Percie slammed her eyes shut, waiting for the moment where the inferno finally started to sear at her skin. The irony of the daughter of Poseidon dying horrifically in a fire was not the last thought she wanted to ever think before meeting Charon again, but it seemed that was what her brain decided was important in her final moments. She held her breath, and waited.
And waited some more.
Okay, this was weird. The fire had just reached her feet when she shut her eyes. It should have been scorching her, at the very least, by now. So why wasn't she writhing around in unthinkable agony? Not that she was complaining about that, but still.
"Percie, I think you can open your eyes again," Annabeth said a few inches in front of her face.
Percie's eyes fluttered open, and were met with a terrifying sight. The flames were there, all right. They were licking all over her clothes, sizzling with heat she could feel radiating off them. Looking over to Annabeth, the sight was even worse. The daughter of Athena was engulfed entirely in flame, and while she looked freaked out beyond measure, she didn't seem to be suffering any pain.
"Oh, great. The flames are so hot we can't even feel them," Percie bemoaned. "How long before the flesh starts sloughing off our bones?"
Annabeth's gaze darted around the burning elevator, before she exhaled in relief. "Actually, I don't think we have to worry about burning to death. At least, not from the ones in here."
"Excuse me? Pardon me for sounding skeptical, Wise Girl, but you are aware your face is on fire right now? Gods, I don't even want to think about what our hair is going to smell like after this."
The daughter of Athena rolled her eyes, holding up the bottle she'd whipped out before the fire had reached them. "Recognize this? It's Medea's sunscreen, the one I mentioned it would be really nice to have when we had to face the Colchis Bulls. I forgot to bring it with me that time; never again."
Percie had to squint to read the words on the side: "Medea's SPF 50,000 Sunscreen. And... this is why we aren't flailing around in agony right now?"
"Yeah. The same stuff Medea gave the original Jason when he had to fight the Bulls. It doesn't protect against all kinds of fire, but I guessed Circe's would be within the zone. She is Medea's aunt, after all."
The daughter of Poseidon broke into a wide grin, which must have made her look like a flaming pumpkinhead. "Have I told you how brilliant you are?"
"You could stand to mention it more," Annabeth replied, a sly grin returning Percie's expression.
Now impervious to the flames, the two demigods managed to enjoy the ride down into the ground. At some point, Circe must have realized her flames weren't going to be of any real use, and the fire died out, leaving a smokeless elevator behind. "Guess that confirms the magic angle," Percie commented as the elevator slowed. "Time to speak to a bellhop. No guest should have to worry about being cooked into barbecue in an elevator."
"Assuming that bellhop cared about your customer satisfaction enough to even listen," the daughter of Athena remarked, one hand going to her sword. "I haven't checked Circe's Yelp rating in a while, but it's not something she worries about. Turning your male visitors into animals tends to lead to a lot of one-star reviews."
Percie nodded. "As it should. I would know; guinea pig Percie was not a happy customer."
Annabeth must have had a thought suddenly occur to her, since she wheeled to Percie with a startled look. "Wait... you were the one who got turned into the guinea pig? Not Alister?"
"Oh, yeah. I can see how that might be confusing. Okay, so from what I gathered when we were there, Circe was trying to turn Alister into a guinea pig, like her M.O. For some reason, she had it in her head that I would make a decent sorceress. Not smart," Percie explained. "Anyway, she was right in the middle of guilt-tripping him into drinking some of that guinea pig potion, when I misheard her say the phrase 'what are' as 'water'. I was super parched because we'd been sailing all day, so I just went and drank the cup right then, before Alister could."
Annabeth brought her hand to her face, staring at Percie with a look of sunned sympathy. "Is.. that right?" she murmured.
Percie shrugged. "I was thirteen; impulsiveness was my go-to strategy. Anyway, the sight of me turning into a rodent must have broken whatever magic spell Circe was casting on Alister, because he snapped back to his senses and used some of those vitamins to turn everyone back. I'm pretty sure if Circe was a mortal, that incident would have taken at least twenty years off her life."
The elevator came to a full stop, and the doors pinged open. "Looks like our floor," Percie observed, stepping out. Annabeth followed her with slow steps, the story she'd just heard apparently being harder to digest than she had been expecting.
The women found themselves in a spacious lobby, decorated with green tapestries and light blue furniture. An empty desk stood to the left side of the room, with a dimmed out sign reading "The manager will be along shortly" plastered over the only other door in the room.
"Do we wait for the manager, or make our own entrance?" Percie asked, Riptide finding its way into her hand. "I don't want to seem rude, but showing hospitality to a kidnapper isn't something my mother spent time teaching me to practice."
Annabeth smirked. "Then after you, rule breaker."
Percie strutted up to the door, reaching out, when a voice cut in.
