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The Master Bolt Doesn't Look Like That

Chapter Text

"Because some old ladies cut yarn."

"What?" Percy's mom pulled the wheel sharply to the right, leaving him barely a moment to glimpse the figure that she'd swerved to avoid—a great hulking shadow. "What do you mean, three old ladies cut yarn?"

"What was that?" Percy asked, suddenly very confused. Why had he mentioned that to his mother?

"We're almost there," his mother said, ignoring  his question. "Another mile. Please. Please. Please."

Percy didn't know where there was, but he found himself leaning forward in the car, anticipating the arrival. Percy suddenly came to the realization that he didn't know where they were, either. It didn't look like Montauk anymore. It didn't really look like New York anymore. Percy wasn't sure if his mom was seeing this, too, but outside, it quickly shifted from rain and darkness to golden hills, dotted with moody-looking lakes, angry woods, and a few herds of perturbed cows that seemed strangely shocked and irritated by the rain that seemed to follow their car. A flat checkerboard of neighborhoods interrupted the strawberry fields that they'd just been approaching.

The heavy rain seemed to weigh down the buildings, hiding the tops of skyscrapers and a hazy, angry-looking bay that hadn't been there before. 

A thick sadness weighed on Percy’s chest on top of the fear and confusion that told him he’d been to San Francisco before, but he didn't remember anything like that happening. It was hard enough to convince Smelly Gabe to let them go to Montauk (which was definitely never happening ever again, judging by the state of the Camaro), let alone across the country.

He thought numbly about Mrs. Dodds, when she'd grown pointed teeth and leathery wings in the museum gallery. He felt dangerously like he was floating as the car hit a rock and jerked briefly into the air. She really hadn't been human and she'd meant to kill him. 

Then he thought about Mr. Brunner ... and the sword he'd thrown him… maybe it was his ADHD acting up, but his teacher's face and name melted from his mind. How had he gotten the sword? His hair stood on end like he was the electrostatics physics lab experiment. First, there was the Light, glaring, the Noise, ear-shattering, and the Heat, mind-melting. The car exploded.

For a moment, he felt dangerously weightless, like he couldn't possibly be tethered to the Earth by gravity anymore, like he must be flying, knocked out of orbit to a Mirror Earth, a kind of new planet to support life that NASA was trying so hard to find, like he was in a pressure-cooker and a frying pan all at the same time.

"Ow." Percy peeled his forehead off the back of the driver's seat and touched the back of his hand on it, sure he had left some of his skin behind on the steaming leather. "Ow," he repeated, shallowly, like his chest had a thousand tons of concrete weighing down his lungs.

"Percy!" his mom shouted.

"I'm okay... ."

He tried to lift the heavy fog from his mind. He wasn't dead, first of all.The car hadn't really exploded. They'd swerved into a ditch on the left side of the road, scaring a cow so badly it fell down dead right beside them. The driver's-side doors were wedged in mud and cow-droppings. The roof had cracked like Humpty Dumpty and rain poured in angrily.

Not even the king of the gods could put that back together again.

Lightning. It had to be lightning. 

"Percy," his mother said, "we have to ..." Her voice faltered. He could see she was a little confused, too, for a moment. Then she blinked, and it seemed to make sense to her again.

Percy looked back, over his shoulder, like he'd been the one driving and was checking his blind spots in order to change lanes. In a crash of lightning, through the mud-spattered rear windshield that the back windshield wipers were desperately trying to clean, he saw the figure steadily gaining on them on the side of the road. The sight of it made his skin crawl. It was so big, Percy almost mistook it for a car, glowing eyes as headlights, but he realized it must be a huge guy, bigger than any football player he'd ever seen. He seemed to be holding a blanket over his head, making his top half huge and fuzzy. His upraised arms gave the impression of large horns.

He swallowed thickly. "Mom—"

"Percy," his mother said, the most serious he'd ever seen her. "Get out of the car."

His mother threw her weight against the driver's-side door. It was jammed shut, and only served to make us sink a little deeper into the mud. Percy rammed his shoulder against his. Stuck too. Desperately, he looked to the cracked roof, metal still glowing hot from the lightning, but his mom had a better idea.

"Climb out the passenger's side!" His mother told him. "Percy— run. Do you see that big tree?"

"What?"

Another crack of lightning, and through the sizzling hole in the roof he saw the tree she must have meant: a hulking pine at the peak of the hill, right by an overpass with a tunnel.

"That's the property line," his mom said. "Get over that hill. Run and don't look back. Yell for help. Don't stop until you reach the door."

Door? 

Percy couldn't see how that could be the property line. It was a tunnel, that had to be public property, right?

"Mom, you're coming too."

Her face was pale; her eyes as sad as when she looked at the ocean and thought no one was watching.

"No!" Percy shouted. "You are coming with me. You can't leave me."

The man holding a blanket over his head steadily gained on us, making grunting, snorting noises like the reminiscent of the gurgling cows on the field nearby. As he got closer, Percy realized no way was that a blanket, because his hands—thick, meaty hands—were swinging at his sides as he lumbered over. And that bulky, fuzzy mass... that was his head. And the points that looked like horns … suddenly glinted threatening as Percy realized—those were really horns.

"He doesn't want us," Percy's mother told him. "He wants you. Besides, I can't cross the property line."

"But..." Us? 

"We don't have time, Percy. Go. Please."

Percy got mad, then. Anger swelled in his chest—for his mother, for the angry rain hitting us heavily like mini torpedos, for the horned man that was lumbering towards us slowly and deliberately like, like a bull.

He climbed across to the passenger side and forced the door open into the darkness. "We're going together. Come on, Mom."

"I told you—"

"Mom! I won't leave you."

Percy didn't wait for her to respond. He tumbled outside, dragging his mom from the car when she was too slow to move.

They pulled each other forward against the heavy head wind. Percy felt, suddenly, like one of those math problems in his pre-algebra class. If the wind-speed is x and Percy and his mom are moving at y miles per hour, how long will it take for the horned thing to catch up to them and eat them?

Glancing back over his shoulder, Percy got his first clear look at it, with no smoke from the sizzling car to obscure it. Easily seven feet tall, his muscles looked like he was hiding basketballs under thick leathery skin. His bright, white Fruit of the Looms tighty-whities stood in stark contrast to the thick, shag carpet like hair growing on the rest of his body. A bull's tail peeked out from behind him.

Head and tail of a bull, body of a man. No.

Percy recognized the monster, all right. He had been in one of the first stories his teacher (who was his teacher?) told the class. One of the first myths. He couldn't be real.

He blinked the rain out of his eyes. "That's—"

"Pasiphae's son," his mother said. "I wish I'd known—how badly they want to kill you."

"But he's the Min—"

"Don't say his name," she warned him. "Names have power."

The pine tree was too far—several hundred yards uphill at least.They were never going to make it.

Again, Percy looked at the monster. How far away was he?

The bull-man hunched over their car—snuffling, nuzzling.  He took in great, big breaths so loud Percy could hear them over the thunder. Percy wasn't sure why he bothered, since they were barely fifty feet away. 

"Mom, w-why…? What's he doing? Doesn't he see us?"

"No, his sight and hearing are terrible," she said. "He goes by smell. But he'll figure out where we are soon enough."

The bull-man roared. He must've realized they weren't in the car because he picked up Gabe's Camaro by the hole in the roof, raised it over his head and threw it down the road, where it skidded in a blaze of sparks for about half a mile before coming to a stop in front of a distressed cow that had been peacefully crossing the road right by a Cattle-Crossing road sign. The gas tank exploded.

Not a scratch, Percy remembered Gabe warning them.

Oops. The bull-man looked a little too angry to give them his insurance details.

"Percy," his mom said. "When he sees us, he'll charge. Wait until the last second, then jump out of the way. Directly sideways. He can't change directions very well once he's charging. Do you understand?"

"How do you know all this?"

"I've been worried about an attack for a long time. I should have expected this. I was selfish, keeping you near me."

"Keeping me near you? But—"

Another enraged roar lined up perfectly with the next crack of thunder. The bull-man started tromping uphill, faster now.

He'd smelled them.

