"Percy," Annabeth said quietly. "You were right about Luke." It was the first time she'd spoken since Silena Beauregard's death. She kept her eyes fixed on the elevator floors as they blinked into the magical numbers: 400, 450, 500.
Grover and I exchanged glances.
"Annabeth," I said. "I'm sorry—"
"You tried to tell me." Her voice was shaky. "Luke is no good. I didn't believe you until . . . until I heard how he'd used Silena. Now I know. I hope you're happy."
"That doesn't make me happy."
She put her head against the elevator wall and wouldn't look at me.
Grover cradled his laurel sapling in his hands. "Well . . . sure good to be together again. Arguing. Almost dying. Abject terror. Oh, look. It's our floor."
The doors dinged and we stepped onto the aerial walkway.
Depressing is not a word that usually describes Mount Olympus, but it looked that way now. No fires lit the braziers. The windows were dark. The streets were deserted and the doors were barred. The only movement was in the parks, which had been set up as field hospitals. Will Solace and the other Apollo campers scrambled around, caring for the wounded. Naiads and dryads tried to help, using nature magic songs to heal burns and poison.
As Grover planted the laurel sapling, Annabeth and I went around trying to cheer up the wounded. I passed a satyr with a broken leg, a demigod who was bandaged from head to toe, and a body covered in the golden burial shroud of Apollo's cabin. I didn't know who was underneath. I didn't want to find out.
My heart felt like lead, but we tried to find positive things to say.
"You'll be up and fighting Titans in no time!" I told one camper.
"You look great," Annabeth told another camper.
"Leneus turned into a shrub!" Grover told a groaning satyr.
I found Dionysus's son Pollux propped up against a tree. He had a broken arm, but otherwise he was okay.
"I can still fight with the other hand," he said, gritting his teeth.
"No," I said. "You've done enough. I want you to stay here and help with the wounded."
"Promise me to stay safe," I said. "Okay? Personal favor."
He frowned uncertainly. It wasn't like we were good friends or anything, but I wasn't going to tell him it was a request from his dad. That would just embarrass him. Finally he promised, and when he sat back down, I could tell he was kind of relieved.
Annabeth, Grover, and I kept walking toward the palace. That's where Kronos would head. As soon as he made it up the elevator—and I had no doubt he would, one way or another—he would destroy the throne room, the center of the gods' power.
The bronze doors creaked open. Our footsteps echoed on the marble floor. The constellations twinkled coldly on the ceiling of the great hall. The hearth was down to a dull red glow. Hestia, in the form of a little girl in brown robes, hunched at its edge, shivering. The Ophiotaurus swam sadly in his sphere of water. He let out a half-hearted moo when he saw me.
In the firelight, the thrones cast evil-looking shadows, like grasping hands.
Standing at the foot of Zeus's throne, looking up at the stars, was Rachel Elizabeth Dare. She was holding a Greek ceramic vase.
"Rachel?" I said. "Um, what are you doing with that?"
She focused on me as if she were coming out of a dream. "I found it. It's Pandora's jar, isn't it?"
Her eyes were brighter than usual, and I had a bad flashback of moldy sandwiches and burned cookies.
"Please put down the jar," I said.
"I can see Hope inside it." Rachel ran her fingers over the ceramic designs. "So fragile."
My voice seemed to bring her back to reality. She held out the jar, and I took it. The clay felt as cold as ice.
"Grover," Annabeth mumbled. "Let's scout around the palace. Maybe we can find some extra Greek fire or Hephaestus traps."
Annabeth elbowed him.
"Right!" he yelped. "I love traps!"
She dragged him out of the throne room.
Over by the fire, Hestia was huddled in her robes, rocking back and forth.
"Come on," I told Rachel. "I want you to meet someone."
We sat next to the goddess.
"Lady Hestia," I said.
"Hello, Percy Jackson," the goddess murmured. "Getting colder. Harder to keep the fire going."
"I know," I said. "The Titans are near."
Hestia focused on Rachel. "Hello, my dear. You've come to our hearth at last."
Rachel blinked. "You've been expecting me?"
Hestia held out her hands, and the coals glowed. I saw images in the fire: My mother, Paul, and I eating Thanksgiving dinner at the kitchen table; my friends and me around the campfire at Camp Half-Blood, singing songs and roasting marshmallows; Rachel and me driving along the beach in Paul's Prius.
I didn't know if Rachel saw the same images, but the tension went out of her shoulders. The warmth of the fire seemed to spread across her.
"To claim your place at the hearth," Hestia told her, "you must let go of your distractions. It is the only way you will survive."
Rachel nodded. "I . . . I understand."
"Wait," I said. "What is she talking about?"
Rachel took a shaky breath. "Percy, when I came here . . . I thought I was coming for you. But I wasn't. You and me . . ." She shook her head.
"Wait. Now I'm a distraction? Is this because I'm 'not the hero' or whatever?"
