The house of hades, p.29
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       The House of Hades, p.29
 

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
Page 29

 

  “What?” she cried. “What is it?”

  “Cliff,” he gasped. “Big cliff. ”

  “Which way, then?”

  Percy couldn’t see how far the cliff dropped. It could be ten feet or a thousand. There was no telling what was at the bottom. They could jump and hope for the best, but he doubted “the best” ever happened in Tartarus.

  So, two options: right or left, following the edge.

  He was about to choose randomly when a winged demon descended in front of him, hovering over the void on her bat wings, just out of sword reach.

  Did you have a nice walk? asked the collective voice, echoing all around them.

  Percy turned. The arai poured out of the woods, making a crescent around them. One grabbed Annabeth’s arm. Annabeth wailed in rage, judo-flipping the monster and dropping on its neck, putting her whole body weight into an elbow strike that would’ve made any pro wrestler proud.

  The demon dissolved, but when Annabeth got to her feet, she looked stunned and afraid as well as blind.

  “Percy?” she called, panic creeping into her voice.

  “I’m right here. ”

  He tried to put his hand on her shoulder, but she wasn’t standing where he thought. He tried again, only to find she was several feet farther away. It was like trying to grab something in a tank of water, with the light shifting the image away.

  “Percy!” Annabeth’s voice cracked. “Why did you leave me?”

  “I didn’t!” He turned on the arai, his arms shaking with anger. “What did you do to her?”

  We did nothing, the demons said. Your beloved has unleashed a special curse—a bitter thought from someone you abandoned. You punished an innocent soul by leaving her in her solitude. Now her most hateful wish has come to pass: Annabeth feels her despair. She, too, will perish alone and abandoned.

  “Percy?” Annabeth spread her arms, trying to find him. The arai backed up, letting her stumble blindly through their ranks.

  “Who did I abandon?” Percy demanded. “I never—”

  Suddenly his stomach felt like it had dropped off the cliff.

  The words rang in his head: An innocent soul. Alone and abandoned. He remembered an island, a cave lit with soft glowing crystals, a dinner table on the beach tended by invisible air spirits.

  “She wouldn’t,” he mumbled. “She’d never curse me. ”

  The eyes of the demons blurred together like their voices. Percy’s sides throbbed. The pain in his chest was worse, as if someone were slowly twisting a dagger.

  Annabeth wandered among the demons, desperately calling his name. Percy longed to run to her, but he knew the arai wouldn’t allow it. The only reason they hadn’t killed her yet was that they were enjoying her misery.

  Percy clenched his jaw. He didn’t care how many curses he suffered. He had to keep these leathery old hags focused on him and protect Annabeth as long as he could.

  He yelled in fury and attacked them all.

  FOR ONE EXCITING MINUTE, Percy felt like he was winning. Riptide cut through the arai as though they were made of powdered sugar. One panicked and ran face-first into a tree. Another screeched and tried to fly away, but Percy sliced off her wings and sent her spiraling into the chasm.

  Each time a demon disintegrated, Percy felt a heavier sense of dread as another curse settled on him. Some were harsh and painful: a stabbing in the gut, a burning sensation like he was being blasted by a blowtorch. Some were subtle: a chill in the blood, an uncontrollable tic in his right eye.

  Seriously, who curses you with their dying breath and says: I hope your eye twitches!

  Percy knew that he’d killed a lot of monsters, but he’d never really thought about it from the monsters’ point of view. Now all their pain and anger and bitterness poured over him, sapping his strength.

  The arai just kept coming. For every one he cut down, six more seemed to appear.

  His sword arm grew tired. His body ached, and his vision blurred. He tried to make his way toward Annabeth, but she was just out of reach, calling his name as she wandered among the demons.

  As Percy blundered toward her, a demon pounced and sank its teeth into his thigh. Percy roared. He sliced the demon to dust, but immediately fell to his knees.

  His mouth burned worse than when he had swallowed the firewater of the Phlegethon. He doubled over, shuddering and retching, as a dozen fiery snakes seemed to work their way down his esophagus.

  You have chosen, said the voice of the arai, the curse of Phineas…an excellent painful death.

  Percy tried to speak. His tongue felt like it was being microwaved. He remembered the old blind king who had chased harpies through Portland with a WeedWacker. Percy had challenged him to a contest, and the loser had drunk a deadly vial of gorgon’s blood. Percy didn’t remember the old blind man muttering a final curse, but as Phineas dissolved and returned to the Underworld, he probably hadn’t wished Percy a long and happy life.

  After Percy’s victory then, Gaea had warned him: Do not press your luck. When your death comes, I promise it will be much more painful than gorgon’s blood.

  Now he was in Tartarus, dying from gorgon’s blood plus a dozen other agonizing curses, while he watched his girlfriend stumble around, helpless and blind and believing he’d abandoned her. He clutched his sword. His knuckles started to steam. White smoke curled off his forearms.

  I won’t die like this, he thought.

  Not only because it was painful and insultingly lame, but because Annabeth needed him. Once he was dead, the demons would turn their attention to her. He couldn’t leave her alone.

  The arai clustered around him, snickering and hissing.