The pine tree was still so far away, and the hill was getting steeper and slicker and harder to climb, and their shoes were sinking into the mud.

The bull-man closed in. Another few seconds and he'd be on top of them.

My mother must've been exhausted, but she shouted. "Go, Percy! Separate! Remember what  I said."

He didn't want to split up, but Percy had the feeling his mom was right—this was their only chance. Percy changed direction so fast he was sure he should've torn his ACL, and saw the bull-man right above him. His beady eyes glowed hatefully. He reeked like rotten meat, which burned the inside of his nostrils.

He charged.

The fear in his stomach made him stumble back, but he knew he could never outrun that thing. He forced himself to hold his ground, hold, hold, hold, and at the last moment, he sprang to the side, stumbling to the uneven ground.

The bull-man stormed past like an eighteen wheeler, then bellowed when his horns didn't impale Percy's chest, and turned, but not toward Percy this time, toward his mother.

No. Not again, he thought. And then his head hurt. When had this happened before?

They'd reached the crest of the hill and the pine tree. Down the other side Percy could see a steep drop, to the flooded highway below and a dark tunnel that might provide some relief from the rain. But that was a quarter mile away. They'd never make it. 

The bull-man grunted, eyes trained on Percy's mother, who was now stumbling unsteadily downhill, back toward the road and the ruined car, trying to lead him away from Percy.

"Run, Percy!" she told him. "I can't go any farther. Run!"

Instead, Percy stood there, frozen in fear, as the monster charged her. She tried to leap to the right, but the bull-man had learned from last time. He grabbed her by the neck as she struggled.

"Mom!"

She caught his eye. "Go!"

Then, the bull-man closed his fists around his mother's neck, and she melted into light, a shimmering hologram turned to dust. She was... gone?

"No! Not again, not again, not my Mom!"

Anger burned through him. It was the strangest sense of déjà vu as strength seemed to curdle his blood—the same energy that had burned through him at the museum, when Ms. Dodds grew talons.

He didn't get to do that. He wasn't allowed to take his mom. 

He tore off his red rain jacket.

"Hey!" Percy screamed, waving the jacket like a flag, running to the bull-man's left flank. "Hey, stupid! Ground beef!"

The monster bellowed with rage. He turned toward Percy, shaking erratically like an engine working much too hard. 

He had an idea—a stupid one, granted, but at this point, it didn't really matter to him if he lived. He put his back to the enormous pine and waved his red jacket enticingly, thinking, at the last moment...

It didn't happen like that. 

Percy had a sudden, inescapable feeling that none of his plans ever did.

The bull-man was too fast, his arms too far apart for Percy to sidestep.

Time slowed down.

His legs tensed. Percy couldn't jump sideways, so  he leaped straight up, feet planted on the bull-man's enormous head, using it as a springboard for a midair 180° and landing on his neck.

How did he do that? Percy didn't have the time to figure it out. A millisecond later, the hulking head head slammed back into the tree.

The bull-man staggered, trying to shake him off, but Percy locked his arms around his horns to keep from being thrown, palms bleeding from holding on to razor-sharp horns. 

Percy's head hurt.

He needed, he needed something… he couldn't think. He felt a tug in his gut, and realized, suddenly, that he was looking down the steep drop onto the flooded highway below, as the bull-man tried to throw him off. The water… the highway wasn't wet anymore. 

The water rose up, like a wall, like a waterbed, almost. 

The bull-man wheeled backward, toward the drop, trying to buck him off in frustration. Percy seethed, remembering how the bull-man had squeezed the life out of his mother, made her disappear again. He got both hands around one horn, pulled backward. The horn cracked off with the sound of thunder.

The bull-man roared and catapulted him through the air. He landed flat on his back in the mud. Percy's head smacked against a rock. His vision was blurry, but he could feel the horn in his hands.

The bull-man charged.

Anger burned through Percy so hot it felt like fire. He stopped, dropped, and rolled to the side just in time to drive the horn straight into the bull-man's thick trunk. 

Percy had only a glimpse of the bull-man disintegrating as he took one step up and stumbled backward, falling down the steep fall, eyes closed, into cushioning water.

The monster was gone.

The rain had stopped. The storm still rumbled distantly, like a promise. His head felt like it was cracked open, but the water brought him safely down to the cement of the highway.

Percy must have smelled like livestock because after about a minute of trembling with grief a cow came up and nudged him curiously.

Reflexively, he brought the horn up, ready to do what he had to do, but the cow just looked so concerned, like she thought was a hideously misshapen baby cow who'd just lost his mother and was going to lay on the concrete like a worm in the rain only to dry up and die when the sun inevitably arrived. 

Percy couldn't imagine the sun ever arriving. This was it, for him. He couldn't go on. 

"You're right, of course," said a hideous voice next to him. 

Percy jumped. For a second, he thought it was his mom, but he couldn't imagine her having a voice that ugly. Instead, the old lady sitting in the bushes was somehow more repulsive than the bull-man had been. She wore a dress made of tie-dyed cloth, old quilts, plastic grocery bags, and, it seemed like, her own hair to patch up the holes. She smiled with exactly three teeth.

He was irrationally angry that she was smiling. His tears burned the skin of his cheeks.

“This isn’t a maintenance tunnel,” she said, like she was telling him a secret. “It’s the entrance to camp.”

Camp. Yes, that’s where his mother said they were going.

Something was wrong.

The old lady raised her eyebrows. “Not much time, child. You need to make your choice.”

“Who are you?” Percy asked, hollowly, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. "What choice?"

“Oh, you can call me June.” The old lady’s lips quirked up in amusement. “It is June, isn’t it? They named the month after me!”

Percy's head hurt. He couldn't think of anything to say. "Choice?"

“Yes, a choice,” June said. “You could leave me here and go to the ocean. You’d make it there safely, I guarantee. In the sea, no monster would bother you. You could begin a new life, live to a ripe old age, and escape a great deal of pain and misery that is in your future.”

"I can't, I can't…?" Percy didn't see how he could live in the sea. A boat? He didn't really see how he could live at all. He didn't have anyone. "Or?" he asked, hazily.

“Or you could do a good deed for an old lady,” she said. “Carry me to the camp with you.”

“Carry you?” Percy didn't know if he could carry himself to camp. June hiked up her skirts to show him swollen purple feet.

Percy stared numbly.

“I can’t get there by myself,” she said. “Carry me to camp—across the highway, through the tunnel, across the river.”

It didn’t sound easy. June looked pretty heavy.

“And I’d carry you to this camp because—?”

“Because it’s a kindness!” she said. “And if you don’t, the gods will destroy each other, Kronos will rise, and your mom will certainly die. But you’d be safe hidden at the bottom of the sea.…”

Percy swallowed. How… how could he be safe at the bottom of the sea? No, his mom.

“If I go to the camp,” he said, “will I get my mom back?”

“Eventually, maybe,” June said. “But be warned, you will sacrifice much! You will need to accept the quest that will be offered to you, restore what was stolen to the rightful owners, and clear your name." 

Percy sat up, to get a look at the door and the tunnel, and saw two armed guards in ancient armor standing to each side of it.

“What about, what about those, those guards at the door?” Percy asked. His eyes closed, heavily.

June smiled, flashing those three teeth at him again. “Oh, they’ll let you in, dear. You can trust those two. So, what do you say? Will you help a defenseless old woman?"

She was lighter than he expected her to be. Her calloused hands clung to his neck which ached in remembrance of the impact against the big pine. 

Percy was glad that the bull-man wasn't here because he couldn't run. June seemed to gain ten pounds with every step. His heart pounded. His ribs ached.

One of the guards yelled. One of them drew a sword. No, Percy thought, no. He could not fight another… no.

Fifty feet from the door. Thirty feet. 

One of the guards stepped forward, arms outstretched. 

 "Please," Percy said. He squeezed his eyes shut. June is slipping and his knees are buckling. 

"Okay, you’re obviously a demigod. But who’s—?” a girl's voice cut through the ringing pain in his head. “Never mind. Just get inside.”

Percy couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't help remembering, strangely, how he'd made a claw with his hands to slam the door shut on Smelly Gabe, just before they'd left for Montauk. The door opened.

