JASON HATED BEING OLD.
His joints hurt. His legs shook. As he tried to climb the hill, his lungs rattled like a box of rocks.
He couldn’t see his face, thank goodness, but his fingers were gnarled and bony. Bulging blue veins webbed the backs of his hands.
He even had that old-man smell – mothballs and chicken soup. How was that possible? He’d gone from sixteen to seventy-five in a matter of seconds, but the old-man smell happened instantly, like Boom. Congratulations! You stink!
‘Almost there.’ Piper smiled at him. ‘You’re doing great.’
Easy for her to say. Piper and Annabeth were disguised as lovely Greek serving maidens. Even in their white sleeveless gowns and laced sandals, they had no trouble navigating the rocky path.
Piper’s mahogany hair was pinned up in a braided spiral. Silver bracelets adorned her arms. She resembled an ancient statue of her mom, Aphrodite, which Jason found a little intimidating.
Dating a beautiful girl was nerve-racking enough. Dating a girl whose mom was the goddess of love … well, Jason was always afraid he’d do something unromantic and Piper’s mom would frown down from Mount Olympus and change him into a feral hog.
Jason glanced uphill. The summit was still a hundred yards above.
‘Worst idea ever.’ He leaned against a cedar tree and wiped his forehead. ‘Hazel’s magic is too good. If I have to fight, I’ll be useless.’
‘It won’t come to that,’ Annabeth promised. She looked uncomfortable in her serving-maiden outfit. She kept hunching her shoulders to keep the dress from slipping. Her pinned-up blonde bun had come undone in the back and her hair dangled like long spider legs. Knowing her hatred of spiders, Jason decided not to mention that.
‘We infiltrate the palace,’ she said. ‘We get the information we need, and we get out.’
Piper set down her amphora, the tall ceramic wine jar in which her sword was hidden. ‘We can rest for a second. Catch your breath, Jason.’
From her waist cord hung her cornucopia – the magic horn of plenty. Tucked somewhere in the folds of her dress was her knife, Katoptris. Piper didn’t look dangerous, but if the need arose she could dual-wield Celestial bronze blades or shoot her enemies in the face with ripe mangoes.
Annabeth slung her own amphora off her shoulder. She, too, had a concealed sword, but even without a visible weapon she looked deadly. Her stormy grey eyes scanned the surroundings, alert for any threat. If any dude asked Annabeth for a drink, Jason figured she was more likely to kick the guy in the bifurcum.
He tried to steady his breathing.
Below them, Afales Bay glittered, the water so blue it might’ve been dyed with food colouring. A few hundred yards offshore, the Argo II rested at anchor. Its white sails looked no bigger than postage stamps, its ninety oars like toothpicks. Jason imagined his friends on deck following his progress, taking turns with Leo’s spyglass, trying not to laugh as they watched Grandpa Jason hobble uphill.
‘Stupid Ithaca,’ he muttered.
He supposed the island was pretty enough. A spine of forested hills twisted down its centre. Chalky white slopes plunged into the sea. Inlets formed rocky beaches and harbours where red-roofed houses and white stucco churches nestled against the shoreline.
The hills were dotted with poppies, crocuses and wild cherry trees. The breeze smelled of blooming myrtle. All very nice – except the temperature was about a hundred and five degrees. The air was as steamy as a Roman bathhouse.
It would’ve been easy for Jason to control the winds and fly to the top of the hill, but nooo. For the sake of stealth, he had to struggle along as an old dude with bad knees and chicken-soup stink.
He thought about his last climb, two weeks ago, when Hazel and he had faced the bandit Sciron on the cliffs of Croatia. At least then Jason had been at full strength. What they were about to face would be much worse than a bandit.
‘You sure this is the right hill?’ he asked. ‘Seems kind of – I don’t know – quiet.’
Piper studied the ridgeline. Braided in her hair was a bright blue harpy feather – a souvenir from last night’s attack. The feather didn’t exactly go with her disguise, but Piper had earned it, defeating an entire flock of demon chicken ladies by herself while she was on duty. She downplayed the accomplishment, but Jason could tell she felt good about it. The feather was a reminder that she wasn’t the same girl she’d been last winter, when they’d first arrived at Camp Half-Blood.
‘The ruins are up there,’ she promised. ‘I saw them in Katoptris’s blade. And you heard what Hazel said. “The biggest –” ’
‘ “The biggest gathering of evil spirits I’ve ever sensed,” ’ Jason recalled. ‘Yeah, sounds awesome.’
