Slim, worn stone steps led up the mountain beneath a tangle of boughs and branches. A small clearing stretched to tufts of long grass and the sparkling expanse of the sea and floating a little way off shore sat a great, white yacht.
Percy pictured the gleaming golden apple on his palm as he caught his breath, Heracles’s words hanging on the tip of his tongue. So this is how it all ends.
‘The place I once loved most,’ Zoë murmured, staring up the steps. ‘I never thought I would come back here.’
He turned away from the sea and put one foot on the first step. ‘How far is it now?’
‘Not far.’ Zoë pointed up at where the steps bent around a rock. ‘Beyond that stone, the grotto of the garden lies beneath where Atlas should hold the sky.’
Percy extended Anaklusmos into a blade. ‘I think Artemis has waited long enough for us.’
Iphigenia nodded, twisting the ring on her forefinger into a bow. ‘Too long.’
‘I hope Luke’s here.’ Thalia clenched her jaw, a bright glow hovering in her eyes. ‘He owes me answers.’
‘I do not know what awaits us,’ Zoë said. ‘Thy former friend may well be here, Thalia, but Atlas will be for certain, and before Atlas, we must gain entry to the garden.’
‘How do we get Atlas under the sky?’ Thalia demanded. ‘He’s a Titan.’
‘We force him,’ Iphigenia said. ‘He will hardly go willingly.’
‘Can we force him?’ Percy asked. ‘Are we strong enough to defeat an immortal?’
A gentle snort echoed through the trees.
They whirled around.
A white-patched bull’s head shoved through the bushes.
‘Weird,’ Percy murmured, caught by a strange note of familiarity. ‘I’m sure I’ve seen that cow before.’
It pushed through the brush toward them, its dark hide gleaming between the leaves. Green scales gleamed about its midsection, giving way to long, thick serpentine coils.
‘Which suddenly makes sense, because it’s a monster,’ he said, raising Anaklusmos. ‘Well, I guess we’d better start with you.’ Percy pointed the tip of his blade at its head. ‘Don’t think of it as getting beaten, think of it as leaving early to avoid the traffic. I’m sure there are a bunch more monsters up there we’ll have to send after you.’
The bull sniffed the blade, bumping at it with its nose. Wide, brown eyes stared at Percy, tugging at his heartstrings.
He sighed and lowered his blade. ‘It’s not very scary. Do you think we can just leave it?’
Zoë eyed the creature. ‘Wouldst thou slay it, Perseus? If it would guarantee us victory?’
Percy stared into its big, dark eyes and his heart clenched. ‘It’s not like we’d lose for certain if we leave it alone, right?’
The corner of Zoë’s mouth curved up. ‘We’ll find out.’
He tucked Anaklusmos under his arm. ‘Shoo.’ He pointed through the trees. ‘Go on, shoo.’
The creature snorted and bumped his leg, chewing at his jeans.
‘No. Don’t stay and try and eat my clothes, go away.’ Percy folded his arms and scowled as Thalia burst into laughter. ‘It’s not funny. I’ve got holes in my t-shirt and in my jeans, the last thing that I need now is to lose a sock or a shoe.’
A cold nose nuzzled his ankle.
‘Don’t even think about it.’ He let Anaklusmos collapse back into a pen and tucked it in his pocket, grabbing the creature by the horn and tugging. ‘Come on.’
It slithered after him, huffing hot air against ribs.
‘Go down there,’ Percy said, pointing down the path into the woods. ‘And stay somewhere safe.’
It snorted and slid into the trees.
‘I hope it doesn’t come back and eat you later.’ Thalia snickered. ‘Imagine being beaten by something with the face of the cow.’
‘It’s minotaur nothing, Percy one, thank you,’ he replied, pulling Anaklusmos out. ‘Your picture’s still in the camp’s garden centre. Surprise tree girls going for half their usual price. Heal one get one free.’
‘I am not some stupid giggly dryad girl,’ Thalia growled.
Zoë shook her head. ‘Children,’ she muttered, a faint smile playing across her lips. ‘Let us go. I do not wish to tarry here on the brink. It’s time for things to end.’
She jogged up the steps, leaping up them in pairs. Percy trudged after her, Thalia at his side.
Zoë’s slim figure skidded to a halt beside the stone.
‘What is—’ Percy peered past her shoulder ‘—it…?’
A thick stone arch rose over the steps up to the grotto. Clouds of white blossom spread from the branches of the tree beyond them and golden apples hung from its dark-leaved branches, shining like small lanterns.
Thick, black-scaled coils stirred beneath it.