June reached in front of his face and pried his eyes open with her crusty fingers. "Look where you're going! What lies ahead of you will define the rest of your life!"

Percy stumbled forward into the dark tunnel.

"I can, I can help?" says the other guard, a boy, hands outstretched to help Percy with June. 

"You have your own burden to carry, son of Mars. To each, his own burden," June said.

The son of Mars stopped short, so the girl stepped through the doorway first.

Percy followed, staggering under the old lady's growing weight. She continued to hold his eyes open so he couldn't blink.

At first, it resembled a typical maintenance tunnel, with electric cables, warning signs, and fuse boxes on the walls. Percy stared blankly at the girl's back, at the glittering armor she wore. His gaze slid down to her shoes as the cement floor changed to mosaic tiles. 

The old lady was heavier than anything Percy had ever lifted before. She felt heavier than the sky. Percy’s arms shook and his legs buckled once more. He thought about leaning against the wall of the tunnel for a moment. June whispered a song in Latin, some sort of lullaby, and Percy's eyes fought her fingers trying to close again. 

"Don't worry. We're almost there," the girl assured him.

“Where?” Percy could barely force himself to say.

June laughed.  “All roads lead there, child. You should know that."

“...Detention?” Percy asked, squinting.

“Rome, child,” the old woman said. “Rome.”

Percy wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. He didn't think they were in New York, true, but Rome? He didn't think…

Faint blue-grey light eventually replaced the torch-light and he found himself under a cloudy sky.

"River…?" he whispered, remembering June had said something about a river, as he looked at the valley below. There... a small silvery river winded from a central lake around the perimeter, like a capital G.

Something about this place felt very familiar, yet not quite right. He shivered.

June pulled Percy's eyes open wider. “Oh, yes, please. I can’t get my dress wet.”

Percy bit his tongue. Anger ripped through his grief, his fear, and his absolute exhaustion. 

It’s a kindness, she’d said. He didn't want to be kind. He wanted his mom. She'd said maybe he could get his mom back.

He needed to pass this test.

He stumbled most of the way to the river. The guards didn't dare touch him or help after June's warning that they had their own burdens to carry.

They reached the riverbank. Percy stopped. The current was fast, but he could see the bottom of the river. Percy didn't know how he could get across without the current knocking his knees to the side.

“Go,” said the boy, catching the girl's eyes. “Escort him so the sentries don’t shoot him.”

She nodded and waded into the stream.

Percy started to follow, but something made him hesitate. Usually he loved the water, but this river seemed…powerful, and not necessarily friendly. It looked cold and uninviting.

“The Little Tiber,” said June. “It flows with the power of the original Tiber, river of the empire. This is your last chance to back out, child. Soon, they'll know you're here.”

Percy was too exhausted to understand any of that. 

June smiled. “So what will it be? Safety, or a future of pain and possibility?”

Mom, Percy thought. He stepped into the icy river. Instead of falling immediately, new strength surged through him. He reached the other side and put the old woman down. The camp’s gates opened. Many kids in armor poured out.

Percy's knees buckled. He fell cross-legged to the ground. Hard.

“Well, that was a lovely trip,” June said. “Thank you, Percy Jackson, for bringing me to Camp Jupiter.”

Then, just because his day hadn’t been strange enough already, the old lady began to glow, growing until she was seven-feet-tall in a blue dress, with some sort of goat’s skin cloak draped over her shoulders. Her face was stern, stately. She had all her teeth, Percy noticed.

Everyone looked stunned. A woman in a purple cloak knelt. The others followed her lead. 

“Lady Juno,” someone said.

“Juno, huh?” he said, deliriously, eyes slipping closed, stretching her name out. “If I passed... your test, can I have... my mom... back?”

“That's not for me to decide, Percy Jackson. You have much to achieve before that will ever become possible. You will face far, far worse than the Minotaur if you ever hope to succeed. You’ve done well today, which is a good start. Perhaps there’s hope for you yet."

She paused. “Romans, I present to you the son of Neptune. His fate is in the hands of the gods, as well as his own. You must help him in his quest to return something that was stolen and prevent a war between the gods. Jason Grace must also be on this quest. There will be another messenger. Do not fail me!”

Chapter Text

Percy must have passed out immediately after Juno's speech because the next thing he remembered, he was laying on a firm bed, being spoon-fed something that tasted like cookies in pudding form. A curly-haired girl crouched over him to scrape the drips off his chin with a spoon. He couldn't help but get a sense of déjà vu.

When she saw that his eyes were open, she said something to him that he didn't quite make out.

"What?" Percy managed.

She spoke again.

"I'm sorry," Percy mumbled, "I don't..."

"Then rest!" she said, forcefully shoving more pudding in his mouth.

This, he understood.

The next time Percy woke up, the girl was gone. It was light and breezy in the room he was in. It looks to be a hospital ward, except there were no IVs hooked up to him or TVs that he could see. There was a blanket over his legs, a pillow behind his head, his mouth felt like he'd been breathing fire, his tongue was dry and every single one of his teeth hurt.

"You're awake," a voice beside him said.

Percy startled.

"Good! Time for introductions, I suppose," said a man sitting sideways on the cot next to Percy's. He had long brown hair, a brown beard, brown skin, one of those things doctors use to hear your heart (a stethoscope?) and, with his feet dangling off the bed, Percy could see he was wearing leather sandals like Birkenstocks. A small bird flew in and landed on his shoulder. He looked like Doctor Jesus. "Horatia! He's awake!" He called through the open doorway.

A tall young woman, wearing golden armor and a purple cloak came in and stood to the right of his bed. She had thick arms and glasses and her hair was red, but her face was redder. "My name is Horatia, daughter of Soteria, goddess of safety and salvation, praetor of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata. You're Percy Jackson, son of Neptune, I presume."

"What?" Percy croaked.

"Is that not your name." It wasn't a question.

"Um, yeah. That's me." Percy said.

He shifted in the bed into a sitting position in a way that was a little reminiscent of a slug trying to climb a flagpole, by his own admission.

"Very curious. A son of Neptune who comes to us with the blessing of Juno." Horatia appeared to deliberate with herself what this might mean. When she was silent for about a minute, Percy was about to speak up to ask something along the lines of what the hell is going on? but she then continued. "Before we will accept anyone into camp, we must interrogate them and read the auguries. Lady Juno said your fate is in the hands of the gods. We shall see what they say about you.”

"Uh. Gods?"

Horatia and the man on the bed stared at him uncomprehending.

"Please," Percy said, "what is this place? What am I doing here? I was just in New York. What, what gods?"

They both looked at him like he was a little weird.

Horatia furrowed her brow. "Did, did you never go to the Wolf House?"

"The what?"

Horatia and Doctor Jesus exchanged looks, for once looking entirely unprepared.

"Okay," said Doctor Jesus after a moment. "Has anyone ever carried a goddess to camp, been granted an important quest with a two week deadline, and didn't even know they were a demigod? This is one for the history books."

"What?"

"Okay," Doctor Jesus repeated, when it seemed like Horatia was too stunned. "So you never met Lupa. Did your mortal parent, your mom, I guess, tell you nothing?"

His mom. Oh, God, his mom.

"She said ..." Percy remembered her saddened eyes, looking out to the water. "She told me she was afraid to send me here, even though my father had wanted her to. She said that once I was here, I probably couldn't leave. She wanted to keep me close to her."

"Okay," Doctor Jesus said again. "I'm surprised, and for a Big Three kid, too! that—well, nevermind. Okay. Have you ever taken a Latin class, by any chance?"

"What?" Percy asked again.

"Maybe he still has a concussion," whispered Doctor Jesus to Horatia, who just now seemed to be recovering her ability to talk after making fish-like lip motions for almost five minutes. "I thought for sure I gave him enough unicorn draught—"

"Uh, yeah. I've taken Latin," Percy managed. He wasn't sure he didn't have a concussion, either, with his pounding headache, but he knew he was capable of answering the question.

"Great!" said Doctor Jesus brightly. "Do you remember learning anything about the Roman gods, for example?"

