The dream faded.
‘Hey, wake up.’ Reyna’s eyes fluttered open. Gleeson Hedge was leaning over her, shaking her shoulder. ‘We got trouble.’
His grave tone got her blood moving.
‘What is it?’ She struggled to sit up. ‘Ghosts? Monsters?’
Hedge scowled. ‘Worse. Tourists.’
THE HORDES HAD ARRIVED.
In groups of twenty or thirty, tourists swarmed through the ruins, milling around the villas, wandering the cobblestone paths, gawking at the colourful frescoes and mosaics.
Reyna worried how the tourists would react to a forty-foot-tall statue of Athena in the middle of the courtyard, but the Mist must have been working overtime to obscure the mortals’ vision.
Each time a group approached, they’d stop at the edge of the courtyard and stare in disappointment at the statue. One British tour guide announced, ‘Ah, scaffolding. It appears this area is undergoing restoration. Pity. Let’s move along.’
And off they went.
At least the statue didn’t rumble, ‘DIE, UNBELIEVERS!’ and zap the mortals to dust. Reyna had once dealt with a statue of the goddess Diana like that. It hadn’t been her most relaxing day.
She recalled what Annabeth had told her about the Athena Parthenos: its magical aura both attracted monsters and kept them at bay. Sure enough, every so often, out of the corner of her eye, Reyna would spot glowing white spirits in Roman clothes flitting among the ruins, frowning at the statue in consternation.
‘Those lemures are everywhere,’ Gleeson muttered. ‘Keeping their distance for now – but come nightfall we’d better be ready to move. Ghosts are always worse at night.’
Reyna didn’t need to be reminded of that.
She watched as an elderly couple in matching pastel shirts and Bermuda shorts tottered through a nearby garden. She was glad they didn’t come any closer. Around the camp, Coach Hedge had rigged all sorts of trip wires, snares and oversized mousetraps that wouldn’t stop any self-respecting monster, but they might very well bring down a senior citizen.
Despite the warm morning, Reyna shivered from her dreams. She couldn’t decide which was more terrifying – the impending destruction of New Rome, or the way Octavian was poisoning the legion from the inside.
Your quest is a fool’s errand.
Camp Jupiter needed her. The Twelfth Legion needed her. Yet Reyna was halfway across the world, watching a satyr toast blueberry waffles on a stick over an open fire.
She wanted to talk about her nightmares, but she decided to wait until Nico woke up. She wasn’t sure she’d have the courage to describe them twice.
Nico kept snoring. Reyna had discovered that once he fell asleep it took a lot to wake him up. The coach could do a goat-hoof tap dance around Nico’s head and the son of Hades wouldn’t even budge.
‘Here.’ Hedge offered her a plate of flame-grilled waffles with fresh sliced kiwi and pineapple. It all looked surprisingly good.
‘Where are you getting these supplies?’ Reyna marvelled.
‘Hey, I’m a satyr. We’re very efficient packers.’ He took a bite of waffle. ‘We also know how to live off the land!’
As Reyna ate, Coach Hedge took out a notepad and started to write. When he was finished, he folded the paper into an aeroplane and tossed it into the air. A breeze carried it away.
‘A letter to your wife?’ Reyna guessed.
Under the rim of his baseball cap, Hedge’s eyes were bloodshot. ‘Mellie’s a cloud nymph. Air spirits send stuff by paper aeroplane all the time. Hopefully her cousins will keep the letter going across the ocean until it finds her. It’s not as fast as an Iris-message, but, well, I want our kid to have some record of me, in case, you know …’
‘We’ll get you home,’ Reyna promised. ‘You will see your kid.’
Hedge clenched his jaw and said nothing.
Reyna was pretty good at getting people to talk. She considered it essential to know her comrades-in-arms. But she’d had a tough time convincing Hedge to open up about his wife, Mellie, who was close to giving birth back at Camp Half-Blood. Reyna had trouble imagining the coach as a father, but she understood what it was like to grow up without parents. She wasn’t going to let that happen to Coach Hedge’s child.
‘Yeah, well …’ The satyr bit off another piece of waffle, including the stick he’d toasted it on. ‘I just wish we could move faster.’ He chin-pointed to Nico. ‘I don’t see how this kid is going to last one more jump. How many more will it take us to get home?’
Reyna shared his concern. In only eleven days, the giants planned to awaken Gaia. Octavian planned to attack Camp Half-Blood on the same day. That couldn’t be a coincidence. Perhaps Gaia was whispering in Octavian’s ear, influencing his decisions subconsciously. Or worse: Octavian was actively in league with the earth goddess. Reyna didn’t want to believe that even Octavian would knowingly betray the legion, but after what she’d seen
in her dreams she couldn’t be sure.
