The trees drifted by through the car window as they bounced along the narrow track to a worn turning spot.
‘This is far as we can go, Percy.’ His mom brought the car to a gentle stop, wincing as the undercarriage scraped a rock. ‘Last time I was here…’
‘I could use another minotaur horn,’ he said. ‘It’s weird only having one. And Annabeth keeps complaining about the symmetry of the cabin wall.’
Paul snorted with laughter. ‘As long as you don’t bring a minotaur to school next year, those cheerleaders were bad enough…’
‘I’m not going to school next year,’ Percy said.
His mom turned around. ‘Oh yes you are, young man.’
‘No I’m not.’ He opened the door. ‘There’s no time for that. While I was trying not to die of boredom in pre-calc, Luke was out here thinking up new ways to get all of us killed. Some of which might even be worse than dying of pre-calc.’
‘Your academic future is important,’ his mom said. ‘You’ll need it later in life.’
‘If I don’t stop Luke, there’s not going to be a later in life, mom.’ Percy sighed. ‘I don’t think Kronos is going to kindly send me back to pre-calc with a reminder about the importance of my academic future after he topples Olympus. Even he’s not that cruel.’
Paul and his mom exchanged a long look.
‘Look, Percy,’ Paul said. ‘Just as a teacher, not as a step-dad, or the guy your mom’s seeing, or anything else like that, it is important.’
‘I know it’s important,’ Percy said. ‘But it’s not as important. I can’t choose my exams over the world. That’s not right.’
‘Percy…’ His mom sighed. ‘We’ll talk about this again later in the summer, but you’re staying enrolled.’
‘Gabe would have agreed with me,’ Percy muttered.
‘Who?’ his mom asked.
Right. Paul is here now. No more Gabe. I guess I haven’t seen him in ages anyway. Probably won’t see him again.
He swung himself out of the car. ‘Goodbye, mom.’
She threw her door open and rushed around the front of the car, wrapping him into a tight hug. ‘Don’t forget how old you are, Percy.’ A warm drop brushed his cheek and soaked into his shoulder. ‘You’re too young to be saving the world. I ought to drive you home and lock you in your room, but…’
Zoë wasn’t too young. Or Bianca. Or Malcolm.
‘I would just escape and find my own way here.’ He disentangled himself from his mom’s hug and gave her a smile. ‘I’ll miss you, mom. Stay safe for me.’
‘You stay safe,’ she said, smearing her tears away on the back of her hand. ‘Do what Annabeth tells you to do and don’t do anything stupid.’
‘I’ll try.’ Percy grinned. ‘But you know me.’
‘Try not to destroy any more public property,’ his mom said as he swung his rucksack over his shoulder and shut the car door. ‘And be nice to Tyson, he’s sweet.’
‘He’s in Atlantis,’ Percy said. ‘Or he was the last time I talked to him.’
‘Well message him more,’ she said. ‘He’s your brother. And—’
‘I’ve got to go,’ he murmured. ‘Sorry, mom.’
‘I know.’ Her face fell. ‘I knew you’d have to go. I knew this would be your life. I just… hoped…’
‘It could be worse, at least I’m not a son of Aphrodite. Think of how much money you saved on clothes.’
A small laugh escaped her. ‘I think Paul might really have to tutor you in Biology when you get back, Percy.’
He grimaced. ‘What? Why?’
‘Other than your grades…? Aphrodite is a female goddess, sweetheart…’
‘Urgh.’ Percy scrunched up his face. ‘That’s disgusting.’
‘Don’t tell Aphrodite that or she might curse you.’ His mom glanced over her shoulder toward camp. ‘Do try not to get cursed. Or hurt. Or eaten. Or—’ her voice dropped to a whisper ‘—killed.’
‘I will do my best.’ Percy trudged past her up the track into the woods. ‘Did I tell you that Aphrodite kind of kissed me?’
He chuckled under his breath. That’ll stop her fretting for a bit.
‘You are underage!’ His mom shouted after him. ‘I don’t want you to be doing anything like that with girls, not even if it’s Annabeth!’
You’ve got nothing to worry about. He followed the trail out into the sun at the edge of camp. I’m going to be way too busy to think about girls. And I’d rather not get anyone else killed.
‘Percy!’ Grover jogged past the fire and tables. ‘You’re back!’