Percy did. For the life of him, Percy couldn't remember his teacher's name, but he remembered clearly learning in depth about Greek and Roman culture, more even, he thought, than the language. Should he have taken French or Spanish, maybe, but no matter how useless the class may be in his life, he'd been hooked as soon as he'd heard that they had jousting tournaments in Latin class.

"Zeus," he said. "Hera. Apollo. You mean them."

Distantly, he heard thundering. Horatia and Doctor Jesus winced.

"Those are their Greek names, yeah. The Romans had different names for them, but the same gods, yeah. But I would be a little more careful about throwing those names around.”

"But they're stories," Percy said. "They're myths. They explain lightning and the seasons and the weather. They're what people believed before there was science."

"I’m glad he didn’t say that in front of Lady Juno," said Horatia. “Oh gods, what a nightmare.”

"Percy," Doctor Jesus said, "can I call you Percy? I'm Marcus, son of Asclepius, by the way."

Percy nodded.

“Science is just as much a belief as any of these myths. To many people now, science is real and alive and immortal, in some ways. In ancient times, the Roman gods were just as real and just as immortal."

It didn't seem like he'd ever explained this to anyone before because he was doing a terrible job.

"Immortality…" Percy murmured under this breath. "But does that mean the Underworld is real, too?"

"Well, yes," said Doctor Jesus—Marcus—seriously. "But I wouldn't put too much thought in it."

"Why?" asked Percy.

"It's a bad omen," he said.

"What?"

"Bad omen," Horatia agreed, murmuring.

"But…" said Percy, "surely some people have gone there, right?"

"Yes, some," Marcus admitted, "but I wouldn't think too much about it. No one has ever succeeded trying to bring someone back, besides." He said that with a note of finality, as if the matter were closed.

The matter wasn't closed to Percy. "But where is it? Like, it can't be underground, surely we'd have noticed right?"

Horatia shrugged. "Mortals see what they want to see. Whatever makes sense to them. But Percy, let me ask you this: how would you feel if you were immortal and no one believed in you?"

Percy was about to answer, off the top of his head, that it sounded like a pretty good deal, being immortal. But the tone made him hesitate. Instead, Percy said, "I wouldn't like it. But I don't believe in gods."

"Your mother must have, if she wanted you to come here," said Marcus with a sigh. Then, he looked down at his wrist as if looking at an invisible watch, and exclaimed, "Gods of Olympus, I have to go—Sorry, praetor! I have triage!" and rushed out of the room.

Horatia sighed. "I don't know if I'm the best one to be having this conversation with you. All our demigods are trained at the Wolf House, with Lupa, as were Romulus and Remus at the birth of Rome. I don't remember the last time we got a demigod who was still affected by the Mist, if ever. And you came in with the Queen of Olympus, no less. Look, your father is a god. Neptune, the god of the sea."

"No, he's dead. I never knew him."

Horatia sighed. "Your father's not dead, Percy."

"How do you know? Do you know him, then?"

"No, of course not."

"Then how—"

"Because I know you. You wouldn't be here if you weren't one of us."

"No, you don't know anything about me."

"No?" She met his eyes sternly. "Demigods have trouble in the mortal world. You probably moved from school to school. You probably couldn't focus in class, and were diagnosed with ADHD. You probably have dyslexia, as well."

Percy's face burned. "What does that have to do with it?"

"The dyslexia is because your mind is anticipating Latin instead of English. The ADHD—that's your battlefield reflexes. It's there to keep you alive."

"Did everyone here… go through the same thing?"

A laugh. "No, not everyone. A lot of us are legacies, children or grandchildren of demigods. Our parents often stayed in the camp, settled in the city of New Rome under the protection of the legion. My father was a grandchild of Mercury, for instance, so any of his children could be in the legion even if he didn't meet a goddess. But demigods who grew up outside of camp, Marcus, for instance, yes. All of them experienced the same thing."

"Demigod, that's… half god, then." Percy said, after a long pause.

Horatia gave him a disappointed look under the rim of her glasses as if she were becoming profoundly sure she had wasted a great deal of time on him. "Yes," she sighed.

"And," Percy said, "and that old lady—Juno. What was that?"

"Good question! I don't know." Horatia said. "If that's all, I'd like to start with the interrogation to find out what exactly you do know." She gave him a shrewd look. "Come with me."

Percy's legs felt wobbly as he stood up. He realized suddenly that the Minotaur horn lay next to him on the white linen bed sheets. How had it gotten there? He didn't remember ever letting go of it, but he must have, if he'd managed to carry Juno across the river. He picked it up and followed Horatia out of what looked like an army hospital or some sort into a Roman city.

"This isn't a joke, right?" Percy asked again, just to make sure, on the way over.

"No," Horatia replied. They stopped at the center of the military encampment, where two wide stone-paved roads with divots from chariot wheels met at a T, labelled the Via Praetoria and the Via Principalis. Under those official signs were hand-painted wood arrows pointed in various directions: BERKELEY 5 miles; NEW ROME 1 MILE; OLD ROME 7280 MILES; HADES 2310 MILES (pointing straight down); RENO 208 MILES, AND CERTAIN DEATH: YOU ARE HERE!

"Where are you bringing me?"

"To the principia, where you will be interrogated, as well as meet my fellow praetor."

"So that's like a co-captain kind of job, then?" Percy said, trying to keep in step with her even as he looked around the place.

For certain death, the place looked swell. Whitewashed buildings were laid out in neat grids like the camp had been designed by an even fussier math teacher than Ms. Dodds had been. The barracks had shaded porches, and kids lounged around, played cards. Each dorm even seemed to have some sort of mascot: horse, wolf, eagle, and so on, that they put on standardized purple banners. When he looked really close at some of the people on the decks, he noticed some of them had cheeks as red as Horatia's, and some even redder. As he was looking closer, he realized some of the people, everyone who didn't have red faces, weren't just pale. They were transparent. He could see right through them.

"Are they dead?" he asked.

"Shhh," Horatia hissed sternly. "They're Lares, house gods, ancestral spirits, if you must. Especially," she touched her hand to her red cheeks and winced, "recently, as we've had some problems with some cursed artifacts—we don't let them hear us when we—well, we don't call them ghosts if there's any chance they'll hear!"

Percy wondered what kind of cursed artifacts they were talking about. And then he thought about his mom. He wondered if she would like to be in a place like this with him, even as a ghost. Anything was better than Smelly Gabe, right?

A kid flew over them riding on an eagle, bathing them in shadow. When he swooped up again, they were washed with shadow again.

It was an elephant. In full battle armor, lead around by equally armed kids.

Percy didn't know why such a comparatively mundane thing as an elephant in gold armor with an entourage made him crack, but that was it for him. "Okay," Percy said, completely overwhelmed. "I want to go home."

"For most of us, this is home. This is the only place on Earth for kids like you," Horatia explained.

"Mentally disturbed kids, you mean?"

She gave him a frustrated look. "We already went over this. For descendants of gods."

"Right," Percy said, watching a girl with blue-tinged skin dissolve, giggling, into the icy cold water of the Little Tiber.

Percy's heart grew like a thick balloon in his chest. Even the icy cold river he'd crossed yesterday glimmered in the sunlight. It was beautiful. His heart floated up to his esophagus, just high enough to block his air supply. He hated, suddenly, that he could see all these people—along the Via Praetoria, rows of packed shops advertised food, armor, weapons, coffee, gladiator equipment, and toga rentals, even a chariot dealership where hopeful buyers were taking a new chariot on a rather violent test drive—but mostly that they could see him. As they wove through curious groups of kids in armor, many of them turned and looked at him, some stunned, others as if to say incredulously this is the one the goddess chose to bring her into camp?

His mother was dead. Nothing should be beautiful.

Still, Percy couldn't help but be in awe of the building they stopped in front of—a two-story building of white marble with columns. Roman guards stood out front, like at the door to the tunnel. Over the doorway hung a big purple banner which, instead of featuring some kind of animal mascot, had gold lettering embroidered inside a laurel wreath: SPQR.

"We're here," said Horatia, and the guards parted in front of her.

