He shook his head and put the dagger into my hands. He returned to writing: That blade was a gift from the girl I saved. She promised me it would always protect its owner.
Hal took a shaky breath. He must’ve known how bitterly ironic that promise sounded, given his curse. He wrote, A dagger doesn’t have the power or reach of a sword, but it can be an excellent weapon in the right hands. I’ll feel better knowing you have it.
He met my eyes, and I finally understood what he was planning. “Don’t,” I said. “We can all make it out.” Hal pursed his lips. He wrote, We both know that’s impossible. I can communicate with the leucrotae. I am the logical choice for bait. You and Thalia wait in the closet. I’ll lure the monsters into the bathroom. I’ll buy you a few seconds to reach the exit panel before I set off the explosion. It’s the only way you’ll have time.
“No,” I said.
But his expression was grim and determined. He didn’t look like a cowardly old man anymore. He looked like a demigod, ready to go out fighting.
I couldn’t believe he was offering to sacrifice his life for two kids he’d just met, especially after he’d suffered for so many years. And yet, I didn’t need pen and paper to see what he was thinking. This was his chance at redemption. He would do one last heroic thing, and his curse would end today, just as Apollo had foreseen.
He scribbled something and handed me the diary. The last word read: Promise.
I took a deep breath, and closed the book. “Yeah. I promise.”
Thunder shook the house. We both jumped. Over at the computer desk, something went ZZZAP-POP! White smoke billowed from the computer, and a smell like burning tires filled the room.
Thalia sat up grinning. The wall behind her was blistered and blackened. The electrical outlet had completely melted, but in her hands, the jelly jar of Greek fire was now glowing green.
“Someone order a magic bomb?” she asked.
Just then, the clock registered 7:03. The enclosure’s bars began to rise, and the panel at the back started to open.
We were out of time.
The old man held out his hand.
“Thalia,” I said. “Give Hal the Greek fire.”
She looked back and forth between us. “But—”
“He has to.” My voice sounded more gravelly than usual. “He’s going to help us escape.”
As the meaning of my words dawned on her, her face blanched. “Luke, no.”
The bars had risen halfway to the ceiling. The trapdoor ground open slowly. A red hoof thrust its way through the crack. Inside the chute, the leucrotae growled and clacked their jaws.
“There’s no time,” I warned. “Come on!”
Hal took the jar of fire from Thalia. He gave her a brave smile, then nodded to me. I remembered the final word he’d written: Promise.
I slipped his diary and dagger into my pack. Then I pulled Thalia into the closet with me.
A split second later, we heard the leucrotae burst into the room. All three of the monsters hissed and growled and trampled across the furniture, anxious to feed.
“In here!” Hal’s voice called. It must’ve been one of the monsters speaking for him, but his words sound brave and confident. “I’ve got them trapped in the bathroom! Come on, you ugly mutts!”
It was strange hearing a leucrota insult itself, but the ploy seemed to work. The creatures galloped toward the bathroom.
I gripped Thalia’s hand. “Now.”
We burst out of the closet and sprinted for the enclosure. Inside, the panel was already closing. One of the leucrotae snarled in surprise and turned to follow us, but I didn’t dare look back. We scrambled into the cage. I lunged for the exit panel, wedging it open with my golf club.
“Go, go, go!” I yelled.
Thalia wriggled through as the metal plate started to bend the golf club.
From the bathroom, Hal’s voice yelled, “You know what this is, you Tartarus scum dogs? This is your last meal!”
The leucrota landed on me. I twisted, screaming, as its bony mouth snapped at the air where my face had just been.
I managed to punch its snout, but it was like hitting a bag of wet cement.
Then something grabbed my arm. Thalia pulled me into the chute. The panel closed, snapping my golf club.
We crawled through a metal duct into another bedroom and stumbled for the door.
I heard Halcyon Green, shouting a battle cry: “For Apollo!”
And the mansion shook with a massive explosion.
We burst into the hallway, which was already on fire. Flames licked the wallpaper and the carpet steamed. Hal’s bedroom door had been blown off its hinges, and fire was pouring out like an avalanche, vaporizing everything in its path.
We reached the stairs. The smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see the bottom. We stumbled and coughed, the heat searing my eyes and my lungs. We got to the base of the stairs, and I was beginning to think we’d reach the door, when the leucrota pounced, knocking me flat on my back.
It must have been the one that followed us into the enclosure. I suppose it had been far enough away from the explosion to survive the initial blast and had somehow escaped the bedroom, though it didn’t look like it had enjoyed the experience. Its red fur was singed black. Its pointed ears were on fire, and one of its glowing red eyes was swollen shut.
“Luke!” Thalia screamed. She grabbed her spear, which had been lying on the ballroom floor all day, and rammed the point against the monster’s ribs, but that only annoyed the leucrota.
It snapped its bone-plated jaws at her, keeping one hoof planted on my chest. I couldn’t move, and I knew the beast could crush my chest by applying even the slightest extra pressure.
