Her dark eyes followed the consistent swing of the Grandfather Clock's golden pendulum, her stubby little fingers tapping on the wooden floorboards in sync with its monotonous rhythm. Tick. Tap. Tock. Tap. Tick. Tap. Tock. Tap. It was strangely alluring, the way it repeated itself over and over in a consistent pattern—never swinging too high, never swinging too low; never beating too fast, never beating too slow. Somehow, it was both comforting and irritating, the way it seemed to go on endlessly. And for a brief moment, she considered the prospect of it beating on forever, its back and forth motion stretching out until the hands of time itself withered away.
She snapped her head up in attention. To her right, her mother sat on the bed, her feet planted firmly on the large maroon carpet situated under it. The lamp on their bedside table had been flickered on, its yellow light casting an almost unearthly glow to her mother's wondering face, along with the Grandfather Clock located not too far from it. Bianca felt a peculiar mix of curiosity and suspicion. How did she not notice her mother sitting up and turning the light on?
"What are you doing up so late, tesorina?"
"Nothing, mamma," she answered, standing up and walking to her mother's bedside. "I just," she attempted to climb up the thick beige bed sheets, and with a light chuckle, her mother amusedly scooped her up and sat her down at her side. "I just couldn't sleep."
There was a sudden crack of lightning in the dark sky, and Bianca clutched her mother's dress sleeve tightly as she readied herself for the loud boom that usually came after the glowing tendrils. Normally, she would've hugged her mother's waist instead, but given that her mom's stomach was currently the size of a watermelon, she resorted to simply holding on to the next best thing.
As she had predicted, thunder roared soon after, and Bianca buried her face in her mother's arm as she bit a scared scream back down and waited for the terrifying sound to stop. She felt her mom's hand stroking her head, cooing comforting words to calm her down despite the evident fear laced within her own voice. It was moments like these that Bianca wished her dad was here; but she knew and understood that he had important work to do. She didn't know what could be more important than keeping her and her mom safe, but it must've been pretty critical to have her father leave on such short notice.
When the thunder died down, Bianca raised her head and looked out the open window. The sky was dark and clear, the way it had been when she was busy looking at the Grandfather Clock. The silver streaks of moonlight that had served as her source of illumination just a couple of moments ago faded out into black, a strange event for the fact that there wasn't any trace of cloud in sight.
She saw another flash of light in the sky, the loud boom following much faster than before, and Bianca let out a tiny shriek. The bolts of lightning and rumbles of thunder continued on, the sky seemingly sensing her fear and deciding to rage on just to scare the life out of her.
"Mamma," Bianca called, her face buried in her mother's sleeves once again, "I'm scared."
She felt her mom circle her arms around her, doing her best to cradle her despite the enormous bulge on her stomach. They stayed like that for a few moments, Bianca fighting the tears threatening to spill out her big almond eyes and her mother holding her, both waiting for the elemental rage to stop itself.
It was by the fifth crack of thunder and lightning that her mom spoke, a voice as soft as the sheets they sat on. "Do you want to hear a story?"
And young Bianca di Angelo, scared as she was, nodded despite herself.
She lifted her face up, a single drop of tear escaping from the watery pool that had formed in her eyes. Her mother shifted to a more comfortable position, and Bianca followed with a little sniffle.
Smiling gently, her mom stroked her head. "Long ago, there lived a princess named Alcestis, and she was undoubtedly the fairest lady in their land." Her mother took her tiny hand and clasped it tightly in hers, their olive complexion bearing a stark contrast to the light sheets.
"Of course, with beauty like hers came along many suitors—men from all over the country that had wanted to try their luck at winning the beautiful maiden's heart. Alcestis simply couldn't pick from them all. Because of this, her father decided that the first person who manages to capture a lion and a bear and fasten them to a chariot wins his daughter's hand in marriage."
Bianca was about to state how weird the requirement was, but her words died down as she found herself eagerly anticipating the next route the story was going to take. "And the person that managed to do so was named Admetus," her mother continued. "Though of course, he did it with a little help from a god. And this god was named Apollo."
"The sun god," Bianca murmured quietly.
While other kids her age would've been rattled by the confusing spellings and pronunciations the names of the characters had, Bianca was, simply put, used to it. Every night, her mom and dad would take turns telling her stories in hopes of lulling her to sleep—but somehow, it seemed to do quite the opposite. She found herself deeply enthralled whenever her parents spoke of heroes and princesses, nymphs and spirits, monsters and gods. They had noticed this of course, prompting them to conjure up stories that had more confusing names of places and people, hoping to bore her enough to feel drowsy. And yet, Bianca listened and hung on every word.
Her mother gave a warm smile, looking proud and pleased that her daughter managed to remember the little bits of information she usually incorporated in her bedtime stories. "Yes, tesorina. The sun god." She stroked Bianca's head endearingly. "Because of Apollo's help, Admetus got to marry the beautiful Alcestis. And for a long time, they were happy. They had tons of people that loved and cherished them, and their life could never have been better."
"But…" her mother paused, seeming as though she was searching for the right words to filter to Bianca's innocent ears. "Gaining help from the gods always comes with a price."
Her dark eyes turned glassy as she continued, "After their marriage, Admetus made the mistake of forgetting a required sacrifice to Artemis"—the goddess of the moon and the hunt, Bianca silently recited—"for the capture of the two wild animals."
"And so, Admetus was punished and sent to the Underworld—"
"Where souls go?" Bianca asked, and her mother nodded. "Yes. But because of Apollo's help once again, Admetus found a way out. The only problem was that he needed someone who would trade places with him and reside in the Underworld. Of course, no one wanted to do so. None of his friends and family volunteered for such a dangerous request. And just as Admetus was losing hope," she thumbed her daughter's little palm, "Alcestis stepped forward and volunteered."
Bianca gasped in shock, her chest feeling heavy with grief from her mom's words. "Oh no."
Her mother nodded, a small smile adorning her face. "Oh, but fear not, tesorina. The god of the underworld—"
"Hades!" Bianca let out, her eyes big and expectant as her mom gave a little laugh. "He was kind. He saw the love and sincerity Alcestis had for her husband, and let her go back to the world of the living and join him."
"And they lived happily ever after?" Bianca asked, waiting for her mom's affirmation with bated breath. She found herself hoping for Alcestis and Admetus's happiness, wishing that their lives were full of laughter and glee, even when she knew full well they were just stories. She was aware they weren't real, aware they didn't exist; but Bianca di Angelo was also aware of her own expectancy for their love to grow and their lives to prosper, and if they could make it to forever, then maybe, just maybe, everyone could too.
Her mother smiled, hugging her daughter as tightly as she could. "And they lived happily ever after."
And Bianca grinned and wrapped her little arms around her mother in sheer joy, the raging storm outside their window long forgotten.
She had always liked stories.
For the thirteenth time that day, she found herself trying to read the same paragraph over and over in her head. It was no use, the words just kept floating up from the page and circling all over her head. She felt dizzy, unable to process simple letters printed on one of the pages of the many books they had in their home. Her mother had said it was normal, saying something about inheriting it from her father's side of the family. Bianca doubted that was the case, though. She had seen her father read papers on several occasions effortlessly. Nonetheless, she tried her luck time and time again, each time hoping to understand the words, and each time failing to do so.
Exasperated, she closed the leather-bound book and put it back in its place in the shelf, priding herself for reaching the fifth row from the top without any help whatsoever. No books fell on the floor this time, either.
Hah, she mentally declared. Take that, tall book shelf.
The creaking of their front door pulled Bianca out her stupor, a smile adorning her features as she saw two figures emerge from the entrance. She ran to them.
"Mamma! Papà!" she enveloped both of them in a hug, her tiny arms barely even wrapping themselves around them when her father laughed and picked her up from the ground. Bianca peppered his face with kisses, and her dad could only chuckle in return. "Hello to you too, bella."
"What took you guys so long?" Bianca pouted, the amount of hours waiting alone in their house suddenly dawning on her. "I woke up and no one was around. There was only a piece of paper that said you guys went somewhere, and would be gone for a few days. I thought you guys left me to the maids."
The couple exchanged a knowing look, amusement evident in their expressions. But before Bianca could further interrogate them about it, a little green blanket cradled in her mother's arms caught her eye. It looked strangely like a giant green burrito. "What's that?"
Instead of answering her however, her mother simply angled her body in order for Bianca to see it clearer.
No wait, not it. Him.
Inside the blanket was a tiny sleeping boy, his pudgy little face seemingly swallowed by the fluffy layer of cloth wrapped around him. He didn't look like much—he resembled just about any other baby Bianca had seen in her two years of existence—and yet somehow, she could feel something else coming off him. His presence felt strange to her, but she couldn't quite put a finger on why. And how.
Only then did she notice the miraculous disappearance of the big bulge that had plagued her mother's figure for months. She was pretty sure her stomach wasn't that flat when they had left the house. Or was it? Bianca felt confused. Little details in her mind slurred in the background.
"Tesorina," her mother called. "Meet your fratellino, Nico."
She stacked three pillows on top of one another and hoisted herself up on them, gaining a better view from beyond her bed. More pillow stacks surrounded her, their shapes and textures ranging from one form to another, with cushions coming from various bits of furniture all around their home. She and Nico had practically stripped their house clean of every soft thing they could find just to build up their enormous bedroom fort, even going through the lengths of adding in their clothes to raise the heights of the four walls of the tower.