The inside was somehow more impressive. It seemed bigger on the inside, somehow. Percy instinctively looked up at the ceiling to a tiled mosaic of two children underneath a wolf. The walls were draped in velvet. In the back there were all sorts of banners and bronze medals surrounding an empty central display stand, like a prized collection missing its most important feature.

In the center of the room, there was a long, dark wood table cluttered with scrolls, tablet computers, daggers, and a lifetime supply of SPF 3000 sunscreen. There was a silver dog statue to the left of the table and a gold one to the right. Horatia sat in one of two high-backed wooden chairs behind the table, next to a purple-cloaked man who was already seated.

"Son of Neptune," she said. "Curious case."

The purple-cloaked man nodded absently, still looking down at the scrolls on the table.

"This is Michael Cleveland, my co-praetor." Horatia gestured to the man next to her who waved dismissively. His face was roughly as red as Horatia's, which is to say redder than a firetruck, and when he looked up from the scrolls he was engrossed in, it was clear by the puffy half-moons under his eyes that he hadn't had a wink of sleep maybe since he was born.

"Hi, I'm Percy Jackson," Percy said. His knees wobbled and put the tips of his fingers face down on the middle of the stable to steady himself. The dog statues growled.

Percy's knees wobbled with greater intensity.

“They won’t attack if you cooperate,” said the man in the purple cloak, amusedly. “Their names are Argentum and Aurum.”

“Silver and Gold,” said Percy, instinctively.

"Yes," the man said. "I trust I don't have to tell you which is which."

Percy didn't want to admit that that had been his first thought when he'd heard the names.

"What are they?" he asked, instead.

The dogs snarled as if offended that he'd spoken.

"Automatons. Highly advanced machines imbued with a little bit of life, these ones trained to tell if you're lying." The man laughed, like the bark of a dog. "Of course, they also know the proper way to go about an interrogation. We will be asking the questions, son of Neptune."

“Firstly,” Horatia said. “Tell us your story. How did you get here, if not through the Wolf House? How did you meet Juno?"

Percy told his story—how he’d killed Ms. Dodds, his bloodthirsty pre-algebra teacher, how he'd been on vacation with his mom and he'd had these terrible dreams—

"What kind of dreams?" Horatia interrupted.

"Um, just freaky nightmare stuff, really." Percy rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't know why I mentioned it."

"No, tell us," she insisted. "Demigod dreams can be important. Sometimes they tell us the future. For someone like you, issued a very important, if also very vague, quest from the Queen of Olympus herself, they can mean life or death."

He told then about the dream he'd had the night before: the stormy beach, the white horse and the golden eagle trying to kill each other, the voice from below urging them on, the absolute certainty that he had to stop them from killing each other.

"The son of Neptune," Michael Cleveland said to his fellow praetor. "You don't didn't—" It sounded like something that should have been whispered but he was too stunned.

"I don't know," she said. "He didn't even know he was a demigod, surely he couldn't have—"

"But what could cause so much…?" Michael trailed off, eyes leaving the marble floor to rest on a marble frieze of the twelve Olympians, on something in Jupiter was holding in his hand.

"What are you talking about?"

Both praetor's eyes suddenly land on Percy, surprised, like they'd forgotten he was there.

"Neptune and Jupiter," Percy said. "They're fighting over something valuable ... something that was stolen. That's what Juno said."

Horatia and Michael exchanged looks.

"What do you know about this?" Horatia asked, after a pause. She glanced down at Argentum and Aurum.

"Just… what Juno said to everyone." Percy, too, glanced down at the snarling dogs made out of precious metals. "And… the weather's been bad since Christmas. Like the sea and the sky are fighting. And…" he paused to think a moment. "My pre-algebra teacher acted weird, like beyond the whole growing talons and fangs thing. She asked me if I really thought they wouldn't figure it out and… told me if I confessed that I would suffer less pain."

Horatia pressed her fist to her mouth. When she finally moved her hand away from her face, she said, "It sounds like you're the primary suspect." She frowned, and then glared at Percy like this was somehow his fault.

"Me? I've never even been to Olympus! Jupiter's crazy!"

Thunder shook the building, and there was a distinct sound of lightning striking something and then a crash. Horatia leapt up, ran to the door, and took a quick look around before yelling at one of the guards, before immediately returning.

"A great oak tree, struck by lightning," she sighed. "Look, I'd be careful about who you're calling crazy, Percy."

"But I've never been to Olympus! I've never even met my father! Besides, why wouldn't he take it instead of asking some twelve-year-old kid?" Percy exploded. A glass of water on the table toppled over onto a scroll, shooting its contents all over the silver dog. Percy hoped silver didn't rust because he didn't want to imagine how bad it would be for whoever had the job of polishing them. You couldn't pay Percy to clean out the rest from every one of those little crevices on its coat while Argentum did its best to make his face into his next meal.

"Jupiter believes you are the thief for good reason," said Michael, as if he hadn't heard that exchange. "This wouldn't be the first time Neptune has turned against him. The first descendant of Neptune that Camp Jupiter has seen in almost sixty years, proof that Neptune broke a pact he made with his brothers to not have children with mortal women appearing so suddenly after a huge theft…"

"A huge theft? So you know what was stolen?" Percy said.

"I have my suspicions..." Michael said, fixated again on the marble frieze of the gods.

Percy's brain caught up with him. "Wait, what do you mean the first descendant of Neptune in sixty years? In the myths, didn't Zeus—Jupiter, I mean, and Neptune have a bunch of kids? Like, Theseus, Hercules, all the heroes… they were all sons of Jupiter or Neptune, right?"

"Many of them, yes," Horatia agreed. "But that stopped about sixty years ago, after World War II. When it was all over, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto agreed not to father any more heroes. Their children were just too powerful."

"They affected the course of human events too much," Michael added.

"So they swore on the river Styx, the most serious oath you can make," said Horatia, following the story to its conclusion.

Thunder boomed the moment she mentioned the name of the river.

"So they kept their word—no kids? Except for me?"

Horatia met Percy's eyes. "No, Jupiter broke the oath, too. His son is serving in the legion now, and, incidentally, is the other person Lady Juno named to follow you on your quest. Jason Grace."

Percy felt, strangely, that he must have heard the name before. His veins electrified.

"Very curious, isn't it, that Juno has such deep involvement in both of the only known cases of the oath being broken," Michael said to Horatia, who nodded pensively. "Not a good omen."

"Even stranger that she wants him to return it to Olympus… I can't think of anyone who has been there before and could tell him where to go. I've never seen anything like this."

"She said she would send a messenger," Percy remembered vaguely. "Juno, I mean. They have to have specifics!"

"We can only hope, Percy Jackson," said Michael seriously. "Gods have mercy on you if my suspicions are correct."

"Only the auguries can determine," said Horatia standing up and striding to the door. "Very well, Percy Jackson, it's time you met Jason Grace. He will take you to Temple Hill and introduce you to Octavian."

Chapter Text

Standing at attention just outside the door, to the side of the guards was a blond boy in a purple t-shirt and a deep tan (if you ignore the light pinkness on his face that he shared with most of the other campers). He stood so still and at attention that Percy almost thought he was one of the Roman statues—classically Roman features, military-regulation hair, athletic build—if the fact that he wasn't seven-feet tall didn't clue Percy in first.

Percy's first thought is that he thought Jason would be older. Because Jason had been here longer, he'd assumed that Jupiter must've broken the pact first. But, now, looking down at him, Percy realized it must've been the other way around. There's no way Jason was older than him.

And if Neptune broke the pact first, it wasn't too far a stretch that he might steal something important from his brother. In a moment of doubt, Percy realized he was getting defensive on Neptune's behalf before he even knew if he did it. Percy had just assumed, because Percy was innocent, that Neptune must be, too.

What if his dad was a giant, immortal jerk? Percy wondered if, in the Underworld, Pluto would hold grudges against gods for past misdeeds and punish the mortals they fell in love with as some kind of last laugh.

“Jason,” Horatia called, although he was standing close enough that she certainly didn't have to. “I’ve brought a friend. Percy Jackson. Please escort him to Temple Hill. You may answer any questions he has on the way—after all, you need to get to know each other. You will be quest partners."

