The Lightning Thief – Chapter 19: WE FIND OUT THE TRUTH, SORT OF

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Chapter 19: WE FIND OUT THE TRUTH, SORT OF

Imagine the largest concert crowd youve ever seen, a football field packed with a million fans. 

  Now imagine a field a million times that big, packed with people, and imagine the electricity has gone out, and there is no noise, no light, no beach ball bouncing around over the crowd. Something tragic has happened backstage. Whispering masses of people are just milling around in the shadows, waiting for a concert that will never start. 

If you can picture that, you have a pretty good idea what the Fields of Asphodel looked like. The black grass had been trampled by eons of dead feet. A warm, moist wind blew like the breath of a swamp. Black trees—Grover told me they were poplars—grew in clumps here and there. 

  The cavern ceiling was so high above us it mightve been a bank of storm clouds, except for the stalactites, which glowed faint gray and looked wickedly pointed. I tried not to imagine theyd fall on us at any moment, but dotted around the fields were several that had fallen and impaled themselves in the black grass. I guess the dead didnt have to worry about little hazards like being speared by stalactites the size of booster rockets. 

  Annabeth, Grover, and I tried to blend into the crowd, keeping an eye out for security ghouls. I couldnt help looking for familiar faces among the spirits of Asphodel, but the dead are hard to look at. Their faces shimmer. They all look slightly angry or confused. They will come up to you and speak, but their voices sound like chatter, like bats twittering. Once they realize you cant understand them, they frown and move away. 

  The dead arent scary. Theyre just sad. 

  We crept along, following the line of new arrivals that snaked from the main gates toward a black-tented pavilion with a banner that read:

  JUDGMENTS FOR ELYSIUM AND ETERNAL DAMNATION

  Welcome, Newly Deceased!

  Out the back of the tent came two much smaller lines. 

  To the left, spirits flanked by security ghouls were marched down a rocky path toward the Fields of Punishment, which glowed and smoked in the distance, a vast, cracked wasteland with rivers of lava and minefields and miles of barbed wire separating the different torture areas. Even from far away, I could see people being chased by hellhounds, burned at the stake, forced to run naked through cactus patches or listen to opera music. I could just make out a tiny hill, with the ant-size figure of Sisyphus struggling to move his boulder to the top. And I saw worse tortures, too—things I dont want to describe. 

  The line coming from the right side of the judgment pavilion was much better. This one led down toward a small valley surrounded by walls—a gated community, which seemed to be the only happy part of the Underworld. Beyond the security gate were neighborhoods of beautiful houses from every time period in history, Roman villas and medieval castles and Victorian mansions. Silver and gold flowers bloomed on the lawns. The grass rippled in rainbow colors. I could hear laughter and smell barbecue cooking. 

  Elysium. 

  In the middle of that valley was a glittering blue lake, with three small islands like a vacation resort in the Bahamas. The Isles of the Blest, for people who had chosen to be reborn three times, and three times achieved Elysium. Immediately I knew thats where I wanted to go when I died. 

  “Thats what its all about,” Annabeth said, like she was reading my thoughts. “Thats the place for heroes. “

  But I thought of how few people there were in Elysium, how tiny it was compared to the Fields of Asphodel or even the Fields of Punishment. So few people did good in their lives. It was depressing. 

  We left the judgment pavilion and moved deeper into the Asphodel Fields. It got darker. The colors faded from our clothes. The crowds of chattering spirits began to thin. 

  After a few miles of walking, we began to hear a familiar screech in the distance. Looming on the horizon was a palace of glittering black obsidian. Above the parapets swirled three dark batlike creatures: the Furies. I got the feeling they were waiting for us. 

  “I suppose its too late to turn back,” Grover said wistfully. 

  “Well be okay. ” I tried to sound confident. 

  “Maybe we should search some of the other places first,” Grover suggested. “Like, Elysium, for instance . . . “

  “Come on, goat boy. ” Annabeth grabbed his arm. 

  Grover yelped. His sneakers sprouted wings and his legs shot forward, pulling him away from Annabeth. He landed flat on his back in the grass. 

