The empousa snarled. Her hair erupted in fresh flames, but Prometheus just sighed.
"If you change your mind," he said, "I have a gift for you."
A Greek vase appeared on the table. It was about three feet high and a foot wide, glazed with black-and-white geometric designs. The ceramic lid was fastened with a leather harness.
Grover whimpered when he saw it.
Thalia gasped. "That's not—"
"Yes," Prometheus said. "You recognize it."
Looking at the jar, I felt a strange sense of fear, but I had no idea why.
"This belonged to my sister-in-law," Prometheus explained. "Pandora."
A lump formed in my throat. "As in Pandora's box?"
Prometheus shook his head. "I don't know how this box business got started. It was never a box. It was a pithos, a storage jar. I suppose Pandora's pithos doesn't have the same ring to it, but never mind that. Yes, she did open this jar, which contained most of the demons that now haunt mankind—fear, death, hunger, sickness."
"Don't forget me," the empousa purred.
"Indeed," Prometheus conceded. "The first empousa was also trapped in this jar, released by Pandora. But what I find curious about the story—Pandora always gets the blame. She is punished for being curious. The gods would have you believe that this is the lesson: mankind should not explore. They should not ask questions. They should do what they are told. In truth, Percy, this jar was a trap designed by Zeus and the other gods. It was revenge on me and my entire family—my poor simple brother Epimetheus and his wife Pandora. The gods knew she would open the jar. They were willing to punish the entire race of humanity along with us."
I thought about my dream of Hades and Maria di Angelo. Zeus had destroyed an entire hotel to eliminate two demigod children—just to save his own skin, because he was scared of a prophecy. He'd killed an innocent woman and probably hadn't lost any sleep over it. Hades was no better. He wasn't powerful enough to take his revenge on Zeus, so he cursed the Oracle, dooming a young girl to a horrible fate. And Hermes . . . why had he abandoned Luke? Why hadn't he at least warned Luke, or tried to raise him better so he wouldn't turn evil?
Maybe Prometheus was toying with my mind.
But what if he's right? part of me wondered. How are the gods any better than the Titans?
Prometheus tapped the lid of Pandora's jar. "Only one spirit remained inside when Pandora opened it."
"Hope," I said.
Prometheus looked pleased. "Very good, Percy. Elpis, the Spirit of Hope, would not abandon humanity. Hope does not leave without being given permission. She can only be released by a child of man."
The Titan slid the jar across the table.
"I give you this as a reminder of what the gods are like," he said. "Keep Elpis, if you wish. But if you decide that you have seen enough destruction, enough futile suffering, then open the jar. Let Elpis go. Give up Hope, and I will know that you are surrendering. I promise Kronos will be lenient. He will spare the survivors."
I stared at the jar and got a very bad feeling. I figured Pandora had been completely ADHD, like me. I could never leave things alone. I didn't like temptation. What if this was my choice? Maybe the prophecy all came down to my keeping this jar closed or opening it.
"I don't want the thing," I growled.
"Too late," Prometheus said. "The gift is given. It cannot be taken back."
He stood. The empousa came forward and slipped her arm through his.
"Morrain!" Prometheus called to the blue giant. "We are leaving. Get your flag."
"Uh-oh," the giant said.
"We will see you soon, Percy Jackson," Prometheus promised. "One way or another."
Ethan Nakamura gave me one last hateful look. Then the truce party turned and strolled up the lane through Central Park, like it was just a regular sunny Sunday afternoon.
Back at the Plaza, Thalia pulled me aside. "What did Prometheus show you?"
Reluctantly, I told her about the vision of May Castellan's house. Thalia rubbed her thigh like she was remembering the old wound.
"That was a bad night," she admitted. "Annabeth was so little, I don't think she really understood what she saw. She just knew Luke was upset."
I looked out the hotel windows at Central Park. Small fires were still burning in the north, but otherwise the city seemed unnaturally peaceful. "Do you know what happened to May Castellan? I mean—"
"I know what you mean," Thalia said. "I never saw her have an, um, episode, but Luke told me about the glowing eyes, the strange things she would say. He made me promise never to tell. What caused it, I have no idea. If Luke knew, he never told me."
"Hermes knew," I said. "Something caused May to see parts of Luke's future, and Hermes understood what would happen—how Luke would turn into Kronos."
Thalia frowned. "You can't be sure of that. Remember Prometheus was manipulating what you saw, Percy, showing you what happened in the worst possible light. Hermes did love Luke. I could tell just by looking at his face. And Hermes was there that night because he was checking up on May, taking care of her. He wasn't all bad."
"It's still not right," I insisted. "Luke was just a little kid. Hermes never helped him, never stopped him from running away."
Thalia shouldered her bow. Again it struck me how much stronger she looked now that she'd stopped aging. You could almost see a silvery glow around her—the blessing of Artemis.
