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The Crown Of Ghosts

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"Alright," says Leo, claping his hands together, "let's load er up!"

The invisible servants heft up Calypso's bags and wade into the water where Festus waits, and begin attaching them to his golden body like saddlebags. Though they can't see the servants, they see the ripples in the water of where they move. Taking Leo's hand, Calypso walks into the water, lifting her dress so it doesn't get wet. Leo helps her onto the metal dragons back and climbs on in front of her. Festus stomps around in excitement.

"Got everything?" he asks.

"Mm? Yes," she smiles, puts her chin on his shoulder and her arms around his waist.

Leo blushes, "Toothbrush? Socks? Erm.. lady.. stuff?" Leo would never again be able to forget about having those ready after Piper had made sure he had the Argo II fully stocked.

Calypso laughs and it's just how she sings: sweet and airy. The ripples of the invisible servants step away from Festus and back onto the shore.

"Yes, I'm ready." She looks up across the sandy shore where she can see the multicolored crystal door and the gardens of magical and non-magical flowers (she's bringing seeds with her) that she grew herself. Her garden was her only company apart from heartache after heartache that washed up on her island. Her home and her prison. Placing a kiss behind Leo's ear she says, "I'm ready to go anywhere else, as long as it's with you."

"Sounds good, I thought you'd never ask." Leo pats Festus's hull, "Any GPS reading here, buddy?" The dragon creeks and whirs his teeth, and his ruby eye flashes. Calypso can't make sense of it, but Leo's eyebrows knit together. "Yea, man. Well, we knew that was a possibility. So, plan B!" Festus nods his head and spreads his wings, turning away from the shore.

"Whats plan B?" Calypso asks as Festus flies up into the pink and yellow clouds. Turning back she sees small mists like silver sand dissolving from the island into the wind, her servants being freed along with her.

"Improvise!" Leo laughs.

 


 

As Festus breaks through the clouds, Leo concludes he must be dreaming. He's got Calypso's pale, freckled arms around his waist as they fly on his favorite automaton above the most breathtaking bank of clouds Leo's never seen. Calypso's sharp intake of breath behind him makes him smile and nod in agreement.

"Yea, it's beautiful. I can't wait to show you all the modern cities. We can go take a walk through downtown San Francisco or see a movie in New Yor-"

"What's a movie?"

"Oh man," Leo exclaims, "you missed out on so many movies! Die Hard, Terminator, The Notebook-"

"Leo!" Calypso giggles.

"Right! Plenty of time for boring chick flicks. Festus, let me know when you get a GPS reading." The dragons teeth spin.

"That was fast," says Calypso.

"No, it's-" Leo starts, but just then a few rouge venti puff out of the clouds in front of them like a violent fart.

"What are those?"

"Bad news! Festus, evasive action!" Festus clicks an okay, and doges the winds, swerving side to side as the venti wiz past. Calypso ducks her head into Leo's back as he untucks some seat belts from under Festus's hull and straps them together.

"Hold on tight! Festus, dive!"

Festus blows fire at a ventus, tucks his wings into his body and plummets through the clouds, leaving Calypso and Leo's stomachs in the stratosphere. Leo hears someone screaming and, realizing it's him, shuts his mouth.

Calypso's arms tighten around him and her hair moves so fast in the wind that it hits the skin of his neck like bee stings. They break through the clouds, the wind rushing past their ears. Leo pries open one eye and sees a familiar cost line, and tells Festus to aim for the water.

"Calypso! When I say so, take a deep breath!" he yells, and he feels Calypso's nod in his back. Leo turns around as and blows as much fire at the venti from his hands as he can to distract them, and they all swerve to dodge the flames. He turns back, wraps his arms around Festus's neck, pressing close to his body, and yells, "NOW!"

They hit the water, and the loud roar of the wind is silenced by the new rush of bubbles. The surface tension of the water was broken by Festus's nose, but Leo still feels like he was slapped in the face by a highway. He pulls upwards on Festus's neck and the dragon swims up to the surface. Their heads break the surface and Calypso gasps for air.

"Leo Valdez, I could kill you! You're seriously insane! I can't believe I left my nice, safe, island for this!" Calypso rants, but her arms tighten around Leo's waist.

He laughs, loud and excited, "I think we lost them." He looks up into the sky and sees no sign of the venti. "Good swimming, Festus. Welcome to the Gulf of Mexico!"

Chapter Text

Leo tells Festus to swim west to the Florida coastline, and when he swims he uses his wings to do some sort of bronze dragon butterfly stroke. Small propellers shoot out of the sides of Festus's front legs, speeding them along while his back legs do a doggy paddle.

Festus won't be getting any style points in the Olympics, thinks Leo.

Leo hopes the Coast Guard won't arrest him and confiscate his dragon. Do you need a licence to pilot a dragon? The sea splashes up and sprays their legs and faces, the salty mist landing on their eyelashes. Leo wipes it away and grins, remembering the next step of his plan.

"Hey, Calypso, you got any drachma?" he asks.

"Um, yeah," She turns and reaches into a side pocket in one of her bags and pulls out a small leather coin purse and hands it to Leo. Leo reaches into his tool belt and pulls out a small pink cosmetics mirror. "What are you doing?" Calypso asks.

"Gonna make a phone call... Hopefully." He twists the plastic mirror around until it catches the light, and twists it down so the light hits the spray of the waves, creating a faint rainbow in the choppy water. Leo takes a coin and tossing it in he chants, "O Goddess, accept my offering." 

The coin vanishes through the rainbow. 

Nothing happens. 

More nothing happens.

"Leo?"

"Maybe she's... busy?" Leo pouts, he puts the mirror back into his tool belt and gives the pouch back to Calypso. "The fight against Gaea did like, just happen so maybe... Maybe Iris is doing important rainbow goddess stuff." 

Calypso isn't to sure, and she gets a feeling Leo is more nervous about it then he let on. Festus clicks to get their attention, and they look up as they close in on a city along the water. A dozen skyscrapers cut the horizon and make up a familiar skyline. Well, familiar to Leo.

"Tampa! Nice choice, buddy." Festus snorts a smoke ring from his nose in reply. He climbs out of the crystal blue water onto the white sand and Leo and Calypso slide off the dragons back. Festus tips his head and a stream of water runs out of his ear.

As Leo takes down the bags, he notes the beach is strangely vacant for a sunny Florida day. There are a whopping six whole people at the beach. No one really pays them any attention, but a little girl is pulling at her dad's hand and pointing at them. 

"You cool for suitcase mode, Festus?" The dragon dips his head and snorts a small puff of black smoke into Leo's face, making Calypso giggle. Leo pouts, "Just for a while, you're probably too big to walk through the city. And a giant bronze dragon is like, super obvious." 

Steam blows from his mouth like a long sigh, and he nods in resignation. Leo reaches up to a chink in his armour on the side of his neck and flips a switch. The dragon folds and contracts like an origami until it's a golden suitcase laying in the sand. 

Hoisting it up, Calypso looks up at the imposing city. "What now?"

Leo shoulders the bags and turns toward the boardwalk, "I guess we find a place to hang out for the night. Coming back from the dead sure is exhausting."

 


 

They walk through the city for a while, hand in hand, Leo taking in Calypso's awed expression at the modern world. Sure, Tampa is no NYC, but compared to Ogygia it must seem... Well Leo can't imagine what she must be thinking. He briefly worries if she's overwhelmed.

She certainly must look out of place, with her white Greek chiton that hangs from one shoulder. It's dripping wet and shows off her freckled collar bone. Her hair is pulled in a low side ponytail, and it's soaked and messy from the venti ambush. She wears gold cuffs around her upper arms, and with a start Leo notices she is barefoot.

Calypso catches Leo's stare from the corner of her eye and her face flushes. Leo thinks Calypso could give Aphrodite a run for her money any day, even dripping wet and barefoot. 

"Calypso, have you not had shoes on this whole time?" he asks.

Her blush deepens. "I didn't need shoes on Ogygia. I only had sand and dirt." She looks down at the sidewalk they're now walking together on, "But some shoes might be good."

Her gaze returns to the city. The streets are fairly quiet, and there are a few cars that pass every now and then. There are other people out for walks, and some give the bag laden demigod and the barefoot goddess strange glances. They probably look like shipwrecked comic con nerds.

"Hmm.. Well I guess we'd better look in a newspaper and see if there are hotels or something around here." He stops at a newspaper stand and reaches into his tool belt in hopes for some spare change. The tool belt gives him a quarter, and two washers. He shrugs and gives it a try, putting them in the coin slots and the newspaper stand clicks open. He takes the top copy of Tampa Bay Times. As he's about to flip through it he catches the date.

"Holy Hephaestus!" The date is marked August 6, five days after The Feast of Spes. "Oh man. I was in the Ogygian time hole for five days. Gods, Piper is gonna disembowel me." 

Calypso narrows her almond eyes at him, "Piper?" she asks, her free hand on her hip. Leo didn't know someone could manage to look scary while their hair was stuck to their face and water dripped off the tip of their nose. 

"Erm, my friend Jason's girlfriend. She was worried about me, before I totally saved the world, but I told her to trust me. Right now she's probably super heartbroken that such a cool guy like me is dead. I wish the Iris messages were working." Calypso's eyes soften and she places a hand on Leo's cheek. 

"We'd better get you home then." 

Leo smiles and turns around to head up the street, but he plows right into a passerby. "Oh jeez. Sorry-"

"Leo Valdez." She growls.

Chapter Text

"Gah!" Leo yelles. "Khione? What are you doing in Florida? It's the middle of summer... in Florida."

"Well," the goddess starts. She smiles at Leo like she's thinking about what a lovely ice sculpture he'll make. Knowing Khione, she probably is. "After two failed attempts to capture your friends and sink your ship, my father exiled me from the north. Banished me! And what a happy coincidence it is that you show up here with no dragon to protect you." She steps closer hungrily, a mad glint in her coffee eyes. "There's no escape, Leo Valdez, and you can expect no help from the gods. As we speak, Zeus decides on Apollo's fate and yet another goddess is imprisoned. But I've said too much already. I don't want to waste any more time not killing you," Khione smiles.

Calypso quickly tucks the golden suitcase that is Festus behind her back. Khione hasn't noticed her yet, and thinks they're without their dragon. Night has fallen now and there are no more people out, and only the occasional car.

Leo looks Khione over. Instead of her usual freshly-fallen-snow look (pun intended), she looks more like she just finished rolling down a hill. Her hair, which is usually down and the top pulled back into a crown of jet black braids, not a hair out of place, is loose and the left side of the braid sits lower than the right. Her snow white dress is caked with mud along the bottom and there's a tear that goes up to her knee.

"Wow bummer, truly. Listen Elsa, I don't know if you forgot," smirks Leo, dropping Calypso's two duffle bags and rolling up his sleeves, "I'm still like, capable of burning you into a Khione-kebab so-" Leo is cut off as the goddess grabs his wrist. Ice spreads out from her hand and up his arm and in seconds Leo is encased in ice.

Calypso lets out a startled gasp, and Khione turns to her. She looks Calypso up and down before curling her lip in disgust.

"And who are you supposed to be?"

For a moment Calypso can't answer. She's on her own, her boyfriend turned to an ice statue and his dragon stuck in suitcase mode.

"I'm Calypso, and you better put my boyfriend back right now, or so help me!" She stomps her foot along too, because no she did not wait on that island for thousands of years being told by boy after boy that they'd be back for her only for the one boy who does to get frozen solid.

Khione laughs, cold and harsh like a blizzard. Calypso's fingers begin to fumble along the edges of the suitcase for the switch that turns Festus back into a fire-breathing dragon. She could use one of those right now.

"I know you! The whore of Ogygia," Khione's body shakes with laughter. "Tell me, Calypso-" Calypso's hands shake with anger as she finds a niche in the case and pulls the switch she hopes activates Festus and not self destruct. With one hand she flings the golden suitcase over Khione's shoulder into the street, and with the other reaches up and slaps Khione across the face. As the suitcase sails through the air it expands like origami, and Festus crashes fully formed into a telephone pole.

"HOW DARE YOU. YOU LITTLE BRAT. YOU-" Khione's insults are silenced by a giant fiery roar as Festus runs toward her. Khione whips around and shoots a shard of ice from her hands and into Festus's wing. It makes a hole, but the dragon continues his charge. Festus snaps up Khione's torso between his teeth and shoots into the air, Khione shooting ice and snowballs at him while flailing and screaming. "I'M A PRINCESS YOU STUPID DRAGON. PUT ME DOWN!"

Festus snorts and spits her out, over the city and into the Gulf, where she lands in a cold splash. Calypso smiles as he lands back down in front of her and the Leo-cicle.

"Thanks, Festus. Sorry about throwing you," she says. The dragon puffs steam from his nose at her, and Calypso thinks that's his way of blushing. "Can you thaw out the great and mighty Leo?" she giggles. Festus nods and sets to work slowly thawing out Leo as Calypso loads her bags back on the dragon. Leo's head and face melt first, and he continues speaking as if he was never frozen.

"-maybe you just wanna run along before you embarrass yoursel- What? Whats going on?"

Calypso rolls her eyes and smiles, "My hero."

"Awww man. She froze me." A flush works its way to Leo's cheeks. "Okay, she got away this time but next time she's TOAST."

Festus whirs his teeth in a way that sounds like laughter, and when he thaws out Leo's hands, Leo sets his fingers ablaze to speed it along.

"Yeah yeah. When your done melting we should leave. I don't want to sick around to see if Khione has friends."

 


 

They soar over Florida, headed north to Long Island. The cold wind cuts through their hair, and Calypso shivers slightly as it chills her exposed arms. She scoots closer to Leo and wraps her arms around him again.

Leo flushes, "Thanks for saving my butt back there." She smiles, no longer shaking due to the combined heats of Leo and the dragon beneath her. "We need to get you a weapon ASAP. And I wouldn't mind a shower and some new clothes."

Calypso nods. Her dress is nearly ruined and she would kill for a hairbrush herself.

"Do you know what Khione meant back there?" she asks.

"What do you mean?"

"She said something about Apollo's fate and a goddess imprisoned."

Leo's eyebrows knit together, "Doesn't sound good. We need to get to camp soon, someone there will know what to do. And we need to land so I can fix Festus's wing." Calypso looks over at the hole Khione made. It wasn't big, but it could become problematic. She nods and yawns into Leo's back. He smiles, "go ahead and sleep. I'll wake you up if something serious happens."

 


 

Instead of being awoken by some monster attack or dragon malfunction Calypso wakes up from Leo's back shaking with laughter as he pulls tools and random scraps of metal from his tool belt. 

"Idiot mode!" he laughs, "Of course!" 

Chapter Text

Nico makes his way from Cabin 13 to the Big House. His Stygian iron sword hangs at his side, and his hands sit in the pockets of his new aviator jacket (a gift from his father after the Giant War). As he walks, his footsteps turn the grass yellow, withering and dying, responding to his unease. Nico wipes the sweat from the back of his neck and shifts his shirt uncomfortably.

Yesterday morning he decided he needed to tell the camp counselors about Leo. During the war with Gaea, he definitely felt Leo's soul leave his body, but there was something strange about it. And then later that night as he was settling into his coffin bed in Cabin 13 (he really needs to do something about that), he felt a tug in his gut like Leo was being pulled out of the Underworld.

The next few days after that, whenever he checked on the feeling of Leo's soul, he felt sluggish and tired as if Leo's soul was stuck in quicksand. Then, yesterday morning, he shot out of bed as the slow sluggish feeling snapped like a rubber band, and Nico knew for sure Leo was alive. He knew he needed to tell the other counselors at camp, but he also knew their Roman friends like Frank and Reyna, and his sister Hazel would want to know. He tried to Iris message them to come to the counselor meeting but the Iris messages wouldn't go through. So instead, he had to send a paper airplane note and pray it would reach them in time.

Nico hears the turning of wheels and the flapping of giant wings and knows the invitation reached the Romans. Looking up he sees a chariot fly into camp pulled by Reyna's new pegasus, Cookie. Cookie is a russet brown gift from Bellona, and she likes Nico, as much as any horse will anyway. Hazel and Frank are stood in the back of the chariot, and they wave to him from the air. Nico smiles and waves as they approach the camp boarders, but Reyna knits her eyebrows in concern when she sees the trail of dead grass behind him. Feeling his cheeks heat, he walks up to the chariot as it lands in the grass by Thalia's pine.

"Nico, we got your message," Hazel starts, and hops off the cart. She takes survey of the grass, the bags under his eyes, and his hands nervously playing with the hem of his shirt. "Something serious happened, didn't it? Is everyone okay?"

He steps toward his sister and rests a kiss in her cinnamon toast curls. "Everyone's fine. More than fine."

"Than why do you look like you're going to your death?"

Nico sighs, not sure how to answer, "Let's talk inside. Everyone's probably waiting." On his way in he hears Frank mutter behind him something about never getting a break.

Inside gathered around the ping-pong table are all of Camp Half-Blood's senior counselors from each cabin (sans Cabin 13, 8, and 2). Percy and Jason sit at the head of the table, with Annabeth and Piper at their sides respectively. Percy is zoned out, staring at something across the room, but looks up at Nico when he walks in. Jason is cleaning his glasses with the edge of his shirt. Piper and Annabeth keep exchanging nervous looks as Piper twists Katoptris around on the table. Annabeth taps a pencil on the table with one hand and clutches Percy's hand with the other so tight her knuckles turn white, like she's scared he could disappear at any moment. Given the gods recent meddling in their love life, Nico can't blame her.

Katie Gardner twirls a piece of her hair around her fingers, casting nervous glances at the Stoll brothers. Travis and Conner are sitting still looking somber, which is probably the most shocking thing in the room and enough to make anyone nervous, even with the talking/eating leopard head on the wall. Clarisse, cleaning her nails with a knife with her combat boots up on the table, is seated next to Jake Mason, who's been standing in for Leo. Finally, Will Solace sits in the chair closest to the door.

When he sees Nico he doesn't pester him about his health or anything like he has been the last few days. Anytime Nico so much as coughed, Will was there with a scowl and a cough drop nagging Nico about 'Underworld-y stuff', and Nico could only smile and blush. But now, Will only pats the chair next to him to indicate he saved him a seat. Nico's heart skips a beat in his chest as he sits down, and he can't help but think this is the saddest the group has looked since the time they read Percy's Great Prophecy.

Hazel, Frank and Reyna sit down around the table, but no one pays them any attention. All eyes turn to Nico, and the only sound in the room is the small wacka-wacka-wacka of Mr. D's arcade game and Clovis's snoring.

"Well, Nico," starts Chiron. He sits in his wheelchair off in the corner due to the amount of people in the room. "What is it you needed to tell us?"

Nico draws in a shaky breath. "It's Leo," he says. "He's alive."

Suddenly it's like the somber mood that occupied the room only seconds before never even existed. Pandemonium breaks out. Jason shoots off sparks and turns to Annabeth for answers, but Annabeth just looks confused (there's a first for everything, Nico supposes). Hazel and Frank burst into tears, and Frank wraps her up into his big, burly arms. Travis and Conner start fighting about something completely unrelated, Reyna smiles in the corner, and Jake Mason just laughs hysterically. Nico supposes he must have finally lost it.

The only one who remains calm in the room is Will, like the eye of a storm. Nico feels his face heat at the chaos he's just created. He feels a hand on his knee, and looks over at Will, who smiles at him and nods encouragement to continue explaining. Nico's suddenly very grateful for this ray of sunshine (haha) that took him under his wing five days ago.

Nico coughs and turns back to the group. "Uhm-" Everyone's heads turn back to him in an instant and the silence is deafening. There's a long pause before anyone speaks. Katie nervously grows vines of flowers along the table, which shrivel and die when they come close to him.

"Nico. You told me he was gone," Jason says.

"He was. But yesterday morning something happened and I felt him come back. I've never felt anything like it."

"The Physician's cure," says Piper. She looks furious, as if she's trying to choose which method she will use to slaughter Leo when she sees him (she is).

Annabeth nods, "It's the only way anyone can come back. And Leo had it didn't he, Nico?"

He nods.

"H-how do we know Nico's right?" stammers Katie. "We can't get our hopes up because Nico felt something."

Clarisse stabs her knife into the table and slumps back in her chair in defeat. Travis and Conner take turns pretending not to pinch the other.

"I know we all want to believe it," Chiron starts, looking at Nico with sympathy, "but there's simply no-"

Suddenly, the arcade box in the corner shuts down with a loud 'do-do-doo', and TV static appears on the screen. The interference clears and a giant finger taps the video feed.

"Helloooo? Anyone there in the Big House? Earth to CHB can you hear me?"

"Oh my gods," gasps Piper.

The finger pulls out of the way and centered in front of a clear blue sky is a boy with curly brown hair, impish ears, and a trickster-come-madman grin. Behind him sits a beautiful girl with knotted hair and freckles. Percy pales at the sight of her. Another pregnant silence fills the room.

"Someone say something, I have no video feed on my end!" says Leo.

Annabeth is the first to clear her head. "We-we're all here, Leo. We were having a meeting."

"Oh sweet! The gangs all gathered for the big announcement! So, uhm," Leo's grin knows no bounds, "I'm not dead!" 

"Leo!" chides the girl, swatting his arm.

"Leo. How are you... how did you.. what?" stammers Jason.

"Well, I remembered the idiot mode I put on the Pac-Man machine and I figured I might be able to create a sort of webcam video feed and bounce it off the internet tower I made and send a signal to the box in the Big House," he stops to take in a big breath, "and it worked!" Leo explains, but it seems only Travis, Conner, and Jake followed along. "As for the revival part, I programmed Festus to give me the cure once we got away from ol' Dirt Face. And then, just as planned, I landed in Ogygia and rescued the lovely Calypso. Man, I'm on fire! Haha puns."

"Leo, we're so glad to see you!" sobs Hazel. She's half raised out of her chair like she can't decide if she wants to faint, run away, or give a great bear hug to Pac-Man.

"Awwww, ditto Hazel, even if I can't actually see you. I'm on my way home. I suspect we are somewhere over South Carolina, we had some troubles getting going." Leo explains about the run in they had with Khione and what she said about Apollo's fate (Nico tries his very hardest not to glance at Will, and fails. Will's eyebrows are pulled together in concern and his grip on Nico's knee tightens a fraction), the broken Iris messages, and a goddess imprisoned.

Jason flops back into his chair. "Ugh, not another one."

"There's no rest," mutters Percy, shaking his head in defeat.

"This is bad, guys," Hazel says nervously, "We need to figure out who-"

CRASH!

"Hold that thought, Leo," says Percy as he and the counselors jump up and run outside.

"Yea, no worries. Back from the dead. Live Skype call from who knows how many feet in the air via fifty-plus year old video game machine. No biggie." says Leo.

When Nico gets outside, the smoke is just starting to dissipate. A bright yellow sports car lies in a crater in the grass. Steam curls off the windshield, which is miraculously still intact. In fact, none of the car seems damaged, not even a scratch on the paint. The driver side door opens and out stumbles a man who looks like he should be on a surfboard instead of crashing sports cars into demigod camps. He wears a sky blue tank top, beige khaki shorts and sandles. His perfect golden tan and his shaggy blonde hair look all too familiar, though he doesn't look a day over eighteen.

"Dad?!" Will exclaims.

Apollo turns to the group of senior counselors. "Ah, demigods! I'm here as your new babysitter or something! You know, this reminds me of the time when I- well, what better way to tell the story than with a haiku!"

Chapter Text

The campers groan in unison and Chiron rolls his wheelchair out of the Big House onto the porch. Naiads and satyrs gather at the edges of the forest to survey the crash, and Cookie whinnies and paws the earth nervously.

"Lord Apollo," says Chiron, "to what do we owe the pleasure?"

The passenger side door pops open and out climbs a familiar girl with frizzy red hair and doodle marked jeans. Rachel Elizabeth Dare coughs and waves the smoke from the air in front of her, muttering something about unlicensed drivers as she shuts the door.

"What's happening???" calls Leo from inside.

"Perhaps we should step inside and I'll explain," smiles Apollo.

 


 

The campers are seated in more-or-less the same spots, though everyone's squished together now because Apollo sat himself at the head of the table and Rachel to his right. Everyone else sort of fell into place. Now the room is even more crowded, and Nico's right side of his body is pressed up against Hazel, and his left against Will. Nico knows his face must be as red as Rachel's hair because Jason keeps shooting him knowing glances and fighting a smirk. Nico tilts his head to the ceder wood rafters and prays for the earth to swallow him whole.

Will looks like he's seen a ghost. Nico imagines it must be strange to see ones father only a few years older than them. He pauses and tries to think of his own father as a teenager, or even a child, and shivers at the thought. Will's eyes turn to him, and look him over, giving him a quick medical analysis.

I'm fine, Nico's warning look says. Quit mothering me.

Piper finishes telling Leo about Apollo and Rachel's arrival and Nico tears his eyes from Will's to turn his attention back to the meeting.

"Yes. After the Giant War and the battle with Gaea, Zeus punished me for the Prophecy of Seven being delivered too soon. I tried to explain to him that the Spirit of Delphi can't be controlled, but you know Zeus. Stubborn and hardheaded," the campers looked outside uneasily, watching for giant smiting lightning bolts. "So now I'm here because my father grounded me to a few hundred years of babysitting all the little campers at this camp. It's fine with me, because it will give me loads of time with Cabin 7 and my Oracle!" says Apollo. Rachel and Will exchanged nervous looks. Apollo raises one hand in the air like he's performing Shakespeare, "Apollo is here; hero and bearer of bad news; wow what a cool guy," Apollo recites. Percy groans and his head lolls back until his neck rests on the back of his chair, where it stays.

"Apollo," begins Piper, "what do you mean 'bad news'?"

"Well I'm sure you've heard," he says. " 'a goddess imprisoned'. Nasty business. Don't think Hecate can get herself out of this one."

Hazel fans her face next to Nico. "How did this happen? We just killed Gaea," Leo coughs in the corner from the Pac-Man box. "Who would do this?"

Nico can't think of any enemies they missed. From what Jason told him, all the giants were killed in Greece, and Nico knows Octavian is no longer a threat. But even Octavian wouldn't dare trap a goddess. Especially one like Hecate.

Apollo shrugs, "I don't know."

"Oh, but I thought you knew everything," states Annabeth.

"I have my limits, girl. Maybe you should consult your Oracle," Apollo smiles, and gestures dramatically to Rachel like he's presenting the prizes on the Price is Right.

Rachel sighs like this is the seventh time today (it is), "You can't just-"

And explosion comes from the corner and Calypso screams, and all eyes in the room snap to the Pac-Man machine.

"Everything's fine! It's just the-" Leo's frantic voice fades as the webcam falls out of Leo's hands. The video feed turns to a view of the sky and the approaching ground as it plummets to the earth, landing wih a sickening crunch. The video feed cuts out, and the Pac-Man demo screen reappears, Pac-Man's death sound effect chilling the room.

Everyone is silent, Apollo doesn't even recite a depressing haiku.

Hazel jumps out of her chair, "We have to help them!"

"A quest!" shouts Apollo, presenting Rachel again. But instead of rolling her eyes, her eyes begin to glow green. She begins to slump down her chair but Apollo catches her, one hand under each arm. The green fog that is the Spirit of Delphi pours from her mouth. Campers jump up in surprise and recoil to the far edges of the room (except for Clovis, who is asleep).

"Five will journey to the goddess imprisoned,
The Champion of Hecate to lead the mission.
Cure the mortals of their open gaze,
And find what you seek with a single phrase.
The King of Ghosts must show the way,
And a child of Zeus may save the day."

Rachel collapses down into her chair, blinking in confusion.

"That's what I'm talking about!" cheers Apollo. The campers look around in concern. Nico's heart stutters. 'The King of Ghosts' can only mean one person, and the campers eyeing him warily support that they know, too. They also eye Jason, who's the only child of Zeus present (besides Apollo).

"Champion of Hecate," Frank starts, "that's you Hazel. It has to be."

Hazel squares her shoulders, taking to the leadership role easily, "Yes, it is. Nico and Jason should come, too. That's obvious."

"May save the day," points Clarisse. "May ruin it and kill everyone! No offence, Jason. And besides, Jason isn't exactly an only child." Apollo chuckles in agreement. 

"Yes, but I trust Jason with my life, and I like my chances if he's on my side," counters Hazel.

"And 'find what you seek with a single phrase', that's probably Piper," says Annabeth.

Piper contracts her eyebrows in concentration, and attaches her dagger to her belt, "Yeah, okay. I'm in if its good with you, Hazel."

"Leo's in trouble," she replies. Piper nods gravely, suddenly protective of Leo, like if Leo's going to get hurt its going to be by her hands.

"But that's just four," states Percy. "And what do they seek?"

"I don't know, but naturally my boy should go on the quest!" beams Apollo. Nico's stomach does a small flip in his gut, and no one has the heart (or nerve) to object the god.

"I'll go if you'll have me. You might need a medic."

"Yeah, Will's great at-" Nico starts, but noticing the campers eyes on him, he blushes and stammers. Nico kneads the back of his neck and shifts his weight awkwardly. "You know... stuff."

The campers nod, but they look serious again. Percy and Annabeth exchange relieved looks. Nico's happy for them; they deserve a rest. They need time to themselves, to do regular mortal couple things, instead of saving the world twice over.

Nico thinks about how he will 'lead the way' according to Rachel. Nico can't picture himself leading anything except maybe an army of undead, and he hopes his fellow team will trust him enough to follow him.

Katie shifts nervously, "This is bizarre. There's never been a successful quest of more than three campers, besides the Prophecy of Seven."

Nico knows all to well about the camps regular quest balance of three. His sister went on a quest with four others, and she was one of the two the Fates took to restore balance. He clenches and unclenches his fists. He will not let anyone die on this quest. Not his sister, his self-proclaimed brother and his girlfriend, or Will.

"Maybe because the Prophecy of Seven was successful and no one really died," Jake says, "it changed the numbers."

"We must hope so," says Chiron. "But for now, the meeting is over. Apollo and I have some things to discuss. I will see you all at lunch."

 


 

Later that night at the campfire, after Chiron finishes telling the camp about their quest and Leo's survival, the campfire burns 10 feet tall and bright orange. The cabins that sit in the front rows had moved back in order to keep their eyebrows, and get away from Apollo's ukulele campfire songs. Nico doesn't mind, so he sits with Hazel and Reyna in the second row. His shoes rest on the stone bench in front of him and his chin sits on his knees, arms wrapped around them.

Hazel and Reyna talk to each other, and Nico thinks of the prophecy Rachel Dare delivered this morning. Something was strange about it; it didn't seem ominous enough. Most prophecies had at least one line about impending doom that was usually thwarted at the close of the quest through clever word play. Nico can't shake the feeling that something bad might happen, something the Oracle wouldn't warn them about.

Nico looks up as he sees Will approach, a small note in his hand, and sit down next to him on the stone bench.

"Hey, how are you feeling, Deathboy?" he asks.

"Just terrible, Doctor Solace!" Nico says. He throws his hand over his forehead in a mock faint. "I have the Black Plague, my leg's falling off, lice, measles, the common cold, and syphilis!"

Will rolls his eyes, "Very funny. Just don't come crying to me when you itch in weird places."

Nico laughs out loud, and a few campers around them look over at Nico in surprise. Nico slouches into his coat and pulls his fingers through his hair, kneading the back of his neck. Both boys blush furiously.

"So, erm, what did you need?"

"Well," Will's blush would deepen if such a thing were possible. Nico's glad the fire is bright and warm. "I just wanted to say thanks. For sticking up for me back at the meeting," Nico starts to smile, "and then babbling like an idiot."

"Fuck off," Nico laughs. Their knees touch and Nico can't help but notice the way the fire light plays with the golden colors in Will's hair. Nico realizes their both staring, and looks away to Will's hands, where they clasp the note. "Whats that?"

"Oh, I thought we should let Leo and Calypso know we're coming for them. And since Iris is MIA and I can't bounce a signal off a webcam into a Pac-Man machine or whatever it is that Leo's do-"

"Can I see it?" Nico asks, holding out his hand.

"What?"

"Can I see it?"

"I guess?" Will says, and passes it into his palm.

Nico unfolds it and chuckles.

"What?" Will demands.

"I can't read any of this. You know that one third of all patient deaths occur because of poor handwriting on prescriptions? You could kill someone!" Will pales, and Nico laughs, passing the note back.

Will scowls at him, fighting a smile. "Yeah, okay. I'll revise it. Get some sleep, Deathboy," Will stands and walks backwards to rejoin his siblings. "I'm coming to wake you up at DAWN!"

Nico fights a yawn at the thought, "Ugh, please don't!"

"DAWN!" Will yells, and then trips backwards over a stone bench and two Athena girls, landing in the dirt. Nico slaps his hands over his mouth to suppresses a giggle. Seeing something out of the corner of his eye, he turns and sees Jason making eyebrows at him. Nico half smiles and shakes his head as he flips him off.

Chapter Text

The hole in Festus's wing explodes. The red lights in his eyes flicker a few times before going dim. For a moment they are weightless, hovering in the sky like the top of the crest on a roller coaster. Then Festus tips forward and they plummet to the earth, Calypso screaming in his ear.

"Everything's fine!" He yells, the webcam transmitter tumbles from his hands as he pulls open the hatch in the back of Festus's head. "It's just the hole in the wing!" The hole has nearly tripled in size. The wind rushes past their ears and Calypso's arms are tight and sure around his waist. Leo's hair flickers with small flames, that are put out quickly by the roaring winds, as he panics. He remembers the last time this happened with Jason and Piper when they were flying to Chicago. Festus had malfunctioned (thanks to a certain snow goddess) and Jason flew Piper and a hysterical Leo to safety as Festus's  body crashed to the ground, exploding in Porta Potty fumes.

No. Not this time. Not again, Leo thinks.

He gets the hatch open and furiously pushes wires to the side, reaching for the emergency reboot switch behind the dragons nose to get Festus to turn back on. None of it makes sense, even if the wing had fallen off Festus shouldn't have shut down, he thinks. If Festus can reboot he can maybe slow their decent and give him more time.

"More time," Leo mutters. Calypso lifts her head from behind Leo's back, her eyes bright with an idea, and starts to sing. Leo's heard her voice before but it hasn't gotten any less beautiful. The music is sad and slow, and filled with longing. The wind around them slows a fraction, gradually getting slower and slower.

Leo doesn't waste time asking questions, he reaches elbow deep into a Festus's controls, finds the switch and pushes it up. Festus's eyes flicker on to red, he roars in surprise and shoots a column of fire from his mouth into the air, and his wings extend. Leo closes the hatch and pulls his safety rope off.

"What are you doing?" Calypso yells, tightening her grip on him. 

"I gotta get on the wing to repair it! You gotta let me go," he yells over the roar of the wind. Calypso and Festus slowed them down but they're nowhere near a safe speed. Calypso nods and lets go of Leo's waist, looking grave. "It'll be fine!" he calls. He climbs out onto the wing and Festus tilts slightly to balance out his weight. Leo begins to pull all kinds of metal scraps from his tool belt: washers, small metal sheets the size of clothing patch, a monkey wrench, screws, and even some paper clips.

He's never tried this before but he can't think of another way to fix the wing. He concentrates on heat, not necessarily fire, and localizes it to his hands where he holds the pile of metal. He remembers the sun on his face when he played in his moms backyard as a kid, when his babysitter put him in the fireplace that one time, imagines that he's reaching out and touching the sun itself. The metal in his hand heats quickly, melting together.

Leo's vaguely aware of a voice yelling, as if over an intercom, but he doesn't have time to worry about it. Leo lets the roaring wind cool off the patch a bit before he stretches it thin like pizza dough. He holds the makeshift patch in one hand and melts the shards of the exit wound back down so they're parallel to the wing.

"Leo! Hurry up!" Calypso warns, and continues singing.

Leo risks a glance away from his work and sees a giant airport runway closing in fast.

"YOU ARE IN RESTRICTED U.S. AIR SPACE. LAND IMMEDIATELY."

What in Hades? Leo thinks.

He presses the patch into the wing and super-heats his hands again to wield it to Festus. Leo wishes Hazel was here. She would be able to find them some Celestial bronze to repair the wing properly. Patch attached and firmly welded to the wing, Leo looks up just in time to see the concrete a few feet from his face and closing in fast.

"PULL UP!" He yells, and grabs the side of the wing for dear life. Festus extends his wings once again and lifts up. Machine gun fire cuts through the air in their direction.

Machine gun fire? Oh gods, of course my dragon would plummet into a military base.

"LAST WARNING. THIS IS RESTRICTED U.S. MILITARY AIR SPACE. LAND IMMEDIATELY OR WE WILL USE FORCE."

"Festus! Change of plans, you have to land!"

"What? Have you lost your mind?"

"Just do it!"

Festus flaps his wings as he lands, and Leo holds on tight. Festus's feet touch the ground, and Leo's grip on the wing loosens and he collapses to the pavement exhausted, his hands steaming and his throat sore.

He hears more shouting, the shuffling of boots, Calypso shouting and Festus snorting in protest, but it all seems far away. The pavement is pulled away from him and his vision goes dark.

 


 

Leo's awoken by a bright light in his eyes.

No, not that bright light, relax.

"Uugghh," he groans, he goes to raise his hand to block the light but finds his hands are cuffed behind his back. His eyes adjust and he squints them open. The room is small and grey. A one way window takes up the wall to his right, the room is lit by a single bulb in the ceiling, and the only pieces of furniture are the chair Leo's sat on and the table in front if him that's made of a single piece of metal, his tool belt lies on the surface.

"Ughh, where am I?"

"You're at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina," says a deep voice from the corner to his left. He looks up and sees a man in a military uniform. The suit is a pixelated tan and green pattern, which Leo thinks will probably only serve as camouflage in The Matrix. His hair is cut short and his arms are crossed in front of his chest. His name patch reads 'Davis'. "But you probably knew that. So what is it? Suicide bomber, terrorist, or 'you don't know what I'm talking about'?"

"But I don't know what you're talking about. Where's Calypso? What have you done with my... my aircraft?"

"Oh, your golden dragon?" Leo's mouth falls open. "It's been detained. As for the girl, she's in a holding cell. She refused to participate in questioning, and became violent."

Leo pulls against the cuffs and they dig into his wrists, "I swear, if you hurt them-"

The man slams his palm on the table, "Is that a threat, young man?"

"You bet your tiny, insignificant life it is! You better not touch them!"

The man walks from one side of the room to another, hands behind his back in parade rest. His fists are large and his boots click on the floor as he walks.

"What's your name?" He asks.

"You first."

"Master Sargent Tim Davis. You?"

"Leo Valdez," says Leo and blows a wayward curl out of his face.

"You've got to understand my confusion, Mr. Valdez," Leo remembers being in countless elementary schools and foster homes and hating anyone who called him that. "Two kids show up on a golden dragon with bags of unknown plant seeds and one wears an empty tool belt. After landing they are arrested, one unconscious and smoking. Explain it to me."

Leo stares at him. He can't explain it to a mortal, can he? Even if the mortal can see through the Mist. 

"Alright, Mr. Valdez," he says. Sargent Davis turns and leans forward on the table once more. "How do we shut down the dragon?"

Leo shakes his head, "Even if you could I'd never tell you. He's been permanently activat-"

A knock comes from the door. Sargent Davis leaves the room and Leo hears muffled voices talking outside. Leo slumps in his chair, wondering if any demigod has ever been in a situation like this.

The Sargent comes back in looking more serious and confused than before. He picks up Leo's tool belt with one hand and takes Leo's arm with the other, and leads him out of the room and down the hall.

"Wh-where are we going?" Leo asks. He's tempted to go full flame-boy and escape, but he won't leave without Calypso, and they wouldn't get very far without Festus.

"Circumstance has changed," he says, as if that explains anything. They turn left down a hall and Leo's heart jumps at the sound of Calypso's voice. She sounds unharmed, but very angry. Davis swipes a key card on a door and pulls Leo in. The room contains two barred cells, one containing Calypso, and an officer at a desk.

"-better let me out! You have no idea who you're dealing with! " Calypso yells. Her hands are cuffed in front of her and she grasps the bars, trying to shake them loose. When Leo walks in her eyes light up. "Oh my gods, Leo! Are you okay?"

