Cold ate through the white marble beneath Percy’s feet; it seeped into him, soaking through to his heart. Thalia glowered up at Zeus’s golden throne, her arms crossed across her chest.
‘Well?’ Zeus pointed his crackling bolt down at them. ‘Should we strike them down as a danger to Olympus? Or have they proven themselves more than worthy?’
Is this what Zoë gave her life for? What Bianca and Malcom died for? A faint swell of fury rose, washing through him like ripples across a lake. For them to swat us like flies?
Artemis’s silver eyes met his across the throne room.
Percy smoothed the ripple of the sea away and stared down at the empty marble between his feet and Iphigenia’s.
A soft murmur passed through the Gods.
‘No.’ Artemis raised her chin. ‘We do not condemn those who risked everything for our sake. It is not right.’
Zeus’s blue eyes flicked to her. ‘Well? Is my daughter the only one with a voice? Speak up if you would see them perish.’
Aphrodite leant forward and rested her chin on her hand with a gentle smile. ‘Does that mean they’re free to go? Or should we offer them a reward?’
‘What reward would you have, Percy Jackson?’ Zeus asked.
‘A reward?’ The words tasted bitter and cold as ashes on his tongue. ‘No. I don’t want a reward.’
You can’t bring Zoë back. Or Bianca. Or Malcolm.
‘Thalia Grace?’ Zeus turned to her.
Thalia shot a scowl at Percy. ‘No. I don’t want a reward either.’
Zeus nodded. ‘Very well.’ He turned a long, sharp look upon Artemis. ‘Return them to the mortal world, daughter.’
‘Yes, father.’ Artemis stepped from her throne, appearing before them and extending her hand. ‘Come.’
Percy eyed her slim fingers and stuck his hands behind his back.
The corner of Artemis’s mouth twitched. ‘Iphigenia…’
‘Close your eyes.’ Iphigenia took her hand and grabbed Thalia’s arm.
Percy took hold of Thalia’s shoulder and squeezed his eyes shut.
A silver flash tore at his sight.
White tents ringed a silver pavilion.
‘This doesn’t look like camp.’ Percy released Thali’s shoulder and patted himself down. ‘Hmmm, not a girl, or a guinea pig.’
‘You are just making a stop,’ Artemis said. ‘Unless…?’
Percy shook his head. ‘Thank you, but I think I’d find that very confusing, I’m quite used to being a boy.’
A little gleam of humour shone in her silver eyes. ‘You’ve had practice being a guinea pig, Perseus, would you feel more comfortable here in that form?’
He shot her a weak smile. ‘I’m actually fairly happy as I am.’
Artemis turned to Thalia. ‘Once before you refused my offer. Rarely do I offer twice…’
‘I’ll stay,’ Thalia whispered. ‘I don’t want to go back to camp. Luke has betrayed me. It’s all wrong there.’
Percy’s heart plummeted into the pit of his stomach.
‘Good choice, sister.’ Iphigenia strode away toward the camp. ‘Farewell, son of Poseidon.’
He sighed. ‘Goodbye, Iphigenia.’
‘Go meet your new sisters, Thalia,’ Artemis said. ‘I will take Perseus back where he belongs.’
‘Percy.’ Thalia chewed at her lip. ‘I’m sorry, for being a bitch before, and for leaving you now, but, well, there can only be one leader at camp. It needs to be you.’
Why does it always need to be me? What did I ever do that was so amazing?
Percy bit his tongue. ‘Bye, Thals,’ he muttered.
She stepped forward and wrapped him in a tight hug. ‘Don’t change.’ Thalia froze and shot a look at Artemis out of the corner of her eye. ‘I haven’t technically taken the oath yet, right?’
A faint smile flitted across Artemis’s lips. ‘You would not have broken it if you had, Thalia.’
Thalia relaxed. ‘Oh. Well, I guess this is goodbye, Percy.’
‘I guess so.’ He watched her go through the tents until she vanished behind the silver pavilion.
And now it’s just me. Sharp, rough waves churned in his gut. She saved Annabeth. And Zoë. And Bianca and Thalia. But not me. A sour taste curdled on his tongue. I get to die or fall instead.
‘I can read your thoughts, Perseus.’ Artemis held his gaze. ‘I am not trading your life to save Thalia’s. I am trusting Zoë’s choice. She did not give everything she was to Thalia, she gave it to you. Do not disappoint her.’
Thy fate is greater than mine.
Percy smothered the unrest beneath his ribs. ‘I won’t ever disappoint her. I promise.’
Pride flickered through Artemis’s silver eyes; a bright, brilliant silver flash like the full moon bursting through clouds.
