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The Son of Hades

Chapter Text

Darkness. It wasn't always my best friend. Or my worst enemy. But for as long as I remember it's been a place to hide in. Even before finding out I was a demigod the shadows hid me. I could hide from my life. Then I found out I was a son of Hades. And my sister died. And I was alone in the world, with powers and feelings I couldn't control. So I fled. I ran into the darkness, the place where no one would judge me. No one but myself.

For years I hid from people. Only the dead respected me, and they did that out of fear. My story's long and painful. It contains so much suffering, for me and for others around me. And I'm still fighting.

Everything flashes through my mind in a painful whir as I slip back into the shadows.

My story, my life.

There are a lot of places I could start. The day my mother died, the day Percy rescued me, even the day Bianca and I escaped from the Lotus Casino. But I think the best place to start was the day Percy came back to camp from his quest. Which one? The one my sister died on, his quest with the hunters, his quest to free... Annabeth.

I'm Nico di Angelo, and this is my story.

Chapter Text

I had just got the news the quest was back, that they had succeeded. I was so excited, Percy had saved his girlfriend. He had brought Bianca back safely. Maybe the hunters would stay a while and I could be with Bianca. I had learnt so much over the past days that I couldn't wait to show her!

I ran to the big house. That was where everyone said they were. People seemed to be avoiding my eyes when they said that. I had no idea why, but I didn't care, I would see Percy and Bianca again. I knocked on the door, out of breath. I was too impatient to wait, so I burst through the door. I'm sure I was grinning like a maniac at the time, something I wouldn't do for a long while after.

Chiron, Annabeth and Percy sat around the fireplace. I couldn't see Bianca, but surely – surely – she was alright.

"Where's ... where's my sister?" I asked. No one answered. I felt my smile waver. Percy stared at me uncomfortably. He started to stand.

"Hey, Nico." He said, "Let's take a walk, okay? We need to talk."

I was almost buzzing with excitement. Percy wanted to talk to me. I didn't know why I was so happy about it. He was just a regular camper. A camper who was a son of Poseidon. A demigod who was a hero. A hero who had been on many quests, saved me and Bianca, had power over the water, a hero who always won. A handsome hero. Wait, what?

Either way, I almost wasn't listening when he started talking. Then something he said caught my attention. Bianca's name.

He told me Bianca died. That she had sacrificed herself to the quest. That she was a hero. I didn't know how to respond, so I stayed silent.

Inside my emotions were going haywire. Anger at Percy, at my sister. No I couldn't be angry at her. It was Percy's fault. But I didn't feel as angry as I should have. Surely I should have wanted to yell at him, attack him, kill him, something. He murdered my sister. But instead, a small, annoying part of me insisted that it wasn't his fault. That I wasn't angry at him.

Suddenly he held something out to me, "She wanted you to have this."

I took it. It was a mythomagic figurine, the only one I didn't have. Hades. I stared at it. Slowly confusion crept through me. Why did it look so familiar? It's black hair, olive skin, dark eyes were eerily familiar. Suddenly it hit me. The figurine reminded me of Bianca. Bianca and I.

Suddenly the truth hit me like a manticore sting. That was why I hadn't been claimed. That was why all those... nightmares kept haunting me. Because Bianca and I were children of the Lord of the Underworld. Children of the Big Three. Children of Hades.

A small part of my brain insisted, no. That was stupid, wasn't it? I was just trying to make myself feel special. But... why would my brain be telling me something so serious after what Percy had just told me if it wasn't true?

I looked up. We were standing in the same spot that Percy had sworn to protect Bianca. The spot he had promised her life, he brought news of her death. I felt broken inside. Finally the rage I hadn't felt exploded inside me.

"You promised you would protect her." I said. He winced.

"Nico. I tried." He protested, "But Bianca gave herself up to save the rest of us. I told her not to. But she-"

I had heard enough, "You promised. I shouldn't have trusted you. You lied to me. My nightmares were right!"

He didn't even try to defend himself or comfort me this time.

"Wait. What nightmares?" He asked. Nightmares of Bianca dying, I swore never to tell him. Nightmares of her travelling to the underworld. Nightmares of losing her forever. The statue in my hand felt like an insult.

Your sister's dead, Percy seemed to be saying, so have a reminder of that, a reminder I didn't care enough to save her. I flung the figurine of Hades across the ground. And that your own father didn't care enough to save her either.

"I hate you!" I yelled. I hated Percy for lying, Bianca for leaving me, my parents for not being there, everyone for everything.

"She might be alive. I don't know for sure-"

"She's dead." I closed my eyes. Where were those words of comfort when I needed them? Now it was too late. I reached deep inside me. The place where Bianca had been was gone. She was gone, "I should've known it earlier. She's in the Fields of Asphodel, standing before the judges right now, being evaluated. I can feel it."

How I knew, I wasn't sure. But I knew I was telling the truth. But Percy seemed doubtful.

"What do you mean," He asked, "you can feel it?"

I wasn't going to answer him, but before I could do anything I heard a sound. A hissing clattering noise. My eyes travelled beyond Percy, and I gasped. Behind Percy were skeletons. Four of them. They advanced towards us carrying swords. Percy brought out his sword, Riptide. He faced the skeletons, beginning to slash at them with his sword. He looked the way he had on the night of the manticore attack, strong, brave, heroic. Defending me just like he did with the manticore.

But why where they here in the first place? Percy must have brought them.

"You're trying to kill me!" I screamed. And then a tugging feeling started inside me. My eye went wide. That was when I realised.

"You brought these ... these things?" I yelled, backing away. I wasn't scared of the skeletons. I was scared of something else, something I was only just aware of, something I felt on the inside that would bring me the feeling of death more than any skeleton warrior could. Something to do with Percy. That's what I yelled at. But Percy thought I was talking about the skeletons.

"No!" He gasped, "I mean, yes, they followed me, but no! Nico, run. They can't be destroyed."

"I don't trust you!" Why was Percy making me feel like this? I should have hated him, but I didn't. He killed Bianca. He deserved to die. But... but he didn't.

"Run, Nico!" He yelled again. He was trying to hold the skeletons off, too protect me, but I didn't care, I didn't want him to, "Get help!"

"No!" I pressed my hands to my ears. How could I feel this way? I couldn't, surely. But with every passing second the feeling seemed to amplify. I didn't want to feel this way. The thoughts inside my head swirled louder and louder. No! No! I didn't feel this way. I didn't. I didn't love him. I didn't love the person who had killed my sister. I didn't love another guy.

But I did.

"NO!" I yelled out loud, "GO AWAY!"

I wasn't talking to the skeletons, or even Percy, but the force of my emotions cracked the floor, zig-zagging across the dining pavilion, swallowing up the skeletons. Finally my thoughts were silent.

"How did you-" Percy started to ask. I didn't want to look at him. I didn't want to speak to him.

"Go away!" I yelled, "I hate you! I wish you were dead!"

I ran, unsure whether I had yelled at Percy or myself. He took a step towards me, but I turned and ran in the opposite direction, straight into the woods. Percy called out behind me but I didn't stop. What was happening to me? I wasn't sure where I would go. All I knew was I had to get away from there.

Away from Camp. Away from him. Away from myself. Away from everything.

My legs burned from running faster than I thought I possibly could. I didn't think I had been running that long when I stopped, but it felt like I had been fleeing for hours. I was near a big pile of rocks, Zeus's Fist. I remembered the very first time I had been here, playing capture the flag. Percy had helped me fit in then. And now it was him that was making me feel like an outcast, even in my own mind.

Why would I stop here? I wanted to keep running, to get away from Percy, get far away, but something drew me towards the rocks. I stepped closer. It started of small, barely noticeable. Then it flickered brighter. A glowing blue aura. It was coming from a gap in the rocks. I stepped forwards and peaked in. There was something I couldn't quite make out.

I slid into the gap in the rocks. Standing less than a metre away from me was a figure, the shape of a man. He was transparent, like a ghost, his head bowed down looking at the rocks.

Like a ghost. Could it be...? No, it couldn't be. They didn't exist. Bianca had told me that countless times when I saw things, thing like the glowing people in the streets, or the times when Dr Thon had turned into a horrible monster in class, or when the wild horses we saw sometimes on the road would have wings. They were just hallucinations. Then again, now I knew I was a demigod, those people were real, and it surely would be a ghost.

So the appearance of this glowing maybe-ghost didn't startle me. I knew now I had been seeing ghosts since I was little, although I had only ever told Bianca. I still didn't know if she believed me now. If she had ever believed me. If she would believe me now. She would. I would show her now.

I didn't make a sound but the ghost turned, surprised. I couldn't quite make out the details on his face, but he studied mine intently.

"You're running." He said. His voice was no more than a whisper, a memory of a person who had died long ago, much like his physical form.

"I... no... I-I'm not." I tried to deny it. I wasn't running. But why bother? It was clear I was trying to get away. "...yes. I-I'm running."

He did not ask for details, and I doubted I would have given him any if he tried to find out. Assuming he didn't know already.

"I know a place you can hide. You will be safe there, with me." He said.

"Show me." Please. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice. A place where I could hide, somewhere I could be safe.

I don't know why I trusted the ghost. Part of me still wanted to leave, to run. But I felt that this ghost could help me, that I could help him. I felt the need to know what the ghost knew. And I felt his need for me. So I looked where he was pointing. A small triangle.

"Press it, Nico di Angelo. Touch the mark of Daedalus." He told me. I didn't question how he knew my name. I touched a finger to the mark. A crack in the ground opened at my feet and I tumbled straight down, landing winded on my back. I stood up shakily and found myself and the ghost in a long underground corridor, similar to a sewer.

I gazed off in both directions, but there was nothing but darkness. I turned to the ghost, whose glow was the only light in... this place.

"W-why are you helping m-me?" I demanded, but my voice was shaking. The ghost turned towards me.

"You are a child of Hades, are you not? You can command the dead, given practice. I am clearly dead. Therefor you are my master and I only wish to serve." The ghost told me.

"Where are we? Who are you?" I asked hoarsely.

"I, child, am King Minos of Crete." The ghost spread his arms, smiling creepily, "And this is my Labyrinth."

Chapter Text

A dark smoke swept the horizon. Two figures fled from the smoke, but the black curls of mist followed them, lapping at their heels like a deadly, hungry tide of water. The two figures, a boy and a girl, held hands as they ran away, towards an unknown destination.

Behind them, a pale hand reached up out of the fog, and the small, terrified face of a boy surfaced. The boy in the smoke yelled in fear, calling for someone, anyone to save him.

The running figures turned and their faces were exposed. Dark tousled hair, sea-green eyes. Percy. Long black hair, olive skin. Bianca. They screamed pointing to the figure in the smoke and ran faster. The boy tripped, falling back down into the tides of black, eyes shining with tears.

He yelled out to Percy and Bianca to stop, to save him. But they didn't they kept running. Away from the smoke. Away from him. Smoke covered his eyes and everything went black.

"NO!" I sat bolt upright. I was in a long stone tunnel with mossy walls. The embers of a fire flickered weakly nearby. What am I doing here? Where's Bianca? Percy? The smoke that's consuming me? Slowly my breathing became more even as I remembered, I was in the Labyrinth. I ran away from Camp. From Percy. That had only been yesterday... but it felt like weeks already.

I just wanted to be safe. With Bianca. I had always felt safe with her. I needed Bianca, she was the only person who cared for me. But she was dead. But I needed her, to hear her voice, to see her face. I needed to get Bianca back.

I remembered the nightmare, where she had ran away from me. Like I was a monster.

"J-Just a nightmare..." I whispered to the darkness beyond the fire, "Not real. Not real."

I tucked my legs up to my chest, rocking back and forth. Biting my tongue, I reached into my pocket and drew out the silver ring Bianca had given me before she left on the quest. Her words echoed around my head, excited and nervous at the same time. 'When you put it on the ring will change to match the symbol of our parent, whoever they are!'

I looked at it. It was blank. I had never worn it - before wanting to keep it a surprise, now not wanting to confirm my fears. I was hoping that it would change to something else, other than a symbol for Hades. As much as I feared it, I was a child of the Underworld. Hades. Ghosts. Spirits of the dead. Maybe I could see Bianca again.

Yesterday, Minos had told me I could raise the dead. I could summon ghosts. Maybe I could summon Bianca?

"Bianca!" I yelled into the darkness.

"Bianca di Angelo! I want to see the ghost of Bianca!" Nothing happened. I felt more tears flowing down my face, "Bianca. Bianca. I want to see my sister! Please. Hades, let me see her. Bianca."

I called into the darkness until my throat was sore. But nothing happened. Nobody came. Not even Minos. My eyes stung from tears. But I didn't want to accept that she wouldn't come.

"I want to see Bianca di Angelo! I am a child of Hades!" I yelled, voice breaking.

Suddenly a bright light shone in front of me. A ghost. Was it her? Then a voice curled through the air.

"Nico di Angelo. That is not how you summon a ghost." It was Minos. I hadn't seen since I first found the Labyrinth but he acted like he had never left, "But you are in luck. I will train you to use your powers."

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"I'm ready to try again, Minos." I stood shakily, world spinning around me. My head was pounding like it had been slammed repetitively into the rocky walls of the Labyrinth. I was in a graveyard somewhere in New Orleans. Practicing again.

"Go ahead master," Minos floated around me, giving off some light in the moonless night. I scrunched up my face, willing the earth to open, the way I had when I was with Percy. I tried to feel the same terror I had then, the same betrayal, the feeling of having no one to trust for the first time.

Nothing happened. I felt alone and angry now, not scared. I could trust Minos, I wasn't scared of the Labyrinth. What did I have to fear?

My emotions. Definitely. How I felt, because I was angry at Bianca and not Percy. And because I felt like that. Towards Percy. It was... it wasn't how I was meant to be.

A small tremor shook the earth at my feet. It was working. Screwing my face up in physical, emotional and mental pain, I concentrated harder on how abnormal I was. My feelings were unnatural. I had some kind of disease. The ground shook. Around me I heard cracking.

My eyes flew open. Around me the ground was cracking. The earth shook harder, cracking at my feet and causing me to fall over. Then I was really scared. I was scared of my powers. The shaking and cracking in the ground became worse when I feared it. But I was scared and I couldn't control it.

"Minos! Help!" I yelled, just before the ground split open around me and I fell into a dark crevasse. The glowing form of Minos disappeared as the ground closed above my head and I fell through the darkness.

The air whistled around me. Rocks creaked and groaned, opening and closing as I fell through the earth. What if my powers stop right now? What if I'm stuck in stone forever? What if I squash myself and die?

Suddenly my back hit rocky ground. I was lying on my back in a cave, long tunnels spanning in either direction. The mark of Deadalus glowed on the newly closed ceiling, were I had fallen through the roof.

Had I somehow fallen through the ground back into the Labyrinth? It was almost as if I had been summoned back to the endless maze. The thought made me shiver in fear. I reached out to touch the glowing mark, but before my fingers could brush the low roof, the mark faded and I was in complete darkness.

I had never told anyone except Bianca but I didn't like the dark. I didn't fear it, but I didn't like it. It wasn't really the darkness, more the feeling of not knowing. Not knowing was something I had always disliked, and to some extent feared.

It reminded me of my past. Or my lack of a past. Of not knowing who I was.

I took a deep breath and rolled onto my stomach, then pushed myself to my hands and knees The world wasn't spinning, although it probably would be if I could see it. My head ached, making it hard to think. I felt strange. Less... alive. As if someone had drained some of my physical energy away. I felt more ghostly, like I could pass my hand through a solid object. Not all of me, just a hand.

I shook my head, trying to dispel the feeling and the headache. Both faded, slowly. Now my thoughts were overwhelmingly loud in the lonely, quiet, dark place. All I could focus on was how I was alone. By myself. Without even Minos. Without even light, however unnatural.

I wished I at least had a sword. Percy had a sword. Whenever he used Riptide it would let out a faint glow. I had no weapon. I had been lucky not to run into any monsters yet. Of course, that was probably Minos.

I peered into the darkness. Nothing, in both directions.

"M-Minos?" I called softly, throat hurting as I spoke, "Minos? ...B-Bianca?"

No one. I was alone. I was scared.

I stumbled along on my hands and knees, trying to keep one hand outstretched. I felt the wall bang hard against my fingers and changed directions so the wall was to my right side. I began to craw haltingly along, leaning against the wall, so I wouldn't run into it. After what felt like forever the darkness became a slightly lighter shade of black. Ahead of me I saw something light.

An orangey glow lit up the stale air ahead of me. Maybe there was an entrance to the Labyrinth ahead. I stumbled towards the light faster, eyes bleary from the sudden light. I couldn't make out any shapes, so it was hardly a surprise (looking back) that I bumped into someone. A humanoid figure knocked me to the ground. I hit my head on the stone, ears ringing.

I peered up at it blearily. It bent down.

"Who are you?"

I blinked. Who are you? I wanted to ask, but I couldn't form the words. My throat and head hurt too much, and my thoughts were ringing in my own mind.

"A demigod?"

The shape of the face was indistinct, kind of like looking at a ghost. I tried to focus, but my eyesight didn't obey.

"One of Luke's?"

Who? And one of Luke's what's? I'm not anyone's anything.

"Why else would you be alone in the Labyrinth?"

Because my ghost is the owner of this maze. Why would you be in the Labyrinth? My head pounded from thinking. The other demigod's words were disjointed. I blinked, but the shape wasn't anymore connected then before.

"I'm gonna assume you're from Luke's side. Why else would you be here?"

I could hardly open my mouth. I couldn't speak. Was I really so weak that falling through the ground would make me feel this bad? Did Percy's powers drain him like this?

"Have this. You need it."

A hand pressed something to my lips. My mouth opened slightly and a couple of cubes of something fell into my mouth. They were sweet and soft, with a hint of ginger. Just like the biscuits Bianca used to make around Christmas. Gingerbread.

I remembered those Christmas eves. The warm smell of baking and ginger. Bianca's hands covered in flour. I would always ask to decorate the little men and houses and other shapes she made. I wasn't nearly as good as Bianca, but she used to love my messy mountains of sugar.

Those evening would never happen again.

I swallowed the cubes. Slowly my vision cleared and my ears stopped ringing. The figure that crouched over came into view. It was a boy with brown hair. He had kind eyes. His hand was extended towards me. I reached up weakly and he grabbed my hand.

"You have cold hands," He commented, pulling me up.

"Uh..." I leaned against the wall of the Labyrinth, realising dully that the roof had extended upwards and I no longer needed to crawl, or even bend over. The demigod gently put a torch, which was where the orangey glow had come from, on the floor.

"What's your name?" The demigod asked, "I'm Chris, son of Hermes."

"Ni-" My voice broke. I cleared my throat, "Nico di Angelo. Son of..."

Should I tell him I was a son of Hades? But then again, what did I have to lose?

"Hades." I finished.

"A child of Hades? Huh, would've thought that you'd be more well known among Kronos's troops and not wandering the Labyrinth." Chris said, "You are on Kronos's side? Not from Camp Half-Blood?"

"No. I ran away from Camp Half-Blood." I croaked, "Can't say I've heard much about Kronos."

"He's the Titan lord." Chris said. "He's going to take over Olympus and make it fair for all the demigods, the unclaimed, everything. He'll make the world a better place for us."

"A better world?" I asked hoarsely. My Gods, speaking hurt. It was never this painful before.

"You said your name was Nico di Angelo?" Chris asked thoughtfully, "Your sister died on a quest, what, a week back? Well, from when I entered the Labyrinth, that is."

"Yeah. How do you know? You're not from camp." I asked.

"Spies at camp." Chris said.

"Oh."

"Yeah. Our next move is to find and destroy Camp Half-Blood, through the Labyrinth." Chris gestured around him, "You've been in the Labyrinth for a while?"

"Week or so." I muttered.

"Wow! That's ages, I've only been in for a day or two. I think. Time is tricky down here." Chris smiled sadly, "I miss above ground, but I tell myself I'm doing it for someone important."

"Kronos?"

"No, uh, someone I had a crush on when I was in camp. Clarisse. She would want me to be strong... if y'know, she loved me."

"Big, strong, child of Ares?" I asked, listing a few more words in my head. Such as mean, rude, bully.

"That's her." Chris said sadly, "I guess I kind of left because I thought she would never love me back."

"If your telling me this, I should probably say..." I couldn't believe I was pouring out my life story to a stranger in a deadly maze, "That's partly why I left."

"Who?"

"I'd rather not say. But it doesn't matter. They'll never love me back anyway." I felt the blush creeping up my cheeks.

"You'd be surprised. Annabeth felt like that about Luke, but in the end he cares for her, doesn't he?" Chris said.

"Trust me. It won't work." I said shortly.

"Yeah, well... Clarisse would never love me, I guess." Chris said quietly.

"I'm sure your life'll end out fine." I managed.

"I dunno. I'm stuck with Kronos and Clarisse is loyal to Camp Half-Blood." Chris shrugged, "But I have a job to do. It'll make the world a better place."

I recognised that tone of voice. He was trying to disguise the truth, the way I had. The way I still did. He's telling himself it'll be fine, but he'll probably die in the Labyrinth anyway. I realised I felt sad that Chris would die. He was the only person who had been nice to me in a long time, if only for a few minutes, and even if I hadn't talked to anyone other than Minos since entering the Labyrinth.

Suddenly the torch went out.

"What's happening? I swear it wouldn't go out for another while." Chris yelled. Then he grunted and I heard the sound of a body hitting the floor.

I felt a familiar cold feeling, a rush of air sweeping past.

"MINOS!" I yelled, "What are you doing?"

There was no answer. A glowing figure, Minos appeared above Chris.

"Look out!" I yelled, but it was too late. Minos floated straight towards Chris. But instead of passing through him Minos moulded into Chris, making the son of Hermes' eyes glow blue. Chris stood, face expressionless.

"Minos! Stop!" I yelled, "He's nice! He's-"

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the torch flickered back to life and Chris's eyes turned back to their normal brown. Minos was gone. For a second I thought I had gotten rid of Minos.

"Chris? Are you okay?" I asked, scanning the area for Minos, "I swear, I will kill that ghost. Bring him back to life and kill him again."

"Dark..." Chris muttered. I turned back to him.

"Chris?"

"Mary? Where are you?" Chris yelled.

"Mary?"

"Who are you?" Chris turned to me and grabbed my shirt. I gasped, what was Chris doing?

"It's me, Nico. Son of Hades."

"Hades! No, no. Go away!" Chris shrunk away from me like I was poisonous, which I probably was. I scrambled back wards until my back hit the wall, "Go away, Hades!"

I stumbled sideways, Chris screaming and swing out at me blindly. I didn't know what Minos did, but I had to get away from Chris. I ran into the darkness, praying it would be safe.

Even though I spent so much time running, it felt like, I was still out of breath so quickly. My feet were sore and my chest hurt as I gasped for air, tearing along dark path after dark path.

Then a wall reared up in front of me. I had just enough time to reach my hands out to break the impact before I hit the wall, crumpling to the ground.

"My lord, are you alright?" Minos appeared beside me.

I growled through my teeth, "Why did you do that to Chris?"

"That son of Hermes? I saw the way he looked at you. He was going to make you return to camp, to see Percy Jackson again. I saw his thoughts, he was going to betray you the moment he saw you."

"Oh." My voice was small. Why hadn't I realised? After all, why else would anyone want to be near me? Minos hadn't destroyed a potential... ally. Not friend. Friend was too strong. Not that Chris was a friend. He was an enemy. Minos had known. He had saved me from an enemy. Chris had to have been lying. There was no other answer.

"I'm going to sleep." I said quietly.

I turned away from Minos, sure that I wouldn't sleep, I would just lay there, sadly, forever, wondering why I was always betrayed. But a small gust of warm wind buffeted me from somewhere, and I found myself slipping into sleep.

Chapter Text

I was standing in the Hermes cabin at Camp Half-Blood. Why? Last I had known I was in the Labyrinth. I noticed that all the beds were full of snoring demigods. I must be in a dream. I looked down at the bed in front of me. A blonde demigod was dozing under his blanket, frowning slightly, as if having an unpleasant dream.

"What've you got to frown about?" I muttered under my breath. He couldn't hear me, but I needed to vent some rage, "Sleeping in your snug little bed at your snug little camp. With your friends."

"That wasn't very nice."

I jumped. The demigod on the bed opened baby blue eyes. He sat up, stretching.

"Who're you? I'm Clovis."

"None of your business." I said, then curiosity got the better of me, "But how are you talking to me? I'm dreaming."

"I know! I recognise you as that demigod from camp! Sister one of the Hunters of Artemis. But you've been gone for days. Everyone thinks you're dead. Uh... Nico! That was it. Nico di Angelo." Clovis said, grin showing that he was overly pleased he had remembered.

"I left." I said shortly, "But how are you talking to me in a dream?"

"Oh, it happens to me all the time. Not sure why. Everyone always seems surprised when it happens. Maybe because I'm a lucid dreamer." Clovis said, "Some demigods are able to control dreams."

Demigods able to control dreams? That was a skill I wanted to master.

"How?" I asked, "How can they control dreams?"

"They slip through the shadows of dreams."

"How?" I demanded.

"Like this." Clovis said, waving his hand. Suddenly the dim room disappeared, along with Clovis.

I looked around. I was standing in a cavern surrounded by monsters which I recognised from my mythomagic game, but hadn't ever seen in real life, so huge and scary. I was holding a gold staff-like thing in my hand. The staff had a purple crystal on top and golden eagles engraved around the side. It felt ancient and powerful, like the weapon of a son of Hades.

I raised the staff instinctively. The air shimmered purple. Fissures opened in the ground. Hundreds of ghosts streamed out of the cracks and into the air. They turned from glowing spirits into corpse like creatures that I thought only existed in zombie movies.

Words floated through my head. I scare you very, very much. I looked up. Straight ahead of me, I could see people standing, staring at me in horror. One of them was tall with blonde hair and electric blue eyes. The other had hair braided with eagle feathers.

The corpses shuffled through the monsters, and I heard someone yell in a language I didn't understand. Suddenly the roof rumbled and everything began crashing down in a mountain of dust. And everything ended, like it always did, with the world going black.

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"You know, my lord, there is a quicker way we could revive your sister."

Minos's voice slithered through the too-silent air of the Labyrinth like a snake-charmer's music. But his words peaked my interest, and I stared at him. "There is?"

"Of course." Minos sounded pleased. "There is a deal, a soul for a soul."

"I've told you, I'll offer my own soul to Hades to get Bianca back." I said shortly.

"There is a way where you can both be together and alive." Minos coaxed. "If you just listen."

"Okay." I said. "How?"

"If you were to take another's soul, someone powerful enough, then you could bring her back yourself, without Hades's help." Minos said.

"Take another person's soul..." I murmured. Then the realisation struck. "You mean murder someone?"

"My lord, I am talking about justice." Minos said. "There is someone in this very maze who has escaped death too many times. But I can guide you too him, if you allow me to."

"No." I insisted. "I don't want to kill anyone. Even someone who cheated death. I swear, I'll never kill anyone."

Minos laughed cruelly. "Oh, how little you know of this world... and of yourself."

"What are you talking about?" I demanded, anger rising up in me. What right did Minos have to judge me like that?

"It does not matter now." Minos said. "But if we were to find this person, then we could-"

"Minos, enough." I ordered. "I'd rather offer my own soul then kill someone. Don't talk about this to me again."

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"Try it once more, my lord, I have a good feeling about this time," Minos turned back to the pit. I swayed a little where I stood. Exhausted, hungry, lonely, cold, confused. None of my feelings had changed since I ran from Camp Half-Blood. Two months of travelling with Minos in the Labyrinth had only fuelled my resentment, anger and confusion. There had been little to eat and drink and most of the food I brought was given to my practice.

In front of me was a big pit. At my feet was a Wal-Mart bag, full of McDonalds hamburgers and coke. They were my offerings for the dead, something cheap and easy to acquire. And something that didn't taste too bad. Bianca had never let me eat fast food and the taste, even now, was still new. Minos floated around me, coaching me on.

"Give them the offerings, raise them, and remember the words." He told me, floating around me, "Once you learn to use your powers you can get your sister back. You can exchange a soul for a soul."

"Be quiet, I'm concentrating. And I told you, I'm not doing the soul for a soul deal." I snapped. I reached into the Wal-Mart bag, bringing out a hamburger. I dropped it into the pit, along with its friends. Then I poured the coke into the pit. I took a deep breath and began to chant.

"Let the dead rise again. Let them take my offerings and live again." I recited in Ancient Greek, putting all my emotions, bitterness, anger, resentment, discontentment, heartache, confusion, into the words, "Let them taste, let them live. Let them taste this food and return from the grave. Let them have their memories. Let them remember what it was to live, to eat, to drink. Let them live once again. Let them remember the bitterness of life and the things they never had. Let them return. Let them serve."

I imagined a ghost forming, drinking the mixture and having memories. The mixture in the pit began to bubble. A flicker of steely grey light leaked into the air, condensing slightly at the edge of the pit. A wispy figure knelt at the mixture, slurping up the liquid greedily.

It rose unsteadily. Minos smiled, "Well done, my lord. Success at last."

I shook with exhaustion. The ghost in front of me seemed to reflect my current state, flickering weekly, grey and sickly looking, almost invisible. I looked down at my own hands. They seemed almost invisible, smoking black. It's just a trick of the light, and the shakiness of my hands, I told myself. I faced the ghost again.

"Who... are you?" I asked. The ghost didn't reply.

"It's a face among millions, no body important, my lord." Minos told me.

"Why. . . can't I see. . . Bianca?" I asked. The ghost shook its head weakly. It drank at the pool again.

My insides turned cold and hard. Why can't I see Bianca? The ghost reacted to my emotions. It became more solid, lines of white becoming illuminated. A creepy grin stretched its face. Within seconds the ghost had become a skeleton.

"Well done, my lord! Such progress!" Minos complimented.

The skeleton bowed. It had an aviator jacket on, and goggles on its head. It stood, took off its jacket, and offered it to me. I reached out and grabbed at it. My fingers passed right through the jacket.

My fingers just passed right through a very solid-looking object. I screamed, stumbling away from the thing I had summoned. The skeleton dissolved back into a ghost and disappeared, leaving a jacket and a pair of aviation goggles lying on the ground. I collapsed backwards, passing through Minos. My vision went black as I hit the Labyrinth floor.

Chapter Text

An agonising thrumming inside my own head brought me slowly back to reality. I opened my eyes just a crack and was immediately blinded by white artificial light. I squeezed my eyes closed again and waited for my aching head to stop hurting. I wasn't sure how long I lay, unable to think clearly because of the pain, but after a while it became clear that my head wouldn't stop hurting any time soon.

I forced my eyes open again, sending a new wave of agony coursing through my mind. After staring dazedly at the air for what felt like another millennium, my eyesight slowly returned, and I could make out the blurred shapes around me. Above me was a bright blue light. Around me were smooth metal walls.

Where am I? Who am I?

My thoughts and memories were as blurry as my vision. My eyes watered from the pain of my headache. I blinked, sitting up. Immediately, I regretted that decision. The world spun around me, like I was on a crazy roller-coaster, and my head felt like it had been stabbed. Above me the blue light flickered, sometimes an artificial light on the ceiling, sometimes a glowing blue figure. What was it?

Slowly my thoughts returned to me. I was Nico di Angelo. I was ten years old. Or maybe I was eleven now? I was a demigod, half mortal, half god. My father was Hades. I knew nothing about my mother. I was from the 1940's. I had stayed ten years old, trapped in the Lotus Hotel and Casino for decades. I had escaped. I could raise the dead. That was how I passed out. I had a ghost friend, an ancient Greek king, Minos. I had a sister, Bianca di Angelo. She died. It was his fault. Percy Jackson's. And I had a horrible secret. A secret that had to do with Percy. A secret nobody could ever know. That was why I ran away from camp. That's why I was in the Labyrinth.

I shuddered and the blue light flickered into a figure and stayed that way. A transparent, glowing figure. Minos.

"My lord, you have raised the dead, that is a major development in your training progress!" Minos said, floating around me. He spoke as if I had not been unconscious, and instead we had been talking for hours.

"M-Minos?" I stuttered. My head was throbbing slightly less. My vision had cleared more. I was in a metal corridor, lined with pipes. Above me floated the ghost of Minos. At my feet was an aviator jacket and a pair of aviation goggles. I raised a ghost, I recalled, it turned into a skeleton.

"Yes, my lord?" Minos answered.

"What happened?" I asked, using my hands to push myself back until I leaned against the Labyrinth wall.

"My lord, last night you summoned a ghost at long last." Minos said.

"I know that!" I pointed out, "Tell me what happened after I passed out."

"My lord, after you collapsed the skeleton turned back to a ghost and disappeared. The jacket and goggles were left behind." Minos told me, "You were passed out for... hmm... nearly five days, my lord."

"Five days! Why didn't you try and wake me?" I yelled, shocked. I had been asleep for five whole days?

"My lord, I could not touch you. I am a ghost." Minos chided. "Even if I were not, you were fading. It happens when a child of Hades uses their powers too much. I remember another child of Hades, long ago who faded into oblivion and-"

"Fading?" I interrupted.

"Yes, you were transparent, you could not touch anything solid, but do not worry, my lord, this is a good sign, you are progressing well," Minos explained.

"Almost fading into oblivion is a good sign." I said flatly.

"Yes, my lord, it means you are ready for the next step of my- of your plans," Minos told me, "When you are ready I can guide you to our next destination."

"Which is?" I reached out and picked up the jacket. I was relieved to see that it didn't slip through my hands this time. I put it on, grateful for the warmth. I left the goggles.

"You are ready, my lord, to go to the Underworld."

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I stood in the room, surveying the clean walls, the people sitting idly in waiting chairs, the dark skinned security guard in the Italian suit. Minos must have been wrong. How could this be an entrance to the Underworld?

I looked at the waiting chairs out of the corner of my eyes. The people were slightly transparent. Ghosts. Suddenly the white walls flickered to mossy stone dripping with water and back. The man in the Italian suit changed to a skeleton like figure in black robes.

A splitting headache formed in my head. Since I had summoned that first ghost, about a week ago, my brain had been battling the Mist more fiercely than ever. Travelling to the brink of existence was a lot for a ten year old. But the effects of the Mist were slowly fading and I was beginning to see the world as it was really was. But this place, the entrance to the Underworld, was housing powerful Mist. Mortals saw what they wanted and they didn't want to see a death-like chamber. They wanted a clean white waiting room.

I banged my fist against my head, focussing on the mossy walls, the ghosts and the man in robes. The room stayed as it was. I had done it. Without Minos's help I had cut through the Mist. Bianca would be so proud when I told her! Bianca. No... No... she was dead. Why did she need to be dead? It wasn't fair. Percy was- I closed my eyes. Not now, I told myself, she can be brought back.

I opened my eyes, facing the man in black robes.

"Charon." I guessed.

"Finally!" He grinned at me. I wished he wouldn't, it was creepier than summoning a ghost that turned into a skeleton.

"Do you know how frustrating it is, everyone confusing me with that silly centaur." He looked at me critically, "You aren't dead are you? Oh, but you have been close. I can smell it!"

"I am a child of Hades." I said. The effect of those words were immediate.

"I meant no disrespect, sir. I only meant that you were..." Charon trailed off, "Anyways, I am here to serve, sir."

"Take me to the Underworld." I said.

"Yes, right away, sir." Charon stood, rushing to a doorway in the wall, "Right down here, sir, I'm afraid the elevator isn't working, sorry, sir."

I followed him down the stairs. The dark tunnel sloped deeply. About halfway down we stopped to catch our breath. I noticed a small shard of black metal in the stone walls. Although I had been getting better at controlling the earth, I couldn't recognise this stone. Cautiously, I touched it, feeling the smooth black metal, "What is this?"

"Stygian iron, sir. More deadly a weapon than Celestial bronze." He ushered me on, clearly not wanting to talk about the metal. But that just made me more curious.

"More deadly than Celestial bronze..." I said, not disguising the longing in my voice. I had no weapon, no way to fight. At the moment I could only avoid the monsters of the Labyrinth, relying on Minos. And stygian iron, the metal of the Underworld. How fitting. "Tell me more. Um, please."

"Well, sir," Charon began, although he was clearly unhappy about needing to talk about the metal at all, "Unlike celestial bronze, it can harm both mortals and immortals. It also holds power over ghosts and other creatures of the Underworld. It is mined and forged in the Underworld and cooled in the River Styx, although sometimes ore or shards of it are lodged in rock tunnels such as these. Stygian iron will absorb and destroy a monster's essence, making it unable to return to Tartarus and reform."

Charon paused, looking at me nervously, then continued. "It will give you strength in summoning ghosts and doing other Underworldly magic. It is easier to shadow-travel with than Celestial bronze. It radiates the emotions that the user feels most and generates that energy. It is the only known metal to be able to cut ghosts."

I could hardly disguise my burning interest at the mention of the metal.

"Yes, well, it is very rare." He seemed to reassure himself, "Ah, here we are."

We stood on the edge of a huge river. In front of us was a boat, similar to a canoe. Charon stepped aboard and ushered me on. I stepped on cautiously.

"Do not slip, sir, for this is the river Styx. If you fall you are likely to burn into oblivion."

"Wasn't there a legend about that? Achilles?" I asked. "He made it out alive."

"Yes, Achilles. Nowadays if you take the plunge and your soul is strong enough then you can survive. If you focus on your most – joyous" at the word 'joyous' Charon shuddered a little, "moments. And you will have the curse of Achilles."

Charon began paddling the canoe with a long staff. We steered around the garbage floating in the river in silence. I stared into the river. Maybe I could find Bianca here. That was why I was here after all. Was she out there?

Finally the boat stopped. I stepped out of the boat and onto the shore of the Styx. Minos appeared by my side, much looking much more solid than before.

"Welcome to the Underworld, my lord," He said, as I gazed over the gloomy plains.

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I spent days searching the Underworld for Bianca. Days that turned to weeks that turned to months. I didn't know how long exactly I had been searching. Time was different in the Underworld, just as it was different in the labyrinth. I came and went, spending time in the Labyrinth, spending time in the Underworld. I searched Elysium and the Fields of Asphodel, hoping to find my sister, but I had no luck. I didn't see her at all.

I didn't search the Isle of the Blest or the Fields of Punishment. I knew Bianca wouldn't have left me for rebirth. And there was no possible way she could be in the Fields of Punishment.

But there was one place I hadn't searched. Hades' castle, standing on the tallest hill, overlooking the Underworld. It was like the opposite of the images of Olympus in the Big House, instead made of black stone and bronze. It radiated fear but I felt more drawn towards it every day. Why would I feel drawn towards it if Bianca wasn't there? After all she was a child of Hades. Maybe she even had her own room there?

Like every other day, I shrugged off the thoughts of the forbidding castle, and continued to trudge through the seas of ghosts milling about in their millions all around me.

Until one day I stopped fighting my impulses. I stepped forwards numbly, walking towards the castle. Ghosts stepped out of my way as I walked towards the castle. In my trancelike state I didn't notice anything. Minos told me the furies themselves had tried to stop me but somehow couldn't touch me. He said I was protected by a glowing black aura.

I only snapped out of it at the palace door. My fist was still touching the wood from when I had knocked. The doors opened by themselves, swinging into a huge throne room. At the end sat my father, next to an empty throne, Persephone's. It wasn't winter then. The thrones and Hades himself were huge, several metres tall.

I was glad for Persephone's absence. I guessed, like Hera was to Zeus, she wouldn't be kind to Hades' other 'love interests' and really wouldn't be kind to his demigod son. I walked towards my father. Hades was lounging on his throne, wearing robes made from tortured souls which, combined with his olive skin and dark hair and eyes made him look like a panther, lean and hungry.

I knelt before Hades, feeling scared and alone in the presence of a god. Of my father. He stood and shrunk to the size of a mortal.

"Let me see you," He commanded. His voice was quiet, but rung through the cold, still air. I stood, legs trembling. He held my chin with one hand, looking me straight in the eyes.

"Ah... let's see, dark, misunderstood, want to be a hero? Good. That will aid you on your task. But... you... you have feelings for him. That can't be tolerated. Although there is something else... you hate him. Because he killed her. There is still hope then." Hades mused.

"Bianca... where is she? I want to see her." I moved back, out of Hades reach.

"You may not see her. She does not wish to be seen, nor would I allow her to see you till the time is right." Hades said carelessly. "First, you must complete a quest for me."

"Why would I do anything for anyone I just met? Let alone my father who won't even let me see my sister?" I snarled.

"You will go on a quest, Nico di Angelo. You will become the hero of the Great Prophecy. You will do this and I will bring back Bianca." Hades offered.

"I can get her back now. I'll trade my soul for Bianca's. Please Hades. I need her back. Everything would be alright." I pleaded. I groaned inwardly. I sounded like a bratty child, complaining to my father. But I needed Bianca to be alive, even if I wasn't.

But Hades just shook his head. "Although Bianca would have been more suited to the job then you, I cannot bring her back."

"Bring. Back. My. Sister." I growled.

"You stupid, ungrateful, demigod. I have saved you countless times, and even that not good enough. Bianca would not complain, she was much more worthy than you," Hades growled, "I should have made you go on the quest and die in her place. You are stupid and worthless. Bianca was ten times more worthy of this quest than you, but you are here now. I'm stuck with you! You must not get distracted. Now leave."

Hades flicked his hand and was pulled by an invisible force out of the castle and back towards the River Styx. I stopped at the banks, seething with anger. How could my own father do this to me? He hadn't said anything of comfort, not about me, not about Bianca, not about Percy. He hadn't done anything for me, yet he expected me to go on this quest – whatever it was – for him?

I kicked at the rocks around my feet, sending a spray of pebbles into the dark water of the Styx. I kicked again, and again, until my foot connected with something cold, hard and sharp. Puzzled, I knelt down and brushed aside more of the stones around it.

Next to me, half hidden in the ground, was a short sharp shard of black rock. No, not rock, stygian iron. I reached over and touched the iron. Bronze formed at its base, a handle that moulded perfectly into my hand.

I tried sheathing it in my empty scabbard. A perfect fit. The sword seemed to help me make my decision. I wasn't going to listen to Hades. I would get Bianca back my own way, no matter what. Soul for soul? Well I would find a soul worthy of Bianca. I would do whatever it took to get her back. Minos appeared beside me.

"My lord, I am glad we agree. Now, if we set up camp, I will tell you all about my plans."

Chapter Text

The fire blazed an unnatural, eerily blue, like the ghosts in the Underworld. I sighed, looking out at the river Styx. I tried to shake it, but the feeling of bitterness and anger at my failure, and at Hades wouldn't leave me. Trying to distract myself, I took the mythomagic cards that I used to play with out of my pocket, flipping through them out of habit.

Suddenly I turned to the blue fire we were camped at and threw one of the cards in. The sight of Dionysus's burning face comforted me slightly. Stupid gods, I raged, what did I do to deserve this? I began to feed the fire with the cards.

Why did I still have them anyway? They were pointless, a stupid game for kids.

"Useless." I raged, watching Athena burn, "I can't believe I ever liked this stuff."

"A childish game, master." Minos comforted me. That comfort, that admiration, flimsy as it might be, stroked my ego slightly. But I was still alone.

"I've failed. There's no way to get her back." I imagined myself jumping into the black waters of the Styx beside me, ending it all. I might have done if Minos's silence hadn't made me pause. I turned to the fire again, "Is there? Speak."

"It has never been done," Minos evaded, "but there may be a way."

"Tell me." I wanted, needed, to succeed, to get Bianca back.

"An exchange, a soul for a soul." Minos offered. I was still getting nowhere.

"I've offered!" I snapped. Memories of my father stirred, his disappointed face, his power, he could just take my soul and let Bianca go, let my suffering end, but he wouldn't. I felt like a pawn, just there for amusement.

"Not yours," Minos said slowly, as if talking to a child, "You cannot offer your father a soul he will eventually collect anyway. Nor will he be anxious for the death of his son. I mean a soul that should have died already. Someone who cheated death."

I frowned. Minos was still going on about his schemes, how he wanted revenge, how I could help him get it and get my own revenge at the same time. I had told him not to talk about this again. I didn't understand and I didn't care, I just wanted my sister.

"Not that again. You're talking about murder." I growled. He wanted to kill the inventor Daedalus, I knew that much. Why, I didn't know. I didn't want to hurt anyone, not after the skeletons and Percy. I bit my tongue. Why had I reminded myself of that?

"I'm talking about justice, vengeance." Minos corrected.

"Those are not the same thing." I said. If there was justice then Bianca would be alive, Percy wouldn't have failed, I may even be a hero. If there was vengeance Percy would be dead. No, I couldn't bear to see Percy dead. I couldn't let him suffer. It wasn't fair.

"You will learn differently as you get older." Minos laughed without humour.

"Why can't I at least summon her?" I wondered aloud, "I want to talk to her. She would ... she would help me."

"I will help you," Minos told me, "Have I not saved you many times?"

I winced. Sometimes I felt Minos knew my emotions better than I did. He had saved me from having to confront Percy, that was true.

"Did I not lead you through the maze and teach you to use your powers?" Minos continued, "Do you want revenge for your sister or not?"

I turned away. I wanted Bianca more than anything else. I wanted to be with her, I wanted to be her hero. I felt a burning tear trace its way down my cheek. I wanted Bianca back. I wanted justice. I wanted revenge, "Very well, you have a plan?"

"Oh, yes," Something in the ghost's voice unnerved me, "We have many dark roads to travel. We must start by travelling to the Triple G-Ranch, I know of someone who can help."

"How?" I asked impatiently.

"He knows where we can find the person we seek." Minos said.

"And who's that?" I demanded. Talking to Minos was like trying to get answers from an oracle.

"Why, Daedalus himself." Minos announced grandly, as if everything he had been saying had lead up to this reveal. "Although he goes by another name now, I believe. Quintus. And if I'm not mistaken, he's at Camp Half-Blood."

"Fine. But we must get a second opinion first. And I'm not going back to Camp. Never." I waved my hand over the fire and the blue flames went out. I stared down at the last mythomagic card. I could just make it out in the dark. Hades. Why was it always him? It was some kind of cruel joke. I sat staring across the Styx, wishing none of this had happened to me.

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My new Stygian iron sword was about to face its first test. I had just returned to the Labyrinth and had sensed something in the dark passage beyond me. Two glowing yellow eye peered out at me. It approached slowly until I could see it properly.

In front of me was... a kitten?

A small, black, mattered cat was curled next to a lump of white fur. The kitten lept at me, purring. I gasped. Something was purring at me. I sheathed my sword and reached down to pat it. After a few moments the kitten made a coughing, reaching sound. My hand poked at the white lump of fur. It took shape. Another kitten. But the body was cold and unmoving.

I had known it was dead. But I didn't want to believe it. Now the black kitten was all alone, lost in a scary maze. Just like me. No, this kitten isn't alone. I would protect it.

I scooped up the kitten, its soft black fur tickling the palms of my hands. I noticed a little white mark, a heart shape, over one of the kitten's eyes.

"Angel. I'm going to call you Angel." I said, pressing it to my face. I smiled. For the first time since Bianca died, I had a definite purpose. To look after Angel. And after that, to find Bianca. I had a plan.

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It was only twenty four hours later, but we now stood in the open, in a graveyard at midnight. My kitten, Angel, was curled up somewhere in my oversized jacket. I thanked the Labyrinth for its speed in transporting me. I waited, clutching a Wal-Mart bag, for my two skeleton gravediggers to finish. I had been practicing and my underworld magic was much better. I barley even felt tired now.

"Is it deep enough yet?" I wanted to get this over with. Minos had been pestering me for hours, but I was determined to get another opinion. Some part of me didn't trust Minos. Unfortunately he hadn't left me alone at all since camping at the Styx, so I hadn't been able to think about it with ease.

"Nearly, my lord." He floated around me now, "But, my lord, I tell you, this is unnecessary. You already have me for advice."

"I want a second opinion." I didn't even try to hide my irritation. I snapped my fingers, causing the diggers to stop and climb out of the hole. "You are dismissed. Thank you."

"You might as well thank the shovels," Minos complained, "They have as much sense."

I ignored Minos, reaching into a Wal-Mart bag from an earlier shopping trip and pulled out a McDonalds Happy Meal. I poured it into the grave, along with three others and two dozen bottles of Coke.

Minos was complaining as normal, but I mostly just blocked it out. I had work to do. I started to recite the words I had practiced over and over with Minos, the ancient Greek that I had almost become as fluent in as English. Ghosts started appearing. Dozens of them. A surge of fear bubbled up inside me. It wasn't long ago when I couldn't summon a single ghost, and now here were too many to count. What had happened to make my powers work so well?

"There are too many," Minos said, although he was eyeing one ghost in particular, "You don't know your own powers."

"I've got it under control." I insisted, although I wasn't sure. I unsheathed my sword, showing the ghosts. They backed away, knowing this was a blade that could still destroy them. I realised Minos was right, "One at a time."

One ghost floated forwards, the one Minos had been eyeing earlier. It knelt beside the pool, drinking. When it stood I saw it as a teenage guy. He had short curly hair and green eyes. He was wearing Greek armour and a cloak clasped on with a seashell. He reminded me of Percy, too much of Percy. Seeing him here made me worry. What if Percy's dead? What if he's hurt? What if it's my fault? I bit my tongue to hold back a worried sound that, thankfully, died in my throat.

"Who are you? Speak." I forced out. The ghost paused and for a second I was worried that the ghost really was Percy. Then he spoke.

"I am Theseus." He said. Of course. Another son of Poseidon. Not Percy. And that's why Minos was uncomfortable. Theseus was the hero who had killed Minos's Minotaur. But this ghost may know the answers to my questions.

"How can I retrieve my sister?" I asked. Not Percy, not Percy, this wasn't Percy.

"Do not try." Theseus said flatly, "It is madness."

"Just tell me!" I didn't want to be told to stop. That's something Percy would tell me, but I just wanted to get Bianca back. It was frustrating, maddening, to be able to raise the dead but not being with my sister.

"My stepfather died. He threw himself into the sea because he thought I was dead in the Labyrinth." Theseus said, recalling, "I wanted to bring him back, but I could not."

Of course Theseus couldn't. He was a son of Poseidon, the sea god, but I was a child of Hades. A child of the underworld. Surely I could bring Bianca back.

"My lord, the soul exchange!" Minos was growing impatient, "Ask about that!"

"That voice. I know that voice." Theseus frowned, trying to remember.

"No you don't, fool!" Minos said, "Answer the lord's questions and nothing more!"

I wondered my Minos didn't want Theseus to know it was him. Either way Theseus still wasn't convinced, he was looking for my ghost, "I know you."

"I want to hear about my sister. Will the quest into the Labyrinth help me win her back?" I didn't care about Minos and Theseus's struggle.

Theseus was still looking for Minos but, unable to find him, turned back to me.

"The Labyrinth is treacherous. There is only one thing that saw me through: the love of a mortal girl." Theseus said, "The string was only part of the answer. It was the princess who guided me."

Minos made a noise of disgust, "We don't need any of that."

I was glad. Nobody would love me for who I was, nobody except Bianca and she was dead. And I didn't want just anyone's love. I wanted-. No. No, I didn't. I couldn't. If I admitted it to myself then I would be admitting that I was an outcast, more than anyone else. I still wasn't completely sure, but I didn't think they were so... harsh to people like... like me. But I wasn't going to take a chance.

"I will guide you, my lord," Minos continued, "Ask him if it is true about an exchange of souls. He will tell you."

"A soul for soul," I needed to know this, "Is it true?"

"I – I must say yes." Theseus said doubtfully, "But the spectre-"

"Just answer the questions knave!" Minos interrupted. I frowned. Why was Minos always interrupting? He claimed I was his master but he never seemed to let me lead. He always tried to push me around, doing what he wanted. But he seemed to be intent on trying to help me get Bianca back and without him, how could I navigate the Labyrinth? My discontent seemed to seep into the air, making the ghosts restless. Could they know what I was thinking? How I felt? I needed to distract them.

"I want to see my sister! Where is she?" Anger pulsed out of me, why should these ghosts get to see my secrets, know that I was- am- it was too awful to think about. Theseus glanced around fearfully.

"He is coming, he has sensed your summons. He comes."

"Who?" I yelled. How could anyone track me? I was travelling amazing distances each day, thanks to the Labyrinth. Who could pin me down to a lonely graveyard at midnight?

"He comes to find us at the source of this power," Theseus warned urgently, "You must release us!"

The ground began to tremble. In front of me a force started to glow. The ghosts flickered out like lights. The light took shape in front of me. Suddenly a humming I hadn't noticed stopped.

In front of me was a figure as tall as the willow trees around me. The giant person had pale skin, dark eyes and black hair. His ancient-style black robes looked as if they were woven from souls of the dead. On his head was a helmet that seemed to radiate pure fear, or perhaps I was more of a coward than I had initially thought.

I recognised the figure. I had seen him less than forty-eight hours ago. In front of me stood my father, the lord of the underworld. Hades.

Chapter Text

My father looked down on me, his gaze still tinged with disappointment.

"My son."

"Hades." I stared him in the eyes, determined not to show my fear, although I was already smoking, my essence slowly leaving me, the same feeling I had after I first had summoned a ghost. But I was determined to keep staring at him, even if he was a god. Even if he could feel my terror.

"You tread a dangerous path, Nico." He warned.

"You came all this way, after refusing to give me my sister, not even for my own soul, just to tell me not to try and get her back? You said yourself, she would have been better than me! Why do you suddenly care about me? After all, aren't I just a distraction?" I nearly yelled. Distraction, I thought with anger, it wasn't like I could control it. I didn't want to- to- love him. No, no, no, no. I can't love him. I can't like him, or even tolerate him. He killed my sister. All of this is his fault.

"It is true. Bianca was more suited to the job. But I have always cared about you, son, even if I did not sound like it the other night. I was merely... mourning the loss of your sister. But you must take her place, the son of Poseidon is only a distraction. You must be the one in the prophecy." Hades told me.

"Why me? Why should I star in a prophecy I don't even know? Why don't you just bring Bianca back? She won't be distracted like me!" I closed my eyes, breathing deeply to calm myself. It didn't work.

"Son, I of all gods must obey the rules of death. It is only fair. But your path in the Labyrinth may yet aid you. You must kill Percy Jackson before he has the chance to kill you. He would murder you at first chance, he hates you now, thinks you are a freak. You must kill him and honour me, as Bianca would have done." Hades boomed. He voiced what I was most afraid of, that Percy hated me, wanted me killed, thought I was a freak. I looked at the ground. I had to hate Percy, had to do what my father wanted. It was what Bianca would have done. I had to kill him.

"Fine. Hades, I'll kill Percy, but I'm also going to try and get Bianca back. You can't stop me or Percy will become the main hero for your silly prophecy. Just let me try to get Bianca back." I turned away from Hades, praying that he wouldn't be able to see the tears threatening to fall down my cheeks. Why was I always so sad? So hopeless? So lost?

But I had a mission. Hate Percy, kill him. Then get Bianca back. I glanced back to where Hades had stood. He was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief. Tomorrow I would start on my and Minos's plan. I had found out what I had wanted, not in the way I thought I would, but I knew what I would do. And that, surely, was a step in the right direction.

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I punched the stone wall of the Labyrinth. I hated being a child of Hades. It made me feel so helpless. I could feel every life force, no matter how far away. I could feel them slowly fade, slowly die. They would splatter and go out.

My father was the god of the dead. Why couldn't I bring death upon people at will? Or keep death from them. Behind me a sickly wheezing curled through the air. Angel was sick. My kitten was dying.

I felt tears falling down my cheeks. Again. It felt like I was always crying. But how could I not? Angel's violent coughs raked the silent tunnels of the Labyrinth. Each cough tore at the poor kitten's throat. Angel was dying. And there was nothing I could do.

I curled up into a ball. I wanted to touch the kitten, comfort it, but my hand wouldn't be comforting. It would be worse than the pain Angel was going through now. I rocked back and forth.

"Why?" I murmured, "Why does anyone close to me die? Anyone close to me. They all just die."

It was me. Anyone close to me died. Because I was a child of Hades. I was death to them. I couldn't allow myself to be close to anyone else. Ever. And it was more important than ever that I get Bianca back.

Angel's last breath whispered in my ear. His life force spluttered out. I was alone. Again. Alone in the Labyrinth. Stuck in the shadows.

 

Chapter Text

A week later I stood at Triple-G ranch, looking at a three bodied monster of a human, dressed like a stoplight in red, yellow and green. He wasn’t nearly as impressive as Minos had made him sound.

I frowned at Geryon, annoyed. He smiled pleasantly, as if my proposal was an invite for a walk in the park, not a journey through an underground maze full of magic and monsters to find someone who should have been dead centuries ago.

Suddenly he looked out the window.

“Ah, guests, must go and greet them. Mr di Angelo, I will finish this later.” He stood and walked to the porch.

I frowned. Why wouldn’t he just address my offer? He seemed all happy and jolly but I knew underneath he was almost… scared? An eleven year old half-blood with power over the dead, friends with a once-powerful king, journeying through the Labyrinth, on a mission from Hades himself.

Outside I heard Geryon’s voice boom, “Welcome to the Triple G Ranch!”

I grumbled to myself, “Why can’t he just hurry up with this?”

I heard voices outside, the start of a conversation? I didn’t have time for this. I shoot up, scowling, and walked outside.

“Geryon, I won’t wait for-” I stopped staring at Geryon’s new visitors. Annabeth Chase, Grover Underwood, a Cyclopes, maybe Tyson from what other campers had said, and… Percy Jackson himself. Percy looked just as amazing as he had last time I saw him, even though he was covered in dirt, looked tired and hungry.

No, he doesn’t look amazing, I corrected myself. I hated him. I needed to kill him. I steeled myself, pulling out my sword, its essence making me fiercer, more determined, more powerful.

“Put that away, Mr di Angelo,” Geryon snarled at me, “I ain’t gonna have my guests killin’ each other.”

I winced as I looked at the shock on Percy’s face. I had caused that. No, I hated Percy now, I needed to kill him. I couldn’t feel anything for him. Anything.

“But that’s-” I began, trying to pour hate into my voice.

“Percy Jackson,” Geryon finished, grinning, “Annabeth Chase. And a couple of their monster friends. Yes, I know.”

How did Geryon know about them? Had he invited them here? I shook those thoughts out of my head. Hades told me that Percy hated me now. That he wanted to kill me. After what I put him through, I could believe it.

“Monster friends?” Grover asked.

“That man is wearing three shirts,” the Cyclops said, staring dumbly at Geryon.

“They let my sister die!” I cried, real anger pouring out of me at the mention of Bianca, “They’re here to kill me!”

“Nico, we’re not here to kill you,” Percy said. But I didn’t believe him anymore. I couldn’t. As much as I thought of him, he had killed my sister. He was going to kill me. I needed to believe that. For Bianca.

“What happened to Bianca was-” Percy raised his hands in an ‘I surrender’ movement, but I cut him off.

“Don’t speak her name! You’re not worthy to even talk about her!” I yelled.

“Wait a minute,” Annabeth pointed at Geryon, confusion on her face, “How do you know our names?”

The question annoyed and distracted me. Why did she care? Geryon had known my name. Although he hadn’t recognised me on sight. But Geryon winked, clearly pleased at the subject change, “I make it my business to keep informed, darlin’. Everybody pops into the ranch from time to time. Everyone needs something from ole Geryon.”

“Now Mr di Angelo put that ugly sword away before I have Eurytion take it from you.” Geryon snarled at me. His ‘assistant’ Eurytion hefted his club. But the son of Ares looked sort of… dishevelled, as if he was actually tired of beating innocent strangers to pulp. That was a first from a child of the war god. Reluctantly I sheathed my sword.

“If you come near me, Percy, I’ll summon help. You don’t want to meet my helpers, I promise,” I growled. Why didn’t I just summon some skeletons and kill Percy now? He would kill me. He hated me now. I hated him now.

“I believe you,” Percy said.

“There, we’ve all made it nice. Now, come along, folks, I want to give you a tour of the ranch.” Geryon patted me on the shoulder and herded us all towards his ride. He had one of those stupid train things that kids always beg their parents to ride around in. It was painted like a cowhide, white with black spots. The driver’s car had longhorns stuck to it and the horn sounded like a cowbell. I groaned, climbing into the back cart, frowning at Percy, Annabeth, Grover and the Cyclops. Eurytion crawled in next to me. I wasn’t intimidated by him although he was carrying a spiked club. I knew the real danger was my emotions.

Geryon climbed into the driver’s seat with Eurytion’s two-headed dog, Orthus. The other demigods took the two middle carts. Geryon started off the tour, narrating everything as he went. I blocked it all out. It wasn’t hard as my emotions spoke louder inside than anyone outside, and nobody pressed me into speaking.

I gazed into nothing and tried to imagine how life could have been. Bianca didn’t join the hunt. She didn’t go on the quest and die. Percy had succeeded again. I could have grown up happy, content. I could have gone on a quest one day, maybe even been Percy’s hero. I definitely wouldn’t be running, from my father, my feelings, everything.

But my future may work as well. I could get Bianca back, kill Percy, become the demigod of the prophecy and make Hades proud. I could find out about my mother. Bianca and I could roam the countryside, taking care of each other. That was what I would aim for. And for that I needed Geryon’s help. But he was still droning on with his tour.

I leaned forwards, “I don’t care about any of this, Geryon. We had business to discuss and this wasn’t it!”

“All in good time, Mr di Angelo.” Geryon laughed, “Look over here, some of my exotic game.”

I started to zone out again when something Percy said caught my attention.

“Triple G Ranch. Your mark was on the crates at camp,” he said. “Quintus got his scorpions from you.”

Quintus. That triggered something in my memory. Something Minos had said. Quintus… was working at Camp Half-Blood, knew about the Labyrinth. He was related somehow to Daedalus.

“Quintus…” Geryon also looked as though the name had triggered a memory, “Short grey hair, muscular, swordsman?”

“Yeah” Percy replied.

“Never heard of him,” Geryon said. Disappointed, I blocked out their conversations once again until something snapped me out of my thoughts. A horrible smell.

“What is that?” I gagged.

“My stables,” Geryon answered proudly, “Well actually they belong to Aegeas, but we watch over them for a small monthly fee. Lovely, aren’t they?”

As everyone started arguing about the horses I turned away. I wondered if Bianca would like a horse. If she did I promised myself I would get my sister one, once she was alive again.

Suddenly the train stopped. Geryon, Annabeth and Grover finished their argument, Geryon climbing out of the train and walking off a little. He was just going to leave without addressing what I had wanted to talk to him about? Anger filled me and I stormed over to Geryon. Behind me Eurytion hefted his club and walked dutifully after me.

“I came here for business, Geryon,” I snapped, “And you haven’t answered me.”

“Mmm. Yes, you’ll get a deal all right,” Geryon scratched his middle chest with his left arm.

“My ghost told me you could help. He said you could guide us to the soul we need.”

“Wait a second,” Percy said, puzzled, “I thought I was the soul you wanted.”

“You? Why would I want you?” I turned towards him, staring at him. I wanted him dead, but I didn’t want his soul. Not in Hades’s hands. Was Percy really that stupid? I looked at him scathingly, “Bianca’s soul is worth a thousand of yours! Now, can you help me, Geryon, or not?”

“Oh, I imagine I could,” Geryon said idly, “Your ghost friend, by the way, where is he?”

I looked around uneasily. Where was Minos? He had been acting different lately, whinier, more insistent, less flattering. I nearly kicked myself for thinking that last part, “He can’t form in full daylight. It’s hard for him. But he’s around here somewhere.”

Geryon smiled, “I’m sure. Minos likes to disappear when things get… difficult.”

I frowned. It was true, come to think of it.

Minos?” Percy said, staring at me dumbly, “That’s the ghost who’s been giving you advice?”

His eyes were like huge, sea-green moons and-

“It’s none of your business Percy!” Was all I could manage to say. Gods. I can’t even think with him around, I thought, before scolding myself, no, I hate him.

“And what do you mean about things getting difficult?” I glared at Geryon, thinking again about how unimpressive he was. He had to be lying, didn’t it? Minos didn’t leave me.

“Well, you see Nico,” Geryon sighed, “can I call you Nico?”

“No.”

“You see, Nico, Luke Castellan is offering very good money for half-bloods. Especially powerful half-bloods. And when he learns your little secret, who you really are, he’ll pay very well, very well indeed.” Geryon explained.

At the words ‘your little secret, who you really are’ I flinched. That came much too close to home. Of course Geryon was talking about me being a child of Hades, but I couldn’t help glancing uneasily at Percy as I drew my sword. But before I could do anything Eurytion knocked it out of my hand. Orthus, the two-headed dog, pounced on Percy’s chest, growling at him.

“I would stay in the car, all of you, or Orthus will tear Mr Jackson’s throat out.” Geryon warned, “Now, Eurytion, if you would be so kind, secure Nico.”

It was an order, but the cow-heard spat on the grass, “Do I have to?”

“Yes, you fool.”

Before I could even step back, Eurytion wrapped an arm around me and lifted me into the air. I struggled against his arm but he held me tight. If I was free I’d be no match for him, my skeletons could finish him off, but now I was stuck.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Pick up the sword, too,” Geryon said, staring at it distastefully, “There’s nothing I hate worse than Stygian iron.”

Eurytion picked it up, careful to avoid the blade. I didn’t realise it but all the anger, hate and regret I had been feeling had poured into the sword. Now it washed over Eurytion. I saw his face harden. But Geryon kept talking.

“Now, we’ve had the tour. Let’s go back to the lodge, have some lunch, and send an Iris-Message to our friends in the Titan army.”

“You fiend!” Annabeth yelled. I hated to agree with her on anything, but she was right. Geryon was a monster, and not just because of the three bodies.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” Geryon smiled, “Once I’ve delivered Mr di Angelo, you and your party can go. I don’t interfere with quests. Besides, I’ve been paid well to give you safe passage, which does not, I’m afraid, include Mr di Angelo.”

Fine. I’ll escape on my own. I thought bitterly, I don’t want your help, Percy. I need to hate you now.

“Paid by whom? What do you mean?” Annabeth challenged.

“Never you mind, darlin’. Let’s be off, shall we?” Geryon said cheerfully.

“Wait!” Percy yelled. Orthus growled, “Geryon, you said you’re a businessman. Make me a deal.”

“What sort of deal?” Geryon’s eyes narrowed greedily, “Do you have gold?”

“I’ve got something better.” Percy said, “Barter.”

“But, Mr Jackson, you’ve got nothing.”

“You could have him clean the stables,” Eurytion said, his grip on me loosening slightly, but not enough to escape.

“I’ll do it! If I fail you get all of us.” Percy yelled, “You can trade us all to Luke for gold.”

“Assuming the horses don’t eat you,” Geryon commented.

“Either way you get my friends. But if I succeed, you’ve got to let all of us go, including Nico”

“No!” I screamed, “Don’t do me any favours Percy! I don’t want your help!”

Gods, no. I can’t owe him any more favours. He’s saved my life and I need to kill him. I need to hate him. Why is he so heroic? Can’t he just leave me be? I thought urgently, but I couldn’t so anything more as I was herded back to the train. The others had been talking but I didn’t care, just leave me be Percy. I can’t be near you. I can’t. You’re just too… No! Why me?

The cow-train started up again, thankfully leaving Percy behind. I screamed silently into the sleave of my jacket as I watched him standing at the top of the hill.

Chapter Text

That evening Percy returned. Annabeth, Grover, the Cyclops, whose name I discovered was Tyson, and I were heaped in a corner, tied up like rodeo animals. Being so close to them, especially when they probably hated me, was uncomfortable, to say the least.

The deck was set up for a party, with streamers and balloons. Why? I had no idea. The smell of Geryon's barbeque was just making things worse. I felt sick, even though I was on the other side of the deck.

"Let them go! I cleaned the stables!" Percy panted, running up the stairs.

Geryon turned towards him, "Did you now? How'd you manage it?"

Of course Percy had cleaned the stables. He wouldn't just lie. But Percy started telling this big long story about river spirits and fossils that were from the ocean. I didn't care. All I knew was that I owed Percy again and I wasn't happy about it.

"Very ingenious. It would've been better if you'd poisoned that pesky naiad, but no matter." Geryon nodded when Percy had finished his story.

"Let my friends go," Percy glared at Geryon, "We had a deal."

Geryon smiled thoughtfully, "Well I've been thinking about that. The problem is, if I let them go, I don't get paid."

"You promised!"

"But did you make me swear on the River Styx? No you didn't. So it's not binding. When you're conducting business, sonny, you should always get a binding oath."

Percy drew his sword. Orthus the dog growled angrily.

"Eurytion, the boy is starting to annoy me," Geryon said, "Kill him."

Eurytion looked over at Percy. Then at Geryon, "Kill him yourself."

"Excuse me?" Geryon raised his eyebrows.

"You heard me." Eurytion growled, "You keep sending me out to do your dirty work. You pick fights for no good reason, and I'm tired of dying for you. You want to fight the kid, do it yourself."

I was momentarily confused. Then I saw the Stygian iron sword, wrapped in cloth, hanging from Eurytion's belt. It was then I realised that the negative feelings I had felt must have been projected onto Eurytion. He wanted revenge on Geryon.

"You dare defy me? I should fire you right now!" Geryon snarled.

"And who'd take care of your cattle? Orthus, heel." The two-headed dog shambled to Eurytion's side.

"Fine! I'll deal with you later," Geryon turned towards Percy, "after the boy is dead!"

He picked up two carving knives and threw them at Percy. He deflected one with his sword, the other missed, stabbing the picnic table.

Percy charged at Geryon. Geryon deflected his first strike with his pair of barbeque tongs, which were glowing a dangerous red with heat, and lunged towards Percy with a barbeque fork. Percy dodged, stepping closer to Geryon and stabbed him in the middle chest.

"Aghhh," Geryon crumpled to his knees. For a second I thought Percy had won, then I remembered Geryon's mythomagic trading card. The information on the cards was never wrong, as far as I knew. And Geyron's special ability was that you had to kill him three times. One for every heart. That meant each of Geryon's hearts had to be... Percy stepped back, waiting. No, I tried to tell him, stupid, he has three chests, three hearts, stab him in every heart, idiot.

But Percy just stood there, dumbfounded, as Geryon began to stand up again, wound already starting to heal.

"Nice try, sonny. Thing is, I have three hearts. The perfect backup system." Geryon taunted. He pushed over the barbeque, making coals spill everywhere. One landed next to Annabeth, making her scream. Percy stabbed at Geryon but it was no use. Geryon just stood there laughing.

Suddenly Percy turned towards the house, running inside.

"Coward," Geryon cried, "Come back here and die right!"

I could see glimpses through the window. Percy was looking desperately around the room. In anger, Geryon threw his barbeque fork, where stuck to the wall, quivering right next to Percy's head. Geryon charged inside, grabbing two swords from a wall display. There was muffled yelling from inside. I struggled to see Percy.

He was lunging sideways, shooting an arrow straight at Geryon. Geryon dropped his swords, opening his mouth in surprise, already starting to crumble to dust.

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After Percy killed Geryon he went outside, untied us and burnt an offering to the gods. I turned, glaring at Eurytion.

"Can we tie up this cowherd now?" I asked.

"Yeah," Grover agreed, "And that dog almost killed me!"

Percy looked over at Eurytion, who was lounging at the picnic table, Orthus the two-headed dog resting its heads on his lap.

"How long will it take Geryon to re-form?" Percy asked.

"Hundred years?" Eurytion shrugged, "He's not one of those fast reformers, thank the gods. You've done me a favour."

"You said you'd died for him before. How?" Percy asked.

"I've worked for that creep for thousands of years. Started as a regular half-blood, but I chose immortality when my dad offered it. Worst mistake I ever made. Now I'm stuck here at this ranch. I can't leave. I can't quit. I just tend to the cows and fight Geryon's fights. We're kinds tied together."

"Maybe you can change things." Percy suggested. Just like him, thinking the best of everyone, thinking they can change.

"How?" Eurytion narrowed his eyes.

"Be nice to the animals." Percy said, "Take care of them. Stop selling them for food. And stop dealing with the Titans."

"That'd be alright."

"Get the animals on your side, and they'll help you. Once Geryon gets back, maybe he'll be working for you this time."

"Now that I could live with." Eurytion smiled.

"You won't stop us from leaving?" Percy asked.

"Shoot, no."

Annabeth rubbed her bruised wrists, "Your boss said that somebody paid for our safe passage. Who?"

"Maybe he was just saying that to fool you." Eurytion shrugged.

"What about the Titans?" Percy asked, "Did you Iris-Message them about Nico yet?"

"Nope," Eurytion replied, "Geryon was waiting to after the barbeque. They don't know a thing about him."

I glared at Percy. Why did he care so much about me? He didn't love me, that was obvious. And I had to hate him, to kill him. To get Bianca back. Unless . . . could I get her back without killing Percy?

"You could stay here until we're done with our quest," Percy offered me, "It would be safe."

"Safe?" I growled, "What do you care if I'm safe? You got my sister killed!"

"Nico," Annabeth said, "That wasn't Percy's fault. And Geryon wasn't lying about Kronos wanting to capture you. If he knew who you were he'd do anything to get you on his side."

Of course Annabeth would stick up for Percy. But it was his fault. He had killed my sister.

"I'm not on anyone's side," I yelled, "And I'm not afraid!"

"You should be," Annabeth warned, "Your sister wouldn't want-"

I had heard enough. Annabeth was defending Percy. Now she was telling me what my own sister would want.

"If you cared for my sister, you'd help me bring her back!" I yelled.

"A soul for a soul?" Percy asked.

"Yes!" What did Percy think? I could just wander into the Underworld and pick up a sister. I couldn't even find Bianca in the Underworld, let alone bring her back.

"But if you didn't want my soul-"

"I'm not explaining anything to you!" I cursed silently as I felt tears form in my eyes. "And I will bring her back!"

"Bianca wouldn't want to be brought back," Percy told me. "Not like this."

"You didn't know her!" I yelled, "How do you know what she'd want?"

Percy had known Bianca for three days or less before he killed her. I had known my sister for years. My entire life. Percy was wrong. He had to be.

Percy stared at the flames in the barbeque, "Let's ask Bianca."

The sky seemed to grow darker. I could feel Hades' tension building up under the earth.

"I've tried," I told him, anger turning to hopelessness, "She won't answer."

"Try again." Percy coaxed, "I've got a feeling she'll answer, with me here."

"Why would she?"

"Because she's been sending me Iris-messages." Percy said, "She's been trying to warn me what you're up to, so I can protect you."

Several emotions flashed through me. Anger that Bianca would appear to Percy and not me. Disbelief that she would want Percy to protect me. Fear that Percy could have seen anything in my life and I didn't even know. Hope that I may finally see Bianca. I shook my head, "That's impossible."

"One way to find out. You're not afraid." Percy turned to Eurytion, "We're going to need a pit, like a grave. And food and drinks."

He had seen me summon the dead? This just got better and better.

"Percy," Annabeth warned, "I don't think this is a good-"

"All right. I'll try." I said. If Annabeth was disagreeing with Percy maybe agreeing with him would actually make him like me a little. Or at least not be so obsessive over Annabeth.

Eurytion scratched his beard, "There's a hole dug out back for a septic tank. We could use that. Cyclops boy, fetch my ice chest from the kitchen. I hope the dead like root beer."

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It was fully dark when I started preparing to summon Bianca. I stood with Percy, Tyson, Grover and Annabeth next to a seven metre pit. Behind it was the septic tank, bright yellow with a smiley face and the words HAPPY FLUSH DISPOSAL CO. in red.

The moon was full, silvery clouds floating above us in the sky. I glanced around.

"Minos should be here by now. It's full dark." I said, frowning.

"Maybe he got lost." Percy said, not disguising the hope in his voice. That made me even more annoyed. Why did he hate my ghost so much? Minos was the only soul I knew who really wanted to help me.

I shook the thoughts from my head, pouring root beer and tossing barbeque into the pit. I began to chant in ancient Greece, changing the words slightly;

"Let the dead rise. Let my sister, Bianca return from the grave. Let her take my offerings and live again. Let her taste, let her live. Let her taste this food and return from the grave. Let her have her memories. Let her remember me. Let her remember what it was like to live, to run over grass, to laugh, to smile. Let her appear before me." I chanted. The words stuck in my throat but I poured all my sadness at her loss, all my anger, all my love for her into the words. My head spun slightly at the force of my emotions. I didn't have my sword to help power me, I was channelling my life force directly into Bianca's spirit.

Blue shapes flickered into existence around the pit. One of them floated to the edge of the pool, leaning down to drink.

