A golden apple shone in the sun, caught between slim, delicate fingers. Beyond it, worn stone steps led up the mountain through green cypresses.
‘So this is how it all ends.’ A broad-shouldered blonde man took the apple with a small smile. ‘Hera’s labours are complete.’
Heracles? Percy frowned. Why am I dreaming of this?
‘Thank you,’ Heracles whispered, tucking the apple into his pocket. ‘Thank you, Zoë.’
Percy’s heart stopped.
Zoë stepped forward, a bright little smile on her red lips, her dark eyes full of light. ‘Where are we going?’
Heracles froze. ‘We?’
‘I want to leave.’ Zoë’s smile wavered. ‘I have to leave. My sisters, they knew what I did. They told my father.’
‘They will forgive you,’ Heracles said. ‘You’re family. Don’t fear, pretty one.’
Her smile faded. ‘They didn’t forgive me,’ she whispered. ‘My father… he’s banished me, and my own power…’
Heracles’ hand slid to a familiar bronze blade at his waist and Percy’s breath caught. ‘You gave it all to me… If Atlas has disowned you, you’re mortal.’
‘So I’ll go with you.’ Zoë’s smile trembled and tears welled up in her eyes. ‘It’ll be okay if I’m with you.’
Heracles’ face crumbled, deep lines biting into his brow. ‘You can’t come with me, pretty one. My world’s not safe for mortals.’
‘But—’ Zoë’s tears trickled down her cheeks ‘—but I thought…’
He stepped crouched before her and wiped her tears from his cheek with her thumb. ‘I should’ve asked what you intended when you said you could get the apple for me.’ Heracles sighed. ‘Fate is cruel, but I have done enough harm and I won’t drag you with me into further danger. Go to the mortal world, Zoë, a girl as beautiful as you will be a queen.’
Heracles stood and turned his back. ‘I’m sorry, Zoë. I truly am. You deserve a happy mortal life, I will pray to my father for it.’
She watched him go, fresh tears glistening on her cheeks, and turned, sobbing and stumbling down away into the trees. Her raw scream tore at Percy’s ears and he jolted awake into the quiet cool of the night, his heart hammering against his ribs.
Zoë dropped from the branch above the road, leaping the small stream at its side. ‘What didst thou dream?’
Percy’s heart sank. ‘It was not a happy dream.’
‘Didst thou dream of Lady Artemis?’ Zoë strode closer. ‘Is she okay?’
He swallowed the hot lump in his dry throat. ‘I dreamt of the place you once loved most. A long time ago.’
Zoë stopped dead. ‘Love is the ruin of heroes.’ A wry, bitter smile twisted her lips. ‘And the ruin of girls who chase their affection.’
‘Artemis found you afterward?’ Percy asked.
‘I never asked how she found me,’ Zoë murmured, dropping down beside him. ‘But I think I know. He prayed for me to his father and Zeus sent her to balance the scales.’ Her lip trembled. ‘Do not blame Heracles. I was foolish. I should have known my sisters would betray me and my father would banish me for aiding Zeus’s son.’
‘If you’d gone with him…?’
‘I would’ve died in his madness,’ Zoë said. ‘Or in his battles before.’
‘You don’t hate him?’
‘I’m not the lost girl from the garden, I’m Lady Artemis’s companion.’ She drew herself up. ‘I’ve left all that behind, I did so thousands of years ago.’
Percy pulled Anaklusmos from his pocket and extended it into a blade. ‘This is yours, isn’t it?’
Zoë touched a fingertip to the point of the blade. ‘Anaklusmos,’ she murmured. ‘All my power, everything I was…’ A faint smile flitted across her lips and she leant her shoulder against his. ‘It’s not mine anymore, Perseus. Keep it. Thou art as fine a hero as the man I gave it to. Finer, perhaps.’
‘I hope I come to a better end.’ He mustered a grin. ‘Or, at the very least, am smart enough not to leave such a pretty girl behind.’
Zoë dug her elbow into his ribs, her lips twitching. ‘Doth thou truly wish to become a guinea pig so badly, Perseus?’
‘Honestly, it would probably make my life a lot easier.’ Percy managed a faint chuckle. ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep now, would you—’
‘Help thee?’ Zoë shifted around to face him. ‘Of course. I will try and help you like Lady Artemis helped me.’
‘What do I do?’
