Jason thought back to Ithaca, when he was despairing over the visit from his mom’s spirit. ‘No. I think I get it.’
Percy studied his face. When Jason didn’t say any more, Percy changed the subject. ‘What did Kym mean about defeating Gaia? You mentioned Ouranos …’
Jason stared at the silt swirling between the columns of the old palace. ‘The sky god … the Titans defeated him by calling him down to the earth. They got him away from his home territory, ambushed him, held him down and cut him up.’
Percy looked like his nausea was coming back. ‘How would we do that with Gaia?’
Jason recalled a line from the prophecy: To storm or fire the world must fall. He had an idea what that meant now … but, if he was right, Percy wouldn’t be able to help. In fact, he might unintentionally make things harder.
I don’t run when my friends need me, Percy had said.
And there is your flaw, Kym had warned, being unable to step away.
Today was 27 July. In five days, Jason would know if he was right.
‘Let’s get to Delos first,’ he said. ‘Apollo and Artemis might have some advice.’
Percy nodded, though he didn’t seem satisfied with that answer. ‘Why did Kymopoleia call you a Pontiac?’
Jason’s laugh literally cleared the air. ‘Pontifex. It means priest.’
‘Oh.’ Percy frowned. ‘Still sounds like a kind of car. “The new Pontifex XLS.” Will you have to wear a collar and bless people?’
‘Nah. Romans used to have a Pontifex Maximus, who oversaw all the proper sacrifices and whatnot, to make sure none of the gods got mad. Which I offered to do … I guess it does sound like a pontifex’s job.’
‘So you meant it?’ Percy asked. ‘You’re really going to try building shrines for all the minor gods?’
‘Yeah. I never really thought about it before, but I like the idea of going back and forth between the two camps – assuming, you know, we make it through next week and the two camps still exist. What you did last year on Olympus, turning down immortality and asking the gods to play nice instead – that was noble, man.’
Percy grunted. ‘Believe me, some days I regret the choice. Oh, you want to turn down our offer? Okay, fine! ZAP! Lose your memory! Go to Tartarus!’
‘You did what a hero should do. I admire you for that. The least I can do, if we survive, is continue that work – make sure all the gods get some recognition. Who knows? If the gods get along better, maybe we can stop more of these wars from breaking out.’
‘That would most definitely be good,’ Percy agreed. ‘You know, you look different … better different. Does your wound still hurt?’
‘My wound …’ Jason had been so busy with the giant and the goddess, he’d forgotten about the sword wound in his gut, even though he’d been dying from it in sickbay only an hour ago.
He lifted his shirt and pulled away the bandages. No smoke. No bleeding. No scar. No pain.
‘It’s … gone,’ he said, stunned. ‘I feel completely normal. What the heck?’
‘You beat it, man!’ Percy laughed. ‘You found your own cure.’
Jason considered that. He guessed it must be true. Maybe putting aside his pain to help his friends had done the trick.
Or maybe his decision to honour the gods at both camps had healed him, giving him a clear path to the future. Roman or Greek … the difference didn’t matter. Like he’d told the ghosts at Ithaca, his family had just got bigger. Now he saw his place in it. He would keep his promise to the storm goddess. And because of that, Michael Varus’s sword meant nothing.
Die a Roman.
No. If he had to die, he would die a son of Jupiter, a child of the gods – the blood of Olympus. But he wasn’t about to let himself get sacrificed – at least not without a fight.
‘Come on.’ Jason clapped his friend on the back. ‘Let’s go check on our ship.’
GIVEN A CHOICE between death and the Buford Zippy Mart, Nico would’ve had a tough time deciding. At least he knew his way around the Land of the Dead. Plus the food was fresher.
‘I still don’t get it,’ Coach Hedge muttered as they roamed the centre aisle. ‘They named a whole town after Leo’s table?’
‘I think the town was here first, Coach,’ Nico said.
‘Huh.’ The coach picked up a box of powdered doughnuts. ‘Maybe you’re right. These look at least a hundred years old. I miss those Portuguese farturas.’
Nico couldn’t think about Portugal without his arms hurting. Across his biceps, the werewolf claw marks were still swollen and red. The store clerk had asked Nico if he’d picked a fight with a bobcat.
They bought a first-aid kit, a pad of paper (so Coach Hedge could write more paper aeroplane messages to his wife), some junk food and soda (since the banquet table in Reyna’s new magic tent only provided healthy food and fresh water) and some miscellaneous camping supplies for Coach Hedge’s useless but impressively complicated monster traps.
Nico had been hoping to find some fresh clothes. Two days since they’d fled San Juan, he was tired of walking around in his tropical ISLA DEL ENCANTORICO shirt, especially since Coach Hedge had a matching one. Unfortunately, the Zippy Mart only carried T-shirts with Confederate flags and corny sayings like KEEP CALM AND FOLLOW THE REDNECK. Nico decided he’d stick with parrots and palm trees.
They walked back to the campsite down a two-lane road under the blazing sun. This part of South Carolina seemed to consist mostly of overgrown fields, punctuated by telephone poles and trees covered in kudzu vines. The town of Buford itself was a collection of portable metal sheds – six or seven, which was probably also the town’s population.