"Pardon! Pardon!" a male voice chorused, from under the desk. "A thousand apologies, my loves. I'll be with you in just a moment. As soon as I finish sorting out these tickets here."
A shuffling sound was followed by a cabinet being closed, and the voice that had spoken rose up from behind the desk. The man was vibrant, and clean-shaven. Strawberry-blonde hair curled into wisps around his head, and the T-shirt he was wearing was dangerously small for him. He leaned backwards to stretch himself out, and Percie got a pretty nice view of his very solid six-pack.
"You must be the manager, then?" she asked, having to pull her eyes back up to his face. The longer she looked at this man (boy, really; he couldn't have been more than nineteen), the more she found herself getting distracted by how darn gorgeous he was.
If the wide-eyed look Annabeth was giving was any indication, she wasn't the only thrown for a loop by this guy's beauty.
Meanwhile, he nodded at Percie's question. "Yes, I am! Sorry about the wait, dears. You'd be surprised how many parking tickets manage to find their way to this office, even though we're under the surface of the earth. Can I get you anything before I take your names down? A glass of water, perhaps?"
Percie would happily accept anything from this looker, but the mention of water reminded her of why they were here. "Oh, no thank you. We're just here to see Circe, is all."
"Ah, the mistress of magic herself. Very good, very good," he chirped, brining out a massive notebook and flipping to the C section. "Let's see.. Circe... here we are! It looks like you two are her VIP appointment of the day, actually. How wonderful! I can show you to her now, if you like."
Percie nudged Annabeth, knocking the daughter of Athena out of her stupor. "That would... be great, thank you," Annabeth mumbled, averting her eyes from the man's very... robust shoulders. Wow, this was hard.
"Lovely! Follow me, ladies," he warbled, opening the door across the room and motioning for them to come along. Percie led the way, having to bite her tongue to keep her eyes from trailing down his back to his rear. Oh sweet Aphrodite, he was wearing the tightest pair of skinny jeans she'd ever seen. In an exertion of willpower Percie did not know she had, the daughter of Poseidon did not get hypnotized by the swaying of his hips. She just needed to keep her eyes on the back of his head.
The young man stopped as he lead them through the hallway, pausing at an automated water bottle. "Are you sure you two don't require anything for a refreshment?" he asked.
"No, I'm good; Annabeth?" Percie said, her face scrunched together.
"I'll pass," she heard the other demigod squeak behind her.
"No problem; guess I'll help myself," he shrugged, fetching a small plastic cup and pressing the bottle's handle. What happened next was either a tragedy or a glorious event, depending on how you saw the situation. The water bottle malfunctioned, missing the cup and spraying a blast of liquid all over the guy's shirt.
"Oh, dear. I thought I fixed this last time I came through here," the young man muttered, placing his cup down on the fountain. "Now I'm gonna have to change."
He wasn't going to... no. Not now. Percie's brain started screaming at her to close her eyes, before he did what she knew was coming next. But her gods-forsaken eyes refused to listen. They needed to see.
With a grace Percie had never seen a guy pull off before, the man stripped himself to the waist up, tossing his soaked T-shirt onto a table in the hallway. The daughter of Poseidon felt her mind melt as she raked in the eye candy. She'd seen handsome men before. Alister was a shining example, above all others. With this guy, of course. He looked exactly like one of those Renaissance statues of a Greek god; flawless muscles, perfect skin, and the precise combination of strength and sensitivity.
"T- B- M...," Percie fumbled for words as the man brushed spare water droplets off his pectorals. Behind her, she heard Annabeth start inhaling with gusto.
"My apologies, loves," he cadenced, turning to them with a repentant look in his eyes. Percie felt a desire to take this muscular young man into her arms and soothe him. He hadn't offended her in any way. No, he was perfect like this. In fact, he never had to put on a shirt around her again.
"Get ahold of yourself, woman!" a voice in her head shouted at her. "We came here to save Will and Nico, not ogle the pretty manager."
Oh, couldn't she do both?
"No! Get back to the topic at hand. Now!"
The daughter of Poseidon sighed, then found her words again. "No problem. You were showing us to Circe, yes?"
He nodded. "Correct. Let us resume."
As he turned back around, the young man made a spinning motion with his hand. A water jug materialized in his grip, and he sipped from it, a pleased grin spreading over his face as he tasted the contents. "Perfect," he whispered.
Annabeth put a hand to Percie's shoulder as they all began moving again. "I think I know who this guy is," she breathed into her ear.
"Some child of Aphrodite, is he?" Percie guessed.
"No. This is Ganymede, once Prince of Troy."
The name wasn't familiar to her. "There were a lot of princes of Troy, Annabeth. Anything else special about him?"
The daughter of Athena looked grave. "Yes, much more. Ganymede was considered so beautiful, he captured the attention of Zeus himself."
"Wait, Zeus got infatuated with another guy for once?"
"Yeah. I mean, you did see him, right?"
