The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 2: THE UNDERWORLD SENDS ME A PRANK CALL

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Chapter 2: THE UNDERWORLD SENDS ME A PRANK CALL

Nothing caps off the perfect morning like a long taxi ride with an angry girl.

I tried to talk to Annabeth, but she was acting like I’d just punched her grandmother. All I managed to get out of her was that she’d had a monster-infested spring in San Francisco; she’d come back to camp twice since Christmas but wouldn’t tell me why (which kind of ticked me off, because she hadn’t even told me she was in New York); and she’d learned nothing about the whereabouts of Nico di Angelo (long story).

“Any word on Luke?” I asked.

She shook her head. I knew this was a touchy subject for her. Annabeth had always admired Luke, the former head counselor for Hermes who had betrayed us and joined the evil Titan Lord Kronos. She wouldn’t admit it, but I knew she still liked him. When we’d fought Luke on Mount Tamalpais last winter, he’d somehow survived a fifty-foot fall off a cliff. Now, as far as I knew, he was still sailing around on his demon-infested cruise ship while his chopped-up Lord Kronos re-formed, bit by bit, in a golden sarcophagus, biding his time until he had enough power to challenge the Olympian gods. In demigod-speak, we call this a “problem.”

“Mount Tam is still overrun with monsters,” Annabeth said. “I didn’t dare go close, but I don’t think Luke is up there. I think I would know if he was.”

That didn’t make me feel much better. “What about Grover?”

“He’s at camp,” she said. “We’ll see him today.”

“Did he have any luck? I mean, with the search for Pan?”

Annabeth fingered her bead necklace, the way she does when she’s worried.

“You’ll see,” she said. But she didn’t explain.

As we headed through Brooklyn, I used Annabeth’s phone to call my mom. Half-bloods try not to use cell phones if we can avoid it, because broadcasting our voices is like sending up a flare to the monsters: Here I am! Please eat me now! But I figured this call was important. I left a message on our home voice mail, trying to explain what had happened at Goode. I probably didn’t do a very good job. I told my mom I was fine, she shouldn’t worry, but I was going to stay at camp until things cooled down. I asked her to tell Paul Blofis I was sorry.

We rode in silence after that. The city melted away until we were off the expressway and rolling through the countryside of northern Long Island, past orchards and wineries and fresh produce stands.

I stared at the phone number Rachel Elizabeth Dare had scrawled on my hand. I knew it was crazy, but I was tempted to call her. Maybe she could help me understand what the empousa had been talking about—the camp burning, my friends imprisoned. And why had Kelli exploded into flames?

I knew monsters never truly died. Eventually—maybe weeks, months, or years from now—Kelli would re-form out of the primordial nastiness seething in the Underworld. But still, monsters didn’t usually let themselves get destroyed so easily. If she really was destroyed.

The taxi exited on Route 25A. We headed through the woods along the North Shore until a low ridge of hills appeared on our left. Annabeth told the driver to pull over on Farm Road 3.141, at the base of Half-Blood Hill.

The driver frowned. “There ain’t nothing here, miss. You sure you want out?”

“Yes, please,” Annabeth handed him a roll of mortal cash, and the driver decided not to argue.

Annabeth and I hiked to the crest of the hill. The young guardian dragon was dozing, coiled around the pine tree, but he lifted his coppery head as we approached and let Annabeth scratch under his chin. Steam hissed out his nostrils like from a teakettle, and he went cross-eyed with pleasure.

“Hey, Peleus,” Annabeth said. “Keeping everything safe?”

The last time I’d seen the dragon he’d been six feet long. Now he was at least twice that, and as thick around as the tree itself. Above his head, on the lowest branch of the pine tree, the Golden Fleece shimmered, its magic protecting the camp’s borders from invasion. The dragon seemed relaxed, like everything was okay. Below us, Camp Half-Blood looked peaceful— green fields, forest, shiny white Greek buildings. The four-story farmhouse we called the Big House sat proudly in the midst of the strawberry fields. To the north, past the beach, the Long Island Sound glittered in the sunlight.

