Asclepius smiled wistfully. ‘The Argo … back when I was a demigod, I sailed on the original ship, you know. Ah, to be a carefree adventurer again!’
‘Yeah …’ Jason muttered. ‘Carefree.’
‘But, alas, I cannot. Zeus will already be quite angry with me for helping you. Besides, the guardian will reprogram itself soon. You should leave.’ Asclepius rose. ‘Best wishes, demigods. And, if you see my father again, please … give him my regrets.’
Leo wasn’t sure what that meant, but they took their leave.
As they passed through the waiting room, the statue of Hygeia was sitting on a bench, pouring acid on her face and singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, while her golden snake gnawed at her foot. The peaceful scene was almost enough to lift Leo’s spirits.
Back on the Argo II, they gathered in the mess hall and filled in the rest of the crew.
‘I don’t like it,’ Jason said. ‘The way Asclepius looked at Leo –’
‘Aw, he just sensed my heartsickness.’ Leo tried for a smile. ‘You know, I’m dying to see Calypso.’
‘That is so sweet,’ Piper said. ‘But I’m not sure that’s it.’
Percy frowned at the glowing red vial that sat in the middle of the table. ‘Any of us might die, right? So we just need to keep the potion handy.’
‘Assuming only one of us dies,’ Jason pointed out. ‘There’s only one dose.’
Hazel and Frank stared at Leo.
He gave them a look, like Knock it off.
The others didn’t see the full picture. To storm or fire the world must fall – Jason or Leo. In Olympia, Nike had warned that one of the four demigods present would die: Percy, Hazel, Frank or Leo. Only one name overlapped those two lists: Leo. And, if Leo’s plan was going to work, he couldn’t have anybody else close by when he pulled the trigger.
His friends would never accept his decision. They would argue. They would try to save him. They would insist on finding another way.
But this time, Leo was convinced, there was no other way. Like Annabeth always told them, fighting against a prophecy never worked. It just created more trouble. He had to make sure this war ended, once and for all.
‘We have to keep our options open,’ Piper suggested. ‘We need, like, a designated medic to carry the potion – somebody who can react quickly and heal whoever gets killed.’
‘Good idea, Beauty Queen,’ Leo lied. ‘I nominate you.’
Piper blinked. ‘But … Annabeth is wiser. Hazel can move faster on Arion. Frank can turn into animals –’
‘But you’ve got heart.’ Annabeth squeezed her friend’s hand. ‘Leo’s right. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.’
‘Yeah,’ Jason agreed. ‘I have a feeling you’re the best choice, Pipes. You’re going to be there with us at the end, whatever happens, storm or fire.’
Leo picked up the vial. ‘Is everyone in agreement?’
No one objected.
Leo locked eyes with Hazel. You know what needs to happen.
He pulled a chamois cloth from his tool belt and made a big show of wrapping up the physician’s cure. Then he presented the package to Piper.
‘Okay, then,’ he said. ‘Athens tomorrow morning, gang. Be ready to fight some giants.’
‘Yeah …’ Frank murmured. ‘I know I’ll sleep well.’
After dinner broke up, Jason and Piper tried to waylay Leo. They wanted to talk about what had happened with Asclepius, but Leo evaded them.
‘I’ve got to work on the engine,’ he said, which was true.
Once in the engine room, with only Buford the Wonder Table for company, Leo took a deep breath. He reached into his tool belt and pulled out the actual vial of physician’s cure – not the trick-of-the-Mist version he’d handed to Piper.
Buford blew steam at him.
‘Hey, man, I had to,’ Leo said.
Buford activated his holographic Hedge. ‘PUT SOME CLOTHES ON!’
‘Look, it’s got to be this way. Otherwise we’ll all die.’
Buford made a plaintive squeal, then clattered into the corner in a sulk.
Leo stared at the engine. He’d spent so much time putting it together. He’d sacrificed months of sweat and pain and loneliness.
