The son of neptune, p.19
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       The Son of Neptune, p.19

         Part #2 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 19


  Frank desperately wanted to run away and hide, but he couldn’t. He took three more steps. Then he sank to one knee.

  The other campers followed his example and knelt. Even Reyna dismounted.

  “That’s good,” the soldier said. “Kneeling is good. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Camp Jupiter. ”

  Frank noticed that one person wasn’t kneeling. Percy Jackson, his sword still in hand, was glaring at the giant soldier.

  “You’re Ares,” Percy said. “What do you want?”

  A collective gasp went up from two hundred campers and an elephant. Frank wanted to say something to excuse Percy and placate the god, but he didn’t know what. He was afraid the war god would blast his new friend with that extra-large M16.

  Instead, the god bared his brilliant white teeth.

  “You’ve got spunk, demigod,” he said. “Ares is my Greek form. But to these followers, to the children of Rome, I am Mars—patron of the empire, divine father of Romulus and Remus. ”

  “We’ve met,” Percy said. “We…we had a fight. …”

  The god scratched his chin, as if trying to recall. “I fight a lot of people. But I assure you—you’ve never fought me as Mars. If you had, you’d be dead. Now, kneel, as befits a child of Rome, before you try my patience. ”

  Around Mars’s feet, the ground boiled in a circle of flame.

  “Percy,” Frank said, “please. ”

  Percy clearly didn’t like it, but he knelt.

  Mars scanned the crowd. “Romans, lend me your ears!” He laughed—a good, hearty bellow, so infectious it almost made Frank smile, though he was still shivering with fear. “I’ve always wanted to say that. I come from Olympus with a message. Jupiter doesn’t like us communicating directly with mortals, especially nowadays, but he has allowed this exception, as you Romans have always been my special people. I’m only permitted to speak for a few minutes, so listen up. ”

  He pointed at Gwen. “This one should be dead, yet she’s not. The monsters you fight no longer return to Tartarus when they are slain. Some mortals who died long ago are now walking the earth again. ”

  Was it Frank’s imagination, or did the god glare at Nico di Angelo?

  “Thanatos has been chained,” Mars announced. “The Doors of Death have been forced open, and no one is policing them—at least, not impartially. Gaea allows our enemies to pour forth into the world of mortals. Her sons the giants are mustering armies against you—armies that you will not be able to kill. Unless Death is unleashed to return to his duties, you will be overrun. You must find Thanatos and free him from the giants. Only he can reverse the tide. ”

  Mars looked around, and noticed that everyone was still silently kneeling. “Oh, you can get up now. Any questions?”

  Reyna rose uneasily. She approached the god, followed by Octavian, who was bowing and scraping like a champion groveler.

  “Lord Mars,” Reyna said, “we are honored. ”

  “Beyond honored,” said Octavian. “So far beyond honored—”

  “Well?” Mars snapped.

  “Well,” Reyna said, “Thanatos is the god of death, the lieutenant of Pluto?”

  “Right,” the god said.

  “And you’re saying that he’s been captured by giants. ”

  “Right. ”

  “And therefore people will stop dying?”

  “Not all at once,” Mars said. “But the barriers between life and death will continue to weaken. Those who know how to take advantage of this will exploit it. Monsters are already harder to dispatch. Soon they will be completely impossible to kill. Some demigods will also be able to find their way back from the Underworld—like your friend Centurion Shishkebab. ”

  Gwen winced. “Centurion Shish kebab?”

  “If left unchecked,” Mars continued, “even mortals will eventually find it impossible to die. Can you imagine a world in which no one dies—ever?”

  Octavian raised his hand. “But, ah, mighty all-powerful Lord Mars, if we can’t die, isn’t that a good thing? If we can stay alive indefinitely—”

  “Don’t be foolish, boy!” Mars bellowed. “Endless slaughter with no conclusion? Carnage without any point? Enemies that rise again and again and can never be killed? Is that what you want?”

  “You’re the god of war,” Percy spoke up. “Don’t you want endless carnage?”

  Mars’s infrared goggles glowed brighter. “Insolent, aren’t you? Perhaps I have fought you before. I can understand why I’d want to kill you. I’m the god of Rome, child. I am the god of military might used for a righteous cause. I protect the legions. I am happy to crush my enemies underfoot, but I don’t fight without reason. I don’t want war without end.

  You will discover this. You will serve me. ”

  “Not likely,” Percy said.

  Again, Frank waited for the god to strike him down, but Mars just grinned like they were two old buddies talking trash.

  “I order a quest!” the god announced. “You will go north and find Thanatos in the land beyond the gods. You will free him and thwart the plans of the giants. Beware Gaea! Beware her son, the eldest giant!”

  Next to Frank, Hazel made a squeaking sound. “The land beyond the gods?”

