“Mmm. And not just any dead. The worst, the most powerful, the ones most likely to hate the gods.”
“The monsters are coming back from Tartarus the same way,” Piper guessed. “That’s why they don’t stay disintegrated.”
“Yes. Their patron, as you call her, has a special relationship with Tartarus, the spirit of the pit.” Aphrodite held up a gold sequined top. “No … this would make me look ridiculous.”
Piper laughed uneasily. “You? You can’t look anything but perfect.”
“You’re sweet,” Aphrodite said. “But beauty is about finding the right fit, the most natural fit. To be perfect, you have to feel perfect about yourself—avoid trying to be something you’re not. For a goddess, that’s especially hard. We can change so easily.”
“My dad thought you were perfect.” Piper’s voice quavered. “He never got over you.”
Aphrodite’s gaze became distant. “Yes … Tristan. Oh, he was amazing. So gentle and kind, funny and handsome. Yet he had so much sadness inside.”
“Could we please not talk about him in the past tense?”
“I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t want to leave your father, of course. It’s always so hard, but it was for the best. If he had realized who I actually was—”
“Wait—he didn’t know you were a goddess?”
“Of course not.” Aphrodite sounded offended. “I wouldn’t do that to him. For most mortals, that’s simply too hard to accept. It can ruin their lives! Ask your friend Jason—lovelyboy, by the way. His poor mother was destroyed when she found out she’d fallen in love with Zeus. No, it was much better Tristan believed that I was a mortal woman who left him without explanation. Better a bittersweet memory than an immortal, unattainable goddess. Which brings me to an important matter …”
She opened her hand and showed Piper a glowing glass vial of pink liquid. “This is one of Medea’s kinder mixtures. It erases only recent memories. When you save your father, if you can save him, you should give him this.”
Piper couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You want me to dope my dad? You want me to make him forget what he’s been through?”
Aphrodite held up the vial. The liquid cast a pink glow over her face. “Your father acts confident, Piper, but he walks a fine line between two worlds. He’s worked his whole life to deny the old stories about gods and spirits, yet he fears those stories might be real. He fears that he’s shut off an important part of himself, and someday it will destroy him. Now he’s been captured by a giant. He’s living a nightmare. Even if he survives … if he has to spend the rest of his life with those memories, knowing that gods and spirits walk the earth, it will shatter him. That’s what our enemy hopes for. She will break him, and thus break your spirit.”
Piper wanted to shout that Aphrodite was wrong. Her dad was the strongest person she knew. Piper would never take his memories the way Hera had taken Jason’s.
But somehow she couldn’t stay angry with Aphrodite. She remembered what her dad had said months ago, at the beach at Big Sur: If I really believed in Ghost Country, or animal spirits, or Greek gods... I don’t think I could sleep at night. I’d always be looking for somebody to blame.
Now Piper wanted someone to blame, too.
“Who is she?” Piper demanded. “The one controlling the giants?”
Aphrodite pursed her lips. She moved to the next rack, which held battered armor and ripped togas, but Aphrodite looked through them as if they were designer outfits.
“You have a strong will,” she mused. “I’m never given much credit among the gods. My children are laughed at. They’re dismissed as conceited and shallow.”
“Some of them are.”
Aphrodite laughed. “Granted. Perhaps I’m conceited and shallow, too, sometimes. A girl has to indulge. Oh, this is nice.” She picked up a burned and stained bronze breastplate and held it up for Piper to see. “No?”
“No,” Piper said. “Are you going to answer my question?”
“Patience, my sweet,” the goddess said. “My point is that love is the most powerful motivator in the world. It spurs mortals to greatness. Their noblest, bravest acts are done for love.”
Piper pulled out her dagger and studied its reflective blade. “Like Helen starting the Trojan War?”
“Ah, Katoptris.” Aphrodite smiled. “I’m glad you found it. I get so much flack for that war, but honestly, Paris and Helen were a cute couple. And the heroes of that war are immortal now—at least in the memories of men. Love is powerful, Piper. It can bring even the gods to their knees. I told this to my son Aeneas when he escaped from Troy. He thought he had failed. He thought he was a loser! But he traveled to Italy—”
“And became the forebear of Rome.”
“Exactly. You see, Piper, my children can be quite powerful. You can be quite powerful, because my lineage is unique. I am closer to the beginning of creation than any other Olympian.”
Piper struggled to remember about Aphrodite’s birth. “Didn’t you … rise from the sea? Standing on a seashell?”
The goddess laughed. “That painter Botticelli had quite an imagination. I never stood on a seashell, thank you very much. But yes, I rose from the sea. The first beings to rise from Chaos were the Earth and Sky—Gaea and Ouranos. When their son the Titan Kronos killed Ouranos—”
“By chopping him to pieces with a scythe,” Piper remembered.
