Mrs. O'Leary barked angrily and jumped, trying to reach me, but we were too high.
"Tell Mrs. O'Leary to behave," Nico warned. He was hovering near me in the clutches of the third Fury. "I don't want her to get hurt, Percy. My father is waiting. He just wants to talk."
I wanted to tell Mrs. O'Leary to attack Nico, but it wouldn't have done any good, and Nico was right about one thing: my dog could get hurt if she tried to pick a fight with the Furies.
I gritted my teeth. "Mrs. O'Leary, down! It's okay, girl."
She whimpered and turned in circles, looking up at me. "All right, traitor," I growled at Nico. "You've got your prize. Take me to the stupid palace."
Alecto dropped me like a sack of turnips in the middle of the palace garden.
It was beautiful in a creepy way. Skeletal white trees grew from marble basins. Flower beds overflowed with golden plants and gemstones. A pair of thrones, one bone and one silver, sat on the balcony with a view of the Fields of Asphodel. It would've been a nice place to spend a Saturday morning except for the sulfurous smell and the cries of tortured souls in the distance.
Skeletal warriors guarded the only exit. They wore tattered U.S. Army desert combat fatigues and carried M16s.
The third Fury deposited Nico next to me. Then all three of them settled on the top of the skeletal throne. I resisted the urge to strangle Nico. They'd only stop me. I'd have to wait for my revenge.
I stared at the empty thrones, waiting for something to happen. Then the air shimmered. Three figures appeared—Hades and Persephone on their thrones, and an older woman standing between them. They seemed to be in the middle of an argument.
"—told you he was a bum!" the older woman said.
"Mother!" Persephone replied.
"We have visitors!" Hades barked. "Please!"
Hades, one of my least favorite gods, smoothed his black robes, which were covered with the terrified faces of the damned. He had pale skin and the intense eyes of a madman.
"Percy Jackson," he said with satisfaction. "At last."
Queen Persephone studied me curiously. I'd seen her once before in the winter, but now in the summer she looked like a totally different goddess. She had lustrous black hair and warm brown eyes. Her dress shimmered with colors. Flower patterns in the fabric changed and bloomed—roses, tulips, honeysuckle.
The woman standing between them was obviously Persephone's mother. She had the same hair and eyes, but looked older and sterner. Her dress was golden, the color of a wheat field. Her hair was woven with dried grasses so it reminded me of a wicker basket. I figured if somebody lit a match next to her, she'd be in serious trouble.
"Hmmph," the older woman said. "Demigods. Just what we need."
Next to me, Nico knelt. I wished I had my sword so I could cut his stupid head off. Unfortunately, Riptide was still out in the fields somewhere.
"Father," Nico said. "I have done as you asked."
"Took you long enough," Hades grumbled. "Your sister would've done a better job."
Nico lowered his head. If I hadn't been so mad at the little creep, I might've felt sorry for him.
I glared up at the god of the dead. "What do you want, Hades?"
"To talk, of course." The god twisted his mouth in a cruel smile. "Didn't Nico tell you?"
"So this whole quest was a lie. Nico brought me down here to get me killed."
"Oh, no," Hades said. "I'm afraid Nico was quite sincere about wanting to help you. The boy is as honest as he is dense. I simply convinced him to take a small detour and bring you here first."
"Father," Nico said, "you promised that Percy would not be harmed. You said if I brought him, you would tell me about my past—about my mother."
Queen Persephone sighed dramatically. "Can we please not talk about that woman in my presence?"
"I'm sorry, my dove," Hades said. "I had to promise the boy something."
The older lady harrumphed. "I warned you, daughter. This scoundrel Hades is no good. You could've married the god of doctors or the god of lawyers, but noooo. You had to eat the pomegranate."
"And get stuck in the Underworld!"
"And here it is August, and do you come home like you're supposed to? Do you ever think about your poor lonely mother?"
"DEMETER!" Hades shouted. "That is enough. You are a guest in my house."
"Oh, a house is it?" she said. "You call this dump a house? Make my daughter live in this dark, damp—"
"I told you," Hades said, grinding his teeth, "there's a war in the world above. You and Persephone are better off here with me."
"Excuse me," I broke in. "But if you're going to kill me, could you just get on with it?"
All three gods looked at me.
"Well, this one has an attitude," Demeter observed.
"Indeed," Hades agreed. "I'd love to kill him."
"Father!" Nico said. "You promised!"
"Husband, we talked about this," Persephone chided. "You can't go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he's brave. I like that."
Hades rolled his eyes. "You liked that Orpheus fellow too. Look how well that turned out. Let me kill him, just a little bit."
"Father, you promised!" Nico said. "You said you only wanted to talk to him. You said if I brought him, you'd explain."