Still…something felt wrong. There was tension in the air, as if the hill itself were holding its breath, waiting for something bad to happen.

We walked down into the valley and found the summer session in full swing. Most of the campers had arrived last Friday, so I already felt out of it. The satyrs were playing their pipes in the strawberry fields, making the plants grow with woodland magic. Campers were having flying horseback lessons, swooping over the woods on their pegasi. Smoke rose from the forges, and hammers rang as kids made their own weapons for Arts & Crafts. The Athena and Demeter teams were having a chariot race around the track, and over at the canoe lake some kids in a Greek trireme were fighting a large orange sea serpent. A typical day at camp.

“I need to talk to Clarisse,” Annabeth said.

I stared at her as if she’d just said I need to eat a large, smelly boot. “What for?”

Clarisse from the Ares cabin was one of my least favorite people. She was a mean, ungrateful bully. Her dad, the war god, wanted to kill me. She tried to beat me to a pulp on a regular basis. Other than that, she was just great.

“We’ve been working on something,” Annabeth said. “I’ll see you later.”

“Working on what?”

Annabeth glanced toward the forest.

“I’ll tell Chiron you’re here,” she said. “He’ll want to talk to you before the hearing.”

“What hearing?”

But she jogged down the path toward the archery field without looking back.

“Yeah,” I muttered. “Great talking with you, too.”

***

As I made my way through camp, I said hi to some of my friends. In the Big House’s driveway, Connor and Travis Stoll from the Hermes cabin were hot-wiring the camps SUV. Silena Beauregard, the head counselor for Aphrodite, waved at me from her Pegasus as she flew past. I looked for Grover, but I didn’t see him. Finally I wandered into the sword arena, where I usually go when I’m in a bad mood. Practicing always calms me down. Maybe that’s because swordplay is one thing I can actually understand.

I walked into the amphitheater and my heart almost stopped. In the middle of the arena floor, with its back to me, was the biggest hellhound I’d ever seen.

I mean, I’ve seen some pretty big hellhounds. One the size of a rhino tried to kill me when I was twelve. But this hellhound was bigger than a tank. I had no idea how it had gotten past the camp’s magic boundaries. It looked right at home, lying on its belly, growling contentedly as it chewed the head off a combat dummy. It hadn’t noticed me yet, but if I made a sound, I knew it would sense me. There was no time to go for help. I pulled out Riptide and uncapped it.

“Yaaaaah!” I charged. I brought down the blade on the monster’s enormous backside when out of nowhere another sword blocked my strike.

CLANG!

The hellhound pricked up its ears. “WOOF!”

I jumped back and instinctively struck at the swordsman—a gray-haired man in Greek armor. He parried my attack with no problem.

“Whoa there!” he said. “Truce!”

“WOOF!” The hellhound’s bark shook the arena.

“That’s a hellhound!” I shouted.

“She’s harmless,” the man said. “That’s Mrs. O’Leary.”

I blinked. “Mrs. O’Leary?”

At the sound of her name, the hellhound barked again. I realized she wasn’t angry. She was excited. She nudged the soggy, badly chewed target dummy toward the swordsman.

“Good girl,” the man said. With his free hand he grabbed the armored manikin by the neck and heaved it toward the bleachers. “Get the Greek! Get the Greek!”

Mrs. O’Leary bounded after her prey and pounced on the dummy, flattening its armor. She began chewing on its helmet.

The swordsman smiled dryly. He was in his fifties. I guess, with short gray hair and a clipped gray beard. He was in good shape for an older guy. He wore black mountain-climbing pants and a bronze breastplate strapped over an orange camp T-shirt. At the base of his neck was a strange mark, a purplish blotch like a birthmark or a tattoo, but before I could make out what it was, he shifted his armor straps and the mark disappeared under his collar.

“Mrs. O’Leary is my pet,” he explained. “I couldn’t let you stick a sword in her rump, now, could I? That might have scared her.”

“Who are you?”

Promise not to kill me if I put my sword away?”

“I guess.”

He sheathed his sword and held out his hand. “Quintus.”