"Just golden, babe. Not my first time in the slammer," he says, and decides not to mention that time with the rooster in Georgia.

"This ones a handful," quips Martin with a nod in Calypso's direction. Davis drops Leo's tool belt on his desk, and steers Leo to the empty cell.

"Well I'd be careful," says Davis, "Major Weldon is looking into their involvement with Operation Oz." Leo steps into the cell. Davis says 'Operation Oz' like it's some top secret Illuminati mission. It must be something serious because Martin's mouth drops open and he looks at Leo and Calypso now with awe rather than annoyance. Leo concludes that he likes Operation Oz. Davis closes and locks Leo's cell and heads back to the door.

Martin shoots up out of his chair, "You mean-"

"He's looking into it," says Davis. "Don't do anything stupid. Do your job. Nothing more," Martin nods so violently Leo fears his head will pop off, and Davis leaves.

Martin turns to Calypso, a bead of sweat runs down his temple, "Miss Calypso, is there anything I can get you?"

Calypso lifts her chin up, happy of finally getting some respect around here, "Two glasses of water, and a hairbrush, please." Martin nods and then bows at the waist a few times and hurries from the room.

"Calypso," Leo starts, "where's Festus?"

She shakes her head, "I didn't see where they went with him. I doubt they would have him inside though." She smiles at him and puts her hands through the bars into his cell. Leo smiles back and puts his face in her hands. She rubs his cheek with her thumb, and Leo longs to be back on his dragon and her arms around his waist. Prison will do that to you, he thinks. 

Martin comes back in with a hair brush, two glasses of water (with lemon), and a pair of combat boots and some socks.

Calypso turns to him, "Sargent Martin," she says with a sweet a smile, and her smile reminds Leo of Piper when she charmpeaks, "would you uncuff us so we can drink our water?" She puts her wrists through the bars.

Martin nods and fumbles to unlock her cuffs, she rubs her wrists and nods to Leo. "Leo too, please, if you don't mind."

After Leo's wrists are free and they've downed the water and Calypso has on new shoes, they sit on their metal benches and Calypso struggles to run the brush through her hair. Martin sits at the desk with headphones in because Calypso asked for some privacy. 

Leo leans forward with his elbows on his knees, "Any idea what 'Operation Oz' means?"

She shakes her head and gets the brush through to the ends of her hair, "No, but Martin seems thoroughly freaked out by any mention of it or Major Weldon."

They sit in silence, the only sounds being Calypso ripping knots out, Leo's stomach (he remembers with a start that he hasn't eaten in six days, though most of those days he spent dead or in Ogygian time sludge), and the buzzing of music from Martin's earphones.

Then the door clicks open, and a man taps Sargent Martin on the shoulder. Martin turns and pales, shoots up out of his seat and salutes, "M-Major Weldon, sir."

Major Weldon returns the salute and dismisses him and Martin scampers from the room. Calypso stands and Leo follows suit. Calypso finished brushing her hair and it's back in her usual low side ponytail and her headband around her forehead. Major Weldon is a tall African American man and he wears a pristine set of military blues, medals and ribbons along his chest.

He turns to them with a kind smile, "Miss Calypso, Leo Valdez, on behalf of my unit I'm deeply sorry for the misunderstanding. If there's anything I can do to get you back to Camp Half-Blood, within reason of course, I will take care of it personally."

Chapter Text

"Can you take us to my dragon?" Leo asks.

Major Weldon smiles as he unlocks their cells, "All in due time. Your dragon is perfectly safe and being well cared for. Perhaps in the meantime would you like to get washed up and eat?" Leo's stomach growls so loud at the thought of food that the Major hears it and laughs. "I'll take that as a 'yes'."

He escorts them personally to the showers in the base's gym. The whole way there people would stop to salute the Major with a "Major Weldon, sir!" and he would reply with a short "At ease," and they'd move on their way.

The shower was amazing. Leo felt like he'd washed away six days of dirt and at least two days of death, and he had, really. When he stepped out of the shower, his clothes were washed and folded and his tool belt sat on top. Leo got dressed and Calypso was waiting for him. Her hair was clean and dry and in her low side pony tail, but she ditched the ripped and muddy chiton. She had on a pair of jeans, and a white AFNG t-shirt, and the combat boots that Martin gave her. She looked beautiful in modern clothing, like she was ready to go hiking or murder.

Now they sit in a break room with Major Weldon and a few bags of Taco Bell and some drinks. The break room is simple: white walls, grey carpet, blue plastic chairs and wooden tables. There are two vending machines against the wall, and hanging on the wall behind the Major are pictures of retired officers.

"So," says Leo, swallowing half a taco, "how do you know about Camp Half-Blood?"

"I have a daughter there, Dorothy, daughter of Tyche," he says with a smile.

"Goddess of luck, right?" asks Leo. Calypso looks at him with surprise, "What? I read!"

Major Weldon laughs, "You're right, Leo. Tyche made me the luckiest man on earth when she delivered Dot." Calypso smiles.

"So, whats 'Operation Oz'?" Calypso asks.

"It was something I started once I had Dot, it's a little reference to her name," he smiles wistfully, "I wanted Dot and any demigod to always have a safe place to rest, so I told my unit and countless others that if anyone was ever confirmed for Operation Oz they were to be treated like royalty. So Dot could walk onto an American Air Force base, say 'Hello I'm with Operation Oz' and get anything she needs."

Leo blinks, "That's very thorough," he says. "Every Air Force base in America?"

"I love my daughter," smiles Weldon. "Word got to me that two kids showed up on a dragon and I knew you were with Camp Half-Blood. Well anyway, I can get your bags sent to camp if you would like, Miss Calypso. But, I'm afraid I can't fly you and your dragon home."

"You've done so much for us, Major," Calypso says sweetly. "We can't thank you enough."

"I just have one question, sir," says Leo. "How come everyone could see Festus? It shouldn't be possible with the Mist."

Major Weldon furrows his brow, "No, it shouldn't be. I'm not sure, Leo. It is worrisome, for sure." He surveys their taco wrappers, "Please, let me take you to your dragon."

They leave the break room and head down another hall way with even more 'Major Weldon, sir!'s and 'At ease's. Weldon swipes a key card and they step outside. It looks like it's the middle of the night. The stars are out and the only lights in the lot are some street lamps. Festus is curled up on the concrete like a cat, snoozing next to a barrel of motor oil and... no way, Tabasco sauce?

"How did you know he liked Tabasco sauce?" asks Leo.

"Luck?" Weldon laughs, loud and cheerful. "No, he told me. I know Morse code."

Calypso walks over to Festus and takes her bags off of him, turns, and hands them to Major Weldon, "There's important stuff in here, Major."

He nods seriously and takes the bags, "They'll reach Camp, Miss, on my honor." She thanks him again and looking at Festus's sleeping face, Leo asks if they can fly in the morning. Weldon nods and offers them a bunk inside but Leo doesn't think he can bear any more time away from the dragon. Weldon brings them pillows and a blanket, and they settle in under Festus's wing. Calypso is warm in Leo's arms and her head on his chest makes his stomach twist.

"Crazy day," she says with a yawn. Leo nods in her hair, and Festus's snore rumbles beside them. The stars twinkle overhead and they watch them for some time in silence, breathing, until Calypso's breaths deepen and slow. Leo follows soon after.

 


 

In the morning before they leave Major Weldon pulls them aside. "I got you this," he says and hands Calypso two small Celestial bronze knives, shorter than Annabeth's knife even, and a belt for them. "I couldn't let you go on unarmed." Calypso smiles in thanks and attaches them to her waist. "Dot is a year round camper, Leo. I don't see her much."

Leo pictures the Major sitting in his office contacting every Air Force base in the country, and asking fellow officers he's never met to help his daughter if she would ever need it. He nods in understanding, "Say no more, man. I'll tell her." Major Weldon smiles in appreciation, and shakes their hands.

In a few minutes they're in the air again, heading north, with the familiar feeling of the wind on Leo's face and Calypso's arms around his waist and her chin on his shoulder. The sky is still and cloudless. Leo leans back against her, and covers her hands with his own. Festus flies by a flock of birds, a white one straggling behind. As it closes in Leo gets a better look at it.

That's not a bird, Leo thinks, just in time to get hit in the face with it.

"Ow," Leo curses, Calypso shaking with giggles behind him. In his lap lies a paper airplane. "Huh," he says and unfolds it. On the paper is a note written in the worst handwriting Leo's ever seen, but having terrible handwriting himself, he can make it out if he squints. It reads:

 

Hey Leo, Hey Calypso,

Hope you're not dead.

Hazel got a quest and were coming to help.

We also have to free Hecate from a prison or something,

so if you find any leads let us know.

Piper's coming, Jason and Nico too. See you soon.

Don't die, doctor's orders.

-Will Solace

 

Leo smiles, "They've sent a search team. See? It's just like I told you, they're lost without me." Leo pulls a pen and small yellow Post-It from his tool belt and writes a short reply.

"That's good, I'd like to meet Piper and all your friends," Calypso says. Leo folds up the note into a teeny airplane and lets it fly. He thinks of Hazel's golden eyes, and Piper's face when she's focused, Jason's leadership, and Nico's quiet loneliness that Leo often saw himself in. He doesn't know much about Will, but he always sees him around camp laughing and helping people.

"Yeah," Leo says, "I'd like to see my friends soon, too."

 

Chapter Text

In the morning it's not a loud son of Apollo that wakes them up, but strange sounds from the roof. Nico groans and pulls his pillow over his head.

"Nico," Hazel says nudging his back through his blanket burrito, "get up. Something's on the roof."

"Nnnnnghh," he groans. A pale arm comes from the bed and slaps at her legs, shooing her away.

"Nico. Nico," she sighs, shaking him. "Nico di Angelo, get out of bed right now!"

"UGHHH," he sighs, and climbs out of bed. His white t-shirt is twisted and hangs off one shoulder, and his plaid pajama pants rest low on his hips. He picks up his sword and shuffles across the floor in his socks, the tip of his sword dragging behind him with a metallic scratching noise along the obsidian floor.

Hazel rolls her eyes and follows behind, they step outside and down the porch steps. The sky is still dark blue, but a line of early morning yellow and orange peeks off the horizon. Nico and Hazel step into the grass and turn to look at the roof, where a skinny harpy with red feathers paces and flaps back and forth nervously.

"Ella?" Hazel asks. The harpy turns and flutters over to the edge of the roof, peering down at them.

Nico rubs at his eyes with his free hand, "What are you doing here? Weren't you at Camp Jupiter?"

"Ella came to help her friends," she says.

"Help us? With the quest?" Hazel asks, shivering in the night air in only shorts and a t-shirt.

Ella gets a far-away look on her face, "Quest, a long or arduous search for something. Search for the crown," she says.

Nico blinks, "Crown? What crown?" Ella shrugs and pulls at the feathers on her arms.

"Did you read that somewhere?" Hazel asks.

Ella shakes her head, "No. Ella loves to read, but a lady whispered it to Ella at night. Ella came to tell her friends."

Nico and Hazel glance at each other nervously.

"Okay, thank you, Ella. We'll find it," Nico says. Ella nods and disappears in a blur to the west. "That was weird. We should tell Chiron in the morning, see if he knows what she means."

Hazel nods, starting up the porch steps, "Right after a few more hours of sleep."

Nico grunts in agreement.

 


 

Will actually does end up waking them. The door slams open, and Hazel sits up in her bed with a gasp. Will stands in the doorway fully dressed and a book bag slung over his shoulders.

"GOOOOOOOOOD MORNING CABIN THIRTEEN!" he announces. Nico snores on in the corner. "Hello, Hazel. Up up! Big quest today!" Hazel flushes red, jumps up, gathers clothes from her trunk, and shoots into the bathroom.

Will turns to the bed burrito, "Nicooooooo, wakee uppppp!" he says, shaking the bed frame.

"No, go away."

Will dodges a blood red pillow, "Come on, Neeks, everyone's ready and waiting!"

"Ughh, 'Neeks' is even worse than 'Deathboy'," Nico mutters, pulling the blankets over his head. Will tugs at them, "Will, I swear to gods." Will pulls the blanket free, and Nico sits up.

His hair is a mess and the shadows under his glaring eyes are darker than usual.

"Get dressed, Deathboy," Will smiles, tousling his hair.

Nico pushes his hand away and steps out of bed, "Gods you're annoying." Will laughs and steps outside, probably to go torment Jason and Piper.

Later, Nico stands outside the Big House with Hazel. His sword is strapped at his side, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other holding an iPod and earphones. He rolls the wire between his fingers and waits for Chiron and the others to arrive. Apollo had left about an hour ago to drive the sun chariot across the sky (for which Hazel and Nico are very grateful. They don't think they could handle haikus this early in the morning), and the Big House is quiet.

Hazel shifts nervously beside him, and Nico looks down to see little gems peeking out if the soil, and Nico turns to her in concern anyway.

"Hazel," he says, glancing at the ground.

She jumps and follows his gaze, "Oh gods, sorry." She pulls her fingers through her hair, and the gems retreat, leaving little scars in the grass. "I've never lead anything before. And this crown, we have no idea what it is or where to find it, and Leo could be dead by-"

"Hazel!" Nico starts, and she stops short and looks up at him, her big golden eyes shining. "You'll do great. We'll find Leo. Everything will work out fine." He puts his arm around her and kisses her forehead.

Hazel let's out a shaky breath and puts her arm around his back, "Thanks, Nico." They wait a few more minutes until Chiron finally shows up. He greets them and Hazel tells him about Ella's visit earlier that morning.

Chiron rubs his beard in concern, and his curly tail swooshes behind him, "Crown... I have heard of- Well, we must hope it is not that. I would talk to Pheme, if anyone would know about strange whispers, she would."

"Pheme, sir?" questions Nico.

"Yes," he nods, "the goddess of gossip. She and Aphrodite are thick as thieves, I would say." Nico's blood runs cold at the thought of meeting the goddess of love. "Perhaps Piper can call in a favor from her mother."

Hazel and Nico nod and turn as Will and Frank approach, Jason and Piper following hand in hand. Hazel lets go of Nico to embrace Frank, who squeezes her and lifts her off the ground and she laughs.

"Ah, here they are now," Chiron says. "Piper, we were just discussing the quest." Chiron repeats the conversation they just had.

Hazel nods, "So, do you think you could find out where your mom-"

"Pittsburgh," Piper blurts.

"How do you figure?" asks Jason.

"I've been having a lot of dreams about a coffee shop there," Piper says, "Could be something." Everyone nods, glad they finally have a destination in mind.

Argus steps out of the Big House, waves and points to Thalia's pine.

"Yeah, Argus," Jason says. "We're leaving now." Argus nods and an eye on his neck winks at Nico as he walks by. They decide to go to the airport and figure out tickets when they get there. They say goodbye to Chiron and get in Camp Half-Blood's van, the words Delphi Strawberry Service are printed in red script along the side.

Jason and Piper sit in the front with Argus, and Nico sits in the back between Will and Hazel. Nico slouches in the seat, settling in for the hour drive to the airport and thumbs his earphones nervously, thinking about meeting Aphrodite and going on his first official quest.

"You okay?" Will asks, Hazel turns her head to them.

Nico blushes at the attention, "Yeah, just... nightmares," he lies. It's believable, demigods have nightmares all the time, and no one would expect sweet dreams from someone who's been to Tartarus. Hazel nods gravely and puts her hand on his knee, and Will looks out the window deep in thought. Nico shrugs and puts his earphones in, determined to get one more hour of sleep.

 


 

"Nico," Jason says, "we're at the airport."

Nico opens his eyes lazily and pulls his earphones out, realizes he has his head on Will's shoulder, and sits up straight blushing hard.

Jason smirks.

Nico glares, "Get out of the car," he tells the group. They all pile out and wave goodbye to Argus (who winks at them with an eye on his nose), and start toward the airport.

"So, what's the plan?" Nico asks once the color in his face has returned to normal.

"Piper's going to charmspeak us a few tickets," Hazel responds. Nico looks over at Piper and sees her muttering to herself, like going over lines.

"Good plan," Nico agrees. Piper is their best shot. He doesn't think Jason asking for a free ride because he's the Son of Zeus will get them anywhere.

They walk into John F. Kennedy International Airport, letting Piper take the lead. The woman at the counter looks confused as to why five kids with no bags or parents are about to buy plane tickets.

Piper looks up and smiles sweetly, "Hi, my names Piper. I believe I reserved five tickets to Pittsburgh International." The receptionist blinks and turns to her computer. For a moment Nico's afraid it didn't work and they were gonna have to walk. But the woman turns to the printer and hands them five tickets, her eyes far away and glassy. "Thank you," Piper says and lets out a long breath.

"Um, guys?" Nico starts, "Remember the part where children of Poseidon and Hades aren't suppose to fly because Zeus will shoot them out of the sky?"

Everyone's quiet, thinking.

"Well, you've got me," Jason says, "I balance you out, and Zeus wouldn't shoot his own kid down." The campers nod hopefully and continue to the gate. No one says anything about how there are two Hades kids and one Zeus kid. After a small incident at the security check (Piper had to convince the officers to let them keep their weapons and Will's 5 oz bottle of cough syrup) and little waiting at the gate, where Hazel and Nico grasped each others hands tightly, they board the plane. Nico ends up next to Jason, and across the aisle Hazel and Piper, and then behind the girls Will sits with a man from New Mexico. Nico knows this because the man is nervously chattering his life story to Will, who's polity nodding along. Nico chuckles and turns back around to see Jason smiling like the devil.

"Oh my gods, would you cut it out?" Nico whispers harshly.

Jason continues to smirk, "It's just really nice seeing you like this, man."

"Like what?"

"Happily in love. It's cute."

"I'm not cute," Nico pouts. "I'm the Ghost King. I'm a scary guy."

"So scary."

"And Will's not... I-I mean I don't-" Nico stammers, and Jason silences him with a look.

"I know it's strange for you, Nico, but you don't have to fight it anymore. It's 2015, everyone loves-"

"Don't," Nico warns, his knuckles turning white on the arm rests. "I can't- Please don't say it."

Jason holds his hands up in defeat. "Fine," he says softly, and picks up the Sky Store magazine from the chair pouch.

Nico turns back and looks at Will; the mortal from New Mexico is describing a rash he has with great detail. Will looks like he's trying not to puke. Nico smiles stupidly and turns back around.

Shit, he thinks.

 


 

They get off the plane and walk into Pittsburgh International, and Nico is so relieved he nearly passes out (he doesn't). Being wound that tight for an hour fearing for your life, the lives of your friends, and about 30 mortals is very exhausting.

When they leave the airport and enter the streets of the city, Nico is shocked at how similar Pittsburgh is to New York City. It's like NYC without the heavy atmosphere of stress and rushing.

"Guys," Hazel says.

Hazel points to a small brown bricked cafe with a black door, the pink awning above it reads Olympus Cafe. There are chairs and tables outside with deep red umbrellas, only two tables are occupied. At one table sit two college girls, and at the other sit two women. One, Aphrodite, wears light blue jeans, sandals, and pink flowy top and minimal makeup, and she radiates simple beauty.

The other girl, who Nico guesses must be Pheme, is young and looks like a senior in high school. She wears jean shorts over black tights, rose-gold wedge boots and a white top with the back cut out, showing off an intricate tattoo of wings. Her hair is long and brown. The two woman lean forward to chat and then laugh.

Jason turns to Piper, who shrugs and walks forward. "Uhm, Hi Mom," she says. Aphrodite turns and seeing them there, jumps out of her chair to give a giant hug to Piper.

"Oh, Piper!" She exclaims. She turns and hugs Jason next, giving Piper a thumbs up. "I love the glasses, dear, very chic."

Nico waits, thinking she'll hug Hazel next, but she turns her sparkling eyes right to him. Looking at her hurts Nico's head, one minute she has wavy black hair and the next it's blonde. Her eyes switch back and forth from green to blue in quick flashes.

Aphrodite smiles from ear to ear and pulls him into her arms and squeezes. She smells like the sea, and then like campfires, and Nico's heart aches.

"Oh, Nico," she says. Nico looks to his friends and sister for help but they look just as confused as he is. "Pheme, this is the one I was telling you about!"

"Ooohh," Pheme smiles, chewing her gum. Aphrodite hugs Hazel and Will next with equal enthusiasm. 

"Please, sit down," Aphrodite says.

"Why does Aphrodite gossip about you?" Hazel whispers to him as they pull up chairs. Nico shrugs, but he can't feel his face and his hands shake.

After they've all sat down, Nico between the goddesses, Aphrodite calls the waiter over and orders them all hot coco and muffins.

"So," Hazel says, "We're here because we need help with a quest." Hazel then explains to them the whisper Ella heard about a crown, Aphrodite glancing at Nico all the while. "And anything you know about Calypso and Leo would be very helpful."

Aphrodite sighs happily, "Calypso, she's a favorite of mine. Such a lovely story. I've been feeling so generous lately, everyone's getting happy endings."

Pheme rolls her eyes. For the goddess of gossip she's being awfully quiet, but then Nico supposes the best way to get gossip is to listen. The waiter comes back with breakfast and places the drinks and muffins in front of them.

"I know the whisper Ella was talking about. I heard it too, I hear everything," Pheme says, stirring her coffee, taking a long sip and then falling quiet. 

"So," Will says, "will you tell us?"

Pheme nods and blows a gum bubble, "For a price. Gossip for gossip." Nico has to awallow twice to get the lump of muffin out of his throat.

Aphrodite pouts, "Come on Pheme, a free pass for my favorite little love struck teens?" She puts her arms around Piper and Nico, who sit next to her, and smiles Piper's sweet smile at her friend.

Pheme shakes her head, "Nope. You know I can't do that; I have a rep to maintain." She waves her hand and a pencil and a scrap of notebook paper appears in front of each demigod. "One from each of you. Don't be obvious, please," she says and pops a gum bubble.

Aphrodite sighs in resignation, releases them, and takes a drink from her tea cup. Nico stares at the paper, he considers telling her about Apollo's punishment but she probably knows that. Nico looks up from his paper to see Will, Jason and his sister all red in the face as they write.

He turns to Aphrodite, who leans over and whispers, "Sometimes the best gossip is confirming the things we already know."

Nico looks back down at the paper with the feeling she's not talking about Apollo, and shakily scribbles out five little words. He sighs, like a giant weight is lifted from his shoulders and he even laughs. Aphrodite beams and dabs her eyes with a napkin.

"Make sure she can read it, Solace," Nico quips, feeling light as air.

"Shut up," he replies, and scrubs the eraser across the paper and rewrites it. Pheme holds her hands out for the notes and they a pass them to her, middle school style. She opens and reads each one in turn, her face going from shocked, to blushing, to very pleased, then wiping away a tear, to laughing out loud. Nico's glad he doesn't know what reaction is because of his note. 

"So," says Piper who's the only one who seems unfazed, "tell us about the crown."

"Right," Pheme says, blowing and popping a bubble. "So like, a long time ago, when Persephone was kidnapped, Hecate helped Demeter search for her with her torches. And when they found her and found out what happened to her, Hecate was totally spooked. She's been afraid of being kidnapped ever since," Pheme finishes, and leans back into her chair as if that explains everything.

"Erm, Lady Pheme, what's that got to do with a crown?" Jason asks, unwrapping his blueberry muffin.

"Well, I'd bet you anything she left a magic trail behind when she was taken. And the only way you'd be able to see it would be if you had the Crown of Ghosts." She turns to Nico, who has whipped cream on his nose, "That's where you come in dear."

"The Crown of Ghosts?" Hazel asks. "Who has it?"

Pheme shrugs and spits her gum into a napkin, "I dunno, it's all very hush-hush."

"I bet Melinoe knows," Nico says, wiping his mouth and nose.

"Who?" asks Will. Aphrodite's eyes flicker between them.

Nico thinks, "Ew, I guess she'd be my step-sister. She's the goddess of ghosts. I was hoping I'd never have to see her again."

"Do you know where she is?" Hazel asks.

Nico nods, "The Underworld."

Chapter Text

Will leveled a glare at Nico.

Nico glared back, "I don't control where she lives, Will. You want that crown or not?"

Will opens his mouth to answer, but a large black Harley Davidson pulls up beside them. The man on the motorcycle wears red tinted wrap-around sun glasses and ripped black jeans. Pheme snorts in disgust, and Aphrodite jumps up. She takes her purse off the back of her chair and slings it over her shoulder.

"I've got to go, kids," she smiles and kisses Piper on the head. She turns to Nico, and takes his chin in her hand and looks at him with sad blue eyes, and then kisses him on the head too.

"Aph," Pheme pleads. "Don't leave with this loser."

"I admire his passion," she says with a smile and climbs on the back of the motorcycle.

"Good to see you, Pheme," Ares says with a grin.

"Yeah, whatever," she says, and the god of war revs the engine and they speed off, Aphrodite's golden hair flying behind her, and Pheme waves goodbye.

Pheme finishes her coffee, "He's a deadbeat if you ask me. They both act so in love, meanwhile their cabins at camp are overflowing. No offense, hon."

"None taken," Piper mutters into her mug.

"Well, if you're going to the Underworld it's gonna be hard to get out, hmm?"

Nico remembers how Melinoe has her own escape from the Underworld so that she can haunt the mortals at night.

"No, we've got that covered," he says.

Pheme pouts, like she was hoping to solicit more gossip from them. She takes a fresh stick of gum from her pocket and pops it into her mouth.

"Well," she says, standing up, "I guess you don't need me anymore. Hit me up if you get any more dirt."

They nod and the tattooed wings on her back peel from her skin and become flesh, and gleam with golden feathers. She waves again, glances Nico over, and flies away.

And just like that the goddesses were gone.

Will turns back to Nico and resumes his argument, "No, there's got to be another way."

"Well there's not unless you wanna waste time going to California," Nico growls, leaning forwards across the table.

Will leans in too, "We've got plenty of time, but only one of you!" Will pokes a finger in Nico's chest, and Nico blushes. "And we're not doing it!"

"Woah, woah," Piper interjects, and Nico becomes aware of how close they've become in their bickering and they spring apart, "What are we not doing?"

"Nico wants to open a tunnel to the Underworld," Will says, crossing his arms in defiance. "And in his condition he shouldn't be doing any death magic."

"His condition?"

"I'm fine, Will," Nico says, standing. "And I'll prove it." He walks around the table to the sidewalk.

"Nico, don't. You don't know if-"

Nico spreads his hands and the earth shakes, a wind blows through the street and through the demigods' hair. A crack opens in the cement, Nico furrows his brow in concentration, focusing on making it bigger and deeper, all the way down to the Underworld. The fissure obeys and the crack expands along the sidewalk with a horrible noise like splitting rock. When the fissure is big enough to slide down, Nico pushes the hair our of his face and shoves his hands in his jacket pockets.

Turning to Will he grins, "See? I'm fine." Will's face is as pink as the cafe awning.

Hazel looks down the entrance, the shadows seem to thicken inside of it and it's impossible to see how long of a drop it will be. She looks pale at the thought of returning there, and Nico takes her hand.

"After you, safety patrol?" Nico asks, smug grin still on his face. Will scoffs and climbs in, positioned on the edge.

"Wait, maybe we should-" Jason starts. Nico pushes the flat of his converse on Will's back and pushes him in, Will screaming on the way down. "Never mind," Jason sighs.

"Hades kids next," Nico says and he and Hazel sit on the edge, and holding hands they jump. They slide straight down in the darkness, and it feels like-

He's falling, screaming. It's dark and empty. Hours? Minutes? Who knows how long he's been falling. The ground closes in. He lands with a splash in black water and struggles to surface. Life is pointless, the voices say, give up. He pulls himself out of the water. The ground is flesh. The sky is fire. He-

-crashes to the ground, landing on something soft that mutters curses. Hazel groans.

"Ow," says Will. "You know you didn't have to- Nico are you alright?"

His face is pale and sheen with sweat from the flashback, but to Will it must look like he does need more rest. He blinks back tears as Will's face looks up from under him. Nico blushes and climbs off of him.

"Yeah I'm fine, sorry for-"

Jason and Piper tumble out of the opening, which closes with a faint zip. Jason, Will and Piper get up and look around. They've landed by the Styx, and the sound of the rushing water does nothing to anchor Nico to reality. Down the river is the main gate where Cerberus stands guard over the EZ-Death line and the Judgement Pavilion, and distantly they hear the loud screams of the tortured, and less so, the parties of the souls in Elysium.

Far in the horizon stands Hades's palace, and on the other side the black mountain where Nico knows is where Melinoe's cave lies at the base. All of the Underworld is sheltered in a black rock dome, and monsters fly around in the shadowy clouds, occasionally diving to attack a soul in Punishment.

Jason whistles, "Nice place."

"Cozy," Piper agrees.

Nico scowls and starts toward the main gate.

"Gah!" Will yells and Nico turns to him, who's looking at something at his feet. Nico looks down and a small skeletal cat weaves between his feet, its purr rattling its exposed rib cage. Nico smiles and pats its head.

"Oh, that's just Snowball. She'll come along," he says, continuing across the black sand and gravel.

"Snowball?" Piper asks.

"It's her name from when she was alive, " Hazel explains in a whisper.

Nico unsheathes his sword and holds it in front of him, "Stay behind me." He walks through the lines of souls and they part for him like wheat in the wind. He approaches Cerberus, who bends down and sniffs at him. Nico pats his wet middle nose and, Cerberus finding everything in order, allows them to pass.

They pass the Judgement Pavilion, their shoes crunching on the ground, and Nico heads in the direction of the Fields of Punishment.

"Why are we going there?" Jason asks.

Nico points to the mountain, and a slow river of lava rolls down the side of it, "We have to cross Punishment to get to her cave."

"W-what?" squeaks Hazel.

"Just stick together. Use the buddy system or something. I'll take Snowball," says Nico. He glances down at the cat, who's currently trying to untie his shoe.

"Jeez," Will mutters, and Piper reaches over and takes Jason's hand.

Hazel and Will hook arms and they continue forward. The screams and moans of the souls are not any more pleasant up close. They step over a lava stream, and the group winces at the loud screams and 80's music. A small man screams as he struggles to push a boulder up a hill.

"Sup, Sisyphus?" Nico asks, dodging a wayward throwing knife.

"Gah! You again!" he yells. "Help me push this rock!"

Nico shakes his head, "Maybe some other time, Sisy. I've got things to do." They walk past the hill, leaving behind Sisyphus's colorful language.

They walk for what must be hours, passing terrible scene of torture after terrible scene. Nico notices a few monsters taking interest in them and starting to follow them, and he instructs the group to stick closer together. They all huddle up, and Will tightens his grip on his back pack.

A loud screech like a demon pig comes from behind them and they turn around. Jason and Piper, now at the front of the group, draw their weapons and look for the source of the noise. Nico furrows his brow, suspicious, and turns around just in time for a scaly snake to wrap around his neck and lift him into the air. Nico follows the body and sees that the snake is attached to the butt of a goat. The monster has three heads, a lizard on the left, a lion in the middle, and a goat on the right, and from its back sprout giant bat wings.

Nico gasps silently and drops his sword in surprise, clawing at the snake. His vision blurs, his breath stutters, and his efforts at trying to pry the snake off his throat weaken. In a last effort, he reaches behind him and grabs at Will's waistband. Will jumps in shock and turns around, and then screams and swipes his sword down on the snake, cutting it off.

Nico falls to the ground, sputtering and gasping, and the chimera's heads roar (and bleet) in pain, and it skirts backwards, kicking Nico's sword a few feet away. Will stabs at it's throats and Jason and Piper jump in to help, and Hazel unsheathes her spatha. Nico crawls across the rubble and tiny bits of broken glass, still coughing and wheezing, toward his sword.

Snowball runs to the hilt and tries to pull it toward him, but its too heavy for her. Nico looks over his shoulder and sees Will hacking at the lion head, looking red and angry. Hazel's long reach weapon is perfect for the lizard head, which spits poison at her. Given the her advantage of distance she's able to side step the acid when it flies through the air.

Piper cuts at the goat like a whirlwind, yelling confusing commands in charmspeak, "Look behind you! Run away! Fall asleep! Spin around in a circle!" The chimera flops around trying to do a bunch of things at once and Jason's able to stab at its goat/lion body.

Nico turns back, slowly gaining his breath back, and his hand closes around the hilt of his sword. He turns in time to see Jason get slapped backwards by a bat wing and land inches from a puddle of lava.

"Jason," he wheezes, "the lava."

Jason looks up at Nico, and then scoots away from the lava and runs over to him.

"Nico! Are you okay?" He asks, and presses his fingers on the red choke marks on his neck.

Nico winces and stands, "Yeah, I'll be okay. Let's help them."

They run back into the fight, Jason and Nico going for his goat butt, and they slice at the monsters feet and stumpy snake tail until finally it whimpers and flies off to lick its wounds. Nico bends down and rests his hands on his knees, coughing to clear his throat.

"Nico," Will calls, "are you okay?"

Nico looks up at them, Will has a lion claw scrape through his orange camp shirt and his skin, and it bleeds through the fabric. Hazel looks fine, but her shoes steam from stepping in acid. Piper looks tired, but unharmed, and Jason has a scratch down his arm from landing in the broken glass. Nico looks himself over. Apart from the stinging in his lungs, he only has a few scrapes on his hands from crawling in the glass.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he says, but Will takes off his backpack and pulls out some nectar and hands it to him. Nico pushes it away, "You need it more, Bruce Lee."

Will looks down at the blood on his shirt and shakes his head, "But-"

"Humor me," Nico says.

"It looks bad, Will," Piper agrees.

Will nods and drinks from the flask. The skin on his chest slowly knits together and reforms, leaving a pink scar under his bloody ripped shirt.

"Come on," Hazel says, "We're almost to the cave."

They continue walking toward the mountain. After about a half an hour they come to another river, the inky water rushes and sloshes down stream. Nico curses, the feeling of deja vu settling is his stomach.

"Stay back," he tells them. "That's the River Lethe. One drop and your brain is wiped clean."

They all take a step back nervously. Across the river, out of the Fields of Punishment and back into regular gloomy Underworld, begins a rock lined path that leads up to a cave in the base of the mountain, surrounded by fog. Snowball meows nervously. 

"Well we have to get across," Jason says. "What do we do?"

"The last time I was here, Percy just lifted the water, redirected the current so Thalia and I could walk under it."

"Well Percy isn't here," states Hazel. "So we have to think of something else."

Will jumps, "Oh! I have this ice-bomb thing in my bag, maybe we can freeze a bridge and walk over it?"

Nico shakes his head, "The currents too fast, the water would pile up and overflow the ice and touch us."

"Maybe I could tell it to raise, like Percy did?" Piper asks.

"It could be worth a try, " Nico says.

Piper steps up and kneels by the river, and starts talking to it. "Hi, River Lethe. You look lovely today. It's a nice day for a walk, huh? You know what's even better than walking or, rushing current? Flying! You should try it. Go on, give it a try."

The river slows and starts to lift above the ground.

"Keep going, Piper!" Hazel says. "It's working!"

"Ohh, I think you can fly higher than that," Piper continues, and Nico gets the urge to try flight himself. "Come on, now, no stragglers. Not a single drop on the ground. Let's go, everybody up!" The river raises higher and higher, tall enough to crawl under but still not safe. "Everyone up! The sky is waiting. You want to fly. You're tired of swimming the same path for all of eternity. Fly!"

The river raises high enough for them to run under if they crouch, and Piper waves her hand at them to go. Snowball climbs up Nico's legs and sits on his shoulder, and they bend down a bit and run under, leaving a wide berth over their heads from the water.

"Don't a single one of you give up!" she yells, and they reach the other side and turn back to Piper.

"Piper," Jason calls, "be careful."

She nods and steps into where the river once was. Nico's heart pounds, remembering when Percy tried to cross under, injured and tired, and lost his concentration and the water crashed on him. The only reason he kept his memory is because Percy stayed dry, an ability Piper doesn't have. 

She steps slowly across the river bed, "You're doing great, keep flying. Don't give up. Don't give up. Fly higher, like you always wanted. Good, good job." She steps out of the river bed and collapses. "Run," she tells them.

Jason grabs her and picks her up and they run away from the river as fast as possible. The river suddenly remembers gravity, and crashes with a loud splash, dousing where they stood before. The ground here grows with black grass, and they sit in it, catching their breath. Snowball climbs off Nico's shoulder and pads around, exploring.

Piper snores in Jason's lap. He laughs and brushes her hair out of her face, "You did so good, Pipes."

"We should camp here," Hazel says, "and wait for her to wake up. I don't know about you guys but I'm exhausted." They nod in agreement and Will pulls a block of firewood out of his bag and a box of matches.

Nico laughs, "You carry a stick of wood around with you everywhere, Solace?"

Will blushes, "Don't hate cuz I'm prepared."

He lights it and sits beside Nico, the side of his leg pressing against Nico's, and Hazel rolls over in the grass next to Piper and promptly falls asleep. Jason pretends to be very interested in Piper's hair. 

"So," Will says, "why is Aphrodite like, President of the Nico di Angelo Fan Club?"

"I have a fan club?" Nico asks with a grin.

Will shrugs, "I dunno. You tell me." Jason pets Snowball's skull head across the campfire. He might as well be fake whistling with how subtle he's being.

"I don't know what her deal is," Nico lies with a shrug, rubbing the dried blood off his palms.

"What'd you put in that note?" Will asks, glancing down at Nico's lips.

"Isn't that personal? I'm not asking about your note." Nico's eyes flicker unwillingly to Will's lips, watching his tongue dart out to moisten them.

"I'd tell you mine, if you asked," Will whispers. They're leaning towards each other like they did at the cafe, but this time their voices are quiet and heavy.

"Maybe I'm not asking because I don't care to know," Nico says, swallowing nervously.

"You should."

"Yeah?" Nico breathes, and their noses touch. Jason covers his eyes.

"Yea-" Something flies in from nowhere and hits Will in the eye, and Nico springs back, red as a tomato, and the moment is lost. Jason sighs heavily and flops back into the grass. "Ow," Will says, rubbing at his eye and picks up the object responsible: a teeny yellow paper airplane. Will opens it and scowls.

"What?" Nico asks, and Will hands it over. It reads:

 

Will do.

-Leo Valdez

P.S. Your handwriting is the

actual worst, Solace.

 

Nico laughs so hard tears fall down his cheeks. "Oh gods," he laughs, and rolls in the grass.

Will laughs too, "Shut up, Deathboy," he says halfheartedly. Nico rolls up the paper and throws it at Jason.

"I'm going to bed," he says, and wipes the mirth from his cheeks.

Nico lays down facing away from Will, and Snowball curls up on top of his hip. Every once in a while she has to re-situate herself when Nico starts to shake with laughter again, until eventually he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Nico nudges Will's shoulder with his shoe, "Wake up, Solace. We gotta keep moving."

Will sits up and wipes the drool from his cheek. Nico, Hazel, and Piper had taken the second shift, letting Jason and Will get some rest. But now the Lethe's water was churning out of the bounds of the river bed, spraying dangerous drops of water on the grass, and the fog was finally thinning at the cave entrance. Will shoulders his back pack, and Jason puts his glasses on and eyes the cave. Going in there to see Melinoe isn't something you want to do first thing in the morning, and Snowball must agree because she's nowhere to be seen.

"Gods, let's hurry this up so we can get outta here and eat," Piper says, and they head up the stone path. The grass bends toward their direction as they pass, and the fog clings to Nico's sword. As they draw nearer to the entrance the fog thickens until Nico can't see his hand in front of his face.

Then a hiss echoes down the mountain, and more fog billows out of the cave. Someone grabs Nico's sleeve, but he can't be sure who through the mist. All the campers form a horizontal line, linking together by grasping sleeves and hands. Nico on one end, then Jason, Will, Piper and then Hazel on the other end.

The fog condenses into the shape of a person and out steps a boy with black hair and brown eyes, a bow and an empty quiver are slung over his shoulder. His eyes are fixed on Will, who looks like he's seen... well, a ghost.

"Oh, now you come, Solace," the boy says. Nico wants to jump in and defend him, but he knows Will needs to face his ghosts on his own.

"M-Michael?" Will stammers.

"Kind of you to remember. You didn't even look for me when I went missing," he accuses. A gash opens slowly on the side of his forehead and blood dribbles down his face and into his eye like something from a horror movie. "No one did."

