When the wars of the gods were done, I left to explore the hidden places left in the corners of the world, roaming over and under the sea with the blessing of my father Poseidon. The divine ichor in my veins sustained me through the breathless depths, but there were places where the ocean went on forever.
In the black abyss I delved ever deeper. My power was a wrenching weight in my gut. The pressure of water around me was beyond reckoning, held back from crushing me by divine birthright alone. My fingers brushed the rocks at the base of the ocean, and the crashing of waves sounded in my ears like an echo of my father's voice. Poseidon Earth-Shaker! Perseus Wave-Breaker! The ocean floor cracked open with thunder beyond the grasp of Zeus himself, and I dove through salt and shadow and time.
Eventually the sea pushed me up and out, casting me onto a rocky shore. Sharp pinpricks bit into my face and chest where I lay on the pointed edges of stones or shells. The heat of the sun on my back was the glare of an alien god after so long submerged in the lightless depths. I tried to breathe, and the flavour of oxygen was pain. As soon as air hit my lungs I realised that I was broken, churned up and discarded by the abyssal pressures beneath the sea.
The warm salty liquid I lay in wasn't a tidal pool on the beach, but a growing smear of blood. I tried to cry out, but could not, so I wept. My tears left behind tracks of soothed skin, the saltwater of my own body healing me even as I lay dying.
Footsteps sounded on the beach nearby.
"Look at this here!" called out a rough voice, thick with an unfamiliar accent. "Someone's been making offerings to the Drowned God without you, Damphair."
A stick was jammed into my ribs. I would have screamed if I was able, but my muscles were torn and lax so I could only lie there limply and stare as it was used to lever me onto my back. Two men stood over me, one in the familiar - if somewhat archaic - garb of a sailor, and the other in roughspun wool robes dyed all the colours of the sea. The man in robes had the dour bearing of a priest, coupled with the roughness of a sailor. He was the one who had turned me over, using a crude wooden club which he struck me with again in the chest. His hair and beard hung low to his waist, braided with seaweed.
"Shoddy work," said Damphair, scowling at me and the sailor both. "If you wish to make an offering of life, you choose a man who is hale and hearty so the Drowned God may feast on the vitality of his spirit. If you wish to make an offering of death, you charge the iron price and cast his body into the waves. This? This is nothing. Neither alive nor dead. Whichever fool captain decided to make this sacrifice has blessed his voyage with mediocrity."
Damphair spat, turning his head to one side so the spit landed on the earth, not in the sea.
"Will you bring him back to life?" the sailor asked eagerly. The sailor was younger than the priest, perhaps around my age in his mid-twenties, although it was hard to tell. His body was packed with muscle where the priest was lean and raw-boned. Although the priest had a predator's grace where the sailor was still burdened with some of the clumsy softness of youth. Damphair frowned, glaring at me for a time.
"No," he said at last. "I will not breathe life back into a drowned man only for him to die of his wounds. It would be a mockery of the Drowned God's gift." He stabbed his club down into my chest again, and then nodded. "See how he cannot move aught but his eyes? The Deep Ones may have his bones to make their bread, and be done with it."
Damphair bent down, and grabbed me beneath my shoulders. The sailor followed suit, picking up my legs, and they carried me until they stood waist-deep in the surf.
They tossed me out into the water, and the waves closed over my head.
At last I could breathe, oxygen flowing straight through my skin into my blood, restarting my heart and inflating my lungs. My whole body shook and spasmed wildly, the effects of healing such grievous wounds so rapidly causing my limbs to flail and eyes to roll.
The tide threw me out again, and I was dashed upon the shore with force. I gasped at the impact, and choked out ragged breaths.
"That's twice the God has rejected him," observed the sailor. "Think you that someone has just left on a cursed voyage? Farman, mayhaps, or Wynch?"
"No," said Damphair slowly, drawing the word out as he strode closer to me. "No Ironborn has been so accursed since Euron Crow's Eye was banished. This is something else. He is not so badly injured as I had thought."
