"Um, Lady Hestia," I said, "we've come on urgent business. We need to see—"
"We know what you need," a man's voice said. I shuddered, because it was the same voice I'd heard in the vision.
A god shimmered into existence next to Hestia. He looked about twenty-five, with curly salt-and-pepper hair and elfish features. He wore a military pilot's flight suit, with tiny bird's wings fluttering on his helmet and his black leather boots. In the crook of his arm was a long staff entwined with two living serpents.
"I will leave you now," Hestia said. She bowed to the aviator and disappeared into smoke. I understood why she was so anxious to go. Hermes, the God of Messengers, did not look happy.
"Hello, Percy." His brow furrowed as though he was annoyed with me, and I wondered if he somehow knew about the vision I'd just had. I wanted to ask why he'd been in May Castellan's house that night, and what had happened after he caught Luke. I remembered the first time I'd met Luke at Camp Half-Blood. I'd asked him if he'd ever met his father, and he'd looked at me bitterly and said, Once. But I could tell from Hermes's expression that this was not the time to ask.
I bowed awkwardly. "Lord Hermes."
Oh, sure, one of the snakes said in my mind. Don't say hi to us. We're just reptiles.
George, the other snake scolded. Be polite.
"Hello, George," I said. "Hey, Martha."
Did you bring us a rat? George asked.
George, stop it, Martha said. He's busy!
Too busy for rats? George said. That's just sad.
I decided it was better not to get into it with George. "Um, Hermes," I said. "We need to talk to Zeus. It's important."
Hermes's eyes were steely cold. "I am his messenger. May I take a message?"
Behind me, the other demigods shifted restlessly. This wasn't going as planned. Maybe if I tried to speak with Hermes in private . . .
"You guys," I said. "Why don't you do a sweep of the city? Check the defenses. See who's left in Olympus. Meet Annabeth and me back here in thirty minutes."
Silena frowned. "But—"
"That's a good idea," Annabeth said. "Connor and Travis, you two lead."
The Stolls seemed to like that—getting handed an important responsibility right in front of their dad. They usually never led anything except toilet paper raids. "We're on it!" Travis said. They herded the others out of the throne room, leaving Annabeth and me with Hermes.
"My lord," Annabeth said. "Kronos is going to attack New York. You must suspect that. My mother must have foreseen it."
"Your mother," Hermes grumbled. He scratched his back with his caduceus, and George and Martha muttered Ow, ow, ow. "Don't get me started on your mother, young lady. She's the reason I'm here at all. Zeus didn't want any of us to leave the front line. But your mother kept pestering him nonstop, 'It's a trap, it's a diversion, blah, blah, blah.' She wanted to come back herself, but Zeus was not going to let his number one strategist leave his side while we're battling Typhon. And so naturally he sent me to talk to you."
"But it is a trap!" Annabeth insisted. "Is Zeus blind?"
Thunder rolled through the sky.
"I'd watch the comments, girl," Hermes warned. "Zeus is not blind or deaf. He has not left Olympus completely undefended."
"But there are these blue lights—"
"Yes, yes. I saw them. Some mischief by that insufferable goddess of magic, Hecate, I'd wager, but you may have noticed they aren't doing any damage. Olympus has strong magical wards. Besides, Aeolus, the King of the Winds, has sent his most powerful minions to guard the citadel. No one save the gods can approach Olympus from the air. They would be knocked out of the sky."
I raised my hand. "Um . . . what about that materializing/teleporting thing you guys do?"
"That's a form of air travel too, Jackson. Very fast, but the wind gods are faster. No, if Kronos wants Olympus, he'll have to march through the entire city with his army and take the elevators! Can you see him doing this?"
Hermes made it sound pretty ridiculous—hordes of monsters going up in the elevator twenty at a time, listening to "Stayin' Alive." Still, I didn't like it.
"Maybe just a few of you could come back," I suggested.
Hermes shook his head impatiently. "Percy Jackson, you don't understand. Typhon is our greatest enemy."
"I thought that was Kronos."
The god's eyes glowed. "No, Percy. In the old days, Olympus was almost overthrown by Typhon. He is husband of Echidna—"
"Met her at the Arch," I muttered. "Not nice."
"—and the father of all monsters. We can never forget how close he came to destroying us all; how he humiliated us! We were more powerful back in the old days. Now we can expect no help from Poseidon because he's fighting his own war. Hades sits in his realm and does nothing, and Demeter and Persephone follow his lead. It will take all our remaining power to oppose the storm giant. We can't divide our forces, nor wait until he gets to New York. We have to battle him now. And we're making progress."
"Progress?" I said. "He nearly destroyed St. Louis."
"Yes," Hermes admitted. "But he destroyed only half of Kentucky. He's slowing down. Losing power."
I didn't want to argue, but it sounded like Hermes was trying to convince himself.
In the corner, the Ophiotaurus mooed sadly.
"Please, Hermes," Annabeth said. "You said my mother wanted to come. Did she give you any messages for us?"
