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Fortunately, they got lucky. The sphere grew a camera lens and projected a 3-D image of the Apennine Mountains above the console. But I like that idea better than backtracking south. Rome had not been a good experience. They had to hope Percy and Annabeth could survive long enough to find the Tartarus side of the Doors of Death.
Yes…nothing could go wrong with that plan. Nico scowled at the Italian countryside below them. This decision affects us all. Then bam…their two most important members fell into Tartarus. Percy had been their backbone. She was the smartest of the seven, the one with the answers. She had to make Percy and Annabeth proud of her.
She had to take the initiative. She pushed the thought aside. Hazel stared down at the rolling farmland, thinking about what lay beneath it—the realm of her father, lord of the Underworld. She certainly had never expected help from him—not when she was alive the first time, not during her time as a spirit in the Underworld, not since Nico had brought her back to the world of the living.
If Pluto took notice of her, he might have to return her to the land of the dead. Which meant calling on Pluto would be a very bad idea. And yet… Please, Dad, she found herself praying.
I have to find a way to your temple in Greece—the House of Hades.
Leo let out a happy whoop as the dust cloud got closer. You missed that whole part. It felt so good to see her old friend. About a mile to the north, the small beige dot circled a hill and stopped at the summit.
He was difficult to make out, but when the horse reared and whinnied, the sound carried all the way to the Argo II. Hazel had no doubt—it was Arion. You know, with Gaea wanting to destroy us and all. As soon as she reached the ground, she ran to Arion and threw her arms around him.
Hazel wished she could speak Horse like Percy could, but she got the general idea. Arion sounded impatient, as if saying, No time for sentiment, girl! Come on! Arion bobbed his head, trotting in place. His dark brown eyes gleamed with urgency. The Mediterranean was too dangerous for demigods and their allies. And he seemed so agitated. Instead, she felt elated. She was so tired of being seasick and airsick. Aboard the Argo II, she felt about as useful as a box of ballast. She was ready to ride.
She was getting better at controlling her power. Precious stones hardly ever popped up around her by accident anymore, and pulling gold from the ground was easy. She fed Arion the nugget…his favorite snack.
Then she smiled up at Leo and Nico, who were watching her from the top of the ladder a hundred feet above. A mile away, on the crest of the next hill, a storm had gathered over some old stone ruins—maybe the remains of a Roman temple or a fortress. A funnel cloud snaked its way down toward the hill like an inky black finger.
She looked at Arion. Well…Hazel had asked for help. She hoped so, but she sensed something besides Pluto at work in that storm…something dark, powerful, and not necessarily friendly. Still, this was her chance to help her friends—to lead instead of follow. She spurred Arion, and they shot across the countryside, heading straight for the growing tornado.
Arion charged straight into it. Hazel found herself at the summit, but it felt like a different dimension. The world lost its color. The walls of the storm encircled the hill in murky black. The sky churned gray.
The crumbling ruins were bleached so white, they almost glowed. Even Arion had turned from caramel brown to a dark shade of ash. In the eye of the tempest, the air was still. In front of her, an arched gateway led through mossy walls into some sort of enclosure.
Its pull was irresistible, dragging her forward. Yet she hesitated. She reined in Arion, and he clopped impatiently, the ground crackling under his hooves. Wherever he stepped, the grass, dirt, and stones turned white like frost. Hazel remembered the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska—how the surface had cracked under their feet. She remembered the floor of that horrible cavern in Rome crumbling to dust, plunging Percy and Annabeth into Tartarus. Arion trotted through the stone archway.
Ruined walls bordered a square courtyard about the size of a tennis court. Three other gateways, one in the middle of each wall, led north, east, and west. In the center of the yard, two cobblestone paths intersected, making a cross. Mist hung in the air— hazy shreds of white that coiled and undulated as if they were alive. Not mist, Hazel realized.
It could deceive humans, even demigods, into seeing monsters as harmless animals, or gods as regular people. Somehow she knew: this white stuff was pure magic.
