Jason scanned the palace courtyard. Without the illusory balconies and colonnades, there was nothing but a heap of rubble on a barren hilltop. Only the fountain seemed real, spewing forth sand like a reminder of Gaia’s limitless power.
‘You were a legion officer,’ he told Varus. ‘A leader of Rome.’
‘So were you,’ Varus said. ‘Loyalties change.’
‘You think I belong with this crowd?’ Jason asked. ‘A bunch of dead losers waiting for a free handout from Gaia, whining that the world owes them something?’
Around the courtyard, ghosts and ghouls rose to their feet and drew weapons.
‘Beware!’ Piper yelled at the crowd. ‘Every man in this palace is your enemy. Each one will stab you in the back at the first chance!’
Over the last few weeks, Piper’s charmspeak had become truly powerful. She spoke the truth, and the crowd believed her. They looked sideways at one another, hands clenching the hilts of their swords.
Jason’s mother stepped towards him. ‘Dearest, be sensible. Give up your quest. Your Argo II could never make the trip to Athens. Even if it did, there’s the matter of the Athena Parthenos.’
A tremor passed through him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Don’t feign ignorance, my dearest. Gaia knows about your friend Reyna and Nico the son of Hades and the satyr Hedge. To kill them, the Earth Mother has sent her most dangerous son – the hunter who never rests. But you don’t have to die.’
The ghouls and ghosts closed in – two hundred of them facing Jason in anticipation, as if he might lead them in the national anthem.
The hunter who never rests.
Jason didn’t know who that was, but he had to warn Reyna and Nico.
Which meant he had to get out of here alive.
He looked at Annabeth and Piper. Both stood ready, waiting for his cue.
He forced himself to meet his mother’s eyes. She looked like the same woman who’d abandoned him in the Sonoma woods fourteen years ago. But Jason wasn’t a toddler any more. He was a battle veteran, a demigod who’d faced death countless times.
And what he saw in front of him wasn’t his mother – at least, not what his mother should be – caring, loving, selflessly protective.
A remnant, Annabeth had called her.
Michael Varus had told him that the spirits here were sustained by their strongest desires. The spirit of Beryl Grace literally glowed with need. Her eyes demanded Jason’s attention. Her arms reached out, desperate to possess him.
‘What do you want?’ he asked. ‘What brought you here?’
‘I want life!’ she cried. ‘Youth! Beauty! Your father could have made me immortal. He could have taken me to Olympus, but he abandoned me. You can set things right, Jason. You are my proud warrior!’
Her lemony scent turned acrid, as if she were starting to burn.
Jason remembered something Thalia had told him. Their mother had become increasingly unstable, until her despair had driven her crazy. She had died in a car accident, the result of her driving while drunk.
The watered wine in Jason’s stomach churned. He decided that if he lived through this day he would never drink alcohol again.
‘You’re a mania,’ Jason decided, the word coming to him from his studies at Camp Jupiter long ago. ‘A spirit of insanity. That’s what you’ve been reduced to.’
‘I am all that remains,’ Beryl Grace agreed. Her image flickered through a spectrum of colours. ‘Embrace me, son. I am all you have left.’
The memory of the South Wind spoke in his mind: You can’t choose your parentage. But you can choose your legacy.
Jason felt like he was being reassembled, one layer at a time. His heartbeat steadied. The chill left his bones. His skin warmed in the afternoon sun.
‘No,’ he croaked. He glanced at Annabeth and Piper. ‘My loyalties haven’t changed. My family has just expanded. I’m a child of Greece and Rome.’ He looked back at his mother for the last time. ‘I’m no child of yours.’
He made the ancient sign of warding off evil – three fingers thrust out from the heart – and the ghost of Beryl Grace disappeared with a soft hiss, like a sigh of relief.
The ghoul Antinous tossed aside his goblet. He studied Jason with a look of lazy disgust. ‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘I suppose we’ll just kill you.’
All around Jason, the enemies closed in.
THE FIGHT WAS GOING GREAT – until he got stabbed.
Jason slashed his gladius in a wide arc, vaporizing the nearest suitors, then he vaulted onto the table and jumped right over Antinous’s head. In midair he willed his blade to extend into a javelin – a trick he’d never tried with this sword – but somehow he knew it would work.
He landed on his feet holding a six-foot-long pilum. As Antinous turned to face him, Jason thrust the Imperial gold point through the ghoul’s chest.
Antinous looked down incredulously. ‘You –’
‘Enjoy the Fields of Punishment.’ Jason yanked out his pilum and Antinous crumbled to dirt.
Jason kept fighting, spinning his javelin – slicing through ghosts, knocking ghouls off their feet.
Across the courtyard, Annabeth fought like a demon, too. Her drakon-bone sword scythed down any suitors stupid enough to face her.
