‘My heroes, our time together is short,’ Juno said. ‘I am grateful that you called upon me. I have spent weeks in a state of pain and confusion … my Greek and Roman natures warring against each other. Worse, I’ve been forced to hide from Jupiter, who searches for me in his misguided wrath, believing that I caused this war with Gaia.’
‘Gee,’ Annabeth said, ‘why would he think that?’
Juno flashed her an irritated look. ‘Fortunately, this place is sacred to me. By clearing away those ghosts, you have purified it and given me a moment of clarity. I will be able to speak with you – if only briefly.’
‘Why is it sacred … ?’ Piper’s eyes widened. ‘Oh. The marriage bed!’
‘Marriage bed?’ Annabeth asked. ‘I don’t see any –’
‘The bed of Penelope and Odysseus,’ Piper explained. ‘One of its bedposts was a living olive tree, so it could never be moved.’
‘Indeed.’ Juno ran her hand along the olive tree’s trunk. ‘An immovable marriage bed. Such a beautiful symbol! Like Penelope, the most faithful wife, standing her ground, fending off a hundred arrogant suitors for years because she knew her husband would return. Odysseus and Penelope – the epitome of a perfect marriage!’
Even in his dazed state, Jason was pretty sure he remembered stories about Odysseus falling for other women during his travels, but he decided not to bring that up.
‘Can you advise us, at least?’ he asked. ‘Tell us what to do?’
‘Sail around the Peloponnese,’ said the goddess. ‘As you suspect, that is the only possible route. On your way, seek out the goddess of victory in Olympia. She is out of control. Unless you can subdue her, the rift between Greek and Roman can never be healed.’
‘You mean Nike?’ Annabeth asked. ‘How is she out of control?’
Thunder boomed overhead, shaking the hill.
‘Explaining would take too long,’ Juno said. ‘I must flee before Jupiter finds me. Once I leave, I will not be able to help you again.’
Jason bit back a retort: When did you help me the first time?
‘What else should we know?’ he asked.
‘As you heard, the giants have gathered in Athens. Few gods will be able to help you on your journey, but I am not the only Olympian who is out of favour with Jupiter. The twins have also incurred his wrath.’
‘Artemis and Apollo?’ Piper asked. ‘Why?’
Juno’s image began to fade. ‘If you reach the island of Delos, they might be prepared to help you. They are desperate enough to try anything to make amends. Go now. Perhaps we will meet again in Athens, if you succeed. If you do not …’
The goddess disappeared, or maybe Jason’s eyesight simply failed. Pain rolled through him. His head lolled back. He saw a giant eagle circling high above. Then the blue sky turned black, and Jason saw nothing at all.
DIVE-BOMBING A VOLCANO was not on Reyna’s bucket list.
Her first view of southern Italy was from five thousand feet in the air. To the west, along the crescent of the Gulf of Naples, the lights of sleeping cities glittered in the predawn gloom. A thousand feet below her, a half-mile-wide caldera yawned at the top of a mountain, white steam pluming from the centre.
Reyna’s disorientation took a moment to subside. Shadow-travel left her groggy and nauseous, as if she’d been dragged from the cold waters of the frigidarium into the sauna at a Roman bathhouse.
Then she realized she was suspended in midair. Gravity took hold, and she began to fall.
‘Nico!’ she yelled.
‘Pan’s pipes!’ cursed Gleeson Hedge.
‘Whaaaaa!’ Nico flailed, almost slipping out of Reyna’s grip. She held tight and grabbed Coach Hedge by the shirt collar as he started to tumble away. If they got separated now, they were dead.
They plummeted towards the volcano as their largest piece of luggage – the forty-foot-tall Athena Parthenos – trailed after them, leashed to a harness on Nico’s back like a very ineffective parachute.
‘That’s Vesuvius below us!’ Reyna shouted over the wind. ‘Nico, teleport us out of here!’
His eyes were wild and unfocused. His dark feathery hair whipped around his face like a raven shot out of the sky. ‘I – I can’t! No strength!’
Coach Hedge bleated. ‘News flash, kid! Goats can’t fly! Zap us out of here or we’re gonna get flattened into an Athena Parthenos omelette!’
Reyna tried to think. She could accept death if she had to, but if the Athena Parthenos was destroyed their quest would fail. Reyna could not accept that.
‘Nico, shadow-travel,’ she ordered. ‘I’ll lend you my strength.’
