He ripped off a chunk of meat with his fingers and stuffed it in his mouth. He guzzled some red liquid, which thankfully tasted like watered-down wine, not blood or poison. Jason fought the urge to gag, but he didn’t keel over or explode.
‘Yum!’ He wiped his mouth. ‘Now tell me about this … what did you call it? Retribution? Where do I sign up?’
The ghosts laughed. One pushed his shoulder and Jason was alarmed that he could actually feel it.
At Camp Jupiter, Lares had no physical substance. Apparently these spirits did – which meant more enemies who could beat, stab or decapitate him.
Antinous leaned forward. ‘Tell me, Iros, what do you have to offer? We don’t need you to run messages for us like in the old days. Certainly you aren’t a fighter. As I recall, Odysseus crushed your jaw and tossed you into the pigsty.’
Jason’s neurons fired. Iros … the old man who’d run messages for the suitors in exchange for scraps of food. Iros had been sort of like their pet homeless person. When Odysseus came home, disguised as a beggar, Iros thought the new guy was moving in on his territory. The two had started arguing …
‘You made Iros –’ Jason hesitated. ‘You made me fight Odysseus. You bet money on it. Even when Odysseus took off his shirt and you saw how muscular he was … you still made me fight him. You didn’t care if I lived or died!’
Antinous bared his pointed teeth. ‘Of course I didn’t care. I still don’t! But you’re here, so Gaia must have had a reason to allow you back into the mortal world. Tell me, why are you worthy of a share in our spoils?’
Antinous spread his hands. ‘The entire world, my friend. The first time we met here, we were only after Odysseus’s land, his money and his wife.’
‘Especially his wife!’ A bald ghost in ragged clothes elbowed Jason in the ribs. ‘That Penelope was a hot little honey cake!’
Jason caught a glimpse of Piper serving drinks at the next table. She discreetly put her finger to her mouth in a gag me gesture, then went back to flirting with dead guys.
Antinous sneered. ‘Eurymachus, you whining coward. You never stood a chance with Penelope. I remember you blubbering and pleading for your life with Odysseus, blaming everything on me!’
‘Lot of good it did me.’ Eurymachus lifted his tattered shirt, revealing an inch-wide hole in the middle of his spectral chest. ‘Odysseus shot me in the heart, just because I wanted to marry his wife!’
‘At any rate …’ Antinous turned to Jason. ‘We have gathered now for a much bigger prize. Once Gaia destroys the gods, we will divide up the remnants of the mortal world!’
‘Dibs on London!’ yelled a ghoul at the next table.
‘Montreal!’ shouted another.
‘Duluth!’ yelled a third, which momentarily stopped the conversation as the other ghosts gave him confused looks.
The meat and wine turned to lead in Jason’s stomach. ‘What about the rest of these … guests? I count at least two hundred. Half of them are new to me.’
Antinous’s yellow eyes gleamed. ‘All of them are suitors for Gaia’s favour. All have claims and grievances against the gods or their pet heroes. That scoundrel over there is Hippias, former tyrant of Athens. He got deposed and sided with the Persians to attack his own countrymen. No morals whatsoever. He’d do anything for power.’
‘Thank you!’ called Hippias.
‘That rogue with the turkey leg in his mouth,’ Antinous continued, ‘that’s Hasdrubal of Carthage. He has a grudge to settle with Rome.’
‘Mhhmm,’ said the Carthaginian.
‘And Michael Varus –’
Jason choked. ‘Who?’
Over by the sand fountain, the dark-haired guy in the purple T-shirt and legionnaire armour turned to face them. His outline was blurred, smoky and indistinct, so Jason guessed he was some form of spirit, but the legion tattoo on his forearm was clear enough: the letters SPQR, the double-faced head of the god Janus and six score marks for years of service. On his breastplate hung the badge of praetorship and the emblem of the Fifth Cohort.
Jason had never met Michael Varus. The infamous praetor had died in the 1980s. Still, Jason’s skin crawled when he met Varus’s gaze. Those sunken eyes seemed to bore right through Jason’s disguise.
Antinous waved dismissively. ‘He’s a Roman demigod. Lost his legion’s eagle in … Alaska, was it? Doesn’t matter. Gaia lets him hang around. He insists he has some insight into defeating Camp Jupiter. But you, Iros – you still haven’t answered my question. Why should you be welcome among us?’
Varus’s dead eyes had unnerved Jason. He could feel the Mist thinning around him, reacting to his uncertainty.
Suddenly Annabeth appeared at Antinous’s shoulder. ‘More wine, my lord? Oops!’
She spilled the contents of a silver pitcher down the back of Antinous’s neck.
‘Gahh!’ The ghoul arched his spine. ‘Foolish girl! Who let you back from Tartarus?’