Balancing herself, Bianca straightened the jeweled headband she had tenderly placed that had gone askew atop her head. While she was fairly knowledgeable about the fact that hair accessories such as these needed to be placed vertically and settled in behind the wearer's ears, she ignored the trend and positioned it horizontally, the headband's design covering a portion of her forehead.
She needed a crown, after all.
"Oh Paris!" she exclaimed as theatrically as she could, grabbing one of the stuffed animals her dad had given for her fifth birthday. "When will this war end?" The teddy bear simply flopped its head to one side limply. She put a distressed hand on her head for dramatic effect. "It's been eight years!"
"Nine," a small voice whisper-shouted.
"It's been nine years!" she amended, not losing a single ounce of thespianism. "Whatever shall we do, my love?"
Suddenly, a battle cry sounded from behind, and Bianca turned to see her little brother running around the outskirts of the side of the fort she was at. He tripped halfway there, his dark eyes covered by a red towel she had helped him wrap around his tiny little head. The towel was already drooping, with little tufts of black hair already peeking out from its holes, but Nico did his best to steady it enough to prevent it from falling.
"Deceitful Trojans!" he yelled, raising a pillow he had twisted into an elongated shape. "It is I, Achilles, the mightiest warrior in all of the land! And I have come to avenge the death of my brother-in-arms Pat…Patro…"
"Patroclus," Bianca whispered helpfully.
"Patrocles!" Nico finished incorrectly, not missing a beat from his acting. Bianca decided his declaration was close enough, and grabbed another stuffed animal, saying with a deep male voice, "Then I, Hector, shall fight you!"
She threw the toy to the ground, and her brother caught it, pretending to fight it with his fluffy homemade sword. "Take that! And that! And…THAT!"
"Oh no!" Bianca wailed, clutching Paris tightly in her arms. "My love, your brother!"
Finally, Nico gave his final blow on the innocent stuffed animal, and it lay on the floor lifelessly—the body of the late Hector slain by the infamous Achilles. Nico let out another battle cry, but was ultimately cut short by a deep voice that said, "What's this?"
The di Angelo siblings turned towards the entrance of their bedroom, gasping happily at the sight of their parents standing by the open door. "Sothat's where all our pillows went," their mother teased, crossing her arms in an amused fashion.
"We're doing the Trojan War," Bianca declared happily, pointing to her headband. "I'm Helen, and this," she extended her arms forward, clutching the rag doll in between her hands, "is Paris!"
"And I'm Achilles, the most powerful soldier avenging the fallen Patrocles!" Nico proclaimed, raising his sword and shouting yet another battle cry. "You mean Patroclus," their dad corrected, obviously entertained. The little boy flashed an apologetic smile. "Patroclus."
Their mother laughed. "I thought you liked Hector?"
Immediately, he sighed and lowered his sword, looking as though he was trying to explain his side for the millionth time that day. "Yes, but he lost! And I don't wanna lose a battle. I want to be strong, and heroic! Like Achilles!"
"Oh?" Their father questioned, sauntering up closer to the little boy. Bianca fought the sudden urge to laugh. "But if you're Achilles, I wouldn't be able to do this."
Before Nico could ask what he couldn't do, he found his legs swiftly swept off the floor and settled on his father's broad shoulders with the rest of his body hanging upside down. Unstoppable fits of laughter emanated from both his and his father's mouth as they ran around the room, and Bianca's giggles joined in as their dad tried to chase her all over the place. Their mother simply stood by the door, smiling at their antics with a little shake of her head.
Noticing this, their father changed his course from chasing Bianca to chasing his wife, and their mom let out a little squeal before joining her daughter's route of escape.
"Maria! Bianca!" their father ran after them, his voice filled with glee. Nico managed to lift himself up to sit on his father's shoulders amidst the hysterics, clutching clumps of his dad's dark hair for support.
Pillows were kicked everywhere from trying to escape each other, and before long, the fort Bianca and Nico constructed on the bed was reduced to rubbles of soft cushions spread all around the room. And the di Angelo family, their laughter resounding all throughout their home, was happy.
A little smile was etched on her face when she saw her little brother gasp in awe. She remembered the first time her mother had taken her to the Venetian Grand Canal three years ago, when Nico had been simply a year old. The look on her eyes at that time must've mirrored the very expression her fratellino currently conveyed, as her mom flashed a warm smile at her.
"It's so pretty," Nico murmured, looking around the several quaint restaurants as he held their mother's hand with his left, and Bianca's with his right. The street lamps were all turned on, their elegant lights casting a picturesque effect all over the place. "Oh, this is nothing," Bianca told him. "Just wait until you get to the bridge."
They passed by a group of men playing violins, and Bianca couldn't help but find their sound incredibly fitting to their environment. It was soothing, tranquil. Perfect, she may have even described. Everything was perfect.
"Oh, wow," she heard Nico mutter in wonder as they reached the bridge. The elegant lights reflected on the surface of the canal, and for a moment, she deemed them even more wondrous than the stars twinkling above. A few boats passed by here and there, commonly carrying with it a couple looking for a romantic getaway, and Bianca felt a her chest heave a little. She took a small peek at her mother's face.
It had been almost a year since their father last visited, and though she smiled as Nico gushed about how beautiful the place was, Bianca knew their mom was feeling rather saddened by their dad's disappearance.
Someday, Bianca found herself promising as she watched a boat pierce the mirrored lights on the water. I'll get mamma and papà their own romantic getaway.
For an eight and a half year old, she was a pretty light-sleeper.
Bianca glanced at the bed to her right, relieved to find her little brother sleeping soundly under the comfort of his duvet. The moonlight from their window basked him in an angelic light, and she marveled at how peaceful and undisturbed Nico slept. The lights in their room were all turned off, the door was shut, the curtains were drawn at just the right angle to achieve ultimate amount of serenity, and as far as she recalled, she had slept dreamlessly—so why had she woken up?
She shifted her position and closed her eyes, forcing sleep to come to her.
And suddenly, amidst the quiet, she heard a muffled voice from beyond their bedroom walls.
"We need to get them out of here, it's not safe anymore!"
Her eyes immediately flickered open, their hue reflecting those of the darkness surrounding her itself. Was that their dad? He was here?
Instantly, she threw her blanket off and ran to the door, eager to greet the father she had longed to embrace. As she was about to reach for the doorknob however, she heard him utter faintly, "Let me take them to the Underworld. They'll be safe there. We'll be safe there. Go with me there, Maria. Please."
That halted her in her tracks. Underworld?
"No!" her mother cried. "I will not raise my children in the realm of the dead."
"But they'll be safe there!" their dad argued. "It's the only place no one can harm them!"
"They're children." Bianca couldn't mistake the way her mom's voice cracked, as if she was holding back the tears that were threatening to spill out. "I want them to be able to live normally, as others would."
"They're demigods, Maria"—from the other side of the door, Bianca inhaled a sharp breath—"they will never be able to live normally."
For a moment, her mother paused. She seemed to be thinking about their dad's statement, trying to even out the balance scales working in her mind. "Not the Underworld," she finally said, a sense of finality weaved in her voice. "But somewhere else. We'll take them far from here, keep moving from place to place if we have to. We'll keep them safe. We will."
Bianca heard shuffling footsteps, and then…silence. She started to panic. What happened? Why wasn't anyone talking? Why didn't their father say anything? Why didn't their mom?
She couldn't take it anymore. Holding her breath, she risked a turn of the doorknob, doing everything in her power to carry it out as silently as possible. When it had come loose, she pulled gently, her curious eyes searching the view from the other side of the wooden plane.
When she managed to single out on the scene in front of her, she closed the door. For a long while, she simply stood quietly in the darkness, staring at the shadow she cast on the door, unable to move.
And then, Bianca headed back to her bed, the burden of seeing her mother crying as her father hugged her weighing her chest down as she pulled the covers all the way up to her head.
She kept silent on the ride. Beside her, Nico was bouncing up and down, the excitement oozing off him in heaps of joyous questions and exclamations. "Where are we going? I can't believe we just rode an airplane! That was so cool! Can we ride another? Where is our car going? Is it another airplane? Can it be another airplane? Or a boat! Can we ride a boat? I want to ride a boat. Can we please ride a boat?"
Her father simply chuckled from behind the wheel, and Bianca settled her eyes on the interior rear view mirror, watching her father's expression. "Maybe later, tesorino. We need to settle into a hotel first." He seemed so nonchalant, so casual, one would think he didn't just hold his wife's crying state a few nights before.
Bianca almost jumped when he caught her eyes in the mirror. "Is everything alright, Bianca?" he asked, genuine concern evident in his features. "You look distressed."
"I'm fine, papà," she managed. "Just a little…jetlagged, I guess."
Bianca hoped he would let the topic drop, and when he didn't say anything, she released an inaudible sigh of relief. She couldn't really confront him about the whole thing she overheard the other night, not when she could see their mother asleep on the front seat, her hand clasped tightly inside their father's free one. She'd been eavesdropping on their private talk, after all.
Nico poked her arm, and she turned to face him. "Hm?"
"Are you okay?" he whispered, his eyes reminding Bianca of warm melted dark chocolate. Unsure whether for his or her own sake, she forced a smile. "Yeah. Just tired."
"Do you want to sleep?" Nico pressed on, straightening on his seat and grinning pleasantly at her. "You can lay your head on my lap. I know it's hard to sleep with your head against the window. I don't mind."