"The sea washed away the blood, is all," suggested the sailor.
"Perhaps. I was certain - no matter. We did not throw him far enough. The Drowned God is owed his dues. WIth me. Properly, this time."
The men heaved me up and carried me away once more. This time my limbs responded, and I was able to shift my body at their touch. Could I have fought them? Perhaps. I was still weak to the point of death, but I was no mortal. But the point was moot. I wanted the sea, and all it's rejuvenating powers.
Again, my hurts mended and wounds closed, and I was washed ashore. The motion of the waves deposited me neatly at Damphair's feet.
I felt fantastic. Whatever my ordeal beneath the sea had done was healed. I lay there, still and breathing, relishing the easy motion of air through my lungs.
"Again?" asked the sailor, sounding bemused.
Shorelines are never rigid boundaries, as any seaman knows, but both men turned with expressions of shock as the tide pulled back from our location, forming a horseshoe crater of exposed sand reaching ten paces in every direction.
"His will is clear," said Damphair, and knelt by my side. "You may see me revive him after all, Baerag." The sailor - Baerag - stepped back respectfully.
Damphair leaned over me. His breath stank of old fish. His lips moved towards mine, and I realised what was happening. Oh, hell no!
I called out for Anaklusmos, and she was in my hand a moment later, three feet of edged bronze. The tip of her blade pressed into the priest's neck, and he halted his attempt to give me the kiss of life. Praise be to Poseidon.
He stared at me from a foot away, expressionless. The sailor whistled.
"Gods be damned, you barely touched him!"
Aeron Damphair turned to look at the sailor, ignoring the way that his movement drew a thin line of blood where his skin rested upon my sword. My eyes widened at the sight. Was he a monster in disguise, then? No. I sensed no malice from him. Whatever this place was, it followed different rules. I couldn't sense the occluding presence of the Mist around us to separate the mortal and mystical worlds. The line between man and god and monster was less clearly defined here than it was back home.
"It wasn't me, you oaf," barked Damphair. "He's been touched by the Drowned God."
The priest, who introduced himself as Aeron, and the sailor Baerag guided me up the beach towards a ramshackle port town. I didn't need the assistance, but I was glad of the company. My sense of direction was keener than a compass when at sea, but this place was strange to me. I could tell North from South and East from West, but when I tried to plot a route home my power failed me. I was marooned on a distant island, worlds away from Olympus.
Perfect. I was hoping for a bit of peace and quiet when I set off exploring the ocean.
Damphair handed me a waterskin. I lifted it to my lips and drank deeply. The water inside was cool and sweet, soothing my throat and refreshing my mind. I was overcome with a ravenous thirst, and gulped down mouthful after mouthful. It intoxicated and delighted me like wine, until at last the skin was empty and I gasped for air.
"Sorry," I said, handing it back to Damphair. "I guess I was pretty thirsty." He gave me an odd look, and then placed a weathered hand on my shoulder. He squeezed it, briefly and then stepped away.
"Think nothing of it, lad," he said, his voice gruff.
"We'll slake your thirst in here," said Baerag, pointing towards a large wooden building with heavy shutters. Damphair sighed, but didn't argue. "I bet you'll be hungry after drowning like that. Melys always has a pot of fish stew on the go."
Before I had a chance to respond, my stomach rumbled. Baerag grinned, and took that as my agreement.
"'Ware the tavern!" he cried out, throwing the door open. "Here comes Lodos Twice-Drowned risen again!"
Half the tavern burst out in mocking laughter. A man who sat by the door spat on the floor. A scar at the edge of his mouth hooked his face into a cruel leer, but his voice was friendly enough.
"Has old Damphair got you drinking seawater again?" he asked. Baerag ducked his head and muttered a response. The scarred man roared in laughter. "He has, hasn't he? Drinking seawater won't make you holy, it'll just make you as mad as he is!"
I glanced at the waterskin tucked back into Damphair's belt.
