The path wound through slim, silver-barked birches in a ribbon of wet mud and fallen leaves. Percy ran beneath the thin, drooping catkins, listening to the thud of his feet and the pounding of his heart. Sweat trickled down his temples and stuck his shirt to his back.
Zoë’s dark hair flew before him, the sunlight flashing on her tiara as she flitted through patches of bright golden light.
‘Wait!’ Thalia shouted.
Zoë bounced off three birch trunks and leapt to perch in the fork of a beech. ‘Why?’
Percy stumbled to a halt, grabbing a few long breaths and a long drink of water from his bottle. Bianca doubled over next to him, resting her hands on her knees and gasping for breath.
‘There’s a road.’ Thalia brushed past them, red-cheeked and dripping sweat. Her chest rising and falling a million miles a minute. ‘We can stop running and find a car or something. It’s just through the trees.’
‘No.’ Zoë shook her head. ‘We follow the path.’
Bianca straightened up. ‘Can I — can I borrow some water, Percy?’ Her cheeks turned a little pink. ‘I’m not as fit as Zoë or Iphigenia.’
‘You’re doing as well as I am,’ Percy said, holding out the bottle. ‘Actually, you look a lot less sweaty than I feel.’
Bianca shuffled her feet and took a long sip from the bottle.
‘We can’t run all the way there,’ Thalia snapped. ‘Malcolm! Tell her!’
Malcolm groaned. ‘I know I can’t run for all that much longer, I feel like I’m going to be sick.’
Zoë dropped to the ground, deep wrinkles creasing her brow. ‘Iphigenia!’
Iphigenia stalked through the trees. ‘What?’ Her eyes roved over them and her lip curled. ‘They can’t possibly need another break.’
‘No break. Run with Thalia and explain why we are sticking to the path until it ends. And keep one eye out ahead,’ Zoë ordered. ‘I need to speak with Perseus.’
‘You do?’ Percy’s stomach clamped tight. ‘Why?’
‘He’s not done anything wrong,’ Bianca said.
‘I see. Come on, Thalia Grace.’ Iphigenia twisted on her heel in a swirl of blonde hair and broke back into a run.
Thalia clenched her jaw and matched Iphigenia’s stride.
‘Bianca.’ Zoë levelled her with a long stare. ‘Go on.’
Malcolm shot Percy an apologetic look and jogged down the hill through the birches. Bianca chewed her lip and crossed her arms.
‘Bianca…’ Zoë narrowed her eyes, her delicate dark eyebrows arching into a steep vee. ‘I need to speak to Perseus alone.’
‘But…’ She squirmed. ‘Okay, Zoë.’ Bianca handed his water bottle back and flashed him a small smile. ‘Thanks, Percy.’
Percy slipped it back into the outside pocket of his bag and watched as Bianca caught Malcolm up. ‘What?’
Zoë’s obsidian eyes tracked Bianca through the trees. ‘Thou must be careful with Bianca.’
He frowned. ‘I don’t understand.’
She sighed. ‘Bianca is much taken with thee. Thy attempt to protect her by taking the spike of the manticore and thy insistence on helping with her brother has left an impression.’
‘And that’s… bad?’
Zoë’s lips thinned. ‘It seems harmless for now. Bianca seeks to impress thee and win thy attention a little, but too much time and her fondness for thee may become more troubling.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, it’s another boys thing. Well, I’ve spent more time talking to you than Bianca, so you’re probably at a higher risk of cooties than she is.’
‘Perseus.’ Zoë’s tone sharpened, cutting through the quiet woods. ‘I am not jesting with thee.’
‘It seems stupid to me.’ Percy started walking, wrestling with a knot of frustration. ‘I don’t understand it at all. What does it matter if she wants to talk to me?’
She shook her head, striding alongside him as he squelched through the mud. ‘It does not. It is what it might become that matters.’
‘Friendship?’ He snorted. ‘Like I said, I talk to you more than her. Art thou not worried about thyself, Zoë?’
Zoë’s lips twisted. ‘Love. Love is the ruin of heroes. And the death of girls who chase their affection.’