Over by the sand fountain, Piper had also drawn her sword – the jagged bronze blade she’d taken from Zethes the Boread. She stabbed and parried with her right hand, occasionally shooting tomatoes from the cornucopia in her left, while yelling at the suitors, ‘Save yourselves! I’m too dangerous!’
That must have been exactly what they wanted to hear, because her opponents kept running away, only to freeze in confusion a few yards downhill, then charge back into the fight.
The Greek tyrant Hippias lunged at Piper, his dagger raised, but Piper blasted him point-blank in the chest with a lovely pot roast. He tumbled backwards into the fountain and screamed as he disintegrated.
An arrow whistled towards Jason’s face. He blew it aside with a gust of wind, then cut through a line of sword-wielding ghouls and noticed a dozen suitors regrouping by the fountain to charge Annabeth. He lifted his javelin to the sky. A bolt of lightning ricocheted off the point and blasted the ghosts to ions, leaving a smoking crater where the sand fountain had been.
Over the last few months, Jason had fought many battles, but he’d forgotten what it was like to feel good in combat. Of course he was still afraid, but a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. For the first time since waking up in Arizona with his memories erased, Jason felt whole. He knew who he was. He had chosen his family, and it had nothing to do with Beryl Grace or even Jupiter. His family included all the demigods who fought at his side, Roman and Greek, new friends and old. He wasn’t going to let anyone break his family apart.
He summoned the winds and flung three ghouls off the side of the hill like rag dolls. He skewered a fourth, then willed his javelin to shrink back to a sword and hacked through another group of spirits.
Soon no more enemies faced him. The remaining ghosts began to disappear on their own. Annabeth cut down Hasdrubal the Carthaginian, and Jason made the mistake of sheathing his sword.
Pain flared in his lower back – so sharp and cold he thought Khione the snow goddess had touched him.
Next to his ear, Michael Varus snarled, ‘Born a Roman, die a Roman.’
The tip of a golden sword jutted through the front of Jason’s shirt, just below his ribcage.
Jason fell to his knees. Piper’s scream sounded miles away. He felt like he’d been immersed in salty water – his body weightless, his head swaying.
Piper charged towards him. He watched with detached emotion as her sword passed over his head and cut through Michael Varus’s armour with a metallic ka-chunk.
A burst of cold parted Jason’s hair from behind. Dust settled around him, and an empty legionnaire’s helmet rolled across the stones. The evil demigod was gone – but he had ma
de a lasting impression.
‘Jason!’ Piper grabbed his shoulders as he began to fall sideways. He gasped as she pulled the sword out of his back. Then she lowered him to the ground, propping his head against a stone.
Annabeth ran to their side. She had a nasty cut on the side of her neck.
‘Gods.’ Annabeth stared at the wound in Jason’s gut. ‘Oh, gods.’
‘Thanks,’ Jason groaned. ‘I was afraid it might be bad.’
His arms and legs started to tingle as his body went into crisis mode, sending all the blood to his chest. The pain was dull, which surprised him, but his shirt was soaked red. The wound was smoking. He was pretty sure sword wounds weren’t supposed to smoke.
‘You’re going to be fine.’ Piper spoke the words like an order. Her tone steadied his breathing. ‘Annabeth, ambrosia!’
Annabeth stirred. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I got it.’ She ripped through her supply pouch and unwrapped a piece of godly food.
‘We have to stop the bleeding.’ Piper used her dagger to cut fabric from the bottom of her dress. She ripped the cloth into bandages.
Jason dimly wondered how she knew so much first aid. She wrapped the wounds on his back and stomach while Annabeth pushed tiny bites of ambrosia into his mouth.
Annabeth’s fingers trembled. After all the things she’d been through, Jason found it odd that she would freak out now while Piper acted so calm. Then it occurred to him – Annabeth could afford to be scared for him. Piper couldn’t. She was completely focused on trying to save him.
Annabeth fed him another bite. ‘Jason, I – I’m sorry. About your mom. But the way you handled it … that was so brave.’
Jason tried not to close his eyes. Every time he did, he saw his mom’s spirit disintegrating.
‘It wasn’t her,’ he said. ‘At least, no part of her I could save. There was no other choice.’
Annabeth took a shaky breath. ‘No other right choice, maybe, but … a friend of mine, Luke. His mom … similar problem. He didn’t handle it as well.’
Her voice broke. Jason didn’t know much about Annabeth’s past, but Piper glanced over in concern.
‘I’ve bandaged as much as I can,’ she said. ‘Blood is still soaking through. And the smoke. I don’t get that.’
‘Imperial gold,’ Annabeth said, her voice quavering. ‘It’s deadly to demigods. It’s only a matter of time before –’
‘He’ll be all right,’ Piper insisted. ‘We’ve got to get him back to the ship.’
‘I don’t feel that bad,’ Jason said. And it was true. The ambrosia had cleared his head. Warmth was seeping back into his limbs. ‘Maybe I could fly …’
Jason sat up. His vision turned a pale shade of green. ‘Or maybe not …’