  “Grover,” Annabeth chided. “Stop messing around. “

  “But I didnt—”

  He yelped again. His shoes were flapping like crazy now. They levitated off the ground and started dragging him away from us. 

  “Maia!” he yelled, but the magic word seemed to have no effect. “Maia, already! Nine-one-one! Help!”

  I got over being stunned and made a grab for Grovers hand, but too late. He was picking up speed, skidding downhill like a bobsled. 

  We ran after him. 

  Annabeth shouted, “Untie the shoes!”

  It was a smart idea, but I guess its not so easy when your shoes are pulling you along feetfirst at full speed. Grover tried to sit up, but he couldnt get close to the laces. 

  We kept after him, trying to keep him in sight as he ripped between the legs of spirits who chattered at him in annoyance. 

  I was sure Grover was going to barrel straight through the gates of Hadess palace, but his shoes veered sharply to the right and dragged him in the opposite direction. 

  The slope got steeper. Grover picked up speed. Annabeth and I had to sprint to keep up. The cavern walls narrowed on either side, and I realized wed entered some kind of side tunnel. No black grass or trees now, just rock underfoot, and the dim light of the stalactites above. 

  “Grover!” I yelled, my voice echoing. “Hold on to something!”

  “What?” he yelled back. 

  He was grabbing at gravel, but there was nothing big enough to slow him down. 

  The tunnel got darker and colder. The hairs on my arms bristled. It smelled evil down here. It made me think of things I shouldnt even know about—blood spilled on an ancient stone altar, the foul breath of a murderer. 

  Then I saw what was ahead of us, and I stopped dead in my tracks. 

  The tunnel widened into a huge dark cavern, and in the middle was a chasm the size of a city block. 

  Grover was sliding straight toward the edge. 

  “Come on, Percy!” Annabeth yelled, tugging at my wrist. 

  “But thats—”

  “I know!” she shouted. “The place you described in your dream! But Grovers going to fall if we dont catch him. ” She was right, of course. Grovers predicament got me moving again. 

  He was yelling, clawing at the ground, but the winged shoes kept dragging him toward the pit, and it didnt look like we could possibly get to him in time. 

  What saved him were his hooves. 

  The flying sneakers had always been a loose fit on him, and finally Grover hit a big rock and the left shoe came flying off. It sped into the darkness, down into the chasm. The right shoe kept tugging him along, but not as fast. Grover was able to slow himself down by grabbing on to the big rock and using it like an anchor. 

  He was ten feet from the edge of the pit when we caught him and hauled him back up the slope. The other winged shoe tugged itself off, circled around us angrily and kicked our heads in protest before flying off into the chasm to join its twin. 

  We all collapsed, exhausted, on the obsidian gravel. My limbs felt like lead. Even my backpackseemed heavier, as if somebody had filled it with rocks. 

  Grover was scratched up pretty bad. His hands were bleeding. His eyes had gone slit-pupiled, goat style, the way they did whenever he was terrified. 

  “I dont know how . . . ” he panted. “I didnt. . . “

  “Wait,” I said. “Listen. “

  I heard something—a deep whisper in the darkness. 

  Another few seconds, and Annabeth said, “Percy, this place—”

  “Shh. ” I stood. 

  The sound was getting louder, a muttering, evil voice from far, far below us. Coming from the pit. 

  Grover sat up. “Wh—whats that noise?”

  Annabeth heard it too, now. I could see it in her eyes. “Tartarus. The entrance to Tartarus. ” I uncapped Anaklusmos. 

  The bronze sword expanded, gleaming in the darkness, and the evil voice seemed to falter, just for a moment, before resuming its chant. 

  I could almost make out words now, ancient, ancient words, older even than Greek. As if . . . 

  “Magic,” I said. 

  “We have to get out of here,” Annabeth said. 

  Together, we dragged Grover to his hooves and started back up the tunnel. My legs wouldnt move fast enough. My backpack weighed me down. The voice got louder and angrier behind us, and we broke into a run. 

  Not a moment too soon. 

  A cold blast of wind pulled at our backs, as if the entire pit were inhaling. For a terrifying moment, I lost ground, my feet slipping in the gravel. If wed been any closer to the edge, we wouldve been sucked in. 

