned his attention to Thalia.
"As for you, daughter of Zeus, it seems Luke was wrong about you."
"I wasn't wrong," Luke managed. He looked terribly weak, and he spoke every word as if it were painful. "Thalia, you still can join us. Call the Ophiotaurus — it will come to you. Look!"
He waved his hand, and next to us a pool of water appeared: a pond ringed in black marble, big enough for the Ophiotaurus. It was easy to imagine Bessie in that pool. In fact, it was like they could hear Bessie's mooing.
'Don't think about him!' Suddenly Grover's voice was inside Percy's mind — the empathy link. Percy could feel his emotions. He was on the verge of panic. 'I'm losing Bessie. Block the thoughts!'
Percy tried to make his mind go blank. He tried to think about basketball players, skateboards, the different kinds of candy in his mom's shop. Anything but Bessie.
"Thalia, call the Ophiotaurus," Luke persisted. "And you will be more powerful than the gods."
"Luke . . ." Her voice was full of pain. "What happened to you?"
"Don't you remember all those times we talked? All those times we cursed the gods? Our fathers have done nothing for us. They have no right to rule the world!"
Thalia shook her head.
"Free Artemis. And let Bianca go."
"If you join me," Luke promised, "it can be like old times. You, me, and Annabeth — the three of us together! Fighting for a better world. Please, Thalia, if you don't agree . . ." His voice faltered. "It's my last chance. He will use the other way if you don't agree. Please."
None of them knew what he meant, but the fear in his voice sounded real enough. No one doubted that Luke was in danger. His life depended on Thalia's joining his cause. And Percy was afraid Thalia might give in just to save him.
"Do not, Thalia," Zoë warned. "We must fight them."
Luke waved his hand again, and a fire appeared. A bronze brazier, just like the one at camp. A sacrificial flame.
"Thalia," Percy said. "No."
Behind Luke, the golden sarcophagus began to glow. As it did, images appeared in the mist all around them: black marble walls rising, the ruins becoming whole, a terrible and beautiful palace rising around them, made of fear and shadow.
"We will raise Mount Othrys right here," Luke promised, in a voice so strained it was hardly his. "Once more, it will be stronger and greater than Olympus. Look, Thalia. We are not weak."
He pointed toward the ocean. Marching up the side of the mountain, from the beach where the Princess Andromeda was docked, was a great army. Dracanae and Laistrygonians, monsters and half-bloods, hell hounds, harpies, and other things. The whole ship must've been emptied, because there were hundreds, many more than Percy and Annabeth seen on board last summer. And they were marching toward the peak. In a few minutes, they would be here.
"This is only a taste of what is to come," Luke said. "Soon we will be ready to storm Camp Half-Blood. And after that, Olympus itself. All we need is your help."
For a terrible moment, Thalia hesitated. She gazed at Luke, her eyes full of pain, as if the only thing she wanted in the world was to believe him. Then she leveled her spear.
"You aren't Luke. I don't know you anymore."
"Yes, you do, Thalia," he pleaded. "Please. Don't make me . . . Don't make him destroy you."
There was no time. If that army got to the top of the hill, we would be overwhelmed. Percy met Annabeth's eyes. She nodded. As one, they met eyes with Thalia and Zoë. Heri had a confused look on her face and was staring at Luke, but her gaze flickered over to them pointedly.
It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to die fighting with friends like this.
"Now," Percy cried.
Together, we charged.
Thalia went straight for Luke. The power of her shield was so great that his dragon-women bodyguards fled in a panic, dropping the golden coffin and leaving him alone. But despite his sickly appearance, Luke was still quick with his sword. He snarled like a wild animal and counterattacked. When his sword, Backbiter, met Thalia's shield, a ball of lightning erupted between them, frying the air with yellow tendrils of power.
As for Percy, he did the stupidest thing in his life, which is saying a lot. He attacked the Titan Lord Atlas.
He laughed as Percy approached. A huge javelin appeared in his hands. His silk suit melted into full Greek battle armor.
"Go on, then!"
"Percy!" Zoë said. "Beware!"
He knew what she was warning him about. Chiron had told him long ago: Immortals are constrained by ancient rules. But a hero can go anywhere, challenge anyone, as long as he has the nerve. Once Percy attacked, however, Atlas was free to attack back directly, with all his might.
Percy swung his sword, and Atlas knocked him aside with the shaft of his javelin. Percy flew through the air and slammed into a black wall. It wasn't Mist anymore. The palace was rising, brick by brick. It was becoming real.
"Fool!" Atlas screamed gleefully, swatting aside one of Zoë's arrows. "Did you think, simply because you could challenge that petty war god, that you could stand up to me?"
The mention of Ares sent a jolt through Percy. He shook off his daze and charged again. If he could get to that pool of water, he could double his strength.
The javelins point slashed toward Percy like a scythe. He raised Riptide, planning to cut off the weapon at the shaft, but his arm felt like lead. His sword suddenly weighed a ton.
And he remembered Ares's warning, spoken on the beach in Los Angeles so long ago: When you need it most, your sword will fail you.
Not now! Percy pleaded mentally. But it was no good. He tried to dodge, but the javelin caught him in the chest and sent him flying like a rag doll. he slammed into the ground, his head spinning. He looked up and found he was at the feet of Artemis, still straining under the weight of the sky.
"Run, boy," she told him. "You must run!"
Atlas was taking his time coming toward Percy. Percy's sword was gone; it had skittered away over the edge of the cliff. It might reappear in him pocket — maybe in a few seconds — but it didn't matter. Percy would be dead by then.
Luke and Thalia were fighting like demons, lightning crackling around them. Annabeth was covering Heri and Nico as they urgently unbound Bianca.
"Die, little hero," Atlas said.
He raised his javelin to impale Percy.
"No!" Zoë yelled, and a volley of silver arrows sprouted from the armpit chink in Atlas's armor.
"ARGH!" He bellowed and turned toward his daughter.
Percy reached down and felt Riptide back in his pocket. He couldn't fight Atlas, even with a sword. And then a chill went down his back. He remembered the words of the prophecy: 'The Titan's curse must they withstand.' Percy couldn't hope to beat Atlas. But there was someone else who might stand a chance.
"The sky," he told the goddess. "Give it to me."
"No, boy," Artemis said. Her forehead was beaded with metallic sweat, like quicksilver. "You don't know what you're asking. It will crush you!"
"Bianca took it!"
"She barely survived. She had the spirit of a true huntress. You will not last so long."
"I'll die anyway," he insisted. "Give me the weight of the sky!"
Percy didn't wait for her answer. he took out Riptide and slashed through her chains. Then he stepped next to her and braced himself on one knee — holding up his hands — and touched the cold, heavy clouds. For a moment, Artemis and Percy bore the weight together. It was the heaviest thing he'd ever felt, as if he was being crushed under a thousand trucks. He breathed deeply. He could do this.
Then Artemis slipped out from under the burden, and Percy held it alone.
Afterward, he tried many times to explain what it felt like. He couldn't.
Every muscle in his body turned to fire. His bones felt like they were melting. He wanted to scream, but he didn't have the strength to open his mouth. He began to sink, lower and lower to the ground, the sky's weight crushing him.
'Fight back!' Grover's voice said inside his head. 'Don't give up!'
