He ripped off a chunk of meat with his fingers and stuffed it in his mouth. He guzzled some red liquid, which thankfully tasted like watered-down wine, not blood or poison. Jason fought the urge to gag, but he didn’t keel over or explode.
‘Yum!’ He wiped his mouth. ‘Now tell me about this … what did you call it? Retribution? Where do I sign up?’
The ghosts laughed. One pushed his shoulder and Jason was alarmed that he could actually feel it.
At Camp Jupiter, Lares had no physical substance. Apparently these spirits did – which meant more enemies who could beat, stab or decapitate him.
Antinous leaned forward. ‘Tell me, Iros, what do you have to offer? We don’t need you to run messages for us like in the old days. Certainly you aren’t a fighter. As I recall, Odysseus crushed your jaw and tossed you into the pigsty.’
Jason’s neurons fired. Iros … the old man who’d run messages for the suitors in exchange for scraps of food. Iros had been sort of like their pet homeless person. When Odysseus came home, disguised as a beggar, Iros thought the new guy was moving in on his territory. The two had started arguing …
‘You made Iros –’ Jason hesitated. ‘You made me fight Odysseus. You bet money on it. Even when Odysseus took off his shirt and you saw how muscular he was … you still made me fight him. You didn’t care if I lived or died!’
Antinous bared his pointed teeth. ‘Of course I didn’t care. I still don’t! But you’re here, so Gaia must have had a reason to allow you back into the mortal world. Tell me, why are you worthy of a share in our spoils?’
Antinous spread his hands. ‘The entire world, my friend. The first time we met here, we were only after Odysseus’s land, his money and his wife.’
‘Especially his wife!’ A bald ghost in ragged clothes elbowed Jason in the ribs. ‘That Penelope was a hot little honey cake!’
Jason caught a glimpse of Piper serving drinks at the next table. She discreetly put her finger to her mouth in a gag me gesture, then went back to flirting with dead guys.
Antinous sneered. ‘Eurymachus, you whining coward. You never stood a chance with Penelope. I remember you blubbering and pleading for your life with Odysseus, blaming everything on me!’
‘Lot of good it did me.’ Eurymachus lifted his tattered shirt, revealing an inch-wide hole in the middle of his spectral chest. ‘Odysseus shot me in the heart, just because I wanted to marry his wife!’
‘At any rate …’ Antinous turned to Jason. ‘We have gathered now for a much bigger prize. Once Gaia destroys the gods, we will divide up the remnants of the mortal world!’
‘Dibs on London!’ yelled a ghoul at the next table.
‘Montreal!’ shouted another.
‘Duluth!’ yelled a third, which momentarily stopped the conversation as the other ghosts gave him confused looks.
The meat and wine turned to lead in Jason’s stomach. ‘What about the rest of these … guests? I count at least two hundred. Half of them are new to me.’
Antinous’s yellow eyes gleamed. ‘All of them are suitors for Gaia’s favour. All have claims and grievances against the gods or their pet heroes. That scoundrel over there is Hippias, former tyrant of Athens. He got deposed and sided with the Persians to attack his own countrymen. No morals whatsoever. He’d do anything for power.’
‘Thank you!’ called Hippias.
‘That rogue with the turkey leg in his mouth,’ Antinous continued, ‘that’s Hasdrubal of Carthage. He has a grudge to settle with Rome.’
‘Mhhmm,’ said the Carthaginian.
‘And Michael Varus –’
Jason choked. ‘Who?’
Over by the sand fountain, the dark-haired guy in the purple T-shirt and legionnaire armour turned to face them. His outline was blurred, smoky and indistinct, so Jason guessed he was some form of spirit, but the legion tattoo on his forearm was clear enough: the letters SPQR, the double-faced head of the god Janus and six score marks for years of service. On his breastplate hung the badge of praetorship and the emblem of the Fifth Cohort.
Jason had never met Michael Varus. The infamous praetor had died in the 1980s. Still, Jason’s skin crawled when he met Varus’s gaze. Those sunken eyes seemed to bore right through Jason’s disguise.
Antinous waved dismissively. ‘He’s a Roman demigod. Lost his legion’s eagle in … Alaska, was it? Doesn’t matter. Gaia lets him hang around. He insists he has some insight into defeating Camp Jupiter. But you, Iros – you still haven’t answered my question. Why should you be welcome among us?’
Varus’s dead eyes had unnerved Jason. He could feel the Mist thinning around him, reacting to his uncertainty.
Suddenly Annabeth appeared at Antinous’s shoulder. ‘More wine, my lord? Oops!’
She spilled the contents of a silver pitcher down the back of Antinous’s neck.
‘Gahh!’ The ghoul arched his spine. ‘Foolish girl! Who let you back from Tartarus?’
‘A Titan, my lord.’ Annabeth dipped her head apologetically. ‘May I bring you some moist towelettes? Your arrow is dripping.’
Annabeth caught Jason’s eye – a silent message of support – then she disappeared in the crowd.
The ghoul wiped himself off, giving Jason a chance to collect his thoughts.
He was Iros … former messenger of the suitors. Why would he be here? Why should they accept him?