Hades glowered, smoothing the folds of his robes. "And so I shall. Your mother—what can I tell you? She was a wonderful woman." He glanced uncomfortably at Persephone. "Forgive me, my dear. I mean for a mortal, of course. Her name was Maria di Angelo. She was from Venice, but her father was a diplomat in Washington, D.C. That's where I met her. When you and your sister were young, it was a bad time to be children of Hades. World War II was brewing. A few of my, ah, other children were leading the losing side. I thought it best to put you two out of harm's way."
"That's why you hid us in the Lotus Casino?"
Hades shrugged. "You didn't age. You didn't realize time was passing. I waited for the right time to bring you out."
"But what happened to our mother? Why don't I remember her?"
"Not important," Hades snapped.
"What? Of course it's important. And you had other children—why were we the only ones who were sent away? And who was the lawyer who got us out?"
Hades grit his teeth. "You would do well to listen more and talk less, boy. As for the lawyer . . ."
Hades snapped his fingers. On top of his throne, the Fury Alecto began to change until she was a middle-aged man in a pinstriped suit with a briefcase. She—he—looked strange crouching at Hades's shoulder.
"You!" Nico said.
The Fury cackled. "I do lawyers and teachers very well!"
Nico was trembling. "But why did you free us from the casino?"
"You know why," Hades said. "This idiot son of Poseidon cannot be allowed to be the child of the prophecy."
I plucked a ruby off the nearest plant and threw it at Hades. It sank harmlessly into his robe. "You should be helping Olympus!" I said. "All the other gods are fighting Typhon, and you're just sitting here—"
"Waiting things out," Hades finished. "Yes, that's correct. When's the last time Olympus ever helped me, half-blood? When's the last time a child of mine was ever welcomed as a hero? Bah! Why should I rush out and help them? I'll stay here with my forces intact."
"And when Kronos comes after you?"
"Let him try. He'll be weakened. And my son here, Nico—" Hades looked at him with distaste. "Well, he's not much now, I'll grant you. It would've been better if Bianca had lived. But give him four more years of training. We can hold out that long, surely. Nico will turn sixteen, as the prophecy says, and then he will make the decision that will save the world. And I will be king of the gods."
"You're crazy," I said. "Kronos will crush you, right after he finishes pulverizing Olympus."
Hades spread his hands. "Well, you'll get a chance to find out, half-blood. Because you'll be waiting out this war in my dungeons."
"No!" Nico said. "Father, that wasn't our agreement. And you haven't told me everything!"
"I've told you all you need to know," Hades said. "As for our agreement, I spoke with Jackson. I did not harm him. You got your information. If you had wanted a better deal, you should've made me swear on the Styx. Now, go to your room!" He waved his hand, and Nico vanished.
"That boy needs to eat more," Demeter grumbled. "He's too skinny. He needs more cereal."
Persephone rolled her eyes. "Mother, enough with the cereal. My lord Hades, are you sure we can't let this little hero go? He's awfully brave."
"No, my dear. I've spared his life. That's enough."
I was sure she was going to stand up for me. The brave, beautiful Persephone was going to get me out of this.
She shrugged indifferently. "Fine. What's for breakfast? I'm starving."
"Cereal," Demeter said.
"Mother!" The two women disappeared in a swirl of flowers and wheat.
"Don't feel too bad, Percy Jackson," Hades said. "My ghosts keep me well informed of Kronos's plans. I can assure you that you had no chance to stop him in time. By tonight, it will be too late for your precious Mount Olympus. The trap will be sprung."
"What trap?" I demanded. "If you know about it, do something! At least let me tell the other gods!"
Hades smiled. "You are spirited. I'll give you credit for that. Have fun in my dungeon. We'll check on you again in—oh, fifty or sixty years."
I TAKE THE WORST
My sword reappeared in my pocket.
Yeah, great timing. Now I could attack the walls all I wanted. My cell had no bars, no windows, not even a door. The skeletal guards shoved me straight through a wall, and it became solid behind me. I wasn't sure if the room was airtight. Probably. Hades's dungeon was meant for dead people, and they don't breathe. So forget fifty or sixty years. I'd be dead in fifty or sixty minutes. Meanwhile, if Hades wasn't lying, some big trap was going to be sprung in New York by the end of the day, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
I sat on the cold stone floor, feeling miserable.
I don't remember dozing off. Then again, it must've been about seven in the morning, mortal time, and I'd been through a lot.
I dreamed I was on the porch of Rachel's beach house in St. Thomas. The sun was rising over the Caribbean. Dozens of wooded islands dotted the sea, and white sails cut across the water. The smell of salt air made me wonder if I would ever see the ocean again.
Rachel's parents sat at the patio table while a personal chef fixed them omelets. Mr. Dare was dressed in a white linen suit. He was reading The Wall Street Journal. The lady across the table was probably Mrs. Dare, though all I could see of her were hot pink fingernails and the cover of Condé Nast Traveler. Why she'd be reading about vacations while she was on vacation, I wasn't sure.
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