"That's not true! We looked for you as long as we could!" Will explains to his brother. "There was a war going on. You knew people could die, that's why you had all the medics-"

"Some medic you-"

"H-Hey! Cut it out!" Hazel yells bravely, and Michael turns to her. The fog swirls around them and Melinoe flickers like a flip book. The hair grows and curls, and Michael's harsh face morphs to another. Before them now stands a boy with curly brown hair, with crazy eyes and a crazy grin.

"Leo?" Jason asks.

"Sammy," Hazel sobs. Sammy turns to her and stares her down.

"I can't believe you, Hazel," he says softly, and he sounds so sad that Nico almost feels sorry for him. "You just left me. I went to your house one day, and it was like no one had ever lived there. I thought we were friends."

Hazel wipes at her cheeks, "We are, Sammy. I didn't want to leave, but my mom-"

"I loved you, Hazel. Wasn't that enough for you?" he asks, his head tilts in confusion and his eyes shine with hurt. "I loved you and you left me to die." Nico's grip tightens on his sword and he bites down on his tongue. It's weird hearing those words come from Leo's face and voice; Leo would never hurt Hazel. Fog is condensing at Hazel's feet, and it looks like her legs are disappearing.

"Of course it was enough, Sammy! I hated leaving you," she cries.

"Then why did you?!" He yells, and Nico snaps.

"ENOUGH," Nico shouts, and the fog releases her. "Don't talk to my sister that way!" His arms shake with anger, and Sammy's eyes turn to him. The anger in his gut disappears immediately, like someone reached inside of him and pulled it out, and it's replaced with fear. Pure terror.

Saying those words again brings back the memory of the manticore outside of Westover Hall, and he knows what's going to happen. His neck sweats in anticipation, but instead of Bianca, the ghost grows taller, and more muscled, his hands rest in his pockets. The hair straightens, and darkens. The eyes turn to sea green, and they turn to him with disappointment. Piper, Hazel and Will exchange confused looks, but Jason looks as white as a sheet.

"Nico," Percy says tenderly. Nico's arms shake so hard he drops his sword. It falls to the ground with a loud clang, shocking the tense silence. Percy moves to stand in front of him, and touches his face, his thumb stroking across his cheekbone.

Nico shakes his head back and forth quickly, his hair falling into his face. "Don't," he pleads, "Please don't. "

"Gods, Nico," Percy groans. "You're so annoying. Look at you, shaking like a leaf," Percy slaps him, and Nico hunches over, hand on his stinging, wet cheek. The fog is thickening at his feet, and he sees his legs dissolving, becoming part of the mist. "It's no wonder no one loves you. How could you think anyone could?" sneers the shade, and Nico covers his ears in shocked silence. "The only reason we bothered saving you from that jar in the first place is because you were useful. But you're not anymore, you're completely useless." Tears continue to roll down Nico's cheeks and he shakes his head again, trying to remember that it's only an illusion. He can barely see his legs, and his waist is slowly disappearing in the fog. "You should've stayed in Tartarus," he spits.

"HEY!" Jason shouts and gets between them, shoving Percy back with his forearm, the fog snaps back away from Nico with a hiss, and he solidifies again. "Back off."

Percy eyes Jason, his head tilts and he asks, "Where are your ghosts?"

Jason balls the neck of Percy's shirt in his fists. "Stop hurting my friends and tell us about The Crown of Ghosts," Jason growls.

Percy's form flickers and for a moment the demigods see her true form: a woman in a gold shawl and thin flowing hair like the fog. Half of her body hard and black like a corpse, the other half as white as snow, drained of blood.

"I don't understand," Piper says. "Percy isn't dead."

Melinoe flickers again and the shade of Percy returns. Her face turns towards Pipers voice, "Ghosts don't always have to be. Face your demons, Piper McLean."

The ghost grows taller again, the hair shortening, and the skin tanning. The mans bright smile dimples his chin, which contrast with his sad brown eyes. Jason steps back in shock.

"Dad!" she shouts.

"Piper? I can hardly recognize you. You've grown so much; you look just like your mother." Piper looks at the group confused. She was ready for insults and accusations, but compliments?

"I do?"

"Yes. But why do you and your friends have all these silly looking props?" he asks with a laugh, but Piper's too stunned to answer. His laugh becomes more and more nervous. "Piper? What's going on? Where are we?"

"Piper its okay," Jason starts. "It's just a-"

"Oh god, it's true isn't it?" he asks, his eyes become panicked and he looks around at the black grass and Punishment and Hades's Palace behind them. The fog begins to close in on Piper, sucking the life from her. Nico isn't sure what Piper's father is talking about, but she looks worried and shaky.

"Dad, no! It's just-"

Tristan McLean grabs his daughter's shoulders, "You're one of them aren't you?! It's all real! You've been lying to me! You and your deadbeat mother!"

"Deadbeat mother?!" She shouts, pushing his arms off of her. "I had breakfast with her yesterday morning, what have you done?" she screams, and Nico is so impressed with her bravery, that he finds the courage to lift up his sword. The fog rolls away from Piper like it's terrified. "ENOUGH GAMES. SHOW YOURSELF!"

Tristan's eyes blow wide and the true form of the goddess Melinoe appears, just as before. "Well done, demigods," she hisses. "Not many can pass my test."

Will unsheathes his sword and presses the tip in the hollow of the goddess's throat. "Tell us about the crown," he demands.

"It's an ancient, long guarded secret, Will Solace. I cannot just tell you its location," she says.

Will slashes a gash across her chest, and the corpse side of her body bleeds golden ichor. Melinoe hisses in pain, and Will presses the sword harder into her throat, "It's in your best interests."

If Nico wasn't still recovering from Melinoe, he might've had room in his body to be impressed. Melinoe looked around at them, surveying her options. Hazel's cheeks are tear stained, but she holds her spatha ready to fight. Jason and Will have their swords ready and Nico stands behind them, breathing heavily. Piper looks just as fierce as Will, her glare is steady and angry, and she holds her dagger ready.

"Fine," Melinoe concludes. "The Palace of Hades."

"Where?" Jason asks. "It's a big palace, Melinoe."

"The tallest tower," she says, and Nico rolls his eyes at the drama of it all. "But don't kill me yet heroes, you will need me for the charm."

Will lowers his sword. "For what?" he asks, but the goddess explodes in a wave of fog with a hiss that echos off the mountain.

"Shit," Jason says.

 


 

They pass the Judgement Pavilion and make their way to the palace. After Melinoe disappeared they headed back to the River Lethe, and Piper was still so angry all she had to say to it was "UP!" and it shot seven feet into the air, and they all crossed under without a problem. Nico had regained composure by then, and did have room to be impressed. He was. Nico leads the group again, his sword held out in front of him.

Will and Jason hover closely behind him. Jason? Well he's used to him being overly protective. But ever since Melinoe, Jason stuck to him like gum on the bottom of his shoe, and Nico also gained a Will Solace shaped shadow out of it, too. Nico tries to ignore him, and ignore the memory of Will's nose touching his, their mouths so close they share the same air. To no avail.

Nico blows his hair out of his face as they near his step-mother's garden. He tries to focus on the smell of the flowers and fruit and the gleaming of the precious gems, and not the giant black pit that drops down into Tartarus off to his right.

He stops before they reach the stone steps, and turns to the group, "We're gonna have to sneak in."

"How?" Piper asks. "There are guards everywhere." She's right. At every entrance to a part of the palace, a gaurd stands in the courtyard in front of it. They're all from different wars, American Civil War, The French Revolution, both World Wars and more, but they're not any less capable of combat for being dead.

Hazel and Nico exchange a look. "I could shadow travel us in," he says.

Will sighs, "Not this again! I let it slide with the tunnel, but you absolutely cannot shadow travel!"

"Well then what am I here for?!" Nico shouts throwing his hands up in exasperation, and Piper dodges the tip of his sword. Will steps back in shock. "I'm here because you need me for all this! 'The King of Ghosts will lead the way', that's what the prophecy said," he growls. Ever since they almost kissed at the campfire last night the space between them has been charged, and Nico tried to keep his distance. But with Will breathing down his neck the whole way here, literally and figuratively, it made the whatever-it-is between them harder to ignore. And all the more annnoying. "That's why I'm here," he finishes. He shoots a look at Hazel, and gratefully she understands and takes Piper and Jason's hands.

"Don't say that. What Melinoe said back there... you're not useless. People love you," he says, and his friends nod in agreement.

Nico feels his face flush, "Well, thanks. But this has nothing to do with Melinoe," he lies. "It wasn't real, and..." he shakes his head. "We're getting into that palace." Nico reaches put and grabs Will and Jason's arms, and pulls the shadows around them.

They tumble out of the shadows in a dark corridor in the West Wing. Nico's eyelids droop with drowsiness, but as he looks himself over he sees he's still solid. He probably shouldn't have taken five people for his first time shadow traveling since he recovered, but other than wanting to take a nap he feels fine. He puts the hand that's not holding his sword in his jacket pocket and thumbs his earphones. It seems strange, being in one of the most ancient locations in Greek culture and holding an iPod.

Will looks him over, scowling, and then crosses his arms, "I did not consent to that."

"Come on," Piper says. "We have to get up that tower." Nico turns down the hall and they follow his lead. The walls are made of black obsidian and every few feet torches of greek fire hang on the walls, lighting the walk ways. The ceiling is high and curved, and in alcoves along the ceiling white skulls peer down at them.

Along the floor, the trim is decorated with scenes of death, all of them different. Some of them are gruesome: Jews behind a gate in a concentration camp, a shell landing in a trench, a child dying of hunger, hate crimes, and other terrible scenes.

Mixed in with these, there are pictures of peaceful deaths: old and young people surrounded by family, death in sleep, being euthanized and their suffering ending. Nico tries not to look at them, he's already closely acquainted with death, being the son of Hades and having jumped into Tartarus, and doesn't need a reminder of it. They're about to turn another corner corner when a voice calls behind them.

"And just what," the campers stop in their tracks and turn around, "do you think you're doing?"

Chapter Text

They've been flying for a long while and their legs are stiff, and their eyes are dry from the wind, so they decide to land and walk around a bit. Festus flies down towards a small town, two rows of wooden houses in the middle of nowhere, and the blue night sky soars past. He touches down on a dusty road, and they hop off the dragon and look around.

The town is quiet, the only light comes from a lamp outside the wooden inn, and an honest to gods tumbleweed rolls by. The town looks like something out of a western film, and Leo turns to Festus in confusion.

"Your GPS broken or something, man?" he asks. Festus stomps his feet and clicks in response, and Leo turns to Calypso, "I guess we're staying here for a while so I can fix it." He looks around, the town seems almost too quiet. "This place is freakin me out, though."

Calypso nods, "Yeah. I'm gonna try to get a room in the inn, and see if I can find out where we are."

Leo gives her a thumbs up and she jogs off to the inn. Leo climbs up Festus's back and opens his hatch, pulling tools out of his belt. He works on it for not even two minutes before Calypso runs back to him, looking worried.

"Leo! Leo," she pants and he looks up, "there's no one here. There was no one in the inn so I looked around in the other houses... and there was no one anywhere. There's no people, no animals, there's not even any bugs!"

"Okaayyy," Leo says and puts down a wrench. "That's really weird. But i guess we won't have to pay for a room. And if there's any food we can eat it." He pulls a magnet and a compass out of his belt to realign Festus's navigation.

Calypso shifts nervously, twisting the cold cuffs on her upper arms, "I don't know, Leo. I think we should leave as soon as we can."

"But we have no idea where we are," he states, "We don't know the next safe place we'll be able to land." He closes the hatch and drops off Festus, dusting his hands and grinning. "We'll only stay one night."

"Well we don't even know is this place is safe, but okay," she says, and hooks her arm with his and smiles. "At least Festus won't have to be a suitcase this time." Festus clicks in agreement.

The air is warm, but a nightime breeze rolls though the town, settling the temperature at a happy medium. They go into the lobby of the inn and things get even weirder. Wooden chairs are knocked over, and everything is faded by years of sun, but there's no dust anywhere. The reception desk is clean and the keys are all in the right slots. They check out the rooms and Leo picks up the bed linens and presses them to his nose. Fresh as a daisy. Not one spider or snake.

"This place makes no sense," Leo says. "You're right, Calypso. We'll leave first thing in the morning. This place gives me the heebes."

 


  

Leo wakes up to the late morning sun coming through the window and landing in his face. He squints as his eyes adjust and Calypso tightens her arms around him. It's a nice moment, but Leo's blood runs cold. From outside the door come chatting voices, and outside the inn he hears children laughing and playing.

He sits up and jumps to the window, outside a bunch of children are kicking around a ball, and Festus jumps around among them. Now, Leo's not been doing this demigod thing for long, but he knows when things are weird. And this is weird.

"Calypso! Wake up!" She rolls over and sits up, looking at him confused until she hears the people.

"What's going on?" Calypso asks, climbing out of bed. Leo goes over to the door but before he can open it a knock comes from the other side.

"Umm.. Who is it?" Leo calls.

"Yer innkeeper!" says the voice from the other side. He turns to Calypso who nods, and he opens the door. There stands a tall man wearing a ten gallon hat, ripped jeans, flannel and grey suspenders. A straw of hay hangs from his mouth, and he has a full white beard. "So yer alright, then!" he says. "I heard ya screaming and came ta check that none of the kids came in through the winders to torment ya!" He laughs, and he holds his round belly like Santa Claus as he does.

Leo and Calypso stare at him in stunned silence, not sure what to say, until Calypso clears her throat, "Erm, Mr. Innkeeper-"

"Travis Buttercorn, miss."

"-Travis, right. Where are we?" she asks.

Travis pulls on his suspenders in thought, "Well I reckon we're somewhere in central America."

"That's it?" asks Leo. "You don't even know what state?"

Travis knits his bushy eyebrows in confusion, and then smiles, "Well anyways, I wanted to let ya'll know we got breakfast. It's all included in yer price. Maggie's a great cook."

Leo peers out of the room into the lobby, and sees an older lady chatting with two children, and the smell of eggs and pancakes comes from down the hall. "Okay, thanks. We'll be out in a minute." Travis tips his hat and leaves their door frame. Leo closes the door.

"We gotta get outta here," Calypso says. Leo agrees, but those pancakes smell really good. They wash up in the small bathroom in the room (which is spotless), and they walk into the lobby.

The old woman smiles, "You kids look well rested! Are ya headin' to breakfast?"

"Well actually," Calypso says, "we really need to be going-"

"Oh, nonsense! Ya'll need some food in ya. Go ahead and show them the dinin' room, kids." She nudges the kids on the back with her frail hands and they run over to them. "Go on, introduce yerselves."

"I'm Daniel," says a boy who wears the same kind of clothes as Travis: jeans, suspenders, and a flannel shirt. His hair is blonde and combed back, and he's missing some of his teeth on the bottom. "That's Elizabeth." He points to the girl, who wears a dress and mary-janes, her blonde hair in braids.

"Hello, nice to meet you," Leo says. "But we really need to-" the kids grab them by the shirts and pull them down the hall.

They come into a large dinning room, where many people are sitting at the table. By the door stands Travis, and he turns when they come in. He does his Santa Claus laugh and pats the kids on the heads as they pass to find a seat.

"Hey! Couldn't resist the smell of Maggie's food, eh? Not many people can. Well here ya see the whole family's here. That's Marge, Betty, Pete, and Daisy, and ya already met Daniel and Elizabeth. We didn't catch yall's names."

"Leo and Calypso."

"Those are funny names," says Pete. He's middle aged and his arm is on the back of a chair that sits a pregnant woman, Daisy. "Yall not from around here?"

"Uhm, no," Calypso answers, chuckling nervously. 

A woman comes into the dining room through another door, her arms loaded with stacks of pancakes, giant bowls of eggs, and plates of sausage. "Well, breakfast is served!" announces the woman who must be Maggie. She sets down the plates and wipes her hands on her apron, and seeing Leo and Calypso she says "Dig in!" The kids Leo saw playing outside earlier pour in and take a seat, too.

They find a seat at the end of the table next to Betty and Daniel, and by time they sit all the sausages have been claimed, and the pancakes vanish quickly.

"Hey! Save some for the guests, ya savages!" yells Maggie, slapping Pete's hand. Calypso and Leo both get a pancake and some eggs, but they're nervous to eat any of it. The whole morning has been nothing but strange, and they don't know what's in this food or who these people are or where they even came from.

"So," Pete starts, "yall got a fancy looking ride out there."

"Erm, yea. Thanks," says Leo. Normally he wouldn't hesitate to wax poetic about the inter workings of Festus, but Leo's noticed that there's not one trace of technology here (he's got a knack for these things being Hephaestus's kid). It's like this town is from like ancient times, like before internet and stuff. He's worried they're trapped in time again, and Leo doesn't want to lose more time in time loops.

Leo's stomach growls and he decides to take a risk, he takes a bite of the pancake. It tastes normal, fluffy, and pretty gold actually. He nods at Calypso that its okay, and she eats too.

"So, are you all Buttercorn's?" he asks.

"In a way," says Marge. "We're all family here. " They nod politely, and breakfast continues with minimal conversation until all the food is gone. Eventually the kids all get up and go outside to play with Festus again.

"Well," Calypso stands, "that was lovely but we really need to go now."

Maggie stands as well, "Alright, but before yall leave let me get ya some new clothes, dear." She puts her arm around Calypso and leads her out of the room. Leo knows he should go with her, but she has those knives and Leo knows she can handle herself. Besides he has to fix Festus.

Leo stands, "I'll just be outside then." He leaves and steps out onto the porch. Festus is on his back in the dusty road, and four kids clamber around on his hull.

"Festus!" He calls, putting his hands on his hips and puffing his chest. "Report for a full checkup!" Festus snorts fire from his nose and turns over, throwing two kids into the dust. They laugh and call "Again! Again!" but he lumbers over to Leo and nudges his face affectionately. He climbs up and sets to work, checking everything so this will never happen again. Leo wants to get Calypso and fly out of this creepy town ASAP.

 


 

He doesn't realize how long he's been working until Maggie calls from the inn that it's supper time. He climbs off Festus and looks around for Calypso but sees no sign of her. He heads in, sits down and the table and waits for her to show up. He hears a loud thump, and the kids come in from outside. 

Minutes pass and eventually Maggie comes out of the kitchen with steaks. She puts one in front of him and Leo's stomach turns. He must've spent upwards of three hours outside and he didn't hear a single cow, only chickens.

He looks up at the Buttercorn's and tries to calm the feeling of unease bubbling in his gut, "Where's Calypso?"

Chapter Text

Maggie looks up from her plate innocently, "She wasn't with you dear?"

"No," Leo says. "What have you done with her?"

"I'm sure she'll turn up, son," Travis says, digging in. Leo swallows around the lump in his throat to keep from vomiting.

Maybe he's going crazy, maybe there were animals outside, and he wasn't paying attention. He's got more ADHD then he knows that to do with anyway. After all, these people are so nice, there's no way they could be-

"Excuse me," he says and practicality runs from the table to the porch outside.

Festus looks up at him in interest from where he's curled up in the dust, and tilts his golden head in confusion. His heart races as he steps into the dirt road and turns in circles. There are two rows of wooden houses: a barber shop, a general store, a bakery, the inn, and many other shops and houses. At the very end there is a farm complete with barn, and Leo almost collapses with relief.

He runs as fast as his legs will let him, kicking up dust and dirt, to the small fense and jumps over it. Immediately he sees a chicken coup where nearly twenty chickens rest or wander aimlessly. Leo's panic returns and he runs around the farm house frantically. He checks inside the barn, and behind it, even behind the chicken coup.

Leo swallows again. Not one cow. Not one pig. Not even a horse. He pulls at his hair.

Oh gods, he thinks, where's Calypso?

He runs back to the inn and stops before Festus, "Festus," he pants, "did you see Calypso come out here with a lady earlier? She wore an apron and she has stringy brown hair." Festus clicks a negative, and stands up, picking up on Leo's nervous energy and begins to sniff around for her. "I'm going back in. Be ready to leave at a moments notice, buddy." Festus snorts and Leo runs back inside, but not back into the dining room. Instead he goes down the stairs to the right of the reception, instead of the hall to the left.

The cellar is cramped with barrels of ale so big they touch the ceiling, creating neat little rows, perfect to hide things (or people) behind. He walks through the rows, dreading what he'll find. He runs to the back, and finding nothing runs forward and back again.

"Calypso!" He whispers, "Please tell me you're in here. "

A muffled voice comes from one of the barrels and thumps like someone kicking against the inside of it. Leo's heart lifts and he runs to the sound. He considers smashing the barrel open with a hammer, but it would take more than one blow and the people in the dining room above would definitely come looking. No, he has to get it open with one break.

"Calypso, brace yourself against the wall, I'm gonna push it over." She grunts an okay from the other side of the wood, and Leo pushes as hard as he can.

The barrel slowly lists over and cracks open with a loud crunch, but it also knocks over a barrel from the row behind, and soon enough a whole row of barrels is smashed. Leo pays them no attention, he just runs to Calypso and pulls the wood off of her, her arms and legs are tied, and her mouth is gagged with a cloth. He checks her over and she seems perfectly fine.

"Oh, thank the gods," he says. He pulls the gag off her and kisses her in relief. He pulls one if the knives from Calypso's waist and cuts her free.

"Leo," she says, "Look".

Leo follows her gaze to the pile of broken barrels, and immediately has to look away. The barrels weren't filled with ale, as he originally thought. Among the broken shards of wood are potatoes, carrots, and human limbs.

"Di immortals," Leo says and pulls Calypso to her feet, giving her her knife. "We are leaving. Now."

They run for the door and up the steps, and to the door. Someone grabs them from behind, putting their hands over their mouths. They squirm and Calypso tries to scream but the hand pinches her nose closed, and she slowly stops fighting until the hand lets her drop to the floor, unconscious.

"You be careful, boy," Maggie's voice says in his ear. "I'll put you out, too. And maybe you won't wake up." Leo nods, and Maggie's hands come around and pull his hands out of his tool belt and hold them behind him. "Travis! Get in here, I need yer help with somethin'!"

Travis comes out of the dining room and sees Calypso on the floor and Leo in Maggie's grasp, and sighs.

"Come on, Maggie," he says and lifts Calypso over his shoulder. "Can't we just have guests?"

"Take them upstairs," she says.

She leads them up the stairs and when they pass the cellar Leo looks away. He's glad for the hand over his mouth and nose so he can't smell it. Calypso's arms swing as they go up the stairs, and Maggie leads them to a terrible room. There's a metal table with bloody knives and meat cleavers on it, and two chairs back to back in the center. Leo gags and Maggie sits Calypso and Leo in the chairs. She ties their hands behind their backs.

Leo clutches the orange safety whistle in his fist that he took out of his belt earlier, and he's glad that Calypso is unable to see this. Travis pulls on Calypso's ropes and then stands by Maggie at the table. While their backs are turned Leo fumbles around for one of Calypso's knives.

"Maggie, they're jus' kids," Travis says, taking a knife from her.

"Now, Travis, you get outta here if yer just gonna be in my way!" she takes the knife back and waves it at him as she speaks and he steps back nervously. "You remember what happened last time! I reckon you don't wanna repeat!"

Travis backs out of the room, and gives Leo a sympathetic look under his bushy grey eyebrows. Travis catches him twisting Calypso's knife belt, but gratefully says nothing, and he leaves, his boots thumping down the stairs.

Maggie picks up a cake knife and Leo struggles against his bonds, "Don't fight it, dear. I can make this quick."

"Listen lady, I don't taste good like, at all. So-"

"You'll taste jus' fine after you're put into a nice stew," she says, and swipes the knife across his cheek. Leo winces, and catches Calypso's knife and begins to cut the rope, and he lights a small fire in his palm to move it along. Calypso stirs behind him with a groan.

"Hmm, maybe I'll start with the young lady," she says, sauntering past his chair. Leo panics and sticks his foot out, and she trips. Leo was hoping she'd land on the knife, but no luck. But while she's down he pulls his ropes off and puts the whistle to his lips and blows.

"You little brat!" Maggie yells and gets up. She grabs a smaller steak knife from the table and plunges it into Leo's thigh. He cries out and collapses, and Maggie laughs.

Then a giant golden dragon crashes through the roof with a roar, answering the call, and picks Calypso up between his metal teeth. Leo sets his hands ablaze, and flame torches Maggie's legs. She screams, but Leo doesn't kill her, and she falls to the ground.

"I wouldn't walk for a bit. Don't think you ever will again," he says, and winces as he tries to get up, but he finds he can't. Calypso wakes and climbs up on Festus's back with tears in her eyes. "You're sick. I don't know if your whole town is in on it, but people like you shouldn't exist." Festus picks him up in his teeth by the back of his shirt and lifts into the air, and Leo sets the room on fire with his hands. "Lets go, Festus." They fly off, heading east for sure this time, leaving the column of smoke and the two wooden rows on houses behind.

 


 

Leo looks down at the knife sticking out from his leg and winces. He lays back against Calypso on Festus's back, his foot elevated on the dragons head. Calypso runs her hands through his hair as she crys and sings, which slows the bleeding. He tries to tell her it's not that bad, but he winces with every pause in her song, so she's not buying it. They wait for Festus to find a safe place to land.

Leo laughs breathily, "Bet your glad we didn't get any sausage, huh?"

She slaps his arm without pausing her song, as if to say That was scary and gross. Don't talk about it, but you were very heroic back there.

At least Leo likes to think that.

Festus creaks urgently, and Leo gives him the okay. Morning is breaking as Festus touches down in a suburban back yard. Behind them stands a three story call white panel house, complete with grey shutters and wrap around porch. In front of them is a pool, a gazebo, and a lovely garden of delicate flowers. Festus informs them that the owners are on vacation.

"How do you know that, man?" Leo asks, and Festus gives a long explanation about internet history through clicks, whirs, and eye-flashes. "Jeez, Festus, whatever works for you, bro."

Calypso gets down and helps Leo off, and he bites down on a cry of pain. She lays him in the grass and looks over his leg, "I have to take it out," she says. "I wish I had my bags. I had all sorts of medicines, and not to mention nectar and ambrosia. Okay, on three-"

"No. I know that trick. You say three, but you only go to two," Leo says with a grin, twisting the cut on his cheek and he winces again.

Calypso grasps the knife, "Okay, I'll count to ten then so you won't know." Leo nods. "One. Two-" she pulls the knife up and out of his thigh, and he sees a bright white flash and screams.

"I thought you were gonna count to ten!" he yells, as she pulls a long cloth and duct tape from his belt.

She giggles, "But you expected it the least on the two." She wets the cloth in the pool and starts to sing again as she wraps up his leg. Leo smiles as he watches her, and when she catches Leo staring she pulls the cloth tight.

"Ow," he says halfheartedly. Sure it still hurts like hell, but with the knife gone, the jagged edge no longer continues to cut him. He grabs her hand and holds it. Even though morning is just breaking he's really tired. Festus curls up around them protectively, and Leo remembers how he was with those kids.

He's such a dad, Leo thinks as his eyes close.

Calypso shakes him, "Leo don't sleep. We don't know how much blood you lost. "

"Mm.. not much. King Leo needs a nap. Hard day of saving," he says drifting off. He feels her washing the cut on his cheek, but it doesn't register. 

"Leo, you can't sleep. Not for an hour or so. It's not safe."

Leo sighs and opens his arms. "Come cuddle," he slurs. Calypso blushes and settles into the crook of his arm.

"Don't sleep," she says.

"Mmnot."

"Leo."

" 'Mawake," he whispers and his eyes flutter closed.

Chapter Text

She stands before them with her arms crossed over her flowery sun dress, and her wrists and upper arms are decorated with gold jewelry. Her hair hangs in perfect waves and is pulled to one side, and she wears white heels, which tap impatiently on the stone floor. "Well?" she asks.

"Nothing!" Jason says, like a kid who got caught flushing the silverware. "We're not doing anything."

Piper elbows him, "Lady Persephone, we're on a quest." Piper explains how they're there for the crown, but Jason doesn't think she's listening because she keeps looking around at the guards. "So we came in here and-"

Persephone grabs Nico by the arm and starts pulling him down the hall, and Nico squeaks in surprise. Jason looks at his friends and they exchange worried looks and then follow.

"You just wait til your father hears of this! Sneaking into the palace!" she says. Nico struggles and pulls at her fingers, and he tries to dig his heels into the ground to slow her down, but he might as well try to stop a train with his bare hands. So instead he just goes limp, and she drags him along the floor by his wrist. Jason would laugh if he wasn't so confused. "Oh, honestly, Nico. You're so dramatic."

"What are you doing here?" he asks, and Jason wonders the same thing. "It's summer."

"This is my domain as much as it is Lord Hades's. I visit. And it's a good thing I did!" she scoffs, making theatrical hand motions. "Sneaking about with unauthorized demigods, one of which is Zeus spawn, might I add!"

Jason scowls, confused, because Persephone is a daughter of Zeus herself. Her heels click down the hall and the undead guards step out of her way, not batting an eye. Jason wonders if this is a normal thing. Nico looks resigned to it all, his head hangs back lazily and he rolls his eyes as she nags.

"Persephone," Jason says. "We need Nico for the quest." Will elbows him in the ribs, and he remembers the conversation they had outside, and the episode with Melinoe. "And he's our friend," he adds.

"Well he's grounded until his father gets home," she says and stops in front of a silver door.

Nico groans, "I'm dramatic?" She opens the doors and pulls Nico to his feet.

"Just play along," she whispers to him and she guides him inside and closes the door, and Nico kicks at it from the other side. Persephone turns to them, and they all step back. She eyes them back before she zones in on Hazel.

"No," Hazel says. "You can't ground-" Persephone takes her by the arm and opens Nico's door again. "Now you listen here!" Hazel protests, but she closes the door on any further arguments.

She smooths down her dress and turns to Jason, Piper, and Will, and her expression turns soft. She crowds them in and speaks in a quiet and rushed voice.

"Listen, I want you to succeed on your quest," Jason gapes like a fish at her sudden change of mood, and she reaches out and closes his mouth. "But as 'Queen' I cannot let them go unpunished for getting you in here, so I had to make a big show of it. That being said, the most awful things have been happening, heroes, and I fear for not only our world but the mortal world. The mortals are seeing far too much. Dionysus and Mania are busy with the increasing number of mortals going mad, and your friends suffer at their hands."

She waves her hand, and in it appears a newspaper with the headline reading FROM UFO SIGHTING TO DRAGON LANDING. Below the heading is a grainy picture of Festus, and a familiar boy laying in the grass, screaming in pain as a girl sits beside him.

"Gods," Piper says. "We have to hurry."

"Indeed you do. Hades will be returning in half an hour," she waves her hand again and a flower pattern plastic watch appears on Will's wrist. "I'm under Styx oath, and I cannot tell you how to get to the crown." She smiles, "So, I will tell you to take a right at the end of the hall. And that is all I can do. You must hurry. Hades will be furious with all of us."

They nod in understanding, and she dissolves into blossoms, which blow away. Someone pounds on the silver door, and Nico calls from the other side.

"We're here," Will calls. "We're gonna get the crown and then come back for you."

"Ughh," Nico says and they hear the sound of his jean chains sliding down the door and then hitting the floor. "I'll just wait here then."

"She's right, Nico," Hazel's muffled voice says. "You are dramatic."

Jason laughs and they turn down the hall, taking a left at the corner. Eventually Jason notices that as they walk the obsidian stone becomes more and more faded, which shouldn't be possible. Jason draws his sword and their footsteps echo off the walls. The corridor comes to a dead end, except for the winding staircase at the end of the hall.

"Ugh, stairs," Piper groans. "So when we get outta here we are definitely like, sitting on a bench with some fries." She starts up the stairs, "We deserve it."

Jason loves her. He loves how Piper is confident about her body, and comfortable about food. Especially for an Aphrodite girl. Jason's heard all kinds of terrible things from her siblings about how they're not pretty enough, and Piper is always there with a pep talk and a chocolate bar. And he loves how she cuts her hair all choppy and still manages to make the orange Camp Half-Blood shirt look hot.

And she is completely fierce. Lifting that river with one word? Forget it. Not to mention the way she is with her dagger. Jason's glad Piper's on their side, she would make one hell of an enemy. 

Gods, I love her, Jason thinks, right before he trips up the stairs. 

Will and Piper turn around to look down at him. "Jason are you okay?" Piper asks. The light of her dagger glints in her multicolored eyes, and she holds it with a steady hand. 

He blushes, "Yeah, just day dreaming."

"Well get up," Will says, starting back up the stairs. "We have twenty minutes left to get back to Nico."

They continue up the faded stone steps, and as they climb flight after flight the stones start to fade, like they're walking on clouds. And then the clouds get faces, and Jason realizes they're walking on ghosts. 

"How much more?" Jason asks.

"Funny you should ask," Piper says, pointing to a plain wooden door at the top of the landing. It has no windows, just a silver knob and a keyhole. 

Jason turns to them, "Do we open it?" 

"We have to," Will says with a glance at the watch. "We're running out of time." He reaches out and turns the knob, but finds it's locked. After he keeps trying to twist it open, the knob shocks him, and he pulls his hand away steaming. "Ow! Ugh, of course it's locked! And we don't have a key, and we have to go all the way back down-"

"Will, relax. We'll break Nico and Hazel out in time," Piper says. She steps up to the knob and touches it. "Erm, creepy locked door, will you open? Please? It's really important."

"What's the password?" hisses a voice. The three demigods jump and turn around in search of the source, but find no one. 

"What?" Piper asks. 

"The password," it repeats from behind them. They turn in time to see a man forming from the soul-clouds. He wears a doorman's uniform and a hat over two faces, facing right and left. He passes a key from one hand to the other, "So what'll it be?" says the right face. "'Open Sesame'? 'Please'? 'S-H-E-R'?"

"Oh, I like that one," says the left face.

"Uhm, you're Janus right?" Jason asks. 

"Yes, Jason, very good. I'm Janus, God of Doorways. The metaphorical sort, beginnings, endings, choices. Occasionally a literal door. "

"So, we need a password?" Will says.

"Yes."

"But why do we need a password if there's a keyhole?" 

"Keyhole? What keyho-" blanches the right face.

"Oh would you look at that, smartypants. He got it on the first try!" The left face smiles, and the left arm raises they key away from Janus's right arm. The god spins in circles trying to get it from himself.

"Nice, Will. Now we just have to get it," Piper says, putting her hands on her hips in thought. 

Jason considers for a moment, "Wait, what if this is 'find what you seek with a single phrase'?"

Piper sighs, "I was hoping no one would mention that." She steps up to the god and taps him on the shoulder, "Janus? Jaannuussss?" He pays her no mind, and keeps spinning. It makes Jason so dizzy he might have thrown up if he had anything in his stomach.

"YO!" Piper shouts, and Janus lets go of his own elbow. "Give me the key, I don't have time for this!"

Will glances at the daisy encrusted watch nervously, and mouths to Jason, 'Twelve minutes'.

"I can't just give you the key, young lady!" yells the right face.

Piper turns to the left face, "Did you hear him? He just called you ugly!

"Did he?" Janus yells. "I never know these things, he got most of the ears, but I always suspected!" 

"No, I didn't say anything! She's trying to trick you, moron!" replies the right face. 

"He called you dumb! He just stuck his tongue out! He just- oh well he just made a very rude gesture," Piper says. Jason's impressed, and the god starts fighting with itself. Janus steps on his own foot and tries to poke out his eyes, all while screaming insults and waving the key around. Piper holds out her hand, "Give me the key."  The god is so busy he doesn't even have the presence of mind to resist, and his arm shoots out and drops it into her palm. "Now go away," she says.

"But you have to make a choice," the faces say in unison, and with the ghosts that make up the walls it's super creepy. "Not today," Janus slowly melts into the walls as his faces speak in harmony. "But one day, and I'll be there for it." It's unclear who he's talking to, because his right face looks at Jason, and his left at Will, and he replied to Piper. But before they can ask the doorman has vanished.

"Um, eight minutes!" Will says, and Piper turns around and puts the key and and twists the knob.

Inside is an empty room, the only things in it being the intricate pedestal and in the back of the room a trap door. At the bottom, the pedestal appears to be made of the ghosts, and as it comes from the floor is solidifies into obsidian and curls into designs like puffs of clouds. It's topped with a white velvet pillow, and on top of it sits The Crown of Ghosts.

Will walks up to it and grabs it before Jason can warn him of a trap, but thankfully nothing happens to him.

He stuffs it into his backpack, and says "Okay, let's get outta here. We only have a few minutes to leave the Underworld." 

Piper runs over to the trap door and lifts it up. All it is is a straight down fall, like the tunnel Nico made, only this one nearly ten times as deep, and ending on solid obsidian. 

"Don't worry," Jason says. "I got it. Just don't freak out, man." 

"Why would I freak-" Will jumps as Jason puts his arms around Will and Piper's waists. 

"Okay, so now we jump," he says, they jump down and the wind rushes past them in a loud woosh, and Jason imagines grabbing on to it like a rope to slow them down. Their decent slows, and Jason has the winds lower them down like a speedy pulley system. 

"Jason you can fly?" Will asks. "Why didn't you fly us up the stairs?"

"Um, I forgot."

"You forgot," he looks at Piper.

She smiles and pats Jason's cheek, "I keep him around for the face." Jason makes the winds drop them in a free fall for a few feet, and they scream and cling to him for dear life.

He shakes his head and lands them on the ground, "Mmmhm, only a pretty face, huh?" 

Piper kisses him and then rolls her eyes, "Come on, Superman, we have to go." 

They run down the hall and make a right at the turn and end up at the silver door. 

Will pounds on it, "Nico, Hazel! We're-"

Alarm bells ring out through the palace, and a teenier alarm beeps from Will's wrist.

"-too late," Jason finishes. 

Chapter Text

Nico and Hazel tumble out of the shadows behind them. "We have to get back to Melinoe," he says, and takes off down the hall, leaving the rest to follow after him.

Guards come around every corner, and Jason and Nico slice them out of the way and keep running, careful not to trip over the bones when they fall to the floor. Will, Hazel, and Piper keep up the rear, cutting down any zombie or skeleton that tries to sneak up on them.

Nico leads them through the winding halls, and eventually they come out of the courtyard, where Persephone's garden gleams, and the two giant thrones stand at the end. They run down the stone steps, and every step Nico takes raises an undead warrior to slow down their pursuers.

Jason is careful not to step anywhere where the hands burst out of the ground like flowers, but Will isn't paying attention to the ground and a grey fleshy hand grabs his ankle, and he lands face first in the black gravel and sand. Jason slashes his sword down on its wrist and heaves Will up by the arm.

"Focus, Will. Quit daydreaming!" He yells, and they follow Nico past the Judgement Pavilion.

They're about to pass it when four giant black paws land around them, shaking the ground so hard the group falls to the floor. Cerberus growls from all three heads, and drool drips from his lips. The campers scramble to their feet and run between his back paws toward Punishment, but Nico stays behind. He holds his hands up and tries to speak soothingly to the dog to calm him down, and summons a leg bone from the earth and throws it for him.

"Go on ahead!" Nico calls, "I'll catch up!"

Will sees Nico isn't following and goes to turn back, but Jason grabs his shirt. "Get off me, Grace," he says. "We have to help him!"

"Look, Solace," Jason says, tightening his grip on Will's arm. They're nearing Punishment and he has to yell to be heard over the scenes of torture and sounds of hundreds of undead footsteps closing in behind them, "I get it. I was like that with Piper when we started dating, too. He likes that you care, but you have to trust him. Piper and Nico are capable of handling themselves, don't slow them down!"

Will blushes, "Nico? I don't- how did you-"

"Save it, man," Jason says, releasing his arm.

The ground under their shoes turns to broken glass and they haul ass to the River Lethe, where Melinoe's mountain looms ahead. Jason looks over his shoulder to see about a giant army has collected behind them, showing no sign of stopping, and Nico tumbles out of the shadow of a guillotine to join them.

"Link together!" he calls, and Jason grabs onto Hazel's shirt in front of him, and Hazel takes Piper's hand. Nico grabs Will and Piper and they are sucked into darkness, and spit out on the black grass on the other side of the river.