"Was that seawater I just drank?" I asked. Damphair nodded. Huh. He seemed to be taking the fact that I'd just necked back over a pint of saltwater with surprising calm. Almost as if he'd expected it. I caught him studying me with an intense expression, and felt the same pressure on the back of my neck as when under the scrutiny of my old teacher Chiron. They were nothing alike, and yet somehow I was reminded of him.
"Here, Lodos! Are you gonna take a seat or just stand there staring like a witless fish?" demanded the scarred man. Baerag shoved me onto the bench beside him, and took a place opposite.
"Why are you calling me Lodos?" I asked.
"Isn't that who you are?" asked Baerag, leaning forwards eagerly. "I listen to the priests. I know my history." Damphair snorted, and cuffed him on the back of the head.
"Lodos lived nearly three hundred years, you blithering imbecile. As you would well know had you listened past your first pint"
"Three hundred years for men is nothing for a god!" argued Baerag, the scarred man beside me shaking his head in derision. "Tell me truly, are you not Lodos Twice-Drowned, son of the Drowned God?"
"No!" I exclaimed, holding up my hands in protest. "I'm Percy Jackson." He stared at me hungrily, expectantly, and I hesitated. Surely their Drowned God was Poseidon. Between surviving the waves and drinking seawater I'd given myself away, although I was curious to know who these men were to recognise the signs. Grudgingly, I sighed and finished what he was hoping to hear. "I'm Percy Jackson, son of the Drowned God."
Baerag whooped and banged his fist on the table until every eye in the room was on us.
"The Drowned God has sent his son to us!" he shouted. "Percy Jackson!"
The men filling the room were coarse, swarthy sorts. Fishermen, sailors, and pirates all. Superstitious types, perhaps, but that's never the same as gullible. A hard-eyed man with the stale breath of a career drinker stepped up to our table.
"Prove it," he said.
Aeron Damphair struck him down with a blow of his driftwood club. He fell to the ground, scattering tankards from a neighbouring table as he went. The room went silent. I flinched inwardly, and prepared for a brawl to break out.
"He has," declared Damphair. "To me."
I curled my fingers around the space in the air where my sword would be, should I call her. Anaklusmos was almost tangible in my grip in these moments of violence when the world swam into focus.
But that was the end of it.
To my surprise, the tavern took Damphair's statement and settled down to mutter among themselves. I had expected blood to be spilt. Well, more blood than had already been spilt, I supposed, as I watched the fallen man be helped back onto his feet. He was bruised and wobbly. I suspected a concussion to go with his split lip, at least.
Damphair sat, taking Baerag's wrist in an iron grip.
"Have you no discretion, sailor?" he hissed.
"Have you none?" I demanded straight back at him, pulling his hand away from Baerag. The young sailor objected and raised his palms in a conciliatory gesture. His eyes were wary, locked onto me as I pushed Damphair away from him. His hand crept closer to his sword to defend Damphair, even though I was attempting to defend him from the priest.
Such is the irony of my life. Or perhaps it was just sad. I released him, sitting back.
"I'm grateful for your help, but there was no cause to hit that man," I said from between gritted teeth. "You're lucky we didn't get jumped by everyone in here."
"Nobody would dare harm a Drowned Priest," hissed Damphair. Harritt snorted, and took a gulp of beer, cringing slightly at the taste of the dregs at the bottom of his tankard.
"Nobody would dare harm The Drowned Priest," he said. "Any of your boys tried walloping a club around like that, and we'd have them on the floor before you could sneeze."
"We, Harritt?" asked Baerag worriedly.
"Aye, lad, we! Me, and should as be you, too. Just because a man knows the stories about our Lord God doesn't make him right. Iron men should defend their brothers."
"Even from God?" asked Damphair.
"Especially from the Drowned God! He's our god, and I worship him every bit as much as you do. Don't say that I don't," said Harritt fervently, and in that moment I believed him. Trust someone who is part god to know a genuine worshipper. Harritt met my eyes as the thought crossed my mind that here was a true follower of Poseidon. I felt the man's presence like a ghost on the edge of my mind, and startled.
