The house of hades, p.36
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       The House of Hades, p.36
 

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
Page 36

 

  Nico knelt and picked it up. He regarded Jason, as if waiting for an attack. “If the others found out—”

  “If the others found out,” Jason said, “you’d have that many more people to back you up, and to unleash the fury of the gods on anybody who gives you trouble. ”

  Nico scowled. Jason still felt the resentment and anger rippling off him.

  “But it’s your call,” Jason added. “Your decision to share or not. I can only tell you—”

  “I don’t feel that way anymore,” Nico muttered. “I mean…I gave up on Percy. I was young and impressionable, and I—I don’t…”

  His voice cracked, and Jason could tell the guy was about to get teary-eyed. Whether Nico had really given up on Percy or not, Jason couldn’t imagine what it had been like for Nico all those years, keeping a secret that would’ve been unthinkable to share in the 1940s, denying who he was, feeling completely alone—even more isolated than other demigods.

  “Nico,” he said gently, “I’ve seen a lot of brave things. But what you just did? That was maybe the bravest. ”

  Nico looked up uncertainly. “We should get back to the ship. ”

  “Yeah. I can fly us—”

  “No,” Nico announced. “This time we’re shadow-traveling. I’ve had enough of the winds for a while. ”

  LOSING HER SIGHT HAD BEEN BAD ENOUGH. Being isolated from Percy had been horrible.

  But now that she could see again, watching him die slowly from gorgon’s blood poison and being unable to do anything about it—that was the worst curse of all.

  Bob slung Percy over his shoulder like a bag of sports equipment while the skeleton kitten Small Bob curled up on Percy’s back and purred. Bob lumbered along at a fast pace, even for a Titan, which made it almost impossible for Annabeth to keep up.

  Her lungs rattled. Her skin had started to blister again. She probably needed another drink of firewater, but they’d left the River Phlegethon behind. Her body was so sore and battered that she’d forgotten what it was like not to be in pain.

  “How much longer?” she wheezed.

  “Almost too long,” Bob called back. “But maybe not. ”

  Very helpful, Annabeth thought, but she was too winded to say it.

  The landscape changed again. They were still going downhill, which should have made traveling easier; but the ground sloped at just the wrong angle—too steep to jog, too treacherous to let her guard down even for a moment. The surface was sometimes loose gravel, sometimes patches of slime. Annabeth stepped around random bristles sharp enough to impale her foot, and clusters of…well, not rocks exactly. More like warts the size of watermelons. If Annabeth had to guess (and she didn’t want to) she supposed Bob was leading her down the length of Tartarus’s large intestine.

  The air got thicker and stank of sewage. The darkness maybe wasn’t quite as intense, but she could only see Bob because of the glint of his white hair and the point of his spear. She noticed he hadn’t retracted the spearhead on his broom since their fight with the arai. That didn’t reassure her.

  Percy flopped around, causing the kitten to readjust his nest in the small of Percy’s back. Occasionally Percy would groan in pain, and Annabeth felt like a fist was squeezing her heart.

  She flashed back to her tea party with Piper, Hazel, and Aphrodite in Charleston. Gods, that seemed so long ago. Aphrodite had sighed and waxed nostalgic about the good old days of the Civil War—how love and war always went hand in hand.

  Aphrodite had gestured proudly to Annabeth, using her as an example for the other girls: I once promised to make her love life interesting. And didn’t I?

  Annabeth had wanted to throttle the goddess of love. She’d had more than her share of interesting. Now Annabeth was holding out for a happy ending. Surely that was possible, no matter what the legends said about tragic heroes. There had to be exceptions, right? If suffering led to reward, then Percy and she deserved the grand prize.

  She thought about Percy’s daydream of New Rome—the two of them settling down there, going to college together. At first, the idea of living among the Romans had appalled her. She had resented them for taking Percy away from her.

  Now she would accept that offer gladly.

  If only they survived this. If only Reyna had gotten her message. If only a million other long shots paid off.

  Stop it, she chided herself.

  She had to concentrate on the present, putting one foot in front of the other, taking this downhill intestinal hike one giant wart at a time.

  Her knees felt warm and wobbly, like wire hangers bent to the point of snapping. Percy groaned and muttered something she couldn’t make out.

  Bob stopped suddenly. “Look. ”

  Ahead in the gloom, the terrain leveled out into a black swamp. Sulfur-yellow mist hung in the air. Even without sunlight, there were actual plants—clumps of reeds, scrawny leafless trees, even a few sickly-looking flowers blooming in the muck. Mossy trails wound between bubbling tar pits. Directly in front of Annabeth, sunk into the bog, were footprints the size of trash-can lids, with long, pointed toes.

  Sadly, Annabeth was pretty sure she knew what had made them. “Drakon?”

  “Yes. ” Bob grinned at her. “That is good!”

  “Uh…why?”

  “Because we are close. ”

  Bob marched into the swamp.

  Annabeth wanted to scream. She hated being at the mercy of a Titan—especially one who was slowly recovering his memory and bringing them to see a “good” giant. She hated forging through a swamp that was obviously the stomping ground of a drakon.