The guards behind them screech to a halt at the river, and some don't stop fast enough and fall in with a splash. The alarms cut, and they've escaped for now. The campers collapse in the grass, gasping. Jason looks over at Nico and sees he looks paler than usual.

"Nico," Jason wheezes, "you okay?" And the group looks over at them.

"Yeah," he says. "When you guys ran ahead I could hear my father yelling, but Persephone was trying to cover for us. We need to leave soon."

"Melinoe said we'd need her for a charm or something," Hazel says, sitting up.

"Yeah," Nico says, and he pales further and sits up as well. "Do you have the crown?"

Will nods, pulling his bag off his shoulder. He reaches in and pulls out the Crown of Ghosts. The entire crown is made of rustic iron, and jutting from the frame are deadly looking points that alternate in height, and adorned along the bottom are giant stones of onyx. Hazel whistles, and Will passes it to Nico, who takes it carefully like might explode.

He sighs, "It's nothing right now. I've heard stories about the charm Melinoe might be talking about, but I hoped she meant something else."

"Well let's see if she's home," Jason says. They haul themselves off the grass and head up the stone and bone path. Just like before, fog comes from the cave. And by the time the hiss echos down the mountain they all have their weapons ready.

"Demigods," Melinoe says, "You have returned with the crown."

"The charm, Melinoe," Nico growls.

"Yes," she hisses, and the crown flies from Nico's grip to hover in the air before them. The fog draws to the crown like moths to flame. "The crown runs on misery. Demons, and ghosts. Deaths and pain. You all must give them to the crown."

Jason looks at the other campers nervously, "How?" he asks.

"I will pull them from you," she laughs, "It will be very painful."

Before anyone can protest she spreads her hands. Jason's vision blurs and suddenly he's back in Odysseus's Palace, and Michael Varus dead eyes glint as he runs him through the back with his golden sword. Die a roman, he sneers. He falls to his knees, and he hears Piper's scream but everything is numb and far away.

The memory blurs as it shifts, and he's a little boy crying in the sticks and dirt, looking at his bloody knee. Lupa and the wolves crowd around him, snarling. His tiny body shakes with fear. He knows what they are capable of, he's seen them take care if the other wolves that cried. Do not show weakness, hero, Lupa growls, and bites at his feet. The vision changes again, and he sees a bright fiery explosion in the sky, the one that killed Leo.

He keeps reliving memory after memory until there's no more horror to experience. His vision returns and he drops to the floor, panting and his body aching all over. His head pounds and there's a tight knot in his chest, and he clutches at his stomach, feeling the memory of the stab wound.

He turns to the group, and he doesn't like what he sees: Piper is on the ground, wincing in pain, and Hazel is at her knees, her eyes far away and tears down her cheeks. Will must've gotten put of the vision sooner because his eyes are wild and alert. Will's sweaty and anguished, and cradles Nico in his lap, screaming his name. Nico looks terrible, he's pale and still, and every few moments he coughs blood onto Will's shirt. Black wisps of smoke curl from Piper, Hazel, and Nico's chests, they condense in the air to black drops of water, and then are sucked to the crown.

Melinoe's eyes glow white and she smiles with glee as she glances at all the terrible things the have happened to the demigods, "Such lovely ghosts, children."

"STOP IT!" Will yells, and Jason hauls himself up on two feet to run over to them. "STOP HURTING THEM! LET HIM GO!"

Melinoe shudders with pleasure, like she's just seen particularly terrible memory, and Nico gasps and arches his back in Will's lap. "Well, he is not called The Ghost King for nothing!" she laughs.

Jason makes it over to them "Will, do you have nectar? Ambrosia?" he asks quietly. He takes one of Nico's hand and squeezes, trying to anchor him to reality. He sputters and coughs, and more blood lands on his lips.

Will nods, and pulls his backpack off, passing it to him. Jason looks through all of the medical supplies until he finds a canteen. 
"What's he seeing, Jason?" Will whispers, stroking Nico's hair.

Jason dribbles some nectar into Nico's mouth, "He's seen a lot, Will. It could be anything."

Nico stirs and squeezes Jason's hand, and Jason hears a gasp behind them. He turns to see Piper opening her eyes and looking around.

"Jason? What's-" she looks over at them and sees the son of Hades in Will's lap, pale and still with blood stained lips. "Oh gods, Nico," she runs to them, and Jason catches her wrist.

"Pipes, try to wake up Hazel," he says and hands her the ambrosia.

"The charm is almost complete, heroes. Do not awaken them before the crown has their ghosts," Melinoe warns, and Piper pulls the canteen from Hazel's lips, but her eyes have opened and she's awake.

Nico shakes below them. "STOP!" Will yells again. Piper and Hazel run over to them, and take Nico's free hand between theirs. Piper whispers soothing words to him, assuring him it's not real. The smoke around Nico pulls away from him, comes together to form a large inky drop of water, and flies to the crown like being pulled by magnets. The drop shatters and douses it, and Melinoe's eyes return to normal and she lowers her hands.

"It is done," she says, and Nico heaves a gasp and sits up, looking around confused.

"It's okay, Nico," Hazel says. "You did great, it's all over now."

"Are you in pain?" Will asks, and the son of Hades touches his throat to indicate that it's sore.

Jason pulls a bottle of water from Will's bag and hands it to him, and he downs it quickly. Before they can say anymore, the sound of crunching glass echoes across the river. They turn to see Persephone running towards them, she flicks her wrist and a bridge of vines grows across the Lethe and she crosses.

"Mother," Melinoe sneers.

"Oh, get out of here Melinoe, you've done enough for today." A lilac scented breeze rolls through the grass and the goddess if ghosts is blown away with a hiss. "Demigods, you must hurry to Themis," Persephone waves her hand again and five roses appear in the grass. "Hades is absolutely furious, but I've been married to him for ages, you let me handle that. Themis is the only one who can crown you, Nico. And once she puts it on only Hecate can take it off." She kneels on the grass with them and hugs them all, "Please find her, and tell me when you do. I may be able to help."

She kisses Hazel and Nico on their heads, abd they stand up from the black grass. Nico leans against Jason for support, his eyelids drop with exhaustion as he struggles to stay awake. Jason puts his arm around him, and Will shoulders his bag. Piper picks up the crown from where it lies in the grass, being extra careful not to touch the sharp points. Nico lifts his converse over a rose, and they follow his lead.

 


 

The world is pulled tight, and then snaps like a rubber band, and the campers find themselves back in the mortal world. They've landed in the rosebush of an elaborate garden, and in front of them a few feet are rows and rows of white chairs separated by an isle, where a bunch of dressed up mortals chat. A man stands at the end if the isle under an arch of white roses, looking nervous.

Hazel steps out of the rose bush, "Ohh, a wedding! I've never been to one."

Nico picks rose thorns out of his pant legs, "Great."

"What are we doing here?" Jason asks.

Piper turns the crown in her hands, "I guess this is where Themis-"

"NO NO NO!" yells a female voice. They turn to see her chewing out a man who holds a vase of lilies. She wears a salmon colored skirt suit, with a string of pearls around her neck. Her brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail, but strands of it have fallen out and land in her face. A headset rests around her ears, and she clutches a clipboard in her manicured hands. "I ordered roses! Not lilies! No one likes lilies!" She kneads her forehead and sighs. "Give them to me. Get out of my sight!"

The man hurries off and the woman waves her hand over the vase, and they change to roses. She puts the vase down and turns to yell at someone about doves.

"That's her, I'm guessing," Will says. Nico sighs and they make their way to her.

"Erm, excuse me, miss," Hazel starts tapping her shoulder, "you wouldn't happen to be Themis, would you?"

She looks up from her clipboard and blows a strand of hair from her face, "Yes I am, and you must be-" she puts her hand on her hip and sighs. "-stand up straight, no drooping!-" They all jump and straighten their backs in obedience, "You must be those demigods here for the crowning."

"Err, yes, we are," Piper says. "And we're in a bit of a hurry so if you could just pop it on and we'll be on our way-"

"Oh good gods, absolutely not! I am the goddess or customs and order I can't just 'pop it on', are you kidding?" Her eyes snap to something behind them and she points her clipboard of their shoulders, yelling "HEY! THOSE RIBBONS DON'T GO THERE- oh honestly they can't do anything on their own." She blows the hair out of her face again. "You'll have to see me after the wedding. There's simply too much to do right now," she says, and saunters off.

"Guess we're seeing a wedding," Jason says.

 


 

In the end they didn't really see it. Give five exhausted demigods some comfy seating in a venue where a goddess is sure to blast anyone who so much as sneezes on the decorations, well they're bound to fall asleep. So they'd all found seats in the back row and ended up leaning against each other and passing out. Hazel's head on Nico's shoulder, Nico's on Will's, and Piper's on Jason's. Jason hopes they didn't snore during that poor mortal couples wedding, but he knows Nico probobly did.

Now they all attend the reception, and they sit an an extra table Themis whipped up for them, complete with grilled chicken and asparagus, and a plate of Alfredo pasta for Piper, who's very pleased. Themis sits with them nursing a glass of champagne, looking far more relaxed now the wedding has passed. She's taken her headset off and let her hair down.

"So, what exactly needs to happen?" Piper asks, taking a drink of water.

"You've done the charm?"

"Yes," Nico says, and he passes the crown to her. "Persephone said you were the only one who could put it on, and she sent us here."

"We need to hurry," Hazel says. "Hecate and Leo need us."

She turns the crown in her hands, and sighs sadly. "I remember when Lady Hecate made this crown. Well not personally... I remember when traditions mattered. Here in America, there's not much need for me. No one pays any attention to their heritage anymore." She looks over to where the bride and groom are shoving cake in each others faces. "I mostly stick to weddings. Funerals. Sweet sixteens. That's the only places where people care anymore. I'd like to do this right."

Jason exchanges looks with his friends. Her story seems so sad, Jason can't imagine being moved to another country only to find out everything you stand for means nothing there.

They nod and Jason turns to Themis, "You've got five minutes."

She jumps up out of her seat, downs her drink, and slams her headset back on her head, "I'll do it in three." She presses the on button on her head set and runs off yelling something about outfits.

Jason smiles, and Nico grimaces, "I have a feeling this is going to be embarrassing."

Will laughs and pokes his nose, "Awww no way! I wish I'd made invitations." Nico glares.

Piper twirls some Alfredo around on her fork and pops it in her mouth, "Nico's coronationnn~!"

Nico half smiles, "Oh my gods, stop."

Jason looks over his shoulder and sees Themis yelling at her mortal co-planners, her arms full of fabric.

"Holy Hera," he mutters, and they hurry to finish their food. Before long, Themis is running back to their table.

"Two minutes and 46 seconds," she laughs. "What a rush!"

Before anyone can respond she waves her hand and Jason squints his eyes to adjust to the change in lighting. He looks around and sees they're in a small amphitheater, it's indoors, encased with a rock dome above like the Underworld. There are no chairs, so Will, Jason, Piper, and Hazel, stand in a empty stone floor.

Around the perimeter gleam torches of Greek fire, lighting the room. Ahead of them is a raised platform, and standing in front of a black velvet and silver throne is Nico, with his hands in his pockets. Jason looks down and sees he's wearing actual pontifex maximus robes, with the capite velato and everything. Next to him Hazel wears a roman set of armour, and Will and Piper wear Greek armour. Their weapons are strapped to their sides, and Jason finds his among the folds of the robe.

He hears the sound of ratting bones and looks around to see skeletons are crawling from the ground, and ghosts whipping in through the rock, forming a large crowd. They all behind humming a song. There are no words, just ghostly moans, and the sound echos all around them off the cave making it sound like there are thousands. Nico eyes the undead nervously as Themis comes from behind him, and he turns to his friends. Will gives him a nervous looking thumbs up.

"Okay," Themis says, she wears a long flowing black gown, and she's redone her pony tail. She snaps her fingers, and skeleton hurries up the stairs carrying the Crown of Ghosts on a black pillow. She lifts the crown up and Nico lowers his head for her. She places it on his head, and his eyes go wide in shock, like he's seeing something they can't (Jason thinks he probably is, given that's the point of the crown), and black mist clings to Nico and forms a long flowing cloak.

Jason sweats nervously at how powerful Nico looks. He's always been scary, and he's always been the ghost king, but now it's real, and that crown is not coming off unless they find Hecate.

"Hail, Nico di Angelo!" Themis says with a smile, "The King of Ghosts!"

The skeletons and ghosts around them kneel, and the campers follow suit. Jason looks up, expecting Nico's face to be bright red, but instead he holds his chin up and then looks down at his hands, turning them over, clenching and unclenching his fists. He raises a hand and snaps his fingers, and the ghosts woosh away, and the skeletons slip into the earth like they were swallowed by quicksand. Their song stops at once, and the cave becomes so quiet Jason swears he can hear every person's heartbeat.

Jason's jaw drops in surprise, there must've been almost a thousand undead, and Nico banished them without a second thought. He looks up at him, but he doesn't even seem to be sleepy.

Themis laughs, "Yes enjoy it while you can, Your Highness." Nico furrows his brow at her in confusion, but she turns to the campers with a clap of her hands. "Now, acts of homage from the subjects!"

Nico turns to her, "Huh?"

She spreads her hands and claws against stone and growling come from the other side of the rock. Nico's eyes go wide. "You must prove yourself to your King!" Themis says.

Chapter Text

"Leo? Please wake up," a voice pleads. He squints, and opens his eyes. Calypso breathes a sigh of relief. "Thank the gods," she says, and then slaps him on the back of the head.

"Ow!" he yelps, and rubs at the lump forming under his curls. He sits up, and pain shoots up his leg in protest.

"I told you not to fall asleep, you could've gotten a concussion!"

"Well I have one now," he complains.

Calypso eyes scan the edge of the garden nervously. The sun shines bright overhead, indicating it's somewhere around noon. Calypso turns back to him, "Leo we should leave."

Leo nods, he can hear the passing of cars out front and smell burgers grilling. The smell makes his stomach turn, reminding him off the Buttercorn's. Leo thinks he might have to join Piper in being a vegetarian. Calypso looks nervous at the thought of meeting more mortals, and Leo's right in the same boat.

"You're right. The less mortals the better."

Calypso nods, but when Leo tries to stand he finds the pain unbearable. White spots dance in his vision and Calypso places her hand in the middle of his chest and helps him back down.

"Okay, maybe we're staying," she says, and sits down next to him. Festus shifts his position to curl around Leo protectively, and blows a bit of steam in Calypso's face with a click. "I should check your bandages, Leo," she says, and places her hands over the bloody rag.

He takes her hands away from it and just holds them. "Maybe not... I mean, how much could it have changed in a few hours?"

She raises an eyebrow at him, "Leo, it could be infected. And then we'll have to cut it off."

He looks up at her. "I like two-legged Leo," he says, releasing her hands.

Calypso laughs, "Me too."

She cuts the duct tape off the bandage and unwraps it, Leo wincing with every turn of the bandage. Any sort of movement or pressure is the worst, and he wishes she would just get it over with. When Leo's thigh is exposed, she lets out a short gasp. Leo turns from where he was looking in the garden to her, and then to his leg. The blood has dried around the wound and on his pants, and it's clotted, which is good, but some of the skin is black or yellow.

Calypso shakes her head, "Good thing I checked. It's no wonder you can't stand." Festus whirs his teeth nervously. "Don't worry," she says to him, standing, and Leo wonder's when she picked up on his language. "Leo should be fine if I can get inside and get some-"

"Calypso, no way," Leo interrupts.

She dusts off her jeans, "Well Festus said they were on vacation."

"What if something happens and you need back up? Then what?"

She pulls her knives from her belt, and shoots him a smug smile "But I won't." She walks off toward the back off the house, out of Leo's view.

He slouches back against Festus, who snorts nervously. They sit in silence for a bit, the cool air helping the gash in his thigh relax. He grabs the bloody rag and shuffles over to the edge if the pool, and starts to wash it out. Festus stands, suddenly alert, and turns toward the edge of the garden.

Leo turns confused, and Festus blows black smoke from his nose and ears in warning. "Yo!" Leo calls, "Someone over there?"

No one answers, and nothing moves.

"Okay, Festus!" he says loudly, "Better torch that whole area, just to be sure!"

Festus clicks and a boy tumbles out from behind the gazebo, "NO NO! WAIT!" He yells, and holds his hands up in surrender. He wears a t-shirt and hoodie, despite it being hot and humid, and jean shorts. In his hand he holds an intricate looking camera. "Okay, I'm out. Ya got me," he says.

Leo places the wet rag over his thigh. "What were you doin in the bushes with a camera? Not looking good for you, man."

"I-I run a blog. I mean, it's nothing special, it's pretty boring actually, but a golden dragon lands in my neighbors yard... I figure, this could be what gets me tumblr famous," he says. As he talks he plays with the lens cap on his camera.

"Did you take pictures of us, dude?" Leo asks, incredulous.

He opens his mouth to reply, and Festus's eyes glow red and the kid squeaks, "Wait no, I-" Festus lumbers over to him and takes the camera between his teeth with a loud crunch. The kid whimpers as shards of black plastic and glass fall to the ground around him. He juts out his lower lip and looks from his broken camera back to Leo. "I already posted it."

Leo heaves a giant sigh, and flops back against the concrete by the pool. "Of course you did. Mortals never think about consequences."

"M-Mortals? Are you Jesus or something?" He asks.

"Dude, no." Leo sits up, "I'm sorry about your camera, and I'm sorry you met me, er... what's your name?"

"Tyrone," he sighs.

"Right. But somethings really broken with the Mist so, the less people that see us the better. You should go home and pretend this never-"

di-ding!

Tyrone pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and spends a moment glancing at it, and then grimaces. He looks back up at Leo with giant, apologetic brown eyes.

"What did you do?" Leo sighs.

"Well," he stuffs his phone back in his pocket quickly before Festus can eat it, "I guess everyone saw my photo, and... it got in the newspaper and on the news and," he takes a giant breath and finishes explaining in one giant exhale, "it'ssortoftrendingandIguessthere'sthishugemobofpeopleontheirway."

Leo sees more than feels his nose ignite, and Tyrone's eyes go wide. Leo pats it out, and tries to climb to his feet again, but he just can't.

He turns to Festus, "Alright, I hate to ask you, but I need suitcase mode." Festus seems to understand, and bends his head down so Leo can flip the switch. The dragon contracts again and again until he lays on the concrete as a shiny golden suitcase.

Tyrone looks like he might pass out, but instead starts rambling again, "I'm really sorry, man. It's just that nothing exciting ever happens here and my family's never home. Chesapeake was voted the third most boring city in all of America!" Tyrone waves his hands around in exasperation, and Leo rolls his eyes. He pulls a tin of shoe polish out of his belt and turns the suitcase so it stands up on its own. "We have The Great Dismal Swamp, like how real is that? Dismal is about as rad as it gets out here-"

"Yo, shut up." Leo says, and Tyrone pops his mouth closed. "Look, I'm usually a nice guy, but I need to go home. My friends need me, and my leg hurts. So if you're not gonna help us, then I can't help you."

Leo unscrews the tin and begins to rub jet black shoe polish all over the golden suitcase with his fingers. If they can't escape before they come in, at least they won't know where Festus is.

Tyrone looks down at his broken camera, and back to Leo. He straightens with determination and asks, "What can I do?"

Leo works the polish into the hinges on the handle, "If you've got stuff you wanna take, go get it, no more than a duffle bag. Be quick about it."

Tyrone blinks, "Wha... you're taking me with you?"

Leo wipes the back of his hand across his forehead, leaving a black smear, and looks over at him. "I get it, man, not wanting to stay in one place. Having a home is an important thing, and I feel bad about ruining your camera. So... hurry up."

Tyrone jumps and scrambles out of the garden to hop the chain fence into the next yard. Leo rubs the shoe polish into the sides of the case, and hears the door open from the house. Looking up, he sees Calypso come out with a plastic bag in one hand, and in the other, two sandwiches stacked on top of each other.

"Why are you painting Festus?" she asks with a giggle, sitting next to him.

"No time to explain, but long story short a lot of mortals are on their way to come see the amazing spectacle that is Festus the golden dragon, so we need to bounce," he says, and rinses his hands in the pool. He takes a sandwich from her with his grey stained finger tips and takes a bite.

Tyrone comes back over the fence with a book bag over his shoulder, and a wild look in his eyes, "Okay, I'm ready."

"Oh," Leo says around a mouthful of pb&j, and gestures to Tyrone with his sandwich, "and we're taking him with us."

"What?" she exclaims. "A mortal?"

"Okay seriously, I don't know what that means," Tyrone laughs nervously.

"Gods, Leo, I leave you alone for ten minutes," she complains, putting her sandwich down and opening the plastic bag. She pulls out a tube of Neosporin and a bandage and sets to work on his leg. She uses the old rag to clean it, and then wraps it up with the disinfectant. She stuffs the tube into Leo's belt and helps him stand, hoisting his arm over her shoulders and he leans against her for support.

"You," she says go Tyrone, "carry the suitcase." Tyrone nods and pulls at the handle with a grunt, pulls and pulls, digging his heels into the ground. Calypso rolls her eyes.

"Forget it," she says, and passes Leo to him. Leo winces his eyes shut at the jostling of his leg, and Calypso hefts up the case without breaking a sweat.

"Wha-" Tyrone starts, but Leo elbows him in the side. Leo hears car doors closing and excited voices chatting out front.

"We need to hurry. I hope you're okay with stealing a car, Tyrone," he says.

"I could be. Let's sneak through my yard," he says.

They make their way to the chain fence, and Tyrone opens the hatch and Leo hobbles through the yard. They go around the far end out the house, and make their way down the street, away from Tyrone's neighbors. Leo's head spins, his breaths stutter with exertion, and he grimaces every other step.

Tyrone's house is at the top of a hill, and the group hobbles down. They can hear the chatter of a large crowd behind them, the voices getting more and more confused by the minute. They approach the side of a dumpy looking red car.

"Stop," Leo wheezes, and they stop to turn to him.

Leo leans against it to catch his breath, and then pulls a small spool of thick wire from his belt. He unrolls a length of it and fashions the end into a hook, and then limps his way around to the drivers door. Calypso and Tyrone cast nervous glances to the top of the hill where the mob of mortals grow restless, and Leo shoves his makeshift jimmy down the side of the window.

"Tyrone," Leo says, twisting the wire, "how old are you?"

"Sixteen," he says.

Leo wiggles the wire around, trying to find the niche, "Cool, you're driving."

"I don't have a permit!" he protests. Leo shoots him a look, "I'll drive!" he says.

Calypso yelps, the mortals have come up over the apex of the hill, and one nudges another and points in their direction. "Leo, hurry!"

Not everything can be solved with a machine, Leo thinks to himself, giving up on the wire and pulling his giant hammer out of his belt. Besides we've been spotted, no need to be discreet, and he smashes the window in with a loud CRASH. The window shatters and Leo reaches in and pops the handle, and then the back door handle. He bends into the car and quickly hot-wires the engine on.

Tyrone hurries around and gets behind the wheel, and Leo clambers into the back. Tyrone unlocks Calypso's door, and they throw their bags and Festus in the back with him. Tyrone floors the gas, and Leo and Calypso scramble for the seat belts. He drives up the hill, and mortals dive out of the way and pull each other out of the street.

"Anywhere in mind?" Tyrone asks, swerving the car around a little girl.

"Just far enough that we can get Festus back out," Leo says. He smiles, "You know, I'm surprised something terrible hasn't-"

The roof of the car caves in with a crunch, and a giant hairy fist punches at the windshield. Tyrone screams and Calypso turns to glare at him.

Leo smiles and shrugs, "Oops?"

Calypso pulls her knives and unclicks her seat belt, "Tyrone keep driving."

"What?" he squeaks.

She stands to lean out the window, but two fists come through the back seat windows. Leo puts his hands up to shield his face from the broken glass. A sound cuts through the air like ripping metal, and Leo looks up to see that's exactly what's happening.

Soon enough the car roof is gone, and standing on the trunk of the car is a seven foot tall steroid infused weightlifter. His biceps are decorated with tattoos of women and cards. He throws the car roof up ahead and Tyrone swerves to avoid it.

"WHAT IS THAT??" Tyrone screams, and Calypso jumps into the back seat with Leo.

"I am George!" the giant yells. "We are going to rip your flesh from your bones and eat you for lunch!"

"Dude, chill," Leo says, and blasts him in the legs with fire.

"Oh, a fire user!" George says. "You will taste extra spicy when-" Calypso jabs both if her knives into his chest, and he crumbles away in bright yellow dust.

Tyrone turns a sharp corner and Calypso tumbles into Leo's lap, and he grabs on to her as their crazy driver turns another sharp turn and then slams on the breaks. Blocking the road are five giant Laistrygonians, and the one off to the side even wears a bib.

"Look! Lunch!" one yells. "Goddess meat goes great on Italian bread!"

"You're a goddess?" Tyrone cries, and throws the car in reverse, and speeds off the way they came. The giants lumber after them, trading recipes.

"It's not important," she yells over the sound of the struggling engine. Tyrone's foot jams the gas pedal into the floor mat, but still the engine isn't climbing over seventy. Leo begins pulling little pieces from his belt, and working them together.

The wheels screech as Tyrone maneuvers around a slight bend, "How is that not important? Are you a god, Leo?"

Leo turns and throws his makeshift bomb at the Laistrygonians over the back of the car. It hits the pavement with a clink and explodes, vaporizing the one in the bib. "Nah, but I might as well be, amiright?" he says with a smug grin. 

"Don't worry about this," Calypso says to Tyrone, "just get us out of the town." Leo goes back into his belt to make more bombs, and just then red and blue flashing lights peel in behind them, and in front of the giants.

"Oh my gods," Leo says. "There would be cops."

Tyrone laughs, "Holy shit, this is the best thing that's ever happened in my whole life! I'm in a police chase!"

A Laistrygonian picks up the cop car by the back wheels and throws it at them. Calypso screams, and it lands in front of their car with a ten foot cloud of fire. Tyrone jerks the wheel sideways, and Leo thrusts his hands up and focuses on directing the fire away from vital organs and faces.

"Stay on the road!" he yells to Tyrone, who opens one eye skeptically and then straightens the wheel.

Leo creates a tunnel through the fire and they drive through it, avoiding the melting police car. When they come out the other side, Calypso and Tyrone are red like they've gotten sunburn, and a column of jet black smoke cuts the view of the blue sky. Only three giants stumble through the cloud, one must've burnt up. Leo picks up his half formed bomb from the floor of the back seat and continues to assemble it.

"We're almost out of here," Tyrone tells them. "Killing them would be good."

A giant roars behind them and Leo clicks the last piece in place and throws the bomb. It lands in the screaming Laistrygonian's mouth, and he's explodes into dust. Tyrone pulls onto a long highway, and mortals take out their phones to take pictures or Snapchat the three kids in half a car with two giants following them.

"Get back here! You killed my friends, and I want to eat you, spicy demigod!" one yells.

"Bro, I taste like dirt, you don't wanna eat me!" Leo yells back at them.

He doesn't want to make any more bombs, or set any fires for fear of mortals getting hurt. After the Buttercorn's, Leo was ready to never even worry about mortals again, but after meeing Tyrone he remembered that there are good ones, too. People that deserve rescuing from famous heroes like Leo. Tyrone continues to floor it, a determined look on his face. The wind has tousled his short brown hair, and Leo and Calypso don't look any better.

A Laistrygonian growls, and lifts a pick up truck over it's head. Leo yelps, "Incoming!"

The giant doesn't over throw this time, and instead the truck lands right behind the car. The gas tank explodes and the blast shoots the back end of the car up, and they flip over and over in the air.

Leo holds onto Calypso as tight as he can, as she's the only one without a seat belt, and she clutches Festus's handle tight in her hand. They skid to a stop on the side of the road, sparks flying from the car's metal frame as it slides along the pavement. They've landed on the passenger's side of the car, and the mortals screech to a stop, causing a traffic jam. Calypso groans in his arms, and he gently lays her on the ground.

"Haha! I got them!" says a Laistrygonian.

Leo looks up into the front seat, and sees the airbags inflated and blood dripping from Tyrone's temple.

"Lunch time!"

Chapter Text

Themis looks them over. "Hmm. I think Jason Grace should go first," she says with a clap of her hands.

Nico rests his hand on his sword hilt, "I really don't think this is necessary."

"I assure you it is, Your Majesty," she says. She waves her hands and many things happen at once. Two skeletons pour from the shadows and push Nico into the throne. He moves to get up but black leather straps shoot from the chair and wrap around his torso and wrists.

"The King mustn't exert himself," Themis says.

At the same time, Will, Piper, and Hazel's ankles are encased in stone, and a giant lion bursts through the amphitheater. Its absolutely gigantic, with golden fur and sharp steel teeth. Jason draws his weapon, and the lion roars so loud bits of rock fall in from the ceiling, and he gets a great view of its six inch teeth and pink tongue.

"Is that..." Hazel starts.

"Yes. The Nemean Lion," Piper says. The lion roars again and launches across the stone floor at them, its eyes locked on Jason. "Stop!" Piper charmspeaks. The lion scrambles to a halt, its silver claws scratching the stone with a metallic screech, landing on its butt, and then looks around confused.

Themis shakes her head, "No interfering with the other subjects, Piper!" She waves her arm and a cloth gag manifests in Piper's mouth. She pulls at it but it doesn't budge.

"It's fine," Jason says, raising his sword. "Save your energy, guys; I got this."

The lion crouches, hackles raised and leg muscles pulled taut, and Jason charges. He brings his sword down on the lion's forehead, a blow which should've cut its flesh, but his sword just bounces off its skin with a cling. He struggles for a moment to keep his sword from bouncing into his own face, and the lion blinks, momentarily dazed. Jason sees out of the corner of his eye Nico struggling against his bonds with all his might, cursing in every language he knows. The skeletons have taken to fanning him and trying to feed him grapes.

Jason dodges a pounce from the lion, tucking to the left in a roll (a move he learned from the Greeks), and sees behind it Hazel and Will trying to stab at the rocks around their feet as Piper watches him fight the lion nervously. It jumps up into the air, and Jason turns to run. The floor shakes as the weight of the lion comes back to earth, and Jason looses his footing and slips, but he retains his grip on his golden sword. He turns onto his back to see the lion's mouth closing in for a bone crushing chomp. He closes his eyes and makes a frantic swing with his sword, fearing the worst, but hears the lion whimper and opens his eyes.

The lion licks its bloody lips where Jason cut a gash in the corner of its mouth. Jason wills the winds to push him backwards, and he stands up. It seems the mouth is the only part of the lion he can hurt, so he looks around for something to throw. His eyes land on the clumps of rocks that have fallen from the top of the dome. He throws his sword at the lion as a distraction and dives for the rocks. The lion's maw drips with blood as it lifts its head to zero in on a target. Its eyes lock on Will, Hazel, and Piper, who are stuck in the floor, hacking at the stones around their feet. And it's closer to them than Jason is.

"Hey!" Jason yells. The lion and his friends look up in his direction.

Jason closes his hand around a large, pointed rock, and throws it at the lion. It bounces off its head, and the lion turns to Jason with a deep snarl. Jason grabs another rock and throws it, willing the winds to make it a straight shot. The rock lodges itself in the lion's throat and it retches and gags at the intrusion. Themis claps excitedly from the raised platform, and the lion stumbles around, gagging, until it falls to the floor and lays still.

"Excellent!" Themis cries. The lions corpse melts and shrinks until only the fur remains. Jason picks up his sword, and Themis lays the fur at Nico's feet. "An amazing homage, don't you think, Your Highness?"

"Yeah just great," Nico says, his wrists turning pink under the leather straps. "Now you've had your fun, we can go now, right?"

"No! Every subject must pay homage!" she says. A clipboard forms in her hand, and she glances down at it, and with the other hand she flicks her wrist. The stone floor climbs up Jason's ankles and seal him in place, across the floor from the rest of the group. "Next up is Piper," she says, and the rocks around her feet crumble away, and her gag disappears.

"Themis, stop, I didn't ask for this," Nico tries.

Piper nods. "You don't want to do this," she says, brandishing her dagger.

Themis pauses, blinks, and looks between Piper and Nico for a moment, before turning back to her clipboard. "Stymphalian birds," she says simply. And about a hundred small metal birds descend onto Jason's girlfriend, squawking and pecking her. Piper screams and slashes blindly with her sword, holding her other arm up to shield her face.

"Piper!" Hazel calls.

"Get away from me!" Piper screams, some of the birds retreat, and then end up circling around in the air to dive onto her. Some shoot celestial bronze feathers at her like arrows.

Will's eyes light up across the floor. "Piper! They hate noise!" he yells.

Piper seems to hear him above the loud screeching from the birds, because she immediately starts screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs. Jason fights a chuckle, and closes his palms over his ears. The birds flap around in a frenzy, and shoot away from her towards the far walls of the cave. Piper lowers her arms and hunches over, gasping for air.

"Interesting strategy, Piper McLean," Themis says. Piper looks up through her messy hair to glare at her.

"Stymphalian birds," she says in the same simple way that Themis had, only Piper's voice is laced with charmspeak. "Attack her."

Through the cave echos the sound of a hundred metal birds flapping towards the goddess Themis.

"No!" Themis yells, using her clipboard as a shield, "No attacking me!" She waves her hand and they all drop to the ground like giant metal raindrops. The stone floor climbs up Piper's ankles again, and Themis blows hair from her view. She glances down at the clipboard for what's next.

"Okay," Nico says seriously, eyeing Hazel and Will, "that's enough."

Themis ignores him, looking down at her clipboard. "Princess Hazel is next," she says, and with a wave of her hand the rock crumbles from Hazel's ankles like before. Jason eyes Nico nervously; he looks like he's about to snap.

"No," he growls.

Themis waves her hand, "It''ll be fine, honestly you must stop fighting. This is all completely necessary. It's been done at every coronation in history, more or less."

Hazel pulls her spatha from the strap across her back. "It'll be fine, Nico," she says.

"Yes," Themis says, "Her Highness understands custom." Themis glances down at the clipboard. "Sphinx for the Princess."

A slab of rock falls flat from the wall, where a lion with a woman's head struts into the amphitheater. Her hair tied back in a bun, and her face painted with makeup.

The Sphinx smiles with pointed fangs. "Welcome, lucky contestant!" she says. She has a yellow pencil tucked behind one of her ears.

Hazel's sword droops in her hands as she looks around nervously, "Me? Contestant?"

"Hazel Levesque, are you ready for the test?" she grins. Nico glances at Jason across the room confusedly.

Hazel pauses, "Test?"

"Yes, twenty questions. If you fail I eat you!" she laughs, her paws digging at the floor.

"Erm, okay," she says. Nico seems to relax a bit in his throne.

"What important bill was passed by the U.S government in 1957?" she asks.

"Um.." Hazel says, lowering her sword. Jason starts to get worried for her. She missed a lot while she was temporarily dead, and she might not be able to pass this test because of it. "I don't know."

"Okay, starting off rough, Miss Levesque. The answer was The Civil Rights Bill that ended segregation of blacks and whites," she tells her. Hazel's eyes go wide, and then her lips crawl into a small smile. "Next! What is the name of the first earth satellite sent into orbit?"

"I-I don't-" Hazel says, looking around at her friends.

"Wrong! It was Apollo 13! What was the highest grossing movie of the 70s?"

Hazel blinks.

"Top Pop Hit Music Single that came out in 1955 by The Chordettes?"

"Oh!" Hazel yelps with a jump, "Mr. Sandman!"

Jason smiles, though he's not sure how she knew that.

"Correct! What was the very first video ever to play on MTV?" the Sphinx asks. She takes cautious steps toward Hazel, who stands still, confused, the smile gone from her face.

Hazel sighs in resignation, "I don't know."

"Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles," the Sphinx says. She looms over Hazel, with a hungry grin. "Capital of Alaska?"

"Okay, let's just assume I don't know anything!" Hazel shouts with a wild slash of her sword. Her spatha cuts through the fur and flesh of the Sphinx's front paw, and she yelps in surprise.

"UNACCEPTABLE! Attacking the host results in automatic failure!" she snarls, and slashes the claws of her wounded hand across Hazel's chest. She's slapped across the floor and crashes into the step of Nico's platform with a groan.

"Hazel!" Nico cries over the campers' shout's of alarm.

The Sphinx stalks towards her, and Nico pulls harder at the straps, his face going red with anger and exertion. "Stay away from her!" he yells.

The Sphinx looks up at him from where she stands over Hazel's body, "Quiet, King. This one failed to pay homage and now-"

She's cut off with a loud scream from Nico, and countless skeletons and zombies pour from the walls and climb out of fissures forming in the floor. The Sphinx looks around in surprise, and Nico shakes with anger as the undead close in on her. Themis backs into the shadows behind her nervously.

"I said stay away from her!" he yells. Jason looks over to the other side of the room. Piper has her dagger wedged in between her feet and the stones and is prying the stone off of her while Will looks up at the action happening by the throne.

The undead have surrounded the Sphinx and begin to pile on her. Skeletons take off random bones from their body and beat her with them, and the zombies take bites of her flesh.

"No! Get off of me! You all will loose your prizes! Get off!" she wails, and soon falls silent. The skeletons and zombies disperse, all that's left of the Sphinx is a single yellow pencil. Piper cries out in triumph as the rocks around her ankles snap away, and she moves to run up the steps to Nico.

"No! This is not how coronations go!" Themis yells from the corner. She shrinks away from a zombie that wandered too close to her, and shields herself with her clipboard. "This is all wrong, we'll have to start over."

"Get out of here, Themis," Nico says, and a hole in the rock opens beneath her, and she falls into oblivion.

Piper cuts the straps securing Nico, and he stands, thanking her, and runs to Hazel's side. Jason jabs his sword into the rocks at his feet and manages to free himself at the same time that Piper frees Will.

"Thanks," he says, and they all gather around Hazel.

Nico's rolled her over onto her back, and they can see the gash in her forehead that the step gave her, and the claw marks in her side. Will winces in sympathy, and pulls his book bag off of his back.

"Will she be okay?" Piper asks.

Will pulls out a water bottle of nectar and drips it over her wounds, "Yeah, should be okay." He empties the bottle on her side, and her skin begins to stitch together. "Out of nectar though. No one else get hurt, okay? Doctor's orders."

The campers nod in agreement. "How are we gonna get out of this cave?" Piper asks.

"Hazel might be able to make us a tunnel out once she's awake," Jason says. "But we'll have to wait here."

They settle down in a half circle around Hazel, her head in Nico's lap. Will goes and pulls a Greek fire torch off the wall and sets it closer to them, mimicking the campfire he made outside of Melinoe's cave.

"All we gotta do now is get out of here, and find Leo and Hecate," Will states.

"Yep," Jason says. "Easy-peasy."

Chapter Text

"Get up! We have to keep moving!" Leo yells, and carefully unclicks his seat belt.

Calypso climbs to her feet, knives and Festus in hand, and reaches up front to release Tyrone's seat belt. Tyrone curses, placing his fingers to his head, and they all make their way off the highway into the woods on the side of the road. The mortals have made a wide berth around their wreck and drive around it. Leo can hear sirens in the distance, and shoves his hands in his tool belt again, quickly assembling another bomb. High on adrenaline, they hurry along, ignoring their injuries.

The Laistrygonians jump over the car and head after them, closing in fast. A drop of blood drops from Tyrone's temple onto Leo's shirt. Leo assembles the bomb on auto-pilot, and then chucks it over his shoulder. He feels the heat erupt behind them in a cloud, and pulls his friends behind a giant tree to shield them. A suspiciously large tree. So big they all hide behind it side by side, with room to spare.

"What's up with the roids tree-" Tyrone starts, and then they all fall backwards into the bark. Or where the bark should've been.

They land on top of each other in bright yellow grass. Not yellow like it had died, yellow like it had grown that way. Leo looks behind him, confused, and sees a tall double door, made of red wood and arched to a point at the top. He turns back around and sees a valley full of life, in place of the woods and highway they were just at. There are giant puffy trees with blue feathers for leaves, hanging from it are strange looking fruit. At the bottom of the valley are glimmering trees made of blue and white glass.

The sky is a light lilac color, even though it's not sunrise or sunset. Butterflies the size of cats flutter from tree to tree, and a large hut like building is nestled at the bottom of the valley, white puffy smoke coming from the chimney. The place reminds Leo of Ogygia, only weird.

