The son of neptune, p.13
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       The Son of Neptune, p.13

         Part #2 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
Page 13


  Hazel tried not to laugh. “Well…most demigods are. Or dyslexic. Just being a demigod means that our brains are wired differently. Like you—you said you had trouble reading. ”

  “Are you guys that way too?” Percy asked.

  “I don’t know,” Hazel admitted. “Maybe. Back in my day, they just called kids like us ‘lazy. ’”

  Percy frowned. “Back in your day?”

  Hazel cursed herself.

  Luckily for her, Frank spoke up: “I wish I was ADHD or dyslexic. All I got is lactose intolerance. ”

  Percy grinned. “Seriously?”

  Frank might’ve been the silliest demigod ever, but Hazel thought he was cute when he pouted. His shoulders slumped. “And I love ice cream, too. …”

  Percy laughed. Hazel couldn’t help joining in. It was good to sit at dinner and actually feel like she was among friends.

  “Okay, so tell me,” Percy said, “why is it bad to be in the Fifth Cohort? You guys are great. ”

  The compliment made Hazel’s toes tingle. “It’s…complicated. Aside from being Pluto’s kid, I want to ride horses. ”

  “That’s why you use a cavalry sword?”

  She nodded. “It’s stupid, I guess. Wishful thinking. There’s only one pegasus at camp—Reyna’s. The unicorns are just kept for medicine, because the shavings off their horns cure poison and stuff. Anyway, Roman fighting is always done on foot. Cavalry…they kind of look down on that. So they look down on me. ”

  “Their loss,” Percy said. “What about you, Frank?”

  “Archery,” he muttered. “They don’t like that either, unless you’re a child of Apollo. Then you’ve got an excuse. I hope my dad is Apollo, but I don’t know. I can’t do poetry very well. And I’m not sure I want to be related to Octavian. ”

  “Can’t blame you,” Percy said. “But you’re excellent with the bow—the way you pegged those gorgons? Forget what other people think. ”

  Frank’s face turned as red as Dakota’s Kool-Aid. “Wish I could. They all think I should be a sword fighter because I’m big and bulky. ” He looked down at his body, like he couldn’t quite believe it was his. “They say I’m too stocky for an archer. Maybe if my dad would ever claim me…”

  They ate in silence for a few minutes. A dad who wouldn’t claim you…Hazel knew that feeling. She sensed Percy could relate, too.

  “You asked about the Fifth,” she said at last. “Why it’s the worst cohort. That actually started way before us. ”

  She pointed to the back wall, where the legion’s standards were on display. “See the empty pole in the middle?”

  “The eagle,” Percy said.

  Hazel was stunned. “How’d you know?”

  Percy shrugged. “Vitellius was talking about how the legion lost its eagle a long time ago—the first time, he said. He acted like it was a huge disgrace. I’m guessing that’s what’s missing. And from the way you and Reyna were talking earlier, I’m guessing your eagle got lost a second time, more recently, and it had something to do with the Fifth Cohort. ”

  Hazel made a mental note not to underestimate Percy again. When he’d first arrived, she’d thought he was a little goofy from the questions he’d asked—about the Feast of Tuna and all—but clearly he was smarter than he let on.

  “You’re right,” she said. “That’s exactly what happened. ”

  “So what is this eagle, anyway? Why is it a big deal?”

  Frank looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “It’s the symbol of the whole camp—a big eagle made of gold. It’s supposed to protect us in battle and make our enemies afraid. Each legion’s eagle gave it all sorts of power, and ours came from Jupiter himself. Supposedly Julius Caesar nicknamed our legion ‘Fulminata’—armed with lightning—because of what the eagle could do. ”

  “I don’t like lightning,” Percy said.

  “Yeah, well,” Hazel said, “it didn’t make us invincible. The Twelfth lost its eagle the first time way back in ancient days, during the Jewish Rebellion. ”

  “I think I saw a movie like that,” Percy said.

  Hazel shrugged. “Could be. There have been lots of books and movies about legions losing their eagles. Unfortunately it happened quite a few times. The eagle was so important…well, archaeologists have never recovered a single eagle from ancient Rome. Each legion guarded theirs to the last man, because it was charged with power from the gods. They’d rather hide it or melt it down than surrender it to an enemy.

  The Twelfth was lucky the first time. We got our eagle back. But the second time…”

  “You guys were there?” Percy asked.

  They both shook their heads.

  “I’m almost as new as you. ” Frank tapped his probatio plate. “Just got here last month. But everyone’s heard the story. It’s bad luck to even talk about this. There was this huge expedition to Alaska back in the eighties. …”

  “That prophecy you noticed in the temple,” Hazel continued, “the one about the seven demigods and the Doors of Death? Our senior praetor at the time was Michael Varus, from the Fifth Cohort. Back then the Fifth was the best in camp. He thought it would bring glory to the legion if he could figure out the prophecy and make it come true—save the world from storm and fire and all that. He talked to the augur, and the augur said the answer was in Alaska. But he warned Michael it wasn’t time yet. The prophecy wasn’t for him. ”

  “But he went anyway,” Percy guessed. “What happened?”