I shook his hand. It was as rough as a sandpaper.

“Percy Jackson,” I said. “Sorry about—How did you, um—”

“Get a hellhound for a pet? Long story, involving many close calls with a death and quite a few giant chew toys. I’m the new sword instructor, by the way. Helping out Chiron while Mr. D is away.”

“Oh.” I tried not to stare as Mrs. O’Leary ripped off the target dummy’s shield with the arm still attached and shook it like a Frisbee. “Wait, Mr. D is away?”

“Yes, well…busy times. Even Dionysus must help out. He’s gone to visit some old friends. Make sure they’re on the right side. I probably shouldn’t say more than that.”

If Dionysus was gone, that was the best news I’d had all day. He was only our camp director because Zeus had sent him here as a punishment for chasing some off-limits wood nymph. He hated the campers and tried to make our lives miserable. With him away, this summer might actually be cool. On the other hand, if Dionysus had gotten off his butt and actually started helping the gods recruit against the Titan threat, things must be looking pretty bad.

Off to my left, there was a loud BUMP. Six wooden crates the size of picnic tables were stacked nearby, and they were rattling. Mrs. O’Leary cocked her head and bounded toward them.

“Whoa, girl!” Quintus said. “Those aren’t for you.” He distracted her with the bronze shield Frisbee.

The crates thumped and shook. There were words printed on the sides, but with my dyslexia they took me a few minutes to decipher:

TRIPLE G RANCH FRAGILE THIS END UP

Along the bottom, in smaller letters: OPEN WITH CARE. TRIPLE G RANCH IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE, MAIMING, OR EXCRUCIATINGLY PAINFUL DEATHS.

“What’s in the boxes?” I asked.

“A little surprise,” Quintus said. “Training activity for tomorrow night. You’ll love it.”

“Uh, okay,” I said, though I wasn’t sure about the “excruciatingly painful death” part.

Quintus threw the bronze shield, and Mrs. O’Leary lumbered after it. “You young ones need more challenges. They didn’t have camps like this when I was a boy.”

“You—you’re a half-blood?” I didn’t mean to sound surprised, but I’d never seen an old demigod before.

Quintus chuckled. “Some of us do survive into adulthood, you know. Not all of us are the subject of terrible prophecies.”

“You know about my prophecy?”

“I’ve heard a few things.”

I wanted to ask what few things, but just then Chiron clip-clopped into the arena. “Percy, there you are!”

He must’ve just come from teaching archery. He had a quiver and bow slung over his #1 CENTAUR T-shirt. He’d trimmed his curly brown hair and beard for the summer, and his lower half, which was a white stallion, was flecked with mud and grass.

“I see you’ve met our new instructor.” Chiron’s tone was light, but there was an uneasy look in his eyes. “Quintus, do you mind if I borrow Percy?”

“Not at all, Master Chiron.”

“No need to call me ‘Master’,” Chiron said, though he sounded sort of pleased. “Come, Percy. We have much to discuss.”

I took one more glance at Mrs. O’Leary, who was now chewing off the target dummy’s legs.

“Well, see you,” I told Quintus.

As we were walking away, I whispered to Chiron, “Quintus seemed kind of—”

“Mysterious?” Chiron suggested. “Hard to read?”

“Yeah.”

Chiron nodded. “A very qualified half-blood. Excellent swordsman, I just wish I understood…”

Whatever he was going to say, he apparently changed his mind. “First things first, Percy. Annabeth told me you met some empousai.”

“Yeah.” I told him about the fight at Goode, and how Kelli had exploded into flames.

“Mm,” Chiron said. “The more powerful ones can do that. She did not die, Percy. She simply escaped. It is not good that the she-demons are stirring.”

“What were they doing there?” I asked. “Waiting for me?”

“Possibly,” Chiron frowned. “It is amazing you survived. Their powers of deception…almost any male hero would’ve fallen under their spell and been devoured.”

“I would’ve been,” I admitted. “Except for Rachel.”