A shudder ran through her body as she looked back at Ganymede's flawless form. "Yeah, okay. I get how that could happen. So what transpired after Zeus got interested?"
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "He did what he did best; resorted to kidnapping. He paid Ganymede's father with the best horses he could find, and made the boy immortal. Ganymede became the cupbearer for the gods, as well as Zeus's lover."
Percie winced. "Let me guess: Hera wasn't amused."
"Of course not. To Ganymede's credit, he managed to win over every other god on Olympus, though I'm pretty sure most of that was because of his looks. Anyway, when Hera finally had enough, she couldn't just kill or curse the young man. He had too many friends. So, Zeus made him a constellation, so he could always look on his old lover in the sky."
A constellation... the focus on water... the materializing cup. "Wait, Ganymede became Aquarius?" Percie choked out.
"The water-bearer; yes," Annabeth confirmed. "What I don't get is why he's here, of all places. Circe despises men, so why would she hire one as her secretary and manager?"
Percie's eye went to Ganymede as he led them. "Maybe Philadelphia's economy is in a rough spot right now, and Circe can't be choosy about who she takes on?"
"Let's hope that's the case. I don't like the implications behind other possible answers."
Ganymede glanced over his shoulder, noticing the two demigods trailing behind him. "Hurry up, dears. I'd hate for you to be late to your appointment on my account," he flounced, beckoning for them to speed up. Percie felt her face grow hot as she caught up to him, following him down another string of corridors and down a flight of stairs.
"Is Circe renting this space out from anyone?" the daughter of Poseidon asked.
"I'm sure she is, but the mistress of magic is infuriatingly tight-lipped about her connections not related to her business here," he answered. "Really, I can't believe she closed that lovely location down in the Sea of Monsters. Sure, the local population tended to devour any possible guests before they made it to her island, but the ones that did were always so happy to stay. I told Io that we should have combined into a joint-venture to buy out Circe, but she refused. That's why I'm here, now. I refuse to let opportunity pass me by again."
Percie shot Annabeth a quizzical look, earning a frown from the daughter of Athena. She clearly didn't buy Ganymede's explanation, in the slightest. Percie couldn't blame her. Ganymede seemed like too much of a ditz to ever prioritize business sense over his water-bearing duties.
The constellation personified didn't seem to register the look the two women shared, only prattling on about his plans for Circe's island: something involving frozen yogurt and go-karting. Percie stopped fully listening once he mentioned trigonometry; that was too boring, even when told by a gorgeous immortal.
She didn't realize he'd stopped until she ran face-first into his bare back. "Apologies, my dear. I should have warned you," he said, standing off to the side. "The mistress will be with you shortly in there." He pointed to a double-wide set of steel doors, located at the far end of the hall. "Do be careful in there, my doves. She brought some awfully rude young fellows along with her yesterday, and to my knowledge, they're still in there. I'd hate for them to cause you an unpleasant time."
Nico and Will. It had to be them Ganymede was referring to. At least they had both still been alive when Circe came back. "Thank you, Ganymede," Percie nodded at him.
A new look appeared on the young man's face for a moment. "Ah, yes. I forget... I have more than one name. Aquarius... was not my first."
The immortal's face melded into a mask of pain before he smiled again. "Do have a good time, ladies. Should you wish to schedule another appointment down the road, feel free to stop by my desk in the lobby and set it up. I enjoyed your company."
Ganymede bowed and left, taking a pretty long swig from his water jug as he left. Perhaps it was just Percie's imagination, but she would swore she saw him glare down at the cask in contempt before he turned the corner.
Annabeth didn't mention anything about it, though, so Percie pushed it away to the back of her mind. The daughter of Athena pulled her sword, giving Percie a cautious look. "We can't afford to be as reckless as we were with the dracanae. Circe is no pushover."
"I know. And we can't afford to jeopardize Nico or Will either," Percie seconded, palming Riptide. "So how do we want to do this?"
"She knows it's just the two of us. If just you walk in there, she's going to immediatly know something's up," Annabeth rambled to herself. "She's got us in a bind; we can't utilize any sort of ambush or trick here."
"Frontal assault's the only option, then?" Percie asked.
The daughter of Athena didn't look very pleased with that outcome. Percie put a hand to her arm. "Hey, we've faced her before. We've faced a lot worse alone. Circe might be a threat, but she doesn't have what we have with each other." Gods, that sounded corny, but it was the best the daughter of the sea could muster on the fly. Public speaker she was not.
Annabeth placed her own hand over Percie's, squeezing it. "I know, Seaweed Brain. All right. Let's go rescue our friends."
The steel doors slid open with a nasty hissing sound as the two demigods approached. Oh, so they were expected. Lovely. The parting doors revealed what seemed to be an underground warehouse. Wired mesh separated the space into several dozen smaller pens, all of whom were crowded by many unhappy animals.
