In Asphodel, millions of them wander around aimlessly, trying to remember who they were. You know why they end up like that? Because in life they never took a stand one way or another. They never spoke out, so they were never heard. Your voice is your identity. If you don’t use it,’ he said with a shrug, ‘you’re halfway to Asphodel already.’
Reyna scowled. ‘Is that your idea of a pep talk?’
Coach Hedge cleared his throat. ‘This is getting too psychological for me. I’m going to write some letters.’
He took his notepad and headed into the woods. The last day or so, he’d been writing a lot – apparently not just to Mellie. The coach wouldn’t share details, but he hinted that he was calling in some favours to help with the quest. For all Nico knew, he was writing to Jackie Chan.
Nico opened his shopping bag. He pulled out a box of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and offered one to Reyna.
She wrinkled her nose. ‘Those look like they went stale in dinosaur times.’
‘Maybe. But I’ve got a big appetite these days. Any kind of food tastes good … except maybe pomegranate seeds. I’m done with those.’
Reyna picked out a creme pie and took a bite. ‘The ghosts in San Juan … they were my ancestors.’
Nico waited. The breeze ruffled the camouflage netting over the Athena Parthenos.
‘The Ramírez-Arellano family goes back a long way,’ Reyna continued. ‘I don’t know the whole story. My ancestors lived in Spain when it was a Roman province. My great-great-something-something-grandfather was a conquistador. He came over to Puerto Rico with Ponce de León.’
‘One of the ghosts on the balcony was wearing conquistador armour,’ Nico recalled.
‘So … is your whole family descended from Bellona? I thought you and Hylla were her daughters, not legacies.’
Too late, Nico realized he shouldn’t have brought up Hylla. A look of despair passed over Reyna’s face, though she managed to hide it quickly.
‘We are her daughters,’ Reyna said. ‘We’re the first actual children of Bellona in the Ramírez-Arellano family. And Bellona has always favoured our clan. Millennia ago, she decreed that we would play pivotal roles in many battles.’
‘Like you’re doing now,’ Nico said.
Reyna brushed crumbs from her chin. ‘Perhaps. Some of my ancestors have been heroes. Some have been villains. You saw the ghost with the gunshot wounds in the chest?’
Nico nodded. ‘A pirate?’
‘The most famous in Puerto Rican history. He was known as the Pirate Cofresí, but his family name was Ramírez de Arellano. Our house, the family villa, was built with money from treasure that he buried.’
For a moment, Nico felt like a little kid again. He was tempted to blurt out, That’s so cool! Even before he got into Mythomagic, he’d been obsessed with pirates. Probably that was one reason he’d been so smitten with Percy, a son of the sea god.
‘And the other ghosts?’ he asked.
Reyna took another bite of creme pie. ‘The guy in the U.S. Navy uniform … he’s my great-great-uncle from World War Two, the first Latino submarine commander. You get the idea. A lot of warriors. Bellona was our patron goddess for generations.’
‘But she never had demigod children in your family – until you.’
‘The goddess … she fell in love with my father, Julian. He was a soldier in Iraq. He was –’ Reyna’s voice broke. She tossed aside the plastic bouquet of flowers. ‘I can’t do this. I can’t talk about him.’
A cloud passed overhead, blanketing the woods in shadows.
Nico didn’t want to push Reyna. What right did he have?
He set down his oatmeal creme pie … and noticed that his fingertips were turning to smoke. The sunlight returned. His hands became solid again, but Nico’s nerves jangled. He felt as if he’d been pulled back from the edge of a high balcony.
Your voice is your identity, he’d told Reyna. If you don’t use it, you’re halfway to Asphodel already.
He hated when his own advice applied to himself.
‘My dad gave me a present once,’ Nico said. ‘It was a zombie.’
Reyna stared at him. ‘What?’
‘His name is Jules-Albert. He’s French.’
‘A … French zombie?’
‘Hades isn’t the greatest dad, but occasionally he has these want to know my son moments. I guess he thought the zombie was a peace offering. He said Jules-Albert could be my chauffeur.’
The corner of Reyna’s mouth twitched. ‘A French zombie chauffeur.’
Nico realized how ridiculous it sounded. He’d never told anyone about Jules-Albert – not even Hazel. But he kept talking.
‘Hades had this idea that I should, you know, try to act like a modern teenager. Make friends. Get to know the twenty-first century. He vaguely understood that mortal parents drive their kids around a lot. He couldn’t do that. So his solution was a zombie.’
‘To take you to the mall,’ Reyna said. ‘Or the drive-through at In-N-Out Burger.’
‘I suppose.’ Nico’s nerves began to settle. ‘Because nothing helps you make friends faster than a rotting corpse with a French accent.’
Reyna laughed. ‘I’m sorry … I shouldn’t make fun.’