‘The heroic Son of Poseidon returns.’ He dropped an arm over Percy’s shoulder as they wandered down toward the cabin at the lake’s edge. ‘So… I could use a favour.’
‘I’m not telling the nymphs that you can bench press your own bodyweight, Grover. They never believe it. You’ve tried it like three times and Juniper gave you a black eye last time she caught you.’
Grover flushed. ‘No, Perce, a serious favour. The Cloven Council—’
‘Older satyrs who run everything.’
‘They’re not exactly fond of me after I messed up a few times.’ Grover rubbed at his goatee. ‘And you know they sent me to search for Pan.’
‘The flying child with the fairy?’ Percy grinned and shoved his cabin open, tossing his back onto the bed. ‘How’d it go?’
‘The Lost God, not the Disney film.’
‘Well I suppose that explains why he needs finding. Have you tried checking Drew’s shoe collection, he’s probably helplessly trapped underneath some of it.’
Grover bleated a laugh. ‘If I don’t find him, Perce, then I’m screwed. I looked everywhere last year after the fleece was a dead end.’
‘That’s where you were.’
‘Yeah. I left you a note.’ Grover blinked. ‘Oh, wait. No, I forgot. Shit, man. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s fine. I was pretty busy in the end.’
‘I heard. Saving goddesses. Holding up the sky.’
Watching Zoë die. Percy’s hand crept to the slim line of Anaklusmos in his pocket. I won’t disappoint you. Ever.
‘What did you need?’ he asked.
‘Help. I don’t know.’ Grover’s shoulders sagged. ‘I don’t know if he’s even still out there, Perce. But I have to find him.’
‘I’ll help, but I’m not going to be here long,’ Percy said. ‘I’m going to go find Luke. And stop him. Someone has to. And everyone seems to think it has to be me.’
Even Thalia. The fierce, bright pride shining in Artemis’s silver eyes rose from the dark of his mind like the moon into the heavens; it brought Zoë’s dying smile back into his head and a hot, thick lump swelled up in his throat. And Artemis.
‘Well don’t go running off now. Annabeth will kill you if you ditch her while she’s talking to Clarisse. And Tyson’s around somewhere.’ Grover pointed at the heap of stuff in the corner. ‘See, that’s all his. I think he’s at Hephaestus’s cabin.’
‘I thought that was my dirty laundry pile.’ Percy examined it, wrinkling his nose at the strong stink of old socks. ‘I’m still not touching it. It definitely smells like my dirty laundry pile.’
‘You’re back.’ A young boy’s voice rang from the door.
‘And that kid keeps asking about you,’ Grover said. ‘Like every five minutes. As if you’d just appear out of nowhere any second.’
Percy twisted around.
Nico stood in the door, pale-faced and wan, deep purple bags hanging beneath his dark eyes. ‘I need to talk to you.’
‘Hello, Nico.’ Guilt gnawed at Percy. ‘What did you want to talk to me about…?’
‘My sister!’ Nico balled his fists. ‘You went to the underworld. You know how. You can – you can get Bianca back.’
Percy sighed. ‘Grover can you, like, take a walk around the camp or something.’
‘Alright.’ He gave a thumbs up. ‘I’ll go tell Annabeth you’re back, so she doesn’t break my legs for not telling her and letting you slip away if you sneak off.’
Nico watched Grover’s back all the way back into the other cabins and heaved the door shut. ‘I’ve been talking to her.’
Percy frowned. ‘Talking to who?’
‘I have! I summoned her ghost.’ He scowled. ‘She wanted to talk to you.’
‘You are a son of Hades, I suppose,’ Percy muttered. ‘You know, your dad and I don’t get on well. He kidnapped my mom. He probably wouldn’t like me talking to ghosts.’
‘Well then he should give her back so she’s not a ghost.’ Nico sucked his cheeks in, stretching his skin over his sharp cheekbones. ‘You went to the Underworld and got your mom back. We can get Bianca back.’ He flushed. ‘Only, I can’t fight like you. You fought Ares and Atlas. You can beat anything in our way.’
It’s not like that.
‘My mom wasn’t dead.’ Percy swept a crumpled pair of his jeans under his bed with a foot. ‘So I just had to get her back. Bianca is in Elysium. That’s not the same thing, Nico.’
