Nico’s expression became guarded.
He twisted the silver skull ring on his finger, the same way Reyna did with her silver ring when she was thinking. Sharing a habit with the son of Hades made her uneasy.
She’d felt more pain from Nico in their brief connection than she had from her entire legion during the battle against the giant Polybotes. It had drained her worse than the last time she’d used her power, to sustain her pegasus Scipio during their journey across the Atlantic.
She tried to push away that memory. Her brave winged friend dying from poison, his muzzle in her lap, looking at her trustingly as she raised her dagger to end his misery … Gods, no. She couldn’t dwell on that or it would break her.
But the pain she’d felt from Nico was sharper.
‘You should rest,’ she told him. ‘After two jumps in a row, even with a little help … you’re lucky to be alive. We’ll need you to be ready again by nightfall.’
She felt bad asking him to do something so impossible. Unfortunately, she’d had a lot of practice pushing demigods beyond their limits.
Nico clenched his jaw and nodded. ‘We’re stuck here now.’ He scanned the ruins. ‘But Pompeii is the last place I would’ve chosen to land. This place is full of lemures.’
‘Lemurs?’ Coach Hedge seemed to be making some sort of snare out of kite string, a tennis racket and a hunting knife. ‘You mean those cute fuzzy critters –’
‘No.’ Nico sounded annoyed, like he got that question a lot. ‘Lemures. Unfriendly ghosts. All Roman cities have them, but in Pompeii –’
‘The whole city was wiped out,’ Reyna remembered. ‘In 79 C.E., Vesuvius erupted and covered the town in ash.’
Nico nodded. ‘A tragedy like that creates a lot of angry spirits.’
Coach Hedge eyed the distant volcano. ‘It’s steaming. Is that a bad sign?’
‘I – I’m not sure.’ Nico picked at a hole in the knee of his black jeans. ‘Mountain gods, the ourae, can sense children of Hades. It’s possible that’s why we were pulled off course. The spirit of Vesuvius might have been intentionally trying to kill us. But I doubt the mountain can hurt us this far away. Working up to a full eruption would take too long. The immediate threat is all around us.’
The back of Reyna’s neck tingled.
She’d grown used to Lares, the friendly spirits at Camp Jupiter, but even they made her uneasy. They didn’t have a good understanding of personal space. Sometimes they’d walk right through her, leaving her with vertigo. Being in Pompeii gave Reyna the same feeling, as if the whole city was one big ghost that had swallowed her whole.
She couldn’t tell her friends how much she feared ghosts, or why she feared them. The whole reason she and her sister had run away from San Juan all those years ago … that secret had to stay buried.
‘Can you keep them at bay?’ she asked.
Nico turned up his palms. ‘I’ve sent out that message: Stay away. But once I’m asleep it won’t do us much good.’
Coach Hedge patted his tennis-racket-knife contraption. ‘Don’t worry, kid. I’m going to line the perimeter with alarms and snares. Plus, I’ll be watching over you the whole time with my baseball bat.’
That didn’t seem to reassure Nico, but his eyes were already half-closed. ‘Okay. But … go easy. We don’t want another Albania.’
‘No,’ Reyna agreed.
Their first shadow-travel experience together two days ago had been a total fiasco, possibly the most humiliating episode in Reyna’s long career. Perhaps someday, if they survived, they would look back on it and laugh, but not now. The three of them had agreed never to speak of it. What happened in Albania would stay in Albania.
Coach Hedge looked hurt. ‘Fine, whatever. Just rest, kid. We got you covered.’
‘All right,’ Nico relented. ‘Maybe a little …’ He managed to take off his aviator jacket and wad it into a pillow before he keeled over and began to snore.
Reyna marvelled at how peaceful he looked. The worry lines vanished. His face became strangely angelic … like his surname, di Angelo. She could almost believe he was a regular fourteen-year-old boy, not a son of Hades who had been pulled out of time from the 1940s and forced to endure more tragedy and danger than most demigods would in a lifetime.
When Nico had arrived at Camp Jupiter, Reyna didn’t trust him. She’d sensed there was more to his story than being an ambassador from his father, Pluto. Now, of course, she knew the truth. He was a Greek demigod – the first person in living memory, perhaps the first ever, to go back and forth between the Roman and Greek camps without telling either group that the other existed.
Strangely, that made Reyna trust Nico more.
Sure, he wasn’t Roman. He’d never hunted with Lupa or endured the brutal legion training. But Nico had proven himself in other ways. He’d kept the camps’ secrets for the best of reasons, because he feared a war. He had plunged into Tartarus alone, voluntarily, to find the Doors of Death. He’d been captured and imprisoned by giants. He had led the crew of the Argo II into the House of Hades … and now he had accepted yet another terrible quest: risking himself to haul the Athena Parthenos back to Camp Half-Blood.
The pace of the journey was maddeningly slow. They could only shadow-travel a few hundred miles each night, resting during the day to let Nico recover, but even that required more stamina from Nico than Reyna would have thought possible.