‘She’s not going to fall in love with me.’ Percy’s laugh echoed through the woods. ‘Can you imagine what would happen? A daughter of Hades and a son of Poseidon…’
‘And a companion of Lady Artemis,’ Zoë murmured. ‘Do not take my words lightly, Perseus. Love brings out the very best and exacerbates the very worst. For demigods, who have the power of their parents and flaws of mortals, it is sweet poison. I have seen it. They fly high, but then always fall in flames…’
He rolled his eyes. ‘One or two bad endings don’t—’
‘I have seen it over and over for five millennia.’
‘Gods you’re really old.’ Percy grimaced. ‘I mean—’
‘I am the same age as thee.’ Zoë straightened her tiara. ‘I have just been our age for a lot longer. Can thou think of a single demigod whose love led both him and the girl to happiness?’
‘Er…’ Percy wracked his brain, poring through the stories Gabe had told him. ‘Theseus? He was pretty heroic.’
Zoë’s lip curled. ‘Ensnared by dreams, he left Ariadne, who gave up everything for her love for him, and sailed away.’
A little disquiet settled in Percy’s breast, spreading like ripples across a pond ‘Okay, how about… Heracles?’
‘He slew his own family in madness.’
‘That’s pretty bad.’ Percy ignored the unease swelling beneath his breast like choppy waves from the sea. ‘Well, there must have been some. I’m sure.’
Zoë flicked her dark hair off her high cheekbones. ‘Thou doth not yet believe me?’
‘I don’t want to,’ he whispered. ‘I don’t like it.’
‘That doth not prevent it from being true.’ Zoë peered through the trees. ‘Didst thou not also want Hades to keep his word?’
‘That’s different. That’s the Gods.’
She threw a sharp glance at him. ‘Thou art divine also, Perseus. Poseidon’s divinity is and always will be a part of thee. Thou canst not pretend otherwise. There is a price for touching what is not meant to be touched, Perseus. The mortal cannot endure the divine.’
‘But Bianca’s as divine as I am.’ Percy winced from the narrowing of Zoë’s eyes and held up his hands. ‘Just an example. I could have said Thalia, or Annabeth, or even Katie Gardener.’
‘Thou art touched by Fate, as are all Poseidon’s rare sons. Love will not keep thee from destiny.’ Zoë stared up through the branches to the sky. ‘Even if thou wished it could.’ She quickened her pace, breaking into a run. ‘No matter how much thou might want otherwise, thou willst have to choose to save all. And love is selfish.’
Her words struck a grim chord in his heart. It sank from his breast with a quiet resonant note, soft as the silver of Artemis’s eyes as she stepped beneath the sky, shrouded in resigned sadness.
‘Now thou sees.’ Zoë’s dark eyes softened.
‘Thanks.’ Percy tried to drag a smile onto his face. ‘That’s really lifted my spirits, Zoë. I’m feeling really confident about how well this quest is going to go.’
‘Be careful with Bianca, Perseus,’ Zoë murmured. ‘That is all I am asking of thee.’
‘She belongs to Artemis.’ Percy mustered a faint smile. ‘That seems like a tug of war I won’t win, or, I guess if I did somehow win, I’d probably regret it. Artemis would turn me into something upsetting, like a guinea pig. Circe turned me into one of those and I didn’t enjoy the experience much at all.’
The corner of Zoë’s mouth twitched. ‘Thou art a foolish boy, Perseus.’
‘You’re just determined to bring me down, aren’t you?’
A faint smile crossed her face. ‘But thou art brave and kind, and I hope Fate is kind to thee.’
The trees ran out, dwindling to long grass and a smooth wide ribbon of tarmac. Thalia stood, stiff-backed between Malcolm and Bianca, her hands balled into fists and her jaw clenched.
‘The path has ended.’ Iphigenia turned her back on Malcolm and Thalia. ‘What now?’
Zoë cocked her head. ‘We wait for a moment.’
Percy strained his ears.
A faint hum rose over the hill.
‘Are we hijacking?’ Thalia demanded. ‘Or hitch-hiking? Or what?’
‘We’ll see,’ Zoë said. ‘Apollo did not send us this way for no reason.’
A black vehicle came over the rise.
‘Here we go,’ Bianca murmured, edging from Iphigenia’s side to Percy’s. ‘What did Zoë say?’ she whispered.
‘She just wants me to be careful,’ he said. ‘Clearly the Fates have decided someone has to scold me when I’m on quests. Normally Annabeth does it, but she couldn’t come this time.’
‘Let’s try hitch-hiking.’ Thalia stuck her thumb in the air, waving as the car roared up the hill toward them.