Percy concentrated on breathing. His vision turned fuzzy. Everything was tinged with red. Percy caught glimpses of the battle, but he wasn't sure if he was seeing clearly. There was Atlas in full battle armor, jabbing with his javelin, laughing maniacally as he fought. And Artemis, a blur of silver. She had two wicked hunting knives, each as long as her arm, and she slashed wildly at the Titan, dodging and leaping with unbelievable grace. She seemed to change form as she maneuvered. She was a tiger, a gazelle, a bear, a falcon. Or perhaps that was just Percy's fevered brain. Zoë shot arrows at her father, aiming for the chinks in his armor. He roared in pain each time one found its mark, but they affected him like bee stings. He just got madder and kept fighting.
Thalia and Luke went spear on sword, lightning still flashing around them. Thalia pressed Luke back with the aura of her shield. Even he was not immune to it. He retreated, wincing and growling in frustration.
"Yield!" Thalia yelled. "You never could beat me, Luke!"
He bared his teeth.
"We'll see about that."
Sweat poured down Percy's face. His hands were slippery. His shoulders would've screamed with agony if they could. He felt like the vertebrae in his spine were being welded together by a blowtorch.
But then the weight . . . shifted? Percy didn't know how to describe it. He didn't really know how to think at the moment, but he saw movement beside him. Turning his head the fraction he could manage, he saw Heri — Heri and Nico. As one, they pressed up against the load as well, bearing the weight of the sky with him. The weight was still crushing even with three demigods holding it, but there was still some relief there.
Nico looked like he was in the middle of being run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Percy wondered if he also looked so red-faced, breathless, and like a Cyclops was kicking him repeatedly in the gut. Heri though . . . Percy was starting to suspect everything about how she presented herself was a front of her own design — Heri only smiled at Percy, none of the strain being done to their bodies showing on her face, no redness, no nothing. Did she not feel pain at all or something? It was completely ridiculous, and he was going to shake her down to teach him her ways after all this, if they weren't already dead.
Before them, Atlas advanced, pressing Artemis. She was fast, but his strength was unstoppable. His javelin slammed into the earth where Artemis had been a split second before, and a fissure opened in the rocks. He leaped over it and kept pursuing her. She was leading him back toward where the earth met sky.
'Get ready,' she spoke in Percy's mind.
"You fight well for a girl." Atlas laughed, bastard-y smirk on his face. "But you are no match for me."
He feinted with the tip of his javelin and Artemis dodged. It was easy to see the trick coming. Atlas's javelin swept around and knocked Artemis's legs off the ground. She fell, and Atlas brought up his javelin tip for the kill.
"No!" Zoë screamed. She leaped between her father and Artemis and shot an arrow straight into the Titan's forehead, where it lodged like a unicorn's horn. Atlas bellowed in rage. He swept aside his daughter with the back of his hand, sending her flying into the black rocks.
Then Atlas turned on Artemis with a look of triumph in his face. Artemis seemed to be wounded. She didn't get up.
"The first blood in a new war," Atlas gloated. And he stabbed downward.
As fast as thought, Artemis grabbed his javelin shaft. It hit the earth right next to her and she pulled backward, using the javelin like a lever, kicking the Titan Lord and sending him flying over her, Percy saw him coming down and realized what would happen. Percy loosened his grip on the sky, and as Atlas slammed into him he didn't try to hold on. Percy let himself be pushed out of the way, catching Heri and Nico by their waists as he went, and led them in rolling away for their lives.
The weight of the sky dropped onto Atlas' back, almost smashing him flat until he managed to get to his knees, struggling to get out from under the crushing weight of the sky. But it was too late.
"NO-O-O-O-O-O!" He bellowed so hard it shook the mountain. "Not again!"
Atlas was trapped under his burden once more.
The Titan in front of them was defeated, but the battle was not over just yet. Not that Annabeth could do much about that when the last enemy they had to deal with was Luke.
Percy, Heri and Nico were piled on top of each other in a heap where they landed. Nico was on his back gasping and wheezing like he was dying, and Percy was trying to stand only to fall back again. Heri — the incomprehensible creature that she was — was shaky and couldn't quite pull herself up, but she was doing her damnedest.
Meanwhile, Thalia had backed Luke to the edge of a cliff, but still they fought on, next to the golden coffin. Thalia had tears in her eyes. Luke had a bloody slash across his chest and his pale face glistened with sweat.
He lunged at Thalia and she slammed him with her shield. Luke's sword spun out of his hands and clattered to the rocks. Thalia put her spear point to his throat.
For a moment, there was silence.
"Well?" Luke asked. He tried to hide it, but fear could be heard in his voice.
Thalia trembled with fury.
Annabeth scrambled up behind Thalia as fast as she could, desperate.
"Don't kill him!" she cried out.
"He's a traitor!" Thalia screamed. "A traitor!"
"We'll bring Luke back," Annabeth pleaded. "To Olympus. He . . . he'll be useful."
"Is that what you want, Thalia?" Luke sneered, not sparing Annabeth a glance. "To go back to Olympus in triumph? To please your dad?"
Thalia hesitated, and Luke made a grab for her spear.
"No!" Annabeth shouted. But it was too late. Without thinking, Thalia kicked Luke away. He lost his balance, terror on his face, and then he fell.
"Luke!" Annabeth screamed.
She rushed to the cliff's edge, dreading what she knew she would see, the others racing up behind her.
But they did not see Luke's body broken across the rocks. Instead, he was caught in the claws of . . . a gryphon?! And a huge one at that! An enormous gryphon was hoisting Luke back up the cliff, paws holding him by his upper arms. This couldn't have been planned because Luke's terrified and confused expression was apparent. Judging by the wild eyes he was giving the gryphon, it wasn't one of Kronos' allied creatures either.
It swooped up the face of the cliff and hovered in the air for a moment. Then it landed. Luke was set on his feet gently at first, but then the horse-sized creature landed on top of him and sat down, squishing him to lay flat on his face.
"What is this?!" Luke hollered, turning his head to breathe. He tried to thrash, but the gryphon didn't budge.
"Wow-wow, that was dangerous!" cried a high-pitched voice.
A little girl who couldn't have been older than five sat behind the wings of the gryphon, wide-eyed and distressed. She had bright blue eyes, light brown hair done up in two pigtails, and she was dressed in a little sundress. She had a Hello Kitty backpack on.
What? Annabeth didn't know where to start on how out-of-nowhere and out-of-place this was.
"Who are you?!" demanded Zoë, once again at Artemis' side. "How does a child come to be here, and on such a beast?"
The little girl blinked rapidly Zoë, looking bewildered at being addressed.
"Ollie is Ollie!" she said, frowning. "And this is Hedwig! Hedwig is a good birdie! Not a beast, you meanie!"
"Why are you here?!" Thalia asked, her hands still gripping her spear. "What do you want with that traitor?!"
The kid continued looking confused. Annabeth was also starting to get a sinking suspicion. . . .
"Ollie and Hedwig are out looking for our lady," the kid said, looking them over one by one. "The nice auntie before said our lady got lost, and so we followed her trail, and her trail led this way, and then Hedwig saw a boy falling, and we were like 'oh, no!' and then Hedwig caught him and— MY LADY!" she shrieked.
