‘How long must we wait?’ Thalia bounced her can of mace on her knee, fiddling with the peeling slogan on her t-shirt.
‘As long as it takes,’ Zoë said. ‘There is no better place to fight them than here.’
Percy spun Anaklusmos in his hand, watching the reflected light shine on the surface of the river gushing beneath the road. ‘How are we going to do this?’
‘Iphigenia and I will shoot at either end of their group,’ Zoë said, drawing lines in the dust at the roadside. ‘That will force them to fight us in more of a column. After that, we will pick off any we can to keep them from overwhelming you.’
‘I have to destroy them,’ Bianca whispered. ‘But I don’t know how…’
‘You did it before,’ Iphigenia said. ‘You can do it again. They are dead. And the dead are yours to command. Send them back to your father.’
Bianca shot a pleading look at Percy.
‘I’m not sure,’ he murmured. ‘Sometimes it just happens, mostly when I’m upset. Try and think about what you were thinking about before.’
She nodded, clutching Malcolm’s sword to her chest. ‘I’ll do my best.’
‘That’s all you can do.’ Percy caught Zoë’s eye and mustered a smile for Bianca. ‘You’ll be fine, I know you will.’
She turned pink. ‘I’ll try and be as good as you.’
‘Try and be better,’ Percy said. ‘I keep getting holes stabbed in me.’
Zoë cleared her throat. ‘Thalia and Percy can hold them off on the bridge in front of Bianca and the two of us. Try and give Bianca openings to finish them off.’
‘Will zapping them help?’ Thalia asked. ‘Would burning them work?’
Iphigenia shook her head. ‘They won’t burn easily, we don’t have the sort of fire we’d need.’
‘What about running them down?’ Percy suggested. ‘If we break them, will that slow them down?’
‘They won’t stay broken for long and if we break the car, we have to run again,’ Zoë replied. ‘It’s not worth it.’
Light flashed in the corner of Percy’s eye. He squinted down the road into the sun. Bronze gleamed amidst the heat haze.
Zoë nodded. ‘Don’t waste time,’ she said. ‘They do not tire, but we will.’
Iphigenia drew back to the middle of the bridge and twisted the silver ring on her finger. A slim bow sprang into her hand. ‘Zoë.’
Zoë stepped back next to her and drew her own. ‘Bianca, thou must be careful. Thou art the only one capable of stopping the spartoi, do not risk thy life to spare others’ injury.’ She fixed Bianca with a serious, sharp stare. ‘Percy will take whatever injuries he can for you and Thalia.’
‘What?’ Bianca whispered. ‘No.’
Percy managed a grin through a sharp, cold stab of fear. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take a little paddle in the river after and be as good as new. Like when I got manticored back at your old school.’
‘Bianca,’ Iphigenia snapped. ‘It is the best way. Don’t argue.’
The dull tramp of the spartoi rose over the rustle of the trees and the birdsong faded.
Zoë nocked an arrow. ‘Here we go.’
Percy spun Anaklusmos in his hand and stepped across next to Thalia. ‘If you get killed by a skeleton, I’m going to get murdered by Annabeth for letting it happen, so please don’t.’
Thalia prodded him in the stomach with the butt of her spear. ‘Likewise.’
‘And no diving in.’
Her knuckles turned white around her spear. ‘I won’t. Not this time.’
A line of bronze shields advanced across the bridge toward them, gleaming spear points and helms rose above them.
Percy tossed Anaklusmos into his left hand and swiped the sweat off his palm. ‘Ready, Bianca?’
‘Ready,’ she whispered.
‘I’m going to try and get one through to you,’ he said. ‘Just take its head off.’
Thalia banged her spear on her shield. ‘Come on!’ She yelled. ‘Why’re you tiptoeing over here, we’ve got places to be!’
The spartoi’s tramp quickened.
‘Thanks, Thalia.’ Percy shot her a flat look. ‘That’s really great.’
She snorted. ‘Just saving time.’
Silver arrows whistled past. Iphigenia’s shaft glanced off a bronze shield and bounced away into the river. Zoë’s pierced the skull of the rightmost spartoi and it collapsed to the ground.
