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 doesn't have trouble with door-to-door salesmen."
My backpack weighed a ton now. I couldn't figure out why. I wanted to open it, check to see if I had somehow picked up a stray bowling ball, but this wasn't 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 I'd 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 wasn't 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.
Hades's aura was affecting me, just as Ares's had. The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures I'd 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 Hades's 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 Hades's 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 I'd feared.
I glanced at the empty, smaller throne next to Hades's. 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 husband's 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 can't be a war among the gods. It would be ... bad."
"Really bad," Grover added helpfully.
"Return Zeus's master bolt to me," I said. "Please, sir. Let me carry it to Olympus."
Hades's 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 you've 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 don't 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?"
"Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions I've 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.
"Don't get me started on Charon!" Hades yelled. "He's been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and I've 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 Zeus's 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."
"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 Poseidon's 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 Poseidon's name, no doubt—to bring me an ultimatum. Does Poseidon think I can be blackmailed into supporting him?"
"No!" I said. "Poseidon didn't—I didn't—"
"I have said nothing of the helm's disappearance," Hades snarled, "because I had no illusions that anyone on Olympus would offer me the slightest justice, the slightest help. I can ill afford for 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 didn't 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 didn't do. I've had a lot of experience with that.
"You're as bad as Zeus," I said. "You think I stole from you? That's 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?"
"Return my property!"
"But I don't 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 didn't!"
"Open your pack, then."
A horrible feeling struck me. The weight in my backpack, like a bowling ball. It couldn't 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 don't know. I don't 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 Zeus's 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 I'd been played with. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades had been set at each other's throats by someone else. The master bolt had been in the backpack, and I'd 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 master's throne. The one with Mrs. Dodds's 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 couldn't 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 don't know yet," I said. "But I intend to ask."
"Decide, boy!" Hades yelled.
"Percy." Grover put his hand on my shoulder. "You can't give him the bolt,"
"I know that."
"Leave me here," he said. "Use the third pearl on your mom."