After the explosion, Piper and Jason – free-falling and unconscious – were plucked out of the sky by giant eagles and brought to safety, but Leo did not reappear. The entire Hephaestus cabin scoured the valley, finding bits and pieces of the Argo II’s broken hull, but no sign of Festus the dragon or his master.
All the monsters had been destroyed or scattered. Greek and Roman casualties were heavy, but not nearly as bad as they might have been.
Overnight, the satyrs and nymphs disappeared into the woods for a convocation of the Cloven Elders. In the morning, Grover Underwood reappeared to announce that they could not sense the Earth Mother’s presence. Nature was more or less back to normal. Apparently, Jason, Piper and Leo’s plan had worked. Gaia had been separated from her source of power, charmed to sleep and then atomized in the combined explosion of Leo’s fire and Octavian’s man-made comet.
An immortal could never die, but now Gaia would be like her husband, Ouranos. The earth would continue to function as normal, just as the sky did, but Gaia was now so dispersed and powerless that she could never again form a consciousness.
At least, that was the hope …
Octavian would be remembered for saving Rome by hurling himself into the sky in a fiery ball of death. But it was Leo Valdez who had made the real sacrifice.
The victory celebration at camp was muted, due to grief – not just for Leo but also for the many others who had died in battle. Shrouded demigods, both Greek and Roman, were burned at the campfire, and Chiron asked Nico to oversee the burial rites.
Nico agreed immediately. He was grateful for the opportunity to honour the dead. Even the hundreds of spectators didn’t bother him.
The hardest part was afterwards, when Nico and the six demigods from the Argo II met on the porch of the Big House.
Jason hung his head, even his glasses lost in shadow. ‘We should have been there at the end. We could’ve helped Leo.’
‘It’s not right,’ Piper agreed, wiping away her tears. ‘All that work getting the physician’s cure, for nothing.’
Hazel broke down crying. ‘Piper, where’s the cure? Bring it out.’
Bewildered, Piper reached into her belt pouch. She produced the chamois-cloth package, but when she unfolded the cloth it was empty.
All eyes turned to Hazel.
‘How?’ Annabeth asked.
Frank put his arm around Hazel. ‘In Delos, Leo pulled the two of us aside. He pleaded with us to help him.’
Through her tears, Hazel explained how she had switched the physician’s cure for an illusion – a trick of the Mist – so that Leo could keep the real vial. Frank told them about Leo’s plan to destroy a weakened Gaia with one massive fiery explosion. After talking with Nike and Apollo, Leo had been certain that such an explosion would kill any mortal within a quarter of a mile, so he knew he would have to get far away from everyone.
‘He wanted to do it alone,’ Frank said. ‘He thought there would be a slim chance that he, a son of Hephaestus, could survive the fire, but if anyone was with him … He said that Hazel and I, being Roman, would understand about sacrifice. But he knew the rest of you would never allow it.’
At first the others looked angry, like they wanted to scream and throw things. But, as Frank and Hazel talked, the group’s rage seemed to dissipate. It was hard to be mad at Frank and Hazel when they were both crying. Also … the plan sounded exactly like the sneaky, twisted, ridiculously annoying and noble sort of thing Leo Valdez would do.
Finally Piper let out a sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh. ‘If he were here right now, I would kill him. How was he planning to take the cure? He was alone!’
‘Maybe he found a way,’ Percy said. ‘This is Leo we’re talking about. He might come back any minute. Then we can take turns strangling him.’
Nico and Hazel exchanged looks. They both knew better, but they said nothing.
The next day, the second since the battle, Romans and Greeks worked side by side to clean up the warzone and tend the wounded. Blackjack the pegasus was recovering nicely from his arrow wound. Guido had decided to adopt Reyna as his human. Reluctantly, Lou Ellen had agreed to turn her new pet piglets back into Romans.
Will Solace hadn’t spoken with Nico since the encounter at the onager. The son of Apollo spent most of his time in the infirmary, but whenever Nico saw him running across camp to fetch more medical supplies, or make a house call on some wounded demigod, he felt a strange twinge of melancholy. No doubt Will Solace thought Nico was a monster now, for letting Octavian kill himself.
The Romans bivouacked next to the strawberry fields, where they insisted on building their standard field camp. The Greeks pitched in to help them raise the earthen walls and dig the trenches. Nico had never seen anything stranger or cooler. Dakota shared Kool-Aid with the kids from the Dionysus cabin. The children of Hermes and Mercury laughed and told stories and brazenly stole things from just about everyone. Reyna, Annabeth and Piper were inseparable, roaming the camp as a trio to check on the progress of the repairs. Chiron, escorted by Frank and Hazel, inspected the Roman troops and praised them for their bravery.
By evening, the general mood had improved somewhat. The dining hall pavilion had never been so crowded. The Romans were welcomed like old friends. Coach Hedge roamed among the demigods, beaming and holding his baby boy and saying, ‘Hey, you want to meet Chuck? This is my boy, Chuck!’