Nico wasn’t exactly a sunshine person, but for once he welcomed the warmth. It made him feel more substantial – anchored to the mortal world. With every shadow-jump, coming back got harder and harder. Even in broad daylight his hand passed through solid objects. His belt and sword kept falling around his ankles for no apparent reason. Once, when he wasn’t looking where he was going, he walked straight through a tree.
Nico remembered something Jason Grace had told him in the palace of Notus: Maybe it’s time you come out of the shadows.
If only I could, he thought. For the first time in his life, he had begun to fear the dark, because he might melt into it permanently.
Nico and Hedge had no trouble finding their way back to camp. The Athena Parthenos was the tallest landmark for miles around. In its new camouflage netting, it glittered silver like an extremely flashy forty-foot-tall ghost.
Apparently, the Athena Parthenos had wanted them to visit a place with educational value, because she’d landed right next to a historical marker that read MASSACRE OF BUFORD, on a gravel layby at the intersection of Nowhere and Nothing.
Reyna’s tent sat in a grove of trees about thirty yards back from the road. Nearby lay a rectangular cairn – hundreds of stones piled in the shape of an oversized grave with a granite obelisk for a headstone. Scattered around it we
re faded wreathes and crushed bouquets of plastic flowers, which made the place seem even sadder.
Aurum and Argentum were playing keep-away in the woods with one of the coach’s handballs. Ever since getting repaired by the Amazons, the metal dogs had been frisky and full of energy – unlike their owner.
Reyna sat cross-legged at the entrance of the tent, staring at the memorial obelisk. She hadn’t said much since they fled San Juan two days ago. They’d also not encountered any monsters, which made Nico uneasy. They’d had no further word from the Hunters or the Amazons. They didn’t know what had happened to Hylla, or Thalia, or the giant Orion.
Nico didn’t like the Hunters of Artemis. Tragedy followed them as surely as their dogs and birds of prey. His sister Bianca had died after joining the Hunters. Then Thalia Grace became their leader and started recruiting even more young women to their cause, which grated on Nico – as if Bianca’s death could be forgotten. As if she could be replaced.
When Nico had woken up at Barrachina and found the Hunters’ note about kidnapping Reyna, he’d torn apart the courtyard in rage. He didn’t want the Hunters stealing another important person from him.
Fortunately, he’d got Reyna back, but he didn’t like how brooding she had become. Every time he tried to ask her about the incident on the Calle San Jose – those ghosts on the balcony, all staring at her, whispering accusations – Reyna shut him down.
Nico knew something about ghosts. Letting them get inside your head was dangerous. He wanted to help Reyna, but since his own strategy was to deal with his problems alone, spurning anyone who tried to get close, he couldn’t exactly criticize Reyna for doing the same thing.
She glanced up as they approached. ‘I figured it out.’
‘What historical site this is?’ Hedge asked. ‘Good, ’cause it’s been driving me crazy.’
‘The Battle of Waxhaws,’ she said.
‘Ah, right …’ Hedge nodded sagely. ‘That was a vicious little smackdown.’
Nico tried to sense any restless spirits in the area, but he felt nothing. Unusual for a battleground. ‘Are you sure?’
‘In 1780,’ Reyna said. ‘The American Revolution. Most of the Colonial leaders were Greek demigods. The British generals were Roman demigods.’
‘Because England was like Rome back then,’ Nico guessed. ‘A rising empire.’
Reyna picked up a crushed bouquet. ‘I think I know why we landed here. It’s my fault.’
‘Ah, come on,’ Hedge scoffed. ‘The Buford Zippy Mart isn’t anybody’s fault. Those things just happen.’
Reyna picked at the faded plastic flowers. ‘During the Revolution, four hundred Americans got overtaken here by British cavalry. The Colonial troops tried to surrender, but the British were out for blood. They massacred the Americans even after they threw down their weapons. Only a few survived.’
Nico supposed he should have been shocked. But after travelling through the Underworld, hearing so many stories of evil and death, a wartime massacre hardly seemed newsworthy. ‘Reyna, how is that your fault?’
‘The British commander was Banastre Tarleton.’
Hedge snorted. ‘I’ve heard of him. Crazy dude. They called him Benny the Butcher.’
‘Yes …’ Reyna took a shaky breath. ‘He was a son of Bellona.’
‘Oh.’ Nico stared at the oversized grave. It still bothered him that he couldn’t sense any spirits. Hundreds of soldiers massacred at this spot … that should’ve sent out some kind of death vibe.
He sat next to Reyna and decided to take a risk. ‘So you think we were drawn here because you have some sort of connection to the ghosts. Like what happened in San Juan?’
For a count of ten she said nothing, turning the plastic bouquet in her hand. ‘I don’t want to talk about San Juan.’
‘You should.’ Nico felt like a stranger in his own body. Why was he encouraging Reyna to share? It wasn’t his style or his business. Nevertheless, he kept talking. ‘The main thing about ghosts – most of them have lost their voices.