"Make him stop!" I yelled urgently, "Only Bianca may drink!"

Percy drew his sword but it was too late. The other ghosts retreated but the one who had drunk from the pool rose. It was Minos. Of course, I growled angrily to myself.

"Minos!" I said, "What are you doing?"

"My apologies master. The sacrifice smelt so good, I couldn't resist." Minos apologised, "It is so good to see myself again. Almost in solid form-"

"You are disrupting the ritual!" I said, "Get-"

The spirits at the pool flickered forwards again and I had to continue chanting to stop them drinking.

"Yes, quite right, master," Minos said, "You keep chanting. I've only come to protect you from these liars who would deceive you."

Minos turned to Percy, but I wasn't listening. Liars? Was Percy lying to me? Why else would he be so sure Bianca would come? What if this was all a trick? How could I trust him? He had already stolen my heart, who knew what else he would do? I thought he didn't know about my feelings but what if he was leading me on intentionally?

I was vaguely aware of Minos taunting Percy. No matter how he felt about me I couldn't let Percy come to harm, and Minos could do harm.

"Enough, Minos," I commanded.

"Master, these are your enemies." Minos protested, "You must not listen to them! Let me protect you. I will turn their minds to madness, as I did the others."

"The others?" Annabeth gasped, "You mean Chris Rodriguez? That was you?"

Of course it was my ghost, I thought. No one but Minos could do something so powerful.

"The maze is my property," Minos snarled, "not Daedalus'! Those who intrude deserve madness!"

I had had enough, "Be gone Minos! I want to see my sister!"

"As you wish master. But I did warn you. You cannot trust these heroes." Minos faded into mist.

Other spirits rushed forwards but Percy and Annabeth drew their weapons, holding them back.

"Bianca, appear!" I called, chanting faster, pouring more emotions, more memories into my words.

"Any time now," Grover mirrored my thoughts.

A silvery light began to flicker in the trees, brighter than the other spirits around the pit. It came closer, not bothered by Percy or Annabeth's blades. It knelt by the pool and began to drink. When it rose, Bianca stood there.

I stopped chanting, staring wide-eyed and dazed at my sister. She looked the same she had when I last saw her. Her green cap, her huntress clothes, her new bow. She was a beautiful as Aphrodite in my eyes, shining silver, eyes sparkling with humour and kindness and sympathy. I wasn't sure how long I had been staring at her for. I felt like forever.

"Bianca!" I stumbled forwards.

She turned towards me sadly, "Hello, Nico. You've got so tall."

"Why didn't you answer me sooner?" Now that the moment was happening I felt tears welling up in my eyes, "I've been trying for months!"

"I was hoping you would give up." Bianca said sadly.

"Give up?" How could she not want to see me? I almost couldn't think with despair, "How can you say that? I'm trying to save you!"

"You can't, Nico. Don't do this. Percy is right," She said gently.

I felt broken inside. How could Percy be right? How could Bianca be siding with him and not me, her own brother?

"No! He let you die! He's not your friend." I protested. This couldn't be true. I had been dreaming of this moment for months and it was all going wrong. It was Percy's fault. Again.

Bianca stretched out a hand to touch me. As her hand got close it disappeared.

"You must listen to me," she said urgently, "Holding grudges is dangerous for a child of Hades. It is our fatal flaw. You have to forgive. You have to promise me this."

"I can't! Never." This was all going wrong. Why was Bianca doing this? I wanted to help her. It wasn't meant to be like this. She was meant to care about me.

"Percy has been worried about you, Nico. He can help. I let him see what you were up to, hoping he would find you."

Why did Percy care? Why didn't Bianca? I felt tears well up in my eyes. It was all wrong. I was meant to hate Percy, not Bianca. But I didn't.

"So it was you," Percy said, "You sent those Iris-messages."

"Why are you helping him and not me?" I screamed, suddenly unable to bare it, "It's not fair!"

"You are close to the truth now," Bianca said. "It's not Percy you're mad at, Nico. It's me."

"No." I couldn't admit it. Not to myself. Not to Bianca. Not to Percy. Not to anyone. Ever.

"You're mad because I left you to become a Hunter of Artemis. You're mad because I died and left you alone. I'm sorry for that, Nico. I truly am. But you must overcome the anger. And stop blaming Percy for my choices. It will be your doom."

Everything she said was true. I was angry at her. Why had she left me alone? We could have grown up together. She left me for the Hunters, strangers she had known for barley an hour. She didn't love me. She left me for immortality with strangers. She left me for Percy. She left me for good. She died, not caring about me. She died for Percy, not me. It was all her fault.

"She's right," Annabeth said, "Kronos is rising, Nico. He'll twist anyone he can to his cause."

Why was Annabeth here? She just made everything worse. And I didn't know or care about Kronos. All I knew was lost already. And my own sister was telling me everything I believed in was wrong and Annabeth's first thoughts were about Kronos?

"I don't care about Kronos," I yelled, "I just want my sister back."

"You can't have that, Nico." Bianca said. Her words, once comforting were now infuriating.

"I'm the son of Hades! I can." I screamed. My anger was rippling off me, making Bianca fade.

"Don't try." Bianca said, "If you love me don't..."

The ghosts rippled. My emotions were setting them on edge. I was never good at controlling myself but now I was beyond crazy with anger.

"Tartarus stirs," Bianca warned, "Your power draws the attention of Kronos. The dead must return to the Underworld. It is not safe for us to remain."

"Wait! Please-"

"Goodbye, Nico," Bianca said, "I love you. Remember what I said."

She shimmered and disappeared, the rest of the ghosts followed her lead. I wanted to run away again, the way I had the night Percy told me my sister was dead. It wasn't fair. I fell to the ground, tears spilling down my face. I wanted to scream. The pain inside me washed away everything else. I wasn't aware of anything except Bianca's betrayal.

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I didn't sleep at all that night, despite the tiredness from raising Bianca. The truth about my feelings towards her pierced my heart like manticore poison, enough to cause blinding agony so intense you may wish for death but not enough to kill, never quite enough to kill.

It sat next to the other spike in my heart, the one caused by Percy. Love, pain, betrayal, loss, bitterness, anger, loneliness. Everything I felt in the latest parts of my life, ever since finding out I was a demigod, was something no ten year old should ever feel.

I shuddered in the morning light. I had changed so much from the boy Percy rescued. I hated myself. I hated Bianca. I hated Percy. Everything was so painful, even saying goodbye to your least favourite people.

We stood at the cattle grid which was the entrance of the Labyrinth. Percy, Annabeth, Grover and Tyson were going back to their quest. I stood wrapped in a black robe that belonged to Geryon, so it was more than three times too big for me. It would have been too big for me anyway.

I was staying here for now, not necessarily from my choice. I wasn't sure I had a choice about anything, but I needed time to think. Not that I was sure how I felt about anything now.

"Nico you could come with us," Percy told me. He was looking at me sadly. I shook my head, frowning.

"I need time to think." I avoided Percy's eyes. I was still angry Bianca had appeared before Percy and not me, but I didn't need him to know this.

"Nico. Bianca just wants you to be okay." Annabeth tried to comfort me. Couldn't she just leave me alone? She was already with Percy, what more could she take from me? I couldn't bear to look at her.

When she tried to reach out and touch me I pulled away, turning back towards the house. I didn't want to be near them anymore. Any of them. As I trudged back up the track I could hear Annabeth talking again.

"I'm worried about him. If he starts talking to Minos' ghost again-"

I growled under my breath. I'll do whatever I want. If I talk to Minos' ghost so what? I'm a child of Hades. Minos can't do anything to me.

If I had known how wrong I was I would never had entered the Labyrinth again. I should have known by now that ghosts can do horrible things to your spirit, things worse than any physical injury. I had watched Minos drive people crazy during my time in the Labyrinth. I had felt the pain of Bianca's visit firsthand, yet I was determined to win her back, and Minos wasn't going to stop me.

Chapter Text

I didn't sleep at all that night, despite my weariness from raising Bianca. The truth about my feelings towards her pierced my heart like manticore poison, enough to cause blinding agony so intense you may wish for death, but not enough to kill, never quite enough to kill.

It sat next to the other spike in my heart, the one caused by Percy. Love, pain, betrayal, loss, bitterness, anger, loneliness. Everything I felt in the latest parts of my life, ever since finding out I was a demigod, was something no ten year old should ever feel.

I shuddered in the morning light. I had changed so much from the boy Percy rescued. I hated myself. I hated Bianca. I hated Percy. Everything was so painful, even saying goodbye to my least favourite people.

We stood at the cattle grid which was the entrance of the Labyrinth. Percy, Annabeth, Grover and Tyson were going back to their quest. I stood wrapped in a black robe that belonged to Geryon, so it was more than three times too big for me.

I was staying here for now, not necessarily from my choice. I didn't really want to stay, but I needed time to think.

"Nico you could come with us," Percy told me. He was looking at me sadly. I shook my head, frowning.

"I need time to think." I avoided Percy's eyes.

"Nico. Bianca just wants you to be okay." Annabeth tried to comfort me. Couldn't she just leave me alone? She was already with Percy, what more could she take from me?

When she tried to reach out and touch me, I pulled away, turning back towards the house. I didn't want to be near them. Any of them. As I trudged back up the track I could hear Annabeth talking again.

"I'm worried about him. If he starts talking to Minos' ghost again-"

I growled under my breath. I'll do whatever I want. If I talk to Minos' ghost so what? I'm a child of Hades. Minos can't do anything to me.

If I had known how wrong I was I would never had entered the Labyrinth again. I should have known by now that ghosts can do horrible things to your spirit, things worse than any physical injury. I had watched Minos drive people crazy during my time in the Labyrinth. I had felt the pain of Bianca's visit firsthand, yet I was determined to win her back, and Minos wasn't going to stop me.

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"Master, wake up, it is urgent."

I jolted straight up, squinting in the dark room. I hadn't been sleeping but a familiar voice shaken me out of a trance-like state of thought. A voice that had been irritating me for three nights now.

"Minos, it's the middle of the night." I frowned, "What is it?"

"Perseus Jackson is in trouble." Minos was invisible, just a voice floating in the room.

"Percy?" I asked, "What do you mean?"

"In the Labyrinth, master, he is in trouble. He's alone, stuck. But I can help. I will guide you to him."

"How can I trust you?" I frowned.

"Master, it has been two weeks with no sign of Percy Jackson." Minos said, "If he was fine then the quest would be over. He did promise to contact you. And you still need to find Daedalus, so you can get your sister back."

I frowned. The way Minos was talking made me uneasy. He was voicing everything I was repeating to myself over and over. The way Minos talked about Percy. It was like he knew about my feelings for him. Maybe he did. He knew I was tasked with killing Percy, yet I hadn't when I clearly had the chance. At the very least he suspected something. Either way he knew I wasn't just going to leave Percy alone in the Labyrinth.

"What can I do to help?" I slipped out of bed.

"We need your blade. Then you must get back to the Labyrinth. I will guide you from there." Minos said.

"Where is my sword?" I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed not having it.

"The cow heard, Eurytion, has it in his room." Minos told me.

"How can I get it back?"

But the voice of Minos was silent. Slowly I turned towards the door of my room. If Percy truly was in trouble then I would help him in any way I could. I stepped lightly out of my room. My footsteps were as silent as a ghost's, literally. After what seemed like an age, and me freezing with every noise, I reached the bedroom door and peeked through a crack.

The cowheard was in his bed, chest moving up and down in regular, heavy breaths. I stepped into the room, looking around. On a display on the wall was a short black sword. My sword. The Stygian iron blade beckoned me forwards. I stepped right up to the display, running my hand across the blade. I hadn't realised how much I missed it.

I took my weapon, sheathed it and walked back to the door. On the way my foot nudged something. A moment later growling met my ears. I gulped. Orthus. I had completely forgotten about the two-headed dog.

I backed out of the room as fast as I could, clutching my sword. Two pairs of eyes glowed in the dark. I turned and fled from the house. Behind me I heard the pounding of Orthus's paws. I ran towards the cattle grid that was the entrance to the Labyrinth. But even if I got there would I be able to get into the Labyrinth.

I glanced behind me. In the light of the full moon I could see Orthus clearly. I sped towards the cattle grid, but Orthus was gaining on me, snapping at my heels.

I concentrated on getting to the entrance of the Labyrinth.

Just then my foot slipped. Clouds fell over the moon and the world was plunged into darkness. The entrance to the Labyrinth, I thought desperately. I fell but didn't hit the ground. I kept falling, through blackness. Suddenly the ground came fast towards me.

Before I fell unconscious I realised something. I was no longer at the cattle grid, I could tell by the huge wall was towering over me. And Orthus was gone.

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"Master, wake up. Master."

I groaned. My head was throbbing.

"Master, wake."

Who was that? What was happening? I groaned again. My eyes opened a crack. White light blinded me.

"What?" I murmured.

"Master, hurry."

I knew that voice. My throbbing head stopped me from thinking but the white light in my eyes faded a little. There was a big white-blue shape right above me. Beyond that was blackness, dotted with white. On one side of me a huge dark shape towered along, as far as the eye could see in either direction.

"Master."

"Minos?" I asked, focussing on the bright shape above me. Slowly the figure of a man swam into existence, glowing blue and transparent. Behind him was the sky. But what was that black thing.

"Yes?"

"Where... where am I?" It was hard just to speak.

"China, master, by the Great Wall." Minos told me.

"CHINA!" I sat up in shock. Big mistake. My world spun around me again, head throbbing like I had banged a car door against it repetitively.

"Indeed master, you shadow-travelled for the first time." Minos said happily.

"Shadow-travelled?" I asked. I remembered falling through the darkness and not being at Triple G Ranch anymore.

"Indeed master. Children of Hades can teleport through shadows. You almost faded but that only means your skills are developing." Minos said.

"Oh." The throbbing in my head was fading slightly, "How did I end up here?"

"You must have thought something to do with China as you fell into the shadows. Walls, maybe?" Minos said offhandedly.

"I thought about the entrance to the Labyrinth. Wait... how long have I been out?"

"Hmm... about a week?" Minos said, "You must hurry back to the Labyrinth, master."

"Percy. Is he alright?" I said. My head and vision were almost back to normal, thank the gods.

"That is why we must hurry, master. Press here." Minos gestured to a point in the wall where a small mark was engraved into the stone. The mark of Daedalus.

I stood, took a few shaky steps, and then leant against the wall, feeling dizzy. I took a few deep breaths, counting to ten in my head. Then I pushed away from the wall and put my fingers to the mark. A section of the wall opened up and I stumbled inside.

"I want a second opinion." I said, mostly to myself.

"Am I not good enough, master?" Minos asked bitterly.

"No, it's not that." I said, "I just- I want another opinion, Minos. I'm not going anywhere until then."

"Very well, my lord." Minos said, but it sounded as if he was speaking to a particularly dim-witted child, rather than someone who he could consider his 'lord'. I was being stupid and self-important again. I had to stop that.

Instead, I focused on summoning some skeletons to do my bidding. The spirits whirled up, turning from wispy ghosts to skeletons armed with shovels. As they began to dig up a pit in the ground, my head began to pound even more than before. I gritted my teeth and ignored the pain, and the tingling feeling in my fingers that summoning the skeletons gave me.

When the pit was finally dug I realised I had a problem. "McDonald's. Where am I going to get that here?"

I will stay and mind our site, my lord." Minos suggested. "You can go and find some food for the spirits."

I groaned in annoyance and trudged off into the darkness of the Labyrinth, searching for an exit.

After what must have been at least three hours of walking, I found a small, glowing blue triangle. I pressed it and watched as a steel grate slid open with the noise of fingernails on a chalkboard. I stepped out into a dark alleyway with a bustling street beyond.

My head aching worse than ever, I walked onto the street and looked around. A bright yellow 'M' was perched on the side of a building. Suddenly self-conscious about my messy appearance, I pushed open the door and stepped into the fast-food place. It was empty, aside from the guy at the counter.

Although my head hurt more than ever, I summoned a small handful of coins into my pocket. Being the son of Hades has its very occasional advantages.

I sighed and walked up to the counter. A freckly, teenaged boy playing on his phone barely glanced up as he said boredly, "Hi, may I take your order?"

"Yeah." I said. "Can I please get seven happy meals?"

"Seven?" He glanced up and saw me. We stared at each other for a small eternity, him taking in my scrawny appearance, the dark bags under my eyes and the scowl plastered on my face, and me just trying to match his gaze.

"Yeah." I said again.

"Coming right up." He said. "You look like you need some."

"Ha ha." I said. "Yeah, I look depressed. I'm not in the mood for this, mortal."

If there's one way to creep someone out, calling them 'mortal' is it. The boy didn't try anymore conversation with me, and I preferred it that way. I walked over to the window and stared out, ignoring and willing the throbbing in my head away.

After some time, the guy behind the counter coughed awkwardly. "Kid, your order."

"Thanks." I handed him a handful of coins. "Keep the change."

Before the guy could say another word I turned and walked out of the shop.

Retracing my steps through the Labyrinth was a lot quicker than I had thought possible. I knew the Labyrinth constantly twisted and changed, but the path must have shortened, because in less than half an hour I found myself back at the pit, with Minos hovering over it.

"You are not to eat any of this." I told him.

"As you wish, my lord." Minos said.

I began to chant in Ancient Greek, the words so familiar now. Slowly, flickering ghosts began to appear, their ghostly glow further lighting the dark tunnel.

"There are too many." Minos said.

"I know what I'm doing." I told him. "One at a time! Or else."

A flickering form knelt at the edge of the pit and drunk nosily. When the figure stood its features became clear. The figure had curly hair, a long beard and rich-looking attire. I heard Minos sniff with distaste, but I didn't pay attention to whatever he said to me next.

"Who are you?" I directed my question at the ghost.

"King Aegeus of Athens." The ghost said.

Aegeus, Aegeus. Where have I heard that name before? I racked my brain for any memory of this King. A sudden memory burst into my mind. "You're Theseus's father."

"I am." Aegeus agreed.

"Well, I have to ask you something." I said.

"Is- is that King Minos?" Aegeus was looking behind me, eyes wide. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Minos scowling at the ghost.

I gritted my teeth but didn't answer, instead I said to Aegeus, "The Labyrinth."

"Oh no, oh no!" Aegeus wasn't listening to me. He was floating panicked, around the pit, wailing.

"Shut up!" I yelled. But the ghost wasn't paying me any attention. He seemed absolutely distraught at the sight of Minos. Of course, I thought, Minos made him send people off to die in the Labyrinth and threatened him. Great.

I decided that this conversation wasn't going to amount to anything useful. I drew my sword and waved it in Aegeus's direction. "Get out. Leave me alone."

He and all the ghosts other than Minos flicked out like lights.

Minos smiled smugly. "It seems you have no choice but to trust me."

Chapter Text

"This way." Minos said, floating off down a corridor. I followed him hesitantly. Ahead was what looked like a pair of doors made from Celestial bronze. They were three metres tall and emblazed with a pair of crossed swords.

"Are you sure Minos?" I asked wearily when we reached the doors.

"This is the way to Percy Jackson. And Daedalus." Minos said confidently.

I opened the doors and gasped. Directly in front of me was a horrible creature, white skin, mismatched legs - one goat, one metal - flaming hair and claws for hands. Minos drifted into the room.

"Ah, Kellie, right on time." He said to her.

"Yes, and this half-blood is just what we need. But first, on to the inventor. We have a promise to uphold."

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I was hurriedly chained by the monster, Kellie. I could feel that the chains were loose but I couldn't escape, not with Kellie nearby. Instead I forced myself to speak.

"What are you doing? I'm the son of Hades."

"We know, demigod. You're just the thing we need." Kellie grinned in a way that could only be described as evil.

"Kronos?" I croaked, trying a different angle, "Do you work for him? For Luke?"

"Yes." Kellie tensed slightly at the name of Luke. I could tell that she didn't always feel 'friendly' towards Luke.

"I met a demigod in the Labyrinth. Chris." I said, "Worked for Luke."

"Oh, yes." Kellie waved her hand carelessly, "He was one of the early tests. Trying to navigate the Labyrinth. Doesn't matter now. Let's go."

She tugged me to my feet and pulled me along a length of corridors. I don't remember what was happening, just glimpses; two Laistrygonian giants joining us, a skull-filled arena full of monsters and demigods, a long hallway, a half-blood with an eyepatch surrounded by monsters.

Then we came to the door. Tall, metal doors with the mark of Daedalus engraved just above my head.

"At last." Minos grinned, "The moment I have been waiting for years."

"Minos! Help me!" I yelped, still determined to believe that the ghost was under my control.

"Silence, boy." Kellie snapped, pushing open the doors. I was shoved inside, followed by Kellie, the giants and Minos. The room beyond the door was full of light, which was streaming through giant windows. The ceiling was ten metres high with industrial lighting, polished stone floors and workbenches.

A spiral staircase led up to a second-storey loft. Half a dozen easels displayed half-finished diagrams for building and machines. There were also finished inventions, strange contraptions with wire and bronze.

Percy, Annabeth and another girl with bushy red hair stood facing a man who could only be Daedalus, although he wasn't an old man, he was youngish and healthy looking.

Minos grinned wickedly when he saw the man, "There you are, my old friend."

"What is the meaning of this?" Daedalus snarled.

"Luke sends his compliments," Kellie smiled cruelly, "He thought you might want to see your old employer, Minos."

Minos worked for Luke, the demigod who was helping for Kronos, trying to recruit half-bloods? But Minos was helping me wasn't he? Trying to get my sister's soul back?

"This was not part of our agreement," Daedalus said.

"No indeed," Kellie answered, "But we already have what we want from you, and we have other agreements to honour. Minos required something else from us, in order to turn over his fine young demigod."

She ran a figure under my chin. As I flinched away I felt my chains slide slightly. Maybe I could escape. If only Kellie was distracted.

"He'll be quite useful," She continued, "And all Minos asked for in return was your head, old man."

"Treachery." Daedalus snarled.

"Get used to it."

"Nico," Percy called, "Are you okay?"

When I locked gaze with his sea-green eyes – horrible and romantic and sappy as it may be - I didn't care about myself. I wanted Percy to be okay. And Percy wanted me to be okay. Despite my helplessness I felt a small twinge joy.

"I – I'm sorry, Percy," I apologised, "Minos told me you were in danger. He convinced me to go back into the maze."

"You were trying to help us?" Percy asked incredulously.

I was trying to help Percy. I hated him, I hated my feelings for him, but I would do anything for him. The spark of joy had gone, replaced by bitterness. I guess Percy was right about Minos. "I was tricked. He tricked all of us."

Percy glared at Kelli, "Where's Luke? Why isn't he here?"

Kelli's smile became larger still, "Luke is ... busy. He is preparing for the assault. But don't worry. We have more friends on the way. And in the meantime, I think I'll have a wonderful snack!"

Her hair flamed violently.

The red-head whispered something to Percy who nodded, whispering back. Oh gods. Was she making a move on Percy too? One girl was bad enough, two was unbearable. But suddenly Annabeth and Percy drew their weapons and charged straight at Kelli. I sighed in relief. Why was I so paranoid?

The giants moved towards Daedalus then a hellhound leapt out of the shadows. Instead of trying to kill the inventor, the hellhound turned to attack the giants. Daedalus had a pet hellhound? Nice.

But before I could do anything I was pushed to the floor. Above me Minos was wailing at everyone, telling them to kill Daedalus. Suddenly I snapped. My anger at being betrayed by Minos took hold. My chains cracked off of me. Everything else evaporated from my vision. I could only see Minos, who was unaware of my anger.

"To me!" He cried, "Spirits of the dead!" He began to hum the lines I used when raising the dead.

"No!" I yelled.

"You do not control me, young fool," Minos sneered, "All this time, I have been controlling you! A soul for a soul, yes. But it is not your sister who will return from the dead. It is I, as soon as I slay the inventor!"

Spirits began to appear around Minos, solidifying into Cretan soldiers. Anger spread through me, growing more with each ghost.

"I am the son of Hades," I warned him, "Be gone!"

Minos laughed, "You have no power over me. I am the lord of spirits! The ghost king!"

I snapped. My rage exploded. I drew my sword, "No." I yelled, "I am!"

I plunged my sword into the ground. It cut it like butter. From my blade the floor rumbled rolling outwards. The windows cracked. A fissure opened in the floor. Minos and his ghosts began to be sucked into it. Before he disappeared I switched to Ancient Greek. "I am the child of Hades. The Ghost King. Do not cross me again. You will not come near me or anyone I care about again. Be gone."

As Minos disappeared I crumpled to the floor. My head began to throb and I felt like I would pass out. Around me the battle was still going on but I couldn't concentrate until Percy yelled something. Percy. I forced myself to listen to what he was saying.

"We have to help Daedalus!"

"No time!" The red-head yelled, "Too many coming!"

She was wearing funny metal wings and holding a pair out to me. I made an effort to stand and she slipped the wings onto my shoulders. Despite the fact they were fully metal they were almost weightless.

The red-head turned to Percy, "Now you!"

Soon we were all equipped with wings, ready to leave. But Percy turned back to Daedalus. No! Don't save him. It's his fault. I wanted to yell. But I was too tired. But Percy called out anyways. "Daedalus! Come on!"

The inventor was cut in hundreds of places but he was bleeding golden stuff that looked like oil, not blood. Just another mystery.

"I won't leave Mrs O'Leary! Go!" He shouted, gesturing to the hellhound.

"None of us know how to fly!" I yelled.

"Great time to find out!" Percy yelled, jumping out the window. Annabeth and the red-head practically pushed my out the window then jumped out themselves. Suddenly the metal wings weighed me down. I fell towards the earth, thinking this is how I die?

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As I fell I tried spreading my arms wide as a last resort and felt my wings catch the wind, my fall stopped. I flapped them, soaring back towards Annabeth, who of course had mastered the wings instantly, and the red-head, who was wobbling into a flight pattern.

Below me Percy was still falling. My breath caught in my throat, I couldn't speak. Surely Percy couldn't die now. After all he had been through. After all I had been through for him. Annabeth looked down and screamed.

"Spread your arms! Keep them extended!" She yelled. Percy stopped struggling and spread his arms wide. His fall slowed, he began to glide. Then he flapped his wings and sped upwards towards us. I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Yeah!" He yelled, beginning to swoop and dive, before soaring back up to us. Show off.

"Land!" Annabeth yelled, "These wing won't last long!"

Thank the gods. I didn't realise how much I hated flying until I thought of landing. I frowned at the ground below me. How do you land?

"How long?" The red-head asked.

"I don't want to find out!" Annabeth replied, circling towards the ground. Luckily landing was easier than I thought, we just soared slowly to the ground like a plane and came to a stop when out feet hit the ground.

We shed our wings and Percy grabbed them and put them in the bin. I was relieved that they were gone, I'd rather travel through the Labyrinth any day, guide or no.

Percy went into the cafeteria and came out with a pair of binoculars. He put them to his eyes, looking up at the hill. It was empty.

"The workshop moved." Annabeth said, "There's no telling where."

"So what do we do now?" Percy asked, "How do we get back in the maze?"

Annabeth gazed into the distance, "Maybe we can't. If Daedalus died... he said his life force was tied to the Labyrinth. The whole thing might've been destroyed. Maybe that will stop Luke's invasion."

I dug deep inside me, the way I had when Bianca died. The cold hard shard of me representing what I felt towards Daedalus was still there, solid as ever.

"No. He isn't dead." I said.

"How can you be sure?" Percy asked. I clenched my fist. I was a child of the Underworld, a child who had spent nearly a year with only the dead for company. Of course I knew when people were dead. Just like Percy to doubt me.

"I know when people die," I said, "It's this feeling I get, like a buzzing in my ears."

"What about Tyson and Grover, then?" Percy asked. Always thinking of his friends first.

"That's harder," I shook my head, annoyed, "They're not humans or half-bloods. They don't have mortal souls."

"We have to get to town," Annabeth decided, "Our chances of finding an entrance to the Labyrinth will be better. We have to make it back to camp before Luke and his army."

"We could take a plane." The red-head suggested.

"I don't fly." Percy shrugged. I inwardly sighed in relief.

"But you just did." The red-head pointed out.

"That was low flying," Percy said, "and even that's risky. Flying up really high – that's Zeus's territory. I can't do it. Besides, we don't have enough time for a flight. The Labyrinth is the quickest way back."

You have no idea how much worse it would be for a child of Hades, a child of the earth. I pointed out mentally. The sea and the sky are both dangerous for me. The only place that I'm safe is underground, like the- no, that wasn't 'safe'.

"So we need a car to take us into the city," Annabeth said.

The red-head looked down to the parking lot, grimacing like she was about to do something she regretted. "I'll take care of it."

"How?" Annabeth asked.

"Just trust me."

Annabeth nodded, "Okay, I'm going to buy a prism in the gift shop, try to make a rainbow and send a message to camp."

"I'll go with you, I'm hungry." I said. I wasn't really hungry but I didn't want to be near Percy any longer than I had to. And part of me didn't trust Annabeth. Stupid and irrational, I know, but I didn't want her out of my sights.

"I'll stick with Rachel then," Percy said, "Meet you guys in the parking lot."

Percy and the red-head trudged over to the parking lot. Annabeth turned towards the gift shop and I trailed after her. Now that I wasn't distracted by dying or flying or Percy I realised how exhausted I was. Defeating Minos was had ruined my appetite completely and I was just tired now.

I looked down at my hands. They were transparent. Fading. But that was a sign that my powers were growing, like sore muscles after exercise. A good sign. That's what Minos said. And, despite betraying me, he had taught me how to use my powers.

Inside the gift shop I leant against a wall, focusing on breathing deeply. Annabeth was at the counter paying for a rainbow prism thing. Then she walked towards me. She stopped next to me.

"Are you alright?"

"I'm fine." I pushed myself off the wall, trying not to let my legs tremble.

"You look... not good." Annabeth said carefully, peering at my arms.

"Not good? Like, kid who's sister died because his- his hero killed her on a quest to save you, causing him to run away into a monster infested maze with a ghost secretly controlling and on the way visiting the Underworld, seeing so many dead souls but not Bianca's, then going to see his father for the very. First. Time. Only. For. His. Father. To. Call him stupid and worthless and kick him out. Then the kid finding his sister's ghost, but her ghost agrees with his enemy then his enemy acting like he's incompetent causing the kid to run away and accidently go to China, be knocked out for a day, get chained by a whatever-Kellie-is and be betrayed by Minos, then become the Ghost King before jumping out a window with metal wings on my back and nearly seeing Percy crash to a grease spot on the ground not good? Hypothetically. Because yeah, you could say that." I started off sounding sarcastic but ended up almost shouting. No, I was NOT okay.

"No, Nico, as in, you look... different." Annabeth said softly, glancing over at the cashier, who was the only other person in the room. He sat stiff with glazed eyes behind the counter. He couldn't see this for what is was. Annabeth frowned, "Sickly. Deadish."

"I'm a child of Hades. The Ghost King." I said bitterly, "What'd you expect?"

"No, Nico, I don't think you get it. Look at yourself." Annabeth held her prism in front of me. I was pale, sickly looking. My skin was almost whitish, with my dark hair and eyes framing how sickly and underweight I was. I looked scary too, like someone who I would avoid on the streets.

"What! That's not-" I grabbed at the prism. It passed right through my fingers. Annabeth's hand did too. I was distracted and I fell, backwards through the wall I had been leaning on. Twice in one minute! I climbed to my feet awkwardly. Annabeth backed up a bit. This was bad enough, Annabeth staring at me like I was... who I was. The thought made me shiver with fear. I was already so scary that I was the one that people would be compared to.

"Nico! What in Hades is happening?" Annabeth half-screamed.

"Nothing. I'm fine." I growled.

"Nico, you are transparent, you look like a ghost and you fell through a wall. A WALL!" Annabeth reached forward and her hands clenched around the area that would have been my shoulders but was air. She tried to shake them. The way she acted reminded me of Bianca, how she had sounded when she was angry.

"Annabeth! Stop. I'm fine. And if you don't stop I swear to Hades I will..." Words failed me. I was suddenly so tired. I crumpled to the floor, falling through Annabeth. She let out a muffled shriek as I lay through her.

"Are you... uh, no. Never mind." Annabeth said. She was getting the picture. No, I was not alright, but I wouldn't admit to being weak. Especially not to Annabeth.

"Fine. I'm fine." I groaned, pushing myself into a sitting position, "Just-" my words were cut off by a yawn, "Tired."

"Have this." Annabeth fished in her bag, drawing out some squashed ambrosia. I remembered it from the time Chris gave it to me. She placed it next to me, "Eat it in your own time, I'm going to talk to camp."

"Okay."

"Alright." Annabeth walked to the other side of the shop and angled the prism in the light and fished out a drachma. I stayed were I was, not eager for camp to see me. I remembered camp so well. It hadn't really felt like home, cramped into the Hermes cabin.

I concentrated on not fading, ignoring the ambrosia that Annabeth had given me. I was so distracted with my thoughts that I was surprised when Annabeth shook my shoulder. She could touch me again. I pulled away from her.

"I'm done." She told me, "Hey, you're solid now."

"I know. Let's go then. But, erm, one more thing?" I asked, grabbing the ambrosia and stuffing it into my pocket, then standing up.

"Yes?" Annabeth turned back to me.

"Swear it. On the River Styx."

"What?"

"Fading. Don't tell anyone about me fading."

"What?"

"Becoming transparent and stuff. Don't tell anyone. Just..." I swallowed, "It's a good thing. It means my powers are growing."

"But Percy's never mentioned something like that."

"Please just swear it on the Styx." I said, annoyed.

"I swear on the River Styx not to tell anyone about your fading. I'm not convinced it's good, but we don't have time for this right now. Let's go."

We walked outside. Percy and the red-head were waiting in the parking lot next to a chauffeur in a limo and a guy in khaki shorts. Once we were there Annabeth turned to Percy.

"I talked to Chiron," She told him, "They're doing their best to prepare for battle, but he still wants us back. They're going to need every hero they can get. Did we find a ride?"

Every hero they can get. Not me, I thought dejectedly, I'm anything but a hero.

"The driver's ready when we are," The red-head, Rachel, said, "Come on."

The driver led us to the car and got in, not even looking at the guy in khaki shorts, who was arguing with the chauffer. We climbed in after her.

"Where to Miss Dare?" The chauffer asked.

"I'm not sure yet, Robert," Rachel said, "We just need to drive around and, uh, look through town."

"Whatever you say, Miss."

Percy looked at Rachel curiously, "Do you know this guy?"

"No." She replied.

"But he dropped everything to help you. Why?"

Rachel shifted uncomfortably, "Just keep your eyes peeled. Help me look."

I gazed out the window. We rode in silence for nearly an hour. Suddenly Rachel sat bolt upright.

"Get off the highway!"

"Miss?" The chauffer said uncertainly.

"I saw something, I think. Get off here!"

The driver swerved across the traffic and turned off the road.

"What did you see?" Percy asked. We were in the middle of nowhere but as I gazed out the window I thought I saw something. On the padlock to an abandoned mineshaft was a small glowing mark. The sign of Daedalus. It was tiny but it stuck up like a sore thumb.

"There." Rachel pointed to the mine, "An old mine entrance."

"A door to the Labyrinth?" Annabeth sounded doubtful, "How can you be sure?"

"Well look at it." Rachel said, "I mean ... I can see it, okay?"

She thanked the driver and we all climbed out. I walked a few paces away. The car drive had been too crowded for me, being alone for so many moths. Being in such a close proximity to Percy and Annabeth, it was different to say the least.

We set off up the hill. Nobody bothered us to my relief. We came to the mineshaft and, sure enough, there was a mark of Daedalus on the padlock.

Percy touched it and it fell away. He and Annabeth kicked away the boards covering the entrance and we walked in. Back underground. Back inside the Labyrinth.

Chapter Text

The tunnel's dirt walls turned into stone. They twisted round in confusing ways but the Rachel didn't hesitate, even once. I didn't understand why, but I didn't question her. I was grateful that Annabeth didn't insist on walking near me or Percy. She walked ahead with Rachel, talking about architecture and things.

Percy lagged behind them and eventually fell in step with me. I bit my tongue to stop myself blurting out something stupid like, 'You think I want to walk with you after you killed my sister' or 'Why can't you see that Rachel and Annabeth both like you' or 'I hate you or 'I love you'.

"Thanks for coming for us," Percy said after a while.

After you, I corrected mentally, "I owed you for the ranch." I said carefully, "Plus... I wanted to see Daedalus for myself. Minos was right in a way. Daedalus should die. Nobody should be able to avoid death that long. It's not natural."

"That's what you were after all along," Percy said, "Trading Daedalus' soul for your sister's."

Gods, Percy only just figured that out? He was so stupid sometimes. I walked in silence for a little bit, thinking about Minos, Bianca, Percy and being a child of Hades. Not just a child of Hades, but a... a...

"It hasn't been easy, you know." I said out loud, "Having only the dead for company. Knowing that I'll never be accepted by the living. Only the dead respect me, and they do that out of fear."

"You could be accepted," Percy said. "You could have friends at camp."

I stared at Percy. I was a child of Hades - the god of the Underworld. I was the outcast. The reject. And even that wasn't enough. I had to be... different in other ways. I decided right then, that different was my least favourite word.

"Do you really believe that, Percy?" I asked.

Percy gazed at me as if inspecting a test subject for some sick type of experiment. The thought made my stomach churn. Before he could think of an answer Rachel stopped suddenly, gazing into a passage on our right. It was smooth and round, but menacing and made from volcanic rock. I cast out my senses. There was a feeling of death in there. Recent death.

"What is it?" Percy asked.

"Is that the way?" Annabeth asked.

"No," Rachel said, "Not at all."

She was right. The way back to New York was straight ahead.

"Why are we stopping then?" Annabeth asked.

"Listen." I said suddenly. There was a faint sound. One that I still wasn't used to after a long time in the still quiet air of the Labyrinth. Wind, whistling through the tunnel. And that smell... not that I concentrated I smelt death, but something was off about it.

"Eucalyptus trees. Like in California." Percy said. Not what the smell was. At all.

"And the smell of death," I said it like it was obvious, probably not the right approach. Couldn't they smell it? It was becoming more overpowering every second. Then again, they weren't children of the lord of the dead.

Annabeth and Percy glanced at each other uneasily. Please don't say anything about me, I thought desperately, I know I'm different.

"Luke's entrance." Annabeth said. It wasn't about me. I almost sighed in relief as she kept talking, "The one to Mount Othrys – the Titan's palace."

"I have to check it out." Percy said.

"Percy, no."

"Luke could be right there. Or ... or Kronos. I have to find out what's going on."

"Then we all go."

"No. It's too dangerous. If they got hold of Nico, or Rachel for that matter, Kronos could use them. You stay here and guard them."

As if I needed guarding. I could navigate the Labyrinth, not Annabeth. I could control the dead, what could Annabeth do, think enemies to death?

"Percy, don't," Rachel said softly, "Don't go up there alone."

Oh Styx, why did Rachel have feelings for Percy as well? Why was everyone I met better for Percy then me? I scowled at Rachel silently.

"At least take this." Annabeth pressed something into Percy's hand. Her magic Yankees cap. "And be careful."

A small part of me wished I had something to give to Percy. The rest of me mentally beat itself up for thinking that. I glowered at Annabeth as well.

"Thanks," Percy said, grasping the cap tightly, "Here goes nothing."

He disappeared, and his footsteps echoed, the noise getting fainter and fainter, leaving us behind. Now Percy was alone in the Labyrinth.

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"He won't last long." Annabeth said, nervously. Rachel nodded.

I agreed silently, but sat still, trying not to let it show. Percy had been gone for what felt like ages. Slowly, I leaned back against the wall of the tunnel.

"We should go after him." Annabeth said, murmuring under her breath, "Seaweed brain."

My stomach twisted even more unpleasantly tight. I glared at the wall.

"Nico? Aren't you worried for Percy?" Annabeth's voice was chiding, as if she expected me to act like some whiney child. Which was exactly how I felt. I didn't want to play into her expectations but I couldn't help it.

I half shrugged, curling my knees up to my chest, "I guess."

"What was that?"

"I said; I guess." I repeated, a bit louder.

"What, you wouldn't care if he died?"

"Maybe I wouldn't! He didn't care when my sister died. He didn't care when, for months, I was alone in the Labyrinth. For all you knew I was dead! He didn't care and neither did you!" I jumped off the ground. I wished I was taller than Annabeth, but I did my best to look her in the eyes. Around my feet bones clattered to the surface.

Suddenly something shoved me and Annabeth in the chest, sending us both falling backwards. Rachel stood there, face as red as her hair.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," She snapped, "Annabeth, your worried about Percy, but don't take it out on Nico. Nico, I know you're a misunderstood emo kid but I don't need to hear it. And don't take it out on Annabeth. If you want, Annabeth, we can go and see if Percy's okay."

"Okay." Annabeth took a deep breath. I fumed at the wall. A misunderstood emo kid.

"And you're coming too." Rachel tugged on my sleeve. I pushed her off and stomped a few paces up the tunnel. I would have come anyway. Despite what I said, I would have killed myself if Percy died.

We trudged along in silence for what seemed like a small eternity until we found ourselves in an open place. Nearby was a huge castle made entirely from black marble. We snuck towards the building and into the front room. I didn't have time to look around. Behind me Rachel pushed me against the wall, running a few steps forwards.

"PERCY!" She threw something. A blue plastic hairbrush. Behind Percy someone I couldn't see yelled 'OW'. Annabeth gasped.

"Luke? What-" There was that name again. Him and Kronos. What was going on? We didn't have time to find out. Percy bolted towards us, grabbing Annabeth by her shirt and pulling her towards the Labyrinth. We ran after him.

We were nearly there when I heard the most terrifying and angry voice I had ever heard yell, "AFTER THEM!"

I couldn't let that happen. I stopped running and turned around.

"No!" I clapped my hands and focused as hard as I could. I needed to summon rock. Suddenly a huge, jagged spire of rock, the size of a truck, erupted from the ground right in front of the palace. I created a tremor so powerful that the front pillars of the castle came crashing down. But I didn't have time to stop. I turned and ran back into the Labyrinth. Away from the horrors behind me.

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I don't remember the details of running away. Just running until we couldn't run any more. Away. Just away. For once I was glad just to follow Rachel. I was too exhausted to do anything else. As it was I could hardly keep up. Finally we stopped. I flopped to the floor, trying not to shake, and dropped my sword.

"I can't go any further." Rachel gasped, hugging her chest.

Annabeth had tears down her face. She sunk awkwardly to the floor and put her heads between her knees. Percy sat next to me.

"That sucked." I managed. Percy nodded.

"You saved our lives." He said. The respect in his voice, however small, made my heart flutter around in my chest. I wiped the dust off my face nervously.

"Blame the girls for dragging me along." I panted, "That's the only thing they could agree on. We needed to help you or you'd mess things up."

"Nice they trust me so much," Percy said. I smiled slightly, looking around as Percy shone his flashlight. The cavern was full of stalactites, dripping with water. It could have been beautiful in some people's eyes but to me it looked like tears slowly falling from the rocks. Gloomy, I know. Really living up to that misunderstood drama queen title. But I was feeling pretty broken at that moment.

"Nico," Percy's voice snapped me back to reality, "You, uh, kind of gave yourself away."

"What do you mean?" If claiming myself as the Ghost King wasn't telling people that. What, did Percy think banishing ghosts was a trait of Apollo's children?

"That wall of black stone? That was pretty impressive." Percy said. My heart fluttered a little.

"If Kronos didn't know who you were before, he does now," Percy continued, "A child of the Underworld."

I frowned. I had never been called a child of the Underworld before, except by myself. I didn't like the way those words sounded. They were uncomfortable, setting me on edge. It wiped out all the joy Percy's praise had given me.

"Big deal." I muttered.

Percy didn't answer. Annabeth lifted her head. Her eyes were red from crying.

"What..." She quavered a little then started again, "What was wrong with Luke? What did they do to him?"

Percy told us what had happened before we arrived. Or at least he told Annabeth. But I tried not to think about it like that. But by listening I found out a bit of important information, who exactly Kronos was (I already knew he was the Titan Lord, don't get me wrong), what he was doing, how he wanted to kill everyone at Camp Half-Blood, and how Luke was involved in his plans, basic stuff like that.

"No," Annabeth said. She didn't believe him, "That can't be true. He couldn't-"

"He gave himself over to Kronos," Percy said, more insistently this time, "I'm sorry, Annabeth. But Luke is gone."

"No!" She insisted, "You saw when Rachel hit him."

Percy turned to Rachel, "You hit the Lord of the Titans in the eye with a blue plastic hairbrush."

"It was the only thing I had," Rachel said, embarrassed.

"But you saw," Annabeth continued, "When it hit him, just for a second, he was dazed. He came back to his senses."

Percy frowned, "So maybe Kronos wasn't completely settled in Luke's body, or whatever. It doesn't mean Luke was in control."

"You want him to be evil, is that it?" Annabeth yelled, "You didn't know him before, Percy. I did!"

"What is it with you? Why do you keep defending him?" Percy snapped.

"Woah, you two," Rachel intervened, "knock it off."

Annabeth turned on her, "Stay out of it, mortal girl! If it wasn't for you..."

To Rachel's credit, she didn't flinch away. I knew first-hand that Annabeth was pretty scary when she was angry. Annabeth sunk to the ground again, sobbing.

I cast my senses out. Months in the Labyrinth had taught me that it was never completely safe. I thought that I could hear something, very faint. Hardly even there. Still, better safe than sorry. I picked up my sword.

"We have to keep moving," I told the others, "He'll send monsters after us."

Percy nodded, climbing to his feet and giving Rachel a hand.

"You were great up there." Percy smiled at her. Right. Throwing a hairbrush. Impressive. Creating a stone the size of a truck. Eh, whatever.

"Yeah, well," Rachel said awkwardly, "I didn't want you to die."

I didn't want Percy to die.

"I mean," She said quickly, blushing, "Just because, you know. You owe me too many favours. How am I going to collect if you die?"

Percy knelt next to Annabeth. I groaned inwardly. Was he really that insensitive? Three - two people who cared for him and he just swapped from one to the other. I didn't count as a person who loved Percy. Because I couldn't. Guys love girls. Guys don't love other guys, I told myself.

"Hey, I'm sorry." Percy was talking to Annabeth, "We need to move."

Great apology, right there.

"I know," Annabeth said, "I... I'm alright."

She was about as alright as I was at the gift shop when I fell straight through a wall. But she got to her feet anyways, the way I had after falling through the wall. We finally started to move again, trudging slowly through the Labyrinth.

"Back to New York." Percy said, "Rachel, can you-"

He froze. I looked over to where he was looking. In the yellow circle of light from his flashlight was a trampled piece of red fabric. A hat. I remembered that hat. It was the one that Grover always wore.

Percy picked up the cap, "We have to follow them. They went that way. It must have been recently."

"What about Camp Half-Blood?" I said, "There's no time."

Secretly I was hoping Percy would chose his friends. I didn't want to go back to camp at all, but the way I said it made it sound like I did.

"We have to find them." Annabeth confirmed, picking Grover's cap out of Percy's hand, "They're our friends."

She marched forward. We trailed after her. I tried to squash the growing relief of not going to Camp Half-Blood, but it didn't work. The tunnel sloped at weird angles, slimy with moisture. Going downhill was more like going down a slide than walking.

Finally we got to the bottom of a slope and found ourselves in a large cave. In the middle of the room was a huge figure, cradling a smaller one. Tyson and Grover. We rushed past stalagmites and to his side.

Grover wasn't moving. His eyes were closed. I concentrated hard. No, he wasn't dead. I couldn't tell more than that. I didn't want to tell anyone and get their hopes up. Grover may be dying.

"Tyson!" Percy yelled.

"Percy! Come quick!" Percy ran right up to Tyson. He definitely wasn't dead, but he looked pretty bad. He was shaking all over, like he was freezing to death.

"What happened?" Percy asked.

"So many things," Tyson recalled, "Large snake. Large dogs. Men with swords. But then... we got here. Grover was exited. He ran. Then we reached this room, and he fell. Like this."

Finally a straight-forward answer.

"Did he say anything?" Percy asked.

"He said, 'we're close'. Then he hit his head on rocks." Tyson said.

Percy scanned the cavern quickly. At the far end was another tunnel, flanked by brightly coloured crystals.

"Grover, wake up." He murmured.

"Uhhhhhhhhh."

Annabeth knelt next to him and splashed some cold water on his face.

"Slurg!" Grover's eyes flittered open, "Percy? Annabeth? Where..."

"It's okay." Percy smiled, "You passed out. The presence was too much for you."

"I - I remember Pan."

"Yeah," Percy agreed, looking over at the crystal-lined cavern, "Something powerful is behind that doorway."

He was right. I could feel it. The smell of death was stronger than ever before.  But it was so strong here. And it was coming from a god.

A god who was dying.

Chapter Text

"Um, oh yeah, this is Rachel Elizabeth Dare." Percy said, gesturing towards Rachel, who waved awkwardly, "Tyson and Grover, Rachel. Rachel, Tyson and Grover. Oh, and Nico is here now."

I scowled.

"You are pretty." Tyson said to Rachel. Annabeth looked like she was going to explode. If I hadn't felt the same way I may have laughed.

"Hey Nico," Grover said awkwardly, "Uh, how's it going?"

"Great. Just great." I hadn't meant to sound bitter but I couldn't help it. At my feet the ground cracked slightly. I took a deep breath, "I'm okay."

"Uh, great." Percy said hurriedly, "Anyway, come on, Grover. Lean on me."

Annabeth helped Percy and Grover and we made our way to the tunnel entrance.

"I think we're in the Carlsbad Caverns," Annabeth said, "Maybe an unexplored section."

Who cares? I thought. I was cold, wet, tired and close to fading. Who cares where we are.

"How do you know?" Percy asked. His stupid water dryness thing only worked on himself, talk about a useless power.

"Carlsbad is in New Mexico. That would explain last winter."

I didn't know what she was talking about, but Percy nodded. We walked in silence for a bit. The power was getting stronger, as was the death sense. I felt weighed down, like I had been living for centuries, much longer than I should have been, and was now close to the end. There was a heaviness in my eyes and I stumbled a little as I climbed out of the water.

We entered a cavern and the smell of warm summer days and flowers filled the air. I rubbed my eyes to check what I was seeing. It was true. I was speechless. I looked around, even Percy seemed unable to do anything but take in the surroundings.

"Oh, wow," Rachel murmured beside me.

The walls glittered red, green and blue with crystals. There were plants all around, strange ones, giant orchids, star shaped flowers, vines bursting with purple and orange berries. The cave floor was covered in soft green moss. Overhead, the ceiling was higher than a cathedral and was sparkling like the night sky.

In the centre of the cave was a Roman-style bed. It was carved wood, lined with velvet cushions. Around the room roamed animals. A woolly mammoth, a dodo bird, a sabretooth tiger, a giant Guinea pig, a Tasmanian tiger. Animals that didn't belong now days.

On the bed lay an old satyr, the source of the overwhelming feel of death. He was old, with grey fur and blue eyes. His horns were enormous, curled backwards in a massive spiral. It was no wonder that he was stuck laying on the bed with those on his head.

"Lord Pan." Grover fell to his knees in front of the old satyr.

"Grover, my dear, brave satyr. I have waited a very long time for you." Pan smiled.

"I... got lost." Grover apologised.

Pan laughed and the others smiled as well. I could tell they found it a pleasant sound. But to me it was just a laugh. The laugh of a dying satyr.

"You have a humming dodo." Percy said. The dodo bird had come up to Pan and rested its head on the satyr. It was making a funny, humming noise.

"Yes, that's Dede." Pan explained, "My little actress."

"This is the most beautiful place!" Annabeth said, "It's better than any building ever designed."

But even as I gazed around, shadows started to overwhelm the cavern, turning it back into a dark, empty space. The cavern and Pan shimmered, as though made of mist. It was Pan's power holding the room together, I realised, and as Pan was dying, so was his magic.

"I'm glad you like it, dear," Pan said, "It is one of the last wild places. My realm above is gone, I'm afraid. Only pockets remain. Tiny pieces of life. This one shall stay undisturbed... for a little longer."

"My lord," Grover said, "please, you must come back with me! The Elders will never believe it! They'll be overjoyed! You can save the wild!"

Pan placed his head on Grover's head and ruffled his curly hair, "You are so young, Grover. So good and true. I think I chose well."

"Chose?" Grover asked, "I – I don't understand."

Pan's image flickered worse than before, turning to smoke and back. The animals flickered, crying in alarm. Then Pan reformed.

"I have slept many aeons," The god explained, "My dreams have been dark. I wake fitfully, and each time my waking is shorter. Now we are near the end."

"What?" Grover said, "But no! You're right here!"

"My dear satyr," Pan said, "I tried to tell the world, two thousand years ago. I announced it to Lysas, a satyr very much like you. He lived in Ephesos, and he tried to spread the word."

Annabeth's eyes widened, "The old story. A sailor passing by the coast of Ephesos heard a voice crying from the shore, 'Tell them the great god Pan is dead'".

"But that wasn't true!" Grover cried.

"Your kind never believed it," Pan said, "You sweet, stubborn satyrs refused to believe it, but you only delayed the inevitable. You only prolonged my long, painful passing, my dark twilight sleep. It must end."

"No!" Grover's voice trembled.

"Dear Grover," Pan said, "You must accept the truth. Your companion, Nico, he understands."

I nodded slowly, "He's dying. He should have died long ago. This... this is more like a memory."

"But gods can't die!" Grover protested.

"They can fade," Pan said, "when everything they stood for is gone. When they cease to have power, and their sacred places disappear. The Wild, my dear Grover, is so small now, so shattered, that no god can save it. My realm is gone. That is why I need you to carry a message. You must go back to the council. You must tell the satyrs, and the dryads, and the other spirits of nature, that the god Pan is dead. Tell them off my passing. Because they must stop waiting for me to save them. I cannot. The only salvation you must make yourself. Each of you must-"

He stopped and frowned at the dodo bird who was humming again, "Dede, what are you doing? Are you singing 'Kumbaya' again?"

Pan sighed, "Everybody's a cynic. But as I was saying, my dear Grover, each of you must take up my calling."

"But... no!" Grover protested weakly.

"Be strong," Pan said, "You have found me. And now you must release me. You must carry on my spirit. It can no longer be carried by a god. It must be taken up by all of you."

Pan looked straight at Percy, "Percy Jackson. I know what you have seen today. I know your doubts. But I give you this news: when the time comes, you will not be ruled by fear."

He turned to Annabeth, "Daughter of Athena, your time is coming. You will play a great role, though it may not be the role you imagined."

Then he looked at Tyson, "Master Cyclops, do not despair. Heroes rarely live up to our expectations. But you, Tyson – your name shall live among the Cyclopes for generations."

Then he looked at Rachel. She flinched when her name was mentioned, "And Miss Rachel Dare... I know you believe you cannot make amends. But you are just as important as your father."

"I-" I noticed a tear tracing Rachel's cheek. I couldn't help but feel bitter. What hardship did she have?

"I know you don't believe this now. But look for opportunities. They will come."

Pan's eyes skimmed over me and towards Grover. "My dear satyr. Will you carry the message?"

"I – I can't." Grover wailed.

"You can," Pan said, kindly but firmly, "You are the strongest and bravest. Your heart is true. You have believed in me more than anyone ever has, which is why you must bring the message, and why you must release me."

"I don't want to."

"I know," Pan said, "But my name, Pan ... originally meant rustic. Did you know that? But over the years it has come to mean all. The spirit of the wild must pass to all of you now. You must tell each one you meet: if you would find Pan, take up Pan's spirit. Remake the wild, a little at a time, each in your own corner of the world. You cannot wait for anyone else, even a god, to do that for you."

Grover wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, then slowly stood, "I've spent my whole life looking for you. Now ... I release you."

I had no idea how a simple satyr was able to kill a god, but it worked, as Pan smiled one last time, "Thank you, dear satyr. My final blessing."

Then he closed his eyes and disappeared into a puff of blue smoke. The crystals in the cavern dimmed. The plants withered and crumbled to dust, as did the animals.

Percy switched on his flashlight.

"Are ... are you okay?" Percy asked Grover. The satyr took his cap from Annabeth, brushed it off and stuck it firmly on his head.

"We should go now." He said, "And tell them. The great god Pan is dead."

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We walked in silence. One after the other, first Rachel, then Percy, Annabeth, Grover, Tyson and finally me. I wanted to walk at the back. Then no one could see my face.

I thought about what Pan had said to everyone. He has given everyone words of comfort, how Percy would be brave, how Annabeth's time was coming, how Tyson would be remembered for generations, how Rachel was important, how Grover was strong and brave. And me?

I was none of those things. I was a coward, running away from my feelings, my responsibilities. I wasn't helping anyone, not even Bianca. Why was I so useless? Why couldn't I do anything right? Everything I had done had just made Percy's quest harder, and I guess everyone else knew it too.

I struggled to find a positive thought about myself. Nothing. I knew why Pan didn't speak to me directly. I had no good features. I did not deserve it. I wasn't good enough. Not for Percy. Not for Pan.

I didn't want to come out of the Labyrinth. I wanted to hide in there forever, where no one would see or judge me. But eventually we reached New York. I climbed out of the doorway to the Labyrinth. There was something final about it, like I would never see it again. I ran my finger over the mark of Daedalus one last time, then turned away.

I stayed silent as we climbed out of the basement of some building and into the city. We stood on a sidewalk for a moment, catching our bearings, before Percy turned and led us into an ally. He whistled, the sound echoing around off the buildings.

Hardly a minute later five Pegasi soared out of the sky.

"They're beautiful." Rachel murmured.

I hate horses, I thought bitterly.

The Pegasi landed on the path and one, a black one, trotted up to Percy. Percy listened for a moment then nodded, "Yeah. I'm lucky that way. Listen, we need a ride to camp quick."

After a bit of whinnying from some of the Pegasi, Tyson, Grover and Annabeth started saddling up. I stood, glaring at my Pegasus. I didn't want to go back to camp, and I didn't want to ride a Pegasus. The Pegasus whinnied nervously, it clearly didn't want to carry me. I couldn't blame it.

A few metres away Rachel and Percy were talking in hushed tones. Annabeth had mounted her Pegasus, and was urging Grover to hurry up. Why did everyone else have to get along so well? I really didn't want to go back to Camp. I knew I would, I didn't have a choice.

After about five minutes everyone except me was saddled up, ready to go. I just continued to stand, still glaring at my Pegasus, as Percy walked back to us.

"Come on, Nico," He said, "We gotta get back to camp."

"Go without me!" I said, "I don't want to go back to that camp anyway."

"Nico," Percy said, "We need your help."

I thought about that. Percy needed my help. I did want to help him. But I didn't want to go back to camp.

"Nico," Annabeth leaned down from her Pegasus's back and put a hand on my shoulder, "please."

I looked at her eyes then looked away. There was a clear message in them, 'if you don't come back to camp your likely to do something dangerous and stupid and fade.'

I glanced at Percy, and then quickly away again, "All right. For you. But I'm not staying."

I tried to hide my blush as I climbed onto my Pegasus. I was so busy trying to hide it we were flying before I had successfully gotten rid of the pink in my cheeks. Flying on a Pegasus was no better than flying with metal wings. I tried not to concentrate on the fact there was no solid ground underneath me, and instead, thought about what had happened in the Labyrinth.

My thoughts ended on Pan. Not worthy, I thought, not good enough for Pan, not good enough for Percy. Even if you try harder, you still will never be good enough.

Chapter Text

When we finally we landed in the middle of the cabin area at camp, we were immediately met by Chiron. The look he gave me, the one that said, 'who are you really?' made me want to revisit Pan's deathbed a thousand times before being here. Everything I saw here made me want to turn away, to return to the Labyrinth. I remembered why I had run away. I didn't belong.

Percy was explaining everything to Chiron, which gave me plenty of time to sulk. When Percy was done Chiron nodded gravely, "I feared as much. We must hurry. Hopefully you have slowed down the Titan lord, but his vanguard will still be coming through. They are anxious for blood. Most of our defenders are already in place. Come!"

"Wait a moment," An old, fat satyr who I hadn't noticed before said, "What of the search for Pan? You are almost three weeks overdue, Grover Underwood! Your searcher's licence is revoked!"

Grover took a deep breath, "Searcher's licences don't matter any more. The great god Pan is dead. He has passed on and left us his spirit."

"What?" The old satyr said, "Sacrilege and lies! Grover Underwood, I will have you exiled for speaking such thus!"

"It's true!" Percy said, "We were all there when he died. All of us."

"Impossible! You are all liars!" The old satyr cried, "Nature-destroyers!"

Chiron stepped forwards, "We will speak of this later."

"We will speak of it now!" Old satyr insisted, "We must deal with this-"

"Silenus!" Chiron said to old satyr, who's name must have been Silenus, "My camp is under attack. The matter of Pan has waited two thousand years. I fear it will have to wait a bit longer. Assuming we are still here this evening."

Chiron turned, raised his bow and cantered off into the forest, leaving us to run along behind him.

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The army camp was located around Zeus' fist, the entrance to the Labyrinth. The set up was the best I had seen camp do, not that I had ever seen them do anything except wait around while Percy saved the world and killed my sister.

Everyone was dressed in battle armour and it reminded me slightly of the flag, if not for the grim mood. The Hephaestus cabin had set traps all around the entrance to the Labyrinth. There were two catapults the size of trucks standing behind the troops. Some cabins were on the front line, others were scattered around the woods. Even dryads and satyrs were armed. Annabeth left for her siblings in the Athena cabin.

I shivered, remembering meeting Minos. I was suddenly dreading fighting here. This was the last place I had seen of Camp, before escaping. I was so distracted that I didn't notice anything until the ground started trembling.

I zapped back into reality as the Titan's army exploded from the Labyrinth. Everyone scattered around, destroying troops and regrouping, but being scattered again. A hellhound the size of a truck charged out of the shadow of a tree, straight towards Percy. I leapt in its path, stabbing it with my sword. It disappeared instantly.

Then I was overwhelmed by funny looking seal like creatures with dog heads. They were surprisingly fast, forming a circle around me. I spun around slowly. Every so often one creature charged. I would stab it, drain its life force and it would disappear. Until there was one left. I charged straight for it, stabbing it.

"Nico!" Percy's yelled made me spin around. He was pointing towards a group of armoured women with twin serpent tails instead of legs. In that moment I knew what he wanted me to do. I looked down, the seal-dog was gone.

I raised my sword, concentrating, "Serve me!"

The earth opened at my feet. A dozen undead warriors in military uniforms from different time periods, all charging as one at the snake-ladies. I crumpled to the ground, exhausted, and my world went black.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I was standing next to Percy. We were in the Underworld, next to the River Styx. Behind us my father stood on a chariot, surrounded by ghosts. Nothing moved.

"Am I... dreaming?" I asked.

Indeed, son of Hades. A deep, humming voice said.

"But I need to get back! Percy's in danger!"

You are close to fading, demigod. But you will not fade. In the future you and Percy will stand here, about to face an army from your father. The voiced hummed.

"Who are you? How do you know this?" I yelled.

I am Hypnos, god of sleep. I know because I can interpret dreams. The voice hummed.

"Send me back! I need to help them!"

In time.

"There is no time! Please! I need help."

Time is non-existent in dreams. This maybe happening in the span of seconds. Or years. You know, shadows are very similar to dreams. You can travel through shadows, as a son of Hades. And you can travel through sleep. It is not so hard. The voice hummed.

I remembered escaping Clovis, the unclaimed demigod from the Hermes cabin, and how I had encountered him in a dream.

"So... I can choose to leave this dream?"

You could. But are you strong enough?

"I am. I'm the son of Hades. The Ghost King." I insisted.

Take a good look around, Nico di Angelo. This will impact your fate.

"I'm going to leave." I said.

Indeed. The voice hummed, Good luck, Nico di Angelo.

The voice and the sleepy but powerful presence it brought was gone. I frowned. How was I going to escape? I remembered stepping through the dream with Clovis. I remembered falling through the ground when escaping Orthus. Shadow-travel. I could go anywhere as long as there were shadows.

I began to walk away, glancing once over my shoulder at the sense behind me. Percy was standing, sword raised. I could tell, even in the frozen image, he was about to protect me. I ran back, throwing my arms around him.

"Thank you, Percy, for... a lot of things. I forgive you for Bianca. She... you're right, she didn't want to come back." I whispered, words no one but me will ever hear, "I may not know why but I understand that now. I won't trade a soul for a soul. Your soul is worthy of Bianca's and I'm sorry for everything I put you through. I... I don't hate you, Perseus Jackson."

And then my dream faded away, I was left alone in blinding white light.

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Something trickled over my body, a warm, soft liquid. I coughed and my eyes flicked open. At first everything was bleary and spinning around me. I felt sharp pain in my head. Then one face became clear above me. Percy.

"Nico, what happened?" He asked, "Can you talk?"

I thought about my dream, about how I now felt about Percy. How could I explain that to him? Then the rest of the world became slightly clearer around me. I realised he was talking about the undead summoning that had knocked me out.

"Never tried to summon so many before. I - I'll be fine."

They - because I could see blurry people beyond Percy - reached out to help me sit up and all my energy went into being solid, not fading. They helped me sit up, giving me a funny drink that tasted the same as ambrosia. Nectar. I looked around. Percy, Annabeth, Grover, Tyson. And someone else. Daedalus?

"Daedalus," I croaked. I was too weak even to put it as a question, but he understood.

"Yes, my boy," The inventor said, "I made a very bad mistake. I came to correct it."

There were other things going on around him but I found it too hard to focus. My head felt like it was splitting in two.

"I found the Hundred-handed One as I came through the maze," Daedalus continued.

The what?

"It seemed he had the same idea, to come and help, but he was lost. And so we fell in together. We both came to make amends."

"Yay!" Tyson jumped up and down, which, combined with his booming voice, made my headache worse, "Briares! I knew you would come!"

"I did not know. But you reminded me who I am, Cyclops. You are the hero," said a new voice. Next to Daedalus, a creature with many arms sticking out all around its body. Oh, a Hundred-handed One. That makes sense as anything in my life, meaning pretty much none. Just looking at the Hundred-handed One was giving me a fresh wave of pain in my head.

Percy patted Tyson on the back, "I knew that a long time ago. But, Daedalus... the Titan army is still down there. Even without the string they'll be back. They'll find a way, sooner or later, with Kronos leading them."

So the battle was over. I hadn't even realised.

"You are right. As long as the Labyrinth is here, your enemies can use it. Which is why the Labyrinth cannot continue." Daedalus said.

Annabeth gasped, "But you said the Labyrinth is tied to your life force! As long as you're alive-"

"Yes, my young architect," Daedalus confirmed, "When I die, the Labyrinth will die as well. And so have a present for you."

He slung a leather satchel off his back, unzipped it and passed Annabeth a sliver laptop with the mark of Daedalus on it, "My work is here. It's all I managed to save from the fire. Notes on projects I never started. Some of my favourite designs. I couldn't develop these over the last few millennia. I did not dare reveal my work to the mortal world. But perhaps you will find them interesting."

He handed it to Annabeth. She took it with quavering hands, "You're giving me this? But this is priceless! This is worth... I don't even know how much!"

"Small compensation for the way I have acted," Daedalus said, "You were right, Annabeth, children of Athena should be wise, and I was not. Someday you will be a greater architect than I ever was. Take my ideas and improve them. It is the least I can do before I pass on."

"Whoa!" Percy said, "Pass on? But you can't just kill yourself. That's wrong!"

He shook his head, "Not as wrong as hiding from my crimes for two thousand years. Genius was not excuse evil, Percy. My time has come. I must face my punishment."

"You won't get a fair trial," Annabeth warned, "The spirit on Minos sits in judgement-"

I snorted slightly, death isn't fair. Neither is life. But that's just the way it was.

"I will take what comes," Daedalus said evenly, "And trust in the justice of the Underworld, such as it is. That is all we can do, isn't it?"

He looked straight at me and I frowned, it sounded like he had just read my thoughts, "Yes."

"Will you take my soul for ransom, then?" Daedalus offered, "You could reclaim your sister."

I remembered my dream, and the decision I made at the end of it, "No. I will help you release your spirit. But Bianca has passed. She must stay where she is."

Daedalus nodded, "Well said, son of Hades. You are becoming wise."

Then he turned to Percy, "One last favour, Percy Jackson. I cannot leave Mrs O'Leary alone. And she has no desire to return to the Underworld. Will you care for her?"

I looked behind Daedalus, the hellhound who had been in Daedalus' room was standing there, licking his hair.

"Yeah. Of course I will." Percy said. Percy would take anything for anyone he cared about.

"Then I am ready to see my son... and Perdix. I must tell them how sorry I am." Daedalus smiled.

He turned back to me. I drew my sword shakily. I concentrated on Daedalus' life force, "Your time as long since come. Be released and rest."

Daedalus smiled, then froze, skin turning transparent, revealing bronze gears and whirring machinery inside his body. Then he crumpled into grey ash and disintegrated. I felt his life source fade away, the sharp pain of his life changing to a soft empty space. I breathed out in relief.

Then his life force washed over me, through the blade of my sword. I felt his memories, thousands of years of them. I felt his anger, his suffering, but also his relief that he had done the right thing. His joy that I would release him. There was a still moment. No sound met my ears.

Then Mrs O'Leary howled. The earth rumbled as the Labyrinth collapsed. I bit my tongue to stop myself from crying. The Labyrinth was almost like a home, a safe place that I could run away to and never be found. Now it was gone.

Percy turned to us, "Come on. We have work to do."

Chapter Text

I sat at the campfire, trying to think everything through. The camp was so busy, so crowded, so unnatural to me, and the campfire was the only place I could be alone with my thoughts. Well, almost alone.

The girl sat opposite me, smiling as she tended to the fire, which, running on the campers around its emotions, was small and black.

She swept her long brown hair out of her face and looked up at me, “So, Nico di Angelo, you have returned.”

“Looks like I have, Hestia.” I sighed. I remembered on my first night on my first trip to Camp Half-Blood, after the campfire I had seen her, the goddess of the hearth, sitting alone at the campfire, smiling at the flames. I had talked to her, and had been the first for many years to do so. It was strange, being so casual with a goddess, but it seemed like the right way to act.

“What is wrong? Camp is the home to many demigods, why not let it be yours?” Hestia asked. I had the feeling she already knew the answer and was just letting me draw to the conclusion myself.

“I don’t belong here. And there is so much I don’t know. I need answers. Who am I?” I said.

“And?” The girl prompted.

“And I can’t stay here when Percy is- and Annabeth… it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like home.” I said.

The girl nodded, “I chose not to become an Olympian, Nico, as I felt I would not belong. But I still found my home among them, as the goddess of the hearth. You haven’t found your home yet.”

“When? What will it take?” I grumbled.

“You must find it for yourself, Nico.” Hestia said gently. I both hated and loved how much she sounded like Bianca.

“That doesn’t tell me anything.”

“You must find your own way home,” Hestia insisted.

“But-” I was cut off as a new voice rang out.

“Nico?”

It was Annabeth. I turned slightly.

“Nico, what are you doing here by yourself? Camp needs all the help it can get.” She asked, she was standing at the edge of the seating area, looking down at me. I glanced at Hestia, who shook her head, she cannot see me.

“Just… thinking.” I muttered, “Why are you here?”

“I… was looking for you.” Annabeth admitted.

“Why?”

“I wanted to thank you. For saving Percy and Rachel and I with that rock. That was impressive. So thanks.” Annabeth walked over to me.

“Yeah, well. I just… practised with my powers and was able to use them.” I said. Maybe Percy would have been able to do something useful if he practiced. Then again, what good would water powers have done in an underground maze?

“Yeah, but I saw you after raising that rock, and again after the Battle of the Labyrinth. You were transparent.”

“Fading?”

“Yes. I wanted to make sure you were alright.” Annabeth put a hand on my shoulder. I shook it off, standing up.

Across from me, Hestia gave me a warning look, “Do not start a fight, Annabeth is a good person.”

I didn’t care. I turned to Annabeth, “Fine.”

“It’s just- I know I don’t know much about you or anything, but I’m really sorry, and so is Percy-” Annabeth cut herself off when she saw how I was looking at her, “Are you alright?”

“Fine.” I growled again.

“Nico, don’t make a fight, Annabeth is trying to help you. She and Percy are concerned for you.” Hestia warned.

“I don’t care if she is!” I snapped. Annabeth looked puzzled.

“Who are you talking to?” She asked, glancing around.

“None of your business.” I said shortly, “You wouldn’t care.”

“Don’t make enemies Nico.” Hestia said gravely.

“I told you, I don’t care, Hestia! Go away!” I yelled. I didn’t want a goddess telling me what I could or couldn’t do. I didn’t care. Hestia looked at me sadly and vanished in a puff of smoke.

“Hestia? You mean the goddess of the hearth?” Annabeth said.

“It’s none of your business.” I told her again, “In fact, it would be better if you just forgot about it.”

“Sorry Nico.” Annabeth said, turning to leave, “I just wanted to help.”

“Sure you did. Just like you always do.” I muttered. She just kept walking away.

I stood alone, fuming silently by the fire, which had risen nearly half a metre high and was a deep, angry red. But as I stood, it slowly turned to orange, then yellow, then faded to a grey that showed my regret. Hestia was right, I shouldn’t just go around making enemies.

I dug into my pocket and drew out a few pieces of squashed ambrosia, the ones Annabeth had given me when she first found out about fading. I tossed them into the fire.

“Sorry, Hestia. You were right. Please don’t be mad at me.” I murmured.

“I forgive you, Nico di Angelo.” Hestia appeared next to me, “You have been forced to tread a hard path, and it will be harder still. But be brave, remember I will always be there for you, even with no one else.”

“Thank you B- Hestia.” I nearly called her Bianca. I gritted my teeth and willed the tears in the corners of my eyes not to fall down my cheeks. Would I ever be over that?

“It’s okay, Nico.” Hestia drew me into a warm hug, one that smelt comfortingly like smoke and marshmallows. For once, I didn’t pull away.

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That night at dinner I didn’t sit with the Hermes table, or even with Chiron at the head table. I didn’t belong. So I stood silently in the shadows, watching everyone. Every so often campers would glance at me and their loud conversation would be replaced by tense whispers. Well, I thought to myself, that was what I expected. That’s why I didn’t come back before.

When it was my turn to step up to the alter sacrificing to the gods, I closed my eyes, scrapping some of my food into the fire. Please, Hades, go easy on Daedalus. He made the right choice in the end. And Artemis, thank you for taking in my sister, making her last days her best days.

It was only when I had stepped away from the alter that I realised what I had said. I had thanked Artemis - the god who took my sister away - for taking my sister away. But when I thought of my dream I knew that Bianca would have been proud of me. Holding grudges, a fatal flaw. I was forgiving grudges, I was going to forgive Artemis, forgive Bianca, and forgive Percy. Maybe even forgive Annabeth.

When dinner was finally over I slipped away, hoping to be unnoticed, and headed towards the forest. I stopped just out of distance of the river. I drew my sword.

“Bianca di Angelo. Please Bianca. Just one more time?” I said to the air. Slowly a wispy blue figure glowed into existence in front of me. Bianca.

“Bianca! I didn’t think you would appear!” I reached forward and hugged her. After becoming the 'Ghost King' I seemed to have gained the ability to touch ghosts. Yeah, I know, creepy.

“Of course I would, Nico. You made the right decision.” Bianca smiled.

“You knew I would chose this the whole time?” I asked.

“Not the whole time. And… I did have some help from a certain god.”

“Hypnos?”

“Yes, I managed to get him to send you that dream. I’m so proud of you.”

“Does that mean you heard about… do you know about…” I trailed off, stepping back from my sister. Bianca had been the only one who knew I wasn’t ‘normal’. But she hadn’t known about Percy. I never got the chance to tell her.

“Yes and I… I only wish that I could be as brave as you, Nico.” Bianca reached out to touch my face, “Goodbye Nico.”

She faded away, leaving me smiling, a tear halfway down my cheek. I turned, and saw someone standing behind me. Percy. I should have known he would follow me.

“Saying goodbye.” I said, a sudden lump rising in my throat and making it hard to speak.

“We missed you at dinner.” Percy said, “You could have sat with me.”

“No.” I shook my head. I doubted if anyone had really missed me.

“Nico, you can’t miss every meal. If you don’t want to stay with Hermes, maybe they can make an exception and put you in the Big House.” Percy offered, “They’ve got plenty of rooms.”

“I’m not staying Percy.”

