The sun gleamed on the row of bronze shields between the cabins, glinting on Clarisse’s raised spear tip.
‘This is where we hold them!’ she shouted, hammering her spear’s haft against her hoplon. ‘This is where they die!’
‘The Ares cabin have been watching Three Hundred again.’ Annabeth rolled her eyes, peering over the edge of the roof down at the phalanx. ‘At least Clarisse isn’t giving Leonidas’s speech before a math test this time.’
‘Did they not get to the end?’ Percy asked. ‘The bit where they all die…’
‘I think they just watched the fighting scenes over and over,’ she said. ‘No, Clarisse actually loves the ending. I heard she was almost in tears the first time they watched it.’
The Apollo cabin leant on the tangled barricade of spare beams and sharpened chair legs atop the cabin roof beside the phalanx. Buckets of arrows lined the rear slope.
‘So do I have a role in your master defence plan?’ He balanced Anaklusmos on his palm and watched it wobble in time to the beat of his heart. ‘Or am I just the waterboy?’
‘We’ve got the creek on the right and the river on the left,’ Annabeth said. ‘We’ve barricaded all the gaps between the cabins except this one, so we can funnel them in—’
‘Into the hot gates,’ Percy muttered. ‘Where their vast numbers will—’
‘Shut up.’ She kicked him in the ankle. ‘Clarisse is bad enough. Don’t you start.’
‘Fine. Fine.’ He laughed. ‘So they all come and hurl themselves at Clarisse’s phalanx and we…?’
‘Throw everything any cabin can manage at them until Luke runs out of monsters.’ Annabeth chewed her lip. ‘But… if we wanted to counter attack or hit them hard when they’re wavering, it would be useful to have you in reserve.’
‘Malcolm put me in reserve too,’ Percy said. ‘Is this a thing now?’
‘You’re useful to have in a tight spot, Kelp-hair. Just stay close and don’t tire yourself out fighting things we can fight. When Luke turns up, you’re the best chance of getting back Ariadne’s String.’
A flicker of movement at Zeus’s fist caught Percy’s eye.
‘Did you see that?’ Annabeth asked.
‘They’re here.’ He bounced Anaklusmos on his hand and gave Clarisse a thumbs-up.
She stepped into the centre of the phalanx and raised her spear over her head. ‘For Ares, Lord of War!’
‘I think she might be enjoying this a bit too much,’ Percy muttered.
‘It’s good for morale,’ Annabeth whispered. ‘Don’t ruin it with some long miserable talk about how love is evil.’
‘I didn’t say love was evil, I said we have to be careful not to be selfish.’
‘Sorry, Milady Perseus.’
‘I hope Artemis turns you into an owl with asymmetrical ears.’
Annabeth paled. ‘Oh Gods. That was such a stupid joke. What if she is offended? I compared her to you.‘
‘Hope you die now?’ Percy grinned. ‘I don’t think making jokes at my expense is going to upset her very much. I’m pretty sure she’s been laughing at me about the guinea pig thing this whole time.’ He snorted. ‘As long as she doesn’t do it in front of Thalia, I’ll never live that down.’
Footsteps thudded up the ladder behind them and a cluster of familiar faces hauled the training dummies up onto the peak of the roof. Monsters gathered at Zeus’s fist behind Luke’s white t-shirt, prowling hell hounds, lithe dracaenae and empousae, lumbering cyclopses and a swirling flock of dark and bronze winged birds.
‘We’re ready.’ Katie glowered at Annabeth, clutching her bow in both hands.
‘Katie is not happy you abandoned her babies in the strawberry fields to the monsters,’ Percy murmured.
Annabeth huffed. ‘They’re just strawberries. She can grow more.’ She glanced back over her shoulder. ‘Also, I don’t think that’s why she’s not happy with me.’
‘Did you tell her the strawberry plants weren’t planted in parallel enough lines?’
‘Ass,’ she muttered. ‘Your head is full of shrimp, Percy.’
‘All their legs wriggling around like spiders.’ He chuckled as she shuddered.