The little girl leaped off the gryphon and rocketed right into Heri.
"M-my lady! Miss H-Heri!" she blubbered, sobbing into Heri's waist, clutching at hem of Heri's shirt. "Ollie has been so scared, Miss! Ollie looked everywhere but couldn't find Miss Heri at all! Why did Miss leave Ollie behind? Miss isn't ever supposed to leave Ollie behind! It isn't safe!"
"My lady'?" Bianca echoed, disbelief blooming on her face.
Annabeth could sympathize. There was a lot to process here.
"This child belongs to you?" said Artemis, a strange inflection in her voice.
"Uh . . . um . . ." Heri murmured, looking down at the kid with no recognition in her expression as she rubbed the little girl's back. She looked around at them helplessly. Then she knelt down and patted the girl's shoulder. "Sorry, but . . . Heri doesn't . . . know you?"
The little girl's head whipped up, her eyes like saucers. She looked into Heri's face with horror.
"M-Miss Heri d-doesn't . . . ?" she stuttered. Tears started anew. "Oh! Oh, n-o-o! Miss Heri fell sleep again! And she still hasn't woke up!"
Annabeth didn't know why, but those words sent a cold thrill down her spine.
"Ollie . . . ?" Luke said quietly. He'd managed to free one arm and now used it to prop himself up on one forearm. He was looking at the little girl with awe. "Ollie?" he said again, voice shaking, "is that really you? Is that —? No, it can't be. . . ."
"Wait, you know each other?" asked Percy, distrust in his tone.
Annabeth didn't blame him — nothing was making sense, least of all Luke now apparently knowing this random little kid that came out of nowhere. When and where would they have even met?
He couldn't have met her while the three of them were still runaways because the kid wouldn't even have been born yet. It couldn't have happened while he was still at Camp Half-Blood because he surely would have mentioned it if he met a toddler important enough for him to remember at any point during a quest. And he couldn't have met her after he defected because she was far too young for him to recruit for Kronos' army.
It was basically impossible for the two to know each other!
The little girl called Ollie turned to where she was called. Her teary eyes took in Luke held there, and she gasped.
"Lost-Boy Luke?" she said, amazed. "What are—? Fisken said you stopped coming back! Oh, Ollie thought something bad happened to you!"
"I . . . I . . ." Luke stuttered, looking more lost than Annabeth had ever seen him. His eyes locked on Heri. "I-is that really—? Are you—? But the . . . i-it said— so I— What? No . . . no, you're not Heri, are you?! You can't be!"
Heri could only stammer, looking increasingly bewildered.
"Wha—? Um, Heri is—"
"NO!" Luke shouted, confusion turning into fury. "Don't you lie to me! Heri is DEAD!"
"Dead?" Percy yelped. "Whoa, wait — are we sure this is the right Heri here?"
"This is Miss Heri," Ollie insisted. "Ollie knows Miss Heri anywhere!"
"HERI'S LETTER SAID SHE KILLED HERSELF!" Luke shouted, thrashing again futilely. His words chilled Annabeth, and the raw despair there cut her like a blade. "That was her handwriting — I'd know it anywhere! Ollie, are you—?!"
Nico, who had been standing closely next to Heri, grabbed her hand and pointed angrily at Luke.
"What are you talking about, you psychopath?!" Nico shouted, shaken. "I don't know what's going on here or who the Hell you're talking about, but this is our Heri, and she is definitely not dead!"
"Miss Heri was a little dead before," said Ollie, wiping her years. "That's what Oona said."
All eyes swung to her again.
"'A little dead'?" Thalia echoed, incredulous. "What does that even mean?!"
Ollie just shrugged her shoulders as they sputtered at her. She then tugged at insistently at Heri's other hand.
"Miss Heri must wake up, though!" she said urgently. "It isn't safe at all! Oh, it's been so long! My lady isn't together enough to be sleeping like this! Ollie will wake Miss up!" She dug into her pocket and then brandished a small corked bottle.
"Hold on—" said Annabeth.
But before anyone could ask what she was talking about or doing, the kid uncorked the bottle and shoved it right under Heri's nose.
Heri jerked like a puppet on a string, and stepped back like she'd been struck. She might have fallen over if it wasn't for Nico and the little girl holding her steady as she reeled.
"What did you do?!" exclaimed Thalia, lurching forward only to remember the spear she was pointing at Luke.
"Child, you—" Artemis began, reaching out, only to be cut off by a painful groan from Heri.
Heri's eyes were peeled wide open, the whites showing, and her pupils were dilated. She trembled and wheezed. She was pale and unsteady. She also looked the most lucid Annabeth has seen her since they met.
Had she been in a muddle the whole time? It was unsettling to realize.
Heri blinked sharp green eyes, the intensity there startling. They fluttered as she pressed the heel of her palm to her forehead and panted. Her eyes flicked rapidly from here to there, taking in their faces, the scenery, the situation. Her gaze eventually landed on Luke.
"Luke . . . Castellan?" She winced and pressed fingers against her temples, bowing her head. "That's . . . ? Little Luke," she muttered to herself, her accent getting thicker, "Little Boy Lost . . ."
"Miss Heri is awake again?" Ollie asked hopefully, holding Heri's sleeve.
"Ah, Ollie . . . where . . . ?" Heri looked up and took a deep breath. A sharp, fierce expression was on her face, so very present and coherent in a way that made Annabeth wonder how she could have believed the previous daze was perfectly lucid. "I . . . I remember . . . Well, I can't quite put into words exactly what I remember right now, but judging by the crowd of monsters marching on us, this conversation will have to continue later."
Her sudden use of first-person to refer to herself after Annabeth had finally gotten used to the third-person was just as jarring as being reminded that they were still on a time limit.
The army of Kronos was just below the rise now.
But it seem it was to be a day of repeated unforeseeable events. Just as the army of monsters came over the hill, a Sopwith Camel swooped down out of the sky.
"Get away from my daughter!" Annabeth's dad called down, and his machine guns burst to life, peppering the ground with bullet holes and startling the whole group of monsters into scattering.
"Dad?!" Annabeth yelled in disbelief.
"Run!" he called back, his voice growing fainter as the biplane swooped by.
Artemis huffed out a laugh. She stared up at the antique plane, which was now banking around for another strafe.
"A brave man," Artemis said with grudging approval. "Come — we must go indeed."
She raised her hunting horn to her lips, and its clear sound echoed down the valleys of Marin.
The Sopwith Camel swooped down again. A few giants threw javelins, and one flew straight between the wings of the plane, but the machine guns blazed. Annabeth realized with amazement that somehow her dad must've gotten hold of celestial bronze to fashion his bullets. The first row of snake women wailed as the machine gun's volley blew them into sulfurous yellow powder.
"That's . . . my dad!" Annabeth said, a warm feeling swelling in her chest. So many confusing things were happening all at once, but this one was at least a pleasant surprise.
They didn't have time to admire his flying. The Laistrygonians and dracanae were already recovering from their surprise. Annabeth's dad would be in trouble soon.
Just then, the moonlight brightened, and a silver chariot appeared from the sky, drawn by the most beautiful deer Annabeth had ever seen. It landed right next to them.
"Get in," Artemis said.