"Yes, praetor." The boy held out his hand as soon as the praetors turned their backs, as if he couldn't be seen moving when they were still looking at him, in some bizarre military version of Red Light-Green Light. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Jason Grace, son of Jupiter. Percy, right?"

“Your courage does you credit, Thalia Grace.”

“That’s my mother’s surname. I don’t use it.”

Percy scrunched his eyes closed. "Yeah," Percy said, following him.

To the right, he saw a lot of kids in swimsuits and towels heading into a building that had steam coming out of chimneys on top. Percy heard splashes and happy shrieks coming from inside, the kinds of sounds one might expect at a pool or waterpark of some kind.

“Baths,” Jason said, following his gaze.

At first, Percy thought Jason might have been saying he smelled, before he realized he must have meant that those buildings were bathhouses of some sort. But then Percy realized he probably did smell because he certainly didn't feel like he'd taken a shower after that Minotaur ground beef nightmare.

As they got closer to the front of the encampment, the barracks got bigger and definitely nicer. Even the ghosts looked fancier and shinier, and—dare he say it?—even a little more alive. Percy was careful not to look at them too hard, afraid they might realize he was thinking they were dead. Percy tried to decipher the banners and symbols hanging in front of the buildings.

“You guys are divided into different cabins?” he asked.

At the same time, Jason asked, "So, Neptune, huh?"

They looked at each other in surprise to be interrupted.

Jason blushed (as far as Percy could tell when looking at his reddened cheeks) and ducked his head first. "Uh, yeah, we have five cohorts of about forty kids. Each cohort is divided into barracks of ten, your roommates.”

Percy had never been great at math, and certainly not after Ms. Dodds had had a go at him, but he tried to multiply. “That's… two hundred kids?”

“Just about.”

"Why is it organized like an army?" Percy asked.

Jason didn't appear to understand the question.

"Why don't you, like, organize kids by their godly parent?"

"Well, then I'd be all alone," Jason said. "You would be, too."

"Oh. I guess it's better this way, then," said Percy. "So how long have you been here, then?"

"As long as I can remember, really. Since I was two or three." Jason scratched his head. "But I've only been part of the legion since I was ten. Almost two years."

"You never lived outside of camp?" Percy tried to keep his voice from sounding incredulous. He couldn't imagine life without Yancy or any of the other alternative schools he'd gotten kicked out of. Without seeing his mom every break. "Doesn't your mom miss you?"

“Oh, I told them you would come back. I knew it!”

Percy curled his fingers. No—

Jason cleared his throat. "Actually, uh, I don't remember my mom. Lupa said Juno left me with her at the Wolf House. But it's not like I've never left before, there's field trips all over Cali."

"Field trips?" Percy asked, imagining two hundred legionnaires in full golden armor and swords trying to squeeze into a Science Museum cafeteria to eat their Lunchables from the gods. "Do you go to school here?"

"Yeah, we have a bunch of schools, mostly for families of veterans, but a lot of legionnaires take classes, too. I'd have to take a lot of leave if I didn't do night school, though."

Percy guessed that his own mom probably wouldn't be okay with him stopping school at twelve. She'd always wanted to go back to school and get her degree.

"What if I wanted to leave during the school year? Go to a regular school?"

Jason shrugged. "Depends. The First, Second Cohorts—they could probably get away with it if they had connections. Or if they want you away from camp enough…" he trailed off, looking at Percy apologetically like that might actually be true in his case.

"What cohort are you in?"

Jason smiled. "The Fifth.”

Before Percy could ask any follow up questions, someone behind them yelled, “Wait!”

Percy startled. Jason looked aggrieved, like this happened every single day. He turned.

A ghost ran toward them, gait uneven as he kept tripping over his toga. He was an old man with a large gut and a sword belt almost at his knees.

“Who's this?” the ghost asked, leaning into their space. “A new recruit for the Fifth?”

“Hopefully,” Jason said. “He's the son of—well, I think he's probably a pretty powerful guy."

The ghost scowled at Percy and walked around him, inspecting him like a used car. “I don’t know,” he grumbled, peering into Percy's ear the way one might expect a buyer to inspect a scratch. “We need only the best for the cohort. Does he have all his teeth? Can he fight? Does he clean stables?”

“I have all my teeth,” Percy said.

He ran his tongue over his teeth in his mouth, just to make sure. He remembered how much they'd hurt when he'd slammed into that pine tree.

“Well, that will have to do,” the ghost sighed.

“This is Vitellius. He’s one of our Lares," said Jason. "He takes a… healthy interest in new recruits.”

Percy wanted to ask him if he'd ever been to the Underworld. If not, did ghosts had some kind of communication system, like some sort of Phantom Facebooking service? Then, Percy remembered Horatia saying something about cursed objects and Lares, but he didn't think this would be a good time to bring it up. Especially since it seemed like her reddish, burned cheeks might have had something to do with it.

“Yes,” Vitellius said, “back in Caesar’s day—Julius Caesar, mind you—the Fifth was really something! Twelfth Legion Fulminata, the pride of Rome! But these days it's disgraceful. Only now, with Jason, did we start to—"

“Vitellius,” Jason interrupted,“we have to check in with the augury before he can join. We have to go if we want to make evening muster.”

The ghost didn't seem to realize that it was barely noon, and even if the augury took several hours, Percy couldn't see how they could be late for something in the evening. “Of course,” he said, "we've only started to regain our standing! And especially after, well, you know, we can't afford to be late!"

He stumbled off down the street, stopping every few feet to pick up his sword or rearrange his toga, trying to find someone else to bother.

“Sorry if it seemed like he was inspecting you,” Jason said. “He’s one of the oldest Lares. He's been around since the legion was founded."

"It's fine," said Percy. "Horatia said something about the Lares…"

Jason looked embarrassed. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah. We recovered a few important artifacts of Apollo a few weeks back. Big win for the Fifth—until they started exploding and giving everyone terrible sunburns. Really irritated the Lares—a lot of them can't remember that they're not…" He looked around nervously. "... alive anymore, for some reason. Some of them, like Vitellius, are completely harmless, but others… react badly."

"Why don't you just get rid of them?" Percy asked.

Jason shrugged. "It's not that simple. Horatia says it would probably offend Apollo, that it's only a few more weeks… but she and Michael haven't really been telling us everything. Makes me glad we're going on a quest because I can't stand getting another sunburn." He rubbed his right arm under his purple shirt, wincing. "I don't even remember what it feels like to have normal skin anymore."

"So it doesn't bother you that this quest is about something stolen from Jupiter?" Percy asked him.

Jason looked up at the sky as thunder rolled over the hills once more, frowning. "Look, stolen weapons, preventing all-out war between the gods, count me in. Plus, I'd really like to have another child of the Big Three here. No one else understands what it's like."

Percy frowned. "How'd you know it was a stolen weapon?"

"I've been having dreams," Jason said seriously. "Juno said not to say anything until the right person came to camp. That's got to be you."

"What is it, then? What's been stolen?"

Jason looked around as if checking for eavesdroppers. "Jupiter's symbol of power: the lightning bolt."

Percy's first thought is that he doesn't get how his lightning bolt could have been stolen but he was still able to hit the Camaro so hard it exploded.

"A lightning bolt?" he repeated.

Jason explained to him how important this lightning bolt was, how it could be used to unseat Jupiter as King of Olympus.

"But, you're really not mad that my dad could be trying to take over as king?"

Thunder rumbled.

Jason looked like he didn't know how to answer. Finally, "I don't think he did it."

"You might be the only one," said Percy.

"Well, I don't want to believe he did it."

They fell silent at the intensity with which Jason had said that. Percy wondered what Neptune had done that Jason cared so much. Maybe he wanted his dad to stay king of the gods. Maybe it was that he wanted to prevent all-out war between two super powerful gods, tearing Olympus apart. Maybe Neptune had sent him yearly birthday cards signed Your Favorite Uncle with ten dollars inside.

On the way, they passed some goat-legged guys hanging out on the side of the road who looked like they could use the ten dollars.

“Jason!” one of them cried, waving.

"Sorry, I don't have any money with me," Jason said reflexively, like he, rather than Percy, had a familiarity with panhandlers only a New Yorker could have.

