"So, you're leaving with Artemis?" Blackjack neighed, pawing at the ground in restlessness. The demigod was brushing her pegasus's mane as they stood together along the bank of the Delaware River. The goddess of the Hunt was standing at the helm of her moon chariot, conversing with her reindeer. Blackjack threw some glances her way before turning back to Percie. "I mean, I know Artemis can be really chill with women, but you're taking the boys, too. What's gonna stop her from tossing them out in mid-air because she doesn't like the way one of them looked in her general direction?"
Percie studied Nico and Will, gathering up the rest of their campsite. The son of Hades was dour about his work, something Will clearly noticed when Nico got the zipper of the tent stuck as he closed it, and started glowing purple. The healer put his hand to the younger demigod's back, bringing Nico out of his building explosion. Even so, he didn't change his expression as the tent folded away.
She shook her head. "I don't really know, buddy. I thought this would be easier, somehow. With Nicola being a boy here, and all."
"I thought his sister followed Bartholomew's path a lot more closely than she ended up doing," she admitted. "But since she was a girl here, the Hunters had their sights set on her from the get-go. Bianca took the offer, of her own free will; she wasn't almost kidnapped, like Nicola. Nico can't just blame the Hunters for ripping his sister away from him."
Blackjack considered her words. "Does he blame Bianca, too, then? That can't be healthy."
"It's not, no, but I get the impression he doesn't blame Bianca, at least not as much as you might think."
"Then who does he blame?"
Percie sighed, shaking her head. "I think he blames himself, more than anything. He sees himself as this pestering little kid, who drove his sister away from him, right to her death. He might try to put out the idea that he's upset with his sister, but I can see through that. He misses her; more than any of us seem to have realized."
It didn't surprise Percie when Annabeth appeared from behind the pegasus, her face making it clear she heard everything. "Percie, how could you know that?" the child of wisdom asked, keeping her voice down. "The anger that I was getting from Nico in that conversation seemed to be genuine, especially when he was questioning Bianca's motives."
The daughter of Poseidon ran her tongue over the inside of her lips before answering. "If I told you it was a sixth sense, would you believe me?"
Annabeth sidled up to next to her, putting a hand to Percie's bicep as she finished getting Blackjack refreshed. "Seaweed Brain, I know it can be hard for you to open up, but it's me. I know I'm not actually Alister, but I would like to know what's going on."
"You're definitely your mother's child, you know that?"
The blonde demigod narrowed her gaze. "What makes you say that?"
"Athena made me feel like an open book every time she looked at me. You and Alister are the same way."
Percie turned back to Blackjack, trying to find something else she could adjust on him that would busy herself, and give her a reliable excuse to end the conversation there. No dice. The winged horse didn't have a single hair out of place, nor a single sprinkle left in his maw that needed to be plucked away.
"Boss, maybe I should go," he mumbled, trying to shift away from her.
"No, you can stay. I'd hate to drive you off because Artemis showed up with her fancy chariot."
The pegasus shot her a knowing look. Even with his long horse face, Blackjack's meaning got across to her. He wasn't talking about ditching them so Artemis could Uber everyone to their destination in the Santa sled. He was trying to step away so Percie and Annabeth could have some privacy, before this last chance was over. The others would be ready in just a few minutes, and once they were all in the air, any hope of private conversation would pass on.
"Since when were you so perceptive?" she murmured at him.
"When I realized I was lucky enough to be the main source of transportation for not one, but two legendary heroes," Blackjack whinnied, nuzzling into her face. Percie hugged his muzzle, and the winged horse pressed into her. It was moments like these she needed to learn to appreciate more; the small interactions she got to have with people she might not see again for some time. Granted, Blackjack wasn't a person per se, but he had enough personality to fool her.
"Okay, then," she allowed herself to say. "If I need you, I'll let you know."
"No one here is your enemy, boss. Don't let your thoughts trick you into thinking otherwise."
With that, his wings unfurled to their full length, and he took off, vanishing into the twilight sky. Percie watched him go, then turned to face Annabeth, who's face had softened as she'd been listening to the half of that conversation she could understand.