  We kept struggling forward, and finally reached the top of the tunnel, where the cavern widened out into the Fields of Asphodel. The wind died. A wail of outrage echoed from deep in the tunnel. Something was not happy wed gotten away. 

  “What was that?” Grover panted, when wed collapsed in the relative safety of a black poplar grove. “One of Hadess pets?”

  Annabeth and I looked at each other. I could tell she was nursing an idea, probably the same one shed gotten during the taxi ride to L. A. , but she was too scared to share it. That was enough to terrify me. 

  I capped my sword, put the pen back in my pocket. “Lets keep going. ” I looked at Grover. “Can you walk?”

  He swallowed. “Yeah, sure. I never liked those shoes, anyway. “

  He tried to sound brave about it, but he was trembling as badly as Annabeth and I were. Whatever was in that pit was nobodys pet. It was unspeakably old and powerful. Even Echidna hadnt given me that feeling. I was almost relieved to turn my back on that tunnel and head toward the palace of Hades. 

  Almost. 

  The Furies circled the parapets, high in the gloom. The outer walls of the fortress glittered black, and the two-story-tall bronze gates stood wide open. 

  Up close, I saw that the engravings on the gates were scenes of death. Some were from modern times—an atomic bomb exploding over a city, a trench filled with gas mask-wearing soldiers, a line of African famine victims waiting with empty bowls—but all of them looked as if theyd been etched into the bronze thousands of years ago. I wondered if I was looking at prophecies that had come true. 

  Inside the courtyard was the strangest garden Id ever seen. Multicolored mushrooms, poisonous shrubs, and weird luminous plants grew without sunlight. Precious jewels made up for the lack of flowers, piles of rubies as big as my fist, clumps of raw diamonds. Standing here and there like frozen party guests were Medusas garden statues— petrified children, satyrs, and centaurs—all smiling grotesquely. 

  In the center of the garden was an orchard of pomegranate trees, their orange blooms neon bright in the dark. “The garden of Persephone,” Annabeth said. “Keep walking. “

  I understood why she wanted to move on. The tart smell of those pomegranates was almost overwhelming. I had a sudden desire to eat them, but then I remembered the story of Persephone. One bite of Underworld food, and we would never be able to leave. I pulled Grover away to keep him from picking a big juicy one. 

  We walked up the steps of the palace, between black columns, through a black marble portico, and into the house of Hades. The entry hall had a polished bronze floor, which seemed to boil in the reflected torchlight. There was no ceiling, just the cavern roof, far above. I guess they never had to worry about rain down here. 

  Every side doorway was guarded by a skeleton in military gear. Some wore Greek armor, some British redcoat uniforms, some camouflage with tattered American flags on the shoulders. They carried spears or muskets or M-16s. None of them bothered us, but their hollow eye sockets followed us as we walked down the hall, toward the big set of doors at the opposite end. 

Two U. S. Marine skeletons guarded the doors. They grinned down at us, rocket-propelled grenade launchers held across their chests. 

  “You know,” Grover mumbled, “I bet Hades doesnt have trouble with door-to-door salesmen. “

  My backpack weighed a ton now. I couldnt figure out why. I wanted to open it, check to see if I had somehow picked up a stray bowling ball, but this wasnt the time. 

  “Well, guys,” I said. “I suppose we should . . . knock?”

  A hot wind blew down the corridor, and the doors swung open. The guards stepped aside. 

  “I guess that means entrez-vous,” Annabeth said. 

  The room inside looked just like in my dream, except this time the throne of Hades was occupied. 

  He was the third god Id met, but the first who really struck me as godlike. 

  He was at least ten feet tall, for one thing, and dressed in black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. His skin was albino white, his hair shoulder-length and jet black. He wasnt bulked up like Ares, but he radiated power. He lounged on his throne of fused human bones, looking lithe, graceful, and dangerous as a panther. 

  I immediately felt like he should be giving the orders. He knew more than I did. He should be my master. Then I told myself to snap out of it. 

  Hadess aura was affecting me, just as Aress had. The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures Id seen of Adolph Hitler, or Napoleon, or the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers. Hades had the same intense eyes, the same kind of mesmerizing, evil charisma. 