For a brief moment, Bianca considered telling him everything. She had kept her mouth silent, afraid of the information she took in that night and the chaos it would bring if she uttered them. How would Nico react? What would Nico say? He had always liked heroes. Maybe he would think it was cool, being someone with divine blood running in their veins. And given different circumstances, she might've thought so as well. But Bianca saw her mother cry because of it, saw her father wrap his arms around her as his own tears threatened to escape his eyes.
Being a demigod, she decided, was not cool at all.
So instead of sharing her thoughts, she merely smiled at her brother. "It's fine. I'm fine."
The rest of the ride passed by silently. Or at least, as silently as it could with Nico constantly asking questions. Their father patiently answered each and every one, but Bianca could somehow sense the anxiety slowly seeping into their father's voice as they neared their destination.
Finally, their car settled in front of a large building. From where she sat, Bianca could see fancy furniture behind double glass doors, a large reception desk almost taking over the whole floor itself. Different groups of people sauntered in and out—some few, some many—all carrying duffel bags and suitcases filled with personal possessions. From the corner of her eye, she caught her father twisting a skull ring on his finger, his face bearing a strange mix of concern and disapproval as he looked up at the cloudy sky. Something was wrong, she knew.
Beside him, her mother stirred. "Oh, we're here." She sat up, rubbing the traces of sleep still present in her eyes. "I'll go check us in," she said, opening the car door and started getting out. Before she could fully do so however, their dad's hand caught her arm, his eyes wide in alarm. "Maria, wait. Maybe it's not as safe as we thought. We could—"
"Hades," their mother interrupted, and only then did Bianca realize she'd never heard her mom call their dad by his name. It was always caro, oramore; never his name. And judging by the way their father's eyes turned misty, she knew he noticed this too.
"It'll be fine," she put her hand on his cheek, smiling lovingly, the fear in her eyes overpowered by determination. "We can do this. I know we can." She placed a gentle kiss on their father's lips, and Bianca felt a pang in her chest. Her eyes stung. Her heart felt heavy. The air inside the car seemed too little to accommodate her breathing. Run, her mind told her. RUN NOW.
She looked at Nico, the little boy rendered unusually silent. His eyes were etched with fear and confusion, his fingers fiddling with the hem of his shirt. He locked eyes with her. She could tell his mind was yelling at him to do the same thing her mind was telling her, but both of them were frozen, unable to move from their seats. They were scared, that much was certain. But Bianca knew they weren't afraid for themselves.
They were scared for their mom.
Her dad rubbed his thumb over their mother's hand on his cheek, and she gave one last smile before pulling away and heading out the car. Why did she feel as though her mom was a soldier rushing into a war? Why did she gain the sudden need to follow her and pull her back inside the car?
A distant sound of thunder echoed throughout the place.
And as she watched her mother walk inside and move towards the reception desk, she felt her limbs move on their own. Without thinking, Bianca opened the car door and made a beeline for the hotel's entrance. "Mamma!" she screamed.
Suddenly, a flash of light blinded her. Glowing tendrils filled her vision, and she closed her eyes and held her arms up to shield her from the rubble exploding at every direction. She heard their father yell her name, but it seemed muffled. Her ears were ringing. She couldn't hear properly.
Strong arms grabbed her, placing her behind their body, shielding her from the wreckage the lightning brought. She was aware of Nico running towards her and wrapping his arms around her, and she hugged him back tightly, unsure of what else to do. Rocks flew all around them, the strong gusts of wind blowing debris towards their direction.
Bianca looked up at the sky. The clouds were a deep grey, ominous in every aspect. Ear-splitting rumbles of thunder roared every second, each one louder than its predecessor. She felt Nico's tears dampen her dress sleeve, his sobs making her chest feel even heavier than before.
And then she saw it.
A single streak of lightning released itself from the comfort of the vicious sky and shot down towards the ground. "No!" Bianca cried, tears flowing from her panicked eyes. "NO!"
It struck the hotel, thick chunks of cement and sharp shards of glass exploding all over the place, and Bianca instinctively shielded her body over Nico, forbidding her brother to get hurt from the impact of the rubble. Another flash of blinding light appeared above them, and Bianca felt every hair in her body rise up from the static. She glanced up, ignoring the way the wind flapped her hair across her face, her teary eyes widening as she saw the lightning headed towards their direction. She tightened her grip on her little brother, a terrified shriek escaping her throat as she prepared for the death strike.
But it didn't come.
Instead, what came was complete silence. She felt the wind die down, felt the scraps settle on the ground around them. It was as if the earth dissolved into complete nothingness. Was she dead? She couldn't be. She could still feel her brother in her arms, could still hear his sobs, could still feel his tears. It was all still so concrete, so real. Spirits couldn't experience such things, could they?
Bianca carefully lifted her head up. She didn't know what she expected upon doing so, but it definitely wasn't what laid out there in front of her.
Her father was standing over them, his arms stretched out in front of him, facing the storm. But the storm wasn't there anymore. Nothing was there anymore. Over them was a large force field of dark energy, sheltering them in a dome-like manner. The shield rumbled and rattled, which Bianca guessed was from the impact of the lightning bolts, but their dad held firm. His jaw was set, he kept his arms outstretched, kept them protected.
And as Bianca watched him, she caught sight of a single tear trail down the side of her father's cheek.
Still, he endured. He retained his shield of defense until it rattled no more—and he dropped his arms, the shield disappearing into nothingness, the wreckage of the storm evident around them. No one was around anymore. The huge amount of people running about in the city disappeared. Every one of them.
And their father fell on his knees, his sobs ringing through the still air. Bianca felt her tears escape from its watery pool, her body refusing to move on her own accord, her mind refusing to accept the situation sprawled out in front of her.
Their mother was dead.
Their mother was dead.
"MARIA!" her dad cried, the pain and grief flowing out from him as he wept. "MARIA!"
They stayed like that for a moment, the three of what was left of their family disbelieving of the events that had transpired, their sobs the only sound adorning the air.
Bianca wanted to run to her father, to wrap her arms around him as he wept, but she was frozen in place. She was too stricken, too scared, too afraid that the sky would release another tendril of electricity and kill them all. But she couldn't just stand there. She had to do something.
Before she could even think of what to do however, a shadow fell from above them, and she felt her body stiffen cautiously. A person landed beside their father—no, not a person. Bianca was sure people didn't have enormous bat wings sprouting from their backs.
"I want her back," she heard her father say, his head hung low. "I want her back!"
"My lord, you cannot," the bat person warned. "You of all immortals must respect the laws of death."
"Zeus will pay for this." Bianca watched as her father seemed to glow, a dark aura emanating from all over his body, but it disappeared as soon as it had appeared. "Take them," their father said, his voice cracking. "Wash their memories clean in the River Lethe. Make sure they remember nothing."
"As you wish, my lord."
The bat lady sauntered towards them, and Bianca found herself stuck to the ground, shaking her head violently. She wanted to run, to tell her father she heard everything that night, and that she was prepared to do everything she can in order for them to stay together, but she couldn't. And she hated herself for it.
"Papà," she called weakly as the woman approached. "Papà!"
But the bat person merely placed her hands on their shoulders, and everything faded into black.
She played with the piece of croissant on her plate, the skull ring on her finger glinting in the sunlight as her mind drifted into every bit of thought other than the one the lawyer in front of them was saying. Somewhere along that beautiful sunny day, she and Nico had been lead inside a quaint little French café boasting a magnificent view of the United States Capitol, and while she didn't want to be rude to the woman, she found her words falling on deaf ears. Bianca tried her very best to listen, she really did, but none of the spoken sentiments just went inside her brain.
She raised her head up, eyes wide and questioning. "Scusi?"
The lawyer sighed, obviously exasperated. For a moment, Bianca wondered how many times the woman had repeated what she was saying. "I don't speak Italian, child. But as I've reiterated for the fifth time, you two are orphans."
Of course she knew that. How wouldn't she, when the first thing the lawyer said upon meeting them was "your parents are dead"? Something about dying when they were younger or something. The details were blurry in her head. She couldn't recall them, much less the causes of their death.
"But they had left a bank trust for the two of you. And because both of you are still underage and cannot handle that huge sum of money, we're sending you to boarding school. In the meantime, the bank would be responsible for the cash you two own."
Bianca felt a little tug on her dress sleeve and turned to see Nico looking at her with big dark eyes. "Bianca," he called. "What's boarding school?"
Before she could answer, the lawyer beat her to it. "It's where kids go to school. But it's also where they live."
Nico's face scrunched up in childlike disapproval. "Who would want to live in school?"
"Orphaned kids with too much money left in their incompetent hands," the woman answered sharply, and Nico winced. Bianca frowned, putting a protective arm around his shoulders. She liked this woman better when her voice faded in the background.
"Now then," the lawyer clasped her hands together after a moment and smiled. "Let's get you to your new home."
She shivered under her blanket. It was just another one of those nights, when a storm cloud would pass over the city and tow rain, lightning, and thunder along with it; it would pass by as quickly as it came, it always did. Bianca liked to think she was used to it, but the goose bumps embellishing the skin on her arms told her otherwise.
Still, she forced her eyes to close and calmed her mind of the irrational thought of lightning coming to get her, desperately trying to catch some sleep. She had a big test tomorrow, and she needed all the rest she could possibly get.
And Bianca almost, almost, drifted to the peaceful slumber she longed for—if it weren't for the gentle knock she suddenly heard on her door. Letting out a little grunt, she dragged her feet off the bed and opened it, expecting to see her roommate back from her early trip to the hospital just a few hours ago. She told her mixing those chemical wouldn't do her any good. She told her.