In the distance, a dog howled. Instantly he turned and ran. So much for being in this together. Another howl cut through the air—closer this time. Hazel stepped toward the center of the courtyard. The Mist clung to her like freezer fog. The pale figure of a woman appeared at the northern gateway.
No, wait…she stood at the eastern entrance. No, the western. Three smoky images of the same woman moved in unison toward the center of the ruins.
Her form was blurred, made from Mist, and she was trailed by two smaller wisps of smoke, darting at her heels like animals. Some sort of pets? She reached the center of the courtyard and her three forms merged into one. She solidified into a young woman in a dark sleeveless gown.
Her golden hair was gathered into a high-set ponytail, Ancient Greek style. Her dress was so silky, it seemed to ripple, as if the cloth were ink spilling off her shoulders.
She looked no more than twenty, but Hazel knew that meant nothing. She was beautiful, but deathly pale. Once, back in New Orleans, Hazel had been forced to attend a wake for a dead classmate.
She remembered the lifeless body of the young girl in the open casket. Her face had been made up prettily, as if she were resting, which Hazel had found terrifying. When she tilted her head, she seemed to break into three different people again…misty afterimages blurring together, like a photograph of someone moving too fast to capture.
This woman radiated power. Everything around them—the swirling Mist, the monochromatic storm, the eerie glow of the ruins—was because of her presence. Suddenly she was holding two old-fashioned reed torches, guttering with fire.
The Mist receded to the edges of the courtyard. One was a black Labrador retriever. The other was a long, gray, furry rodent with a white mask around its face. A weasel, maybe? The woman smiled serenely. On either side of the crossroads, two dark metal torch-stands erupted from the dirt like plant stalks. Hecate fixed her torches in them, then walked a slow circle around Hazel, regarding her as if they were partners in some eerie dance. The black dog and the weasel followed in her wake.
Marie was a fortune-teller. She dealt in charms and curses and gris-gris.
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I am the goddess of magic. During her first lifetime in New Orleans, Hazel had been tormented by the kids at St. Agnes School because of her mother. They called Marie Levesque a witch. If the nuns were scared of my mom, Hazel wondered, what would they make of this goddess?
It is a tool, like a knife. Is a knife evil? Only if the wielder is evil. Not really. She was just faking it, for the money. Then it made a squeaking sound from its back end.
She gave Hazel an apologetic shrug. She herself was once a witch, you see. She had terrible personal hygiene, plus extreme—ah, digestive issues. The dog grunted. The point is, Hazel Levesque, your mother may have claimed not to believe, but she had true magic. Eventually, she realized this. When she searched for a spell to summon the god Pluto, I helped her find it.
I see even more potential in you. Hazel could summon riches from the earth, but anyone who used them would suffer and die. Now this goddess was saying that she had made all that happen. Neither do you. Without my help, you will die. The polecat snapped its teeth and passed gas.
Hazel felt like her lungs were filling with hot sand. Hecate raised her pale arms. A flurry of black-and-white images glowed and flickered, like the old silent movies that were still playing in theaters sometimes when Hazel was small. In the western doorway, Roman and Greek demigods in full armor fought one another on a hillside under a large pine tree.
The grass was strewn with the wounded and the dying. Hazel saw herself riding Arion, charging through the melee and shouting—trying to stop the violence. Its rigging was in flames. A boulder smashed into the quarterdeck. Another punched through the hull. The ship burst like a rotten pumpkin, and the engine exploded.
The images in the northern doorway were even worse. Hazel saw Leo, unconscious—or dead— falling through the clouds. She saw Frank staggering alone down a dark tunnel, clutching his arm, his shirt soaked in blood. And Hazel saw herself in a vast cavern filled with strands of light like a luminous web.
She was struggling to break through while, in the distance, Percy and Annabeth lay sprawled and unmoving at the foot of two black-and-silver metal doors. And I am the goddess of crossroads. She looked down and saw the glint of silver coins… thousands of old Roman denarii breaking the surface all around her, as if the entire hilltop was coming to a boil. News was exchanged. Markets were held. Friends met, and enemies fought.