"I don't want to sound like I'm prying, Percie, but is there something going on with you that you're trying to keep quiet?"
"Whatever gave you that idea? Was it the sour looks? Or... maybe the gloomy disposition?"
"Actually, it was the fact that you single-handedly faced Nico, unarmed, and still managed to get him sobbing into your arms not a minute later. You've been watching him like a mother hawk watches her eggs ever since. And now you offer a version of Nico's psyche that no one else seems to have considered, but sounds really likely?"
Annabeth furrowed her brow at the daughter of Poseidon. "Just what is your relationship to Nicola like?"
Gods, Percie did not want to talk about this. But the hypocrisy of asking Nico to spill his heart to her, and then not extend Annabeth the same curtesy, was too looming to back out of.
"Pretty similar to Percy's from what I can tell," she led with. "Unrequited crush, betrayed a promise to return their sibling to them, treated them like a rabid animal unjustly, all of those things carried over. Really, I think what's bothering me is something Nicola mentioned offhand to me."
"And what was that?"
Percie took a moment to compose herself. "It was after Nicola confessed her crush on me. She turned to leave, then said something that sounded like a joke. But now that I see Nico, I think she might have been a lot more serious than she was letting on."
Annabeth blinked, her eyes showing genuine curiosity. "So what was that addendum, then? When he told Percy, that was all he said. Aside from some playful jab about not being his type."
"That... was what he said instead?"
"You mean Nicola didn't?"
"No." Percie thought back to that night, after Gaea's defeat. Nicola's playful smirk, and that devilish spring in her step. She clearly thought Percie's surprise at her confession was hilarious, but then that playfulness faded into something more contemplative. The daughter of Hades' words echoed in Percie's head as she repeated them to Annabeth: "You're really more of a sister to me, Percie. If you were a guy, I might almost mistake you for Bartholomew."
Annabeth's jaw dropped in slow motion, as Percie's reveal unleashed a whole new cabal of revelations. "If Nico felt similarly..."
"Which he definitely could have, since everything else seems to be matching up," Percie cut in.
"... Then are you saying... you might be reminding Nico of Bianca?"
Why did everything have to connect so perfectly? Percie was going to sit Nicola down when she got back, and give her a nice long talk about accidentally predicting the future. Hopefully before she went and predicted the death of Janice, or something. That girl needed to watch herself; she was already one of the strongest demigods on the planet. She didn't need to add precognition to her already expansive list of powers
"If I am, no wonder he's been looking at me like I remind him of something pleasant," Percie put together. "I mean, did you see how unfazed he was by my story? He actually told Will they had nothing to fear from me. Before he even knew who I was! Since when has he ever been so un-paranoid?"
Annabeth put a hand to her chin, pondering this newest predicament. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, Percie. Maybe someone who can fill that hole in his heart could help him out down the long road."
Percie disagreed. "Annabeth, if all goes well, I won't be here for that. Remember?"
"Oh... oh, no."
"Exactly. He's going to lose two sisters, and Nicola is going to lose two brothers. I can't do that to him. Not... not again."
The ground under Percie's feet started to shift, but Annabeth grabbed her by the shoulders, keeping her up. "Nope, you're not passing out again," she exclaimed, holding on tight. "Percie, you can't start thinking like that now. Nico has his weaknesses, like everyone else, but he's far stronger than you're giving him credit for. Bianca's fate was a tragedy, no argument there. But you being returned to your world; ending the unraveling of the universe... that's our happy ending."
"But it's not his," Percie whispered, turning to look at the smaller boy. Will was whispering something in his ear, which finally managed to break Nico out of his grumpy state. The son of Hades let a small smile cross his face as Will started poking at his side, then turned to give the healer a quick peck on the lips.
"I will not let any harm come to that kid ever again, Annabeth," the daughter of Poseidon vowed, facing her companion once again. "I can't stop him from thinking of me like that, though, so I guess... we'll have to see."
The daughter of Athena returned a consoling expression, cupping Percie's chin in her hand. "You always did get a little too reckless in your loyalties, didn't you?" she bemoaned quietly, kissing the demigod. Percie let Annabeth take the lead in the exchange, before turning her head to the side so she could speak.
