White smoke rose over the trees, curling up into the sky toward white clouds and warm blue.
‘They’re burning her.’ A soft murmur tickled his neck. ‘Burning my beautiful, brave daughter.’
Percy’s blood ran cold. ‘Are you going to curse me for it?’
‘She would still be alive if you’d not caught her.’ Red silk whispered across the grass. Aphrodite stared at him through golden curls with sharp, grey eyes. ‘Would you like me to curse you, Percy? Would that make you feel better?’
‘No.’ He drew himself up. ‘You’ll curse me either way. Silena made her choice and she died for it.’
‘She died for love.’ Aphrodite’s golden curls shivered into a straight, dark cascade and her eyes flashed black as obsidian. ‘My children always die for love. They’re born from it, yearn for it, and, eventually, they burn for it.’
‘Selfish.’ Percy clapped a hand over his mouth. ‘This is why I get cursed.’
Her red lips curved into a smile. ‘You’re much too sweet to curse, Percy. And you have a destiny to face. All the weight of the world on your shoulders…’ Aphrodite slipped closer through the grass, trailing a soft, warm finger down his cheek. ‘I think that’s curse enough, don’t you?’
Percy gulped, breathing in a soft, sweet whiff of figs; his heart pounded against his ribs like a hammer.
‘The greatest heroes do what they must for love, Percy. Duty is a cold mistress. Glory a distant light.’ She rested her arms on his shoulders and leant in close until her lips brushed his. Her breath tasted sweet as sugar and a soft heat traced through his veins. ‘But love… love is gentle. It keeps you warm when the night is cold, keeps you safe when the world is wild; it understands when you make mistakes, and when you need something to cling to, something to hope for, it will guide you home like a beacon.’
Percy glanced into Aphrodite’s bright blue eyes and tried to picture the slow wash of a gentle tide. ‘Silena didn’t come home.’
‘If everyone found it, it would not be so precious,’ she murmured, pressing her palm against his chest. ‘If only I could see your heart, Percy, but perhaps it is for the best. If I could read it, so might others.’
I’m glad you can’t. A little shiver ran down his spine. You’d just play with it.
Aphrodite tilted her back and laughed. ‘Am I truly so terrifying to you, Percy? Do sweet promises fill you with fear instead of yearning?’
‘Yes.’ He mustered a faint grin. ‘I don’t want to fall.’
Love is the ruin of heroes. Percy clung to Zoë’s words, let them echo through his thoughts with the soft rush of waves upon the sand. I don’t want to hurt anyone.
‘So delightfully earnest.’ She cupped his cheek with hot fingers, brushing the edge of her thumb over the corner of his mouth. ‘They’re coming to find you, to take you into darkness and fear.’ Aphrodite favoured him with a smile, melting his heart into a hot, wild flutter. ‘It doesn’t have to be you, Percy. You get to choose, remember?’
She burst into white smoke, fading through the trees.
‘Percy!’ Annabeth stomped through the trees. ‘I’m so tired of hunting you down, you ass. You missed Silena’s funeral and we’re all waiting for you by Zeus’s fist.’
‘I didn’t miss it.’ He fixed her with a long look. ‘I’m the reason she’s dead.’
‘Michael was there,’ she snapped. ‘And he was the one who shot her.’
‘He was just Fate,’ Percy muttered. ‘I was the one who made her choose.’
Annabeth’s scowl softened. ‘She betrayed us, Seaweed Brain. It’s not your fault. Come on, you wanted to stop Luke, well, we’re going to go and stop him.’
‘I’m coming.’ He bent and picked his rucksack up from the grass. ‘Where are we going?’
She grabbed his arm and tugged him through the trees. ‘That cave Silena came out of, it’s not a cave.’
‘Is it actually an Aphrodite girl grotto?’ Percy asked. ‘Because I’m not sure I want to go in there, it’s probably some kind of Victoria Secret temple.’ He threw her a grin. ‘Curious as to why you are going in there, Annie? Is there something you’d like to tell us? Does Annabeth have a secret?’