Luke raised his dark, curved sickle over his head and pointed it down the slope. With a roar, the monsters surged down the hill.
‘We should get back behind the dummies,’ Annabeth said, grabbing his shoulder. ‘Come on, Fish-face.’
He ducked behind a scarred dummy. ‘We seem pretty safe up here.’
‘As long as nobody gives you a bow,’ Katie piped up.
He chuckled. ‘Thanks, Captain Crunch.’
Percy grimaced as she flushed pink. Oh. That’s why, isn’t it?
Arrows flashed down into the approaching horde, tearing small holes in the oncoming wave. Cyclopses burst into golden dust as the Apollo cabin picked them off one by one and a huge bronze net hissed over Clarisse’s phalanx, sweeping the Stymphalian birds from the sky.
‘Handy,’ Percy murmured.
‘We were always going to win the first part,’ Annabeth said. ‘And the next.’
The hellhounds streaked from the charge, hurling themselves into the bronze shields, clawing and snarling. Clarisse spitted one upon her spear, stomping one bronze-greaved and booted footed on the head of another.
Arrows pinged off the dummies and bounced off the cabin roof. A cluster of Dracaenae raised their shortbows, releasing a second volley up into the sky.
Percy dragged Annabeth and Katie into him, holding his breath as the arrows thunked into the wood and flicked off the dummy. A low cry tore from Annabeth.
‘Are you hit?’ Percy grabbed her arm. ‘Annabeth—’
‘Everyone get down,’ Annabeth hissed. ‘Get behind the cabins and shoot back. There are too many of them.’
Katie’s pink face peeked up from his chest. ‘She’s got an arrow in her foot.’
‘I’ll patch it up in a moment,’ Annabeth said. ‘Stop cuddling this idiot and get down behind the cabin, Katie.’
Katie squeaked and bolted for the ladder. Arrows rained down on the barricade atop the other cabin, bristling from the beams.
‘We weren’t cuddling,’ Percy said. ‘I—’
‘You get down there too!’ She hobbled for the ladder, gritting her teeth.
Percy leapt past and slid down. ‘I’ll catch you if you need me to.’
‘I don’t need you to.’ Annabeth clambered down and ripped the arrow out of her shoe. ‘Only the very tip went into me.’
Slim, dark shafts showered the phalanx, pinging off bronze shields and helms.
‘Hold!’ Clarisse yelled, swiping an arrow from the side of her helm with her spear. ‘Anyone who takes a step back has to wash my gym socks with their bare hands and gargle the water afterward!’
‘That’s pure tyranny,’ Percy said. ‘She’s fighting fear with fear.’
The phalanx threw its weight forward with a grunt, but their heels slid back through the dirt as more monsters hurled themselves into the fray.
‘Gods damn it,’ Annabeth muttered. ‘We needed the archers to keep the pressure down.’
Harpies flooded over the barricade on the other cabin, small explosions of golden dust showered out of the cloud of dark wings and flashing talons.
Annabeth chewed her lip and twisted around. ‘Throw everything over Clarisse! Now!’
That won’t stop them. You know there’s too many. There’s too much weight.
‘No.’ Percy put one foot on the ladder. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘You can’t shoot a bow to save your life!’ she cried. ‘Where are you going, Percy?!‘
He climbed up and shoved through the dummies to the edge of the roof, drawing the sea back within him into a towering wall of smooth water in one deep breath.
One choice at a time. Let’s hope I don’t break an ankle.
Percy pressed his forehead into Anaklusmos’s cool bronze and leapt, letting the wave break.
The ground lurched beneath him. Monsters staggered, spilt to the ground into a tangle of limbs.
He drove Anaklusmos into the heart of the first empousa and cut down a second, slashing through the sprawling knot of disorientated monsters in a whirl of gold.
They scattered back up the hill, regrouping beside the cluster of dracaenae.
Percy turned and grinned, brushing golden dust off his shoulders. ‘That went pretty well. For a moment I thought I might break both my legs and just get eaten straight away.’