  “You are brave to come here, Son of Poseidon,” he said in an oily voice. “After what you have done to me, very brave indeed. Or perhaps you are simply very foolish. “

  Numbness crept into my joints, tempting me to lie down and just take a little nap at Hadess feet. Curl up here and sleep forever. 

  I fought the feeling and stepped forward. I knew what I had to say. “Lord and Uncle, I come with two requests. “

  Hades raised an eyebrow. When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment were stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hadess underwear?

  “Only two requests?” Hades said. “Arrogant child. As if you have not already taken enough. Speak, then. It amuses me not to strike you dead yet. “

  I swallowed. This was going about as well as Id feared. 

  I glanced at the empty, smaller throne next to Hadess. It was shaped like a black flower, gilded with gold. I wished Queen Persephone were here. I recalled something in the myths about how she could calm her husbands moods. But it was summer. Of course, Persephone would be above in the world of light with her mother, the goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Her visits, not the tilt of the planet, create the seasons. 

  Annabeth cleared her throat. Her finger prodded me in the back. 

  “Lord Hades,” I said. “Look, sir, there cant be a war among the gods. It would be . . . bad. “

  “Really bad,” Grover added helpfully. 

  “Return Zeuss master bolt to me,” I said. “Please, sir. Let me carry it to Olympus. “

  Hadess eyes grew dangerously bright. “You dare keep up this pretense, after what you have done?”

  I glanced back at my friends. They looked as confused as I was. 

  “Um . . . Uncle,” I said. “You keep saying after what youve done. What exactly have I done?”

  The throne room shook with a tremor so strong, they probably felt it upstairs in Los Angeles. Debris fell from the cavern ceiling. Doors burst open all along the walls, and skeletal warriors marched in, hundreds of them, from every time period and nation in Western civilization. They lined the perimeter of the room, blocking the exits. 

  Hades bellowed, “Do you think I want war, godling?”

  I wanted to say, Well, these guys dont look like peace activists. But I thought that might be a dangerous answer. 

  “You are the Lord of the Dead,” I said carefully. “A war would expand your kingdom, right?”

  “A typical thing for my brothers to say! Do you think I need more subjects? Did you not see the sprawl of the Asphodel Fields?”

  “Well. . . “

  “Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions Ive had to open?”

  I opened my mouth to respond, but Hades was on a roll now. 

  “More security ghouls,” he moaned. “Traffic problems at the judgment pavilion. Double overtime for the staff. I used to be a rich god, Percy Jackson. I control all the precious metals under the earth. But my expenses!”

  “Charon wants a pay raise,” I blurted, just remembering the fact. As soon as I said it, I wished I could sew up my mouth. 

  “Dont get me started on Charon!” Hades yelled. “Hes been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and Ive got to handle all of them personally. The commute time alone from the palace to the gates is enough to drive me insane! And the dead just keep arriving. No, godling. I need no help getting subjects! I did not ask for this war. “

  “But you took Zeuss master bolt. “

  “Lies!” More rumbling. Hades rose from his throne, towering to the height of a football goalpost. “Your father may fool Zeus, boy, but I am not so stupid. I see his plan. “

  “His plan?”

  “You were the thief on the winter solstice,” he said. “Your father thought to keep you his little secret. He directed you into the throne room on Olympus, You took the master bolt and my helm. Had I not sent my Fury to discover you at YancyAcademy, Poseidon might have succeeded in hiding his scheme to start a war. But now you have been forced into the open. You will be exposed as Poseidons thief, and I will have my helm back!”

  “But . . . ” Annabeth spoke. I could tell her mind was going a million miles an hour. “Lord Hades, your helm of darkness is missing, too?”

  “Do not play innocent with me, girl. You and the satyr have been helping this hero—coming here to threaten me in Poseidons name, no doubt—to bring me an ultimatum. Does Poseidon think I can be blackmailed into supporting him?”

