Pale light fell through dark leaves in slim bars, gleaming on Zoe’s silver tiara as she flitted through the brush. Soft loam squelched beneath Percy’s feet, the damp, cool scent of dew-veiled leaves clung to his nose and the rustle of the breeze filled Percy’s ears with whispers.
The crescent moon hung among the stars, dull and wan.
We’re coming. Perseus stared at it as he jogged after the flashes of silver between the slim tree trunks. I don’t know if you can hear me, Artemis. But we’re coming. You have my word.
A root caught his ankle. He stumbled, sprawling into a tangle of shadows lurking beneath the boughs.
‘Ow.’ Percy ripped a bramble off his jeans and tugged the thorns out of his ankle. ‘I don’t think these woods like me very much.’
Zoe prowled back through the trees. ‘Why art thou on the ground, Perseus?’
He waved the bramble at her. ‘Unfriendly foliage.’
The blonde huntress appeared beside Zoe, thin-lipped and frowning. ‘Hurry up,’ she snapped. ‘You’re wasting time.’
‘Iphigenia.’ Zoe threw her a sharp glance. ‘Thou art meant to be watching ahead.’
‘They’re being too slow.’ Iphigenia pointed at foot at Percy. ‘He can’t even stay on his feet, and the other two are just as bad.’
Thalia glowered and grabbed Percy by the arm, hauling him to his feet. ‘We can’t run like this in the dark, princess. We’re not blessed by Artemis like you are.’
‘Do not call her that.’ Zoe rested a hand on Iphigenia’s shoulder. ‘Ever. Again.’
A faint glow rose in Thalia’s narrowed eyes and the hairs prickled on Percy’s arm.
‘You don’t need our lady’s blessing to avoid brambles, little girl.’ Iphigenia pointed through the trees. ‘Just keep going.’
‘Let’s all keep going.’ Percy broke back into a jog, pulling Thalia with him. ‘Ignore her, Thalia.’ He winced at the sharp shock. ‘And stop zapping me.’
Thalia ripped her arm from his grip. ‘Then get off!’
Malcolm stumbled after them through the brambles, cursing under his breath. ‘This is stupid, Percy. I’m going to end up breaking a leg or something.’
‘But they are right, we can’t waste time,’ he murmured.
If we go slow, she will suffer longer. Percy’s heart wrenched and sank like a stone into the lake. That’s not okay.
‘We’ll be going a lot slower if one of us twists an ankle,’ Malcolm replied. ‘Although, I think the huntresses might just leave us behind if that happens.’
‘Zoe won’t leave us, but Artemis will be trapped under the sky for even longer.’ Percy let his pace drop. ‘ I’ll speak to Zoe. Keep going for now, just be careful.’
Iphigenia brushed past him, slipping through brush and bending around branches, her pupils huge and dark.
‘That’s just cheating,’ Percy muttered as Zoe reached him. ‘This isn’t smart, Zoe.’
‘There is no time to waste, Perseus. Artemis is already beneath the sky. You dreamt it.’
‘Malcolm’s right, though. We can’t run like this, eventually one of us is going to break an ankle in a hole, and then we’ll be going much slower.’
Zoe’s forehead wrinkled beneath the gleaming tiara. ‘Thy friend is correct.’ She slowed to a walk, gliding through brambles as she stared up at the moon. ‘That means thou chose at least one of them well, Perseus.’
‘Thanks. Jury’s still out on Miss Zappy McZapface.’ Percy squinted through the trees into the dark. ‘You’re going to have to chase Iphigenia down. There’s no way any of us can catch her.’
‘She is not Atalanta, I will catch her.’ Zoe waved Bianca forward. ‘Go as quick as is safe, Perseus. It’s not long until dawn, we’ll speed up again then.’ She broke into a run, knifing through the trees, swaying around branches and saplings as she flitted away into the black.
‘Why are we with them?’ Thalia hissed. ‘That bitchy, tiara-wearing princess and her even more bitchy friend are a nightmare.’
‘The oracle said so. Zoe knows where we need to go.’
‘Zoe.’ Thalia ground her teeth and crossed her arms, a black scowl upon her face. ‘I hate them. They’re part of the reason Luke’s been forced to betray us to begin with. Leaving boys to die like it’s nothing. No wonder they’re angry!’
‘He wasn’t forced.’ Percy stopped in his tracks. ‘He chose to do this. He chose to try and drag me down into Tartarus so I couldn’t save my mother and stop our parents’ fighting. He’s choosing to work with monsters that want to eat us to bring back Kronos who probably also wants to eat us, given he tried to eat his own kids.’
‘Because he thinks he has to!’
The hairs on Percy’s arms rose, tingling. He ignored it. ‘You’re just angry Zoe’s telling you what to do.’ A soft rage drew its breath within him, sliding back like the wash of a broken wave into the rising swell of the next. ‘As if your ego’s more important!’