The Aphrodite and Athena girls alike cooed over the feisty little satyr baby, who waved his pudgy fists, kicked his tiny hooves and bleated, ‘Baaaa! Baaaa!’
Clarisse, who had been named the baby’s godmother, trailed behind the coach like a bodyguard and occasionally muttered, ‘All right, all right. Give the kid some space.’
At announcement time, Chiron stepped forward and raised his goblet.
‘Out of every tragedy,’ he said, ‘comes new strength. Today, we thank the gods for this victory. To the gods!’
The demigods all joined the toast, but their enthusiasm seemed muted. Nico understood the feeling: We saved the gods again, and now we’re supposed to thank them?
Then Chiron said, ‘And to new friends!’
‘TO NEW FRIENDS!’
Hundreds of demigod voices echoed across the hills.
At the campfire, everyone kept looking at the stars, as if they expected Leo to come back in some dramatic, last-minute surprise. Maybe he’d swoop in, jump off Festus’s back and launch into corny jokes. It didn’t happen.
After a few songs, Reyna and Frank were called to the front. They got a thunderous round of applause from both the Greeks and Romans. Up on Half-Blood Hill, the Athena Parthenos glowed more brightly in moonlight, as if to signal: These kids are all right.
‘Tomorrow,’ Reyna said, ‘we Romans must return home. We appreciate your hospitality, especially since we almost killed you –’
‘You almost got killed,’ Annabeth corrected.
Oooooohhhhh! the crowd said as one. Then everybody started laughing and pushing each other around. Even Nico had to smile.
‘Anyway,’ Frank took over, ‘Reyna and I agree this marks a new era of friendship between the camps.’
Reyna clapped him on the back. ‘That’s right. For hundreds of years, the gods tried to separate us to keep us from fighting. But there’s a better kind of peace – cooperation.’
Piper stood up from the audience. ‘Are you sure your mom is a war goddess?’
‘Yes, McLean,’ Reyna said. ‘I still intend to fight a lot of battles. But from now on we fight together!’
That got a big cheer.
Zhang raised his hand for quiet. ‘You’ll all be welcome at Camp Jupiter. We’ve come to an agreement with Chiron: a free exchange between the camps – weekend visits, training programmes and, of course, emergency aid in times of need –’
‘And parties?’ asked Dakota.
‘Hear, hear!’ said Conner Stoll.
Reyna spread her arms. ‘That goes with
out saying. We Romans invented parties.’
Another big Oooohhhhhhhh!
‘So thank you,’ Reyna concluded. ‘All of you. We could’ve chosen hatred and war. Instead we found acceptance and friendship.’
Then she did something so unexpected Nico would later think he dreamed it. She walked up to Nico, who was standing to one side in the shadows, as usual. She grabbed his hand and pulled him gently into the firelight.
‘We had one home,’ she said. ‘Now we have two.’
She gave Nico a big hug and the crowd roared with approval. For once, Nico didn’t feel like pulling away. He buried his face in Reyna’s shoulder and blinked the tears out of his eyes.
THAT NIGHT, NICO SLEPT IN THE HADES CABIN.
He’d never had any desire to use the place before, but now he shared it with Hazel, which made all the difference.
It made him happy to live with a sister again – even if it was only for a few days, and even if Hazel insisted on partitioning her side of the room with sheets for privacy so it looked like a quarantine zone.
Just before curfew, Frank came to visit and spent a few minutes talking with Hazel in hushed tones.
Nico tried to ignore them. He stretched out in his bunk, which resembled a coffin – a polished mahogany frame, brass railings, blood-red velvet pillows and blankets. Nico hadn’t been present when they built this cabin. He definitely had not suggested these bunks. Apparently somebody thought the children of Hades were vampires, not demigods.
Finally Frank knocked on the wall next to Nico’s bed.
Nico looked over. Zhang stood so tall now. He seemed so … Roman.
‘Hey,’ Frank said. ‘We’ll be leaving in the morning. Just wanted to tell you thanks.’
Nico sat up in his bunk. ‘You did great, Frank. It’s been an honour.’
Frank smiled. ‘Honestly, I’m kind of surprised I lived through it. The whole magic firewood thing …’
Nico nodded. Hazel had told him all about the piece of firewood that controlled Frank’s lifeline. Nico took it as a good sign that Frank could talk about it openly now.
‘I can’t see the future,’ Nico told him, ‘but I can often tell when people are close to death. You’re not. I don’t know when that piece of firewood will burn up. Eventually, we all run out of firewood. But it won’t be soon, Praetor Zhang. You and Hazel … you’ve got a lot more adventures ahead of you. You’re just getting started. Be good to my sister, okay?’
Hazel walked up next to Frank and laced her hand with his. ‘Nico, you’re not threatening my boyfriend, are you?’