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“A very long dream, Your Majesty.”

“And yet, now we’re here. I’m enjoying myself very much. I like being alive better.”

“But how?” Piper asked. “You didn’t happen to have a … patron?”

Midas hesitated, but there was a sly twinkle in his eyes. “Does it matter, my dear?”

“We could kill them again,” Hedge suggested.

“Coach, not helping,” Jason said. “Why don’t you go outside and stand guard?”

Leo coughed. “Is that safe? They’ve got some serious security.”

“Oh, yes,” the king said. “Sorry about that. But it’s lovely stuff, isn’t it? Amazing what gold can still buy. Such excellent toys you have in this country!”

He fished a remote control out of his bathrobe pocket and pressed a few buttons—a pass code, Jason guessed.

“There,” Midas said. “Safe to go out now.”

Coach Hedge grunted. “Fine. But if you need me …” He winked at Jason meaningfully. Then he pointed at himself, pointed two fingers at their hosts, and sliced a finger across his throat. Very subtle sign language.

“Yeah, thanks,” Jason said.

After the satyr left, Piper tried another diplomatic smile. “So … you don’t know how you got here?”

“Oh, well, yes. Sort of,” the king said. He frowned at Lit. “Why did we pick Omaha, again? I know it wasn’t the weather.”

“The oracle,” Lit said.

“Yes! I was told there was an oracle in Omaha.” The king shrugged. “Apparently I was mistaken. But this is a rather nice house, isn’t it? Lit—it’s short for Lityerses, by the way—horrible name, but his mother insisted—Lit has plenty of wide-open space to practice his swordplay. He has quite a reputation for that. They called him the Reaper of Men back in the old days.”

“Oh.” Piper tried to sound enthusiastic. “How nice.”

Lit’s smile was more of a cruel sneer. Jason was now one hundred percent sure he didn’t like this guy, and he was starting to regret sending Hedge outside.

“So,” Jason said. “All this gold—”

The king’s eyes lit up. “Are you here for gold, my boy? Please, take a brochure!”

Jason looked at the brochures on the coffee table. The title said GOLD: Invest for Eternity. “Um, you sell gold?”

“No, no,” the king said. “I make it. In uncertain times like these, gold is the wisest investment, don’t you think? Governments fall. The dead rise. Giants attack Olympus. But gold retains its value!”

Leo frowned. “I’ve seen that commercial.”

“Oh, don’t be fooled by cheap imitators!” the king said. “I assure you, I can beat any price for a serious investor. I can make a wide assortment of gold items at a moment’s notice.”

“But …” Piper shook her head in confusion. “Your Majesty, you gave up the golden touch, didn’t you?”

The king looked astonished. “Gave it up?”

“Yes,” Piper said. “You got it from some god—”

“Dionysus,” the king agreed. “I’d rescued one of his satyrs, and in return, the god granted me one wish. I chose the golden touch.”

“But you accidentally turned your own daughter to gold,” Piper remembered. “And you realized how greedy you’d been. So you repented.”

“Repented!” King Midas looked at Lit incredulously. “You see, son? You’re away for a few thousand years, and the story gets twisted all around. My dear girl, did those stories ever say I’d lost my magic touch?”

“Well, I guess not. They just said you learned how to reverse it with running water, and you brought your daughter back to life.”

“That’s all true. Sometimes I still have to reverse my touch. There’s no running water in the house because I don’t want accidents”—he gestured to his statues—“but we chose to live next to a river just in case. Occasionally, I’ll forget and pat Lit on the back—”

Lit retreated a few steps. “I hate that.”

“I told you I was sorry, son. At any rate, gold is wonderful. Why would I give it up?”

“Well …” Piper looked truly lost now. “Isn’t that the point of the story? That you learned your lesson?”

Midas laughed. “My dear, may I see your backpack for a moment? Toss it here.”

Piper hesitated, but she wasn’t eager to offend the king. She dumped everything out of the pack and tossed it to Midas. As soon as he caught it, the pack turned to gold, like frost spreading across the fabric. It still looked flexible and soft, but definitely gold. The king tossed it back.

“As you see, I can still turn anything to gold,” Midas said. “That pack is magic now, as well. Go ahead—put your little storm spirit enemies in there.”

“Seriously?” Leo was suddenly interested. He took the bag from Piper and held it up to the cage. As soon as he unzipped the backpack, the winds stirred and howled in protest. The cage bars shuddered. The door of the prison flew open and the winds got vacuumed straight into the pack. Leo zipped it shut and grinned. “Gotta admit. That’s cool.”

“You see?” Midas said. “My golden touch a curse? Please. I didn’t learn any lesson, and life isn’t a story, girl. Honestly, my daughter Zoe was much more pleasant as a gold statue.”

“She talked a lot,” Lit offered.