After battling through the underground temple of Hades, the last thing Jason wanted was to deal with more evil spirits. But the fate of the quest was at stake. The crew of the Argo II had a big decision to make. If they chose wrong, they would fail, and the entire world would be destroyed.
Piper’s blade, Hazel’s magical senses and Annabeth’s instincts all agreed – the answer lay here in Ithaca, at the ancient palace of Odysseus, where a horde of evil spirits had gathered to await Gaia’s orders. The plan was to sneak among them, learn what was going on and decide the best course of action. Then get out, preferably alive.
Annabeth re-adjusted her golden belt. ‘I hope our disguises hold up. The suitors were nasty customers when they were alive. If they find out we’re demigods –’
‘Hazel’s magic will work,’ Piper said.
Jason tried to believe that.
The suitors: a hundred of the greediest, evilest cut-throats who’d ever lived. When Odysseus, the Greek king of Ithaca, went missing after the Trojan War, this mob of B-list princes had invaded his palace and refused to leave, each one hoping to marry Queen Penelope and take over the kingdom. Odysseus managed to return in secret and slaughter them all – your basic happy homecoming. But, if Piper’s visions were right, the suitors were now back, haunting the place where they’d died.
Jason couldn’t believe he was about to visit the actual palace of Odysseus – one of the most famous Greek heroes of all time. Then again, this whole quest had been one mind-blowing event after another. Annabeth herself had just come back from the eternal abyss of Tartarus. Given that, Jason decided maybe he shouldn’t complain about being an old man.
‘Well …’ He steadied himself with his walking stick. ‘If I look as old as I feel, my disguise must be perfect. Let’s get going.’
As they climbed, sweat trickled down his neck. His calves ached. Despite the heat, he began to shiver. And, try as he might, he couldn’t stop thinking about his recent dreams.
Ever since the House of Hades, they’d become more vivid.
Sometimes Jason stood in the underground temple of Epirus, the giant Clytius looming over him, speaking in a chorus of disembodied voices: It took all of you together to defeat me. What will you do when the Earth Mother opens her eyes?
Other times Jason found himself at the crest of Half-Blood Hill. Gaia the Earth Mother rose from the ground – a swirling figure of soil, leaves and stones.
Poor child. Her voice resonated across the landscape, shaking the bedrock under Jason’s feet. Your father is first among the gods, yet you are always second best – to your Roman comrades, to your Greek friends, even to your family. How will you prove yourself?
His worst dream started in the courtyard of the Sonoma Wolf House. Before him stood t
he goddess Juno, glowing with the radiance of molten silver.
Your life belongs to me, her voice thundered. An appeasement from Zeus.
Jason knew he shouldn’t look, but he couldn’t close his eyes as Juno went supernova, revealing her true godly form. Pain seared Jason’s mind. His body burned away in layers like an onion.
Then the scene changed. Jason was still at the Wolf House, but now he was a little boy – no more than two years old. A woman knelt before him, her lemony scent so familiar. Her features were watery and indistinct, but he knew her voice: bright and brittle, like the thinnest layer of ice over a fast stream.
I will be back for you, dearest, she said. I will see you soon.
Every time Jason woke up from that nightmare, his face was beaded with sweat. His eyes stung with tears.
Nico di Angelo had warned them: the House of Hades would stir their worst memories, make them see things and hear things from the past. Their ghosts would become restless.
Jason had hoped that particular ghost would stay away, but every night the dream got worse. Now he was climbing to the ruins of a palace where an army of ghosts had gathered.
That doesn’t mean she’ll be there, Jason told himself.
But his hands wouldn’t stop trembling. Every step seemed harder than the last.
‘Almost there,’ Annabeth said. ‘Let’s –’
BOOM! The hillside rumbled. Somewhere over the ridge, a crowd roared in approval, like spectators in a coliseum. The sound made Jason’s skin crawl. Not so long ago, he’d fought for his life in the Roman Colosseum before a cheering ghostly audience. He wasn’t anxious to repeat the experience.
‘What was that explosion?’ he wondered.
‘Don’t know,’ Piper said. ‘But it sounds like they’re having fun. Let’s go make some dead friends.’
NATURALLY, the situation was worse than Jason expected.
It wouldn’t have been any fun otherwise.
Peering through the olive bushes at the top of the rise, he saw what looked like an out-of-control zombie frat party.
