‘I have officially decided I don’t like this place.’ Percy picked his shoe back by the torn laces. ‘Why is it that every quest I go on requires me to lose some item of clothing?’
‘That’s footwear not clothing.’ Annabeth nursed the dark bruise on her cheek. ‘And at least you weren’t smacked in the face by the labyrinth and its stupid fake passages!’
Percy glanced at the two passages ahead of them. Bronze doors opened and closed like blinking eyes upon the walls and shapes shifted surrounding them, sliding over, past and into each other like ripples in molten metal.
Tyson grunted. ‘You should bring spare shoes.’
‘The last time I did that, the spare shoes tried to drag me to Tartarus.’ Percy stuffed his right foot back into the trainer and tugged at the laces. ‘They’re too short to tie now.’
‘Oh just stay still.’ Annabeth knelt down and pulled the torn laces out, threading them back through the eyelets and tying them into a neat bow. ‘There. Now give me the other foot.’
‘That one’s fine.’
‘Percy, I am not walking through here staring at your asymmetrically laced shoes.’ She grabbed his leg and tugged it forward.
He laughed. ‘Really, Crayon-artist?’
‘Yes, Fish-breath. Really.’ Annabeth sorted his other shoe. ‘It’s very annoying.’
‘At least we might see a minotaur,’ Percy stuck out a hand and pulled her up. ‘Then you can make my cabin wall symmetrical too.’
Tyson rumbled with laughter.
‘Which way, Grover?’ Annabeth asked
Grover gave her a rather helpless look. ‘I don’t know, the doors keep changing how everything smells. I think they’re entrances and exits.’
‘We’ve been walking a while.’ Percy cast a glance over at where Nico glowered at Tyson’s shadow. ‘We should rest for a bit. Who knows when we’ll run into something unfriendly.’
Annabeth nodded. ‘Percy’s right.’ She glanced between the corridors. ‘I don’t think we should sleep in the Labyrinth. It’s too dangerous.’
‘If we go out a door, can we get back in?’ Grover asked. ‘Some of these places smell strange, I think they’re a long way from anywhere I’ve ever been.’
‘The exits don’t move,’ she said. ‘They can’t do. Silena was using it for weeks.’
‘But the doors on the inside do,’ Percy said. ‘We might go out and come back in somewhere completely different.’
Annabeth chewed her lip. ‘Does that make any difference? It’s not like we know where we are now.’
‘Where do the doors lead? Nico asked. ‘Anywhere?’
‘Probably to monsters,’ Grover muttered.
Nico’s glower lightened a fraction and he pulled his hands from his pockets. ‘To the Underworld?’
‘Maybe.’ Percy sighed. ‘Nico… you’re a Son of Hades, Hades is always a part of you. Wherever you are and whatever you do, it will be with you, that’s why you can summon ghosts. But that power will lead to bad things if you choose to use it selfishly.’
He scowled. ‘Like my sister being killed.’
‘Yes. And not just Bianca, many others too.’ Percy’s fingers slipped Anaklusmos in his pocket. ‘Luke is being selfish. He’s upset with how things are for demigods and he’s making the wrong choice to change things. And look at everything that’s happened as a consequence of his choice and the ones he has forced on others.’
Nico turned away.
‘Let’s go through one of these doors,’ Annabeth said. ‘Grover, do any of them smell safe?’
Grover took a long deep breath through his nose and pawed the ground with his right hoof. ‘The first one on the right smells fine.’
‘Reckon you can hold one of those doors open with me, big guy?’ Percy eyed the shifting bronze surrounding the trembling doorway.
Tyson pulled it open and the labyrinth shuddered. Harsh white neon light spilt into the gloom of the passage.
‘Get through,’ Annabeth snapped as Grover darted in. ‘Nico! Now!’
Nico leapt through.
Percy pulled Anaklusmos from his pocket and jumped after them.
He staggered forward over thin carpet into a wooden headboard. ‘Ow.’
‘Welcome!’ A loud voice boomed. ‘To Bedpro!’
Percy twisted on his heel.
A vast warehouse of beds stretched before him and a revolving door spun in the corner of his eye with a soft whir.
