“When we were talking to Nemesis,” Hazel said uneasily, “your hands…I saw flames. ”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a Hephaestus power. Usually I can keep it under control. ”
“Oh. ” She put one hand protectively on her denim shirt, like she was about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Leo got the feeling she wanted to back away from him, but the boulder was too small.
Great, he thought. Another person who thinks I’m a scary freak.
He gazed across the island. The opposite shore was only a few hundred yards away. Between here and there were dunes and clumps of boulders, but nothing that looked like a reflecting pool.
You will always be the outsider, Nemesis had told him, the seventh wheel. You will not find a place among your brethren.
She might as well have poured acid in his ears. Leo didn’t need anybody to tell him he was odd man out. He’d spent months alone in Bunker 9 at Camp Half-Blood, working on his ship while his friends trained together and shared meals and played capture-the-flag for fun and prizes. Even his two best friends, Piper and Jason, often treated him like an outsider. Since they’d started dating, their idea of “quality time” didn’t include Leo. His only other friend, Festus the dragon, had been reduced to a figurehead when his control disk had gotten destroyed on their last adventure. Leo didn’t have the technical skill to repair it.
The seventh wheel. Leo had heard of a fifth wheel—an extra, useless piece of equipment. He figured a seventh wheel was worse.
He’d thought maybe this quest would be a fresh start for him. All his hard work on the Argo II would pay off. He’d have six good friends who would admire and appreciate him, and they’d go sailing off into the sunrise to fight giants. Maybe, Leo secretly hoped, he’d even find a girlfriend.
Do the math, he chided himself.
Nemesis was right. He might be part of a group of seven, but he was still isolated. He had fired on the Romans and brought his friends nothing but trouble. You will not find a place among your brethren.
Hazel asked gently. “You can’t take what Nemesis said to heart. ”
He frowned. “What if it’s true?”
“She’s the goddess of revenge,” Hazel reminded him. “Maybe she’s on our side, maybe not; but she exists to stir up resentment. ”
Leo wished he could dismiss his feelings that easily. He couldn’t. Still, it wasn’t Hazel’s fault.
“We should keep going,” he said. “I wonder what Nemesis meant about finishing before dark. ”
Hazel glanced at the sun, which was just touching the horizon. “And who is the cursed boy she mentioned?”
Below them, a voice said, “Cursed boy she mentioned. ”
At first, Leo saw no one. Then his eyes adjusted. He realized a young woman was standing only ten feet from the base of the boulder. Her dress was a Greek-style tunic the same color as the rocks. Her wispy hair was somewhere between brown and blond and gray, so it blended with the dry grass. She wasn’t invisible, exactly, but she was almost perfectly camouflaged until she moved. Even then, Leo had trouble focusing on her. Her face was pretty but not memorable. In fact, each time Leo blinked, he couldn’t remember what she looked like, and he had to concentrate to find her again.
“Hello,” Hazel said. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” the girl answered. Her voice sounded weary, like she was tired of answering that question.
Hazel and Leo exchanged looks. With this demigod gig, you never knew what you’d run into. Nine times out of ten, it wasn’t good. A ninja girl camouflaged in earth tones didn’t strike Leo as something he wanted to deal with just then.
“Are you the cursed kid Nemesis mentioned?” Leo asked. “But you’re a girl. ”
“You’re a girl,” said the girl.
“Excuse me?” Leo said.
“Excuse me,” the girl said miserably.
“You’re repeating…” Leo stopped. “Oh. Hold it. Hazel, wasn’t there some myth about a girl who repeated everything—?”
“Echo,” Hazel said.
“Echo,” the girl agreed. She shifted, her dress changing with the landscape. Her eyes were the color of the salt water. Leo tried to home in on her features, but he couldn’t.
“I don’t remember the myth,” he admitted. “You were cursed to repeat the last thing you heard?”
“You heard,” Echo said.
“Poor thing,” Hazel said. “If I remember right, a goddess did this?”
“A goddess did this,” Echo confirmed.
Leo scratched his head. “But wasn’t that thousands of years…oh. You’re one of the mortals who came back through the Doors of Death. I really wish we could stop running into dead people. ”
“Dead people,” Echo said, like she was chastising him.
He realized Hazel was staring at her feet.
“Uh…sorry,” he muttered. “I didn’t mean it that way. ”