"Who are they?" Percy asked.

"Oh, those are fauns. Nature spirits," Jason explained.

Percy wondered what it would be like to be half goat. He certainly would never expect that they'd be homeless. “Why don’t fauns have jobs? Shouldn’t they work for the camp?”

Jason appeared to think about it. "They mostly hang out here because it's safe from monsters, but if we could find them jobs, that'd be great."

Percy was disappointed, but he didn't really know why. It's not like he knew a faun to even get offended on his behalf.

As they walked the crooked stone path up Temple Hill, they passed an enormous assortment of tiny altars and massive marble vaults, many of which had huge seven-foot-tall marble statues standing like avenging angels warning him to watch his step. Percy didn't want to find out what would happen if he tripped over one of them.

As they passed the bigger ones, Jason listed them off. They passed Apollo, Bellona, a huge crypt-like vault adorned with iron spikes and skulls that seemed to smile and cheerfully say This could be you! that belonged to Mars Ultor that made him irrationally angry.

"So where are we going?" Percy asked.

Jason pointed up. Dark storm clouds swirled over the largest temple, crackling like particularly loud Doritos bags in quiet rooms. “I’m guessing that’s Jupiter’s?”

“Yeah.” Jason sounded edgy. “Octavian reads auguries there." He looks at the storm clouds gathering, pulsing with lightning like a rattlesnake rearing to strike. "I'm… not sure it's entirely safe for you to be in the temple, with him so mad at your dad."

Percy also felt that way. A knot curled in his gut. "Maybe that's why the quest was assigned to you, too. If you're there, he might not kill me instantly."

"Maybe," said Jason. He sounded doubtful, which did not exactly fill Percy with confidence.

"Let's hope he wants the lightning bolt back more than he wants me dead."

They exchanged a grim look.

"So where's Neptune's temple?" Percy asked.

Jason gestured to a small blue shack. A cobweb-covered trident was nailed above the door.

It was empty, too, except the dusty altar against the back wall.

His heart sank like an anchor. “Wow. Popular place.”

“I’m sorry, Percy,” Jason said. “Romans have always been scared of the ocean. They only used ships if they had to. Some of the people in camp will say it's a bad omen that you're here, but I don't believe any of that."

Great. Percy had never been great at being the scary kid at school, and now that's all they expected of him. Even so, standing there at Neptune’s altar, he felt something inside him, like the change of the tides. He regretted he didn't have anything to put at the altar, except maybe the Minotaur horn that he was still holding for some reason. Looking at it made him angry, but he didn't want to leave it here. He'd worked hard for it. He'd earned it.

He reached into his jeans pocket as if looking for something to put at the altar, but all he came up with was pocket lint.

Fine. What had his dad done for him, anyway? Percy stepped outside, feeling unsteady for some reason. He felt angry, for some reason, disrespected, even though...

"There is no throne to Nemesis, no throne to my mother."

Percy closed his eyes.

“Let’s go.” Jason said, looking up at Jupiter's temple like he'd rather be anywhere but.

Even if you knew nothing about Roman mythology, Jupiter's temple was clearly made for the king of the gods.

It was kind of like a pavilion, with fancy mosaics and Latin etched on the marble floor. In the center there was a commanding marble altar in front of a massive gold statue of Jupiter, dressed in a purple toga the size of an eighteen-wheeler, holding a lightning bolt.

For a moment, the lightning bolt looked so familiar Percy wondered if maybe he did steal it. He could imagine holding that in his hands, feeling the crackle of godly power… and he had to stop himself from blurting out it doesn't look like that!

That definitely wouldn't be suspicious, for someone who's never supposed to have seen it before.

Dwarfed by the statue, a kid stood beside the altar wearing a toga so big he must've shopped at the same Big-and-Tall Outlet as the king of the gods.

"It's about time you showed up," the kid said, as he'd been waiting for a very long time.

He was tall and skinny, with straw-colored hair, and Percy mistook him for a ghost at first since he was the first living person he'd seen at Camp Jupiter devoid of the characteristic Pikachu red cheeks everyone else had. Percy wondered if he ever left the temple. (Maybe he ate the offerings people left at the altar? More investigation was necessary.) In one hand he held a knife. In the other was a limp, furry animal.

“Percy,” Jason said, “this is Octavian.”

“The son of Neptune!” Octavian announced, sort of like a sports announcer when two entirely unnoteworthy teams played in Yankee Stadium. “How interesting.”

“Uh, hi,” Percy said. “Are you killing small animals?”

Octavian looked at the fuzzy thing in his hand and laughed. “No, not anymore," he said. "We used to read the will of the gods by examining animal entrails—chickens, goats, that sort of thing. Then, with the animal rights movement of the 70s, fauns started complaining that that goat was their 'friend' and that chicken had a 'family'. Alas, nowadays...” he tossed the fuzzy thing in his hand to Percy, looking disappointed. Percy stared at the disemboweled teddy now in his hands. Then Percy noticed that there was a whole pile of mutilated stuffed animals at the foot of Jupiter’s statue: mostly disemboweled Beanie Babies, but some rather affronted looking gutted Santa's reindeer, as well.

“Really?” Percy asked.

Octavian stepped closer to them, probably to hear them better over the thundering. He was probably only a year or two older than Percy, but he had one of those faces, so Percy couldn't really tell. He reminded him of someone, and Percy racked his brain trying to figure out who.

"You seek to join the legion?” he asked.

Jason spoke for him, telling him about the appearance of Juno, who had issued him a quest.

Thunder rumbled threateningly in the distance, and Percy hoped Jupiter wouldn't strike them down for talking about it in his temple.

Octavian looked surprised. “Juno Moneta," he said, as if percy should know what that meant.

"Juno the Warner," Jason translated, helpfully.

"Yes," Octavian said. "She appears in times of crisis, to counsel Rome about great threats. For her to give you a quest… well, I'll have to get about seventy stuffed animals to get a prophecy…" he looked behind the altar in disgust when he realized the basket behind it was practically empty. "I told the praetors we had to buy in bulk! Well, this will have to do, I suppose. The next shipment is in two weeks."

Percy hoped the gods were feeling particularly talkative today because he didn't want to wait here while Octavian slaughtered every animal he could get his hands on.

The first, a stuffed bulldog, did not appear to tell Octavian much, if his frustrated muttering was anything to go by. Neither did the green frog, the pink Walmart monkey, or the I love you beary much Valentines' Day apology gift polar bear. When he took a knife to a purple cow, he gasped, as if everything made sense.

"The prophecy is clear!" Octavian proclaimed. "You shall go west to face the god who has turned, You shall find what was stolen and see it safely returned—"

"You shall be betrayed by the one who calls you a friend, And fail to save what matters most in the end," Percy finished. "I've heard that before… I'm sure of it."

Both Jason and Octavian looked a little startled.

"Maybe you dreamt about it?" suggested Jason. "You said you were having dreams, right?"

"You haven't read the Sibylline books before, by any chance?" asked Octavian, seriously.

"The Siba-what?"

"Books of prophecy traditionally consulted in times of crisis," explained Octavian. "I've always said we should organize a quest to retrieve them, but our present leadership, unfortunately, has different priorities." He said the word 'different' like it was something disgusting, like a wad of gum stuck to his shoe.

"Michael says it would be a waste of resources," Jason said.

Octavian smirked as if to say different priorities.

"Well, can he join the legion or not?” Jason obviously did not have much patience for Octavian. Or maybe he was hungry?

Octavian looked at him derisively, but scooped up what looked like the last unharmed Beanie Baby from behind the altar and took a knife to it. Percy was beginning to wonder if he was seriously mentally disturbed when he turned, a crooked smile on his face.

“Good news!” he said. “The gods have spoken. Percy may join the legion. We’ll assign him a cohort at evening muster. Tell our praetors I approve.”

“Great!" said Jason, brightly. "Come on, Percy.”

Chapter Text

"Is there anything else you'd like to see?" Jason asked as they made their way down Temple Hill. "We've got about an hour and a half before evening muster, so if you want I can—"

"Wait," Percy interrupted. "So, these prophecies, they always come true then?"

