There was a girl with blonde hair flying above me.
It wasn’t the flying thing that got me on edge; it was the hair. It looked exactly like Annabeth’s. Was the flying girl Annabeth? I squinted up and remembered as I did so that Annabeth was below me on the sand, encircled by a ravenous pack of wolves that was most definitely not Lupa’s. I realized, too, that her hair wasn’t blonde, and it wasn’t even hair. It was a green headscarf. And she wasn’t flying, she was riding a horse that looked like it was made of clouds.
I could make out much else. I was tired, so tired, and my vision was turning green and gray around the edges, but I didn't want to leave Annabeth. I couldn't leave Annabeth...
I blinked sluggishly, and everything around me was dark. Gods of Olympus, I was so tired. I knew what ‘dead’ felt like, from personal experience, and I definitely felt pretty dead. Incredibly dead. But I couldn’t be completely dead, because I could still hear Annabeth calling for me. Maybe my soul was just being stubborn and hanging around. I had to admire my soul for that. If I was one thing, that thing would be stubborn.
Selfishly, I was glad I wasn’t alone.
When I blinked again, the sky, flecked with clouds and looking perfectly peaceful, was what greeted me. I felt sand rubbing against the backs of my arms. I could hear Annabeth, barely, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. I blinked again and this time the girl on the horse loomed above me. The landscape surrounding us was the same beach I’d just been on, but it was gray. Everything was gray and the air felt so thick.
“Come on!” Horse Girl shouted. “Hold on! If you don’t, I’ll drop you. You don’t want that.” I could tell from the tone of her voice that I most definitely did not want her to drop me, whatever that meant. I tried to move, to reach out to her, to find Annabeth, but I was stiff. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything.
“Percy… Percy, please!”
Annabeth. She was saying my name, she was talking to me, and she was crying. I didn’t like hearing the strongest woman I knew crying, let alone over me. I tried to move again, to get back to her.
"You can't. You can't. The ocean should've... It should've healed you! Why didn't it heal you?"
My heart was in my throat and I tried to move yet another time. I wanted to hold her, to comfort her, to tell her that I was there, but Weird Horse Girl protested. “I can help you!” she said. “I can help you see her again. You just have to take my hand!”
I forced myself to lean up into the thick grayness of the void and take her hand, dying with Annabeth’s voice in my ear.
Sorry, I had to end on a dramatic note like that. I couldn’t help it. Also, that’s about where I passed out. I am no longer ashamed to admit it, because I did sort of die. It’s a normal, demigod reaction to something like that.
Now, now, I know what you’re thinking. But Percy! You’ve died before! You’ve been to Hell more times than I can count, and you’ve come back fine! Why is this time any different?
First of all, I can’t really explain. It just… Felt different, like a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach you can’t explain. It felt a lot different.
Secondly, thanks. The Hell thing is kind of impressive, if I do say so myself. Three mortals have been through Tartarus and survived, and I am now proud to say that I am one of them.
Thirdly, the girl on the cloud horse was new. I’d never seen anyone like that coming to collect my soul before.
Hearing Annabeth was new, too. And incredibly unsettling. It was something I never wanted to hear again, Annabeth crying and begging for me to wake up.
Anyway, back to the real story, another flapjack on the crapstack of pancakes that was my life. Seriously, how does that much crap happen to one guy? Ridiculous…
I woke up, which was nice. I was a little concerned I wasn’t going to wake up. Where I woke up was what was a little concerning. A high, ornate, and vaulted ceiling rose above me.
Annabeth taught me that word, by the way. It meant arched.
It was very much not the sky above the beach where I’d presumably died. I was also very much not my cabin at Camp Half-Blood, the infirmary there, or the hospital at Camp Jupiter. I wasn’t Annabeth and I’s apartment in New Rome or the one we shared with my mom and Paul, all plausible places to wake up after dying or nearly dying. I was looking at a huge vaulted ceiling.
I heaved myself to my feet, feeling surprisingly spry for a guy who’d pretty much just died. My orange Camp Half-Blood t-shirt was perfectly intact and smelt washed. I hadn’t washed it in 3 days, maybe.
Hey, washing clothes is a waste of time. I’m a busy guy.
My dark blue hoodie was softer than when I’d bought it but had that comforting worn feel to it. My jeans were perfect, no holes or stains to speak of, and my converse were better than new. My hand flew to my neck where my leather cord and camp beads still hung. I let out a minuscule sigh of relief.
Next, I pushed one of my sleeves up. My SPQR tattoo remained untouched, although I’m not quite sure what would have happened to it. Those Romans were serious about their ink.
“Alright, Horse Girl,” I said, turning and preparing to chew her out. I assumed she would be there, because normally after you save someone from dying or pull their soul from its one-way street to the Underworld, you stick around to see how they were doing. “What just happened? Seriously, what the f-” I stopped because apparently Horse Girl hadn’t gotten to memo and I was alone in the huge room. Well, I thought I was alone until I spotted a burly-looking guy with a warty face, untamed beard, and bloodshot eyes wearing what looked like a doorman’s uniform.
“You’re Valkyrie had to go,” he explain, “but she should be back in time for dinner.” Hearing the word gave my dyslexia. I didn’t even wanted to ask how it was spelled.