  Frank lowered his voice. “Long, gruesome story. Almost the entire Fifth Cohort was wiped out. Most of legion’s Imperial gold weapons were lost, along with the eagle. The survivors went crazy or refused to talk about what had attacked them. ”

  I know, Hazel thought solemnly. But she kept silent.

  “Since the eagle was lost,” Frank continued, “the camp has been getting weaker. Quests are more dangerous. Monsters attack the borders more often. Morale is lower. The last month or so, things have been getting much worse, much faster. ”

  “And the Fifth Cohort took the blame,” Percy guessed. “So now everyone thinks we’re cursed. ”

  Hazel realized her gumbo was cold. She sipped a spoonful, but the comfort food didn’t taste very comforting. “We’ve been the outcasts of the legion since…well, since the Alaska disaster. Our reputation got better when Jason became praetor—”

  “The kid who’s missing?” Percy asked.

  “Yeah,” Frank said. “I never met him. Before my time. But I hear he was a good leader. He practically grew up in the Fifth Cohort. He didn’t care what people thought about us. He started to rebuild our reputation. Then he disappeared. ”

  “Which put us back at square one,” Hazel said bitterly. “Made us look cursed all over again. I’m sorry, Percy. Now you know what you’ve gotten yourself into. ”

  Percy sipped his blue soda and gazed thoughtfully across the dining hall. “I don’t even know where I come from…but I’ve got a feeling this isn’t the first time I’ve been an underdog. ” He focused on Hazel and managed a smile. “Besides, joining the legion is better than being chased through the wilderness by monsters. I’ve got myself some new friends. Maybe together we can turn things around for the Fifth Cohort, huh?”

  A horn blew at the end of the hall. The officers at the praetor’s table got to their feet—even Dakota, his mouth vampire-red from Kool-Aid.

  “The games begin!” Reyna announced. The campers cheered and rushed to collect their equipment from the stacks along the walls.

  “So we’re the attacking team?” Percy asked over the noise. “Is that good?”

  Hazel shrugged. “Good news: we get the elephant. Bad news—”

  “Let me guess,” said Percy. “The Fifth Cohort always loses. ”

  Frank slapped Percy on the shoulder. “I love this guy. Come on, new friend. Let’s go chalk up my thirteenth defeat in a row!”

  IX Frank

R GAMES, Frank replayed the day in his mind. He couldn’t believe how close he’d come to death.

  That morning on sentry duty, before Percy showed up, Frank had almost told Hazel his secret. The two of them had been standing for hours in the chilly fog, watching the commuter traffic on Highway 24. Hazel had been complaining about the cold.

  “I’d give anything to be warm,” she said, her teeth chattering. “I wish we had a fire. ” Even with her armor on, she looked great. Frank liked the way her cinnamon-toast–colored hair curled around the edges of her helmet, and the way her chin dimpled when she frowned. She was tiny compared to Frank, which made him feel like a big clumsy ox. He wanted to put his arms around her to warm her up, but he’d never do that. She’d probably hit him, and he’d lose the only friend he had at camp.

  I could make a really impressive fire, he thought. Of course, it would only burn for a few minutes, and then I’d die. …

  It was scary that he even considered it. Hazel had that effect on him. Whenever she wanted something, he had the irrational urge to provide it. He wanted to be the old-fashioned knight riding to her rescue, which was stupid, as she was way more capable at everything than he was.

  He imagined what his grandmother would say: Frank Zhang riding to the rescue? Ha! He’d fall off his horse and break his neck.

  Hard to believe it had been only six weeks since he’d left his grandmother’s house—six weeks since his mom’s funeral.

  Everything had happened since then: wolves arriving at his grandmother’s door, the journey to Camp Jupiter, the weeks he’d spent in the Fifth Cohort trying not to be a complete failure. Through it all, he’d kept the half-burned piece of firewood wrapped in a cloth in his coat pocket.

  Keep it close, his grandmother had warned. As long as it is safe, you are safe.

  The problem was that it burned so easily. He remembered the trip south from Vancouver. When the temperature dropped below freezing near Mount Hood, Frank had brought out the piece of tinder and held it in his hands, imagining how nice it would be to have some fire. Immediately, the charred end blazed with a searing yellow flame. It lit up the night and warmed Frank to the bone, but he could feel his life slipping away, as if he were being consumed rather than the wood. He’d thrust the flame into a snowbank. For a horrible moment it kept burning. When it finally went out, Frank got his panic under control. He wrapped the piece of wood and put it back in his coat pocket, determined not to bring it out again. But he couldn’t forget it.

  It was as though someone had said, “Whatever you do, don’t think about that stick bursting into flame!”

  So of course, that’s all he thought about.

  On sentry duty with Hazel, he would try to take his mind off it. He loved spending time with her. He asked her about growing up in New Orleans, but she got edgy at his questions, so they made small talk instead. Just for fun, they tried to speak French to each other. Hazel had some Creole blood on her mother’s side. Frank had taken French in school. Neither of them was very fluent, and Louisiana French was so different from Canadian French it was almost impossible to converse. When Frank asked Hazel how her beef was feeling today, and she replied that his shoe was green, they decided to give up.

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