But instead of a patched up face of a freckled redhead, Bianca was greeted with a small boy in his fire truck pajamas, looking up at her with misty eyes, his dark hair sticking up in various directions on his head.
"Nico!" Bianca exclaimed, both angry and surprised. "What're you doing? You're not allowed in here! You should be in the boys' dormitory!" She felt irritation swell up in her. Her brother knew full well the punishments the school set for children who went to dormitories not designated for their gender. Disobeying it never ends up well.
"I know," Nico replied weakly. "But I…I couldn't sleep." He rubbed his elbow, looking at the ground. "The storm scares me."
Bianca's expression softened. Her little brother seemed genuinely terrified of the storm that had brewed outside, and she extended her arms out and pulled him close, tucking her own fears aside for his sake. "It's okay," she whispered, stroking his head soothingly. "You're okay."
A crack of thunder resounded around them, and Bianca felt him flinch in her arms. She inhaled sharply, her own fright beginning to show. Stay calm, she chided herself. Nico needs you. Stay calm.
She pulled away. "Do you want to sleep here tonight?"
Nico nodded, his expression turning from fear to one of gratefulness. Bianca smiled and let him inside, closing the door to her room as she did. The siblings nestled on the bed, and Bianca put her arms around Nico as he buried his face on her shoulders, his black hair softly tickling her chin. "I'm sorry," he choked out.
"Shh, it's alright." She felt him snuggle closer to her, and she nuzzled her head on his. "I'm here." Bianca closed her eyes, drowning out the menacing sounds from beyond the safety of their school walls.
"I'll always be here."
Eyes were trailing after her as she ran through the crowd of students in the corridors, but she paid them no mind. She relentlessly put one foot in front of the other and sprinted on the floor, her black Mary Jane flats making a beeline for the door at the end of the hallway. She pushed them with all the strength she could muster, and headed out the back of the school. The weather was nice and bright, the sun above shining with just the right amount of heat to make it pleasant. The grass on the currently empty playground was greener than the fresh vegetables they served during lunch, and the trees surrounding the wide lot were the healthiest she'd seen them; but she didn't come out here to enjoy the scenery.
Bianca rushed to the side of the school, her eyes frantically searching the area.
And then she saw him. Her little brother's uniform was wrinkled and dirty, the tie slanted in front of his polo. His navy blue coat was wet and stained with an array of colors, matching the dark marks visible on his olive skin. He had picked the most secluded part at the back of the school and stayed there, sitting on the soil instead of the grass under the shade of a tree, eyes and nose swollen from all the crying.
She quickly ran to him. "Nico!" she gasped, kneeling in front of him and pulling him to her chest. "Oh my goodness, what happened?"
Her little brother lifted his head up, sniffling, and Bianca saw that his bottom lip was bleeding. She felt her heart drop. Who did this? Who dared do this to her brother?
"I told him I…like him," Nico managed, his voice cracking. "And…and he and his friends laughed at me. C-Called me names." A tear escaped his eye as he wheezed, trying to catch his breath. "Th-They said I was abnormal, and they pushed me to the ground and kicked me until I c-cried..." Nico wiped his wet face, breathing heavily. Bianca pulled him into her embrace once more, her hand stroking his back comfortingly.
"I…I didn't want to cry," he croaked. "B-But it hurt…it hurt when they kicked, and…and it hurt when they told me I was a f-freak. It hurt."
Bianca felt like rushing to the bullies and kicking them until they cried, see how they liked it.
"Am I a…freak, Bianca?" Nico asked, the hurt discernible in his voice, and she vehemently shook her head. "No. No, of course not, Nico. You're normal. Liking people is a normal thing for people to do."
"But…but he's a boy," he sniffled. "And I-I'm also a boy..."
Bianca pulled back and stroked his face, wiping the tears trailing down his cheeks. "It's okay, piccolo. It's not your fault. Like I said, it's normal. And besides," she gave him a gentle smile as she brushed the hair sticking to his damp face. "That jerk doesn't know what he's missing."
She felt a heavy weight being lifted off her shoulders when her little brother let out a little laugh. "Okay?" she asked.
He nodded delicately, a small smile on his face. "Okay."
"Good. Now come on." She stood up, dusting dirt off her pleated skirt, waiting for her brother to do the same. But Nico simply looked up at her in confusion. "Where are we going?"
"We're going to the National Mall, of course," she said in the most casual way possible, grabbing his hand and walking with such poise one would think they snuck out of school every day.
"But we still have classes."
Bianca grinned at him. "Exactly."
She stepped out of the car, looking up at the towering building in front of them. Above the entrance, the name of the structure was presented in brightly lit lights, its label written in a language she had never encountered before, yet could somehow understand.
Lotus Hotel and Casino, it read.
Her dark eyes sparkled in joy as hundreds of tickets started spewing out from the arcade game she and Nico were playing at. Rows and rows of yellow stubs flowed into their hands, and she almost joined her brother in jumping up and down in glee as she mentally counted off the vouchers.
"And…five thousand and forty three!" she declared at the same time as Nico let out a loud "YES!"
Clutching the three days' worth of coupons in her hand, the di Angelo siblings walked briskly to the prize counter at the center of the casino's ground floor, gazing at the hundreds of prizes laid out in front of them. Awards ranged from little key chains to remote controlled helicopter-cameras, the costs increasing along with its desirability.
Almost instantly, her vision zeroed in on the floppy green cap located among the several flowery and striped hats. It seemed unwanted, almost swallowed by its more sought-after brothers and sisters, and Bianca could understand why. It was too plain, too dull. Its dark green hue was no match for the assorted prints the other head accessories boasted.
Simply put, Bianca loved it.
She turned to Nico, her hands itching to point at the pretty cap she wanted, but halted when she saw him eyeing something from the row below the head accessories. It was a small box painted in bright neon colors, with one side made transparent, allowing them to see the stacks of cards and figurines available inside. Nico was practically ogling the game, and Bianca couldn't help but glance at its value. 5,010 tickets.
She looked at the cap she wanted. 4,981.
Bianca turned to him once more, her eyes softening at the sight of her fratellino eyeing the box wondrously.
Without thinking twice, she extended her hand gave the stubs to her brother, whom only looked up at her in awe. "You go on buy that game you want," she said, smiling genuinely.
The ecstatic gleam in Nico's eyes, she decided, was enough for her to be happy.
She stuffed the cheesy fries in her mouth and almost swooned at its delicious taste. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten something so forbiddingly good—what with the healthy eating policy the boarding school they attended at had—and the hotel cafeteria's unlimited supply of junk food was certainly a grand consolation prize for getting kicked out.
She spun around on her seat in search for the source of the sound, only to find her little brother running up to her table in glee, his hands hidden behind his back. She smiled at his excitement. "What is it, Nico? Did you win the Africanus Extreme Expansion Pack?"
"Not yet, but guess what I got!"
Chuckling, Bianca decided to humor him. "Okay, is it the Dionysus figurine?"
"Is it…the Golden Apple of Discord card?"
"Nuh-uh. But I did get that win that one from the girl I played with a while ago."
"Ooh, nice! Okay, what about the Golden Fleece?"
"Cupid's Quiver of Arrows?"
"Head of Medusa? Aegis? Sisyphus card? Icarus's Wings?"
"Nope, nope, nope, and still no!"
"Oh, I give up," Bianca exhaled. "What did you get?"
Grinning cheekily, Nico extended his arms in front of him. "Ta-da!"
Bianca felt herself freeze. There on his hands was the very green cap she had wanted to get, looking strangely new and battered at the same time. She looked at her brother, and only then did she notice the obvious droop of his eyelids, the evident dark shadows that had formed under his eyes. "I saw you eyeing them the other day," he explained sheepishly, "so I worked really hard and fought this one guy who wanted it and—"
Bianca didn't let him continue. She was already up on her feet and peppering him with kisses all over his face, feeling immensely overjoyed. "Bianca…" Nico whined. "People are looking."
"Oh, let them know I love my little brother so much," she laughed, showering him with even more pecks on the cheek.
And though he grumbled and complained, the way he fought back a smile told her he didn't at all mind the stares they were receiving.
She pulled on her cap as they were escorted through Westover Hall's lobby, cautious of both the new surroundings and the new lawyer. The medieval swords and gothic decorations around them were a bit too much for her tastes, but Nico seemed to be enthralled by everything about their new school. Once in a while he would point at a weapon used as decor and ask if it was real or fake, and each time, the man leading their tour answered real.
If he could be described in one word, it would be creepy. And it wasn't just because of the different colored eyes he had, no. There was something about him, this otherworldly aura emanating from his every movement; the way he would proudly gesture at the axes on the wall, the way mangled the pronunciation of the letter J, the way he smiled at the wrong statements, the way he seemed to crouch as he walked stiffly on his two legs. His whole demeanor just screamed sinister.
Bianca twisted the skull ring on her finger, a habit she had gained whenever she experienced unease and distress. She let her mind drift into the single piece of jewelry she owned, wondering for the millionth time when and where she had gotten it, and from whom.
"And finally, we have here the dormitories," the man announced as they arrived at a bottom of two staircases. "Left are the boys', right are the girls'. Curfew is 10 o'clock PM. Sharp. If any of the students are caught later than the designated time," he grinned eerily at the siblings, seemingly aware of their sneaky antics back in their previous boarding school. "Well, let's just say they'll be joining the lion heads in our famous Hall of Fame."
Bianca seriously hoped he was kidding.