"What are we going to do about Luke?" Annabeth asked, looking over at the boy still held at spear-point and sat on by a gryphon.
Zoë produced a length of rope.
"Thou wishest to take him prisoner, yes?" she said. In a thrice, she had him out from under the gryphon, tied up, and gagged. "A prisoner he shall be then."
". . . Toss him onto Hedwig," Heri added. Her arms were crossed and her face was troubled. She pressed a knuckle to her forehead and rubbed. "It'll save room. Doubt Lady Artemis would appreciate a boy of any kind on her chariot, never mind this one in particular."
The girls boarded Artemis' chariot while Heri, the Ollie kid, and the boys got on the giant gryphon (seriously, that thing was far bigger than what a gryphon was supposed to be). Luke was bound in place with more rope, and Percy sat behind him with Riptide drawn at the ready in case Luke tried anything.
And then they were off, speeding away from the mountain, straight into the air.
Seeing them safely away, Annabeth's dad turned his biplane and followed them like an honor guard. It must have been one of the strangest sights ever, even for the Bay Area: a silver flying chariot pulled by deer and a winged lion-bird escorted by a Sopwith Camel.
Behind them, the army of Kronos roared in anger as they gathered on the summit of Mount Tamalpais, but the loudest sound was the voice of Atlas, bellowing curses against the gods as he struggled under the weight of the sky.
They landed at Crissy Field after nightfall. As far as rides on flying beasts go, Percy didn't think he'd ever had one he'd enjoyed less; it wasn't fun sitting behind the guy who repeatedly tried to kill you, even if he was tied up and being held captive.
As soon as Dr. Chase stepped out of his Sopwith Camel, Annabeth ran to him and gave him a huge hug. "Dad! You flew . . . you shot . . . oh, my gods! That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!"
Her father blushed.
"Well, not bad for a middle-aged mortal, I suppose."
"But the celestial bronze bullets! How did you get those?"
"Ah, well. You did leave quite a few half-blood weapons in your room in Virginia, the last time you . . . left."
Annabeth looked down, embarrassed. Dr. Chase was very careful not to say ran away.
"I decided to try melting some down to make bullet casings," he continued. "Just a little experiment."
He said it like it was no big deal, but he had a gleam in his eye. Percy could understand all of a sudden why Athena, Goddess of Crafts and Wisdom, had taken a liking to him. He was an excellent mad scientist at heart.
"I must go to Olympus immediately," Artemis said, once all the girls were off the chariot. "I will not be able to take you, but I will send help."
She flicked the reins of the chariot once more, and the entire thing began to glow again. They averted their eyes. There was a flash of silver, and the goddess was gone.
"Well," Dr. Chase sighed. "She was impressive; though I must say I still prefer Athena."
Then they heard the whoosh of large wings. Four pegasi descended through the fog: two white winged horses, one speckled brown, and one pure black one.
"Blackjack!" Percy cheered.
'Yo, boss!' he called. 'You manage to stay alive okay without me?'
"It was rough," Percy admitted.
'I brought Guido and Porkpie with me again. And Rummy as well.' Blackjack looked Percy over with concern, then checked out the others. 'Good thing, too. A lot more with you than last time. Any of these goons you want us to stampede?'
"Nah," Percy declined. "These are my friends. We need to get to Olympus pretty fast."
'No problem,' Blackjack said. 'Except for the mortal over there. Hope he's not going.'
Percy assured him Dr. Chase was not.
The professor was staring open-mouthed at the pegasi.
"Fascinating," he said. "Such maneuverability! How does the wingspan compensate for the weight of the horse's body, I wonder?"
Blackjack cocked his head.
"Why, if the British had had these pegasi in the cavalry charges on the Crimea," Dr. Chase said, "the charge of the light brigade—"
"Dad!" Annabeth interrupted.
Dr. Chase blinked. He looked at his daughter and smiled sheepishly.
"I'm sorry, my dear, I know you must go."
He gave her one last awkward but fond hug.
As Annabeth turned to climb aboard Guido, Dr. Chase called, "Annabeth. I know . . . I know San Francisco is a dangerous place for you. But please remember, you always have a home with us. We will keep you safe."
Annabeth didn't answer, but her eyes were red as she turned away. Dr. Chase started to say more, then apparently thought better of it. He raised his hand in a sad farewell and trudged away across the dark field.
The girls mounted the pegasi. Percy had been tempted to hop on Blackjack himself to avoid sitting with Luke again, they'd only managed two to a horse with Heri and Nico before because both were small and light enough to share — not something Percy could replicate with one of the other girls. So, with everyone properly seated again, they soared over the bay and flew toward the eastern hills. Soon San Francisco was only a glittering crescent behind them, with an occasional flicker of lightning in the north.
The towns were zipping by faster now, islands of light thicker together, until the whole landscape below was a glittering carpet. Dawn was close. The eastern sky was turning gray. And up ahead, a huge white-and-yellow glow spread out before them — the lights of New York.
'How's that for speedy, Boss?' Blackjack bragged, swooping over with Annabeth to fly closer to the gryphon. 'We get extra hay for breakfast or what?'
"You're the man, Blackjack," I told him. "Er, the horse, I mean."
"There it is!" called Thalia. She was pointing toward Manhattan, which was quickly zooming into view. "It's started."
Percy looked where she was pointing. High above the Empire State Building, Olympus was its own island of light, a floating mountain ablaze with torches and braziers, white marble palaces gleaming in the early morning air.
"The winter solstice," said Annabeth, expression troubled. "The Council of the Gods."
Seeing their destination in sight, Percy wasn't exactly thrilled. Flying was bad enough for a son of Poseidon, but flying straight up to Zeus' palace, with thunder and lightning swirling around it, was even worse.
They circled over midtown Manhattan, making one complete orbit around Mount Olympus. Percy had only been there once before, traveling by elevator up to the secret six hundredth floor of the Empire State Building. This time, if it was possible, Olympus amazed him even more.
In the early-morning darkness, torches and fires made the mountainside palaces glow twenty different colors, from blood-red to indigo. Apparently no one ever slept on Olympus. The twisting streets were full of elder demigods and nature spirits and minor gods bustling about, riding chariots or sedan chairs carried by Cyclopes. Winter didn't seem to exist for them; in the air was the scent of the gardens in full bloom, jasmine and roses and even sweeter things Percy couldn't name. Music drifted up from many windows, the soft sounds of lyres and reed pipes.
Towering at the peak of the mountain was the greatest palace of all, the glowing white hall of the gods.
Their pegasi set them down in the outer courtyard, in front of huge silver gates. Before any of them could even think to knock, the gates opened by themselves.
'Good luck, boss,' Blackjack said.
"Yeah. . . ." Percy didn't know why, but he had a sense of doom. He'd never seen all the major gods together. He knew any one of them could blast him to dust, and a few of them would like to.
Blackjack and his friends flew off, leaving the ragtag group of demigods behind. For a minute they stood there regarding the palace. And then they walked into the throne room, Heri leading the gryphon by the wing with Ollie still sitting at its shoulders and Luke trussed up on the back.
Twelve enormous thrones made a U around a central hearth, just like the placement of the cabins at camp. The ceiling above glittered with constellations. All of the seats were occupied. Each god and goddess was about fifteen feet tall.