Thalia’s blue eyes flashed. ‘I—’
‘Er…’ Malcolm edged between them with a weak smile. ‘Maybe this isn’t the best time for fighting?’
Thalia took a deep breath. ‘No, it’s not.’ She stomped through the brush, crushing brambles under her heels and swatting branches out of her face. ‘Come on, Malcolm.’
Malcolm let out a long sigh and hurried after her.
Bianca sidled across. ‘Are you okay, Percy?’
‘I have some very small holes in my leg, but it’s all good.’ He gave her a thumbs up and started through the brambles again. ‘Did you talk to Nico?’
Bianca shot a glance ahead of them into the trees and bobbed her head. ‘I said I was sorry for avoiding him, that was stupid of me. I told him I still love him, but I need to have my own life. I think he kind of understands, but…’
‘He’s not going to be happy about it,’ Percy said. ‘No matter how much you deserve your own life, you’re still leaving him.’ He grimaced. ‘Thalia has a point about that, or she would if that was actually why she was angry.’
Thalia shot him a glare over her shoulder and balled her fists.
She shrank back. ‘Would — would you? If she’d asked you?’
He laughed. ‘I don’t think I’m going to get asked, that’s not how it works, not without a few middle steps that would leave me pretty confused and probably quite upset.’
Bianca’s cheeks darkened. ‘But if you’d been me?’
Percy studied the dappled shadows beneath the twisted bark of a thick beech. ‘I don’t think so. Not sure.’
‘Did I do the wrong thing?’ she whispered.
‘You’ve made your choice, Bianca,’ he said. ‘You can’t unmake it now. At least, I don’t think so. All the stories Gabe told me make it sound like a bad idea.’
‘I know,’ she murmured. ‘But if you think it was the wrong thing to do.’
‘I don’t think it’s wrong.’ Percy spied a glimmer of silver ahead between the trees. ‘You do deserve your own life.’
But you should always help those who need it, even if it means having to give up something. He shook his head clear of doubt. Bianca’s been giving up things for Nico all her life if what he babbled about her was true.
‘It’s done. You’ve chosen.’ Percy rested a hand on her shoulder. ‘You’ll be happy with Zoe and Iphigenia and everyone else, and maybe Nico will be just as happy with us.’
‘But you don’t know?’
‘None of us know what Fate intends.’ Zoe slipped back through the tree in between them, brushing Percy’s arm aside. ‘Least of all Perseus.’
‘Least of all?’ Percy folded his arms. ‘Just because I’m not an old lady like you…’
‘We are the same age.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Thalia snorted. ‘How long have you been his age?’
‘Longer than he has, Thalia Grace.’ Zoe looked down her nose at Thalia. ‘Long enough that I was his age before Zeus begot thee.’
‘Are we stopping?’ Malcolm fumbled in his bag, dragging out his water bottle and taking huge gulps.
‘For a few minutes.’ Zoe pointed through the trees to where faint, orange light spread across the horizon. ‘Dawn is almost here.’
Iphigenia drew Bianca across the clearing behind Zoe, whispering in ear. Bianca squirmed and stared at her feet as the light brightened and colour crept into the world. Green brambles tangled with ivy, nettles, and shrubs beneath brown, moss-draped trunks and emerald-leaved branches.
Malcolm stuffed his bottle away, edging across. ‘Thanks,’ he whispered.
‘It was your idea to slow down,’ Percy said. ‘Don’t thank me.’
‘Not for that.’ He held Percy’s gaze with a serious glint in his grey eyes. ‘For saving my sister. I should have already said it, but we were running and—’
Zoe tutted. ‘Perseus saved nobody. It is not Perseus who is beneath the sky.’
‘I know that and I am very grateful to Artemis—’ Malcolm shuffled his feet in the brambles ‘—but I don’t think Artemis would’ve saved Annabeth if he’d not asked her to.’
‘He did not ask,’ Zoe snapped. ‘He tried to run into the woods, bleeding to death after the manticore’s spines pierced his shoulder, when it and thy half-sister were long gone. Lady Artemis would have saved thy half-sister no matter what Perseus did, she just saved him from dying stupidly as well.’
Percy winced, guilt chewing at the pit of his stomach. ‘Zoe’s right. All I did was get injured trying to stop Bianca and Nico getting eaten, and lose Annabeth.’
Bianca’s cheeks turned pink and she turned away from Iphigenia to stare up at the brightening sky. Iphigenia’s eyes flicked to Zoe, to the back of Bianca’s head, and back again.
Zoe shot a long frown at Bianca. ‘Let us get moving again. It is light enough to run safely.’
She led them on through the trees until they stumbled from brambles and brush onto a narrow path winding through tall, leaning pines.
‘Thank the Gods,’ Thalia muttered. ‘An actual path.’
Perseus laughed. ‘We might even see something like concrete or tarmac at this rate. Five drachma says Zoe refuses to walk on it.’