  “No!” I said. “Poseidon didnt—I didnt—”

  “I have said nothing of the helms disappearance,” Hades snarled, “because I had no illusions that anyone on Olympus would offer me the slightest justice, the slightest help. I can ill affordfor word to get out that my most powerful weapon of fear is missing. So I searched for you myself, and when it was clear you were coming to me to deliver your threat, I did not try to stop you. “

  “You didnt try to stop us? But—”

  “Return my helm now, or I will stop death,” Hades threatened. “That is my counterproposal. I will open the earth and have the dead pour back into the world. I will make your lands a nightmare. And you, Percy Jackson—your skeleton will lead my army out of Hades. “

  The skeletal soldiers all took one step forward, making their weapons ready. 

  At that point, I probably should have been terrified. The strange thing was, I felt offended. Nothing gets me angrier than being accused of something I didnt do. Ive had a lot of experience with that. 

  “Youre as bad as Zeus,” I said. “You think I stole from you? Thats why you sent the Furies after me?”

  “Of course,” Hades said. 

  “And the other monsters?”

  Hades curled his lip. “I had nothing to do with them. I wanted no quick death for you—I wanted you brought before me alive so you might face every torture in the Fields of Punishment. Why do you think I let you enter my kingdom so easily?”

  “Easily?”

  “Return my property!”

  “But I dont have your helm. I came for the master bolt. “

  “Which you already possess!” Hades shouted. “You came here with it, little fool, thinking you could you threaten me!”

  “But I didnt!”

  “Open your pack, then. “

  A horrible feeling struck me. The weight in my backpack, like a bowling ball. It couldnt be. . . . 

  I slung it off my shoulder and unzipped it. Inside was a two-foot-long metal cylinder, spiked on both ends, humming with energy. 

  “Percy,” Annabeth said. “How—”

  “I—I dont know. I dont understand. “

  “You heroes are always the same,” Hades said. “Your pride makes you foolish, thinking you could bring such a weapon before me. I did not ask for Zeuss master bolt, but since it is here, you will yield it to me. I am sure it will make an excellent bargaining tool. And now . . . my helm. Where is it?”

  I was speechless. I had no helm. I had no idea how the master bolt had gotten into my backpack. I wanted to think Hades was pulling some kind of trick. Hades was the bad guy. But suddenly the world turned sideways. I realized Id been played with. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades had been set at each others throats by someone else. The master bolt had been in the backpack, and Id gotten the backpack from . . . 

  “Lord Hades, wait,” I said. “This is all a mistake. “

  “A mistake?” Hades roared. 

  The skeletons aimed their weapons. From high above, there was a fluttering of leathery wings, and the three Furies swooped down to perch on the back of their masters throne. The one with Mrs. Doddss face grinned at me eagerly and flicked her whip. 

  “There is no mistake,” Hades said. “I know why you have come—I know the real reason you brought the bolt. You came to bargain for her. “

  Hades loosed a ball of gold fire from his palm. It exploded on the steps in front of me, and there was my mother, frozen in a shower of gold, just as she was at the moment when the Minotaur began to squeeze her to death. 

  I couldnt speak. I reached out to touch her, but the light was as hot as a bonfire. 

  “Yes,” Hades said with satisfaction. “I took her. I knew, Percy Jackson, that you would come to bargain with me eventually. Return my helm, and perhaps I will let her go. She is not dead, you know. Not yet. But if you displease me, that will change. “

  I thought about the pearls in my pocket. Maybe they could get me out of this. If I could just get my mom free . . . 

  “Ah, the pearls,” Hades said, and my blood froze. “Yes, my brother and his little tricks. Bring them forth, Percy Jackson. “

  My hand moved against my will and brought out the pearls. 

  “Only three,” Hades said. “What a shame. You do realize each only protects a single person. Try to take your mother, then, little godling. And which of your friends will you leave behind to spend eternity with me? Go on. Choose. Or give me the backpack and accept my terms. “

  I looked at Annabeth and Grover. Their faces were grim. 

  “We were tricked,” I told them. “Set up. “

  “Yes, but why?” Annabeth asked. “And the voice in the pit—”

  “I dont know yet,” I said. “But I intend to ask. “

  “Decide, boy!” Hades yelled. 

  “Percy. ” Grover put his hand on my shoulder. “You cant give him the bolt,”

  “I know that. “

  “Leave me here,” he said. “Use the third pearl on your mom. “

“No!”

