The son of neptune, p.53
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       The Son of Neptune, p.53

         Part #2 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
 
Page 53

 

  “She’s my best friend,” Frank said. “I lost my mom, my grandmother…I can’t lose her, too. ”

  Percy thought about his old life—his mom in New York, Camp Half-Blood, Annabeth. He’d lost all of that for eight months. Even now, with the memories coming back…he’d never been this far away from home before. He’d been to the Underworld and back. He’d faced death dozens of times. But sitting at this picnic table, thousands of miles away, beyond the power of Olympus, he’d never been so alone—except for Hazel and Frank.

  “I’m not going to lose either of you,” he promised. “I’m not going to let that happen. And, Frank, you are a leader. Hazel would say the same thing. We need you. ”

  Frank lowered his head. He seemed lost in thought. Finally he leaned forward until his head bumped the picnic table. He started to snore in harmony with Hazel.

  Percy sighed. “Another inspiring speech from Jackson,” he said to himself. “Rest up, Frank. Big day ahead. ”

  * * *

  At dawn, the store opened up. The owner was a little surprised to find three teenagers crashed out on his picnic table, but when Percy explained that they had stumbled away from last night’s train wreck, the guy felt sorry for them and treated them to breakfast. He called a friend of his, an Inuit native who had a cabin close to Seward. Soon they were rumbling along the road in a beat-up Ford pickup that had been new about the time Hazel was born.

  Hazel and Frank sat in back. Percy rode up front with the leathery old man, who smelled like smoked salmon. He told Percy stories about Bear and Raven, the Inuit gods, and all Percy could think was that he hoped he didn’t meet them. He had enough enemies already.

  The truck broke down a few miles outside Seward. The driver didn’t seem surprised, as though this happened to him several times a day. He said they could wait for him to fix the engine, but since Seward was only a few miles away, they decided to walk it.

  By midmorning, they climbed over a rise in the road and saw a small bay ringed with mountains. The town was a thin crescent on the right-hand shore, with wharves extending into the water and a cruise ship in the harbor.

  Percy shuddered. He’d had bad experiences with cruise ships.

  “Seward,” Hazel said. She didn’t sound happy to see her old home.

  They’d already lost a lot of time, and Percy didn’t like how fast the sun was rising. The road curved around the hillside, but it looked like they could get to town faster going straight across the meadows.

  Percy stepped off the road. “Come on. ”

  The ground was squishy, but he didn’t think much about it until Hazel shouted, “Percy, no!”

  His next step went straight through the ground. He sank like a stone until the earth closed over his head—and the earth swallowed him.

  XLI Hazel

  “YOUR BOW!” HAZEL SHOUTED.

  Frank didn’t ask questions. He dropped his pack and slipped the bow off his shoulder.

  Hazel’s heart raced. She hadn’t thought about this boggy soil—muskeg—since before she had died. Now, too late, she remembered the dire warnings the locals had given her. Marshy silt and decomposed plants made a surface that looked completely solid, but it was even worse than quicksand. It could be twenty feet deep or more, and impossible to escape.

  She tried not to think what would happen if it were deeper than the length of the bow.

  “Hold one end,” she told Frank. “Don’t let go. ”

  She grabbed the other end, took a deep breath, and jumped into the bog. The earth closed over her head.

  Instantly, she was frozen in a memory.

  Not now! she wanted to scream. Ella said I was done with blackouts!

  Oh, but my dear, said the voice of Gaea, this is not one of your blackouts. This is a gift from me.

  Hazel was back in New Orleans. She and her mother sat in the park near their apartment, having a picnic breakfast. She remembered this day. She was seven years old. Her mother had just sold Hazel’s first precious stone: a small diamond. Neither of them had yet realized Hazel’s curse.

  Queen Marie was in an excellent mood. She had bought orange juice for Hazel and champagne for herself, and beignets sprinkled with chocolate and powdered sugar. She’d even bought Hazel a new box of crayons and a pad of paper. They sat together, Queen Marie humming cheerfully while Hazel drew pictures.

  The French Quarter woke up around them, ready for Mardi Gras. Jazz bands practiced. Floats were being decorated with fresh-cut flowers. Children laughed and chased each other, decked in so many colored necklaces they could barely walk. The sunrise turned the sky to red gold, and the warm steamy air smelled of magnolias and roses.

  It had been the happiest morning of Hazel’s life.

  “You could stay here. ” Her mother smiled, but her eyes were blank white. The voice was Gaea’s.

  “This is fake,” Hazel said.

  She tried to get up, but the soft bed of grass made her lazy and sleepy. The smell of baked bread and melting chocolate was intoxicating. It was the morning of Mardi Gras, and the world seemed full of possibilities. Hazel could almost believe she had a bright future.

  “What is real?” asked Gaea, speaking through her mother’s face. “Is your second life real, Hazel? You’re supposed to be dead. Is it real that you’re sinking into a bog, suffocating?”

  “Let me help my friend!” Hazel tried to force herself back to reality. She could imagine her hand clenched on the end of the bow, but even that was starting to feel fuzzy. Her grip was loosening. The smell of magnolias and roses was overpowering.