"Welcome, heroes," Artemis said.
That's when Percy noticed Bessie and Grover.
A sphere of water was hovering in the center of the room, next to the hearth fire. Bessie was swimming happily around, swishing his serpent tail and poking his head out the sides and bottom of the sphere. He seemed to be enjoying the novelty of swimming in a magic bubble. Grover was kneeling at Zeus' throne, as if he'd just been giving a report, but when he saw us, he cried, "You made it!"
He started to run toward Percy, then remembered he was turning his back on Zeus, and looked for permission.
"Go on," Zeus said. But he wasn't really paying attention to Grover. The lord of the sky was staring intently at Thalia.
Grover trotted over. None of the gods spoke. Every clop of Grover's hooves echoed on the marble floor. Bessie splashed in his bubble of water. The hearth fire crackled.
Percy looked nervously at his father, Poseidon. He was dressed similar to the last time Percy had seen him: beach shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sandals. He had a weathered, suntanned face with a dark beard and deep green eyes. Percy wasn't sure how his father would feel about seeing him again, but the corners of his dad's eyes crinkled with smile lines. He nodded as if to say, 'It's okay.'
Grover gave Annabeth and Thalia big hugs. Then he grasped Percy arms.
"Percy, Bessie and I made it! But you have to convince them! They can't do it!"
"Do what?" Percy asked, looking around the hall.
Zeus was in his dark pin-striped suit, his black beard neatly trimmed, and his eyes sparking with energy. Next to him sat a beautiful woman with silvery hair braided over one shoulder and a dress that shimmered colors like peacock feathers. The Lady Hera.
On Zeus' right was Percy's father Poseidon. Next to him, a huge lump of a man with a leg in a steel brace, a misshapen head, and a wild brown beard, fire flickering through his whiskers. The Lord of the Forges, Hephaestus.
Hermes was stock-still in his throne. He was wearing a business suit today, and he looked grim enough to be a comic book villain version of a business man. Apollo leaned back in his golden throne with his shades on. He had iPod headphones on, so Percy wasn't sure he was even listening, but he gave Percy a thumbs-up. Dionysus looked bored, twirling a grape vine between his fingers. And Ares, well, he sat on his chrome-and-leather throne, glowering at Percy while he sharpened a knife.
On the ladies' side of the throne room, a dark-haired goddess in green robes sat next to Hera on a throne woven of apple-tree branches. Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest. Next to her sat a beautiful gray-eyed woman in an elegant white dress — she could only be Annabeth's mother, Athena. Then there was Aphrodite, who smiled at Percy knowingly and made him blush in spite of himself.
All of the Council of Twelve in one place. So much power in the room it was a miracle the whole palace didn't blow apart.
"Heroes," Artemis called.
The goddess slid down from her throne and turned to human size, a young auburn-haired girl, perfectly at ease in the midst of the giant Olympians. She walked toward them, her silver robes shimmering. There was no emotion in her face. She seemed to walk in a column of moonlight.
"The Council has been informed of your deeds," Artemis told them. "They know that Mount Othrys is rising in the West. They know of Atlas' attempt for freedom, and the gathering armies of Kronos. We have voted to act."
There was some mumbling and shuffling among the gods, as if they weren't all happy with this plan, but nobody protested.
"At my Lord Zeus' command," Artemis said, "my brother Apollo and I shall hunt the most powerful monsters, seeking to strike them down before they can join the Titans' cause. Lady Athena shall personally check on the other Titans to make sure they do not escape their various prisons. Lord Poseidon has been given permission to unleash his full fury on the cruise ship Princess Andromeda and send it to the bottom of the sea should it continue its war-path. And speaking of the cruise ship . . ." Her eyes lanced into Luke.
"Bring forth the rebel traitor."
Hermes winced and gripped the armrests of his throne tightly, his caduceus that he used as a mobile phone nowhere in sight for once.
The gryphon trotted up and slid off the tied-up Luke with little finesse.
Luke landed with a thud. He was bound from head to toe, looking like a giant caterpillar. Percy would have thought vindication and satisfaction would have filled him at seeing someone who'd repeatedly tried to kill him so defeated, but the look on the older boy's face was so lost, so destroyed, that — paired with how literally beaten up he was — Percy couldn't feel anything but unease.
"We have also been considering what to do with this young man," said Artemis, a disdaining expression on her face. She listed off Luke's offenses: "Colluding with enemies of Olympus; instigating and rallying a rebel coalition with the goal of overthrowing the gods; assault and attempted homicide of other half-bloods; attacking places with innocent mortals with no care to bystander casualties; theft of godly property with the goal of inciting conflict among the gods. These are no minor infractions."
Luke glared hatefully at Artemis, his gag preventing him from answering back.
Percy heard Ollie gasp and say, "Lost-Boy Luke has been a bad boy!"
Luke flinched at that, a sharp misery growing on his face. Percy could definitely see his eyes starting to glisten.
Aphrodite folded her arms and gave Ollie a curious look.
"I'm sure we all know where this is going," she said, tapping her forearm, "but can I just say that I'm confused about where this child came from? Artemis, dear, you mentioned her briefly, but I just don't understand how she came to be mixed up in all this."
"Where did she come from?" Apollo agreed, tilting his sunglasses down.
"This child came upon us just after we dealt with Atlas," said Artemis. "The traitor boy was kicked off the cliff, and the child and her gryphon—"
Said gryphon squawked loudly and puffed up. In a huge flurry of feathers, it turned into a giant, black owl. With a golden beak and four legs. Ollie was piggy-backing on it now, little arms around its neck.
Right. Sure. Okay then.
Artemis barely blinked.
"My mistake. The child and her strix," she carried on blandly, "rescued the boy from death against the rocks. By her own words, she had been in search of that girl," — here Artemis gestured to Heri — "who had been among the three half-bloods retrieved from a boarding school along with my newest Hunter."
"So, how does she know the little traitor?" asked Ares, leaning forward in his throne and resting his forearms on his knees. A huge knife dangled in his hand. "We got another one for the to-smite list here?"
"Ollie has nothing to do with any of this!" Heri cried, moving to cover the little girl with her body, her arms thrown wide. "We haven't seen Luke in-person since he was like ten years old — I have no idea about what he's done in the mean time, but Ollie is completely innocent!"
"How could you have known Luke since he was that young?" Annabeth demanded. "That's impossible! He's twenty-one years old, and she can't be more than six!"
"Twenty-one . . . ?" She looked at Luke, really looked at him. "How . . . ?"
"Miss Heri forgot the time again?" asked Ollie. "Oh, but Fisken said Lost-Boy Luke stopped coming to the Hall a while ago, and so it has been a long time since we sent him a birthday present, so of course Miss forgot this." She concluded her deduction with a nod.
"Stopped coming to the . . ." Heri said faintly. She frowned at Luke. "To Bramblewood Hall?! What? Why would you stop going?!"
"Wait — you know Bramblewood Hall, too?!" cried Thalia, mouth agape.
Luke made noises underneath his gag angrily. Artemis gestured to Zoë, who removed it.
"I don't know who in the world you are," Luke growled, "but you better stop pretending to be Heri! Heri's dead! She's been dead since 1998!"
"Miss Heri did go ka-boom in her last year of school," said Ollie. "Oona said that Miss said that she had to. She reformed later, though."