‘Orpheus nearly did it.’
Orpheus? Percy grimaced, clawing back through Gabe’s stories. The one with the lyre. And the girl who got bitten by a snake.
‘I remember,’ he murmured. ‘He didn’t really nearly do it, Nico. It doesn’t work like that. He was always going to choose to look back. That’s who he was. That’s how the Fates work.’ Percy sighed. ‘Bianca made her choices. She died a hero. She’s in Elysium. We can’t drag her back here because we miss her even if we had a way to do it. That’s not fair to her.’
Nico glared. ‘She wants to talk to you. She said so.’ He thrust out his hand, curling his fingers into claws.
A faint shimmer hovered in the air between them, swirling into a grey mist. It pooled on the wooden boards of the cabin and a chill spread through the air, seeping into Percy’s bones.
He shivered. ‘Nico…’
‘Percy.’ Bianca’s voice echoed as if from the far end of a long tunnel as her form drew together in the mist. ‘Thank you, Nico. I didn’t get a chance to say things before I died.’
Nico scowled. ‘I don’t know why you want to talk to him. He got you killed.’
‘It wasn’t his fault.’ An endless sadness hovered in her eyes. ‘I was so determined to do well and impress him. I didn’t think it would go wrong. But Nico said you succeeded, Percy?’
‘Nobody else came back,’ Percy whispered. ‘Just me. Thalia joined Artemis with Iphigenia. And Zoë…’
‘I was so jealous of Zoe.’ Bianca raised her fingers, watching the mist pour through her hand. ‘I wanted to be just like her. I sat on the other side of the car and wished I’d never taken that vow, because if I hadn’t, I could have sat next to you instead.’
Percy winced. ‘I don’t—’
‘She probably wouldn’t have let me anyway,’ she murmured. ‘I think Zoë likes you.’
‘Zoë died.’ Zoë’s smile hovered among his thoughts, a breathtaking, bittersweet pain twisting between his ribs. ‘Forsworn amongst thrones. She knew. The whole time, she knew she would die. But she – she…’
She would’ve died a hundred times to help Artemis after what Artemis did for her.
‘I’m sorry,’ Bianca whispered. ‘I didn’t know. She isn’t here with us.’
‘She’s in the stars.’ Percy glanced up at the roof, his cabin and the cobwebs. ‘With all the greatest heroes. Where she belongs.’
‘Bianca, tell him,’ Nico demanded.
A shudder rippled through the mist and wisps of grey snapped back into her figure as if swept by an invisible hand.
Bianca shivered. ‘Hades could allow me to return, but bargaining a soul from Hades is not easy. You must not doubt.’
But we all doubt. All of us. It’s possible only if you can do the impossible.
‘Do you even want to be brought back?’ Percy asked.
A faint smile spread across Bianca’s lips. ‘It’s always sunny here. And there are green fields full of flowers that go on and on forever. They buzz with those weird insects. And it smells like the dark pine trees. It’s just how I always dreamt a summer in Italy with our mother would have been.’
Nico swept his arm through Bianca’s ghost. ‘But it can be done. That’s what she said.’
‘It’s selfish, Nico.’ Percy watched the mist fade like smoke into the wind. ‘She spent all her life looking out for you, doing what’s best for you, even though she wanted something for herself. And now you want to drag her back for you again when she’s happy in Elysium. That’s not fair to her. Let her rest in peace.’
‘She’s not meant to be dead.’
But she died well. Without regret. He stuck a hand in his pocket and clenched his fist around Anaklusmos. Zoë would know what to say. What would she say?
‘You – you have to live your own life now, Nico,’ Percy said. ‘You only get to make your own choices—’
‘Then I choose to save my sister!’ Nico wrenched the door open. ‘Even if you won’t help after getting her killed!’ He stormed off, slamming the door behind him.
‘That went well.’ Percy flopped onto the bed and closed his eyes. ‘I suppose I’ll just wait here for Annabeth to come and yell at me. Or for Tyson to hug me and nearly break all my ribs again.’
He watched the threads of the cobwebs sway in the faint breeze. And then I should go talk to Chiron and the Oracle. Grim resolve settled on his heart, a stern calm as smooth and still as clear water, deep and heavy as all the ocean. Before Luke gets anyone else hurt.