Then Lose One Most Dear

The little bronze spider scuttled through the passages, its legs gleaming as they rattled along the metal floor.

‘Why are we following the spider?’ Annabeth hissed. ‘Why does that seem like a good idea?’

‘If you find something else to follow, then we’ll follow that.’ He grinned as a little shudder swept through her and she balled her fists. ‘It’s not a real spider, Wise-girl.’

‘It moves like a real spider does.’ She glowered at the little legs. ‘It’s actually a really really good design.’

‘You can keep it if you want,’ Percy joked. ‘Let it loose in your cabin back at camp and watch your siblings scatter for cover.’

They strode through the passages, ignoring the doors that opened and closed all around in them in the shifting, flowing squares of bronze. A faint warm breeze tickled his skin and fluttered through Annabeth’s golden curls. Distant light flickered in the distance, winking like the stars as the labyrinth’s walls swept together and apart like waves on the sea.

‘The spider’s taking us toward that,’ Annabeth murmured, pulling her knife from its sheath. ‘It could be Luke.’

‘It probably is,’ Percy replied. ‘At least he’s got fewer hellhounds than last time.’

‘He could have a whole army down here, Barnacle-brain.’ She tracked the spider with a gleam of worry in her grey eyes. ‘Don’t go running off anywhere by yourself.’

‘And leave you alone with the spider? I would never.’

Annabeth snorted and quickened her pace. ‘I’m more worried about the next line of the prophecy.’

Me too. Percy’s stomach churned, caught in a whirl of choppy waves. I only get to make my own choices. There’s no use regretting. 

They neared the flickering warm light, following the spider through the passage as the walls curved in on them, closing like the pages of a book. Orange shone through the slim gap of an ajar bronze door, its glow trembling like the flames of a campfire.

The spider wriggled through the gap and vanished.

Percy drew Anaklusmos from his pocket and extended it into a blade. ‘I guess we go through and what happens, happens.’

‘Don’t do anything stupid for once,’ Annabeth whispered, stepping forward.

He darted past her and shoved the door open, stumbling through onto a warm, wide flagstones.

A large hunched form sat beneath a thick brown cloak in a stout wooden chair, warming thick, scarred hands over a broad fireplace. The bronze spider scuttled around its feet, skittering across the stones.

‘Hi,’ Percy said as Annabeth scrambled through the door. ‘If you’re a monster, I don’t suppose you could just say so and we get on with this?’

A low rough chuckle rose from the figure and it brushed back its hood. A rough, tangled beard sprouted from the thick chin and flat nose sticking out from under the thicket of dark curls atop the figure’s head.

‘There are some who call me monster, Percy Jackson.’ He turned his head from the fire and studied Percy with eyes of molten bronze. ‘My mother. My wife. But they do not quite mean what you mean.’

‘Well, it’s good you’re not. I don’t really want to be eaten.’

‘I am Hephaestus.’

‘Right.’ Percy glanced at Annabeth, switching Anaklusmos back into a pen. ‘I’m very unsure what to do, Wise-girl. Is there something stirring in that owl-brain of yours?’

She poked him in the shin with her toe. ‘Lord Hephaestus… is there something you would like us to do for you?’

‘There is.’ Hephaestus bent and plucked the spider from the floor, shrinking it to the size of a coin. ‘But first, a question. To test the mettle of you.’ He cupped the little automaton in his hand with a small smile, letting it scuttle along his fingers and into his beard. ‘Do you think it’s more important to be beautiful or to create something beautiful?’

‘Create,’ Annabeth said. ‘Designing beautiful things that last forever would be the most amazing thing. And we’re mortal… it doesn’t matter how beautiful we are, we won’t last all that long.’

Percy frowned. ‘I don’t know.’

Hephaestus’s thick bushy brows drew together and he tipped the spider off the side of his palm onto his shoulder. ‘How about a choice, Percy Jackson.’ He held out his palms.

A bright, gleaming gem the size of an egg nestled on his left hand and a rough lump of metal sat on his right. 

‘Which would you prefer to keep?’

Percy glanced between them. ‘Which one will help me stop Luke?’

Hephaestus grunted and closed his hands. ‘I see. Well then, I have a task for you. One that may well help you prevent what you seek to stop.’ He rose, towering over them. ‘Far from here, intruders tinker in one of my forges. Drive them from it and I will assist you on your quest through the labyrinth.’

‘You have Ariadne’s string?’ Annabeth asked.

‘No.’ Hephaestus shook his head. ‘But I can direct you toward one who passed the first half of her test and has half of it.’

Who dares to mess with a forge of an Olympian? Percy’s heart sank into cold, black depths. This is where I lose one most dear.

‘I’ll go to your forge,’ he said. ‘Can Annabeth stay here?’

‘No. Annabeth can’t,’ Annabeth snapped. ‘We go together. We stay together. You’d just wander off and get lost if I’m not around.’

Percy caught the flash of fear in her grey eyes. She knows. He wrestled with the churning waves in the pit of his stomach. It’s her choice. Her choice. It’s not my place to take that away. 