Clarisse stared up at him from her knees, her scratched, battered helm askew.
‘Up you get.’ He grabbed the shaft of her spear and hauled her to her feet. ‘They’ll be back.’
‘Yes strategos,’ Clarisse whispered, straightening her helm. ‘Up.’ She grabbed her nearest half-brother and dragged him to his feet. ‘Stop sneaking in a breather on the floor and stand up! We are children of Ares! The glory of battle is our birthright!’
The phalanx drew back together into a wall of battered, scored bronze hoplons and helms.
‘You’re on the wrong side, Sea-boy,’ Clarisse said. ‘Get back here.’
It’ll just happen again. He watched arrows soar from the cabin roof and hiss down into the dracaenae, melting their huddle away in puffs of gold. I have to turn the tide.
Percy pointed Anaklusmos up the hill toward Luke. ‘When you get a chance, you get up that hill and kick his ass. He’s got a gold string, Ariadne’s String, get it off him, Clarisse.’
She saluted him with her spear.
‘And I… I’m going to take this lot for a swim in the creek,’ he said, jogging across toward the arena.
A hellhound streaked down the slope and the handful of harpies arced around to cut him off. Percy broke into a run, hurling himself down the steps of the arena.
Empousae prowled into the arena from the other side.
Damn. He skidded to a stop in the sand at the bottom. Looks like I’m not going for a swim after all.
‘Oh look.’ Percy patted his coffin. ‘They left it here. Not quite enough room for all of you, but I’ll take volunteers to go first.’
One of the empousae grinned. ‘We’ll bury you in it, son of Poseidon. What’s left of you.’
If I can raise a river and wreck a bridge, I can pull the creek a little closer.
Percy let his rage rise, let Bianca’s last gasped words and Calypso’s tears swell into a sheer wall of bubbling black water, its frothing crest scraping the sky. He closed his power around the creek like a fist and ripped the waters from the riverbed; it poured from its banks, sweeping trees and bushes aside.
‘I don’t think so,’ Percy murmured. ‘I’m stronger now. This time, I can do it before anyone dies.’
Ice cold water burst through the door, sweeping the empousae off their feet. It swirled past him in a white torrent, swallowing the hell-hounds and dracaenae and lifting them up into a churning ball.
The monsters hung in his grasp, caught in the whirl of water like flies in his fist.
Percy smashed them against the arena wall. They broke in his hold like water off rocks and the arena wall shattered, spilling gold-choked waves across the ground as the water slipped through his grasp.
The sea is unforgiving. And its fury is relentless. His dad’s whisper hung in the rush of the subsiding waters. Show them what it means to face its wrath, my son.
Percy leapt up the rubble.
‘You are not the same boy I nearly sent to Tartarus with a pair of cursed shoes.’ Luke stood knee deep in the water as it drained away down the hill toward the creek, Kronos’s sickle on his shoulder. ‘Don’t you see? We don’t need them. They need us. We don’t have to let them toy with our lives, Percy. We can be free.’
‘I don’t think Kronos is going to let you be any more free than the Olympians.’ Percy reached for the water and winced at the dull ache settling in his limbs, letting it trickle through his grasp. ‘Give me Ariadne’s String.’
Clarisse charged up the hill with a roar, the other campers behind her. They slammed into the dracaenae archers and the fight spilt out into the strawberry fields. Tyson swatted hell-hounds with a beam from one of the barricades, squashing them in bursts of golden dust.
‘You’ve lost,’ Percy said.
‘Lost?’ A sad smile crept onto Luke’s lips as he watched the battle. ‘This is just the vanguard, Percy. You have your power. I have my tricks.’
Ice flooded through Percy’s veins.
‘And now you’ve come running up the hill, Ethan will bring the rest of my army through with Ariadne’s String. I’ve not lost. You have.’ Luke raised the sickle and sighed. ‘And the monsters will just reform in the end. They always do. You can’t win. It’s impossible. Don’t you see?’