‘Ladon,’ Zoë whispered. ‘Do not wake him.’
‘Afraid?’ An ebony-haired, obsidian-eyed trio of maidens appeared on the far side of the arch. ‘Thou ought to be.’
‘Sisters.’ Zoë raised her chin before their cold, dark stares. ‘How hath thee fared, Hesperides?’
Percy grabbed her shoulder. ‘Shush,’ he whispered. ‘Let’s not wake the gigantic legendary dragon that beat up Heracles.’
She brushed his hand off. ‘I’m going to zap her afterward. I don’t like surprises.’
‘You are no sister of ours.’ The tallest of the Hesperides thrust her finger at Zoë. ‘Hath thou come to attempt to reclaim true immortality? It is impossible. No mortal may take an apple from the tree and survive.’ She clapped her hands. ‘Awaken, Ladon.’
Burning yellow eyes snapped open. Half a hundred heads slithered over one another, rising into the air, their pupils fixed themselves on their group, narrowing to slits.
Zoë swallowed. ‘Impossible is just a word for those who’ve given up, sisters.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Leaving this garden is impossible for you.’
‘Farewell, sister,’ the eldest snapped.
The Hesperides faded back into the rising shadow of Ladon’s stirring coils.
‘That doesn’t seem good.’ Percy eyed the narrow path up the mountain. ‘Should we just make a break for it?’
‘Perhaps Ladon will remember me,’ Zoë murmured.
‘Is there another—’
‘This is the only way. We must get past him.’ She edged forward, waving them across to the far side. ‘Ladon only guards the tree, he will let us pass if we do not threaten it.’
‘Why did they have to plant it right next to the only way in, then?’ Thalia hissed. ‘Who thought that was clever?’
Percy shot her a grin. ‘Like father, like daughter.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘Want to say that again?’
‘I said that your tree troubles are inherited.’ He chuckled under his breath at her scowl. ‘Don’t do anything rash, Sparky.’
‘Hush, Perseus.’ Zoë took slow, soft steps toward the arch. ‘When I say, thou all must go past me. Thou must be quick, but make no sharp motions to provoke Ladon.’ She took another step forward, holding her shaking hands out wide. ‘Doth thou remember me, Ladon?’
Ladon’s yellow eyes focused on Zoë pair by pair until a towering thicket of black-scaled necks rose over her. One head snaked forward to sniff her.
‘Zoë,’ Percy whispered, inching forward.
‘Do not move, Perseus,’ she said. ‘Ladon may recall my scent, but he will kill thee.’
‘He’s going to kill you.’
Zoë shot him a stern look. ‘Do as I say, Perseus. It is my life to risk, not thine.’
Ladon’s nose bumped her hand and she closed her eyes, holding her breath. A soft snort buffeted Zoë’s clothes as Ladon rubbed the top of his head against her hand.
‘Thou still enjoys being scratched.’ A faint smile hovered on Zoë’s lips as she ran her fingers over dark scales and ivory spines. ‘Go past me. One at a time. Go nice and slowly. Do not look at the tree. Ladon is still watching.’
Iphigenia strolled through, clutching her sides with white knuckles. Thalia tip-toed after her with her eyes closed and her jaw clenched so hard Percy could hear her teeth grating.
‘Perseus,’ Zoë murmured. ‘Thou must go. I will be fine.’
Percy measured his strides through the arch. The point between his shoulder blades tingled and in the corner of his eye he watched a dozen of Ladon’s heads twist to track their progress up the steps. He smeared the sweat off his palms, forcing a gulp of air down a dry throat past his pounding heart.
Zoë took a step to the side.
A low rumble left Ladon’s throat and his pupils flashed thin as a blade.
‘I know,’ she whispered, taking another side-step. ‘I know. I was banished. I am not allowed to return.’ Zoë withdrew her hand and edged across, rising onto the balls of her feet. ‘But I must help Lady Artemis, Ladon.’
The dark-scaled head drew back, baring long, jagged fangs with a deep growl.
Zoë darted for the steps.
Ladon’s teeth snapped closed behind her.
She gasped and stumbled to one knee.
‘Zoë!’ Percy grabbed her hand and pulled her up the steps.
A hundred pairs of yellow eyes burnt beneath the white blossom.
‘I am fine.’ She tugged her fingers free and brushed herself off, turning her forearm over. ‘Just a scratch.’
He studied the slim red line on her elbow. ‘That’s not too bad.’ Relief flooded through him. ‘I thought it got you when you gasped.’ Percy shot her a grin. ‘Although, I’m not sure how we’re going to get back out.’