"'Reformed'?!" The exclamation came in a chorus from basically everyone present. Including Heri.
"Why are you surprised by this?" Annabeth asked of Heri.
Heri only stood looking confused and helpless.
"I . . . I don't remember dying! I don't remember any of this. . . ."
"Wait," said Percy, cold horror pooling in his gut. "So she really did die?"
"Heri wasn't a monster!" cried Luke, outraged. "She was a demigod! She was definitely a demigod — the first one I'd ever met! She was the one that taught me and took me in, and she left Bramblewood Hall for me to use—"
"Why did you stop going then?!" Heri pointed at him angrily. "Ollie just said that you stopped going! Why, when I went through a-all tha' trou-ble . . . to . . ."
Her voice trailed off as her speech slurred and her eyes grew unfocused.
Ollie hopped off the giant, shape-shifting bird thing and shoved the small bottle from before under Heri's nose again. Heri jerked like electrocuted and came back to her senses.
"Ah, th-thank you, Ollie-dolly."
". . . What's wrong with her?" asked Athena, a puzzling expression on her face.
"Miss Heri's got a sleepy sickness," said Ollie, leaning against Heri. "She used to go to sleep sometimes when it wasn't time to sleep — that's why she has Ollie! Ollie is supposed to go with Miss Heri everywhere so she stays safe! But then she disappeared and left Ollie behind, and then Ollie found out Miss really did fall into a big sleep without Ollie there, and —!"
"But she wasn't asleep when you found us," said Nico, speaking for the first time since they got there.
"She was," Ollie insisted. "Miss Heri didn't remember Ollie — Miss only forgets things like that when she's asleep!"
"I . . . I still don't remember quite a bit, dear," Heri said gently, placing a hand on Ollie's shoulder.
"That's okay — Miss Heri has been forgetting a lot of things since she went ka-boom."
"Heri's a demigod," Luke said again, frustration and angry still brimming. "Demigods don't reform! Ugh! And why are you still a freaking toddler, Ollie?! You was like four when I was nine!"
Okay, Percy was officially lost.
"Were you guys kept in the Lotus Hotel, too?" he asked, rubbing his forehead.
"Wait, wait!" said Bianca. "This obviously can't be the same Heri. The kid said that Heri ex-exploded in her last year of school, and this one here is in eighth grade!"
Ollie shook her head.
"Miss Heri has always been small for her age, but she went ka-boom at seventeen."
"Seventeen in 1998?" said Annabeth incredulously. "No way! That would make her, like . . . twenty-six this year!"
"Twenty-seven, actually. My lady went ka-boom before her birthday that year."
Percy eyed their red-headed friend that couldn't even be five feet tall and looked barely older than himself. Twenty-seven years old? No way.
"Then why was she put in the eighth grade?!" Bianca demanded.
"Miss Heri went missing!" Ollie stomped her foot. "Ollie doesn't know why! And Miss was asleep the whole time, so it's not like she would remember her age and disagree!"
"Are you guys just going to skip over the fact the kid said Heri reformed?" said Thalia. "Luke's right about that — demigods don't reform, so either she's not the right Heri or she's not a demigod — and Grover said that she smelled like a powerful one."
Grover flinched with demanding faces turned to him.
"Sh-she . . . she h-h-has the scent of a demigod!" he answered defensively. "There's nothing monstrous about her at all!"
"Hang on!" said Ares, pointing with his knife. An eager look was on his face. "A half-blood girl named Heri? Exploded at seventeen in 1998? I'll bet she's from England, too, right?"
Dawning looks appeared on the faces of the other gods.
"Child," said Athena, looking intently at Ollie. "Did your lady expel her divinity in battle, destroying herself and her foe in the process?"
"Um," said Ollie, tilting her head back and tapping her chin. "Miss Luna said my lady ate up a bunch of prayers, and got too big for her body, and turned the bad man into dust with her."
"So it is that one!" Ares laughed as the demigods in attendance went slack-jawed. "Those battles were great — I loved watching them."
"Oh! Oh, this is indeed that one?" Aphrodite said with interest. She giggled and fanned herself with a hand. "So many cute suitors! Ahh, each romance was as adorable as the next! I especially liked that Marcus boy — the utter tragedy of it! Goodness me! I didn't know her kind could reform!"
". . . they can't," said Dionysus, a strange look on his face.
"Miss Hermione suggested that it has something to do with Miss Heri's parentage combined with Miss Heri's bloodline," Ollie offered.
"Huh," said Apollo looking at Heri in fascination. "Well, at least we know now this cutie and her little handmaiden are definitely not on the overthrow-Olympus train. She died exalting the gods after all."
Percy felt bad for Heri, whoever she was before. The more names Ollie mentioned and the more questions Ollie answered, the more and more Heri looked lost and uncertain. Whatever had happened to her had obviously seriously messed with her head and memories. Percy tried to imagine going through more than his fair share of the bullshit that demigods went through (and it had to be or else why would Ares be so enthusiastic about her?), then literally dying, and then coming back without knowing who he was or basically anything about his past. Shit, it sounded awful.
"Wait, so . . . okay . . . okay, so, she died and reformed and is apparently in her late twenties despite looking like she's fifteen," said Annabeth, looking half-hysterical. "And she's apparently some kind of demigod-adjacent being — cool, that's fine — I guess I can accept that at face value if I have to. But how is that kid still five when she was apparently four when Luke was nine?"
"Ollie is—!" Ollie began hotly only to cut herself off and look questioningly at Heri. "Um, Miss? Is Ollie allowed to answer that? You said we're not supposed to tell Muggles, but these aren't Muggles, are they?"
What in the world was a Muggle? Annabeth, Thalia, and Grover didn't seem to know the term either; the di Angelos being clueless were a given. However, this was apparently something Heri did understand, though, and she thought it over seriously.
"Um, Your Lordships and Your Ladyships," she said weakly, looking to the Council. "I . . . I don't remember what is and isn't allowed concerning this manner. I believe I . . . that I informed Luke of the matter before, right? About . . . certain things we're meant to not tell others?" — Heri looked to Luke who had a look on his face that was half-shattered, half-awed. He nodded stiffly. — "But, um, I don't remember if that's actually s-something I'm allowed to let the others know. Would . . . would any of you know if it's acceptable to do so?"
It was Athena who answered.
"Where you are from, it's technically not," the goddess said, leaning back in her throne. "However, this is the United States as well as Olympus, and it is allowed in the United States, so you may answer as you please."
"Ah, right — that's good then, um . . ." Heri looked down at Ollie with a wan smile and a nod.
Ollie bounced cheerfully.
"Ollie is Miss Heri's Bogle! Ollie is already all grown up! Ollie just looks little to you because this is as big as Bogles can grow!"
"Wha-what's a Bogle?" asked Nico at the same time that Annabeth cried, "There's no such thing called a Bogle in Greek mythology!"
"Ollie doesn't know if there's a Greek name for Bogle, but Bogle is Bogle in English."
"I've never heard of any creature that looks like a little kid when full grown," Annabeth refuted, and Percy was glad this wasn't an instance of him just being an idiot that didn't pay attention in his lessons.
