“I’ve come to gamble.”
The old man’s mouth twitched. He put down his shishkebab and leaned toward Percy. “A gamble…how interesting. Information in exchange for the harpy? Winner take all?”
“No,” Percy said. “The harpy isn’t part of the deal.”
Phineas laughed. “Really? Perhaps you don’t understand her value.”
“She’s a person,” Percy said. “She isn’t for sale.”
“Oh, please! You’re from the Roman camp, aren’t you? Rome was built on slavery. Don’t get all high and mighty with me. Besides, she isn’t even human. She’s a monster. A wind spirit. A minion of Jupiter.”
Ella squawked. Just getting her into the parking lot had been a major challenge, but now she started backing away, muttering, “‘Jupiter. Hydrogen and helium. Sixty-three satellites.’ No minions. Nope.”
Hazel put her arm around Ella’s wings. She seemed to be the only one who could touch the harpy without causing lots of screaming and twitching.
Frank stayed at Percy’s side. He held his spear ready, as if the old man might charge them.
Percy brought out the ceramic vials. “I have a different wager. We’ve got two flasks of gorgon’s blood. One kills. One heals. They look exactly the same. Even we don’t know which is which. If you choose the right one, it could cure your blindness.”
Phineas held out his hands eagerly. “Let me feel them. Let me smell them.”
“Not so fast,” Percy said. “First you agree to the terms.”
“Terms…” Phineas was breathing shallowly. Percy could tell he was hungry to take the offer. “Prophecy and sight ... I’d be unstoppable. I could own this city. I’d build my palace here, surrounded by food trucks. I could capture that harpy myself!”
“N-noo,” Ella said nervously. “Nope, nope, nope.”
A villainous laugh is hard to pull off when you’re wearing pink bunny slippers, but Phineas gave it his best shot. “Very well, demigod. What are your terms?”
“You get to choose a vial,” Percy said. “No uncorking, no sniffing before you decide.”
“That’s not fair! I’m blind.”
“And I don’t have your sense of smell,” Percy countered. “You can hold the vials. And I’ll swear on the River Styx that they look identical. They’re exactly what I told you: gorgon’s blood, one vial from the left side of the monster, one from the right. And I swear that none of us knows which is which.”
Percy looked back at Hazel. “Uh, you’re our Underworld expert. With all this weird stuff going on with Death, is an oath on the River Styx still binding?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “To break such a vow…Well, just don’t do it. There are worse things than death.” Phineas stroked his beard. “So I choose which vial to drink. You have to drink the other one. We swear to drink at the same time.”
“Right,” Percy said.
“The loser dies, obviously,” Phineas said. “That kind ofpoison would probably keep even me from coming back tolife…for a long time, at least. My essence would be scattered and degraded. So I’m risking quite a lot.”
“But if you win, you get everything,” Percy said. “If Idie, my friends will swear to leave you in peace and not take revenge. You’d have your sight back, which even Gaea won’t give you.”
The old man’s expression soured. Percy could tell he’d struck a nerve. Phineas wanted to see. As much as Gaea had given him, he resented being kept in the dark.
“If I lose,” the old man said, “I’ll be dead, unable to give you information. How does that help you?”
Percy was glad he’d talked this through with his friends ahead of time. Frank had suggested the answer.
“You write down the location of Alcyoneus’s lair ahead of time,” Percy said. “Keep it to yourself, but swear on the River Styx it’s specific and accurate. You also have to swear that if you lose and die, the harpies will be released from their curse.”
“Those are high stakes,” Phineas grumbled. “You face death, Percy Jackson. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to hand over the harpy?”
“Not an option.”
Phineas smiled slowly. “So you are starting to understand her worth. Once I have my sight, I’ll capture her myself, you know. Whoever controls that harpy…well, I was a king once. This gamble could make me a king again.”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Percy said. “Do we have a deal?”
Phineas tapped his nose thoughtfully. “I can’t foresee the outcome. Annoying how that works. A completely unexpected gamble…it makes the future cloudy. But I can tell you this, Percy Jackson—a bit of free advice. If you survive today, you’re not going to like your future. A big sacrifice is coming, and you won’t have the courage to make it. That will cost you dearly. It will cost the world dearly. It might be easier if you just choose the poison.”
Percy’s mouth tasted like Iris’s sour green tea. He wanted to think the old man was just psyching him out, but something told him the prediction was true. He remembered Juno’s warning when he’d chosen to go to Camp Jupiter: You will feel pain, misery, and loss beyond anything you’ve ever known. But you might have a chance to save your old friends and family.
In the trees around the parking lot, the harpies gathered to watch as if they sensed what was at stake. Frank and Hazel studied Percy’s face with concern. He’d assured them the odds weren’t as bad as fifty-fifty. He did have a plan. Of course, the plan could backfire. His chance of survival might be a hundred percent—or zero. He hadn’t mentioned that.
