The Last Olympian – Chapter 7: MY MATH TEACHER GIVES ME A LIFT

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Chapter 7

MY MATH TEACHER

GIVES ME A LIFT

We emerged in Central Park just north of the Pond. Mrs. OLeary looked pretty tired as she limped over to a cluster of boulders. She started sniffing around, and I was afraid she might mark her territory, but Nico said, “Its okay. She just smells the way home. “

  I frowned. “Through the rocks?”

  “The Underworld has two major entrances,” Nico said. “You know the one in L. A. “

  “Charons ferry. “

  Nico nodded. “Most souls go that way, but theres a smaller path, harder to find. The Door of Orpheus. “

  “The dude with the harp. “

  “Dude with the lyre,” Nico corrected. “But yeah, him. He used his music to charm the earth and open a new path into the Underworld. He sang his way right into Hadess palace and almost got away with his wifes soul. “

  I remembered the story. Orpheus wasnt supposed to look behind him when he was leading his wife back to the world, but of course he did. It was one of those typical “and-so-they-died/the-end” stories that always made us feel warm and fuzzy. 

  “So this is the Door of Orpheus. ” I tried to be impressed, but it still looked like a pile of rocks to me. “How does it open?”

  “We need music,” Nico said. “Hows your singing?”

  “Um, no. Cant you just, like, tell it to open? Youre the son of Hades and all. “

  “Its not so easy. We need music. “

  I was pretty sure if I tried to sing, all I would cause was an avalanche. 

  “I have a better idea. ” I turned and called, “GROVER!”

  We waited for a long time. Mrs. OLeary curled up and took a nap. I could hear the crickets in the woods and an owl hooting. Traffic hummed along Central Park West. Horse hooves clopped down a nearby path, maybe a mounted police patrol. I was sure theyd love to find two kids hanging out in the park at one in the morning. 

  “Its no good,” Nico said at last. 

  But I had a feeling. My empathy link was really tingling for the first time in months, which either meant a whole lot of people had suddenly switched on the Nature Channel, or Grover was close. 

  I shut my eyes and concentrated. Grover. 

  I knew he was somewhere in the park. Why couldnt I sense his emotions? All I got was a faint hum in the base of my skull. 

  Grover, I thought more insistently. 

  Hmm-hmmmm, something said. 

  An image came into my head. I saw a giant elm tree deep in the woods, well off the main paths. Gnarled roots laced the ground, making a kind of bed. Lying in it with his arms crossed and his eyes closed was a satyr. At first I couldnt be sure it was Grover. He was covered in twigs and leaves, like hed been sleeping there a long time. The roots seemed to be shaping themselves around him, slowly pulling him into the earth. 

  Grover, I said. Wake up. 

  Unnnh—zzzzz. 

  Dude, youre covered in dirt. Wake up!

  Sleepy, his mind murmured. 

  FOOD, I suggested. PANCAKES!

  His eyes shot open. A blur of thoughts filled my head like he was suddenly on fast-forward. The image shattered, and I almost fell over. 

  “What happened?” Nico asked. 

  “I got through. Hes . . . yeah. Hes on his way. “

  A minute later, the tree next to us shivered. Grover fell out of the branches, right on his head. 

  “Grover!” I yelled. 

  “Woof!” Mrs. OLeary looked up, probably wondering if we were going to play fetch with the satyr. 

  “Blah-haa-haa!” Grover bleated. 

  “You okay, man?”

  “Oh, Im fine. ” He rubbed his head. His horns had grown so much they poked an inch above his curly hair. “I was at the other end of the park. The dryads had this great idea of passing me through the trees to get me here. They dont understand height very well. ”

He grinned and got to his feet—well, his hooves, actually. Since last summer, Grover had stopped trying to disguise himself as human. He never wore a cap or fake feet anymore. He didn’t even wear jeans, since he had furry goat legs from the waist down. His T-shirt had a picture from that book Where the Wild Things Are. It was covered with dirt and tree sap. His goatee looked fuller, almost manly (or goatly?), and he was as tall as me now.

“Good to see you, G-man,” I said. “You remember Nico.”

Grover nodded at Nico, then he gave me a big hug. He smelled like fresh-mown lawns.

“Perrrrcy!” he bleated. “I missed you! I miss camp. They don’t serve very good enchiladas in the wilderness.”

“I was worried,” I said. “Where’ve you been the last two months?”

“The last two—” Grover’s smile faded. “The last two months? What are you talking about?”