‘It’s okay. Point is … I don’t like talking about my dad either. But sometimes,’ he said, looking her in the eyes, ‘you have to.’
Reyna’s expression turned serious. ‘I never knew my father in his better days. Hylla said he used to be gentler when she was very small, before I was born. He was a good soldier – fearless, disciplined, cool under fire. He was handsome. He could be very charming. Bellona blessed him, as she had with so many of my ancestors, but that wasn’t enough for my dad. He wanted her for his wife.’
Over in the woods, Coach Hedge muttered to himself as he wrote. Three paper aeroplanes were already spiralling upward in the breeze, heading to gods knew where.
‘My father dedicated himself completely to Bellona,’ Reyna continued. ‘It’s one thing to respect the power of war. It’s another thing to fall in love with it. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to win Bellona’s heart. My sister was born just before he went to Iraq for his last tour of duty. He was honourably discharged, came home a hero. If … if he’d been able to adjust to civilian life, everything might have been all right.’
‘But he couldn’t,’ Nico guessed.
Reyna shook her head. ‘Shortly after he got back, he had one last encounter with the goddess … that’s the, um, reason I was born. Bellona gave him a glimpse of the future. She explained why our family was so important to her. She said the legacy of Rome would never fail as long as one of our bloodline remained, fighting to defend our homeland. Those words … I think she meant them to be reassuring, but my father became fixated on them.’
‘War can be hard to get over,’ Nico said, remembering Pietro, one of his neighbours from his childhood in Italy. Pietro had come back from Mussolini’s African campaign in one piece, but, after shelling Ethiopian civilians with mustard gas, his mind was never the same.
Despite the heat, Reyna drew her cloak around her. ‘Part of the problem was post-traumatic stress. He couldn’t stop thinking about the war. And then there was the constant pain – a roadside bomb had left shrapnel in his shoulder and chest. But it was more than that. Over the years, as I was growing up, he … he changed.’
Nico didn’t respond. He’d never had anyone talk to him this openly before, except maybe for Hazel. He felt like he was watching a flock of birds settle on a field. One loud sound might startle them away.
‘He became paranoid,’ Reyna said. ‘He thought Bellona’s words were a warning that our bloodline would be exterminated and the legacy of Rome would fail. He saw enemies everywhere. He collected weapons. He turned our house into a fortress. At night, he would lock Hylla and me in our rooms. If we sneaked out, he would yell at us and throw furniture and … well, he terrified us. At times, he even though
t we were the enemies. He became convinced we were spying on him, trying to undermine him. Then the ghosts started appearing. I guess they’d always been there, but they picked up on my father’s agitation and began to manifest. They whispered to him, feeding his suspicions. Finally one day … I can’t tell you for sure when, I realized he had ceased to be my father. He had become one of the ghosts.’
A cold tide rose in Nico’s chest. ‘A mania,’ he speculated. ‘I’ve seen it before. A human withers away until he’s not human any more. Only his worst qualities remain. His insanity …’
It was clear from Reyna’s expression that his explanation wasn’t helping.
‘Whatever he was,’ Reyna said, ‘he became impossible to live with. Hylla and I escaped the house as often as we could, but eventually we’d come … back … and face his rage. We didn’t know what else to do. He was our only family. The last time we returned, he – he was so angry he was literally glowing. He couldn’t physically touch things any more, but he could move them … like a poltergeist, I guess. He tore up the floor tiles. He ripped open the sofa. Finally he tossed a chair and it hit Hylla. She collapsed. She was only knocked unconscious, but I thought she was dead. She’d spent so many years protecting me … I just lost it. I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find – a family heirloom, the Pirate Confresí’s sabre. I – I didn’t know it was Imperial gold. I ran at my father’s spirit and …’
‘You vaporized him,’ Nico guessed.
Reyna’s eyes brimmed with tears. ‘I killed my own father.’
‘No. Reyna, no. That wasn’t him. That was a ghost. Even worse: a mania. You were protecting your sister.’
She twisted the silver ring on her finger. ‘You don’t understand. Patricide is the worst crime a Roman can commit. It’s unforgivable.’
‘You didn’t kill your father. The man was already dead,’ Nico insisted. ‘You dispelled a ghost.’
‘It doesn’t matter!’ Reyna sobbed. ‘If word of this got out at Camp Jupiter –’
‘You’d be executed,’ said a new voice.
At the edge of the woods stood a Roman legionnaire in full armour, holding a pilum. A mop of brown hair hung in his eyes. His nose had obviously been broken at least once, which made his smile look even more sinister. ‘Thank you for your confession, former praetor. You’ve made my job much easier.’
COACH HEDGE CHOSE THAT MOMENT to burst into the clearing, waving a paper aeroplane and yelling, ‘Good news, everyone!’
He froze when he saw the Roman. ‘Oh … never mind.’