‘Begone,’ Nico said.
The spirit dissipated. The earth closed.
Nico looked back and saw that his friends were safe. Reyna and the coach stared at him in horror. Reyna’s face was bleeding. Aurum and Argentum turned in circles, as if their mechanical brains had short-circuited.
His dreams made no sense, which was almost a relief.
A flock of ravens circled in a dark sky. Then the ravens turned into horses galloping through the surf.
He saw his sister Bianca sitting in the dining pavilion at Camp Half-Blood with the Hunters of Artemis. She smiled and laughed with her new group of friends. Then Bianca changed into Hazel, who kissed Nico on the cheek and said, ‘I want you to be an exception.’
He saw the harpy Ella with her shaggy red hair and red feathers, her eyes like dark coffee. She perched on the couch of the Big House’s living room. Propped next to her was the magical stuffed leopard head Seymour. Ella rocked back and forth, feeding the leopard Cheetos.
‘Cheese is not good for harpies,’ she muttered. Then she scrunched up her face and chanted one of her memorized lines of prophecy: ‘The fall of the sun, the final verse.’ She fed Seymour more Cheetos. ‘Cheese is good for leopard heads.’
Seymour roared in agreement.
Ella changed into a dark-haired, extremely pregnant cloud nymph, writhing in pain on a camp bunk bed. Clarisse La Rue sat next to her, wiping the nymph’s head with a cool cloth. ‘Mellie, you’ll be fine,’ Clarisse said, though she sounded worried.
‘No, nothing is fine!’ Mellie wailed. ‘Gaia is rising!’
The scene shifted. Nico stood with Hades in the Berkeley Hills on the day Hades first led him to Camp Jupiter. ‘Go to them,’ said the god. ‘Introduce yourself as a child of Pluto. It is important you make this connection.’
‘Why?’ Nico asked.
Hades dissolved. Nico found himself back in Tartarus, standing before Akhlys, the goddess of misery. Blood streaked her cheeks. Tears streamed from her eyes, dripped on the shield of Hercules in her lap. ‘Child of Hades, what more could I do to you? You are perfect! So much sorrow and pain!’
His eyes flew open.
He was flat on his back, staring at the sunlight in the tree branches.
‘Thank the gods.’ Reyna leaned over him, her hand cool on his forehead. The bleeding cut on her face was completely gone.
Next to her, Coach Hedge scowled. Sadly, Nico had a great view right up his nostrils.
‘Good,’ said the coach. ‘Just a few more applications.’
He held up a large square bandage coated with sticky brown gunk and plastered it over Nico’s nose.
‘What is … ? Ugh.’
The gunk smelled like potting soil, cedar chips, grape juice and just a hint of fertilizer. Nico didn’t have the strength to remove it.
His senses started to work again. He realized he was lying on a sleeping bag outside the tent. He was wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and a thousand gross, brown-plastered bandages all over his body. His arms, legs and chest were itchy from the drying mud.
‘Are – are you trying to plant me?’ he murmured.
‘It’s sports medicine with a little nature magic,’ said the coach. ‘Kind of a hobby of mine.’
Nico tried to focus on Reyna’s face. ‘You approved this?’
She looked like she was about to pass out from exhaustion, but she managed a smile. ‘Coach Hedge brought you back from the brink. The unicorn draught, ambrosia, nectar … we couldn’t use any of it. You were fading so badly.’
‘Fading … ?’
‘Don’t worry about that now, kid.’ Hedge put a drinking straw next to Nico’s mouth. ‘Have some Gatorade.’
‘I – I don’t want –’
‘You’ll have some Gatorade,’ the coach insisted.
Nico had some Gatorade. He was surprised at how thirsty he was.
‘What happened to me?’ he asked. ‘To Bryce … to those skeletons … ?’
Reyna and the coach exchanged an uneasy look.
‘There’s good news and bad news,’ Reyna said. ‘But first eat something. You’ll need your strength back before you hear the bad news.’
Nico wasn’t sure he’d heard her right the first dozen times.
‘We couldn’t move you,’ Reyna said. ‘I mean … literally, you couldn’t be moved. You had almost no substance. If it weren’t for Coach Hedge –’
‘No biggie,’ the coach assured him. ‘One time in the middle of a play-off game I had to splint a quarterback’s leg with nothing but tree branches and strapping tape.’
