“You’re Chiron the centaur,” Jason said. “I’m guessing you’re the same one from the old stories, who used to train the Greek heroes like Heracles. This is a camp for demigods, children of the Olympian gods.”
“So you believe those gods still exist?”
“Yes,” Jason said immediately. “I mean, I don’t think we should worship them or sacrifice chickens to them or anything, but they’re still around because they’re a powerful part of civilization. They move from country to country as the center of power shifts—like they moved from Ancient Greece to Rome.”
“I couldn’t have said it better.” Something about Chiron’s voice had changed. “So you already know the gods are real. You have already been claimed, haven’t you?”
“Maybe,” Jason answered. “I’m not really sure.”
Seymour the leopard snarled.
Chiron waited, and Jason realized what had just happened. The centaur had switched to another language and Jason had understood, automatically answering in the same tongue.
“Quis erat—” Jason faltered, then made a conscious effort to speak English. “What was that?”
“You know Latin,” Chiron observed. “Most demigods recognize a few phrases, of course. It’s in their blood, but not as much as Ancient Greek. None can speak Latin fluently without practice.”
Jason tried to wrap his mind around what that meant, but too many pieces were missing from his memory. He still had the feeling that he shouldn’t be here. It was wrong—and dangerous. But at least Chiron wasn’t threatening. In fact the centaur seemed concerned for him, afraid for his safety.
The fire reflected in Chiron’s eyes, making them dance fretfully. “I taught your namesake, you know, the original Jason. He had a hard path. I’ve seen many heroes come and go. Occasionally, they have happy endings. Mostly, they don’t. It breaks my heart, like losing a child each time one of my pupils dies. But you—you are not like any pupil I’ve ever taught. Your presence here could be a disaster.”
“Thanks,” Jason said. “You must be an inspiring teacher.”
“I am sorry, my boy. But it’s true. I had hoped that after Percy’s success—”
“Percy Jackson, you mean. Annabeth’s boyfriend, the one who’s missing.”
Chiron nodded. “I hoped that after he succeeded in the Titan War and saved Mount Olympus, we might have some peace. I might be able to enjoy one final triumph, a happy ending, and perhaps retire quietly. I should have known better. The last chapter approaches, just as it did before. The worst is yet to come.”
In the corner, the arcade game made a sad pew-pew-pew-pew sound, like a Pac-Man had just died.
“Ohh-kay,” Jason said. “So—last chapter, happened before, worst yet to come. Sounds fun, but can we go back to the part where I’m supposed to be dead? I don’t like that part.”
“I’m afraid I can’t explain, my boy. I swore on the River Styx and on all things sacred that I would never …” Chiron frowned. “But you’re here, in violation of the same oath. That too, should not be possible. I don’t understand. Who would’ve done such a thing? Who—”
Seymour the leopard howled. His mouth froze, half open. The arcade game stopped beeping. The fire stopped crackling, its flames hardening like red glass. The masks stared down silently at Jason with their grotesque grape eyes and leafy tongues.
“Chiron?” Jason asked. “What’s going—”
The old centaur had frozen, too. Jason jumped off the couch, but Chiron kept staring at the same spot, his mouth open mid-sentence. His eyes didn’t blink. His chest didn’t move.
Jason, a voice said.
For a horrible moment, he thought the leopard had spoken. Then dark mist boiled out of Seymour’s mouth, and an even worse thought occurred to Jason: storm spirits.
He grabbed the golden coin from his pocket. With a quick flip, it changed into a sword.
The mist took the form of a woman in black robes. Her face was hooded, but her eyes glowed in the darkness. Over her shoulders she wore a goatskin cloak. Jason wasn’t sure how he knew it was goatskin, but he recognized it and knew it was important.
Would you attack your patron? the woman chided. Her voice echoed in Jason’s head. Lower your sword.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “How did you—”
Our time is limited, Jason. My prison grows stronger by the hour. It took me a full month to gather enough energy to work even the smallest magic through its bonds. I’ve managed to bring you here, but now I have little time left, and even less power. This may be the last time I can speak to you.
“You’re in prison?” Jason decided maybe he wouldn’t lower his sword. “Look, I don’t know you, and you’re not my patron.”
You know me, she insisted. I have known you since your birth.
“I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything.”
No, you don’t, she agreed. That also was necessary. Long ago, your father gave me your life as a gift to placate my anger. He named you Jason, after my favorite mortal. You belong to me.
“Whoa,” Jason said. “I don’t belong to anyone.”
Now is the time to pay your debt, she said. Find my prison. Free me, or their king will rise from the earth, and I will be destroyed. You will never retrieve your memory.
“Is that a threat? You took my memories?”
You have until sunset on the solstice, Jason. Four short days. Do not fail me.
The dark woman dissolved, and the mist curled into the leopard’s mouth.