His expression morphed from confusion to shock. “But… you can’t just leave. It’s too dangerous out there for a lone half-blood. You need to train.”

“I train with the dead. This camp isn’t for me. There’s a reason they didn’t put a cabin to Hades here, Percy. He’s not welcome, any more than he is on Olympus. I don’t belong.” I realised my voice had let a bitter edge creep into it, and I tried my best to smother it. “I have to go.”

Percy was quiet for a moment. I could tell he was remembering times from the Labyrinth.

“When will you go?” He asked.

“Right away.” I smiled a little, suddenly exited, “I’ve got tons of questions. Like who was my mother? Who paid for Bianca and me to go to school? Who was that lawyer guy who got us out of the Lotus Hotel? I know nothing about my past. I need to find out.”

“Makes sense.” He admitted, “But I hope we don’t have to be enemies.”

I hope so too. I lowered my gaze, “I’m sorry I was a brat. I should’ve listened to you about Bianca.”

“By the way…” Percy reached into his pocket and drew something out of it, “Tyson found this while cleaning the cabin. Thought you might want it.”

In his hand lay the mythomagic figure I had thrown away last summer. Hades. I frowned.

“I don’t play that game anymore. It’s for kids.”

“It’s got four thousand attack power.” Percy said.

“Five thousand.” I said automatically. Old habits die hard. “But only if your opponent attacks first.”

Percy smiled, “Maybe it’s okay to be a kid once in a while.”

He tossed it to me and I studied it, before slipped into my pocket, “Thanks.”

Percy stuck out his hand. I hesitantly shook it, his fingers were much warmer than mine, “I’ve got a lot of things to investigate. Some of them… Well, if I learn anything useful, I’ll let you know.”

“Keep in touch, Nico.”

I turned and walked off into the forest. When I was out of sight of Percy I stopped, breathing deeply. Move through the shadow. I remembered concentrating on an entrance to the Labyrinth and falling straight towards it. This time I thought about the Underworld.

I ran straight into the shadow of a tree. Underworld, Underworld, Underworld.

I fell into the shadows and kept falling. Deeper, deeper, into the darkness. I fell onto cold, hard ground covered in ash. The smell was sharp, overpoweringly of death. I had done it. I had shadow-travelled.

Chapter Text

I blinked open my eyes. Where was I? It smelt like the Underworld, but it was nowhere I had been before, and I had scoured the Underworld for months. I was lying on my back at the entrance to a cave. Above the cave a mountain towered.

I pushed myself to my feet. I was fading, but not as bad I thought, the winding path behind me was only just visible through my fingers. I moved my fingers and stared down the path. It was about one hundred metres long and lined with bones. In the distance I could see the fields of Punishment. So I was in the Underworld.

Behind me I felt a cold wind blow. I whipped around, staring down the dark cave. A figure floated towards me. I peered into the darkness. A ghost, glowing with dark energy. The ghost had long dark hair and was wearing a silver jacket. A sliver bow was hung around her shoulder.

“B-Bianca?” I whispered.

“Nico, why have you come? You abandoned me!” The ghost said. Bianca’s eyes gleamed darkly.

“Bianca! No, I haven’t! What are you talking about?” I yelled. I hadn’t abandoned Bianca. Just before I shadow travelled I had talked to her.

“You let Daedalus go! You could have reclaimed me but you didn’t! You have abandoned in the Underworld!” Bianca screamed. I flinched away.

“But- I thought you wanted- Percy…” I felt tears well in my eyes. What was Bianca saying?

“Percy! He killed me! You should have avenged me when you had the chance, Nico.”

No, it was all wrong. This wasn’t Bianca. This wasn’t! And suddenly I was sure of it.

“You aren’t Bianca. You aren’t my sister.” I yelled, drawing my sword.

“Oh, but I am.” The not-Bianca replied, “I’m your sister, Nico. Our father is Hades.”

“You. Are. Not. My. Sister! Show your true form!” I yelled, slicing her through with my stygian iron blade. Not-Bianca turned to smoke, then slowly reformed, this time as a different ghost. Half of her was hard and black, the other half soft, ghostly and white. She was wearing a golden dress and golden shawl, and her eyes were empty voids.

“Do you not know me, Nico?” She asked, “I am your sister!”

“Melonie?” Was this the goddess of ghosts? I had learnt about her from Minos, who, of course would know, “You can’t control me. I am the Ghost King.”

“I may not be able to control you, but I can use your fears, Nico. But what brings you to the Underworld?” She asked.

“I came to see our father.” I said.

“Oh, and like he would have time for you. He never has time for me, and I am a goddess. If someone were to ask me, which they haven’t, I would kill him gladly.” Melonie snapped.

“I'll make Hades have time.” I said.

“Good luck, when you can hardly even walk.” Melonie floated back into her cave, cackling. I rolled my eyes and turned to face the long path. I took a few halting steps forward and found that Melonie was right. I was hardly strong enough to walk.

I sat on the bare stone outside Melonie’s cave. I would have to wait until I was strong enough. I thought about Melonie. Was that true? Was Bianca secretly disappointed in me? I curled up into a ball, suddenly tired.

My energy was still drained. I didn’t even know how long I had been out for. I didn’t want to sleep again, but my heavy eyes weren’t giving me much of a choice. My world faded to black and I slipped into sleep.

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My dreams came in images, fast and blurred, and I didn’t remember any of them. So I was glad when something woke me up. That something was a sharp and hard, like a jagged shard of rock, poking my head. I blinked open my eyes. My vision was slightly blurry from sleep. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. I was still lying outside Melonie’s cave. That was good, it was risky, even for me, to sleep in the Underworld. My headache was gone, too. I noticed. And I wasn’t transparent.

Suddenly a soft buzzing noise met my ears. I slowly drew my sword, looking around. Nothing. Then something smooth and hard nudged my hand. I looked down sharply. A… cat?

The skeleton of a tiny cat was pressing against my hand, purring. I reached out hesitantly and put my hand on the cat’s head. The cat purred. I petted it for a while before it leapt onto my lap and climbed up my shoulder.

“What’re you doing?” I turned my head to look at it, “If you fall you’re gonna break yourself.”

“Mew.” Was the only reply I got. Then another purr.

“You aren’t supposed to be purring at me,” I told it, “No one likes me. I’m scary. The Ghost King.”

The kitten skeleton climbed onto my head. Once it had settled there I felt a shake rattle it. A harsh coughing and wheezing. Just like another kitten I had known.

“…Angel?” I asked.

“Mew.” Angel agreed.

“How did you find me?”

“Mew. Purrrr.”

“How can you even meow? You’re dead.” I pointed out. Angel curled up on my head.

“Okay then. Well I need to get to Hades’ castle, you coming?” I asked. Angel stayed curled on my head. I took that as a yes. I stood up slowly, trying not to dislodge the kitten. I started walking slowly down the track towards the fields of Punishment.

Even not fading I was weak, and the journey took me much longer than I would have liked. I trudged slowly through the fields of Punishment and then into the spirits of Asphodel. I was covered in grey dust and panting heavily but I finally reached Hades’ castle.

I sat down outside it, breathing heavily. I realised that Angel was gone, “Wow, thanks Angel. Just leave me here, will you?”

I put my hand into my pocket, drawing out two small items. A small figurine. Hades. And a silver ring with a skull on it. From Bianca. I slipped the ring on cautiously. It felt like I was accepting that I was a child of Hades, almost physically marking me. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but even without the ring I would still be the same Nico. Scary, unfriendly, weird, a freak. That wouldn’t change.

The ring fit me and was surprisingly light for something that looked like it was solid sliver. Then I examined the mythomagic figurine Percy had given me. I remembered when Percy first told me about Bianca, about how she didn’t survive, he said something about Bianca having wanted me to have it. Why did I let Percy give it to me? I didn’t like that stuff anymore.

But I still found myself slipping the Hades figurine back into my pocket. Then I stood and turned towards my father’s front doors. I opened them. My father sat on his throne.

“Ah, Nico, I knew you would come.” Hades said.

“Father. I have something to tell you.” I said, walking up to him. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to challenge a seven metre tall god, especially one who controlled death.

“Yes, Nico?” Hades said, bored.

“Firstly, I have moved on from Bianca. No soul for soul.” I paused to see Hades’ reaction. The death god just nodded.

“Second. I will not kill Percy Jackson.” I said. That got Hades attention.

“Nico, if you do, you could be the one in the great prophecy. You could has fame. I could be accepted.” Hades said.

“That isn’t how it works. I don’t want to.” I told him.

“Very well. But I hope you reconsider and come up with the right option.” I couldn’t believe Hades would just… let that happen so easily.

“Uh… well, I think that’s everything I can to say, so, uh, I’ll just be going?” I stepped back hesitantly.

“Yes, yes, go along.” Hades waved his hand at me.

“Wait! One more thing?” I said.

“Mm?”

“Is there a good way to improve Underworld magic training?” I asked.

“Hmm… well… I can’t say if there is…” Hades mused, “But… no, only the bravest…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just go.”

I turned and trudged dejectedly out of the castle. My dad, the ever-helpful Hades, strikes again. I sat, overlooking the Styx, a blue fire flickering next to me. Suddenly something in my pocket brushed my hand. A small card. A burnt mythomagic trading card.

I remembered last time I had sat here, not so many weeks ago, but feeling like years. Where I had first burnt the mythomagic cards. I felt a tear trace my cheek, marking the same path it had when I was with Minos.

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I stared up at the giant, three-headed dog. Around me, I could feel the annoyed whisper of the spirits that stepped out and around me, as if denying they could ever walk right through me now they were dead. The dog stared back, well its middle head did. The left and right heads continued to stare down at the spirits that passed under his feet, completely oblivious to the giant, growling, three-headed Rottweiler above them.

“Woah.” I murmured. “You’re the real Cerberus, aren’t you?”

The dog growled.

“I think I’m going to call you Fluffy. After the dog from Harry Potter.” I said. I remembered the movies my sister and I had loved so much. “You look pretty lonely. Don’t worry, I know the feeling.”

Fluffy bent its centre head to look at me.

“I’m a son of Hades, Fluffy.” I told him. “Hades might be mad if you eat me.”

Yeah, right. But at the mention of my father’s name, the dog’s head snapped back up to look down at the spirits passing though.

“Looks like Hades is respected here, at least. Feared, but respected.” I said. “I guess that’s the only way to get anything other than loneliness if you’re related to Hades.”

Sighing, I began to battle my way past the giant dog again and back to the fields of Asphodel. I walked through the quiet streams of spirits, so lost in thought I didn’t notice when I stepped onto a new pathway, until a new voice yelled out my name.

“Nico di Angelo!” The voice was rusty and old, but full of joy. “Fancy seeing you here!”

I looked around. I was standing on a long stretch of newly paved road that lead towards the Fields of Punishment. It was incomplete, as I was standing at the end of it, a huge drop into a pit of bubbling creamy yellow stuff that smelt strongly of cheese.

My eyes then focused on someone standing at the edge of the road, attached to a whirring machine by a harness and strong-looking ropes. Although the person looked incredibly old, with wrinkling sunburnt skin, thinning white hair and a hunched posture, I would recognise those intelligent eyes anywhere.

“Daedalus?”

“Indeed.” The old inventor said excitedly. “How are you, Mr di Angelo?”

“Just- just call me Nico.” I said quietly. “And I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m doing extremely well.” Daedalus said happily. “Your father has been extremely generous to me, allowing me and Perdix to build new roads to clear up the Underworld.”

“So that’s what this is.” I figured. Then another thought crept over me. “W-what happened to Minos?”

“He’s not happy with you.” Daedalus said, shaking his head. “Or me or your father. Wanted me to end up in the Fields of Punishment for all eternity, dangling in cheese fondue, I believe was the punishment he specified.”

I snorted, then grew serious. “Is he angry with me?”

“Most definitely.” Daedalus frowned. “He wants to seek revenge on you. Would, too, if your father hadn’t stopped him.”

“My father did that for me. . .?” I said.

“Oh, well, he is much kinder than you seem to think, Nico.” Daedalus said, smiling again. “In fact, he lets me see my son again.”

The surprise must have shown on my face, because Daedalus laughed. “Oh, yes, Icarus is just as thoughtless as the young child I once knew. I get to see him on weekends, when I’m not working. It’s a good way to remember how much time has passed down here.”

“How much time has passed?” I asked, half to myself.

“Oh, probably more than you think.” Daedalus said.

Suddenly a new voice rang out, young and bright. “Uncle, uncle! Hades will be upset if you keep talking!”

“Oh, quite right, Perdix.” Daedalus called down below him. “I’m sorry, Nico, I would love to stay and chat more, but Lord Hades will not be happy if I am slacking. Fare well, son of Hades, any time you need to talk, just remember I prefer fries, not nuggets.”

With that, and a buzz from the machines, Daedalus lowered himself down off the road to hang over the pale yellow stuff, which I now suspected was cheese fondue.

Chapter Text

Three weeks had past, three long, treacherous, faded weeks. I had been training almost non-stop to the point of exhaustion until I fell unconscious. Then I would wake the next day and try again. I suspected Hades was watching over me while I was in his realm, and stopping me from fading.

So I practices, shadow-travel, raising the dead, everything. But today I wasn’t training.

Today I had thought I had seen… her. Two ghosts, chatting idly in the Fields of Asphodel. An old fashion woman and a girl dressed in the clothes of a Hunter of Artemis. But it wasn’t them. Just regular ghosts.

But I was still shaken. So I sat at the River Styx, not training, just staring out over the water through my transparent fingers. I felt weighed down, the same way I had at Pan’s cave. Tired, empty. I was unaware of when my thoughts stopped and dreams started.

But suddenly I was standing in the middle of an empty plain. It looked as though the fields of Asphodel had been emptied of ghosts. No one but me was anywhere nearby. Then the voices came. Memories.

“This is the river Styx.”

A black river wound past my feet. The Styx, gurgling ominously as it passed by.

“If you fall you are likely to burn into oblivion. But if your soul is strong enough then you can survive the swim.”

I felt a burning sensation creep up from my feet. It was pain beyond anything I had ever felt before, I could sense my soul fading. It was emotional and physical pain combined.

“If you focus on your most joyous moments than you may live the plunge.”

Memories of Bianca sprung to mind, slowly followed by Percy.

“And you will have the curse of Achilles.”

Suddenly the pain was over. I stood on the bank of the Styx again, shining in strange light. My soul burnt like fire.

“In the future you and Percy will stand here, about to face an army from your father.”

I remembered the dream where I had stood with Percy, facing my father.

“Only the bravest.”

I felt the strange vision fade away. Only the bravest. Not me. But someone else. Someone who was already destined to save or destroy the world. Someone who could gain an edge over his enemies. And I could help him.

And, if I did, maybe, just maybe, I could make him see me as more than a friends.

I needed to tell him. I needed to tell Percy.

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Percy Jackson, this was the first time I ever focused on a person instead of a place. But I imagined Percy Jackson, his wild black hair, his sea-green eyes, his annoying smirk. I ran straight towards the wall of Hades’ castle, slipping into shadow and disappearing in darkness.

I appeared, standing on a balcony towering above the ground. My head spun and ached from the shadow travel and from suddenly being so high up. In front me, Percy squatted next to a small flowerpot. As I watched a tiny silver plant sprung out of the soil. I didn’t even blink, I had seen stranger things.

“Nice plant.” I said.

Percy jumped to his feet, spinning around. I almost felt myself smirk at his reaction. I noticed I was almost an inch taller than I had been last time I saw him. I felt scruffy in my worn out clothes, messy hair and torn shirt.

“Sorry,” I apologised, “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“That’s – that’s okay.” He gasped, “I mean… what are you doing here?”

“I’ve done some exploring.” That wasn’t technically a lie, but I couldn’t tell Percy about my dream. Suddenly, I remembered something, “Thought you’d like to know, Daedalus got his punishment.”

“You saw him?”

I nodded, almost smiling at the thought of the inventor, “Minos wanted to boil him in cheese fondue for all eternity, but my father had other idea. Daedalus will be building overpasses and exit ramps in Asphodel for all time. Truthfully, I think the old guy is pretty happy with that. He’s still building. Still creating. And he gets to see his son and Perdix on the weekends.”

“That’s good.” Percy smiled. I didn’t. Enough stalling. I twisted my ring nervously.

“But that’s not the real reason I’ve come,” I said, “I’ve found out some things. I want to make you an offer.”

“What?”

“The way to beat Luke,” I said, “If I’m right, it’s the only way you’ll stand a chance.”

 “Okay, I’m listening.” He told me, taking a deep breath. I could tell from the start it wouldn’t be easy to convince him. I may as well get comfortable. I glanced inside and was instantly jealous. His room was big and bright. And there was something on the dresser. Something I hadn’t seen since the Lotus Casino, and even then, Bianca had rarely allowed me to eat it.

“Is that… is that blue birthday cake?” I hadn’t meant to sound so longing. I’m not longing, I told myself. But I was. I had never had birthday cake, or anything close to a party, as far as I knew.

“Come inside for cake and ice cream,” Percy said, “It sounds like we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

I stepped gingerly after Percy. I could hear noise coming from a room beyond Percy’s bedroom door but I didn’t make any move towards there, and neither did Percy. I didn’t want to meet anyone else. Especially if it was Tyson’s laugh I could hear.

I looked over at Percy’s windowsill. On it was his Camp Half-Blood necklace. I didn’t have one. I glanced at Percy, the picked his up, looking at the three beads. Three summers. A golden trident, a golden sheepskin and a maze. I put the necklace down and turned towards Percy. He held out the slice of cake to me. I gingerly took it and nibbled the edge. My eyes went wide. It was amazing. The look must have shown on my face because Percy laughed, plonking down on his bed.

“Pretty good, huh?” He asked. I nodded, but put the rest of the cake back on its plate, remaining standing.

“So what’d you want to say?” He asked.

“Uh, well.” I began awkwardly, “I was in the Underworld. And, like I said, I was looking around. And I’ve found a way that can put you against a Titan more evenly.”

“What?”

“You’ve heard of Achilles, right? Great Greek hero, fought in the Trojan War.” I explained, “Well, when he was a child he was dipped into a magical river. And from that he became the closest a mortal could become to invincible.”

Percy’s shocked face said it all, “You can become invincible?”

“He could still die, but he was immune to sickness and dying in battle.” I explained.

“So, he was pretty much like a Hunter of Artemis, without the dying-in-battle thing.” Percy said.

“Except he had one weak spot. His… Achilles heel, you would say. After all, that’s where the phrase comes from. Anyway, if you were to jump in the river then you would gain invincibility as well.” I waited for Percy’s reaction.

“Why haven’t more demigods jumped in the magical river?” Percy asked incredulously.

“Well, that’s the thing. It’s the River Styx.” I said.

“What?” Percy said, “How can you even survive?”

“Only the bravest can. And you need to think about your most happy memory, the one that gives you the most strength. Focus on that memory and you may live.” I told him. “Anyway, with the River Styx on your side, you may be able to take on Kronos. If not…”

I shuddered. I didn’t want to think about a world without Percy Jackson, “So… what do you think?”

“I need some time to think about it.” Percy said, “But, uh, thanks for the offer. I’ll get back to you.”

“I guess.” I said, slightly dejected. Percy hadn’t said yes, so it was a no. At least until I could convince him otherwise. But tonight I was getting nowhere tonight, “I better go.”

“Are you sure?” Percy asked. “You can have some more cake, or-”

“I’m sure.” I interrupted.

“Okay. Um the door…” Percy trailed off.

“No, I’ll be fine going the way I came.” I said. I walked out the fire escape, “Goodbye, Percy.”

“Bye Nico.” Percy smiled and waved, before closing the door behind me. I sighed, I was going to regret what I was about to do. I had never shadow-travelled twice in one day before. I braced myself for a few moments, then slipped into the shadows.

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The first thing I noticed was the cold. I was surrounded by it, my body not giving enough heat to keep away the smoky feeling in my fingers. Wait… smoky? My eyes blinked slowly open. At first I couldn’t see anything. Blinding white sunlight shone coldly into my eyes.

Slowly my surroundings became more distinct. On either side of me was cold white snow. The first memory that instantly jumped to mind was the one were Percy had saved me and Bianca from a manticore attack. It had been snowing then, too. That was when I first found out I was a half-blood. ‘Cool,’ I recalled saying. And Bianca had told me it wasn’t cool at all. She had been right. Being a demigod wasn’t cool at all.

But why had my shadow-travel brought me here?

I sat up. My head spun and a blinding headache almost made me collapse again. I looked down at my hands. Smoke was curling off them. They were transparent. Fading. Then I looked around. Around me the ground dropped, then rose into mountains. I realised that I was on a mountain for.

“No…” I concentrated. I couldn’t fade. I didn’t know what may happen. Being here, in this open space, made me feel worse than being alone in the Labyrinth. The attack could come from anywhere here.

Slowly my headache faded and my hands solidified. I had no idea how long I spent trying not to fade. It must have been a few hours because slowly the sun rose in the sky, until it was midday. That made me feel a bit better. The sun helped me focus on not dissolving into shadows.

I wondered how many hours it had been. Two? Three? More? Then again, how long had I been unconscious on this mountaintop for? It had been at least twelve hours since I had talked to Percy at night and now it was nearly midday.

But since I had no idea how far a distance I had shadow-travelled it was probably longer. New York wasn’t in sight. No civilisation was in sight. I remembered thinking of somewhere Bianca and I felt safe. Where was that? Not camp, not any of the schools we had been to, not even the Lotus Casino, not the Labyrinth. So where on Earth was I? Was this somewhere from before the Lotus Casino?

I sat on the mountaintop for nearly another hour before realizing how cold I was. I pulled my hands into the sleeves of the jacket of my too-big aviation jacket, curling my knees up to my chest. I was too weak to shadow-travel, and had no idea where I was, so I could only wait for now. I must have appeared here for a reason.

I waited until the sun was sinking in the sky. By then I felt strong enough to walk. So I stood, taking a deep breath. For a few seconds the world spun around me. Then it steadied. I took another deep breathe. I could do this.

I took a few haltering steps forward. So far, so good. I made my way down the mountain, slowly, carefully, until the light of day was nearly gone. I was nearly in the valley between some of the mountains. I took a couple more steps forward then paused, foot hovering above the ground. Something felt wrong here.

I lowered my foot back beside the other one. I looked around, scowling. What was different all of a sudden? I saw the glint of something sharp and shiny from the corner of my eye. Slowly my hand reached for my sword. I didn’t turn my head, but my eyes didn’t leave the shine of the thing.

Just as my hand was about to touch the hilt of my sword a voice cut through the eerie silence.

“I wouldn’t do that if you value your life.”

I froze, taking my hand away from the sword hilt. I noticed half a dozen other shining objects, pointed at my heart. Who knew how many there were behind my back.

“Who’s there?” I asked.

A figure stepped into my vision, face covered by a silver parker. An arrow was pointed straight at my heart. It was all so familiar, but last time I had seen them was when Bianca was still alive.

“The Hunters of Artemis.” I whispered. That must have been why my shadow-travel took me to the top of the mountain. Because that was were Bianca felt safe, with the Hunters.

“Of course…” I murmured, “Shadow-travel would­ work like that.”

I hadn’t really meant to speak out loud, but I couldn’t help it. Instantly I regretted it, but the figure in the parker looked sharply – well, it looked like it was sharply – at me.

“How do you know who we are? What is shadow-travel?” She snapped.

“I… uh…” I took a deep breath, “I’m not here to hurt you. My name is Nico di Angelo, my sister is… was one of your Hunters, Bianca di Angelo.” I mentally stabbed myself at how shaky my voice was when I said her name, “And I’m here by accident. I didn’t control where the shadow-travel took me.”

“A likely story.” The Hunter snapped. I noticed she had stiffened somewhat at Bianca’s name. Had she known my sister?

“Hush, Thalia, this one is telling the truth.” A girl stepped forward, hood down to reveal auburn hair and pale yellowish eyes and regal face. She looked no more than twelve. I had seen her before as well.

“Artemis?” My voice was hardly more than a whisper.

“Yes, Nico di Angelo, I heard your call that night. And it is no coincidence your shadow-travel took you here.” Artemis said, “As the protector of all young children, and for Bianca’s sake I have been… keeping an eye on you. And my brother told me that your destiny would intertwine with Thalia’s very soon.”

“You… what? You’ve been watching over me? After you took away my sister, after all that time alone in the Labyrinth without any gods help, now you come forward saying that you’ve been ‘watching over me’?” I knew I shouldn’t yell at a goddess, especially when hundreds of arrows were pointed at me but I couldn’t help it. Artemis had been watching over me?

“So this… demigod is telling the truth?” The hunter in the parker said. Thalia? No, that couldn’t be right. Wasn’t Thalia still at camp Half-Blood? No, otherwise the world would have ended. And I hadn’t seen her at all. And Percy was the one in the prophecy, according to so many gods. But… my brain was desperate to make excuses.

Desperate for Thalia not to be a Hunter. Why? Because she had argued for Bianca to stay with me. For the future where Bianca hadn’t joined the Hunters or gone on the quest or died. Where nothing had happened the way it had. Not Thalia.

“Of course I’m telling the truth.” I scowled. Why was she so sceptical?

Then I remembered how I had looked last time seen my reflection, messy, shoulder-length black hair, gaunt, pale face, fringe covering dark eyes. The haunted look that was seen on homeless people, people who you avoided. Not to mention I was probably horribly underweight, shadows still curling off me. I smelt of death, wearing black, death-themed clothes, tattered and ripped and dirty, and by my side hung a jagged sword made from the metal of Hades, stygian iron. And if this was Thalia… she had never even seen my aviator jacket, let alone the rest of me.

How on earth could I be the same kid who had been exited to be a demigod, shuffling awkwardly through piles of mythomagic cards, no idea that I was a child of Hades, no idea what I would endure? I understood why Thalia was looking at me like that. Thalia lowered her bow and pushed back the hood of her ski jacket, revealing choppy black hair, sky blue eyes and a silver circlet that marked her of a lieutenant of Artemis. It was Thalia.

“So, it is Nico di Angelo?” She scowled, “You look nothing like Nico. What happened to you? Why aren’t you at Camp Half-Blood? You look like you’ve been to the Underworld and back. Gods, you look like a son of Hades or something.”

I didn’t mean to, but it was so unfair. Thalia had gone about supporting me, not wanting Bianca to abandon me, to join the Hunters. And then she had just gone off without a word and joined them herself. And if that wasn’t enough, now she was insulting me and my family, being so insensitive to Bianca and me. Sure, Hades wasn’t the best dad, and the Underworld was a horrible place to live, but when you’re a child of Hades and someone says those things… Well, my reaction was irrational but understandable.

I didn’t care that there were still arrows pointed at my chest, I didn’t care that a goddess was nearby and I was about to attack her favourite Hunter. I lunged at Thalia, drawing my sword. A knife blocked my blow. I wasn’t the best with a sword but my anger sharpened my skills.

We fought back and forth, striking and blocking, again and again. Next to us Artemis had yelled something, maybe ‘WAIT!’ The battle could have been any length of time, but for me it seemed so quick that our weapons were just gleams of flashing silver and black.

How could she? I raged to myself, how could she betray me, betray Bianca? A Gods damn hypocrite. And… her comments circled in my mind, ‘what happened to you?’ ‘Why aren’t you at Camp Half-Blood?’ ‘You look like you’ve been to the Underworld and back.’ ‘You look like a son of Hades.’

In my anger the words sounded so much worse than they were. My knees buckled, a moment of weakness and I was standing with her knife at my throat. I let loose a scream of pain. Her father’s the King of Olympus, and what’s mine? The god of death. Exiled, just like me, while they both are worshiped! It isn’t fair!

I hadn’t realized it but my powers, like they so often did, responded to my anger. The temperature was freezing, black smoke swirled around me, cracks opened in the floor. But suddenly the rush of adrenaline left. I was becoming transparent. Fading. After shadow-travelling to who knows were then battling a Hunter of Artemis, I had pushed myself too far. Just before my vision went black, I saw the face of Artemis leaning over me.

Chapter Text

The smell of tea met my nose. Groggily I sat up. The roof and walls seemed to be made of fabric. Two people sat on pillows around a fire. Artemis and Thalia.

“Wha…” I mumbled, still half asleep, “Where am I?”

“You have not been taken anywhere,” Artemis assured me, “But after shadow-travel, battling my lieutenant was a risk. You were weak, so we took you into the comfort of this tent to discuss matters with more ease.”

“Why?” I asked, blinking the sleep from my eyes, “I thought you hated m- men.” I winced. I had almost said ‘me’. After all, Artemis had taken away my sister, what else could she do?

“I dislike men, that is true, but, as I told you, I am also the protector of young children. And when Bianca died, I knew that she wouldn’t have wanted you to be alone, so whenever I could I would look after you. It was not often, as the Labyrinth is a place where I had no power,” Artemis said, “But when I heard your prayer that night, I knew that the time was near.”

“Nico…” Thalia frowned, “You were praying to Artemis?”

“No… well, once, for- Bianca.” I muttered, face flushed, “After the Labyrinth I had a dream and…”

“What Labyrinth?” Thalia frowned.

The Labyrinth.” I rolled my eyes, “Scary, dangerous, underground maze?”

“You mean like, the place were Minotaur was? Now it’s here?”

I couldn’t help the shudder that ran through my body at the name ‘Minotaur’. Sure, only the first part sounded like Minos but I still wasn’t over that.

“I… never saw it. The Minotaur, I mean. But yeah, the Labyrinth was here.” I swallowed.

“Was?” Thalia asked, looking confused.

“It’s destroyed now. When Daedalus died. Long story, don't ask.” I said shortly. She didn’t need details.

“Why did you shudder at the name of the Minotaur? Percy killed it years back.” Thalia asked.

“Because there was… a ghost.” I said, “And it was in the Labyrinth.”

“Okay, first things first, why were you in the Labyrinth and not at Camp Half-Blood?”

“I ran away.” I said quietly. Looks like 'long story, don't ask' just isn't enough, “After my sister died and I found out I was…”

No, I still couldn’t admit it, hardly even to myself. Definitely not to Thalia.

“You were what?”

“A…” What else would set me apart? Ha, more like, what wouldn’t set me apart, “The son of Hades.”

“What?” Thalia near screamed, “How in the gods name could you be a child of Hades?”

“I am.” I said, waving my hand. A small rat skeleton rose up from the ground and scampered across the floor, disappearing near Thalia, “See?” Then I frowned, quoting her, “’Gods, you look like a child of Hades!’ ‘You look like you’ve been to the Underworld!’ Ever think, maybe I am a child of Hades? Maybe I have been to the Underworld?”

“Nico… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like-“

“You did.” I said shortly, “You meant it as an insult. Because Hades isn’t a 'good guy'.”

“So… you ran off into the Labyrinth.” Thalia ignored my last comment, then stopped, “The ghost. Who was it?”

“King Minos of Crete.” I said.

I thought Thalia’s eyes couldn’t get any wider with disbelief.

“Okay,” Thalia swallowed, “Gods, you’ve changed since I last saw you.”

“Yeah, well.” I snapped, “Being an outcast isn’t new, but… without Bianca this time…”

“Why would you be an outcast?”

“My father is Hades, Thalia.” I rolled my eyes, “Creepy death god? Underworld? He isn’t part of Olympus and I’m not part of Camp Half-Blood. Do I really need to explain this to every demigod, even after they treat me like an exile themselves? Maybe Hades stays locked up in the Underworld because his brother’s children certainly inherited their annoying stupidity from somewhere.” Artemis, strangely enough, looked like she was about to laugh, then I remembered her twin brother, Apollo. “But, that doesn’t change the fact I’m a child of the god of death.”

And even that isn’t enough… I thought bitterly. Thalia frowned, but chose to ignore my last comment, “They can’t build a Hades cabin?”

“I left before anyone except Percy knew. When I came back… well I was only staying for the battle.” I frowned, then realised Thalia hadn’t been at camp for a long time. Of course she wouldn’t know how it was, or about the battle, “I don’t want to be at camp, I don’t belong there.”

“Where do you stay then?” She asked.

“Different places, the Underworld, used to be in the Labyrinth, graveyards, sleeping on the streets or under park benches.” I said.

“That doesn’t sound very appealing.” Thalia said dryly.

“It isn’t.” I said shortly, “But that’s not the point.”

“Why are you here?” Thalia asked.

“Shadow-travel,” I snorted.

“What?”

“Moving through shadows. Kind of like teleporting but harder, more dangerous.” I turned to Artemis, “Uh, Lady Artemis, how long do I need to be here for?”

“You and Thalia need to trust each other. Once you two can prove you can do that, you may leave, Nico di Angelo.” Artemis said.

“How can we do that?” Thalia asked.

“My brother gave me a haiku, a prophecy.” Artemis sighed. Thalia and I both winced, remembering the sun god’s haikus. Then our eyes met and we glared at each other before looking away.

“My lady?” Thalia inquired.

Hunter without friends, on mountain high they share trust, to bring down ice foes.” Artemis recited.

“That sounded like it was missing a lot of words.” I noted, “But at least it was better than some of his other Haikus.”

“True.” Thalia agreed, “But how do you know which Hunter? And why is Nico here?”

 “I could sense which Hunter needed to be in the prophecy. And Nico… well, he would not be counted as your friend, would he?” Artemis said, “I saw you two glaring at each other. But before you go on the quest, your true feelings.”

“What?” I yelped. I couldn’t admit to being… like that – in front of Thalia Grace. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. I still told myself I wasn’t like that. I wasn’t.

“Thalia, you go first.” Artemis silenced me with a look.

“Okay. I don’t like Nico, he’s creepy now that he’s a son of Hades, and I have no idea what he’s talking about most of the time. Also, I don’t trust him at all.” Thalia said, “And I don’t see the point of this quest.”

“Ditto. Oh, and thanks.” I muttered, Holy Hephaestus, thank the gods. Not that. “I think that Thalia is a rude jerk. Who I don’t trust. And of course she has no idea what I’m talking about because she ran away from her responsibilities when she left camp with the people who took my sister.” Even as I said that I felt a pang of guilt, I had technically ran away from camp and responsibilities. My case is different, I reminded myself, no one would want to be around a son of Hades, especially not one who’s…

“Good enough.” Artemis nodded, “As for the quest, I have one. The hyperboreans.”

“What? We can’t go near them!” Thalia paled.

“I assure you they are quite friendly. Once you prove yourself.” Artemis said calmly.

Hyperboreans, hyperboreans, what were they again? I tried to remember the mythomagic cards I had collected. I had every card, I should know this. We’re in a mountainous environment. Snowy. I remembered now. They were giant frost giants. They lived north. So I must be far north. But the hyperboreans. I remembered reading that they were friendly enough, but you had to beat them in… something. Prove yourself somehow.

“A snowball fight.” I said, “We need to beat them in a snowball fight.”

“Very good, Nico.” Artemis said, “A snowball fight.”

“But how do we win?” Thalia asked.

“You must reach the glowing peak.” Artemis said.

“The what?”

“Go, it is nearly dawn and I can help you no more.”

Thalia stood, and I, after a moment’s hesitation, followed her. We stepped outside the tent. Two dozen others like it were spread along the valley. Eagles, or were they hawks? (It was too dark to see) and white dire wolves guarded the camp, along with some Hunters. I scowled at them.

“Hey, Thals!” A Hunter with long red hair done in a plait ran up, “What’s with the kid? Why do you look so unhappy? Why does he look so unhappy? He could out-grump you.”

That made both me and Thalia scowl even more.

“Phoebe, this kid and I need to go on a quest together.” Thalia sighed, “And I can’t bring any other Hunters.”

“Ew! A quest with guys!” Phoebe squeaked, laughing, “What do you need to do?”

“Face the hyperboreans.” Thalia grunted, walking towards the end of the valley. Pheobe and I trekked after her.

“Ooh! Don’t come back frozen.” Phoebe said, “Hey, before you go, once we’re out of here, should I get a haircut?”

“Yeah, shave the sides of your head,” Thalia rolled her eyes, “I don’t care, knock yourself out.”

“Ooh, maybe.” Phoobe said, “Anyway, good luck, Thalia. Hey, any reason why you need to go on this quest with him?”

“Him has a name.” I grumbled, “And also happens to be-“

“No.” Thalia interrupted, “No idea. Bye Phoebe.”

She trudged up the side of the valley and Phoebe fell behind. I hurried to catch up.

“Why did you interrupt me?” I asked.

“You don’t go about admitting you’re a child of Hades, di Angelo.” Thalia said, “It makes people wary of you, they won’t trust you.”

“Right. Because people currently trust the homeless-looking young boy who smell of death and is infiltrating a camp full of immortal girls who hate guys.” I rolled my eyes, “I don’t care who knows. It’s not like every demigod smells of the Underworld.”

“You need to be more careful.” Thalia said stubbornly. We walked in silence for a while.

“How did you know about the Hyperboreans? Did you see them?” Thalia asked.

“No.”

“Then how?”

“I, uh, remembered some information I read somewhere.” I said, feeling myself blush. Twice in one day. I could kick myself. But Thalia already knew, “From… from the stupid mythomagic game I used to play. It was one of the cards.”

“Huh. I thought I’d never hear the day you called that game stupid. Next you’ll tell me you burnt the cards.” Thalia said.

“I did.” I almost felt like laughing at her. That felt like decades ago.

“You’ve changed.” Thalia said.

“So you’ve said.” I said, feeling sour.

“Not in a… okay, maybe in a bad way. It feels like you’ve become like, the opposite of a Hunter, more deathly.” Thalia said quietly.

“Underworld does that to you.” I said.

“So, can you do any cool magic now?” She asked.

“Yeah. I can raise the dead and shadow-travel and control the earth. To an extent.” I said.

“Yeah, rats.” Thalia snorted, “Helpful.”

“The most I’ve raised is twelve at once. Human soldiers, not rats.” I said.

“Why’d you raise that many?” Thalia asked.

“To save someone.” I said quietly.

“Who?” Thalia looked interested to see who I would save.

“In the middle of a battle.” My voice was bitter. “Percy.”

“You and him… had a rocky relationship?”

I stiffened. I didn’t like the use of words. Relationship, as if. I didn’t like where this was going, “You could say that.”

“Why?”

He was there when my sister died. So where you. Don't you know this?

“Don’t want to talk about it.” I trudged ahead, “Where do you think this ‘glowing peak’ is?”

“Dunno. Artemis said something about dawn.” Thalia said, “But you and Percy-”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” I said. A skeleton rose through the snow at my feet. A cat. It rubbed against my legs, purring. I froze. Angel.

Thalia laughed, “That’s cute. Why the cat?”

“Random skeletons do that sometimes.” I said doubtfully, “Out of fear, they respect me.”

“That doesn’t look like respect.” Thalia laughed.

“Yeah well…” I concentrated on making Angel sink back through the floor. It worked. Sorry Angel. Just then the sun peaked over a valley. A mountain above us lit up with blue light.

“The glowing peak.” Thalia breathed, “Beautiful.”

“If you’re into climbing a monster infested mountain.” I added.

“Hey, I don’t see any hyperboreans.” Thalia said. Just then a giant blue figure appeared hallway up the mountain. Then another. And another. They were on mountains all around us, maybe half a dozen scattered across the landscape.

“Spoke too soon.” Thalia sighed. “Let’s snowball these things into submission.”

Chapter Text

We were at the base of the ‘glowing peak’ mountain when the first attack came. A huge snowball, the size of a small car, came hurtling towards us. We pushed each other out of the way, falling onto the snow, gasping in shock.

Then another. And another. We ran, ducking to one side and another, until we reached the base of a cliff.

“Stupid hyperboreans. I swear I will kill them.” I growled. Thalia shook her head.

“They’re friendly. We need to prove we can play their game.” Thalia said. She picked up a handful of snow, rolling it into a hard round ball, “Come on, are you going to help or not?”

I frowned, but rolled a snowball in my hands, “How are our snowballs going to hit them? They’re halfway up the mountains and they throw things the size of cars.”

“I’m a child of Zeus, I can control the winds.” Thalia smiled, “Come on.”

She ducked out of the cover of the mountain and threw her snowball straight into the air. A strong wind started up and blew the snowball into the chest of a hyperborean. The giant looked surprised but then cheered, picking up more snow.

“See?” Thalia asked.

“Yeah, hit them and they throw a carload of snow at you.” I groaned, “Let’s get this over with.”

The next hours passed in a freezing blur. We were buried in snow more times than I can count. We ducked around hyerboreans and giant snowballs, throwing handfuls of snow at them. We inched towards the ‘glowing peak’ excruciatingly slowly. Strangely enough, the snow on the mountain was like a giant snow fort, with tunnels and crevices and heaps of hidden places. That made it easier. We were nearly at the end when it happened.

A muffled squeak. I turned and saw a huge hyperborean bearing down on us. Thalia was frozen (with shock). I pulled her away, ducking into a small hole in the snow. The hyperborean couldn’t reach us, thank the gods. But we weren’t off free, Thalia screamed, staring at her hands, which were freezing blue.

They were literally turning into blue ice. My eyes widened in shock. I could do nothing but stare as she turned into an ice statue. Her startled blue eyes blinked and froze over. She was almost… transparent.

“Friendly.” I muttered, “Right.”

I could almost see her eyes roll.

“Okay, so I don’t kill it.” I sighed, “But I can’t drag your statue around and I have no way to unfreeze you. So should I go on to the top?”

“Great. Thanks.” I muttered when Thalia made no reply. Okay, so she was unable to reply, but now I was on my own. Again. I had to admit I would rather a grumpy Hunter who could control the winds and happened to be immortal, than not.

“So, I’m gonna reach the glowing peak, then see what happens.” I said, “You stay here.”

I could almost hear her growl with annoyance. But I didn’t wait any longer. I slipped out of the little cove we had hidden in, wishing, for once, I wasn’t wearing black. When you’re trying to move undetected in the snow, black makes it just a tiny little bit challenging.

But I managed to make it past the hyperborean giant that had frozen Thalia. I ran up the mountain, as fast as I could, until I reached a glowing blue line in the snow. I looked up. The entire mountaintop was glowing with a ghostly blue light (I speak from experience).

The glowing peak. What now? Do I touch it? Do I leave it? I reached out my hand. When it went over the line it turned blue and transparent, and a strange sensation started, as if I was getting sucked away from the mountaintop. I turned. What about Thalia?

Then, right behind me, a huge blue shape swirled into existence at the glowing peak. It was three meters tall and covered in fur. It stepped out of the blue light of the glowing peak, and I realised it was a hyperborean. It peered down at me and a wave of clod washed through my body. I didn’t have time to think, it was the glowing peak or being frozen by a giant blue furry hand.

I didn’t think twice, plunging straight into the glowing blue light of the mountaintop. The pulling sensation grew stronger, tugging at my arms, my hair, my gut. I glowed with blue light, like a ghost. My hands glittered like ice, then started dissolving, disappearing in shards, floating up towards the sky and disappearing.

I felt my whole body shift. I felt cold, as if covered in snow. Then I felt like nothing. I was just my mind, frozen mid-thought, as my surroundings changed. I was in a big stone room. It was cold, as if the very air was made of ice. The roof was five meters high. On one wall there was a metal door, like one you would see in a walk-in freezer.

I was standing in a big blue glowing circle in the centre of the room. Around the wall was large swirling vertexes that looked to be made of stone. They were all different sizes, the tallest about three meters. They were turning blue at the centre, large shaggy shapes with two arms, two legs and… they were hyperboreans! Forming right in front of my eyes.

Behind me I heard heavy footsteps pounding on the stone floor. I spun around and leapt out of the circle. A giant blue hyperborean was lumbering into the blue circle. It stepped into the centre and glowed blue. It evaporated, disappearing in a shaft of blue light and snowflakes.

Hyperboreans formed from here? I frowned, why would it be so important to go to the glowing peak? This didn’t seem so important. I was just about to step in the glowing circle and leave, when a soft click came from the metal door.

I spun around. It was sliding slowly open on heavy hinges, making a horrid creaking noise. I drew my sword, ready to face whatever was behind that door.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A girl stepped into the room. The first thing I thought was she looks like a child of Hades. And she did. Her skin was as pale as mine, as if she had spent years alone underground. Her hair was black and wavy and she had coffee brown eyes. It was eerie, like watching a female version of me. But then I realised there were obvious differences.

The girl looked nowhere near as sickly as me. She wore a white dress and a dazzling silver crown on her hair. She radiated winter snow the way I radiated death. She seemed much more smug, much more sure of who she was than I ever had. And she had two very bizarre looking guys following her.

Really, their wings were the least strange things about them. Huge purple wings were folded behind them. One was wearing a low-buttoned shirt and had a bad case of acne that clashed hilariously with his ice-white hair. The other was stocky, wearing a football jersey and had the same icy white hair as the other winged-dude.

The girl looked up and stared at me. The two-winged dudes looked to where she was looking and stared as well.

“Destroy?” The hockey-winged-dude asked.

“I dare you to try.” I muttered, “Who are you?”

“I am Cal.” The hockey dude answered.

“That is Calais.” The other winged dude rolled his eyes, “And I am his brother, Zethes. And this is our sister, Khione.”

“Khinoe.” I said. Where in mythomagic had I heard that, “You’re the snow goddess! Daughter of Boreas.”

Khione looked at me in surprise. It appeared that she wasn’t used to being recognised. I could use that. What else did I know? I remembered how I first knew about the gods, and how I brought up the stats for mythomagic all the time.

“You have nine hundred attack power, but if you’re with the Boreads-”

Calais and Zethes grinned. Where they the boreads? Is so… wow, they’re immortal.

“-then you have one hundred and fifty.” I continued, “But if a heat god like Apollo or Hestia is used, then your winter attack moves won’t freeze the opponent.”

Khione frowned, “What are you saying, mortal?”

“Mythomagic.” I said, “It’s a card game using mythical gods and animals and stuff. I had every card.”

“And I was one of them?” Khione asked.

“Yeah, every god was. I think. You were in there.” I said, then took a deep breath and lied to the goddess. “You were my favourite, actually. You were one of the best, and I loved how unique your attack was, and, um…”

Khione smiled slowly, “Very well, mortal. I will let you live for now.”

“Actually I’m a demigod.” I said, “Uh, the son of Hades.”

“Death. Scary.” Cal said.

“We cannot have a child of the Underworld here.” His brother, Zethes, said, “It will ruin my hair.”

“Nonsense. He recognised us.” Khione said, “I think he’ll make a lovely ice statue, but I will have to consult father.”

At the words ‘consult father’ Khione’s face turned cold again. But I was more focused on the others words she had said, ice statue. Thalia was still an ice statue. And I was about to become one.

“Wait, you want to turn me into an ice statue?” I said quickly, “That’s cool, just like your ability card in mythomagic. You can deactivate other gods with ice, as long as they aren’t too hot.”

I didn’t know how I stayed this talkative after not speaking much to anyone for so long. In fact, my throat was starting to hurt a bit from keeping my tone light. But talking had kept me alive so far, maybe it would keep working.

“Silence, demigod.” Khione snapped, “You must come with me to talk to my father, then he will decide your fate. Calais, Zethes, finish the inspection without me.”

“Okay.” I said, sheathing my sword. I needed them to think I wasn’t a threat. Then again, they were immortal gods, so I wasn’t a threat, “So, I have this… person I know. And she was touched by a hyperborean, right. Oh, is this were they’re created. Cool. Anyway, this person, she was frozen by a hyperborean. And I thought, ‘well Khione and her father are the best at unfreezing people. No one can do a better job.’ So I thought, why don’t I go see them? And so I came here. And look how lucky I was to see you straight away! So can you help me?”

“We need to talk to my father.” Khione repeated, leading me out of the frozen room and through a maze of passages, “Then, we shall see.”

“Okay.” I said, sighing in relief as I fell into silence. It was hard talking for so long. How had I ever been this talkative?

“First I must prepare you.” Khione said, “As you are already as cold as death, I do not need to cool your hands. But, you must watch your tongue. Boreas does not like insults. And let me speak for you.”

“Why? I can watch my tongue.” I said, a little annoyed.

“I know.” Khoine smiled, “You have been putting on a good act. But you do not need to pretend now. And Boreas speaks in French, the language spoken here in Quebec.”

“The glowing circle took me all the way to Quebec?” I asked.

“Yes. That circle dispenses hyperboreans all over the coldest places of the Earth.” Khione said. I let myself go quiet. We came to a set of doors. They were solid oak carved with maps of the world. Khione looked at me apprehensively.

“This is the throne room.” She said, “Do not step out of line, or there will be no way to protect you from… what may happen. I will translate for you. I’m sure he will at least hear out a child of the big three.”

“Okay.” I nodded. The oak doors blew open in a blast of even colder air. Blue lights spilled out of the room. We walked into the room, which was even colder than the hyperborean-forming room. Along the walls purple tapestries hung, showing wintery scenes.

High above us ribbons of coloured light flittered along the ceiling. A layer of snow covered the floor. Full size ice sculptures decorated the halls. At least, if I hadn’t just seen Thalia freeze in front of me, I would assume they were ice sculptures.

The end of the hall was misty, but as we drew closer the mist parted to reveal a man on an ice throne. He was dressed in a milk-white suit that looked to be made of snow. Huge purple wings, darker than Zethes and Calais. He had a sturdy build and, most shockingly, his hair and beard was covered in snow.

Khione stepped forwards and said something in another language that sounded familiar. But I couldn’t quite place it. Boreas said something in that other language. Then I remembered what Khione had said about Boreas speaking French. Okay. But why did it sound so familiar? I wasn’t French.

Khione turned to me, “He wishes to know more about you. Why are you here?”

I sighed, “I’m here because Artemis sent me and one of her Hunters, Thalia Grace, on a quest to get to your glowing peak and it took me here. Oh, and we were supposed to befriend your hyperboreans, but they froze Thalia.”

Khione turned to Boreas. They held a rapid conversation in French, then Khione turned back to me.

“Why are you not at Camp Half-Blood, son of Hades?” She asked.

“I… what?” I hadn’t been aware that I would need to answer such personal questions.

“Well, you aren’t a girl, not a Hunter, and you haven’t been to Camp Half-Blood in months, or you would smell more strongly of demigod.” Khione rolled her eyes, “And you definitely don’t have a quest. So why aren’t you at Camp Half-Blood?”

Out of all the things ever I could be asked that one was the worst, “I don’t belong there.”

That was the safest answer, I guess. Khione raised her eyebrows but turned to talk to Boreas in French again.

“Tell my father more about Thalia.” Khione said.

“She’s a daughter of Zeus-” I began. Khione turned to Boreas and spoke in French. Boreas’ eyes widened. He said something and Khione frowned. He repeated it. She still shook her head. Finally, Boreas turned to me. In a very heavily accented voice, he said, “Daughter of Zeus?”

“Yes. And the lieutenant of the Hunters of Artemis. And she was frozen by your hyperboreans. So unless you want two angry gods after you….” I said. I didn’t even blink when he started speaking English. After all, there were much stranger things out there.

“Oh dear. Lord Zeus will not be pleased.” Boreas mused, “Yet I cannot leave the north, much too busy during winter.”

“Do you have a cure I could use?” I thought quickly, “Uh, for Thalia.”

“Hmm…” Boreas ‘hmm’ed, “I suppose.”

“Uh, great. Where?” I said. Boreas waved his hand and a clear blue flask appeared in my hands.

“Use this on your friend.” He said. I tensed at the word friend, but, if Boreas noticed, he didn’t react.

“Uh. The mission. We were meant to make peace with the hyperboreans. For Artemis.” I remembered.

“Oh, that is easy. Take this.” Boreas handed me an ice shard. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but I held it and the potion tight.

“I think that is all.” Boreas said, “Tread carefully son of Hades, next time we meet, it may not be as friends.”

I nodded mutely. I could respect that. It wasn’t the strangest thing ever. But now I had to get back to Thalia.

“Come.” Khione beckoned, “I will show you back to the daughter of Zeus.”

I sighed, but didn’t – couldn’t really – object, as I followed the snow goddess back through the icy palace of Boreas and to the glowing circle. The world flashed blue as I stepped into it. I didn’t know which I hated more, Thalia and the Hunters, or Khione and Boreas.

Chapter Text

I appeared back on top of the mountain with the glowing peak and blinked at the bright sunlight. It looked like it had been hours since I left. I looked around. Luckily there were no hyperboreans close by. Right now. I had to find Thalia. I didn’t feel safe, even with no hyperboreans currently around. I ducked behind a snow drift, and crept along the side of it. Where was that entrance that I had found to get here?

Suddenly, my foot sunk into a patch of crumbly snow and I fell awkwardly through cold white snow. I landed on something hard. I rolled off it, stood up and brushed myself off. Where was I? I looked around. I seemed to have fallen into a cave underneath the mountainside where I had been walking.

The walls were still made of ice and snow, but I somehow felt a lot calmer just being underground like this. I took a deep breath. Now, which way to Thalia? Which way to get out of this cave? I closed my eyes and tried to picture what I remembered of the mountain's geography in my mind, adding in the tunnel.

If I headed to the left, then I would most likely end up outside again, or at least close to fresh air. I began walking. After a small eternity, I saw a flash of daylight. The entrance to the cave. It was mostly packed up with snow, but a small gap was still visible. I knew that if I tried to escape here, there was a chance the snow may collapse on my, trapping me. But it was worth the risk. Gently as I could, I scooped the snow away from the entrance, creating a larger and larger shine of sunlight.

After yet another small eternity, I judged it safe to proceed. I squeezed out into the open air and took in my surroundings. I was halfway down the mountain. Almost everything around me was blank white snow. How was I ever going to find Thalia? Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glint of icy blue. Was that… Thalia? I brushed a bit of snow of the thing. Yes, it was the ice statue of Thalia.

“Thalia.” I said, “Okay, I’ve got the cure and answer, but I have no idea how to use it.”

I held out the ice shard and the potion, which, miraculously, were unharmed.

“And, let me guess,” I muttered, “You’d know how to use these.”

Thalia, obviously, said nothing. I frowned, “The potion is the cure.”

I decided on rubbing it onto Thalia. I felt stupid, but I tipped a bit onto my hands. It burnt with cold fire. I rubbed a little onto the sleeve of Thalia’s parker. And instantly it began to thaw, becoming a scowling Hunter of Artemis.

“Nico?” She coughed, shivering, “Did you get to the glowing peak?”

“Yeah, fill you in later.” I muttered, “Here, take this.” I handed her the ice shard from Boreas.

“What is it?” She asked suspiciously.

“That’s gonna make the hyperboreans friendly towards us.” I said, “Apparently. We should get going.”

Thalia held the ice shard on the palm of her hand, held out in front of her where the ice giants could see it. We had no more snowballs thrown at us, thankfully. I told her what had happened at the glowing peak on the way down the mountain.

“But… one more thing.” I said, “Can we keep this between us, the whole quest?”

“Sure.” Thalia agreed. I could tell she was kind of embarrassed about being turned into an ice statue, “I swear on the river Styx that I won’t tell anyone other than Lady Artemis about the quest.”

“I swear on the Styx that I won’t tell anyone I was even here.” I said, “Now let’s finish this up so I can leave.”

Chapter Text

I huddled into the cold wall behind me. The week since I had been on the quest with Thalia had been the hardest yet. I hadn’t wanted to return to the Underworld, the Styx would bring back too many memories now. Distant and more recent. And I didn’t want to return to camp Half-Blood. Ever.

Not that anyone knew that.

So I had been living on the streets, too weak to Shadow-travel again, too tired even to try. I had lived mostly in this ally somewhere in Manhattan (I hadn’t bothered to find out where), next to a refrigerator box that smelt so strongly of Cyclops that it hopefully masked the smell of demigod. It was safe enough, even with that Sphinx that kept dropping by, trying to attack me whenever I insisted I didn’t know where any Cyclopes were.

But today I hadn’t wanted to return there. I was huddled on a random street somewhere, wishing there was something for me to do. Somewhere for me to go. Wishing I had some purpose. But I didn’t. I was just existing. Living on, waiting for something. For the Titan war? Percy to contact me on my offer? I didn’t know.

I Sleeping under benches or in allies was tiring, it wasn’t real sleep. And most of the time I was interrupted by that Sphinx. Suddenly a familiar sandy smell filled my nose. A hissing noise. The Sphinx. I unsheathed my sword. This was bad. I hardly could fight against that thing in ‘my’ ally, so if this street was its home my chances weren’t good.

Off to my left I heard paw steps. A creature lumbered out of the darkness. Its face was deceptively beautiful, with black hair and big brown eyes. Then the rest of her came into view, a huge lion for a body and eagle wings coming out from her shoulder blades.

“Demigod.” She hissed, “Come to reveal the Cyclops to me? Or to offer yourself as a snack?”

“No, go away!” I yelled, wishing I was better with my sword. Anger fuelled it and me most of the time, but now I was scared and tired. My only other chance was Underworld magic - which was unreliable at best when I was tired, and would likely tip me into unconsciousness for who knows how long - and running.

I chose the latter, and started back away slowly. The sphinx followed me, step for step.

“Son of Hades, your only chances are to die or give me the information on the Cyclops.” She hissed.

“Not happening.” I turned and ran, ducking back into the crowed street beyond the ally. Behind me I heard a curse and wingbeats. I didn’t have time to look back, I ran. Five blocks away I fell to the foot of a statue of a golden girl that looked somewhat familiar. I glanced up at the sky. No sign of the sphinx, but it could be anywhere, waiting to strike.

Suddenly something soft and warm touched my shoulder. I jumped away, sword pointed at the thing that had touched me. It was the golden statue. It raised its hands in an ‘I surrender gesture’. Green eyes blinked. It looked like Rachel Elizabeth Dare. But surely it wasn’t her.

“Nico?” Her voice came from the golden statues mouth. I was going crazy.

“Nico, it’s me Rachel.” Definitely crazy. Unless…

“Rachel? What… why are you gold?” I asked.

Rachel – I decided it was Rachel – laughed, “Art project. What are you doing here? How’s Percy and Annabeth? The battle? Did camp make it? What are you running from? Is it something to do with the Labyrinth?”

Was she always this annoying? Maybe the deadly Labyrinth distracted me from how annoying she really was. Or maybe I was just older now, and not so caught up in my plans for revenge. Hang on… was I like this as a kid?

“I’m fine. Percy and Annabeth were fine last time I saw them. Camp’s fine. We won the battle. Everything is fine. I’m not running from anything.” I said, “And, no, Daedalus is dead and the Labyrinth is destroyed.”

I took a deep breath as she processed this information.

“You were running from something.” Rachel insisted, “What? And why aren’t you at Camp? Is it a quest?”

“No, it isn’t a quest. And I am not running from something.” I said.

“Okay, okay.” Rachel said, “But why aren’t you at camp?”

“I left. I didn’t want to be there.”

Suddenly a shriek filled the air. Above me three lion shapes with giant eagle wings circled.

“Okay, confession.” I admitted, “I was running from them. Happy?”

“Not really. How can I help?” Rachel asked.

“Get away from danger? I don’t need help.” I insisted. Just then one sphinxes screeched, diving down towards me. Hard as it is to admit, if Rachel hadn’t pushed me away then I would have been sliced by its claws.

I was still in shock, but Rachel grabbed my arm and ran, pulling me through the streets. I thought vaguely about how much attention a bright gold girl dragging a kid dressed emo-style through the streets on Manhattan during sun-down.

I had no idea where we were going, just away. But we ended up cornered in an ally anyways. Naturally. I sighed and stepped forwards.

“Nico, what are you going to do?” Rachel sounded scared.

“Take down the sphinxes. Just don’t scream.” I said. A shriek raked the air. I waited. All three of them landed in front of us in the ally.

“Nowhere to run now, little demigod.” The middle one cooed, “Oh, and you’ve brought a mortal side dish. How lovely!”

“Think again, pigeon!” I snapped. I pointed the blade of my sword towards the ground and stabbed it into the pavement. It cut through the cement like butter. A crack opened up from where I had pushed the blade into the concrete. From the crack emerged five skeletons. They held swords made from bones, and I wasn’t interested on learning were those bones were from.

They leapt forwards before the sphinxes could process what was happening, slicing off their wings with the bone-swords, then managing to stab one. The other sphinxes regained much quicker. The middle one swiped at a skeleton, scattering it into a pile of bones.

I felt dizzy and weak, but I couldn’t let the sphinxes get away. I darted forwards, leapt over the middle sphinx’s claws and stabbed my blade into its chest. It became transparent and faded into my sword blade, making the stygian iron hum with power. I love my sword like that.

“Bad kitty.” I whispered. Now there was only one sphinx left. The four skeletons danced around the sphinx, swiping and dodging. I couldn’t do anything more, I could hardly stand. But the sphinx looked like it would defeat the skeletons.

One had lost its leg and was hopping in circles, another was missing a few rib bones. The other two seemed fine, but, no, one had lost both its hands. I had no idea how it was holding the sword blade that it was still carrying. I was too weak, too tired, to do anything.

“Nico, you need to help them!” Rachel screamed. I turned.

“I can’t.” I choked out, “I can hardly stand, much less-”

I didn’t get to finish, because at that moment a pile of bones which had once been the one-legged skeleton, was hurled at me. It caught me off guard, and I fell, dropping my sword. It went flying through the air, landing at Rachel’s feet. I saw her determined look and knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“Rachel, don’t!” I croaked, “Don’t touch that! If you touch that blade it will suck out your life force and-”

Naturally Rachel didn’t listen. I was unable to stop her picking up the blade. It was heavier than it looked and she paled quite a bit as she struggled to lift it.

“Rachel, drop the blade.” I said.

“Yes, Rachel Elizabeth Dare, listen to your little demigod friend. Drop the blade, let me devour you,” The sphinx cooed. I turned my attention back to it, and realized that it had managed to destroy the skeletons. I groaned. Now what?

Rachel gritted her teeth, levelled my sword and charged straight at the sphinx. She was so quick that the sphinx was caught unaware, which I had to envy. Rachel jumped onto the back of the sphinx, riding it like a horse. The sphinx struggled until Rachel managed to plunge the sword into the back of its neck.

The sphinx was drained away. Rachel looked pale and tired after the fight.

“How can you use that thing?” She asked, “It’s heavy and makes me feel all awful and tired and it burns.”

“Burns?” I asked. It had never burnt. Then I remembered what Charon had said, “Oh, uh, it’s because I’m a son of Hades. The blade responds better with me, and worse with other demigods. And apparently quite poorly with mortals who just take it.”

“Right, sorry.” Rachel said, “But I saved you.”

“You did not-” I yawned, “-save me. Okay, maybe just… a little.”

“Are you okay?” Rachel leant down and put a hand on my shoulder. I brushed it off, the reached out for my sword. Rachel handed it over. I grasped the hilt, taking slow deep breaths. Slowly I felt a little strength return to my body.

“Wow.” Rachel murmured, “It’s like magic… oh.”

I pushed myself to my feet, swaying were I stood.

“Hey, you wouldn’t have a place where I can sleep?” I asked, “I don’t think I can make it to my normal spot, and anyway, the place would reek of sphinx.”

“Where is the place you normally sleep?” She asked.

“Oh, some ally somewhere. I suppose I could sleep under a park bench but-”

“You’re coming with me! There is no way you’re sleeping under a park bench.” Rachel exclaimed. I looked down at my hands. They were black and smoky, but only just. I took a deep breath. Not fading. I thought, not fading.

“Nico? Are you okay? You've been staring at your hands for almost a minute.” Rachel asked.

“What? Yeah, fine.” I sheathed my sword, “Where are we going?”

“My place.” Rachel said evasively, “Come on.”

Chapter Text

Rachel’s place was amazing. Her ‘bedroom’ was the top floor penthouse. The view rivalled the one from the Lotus Casino. And it was all hers. Bianca and I had shared a room in the Lotus Casino and it was only a quarter as big as this room, even if you add in the bathroom and kitchen.

“So, this is your room?” I frowned. I hadn’t even had a bed, let alone any sort of room, for so long I could hardly remember what they were like.

“Yeah.” Rachel said, “Sorry, it’s a bit messy.”

It was, I realized. There were painting lying everywhere, some of easels, some hung on walls, some on the floor. There were quite a few paint stains as well. And food wrappers. But when your room is so big, I guess it doesn’t matter much.

“It’s…” I couldn’t find the right word to tell her how it was without sounding too insincere. I hated to be jealous. Unfortunately I was. A lot. I was jealous of Percy and how well he could fit into camp, and how perfect he was. I was jealous of Annabeth, and how perfect she was, and how perfect she was for Percy. And that she could be with Percy. Because she was a girl. And I was jealous of Rachel for getting Percy’s attention as well. And for having such a large room, and a rich family and a family.

“So, uh, are you okay?” Rachel asked awkwardly.

“What?” I looked down. Black shadows were clinging to me a little. “Yeah, fine. Just tired.”

And I was. I was horribly tired. This was the longest I had ever stayed awake for after using so much magic.

“Uh, I’m sorry I don’t have a spare bed, but you can use mine?” She offered.

“No, I’ll be fine here.” I was too tired to take another step. My knees buckled and I fell asleep before I hit the floor.

And then the dreams started.

I’ve had a lot of strange dreams before, but this one was almost definitely the strangest. I started off in an empty black space. There were dozens of small specks of white, like stars. I assumed they glowed, but as there was nothing else in my dream, I couldn’t tell.

I reached out my hand towards one of them. Instead of being miles away, like a star, it was closer, and I could cup it in my hand. Then I was sucked into the star-thing and everything went blinding white. Slowly the world faded into being around me. I glowed black and white, like a colourless ghost.

I was in a strange room. I was one hundred percent sure I had never seen it before, but it looked like a camp cabin. There was a warm fire blazing in a fireplace. Above the mantels hung a tree branch I recognised from the Underworld, a Poplar. The branch was dripping with white water, the water dripping sleepily into a cluster of tin bowls. I didn’t want to touch it, even though I couldn’t in a dream. I had the feeling that I had touched that water before and something bad had happened. Or… something bad was associated with that water. I couldn't quite remember.

It was full of beds that were lined with fresh pillows and sheets. They looked comfortable. If I wasn’t already in a dream I would have wanted to sleep on those beds. I had a fuzzy sense of fresh laundry and soft violin music and warm milk.

And by the fire sat a boy in a chair. He looked like a baby whose body had grown much too fast, leaving a boy with a wedge of blonde hair, large watery eyes, a chubby face and weak arms. And the kid, who looked very much like someone I had met before, was talking to someone I knew. Because… because I was watching the blonde kid talk to myself.

Other me was a bit taller and much scruffier. He was in full colour, wearing a black t-shirt, jeans and my aviator jacket, which still, I noticed with annoyance, didn’t fit me. Other me also looked a lot skinner and more tired than I did, which I found amazing. How could I be worse off than I am now?

Other me scowled and I was effected by my own anger for the first time. I had to admit it, I was scary.

Clovis. Other me growled. For the gods’ sake, stop dreaming so powerfully.

Of course! The boy was Clovis, the kid in the Hermes Cabin I had met in a dream. Clovis’ eyes fluttered open. He stared at other Nico, and seemed unable to see me (me me, not other me).

Oh, hi… Clovis yawned, sorry. Did I pull you off course again?

“No, I can’t… what?” Then I realised that Clovis couldn’t see me and was talking to other me. Also, this other me seemed to be able to navigate dreams? That was something I wanted to know.

The other me acted the way I did around Clovis. He gritted his teeth.

As long as I’m here. Other me said, I have a message to pass along. Tell Chiron-

Suddenly white light enveloped my dreams once again.

“Hey!” I yelled, “I was watching that! What do I want to tell Chiron? Where was that? Why did I look different?”

Greetings, once again, Nico di Angelo. A sleepy voice hummed. It has been a while.

“…Hypnos?” I asked.

Yes, Nico di Angelo. The voice hummed.

“Why are you here?” I asked, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Part of my subconscious resides with every dreamwalker. The voice of Hypnos said, I myself am not really here. I am just here to help you unlock your full potential as a dreamwalker.

“Can you show me what I was seeing before?” I asked. I wanted to get angry, but Hypnos – or his voice, at least – had a powerful aura that made me feel calm and relaxed.

No, Nico di Angelo. Hypnos said. That dream is for another time.

“What is a dreamwalker?” I asked.

A dreamwalker is any demigod or mortal who can move through dreams at will. Mortals call them lucid dreamers, I believe. Hypnos’ voice hummed. They are either my children, blessed by me, or children of shadows. You, Nico di Angelo, are a child of shadows. You are the son of Hades. You go were you wish in the waking world, why not in the dream world too? The darkness is your birthright, and all demigod dreams are dark.

Dreamwalkers are powerful, Nico di Angelo. They can appear in others dreams, even in the waking world. And they can influence others in their sleep, touch them, harm them, give things to them, talk to them, even kill them.

And you are powerful, Nico di Angelo. You can use shadows in the waking world.

“So… I can become a dreamwalker or lucid dreamer or whatever you call them?” I asked, eyes sparkling.

Indeed. Hypnos hummed. You have already began to unlock your potential. You met my son, Clovis, did you not?

“Yeah.” I said.

Dreamwalking is much like shadow-travelling. You must have a destination. It can just be away, but it is better to focus on an event, place or person.

“Can I practice now?” I asked.

Not now, Nico di Angelo. Hypnos hummed. For you must wake soon.

“But-”

No excuses.

The dream faded white, then black. Then, slowly, I woke. I blinked open my eyes. Sun was streaming through the windows. How long had I been out for? I sat up. About three meters away, Rachel Elizabeth Dare was painting a painting. The back of the easel faced me, so I had no idea what she was painting.

I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. Dreamwalker. Could I become a dreamwalker? Then I saw Rachel studying me.

“What?” I croaked, then cleared my throat, “What?”

“Nothing.” She said, turning back to her painting.

“What’re you painting?” I said, pushing myself to my feet. I swayed a little, but focused on the bright red of Rachel’s hair and waited for the world to stop spinning.

“Nothing.” She said again.

“How long was I out for?” My throat was dry. How long had it been since I had drunk anything?

“Hmm… about, maybe, two days?” Rachel said.

“Couldn’t you wake me?”

“I did try.” Rachel said, her tongue sticking out a bit as she applied more colour to her painting. “You wouldn’t wake up. Even when I played the most obnoxious songs I knew at full volume in your ears.”

“But my dreams seemed to take only minutes…” I frowned, “Oh wait, never mind, time is different when you sleep.”

I walked over to her to see what she was painting. And… it was… me? I stood in the light of a streetlamp, stygian iron blade held straight out in front of me, facing the sky. In front of me five skeletons burst out of a crack in the ground.

I looked closer at myself in the painting. I was skinny and gaunt, my face was pale, ghostlike. But, even in the painting, I could feel waves of terror flowing out of me. I was terrifying as Hades himself. I do look like Hades, I thought. I didn’t like that. I didn’t want to look like him. No way. Never.

“That was what I looked like?” I half-mumbled.

“Yeah.” Rachel nodded, “What you did, that was awesome.”

“I guess.” I said. “I look terrifying.”

“You were!” Rachel nodded, hair bobbing wildly, “But it was awesome. Oh, by the way, my dad’ll be coming soon. I made him stay out when you were sleeping, but now he knows I have someone over. He thinks you’re from school, so act like it.”

“Okay.” I said, still looking at the painting, “Can you draw?”

“Yeah.” Rachel said, “But I paint more. Why do you ask?”

“My mother taught me how to draw.” I said numbly. Where was this information coming from? I didn’t even know my mother. Rachel opened her mouth, then shut it as a knock came from the door, echoing across the room.

“That’s my dad.” She told me, “Come in.”

Mr Dare stepped into the room, “Hello Rachel. Is… is this your friend?”

He looked at me like I had killed someone. Which, I thought annoyed, remembering Daedalus, I had. But that isn’t even… it wasn’t like that.

“Yes.” I said, “My name is Nico di Angelo.”

“…Pleased… to meet you.” Mr Dare sniffed.

“Yeah, I know. I’m that kid who you’d avoid on the streets.” I muttered.

“What was that?” Mr Dare was sharp as a whip.

“He said pleased to meet you too.” Rachel said quickly.

“I… need to go now.” I said.

“But Nico you only just got up!” Rachel said, then added awkwardly, “…Here. Only just arrived here.”

“I know, but I don’t want to bother you guys. So… uh, thanks for having me, I guess.” I said, “And thanks for the help. With the sphinxes.”

“No problem.” Rachel grinned, “Come on, I’ll show you to the door."

Chapter Text

I slid down in my seat. Why was I even here? Probably because I was bored, and, if you’ll notice, when I’m bored I do stupid and reckless things. What’s so reckless about sitting at a garden-emporium-slash-restaurant? Well, the whole facility reeked of monster. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to detect anything.

Suddenly the door opened again, and a little girl slipped into the building. She looked no older than eight. She had blonde hair bunched up in ponytails and crooked teeth. She looked around and, seeing me, shrunk away. I rolled my eyes. Of course she would.

One of the two plump ladies that owned the place tottered out from the kitchens and over to the girl, “Hello, dearie, is there anything we can do for you?”

“Oh, uh,” The girl said, smiling nervously, “I’m actually just waiting for my father. He said he’d meet me near here, but he hasn’t turned up, so I decided to come inside and wait.”

“Such a grown up decision.” The lady said, “Why don’t you have something to eat, free of charge. I just love having children for dinner.”

Having children for dinner. That sounded bad. Hold on, I’m over-thinking this, there’s nothing wrong with a lady offering a little girl food. A lady that smells of monster in a shop that smells of monster.

“Um, can I just have a drink of water?” The girl asked.

“Of course, dearie, be right back.” She tottered over to me, “And hello, dearie. How can I help you?”

“Look, monster,” I hissed, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m the son of Hades, and if you don’t want to return to Tartarus the hard way you’ll leave the kid alone.”

The lady’s eyes widened, then she laughed as if I’d said something funny, “Alright, dearie.” She said, “Little old . . . Auntie Em will have to go without your services tonight.”

She tottered back to the kitchen. The girl was eyeing me as if I were a monster. Then again, I probably looked like one. But no, that lady was the monster. If only I could figure out which one.

Statues, modelling for statues. My brain whirled, Auntie Em, statues, Auntie Em, M, Medusa! The gorgon that turned people to stone! But. . . hadn’t Percy killed her a few years ago? Had she reformed so quickly? There was no way, was there?

I tried to remember anything else that the monster could be. I replayed her words in my head. Hadn’t she hesitated before calling herself Auntie Em? Was she lying about her identity? What if she wasn’t Medusa . . . but she was someone similar?

Medusa had two sisters, didn’t she? Sisters that had turned into horrible monsters along with her. And if Percy had killed Medusa in this place, then maybe the two would be trying to find out who had killed her and find them, and starting in this place would make sense.

The woman, and her friend, had to be Medusa’s sisters.

That kid had to get out of here. I stood up and walked over to her.

“Hey kid,” I said, “I promise, I’m not going to hurt you, but you need to listen to me.”

“Who are you?” The girl looked me up and down, “Why do you have a sword? Are you going to hurt me? Like the black dogs?”

“What? No… wait, black dogs?” I said.

“Big ones, the size of cars. And with claws and teeth and-”

“Hellhounds.” I mutter, “Okay kid, you need to listen to me. Pay attention, your life is on the line.”

“You have a sword.” The girl said, “How can I trust you?”

“I promise. You know the black dogs?” I said, “They’re monsters. And I’m… a monster fighter. That’s why I have a sword. To get rid of monsters, not to kill you, understand?”

“Yes.” The girl said, “But why are you here now? I’m safe here.”

“You’re not.” I said, “I’m sorry, but that lady? She’s a monster. The Lamia, a child eating snake.”

“Son of Hades! Surrender and I may spare your life!” A voice hissed. I spun around. Medusa’s sisters was standing over me. They were both taller than I first thought. As I watched, their faces transformed into a deformed monstrosity. Tusks grew out of their mouths, their eyes glittered murderously.

The one who was serving me earlier spoke, voice becoing a raspy hiss, “You will not get away with this, son of Hades!”

“What did she call you?” The girl squeaked.

“Not right now!” I drew my sword, hoping the black blade would scare off the gorgons a little, at least so I could get them away from the girl. But no, the first monster lunged, the second following her lead. I darted to the side, bringing my blade down. I just missed the second.

“I would have let you flee, but now you must pay for denying me an kill, demigod.” The first hissed.

“You didn’t even let me try my new recipe on her.” The first pouted.

“You aren’t going to touch this kid.” I said, “You have the chance to leave now.”

“We will not yield.” The second hissed.

“Kid, cover your eyes, and don’t open them until I tell you.” I yelled. The girl was wide-eyed. She looked at me, then put her hands to her face.

