PERCY STARED AT THE ATHENA PARTHENOS, waiting for it to strike him down.
Leo’s new mechanical hoist system had lowered the statue onto the hillside with surprising ease. Now the forty-foot-tall goddess gazed serenely over the River Acheron, her gold dress like molten metal in the sun.
“Incredible,” Reyna admitted.
She was still red-eyed from crying. Soon after she’d landed on the Argo II, her pegasus Scipio had collapsed, overwhelmed by poisoned claw marks from a gryphon attack the night before. Reyna had put the horse out of his misery with her golden knife, turning the pegasus into dust that scattered in the sweet-smelling Greek air. Maybe not a bad end for a flying horse, but Reyna had lost a loyal friend. Percy figured that she’d given up too much in her life already.
The praetor circled the Athena Parthenos warily. “It looks newly made.”
“Yeah,” Leo said. “We brushed off the cobwebs, used a little Windex. It wasn’t hard.”
The Argo II hovered just overhead. With Festus keeping watch for threats on the radar, the entire crew had decided to eat lunch on the hillside while they discussed what to do. After the last few weeks, Percy figured they’d earned a good meal together—really anything that wasn’t fire water or drakon meat soup.
“Hey, Reyna,” Annabeth called. “Have some food. Join us.”
The praetor glanced over, her dark eyebrows furrowed, as if join us didn’t quite compute. Percy had never seen Reyna without her armor before. It was on board the ship, being repaired by Buford the Wonder Table. She wore a pair of jeans and a purple Camp Jupiter T-shirt and looked almost like a normal teenager—except for the knife at her belt and that guarded expression, like she was ready for an attack from any direction.
“All right,” she said finally.
They scooted over to make room for her in the circle. She sat cross-legged next to Annabeth, picked up a cheese sandwich, and nibbled at the edge.
“So,” Reyna said. “Frank Zhang…praetor.”
Frank shifted, wiping crumbs from his chin. “Well, yeah. Field promotion.”
“To lead a different legion,” Reyna noted. “A legion of ghosts.”
Hazel put her arm protectively through Frank’s. After an hour in sick bay, they both looked a lot better; but Percy could tell they weren’t sure what to think about their old boss from Camp Jupiter dropping in for lunch.
“Reyna,” Jason said, “you should’ve seen him.”
“He was amazing,” Piper agreed.
“Frank is a leader,” Hazel insisted. “He makes a great praetor.”
Reyna’s eyes stayed on Frank, like she was trying to guess his weight. “I believe you,” she said. “I approve.”
Frank blinked. “You do?”
Reyna smiled dryly. “A son of Mars, the hero who helped to bring back the eagle of the legion…I can work with a demigod like that. I’m just wondering how to convince the Twelfth Fulminata.”
Frank scowled. “Yeah. I’ve been wondering the same thing.”
Percy still couldn’t get over how much Frank had changed. A “growth spurt” was putting it mildly. He was at least three inches taller, less pudgy, and more bulky, like a linebacker. His face looked sturdier, his jawline more rugged. It was as if Frank had turned into a bull and then back to human, but he’d kept some of the bullishness.
“The legion will listen to you, Reyna,” Frank said. “You made it here alone, across the ancient lands.”
Reyna chewed her sandwich as if it were cardboard. “In doing so, I broke the laws of the legion.”
“Caesar broke the law when he crossed the Rubicon,” Frank said. “Great leaders have to think outside the box sometimes.”
She shook her head. “I’m not Caesar. After finding Jason’s note in Diocletian’s Palace, tracking you down was easy. I only did what I thought was necessary.”
Percy couldn’t help smiling. “Reyna, you’re too modest. Flying halfway across the world by yourself to answer Annabeth’s plea, because you knew it was our best chance for peace? That’s pretty freaking heroic.”
Reyna shrugged. “Says the demigod who fell into Tartarus and found his way back.”
“He had help,” Annabeth said.
“Oh, obviously,” Reyna said. “Without you, I doubt Percy could find his way out of a paper bag.”
“True,” Annabeth agreed.
“Hey!” Percy complained.
The others started laughing, but Percy didn’t mind. It felt good to see them smile. Heck, just being in the mortal world felt good, breathing un-poisonous air, enjoying actual sunshine on his back.
Suddenly he thought of Bob. Tell the sun and stars hello for me.
Percy’s smile melted. Bob and Damasen had sacrificed their lives so that Percy and Annabeth could sit here now, enjoying the sunlight and laughing with their friends.
It wasn’t fair.
Leo pulled a tiny screwdriver from his tool belt. He stabbed a chocolate-covered strawberry and passed it to Coach Hedge. Then he pulled out another screwdriver and speared a second strawberry for himself.
“So, the twenty-million-peso question,” Leo said. “We got this slightly used forty-foot-tall statue of Athena. What do we do with it?”
Reyna squinted at the Athena Parthenos. “As fine as it looks on this hill, I didn’t come all this way to admire it. According to Annabeth, it must be returned to Camp Half-Blood by a Roman leader. Do I understand correctly?”