"What the hell is this?" Tyrone asks, getting up and dusting off his shorts.

Calypso stands up, and Leo follows. "I think we fell into Narnia or something," he says.

He reaches over to the case in Calypso's hands, and flips the switch, and the dragon unfolds until he stands over them. Festus snorts steam happily and pats his feet.

"Should we go to that building?" Calypso says, pointing.

Leo shakes his head, "Probably the dumb thing to do, like following the killer in a horror movie."

"But it's so peaceful and quiet here, I don't think it's a trap."

Leo shrugs. "You've been right so far," he says, and they head down the hill to the hut, dragon hopping along behind them clicking happily.

As they get closer, they take notice of more things around them. The fruit in the feathered trees resemble peaches, but when Leo picks one up off the ground and breaks it, the inside is filled with a liquid that looks like lemonade, and tiny black seeds. A small animal runs in front of them, and they yelp in surprise when they see it's a tiny grizzly bear with stripes and a lion's mane.

When they reach the hut, they step off the golden grass onto a stone patio and Calypso's knocks. They hear the thudding of boots making their way across the floor, and the door opens.

The man that answers the door is young, maybe mid-twenties. He's blonde, with slight scruff. His smile is kind, but his blue eyes have a crazy glint to them that make the group all take a step back. A small animal comes from inside the house to stand at his feet. It's a tiny chick with the head of a bunny, the yellow downy feathers transitioning to fluffy yellow fur at the neck. It's ears twist and it's head tilts around in chicken-like movements.

"Hello! My name is Dinlas, welcome to Lamark! Please come in," he says. But they make no move to enter the strangers house.

Tyrone leans over to whisper in Leo's ear, "Dude, I really need explanations."

"Yeah, man, you'll get em," Leo says.

Calypso furrows her brow. "Dinlas... Sounds familiar," she says.

"Yeah?" Dinlas asks, putting his hands on his waist.

His arms are muscular and his shirt strains with the movement. Instead of his muscles enhancing his physic, they make him look more intimidating. Leo can picture his big hands reaching out and crushing his skull like a tomato. Tyrone whimpers quietly beside Leo... Okay, behind him.

"Yeah," Calypso continues. "Lamark, too. But wasn't it destroyed?"

Dinlas's eyes darken and he nods. "This is more Lamark 2.0. But please, come inside."

Calypso walks in, stepping over the chick-bunny, and Leo follows with Tyrone close behind. Festus rests his head through the door and looks around. The front section of the house has a kitchen and a living room. It reminds Leo of his grandmother's house. Like how none of the furniture matched and the carpet clashed with everything while still having a 'homey' feel.

There's a recliner seat in the living room, and one of the walls is entirely made of wooden cabinets. A fire place is stoked by the couch, pink flames licking the wood. Leo holds his hand up in a moment of wonder, and when he summons his flames he finds it's just regular fire. Yellow, red, and orange. The kitchen is small and humble, and in the corner rests a stand for fold up eating trays.

The curtains are drawn, and a small lamp is lit, but the room mostly has a pink tint from the fireplace. Dinlas makes his way over to the cabinets and starts pulling things out. His chick-bunny pet follows him and sits on his shoe.

Dinlas laughs and turns to them, his arms full of stuff, careful not to move his shoe too much. "Oh, this is Jane, my assistant," he says with a gesture to the animal on his shoe.

"Hi, Jane," Leo says. "I'm Leo, this is Calypso and Tyrone. Tyrone's... new."

"Ooh, Calypso. I've heard of you. Nice to meet you," he says. He sets the stuff in his arms on a side table. "Please sit." They do. "Well this is Lamark. I created this world so heroes who were hurt in battle could recover." He takes a bottle of nectar and passes it to Calypso, who starts to treat Leo's leg.

"Is there any weird time loop here in Lamark, Dinlas?" Leo asks with a wince as Calypso unknots the bandage on his thigh.

"Umm.. I think it's 267% slower here or something," he says. "Your friend here mortal?"

"Yeah," Tyrone says. "What ever that means, strange man with the strange animals in the strange place."

"Hey this is weird even for us," Calypso informs him, Tyrone doesn't relax though.

Dinlas moves to sit next to Tyrone, and cleans the blood off of his forehead with cloth and mortal antiseptic.

"So Tyrone, you know the Greek gods and demigods?" Leo starts.

"Yeah, everyone does."

"Well they're real, and the gods are still around. And they still have kids."

"Dude, what?" Tyrone laughs.

"Seriously. I'm a son of Hephaestus."

Tyrone thinks, and then winces when Dinlas begins to stitch up his temple. Calypso pours the nectar on his leg and Leo's skin begins to heal. The black infected part getting lighter and lighter until it matches the rest of his leg.

"Son of Aphrodite here," Dinlas adds.

"And those monsters we saw?"

"Laistrygonians, they once tried to eat Odysseus," Calypso says.

Tyrone turns to her, "What about you?"

"What about me?"

"Well who's your demigod parent?" Tyrone asks. Dinlas steps away and into the kitchen to clean up, leaving Tyrone on the couch with a line of stitches along his forehead. 

Calypso sighs, "My dad is Atlas, but I'm not a demigod."

"Oh. Yeah," he says. Jane hops over to them and sits on Tyrone's shoe, and he reaches down to pet her between her bunny ears. "So is this what you guys do? Run from stuff and go to really weird parallel worlds?"

"Mostly just running," Leo says. "We're going home, to Long Island."

Dinlas interrupts from the kitchen, "You guys want some burgers and shoom juice?"

Leo nods, "Whatever that is, I'm starved."

 


 

Shoom, the strange fruit from the feather trees, Leo finds does taste like lemonade. Leo wonders while he's drinking it if having feathered animals and feathered plants is kind of like having skin trees, and then pushes the thought away.

"Is this all you guys have? Two celestial bronze knives and a tool belt?" Dinlas asks later.

They're out back at an outdoor table set under some glass trees. Leo can see clusters of glass in different colors hanging from the branches, but they're too high up to tell what they are. Dinlas served them burgers, and the group was too afraid to ask what they were made of. They tasted okay, so Leo decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Haha, Greek jokes.

Leo sips his Lamarkian drink, "Well, I've got the fire thing. Super rare, kind of a big deal."

"Right, but your mortal friend here doesn't have anything."

Behind them, Festus playfully blows steam into Jane's face, and she peeps happily in response, flapping her wings. One of the stripped bears with manes (Dinlas called them Tigearion, which Leo thought wasn't very creative) joined them and the three play together. Sometimes they bump into the glass trees and Leo is afraid that they will shatter, especially with Festus's weight, but they never do.

"No, he doesn't. But Leo could give him a hammer or something," Calypso says, pulling Leo back to the conversation.

Dinlas shakes his head. "No, that won't do. A hammer isn't going to vaporize anything." He stands up, and the group tenses again up when they see his size. "These glass trees?" He gestures to the tree that the Tigearion and Jane are chasing each other around, "They grow weapons. Daggers, swords, the like. Climb it and take your pick. There's all different sorts."

Dinlas pulls some gripped gloves from his back pocket and tosses them to Tyrone, who catches then clumsily. Tyrone asks if he's sure, and Dinlas hurries him along in response. Tyrone slips the gloves on and walks over to the tree and starts to shimmy up the long glass trunk.

Leo finishes his drink and turns to Dinlas. "Are Iris messages working here, by chance?"

Nodding, Dinlas tosses him a drachma and directs him to a fountain behind him.

"Thanks. We'll be right back." Leo and Calypso get up and head to the fountain. It's made of grey stone, which seems out of place in the overly colorful world. The water is thin and rushes fast, creating a fine mist. A prism rests on the ledge and while Leo twists it around to make a rainbow he thinks of who he should call. Camp? Annabeth? Maybe Piper, she'd most want to know what's going on.

Tossing the coin into the rainbow and muttering the incantation, Leo says, "Piper McLean er... Where ever she is."

The picture in the water morphs to a large cave, and Jason, Piper, Nico, and Will all in a semi circle around Hazel. Her eyes are closed and her head sits in Nico's lap.

"Hazel?!" Leo exclaims, and the campers in the vision all jump at the sudden sound. "What happened?"

"She's fine," Will says. "She just bumped her head and... Well it's a long story but she's fine- where are you?"

Leo turns around behind him, taking in the feather and glass trees, the golden grass and purple sky. Tyrone is halfway up the tree, and Festus waits under him in case he falls.

Turning back around he says, "Long story here, too. What are you wearing?"

Jason wears weird robes that are ripped to shreds, Nico wears a crown (???) and a cloak that looks to be made of shadows. Hazel, Piper, and Will wear battered Roman and Greek armour.

"There was this thing..." Jason starts, and then shakes his head. "How did you get the Iris messages to work?"

"I dunno, man. Everything's weird here."

"I'll say," Nico says, eyeing the background behind Leo and Calypso. "So where are you guys?"

"Well we're in Lamark right now," Calypso says.

"Yeah, but we were in-" Leo turns around and cups his hands around his mouth. "YO TYRONE WHAT CRAPPY TOWN DID WE PICK YOU UP IN?"

Tyrone jumps, startled, and slides down the tree, and then scrambles to stay on. "Chesapeake, asshole!" He yells back.

"-We were in Chesapeake," Leo finishes.

"Who is that?" Piper asks.

Calypso rolls her eyes, "Leo's new project."

"Hey, just cuz he's mortal doesn't mean he needs to live a shitty unexciting life," Leo says, and crosses his arms.

Piper sighs. "You picked up a mortal?"

"Yeah, what of it?" Leo challenges.

She holds up her hands in defeat from the vision. "Nothing, nothing."

"So, where are you guys?" Calypso asks.

"Underground somewhere. We're waiting for Hazel to wake up and she can make us an escape tunnel, and then we can start to look for Hecate," Will says. Nico's fists tighten in the cloth of Hazel's ripped shirt.

"You... Haven't started yet?" Leo asks.

"Hey, it's been crazy," Jason explains. "We still have time though. Whats your ETA on CHB?"

Leo smiles at the use of his commonly used abbreviations. "Well, since were in Virginia," he starts, unsure, "I guess a few days. Then I'll make my grand return, and come and help you guys if you need it."

Piper smiles, "Sounds good, Repair Boy."

Leo hears Tyrone shout behind him, and turns around to see a bunch of glass daggers falling from the tree. Jane and the Tigearion diving out of the way and Dinlas shouting in surprise.

"We better go," Calypso says. "Tyrone is going to kill someone."

"Alright," Jason says. "See ya soon, bro."

"You got it. And hey, take care of Hazel. Take care of each other, really. All of you guys are the best and I'd hate to have to burn your shroud."

Nico nods determinedly, and Calypso waves her hand through the vision.

"Maybe we can get a hold of Annabeth later. She's super smart and might have like, top secret braniac info for us," Leo says as they head back to Tyrone. Calypso levels a warning glare in his direction. "Or maybe she'll be too busy with her very serious boyfriend to answer a message," Leo quickly saves. "Or maybe I'll be too busy being in love with you to call her. Just... A thought."

Calypso smiles and takes his hand, "Yeah, she sounds like a good idea. Was she the blonde one?"

Leo nods. They come to the tree, and Tyrone is shimmying down the trunk now. In the grass at their feet are a bunch of crazy weapons, all made of glass. An orange one smokes with heat, the tip set ablaze. A longer one like a katana is stone and dotted with dirt and earth, but it doesn't make it look any less deadly. There's another one that's blood red and thin, with a black hilt.

Tyrone drops to the ground with a thud, and Dinlas looks down at the weapons.

"So," he says, "any of these beauties calling out to you? I always thought that a persons choice in weapon said a lot about them. But no pressure."

Tyrone looks through the grass at all the blades. He pokes his foot at a bright yellow one that glows and shimmers, but turns away. He walks past a regular white glass knife, straight to a blue dagger with icy frost on it, and cold steam curling off into the air. The blade itself is wavy, and comes to a sharp point, and the hilt is moulded for grip. Tyrone picks it up, and weighs it in his hand for balance.

"This is so cooooooool," he squeals.

Dinlas laughs. "Alright then. I'll go get you a strap," he says, and heads inside. Jane and the Tigearion follow him inside, leaving Festus alone and sad under the trees.

"Why'd you pick that one?" Calypso asks.

Tyrone looks up from the weapon, and then to their interlocked hands, and back down at the frosty dagger.

"I dunno. I've always liked icy people and shit. But hey, now were like that ice guy and the flame guy from X-men, huh Leo?"

"Bobby and Pyro?"

"Yeahhh! This is sweet. Better then Chesapeake that's for sure."

Dinlas comes back out and Leo has the realization that this is Piper's sibling. It's so weird cuz Piper is all cool and kick ass and Dinlas is all scary but nice but crazy-eyed.

"So are you guys staying the night?" Dinlas asks and hands Tyrone belt strap for the dagger.

Leo does the math quickly in his head and figures that one hour here is only about 23 minutes in the mortal world. Making 24 hours only eight, so they could stay for a night or two and it wouldn't be a big deal.

"Yeah, we'll stay if you don't mind. Though we'll sleep outside with Festus."

"Alright. I'll bring you guys some stuff," he says, and heads back inside.

The sky has darkened to a deep burgundy red, like wine, and matches nicely with the golden grass. Festus yawns behind them and Leo chuckles at his new "real-boy" traits. Ever since Piper turned him on permanently by telling him he wasn't an automaton, he sleeps, yawns, and when Leo's on his back he can feel Festus's back move like he's breathing. Leo wonders if this means Festus has to eat now, but then he thinks that if Festus had to eat he would've said so by now.

Festus curls up in his signature sleeping position, leaving room between his head and tail for the three of them to sleep, protected. Jane hops over and flaps up to Festus's nose, peeping at him from her bunny mouth. Festus flashes his eyes at her and clicks.

"Aww, Festus made a buddy," Calypso says.

The Tigearion runs over to them and sits at Festus's chin, watching his friends play.

"We should name that little guy," Tyrone says.

"I like... Tucker," Leo says.

"Where'd you get that from?" Calypso asks.

He shrugs. "Where'd I get Buford or Festus? My creativity is effortless, sweetheart."

She blushes, "Tucker it is."

Dinlas comes back out of his home with a bag full of two blankets, three pillows, and a change of clothes for each of them.

"You guys can use the shower inside, too, if you want. And there's some toothbrushes and stuff in there, anything you need."

"Aww, sweet," Tyrone says. "I feel disgusting," and he takes off inside.

"Thanks, Dinlas. You've been so kind to us," Calypso says, taking the clothes and the bag of bedding.

Dinlas shrugs, and bids them goodnight, heading inside once again.

Leo and Calypso set up camp against Festus's side, and they take turns washing up when Tyrone gets back. Later they're all clean, and they settle in around the fire Leo makes for them. Jane and Tucker find spots to curl up in in their endless blankets, and Jane scratches her little claws in the bedding to make a teeny nest.

"I wonder why Dinlas set this place up for heroes," Calypso says.

Leo stokes the fire. "I dunno. Maybe he was cursed like you were. He seems nice though." Calypso nods. 
"I should call Annabeth and see if she knows anything about him."

"Alright. Dinlas left some drachma. I put them over there."

Calypso settles down against her pillow, and Leo supposes he's going alone. He picks up the coins from where Calypso pointed and heads to the fountain. He has to be more creative with making the rainbow this time since the sun has gone down, but a flashlight works just the same.

"O, Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, accept my offering. Annabeth Chase, please," he says, tossing the coin in.

The vision in the water shows Annabeth in the back of a crowded restaurant, with her hair up in her usual ponytail and an apron around her waist. She has a serving tray in her hands and someone with their back to Leo talks to her.

"-And you always need to make sure the shot machine is between 15 and 24. And all the labels on the jelly packets facing the left, okay Annabell?"

Annabeth nods along, looking like she wants nothing more than to gut this guy. Leo waves his hand, and she looks over the managers shoulder and her eyes widen in shock.

"Yeah, Jill, no problem. I better go clean the tampon boxes out now," she says with a clever smile.

The manager shudders and he walks off into the cooking area. Annabeth gives the worlds biggest eye roll and then looks around before turning to Leo.

"What are you doing, Annabeth?"

"I got a summer job at this stupid restaurant," she blows a strand of hair out from her view and puts her hand on her hip. "I designed Olympus and here I am waiting tables and cleaning french fries off the floor. And my manager who's too dumb to read my name tag won't stop haggling me about the coffee machines. This job is a pain in my braccae."

Leo pouts. "Piper doesn't let me have coffee."

"Smart girl. So what's up?"

"Well Calypso and I landed in this crazy place called Lamark, and there's this dude named Dinlas. I thought you'd probably know a bunch about it."

Annabeth straightens up in pride at being the girl people turn to for information (as if it was every any other way).

"Well, he was a son of Aphrodite and she didn't want him because hr was illegitimate, so she dropped him off in the Underworld. And the story goes that Hades took a liking to him and raised him."

Leo remembers the crazy glint in Dinlas's eyes and supposes he definitely could be a foster kid of the god of Death. I guess that makes him sort of related to Piper, Hazel and Nico.

"And as for Lamark, Ares hated it because heroes weren't dying in battle, so he tricked Dinlas into destroying it by promising him all of his spoils of war."

"Holy Hera. I guess he rebuilt it, I wonder why. Ares doesn't seem like a guy you'd want to double cross."

"No, you're right. Keep one eye open, Leo. Listen, I can't get a hold of the quest group. I found out some crazy stuff about the Crown of Ghosts," Annabeth says. Her eyes have gained an urgent look about them, and she begins to fidget with the string of her apron.

"The what of what?"

A voice calls from somewhere Leo can't see. "Annabell? Where's that girl, her whole section is waiting!"

Annabeth jumps and looks over her shoulder "Ugh, I gotta go. Tell Nico that the crown-"

Jill from earlier comes through the two way door and Annabeth squeaks in surprise, throwing her tray though the Iris message.

Leo flinches, and is left alone at the fountain, wondering what Annabeth needed to tell him. He heads back to his friends and finds all four of them already asleep. So he puts the fire out and crawls into the blankets beside Calypso and pulls her into his arms. 

Chapter Text

"Nnghh.."

Nico's head snaps down to Hazel's face in his lap where she groans, waking up. She reaches up and presses her wrist to her head, where the gash used to be from crashing into the stone step. She goes to sit up but Will presses her back down by her arm.

"Hazel, relax. Give yourself a few minutes," he says, and she nods. "I fixed you up with nectar, but you should take it easy for a bit."

Nico wants to take his hand, but settles for weaving his fingers tighter into Hazel's Camp Jupiter T-shirt. Will cares for his sister like he would his own, and Nico can't thank him enough.

"What happened?" Hazel says. "The Sphinx?"

"Nico obliterated her," Jason says. "It was cool... But scary."

Nico sighs. Back to being the scary kid no one wants to go within ten feet of. Business as usual.

"Yeah, Nico, that crown really juiced you up, huh?" Piper asks.

Nico nods. The weight of the crown rests heavily on his head, and when Themis put it on him it was like he could see and feel everything. He felt like a supernova. Like he could be vibrating with the energy the crown gave him. He must've summoned and dismissed two thousand dead in the last hour and he doesn't even feel the need to yawn. And ever since he's had it on he can see a faint trail of something leading across the floor of the amphitheater, where it goes into the wall.

"Well I think you should use it sparingly," Will says.

Nico nods, also agreeing. While power like this feels incredible, he knows it must have a price. He's only going to use it if he needs to.

"Leo also sent an Iris message," Piper tells Hazel.

She looks up at them. "What? How? Is he okay?"

"Yeah, he's fine, Hazel. Livin it up as Leo's do," Jason says. "He didn't have a scratch on him. He picked up a mortal though."

"What? Why?"

Piper shrugs. "Who knows with that boy."

Nico smiles. He likes Leo; he gives him hope. Leo confide in Nico on The Argo II that he always feels like none if his friends actually want him around. Nico gets that. But Nico sees the fondness in his friends eyes when they talk about the elfish mechanic. And how much joy the camp had when they found out he was alive. Who knows, Nico thinks, maybe they feel the same about me.

"Okay, I think I'm ready to sit up," Hazel says, moving to do so.

Nico lets her, and has to let go of her shirt so she can. He feels like a little kid again, letting go of his mama so she could go to work. He shakes the thought away, and clenches his fists in his lap.

"We need to find somewhere to stock up," Will says. "I've got no more water or nectar left."

Jason nods in agreement. "Hazel do you think you could make us a tunnel out of here?"

"Yeah," she stands and the group follows. Will steadies her by the arm. "Which way? Or do we even have one?"

Nico points to where the trail going into the wall, "There."

Jason pulls his eyebrows together, "Why there?"

"I can see it. It's like.. a trail of white fire or something, I don't know."

"Okay," Hazel says. She walks over to the part of the wall that Nico indicated, and Will stops to pick up the Nemean Lion fur from the ground. He drapes it over Nico's back like a blanket.

"I know technically it's Jason's," he says, "but I want you to have it. I don't think he'll mind. "

Nico just nods, because what does he say to that, really? Hazel places her hands on the stone and it crumbles away to make a door way, and the stone recedes until there's a long tunnel before them, with the white fire trail blazing right down the middle. Nico steps up next to Hazel and hooks his arm in hers.

"Okay, let's go."

They head down the tunnel, Hades kids in the lead with the group following close behind, and Nico calls out turns for Hazel to make when the fire disappears into the walls. He pulls the fur coat up over his shoulders when it begins to slip, and he feels the crown go cold against his head. A drop of water slides down one of the points and onto his skin, and he hisses in pain.

He stands in front of the campfire, three shrouds in his arms. He looks up and sees the rest of his cabin with looks of sympathy and pain. He has to lead them now. He's the new head counselor. He sighs sadly and drapes the golden fabric over the flames.

"For Lee Fletcher, Michael Yew, and Marissa Bard. May they reach Elysium."

"Nico are you okay?" Will asks.

Nico jumps, startled, and turns to him. "Uh, yeah. Let's keep going."

He reaches up to wipe the drop of water from his forehead but finds it gone. The trail makes a left, and Nico tells Hazel so. The tunnel changes to brick instead of black stone, and small gems push up through the earth, drawn to his sister.

Nico turns to look behind him, and sees Jason and Piper holding hands tightly, and Will twisting around his string bracelet on his wrist.

Hazel stops, "Which way now, Nico?"

Nico turns back and sees the trail going up and incline, and into the wall on the right.

"Right, but up a little."

"Are we going to surface soon?" Piper asks.

Hazel shakes her head. "We're pretty deep."

Piper sighs and drops her head onto Jason's shoulder. Nico shares the sentiment. He wants to get out of this cave.

They take a few steps up in the tunnel, and the trail continues on the floor. They walk for a bit when the brick floor suddenly stops, and Nico falls and lands in a deep pool of water with a splash. Piper quickly reaches out and grabs Hazel before she can fall in, too.

"Nico?" Will calls.

Nico surfaces, looking annoyed.

"Aww, now these shoes are ruined," he pouts.

Will smiles and rolls his eyes and crouches down to extend him a hand. He reaches up to take it when something closes around his ankle and he's resubmerged with a splash. Before he goes under he manages to catch a breath, and he reaches for his sword but another hand wraps around his wrist and holds him under. He kicks but he can't feel anyone around him, pulling him under. There wasn't much light in the tunnels they were walking in, but what little light there was is retreating slowly as he sinks down. Nico laughs at the irony of it all (how perfect to die drowning in the sea, like i have been the last three years) sending little bubbles up to the surface, before clamping his mouth shut. 

He kicks around and pulls at the hands on his wrists but there's nothing there to fight. He think about summoning some kind of undead to help him, but he doesn't know if they know how to swim. Nico loses all sight of the surface and the ache in his lungs is too much to bear, and he empties them in one long exhale, and the large group of bubbles crawl away to the surface. He closes his eyes, giving in, and before his vision fades he hears a very distant splash. 



Someone is punching him. Beating his chest in. Maybe dropping rocks on him- he gasps and water runs down his chin. 

"Holy shit," he hears Jason say. 

He coughs and coughs, and someone helps him sit up. He opens his eyes and sees Will in front of him, and Jason is the one with his hands on his back helping him sit up. Jason rubs his back and pats it until he stops coughing. 

"What happened?" he wheezes. His voice is weak and scratchy. 

"I don't know. You were fine, and then something pulled you under," Jason says. 

Hazel pushes the hair out of his face, "Jason went to get you when we saw the bubbles."

"Will did that thing where he beats on your chest until you breathe again," Piper says.

He stands up from the puddle he and Jason were sat in, and tries to slow his heart beat. "Why's it always me?"

Piper chuckles a little and gives him a one armed hug. "So how do we get across this?" she asks.

Nico looks up and sure enough the fiery path cuts right across the water. 

"Maybe we can go above it. Like, take another path over it," Nico says. 

Piper nods. "Maybe we should go to the surface first though. You guys need to dry off, and I'm hungry."

Hazel nods. "And Will needs nectar and stuff."

Hazel turns around and they lead through the tunnels to head to the surface. Nico and Jason shiver, wet with the icy water. Piper hangs off Jason's side, rubbing her hands on his arms to warm him up. Nico wishes he still had the Nemean lion fur, but he lost his hold on it when he fell in the water. 

"Man, I want my normal clothes back," Jason says. 

Nico had almost forgot. They were still all in armour and in Jason's case, the robes of his title. Nico the only one in jeans and his jacket. Nico takes his jacket off and tries to ring it out, his shoes squelching with every step. 

Will appears next to him, "Hey, Neeks, you okay?"

He nods, not trusting himself to speak thought his chattering teeth. 

"Gods, Nico. Your lips are blue," he says, and throws his arm around his shoulder. 

Nico would like to say that he reacted normally but he can't. Apollo kids are unnaturally warm being children of the sun god, so Nico sighed at the warmth and then wrapped his arms around Will. One around his back, and another around his front, twisting his fingers into his shirt (between the leather armour). Will smiles smugly above him. They reach a rounded ending to the tunnel made of brown stone covered in algae and snails. There's a ladder made of metal runs that lead up to a rusty metal manhole cover. 

Piper steps up first, "Alright here we go. Yay surface!"

Jason laughs and follows, and then Hazel. Nico detaches himself from Will to climb the ladder, and Will follows.

"Fuck," Nico curses. 

"What?"

"There's no Mist. This crown is gonna look goddamn ridiculous." 

Will laughs, "Maybe they'll think were cosplayers or something."

Nico doesn't know what that is but he hopes Will's right. He's had enough weird looks for a lifetime. Piper punches the manhole cover off and a shaft of bright light falls on the group. Nico squints his eyes to adjust and Piper and Jason climb out, and he bends down to help Hazel, Nico, and Will out. Nico looks around and sees they're in a fairly empty parking lot behind what looks like a mall. 

"Oooo, can we get those pretzels?" Nico asks.

Piper smiles and hooks her arm into his, "Why of course! What kind of mall visit doesn't have pretzels?" 

The two laugh and take off to the store, leaving the rest of the group to catch up. 

"Wait," Will calls, "we don't have any money."

Piper rolls her eyes, "Please."

Jason laughs like he just remembered something, "Oh that's right, Pipes! You stole a car!" 

Hazel fans her face in that cute old fashioned gesture she's known for, "Oh gods, you stole a car?"

"Well, I asked for it." Piper opens the door for them, "Not my fault they gave a car to a 15 year old girl."

They walk into a huge department store and split up in search of new clothes. Nico finds a pair of black jeans and a new set of converse (which makes him so happy he could cry (he wont)), and a black shirt with the word "no" on it in white font that Nico thinks is really funny so he picks that up, too. He sees Will getting a tank top and yells 'Surfs up, dude!' at him as he passes, which earns him a cute glare. He finds Hazel and asks her to take his clothes for him while he goes to the bathroom. 

"Sure, but Nico, don't you want something other than black?" 

In response he just holds up the front of the shirt for her, and runs to the bathroom laughing. There are two stalls and a power dryer, which is why Nico came. Jason has his head under it drying his hair. 

Nico kicks off his ruined shoes and throws them in the trash and then nudges Jason with his foot, "You stole my idea."

Jason straightens up and runs his fingers through his now dry hair. Picking his glasses up off a pile of clothes on the sink counter and putting them on, he gestures to the dryer, "Be my guest. Dunno how dry you'll get with that crown but it's worth a shot."

Nico does his best to dry it under the crown and when he feels it's dry enough straightens up and turns to Jason.

"Hey, I just wanted to say, er, thanks," he says, kneading the back of his neck. 

Jason rings out the front of his shirt into the sink. "For what?"

"For jumping in after me."

"Aww, Nico, we're bros. Besides, I wasn't gonna let the others do it with all that armour on. They'd've sunk like rocks. But believe me, Will wanted to."

Nico blushes and Jason give him the eyebrows again.

"Fuck off," Nico laughs.

Jason goes to toussle his hair but can't so he settles for just pushing his head. They go to leave when the crown becomes icy cold like before, and again a drop of water slides onto Nico's skin, and he cries out in pain.

The TV casts creepy looking shadows across the room. The screen is in black and white but Hazel can still see the red of the flags and the brown of the uniforms. The man stands on a stage and yells in German to a large crowd, who all clap and cheer. Hazel doesn't know what he's saying, but she doesn't have to. He's telling them how awful Jews are. Handicapped. Blacks. Mama says they're safe in America, but Hazel's scared anyway. 

Her mom comes in and presses the button on the TV, casting away the shadows.

"Hazel Lynn Levesque. I told you to stop watching this trash," he says. 

"But, Mama, what if-"

"That's enough. Go to your room and you'd better sleep tonight."

She runs upstairs to her tiny room and burrows under her tiny blanket and when she manages to fall asleep she dreams of a black and white man coming to take her mama.

Nico gasps and Jason let's go of his shoulders. "Nico are you alright? What was that?"

Nico raises his wrist to wipe the drop of water, but finds his head dry again. 

"It's nothing. Let's go."

Jason grabs him by the arm and pulls his back, "Nico."

"Alright. The crown's been giving me weird visions... It was of Hazel watching Hilter on TV in the 30's."

Jason looks at him like he just spoke Italian. "You're having flashbacks of other peoples lives?"

"No! Yes? I don't know!"

"Well you had another one right? In the tunnels? What was it?"

"Will burning shrouds of his siblings."

"That's terrible."

Nico nods, and Jason's eyes follow the movement and the crown on his head.

"Do you think..."

"What?" Nico asks.

"Well, you didn't see it but, Melinoe's charm? She like sucked all the bad memories out of us and turned them into this drop of water and then the crown absorbed it or something."

"Yeah, that's it. Don't tell the others, Jason. I don't want them to be uncomfortable that I'm... peeping into their worst memories."

Jason nods and puts an arm around him and picks up his pile of clothes from the counter. They leave the bathroom and find everyone at checkout. Jason gives the cashier his clothes and Nico turns eagerly to Piper. 

The cashier puts the last of the clothing in bags and looks up at the group, "$247.63."

"Dude," Will laughs.

Piper parts her lip in mock shock. "No, no. Your manager said we could each get an outfit for free... because we're poor, homeless children."

The cashier looks around confused, and then turns back to Piper. "I-I don't-"

"It's fine. You can trust me,-" she glances at the cashier's name tag, "-Emily. It's totally cool, everything is fine."

Emily blinks before taking the bags and out stretching her arm. 

"You're right. Sorry about that, have a nice day."

Piper takes them with a thank you and then turns to the group, "Book it!"

Nico laughs and hooks his arm in hers again all the way to the bathroom, where they split up and change. Now mostly dry (he ran his jacket under the power dryers but it's still damp) they regroup and head to the food court where Piper gets them pretzels and Pizza. 

"This is great, Pipes," Jason says, taking her hand under the table. "Thanks."

She bites her pretzel, "No problem."

Nico smiles, "I love watching you do that, Piper."

"And I loved watching you Hulk out on the Sphinx."

They laugh and just when they finish their food Hazel sees security showing up at the clothing store they were in. 

Hazel yelps. "Guys! Do you think we should leave now?"

Will turns and sees the guards and jumps up to throw out their trash, "Yeah, let's go!" 

They all sprint down the hall to the main entrance and Will stops someone that's coming in. 

"Hey what's the date?"

"August 7th."

"Okay. And where are we? Like on the map. The U.S map."

"California. You okay man?"

"Golden," Will smiles, and they all go outside. 

Sure enough they step out onto a busy street with the California sun beating down on them. Palm trees are grown along the sidewalks and between lanes on the road. Nico thinks it must be beautiful here at night, when all the lights are on. 

"How did we travel this far underground?" Piper asks. 

"Well," Hazel says, "we don't know where Themis's wedding was, and we haven't known where we were since Pittsburgh." 

Jason turns to them, "Right, so what now?" 

Nico looks around and sees the bright white trail blazing down the side walk. 

"Follow the trail I guess," he says, and they all step in line to follow him. 

"I guess it recalculated like a GPS or something," Piper laughs.

They don't attract much attention (except for one little girl who grabs at her mom and says 'Look, Mommy, a princess!' which the group (minus Nico) laughed about for blocks) and no security or police come after them. They've been walking for almost half an hour when Nico hears someone call his name. 

"Nico di Angelo."

Nico stops dead and looks around for the source of he whisper. 

"Nico?" Will asks. 

"Did you hear that?"

Jason looks at the girls and then back to him, "Hear what?" 

"Nico di Angelo."

"That!"

Hazel shakes her head and then her eyes go wide, "Someone's calling me!"

Nico nods and looks around, and soon enough everyone in the group is hearing their name. Nico is about to draw his sword when he sees a bright orange trail branching off from the white one that leads to Hecate. He heads after it without a word, and the group is left to follow. 

Chapter Text

The orange trail of light veers off into a dark alley, and then through a door. Nico glances up at the sign above the door, it reads:

Fortune Telling and Palm Reading by Madam Âme

“Mrs. Soul?” Piper asks.

Nico shrugs and places his hand on the door to open it when he sees a CLOSED sign over the window, where he can see the orange path continuing into the shop. He’s about to break down the window when a woman in a flowing orange dress pulls the door open without a word, and Nico steps inside, the group following hesitantly.

The inside of the room is decorated with hundreds of little waterfall fountains, and the sound of running water echos throughout the room. On shelves are pottery vases and jars, bottles of perfume and oil, and little cups of grains. Plants grow all around the room on every surface. Small clay pots of lilies, beds of ivy that climb the walls, and even little almond plants. To the left of the entrance is a glass case that serves as a counter that’s filled with crystals of all types. When the group enters, the clusters of amethyst, moonstone, and quartz slowly shift towards them, pulled towards Hazel. From the ceiling hangs paper cut outs of butterflies, sheep, and ants, which Nico thinks is a strange choice.

The woman, who must be Madam Âme, is barefoot, her feet decorated in toe rings and ankle bracelets, her toe nails painted a seafoam green. Her curly brown hair is done up in a french twist with crystal pins holding it together. Around her neck she wears a necklace made of various phases of the moon. But these things aren’t what the campers first notice. From the woman’s back protrude two giant monarch butterfly wings.

“So, do you... drink a lot of Red Bull?” Will asks. Piper elbows him in the ribs, “Ow!”

Madam Âme smiles, and her wings give a small flutter behind her, and in a heavy French accent she says, “You are here because you heard zee voice calling to you, no?”

“Yes,” Hazel says. “What was that?”

The gems in the case are all pressed against the glass now, piled on top of each other, drawn to her like magnets.

Madam Âme smiles and nods, and gestures to the back of the shop. “Okay, we do zee fortune telling now.” 

The campers exchange glances and Hazel leads the way, following Madam Âme through a curtain of orange and brown beads. The back room is small, and filled with more waterfalls and plants. There is a round table covered in a silver table cloth, with three stars pictured on it. Around the table are five light blue plush chairs.

 Madam Âme picks up a deck of cards from the center of the table and circles around them, shuffling. Everytime she passes a camper, she inhales deeply, and places a hand on their chest, smiles, and moves on to the next camper. When her hand lands on Nico’s chest, she pulls it away instantly as if she’d been burnt, and a drop of water sizzles on Nico’s temple. 

Pulling her eyes away from the pictures on the wall and the stacks of ancient records, she presses the ‘call’ button on the computer. After a quick update from Coach Hedge, Mellie pulls him away by the ear.

“Come on, you old goat. Stop hogging the screen.”

A second later her dad appears, “Pipes!”

He looks back to normal: stubble, bright eyed, and dazzling smile. Her chest aches with conflict. Yeah, she wants him to be happy, but she also wants him to remember who she is, and who Mom is, and what she did to protect him. She begins her mental countdown, timing how long she has his attention for.

“Hey,” Piper mumbles, “you feeling okay?”

“Honey, I’m so sorry to worry you. I don’t know- I’m not sure what happened, honestly. But I’m fine. Coach Hedge has been a godsend.”

“A godsend,” she sighs. “You don’t remember anything?”

“Of course I do,” he says.

Piper feels her heart warm with hope. “You do?”

“I remember that I love you. And I’m proud of you. You’re a wonderful young lady. I don’t tell you that often enough. You remind me so much of your mother. She’d be proud. And Grandpa Tom, he always said you’d be the most powerful voice in our family. They’re going to remember me as Piper McLeans’ dad, and that's the best legacy I can imagine.”

Piper feels the hope in her chest turn icy with rejection, and tears sting her eyes. Her dad doesn’t remember anything, but he still loves her. That’s something. They say their goodbyes and Piper reflects sadly that in the past forty-five seconds she’s had more loving words from him than she can remember in her whole life.

Nico bites his tongue on a yelp of pain, and looks up at Madam Âme, and he swears he sees he glaring at him, but before he can look again it’s gone and she has her palm pressed into Piper’s chest. Stepping back, she circles around again, this time placing three cards in front of each of them, sometimes emitting tsk-ing noises or small gasps. Nico looks down at the floor and sees the orange trail is connected to Madam Âme’s bare feet, and follows her as she passes out cards. He supposes they’re going to have to stay until something goes terribly wrong.

Madam Âme places the rest of the cards in the middle of the table and says, “Okay, who will go first?”

Hazel looks up from her cards to look at her and full of confidence says, “I will.”

“Hazel Levesque, of course,” she says, and alarm bells go off in Nico’s head, and he shares a knowing glance with Jason across the table.

Madam Âme saunters over to Hazel where she sits next to Nico, her toe rings clicking on the hardwood floor, and places a black nailed finger on the first card.

“Zee Eight of Clubs, lots of traveling, and zee Six of Clubs means success. Your last card Ace of Spades ez a warning of traps.”

Hazel brings her hand up to her teeth to bite at her nail, and Madam Âme moves to the next person, Nico.

“Nico di Angelo, your cards show a good future. Zee Four of Diamonds shows a safe period, a great catharsis, Ace of Clubs ez you will receive aid from someone unexpected, and ooooh ze Queen of Hearts shows love in your future!”

Nico blushes, and Jason holds his hand over his mouth to muffle his laughter. Nico kicks him in the shin under the table, and he curses. Madam Âme places her fingers on Piper’s cards, and Piper looks down at them with interest.

“Two of Spades shows a misunderstanding in zee distant future, ze Four of Hearts is unclear, but it ez telling you not to be too dependant in love,” Piper nods, and Jason’s eyes widen. “Queen of Diamonds. An ambitious, dominant, woman will bring about positive results.”

“Piper, I-”

She places a hand on Jason’s leg. “Shh, it could mean anyone.”

“Right... Wait, what?”

Madam Âme interrupts them by placing her hands on Jason’s cards. Unlike her toes, she wears only one ring, a gold and silver band that looks strangely familiar to Nico.

“Jason Grace, pay attention, your cards do not look good,” she says. Jason turns his attention to the cards and Madam Âme taps her finger nail on the first one. “Zee Seven of Spades. Someone will get very sick and zee Three of Hearts means it will be a close friend. Zees card is good, ze Joker. Means a return.”

Everyone at the table perks up. There’s only one person who the ‘Joker’ card could mean.

“Lastly, Will Solace. King of Clubs, you worry too much, child. Relax. Nine of Hearts, the thing you are aiming for will be realized, and Ace of Diamonds means an important letter.”

“What does that mean?”

“You not pay attention, no?” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “Ez no matter. Now we must discuss payment.”