‘A Titan, my lord.’ Annabeth dipped her head apologetically. ‘May I bring you some moist towelettes? Your arrow is dripping.’
Annabeth caught Jason’s eye – a silent message of support – then she disappeared in the crowd.
The ghoul wiped himself off, giving Jason a chance to collect his thoughts.
He was Iros … former messenger of the suitors. Why would he be here? Why should they accept him?
He picked up the nearest steak knife and stabbed it into the table, making the ghosts around him jump.
‘Why should you welcome me?’ Jason growled. ‘Because I’m still running messages, you stupid wretches! I’ve just come from the House of Hades to see what you’re up to!’
That last part was true, and it seemed to give Antinous pause. The ghoul glared at him, wine still dripping from the arrow shaft in his throat. ‘You expect me to believe Gaia sent you – a beggar – to check up on us?’
Jason laughed. ‘I was among the last to leave Epirus before the Doors of Death were closed! I saw the chamber where Clytius stood guard under a domed ceiling tiled with tombstones. I walked the jewel-and-bone floors of the Necromanteion!’
That was also true. Around the table, ghosts shifted and muttered.
‘So, Antinous …’ Jason jabbed a finger at the ghoul. ‘Maybe you should explain to me why you’re worthy of Gaia’s favour. All I see is a crowd of lazy, dawdling dead folk enjoying themselves and not helping the war effort. What should I tell the Earth Mother?’
From the corner of his eye, Jason saw Piper flash him an approving smile. Then she returned her attention to a glowing purple Greek dude who was trying to make her sit on his lap.
Antinous wrapped his hand around the steak knife Jason had impaled in the table. He pulled it free and studied the blade. ‘If you come from Gaia, you must know we are here under orders. Porphyrion decreed it.’ Antinous ran the knife blade across his palm. Instead of blood, dry dirt spilled from the cut. ‘You do know Porphyrion … ?’
Jason struggled to keep his nausea under control. He remembered Porphyrion just fine from their battle at the Wolf House. ‘The giant king – green skin, forty feet tall, white eyes, hair braided with weapons. Of course I know him. He’s a lot more impressive than you.’
He decided not to mention that the last time he’d seen the giant king, Jason had blasted him in the head with lightning.
For once, Antinous looked speechless, but his bald ghost friend Eurymachus put an arm around Jason’s shoulders.
‘Now, now, friend!’ Eurymachus smelled like sour wine and burning electrical wires. His ghostly touch made Jason’s ribcage tingle. ‘I’m sure we didn’t mean to question your credentials! It’s just, well, if you’ve spoken with Porphyrion in Athens, you know why we’re here. I assure you, we’re doing exactly as he ordered!’
Jason tried to mask his surprise. Porphyrion in Athens.
Gaia had promised to pull up the gods by their roots. Chiron, Jason’s mentor at Camp Half-Blood, had assumed that meant that the giants would try to rouse the earth goddess at the original Mount Olympus. But now …
‘The Acropolis,’ Jason said. ‘The most ancient temples to the gods, in the middle of Athens. That’s where Gaia will wake.’
‘Of course!’ Eurymachus laughed. The wound in his chest made a popping sound, like a porpoise’s blowhole. ‘And, to get there, those meddlesome demigods will have to travel by sea, eh? They know it’s too dangerous to fly over land.’
‘Which means they’ll have to pass this island,’ Jason said.
Eurymachus nodded eagerly. He removed his arm from Jason’s shoulders and dipped his finger in his wineglass. ‘At that point, they’ll have to make a choice, eh?’
On the tabletop, he traced a coastline, red wine glowing unnaturally against the wood. He drew Greece like a mis-shapen hourglass – a large dangly blob for the northern mainland, then another blob below it, almost as large – the big chunk of land known as the Peloponnese. Cutting between them was a narrow line of sea – the Straits of Corinth.
Jason hardly needed a picture. He and the rest of the crew had spent the last day at sea studying maps.
‘The most direct route,’ Eurymachus said, ‘would be due east from here, across the Straits of Corinth. But if they try to go that way –’
‘Enough,’ Antinous snapped. ‘You have a loose tongue, Eurymachus.’
The ghost looked offended. ‘I wasn’t going to tell him everything! Just about the Cyclopes armies massed on either shore. And the raging storm spirits in the air. And those vicious sea monsters Keto sent to infest the waters. And of course if the ship got as far as Delphi –’
‘Idiot!’ Antinous lunged across the table and grabbed the ghost’s wrist. A thin crust of dirt spread from the ghoul’s hand, straight up Eurymachus’s spectral arm.
‘No!’ Eurymachus yelped. ‘Please! I – I only meant –’
The ghost screamed as the dirt covered his body like a shell, then cracked apart, leaving nothing but a pile of dust. Eurymachus was gone.
Antinous sat back and brushed off his hands. The other suitors at the table watched him in wary silence.