Harritt grinned at me, the closest equivalent to a reassuring smile that a hardened sailor was willing to give a stranger in front of so many witnesses. "But he's a right bastard sometimes," he continued," and if he turns on one of us we should stand axe to axe until he turns his favour back on us."
"That's dangerously close to blasphemy," said Damphair, fingers clenched tight around the edge of the tabletop in a white-knuckled grip.
"It's the truth," I said. Damphair spun to look at me so fast that he whipped me in the face with hair, seaweed braids and all. I spat it out in time to see him glaring at me, daring me to speak. Okay, old man. If there's one thing I dare to do, it's blaspheme. I've got a lifetime of experience at that.
"The gods are treacherous. They don't mean to be. Well, not all of them, but that's how they are. Their moods come and go like lightning, and blessing turns into damnation in an instant. The men who fight beside you, the people on your team, they're with you in fair weather and in foul. A god will look away when he's bored, or distracted, or caught up in whatever celestial affairs they have to manage."
I cleared my throat, awkward under the scrutiny of the priest. Badmouthing my dad to one of his priests? What a trip.
"You, of all people, say that?" asked Damphair. "Son of the Deep, most blessed of all men?"
"Most blessed and most cursed," I muttered under my breath. The priest couldn't have heard, but he narrowed his eyes anyway. "Don't get me wrong, Dad's helped me out in all kinds of ways. But when he couldn't be there, my friends stepped up to watch my back. Even against the other gods. They won't respect you for bowing down. That's what they expect from mortals. But fight back when they cross you, draw your line in the sand and refuse to be beaten, that's something they might respect."
"So defy the gods to win their favour?" asked Baerag, hesitant. "I don't think that's how it works." He trailed off uncertainly.
"No!" I said, frustrated. I wasn't explaining this very well. Harritt laughed, and clapped his tankard against the wooden table.
"He's telling you to be your own man, Baerag," he said. "Thank the gods when they bless you, fight to survive when they curse you. And who do you fight beside?" he asked, raising his voice to address the surrounding tables of men, all of whom were listening in attentively.
"The Ironborn!" they roared back. Harrit grinned, and banged his tankard again on the table. The other sailors around him did the same, enthusiastic enough to spill drinks in every corner of the room.
The island, I later discovered, was named Pyke. Crown jewel, as much as there was such a thing, of the Iron Islands. Damphair was the leader of a local cult which worshipped a particularly bleak incarnation of Poseidon.
"The king will want to see you," said Harrit, the man with a scarred face.
"What? Why would some mainlander down in King's Landing care about who walks the Iron Shore?" asked Baerag. Harrit shook his head.
"No. Not Baratheon. Our king."
"We lost the rebellion," said Baerag. Damphair sat still, but cleared his throat to interrupt when Baerag next moved to speak.
"Harrit has the right of it," he said. "Lodos was a harbinger of the Ironborn rising up against the soft inland kings. Why should his brother be any different?"
I had no idea who Lodos was, but this was hardly new to me. Despite the unfamiliar surroundings I began to relax. This was the same old story unfolding again. Rock up, new in town, and already everyone thinks they know everything about me because they met one of Dad's old demigod bastards.
"My concern," mused Harritt slowly, sloshing the beer around in his mug. "Is that Lodos declared himself king then walked himself into the ocean with his pockets full of rocks when things didn't work out so well."
"I am not Lodos," I said. The three other men at the table gave me assessing looks, all of them with something different in their expressions, but all with an undercurrent of hunger. Damphair, intense and composed. But hungry for something. Baerag, eager, young, hopeful. Hungry. Harritt, more sedate than Damphair and more worldly than Baerag, yet still with something about him that put me in mind of a starving wolf.
"You will need to convince my brother of that," said Damphair.
I frowned, setting my fork down in the bowl of half-eaten stew.
"Your brother?" I asked.
"Balon Greyjoy. Lord Reaper of Pyke. The would-be king of the Iron Islands. He will not suffer a rival to live, and when he hears that the Drowned God's son has washed ashore, he will assume as many here did," said Damphair, raising his voice so that all around us could hear. "That you have come to seize his throne."