Chiron nodded. “Ironic to be saved by a mortal, yet we owe her a debt. What the empousa said about an attack on camp—we must speak of this further. But for now, come, we should get to the woods. Grover will want you there.”

“Where?”

“At his formal hearing,” Chiron said grimly. “The Council of Cloven Elders is meeting now to decide his fate.”

***

Chiron said we needed to hurry, so I let him give me a ride on his back. As we galloped past the cabins, I glanced at the dining hall—an open-air Greek pavilion on a hill overlooking the sea. It was the first time I’d seen the place since last summer, and it brought back bad memories.

Chiron plunged into the woods. Nymphs peeked out of the trees to watch us pass. Large shapes rustled in the shadows—monsters that were stocked in here as a challenge to the campers.

I thought I knew the forest pretty well after playing capture the flag here for two summers, but Chiron took me a way I didn’t recognize, through a tunnel of old willow trees, past a little waterfall, and into a glade blanketed with wildflowers.

A bunch of satyrs were sitting in a circle in the grass. Grover stood in the middle, facing three really old, really fat satyrs who sat on topiary thrones shaped out of rose bushes. I’d never seen the three old satyrs before, but I guessed they must be the Council of Cloven Elders.

Grover seemed to be telling them a story. He twisted the bottom of his T-shirt, shifting nervously on his goat hooves. He hadn’t changed much since last winter, maybe because satyrs age half as fast as humans. His acne had flared up. His horns had gotten a little bigger so they just stuck out over his curly hair. I realized with a start that I was taller than he was now.

Standing off to one side of the circle were Annabeth, another girl I’d never seen before, and Clarisse. Chiron dropped me next to them.

Clarisse’s stringy brown hair was tied back with a camouflage bandanna. If possible, she looked even buffer, like she’d been working out. She glared at me and muttered, “Punk,” which must’ve meant she was in a good mood. Usually she says hello by trying to kill me.

Annabeth had her arm around the other girl, who looked like she’d been crying. She was small—petite, I guess you’d call it—with wispy hair the color of amber and a pretty, elfish face. She wore a green chiton and laced sandals, and she was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s going terribly,” she sniffled.

“No, no,” Annabeth patted her shoulders. “He’ll be fine, Juniper.”

Annabeth looked at me and mouthed the words Grover’s girlfriend.

At least I thought that’s what she said, but that didn’t make any sense. Grover with a girlfriend? Then I looked at Juniper more closely, and I realized her ears were slightly pointed. Her eyes, instead of being red from crying, were tinged green, the color of chlorophyll. She was a tree nymph— a dryad.

“Master Underwood!” the council member on the right shouted, cutting off whatever Grover was trying to say. “Do you seriously expect us to believe this?”

“B-but Silenus,” Grover stammered. “It’s the truth!”

The Council guy, Silenus, turned to his colleagues and muttered something. Chiron cantered up to the front and stood next to them. I remembered he was an honorary member of the council, but I’d never thought about it much. The elders didn’t look very impressive. They reminded me of the goats in a petting zoo—huge bellies, sleepy expressions, and glazed eyes that couldn’t see past the next handful of goat chow. I wasn’t sure why Grover seemed so nervous.

Silenus tugged his yellow polo shirt over his belly and adjusted himself on his rosebush throne. “Master Underwood, for six months—six months— we have been hearing these scandalous claims that you heard the wild god Pan speak.”

“But I did!”

“Impudence!” said the elder on the left.

“Now, Maron,” Chiron said. “Patience.”

“Patience, indeed!” Maron said. “I’ve had it up to my horns with this nonsense. As if the wild god would speak to…to him.”

Juniper looked like she wanted to charge the old satyr and beat him up, but Annabeth and Clarisse held her back. “Wrong fight, girlie,” Clarisse muttered. “Wait.”

I don’t know what surprised me more: Clarisse holding someone back from a fight, or the fact that she and Annabeth, who despised each other, almost seemed like they were working together.

“For six months,” Silenus continued, “we have indulged you, Master Underwood. We let you travel. We allowed you to keep your searcher’s license. We waited for you to bring proof of your preposterous claim. And what have you found in six months of travel?”