Annabeth snorted. ‘No. Whatever you’re imagining right now is not at all true.’ She let go of his arm as they reached where Tyson and Grover leant against the rock face. ‘And I would hit you for it if we weren’t in a rush.’
He chuckled. ‘Were you like this before Thalia found you? Or did you learn to be violent from her?’
‘She might’ve rubbed off on me a bit,’ she admitted, pointing at the dark crevice. ‘Now, we are going in there.’
‘It looks really inviting.’ Percy peered into the gloom. ‘Do we know what’s down there?’
Does that make me Theseus? A sick, choppy feeling settled in his stomach. Does that mean I have to leave some poor girl behind later?
‘Oi.’ Annabeth nudged him in the ribs. ‘Pay attention.’
‘Is the minotaur going to be down there?’ Percy mustered a grin. ‘We can make it best of three.’
‘I don’t know what’s down there, okay.’ She pointed her knife at the blue delta upon the rock. ‘But I do know that if we don’t find a way to close it, Luke and anyone else can walk into camp through here. Maybe even monsters.’
‘That does sound less than ideal.’ He shrugged. ‘Alright then. In we go.’
‘Not yet.’ She drew him aside. ‘I spoke to the oracle this morning. She gave me a prophecy.’
‘Did it have any good rhymes?’
‘Percy…’ Annabeth glowered at him, taking a deep breath and lowering her voice. ‘Wise daughter, you lead four into darkness and fear, to flee to echoes, fall for ghosts, then lose one most dear. Sworn siblings must follow Ariadne’s string to find death, and one will taste victory with a brother’s last breath.’
A brother’s last breath. Percy glanced past her golden curls to Tyson.
‘Well, you’re not coming this time, big guy.’
Tyson folded his arms. ‘You can’t stop me.’
‘What happened to it’s a choice, Percy?’ Annabeth asked. ‘Tyson asked to come when I went to fetch Grover and it’s not like he’s not extremely useful to have around.’
Percy short her a pointed look.
‘It was Malcolm’s choice, too,’ she murmured. ‘It might not be him. I don’t think it is, you’re not sworn siblings.’
‘Then who is?’ Percy demanded.
Annabeth nibbled at the tip of a lock of her hair, glancing down at the knife on her hip. ‘We’ll find out.’
‘I’m not very excited about lose one most dear, either,’ Percy muttered. ‘Why can’t we get a prophecy that’s more cheerful? You’ll find this quest super easy and really quick, and maybe Grover won’t get ignored by a hot chick.’
‘That was awful.’ Annabeth wrinkled her nose. ‘Homer is rolling in his grave.’
‘I liked it.’ Grover gave Percy a thumbs up. ‘Although, you know, Juniper wouldn’t be very happy about that, so it’s probably for the best I keep getting ignored.’
‘Are you sure you won’t stay here?’ Percy asked Tyson. ‘Not very many of us came back last summer, big guy.’
Just me. He closed his hand around Anaklusmos. Please, look after Thals for me, Lady Artemis. A wry smile tugged at his lips. You might need a back up demigod for when I get myself killed doing something stupid.
Tyson blinked. ‘I am coming.’
‘I guess it’s your choice,’ Percy murmured. ‘Did you have any kind of ominous warning or pre-emptive scolding to get in before we go, Wise-girl?’
‘Only that it’s supposed to play tricks on us, so we really have to stick together,’ Annabeth replied. ‘You in particular, limpet-face, no wandering off like you keep doing here.’
‘Limpet-face?’ Percy grimaced. ‘Thanks crayon-artist.’
She huffed. ‘In we go.’ Annabeth edged into the dark. ‘Oh there are steps, it’s actually quite spacious down here.’
‘Well that’s good,’ Percy said. ‘Because otherwise Tyson isn’t going to fit.’
He shuffled through the gap and down grey steps into a gloom-filled passage. Annabeth peered down it, her hand on the hilt of her knife.
‘This reminds me of Mom’s old apartment complex,’ Percy said. ‘The walls are the exact same shade of dull grey.’ He sniffed and wrinkled his nose. ‘It even smells like damp.’