"I have not!" I exclaimed again, making sure my voice was loud enough to carry to any who might have overheard Damphair's words.
I didn't even know what these Iron Islands were like, beyond the name. To land on foreign soil and immediately stake a claim to the throne might be in keeping with some of my more famous cousins, but that had never been my style.
I sighed, and pushed the bowl away from me. Frankly the stew was revolting. You'd think that living by the sea would lend people towards seasoning their food with salt, even if nothing else. Apparently not.
My surroundings were poorer than I had thought at first, built out of shabby materials. There were no hints of modern conveniences - no plumbing, or electricity, or anything of that nature. That worked for me. I was used to operating on the furthest edges of civilization anyway.
What was there here to be king of?
Stacks of rock rose up from the sea, topped with grey-black blocks of stone so coarsely cut that it was hard to tell where the cliff ended and the castle began. It was an ugly, ungainly thing, spread across three barren pillars of rock and the main island of Pyke itself.
It looked like the structure had almost finished collapsing, left sprawled and clinging across the bay as a man might stretch out his limbs to break a fall. It was a wonder that the castle stood at all, yet out of the mess of collapsed wall and eroding cliff rose sturdy keeps, adjoined by crescent moons - stone bridges suspended over the water.
I could sense the pressure of the sea upon the stone. The castle pushed back.I reached out with the part of my power which gave me influence over earthquakes, and touched the foundations of the castle. I wasn't looking to topple it, just exploring the land with my senses. And yet the sensations my ability returned were slippery and confused. The rock felt strange, oily and volatile in my grasp.
This castle was anchored in place by some black power I had not yet encountered.
I shrugged, and continued to follow the Ironborn up the trail to the gatehouse. I had walked into Tartarus itself. A creepy castle which had lasted past its sell-by date was nothing in comparison.
It was growing dark by the time we reached the gatehouse. There was a stretch of wall broken by a fanged portcullis, and a tower on either end. It looked as if it had once been a boundary wall for the castle grounds, but that land had all been swallowed up by the sea.
Unfamiliar stars hung above the keep, confirming what I already knew. I was very far from home. After sailing across the world, navigating by celestial bodies was second nature to me, and I was certain I could have identified any location on Earth from the night sky, even without the divine ichor which fuelled my instincts.
They were brighter and closer than the stars back home. I wondered how much of that was just from light pollution, or if I now stood in a part of the cosmos where stars were packed more densely.
I raised a hand, and could scarce fit my hand in the emptiness between stars, they were so populous. In spite of myself, I smiled. Perhaps the sky had looked this way back home, way back when Poseidon was my age.
Damphair called up to the gate guards. I hardly paid attention to his words, stolen away as they were by the wind. I doubt they even heard what he said, and only raised the iron portcullis because they recognised his particularly distinctive appearance.
"Come, Percy," he insisted. A gull screeched overhead, and the wind tugged at his long hair, making him look particularly wild, almost inhuman. "You will meet my brother, pledge not to raise your sword against him, and only then will you be safe on these islands."
I looked out over the sea. There were other islands visible in the distance, and I fancied I could see the smudge of the mainland on the horizon, but perhaps I was lying to myself. No matter how far my demigod eyes could see, there was still the curve of the Earth to block off distant sights.
Now there was a thought. I could tell I was no place on Earth. Was this even a planet? Some other realm like Olympus or Hades, or a world more distant still? I filed that away on the list of 'things to ask Dad about' later.
The smells of bread and meat hit me first, and then the oven-blast warmth as the door to the great hall of the central keep swung open. I reeled back at the sudden heat, and then lurched forwards eagerly at the thought of food. Not fish, thankfully. After that awful stew I would gladly never touch seafood again, my heritage be damned.
"This is as good a time as any," said Harritt from behind me. "The king is feasting with his bannermen. Well-fed, well-drunk, and in welcome company."