‘Who are you?’ Annabeth asked.
‘The best bed salesman there is!’ The man drifted closer, tapping the shining silver badge pinned to his blue suit. ‘There’s not another like me!
‘Mr P R Ocrustes.’ Percy squinted at the letters. ‘I hate dyslexia, all I see is the word pro.’
‘Well, I am that. Lots of years of experience.’ The man laughed and patted the bed beside him. ‘Want to try one out? You look like you could use a rest.’
Grover bleated a laugh. ‘You have no idea.’ He flopped onto the bed. ‘Man, that’s good.’
‘It’s got a great mattress.’ Mr Ocrustes waved a hand around. ‘Feel free to try out any that you like—’ a small frown crept onto his face as his gaze flicked back to Percy ‘—just watch out for the waterbed, I think it might be leaking.’
Tyson thudded onto a king-sized mattress with a groan and Nico drifted to sit on the edge of one of a pair of twin single beds.
‘Ocrustes sounds Greek,’ Annabeth said.
Yes it does. Percy’s hand slipped to Anaklusmos. Very Greek.
‘Originally from Greece. I learnt how to make bed frames there, actually.’ Mr Crustes pointed at the folding bed hanging from the fake wall. ‘It used to all be iron frames, but now I quite like these new modern ones. Lots more space to work with when it’s folded up and just as comfy!’
‘Looks a bit small,’ Annabeth said. ‘I’d probably fit, but someone as tall as you never could.’
‘Oh even I fit.’ Mr Ocrustes lay back on the bed. ‘See!’
Annabeth leapt to the button and smacked it with her fist.
The bed snapped up into the wall.
‘Ouch,’ Percy remarked.
Gold dust trickled out the bottom of the mattress, pooling on the floor.
‘We can stay here now,’ Annabeth said.
‘There might be others.’
‘That was Procrustes, Kelp-brain.’
‘P R Ocrustes,’ he muttered. ‘Right. That’s not even clever.’
‘Or subtle.’ Annabeth pressed the button and the bed lowered back down, sending gold dust swirling around their feet. ‘I guess just pick a bed.’
‘I’m going to find that waterbed.’ Percy grinned. ‘I’ve never slept on a waterbed and dad would be very disappointed if I wasted the chance.’
‘Poseidon…’ Annabeth sighed. ‘You know, I think he probably would be. I have this urge to try out this bed just because of the fact it’s a clever design…’
‘With all that dead monster dust?’ Percy shuddered. ‘No thanks.’
‘Yeah…’ She perked up. ‘But maybe there’s another one?’
‘Maybe.’ Percy picked his way through a collection of double mattresses to the water bed and kicked off his shoes. ‘Let’s see what this is like, it can’t be worse than the back of that Ferrari.’
He flopped back onto the water bed and closed his eyes. I am the sea. Percy pictured the slow wash of small waves of white foam over smooth sand, let it come and go in time to his breath and the beat of his heart. Embrace it.
The bed shivered beneath him.
‘It’s leaking,’ Annabeth said.
The bed shifted.
Percy cracked open one eye and found her seated on the edge of his bed, her golden curls hanging down her back. ‘You’re meant to find your own bed, oh wisest of slightly short girls.’
‘Ass.’ A touch of humour coloured her tone. ‘I raided the fridge in the office. Would you like tuna and mayo, or egg and cress?’
‘Sandwiches.’ Percy sat up. ‘I don’t really like egg and cress all that much, but it’s better than tuna.’
She dropped a sandwich into his lap. ‘There you go. I’ll have the tuna.’
Percy ripped the cardboard away bit by bit, studying the health warnings. ‘These have a lot of salt in them.’
She laughed. ‘You should be used to salt, brine-brain.’
‘Don’t you want to arrange all the beds in here so they’re evenly spaced?’ Percy asked, wolfing down the first half of his sandwich in large, quick bites. ‘I thought I saw a few over by the door that were a bit close together.’
‘Ass.’ She elbowed him in the hip. ‘This bed is leaking by the way.’
