The house of hades, p.42
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       The House of Hades, p.42
 

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
Page 42

 

  The goddess’s face was only six inches from hers. Khione smiled, knowing she had won.

  “A child of Aphrodite,” she chided. “You are nothing. ”

  Festus creaked again. Piper could swear he was trying to shout encouragement.

  Suddenly her chest grew warm—not with anger or fear, but with love for that dragon; and Jason, who was depending on her; and her friends trapped below; and Leo, who was lost and would need her help.

  Maybe love was no match for ice…but Piper had used it to wake a metal dragon. Mortals did superhuman feats in the name of love all the time. Mothers lifted cars to save their children. And Piper was more than just mortal. She was a demigod. A hero.

  The ice melted on her blade. Her arm steamed under Khione’s grip.

  “Still underestimating me,” Piper told the goddess. “You really need to work on that. ”

  Khione’s smug expression faltered as Piper drove her dagger straight down.

  The blade touched Khione’s chest, and the goddess exploded in a miniature blizzard. Piper collapsed, dazed from the cold. She heard Festus clacking and whirring, the reactivated alarm bells ringing.

  The bomb.

  Piper struggled to rise. The sphere was ten feet away, hissing and spinning as the winds inside began to stir.

  Piper dove for it.

  Her fingers closed around the bomb just as the ice shattered and the winds exploded.

  PERCY FELT HOMESICK FOR THE SWAMP.

  He never thought he’d miss sleeping in a giant’s leather bed in a drakon-bone hut in a festering cesspool, but right now that sounded like Elysium.

  He and Annabeth and Bob stumbled along in the darkness, the air thick and cold, the ground alternating patches of pointy rocks and pools of muck. The terrain seemed to be designed so that Percy could never let his guard down. Even walking ten feet was exhausting.

  Percy had started out from the giant’s hut feeling strong again, his head clear, his belly full of drakon jerky from their packs of provisions. Now his legs were sore. Every muscle ached. He pulled a makeshift tunic of drakon leather over his shredded T-shirt, but it did nothing to keep out the chill.

  His focus narrowed to the ground in front of him. Nothing existed except for that and Annabeth at his side.

  Whenever he felt like giving up, plopping himself down, and dying (which was, like, every ten minutes), he reached over and took her hand, just to remember there was warmth in the world.

  After Annabeth’s talk with Damasen, Percy was worried about her. Annabeth didn’t give in to despair easily, but as they walked, she wiped tears from her eyes, trying not to let Percy see. He knew she hated it when her plans didn’t work out. She was convinced they needed Damasen’s help, but the giant had turned them down.

  Part of Percy was relieved. He was concerned enough about Bob’s staying on their side once they reached the Doors of Death. He wasn’t sure he wanted a giant as his wingman, even if that giant could cook a mean bowl of stew.

  He wondered what had happened after they left Damasen’s hut. He hadn’t heard their pursuers in hours, but he could sense their hatred…especially Polybotes’s. That giant was back there somewhere, following, pushing them deeper into Tartarus.

  Percy tried to think of good things to keep his spirits up—the lake at Camp Half-Blood, the time he’d kissed Annabeth underwater. He tried to imagine the two of them at New Rome together, walking through the hills and holding hands. But Camp Jupiter and Camp Half-Blood both seemed like dreams. He felt as if only Tartarus existed. This was the real world—death, darkness, cold, pain. He’d been imagining all the rest.

  He shivered. No. That was the pit speaking to him, sapping his resolve. He wondered how Nico had survived down here alone without going insane. That kid had more strength than Percy had given him credit for. The deeper they traveled, the harder it became to stay focused.

  “This place is worse than the River Cocytus,” he muttered.

  “Yes,” Bob called back happily. “Much worse! It means we are close. ”

  Close to what? Percy wondered. But he didn’t have the strength to ask. He noticed Small Bob the cat had hidden himself in Bob’s coveralls again, which reinforced Percy’s opinion that the kitten was the smartest one in their group.

  Annabeth laced her fingers through his. In the light of his bronze sword, her face was beautiful.

  “We’re together,” she reminded him. “We’ll get through this. ”

  He’d been so worried about lifting her spirits, and here she was reassuring him.

  “Yeah,” he agreed. “Piece of cake. ”

  “But next time,” she said, “I want to go somewhere different on a date. ”

  “Paris was nice,” he recalled.

  She managed a smile. Months ago, before Percy got amnesia, they’d had dinner in Paris one night, compliments of Hermes. That seemed like another lifetime.

  “I’d settle for New Rome,” she offered. “As long as you’re there with me. ”

  Man, Annabeth was awesome. For a moment, Percy actually remembered what it was like to feel happy. He had an amazing girlfriend. They could have a future together.

  Then the darkness dispersed with a massive sigh, like the last breath of a dying god. In front of them was a clearing—a barren field of dust and stones. In the center, about twenty yards away, knelt the gruesome figure of a woman, her clothes tattered, her limbs emaciated, her skin leathery green. Her head was bent as she sobbed quietly, and the sound shattered all Percy’s hopes.

  He realized that life was pointless. His struggles were for nothing. This woman cried as if mourning the death of the entire world.