“Gonna assume that’s Horse Girl,” I said. “Although I have no idea what that big word that starts with a V means.” The man – I tried to avoid looking at his name tag because it gave me a headaches – shook his head and sighed. “Kids these days… they don’t know anything about Norse mythology until it smacks them in the face…”
Norse? Norse, really? I knew about Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, but Norse gods existed, too? Apparently there was another powerhouse in the ring to deal with. If someone suddenly revealed another religion with real gods to me, I would definitely implode on the spot.
“Um, Mr. Doorman?” I asked. “Can I call you Mr. Doorman? I think my soul got on the wrong train to the Underworld. I’m kind of not really that Norse. And I really need to get back to my girlfriend…” I inched away from him slowly, trying to make an escape. Mr. Doorman rolled his eyes again. “Heard it all before. Now, come on, kid. Have to get you checked in before dinner. Hurry up.”
Reluctantly, I followed. Might as well scope the place out a little. If I waited until this dinner, Horse Girl would be there. She could help me get back to Annabeth. She thought I was either dead or gone, and she’d worry about me. She worried about me a lot. She and my mom got along really well.
I quickened my stride to follow Mr. Doorman, filled with new hope. If I went along with this, it’d lead me to Horse Girl, which would lead me to Annabeth, my life, and my family. Mr. Doorman led me up to a desk with another man sitting behind it. He had a ridiculous amount of hair. Like with Mr. Doorman, I tried to avoid the nametag. The swirly script and the apparent second language wasn’t helping. I did note an ‘HV’ pin on his lapel. I decided to nickname him Mr. Secretary.
“Checking in?” he asked. I frowned. “Uh… Checking in where?” Mr. Secretary rolled his eyes. “Hotel Valhalla, of course! You’re checking in then, right? Name?” He was poised over the keyboard of his computer, looking expectantly at me. I faltered slightly, panicking. I tended to fold when authority figures asked me simple questions. Jason and Annabeth will tell you about the time I almost got arrested in Central Park because a cop asked what I was doing.
I was feeding the squirrels.
“Uh… Jackson, Percy?” I said finally. Mr. Secretary nodded and clicked a few keys, sighing at what he saw. “Another of al-Abbas’… No wonder he smells strange. She always picks the strange ones.” I bristled at the insult. I wasn’t strange. Annabeth, Chiron, and my mom said I was special. I was about to point out that he smelt like he hadn’t showered properly in a few decades when the little voice in the back of my head that told me to quit when I was ahead spoke up.
Actually, I didn’t have one of those, so Annabeth took over. I heard her in my head all the time tell me to do the smart thing and not the stupid one. You don’t want to get yourself killed again, she chastised.
I nodded slightly. That was a fair point.
There was something else that Mr. Secretary had said… al-Abbas. That must be the last name of the girl who brought me in here. He interrupted my thoughts with another question. “What are you? Beserker? Half-troll?” I paused. This was definitely a super-weird hotel. “Um… Demigod? I think?” I said uncertainly.
“Oh, great,” Mr. Secretary said. “Hunding, take him to his room and ask for his luggage.”
Hunding! That must be Mr. Doorman’s name. He mumbled something under his breath, turning away. Mr. Secretary leaned forward. “Protocol, Hunding. Ask him for his luggage.”
“Yes, sir,” Hunding said. He grabbed what looked like a dark green rock from the desk and scooted away. Feeling like an idiot, I followed.
It wasn’t a new feeling.
When we were out of earshot, Hunding held out the green rock to me. I took it, stuffing it in my pocket and not looking too closely. My fingers brushed against a pen and I smiled faintly. “Luggage?” Hunding asked politely. “I’ve got a pen,” I volunteered, but he just sighed. “Keep it.” There was a few seconds paused as we approached an elevator before he continued speaking. “You’re on floor-”
He was interrupted when a kid a little younger than me with shaggy blonde hair tumbled out of it and at our feet. He bolted up and shot for the doors as they closed. “TJ, you-” His insult was in a language I didn’t recognize. I assumed it was Norse. Norwegian? I don’t know, man. Either way, the blonde kid was shouting at closing elevator doors.
“Push me out,” Blondie muttered, turning around and brushing off his pants. “Hit all the buttons… Some boyfriend…” I grinned. I had no idea who this TJ was, but I liked him already.
Blondie turned, finally noticing me and my guide. He waved cheerily, sizing me up. “Another for 19?” he asked Hunding. Mr. Doorman nodded. “Another one of al-Abbas’, too.” Blondie grinned. “Oh, this should be fun. Sam always picks the fun ones, like me.”
I relaxed considerably around this kid. He knew Horse Girl and was only friendly terms with her. She had to be pretty nice, then. I was liking my chances of getting back to my life pretty fast. Maybe he could help me find her?
There was something a little unsettling about this kid, too. He looked familiar, in a ‘we were friends in kindergarten but I kind of forgot about you’ kind of way. “Take him up to 19,” Hunding said. “We renovated Odin’s old rooms for him. Bring him to dinner, as well, if the Valkyrie doesn’t show up.” Blondie gave him a thumbs-up. “Gotcha.” He turned to me. “Come, new friend,” he said. “I’m Magnus. Welcome to Hotel Valhalla.”
He paused before adding, “And welcome to being dead.”