remembered themselves and levelled their pila.
‘You will be destroyed!’ Octavian shrieked. ‘You Graeci sneak around, sabotaging our weapons, attacking our men –’
‘You mean the weapons you were about to fire at us?’ Cecil asked.
‘And the men who were about to burn our camp to ashes?’ added Lou Ellen.
‘Just like a Greek!’ Octavian yelled. ‘Trying to twist things around! Well, it won’t work!’ He pointed to the nearest legionnaires. ‘You, you, you and you. Check all the onagers. Make sure they’re operational. I want them fired simultaneously as soon as possible. Go!’
The four Romans ran.
Nico tried to keep his expression neutral.
Please don’t check the firing trajectory, he thought.
He hoped Cecil had done his work well. It was one thing to screw up a huge weapon. It was another thing to screw it up so subtly that no one noticed until it was too late. But if anyone had that skill it would be a child of Hermes, god of trickery.
Octavian marched up to Nico. To his credit, the augur didn’t seem afraid, though his only weapon was a dagger. He stopped so close that Nico could see the bloodshot veins in his pale watery eyes. His face was gaunt. His hair was the colour of overcooked spaghetti.
Nico knew Octavian was a legacy – a descendant of Apollo many generations removed. Now, he couldn’t help thinking that Octavian looked like a watered-down, unhealthy version of Will Solace – like a photo that had been copied too many times. Whatever made a child of Apollo special, Octavian didn’t have it.
‘Tell me, son of Pluto,’ the augur hissed, ‘why are you helping the Greeks? What have they ever done for you?’
Nico was itching to stab Octavian in the chest. He’d been dreaming of that ever since Bryce Lawrence had attacked them in South Carolina. But, now that they were face to face, Nico hesitated. He had no doubt he could kill Octavian before the First Cohort intervened. Nor did Nico particularly care if he died for his actions. The trade-off would be worth it.
But, after what happened with Bryce, the idea of cutting down another demigod in cold blood – even Octavian – didn’t sit well. Nor did it seem right to sentence Cecil, Lou Ellen and Will to die with him.
It doesn’t seem right? Another part of him wondered, Since when do I worry about what’s right?
‘I’m helping the Greeks and the Romans,’ Nico said.
Octavian laughed. ‘Don’t try to con me. What have they offered you – a place in their camp? They won’t honour their agreement.’
‘I don’t want a place in their camp,’ Nico snarled. ‘Or in yours. When this war is over, I’m leaving both camps for good.’
Will Solace made a sound like he’d been punched. ‘Why would you do that?’
Nico scowled. ‘It’s none of your business, but I don’t belong. That’s obvious. No one wants me. I’m a child of –’
‘Oh, please.’ Will sounded unusually angry. ‘Nobody at Camp Half-Blood ever pushed you away. You have friends – or at least people who would like to be your friend. You pushed yourself away. If you’d get your head out of that brooding cloud of yours for once –’
‘Enough!’ Octavian snapped. ‘Di Angelo, I can beat any offer the Greeks could make. I always thought you would make a powerful ally. I see the ruthlessness in you, and I appreciate that. I can assure you a place in New Rome. All you have to do is step aside and allow the Romans to win. The god Apollo has shown me the future –’
‘No!’ Will Solace shoved Nico out of the way and got in Octavian’s face. ‘I am a son of Apollo, you anaemic loser. My father hasn’t shown anyone the future, because the power of prophecy isn’t working. But this –’ He waved loosely at the assembled legion, the hordes of monstrous armies spread across the hillside. ‘This is not what Apollo would want!’
Octavian’s lip curled. ‘You lie. The god told me personally that I would be remembered as the saviour of Rome. I will lead the legion to victory, and I will start by –’
Nico felt the sound before he heard it – thunk-thunk-thunk reverberating through the earth, like the massive gears of a drawbridge. All the onagers fired at once, and six golden comets billowed into the sky.
‘By destroying the Greeks!’ Octavian cried with glee. ‘The days of Camp Half-Blood are over!’
Nico couldn’t think of anything more beautiful than an off-course projectile. At least, not today. From the three sabotaged machines, the payloads veered sideways, arcing towards the barrage from the other three onagers.
The fireballs didn’t collide directly. They didn’t need to. As soon as the missiles got close to one another, all six warheads detonated in midair, spraying a dome of gold and fire that sucked the oxygen right out of the sky.
The heat stung Nico’s face. The grass hissed. The tops of the trees steamed. But, when the fireworks faded, no serious damage had been done.
Octavian reacted first. He stomped his feet and yelled, ‘NO! NO, NO! RELOAD!’