“We haven’t heard from you,” I said. “Juniper’s worried. We sent Iris-messages, but—”

“Hold on.” He looked up at the stars like he was trying to calculate his position. “What month is this?”

“August.”

The color drained from his face. “That’s impossible. It’s June. I just lay down to take a nap and . . .” He grabbed my arms. “I remember now! He knocked me out. Percy, we have to stop him!”

“Whoa,” I said. “Slow down. Tell me what happened.”

He took a deep breath. “I was . . . I was walking in the woods up by Harlem Meer. And I felt this tremble in the ground, like something powerful was near.”

“You can sense stuff like that?” Nico asked.

Grover nodded. “Since Pan’s death, I can feel when something is wrong in nature. It’s like my ears and eyes are sharper when I’m in the Wild. Anyway, I started following the scent. This man in a long black coat was walking through the park, and I noticed he didn’t cast a shadow. Middle of a sunny day, and he cast no shadow. He kind of shimmered as he moved.”

“Like a mirage?” Nico asked.

“Yes,” Grover said. “And whenever he passed humans—”

“The humans would pass out,” Nico said. “Curl up and go to sleep.”

“That’s right! Then after he was gone, they’d get up and go about their business like nothing happened.”

I stared at Nico. “You know this guy in black?”

“Afraid so,” Nico said. “Grover, what happened?”

“I followed the guy. He kept looking up at the buildings around the park like he was making estimates or something. This lady jogger ran by, and she curled up on the sidewalk and started snoring. The guy in black put his hand on her forehead like he was checking her temperature. Then he kept walking. By this time, I knew he was a monster or something even worse. I followed him into this grove, to the base of a big elm tree. I was about to summon some dryads to help me capture him when he turned and . . .”

Grover swallowed. “Percy, his face. I couldn’t make out his face because it kept shifting. Just looking at him made me sleepy. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Just having a look around. You should always scout a battlefield before the battle.’ I said something really smart like, ‘This forest is under my protection. You won’t start any battles here!’ And he laughed. He said, ‘You’re lucky I’m saving my energy for the main event, little satyr. I’ll just grant you a short nap. Pleasant dreams.’ And that’s the last thing I remember.”

Nico exhaled. “Grover, you met Morpheus, the God of Dreams. You’re lucky you ever woke up.”

“Two months,” Grover moaned. “He put me to sleep for two months!”

I tried to wrap my mind around what this meant. Now it made sense why we hadn’t been able to contact Grover all this time.

“Why didn’t the nymphs try to wake you?” I asked.

Grover shrugged. “Most nymphs aren’t good with time. Two months for a tree—that’s nothing. They probably didn’t think anything was wrong.”

“We’ve got to figure out what Morpheus was doing in the park,” I said. “I don’t like this ‘main event’ thing he mentioned.”

“He’s working for Kronos,” Nico said. “We know that already. A lot of the minor gods are. This just proves there’s going to be an invasion. Percy, we have to get on with our plan.”

“Wait,” Grover said. “What plan?”

We told him, and Grover started tugging at his leg fur.

“You’re not serious,” he said. “Not the Underworld again.”

“I’m not asking you to come, man,” I promised. “I know you just woke up. But we need some music to open the door. Can you do it?”

Grover took out his reed pipes. “I guess I could try. I know a few Nirvana tunes that can split rocks. But, Percy, are you sure you want to do this?”

“Please, man,” I said. “It would mean a lot. For old times’ sake?”

He whimpered. “As I recall, in the old times we almost died a lot. But okay, here goes nothing.”

He put his pipes to his lips and played a shrill, lively tune. The boulders trembled. A few more stanzas, and they cracked open, revealing a triangular crevice.

I peered inside. Steps led down into the darkness. The air smelled of mildew and death. It brought back bad memories of my trip through the Labyrinth last year, but this tunnel felt even more dangerous. It led straight to the land of Hades, and that was almost always a one-way trip.

I turned to Grover. “Thanks . . . I think.”

“Perrrrcy, is Kronos really going to invade?”

“I wish I could tell you better, but yeah. He will.”

I thought Grover might chew up his reed pipes in anxiety, but he straightened up and brushed off his T-shirt. I couldn’t help thinking how different he looked from fat old Leneus. “I’ve got to rally the nature spirits, then. Maybe we can help. I’ll see if we can find this Morpheus.'”

“Better tell Juniper you’re okay, too.”

His eyes widened. “Juniper! Oh, she’s going to kill me!”

He started to run off, then scrambled back and gave me another hug. “Be careful down there! Come back alive!”