Entire armies had to choose a direction. Crossroads are always places of decision. Demigods would go there to make decisions. They would flip a coin, heads or tails, and hope the two-faced god would guide them well.
Hazel had always hated that place. After all Hazel had been through, she trusted the wisdom of the gods about as much as she trusted a New Orleans slot machine. The goddess of magic made a disgusted hiss. He would have you believe that all choices are black or white, yes or no, in or out. Whenever you reach the crossroads, there are always at least three ways to go…four, if you count going backward.
You are at such a crossing now, Hazel. None of you will survive. She scooped a handful of fire and sculpted the flames until she was holding a miniature relief map of Italy. Your comrades back home, Greek and Roman, are on the brink of war. Leave now, and you might save many lives. Gaea has set the date of August first, the Feast of Spes, goddess of hope, for her rise to power.
By waking on the Day of Hope, she intends to destroy all hope forever. Even if you reached Greece by then, could you stop her? I do not know. She has raised her mountain gods against you. Ironically, this might be the safest option for your crew. I foresee that all of you would survive the explosion. It is possible, though unlikely, you could still reach Epirus and close the Doors of Death. You might find Gaea and prevent her rise. But by then, both demigod camps would be destroyed.
You would have no home to return to. It would mean the end of your quest, but it would spare you and your friends much pain and suffering in the days to come. The war with the giants would have to be won or lost without you. A small, guilty part of Hazel found that appealing. She looked behind Hecate at the middle gateway. She saw Percy and Annabeth sprawled helplessly before those black-and-silver doors. A massive dark shape, vaguely humanoid, now loomed over them, its foot raised as if to crush Percy.
From there, sail the Adriatic to your goal, here: Epirus in Greece. She had no idea what the Adriatic Sea was like. But one thing was obvious. You must learn to use the Mist. She flicked her hand at the black dog Hecuba. Mist collected around the Labrador until she was completely hidden in a cocoon of white. The fog cleared with an audible poof!
Where the dog had stood was a disgruntled-looking black kitten with golden eyes. My children learn to use the Mist to their advantage, to create illusions or influence the minds of mortals.
Other demigods can do this as well. And so must you, Hazel, if you are to help your friends. The cat seemed so real. As a child of Pluto who has returned from the dead, you understand the veil between worlds better than most.
You can control the Mist. If you do not…well, your brother Nico has already warned you. The spirits have whispered to him, told him of your future. When you reach the House of Hades, you will meet a formidable enemy. She cannot be overcome by strength or sword. You alone can defeat her, and you will require magic. Not yet. Their courage is already stretched to the limit. Go north, Hazel. As you travel, practice summoning the Mist. When you arrive in Bologna, seek out the two dwarfs.
They will lead you to a treasure that may help you survive in the House of Hades. The black Labrador was back in its place. Oh, joy. Hazel wondered if she could prevent the revelations she saw in the Mist—Leo falling through the sky; Frank stumbling through the dark, alone and gravely wounded; Percy and Annabeth at the mercy of a dark giant.
She was starting to despise crossroads. Long before the Olympians came to power, I ruled the Mist. I hoped Zeus would prove a better king. And when the giants rose the first time, I again sided with the gods. I fought my archenemy Clytius, made by Gaea to absorb and defeat all my magic.
She glanced at the images in the northern doorway—the massive dark shape looming over Percy and Annabeth. The Mist dissolved, the images gone. I supported him.
I had grown tired of being ignored by the so-called major gods. Even now, when they are laid low—their Greek and Roman personas fighting each other—I will help them.
Greek or Roman, I have always been only Hecate. I will assist you against the giants, if you prove yourself worthy. So now it is your choice, Hazel Levesque. Will you trust me…or will you shun me, as the Olympian gods have done too often? Sorry, no. Many monsters will rise against you. Even some of my own servants have sided with Gaea, hoping to destroy your mortal world.