Annabeth nodded. “I had a dream down in…you know, Tartarus. I was on Half-Blood Hill, and Athena’s voice said, I must stand here. The Roman must bring me.”
Percy studied the statue uneasily. He’d never had the best relationship with Annabeth’s mom. He kept expecting Big Mama Statue to come alive and chew him out for getting her daughter into so much trouble—or maybe just step on him without a word.
“It makes sense,” Nico said.
Percy flinched. It almost sounded like Nico had read his mind and was agreeing that Athena should step on him.
The son of Hades sat at the other end of the circle, eating nothing but half a pomegranate, the fruit of the Underworld. Percy wondered if that was Nico’s idea of a joke.
“The statue is a powerful symbol,” Nico said. “A Roman returning it to the Greeks…that could heal the historic rift, maybe even heal the gods of their split personalities.”
Coach Hedge swallowed his strawberry along with half the screwdriver. “Now, hold on. I like peace as much as the next satyr—”
“You hate peace,” Leo said.
“The point is, Valdez, we’re only—what, a few days from Athens? We got an army of giants waiting for us there. We went to all the trouble of saving this statue—”
“I went to most of the trouble,” Annabeth reminded him.
“—because that prophecy called it the giants’ bane,” the coach continued. “So why aren’t we taking it to Athens with us? It’s obviously our secret weapon.” He eyed the Athena Parthenos. “It looks like a ballistic missile to me. Maybe if Valdez strapped some engines to it—”
Piper cleared her throat. “Uh, great idea, Coach, but a lot of us have had dreams and visions of Gaea rising at Camp Half-Blood…”
She unsheathed her dagger Katoptris and set it on her plate. At the moment, the blade showed nothing except sky, but looking at it still made Percy uncomfortable.
“Since we got back to the ship,” Piper said, “I’ve been seeing some bad stuff in the knife. The Roman legion is almost within striking distance of Camp Half-Blood. They’re gathering reinforcements: spirits, eagles, wolves.”
“Octavian,” Reyna growled. “I told him to wait.”
“When we take over command,” Frank suggested, “our first order of business should be to load Octavian into the nearest catapult and fire him as far away as possible.”
“Agreed,” Reyna said. “But for now—”
“He’s intent on war,” Annabeth put in. “He’ll have it, unless we stop him.”
Piper turned the blade of her knife. “Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. I saw images of a possible future—the camp in flames, Roman and Greek demigods lying dead. And Gaea…” Her voice failed her.
Percy remembered the god Tartarus in physical form, looming over him. He’d never felt such helplessness and terror. He still burned with shame, remembering how his sword had slipped out of his hand.
You might as well try to kill the earth, Tartarus had said.
If Gaea was that powerful, and she had an army of giants at her side, Percy didn’t see how seven demigods could stop her, especially when most of the gods were incapacitated. They had to stop the giants before Gaea woke, or it was game over.
If the Athena Parthenos was a secret weapon, taking it to Athens was pretty tempting. Heck, Percy kind of liked the coach’s idea of using it as a missile and sending Gaea up in a godly nuclear mushroom cloud.
Unfortunately, his gut told him that Annabeth was right. The statue belonged back on Long Island, where it might be able to stop the war between the two camps.
“So Reyna takes the statue,” Percy said. “And we continue on to Athens.”
Leo shrugged. “Cool with me. But, uh, a few pesky logistical problems. We got what—two weeks until that Roman feast day when Gaea is supposed to rise?”
“The Feast of Spes,” Jason said. “That’s on the first of August. Today is—”
“July eighteenth,” Frank offered. “So, yeah, from tomorrow, exactly fourteen days.”
Hazel winced. “It took us eighteen days to get from Rome to here—a trip that should’ve only taken two or three days, max.”
“So, given our usual luck,” Leo said, “maybe we have enough time to get the Argo II to Athens, find the giants, and stop them from waking Gaea. Maybe. But how is Reyna supposed to get this massive statue back to Camp Half-Blood before the Greeks and Romans put each other through the blender? She doesn’t even have her pegasus anymore. Uh, sorry—”
“Fine,” Reyna snapped. She might be treating them like allies rather than enemies, but Percy could tell Reyna still had a not-so-soft spot for Leo, probably because he’d blown up half the Forum in New Rome.
She took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, Leo is correct. I don’t see how I can transport something so large. I was assuming—well, I was hoping you all would have an answer.”
“The Labyrinth,” Hazel said. “I—I mean, if Pasiphaë really has reopened it, and I think she has…” She looked at Percy apprehensively. “Well, you said the Labyrinth could take you anywhere. So maybe—”
“No.” Percy and Annabeth spoke in unison.
“Not to shoot you down, Hazel,” Percy said. “It’s just…”
He struggled to find the right words. How could he describe the Labyrinth to someone who’d never explored it? Daedalus had created it to be a living, growing maze. Over the centuries it had spread like the roots of a tree under the entire surface of the world. Sure, it could take you anywhere. Distance inside was meaningless. You could enter the maze in New York, walk ten feet, and exit the maze in Los Angeles—but only if you found a reliable way to navigate. Otherwise the Labyrinth would trick you and try to kill you at every turn. When the tunnel network collapsed after Daedalus died, Percy had been relieved. The idea that the maze was regenerating itself, honeycombing its way under the earth again and providing a spacious new home for monsters…that didn’t make him happy. He had enough problems already.