The bottom dropped out of Percy’s stomach and his breath caught in his throat. Zoë…
‘You are Zoë’s legacy.’ Artemis held out one hand and Anaklusmos wavered into being on her palm. ‘She trusted you with things she did not share with many, baring her heart so you might bear the weight Fate intends for you. Make her proud.’ Artemis pressed Anaklusmos into his hands. ‘Now, close your eyes.’
Percy snapped them shut and sprawled across cold sheets and pillows in a flash of silver. His own smell reached his nose. ‘Home sweet home.’ He rolled over onto his back and kicked his shoes off, staring up at the roof of his cabin and clutching Anaklusmos tight to his chest.
The soft wash of the lake and the giggling of the nymphs drifted in through the window with the rustle of leaves and the ring of swords.
A fist hammered on the door. ‘Percy!’ Annabeth cried. ‘Is that you? I saw the light.’
‘I’m here,’ he said.
‘Open your stupid door, you ass.’
Percy sighed and hauled himself off the bed, tugging the lock back. ‘Hello, Annabeth.’
Annabeth paled. ‘Where’s Thalia?’ she whispered. ‘You look like — like someone died.’
‘She decided to stay with Artemis.’ He closed his fingers around Anaklusmos until the edge bit into his fingers. ‘Nobody else is coming back.’
Her lip quivered. ‘Malcolm?’
‘He died like a hero.’
Annabeth sagged, tears filling her eyes.
Percy caught her by the waist and held her up. Her warm tears soaked into his shoulder as he rubbed her back, her sobs stinging his heart.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured. ‘He saved Thalia’s life.’
‘What about the others?’ She wiped her tears away. ‘My siblings said you went with huntresses as well as my brother and Thalia. Nico’s sister.’
Nico. Percy’s heart sank. He’s never going to see his sister again now.
‘They’re not coming back, either.’
‘They’re with Artemis?’
‘Iphigenia is.’ He spun Anaklusmos back into a pen and tucked it deep in his pocket. ‘Bianca is not.’ A hot lump swelled up in his throat. ‘Zoë is not.’
‘They all died…?’ Annabeth trembled. ‘Because of me?’
‘No.’ Percy groped for words, and found Zoë’s faint smile and dark eyes before the eye of his mind. ‘No, Annabeth. I won’t hear any guilt from you. You’ve no right to it.’
‘I got caught,’ she whispered. ‘Artemis stepped under the sky for me.’
‘That was her choice.’ A soft warm welled up in Percy’s chest and a faint smile tugged at his lips. ‘And Bianca, and Malcolm, and Zoë, they all made their choices. Don’t discredit what they did by blaming yourself. They don’t deserve that.’
‘You’re not the same as you were,’ Annabeth murmured. ‘Are you okay?’
He mustered a grin. ‘I met the most amazing girl.’
Annabeth frowned, worrying her lip. ‘Please don’t tell me you upset Artemis like the idiot you are.’
‘I did put my arm around her.’ Percy stuck his chin in the air. ‘And I kind of got a kissed on the cheek by a goddess.’
Annabeth made a strangled choking sound. ‘Artemis kissed you on the cheek?’
‘No, that was Aphrodite.’ Percy sniggered. ‘And I only put my arm around Artemis to take the sky off her.’
‘Ass!’ Annabeth swung her foot into his shin. ‘I thought you’d got yourself cursed!’
‘Yeah…’ Percy shivered. ‘I actually think I would’ve really preferred not getting sort of kissed by Aphrodite. She is terrifying.’
Annabeth froze, mid-kick. ‘Percy, do you want to be cursed?’
‘Not really. You should be relieved, this means I’m probably not going to make any more thank you Aphrodite jokes,’ he replied. ‘I’ll be too busy having nightmares about her.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘You’ll see if you ever meet her like I did,’ Percy muttered. ‘The power she has over you…’ A shudder swept through him. ‘It would be so easy to yearn for it.’
Annabeth squinted at him. ‘Did someone give you a brain transplant? You seem several IQ points better off than when you left.’
‘It’s called growing up,’ Percy said. ‘One day, you’ll do it, too. You might even make it to five foot two.’
‘Ass,’ she muttered. ‘Come on, let’s go tell Chiron you’re back.’
‘I need to talk to Nico first.’
‘His sister…’ Annabeth’s face fell. ‘Oh Gods. What do we tell him?’
‘That she’s in Elysium, where she deserves to be.’ Percy dragged his smile back up. ‘They all are.’ His fingers crept to his pocket and the slim lump of Anaklusmos. ‘And we should make them proud.’