  “Im a satyr,” Grover said. “We dont have souls like humans do. He can torture me until I die, but he wont get me forever. Ill just be reincarnated as a flower or something. Its the best way. “

  “No. ” Annabeth drew her bronze knife. “You two go on. Grover, you have to protect Percy. You have to get your searchers license and start your quest for Pan. Get his mom out of here. Ill cover you. I plan to go down fighting. “

  “No way,” Grover said. “Im staying behind. “

  “Think again, goat boy,” Annabeth said. 

  “Stop it, both of you!” I felt like my heart was being ripped in two. They had both been with me through so much. I remembered Grover dive-bombing Medusa in the statue garden, and Annabeth saving us from Cerberus; wed survived Hephaestuss Waterland ride, the St. Louis Arch, the Lotus Casino. I had spent thousands of miles worried that Id be betrayed by a friend, but these friends would never do that. They had done nothing but save me, over and over, and now they wanted to sacrifice their lives for my mom. 

  “I know what to do,” I said. “Take these. “

  I handed them each a pearl. 

  Annabeth said, “But, Percy . . . “

  I turned and faced my mother. I desperately wanted to sacrifice myself and use the last pearl on her, but I knew what she would say. She would never allow it. I had to get the bolt back to Olympus and tell Zeus the truth. I had to stop the war. She would never forgive me if I saved her instead. I thought about the prophecy made at Half-Blood Hill, what seemed like a million years ago. You will fail to save what matters most in the end. 

  “Im sorry,” I told her. “Ill be back. Ill find a way. “

  The smug look on Hadess face faded. He said, “Godling . . . ?”

  “Ill find your helm, Uncle,” I told him. “Ill return it. Remember about Charons pay raise. “

  “Do not defy me—”

  “And it wouldnt hurt to play with Cerberus once in a while. He likes red rubber balls. “

  “Percy Jackson, you will not—”

  I shouted, “Now, guys!”

  We smashed the pearls at our feet. For a scary moment, nothing happened. 

  Hades yelled, “Destroy them!”

  The army of skeletons rushed forward, swords out, guns clicking to full automatic. The Furies lunged, their whips bursting into flame. 

  Just as the skeletons opened fire, the pearl fragments at my feet exploded with a burst of green light and a gust of fresh sea wind. I was encased in a milky white sphere, which was starting to float off the ground. 

  Annabeth and Grover were right behind me. Spears and bullets sparked harmlessly off the pearl bubbles as we floated up. Hades yelled with such rage, the entire fortress shook and I knew it was not going to be a peaceful night in L. A. 

  “Look up. ” Grover yelled. “Were going to crash!”

  Sure enough, we were racing right toward the stalactites, which I figured would pop our bubbles and skewer us. 

  “How do you control these things?” Annabeth shouted. 

  “I dont think you do!” I shouted back. 

  We screamed as the bubbles slammed into the ceiling and . . . Darkness. 

  Were we dead?

  No, I could still feel the racing sensation. We were going up, right through solid rock as easily as an air bubble in water. That was the power of the pearls, I realized—What belongs to the sea will always return to the sea. 

  For a few moments, I couldnt see anything outside the smooth walls of my sphere, then my pearl broke through on the ocean floor. The two other milky spheres, Annabeth and Grover, kept pace with me as we soared upward through the water. And—ker-blam!

  We exploded on the surface, in the middle of the Santa MonicaBay, knocking a surfer off his board with an indignant, “Dude!”

  I grabbed Grover and hauled him over to a life buoy. I caught Annabeth and dragged her over too. A curious shark was circling us, a great white about eleven feet long. 

  I said, “Beat it. “

  The shark turned and raced away. 

  The surfer screamed something about bad mushrooms and paddled away from us as fast as he could. 

  Somehow, I knew what time it was: early morning, June 21, the day of the summer solstice. 

  In the distance, Los Angeles was on fire, plumes of smoke rising from neighborhoods all over the city. There had been an earthquake, all right, and it was Hadess fault. He was probably sending an army of the dead after me right now. 

  But at the moment, the Underworld wasnt my biggest problem. 

  I had to get to shore. I had to get Zeuss thunderbolt back to Olympus. Most of all, I had to have a serious conversation with the god whod tricked me. 

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