The black car screeched to a halt and the door flew open.
‘Finally,’ Thalia muttered, striding across. ‘No more running.’
The manticore sprang from the front seat, tail high and bristling with spines.
‘Thalia!’ Malcolm cried, drawing his sword.
She dived to the ground and a hail of spines hissed into the trees, rolling to her feet and snatching her spear and shield from her pockets. ‘You are one dead manticore.’
Its dark eyes narrowed and it bared a maw of slim, needle-sharp teeth. Zoë and Iphigenia drew their bows, silver arrows shining in their fingers. Percy grabbed Anaklusmos from his pocket, extending the xiphos into a blade and strode forward.
The manticore snarled and hurled itself against the car. The vehicle skidded sideways into Zoë and Iphigenia, sending them sprawling across the road, and the door slammed shut; its window shattered, spraying Percy with shards of glass, slicing lines of fire across his hip and thigh. He doubled over, clutching at the burning streaks of pain.
Ducking the spear tip, the manticore plunged one clawed foot into the earth and unleashed a shower of spines. They screeched off Thalia’s shield and stuck quivering from the road. The monster slid beneath the spear and swept Thalia’s feet out from under her with one paw, clawing her shield aside and baring its teeth.
Percy staggered forward.
Malcolm hurled himself over Thalia and thrust his sword into the manticore’s maw. The manticore howled as the blade burst through its cheek, ripping itself off the sword; it spun, raising its tail.
Dark spines sprouted from Malcolm’s chest and he stumbled back over Thalia, onto the tarmac. Blood spread across his t-shirt, pooling beneath his back, and his blade bounced across the road to Bianca’s feet. Thalia drove her spear through the manticore’s eye, yelling in triumph.
‘Malcolm!’ Percy leapt to his side. ‘Mal—’
Blank grey eyes stared up.
‘Ha!’ Thalia twisted her spear free and the manticore burst into golden dust. ‘One for me!’
‘Shut up, Thalia,’ Percy hissed. ‘Shut. Up.’
Thalia whirled, a furious bright glow in her eyes. ‘Oh no…’ Her spear dropped to her side and the gleam faded. ‘Malcolm. When did—’
‘When he saved you.’ Percy thrust Anaklusmos out at her. ‘After you ran in alone.’
Thalia’s eyes dropped to her feet.
The ground lurched.
‘Something’s coming,’ Bianca whispered. ‘Something wrong.’
Zoë shook Iphigenia’s shoulder. ‘Get up, Iphi. Hurry up.’
Iphigenia staggered to her feet, raising her bow and swaying. ‘Where is it?’
‘Dead.’ Zoë’s eyes slid to Malcolm. ‘Bianca?’
Bianca trembled, pale-faced. ‘Something is coming,’ she whispered, picking Malcolm’s sword up in shaking hands. ‘I can feel it.’
A bone fist smashed through the bloodstained tarmac. A dozen more followed it, ripping through the ground. Skeletal warriors bearing broad bronze hoplons and long spears clawed their way through the crumbling road, and Malcolm’s body slipped into the chasm they left, tumbling into the dark.
‘Spartoi,’ Zoë hissed, raising her bow and nocking a silver arrow. ‘Get to the car, Iphi, get it started now!’
Iphigenia ripped the dented car door open, fumbling beneath the wheel.
Thalia snatched her shield up and backed to Percy’s side. ‘What are spartoi?’
‘I don’t know.’ He stared into the bone grins beneath the battered bronze helms as they advanced behind the shields. ‘But there are a lot more of them than us.’ He grabbed Bianca and pulled her back as he retreated toward the car.
A silver arrow thudded into the shoulder of the nearest spartoi. Zoë nocked and loosed another, and the shaft pierced through the helm of a second spartoi.
It fell to the ground, twitching on the tarmac.
‘One down,’ Thalia muttered. ‘Twelve to go.’
‘No,’ Bianca murmured. ‘It’s already dead. It’s just hate, hate and bones and fury.’
The fallen spartoi rose to its feet and lunged; its spear tip glanced off Thalia’s shield, whispering past Percy’s ear. Bianca screamed and swung Malcom’s sword with both hands. The blade sheared through the spartoi’s head and it flopped to the ground, crumbling to dust.
The spartoi froze.