Despite his nonchalance, the satyr had bags under his eyes. His cheeks were sunken. He looked almost as bad as Nico felt.
Nico couldn’t believe he’d been unconscious for so long. He recounted his weird dreams – the mutterings of Ella the harpy, the glimpse of Mellie the cloud nymph (which worried the coach) – but Nico felt as if those visions had lasted only seconds. According to Reyna, it was the afternoon of 30 July. He’d been in a shadow coma for days.
‘The Romans will attack Camp Half-Blood the day after tomorrow.’ Nico sipped more Gatorade, which was nice and cold, but without flavour. His taste buds seemed to have phased into the shadow world permanently. ‘We have to hurry. I have to get ready.’
‘No.’ Reyna pressed her hand against his forearm, making the bandages crinkle. ‘Any more shadow-travel would kill you.’
He gritted his teeth. ‘If it kills me, it kills me. We have to get the statue to Camp Half-Blood.’
‘Hey, kid,’ said the coach, ‘I appreciate your dedication, but, if you zap us all into eternal darkness along with the Athena Parthenos, it’s not going to help anybody. Bryce Lawrence was right about that.’
At the mention of Bryce, Reyna’s metallic dogs pricked up their ears and snarled.
Reyna stared at the cairn of rocks, her eyes full of torment, as if more unwelcome spirits might emerge from the grave.
Nico took a breath, getting a nose full of Hedge’s fragrant home remedy. ‘Reyna, I … I didn’t think. What I did to Bryce –’
‘You destroyed him,’ Reyna said. ‘You turned him into a ghost. And, yes, it reminded me of what happened to my father.’
‘I didn’t mean to scare you,’ Nico said bitterly. ‘I didn’t mean to … to poison another friendship. I’m sorry.’
Reyna studied his face. ‘Nico, I have to admit, the first day you were unconscious, I didn’t know what to think or feel. What you did was hard to watch … hard to process.’
Coach Hedge chewed on a stick. ‘I gotta agree with the girl on this one, kid. Smashing somebody’s head in with a baseball bat, that’s one thing. But ghostifying that creep? That was some dark stuff.’
Nico expected to feel angry – to shout at them for trying to judge him. That’s what he normally did.
But his anger wouldn’t materialize. He still felt plenty of rage towards Bryce Lawrence, and Gaia and the giants. He wanted to find the augur Octavian and strangle him with his chain belt. But he wasn’t mad at Reyna or the coach.
‘Why did you bring me back?’ he asked. ‘You knew I couldn’t help you any more. You should’ve found another way to keep going with the statue. But you wasted three days watching over me. Why?’
Coach Hedge snorted. ‘You’re part of the team, you idiot. We’re not going to leave you behind.’
‘It’s more than that.’ Reyna rested her hand on Nico’s. ‘While you were asleep, I did a lot of thinking. What I told you about my father … I’d never shared that with anyone. I guess I knew you were the right person to confide in. You lifted some of my burden. I trust you, Nico.’
Nico stared at her, mystified. ‘How can you trust me? You both felt my anger, saw my worst feelings …’
‘Hey, kid,’ said Coach Hedge, his tone softer. ‘We all get angry. Even a sweetheart like
Reyna smirked. She squeezed Nico’s hand. ‘Coach is right, Nico. You’re not the only one who lets out the darkness once in a while. I told you what happened with my dad, and you supported me. You shared your painful experiences; how can we not support you? We’re friends.’
Nico wasn’t sure what to say. They’d seen his deepest secrets. They knew who he was, what he was.
But they didn’t seem to care. No … they cared more.
They weren’t judging him. They were concerned. None of it made sense to him.
‘But Bryce. I …’ Nico couldn’t continue.
‘You did what had to be done. I see that now,’ Reyna said. ‘Just promise me: no more turning people into ghosts if we can avoid it.’
‘Yeah,’ Coach said. ‘Unless you let me whale on them first. Besides, it’s not all bad news.’
Reyna nodded. ‘We’ve seen no sign of other Romans, so it appears Bryce didn’t notify anyone else where he was. Also, no sign of Orion. Hopefully that means he was taken down by the Hunters.’