  His head will erupt first, the voice speculated.

  No, the voice answered itself from another direction. He will combust all at once.

  They were placing bets on how he would die…what sort of scorch mark he would leave on the ground.

  “Bob,” he croaked. “I need you. ”

  A hopeless plea. He could barely hear himself. Why should Bob answer his call twice? The Titan knew the truth now. Percy was no friend.

  He raised his eyes one last time. His surroundings seemed to flicker. The sky boiled and the ground blistered.

  Percy realized that what he saw of Tartarus was only a watered-down version of its true horror—only what his demigod brain could handle. The worst of it was veiled, the same way the Mist veiled monsters from mortal sight. Now as Percy died, he began to see the truth.

  The air was the breath of Tartarus. All these monsters were just blood cells circulating through his body. Everything Percy saw was a dream in the mind of the dark god of the pit.

  This must have been the way Nico had seen Tartarus, and it had almost destroyed his sanity. Nico…one of the many people Percy hadn’t treated well enough. He and Annabeth had only made it this far through Tartarus because Nico di Angelo had behaved like Bob’s true friend.

  You see the horror of the pit? the arai said soothingly. Give up, Percy Jackson. Isn’t death better than enduring this place?

  “I’m sorry,” Percy murmured.

  He apologizes! The arai shrieked with delight. He regrets his failed life, his crimes against the children of Tartarus!

  “No,” Percy said. “I’m sorry, Bob. I should’ve been honest with you. Please…forgive me. Protect Annabeth. ”

  He didn’t expect Bob to hear him or care, but it felt right to clear his conscience. He couldn’t blame anyone else for his troubles. Not the gods. Not Bob. He couldn’t even blame Calypso, the girl he’d left alone on that island. Maybe she’d turned bitter and cursed Percy’s girlfriend out of despair. Still…Percy should have followed up with Calypso, made sure the gods sprang her from her exile on Ogygia like they’d promised. He hadn’t treated her any better than he’d treated Bob. He hadn’t even thought much about her, though her moonlace plant still bloomed in his mom’s window box.

 
It took all his remaining effort, but he got to his feet. Steam rose from his whole body. His legs shook. His insides churned like a volcano.

  At least Percy could go out fighting. He raised Riptide.

  But before he could strike, all the arai in front of him exploded into dust.

  BOB SERIOUSLY KNEW HOW TO USE A BROOM.

  He slashed back and forth, destroying the demons one after the other while Small Bob the kitten sat on his shoulder, arching his back and hissing.

  In a matter of seconds, the arai were gone. Most had been vaporized. The smart ones had flown off into the darkness, shrieking in terror.

  Percy wanted to thank the Titan, but his voice wouldn’t work. His legs buckled. His ears rang. Through a red glow of pain, he saw Annabeth a few yards away, wandering blindly toward the edge of the cliff.

  “Uh!” Percy grunted.

  Bob followed his gaze. He bounded toward Annabeth and scooped her up. She yelled and kicked, pummeling Bob’s gut, but Bob didn’t seem to care. He carried her over to Percy and put her down gently.

  The Titan touched her forehead. “Owie. ”

  Annabeth stopped fighting. Her eyes cleared. “Where— what—?”

  She saw Percy, and a series of expressions flashed across her face—relief, joy, shock, horror. “What’s wrong with him?” she cried. “What happened?”

  She cradled his shoulders and wept into his scalp.

  Percy wanted to tell her it was okay, but of course it wasn’t. He couldn’t even feel his body anymore. His consciousness was like a small helium balloon, loosely tied to the top of his head. It had no weight, no strength. It just kept expanding, getting lighter and lighter. He knew that soon it would either burst or the string would break, and his life would float away.

  Annabeth took his face in her hands. She kissed him and tried to wipe the dust and sweat from his eyes.

  Bob loomed over them, his broom planted like a flag. His face was unreadable, luminously white in the dark.

  “Lots of curses,” Bob said. “Percy has done bad things to monsters. ”

  “Can you fix him?” Annabeth pleaded. “Like you did with my blindness? Fix Percy!”

  Bob frowned. He picked at the name tag on his uniform like it was a scab.

  Annabeth tried again. “Bob—”

  “Iapetus,” Bob said, his voice a low rumble. “Before Bob. It was Iapetus. ”

  The air was absolutely still. Percy felt helpless, barely connected to the world.

  “I like Bob better. ” Annabeth’s voice was surprisingly calm. “Which do you like?”

  The Titan regarded her with his pure silver eyes. “I do not know anymore. ”

  He crouched next to her and studied Percy. Bob’s face looked haggard and careworn, as if he suddenly felt the weight of all his centuries.

  “I promised,” he murmured. “Nico asked me to help. I do not think Iapetus or Bob likes breaking promises. ” He touched Percy’s forehead.

  “Owie,” the Titan murmured. “Very big owie. ”

  Percy sank back into his body. The ringing in his ears faded. His vision cleared. He still felt like he had swallowed a deep fryer. His insides bubbled. He could sense that the poison had only been slowed, not removed.

  But he was alive.

  He tried to meet Bob’s eyes, to express his gratitude. His head lolled against his chest.

 
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