14. A Good Big Doggie
Percy headed for the door, but Grover held himself back.
"Percy! Wait!" I shouted.
"What? We need to go! I need to save my- ... the bolt!"
Grover sent me a knowing look: since the beginning, we had known that Percy had only accepted this quest in the hope of saving his mother. Basically, he did not care about getting the lightning, and therefore the fate of the world.
"And how do you intend to go about that? We can't go there like that!" Grover pointed out to him.
"Goatboy's right," Percy. "Without a plan, we are lost. Be reasonable!"
"Ten minutes," he capitulated.
So we started thinking about our upcoming journey. We had decided that going down into the Underworld would not be too complicated. The difficulty would come afterwards, in entering the kingdom of the dead. For the defenses of Hades would be there.
"Cerberus!" I suddenly remembered. "We have to get passed Cerberus!"
I began to rummage around in my bag, full of objects from Waterland, looking for something that could be useful to us. Nothing. Nada.
"Cerberus is a dog, isn't he?" Percy said.
"If you forget that he has three heads, yes" responded Grover. "A dog. A giant vicious guard dog".
For the first time since he had arrived crying at Camp, I clearly saw the workings of his brain to their full capacity. Bizarrely, a smile appeared on Seaweed Brain's face. And he explained to us his plan.
According to him, all dogs liked playing games. He had remarked that they all played with sticks of wood (pfft, what a watcher...!) in the park. So Cerberus couldn't be an exception. It was for that reason that he had an idea: bring a stick to the Underworld dog, who surely needed to have fun after millennia spent watching ghosts. And that would be a diversion while we entered into the land of the dead.
Percy finished his explanation, brandishing Riptide and cutting a leg off of one of Crusty's beds. Showing us the piece of wood he made, he declared, "For a giant dog, a giant solution!"
The plan was crap. But, however my Athenian blood rebelled at that idea, it was the only one that we had found.
Worse yet, a small voice whispered to me, that Seaweed Brain found, not you. He was better than you. Again.
And so we found ourselves facing DOA Recording Studios, a piece of wood in hand, ready to be dead for a few hours.
"Good. You guys remember the plan," Percy said.
"The plan," Grover gasped. "I love the plan."
The plan. The one that consisted of playing "fetch" with a terrifying dog... I needed a plan B! I, a daughter of Athena, could not go into a quest without a backup plan!
"And if the plan doesn't work?" I asked.
"Don't be negative," Seaweed Brain told me.
That was too much for me. "We are entering the Land of the Dead but I have to not be negative."
And then I saw Percy drop his eyes and bring out the pearls the Nereid had given him. And I understood. Percy was just as unsure of his plan as I was. He knew that there was a good chance that it would not work. That we would stay dead, in the Underworld, and that he would never recover his mother. Nor save the world from a third World War. But he resisted. He was strong, proud, so as to be a good commander of the quest. He had hope for success.
We had to support him. We had to earn the commander that he was being for this quest.
"You're right, we will get there. Everything will be fine."
As Grover did not respond, I gave him an elbow in his ribs, and he encouraged Percy as well.
Then we entered the premises.
We felt as if we were in a normal waiting room, but without feelings. Let me explain myself: the people waited, sitting or standing,but nobody seemed to be feeling or experiencing anything. Neither the feel that one feels before a appointment with the dentist, nor the anxiety that comes before a visit to the doctor, nor the boredom that accompanies waiting for the Mayor. Nothing. The people who were waiting were empty.
Empty and translucent, I suddenly realized. In this room, everything was grey or white, and the people were all transparent. We were surrounded by spirits. That gave me goosebumps.
The attendant, Charon, started by reprimanding Percy who had messed up his name. Then he asked us what we would do there. Obviously, Seaweed Brain looked around for me.
"We want to go to the Underworld," I said clearly.
And I did not say another word. Percy began to haggle with Charon, who agreed to omit the fact that we were living in exchange for stack of drachmas. Apparently, immortals were just as corruptible as mortals. Pitiful. And it was thus with several gold pieces - thanks Ares - that we loaded into an elevator, along with dead people who were rather transparent.
"What happens to the spirits waiting in the hall?" I wanted to know.
"Nothing," our guide responded.
"For how long?"
"Forever, or until I'm feeling generous."
That was so wrong! A hero, a good man, could stay here, waiting, for just as long as a murderer, a rapist, or a thief. The divine laws were incomprehensible. But above all I did not want to upset my interlocutor.
"Oh," I said in a small voice. "That's... fair."
Charon looked at me, seeming to know exactly what I had been thinking about.
"Who said that death was fair, young miss?"
Good point. Death is not fair. Neither death nor life.
"We will get out of here alive," said Percy.
And I envied him for having this hope that we would succeed in escaping. I had to admit it: Percy had the soul of a leader, of a chief. One day, he would lead an army, and all of the soldiers would follow him without thinking. Even me. I could feel it.