Zoë’s lips twitched. ‘I’ve done my bit. The rest, I leave to thee.’
‘You just want to see me scream like a four year old and run away from Ladon.’ He extended Anaklusmos back into a blade and drew a deep breath, steadying his racing heart. ‘And now?’
‘We save Lady Artemis.’ Iphigenia darted up the steps, bow in hand.
They jogged after her through the trees to the summit. Dark stone spread across the peak, rising into a rough spire.
‘The palaces of the Titans,’ Zoë said. ‘Their thrones are reforming after the Gods cast them down.’
‘Thrones,’ Percy whispered. ‘For—’
‘Come on,’ she snapped. ‘There’s no time.’
Bright, silver eyes shone beneath sweat-soaked, tangled auburn hair. Percy skidded to a halt beside a familiar boulder, staring at the shimmering whirl of air above Artemis’s grimace.
‘Lady Artemis,’ Zoë breathed beside him. ‘She is okay.’
‘She’s looking a lot better than Annabeth did,’ Percy said. ‘Where—’
‘Percy.’ Luke stepped from the trees lining the cliff edge. ‘Good to see you again.’
‘Luke,’ Thalia hissed, levelling her spear at his chest. ‘Stop this and come back with us!’
‘Hey, Thals.’ Luke traced his fingers down the scar on his cheek. ‘You’re looking a lot better than I did after I first tangled with Ladon. I’m glad you’re better.’ His blue eyes flicked to Percy. ‘Thank you for saving her, Percy. Poisoning her tree was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’
‘You poisoned me.’ A fierce glow rose in Thalia’s eyes. ‘Me!’
All the hairs rose on Percy’s arms.
Zoë shifted. ‘Thalia—’
‘You promised. You promised.’
Luke flinched. ‘I thought you were already dead.’
‘I’ll show you already dead,’ Thalia snapped, charging across the grotto.
Luke ducked her thrust and shoved her back. ‘So be it.’
Percy stepped forward.
‘No.’ Zoë thrust her arm across his chest. ‘Let them fight, we must aid Lady Artemis.’
‘How do we do that?’ He edged forward into the grotto. ‘Annabeth could only hold it for a minute or two. We can’t take her place.’
‘Atlas must take its weight.’ Zoë drew herself up and twisted the silver ring on her middle finger into a bow. ‘Father, Fate calls for thee to reclaim thy burden!’
A tall shadow thudded to the ground at the centre of the grotto. ‘Was I too cruel when I banished you, daughter?’ Atlas’s dark eyes hardened to stone. ‘Is this your vengeance? To force me back to eternal suffering?’
‘Thou bears the sky for thy own crimes,’ Zoë said. ‘Thou must bear it again.’
‘I will follow my brothers to Tartarus before I find myself beneath there again.’ Atlas glanced behind him. ‘And Zeus’s daughter bears it so well. She is a far fairer ornament to this garden than I.’
‘If thou willst not retake thy burden willingly, then we will force thee,’ Zoë snapped.
A deep laugh tore from Atlas’s lips. ‘Ah, my rebellious child, you will learn to be more obedient and then you will rejoin your dutiful sisters. Your place is here.’
Zoë’s red lips thinned. ‘Perseus, thou wilt need all thy strength. Force him back close to the sky.’
Cold trickled down Percy’s spine, settling into a thick, choppy sickness in his stomach. ‘Look, I don’t know what you heard about that duel with Ares, but I barely gave him a papercut even after tricking him. And that was while catching him off guard and scrambled by Kronos’s influence. It wasn’t like I actually beat him.’
‘Thou doth not need to defeat him, Perseus.’ Zoë drew her bow. ‘And Iphi and I wilt aid thee.’
‘A hero will die, forsworn amongst thrones,’ he murmured
Artemis’s silver eyes held a terrible sadness beneath the sky. Percy felt it tug at his heart, drawing it down into bottomless dark, cold waters.
He took a deep breath and imagined the slow wash of the tide, levelling Anaklusmos at Atlas.
‘Another hero ensnared in my daughter’s sweet wiles,’ Atlas rumbled. ‘What is your name, child of Poseidon? And has she told you what became of the last?’
‘Percy.’ He drew the tide back before his mind’s eye, let it swell into a wave. ‘And I know what happened with Heracles.’
Atlas laughed. ‘Come and die then, hero.’ A long, dark spear sprouted from his hand. ‘I will take that blade from your cold fingers. Its power belongs to my daughter, not you.’