"The fact that I can still get attached to anyone, after the first few years of my life, is something I hold dear to," she mumbled, as Annabeth pulled away in confusion. Percie shook her head. "Not now. Not when we could technically get interrupted. Later. Please."
The child of wisdom gulped, then nodded. "Okay. Later."
The two women locked hands with each other, then approached Artemis in her chariot. The goddess raised an eyebrow at the public display of affection, but didn't say anything about it. "I'm ready when you are. Pisces has about a day ahead of us, so we need to be vigilant in our travels," the deity remarked, tugging at her hood.
"So we all know this is a trap, right? It's never a simple rescue mission," Percie pointed out.
"Obviously," Artemis retorted. "Though I suppose the real question is who the trap is for. Perhaps it could be me, or maybe this Genius anticipated getting your attention with this abduction, Ms. Jackson."
"My money is on the second one," Annabeth put forward.
Artemis raised an eye at her. "May I hear your reasoning?"
"The Genius probably knew that the gods would be too busy debating the matter of the world falling apart at the seams to bother about the Hunters. Even you said you were unable to defy Zeus until he was distracted. Because the Genius had no way of knowing if such a distraction would ever come up, if he really wanted your attention, my lady, he would have done something that couldn't be ignored. Ergo, this kidnapping of the Hunters was meant for someone who couldn't just stand by and let it play out."
Percie nodded in approval. "Very nice, Wise Girl. But what makes you think that that nosy person would be me?"
"Because the coincidence would be too unlikely. Think about it: Circe kidnaps Will and Nico, and not a few hours later, the Hunters get abducted in the exact same area? Circe specifically called you out in your dream. She wanted you to come to Philadelphia. It ensured that you were in the vicinity, meaning it'd only be a matter of time before some blabbermouth nymph came running to you about it. Now that I think about it, I don't think Circe was allowed into the whole plan. The Genius used her as a scapegoat to bait you here, so he could lure you into his real trap with the Hunters."
Artemis frowned. "A troubling idea... but not one I can dispute."
Percie had an idea occur to her. "Oh gods, I think we might have missed a serious clue, too! So Sagittarius and Pisces were working together to lure in the Hunters and take them, right? Now remind me: Who did we run into in Circe's underground house of horrors?"
Annabeth's eyes widened. "Ganymede... Aquarius!"
Now it was Artemis's turn to look stunned. "Wait, Circe was using a man as part of her guise? That's a first."
"And something I pointed out when we were down there!" Annabeth repeated, face-palming. "I couldn't figure it out! Why did she change her M.O so drastically? But if we follow the reasoning of that she was being used as one of the Genius's pawns... then suddenly Aquarius's presence makes sense."
"He was there to make sure we arrived, so he could pass on word to his co-conspirators," Percie realized, her ears burning. "And to think I thought he was hot! Gah, I'm gonna need another shower before this is all over."
Artemis gazed in disapproval at Percie's confession about Ganymede, but moved on. "Aquarius, Sagittarius, Pisces... and the Genius. Plus whoever cast the spell in the first place. It seems there are a lot more pieces on this board than any of us were anticipating."
It wasn't a reassuring thought. After Nico and Will finished packing up their campsite, all four demigods boarded Artemis's chariot. The moon goddess cracked the reins, and her reindeer leapt into the air, Percie having to keep a firm grasp on the seatbelts the Olympian had seen fit to include in her vehicle. Nobody looked happy to realize they were walking into an obvious trap.
"Especially when we're probably outnumbered," Annabeth informed them.
"Why do you say that?" Will posed, purposefully standing in between Nico and Artemis. The son of Hades didn't look very pleased, but thankfully he held his tongue.
"Because Aquarius, Sagittarius, and Pisces are all part of a set, remember?" she pointed out. "They might not crisscross in their original incarnations, but modern fascination with them as the astrological signs means they've all formed their own version of the Twelve."
Artemis cleared her throat. "A number of us on Olympus raised that issue a few decades ago, but Zeus shot the idea down. Said it was ridiculous to think that the signs could pose any sort of real threat to us. I suppose he's right in a technical sense, but that didn't stop them from partnering with this Genius."