  “We’re here,” Bob announced. “Akhlys can help. ”

  IF THE SOBBING GHOUL WAS BOB’S IDEA OF HELP, Percy was pretty sure he didn’t want it.

  Nevertheless, Bob trudged forward. Percy felt obliged to follow. If nothing else, this area was less dark—not exactly light, but with more of a soupy white fog.

  “Akhlys!” Bob called.

  The creature raised her head, and Percy’s stomach screamed, Help me!

  Her body was bad enough. She looked like the victim of a famine—limbs like sticks, swollen knees and knobby elbows, rags for clothes, broken fingernails and toenails. Dust was caked on her skin and piled on her shoulders as if she’d taken a shower at the bottom of an hourglass.

  Her face was utter desolation. Her eyes were sunken and rheumy, pouring out tears. Her nose dripped like a waterfall. Her stringy gray hair was matted to her skull in greasy tufts, and her cheeks were raked and bleeding as if she’d been clawing herself.

  Percy couldn’t stand to meet her eyes, so he lowered his gaze. Across her knees lay an ancient shield—a battered circle of wood and bronze, painted with the likeness of Akhlys herself holding a shield, so the image seemed to go on forever, smaller and smaller.

  “That shield,” Annabeth murmured. “That’s his. I thought it was just a story. ”

  “Oh, no,” the old hag wailed. “The shield of Hercules. He painted me on its surface, so his enemies would see me in their final moments—the goddess of misery. ” She coughed so hard, it made Percy’s chest hurt. “As if Hercules knew true misery. It’s not even a good likeness!”

  Percy gulped. When he and his friends had encountered Hercules at the Straits of Gibraltar, it hadn’t gone well. The exchange had involved a lot of yelling, death threats, and high-velocity pineapples.

  “What’s his shield doing here?” Percy asked.

  The goddess stared at him with her wet milky eyes. Her cheeks dripped blood, making red polka dots on her tattered dress. “He doesn’t need it anymore, does he? It came here when his mortal body was burned. A reminder, I suppose, that no shield is sufficient. In the end, misery overtakes all of you. Even Hercules. ”

  Percy inched closer to Annabeth. He tried to remember why they were here, but the sense of despair made it difficult to think. Hearing Ak
hlys speak, he no longer found it strange that she had clawed her own cheeks. The goddess radiated pure pain.

  “Bob,” Percy said, “we shouldn’t have come here. ”

  From somewhere inside Bob’s uniform, the skeleton kitten mewled in agreement.

  The Titan shifted and winced as if Small Bob was clawing his armpit. “Akhlys controls the Death Mist,” he insisted. “She can hide you. ”

  “Hide them?” Akhlys made a gurgling sound. She was either laughing or choking to death. “Why would I do that?”

  “They must reach the Doors of Death,” Bob said. “To return to the mortal world. ”

  “Impossible!” Akhlys said. “The armies of Tartarus will find you. They will kill you. ”

  Annabeth turned the blade of her drakon-bone sword, which Percy had to admit made her look pretty intimidating and hot in a “Barbarian Princess” kind of way. “So I guess your Death Mist is pretty useless, then,” she said.

  The goddess bared her broken yellow teeth. “Useless? Who are you?”

  “A daughter of Athena. ” Annabeth’s voice sounded brave—though how she did it, Percy didn’t know. “I didn’t walk halfway across Tartarus to be told what’s impossible by some minor goddess. ”

  The dust quivered at their feet. Fog swirled around them with a sound like agonized wailing.

  “Minor goddess?” Akhlys’s gnarled fingernails dug into Hercules’s shield, gouging the metal. “I was old before the Titans were born, you ignorant girl. I was old when Gaea first woke. Misery is eternal. Existence is misery. I was born of the eldest ones—of Chaos and Night. I was—”

  “Yes, yes,” Annabeth said. “Sadness and misery, blah blah blah. But you still don’t have enough power to hide two demigods with your Death Mist. Like I said: useless. ”

  Percy cleared his throat. “Uh, Annabeth—”

  She flashed him a warning look: Work with me. He realized how terrified she was, but she had no choice. This was their best shot at stirring the goddess into action.

  “I mean…Annabeth is right!” Percy volunteered. “Bob brought us all this way because he thought you could help. But I guess you’re too busy staring at that shield and crying. I can’t blame you. It looks just like you. ”

  Akhlys wailed and glared at the Titan. “Why did you inflict these annoying children on me?”

  Bob made a sound somewhere between a rumble and a whimper. “I thought—I thought—”

  “The Death Mist is not for helping!” Akhlys shrieked. “It shrouds mortals in misery as their souls pass into the Underworld. It is the very breath of Tartarus, of death, of despair!”

  “Awesome,” Percy said. “Could we get two orders of that to go?”

  Akhlys hissed. “Ask me for a more sensible gift. I am also the goddess of poisons. I could give you death—thousands of ways to die less painful than the one you have chosen by marching into the heart of the pit. ”

  Around the goddess, flowers bloomed in the dust—dark purple, orange, and red blossoms that smelled sickly sweet. Percy’s head swam.

  “Nightshade,” Akhlys offered. “Hemlock. Belladonna, henbane, or strychnine. I can dissolve your innards, boil your blood. ”

 
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