“I just need more time,” Grover pleaded.

“Nothing!” the elder in the middle chimed in. “You have found nothing.”

“But, Leneus—”

Silenus raised his hand. Chiron leaned in and said something to the satyrs. The satyrs didn’t look happy. They muttered and argued among themselves, but Chiron said something else, and Silenus sighed. He nodded reluctantly.

“Master Underwood,” Silenus announced, “we will give you one more chance.”

Grover brightened. “Thank you!”

“One more week.”

“What? But sir! That’s impossible!”

“One more week, Master Underwood. And then, if you cannot prove your claims, it will be time for you to pursue another career. Something to suit your dramatic talents. Puppet theater, perhaps. Or tap dancing.”

“But sir, I—I can’t lose my searcher’s license. My whole life—”

“This meeting of the council is adjourned,” Silenus said. “And now let us enjoy our noonday meal!”

The old satyr clapped his hands, and a bunch of nymphs melted out of the trees with platters of vegetables, fruits, tin cans, and other goat delicacies. The circle of satyrs broke and charged the food. Grover walked dejectedly toward us. His faded blue T-shirt had a picture of a satyr on it. It read GOT HOOVES?

“Hi, Percy,” he said, so depressed he didn’t even offer to shake my hand. “That went well, huh?”

“Those old goats!” Juniper said. “Oh, Grover, they don’t know how hard you’ve tried!”

“There is another option,” Clarisse said darkly.

“No. No.” Juniper shook her head. “Grover, I won’t let you.”

His face was ashen. “I—I’ll have to think about it. But we don’t even know where to look.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

In the distance, a conch horn sounded.

Annabeth pursed her lips. “I’ll fill you in later, Percy. We’d better get back to our cabins. Inspection is starting.”

***

It didn’t seem fair that I’d have to do cabin inspection when I just got to camp, but that’s the way it worked. Every afternoon, one of the senior counselors came around with a papyrus scroll checklist. Best cabin got first shower hour, which meant hot water guaranteed. Worst cabin got kitchen patrol after dinner.

The problem for me: I was usually the only one in the Poseidon cabin, and I’m not exactly what you would call neat. The cleaning harpies only came through on the last day of summer, so my cabin was probably just the way I’d left it on winter break: my candy wrappers and chip bags still on my bunk, my armor for capture the flag lying in pieces all around the cabin.

I raced toward the commons area, where the twelve cabins—one for each Olympian god—made a U around the central green. The Demeter kids were sweeping out theirs and making fresh flowers grow in their window boxes. Just by snapping their fingers they could make honeysuckle vines bloom over their doorway and daisies cover their roof, which was totally unfair. I don’t think they ever got last place in inspection. The guys in the Hermes cabin were scrambling around in a panic, stashing dirty laundry under their beds and accusing each other of taking stuff. They were slobs, but they still had a head start on me.

Over at the Aphrodite cabin, Silena Beauregard was just coming out, checking items off the inspection scroll. I cursed under my breath. Silena was nice, but she was an absolute neat freak, the worst inspector. She liked things to be pretty. I didn’t do “pretty.” I could almost feel my arms getting heavy from all the dishes I would have to scrub tonight.

The Poseidon cabin was at the end of the row of “male god” cabins on the right side of the green. It was made of gray shell-encrusted sea rock, long and low like a bunker, but it had windows that faced the sea and it always had a good breeze blowing through it.

I dashed inside, wondering if maybe I could do a quick under-the-bed cleaning job like the Hermes guys, and I found my half-brother Tyson sweeping the floor.

“Percy!” he bellowed. He dropped his broom and ran at me. If you’ve never been charged by an enthusiastic Cyclops wearing a flowered apron and rubber cleaning gloves, I’m telling you, it’ll wake you up quick.

“Hey, big guy!” I said. “Ow, watch the ribs. The ribs.”

I managed to survive his bear hug. He put me down, grinning like crazy, his single calf-brown eye full of excitement. His teeth were as yellow and crooked as ever, and his hair was a rat’s nest. He wore ragged XXXL jeans and a tattered flannel shirt under his flowered apron, but he was still a sight for sore eyes. I hadn’t seen him in almost a year, since he’d gone under the sea to work at the Cyclopes’ forges.