All of the sudden, the elevator where we had found ourselves converted itself into a barge, which sailed along instead of descending further. Charon had swapped his Italian suit in favor of a long black cape and his eyes were empty sockets. All the spirits had gotten "dressed up" for their judgment with long cloaks tat were grey and sad.
Our barge was sailing laboriously in polluted waters, full of strange waste, ranging from diplomas to dolls through trophies and dead fish.
"The Styx," I murmured. "It is so..."
Dirty. Ugly. Sad. Disheartening. Horrible. Those were the words that came to my mind.
"Polluted," said Charon. "For millions of years you humans have thrown in all that you have brought with you: your hopes, your dreams, your wishes that never came true."
After that explanation, I could only wish for one thing: that the next time I climbed onto this barge, when I died for real, I had nothing to throw into the Styx.
But I knew that being a daughter of Athena, and therefore having the fatal flaw of pride, I would always have dreams that were too big, too beautiful, too perfect to one day have the power to realize them. I knew that in dying, I would have to throw away much to many shattered dreams into this river .
CThat thought scared me. Because, why continue to live knowing that I was going to fail? It was enough that to follow these spirits, and I would die. I would go to the Fields of Asph...Annabeth! Resist it!
Without thinking about it, I grabbed Percy's hand. I had to cling to him, a living person, so as not to forget that I, too, was living. That I had much more left to live.
Then we docked. The spirits disembarked, and we followed them. The boat went back.
We arrived to face two doors: EZ DEATH and INTERVIEW ENTRANCE.
Grover and I had explained the rudiments of the "justice" system of the Underworld: the tribunal, directed by three personalities who judged the life of each person and decided if it merited an award (send him to Elysium), a punishment, or nothing special. This last option was the most common, because sadly, the majority of people contented themselves with a simple and lightly egotistical life, which gives no right to access Elysium. The dead went in that case to the Fields of Asphodel.
Continuing forward, we arrived at the end of the lines. And there stood our great obstacle: a big black dog with three heads: Cerberus.
The dog sniffed towards us, and Percy said what I was thinking: "He smells the living."
"But it does not matter," Grover said, hesitantly. "Because we have a plan."
The plan. Effectively. The plan.
Percy then pulled the end of a stick out of his backpack and started waving it around towards the colossus. "Hey, big guy! I bet they don't play with you very often, do they."
After the face that Grover made, Cerberus must have known a lot of expletives to describe Percy.
The dog concentrated itself on Percy. On Percy, not on the piece of wood that he had in his hand. And when Percy threw the stick of wood far away, Cerberus did not even dignify himself to look at the thrown object.
When Cerberus announced to us, through Grover's translations, our imminent death, my head set itself to thinking with all possible speed. In my bag... there was nothing. Except for the things from Waterland. A swimsuit, a toothbrush, a sweatshirt, a pair of sunglasses, a rubber ball... Bingo! A ball!
"Wait!" I shouted, rummaging around in my backpack.
I took out the ball and I showed it to the three-headed dog.
"You see the ball? Do you want the ball, Cerberus?"
I remembered myself, very small, at the training center, listening attentively. It is important, especially in breeds like the doberman or the rottweiler, to mix training and play. Take the ball, so that the dog focuses its attention on it. Then pass the ball over the head of the dog, saying 'sit!' The dog must sit.
Obviously, I could not pass the ball over the head of the dog (in addition to him having three of them). But he had to be more intelligent than the other dogs (remember he has three heads, thus three brains), so I could change the rules a bit, right?
It was thus, with more assurance than I actually felt, that I ordered, "Sit!"
To my greatest astonishment - and relief - Cerberus stirred his hindquarters, and, sitting down, crushed a dozen spirits.
To compensate him (as he had advised us to do in our training courses), I sent the ball towards the snout of the middle one.
"Fetch!" I commanded.
With a whimper, Cerberus obeyed me. Picking up the now shredded ball, I ordered Percy and Grover, with the same authoritative voice I had used on Cerberus, to leave between the legs of Cerberus. The dog vomited, but did not flicnh. He was really intelligent! I was sure that with a bit of training, this dog could be exceptional.
When my friends arrived at the other side of the dog, I threw the ball. As soon as the three heads started fighting each other for the piece of red rubber, I felt my heart go out to him. Poor Cerberus! I could hear him crying! The poor thing... He had nobody else to play with him!
"How did you do that?" Percy asked me incredulously.
"Obedience school. When I was little, at my dad's, we had a doberman..."
Grover interrupted me because we needed to escape. But hearing Cerberus' complaints broke my heart. Everyone – even in the Underworld – had both need of and the right to a bit of attention. Everyone, without exception.
I would come back! I would come back to the Underworld to play with him, with a ball of infinite resistance (which I would have invented beforehand).
I promised it.
Only, I hoped that my promise would not end up in the Styx.
Those were my thoughts when the alarms on the metal detectors went off.