Time unfroze. Seymour’s howl turned into a cough like he’d sucked in a hair ball. The fire crackled to life, the arcade machine beeped, and Chiron said, “—would dare to bring you here?”
“Probably the lady in the mist,” Jason offered.
Chiron looked up in surprise. “Weren’t you just sitting … why do you have a sword drawn?”
“I hate to tell you this,” Jason said, “but I think your leopard just ate a goddess.”
He told Chiron about the frozen-in-time visit, the dark misty figure that disappeared into Seymour’s mouth.
“Oh, dear,” Chiron murmured. “That does explain a lot.”
“Then why don’t you explain a lot to me?” Jason said. “Please.”
Before Chiron could say anything, footsteps reverberated on the porch outside. The front door blew open, and Annabeth and another girl, a redhead, burst in, dragging Piper between them. Piper’s head lolled like she was unconscious.
“What happened?” Jason rushed over. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Hera’s cabin,” Annabeth gasped, like they’d run all the way. “Vision. Bad.”
The redheaded girl looked up, and Jason saw that she’d been crying.
“I think …” The redheaded girl gulped. “I think I may have killed her.”
JASON AND THE REDHEAD, WHO INTRODUCED herself as Rachel, put Piper on the couch while Annabeth rushed down the hall to get a med kit. Piper was still breathing, but she wouldn’t wake up. She seemed to be in some kind of coma.
“We’ve got to heal her,” Jason insisted. “There’s a way, right?”
Seeing her so pale, barely breathing, Jason felt a surge of protectiveness. Maybe he didn’t really know her. Maybe she wasn’t his girlfriend. But they’d survived the Grand Canyon together. They’d come all this way. He’d left her side for a little while, and this had happened.
Chiron put his hand on her forehead and grimaced. “Her mind is in a fragile state. Rachel, what happened?”
“I wish I knew,” she said. “As soon as I got to camp, I had a premonition about Hera’s cabin. I went inside. Annabeth and Piper came in while I was there. We talked, and then—I just blanked out. Annabeth said I spoke in a different voice.”
“A prophecy?” Chiron asked.
“No. The spirit of Delphi comes from within. I know how that feels. This was like long distance, a power trying to speak through me.”
Annabeth ran in with a leather pouch. She knelt next to Piper. “Chiron, what happened back there—I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve heard Rachel’s prophecy voice. This was different. She sounded like an older woman. She grabbed Piper’s shoulders and told her—”
“To free her from a prison?” Jason guessed.
Annabeth stared at him. “How did you know that?”
Chiron made a three-fingered gesture over his heart, like a ward against evil.
“Jason, tell them. Annabeth, the medicine bag, please.”
Chiron trickled drops from a medicine vial into Piper’s mouth while Jason explained what had happened when the room froze—the dark misty woman who had claimed to be Jason’s patron.
When he was done, no one spoke, which made him more anxious.
“So does this happen often?” he asked. “Supernatural phone calls from convicts demanding you bust them out of jail?”
“Your patron,” Annabeth said. “Not your godly parent?”
“No, she said patron. She also said my dad had given her my life.”
Annabeth frowned. “I’ve never of heard anything like that before. You said the storm spirit on the skywalk—he claimed to be working for some mistress who was giving him orders, right? Could it be this woman you saw, messing with your mind?”
“I don’t think so,” Jason said. “If she were my enemy, why would she be asking for my help? She’s imprisoned. She’s worried about some enemy getting more powerful. Something about a king rising from the earth on the solstice—”
Annabeth turned to Chiron. “Not Kronos. Please tell me it’s not that.”
The centaur looked miserable. He held Piper’s wrist, checking her pulse.
At last he said, “It is not Kronos. That threat is ended. But …”
“But what?” Annabeth asked.
Chiron closed the medicine bag. “Piper needs rest. We should discuss this later.”
“Or now,” Jason said. “Sir, Mr. Chiron, you told me the greatest threat was coming. The last chapter. You can’t possibly mean something worse than an army of Titans, right?”
“Oh,” Rachel said in a small voice. “Oh, dear. The woman was Hera. Of course. Her cabin, her voice. She showed herself to Jason at the same moment.”
“Hera?” Annabeth’s snarl was even fiercer than Seymour’s. “She took you over? She did this to Piper?”
“I think Rachel’s right,” Jason said. “The woman did seem like a goddess. And she wore this—this goatskin cloak. That’s a symbol of Juno, isn’t it?”
“It is?” Annabeth scowled. “I’ve never heard that.”
Chiron nodded reluctantly. “Of Juno, Hera’s Roman aspect, in her most warlike state. The goatskin cloak was a symbol of the Roman soldier.”
“So Hera is imprisoned?” Rachel asked. “Who could do that to the queen of the gods?”