If you succeed against the witch, we will meet again. Her polecat writhed, and her dog snarled. Hazel stood on the hillside in the morning sunlight, alone in the ruins except for Arion, who paced next to her, nickering impatiently. The countryside sparkled as the summer sun hit the morning dew. On the hill, the old ruins stood white and silent—no sign of ancient paths, or goddesses, or farting weasels. Her knees buckled. Nico and Leo grabbed her arms and helped her to the steps of the foredeck.
She felt embarrassed, collapsing like some fairy-tale damsel, but her energy was gone. The memory of those glowing scenes at the crossroads filled her with dread. She remembered what Nico had said: Their courage is already stretched to the limit. But she told them about the secret northern pass through the mountains, and the detour Hecate described that could take them to Epirus.
When she was done, Nico took her hand. His eyes were full of concern. And the ones who do survive are never the same. Now her boast seemed ridiculous. Her courage had abandoned her.
And you said something about baloney dwarfs? But why we have to find dwarfs there…I have no idea. Some sort of treasure to help us with the quest. You must defeat the witch, Hecate had said.
You alone can defeat her. Unless you manage that… The end, Hazel thought. All gateways closed. All hope extinguished. Nico had warned her. Two children of the Underworld would enter the House of Hades. They would face an impossible foe. Only one of them would make it to the Doors of Death.
Tonight, we cross the Apennines. She hoped Hesiod was wrong. A day? It felt like an eternity. Now Percy pulled her close, hugging her tight as they tumbled through absolute darkness. The air grew hotter and damper, as if they were plummeting into the throat of a massive dragon.
That cursed monster Arachne. Despite having been trapped in her own webbing, smashed by a car, and plunged into Tartarus, the spider lady had gotten her revenge. On the bright side, assuming there was a bottom, Annabeth and Percy would probably be flattened on impact, so giant spiders were the least of their worries.
She wrapped her arms around Percy and tried not to sob. Most demigods died young at the hands of terrible monsters. That was the way it had been since ancient times. The Greeks invented tragedy. The Earth Mother was older, more vicious, more bloodthirsty.
Annabeth could imagine her laughing as they fell into the depths. She tried desperately to think of a plan to save them. She was a daughter of Athena. Neither of them had the power to fly—not like Jason, who could control the wind, or Frank, who could turn into a winged animal.
If they reached the bottom at terminal velocity…well, she knew enough science to know it would be terminal. The darkness took on a gray-red tinge.
The whistling in her ears turned into more of a roar. The air became intolerably hot, permeated with a smell like rotten eggs. Maybe half a mile below them, Annabeth could see the bottom.
For a moment she was too stunned to think properly. Red clouds hung in the air like vaporized blood. The landscape—at least what she could see of it— was rocky black plains, punctuated by jagged mountains and fiery chasms. The stench of sulfur made it hard to concentrate, but she focused on the ground directly below them and saw a ribbon of glittering black liquid—a river. He looked shellshocked and terrified, but he nodded as if he understood.
Percy could control water—assuming that was water below them. He might be able to cushion their fall somehow. Of course Annabeth had heard horrible stories about the rivers of the Underworld. They could take away your memories, or burn your body and soul to ashes. But she decided not to think about that. This was their only chance. The river hurtled toward them. At the last second, Percy yelled defiantly. The water erupted in a massive geyser and swallowed them whole.
Freezing water shocked the air right out of her lungs. Her limbs turned rigid, and she lost her grip on Percy. She began to sink. Strange wailing sounds filled her ears—millions of heartbroken voices, as if the river were made of distilled sadness.
The voices were worse than the cold. They weighed her down and made her numb. She could sink to the bottom and drown, let the river carry her body away. That would be easier. She could just close her eyes. Together they kicked upward and broke the surface. Annabeth gasped, grateful for the air, no matter how sulfurous.
The water swirled around them, and she realized Percy was creating a whirlpool to buoy them up. Rivers had shores. Usually water reinvigorated him, but not this water. Controlling it must have taken every bit of his strength. The whirlpool began to dissipate. Annabeth hooked one arm around his waist and struggled across the current. The river worked against her: thousands of weeping voices whispering in her ears, getting inside her brain.
