The house of hades, p.3
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       The House of Hades, p.3
 

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
Page 3

 

  On either side of the crossroads, two dark metal torch-stands erupted from the dirt like plant stalks. Hecate fixed her torches in them, then walked a slow circle around Hazel, regarding her as if they were partners in some eerie dance.

  The black dog and the weasel followed in her wake.

  “You are like your mother,” Hecate decided.

  Hazel’s throat constricted. “You knew her?”

  “Of course. Marie was a fortune-teller. She dealt in charms and curses and gris-gris. I am the goddess of magic. ”

  Those pure black eyes seemed to pull at Hazel, as if trying to extract her soul. During her first lifetime in New Orleans, Hazel had been tormented by the kids at St. Agnes School because of her mother. They called Marie Levesque a witch. The nuns muttered that Hazel’s mother was trading with the Devil.

  If the nuns were scared of my mom, Hazel wondered, what would they make of this goddess?

  “Many fear me,” Hecate said, as if reading her thoughts. “But magic is neither good nor evil. It is a tool, like a knife. Is a knife evil? Only if the wielder is evil. ”

  “My—my mother…” Hazel stammered. “She didn’t believe in magic. Not really. She was just faking it, for the money. ”

  The weasel chittered and bared its teeth. Then it made a squeaking sound from its back end. Under other circumstances, a weasel passing gas might have been funny, but Hazel didn’t laugh. The rodent’s red eyes glared at her balefully, like tiny coals.

  “Peace, Gale,” said Hecate. She gave Hazel an apologetic shrug. “Gale does not like hearing about nonbelievers and con artists. She herself was once a witch, you see. ”

  “Your weasel was a witch?”

  “She’s a polecat, actually,” Hecate said. “But, yes—Gale was once a disagreeable human witch. She had terrible personal hygiene, plus extreme—ah, digestive issues. ” Hecate waved her hand in front of her nose. “It gave my other followers a bad name. ”

  “Okay. ” Hazel tried not to look at the weasel. She really didn’t want to know about the rodent’s intestinal problems.

  “At any rate,” Hecate said, “I turned her into a polecat. She’s much better as a polecat. ”

  Hazel swallowed. She looked at the black dog, which was affectionately nuzzling the goddess’s hand. “And your Labrador…?”

  “Oh, she’s Hecuba, the former queen of Troy,” Hecate said, as if that should be obvious.

  The dog grunted.

  “You’re right, Hecuba,” the goddess said. “We don’t have time for long introductions. The point is, Hazel Levesque, your mother may have claimed not to believe, but she had true magic. Eventually, she realized this. When she searched for a spell to summon the god Pluto, I helped her find it. ”

  “You…?”

  “Yes. ” Hecate continued circling Hazel. “I saw potential in your mother. I see even more potential in you. ”

  Hazel’s head spun. She remembered her mother’s confession just before she had died: how she’d summoned Pluto, how the god had fallen in love with her, and how, because of her greedy wish, her daughter Hazel had been born with a curse. Hazel could summon riches from the earth, but anyone who used them would suffer and die.

  Now this goddess was saying that she had made all that happen.

  “My mother suffered because of that magic. My whole life—”

  “Your life wouldn’t have happened without me,” Hecate said flatly. “I have no time for your anger. Neither do you. Without my help, you will die. ”

  The black dog snarled. The polecat snapped its teeth and passed gas.

  Hazel felt like her lungs were filling with hot sand.

  “What kind of help?” she demanded.

  Hecate raised her pale arms. The three gateways she’d come from—north, east, and west—began to swirl with Mist. A flurry of black-and-white images glowed and flickered, like the old silent movies that were still playing in theaters sometimes when Hazel was small.

  In the western doorway, Roman and Greek demigods in full armor fought one another on a hillside under a large pine tree. The grass was strewn with the wounded and the dying. Hazel saw herself riding Arion, charging through the melee and shouting—trying to stop the violence.

  In the gateway to the east, Hazel saw the Argo II plunging through the sky above the Apennines. Its rigging was in flames. A boulder smashed into the quarterdeck. Another punched through the hull. The ship burst like a rotten pumpkin, and the engine exploded.

  The images in the northern doorway were even worse. Hazel saw Leo, unconscious—or dead—falling through the clouds. She saw Frank staggering alone down a dark tunnel, clutching his arm, his shirt soaked in blood. And Hazel saw herself in a vast cavern filled with strands of light like a luminous web. She was struggling to break through while, in the distance, Percy and Annabeth lay sprawled and unmoving at the foot of two black-and-silver metal doors.

  “Choices,” said Hecate. “You stand at the crossroads, Hazel Levesque. And I am the goddess of crossroads. ”

  The ground rumbled at Hazel’s feet. She looked down and saw the glint of silver coins…thousands of old Roman denarii breaking the surface all around her, as if the entire hilltop was coming to a boil. She’d been so agitated by the visions in the doorways that she must have summoned every bit of silver in the surrounding countryside.