She holds her hand out and the cards all fly onto the top of the deck in the center of the table. Nico’s eyes land on the ring on her hand and widen in recognition. And he groans in pain, grabbing at the ice cold crown on his head.

Nico stands in a pile of dead grass as Jason cuts an arrow out of the air that was headed straight for his own chest. Jason pulls him by the arm up the steps as a gust of wind topples a column that would’ve flattened them like crepes.  

“Is this guy Love or Death?”

Nico doesn’t think the two are so different.

Ask your friends, Frank, Hazel, and Percy met my counterpart, Thantos. We are much the same. Only Death is kinder.

“We just want the scepter!” Nico yells. “Are you on the gods’ side or not?”

An arrow hits the ground at Nico’s feet, glowing white hot, and he stumbles back into Jason as it erupts into flames.

Love is on every side, and no one’s side.

An arrow zips past Jason, who swings too late, and it sinks into Nico’s sword arm. His eyes blurr with a vision of Percy on the bridge in New York, thousands of monsters around him and Percy cutting through them like butter. Not a scratch on him. Nico stumbles, and regains his footing in the present.

He feels his hands shake with anger. “Enough games! Show yourself!”

A costly thing, Cupid says, looking at the true face of Love.

Jason thrusts his sword into the sky and thunder shakes the valley, and a crater forms where the voice had been. The valley grows quiet, until a gust of wind knocks Jason to the ground, sending his sword across the road.

A good try, but Love cannot be pinned so easily.

A wall collapses, and Jason barely escapes.

“Stop!” Nico calls, “It’s me you want, leave him alone!”

Poor Nico di Angelo. What have you risked in my name?

Nico hefts his sword up. “I’ve been to Tartarus and back,” he snarls with false bravado. “You don’t scare me.”

I scare you very, very much. Face me. Be honest.

No, Nico thinks, and the earth around him shutters and cracks. “Give us the scepter. We don’t have time for games.”

Games? Cupid snarls, and slaps him aside into a granite pedestal.

He groans in pain, curling up into a ball, and Jason yells over the wind, “Nico, what does he want from you?”

Tell him, Nico di Angelo. Tell him the real reason you’re a coward. Why you ran from camp. Why you’re always alone.

Nico screams, and the floor splits open. Nico uses all the pain and fear he has in his body to summon as many dead as he can without dying himself. The energy rolls off of him in literal waves, and Jason stumbles at the force of them. The dead wrestle with an invisible force, and Nico falls to his knees, defeated and heart broken.

“I left camp because of love,” he says. Evading, he continues, “Annabeth… she-”

Still hiding.

Jason clears his throat, and in a barely there whisper says, “Nico, it’s okay. I get it.”

Tears roll down his cheeks, “No, you don’t. There’s no way you can understand. I hated myself. I hated Percy Jackson.”

Nico feels a tear running down the side of his nose and quickly wipes it away, shocked at the vision of his own memory.

“Nico?” Will asks, “You okay?”

Nico nods, shaking it off.

Madam Âme looks around at them, “Payment, no? My services are not free.”

Piper laughs nervously next to Nico. “Madam Âme, perhaps you could put it on our tab?”

“Don’t you pull your mother’s evil tricks on me, girl!” she snarls, all trace of her accent gone. “I know all about Aphrodite, you’re lucky I haven’t killed you already!”

Will rubs at his temples. “I’d like to buy a vowel.”

Nico perks up in recognition. The ring, Aphrodite, the vision, Madam Âme.

“You’re Psyche, right? Cupid’s wife?”

Jason smirks, “You sure know a lot about Cupid, Nico.”

“Too soon.”

“Sorry.”

Psyche smiles. “Yes, I am, very good, di Angelo. He’s told me a lot about you. And you, Jason Grace. As goddess of the soul I know every soul individually. And the souls are drawn to me, which is why you heard your names called.”

Piper knits her brows. “But what did Aphrodite do?”

Hazel looks between Psyche and Piper, “Well she was mad because Psyche was so beautiful, and people weren’t worshiping Aphrodite anymore.”

Psyche nods, “So beautiful, that when your mother sent Cupid to make me fall in love with an ugly man, he fell in love with me himself.”

“Yeah,” Jason nods, “and then there was that whole thing where you weren’t allowed to look at his face, but you did, and Aphrodite made you repent by doing all these hard labours in the Underworld.”

Psyche scowls, “Yes, that wretched woman.” She slams her hands down on the table, “But we seem to be evading the subject of payment.”

Will turns around to look at her, “We don’t have any money, erm, Lady Psyche.”

She shrugs, “That’s fine.” Her hand reaches out and she grabs him by the throat, “Your souls will do.”

Chapter Text

Leo doesn’t get much sleep that night. He stays up thinking about what terrible ominous information Annabeth failed to pass to him, that the quest group needs to hear. During the night, he finds himself jerking his eyes open, not sure if he was actually asleep or not. When Calypso and Tyrone get up for breakfast in the morning, Leo is not completely aware, but already awake nonetheless.

Calypso pulls a brush through her hair while she sits on top of the blankets, "So what did Annabeth say?"

Leo pulls her pillow up against his chest and hikes his leg up over it in a koala bear hug. "Summin 'bout sumethin she really had to tell my friends. The message ended before she could tell me."

She puts the brush down and places her hand on his shoulder, "Leo, sweety, are you okay?"

"M'tired."

"Why don't you just... call her again? See what she had to tell you?"

"No more drachma," he says, giving in and sitting up. "But we should be going. She told me some stuff about Lamark, and so we should ski-daddle like," he rubs his eyes, "yesterday."

Calypso stands and offers a hand to help him up, and they head inside, Jane and Tucker following happily, leaving Festus asleep in the sun. They find Tyrone watching reruns of Friends in Dinlas's living room, and Dinlas himself in the kitchen.

Tyrone waves, and Dinlas peeks around the fridge to ask them, "You guys want pancakes?"

Leo shudders at the memory of breakfast with the Buttercorn's, and beside him Calypso blurts, "No, thank you."

Dinlas shrugs, "Okay," and heads back into the kitchen.

Leo plops down next to Tyrone on the couch. He pays him no mind, eyes glued to the screen. The audience laughs at something on the show, probably Chandler, and Dinlas brings them plates of toast and bowls of cereal.  After they finish eating Leo asks Dinlas to spot him one last drachma, and then he heads back out to the fountain.

Just as he’s lifting his wrist to toss the coin into the water a voice booms across the valley.

DINLAS!

Leo flinches and shoves the coin in his tool belt, “That’s my cue to leave. Festus! We gotta go!”

The dragon perks up, immediately alert, and runs around to the front of the house. Leo heads back inside and finds Dinlas in a full suit of armour and brandishing a sword, Calypso and Tyrone standing in front of the TV, blades out.

"I think we'll be hitting the road now," Leo says.

Dinlas nods and follows them outside, where Festus stands protectively over Jane and Tucker. "Guys, you should take them with you. And this."

Dinlas hands him a dark red backpack, which Leo slings over his shoulder without a second thought. A fireball explodes in the sky, raining down clusters of flame and setting feather trees on fire.

Leo pulls his giant hammer from his belt, "Take Jane and Tucker? Are you serious?"

"Yeah. And I know what you're thinking, but you'll be surprised. ”

Festus books happy enough, so Leo shrugs. He climbs up on Festus's back and helps Calypso and Tyrone up. Another explosion shakes the valley. Dinlas picks up Tucker by the armpits and passes him up where Calypso takes him into her lap.

"What will you do?" Leo yells over the noise. "This is your home!"

Dinlas kisses Jane between the bunny ears and passes her up to Tyrone, "I'll be okay. Gods can't die."

Calypso shakes her head, "No, but if their realm is destroyed they can."

Dinlas thumps a fist on his armoured chest and grabs onto a niche in Festus's armour on his tail. "I'll be fine, I'll escort you to the door, make sure you get through okay."

Festus snorts and heads up the hill towards the giant red door that leads them back to the normal world. They dodge falling, flaming branches, but they don't need to worry about the glass. When Calypso asks, Dinlas tells them the glass from those trees never breaks.

A bright streak is cut across the sky, like a tear in fabric, and the lilac sky is split open. Fire pours out, and Festus swerves to avoid it. Just as they close in on the door, a man appears in front of it, blocking them. He wears sunglasses and a leather jacket, and towers over them almost twenty feet. In his hand he holds an aluminum bat, and knives are strapped to his every limb. Dinlas hops off Festus and faces him, and Tyrone whimpers, hiding Jane into his shirt.

"DINLAS, YOU HAVE DISOBEYED DIRECT OLYMPUS ORDERS. WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF, PUNK?" the voice of Ares booms. He clenches his fists and more fireballs appear from nowhere, crashing into the landscape.

Dinlas unsheathes his sword, and over his shoulder says, "Just get to the doors, I'll handle this."

He runs forward with a battle cry and shoves his sword through the top of Ares's giant leather boot. The god of war lunges at him, shrinking to normal size, and the sound of Dinlas's sword clinking against the metal bat echos around them. The two gods move lightning fast, allowing the group only small glances of the fight. Everytime they catch a glimpse Ares has a new weapon. First the bat, then a machine gun, and then a classic sword, a spear, you name it.

The movement stops abruptly, and they see Dinlas sprawled in the golden grass, Ares spear tip at his chest. Dinlas makes a gesture with his hand to them to go to the doors, and Festus takes off. The door frame glows and opens, and the last thing they see is Dinlas kneeing an Olympian god in the groin as fireballs rain from the purple sky.

 


 

They emerge from another large tree and are immediately overwhelmed with the sound of roaring water. Leo turns towards the sound and finds them on a hill overlooking Niagara Falls. It was morning in Lamark, but here it’s around ten at night. The falls are lit up by green, blue, pink, and orange lights, and thousands of stars twinkle overhead. Across the river waves a large canadian flag, and Leo suddenly misses Frank. First Ares (yeah, not Mars, but close enough), and then this. At least they’re in New York and getting closer to camp. Jane peeps in Tyrone’s hand breaking the awed silence of the group.

“Wow,” Tyrone says.

Leo looks down the hill and sees the dock for Maid of the Mist. Taking Calypso’s hand he says, “Let’s take the boat tour.”

Her eyes light up and she smiles the biggest Leo’s seen since he showed up at Ogygia the second time. They leave Festus and Tucker on the hill (with Festus in charge), and Leo tells him he’ll blow the whistle if they need him. Tyrone decides to keep Jane and he pets her between her tiny ears the whole way down the hill. The fireflies come out of the woods and blink around them, and Calypso leans her head on Leo’s shoulder, swinging their arms between them.

They reach the dock and Leo stops to look through Dinlas’s bag. He finds a leather weapon strap like Tyrone’s, and in the holster: a clear glass blade, straight edged and simple. There’s a pouch of drachma, a bottle of water, a bottle of nectar, some mortal first aids, and a bag of mortal cash. Leo shouts a small cheer and takes it out, paying for the tour, and they each get a blue rain poncho with the Maid of the Mist logo on it.

They board the boat and it being so late at night, only a few people are on it with them. A few couples, maybe on a first date or newlyweds. The speakers play slow R&B, and Tyrone puts Jane on his shoulder in the poncho. Leo’s puts his arm over Calypso's shoulder, pulling her close. The boat takes off and seagulls soar low over the choppy water. Leo feels the tension leave his body, and is watching the water from the falls crash onto the mossy rocks below, when he sees a ripple in the water, like someone threw a giant pebble in the river.  

Calypso picks her head up, seeing it too. The ripple grows and shimmers, and the top of a head emerges from the water. Then a face, and soon enough a woman towers twenty feet over the boat, which has come to an emergency stop. Her hair is dripping wet, but maintains its tight brown curls. On top of her head rests an iron tiara set with blue pearls. Across her chest are many strings of seaweed, and she wears arm cuffs like Calypso, only iron. Where her stomach meets the water, her pale blue skin transitions to snow white scales. her delicate features glower down at the passengers on the boat.

“I thought I smelled demigod blood,” her sultry voice booms.

Leo purses his lips, “I don’t smell that bad, do I?”

A giant white fin splashes out of the water, and slaps the boat. The fin is jagged, like it’s been cut up. Tyrone, Leo, and Calypso grab the rails tightly as the boat tips and then straightens out.

“I am Lady Niagara, and I’ve been dormant for too long. I hunger for godly flesh.”

Leo tries to ignore the comment about wanting to eat him. Everyone does, lately. “Well, I've been all over putting old ladies back to sleep lately; you’ve got the right guy."

A wave comes over the boat and douses everyone on the lower deck.

"So, are you like a mermaid or some kind of mega-nymph?”

She growls and slaps her tail against the boat again, and they hold on as it tips in the other direction.

Tyrone elbows Leo in the ribs. “Dude, stop. Play nice with the giant blue mermaid.”

“I am no nymph, Leo Valdez. Now enough talking,” she raises her cuffed wrists, and the water around the boat begins to rise. “I woke for a godly meal. But don't worry, the mortals will not be wasted, I assure you.”

As the water begins to rise, the mortals scream and run to the upper deck, and Leo grabs Tyrone by the shirt to stop him from following. They look over the railing and see small figures swimming around, punching holes in the ship's hull, their multicolored fish tails like ribbons in the water.

“My children will take care of them just fine.”

Leo wishes Percy was here; he'd know what to do and stop them from drowning. Maybe even convince the mermaids to take a chill pill. Jane peeps angrily in Tyrone’s hands. Tyrone looks down at her confused, and she flaps erratically out of his hands and over the rail into the water.

"Jane!" he cries, and they all look over the edge.

Tyrone looks like he wants to jump after her, but the mermaid’s sharp teeth make him think twice. The mortals pass out life jackets, snapping them back into action, which the three put on solemnly. The water starts filling in through the rails, and they step away from them when the mermaids push their hands through to grab at their feet. Leo turns and leads Calypso and Tyrone to the upper deck.

Leo squeezes Calypso's hand, "When we get to the top, and when I say so, we have to jump."

"Like Titanic?" Tyrone asks.

"Yeah. The water is gonna rush in, and the pressure will suck the boat under."

They get to the top and push their way to the upper decks rails. The mermaids have broken the railing down there and pull themselves onboard and across the floor by their arms. Leo pulls his hammer out of his belt with one hand, and keeping his hold on Calypso’s with the other, the water rises faster and at the same time the mermaids begin to climb the stairs. Some mortals kick them in the face to send them back down the stairs, but they learn fast and bite at their feet.

“It’s no use,” Leo tells them. He turns around and sees the water close enough to pour into the upper deck soon. “Everyone jump!”

Tyrone, Leo, Calypso, and the handful of mortals that listen to a fifteen year old kid with a hammer all jump over the rail into the thrashing icey water infested with mermaids. Leo goes under with a splash, and the choppy current tries to separate Calypso from him, so he pulls her closer by the hand he still holds in his grasp. They wrap their arms around each other, and start to kick up when hands close around their feet, and pull them down. Leo opens his eyes, feeling the sting of the water, and smacks a mermaid in the face with his hammer.

She yells in the form of large bubbles, and lunges at him again. She lands a scratch across his cheek, and suddenly a giant talon lands on her head, and twists her neck. She slowly sinks down out of sight, long black hair like a cape behind her. Leo goes to look up at his savior when another mermaid grabs him from behind, ripping him away from Calypso. Leo’s lungs are aching and he needs to get to the surface. He kicks at the mermaid and she bites down on his shoulder. The talon returns cutting her throat, and she sinks in the same way.

Leo closes his eyes tight, fighting the urge to inhale. Something closes around his shirt and pulls him out of the water. Splashing out in the surface he gasps and opens his eyes. Tyrone and Calypso swim together beside him, arms linked, and the mortals around them look around confused. No mermaids move to attack them, and Niagara has disappeared.

The grip on his shirt loosens and drops him, and he treads water. He turns around to see who it is, and gasps in shock. Floating in the water is a large yellow bird, like as big as the boulders they swim beside. Insidead of a beak, the head of the bird is a fluffy (but wet) head of a bunny, with blood around its muzzle.

“Jane?” Leo asks incredulous.

She squawks loudly and begins to shrink, growing smaller until she’s once again no bigger than a wallet. Tyrone reaches out and picks her up and places her on his shoulder, smiling.

Leo remembers Dinlas's words: I know what you're thinking, but you'll be surprised. 

"She's alive," he says simply.

"Where did Lady Niagara go?" Calypso asks.

Leo swims over and takes her hand again, relaxing. "I don't know, but I want to get out of the water and get away from her ASAP."

They swim over to the rocks under the misty spray and carefully climb up the moss and algae covered stones. They see rescue boats coming from the dock to pick them up, and while he waits, on a whim he tosses a drachma into the rainbow made by the lights and the water. No luck, and he sulks the rest of the wait.

When they and the mortals are rescued, the mortals babble to the rescue team about the heroic kids who helped them jump and their giant chicken who saved them from flesh eating mermaids. It's clear to Leo that they don't believe them, but in attempt to humor the shaken up men and women, a rescue member asks Leo if there’s anything he can do for them.

"Some dry clothes. And can I use a computer?" he asks, and pulls a whistle out of his belt and blows it.

 


 

Leo sits with Calypso and Tyrone in a small office. His feet up on the desk, and working a contraption in his hands. Calypso watches, while biting her nails, and Tyrone pets Jane in his lap, baby-talking her.

The boat had picked them up, and after he blew the whistle Festus showed up in the sky over them, Tucker sitting happily on his back. Even from a hundred feet in the air he could see Festus's look of "now what did you do?". He quickly pulled out a flashlight and sent him "H-O-V-E-R" in morse code. Now they are in the office of a near by police station, with Festus on standby overhead.

Being in the station makes Leo a bit nervous, but he doesn't have much choice. He pulls a USB cord from his belt, strips an end, and connects the exposed wires up to his device, and plugs the USB end into the computer. Typing in the IP address on the calculator on the machine, he opens up the webcam program.

The window on the screen shows a 'connecting' icon, and then the face of Annabeth, who jumps three feet in the air at the sudden appearance of Leo's face on her laptop screen.

"Leo! You scared the hell out of me!" She rests her hand on chest to steady her heart beat. "I'm glad to see you Leo. I can't get a hold of anyone. Its so frustrating."

"Yeah, I should probably show you how to do this," Leo flicks his eyes to the clock in the lower corner. "Annabeth, what are you doing up at 11:45?"

She rolls her tired, grey eyes, and rests her head on her hand. "Piper showed me this website, Tumblr, and it's so time consuming. But why don't you tell me why you're in a police station. Again."

"Well, I couldn't stop thinking about what you had to tell me, and then there was this thing with Ares, and then Niagara, and then Tyrone’s chicken must've eaten a Mario mushroom or something-"

"Leo."

"Sorry."

"I had to tell you about the Crown of Ghosts," she sits up, suddenly alert, and her fingers fly across the keys of her laptop. "I did some digging and I found out that-"

"Yeah? Annabeth, I'm on the edge of my seat!"

She shoots him a look. "Well.. the crown will kill the wearer if they wear it for more than three days. It uses their energy to show the path."

"Shit. Nico's wearing it now, who knows how long he's had it on?!"

"I know! We have to figure out how to tell them. Iris messages don't work, airplanes might, but it might not get to them in time and we can't take the chance."

Leo looks around the office, and at his device again. "Well, do any of them have cell phones? It doesn't have to have service."

She shakes her head, "Too dangerous, you know that."

They sit in silence, thinking. Tyrone sighs, and Calypso yawns. 

Annabeth jumps up, her eyes wide, "Nico took his iPod!"

"Hmm... That could work. Does he have... Like a facebook? Gmail?"

Annabeth blinks. "He's a seventy year old demigod, I really doubt it."

Leo slumps in his chair, and spins it slowly, looking at the equipment around him in the office. “Well… technology always gives off ping, connected to a cell tower or a Wifi tower or not.” 

Annabeth nods along, understanding, and Calypso furrows her brow and looks to Tyrone, confused.

“So… We could find his location, and send him a message through something else in the area,” he says, finishing his spin, and facing the computer again. “But we’d need a serial number or something. A username… or a number.”

He pulls at his hair and Annabeth rummages through her surprisingly messy desk. “Oh my gods, I think I still have the box.”

“Why?”

“The iPod was a gift from Percy.”

Calypso looks up from her chair in the corner, suddenly interested again. Annabeth pulls open drawers and shouts in triumph, holding up the box. She rips it open and pulls out the little sheet with the serial number, rattling the number off to Leo, who writes it down. He looks through the computer for a locator program and opens it, typing the number in. 

“They’re in... Los Angeles, California,” he hops on Google maps and looks for electronic stores near Nico, and the map lights up with red pins. “Ooooh, good news.”

“Yeah?” Annabeth asks.

“Yep. I just have to code a message, hack the Los Angeles cable network, and override the display of any TV’s near their location, and hope they see at least one,” he says with a smug smile.

Calypso, Tyrone, and Annabeth blink silently.

Annabeth smiles, “You can do that?”

Leo cracks his fingers, “Please.”

 

Chapter Text

Before anyone can say anything, protest, yell, or fight, Psyche is pulling a thin, white wisp from Will's throat. Will's eyes widen, and utter chaos breaks out. Nico’s stomach plummets, and they all stand, drawing their weapons. Psyche lets out a whistle, and from the front room thousands of fluttering fairies with butterfly wings come in and keep the demigods busy. They scream in their ears, scratch up their arms, and evade the swings of their weapons. Piper tries to turn them on Psyche, but they don’t even pause to consider it.

Psyche pulls the wisp slowly from Will's mouth, like unraveling a sweater, and Will’s eyes flutter closed, “My pyskhai will not harm me, child, it’s against their nature.” She strokes Will’s cheek, wrapping his thread of life around her fingers. “Don’t make this hard for yourselves. Yield, and there will be less pain dealt out to you.”

Nico cuts a pyskhai out of the air, and it drops to the floor with a thud, his eyes never having left Will’s form. Piper looks over to him, with tears in her eyes, “Nico, do something!”

Electric current zips down his spine at the order, and he thrusts his hand out on instinct. The crown grows hot and burns him, like Melinoe’s water has turned to molten lava. He focuses on keeping Will’s soul inside of him, and getting it away from Psyche. The wispy thread of Will’s soul responds, and slides between Psyche’s fingers, slinking back down his throat. Her hands close tight around it in shock, and she looks up to glare at him.

“Meddling fool. I am a goddess. Stay out of my way.”

She yanks on the soul, and Will makes a terrible lurching sound. Nico’s chest tightens at the lifeless way Will’s head hangs, supported only by Psyche’s other hand. Nico tries his best to get his soul out of Psyche’s hands, but she’s right. She is a goddess. But that doesn't make her invincible, does it? He drops his sword, lifting his other hand in hopes it will give himself leverage.

The wisp responds in kind, and squirms away from Psyche, trying to rejoin with Will's body. She closes her fist around it, and Nico sweats with exertion. Hazel, Piper, and Jason are crowded into the corner by the door frame to the front room. Jason cuts his sword in an arch, sending zaps of lightning, and the psykhai hiss and fall, burnt to a crisp.

Psyche inhales deeply, like she’s smelling a sweet perfume, and the string comes loose from Will’s throat like floss, and curls around her hand. Will slumps down in his chair, lifeless and pale. Nico feels a cold tingle down his arms and up his back, sensing the death in the room. His heart shatters, and Psyche looks up at him with triumph.

“Gods,” Hazel gasps.

Nico lets loose a guttural scream, and the walls crack and crumble around them. Psyche jumps, startled, and clutches Will’s soul to her chest. Nico holds his hand out beside him and his sword flies back into his grip. He swings it up and lands the tip across the table and into the small of her chest, shattering her necklace and cutting a gash across her collarbone. The shards of the stone fly outwards, slowing down until they hover in the air, turn around and impale themselves into her eyes.

She screams and drops the soul, clutching at her eyes. Nico zeros in on the soul as it flutters to the ground, and wills it to rise, catching it before it hits the ground. Psyche looks up, golden ichor dripping down her cheeks and covering her hands and chest, glaring bloody daggers at him. He holds his hand out to Will, and the soul obeys, jumping from his hand and snaking its way down his mouth where it disappears. Will’s chest heaves, arching up, before slumping down again, motionless.

Nico shakes with anger, and Psyche’s wings flutter nervously. Behind her, Hazel, Piper, and Jason swipe at the fairies, managing glances at them between combat. Every time one fairy dies, two more pour from thin air. Psyche’s black nails grow into claws, and Nico brings his sword around and swings, knocking the table and chairs out of the way. He heaves his sword down and stabs it into the ground, causing a crack to branch out and make its way to Psyche.

She seems to snap out of her shocked daze, and spreads her claws, thick vines of ivy and blackthorn sprout from the ground and wrap around Nico’s legs, and climb up to his torso, the thorns cutting through his clothes and jabbing him. She crouches to lunge at him when a loud crash like glass breaking sounds from the other room, and behind her Hazel swings her hands towards Psyche. Thousands of crystals and gems follow the motion and smash through the wall, embedding themselves in Psyche’s right side. She yelps, and Nico twists his sword in the ground, opening a fissure that swallows her up into the ground. She screams, clawing at the ledge, but before she can flutter out, it seals closed with a zip.

He cuts the vines from his body and sheathes his sword. Buzzing with strength, he carefully scoops Will out of his chair and carries him outside. The group follows, walking backwards and swinging at the psykhai that remain, holding up the rear. Their shoes crunch on the broken glass of the display case, and Nico lays Will down on the sidewalk in the sunshine. Piper comes out last and shuts the door quickly, trapping the psykhai inside. The crown finally cools on his forehead, and Nico stumbles, his eyelids drooping wearily.

Nico bursts into the Big House, smiling, cheeks red, and a scarf tied tight around his neck. "Hey!" He looks around and feels his smile drop from his face "Where's my sister?"

Percy looks up at Chiron in surprise, and pulls himself out of his chair. "Hey, Nico." Placing a hand on Nico's back he turns him around and opens the door, "Let's take a walk, okay? We need to talk."

They step back outside into the cold,  and Nico feels a sense of dread engulf his whole body. He knew he felt something, that cold chill a few nights ago. And the dreams? They were too vivid for dreams.

He doesn't say a word the whole walk. Percy talks, and Nico has to tilt his neck back to look up into his eyes. He tells him his sister died bravely, and she sacrificed herself for the quest and her friends. But Nico doesn't care about the quest. The wind rips through the hill, and their shoes crunch the snow. They end up at the dining hall when Percy pulls out a small toy from his pocket.

Handing it over he says, "She wanted you to have this."

He takes it and turns it over in his hands, instantly recognizing it. "You promised you'd protect her."

"Nico, I tried. But Bianca gave herself up to save the rest of us. I told her not to, but she-"

"You promised!" He pulls his eyes away from the statue to glare up at his hero. Tears sting his eyes, and he clutches his fist around the little god statue. "I shouldn't have trusted you. You lied to me! My nightmares were right!"

Percy's eyebrows pull together in concern, "Wait. What nightmares?"

But he doesn't deserve information. He throws the statue down, not wanting anything to do with anything Percy has  ever touched. Including this camp. "I hate you!"

Percy recoils and tries to placate him, "She might still be alive. I don't know for sure-"

"She's dead. I should've known earlier. She's in the Underworld right now being judged, I can feel it."

Tears roll down his cheeks, and Percy puts a hand on his shoulder, "What do you mean you can feel it?"

He pushes Percy off of him, and Percy draws his sword. Nico gasps, jumping back. Behind him stand four skeletal warriors, and Nico recognizes them from Mythomagic.

"You're trying to kill me!" he sobs, his chest aching with fresh betrayal. "You brought these... These things?"

"No! I mean, yes, they followed me, but no! Nico run, they can't be killed!"

"I don't trust you!"

The skeletons surround Percy. He fights and slashes, but every time he cuts one down they reform and knit back together. He tells Nico to run, and the skeletons quickly overpower him. Nico presses his hands over his ears, helpless to save him, not knowing if he wants to save him. He can't hear himself think over all the noise, can't decide what he's feeling.

He squeezes his eyes shut, coiled tight, and yells, "Go away!"

The ground swallows the skeletons up in seconds, and Percy manages to escape the fissure that forms in the ground. Silence falls, and he hears Percy ask how he did that. He doesn't know. He shakes with fear and grief, terrified of himself. Percy almost died, too, like Bianca, only it would've been his fault.

He steps back, his voice shakes, "Go away, I hate you, I wish you were dead!"

But the ground doesn't swallow Percy, for which he looks grateful. Nico couldn't do it. He couldn't let Percy die, too. He already feels so alone. He runs down the steps, and into the woods, allowing himself to finally wail and cry and scream. He runs and runs until he collapses at the base of a tree, exhausted, scared, confused, and worst of all, alone. 

He falls to his knees next to Will, exhausted and with a splitting headache, and a new ache in his chest for Bianca to match the one he feels for Will now.  They crowd around Will, and Jason pulls Will's bag from his shoulders to see if he has anything, but finds nothing. Will was already low on supplies to begin with.

"Will?" Nico calls, his voice cracking.

Nico places his palm on Will's chest, where he can somehow feel the soul. Will feels cold, something Nico is not used to associating with Will. His legs give out and he collapses completely, and drops across Will's chest, his nose brushing the fabric of his shirt. His eyes sting, and he swallows a lump in his throat. He wants to cry and scream, but not in front of his friends.

He feels a hand rub his back, and he turns his head to face Will. He lets out a gasp. With his ear pressed to Will's chest, he hears a heartbeat. He sits up just in time to see Will's eyes fly open, and his chest expand in a large inhale. He tightens his fists in Will's shirt and pulls him into his arms. Piper, Jason, and Hazel all exclaim happily, and surround him in an embrace, forming a giant group hug.

Not letting go of them, Piper slaps the back of his head, "William Solace! Don't ever do that again!"

Nico agrees, and Will laughs airily, catching his breath. They break apart, and Nico pulls himself to his feet, blushing. Will glances up at him, but Nico's eyes are far away, looking down the road. All of the TVs in the window of a store down the street flash red and white briefly, before stopping on a plain white background with big black text: NICO CAN WEAR CROWN 3 DAYS B4 RIP -L.

"Nico?" Jason asks, "You okay?"

He jumps and looks away quickly, "Yeah, sorry. The trail is back," he lies. "Come on, we don't have much time."

"Okay," Hazel says, helping Will up. "Let's get walking."

"No, that's not fast enough. We need to get as far north as possible today."

The psykhai scream and hiss from the other side of Psyche's door, and pound on it to break it down. And Nico half smirks with an idea.

 


 

Will holds his hands tight over his mouth and his eyes shut tight. They soar over California, each held up with seven psykhai. Two for each shoulder, one for each foot, and one holding them up at their waistbands, resulting in massive wedgies. Piper flies ahead, keeping the fairies focused. Jason flies without their help, soaring along on his back with his hands behind his head trying not to laugh at Will.

Hazel smiles, "I didn't know you were afraid of heights, Will."

"I'm so not," he whimpers, his voice muffled behind his hand. "These jerks are just really unsafe, okay?"

The fairies holding Will are particularly rowdy. As they fly they switch spots, leaving Will in a free fall for a few moments, and every time, without fail, Will screams. And they laugh, demigods and fairies together.

Hecate's Trail glows below them and Nico feels on top of the world, literally and figuratively. Just the thought of wasting the day walking on foot, making it maybe 10 miles, had the palm trees around them dying. He feels better knowing they'll make some progress today.

Every time they pass an electronic billboard Nico tenses up, waiting for Leo's message to reappear, but it never does. He feels the chill of water on his skin and prepares for a vision.

An explosion rocks the sky, and they look up just in time to see Gaea explode in a fiery super-nova. The battle rages on but the hearts of the Greeks stop; in the sky Jason calls out for Leo, with no answer.

He's shocked at how short it was, but it didn't affect him any less. He's left with a loud ringing in his ear, and his headache worsens. He wonder's whose memory that was, as everyone in the group was upset by Leo's explosion.

"Nico, your nose is bleeding," Hazel says.

Will opens his eyes to look, and Nico presses his fingers to his upper lip, and sure enough they come back bloody.

"It happens at high elevations," Jason says.

Nico nods along, but he knows it's from the crown. His nose suddenly feels like it's been punched. He presses his sleeve into it and waits for it to stop. They turn their attention back to the scenery below them. One time they pass a Target billboard with a silver arrow straight in the middle in a bulls eye, and Jason gets a far away look on his face. Nico thinks of Bianca, and presses his sleeve into his nose.

After night fall Hazel, Will, and Jason ask to stop because of how cold it's gotten. Nico and Piper pulls their jackets tight around themselves and they agree to touch down. Piper tells the psykhai and they descend, and in Will's case, play hot potato. When they land, Will makes a big show of hugging the sidewalk. Nico laughs, and the group smiles, like they're getting use to the sound.

They walk for a while, and Will walks beside him. Nico's glad he stays close. He likes being able to look over at him and make sure he's still breathing. He never wants to see Will that cold and lifeless again. They assume they've made it far north, because it's very cold. Not enough to snow, but enough to redden their cheeks.

Nico lies still on the bed, and he can barely see him. He can see right through him, actually. He rests his hand on his arm, but it goes through and lands on the bed. He pulls at his hair, paces, and twists his bracelet around nervously. How is he supposed to treat a patient he can't touch? How is he supposed to react when that patient is Nico and could very well vanish before his eyes. 

Nico winces, and tightens his fist into his side, pinching himself to distract him from the burning in his head and chest. He looks over at Will, who's walking along look around like nothing happened. He's never seen himself in the visions. He can't believe Will was worried enough about him that Melinoe took the memory as painful.

The sun is setting, and they pass a hotel. The smell of hot chocolate emanates from the revolving door, and the promise of warm blankets and hot coco is so inviting that they don't even realize that they've gravitated towards it until they're standing in the lobby. They get coco from a machine in the lobby while Piper gets them two rooms: Piper and Jason in one, and Hazel, Nico, and Will in the other. And after a sleepy elevator ride, they split up, but not before Hazel pulls him aside.

"Nico, how did you do that? Back at Psyche's? You put Will's soul back."

He shrugs weakly, it seems like such a long time ago. "I think it was the crown. It must've been."

"I won't lie, that was terrifying. But I'm glad you did it. Will's... Important." she states, with a knowing smirk.

He crosses his arms over his chest, "It was terrible, and then I couldn't stop thinking about Bianca and-"

She reaches out and squeezes his arm reassuringly, "It's okay, Nico. Everyone's here, thanks to you."

"I... I don't want to lose anyone else ever again."

She sips her coco and nods. "Get some rest, okay?" she pulls him in for a hug, and Nico kisses her curls. "Don't run yourself into the ground, we have time."

He nods, feeling guilty for keeping Leo's warning from her, and heads to Jason and Piper's room. Piper's in the bathroom, and Jason's sitting on a chair flipping through the TV.

"Jason?" He gulps, "Could I talk to you in the hall?"

Jason downs his hot coco and follows him outside, closing the door behind him. Jason pulls him away from the door, and they sit across the hall.  

"What's up, man? Start with the visions, I know you had some at the table."

Nico nods, "The first was Piper, her dad didn't remember anything about her." Jason nods. "And then I saw Psyche's wedding ring and I was trying to remember where I'd seen it, and-"

"Cupid?"

He nods, "And then, when I took Will outside, it was when Percy told me Bianca died."

"Shit, Nico," he puts an arm over Nico's shoulder, pulling him close.

Nico's long since given up on telling Jason not to hug him. He's never listened anyway.

"Then it was when Leo died."

He doesn't tell him about Will's vision. It feels too personal.

"And it's hurting you? The crown?"

"Yes, I... Have to tell you something else, too."

Jason pulls back to look at him, "What?"

"Outside, there was an electronic store, and on all the screens was a message from Leo. He says that I- we have three days... to save Hecate."

He doesn't tell Jason about his fate if they fail either; he doesn't want the attention. Jason nods, dropping his head against the door with a thud.

"Alright, well then we've got to hurry. I'll think of something-"

The door across from them opens, and Will peeks into the hall, "Oh, sorry. Um, is everything okay?"

Nico pulls away from Jason and stands, "Yeah."

"Please, get some sleep, Nico," Jason says.

Jason ruffles his hair and they split up and go to their rooms. It's small, with a bathroom off to the side. There's a coffee maker, mini-fridge, microwave, and a TV. Nico pulls a blanket from the closet and a cream soda from the fridge and curls up in the plush arm chair in the corner, as there are only two beds. Neither Hazel nor Will protest, knowing it would be a waste.

Hazel spends five minutes in the bathroom before tipping over and falling asleep, on top of the blankets and everything. Nico takes out his iPod and looking it over sees watermarks under the screen. Cursing, he tries turning it on with no luck. He puts it off to the side with a pout.

"Nico!"

Nico's heart jumps at the voice, and he looks down the mast to the deck of the Argo II. Percy smiles up at him holding a plastic bag.

"Get down here."

Nico climbs down and is met with the full force of Percy's excitement. He's practically bouncing, and the sea below them is churning rapidly in response to his energy.

"What?"

Percy hands over the bag, "I got this for you."

Nico narrows his eyes in suspicion and takes the bag. He finds a box and pictured on the front is something Nico doesn't recognize. Some new age technology.

"Wh- what is it?"

He smiles, and Nico has to physically stop himself from swooning, "It's an iPod. You listen to music on it, and it holds like a zillion songs. You can ask anyone to help you with it, they all said they would. I think you and Thalia would have similar tastes, if you ever-"

"Why did you get me this? I mean, thank you, but I don't..."

Percy shrugs, "Just trying to get you and Hazel caught up."

How is Nico supposed to be getting over him when he does things like this?

"How did you get this?"

"My time in the Hermes cabin wasn't wasted," Percy ruffles his hair. "I'll catch you later, 'kay?"

Nico nods weakly, sort of smiling, and watches him go. Percy heads to the head of the ship, and throws his arm around Annabeth, kissing her hair. She looks up and smiles. 

He returns to his lungs aching, and he coughs into his hand. When he pulls it away, even with the lights off, he notices a small drop of blood. Will looks up from organizing his bag, narrowing his eyes.

“You alright? You’ve been acting weird lately.”

“Yeah, I’m just... anxious,” he says. He drops the iPod into the trash bin beside him. “Don’t think I’ll be able to sleep.”

Will looks over at Hazel, who is spread eagle and takes up the whole bed all by herself.

“Well, I’ll stay up with you if you want.”

Nico half smiles, and Will scoots to the end up the bed, with the blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

“So, how was your first day as king?”

“It sucked.”

Will’s eyes widen, “What? Why?”

“Okay, well first I was strapped to a chair and watched all my friends get attacked, and then my sister get ripped apart and her head split open.”

Will winces at the memory, “Yeah, but nothing happened to me, that's good, right?”

Nico shoots him a look, “And then I watched a goddess rip out your soul.”

“Right. Still here, though.”

“Thankfully.”

“So, do you think Psyches fortunes are... like, accurate?”

“I hope so, a catharsis sounds pretty good right about now.”

Will laughs, and then looks over at Hazel to make sure he hasn’t woken her.

“Besides, they have to be true. She said you worry too much.”

“What? I worry the exact right amount, Deathboy. What where your other cards?”

“Uhm… aid from an unexpected person,” he blushes, “and I don’t remember the other one. And you have a letter to look forward to.”

“Wonder who it’s from,” Will sing-songs. Nico furrows his brow, and Will waves his hand. “Anyway, if we’re gonna stay up all night, might as well get some food. Wanna go see if they have breakfast open at midnight?”

Nico nods and get up, following Will outside. He’s barefoot, and still has the blanket hanging around his shoulders. He pads over to the elevator and presses the button and they get in.

“So, what were you talking to Jason about?”

“You’re so nosy.”

“I’m just wondering.”

“Just worrying,” Nico corrects.

The elevator doors ding open and they step into the lobby. No one is at the front desk, and all the lights are out. It's eerily still and quiet. People hurry by the windows , and cars and lights blink and flash outside.

“Just trying to stay in the loop,” Will looks around for a sign that directs them to the dining room. “I mean, I wasn’t on the around-the-globe quest to stop Gaea; I’m the new guy.”