He carried so much sadness and loneliness, so much heartache. Yet he put his mission first. He persevered. Reyna respected that. She understood that.
She’d never been a touchy-feely person, but she had the strangest desire to drape her cloak over Nico’s shoulders and tuck him in. She mentally chided herself. He was a comrade, not her little brother. He wouldn’t appreciate the gesture.
‘Hey.’ Coach Hedge interrupted her thoughts. ‘You need sleep, too. I’ll take first watch and cook some grub. Those ghosts shouldn’t be too dangerous now that the sun’s coming up.’
Reyna hadn’t noticed how light it was getting. Pink and turquoise clouds striped the eastern horizon. The little bronze faun cast a shadow across the dry fountain.
‘I’ve read about this place,’ Reyna realized. ‘It’s one of the best-preserved villas in Pompeii. They call it the House of the Faun.’
Gleeson glanced at the statue with distaste. ‘Yeah, well, today it’s the House of the Satyr.’
Reyna managed a smile. She was starting to appreciate the differences between satyrs and fauns. If she ever fell asleep with a faun on duty, she’d wake up with her supplies stolen, a moustache drawn on her face and the faun long gone. Coach Hedge was different – mostly good different, though he did have an unhealthy obsession with martial arts and baseball bats.
‘All right,’ she agreed. ‘You take first watch. I’ll put Aurum and Argentum on guard duty with you.’
Hedge looked like he wanted to protest, but Reyna whistled sharply. The metallic greyhounds materialized from the ruins, racing towards her from different directions. Even after so many years, Reyna had no idea where they came from or where they went when she dismissed them, but seeing them lifted her spirits.
Hedge cleared his throat. ‘You sure those aren’t Dalmatians? They look like Dalmatians.’
‘They’re greyhounds, Coach.’ Reyna had no idea why Hedge feared Dalmatians, but she was too tired to ask right now. ‘Aurum, Argentum, guard us while I sleep. Obey Gleeson Hedge.’
The dogs circled the courtyard, keeping their distance from the Athena Parthenos, which radiated hostility towards everything Roman.
Reyna herself was only now getting used to it, and she was pretty sure the statue did not appreciate being relocated in the middle of an ancient Roman city.
She lay down and pulled her purple cloak over herself. Her fingers curled around the pouch at her belt, where she kept the silver coin Annabeth had given her before they parted company in Epirus.
It’s a sign that things can change, Annabeth had told her. The Mark of Athena is yours now. Maybe the coin will bring you luck.
Whether that luck would be good or bad, Reyna wasn’t sure.
She took one last look at the bronze faun cowering before the sunrise and the Athena Parthenos. Then she closed her eyes and slipped into dreams.
MOST OF THE TIME, Reyna could control her nightmares.
She had trained her mind to start all her dreams in her favourite place – the Garden of Bacchus on the tallest hill in New Rome. She felt safe and tranquil there. When visions invaded her sleep – as they always did with demigods – she could contain them by imagining they were reflections in the garden’s fountain. This allowed her to sleep peacefully and avoid waking up the next morning in a cold sweat.
Tonight, however, she wasn’t so lucky.
The dream began well enough. She stood in the garden on a warm afternoon, the arbour heavy with blooming honey-suckle. In the central fountain, the little statue of Bacchus spouted water into the basin.
The golden domes and red-tiled roofs of New Rome spread out below her. Half a mile west rose the fortifications of Camp Jupiter. Beyond that, the Little Tiber curved gently around the valley, tracing the edge of the Berkeley Hills, hazy and golden in the summer light.
Reyna held a cup of hot chocolate, her favourite drink.
She exhaled contentedly. This place was worth defending – for herself, for her friends, for all demigods. Her four years at Camp Jupiter hadn’t been easy, but they’d been the best time of Reyna’s life.
Suddenly the horizon darkened. Reyna thought it might be a storm. Then she realized a tidal wave of dark loam was rolling across the hills, turning the skin of the earth inside out, leaving nothing behind.
Reyna watched in horror as the earthen tide reached the edge of the valley. The god Terminus sustained a magical barrier around the camp, but it slowed the destruction for only a moment. Purple light sprayed upward like shattered glass, and the tide poured through, shredding trees, destroying roads, wiping the Little Tiber off the map.
It’s a vision, Reyna thought. I can control this.
She tried to change the dream. She imagined that the destruction was only a reflection in the fountain, a harmless video image, but the nightmare continued in full vivid scope.
The earth swallowed the Field of Mars, obliterating every trace of forts and trenches from the war games. The city’s aqueduct collapsed like a line of children’s blocks. Camp Jupiter itself fell – watchtowers crashing down, walls and barracks disintegrating. The screams of demigods were silenced, and the earth moved on.
A sob built in Reyna’s throat. The gleaming shrines and monuments on Temple Hill crumbled. The coliseum and the hippodrome were swept away. The tide of loam reached the Pomerian line and roared straight into the city. Families ran through the forum. Children cried in terror.