‘Apologies, Iros.’ The ghoul smiled coldly. ‘All you need to know is this – the ways to Athens are well guarded, just as we promised. The demigods would either have to risk the straits, which are impossible, or sail around the entire Peloponnese, which is hardly much safer. In any event, it’s unlikely they will survive long enough to make that choice. Once they reach Ithaca, we will know. We will stop them here and Gaia will see how valuable we are. You can take that message back to Athens.’
Jason’s heart hammered against his sternum. He’d never seen anything like the shell of earth that Antinous had summoned to destroy Eurymachus. He didn’t want to find out if that power worked on demigods.
Also, Antinous sounded confident that he could detect the Argo II. Hazel’s magic seemed to be obscuring the ship so far, but there was no telling how long that would last.
Jason had the intel they’d come for. Their goal was Athens. The safer route, or at least the not impossible route, was around the southern coast. Today was 20 July. They only had twelve days before Gaia planned to wake, on 1 August, the ancient Feast of Hope.
Jason and his friends needed to leave while they had the chance.
But something else bothered him – a cold sense of foreboding, as if he hadn’t heard the worst news yet.
Eurymachus had mentioned Delphi. Jason had secretly hoped to visit the ancient site of Apollo’s Oracle, maybe get some insight into his personal future, but if the place had been overrun by monsters …
He pushed aside his plate of cold food. ‘Sounds like everything is under control. For your sake, Antinous, I hope so. These demigods are resourceful. They closed the Doors of Death. We wouldn’t want them sneaking past you, perhaps getting help from Delphi.’
Antinous chuckled. ‘No risk of that. Delphi is no longer in Apollo’s control.’
‘I – I see. And if the demigods sail the long way around the Peloponnese?’
‘You worry too much. That journey is never safe for demigods, and it’s much too far. Besides, Victory runs rampant in Olympia. As long as that’s the case, there is no way the demigods can win this war.’
Jason didn’t understand what that meant either, but he nodded. ‘Very well. I will report as much to King Porphyrion. Thank you for the, er, meal.’
Over at the fountain, Michael Varus called, ‘Wait.’
Jason bit back a curse. He’d been trying to ignore the dead praetor, but now Varus walked over, surrounded in a hazy white aura, his deep-set eyes like sinkholes. At his side hung an Imperial gold gladius.
‘You must stay,’ Varus said.
Antinous shot the ghost an irritated look. ‘What’s the problem, legionnaire? If Iros wants to leave, let him. He smells bad!’
The other ghosts laughed nervously. Across the courtyard, Piper shot Jason a worried glance. A little further away, Annabeth casually palmed a carving knife from the nearest platter of meat.
Varus rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. Despite the heat, his breastplate was glazed with ice. ‘I lost my cohort twice in Alaska – once in life, once in death to a Graecus named Percy Jackson. Still I have come here to answer Gaia’s call. Do you know why?’
Jason swallowed. ‘Stubbornness?’
‘This is a place of longing,’ Varus said. ‘All of us are drawn here, sustained not only by Gaia’s power but also by our strongest desires. Eurymachus’s greed. Antinous’s cruelty.’
‘You flatter me,’ the ghoul muttered.
‘Hasdrubal’s hatred,’ Varus continued. ‘Hippias’s bitterness. My ambition. And you, Iros. What has drawn you here? What does a beggar most desire? Perhaps a home?’
An uncomfortable tingle started at the base of Jason’s skull – the same feeling he got when a huge electrical storm was about to break.
‘I should be going,’ he said. ‘Messages to carry.’
Michael Varus drew his sword. ‘My father is Janus, the god of two faces. I am used to seeing through masks and deceptions. Do you know, Iros, why we are so sure the demigods will not pass our island undetected?’
Jason silently ran through his repertoire of Latin cuss words. He tried to calculate how long it would take him to get out his emergency flare and fire it. Hopefully he could buy enough time for the girls to find shelter before this mob of dead guys slaughtered him.
He turned to Antinous. ‘Look, are you in charge here or not? Maybe you should muzzle your Roman.’
The ghoul took a deep breath. The arrow rattled in his throat. ‘Ah, but this might be entertaining. Go on, Varus.’
The dead praetor raised his sword. ‘Our desires reveal us. They show us for who we really are. Someone has come for you, Jason Grace.’
Behind Varus, the crowd parted. The shimmering ghost of a woman drifted forward, and Jason felt as if his bones were turning to dust.
‘My dearest,’ said his mother’s ghost. ‘You have come home.’
SOMEHOW HE KNEW HER. He recognized her dress – a flowery green-and-red wraparound, like the skirt of a Christmas tree. He recognized the colourful plastic bangles on her wrists that had dug into his back when she hugged him goodbye at the Wolf House. He recognized her hair, an over-teased corona of dyed blonde curls and her scent of lemons and aerosol.