"Ollie only looks like this right now because Miss Heri said Ollie has to look human when out among Muggles!" Ollie said crossing her arms huffily. "Ollie can look like anything Ollie wants!"
"AH!" cried Grover, pointing, a look of realization on his face. "You're one of those . . . you're one of those creatures of Lady Hecate's domain! Don't you guys usually keep to yourselves, though?"
"As much as I love chaos and disorder," said Dionysus, sounding bored, "I'd really appreciate it if we could get this show over with sooner rather than later. The brats can talk among themselves later about whatever they want — can we get to deciding who we're smiting?"
"Yes, yes," said Lady Hera, clapping her hands twice. "As interesting as it is that Heri is here, we really should get on with the most immediately pressing matters."
"My lady Hera is correct," said Artemis. She looked back at Luke and crossed her arms. "So. The crimes have already been listed. Are there any other suggestions on what we should do with this boy other than smiting him at once?"
"Hang on!" Heri gasped, her eyes wide. "You're going to kill him?!"
"No, please!" Annabeth cried as well, stepping forward. "He can be useful, can't he?"
"What use exactly do you think we might have with a defector sworn to servitude to an enemy of Olympus?" Zeus demanded.
Annabeth stammered, unable to come up with an answer. She looked to her mother Athena pleadingly, but Athena's expression hardened.
"My daughter, you honestly cannot believe I would speak on the behalf of a young man who has betrayed and harmed you on top of his other doings. Smiting him would be a mercy compared to how we have punished past criminals of lesser crimes. He might have worthwhile information, but he has already proven to be a liar and all around untrustworthy as well. We couldn't trust his information even if he gave it."
"Miss Heri can make him tell the truth!" said Ollie, raising her hand in the air. "If you know about Miss Heri, then you must know she can make him tell the truth when you ask, no matter if he wants to or not!"
"Oh, yeah, that's right!" said Apollo, perking up. "Her kind has their magic and all that, right—?"
"Magic?!" Percy and the di Angelos cried.
"— she can supersede that bond of servitude, too!" Apollo continued, talking over them. "Then we won't have to smite him."
Hermes, who had said nothing since the started, looked tentatively hopeful. Percy guessed he wanted to keep Luke alive since Luke was, for some reason, his favorite son. Percy thought he'd be better off favoring the Stoll brothers.
"Since when have you cared about keeping that brat alive?" Dionysus sneered at Apollo. For once, Percy agreed with him. "Isn't he an affront to you as the god of truth?"
"Ah, c'mon — I never had anything against him personally until he got Artemis kidnapped. It's not like he was an actual threat by himself. And we got ladies here who really want him alive — you know I'm a big fan of keeping the ladies happy."
Thoughtful looks abounded.
Percy really wanted to be angry that this trial was somehow swinging in Luke's favor despite everything, and he could see that Zoë was sharing the same thought with how her face twisted, but it was hard for him to commit to the anger when Annabeth was looking so hopeful. Even Thalia looked like she was kind of relieved despite how furious she was with Luke earlier.
"Holding the boy would make it more difficult for Kronos," Percy's dad added, sending an apologetic look Percy's way when Percy looked at him in shock. "He would have to find a new vessel while still being bound to the use of this one if the boy still lives. It would be a significant obstacle."
"How could we assure the boy wouldn't just escape and return to Kronos?" said Artemis, looking unhappy.
"Keep him chained up somewhere?" suggested Hephaestus. "I could forge some enchanted manacles."
"We're not chaining up my son!" Hermes protested.
"Your thoughts and biases are noted, Hermes," Athena said evenly, lifting her chin.
The gods continued going back and forth, discussing pros and cons, logistics and strategies. The longer they went on, the more Percy suspected they really would leave Luke alive.
"Apollo suggested Heri as a way of breaking the boy's bond of servitude and confirmed that she could facilitate ensuring the boy can't lie to us," said Athena eventually. (Heri frowned at that, but Ollie nodded along confidently.) "If that is so, why don't we bind the boy to her as well? That should appease you, Hermes. She apparently doesn't hold any animosity for the boy, but she has proven herself loyal to the gods. By her past accomplishments, we also know she is a competent combatant. What better jailer can we find for the boy that satisfies all of us so?"
Murmurs of agreement went around.
"Wait . . ." said Heri slowly. She had the small bottle of whatever in her hands and took a quick sniff. Shuddering, she continued, "I . . . I have no problem with minding Luke, but I don't feel comfortable forcing him to stay with me. I know that he's committed crimes, but is there no other option available to him? Could he at least be given some choice of punishments to choose from?"
Percy's dad laughed a little at that.
"Well, aren't you sweet?" he said, smiling down at her. Then he looked around at the other gods, ending with Zeus. "Well, what do you say to that?"
"Choices, eh?" Zeus rumbled, glaring down at Luke. "Why not? Luke Castellan, you have affronted the gods beyond forgiveness. The Council has decided unanimously that you must be punished. Your choices are: to be smited immediately; to be chained and locked away under enchantments for the rest of your life with no parole; or to be bound eternally to your friend here, with the caveat that if you try to escape her, you will be smited on the spot."
Heri bowed her head, wincing. Even Percy knew those weren't much of choices.
Luke didn't look at upset as Percy would have thought, though. Bedraggled, exhausted, and beat up as he was, Luke looked at Heri like his prayers had been answered.
"If it's Heri," he began, his voice thick. He gulped. "If it's Heri, then I definitely choose her."
The look on Annabeth's face as Luke said that was as elated as it was agonized. Despite how much she'd begged him before, Luke had never backed down. Percy knew it must have hurt like hell that Luke would readily choose to give up his loyalties to Kronos for someone else but not for her.
"He will be put him in an enchanted collar for now," said Zeus with a flick of his hand. The ropes binding Luke dropped off and spiked metal choker appeared around his neck. "He may be unchained after he is properly bound to the girl. This matter is concluded for today."
Artemis called for attention again.
"Now then. As for these heroes. . . ." She turned to face the other immortals, meeting their faces individually. "These half-bloods have done Olympus a great service. Would any here deny that?"
"I gotta say," said Apollo cheerfully, "these kids really did okay." He cleared his throat and began to recite: "Heroes win laurels—"
"Um, yes, first class," Hermes interrupted. His grim look from before was gone, leaving behind relief. "All in favor of not disintegrating them?"
A few hands went up immediately — Demeter, Hera, Aphrodite.
"Wait just a minute," Ares growled. He pointed at Thalia and Percy. "Sure, we got a muzzle on the traitor kid, but those two there are still dangerous. It'd be much safer, while we've got them here, to—"
"Ares," Poseidon interrupted, a scowl forming on his face, "they are worthy heroes. They have brought us an advantage against Kronos and done us a great favor. We will not blast my son to bits."
"Nor my daughter," Zeus grumbled. "She has done very well."
Thalia blushed. She studied the floor. Percy knew how she felt. He'd hardly ever talked to his father, much less gotten a compliment. After all the nonsense, such bald and straightforward praise was music to the ears.
Athena cleared her throat and sat forward.
"I am proud of my daughter as well. But there is a security risk here with those aforementioned two."
"Mother!" Annabeth protested. "How can you—"
Athena cut her off with a calm but firm look.