‘Simple,’ she murmured. ‘Thou must be the sea.’
Percy scowled. ‘So what, I lie down and pretend to be a puddle?’
Zoë laughed. ‘No, Perseus.’ She held out her arm and twisted the silver ring upon her middle finger.
A slim, silver bow sprang into her hand.
‘When Lady Artemis taught me to hunt, she first taught me all the skills and traits I needed to be able to do it well.’ Zoë drew back the string and held her breath. ‘I will never forget how she taught me. She was so patient. So kind. She made no demands, just quietly challenged me to make her proud. I was lost. And then, when I first earnt her pride, I was found.’ The bright smile from Percy’s dream flashed across her red lips and her dark eyes danced with light. ‘Her patience, I learnt more slowly.’
‘I don’t think I’m capable of patience,’ Percy said. ‘ADHD kind of prevents it.’
‘Thy half-brother said it took him years to learn how, but now he hath found the path, we can follow it more swiftly.’ Zoë reached out and covered his eyes with her hand. ‘Think of the sea, Perseus. Think of the slow wash of the water up the sand, over and over and over, for endless years, wearing rock to gravel to sand to dust.’
He pictured the white foam of the tide, watched it rise and fall before his mind’s eye, felt the calm rhythm of its swell sink deep into him.
‘Canst thou feel it?’ Zoë whispered. ‘The patience of the sea?’
‘I can feel it.’
‘Draw on it,’ she said. ‘Thy power is the sea, thy connection to it is the faucet through which thou canst draw on thy divinity.’
He reached for it, grasped it and drew it forth like a fistful of cool water.
Zoë’s hand fell away. ‘Open thy eyes.’
The stream hovered beside the road, a gleaming, swirling ribbon of water stretching a hundred paces away either side of them.
Percy’s jaw dropped. ‘I did it…’
The water splashed back to the ground.
Iphigenia’s eyes flashed open and she leapt up. ‘What?’ Her eyes fell on Percy and Zoë. ‘What are you doing?’ Her brows drew together. ‘Why are you two so close?’
‘Hush, Iphigenia,’ Zoë muttered. ‘Thou hath had millennia to see my devotion to Lady Artemis.’
‘Millennia spent in the company of your sisters, not rubbing shoulders with him.’ Iphigenia wrinkled her nose. ‘I do not like it.’ She crouched down, resting her elbows on her knees. ‘A hero will die, forsworn amongst thrones…’
‘If I must die to free Lady Artemis, I must die,’ Zoë replied. ‘Wouldst thou not do the same?’
‘Of course. But what if he convinced you it was not necessary when it was?’ Iphigenia eyed Percy with narrowed eyes. ‘Just because he did not wish to lose you.’
‘Enough, Iphi. I will never break my word to Lady Artemis.’
Percy caught Iphigenia’s eye. ‘I would never ask Zoë to break her word, not even if Aphrodite swore an oath to me that we would be the happiest couple who ever lived. In fact, I don’t think I would even tell Zoë about it at all.’
Zoë’s brow creased. ‘Truly, Perseus?’
He nodded. ‘No choice, no unavoidable consequences.’ He stared down at the gleaming bronze blade on his lap. ‘If you never knew, you could never make the wrong choice.’
The corner of Zoë’s mouth crooked. ‘And thou? What of thy heart, Perseus?’
‘You should always help those who need it, even if it means having to give up something,’ he said. ‘Even if that something is precious.’
Iphigenia sniffed. ‘I doubt you could resist.’ She stretched. ‘I will take over watching, Zoë, since you’re… preoccupied.’
‘I am teaching,’ Zoë said. ‘Like Lady Artemis helped us.’
‘Teaching him.’ Iphigenia’s eyes softened. ‘You are too kind, Zoë.’
‘You are too harsh, Iphi.’
Iphigenia laughed and sprang up the side of the tree to perch in its branches. ‘Happy teaching, sister.’
Percy folded his arms. ‘Well now I feel like we’re doing something wrong.’ He watched the first touch of light appear over the horizon. ‘Are we?’
‘No.’ Zoë elbowed him in the ribs. ‘There are few heroes I would consider helping like this, but that doth not mean thou art undeserving.’ She held out her palm. ‘Give me thy hand.’
Percy wiped his palm on his jeans and rested his hand on hers. ‘And now what? Wait for Iphigenia to see and yell at me?’