Once he was gone, Nico and I roused Mrs. O’Leary from her nap.

When she smelled the tunnel, she got excited and led the way down the steps. It was a pretty tight fit. I hoped she wouldn’t get stuck. I couldn’t imagine how much Drano we’d need to un-stick a hellhound wedged halfway down a tunnel to the Underworld.

“Ready?” Nico asked me. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

I glanced up at the stars, wondering if I would ever see them again. Then we plunged into darkness.

The stairs went on forever—narrow, steep, and slippery. It was completely dark except for the light of my sword. I tried to go slow, but Mrs. O’Leary had other ideas. She bounded ahead, barking happily. The sound echoed through the tunnel like cannon shots, and I figured we would not be catching anybody by surprise once we reached the bottom.

Nico lagged behind, which I thought was strange.

“You okay?” I asked him.

“Fine.” What was that expression on his face . . . doubt? “Just keep moving,” he said.

I didn’t have much choice. I followed Mrs. O’Leary into the depths. After another hour, I started to hear the roar of a river.

We emerged at the base of a cliff, on a plain of black volcanic sand. To our right, the River Styx gushed from the rocks and roared off in a cascade of rapids. To our left, far away in the gloom, fires burned on the ramparts of Erebos, the great black walls of Hades’s kingdom.

I shuddered. I’d first been here when I was twelve, and only Annabeth and Grover’s company had given me the courage to keep going. Nico wasn’t going to be quite as helpful with the “courage” thing. He looked pale and worried himself.

Only Mrs. O’Leary acted happy. She ran along the beach, picked up a random human leg bone, and romped back toward me. She dropped the bone at my feet and waited for me to throw it.

“Um, maybe later, girl.” I stared at the dark waters, trying to get up my nerve. “So, Nico . . . how do we do this?”

“We have to go inside the gates first,” he said.

“But the river’s right here.”

“I have to get something,” he said. “It’s the only way.”

He marched off without waiting.

I frowned. Nico hadn’t mentioned anything about going inside the gates. But now that we were here, I didn’t know what else to do. Reluctantly, I followed him down the beach toward the big black gates.

Lines of the dead stood outside waiting to get in. It must’ve been a heavy day for funerals, because even the EZ-DEATH line was backed up.

“Woof!” Mrs. O’Leary said. Before I could stop her she bounded toward the security checkpoint. Cerberus, the guard dog of Hades, appeared out of the gloom—a three-headed rottweiler so big he made Mrs. O’Leary look like a toy poodle. Cerberus was half transparent, so he’s really hard to see until he’s close enough to kill you, but he acted like he didn’t care about us. He was too busy saying hello to Mrs. O’Leary.

“Mrs. O’Leary, no!” I shouted at her. “Don’t sniff . . . Oh, man.”

Nico smiled. Then he looked at me and his expression turned all serious again, like he’d remembered something unpleasant. “Come on. They won’t give us any trouble in the line. You’re with me.”

I didn’t like it, but we slipped through the security ghouls and into the Fields of Asphodel. I had to whistle for Mrs. O’Leary three times before she left Cerberus alone and ran after us.

We hiked over black fields of grass dotted with black poplar trees. If I really died in a few days like the prophecy said, I might end up here forever, but I tried not to think about that.

Nico trudged ahead, bringing us closer and closer to the palace of Hades.

“Hey,” I said, “we’re inside the gates already. Where are we—”

Mrs. O’Leary growled. A shadow appeared overhead—something dark, cold, and stinking of death. It swooped down and landed in the top of a poplar tree.

Unfortunately, I recognized her. She had a shriveled face, a horrible blue knit hat, and a crumpled velvet dress. Leathery bat wings sprang from her back. Her feet had sharp talons, and in her brass-clawed hands she held a flaming whip and a paisley handbag.

“Mrs. Dodds,” I said.

She bared her fangs. “Welcome back, honey.”

Her two sisters—the other Furies—swooped down and settled next to her in the branches of the poplar.

“You know Alecto?” Nico asked me.

“If you mean the hag in the middle, yeah,” I said. “She was my math teacher.”

Nico nodded, like this didn’t surprise him. He looked up at the Furies and took a deep breath. “I’ve done what my father asked. Take us to the palace.”

I tensed. “Wait a second, Nico. What do you—”

“I’m afraid this is my new lead, Percy. My father promised me information about my family, but he wants to see you before we try the river. I’m sorry.”