A crash of thunder.
"Nico, stop playing those cards here. It's a school dance!" she hissed, ducking her head low enough for her cap to hide her face. Their schoolmates were having a great time dancing and laughing around the gym's improvised dance floor, and there she was, sitting on the bleachers, tending to her little brother.
"But we're not dancing," Nico replied innocently, and Bianca fought the urge to groan. Just once, she wanted to go out there and mingle with other people, see what it was like to actually feel like she had friends, that she belonged somewhere. But no, her brother just had to be there with her every single minute of every single free day, pestering her with playing his silly little card game.
The first few times had been okay, she could understand how much he wanted—needed—a beacon of stability to hang on to from the speedy daze that had been their life. But to have her as his only companion for the past eight months? That was a different kind of story altogether.
Bianca loved Nico, and she would do absolutely anything to make her little brother happy. But by the gods, was it so wrong to wish she could have her own little ray of happiness as well?
Sighing, she turned and faced him. "Nico, I—"
All of a sudden, she felt strong arms circling around her neck, and she gasped as she was roughly dragged off the bleachers with her brother on tow. She and Nico flailed around, causing the cap to fall off her head in a desperate attempt to escape.
"Hey! Let us go! Let us—"
Her words were cut short when the hand tightened itself around the scruff of her neck, nearly choking her to unconsciousness. Black spots danced around her eyes, but nonetheless she managed to force herself to stay awake.
"Bianca?" Nico called out frantically. "Bianca, are you okay? Are you—"
"Quiet, you two!" their tour guide and vice principal, Dr. Thorn, hissed, rendering the siblings silent. He dragged them to the main entry hall, pushing them towards a wall once they reached the end of the corridor. "Now you two just stay here and be good little children, okay?"
Horrified and afraid for their lives, they nodded, watching as he scampered away into the shadows at the opposite end of the hall.
And then, a boy came.
He was carrying a sword in his hand, its bronze gleam glowing despite the darkness that surrounded them. He looked equal parts confused and determined—a hero in search for the object of his quest. He lowered his weapon once he saw them, approaching with one step at a time. "It's okay," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Just then, Bianca saw movement from behind him, the outline of Dr. Thorn's hawkish face made visible by the boy's sword. She clenched her fists, looking directly at the boy. Run, she wanted to scream.
"My name's Percy. I'm going to take you out of here, get you somewhere safe."
He turned just as the dagger-like projectile hit his shoulder, causing him to stumble back towards the wall in agony. A cold laugh echoed through the hall, Dr. Thorn's French twang resounding eerily from every direction. "Yes, Perseus Jackson. I know who you are." He stepped out into the dim light of the corridor, his face looking more ghoulish than ever. Bianca felt Nico tense beside her, and she shifted her footing and stood before him, her instincts telling her to shield him from whatever danger about to be thrown at them.
"Thank you for coming out of the gym," Dr. Thorn continued. "I hate middle school dances."
The boy tried swinging his sword once again, but to no avail. Bianca saw a sudden flicker of movement from behind Dr. Thorn, and she yelped as another missile made an impact with the wall just a few inches from her face. Was that a knife? She wasn't entirely sure. All she knew was that even as she felt scared, terrified of what the vice principal was planning to do with them, she had to keep her little brother safe. She kept Nico shielded behind her, determined to go down defending him if she had to.
Bianca glanced at the deadly décor on the walls. If she could just—
"All three of you will come with me," Dr. Thorn said venomously. "Quietly. Obediently. If you make a single noise, if you call out for help or try to fight," his mismatched eyes flickered to Bianca for a moment, and she knew right then that he was fully aware of exactly what she was thinking. "I will show you just how accurately I can throw."
The whole thing was one big blur. One minute they were walking down a dimly lit snowy path with a boy that had ballpoint pens for weapons, the next they were being pushed flat into the ground by some blonde baseball fanatic that somehow had the ability to turn invisible. A girl with streamers attached to her leather jacket was screaming bloody murder. A redheaded boy with goat legs kept playing pirate songs, the grass bending to his will as a snake would to its charmer. And to top it all off, she and Nico just found out their vice principal was planning their deaths with a spiky tail attached to his hairy butt.
She found it all very confusing, if Bianca were to be completely honest with herself.
"Who are you people?" she had demanded, her voice filled with both confusion and anxiety. But instead of answering her, the crazy people continued fighting the even crazier creature that was sending poisonous projectiles at every direction, finding a better way to use up their heroic energy than tending to a bewildered twelve year old girl.
To her left, she heard Nico gasp. "A manticore? He's got three thousand attack power and plus five to saving throws!"
Bianca didn't know whether to pull him close or whack him in the head.
Somewhere along the muddle of the battle, a helicopter emerged from the fog, and the girl in punk clothes got slammed into the ground by Dr. Thorn's leathery tail. The boy with the bronze sword ran out to help her, and Bianca momentarily racked her brain in search of his name. Preston? Peter? It started with a P, she was sure of it.
A cruel laugh rang through the air and pierced her thoughts. "Now do you see how hopeless it is? Yield, little heroes."
And just as she thought everything was over, that she and Nico and the rest of the warrior kids were going to be abducted and kidnapped by creatures that came straight from Nico's silly card game, she heard a loud howl of someone blowing a battle horn far off into the woods. For a moment, everyone stayed still. Not one of them dared to move in their spot, much less open their mouth and speak in the silence's behalf. And before she could further process the sound's denotation, a glowing silver arrow suddenly sprouted from Dr. Thorn's right shoulder.
He staggered back, wailing in agony as he cursed and unleashed dozens of spikes towards the direction the arrow had come from. But just as quickly, more silvery projectiles shot back at him, slicing the thorns in half as they flew midair. Bianca's eyes widened. How—
Suddenly, several girls emerged from the woods, each of them wearing silvery ski parkas and carrying bow and arrows.
"The Hunters!" the blonde girl cried.
One of the archers stepped forward, her bow and arrow drawn, a silver circlet braided into the top of her long dark hair. She stood so straight, looked so determined, moved so gracefully, Bianca found herself immediately looking up to the girl. She aspired to achieve that amount of confidence someday.
"Permission to kill, my lady?"
"This is not fair!" Dr. Thorn yelled, stomping his foot on the ground. Bianca couldn't help but think of him as a whining boy that had just been told he couldn't lick the chocolate off the batter. "Direct interference! It is against the Ancient Laws!"
She glanced to where the voice had come from, her eyes zeroing in on a young girl that looked roughly the same age as she was. She looked both beautiful and dangerous, with piercing eyes that seemed to glow as bright as the moon high above them. "The hunting of all wild beasts is within my sphere," she proclaimed, eyes flashing menacingly as a gust of wind blew on her auburn hair. "And you, foul creature, are a wild beast." She looked at the girl with the silver circlet. "Zoë, permission granted."
The older girl shifted her grip on the arrow, her fingers threatening to release its hold on the silver ammo. "If I cannot have these alive," the manticore growled, "I shall have them dead!"
He lunged at the girl with the spear and the boy with the sword, but the curly haired girl yelled after him, charging at the monster with a knife in her hand. The archer shouted for her to get out the line of fire, but she had already leapt on the monster's back and stabbed him. Dr. Thorn howled in pain, turning in circles and flailing his tail around as the girl hung onto his mane for dear life. Bianca was amazed at how relentless she was, her grip on him strong and unfaltering.
"Fire!" the older huntress yelled.
"No!" the boy screamed.
But they let the arrows fly, dozens of long silver darts flashing through the air so fast Bianca almost mistook them for rays of moonlight. Several arrows planted themselves firmly all over the manticore's body, and he staggered backward, wailing, "This is not the end, Huntress!" he glowered at the silver-eyed girl. "You shall pay!"
And before anyone could react, he leapt across the cliff, the girl that had attacked him still attached to his back. Bianca gasped.
"Annabeth!" the boy yelled, running after them with a face filled with determination and disbelief. For a moment, Bianca was sure he would follow and jump out into the churning ocean himself, but the helicopter was faster than him. Sounds of gunshots filled the air, and everyone scattered as tiny holes appeared in the snow. But the auburn haired girl simply stepped forward, looking up at the black aircraft calmly. "Mortals," she announced, "are not allowed to witness my hunt."
Bianca watched as the helicopter dissolved into a flock of ravens with a single thrust of her hand, their angry squawks echoing as they flew up away into the night.
What in the world?
The Hunters assembled on the clearing, and the girl named Zoë glared at the girl with the spear and punk attire. "You," she spat, distaste leaking heavily from her voice.
"Zoë Nightshade," the other girl said in an equally disgusted manner. Bianca saw a little spark of electricity travel around her body. She looked at Nico, checking to see if he was seeing the same things she was, and the way he looked back at her was enough to confirm her suspicions. "Perfect timing, as usual."
Zoë scanned their surroundings, her black eyes zeroing in on Bianca and Nico for a brief moment. "Four half-bloods and a satyr, my lady."
"Yes. Some of Chiron's campers, I see."
"Annabeth!" the boy shouted once more. "You have to let us save her!" He thrashed around, struggling as some of the girls kept him down. The auburn haired girl turned towards him.
"You are in no condition to be hurling yourself off cliffs."
"Let me go! Who do you think you are?"
Bianca watched as Zoë stepped forward in anger, her eyes looking darker than one of Dr. Thorn's spikes, ready to take the boy down. But the other girl raised her hand. "No. I sense no disrespect, Zoë. He is simply distraught. He does not understand."