Jason nodded.

"Why are we even doing this?" Percy asked, hopelessly. "It already said we would fail."

Thunder rumbled.

"Well, we have to try, don't we?" Jason said. "To prevent war between the gods. Besides, generally it's a bad idea to try to interpret prophecies too much. They're not always literal."

Percy thought the prophecy saying you will fail was pretty clear. Still, he moved on. "It said that we would go west and face the god who has turned, right? There's not much to the west of us."

Just a city… and then the bay. The ocean. Maybe it was Neptune who stole the bolt, Percy thought.

"That's true," admitted Jason, frowning. A pause. "I thought maybe it was Pluto who had taken the bolt because, if anyone stands to gain from this, it's him. War between his brothers would kill millions, right? But the only known entrance to the Underworld is in Los Angeles—that's way south of us."

Percy didn't want to say Maybe I'm supposed to go meet my father.

"The entrance to the Underworld is in Los Angeles?" Percy repeated. Even if it wasn't west, Percy knew he had to go there. Juno had said his mother might not be gone for good, if he completes this quest.

Of course, according to prophecy, he was doomed to fail, but. Percy gritted his teeth. His mom wasn't gone for good.

"Where else?" asked Jason.

"Juni said that if I completed my quest I could see my mom again. Are you sure that's the only entrance to the Underworld?"

"I'm sorry about your mom," said Jason, a little awkwardly. "That's the only one I know of. I've heard of another entrance: the doors of Orpheus, but I don't know where they could be."

"Orpheus," Percy repeated. "He was the one who went to the Underworld to get his wife, right?"

"Yeah," said Jason. "He's one of the few to have gone to the Underworld and returned: Odysseus, Orpheus, Lazarus, Castor, Pollux, Hercules…"

"Lazarus?" Percy asked. "Isn't that, like, a Christian thing?"

"Who knows?" Jason shrugged.

"So, do they have doors, too?" Percy asked. "Maybe some of them are west of us."

"Maybe," said Jason.

Percy knew he was laying it on a bit thick, pushing this Underworld thing. But what really mattered to him, more than getting the bolt back, was getting his mom back. Also, he wanted to avoid meeting his dad if possible. It seemed unavoidable, as the only thing west of them past a few miles was the sea, but the more he thought about it, the angrier he was. His dad had abandoned them, without even the decency to send him a birthday card, and now he hadn't even acknowledged Percy, but seemed to be expecting him to go on this huge quest to prevent a war with nuclear fallout. Percy felt justified in focusing pretty heavily on going to the Underworld to retrieve his mom, the parent who had been there for him all these years, even putting up with Smelly Gabe and his stupid poker buddies.

Plus, Jason had brought it up.

Still, he felt insane. He wanted to go to the Underworld, to avenge his mother, to get her back. That was crazy. Pluto's a god, Percy thought, hopelessly. I'm twelve. Jason's—maybe eleven. How could they do anything but die?

"We're just kids," he said aloud.

Jason seemed to understand what he meant. "Traditionally, three people go on each quest. The two of us have been chosen specifically by Juno, but we should choose someone with more experience to go with us. I mean, if Juno's messenger doesn't appoint someone else."

Percy thought that sounded like a good idea, but he really didn't know anybody at this camp. He'd been here less than a day, and was being sent out to retrieve a deadly weapon from an unknown location or else he'd die and the gods would go to war.

"This is insane," he said. "That's it. I'm officially insane."

Jason put his hand on Percy's forearm, right where his tattoo would be if he'd had the tattoo everyone else seemed to have. "Don't worry," he said. "I have an idea."

Percy couldn't manage to respond. Maybe it was because he was overwhelmed. Maybe it was because he was furiously blushing. You couldn't prove it either way.

When the horns blew for evening muster, Percy and Jason had already arrived in front of the principia where the Fifth Cohort assembled. They waited together as legionnaires ran, afraid of being late for muster. Jason had told Percy about how harsh Roman punishments could be: scrubbing the streets of New Rome with your own toothbrush, cutting each individual blade of grass in the fields to a specific measurement, getting sewn inside a sack full of angry weasels and dumped into the Little Tiber.

"No wonder they're running so fast," Percy said.

"My least favorite is clearing out the basilisks behind the arena," Jason said. "It doesn't sound as bad as the angry weasels, but, believe me, it's not easy." He shivered, as if remembering.

When he saw the legion assemble, Percy realized that if his plan was to be scary as the son of Neptune, it was not going to work.

The campers were dressed for war in polished chain mail and greaves with sword-and-skull designs on their shiny helmets, leather combat boots and iron cleats. They held in front of them refrigerator-door-sized red and gold shields.

In comparison, Percy was about as intimidating as one of Octavian’s mutilated Beanie Babies.

Once the ghosts fell in line with the rest, they were ready to begin.

Octavian shouted, “Colors!”

Some guys wearing lion-skin capes stepped forward, holding poles decorated with each cohort’s emblems. The last kid to raise his pole seemed to have a redder face than everyone else. Percy thought the reason might've been the that the pole had absolutely nothing on top. Maybe the kid forgot his at home?

Near them, Horatia and Michael sat astride two horses with wings.

“Romans!" Horatia announced. “You’ve probably heard about the appearance of Juno at our camp. She brought with her Percy Jackson, who she proclaimed the son of Neptune. She gave him and Jason Grace a very important quest.”

Percy thought it was more like he brought her with him, but he didn't argue the point.

The kids in the back rows craned their necks to see Percy who raised his hand and said, “Hi” and immediately tripped over a rock.

The campers snickered.

Percy's face felt hot with embarrassment, but at least now he fit in with the red faces of all the other campers.

“He seeks to join the legion,” Michael continued what Horatia had been saying. “Are the auguries favorable, Octavian?”

“I have read the entrails!” Octavian announced. “He is qualified to serve!”

At that, the whole legion at once shouted, “Ave!” Hail!

"Very well," said Michael, motioning for one person from each cohort to come forward to address Percy.

Octavian went first. "Do you have credentials? Letters of reference?”

Was this a job interview? He was twelve. “Letters? Um, no, sorry."

“Then will any legionnaires stand for him?” Octavian asked.

Looking around, Percy had a moment of doubt. He didn't know anyone here. What would they say about him? Marcus or Horatia—that he didn't even believe in their gods? Michael—that the king of the gods himself suspected him of stealing his most powerful weapon in order to start a war? Octavian—that according to prophecy he was already doomed to fail?

"I will," said Jason firmly.

The other campers started to mutter, mostly that Jason was only standing for him to get a quest. Still, maybe it was the fact that he was the son of Jupiter that made them settle down quickly.

“Very well,” Horatia announced. "Jason Grace, you may stand for the recruit. Does your cohort accept him?”

Percy shifted nervously, but he got a feeling from the coughing laughter the other cohorts were trying to stifle that there wasn't much doubt about that.
Jason pounded his shield against the ground and other members of the Fifth followed his lead.

“My cohort has spoken,” said a sandy-haired kid who seemed to be like a counselor. He wore his sword on the left side instead of the right, unlike the legionnaires. “We accept the recruit.”

“Congratulations, Percy Jackson," said Horatia. "You stand on probatio. You will be given a nameplate stating your name and cohort. Do not lose it. After a year or the completion of an act of valor, you will become a full member of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata. Serve Rome, obey the rules of the legion, and defend the camp with honor. Senatus Populusque Romanus!”

The legion echoed the cheer.

“Centurions,” Michael said, “you and your troops have one hour for dinner. There will be no war games tonight.”

There were quite a few groans. The cohorts broke ranks and ran for the mess hall for dinner.

Percy quickly found Jason, the only person he recognized, as soon as a guard had handed him his nameplate which felt awkward in his hands with the Minotaur horn. He had no idea how he wasn't going to lose it.

“Thanks for that,” he said to Jason. "What exactly does it mean for you to stand for me?”

“That I'll guarantee your good behavior,” Jason explained. “Teach you the rules, answer your questions, stuff like that.”

“But what if I do something wrong?”

"Make sure I don't regret this,” Jason said. "Let's get dinner."