Percy leapt forward. Anaklusmos jarred against the spear’s haft, stinging his fingers. A broad grin spread across Atlas’s face. He took one hand off his weapon, placed it behind his back and shoved. Percy dug his heels in, throwing all the weight of the wave back.
Atlas stumbled back three steps and boomed with laughter. ‘You have chosen well, daughter. This one is strong. What did you promise him? Your—’
A silver arrow pierced through his calf.
‘Ignore him, Perseus.’ Zoë nocked another arrow. ‘He is toying with thee.’
Percy strode forward, ducking the sweep of the spear and lunging. Two silver arrows caught Atlas in the shoulder as he raised his spear and Anaklusmos scored a bright scratch through his bronze belt buckle.
Atlas’s foot lashed out.
Percy twisted aside, feeling its wind whisper past him. He side-stepped around, lining Atlas up with the sky, and slashed again. The spear blade rang against Anaklusmos’s hilt, twisting it about and forcing it away. Percy jumped back and regained his footing.
Atlas snorted and ripped the arrows out, hurling them away in a spatter of gold ichor. ‘Pinpricks.’
Percy pulled the sea in, drawing it into a swirling knot of white foam in his breast. The power clenched tight within him, screaming in protest as he held it back.
He slashed low, unleashing the sea.
Atlas parried with a grunt, sliding back a few inches. A silver arrow struck him in the side and he flinched. A second sliced through his cheek.
Percy shoved him back half a step further.
Artemis watched over Atlas’s shoulder, soft sadness swirling in her eyes.
Percy struck again, forcing his arm as fast as it could go, hammering Anaklusmos’s edge into Atlas’s spear haft until his muscles stung and screamed and all the sea within was spent. Atlas staggered back, a score of silver arrows sprouting from his limbs and torso, and gold ichor dribbling down his copper-toned skin.
‘Enough,’ he muttered, catching Anaklusmos in one hand.
Artemis’s eyes narrowed behind him and she tensed, measuring the half a dozen steps between them in the tilt of her head.
I gave my word. Percy put everything behind the blade, shoving Atlas back another inch.
Gold trickled down the bronze edge.
A fist hammered into his stomach, ripping the wind from his lungs. Atlas tossed him back across the grotto and Percy thudded to the ground, rolling through cold, wet grass. He bounced to his feet and retched, gasping for breath as the world swam before his eyes.
‘That is as close as you will get.’ Atlas tore the arrows from his body and crushed them in his hand, letting silver splinters pour through his fingers. ‘The next time you attack me, you die.’
Percy dragged himself up. A deep ache settled in his bones and the sea dragged when he groped for it, slipping through his grip.
I can’t beat him. Even with them helping me. His eyes slid to Artemis’s bowed head and ground his teeth, hot frustration whirling in his gut. But I gave my word. I promised. She took the sky from Annabeth.
‘Annabeth…’ His eyes slid to the faint whirl of air above Artemis’s head and he weighed Anaklusmos in his hand. ‘Zoë!’ Percy threw her the blade.
She plucked it from the air, wide-eyed. ‘Art thou mad?’
‘It’s stupid to think mortals can defeat a Titan,’ he said. ‘If you want to keep trying, you can.’
Zoë held his gaze, little creases furrowing her brow. ‘Fine. Do as thou sees fit, Perseus.’
Atlas laughed. ‘Your pawn abandons you, daughter.’ He spread his arms, striding across the grotto. ‘Come, your father’s forgiving embrace still awaits.’
‘Never,’ Zoë hissed, letting her bow vanish and charging.
Anaklusmos rang against the spear blade and Zoë swayed and whirled to strike again. Atlas caught her arm and threw her back.
Percy darted past them. ‘Give me the sky.’
Artemis stared at him through a scattered veil of auburn hair. ‘You will die.’
‘I can hold it for a minute.’
‘Even if you hold it for just a moment, it will change you forever.’
‘That’s my decision to make. And I promised. I promised Zoë. I promised you.’ Percy reached across her shoulders and put one arm beneath the rippling swirl of air. ‘You can defeat Atlas. I can’t.’
I don’t think this is going to be much fun. He drew in the sea, dragging every ripple deep within him, and lifted the sky from her shoulders. It can’t be worse than detention with a Fury. At least there’s no math.
The corner of Artemis’s lips twitched as she straightened up and the sadness faded from her eyes. A fierce bright pride shone in her silver irises, bright and full as the moon, light enough to lift his heart into the heavens.