She stood a little straighter, her pupils gleaming like little moons inside her very eyes. "I am Artemis," she said, and Bianca could've sworn she heard Nico gasp and mumble "she has 2000 attack power and does double damage with the Moonlight card" under his breath.
"Goddess of the Hunt."
She thought about Nico.
Here she was, sitting inside a very comfortable tent in the middle of a snowstorm with an Olympian goddess personally asking her to join the Hunt, and all she could think about was her little brother. What would Nico say? How would Nico react? Being a Hunter required their separation, and Bianca simply couldn't wrap her mind around what would happen to him if she left.
All their life, they had always been together, always stuck by each other. She couldn't just…leave him. And for a bunch of girls she barely even knew, too. Who knows if they weren't tricking her into some sort of trap? She just watched her vice principal turn into a humongous monster and leap off a cliff with an innocent girl, being led into a ruse by a couple of girls and their goddess certainly wasn't out of the realm of possibilities anymore.
And yet, Bianca found herself considering the idea, her mind drifting to the events of earlier, when she and Nico stayed seated on the bleachers. She had looked at the other students, the people mingling with each other, making friends with one another. She'd never experienced that kind of belongingness before, not with the constant need to care for her brother present in every day of her life.
She loved Nico. She loved him so very dearly she was willing to risk the severe punishments of being caught past curfew hours just to comfort him to sleep. He needed her, and she needed him just the same.
But Bianca also needed a life of her own, one where she wasn't always sacrificing her own joy for the sake of someone else's.
So with one deep breath of finality, she looked at Zoë and said, "What do I have to do?"
Hurt flashed in his eyes. She could see the way it turned misty, the way the tears started to form on its corners, and she swallowed the pang of pain she felt as her brother looked at up at her with poignant eyes.
"You're leaving?" he asked weakly, his voice cracking.
Ignoring the heavy feeling she felt in her chest, she nodded. "Yes, Nico. The Hunters…they invited me to join the, you know, the Hunt."
"And you accepted?"
"I…" she gulped. "Yes. I did."
Nico's lip quivered, and Bianca felt the guilt begin to take over her. What had she done? She couldn't leave her little brother! Especially not now, when he needed her the most. She had the sudden urge to run back to the cabin, to talk to Zoë and tell her that it was a mistake, that she wanted to back out and stay at camp with Nico—but she resisted. She wanted this. She needed this. She couldn't give it up now.
"I'm sorry," Bianca said, sincerity filling her voice. "I know I'm being selfish but…I want this, Nico. I've always wanted this."
"Wanted what?" Nico choked out angrily, sniffing. "To go away? To leave me? Because I'm not normal? Because you can't take living with a freak?"
"What? No!" she exclaimed, pulling him to her when he started to sob. "Gods Nico, no, of course not. I love you. And you're not a freak. You were never a freak, piccolo. Never."
She felt his arms wrap around her waist tightly, and for the millionth time in her life, she wanted nothing more than to hunt down the bullies that had hurt him and beat them up senseless. The bruises on Nico's skin had healed, but the wounds their words left had dug deep into his very being, scarring her little brother deeper than he'd ever admit to her.
"Don't leave," Nico murmured into the hug. "Please don't leave."
"I have to, piccolo. Zoë…she chose me to come with her on the quest. It's the only way I can prove myself worthy of being a Hunter."
Nico didn't say anything. He simply embraced her hard, afraid that she would disappear if he let go too quickly. The sound of his weeping broke Bianca's heart. "Lady Artemis promised I would see you, you know," she said, not letting him go. "She assured me I would still get to see you, and I'm relying on her word. So don't cry, please don't cry."
He nodded silently, and she pulled away, wiping his tears with her thumb. She caught sight of the skull ring she wore on her finger, and an idea appeared in her mind. "Tell you what, I've got something to give you."
She took the ring off and grabbed her brother's hand, slipping it into his ring finger. "There," she said. "Now you've got both of the two things that are special to me. Minus the cap from the hotel of course, 'cause we got kidnapped and all that."
Nico looked confused. "I've got both? What's the other one?"
Bianca grinned at him. "You, of course."
Nothing else looked more beautiful than the sight of her little brother smiling despite his tears.
Behind them, someone let out a little yelp. Bianca grabbed an arrow from her quiver and notched it on the bow, ready to strike down the nearest threat the way Hunters had taught her. But once she got a glimpse of a pair of sea green eyes, she lowered her weapon.
Zoë wasn't as anxious to do so. "You! How dare you show thy face here?"
The way he said her name was different. There was a certain twinkle in his eye, a certain twitch of his lip, and Bianca knew she was someone special to him.
"I hope we find her," she said. "Annabeth, I mean. She's lucky to have a friend like you."
Percy let out a humorless laugh, kicking a piece of rock in front of him. "Lot of good it did her."
Bianca's face softened. He looked so hurt, the guilt of letting his friend fall down a cliff weighing him down on his shoulders. He hated how powerless he was to save her, hated how he let her go away without as much as a fight. She understood the internal pain all too well, and she refused to let him feel it any further. "Don't blame yourself Percy. You risked your life to save my brother and me," Bianca told him. "I mean, that was seriously brave. If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't have felt okay about leaving Nico at the camp. I figured if there were people like you there, Nico would be fine. You're a good guy."
Percy's eyes widened, surprise filling his features as he tried to process what she had just said.
"Even though I knocked you down in Capture the Flag?" he asked, and Bianca laughed.
She looked at her hands. "That's impossible," she said, her mind refusing to accept the information the others had told her. "I…I'm not that old."
She twirled it around her fingers, examining the little statue further. It didn't look like much; it was made of pure metal, same as the rest of the figurines Nico already had, with a helm placed on the god's head as its one sole accessory. Bianca wondered how her little brother could even tell the differences between the statue models. They all looked the same to her—all eleven of them. They weren't even that remarkably crafted, too.
But this was the only one Nico couldn't find. This was the figurine he scrounged the whole five floors of arcade games in the casino for, the one he had worked so hard to attain. He'd be so happy if she came back and gave this to him—he would most definitely drag her over to the pavilion immediately and play with her all day, and Bianca wouldn't mind in the slightest. She could already imagine the look on his face, and an irrepressible smile appeared on her lips.
She glanced up at her friends, all their backs turned to her as they walked forward. Then she looked back at the little statue. It wouldn't hurt, would it? It was a small thing, anyways. She was sure no one would notice, let alone care about something as insignificant as an action figure to get taken from the graveyard.
She pocketed the figurine and jogged back to the others.
"You took something. That bow!"
"Give it back! Throw it down!"
"I…I didn't take the bow! Besides, it's too late."
"What did you take?"
A loud creaking noise cut their conversation short, a shadow looming above them as the metal giant raised his foot, ready to stomp them into the ground. They ran just in time to escape being squashed flat, but the monster raised his sword, his eyes locking in on the two of them.
"Hey Talos!" Grover called, trying to distract the giant from killing his friends. He played a quick melody on his reed pipes, and the power lines by the highway began to dance in the air and wrap themselves around Talos's legs, the same way the grass had when Dr. Thorn had captured them.
Bianca watched, her feet frozen in place as the giant whirled around, creaking and sparking. Percy yelled at her to run, but she couldn't move. It was as if someone tied a ton of weight to her calf, denying her the access to freely moving her feet as she wished. She brought out the figurine from her pocket, a lump forming in her throat. "It… it was for Nico. It was the only statue he didn't have."
"How can you think of Mythomagic at a time like this?"
Her eyes stung.
"Throw it down," Percy said. "Maybe the giant will leave us alone."
She put it down on the ground reluctantly, but the giant just kept coming at them. She snatched it back quickly, afraid of letting the tiny statue go anywhere but her grasp. Bianca's eyes followed the mechanical guardian as Thalia shot an arc of lightning towards his knee, causing him to collapse. And for a moment, she thought everything was okay. But that notion left just as soon as it had come. Talos rose up once again, raising his large metal foot to stomp Thalia down.
"Crazy-idea time," Percy muttered, and Bianca turned to him nervously. "Anything."
He told her about the maintenance hatch. "There may be a way to control the thing. Switches or something. I'm going to get inside."
"How?" Had he lost his mind? "You'll have to stand under its foot! You'll be crushed!"
"Distract it, I'll just have to time it right."
She couldn't believe her ears. Here Percy was, risking his life to alleviate the consequences her own personal mistake. He was wholly willing to go towards the giant and trade his chance at seeing Annabeth again, to trade his very being just to save his friends—and suddenly, Bianca's mind thought back to one particular line in the prophecy the Oracle had spoken.
One shall be lost in the land without rain.
She couldn't let him die. He had already gambled on so much for his journey to be over, and Bianca wouldn't let him throw it all away because of her selfishness. So before Percy could head off and ready himself for raiding the giant's system, Bianca stopped him. "No. I'll go."
"You can't!" he exclaimed, and she was suddenly reminded of how Nico had looked at Percy back at Westover Hall, the way he stared up at the hero that had saved their lives. "You're new at this! You'll die!"
But her mind had been set. There was no turning back now. "It's my fault the monster came after us," she said. "It's my responsibility. Here." She picked up the little god statue and pressed it into Percy's hand. "If anything happens, give that to Nico. Tell him…" her voice cracked, "tell him I'm sorry."
Without waiting for his approval, she charged at Talos's left foot.