“Serve me!” I yelled, stabbing my sword into the floor and closing my eyes. Around me I heard the ground crack and the rustle of bones pouring out of the floor and forming into skeleton warriors. I could tell the gorgons were trying to shatter the skeletons to stone, but they were outnumbered. I could hear her hissing and shrieking, going on for what seemed like forever.

Finally it stopped. I cracked my eyes open a little. The skeletons had vanished. There was nothing but a pile of grey dust. I walked over to it and kicked it. I turned to the kid. She was peeping through her fingers.

“What was that? Is it safe?” She asked.

“Yes.” I sat down next to her, “The monsters are gone.”

“What’s happening? Why are there so many monsters?” She asked.

“Kid, listen. What I’m about to tell you is important.” I said. The girl nodded.

“These monsters are attacking you because you are a very special person.” I said, “The child of a Greek god.”

“Are you?” The girl asked, “The snake called you something. Son of Hades?”

“Yeah.” I said, “I’m a son of Hades. I’m not sure who your parent is, but since you mentioned a father, it’ll be a goddess, most likely. But that isn’t important. What matters is that you get to somewhere safe.”

“But where?” The girl looked like she was about to cry, “The monsters are everywhere.”

“There is one safe place.” I said, grabbing a napkin, “Do you have anything I can write with?”

She nodded and fished out a blue pencil.

“Thanks.” I started scribbling on the napkin, “The place is called Camp Half-Blood. It’s a place where demigods, people with godly parents, can train and live safely. All demigods go there.”

“Really?” The kid asked, “Where is it?”

“Long Island. Uh, it’s officially known as a berry farm, though. Look for a satyr. There’s half goat half person, and they’ll usually be disguised as a mortal. There’s one in most schools. They walk funny and laugh funny.” I passed her the napkin with the address scribbled down on it.

“Okay.” The girl said, “Oh… uh, I’m Lacy, by the way.”

“Nico. Nico di Angelo.” I said, standing up.

“Uh, one more thing?” Lacy asked.

“Yeah?”

“Why aren’t you at that camp?” She asked.

“Oh, uh…” What could I tell that kid, “I’m hunting monsters. I… I may see you at camp sometime. But don’t count on it.”

“Bye.” Lacy waved. I stepped out of the shop and into the freezing night air.

For once I wished I had a home to go to. Or at least somewhere safe. Safe. I thought weakly. Somewhere Bianca and I felt safe, safe, please take me somewhere safe. Then I slipped into the darkness. But this time it didn’t end.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I dreamt of Percy. Naturally. He and a solid-looking girl I recognized as Clarisse, the head councillor for the Ares cabin, were standing on a pier next to the sea with a chariot engraved with scenes of death, pulled by black horses. It reminded me of what I thought my father’s chariot would look like, except it radiated anger, not fear. Where did they get that?

I’d better get out of here before Ares arrives, that was Percy’s voice. Did that mean that the chariot was Ares’? Wouldn’t surprise me.

He’d probably kill you on sight, that was Clarisse.

Congratulations, Percy said, I guess you passed your driving test.

Clarisse wrapped the reigns of the horses around her hand, About what you saw, Percy. What I was afraid of, I mean-

I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I didn’t pry. If it were my fears… well, being a son of Hades was only the beginning.

I won’t tell anybody, there was Percy, always being a good friend.

Did Phobos scare you? Clarrise asked.

Did they encounter Phobos? He was the god of… fear. That was right. Phobia, Phobos. That made sense. I was glad that I wasn’t there to witness it. Even in a dream gods could speak to you. Shadows and dreams are very similar the thought came suddenly. Could I learn to speak to others in dreams? Could I speak to Percy? Could I learn?

Yeah. I saw the camp in flames. Percy’s voice snapped me back to reality, I saw my friends all pleading for help and I didn’t know what to do. For a second, I was paralysed. I know how you felt.

My friends… That wouldn’t be me. I wasn’t Percy’s friend. Ally? Yes. Friend? No. I wasn’t good enough to be his friend, or anyone else’s. I thought sadly.

I, uh… Clarisse’s voice faltered, I guess I should say…

Don’t mention it. Percy stopped whatever she was about to say. He began to turn and walk away, and my dream began to fade. But just before it was over, Clarisse called out.

Percy? Her voice echoed around my head.

Yeah? So did Percy’s.

When you, uh, had that vision about your friends… Clarisse’s voice trailed off. I knew what she was going to say. I had wanted to ask it myself, but I knew I couldn’t and never would. Because I couldn’t admit I had seen this. And I couldn’t admit I wanted to be one of Percy’s friends.

You were one of them. Percy’s voice came across, reassuring, Just don’t tell anybody, okay? Or I’d have to kill you.

I wished he had been talking to me. But I knew I wasn’t one of his friends.

See you later, Clarisse’s voice said, the vision going black.

One last spark of white shot into being with Percy’s last words.

See you.

Then it was gone. Instead I was floating in a familiar place. The black place speckled in stars. Or memories. Or whatever the glowing white things were. I looked around. If I concentrated on a star I saw an image. Nothing in particular. Me shadow-travelling, me raising the dead, Annabeth and Percy fighting side by side. Average demigod stuff.

I remembered the dream with the other me. Maybe I could try to find that image of myself and Clovis. Suddenly I was tugged of my feet. I whirled around and around, blinded, and then, just as suddenly as it started, the whirling stopped.

I was in a place very similar to the black-star-memory place. But here the background was pale purple and the stars gleamed gold. And there was someone else. Clovis. He turned and blink at me, surprised.

I’d be surprised if I appeared in my dreams too.

“Hi Nico.” Clovis said, as if meeting people in pale purple dimensions with gold stars while asleep was normal.

“Clovis.” I said.

“I got claimed today.” Clovis smiled.

“Oh.” I wasn’t really that interested.

“Yeah, I’m a son of Hypnos. My father is showing me the dreamscape.” Clovis waved his hand around, “Or at least, my dreamscape. I can become a dreamwalker.”

“Yeah, cool.” I said absently, “Hey, Clovis, have any new campers arrived recently?”

“Why do you ask?” Clovis asked.

“I met a kid a called Lacy.” I said imapteintly, “She’s a demigod. Has she arrived at camp?”

“Hm… let me think.” Clovis scratched his head, “Oh, yeah. I remember her. Blonde, pigtails, eight year old?”

“That’s her.” I nod, “Great. Um, I need to wake up soon.”

“Really? Why?” Clovis asked.

“I have no idea where I am.”

“Oh, right.” Clovis said, “Bye.”

He reached out and touched my head. I felt everything fade away as I began to wake up.

Chapter Text

I had had more than enough of saving demigods and dreams. I woke in the Underworld, the ultimate hiding place. Unfortunately, I was not the Hades' only family member staying in the Underworld. Naturally I had no intentions of visiting Hades’ palace. But when the Fury swept down out of the sky, what else could I do?

“Alecto? What is the meaning of this?” I demanded, after being dumped at the steps of my father’s palace.

“Your step-mother wishes to see you.” Alecto said, baring her fangs, “Good luck son of Hades. You may need it.”

“Thanks.” I muttered as she flew away. I turned to the castle. I had no good memories of this place. Why would I? All that I had memeories of from here was me fighting with my father. I pushed open one side of the double doors and slipped inside.

Persephone was waiting for me. That was never a good sign, if a god was waiting for something. Particularly if that something was me.

“Nico di Angelo.” She said. Persephone was wearing a white dress. Her hair was brittle and dry. Her eyes were pale blue. However, she radiated power like every god and goddess.

“Persephone.” I said, “You… wanted to see me.”

“Indeed.” Persephone said. “I thought it was about time to meet my stepson.”

I glanced around the hall. Hades wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

“Well.” I said, “Here I am.”

“Yes.” Persephone agreed, “So, your father has tasked you with a quest?”

“He has?” I asked, then remembered how he wanted me to be the demigod of the prophecy, and to kill Percy. Well, that wasn’t really going to happen anymore. “Right, I suppose he has.”

“It is a great honour.” Persephone said.

“Get to the point.” I said.

“I don’t like that attitude.” Persephone said, “You will speak to me with respect.”

I didn’t reply.

“Did you hear what I said?” Persephone demanded.

“Yes.” I snapped.

“You are under my roof-”

“My father’s roof.”

“-my husband’s roof now and you will respect that.” Persephone glared at me.

“Because you gods have done so much to earn my respect.” I muttered.

“You are every bit as horrible as your mother.” Persephone snapped.

“You knew her?” I asked. Persephone knew my mother? Maybe should could tell me about her! I knew nothing about who I was. Now was a chance to find out.

“Stealing away my husband not once, but twice. That lady was-”

“What was her name?” I asked, “You have to tell me!”

“I don’t have to do anything for you.” Persephone said.

“But it’s about my mother.” I said, “Just because you have a mother and father that love you so much-”

I stopped as a funny, burning feeling crept over me. It wasn’t burning, exactly, more… compressing. I felt green, not sick, but green. Around me everything grew… or was I shrinking? I couldn’t tell. And I couldn’t see, it was more like I could feel everything going on. What happened? I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move.

“Persephone, has my son arrived?” A voice echoed through the entrance hall. Was that Hades?

“Oh, he arrived.” Persephone said, “And wasted no time in offending me and talking back to me.”

“Were is he now?” Hades asked, “I must have a word with him if he is being so disobedient.”

“Right there.” Persephone’s voice came.

“A dandelion?” Hades’s voice boomed.

A dandelion? I couldn't yell. I couldn't speak. That horrible goddess turned me into a dandelion?

“He was disrespectful.” Persephone’s voice indicated a shrug.

“Change him back.” Hades' voice said.

“But-”

“Please, dear. I will punish him in a more fitting way.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“Very well.”

And then an opposite feeling to turning into a plant came to me. A cold shiver as I turned back into myself. And a flash of a dream, about… dandelions. A lot of dandelions. A field of dandelions. The smell of dandelions. A soft breeze blowing the flowers at my feet. . . Wait, no, my stem. I was a dandelion. I opened my mouth the scream, but instead of noise, dandelions floated out of my mouth and into the sky.

“I had a strange dream about dandelions.” I muttered, dazed.

“Nico di Angelo.” Hades said, “Were you disrespectful to my Persephone?”

“She insulted me and-”

“Were you or were you not?” Hades interrupted.

“Maybe a little.” I muttered.

“The little brat was awful.” Persephone said.

“I was not!” I yelled, “You called me and my mother horrible!”

“See, Hades?” Persephone said dramatically.

“Nico, I am very disappointed in you.” Hades said. “Go to your room.”

“I don’t have a room.” I snapped, irritated.

“You do now. Go.” Hades waved his hand and I found myself flying out of the room, along rows of corridors and into an empty guest bedroom. The room was larger than Percy’s, and was furnished with a four poster bed, a large mahogany table, a stone fireplace and a cupboard. A tapestry of the Isle of the Blest hung on the wall. A glassless window showed view onto the River Styx, looking over the fields of Asphodel, where I could see the little figure of Daedalus working away on a new bridge.

I instantly hated it. Sure, the décor was all nice enough, but it was dusty and moth eaten and smelt like ghosts. The tapestry was faded, and the stone floor was damp. I could hear the faded screams from the spirits from the Fields of Punishment.

“Your guest rooms suck!” I yelled down the corridor, before the door slammed shut. I heard my comment echo down the castle. I hoped Hades would hear me, even if I would get a worse punishment.

Disheartedly I tried the doorhandle. As I expected, it was locked. I kicked the door, then turned to ‘my’ room and tried hard not to sulk.

I leant out the window. I was nearly thirty feet above the ground. Directly below me was a strangely beautiful garden. It was full of flowers made of rubies, sapphires and emeralds. Gold and silver stone paths wound through poplar and pomegranate trees. A small stream lined with shining topazes bubbled softly, bridges spanning it as the path wound over them. A silver table with elegant chairs stood in a circle of silver and gold stones in the centre of the garden. All the different paths ended up there.

The whole scene was strangely peaceful. As I watched a hellhound, one on the rather small side, only about the size of a minibus, appeared out of the shadows of a tree, followed by half a dozen hellhound puppies about the size of great Danes.

Could hellhounds shadow-travel too then? If that was the case then maybe… well, the possibilities were almost endless. But it wasn’t like I could find out more now. I was stuck here in this room. Thanks Hades. Suddenly the whines of the baby hellhounds were cut off by a sharp bark from the larger one. I nearly fell out the window, because I understood what the hellhound had said.

As it had barked its voice rung through my head. Close your muzzles or I’ll bite them off.

A pup whined, But mama, it’s been forever since we got to eat.

The big hellhound snapped. It has only been a few hours.

Another pup whined. But mama, training is hard.

Training is nesesrcary. The mother growled. Shadow-travel is not as easy as it looks and I am tired so you had better make my life easy before you become dinner for me.

The mother stalked of through the gardens. The pups hung their head and followed their mother. I could understand hellhounds. I turned away from window and sat on the edge of my bed. Why in Hades could I understand hellhounds? Why in Hades. Hades. It was because they were creatures of the Underworld.

Percy’s father had created horses, and Percy could understand them. I wondered why I had only just discovered that. I looked out the window again. Time was hard in magical places. And the whole Underworld was magical. How long had it been since I arrived? Minutes in the real world? Days?

Suddenly I felt tired, maybe it was being turned into a flower. Maybe it was shadow-travelling. Maybe I was just tired. I wasn’t sure. But I fell back on my bed and despite the hot red air and tortured screams and dusty, uncomfortable sheets I fell asleep immediately.

Chapter Text

Once again I was running, running, running. Away from the dark smoke that lapped hungrily at my heels, towards the light. Towards Percy Jackson, who was also running away from the smoke. Away from me. I tried to catch up, to beg him to save me, but I couldn’t run fast enough. Every time I opened my mouth to scream for help, smoke would stream in, choking me. I stumbled, tripped and the black smoke crashed over me in a wave. I was drowning, suffocating, dying. I couldn’t breathe, the smoke was choking me.

All I could see was darkness, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see. I was tumbling through the endless darkness and there was no one that could or would save me. My heart was pounding so loudly that I could hear it reverberating through my skull. There was nothing else in the darkness. Nothing, no one. It was worse than death itself.

Until somehow, the dark smoke twisted to something else.

My new surroundings was strange, to say the least. Somehow not frightening anymore. But strange. I was in an overgrown garden. There was a path, leading up to a house. The house looked abandoned. Along the path were stuffed figures. Toys of things from Greek mythology. Medusa, the Minotaur, a hydra.

It was night, with the moon shining ghostly light over the whole place. I moved towards the house. I was wrong, it wasn’t abandoned. A light shone in the window. I peered in. A kitchen. A woman was in there, bustling about, making cookies.

She had white hair that stuck straight out of her head in tufts. She was wearing a pink housedress that was covered with ash and scorch-marks. Her eyes were glowing white and her skin was thinly stretched over her skin. Who in Tartarus was this and why were they here? And why was I dreaming of them? I moved around the house until I came to the front door. It was painted turquoise. Painted on it was the name CASTELLLAN. Who Mrs Castellan, that had to be the lady’s last name, and why was it important that I see this?

I felt an important need to find out more. A pulling sensation in my stomach, that made me need to know. It felt like vital information. Castellan. I focused on the name. Castellan. Castellan. Slowly my dream started to fade into somewhere else. Castellan. Castellan.

Then a loud scream jolted me from my sleep. I lept of the bed almost as soon as I had opened my eyes. What in Hades was going on? I ran over to the window, grabbing my sword on the way. I looked outside. Persephone was in her garden, screaming. Around her all the rocks were overturned. All the trees were broken. The river in the stream was rotten.

Who had done that? In a puff of black smoke, Hades appeared next to Persephone.

“Persephone?” He asked.

“Look at my garden!” Persephone wailed. “Your son had destroyed my garden, I know it!”

“Nico?” Hades frowned, “But why and how would Nico be able to do this? He has been locked in his room all night.”

“Don’t ask me, Hades!” Persephone cried, “Ask the wretched demigod who did it!”

“I doubt very much that Nico would do this.” Hades said calmly, “And can't you fix it easily?”

“Of course I can.” Persephone snapped, “But that isn’t the point. The point is, he ruined my garden.”

“Maybe you should ask him. Because he definitely hasn’t.” Hades frowned, “Nico di Angelo is many things – stubborn, annoying, strong-willed, difficult – but he isn’t spiteful enough to destroy your garden.”

“You know, that isn’t such a bad idea.” Persephone said, “I think I’ll go and ask him why he did it.”

She stormed off towards the castle and Hades followed her, calling out to her to stop. I felt a wave of hatred towards the stupid goddess. How could I wreck her precious garden?

Well my stay will be cut short. I thought. If Persephone caught me, I'd be turned into a dandelion or worse. I doubted Hades could do anything to stop it this time. I had to get out. For a moment, I hesitated, staring at the open window and the garden far below. Then I slipped out the window and began climbing down the stone of the castle. About halfway down I deemed it safe enough to jump. I tumbled to the ground but managed to land softly enough.

I trudged across the garden and towards the exit I had seen the hellhound use earlier. I was surprised nothing had interrupted me yet, but I supposed when the queen of the Underworld was screaming death and plant-related vengeance you didn't want to be anywhere near her. I certainly didn't. Then I saw it. A lady in red. She was hunched over, covered in a red cloak. Dark hair fell over her eyes, which glowed red.

She radiated the power I knew to be a gods, but also a subtler feel, almost like hatred. She turned to me and took her red hood of. Her skin was the unnatural, the pale colour of someone who spent much time in the Underworld. I didn't have time for a minor goddess, I had to get out of the Underworld, as quick as humanly possible.

“Who are you?” I growled, “What do you want?”

It’s a reasonable assumption that when a god appears, they want you to do something for them.

“I just wanted to help you.” The goddess cooed. Her voice was like nails on a blackboard. “I am Erida. Goddess of Hate.”

“How is hate helping me?” I demanded.

“Did you not hear my scream?” She asked. “I made your step-mother hate you even more deeply.”

“How is that helping?” I repeated, annoyed. Getting a straight answer from a god is like expecting a tree to talk to you.

“You and your step-mother are a special case.” Erida cooed. “Normally my master would want me to stay in the above world and spread hate there, but Kronos needs you two separated. If you were to aid your step-mother when she tries his next little idea…”

“You don’t seem too worried about giving away Kronos’s plans, do you?” I asked.

“My job here is done. Nothing you can do will fix your hatred anytime soon.” Erida said, “Have a spiteful day.”

She disappeared in a cloud of red dust. I groaned in annoyance. What a stupid goddess, coming in and making me hate Persephone. Of course, I already hated her, but I didn’t need any more gods messing about in my life. I felt like destroying Persephone’s garden myself now. And that reminded me – I had to keep moving.

I ducked out of the garden and into the fields of Asphodel. If I could get far away enough from my father’s castle, he wouldn’t be able to stop me shadow-travelling out of the Underworld. I ran across the fields. The ghosts parted in front of me, shying away from my stygian iron sword.

All except one. I was nearly at the end of the fields – which is a very long distance away from the castle – when I stumbled over a ghost. I know, I know, and yes I did fall over a ghost. But ever since I became the ‘Ghost King’ I had been able to touch ghosts. I fell onto my face, and got splattered with the ashy dirt from the fields of Asphodel. I pushed myself up and whirled around, half surprised, half angry.

Why hadn’t this ghost gotten out of my way like the others? I inspected it closely. The ghost was a woman. I focused on her. Maybe I could manage to bring her memories of her life back. She started to come into focus. She was tallish, with dark skin and golden brown hair. A fuzzy death aura radiated from her.

“You have a connection with Hades.” I murmured. Not a child of Hades, because she would remember who she had been in life, “How?”

The ghost shook her head.

“How?” I pressed. I felt a need to know. Not the same kind of need that I had felt during my dream at the Castellan house, which had been a need for ‘the greater good’. This was a personal need, a burning longing to know something just for myself, which was kind of strange for me.

Sure, it was a personal need to want to bring my sister back to life, but that was… different somehow. Two words whispered around the air. I almost missed them. “New Orleans.”

“New Orleans?” I asked. The ghost nodded.

I wanted to find out more, but at that moment shrieks of terror radiated out from around me. The ghosts were staring up at the massive carven that was the sky of the Underworld. The fiery figures were swooping towards me. Furies.

I didn’t want to leave this ghost. I would never find her again in Asphodel. But on the other hand, I had to leave. I made my decision. I turned away from the ghost. I needed to get away. Far away. I ran straight ahead, focusing on ‘away’.

And I slipped into darkness. I escaped. Away.

I stumbled out of a wall. That wasn’t new. And neither was that wall. It was huge, made of stone towering high above my head and boyond. Gentle slopping hills surrounded it. Both hills and wall trekked away in either direction, as far as the eye could see But it was midday this time. And on top of the wall – a good 25 feet above me – people swarmed about, yelling, screaming, laughing obnoxiously.

I rubbed my head, thinking that the noise was causing the aching, but when the headache didn't fade I figured it was shadow-travel. So the wall… meant I was in China? And this time without Daedalus’s Labyrinth to help me escape. I was stuck in a country I didn't know where everyone spanguage I didn't know. Now what? I needed another way to get out of the country. I was too tired to shadow-travel again. But how else could I escape?

The only transportation that could get me out fast was shadow-travel. Despite my headache, I followed the threat of that thought. I needed shadow-travel. Only children of Hades could shadow-travel. Children of Hades and… hellhounds! If I could get a hellhound then I could escape. But how could I get a hellhound? And how do they shadow-travel? Can they take demigods with them? Were there even hellhounds in China?

I leaned back against the wall, staring at the wall and sky overhead. Above me there was a little nick in the stone. I moved into a position where I could see it better. A small triangle. The mark of Daedalus. I ran my fingers over it, but nothing happened. Daedalus was dead. The Labyrinth was gone. What did I expect really?

Like I had decided, I needed a hellhound. But where could I get a hellhound? They aren't made in factories. And most of them will eat demigods. So where could I get a hellhound that was friendly enough not to try and eat me? Daedalus had had a hellhound. Percy owned her now, didn’t he? What was her name?

Mrs O’Leany? No. Mrs Leaky? Definitely not. Mrs O’Leary. That was it! I cast out my mind, sort of like I did when I slept. Mrs O’Leary. Come! Mrs O'Leary! Come, girl!

I waited, but nothing happened. I was starting to think that I was just being stupid, mentally calling out to a dog in America that probably didn't remember I existed. Just as I was thinking nothing would ever happen the shadows bended next to me and a hellhound appeared. It wagged its tail and barked. I'm here! It looked around, spotted me and barked again. Hello little master!

“Uh, hi.” I said, “Mrs O’Leary, right?”

Yes! You look like my old master. Mrs O’Leary said.

"Wh- oh. Hades. Well, I'm a son of Hades." I said.

You are new master's friend! Mrs O'Leary barked, wagging her tail. The wall beside me seemed to shudder a little, but I hoped it was just my imagination.

“Oh, well. I wouldn’t say friend. But, uh, yeah. I'm Nico.” I said. For the first time I was realising how awkward it was to speak to an animal.

Why did you call me here? Mrs O’Leary asked.

I need shadow-travel. I thought. I waited. Had it worked?

I like shadow-travel. Fun! Where will we go ? Mrs O’Leary asked, barking as loud as thunder. Maybe we can see master?

No, no! I thought urgently, then calmed down and continued, no thanks. No seeing your master. I just need to get out of China. Can you take me back to the USA please?

I can! I am ready. Are you ready? Mrs O’Leary wagged her tail. She bent down and I grabbed onto her collar and scrambled up. I sat on her back, which at first was a bit awkward because she was a dog, then again, she was a dog the size of a garbage truck.

“Ready.” I told her. She bounded straight into the Great Wall of China and together we melted into the shadows.

Chapter Text

I ended up at Camp Half-Blood. Of course I did. I guess I had told Mrs O’Leary to go anywhere in the USA. And Camp Half-Blood was sort of like her home. It was were Percy was. As soon as she burst from the shadows and into a clearing she curled into a ball and started snoring. I slid of her and patted her head.

“Good girl.” I whispered, “Thanks for the help.”

I slipped into the trees. I was in the forest at Camp Half-Blood. I could see Zeus’s fist (or the remains of Zeus’s fist) through the trees. I made my way out of the forest and found myself near the arena. I took a deep breath and tried not to stumble from exhaustion as I made my way to the edge of the arena. A dozen or so teens from the Ares and Athena cabins were sword fighting.

I stood back at the edge of the arena and watched them. I spotted Annabeth sparing Clarisse and swallowed the bitterness at seeing the daughter of Athena again. And the new wave of bitterness after my dream with Clarisse and Percy. I didn’t move, though. If they wanted to could come and talk to me. If they even saw me.

In fact, Annabeth did see me just as she was about to disarm Clarisse. She hesitated, surprised, and Clarisse managed to smack her sword out of her hand.

“Nico?” She called. The other campers looked at her and then their eyes made their way to me. I scowled. Annabeth excused herself and came running over, yelling at everyone to keep practising.

“Hey Nico.” She said once she reached my side.

“Annabeth.” I greeted her.

“Why are you here? Did you find out anything important or-”

“No.” I cut her off, “I was in the Underworld and when I got out I appeared here. Okay? I don’t have any particular reason to be here and I don’t particularly want to be here but I’m here now.”

“Okay.” Annabeth said, “Come on, let’s go see Chiron.”

I followed her across camp, only half-listening as she talked about how things had been going at camp and the Titan lord and who knows what else. We reached the big house. Thankfully Mr D wasn’t there, just Chiron, who was sitting in his wheelchair, reading.

He looked up when Annabeth and I neared him, “Ah, Annabeth. And Nico. Hello.”

“Chiron.” I said. Annabeth shifted awkwardly until Chiron waved a hand to dismiss her.

“Is Percy here?” I asked.

“No. I’m afraid he’s spending the year with his mother in Manhattan.” Chiron said. “Nico, before we discuss anything, I should asked, should I prepare a room in the Big House for you to stay in?”

“I’m not staying the night.” I said, “And I don’t have any particular reason to come here. It was my shadow-travel. It can be… unpredictable sometimes.”

“I see.” Chiron said, “You won’t be put into any schedules then. But feel free to stay for as long as you'd like.”

“Great. Thanks.” I said, not really meaning it, just wanting to get away from Camp, Annabeth, even Chiron.

“Did you have anything you wanted to discuss?” Chiron asked.

I shook my head.

"Then I hope you enjoy your stay. Come to me if you need anything." Chiron dismissed me.

I wandered off in the direction of the cabins. No particular reason why. After all, the only people I really knew from camp were Grover Underwood (I had no idea where he was), Percy (who I  didn’t have any reason to talk to unless he decided to take up my offer and anyway he wasn’t even at camp), Annabeth (who was sword fighting and I wasn’t even friends with) and Clovis (I would rather die than spend time with him).

As I walked I realised whispers followed me. As normal. A group of Apollo kids interrupted their volleyball game to stare and point and mutter amongst themselves. As I was walking through the cabins, considering going back to the forest where there would be no eyes or whispers following me, a couple of Aphrodite campers stopped me in my tracks.

They didn’t literally make me stop, but I glanced over and recognised one. Lacy. I admit I was surprised enough to stop. The sweet little girl I had saved was a daughter of Aphrodite? The cabin who gossiped the most about anyone and everyone? What would she think of me now that her cabin was filling her head with rumours? Not that I cared.

Lacy pointed over to me and gestured for a few of her siblings to follow. They frowned and did so reluctantly.

“Hi Nico.” Lacy smiled. I sighed. Here we go.

“Nico, hon, do you know Lacy, here?” One of the two other Aphrodite campers said. Drew or something similar, I think her name was.

“Nope.” I muttered, “Never seen her before today. And don’t call me ‘hon’.”

“Lacy, hon,” Drew said, “Nico is a child of Hades. He’s bad luck.” Her voice was a loud whisper.

“But he… he saved me.” Lacy frowned.

“I don’t know you kid.” I said, “But for what it’s worth welcome to Camp Half-Blood. Not that I should be welcoming you.”

“Nico’s hardly ever around.” The other Aphrodite camper said. I had no idea who he was.

“He’s not really accepted here, hon.” Drew told Lacy.

“Thanks.” I snapped, “I never would have noticed on my own.”

“You saved me.” Lacy insisted stubbornly, “From a snake.”

“No I didn’t.” I insisted. I didn’t want this kid running after me like I was a hero. Because I wasn’t. She deserved to look up to real heroes.

“But… you were there.” Lacy said.

“Like I said, I’ve never seen you before today, okay kid?” I snapped. The kid was starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t necessarily mean be mean to Lacy, but I definitely didn’t want her to keep following me around.

“Nico!” She said. “You saved me, why are you acting like I’ve never seen you before?”

“I haven’t.” I growled. She was really starting to annoy me.

“Lacy, lay off.” The Aphrodite boy warned. Drew frowned, looking worried.

“Nico!” She cried, “You have!”

“No I have not! Leave me ALONE!” I snapped. I didn’t mean it, but the ground cracked a little and a few bones unearthed themselves. Lacy squawked and scrambled backwards. I took a deep breath, “Sorry, kid.”

Then I stormed off. This time no one stopped me.

I spent the rest of the day in the forest, sitting on top of the remains Zeus’s Fist. It was more of a clutter of boulders that looked like a clutter of deer droppings from every angle, instead of just most now, waiting for Mrs O’Leary to wake up. No one came looking for me, so I didn’t go to dinner. For the first time in I didn’t know how long, I wished I knew what the date was. It had to be near Christmas. Maybe I had missed Christmas entirely. It didn’t matter anyway, no one except Bianca would have given me a gift.

My mind drifted back to that ghost I had seen in the Fields of Asphodel. The one with a connection to Hades. Why had it said New Orleans? There had to be a reason. Maybe the ghost was from New Orleans. Maybe New Orleans had something to do with my past. It was as good a guess as any – that ghost had almost definitely met Hades. Maybe if I went to New Orleans I could find something out.

It was getting dark now, and the long shadows were fading into the blackness of the night. New Orleans. I could go there now, couldn’t I? Use shadow-travel. Was I rested enough? Surely yes. Closing my eyes, I focused on the pictures of New Orleans I had seen, back when I went to school, and the feel the ghost gave me. I felt the darkness stir around my legs, and I faded right into the shadows.

The darkness of shadow-travel was worse than the last few times I had attempted it. A faint, high-pitched whining sound rung in my ears, and I felt wind whistle through my hair as the sensation of falling into a bottomless pit continued on and on.

With a rush of fear, I realised the feeling wasn’t stopping. With a push of energy, I felt myself lift higher out of the shadows and for a moment I felt my feet hit solid ground. I pushed my eyes open and saw a graveyard spinning in front of my eyes. Spinning with it was a dark sky glimmering with pale stars.

My head throbbed with sudden pain, and I felt my legs crumble below me, my eyesight going dark before I hit the ground.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Someone tall, with blonde hair in a military cut, and burning golden eyes as old as the gods themselves was pacing a dark room. Two people knelt, shoulders trembling slightly with fear, before him.

One radiated the same power as the pacing person, a feel older and more terrible than the gods. The other seemed to be a demigod, but no one that I recognised. Then the pacing figure turned right towards me, and I felt a ripple of fear pass through me as I realised who I was seeing.

“Kronos.” I muttered. The Lord of Time himself, still possessing the body of Luke.

The Titan’s face changed from surprise to confusion to anger. “I thought I told you too to check the room for spies.”

“We-we did, My Lord.” The demigod stuttered.

“Then what is he doing here?” Kronos demanded.

The other Titan and the demigod turned, but their eyes passed right through me.

“There is no one here.” The other Titan said.

“Don’t tell me you cannot see him, Iapetus.” Kronos growled.

Panic seeped through me, overthrowing the fear. I may be asleep, but this Titan could still squish me like a bug. I stumbled backwards into the shadows of my own dream and fell through moving pictures. Dreams, vision, other people and other places.

Until I landed hard on my back in the Hermes Cabin.

Sitting up and rubbing my head, I looked around, searching for a demigod that I strongly suspected was the reason I found myself here. Sure enough, sleeping on one of the lumpy cabin beds, was Clovis, blonde hair falling over his forehead and covering his eyes. It had grown longer and was almost in need of a brush and cut as mine was.

“Clovis.” I growled. “Why am I here?”

“Huh?” The demigod opened one eye slowly, then saw me and opened both eyes. “Nico. Hi.”

“Clovis, why am I in your dream?” I demanded.

“Oh, sorry.” He said. “I must have been dreaming powerfully… nothing else would have attracted you to my dream.”

“Dreaming powerfully.” I echoed.

“Yeah.” Clovis said. “It can happen to any demigod, and…” He yawned, then continued. “It happens when you slip into a really strong dream. Then other people can see you in your dream.”

“Well can you stop dreaming so powerfully?” I asked. “And let me wake up.”

“You can’t wake up.” Clovis said peacefully.

“What?” I yelled. “Why not?”

“No need to yell.” He said.

“Why can’t I wake up?” I demanded. “Tell me right now.”

“You’ve made yourself too tired.” He said. “With your… whatever you do.”

“Shadow-travel.” I said.

“Yeah, that.” He echoed. “Your body’s too tired to wake up.”

“That can happen?”

“Mmm.” He said. “When a demigod pushes themselves to the brink of death by using their powers. You’re in a deep sleep.”

“Well, when can I wake up?” I asked.

“When you get enough energy.” Clovis said.

“So I’m stuck with you for an unknown amount of time?” I asked. “Oh that’s great, just great.”

“That’s not very nice of you.” Clovis said.

“Can I please just get out of your dream?” I asked.

“Sure, I guess.” Clovis shrugged, yawned and lay down again.

“Thanks.” I muttered.

But then the dream began to fade away around me and I found myself standing outside a house, in an overgrown garden. The toys along the garden path marked the place as Mrs Castellan’s home. I crept along the path, trying not to make a noise as I approached.

The inside of the house was brightly lit. Through a window I could see Mrs Castellan was in the kitchen again, talking to someone I recognised as Luke, the guy who had turned into Kronos. Luke was smiling, but I could tell it was fake.

“Well, of course!” Mrs Castellan was saying. “You can have my blessing any time, Luke. I’m so glad you’re back.”

“Right.” Luke stood stiffly. “Well, I’m going now.”

“Wait, Luke, please come back soon!” Mrs Castellan called.

“We’ll see.” Luke said stiffly.

He walked out the door and I froze in shock, afraid he’d seen me, but his eyes travelled right through me. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. Since I was dreaming, did that make me invisible? Well, this had to be a memory. Luke’s eyes were blue, and he sounded normal, nothing like the Titan that had been possessing his body when I had last ‘met’ him in the Labyrinth.

Luke started walking down the path, and I watched him, not moving an inch from where I had first entered the dream, trying to step quietly despite not really being there. Luke opened the gate, which creaked horribly on its hinges, and walked through. It swung closed behind him.

I took a step forwards to follow him, but it was a jarring, painful movement. I tried to move again, but with step the dream slipped away from me, colours going dark, sounds becoming muted, the memory fading.

My eyes snapped open. I shook my head and pushed a few strands of dirty black hair out of my eyes. Slowly, I stood up, ignoring how my head started aching.

It’s only starting to hurt now. I thought. That’s good. I’m getting better at shadow-travel, then.

I swallowed and stared out at the graveyard I had appeared in. I could see the gate at the end of a stone paved pathway lined with trees. The gravestones looked old, packed together tightly, decorated with flowers, both fresh and wilted.

The sky above was pale blue, and the sun was half way through its path through the sky. There were other people in the graveyard, a few families, some couples, and even a few other teenagers dressed in black. They were mortals, trying to look cool by hanging at the graveyard, I guessed.

How they hadn't seen me as I lay unconscious in the graveyard, I had no idea. I started walking along the stony path, glancing at the names as I passed by. I didn’t even know who I was looking for, or what I was going to do if I somehow did find the right grave.

I ducked my head and stared at the ground as I passed a large family heading towards the graveyard’s gate. Once they passed I tried to look for the tombstone they had been visiting. It wasn’t hard to find, it had a large cluster of flowers at its base. I walked over and knelt by the tombstone, running my fingers over the faded name.

Sammy Valdez. In my mind’s eye I caught a glimpse of a girl with curly cinnamon hair and skin as dark as cocoa riding a beautiful horse. The wind whipped the girl’s hair back from her face, revealing sparkling golden eyes and a dazzling smile.

She looked like a younger version of the ghost I had seen in the Fields of Asphodel.

“Is this you?” I asked, thinking of the ghost. “But what do you have to do with Hades… and who are you?”

I realised that I was talking to myself. It’s not like the ghost was here or going to answer, and I didn’t have the proper materials to summon a ghost. I could probably summon some money from the earth to pay for a meal, but I didn’t want to. I already felt like I stole enough – I pretty much had stolen all the times I summoned money for ghosts while in the Labyrinth. I could go without answers for now, as excruciating as that was. And I didn't know where the nearest MacDonalds was anyway.

The most important thing wasn’t my family, it was winning the war. But there was nothing I could do to stop a war that hadn’t yet started, so I stood up and walked to the next grave. Maybe the ghost’s grave would be next to Sammy Valdez’s. If I saw a younger version of her when I touched his tombstone, then I must be close. I must be on the right track.

I leaned in to read the name on the next grave, but before I could I felt a strange sensation, like hands trying to pull me back away from the headstone. I turned, but nothing was there. Nothing except the shadows. They were clinging to my feet and pulling me away.

I gritted my teeth and pulled away from them. I was in control of the shadows, not the other way around. Then suddenly, I was yanked back into the shadows and everything went blacker than the night.

Chapter Text

I was getting used to falling out of the shadows and instantly injuring myself somehow. I fell forwards, tumbling head over heels before coming to a stop at someone’s feet. I closed my eyes for a moment, preparing myself to face Hades or Persephone’s wrath. When nothing happened, I opened my eyes.

“Ow.” I muttered, feeling tree roots digging into my back. At least I didn’t have a headache anymore. I stood up and brushed the dust that had settled on my jacket off. Then I looked at the two people whose feet I had almost crushed. Instantly I felt my guard going up. There was a boy and girl.

The boy was taller than me by about a head, and he had sea-green eyes, tanned skin and hair that looked like an ocean breeze had blown through it. He was wearing a school uniform and was pointing a celestial bronze sword at me. The girl had choppy black hair, electric blue eyes and was wearing jeans and a silver parker that marked her as a hunter of Artemis. She was wearing the silver headband-crown-thing that showed her status as lieutenant. Her bow, loaded with an arrow, was also pointed at me. Behind them, a hellhound panted happily.

Then the boy’s sword dropped and he asked, “Nico?”

I groaned under my breath. The two people I least wanted to see – Percy and Thalia. Behind them, Mrs O’Leary wagged her tail. Thalia’s eyes widened. “Bianca’s little brother?”

I scowled. Out of all the things I didn’t want to be called – there were a lot – Bianca’s little brother was definitely high on the list.

“Why’d you bring me here?” I grumbled at Percy, choosing to ignore Thalia. “One minute I’m in a New Orleans graveyard. The next minute – is this New York? What in Hades’s name am I doing in New York?”

I glanced around at the surrounding trees. It defiantly wasn’t New Orleans. The weather, the temperature, the plants. Not to mention the fact Percy and Thalia were here.

“We didn’t bring you here.” Percy said defensively. “We were-” He paused, and I saw him shiver. “We were brought together. All three of us.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. How could we be brought together? And what was so special about us three anyway?

“The children of the Big Three.” Percy said, as if he had read my mind. “Zeus, Poseidon, Hades.”

Thalia took a sharp breath. “The prophecy. You don’t think Kronos . . .”

I repressed a shudder at the mention of the prophecy, Hades had mentioned a prophecy enough times for me to know it was important. I didn’t need to know everything.

Suddenly the ground rumbled. I drew my sword. Mrs O’Leary jumped backwards. I felt the ground shift and breathed in sharply, opening my mouth to tell Thalia and Percy to get back, but it was too late. The ground split open before us and we began to fall. Part of me was terrified at the prospect of falling into endless darkness, the part of me that was screaming as loudly as Percy and Thalia besides me.

But I wasn’t exactly new to falling through stone, and I braced myself for landing on hard rock. Instead, I felt my feet land softly on the ground. For a few moments, nothing changed, then I realised I was still screaming and snapped my mouth shut. I took a deep breath to calm myself. The air was cold, damp, sickly sweet and familiar. Foreboding wrapped around me like a blanket.

“What – where are we?” Thalia asked.

I looked around in dismay. Silver flowers and gemstones gleamed in flowerbeds. Poplar and pomegranate trees arched over us. We were standing in the middle of a garden on a gold and silver pebbled path. No, not her, anyone but her. I thought desperately.

“I’ve been here before.” Percy said.

I reached up and pulled a pomegranate off an overhead branch. “My step-mother Persephone’s garden.”

I felt my expression turn sour and I dropped the fruit. Then I glanced at Percy and Thalia. Neither of them were children of Hades, and Thalia had never been to the Underworld before. Ironic, seeing as she had died.

“Don’t eat anything.” I warned. Percy nodded, looking worried.

“Heads up.” Thalia warned. She was aiming her bow at someone behind me. I felt my shoulders stiffen, already knowing who it was before I turned around. I spun slowly on the spot and stared at the goddess. She was tall, taller than I remembered her being, and was wearing a dulled red, blue and yellow dress which billowed around her like smoke. Her hair was still long and dark, but instead of being pulled up extravagantly, it was let loose to float around her. Her skin was as pale as mine.

If she was trying to make me feel sorry for her, it wasn’t working. I still hadn’t forgiven her for the dandelion incident. Glumly, I wondered what fun punishment she had thought of to torture me for whatever I didn’t do this time.

“I am Persephone.” She said. “Welcome, demigods.”

So she was trying to be nice now that Percy and Thalia were here? I growled and squashed the pomegranate I had dropped under my boot. “Welcome? After last time, you’ve got the nerve to welcome me?”

“Um, Nico-” Behind me, Percy shifted uncomfortably, but I was too annoyed to care that I was talking back to a goddess.

“It’s all right.” Persephone said coldly, silencing him. “We had a little family spat.”

“Family spat?” I cried. “You turned me into a dandelion!”

Persephone ignored me, which did nothing to improve my mood. Instead she turned back to Thalia and Percy. “As I was saying, demigods, I welcome you to my garden.”

Thalia lowered her bow. “You sent the golden deer?”

First of all, I wondered, what golden deer? Second, she says, ‘welcome to my garden’ and you instantly think of deers?

“And the shadow that collected Nico,” Persephone seemed to know what Thalia was talking about. “And the hellhound.”

For a moment I was at a loss, what shadow? Then the tugging sensation of the shadows at the New Orleans graveyard came back to me.

“You controlled Mrs O’Leary?” Percy asked, as if it were the most unbelievable thing he’d ever heard.

Persephone shrugged. “She is a creature of the Underworld, Percy Jackson. I merely planted a suggestion in her mind that it would be fun to lead you to the park. It was necessary to bring you three together.”

“Why?” Percy asked.

Persephone stared at him, and the sense of foreboding became even stronger. “Lord Hades has a problem. And if you know what’s good for you, you will help him.”

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Persephone refused to say another word until she had ushered us to the veranda of Hades’s castle, where we sat, overlooking her castle. She had gotten her handmaidens – ghostly girls wearing flowery dresses who chattered endlessly about everything from the weather to why Thalia, Percy and I were here – to bring us food and drink. No one touched it.

Persephone sat on a silver throne which was a mirror image to her one inside the palace, only smaller. After a few moments silence, she said, “If this were spring, I would be able to greet you properly in the world above. Alas, in winter this is the best I can do.”

She sounded bitter, but I knew better. She was still playing for sympathy cards. Well, I for one, wasn’t going to give her any. She had had no problem with being in the Underworld at winter the first time I met her, and I didn’t see how anything changed now. She turned to Percy, who was looking thoughtful. “Hades is my husband and master, young one. I would do anything for him. But in this case I need your help, and quickly. It concerns Lord Hades’s sword.”

I was going to laugh and roll my eyes, husband and master? What was this, the dark ages? And Persephone wouldn’t so much as tell Hades she loved him if it didn’t benefit her in some way. But then realisation hit me and I frowned. “My father doesn’t have a sword. He uses a staff in battle, and his helm of terror.”

“He didn’t have a sword.” Persephone corrected.

Thalia sat up. “He’s forging a new symbol of power? Without Zeus’s permission?”

Instead of answering, Persephone pointed above the table. An image flickered to life, showing skeletal weapon-smiths working over a forge of black flames, beating a length of Stygian iron into a sword.

“War with the Titans is almost upon us.” Persephone warned. “My lord Hades must be ready.”

Something about this seemed off, but I couldn’t tell what.

“But Zeus and Poseidon would never allow Hades to forge a new weapon!” Thalia protested. “It would unbalance their power-sharing agreement.”

Persephone shook her head. “You mean it would make Hades their equal? Believe me, daughter of Zeus, the Lord of the Dead has no designs against his brothers. He knew they would never understand, however, which is why he forged the blade in secret.”

As much as I hated it, Persephone had a point. The image over the table shimmered and changed. A zombie was raising the blade, as if knowing the image was there and displaying the weapon, still glowing hot.

“Is that a key?” Percy asked, drawing my attention to the bottom of the sword. Set in the hilt of the sword was an elegant, shining key.

I felt my throat close up and I gagged. “They keys of Hades?”

“Wait,” Thalia said. “What are the keys of Hades?”

Whatever Persephone was worried about was worth worrying about. I remembered the ability from mythomagic, and if it applied to real life, then this could get messy quickly. “Hades has a set of golden keys that can lock or unlock death. At least . . . that’s the legend.”

I glanced at Persephone, hoping I was wrong. But she shook her head. “It is true.”

“How do you lock and unlock death?” Percy asked.

“The keys have the power to imprison a soul in the Underworld.” Persephone explained. “Or to release it.”

I swallowed, “If one of those keys has been set in the sword-”

“The wielder can raise the dead,” Persephone interrupted, “or slay any living thing and send its soul to the Underworld with a mere touch of the blade.”

And the monster or demigod won’t be able to come back. I added in my head. No one spoke for a time that went beyond awkward.

“That’s a wicked sword.” Percy said at last. If it was an attempt at a joke, it was a bad one. I kept my eyes off Percy, though, so I couldn’t tell.

“It would make Hades unstoppable.” Thalia agreed.

“So you see,” Persephone said, “why you must help get it back.”

We all stared at her. I sort of wish I could have said I was shocked, but I knew there would be a catch.

“Did you say get it back?” Percy asked.

“The blade was stolen when it was almost finished.” Persephone explained coolly, as if that news wasn't at all concerning. “I do not know hoe, but I suspect a demigod, some servant of Kronos. If the blade falls into the Titan lord’s hands -”

Thalia shot to her feet. “You allowed the blade to be stolen! How stupid was that? Kronos probably has it by now!”

Persephone flicked her hand and Thalia’s arrows turned into long-stemmed roses. Her bow morphed into a honeysuckle vine dotted with small white and gold flowers.

“Take care, huntress.” Persephone warned. “Your father may be Zeus, and you may be the lieutenant of Artemis, but you do not speak to me with disrespect in my own palace.”

So I get turned into a dandelion, I thought bitterly, but Thalia only has her weapon turned into flowers.

After a few moments, I realised Thalia and Persephone were half-sisters. Zeus was the father of both the demigod and the goddess. I repressed that disturbing thought as Thalia said, “Give . . . me . . . back . . . my . . . bow.”

The goddess waved her hand again. The bow and arrows changed back to normal. “Now, sit and listen. The sword could not have left the Underworld yet. Lord Hades used his remaining key to shut down the realm. Nothing gets in or out until he finds the sword, and he is using all his power to locate the thief.”

Thalia sat down again, although she still looked annoyed. “Then what do you need us for?”

“The search for the blade cannot be common knowledge,” Persephone said. “We have locked the realm, but we have not announced why, nor can Hades’s servants be used for the search. They must not know the blade exists until it is finished. Certainly they can’t know it is missing.”

If I had almost been tempted to join Kronos by promises of power, then who knew what the monsters and spirits in the Underworld, particularly the ones who didn’t want to be here, would do. I twisted my ring nervously. “If they thought Hades was in trouble, they might desert him. And join the Titans.”

Persephone continued to ignore me, but I considered that as further proof that I was right. Instead, she said, “The thief must be a demigod. No immortal can steal another immortal’s weapon directly. Even Kronos must abide by that Ancient Law. He has a champion down here somewhere. And to catch a demigod . . . we shall use three.”

“Why us?” Percy asked, which I thought was a little stupid, seeing as he had been the one to point out we were children of the Big Three.

“You are the children of the three major gods,” Persephone explained. “Who could withstand your combined power? Besides, when you restore the sword to Hades, you will send a message to the Olympians. Zeus and Poseidon will not protest against Hades’s new weapon if it is given to him by their own children. It will show that you trust Hades.”

I bit my lip. It would show Hades that I trust him . . . and maybe that I can be a worthy son without fulfilling the prophecy. Maybe he would even give me a hint about my parents. Maybe I could even make him proud of me.

“But I don’t trust him.” Thalia snapped.

“Ditto,” Percy agreed. “Why should we do anything for Hades, much less give him a super-weapon? Right, Nico?”

I hesitated. As much as I wanted to agree with Percy, if only so he’d like me more, and consider my offer, I wanted answers and to make my father proud more. I tapped on my sword with my fingers, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

“Right, Nico?” Percy pressured me.

Just agree. Part of me thought. But as I focused on Percy, I said, “I have to do this, Percy. He’s my father.”

“Oh, no way,” Thalia exclaimed. “You can’t believe this is a good idea!”

“Would you rather have the blade in Kronos’s hands?” I retorted, glaring at her.

“Time is wasting.” Persephone warned. “The thief may have accomplices in the Underworld, and he will be looking for a way out.”

Percy frowned. “I thought you said the realm was locked.”

“No prison is airtight, not even the Underworld.” Persephone said. “Souls are always finding new ways out faster than Hades can close them. You must retrieve the sword before it leaves our realm, or all is lost.”

“Even if we wanted to,” Thalia asked in an infuriating tone, “how would we find this thief?”

A potted plant appeared on the table, a sickly yellow dandelion. I stiffened my shoulders against the shudder that passed through me. Was my step-mother trying to torture me? Well, duh. I told myself.

“This will guide you.” Persephone said, and I swear she shot a smug look my way. Even with our all lives on the line you find the time to do this? I thought incredulously.

“A magic carnation?” Percy asked.

“The flower always faces the thief.” Persephone explained. “As your prey gets closer to escaping, the petals will fall off.”

As if on cue a petal turned grey and fluttered to the ground. I wondered why Persephone couldn’t just retrieve the stolen sword, if she had a flower to show the way and everything. Percy glanced at Thalia, who still looked annoyed at this whole situation. Then he looked at me. His expression softened and then melted.

He turned back to Persephone. “On one condition. Hades will have to swear on the River Styx that he will never use this sword against the gods.”

Persephone shrugged. “I am not Lord Hades, but I am confident he would do this – as payment for your help.”

Another petal fell off the flower. Percy turned to Thalia. “I’ll hold the flower while you beat up the thief?”

She sighed. “Fine. Let’s go catch this jerk.”

Chapter Text

I don’t know what Percy and Thalia were expecting trudging through the Underworld to be like, but they both looked pretty unhappy with the whole situation. Well, what did they expect, Christmas lights? Tinsel? Stockings? For a moment, I struggled to think of something else Christmassy.

I gave up and forged ahead, parting the ghosts with my sword as we tramped over the sickly grey grass. The air slowly turned from the cool, damp, sickly sweet scent of Persephone’s garden to a more familiar, but more unpleasant smell of rotten eggs, cigarette smoke and the faint scent of cheese fondue.

Behind me, I could hear Thalia grumbling about going on a quest with boys. Well, you weren’t my first choice either, Thalia, I thought.

“Did Persephone seem kind of uptight?” Percy asked me.

I shrugged, not looking back. “She always acts that way when I’m around. She hates me.”

So what if I’d only been around once before? It wouldn’t change.

“Then why did she include you in the quest?” Percy asked.

For a moment my mind went blank. I searched for an answer. “Probably my dad’s idea.”

I hated the plaintive tone in my voice. When Percy didn’t answer I forged further ahead, trying to push the possibility that it wasn’t Hades’ idea and what that might mean, out of my mind.

“He’s handy with zombie crowds.” Thalia admitted grudgingly. “Think I’ll take him along next time I go to the shopping mall.”

I was about to snap at her about how I didn’t want to go anywhere with her, but I ran the words through my head again and realised she was probably joking. I almost laughed, even though it wasn’t that funny. It had just been too long since someone had joked around me. After a few more minutes avoiding poplar trees and rouge spirits – I kept an eye out for the one I had seen before – Percy spoke up. “So, how’s immortality treating you?”

I could practically hear Thalia roll her eyes. “It’s not total immortality, Percy. You know that. We can still die in combat. It’s just . . . we don’t ever age or get sick, so we live forever, assuming we don’t get sliced to pieces.”

I kept the part of my mind that cried ‘Bianca’ locked away from my thoughts. Just change the subject, gods dammit.

“Always in danger.” Percy said.

“Always.” Thalia’s voice went soft and quiet. I glanced back and saw her looking around. Looking for a loved one . . .?

“If you’re looking for Bianca,” Percy whispered, “she’d be in Elysium. She died a hero’s death.”

I could tell he didn’t intend me to overhear, but there wasn’t much noise to cover his words. It’s okay, I’m over that, I told myself.

“I know that.” Thalia snapped, then her voice was soft again. “It’s not that, Percy. I was looking for . . . never mind.”

I tried to focus on her grief, but I couldn’t tell who she was mourning.

“I’m sorry.” Percy apologised. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“It’s okay.” Thalia said. “Let’s just get this over with.”

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I muffled a groan of annoyance when the flower pointed us towards the Fields of Punishment. By the looks of it, Thalia and Percy weren’t any happier. I avoided the new roads, we didn’t have time for chatting with Daedalus, and led Percy and Thalia over a small stream of lava and past a bunch of people screaming as loud 80s music boomed.

After the music had faded out, and screams, the cracks of whips and the burning of fire was all we could hear, the flower’s head leaned left and we all wound our way around a pit of people who looked to be stumbling through an invisible maze. Every so often, one would cry out in pain. Electric walls, I guessed. Beyond that was a large hill.

“Up there.” Percy said, as if that wasn’t obvious. I stopped, straining my ears and trying to confirm my suspicions. Thalia stopped as well.

After a few seconds, I heard a loud noise like rock scraping against concrete, and slightly quieter grunts and curses. Then the entire hill shook with a BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! and the cursing became louder.

Thalia looked at me. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Afraid so.” I grumbled. “The number-one expert on cheating death.”

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If you don’t know who I’m talking about, I’m not surprised. Hades and Thanatos tried to hush up the whole thing – it was pretty embarrassing. Basically, Sisyphus tricked Death. How do you do that? Knock him out and tie him up under your bed. Eventually it failed, and Sisyphus was doomed to roll a huge boulder up a hill until he reached the top, when he could go free again.

On the top I paused to look at the guy on the other side. He was about as good-looking as I expected – which is to say horrifically ugly. His skin was a fake-tan orange, and he had a pot belly, scrawny legs and arms and was wearing nothing but a dirty loincloth around his waist. His hair stuck straight up on his head. He was hopping around a huge boulder, twice the size of him, and screaming curses in several languages.

“I won’t!” He screeched. “No, no, no!”

Then he began cursing again. I caught words in English, Greek and Latin, and still more I didn’t understand. He started to walk away from the boulder, but before he could walk far, he was lurched back by an inviable barrier. He staggered back to the barrier and started banging his head against it, which couldn’t be good for whatever brain cells he had left.

“All right! All right, curse you!” He screamed, then rubbed his head and muttered some more swear words. “But this is the last time. Do you hear me?”

I glanced at Percy and Thalia. “Come on. While he’s between attempts.”

We had to talk to him. If the flower was pointing this way, Sisyphus had definitely seen the thief. He was an expert on escaping, and the thief would probably come to him for advice. The hill was steep, so our descent was a scramble. At the bottom, I called, “Sisyphus!”

Sisyphus looked up from his boulder, and his expression morphed from shock to anger. He scrambled behind his boulder, peeking out at us suspiciously. “Oh, no! You’re not fooling me with those disguises! I know you’re the Furies!”

“We’re not the Furies.” Percy said. “We just want to talk.”

“Go away!” Sisyphus shrieked. “Flowers won’t make it better. It’s too late to apologize!”

“Look,” Thalia interrupted. “We just want to-”

“La-la-la!” He yelled. “I’m not listening!”

Thalia lunged at him, but he dodged away. Percy and I joined in chasing him around the rock, until Thalia – who was the quickest – grabbed Sisyphus’s hair.

“Stop it!” He wailed. “I have rocks to move. Rocks to move!”

“I’ll move your rock!” Thalia exclaimed. “Just shut up and talk to my friends.”

Sisyphus stopped fighting. “You’ll – you’ll move my rock?”

“It’s better than looking at you.” Thalia glanced at Percy. “Be quick about it.”

Then she shoved Sisyphus towards us and put her shoulder against the rock to start pushing. It began to move very slowly uphill. Sisyphus scowled at Percy distrustfully. Then he leaned forwards and pinched Percy’s nose.

“Ow!” Percy complained.

“So you’re really not a Fury,” He said in amazement. “What’s the flower for?”

“We’re looking for someone.” Percy explained. “The flower is helping us find him.”

“Persephone!” He spat in the dust at his feet. “That’s one of her tracking devices, isn’t it?”

He leaned closer towards Percy. “I fooled her once, you know. I fooled them all.”

Percy stepped away from Sisyphus and looked at me. “Translation?”

“Sisyphus cheated death.” I told Percy. “First he chained up Thanatos, the reaper of souls, so no one could die. Then when Thanatos got free and was about to kill him, Sisyphus told his wife not to do the correct funeral rites so he couldn’t rest in peace. Sisy here – May I call you Sisy?”

“No!” Sisyphus snarled. I stiffened my shoulders against a wince as I remembered a similar conversation between me and Geryon.

“Sisy tricked Persephone into letting him go back to the world to haunt his wife. And he didn’t come back.”

Sisy cackled. “I stayed alive another thirty years before they finally tracked me down.”

Percy looked up at Thalia, who was halfway up the hill now, and I followed her gaze. Her expression said something like ‘hurry up!’.

“So that was your punishment.” Percy realised. “Rolling a boulder up a hill forever. Was it worth it?”

“A temporary setback!” Sisyphus cried. “I’ll bust out of here soon, and when I do they’ll all be sorry!”

Sisyphus was the master of escaping death. This was my opportunity to find where the thief had gone. “How could you get out of the Underworld? It’s locked down, you know.”

Sisyphus grinned wickedly. “That’s what the other one asked.”

Percy looked nervous. “Someone else asked your advice?”

“An angry man,” Sisyphus recalled. “Not very polite. Held a sword to my throat. Didn’t offer to roll my boulder at all.”

I starting to think that holding a sword to Sisy’s throat wasn’t such a bad idea. “What did you tell him? Who was he?”

Sisyphus massaged his shoulders, glancing at Thalia who was nearing the top of the hill. “Oh . . . it’s hard to say. Never seen him before. He carried a long package all wrapped in black cloth. Skis, maybe? A shovel? Maybe if you wait here, I could go look for him . . .”

“What did you tell him?” Percy demanded.

“Can’t remember.”

I had had enough. I drew my sword, pointing it at Sisy. “Try harder.”

Sisyphus winced at the sight of my weapon, which was steaming in the hot air of the Fields of Punishment. “What kind of person carries a sword like that?”

“A son of Hades.” I snapped. “Now answer me.”

The colour drained from Sisy’s face and he stammered, “I told him to talk to Melinoe! She always has a way out!”

I swallowed thickly. We would have to talk to Melinoe? After last time, I wasn’t eager to meet the goddess of ghosts again. I took a deep breath and said, “All right. What did this demigod look like?”

“Um . . . he had a nose.” Sisyphus said helpfully. “A mouth. And one eye and -”

“One eye?” Percy interrupted. “Did he have an eye patch?”

“Oh . . . maybe.” Sisy shrugged. “He had hair on his head. And-”

He gasped and looked over Percy’s shoulder. “There he is!”

We fell for it. As soon as Percy and I turned around, Sisyphus sprinted in the other way. “I’m free! I’m – ACK!”

He hit the barrier and fell on his back. Percy and I grabbed his arms and hauled him up the hill.

“Curse you!” He began cursing in too many languages to count again. “I’ll never help you! Go to Hades!”

“Already there.” I muttered gloomily.

“Incoming!” Thalia shouted. My head jerked up and I saw the boulder bouncing down the hill, straight for Percy and me. I heard him curse under his breath as I lept out of the way. Percy lept the other way. Sisy was caught in the middle, and as the rock ploughed into him, he yelled, “NOOOOOOO!”

Somehow he braced himself and stopped it before the boulder could run him over. I found it surprising he was still so skinny. He wailed, “Take it again! Please! I can’t hold it.”

“Not again.” Thalia gasped from uphill. “You’re on your own.”

He began cursing at us, but it was clear he wasn’t going to be any more help, so I led Percy and Thalia on. “Melinoe’s cave is this way.”

“If this thief guy really has one eye, that could be Ethan Nakamura, son of Nemesis.” Percy said. “He’s the one that freed Kronos.”

“I remember.” I said, recalling Percy telling me about what had happened in the Labyrinth while I wasn’t there. Although I had more pressing issues on my mind right now. “But if we’re dealing with Melinoe, we’ve got bigger problems. Come on.”

As we continued walking away, I heard Sisyphus’s boulder thump down the hill and he began shouting. Thalia shuddered.

“You okay?” Percy asked.

“I guess . . .” Thalia didn’t look okay. “Percy, the scary thing is, when I got to the top, I thought I had it. I thought, This isn’t so hard. I can get the rock to stay. And as it rolled down, I was almost tempted to try again. I figured I could get it the second time.”

The wonderful magic of the Underworld, I thought. Thalia looked back wistfully.

“Come on.” Percy said. “The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”

Chapter Text

Even by Underworld standards, the walk was long. I think I was just dreading seeing Melinoe again. Seeing her mountains in the distance, over a path of volcanic rock, didn’t make me feel any better.

“Nice day for a stroll.” Thalia muttered. “The Hunters are probably feasting in some forest glade right about now.”

I glanced at Percy, who looked like he was wondering what his family was doing. Probably waiting for him to come back and celebrate Christmas with him. Wait. . . had Christmas already past? It was still cold enough to be December, but had the twenty-fifth past already? I wasn’t about to ask.

After all, if I asked, then it would be too painfully clear that I had no one to celebrate with. Not that celebrating was useful. It was a waste of time . . . but it would have been nice.

“So who is this Melinoe?” Percy asked. If he was trying to distract me from my thoughts, it worked. But it brought my mind back to the only thing worse – Melinoe. I wasn’t willing to explain how I had first met the goddess, after all, it would sound like I was trying to get sympathy.

“Long story.” I said instead. “Long, very scary story.”

Percy looked like he was about to ask, when Thalia dropped into a crouch. We stared at her. She hissed, “Weapons!”

Percy drew his sword and put down his flower. I drew my own sword. Instinctively, we stood back to back. Thalia notched an arrow.

Percy whispered, “What is it?”

She didn’t answer, she seemed too busy listening. I strained my ears, too. I thought I could make out the sound of muffled wing beats moments before a ring of no less than a dozen daemons materialized around us.

The daemons were part humanoid female, part bat. I say humanoid female, because with their pug-nosed and furry faces, sharp fangs and bulging eyes, it was hard to mark them as any one thing. They were wearing armour – thank the gods – but it was minimal, and way too much of their grey hairy bodies were exposed. They had shrivelled claws instead of hands, and leathery bat wings that beat the air, creating the muffled flapping sound I had heard.

“Keres.” I growled.

“What?” Percy asked.

“Battlefield spirits.” I said, starting to wonder how Percy had stayed alive for so long while knowing next to nothing about Greek mythology. “They feed on violent death.”

“Oh, wonderful.” Thalia said.

“Get back!” I ordered the Keres. “The son of Hades commands you!”

Usually, those words had an instant effect. Sisyphus, Charon, the Furies, ghosts, even some monsters usually respected the son of Hades, out of fear. But these daemons didn’t listen. They hissed, mouths foaming, and though glanced at our weapons, but they didn’t look to be backing down any time soon.

“Soon Hades will be defeated.” One snarled. “Our new master shall give us free rein!”

“New master?” I was so surprised that Hades himself could be brought down like this that I wasn’t prepared for the daemon that launched itself at me. Luckily, Thalia’s arrow zipped through the air, turning the monster to dust only inches from my face.

The rest of the daemons charged. Thalia dropped her bow and drew a pair of knives from somewhere in her clothing. I caught sight of a daemon charging straight at Percy and swung my sword. Percy ducked, and the daemon’s essence was sucked into my sword. Percy straightened up and began to chop up the Keres around him. But more kept coming.

“Iapetus shall crush you!” One yelled as Percy ran his sword through it.

“Who?” He asked as it turned to dust. I cut through another Keres, and more and more, but they still kept coming. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Thalia flipping a daemon on its back and stabbing it, impaling a second without even turning around.

“Die in pain, mortal!”

The cry jolted me out of my own fighting and I spun towards Percy, only to see a Keres launching itself towards him. It’s claws raked Percy’s shoulder, shredding his school shirt. Blood began to stain Percy’s shirt. I dashed to Percy’s side, kicked the daemon away and stabbed. At my side, Percy collapsed into a ball. Panic swept through me. Percy could be seriously injured. He could die if the wound wasn't treated quickly.

No, I can’t think like that. I told myself. You’re the son of Hades. Get rid of these Keres. Be some use for once.

I held up my sword and yelled in Ancient Greece, “You’re wrong! Hades is the master of the Underworld. Be gone, daemons!”

I felt a sudden surge of power flow through me and the Keres faltered mid-flight. With a flurry of muffled wing beats, the Keres left. Thalia and I rushed to Percy’s side.

“Hold still, Percy.” Thalia said, although her voice was trembling a little. “You’ll be fine.”

I inspected Percy’s wound. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The claw marks weren’t deep enough to kill for a few hours, and that time could be extended if we healed it a bit. I reached in my jacket pocket, bringing out the small cloth pouch Artemis had given me. I opened it, taking out the small flask of ambrosia and tipped some onto Percy’s shoulder. Percy yelled out in pain and I winced.

“Nectar.” I told him. “I’m pouring nectar on it.”

I had never drunk nectar, or used it on myself. Did it really hurt that badly? I turned to Thalia, “Can you dress a wound?”

She nodded, and shrugged her backpack off her shoulder, fishing out a bottle of water and a roll of white cloth. Together, we cleaned and dressed Percy’s wound. Every so often his eyes would flicker closed and his head would loll to the side, then he would jerk himself back out of unconsciousness. Eventually, we propped him against a rock and Thalia fed him squares of ambrosia.

I had never eaten ambrosia either, so maybe it wasn’t as dangerous as I thought, but I got the feeling that Thalia was pushing it a bit, considering how much worse the injury could have been.

“The Keres?” Percy muttered.

“Gone for now.” Thalia said. “You had me worried for a second, Percy, but I think you’ll make it.”

I picked up the potted plant, which had only five petals left, and crouched next to Percy. I didn’t want to be telling him this when he was so weak, but he had to know. “The Keres will be back. That wound . . . the Keres are spirits of disease and pestilence as well as violence. We can slow down the infection, but eventually you’ll need serious healing. I mean a god’s power. Otherwise. . .”

I couldn’t finish the thought out loud.

“I’ll be fine.” Percy promised, trying to sit up.

“Slow.” Thalia warned. “You need rest before you can move.”

“There’s no time.” Percy stared at the flower. “One of the daemons mentioned Iapetus. Am I remembering right? That’s a Titan?”

Thalia nodded uneasily. “The brother of Kronos, father of Atlas. He was known as the Titan of the West. His name means ‘the Piercer’ because that’s what he likes to do to his enemies. He was cast into Tartarus along with his brothers. He’s supposed to be still down there.”

“But if the sword of Hades can unlock death?” Percy asked.

“Then maybe it can also summon the damned out of Tartarus.” I guessed. “We can’t let them try.”

“We still don’t know who them is.” Thalia said.

“The half-blood working for Kronos.” Percy explained. “Probably Ethan Nakamura. And he’s starting to recruit some of Hades’s minions to his side – like the Keres. The daemons think that if Kronos wins the war, they’ll get more chaos and evil out of the deal.”

“They’re probably right.” I said. “My father tries to keep a balance. He reins in the more violent spirits. If Kronos appoints one of his brothers to be the lord of the Underworld-”

“Like this Iapetus dude.” Percy put in.

“- then the Underworld will get a lot worse.” I finished. “The Keres would like that. So would Melinoe.”

“You still haven’t told us who Melinoe is.” Percy pointed out.

I bit my lip, still unwilling to talk about my personal experience with Melinoe. “She’s the goddess of ghosts – one of my father’s servants. She oversees the restless dead that walk the earth. Every night she rises from the Underworld to terrify mortals.”

“She has her own path into the upper world?” Percy asked.

I nodded grimly. “I doubt it would be blocked. Normally, no one would even think about trespassing in her cave. But if this demigod thief is brave enough to make a deal with her -”

“He could get back to the world.” Thalia interrupted. Again. “And take the sword to Kronos.”

“Who would use it to raise his brothers from Tartarus.” Percy finished. “And we’d be in big trouble.”

Percy struggled to his feet. He was swaying pretty bad and started to crumple on his feet, but Thalia caught him before he could fall. “Percy, you’re in no condition-”

“I have to be.” Percy insisted. He stared at the flower and I glanced down to see another petal fluttering to the ground. “Give me the potted plant. We have to find the cave of Melinoe.”

I was about to argue. Percy wasn’t in any condition to keep going. But then I realised that this was the exact thing I would to. Even if I was literally dying, I would still try and do something useful. I guess Percy and I were both equally stubborn. Maybe it was a child of the Big Three thing.

I sighed and handed him the plant. Finding the goddess wasn’t the problem. “Melinoe’s cave is this way.”

We walked for another small eternity before I realised that, because of the direction we had come from, we’d have to cross one of the five rivers that flowed through the Underworld. Just as I was realising that, I saw the river, only fifteen metres away. “Uh-oh.”

The water was a hungry, churning, frothing black. It was narrow and fast, but not narrow enough to jump over. Whichever river it was, I knew that it wouldn’t be good for us, weather physically or mentally. I crossed off the rivers in my head. I had been by the Styx enough to know this wasn’t the same river. It wasn’t Phlegethon, the river of fire, because it didn’t look fiery at all. And it wasn’t Cocytus or Acheron, those rivers were slower and more mournful. That left… “The River Lethe.”

The name of that river sent shivers down my spine. I had been here before. Somehow, sometime, I had seen this river before. I stared at the black waters and cursed in Ancient Greek. “We’ll never make it across.”

“There’s got to be a way across.” Percy insisted. I looked up and down. There wasn't a safe way to cross. Not in viewing distance. Not fast enough to get there, get to Melinoe’s and catch the thief. Thalia knelt by the side of the river, all too close to the water for my liking.

“Careful!” I warned. “This is the River of Forgetfulness. If one drop of that water gets on you, you’ll start to forget who you are.”

Thalia backed up. “I know this place. Luke told me about it once. Souls come here if they choose to be reborn.”

Offhandedly, I wondered why she had thought it a good idea to be so close to the water, if she already knew about this place. But I nodded. “Swim in that water and your mind will be wiped clean. You’ll be like a new born baby.”

Why is this so familiar? I asked myself. But I couldn’t remember. Thalia studied the opposite bank. “I could shoot an arrow across, maybe anchor a line to one of those rocks.”

I imagined climbing across a thin rope above the water, but all I could picture was the rope snapping and me plunging into the black water. I glanced at Percy. He’d never make it across a rope with his injury. “You want to trust your weight to a line that isn’t tied off?”

Thalia frowned, thinking. “You’re right. Works in the movies, but . . . no. Could you summon some dead people to help us?”

“I could, but they would only appear on my side of the river.” I explained. “Running water acts as a barrier against the dead. They can’t cross it.”

And what good would the dead be to get us across a river? They don’t want to lose their memories, or what little they have left, any more than we do.

Percy winced. “What kind of stupid rule is that?”

“Hey, I didn’t make it up.” I defended myself, then looked at Percy’s face. He was pale and sweaty and scrunched up in pain. “You look terrible, Percy. You should sit down.”

“I can’t. You need me for this.” He insisted.

“For what?” Thalia asked. “You can barely stand.”

“It’s water, isn’t it?” Percy asked. “I’ll have to control it. Maybe I can redirect the flow for long enough to get us across.”

“In your condition?” I asked. “No way. I’d feel safer with the arrow idea.” And if Percy did this he might hurt himself more. Not to mention, this was an Underworld river. Who knew what it would do if Percy tried to control it? But he was already staggering to the edge of the river.

“Stand back.” He warned. As much as I wanted to get Percy away from the river, the water was making me more and more nervous. It’s his own fault if he falls in. I told myself, then, Oh, gods, I’ll never forgive myself if something happens. The water began to bubble more violently, and I winced. What if something goes wrong? What do I mean, what if? Percy do this in his condition? He’s going to get his memories destroyed for sure!

“Here goes nothing.” He muttered, then raised his arms as if he were lifting something heavy over his head. The water rose with his arms, heaving out of its banks in a huge, six metre high, ark. The riverbed was already turning to drying mud in the hot, dry air. Percy turned to us, the look of pain on his face amplified. “Go. I can’t hold this for long.”

Thalia and I glanced at each other and scrambled onto the riverbed. As fast as we could, we walked to the other side, sticking as close to the middle as possible. I didn’t want a single drop to touch me. With each step came the nagging fear that the water might fall and make me forget everything. The black water roared and the arc over Thalia and I wavered every so often, making me shiver and nearly scream as I thought the water was about to crash down on us.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the other side. Thalia, who was taller and more nimble than me, climbed up, then reached a hand back to help me. I accepted her help – grudgingly – and finally, finally, finally we stood on the other side of the river.

“Come on, Percy!” Thalia yelled, staring back across the river. “Walk!”

Slowly, painfully slowly, Percy climbed down the riverbank and started trekking across the river. His arms and legs were shaking with exhaustion. The water quavered. My breath caught in my throat.

“I can’t make it!” Percy called.

“Yes you can!” Thalia urged. “We need you!”

We need you. I need you. I thought. Come on, Percy. Please, please, please.

Percy kept walking. Halfway across he stumbled. His arms dropped. Thalia yelled, “No!”

Then the inky black water crashed down on Percy and he disappeared under the water.

Chapter Text

Thalia ran towards the river, stopping as close to the edge as she dared and peering into the water. I bit down on my tongue to hold back a choked sob that was rising in my throat. After all this, Percy was gone? After going through so much, after doing everything I could to find a way for him to survive the Titan war, he was gone? With just a simple lapse in concentration. Because if he ever got out of the water, he’d have no memory of who he was.

I felt tears pool in the corners of my eyes. Don't cry, I scolded myself. You've spent enough time crying. I joined Thalia at the edge of the river and stared into the depths of the water. I couldn't see anything. Until a hand pushed through the surface of the water and grasped the rocks on the edge.

My breath caught in my throat. He was alive. Even if all his memories were gone, Percy was still alive. As I watched, breath in my throat, Percy climbed out of the River Lethe, heaving himself onto the bank. Thalia and I backed up. Percy collapsed to his knees, black water dripping off him, then his eyes rolled back and he fell to the ground, unconscious.

“His memories?” Thalia asked, kneeling beside the son of Poseidon. “Does he have them?”

“We don’t have any way to find out.” I said, joining her at Percy's side. “We need to try and heal him as much as possible.”

I retrieved my bottle of nectar. I had used one third on Percy before, but it clearly hadn’t been enough. Thalia unbandaged Percy’s shoulder. I tipped some more on his shoulder and waited. Nothing happened. I tipped more on. Nothing. I glanced at Thalia, who was staring at the magic dandelion. As I watched, another petal turned grey and fell off. That left only four petals.

I turned back to Percy and tipped more nectar on his shoulder. Thalia waved my hand away as I went to pour the last of my nectar. She wrapped his shoulder in fresh bandages. “Don’t bother. It isn’t working anyway.”

“Wake up.” I murmured. “We need to catch the thief, remember? Come on, Percy.”

I waited for a few long, painstaking minutes, but Percy didn’t move. Ignoring Thalia's last warning, I tilted his head and opened his mouth, pouring nectar directly into his mouth.