"Good to see Circe hasn't changed too much," Percie remarked, walking past an enclosure of whining goats. Many of them bleated at her in warning, knocking their heads against the wire. "A woman with dark hair and bad taste in eye shadow did this to you, didn't she?" she asked the animals.
Percie didn't know goats could look shocked, but all of these did at her question, before they began kicking up a fuss in affirmation. The daughter of Poseidon nodded in understanding. "Yeah, she turned me into a guinea pig once. Don't worry; we can get you guys back to normal, too."
The goats bayed in response, backing up from the wire. Annabeth leaned in. "Percie, I don't have any of those multivitamins from Hermes this time. How do you expect to change them back?"
"No idea, but we can't just leave them like this, Annabeth. If Circe is defeated here, who's going to feed them? Ganymede?"
The daughter of Athena grumbled something Percie couldn't hear, but didn't raise an objection. The two demigods continued on, weaving through more and more squealing animals until they reached the end of the room.
The pens gave way to a mock stage-setup, where a familiar foe was arranging some flowers alongside a silver throne fashioned to a miniature barn. Circe didn't speak when she saw the two women, only affixing them with a satisfied smirk before lounging into the chair.
"Where are they?" Annabeth asked point-blank. Nice. Percie was a fan of that method.
The sorceress batted her eyelashes in feigned ignorance. "Where is who, dear? Please don't play the pronoun game with me. It'll take forever for the conversation to get anywhere if none of us know who we're talking about."
"My friends; the ones you went and snatched up on the banks of the Delaware," Percie informed her. "Two boys; opposite to each other in almost every way, but cute as all get out."
"Hmmm...," Circe pretended to think for a moment, before slapping herself. "Oh, yes! Tootsies and Nevermore! I know exactly who you mean. Although, isn't it a bit of a stretch to call them 'your' friends, daughter of the ocean?" she purred.
Percie had to swallow her growing frustration. "No, it's not. We've been through more than you could ever comprehend, even if it wasn't in the traditional way."
"Oh, my. My sister told me how very much alike I should expect you to be, but this is almost scary," the sorceress teased. "Percy always had such reckless loyalty to his friends; it's refreshing to see it in you as well, dear."
Annabeth fidgeted at her words. "Your sister? Who? And how did she know Percy had been switched out with her?"
"You mean the answer hasn't already come to you, daughter of wisdom? I must say, I expected more from you, Annabeth. The truth is lying right under your nose, yet you remain unable to recognize it."
Percie jutted Riptide out at Circe. "Enough talk! We asked you a question: Where are they?"
The goddess made an annoyed sound with her lips, clapping her hands together. The barn structure she had been working on expanded, unfolding its walls until the whole thing was a flat foundation. The walls of the room shuddered as the floor gave way, two slots opening up from below them.
Percie watched as those two slots widened, and bright, bulbous orbs emerged from them, shining with pale blue light. Circe snapped her fingers, and the light faded out. Percie and Annabeth both had to hold back gasps as they saw what, or who, was trapped in them.
To the right, in the orb nearest Percie, was the unconscious form of Will Solace. The healer was crumpled into the fetal position, his breathing faint. In the other, to Annabeth's side of the room, was Nico di Angelo, though the son of Hades seemed to have his wits about him. He was crouched in the orb, but even from this distance, Percie could see his eyes burning with anger as he stared at Circe. His gaze drifted to the orb his boyfriend was slumped in, and that anger multiplied.
Nico must have screamed, but no sound pierced the orb's magic. A dark energy completely insulated the demigod, but the orb did not react. Circe cocked her head, making a pouty expression. "He's going to get himself killed, trying to escape from that. Couldn't even be bothered to learn from his partner's mistakes."
Percie stared back at Circe in apprehension. "His... mistakes?"
"Oh, yes. Dear Tootsies over there spent every last ounce of himself trying to break out of my spell. Unfortunately for him, that orb of mine comes with a nasty little side effect: it takes any magic or powers a demigod might try to use, and turns it back on them. I confess, Nevermore up there is much hardier than I would have anticipated. Anybody else probably would have at least passed out by now, but he's been trying every other minute, feels like. No matter. It'll catch up to him, eventually."
Annabeth shuddered next to Percie. "Why.... why take them? Why lure Percie here? For... this?"
Circe sneered. "For a reckoning, my dears. And that's all you'll ever know of this. Because I intend to put an end to Percie Jackson here. Permanently."
It would have been a great time for a clever retort. And normally, clever retorts were one of Percie's strongest disciplines. But the sight of the son of Apollo, laying there helpless, and the son of Hades furiously trying to break his bonds, despite the pain the magic was inflicting on him... Percie's wit died on her tongue. As did Annabeth's. The two demigods didn't have to coordinate, or exchange a look. The next plan of action was a given.