Nico looked perplexed, turning to the conversation. "But what makes you think all twelve are involved? The only two we know for sure are Sagittarius and Pisces, since Aquarius's presence could still be a coincidence."
The goddess bit her lip. "Many of the signs... don't have very good history with us, Mr. di Angelo. In point of fact, Sagittarius and Pisces probably would have been voted least likely to attempt anything evil if you called for a debate on the issue. Their involvement anyway means the others must at least be aware of this conspiracy, if not actively involved."
Percie's stomach calmed enough for her to stand up. "Can we get the rundown, Wise Girl? So we at least know what to expect?"
Annabeth sighed. "Sure. Who do you wanna know about first?"
"Let's go with the fish. He sounds fun."
"She, actually. Pisces is a woman."
"Barely," Artemis muttered to herself.
Annabeth ignored her. "Pisces was originally a two-headed fish, who carried Aphrodite and Eros to safety when Typhon first started running amok. As a sign of gratitude for saving the life of her and her son, Aphrodite put the fish into the sky, where the two heads separated into two individual koi. Such an honor also granted Pisces power, and the two fish can now form into a single entity, a beautiful woman, as an ode to the goddess who rewarded them. Be warned: Pisces is one of the oldest constellations, and her involvement in this cannot be a good sign."
"Hey, if I was to grill Pisces, should I serve her with lemon butter, or cilantro?" Percie asked. Everyone in the chariot shot the daughter of Poseidon a dirty look, which she sank away from. "Come on, guys. Lighten up. It's about time we faced an opponent we could eat, instead of the other way around."
Will just ignored her. "And Sagittarius?"
"Crotus. A child of Pan. A dear friend to the Muses, and avid hunter. He invented the bow, applause, and plenty of other things that we probably don't know about. Despite often appearing as a centaur, he's actually closer to a satyr, though he tends to appear in a mostly human form now. The Muses were so enamored with him, they asked Zeus to put him in the sky for all the good he delivered the world. Some even theorize that it was Crotus who first practiced the art of illumination in hunting."
"He did," Artemis answered. "Despite his promiscuousness, Crotus maintained a diligence in the wild that even I must respect. Despite what Apollo may claim, or what I may pretend, it is he who is archery incarnate. The only reason my Hunters do not lie dead now is because he did not will it. None of them, not even Thalia, could ever hope to match him in a confrontation."
"So we've got a gorgeous fish, and a dead-eyed wildman to contend with," Nico murmured. "Better than a bunch of ugly giants, I guess."
Percie wasn't really paying much attention to the young man. She was chewing on the name Artemis had just dropped. "Thalia... would I know her? She seems... familiar."
Annabeth grimaced. "Daughter of Zeus. Got turned into a tree. Went with you on the quest to free Artemis from Atlas. Does that help?"
Percie gasped. "Oh, great. Thomas is a Hunter here?"
Artemis's head snapped back to the daughter of Poseidon at that. "Why do I detect indignation in your voice, Percie? Thalia is a wonderful member of the Hunt; she's become my most trusted lieutenant. Many of my new members are brought comfort by her leadership skills."
The demigod clammed up, not wanting everything unsavory to spill out all at once. "It's just... even seeing him as a woman, I can't imagine Thomas ever showing anything close to respect for the Hunters."
"And why is that?" the goddess challenged, though there didn't seem to be any anger directed at Percie.
"Um... before I answer that, I need to ask something: When you guys were sorting out who would go on the quest to take on Atlas, how did Percy end up included?"
Annabeth actually seemed to hold back a chuckle. "He snuck out. The Hunters refused to travel with a guy, after all... wait a minute."
The daughter of Athena realized the contradiction as she said it. Percie nodded. "Yeah. Zoe requested me, specifically. That's how I ended up coming along. I take it the same held true for Thalia, since she was a woman?"
"And Thomas would have been left behind," Will added, intrigued. "So how did he get involved? I can't imagine Zoe would have been very happy to have him along, since she was already forced to bring Bartholomew with her."
Percie sucked in her cheeks. "Yeah. She wouldn't have. So... Thomas decided to play his own gambit."
"His own gambit?" Nico asked, now interested as well. "What did he do?"