Aphrodite wrinkled her nose. “Yes. The pieces of Ouranos fell into the sea. His immortal essence created sea foam. And from that foam—”
“You were born. I remember now. So you’re—”
“The last child of Ouranos, who was greater than the gods or the Titans. So, in a strange way, I’m the eldest Olympian god. As I said, love is a powerful force. And you, my daughter, are much more than a pretty face. Which is why you already know who is waking the giants, and who has the power to open doors into the deepest parts of the earth.”
Aphrodite waited, as if she could sense Piper slowly putting together the pieces of a puzzle, which made a dreadful picture.
“Gaea,” Piper said. “The earth itself. That’s our enemy.”
She hoped Aphrodite would say no, but the goddess kept her eyes on the rack of tattered armor. “She has slumbered for eons, but she is slowly waking. Even asleep, she is powerful, but once she wakes … we will be doomed. You must defeat the giants before that happens, and lull Gaea back into her slumber. Otherwise the rebellion has only begun. The dead will continue to rise. Monsters will regenerate with even greater speed. The giants will lay waste to the birthplace of the gods. And if they do that, all civilization will burn.”
“But Gaea? Mother Earth?”
“Do not underestimate her,” Aphrodite warned. “She is a cruel deity. She orchestrated Ouranos’s death. She gave Kronos the sickle and urged him to kill his own father. While the Titans ruled the world, she slumbered in peace. But when the gods overthrew them, Gaea woke again in all her anger and gave birth to a new race—the giants—to destroy Olympus once and for all.”
“And it’s happening again,” Piper said. “The rise of the giants.”
Aphrodite nodded. “Now you know. What will you do?”
“Me?” Piper clenched her fists. “What am I supposed to do? Put on a pretty dress and sweet-talk Gaea into going back to sleep?”
“I wish that would work,” Aphrodite said. “But no, you will have to find your own strengths, and fight for what you love. Like my favored ones, Helen and Paris. Like my son Aeneas.”
“Helen and Paris died,” Piper said.
“And Aeneas became a hero,” the goddess countered. “The first great hero of Rome. The result will depend on you, Piper, but I will tell you this: The seven greatest demigods must be gathered to defeat the giants, and that effort will not succeed without you. When the two sides meet … you will be the mediator. You will determine whether there is friendship or bloodshed.”
“What two sides?”
Piper’s vision began to dim.
“You must wake soon, my child,” said the goddess. “I do not always agree with Hera, but she’s taken a bold risk, and I agree it must be done. Zeus has kept the two sides apart for too long. Only together will you have the power to save Olympus. Now, wake, and I hope you like the clothes I picked out.”
“What clothes?” Piper demanded, but the dream faded to black.
PIPER WOKE AT A TABLE AT A SIDEWALK CAFÉ.
For a second, she thought she was still dreaming. It was a sunny morning. The air was brisk but not unpleasant for sitting outside. At the other tables, a mix of bicyclists, business people, and college kids sat chatting and drinking coffee.
She could smell eucalyptus trees. Lots of foot traffic passed in front of quaint little shops. The street was lined with bottle-brush trees and blooming azaleas as if winter was a foreign concept.
In other words: she was in California.
Her friends sat in chairs around her—all of them with their hands calmly folded across their chests, dozing pleasantly. And they all had new clothes on. Piper looked down at her own outfit and gasped. “Mother!”
She yelled louder than she meant. Jason flinched, bumping the table with his knees, and then all of them were awake.
“What?” Hedge demanded. “Fight who? Where?”
“Falling!” Leo grabbed the table. “No—not falling. Where are we?”
Jason blinked, trying to get his bearings. He focused on Piper and made a little choking sound. “What are you wearing?”
Piper probably blushed. She was wearing the turquoise dress she’d seen in her dream, with black leggings and black leather boots. She had on her favorite silver charm bracelet, even though she’d left that back home in L.A., and her old snowboarding jacket from her dad, which amazingly went with the outfit pretty well. She pulled out Katoptris, and judging from the reflection in the blade, she’d gotten her hair done, too.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s my—” She remembered Aphrodite’s warning not to mention that they’d talked. “It’s nothing.”
Leo grinned. “Aphrodite strikes again, huh? You’re gonna be the best-dressed warrior in town, beauty queen.”
“Hey, Leo.” Jason nudged his arm. “You look at yourself recently?”
“What … oh.”
All of them had been give a makeover. Leo was wearing pinstriped pants, black leather shoes, a white collarless shirt with suspenders, and his tool belt, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and a porkpie hat.
“God, Leo.” Piper tried not to laugh. “I think my dad wore that to his last premiere, minus the tool belt.”
“Hey, shut up!”
“I think he looks good,” said Coach Hedge. “’Course, I look better.”
The satyr was a pastel nightmare. Aphrodite had given him a baggy canary yellow zoot suit with two-tone shoes that fit over his hooves. He had a matching yellow broad-brimmed hat, a rose-colored shirt, a baby blue tie, and a blue carnation in his lapel, which Hedge sniffed and then ate.