‘But I can fight. One battle at a time,’ Percy replied.
‘This is your last battle.’ Luke leapt forward, bringing the sickle around in a wide, flat arc.
Percy caught it on Anaklusmos’s edge, grunting as the impact stung his fingers, and shoved Luke back a few steps.
If I can beat Luke, it all ends.
He lunged, thrusting Anaklusmos at Luke’s waist. Luke parried, stepped back, ducked Anaklusmos, and stepped back, checking another blow. Percy thrust at his waist and twisted his wrists as their blades rang together, turning Anaklusmos over the sickle and sweeping it up into Luke’s ribs. Luke grunted and spun; the sickle’s tip ripped a line of fire across Percy’s chest.
‘See?’ Luke tore his white top away to show unmarked skin between the scars Ladon had left. ‘It’s impossible.’
Blood soaked through Percy’s shirt, the warm damp spreading from the stinging throbbing pain over his ribs. ‘Impossible is just a word for people who’ve given up.’
Luke clenched his jaw. ‘Given up?! I am the only one fighting for us to be more than pawns!’
Ethan stepped up onto Zeus’s fist and drew his sword, black-furred hell-hounds slinking around his knees.
‘Block the entrance!’ Annabeth shouted from somewhere in the fray. ‘We have to stop more monsters coming through!’
‘She always was quick on the uptake,’ Luke murmured. ‘But it won’t matter. It’s already too late.’
Tyson sprinted from the fighting, hurling his beam at Ethan and wrenching at the rocks around the labyrinth’s entrance. The beam knocked the hellhounds flying and smashed Ethan’s legs out from under him, but he bounced up off his hands and drew his sword.
‘Tyson!’ Percy yelled, scrambling past Luke. ‘Tyson!’
Ethan drove his sword through Tyson’s back and twisted his wrist. ‘I can’t be caught off balance, cyclops.’
Tyson burst into golden dust.
‘Monsters go to Tartarus to reform,’ Luke said, stepping up alongside Ethan. ‘But at least he will come back. Do you know how many of us I’ve seen die? And we don’t just turn into a shiny cloud. There’s blood. There’s always so much blood.’
‘Shut up.’ Fury bubbled up in Percy’s chest like boiling water and the ground trembled beneath his feet. ‘You’re lecturing me about demi-gods dying when you’re the one killing them!’ He swung Anaklusmos at Luke’s sad smile.
The sickle caught the blade before Luke’s face and he staggered back. Percy kicked him in the stomach and turned to Ethan, cutting the xiphos from his hand and thrusting at Ethan’s heart.
Luke dived between them.
Anaklusmos’s point slammed into Luke’s ribs and he tumbled back into the labyrinth, rolling down the steps into the dark.
The entrance shuddered. A trickle of dust pouted from the stones and the blue delta on the rock flickered.
‘No!’ Ethan clutched for Ariadne’s String. ‘That’s impossible!’
The entrance collapsed with a dull rumble.
‘Daedalus,’ Ethan hissed, his eyes darting past Percy’s shoulder. ‘That traitor. We had a deal. Kronos will make sure he never sees his son and nephew again for this.’ He leapt up the fallen stones and sprinted into the trees, the hellhounds bounding after him.
Percy turned on his heel.
A single, gleaming bronze figure sank to its knees in the golden dust; Daedalus toppled onto his side and fell still. Katie stood over him, her pitch-black hands thin and withered as bones.
Tyson will come back. Percy forced his feet forward down the slope toward her. It’s not his last breath.
‘He said I had to,’ Katie whispered. ‘He said it was his fault. That if he died, the door would close.’
Annabeth’s brother. Percy stared down as the blue delta flickered upon Daedalus’s chest, fading out with the glow of his eyes. Anger trickled through his veins, swelling like the slow ripple of dark water rising from deep beneath the waves. Tyson dying didn’t even get a mention in the prophecy.
‘It’s okay, Katie.’ He took a deep breath and let Anaklusmos shift back into a pen. ‘But what did you—’ He met her bone-white irises and swallowed hard’—do…?’