Percy’s breath caught and his heart lurched beneath his ribs. Zoë, I understand—
The sky fell upon him like all the weight of the sea onto a single grain of sand, a crushing black looming above his head, endless, towering dark grinding down; it rose without end, poured into his burning muscles like molten lead, flooding on forever.
He shrank beneath it.
Keep holding on. He clutched for the patience of the tide, clawing for the patient strength of its slow, steady rush. You gave your word.
Thalia’s cry of triumph echoed across the grotto and Luke toppled from the cliff edge. Percy’s vision swam, sweat-stinging his eyes. A silver blur wove around a tall shadow. Flashes of gold fountained across the mottled green.
The sea slid through his grasp, draining away like water from a sink. A horrible, cold hollowness settled in its place, fragile as a whisper. The sky bored down through his screaming muscles to the emptiness left within his breast, limitless dark grinding into paper-thin glass.
Percy’s left leg crumpled and he sagged to one knee. No. He scrabbled for something inside, but his limbs turned to lead and the beat of his heart echoed through his skull like a bell tolling through the black. You gave Artemis your word. She kept hers. He clung to the bright gleam of pride in her eyes, clutching it like a lifeline. You can hold on a little longer. Just. A. Little. Longer.
A soft hand rested between his shoulder blades, easing him from the dark.
Percy slumped into the cold grass, head spinning and ringing. A copper tang stung his tongue, his heart pounded so hard his head throbbed and his vision swam.
‘Perseus.’ The world swirled around Artemis’s silver eyes. ‘You did well.’
He shook his head clear of the spinning. Somewhere above his head, the dark loomed, swelling up to the stars, an endless flood of black pouring down upon his shoulders, crushing as all the weight of the sea upon a single grain of sand.
A shudder tore through him.
‘Perseus.’ Zoë’s warm fingers brushed his cheek. ‘Thou art a foolish boy.’
The world snapped back into place.
‘Someone told me that I only get to make my choices. I don’t regret that one.’ He dragged his torso up and crossed his legs beneath him, smearing a hot wet red streak across the back of his hand as he wiped his upper lip. ‘Is Atlas back under the sky?’
‘We did it,’ Zoë breathed. ‘We did it.’
Atlas’s black eyes swam with fury beneath the swirling void of the sky. ‘You know the burden which you have condemned me to, Perseus. Remember it. Remember it forever.’ The ire guttered out and his expression crumbled. ‘Zoë. Truest of my daughters.’ His whisper carried like the rumble of distant thunder. ‘My forsworn child. Know I love you dearest of all your sisters.’
Forsworn. Ice clamped around Percy’s heart and he forced his head to turn, holding his breath.
A faint smile crooked Zoë’s red lips. ‘Ladon’s venom. Even a scratch is deadly.’ She fumbled Anaklusmos into his arms, sagging against his shoulder. ‘I give it to thee with my blessing. All I was. Do not despair. Thy own fate calls thee and I know thou wilt not disappoint.’
‘You knew.’ His heart sank. ‘You knew it was you the whole time.’
Her lips twitched. ‘I made my choices. They led me back here. Just as they once led me from here.’
‘No, thou couldst not.’ A soft sigh slipped through Zoë’s lips. ‘And I would not have let thee take my place even if thou couldst have. Thy fate is greater than mine.’
A raw, sharp pain twisted beneath his ribs. ‘That’s impossible,’ he muttered. ‘I could never do what you did.’
‘Impossible is a word for those who have given up, Perseus. Do not give up hope.’
Artemis crouched beside them and smoothed Zoë’s dark hair off her face. ‘Goodbye, sister,’ she murmured, straightening the silver tiara. ‘I will miss you dearly.’
Percy tore his gaze away from the terrible sadness in her silver eyes. Tears welled up against his lashes and Zoë’s face blurred. He swiped them away, blinking hard, burning Zoë’s faint smile and dark eyes into his head.
‘Did I make thee proud, my lady?’ Zoë whispered.
‘For every moment we shared together.’ Artemis took her hand and squeezed her fingers tight. ‘Every single one.’ A flicker of fierce pride shone in her silver eyes. ‘No companion of mine has ever made me prouder.’
A bright smile curved Zoë’s red lips and her dark eyes danced with light. ‘Have you… ever seen… something so… beautiful…?’
The light faded and her smile froze.
Artemis bowed her head. ‘Close your eyes, Perseus.’
Percy squeezed them shut, sending hot tears tracing down his cheeks. A flash of silver seared at him.
‘There you go, Zoë,’ Artemis murmured as he reopened them. She stared up at the stars with a soft smile on her lips. ‘As you deserve.’