The ruins themselves weren’t that impressive: a few stone walls, a weed-choked central courtyard, a dead-end stairwell chiselled into the rock. Some plywood sheets covered a pit and a metal scaffold supported a cracked archway.
But superimposed over the ruins was another layer of reality – a spectral mirage of the palace as it must have appeared in its heyday. Whitewashed stucco walls lined with balconies rose three storeys high. Columned porticoes faced the central atrium, which had a huge fountain and bronze braziers. At a dozen banquet tables, ghouls laughed and ate and pushed one another around.
Jason had expected about a hundred spirits, but twice that many were milling about, chasing spectral serving girls, smashing plates and cups, and basically making a nuisance of themselves.
Most looked like Lares from Camp Jupiter – transparent purple wraiths in tunics and sandals. A few revellers had decayed bodies with grey flesh, matted clumps of hair and nasty wounds. Others seemed to be regular living mortals – some in togas, some in modern business suits or army fatigues. Jason even spotted one guy in a purple Camp Jupiter T-shirt and Roman legionnaire armour.
In the centre of the atrium, a grey-skinned ghoul in a tattered Greek tunic paraded through the crowd, holding a marble bust over his head like a sports trophy. The other ghosts cheered and slapped him on the back. As the ghoul got closer, Jason noticed that he had an arrow in his throat, the feathered shaft sprouting from his Adam’s apple. Even more disturbing: the bust he was holding … was that Zeus?
It was hard to be sure. Most Greek god statues looked similar. But the bearded, glowering face reminded Jason very much of the giant Hippie Zeus in Cabin One at Camp Half-Blood.
‘Our next offering!’ the ghoul shouted, his voice buzzing from the arrow in his throat. ‘Let us feed the Earth Mother!’
The partiers yelled and pounded their cups. The ghoul made his way to the central fountain. The crowd parted, and Jason realized the fountain wasn’t filled with water. From the three-foot-tall pedestal, a geyser of sand spewed upward, arcing into an umbrella-shaped curtain of white particles before spilling into the circular basin.
The ghoul heaved the marble bust into the fountain. As soon as Zeus’s head passed through the shower of sand, the marble disintegrated like it was going through a wood chipper. The sand glittered gold, the colour of ichor – godly blood. Then the entire mountain rumbled with a muffled BOOM, as if belching after a meal.
The dead partygoers roared with approval.
‘Any more statues?’ the ghoul shouted to the crowd. ‘No? Then I guess we’ll have to wait for some real gods to sacrifice!’
His comrades laughed and applauded as the ghoul plopped himself down at the nearest feast table.
Jason clenched his walking stick. ‘That guy just disintegrated my dad. Who does he think he is?’
‘I’m guessing that’s Antinous,’ said Annabeth, ‘one of the suitors’ leaders. If I remember right, it was Odysseus who shot him through the neck with that arrow.’
Piper winced. ‘You’d think that would keep a guy down. What about all the others? Why are there so many?’
‘I don’t know,’ Annabeth said. ‘Newer recruits for Gaia, I guess. Some must’ve come back to life before we closed the Doors of Death. Some are just spirits.’
‘Some are ghouls,’ Jason said. ‘The ones with the gaping wounds and the grey skin, like Antinous … I’ve fought their kind before.’
Piper tugged at her blue harpy feather. ‘Can they be killed?’
Jason remembered a quest he’d taken for Camp Jupiter years ago in San Bernardino. ‘Not easily. They’re strong and fast and intelligent. Also, they eat human flesh.’
‘Fantastic,’ Annabeth muttered. ‘I don’t see any option except to stick to the plan. Split up, infiltrate, find out why they’re here. If things go bad –’
‘We use the backup plan,’ Piper said.
Jason hated the backup plan.
Before they left the ship, Leo had given each of them an emergency flare the size of a birthday candle. Supposedly, if they tossed one in the air, it would shoot upward in a streak of white phosphorus, alerting the Argo II that the team was in trouble. At that point, Jason and the girls would have a few seconds to take cover before the ship’s catapults fired on their position, engulfing the palace in Greek fire and bursts of Celestial bronze shrapnel.
Not the safest plan, but at least Jason had the satisfaction of knowing that he could call an air strike on this noisy mob of dead guys if the situation got dicey. Of course, that was assuming he and his friends could get away. And assuming Leo’s doomsday candles didn’t go off by accident – Leo’s inventions sometimes did that – in which case the weather would get much hotter, with a ninety percent chance of fiery apocalypse.
‘Be careful down there,’ he told Piper and Annabeth.