“We can’t risk any more nectar.” Thalia warned. “He’ll burst into flames.”

I glanced at the vial of nectar. Thalia was right. And anyway, it only had a few drops of the godly liquid left. I shoved it back into the pouch and then into my pocket, turning back to Percy. I noticed his eyes had cracked open the tiniest amount.

“Percy,” I asked. “Can you hear me?”

“Flames,” He murmured. “Got it.”

He sat up painstakingly slowly. Then he climbed to his feet. He was swaying badly, and his legs were shaking, but we had to catch the thief.

“We’re close. Can you walk?” I asked.

He stared at the grey mountains behind us. Somewhere up there was Melinoe’s cave. “Ready.”

There was no further argument about whether we should be walking. It wasn't an option to leave Percy injured in the Underworld, he seemed to have his memories in tact and we had a thief to catch.

“I don’t like this.” Thalia murmured as we walked. She was holding the flower, which now only had two petals. We had found Melinoe's path, easy to find due to the decoration of human bones and skulls. I felt sick to my stomach.

“A creepy cave.” Percy said as we stopped at the entrance. “The goddess of ghosts. What’s not to like?”

As if in response, a hissing sound echoed out of the cave. Mist, the non-magical kind and the magical kind, billowed out of the cave. And through the fog, I caught my first sighting of Melinoe. But unlike last time, she didn’t appear as Bianca. And she didn’t appear as her usual half white, half black form either. She had taken the form of a tall woman wearing a pink bathrobe and holding a wine glass in one hand. Her blonde hair was dishevelled and her expression was stern and disapproving.

“Now you come back. Well it’s too late,” she growled. But she wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to Thalia.

This wasn’t what I expected at all. Who was this lady and why was Thalia being haunted by someone who looked nothing like her?

I heard Percy hiss, “Melinoe?”

I didn’t take my eyes of the goddess. This had to be a trick of some kind. I had to be ready. She’s a goddess of the Underworld, I was the son of Hades. Percy and Thalia would expect me to know what to do.

Thalia’s eyes were tearing up. She suddenly looked younger and confused, lost and without purpose, like a child. “Mother?”

Melinoe threw down her wine glass, which shattered and dissolved into fog. “That’s right, girl. Doomed to walk the earth, and it’s your fault! Where were you when I died? Why did you run away when I needed you?”

Thalia stuttered. “I– I–”

“Thalia.” Percy said. “It’s just a shade. It can’t hurt you.”

It can’t hurt you? What world is Percy living on? I thought bitterly. Ghosts are the embodiments of everything you regret. They’ll haunt you to your grave. And saying that in front of Melinoe… that was just stupid.

The goddess growled. “I’m more than that. And Thalia knows it.”

“But – you abandoned me.” Thalia protested.

“You wretched girl! Ungrateful runaway!”

Melinoe had no right to haunt anyone like that. I drew my sword and pointed it at her. “Stop!”

Suddenly Melinoe shimmered and disappeared, replaced by someone who could only be. . . my mother? She was beautiful, there was no other word I could use to describe her. She was wearing an elegant, old-fashioned black dress and matching hat. White gloves covered her hands and strings of pearls adorned her neck. Her dark brown hair gleamed in the dull light of the Underworld, pulled back in an intricate design.

“No . . .” I whispered. After so long, my mother just appeared here? Part of my mind was giving me muffled warnings. Melinoe. But that wasn't the goddess, that was my mother. I could finally get answers. I could finally know my own mother.

“My son,” Her voice was soothing and melodic. “I died when you were so young. I haunt the world in grief, wondering about you and your sister.”

There was so much I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her everything that had happened to me. But when I opened my mouth, only one word came out. “Mama?”

I heard Thalia murmur, “No, it’s my mother.”

Then Percy’s voice said, “Enough. You’re not anybody’s mama!”

My mother turned to look at him and her form flickered. For a moment I saw Melinoe in her true form, half black, half white. No, that’s not right, it’s my mama.

“Where are your ghosts?” She snapped at Percy.

My thoughts were struggling to keep up, but all I could think about was my mother. My mother was here. She would listen to me and love me and I could relive the childhood I had been forced to forget. I didn’t need to look further for answers, the answers had come to me.

“My . . . I don’t know. I don’t have any.” Percy said.

What’s he talking about? Part of me wondered dazedly.

“Everyone has ghosts – deaths you regret. Guilt. Fear. Why can I not see yours?”

She’s right. Everyone has ghosts. I thought dizzily. But it’s okay, because my mama’s here now, she can protect me.

“I’ve made my peace with them. They’ve passed on.” Percy’s voice said. “They’re not ghosts. Now let my friends go!”

Suddenly, I saw Percy, charging at my mother with his sword. I tried to open my mouth to cry out at him to stop, but he swiped through her and turned her into dust. I blinked, feeling like I had just woken from a deep sleep.

“What is that?” Thalia said. “Where-”

“It was a trick.” I realised. “She fooled us.”

She fooled me. How could I have let that happen? Again?

“You are too late, demigods.” A voice I now recognised as Melinoe’s said. I glanced up to see her standing in her cave. “The deal has been struck.”

“What deal?” Percy demanded. I glanced at him and saw only one petal on the flower.

Melinoe just laughed. “So many ghosts, my young demigod. They long to be unleashed. When Kronos ruled the world, I shall be free to walk among mortals both night and day, sowing terror as they deserve.”

“Where’s the sword of Hades?” Percy demanded. “Where’s Ethan?”

“Close.” Melinoe promised. “I will not stop you. I will not need to. Soon, Percy Jackson, you will have many ghosts. And you will remember me.”

Thalia aimed her bow at Melinoe, arrow notched. “If you open a path to the world, do you really think Kronos will reward you? He’ll cast you into Tartarus along with the rest of Hades’s servants.”

Melinoe bared her teeth. “Your mother was right, Thalia. You are an angry girl. Good at running away. Not much else.”

Thalia let the arrow fly, but just as it hit Melinoe, the goddess disappeared, dissolving into fog. Thalia’ arrow his the rocks and shattered.

“Stupid ghost.” She muttered.

I was still in shock. How could I be tricked? Melinoe only showed real ghosts. So that ghost of my mother . . . was that how she really looked? What was her name? I had to find out. I saw Percy staring at me and cleared my throat.

“The thief . . .” I mumbled half-heartedly. “Probably in the cave. We have to stop him before-”

I stopped, staring in dismay as the last petal fell from the magic flower. The dandelion shrivelled, turned black and died.

“Too late.” Percy said grimly.

A man’s laughter echoed down the mountain. A voice boomed, “You’re right about that.”

At the mouth of the cave, where Melinoe had been, were two people. A Titan and a demigod. The demigod I recognised from description as Ethan Nakamura, just like Percy had predicted. In his hands he was holding a giant sword, the Sword of Hades. He was dressed in combat fatigues and had a backpack slung over his shoulder. The Titan was wearing a tattered prison jumpsuit. His eyes were pure silver light and he had a scraggly beard, and grey hair that stuck out like in those pictures of Albert Einstein. He held out his hand and a giant spear appeared in it.

Despite the difference between him and his Mythomagic card, I recognised him instantly. Iapetus.

He smiled cruelly. “And now I will destroy you.”

“Master.” Ethan interrupted. “We have the sword. We should-”

“Yes, yes.” Iapetus interrupted. “You’ve done well, Nawaka.”

“It’s Nakamura, master.” Ethan shot a glare at the Titan’s back. “Whatever. I’m sure my brother Kronos will reward you. But now we have killing to attend to.”

“My lord,” Ethan persisted. “You’re not at full power. We should ascend and summon your brothers from the upper world. Our orders were to flee.”

Wrong choice of words. The Titan whirled around and bore down on him. “FLEE? Did you say FLEE?”

The ground rumbled, and Ethan fell and scrambled backwards. The unfinished sword of Hades clattered on the rocks. Ethan saw it and reached towards the sword in panic. “M-m-master, please-”

“IAPETUS DOES NOT FLEE!” Iapetus roared. “I have waited three aeons to be summoned from the pit. I want revenge, and I will start by killing these weaklings!”

He levelled his spear at Percy and charged. Percy raised his sword, but could do little other than block the Titan’s blows. Iapetus was fast, whirling and leaping around Percy like a tornado. Thalia was shooting arrows at every patch of skin she could see on the Titan’s body, but he just roared, turning on her in more anger than hurt. I glanced up to where the sword of Hades and Ethan were, to see Ethan trying to draw his own sword.

“I don’t think so!” I yelled, stabbing my sword into the rocky ground. It cut it like butter and up near Ethan, three skeletal warriors erupted from the ground and began to fight him. The sword of Hades still lay on the rocks. I could get it now- I heard Thalia cry out, and turned to see her bow clattering against the rocks. She drew her knives, undaunted.

I levelled my sword and charged at the Titan. Percy was closer, and also launched himself at Iapetus, sinking the blade deep into the Titan’s calf.

“AHHHH!” Iapetus cried, golden ichor, the blood of immortals, gushed from his wound. He whirled around, the end of his spear shaft slammed into Percy, sending him soaring through the air. He crashed into the rocks near the bank of the River Lethe. “YOU DIE FIRST!”

Iapetus announced as he hobbled towards Percy. Thalia tried to zap him with an arc of electricity, but he didn’t even glance at her. I stabbed at the Titan with my sword, but he knocked me aside without even looking at me. I fell hard against the rocks at the base of the mountain, hearing a loud crack. My chest erupted in pain.

“I will kill you all!” Iapetus announced. “Then I will cast your souls into the eternal darkness of Tartarus!”

Percy swallowed, and opened his mouth. “You’re- you’re even uglier than your son. I can see where Atlas gets his stupidity from.”

What is he doing? I thought in panic, He’s getting himself killed. Iapetus merely snarled, limping closer and raising his spear. He brought it down, but Percy lurched sideways, dodging the spear. It sunk down to its shaft right next to Percy. Percy reached up and grabbed Iapetus’s shirt collar, pulling him forwards towards the black water behind him.

I realised Percy’s plan exactly one second before he and Iapetus rolled forwards into the black waters of the River Lethe.

Chapter Text

I managed to get to my feet, forcing the fiery pain in my ribs to become a less painful throb. Thalia and I ran to the side of the river, and peered in, but we couldn’t see anything other than the black water. It felt like years, centuries even, that we stood silently beside the river. I knew it was stupid, but I couldn't stop the pang of hope that twisted my heart every time the water rippled.

Percy had survived the River Lethe once today. Surely he could do so again. Surely . . . The water rippled again and Percy lurched out of the river, dragging Iapetus behind him. Percy was dry from head to toe, but the Titan was dripping wet.

Iapetus had been soaked in Lethe. All his memories, thousands of years of knowledge and experience and evil, all gone with one small swim. I stared at Percy in amazement. Percy climbed to his feet, gazing up at Melinoe’s cave. I turned around and saw Ethan Nakamura cutting through the last of my skeletal warriors. He turned and froze when he saw us standing over the Titan, who was lying on the ground.

“My- my lord?” He called uncertainly.

Iapetus sat up and stared at him. Then he turned to Percy and smiled. “Hello. Who am I?”

“You’re my friend.” Percy blurted out. “You’re. . . Bob.”

“I am your friend Bob!” Iapetus announced cheerfully.

Ethan glanced at the Sword of Hades, lying in the dirt, but before he could grab it, a silver arrow sprouted at his feet.

“Not today, kid.” Thalia warned – although Ethan was probably as old, if not older, than her by now. “One more step and I’ll pin your feet to the rocks.”

Ethan turned and ran, straight into Melinoe’s cave. Thalia notched another arrow, aiming for his back, but Percy said, “No. Let him go.”

Thalia frowned, but lowered her bow. Percy didn’t offer any explanation as to why he spared Ethan, so I walked forwards and picked up the sword of Hades reverently. I could feel its power drumming through every bone in my body. I felt as though I could raise an army of the undead, and I was half temped to try, just to see if I could.

“We did it. We actually did it.” I murmured.

“We did?” Iapetus asked. “Did I help?”

Percy managed to smile. “Yeah, Bob. You were great.”

“How are we going to get back?” Thalia asked after a few moments of silence.

“I have an idea.” I told her. I tapped into the sword’s power, and several ghosts began wisping together. Too many, I thought in panic. I concentrated, and all the wisps condensed into just one ghost.

“I need your assistance.” I told it. “Go find Lady Persephone. Tell her we have the sword of Hades and are waiting for someone to ferry us back across the River Lethe.”

The ghost nodded once, then disappeared. I sat down to wait, staring at the River Lethe and thinking about what had happened. Not the any of the monsters, or even Iapetus – well, Bob, now – or Ethan. I thought about my most recent encounter with Melinoe. I thought about my mother. Was she really a ghost, haunting the world in a state of unrest? Was it my fault?

She was beautiful, though, whether she was a ghost or not. I knew what she looked like now. Even if I didn’t know her name, or anything about her other than her appearance. She had Bianca’s eyes, and long dark hair. I missed her even though I had never spoken to her in the first place. Maybe now I had a physical image to miss, I amplified all my feelings to it.

I heard Thalia plop down on the rocks next to me, and I assumed she was probably thinking about the ghost of her mother. However, when she spoke, she said, “Well, I guess this is what Lady Artemis warned us about.”

I blinked in surprise. I had completely forgotten my encounter with the Hunters of Artemis up on the mountains. “Oh. . . yeah. Probably.”

Behind us, I heard Bob say, “Owie.”

I turned to see him healing Percy’s shoulder with one touch. I suppressed a smile. Iapetus was evil, but maybe Bob isn’t so bad. Finally, the leathery wing beats of the Furies announced their arrival. Percy had insisted on bringing the Titan back with us. Alecto wasn’t pleased to see they had to ferry Bob as well, but they still did, despite mild – read constant – complaints.

The Furies left us outside Hades’s castle.

Alecto gave me a ghastly smile and said, “Good luck, young master.” Before flying away.

I sighed and led the way into Hades’s throne room. My father sat on his throne of bones, glowering. I had never seen him so mad before, and I wondered what I had done wrong. Persephone sat next to him, expression giving nothing away. Thalia and Percy both looked at me expectantly and I swallowed, explaining our adventure to my father and step-mother. At the end, I was about to give back the sword, but Percy cut in.

“Swear on the River Styx never to use it against the gods.” He said.

Hades’s eyes flashed angrily, but he made the promise through clenched teeth. I laid the sword at Hades’s feet, bowing low and waiting for a reaction. Hades didn’t look at me, instead he glared at Persephone. “You defied my direct orders.”

My stomach twisted almost painfully, and I glanced at Persephone. She remained emotionless. Hades turned back to me, and I lowered my gaze again.

“You will speak of this to no one.” He warned.

“Yes, lord.” I agreed nervously. Hades lifted his head to look at Percy and Thalia. “And if your friends do not hold their tongues, I will cut them out.”

“You’re welcome.” Percy said.

I flinched, but Hades merely stared at the sword. He snapped his fingers and the three Furies fluttered down from the top of his throne, somehow they had beat us to the throne room.

“Return the blade to the forges.” He told them. “Stay with the smiths until it is finished, and then return it to me.”

They picked up the weapon and swirled into the air. Persephone glanced at me, and I saw a hint of annoyance in her eyes, but her voice was soft and flattering when she spoke to Hades. “You are very wise, my lord.”

“If I were wise,” he growled, “I would lock you in your chambers. If you ever disobey me again-”

He snapped his fingers and vanished into darkness, letting the threat hand in the air. I stood up again, biting the inside of my cheeks to try and stop a smug smile stretching across my face. Persephone looked even paler than usual.

“You have done well, demigods.” She said tightly. She waved her hands and three roses appeared at our feet. “Crush these, and they will return you to the world of the living. You have my lord’s thanks.”

“I could tell.” Thalia muttered.

“Making the sword was your idea.” Percy said suddenly. “That’s why Hades wasn’t there when you gave us the mission. Hades didn’t know the sword was missing. He didn’t even know it existed.”

“Nonsense.” Persephone scoffed. Hope and disappointment flared inside me at the same time. Hope that my father was angry at Persephone and would forget about me running away for a while at least, and disappointment that I hadn’t made my father proud by completing the mission. Then I realised what Percy was saying and all the puzzle pieces fell into place in my mind. I clenched my fists.

“Percy’s right. You wanted Hades to make a sword. He told you no. He knew it was too dangerous. The other gods would never trust him. It would undo the balance of power.” I said.

“Then it got stolen.” Thalia agreed, catching on. “You shut down the Underworld, not Hades. You couldn’t tell him what had happened. And you needed us to get the sword back before Hades found out. You used us.”

Persephone shifted carefully, eyes darting side to side. “The important thing is that Hades has now accepted the sword. He will have it finished, and my husband will become as powerful as Zeus or Poseidon. Our realm will be protected against Kronos. . . or any others who try to threaten us.”

Part of what Persephone was saying made sense. Hades always had gotten the short end of the stick. Now he was, in a way, equal. After all, a helmet was clearly not the best choice in weapon. What was my father meant to do in battle? Head-butt his enemies to death?

Percy’s thoughts were clearly going down a very different path. He looked downright miserable. “And we’re responsible.”

“You’ve been very helpful.” Persephone agreed. “Perhaps a reward for your silence-”

“You’d better go,” Percy interrupted, “before I carry you down to the Lethe and throw you in. Bob will help me. Won’t you, Bob?”

“Bob will help you!” Bob agreed cheerfully.

Persephone’s eyes widened, then she disappeared in a shower of daisies.

Chapter Text

Thalia, Percy and I said our goodbyes on a balcony overlooking Asphodel. Inside, Bob was building a tiny house out of bones. I could hear him laughing every time it collapsed.

“I’ll watch him.” I offered. “He’s harmless now. Maybe. . . I don’t know. Maybe we can retrain him to do something good.”

“Are you sure you want to stay here?” Percy asked me. “Persephone will make your life miserable.”

Like she already didn't. “I have to. I have to get closer to my dad. He needs a better adviser.”

Even as I said it, the word ‘dad’ felt bitter and uncomfortable on my tongue. When had Hades ever acted as a father for me?

Percy seemed to accept that. “Well, if you need anything-”

“I’ll call.” I promised, although I had no intention to. I turned to shake hands with Thalia, then Percy. Then I had had enough physical contact. I turned to leave, but then a thought struck me and I looked at Percy one more time. “Percy, you haven’t forgotten my offer?”

Percy fell silent for a moment, and shivered. Thalia looked puzzled, but stayed quiet. A deadly silence spilled over the air, until Percy said, “I’m still thinking about it.”

I sighed, and nodded. “Whenever you’re ready.” Although there mightn’t be much time left.

I turned and walked inside. As I left, I could hear Thalia ask, “What offer?”

I walked over to Bob to Titan and sat down. “Hey Bob. Looks like it’s just you and me now.”

“Just you and me?” He asked in confusion. “Where is Percy and the other girl going?”

“They don’t belong here.” I said bitterly, glancing back out at the balcony. Thalia and Percy were gone.

“Do you?” Bob asked.

“Well, yeah.” I said. “I’m a child of Hades.”

“Do I belong here?” Bob asked.

“Well, you don’t belong with the other Titans anymore.” I said. “So, yeah. I guess you do.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Bob asked.

I hesitated. Was it bad to belong in the Underworld? I would say yes. But was it bad for Bob? To not be with the Titans, and instead belong with me, my father and Persephone. As bad as Hades and his wife were, they were better than the Titans.

“No. It’s not a bad thing.” I answered finally. “There’s a lot of work to do around here, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to when I’m down here.”

“Bob could work too!” Bob announced enthusiastically.

“Oh… yeah. Sure, you could.” I agreed. “But not right now. Maybe we should find you a room. I have a room, so you deserve one too. Stay here. Please.”

“Bob will stay here.” Bob agreed, turning back to the pile of bones.

I walked out of the room and into a long corridor. Where would Hades or Persephone be? Gods, why is this palace so huge? What did they even use this space for? Half the rooms were empty. I sighed and started walking, although I really had no idea where I was going. I wandered through the castle until the sound of bubbling lava stopped me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lava everywhere in the Underworld, but this felt almost too close to the palace.

I noticed another narrow, glassless window at the end of the corridor I was standing in, and ran to it. I leaned out and saw a low building with a metal roof below me. The bubbling lava came from there. Along with yelling. Maybe that was the forge? It would make sense for my father to visit the forge, and secure it.

Although I just wanted to shadow-travel down there, I was much too tired, so I turned back to the castle and began winding my way through it. I walked along for about ten minutes before the realisation sunk it. I had no idea how to get to the forge from that corridor. I was lost.

I half wanted to call out for Hades or Persephone, just so I could go to my room and sleep. But what about Bob? And did I really want to admit to either of them I was lost? No. I kept walking aimlessly. The only ‘people’ I passed were spirits, who flickered out of existence as I drew close. After I lost count of how many right and left turns I had made, I finally grew frustrated.

“For Zeus’s sake! What do you even use these rooms for?” I yelled to no one in particular. My voice echoed down the corridor. Use these rooms for these rooms for rooms for.

“Uggh!” I groaned and stomped on. My groan echoed through the corridors as well. I sighed heavily, ready to give up, but again I remembered Bob. I couldn’t leave the Titan hanging. I reached a stone staircase and walked down it, one hand on the railing. At the bottom I inspected my hand. It was covered in dust from the railing.

We could use a cleaner here. I thought irritably. I rubbed the dust of my hand on my jeans, and then kept walking. My legs started to get sore. Finally I saw a door that looked somewhat memorable. It was a double door, painted a dark, dull maroon. The handles were made of tarnished gold. I opened one door and peered inside.

It opened to outside the palace, but still in the Underworld. The grey-grassed ground sloped down towards a huge, gaping black pit. I stepped into the room, curious. I felt a strange tugging sensation creep over me, and I wasn’t sure if I was 100% in control of my actions. I stepped carefully towards the pit and peered over the edge.

It went down and down and down, I couldn’t see the bottom. It was just a huge, black nothing. I felt dizzy, the world spun around me. The power behind the pit seemed to suck me in, closer and closer. Around me, grey shapes reared up, spirits of the dead. They tugged on my clothes, trying to pull me back, but it wouldn’t work.

I leaned forwards, peering into the darkness. My head throbbed and my arms and legs trembled. The pain in my mind felt like a huge, powerful heartbeat, drumming into my body, trying to make me one with it. Whatever was down there was alive, powerful and hungry. It wanted to suck me in and devour me.

And I wanted to let it.

“Nico!”

I blinked. Was that my father's voice? My mind felt heavy, as if I had just surfaced from spending too long underwater. The enticing pit suddenly seemed cold and dark. Whatever was down there throbbed in anger. The heartbeat turned into the familiar painful headache I got after shadow-travelling or raising the dead.

“Nico, get out of there!” I turned, moving sluggishly like I was in slow motion, and saw my father standing at the double doors. His face was etched with anger and something else . . . something I wasn’t used to seeing on anyone’s face while they were looking at me. Worry. Legs wobbling, I stood and stumbled back, nearly tripping.

The pit groaned and I fell painfully on my tailbone, sliding towards the pit. I screamed in terror. Whatever was down there wanted me, and I was afraid it was going to get me.

Then a strong hand clamped around my wrist and pulled me back away from the cliff. In a daze, I realised I was being pushed back into the palace, and then the maroon doors banged shut. My father turned towards me, anger, disappointment and worry covering his expression. “Nico di Angelo, what have I told you about wandering about and peering into any old room you see-”

“Nothing.” I said, as the world began to pick up speed and return to normal. “You never said anything about wondering about.”

“Well I shall warn you now, and now only.” Hades said firmly. “Do not wonder about and peer into any old room you see.”

“What was in there?” I asked, jerking my head towards the doorway.

“None of your concern, Nico.” Hades reprimanded.

“Why won’t you tell me?” I asked. “Why won’t you tell me anything? You expect me to do all these things for you, but you do nothing for me! You’re no better than the Olympians!”

“Nico-” My father tried to interject, but I was mad, and I was not listening to Hades’s half-baked excuses, not this time. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Don’t ‘Nico’ me!” I yelled. “Don’t act like you care now! You don’t care, you never care! You’ve never done anything for me! You’ve told me I should be dead! You hate me! Don’t talk to me! Don’t even try! I don’t care if you’re a god, I don’t care! I just want- I- I-”

I stuttered, and my anger flickered out into the emotions that it had been disguising. Despair, sadness, resentment, loneliness and abandonment. I felt hot tears prick at my eyes and start to trace their way down my cheeks.

“Nico, please, I never-” Hades started to say, hands upturned and spread.

“I don’t want to hear it!” I snapped, turning away and wiping my eyes with my jacket’s sleeve. “I’m going to my room.”

I started to storm off, then paused, remembering something. I didn’t look back, but I yelled, “And Bob needs a room too. Don’t you dare say no to him!”

Then I disappeared into the castle.

Chapter Text

After what felt like more hours, I had found my room. My headache had slowly faded. I sulked for way longer than I knew was nesesrcary, but I didn’t want to leave my room and face my father’s anger. Because there was no doubt he’d be angry. I had yelled at him, told him to never talk to me again, and generally been as disrespectful as possible.

Towards my own father. The god of the Underworld. One of the Big Three gods. I was in deep trouble. I had to learn to control my emotions, or else I would end up getting myself dangled over that pit of cheese fondue for all eternity.

If that wasn’t already going to happen.

I couldn’t escape from the window like I had last time, the window had been barred like a jail cell in my absence. Far below, Persephone’s gardens had gleamed in their stupid, ugly, perfect way. The only option was to sneak out of the castle. I knew the way to the throne room, and from there I knew the way out. It was risky, but maybe it was my only chance of survival.

I was only eleven - or was I twelve now? - and I was already forced into hiding from death? That was depressing.

I spent a while after that plucking up my courage, trying to think of another way around what I had to do. I couldn’t see one. Sighing, I changed my shirt – I had found more in the cupboard and my old black skull shirt was way too worn down to be any good – to a new one, still black, but with dancing skeletons on it.

Then I grabbed my sword and opened my door. It creaked horribly, something I hadn’t recalled it doing last time. I ignored that, hoping that my footfalls wouldn’t echo to wherever Hades and Persephone were. I crept along the hallway and stopped just before reaching the throne room. I could hear footsteps and voices.

Hades and Persephone. I peeked around the corner. Hades was pacing up and down, looking worried. Persephone sat on her throne, looking mildly concerned, but more irritated than anything else.

“Dear, if it’s bothering you so much, go and talk to him.” Persephone said. “You’ll pace right through that nice stone floor at this rate.”

“I can’t just ‘go talk to him’.” Hades said. “He must hate me now! I was a bad father. And how would that work? ‘Hey there, son, I know you never wanted to see me again, but I just wanted to say I’m sorry for ruining your life and telling you you were worthless. Want to play catch?’”

They’re talking about me! Hades is worried about me! I wanted to laugh, cry, yell and cheer all at the same time.

“That sounds fine to me.” Persephone said.

“Persephone!” Hades snapped.

“Offer him something he wants? Mother did that to me when I was mad.” Persephone suggested idly. “Fresh fruit, time to spend with my friends, sugared cereal – now that was a day to remember – new necklaces-”

“I doubt Nico would enjoy fresh fruit, and all we have is pomegranates, or sugared cereal.” Hades said. “Or a necklace. And I do not know who his friends are, he never did tell me about any. . .”

“- bunches of flowers.” Persephone continued.

“Maybe I should just talk to him.” Hades decided. “I owe him an apology, and an explanation.”

“You really do.” I said, stepping out from behind the corner.

“Nico!” Hades said in surprise. “How long have you- I mean, what are you- um, good to see you son!”

“Lord Hades.” I said. “I’m very sorry for shouting at you. Please don’t torture me for all eternity.”

“The thought never crossed my mind!” Hades said quickly.

“Don’t worry.” Persephone reassured me. “I suggested it.”

I’m sure you did, you wicked old hag.

“As I said.” Hades cleared his through. “I owe you an apology. Let’s go for a walk.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hades herded me out into the fields of Asphodel. The grey grass and clouded sky and the background soundtrack of the screams of the eternally damned made a suitable depressing mood for our conversation.

“Firstly, I hope you forgive me for my harsh words to you earlier.” Hades said.

“I hope I do to.” I said sullenly. “You’d better make a convincing argument.”

The fact that my father wasn’t actually going to kill me was starting to settle in and I was enjoying being annoyed at him without consequence. For now.

“Not just today.” Hades said. “Earlier this year when you first came to my door.”

“Oh.” I said quietly, remembering the disappointment of meeting my father for the first time.

“There is no good excuse, but the only one I can offer was that I was overwhelmed with grief.” Hades said. “One of my only two half-blood children, gone.”

I was thinking how that was no excuse to be so careless with words and actions, when Hades said, “You yourself were rather thoughtless in your grief, listening to the ghost of Minos.”

I noticed that he hadn’t mentioned anything about bringing Bianca back to life.

“And I am sorry for not explaining what was in that room.” Hades continued. “But I was thoroughly shocked, both by the existence of that sword, and by the fact you had been so close to falling into the pit.”

“What was that pit?” I asked.

“That pit lead directly into the darkest depths of Tartarus.” Hades said.

“Tartarus.” I echoed nervously. The deepest part of the Underworld. One of the first deities in existence, and second husband to Gaia. (He also had seven thousand attack damage, and could destroy demigod cards instantly.)

“Tartarus.” Hades confirmed. “Nico, it is vitally important that you never go to the pit of Tartarus, for no mortal has ever survived it. Although you, as a child of Hades, will be eternally drawn towards it. You must fight those impulses and stay far, far away.”

“What is Tartarus like?” I asked.

“I do not know.” Hades said.

“But you’ve been to every part of the Underwor-”

“Tartarus’s powers are beyond even me.” Hades said. “I would not have dared to go so close to the pit if you had not been in so much danger.”

We walked in silence for a bit. My own father had risked. . . something to save me. Not his life, seeing as he was immortal, but maybe his powers or his sanity. I couldn’t believe he had saved me like that. That he cared enough to do that.

He probably just wants me alive to be the hero of the prophecy, I reminded myself. But I couldn’t shake the wonder and amazement that someone had done that for me. Especially my own father.

“So, Nico, I beg you, please forgive me?” Hades stopped walking, staring out over the grey fields and flickering ghosts.

I hesitated. I still didn’t want to forgive him. After all, he could be lying. But why would he? What would that achieve? I had to stop holding grudges right? But this grudge was worth holding. No, that was my fatal flaw kicking in again. I had to stop that. Maybe if I could forgive him, he would owe me? And then I could help Bob.

“If you give Bob a room.” I suggested. “And don’t let Persephone turn me into a dandelion. Then I guess I can forgive you.”

Hades smiled faintly. “Very well. Bob the Titan can have his bedroom. Persephone will not turn you into a dandelion. And thank you for forgiving me, son.”

I didn’t really know how to reply, so I just stared out into the Fields of Asphodel. Hades stood next to me, also silent.

Suddenly a thought crossed my mind. “Who was my mother, Hades?”

“Nico, I cannot-”

“Please, I don’t even know her name.” I said. “It’s only fair, isn’t it?”

“No.” Hades said firmly. “And I forbid you from summoning her ghost.”

I tried to get angry, but somehow I couldn’t. Maybe I was just too tired of being angry. “I know next to nothing about my past. Only what Percy told me, which is that Bianca and I were born in the 1940s. When your enemy tells me more about my past than you do, what does that say?”

Hades didn’t reply for a long time. I thought about repeating myself, Hades was really annoying me with his long pauses in-between speaking. Then he said, “I’ll consider it.”

Before I realised that that was as good as saying ‘no’, he disappeared in a whirl of black smoke.

Chapter Text

Bob’s room, as it turned out, ended up being right next to mine.

I only realised when I returned to the castle to find Hades waiting for me in the throne room. He told me to take Bob to his room then vanished, and since I had no idea which room he meant, I just lead Bob to my room and gave him the guest room next door. It's not like anyone else ever used it.

“Sorry, it’s a bit dusty.” I apologised, attempting to open the door. It squeaked horribly and got stuck half way. I shoved it with my shoulder and it inched the rest of the way open, leaving scratches on the stone floor.

“Bob does not mind! I can clean the room.” Bob announced, following me into the guest room. It was identical to mine, right down to the bars on the window.

Well, I thought bitterly, doesn’t this make me feel special?

“Um, yeah, cleaning would be good.” I confirmed. “Thanks Bob.”

“It is nothing!” Bob said happily.

Looking at the bed, I realised I was extremely tired. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I had last slept. One day? Or two? Time was different in the Underworld. And my encounter with Tartarus had drained me. I decided to get some sleep and talk to Bob again in the morning. Or, whenever I woke up.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When I walked into my room and saw the red-cloaked lady on my bed, however, sleep was the last thing from my mind. A hunched lady in a red cloak was standing in the centre of my room. I remembered her with a jolt of shock.

“Erida. Goddess of hate.” I said. “What do you want?”

“You remembered me.” Erida said, her eyes glowing beneath her hood. “Good, good.”

“What do you want?” I repeated.

“To help.” Erida cooed.

“Help who?” I demanded.

The goddess grinned, revealing crooked yellow teeth. “You are asking the right questions.”

“I'd like the answers.” I grumbled.

“Hate is a powerful thing.” Erida started.

“Oh, it’s one of these conversations.” I interrupted. “One of those I’m-not-really-answering-your-questions things that all you gods are so fond of.”

“It cannot be tamed easily once it takes root.” Erida continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “But you seem entirely too resilient. Although you would be the one it would take root in most easily. But that can be changed. That can all be changed.”

“How?” I asked, although it was a stupid question. This was the goddess of hate. Of course she would know how to manifest hate. “I don’t hate anyone right now. Not Percy, not Bianca, not Thalia, not even Hades.”

“That can all change.” Erida mused.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You shall hate.” Erida announced.

“Make me.”

Which was a stupid challenge to a god. Especially since, while I didn’t hate anyone, there were dozens of people I didn’t particularly like.

“Do not challenge me, demigod. I don't care how long it takes. But you will hate.” Erida said, then her mouth opened unnaturally wide. Her jaw bone stretched down to her chest, like a snake preparing to swallow its prey live, her yellow teeth stretching down into fangs and her eyes flaming red. I had seen a lot of disgusting things but that might have been the worst.

I stared into her fire-like eyes, unable to look away. I felt anger and rage wash over me. Why was this stupid goddess here? Why was I here, staying in Hades’ palace? Everyone hated me here. Why did I stay? I had promised Percy? Well, why had I promised him? He never liked me. He hated me. Everyone hated me.

Then the goddess disappeared, and the hate vanished with it. My rational thinking returned and I was more tired than ever.

“Stupid goddess coming in and making everything more difficult.” I grumbled. “I just want to sleep.”

But even sleep couldn’t go smoothly anymore.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I found myself back outside the Castellan household, standing by the fence. This time, Luke was nowhere to be seen. I tried to walk, to move, but my feet were not cooperating. I tried to lift my foot, but nothing happened. I looked down, expecting to see my foot caught in a vine or tree root, but nothing similar was nearby. It seemed that my feet were just stuck to the ground.

Then a cold voice crept through my mind. One I had last heard coming from Luke’s mouth. Kronos’ voice.

The son of Hades.

But unlike when the voice had came from Luke’s mouth, Kronos’ voice now echoed, cold and heavy, wrapping around me and paralysing me even further.

All alone in the world, without anyone who cares for you.

“T-that’s not t-true.” I stuttered. Why was I stuttering? I wasn’t afraid was I?

Your own father hates you. Your so-called ‘friends’ let you leave. They don’t want you at Camp. They think you are a bad luck omen. The voice hissed. I do not. I know you are not unlucky half-blood, but very lucky indeed. You are the one with the power to turn the tides of the war.

“That isn’t right.” I protested. “P-Percy’s the one in the prophecy.”

He is. But you have the ability to change everyone’s fates just as much as Percy does. Perhaps more so. Camp Half-Blood does not know your worth. But I do. You are strong. You are powerful. If you help me, I can give you everything you’ve ever wanted. Fame, a safe place to live, where you’ll be accepted. And . . . y our sister.

For the first time I didn't know what side I should choose. I thought I had accepted that Bianca wasn’t coming back, but if there was a chance to get her back… there was no harm in just listening to Kronos’s offer, right?

That’s right, little demigod. Kronos promised. If you turn the tides of war in my favour, then I will reward you greatly. If you struggle alongside your demigod ‘friends’, if you do win – which is such a small chance – then how will they reward you? Throw you out of Camp again?

What Kronos was saying was right. They would throw me out of Camp. Even if they never said it outright, I knew that all the campers hated me. Their whispers and glares told me that as clearly as if they’d said it to my face. They all hated me.

But I can let you rule over the Underworld. You are clever, more so than you first appeared. It takes a great deal of skill to control dreams, and to spy on me for even a short amount of time. I know your true worth. If you help me you can be with your sister. The voice paused, possibly for dramatic effect, then continued slyly. And your mother. You want answers, don’t you? I could give you them.

I could see Bianca. I could find out who my mother was. I could be accepted. I licked my lips and asked, “What do you want in return?”

Nico, do not promise. Wake! A new voice echoed through my head. Wake!

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I sat straight up, banging heads with the ghost who had been kneeling over me. Yes, I head-butted a ghost. It was much more painful than it sounds, I assure you. In my panic, I scrambled back against my bed’s headboard, afraid that Minos had returned. Then my sight became clearer and I saw… Bianca?

“Bianca? What are you doing here?” I asked.

“You were in danger, Nico.” Bianca said gently. “I had to help.”

“Danger. How?” I muttered.

“You were about to make a deal with Kronos.” Bianca said, straightening up and pacing – well, gliding – back and forth in front of me. “That was incredibly foolish Nico.”

“I-I-I-” I thought back to me dream. “Oh my gods! I nearly made a deal with Kronos.”

“You need to stop yourself from believing what he is saying.” Bianca told me. “He will lie and cheat and promise anything if he believes it will benefit himself.”

“I nearly did that.” I felt tears pooling in the corners of my eyes. “I nearly- nearly- oh gods.”

I nearly made a promise that would have destroyed everything. Camp Half-Blood, as much as I disliked the place, had been my home for a short week. Before I was known as a son of Hades the campers had been nice. I didn’t want it to all go. And… Percy. Percy would never give in to Kronos, no matter what.

I had to be stronger, smarter, more like Percy. Not give in to Kronos. Not even if I thought I could get my own sister back. I didn’t want her back, well, not like that. Not from Kronos' lies. Not from a promise that could end everything that was still good.

I wiped my eyes, unable to stop my hand from trembling. “I’m so sorry, Bianca.”

“Shh, it’s okay.” Bianca said, stopping her pacing and kneeling next to me. I leaned forwards and hugged her.

“I won’t do that again.” I promised. “I’ll be stronger and smarter next time.”

“I know you will.” Bianca said, reaching out a hand to ruffle my hair. “Good luck with your ghost.”

She started to fade away. What ghost? Could she possibly mean the one that had sent me to New Orleans, not even a few days ago?

“Wait, you know about the ghost?” I asked. “Bianca, tell me, please-”

My words cut off as she gave me one last smile and vanished. I stared at the place where she had been, half in disappointment and half in expectation. But I knew she wouldn’t come back.

Chapter Text

My eyes cracked open again, and I stared at the ceiling of my room. For a moment, my mind was completely empty. Then I remembered my nightmare, Bianca, everything, and I shot straight up in bed. Thankfully, I didn’t bang heads with a ghost this time. I stared around the room.

Bianca had been here. I had been too scared and overwhelmed in fear to properly realise earlier. But Bianca had been here. In my room. She had visited me!

Then I remembered why and I felt sick in my stomach. I had nearly made a promise to Kronos. What was wrong with me? Was I really that desperate to find out about my past? Willing to give up everything? Willing to let everyone down even more? Let Percy and Bianca down even more?

No. Never.

I pushed the thick, dust-smelling, red blanket off my legs and climbed out of bed. I couldn’t afford sleep, I had to- I had to. . . had to. . . I didn’t have to do anything. For once I wasn’t in instant danger of my life. For the first time in a year, I had time to just. Do nothing.

What do people even do when they aren’t running for their lives, fighting in wars, or training themselves to near-fading?

I remembered how Bianca and I had played board games on rainy days, how she read me books that had too many long words for me to understand, but I enjoyed it anyway, because it was Bianca reading to me. How I had played mythomagic with the friends I used to have at school. Where were my friends now? Did they miss me? Did they remember me? That felt like a lifetime ago.

The Nico with olive skin and freckles and hair that he used to try and brush, even though it would never work. The Nico that had to wear nice clothes for Bianca, who loved to collect mythomagic cards, and wished with all his heart that the legends were real. The Nico who stole his sister’s floppy green hat, and made fun of her when she used long words. The Nico who smiled so freely. That felt like a whole different person, and a whole different life.

I’m not crying, I reminded myself, I’m done feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I pulled my worn shoes on and sheathed my sword. Then I opened the guest room’s door (I was still not calling it my room) and walked into the hallway. I hesitated, looking at the room next to me, where Bob had slept. Maybe I should check on the Titan, see how he was settling in. Make sure he wasn’t going to suddenly regain his memory and go crazy.

I knocked on his door, and when there was no answer, I knocked louder. This time I heard footsteps and the door creaked open. Bob was standing on the other side, smiling widely, his silver hair looking like he had just stuck his finger in an electric socket. His hair was in even worse condition than mine. If it was possible, he smiled wider when he saw me. I couldn’t help it, I smiled back. “Hey, Bob.”

“Hello, Nico!” He said enthusiastically.

“I, um, just wanted to see how you’re settling in.” I told him.

“I am doing very well.” Bob announced. “I cleaned my room!”

He stepped back and showed me proudly. I got ready to pretend to be enthusiastic. Then I actually saw his bedroom. The stone floor was shining, the wooden furniture gleamed, the bed was neatly made. Everything looked a hundred times better. The room almost looked like a nice place to spend the night.

“Woah.” I said. “Bob, this is. . . really great.”

“Bob is glad you agree.” Bob said. “Cleaning was fun!”

“Cleaning? Fun?” Those were two words I never expected to hear in the same sentence.

“Yes!” Bob said.

“Well, if you want, there’s a lot of cleaning we need to do around here.” I offered, then mentally slapped myself. Leave it to me to straightaway stuff up a new maybe-friendship. Yes, befriend Bob and immediately make him clean the entire palace. Great work, Nico!

“I would like that very much.” Bob decided. “I could even have a proper uniform. And a broom!”

“Yeah. We can get you those.” I sighed in relief. Maybe I hadn’t messed up this time.

Just then a grumbling sound came from my stomach. In shock, I looked down. What was that?

“Nico is hungry?” Bob offered.

Hungry. Of course. How long had it been since I last ate? At least two days. I hadn’t noticed myself being hungry before, or I had just made myself wait, or forgotten about it. Now I wasn’t in immediate danger, maybe I could get something to eat? Underworld food was usually dangerous, one bite and you’re stuck in the Underworld. But being the son of Hades, normal Underworld rules didn’t apply to me.

The only problem was, I didn't know where the kitchen was and there was no way I was asking Hades. The only food source I could think of where Persephone's pomegranate trees. Even though pomegranates weren’t my favourite food, they would do. It was a better alternative to wandering aimlessly hoping to find a kitchen, or asking my father. And it might annoy Persephone.

I realised Bob was still looking at me expectantly.

“Um, yeah. If you don’t mind me getting myself something to eat. . .?” I trailed off uncertainly. Was it rude to leave him? Should I invite him to come with me? I kind of didn’t want to, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave him.

“Yes, you go.” Bob agreed cheerfully. “Bob will ask Lord Hades for job at the palace. Bob can clean. And have a broom!”

“Um, yeah, sure Bob.” I agreed. I hesitated awkwardly for a few moments, then turned and walked off. I decided I really needed more experience with other people in order to befriend Bob. I used to have a lot of friends at school, only a year ago. How had that changed?

Then something else occurred to me. It had been another year(ish). Maybe I was twelve now? Or maybe that would be happening soon. The thought didn’t excite me or scare me the way it would have a year, or maybe two, ago. I was turning twelve, but it was sort of just a thing that was happening now. I didn’t feel any older.

But at the same time, I realised, I did. I felt much older. I was completely different to the boy who had wandered the Labyrinth with the ghost of Minos.

Shrugging off the thought, I walked through the empty throne room and outside the palace. Everything was still. The ghosts in the fields of Asphodel floated silently, like mist (the normal kind) over the greying grass. I made my way across the uneven ground by the palace to Persephone’s garden. My footsteps caused little whirlwinds of dust and ash to swirl around my shoes, but there was almost no other movement.

If you’ve ever woken up at the crack of dawn and walked outside on a misty morning, when everything is slow and quiet, it was kind of the same feeling. There was nothing and no one. I followed the silver and gold trails through the trees and gemstones into Persephone's gardens. When I reached the centre of the garden, with its delicate silver table, I plucked a pomegranate from a low hanging branch, and opened the silver blade of my pocketknife to cut the fruit open.

“Nico di Angelo.”

The crisp, clean, cold voice cut through the air like a sword through a monster. I jumped, literally, and spun around, finding Persephone herself only inches away from me. She looked furious. Slowly, I dropped the fruit and stepped back. “Persephone, um, I can explain, uh-”

“Do not bother with your foolish excuses.” Persephone snapped.

Inwardly, I sighed with relief. I honestly didn’t have an excuse other than I was hungry and wanted to annoy her so why not combine the two things? Which would not impress Persephone.

“I thought that perhaps I had misjudged you.” Persephone fumed. “That maybe after you retrieved Hades’s sword-”

“Your sword.” I interrupted. “Hades didn’t even know you made it.”

“- that perhaps I had been too hasty in my dislike and anger for you.” Persephone ignored my interruption. “I thought wrong. You are just like your mother. A rude, brash, headstrong, stubborn, good-for-nothing-”

“What was her name?” I asked eagerly.

“Who?”

“My mother, what was her name?” I repeated.

“It does not matter.” Persephone said stiffly.

“Why won’t anyone tell me anything? Why even bother mentioning her? It’s not fair!” I exclaimed.

“It’s not fair?” Persephone asked. “For you? I think it is unfair for me. I have been a loyal wife to Hades, and forgiven him for kidnapping me, taking me away from my home. I have forgiven him for the times he himself was disloyal. And in return I have you, wondering around the underworld like a moody ghost.”

I opened my mouth to retort, but then stopped and thought about it. She was right. Hades wasn’t the best father, and he probably wasn’t the best husband. Persephone and I had both been screwed over by the Fates. It wasn’t either of our fault, so why bother getting worked up over it? And after meeting Erida again, I was not inclined to hate more. I didn’t want anything to do with that goddess.

“You’re right.” I said finally.

“Don’t talk back- wait, what?” Persephone fixed me with her pale eyes, and for the first time, they reminded me of the electric energy of Thalia’s, another daughter of Zeus.

“You’re right.” I said. “Hades is a sucky husband. And a sucky dad. What’s the point of trying to kill each other – figuratively and literally – over something neither of us asked for?”

“I was not expecting- for a demigod- especially you-” She cut herself of, regained her composure and said, “You are full of surprises, Nico di Angelo.”

“Um, thanks?”

“I shall try not to turn you into a flower again.” Persephone said. She was silent for a few moments, then blurted out, “And have this.”

She waved her hands and a pomegranate appeared in my hands.

“Wow. Thanks.” I couldn’t help the sarcasm in my voice. Persephone was the best at giving gifts. First a flower, then a fruit. Well, what else could you expect from the goddess of flowers?

“None of that attitude. I did say try not to turn you into a plant.” Persephone reprimanded me. “That is not just an ordinary pomegranate. The seeds can put you into what is known as a death trance.”

“Uh-huh. That sounds promising.” I said.

“Eat one seed and you can survive for a full day with no food, water or oxygen. You will, instead, be in a trance-like state for twenty-four hours.” Persephone said. “Very useful for foolish demigods who tend to get themselves into easily avoidable situations.”

“Excuse me?” I demanded.

But Persephone was already disappearing in a shower of flowers.

Still hungry, I decided to return to my room.

I put the pomegranate on my bedside table, next to the rose. After staring at the apparently magic fruit for a while, I retrieved my pocketknife and cut a slice open. It didn’t look magical. It looked like a normal pomegranate. Of course it was. Like Persephone would give me an actual magic item that was worth something.

I put the pomegranate back down and went to leave, but something in me made me stop and put the slice of pomegranate that I had cut into my jacket pocket. Better safe than sorry.

Chapter Text

I wasn’t sure how long I was in the Underworld for, partly because in a giant underground cavern there are no days and nights, and partly because time works differently in magical places, but I had almost gotten used to Underworld. The screams of the eternally dammed, the music booming over the water from the Isle of the Blest, the dangerous Underworld rivers, the ghosts, the darkness, Bob, even Persephone and Hades.

Each ‘day’ settled into a routine. Wake up, half the time from nightmares that usually involved either Kronos and the Titans, or Percy and Bianca. Then I would check on Bob, who would greet me enthusiastically. It was lucky he was willing to make an effort to talk to me, because I had no idea how to talk to him most of the time.

After that, I would meet Hades and Persephone in a dining room and be forced to eat breakfast with them. During that time I tried to achieve two things, one being to get my father to be more open in helping the Titans not win the war, and the other was to not get blown to pieces. I was called annoying or a brat or things similar so often that I forgot the meaning of the words.

Then I would spend the day exploring the Underworld or Hades’s castle, and training with the undead, who were much easier to summon when I was in the Underworld. When I judged it to be night time, I would return to the palace and fall asleep before my head hit my pillow.

I had also, somewhat grudgingly, began to call the guest room my room.

I hadn’t ran into any other gods or goddess or Titans, and I had no contact with the outside world. I wondered how Hades and Persephone stayed sane, seeing as they were Underground for such long periods of time. I figured it had to have been months since I had seen Percy and Thalia, and I hoped that they were alright. Most of the time I ended up shrugging it off, not wanting to think about Thalia and Percy and Annabeth and Rachel and Grover and Tyson all together and happy, or even worse, all dead at the hands of the Titans.

In my nightmares, Kronos taunted me on the war that was coming, but never told me enough to have an idea of what was happening. More often I would have nightmares of losing everyone I cared about, usually because of my own failure to save them. As the nightmares got worse, I found myself training less often, and instead just sitting on the banks of the River Styx, wondering what was happening in the rest of the world, and wondering why I didn’t go find out. I was getting desperate to find out what was happening in the rest of the world, but I didn’t want to ask Hades or Persephone. I wasn’t that desperate.

However, it was on a day when I didn’t have any nightmares, that things decided to take a turn for the worse. I had wandered into the dining hall, a huge room lined with tables full of spirits and sometimes the gods who inhabited the Underworld. As Hades and Persephone were sitting at the head table, I figured it had to be morning.

I made my way to the table, avoiding eye-contact with anyone who happened to glance my way. However about half-way through the room, Hades’ eyes fixed on me and I was suddenly powerless in attempting to stare at my feet. So instead I lifted my gaze to watch at the gods sitting at the head table.

There were only three today, fortunately. Hades, Persephone and a stern woman who I had never seen before. She didn’t have the same deathly aura of the gods of the Underworld. She looked similar to Persephone, with the same eyes and hair, but she was wearing a golden dress, similar to a field of wheat. Her hair was braided with dried grasses. And worst of all, she was scowling down at me as if I were a cockroach.

As I reached the table, I bowed low to the gods. “Good morning.”

“He’s very scrawny. He needs to eat more cereal.” The new goddess muttered.

“Mother!” Persephone protested. “Enough with the cereal!”

Of course! No wonder the goddess looked so similar to Persephone. She was her mother, Demeter.

“What’s she doing here?” I asked bluntly, before realising that was not a good way to speak about gods. “Uh, no disrespect, ma’am. But you aren’t an Underworld god, so I was just wondering about-”

“Stop blabbering on.” Hades said. “She is here as a guest. With the war approaching fast, it is not safe for my Persephone to return to the outside world. Demeter, however, has issue with that, she doesn’t like to be away from her daughter for long amounts of time. As such, she is here as a guest.”

“Right. Thank you for telling me, father.” I nodded stiffly.

“Are all demigods that scrawny?” Demeter asked, examining me. “I’m quite sure my children aren’t nearly so pale. He needs more sunlight.”

I didn’t respond. There was no point in getting a goddess angry. It wouldn’t end well for me. Especially if Demeter was anything like her daughter.

“Why is he here again, Hades?” Demeter asked. “My half-blood children don’t wander about Olympus like lost puppies.”

“He is not harming anyone, Demeter.” Hades snapped. “He is training.”

“Training? What for?” I asked. I hadn’t been aware I was training for anything. Except for the war, which, if Hades was telling the truth, was rapidly approaching.

“For the prophecy.” Hades said, waving a hand carelessly. “You are to be the hero of the prophecy, are you not?”

I felt my eyes widen. “No! Percy- father, you promised I wouldn’t have to be the hero of the prophecy! You said Percy-”

“I said I would reconsider. Well I have and I have decided that you are to be the hero of the prophecy.” Hades said.

“No! I refuse!” I yelled. “I’m not going to hurt Percy Jackson! You can’t make me!”

Before any of the three gods could get another word in I turned and ran from the hall, fast as I could. I heard Hades’ voice boom out an order for me to stop, then one for the spirits and gods in the hall to catch me, but I didn’t stop. I wasn’t going to face my father’s anger yet again. I was a disappointment, yeah, I got it. But I wasn’t going to be a disappointment that just sat there and let myself get scolded. If Hades thought I was going to be the demigod in the prophecy, well, he was wrong.

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I found myself by the River Styx when I finally stopped running. Legs sore, gasping for air and almost sure that at any second one of the Furies would swoop down and deposit me at my father’s feet, where I would be punished yet again. But I suddenly found it impossible to run.

So I just flopped down on the ground, thinking, Fine. I don’t care. Let them find me if they want. But for a long time there was no disturbance. Not a ripple of water in the Styx, not a footstep or a breath. There was nothing and no one. I rested my head on my chin and hugged my knees to my chest. How would Hades react to what I had done now? Would he force me to harm Percy Jackson?

Surely not.

Surely he wouldn’t make me harm Percy so close to his birthday, so close to the war. Surely even Hades knew how dangerous that could be.

A hand gripped my shoulder. I lept up and spun around, coming face to face with a tall hooded being. A god, judging by the power they radiated.

“You are a long way from the castle, are you not?” They said.

His voice – I decided it was a he – was deep and curled through the air in a way that could only be described as melodious.

“I- um- who- ” I bit my tongue to stop myself spluttering out any more half formed words. “Who are you?”

“Death.” The god said. “Now come, your father is waiting.”

Death. Like the grim reaper. That hooded cloak. All the pieces came together in my head.

“You’re Thanatos.” I said. “God of reaping souls.”

“Indeed, half-blood.” Thanatos agreed. He made no visible movement, but a whirl of darkness, like shadow-travel, swept me off my feet. I landed on my butt on a hard stone floor. I pushed myself onto my hands and knees, squinting until my eyes got used to the complete darkness. They didn’t.

“Help.” My call echoed off the walls.

I felt my way around the room, and decided I was in some kind of prison cell, but there was no gap in the stone that the floor, walls and roof was made of. It was a small, stone box with no supply of oxygen whatsoever. In horror, I realised this might be where I would die. I found a corner and curled up in it, trying to see something in the darkness. Nothing.

I had no idea how long I would be stuck here for. The room was so silent that even my breathing echoed of the walls. There was no supply of oxygen and I had no idea how long I would be down here for. I was going to suffocate. I felt my breaths come quicker and faster as I began to panic. I couldn’t see anything.

There could a monster in this very room, looming over me, about to attack, and I couldn’t even see it. I held my breath, waiting for the monster that I was sure was there to strike.

It didn’t.

There was no monster. My mind was playing tricks on me. I shook my head. I wasn’t in any danger of anything, other than suffocating when the oxygen levels ran out. The air was cold and damp. I shivered, and pushed my hands into my jacket pockets to warm them up. My hand touched something cold and slightly slimy.

I recoiled in disgust, holding my hand close to my face, although I couldn’t see it. When nothing happened, I reached into my pocket and brought out the object. It was a small slice of fruit, pomegranate. But why was that in my pocket?

In a flash I remembered the time, months ago, when Persephone had given me a magic pomegranate. I had put a slice of the fruit in my pocket and forgotten all about it. Now I struggled to remember any of what Persephone had said. Magic pomegranate . . . death trance . . . no food or water and very little oxygen.

If I was going to die anyway, I may as well try it. As best I could, I pinched a seed between my thumb and index finger, then ate the sweet casing around it. It tasted like a normal pomegranate, not rotten at all despite the months it had spent in my pocket.

I spat out the seed and stuffed the rest of the fruit back in my pocket.

Nothing.

Nothing changed.

Maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe Persephone really had been tricking me. Then my head spun and I lost consciousness, falling towards the floor and slipping into a death trance.

Chapter Text

Darkness.

There was only darkness.

But it wasn’t like the cold, damp prison cell I knew I was in. It was different, somehow. This darkness was warm, comforting, and almost stuffy. It smelt vaguely of my aviator jacket – leather and dust and fur. I felt almost as if I were surrounded by a glow, despite the darkness. I couldn’t hear anything, but it didn’t scare me.

Instead, it was comforting, like the silence you get when you’re awake at two am and the world is silent and calm. I felt like I was in the eye of the storm, that strange, unreal, quiet patch in the middle of a cyclone, when everything stops. Everything had paused, but I wasn’t afraid. I felt more at peace now than I had ever before.

My breathing slowed. I placed a hand on my chest and felt for my heartbeat. For almost too long, there was nothing. Then a slow, quiet beat. My heart must have slowed for me to survive in this death trance. I hoped my body could breathe, and that nothing had attacked me.

I wasn’t sure if I could chose to wake from this death trance, or I had to wait a certain amount of time until it was over. I raised my hands to my face, and found that I could see them, despite the darkness. I looked down and saw the rest of my body. I was wearing the same clothes as always, black jeans, a black shirt, my jacket, but they were all clean and warm. I examined my hands closer. They were almost magically clear of cuts and dirt. I let my hands fall again, and stared into the darkness.

I could wait.

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I wasn’t sure how long it had been. The darkness around me didn’t change, but I never felt bored. Instead I felt heavy, sleepy and comfortable. After what had to have been more than twenty hours, I felt a cold shiver down my spine.

My eyes were forced closed, the air smelt dark, damp and stony. I was curled on my side in the foetal position, lying on something hard. A heavy darkness pressed behind my eyes. The prison cell. My limbs felt heavy. There was a bitter taste in my mouth. I groaned, and wriggled my fingers. Then I tried to stretch my legs. They felt as if they were made of cement.

Slowly, every movement aching, I pushed myself onto my hands and knees and cracked open my eyes. I still couldn’t see anything. Not even my hands. I crawled forwards cautiously, each movement hurting. My fingers were stopped by a hard stone wall, and a second later, I head-butted it so hard my teeth rattled.

My mouth open to yell in pain and shock, but no sound other than a groan came out. It was as if my entire body was in slow motion. Carefully, I reached forwards and leaned on the wall with one hand, using it to stand up. My legs shook, and I suspected they would give way at any second. I leaned with my back against the wall, waiting for control to return to my body.

The wall behind me rumbled and shifted. I tried to push myself away from it, but I wasn’t quick enough. I fell backwards as the wall disappeared, hitting my head on the stone floor. I scrambled away as fast as I could. I couldn’t make out the tall dark figure standing over me after so long in darkness. A familiar voice said, “It’s about time you woke up.”

“F-father?” I asked, squinting at the tall dark figure. Even that one word hurt.

“Yes, Nico?”

“Why am I- where- he locked me-” I stuttered into silence, waiting for my eyes to adjust. Hades stood over me impatiently, and when I began to stand again, he pulled me to my feet.

“Thanatos told me everything.” Hades said calmly.

“Oh- um, right.” I swallowed, trying to compose myself, but my mind was still groggy from the death trance.

“I was merely waiting for you to wake from the death trance before fetching you from the prison cell.” Hades continued, now pulling my along a long stone corridor with torches fixed to the walls in regular intervals, all glowing green fire, and skeletal guards in armour. “Death trance can cause severe disorientation once you wake from it, and moving you to a completely different location would only have worsened your confusion, although you seem even slower than most to recover from its effects.”

“You should add light to the prison cells.” I muttered, still half-dazed. “A torch or something?”

“I wish to inform you that I will not force you to harm Percy Jackson.” Hades said. “I should have recalled that you have a strange . . . alliance to the boy, despite him doing nothing to earn your loyalty.”

I stayed silent.

“I will warn you only once more that while you are in my Kingdom you will be respectful to all the gods here, especially Persephone and Demeter.” Hades said. “Now, I believe Thanatos feels he owes you an apology.”

My feet began to work properly and I shook Hades off and followed him up a long flight of stairs. I stared at his back, wondering why he was so cold towards me again. Finally, we reached the throne room again. Thanatos was just as I remember him, a tall, hooded figure, but this time, minus the scythe. He was pacing, staring at the floor in concentration.

My father cleared his throat, and Thanatos looked up so fast that the hood of his cloak fell off. For the first time I saw his face. If I had to choose one word to describe it, it would be angelic. His skin was brown, the colour of teakwood. His eyes were a rich gold, and his hair was long, flowing down his shoulders in a smooth black wave.

"Lord Hades.” Thanatos bowed neatly. “May I talk to the boy?”

“Have him. It isn’t like he has anything better to do.” Hades shoved me towards the other god. Thanatos beckoned to me and turned away. Nervously, I followed. He led me upstairs to a balcony that looked over the Fields of Punishment.

“I owe you an apology, Nicolas.” Thanatos stated.

“Nico. It’s just Nico.” I said, then corrected myself. “Sorry, Lord Thanatos.”

“There’s no need for formalities.” Thanatos said. “In fact, it is I that should be sorry. I imprisoned you merely because Hades ordered me to, without listening to your explanation. That was not in character for me. I should have given you proper judgement. Will you forgive me?”

“Um, sure, I guess.” I said, a little taken aback. Then a question occurred to me. “Why was my father being so cold?”

“Hades is not used to having someone to lose.” Thanatos said. “It’s been around sixty or seventy years, and after what happened last time . . .”

I hesitated, trying to calculate. “Hang on, last time was about sixty or seventy years ago? And I’m from the nineteen forties. Was it something to do with my m-”

I cut myself off as Thanatos’ expression darkened.

“Sorry, Lord Thanatos.” I said.

“Your father has forbidden me from talking to you about it.” Thanatos explained. “It was a very sad occasion, after all.”

I gritted my teeth, but forced myself not to ask anything else. “Right. Well. I’ll just, um, not ask. Then.”

“Nico, I’m not your enemy.” Thanatos said. “After all, death is on no one’s side.”

“Right.” I said. “Okay. I should go and, um, do something, uh, somewhere far away from here.”

“Nico.” Thanatos sounded so genuinely exasperated that I didn’t turn away. “It is not often that a demigod ventures right into Hades’s realm, let alone one of his own children. He is unsure how to treat you, especially since you are so distant.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about how Hades feels about me.” I snapped, sounding more bitter than I meant it.

To his credit, Thanatos didn’t get mad. “Your father trusts me. And you can too.”

“But you’re telling me this stuff that Hades probably doesn’t want me to know.” I pointed out. “So what’s to say you won’t tell Hades things I don’t want him knowing?”

“Hades thinks I wouldn’t dare disobey him.” Thanatos shrugged. “But I think you are a good enough cause for me to interfere. Just like Hades, I do not quite know how to go about your arrival. You are a mystery to me.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. And it didn’t really answer my question. Getting a straight answer from a god was near impossible.

“My point being, I’d like to get to know you. You seem to want to spend some time here, and I can’t stop it. And if we aren’t destined to be enemies, we may as well be friends.” Thanatos said. “For the time being.”

I thought about that, then nodded. “That makes sense. For the time being.”

“Your father is right about one thing, Nico.” Thanatos said, golden eyes boring into me. “You are a very peculiar demigod.”

Chapter Text

I was almost back at my bedroom – I guess I really had learnt my way around the castle – when something stopped me.

“Nico! You did not say hello to me!”

I froze, one hand on my door handle, and spun on the spot to see Bob the Titan grinning at me. I sighed, not in the mood for another encounter with a highly dangerous immortal. Even Bob, as kind and harmless as he now was. “Oh, right, sorry, I was busy.”

“I heard Lord Hades talking you being in a death trance!” Bob said. “I was worried that you had a big ouchie.”

“No, it was fine.” I said. “Death trance is like a deep sleep.”

“Oh, it is good that you are here and okay.” Bob said. “I would not like it if my friend was hurt.”

I smiled faintly. “Thanks, Bob. But I’m kind of tired right now. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Yes, that would be good!” Bob agreed. For a moment he hesitated, as if debating something, then seemed to change his mind, as he said, “See you soon, Nico!”

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Inside my room, I collapsed on my bed. I was tired, despite the twenty-four(ish) hours I had spent in the death trance. I hardly kicked off my shoes before falling asleep.

But wouldn’t you know it, lucky me, I happened to get another dream. I was standing outside the Castellan house, but this time the huge pit I had seen in the castle had opened in the ground at my feet. Kronos’s pit. I felt my blood freeze in my veins. Then his voice hissed through my mind, echoing off the back of my skull and making it impossible to think.

Back again, son of Hades? Kronos asked. And what do you think of my offer?

“I don’t want it.” My voice sounded weak in the forest, lost in the silence of the night. “Leave me alone!”

Then why have you returned? Kronos asked. Why not leave?

“I-I- I can’t!” I yelled.

Or do you just want me to tell you about yourself and your past? Kronos asked. About your mother?

“I don’t want your help!” I yelled.

I could help you. Kronos tempted. I could tell you about your past.

I wanted to say yes. I had to know about my past, about my mother. I had to know. But something stopped me from saying yes. The look on Bianca’s face when she had woken me from my first dream with Kronos. What would she think? She would hate me if I did this. I couldn’t say yes. No matter how much I wanted it.

“I said NO!” I yelled.

I felt the ground crack beneath my feet and I tumbled forwards into the pit. I was falling into the darkness. All light was swallowed up. I woke up screaming. My sheets were tangled around my legs. Slowly I relaxed, then tried to disentangle myself from the mess of sheets.

Then I stumbled over to the window. The view was still the same. Nothing had changed. Everything was okay. I sat down on the edge of my bed. It was okay. I was safe. But part of me just couldn’t relax. The Underworld was massive, but I was feeling claustrophobic underground.

I made up my mind, in the ‘morning’ I would say goodbye to Bob and leave.

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Saying goodbye to Bob was harder than I had anticipated. The Titan had grown on me, and I was going to miss having someone smile when they saw me. And I felt guilty leaving him here, with only Hades and Persephone for company. At least he had his work to keep him busy. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t get used to me not being around. But that didn’t make saying goodbye any easier.

“Bob, I really need to go.” I repeated, trying to shake off the Titan. When he had heard I was leaving, he had shrunk down to human size and hugged my arm and was refusing to let go.

“Do not leave, Nico!” Bob pleaded. “It will be lonely without you.”

“I’ll come back. I don’t have anywhere better to go.” I said. “I just . . . want to go away for a while.”

“I will miss you.” Bob said. “Come back soon, because we really care about you.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” I said, rolling my eyes. “But seriously, let go now.”

“Okay. Be safe, Nico.” Bob said, finally dropping my arm. “And I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

I hesitated, I wasn’t looking for anything, was I? I just wanted to get out of the Underworld for a while. I realised Bob was staring at me expectantly.

“Oh, uh, yeah, thanks.” I nodded. I turned down the corridor, Bob’s calls of goodbye echoing through the castle behind me.

Chapter Text

The good news: I was out of the Underworld.

The bad news: I had no idea where I was.

I stumbled into a crowded street. It was night, although the sky wasn’t visible. The air smelt like smoke and car exhaust. The buildings were huge, looming skyscrapers, with glass sheets for windows. My first, terrifying thought was that I had been in the Underworld for too long, and this was the future. I felt my throat tighten. Adrenaline coursed through my body.

Then I realised that none of the signs had writing in English. In fact, it looked like . . . Chinese? I stared at the people passing me in the streets, most of whom were casting impatient, irritated looks at me as they dodged me. They were almost all Asian. I groaned, of course. I wasn’t in the future. I had somehow – somehow – ended up back in China.

But instead of being at the edge of the world, at the Great Wall, I was in the middle of a city. But how had I gotten here? I had thought of MacDonald’s, and I couldn’t see any here-

I spun around and saw the huge red sign with the yellow M plastered on the bottom floor of a looming business building. . . . Oh. I guess I had to be more specific in order for shadow-travel to work properly. And for now? I was stuck in China at the middle of the night.

In a rush, my adrenaline rush left me, and I was tired. My head spun and I wanted to collapse on the middle of the street and sleep. I could hardly think, everything hurt so much. What could I do? I didn’t want to risk shadow-travelling again so soon. I didn’t speak Chinese at all. I had no clue what to do. I glanced back at the MacDonalds.

At least I would be out of the crowded streets if I went inside, but if I did, what would a homeless looking, twelve year old boy who couldn't speak one word of their language look like to these people? Probably nothing good. But I would much rather be inside somewhere. I took a few steps towards the shop, and raised my hand to push open the door.

Suddenly, a hand gripped my wrist and pulled me away from the door.

“Hey!” I protested, trying to tear my hand away from the grip of whoever was pulling me along. I was dragged into an ally and slammed hard into a brick wall, the ringing in my head doubled in volume. I felt a blade which I identified as Celestial bronze pressed into my neck. Whoever this was, they were a demigod and they did not like the look of me.

I forced my eyes to focus and came face to face with a boy who looked about five or so years older than me, although he was about my height. He had a wave of black hair covering his eyes. He was wearing a black cap pulled low over his face, jeans and a blue hoodie. The boy hissed something in Chinese. Instinctively, I reached for my sword, but it wasn’t there. I looked back at the boy, then my eyes focused on someone behind him, another boy, the ends of his hair dyed warm brown, wearing similar clothes, and holding my weapon, face scrunched with disgust as he glanced at it, careful to point the blade away from him.

The first boy repeated whatever he had said in Chinese. I just stared at the two, unable to believe I had been pinned to a wall and disarmed so easily. I was a child of one of the Big Three, yet I had been overpowered within seconds. Had all my training amounted to nothing? The first boy repeated what he said again.

“I don’t speak Chinese!” I said. “Whoever or whatever you are-”

“You speak English?”

I froze in shock. The first boy had just spoken in a perfect English, complete with an English accent. It was almost laughable.

“Um, yeah.” I nodded.

“Well, you can’t be a monster, despite your aura saying otherwise.” He mumbled. “What are you?”

“I’m a demigod.” I said. “And so are you, I’m betting.”

“How did you know?” The boy asked.

“You’re talking about monsters, and you have a celestial bronze knife at my throat.” I pointed out, then glared at the second boy. "And you took me sword."

“Jun, Sons of Hermes, at your service.” The second boy said, grinning through his unease.

“Can I have my sword back?” I asked him.

“Can I trust you?” The first asked.

“Can I trust you?” I shot back, then as an afterthought. “Are you English?”

Because he sounded English.

“We’re clearly Chinese.” The first boy said, and sighed. “Americans.”

“You have an English accent, how was I meant to know?” I defended myself. “Speaking of which, how do you have an English accent?”

“Hermes is the god of languages. We can speak and understand any language on earth, given that we’ve heard it before.” He said. “Back on track. What are you doing here?”

“I didn’t want to be here!” I was getting tired of explaining that every time I shadow-travelled. “Shadow-travel is unpredictable.”

“Shadow-travel?” He asked.

“I can sort of . . . teleport, using shadows.” I explained.

“How can you do that? Who’s your godly parent?” The boy demanded.

“Hades.” I muttered to my feet, bracing myself for what I knew was going to come next.

“Impossible- the oath- Poseidon, Zeus and Hades-”

“It’s true.” I said. “Move that knife away from me and I can show you.”

The first boy slowly backed up. I bent down and ran a hand over the cracked ground. The concrete shifted and a small skeleton of a rat broke through. It scamped off into the dark and I heard it falling to pieces.

“But the oath . . .”

“Hades didn’t break the oath.” I sighed. “It’s complicated. Okay?”

“Everything demigod related is complicated.” The second boy volunteered.

"It's complicated by demigod standards, just drop it." I said.

“That’s pretty cool. Can you do anything useful with your powers?” The first boy asked.

“I, um, I can raise skeletons to fight for me, and I can talk to ghosts.” I said. “But it drains a lot of power.”

“Awesome.” The second boy said. "That's way cooler than what Tao and I can do."

"Who are you?" The first boy, Tao, asked. "I mean, what's your name?"

“Nico.” I introduced. “If you don't mind me asking, why aren’t you at Camp Half-Blood?”

“Huh?” Tao asked.

“Camp Half-Blood.” I repeated.

“What’s Camp Half-Blood?” Tao asked.

“It’s an American, uh, summer camp. It’s- it’s a safe place for a lot of demigods.” I explained. “It’s on Long Island, New York.”

“How are we meant to get to America?” Tao asked. “Anyway, we’re happy here.”

“Yeah. We don’t need a camp to survive.” Jun nodded.

I frowned, unconvinced.

“Well, you aren’t a threat, thankfully.” Tao said. “So you can have your sword back.”

“Thanks.” I said. Jun passed the sword over to me. Another thought occurred to me. “Do you work for Kronos? Is that why you aren’t at Camp Half-Blood?”

“Kronos? You mean like, Zeus’s dad?” Tao asked.

“Yes.” I said, hand tightening around my sword.

“Isn’t he in Tartarus?” Jun asked. “The stories say that-”

“I know what the stories say.” I interrupted. “But recently . . . Kronos has been trying to rise from Tartarus. He’s- he’s succeeded, and now he’s trying to overthrow the gods.”

“No way, you’re pulling my leg.” Tao shook his head, fringe bobbing as he did.

“I swear on the River Styx, I’m not.” I said. “Wait . . . if you’ve never heard of Camp Half-Blood . . . you’ve never heard of Percy Jackson.”

“Who?”

“The son of Poseidon. The hero of Olympus. He’s saved the world, maybe, five times?” I let out a strangled sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh. What was wrong with me? Was I really that tired?

“Are you okay, Nico?” Tao asked, looking concerned. “You look awful. Have you been in a fight?”

I shook my head. “I’m just tired. I’m fine.”

Tears were welling up in my eyes now. I clenched my fists. Oh gods, what was wrong with me? Why was I crying? The world was spinning again, everything hurt.

“Nico?” Tao’s voice wasn’t in sync with his mouth moving, and I had no idea what he was saying, everything was fuzzy and black crept in from the edges of my vision. My knees gave in and I was unconscious before I hit the ground.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When I woke up, my head still hurt. My eyes were heavy with sleep. I groaned slightly and tried to sit up. It felt like my body was made of bricks, I couldn’t move. A voice I didn’t recognise said something in another language, all too cheerfully for my taste.

“Where am I?” I mumbled, opening my eyes a crack. Bright light shone into my eyes, as if I were staring directly at the sun. I couldn’t see anything, so I closed my eyes again. The voice said something else, and a moment later, something was being pushed into my mouth. I clamped my mouth shut, not letting whatever the person was trying to feed me enter my mouth. It could be poison, or something similarly dangerous.

“She’s trying to help you, Nico.” A familiar English accent said, equally as cheerfully as the first voice. “Open your mouth, it’s just ambrosia.”

Slowly, I opened my mouth and let the person feed me a couple of squares of the godly food. I chewed slowly, feeling the familiar taste of gingerbread spread over my mouth. I tried opening my eyes again, bit by bit. Slowly, the blinding brightness faded to just uncomfortable and I stared up into the face of a Chinese girl with chocolate brown eyes and long black hair in a braid over her shoulder.

“Uh . . .” I tried to speak, but my tongue was heavy in my mouth.

The girl said something else in Chinese.

“She’s saying that you hit your head hard when you fell down. You’re lucky it didn’t leave any damage she couldn’t fix, but it looked like you’d hit your head there a lot.”

I turned my head and saw Tao, perched on a table covered in medical supplies.

“Uh . . . yeah.” I managed to make my tongue work. “Sorry.”

Tao translated. The girl screeched something in Chinese, and I flinched away, expecting her to slap me, but she didn’t. She just leant forwards and pressed more ambrosia against my mouth. I shook my head this time, keeping my lips firmly closed. These demigods shouldn’t waste their ambrosia on me. The girl said something to Tao.