“You are okay?” he asked. “Not eaten by monsters?”

“Not even a little bit.” I showed him that I still had both arms and both legs, and Tyson clapped happily.

“Yay!” he said. “Now we can eat peanut butter sandwiches and ride fish ponies! We can fight monsters and see Annabeth and make things go BOOM!”

I hoped he didn’t mean all at the same time, but I told him absolutely, we’d have a lot of fun this summer. I couldn’t help smiling, he was so enthusiastic about everything.

“But first,” I said, “we’ve gotta worry about inspection. We should…”

Then I looked around and realized Tyson had been busy. The floor was swept. The bunk beds were made. The saltwater fountain in the corner had been freshly scrubbed so the coral gleamed. On the windowsills, Tyson had set out water-filled vases with sea anemones and strange glowing plants from the bottom of the ocean, more beautiful than any flower bouquets the Demeter kids could whip up.

“Tyson, the cabin looks…amazing!”

He beamed. “See the fish ponies? I put them on the ceiling!”

A herd of miniature bronze hippocampi hung on wires from the ceiling, so it looked like they were swimming through the air. I couldn’t believe Tyson, with his huge hands, could make things so delicate. Then I looked over at my bunk, and I saw my old shield hanging on the wall.

“You fixed it!”

The shield had been badly damaged in a manticore attack last winter. But now it was perfect again—not a scratch. All the bronze pictures of my adventures with Tyson and Annabeth in the Sea of Monsters were polished and gleaming.

I looked at Tyson. I didn’t know how to thank him.

Then somebody behind me said, “Oh, my.”

Silena Beauregard was standing in the doorway with her inspection scroll. She stepped into the cabin, did a quick twirl, then raised her eyebrows at me. “Well, I had my doubts. But you clean up nicely, Percy. I’ll remember that.”

She winked at me and left the room.

***

Tyson and I spent the afternoon catching up and just hanging out, which was nice after a morning of getting attacked by demon cheerleaders.

We went down to the forge and helped Beckendorf from the Hephaestus cabin with his metalworking. Tyson showed us how he’d learned to craft magic weapons. He fashioned a flaming double-bladed war axe so fast even Beckendorf was impressed.

While he worked, Tyson told us about his year under the sea. His eye lit up when he described the Cyclopes’ forges and the palace of Poseidon, but he also told us how tense things were. The old gods of the sea, who’d ruled during Titan times, were starting to make war on our father. When Tyson had left, battles had been raging all over the Atlantic. Hearing that made me feel anxious, like I should be helping out, but Tyson assured me that Dad wanted us both at camp.

“Lots of bad people above the sea, too,” Tyson said. “We can make them go boom.”

After the forges, we spent some time at the canoe lake with Annabeth. She was really glad to see Tyson, but I could tell she was distracted. She kept looking over at the forest, like she was thinking about Grover’s problem with the council. I couldn’t blame her. Grover was nowhere to be seen, and I felt really bad for him. Finding the lost god Pan had been his lifelong goal. His father and his uncle had both disappeared following the same dream. Last winter, Grover had heard a voice in his head: I await you—a voice he was sure belonged to Pan—but apparently his search had led nowhere. If the council took away his searcher’s license now, it would crush him.

“What’s this ‘other way’?” I asked Annabeth. “The thing Clarisse mentioned?”

She picked up a stone and skipped it across the lake. “Something Clarisse scouted out. I helped her a little this spring. But it would be dangerous. Especially for Grover.”

“Goat boy scares me,” Tyson murmured.

I stared at him. Tyson had faced down fire-breathing bulls and sea monsters and cannibal giants. “Why would you be scared of Grover?”

“Hooves and horns,” Tyson muttered nervously. “And goat fur makes my nose itchy.”

And that pretty much ended our Grover conversation.