"Percy," she said, "you can't start feeling sorry for Luke. We all have tough things to deal with. All demigods do. Our parents are hardly ever around. But Luke made bad choices. Nobody forced him to do that. In fact—"
She glanced down the hall to make sure we were alone. "I'm worried about Annabeth. If she has to face Luke in battle, I don't know if she can do it. She's always had a soft spot for him."
Blood rose to my face. "She'll do fine."
"I don't know. After that night, after we left his mom's house? Luke was never the same. He got reckless and moody, like he had something to prove. By the time Grover found us and tried to get us to camp . . . well, part of the reason we had so much trouble was because Luke wouldn't be careful. He wanted to pick a fight with every monster we crossed. Annabeth didn't see that as a problem. Luke was her hero. She only understood that his parents had made him sad, and she got very defensive of him. She still is defensive. All I'm saying . . . don't you fall into the same trap. Luke has given himself to Kronos now. We can't afford to be soft on him."
I looked out at the fires in Harlem, wondering how many sleeping mortals were in danger right now because of Luke's bad choices.
"You're right," I said.
Thalia patted my shoulder. "I'm going to check on the Hunters, then get some more sleep before nightfall. You should crash too."
"The last thing I need is more dreams."
"I know, believe me." Her dark expression made me wonder what she'd been dreaming about. It was a common demigod problem: the more dangerous our situation became, the worse and more frequent our dreams got. "But Percy, there's no telling when you'll get another chance for rest. It's going to be a long night—maybe our last night."
I didn't like it, but I knew she was right. I nodded wearily and gave her Pandora's jar. "Do me a favor. Lock this in the hotel vault, will you? I think I'm allergic to pithos."
Thalia smiled. "You got it."
I found the nearest bed and passed out. But of course sleep only brought more nightmares.
I saw the undersea palace of my father. The enemy army was closer now, entrenched only a few hundred yards outside the palace. The fortress walls were completely destroyed. The temple my dad had used as his headquarters was burning with Greek fire.
I zoomed in on the armory, where my brother and some other Cyclopes were on lunch break, eating from huge jars of Skippy extra-chunky peanut butter (and don't ask me how it tasted underwater, because I don't want to know). As I watched, the outer wall of the armory exploded. A Cyclops warrior stumbled inside, collapsing on the lunch table. Tyson knelt down to help, but it was too late. The Cyclops dissolved into sea silt.
Enemy giants moved toward the breach, and Tyson picked up the fallen warrior's club. He yelled something to his fellow blacksmiths—probably "For Poseidon!"—but with his mouth full of peanut butter it sounded like "PUH PTEH BUN!" His brethren all grabbed hammers and chisels, yelled, "PEANUT BUTTER!" and charged behind Tyson into battle.
Then the scene shifted. I was with Ethan Nakamura at the enemy camp. What I saw made me shiver, partly because the army was so huge, partly because I recognized the place.
We were in the backwoods of New Jersey, on a crumbling road lined with run-down businesses and tattered billboard signs. A trampled fence ringed a big yard full of cement statuary. The sign above the warehouse was hard to read because it was in red cursive, but I knew what it said: AUNTY EM'S GARDEN GNOME EMPORIUM.
I hadn't thought about the place in years. It was clearly abandoned. The statues were broken and spray-painted with graffiti. A cement satyr—Grover's Uncle Ferdinand—had lost his arm. Part of the warehouse roof had caved in. A big yellow sign pasted on the door read: CONDEMNED.
Hundreds of tents and fires surrounded the property. Mostly I saw monsters, but there were some human mercenaries in combat fatigues and demigods in armor, too. A purple-and-black banner hung outside the emporium, guarded by two huge blue Hyperboreans.
Ethan was crouched at the nearest campfire. A couple of other demigods sat with him, sharpening their swords. The doors of the warehouse opened, and Prometheus stepped out.
"Nakamura," he called. "The master would like to speak to you."
Ethan stood up warily. "Something wrong?"
Prometheus smiled. "You'll have to ask him."
One of the other demigods snickered. "Nice knowing you."
Ethan readjusted his sword belt and headed into the warehouse.
Except for the hole in the roof, the place was just as 1 remembered. Statues of terrified people stood frozen in midscream. In the snack bar area, the picnic tables had been moved aside. Right between the soda dispenser and pretzel warmer stood a golden throne. Kronos lounged on it, his scythe across his lap. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, and with his brooding expression he looked almost human—like the younger version of Luke I'd seen in the vision, pleading with Hermes to tell him his fate. Then Luke saw Ethan, and his face contorted into a very inhuman smile. His golden eyes glowed.
"Well, Nakamura. What did you think of the diplomatic mission?"
Ethan hesitated. "I'm sure Lord Prometheus is better suited to speak—"
"But I asked you."
Ethan's good eye darted back and forth, noting the guards that stood around Kronos. "I . . . I don't think Jackson will surrender. Ever."
Kronos nodded. "Anything else you wanted to tell me?"
"You look nervous, Ethan."
"No, sir. It's just . . . I heard this was the lair of —"