Tao reported, “Pemma is telling you to eat the ambrosia. It’ll help you. She also said not to be sorry for hitting your head. It wasn’t your fault, right?”

I shook my head, then nodded. Tao frowned and tilted his head, clearly confused. Pemma was still pressing the ambrosia against my lips. Tao told her something, and she stopped reluctantly. Then he said, “Well?”

“She isn’t going to try and surprise me and force me to eat it, is she?” I asked hoarsely.

Tao laughed and shook his head. I tried to sit up, but Pemma grabbed my arms and forced me back down, tutting something that was probably a warning.

“Okay.” I said. “It is my fault I keep hitting the back of my head. Like I said, shadow-travel takes a lot of energy. I, uh, tend to collapse a lot.”

Tao translated. Pemma said something else, and Tao asked, “And what about your broken ribs, and those infected scratches?”

“What broken ribs?” I asked.

Tao’s eyes widened. “What broken ribs? Three of your ribs are completely shattered! Four are cracked! You have to be in some kind of pain, right?”

“Um . . . not really anything other than usual.” I said.

Tao translated. Pemma stared at me for a long time, then said something else. Tao said, “Well . . . do you have any clue how it happened?”

I tried to think back. The only time I could think of was . . . when I was fighting the Keres with Percy and Thalia. That one had run into my ribs, I had heard a crack, felt pain, and forced myself to block it out. “I was fighting Keres, and one rammed into my ribs. It must have been that, but I completely forgot.”

“Didn’t you have any healing supplies on you?” Tao asked.

“I used all the nectar I had on Percy – the son of Poseidon.” I said. “He was with me at the time.”

Tao translated, then waited as Pemma said something else.

“Pemma says that she’s cleaned out the wounds and prayed to her father that you’ll heal quickly. She’s done her best with your ribs, but you should try not to exert yourself too much. And try to sit or lie down before you fall unconscious, and avoid shadow-travel.” Tao reported.

That wasn’t going to happen, not with all the mayhem in my life, but I nodded anyway. “I’ll try. Can I sit up now?”

Tao translated, and Pemma nodded. I sat up slowly, staring around. The room was plainly decorated, with only a shelf of medicine supplies, a cupboard, a few tapestries of gardens of dragons and temples, a fireplace in the corner, and three mats on the ground, covered in blankets to make beds.

“Is this where you live?” I asked.

Tao nodded. “Say, can you show us where Camp Half-Blood is?”

“Do you have a map?”

“I have a phone.” Tao volunteered.

“Oh.” Something about that didn’t click in my mind. Weren’t phones dangerous for demigods? They attracted monsters. “That’s not safe, is it?”

“Well, nothing’s happened yet, so it can’t be that bad.” Tao shrugged, pulling out a phone. A minute later he hopped off the table and walked over to crouch beside me. On his phone was a picture of the US.

“Uh . . . I don’t know how to use a phone.” I said.

“What?” Tao asked.

“I’ve never used a phone.” I said.

“Well, tell me where to zoom in.” Tao instructed.

“The east coast.” I said. “Up there, that’s Manhattan, and there’s Long Island. There. It’s disguised as a strawberry farm, though, so you won’t really be able to find it unless you go there. Um, I know the phone number.”

I recited to Tao. He repeated it, then said. “Well, thanks. If we ever get desperate, we’ll give you a call.”

“I probably won’t be there.” I said.

“Why?”

“I’m the son of Hades.” I reminded him.

“So?” He asked. “You’re a kid of one of the big three, you should be responsible and stay at the camp.”

“No one wants me there.” I snapped.

“If I was at camp, I think it’d be useful to have someone who can, let’s see . . .” Tao counted on his fingers, “Teleport, raise the dead, speak to ghosts . . . am I missing anything?”

“I can control the earth.” I added sullenly. “And go to the Underworld whenever I please, as long as a god isn’t going to imprison me in an airtight cell for a day.”

“That’s insane!” Someone else said. Jun had just come through a door, arms full of various items. “If imprisonment is the worst that an Underworld god’ll do to you, you’ve got it good!”

“You wish.” I muttered. “Everyone near me ends up dying. I’m bad luck.”

“No way.”

“Give it time.” I murmured.

“Everyone in the demigod world dies, it can’t be your fault.” Tao reasoned.

“I’m the son of Hades.” I snapped. “I’m the son of the king of the Underworld! Death is part of the deal! Anyone who I get close to ends up dying! Now that you’ve helped me, you’ll end up dead, too!”

“That’s a little over-dramatic.” Jun said. He walked over to the table and dumped the stuff in his arms on it. I scowled at him and turned my head away. Pemma said something quietly, forcing ambrosia into my hand.

“She says to keep it for next time you don’t notice your broken ribs.” Tao said. Pemma clearly wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

I just nodded, shoving it in my pocket. “Thanks. When can I go?”

“Go? Already?” Jun asked.

“I have to get back to America.” It felt important, but I wasn’t sure why. Had I lost my memory? Was falling over and injuring my head again and again finally giving me brain damage? If there was a reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I knew the Titans were gaining strength. I knew that. There would be a war. Sometime. What was the time of year? What month was it? What if the war was starting already? What if demigods where dying while I was sitting here useless? I had to get back to Camp Half-Blood.

“Nico. Nico, Nico, calm down.” I wasn’t sure how long Tao had been shaking my shoulder for, or how long he’d been calling my name. I blinked, hard and looked around. The floor had cracked and small crevices ran through the tiles.

“Sorry.” I muttered.

“Are you okay? You started . . . freaking out.” Tao said.

“It was really scary.” Jun said. “The air went cold and the ground started shaking.”

“I’m fine.” I said. “I just . . . I really need to get back to Camp Half-Blood. I can . . . I’ll fix your floor.”

“Why do you have to get back to America so badly?” Tao asked.

“The war. I don’t know what time of the year it is. What if the war’s already started?” I asked, standing up. My legs were shaky, but I didn’t fall over. Pemma started talking in rapid Chinese, gesturing for me to sit down again.

“I’m going to fix the floor.” I told them. “Sorry for ruining it in the first place.”

Closing my eyes, I imagined the ground melding together. The ground shook slightly and when I opened my eyes the floor looked like it had never been cracked at all.

“That was cool.” Jun said. Tao and Pemma were having a loud conversation in Chinese.

“Thank you for letting me stay.” I said. “But I really have to go now.”

“Nico, Pemma says if shadow-travel drains you so much, you shouldn’t go all the way back to America in one jump.” Tao said.

“I can make it. I’ve done it before.” I shrugged.

“Just because you’ve done it before, doesn’t mean you should do it again.” Tao said. “Pemma suggests making a smaller shadow-travel, maybe to Europe, then going to America.”

“Okay, okay. If it’ll make you happy.” I hesitated, then smiled best I could. “Take care. Don’t die.”

“You too. Tell us how the war goes.” Jun said. I nodded, then disregarded their warnings and focused on America, then stepped backwards and slipped into the shadows.

Chapter Text

Everything was dark.

I couldn’t see anything but darkness. Rushing wind whipped at my hair. I was falling, falling endlessly through this darkness. What was happening? Was I trapped in the shadows? Had I done something wrong? Was this leap too far? Was I stuck here forever?

Hello again, son of Hades. The voice coiled and crept through the darkness like a snake about to strike.

“Kronos.” My voice sounded so small, it was lost in the darkness, swallowed up into the shadows.

No longer in the Underworld? Have you finally stopped being a coward and decided to join the war?

“I’m not a coward.” I shouted. “I’ve been helping! I’ve been trying to convince Hades to fight for the Olympians!”

And yet you haven’t succeeded. Perhaps because you do not truly believe in your cause.

“That isn’t true.” I snarled.

I could give you a great deal of power, a great deal of information, for your loyalty, Nico di Angelo.

“I don’t want your power.” I insisted. There was nothing Kronos could offer that would sway my loyalty to Percy.

I could tell you about the thing you want most . . . your past.

“My past.” I repeated hollowly.

Kronos kept promising information. He had to have answers in that case, right? Why else would he continue promising it to me?

But the answers for why I was in the Lotus Casino, all my memories and my mother. Kronos couldn’t possibly know about that. He had been cast into the pits of Tartarus thousands of years ago. And anyway, Kronos would lie and twist the truth just for his loyalty.

“You’re lying.”

I know who your mother was, Nico di Angelo. I could tell you anything you wanted, just swear allegiance to me.

“Wake up!” I told myself. “Wake up, wake up, wake up!”

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My eyes opened and I was instantly blinded by a bright light filtering into my eyes. Above me, small pieces of dust swirled through the sunlit air. And above that, a far-off roof. A roof? Did that mean I was . . . inside? I tried to push myself up, but the moment my head lifted off the pillow it was resting on it started to pound and the world started to spin.

I dropped my head back to my pillow, groaning in pain. Maybe Pemma was right. Maybe I should have made a smaller jump to Europe first. Just when I thought I was getting better at shadow-travel- wait.

My head was resting on a pillow. I was lying on something soft. A blanket was pulled over me. I licked my dry lips and swallowed best I could. “Where . . . ?”

I wasn’t expecting an answer, but I got one anyway. “You’re awake!”

“Who . . .?” I tried to look around without moving my head, but I couldn’t see anyone.

I looked back up, then a grinning face with curly red hair was peering down at me.

“Rachel.” I realised.

“You’ve been unconscious for four days.” Rachel said. “It was a nightmare keeping my parents out of my room for so long, you have no idea!”

“Sorry. I’ll consider how much it’ll inconvenience you next time I decide fall unconscious seconds after leaving China.” I muttered.

“China?” Rachel asked, tilted her head to the side in obvious confusion.

“China.” I confirmed, as if that was a full explanation.

She must have been used to nonsensical explanations – who wouldn’t be if they’d ever met Percy Jackson – because she just shrugged and nodded.

“So why am I here?” I asked, slowly pushing myself up to a sitting position. My head throbbed suddenly and I winced in pain.

“Nico?” Rachel asked, arms outstretched to catch me.

“I’m fine. Just a headache.” I muttered. “Happens all the time.”

“Oh, well, if you say so.” Rachel said, shrugging. “I was hanging out with some of my friends from art class and on the way back I heard a loud noise in an alleyway so I investigated-”

“Because there was no possible chance you could have died, right?” I muttered.

“-and I saw you lying there, unconscious, so I decided to take you back to my place. I somehow got you to my room without my parents seeing and that’s that.” Rachel finished, grinning.

I stared at her. “You took an unconscious demigod – a child of the Big Three, of Hades, at that – into your house expecting no negative outcomes.”

“Well nothing bad has happened yet, has it?” Rachel asked, grinning. “And anyway, I’ve been hanging out with Percy and nothing bad has happened there either.”

There was a bitter taste in my mouth. I turned away to avoid meeting Rachel’s eyes and instead stared across her room. There were dozens of paintings scattered about the room, more than I remembered there being when I had previously 'visited'. Although many were covered by white clothes, but then, who knows how long it’d been since I last ‘visited’ her home.

A sudden thought occurred to me – the reason I had come straight back to America. “What’s going on in the demigod world?”

“Huh?” Rachel asked.

“The demigod world. You’ve been . . . talking to Percy. So you must know what’s happening.” I turned back to look at her.

Her cheeks were nearly as red as her hair. “We don’t really talk about that much.”

“Oh. Okay.” The bitterness in my mouth evolved into an uncomfortable lump in my throat that made it hard to talk. “Right. Of course.”

“I was actually hoping you could tell me.” Rachel added.

“I’ve been in the Underworld since . . . winter?” I phrased in as a question since I had no idea when last winter was. I honestly wouldn’t put it past the people I knew to leave me in the Underworld for years.

“Six months?” Rachel exclaimed. “You’ve been in the Underworld for half a year?”

“What month is it?” I asked, frowning.

“August.” Rachel muttered. “No wonder you look so pale.”

“Okay, well, thanks not leaving me on the streets, but I should get going. I don’t want to-”

“Nope.” Rachel shook her head. “You just woke up after being unconscious for four days after returning from China and the Underworld. I bet you can hardly stand, let alone leave. You must be starving.”

“Not really.” I shrugged.

“Not really?” Rachel near-screeched. “Wait here!”

She turned and half ran from the room. I took a better look around her room. Sunlight filtered in the huge windows, illuminating various paintings in bright colours, but I couldn’t focus on the images of any of them. Dirty clothes and rubbish littered the ground, but it was mostly pushed to the other side of the room, which was a long way away because of the size of her room. In the middle of the room was a blow-up mattress heaped high with pillows and blankets. I was lying on a huge double bed.

Rachel’s bed.

I could feel the colour drain from my face as I kicked the sheets off me and swung my legs off the side of the bed, standing up. My head pounded and the floor spun crazily. I could feel my legs buckle and start to fail to hold my weight. I did my best to slow my fall to the floor by catching onto the bed and lowering myself, but I still hit the floor with a jolt.

As much as it pained me to admit, maybe Rachel was right. I couldn’t even stand. Maybe I should wait before trying to leave. But not too long. My presence would attract a monster before long. It was almost a blessing it hadn’t already. Mentally, I thanked the gods. The sound of the door opening echoed through the room.

“Nico?” Rachel’s voice was urgent. “Nico, where are you?”

Her footsteps ran to the centre of the room and then I could see her again. She was holding a tray, presumably full of food. Slowly, she spun in a circle.

“Still here.” I said as she saw me. She ran to my side and knelt down.

“I told you that you were too weak to stand up.” Her voice was a mix of amusement, frustration and, most puzzling, concern.

“I just need a moment to catch my breath.” I said defiantly. “I’m fine.” She looked at me sceptically. I glared back. Finally, she just sat down cross-legged opposite me, sliding the tray towards me. A plate of toast and a tall, thin glass of orange juice sat on the plate.

“It can’t be morning.” I said, staring at the food.

“It’s four thirty in the afternoon.” Rachel agreed. “Now eat.”

I sighed and picked up the glass cautiously. For the first time I noticed the dirt under my nails and in the lines of my hands as if it’d been embedded there at my birth. Compared to Rachel’s clean, crisp house I felt dirty. I didn’t belong in a place like this.

But with Rachel’s green eyes glaring at me I couldn’t refuse in fear of being kept her longer. I couldn’t endanger Rachel and her parents any more than I already was. So I took a sip of the orange juice. It was cool and sweet and not that bad. Before I knew it, I had drained the glass.

“When was the last time you ate?” Rachel asked suddenly.

I stared at her for a few seconds, trying to remember. I was forced to eat some ambrosia in China, did that count? Did Underworld food count? But how long since I had been in the Underworld, let alone eaten?

Rachel cleared her throat. “When was the las-”

“I heard you the first time.” I snapped.

“Then . . . when was it?”

“I don’t remember.” I shrugged. “Probably in the Underworld which . . . has to be at least a week ago? Assuming ambrosia doesn’t count, and I only ate a few mouthfuls of that. . .”

“Nico!” Rachel near-screamed.

“What?” I leant back away from her, the wooden frame of the bed pressing uncomfortably into my back.

“How are you not dead?”

I blinked. “I don’t know. Why would I be dead?”

“You haven’t eaten for at least a week, that’s why.” Rachel exclaimed. “Eat that toast now.”

Slowly, I exchanged the glass for the toast, nibbling on it cautiously. “Have you noticed anything? To do with the war, I mean.”

Rachel hesitated, shifting uncomfortably. “Not . . . really. No.”

“What do you mean ‘not really’?” I asked.

“I keep having dreams. I don’t know what any of them mean.” Rachel said.

Maybe I should have dismissed her dreams, after all, she was only a mortal. But her expression was so serious, so grim, that I found myself believing that whatever she was seeing were more than just regular nightmares.

“What are they about?” I asked, leaning forwards. “Rachel, this is important. You have to tell me.”

“It was nothing that made sense.” Rachel said, biting her lip and glancing around the room.

“Just tell me anyway.” I said. “Anything you think could be helpful-”

“I saw you.” Rachel blurted out. “I saw you in one of my dreams.”

“Me?” I asked, confused. “Why me?”

“I don’t know.” Rachel said. “I don’t know what it means, I don’t know anything about it. But . . . I saw you at . . .”

Rachel hesitated, swallowing heavily. “At the Titans’ palace. You know, the mountain where we were last summer.”

“Y-yeah. I remember.” My mind was racing. Rachel had had a dream where I was at Mount Tam. If it was more than a regular mortal dream, then maybe it was a prophecy. Kronos had told me that he knew about my past. And Rachel had seen me at the Titan’s palace. That had to mean something. I had to go there. I could maybe find out about my family, maybe even find out more about the Titans, find a potential weakness to tell Percy. I had to talk to Percy! He hadn’t taken up my offer yet. And it was summer! There wasn’t much time left.

“Nico! Nico, calm down!” Rachel was shaking my shoulders. I realised I was hyperventilating.

“When did you last see Percy?” I demanded. “Was he okay?”

“Y-yeah. I saw him last week. Why?” Rachel said, not meeting my eyes again.

“He has to take up my offer.” I pushed Rachel off me and stood up on slightly shaky legs.

“What offer?” Rachel asked.

“Thanks for the food. And, uh, not leaving me out on the street.” I said.

“You’re not leaving are you?” Rachel asked. “That’s not safe, Nico, you should-”

Before I could hear any more of what I should or shouldn’t be doing according to Rachel, I stepped forwards into her shadow and disappeared.

Chapter Text

I slipped out of the shadows and landed on my feet. At first I thought I had to be dreaming, because last time I had been here there was nothing but ruins. This had to be my mind playing tricks on me. Didn’t it?

I was standing in the shadow of a huge Greek-style column that was a shade of black even darker than the shadows. The column was part of a ring that made a pavilion, open to the night. The floor was made of marble, glowing and creating wavering shapes as the flames flickered. In the centre of the pavilion a huge figure was struggling under the weight of what looked like a tornado of dust and clouds. Two other massive figures, Titans, stood over a bronze brazier nearby, studying the flames.

I realised the implications of what I was seeing. Mount Tamalpais was no longer just a mountain, it was a replica of the old Titan’s palace, Mount Othrys, complete in all it's horrible glory. My legs felt heavy, my head spun. I stumbled sideways and collided painfully with the column. This wasn’t a dream, this was real. I almost expected to hear Kronos’ voice, curling through my mind and freezing me to the spot.

One of the giants, one wearing a black war helm with ram horns curling on either side and black armour studded with silver dots like the night sky, spoke, voice strangely soft and quiet, seeping through the air like a night breeze. “Quite an explosion.”

The other shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

The second Titan looked like the opposite of the first. He was dressed in white robes and had glowing eyes, much like Kronos’. His skin glowed, too, as if he had swallowed the sun. It was a blinding, radioactive light. I flicked through the names I had stored in my memory, trying to place who these two Titans were. Three, including the one struggling under the tornado.

“The gods have answered the challenge. Soon they will be destroyed.” The second continued in characteristic over-confident monster/Titan style.

The fire flickered higher and I thought I could catch sight of images in the flames, storms, buildings crumbling, people screaming in terror.

“I will go east to marshal our forces.” The golden Titan continued. At the word ‘east’, something clicked in my mind. A memory, a mythomagic card, Hyperion, the Titan of the east. “Krios, you shall remain and guard Mount Othrys.”

Krios, that was the Titan of the south. Of course. Krios grunted, clearly displeased. “I always get the stupid jobs. Lord of the South. Lord of Constellations. Now I get to babysit Atlas while you have all the fun.”

I glanced at the Titan under the tornado again. Atlas. My mouth felt dry and my stomach turned uncomfortably as I remembered the last time I had heard the name and the thing it went hand-in-hand with in my mind. The quest that I associated it with.

Atlas bellowed in agony. “Let me out, curse you! I am your greatest warrior. Take my burden so I may fight!”

“Quiet!” Hyperion roared in return. “You had your chance, Atlas. You failed. Kronos likes you just where you are. As for you, Krios: do your duty.”

“And if you need more warriors?” Krios asked snidely. “Our treacherous nephew in the tuxedo will not do you much good in a fight.”

Hyperion laughed, throwing back his head. “Don’t worry about him. Besides, the gods can barely handle our first little challenge. They have no idea how many others we have in store. Mark my words, in a few days’ time, Olympus will be in ruins, and we will meet here again to celebrate the dawn of the Sixth Age!”

Then he erupted into flames and vanished.

“Oh sure.” Krios grumbled. “He gets to erupt into flames. I get to wear these stupid rams’ horns.”

I wondered with growing dread what challenges the Titans had created to destroy us, the gods and Olympus. Why hadn’t my father said anything? I scowled, angry that I had let all this happen without trying to do anything earlier.

A sudden beam of energy flowed over me, like a wave. I glanced around and found myself staring at Percy, glowing and transparent. What was happening? How was Percy here? How was he transparent and glowing? His expression was vacant, as if he was experiencing this without emotions.

I was pretty sure that Percy wasn’t able to make his face that emotionless if he was trying. Did that mean he wasn’t really here? Then how was I seeing him. Maybe I should speak to him. Try and see what would happen. I took a deep breath and forced my throat to work. “You see, Percy? You’re running out of time. Do you really think you can beat them without my plan?”

Percy stared at me blankly and disappeared with a hiss, like waves being sucked into the ocean.

Why hadn’t he said anything? Maybe he couldn’t. Or maybe it was a hallucination and I was going crazy. Maybe it was the Titans playing tricks on me. My stomach curled at the thought. What if I had said more? What if I had given my plan away? I could have just lost us the war if I had said a bit more. I could have just brought about the destruction of humanity.

I winced and glanced back at the Titans in the pavilion. He was still standing by the fire, gazing thoughtfully into the flames. I stared at them too and saw flashes of soldiers with armour, tight ranking lines marching towards the mountain. They didn’t look the demigods at Camp Half-Blood, I couldn’t see any familiar faces. Although I hardly knew anyone from camp.

“He can have his fun with the Greeks.” Krios grumbled. “While I stay here and guard a throne that will never even be mine.”

I leaned forwards, trying to get a clearly look at the fire. My foot caught on a crack in the stone floor and I stumbled and tripped, hitting the ground with an echoing thud. Krios’ head jerked up and saw me, he lurched forwards with an enraged roar. I felt heavy, my lungs weren’t working after the fall. My entire body felt tired, the world was spinning.

Was my fall that hard? Or was Krios messing with me? I rolled to my side, reaching for the shadows. Krios’ footsteps were pounding on the stone closer and closer towards me.

I felt the shadows reaching for my fingers and I slipped into darkness.

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Would you like to hear a rhyme, Nico? Kronos’ voice wasted no time creeping through the darkness to find me.

“What do you want?” I yelled.

To help. Isn’t that all I want? Kronos asked. There’s a lovely little prophecy that I think you’d be interested in hearing.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

Listen, do not speak, listen. Kronos hissed. This is no fairy tale. This is the Great Prophecy. One that you can use to shape the world.

“Okay, I’m listening.” I said cautiously.

A half-blood of the eldest gods, Will reach sixteen against all odds, And see the world in endless sleep, The hero’s soul, cursed blade shall reap. Kronos recited. As he spoke, I felt ice seep through my veins, shivering down my spine. This could be about me.

No, it’s about Percy, I reminded myself.

A single choice shall end his days, Olympus to preserve or raze. Kronos finished. So what will you chose small half-blood? Preserve or raze? Preserve or raze?

The words echoed through my mind, preserve or raze, preserve or raze, preserve or raze.

Then black waves closed over my head, spinning me around, around, up and down, pushing me forwards and backwards. The words were forced out of my mind as I tumbled through black ocean. There was no control. I couldn’t even remember how to swim. I summersaulted forwards, down into deep, black waves. I forced my eyes open even though it stung.

“WHERE AM I?” I yelled, bubbles streaming out of my mouth.

Without thinking, I took a deep breath. Air filled my lungs despite the fact I was deep, deep underwater. That was impossible. I could feel the water against my skin, tugging at my clothes, stinging my eyes. How could I breathe? Then suddenly, something in the corner of my eye, bright green lit up the water.

I spun around to face it, green fire surged towards me through the water, consuming the water, the sky far above, everything. I wasn’t wet anymore, I was burning hot as the fire consumed me. But I didn’t die, I didn’t melt away. I just stayed where I was, watching the flames.

There was a dark, human-like shape somewhere in front of me and to the right. I turned my head to look at it and, as I watched, it disintegrated. There was another, down, to the left. More and more and each time I saw one disintegrate, there was a pain in my chest, as though I’d been stabbed by a sword.

I could feel them dying. Those were demigods, dying in that explosion. Where? What was happening? How was I here?

. . . Was this a dream? It had to be. How else was I alive and breathing? The deaths, my powers must have attracted me to this dream.

These were all real demigods dying, then. Oh gods, I had to get out of here. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to take deep breaths and escape. I focused all my energy on that thought. Escape. Escape. ESCAPE.

The dream melted away in bright green and dark blue, fire and ocean waves fading to the back of my mind as I surfaced into consciousness.

Chapter Text

Out of every time I had woken after falling unconscious during shadow-travelling, this was the worst. I was in the claws of Alecto the Fury, swooping over a giant lake of lava. The familiar screams of the eternally damned and the creak of rocks, chains and ancient monsters stirring met my ears a moment before I realised I was back in the Underworld. I yelled and began thrashing about.

“Careful, son of Hades.” She warned, shifting me in her claws and making my stomach drop all the way down to the lava below. “You wouldn’t want my talons to slip, would you?”

I stilled, trying to make sure my voice didn’t tremble as I asked, “Where are you taking me?”

“To your father.” Alecto cackled, veering sharply to the right and bringing Hades’ palace dead centre into my sights.

I should have known it would happen. Persephone could control shadow-travel, so of course Hades could. All he’d had to do was direct me here and now he was going to punish me for leaving again. Or worse. What if he tried to convince me to stay put in the Underworld – or forced me to stay – and I was useless in the war, unable to help Percy fight in the war?

Alecto swept down through the open roof of the throne room and dumped me at the base of my father’s giant throne. The bones creaked above me, although the throne was thankfully empty. I scrambled to my feet and back away from the throne as though it were poisonous. It was empty, Hades wasn’t there, but that did nothing to calm my nerves. If Alecto was right that meant Hades wanted to see me.

“Nico.”

I jumped and spun around, looking for the source of my father’s voice. He was standing by the door, towering over me even from a distance.

I knelt nervously. “Lord Hades.”

His footsteps echoed across the hall, ringing in my ears. He stopped directly in front of me and I stared at the hem of his black robes. Souls flickered in the creases in the fabric.

“Stand up.” Hades said.

I stood. “I’m sorry, my lord, I-”

“Nico di Angelo.” Hades interrupted. I fell silent. “Nico, I must ask a favour of you.”

I blinked in surprise. “What?”

“You must do something for me.”

“What’s in it for me?” I asked. “And what is it? And I’m not hurting Percy. You can’t make me. Don’t even ask.”

“I would like to talk to Perseus Jackson. You are to bring him to me.” Hades said.

Talk?” I asked sceptically.

“Yes.” Hades said. “Talk. You will bring him to the Underworld and we will talk. In return, I will not harm him.”

“That’s not good enough.” I blurted out, before slapping a hand over my mouth.

“I know what you are planning with the son of Poseidon.” Hades said.

“So? You can’t stop me, Hades. I’m not letting Percy die. And I’m not bringing him to you, that way there’s no way you can harm him.” I snapped.

“I am not asking you to stop. You must act fast, however, as Typhon is coming in less than a week.” Hades mused.

Typhon, father of monsters. Weak against Hypnos, god of sleep. Two thousand attack and eight hundred defence. I bit my lip to avoid cringing as the mythomagic stats popped into my mind. I tried turning that into something that would apply to my life now.

Typhon, the huge father of monsters, who was to remain asleep at all coasts. He was awake? And coming to attack?

Great, better and better. I love war. I thought.

Hades sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t want to have to do this . . . but . . .”

I swallowed. This was it. This was where I was turned into a pile of ash on my father’s throne room. I’d been disrespectful for the last time. I wished I could have helped Percy. I wished I could have told Percy how I felt. I wished I could have said goodbye to . . . well, there was no one to say goodbye to, except possibly Bob.

“I will tell you about your mother, Nico. If you bring Percy Jackson to me.” Hades said.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean- what?” My jaw dropped. “Just- just like that?”

“Just like that.” Hades said. “What I must do – say – to Percy Jackson could impact everything. This information will be a small taste of what you can achieve if you listen to me, Nico.”

Hades would tell me about my past? My mother? Her name, who she was, was she still alive? It was almost impossible to think of, but . . . or what about her ghost? If I had a name, I could summon a ghost. I could learn everything about my past. The information was so close I could almost taste her name on my tongue. And I didn't even have to collaborate with an evil Titan and betray Percy to get it.

“I- I- of course. Yeah.” I nodded. “I’ll bring Percy to you. Just to talk, mind you, you can’t hurt him.”

“I will not touch a hair on his head.” Hades promised. “Now off you go, you don’t have much time left.”

“Right, right. Yeah.” I agreed. But I stood staring for another few seconds before managing to get my legs to work. Then I bolted out of the castle.

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By the entrance to Persephone’s garden I stopped. A pain in my chest had started, as though I were being squeezed, a feeling much worse than the one I had had during my nightmare with the ocean and the green explosion. I recognised that, I recognised that feeling. The last time I had felt that was when I had had nightmares of Bianca dying.

My mouth went dry. I was afraid to tap into my powers, but I had to know. It couldn’t be, it couldn’t be Percy, could it? I closed my eyes and concentrated. No, Percy was still alright. But someone else . . . there was someone else here, someone important who had just entered the Underworld.

“Who are you?” I asked aloud.

“My name’s Charles Beckendorf. But everyone just calls me Beckendorf. And you’re the son of Hades, aren’t you?” My eyes shot open. A tall, muscular guy was standing in front of me, dark blue skin glittering in the fiery light of the Underworld. He gave me a warm smile. A ghost, the ghost I had been searching for. Had I summoned him subconsciously?

“Yes. Nico.” I introduced, nodding. “You were . . . a demigod.”

“Son of Hephaestus.” He agreed.

“What happened?” I asked softly.

“I died.”

“No, really?” I rolled my eyes, then bit my lip. Many ghosts didn’t remember their lives, the longer they had been dead for, the less they remembered. But that was usually because they died in a traumatic way. I shouldn’t be prying into his life if that was the case. “Sorry.”

“I died in an explosion.” Beckendorf continued. “We made a boat explode.”

“I- my dream.” I realised. The water, the explosion, the dying demigods. Of course. “Wait, we?”

“Percy Jackson was with me.” Beckendorf said.

“No . . .” I whispered. “But he’s still alive.”

“He made it out.” Beckendorf smiled widely. He paused a moment, then said, “Can you take a message?”

I nodded.

“Tell him it’s not his fault. My death, that is. I don’t blame him.” Beckendorf said. “Stop him from beating himself up over it. I’m okay with this.”

“Yeah, okay.” I swallowed. “What next? Are you going to try for rebirth?”

“No. No need. I’ll stay in Elysium. I’m waiting for someone.” He was still all smiles. “Thank you, Nico. I’m glad I got to pass on one last message.”

“I, uh, yeah, no problem.” I said. “I, uh, hope you . . .”

I should have known what to say when talking to a ghost. I should have known how to comfort them, or at least say goodbye. But words failed me. I stared at my feet and gave a muttered, “Goodbye."

When I looked up, Beckendorf was gone.

Chapter Text

I finally reached Camp Half-Blood after shadow-travelling through a pomegranate tree in Persephone’s garden. I focused on the thought of Camp Half-Blood, closing my eyes and trying to ignore the smell of pomegranate and rotting flesh.

I felt myself fall into my shadow and I took a gasp of air that, although musty, was a thousand times better than the Underworld. My feet his solid ground and I stumbled forwards, falling onto all fours on brittle, yellow grass. There was a muffled shriek of alarm, and a scream that sounded almost animal-like.

Great, who have I permanently traumatised now? I wondered, standing up and brushing myself off.

I was in a clearing in a forest, with only two living beings in sight – an old, fat satyr and a tree nymph. The satyr was staring at me, slack jawed, pointing with a shaking finger between me and the tree and stuttering inaudibly. The tree nymph looked slightly less scared out of her mind, her wide eyes the only sign of her shock.

“Um, hi.” I said awkwardly. “I’m Nico di Angelo. I’m guessing this isn’t Camp Half-Blood?”

“No, it is.” The tree nymph said. “I’m Juniper, and you’re the son of Hades, right?”

“Yes.” I said through gritted teeth. “That’s right.”

Why did everyone have to bring that up, every single time?

“Spawn of Hades?” The satyr asked, voice almost trembling. “What a shame! What a disgrace! How Hades must feel-”

“Shut up.” I snapped.

“Nico, please, I have to know.” Juniper burst out. “Leneus and I were having a- a disagreement, and you’re the son of Hades, so you must know something about it, but is Grover alive? Please?”

Oh. I remembered Juniper. She was Grover’s girlfriend. I had seen her in the Battle of the Labyrinth.

“Um.” I scratched the back of my neck. “Juniper, monster lifespans, and satyr lifespans too, are- are different to the lifespans of creatures with mortal blood. I can’t tell when they die. I’m sorry.”

“But you must know! You can feel death, right?” Juniper insisted.

And another thing everyone bought up. Great, this was going well. “I, yes, I can. But like I just said, only for mortals, or beings with mortal blood. Grover is a satyr. I have no clue. I’ve been in the Underworld for months, I hardly know what’s going on with the demigod world. I’m sorry, I wish I knew, but I don’t.”

She was starting to cry, her eyes glazed with greenish tears. “I know he wouldn’t stay away for this long for no reason.”

Great, you made her cry. Great going, Nico. I told myself. “Even if he’s dead, satyrs reincarnate. So if he died he’d become a flower or something . . .”

It started off as a comforting thought, but as I spoke I realised it was probably the opposite. I trailed off uncertainly and sighed, shifting my weight. Tears were rolling down Juniper’s face. She stamped her foot. “I know he’s not dead. I know it!”

Before I could find another way to ruin everything even more, a loud bark echoed through the trees, followed by the thump of huge feet on the forest floor. I recognised that bark, that was Mrs O’Leary, wasn’t it? Another bark, then a huge black monster, the size of a garbage truck, burst into the clearing. It was Mrs O’Leary, if the dinner plate-sized dog tag was accurate.

“Hey girl.” I greeted, momentarily distracted from Juniper and Leneus’ argument.

“Hello!” Mrs O’Leary wagged her tail and trotted over to me and lowered her head to sniff at my feet. I scratched her ear absently.

More footsteps, this time the size of a regular human, and a demigod entered the clearing. Not just a demigod, but Percy Jackson himself. My mouth went dry, but I forced myself to remain emotionless as I took in Percy’s appearance. He was wearing a bright orange CHB shirt, jeans and converse. Percy looked a little burnt and bruised, as though he'd just been in battle, but otherwise perfectly fine. More than fine. But I was definitely not going to blush. And I wasn't going to think about how he smelt like the ocean, even after he had clearly been beaten up.

His eyes travelled from Leneus, to Juniper, to me, eyes growing wider the longer he stared.

I nodded at him, then realised that the moment I saw him I had stopped scratching Mrs O’Leary’s ears. I resumed scratching her, focusing on the swish of her tail as she wagged it.

“Will someone – what is this Underworld creature doing in my forest!” Leneus waved his arms as though he’d just seen Mrs O’Leary. “You there, Percy Jackson! Is this your beast?”

“Sorry Leneus.” Percy said. “That’s your name, right?”

“Well, of course I’m Leneus.” Leneus rolled his eyes, trotting back and forth like the ground under him was made of hot coals. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten a member of the council so quickly. Now call off your beast!”

I wanted to protest that Mrs O’Leary wasn’t bothering anyone, but before I could, she barked and said, “Smells like goat!”

I bit the inside of my cheek to stop me from smiling as Leneus paled, gulping nervously. “Make it go away! Juniper, I will not help you under these circumstances!”

Juniper turned towards Percy, wiping the tears away from her eyes. “Percy, I was just asking about Grover. I know something’s happened. He wouldn’t stay gone this long if he wasn’t in trouble. I was hoping Leneus-”

The satyr shook his head in protest. “I told you! You are better off without that traitor!"

Juniper spun around to face him, stomping her foot defiantly. “He is not a traitor! He’s the bravest satyr ever and I want to know where he is!”

“Smells like goat! I’m hungry!” Mrs O’Leary barked, nosing her way over to Leneus.

“I’ll walk the dog.” I said, trying my best to keep my face straight. I whistled to catch her attention, thinking, Come on, girl. This way.

I headed towards the far end of the grove and Mrs O’Leary bounded after me enthusiastically. I wandered through the trees aimlessly for about a minute, then turned to look at Mrs O’Leary. “Can satyrs understand hellhounds?”

“Don’t know.” Mrs O’Leary stuck her head down into a large burrow that was probably the home of nothing friendly.

“Because he looked pretty terrified when you spoke.” I said.

“He was old, meat would have been stringy.” Mrs O’Leary barked.

“Yeah, probably.” I agreed. “But you can’t eat satyrs. I’m sure Percy feeds you.”

“Beckendorf feeds me! Percy not here most of the time.” I froze, remembering the ghost of the son of Hephaestus.

“Yeah.”

“I know he cannot feed me anymore. I’m a creature of the Underworld like you.” Mrs O’Leary said, simultaneously comforting me and making me feel ten times worse.

“Yeah, okay.” I mumbled. “You know what, I’m going back to Percy now. Feel free to sniff around, but no eating satyrs, okay?”

“Okay!” Mrs O’Leary said cheerfully. I walked back into the clearing and over to Percy, eyeing a trail of small, brown pellets.

Leneus was nowhere to be found.

Chapter Text

Percy and Juniper watched me approach. As I neared, I said, “Good job, Percy. Judging from the trail of goat pellets, I’d say you shook him up pretty well.”

Percy smiled, somewhat weakly. “Welcome back. Did you come by just to see Juniper?”

For a moment I had almost tricked myself into thinking he was about to say ‘me’. Stupid. I blushed, staring at my feet. “Um, no. That was an accident. I kind of . . . dropped into the middle of their conversation.”

“He scared us half to death!” Juniper put in. “Right out of the shadows. But, Nico, you are the son of Hades and all. Are you sure you haven’t heard anything about Grover?”

Percy being here couldn’t change what I already had said, although I really wished I did have news about Grover, the satyr was Percy’s best friend. I shifted my weight from foot to foot as I answered. “Juniper, like I tried to tell you . . . even if Grover died, he would reincarnate into something else in nature. I can’t sense anything like that, only mortal souls.”

I thought I did a good job summing up what I’d already said and making it as comforting as I could, but the look on Juniper’s face said otherwise.

“But if you do hear anything? Anything at all?” She pleaded, putting her hand on my arm.

My first impulse was to shrug it off, but for some reason, I didn’t. I felt my cheeks hear up even more as I said, “Uh, you bet. I’ll keep my eats open.”

“We’ll find him, Juniper.” Percy chipped in. “Grover’s alive, I’m sure. There must be a simple reason why he hasn’t contacted us.”

She nodded glumly, still not looking comforted. “I hate not being able to leave the forest. He could be anywhere, and I’m stuck here waiting. Oh, if that silly goat has got himself hurt-”

Mrs O’Leary bounded back into the clearing and towards us, taking a new interest in Juniper, sniffing at her dress. “Oh, no you don’t! I know about dogs and trees – I’m gone!”

There was a poof of green mist and Juniper disappeared. Mrs O’Leary looked at me with a mix of disappointment and guilt, but I just shrugged, so she wandered off to find the next most interesting thing. I was alone with Percy Jackson. To distract myself, I grabbed my sword and tapped it against the ground, summoning the nearest remains. A pile of tiny bones emerged, weaved themselves into the skeleton of a field mouse, and scampered away.

I took a deep breath. “I was sorry to hear about Beckendorf.”

Percy was now the one to avoid eye contact. “How did you-”

“I walked to his ghost.”

“Oh . . . right.” Percy looked uncomfortable.

There you go again, ruining everything even more. Remind him of what you are and what you can do, why don’t you? I berated myself.

“Did he say anything?” Percy asked. I looked up at Percy, only to see him staring at his feet, eyes glassy.

“He doesn’t blame you.” I said. “He figured you’d be beating yourself up, and he said you shouldn’t.”

“Is he going to try for rebirth?” Percy asked.

I shook my head. “He’s staying in Elysium. Said he’s waiting for someone. Not sure what he meant, but he seems okay with death.”

I looked to Percy for any clues about what Beckendorf had meant. Percy looked thoughtfully, but when he next spoke, he said, “I had a vision you were on Mount Tam. Was that-”

“Real.” I confirmed, then realised I should stop interrupting Percy. “I didn’t mean to be spying on the Titans, but I was in the neighbourhood.”

That wasn’t the truth. My throat constricted as I forced out the lie. When had lying become so hard?

“Doing what?” Percy asked.

I shoved my sword back into my belt and fiddled with the hilt nervously. “Following a lead on . . .”

On what? On the titans, on Rachel’s dream, on the war, on my own impulses, on my family? Yes, that would work. “You know, my family.”

Percy nodded understandingly. His voice was soft, kind, when he next spoke. “So how did it go? Any luck?”

“No.” I murmured, matching his quiet tone. “But I may have a new lead soon.”

It hurt to say that aloud, to think about what that meant. Percy wouldn’t be mad, it was just a talk. I couldn’t disobey my father, I couldn’t disobey a god. Even though I’d done it before. But there were only so many chances before I was turned into a pile of ash on Hades’ throne room floor.

“What’s the lead?” Percy asked, expression one of genuine curiosity.

I chewed my lip, unsure of how much to say. Nothing. Percy was more important right now.

“That’s not important right now. You know why I’m here.”

Percy visibly paled at that, which hurt again. His voice was trembled slightly when he said, “Nico, I don’t know. It seems pretty extreme.”

I felt annoyance creep up in me. Didn’t Percy understand how serious this was? “You’ve got Typhon coming in what . . . a week? Most of the other Titans are unleashed now and on Kronos’ side. Maybe it’s time to think extreme.”

Percy looked over his shoulder in the direction of the Camp. I could hear the dim noise of campers yelling and metal on metal. I could tell Percy was thinking of other options, ways to use all the campers and defeat the Titans without following trough. This felt personal, somehow. Percy didn’t trust me. He didn’t think I was right, he wanted other solutions.

“They’re no match for the Titan army.” I burst out bitterly. “You know that. This comes down to you and Luke. And there’s only one way you can beat Luke.”

I took a deep breath, trying to control my anger. “We can give you the same power. You heard the Great Prophecy. Unless you want to have your soul reaped by a cursed blade . . .”

“You can’t prevent a prophecy.” Percy said.

“But you can fight it.” I said. You could fight what the gods wanted you to do, you could twist what they said, find new meaning. Find your own meaning. Percy could do that. “You can become invincible.”

“Maybe we should wait.” Percy said. “Try to fight without-”

“No!” I snarled. “It has to be now!”

Before Percy had the chance to die. Before that becomes possible. I wouldn’t let things come to that. Percy was staring at me, expression nervous and worried. “Um, you sure you’re okay?”

I realised that, despite myself, I had snapped at him. I took a deep breath, determined to remain calm this time. This was life or death. I would have to put my all into persuading Percy. “Percy, all I mean . . . when the fighting starts, we won’t be able to make the journey. This is our last chance. I’m sorry if I’m being too pushy, but two years ago my sister gave her life to protect you. I want to honour that. Do whatever it takes to stay alive and defeat Kronos.”

Percy’s uncertain expression slowly morphed into anger and I froze where I was standing.

That was too far, I went too far. I’m being too pushy, I’m ruining everything. I thought.

Then his expression became determined. “All right. What do we do first?”

I smiled, but I couldn’t help the cold grimness that settled over my features as I thought of what was to come. “First we’ll need to retrace Luke’s steps. We need to know more about his past, his childhood.”

Percy shuddered. “Why do we need to know that?”

Because to know what you’re fighting for, you have to know what you’re fighting against.

“I’ll explain when we get there.” I shrugged, thinking of the old house Luke Castellan’s mother lived in. A place, a location, came to mind. “I’ve already tracked down his mother. She lives in Connecticut.”

Percy was staring at me in shocked surprise. “Luke ran away when he was really young. I didn’t think his mom was alive.”

“Oh, she’s alive.” I assured him.

“Okay . . .” Percy said slowly, evidently nervous now. Nervous because of what we were about to do? Or nervous because of me? I hoped it wasn’t the latter.

Percy glanced up at the sky. “So how do we get to Connecticut? I can call Blackjack-”

“No.” I scowled as I recalled the last time I’d ridden a Pegasus. That was with Percy as well. “Pegasi don’t like me, and the feeling is mutual. But there’s no need for flying.”

But I wasn’t sure I could shadow-travel with Percy. Two leaps in one night was a lot, and I wasn’t sure that I could even bring another person with me at all. Although I knew of someone else who certainly could. I whistled, sending my thoughts out. Mrs O’Leary.

The hellhound came bounding out of the trees, tail wagging. She sauntered up to Percy and I with a pleased expression. I didn’t want to know why.

“Your friend here can help.” I said, nodding towards Mrs O’Leary. “You haven’t tried shadow-travel yet?”

“Shadow-travel?” Percy asked.

I beckoned Mrs O’Leary over and whispered in her ear. “Alright, girl. You’re gonna take Percy shadow-travelling. Think you can do that?”

Her tail thumped on the forest floor, body becoming ridged in anticipation. I can do that!

“Good girl. He’s gonna climb on your back and tell you where to go. I’ll see you there.” I scratched her ear and leant back, looking over to Percy again. “Hop on board.”

Percy stared at the hellhound as if he’d never considered riding her before. But slowly, he walked over and climbed onto her back, holding her collar with white-knuckled hands.

“This will make her very tired,” I told Percy, “so you can’t do it often. And it works best at night. But all shadows are part of the same substance. There is only one darkness, and creatures of the Underworld can use it as a road, or a door.”

Huh. It sounded nice when I put it that way. It felt like I wasn't so alone.

“I don’t understand.” Percy said anxiously. Wow. Never mind. I'm just crazy.

“No,” I shrugged. “It took me a long time to learn. But Mrs O’Leary knows. Tell her where to go. Tell her Westport, the home of May Castellan.”

“You’re not coming?” Percy looked panicked.

An odd sense of hope and satisfaction bubbled up inside me as I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll meet you there.”

Percy nodded, leaning down to whisper in Mrs O’Leary’s ear. He sat back up as the hellhound sniffed the air, looking about in the gloom of the forest. Then she bounded towards a large tree’s shadow. It was the first time I’d watched shadow-travel from the outside and I marvelled as she folded in on herself, turning to darkness and disappearing from sight.

Then I stepped into the same shadow and followed the path she’d left open.

Chapter Text

I stumbled as I hit the ground, bracing myself as I expected to fall.

But strong hands caught my arm and steadied me. Percy’s concerned gaze met mine. I rubbed my eyes.

“I’m okay.” I shrugged off his arm, glancing around.

We were outside the Castellan house. It looked the same as if had in my dream. Two story home, forest-like garden surrounding it. But in person there were more details, an apple tree with a rusty, old swing under it, a patch of flowers by the gate, a dust stain on the walls. The entire place looked old, isolated, lost.

It was as though it had grown old while the world around it stayed young. I felt a strange emptiness seep through me at the sight of the house.

“How did you do that?” Percy asked and it took me a few moments to realise he was talking about the shadow-travel.

“Practise.” I answered shortly. I looked back at him. Mrs O’Leary was curled up on the ground behind him, snoring as loudly as a truck’s engine. “A few times running into walls. A few accidental trips to China.”

My mind flashed to Tao, Jun and Pemma. How were they faring? It had only been a few days since I had seen them, but with the war approaching, who knew how quickly their safety would vanish.

“Are you going to take a nap, too?” Percy asked me.

I shook my head. “The first time I shadow-travelled, I passed out for a week. Now it just makes me a little drowsy, but I can’t do it more than once or twice a night. Mrs O’Leary won’t be going anywhere for a while.”

“So we’ve got some quality time in Connecticut.” Percy said, gazing at the house. “What now?”

“We ring the doorbell.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I didn’t think I would feel at all nervous actually ringing the doorbell. I knew what Luke’s mother was like, or at least, I had seen her in dreams before. And I had Percy with me now. But somehow, as I trekked down the path lined with stuffed beanbag animals, I felt a sense of dread grow in my stomach.

I climbed the front porch, taking in the dozens of wind chimes, clinking together in the slight breeze making a sound like a swarm of metal locusts, then turned to Percy. “Ready?”

I didn’t wait for his answer, I knocked before I could chicken out.

My fist had barely tapped the wood when the door swung open. Luke’s mother stood there, white hair looking like she’d drawn inspiration from Albert Einstein, wearing a pink housedress covered in burn-marks and ash, skin stretched over her bones as she smiled, eyes glowing with unearthly white light.

“Luke!” She cried, staring sightlessly at me. “Oh my dear boy!”

She pulled me into a hug, which was not okay. I felt myself freezing up, this was too much. Too much contact. Suddenly she released me, turning to Percy and embracing him with a cry of, “Luke!”

I took a moment to shiver, as if the violent motion would make me feel better.

“Come in! I have your lunch ready!” She ushered Percy inside and I took the liberty of inviting myself in.

We were led through a room of mirrors and candles. A single clock on the mantle showed a little bronze Hermes flying about on the second hand. Beside it was a framed picture of a kid who could only be Luke. He was young, younger than me, maybe nine, with a wide smile and blonde hair and no scar marring his face.

“This way, my dear!” Luke’s mother steered Percy through the room, to the back of the house and into a kitchen. The bench was covered with literally hundreds of Tupperware boxes containing peanut-butter and jam sandwiches. The ones at the bottom were old, mouldy, they’d evidently been there for far too long. On top of the oven was a stack of cookie sheets, each containing a batch of burnt cookies. In the sink was a mountain of empty, plastic Kool-Aid pitchers, I recognised them from my days at boarding school.

The kitchen was full of the scent of mouldy food and burnt cookies. A beanbag Medusa sat by the tap, overlooking the mess with pale green button eyes. Above her, taped all around the window, were dozens of pictures of Hermes and his caduceus, cut from magazines and newspaper adds.

“Oh, I told them you would come back. I knew it!” Luke’s mother sat us down at the kitchen table. She hummed as she retrieved jars of peanut butter and jam, starting to make new sandwiches. Percy was shifting uncomfortably where he sat, he wanted to leave, that much was clear.

I stared at Luke’s mother and wondered about my own. Would I still want to know her if she was crazy? Or would I be like Luke, disgusted in my parents, bitter and angry and all too willing to turn to the wrong side.

A sudden thought struck me. I was like Luke. If not for Percy, I would have listened to Kronos. I was bitter, I was angry, my father sucked, no one liked me. I had no reason to be loyal to Camp Half-Blood, other than Percy. I clenched my fists, feeling a sob welling up in my throat. Instead, I coughed, forcing myself not to think like that. “Um, Ms Castellan?”

“Mm?” She asked.

“We need to ask you about your son.” I said, ignoring the emptiness that was only growing larger inside me. It was like I was watching an accident play out in front of me, unable to stop it, but unable to look away.

“Oh, yes!” She said happily. “They told me he would never come back. But I knew better.”

She crossed the room and patted Percy’s cheek affectionately, leaving smears of peanut butter on his face. His face scrunched adorably.

“When did you last see him?” I asked, desperate to stop thinking.

Her eyes lost what little focus they had. Her voice was quiet, wistful. “He was so young when he left. Third grade. That’s too young to run away! He said he’d be back for lunch. And I waited. He likes peanut-butter sandwiches and cookies and Kool-Aid. He’ll be back for lunch very soon . . .”

If my mother was like Luke’s I would never leave her. I would stay with her. I would do anything to meet my mother. I wouldn’t have abandoned her if she were crazy. No, not crazy. Lost.

I found myself unable to speak. Luke’s mother turned to Percy and she smiled. “Why, Luke, there you are! You look so handsome! You have your father’s eyes.”

I wondered how often my mother had missed Hades. He’d never seemed much like a good father, and he was already married. My mother, had she been married? Had she known that Hades was a god, or had she just thought he was a handsome businessman?

May Castellan turned back to the sink, the picture above it. “Now there’s a good man. Yes, indeed. He comes to visit me, you know.”

Had my father visited my mother?

Stop making this about you! You’ll start crying and then Percy will hate you! I yelled in my head.

Percy looked around, then wiped the peanut butter off his face and looked at me pleadingly, eyes darting towards the door. A clear message, he wanted to leave. I didn’t. I couldn’t leave Luke’s mother alone again, lost, confused. She didn’t know any better. She was like a ghost, devoid of purpose, memories blurred. I couldn’t leave her. Not so soon.

What else could I distract myself with? Luke’s mother’s white eyes shone as she gazed proudly at Percy.

“Ma’am.” I choked out. “What, uh . . . what happened to your eyes?”

Her gaze unfocused, as though she were trying to see me underwater, salt and waves distorting her sight. “Why, Luke, you know the story. It was right before you were born, wasn’t it? I’d always been special, able to see through the . . . whatever they call it.”

I found myself unable to speak, so I was grateful when Percy said, “The Mist?”

“Yes, dear.” She nodded. “And they offered me an important job. That’s how special I was!”

I found myself unable to focus on anything other than Luke’s mother.

“What sort of job?” Percy asked. “What happened?”

Luke’s mother lost her smile. The knife she had been using to cut the sandwiches stayed hovered over the bread. “Dear me, it didn’t work out, did it? Your father warned me not to try. He said it was too dangerous. But I had to. It was my destiny! And now . . . I still can’t get the images out of my head. They make everything seem so fuzzy. Would you like some cookies?”

She pulled a freshly burnt tray out of the oven and placed them on the table, hands shaking ever-so-slightly.

“Luke was so kind.” She whispered and it felt as though the words were just for me. This special moment in time, this insight into her life. It was like a ghost sharing their memories. So private, so intimate. “He left to protect me, you know. He said if he went away, the monsters wouldn’t threaten me. But I told him the monsters are no threat! They sit outside on the sidewalk all day, and they never come in.”

She picked up the Medusa by the sink and fiddled with it absently. “Do they, Mrs Medusa? No, no threat at all!”

She turned back to Percy. “I’m so glad you came home. I knew you weren’t ashamed of me!”

My tongue was heavy in my mouth. Luke was ashamed of his mother? The idea of it somehow offended me. The thought of being ashamed of family had never occurred to me. I had so little family that I couldn’t afford to be ashamed. I would never be ashamed of my family. That made me the one they had to be ashamed of, I supposed.

“Ms Castellan.” Percy said.

“Mum.” She corrected, beaming.

“Um, yeah.” Percy said uncomfortably. “Have you seen Luke wince he left home?”

“Well, of course!”

I leaned forwards hopefully, forcing my heavy tongue to work. “When? When did Luke visit you last?”

“Well, it was . . .” Her expression darkened, “oh goodness . . . The last time, he looked so different. A scar. A terrible scar, and his voice was so full of pain . . .”

“His eyes.” Percy asked. “Were they gold?”

“Gold?” She blinked and smiled again. “No. How silly. Luke has blue eyes. Beautiful blue eyes!”

“Ms Castellan?” I reached out and put my hand on her arm. “This is very important. Did he ask you for anything?”

“My – my blessing. Isn’t that sweet?” She nodded uncertainly. “He was going to a river, and he said he needed my blessing. I gave it to him. Of course I did.”

I wanted to stay there forever, listen to her, comfort her. I had never felt this hollow, empty feel when talking to ghosts. Maybe I had just never known the full story. Never connected to the full story. But I forced myself to look at Percy, forced my face into an expression of triumph. “Thank you, ma’am. That’s all the information we-”

Luke’s mother gasped, doubling over. Her cookie tray fell to the floor with a too-loud crash. Percy and I lept to our feet.

“Ms Castellan?” Percy asked.

“AHHHH.” She straightened again, eyes glowing green.

Percy scrambled backwards, tripping over the kitchen table. I just stayed frozen in place.

“My child,” Her voice was deeper, oozing ominously like snakes coiling over my skin. “Must protect him! Hermes, help! Not my child! Not his fate – no!”

She grabbed my shoulders, staring desperately into my eyes. I could see something, or maybe just the idea of something. Heartbreak, tragedy, death, death, DEATH. She shook me, but I didn’t break eye contact.

“Not his fate.” She sobbed through the deep words. It was getting stronger, I could see Luke’s – Kronos’ golden eyes – they were Luke’s blue eyes again, there was a knife, wasn’t that Annabeth’s knife, blood was on that knife there was Percy there was a Olympus but it was gone it was all gone all falling apart they were dead he was dead he was deAD HE WAS DEAD IT WAS FALLING APART AND ALL I COULD SEE WAS DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH.

I let out a strangled scream, shoving Luke’s mother off me, “Percy, we need to get out of here-”

Then Luke’s mother collapsed again. Percy lunged forwards and caught her before she could hit the edge of the table, then lowered her into a chair.

“Ms C?” He asked.

Her eyelids fluttered, she mumbled something incoherent, then shook her head. “Goodness. I . . . I dropped the cookies. How silly of me.”

She blinked and her eyes were glowing white again.

“Are you okay?” Percy asked.

“Well, of course, dear. I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

Percy glanced at me. I made myself mouth, 'leave'.

“Ms C, you were telling us something.” He said. “Something about your son.”

“Was I?” She said absently. “Yes, his blue eyes. We were talking about his blue eyes. Such a handsome boy!”

“We have to go.” I blurted out. “We’ll tell Luke . . . uh, we’ll tell him you said hello.”

“But you can’t leave!” Luke’s mother got to her feet, legs trembling. Percy started backing away again. Her hands were trembling too. “Hermes will be here soon. He’ll want to see his boy!”

“Maybe next time.” Percy said. “Thank you for- Thanks for everything.”

Luke’s mother followed Percy and I as we darted out of the house, offering Kool-Aid. On the porch, she grabbed Percy’s wrist and said. “Luke, at least be safe. Promise me you’ll be safe.”

“I will . . .” Percy promised. “Mum.”

Her smile was back. She let Percy go and closed the front door, murmuring to herself.

The moment the door clicked shut, Percy and I were running as far away from the house as we could.

Chapter Text

Mrs O’Leary was still asleep. Beside her, a campfire was blazing beautiful reds and golds in a ring of perfect, round stones. A familiar-looking young girl was sitting cross-legged at the fire, mousy brown hair glowing amber where the fire’s flames reached up.  She scratched Mrs O’Leary’s ears between checking the fire, tending to it with a stick. Hestia.

She looked up and smiled when she saw us. “Hello.”

Beside me, Percy tensed. I bowed. “Hello again, Lady.”

Her eyes travelled to Percy and he bowed, still tense. She smiled gently. “Sit, Percy Jackson. Would you like some dinner?”

She waved her hand and a picnic blanket unfolded itself from thin air beside the campfire covered in food, roast beef, baked potatoes, buttered carrots, fresh bread and other foods I couldn’t name off the top of my head but looked and smelled heavenly. Percy’s stomach growled. I supposed I was so used to not eating that even the smell of food wasn’t enough to raise hunger in me.

Hestia waved her hand again and a two metre long dog biscuit appeared in front of Mrs O’Leary. Her nose twitched and she opened her eyes, then promptly began devouring it.

I sat down on the edge of the blanket and Percy followed suit. I picked up a slice of bread and examined it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Percy grab something, looking as though he was about to dig in, then he stopped and looked up at Hestia.

He scraped some food into the fire and murmured, “For the gods.”

It had been a long time since I had seen anyone do that. Between eating with gods and not eating at all, the fact I should have been making offers to them slipped my mind. Not that they needed or deserved my thanks.

Hestia smiled. “Thank you. As tender of the flame, I get a share of every sacrifice, you know.”

“I recognise you now.” Percy said wonderingly. “The first time I came to camp, you were sitting by the fire, in the middle of the commons area.”

“You did not stop to talk.” Hestia said sadly. “Alas, most never do. Nico talked to me. He was the first in many years. Everyone rushes about. No time for visiting family.”

I felt warm, although the emptiness of visiting Luke’s mother was still present.

“You’re Hestia.” Percy said. “Goddess of the hearth.”

She nodded in agreement.

“My lady,” I interrupted, a sudden thought occurring to me, “why aren’t you with the other Olympians fighting Typhon?”

“I’m not much for fighting.” She said, the flames in her eyes flickering sadly. “Besides, someone has to keep the home fires burning while the other gods are away.”

“So you’re guarding Mount Olympus?” Percy asked.

“‘Guard’ might be too strong a word.” She said. “But if you ever need a warm place to sit and a home-cooked meal, you are welcome to visit. Now eat.”

Without any further validation needed, I did. I had eaten with Rachel this morning, no, a couple of days ago by now, it had to be. But I hadn’t felt hungry then. I did now. When we finished, Percy said, “That was great. Thank you, Hestia.”

She nodded. “Did you have a good visit with May Castellan?”

Annnnnd my mind was back on that now. I felt heavy and empty again.

Percy’s expression darkened. “What’s wrong with her exactly?”

I winced at the way he said it. The way he phrased his question felt almost disrespectful.

“She was born with a gift,” Hestia said, shooting me a look that conveyed the message ‘calm down’. “She could see through the Mist.”

“Like my mother.” Percy said.

Great. Better and better. Why do I want to spend any time around Percy at all? I asked myself. Then after a moment’s hesitation, wondered, Could my mother see through the Mist? Did she know who Hades truly was?

Percy let out a shaky breath. “But the glowing-eyes thing-”

“Some bear the curse of sight better than others,” Hestia interrupted gently. “For a while, May Castellan had many talents. She attracted the attention of Hermes himself. They had a beautiful baby boy. For a brief time, she was happy. And then she went too far.”

Percy shivered. “One minute she was happy. And then she was freaking out about her son’s fate, like she knew he’d turned into Kronos. What happened to . . . to divide her like that?”

Hestia’s expression became grim. The fire spluttered slightly. “That is a story I do not like to tell. But May Castellan saw too much. If you are to understand your enemy, Luke, you must understand his family.”

Percy’s eyes had a far-off look in them. He was clearly thinking, maybe about May Castellan, maybe about Kronos, maybe about Luke himself. I hadn’t known Luke at all before the influence of Kronos overwhelmed him. And even then, I hadn’t met him. Talking to Kronos in dreams didn’t seem to count somehow.

“No wonder Luke ran away.” Percy whispered. “I mean, it wasn’t right to leave his mom like that, but still – he was just a kid. Hermes shouldn’t have abandoned them.”

I looked at Percy sharply. Luke had no excuse to run away, none. He left his family, he and Hermes left May Castellan alone by herself when she was weak and vulnerable. They had no right to do that.

“It’s easy to judge others.” Hestia warned, breaking through my thoughts. “But will you follow Luke’s path? Seek the same powers?”

She was talking about the River Styx. My plan. She didn’t like my idea. I set down my plate with shaking hands. “We have no choice, my lady. It’s the only way Percy stands a chance.”

“Mmm.” Hestia opened her hand and the fire roared, flames rearing up to sear the night sky, heat exploding over me. Then it died down again. She smiled at Percy. “Not all powers are spectacular. Sometimes the hardest power to master is the power of yielding. Do you believe me?”

“Uh-huh.” Percy mumbled, not sounding at all convincing.

Hestia seemed to see that as she continued, “You are a good hero, Percy Jackson. Not too proud. I like that. But you have much to learn. When Dionysus was made a god, I gave up my throne for him. It was the only way to avoid a civil war among the gods.”

“It unbalanced the council.” Percy said. “Suddenly there were seven guys and five girls.”

Hestia shrugged. “It was the best solution, not a perfect one. Now I will tend the fire. I fade slowly into the background. No one will ever write epic poems about the deeds of Hestia. Most demigods don’t even stop to talk to me. But that is no matter. I keep the peace. I yield when necessary. Can you do this?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Percy said.

“Perhaps not yet.” She said quietly. “But soon. Will you continue your quest?”

My throat closed up. What if Percy said no? What if he didn’t trust me?

“Is that why you’re here – to warn me against going?” Percy asked, something that hadn’t even occurred to me.

I bit my lip to stop myself from crying out in relief as Hestia shook her head. “I am here because when all else fails, when all the other mighty gods have gone off to war, I am all that’s left. Home. Hearth. I am the last Olympian. You must remember me when you face your finial decision.”

Percy looked at me and I did my best to neutralise my expression. He looked away again quickly, staring at Hestia. “I have to continue, my lady. I have to stop Luke – I mean Kronos.”

I smiled to myself, he trusts me, he trusts me.

“Very well.” Hestia nodded. “I cannot be of much assistance, beyond what I have already told you. But since you sacrificed to me, I can return you to your own hearth. I will see you again, Percy, on Olympus.”

Although the words weren’t directed at me, I didn’t like the way they sounded one bit. Hestia waved her hand and everything faded to white.

Chapter Text

I blinked, trying to take in my surroundings. Percy and I were sitting on a couch. A wall of fur took up the rest of the space, Mrs O’Leary. Great. If what Hestia had said meant anything, we were at Percy’s apartment. I was at Percy’s home. In his home. Gods, was this how I would have to meet his parents?

There was a muffled yell, a man’s voice called, “Who put this wall of fur in the doorway?”

“Percy?” A woman called. “Are you here? Are you alright?”

“I’m here!” Percy yelled back.

“WOOF!” Mrs O’Leary volunteered. As far as I could tell, that meant she was excited to hear the woman’s (Percy’s mum?) voice. The hellhound spun in a tight circle, knocking the pictures off the walls.

After a few minutes, she settled down. Most of the stuff in the living room was ruined, but we – being Percy, me and his mother and step-father, who were the two voices – managed to make it to the kitchen. Unlike May Castellan’s, it was squeaky clean and smelt of flowers.

Percy’s step-father looked to be thirty-something years old, with longish salt and pepper hair that stuck up all over his head from Mrs O’Leary’s arrival. He was wearing nothing but a white bathrobe that was absolutely covered in hellhound fur.

Percy’s mother was exactly what I expected. Kind blue eyes that sparkled with the same kind of light that Percy’s did, long brown hair streaked with grey tied back in a simple ponytail, a kind smile. She too was wearing a bathrobe, an old blue flannel one.

Percy introduced them to me as Paul and Sally.

I sat uncomfortably at the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes as Percy’s mom tossed a huge pack of raw beef at Mrs O’Leary, who had settled down and was staring forlornly into the kitchen, then joined us at the table. Percy’s step-father poured us all glasses of lemonade, which I was too nervous to refuse. I watched the bubbles rise through the glass and pop as Percy’s explained our visit to May Castellan.

“So it’s true.” Percy’s step-father said in a hushed voice. “All the talk about monsters, and being a demigod . . . it’s really true.”

“Sorry about Mrs O’Leary,” Percy said sheepishly, glancing at the hellhound behind us, “destroying the living room and all.”

Paul burst out laughing, grinning like a maniac. “Are you kidding? This is awesome! I mean, when I saw the hoof prints of the Prius, I thought maybe. But this!”

He patted Mrs O’Leary’s snout. The entire apartment shook as she wagged her tail, it hit the floor with a massive BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.

I wanted to tell Paul that being a demigod wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but looking at Percy, I decided to let the three of them enjoy this moment. I stayed quiet as Percy said, “Thanks for not freaking out.”

“Oh, I’m freaking out.” He assured Percy, wide-eyed. “I just think it’s awesome!”

“Yeah, well,” Percy warned, “you may not be so excited when you hear what’s happening.”

He told his parents even more – about Typhoon, the gods, the battle that was to come. Then my plan. My stomach twisted as their expressions dropped, eyeing me nervously. Yep. Don’t know why I expected anything different. Sally clutched Percy’s hand, intertwining their fingers. Percy’s eyes lifted to the windowsill where a silver flower glowed faintly in a flowerbox. I recalled Percy planting that the last time I visited him, on his birthday.

Sally took a deep breath, “Percy, it’s dangerous. Even for you.”

“Mom, I know. I could die. Nico explained that. But if we don’t try-”

“We all die.” I spoke up for the first time. But I was so sick of everyone doubting me. They didn’t understand. “Ms Jackson, we don’t stand a chance against an invasion. And there will be an invasion.”

“An invasion of New York?” Paul asked nervously. “Is that even possible? How could we not see the . . . the monsters?”

“I don’t know.” Percy said. “I don’t see how Kronos could just march into Manhattan, but the Mist is strong. Typhon is trampling across the country right now and mortals think he’s a storm system.”

“Ms Jackson,” I said. “Percy needs your blessing. The process has to start that way. I wasn’t sure until we met Luke’s mum, but now I’m positive. This has only been done successfully twice before. Both times, the mother had to give her blessing. She had to be willing to let her son take the risk.”

“You want me to bless this?” She looked at me in what I was pretty sure was disgust. “It’s crazy. Percy, please-”

“Mom, I can’t do it without you.” Percy protested.

“And if you survive this- this process?”

“Then we go to war.” Percy said bluntly. “Me against Kronos. And only one of us will survive.”

“You’re my son.” Sally said miserably. “I can’t just . . .”

Percy was silent for a few seconds. He and Paul locked eyes and he nodded, putting a hand on Percy’s mother’s shoulder. “Sally. I can’t claim to know what you and Percy have been going through all these years. But it sounds to me . . . it sounds like Percy is doing something noble. I wish I had that much courage.”

Sally stared at her lemonade. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears, but finally she looked up at Percy and said, “Percy. I give you my blessing.”

My first instinct was to jump with joy, I was one step closer. Percy was trusting me, following out my plan! But the next part was the most dangerous. And, even before that . . . what on earth did my father want with Percy Jackson?

I realised Percy was looking at me. I nodded. “It’s time.”

“Percy.” Sally said. “One last thing. If you- if you survive this fight with Kronos, send me a sign.”

She dug through her handbag, which had been lying on the table, and pushed a cell phone into Percy’s hands. At least, I assumed it was a cell phone. It looked different to the ones other kids had had two years ago back at school.

“Mom,” Percy said, “you know demigods and phones-”

“I know.” She interrupted, voice choked with emotion. “But just in case. If you’re not able to call . . . maybe a sign that I could see from anywhere in Manhattan. To let me know you’re okay.”

“Like Theseus.” Paul added. “He was supposed to raise white sails when he came home to Athens.”

“Except he forgot. And his father jumped off the palace roof in despair.” I muttered, then realised I was not being helpful. “But other than that it was a good idea.”

“What about a flag or a flare?” Sally offered. “From Olympus – the Empire State Building.”

“Something blue.” Percy gave his mother a smile.

She smiled back, although there was a lot more tension in hers. “Yes. I’ll watch for a blue signal. And I’ll try to avoid jumping off palace roofs.”

She gave me a look which was almost inviting me to smile, but I didn’t. Then Sally hugged Percy, eyes full of final goodbyes that she didn’t say. Percy shook hands with Paul. Then we walked back to the kitchen doorway. I tried not to look glad to be leaving.

“Sorry girl.” Percy said to Mrs O’Leary. “Shadow-travel time again.”

“Tired.” She whimpered, crossing her paws over her snout.

Don’t worry, it’s not far. I thought, hoping she would get the message.

“Where now?” Percy asked. “Los Angeles?”

“No need.” I said. “There’s a closer entrance to the Underworld.”

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We appeared in Central Park, just north of a pond. It was the closest place I could think of that had earth and I really wasn’t in the mood to shadow-travel excessively. I’m sure we were surrounded by things that were significant to the park, the city and more importantly Percy, but the only thing of interest to me was the clusters of boulders that I knew were the entrance we were looking for.

Mrs O’Leary was sniffing about at the boulders, wagging her tail and, if dogs could grin, I think she would have been. I had no clue how long it had been since the hellhound had last visited the Underworld, but you didn’t need to be a genius to tell she was excited.

I took a moment to glance at my hands, which I decided didn’t look to be in danger of fading. My head throbbed, but that was nothing new. I wanted to sleep, but there were more important things. Sleep could wait.

Percy was no longer looking about the park, instead watching Mrs O’Leary, expression somewhere between worried and distrustful. I thought I knew what he was worried may happen.

“It’s okay.” I said. “She just smells the way home.”

Percy frowned, clearly not understanding. “Through the rocks?”

“The Underworld has two major entrances.” I said, giving Percy a simplified version of the facts. “You know the one in LA.”

I  had only heard stories of his previous adventures before I came to Camp Half-Blood, so I hoped he knew what I was talking about. But Percy nodded, “Charon’s ferry.”

I nodded. “Most souls go that way, but there’s a smaller path, harder to find. The Door of Orpheus.”

“The dude with the harp.”

“Dude with the lyre.” I couldn’t help but correct. “But, yeah, him. He used his music to charm the earth and open a new path into the Underworld. He sang his way right into Hades’ palace and almost got away with his wife’s soul.”

Percy nodded and I decided not to retell the end of the story where he failed to lead her soul back to the surface and they all died the end.

“So this is the Door of Orpheus.” Percy tried and failed to look impressed as he stared at the rocks. “How does it open?”

“We need music.” I said, glancing at him sideways. “How’s your singing?”

There wasn’t a small part of me that had just wanted to hear him sing when I asked that. Definitely not. With World War Three only days away, my mind was completely on stopping the war, not on whether Percy could sing, or if he would sing for me.

Unfortunately Percy declined. “Um, no. Can’t you just, like, tell it to open? You’re the son of Hades and all.”

And on top of that, he brought my favourite parent in the universe into the conversation again. “It’s not so easy. We need music.”

“I have a better idea.” Percy said, although I was pretty sure he didn’t know any other ways to the Underworld. I was about to say so, when he yelled, “GROVER!”

Chapter Text

Percy explained what he had been trying to do. He told me about a thing called an ‘empathy link’ that he and Grover had. Then we waited in silence. Far above, through the foliage, stars twinkled in the night sky. It was quiet, aside from the distant hum of traffic and Mrs O'Leary's snores. She was curled up, fast asleep, beside the pile of rocks. I longed to fall asleep as well, but I didn’t want to fall asleep in front of Percy. He’d think I was just a kid.

I thought about Pemma, Tao and Jun, were they okay? But that led my mind to the war, which I didn’t want to think about. So I thought about the Underworld. Which irritated me. So I thought about Rachel, which led me to thinking about Percy. Which made me overly aware that he was here with me and that we were very close together and that there was no one else around. Just me and him in a park in the middle of the night.

And also reminded me of the fact that soon, very soon, we would be in the Underworld and Hades would want to talk to Percy.

I didn’t want to think about things anymore, so I listened to the traffic humming and crickets chirping – a completely different sound to the screams of the eternally damned in the Underworld. I counted Mrs O’Leary’s snores and got up to five thousand, three hundred and twenty nine before I lost count.

“It’s no good.” I said, after failing.

Percy shook his head slowly and shut his eyes. For a moment I thought he was about to sleep, but his face was scrunched in concentration. Then suddenly his eyes opened and he almost fell over.

“What happened?” I restrained my urge to catch Percy.

“I got through.” Percy panted. “He’s . . . yeah. He’s on his way.”

About time. I thought.

Only a minute later the branches on the tree next to us shivered and Grover fell out of the branches head first, landing with a thump on the grass.

“Grover!” Percy yelled, looking ecstatic.

Smells like goat!” Mrs O’Leary raised her head.

“Blah-haa-haa!” Grover bleated.

“Are you okay man?” Percy asked.

“Oh, I’m fine.” He rubbed his head. He looked older than the last time I had seen him, horns were poking right out of his curly hair, his face looked more weathered. Grover wasn’t wearing pants, just a shirt that I had a hunch might be a from a picture book, but I couldn’t tell which one. The brown fur on his legs was longer, I thought. His goatee was fuller. And he was covered in dirt and tree sap. He gave my usual dirt-covered appearance a run for it’s money. “I was at the other end of the park. The dryads had this great idea of passing me through the trees to get me here. They don’t understand height very well.”

I rubbed the back of my head, wondering how much damage I had done falling and hitting my head constantly after shadow-travel. It never felt as painful as Grover had made it look.

Whatever, I told myself, he fell from a height. Totally different. Stop making this about you.

Grover stood up and I dully noticed that he was as tall as Percy. Taller than me.

“Good to see you, G-man.” Percy said happily, then glanced at me. “You remember Nico?”

I didn’t see how Grover could forget and he nodded at me, looking vaguely uncomfortable, then gave Percy a massive hug.

“Perrrrcy!” He bleated. “I missed you! I miss camp! They don’t serve very good enchiladas in the wilderness!”

“I was worried.” Percy said, disentangling himself. “Where’ve you been the last two months?”