She could see the dark shadows under his eyes, the messy outgrown waves on top of his head, the sickly hollowness of his cheeks, the pale hue of his skin. His smile was gone, the annoyingly endearing glint of happiness in his eyes replaced with one of depression and despair. It broke her heart, seeing her little brother stumble dazedly in front of her and cry out her name, teary-eyed.
She managed a small smile. "Hello, Nico. You've gotten so tall."
"Why didn't you answer me sooner?" he cried. "I've been trying for months!"
Bianca sighed sadly, remnants of what Nico had done the past few months flashing through her train of memories. "I was hoping you would give up."
"Give up?" He sounded heartbroken, and Bianca had to force herself to hold back her own tears. "How can you say that? I'm trying to save you!"
"You can't, Nico. Don't do this. Percy is right."
"No!" her little brother's voice sounded angry, the hurt flashing in his eyes. "He let you die! He's not your friend!"
Bianca stretched out a hand to touch his face, longing to hold her little brother and comfort him just as before. But her hand evaporated as it got close to his skin, a cruel reminder that she was not welcome in the realm of the living any longer.
"You must listen to me," she said, her tone gentle yet urgent. "Holding a grudge is dangerous for a child of Hades. It is our fatal flaw. You have to forgive. You have to promise me this."
Nico shook his head defiantly, a tear escaping his eye. "I can't. Never."
"Percy has been worried about you, Nico," Bianca tried once more. "He can help. I let him see what you were up to, hoping he would find you."
"So it was you," Percy piped up from behind him. "You sent those Iris-messages."
"Why are you helping him and not me?" Nico screamed. "It's not fair!"
"You are close to the truth now," Bianca told him, her hand persistently trying to brush the hair out of his face as more tears threatened to come out. "It's not Percy you're mad at, Nico. It's me."
"You're mad because I left you to become a Hunter of Artemis," she continued, remembering the times she had watched him go on with his life after Percy told him about her death. "You're mad because I died and left you alone. I'm sorry for that, Nico. I truly am. But you must overcome the anger. And stop blaming Percy for my choices. It will be your doom."
"She's right," Annabeth broke in suddenly, her blonde hair looking almost silver under the full moon. "Kronos is rising, Nico. He'll twist anyone he can to his cause."
"I don't care about Kronos," Nico said weakly. "I just want my sister back."
Bianca felt a sharp pain on her chest. All those lonely nights they had spent together as they protected each other from the raging storms washed through her brain like a dam pouring out the sea it tried so hard to contain. She wanted to reach out to him, to envelop him in her embrace while she whispered words of comfort to calm him down, but she couldn't. It was beyond her ability to do so anymore. And she loathed herself for it. But she had to stay strong. "You can't have that, Nico," she told him gently.
"I'm the son of Hades! I can—"
"Don't try," Bianca said. "If you love me, don't…"
Around them, the spirits of the dead began to gather, their ghastly whispers filling the chill of the night with dread and despair. Danger, they yelled frantically. Danger!
"Tartarus stirs," Bianca announced, looking at her brother with devastated eyes. "Your power draws the attention of Kronos. The dead must return to the Underworld. It is not safe for us to remain."
"Wait," Nico called, desperation seeping into his voice. "Please—"
"Goodbye, Nico," she said to him, trying to reach out and touch his face once more. But her hand simply dissipated in the air. "I love you. Remember what I said."
And with a final look at her fratellino's broken eyes, she disappeared into the darkness, the remorse weighing her spirit down even as she returned to the land of the dead.
Even from the inside the comforting gates of Elysium, she felt the aggravation rattle throughout the whole area of the Underworld. None of the spirits felt calm, the vexation heavily apparent in their faces even as they laughed merrily amongst themselves. Bianca drank her nectar on her bench, her eyes following Achilles and Patroclus as they wrestled each other playfully on the grass for the last remaining barbeque left on the grill.
The memories that had been previously wiped away by the River Lethe had all come back to her once she entered the Underworld; all the stories, laughter, hope, and grief—all the missing fragments from her life came back to her. And as she watched the two heroes laugh as they tumbled into the lake, she couldn't help but reminisce about the time she and Nico had reenacted the Trojan War.
"I have come to avenge my brother-in-arms Patrocles!" he had said, raising the pillow he had twisted into a sword. She wondered how Patroclus would react to her little brother's mispronunciation of his name. Judging from the way he was currently guffawing at Achilles's desperate attempt to pull him down into the water, she somehow knew he wouldn't at all mind it.
Let the dead taste again.
She paused, the nectar stopping just before they could enter her lips. Was that Nico?
Let them rise and take this offering.
She stood. No. No, no, no, no, no. This was not good. This was not good.
Maria di Angelo, show yourself!
Without a second thought, Bianca transported herself from beyond the regions of Elysium and appeared in front of her little brother, whom had dug a hole in one of Queen Persephone's flower beds inside the gardens of their father.
"Bianca!" he exclaimed, surprise taking over his features. He looked even gaunter than before, and Bianca resisted the urge to scold him for not taking better care of himself. "But—"
"Don't try to summon our mother," she interrupted, her face full of warning. "She's the one spirit you're forbidden to see."
"Why?" Nico demanded, the initial shock already wearing off of him. "What's our father hiding?"
Bianca didn't know if she had the guts to tell him. He was already so crushed, so crippled, so damaged. She didn't know if he could take it any further if he knew the truth.
"Pain," she answered simply, hoping that he would take her word for it. "Hatred. A curse that stretches back to the Great Prophecy."
Yet still, Nico persisted, determination etched in his features. "What do you mean? I have to know!"
She shook her head, dreading the innate capabilities her little brother could do with his power. "The knowledge will only hurt you. Remember what I said: holding grudges is a fatal flaw for children of Hades."
"I know that," he relented, stubborn as ever. "But I'm not the same as I used to be, Bianca. Stop trying to protect me!"
Somehow, Bianca could see that he was telling the truth. Nico had changed. She was not the same little boy that could spout twenty different stats of seven different gods in under a minute anymore. He had seen too much, endured too much, suffered through so much. She couldn't let him bear the pain of even more grief. "Brother, you don't understand—"
But Nico swiped his hand through the mist, and before Bianca could beg for him to stop, she was already sent back to Elysium.
Nico, please, she tried once more.
Please don't do this.
She knew they had won when the feeling of relief echoed everywhere in the Underworld. The unsettling feeling of uncertainty was alleviated from everyone's faces around her, and she could sense the same things from the people high above them. Bianca closed her eyes, letting her mind take over her thoughts as it filled with images she could see happening from beyond the bounds of the land of the dead.
Her dad was up there on Mount Olympus, sitting on his throne with a satisfied look on his face. Nico was seated by his feet, cross-legged, smiling uncontrollably. They were surrounded by a mix of creatures—gods, nymphs, demigods, and many others she failed to identify. Zeus was giving a speech about bravery and sacrifice, and from the crowd, she spotted Percy and Annabeth, laughing about something the two of them shared amongst themselves. Grover and Thalia were there as well, though significantly more attentive at the address the King of Olympus was making. And though she was happy to see her friends together and safe once more, her eyes trailed back to her dad and her brother, their faces the happiest she'd seen of them.
A smile of her own settled itself on Bianca's lips as she watched the two of them grin happily at one another, their faces practically oozing off bliss.
Her footsteps echoed as she stepped on the stone pathway leading up to the pavilion. The dark tent loomed over her, looking every bit sinister with the vultures circling high above it. Bianca wondered how they managed to survive down in there in the land of the dead, but that train of thought was immediately set aside when they started breathing fire every now and then.
So much for normal vultures.
She stepped inside the opening put up by two poles, and marveled at how different the stark contrast the inside had to its exterior. The height of the curved ceiling was much higher than she expected, the arcs of the tent roof's droops meeting at one dark point in the middle of the place. A tall ivory table was situated in front of her, reminding her of the tables judges used in court cases, except it was notably longer than the ones she'd seen. Marble columns encircled the place as well, with vines of ivy miraculously growing from the barren soil and wrapping themselves around the pillars. She had the feeling that one particular decoration was of Queen Persephone's own doing.
"Bianca di Angelo, daughter of Hades and of Maria di Angelo."
She looked up at the table. Seated behind it were the three judges, each of them looking down at her in scrutiny. Their faces looked eerily familiar, and she tried to rack her brain for any sense of facial recognition. Beside them were three other ladies seated in a lower table, each of them wearing black robes and matching black handkerchiefs circling their heads. Two of them were knitting huge pairs of socks, while the one in the middle held a large ball of yarn. Bianca felt a chill go down her spine when they briefly looked at her in the eye.
"Step forward," the judge in the middle called, and she obliged. His face reminded him of a famous scientist she couldn't quite place a name on. "State your intention."
Immediately, all traces of distractions faded out into her head, and she was reminded of the reason she had come here in the first place. "I wish to be reborn."
The three judges looked at one another, murmuring words that fell incomprehensibly on Bianca's ears. She couldn't tell if they were shocked or simply mocking her, but nonetheless, she straightened her back and raised her head. No more backing out now.
Finally, after much whispering, the three looked back at her. "Very well. If you would kindly close your eyes—"
"Wait," Bianca interrupted, something the speaking judge wasn't all that fond of her doing. "I have one last request."
The judge raised an eyebrow. "And what might that be?"
She looked at the knitting ladies, the gears in her brain turning as an idea emerged from her mind. "Those are the Fates, correct?"
The women looked at her, their ears perking up at the sound of acknowledgment. Bianca figured not many people respected their presence whenever the spirits were being judged. "I…I want them to tell me something, just one thing is all I ask," she stated, sucking in a deep breath as she did.