  But Bob had Percy. If she hesitated, she would lose them in the dark. She hurried after him, hopping from moss patch to moss patch and praying to Athena that she didn’t fall in a sinkhole.

  At least the terrain forced Bob to go slower. Once Annabeth caught up, she could walk right behind him and keep an eye on Percy, who was mumbling deliriously, his forehead dangerously hot. Several times he muttered Annabeth, and she fought back a sob. The kitten just purred louder and snuggled up.

  Finally the yellow mist parted, revealing a muddy clearing like an island in the muck. The ground was dotted with stunted trees and wart mounds. In the center loomed a large, domed hut made of bones and greenish leather. Smoke rose from a hole in the top. The entrance was covered with curtains of scaly reptile skin, and flanking the entrance, two torches made from colossal femur bones burned bright yellow.

  What really caught Annabeth’s attention was the drakon skull. Fifty yards into the clearing, about halfway to the hut, a massive oak tree jutted from the ground at a forty-five-degree angle. The jaws of a drakon skull encircled the trunk, as if the oak tree were the dead monster’s tongue.

  “Yes,” Bob murmured. “This is very good. ”

  Nothing about this place felt good to Annabeth.

  Before she could protest, Small Bob arched his back and hissed. Behind them, a mighty roar echoed through the swamp—a sound Annabeth had last heard in the Battle of Manhattan.

  She turned and saw the drakon charging toward them.

  THE MOST INSULTING PART?

  The drakon was easily the most beautiful thing Annabeth had seen since she had fallen into Tartarus. Its hide was dappled green and yellow, like sunlight through a forest canopy. Its reptilian eyes were Annabeth’s favorite shade of sea green (just like Percy’s). When its frills unfurled around its head, Annabeth couldn’t help but think what a regal and amazing monster it was that was about to kill her.

  It was easily as long as a subway train. Its massive talons dug into the mud as it pulled itself forward, its tail whipping from side to side. The drakon hissed, spitting jets of green poison that smoked on the mossy ground and set tar pits on fire, filling the air with the scent of fresh pine and ginger. The monster even smelled good. Like most drakons, it was wingless, longer, and more snakelike than a dragon, and it looked hungry.

  “Bob,”
Annabeth said, “what are we facing here?”

  “Maeonian drakon,” Bob said. “From Maeonia. ”

  More helpful information. Annabeth would’ve smacked Bob upside the head with his own broom if she could lift it. “Any way we can kill it?”

  “Us?” Bob said. “No. ”

  The drakon roared as if to accentuate the point, filling the air with more pine-ginger poison, which would have made an excellent car-freshener scent.

  “Get Percy to safety,” Annabeth said. “I’ll distract it. ”

  She had no idea how she would do that, but it was her only choice. She couldn’t let Percy die—not if she still had the strength to stand.

  “You don’t have to,” Bob said. “Any minute—”

  “ROOOOOAAAR!”

  Annabeth turned as the giant emerged from his hut.

  He was about twenty feet tall—typical giant height—with a humanoid upper body, and scaly reptilian legs, like a bipedal dinosaur. He held no weapon. Instead of armor, he wore only a shirt stitched together from sheep hides and green-spotted leather. His skin was cherry red; his beard and hair the color of iron rust, braided with tufts of grass, leaves, and swamp flowers.

  He shouted in challenge, but thankfully he wasn’t looking at Annabeth. Bob pulled her out of the way as the giant stormed toward the drakon.

  They clashed like some sort of weird Christmas combat scene—the red versus the green. The drakon spewed poison. The giant lunged to one side. He grabbed the oak tree and pulled it from the ground, roots and all. The old skull crumbled to dust as the giant hefted the tree like a baseball bat.

  The drakon’s tail lashed around the giant’s waist, dragging him closer to its gnashing teeth. But as soon as the giant was in range, he shoved the tree straight down the monster’s throat.

  Annabeth hoped she never had to see such a gruesome scene again. The tree pierced the drakon’s gullet and impaled it to the ground. The roots began to move, digging deeper as they touched the earth, anchoring the oak until it looked like it had stood in that spot for centuries. The drakon shook and thrashed, but it was pinned fast.

  The giant brought his fist down on the drakon’s neck. CRACK. The monster went limp. It began to dissolve, leaving only scraps of bone, meat, hide, and a new drakon skull whose open jaws ringed the oak tree.

  Bob grunted. “Good one. ”

  The kitten purred in agreement and started cleaning his paws.

  The giant kicked at the drakon’s remains, examining them critically. “No good bones,” he complained. “I wanted a new walking stick. Hmpf. Some good skin for the outhouse, though. ”

  He ripped some soft hide from the drakon’s frills and tucked it in his belt.

  “Uh…” Annabeth wanted to ask if the giant really used drakon hide for toilet paper, but she decided against it. “Bob, do you want to introduce us?”

  “Annabeth…” Bob patted Percy’s legs. “This is Percy. ”

  Annabeth hoped the Titan was just messing with her, though Bob’s face revealed nothing.

  She gritted her teeth. “I meant the giant. You promised he could help. ”

  “Promise?” The giant glanced over from his work. His eyes narrowed under his bushy red brows. “A big thing, a promise. Why would Bob promise my help?”

 
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