"Aye," agreed Damphair. "In the seat of his power and at the heart of his strength, he'll not frighten at stories of Lodos come to steal his throne. He'll laugh and welcome you and dismiss this as the ravings of the lunatic priest."
Baerag clutched at Damphair's elbow like an eager puppy. His fierce look and strong body were all belied by his stooped stance and subservient attitude, but it was an endearing image for him.
"There aren't many who say you're crazy any more," he said. "Even the lords in their halls know you can breathe life back into the dead. When they speak their empty insults they do it out of fear, and their men repeat what they say without believing it."
"Yes, Baerag, I know." The younger man wilted at the dismissal, and Damphair frowned at him. "It is about time you started paying attention to these things," he said finally, as a limp and lacklustre concession. Baerag perked up at the priest's words nonetheless, and I wondered what could have happened for him to be so keen a follower of Poseidon. No, rather, of this priest of the Drowned God, more than the Drowned God himself.
Baerag sniffed the air.
"Is that beef?" he asked excitedly.
The savoury smell of meat hung thickest in the air, perhaps mutton or goat. Hearty fare that was as much work to chew as to butcher in the first place. My stomach growled, and I was overcome with the oddest craving. Not for meat or cheese or even a good old fashioned hamburger, but a craving for bread and salt.
Damphair strode forward, the three of us lagging behind.
Obviously used to the sight of Drowned Priests in their ragged robes, none of the men around us so much as turned their heads. The crowd was dressed better than the peasants we had passed outside, but not by much. There were soldiers in haphazard armor, boiled leather and chainmail, pieces of scrap and lamellar here and there. Perhaps half a dozen individuals stood in full plate, out of a crowd of nearly three hundred, to my best guess.
At the heads of the tables sat what I guess to be the local lords. They were men of the sea, one and all. Some a little older, some a little fatter than their bannermen, but still clearly men used to fighting both the elements and one another. They were dressed much the same, although their armour matched better, and tunics woven from finer fabrics could be seen poking out from beneath.
"Lord Reaper!" cried out Damphair, nearing the table at the foot of the dais where Balon Greyjoy dined with his most favoured bannermen.
"Lord Damphair," Balon replied, placing a peculiar emphasis on the word 'lord'. The man to his left tittered, a fat, mercantile looking sort wearing more silk brocade alone than the rest of the table combined. To Greyjoy's right sat a teenage girl with a face as hard as any other Ironborn. Her nose was sharp, a little too large for her face, and gave her a hawkish appearance. She wore less armour than the men around her, but still wore a leather jerkin with plates of metal affixed here and there. She scowled at Greyjoy, and in that scowl I saw the family resemblance between her and Balon and Damphair alike.
"Did I not tell you that a time of omens was at hand?" declared Damphair, holding out his arms in a dramatic pose, fingers splayed outwards like the keeps of Pyke across its many islets. "The Drowned God has sent us his sign! His son! Brother, I bid you meet Percy Jackson, thrice returned from the waves, each time with our Lord God's blessing stronger upon him. He has drowned and breathed again, can drink the sea dry, and carries a sword of sunsteel to wield against our foes!"
"It's just bronze," I muttered to Baerag, who hid a smiled and hushed me. "Well, celestial bronze," I continued, even quieter. He wasn't listening, focused so hard as he was on the interaction between priest and king.
Balon's eyes flicked to me, his expression cold.
"It is time for us to carve a Driftwood Crown again, my brother," cajoled Aeron. "The Drowned God has blessed you with a holy warrior to cast off the tyrant's chains. Will you break bread and salt with him and be king again?"
The girl to Greyjoy's right sat upright as if she had been slapped. Her eyes were wide, and she grabbed at her father's arm. He shook her off, and continued to draw his sword. He stood, and pointed the blade at me. The metal was pitted and scarred from years of hard use and erosion from the salt spray of the sea. By the callouses on his hand and the surety of his movement, I could tell that Greyjoy had been the one who earned those scars.
"Another Lodos, Damphair?" he asked quietly. "I think not. Kill them all!"