“You tricked me?” I was so mad I couldn’t think. I lunged at him, but the Furies were fast. Two of them swooped down and plucked me up by the arms. My sword fell out of my hand, and before I knew it, I was dangling sixty feet in the air.

“Oh, don’t struggle, honey,” my old math teacher cackled in my ear. “I’d hate to drop you.”

Mrs. O’Leary barked angrily and jumped, trying to reach me, but we were too high.

“Tell Mrs. O’Leary to behave,” Nico warned. He was hovering near me in the clutches of the third Fury. “I don’t want her to get hurt, Percy. My father is waiting. He just wants to talk.”

I wanted to tell Mrs. O’Leary to attack Nico, but it wouldn’t have done any good, and Nico was right about one thing: my dog could get hurt if she tried to pick a fight with the Furies.

I gritted my teeth. “Mrs. O’Leary, down! It’s okay, girl.”

She whimpered and turned in circles, looking up at me. “All right, traitor,” I growled at Nico. “You’ve got your prize. Take me to the stupid palace.”

Alecto dropped me like a sack of turnips in the middle of the palace garden.

It was beautiful in a creepy way. Skeletal white trees grew from marble basins. Flower beds overflowed with golden plants and gemstones. A pair of thrones, one bone and one silver, sat on the balcony with a view of the Fields of Asphodel. It would’ve been a nice place to spend a Saturday morning except for the sulfurous smell and the cries of tortured souls in the distance.

Skeletal warriors guarded the only exit. They wore tattered U.S. Army desert combat fatigues and carried M16s.

The third Fury deposited Nico next to me. Then all three of them settled on the top of the skeletal throne. I resisted the urge to strangle Nico. They’d only stop me. I’d have to wait for my revenge.

I stared at the empty thrones, waiting for something to happen. Then the air shimmered. Three figures appeared—Hades and Persephone on their thrones, and an older woman standing between them. They seemed to be in the middle of an argument.

“—told you he was a bum!” the older woman said.

“Mother!” Persephone replied.

“We have visitors!” Hades barked. “Please!”

Hades, one of my least favorite gods, smoothed his black robes, which were covered with the terrified faces of the damned. He had pale skin and the intense eyes of a madman.

“Percy Jackson,” he said with satisfaction. “At last.”

Queen Persephone studied me curiously. I’d seen her once before in the winter, but now in the summer she looked like a totally different goddess. She had lustrous black hair and warm brown eyes. Her dress shimmered with colors. Flower patterns in the fabric changed and bloomed—roses, tulips, honeysuckle.

The woman standing between them was obviously Persephone’s mother. She had the same hair and eyes, but looked older and sterner. Her dress was golden, the color of a wheat field. Her hair was woven with dried grasses so it reminded me of a wicker basket. I figured if somebody lit a match next to her, she’d be in serious trouble.

“Hmmph,” the older woman said. “Demigods. Just what we need.”

Next to me, Nico knelt. I wished I had my sword so I could cut his stupid head off. Unfortunately, Riptide was still out in the fields somewhere.

“Father,” Nico said. “I have done as you asked.”

“Took you long enough,” Hades grumbled. “Your sister would’ve done a better job.”

Nico lowered his head. If I hadn’t been so mad at the little creep, I might’ve felt sorry for him.

I glared up at the god of the dead. “What do you want, Hades?”

“To talk, of course.” The god twisted his mouth in a cruel smile. “Didn’t Nico tell you?”

“So this whole quest was a lie. Nico brought me down here to get me killed.”

“Oh, no,” Hades said. “I’m afraid Nico was quite sincere about wanting to help you. The boy is as honest as he is dense. I simply convinced him to take a small detour and bring you here first.”

“Father,” Nico said, “you promised that Percy would not be harmed. You said if I brought him, you would tell me about my past—about my mother.”

Queen Persephone sighed dramatically. “Can we please not talk about that woman in my presence?”

“I’m sorry, my dove,” Hades said. “I had to promise the boy something.”

The older lady harrumphed. “I warned you, daughter. This scoundrel Hades is no good. You could’ve married the god of doctors or the god of lawyers, but noooo. You had to eat the pomegranate.”

“Mother—”

“And get stuck in the Underworld!”

“Mother, please—”

“And here it is August, and do you come home like you’re supposed to? Do you ever think about your poor lonely mother?”

“DEMETER!” Hades shouted. “That is enough. You are a guest in my house.”

“Oh, a house is it?” she said. “You call this dump a house? Make my daughter live in this dark, damp—”

“I told you,” Hades said, grinding his teeth, “there’s a war in the world above. You and Persephone are better off here with me.”