"I'm not sure I can put it into words," she said. "I was drawn to you because . . . because you opened the door to all of this." She gestured at the throne room. "I needed to understand my true sight. But you and me, that wasn't part of it. Our fates aren't intertwined. I think you've always known that, deep down."
I stared at her. Maybe I wasn't the brightest guy in the world when it came to girls, but I was pretty sure Rachel had just dumped me, which was lame considering we'd never even been together.
"So . . . what," I said. '"Thanks for bringing me to Olympus. See ya.' Is that what you're saying?"
Rachel stared at the fire.
"Percy Jackson," Hestia said. "Rachel has told you all she can. Her moment is coming, but your decision approaches even more rapidly. Are you prepared?"
I wanted to complain that no, I wasn't even close to prepared.
I looked at Pandora's jar, and for the first time I had an urge to open it. Hope seemed pretty useless to me right now. So many of my friends were dead. Rachel was cutting me off. Annabeth was angry with me. My parents were asleep down in the streets somewhere while a monster army
surrounded the building. Olympus was on the verge of failing, and I'd seen so many cruel things the gods had done: Zeus destroying Maria di Angelo, Hades cursing the last Oracle, Hermes turning his back on Luke even when he knew his son would become evil.
Surrender, Prometheus's voice whispered in my ear. Otherwise your home will be destroyed. Your precious camp will burn.
Then I looked at Hestia. Her red eyes glowed warmly. I remembered the images I'd seen in her hearth—friends and family, everyone I cared about.
I remembered something Chris Rodriguez had said: There's no point in defending camp if you guys die. All our friends are here. And Nico, standing up to his father, Hades: If Olympus falls, he said, your own palace's safety doesn't matter.
I heard footsteps. Annabeth and Grover came back into the throne room and stopped when they saw us. I probably had a pretty strange look on my face.
"Percy?" Annabeth didn't sound angry anymore—just concerned. "Should we, um, leave again?"
Suddenly I felt like someone had injected me with steel. I understood what to do.
I looked at Rachel. "You're not going to do anything stupid, are you? I mean . . . you talked to Chiron, right?"
She managed a faint smile. "You're worried about me doing something stupid?"
"But I mean . . . will you be okay?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "That kind of depends on whether you save the world, hero."
I picked up Pandora's jar. The spirit of Hope fluttered inside, trying to warm the cold container.
"Hestia," I said, "I give this to you as an offering."
The goddess tilted her head. "I am the least of the gods. Why would you trust me with this?"
"You're the last Olympian," I said. "And the most important."
"And why is that, Percy Jackson?"
"Because Hope survives best at the hearth," I said. "Guard it for me, and I won't be tempted to give up again."
The goddess smiled. She took the jar in her hands and it began to glow. The hearth fire burned a little brighter.
"Well done, Percy Jackson," she said. "May the gods bless you."
"We're about to find out." I looked at Annabeth and Grover. "Come on, guys."
I marched toward my father's throne.
The seat of Poseidon stood just to the right of Zeus's, but it wasn't nearly as grand. The molded black leather seat was attached to a swivel pedestal, with a couple of iron rings on the side for fastening a fishing pole (or a trident). Basically it looked like a chair on a deep-sea boat, that you would sit in if you wanted to hunt shark or marlin or sea monsters.
Gods in their natural state are about twenty feet tall, so I could just reach the edge of the seat if I stretched my arms.
"Help me up," I told Annabeth and Grover.
"'Are you crazy?" Annabeth asked.
"Probably," I admitted.
"Percy," Grover said, "the gods really don't appreciate people sitting in their thrones. I mean like turn-you-into-a-pile-of-ashes don't appreciate it."
"I need to get his attention," I said. "It's the only way."
They exchanged uneasy looks.
"Well," Annabeth said, "this'll get his attention."
They linked their arms to make a step, then boosted me onto the throne. I felt like a baby with my feet so high off the ground. I looked around at the other gloomy, empty thrones, and I could imagine what it would be like sitting on the Olympian Council—so much power but so much arguing, always eleven other gods trying to get their way. It would be easy to get paranoid, to look out only for my own interest, especially if I were Poseidon. Sitting in his throne, I felt like I had the entire sea at my command—vast cubic miles of ocean churning with power and mystery. Why should Poseidon listen to anyone? Why shouldn't he be the greatest of the twelve?
Then I shook my head. Concentrate.
The throne rumbled. A wave of gale-force anger slammed into my mind:
The voice stopped abruptly. The anger retreated, which was a good thing, because just those two words had almost blasted my mind to shreds.
Percy. My father's voice was still angry but more controlled. What—exactly—are you doing on my throne?
"I'm sorry, Father," I said. "I needed to get your attention."
This was a very dangerous thing to do. Even for you. If I hadn't looked before I blasted, you would now be a puddle of seawater.
"I'm sorry," I said again. "Listen, things are rough up here."