"Messages," he muttered. "'It'll be a great job,' they told me. 'Not much work. Lots of worshippers.' Hmph. Nobody cares what I have to say. It's always about other people's messages.”
Rodents, George mused. I'm in it for the rodents.
Shhh, Martha scolded. We care what Hermes has to say. Don't we, George?
Oh, absolutely. Can we go back to the battle now? I want to do laser mode again. That's fun.
"Quiet, both of you," Hermes grumbled.
The god looked at Annabeth, who was doing her big-pleading-gray-eyes thing.
"Bah," Hermes said. "Your mother said to warn you that you are on your own. You must hold Manhattan without the help of the gods. As if I didn't know that. Why they pay her to be the wisdom goddess, I'm not sure."
"Anything else?" Annabeth asked.
"She said you should try plan twenty-three. She said you would know what that meant."
Annabeth's face paled. Obviously she knew what it meant, and she didn't like it. "Go on."
"Last thing." Hermes looked at me. "She said to tell Percy: 'Remember the rivers.' And, um, something about staying away from her daughter."
I'm not sure whose face was redder: Annabeth's or mine.
"Thank you, Hermes," Annabeth said. "And I . . . I wanted to say . . . I'm sorry about Luke."
The god's expression hardened like he'd turned to marble. "You should've left that subject alone."
Annabeth stepped back nervously. "Sorry?"
"SORRY doesn't cut it!"
George and Martha curled around the caduceus, which shimmered and changed into something that looked suspiciously like a high-voltage cattle prod.
"You should've saved him when you had the chance," Hermes growled at Annabeth. "You're the only one who could have."
I tried to step between them. "What are you talking about? Annabeth didn't—"
"Don't defend her, Jackson!" Hermes turned the cattle prod toward me. "She knows exactly what I'm talking about."
"Maybe you should blame yourself!" I should've kept my mouth shut, but all I could think about was turning his attention away from Annabeth. This whole time, he hadn't been angry with me. He'd been angry with her. "Maybe if you hadn't abandoned Luke and his mom!"
Hermes raised his cattle prod. He began to grow until he was ten feet tall. I thought, Well, that's it.
But as he prepared to strike, George and Martha leaned in close and whispered something in his ear.
Hermes clenched his teeth. He lowered the cattle prod, and it turned back to a staff.
"Percy Jackson," he said, "because you have taken on the curse of Achilles, I must spare you. You are in the hands of the Fates now. But you will never speak to me like that again. You have no idea how much I have sacrificed, how much—"
His voice broke, and he shrank back to human size. "My son, my greatest pride . . . my poor May . . ."
He sounded so devastated I didn't know what to say. One minute he was ready to vaporize us. Now he looked like he needed a hug.
"Look, Lord Hermes," I said. "I'm sorry, but I need to know. What happened to May? She said something about Luke's fate, and her eyes—"
Hermes glared at me, and my voice faltered. The look on his face wasn't really anger, though. It was pain. Deep, incredible pain.
"I will leave you now," he said tightly. "I have a war to fight."
He began to shine. I turned away and made sure Annabeth did the same, because she was still frozen in shock.
Good luck, Percy, Martha the snake whispered.
Hermes glowed with the light of a supernova. Then he was gone.
Annabeth sat at the foot of her mother's throne and cried. I wanted to comfort her, but I wasn't sure how.
"Annabeth," I said, "it's not your fault. I've never seen Hermes act that way. I guess . . . I don't know . . . he probably feels guilty about Luke. He's looking for somebody to blame. I don't know why he lashed out at you. You didn't do anything to deserve that."
Annabeth wiped her eyes. She stared at the hearth like it was her own funeral pyre.
I shifted uneasily. "Um, you didn't, right?"
She didn't answer. Her Celestial bronze knife was strapped to her arm—the same knife I'd seen in Hestia's vision. All these years, I hadn't realized it was a gift from Luke. I'd asked her many times why she preferred to fight with a knife instead of a sword, and she'd never answered me. Now I knew.
"Percy," she said. "What did you mean about Luke's mother? Did you meet her?"
I nodded reluctantly. "Nico and I visited her. She was a little . . . different." I described May Castellan, and the weird moment when her eyes had started to glow and she talked about her son's fate.
Annabeth frowned. "That doesn't make sense. But why were you visiting—" Her eyes widened. "Hermes said you bear the curse of Achilles. Hestia said the same thing. Did you . . . did you bathe in the River Styx?"
"Don't change the subject."
"Percy! Did you or not?"
"Um . . . maybe a little."
I told her the story about Hades and Nico, and how I'd defeated an army of the dead. I left out the vision of her pulling me out of the river. I still didn't quite understand that part, and just thinking about it made me embarrassed.
She shook her head in disbelief. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?"
"I had no choice," I said. "It's the only way I can stand up to Luke."
"You mean . . . di immortales, of course! That's why Luke didn't die. He went to the Styx and . . . Oh no, Luke. What were you thinking?"
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