He picked up the nearest steak knife and stabbed it into the table, making the ghosts around him jump.
‘Why should you welcome me?’ Jason growled. ‘Because I’m still running messages, you stupid wretches! I’ve just come from the House of Hades to see what you’re up to!’
That last part was true, and it seemed to give Antinous pause. The ghoul glared at him, wine still dripping from the arrow shaft in his throat. ‘You expect me to believe Gaia sent you – a beggar – to check up on us?’
Jason laughed. ‘I was among the last to leave Epirus before the Doors of Death were closed! I saw the chamber where Clytius stood guard under a domed ceiling tiled with tombstones. I walked the jewel-and-bone floors of the Necromanteion!’
That was also true. Around the table, ghosts shifted and muttered.
‘So, Antinous …’ Jason jabbed a finger at the ghoul. ‘Maybe you should explain to me why you’re worthy of Gaia’s favour. All I see is a crowd of lazy, dawdling dead folk enjoying themselves and not helping the war effort. What should I tell the Earth Mother?’
From the corner of his eye, Jason saw Piper flash him an approving smile. Then she returned her attention to a glowing purple Greek dude who was trying to make her sit on his lap.
Antinous wrapped his hand around the steak knife Jason had impaled in the table. He pulled it free and studied the blade. ‘If you come from Gaia, you must know we are here under orders. Porphyrion decreed it.’ Antinous ran the knife blade across his palm. Instead of blood, dry dirt spilled from the cut. ‘You do know Porphyrion … ?’
Jason struggled to keep his nausea under control. He remembered Porphyrion just fine from their battle at the Wolf House. ‘The giant king – green skin, forty feet tall, white eyes, hair braided with weapons. Of course I know him. He’s a lot more impressive than you.’
He decided not to mention that the last time he’d seen the giant king, Jason had blasted him in the head with lightning.
For once, Antinous looked speechless, but his bald ghost friend Eurymachus put an arm around Jason’s shoulders.
‘Now, now, friend!’ Eurymachus smelled like sour wine and burning electrical wires. His ghostly touch made Jason’s ribcage tingle. ‘I’m sure we didn’t mean to question your credentials! It’s just, well, if you’ve spoken with Porphyrion in Athens, you know why we’re here. I assure you, we’re doing exactly as he ordered!’
Jason tried to mask his surprise. Porphyrion in Athens.
Gaia had promised to pull up the gods by their roots. Chiron, Jason’s mentor at Camp Hal
f-Blood, had assumed that meant that the giants would try to rouse the earth goddess at the original Mount Olympus. But now …
‘The Acropolis,’ Jason said. ‘The most ancient temples to the gods, in the middle of Athens. That’s where Gaia will wake.’
‘Of course!’ Eurymachus laughed. The wound in his chest made a popping sound, like a porpoise’s blowhole. ‘And, to get there, those meddlesome demigods will have to travel by sea, eh? They know it’s too dangerous to fly over land.’
‘Which means they’ll have to pass this island,’ Jason said.
Eurymachus nodded eagerly. He removed his arm from Jason’s shoulders and dipped his finger in his wineglass. ‘At that point, they’ll have to make a choice, eh?’
On the tabletop, he traced a coastline, red wine glowing unnaturally against the wood. He drew Greece like a mis-shapen hourglass – a large dangly blob for the northern mainland, then another blob below it, almost as large – the big chunk of land known as the Peloponnese. Cutting between them was a narrow line of sea – the Straits of Corinth.
Jason hardly needed a picture. He and the rest of the crew had spent the last day at sea studying maps.
‘The most direct route,’ Eurymachus said, ‘would be due east from here, across the Straits of Corinth. But if they try to go that way –’
‘Enough,’ Antinous snapped. ‘You have a loose tongue, Eurymachus.’
The ghost looked offended. ‘I wasn’t going to tell him everything! Just about the Cyclopes armies massed on either shore. And the raging storm spirits in the air. And those vicious sea monsters Keto sent to infest the waters. And of course if the ship got as far as Delphi –’
‘Idiot!’ Antinous lunged across the table and grabbed the ghost’s wrist. A thin crust of dirt spread from the ghoul’s hand, straight up Eurymachus’s spectral arm.
‘No!’ Eurymachus yelped. ‘Please! I – I only meant –’
The ghost screamed as the dirt covered his body like a shell, then cracked apart, leaving nothing but a pile of dust. Eurymachus was gone.
Antinous sat back and brushed off his hands. The other suitors at the table watched him in wary silence.
‘Apologies, Iros.’ The ghoul smiled coldly. ‘All you need to know is this – the ways to Athens are well guarded, just as we promised. The demigods would either have to risk the straits, which are impossible, or sail around the entire Peloponnese, which is hardly much safer. In any event, it’s unlikely they will survive long enough to make that choice. Once they reach Ithaca, we will know. We will stop them here and Gaia will see how valuable we are. You can take that message back to Athens.’
Jason’s heart hammered against his sternum. He’d never seen anything like the shell of earth that Antinous had summoned to destroy Eurymachus. He didn’t want to find out if that power worked on demigods.