She finished her meal as a group of Chinese tourists shuffled past the courtyard. Reyna had been awake for less than an hour and already she was restless to get moving.
‘Thanks for breakfast, Coach.’ She got to her feet and stretched. ‘If you’ll excuse me, where there are tourists, there are bathrooms. I need to use the little praetors’ room.’
‘Go ahead.’ The coach jangled the whistle that hung around his neck. ‘If anything happens, I’ll blow.’
Reyna left Aurum and Argentum on guard duty and strolled through the crowds of mortals until she found a visitors’ centre with restrooms. She did her best to clean up, but she found it ironic that she was in an actual Roman city and couldn’t enjoy a nice hot Roman bath. She had to settle for paper towels, a broken soap dispenser and an asthmatic hand dryer. And the toilets … the less said about those, the better.
As she was walking back, she passed a small museum with a window display. Behind the glass lay a row of plaster figures, all frozen in the throes of death. A young girl was curled in a fetal position. A woman lay twisted in agony, her mouth open to scream, her arms thrown overhead. A man knelt with his head bowed, as if accepting the inevitable.
Reyna stared with a mixture of horror and revulsion. She’d read about such figures, but she’d never seen them in person. After the eruption of Vesuvius, volcanic ash had buried the city and hardened to rock around dying Pompeians. Their bodies had disintegrated, leaving behind human-shaped pockets of air. Early archaeologists had poured plaster into the holes and made these casts – creepy replicas of Ancient Romans.
Reyna found it disturbing, wrong, that these people’s dying moments were on display like clothes in a shop window, yet she couldn’t look away.
All her life she’d dreamed about coming to Italy. She had assumed it would never happen. The ancient lands were forbidden to modern demigods; the area was simply too dangerous. Nevertheless, she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Aeneas, son of Aphrodite, the first demigod to settle here after the Trojan War. She wanted to see the original Tiber River, where Lupa the wolf goddess saved Romulus and Remus.
But Pompeii? Reyna had never wanted to come here. The site of Rome’s most infamous disaster, an entire city swallowed by the earth … After Reyna’s nightmares, that hit a little too close to home.
So far in the ancient lands, she’d only seen one place on her wish list: Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and even that visit had hardly gone the way she’d imagined. Reyna used to dream about going there with Jason to admire their favourite emperor’s home. She pictured romantic walks with him through the old city, sunset picnics on the parapets.
Instead, Reyna had arrived in Croatia not with him but with a dozen angry wind spirits on her tail. She’d fought her way through ghosts in the palace. On her way out, gryphons had attacked, mortally wounding her pegasus. The closest she’d got to Jason was finding a note he’d left for her under a bust of Diocletian in the basement.
She would only have painful memories of that place.
Don’t be bitter, she chided herself. Aeneas suffered, too. So did Romulus, Diocletian and all the rest. Romans don’t complain about hardship.
Staring at the plaster death figures in the museum window, she wondered what they had been thinking as they curled up to die in the ashes. Probably not: Well, we’re Romans! We shouldn’t complain!
A gust of wind blew through the ruins, making a hollow moan. Sunlight flashed against the window, momentarily blinding her.
With a start, Reyna looked up. The sun was directly overhead. How could it be noon already? She’d left the House of the Faun just after breakfast. She’d only been standing here a few minutes … hadn’t she?
She tore herself from the museum display and hurried off, trying to shake the feeling that the dead Pompeians were whispering behind her back.
The rest of the afternoon was unnervingly quiet.
Reyna kept watch while Coach Hedge slept, but there was nothing much to guard against. Tourists came and went. Random harpies and wind spirits flew by overhead. Reyna’s dogs would snarl in warning, but the monsters didn’t stop to fight.
Ghosts skulked around the edges of the courtyard, apparently intimidated by the Athena Parthenos. Reyna couldn’t blame them. The longer the statue stood in Pompeii, the more anger it seemed to radiate, making Reyna’s skin itchy and her nerves raw.
Finally, just after sunset, Nico woke. He wolfed down an avocado and cheese sandwich, the first time he’d shown a decent appetite since leaving the House of Hades.
Reyna hated to ruin his dinner, but they didn’t have much time. As the daylight faded, the ghosts started moving closer and in greater numbers.
She told him about her dreams: the earth swallowing Camp Jupiter, Octavian closing in on Camp Half-Blood and the hunter with the glowing eyes who had shot Reyna in the gut.
Nico stared at his empty plate. ‘This hunter … a giant, maybe?’