“Exactly! And so I turned her back to gold.” Midas pointed. There in the corner was a golden statue of a girl with a shocked expression, as if she were thinking, Dad!

“That’s horrible!” Piper said.

“Nonsense. She doesn’t mind. Besides, if I’d learned my lesson, would I have gotten these?”

Midas pulled off his oversize sleeping cap, and Jason didn’t know whether to laugh or get sick. Midas had long fuzzy gray ears sticking up from his white hair—like Bugs Bunny’s, but they weren’t rabbit ears. They were donkey ears.

“Oh, wow,” Leo said. “I didn’t need to see that.”

“Terrible, isn’t it?” Midas sighed. “A few years after the golden touch incident, I judged a music contest between Apollo and Pan, and I declared Pan the winner. Apollo, sore loser, said I must have the ears of an ass, and voilà. This was my reward for being truthful. I tried to keep them a secret. Only my barber knew, but he couldn’t help blabbing.” Midas pointed out another golden statue—a bald man in a toga, holding a pair of shears. “That’s him. He won’t be telling anyone’s secrets again.”

The king smiled. Suddenly he didn’t strike Jason as a harmless old man in a bathrobe. His eyes had a merry glow to them—the look of a madman who knew he was mad, accepted his madness, and enjoyed it. “Yes, gold has many uses. I think that must be why I was brought back, eh Lit? To bankroll our patron.”

Lit nodded. “That and my good sword arm.”

Jason glanced at his friends. Suddenly the air in the room seemed much colder.

“So you do have a patron,” Jason said. “You work for the giants.”

King Midas waved his hand dismissively. “Well, I don’t care for giants myself, of course. But even supernatural armies need to get paid. I do owe my patron a great debt. I tried to explain that to the last group that came through, but they were very unfriendly. Wouldn’t cooperate at all.”

Jason slipped his hand into his pocket and grabbed his gold coin. “The last group?”

“Hunters,” Lit snarled. “Blasted girls from Artemis.”

Jason felt a spark of electricity—a literal spark—travel down his spine. He caught a whiff of electrical fire like he’d just melted some of the springs in the sofa.

His sister had been here.

“When?” he demanded. “What happened?”

Lit shrugged. “Few days ago? I didn’t get to kill them, unfortunately. They were looking for some evil wolves, or something. Said they were following a trail, heading west. Missing demigod—I don’t recall.”

Percy Jackson, Jason thought. Annabeth had mentioned the Hunters were looking for him. And in Jason’s dream of the burned-out house in the redwoods, he’d heard enemy wolves baying. Hera had called them her keepers. It had to be connected somehow.

Midas scratched his donkey ears. “Very unpleasant young ladies, those Hunters,” he recalled. “They absolutely refused to be turned into gold. Much of the security system outside I installed to keep that sort of thing from happening again, you know. I don’t have time for those who aren’t serious investors.”

Jason stood warily and glanced at his friends. They got the message.

“Well,” Piper said, managing a smile. “It’s been a great visit. Welcome back to life. Thanks for the gold bag.”

“Oh, but you can’t leave!” Midas said. “I know you’re not serious investors, but that’s all right! I have to rebuild my collection.”

Lit was smiling cruelly. The king rose, and Leo and Piper moved away from him.

“Don’t worry,” the king assured them. “You don’t have to be turned to gold. I give all my guests a choice—join my collection, or die at the hands of Lityerses. Really, it’s good either way.”

Piper tried to use her charmspeak. “Your Majesty, you can’t—”

Quicker than any old man should’ve been able to move, Midas lashed out and grabbed her wrist.

“No!” Jason yelled.

But a frost of gold spread over Piper, and in a heartbeat she was a glittering statue. Leo tried to summon fire, but he’d forgotten his power wasn’t working. Midas touched his hand, and Leo transformed into solid metal.

Jason was so horrified he couldn’t move. His friends—just gone. And he hadn’t been able to stop it.

Midas smiled apologetically. “Gold trumps fire, I’m afraid.” He waved around him at all the gold curtains and furniture. “In this room, my power dampens all others: fire… even charmspeak. Which leaves me only one more trophy to collect.”

“Hedge!” Jason yelled. “Need help in here!”

For once, the satyr didn’t charge in. Jason wondered if the lasers had gotten him, or if he was sitting at the bottom of a trap pit.

Midas chuckled. “No goat to the rescue? Sad. But don’t worry, my boy. It’s really not painful. Lit can tell you.”

Jason fixed on an idea. “I choose combat. You said I could choose to fight Lit instead.”

Midas looked mildly disappointed, but he shrugged. “I said you could die fighting Lit. But of course, if you wish.”

The king backed away, and Lit raised his sword.

“I’m going to enjoy this,” Lit said. “I am the Reaper of Men!”

“Come on, Cornhusker.” Jason summoned his own weapon. This time it came up as a javelin, and Jason was glad for the extra length.