‘Chop off the spear tips,’ Thalia muttered. ‘That’ll help. They don’t have swords.’
The spartoi charged.
Silver arrows flicked past. A handful of them stumbled and fell, staggering back to their feet with silver arrows sticking from their heads. Thalia took a deep breath and slammed her shield into the first spartoi. Percy’s hairs prickled and the three nearest skeletons flew back across the bridge in a white flash.
He ducked a spear tip and hacked the spartoi’s legs out from under it. ‘Bianca!’ Percy stamped on the spear and parried the next spartoi’s thrust.
She darted past his shoulder and drove Malcom’s sword into its skull. The spartoi writhed and burst into black dust.
‘It worked,’ she breathed, staring at her hands.
Percy grabbed her arm and dragged her back behind him. A bronze spear blade tore a line of fire across his arm and warm red spattered the side of his neck. He hissed and grabbed the spear, dragging the spartoi forward and sweeping its legs away with a foot.
Bianca stabbed her sword through its side and it crumbled away.
Silver arrows dropped the next two mid-charge. Thalia drove her spear into the chest of one and wrenched it sideways over the wall into the river, ducking a thrust from a second spartoi. Percy cut the spear tip off the extended spear and Thalia slammed her shield into its ribs, smashing it to the ground.
‘Two down,’ Percy said, sharing a glance with her as they advanced over the fallen spartoi. ‘Ten to go.’
Bianca stabbed Malcolm’s sword into the fallen spartoi. ‘Nine to go.’
More arrows sprouted from the remaining spartoi as they huddled back together and locked shields.
‘Can you zap them?’ Percy asked. ‘If you zap them right in the middle, I’ll watch your back.’
‘Split them up?’ Thalia nodded and smacked him in the shoulder with her shield. ‘Let’s do it.’
She strode forward, swinging her spear in a circle to knock aside the spartoi’s thrusts. Percy stepped after her, gripping Anaklusmos tight in both hands.
Thalia drove her shield into the centre of their line and grunted as she stopped dead. ‘Eat voltage, skeletons!’
A white flash seared Percy’s eyes and half the spartoi went flying back down the road. He jumped on the nearest spear, cracking its haft beneath his feet and slashed a thrust away from Thalia’s back.
‘Eight.’ Bianca drove Malcolm’s blade through the helm of the nearest spartoi and swayed around Percy, beheading the one at his feet. ‘Seven.’
‘You’re getting the hang of this, Bianca.’ Thalia locked shields with a dripping spartoi, shoving back and forth up and down the bridge the road. ‘Keep it up!’
Percy cut the shield arm off the first in his path and kicked it back, wrapping his arm over the spear thrust of the next and smashing its shaft with Anaklusmos’ pommel. Zoë and Iphigenia’s arrows struck the spartoi in the head, dropping it to the floor.
Thalia dropped to one knee and tipped the wet spartoi over her head onto its back. Percy drove Anaklusmos through its back and wrenched it around to face Bianca.
‘Six.’ She stabbed Malcolm’s blade through its ribs.
A bronze helm loomed over her shoulder.
No! Percy shoved her away.
Fire exploded through his shoulder. The spartoi twisted the spear and white sparks burst before Percy’s eyes. The pain ripped the wind from his lungs, leaving him gasping as he crumpled to one knee.
Bianca screamed somewhere beyond the agony as the spear tore free.
‘Percy!’ Thalia backstepped to his side, shield raised. ‘Are you okay?’
‘No.’ He staggered to his feet, wiggling numb fingers around Anaklusmos’s hilt. His shoulder burnt deep to the bone. ‘This is the only t-shirt I have with me.’
She snorted. ‘There are five left. Can you fight?’
He grimaced, flexing his hand. ‘Not very well.’ A dull throb settled in shoulder, pounding in time with his heartbeat, and red soaked across his stomach. ‘I’ll watch your back.’
The five spartoi charged.
Thalia thrust her spear through the chest of the first. The bronze shield of the second slammed into Percy, knocking him back. He ducked the spear thrust, feeling the wind from it whisper through his hair, and spun, burying Anaklusmos in its head.