Life is despair, they said. Everything is pointless, and then you die. His teeth chattered from the cold. He stopped swimming and began to sink.
Another cosmic joke for Gaea to laugh at: Annabeth dies trying to keep her boyfriend, the son of Poseidon, from drowning. Not going to happen, you hag, Annabeth thought. She hugged Percy tighter and kissed him. You said we could have a future there! Tell me!
But days ago, on the Argo II, Percy had told her that he imagined a future for the two of them among the Roman demigods. In their city of New Rome, veterans of the legion could settle down safely, go to college, get married, even have kids. The fog started to clear from his eyes. Her limbs felt like bags of wet sand, but Percy was helping her now. She laughed, and the sound sent a shock wave through the water. The wailing faded to background noise.
Annabeth wondered if anyone had ever laughed in Tartarus before—just a pure, simple laugh of pleasure. She doubted it. She used the last of her strength to reach the riverbank. Her feet dug into the sandy bottom. She and Percy hauled themselves ashore, shivering and gasping, and collapsed on the dark sand. Annabeth wanted to curl up next to Percy and go to sleep.
She wanted to shut her eyes, hope all of this was just a bad dream, and wake up to find herself back on the Argo II, safe with her friends well…as safe as a demigod can ever be. But, no. They were really in Tartarus. At their feet, the River Cocytus roared past, a flood of liquid wretchedness. When she looked at her arms, she saw they were already covered with an angry rash. She tried to sit up and gasped in pain.
So the air was acid. The water was misery. The ground was broken glass. Everything here was designed to hurt and kill. Annabeth took a rattling breath and wondered if the voices in the Cocytus were right.
Maybe fighting for survival was pointless. They would be dead within the hour. Next to her, Percy coughed. She loved Percy for trying to lift her spirits. She had Percy. She forced herself to take stock. Her foot was still wrapped in its makeshift cast of board and Bubble Wrap, still tangled in cobwebs. Her backpack was gone—lost during the fall, or maybe washed away in the river. Time to grieve later. What else did they have?
No food, no water…basically no supplies at all. Off to a promising start. Annabeth glanced at Percy. He looked pretty bad. His dark hair was plastered across his forehead, his T-shirt ripped to shreds. His fingers were scraped raw from holding on to that ledge before they fell. Most worrisome of all, he was shivering and his lips were blue.
They both struggled to their feet. She scanned their surroundings. It was like staring through a thin mix of tomato soup and cement. The black-glass beach stretched inland about fifty yards, then dropped off the edge of a cliff. A distant memory tugged at her—something about Tartarus and fire.
Before she could think too much about it, Percy inhaled sharply. A hundred feet away, a familiar-looking baby-blue Italian car had crashed headfirst into the sand. It looked just like the Fiat that had smashed into Arachne and sent her plummeting into the pit. Annabeth hoped she was wrong, but how many Italian sports cars could there be in Tartarus? Under the crushed hood lay the tattered, glistening remains of a giant silk cocoon—the trap that Annabeth had tricked Arachne into weaving.
It was unmistakably empty. Slash marks in the sand made a trail downriver…as if something heavy, with multiple legs, had scuttled into the darkness. Percy was still shivering. The glass cuts on her hands were still bleeding, which was unusual for her.
Normally, she healed fast. Her breathing got more and more labored. That distant memory came into focus. She gazed inland toward the cliff, illuminated by flames from below. It was an absolutely crazy idea. But it might be their only chance.The gods, still suffering from multiple personality disorder, are useless. The demigods are having more frequent visions of a terrible battle at Camp Half-Blood. After this, she finds a map about the mark of Athena, and they get back to the ship thanks to both Percy and Jason fighting as one.
However, Percy isn't the only one talking. The Hellenic Afternoon School strives to instill a deep love and appreciation of the Greek language, religion, culture and arts.