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The House of Hades: Chapter 78

Percy

AT SUNSET, PERCY FOUND NICO tying ropes around the pedestal of the Athena Parthenos.

“Thank you,” Percy said.

Nico frowned. “What for?”

“You promised to lead the others to the House of Hades,” Percy said. “You did it.”

Nico tied the ends of the ropes together, making a halter. “You got me out of that bronze jar in Rome. Saved my life yet again. It was the least I could do.”

His voice was steely, guarded. Percy wished he could figure out what made this guy tick, but he’d never been able to. Nico was no longer the geeky kid from Westover Hall with the Mythomagic cards. Nor was he the angry loner who’d followed the ghost of Minos through the Labyrinth. But who was he?

“Also,” Percy said, “you visited Bob…”

He told Nico about their trip through Tartarus. He figured if anyone could understand, Nico could. “You convinced Bob that I could be trusted, even though I never visited him. I never gave him a second thought. You probably saved our lives by being nice to him.”

“Yeah, well,” Nico said, “not giving people a second thought…that can be dangerous.”

“Dude, I’m trying to say thank you.”

Nico laughed without humor. “I’m trying to say you don’t need to. Now I need to finish this, if you could give me some space?”

“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” Percy stepped back while Nico took up the slack on his ropes. He slipped them over his shoulders as if the Athena Parthenos were a giant backpack.

Percy couldn’t help feeling a little hurt, being told to take a hike. Then again, Nico had been through a lot. The guy had survived in Tartarus on his own. Percy understood firsthand just how much strength that must have taken.

Annabeth walked up the hill to join them. She took Percy’s hand, which made him feel better.

“Good luck,” she told Nico.

“Yeah.” He didn’t meet her eyes. “You too.”

A minute later, Reyna and Coach Hedge arrived in full armor with packs over their shoulders. Reyna looked grim and ready for combat. Coach Hedge grinned like he was expecting a surprise party.

Reyna gave Annabeth a hug. “We will succeed,” she promised.

“I know you will,” Annabeth said.

Coach Hedge shouldered his baseball bat. “Yeah, don’t worry. I’m going to get to camp and see my baby! Uh, I mean I’m going to get this baby to camp!” He patted the leg of the Athena Parthenos.

“All right,” said Nico. “Grab the ropes, please. Here we go.”

Reyna and Hedge took hold. The air darkened. The Athena Parthenos collapsed into its own shadow and disappeared, along with its three escorts.

The Argo II sailed after nightfall.

They veered southwest until they reached the coast, then splashed down in the Ionian Sea. Percy was relieved to feel the waves beneath him again.

It would have been a shorter trip to Athens over land, but after the crew’s experience with mountain spirits in Italy, they’d decided not to fly over Gaea’s territory any more than they had to. They would sail around the Greek mainland, following the routes that Greek heroes had taken in the ancient times.

That was fine with Percy. He loved being back in his father’s element—with the fresh sea air in his lungs and the salty spray on his arms. He stood at the starboard rail and closed his eyes, sensing the currents beneath them. But images of Tartarus kept burning in his mind—the River Phlegethon, the blistered ground where monsters regenerated, the dark forest where arai circled overhead in the blood-mist clouds. Most of all, he thought about a hut in the swamp with a warm fire and racks of drying herbs and drakon jerky. He wondered if that hut was empty now.

Annabeth pressed next to him at the rail, her warmth reassuring.

“I know,” she murmured, reading his expression. “I can’t get that place out of my head, either.”

“Damasen,” Percy said. “And Bob…”

“I know.” Her voice was fragile. “We have to make their sacrifice worth it. We have to beat Gaea.”

Percy stared into the night sky. He wished they were looking at it from the beach on Long Island rather than from halfway around the world, sailing toward almost certain death.

He wondered where Nico, Reyna, and Hedge were now, and how long it would take them to make it back—assuming they survived. He imagined the Romans drawing up battle lines right now, encircling Camp Half-Blood.

Fourteen days to reach Athens. Then one way or another, the war would be decided.

Over in the bow, Leo whistled happily as he tinkered with Festus’s mechanical brain, muttering something about a crystal and an astrolabe. Amidships, Piper and Hazel practiced their swordplay, gold and bronze blades ringing in the night. Jason and Frank stood at the helm, talking in low tones—maybe telling stories of the legion, or sharing thoughts on being praetor.

“We’ve got a good crew,” Percy said. “If I have to sail to my death—”

“You’re not dying on me, Seaweed Brain,” Annabeth said. “Remember? Never separated again. And after we get home…”

“What?” Percy asked.

She kissed him. “Ask me again, once we defeat Gaea.”

He smiled, happy to have something to look forward to. “Whatever you say.”

As they sailed farther from the coast, the sky darkened and more stars came out.

Percy studied the constellations—the ones Annabeth had taught him so many years ago.

“Bob says hello,” he told the stars.

The Argo II sailed into the night.

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