Tyson squeezed through the gap and thudded past, Grover scampering after him.
‘Let’s go.’ Annabeth ushered them together. ‘Stay close. Be careful.’
They tip-toed along the grey path as the walls shuddered and trembled. Doors opened and closed on the walls like blinking eyes, throwing flashes of light across the passage.
Footsteps echoed behind them.
‘Stop.’ Percy whirled around and pulled Anaklusmos out, letting it spring into a blade. ‘Something’s following us.’
Annabeth pulled a water bottle out of her rucksack. ‘I’ll throw some Greek Fire round the corner.’
‘Wait!’ Nico poked his head out from behind the wall. ‘It’s me.’
‘What are you doing here?’ Percy demanded. ‘This is not a safe place, Nico.’
‘I know,’ Nico snapped. ‘But the labyrinth leads everywhere, that’s what Chiron said to Annabeth, which means I might be able to find a way to Bianca…’
‘You need to go back to camp,’ Percy said.
‘I need my sister back!’ Nico yelled. ‘And you got her killed!’
Percy flinched. ‘Bianca chose to die a hero.’ He grappled with the guilt chewing at his gut. ‘She’s in Elysium now. And she deserves to be there.’
‘She would come back if you asked her to,’ Nico hissed. ‘I heard what she said to you. You have to ask her. You owe her. You owe me.’
‘We’re here to stop Luke, Nico,’ Annabeth said. ‘We have to do that. If Luke gets however many monsters he now has in his army through here back into camp, everyone will die.’
‘Then I’ll go myself.’ Nico stomped past them. ‘You don’t have to come.’
Percy grabbed his arm. ‘No. You aren’t going off anywhere alone. We stay together.’
Nico shook himself free. ‘Don’t touch me.’
‘How about this.’ Tyson bent and lifted Nico onto his shoulders, ignoring his kicking and squirming. ‘I’ll make sure he is safe, Percy.’
Annabeth pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘Come on. We need to find Ariadne’s string.’
‘Do we?’ Percy asked. ‘Why?’
‘It’s the only way to accurately navigate through the labyrinth, Kelp-face. It’s that or find Daedalus who—’
The corridor shuddered and split apart into two parts, unfolding like the pages of a book.
‘Who’s been dead for a while,’ Percy said. ‘So we find Ariadne’s string, which, if I’m honest, is giving me Aphrodite’s scarf vibes right now. When we end up stuck in something of Hephaestus’s, I’m going to say I told you so.’
‘We don’t actually know where it is,’ Annabeth murmured. ‘I’m kind of hoping the prophecy starts to make more sense as we get further in.’
‘Well, don’t look at me.’ He plastered a grin over the gnawing of guilt in his belly. ‘The last time I tried to choose things for a prophecy almost everyone died, so clearly I’m no good at it.’
‘Right.’ She glanced between the two corridors. ‘How about you choose, Tyson, you have great luck.’
‘I do?’ Tyson blinked. ‘Why?’
‘No,’ Grover said. ‘I once watched Tyson lose twenty coin tosses in a row. Against himself.’
‘You choose, you’re supposed to be the navigating satyr,’ Percy said. ‘Which way is the food?’
Grover bleated something rude under his breath and pointed down the right passage. ‘Let’s try this way.’
The left corridor clamped shut, flowing back into the right passage like two droplets of water trickling together on a window pane.
‘Well, that’s quite off-putting, I hope it doesn’t do that when we’re inside.’ Percy poked the warm wall with a finger, brushing white dust off gleaming bronze. ‘Huh, it’s celestial bronze.’
Annabeth swiped her arm down the wall. ‘It’s all celestial bronze. That’s… that’s really expensive and just architecturally unsound.’
Percy laughed. ‘I don’t think this is going to conform to building regulations, Wise-girl.’
‘Or health and safety regulations,’ Grover muttered.
She sighed. ‘I know, but still… It was built by Daedalus, I had high hopes.’
‘It’s okay, crayon-artist,’ Percy said, patting her on the shoulder. ‘I haven’t got to make it best of three with the minotaur yet either and we’re literally in the labyrinth.’
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