“For one thing,” he said, “the passages in the Labyrinth are way too small for the Athena Parthenos. There’s no chance you could take it down there—”
“And even if the maze is reopening,” Annabeth continued, “we don’t know what it might be like now. It was dangerous enough before, under Daedalus’s control, and he wasn’t evil. If Pasiphaë has remade the Labyrinth the way she wanted…” She shook her head. “Hazel, maybe your underground senses could guide Reyna through, but no one else would stand a chance. And we need you here. Besides, if you got lost down there—”
“You’re right,” Hazel said glumly. “Never mind.”
Reyna cast her eyes around the group. “Other ideas?”
“I could go,” Frank offered, not sounding very happy about it. “If I’m a praetor, I should go. Maybe we could rig some sort of sled, or—”
“No, Frank Zhang.” Reyna gave him a weary smile. “I hope we will work side by side in the future, but for now your place is with the crew of this ship. You are one of the seven of the prophecy.”
“I’m not,” Nico said.
Everybody stopped eating. Percy stared across the circle at Nico, trying to decide if he was joking.
Hazel set down her fork. “Nico—”
“I’ll go with Reyna,” he said. “I can transport the statue with shadow-travel.”
“Uh…” Percy raised his hand. “I mean, I know you just got all eight of us to the surface, and that was awesome. But a year ago you said transporting just yourself was dangerous and unpredictable. A couple of times you ended up in China. Transporting a forty-foot statue and two people halfway across the world—”
“I’ve changed since I came back from Tartarus.” Nico’s eyes glittered with anger—more intensely than Percy understood. He wondered if he’d done something to offend the guy.
“Nico,” Jason intervened, “we’re not questioning your power. We just want to make sure you don’t kill yourself trying.”
“I can do it,” he insisted. “I’ll make short jumps—a few hundred miles each time. It’s true, after each jump I won’t be in any shape to fend off monsters. I’ll need Reyna to defend me and the statue.”
Reyna had an excellent poker face. She studied the group, scanning their faces, but betraying none of her own thoughts. “Any objections?”
No one spoke.
“Very well,” she said, with the finality of a judge. If she had a gavel, Percy suspected she would have banged it. “I see no better option. But there will be many monster attacks. I would feel better taking a third person. That’s the optimal number for a quest.”
“Coach Hedge,” Frank blurted.
Percy stared at him, not sure he’d heard correctly. “Uh, what, Frank?”
“The coach is the best choice,” Frank said. “The only choice. He’s a good fighter. He’s a certified protector. He’ll get the job done.”
“A faun,” Reyna said.
“Satyr!” barked the coach. “And, yeah, I’ll go. Besides, when you get to Camp Half-Blood, you’ll need somebody with connections and diplomatic skills to keep the Greeks from attacking you. Just let me go make a call—er, I mean, get my baseball bat.”
He got up and shot Frank an unspoken message that Percy couldn’t quite read. Despite the fact that he’d just been volunteered for a likely suicide mission, the coach looked grateful. He jogged off toward the ship’s ladder, tapping his hooves together like an excited kid.
Nico rose. “I should go, too, and rest before the first passage. We’ll meet at the statue at sunset.”
Once he was gone, Hazel frowned. “He’s acting strangely. I’m not sure he’s thinking this through.”
“He’ll be okay,” Jason said.
“I hope you’re right.” She passed her hand over the ground. Diamonds broke the surface—a glittering milky way of stones. “We’re at another crossroads. The Athena Parthenos goes west. The Argo II goes east. I hope we chose correctly.”
Percy wished he could say something encouraging, but he felt unsettled. Despite all they’d been through and all the battles they’d won, they still seemed no closer to defeating Gaea. Sure, they’d released Thanatos. They’d closed the Doors of Death. At least now they could kill monsters and make them stay in Tartarus for a while. But the giants were back—all the giants.
“One thing bothers me,” he said. “If the Feast of Spes is in two weeks, and Gaea needs the blood of two demigods to wake—what did Clytius call it? The blood of Olympus?—then aren’t we doing exactly what Gaea wants, heading to Athens? If we don’t go, and she can’t sacrifice any of us, doesn’t that mean she can’t wake up fully?”
Annabeth took his hand. He drank in the sight of her now that they were back in the mortal world, without the Death Mist, her blond hair catching the sunlight—even if she was still thin and wan, like him, and her gray eyes were stormy with thought.
“Percy, prophecies cut both ways,” she said. “If we don’t go, we may lose our best and only chance to stop her. Athens is where our battle lies. We can’t avoid it. Besides, trying to thwart prophecies never works. Gaea could capture us somewhere else, or spill the blood of some other demigods.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Percy said. “I don’t like it, but you’re right.”
The mood of the group became as gloomy as Tartarus air, until Piper broke the tension.
“Well!” She sheathed her blade and patted her cornucopia. “Good picnic. Who wants dessert?”