Her eyes were blue like Jason’s, but they gleamed with fractured light, like she’d just come out of a bunker after a nuclear war – hungrily searching for familiar details in a changed world.
‘Dearest.’ She held out her arms.
Jason’s vision tunnelled. The ghosts and ghouls no longer mattered.
His Mist disguise burned off. His posture straightened. His joints stopped aching. His walking stick turned back into an Imperial gold gladius.
The burning sensation didn’t stop. He felt as if layers of his life were being seared away – his months at Camp Half-Blood, his years at Camp Jupiter, his training with Lupa the wolf goddess. He was a scared and vulnerable two-year-old again. Even the scar on his lip, from when he’d tried to eat a stapler as a toddler, stung like a fresh wound.
‘Mom?’ he managed.
‘Yes, dearest.’ Her image flickered. ‘Come, embrace me.’
‘You’re – you’re not real.’
‘Of course she is real.’ Michael Varus’s voice sounded far away. ‘Did you think Gaia would let such an important spirit languish in the Underworld? She is your mother, Beryl Grace, star of television, sweetheart to the king of Olympus, who rejected her not once but twice, in both his Greek and Roman aspects. She deserves justice as much as any of us.’
Jason’s heart felt wobbly. The suitors crowded around him, watching.
I’m their entertainment, Jason realized. The ghosts probably found this even more amusing than two beggars fighting to the death.
Piper’s voice cut through the buzzing in his head. ‘Jason, look at me.’
She stood twenty feet away, holding her ceramic amphora. Her smile was gone. Her gaze was fierce and commanding – as impossible to ignore as the blue harpy feather in her hair. ‘That isn’t your mother. Her voice is working some kind of magic on you – like charmspeak, but more dangerous. Can’t you sense it?’
‘She’s right.’ Annabeth climbed onto the nearest table. She kicked aside a platter, startling a dozen suitors. ‘Jason, that’s only a remnant of your mother, like an ara, maybe, or –’
‘A remnant!’ His mother’s ghost sobbed. ‘Yes, look what I have been reduced to. It’s Jupiter’s fault. He abandoned us. He wouldn’t help me! I didn’t want to leave you in Sonoma, my dear, but Juno and Jupiter gave me no choice. They wouldn’t allow us to stay together. Why fight for them now? Join these suitors. Lead them. We can be a family again!’
Jason felt hundreds of eyes on him.
This has been the story of my life, he thought bitterly. Everyone had always watched him, expecting him to lead the way. From the moment he’d arrived at Camp Jupiter, the Roman demigods had treated him like a prince in waiting. Despite his attempts to alter his destiny – joining the worst cohort, trying to change the camp traditions, taking the least glamorous missions and befriending the least popular kids – he had been made praetor anyway. As a son of Jupiter, his future had been assured.
He remembered what Hercules had said to him at the Straits of Gibraltar: It’s not easy being a son of Zeus. Too much pressure. Eventually, it can make a guy snap.
Now Jason was here, drawn as taut as a bowstring.
‘You left me,’ he told his mother. ‘That wasn’t Jupiter or Juno. That was you.’
Beryl Grace stepped forward. The worry lines around her eyes, the pained tightness in her mouth reminded Jason of his sister, Thalia.
‘Dearest, I told you I would come back. Those were my last words to you. Don’t you remember?’
Jason shivered. In the ruins of the Wolf House his mother had hugged him one last time. She had smiled, but her eyes were full of tears.
It’s all right, she had promised. But even as a little kid Jason had known it wasn’t all right. Wait here. I will be back for you, dearest. I will see you soon.
She hadn’t come back. Instead, Jason had wandered the ruins, crying and alone, calling for his mother and for Thalia – until the wolves came for him.
His mother’s unkept promise was at the core of who he was. He’d built his whole life around the irritation of her words, like the grain of sand at the centre of a pearl.
People lie. Promises are broken.
That was why, as much as it chafed him, Jason followed rules. He kept his promises. He never wanted to abandon anyone the way he’d been abandoned and lied to.
Now his mom was back, erasing the one certainty Jason had about her – that she’d left him forever.
Across the table, Antinous raised his goblet. ‘So pleased to meet you, son of Jupiter. Listen to your mother. You have many grievances against the gods. Why not join us? I gather these two serving girls are your friends? We will spare them. You wish to have your mother remain in the world? We can do that. You wish to be a king –’
‘No.’ Jason’s mind was spinning. ‘No, I don’t belong with you.’
Michael Varus regarded him with cold eyes. ‘Are you so sure, my fellow praetor? Even if you defeat the giants and Gaia, would you return home like Odysseus did? Where is your home now? With the Greeks? With the Romans? No one will accept you. And, if you get back, who’s to say you won’t find ruins like this?’