Zoë laughed. ‘No, Perseus, it’s so I can squeeze thy fingers and stop thee from drenching us all in water if thou gets carried away.’
‘I like that more than getting yelled at by her.’ He took a deep breath. ‘What now?’
‘That patience I got thee to feel,’ she murmured. ‘That’s not the best method to draw out thy power. Orion, he used it to shoot, to hunt, to control the wild nature of the sea when he needed to.’
‘Orion?’ Faint memories of Gabe’s blue eyes, the deep low sounds of his voice, and his smile as he drew the shapes of monsters in the sand. ‘I know that name.’
‘Gabe told me about him. Didn’t Artemis kill him…?’
Zoë nodded. ‘Orion was a noble man, but as his hubris grew, he misunderstood Lady Artemis’s fondness for him.’
‘So he made a mistake?’
‘A grave mistake. The wild hath no false mercy, Perseus, not for thee, and not for thy brother. If thou doth not respect her as she deserves, she will not spare thee. Orion chose to break his word.’ Zoë levelled him with a piercing stare. ‘Lady Artemis cannot change the consequences of thy choices, only enact them.’
‘Did he deserve it?’ Percy asked.
‘Yes.’ Zoë sighed. ‘Lady Artemis was kind, she slew him instantly. Another might not have let Orion step into eternity before his flaws consumed him completely and cursed him to eternal misery instead.’
‘That sounds like mercy,’ he muttered.
‘It was as much mercy as thy brother deserved,’ she replied. ‘But not false mercy.’
‘I see.’ Percy mustered his courage. ‘What did he do?’
‘He declared his love for her and expected her to be his.’
‘Love. I should’ve guessed.’ Percy sighed. ‘The ruin of heroes.’
‘I did warn thee,’ Zoë murmured, raising their hands. ‘Let us return to our lesson, it will be dawn soon and then we must be on our way.’
Percy glanced at where his hand rested on her warm palm. ‘Right, back to drenching Thalia with water.’
‘I want thee to think of how thou felt when Bianca died,’ she said. ‘Not how it hurt, not the guilt, but whatever it was that turned that little river into a storm.’
He closed his eyes and let it wash back over him. The wave crept over his toes, swelling up past his waist, over his head, and higher, dark and smooth and cold, all the water in the world caught tight in its fist.
Zoë’s fingers clamped about his palm.
Percy’s eyes snapped open.
The stream writhed, churning and bubbling like storm-swept waters. Drops of spray and foam spattered across the dirt beside Thalia’s side, shining in the light spilling over the horizon.
‘You could’ve given it another minute,’ he said, letting his hold fade.
The water calmed back to a trickle.
‘She would zap thee,’ Zoë said. ‘And we do not have time to waste on her temper.’ She placed his hand back on his lap and rested hers on her thigh. ‘Thou hath grasped it quickly.’
‘It didn’t do much,’ Percy replied. ‘It just frothed, like a milkshake.’ He snorted. ‘And you don’t even want to bring all the boys to the yard.’
Zoë’s eyebrows arched. ‘What?’
‘Cheap pop culture reference,’ he said. ‘Obviously better aimed at people from my generation and not little old ladies who’ve been around for twenty thousand years.’
She tutted and stretched, reaching down to press her wrists to her toes and rubbing her shoulder against his ribs. ‘Listen to thy elders and betters, Perseus. Or I will put thee over my knee.’
Percy glanced at her slim, dimpled knees. ‘I’d rather be a guinea pig, if that’s okay with you. I’m not the proudest guy, but I think the humiliation of getting spanked by a girl half my size would probably kill me.’
‘Thou had best be good then.’ Zoë relaxed back against his shoulder and pointed at the stream. ‘It did not do much, because thou were not trying to make it do anything.’
‘That does make a lot of sense,’ he muttered. ‘So what, do I just… will it?’
‘That I cannot tell thee.’ She shrugged her slim shoulders. ‘I do not know.’
Percy yawned. ‘I guess I’ll figure that out for myself.’
‘I am sure thou…’ Her breath caught, her dark eyes straying to the peak silhouetted before the rising sun.
‘Zoë?’ Percy murmured. ‘What is it?’
‘That shadowed mountain,’ Zoë whispered, ‘that was once my home. That is where we are going. Mount Tamalpais.’
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