"It is unfortunate that my father, Zeus, and my uncle, Poseidon, chose to break their oath not to have more children. Only Hades kept his word, a fact that I find ironic. As we know from the Great Prophecy, children of the three elder gods . . . such as Thalia and Percy . . . are dangerous. As thickheaded as he is, Ares has a point."
"Right!" Ares said. "Hey, wait a minute. Who you callin'—"
He started to get up, but a grape vine grew around his waist like a seat belt and pulled him back down.
"Oh, please, Ares," Dionysus sighed. "Save the fighting for later."
Ares cursed and ripped away the vine.
"You're one to talk, you damned drunk. You seriously want to protect these brats? After all the arguing you did to do away with that other one."
Dionysus gazed down at them wearily.
"I have no love for them. Athena, do you truly think it safest to destroy them?"
"I do not pass judgment," Athena said. "I only point out the risk. What we do, the Council must decide."
"I will not have them punished," Artemis said. "I will have them rewarded. If we destroy heroes who do us a great favor, then we are no better than the Titans. If this is Olympian justice, I will have none of it."
"Calm down, sis," Apollo said. "Jeez, you need to lighten up."
"Don't call me 'sis'! I will reward them."
"Well," Zeus grumbled. "Perhaps. But the monster at least must be destroyed. We have agreement on that?"
A lot of nodding heads.
It took Percy a moment to realize what they were saying. Then his heart turned to lead.
"Bessie? You want to destroy Bessie?!"
"Moo-oo-oo!" Bessie protested.
Percy's father frowned.
"You have named the Ophiotaurus Bessie?"
"Dad," Percy said urgently, "he's just a sea creature. A really nice sea creature! You can't destroy him!"
Poseidon shifted uncomfortably.
"Percy, the monster's power is considerable. If the Titans were to steal it, or—"
"You can't," Percy insisted. He looked at Zeus. He probably should have been afraid of him, but Percy stared him right in the eye. "Controlling the prophecies never works. Isn't that true? Besides, Bess— the Ophiotaurus is innocent! Killing something like that is wrong! It's just as wrong as . . . as Kronos eating his children, just because of something they might do! It's totally wrong!"
Zeus seemed to consider this. His eyes drifted to his daughter Thalia.
"And what of the risk? Kronos knows full well, if one of you were to sacrifice the beast's entrails, you would have the power to destroy us. Do you think we can let that possibility remain? You, my daughter, will turn sixteen on the morrow, just as the prophecy says."
"You have to trust them," Annabeth spoke up. "Sir, you have to trust them."
"Trust a hero?"
"Annabeth is right," Artemis said. "Which is why I must first make a reward. But first, Father Zeus, I must speak to you privately."
Zeus beckoned Artemis forward. He leaned down and listened as she spoke in his ear.
A feeling of panic seized Percy.
"Annabeth," he said under his breath. "Don't."
She frowned at Percy.
"Look, I need to tell you something," Percy continued. The words came stumbling out of him. "I couldn't stand it if . . . I don't want you to—"
"Percy?" she said. "You look like you're going to be sick."
And that's how Percy felt. He wanted to say more, but his tongue betrayed him. It wouldn't move because of the fear in his stomach. And then Artemis turned.
"I shall have a new Hunter," she announced. "If she will accept it."
"No," Percy breathed.
"Thalia," Artemis said. "Daughter of Zeus. Will you join the Hunt?"
Stunned silence filled the room. Percy stared at Thalia, unable to believe what he was hearing.
Annabeth smiled. She squeezed Thalia's hand and let it go, as if she'd been expecting this all along.
"I will," Thalia said firmly.
Zeus rose, his eyes full of concern.
"My daughter, consider well—"
"Father," she said. "I will not turn sixteen tomorrow. I will never turn sixteen. I won't let this prophecy be mine. I stand with my sister Artemis. Kronos will never tempt me again."
She knelt before the goddess and began the words they'd heard from Bianca's oath, what seemed like so long ago.
"I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis. I turn my back on the company of men. . . ."
Then, Thalia did something that surprised Percy almost as much as the pledge. She came over to him, smiled, and in front of the whole assembly, she gave him a big hug.
When she pulled away and gripped him shoulders, he said, "Um . . . aren't you supposed to not do that anymore? Hug boys, I mean?"
"I'm honoring a friend," she corrected. "I must join the Hunt, Percy. I haven't known peace since . . . since Half-Blood Hill. I finally feel like I have a home. But you're a hero. You will be the one of the prophecy."
"Great," I muttered.
"I'm proud to be your friend."
She hugged Annabeth, who was trying hard not to cry. Then she even hugged Grover, who looked ready to pass out, like somebody had just given him an all-you-can-eat enchilada coupon, and she gave Nico a fond hair-ruffle. She ended with Heri; she clasped hands with the other girl.
"I don't understand your story," said Thalia, "but it's obvious you've done your best to be a good person. I don't doubt we'd be great friends if given more time." Then she went to stand by Artemis's side with Zoë and Bianca.
"Now for the Ophiotaurus," Artemis said.
"The Jackson boy is still dangerous," Dionysus warned. "The beast is a temptation to great power. Even if we spare the boy—"
"No." Percy looked around at all the gods. "Please. Keep the Ophiotaurus safe. My dad can hide him under the sea somewhere, or keep him in an aquarium here in Olympus. But you have to protect him."
"And why should we trust you?" rumbled Hephaestus.
"I'm only fourteen," Percy pointed out. "If this prophecy is about me, that's two more years."
"Two years for Kronos to deceive you," Athena said. "Much can change in two years, my young hero."
"Mother!" Annabeth said, exasperated.
"It is only the truth, child. It is bad strategy to keep the animal alive. Or the boy."
Percy's father stood.
"I will not have a sea creature destroyed, if I can help it. And I can help it."
He held out his hand, and a trident appeared in it: a twenty foot long bronze shaft with three spear tips that shimmered with blue, watery light.
"I will vouch for the boy and the safety of the Ophiotaurus."
"You won't take it under the sea!" Zeus stood suddenly. "I won't have that kind of bargaining chip in your possession."
"Brother, please," Poseidon sighed.
Zeus's lightning bolt appeared in his hand, a shaft of electricity that filled the whole room with the smell of ozone.
"Fine," Poseidon said, rolling his eyes. "I will build an aquarium for the creature here. Hephaestus can help me. The creature will be safe. We shall protect it with all our powers. The boy will not betray us. I vouch for this on my honor."
Zeus thought about this.
"All in favor?"
To Percy's surprise, a lot of hands went up. Dionysus abstained. So did Ares and Athena. But everybody else. . . .
"We have a majority," Zeus decreed. "And so, since we will not be destroying these heroes . . . I imagine we should honor them. Let the triumph celebration begin!"
The morning after the winter solstice, five demigods returned to Camp Half-Blood, some far more happily than the others. And they were greeted with varying levels of enthusiasm as well.
Percy kind of felt bad for Luke for the amount of hostility sent his way on sight, no matter how much he honestly deserved it. But judging by the way Luke stayed fixated on Heri through their entire return reception, Percy didn't think it would end up actually bothering him much.
AN: If you would like to see my update schedule, want to know how to see advanced updates, and/or want to know how to support me so that I can keep writing with less troubles, go to my tumblr high-pot-in-noose and click on the link that says 'Update Schedule'.