‘Alright,’ he murmured. ‘Let’s go then, Annabeth.’

‘Stop trying to wring anything smart out of that kelp in your head,’ she scolded. ‘You’ll just hurt yourself.’

Hephaestus lifted the spider off his shoulder by one leg and set it down on the floor. ‘She will lead you to my forge. It’s not far through the labyrinth. Nothing is.’ 

The spider skittered across the flagstones past the fire and scrambled up through the opening in the wall. Annabeth strode after it.

A heavy, warm hand fell on Perseus’s shoulder. ‘You are right to be wary of her.’

‘Of Annabeth? I have to be, she kicks me.’ He glanced up into Hephaestus’s eyes and watched the molten bronze swirl like lava. ‘Not very hard, but sometimes it leaves marks on my jeans.’

‘Of the lady in red.’ Hephaestus lifted his hand from Percy’s shoulder and pointed through the door. ‘She will be waiting for you. She comes to whisper in the ear of every hero. Be wary.’

Aphrodite. A little shiver swept through Percy as he jumped through back into the labyrinth, feeling the weight of Hephaestus’s gaze on his back until the doorway flowed shut behind him. No need to warn me of her.

‘Come on.’ Annabeth swept her curls over her shoulders and pointed her knife down the passage. ‘The spider is already off.’

Percy caught the gleam of its little legs ahead of them and hurried after it. 

They followed it around a dozen corners, twisting and turning through the passages that rose and fell, passing the blinking entrances and the forks and crossroads that shifted and folded upon themselves as they passed them by.

‘So, who do you think is stupid enough to mess around in a forge of Hephaestus?’ Percy asked.

Hang on. She’s waiting for you. 

He groaned. ‘I bet it’s Aphrodite.’

Annabeth rolled her eyes and jabbed her knife at where the spider stood before a trembling bronze door frame. ‘We’re going to find out.’

Percy pried the door open with both hands and stared into the rough narrow stone passage. A faint whiff of sulphur drifted up from the depths on a gush of hot air.

‘Come on.’ Annabeth ducked through. ‘We need to stick together.’

He followed her through and down the winding rock passage, stumbling over the uneven surface in the gloom toward an ominous orange glow.

Annabeth ground to a halt. ‘Don’t make a sound,’ she whispered.

Percy craned his neck.

Orange magma bubbled up into a gleaming bronze font beside a great anvil and flowed through a thin duct down into the floor; the air shimmered with heat, wavering like the horizon above the tarmac on a hot summer’s day. A cluster of dog-headed figures prowled the forge, gathering in a loose circle around the font as its glow swelled from orange to white.

At least it’s not Aphrodite.

‘It looks hot and those things probably aren’t quite as keen to play fetch as they look,’ he muttered. ‘What even are they?’

‘Those are telkhines,’ Annabeth replied. ‘They’re really powerful. We can’t beat them, Percy.’

‘Telkhines…’ The words tasted familiar on his tongue, echoing through his thoughts in Gabe’s voice. ‘Aren’t they good with magic? And at making things?’

Really good.’ She squinted down into the shivering heat haze. ‘What are they doing here? Making something for someone?’

‘Probably not just someone,’ he murmured. ‘If they didn’t ask Hephaestus’s permission, then they’re probably not on our side.’

But we have to drive them out. Or we can’t find Ariadne’s string. 

The telkines raised their limbs and began to chant; a faint purple glow rose upon their smooth, gleaming seal flippers. And beneath the white-hot magma violet sparks burst from a slim, dark curved shadow, the same slim black form he’d seen in Silena’s hand.

That’s a sickle. Fear settled in the pit of his stomach; its cold waves slapped back and forth against the shrinking knot of his gut. And there’s only one sickle it’s going to be…

‘What do you think we should do?’ Percy whispered. ‘Jump down and try to lure them out? Would that count?’

‘They could just go back in. That wouldn’t work.’ Annabeth shook her head. ‘We don’t have any advantages and they have loads.’ A gleam of fear hung in her grey eyes. ‘It’s impossible.’

Impossible is just a word for those who’ve given up. Don’t give up hope. Percy seized hold of Zoë’s words and stared at the shadow of the sickle. Its dark shape hung in the white glow, wreathed in flickering purple magic, looming over him like all the crushing darkness of the sky; the weight of it ground the breath from his lungs and crushed his heart flat. Or maybe this is it. Maybe – maybe it’s not about me. The prophecy wasn’t given to me. It’s not me who loses one dear.

‘You go back,’ he said, squeezing past Annabeth. ‘I’ve got an idea.’

The end of the passage fell from his feet to the smooth bronze floor of the forge. Percy eyed the drop and swallowed a flutter of fear.

Her lower lip trembled. ‘No. You can’t.’

‘You go back to Hephaestus, get Ariadne’s String and stop Luke. I’ll do this.’ He breathed the tide in and out until it washed the fear away like lines in the sand. ‘That’s Kronos’s sickle in there. Whatever they’re doing to it, we’ve got to stop them, but one of us has to get Ariadne’s String and solve that maze. And we both know that I’m not good at solving puzzles, Feather-brain.’