Nico rolls his eyes, “Yeah, well I-”

From outside, they hear a woman screaming and calling for help. They exchange looks and hurry outside, Will dropping the blanket behind. They get outside and look around for a commotion, and a barefoot woman in white hospital scrubs crashes into them. Nico catches her by her bruised and cut up arms and she looks up in shock. Her hair is wild and half of it is pulled back, and she has large, round, glasses that make her eyes look twice as big as they probably are. A golden catholic cross hangs from her neck, and she grabs Nico by the shoulders, digging her nails into his arm.

“Please, you have to help me. You have to save them!”

Chapter Text

Will looks her up and down, evaluating her. "Save who?"

The woman wraps her hand around Nico's wrist and pulls him down the street, leaving Will to tag along behind.

Nico hurries after her, trying to move his feet as fast as she does. "Do you have a name?"

She looks back at him, her magnified eyes wild. "Riley."

Will catches up, and falls in step beside him. "You know, patients wear white scrubs in mental hospitals," he mutters.

"Oh gods," Nico curses.

Nico wishes they’d brought their swords. Foolishly, they left them back in the room. But, honestly, who would've expected something to happen on their way to midnight breakfast? Riley pulls them into an alleyway, and Nico finally pulls his wrist free. She stops in front of a wooden trap door. It looks extremely out of place in the asphalt. The wood is rotting away, and the alley way is dimly lit by a neon sign, casting bright pink light over the three of them.

She turns to them, shaking, "They're in there."

Will glances down at Nico, and back at her, "Who?"

"I escaped. But they're still trapped. The angels told me I would find you, and that you would help them."

Nico wonders if he looks as confused as he feels.

Will glances over her again and steps up to the trapdoor. "Okay, we'll be back with... them. Wait here, kay?"

Nico's eyes widen, and he crouches down next to Will, who begins to rip the door open. The rotting wood falls apart in his hands in damp splinters.

"You cannot be serious. This woman is out of her mind," Nico whispers harshly. "Also, this could be a trap."

"I think it's like when someone's sleep walking," Will wonders aloud. When Nico spreads his hands in confusion, he elaborates. "You know, like how you're not supposed to wake them up?"

Will swings his feet into the hole, and sits on the edge.

"So you're saying 'humor her'?" Nico asks.

"Yeah," he says, and jumps down.

Nico runs his hands through his hair, and looks up at Riley. She is toying with her cross necklace, muttering to herself. The neon light changes from pink to red, and Nico turns and jumps into the trap door. It's dark on the way down, but he lands on something soft.

"Ow. Why do you always do that?"

"Sorry," Nico mutters, standing up and dusting his jeans off. "It's really dar-"

Suddenly the room lights up from a single, buzzing light bulb hanging from a metal lamp in the exact center of the room. It reveals a perfectly square room, the walls, floor, and ceiling all painted snow white. The room also shows no visible exits.

"I was right; it was a trap."

Will clenches his fists, “It’s cool, we’ll be fine.”

He hurries over to the walls, running his hands over the smooth surface franticly.

“Will? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be super once we get out of here.”

Nico jumps as he feels the sting of Melinoe's water against his skin.

Will pounds on the closet door, and his mom’s boyfriend yells at him to shut up. He sits down on top of his mom’s shoes and under her coat, and tries not to cry. His tiny body shakes with fear. He’s always been scared of the closet; that’s where the monsters are. And from the closet he can’t see the sky. The crack at the bottom of the door flickers blue light in from the TV, and Will tries to steady his breathing. It’s so tight in this tiny closet. He misses the sun.

He sits in there, crying and shaking, for what must be hours. He hears the front door open and the click of his mom’s heels, and the sound of her setting her keys on the table.

“Mommy?”

“Will? Where are you, baby?”

He hears a grunt from the living room, “The little brats in the closet.”

Will hears her heels clicking quickly across the floor, the door rips open and she pulls him up into her arms. Through his wet eyelashes, Will can see the sun setting out the window. The rest of the evening is spent with his mom brushing her hands through his hair, holding him to her chest, as she packs up their things.

Nico’s vision blurs all into one color, and back again. His blood feels like lead, and he struggles to stay standing. Will, for once, doesn’t notice. He looks around desperately for an exit.

“You’re claustrophobic?” Nico squeaks as he stumbles to lean against one of the walls.

“What? No, it’s just-”

Nico puts a finger to his own lips, shushing him, and Will looks up, confused. Nico looks around at the once perfectly square room, which is now definitely a rectangle.

“Will, the walls are closing in.”

He pulls his hands through his golden hair, “Oh, you feel it, too? We gotta get out of here-”

“No, I mean really closing in. Look,” he says.

He turns and makes a scuff mark with his shoe where the floor meets the wall. They stand there silently, watching, the only sound Will’s ragged breathing, until it disappears under the wall. Will runs over to the hole in the ceiling, where they jumped down.

He cups his hands around his mouth, yelling, “Riley!”

She doesn’t answer, and Will swallows nervously. He turns to Nico, his eyes blown wide and sweat beading across his forehead. Nico reaches out to squeeze his forearm.

“Hey, Will, it’ll be okay. We’ll think of something. Just relax, just breathe.”

Will gasps for air, “I’m not… having trouble… breathing….”

Nico pats his shoulder, looking around, “Just put your head between your knees or something and I’ll get us out of here.”

Will obeys, and Nico runs along the pristine white walls, looking for… well he doesn’t really know. Anything would be helpful. He’s about to suggest Will boost him up so he can get help, but by time he makes it outside, the hole will have closed. And Nico doesn’t really want to leave Will alone for this. Nico himself is starting to panic. They fell right into a trap, and there’s no way out, and they're going to be crushed to death. Nico braces himself against the wall, pressing a hand into his chest to steady his heart beat, and pushing against it with his back, digging his heels into the floor.

“Oh my gods, what are we going to do?”

Will whimpers from the other side of the room, which is getting smaller by the second. “Well first our ribs will shatter, and if we survive the shards making swiss cheese out of our vital organs, we’ll live to feel our skull-”

"Will!”

Will straightens up, and pushes against the wall opposite of Nico, his shoulder muscles taut as he attempt to stop the wall with all his might. “I can’t believe we’re gonna die like this. There’s still so much I wanted to do.”

“We’re not gonna die,” Nico murmurs, his sweaty palms slipping against the wall. The room is closing in fast, and Nico and Will both on opposite sides stand five feet from each other. “What’d you want to do?”

“I wanted to-” his shoulder slump and he turns around to face Nico, putting them face to face. “It’s not important.”

“Will-”

Will clears his throat, “For what it’s worth, there’s no one else I’d rather be crushed to death with.”

Nico feels his face try to accomplish its dream of becoming a tomato, and the walls close in tighter, pressing them chest to chest. Well, because of their height difference, Nico’s face into Will’s neck

“This is it. Bye, world,” Will sobs.

The light shatters, sending them into total darkness, and the pressure increases. Will reaches out in the darkness and takes Nico’s hand, squeezing it so hard that Nico thinks if they make it out of this somehow, Will is going to have to treat him for a broken hand.

Nico winces as the wind is pushed out of him, his ribs and lungs constricting. Nico squeezes his eyes shut and Will wheezes above him, and then... suddenly it’s all over. Nico loses the feeling of Will crowding him, and he reaches his hands out in the darkness and finds no walls around him. For a second, he believes he’s dead, until he hears Will loudly gasping for air somewhere below him.

Nico hesitantly opens one eye and finds them in another room, smaller than the first, and Will hunched over on all fours on the floor. He clutches his chest, gasping, and Nico kneels beside him to rub his back. His knees land on soft padding, and looks around to find all the walls covered in grey cushions. He jumps in surprise when he sees a figure sitting in the corner of the room.

Some of her long, black, hair hangs in her face, and her head is bowed low. Her arms are secured tightly by a straight jacket, and snoozing next to her is a large dog. On her other side sits an oil lamp, and a pair of thick, round, glasses.

"Riley?" Nico exclaims.

Will lifts his head to look, "What are you... What's going on?"

Riley mutters.

"What?" Nico asks.

She lifts her head, her eyes are half closed lazily in high contrast to her wide blown eyes on the street before. She looks like she's been hit with a tranquilizer.

"The angels," she repeats. "Do you hear them?"

Will sits back, "What? No! Listen, Riley, get us out of-"

Will's eyes glaze over and he twists around, looking around the room wildly.

"Will?" Nico asks nervously.

Will clutches at his ears, and curls into a ball on the padded floor. Riley smiles wickedly, and the lamp flame flickers beside her.

"Hey, stop whatever you're doing to him!" he shouts.

A quick movement flashes in his peripheral view, and he turns to see it. It flashes again, and he turns the other way.

The way the mind rotts...

Nico turns towards Riley, assuming she's the source of the voice, but she doesn't seem to have moved. Will screams beside him. Not in pain, but like he's screaming over someone else.

"Stop it!" Nico yells.

The dog stirs, and climbs to its feet. It crouches, its teeth bared in a snarl, and white foam drips from its maw.

It's all in your head... We maniai know your deepest fears...

"What?"

The flame in the lamp goes out, and suddenly he can no longer hear Will or the dog growling. It's so quiet and dark, that the only sound Nico hears is the frantic pumping of his heart and the sound of his blood rushing through his veins.

"H-hello?" he whispers, but the sound cuts through the silence like a gong. "Will?"

Nico reaches out in the direction he assumes Will to be in, and finds no one.

Alone...

Nico sits on the floor, and crosses his arms tightly, digging his nails into his jacket sleeves. The crown sizzles, and Nico can actually hear the water sizzle on his forehead.

"This is so cool, huh?" Nico asks, thumbing through his deck of cards.

Bianca half smiles at him, and Nico can't help but notice how different she looks. The campfire light reflects on both of them, but she glows with moonlight. She looks peaceful, like she's just solved her biggest worry.

"Yeah," she says. "I have to tell you something."

Nico looks up from his deck at her, and her coffee brown eyes look sad.

"What is it, Bianca?"

She looks across the snowy wood to where Artemis stands, facing east with a focused look on her face.

"I've decided to join them."

"The hunters? Wow, that's so neat! Did they give you your own wolf?"

She laughs, "No, not yet at least."

"Maybe I'll see if I can join. Then we can both be immortal and be together forever!"

Her smile falls, and she looks away. "No, Nico, it's just for girls. I'm going on my own."

"What? You're leaving me all alone?"

"I'm sorry, Nico, I just can't take care-"

Nico stands, "It's okay, I get it. Papa didn't want me and now you don't either."

"Nico, it's not like that-"

He shoves his cards into his pocket, and runs over to where Percy stands, shivering in the snow flurries.

Nico coughs violently, and he feels moisture land on his lips and chin.

Gods, he thinks.

He shivers at the memory, and he feels the darkness thicken around him. His blood roars on his ears and he covers them with his hands, pressing tightly. He lays down, curling into a ball, and he hears whispers buzzing around like flies. He pushes his hands harder into his ears, trying to block out the noise, but they persist.

"Ugh," Nico groans, "go away."

The ground shakes in an earthquake, and he hears the familiar sound of rock splitting, followed by the chattering of skeletons. He hears Riley yelp, and the light and sounds return. Nico looks up hesitantly between his elbows and sees Will blinking slowly. On the other side of the room, Nico's skeletons grapple with the dog, who lunges and gnaws on their bones. They slap it aside, but it keeps returning. Behind them, Riley tries to twist away from the skeletons, but they pile up on her.

Nico slowly and weakly climbs to his feet, and puts his arm around Will's back. Will jumps and shrinks away from the touch.

"Will, it's me."

Will nods, his eyes far away. The dog takes down a few skeletons and turns its attention to them. It crouches, foam dripping onto the grey cushions. Nico jumps, and throws his body around Will's crouched form. His back and shoulders are tense for the feeling of the dog's teeth and claws ripping flesh, but the feeling never comes.

Nico pulls away from Will, and looks around. Behind him snores Hazel, in the same position as he last saw her. Will's bag rests on the other bed, open like he left it, and Nico's blanket is on the chair in the corner. It's as if they never left. Nico hauls Will up from where he's crouched on the floor with a bit of difficulty, his legs still feeling like jelly, and tips him over onto the bed. He stumbles, and collapses into the bed along with him. Licking his lips he tastes his own blood, and drifts into unconsciousness.

 


 

Nico crawls across the flesh of Tartarus, his skin boiling, and his eyes fighting to stay open. He would be starving if he had an appetite, instead he swallows the lump in his throat and tries not to vomit.

Above him, demons circle in the bloody clouds like vultures, waiting for him to die. His tears evaporate before they are even shed, turning to steam in the presence of the Phlegathon. He crawls slowly, his limbs aching and sore, his eyes shut tight so as not to see the membrane of skin below him.

He scrambles closer to the fiery river, blindly cupping and drinking the liquid. His throat burns, and he gags and collapses. He feels more nauseous, and his limbs course with energy, and his burnt skin heals.

He dreadfully opens his eyes to check direction, and nearly closes them again in horror. Across the river two hydra rip apart the flesh of a horse rooster creature. The creature is of course dead, and all eighteen heads of the hydras rip and tear its flesh from its bones in a flurry of feathers and blood.

Nico retches, drawing his sword. Half of the heads turn towards him in interest, while the rest finish their meal. Nico scrambles away from the river bank, and runs past monster filled blisters and sharp rock spires. He turns and finds the two hydras in close pursuit. His chest aches with the effort of breathing the burning air, and he trips over a skull, sending him face first into the dirt. He flips over onto his back in time to see nine sets of teeth closing in. 

Nico gasps, sitting straight up in bed, pulling out of a set of arms. He coughs, and a stab of pain flares up in his abdomen. He pushes his hand into it and climbs out of bed, heading into the bathroom. In the mirror, he lifts up his shirt to see a triangle shaped bite mark, fresh blood dripping down from it.

Nico pulls a towel from the wall and presses it into the very familiar wound. It's the exact bite he got from the hydra in his vision/memory. He pokes his head out into the room. Hazel is curled into a ball in the middle of her bed, and Will lays on his side, his arms out across the empty space where Nico use to be.

Nico flushes, and manages to notice Will's bag and its contents poured out onto the floor. Tightening his grip on the towel, he hurries into the room and grabs a roll of bandaging, and heads back into the bathroom. Putting down the (regretfully white) towel, he quickly, and probably terribly, wraps up his vision induced injury.

He slides his shirt back down and weakly stumbles back into the room towards his chair. The clock on the side table reads four in the morning, and Nico curls into his blanket, wondering if anything with Will and Riley actually happened or not. It's hard to tell, it just feels like a dream. Nico is beginning to question his sanity when Will looks up from the bed, confused.

"Nico?" he calls into the darkness.

"I'm here," Nico squeaks in pain, his hands knotted tight over his stomach. He clears his throat and tries again. "I'm over here."

"Why are you awake? 'Nd what're you doin over there?"

Nico blushes, and fears he might pass out. "I had a nightmare," he says simply.

Will sits up all the way, his golden hair the only thing Nico can make out in the total darkness, besides the clock. The hair bobs up and down in a nod.

"Yeah, I had one too. There was this room and it was closing in. You were there!"

Nico sighs with relief. So it did really happen... or they just had the same mental breakdown.

"Will, that really happened, I think. I remember it."

Will shudders, like he's glad to think of it as an unpleasant nightmare. Nico agrees.

"So, is that what your nightmare was?"

"Yeah," Nico lies weakly. "I don't think I can get back to sleep, though."

Will pats the bed beside him, the hollow thumps echoing softly through the dark room. "Join me, we'll protect each other. I do this for my little sister all the time."

"I don't know..."

"Doctor's orders."

Chapter Text

Leo pushes Annabeth’s chat window to the side, and jumps up from his seat. He pulls it over to the corner and climbs up onto it, underneath the TV hanging in the corner playing the news. Currently, a brunette reporter is giving details about “the mysterious Niagara Monster”. Leo cuts her off mid sentence as he unscrews the cable cord, and pulls and extension cord and three adapters from his belt, silently thanking whichever god brought he and his belt together. He pulls the cord across the room like a streamer and connects it to the computer via USB.

“You know anything about the cable network, Annabeth?”

She stretches her back, thinking, “I’m pretty sure it goes by tower? And if you use an antenna, you have to point it toward the tower.”

Leo nods, his curls bouncing, and after a quick google search, types in a few lines of code to connect to the tower through the police stations cable. Leo’s fingers fly across the keys, Calypso and Tyrone watch in amazement, as programs whiz across the screen. When the computer pauses to connect, a police officer pops his head into the door.

“What are you doing? Ripping wires out of the wall? Hacking? This better not be illegal!”

Leo rolls his eyes, “Well it certainly isn't not illegal,” he mutters.

The police man moves to pull Leo out of the chair, and Calypso stands, drawing her knives. “Hey!” He turns, and in a split second she has one of her knives pressed into his bulbous nose, “Back off; don’t interrupt him.”

The screen lights up with a map of Los Angeles, and Leo cross references it with the locator in Nico’s iPod, finding their location on the map.

Annabeth looks over Leo’s shoulder, where Calypso holds the police man against the wall with the tip of her knife. “You know, Leo, it really isn’t safe for demigods to be using technology… and you’re using so much, I’m worried about what might happen.”

Leo selects and area on a map and begins coding the override, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to get to that by the way. No internet? We’re millennials for Zeus’s sake, that’s gotta be fixed.”

Tyrone’s eyes flicker between Leo and Calypso, holding Jane in his hands. The officer's hand moves toward his belt, toward his walkie-talkie and taser.

Tyrone jumps up from his swivel chair, “Calypso, watch out!”

Leo falters in his typing, and catches the situation behind him in the reflection of the computer screen. He looks just in time to see Calypso grabbing the officer by the wrist, and flipping him over her shoulder, where he crashes into a file cabinet and lays still.

Annabeth smiles and nods from her Skype window, “I like her. Calypso right?” Calypso turns her head toward the computer and nods, brushing caramel hair from her face. “I’ve read about you… You held Odysseus captive right?”

Calypso’s caramel eyes grow cloudy, and Leo shakes his head quickly in warning to Annabeth, unable to slow his typing.

“Actually, he wanted to stay. Although, I suppose he had to tell his wife something,” she answers bitterly. “There's always an excuse. ‘Calypso trapped me’, ‘I got lost at sea’, ‘I was marooned on an island’.”

Annabeth’s eyes narrow, and then widen in realization. “What are you saying?”

The computer dings, cutting Calypso off as she opens her mouth, and a tiny window appears on the screen.

"Yes!" Leo hoots, focused once again.

The window is small, allowing for only minimal characters. How is he supposed to tell them everything he has to tell them in 35 characters or less? He's about to ask Annabeth when he hears rapid clicking followed by a yelp behind him. He looks up through the screen and sees Calypso face down on the floor, her light brown hair like a puddle around her face. The guard is standing up, looking extremely dazed, with his taser held firmly in his hand.

"Hey!" Tyrone yells, pulling his icy dagger from his belt.

"No!" Annabeth yells from the screen, her hands held up as if she's trying to stop Tyrone from Cabin Six.

Tyrone cuts in a wide arch, causing a deep splash of red to bloom across the officer's chest. He then lands a swift kick in his gut with the flat of his foot, landing him in the pile of filing cabinets once again, all while keeping Jane tucked close into his chest with his other hand.

"Tyrone!" Leo yells, resuming typing. "You're not supposed to hurt mortals! Check on Calypso," he adds, regretting that he can't assist her himself.

Tyrone crouches beside her and turns her over onto her back. "Sometimes you have to hurt mortals, Leo, we suck."

"Who the hell is that?" Annabeth asks.

Leo doesn't answer because a red light starts flashing above the door, signaling an emergency. The officer must’ve alerted another officer without somehow. Leo pulls his hands through his hair, quickly counting in his head, and then recounting, before typing a quick message and coding the screen to flash before displaying it, to get their attention.

Hitting send, Leo jumps from his seat once again. "It's done, Annabeth, they should see it. I've gotta go now."

"Thank you, Leo. Be careful, please, and... I'm really glad you're alive."

Leo smiles, "Me too, Blondie."

Annabeth closes the Skype window, and Leo pulls the whistle from his belt and places it between his teeth.

"Uu gra er eggs n ah gra er arr," Leo says around the whistle, hooking his hands under Calypso's armpits.

Tyrone places Jane on his shoulder, and takes hold of Calypso's feet, following Leo's lead. They carry the goddess through the door and down the hallway, Leo setting little fires wherever he steps. This sets off the fire alarms, and pretty soon the group is running out of the building with every other officer. None of the police try to stop them, not thinking the Teenage Heroes would have anything to do with it.

They make it outside, and Leo beings to blow the whistle furiously. Festus swoops down in front of them, with Tucker between his teeth, looking exasperated and then concerned once he sees the boys carrying Calypso out of the  burning building. Leo climbs up and Tyrone helps pass Calypso up, where Leo sits her in front of him, and then Tyrone climbs onto Festus’s back with Jane.

“Let’s go home, Festus,” Leo says over the loud fire engine sirens.

As they take off, bystanders and the mortals they rescued from the sinking ships point their phones at them to take pictures. Leo shakes his head, like they need more media coverage. Festus squeaks, asking what happened.

“We got the message to our friends on the quest. Calypso got tazed and I set the place on fire,” Leo explains.

Festus snorts as if to say ‘of course you did’.

Leo reaches out to grab Tucker from Festus’s teeth and place him on Calypso’s lap. He pulls his bag around to his front, careful not to drop it, and begins to rummage through it. Behind him, Tyrone looks down at his blade of ice. The tip is slightly tinged pink, the blood of the mortal officer, and fresh frost steams from the edge.

“We really aren’t supposed to hurt mortals, Tyrone, seriously,” Leo says. Tyrone looks up concerned and scared, it's hard to believe this nerdy kid hurt someone to begin with. “When we get to camp, we better not mention what happened here.”

“But what-” Tyrone starts, and then stops to clear his scratchy throat. “But what about all the media coverage? They’ll know about it somehow.”

“Lets just keep as much as we can from them.”

He pulls the bottle of nectar out of the book bag and lifts up the back of Calypso’s shirt. She leans forward over Tucker, who looks pleased by the warmth, and has her arms wrapped around Festus’s neck. On her back are two red taser marks, to the left of her spine, burnt around the edges. Leo wonders if pouring nectar on a Calypso’s wound would be like pouring water on Tyrone, and decides to try it anyway. Pouring some of the golden nectar down her back, Leo finds he’s right. The wounds don’t heal and Calypso doesn’t stir.

“Will she be okay?” Tyrone asks.

“Yeah,” Leo says over confidently, “She’s a goddess, so it’s not like she can-”

Leo stops, remembering what Calypso said to Dinlas:

"I'll be okay. Gods can't die."

"No, but if their realm is destroyed they can."

If Ogygia is gone, and there is no real way to tell for sure if it is, then technically Calypso can die. Leo caps the bottle and puts it away, and then pulls Calypso close to his chest, suddenly protective. He brushes her hair out of her face and Tucker whines, resting his head on her knee.

Festus clicks a quick warning, and Leo turns around to look at what he’s talking about. About a hundred feet behind them fly two dragons; one is red and white striped like a candy cane, and the other is black with bright turquoise spots. They remind Leo of the little poisonous frogs he use to read about when he was younger. He’s never seen a real flesh and blood dragon before, and jumps so high he almost falls off of Festus. Tyrone turns to look, and then quickly turns back, his knuckles turning white around his grip on his blade of ice.

“Oh my god, are we going to die?”

Leo pulls the seat belts from under Festus’s hull and secures them around Calypso and himself, and then one around Tucker.

"Shoot, Annabeth told me that doing all that stuff in the police station would attract a lot of monsters, but I didn’t expect actual dragons. Buckle up, Tyrone.”

Tyrone pulls the seat belt out and wraps it around himself twice, and tucks Jane into his sweatshirt. The striped dragon comes up on the left of Festus, and the spotted on the right. Festus emits a nervous whimpering sound, and Calypso hangs forward from the straps securing her to Leo's chest.

The candy cane dragon takes a snap at Festus's claw, and he quickly pulls it out of the way, swerving closer to the other dragon in the process. The spotted dragon opens its mouth to spew fire, but instead of fire it spits a burst of yellow acid. At the same time, Tyrone embeds his knife of ice into one of the dragons light blue spots. Both the spotted dragon and Festus wail in pain, and Festus tucks his wings in and dives low, to evade another bite from the other dragon.

The wind whistles in their ears as they plummet, Leo looks over at Festus's side. Right under Leo's sizzling shoe, the golden metal of Festus's hull is melting away. Tyrone wipes the edge of his blade across his jeans and looks up at the monsters flying overhead with a dark look. Deep, whimpering roars come from Festus as he falls, and his body trembles with pain.

Tyrone unbuckles himself and pulls his feet up under him, so he’s crouching on Festus’s back. The dragons swoop around them, circling like vultures.

“Tyrone, what are you doing?” Leo yells.

“I got this, just help Festus.”

Leo turns, and catches the determined look in Tyrone’s eyes. Leo nods, and turns back to Festus. The dragon’s glowing red eyes flicker and turn off. In a panic, Leo pulls open the control panel behind his head. Behind him, Tyrone manages to stand up, and when the striped dragon circles around again, Tyrone launches himself onto its back. His arms scramble for purchase, and he pulls himself up so he straddles its back.

“Tyrone!” Leo yells, pulling at two green wires in Festus’s head, “What are you-”

Tyrone plunges his knife into the back of the dragon's head with a sickening crunch. Its eyes open wide, and its wings spread out stiff as a board.

“PBI, can cause muscle stiffness,” Tyrone shrugs.

Leo, suddenly feeling very scared of Tyrone, turns back to the wires. He pulls at the wires that would usually extend his wingspan (Leo added this feature for just this occasion), but nothing happens. Festus’s weak whimpering resumes as his glowing eyes flicked back on dimly.

“Tyrone, he can’t fly!” Leo calls.

Tyrone turns the knife, sending his dragon soaring sideways to evade the other dragon’s sharp, glistening teeth. Tyrone holds his hand out for them as the ocean grows nearer.

“Leo, you have to jump to this one!”

“What? I’m not gonna just-”

Festus lets out a heart breaking roar of pain, and Leo looks down to where his hull was hit by the acid. His outer hull has melted away and they can now see his inner circuits and gears under a layer of acidic foam.

"If I don't help him now he'll die!" Leo cries, pulling out a bottle of water from Dinlas's bag.

"At least pass me Calypso and Tucker. In case something happens you'll want them to be safe right?"

Leo nods, and unbuckles Calypso. The spotted dragon roars and bites Festus's tail; two of his teeth shatter and the end of Festus’s tail breaks off and falls away. Festus roars and his eyes go dark again. Leo’s eyes fill with tears and he passes Tucker to Tyrone, and then Calypso. Tyrone places Calypso on her stomach across his lap and Tucker on her back and soars down towards the large island they are closing in on.

Leo pours the water on Festus’s gaping wound, “Come on, Buddy, just a little further.”

Festus doesn’t respond, and the corrosion slows, and the bubbling stops. Their descent reaches top speed, and the spotted dragon is now trying to shoot acid at Tyrone and Calypso. Tyrone pulls their dragon out of the way, swerving and diving around in the air. Leo holds his hands up and shoots a column of fire in the spotted dragons face, and it yelps and falls behind.

The wide expanse of the Long Island Sound opens up as they pop through the last puff of clouds, and the long sandy coast of Long Island spreads out below them. Leo tries to pull up on Festus’s neck to land on the coast, but he’s unresponsive.

“Festus, please, just get to camp and we can fix everything!”

Tyrone holds his hand out for him again, “Leo, I know you don’t want to leave him, but that crash isn’t going to be pretty.”

Leo’s arms smoke slightly, and he opens the bag in his lap, searching frantically for something to help them. His hands close around the bottle of nectar and his entire body bursts into flames with excitement. They’re now so close to the shore that Leo can see campers looking up from the sand, shielding their eyes from the brightness of either the sun or Leo. The plastic bottle begins to melt in Leo’s hands, and in a panic he drops it back into the bag.

Just calm down, he tells himself.

His heart races in his chest and his eyes sting with tears as they close in on the beach. Leo and Festus pass through the magical barrier of Thalia’s Tree and Leo braces himself for impact. Campers scatter out of the way as Festus crashes face first into the sand with a crunch, Leo's seat belt snaps and he's flung into the air where he lands on his back on the beach.

Above him, Tyrone and Calypso on the stripped dragon crash into the barrier like a bird hitting a window, and fall into the ocean.

“Leo Valdez?” a camper exclaims.

“Shit,” Leo curses as he climbs to his feet painfully. He waves to the campers as he heads into the water, carefully avoiding looking at where Festus crashed. “Yeah, hello everyone, be right with you!”

He wades into the water, where Tyrone struggles to stay afloat under the weight of Tucker and Calypso. Leo pulls her into his arms, and they swim to the shore. The striped dragon slowly sinks into the ocean as fish food, finally dead.

“I, Leo Valdez, give Tyrone, Calypso, Tucker, and Jane permission to enter camp.”

The barrier allows them to pass and they collapse on the sand. Campers rush over and crowd around them, whispering, and a camper from Cabin 7 comes over and feels each of their pulses.

“Calypso,” Leo wheezes, “she was tasered.”

The camper, who looks quite a bit like Will Solace, turns to her with a gentle sparkling smile and looks her over. A little black girl with two curly pigtails pets Tucker’s fur as he snoozes in the sand. Leo is startled by how young she is, no older than nine, although Annabeth came to camp around the same age. Leo blinks, and then struggles to get his eyes open again. When he does, he looks around for Festus, but the crowd of campers blocks his view.

“Leo?!” some familiar voices call, immediately followed by a golden eagle landing next to him in the sand.

At first Leo is confused, and then the eagle grows and sheds feathers until the big Chinese Canadian that is Frank Zhang is kneeling in the sand beside him.

Leo laughs quietly, “Heh. Forgot you could do tha-”

Frank pulls him into his arms in a bear hug, “You’re terrible. Completely terrible and I hate you.”

“Mmk,” Leo chokes. “Hate me less violently.”

Frank releases him and he flops into the sand. Annabeth and Percy appear behind Frank. Percy looks concerned, and then his face pales at the five of them laying in the sand.

“You did it, Leo,” Annabeth says, crouching down for a hug, too, getting sand in her hair. “You should’ve been more careful, I told you doing all that stuff on the computer was dangerous”

“And you haven’t been wrong yet,” Leo says. “Hey, Percy.”

Annabeth lets him go and brushes sand off his face and shoulders, and Tyrone sits up groggily.

“Hey, Leo, glad to have you back,” Percy says with a forced smile and a thumbs up. His eyes dart between Annabeth and where Calypso lays in the sand. Leo turns to look at her; she’s turned on her side and the Apollo camper holds his hand over her taser wound. “How did you get her here?”

Leo turns back to him, “What do you-”

The crowd parts, and a woman in gold armour with a purple cloak that glitters as if woven with gold, and her long black hair pulled to the side steps to the front. She radiates power and Leo feels the familiar desire to hide when he sees her.

“Woah,” Tyrone exhales.

“Leo,” Reyna says, with a familiar half smile. “Glad to see you’re alive. Lord Apollo, will Lady Calypso be okay?”

Leo turns to who he originally thought was a camper, but must actually be Apollo himself. Apollo sits her up and she blinks slowly, as if waking up from a nap.

“Right as rain,” he says.

Leo struggles to pull himself to his feet, and stands up wheezing.

“Maybe you should go to the infirmary..” Annabeth says.

Leo shakes his head. “Festus,” he says. And the crowd parts in understanding.

Festus lies in the sand, smoking, his eyes dim and scratches all along his golden hull. But the worst thing Leo notices, as he stumbles closer, is the steaming hole right through his body. Instead of Leo’s return feeling like a celebration, like he’d pictured, it’s as quiet and as somber as a funeral. He kneels in front of the hole, and presses his palm against his dragons bronze hull. Not one sound can be heard on the shore except from the gentle brushing of the waves, and a quiet and muffled click. Leo furrows his eyebrows and peers into Festus’s wound. Inside, a silver piston pumps, about once every thirty seconds, making a faint click.

Hopeful, Leo pulls the bag around from his back into his lap, and rips open the zipper. Praying to his dad and every god he knows, even the ones that don’t like him, he twists of the cap of the nectar and empties it on the pistons and gears inside the hole. The piston pumps a fraction faster, and gears and wires reform, as if melting in reverse.

“I NEED MORE NECTAR!” Leo yells desperately over his shoulder.

The depressing atmosphere evaporates in an instant, and campers are suddenly rushing forward to tip a flask or half a water bottle of nectar into Festus’s injury, or running to cabins to pull some from their trunks. Apollo himself conjures a golden flask and trickles a steady stream of nectar on Festus, and the whole camp rushes into action to save their dragon. Gears reform, wires reconnect, gold and bronze reappears, and then with the whir of an engine restarting, red glowing eyes turn back on. The camp erupts in cheers and hoists Leo up into the air. From his view on top of the campers shoulders he can see Frank crying into Reyna’s shoulder, who awkwardly pats his back, Apollo helping Calypso stand and smiling at her like an old friend, Tyrone talking to the little girl with Tucker as she reaches out to pet Jane between her bunny ears. Beside him, Festus somehow appears above the heads of the campers, and Leo laughs out loud. A camper throws a golden laurel into the air, that lands on top his curly hair, welcoming him home.

 

Chapter Text

Nico doesn’t get any sleep that night; he’s far too anxious. He’s too scared to close his eyes and be back in Tartarus, and wake up with an even worse wound than last time. And Will's far too hot to sleep. The added anxiousness and body heat pressed against Nico's back has him sweating bullets head to toe. Though that doesn’t bother Will at all, even under the thick downy blanket. Will has both of his very warm arms crushing Nico to his chest as he sleeps quietly. Nico tries to relax, but ends up praying to every god he knows that no one will see them.

Will jumps in his sleep and crushes Nico further into his chest. Nico squeaks in surprise, and when Will's arm presses against the bite wound under his shirt he yelps in pain. 

Will's steady breathing stops abruptly, and he sits up, "Nico? Everything okay?"

Nico's eyes widen and he looks around the room quickly for something to give him an excuse. His eyes fall on the red light up clock.

"Yeah, just impatient," he quickly lies, pulling his legs up to his chest and curling into a ball. He bites down on his tongue to keep from yelling again, and his abdomen tinges with fresh pain. Will scoots to the end of the bed, and swigs his feet down onto the dirty brown carpet.

"Well I gotta pee. BRB."

Nico nods, gasps in realization, and then grabs tightly onto Will's wrist.

"Wait!" he shouts, remembering the bloody white towel sitting next to the sink.

Will turns and quickly scans Nico over, "What? What's wrong?"

She walks through the dead, pushing them aside like tall blades of grass. They whisper and tilt out of the way.

"Mother?" she calls.

She turns three hundred and sixty degrees, searching, before turning in a circle again. She stretches on her tiptoes to see over the crowd, but she's significantly shorter than the shades. Searching again, Hazel's golden eyes land on a poplar tree, and she runs to its base, pushing lethargic ghosts out of her way.

She places her hands on the smooth, white bark and then jumps back in surprise. Her usually dark skinned hands are a light bluish color, and as she turns them over in front of her, she can see clear through them. They glow white.

Right... I'm dead.

She turns to look at the shades, and she sees they look the same as her. They wander slowly, bumping into each other and apologizing quietly. They all look so lost, like they've forgotten how to exist. She aches at the thought of her mother lost and confused like this.

"Mother!" she calls again, wrapping her limbs around the sleek white tree.

Her voice echoes under the wide empty dome of the Underworld. She struggles to climb the tall branchless trunk, but somehow manages to scale her way to the thin branches at the very top.

Hazel will never forget what she saw from her view on top the poplar tree. Wandering whisp-like souls stepped slowly into each other for miles and miles into the horizon. Hazel would've thought it was endless if not for the fiery red embers floating up from the screams of punishment. She's not sure what's worse: enduring endless punishment perfectly tailored to your own fears, or wandering around for eternity never knowing who you were or who you loved or how to exist. Just endless nothing. The faces below all blur and blend together, all looking the same.

I'll never find her here... 

Nico shudders and winces, and lets go of Will's wrist to pull his arms into his body. He feels stripes of pain across his torso, and Will’s hands on his shoulders.

“Nico? You okay?”

Nico nods, backtracking, “Yeah, I just have a stomach ache or something.”

He stands and moves to the bathroom, Will stands between the beds looking like he’s fighting an internal battle between wanting to be Doctor Solace and not wanting to see anyone puke.

“I’m fine, really,” Nico rasps, almost running to the bathroom past Hazel's bed where she snores on behind them, her hair an utter disaster. Will blinks and then crouches down to dig through his medical supplies strewn across the floor.

When Nico finally gets to the bathroom, he tilts into the sink, feeling light headed. He lifts up his shirt once more to find the four thin scratch marks the sphinx gave his sister only yesterday. They sting, but bleed just barely. Nico looks up into the mirror and nearly jumps at his appearance.

He looks like death. Hazel’s other wound, when she hit her head into the obsidian steps, blooms across his forehead. He’s paler than he’s ever been, with the dark circles under his eyes returning. He grabs the bloody red towel and presses it to his head and nervously wonders what the Hydra bite looks like.

Will comes around the corner into the bathroom, and Nico hurriedly pushes his shirt down. Will’s arms are full of a jumbled assortment of first aid supplies.

“What happened?” Will asks, taking in the bloody towel.

“Um,” Nico blushes, “I tripped and hit my head on the tub?”

Will shakes his head and takes the towel from him. Quietly, he cleans it and tops it off with a bright yellow band-aid.  

"Thank-"

Will's lips land on top of the bandage in a sweet little kiss. He smiles down at Nico like the devil himself.

"There, all better. Hows your stomach?"

Nico feels like every red blood cell in his body just ran a marathon to his face, and he weakly nods, the weight of the crown heavy on his head. Will glances his over once again, and then turns him around and guides him out the bathroom with a hand on his back. 

"So accident prone," he hears Will mutter. 

"Shut up," Nico quips quietly, so as not to wake Hazel, but when they get back into the room they see Hazel is sitting up, awake, rubbing her eyes.

"Mmwassgoinon?"

Nico nonchalantly collapses into the arm chair. ”Nothing, everythings fine."

She rubs her eyes, tossing her giant poof of curly hair around. "Wha time is it?"

Will glances at the red clock, "Almost 7." 

Hazel blinks once, before flopping backwards onto her pillow and falling asleep again. 

Will shakes his head, "You Hades kids sleep like the dead." Nico laughs, stifling a yawn. "Well, I think I'll go get some coffee or something," Will says, slipping on his shoes.

Nico nods and is about to head back to sleep when Will says, "Wanna come?"

Nico dizzily turns to glance at the clock and Will bends down to tie his laces. “Um, rain check, okay? I want to talk to Jason.”

Will pulls his laces tight quickly, somehow managing to make shoe tying look violent.

“Jason. Well alright.”

“Will?" 

“Okay, I’ll see you later then,” he says, standing, “You want anything? I’ll get you a hot chocolate or something. Sounds good.”

Will moves to the door, opening it. Nico weakly fights laughter, “Will, it’s not-”

Will throws up a peace sign, closing the door behind him.

Nico shakes his head, feeling the cold weight of the crown. He picks up his sword and uses it to pull himself out of the chair. 

Gods, this is going to be hard to hide, he thinks.

He heads over to Jason's room, placing a hesitant knock, and tries to make it look like he can stand on his own. Nico hears socked feet shuffle against carpet, and a shirtless Jason opens the door. his eyes are squinted sleepily, his glasses lay on a small table behind him. His muscled torso is riddled with scars and a tiny tattoo of a bird with out stretched wings rests on the right side of his chest.

Nico blinks, “Hey, Jason, did I wake you?”

“Nah, wassup?”

Nico fiddles nervously with the hem of his shirt, “I’m getting worried about time.”

Jason rubs at his bleary eyes, “Didn’t you say we had three days left?”

Nico shakes his head, and it hurts to do so. Again, he remembers Leo’s deadline, and how they’re coming very close to his expiration date.

“Three days from the moment the crown touched my head.”

Jason pauses, furrowing his brow in a very focused ‘I-just-woke-up-don’t-make-me-math’ thinking face, followed by his eyes widening. “Shit, today's the last day!”

“Yeah, I-” Nico’s eyes roll back and he slumps forward, and Jason catches him on instinct. A burst of pain shoots down his whole body, like his blood turned to lava, and he welcomes the cool touch of ice water on his head.