  Her mother offered her a beignet.

  No, Hazel thought. This isn’t my mother. This is Gaea tricking me.

  “You want your old life back,” Gaea said. “I can give you that. This moment can last for years. You can grow up in New Orleans, and your mother will adore you. You’ll never have to deal with the burden of your curse. You can be with Sammy—”

  “It’s an illusion!” Hazel said, choking on the sweet scent of flowers.

  “You are an illusion, Hazel Levesque. You were only brought back to life because the gods have a task for you. I may have used you, but Nico used you and lied about it. You should be glad I captured him. ”

  “Captured?” A feeling of panic rose in Hazel’s chest. “What do you mean?”

  Gaea smiled, sipping her champagne. “The boy should have known better than to search for the Doors. But no matter—it’s not really your concern. Once you release Thanatos, you’ll be thrown back into the Underworld to rot forever. Frank and Percy won’t stop that from happening. Would real friends ask you to give up your life? Tell me who is lying, and who tells you the truth. ”

  Hazel started to cry. Bitterness welled up inside her. She’d lost her life once. She didn’t want to die again.

  “That’s right,” Gaea purred. “You were destined to marry Sammy. Do you know what happened to him after you died in Alaska? He grew up and moved to Texas. He married and had a family. But he never forgot you. He always wondered why you disappeared. He’s dead now—a heart attack in the nineteen-sixties. The life you could’ve had together always haunted him. ”

  “Stop it!” Hazel screamed. “You took that from me!”

  “And you can have it again,” Gaea said. “I have you in my embrace, Hazel. You’ll die anyway. If you give up, at least I can make it pleasant for you. Forget saving Percy Jackson. He belongs to me. I’ll keep him safe in the earth until I’m ready to use him. You can have an entire life in your final moments—you can grow up, marry Sammy. All you have to do is let go. ”

  Hazel tightened her grip on the bow. Below her, something grabbed her ankles, but she didn’t panic. She knew it was Percy, suffocating, desperately grasping for a chance at life.

  Hazel glared at the goddess. “I’ll never cooperate with you! LET—US—GO!”

  Her mother’s face dissolved. The New Orleans morning melted into darkness. Hazel was drownin
g in mud, one hand on the bow, Percy’s hands around her ankles, deep in the darkness. Hazel wiggled the end of the bow frantically. Frank pulled her up with such force it nearly popped her arm out of the socket.

  When she opened her eyes, she was lying in the grass, covered in muck. Percy sprawled at her feet, coughing and spitting mud.

  Frank hovered over them, yelling, “Oh, gods! Oh, gods! Oh, gods!”

  He yanked some extra clothes from his bag and started toweling off Hazel’s face, but it didn’t do much good. He dragged Percy farther from the muskeg.

  “You were down there so long!” Frank cried. “I didn’t think—oh, gods, don’t ever do something like that again!”

  He wrapped Hazel in a bear hug.

  “Can’t—breathe,” she choked out.

  “Sorry!” Frank went back to toweling and fussing over them. Finally he got them to the side of the road, where they sat and shivered and spit up mud clods.

  Hazel couldn’t feel her hands. She wasn’t sure if she was cold or in shock, but she managed to explain about the muskeg, and the vision she’d seen while she was under. Not the part about Sammy—that was still too painful to say out loud—but she told them about Gaea’s offer of a fake life, and the goddess’ claim that she’d captured her brother Nico. Hazel didn’t want to keep that to herself. She was afraid the despair would overwhelm her.

  Percy rubbed his shoulders. His lips were blue. “You—you saved me, Hazel. We’ll figure out what happened to Nico, I promise. ”

  Hazel squinted at the sun, which was now high in the sky.

  The warmth felt good, but it didn’t stop her trembling. “Does it seem like Gaea let us go too easily?”

  Percy plucked a mud clod from his hair. “Maybe she still wants us as pawns. Maybe she was just saying things to mess with your mind. ”

  “She knew what to say,” Hazel agreed. “She knew how to get to me. ”

  Frank put his jacket around her shoulders. “This is a real life. You know that, right? We’re not going to let you die again. ”

  He sounded so determined. Hazel didn’t want to argue, but she didn’t see how Frank could stop Death. She pressed her coat pocket, where Frank’s half-burned firewood was still securely wrapped. She wondered what would’ve happened to him if she’d sunk in the mud forever. Maybe that would have saved him. Fire couldn’t have gotten to the wood down there.

  She would have made any sacrifice to keep Frank safe. Perhaps she hadn’t always felt that strongly, but Frank had trusted her with his life. He believed in her. She couldn’t bear the thought of any harm coming to him.

  She glanced at the rising sun. …Time was running out. She thought about Hylla, the Amazon Queen back in Seattle. Hylla would have dueled Otrera two nights in a row by now, assuming she had survived. She was counting on Hazel to release Death.

  She managed to stand. The wind coming off Resurrection Bay was just as cold as she remembered. “We should get going. We’re losing time. ”

  Percy gazed down the road. His lips were returning to their normal color. “Any hotels or something where we could clean off? I mean. . . hotels that accept mud people?”

 

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