‘Get off!’ Thalia yelled as the spartoi forced itself up her spear haft, clawing at her shield. ‘Get the hell off!’
Percy shoved the twitching spartoi back with his good arm, tugging Anaklusmos free.
Bianca stabbed it in the ribs and it burst into dust. ‘Four,’ she wheezed.
‘You’re doing amazingly,’ Percy said, offering her his best grin and clapping a hand to his throbbing shoulder. ‘Help Thalia with that one. Quickly.’
A huge smile burst across Bianca’s blushing face and she darted away. He twisted around. Zoë and Iphigenia danced away from three spartoi, bending out the path of spear thrusts.
‘Three!’ Bianca shouted.
Nearly there. Percy hurled Anaklusmos into the back of the nearest and grabbed its legs, dragging it across the bridge. Pain tore through his shoulder and his head swam. Gods above.
Bianca jumped over its flailing arms and stuck Malcolm’s blade into its back. ‘Percy…’
‘I’ll be fine.’ He took a deep breath and shook his head until his vision cleared. ‘Get the last two.’
Bianca edged toward the remaining two, tiptoeing behind the first and driving Malcolm’s sword through its ribs. ‘One!’
The second spun, whipping its spear around.
‘Ow.’ Bianca clutched at her neck.
Red poured through her fingers, spurting in great gouts across the road.
‘Bianca!’ Thalia shouted.
‘I’m okay,’ Bianca choked, raising Malcolm’s sword and staggering forward. ‘Just let… me get… this last—’ she collapsed to one knee, terror shining in her eyes ‘—I can’t… breathe… Percy… I can’t—’
Bianca slipped sideways and toppled onto her face. Crimson spread from beneath her pooling across the tarmac, washing the dark dust from the road.
Grief waits for two. The throbbing in Percy’s shoulder crashed over him like breaking waves. Rage swelled in his chest as the hot, bronze hilt of Anaklusmos sprang back into his hand, rising up and up and up. He watched it go before the eye of his mind, a searing wave of black so high it scraped the sky, towering over him. The hate of old bones.
The bridge trembled under his feet.
‘Get away from the water!’ Zoë yelled from somewhere far far away. ‘Thalia! Get off the bridge!’
A wall of blue smashed the road away, boiling past him in frothing white foam. Somewhere in its grip the spartoi floundered, clinging to the riverbed like a rock against the tide.
He crushed it, grinding it beneath his fury like a rock beneath his heel and scattering its pieces up the river.
‘My lord.’ A slim, blue-haired nymph rose from the waters, shaking like a leaf. ‘Please, let me free.’
Percy’s fury wavered. The water churned around his waist, sliding through his fingers. He clawed for it, clutching for Bianca’s body as it floated beyond his grasp. Hot tears trickled down his cheeks, blurring on his lashes. He felt them fall, felt them splash into the river and fade into its waters. Bianca’s body vanished and the river slipped from his grip, pouring toward the sea.
‘My lord,’ the nymph whispered. ‘The dead thing returns.’
‘No.’ He swiped his tears away and tightened his fist around Anaklusmos until his fingers ached and stung. ‘Keep it here. Scatter its pieces along the riverbed so it never reforms. It doesn’t get to die and go to Hades. It stays. It suffers.’
The nymph paled. ‘Forever, my lord?’
Percy clenched his jaw until his tears stopped. ‘Yes.’
The river shivered and the nymph vanished in a cold, clear spray of water.
He lifted his gaze up to the dripping, shattered bridge. Zoë stared down at him, a deep frown on her face and a soft sadness in her dark eyes.
And it’s the death of girls who chase their affection. Her words twisted in Percy’s heart like a knife.
He trudged from the river and hauled himself up the bank, feeling his heart plummet.
Iphigenia and Thalia stared downstream.
Zoë met him at the road edge. ‘Perseus—’
‘I’ve killed Bianca,’ he whispered. ‘Just like you said I would.’
‘No.’ Zoë grabbed his head in her hands. ‘Perseus. No.’