Piper crept around the left side of the ridge. Annabeth went right. Jason pulled himself up with his walking stick and hobbled towards the ruins.
He flashed back to the last time he’d plunged into a mob of evil spirits, in the House of Hades. If it hadn’t been for Frank Zhang and Nico di Angelo …
Gods … Nico.
Over the past few days, every time Jason sacrificed a portion of a meal to Jupiter, he prayed to his dad to help Nico. That kid had gone through so much, and yet he had volunteered for the most difficult job: transporting the Athena Parthenos statue to Camp Half-Blood. If he didn’t succeed, the Roman and Greek demigods would slaughter each other. Then, no matter what happened in Greece, the Argo II would have no home to return to.
Jason passed through the palace’s ghostly gateway. He realized just in time that a section of mosaic floor in front of him was an illusion covering a ten-foot-deep excavation pit. He sidestepped it and continued into the courtyard.
The two levels of reality reminded him of the Titan stronghold on Mount Othrys ?
? a disorienting maze of black marble walls that randomly melted into shadow and solidified again. At least during that fight Jason had had a hundred legionnaires at his side. Now all he had was an old man’s body, a stick and two friends in slinky dresses.
Forty feet ahead of him, Piper moved through the crowd, smiling and filling wineglasses for the ghostly revellers. If she was afraid, she didn’t show it. So far the ghosts weren’t paying her any special attention. Hazel’s magic must have been working.
Over on the right, Annabeth collected empty plates and goblets. She wasn’t smiling.
Jason remembered the talk he’d had with Percy before leaving the ship.
Percy had stayed aboard to watch for threats from the sea, but he hadn’t liked the idea of Annabeth going on this expedition without him – especially since it would be the first time they were apart since returning from Tartarus.
He’d pulled Jason aside. ‘Hey, man … Annabeth would kill me if I suggested she needed anybody to protect her.’
Jason laughed. ‘Yeah, she would.’
‘But look out for her, okay?’
Jason squeezed his friend’s shoulder. ‘I’ll make sure she gets back to you safely.’
Now Jason wondered if he could keep that promise.
He reached the edge of the crowd.
A raspy voice cried, ‘IROS!’
Antinous, the ghoul with the arrow in his throat, was staring right at him. ‘Is that you, you old beggar?’
Hazel’s magic did its work. Cold air rippled across Jason’s face as the Mist subtly altered his appearance, showing the suitors what they expected to see.
‘That’s me!’ Jason said. ‘Iros!’
A dozen more ghosts turned towards him. Some scowled and gripped the hilts of their glowing purple swords. Too late, Jason wondered if Iros was an enemy of theirs, but he’d already committed to the part.
He hobbled forward, putting on his best cranky old man expression. ‘Guess I’m late to the party. I hope you saved me some food?’
One of the ghosts sneered in disgust. ‘Ungrateful old panhandler. Should I kill him, Antinous?’
Jason’s neck muscles tightened.
Antinous regarded him for three counts, then chuckled. ‘I’m in a good mood today. Come, Iros, join me at my table.’
Jason didn’t have much choice. He sat across from Antinous while more ghosts crowded around, leering as if they expected to see a particularly vicious arm-wrestling contest.
Up close, Antinous’s eyes were solid yellow. His lips stretched paper-thin over wolfish teeth. At first, Jason thought the ghoul’s curly dark hair was disintegrating. Then he realized a steady stream of dirt was trickling from Antinous’s scalp, spilling over his shoulders. Clods of mud filled the old sword gashes in the ghoul’s grey skin. More dirt spilled from the base of the arrow wound in his throat.
The power of Gaia, Jason thought. The earth is holding this guy together.
Antinous slid a golden goblet and a platter of food across the table. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here, Iros. But I suppose even a beggar can sue for retribution. Drink. Eat.’
Thick red liquid sloshed in the goblet. On the plate sat a steaming brown lump of mystery meat.
Jason’s stomach rebelled. Even if ghoul food didn’t kill him, his vegetarian girlfriend probably wouldn’t kiss him for a month.
He recalled what Notus the South Wind had told him: A wind that blows aimlessly is no good to anyone.
Jason’s entire career at Camp Jupiter had been built on careful choices. He mediated between demigods, listened to all sides of an argument, found compromises. Even when he chafed against Roman traditions, he thought before he acted. He wasn’t impulsive.
Notus had warned him that such hesitation would kill him. Jason had to stop deliberating and take what he wanted.
If he was an ungrateful beggar, he had to act like one.