Now the Argo II was approaching the end of its voyage. Leo’s whole life – his childhood with Tía Callida; his mother’s death in that warehouse fire; his years as a foster kid; his months at Camp Half-Blood with Jason and Piper – all of it would culminate tomorrow morning in one final battle.
He opened the access panel.
Festus’s voice creaked over the intercom.
‘Yeah, buddy,’ Leo agreed. ‘It’s time.’
‘I know,’ Leo said. ‘Together till the end?’
Festus squeaked affirmatively.
Leo checked the ancient bronze astrolabe, which was now fitted with the crystal from Ogygia. Leo could only hope it would work.
‘I will get back to you, Calypso,’ he muttered. ‘I promised on the River Styx.’
He flipped a switch and brought the navigation device online. He set the timer for twenty-four hours.
Finally he opened the engine’s ventilator line and pushed inside the vial of physician’s cure. It disappeared into the veins of the ship with a decisive thunk.
‘Too late to turn back now,’ Leo said.
He curled on the floor and closed his eyes, determined to enjoy the familiar hum of the engine for one last night.
Reyna wasn’t keen to give orders to Pegasus, the Lord of Flying Horses, but she was even less keen to get shot out of the sky.
As they approached Camp Half-Blood in the predawn hours of 1 August, she spotted six Roman onagers. Even in the dark, their Imperial gold plating glinted. Their massive throwing arms bent back like ship masts listing in a st
orm. Crews of artillerists scurried around the machines, loading the slings, checking the torsion of the ropes.
‘What are those?’ Nico called.
He flew about twenty feet to her left on the dark pegasus Blackjack.
‘Siege weapons,’ Reyna said. ‘If we get any closer, they can shoot us out of the sky.’
‘From this high up?’
On her right, Coach Hedge shouted from the back of his steed, Guido, ‘Those are onagers, kid! Those things can kick higher than Bruce Lee!’
‘Lord Pegasus,’ Reyna said, resting her hand on the stallion’s neck, ‘we need a safe place to land.’
Pegasus seemed to understand. He wheeled to the left. The other flying horses followed – Blackjack, Guido and six others who were towing the Athena Parthenos beneath them on cables.
As they skirted the western edge of the camp, Reyna took in the scene. The legion lined the base of the eastern hills, ready for a dawn attack. The onagers were arrayed behind them in a loose semicircle at three-hundred-yard intervals. Judging from the size of the weapons, Reyna calculated that Octavian had enough firepower to destroy every living thing in the valley.
But that was only part of the threat. Encamped along the legion’s flanks were hundreds of auxilia forces. Reyna couldn’t see well in the dark, but she spotted at least one tribe of wild centaurs and an army of cynocephali, the dog-headed men who’d made an uneasy truce with the legion centuries ago. The Romans were badly outnumbered, surrounded by a sea of unreliable allies.
‘There.’ Nico pointed towards Long Island Sound, where the lights of a large yacht gleamed a quarter of a mile offshore. ‘We could land on the deck of that ship. The Greeks control the sea.’
Reyna wasn’t sure the Greeks would be any friendlier than the Romans, but Pegasus seemed to like the idea. He banked towards the dark waters of the Sound.
The ship was a white pleasure craft a hundred feet long, with sleek lines and dark tinted portals. Painted on the bow in red letters was the name MI AMOR. On the forward deck was a helipad big enough for the Athena Parthenos.
Reyna saw no crew. She guessed the ship was a regular mortal vessel anchored for the night, but if she was wrong and the ship was a trap …
‘It’s our best shot,’ Nico said. ‘The horses are tired. We need to set down.’
She nodded reluctantly. ‘Let’s do it.’
Pegasus landed on the forward deck with Guido and Blackjack. The six other horses gently set the Athena Parthenos on the helipad and then settled around it. With their cables and harnesses, they looked like carousel animals.
Reyna dismounted. As she had two days ago, when she first met Pegasus, she knelt before the horse.