***

Before dinner, Tyson and I went down to the sword arena. Quintus was glad to have company. He still wouldn’t tell me what was in the wooden crates, but he did teach me a few sword moves. The guy was good. He fought the way some people play chess—like he was putting all the moves together and you couldn’t see the pattern until he made the last stroke and won with a sword at your throat.

“Good try,” he told me. “But your guard is too low.”

He lunged and I blocked.

“Have you always been a swordsman?” I asked.

He parried my overhead cut. “I’ve been many things.”

He jabbed and I sidestepped. His shoulder strap slipped down, and I saw that mark on his neck—the purple blotch. But it wasn’t a random mark. It had a definite shape—a bird with folded wings, like a quail or something.

“What’s that on your neck?” I asked, which was probably a rude question, but you can blame my ADHD. I tend to just blurt things out.

Quintus lost his rhythm. I hit his sword hilt and knocked the blade out of his hand.

He rubbed his fingers. Then he shifted his armor to hide the mark. It wasn’t a tattoo, I realized. It was an old burn…like he’d been branded.

“A reminder.” He picked up his sword and forced a smile. “Now, shall we go again?”

He pressed me hard, not giving me time for any more questions.

While he and I fought, Tyson played with Mrs. O’Leary, who he called the “little doggie.” They had a great time wrestling for the bronze shield and playing Get the Greek. By sunset, Quintus hadn’t even broken a sweat, which seemed kind of strange; but Tyson and I were hot and stick, so we hit the showers and got ready for dinner.

I was feeling good. It was almost like a normal day at camp. Then dinner came, and all the campers lined up by cabin and marched into the dining pavilion. Most of them ignored the sealed fissure in the marble floor at the entrance—a ten-foot-long jagged scar that hadn’t been there last summer— but I was careful to step over it.

“Big crack,” Tyson said when we were at our table. “Earthquake, maybe?”

“No,” I said. “Not an earthquake.”

I wasn’t sure I should tell him. It was a secret only Annabeth and Grover and I knew. But looking in Tyson’s big eye, I knew I couldn’t hide it from him.

“Nico di Angelo,” I said, lowering my voice. “He’s this half-blood kid we brought to camp last winter. He, uh…he asked me to guard his sister on a quest, and I failed. She died. Now he blames me.”

Tyson frowned. “So he put a crack in the floor?”

“These skeletons attacked us,” I said. “Nico told them to go away, and the ground just opened up and swallowed them. Nico…” I looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Nico is a son of Hades.”

Tyson nodded thoughtfully. “The god of dead people.”

“Yeah.”

“So the Nico boy is gone now?”

“I—I guess. I tried to search for him this spring. So did Annabeth. But we didn’t have any luck. This is secret, Tyson. Okay? If anyone found out he was a son of Hades, he would be in danger. You can’t even tell Chiron.”

“The bad prophecy,” Tyson said. “Titans might use him if they knew.”

I stared at him. Sometimes it was easy to forget that as big and childlike as he was, Tyson was pretty smart. He knew that the next child of the Big Three gods—Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades—who turned sixteen was prophesied to either save or destroy Mount Olympus. Most people assumed that meant me, but if I died before I turned sixteen, the prophecy could just as easily apply to Nico.

“Exactly,” I said. “So—”

“Mouth sealed,” Tyson promised. “Like the crack in the ground.”

***

I had trouble falling asleep that night. I lay in bed listening to the waves on the beach, and the owls and monsters in the woods. I was afraid once I drifted off I’d have nightmares.

See, for half-bloods, dreams are hardly ever just dreams. We get messages. We glimpse things that are happening to our friends or enemies. Sometimes we even glimpse the past or the future. And at camp, my dreams were always more frequent and vivid.

So I was still awake around midnight, staring at the bunk bed mattress above me, when I realized there was a strange light in the room. The saltwater fountain was glowing.

I threw off the covers and walked cautiously toward it. Steam rose from the hot salt water. Rainbow colors shimmered through it, though there was no light in the room except for the moon outside. Then a pleasant female voice spoke from the steam: Please deposit one drachma.

I looked over at Tyson, but he was still snoring. He sleeps about as heavily as a tranquilized elephant.