“Do we have a deal?” he asked again.
Phineas grinned. “I swear on the River Styx to abide by the terms, just as you have described them. Frank Zhang, you’re the descendant of an Argonaut. I trust your word. If I win, do you and your friend Hazel swear to leave me in peace, and not seek revenge?”
Frank’s hands were clenched so tight Percy thought he might break his gold spear, but he managed to grumble, “I swear it on the River Styx.”
“I also swear,” Hazel said.
“Swear,” Ella muttered. “‘Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon.’”
Phineas laughed. “In that case, find me something to write with. Let’s get started.”
Frank borrowed a napkin and a pen from a food truck vendor. Phineas scribbled something on the napkin and put it in his bathrobe pocket. “I swear this is the location of Alcyoneus’s lair. Not that you’ll live long enough to read it.”
Percy drew his sword and swept all the food off the picnic table. Phineas sat on one side. Percy sat on the other.
Phineas held out his hands. “Let me feel the vials.”
Percy gazed at the hills in the distance. He imagined the shadowy face of a sleeping woman. He sent his thoughts into the ground beneath him and hoped the goddess was listening.
Okay, Gaea, he said. I’m calling your bluff. You say I’m a valuable pawn. You say you’ve got plans for me, and you’re going to spare me until I make it north. Who’s more valuable to you—me, or this old man? Because one of us is about to die.
Phineas curled his fingers in a grasping motion. “Losing your nerve, Percy Jackson? Let me have them.”
Percy passed him the vials.
The old man compared their weight. He ran his fingers along the ceramic surfaces. Then he set them both on the table and rested one hand lightly on each. A tremor passed through the ground—a mild earthquake, just strong enough to make Percy’s teeth chatter. Ella cawed nervously.
The vial on the left seemed to shake slightly more than the one on the right.
Phineas grinned wickedly. He closed his fingers around the left-hand vial. “You were a fool, Percy Jackson. I choose this one. Now we drink.”
Percy took the vial on the right. His teeth were chattering.
The old man raised his vial. “A toast to the sons of Neptune.”
They both uncorked their vials and drank.
Immediately, Percy doubled over, his throat burning. His mouth tasted like gasoline.
“Oh, gods,” Hazel said behind him.
“Nope!” Ella said. “Nope, nope, nope.”
Percy’s vision blurred. He could see Phineas grinning in triumph, sitting up straighter, blinking his eyes in anticipation.
“Yes!” he cried. “Any moment now, my sight will return!”
Percy had chosen wrong. He’d been stupid to take such a risk. He felt like broken glass was working its way through his stomach, into his intestines.
“Percy!” Frank gripped his shoulders. “Percy, you can’t die!”
He gasped for breath…and suddenly his vision cleared.
At the same moment, Phineas hunched over like he’d been punched.
“You—you can’t!” the old man wailed. “Gaea, you—you—”
He staggered to his feet and stumbled away from the table, clutching his stomach. “I’m too valuable!”
Steam came out of his mouth. A sickly yellow vapor rose from his ears, his beard, his blind eyes.
“Unfair!” he screamed. “You tricked me!”
He tried to claw the piece of paper out of his robe pocket, but his hands crumbled, his fingers turning to sand.
Percy rose unsteadily. He didn’t feel cured of anything in particular. His memory hadn’t magically returned. But the pain had stopped.
“No one tricked you,” Percy said. “You made your choice freely, and I hold you to your oath.” The blind king wailed in agony. He turned in a circle, steaming and slowly disintegrating until there was nothing left but an old, stained bathrobe and a pair of bunny slippers.
“Those,” Frank said, “are the most disgusting spoils of war ever.”
A woman’s voice spoke in Percy’s mind. A gamble, Percy Jackson. It was a sleepy whisper, with just a hint of grudging admiration. You forced me to choose, and you are more important to my plans than the old seer. But do not press your luck. When your death comes, I promise it will be much more painful than gorgon’s blood.
Hazel prodded the robe with her sword. There was nothing underneath—no sign that Phineas was trying to re-form. She looked at Percy in awe. “That was either the bravest thing I’ve ever seen, or the stupidest.”
Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Percy, how did you know? You were so confident he’d choose the poison.”
“Gaea,” Percy said. “She wants me to make it to Alaska. She thinks…I’m not sure. She thinks she can use me as part of her plan. She influenced Phineas to choose the wrong vial.”
Frank stared in horror at the remains of the old man. “Gaea would kill her own servant rather than you? That’s what you were betting on?”
“Plans,” Ella muttered. “Plans and plots. The lady in the ground. Big plans for Percy. Macrobiotic jerky for Ella.”
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