Zoe shot him a flat look, but the corner of her mouth twitched.
A broad grin spread across Thalia’s face. ‘Done. You can pay me when we’re back at camp.’
Zoe rolled her eyes, circling around the far side of a thick oak.
Percy squelched through the muddy path into a broad, sunlit glade. A young hiker in a red coat sat on a bench where the path forked, leaning back into the faint shade of the rowan leaves over his head.
‘You should go left.’ The hiker flicked bright, blonde hair off his sharp blue eyes and stared at Zoe. ‘It’s shorter.’
She nodded. ‘Go left.’
Iphigenia jogged down the fork, Bianca on her heels. Malcolm and Thalia hurried after them.
‘How do you know it’s shorter?’ Percy asked. ‘We’re kind of in a hurry.’
The hiker rested his boots on the arm of the bench. ‘I always know.’
‘Come on.’ Zoe motioned left with her head, her dark hair spilling across her face. ‘No time.’
Percy broke into a light run, pounding through the mud after her. ‘Who was that? Why did you trust them?’
‘That was Apollo, bending the rules to help us.’ Zoe’s brow wrinkled. ‘I am almost certain.’
The soft rage swelled in his breast, rising, like the slow swell of the tide. ‘Why can’t he just do it himself? Why is it always us?’
‘He should be able to.’ Zoe’s frown darkened. ‘Atlas is a formidable opponent, but Apollo is very powerful.’ She quickened her pace. ‘If Apollo is here bending the rules, then something is stopping him from acting directly. He… he is not like Lady Artemis, but he would never leave her beneath the sky without a fight.’
‘Zeus.’ Percy choked his anger down. ‘Nobody else could stop Apollo from trying, right?’
She nodded. ‘And I know why.’ Zoe pointed ahead through the trees. ‘Zeus wishes his daughter to be the one who succeeds here, this will prove her mettle and help her on her way to greatness.’ She sighed. ‘If only Thalia Grace had accepted Lady Artemis’s offer, she might have been spared the burden of Zeus’s expectations, as Bianca has been spared Hades’s.’
Percy blinked. ‘Hades?’
A faint smile crooked Zoe’s lips. ‘For those who have lived as long as I, it is not so hard to see the same features in the faces of demigods.’
I wonder how old she really is.
‘How does joining the Hunt spare them, though?’ He skidded in a puddle, spattering his jeans with mud. ‘Why?’
‘If thou takes the oath to Lady Artemis, then thou art hers to do with as she pleases,’ Zoe replied. ‘Lady Artemis told me that even Zeus cannot alter the consequences of mortal choice. The Gods can influence, or trick, or entrap, and enforce the consequences of mortal choices, but they cannot take the choice away and they cannot undo them.’
‘So you’re like a toy to her.’ Percy’s gut twisted into knots, bubbling and frothing. ‘She just moves you about to do whatever she wants you to do.’
Zoe’s dark eyes flashed hot. ‘If I had sworn myself to another, maybe that would be true. I am Lady Artemis’s companion, not her plaything and I will be as long as I keep my word.’
‘What if she changes her mind? Did she swear on the Styx to honour it?’
‘Lady Artemis doth not break her word. She has not. Not in all the time I have followed her.’ Zoe took a deep breath and let it out through tight lips. ‘Has she not proven that to thee already?’
I promised I would. A soft, sadness rose in Artemis’s silver irises before Percy’s mind’s eye and his heart twisted in his breast.
‘Yes.’ He forced down the hot lump in his throat, smothering those soft silver eyes beneath the hammering of his heart. ‘Yes she has. Gabe once told me that we should help others, even if it costs us something to do so, but I didn’t expect Gods to do it, not after Hades, and Zeus, and my father.’
‘Did he say why?’ Zoe asked.
Percy clawed his way back through their conversations. ‘Because it’s the right thing to do, I guess. I don’t really remember, I was a kid.’
‘It is the right thing to do, because every single time we act with kindness, we make the world ever so slightly better,’ she murmured. ‘Be kind to people and they may grow kinder, too.’
‘Gabe definitely said something like that,’ Percy said. ‘Something to do with justice requiring not just firm laws, but trust, expectation, and inspiration.’
‘Who is Gabe?’ Zoe asked.
‘My step-dad. Kind of. He’s not about much, he travels a lot. He just turns up every now and again to stop by and say hi. Mom never talks about him, but I think he helped pay for stuff when I was a baby. He got us a new kitchen floor once. We came back and there were new tiles instead of all the dirty old lino.’
‘He gives thee good advice,’ she whispered. ‘Perhaps that explains it.’
Zoe shook her head and quickened their pace until Percy’s legs burnt. ‘No more talking, Perseus. Save thy breath. We need to hurry. I do not know where Apollo’s shortcut will take us, but the quicker we go, the less time Lady Artemis must endure under the sky.’