He stared at her blankly. ‘How –’
She tightened her grip on his hand. The torch-and-sword symbol of Bellona on her forearm grew painfully hot, as if it were being seared into her skin for the first time.
Nico gasped. Colour returned to his face. Just before they hit the volcano’s steam plume, they slipped into shadows.
The air turned frigid. The sound of the wind was replaced by a cacophony of voices whispering in a thousand languages. Reyna’s insides felt like a giant piragua – cold syrup trickled over crushed ice – her favourite treat from her childhood in Viejo San Juan.
She wondered why that memory would surface now, when she was on the verge of death. Then her vision cleared. Her feet rested on solid ground.
The eastern sky had begun to lighten. For a moment Reyna thought she was back in New Rome. Doric columns lined an atrium the size of a baseball diamond. In front of her, a bronze faun stood in the middle of a sunken fountain decorated with mosaic tile.
Crepe myrtles and rosebushes bloomed in a nearby garden. Palm trees and pines stretched skyward. Cobblestone paths led from the courtyard in several directions – straight, level roads of good Roman construction, edging low stone houses with colonnaded porches.
Reyna turned. Behind her, the Athena Parthenos stood intact and upright, dominating the courtyard like a ridiculously oversized lawn ornament. The little bronze faun in the fountain had both his arms raised, facing Athena, so he seemed to be cowering in fear of the new arrival.
On the horizon, Mount Vesuvius loomed – a dark, humpbacked shape now several miles away. Thick pillars of steam curled from the crest.
‘We’re in Pompeii,’ Reyna realized.
‘Oh, that’s not good,’ Nico said, and he immediately collapsed.
‘Whoa!’ Coach Hedge caught him before he hit the ground. The satyr propped him against Athena’s feet and loosened the harness that attached Nico to the statue.
Reyna’s own knees buckled. She’d expected some backlash; it happened every time she shared her strength. But she hadn’t anticipated so much raw anguish from Nico di Angelo. She sat down heavily, just managing to stay conscious.
Gods of Rome. If this was only a portion of Nico’s pain … how could he bear it?
She tried to steady her breathing while Coach Hedge rummaged through his camping supplies. Around Nico’s boots, the stones cracked. Dark seams radiated outwards like a shotgun blast of ink, as if Nico’s body were trying to expel all the shadows he’d travelled through.
Yesterday had been worse: an entire meadow withering, skeletons rising from the earth. Reyna wasn’t anxious for that to happen again.
‘Drink something.’ She offered him a canteen of unicorn draught – powdered horn mixed with sanctified water from the Little Tiber. They’d found it worked on Nico better than nectar, helping to cleanse the fatigue and darkness from his system with less danger of spontaneous combustion.
Nico gulped it down. He still looked terrible. His skin had a bluish tint. His cheeks were sunken. Hanging at his side, the sceptre of Diocletian glowed angry purple, like a radioactive bruise.
He studied Reyna. ‘How did you do that … that surge of energy?’
Reyna turned her forearm. The tattoo still burned like hot wax: the symbol of Bellona, SPQR, with four
lines for her years of service. ‘I don’t like to talk about it,’ she said, ‘but it’s a power from my mother. I can impart strength to others.’
Coach Hedge looked up from his rucksack. ‘Seriously? Why haven’t you hooked me up, Roman girl? I want super-muscles!’
Reyna frowned. ‘It doesn’t work like that, Coach. I can only do it in life-and-death situations, and it’s more useful in large groups. When I command troops, I can share whatever attributes I have – strength, courage, endurance – multiplied by the size of my forces.’
Nico arched an eyebrow. ‘Useful for a Roman praetor.’
Reyna didn’t answer. She preferred not to speak of her power for exactly this reason. She didn’t want the demigods under her command to think she was controlling them, or that she’d become a leader because she had some special magic. She could only share the qualities she already possessed, and she couldn’t help anyone who wasn’t worthy of being a hero.
Coach Hedge grunted. ‘Too bad. Super-muscles would be nice.’ He went back to sorting through his pack, which seemed to hold a bottomless supply of cooking utensils, survivalist gear and random sports equipment.
Nico took another swig of unicorn draught. His eyes were heavy with exhaustion, but Reyna could tell he was fighting to stay awake.
‘You stumbled just now,’ he noted. ‘When you use your power … do you get some sort of, um, feedback from me?’
‘It’s not mind-reading,’ she said. ‘Not even an empathy link. Just … a temporary wave of exhaustion. Primal emotions. Your pain washes over me. I take on some of your burden.’