“Excuse me,” I broke in. “But if you’re going to kill me, could you just get on with it?”

All three gods looked at me.

“Well, this one has an attitude,” Demeter observed.

“Indeed,” Hades agreed. “I’d love to kill him.”

“Father!” Nico said. “You promised!”

“Husband, we talked about this,” Persephone chided. “You can’t go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he’s brave. I like that.”

Hades rolled his eyes. “You liked that Orpheus fellow too. Look how well that turned out. Let me kill him, just a little bit.”

“Father, you promised!” Nico said. “You said you only wanted to talk to him. You said if I brought him, you’d explain.”

Hades glowered, smoothing the folds of his robes. “And so I shall. Your mother—what can I tell you? She was a wonderful woman.” He glanced uncomfortably at Persephone. “Forgive me, my dear. I mean for a mortal, of course. Her name was Maria di Angelo. She was from Venice, but her father was a diplomat in Washington, D.C. That’s where I met her. When you and your sister were young, it was a bad time to be children of Hades. World War II was brewing. A few of my, ah, other children were leading the losing side. I thought it best to put you two out of harm’s way.”

“That’s why you hid us in the Lotus Casino?”

Hades shrugged. “You didn’t age. You didn’t realize time was passing. I waited for the right time to bring you out.”

“But what happened to our mother? Why don’t I remember her?”

“Not important,” Hades snapped.

“What? Of course it’s important. And you had other children—why were we the only ones who were sent away? And who was the lawyer who got us out?”

Hades grit his teeth. “You would do well to listen more and talk less, boy. As for the lawyer . . .”

Hades snapped his fingers. On top of his throne, the Fury Alecto began to change until she was a middle-aged man in a pinstriped suit with a briefcase. She—he—looked strange crouching at Hades’s shoulder.

“You!” Nico said.

The Fury cackled. “I do lawyers and teachers very well!”

Nico was trembling. “But why did you free us from the casino?”

“You know why,” Hades said. “This idiot son of Poseidon cannot be allowed to be the child of the prophecy.”

I plucked a ruby off the nearest plant and threw it at Hades. It sank harmlessly into his robe. “You should be helping Olympus!” I said. “All the other gods are fighting Typhon, and you’re just sitting here—”

“Waiting things out,” Hades finished. “Yes, that’s correct. When’s the last time Olympus ever helped me, half-blood? When’s the last time a child of mine was ever welcomed as a hero? Bah! Why should I rush out and help them? I’ll stay here with my forces intact.”

“And when Kronos comes after you?”

“Let him try. He’ll be weakened. And my son here, Nico—” Hades looked at him with distaste. “Well, he’s not much now, I’ll grant you. It would’ve been better if Bianca had lived. But give him four more years of training. We can hold out that long, surely. Nico will turn sixteen, as the prophecy says, and then he will make the decision that will save the world. And I will be king of the gods.”

“You’re crazy,” I said. “Kronos will crush you, right after he finishes pulverizing Olympus.”

Hades spread his hands. “Well, you’ll get a chance to find out, half-blood. Because you’ll be waiting out this war in my dungeons.”

“No!” Nico said. “Father, that wasn’t our agreement. And you haven’t told me everything!”

“I’ve told you all you need to know,” Hades said. “As for our agreement, I spoke with Jackson. I did not harm him. You got your information. If you had wanted a better deal, you should’ve made me swear on the Styx. Now, go to your room!” He waved his hand, and Nico vanished.

“That boy needs to eat more,” Demeter grumbled. “He’s too skinny. He needs more cereal.”

Persephone rolled her eyes. “Mother, enough with the cereal. My lord Hades, are you sure we can’t let this little hero go? He’s awfully brave.”

“No, my dear. I’ve spared his life. That’s enough.”

I was sure she was going to stand up for me. The brave, beautiful Persephone was going to get me out of this.

She shrugged indifferently. “Fine. What’s for breakfast? I’m starving.”

“Cereal,” Demeter said.

“Mother!” The two women disappeared in a swirl of flowers and wheat.

“Don’t feel too bad, Percy Jackson,” Hades said. “My ghosts keep me well informed of Kronos’s plans. I can assure you that you had no chance to stop him in time. By tonight, it will be too late for your precious Mount Olympus. The trap will be sprung.”

“What trap?” I demanded. “If you know about it, do something! At least let me tell the other gods!”

Hades smiled. “You are spirited. I’ll give you credit for that. Have fun in my dungeon. We’ll check on you again in—oh, fifty or sixty years.”

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