I scowled. ‘Where had I been the last six months?’ Was not something Percy had seemed very concerned about. Yet Grover was gone two months and it was a big deal?

“The last two-” Grover’s grin faded. “The last two months? What are you talking about?”

“We haven’t heard from you.” Percy said. “Juniper’s worried. We sent Iris-messages but-”

“Hold on.” Grover looked up at the stars. “What month is it?”

“August.”

I could definitely relate to the look on his face as it went pale. “That’s impossible. It’s June. I just lay down to take a nap and . . .” He lurched forwards and grabbed Percy’s arms. “I remember now! He knocked me out. Percy, we have to stop him!”

“Woah.” Percy said, looking nervous. “Slow down. Tell me what happened.”

Grover took a deep breath. “I was . . . I was walking in the woods up by Harlem Meer. And I felt this tremble in the ground, like something powerful was near?”

“You can sense stuff like that?” I asked.

Grover nodded. “Since Pan’s death, I can feel when something is wrong in nature. It’s like my ears and eyes are sharper when I’m in the wild.”

I guess it was sort of like how I could sense death. But better. More useful. More pleasant.

“Anyway,” Grover continued, “I started following the scent. This man in a long black coast was walking through the park, and I noticed he didn’t cast a shadow. Middle of a sunny day, and he cast no shadow. He kind of shimmered as he moved.”

Something was nagging me in the back of my mind, trying to tell me something. “Like a mirage?”

“Yes.” Grover said. “And whenever he passed humans-”

Suddenly it clicked into place. “The humans would pass out. Curl up and go to sleep.”

“That’s right!” Grover exclaimed. “Then after he was gone, they’d get up and go about their business like nothing happened.”

Percy stared at me. “You know this guy in black?”

“Afraid so.” I said, wondering why I always knew the worst gods, and the ones we seemed to encounter. I was a walking encyclopaedia for chaos and bad luck. “Grover, what happened?”

“I followed the guy.” Grover continued. “He kept looking up at the buildings around the park like he was making estimates or something. This lady jogger ran by, and she curled up on the sidewalk and started snoring. The guy in black put his hand on her forehead like he was checking her temperature. Then he kept walking. By this time, I knew he was a monster or something even worse. I followed him into this grove, to the base of a big elm tree. I was about so summon some dryads to help me capture him when he turned and . . .”

Grover gulped. “Percy, his face. I couldn’t make out his face because it kept shifting. Just looking at him made me feel sleepy. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘Just having a look around. You should always scout a battlefield before a battle.’ I said something really smart like, ‘This forest is under my protection. You won’t start any battles here!’ And he laughed. He said, ‘You’re lucky I’m saving my energy for the main event, little satyr. I’ll just grant you a short nap. Pleasant dreams.’ And that’s the last thing I remember.”

I sighed. “Grover, you met Morpheus, the god of dreams. You’re lucky you ever woke up.”

“Two months!” Grover moaned. “He put me to sleep for two months!”

Percy was quiet for a while, before saying, “Why didn’t the nymphs try to wake you?”

Grover shrugged. “Most nymphs aren’t good with time. Two months for a tree – that’s nothing. They probably didn’t think anything was wrong.”

“We’ve got to figure out what Morpheus was doing in the park.” Percy said. “I don’t like this ‘main event’ thing he mentioned.”

“He’s working for Kronos.” I volunteered. “We know that already. A lot of the minor gods are. This just proves there’s going to be an invasion. Percy, we have to get on with our plan.”

“Wait.” Grover said. “What plan?”

I stared at my feet. Percy explained. Grover started tugging at the fur on his legs in distress.

“You’re not serious.” He insisted. “Not the Underworld again.”

“I’m not asking you to come, man.” Percy promised. “I know you just woke up. But we need some music to open the door. Can you do it?”

Grover took out his reed pipes. “I guess I could try. I know a few Nirvana tunes that can split rocks. But, Percy, are you sure you want to do this?”

“Please, man.” Percy said. “It would mean a lot. For old times’ sake?”

He whimpered. “As I recall, in the old times we almost died a lot. But, okay, here goes nothing.”

He put the pipes to his lips and played a small, shrill tune. The boulders began to tremble, then slowly, they cracked open, revealing a triangular crevice. Percy leaned forwards and peered inside, nose wrinkling in disgust. I could smell the familiar sent of death and decay.

Percy turned to Grover. “Thanks . . . I think.”

“Perrrrcy, is Kronos really going to invade?” The satyr worried.

“I wish I could tell you better, but yeah. He will.” Percy said grimly.

Grover’s face was creased with anxiety, but he straightened his t-shirt and brushed some dirt off his shoulders. “I’ve got to rally the nature spirits, then. Maybe we can help. I’ll see if we can find this Morpheus!”

“Better tell Juniper you’re okay, too.” Percy said.

Grover’s eyes widened. “Juniper! Oh, she’s going to kill me!”

He started to run off, then scrambled back and gave Percy another hug. “Be careful down there! Come back alive!”

Then he scurried off into the bush.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

We woke Mrs O’Leary. As soon as she blinked her eyes open, she leapt to her feet and dashed to the tunnel, leading the way down into the Underworld. I was glad she was so excited, but now that the entrance to Hades was so close, all I could think about was my father wanting to talk to Percy. And I had agreed.

Calm down, he’s not going to hurt Percy, he promised. I told myself, turning to look at Percy. “Ready? It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

Percy looked at me sympathetically, then glanced up at the stars, closing his eyes as if saying goodbye. Then, following Mrs O’Leary’s lead, we turned and plunged into the darkness. As soon as we entered, I heard the boulders rumble and close behind us. No way out now.

Ahead, Mrs O’Leary barked and sniffed, the sound of her tail thumping on the stone walls echoed back up to us. Now that we had no choice but to go forwards, Percy strode along, not exactly confidently, but definitely with more certainty than me. I fell behind, watching him and worrying about Hades.

Percy glanced over his shoulder at me. “You okay?”

“Fine.” I said through gritted teeth. “Just keep moving.”

I was having serious second thoughts about this. I knew it was safe, I knew Hades had promised. But gods promised a lot of things and very rarely did they keep those promises. Was information really worth it? Was Percy’s life worth simply knowing about my mother?

Shut up, he won’t die. Hades promised. I reminded myself.

After that we walked in silence. About an hour later, the sound of a roaring river echoed up the tunnel towards us. Then we emerged at the base of a cliff, standing on a plain of black volcanic sand. To our right was the River Styx, plunging from the top of the cliff to a churning black froth, then roaring off into a cascade of rapids. To our left, far away in the distance, was the glow of fire and the looming walls of Erebos, Hades’ Kingdom.

No turning back. I reminded myself.

Beside me, Percy shuddered. I twisted the ring on my finger uncertainly. Mrs O’Leary seemed oblivious to the tension between us, running along the beach until she found a random femur and carried it back to us proudly, dropping the bone at Percy’s feet and looking expectant.

“Um, maybe later, girl.” Percy said, voice cracking with nerves. He turned and stared at the dark waters. “So, Nico . . . how do we do this?”

“We have to go to the gates first.” I muttered, lying.

“But the river’s right here.” Percy pointed.

“I have to get something.” I continued, still lying. Hating that I was lying. “It’s the only way.”

Before Percy could argue anymore I marched away. Percy hurried after me. Soon, lines of spirits started, souls waiting to get in to the Underworld, lined up in curving lines along the sand.

“FRIEND!” Mrs O’Leary barked as we neared the gates, bounding up to Cerberus.

The three-headed dog had appeared out of the gloom, and was now happily greeting Mrs O’Leary.

“Mrs O’Leary, no!” Percy shouted, nerves seemingly forgotten. “Don’t sniff – oh, man.”

I managed a smile, then glanced at Percy and frowned again. “Come on. They won’t give us any trouble in the line. You’re with me.”

The moment the words left my mouth I regretted them. But nonetheless, we slipped through the security ghouls without hassle and entered the Fields of Asphodel. Percy let out a piercing whistle and Mrs O’Leary bounded after us. We trudged towards the palace, the silence getting thicker and thicker. Now I walked ahead, too afraid that if I stopped or lagged behind, my courage would completely disappear and I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my promise to Hades.

“Hey.” Percy said. “We’re inside the gates already. Where are we-”

He cut himself off. I looked up as a dark shadow passed overhead, swooped down and landed on a poplar tree nearby. Alecto the Fury, wearing a horrible blue knitted hat, crumbled velvet dress and ugly expression. In her hands was a fiery whip and a paisley handbag.

“Mrs Dodds.” Percy hissed.

She bared her fangs in an ugly smile. “Welcome back, honey.”

The other two Furies swept down after her, settling on other branches. They were wearing similar ugly old lady attire.

“You know Alecto?” I asked. Despite using them for a lift across the Underworld when we had retrieved Hades' sword, I didn’t think Percy had ever encountered the Furies personally before.

“If you mean the old hag in the middle, yeah.” Percy said. “She was my maths teacher.”

I nodded, choosing to just accept it. Then I took a deep breath, forcing myself to meet Alecto’s eye. “I’ve done what my father asked. Take us to the palace.”

Percy tensed, hand reaching for his sword. “Wait a second, Nico. What do you-”

“I’m afraid this is my new lead, Percy.” I muttered. “My father promised me information about my family, but he wants to see you before we try the river. I’m sorry.”

“You tricked me?” Percy demanded, face flushing with anger. He lunged towards me, but the Furies were faster. Two of them swooped down and plucked Percy out of the air, each grabbing an arm. His sword fell out of his hand and into the ground and suddenly he was dangling high above the fields of Asphodel.

The third Fury grabbed me and lifted me up to join them. Mrs O’Leary barked and howled, leaping in a futile attempt to reach us.

“Tell Mrs O’Leary to behave.” I said to Percy as I got within talking distance. “I don’t want her to get hurt, Percy. My father is waiting. He just wants to talk.”

Percy glared at me, then yelled. “Mrs O’Leary, down! It’s okay, girl!”

The hellhound whined but stopped jumping. I bit my tongue and looked away, ignoring the sinking feeling in my stomach, not wanting to watch the way Percy glared at me as he hissed, “All right traitor. You’ve got your prize. Take me to the stupid palace.”

Chapter Text

We were deposited in Persephone’s gardens. It was pretty much how I remembered it, but there were a pair of thrones on the palace’s veranda, one made of bone, one of silver, placed with a view over the gardens and beyond to the fields of Asphodel. The Furies perched on top of the thrones, cackling quietly to themselves. And something else new, skeletal guards were positioned at the entrances and exists. I guess Persephone had finally had enough of me sneaking about. But there was no need to give each of them actual rifles.

Percy glared at me, fists clenched. It was a look I'd never seen him give me before, one worse than the pitying, worse than the disgust or discomfort or regret. It was practically dripping hatred. For the first time, I felt a little bit downright terrified. Slowly, almost robotically, Percy turned to look at the thrones. I was about to suggest – very politely and without giving him any cause to kill me – that we should go inside, when the air shimmered and three gods appeared.

Hades and Persephone materialised on their thrones. An older lady who I recognised as Demeter was standing behind them. The sinking feeling in my stomach only grew.

“-told you he was a bum!” Demeter scoffed.

“Mother!” Persephone protested.

“We have visitors!” Hades barked, seeming to be the only one who had spotted us. “Please!”

Am I just . . . just a visitor now? I wondered. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Hades smoothed his black robes and smiled with satisfaction. “Percy Jackson. At last.”

Persephone studied Percy almost curiously. Unlike when she retrieved the Sword of Hades, she was now showing off. Her hair was lustrous black, her eyes a warm brown, her dress brilliant reds and yellows, shimmering and changing as flowers bloomed on the material. Figures.

“Hmmph.” Demeter scoffed. “Demigods. Just what we need.”

I knelt, hoping that they wouldn’t all be down with Demeter's inclination to smite any demigods she saw. I could feel all eyes on me, but Percy’s hurt the most.

“Father.” My voice sounded pathetic and small. “I have done as you asked.”

“Took you long enough.” Hades grumbled. “Your sister would’ve done a better job.”

Ouch. Even though I had heard it before, it still went in, sharp as a Celestial Bronze blade.

“What do you want, Hades?” Percy’s words were practically a growl.

“To talk, of course.” I glanced up and saw Hades’ mouth curl into a twisted smile. “Didn’t Nico tell you?”

I winced.

“So this whole quest was a lie.” Percy snapped. “Nico brought me down here to get me killed.”

As if I would be able to plan that for nearly a year. As if I would have the talent to lie about that. As if I would even think about betraying Percy.

. . . And Percy actually believed that.

“Oh, no.” Hades scoffed. “I’m afraid Nico was quite sincere about wanting to help you. The boy is as honest as he is dense. I simply convinced him to take a small detour and bring you here first.”

“Father.” I said quietly, but my voice still echoed through the space. “You promised that Percy would not be harmed. You said if I brought him, you would tell me about my past – about my mother.”

Surely Percy would understand. I didn’t know anything about my parents until I was ten. And still now I knew nothing about my mother. Not knowing was hard. Surely Percy could understand.

Persephone sighed over-dramatically. “Can we please not talk about that woman in my presence?”

I took a break from self-deprecation to feel annoyed at my step-mother.

“I’m sorry, my dove.” Hades said. “I had to promise the boy something.”

And my father.

Demeter huffed. “I warned you, daughter. This scoundrel Hades is no good. You could’ve married the god of doctors or the god of lawyers, but noooo. You had to eat the pomegranate.”

And Demeter.

Persephone protested, “Mother-”

“And get stuck in the Underworld!”

“Mother, please-”

“And here it is August, and do you come home like you’re supposed to? Do you ever think about your poor lonely mother?”

“DEMETER!” Hades shouted. “That is enough. You are a guest in my house.”

“Oh, a house is it?” Demeter asked, raising her eyebrows. “You call this dump a house? Make my daughter live in this dark, damp-”

“I told you,” Hades growled through gritted teeth, “There’s a war in the world above. You and Persephone are better off here with me.”

“Excuse me.” Percy broke in. “But if you’re going to kill me, could you just get on with it?”

All three gods looked at Percy.

“Well, this one has an attitude.” Demeter said.

“Indeed, I’d love to kill him.” Hades chipped in.

“Father!” I burst out. “You promised!”

“Husband, we talked about this.” Persephone chided. “You can’t go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he’s brave. I like that.”

Hades rolled his eyes, scoffing, “You liked that Orpheus fellow, too. Look how well that turned out. Let me kill him, just a little bit.”

“Father, you promised!” I repeated. “You said you only wanted to talk to him! You said if I brought him, you’d explain.”

Hades glowered, smoothing the folds in his black robes. “And so I shall. Your mother – what can I tell you? She was a wonderful woman.”

He glanced uncomfortably at Persephone. I leaned forwards eagerly.

“Forgive me, my dear.” Hades murmured, then continued. “I mean, for a mortal, of course. Her name was Maria di Angelo. She was from Venice, but her father was a diplomat in Washington, D.C. That’s where I met her. When you and your sister were young, it was a bad time to be children of Hades. World War II was brewing. A few of my, ah, other children were leading the losing side. I thought it best to put you two out of harm’s way.”

My head was spinning. I had known that I was in the Lotus Casino for decades, but not since a World War. Not because of a World War. “That’s why you hid us in the Lotus Casino?”

Hades shrugged. “You didn’t age. You didn’t realise time was passing. I waited for the right time to bring you out.”

“But what happened to our mother? Why don’t I remember her?” I asked.

“Not important.” Hades snapped.

What?” I demanded. “Of course it’s important. And you had other children – why were we the only ones who were sent away? And who was the lawyer who got us out?”

Hades’ teeth were gritted again. “You would do well to listen more and talk less, boy. As for the lawyer . . .”

He snapped his fingers. On top of his throne, Alecto started to change form again, straightening up, wrinkles disappearing, clothes turning into a pinstriped suit, until she looked like a middle-aged man, complete with a briefcase in her hand.

“You!”

Alecto cackled. “I do lawyers and teachers very well!”

I was trembling, I couldn’t stop. “But why did you free us from the casino?”

“You know why!” Hades exclaimed. “This idiot son of Poseidon cannot be allowed to be the child of the prophecy.”

I wanted to tell Hades that that was a really bad idea, considering how close the war seemed and how easily I had nearly been swayed to Kronos’ side and considering I was, well, me. I was the last person that could change the world and win a war.

Percy plucked a ruby off the nearest plant and threw it at Hades. It hit his robe and was sucked into the black fabric.

“You should be helping Olympus!” He exclaimed. “All the other gods are fighting Typhon, and you’re just sitting here-”

“Waiting things out.” Hades finished. “Yes, that’s correct. When’s the last time Olympus helped me, half-blood? When’s the last time a child of mine was ever welcomed as a hero? Bah! Why should I rush out and help them? I’ll stay here with my forces intact.”

What Hades was saying mirrored my own thoughts so closely it was scary. Was that how I sounded, how I appeared, to everyone else? Bitter and angry and like a bad guy? What did Percy think of me? And of Hades?

“And when Kronos comes after you?” Percy asked Hades.

“Let him try. He’ll be weakened. And my son here, Nico,” I didn’t miss the disgusted look Hades shot me. “Well, he’s not much now, I’ll grant you. It would’ve been better if Bianca had lived. But give him four more years training. We can hold out that long, surely. Nico will turn sixteen, as the prophecy says, and then he will make the decision that will save the world. And I will be king of the gods.”

King of the gods? Okay, that was a bit far. And did I even want to be the main star of the prophecy? Sure, I didn’t want to be hated, but I didn’t want to have that responsibility, seeing as it felt to me that I was all too likely to cave under Kronos’ promises.

“You’re crazy.” Percy said. “Kronos will crush you, right after he finishes pulverising Olympus.”

Hades spread his hands. “Well, you’ll get a chance to find out, half-blood. Because you’ll be waiting out this war in my dungeons.”

“No!” I protested. “Father, that wasn’t our agreement. And you haven’t told me everything!”

“I’ve told you all you need to know.” Hades scowled. “As for our agreement, I spoke with Jackson. I did not harm him. You got your information. If you wanted a better deal, you should’ve made me swear on the Styx. Now go to your room!”

He waved his hand and I felt myself melt away into the shadows.

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I appeared in my bedroom, which was exactly how I remembered it, right down to the now-barred window. I rushed to my door and twisted the handle. It didn’t open. I rammed my shoulder against it. Nothing.

I kicked the door in frustration and desperation. Hades could be doing anything to Percy right now and I had no way to save him.

Percy, Percy, Percy. I reached for the shadows, picturing Percy, trying to get to him. Nothing, nothing happened. I couldn’t shadow-travel. Had Hades somehow stopped me from being able to shadow-travel? Or was Percy somewhere I couldn’t access?

I yelled in frustration, punching the wall, then I stormed to my bed and fell backwards onto it. This couldn’t be happening. Hades had said, he’d promised that Percy wouldn’t get hurt. All I had wanted was to know about my mother. It wasn’t fair. Why had this happened? Why did I do this? I should have been okay with not knowing if it meant Percy was safe.

And the way he’d looked at me, like he . . . hated me. Like how all the other campers at Camp Half-Blood did.

I felt anger spark in me. What had I done to deserve him looking at me like that? All I had ever done in the past year was to try and help him. Time and time again, I had tried to help and now he thought I was the bad guy because of something my father did?

It wasn’t fair.

“Life isn’t fair.” A voice like nails on a chalkboard met my ears and I winced, sitting up to see a hunched figure in a red cloak standing by my barred window.

“Erida.” I realised, staring at her ruby-red eyes through the tangled hair falling over her face. “What are you doing here?”

“Such strong emotions, such hatred, is it any wonder I was pulled to you?” Erida cooed.

“What do you want?”

“To help you, like I always do.” The goddess cackled.

I stood up, crossing the room in a few strides and drawing my sword, holding it to the goddess’ neck. I couldn’t kill her, but I was sure that I could do some serious damage with my Stygian iron blade.

“Tell the truth, Erida, what do you want?” I demanded.

“Now, now, let’s not make any hasty decisions.” The goddess twitched, red eyes glowing.

“Five, four, three, two-”

“You drew me to you.” Erida said, reaching for me with wrinkled hands. “You, your hatred, so strong, so powerful. You drew me to you.”

I stepped back, away from her reach, sword still pointed at her. “What do you mean?”

“Can’t you feel it?” The goddess cooed. “The hatred bubbling below your skin. The anger feeding into your bones.”

“I’m done with hatred.” I said.

“Oh, are you?” Erida laughed, high-pitched and horrible. “Think about it. Think about the campers at that precious little camp. Think about how they whisper. Think about how Annabeth looks at you whenever she sees you. Think about what your father and step-mother think. Think about how Percy looked at you mere minutes ago. Think about Bianca left you as soon as she possibly could.”

That was the final straw. I snapped. “You’re right. I do still feel hatred. Mostly towards you because how dare you use my sister against me like that?”

I lunged towards the goddess. She shrieked, backing away, but I was faster. I cut through her like she were made of sand. She collapsed into red dust, which disappeared in a hissing wind. I stared at where the goddess had stood, heart pounding. Where did monsters go after I killed them with my sword? I had always assumed the Underworld, but that couldn’t be right. Because I was still killing monsters here, in Hades itself, and they were still vanishing without a sight.

Tartarus, my mind whispered, remembering the doors, the pit, the draw pulling my closer to the edge. I shook my head.

Focus Nico. I had to find a way to get to Percy. Surely it wasn’t too late. Maybe I couldn’t shadow-travel to Percy, but maybe I would be able to go somewhere else and find him from there. I concentrated on the outside of my room’s door.

And I fell into darkness.

Chapter Text

I appeared exactly where I had wanted to, on the other side of my bedroom door. Relief flooded through me as I turned to stare down the corridor towards the throne room. That wasn’t where Hades had been last, he’d been outside the palace. But to get there, I had to go through the throne room anyway. Or maybe I shouldn’t go seeking Hades. My father definitely wouldn’t like it if I tried to save Percy, that much had been made clear already. Hades had promised not to hurt Percy, but would he keep that promise?

If he didn’t, I would never talk to him again, I knew that much.

Was keeping Percy alive? Surely he was. And if he wanted to keep Percy alive but contained, where would he put him? I remembered my encounter with Thanatos and how the god had put me in the dungeons below Hades’ castle. I had no clue how to get there, but maybe if I shadow-travelled to the dungeon, rather than to Percy . . .

I concentrated, scrunching my eyes shut, reaching out and slipping through the shadows. When I opened my eyes again, I was standing in a long corridor lined with skeletal guards in silver armour. When I appeared, their glowing eyes turned to me and their bones clattered, but they made no move towards me. Still, I didn’t like how they stared. What if they reported this to Hades somehow?

I reached my palm towards the nearest skeleton and willed what little life had been bestowed upon it away. I made my way down the hallway, retrieving the life from each skeleton. I could feel a headache starting in the back of my head from all the shadow-travel and putting skeletons to sleep, but I dismissed it, focusing on getting to Percy. I could feel his lifeline, but it felt dim. I stumbled down the corridor, concentrating on Percy. 

I rounded a corner and came to a dead end. But I could feel Percy’s life force, stronger than ever. I reached out and ran a hand over the rough rock surface. Solid rock. I frowned at it, wishing there was a way I could walk through solid rock right to where Percy was. If only the rock would vanish.

With a dull rumbling sound, the rock melted away into rubble.

Idiot, you’re a son of Hades. I thought to myself. I had been so used to raising the dead, I forgot I could manipulate the earth as well.

On the other side was a smooth stone prison cell. Well, more of a box. There was no door, no windows, not even a torch. Just like how I remembered being imprisoned. Although I couldn’t remember any skeleton guards outside last time. Had I been that disorientated? Or had Hades put them here just to guard Percy?

Oh, right, Percy. He was lying sprawled on his back in the middle of the cell, sword laying beside him, its glowing greenish aura casting shadows across the otherwise dark cell. He was alive, I could feel his life pulse, faint, but there. How much time had he had left before I opened the wall? I shuddered at the thought.

I ran to his side, kneeling beside him. “Percy.”

He didn’t stir, but behind me, I heard the sound of stone creaking. I glanced over my shoulder. The wall was re-ceiling itself. Great.

Percy, wake up.” I hissed.

He lay still, rigid, he had to be having a nightmare.

Percy!

Suddenly, his eyes shot open. At once, he surged upwards like a wave, grabbing his sword and simultaneously pushing me down. My head hit the stone floor and I winced as my headache doubled in amounts of pain.

But then Percy was straddling my waist. I didn’t even have time to blush before his sword was being held to my neck, point digging worryingly into my flesh. His eyes were glazed with sleep but the look of hatred in them was clear as day.

All I could think was, What did I do?

Then I realised that he might actually kill me. Percy Jackson, the only person who was willing to give me a second chance, was staring at me with so much hatred I might as well be Kronos himself. Percy hated me. He loathed me and I had only wanted to know about my family. I felt tears pricking in the corners of my eyes and I prayed that Percy couldn’t see them through the gloom.

“Want – to – rescue.” I choked out. Could he feel how fast my heart was beating? Could he see how close I was to tears? Did he know that this was possibly the most scared I had ever been? Not because I could die, but because Percy could kill me.

“Oh, yeah?” Percy sneered. “And why should I trust you?”

Maybe this wasn’t Percy. Maybe this was some sick illusion some god had made to mess with me. The real Percy was probably already dead. But I knew that wasn't true. I could feel Percy's life force.

“No – choice?” I asked Percy. The words were hardly formed as they pushed their way past the lump in my throat.

Percy scowled, but let me go, pulling himself to his feet. I could still feel where his sword had dug into my throat, how close I had been to death. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I curled into a ball, retching, trying to get oxygen into my lungs.

Percy just stood there and stared.

I felt sick, I felt horrible, what had I done? Why had I thought any of this was a good idea?

Deep breaths, I told myself, you don't have time to throw a pity party. You're no good if you can't even get Percy out of the mess you got him in.

Finally, when I felt like the lump in my throat had reduced from suffocating to bearable, I got to my feet, avoiding Percy’s eyes by staring instead at the glowing light his sword provided.

“We have to get out of here.” I said, voice horse.

“Why?” Percy asked in that same ugly, untrusting tone. “Does your dad want to talk to me again?”

I winced. Visibly. “Percy, I swear on the River Styx, I didn’t know what he was planning.”

“You know what your dad is like!” Percy accused.

No, I don’t. I wanted to tell him. I don’t have any clue what he’s like. First he calls me worthless, then he seems to like me, and now he’s back to hating me. I don’t know what he’s like and I don’t know what you think I know about him. I don’t know anything about anything really.

But I couldn’t say that.

I sighed. “He tricked me. He promised-”

The disbelief in Percy’s expression hurt more than any blade could. But now was not the time to confront my insecurity. Not with Percy. Not now.

I held up my hands. “Look . . . right now, we need to leave. I put the guards to sleep, but it won’t last.”

Technically, I didn’t know that, but I didn’t want to stick around and find out. Percy’s hands clenched as if he was imagining strangling me, but he just nodded. Trusting that I wouldn’t be literally stabbed in the back when I turned around, I faced the wall again, pointing towards it and wishing it would crumble away again.

It did, but my head was really starting to hurt. It was like a chorus sang by the screeching spirits of the Fields of Punishment, trapped in my head. My limbs felt heavy, too. I wanted to lie down and sleep, but I couldn’t. I had to prove to Percy that he could trust me. That he could always trust me.

I shouldn’t have trusted my father to keep Percy safe. That was stupid.

“Come on.” I said, forcing myself to ignore the pain and heaviness. I stumbled along, back up the corridor. All the skeleton guards were awake and alive again. I didn’t know how, if it was a lapse in my power that had done it, or something else somehow, but I didn’t have the energy to question it.

I just held my palm to each one, taking away the life force and watching the glowing eyes dim. The further we went, the harder it was to keep moving. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was pretty sure I’d made several wrong turns a long time ago.

I pressed on, though, determined to get Percy out of this mess. I’m not sure when exactly it happened – everything was coming and going in waves – but I became aware of Percy pressed to my side, stiff and uncomfortable, but supporting my weight, half carrying me. I tried to push away, but I couldn’t. I could only focus on each pair of glowing skeletal eyes and taking away that glow and life force, keeping Percy safe.

With another wave of pain, everything went dark for a while, and when I next forced my eyes to focus we had escaped the palace and where standing on the grey plains of Asphodel. There was a dull ringing in my ears. I thought it was just me, but Percy glanced down in confusion.

Oh. I realised with horror. Oh no. Those must be . . . “Alarms.”

The word came out indistinct and slurred with tiredness.

“What do we do?” Percy demanded.

For a brief moment, my vision darkened again. I yawned, staring up at Percy’s face and his pretty sea-green eyes as his words echoed through my brain. I blinked and did my best to focus on the problem at hand. Finally, something came to me. “How about . . . run?”

Chapter Text

We ran. Well, Percy ran. I tried to be as helpful as possible, and by that, I mean I managed to lift my feet and move them forwards as Percy dragged me along behind him, his hand tight on my wrist. He forged forwards past the spirits, holding his sword in front of him as if that was what was causing them to move aside, not the presence of the son of Hades.

Hmm, maybe it was. Maybe I wasn’t at all special in that regard. Probably I wasn't special in that regard.

The ringing of alarms was still bouncing around in my skull, increasing the pain reverberating through my bones, but I didn’t know if it was only in my head. Instead of heading straight for the River Styx, Percy seemed to be focused on reaching the gates of Erebos and escaping completely.

The further we walked, the slower we moved. Percy was panting heavily as he dragged me along. I was only able to keep my eyes open and concentrate on one foot, the other foot, but I wished I had the energy to be useful for once. I shouldn’t have used my powers so quickly.

Stupid. I told myself. Reckless, headstrong, I should have waited, come up with a better plan, maybe talked to Hades or someth-

“WOOOOF!”

The sound of Mrs O’Leary’s barking echoed around my head. I forced my eyes to focus and I saw her, bounding out of the gloom and circling us playfully.

“Good girl!” Percy sounded happy for the first time since entering the Underworld. My stomach twisted. Percy glanced at me, then asked. “Can you give us a ride to the Styx?”

He hadn’t forgotten the plan. He still trusted me. Or he was out of other options. I could hear the sound of Mrs O'Leary's voice in my mind, but I couldn’t make out any of the words she was saying. My vision was spinning now. I blinked hard, but nothing was staying still.

Percy was pushing me forwards suddenly. Then I felt myself fall onto Mrs O’Leary. I climbed onto her back and held onto her collar as best I could. I could feel Percy close beside me. Then we were moving, bounding across the fields towards the River Styx.

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The moment Mrs O’Leary stopped, I let go of her collar and fell to the ground. The black sand was horribly cold against my skin, but I didn’t have the energy to get up. I closed my eyes and was about to let myself fall asleep when I felt Percy’s hands on my lips.

I blinked my eyes open in surprise and saw Percy pushing something into my mouth. The familiar taste of gingerbread filled my mouth. Ambrosia. Percy was wasting his ambrosia on me when really I would have been fine if I had just been able to sleep.

But I felt the throbbing pain in my head subside. I sat up slowly. “Uh. Better.”

“Your powers drain you too much.” Percy said.

Don’t yours? I wanted to ask. But I didn’t have the energy. Instead I nodded an agreement and mumbled, “With great power . . . comes great need to take a nap. Wake me up later.”

I had a dull memory of the Lotus Casino, of comic books full of people with awesome powers, heroes who saved the world. I looked to Percy for confirmation that that was indeed a reference that I had made, but he just kept staring. I felt myself begin to fall backwards again, ready to sleep, but Percy caught me. His arms were on my chest. What in actual Hades.

“Whoa, zombie dude.” He said. “We’re at the river. You need to tell me what to do.”

He pushed more ambrosia into my mouth. I realised he wasn’t going to let me sleep, so I shook my head, pretending I wasn’t exhausted, then I struggled to my feet. “My father will be coming soon. We should hurry.”

Percy glanced at the River Styx, the black water gurgled ominously. Where we were, it was clogged with pollution, broken toys, ripped-up college diplomas, all sorts of dreams and ambitions people had thrown away as they slipped from life into death.

“So . . . I just jump in?” Percy said unenthusiastically.

“You have to prepare yourself first,” I warned him, “or the river will destroy you. It will burn your body and soul.”

“Sounds fun.” Percy muttered.

“This is no joke.” I scowled at the water. “There is only one way to stay anchored to your mortal life. You have to . . .”

I thought I saw a shimmer of movement behind Percy and an old life force nearing. I looked up and my eyes widened. Right behind him was a spirit dressed in Greek armour. Percy spun around and jumped back in surprise.

The ghost was tall and muscular with a fierce expression. His face was scarred and his black hair was shaved. He wore a white tunic and bronze armour that gleamed in the Underworld’s dim light. Under one arm was a helmet with a plume of horse hair. His eyes were pale green, like if Percy’s had been drained of life. I didn’t like that thought. Through one leg was a bloody arrow, impaling him just above the ankle.

“Achilles.” Percy said simply, as if this wasn’t a big deal.

It wasn’t often that ghosts of ancient heroes themselves came to you. It was usually a bad thing.

The ghost nodded. “I warned the other one not to follow my path. Now I will warn you.”

“Luke?” Percy asked. “You spoke with Luke?”

“Do not do this.” The ghost droned. “It will make you powerful. But it will also make you weak. Your prowess in combat will be beyond any mortal, but your weaknesses, your failings will increase as well.”

That didn’t make sense, did it? I hadn’t heard anything like that.

“You mean I’ll have a bad heel?” Percy asked sceptically. “Couldn’t I just, like, wear something besides sandals? No offence.”

Achilles’ gaze turned to the bloody arrow in his foot. “The heel is only my physical weakness, demigod. My mother, Thetis, held me there when she dipped me in the Styx. What really killed me was my own arrogance. Beware! Turn back!”

For a ghost he was horribly emotive. I could see Percy’s confidence wavering. He glanced back at me uncertainly. Then he stared at Achilles for several long moments.

“I have to. Otherwise we don’t stand a chance.” Percy said finally, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Achilles lowered his head. “Let the gods witness I tried. Hero, if you must do this, concentrate on your mortal point. Imagine one spot of your body that will remain vulnerable. This is the point where your soul will anchor your body to the world. It will be your greatest weakness, but also your only hope. No man may be completely invulnerable. Lose sight of what keeps you mortal, and the River Styx will burn you to ashes. You will cease to exist.”

I had known that, but hearing someone else say it made it all the more real. Now I was having second thoughts. Would I rather possibly sacrifice Percy now with a small chance of him surviving and winning the war? Or hold on to him for a few more days only to have him inevitably die?

“I don’t suppose you could tell me Luke’s mortal point?” Percy asked the ghost.

“Prepare yourself, foolish boy.” The ghost replied, lovely and crypt as ever. “Whether you survive this or not, you have sealed your doom!”

Then he vanished.

“Percy.” I murmured. “Maybe he’s right.”

“This was your idea.” Percy accused.

“I know, but now that we’re here-”

“Just wait on the shore. If anything happens to me . . . Well, maybe Hades will get his wish, and you’ll be the child of the prophecy after all.”

Yeah, I really was liking the sound of this less and less. A look of concentration crossed Percy’s face and then without warning, he turned and stepped right into the River Styx, disappearing under the surface of the black waters.

Chapter Text

This was a thousand times worse than the last time Percy had fallen into a dangerous, magical river. Last time he would have lost his memories, but he would have been alive. Now, if he died, it would be my fault. I would become the child of the Prophecy, everyone would hate me, Kronos would win the war and I would have killed Percy Jackson.

I suggested this. I knew there was a chance Percy wouldn’t survive. I told myself. But Percy’s strong. He’s the strongest demigod I know. If anyone can survive the Styx, he can. If gods damn Luke Castellan can survive it, so can Percy.

It didn’t do much to calm my nerves. Seconds stretched into minutes. Beside me, Mrs O’Leary whimpered, tail tucked between her legs.

“It’s okay.” I told her. “He’ll be okay.”

Mrs O’Leary didn’t seem to believe me. Her whimpering didn’t stop. I waited and waited. Part of me wondered if I’d wait forever. If Thanatos or Hades or some other god would find me sitting on the banks of the Styx, wasting away, waiting for Percy to re-emerge, even if it would never happen.

Then Percy burst out of the water, spluttering and gasping, crawling to shore and collapsing on the sand. I scrambled back, biting my lip to stop myself yelping in alarm. Percy’s skin was a bright violent red, like he’d been boiled alive.

“Are you okay?” I stammered. “Your skin. Oh, gods. You’re hurt!”

Percy looked around slowly, as if seeing the Underworld for the first time. “I’m fine . . . I think.”

The redness was fading from his skin. He slowly sat up. Mrs O’Leary had stopped her whining. She sniffed Percy with concern.

“Do you feel stronger?” I asked cautiously.

Percy frowned, like he was thinking. Before he could answer, an awfully familiar voice boomed, “THERE!”

I spun around. Percy scrambled to his feet. There was no way to describe what met my eyes other than an army of the undead. Skeletal warriors, Romans at the front with dull armour and rusting shields and ancient spears, followed by British redcoats with their bayonets all already aimed at us. And there was Hades himself, atop a black and gold chariot pulled by black horses with flames for eyes and manes.

It was overkill. Quite literally.

“You will not escape me this time, Percy Jackson!” Hades announced. “Destroy him!”

“Father, no!” I shouted. There was no way we could fight this off. Even with Percy’s hopefully-working protection from the River Styx.

The Roman soldiers lowered their spears and charged. Mrs O’Leary growled, looking as though she were about to pounce. I blinked in surprise. Her loyalty to Percy must be stronger than her instincts to obey Hades. If I didn’t know Percy Jackson, his hellhound would be the most amazing being I’d ever met.

Percy glanced at Mrs O’Leary and worry, then anger crossed his face. He yelled and behind him the River Styx exploded, surging upwards and over our heads, a black tidal wave of water surged over the Roman skeletons, scattering their swords and shields, dissolving them forever with small hisses of agony.

I felt my jaw drop.

But Percy wasn’t done yet. He drew his sword and, with another yell, charged at the remaining soldiers, who had lowered their bayonets, aiming, then they were firing. None of them hit Percy. They bounced off, or missed completely, ricocheting away across the Underworld.

None of them hit me, which was lucky, because I was frozen to the spot in awe. I didn’t think I’d be able to move if I wanted to.

Percy hacked at the skeletons, turning them to piles of dust. They tried to fight back, but they just . . . couldn’t. I stared in stunned silence as Percy cut through dozens upon dozens of skeletal warriors until there were none left. Then Percy leapt right up into Hades’ chariot. Hades raised his staff. I opened my mouth to yell out, but I couldn’t find the words. A bolt of dark lightening shot towards Percy’s chest and he raised his sword, deflecting it.

Then Percy slammed right into Hades, knocking the god off the chariot. They both tumbled to the ground, making ash swirl up around them. When it cleared, I saw Percy kneeling, knee planted on Hades’ chest, tugging at the front of his robes, sword pointed at his face. The god of the Underworld lay gasping like a fish out of water, pinned down by Percy Jackson himself.

My jaw dropped. Even if I could’ve thought of something to say, I doubted my mouth would’ve been able to form the words. Percy looked up, glancing around, as if confused as to what happened.

“Now, Jackson, listen here . . .” Hades tried to sound menacing, but the words were stuck in his throat.

Percy’s sword dipped lower to Hades’ face. Was Percy going to stab Hades? The god couldn’t die, he was, well, a god. He was immortal. But . . . it was my father! I was sure Percy wouldn’t like it if someone stabbed his father.

Although, I thought bitterly, his father hadn’t told him he was better off dead.

Still, Hades didn’t deserve to die for that. I was sure that, at some point, I had agreed with him. Did I still? But I couldn’t manage words, so even trying to defend my father wasn’t an option.

“Just because I’m a nice person.” Percy snarled. “I’ll let you go. But first, tell me about that trap!”

Instead of answering, Hades just melted into a black puddle and disappeared into the ground, leaving nothing but his robes. Percy cursed and got to his feet, breathing hard. He was covered in sweat and, despite there being no physical injuries, his clothes were torn to shreds. He looked over at me and I shut my mouth quickly, forcing myself to say something.

“You just . . . with a sword . . . you just-” I gave up on trying to speak.

“I think the river thing worked.” Percy said.

“Oh, gee. You think?”

Mrs O’Leary barked and wagged her tail, bounding across to sniff at the remains of the skeleton warriors. Percy lifted Hades’ robes, staring at them with a look of disgust I’d seen only once before, earlier when he’d looked at me after I betrayed him.

Holding it with as little contact as possible, he walked over and dropped it in the river with a small 'Be free'. It swirled away downstream, dissolving into black steam.

“Go back to your father.” Percy turned to me. “Tell him he owes me for letting him go. Find out what’s going to happen to Mount Olympus and convince him to help.”

He’s trying to get rid of me. He hates me. I thought, then mentally shook myself. No, he wants me to convince Hades to help and . . . yeah, no, he hates me.

I realised I was staring. “I – I can’t. He’ll hate me now. I mean . . . even more.”

Oh, great, I was throwing a pity party for myself again.

“You have to.” Percy said. “You owe me, too.”

And Percy was co-hosting. Yippee! It was hard to maintain eye contact, but I thought I managed it okay. “Percy, I told you I was sorry. Please . . . let me come with you. I want to fight.”

“You’ll be more help down here.” Percy said.

Down here. In the Underworld. With the likes of Hades. That was where Percy thought I should be, should stay, would belong. (Where I did belong.) The realisation sucked any remaining hope that Percy valued me on any level - as a friend, as an acquaintance, even as a source of information - right out of me. Eye contact suddenly became much easier.

I stared at him emptily. “You mean you don’t trust me any more.”

Percy didn’t answer, which made it a thousand times worse than if he’d just spat in my face and told me to jump in the Styx and die. Was he still trying to play the hero with me? To act like he was my friend?

“Just go back to your father.” Percy said harshly, then took a deep breath and his next words came out steadier. “Work on him. You’re the only person who might be able to get him to listen.”

If anyone but Percy Jackson had told me that . . .

I sighed. “That’s a depressing thought. All right. I’ll do my best. Besides, he’s still hiding something from me about my mom. Maybe I can find out what.”

Even trying to convince myself out loud for Percy to confirm didn’t work.

“Good luck.” Percy told me, but he may as well have said 'drop dead' at this point. He glanced over at Mrs O’Leary. As if sensing his gaze, the hellhound looked up, head tilted to the side, a broken skeleton hanging from her jaws. “Now Mrs O’Leary and I have to go.”

“Where?” I asked.

“To get this war started. It’s time I found Luke.”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Underworld had never seemed more miserable than when I made the long trek back to Hades’ Palace after Percy and Mrs O’Leary had left. I was alone and I was utterly exhausted, drained emotionally and physically. The only people who mattered to me wished I were dead. It was lucky that no monsters came my way because if they had I would probably have dropped my sword and let them rip me to shreds. Percy’s words kept playing over and over in my mind.

And why should I trust you? . . . Go back to your father. . . . You have to. You owe me, too. . . . You’ll be more help down here. . . . Just go back to your father.

When I finally reached the entrance to the castle I stopped, realising what I was doing. I couldn’t just walk in here when Percy Jackson had nearly stabbed Hades and I did nothing but sit there and watch! My father would kill me, possibly literally.

Yet Percy expected me to just convince Hades to join the battle in five days? Less, considering the different way time worked in the Underworld.

I groaned and spun around, unsure of where I could possibly go.

Percy said I couldn’t leave the Underworld, but my father sure wouldn’t want me near him. It was stupid to think that I’d be able to sneak past in any way, the palace was infested with gods and monsters and spirits that worked for my Father. It was probably best just to find Hades right away and hope I would get lucky and end up a pile of dust, smited on my Hades' throne room floor.

“Your father is waiting for you.”

I spun around and saw Thanatos standing behind me, expression unreadable. He wasn’t wearing the cloak he wore the other times I’d seen him, instead he was wearing a dark grey business suit with a black trench coat over it. He black wings were folded behind him and I wondered briefly if there were holes in the back of his clothes for his wings to fit through, or was it just some kind of godly magic?

Then I realised Thanatos was waiting for a response, examining me with his cold golden eyes.

“My father?”

“Yes.” Thanatos agreed. “Lord Hades.”

“What? Why?” I asked, panicking.

“Because you helped the son of Poseidon escape, bathed him in the River Styx and did nothing when said son of Poseidon destroyed legions of skeletal warriors and threatened Lord Hades.” Thanatos shrugged coolly. “Well, I assume that’s the reason.”

“Oh. Right. I did do that, didn’t I?” I mumbled. As if I’d forgotten. But wow, it sounded a thousand times worse coming from Thanatos. “Is Hades mad?”

“He’s furious.” Thanatos said. “But I would advise you face him now. Much like death, it will happen only once, best to get it over and done with.”

I hoped it wasn’t like death in the sense that it very well could be my death.

“Um, okay.” I said.

The god of death offered a dry smile. “If it helps, he won’t kill you.”

“Just because he wants me to fulfil the prophecy. He was going to kill Percy.” He muttered. “He wants me to kill Percy or something!”

“I don’t think he expects you to kill Percy.” Thanatos said.

“How can he ever expect me to be the hero of the prophecy? No one would want me anyway, they’d all expect me to join Kronos, they would expect a son of Hades to . . .” I trailed off, unwilling to finish whatever train of thought I had started down.

“Let us deal with that problem at a later date.” Thanatos said. “I think you should stop stalling and talk to your father.”

“I thought you were my friend.” I pointed out.

“But I also work for your father.” Thanatos said. “And as far as I can tell, you are not paying me anything. So excuse me if I usher you into the throne room now.”

Thanatos’ black wings unfurled and flicked towards the door. I shoved my hands into my pockets and slouched into the room, wishing I could sink through the floor and disappear forever. My father would kill me, no matter what Thanatos seemed to think, he’d never forgive me for this, for any of this.

Hades was sitting on his throne, looking as though he hadn’t had his entire army destroyed and then nearly been stabbed by Percy Jackson. He leaned forwards when he saw me, tips of his fingers together, either in thought or as a display that, yes, he was Hades, the one and only god of the Underworld, at your service, ready to smite any stupid children who let his enemies escape.

“Nico.”

“Lord Hades.” I knelt down in a bow. I didn’t look up, I couldn’t look up, I could practically feel the disappointment and borderline anger in his gaze, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

“You let the Jackson boy escape.”

And as always, whenever I got nervous around a god, I got defensive. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut, could I? “He has a name. It’s Percy.”

“You let Percy escape.” Hades mocked me.

I took a deep breath, trying to control my anger. I failed. “Father, you must be insane if you think that I could be the hero of the prophecy. If you think it would be anyone but Percy. Percy- Percy is . . . he’s brave and strong and courageous and handsome and- and everything I’m not. No one likes children of Hades.”

“Stand up, Nico.” Hades’ voice was steely.

I didn’t particularly want to, but I didn’t seem to have a choice. I was pulled to my feet by a force more powerful than me, but I still stared at the ground, not wanting to meet Hades’ eyes, more out of defiance than respect now. If I was going to get smited (smote?), might as well go all the way, right?

“And if you think I’d ever kill Percy-”

“I am not an idiot.” Hades snapped. “I know that you wouldn’t kill him and I know that you couldn’t even if you tried. You allowed him to bathe in the Styx.”

“Father. I know I would never win the war.” I spat. “You know that I would never win this war for the gods. If I hadn’t helped Percy, then the Titans would have won. Would you rather that? Would you rather the gods – your family die, just because your disappointment of a son couldn’t live up to your expectations?”

“Nico . . .”

“Seriously? Do you gods never think about anything?” I demanded. “Did you think it was going to work, trapping Percy in the dungeons? Did you think any of this was going to get anyone to like you? You’re acting exactly how they think you would act!”

“And you are so much better, are you?” Hades retorted. “Didn’t you see the way that Jackson boy looked at you? You’re my son, Nico, you of all demigods should know that they’ll never expect any different from you.”

“So prove them wrong.”

“Because you’ve done so much of that.”

“At least I’m trying to do something! What are you doing? Sitting on your throne, all mighty and powerful! Funny, because just before now, I recall Percy’s sword against your neck-”

“ENOUGH!” Hades’ voice was like a thunderclap, booming around the hall and making the ground shudder. “Nico, go to your room. Now. And stay there.”

My jaw dropped. Hades waved a hand and, without my consent, my body turned and marched up the corridor towards my room.

“And Nico?” Hades’ voice echoed back to me. “I don’t want to see you messing with things you don’t understand anymore. Or else.”

Chapter Text

The door slammed itself shut behind me and I heard the heavy lock click into place. I didn’t even try unlocking it, just stormed over to my bed, grabbed a pillow and muffled my screams into it. What right? What right did Hades have? I turned and threw the pillow at the wall. I doubted I had ever been this angry. Except maybe when Percy told me Bianca died. That was the first time I had lost everything. This was the second.

Percy hated me, my father hated me, all the gods and demigods and probably all the mortals in the world hated me. No one even wanted to see my face, I was trouble, a meddling nuisance, bad luck.

I could understand why Hades didn’t even want to bother trying to be anything else. And that just made me angrier. I didn’t want to be anything like my father. I threw my sword down on the floor and kicked it away. Then I threw the rest of the pillows on the bed across the room, causing dust to rain down over my head and the floor. I sneezed, wiping my nose.

“Stupid, stupid gods, stupid pillows, stupid Percy.” I grumbled, kicking the frame of my bed. I wanted to punch something, someone, I wanted to stab every monster in the Underworld, I wanted to scream and scream until the floor opened up and swallowed me whole.

Instead, I dropped down on my bed and shut my eyes tightly, biting my lip in hopes the pain would distract me. It didn't. I was tempted to take another one of those pomegranate seeds, just so I didn’t have to think, but then . . . Hades would probably be even angrier.

I didn’t have anywhere to go. I couldn’t go to Camp Half-Blood or anywhere where Percy might be. I couldn’t go anywhere in the Underworld. I couldn’t waste my energy going to China. I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere. It was all incredibly useless.

I was useless.

I turned onto my side and curled into a ball, feeling hot tears prick at my eyes.

There was a knock on my door. “Friend Nico?”

That was . . . that was Bob’s voice. I cleared my throat, trying to keep my voice steady. “Door’s locked.”

“I have a key!” Bob said. “All guest rooms use one key!”

There was a heavy click, then a scrape as the door swung opened. Bob walked in, smiling and holding a tray with a plate of cookies balanced precariously on it. I closed my eyes. I was not in the mood for this. He put the tray on my bedside table.

The weight of my bed shifted as he sat down, thankfully regular human sized. “Nico?”

What?”

“Are you okay?”

“Do I look okay?” I demanded, opening my eyes to squint up at the Titan. His wide silver eyes looked back down at me sadly.

“Cookie?”

“What?”

“Do you want a cookie? To make you feel better?” Bob offered, grabbing the plate of chocolate chip cookies.

“Fine.” I muttered, may as well be nice to the one friend I had left. I took a cookie and nibbled it hesitantly. My eyes widened. “Wow! These are really good!”

“My friend made them!” Bob said happily. “She says they have a secret ingredient.”

“Oh.” I said, biting the cookie.

“She said not to tell, but you are my friend also, so I will tell you.” Bob nodded. “And you will not tell anyone.”

“Okay.” I said, wondering what the secret ingredient was. Chocolate chips? Extra sugar? Salt? Some secret Underworld concoction?

“She says the secret ingredient is grounded up bones.”

My mouth felt dry. “Um, what?”

“Grounded up bones!”

“That’s . . . really gross.” I mumbled, fighting the urge to throw up. I put the half eaten cookie back on the plate. What right did ground up bones have to taste so good in chocolate chip cookies?

“Oh.” Bob pouted.

“What . . . um, what type of bones?” I managed to ask.

“All sorts, animal, monster, mortal, demigod.” Bob swung his legs. “She says it adds character.”

“Who exactly is your friend?”

“Her name is Stheno.” Bob said. “She’s nice. Like a nice old aunty who makes cookies.”

“Gorgon.” I mumbled. “I killed her once. What’s she doing in the Underworld?”

“Making cookies.” Bob said matter-of-factly.

I laughed, a little strangled. “Alright then. Fair enough. I suppose no one else was using those bones, she may as well. But excuse me if I don’t eat any more of them.”

“You are laughing.” Bob said.

“I, yeah, I guess.” I felt a little defensive. Was it a big deal? Sure, I wasn’t happy much, but I didn’t have much of a reason to be happy.

“That is good.” Bob smiled, wide and bright.

"Yeah. I guess."

“What was wrong?” Bob asked, after a few moments of silence.

“I, um.” I sighed. “You remember Percy, yeah?”

“Yes. He is my friend.”

“Yes. Right. Well, I took Percy down to the Underworld. I was going to help him with this . . . there’s a big fight going on, um, up there.” I pointed to the ceiling. “I was going to use something in the Underworld to help him fight better, because Percy’s the best fighter we have.”

“Better than anyone else?”

“Better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. He’s pretty amazing.” I sighed. “So, um, I was going to help Percy be even better, but my father-”

“Lord Hades.” Bob put in.

“Yes, that father.” I nodded. “He wanted to talk to Percy. So I was going to bring Percy here to talk to him, then Hades was going to let him go and I would help him get better at fighting. I thought . . . I dunno, that Percy wouldn’t mind. But, well, he sort of did.”

“But Percy is so nice.” Bob protested.

“I wasn’t so nice.” I admitted. “I lied to him about where we were going and then Percy ended up imprisoned. I rescued him and managed to help, but . . . he’s mad at me. He told me to stay down here.”

“It isn’t bad down here. There is lots to do.” Bob said, patting my back. I hunched my shoulders against the physical contact.

“There’s lots to do up there as well at the moment.” I said. “I should be helping.”

“Did Percy not give you something to do?”

“No, he did. He wants me to convince Hades to fight against Kr- against our enemies.” I glanced sideways at Bob. It was easy, too easy, to forget that Bob was really a Titan, one of Kronos’ brothers, Bob had been a bad guy once. The Lethe may have wiped his memory, but I didn’t want to risk reminding him of his old family.

“Percy trusts you to do that?”

“No. He doesn’t trust me. He doesn’t want me doing anything important.”

“Lord Hades is very important.” Bob nodded, popping a cookie into his mouth. “Percy is good. Percy trusts you. Percy trusts you to talk to Lord Hades, who is very important, and to convince Lord Hades to do something very important that could win the very important battle.”

I wanted to argue that, no, Bob was wrong. Percy didn’t trust me, he left me to do something that didn’t matter. Gods, demigods, creatures of the Underworld, we were the ones who didn’t matter, the ones who were disposable, Percy was leaving me to do something disposable, something unimportant.

But I didn’t want to let Bob down.

“Percy’s not a bad person.” I said. “I’m in the wrong here.”

“Percy is not bad.” Bob agreed. “But Nico is not bad either. Maybe there is no right. Just two wrongs.”

“That’s not how it works.” I argued. There was always a right and a wrong, a good and a bad.

“Maybe it is.” Bob said. “I remember a story from a long, long time ago.”

“Um . . . you . . . do?” This was bad. Did Bob remember something from his own past? What? Was it dangerous?

“Yes. I do not know where I heard it. Or if it is true. Or when it was. Just a long time ago.” Bob said. “Long, long ago, Mother Earth and Father Sky walked up there.”

Bob pointed up to the ceiling, just like I’d done before. I nodded.

“Mother Earth loved Father Sky very much.” Bob continued. “And Father Sky said he loved Mother Earth. They had many beautiful children. Children with talents and strengths. But Father Sky could not see those talents that Mother Earth could see. Father Sky saw ugly beings with one eye, with a hundred hands, with lumpy noses, with many faces. He did not like what he saw.”

I recognised the story, Bob was telling me about his own parents and brothers, Gaia and Ouranos and the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handed Ones and Titans.

“So he beat the children and locked them up, down there.” This time, Bob pointed down, below the floor. Down to Tartarus. “Down there they were miserable. Earth Mother was upset and told her other children, the ones who had not been locked up. The other children of Sky Father and Earth Mother decided that they must kill Sky Father and make Earth Mother happy. So they did. And everyone was happy.”

I thought that would be where the story ended and I opened my mouth to say something in response, about how there were clearly good and evil sides there, but Bob continued.

“But then the children of the Earth Mother’s children were treated in the same way.” Bob said. “And then they killed the Earth Mother’s children. So in the end, the Earth Mother’s children, who had once been so good, where then very bad also.”

“But there’s still bad there.” I pointed out, as Bob turned his silver eyes on me expectantly. “There’s still good and bad.”

“But what can be good can also be bad.” Bob said. “It is not so simple.”

“I . . . guess.” I saw where Bob was coming from. Bob himself was an example. He was from that story. And before, he had been Iapetus, he had been bad. Now he was good, as Bob. And had he been bad as Iapetus? I shook my head to stop that train of thought.

“Feeling better?” Bob asked.

I nodded slowly.

“Percy gave you a special job because he trusts you to do it.” Bob said.

I didn’t really believe that, but I nodded anyway. I could at least let Bob believe that.

“Thank you Bob.”

“It was nothing.”

“Seriously, thank you.” I said, smiling at him. It felt weird, but good, smiling at him.

The Titan smiled back. “It was nothing. Friends cheer each other up.”

It wasn’t nothing. At that moment, to me, it felt like everything.

Chapter Text

Hades was nowhere to be found. Or at least, nowhere he could be found. I checked everywhere I knew how to get to, without results. No one else had seen him either, it seemed. I ended up outside in the gardens, doing nothing and hoping I didn’t look too suspicious to the zombie gardener who was kneeling over a flowerbed of rubies by the castle wall. If the dead-eyed glares he was shooting me every few minutes were anything to go by, though, I was probably failing.

I sat down beside another flowerbed, picking a topaz off its silver stem and throwing it from one hand to the other. Without anything to distract me now, my thoughts wondered back to what Hades had told me.

Maria di Angelo. I had a name, I could work with that. If she hadn’t been reborn, if she was still a spirit in the Underworld, that meant she was here, so close and yet so impossibly far. And . . . it also meant I could summon her. After all, I was a child of Hades. Why shouldn’t I? Hades never said I couldn’t, did he? And even if he did, so what? Since when did I let Hades decide what I did? He was already disappointed in me. There was no one left to let down, there was nothing to lose.

May as well.

I turned to the zombie gardener, who was digging a hole for a nearby potted tree made of gold.

“You.” I said. “Finish that hole, but don’t plant the tree in it. I need it. Um, please and thank you.”

The zombie stared at me, but then continued to dig, so I took that as a good sign. I had a pit, I just needed an offering. I didn’t know if I could shadow-travel to a McDonalds and back without fading. My head was still throbbing a little from the excessive use of my powers recently.

I looked around. Over on the porch where Hades and Persephone’s thrones sat abandoned, between the two thrones, was a small table with a vase of flowers, a box of cereal, two bowls and spoons and two goblets. That would have to do. I hoped the dead liked cornflakes.

I climbed up the porch and took the box of cereal and a goblet. It was filled with a dark red liquid. I couldn’t tell if it was wine, or blackcurrant juice, or maybe just blood. I made my way back to the hole and shooed the zombie gardener away. He gurgled unhappily, but stumbled off to another flowerbed, shovel in tow.

I opened the box of cereal and tipped it into the pit, then threw the box back in the direction of the porch. Then I upended the goblet, letting the dubious red liquid poor into the pit.

My Greek was rusty, I hoped my mother wouldn’t be offended if I summoned her in English instead. “Let the dead taste again. Let them rise and take this offering. Maria di Angelo, show yourself!”

Wisps of white-blue smoke began weaving together across the ground. I leaned forwards expectantly as the half-formed figure knelt and drunk from the pool. She climbed to her feet, skin turning a healthy olive, clothes the silver of Artemis’ hunters. For the first time in my life, I was disappointed to see my sister.

“Bianca.” I said in confusion. “But-”

“Don’t summon our mother, Nico. She is the one spirit you are forbidden to see.”

The one spirit? The one and only spirit out of the millions that inhabited the Underworld? And . . . that made it sound like Bianca knew about our mother. She knew and she never told me.

“Why?” I demanded. “What’s our father hiding?”

“Pain.” Bianca sounded almost sorry for Hades. “Hatred. A curse that stretches back to the Great Prophecy.”

“What do you mean?” I pressed. “I have to know!”

“The knowledge will only hurt you.” Bianca looked apologetic. “Remember what I said: holding grudges is a fatal flaw for children of Hades.”

“I know that.” I snapped in frustration. “But I’m not the same as I used to be, Bianca. Stop trying to protect me!”

I didn’t care if it hurt, I wanted to know. I wanted the truth and I didn’t want to be treated like an idiot.  I wasn’t a child.

“Brother, you don’t understand-”

I didn’t understand? Well whose fault was that? I swiped a hand through the mist and Bianca disappeared, turning back into smoke and fading away.

“Maria di Angelo.” I insisted, focusing all my attention on the idea of my mother and on her name. “Speak to me!”

The smoke began to double, pouring out of the grave and weaving through the air, a room came to life, marble columns growing up from a tiled floor, light filtering through stain glass windows and from a massive chandelier, young men in bell boy uniforms bustling about, carrying suitcases. It was a hotel lobby.

A burst of laughter caught my attention and I saw myself. Myself and Bianca as tiny children, chasing each other through the hotel’s pillars. And nearby . . . that was my mother. That was Maria di Angelo.

She sat on a sofa, wearing an elegant black dress, gloves and a veiled hat. She was beautiful, she had Bianca’s smile. And on a chair next to her was Hades, wearing a black pinstripe suit, hair slicked back. The two were talking, waving their hands agitatedly in a way that felt so familiar.

“Please, my dear,” Hades was saying. “You must come to the Underworld. I don’t care what Persephone thinks! I can keep you safe there.”

Then my mother spoke. Her voice was soft and soothing, with an Italian accent. “No, my love. Raise our children in the land of the dead? I will not do this.”

Hades shook his head. “Maria, listen to me. The war in Europe has turned the other gods against me. A prophecy has been made. My children are no longer safe. Poseidon and Zeus have forced me into an agreement. None of us are to have demigod children ever again.”

Yeah, that lasted well. I rolled my eyes at the very idea of Zeus implementing that rule. How did anyone ever believe it would work? They didn’t just read the myths, they lived them. They had to have known first hand that Zeus would be cast into Tartarus before he stopped sleeping with women.

“But you already have Nico and Bianca,” My mother argued. “Surely-”

“No!” Hades snapped, sounding more like the god I knew. “The prophecy warns of a child who turns sixteen. Zeus has decreed that the children I currently have must be turned over to Camp Half-Blood for proper training, but I know what he means. At best they’ll be watched, imprisoned, turned against their father.”

You didn’t need Zeus to do that. You did it plenty well on your own. I scoffed to myself.

“Even more likely he will not take a chance. He won’t allow demigod children to reach sixteen. He’ll find a way to destroy them.” Hades looked frantic.

Certamente. We will stay together. Zeus is un imbecille.” My mother said. Somehow, the Italian word made sense to me. Despite knowing I was Italian, I’d never been able to understand the language. But hearing my mother speak, I suddenly found myself understanding every word. It was as though something hidden in my memories had unlocked. 

Hades glanced up at the ceiling nervously. “Maria, please. I told you, Zeus gave me a deadline of last week to turn over the children. His wrath will be horrible, and I cannot hide you forever. As long as you are with the children, you are in danger, too.”

Maria just smiled and I saw Bianca in her expression once again. “You are a god, my love. You will protect us. But I will not take Nico and Bianca to the Underworld.”

Hades began to wring his hands, still periodically looking up at the ceiling. “Then – there is another option. I know a place in the desert where time stands still. I could send the children there, just for a while, for their own safety, and we could be together. I will build you a golden palace by the Styx.”

Was this it? Was this why I couldn’t find my mother’s ghost? Because she . . . wasn’t? But no, that couldn’t be it. Bianca had said Maria di Angelo was a ghost.

My mother laughed and shook her head. It sounded like honey on her tongue. “You are a kind man, my love. A generous man. The other gods should see you as I do, and they would not fear you so. But Nico and Bianca need their mother. Besides, they are only children. The gods wouldn’t really hurt them.”

I forced back a sound that was half a sob and half choked laughter. If only she knew, if only my mother knew . . . I blinked tears out of my eyes.

“You don’t know my family.” Hades echoed my thoughts. “Please, Maria, I can’t lose you.”

She put a lip to his fingers to silence him. “You will not lose me. Wait for me while I get my bag. Watch the children.”

Then she leaned forwards and kissed him. I would never look at my father the same way. My mother stood and walked up the stairs, Hades watching her go. She disappeared from sight and suddenly he tensed. Near the pillars, the smaller versions of Bianca and I came to a stop, looking around with wide eyes.

“No!” Hades roared, lifting a hand. A wall of black energy sprung up around Bianca and I’s feet. Then the hotel exploded.

The image faded back to white mist for a few moments, distorting and re-weaving itself. Now, everything was rubble. Dust floated through the air. Fires danced across the remains of the hotel. Lightening flashed across the sky above and thunder rumbled in the building clouds.

Hades was kneeling beside my mother, who was sprawled limp and broken on the rubble. I couldn’t help the tears from trickling down my face.

The smaller versions of me and Bianca stared on from a distance. As we watched, Alecto appeared behind us, hissing and flapping her leathery wings. Neither of us seemed to mind, or even notice.

“Zeus!” Hades said, shaking his fist at the sky like it was a movie. “I will crush you for this! I will bring her back!”

“My lord, you cannot,” Alecto protested, voice low, carrying a warning. “You of all immortals must respect the laws of death.”

Hades’ form was pulsing, glowing with rage. Slowly, he looked over at the smaller Bianca and I and said bitterly, “Take them. Wash their memories clean in the Lethe and bring them to the Lotus Hotel. Zeus will not harm them there.”

“As you wish, my lord.” Alecto bowed. “And the woman’s body?”

“Take her as well.” Was Hades choking back tears? No, the Underworld would freeze over first, surely. “Give her the ancient rites.”

The scene erased Alecto, Bianca, my mother’s body and I, fading us away so all that was left was Hades. And a young girl I had never seen. She stood behind Hades in the rubble, near the remains of the sofa my mother had been sitting on. She had short black hair, sad eyes and was wearing a multi-coloured dress and large hoop earrings.

“I warned you.” She said softly.

Hades turned and a scowl crept across his face. “You dare come here? I should blast you to dust!”

“You cannot.” The girl said calmly. “The power of Delphi protects me.”

Was this . . . an Oracle? The Oracle? I had never seen her personally, but I’d heard the stories during my one week at camp, all those months ago. But now, in this memory, she was far from a rotting corpse.

“You’ve killed the woman I loved!” Hades roared. “Your prophecy brought us to this!”

He stood up, looming over her. The girl remained calm. “Zeus ordained the explosion to destroy the children because you defied his will. I had nothing to do with it. And I did warn you to hide them sooner.”

“I couldn’t!” Hades protested. “Maria would not let me! Besides, they were innocent.”

“Nevertheless, they are your children, which makes them dangerous. Even if you put them away in the Lotus Hotel, you only delay the problem. Nico and Bianca will never be able to rejoin the world lest they turn sixteen.”

Unfortunately, the Oracle wasn’t quite right about that.

“Because of your so-called Great Prophecy,” Hades spat back. “And you have forced me into an oath to have no other children. You have left me with nothing.”

“I foresee a future,” the girl said, shrugging, “I cannot change it.”

Hades’ expression became one of contempt. A black fire lit his eyes. “Then, Oracle, hear the words of Hades. Perhaps I cannot bring back Maria. Nor can I bring you an early death. But your soul is still mortal, and I can curse you.”

The Oracle’s eyes widened. “You would not-”

“I swear,” Hades pressed on, “as long as my children remain outcasts, as long as I labour under the curse of your Great Prophecy, the Oracle of Delphi will never have another mortal host. You will never rest in peace. No other will take your place. Your body will wither and die, and still the Oracle’s spirit will be locked inside you. You will speak your bitter prophecies until you crumble to nothing. The Oracle will die with you!”

The girl screamed and the image blasted into shreds. I fell to my knees in shock and exhaustion. My head was pounding, I could barely form a comprehensible thought. But I realised that right in front of me, where the image had been, was my father.

He glowered down at me, looking more furious than I had ever seen. “And just what do you think you’re doing?”

Chapter Text

“I, uh- I . . . I-” I couldn’t find my tongue. I could hardly comprehend what I had just seen.

Hades turned away in disgust. “Take him to his room. And this time? Make sure he stays there.”

I glanced behind my father and saw Thanatos in the same grey suit and trench coat as earlier. He stepped forwards, “Sir, the war is creating casualties, I can’t afford to stay-”

“Don’t argue with me, Thanatos. I will cut your pay.”

Thanatos’ expression faltered. “Very well sir. I will take the boy to his room and make sure he stays there.” Thanatos walked to my side and put a hand on my shoulder. “Come on Nico.”

“Wait, wait!” I protested. “My lord- you- my mother- you can’t just-”

“I don’t have time for this.” Hades didn’t turn around.

“You don’t have time for this?” I scoffed. “What do you have to do that’s so busy? The Underworld is on lockdown, you’re essentially doing nothing, what do you mean you don’t have time?”

“Thanatos.” Hades said.

“Yes, sir. Come on Nico.” Thanatos unfurled a black wing, blocking Hades from my sight and ushering me away.

These were gods, I forced myself to remember, and trudged back into the castle and up to my room with Thanatos behind me. We reached the bedroom and entered.

“So, now I’m here, you can go,” I tried. “I won’t go anywhere.”

“Nice try, son of Hades.” Thanatos closed the door firmly. “But I do not think that you’ll keep your word.”

“Surely you have stuff to do?” I prompted, although I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this half-hearted attempt to convince Thanatos to leave. I walked over to the bed and sat down. Thanatos leaned against the door, hands in his trench coat’s pockets.

“I do.” He agreed. “But if I don’t watch you, I will most certainly get a demotion. I need the money.”

“What for?” I frowned. “You’re a god.”

“If I save up enough I’m going to go on holidays.” A small smile graced Thanatos’ face.

“Holidays?”

“The god of reaping souls never gets any holidays.” Thanatos shook his head. “Too many deaths, day in, day out. I work twenty four hours a day every day.”

“That’s a little extreme.”

“That’s why I want a holiday.” Thanatos agreed. “I think Alaska may be a nice break.”

“So . . . will people just not die for a week while you’re gone?” I figured. “Or . . . will ghosts come back?”

“No, no. They will still die and stay dead.” Thanatos assured me. “The Doors of Death make sure the dead remain where they are supposed to be. And I do not work alone. Seven billion people in the earth, that’s too many deaths a day for me to manage alone.”

“Who helps you? With your work, I mean.” I asked.

“Well, when spirits are prepared, they can make their own way to the Underworld. And I have my brother, Moros, god of violent death. Unfortunately, violent death is not nearly as pleasant a job as peaceful death and while he and I share the job, I’m the one with all the recognition. He resents me.” Thanatos asked.

“And what did you say before? The Doors of Death? What’s that?” I asked, not really wanting to hear all about Thanatos’ family dilemmas when I was still trying to work out my own.

“Now that, Nico, is the exact type of information that your father would not like you to hear about.” Thanatos said, raising an eyebrow.

“And that is the exact reason you’re going to tell me about them. Please?”

Thanatos sighed and chuckled. “It would do you no harm to know. The Doors of Death are a fast passage in and out of the Underworld. It’s a way for myself, Moros and other gods of death to bring spirits in and out of the Underworld if they do not have access to a proper entrance.”

“Like DOA Recording Studios?”

“Yes, like DOA recording studios. But the location of the Doors of Death is not so easy to pin down. It changes after each use to keep it a secret.”

“But you know their location?”

“Of course I know. I am in control of the Doors at all times.” Thanatos said.

“So could I use the Doors of Death since I’m the son of Hades?” I asked.

“If you were to find it, I believe so.” Thanatos said.

“And it works to get in and out of the Underworld?” I asked.

“It works both ways, yes.”

“And you know where it is now?”

“Yes, why?”

“Could you show me?”

“Nico, I am not so foolish as to allow you to escape.”

I sighed and flopped back on the bed. “That sucks.”

“What would you do, even if you were to escape?” Thanatos asked.

I sat up again and stared at him. He was gazing out the window, golden eyes focused on the picturesque burning hell-scape beyond the bars.

“Are you hinting at something?” I demanded.

“No?” He seemed surprised.

Where would I go, I asked myself. I couldn’t leave and fail Percy. But Hades would kill me again if I bothered him. Maybe I could visit Pemma, Jun and Tao in China. But it would take up too much energy, there was a war going on.

Not that anyone needed my help in said war, I thought bitterly.

“I don’t know.” I said finally. “There’s nowhere I can go.”

“Nowhere you can go? Or nowhere you feel you should go?” Thanatos asked.

“The latter, I guess.”

“Perhaps that is because you feel as though you should be here.” Thanatos suggested.

“But the Underworld is horrible! I don’t belong here! Do I?”

“That is not for me to say,” Thanatos shrugged, “I am merely suggesting you have some unfinished business here in the Underworld.”

“That’s stupid.” I said, although I had a sinking feeling that he may have a point. Why were gods always so infuriating like that? Did the skill to be always right about this sort of thing come in the job description?

But now that Thanatos said it, I did have unfinished business. Percy had told me to ‘work on’ my father. To try and convince him to fight the Titans and help win the war. It was a losing battle, but it was something to work on. And it really was why I was still here, wasn’t it? How could I leave Percy hanging like that? Let him down even more than I already had?

I couldn’t.

“You’re right.” I admitted.

Thanatos smiled smugly. He shrugged his shoulders, making his massive wings shift and rustle. “I had a hunch, you worked the rest out for yourself. So, Nico, if I were to let you out of this room, which would be most irresponsible of me, where would you go?”

“I’d go to Hades. I’d tell him to stop being a big baby and to not let the Titans win the war. I mean, revenge on your sucky family shouldn’t come at the cost of the apocalypse.” I said.

“Perhaps you should not call the Lord of the Dead a ‘big baby’, but I am glad you are getting the right idea.” Thanatos said.

I chuckled, then a thought occurred to me. “But wouldn’t you be all for the apocalypse?”

“Oh no!” Thanatos shook his head solemnly. “If the world were to end, I’d never get to visit Alaska.”

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Thanatos didn’t end up releasing me. Instead, he pulled out a pack of cards. We sat cross-legged on my bed as he showed me several magic tricks that I realised were genuine slight-of-hand tricks rather than the Mist, and I taught him how to play Go Fish. It took a little while, but after he got the hang of it, Thanatos showed me how to do some card tricks in return.

“Where do you get the time to learn card tricks?” I asked.

“When Hecate visits the castle her room is right next to mine,” Thanatos said. “She’s a big fan of slight-of-hand, although recently she’s been more a fan or simple Mist manipulation. Much easier than card tricks.”

“Really?” I laughed. “Magic is easier than card tricks?”

“What would one expect from a Titan of magic?”

“Fair point.” I said, “Now show me that last card trick again, I think I’ve almost got it.”

Before Thanatos had the chance to show me, the door lock clicked in the door and it creaked open. Hades stood in the corridor, looking equal parts imposing and like an awkward dad. Thanatos cleared his throat and leapt off the bed, smoothing his trench coat.

“Sir.” He said in a strangled voice, bowing. It was the most flustered I’d ever seen him.

“Thanatos, you may return to your regular duties.” Hades said, seemingly unbothered by the fact Thanatos had been playing Go Fish with his son.

“Yes, sir.” Thanatos disappeared in a puff of black smoke.

Hades cleared his throat, peering in at me. “Nico, may I come in?”

“Uh, okay. Fine.” I said, not exactly sure what I should be feeling. Sorry for what Hades had been through? Angry at what he’d done? Annoyed that I hadn’t learnt that last card trick from Thanatos? I settled for apathetic. Maybe Hades would surprise me.

Hades walked over to my bed. “Can I sit?”

“Sure. Go ahead.” I said, making sure my voice was monotone.

“Thank you.” Hades sat down on the edge of my bed. We sat in awkward silence for a minute, two minutes, three minutes, oh gods, five minutes. Neither of us really knew what to say, I guessed. I sure didn’t know what to say, and I wasn’t going to be the one to start the conversation.

“It has come to my attention that perhaps I have not been the best father of late.” Hades said finally, and I burst out laughing. He waited, a little impatiently, until I stifled my laughter.

“Wow, how’d you figure that out?” I rolled my eyes.

“And I wanted to talk,” Hades pressed on, “about, uh, that.”