‘A bad thing.’ A little green crept back into her eyes as they shone with tears. ‘A really really bad thing that I promised mom I wouldn’t ever do.’
Poppies sprouted through the Daedalus’s bronze ribs, flowering in crimson flutters as his body crumbled into golden dust.
‘Mom’s flowers…’ she whispered. ‘She’s not angry with me.’
‘She must be proud of you, you helped destroy the labyrinth.’ He took a deep breath and mustered a smile. ‘You chose well. I’m proud of you too, Katie.’
Her breath hitched, the tears glistening on her lashes as the darkness faded from her fingers. ‘But I killed him. There was a little oak tree with roots and branches growing all through him like veins and I made it wither away.’
‘Don’t feel guilty,’ Percy murmured, taking her hands in his. ‘He chose. You were just the consequences. Our fate is made of our choices. And Daedalus should’ve died a long time ago.’
Katie tugged him half a step closer. ‘Have you…?’
‘Silena,’ he whispered. ‘I found her. I made her choose. And she chose to die for love.’
‘Percy!’ Annabeth’s grey eyes brimmed with dull sorrow, like some tired fog hanging over the sea. ‘I’m so sorry. It wasn’t in the prophecy. I didn’t know. I couldn’t—’
Percy gave Katie’s hands a gentle squeeze and released them, stepping back. ‘I know.’ Flat dead waters hung in his heart, cold as the still winter sea. ‘But he’ll come back, won’t he?’
Annabeth nodded. ‘I think so, but… I don’t know when, Percy. I really am sorry. I thought it was going to be Luke and then when Daedalus appeared…’
‘It was Daedalus. You were right.’ Percy glanced down at the poppies. ‘I think your mom cursed him. He turned into gold dust.’
‘He said he escaped her curse.’ The corner of Annabeth’s mouth curved into a faint smirk. ‘But nobody tricks Athena. His attempt to escape was his curse, he was connected to the maze somehow.’
‘The maze within himself.’ Percy blinked. ‘Oh damn. Oh that’s messed up.’
‘What?’ Katie asked.
‘The labyrinth was Daedalus. And his curse.’
Annabeth let out a low whistle. ‘Wow, mom. That’s fiendishly cunning. He made it to find redemption and overcome his hubris, but he couldn’t solve it himself because solving it wasn’t really what he was meant to do to finally overcome his own hubris. He had to wait in misery all these years to redeem himself…’ She poked the poppies with her toe. ‘What did you do, Katie?’
‘He said if he died, it would close the door.’ Katie stared down at the red flowers. ‘And I could feel him, like a dryad, so I just…’
Annabeth frowned. ‘Your siblings used to call you the summer-baby… I know they get you to do the last two parts of the Eleusian Mysteries even though you’re not the eldest…’
‘Mom had me in the summer,’ she murmured. ‘During the Search. In the drought and heat and death before the Ascent. All my siblings are born after the Ascent and before the Loss. They’re sweet and kind, like strawberries, but I—’ Katie’s hands withered into thin dark bones and the poppies shrank back ‘—I came from rage and grief.’
Annabeth shuffled her feet. ‘That explains the unusual temper,’ she muttered.
Not the moment, Feather-brain.
‘Note to self, don’t steal strawberries from Captain Crunch.’ Percy poked Katie in the tummy. ‘You should put those poppies in your garden before someone squishes them. I’ll come help and check on the Moonlace if you don’t mind me in your little peaceful planty paradise.’
The darkness faded from Katie’s fingers and her green eyes brightened. ‘They’ve just started sending up little green shoots, I’ll show you!’ She bent and dug the poppies from the ground with a broken spear-tip.
Annabeth glared at Percy over her head. ‘Seaweed-brain,’ she mouthed, pointing between Katie and him.
I know. I know. Percy helped Katie up with one hand. But I’m not going to let her get herself killed like Bianca did. Even if she’d end up in Elysium. No choice. No consequences.