‘Look at what I did,’ he hissed. ‘Where was that when it was useful?! I could have done that to all twelve of them, but no, I was only strong when it was too late.’
He twisted away, staring into the woods. A soft snort rose from the river bank and a white-patched bull’s head poked through the trees there.
Zoë cupped his cheek, holding his gaze with a serious glint in her black eyes. ‘Sometimes, Perseus, it’s our fate to die. Our own choices lead us there. No amount of power can stop that, not even as much as thou possesses, mighty son of Poseidon.’
‘Fate decided otherwise.’ Zoë sighed and let go of him. ‘Thou art foolish, Perseus. I told thee, thou art only able to make thy own choices. And even the Gods cannot affect the consequences of them.’
‘I could have chosen to do that earlier if I knew how.’ A grim resolve settled upon him. ‘Next time, I’ll know how.’
Zoë’s red lips thinned. ‘Iphigenia! Thalia! Get ready to go. We will be with thee in a moment.’ A strange gleam hovered in her dark eyes. ‘I can help thee with thy power, if thou wishes.’
‘I knew another son of Poseidon once,’ Zoë murmured. ‘A noble hunter. I learnt a little of how he used his power and Lady Artemis taught me how to help my sisters who struggled with theirs. Perhaps it will help thee.’
‘How?’ Percy demanded.
‘Thou art the sea, Perseus.’ She pointed to the river. ‘No matter what thou attempts. No matter where thou finds thyself. Thou art the sea. And the sea is the power inside thee. Embrace it. Use thy nature to call on thy divinity.’
Percy frowned. ‘I don’t—’ His frustration swelled, rising like a wave. He smoothed it out into a still calm pool. ‘I understand.’ Percy took a deep breath and dried his eyes. ‘What happened to my brother?’
Zoë’s lips twisted. ‘His confidence and power grew into hubris. The flaws of mortals and the power of the divine do not mix well, Perseus. Heroes either step into eternity before their flaws bring them to ruin, or they fall from grace.’
‘He fell?’ Percy read the answer in Zoë’s dark eyes. ‘He fell.’
Will I? One day? He stared downstream, Bianca’s bright smile knifing through his breast. Have I already?
‘Do not blame thyself for Bianca, Perseus.’ Zoë tracked his line of sight and sighed. ‘I was concerned for the admiration she held thee in, but thou acted well. If thou hadst shown her affection of the wrong kind, her devotion to Lady Artemis might have wavered and led her to ruin. Instead, she died knowing of thy pride in her.’
Percy tasted bile. ‘That’s worth nothing.’
‘No,’ Zoë whispered. ‘It’s worth everything.’ She drew herself up. ‘Sometimes, sometimes I will do something that Lady Artemis not just approves of, but admires.’ Tears glistened in Zoë’s eyes. ‘She admires me.’
Zoë clapped her hand over his mouth. ‘I would trade my life for a single one of those moments, Perseus,’ she murmured. ‘I would trade it a hundred times over just to see her smile at me like that once.’
Percy shook his head, prying Zoë’s fingers off his face. His heart hung like lead in his breast, aching and stinging beneath his ribs. ‘That’s you, not Bianca. And that’s Artemis, not me.’
‘Thou gave that to Bianca.’ Zoë held his gaze until his stomach knotted and churned, and he dropped his eyes to the ground. ‘I saw her smile at thee upon the bridge. Thou cannot deny it.’
‘I chose to bring Bianca, not thee.’ Zoë raised her chin. ‘If her death is on anyone’s shoulders, it is mine. Thou gave her only that smile and helped ease her grief at leaving her brother.’
‘No.’ Zoë shook her head. ‘No, Perseus. I will not hear guilt from thee. Thou hath no right to it.’
A little of the weight lifted from his heart. ‘Do you give me your word? You really think that?’
‘Thou hath my word. And I do not break it.’ Zoë rested a hand on his shoulder. ‘I have watched many of my sisters step into eternity, Perseus. What we choose in life, we echo in Hades forever. Because of thy influence, Bianca walks now in Elysium.’
A gentle warmth rose through the sharp waves, melting their cold, bitter clamour. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘Thank you, Zoë.’