‘What?’ Bianca stared at the sword. ‘How…?’
The car roared to life.
‘Get in,’ Zoë snapped, firing arrow after arrow past Percy’s ear.
The wind of them tugged at Percy’s hair as the spartoi’s advance wilted beneath a hail of silver arrows. Bianca darted past, dragging open the rear door and diving in.
‘Go, Percy,’ Thalia hissed. Her eyes strayed to the bloodstained tarmac. ‘I’ll come last.’
Percy ducked through Zoë’s line of fire and hurled himself into the back. Bianca squeaked and scrambled across and Thalia and Zoë bundled themselves in.
Iphigenia slammed her foot down and they lurched forward with a squeal of rubber. Thalia clambered over the middle into the front and slumped in the seat staring out the window.
‘What on earth were those?’ Bianca whispered.
‘Zoë?’ Percy asked.
‘Spartoi.’ She pressed a hand to her ribs and winced. ‘Dead warriors. They will chase us until they are destroyed or we are.’
‘We just outrun them, right?’ Percy asked. ‘We’ve got a car…’
Iphigenia snorted. ‘Outrun spartoi? Idiot. They do not rest or tire or stop.’
‘Iphigenia,’ Zoë murmured. ‘Be kinder.’
Iphigenia stiffened and changed gears, muttering under her breath.
Bianca hunched her knees into her chest, Malcolm’s bloodstained blade trapped between them. ‘Why did it get destroyed when I hit it?’
Percy stared at the crimson smeared on the smooth, shining bronze. Malcolm’s blood. His stomach churned, bubbling up onto his tongue like a sulphurous spring, hot and foul. I chose him to die.
‘Because thou art a daughter of Hades, Lord of the Dead.’ Zoë’s voice echoed from somewhere far away. ‘And the spartoi are of the dead. When they catch us, thou willst destroy them. One by one.’
Bianca gulped. ‘Me?’
‘Nobody else can do it.’
Percy reached out and touched a fingertip to the red on the blade. He turned his hand over and stared at the crimson mark. His stomach heaved and rolled, surging up. I think I’m going to be sick.
Zoë’s dark eyes dropped to Percy’s hand and she reached around the headrest, placing a hand on Iphigenia’s shoulder. ‘Are we far enough ahead to take a moment?’
‘A short moment.’ Iphigenia slammed on the brakes and swerved to the edge of the road. ‘I’ll find our first aid stuff. For your ribs, Zoë.’
‘My ribs are just bruised,’ Zoë said. ‘Take care of thy own ribs. Thalia, Bianca, help Iphigenia and check thou art unharmed, but do not stray or tarry.’
Iphigenia twisted the key and the engine died. ‘Outside.’ She shoved her bent door open and stumbled out.
Thalia dragged herself up from her seat and onto the road. Bianca uncurled and staggered after her, leaving Malcolm’s red-smeared sword on the seat.
He picked it up, curling his fingers around the bronze until its edge dug into his palms. I got Annabeth captured. And now I’ve got Malcolm killed.
‘Perseus,’ Zoë murmured, lifting the blade from his hand. ‘Thou art not to blame.’
‘I chose him. Of course it’s my fault.’
She tugged his water bottle from his bag and dabbed a bead of water on her thumb. ‘Thou didst choose to bring him. Thou didst not force him to save Thalia.’ Zoë rubbed the red from his finger. ‘He chose to save her. Do not take his brave choice from him, Perseus. He doth not deserve that, he chose to help her at a great cost to himself and he died a hero.’
The churning in his stomach eased into a soft hollow. ‘I should have—’
‘Malcolm was closer than thee,’ Zoë said. ‘He would have beaten thou to it.’ She drew back. ‘Grief waits for two, Perseus.’
‘I didn’t think that meant death.’
‘It might not, but at least one of us was always going to die.’ Zoë drew herself up and folded her arms, her red lips thin. ‘The oracle said so.’
‘A hero will die, forsworn amongst thrones.’ A cold chill settled over Percy. ‘There were no thrones and Malcolm wasn’t forsworn.’
Who will it be? Thalia? The cold sickness clamped tight in his stomach. Did I choose her to die, too?
‘Do not trouble thyself with Fate,’ Zoë murmured. ‘Thy choices are what the oracle always foretold they would be. And thou only gets to make thy own choices, Perseus, so choose well, and live or die without regret.’