  “The past is close to the surface in this place,” Hecate said. “In ancient times, two great Roman roads met here. News was exchanged. Markets were held. Friends met, and enemies fought. Entire armies had to choose a direction. Crossroads are always places of decision. ”

  “Like…like Janus. ” Hazel remembered the shrine of Janus on Temple Hill back at Camp Jupiter. Demigods would go there to make decisions. They would flip a coin, heads or tails, and hope the two-faced god would guide them well. Hazel had always hated that place. She’d never understood why her friends were so willing to let a god take away their responsibility for choosing. After all Hazel had been through, she trusted the wisdom of the gods about as much as she trusted a New Orleans slot machine.

  The goddess of magic made a disgusted hiss. “Janus and his doorways. He would have you believe that all choices are black or white, yes or no, in or out. In fact, it’s not that simple. Whenever you reach the crossroads, there are always at least three ways to go…four, if you count going backward. You are at such a crossing now, Hazel. ”

  Hazel looked again at each swirling gateway: a demigod war, the destruction of the Argo II, disaster for herself and her friends. “All the choices are bad. ”

  “All choices have risks,” the goddess corrected. “But what is your goal?”

  “My goal?” Hazel waved helplessly at the doorways. “None of these. ”

  The dog Hecuba snarled. Gale the polecat skittered around the goddess’s feet, farting and gnashing her teeth.

  “You could go backward,” Hecate suggested, “retrace your steps to Rome…but Gaea’s forces are expecting that. None of you will survive. ”

  “So…what are you saying?”

  Hecate stepped to the nearest torch. She scooped a handful of fire and sculpted the flames until she was holding a miniature relief map of Italy.

  “You could go west. ” Hecate let her finger drift away from her fiery map. “Go back to America with your prize, the Athena Parthenos. Your comrades back home, Greek and Roman, are on the brink of war. Leave now, and you might save many lives. ”

  “Might,” Hazel repeated. “But Gaea is supposed to wake in Greece. That’s where the giants are gathering. ”

  “True. Gaea has set the date of August first, the Feast of Spes, goddess of hope, for her rise to power. By waking on the Day of Hope, she intends to destroy all hope forever. Even if you reached Greece by then, could you stop her? I do not know. ” Hecate traced her finger along the tops of the fiery Apennines. “You could go east, across the mountains, but Gaea will do anything to stop you from crossing Italy. She has raised her
mountain gods against you. ”

  “We noticed,” Hazel said.

  “Any attempt to cross the Apennines will mean the destruction of your ship. Ironically, this might be the safest option for your crew. I foresee that all of you would survive the explosion. It is possible, though unlikely, you could still reach Epirus and close the Doors of Death. You might find Gaea and prevent her rise. But by then, both demigod camps would be destroyed. You would have no home to return to. ” Hecate smiled. “More likely, the destruction of your ship would strand you in the mountains. It would mean the end of your quest, but it would spare you and your friends much pain and suffering in the days to come. The war with the giants would have to be won or lost without you. ”

  Won or lost without us.

  A small, guilty part of Hazel found that appealing. She’d been wishing for the chance to be a normal girl. She didn’t want any more pain or suffering for herself and her friends. They’d already been through so much.

  She looked behind Hecate at the middle gateway. She saw Percy and Annabeth sprawled helplessly before those black-and-silver doors. A massive dark shape, vaguely humanoid, now loomed over them, its foot raised as if to crush Percy.

  “What about them?” Hazel asked, her voice ragged. “Percy and Annabeth?”

  Hecate shrugged. “West, east, or south…they die. ”

  “Not an option,” Hazel said.

  “Then you have only one path, though it is the most dangerous. ”

  Hecate’s finger crossed her miniature Apennines, leaving a glowing white line in the red flames. “There is a secret pass here in the north, a place where I hold sway, where Hannibal once crossed when he marched against Rome. ”

  The goddess made a wide loop…to the top of Italy, then east to the sea, then down along the western coast of Greece. “Once through the pass, you would travel north to Bologna, and then to Venice. From there, sail the Adriatic to your goal, here: Epirus in Greece. ”

  Hazel didn’t know much about geography. She had no idea what the Adriatic Sea was like. She’d never heard of Bologna, and all she knew about Venice was vague stories about canals and gondolas. But one thing was obvious. “That’s so far out of the way. ”

  “Which is why Gaea will not expect you to take this route,” Hecate said. “I can obscure your progress somewhat, but the success of your journey will depend on you, Hazel Levesque. You must learn to use the Mist. ”

  “Me?” Hazel’s heart felt like it was tumbling down her rib cage. “Use the Mist how?”

  Hecate extinguished her map of Italy. She flicked her hand at the black dog Hecuba. Mist collected around the Labrador until she was completely hidden in a cocoon of white. The fog cleared with an audible poof! Where the dog had stood was a disgruntled-looking black kitten with golden eyes.

  “Mew,” it complained.

  “I am the goddess of the Mist,” Hecate explained. “I am responsible for keeping the veil that separates the world of the gods from the world of mortals. My children learn to use the Mist to their advantage, to create illusions or influence the minds of mortals. Other demigods can do this as well. And so must you, Hazel, if you are to help your friends. ”

 
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