I didn’t know what to think. I’d never gotten a collect Iris-message before. One golden drachma gleamed at the bottom of the fountain. I scooped it up and tossed it through the mist. The coin vanished.

“O, Iris, Goddess of the rainbow,” I whispered. “Show me…Uh, whatever you need to show me.”

The mist shimmered. I saw the dark shore of a river. Wisps of fog drifted across black water. The beach was strewn with jagged volcanic rock. A young boy squatted at the riverbank, tending a campfire. The flames burned an unnatural blue color. Then I saw the boy’s face. It was Nico di Angelo. He was throwing pieces of paper into the fire—Mythomagic trading cards, part of the game he’d been obsessed with last winter.

Nico was only ten, or maybe eleven by now, but he looked older. His hair had grown longer. It was shaggy and almost touched his shoulders. His eyes were dark. His olive skin had turned paler. He wore ripped black jeans and a battered aviator’s jacket that was several sizes too big, unzipped over a black shirt. His face was grimy, his eyes a little wild. He looked like a kid who’d been living on the streets.

I waited for him to look at me. No doubt he’d get crazy angry, start accusing me of letting his sister die. But he didn’t seem to notice me.

I stayed quiet, not daring to move. If he hadn’t sent this Iris-message, who had?

Nico tossed another trading card into the blue flames. “Useless,” he muttered. “I can’t believe I ever liked this stuff.”

“A childish game, master,” another voice agreed. It seemed to come from near the fire, but I couldn’t see who was talking.

Nico stared across the river. On the far shore was black beach shrouded in haze. I recognized it: the Underworld. Nico was camping at the edge of the river Styx.

“I’ve failed,” he muttered. “There’s no way to get her back.”

The other voice kept silent.

Nico turned toward it doubtfully. “Is there? Speak.”

Something shimmered. I thought it was just firelight. Then I realized it was the form of a man—a wisp of blue smoke, a shadow. If you looked at him head-on, he wasn’t there. But if you looked out of the corner of your eye, you could make out his shape. A ghost.

“It has never been done,” the ghost said. “But there may be a way.”

“Tell me,” Nico commanded. His eyes shined with a fierce light.

“An exchange,” the ghost said. “A soul for a soul.”

“I’ve offered!”

“Not yours,” the ghost said. “You cannot offer your father a soul he will eventually collect anyway. Nor will he be anxious for the death of his son. I mean a soul that should have died already. Someone who has cheated death.”

Nico’s face darkened. “Not that again. You’re talking about murder.”

“I’m talking about justice,” the ghost said. “Vengeance.”

“Those are not the same thing.”

The ghost laughed dryly. “You will learn differently as you get older.”

Nico stared at the flames. “Why can’t I at least summon her? I want to talk to her. She would…she would help me.”

“I will help you,” the ghost promised. “Have I not saved you many times? Did I not lead you through the maze and teach you to use your powers? Do you want revenge for your sister or not?”

I didn’t like the ghost’s tone of voice. He reminded me of a kid at my old school, a bully who used to convince other kids to do stupid things like steal lab equipment and vandalize the teachers’ cars. The bully never got in trouble himself, but he got tons of other kids suspended.

Nico turned from the fire so the ghost couldn’t see him, but I could. A tear traced its way down his face. “Very well. You have a plan?”

“Oh, yes,” the ghost said, sounding quite pleased. “We have many dark roads to travel. We must start—”

The image shimmered. Nico vanished. The woman’s voice from the mist said, Please deposit one drachma for another five minutes.

There were no other coins in the fountain. I grabbed for my pockets, but I was wearing pajamas. I lunged for the nightstand to check for spare change, but the Iris-message had already blinked out, and the room went dark again. The connection was broken.

I stood in the middle of the cabin, listening to the gurgle of the saltwater fountain and the ocean waves outside.

Nico was alive. He was trying to bring his sister back from the dead. And I had a feeling I knew what soul he wanted to exchange—someone who had cheated death. Vengeance.

Nico di Angelo would come looking for me.

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