“What do you mean by ‘that’?” I asked. “Is it that as in, maybe I shouldn’t’ve threatened my son’s, uh, shouldn’t have threatened Percy Jackson and imprisoned him? Or that as in, maybe I shouldn’t’ve told my son I wished he were dead? Or that as in, maybe I should stop keeping secrets about my son from my son? Or that as in, maybe I shouldn’t keep imprisoning my son in his bedroom-”

“Okay, I understand. I have been a bad father.” Hades smiled tensely.

“You’ve been a horrible father.” I said, just to see if I could get away with it.

“I have been a horrible father.” Hades said. “And I am willing to make amends.”

“That’s not like you. What’s the catch?” I said bluntly.

“The catch?”

“You’re being nice. What do you want in return for me forgiving you?”

“I want you to stop snooping about in things that do not involve you-”

“Uh, have you met me?” I smirked. “I’m self-aware enough to know that’s not happening.”

“Very well, I want you to ask me before snooping about in things that do not involve you.” Hades amended. “I want you to be honest with what you are doing and where you are going and to stop sneaking off.”

“What? You can’t expect me to do that!” I frowned. “I hardly know where you are half the time!”

“At least leave a note, or tell Bob where you are going.” Hades said.

“Fine. I guess I can do that. But you can’t stop me from going anywhere in that case. Or lock me in my room. I’m not ten anymore.” I said.

“Ten, twelve, two hundred, practically the same.” Hades said flippantly. “But yes, I will respect that.”

“Also can I talk to you without being worried I’ll be blown to smithereens? It’s not exactly fun thinking I’ll be killed for telling you I don’t like screech owls-”

“You don’t like screech owls?” Hades thundered. “Screech owls are majestic and terrifying! That is why they are one of my sacred animals! You, as my son, should respect that!”

“This is what I’m talking about!” I protested, twisting the ring on my finger anxiously. What if Hades did decide to blow me up over a dislike of screech owls?

Hades sighed, seeming to deflate again. “Very well. I see your point, although your opinion on screech owls is wrong.”

I rolled my eyes. “Okay, so I won’t be killed for not liking screech owls. Great.”

“One more thing.” Hades said.

“Okay?”

“I want you to be respectful of Persephone.”

“Uh, no.”

“No?”

“No. She’s always rude to me-”

“She has perfectly valid reason to be-”

“That reason being she hates someone I have no memory of!” I cried. “I at least hate her because she’s always rude to me!”

“Nico!” Hades barked.

“Look, I’ll cooperate with her if she stops looking at me like she wants to turn me back into a dandelion.” I said.

“I’ll speak to her about that.” Hades conceded. “Anything else while we’re here, Nico?”

“I want you to fight the Titans.” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

“Excuse me?”

“There is a literal war going on. I want to help, and Percy thinks the best way I can do that is by convincing you to fight, so-”

“You want me to fight in a war because you have a schoolboy crush?” Hades raised an eyebrow.

“Ye- no! It’s not a stupid crush.” I snapped, cheeks flushing. “I want you to fight because otherwise we’ll all die and- and-”

Hades stood up, shaking his head. “Fighting for the Olympians is the one thing I will not do, understand Nico?”

“No.”

“Good. Thank you for the talk.” Hades walked out of my room and disappeared down the corridor.

“I said no!” I yelled to his receding footsteps.

Chapter Text

I decided to go on a walk. There wasn’t much else to do, no sign of Thanatos or Bob and I decided to wait a little while and come up with some better arguments before trying to convince my father to support Percy Jackson and the Olympians in the war. And did Percy really want my help anyway? I could’ve slept, I didn’t know how long since I last properly slept rather than collapsed from exhaustion, but I felt like a thousand electric shocks were running through my body after everything that had just happened.

I trekked out into the Fields of Asphodel, forging through the hordes of spirits who parted for me as I passed. I wasn’t sure how far I walked, my gaze stayed fixed on my feet, until I bumped into a ghost. I stumbled backwards, gasping at the sudden feeling. Touching a ghost was cold, it sent shivers down your spine even when you were prepared. Unprepared, I felt like I’d been shot by a bolt of icy lightening.

The spirit stared right at me with what I thought were golden eyes. I could almost make out a familiar head of fuzzy hair and a very familiar aura of death. This was the spirit I had found before in the fields of Asphodel. This time, though, there was no time limit to how long I could spend talking with this ghost.

“We met before, huh?” I started, a little awkwardly. “You’re that ghost from New Orleans.”

The spirit nodded vaguely, reaching towards me. I stepped back before her long nails could touch me, unwilling to initiate any closer contact.

“I went to New Orleans. Saw a gravestone at a cemetery there.” I recounted. “It was, uh, Sammy Valdez?”

The ghost hissed and shook violently.

“Okay, guessing you’re not a fan. It’s just . . . I saw someone who looked like you when I touched the tomb, like a memory or something.” I told her.

The ghost’s shuddering stopped.

“Gods, I wish I had a Happy Meal so we could talk normally,” I said, “I’ll have to remember that next time I’m up there.”

The ghost’s mouth moved and I heard a faint whisper.

“I can’t hear you, I’m sorry-”

The ghost tried again. “Mmrrie.”

“Mmrrie?” I repeated the mumble. Something in my mind clicked. “Maria? Maria di Angelo? Do you know my mother?”

The ghost seemed irked, but I couldn’t quite make out the stream of whispers that followed.

“If you do, please, tell me, you have to tell-”

The ghost wheeled around, floated a few feet away and disappeared.

“Uh, I’ll buy you a Happy Meal?” I asked tentatively to the air. The ghost didn’t reappear. “Whatever, you probably don’t even like McDonalds.”

What were the chances I’d ever see that ghost again? Next to none.

I continued onwards.

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Time was tricky in the Underworld. If you walked long enough, everything would merge together into a haze of greyness. I could’ve been walking for five minutes, or five hours, or five years. Time in magical places was unfair like that.

I only realised how far I’d gone when I reached the gates of Erebus. I stopped and watched the lines of spirits lined up and trekking through into the Underworld as if cueing up for a ride at an amusement park. Minus the amusement, seeing as no one looked anything but neutral in death. Cerberus stood above them all, guarding the spirits, the leftmost head chewing lazily on a skeleton. I decided I didn’t want to know where it came from.

I watched the ghosts slowly trickle into the Underworld for a while, wondering who each one was, if any where demigods and if so, was it someone at Camp Half-Blood? Someone I had met? Were Pemma, Jun and Tao among that crowd? No, I hadn’t felt their deaths, hadn’t sensed their lifelines being cut through, so surely not.

Cerberus finished the skeleton he’d been eating. I wasn’t sure why, maybe because he was reminding me of Mrs O’Leary, which reminded me of Percy, I whistled and called out, “Cerberus! Come here boy!”

The three-headed dog turned, tail wagging, tongues lolling out of his mouths. His six eyes focused on me and he bounded over, squashing meandering spirits with each step. They disappeared in angry hisses of steam, but Cerberus didn’t give them a second glance. He stopped by me, staring expectantly.

“Hey there.” I said, lifting a hand cautiously. Instantly, his middle head dipped down into my hand and I scratched his head. His fur was surprisingly soft and silky. I wondered briefly how many skeleton servants were in charge of washing Cerberus and how much they were paid. Probably a lot, seeing as there was a high chance of being eaten.

“Must get pretty boring standing here.” I told him, as if he could understand me. “Day in, day out. Not that there are any days down here. When was the last time you went on a walk, huh?”

At the word ‘walk’, Cerberus’ ears pricked up, all six of them, and his tail began wagging so fast it was just a blur.

“Sorry boy, I’m really busy, I think. Well, there’s a war going on and I still don’t know what I can really do about it, but I’m trying. So I can’t take you for a walk right now.” I felt another layer of guilt sweep over me. I had gotten someone else’s hopes up just to send them crashing down. I was horrible. It just made it more pathetic that this time I was feeling guilty over a dog.

Cerberus wined, giving me three sets of puppy-dog eyes.

“I’ll come back later and take you on a walk. Maybe we can visit Mrs O’Leary. Then again, she’s Percy’s and he hates me, so probably not. Nonetheless, I’ll take you on a walk.” I promised. “Or maybe I can get Bob to do it if I die in the war? Do you think he’s a dog person or a car person?”

Cerberus snorted, which I assumed meant ‘cat person’.

“Well, I’ll come back sometime.” I promised, and then realised that was implying that I was leaving now. “Bye Cerberus. Be a good dog. Don’t let any evil spirits escape. If you see Minos please sit on him.”

Cerberus barked and wagged his tail again.

I wish people were that easy to please, I thought, then turned and started my long trek back to the palace.

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It was only when I had returned to my bedroom that I realised how utterly and completely exhausted I was. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had slept. Had I slept since Percy had been in the Underworld? How long ago was that?

And with the realisation, I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. My eyes were heavy, my limbs were sore, a headache was pounding in the back of my head. I toed my shoes off and stumbled across to my bed, managing to put my head on the pillow before my eyes slid closed and I was fast asleep.

I was dreaming, but of course that wasn’t a normal dream. No, gods forbid I would ever get proper rest. I was in New York, at least, I thought I was, because I was pretty certain that I was standing at the base of the Empire State Building.

And I was standing among the strangest collection of people I’d ever seen in one place together. Chiron, Percy, Annabeth and the campers from Camp Half-Blood, Thalia and the Hunters of Artemis and a collection of the strangest centaurs I’d ever seen all stood about on the curb, looking bloody and bruised and beaten down and even more exhausted than me.

I felt stupid, being in the Underworld, away from the war going on above. Why should I be any more sheltered than them? Just because my father was stubborn?

“Dude,” said a centaur wearing a shirt with the words BIG CHEF UBER GUY, NEW MEXICO CHAPTER spelt across it. “That was more fun than our last convention in Vegas!”

I wondered what I had missed and if these centaurs’ definition of fun was the conventional one or not. Judging by the appearance of the centaur who answered, it was not. The second centaur was wearing a black leather jacket that didn’t look half bad and an old, dirty World War II army helmet that looked much more than half bad.

“Yeah.” He said. “We totally wasted them!”

Chiron sidled over to the centaur with the leather jacket and patted him on the back. “You did well, my friends, but don’t get careless. Kronos should never be underestimated. Now why don’t you visit the diner on West Thirty-third and get some breakfast? I hear the Delaware chapter found a stash of root bear.”

“Root beer!” The centaurs picked up the cheer and evaporated from the sidewalk, almost trampling over each other in their rush for root beer.

Chiron smiled. Annabeth jogged to his side and gave him a big hug. Mrs O’Leary leaned down and licked his face. I assumed that he had been absent from the battle, seeing how everyone was so happy to see him.

I knew if I showed up no one would react with any amount of happiness to see me. But this wasn’t about me.

“Ack,” Chiron grumbled, pushing Mrs O’Leary away gently. “Enough of that, dog. Yes, I’m glad to see you, too.”

“Chiron, thanks. Talk about saving the day.” Percy said. And I couldn’t ignore him any longer. He looked good. Well, actually he looked like he’d been fighting Titans all day and wanted nothing more than to kneel over and die right there on the footpath. But he still looked good. Except he didn’t because I wasn’t allowing myself to think like that.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” Chiron shrugged. “Centaurs travel fast, as you know. We can bend distance as we ride. Even so, getting all the centaurs together was no easy task. The Party Ponies are not exactly organised.”

“How’d you get through the magic defences around the city?” Annabeth asked.

“They slowed us down a bit,” Chiron said, “but I think they’re intended mostly to keep mortals out. Kronos doesn’t want any puny humans getting in the way of his great victory.”

Thank the gods, I thought. Kronos hasn’t won yet. Of course not, not with Percy Jackson fighting against him.

“So maybe other reinforcements can get through,” Percy said hopefully. I wondered if he was thinking of me when he said that. Probably not. Why would he?

Chiron stroked his beard. “Perhaps, though time is short. As soon as Kronos regroups, he will attack again. Without the element of surprise on our side . . .”

Maybe they weren’t winning so well, even with Percy.

“And Typhon?” Percy asked, allowing a whole new layer of dread to settle in my stomach.

Chiron’s face darkened. “The gods are tiring. Dionysus was incapacitated yesterday. Typhon smashed his chariot and the wine god went down somewhere in the Appalachians. No one has seen him since.”

I knew from my admittedly brief time at camp that not many people were fans of Mr D, but I still felt some sort of sadness that the wine dude had been injured. He wasn’t as bad as some of the gods, at least he didn’t pretend to care about the demigods who he ordered about.

“Hephaestus is out of action as well.” Chiron continued. “He was thrown from the battle so hard he created a new lake in West Virginia. He will heal, but not soon enough to help. The others still fight. They’ve managed to slow Typhon’s approach. But the monster cannot be stopped. He will arrive in New York by this time tomorrow. Once he and Kronos combine forces-”

“Then what chance do we have?” Percy demanded. “We can’t hold out another day.”

It was worse than I had thought. I thought that the blessing from the Styx would’ve been enough. But then . . . how long had they held out already? It could’ve been days, weeks, even months. I didn’t have any way to know, but I had to get Hades to help them fight, and fast.

“We’ll have to.” Thalia said determinedly. “I’ll see about setting some new traps around the perimeter.”

She stood from where she’d been sitting on the curb and limped off into the crowd.

“I will help her.” Chiron said, eyes full of worry. “I should make sure my brethren don’t go too overboard with the root beer.”

He turned and galloped away, leaving just Percy and Annabeth. And the rest of everyone else, I supposed. Annabeth busied herself by cleaning the blade of her knife on the edge of her orange shirt. Percy watched her carefully. Not in the same way he watched me carefully. Less like he was looking for a threat and more like he was worried for her.

“At least your mum is okay.” Percy said finally.

“If you can call fighting Typhon okay,” Annabeth didn’t sound okay. She locked eyes with Percy. “Percy, even with the centaurs’ help, I’m starting to think-”

“I know.” Percy said. I suddenly felt like I shouldn’t be here, like I should go somewhere else, this moment was way, way too personal. But I couldn’t move, I was glued to the spot. “Listen, there was some . . . some visions Hestia showed me.”

Was that when he was with me? I hadn’t known that, Percy hadn’t told me that. I didn’t feel betrayed by that at all.

“You mean about Luke?” Annabeth asked, voice small.

“Yeah. You and Thalia and Luke.” Percy confirmed. “The first time you met. And the time you met Hermes.”

Annabeth slipped her knife back into its sheath. “Luke promised he’d never let me get hurt. He said . . . he said we’d be a new family, and it would turn out better than his.”

Percy and Annabeth didn’t break eye contact. They didn’t even seem to blink.

“Thalia talked to me earlier.” Percy said softly. “She’s afraid-”

“That I can’t face Luke.” Annabeth finished.

Percy nodded. “But there’s something else you should know. Ethan Nakamura seemed to think Luke was still alive inside his body, maybe even fighting Kronos for control.”

Well. That was news to me. And to Annabeth, I could see the way her eyes lit up.

“I didn’t want to tell you.” Percy admitted.

Annabeth turned slightly to look up at the Empire State Building, at Olympus. “Percy, for so much of my life, I felt like everything was changing, all the time. I didn’t have anyone I could rely on.”

Percy nodded, but stayed quiet. I got that feeling again, stronger, the one that meant that I really shouldn’t be listening to this conversation.

“I ran away when I was seven.” Annabeth said. “Then with Luke and Thalia I thought I’d found a family, but it fell apart almost immediately. What I’m saying . . . I hate it when people let me down, when things are temporary. I think that’s why I want to be an architect.”

“To build something permanent.” Percy agreed. “A monument to last a thousand years.”

They were still maintaining eye contact. Both of them would be great at a staring contest.

“I guess that sounds like my fatal flaw again.”

Percy took a while to respond. “I guess I understand how you feel. But Thalia’s right. Luke has already betrayed you so many times. He was evil even before Kronos. I don’t want him to hurt you any more.”

Annabeth pursed her lips. “And you’ll understand if I keep hoping there’s a chance you’re wrong.”

Percy finally looked away. He was quiet for a few moments, then looked back to Annabeth, a little dazed.

“What?” She asked, frowning.

“Um . . . nothing, I guess.”

Yeah right it was nothing, but I wasn’t even really there and even if I had been there was no way I’d ask.

Percy looked away down the street again, then his eyes widened and he started running.

“Percy!” Annabeth yelled after him. “Where are you going?”

She ran after him and I, not knowing what else to do, followed. Percy came to a stop by a beat-up blue Prius with a badly dented hood.

“They- they must’ve seen those blue lights in the sky.” Percy said, yanking on the door handle. “I need to get them out.”

I peered into the windscreen and saw Sally Jackson and Paul Blofis in the car, both fast asleep.

“Percy.” Annabeth said gently.

“I can’t leave them here!” Percy said frantically, beginning to pound on the windshield. “I have to move them. I have to-”

“Percy, just- just hold on. We can push the car to a side street, all right? They’re going to be fine.” Annabeth waved to Chiron, who was talking to a group of centaurs a little further down the block. He caught her eye and galloped over.

“What’s- Oh, dear. I see.” Chiron came to a stop, frowning at the car.

“They were coming to find me.” Percy paced anxiously in front of the car. “My mum must’ve sensed something was wrong.”

“Most likely.” Chiron agreed soothingly. “But, Percy, they will be fine. The best thing we can do for them is stay focused on our job.”

Percy turned back to the car. “No way.”

Annabeth gasped, pressing her hand to the window. “That’s impossible! I thought you left that at the Plaza.”

“Locked in a vault.” Percy agreed.

I looked to the back seat of the car and saw a black-and-white Greek jar, seat-belted in behind Sally Jackson, its lid wrapped in a leather harness. It looked like any other jar, like one of the hundreds found in the Underworld but also . . . not.

Chiron spoke, “That isn’t-”

“Pandora’s jar.” Percy said, then blurted out a story about meeting Prometheus and getting the jar. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but I knew it was bad.

“Then the jar is yours.” Chiron didn’t sound happy about it. “It will follow you and tempt you to open it, no matter where you leave it. It will appear when you are weakest.”

Percy drew his sword and shattered the front window. “We’ll put the car in neutral. Push them out of the way. And take that stupid jar to Olympus.”

Chiron nodded. “A good plan. But, Percy . . .”

He faltered, trailing off and looking up. Percy and Annabeth followed his gaze. So did I. A far off mechanical sound met my ears, the distant chop-chop-chop of a helicopter’s blades. It came into sight, along with the jeering of what I assumed was Kronos’ army.

It was dark red, with brilliant green letters plastered on the side. DE. Percy looked over to Annabeth. Her face was red with what I assumed was anger.

“What is she doing here?” Annabeth demanded. “How did she get through the barrier?”

“Who?” Chiron looked as confused as I felt. “What mortal would be insane enough-”

Suddenly the helicopter shuddered in mid-air and fell forwards into a nosedive towards the ground.

“The Morpheus enchantment!” Chiron cried with horror. “The foolish mortal pilot is asleep.”

Annabeth whistled loudly. Almost immediately a Pegasus appeared, landing on the sidewalk beside Percy.

I stared at the helicopter spiralling towards the ground. The bright green DE flashed amid the red of the helicopter. It was more than familiar. I racked my brain trying to figure out where I’d seen it before.

“Come on, Percy.” Annabeth growled. “We have to save your friend.”

Then it hit me. That was Rachel Elizabeth Dare.

Chapter Text

I was so surprised I managed to wake myself up, which was something I’d been previously unaware it was possible to do. I shot bolt upright in bed, terror and anxiety clutching at my chest for a hundred different reasons.

Percy was losing the war. Percy needed help. Percy and Annabeth. Percy and Rachel. The war.

I had to help, in any way I could. It was too late to worry about whether Percy really wanted my help. If I didn’t convince Hades that he needed to go to New York right now, then the entire world could end. And Percy would be in New York with both Annabeth and Rachel. Not that that had anything to do with anything.

I climbed out of bed, shoved my shoes back on my feet and marched out of my room. I had to find Hades, convince him to fight, and help Percy win the war. If not, I would go out there and try and help by myself, Hades or no Hades. It would be no Hades. When would he ever do something actually useful?

Like be where he was supposed to be, I thought to myself as I entered the throne room. It was completely empty, save for a single spirit who was dusting the columns along the room.

I walked over and cleared my throat. “Um, hi. Do you have any idea where Lord Hades is?”

The spirit turned, eyes assessing me, then pointed out towards the front door.

“Right. Thank you.” I said, turning and following the spirit’s directions. I wondered down the side of the palace until I came to the entrance to Persephone’s gardens. I could hear someone’s voice, Demeter’s I thought, rambling on about who-knew-what. There were three powerful gods that could be doing anything to help, and they were all lazing about in the Underworld on probably the worst holiday of their lives.

I opened the gate and entered the garden. Hades, Demeter and Persephone sat at a table on the castle’s veranda. Judging by the box of cereal on the table, it was breakfast time. Or maybe that was just what Demeter ate at every single meal.

“-that demigod of yours.” Demeter was saying. “He could use some more meat on his bones. Much too skinny!”

“I’m sure Nico is eating fine, Demeter.” Hades said testily.

When is the last time I ate at all? I asked myself.

“Go invite him over, don’t leave him standing there!” Demeter continued.

Hades’ back straightened and he turned, looking at me. “How long have you been standing there?”

“Ten seconds?” I said.

“What did you want, Nico?” Hades stood and tucked his chair neatly into the table before walking a few steps towards me.

I should have kept to my word and come up with some good solid arguments on why Hades should help – other than the fact that if he didn’t the world would end.

“I want you to go help out Percy in New York.” I said instead.

Hades sighed and rolled his eyes, as if I was being unreasonable for wanting him to stop the apocalypse. If your father's a god, is it really so unreasonable? I didn't think so.

“Nico, we have talked about this.” Hades said, more patiently than I had been expected, which was still rather impatient. “I cannot do that.”

“Why? Because you’re still selfishly insisting that I’ll be the child of the Big Three who will save the world?” I asked.

“Would you like me to get you a bowl of cereal?” Demeter asked.

“Mother! Don’t invite him to eat with us!” Persephone hissed.

“Nico, go and eat your cereal.” Hades said.

“No!” I cried. “Only if you help Percy!”

“Percy this, Percy that.” Hades mocked and I was very exceptionally glad that Percy wasn’t here. “Why should I help the other Olympians? Just because you have a schoolboy crush-”

“I do not!”

“They have never helped me!” Hades ranted, beginning to pace up and down. “They think I am evil, worthless, cruel, manipulative-”

“Father, everyone thinks of me like that!” I argued. “I’m still trying to help. The world we end if you don’t!”

“And I shall still be hated if I do.”

“If the Titans win – which they will without you – there will be nothing left.”

“Nonsense. My kingdom will not fall so easily.”

Demeter sighed. “If you don’t want cereal, perhaps I can arrange toast, but the nutritional value-”

“Cereal later, war now.” I insisted, following Hades up and down. “Help the Olympians. You have to!”

“I don’t have to do anything!” Hades snapped. “I’m a god!”

“Father,” I said, “if Olympus falls, your own palace’s safety doesn’t matter. You’ll fade, too.”

“I am not an Olympian!” Hades growled. “My family has made that quite clear.”

Why is he so stubborn? I asked myself. “You are. Whether you like it or not.”

“You saw what they did to your mother. Zeus killed her. And you would have me help them? They deserve what they get!”

That was a low blow, surely even Hades had to know that. My mind was racing, could I turn it back on him?

Persephone sighed overdramatically, as if this was all about her like it always had to be, turning the cutlery to roses. “Could we please not talk about that woman?”

“You know what would help this boy?” Demeter said suddenly. “Farming.”

Persephone rolled her eyes. “Mother-”

“Six months behind a plough. Excellent character building.” Demeter nodded wisely.

I stepped in front of Hades as he turned, forcing my father to face me. “My mother understood about family. That’s why she didn’t want to leave us. You can’t just abandon your family because they did something horrible. You’ve done horrible things to them, too.”

“Maria died!” Hades roared.

“You can’t just cut yourself off from the other gods!”

“I’ve done very well at it for thousands of years.”

“And has that made you feel any better?” I demanded, trying not to feel guilty about being a massive hypocrite. “Has that curse on the Oracle helped you at all? Holding grudges is a fatal flaw. Bianca warned me about that and she was right.”

“For demigods! I am immortal, all powerful!” Hades exclaimed.

If you’re really so all powerful stop the gods dammed war, I thought, but didn’t interrupt Hades’ monologue.

“I would not help the other gods if they begged me, if Percy Jackson himself pleaded-”

That was too far. He insulted me, my mother, my sister, Percy. Everyone who I had. And I wasn’t going to let that happen.

“You’re just as much an outcast as I am!” I yelled. “Stop being angry about it and do something helpful for once! That’s the only way they’ll respect you!”

It had taken me a long year to learn that lesson. Hades had had two thousand and still he hadn’t seemed to have gotten the memo.

Hades’ palm filled with black fire. His gaze was downright murderous, more so than I’d ever seen before when he looked at me.

“Go on.” My voice dropped. “Blast me. That’s just what the other gods would expect from you. Prove them right.”

“Yes, please.” Demeter complained. “Shut him up.”

Persephone, who had been watching it all go down in pensive silence, sighed. “Oh, I don’t know. I would rather fight in the war than eat another bowl of cereal. This is boring.”

Hades roared in anger, flinging the black fireball. I braced myself. The fireball hit a silver tree next to me, melting it into a pool of liquid metal. Then he disappeared into thin air.

I stood, breathing heavily.

For a long moment, everyone was still. Me, Persephone, Demeter, the one skeletal gardener who stood half hidden by a bush of rubies, as if his giant tree-cutter hid him from sight. Then Persephone snapped her fingers and turned the silverware back into spoons.

“Nico, come here.”

Okay. I would get turned into a daffodil. Or maybe a dandelion. That sounded about right, a useless weed in a crack in the pavement in the Underworld.

I dragged my feet against the path in a futile attempt to slow the walk to the table.

“Sit down.” Persephone said, still in that tone of voice that gave nothing away.

I sat and stared at my bowl of dried cereal. It looked disgusting.

“Mother,” Persephone said, “have you seen Charon today? I was meaning to talk to him about that pay rise he keeps going on about.”

“No.” Demeter said. “I can send a zombie out to look-”

“Would you mind going and finding him? Now? Please mother?”  Persephone said.

“Ah, yes.” Demeter narrowed her eyes, nodding as if she knew what was going on. “Remember dear, Eurytion could always use some help at his farm, that should fix the boy right up-”

“Yes Mother, I’ll keep it in mind. Goodbye.” Persephone said tensely.

Demeter disappeared in a shower of wheat.

“Now that she’s gone,” Persephone mumbled, turning her stern gaze on me.

“Yes ma’am?” I made myself ask.

“I’ve been thinking-”

“I would much rather be turned into a lily than a daffodil.” I blurted out, then tried to amend my mistake. “You know, um, symbolically. It’s just, I think-”

“Nico, enough.” Persephone said.

“Sorry ma’am.” I mumbled.

“As I was saying, I’ve been thinking. I did not like your mother.” Persephone started. “She tempted Hades away from me, twice. My husband is usually a very loyal god and it was unlike him to . . . lust after any mortal, let alone the same mortal twice.”

I nodded, biting my tongue to stop myself from angering yet another god.

“I was jealous. I reacted irrationally.” Persephone said, extremely out of character. “I do not have to like your mother, in fact, I should not like your mother. However, that does not inherently mean I do not have to like you.”

My jaw dropped so far I thought it may fall off my face.

“Close your mouth, you look like a fool.” Persephone said with a wry smile.

“Yes ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.” I said, shocked beyond belief at what I was hearing.

“Spending all this time in the Underworld . . .” Persephone reached out and touched one of the flowers in the vase at the centre of the table. Its petals began falling off, one after the other. “It’s rather boring. And my family is up there, fighting, almost dying. And having Hades and my mother arguing all day long about every little thing, it’s frustrating.”

“Okay?” I said, trying not to get at all hopeful, even though this sounded like it might be good news.

“What I’m saying is, I think it may be great fun to go fight in a little skirmish, oh, up there.” Persephone pointed towards the roof and gave me a smile that was uncharacteristically friendly.

“Up there?” I asked. “And no catch? No turning me into flowers or making me do farming or blasting me into piles of ash?”

“Not unless the enemy catches you.” Persephone said. “Oh, it’s been so long since I did anything fun!”

“You’re- me- you, we- fighting.” I tried and failed to order my thoughts.

“I’ll go find Hades.” Persephone said. “He’ll come round if I ask him nicely.”

I nodded. “And me?”

“Just make sure you’re ready for battle.” Persephone said, then disappeared in a shower of flowers.

I felt a grin spread across my entire face even thought I had no clue what in Hades had just happened.

Chapter Text

I sat at the table in the garden, hardly processing what had happened. I poked at the bowl of cereal Demeter had poured out for me, unwilling to eat it. I wasn’t sure how long I’d sat there, but when I looked up, I realised had company. Mrs O’Leary sat among the rose bushes, tail wagging, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth, looking pleased as could be.

“Uh, hi.” I said dumbly. “How long have you been there?”

Not long! Mrs O’Leary barked. I have message!

“Oh. From . . . Percy?” I guessed.

Yes! Important!

“Yeah, I- I would’ve guessed so.” I agreed. Percy wouldn't've contacted me otherwise. Not since what happened earlier.

Mrs O’Leary wagged her tail even harder, causing it to thump against the ground. Master needs you. Now.

“Percy? Needs me? Percy needs me?”

Now. You must help with battle. Mrs O’Leary agreed.

“Oh. I can- I can do that!” I said. “Just let me- Hades and Persephone, they’re talking, but I’m sure they’ll be back soon and we can go. Say, do you like cereal?”

Treats? Mrs O’Leary barked, bounding to my side.

“Yeah, sure, if you like wheat.” I said, putting the bowl of cereal on the ground by the table. “You wait here, girl. Feel free to eat this. I don’t want it. I need to go find my father.”

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Hades, Persephone and Demeter were at the forge. Hades was scowling, watching skeletal blacksmiths temper swords, Persephone was looking incredibly smug and Demeter was rambling on about farming and pay rises and how wars were ever-so-bad for the environment, did anyone ever think of that? No. Obviously not.

Persephone gave me a smile as she saw me enter.

“Hello father.” I said cautiously.

“Hello Nico.” Hades sounded like a child being made to apologise for throwing a temper tantrum.

“So about this war?” I asked.

“You’re going to need some armour.” Persephone said.

“What?” I hadn’t thought of that.

“What good would it do me if my only surviving demigod child died in the battle he could easily have avoided?” Hades grumbled. “Where would that get me? Nowhere, everyone will just tell me that I forced you into the battle that killed you because I’m the bad guy-”

“Do you have armour?” I interrupted. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was the twelve year old.

“We’re standing in a forge, Nico. I should hope so.” Hades scoffed.

“We need to leave fast.” I warned. “P- they need our help, now. So . . .?”

“Very well, very well.” Hades sighed, then snapped his fingers. Several skeletons walked forwards holding what I assumed to be armour, wrapped in black cloth. They unwrapped it and presented it to me.

“Does it really have to look so . . . death-like?” I asked, picking up the stygian iron helmet which was shaped to look like a skull.

“We have an aesthetic going on, Nico. Everything must be death-themed.” Persephone said, but I caught her rolling her eyes. Who knew it would be so much better just to not hate her?

“Alright.” I sighed and shoved the helmet onto my head. It fit surprisingly well. Somewhat reluctantly, I donned the rest of the armour. It was much lighter than I’d expected, and surprisingly not as stiff as I’d anticipated.

“So what now?” I asked. “What’s your great plan of attack?”

“Go on ahead.” Hades said. “Draw your sword when you need us to make a grand entrance. We’ll know what to do when the time comes.”

“Your father has always been one for thematics.” Persephone said.

“So unnessercary.” Demeter grumbled.

I grinned. “Alright then. See you on the battlefield.”

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Mrs O’Leary had thankfully stayed where she was in Persephone’s garden. With her here, I didn’t have to shadow-travel. I just hoped she wasn’t too tired. Then again, according to the empty bowl lying by the table, and the knocked over, empty box of cereal on the table, the hellhound had just eaten four bowls of godly cereal. That probably gave anyone enough energy to win a war on her own.

“Alright girl,” I told her. “Time to go. Ready?”

She barked an affirmation.

“Awesome. Just take me back to Percy, okay?”

Yes! Will do! She barked excitedly. I grabbed onto her collar and hauled myself onto her back.

“Alright then, let’s go.”

We melted into the shadows and appeared amidst a crowd of monsters. Fortunately, since Mrs O’Leary was a hellhound, none of them spared us a second glance. A slipped off Mrs O’Leary’s back and stared down towards the Empire State Building. I couldn’t see Percy, or Kronos, but I knew they had to be there. After all, would monsters still be gathered if Percy had already lost?

Surely not.

Suddenly, Mrs O’Leary raised her head and howled. “Arroooooooo!”

It roughly translated to Percy, which I thought had to be a good thing.

Percy’s voice yelled over the crowd, “Mrs O’Leary?”

The monsters nearby were glancing at us now, separating and backing away to the curb and clearing a path from where I stood to the base of the Empire State building where Percy, Annabeth and Kronos stood, all staring down towards me and Mrs O’Leary.

“Nico?” Percy called, sounding more shocked than anything.

“ROWWF!” Mrs O’Leary barked, a sound of pure joy – for some reason.

She bounded towards Percy and I followed after her. The monsters on either side of me backed away even further as I passed. I stopped a little way away from Percy and forced myself to smile, as if the last time we spoke hadn’t been utterly horrible and soul-crushing. Holy Hera, I was being overdramatic.

“Got your message,” I told Percy. “Is it too late to join the party?”

“Son of Hades.” Kronos spat on the ground. “Do you love death so much you wish to experience it?”

I turned to face him. I had never known Luke, and I couldn’t imagine how this felt for Percy or Annabeth. But I did know Kronos. I knew the Titan who had taunted and mocked me in my dreams, who had whispered promises into my ear with words curling like serpents. And now that Titan was standing in front of me, all that ancient power and energy in the body of a twenty-something year old guy. It was kind of anticlimactic to be honest.

“Your death,” I smirked at Kronos, “would be great for me.”

“I’m immortal, you fool!” Kronos crowed. “I have escaped Tartarus. You have no business here, and no chance to live.”

I thought it was about time to hold Hades true to his word. I hoped that he hadn’t sent me up here to die and decided just to bunker down in the Underworld with no annoying demigods to disrupt him.

I drew my sword. “I don’t agree.”

I felt the ground rumble under my feet. Cracks appeared in the road, the sidewalks, creeping up the sides of buildings in ways that was not structurally sound. Skeletal hands reached out of the crevices, grasping at the air, searching for anything to hold on to. Hundreds upon hundreds of skeleton soldiers crawled out of the Underworld. Gods, there had to be thousands, ranging from Greek armoured warriors to army soldiers and anything and everything in between.

The Titan’s forces started to back up, shifting uncomfortably.

“HOLD YOUR GROUND!” Kronos roared. “The dead are no match for us.”

The sky turned dark, the air became cold, the shadows thickened, stretching out towards us. A harsh war horn sounded and the unkempt thousands of soldiers formed ranks with their guns and swords and spears, parting for the enormous black chariot that thundered down Fifth Avenue. The chariot was inlaid with obsidian and gold, decorated with lovely scenes of painful deaths. The chariot came to a stop beside me and I saw Hades, Persephone and Demeter riding it.

Persephone winked at me. I stared back, still not used to her being so . . . nice.

Hades was wearing black armour and a cloak the colour of blood. He wore what I knew to be his helm of darkness. I had never really seen it, but it was too grand to be anything else. I recalled what Persephone said, about Hades having a flair for thematics. Well, that certainly seemed true enough.

“Hello, Father.” Hades smiled coldly at Kronos. “You’re looking . . . young.”

“Hades.” Kronos growled. “I hope you and the ladies have come to pledge your allegiance.”

“I’m afraid not.” Hades sighed and my spirits soared. “My son here convinced me that perhaps I should prioritize my list of enemies.” Hades glanced at Percy with distance. “As much as I dislike certain upstart demigods, it would not do for Olympus to fall. I would miss bickering with my siblings. And if there is one thing we agree on – it is that you were a TERRIBLE father.”

“True,” muttered Demeter. “No appreciation of agriculture.”

“Mother!” Persephone scolded.

Hades drew his own sword, a Stygian iron blade like mine, but longer, sharper and etched with silver. “Now fight me! For today the House of Hades will be called the saviours of Olympus.”

I thought that was a little bit much to ask for, since Hades had been beaten by Percy just days before, but what did I know?

“I don’t have time for this,” Kronos snarled. He struck the ground with his scythe. The ground opened in both directions, circling the entire Empire State Building. From the fissure line, a shimmering wall of energy spread upwards, separating Kronos and a few of his followers, Percy, Annabeth, Thalia and Grover from the rest of the street.

“What’s he doing?” I heard Percy mutter.

“Sealing us in,” Thalia said darkly. “He’s collapsing the magic barriers around Manhattan – cutting off just the building, and us.”

Thalia was right. At the hum of car engines, I glanced around and saw pedestrians blinking their eyes open and scrambling to their feet, staring around in horror.

“No,” Percy said softly. “Don’t . . .”

I heard footsteps, more urgent than those of anyone nearby. Sally Jackson and Paul Blofis sprinted through the crowd, but were unable to pass through the barrier Kronos had created.

Suddenly, Hades’ chariot thundered down the street and crashed into the force field, sending the gods inside toppling to the ground as the chariot was overturned. Hades climbed to his feet, cursing, and blasted the wall with black energy. Nothing.

“ATTACK!” Hades yelled. The skeletal armies needed no more provocation. They turned and began hacking away at the monster armies, spreading chaos through the streets of Manhattan. Monsters screamed, not even trying to fight, instead just running for cover.

Demeter waved a hand and caused an entire column of giants to topple over, turn yellow and transform into wheat. Gross. I never wanted to eat cereal again. Persephone smiled to herself, humming a tune as she changed ranks of dracaenae’s spears to sunflowers.

I realised I should be doing something to help. Pedestrians were still standing, frozen in shock and terror, all over the footpath where they were directly in the way of the fleeing monsters. I lunged towards the closest person, just in time to stop a monster who looked like it’d been hit with a truck from trampling them.

“Nakamura,” Kronos’ voice echoed over the chaos. “Attend me. Giants – deal with them.”

I glanced back to see a gang of Hyperborean giants inside Kronos’ force field bearing down upon Percy, Annabeth, Thalia and Grover.

Someone closer to me let out a cry of alarm and I turned, seeing Sally Jackson reaching out towards Paul, who was doubled over. I plunged back into battle, fighting my way towards them, but as I got closer I saw Paul straightening up again, holding a sword from a fallen soldier and turning to face a dracaena, fighting in a way that was a little too elaborate to be truly practical, but just practical enough to turn the monster to dust.

“Paul?” I heard Percy yell in amazement from a pile of Hyperborean dust.

Paul turned towards Percy and grinned. “I hope that was a monster I just killed. I was a Shakespearian actor in college! Picked up a little swordsplay!”

Percy grinned widely, then his expression turned to horror. I saw a Laistrygonian giant lunge out in front of me and charge towards Sally, who was bent over a police car, rummaging through the glovebox.

“Mom!” Percy yelped.

She turned and straightened, holding- was that a shotgun? My answer came as she fired it, sending the monster flying back into my sword, where it turned to black dust and was absorbed by my weapon.

“Nice one.” Paul said.

“When did you learn to fire a shotgun?” Percy demanded.

“About two seconds ago.” Sally blew some hair out of her face and turned to face Percy. “Percy, we’ll be fine. Go!”

“Yes, we’ll handle the army.” I agreed, even if he wasn’t searching for my input, “You have to get Kronos!”

“Come on, Seaweed Brain!” Annabeth cried. Percy turned and nodded. Then he froze, looking at the rubble at the side of the building.

“Mrs O’Leary.” He called to the hellhound. “Please – Chiron’s under there. If anyone can dig him out, you can. Find him! Help him!”

Mrs O’Leary bounded towards the rubble and began to dig as though her life depended on it. Annabeth, Thalia, Grover and Percy raced into the Empire State Building. I turned and plunged back into the battle.

Chapter Text

After Percy left, everyone filed out of the throne room with cheers and laughter and singing. And while I was glad the world hadn’t been destroyed, I wasn’t really one for cheering. Or singing. Or laughter. So even as Hades strode across the room to greet some minor god, I stayed beside the hearth with Hestia.

“You did well, Nico,” She murmured as the last demigods waded out into the sunlight beyond. “You deserve a home at Camp Half-Blood.”

I wanted to insist that no one wanted a child of Hades, but Percy had said all the children of all the gods. That included me.

“Thanks.” My voice was strangled.

“Let yourself have a home at Camp Half-Blood.” She told me. It was hard to argue with that, especially when arguing meant disobeying a goddess. Although I didn't exactly understand what she meant.

“I- uh, okay.” I stuttered out.

“Goodbye Nico. I hope we will speak again soon.” She smiled, winked, then disappeared in a cloud of sparkling ash.

Hades strode across the room, calling to me, “I didn’t realise you knew my sister.”

And oh, yeah, Hestia was his sister. And my aunt. That was a bit weird. But kind of cool. Hestia was a cool aunt, I decided. I told Hades as much as he stopped beside me.

“How can she be cool? She’s the goddess of the hearth.”

“No, I meant-” I caught Hades’ eye. He was grinning, albeit a little anxiously. Had that been a joke? “Oh. Okay.”

“Come on, Nico, I believe that the rest of the celebrations are outside,” Hades clapped me on the back and strode towards the exit.

I didn’t bother telling him I didn’t particularly care for celebrations. Hades deserved his moment. So I followed him out into the crowd and wandered about in a daze for a while, nodding respectfully at the gods whenever they passed me. I wasn't sure which ones were tempted to smite me, but I was sure if any Underworld deity met me outside Olympus they wouldn't have been nearly so courteous to the demigod who made constantly annoyed their boss. Ten minutes after I’d lost track of Hades, I headed towards the elevator, figuring he wouldn’t miss me too much.

I took the elevator down in silence, wondering where all the other demigods were and what they were doing and if their parents had talked to them. I felt a bit guilty, now that I thought about, I had taken Hades’ presence for granted. Sure, he wasn’t a great presence to have around all the time, he’d told me that I was useless a lot, but he was still there.

How many demigods had never even seen their godly parent, let alone talked to them?

The thought was making me uncomfortable, so I moved on to wondering what came next. If the gods honoured Percy’s request – they had to, they’d sworn on the river Styx – then I would have a cabin at Camp Half-Blood. I supposed that meant I was welcome at camp. After two years of sleeping on park benches or in the Underworld, I would have a real place to stay at Camp, somewhere safe from monsters, somewhere I belonged.

If they really did want me there. Because surely Percy had only told Hades he could have a cabin to appease him. Percy didn’t actually care, did he?

The elevator came to a halt and the doors slid open. The Empire State Building was just as crowded as Olympus and it took me a good fifteen minutes to shove my way outside onto the street and find somewhere relatively quiet where I could stand without my feet being stepped on. Down the street Percy’s Pegasus, Blackjack, was munching on a box of doughnuts.

Someone rounded the corner, bumping into me and stumbling sideways, before continuing on doggedly, shoulders tense. I turned, recognising the fiery red hair. “Rachel!”

She spun around to glance at me, a look of steely determination on her face. “What?”

“What are you doing? Did something happen?” I asked, taking a few steps towards her.

She shook her head, red hair flicking like fire in the slight breeze. Her eyes were stormy. “Yes- no, it’s complicated, I have to go, tell Percy that I’ve taken Blackjack but I’ll give him back-”

“You what? You can’t take his pegasus! Where are you going?” I demanded.

“Camp Half-Blood.”

What?”

“I need to get to camp, the Oracle, I have to become-”

“You’re not making any sense.”

Rachel kept spitting out fragmented sentences as if she hadn't heard me, “I have to get to camp-”

I shook my head, “You can’t get in, the magic barriers-”

“I have to become the Oracle of Delphi,” She finished, as if she'd offered a full explanation.

“Rachel, are you crazy? You’ll die!” I shouted at her.

“I have to,” she turned away again and hurried down the street, “Just tell him, Nico.”

I started after her, but she’d already reached Blackjack and had heaved herself onto his back, grabbing his mane and urging him into the air. The pegasus unfurled his black wings, fluttering them anxiously before taking off and soaring over my head, taking Rachel with him. Well, there was only one thing I could do. So I turned and sprinted back towards the Empire State Building, pushing inside the door. Almost at once I saw Percy, alongside Annabeth, Sally and Paul. Percy’s eyes met mine, his glittering like the ocean in sunlight, as I made my way to his side.

“It’s Rachel,” I told him. “I just ran into her down on Thirty-second.”

Annabeth scowled and rolled her eyes, “What’s she done this time?”

“It’s where she’s gone,” I said. “I told her she would die if she tried, but she insisted. She just took Blackjack and-”

“She took my pegasus?” Percy intervened. He was frowning now, too. As if it were my fault. Maybe it was. Maybe if I'd stopped her . . .

Well, it was too late for that, “She’s heading to Half-Blood Hill. She said she had to get to camp.”

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Percy and Annabeth didn’t wait for any further explanation. They bolted out of the Empire State Building leaving me to give Paul and Sally an apologetic shrug before following. They sprinted for the river so fast I could hardly keep up. My head was throbbing worse than before now and each step sent electric jolts of pain up my spine.

“What was she thinking?” Annabeth demanded as she pushed past a group of pedestrians. In the few minutes it had taken me to get Percy and Annabeth, everyone had decided to wake up at the exact same time. Police cars were on every corner and the roads were covered with people staring around the decimated city.

“She’ll never get through the defences,” Annabeth continued. “Peleus will eat her.”

For a moment I blanked, not sure who she was referring to, before I remembered the dragon who guarded the golden fleece, and the entire camp.

“We’ve got to hurry,” Percy turned to glance at me as he ran, “I don’t suppose you could conjure up some skeleton horses.”

I was hardly keeping up with Percy and Annabeth and it took a few moments for their words to sink in. I shook my head, wheezing in breath to reply, “So tired . . . couldn’t summon a dog bone.”

Again, my powers failed them when I needed them most. Finally, finally, we reached our destination. The East River. Percy and Annabeth scrambled down the embankment to the shore. I stayed back a couple of metres, not entirely sure what was about to happen. Percy let out a long, ear-splitting whistle.

Almost at once, three wake lines broke the surface of the greyish water, preceding a pod of hippocampi, who came to an unhappy halt at the bank, shaking their manes and spraying river muck across Percy and Annabeth’s shoes.

Percy took a step into the river, towards the hippocampus at the front of the heard, “Rainbow! How’s it going buddy?”

The hippocampus let out an indignant neigh.

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Percy grimaced at the water. “But it’s an emergency. We need to get to camp.”

Rainbow snorted. Clearly he was not pleased with Percy's apology. Well, it was better than I'd ever gotten and the entitled water horse should've been grateful for that.

“Tyson?” Percy asked. “Tyson if fine! I’m sorry he’s not here. He’s a big general now in the Cyclops army.”

“NEEEEIGGGGH!” Rainbow flicked his tail, spraying water up behind him.

“Yeah, I’m sure he’ll still bring you apples. Now about that ride . . .”

Chapter Text

In the end, it wasn’t much of a battle. Or maybe I was just useless in between the spasms of pain that shot through my body like I was being electrocuted with every soul that passed the fine line between life and death. The entire thing passed in a blur of dust and blood and screams and at the end of it my arms ached and my head pounded and I could barely register the fact we’d won.

“That was awesome!” Persephone suddenly appeared at my side, grinning like a child who'd gotten to open her Christmas presents early. “So much better than cereal!”

“If you say so.” I mumbled.

“Oh, Nico, you’re hurt.” She realised, suddenly sounded composed again. “Let me help you.”

“No, I’m good.” I insisted, not entirely sure how much I trusted her to help. Persephone's idea of help could have been to turn me into a weed sprouting out of a crack in the pavement, and while that may have been no inconvenience for her, I was quite sure that I'd be crushed within an hour if she turned me into a flower.

“Nonsense.” Persephone shoved a few perfectly cut squares of ambrosia into my hands. “Eat this. You’ll feel better in no time.”

She had meant actual help. I was too stunned to protest. I ate the ambrosia and sure enough, I did feel better. Or at least, less likely to collapse. My head still felt like it’d been impaled by my own sword however.

“There you go, dear.” Persephone said kindly. Then her expression changed again and she said, “Oh, and your father wants to talk to you. Come on.”

I followed her through the crowd of campers to where Hades stood, staring up at the Empire State Building like he was seeing it for the first time. The force field that had surrounded it had vanished, I realised. Demeter was nowhere to be seen, but I decided that was probably better than the alternative.

“Ah, Nico.” Hades said. I didn't know how he knew I was there, his gaze hadn't moved from the massive building ahead of us. “There you are.”

“Here I am.” I agreed. “Did you, um, want to talk to me?”

“Yes,” Hades said. “Nico, perhaps you were right-”

“Perhaps?” I asked. Hades gave me a withering look, one that he'd given Percy when Percy had spoke back to him. For a long moment I wondered if I sounded like Percy? Was that a good thing? Did Hades notice?

“Alright, in hindsight, you were right about the decision to fight in this battle.” Hades said finally, oblivious to the distress he'd caused me. “Although I still think that we could have held them off in the Underworld, it has been a long time since my darling Persephone smiled like that.”

Persephone grinned even wider.

“And even longer since I have been,” Hades took a deep breath and I thought I could hear his voice shake when he continued, “invited to Olympus outside of the Winter Solstice.”

“You mean . . .” I actually didn’t know what he meant, but it sounded promising.

“I mean that we are wanted in Olympus, Nico.”

“. . . Now, Father?”

“Now, Nico.” Hades smiled at me. “Well then, son, let’s not keep them waiting.”

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Even in ruins, Mount Olympus was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. Everything was marble and gold and glimmering in the sunlight. I really hadn’t appreciated the sunlight before, but after so long in the Underworld, it was . . . nice. Warm. Cosy, maybe. 

I walked in front of Hades, which was weird, weaving between fallen statues towards the peak of the mountaintop, where the gods’ council room was located. I entered cautiously and found myself in a room absolutely full of gods and demigods and everything in between. The twelve Olympians stood by their thrones. By the central hearth, Hestia sat tending to the flames. As we entered the flames that served as her eyes fell on me and she smiled.Demigods stood about the feet of their godly parents, all looking dazed but incredibly happy to simply be alive.

As Hades entered, the gods cheered, standing and hurrying across to my father, clapping him on the back and talking animatedly. Hades looked nothing short of astonished at the greeting. In an attempt not to get crushed, I found myself forced away from the feet of my father and alone in the middle of the hall. I could see Percy a few steps away, standing side by side and looking as if he'd had to hold up the weight of the world.

Then Ares roared above the sound of the crowd, “There’s my girl!”

Everyone turned to see Clarisse marching into the room, shivering, her cheeks flushed from what I guessed was cold. Ares ruffled her hair and gave her a clap on the back that looked like it hurt.

“That drakon-slaying?” He grinned. “THAT’S what I’m talking about!”

Clarisse just looked overwhelmed. She nodded and blinked, but eventually melted into a small, satisfied smile that looked completely unlike her.

I saw Hera and Hephaestus pass by Percy, Hephaestus scowled at Percy but just muttered, “You did a pretty bang-up job, mostly.”

Hera sniffed in disdain. “I suppose I won’t destroy you and that little girl now.”

I watched Percy roll his eyes and reply, “Annabeth saved Olympus. She convinced Luke to stop Kronos.”

And as much as I didn’t want to like Annabeth, I also wanted to tell her that she'd been bloody amazing, even if I hadn’t seen her. Percy didn’t deserve any less than Annabeth.

“Hmm.” Hera said, unconvinced, and continued on without another word.

I spent a moment wondering if I had the courage to walk up to Percy and say something. Maybe something along the lines of, Hi, sorry for dropping you in a river and almost burning away your soul. Do you still hate me?

Then I saw Dionysus approach Percy, so instead I just looked back to my father, who looked like he'd just been gifted a three-headed puppy dog. Persephone was by his side, arm linked around his, laughing at the look on his face. I smirked a little. She really wasn’t so bad, as far as evil, all-powerful stepmoms went. I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to interrupt them either, but Persephone caught my eye and beckoned me over, so I complied.

“Are you okay, Father?” I asked.

Hades blinked and nodded, “You were right.”

“Don’t look so surprised.” I said. “I just did what Percy told me to. For an idiot, Percy’s pretty smart really.”

Hades stared around the room. “I’m at Olympus.”

“Oh, get over yourself.” Persephone said cheerfully. “So are the rest of us.”

“POSEIDON!” A voice like a clap of thunder roared, causing the entire room to go silent. Everyone turned to see Zeus sitting on his throne. As if suddenly possessed by the spirit of civil council, the gods filed across the room to their thrones. Persephone followed Demeter and sat down on the arm of her mother’s throne.

Hades made a small noise in the back of his throat. “Come on, Nico.”

I followed him, unsure of where he was going, until he stopped at a simple stone guest chair at the foot of the hearth. I sat down by his legs, waving at Hestia. She waved back and put a finger to her lips. The only person who remained standing was Poseidon.

“Well, Poseidon?” Zeus grumbled. “Are you too proud to join us in council, my brother?”

Poseidon turned to Percy and winked. Was that some sort of inside joke? I wondered how they were close enough to have inside jokes. Even after all the time I spent with Hades, I was still at the please-don't-spite-me stage of our father-son relationship. “I would be honoured, Lord Zeus.”

Poseidon strode over and sat on his throne, allowing the Olympian Council to begin. Zeus started, booming away on some long speech. I watched everyone’s faces. Not one person appeared to be paying attention, save for Hera. About five minutes through the talk, Hestia took a burnt stick and used the ash to draw a simple naughts-and-crosses board on the stone floor. The goddess proceeded to challenge me to a game, which I won.

At some point I heard soft footsteps and looked up to see Annabeth enter, looking dishevelled, and stand next to Percy. They had a whispered conversation, before Grover nudged them to shut up.

“As for my brothers, we are thankful-” Zeus said, distracting me enough to cause me to lose the round of naughts-and crosses. Zeus cleared his throat, as if forcing the words out, “-erm, thankful for the aid of Hades.”

I grinned. Hades nodded and patted me on the shoulders. I saw Percy look at me and there was absolutely no malice in his eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d smiled so much that my cheeks ached.

“And, of course,” Zeus continued, looking like he would rather still be fighting Typhoon, “we must . . . um . . . thank Poseidon.”

“I’m sorry, brother,” Poseidon said in a tone that I’d heard Percy use when he wanted to rile someone up. “What was that?”

“We must thank Poseidon,” Zeus said through gritted teeth. “Without whom . . . it would’ve been very difficult-”

“Difficult?” Poseidon widened his eyes innocently.

“Impossible.” Zeus near snarled. “Impossible to defeat Typhon.”

The gods murmured agreement, pounding the ground with the weapons in approval.

“Which leaves us,” Zeus silenced them again, “only the matter of thanking our young demigod heroes, who defended Olympus so well – even if there were a few dents in my throne. Thalia, step forth.”

Thalia stepped out from the crowd of demigods.

“My daughter,” he said, “I promise to help you fill in the Hunters’ ranks.”

Artemis smiled proudly and I couldn’t find it in me to be mad. She said, “You have done well, my lieutenant. You have made me proud, and all those Hunters who perished in my service will never be forgotten. They will achieve Elysium, I am sure.”

She gave Hades a pointed look.

“Probably.” He shrugged. I lifted a hand to cover my smile.

Artemis stayed quiet, glaring some more.

Hades gave a long-suffering sigh. “Okay. I’ll streamline their application process.”

Which really wasn’t fair to those spirits from the eighteen hundreds who were still waiting, but whatever.

“Thank you, my lady,” Thalia beamed, bowing to the gods, even Hades, then limping over to stand by Artemis’ side.

“Tyson, son of Poseidon!” Zeus called. The Cyclopes I recognised as Percy’s brother stumbled out from the crowd and stood in the middle of the council.

“Doesn’t miss many meals, does he?” Zeus grumbled loudly. “Tyson, for your bravery in the war, and for leading the Cyclopes, you are appointed a general in the armies of Olympus. You shall henceforth lead your brethren into war whenever required by the gods. And you shall have a new . . . um . . . what kind of weapon would you like? A sword? An axe?”

“Stick!” Tyson hefted a broken club into the air.

“Very well,” Zeus frowned. “We will grant you a new, er, stick. The best stick that may be found.”

It didn’t seem like much of a reward to me, but Tyson cheered, causing an encore of cheers from the surrounding Cyclopes as he rejoined them, so I assumed he was happy enough.

“Grover Underwood of the satyrs!” Dionysus said, and the satyr trotted into the centre of the room, his hands shaking slightly from nerves.

“Oh, stop chewing your shirt,” Dionysus muttered. “Honestly, I’m not going to blast you. For your bravery and sacrifice, blah, blah, blah, and since we have an unfortunate vacancy, the gods have seen fit to name you a member of the Council of Cloven Elders.”

Grover collapsed on the spot and was whisked away by a group of naiads.

“Oh, wonderful.” Dionysus mumbled. “Well, when he wakes up, someone tell him that he will no longer be an outcast, and that all satyrs, naiads and other spirits of nature will henceforth treat him as a Lord of the Wild, with all rights, privileges, and honours, blah, blah, blah. Now, please, drag him off before he wakes up and starts grovelling.”

“FOOOOOD!” Grover moaned as he was carried away.

“Annabeth Chase,” Athena called, “my own daughter.”

Annabeth looked as though she had been expecting it, she squeezed Percy’s arm and walked forwards to kneel by her mother’s feet. She made it look much more graceful and much less please-don’t-kill-me than whenever I had knelt by Hades’ feet.

“You, my daughter,” Athena smiled, “have exceeded all expectations. You have used your wits, your strength and your courage to defend this city, and our seat of power. It has come to our attention that Olympus is . . . well, trashed. The Titan lord did much damage that will have to be repaired. We could rebuild it by magic, of course, and make it just as it was. But the gods feel that the city could be improved. We will take this as an opportunity. And you, my daughter, will design these improvements.”

Annabeth looked up, stunned. “My- my lady?”

I suddenly realised how very lucky I was to be able to yell at Hades about how he was a horrible father and get away with it. Sure, he was a horrible father, but at least I could call him out on it. Anyone else even looking at their godly parent the wrong way would get them blasted. Even Annabeth looked nervous at the feet of Athena.

Athena smiled wryly. “You are an architect, are you not? You have studied the techniques of Daedalus himself. Who better to redesign Olympus, and make it a monument that will last for another aeon?”

“You mean . . . I can design whatever I want?” Annabeth asked breathlessly.

“As your heart desires,” Athena granted. “Make us a city for the ages.”

“As long as you have plenty of statues of me,” Apollo added.

“And me,” Aphrodite agreed.

“Hey, and me!” Ares protested. “Big statues with huge wicked swords and-”

“All right!” Athena interrupted impatiently. “She gets the point. Rise, my daughter – official architect of Olympus.”

Annabeth walked back to Percy’s side as if in a trance.

“PERCY JACKSON!” Poseidon boomed. Percy’s name echoed through the chamber like the hiss of a receding wave. Percy glanced about the silent room, eyes fixing on Hestia next to me, before walking forwards, looking more nervous than I’d ever seen him before. He stopped, bowed to Zeus, then knelt at Poseidon’s feet.

“Rise, my son.” Poseidon said gently.

Percy stood obligingly. It was maybe the first time I could describe anything Percy did as obliging.

“A great hero must be rewarded,” Poseidon said. “Is there anyone here who would deny that my son is deserving?”

Not one being in the entire hall protested.

“The council agrees,” Zeus declared. “Percy Jackson, you will have one gift from the gods.”

Percy hesitated for a long moment, then said, “Any gift?”

Zeus nodded grimly. “I know what you will ask. The greatest gift of all. Yes, if you want it, it shall be yours. The gods have not bestowed this gift on a mortal hero in many centuries, but Perseus Jackson – if you wish it, you shall be made a god. Immortal. Undying. You shall serve as your father’s lieutenant for all time.”

Percy looked like his eyes may fall out of his head. I couldn’t process what I was hearing. First of all, Percy was being made into a god? Secondly, he wasn’t already? Third, Percy was being made into a god?

Zeus rolled his eyes. “A dim-witted god, apparently. But yes. With the consensus of the entire council, I can make you immortal. Then I will have to put up with you forever.”

“Hmm,” Ares mused. “That means I can smash him to a pulp as often as I want, and he’ll just keep coming back for more. I like this idea.”

“I approve as well,” Athena said, eyeing Annabeth.

Percy glanced back to where Annabeth was standing. She didn’t meet his eyes. Percy’s gaze went to his feet, then he lifted his head and stared Zeus in the eye. The entire council held its breath, waiting, waiting.

“No.” Percy said.

For a long moment, the silence continued.

“No?” Zeus asked, voice hinting at thunderstorms and lightening. “You are . . . turning down our generous gift?”

“I’m honoured and everything,” Percy said breezily. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s just . . . I’ve got a lot of life left to live. I’d hate to peak in my sophomore year.”

Every god was glaring at Percy, but his eyes were only on Annabeth. Annabeth’s hand was covering her mouth, her eyes shining.

“I do want a gift, though,” Percy announced, giving that trademark smirk that made my stomach do summersaults. “Do you promise to grant my wish?”

Zeus considered, then said, “If it is within our power.”

“It is.” Percy said. “And it’s not even difficult. But I need your promise on the River Styx.”

“What?” Dionysus cried. “You don’t trust us?”

“Someone once told me,” Percy’s eyes flicked over me and up to Hades, “you should always get a solemn oath.”

Hades just shrugged. “Guilty.”

“Very well!” Zeus’ expression made it look like he didn’t think it was very well at all. “In the name of the council, we swear by the River Styx to grant your reasonable request as long as it is within our power.”

The other gods muttered in agreement. Thunder boomed, causing the room to shudder. The deal was sealed.

“From now on,” Percy said, “I want you to properly recognise the children of the gods. All the children . . . of all the gods.”

The Olympians looked uncomfortable. That was a big ask. There were a lot of gods, and they had a lot of children.

“Percy,” Poseidon said, “what exactly do you mean?”

“Kronos couldn’t have risen if it hadn’t been for a lot of demigods who felt abandoned by their parents,” Percy said. “They felt angry, resentful and unloved, and they had a good reason.”

And I felt a thrill of horror at how easily that could’ve been me. I could have so easily been turned against Olympus, against my father, against Percy.

Zeus looked ready to explode with rage. “You dare accuse-”

“No more undetermined children.” Percy interrupted. “I want you to promise to claim your children – all your demigod children – by the time they turn thirteen. They won’t be left out in the world on their own at the mercy of monsters. I want them claimed and brought to camp so they can be trained right, and survive.”

“Now wait just a moment,” Apollo objected.

“And the minor gods.” Percy pushed on. “Nemesis, Hecate, Morpheus, Janus, Hebe – they all deserve a general amnesty and a place at Camp Half-Blood. Their children shouldn’t be ignored. Calypso and the other peaceful Titan-kind should be pardoned, too. And Hades-”

“Are you calling me a minor god?” Hades thundered.

“No, my lord.” Percy said quickly. “But your children should not be left out. They should have a cabin at camp. Nico has proven that.”

I felt warm and fuzzy inside. I couldn’t stop smiling at Percy. I heard Hestia giggle beside me.

“No unclaimed demigods will be crammed into the Hermes cabin any more, wondering who their parents are.” Percy continued. “They’ll have their own cabins, for all the gods. And no more pact of the Big Three. That didn’t work anyway. You’ve got to stop trying to get rid of powerful demigods. We’re going to train them and accept them instead.”

I caught Persephone give Hades a very pointed look, and beside her Demeter gave him and even harsher glare, and I guessed that there would be no other children of Hades in a long time, pact or no pact.

“All children of the gods will be welcome and treated with respect. That is my wish.” Percy finished.

Zeus snorted. “Is that all?”

“Percy,” Poseidon warned, “you ask much. You presume much.”

“I hold you to your oath.” Percy said. “All of you.”

Gods around the room glared at Percy. It was like they’d never heard of being responsible, of owning up to your actions before.

“The boy is correct.” Athena said suddenly. “We have been unwise to ignore our children. It proved a strategic weakness in this war and almost caused our destruction. Percy Jackson – I have had my doubts about you, but perhaps-” She glanced at Annabeth, then continued on, a little more forced, “-perhaps I am mistaken. I move that we accept the boy’s plan.”

“Humph.” Zeus still didn’t sound happy. “Being told what to do by a mere child. But I suppose . . .”

“All in favour?” Hermes chimed in, looking surprisingly okay with the whole ordeal. Maybe the fact that that sort of negligence had led to his son turning against Olympus played a part in that. Of all the gods, it only made sense he'd be the most willing to change.

Every single god in the council raised their hands.

“Um, thanks.” Percy said awkwardly.

He turned, but Poseidon cried out, “Honour guard!”

At once, the Cyclopes poured out from the edged of the room, forming two lines between the thrones and towards the door, standing at attention and forming an aisle for Percy to walk through.

“All hail, Perseus Jackson,” Tyson cheered. “Hero of Olympus . . . and my big brother.”

Finally, it dawned on me, if all the gods had their own cabins, then I had a cabin, I had a place at Camp Half-Blood. Percy wanted me there. I hadn’t even known it was possible to be so happy.

Chapter Text

Percy really had to reconsider using horses as his primary method of transportation. At least riding on the back of a pegasus had been dry. The hippocampus whose back I was clinging to had no problem almost submerging me completely underwater as we raced towards Long Island Sound.

Land couldn’t arrive too soon. The hippocampi waded ashore and we all collapsed onto the sand. Even Percy seemed glad to be out of the ocean. A few metres away on the beach was someone I vaguely recognised from mythomagic as Argus. I couldn't remember if I'd seen him in Camp Half-Blood before. I couldn't even remember if he was friendly, but he didn't seem to be attacking anyone right now. I decided to let it go, I was too tired to question it.

“Is she here?” Percy asked.

Argus nodded grimly, all one hundred of his eyes narrowed in an unhappy glare.

“Is everything okay?” Annabeth asked.

Argus shook his head sullenly and led us up towards the Big House. Camp seemed completely fine, serene even. The sun was shining, the cabins were in pristine condition, the grass glittered with dew, and up at the Big House green light shot from the windows like the entire thing had been blasted with Greek fire. Mist swirled around the building’s foundations. Amid the Mist, Chiron, a group of uneasy looking satyrs and Blackjack the pegasus stood by the porch.

But the main thing that caught my eye was Rachel herself. She stood at the bottom of the porch steps, her arms raised and reaching towards the Big House's doors.

“What’s she doing?” Annabeth demanded lowly. “How did she get past the barriers?”

“She flew.” A satyr said, casting Blackjack a sour look. “Right past the dragon, right through the magic boundaries.”

“Rachel!” Percy yelled, taking a step forwards only to be stopped by the crowd.

“Percy, don’t.” Chiron warned. He’d come out of it the worse of anyone I’d seen. His left arm was in a sling, his two back legs were in splints and his head was wrapped in bandages. I knew all about horses with broken legs. I hoped that ambrosia was enough to help Chiron.

“You can’t interrupt,” The centaur continued calmly. As if this was perfectly normal and not dangerous. Whatever this was.

“I thought you explained things to her!” Percy accused.

“I did. And I invited her here.” Chiron said.

Percy turned to him, his expression a mix of indignant and disbelieving, “You said you’d never let anyone try again! You said-”

“I know what I said, Percy.” Chiron interrupted tiredly. “But I was wrong, Rachel had a vision about the curse of Hades. She believes it may be lifted now. She convinced me she deserves a chance.”

The curse of Hades. That made a lump grow in my throat. Of all the things I'd been concerned with, Hades cursing the oracle hadn't been one of them. I had no idea whether my father intended to lift the curse, or whether he'd gotten around to it.

Thankfully, Percy shared my concerns, “And is the curse isn’t lifted? If Hades hasn’t got to that yet, she’ll go crazy!”

The Mist began to swirl more densely around Rachel, as if ghosts were tearing at her clothes, pulling her hair. She shivered violently.

“Hey!” Percy shouted. “Stop!”

He ran towards her, pushing past the satyrs, only to stop as if he’d run into a wall. He bounced backwards and landed in the grass, blinking dazedly. Rachel’s eyes opened. She turned to look at Percy, green eyes glazed as if she wasn’t really seeing him at all.

“It’s all right.” Her voice sounded distant and distracted. “This is why I’ve come.”

“You’ll be destroyed!” Percy insisted. I wasn't sure if I was seeing right, but I thought there might've been tears in his eyes. My stomach twisted unpleasantly.

Rachel shook her head, causing her hair to flicker like flames. “This is where I belong, Percy. I finally understand why.”

Percy didn’t move, he just kept staring at Rachel from the grass. The Big House itself groaned and shook. The door flung itself open, letting green light illuminate Rachel. Mist curled about her like serpents, then snaked up the porch and across the railing. The Oracle appeared in the doorway.

I’d never seen the Oracle. Hardly any campers had, or so I’d been told. She looked nothing like the girl Hades had shown me in that vision. She was an old, withered mummy, the only semblance to her former self being her rainbow dress and glittering bangles. The Oracle shuffled forwards, falling apart with each step. Her skin cracked, her hair fell from her head, her bones creaked, the spirit inside her ached to be released. The Oracle stumbled blindly towards Rachel.

Rachel turned to face her, holding out her arms serenely. “You’ve waited too long. But I’m here now.”

The sun glinted blindingly. I blinked. When I opened my eyes a blond guy in a white toga and sunglasses was floating above the porch. I’d recognise that cocky smile anywhere. Apollo. He winked, I think it was aimed at Percy, and made a be-quiet motion.

“Rachel Elizabeth Dare.” He announced. “You have the gift of prophecy. But it is also a curse. Are you sure you want this?”

Rachel nodded. “It’s my destiny.”

“Do you accept the risks?”

“I do.”

“Then proceed,” Apollo said.

Rachel’s eyes closed. She spoke, although I don't know where she found the words, “I accept this role. I pledge myself to Apollo, god of oracles. I open my eyes to the future and embrace the past. I accept the spirit of Delphi, voice of the gods, speaker of riddles, seer of fate.”

The Mist thickened, coiling like snakes poised to strike. From the old Oracle’s mouth, green smoke billowed like a stream of water, down the stairs and towards Rachel, swirling in a churning fog around her feet. The Oracle’s body crumbled away, leaving nothing but the shadow of a girl in a tie-dye dress. The girl’s eyes travelled across the crowd and met my gaze. She smiled blissfully and disappeared. The green Mist rose up, enveloping Rachel. I could just make her out, her life force was wavering dangerously, like a candle flame in the breeze. For a moment it flickered out completely, then the smoke disappeared and Rachel collapsed to the ground.

I hoped my father had lifted the curse. If not this would end really, really badly.

She curled into the foetal position. Percy, Annabeth and I rushed forwards, but Apollo cried out, “Stop! This is the most delicate part.”

“What’s going on?” Percy asked. “What do you mean?”

Apollo rubbed his chin, looking at Rachel. “Either the spirit takes hold, or it doesn’t.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Annabeth demanded.

“Five syllables,” Apollo said, counting each one on his fingers as he spoke. “That would be real bad.

Percy hesitated for a second, then ran forwards to kneel beside Rachel anyways. The Mist was fading, the green smoke curling into the ground and vanishing. Rachel’s life force was slowly ebbing back to life, but she was still pale, her breaths were shallow.

Then her eyes fluttered open and focused hazily on Percy. “Percy.”

“Are you okay?” He asked softly.

She attempted to sit up, then pressed her hands to her head. “Ow.”

“Rachel,” I warned, “your life aura almost faded completely. I could see you dying.”

Maybe that wasn't exactly a comforting thing to say. Oh well.

“I’m all right,” she murmured. “Please, help me up. The visions – they’re a little disorientating.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Percy asked again.

Apollo floated down from the porch. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce the new Oracle of Delphi.”

“You’re kidding,” Annabeth blurted out.

Rachel smiled weakly, “It’s a little surprising to me, too, but this is my fate. I saw it when I was in New York. I know why I was born with true sight. I was meant to become the Oracle.”

Percy looked even more stunned than Rachel, “You mean you can tell the future now?”

“Not all the time,” Rachel said. “But there are visions, images, words in my mind. When someone asks me a question, I . . . oh no-”

“It’s starting.” Apollo announced, looking more excited than worried.

Rachel doubled over in pain, clutching her stomach. Then she straightened, back almost unnaturally stiff, eyes glowing with green light. Her mouth opened, her voice was heavy and tripled, like three people were trying to use her mouth at once. She spoke:

“Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,

To storm or fire the world must fall.

An oath to keep with a final breath,

And does bear arms to the Doors of Death.”

That sounded not good, but before I could begin to process what had just happened, Rachel collapsed. Percy and I caught her and helped her to the porch. Her cheeks were flushed with heat, she looked a little ill.

“I’m all right,” She reiterated for what seemed to be the hundredth time. Her voice was normal again.

“What was that?” Percy asked.

She shook her head and looked to Apollo. “What was what?”

“I believe,” Apollo said, rubbing his hands together gleefully, “that we just heard the next Great Prophecy.”

Rachel frowned. “I don’t even remember what I said.”

“No,” Apollo assured her. “The spirit will only speak through you occasionally. The rest of the time, our Rachel will be much as she’s always been. There’s no point in grilling her, even if she has just issued the next big predication for the future of the world.”

“What?” Percy said. “But-”

“Percy,” Apollo said flippantly. “I wouldn’t worry too much. The last Great Prophecy about you took almost seventy years to complete. This one may not even happen in your lifetime.”

Percy hesitated, then said slowly, “Maybe, but it didn’t sound so good.”

“No.” Apollo said cheerfully. “It certainly didn’t. She’s going to make a wonderful Oracle!”

I had to admit that I also had several burning questions about that. Particularly the Doors of Death part, because Thanatos had mentioned that. I knew about that. What did that say about my future? But there was also no way in Hades that I would ask anyone at camp, especially not Rachel, about that. Maybe I’d ask Thanatos when I returned to the Underworld.

Then I realised people were still talking.

“. . . Back on Olympus,” Rachel was saying, which sounded important, “I didn’t explain everything to you, but the calling frightened me. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“I still don’t,” Percy admitted. His head was tilted to the side and his mouth was curved in that cute pout that happened whenever he was confused or upset. “But I guess I’m happy for you.”

There was underlying sadness in Rachel’s smile, “Happy probably isn’t the right word. Seeing the future isn’t going to be easy, but it’s my destiny. I only hope my family . . .”

I remembered Rachel’s family. Well, I remembered that her dad had sounded rather distant. I knew a thing or two about distant parents.

“Will you still go to Clarion Academy?” Percy asked.

“I made a promise to my father,” Rachel shrugged, “I’ll try to be a normal kid during the school yeah, but-”

“But right now you need sleep,” Apollo interrupted. “Chiron, I don’t think the attic is the proper place for our new Oracle, do you?”

“No, indeed,” Chiron said graciously. “Rachel may use a guest room in the Big House for now, until we give the matter more thought.”

“I’m thinking a cave in the hills,” Apollo mused, “With torches and a big purple curtain over the entrance . . . really mysterious. But inside, a totally decked-out pad with a game room and one of those home-theatre systems.”

Apollo had the right idea when it came to underground housing. If Hades wasn’t prone to blasting anyone he disagreed with to smithereens I would have been tempted to ask Apollo to give my father some redecorating tips for the Underworld. But then, Persephone had said they had an aesthetic going on. Home theatres and game rooms definitely clashed with ancient palaces and castles. In my opinion the former was a lot cooler than the latter, aesthetic or no.

Chiron cleared his throat loudly and gave Apollo a glare that definitely made it clear that their funds from selling strawberries wouldn’t cover the god’s ideas. Apollo just frowned, “What?”

Rachel leaned over to Percy and kissed him on the cheek. My stomach did another slow, nauseous roll, especially when Percy looked okay with it. Suddenly the patch of wilting grass at my feet much more interesting than anything else going on. I remained stock still, staring at the ground, as Rachel and Apollo walked into the Big House until their footsteps faded away completely.

I only looked up when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I flinched away and spun about to see Chiron.

“My apologies,” Chiron said diplomatically. “But I merely wondered if you, as a son of Hades, would be able to help me in preparing burial ceremonies?”

My hands were trembling, my throat was tight, the deaths were heavy in my mind, but I still nodded. After all, what else would they expect a son of Hades to do?