My eyes stung from the smoke. I could hardly breathe. I saw Thalia try to spear the monster again, and a flash of metal caught my eye—the silver bracelet.
Something finally clicked in my mind: the story of Amaltheia the goat, who’d led us here. Thalia had been destined to find that treasure. It belonged to the child of Zeus.
“Thalia!” I gasped. “The shield! What was it called?”
“What shield?” she cried.
“Zeus’s shield!” I suddenly remembered. “Aegis. Thalia, the bracelet—it’s got a code word!”
It was a desperate guess. Thank the gods—or thank blind luck—Thalia understood. She tapped the bracelet, but this time she yelled, “Aegis!”
Instantly the bracelet expanded, flattening into a wide bronze disk—a shield with intricate designs hammered around the rim. In the center, pressed into the metal like a death mask, was a face so hideous I would’ve run from it if I could’ve. I looked away, but the afterimage burned in my mind—snaky hair, glaring eyes, and a mouth with bared fangs.
Thalia thrust the shield toward the leucrota. The monster yelped like a puppy and retreated, freeing me from the weight of its hoof. Through the smoke, I watched the terrified leucrota run straight into the nearest drapes, which turned into glistening black tongues and engulfed the monster. The monster steamed. It began yelling, “Help!” in a dozen voices, probably the voices of its past victims, until finally it disintegrated in the dark oily folds.
I would’ve lain there stunned and horrified until the fiery ceiling collapsed on me, but Thalia grabbed my arm and yelled, “Hurry!”
We bolted for the front door. I was wondering how we’d open it, when the avalanche of fire poured down the staircase and caught us. The building exploded.
I can’t remember how we got out. I can only assume that the shockwave blasted the front door open and pushed us outside.
The next thing I knew, I was sprawled in the traffic circle, coughing and gasping as a tower of fire roared into the evening sky. My throat burned. My eyes felt like they’d been splashed with acid. I looked for Thalia and instead found myself staring at the bronze face of Medusa. I screamed, somehow found the energy to stand, and ran. I didn’t stop until I was cowering behind the statue of Robert E. Lee.
Yeah, I know. It sounds comical now. But it’s a miracle I didn’t have a heart attack or get hit by a car. Finally Thalia caught up to me, her spear back in Mace canister form, her shield reduced to a silver bracelet.
Together we stood and watched the mansion burn. Bricks crumbled. Black draperies burst into sheets of red fire. The roof collapsed and smoke billowed into the sky.
Thalia let loose a sob. A tear etched through the soot on her face.
“He sacrificed himself,” she said. “Why did he save us?”
I hugged my knapsack. I felt the diary and bronze dagger inside—the only remnants of Halcyon Green’s life.
My chest was tight, as if the leucrota was still standing on it. I’d criticized for Hal for being a coward, but in the end, he’d been braver than me. The gods had cursed him. He’d spent most of his life imprisoned with monsters. It would’ve been easy for him to let us die like all the other demigods before us. Yet he’d chosen to go out a hero.
I felt guilty that I couldn’t save the old man. I wished I could’ve talked to him longer. What had he seen in my future that scared him so much?
Your choices will change the world, he’d warned.
I didn’t like the sound of it.
The sound of sirens brought me to my senses.
Being runaway minors, Thalia and I had learned to distrust the police and anybody else with authority. The mortals would want to question us, maybe put us in juvie hall or foster care. We couldn’t let that happen.
“Come on,” I told Thalia.
We ran through the streets of Richmond until we found a small park. We cleaned up in the public restrooms as best we could. Then we lay low until full dark.
We didn’t talk about what had happened. We wandered in a daze through neighborhoods and industrial areas. We had no plan, no glowing goat to follow anymore. We were bone tired, but neither of us felt like sleeping or stopping. I wanted to get as far as possible from that burning mansion.
It wasn’t the first time we’d barely escaped with our lives, but we’d never succeeded at the expense of another demigod’s life. I couldn’t shake my grief.
Promise, Halcyon Green had written.
I promise, Hal, I thought. I will learn from your mistakes. If the gods ever treat me that badly, I will fight back.
Okay, I know that sounds like crazy talk. But I was feeling bitter and angry. If that makes the dudes up on Mount Olympus unhappy, tough. They can come down here and tell me to my face.
We stopped for a rest near an old warehouse. In the dim light of the moon, I could see a name painted on the side of the red brick building: RICHMOND IRON WORKS. Most of the windows were broken.
Thalia shivered. “We could head to our old camp,” she suggested. “On the James River. We’ve got plenty of supplies down there.”
I nodded apathetically. It would take at least a day to get there, but it was as good a plan as any.
I split my ham sandwich with Thalia. We ate in silence. The food tasted like cardboard. I’d just swallowed the last bite when I heard a faint metal ping from a nearby alley. My ears started tingling. We weren’t alone.
“Someone’s close by,” I said. “Not a regular mortal.”
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