‘You are pretty stupid most of the time.’ Tears glistened in her eyes, catching in her lashes as she blinked and glistening like the summer sea. 

‘Don’t feel guilty,’ Percy whispered. ‘I made my choices. They were mine to make.’ He gave Annabeth a little push up the passage. ‘Go.’

Zoë was brave. He dipped a hand into his pocket and drew out Anaklusmos, clicking it into a xiphos. I said I wouldn’t disappoint her.

Annabeth darted away with a choked sob. 

‘It’s the right choice,’ Percy murmured, pressing the warm bronze blade to his heart. ‘Fate is made of our choices. Whatever I choose, I was always going to choose.’ He swallowed a hot lump and the memory of Zoë’s smile. ‘And I choose to be brave.’

What we do in life, we echo for eternity. 

He dropped down onto the bronze floor, sending a dull thud through the forge.

The telkhines twisted around, the purple magic fading from about their limbs.

‘A demi-god,’ one said, its voice fair and smooth and high. ‘Have you come to seek us for our craft?’

‘Kind of,’ Percy replied, glancing at the font and over his shoulder at the doorway out into the sun. ‘I don’t suppose if I ask you nicely, you’d all leave? I think you’re trespassing.’

‘Our work is unfinished,’ the telkhine said. ‘But once it is, we could gift you wonders. All the world would envy you them.’

‘What say you, demi-god?’ another asked. ‘What would you have?’

‘A crown?’ The first took a step toward him. ‘A sword?’

‘A necklace?’ A broad smile spread across the jowls of a third. ‘We could craft you a twin to the one worn by Kings of Thebes…’

‘I want you to leave,’ Percy said. 

‘And if we don’t?’ The first telkhine raised its left flipper, the smooth fur shimmering into bands of thick, overlapping chitin tipped with a curved sting as thick as Percy’s wrist. ‘Our work is not yet done.’

‘Then we’re probably going to end up fighting,’ Percy weighed Anaklusmos in his hand. ‘And that’s bad news for all of you, because you probably die after stinging someone once, right? Like bees.’

The other telkhines’ arms wavered into stingers and they prowled toward him across the forge. Thick, green poison dripped from the trembling, curved tips.

I guess I either try and fight, or escape to stop Luke later. He glanced back into the sunlight. But Theseus failed because he thought about later and that he was too important to stay. Maybe it’s not me that stops Luke. Maybe this is it.

‘Join us, demi-god,’ one of the telkhines murmured. ‘What does it matter who sits upon the throne of the world if they bring in a golden age not seen in aeons?’

‘Run, demi-god,’ the first telkhine said. ‘Kronos comes for you and your kin. Our magic will sing through his sickle as it flenses the flesh from your bones.’

Percy drew himself up. ‘Not if he never gets it.’

Kronos ate his children. He’s not going to be any nicer to his grandchildren. He took a deep breath and levelled Anaklusmos at the closest of telkhine. And Artemis stepped under the sky for one of us. At least one of the gods cares.

‘You are alone, demi-god.’  The nearest telkhine flexed its stinger. ‘I smell the sea in you. You are far from its shores here.’

‘The sea is always with me.’ Percy reached for it, reached through Zoë’s last tearful smile to Bianca’s choked whisper and Malcolm’s bloodstained blade. His fury swelled, a vast black wall of water rising up to scrape the sky.

You are more than just the sea, Percy. His dad’s whisper washed through his rage like the foaming tide over small stones. Your birthright is to rip the world asunder. 

Percy let the wave break over him, stamping his heel upon the bronze. 

The mountain lurched.

White-hot magma slopped over the edges of the font, melting through the bronze floor and the forge trembled.

‘Foolish demi-god,’ the first telkhine said. ‘No mortal has the power to tear this place down.’

A deafening wall of noise smashed into Percy like a hammer, sending his head spinning. The ground vanished from under his feet as he spun in a dizzy whirl of swirling blue and grey and white.

Soft clouds sank to meet him, cool as water against his skin.

No. He squeezed his eyes shut and reopened them. I’m flying. 

The mountain blew its top below him, small as a molehill, billowing grey ash and smoke out like a smouldering campfire.

Percy sucked in a faint breath, his skull ringing. Wow the air is thin up here. He took another, inhaling until his lungs ached and his ribs groaned, and watching the black spots danced before his eye. I must be really high. He grinned into the clouds. Zeus isn’t going to be happy I’m all the way up here.

Thunder rumbled through the in his ears as he hit the cool wall of white. 

You don’t need to fear the storm, Percy. Gabe’s gentle blue gaze hovered in Percy’s mind’s eye as the lightning flashed around him. Be brave.

The clouds rose away from him, soaring back up into the distant sky, and the warmth of the sun soaked into him as soft as his mother’s arms.

‘I’m falling,’ he whispered into the wind.

Like Icarus. Guess I’m coming down there with you after all, Nico. Percy closed his eyes and clutched Anaklusmos tight. I hope I made you proud, Zoë. His heart fluttered, lifted by the bright, fierce pride in Artemis’s eyes as she stepped from under the sky. I did my best.

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