‘You want one thing,’ Piper said soothingly, her voice resonating through Jason’s bones. ‘One word. You want permission to close your eyes and forget your troubles. You – want – SLEEP.’
Gaia solidified into human form. Her head lolled, her eyes closed, and she went limp in Festus’s claw.
Unfortunately, Jason started to black out, too.
The wind was dying. The storm dissipated. Dark spots danced in his eyes.
‘Leo!’ Piper gasped for breath. ‘We only have a few seconds. My charmspeak won’t –’
‘I know!’ Leo looked like he was made of fire. Flames rippled beneath his skin, illuminating his skull. Festus steamed and glowed, his claws burning through Jason’s shirt. ‘I can’t contain the fire much longer. I’ll vaporize her. Don’t worry. But you guys need to leave.’
‘No!’ Jason said. ‘We have to stay with you. Piper’s got the cure. Leo, you can’t –’
‘Hey.’ Leo grinned, which was unnerving in the flames, his teeth like molten silver ingots. ‘I told you I had a plan. When are you going to trust me? And by the way – I love you guys.’
Festus’s claw opened, and Jason and Piper fell.
Jason had no strength to stop it. He held on to Piper as she cried Leo’s name, and they plummeted earthwards.
Festus became an indistinct ball of fire in the sky – a second sun – growing smaller and hotter. Then, in the corner of Jason’s eye, a blazing comet streaked upward from the ground with a high-pitched, almost human scream. Just before Jason blacked out, the comet intercepted the ball of fire above them.
The explosion turned the entire sky gold.
NICO HAD WITNESSED MANY FORMS OF DEATH. He didn’t think anything could surprise him any more.
He was wrong.
In the middle of the battle, Will Solace ran up to him and said one word in his ear: ‘Octavian.’
That got Nico’s full attention. He had hesitated when he’d had the chance to kill Octavian, but there was no way Nico would let that scumbag augur escape justice. ‘Where?’
‘Come on,’ Will said. ‘Hurry.’
Nico turned to Jason, who was fighting next to him. ‘Jason, I have to go.’
Then he plunged into the chaos, following Will. They passed Tyson and his Cyclopes, who were bellowing, ‘Bad dog! Bad dog!’ as they bashed the heads of the cynocephali. Grover Underwood and a team of satyrs danced around with their panpipes, playing harmonies so dissonant that the earthen-shelled ghosts cracked apart. Travis Stoll ran past, arguing with his brother. ‘What do you mean we set the landmines on the wrong hill?’
Nico and Will were halfway down the hill when the ground trembled under their feet. Like everyone else – monster and demigod alike – they froze in horror and watched as the whirling column of earth erupted from the top of the next hill, and Gaia appeared in all her glory.
Then something large and bronze swooped out of the sky.
Festus the bronze dragon snatched up the Earth Mother and soared away with her.
‘What – how –?’ Nico stammered.
‘I don’t know,’ Will said. ‘But I doubt there’s much we can do about that. We have other problems.’
Will sprinted towards the nearest onager. As they got closer, Nico spotted Octavian furiously re-adjusting the machine’s targeting levers. The throwing arm was already primed with a full payload of Imperial gold and explosives. The augur rushed about, tripping over gears and anchor spikes, fumbling with the ropes. Every so often he glanced up at Festus the dragon.
‘Octavian!’ Nico yelled.
The augur spun, then backed up against the huge sphere of ammunition. His fine purple robes snagged on the trigger rope, but Octavian didn’t notice. Fumes from the payload curled about him as if drawn to the Imperial gold jewellery around his arms and neck, the golden wreath in his hair.
‘Oh, I see!’ Octavian’s laughter was brittle and quite insane. ‘Trying to steal my glory, eh? No, no, son of Pluto. I am the saviour of Rome. I was promised!’
Will raised his hands in a placating gesture. ‘Octavian, get away from the onager. That isn’t safe.’
‘Of course it’s not! I will shoot Gaia down with this machine!’
Out of the corner of his eye, Nico saw Jason Grace rocket into the sky with Piper in his arms, flying straight towards Festus.
Around the son of Jupiter, storm clouds gathered, swirling into a hurricane. Thunder boomed.
‘You see?’ Octavian cried. The gold on his body was definitely smoking now, attracted to the catapult’s payload like iron to a giant magnet. ‘The gods approve of my actions!’
‘Jason is making that storm,’ Nico said. ‘If you fire the onager, you’ll kill him and Piper, and –’
‘Good!’ Octavian yelled. ‘They’re traitors! All traitors!’
‘Listen to me,’ Will tried again. ‘This is not what Apollo would want. Besides, your robes are –’
‘You know nothing, Graecus!’ Octavian wrapped his hand around the release lever. ‘I must act before they get any higher. Only an onager such as this can make the shot. I will singlehandedly –’
‘Centurion,’ said a voice behind him.
From the back of the siege engine, Michael Kahale appeared. He had a large red knot on his forehead where Tyson had knocked him unconscious. He stumbled as he walked. But somehow he had found his way here from the shore, and along the way he’d picked up a sword and shield.
‘Michael!’ Octavian shrieked with glee. ‘Excellent! Guard me while I fire this onager. Then we will kill these Graeci together!’
Michael Kahale took in the scene – his boss’s robes tangled in the trigger rope, Octavian’s jewellery fuming from proximity to the Imperial gold ammunition. He glanced up at the dragon, now high in the air, surrounded by rings of storm clouds like the circles of an archery target. Then he scowled at Nico.
Nico readied his own sword.
Surely Michael Kahale would warn his leader to step away from the onager. Surely he would attack.
‘Are you certain, Octavian?’ asked the son of Venus.
‘Are you absolutely certain?’
‘Yes, you fool! I will be remembered as the saviour of Rome. Now keep them away while I destroy Gaia!’
‘Octavian, don’t,’ Will pleaded. ‘We can’t allow you –’
‘Will,’ Nico said, ‘we can’t stop him.’
Solace stared at him in disbelief, but Nico remembered his father’s words in the Chapel of Bones: Some deaths cannot be prevented.
Octavian’s eyes gleamed. ‘That’s right, son of Pluto. You are helpless to stop me! It is my destiny! Kahale, stand guard!’
‘As you wish.’ Michael moved in front of the machine, interposing himself between Octavian and the two Greek demigods. ‘Centurion, do what you must.’
Octavian turned to release the catch. ‘A good friend to the last.’
Nico almost lost his nerve. If the onager really did fire true – if it scored a hit on Festus the dragon, and Nico allowed his friends to be hurt or killed … But he stayed where he was. For once, he decided to trust the wisdom of his father. Some deaths should not be prevented.
‘Goodbye, Gaia!’ Octavian yelled. ‘Goodbye, Jason Grace the traitor!’
Octavian cut the release wire with his augur’s knife.
And he disappeared.
The catapult arm sprang upward faster than Nico’s eye could follow, launching Octavian along with the ammunition. The augur’s scream faded until he was simply part of the fiery comet soaring skyward.
‘Goodbye, Octavian,’ Michael Kahale said.
He glared at Will and Nico one last time, as if daring them to speak. Then he turned his back and trudged away.
Nico could have lived with Octavian’s end.
He might even have said good riddance.
But his heart sank as the comet kept gaining altitude. It disappeared into the storm clouds, and the sky exploded in a dome of fire.
THE NEXT DAY, THERE WEREN’T MANY ANSWERS.