"The fifth member, Phoebe, ended up being on the receiving end of the Stoll sisters and their pranks, so she was out of commission. Zoe had to find a new Hunter, and decided on a newer recruit, who called herself Ingrid."
The moon goddess actually looked puzzled at that claim. "But I don't have any Hunters named Ingrid. Never have, if I remember rightly. And from what I can piece together, my Hunters did not go through any changes when the worlds differed. So... how did this Ingrid appear?"
This wasn't gonna be fun. For Artemis, at least. Nico was bound to get a kick out of it. She just hoped he didn't get himself killed.
"Ingrid... wasn't a Hunter at all. In fact... she wasn't even a woman."
Annabeth's jaw dropped for what felt like the seventh time that day. "No...he didn't..."
"Yeah. Thomas manipulated the Mist, and made everyone see him as Ingrid, for the entire quest."
Sure enough, the barest hint of a smile started to come over Nico. Artemis was a different story.
"He did WHAT?!" she bellowed, clutching to the reins in a rage. "That man... took on the shape of a maiden, and joined the Hunt in disguise?"
That wasn't the worst part of the story. Not by a long shot. "The weirdest part was, it worked a lot better than it should have. None of us were really paying that much attention to Ingrid; she kept to herself, stayed out of the way in fights, and never spoke up unless something was serious. The Mist maintained... until we finally started to head up Mt. Tamalpais. Lightning struck the car, which ended up disrupting the illusion. Thomas told me later he suspected Zeus was trying to kill him, to hold back the prophecy."
Annabeth looked to be enraptured by the story. "I take it Zoe didn't appreciate being lied to?"
"After losing an eye to Bartholomew? She was looking for a fight, and Thomas handed her one on a silver platter. She lit into him, screaming about his 'pathetic-ness' and total lack or regard for honor. He'd been listening to her mock Bartholomew the whole way, and was sick of her constant belittling of men. He pushed back, calling her a jealous creep, because he talked Lucille out of joining the Hunters the last time they'd met. Zoe had tried to convince the daughter of Hermes, but she had refused to leave him and Alister behind."
No one else in the chariot said a word as Percie continued: "Zoe's reaction was... predictable. She snarled, and told him that if he had just let Lucille go, then maybe she wouldn't be working for Kronos, and he wouldn't have to kill his best friend."
The demigods all shuddered, and even Artemis seemed to go still.
But there was more to tell. "That was the last straw for Thomas. He already felt horrible about Bartholomew's death, and Zoe bringing up Lucille to him didn't help matters. All still might have turned out okay, if what happened next didn't go down the way it did."
"What happened?" the goddess asked, her posture frozen. She seemed to know what answer was coming.
"Zoe proclaimed that she'd kill me before she ever let Thomas deprive her of another Hunter again. I mean, I knew she wanted me along because she wanted to induct me into the Hunters, but I'd already told her multiple times that I'd never leave Alister like that. She must have realized that the Alister I was referring to was the same one who Lucille had been loyal to in the past, and that pushed her over the edge."
"She was facing the same two men who'd snatched Lucille away, and inadvertently led to the current situation with Kronos," Nico gaped, catching on. "She assumed the same thing was happening again, just with Percie."
Percie nodded at him, trying to keep herself composed. "Yeah. At that declaration, Thomas had enough. He attacked her, just as she went to strike me. She missed; he didn't."
Artemis slowly turned to Percie, her silver eyes sparkling with danger. "Zoe didn't die at the bite of Ladon in your world, did she?" the goddess asked, her voice low.
Time for the big reveal.
"No. Zoe died right there on that mountainside."
Annabeth's gaze darted between Percie and Artemis. "So Thomas killed her? To protect you?"
"Thomas managed to stab her in the arm, but he didn't kill her. He didn't want to draw any more ire from Artemis, or the Hunters. Zoe wasn't holding back, though. She pulled her daggers, and went to stab him right in the face. She didn't make it."
Everyone in the chariot all stared at the daughter of Poseidon as the answer became obvious.
Percie nodded at their silence, her mind resigned to its fate. "I killed Zoe Nightshade, to protect Thomas."