No one in the First Cohort moved. Nico heard the tromping of boots to his right. The Fifth Cohort was marching towards them double-time, Dakota in the lead.
Further downhill, the rest of the legion was trying to form up, but the Second, Third and Fourth Cohorts were now surrounded by a sea of ill-tempered monstrous allies. The auxilia forces didn’t look happy about the explosion overhead. No doubt they’d been waiting for Camp Half-Blood to go up in flames so they’d get chargrilled demigod for breakfast.
‘Octavian!’ Dakota called. ‘We have new orders.’
Octavian’s left eye twitched so violently it looked like it might explode. ‘Orders? From whom? Not from me!’
‘From Reyna,’ Dakota said, loud enough to make sure everyone in the First Cohort could hear. ‘She’s ordered us to stand down.’
‘Reyna?’ Octavian laughed, though no one seemed to get the joke. ‘You mean the outlaw I sent you to arrest? The ex-praetor who conspired to betray her own people with this Graecus?’ He jabbed his finger in Nico’s chest. ‘You’re taking orders from her?’
The Fifth Cohort formed up behind their centurion, uneasily facing their comrades in the First.
Dakota crossed his arms stubbornly. ‘Reyna is the praetor until voted otherwise by the Senate.’
‘This is war!’ Octavian yelled. ‘I’ve brought you to the brink of ultimate victory and you want to give up? First Cohort: arrest Centurion Dakota and any who stand with him. Fifth Cohort: remember your vows to Rome and the legion. You will obey me!’
Will Solace shook his head. ‘Don’t do this, Octavian. Don’t force your people to choose. This is your last chance.’
‘My last chance?’ Octavian grinned, madness glinting in his eyes. ‘I will SAVE ROME! Now, Romans, follow my orders! Arrest Dakota. Destroy these Graecus scum. And reload those onagers!’
What the Romans would have done left to their own devices, Nico didn’t know.
But he hadn’t counted on the Greeks.
At that moment, the entire army of Camp Half-Blood appeared on the crest of Half-Blood Hill. Clarisse La Rue rode in the lead, on a red war chariot pulled by metal horses. A hundred demigods fanned out around her, with twice that many satyrs and nature spirits led by Grover Underwood. Tyson lumbered forward with six other Cyclopes. Chiron stood in full white stallion mode, his bow drawn.
It was an impressive sight, but all Nico could think was: No. Not now.
Clarisse yelled, ‘Romans, you have fired on our camp! Withdraw or be destroyed!’
Octavian wheeled on his troops. ‘You see? It was a trick! They divided us so they could launch a surprise attack. Legion, cuneum formate! CHARGE!’
NICO WANTED TO YELL: Time out! Hold it! Freeze!
But he knew it wouldn’t do any good. After weeks of waiting, agonizing and steaming, the Greeks and Romans wanted blood. Trying to stop the battle now would be like trying to push back a flood after the dam broke.
Will Solace sa
ved the day.
He put his fingers in his mouth and did a taxicab whistle even more horrible than the last. Several Greeks dropped their swords. A ripple went through the Roman line like the entire First Cohort was shuddering.
‘DON’T BE STUPID!’ Will yelled. ‘LOOK!’
He pointed to the north, and Nico grinned from ear to ear. He decided there was something more beautiful than an off-course projectile: the Athena Parthenos gleaming in the sunrise, flying in from the coast, suspended from the tethers of six winged horses. Roman eagles circled but did not attack. A few of them even swooped in, grabbed the cables and helped carry the statue.
Nico didn’t see Blackjack, which worried him, but Reyna Ramírez-Arellano rode on Guido’s back. Her sword was held high. Her purple cloak glittered strangely, catching the sunlight.
Both armies stared, dumbfounded, as the forty-foot-tall gold and ivory statue came in for a landing.
‘GREEK DEMIGODS!’ Reyna’s voice boomed as if projected from the statue itself, like the Athena Parthenos had become a stack of concert speakers. ‘Behold your most sacred statue, the Athena Parthenos, wrongly taken by the Romans. I return it to you now as a gesture of peace!’
The statue settled on the crest of the hill, about twenty feet away from Thalia’s pine tree. Instantly gold light rippled across the ground, into the valley of Camp Half-Blood and down the opposite side through the Roman ranks. Warmth seeped into Nico’s bones – a comforting, peaceful sensation he hadn’t had since … he couldn’t even remember. A voice inside him seemed to whisper: You are not alone. You are part of the Olympian family. The gods have not abandoned you.
‘Romans!’ Reyna yelled. ‘I do this for the good of the legion, for the good of Rome. We must stand together with our Greek brethren!’
‘Listen to her!’ Nico marched forward.