Percy glanced down at the small trickle of water creeping out between his trainers. ‘Not very fast.’ He imagined the gentle waves of the sea, watching them swell apart and splash back together.
The trickle of water slid back into the water bed.
‘What great power the Son of Poseidon possesses,’ Annabeth proclaimed, taking a huge bite of her tuna sandwich. ‘All fear him.’
He laughed. ‘I thought you’d prefer it being tidy?’
‘I do.’ She swallowed her mouthful. ‘That stuff you said to Nico, about Hades being a part of him, is that what Zoë told you?’
‘Yes.’ A sick choppy feeling settled in the pit of his stomach and the water bed shuddered. ‘After Bianca died I destroyed some bridge. I ground one of those spartoi things into dust like it was a piece of dirt under my foot. I should have done it before.’
‘You’re different now.’
He took another bite of egg and cress. ‘Not that different.’
‘It’s a lot.’ Annabeth took a bit of sandwiched and chewed, small lines wrinkling her forehead. ‘You used to just look and then leap for whatever seemed right, like you never feared we could do anything but win. Now you’re quieter and always talking of how things might go wrong.’
I guess I never really thought too much about things going wrong before I saw it happen. Percy studied the cress poking out of his sandwich filling. And Artemis told me the weight of the sky would change me. Maybe it was that a bit too.
‘I’m the sea,’ he joked. ‘And the sea is changeable.’
Annabeth rolled her eyes. ‘You’re not the sea, seaweed-face.’
‘Part of me is.’ Percy reached for the swelling black wave of fury, watching it rise behind his eyes as the bed thrashed beneath them. ‘Wherever I go. Whatever I do.’
‘Is this all Zoë?’ Annabeth studied the filling in the remaining half of her sandwich.
‘Mostly.’ He pulled Anaklusmos from his pocket and shifted into the xiphos. ‘This is Zoë’s. She made it for Heracles. To help him. Helping him cost her everything.’
‘She was a hesperide.’
Annabeth stared at him over her sandwich. ‘The apple?’
‘Yeah.’ A small sad smile crept onto his lips. ‘He had to leave her behind, because she was mortal and mortals can’t endure the divine, but he prayed to Zeus to help her. And Zeus sent Artemis.’
‘I never knew,’ Annabeth murmured.
‘Yeah she was actually really really old.’
‘And she told you all this stuff.’
‘I didn’t really want to believe it,’ Percy said. ‘But I watched it happen. Malcolm. Bianca. And Zoë… She knew she was going home to die. But she went anyway. And she never said anything. Or complained. It was her fate. And her choice.’
Annabeth shifted and put her sandwich down. ‘How—’
‘Smiling.’ Percy recalled the fierce fondness shining in Artemis’s silver eyes and his stomach fluttered. ‘She chose well. And died without regret.’
‘So it was that,’ she murmured. ‘I was worried.’
‘Luke went to take an apple. Hermes sent him when he asked to prove himself. I think he wanted to show that demi-gods could affect the divine or that they were worth helping.’ Annabeth fiddled with the hilt of her knife. ‘And when he came back all covered in scars from Ladon’s claws he wasn’t the same either.’
‘Well, we probably both don’t like Ladon much, but other than that I can’t think of anything we have in common.’ Percy stared down at his sandwich. ‘I’m not all that hungry, Annabeth. You can have this if you want.’
She picked the sandwich off his leg and stood up. ‘Me neither. I’ll give them to Grover.’
‘Percy…’ Annabeth lingered, staring at him with a strange gleam in her grey eyes. ‘She was very brave, but just because other heroes made mistakes doesn’t mean we should spend all our time trying to avoid them. It’s the sword of Damocles.’
‘I don’t know what that is, Wise-girl,’ he replied. ‘But I don’t, I just don’t want anyone to be hurt because of me.’
Like Bianca was. Percy held Annabeth’s gaze. And I want to make Zoë proud. He caught a flash of feeling in Annabeth’s eyes, stirring the memory of the bright pride in Artemis’s eyes as she stepped from under the sky and placed Zoë among the stars. Zoë believed in me.
He lay back and closed his eyes, letting himself sink into sleep like a grain of sand down into the dark depths of the ocean.