"Will Nico di Angelo end up happy?"
For a moment, no one moved. The Fates stopped knitting, their hands frozen mid-work as their piercing eyes gazed at her own dark ones. The three judges looked stunned. Never in their whole existences as adjudicators did anyone question the Fates, much less someone whom inquired for the sake of someone else's life.
"I'm afraid the answer to that question is not permissible," the judge on the right ultimately said. The corner of his mouth was turned up in mocking spite, talking in a way that would signify that he was speaking to a child, to someone lower than him. "The Fates are—"
"I am the daughter of Hades," Bianca annunciated, using the excuse Nico had said countless of times in order to get what he wants. "God of the Dead and Lord of the Underworld. All your lifelines in this realm depend on his hand, and it is in his every power to banish you to the Fields of Punishment if he wishes so." She felt a newfound surge of courage and strength as she watched their eyes flicker with fear. "And he would not want anyone defying the wishes of his children," she said, feeling the darkness of her very bloodline seep through her skin and rattle throughout the whole pavilion.
"Much less by mere spirits."
The silence that followed was enough for Bianca to realize what she had just done. For the first time in her life—both in the living and the dead state—she had used the advantages bestowed upon her as the daughter of a god of the Big Three. She'd never felt so powerful, so significant; the authority that had been present in her voice was not something anyone could hardly place anymore. And while it felt satisfying to see them, to seeanyone finally recognize just what she was capable of doing, she knew it hadn't been right.
"Please," Bianca said in a much gentler voice, feeling more like herself as she spoke. "I just want to know what will happen to my little brother." She swallowed the lump that started rising up her throat. "He has been through so much pain and suffering, so much grief and sorrow, and I…I…" her voice cracked and her eyes stung. "I want to know if he'll finally get the happiness and love he so rightfully deserves."
At that, the judges looked at one another, a silent conversation going on in their eyes as Bianca waited for their reply. The fear that had went in their eyes by her previous daughter of Hades proclamation moments ago seemed to not have left entirely, and she could see the way their opinions balanced on scales as they searched for an agreed conclusion. The stillness seemed to go on forever, until finally, the judge at the middle sighed. "Very well, then." He looked at the Fates, and suddenly, Bianca found her mind filled with images flipping through her brain in one fluid motion.
She could see Nico, his age seeming to exceed hers by a year or two, overlooking something that looked like Capture the Flag with binoculars held tightly in his hands. His gaze seemed to follow someone in Roman armor, a familiar bronze sword held in the boy's hand.
The image changed. Nico was held unconscious by two gigantic monsters, locked inside a jar with pomegranate seeds placed in front of him. The jar was broken and a girl pulled Nico away from the battle raging between the two giants and two demigods, their battle cries not being enough to awaken Nico from his death trance. His cheeks were pale, sickly, and he looked no better than the dead residing in the Underworld. Images of his trip to Tartarus flashed through her mind, the madness brought upon by what he had seen apparent in the way his dark eyes flickered to every direction, caution and anxiety dripping in the sharp hitches of his breath.
Bianca felt her breath catch in her throat as she put her hand on her mouth, tears forming in her eyes. Her beloved fratellino…
Another scene was laid out in front of her. Nico was leaning down into a deep abyss, his eyes frantic, his hand clutching another person's tightly. She could see the desperation and alarm in Nico's face, the horrors of what lay beneath them raging through his brain.
"Lead them there! Promise me!"
And when the boy let go, Bianca could practically see her little brother's heart shatter, the little of the sanity he had left almost going away completely.
Then he was in a field, his dark eyes glinting morose and hate as a lean muscular young man with snowy white wings, straight black hair, a simple white frock and jeans stared down at him in satisfaction. A bow and quiver slung over the man's shoulder, and his blood red eyes flickered in cruel joy as he looked at Nico.
"I had a crush on Percy," Nico spat, his voice like broken shards of glass, the way it had when he had told Bianca a couple of bullies beat him up for liking a boy. "That's the truth. That's the big secret."
Bianca knew he was thinking of himself as a freak once more, and she felt her chest ache as she watched her brother be forced to reveal who he was to people he knew wouldn't understand. For the millionth time, she wanted to rush to him, to hold him, just like the way she did at their boarding school before. But she couldn't do so anymore. Not when she already did the things she had done, chosen the things she had chosen.
"The only person who ever accepted me was Bianca, and she died! I didn't choose any of this. My father, my feelings..."
The scene rippled and showed Nico crying on top of a boat, bawling his eyes as he clutched the figurine Bianca had picked up back in the graveyard. Down below his place, she could see a dark skinned girl looking up at the place her brother was at, her amber eyes concerned and worried.
And then the image changed once more. Nico was sleeping against an enormous Greek statue, his skin an almost bluish tint as he dozed off into a rare dreamless slumber. A girl with a long dark braid was seated beside him, her body adorned with numerous medals to signify her high ranking position, though it looked strangely Roman. She reached over as if to brush the hair off Nico's face, but seemed to think better of it. The look of pure endearment in her face was enough to make Bianca wish for the girl to pull her brother close and wrap him in a long embrace.
The setting shifted. This time, the girl was wounded, kneeling on the ground, with a monstrous looking guy pointing his sword's end on her forehead. Nico's eyes burned with hatred, a dark aura emanating from his very skin as he watched the guy dig his sword deeper into the girl's head. And when a thin line of blood trickled down her face, Nico's rage exploded.
The landscape morphed into Camp Half-Blood, revealing Nico clad in a tropical shirt alongside a guy with wavy blonde hair fighting off Roman legionnaires with such synchronization and rapport that Bianca could've sworn her brother looked almost comfortable battling numerous soldiers.
"I thought you liked Hector?"
"Yes, but he lost! And I don't wanna lose a battle. I want to be strong, and heroic! Like Achilles!"
Nico had always liked heroes. And as Bianca watched the scene in front of her unfold, her little brother dodging and swinging his Stygian Iron sword with such acute precision and elegance, she couldn't help but think that Nico had grown into quite the hero himself.
The scene shifted to show Nico by the dining pavilion, the girl with the braid clasping his hand in hers as she raised it up. "We had one home," she said, glancing at him. "Now we have two." She gave Nico one big hug, and Bianca saw the tears in Nico's eyes as he hugged her back tightly, burying his face on her shoulder as everyone around them cheered.
Then Nico was at his cabin, a tall blonde guy with glasses enveloping him in a tight embrace as her brother awkwardly attempted to return the favor.
The image transported itself to the infirmary, where the other blonde guy that fought together with Nico was sitting on a chair by his bed, telling him something that made Nico look away and fight back a smile, and Bianca had to bite back her own as she looked at the way her brother tried and failed to appear uncaring.
The next scenes were a big blur in her mind: Nico at a Capture the Flag game, beaming, raising the flag high above him as the campers lifted him up their shoulders and cheered. Nico by the lake, laughing as the guy back in the infirmary moved away frantically from the water her fratellinosplashed at him. Nico eating by the dining pavilion, surrounded by people that made his beautiful smile return much more frequently. Nico grinning as he sat along the campfire while the blonde boy beside him sang loudly off-key. Nico chatting happily with the girl in a braid and a dark skinned girl by the beautiful streets of a place Bianca didn't recognize, his skin slowly gaining back its natural healthy complexion under the sunlight. Nico cradling a baby satyr in his arms, shaking his head amusedly when the baby blubbered cutely.
More images flashed inside her head, a slur of moments that consisted of several ups and downs, and then it halted. Bianca watched with misty eyes as she was shown a glimpse of her little brother lounging around the Hades cabin, pulling an orange Camp Half-Blood shirt onto his torso and clasping a leather necklace with four beads on it around his neck. He'd grown considerably taller, the bright color of his shirt bearing a stark contrast to his now olive skin. His hair had been cut in a way that didn't fully hide his delightful face, the freckles splashed across his nose now a fully visible aspect of his features.
"I'm going to head out and teach the new kids some sword fighting techniques," he said, buckling his sword on his belt and turning towards one of the bunks of the Hades cabin, where the dark skinned girl sat drawing beautiful images on a piece of sketchpad. She looked up at him, smiling as he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "See you, sis."
"See you," she called as he reached for the door. "Don't forget, we're having a lunch picnic with the others later!"
Nico turned, grinning over his shoulder. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
And he opened the door and put one foot in front of the other, heading out into the sunny day with a content smile still etched on his face.
Then the image dissipated, and she was back inside the Judgment Pavilion, the three judges looking at her with expressions she couldn't quite describe. A tear rolled down Bianca's face as her lips stretched up into a gentle smile, the scenes she had seen still fresh in her mind. He was going to be okay. Nico was going to be okay.
She choked back a sob, placing a hand on her lips as she let the tears flow out her eyes. "Thank you…" she managed softly, an immense feeling of joy erupting in her chest as she gently closed her eyes, feeling the tears dampening her cheeks as they trailed down her face.
She recalled the story of Alcestis, the beautiful queen that had selflessly sacrificed her life for a person she loved dearly, and Bianca felt a genuine sense of finality inside herself.
She had always liked stories.
And as she felt a warm light envelop her whole being, the heat seeping all the way to her very core, Bianca couldn't help but think that maybe, just maybe, her story wasn't fully hers after all. Maybe her life wasn't meant for her own well-being, but for another's. Maybe she was just like Queen Alcestis—someone whose living essence and death existed for the sake of someone else's.
And she, Bianca realized, was okay with that.