  Mars stared down at her, his grip tightening on his M16. “That’s right, Hazel Levesque. You know what I mean. Everyone here remembers the land where the legion lost its honor! Perhaps if the quest succeeds, and you return by the Feast of Fortuna…perhaps then your honor will be restored. If you don’t succeed, there won’t be any camp left to return to. Rome will be overrun, its legacy lost forever. So my advice is: Don’t fail. ”

  Octavian somehow managed to bow even lower. “Um, Lord Mars, just one tiny thing. A quest requires a prophecy, a mystical poem to guide us! We used to get them from the Sibylline books, but now it’s up to the augur to glean the will of gods. So if I could just run and get about seventy stuffed animals and possibly a knife—”

  “You’re the augur?” the god interrupted.

  “Y-yes, my lord. ”

  Mars pulled a scroll from his utility belt. “Anyone got a pen?”

  The legionnaires stared at him.

  Mars sighed. “Two hundred Romans, and no one’s got a pen? Never mind!”

  He slung his M16 onto his back and pulled out a hand grenade. There were many screaming Romans. Then the grenade morphed into a ballpoint pen, and Mars began to write.

  Frank looked at Percy with wide eyes. He mouthed: Can your sword do grenade form?

  Percy mouthed back, No. Shut up.

  “There!” Mars finished writing and threw the scroll at Octavian. “A prophecy. You can add it to your books, engrave it on your floor, whatever. ”

  Octavian read the scroll. “This says, ‘Go to Alaska. Find Thanatos and free him. Come back by sundown on June twenty-fourth or die. ’”

  “Yes,” Mars said. “Is that not clear?”

  “Well, my lord…usually prophecies are unclear. They’re wrapped in riddles. They rhyme, and…”

  Mars casually popped another grenade off his belt. “Yes?”

  “The prophecy is clear!” Octavian announced. “A quest!”

  “Good answer. ” Mars tapped the grenade to his chin. “Now, what else? There was something else. …Oh, yes. ”

  He turned to Frank. “C’mere, kid. ”

  No, Frank thought. The burned stick in his coat pocket felt heavier. His legs turned wobbly. A sense of dread settled over him, worse than the day the military officer had come to the door.

  He knew what was coming, but he couldn’t stop it. He stepped forward against his will.

  Mars grinned. “Nice job taking the wall, kid. Who’s the ref for this game?”

  Reyna raised her hand.

  “You see that play, ref?” Mars demanded. “That was my kid. First over the wall, won the game for his team. Unless you’re blind, that was an MVP play. You’re not blind, are you?”

/>   Reyna looked like she was trying to swallow a mouse. “No, Lord Mars. ”

  “Then make sure he gets the Mural Crown,” Mars demanded. “My kid, here!” he yelled at the legion, in case anyone hadn’t heard. Frank wanted to melt into the dirt.

  “Emily Zhang’s son,” Mars continued. “She was a good soldier. Good woman. This kid Frank proved his stuff tonight. Happy late birthday, kid. Time you stepped up to a real man’s weapon. ”

  He tossed Frank his M16. For a split second Frank though the’d be crushed under the weight of the massive assault rifle, but the gun changed in midair, becoming smaller and thinner. When Frank caught it, the weapon was a spear. It had a shaft of Imperial gold and a strange point like a white bone, flickering with ghostly light.

  “The tip is a dragon’s tooth,” Mars said. “You haven’t learned to use your mom’s talents yet, have you? Well—that spear will give you some breathing room until you do. You get three charges out of it, so use it wisely. ”

  Frank didn’t understand, but Mars acted like the matter was closed. “Now, my kid Frank Zhang is gonna lead the quest to free Thanatos, unless there are any objections?”

  Of course, no one said a word. But many of the campers glared at Frank with envy, jealousy, anger, bitterness.

  “You can take two companions,” Mars said. “Those are the rules. One of them needs to be this kid. ”

  He pointed at Percy. “He’s gonna learn some respect for Mars on this trip, or die trying. As for the second, I don’t care. Pick whomever you want. Have one of your senate debates. You all are good at those. ”

  The god’s image flickered. Lightning crackled across the sky.

  “That’s my cue,” Mars said. “Until next time, Romans. Do not disappoint me!”

  The god erupted in flames, and then he was gone.

  Reyna turned toward Frank. Her expression was part amazement, part nausea, like she’d finally managed to swallow that mouse. She raised her arm in a Roman salute. “Ave, Frank Zhang, son of Mars. ”

  The whole legion followed her lead, but Frank didn’t want their attention anymore. His perfect night had been ruined.

  Mars was his father. The god of war was sending him to Alaska. Frank had been handed more than a spear for his birthday. He’d been handed a death sentence.

  XIII Percy

  PERCY SLEPT LIKE A MEDUSA VICTIM—which is to say, like a rock.

  He hadn’t crashed in a safe, comfortable bed since…well, he couldn’t even remember. Despite his insane day and the million thoughts running through his head, his body took over and said: You will sleep now.

  He had dreams, of course. He always had dreams, but they passed like blurred images from the window of a train. He saw a curly-haired faun in ragged clothes running to catch up with him.

  “I don’t have any spare change,” Percy called.

  “What?” the faun said. “No, Percy. It’s me, Grover! Stay put! We’re on our way to find you. Tyson is close—at least we think he’s the closest. We’re trying to get a lock on your position. ”

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