He slashes his sword through a group of ghouls, vaporizing them. Before long, he had no more enemies to face. Feeling triumphant, Jason sheaths his sword.

Pain flares in his lower back, sharp and cold like ice, and briefly he wonders if Khione had touched him.

A voice snarls in his ear, “Born a Roman, die a Roman.”

Piper screams, and Jason falls to his knees, dribbling blood from his lips. His body is weightless, so close to death he already forgets the feeling of embodiment. Piper reaches him and pulls the sword from his back, which hurt even more than going in if you can believe it. Piper gently lays him on his side. He’s aware that Piper and Annabeth are working on his corpse, and he’s aware of their voices speaking to him, but he already feels so far gone. 

“Nico! NICO!” Jason yells, as he collapses.

Nico can hear him, but he still feels suck in the dead haze Jason was in in the vision. He can’t feel his body, or move his lips to speak. He hears Piper’s feet patter across the carpet into the hall. He hears her gasp and run to wake Hazel. Nico tries to form any kind of protest, resulting in a weak mumble of a groan from the hollow of his throat, which lolls backwards over Jason’s arm.

“Shit,” Jason curses.

Nico feels the support of Jason arm under his back leave him as Jason places him on his back on the floor. Nico groans instinctively, though he doesn’t know why. He tries to open his eyes, and succeeds weakly. Blurrily above him he can see the foggy outline of Jason looking down at his bloody hands.

The girls return in their PJs, hands over their mouths and tears in their eyes.

“What happened? Where’s Will?” Hazel whispers.

Cold ice water trickles down Nico’s forehead and mingles with his sweat.

“Bianca!” Nico shouts. stumbling forward.

She gazes down at him, her expression somber, “Hello, Nico. You’ve gotten so tall.”

Nico feels tears sting his eyes, “Why didn’t you answer me sooner? I’ve been trying for months!”

“I was hoping you would give up.”

“Give up? How can you say that?” Nico asks, his heart shattering. Did his sister really hate him so much that being away from him as a hunter forever wasn’t good enough? That she really wanted to stay dead? “I’m trying to save you. 

“You can’t, Nico. Don’t do this. Percy is right."

“N-no! he let you die; he’s not your friend.”

Bianca reaches out her ghostly hand and lays her palm on her brother's cheek. She use to do this all the time, only now it feels cold as ice. 

Nico flinches. “Coffee,” he rasps, answering his sister's question.

Piper puts her hands on Hazel’s arms, steering her to the elevator, "Hurry, go find him.”

Hazel disappears, Nico’s fingers twitch aching for her hand. He closes his eyes again. Jason moves to take his shirt off, but Nico’s fingers stop him. He hasn’t told anyone what the crown has been doing, and Jason is going to see his own stab wound and Hazel’s scratch and the hydra bite.

You’re dying, he thinks, and accepts defeat. 

Jason prys Nico’s weak grip off him anyway. Nico is becoming more aware by the moment, like he’s been listening to staticy radio and the signal is clearing. The soaked black shirt comes up over Nico’s face and lands on the hallway carpet with a squelch.

Piper curses.

“How could you not tell us about this?” Jason starts, and Nico is genuinely startled by the harshness in his voice. His breath stutters, and he moves to remove the gauze from the hydra bite.

“Sorry,” Nico mouths, unable to form sound, his heart full of regret for hurting his friends.

The elevator dings distantly, and Will and Hazel rush out.

“Nico!” Will shouts.

Nico flinches at the sound. Piper hurries over and takes Will’s shoulders in her hands, and speaks to him quietly and softly. Will looks stuck between panicked and doctor mode.  Piper releases him and he moves to kneel over Nico.

“We’re out of nectar and ambrosia,” he says to Jason while two of his fingers press firmly into Nico’s thin white wrist.

“Should we call an ambulance?” Jason asks.

Will glances up and down Nico, and his fingers slide from his wrist to grasping his hand. Nico squeezes it firmly. “No. Mortals will only ask questions. Besides, I have an MD. Sort of.” Will turns around to Hazel, “Go gather my supplies, quickly.”

Hazel disappears into their hotel room.

“Hecate,” Nico mumbles.

“Jason,” Will says, “help me carry him inside.”

They both lift him up by his feet and shoulders and gently carry him inside Jason’s room and lay him down. Nico shivers violently, the breeze from the window chilling his wet bare chest. Piper crouches to his left, rubbing his arm and soothing him quietly. It’s background noise he can’t really focus on, but he feels his muscles relax and his eyelids become heavy.

“Quest,” he whispers.

“The quest can wait!” Hazel shouts.

Nico jumps, not having noticed her return. He lists his head sideways to look at her. She stands barefoot on the shaggy carpet in shorts and a t-shirt, clutching Will’s medical bag to her chest. She looks worried and furious all at once. Nico watches blearily as she passes the bag to Will and crouches next to the right of the bed. Nico reaches out and threads his fingers through her curls before succumbing to exhaustion.

 


 

Nico wakes to the white ceiling of the hotel room and his sister and his friends all staring down at him with varying expressions. Nico clears his throat, feeling guilty.

“How do you feel?” Hazel asks sweetly.

“Better,” he rasps, clearing his throat again.

Will grabs a glass of water from the side table and helps him sit up to drink it. Nico gulps it down greedily, and gasps for air when the cup is empty. The movement stretches the skin on his chest, and he winces.

“Start from the top,” Jason says. His arms are crossed, and the scar over his lip is taut white.

“Leo sent a message about the crown..” he starts.

“Yes? What’d it say?”

“We had three days to get to Hecate, and get her to take the crown off...or...or I die.”

Jason sparks blue electricity down his arms, “Or you die. And you didn’t want to tell any of us this?”

“Jason,” Piper consoles, reaching out to touch him.

Nico frowns, looking down at Will’s hands on the bed clasping the empty cup, “I didn’t want to… to be a burden. I don’t want you to waste your energy on me.”

“Nico, making sure you stay alive isn’t a waste of our energy! You do the same for us! The sphinx, getting us away from the guards in the underworld, Psyche, you put Will’s soul back into his body! And that’s just the stuff from this quest.”

It’s different, Nico thinks, you guys actually matter.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

“All right…” Leo says sadly. Frank and Hazel turn to look at him. He absentmindedly fidgets with a screw and a nut, twisting them in his hands. “This just makes my plan even more important. Once we get this physician’s cure, I’m going to need your help. Both of you.”

Frank nervously looks down at the daisy in his hands. “What do you mean?”

Leo talks, never making eye contact with them, about sacrificing himself to kill Gaea. Hazel wipes tears from her cheeks.

“It has to be this way.”

“Leo...” Frank sobs.

Leo finally looks up at them, “Hey, I’m counting on you. Your dad said you have to step up, right? You have to make the call  no one else will.

“But still-”

“And Hazel. Crazy Mist-magicky Hazel, you’ve got to cover for me. You’re the only one who can. My great-granddad Sammy saw how special  you were. I think he somehow knew you would come back and help me. Our whole lives, mi amiga, have been leading up to this.”

“Oh, Leo,” she cries, and bursts into tears, pulling the little mechanic into her arms. 

Nico tries to hide how much that hurt, like fire in his veins, as if he was feeling Leo’s explosion. No one buys it.

“We’re wasting time,” Hazel says.

Nico eyes Will out of the corner of his view, as he’s been oddly quiet since he woke up. Will hovers mostly off the bed, his mouth clamped tightly shut, like he’s retraining himself.

Piper grabs Jason’s shirt off the floor and passes it to him. She eyes the group carefully before speaking. “Nico,” she says softly, “I’m glad you’re alive. You’re a very special person... okay? Learn that.”

Nico blushes, and Jason nods, Hazel wipes a tear from her cheek.

“We love you, Nico,” Hazel says.

Nico reaches out for her, and she pulls him into her arms like she did Leo in the vision. She smells like cinnamon.

“Alright,” Piper says, smiling, “let’s get the hell out of here.”

They all move to the door, and Nico grasps Will’s wrist as he gets up, like this morning.

Will turns.

“Can you... Help me up?” Nico asks.

Will nods and peels back the blankets. Nico shivers, and Will turns to get him a shirt and his jacket. Nico takes this opportunity to look himself over, but finds he can’t see much. His whole torso is wrapped in gauze, and some moisture and blood fades through. He can see the tip of the sphinx scratches out of the top of the gauze. He looks up to see Will holding out his ‘Surf’s up!’ shirt and his jacket.

Nico half smiles. “Thank you… for everything, actually.” Will smiles finally, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I’m furious with you,” Will says finally. “With myself.”

“Why yourself?” Nico asks, gently pulling the shirt over his head.

Will pulls his hands through his hair, and it’s like a dam breaks. “Because! I’m a doctor and you’re here dying and I didn’t even notice! And you were being so shady and I didn’t pick up on it and I can’t believe you don’t- I mean, I just wish you knew how much I- how much your friends, freaking love you, Nico. And don’t think I don’t know what this is all about! To think you don’t value your own life enough to tell me you need fucking neosporin and a bandage, even though this was way worse than that, is just so asscrackingly mindboggling that I just can’t even- what were you THINKING?

Will gasps for air, regaining his breath.

Nico smiles, “What was that middle bit?”

“I- I don’t- what? The point is I’m keeping and even closer watch on you,” Will says, gesturing his gaze with two fingers.

“I think I can live with that… Did you get my hot chocolate?”

“You’re an ass,” Will says, turning from the room.

Nico laughs, following after him. Will smiles at the sound, producing a cup of hot cocoa (and his cup of coffee) from the table by the door.

Nico takes it, pleased. “‘Asscrackingly mindboggling?’” he asks.

“Shut up,” Will says, taking a sip of his coffee from a straw.

“Why does your coffee have ice in it Will?”

Will pushes the elevator button, and his jaw drops. “Oh my gods, I totally forgot that you missed the last like fifty years.”

Nico pouts, “What is it?”

“Iced macchiato with skim, one shot french vanilla, one shot raspberry, extra espresso,” Will recites, tipping the straw towards him.

Nico makes a face, and tastes it, “Ugh, Will, I can taste how complicated that is.”

 


 

They all meet outside on the sunny streets of California. The air is a bit chilly, but the hot sun makes up for the wind. Once they step outside into the bustling streets and sidewalks they all realize that they have nowhere to start. Nico can see the white trail blazing off north, but they have no way to get to Hecate in a matter of hours. Nico hears a small tinkling of a bell and turns toward the sound in mild interest. A cat made only of bones tumbles from the shadows with a quiet meow.

“Snowball!”

The group turns, and sure enough the undead cat wanders over to them and weaves in between Nico’s legs. Nico bends down to pet her head, and she shoots off down the sidewalk. The group exchanges knowing glances before taking off after her. Nico feels the crown grow colder, and has just enough time to reach out and grab Will’s hand.

Will’s young face is scrunched up in concentration, his eyes behind an arrow tail, arms taut pulling the bowstring back, eyes far away on the bullseye.

“Okay, Will,” Michael says, adjusting his shoulders, “breathe, and release.”

Will’s head of shaggy blonde hair bobs as he nods, and some of the hair falls in his face. He blows it out of the way. 

Screams sound from the beach, followed by a very loud splash. Will jumps, losing his hold on the bowstring. Michael takes off running for the beach, and Will follows, not even bothering to check the target.

Floating on the lake is a big yellow school bus, which steams and smokes in the water. Angry naiads curse at the driver, and kids pile out. Thalia, Annabeth, and about fifty young girls in silver outfits tumble out of the bus and into the lake, and begin to swim to shore. An annoyed looking Percy emerges too, immediately followed by an excited looking little boy. Percy has to hold him up as they swim to shore, as he is too busy chatting about how cool that was to swim.

Lastly, a man who looks like an older Lee Fletcher comes out from the bus. He practically glows with light.

Michael scoffs and puts his arm around Will’s shoulder, “Come on, kid. This isn’t anything you need to be bothered with.”

Will looks again at the dripping wet boy who smiles brightly up at Percy, holding soaking wet playing cards, and again at the man with the blonde hair and tank top. 

“Wait, Michael, who is that? What’s going on?”

“Just our deadbeat dad, okay? He doesn’t give a shit about anyone in Cabin 7,” Michael turns him around by the shoulders, “so don’t even give him the time of day.”

Will pouts, an uneasy feeling settling in his chest, he drags his feet, wanting very much to stay at the beach. 

Nico blushes, and stumbles dizzily. Will turns around and hooks his arm in his. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Nico says, “We have to hurry.”

Nico follows the group after Snowball, wondering how different his life would be if he had met Will that day. Snowball crosses the street, scurrying under the racing wheels of cars. The demigods follow, narrowly avoiding traffic.

“Sorry!” Piper yells.

Snowball screeches to a halt outside of a beautiful garden. The garden is a wide circle of various flowers: white lilies, bright red poppy, iris, white roses, waterlily, and a bunch of little white flowers fill in the empty space. Will sneezes. Bright green grass fills the center of the garden with a beautiful drooping willow tree in the center. A little stone path weaves from the front of the garden to a set of table and chairs in white and gold that rest under the willow tree. They fit so naturally there it looks like the tree and the table set grew there together. Tiny brown and white birds litter the branches of the trees.

The most interesting part, however, is the couple that sits in the chairs. The woman wears a flowing white gown and her wavy black hair falls down her back. She is barefoot, and wears no jewelry, but she could be mistaken for nothing other than regal by the straight, natural curve of her back and the lazy way she holds her thin gold chalice.

The man radiates a do-as-I-say-because-I-said-so kind of power. He has longish jet black hair and beard with streaks of grey all throughout. He wears a black suit with a blue shirt underneath, and no tie. Their identity becomes clear to the demigods immediately.

“This is so bizarre,” Jason says. 

Nico nods. “Beyond fucking weird.”

“I feel the strange need to call my mother,” Piper says.

“What the hell are they doing together?” Will asks. “Doesn’t he, like, wildly cheat on her with anything that walks?”

Hazel fans her face, “Gods.”

 “Guys!” Nico whispers, “Look!”

Behind the King and Queen of Olympus, stands a large golden chariot, hooked up to four white horses. The chariot itself glistens,made of solid Imperial gold. Intricate designs of wings, birds, and lightning bolts decorate the front and the sides and around the borders. The craftsmanship on the chariot is so detailed and skillful, even from this distance, Nico wonders if Hephaestus made it.

“Zeus’s chariot, pulled by the four major winds,” Piper says.

“This is it,” Jason says, “we need to get that chariot.”

Hazel turns toward them, deadly little emeralds blooming at her feet, “You don’t mean steal the King of Olympus’s chariot? The last guy who stole from him, Zeus had an eagle tear his liver out for all eternity.”

Will pulls his bag off his shoulder and rummages through it, his tongue sticking out a bit; Nico smiles.

Jason nods, looking grave, “It is risky, you’re right, but what else do we have?”

Will pulls a blue grenade from his bag, causing the campers to jump in surprise, “I have that ice-bomb thing still.”

Jason puts his hand over the grenade and gently lowers it, “Dude no, you have the worst aim with projectiles.”

Will nods, putting it back.

Nico thinks of other thefts in Greek Mythology. Hercules stealing Hera’s golden apples, Prometheus stealing fire for humanity, Hermes stealing Apollo’s sacred cattle… none of it offering any help. All of those stories involve the thief outsmarting the person into giving it to them, nothing about being sneaky. He wishes Annabeth were here.

Jason looks over to Nico, suddenly looking nervous, “Nico… you could shadow travel onto the chariot.”

Nico’s muscles and very soul aches at the thought.

“Are you kidding me, Grace?!” Will whispers harshly, gripping his bag tightly as if to stop himself from punching him.

Diamonds grow from the ground like flowers. “He could die!” Hazel cries.

Nico pauses, thinking. “I’m dead either way, guys,” he says at last. “Getting that chariot is the only chance I have of not dying.”

The group looks Nico over solemnly, and then nod, agreeing half-heartedly.

Piper’s eyebrows knit together thoughtfully, “This is an awful idea, Jason, but Nico’s right, unfortunately.”

“But what are you going to do once you get in it?” Hazel wonders, “Drive it over to us? That’s hardly conspicuous. “

“I can’t believe we are even discussing this,” Will mutters.

Nico shakes his head, “I’d… have to travel all five of us into it all at once." 

Will shakes his head, “Veto.”

Nico reaches out and takes Hazel's hand, and she takes Piper's who takes Jason's. 

"Will," Jason pleads. 

Will sighs, placing his hand into Nico's outstretched palm begrudgingly. 

Nico takes a deep breath, all eyes on him, and brings the shadows forward around them. 

Nico lifts his sword, and the dracanae’s sword clings off the iron. She hisses, and Nico swings his sword down to slice off one of her serpent legs. She wails and lists sideways, falling to the floor. All around him he hears the chattering of skeletons as they fight demigods and monsters. Nico’s body surges with purpose, glad to finally be in the fight. Nico cuts down an enemy telekhine, and suddenly feels a familiar tingle go all the way down his spine. He gasps, and turns wildly, looking for Percy.

Across the way, through scenes of battle, he sees a shocked looking Percy looking down at Annabeth, who holds her side. Percy reaches around and rubs at the small of his lower back. Nico takes off, running towards them, cutting anything down in his way. Percy’s face morphs from confusion and shock to pure anger, and Nico screeches to a halt in fear. Percy looks up with a glare that could kill, and slams his sword into a demigods face with all his force. The helmet dents; Nico’s hands shake.

“GET BACK!” He yells, swinging his sword in warning, “NO ONE TOUCHES HER!”

The whole battle stops, and Nico feels the shadows condense around him. Percy isn’t hurt, thank gods. Annabeth crumbles to her knees on the pavement, and Cabin 7 medics rush forward to her. Nico looks up at the face of Percy. The veins in his arms swell, his body surging with anger and power, and the river churns restlessly, none of which Percy seems to notice. Nico is stuck between awe and fear, and Percy slams the tip of his sword into the bridge. Kronos’s army stumbles back, and fissures and cracks stem out from the sword, slitting the bridge in half, and sending people from both sides of the war into the churning water. 

Nico surfaces, gasping, feeling like he’s drowning again. They've landed perfectly, in the shadow of the chariot. He feels a burning feeling, like his flesh melting away from his bones, which can only be the feeling of Percy bathing in the Styx. He winces in pain, digs his nails into his skin and bites hard on his tongue to keep him from crying out and exposing them. Will puts his arm around him, pulling him close. He shivers under his warmth.

"Are you okay?" Will whispers. 

They campers watch as he nods weakly, and accepting that there is nothing more that they can do, focus again on the mission. 

“Jason and I will take a horse, everyone else in the chariot,” Nico hears Hazel say through his throbbing headache.

Nico stumbles forward, and Will helps him up. The horses stomp the earth nervously, reacting to Nico’s energy as usual. One of them rears up, neighing loudly, and the gods heads turn in confusion.

“Oh!” Hazel cries, and the three in the back immediately grasp for the gold edge of the chariot.

“Which way, Nico?” Jason yells.

Nico quickly searches for the white trail of fire, and yells, “Straight ahead!”

Jason whips the reigns faster than lightening, and the chariot zips off in a blur, leaving the beautiful garden behind. 

“Oh, gods,” Nico whines, “Zeus is going to kill us.”

Piper groans, her hands tightening on the brim of the chariot. Will rubs Nico’s back soothingly, and Nico leans into the touch. In front of them, Hazel laughs with the joy of being on a horse again, doing what she loves, and leading her quest. Nico smiles weakly, noticing the trail is straight ahead as the far as the eye can see. The tip of his converse nudges a small golden box on the floor of the chariot, but he pays no attention to it, his eyes are already sliding shut.

Chapter Text

Will twists his yellow string bracelet nervously, his grip tight on the brim of the chariot. Ahead, Hazel and Jason focus on controlling the horses to keep them heading north. Piper pulls out her dagger beside him, and gazes into it. At their feet, Nico curls up into a tiny pale ball inside Will’s Surf's Up tee. Will tries to focus on that, rather than the queasy feeling he gets when he looks at the weakness in his form, the white exhaustion in his face, and when he thinks of all the gauze and stitches and blood under that shirt-

Will looks away at the rushing landscape all around him, “So, can you see anything about what we're up against?”

Piper peers into the reflective surface of the dagger, squinting her eyes. Her choppy hair whips wildly around her face, “Just Hecate, trapped… She looks like she’s meditating. There’s lots of colors.”

The chariot pulls through the edge of a forest, and the wheels bump over tree roots and rocks. The three demigods in the back are forced to take stronger hold of the gold as they’re thrown side to side. Trees whiz past and Will pulls Piper away from the edge, narrowly avoiding a branch. Nico pulls them down to crouch behind the chariot, and they all hold on to each other firmly so the large tips and bumps of the chariot don’t throw them.

“Forest almost clear, guys-WOAH!”

Hazel’s voice cuts off, and the chariot launches into the sky, listing sideways. Will, Nico, and Piper are thrown from the chariot, and Hazel and Jason from their horses. Will crashes into dirt and sticks, cutting up his arms and face. A particularly sharp rock pokes him in the side, and he flicks it away.

“Ugh,” he hears someone groan.

Will pulls himself to his feet, quickly checking to see if anyone is seriously hurt. Piper has a cut across her cheek, and a bruise already forming on her arm, but otherwise only looks disoriented. Hazel sits up and pulls a twig out of her curly hair, unharmed other than a few scratches. Nico had a softer landing in some sand (for which Will is grateful), and only winces at the irritation of his already existing wounds. He spits out a mouthful of sand and grimaces, dusting it from his jeans and hair. Jason lays motionless in the sand a few feet away.

Will rushes over to him, with Piper following. He’s spread eagle (haha like Zeus) on his back in the sand.

“Jason, are you okay? Can you hear me?”

Piper wipes blood from her upper arm and looks him over carefully. “He’s okay. He does this a lot.”

As if on cue, Jason’s blue eyes flutter open.

“Guys,” Nico gasps, “look.”

They all turn to where he’s pointing, and gasp too. The sand they stand on circles a large lake, also surrounded by forest. The lake looks out of place, like it just spawned here. Across a long expanse of water, in the center of the lake, floats a bubble. Coming from it are rainbow colored wisps siphoning from it and down into the water, draining her magical energy. Will squints his eyes, and glimpses Hecate sitting Indian style through the whirls of color. Her head is bent low, revealing a thin silver crown over a cascade of platinum blonde hair. Her fingers curl delicately into ‘O’s over her knees. Meditating, like Piper had seen.

Hazel draws her spatha and rushes into the water, “Come on, we have to help her!”

Jason reaches out and grabs her sleeve, pulling her back onto the sand. “Hazel we have no idea who or what is guarding her. We need a plan to get Hecate free and get Nico to her safely.”

Will looks over at Nico, whose eyes are half closed, and his left hand is pressed over his abdomen.

“Piper,” Jason says, “You and I will cover Hazel.” Piper winks, full of confidence as she brandishes her dagger. “Will, get Nico across.”

Will clenches his jaw and nods, hooking his arm through Nico’s. “Alright, Spooks, let’s get this thing off of ya.”

Nico nods gravely, unsheathing his sword.

Jason and Piper wade into the water, Hazel close behind. Suddenly, bubbles emerge on the surface coming and going like a boiling kettle. Stones materialize on the water. No, not stones, heads of long black hair, followed by dark eyes, and then the sharp, evil curls of red lips. Will gulps. Behind one of them splashes a long navy blue fishtail. Hecate’s bright blonde head lifts, distracted from her meditation, and her jet black eyes fill with despair.

Jason lets out a roar, aiming his sword at the water. A shock of lightning strikes the water and purple sparks crack across the lake. Piper and Jason take off, leading the charge while the mermaids are still stunned. Hazel follows, her golden eyes filled with purpose. Nico and Will run after them; their shoes fill with warm sandy water. Will wields his sword with his left hand, and supports Nico with his right. He’s suddenly glad for his summers working as a lifeguard for the practice on how to swim while supporting someone else's weight.

“Will?” Nico squeaks. “I’ve never been very good at swimming.”

Will smiles nervously. "Don't worry. I've got you."

Ahead of them, Piper yells at the mermaids to stay back, slashing her sword through the air. The lake gets deeper, and the water soon comes to their necks, making it hard to slash a sword.

Will pulls Nico into his chest, “Hold on to me.”

Nico wraps his thin skeletal arms around Will’s neck with a groan, basically dead weight. Will’s eyes dart around the rushing splashing water, looking for colored tails, black eyes, or long claws.

Ahead, Jason elbows one in the face, and her nose explodes with blood. Hazel forges on, swimming past her cover in her selective focus to reach Hecate. Some of the mermaid's dive under the water, and after a few seconds, Piper is pulled under the water, but almost instantly she resurfaces, along with a cloud of mermaid blood. Will’s legs tire from keeping Nico afloat. Nico's head lolls forward, and a cold spike of his crown pricks Will’s neck.

Nico falls to his knees on the jagged black glass and retches. His throat is raw, and his stomach is bleeding out quick. All he wants to lay down and die there, to give up. Instead, he crawls over to the fire, and sticks his hands in, cupping flames and pouring them over his wound. Gasping he falls to his back, and gazes up at the blood red clouds. The smells of iron and blood and smoke turn his stomach, and he shuts his eyes tight to prevent vomiting. This only heightens his sense of sound. He hears screams, sounds like car crashes, the flapping of wings, the tearing of flesh, and the crunching of bones. Nico swallows around the lump in his throat and wishes for his sister, but he's not sure which one.

“Poor child,” rasps a voice.

Nico scrambles to his feet, his arms heavy with the weight of his sword. He holds it in front of him, turning in circles searching for the voice. Before him materializes a sickly looking old woman. She is covered in dust from head to toe, and her cheeks are clawed open in bloody red scratches. Her yellow eyes are sunken into her head, and coming from them is a steady stream of tears.

“Who are you?”

“I am Akhyls,” she whispers.

Nico’s memory briefly supplies him with the image of a playing card, with her image across the face of it. “The... goddess of misery?”

“Yes... I have been around for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, but I have never seen misery like yours, Nico di Angelo.”

Nico feels the strength drain out of him, like someone sucked the breath from him. His sword falls from his hand and crashes into the rocks.

“I wander this place to bring misery and despair, yet there is nothing more I can do to you.”

“Gods, Nico,” Will says, causing bubbles to float from his mouth.

Disoriented, he wants to gasp in surprise, but quickly shuts his mouth. Above him, seeming almost endless, are feet of crystal blue water. Worst of all, his arms are empty. Will thrashes, turning circles in the water to look for Nico. His lungs begin to ache, but he refuses to surface without him. Far below him, Nico sinks slowly, and two mermaids notice him.

Fuck no, Will thinks, swimming towards him, pushing down all instinct to breathe.

The mermaids and Will reach Nico simultaneously, but Will wastes no time. He swims between them, pulls out the small knife he keeps hidden in his sock, and stabs her through the chest, right where her heart should be. Will reaches behind him and grabs onto Nico’s wrist, just as the other mermaid reaches out to grab Will’s throat. Her claws dig into his skin, her eyes are red and irritated, and she smiles rows of jagged bloody teeth. Will flicks his eyes up to the surface, his lungs aching; there's no way they’ll get up there in time to breathe.

We’re going to drown… Will moves his hand from Nico’s wrist, to interlock their fingers. I’m sorry, Nico.

Will opens his mouth, exhaling a breath of bubbles, and closes his eyes. He feels what must be the mermaid's tail wrapping around his torso. Except, suddenly he is pulled towards the surface, and the hands around his throat disappear. Will pulls on Nico’s hand, pulling him into his arms (careful of the crown points). Pulling them to the surface, to safety, is a thick bright green vine of ivy.

They break through the surface of the water and it's like the world has been turned on again. The sun shines bright and violent, and the clearing is charged with the sound of battle. Will quickly fills his lungs, and immediately turns his attention to Nico. His head lays on his shoulder, his pink lips parted open.

“Nico?” Will asks. He gets no response, and beats on his back a few times. A small stream of water dribbles from Nico’s lips, and he coughs weakly. Full of hope, Will starts towards Hecate's bubble at full speed.

Reassured that Nico is alive, Will finally takes in the battle. Responsible for the vine that brought them to safety is Persephone. She hovers above the water, arms outstretched, holding vines around the demigods to keep them afloat. Apart from this, some mermaids are being pulled underwater, assumedly by the same green vines, only followed by a large cluster of bubbles. Persephone’s eyes glow bright chlorophyll green, and a harsh breeze blows her dark hair and flowered dress. Her presence has awakened the clearing, and colorful flowers sprout around the beach. Will finds himself genuinely terrified of the Goddess of Spring.

Piper and Jason are a whirlwind of blades. Piper holds her dagger and Will’s sword, which she must've grabbed when he lost his grip on it. For once, her fighting style is completely silent, just a beautiful furry of bronze. Her multicolored eyes zero in on any threat to Jason and Hazel, and eliminate it quickly. Jason holds his golden sword in one hand, and his other hand is purple with electric charge. Anytime a mermaid comes near his left side Jason grabs her forehead and electrocutes her. Will might’ve thought it to be barbaric (or overwhelmingly Roman), if Nico’s life didn’t depend on it.

Hazel swims up beside him, brow furrowed, fixated on the goddess ahead, her long sword held out beside her. When she notices Will she turns her golden eyes to him and then to Nico. They exchange grave looks, and they both swim faster.

“Free her!” Persephone shouts over the roar of the water. “Time is running out!”

Hazel lifts up her sword and stretches her arm back and then launches her sword like a spear. The clearing falls silent and the water stills as the sword sails through the air, the only sound Will hears is the weak stutter of Nico’s breath, and then pop!

Hecate emerges, and the colorful wisps screech to a halt and head in reverse, back into her control. She expands and begins to glow brighter than a supernova, and the demigods turn their eyes away as she shows her true form. When it's over and Will opens his eyes, he finds the water has all been evaporated, and there are small piles of brown monster ash from the mermaids being vaporized. Hecate lands on the earth, her feet bare and her grown dark as ink.

“The boy,” she says, beckoning. Will hurriedly lays Nico at her feet; Hazel reaches out and takes Will’s hand. Hecate kneels, and pulls the crown from his head, releasing grey curls of smoke. “Ghost King, I release you from your curse.”

Nico takes in a big, shaky breath of air, and with it returns the pink in his cheeks and his olive Italian skin tone. He opens his eyes, bright and healthy, albeit confused. The demigods let out simultaneous sighs of relief, and Hazel helps him stand. Will holds himself back from rushing to his side, but makes no attempt at holding back his smile. Nico looks up at him, his eyes full of gratitude.

“Seph!” Hecate smiles. The two goddesses embrace like old friends. “Thank you.”

“Only returning the favor,” Persephone says, placing a yellow daisy in Hecate's hair. She turns her attention to the demigods before them.

“Hazel,” Hecate says, a blonde curl falls down her collarbone. “You did amazingly.”

“Lady Hecate, thank you for saving my brother.” Hazel says, bowing her head. “Can you help us get Leo home safely?”

Will blushes, ashamed to admit he forgot that Leo might be somewhere fighting crazed mortals off.

“Not to worry, he and Calypso have reached camp safely.” They smile, relieved. “Though they did have some unfortunate run-ins with mortals, and I fear it isn’t over. A large portion of my Mist was stolen in my captivity, and it will be hard for me to veil demigod affairs with the little amount I have left. When you return to camp, tell Chiron not to authorize any more quests until I can retrieve it.”

“I’ll help you,” Persephone says. Hecate looks like she wants to protest but knows better. “I insist.”

“Alright, we should get our champions back to camp. They need to recover, and they have some people to reunite with.”

Chapter Text

The sun in setting on the water, but every camper is out past curfew on the beach. Chiron has allowed it for Percy’s 17th birthday party. The waves gently brush the sand, gentle waters as per Poseidon’s blessing. In the tide, nymphs dance to the music some satyrs play on their pipes.

On a rock, Hazel sits, surrounded by Cabin 20, reaccounting the quest and their final battle to them. Hecate's children look up at her in awe, and Frank stands beside her with one arm around her protectively, gazing down at her with pride. The golden laurel she received upon returning still rests in her curly hair.

Piper and Jason are chatting with Calypso, getting to know her. She kneels in the dirt outside of the forest, planting flowers around nymph’s trees. Festus runs amongst the younger campers, shooting steam at them and playfully tossing them in the air. Dogging feet below them, is a tiny chick with the head of a bunny, running around excitedly.

Leo is crouched in the sand, talking to a small little girl with dark curly hair. Nico recognizes Dot from Cabin 19, Tyche’s cabin. Leo hands her a knife made of white glass, and a small fuzzy creature with a lion's mane and a teddy bear face. Elated, the little girl holds him to her chest and runs off towards the cabins.

Leo’s companion, Tyrone, sits with Chiron in the other dining pavilion. Chiron's eyes are narrowed, and Tyrone gestures wildly, only stopping to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose. The conversation looks serious, and out of place in all the merriment.

Nico stands alone in the other pavilion. He glances down, and sees a long jagged scar in the marble floor. Shaking his head to clear it, he glances back down the beach, where Percy and Annabeth walk hand-in-hand down the beach with their bare feet in the water. They’re smiling, and swing their arms freely. Nico wonder’s where Will is.

“So,” says a voice, followed by the smacking of gum, “I hear your quest was a success.”

Nico turns, surprised, to see the goddess of gossip standing before him. She wears another backless tank top, showing off her tattoos, and white rimmed sunglasses and dark lipstick. She blends right in with all the teenagers on the beach.

“Hecate’s free, Hazel’s a hero, so all went well,” he says.

“What about you?” she asks, blowing a bubble.

“What about me?”

“Here you are, same as ever. In the shadows, alone.” She flips her thick brown hair off her shoulder. “Everyone else has paired off.”

“I like being alone,” Nico responds automatically.

She shrugs. “That’s not what I hear. Anyway,” she reaches into her shirt and pulls out a folded piece of yellow notebook paper from her bra and holds it out to him, “thought you might want this.”

Nico’s face flushes, and he quickly shoves it in his pocket.

“It wasn’t very original… but I found it eye opening. Maybe you could frame it,” she says around another bright blue bubble.

“Gods, no,” he says, considering ripping it up and tossing it into the ocean.

Phemes eyes dart over Nico’s shoulder. “I gotta go, toodles.”

And with the sound of a bubble gum pop she was gone. Nico turns to see who was behind him, to get engulfed in muscled arms and his face pressed into imperial gold plate armour.

“Hello, Reyna,” Nico chokes.

Reyna releases him, and ruffles his hair. “Heard you had a rough quest.”

“Will exaggerates,” Nico deflects.

“Jason actually. But it looks like everyone made it here safe.”

Nico feels the sudden need to sit down, and collapses onto the picnic bench. Reyna sits too, and places her palm over his forehead.

“Are you okay, Nico?”

Nico’s pocket feels like it weighs a thousand pounds, and he swallows down the dryness in his throat.

Nodding, he says, “Yeah, I-I have to tell you something.”

“Okay,” she rubs his back gently with her nails, like how his mama and later Bianca use to put him to sleep. “I’m all ears.”

Nico fidgets out of her hug and digs the note from his pocket, passes it to her and covers his face with his hands. He hears the rustling of paper, and a breathy laugh. Collapsing inside, Nico pulls the shadows in on himself to disappear, but Reyna grabs his arm.

“Nico, I’m not laughing at you. Of course it’s okay, please don’t disappear on me.”

Nico peeks through his fingers and looks up at her. At her warm smile and non-judgmental eyes. “It’s...okay?”

“Yes! I think I might be a little bit too.” She shrugs. “There’s labels and such but you don’t have to worry about them. Just love who you love.”

Nico smiles, shyly taking the note back. “Thanks, Reyna… Bianca would’ve really loved you.”

Reyna wipes his cheek. “I think she does anyway. Want to head to the party with me?”

Nico shakes his head, still reeling. “No, but have you seen Will?”

Reyna thinks for a second, “I think he might be at the Big House. You should bring him out.”

“Will do,” he says, standing. “Thanks again Reyna.”

She rolls her eyes, “Please go, oh my gods.”

Nico starts off running in the direction of the Big House. Through the Mess Hall and past the cabins, before deciding running was too slow, and condensing the shadows around him. He’s shot out of the shadow of a tree like a cannon, and lands face first in the dirt in front of the Big House.

“Nico! What the fuck are you doing?” Will shouts, running down the porch steps before helping him up. “I can’t believe you’re shadow traveling already! Are you fucking nuts? I’m putting you on a prescription for Fluoxetine, you- ”

“Will!” Nico yells, dusting off his jeans, laughing. “Shut up, gods.”

Will scowls, crossing his arms.

“Why aren’t you at the party?”

Will’s hard expression melts, and he shrugs. “I dunno, I was just thinking about this quest. It feels like we’ve been gone from camp for forever.” Nico nods. “I was thinking about everyone’s tarot cards.”

Nico lifts an eyebrow. “Why would-”

“Cuz, it’s like extra pieces of prophecy. You always think about the prophecy after the quest. And the cards were personalized. Hazel’s cards were all about the quest, and Jason’s were about you and Leo. You and Piper had ones about Persephone-”

“Let’s just forget about the cards.” Nico says, suddenly remembering his.

“Well I was thinking bout them cuz I got my letter.”

“Oh. Who’s it from?” Nico wonders.

Me ,” he groans, holding up a folded yellow page. “Pheme just delivered it.”

Nico smiles. “OOoooo, someone’s got secrets!”

He laughs playfully reaching for it, thinking Will will pull it out of the way. But he decidedly lets Nico have it. Will blushes, and Nico falls silent, holding the note in his little hand.

“Read it,” Will says, shoving his hands in his pockets.

Nico clears his throat, and unfolds it. And gazes down at the paper before giving up.

“Will, I can’t read your writing,” Nico snickers.

“Oh for fucks sakes, Nico,” Will laughs. “It says I have a crush on you!”

Nico gapes, and looks back down at it, squinting harder he can just make out: I guess my biggest secret is that I've had a giant crush on Nico di Angelo since I saw him ride into New York with an army of skeletons. Spooky kid. Adorable.

Nico feels the blood drain from his face as he looks back up at Will.

“Oh, shit,” Will curses, taking the note. “I didn’t think this through at all. I don’t even know if you like boys and here I go making everything awkward and-”

“Will! I’m just surprised. I… this whole time?”

Will sighs, and nods.

“Well… I like you too,” Nico says softly, fiddling with the hem of his shirt.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Will steps closer. “Don’t fuck with me like this, Spooks.”

Nico laughs, “I’m noooot.”

“Can I kiss you?”

“Please.”

Will wraps him up and lifts him off the ground, pressing their lips together firmly. Nico slides his hands through his golden hair, feeling like a long wait has finally ended. As their lips move, Nico’s cold skin tingles with warmth. Will crushes his tiny body in his arms, and Nico doesn't complain, feeling right at home.

Will puts him down, and moves his hands from his waist to his cold white cheeks, before pulling away, smiling the brightest smile Nico’s only seen on the sun itself. He doesn’t want to think about how his own face must look.

“What was your last card?”

Nico rolls his eyes, “Love in my future.”

Will gives him the eyebrows. “Are you in love, Deathboy?”

Nico shrugs, “Maybe. Maybe not.”

“You’re annoying,” Will quips, pushing his face.

Nico takes his hand. “Will you join me at the party now?”

“Okay, but no-”

Before he can finish scolding him, they stumble out of the shadows of the forest.

“-shadow travel.”

Nico smiles up at him sweetly, and Will sighs in defeat before bending down to land a kiss on his cheek, and then his lips.

“Oh my gods! Finally,” Kayla shouts across the beach. She then flops dramatically into the sand.

Other campers look over at them. Travis passes Conner ten dollars, and Conner shoots them a thumbs up.

Ohhhh , blondes,” Percy says, nodding in agreement. Annabeth elbows him in the ribs.

“WHAT HAVE I MISSED?” Leo shouts, throwing his hands up.

Loud whistles turn all the campers heads away from them up into the sky, where blue fireworks shoot off, cracking into the sky for Percy’s birthday. Will sits down in the sand, and pulls Nico down into his arms. Across the beach, Jason makes finger guns at them, winking obnoxiously. For once, Nico doesn’t mind.