Disclaimer: Rick Riordan's song will not heal authors who try to claim the Percy Jackson universe as their own. Quite the opposite, in fact.


A Curse of Power

Chapter Four

Companions


I feel myself gradually awaken, as if floating up from the bottom of a pool. I take a deep breath and stretch, enjoying the warmth of the bed...with the sort of stiff, starchy sheets commonly found in hotels. Suddenly fully mentally alert, the events of the past few days instantly come back, and my eyes spring open.

"Lerner," a soft male voice says, and my head quickly turns to find him. "Hey," he says with a wave. "My name is Austin, Apollo cabin, Kayla said you'd wake up right about now."

"What time is it?" I realize after the fact that I'm being a bit rude, but he doesn't seem to notice. And my dry mouth from mild dehydration makes me feel like I deserve some leeway.

"There's water on your left bedside table," he says with a gesture when he notices my discomfort. "And it's a bit after four-thirty. You've still got an hour before the feast."

I sit up gingerly, grimacing against the pounding headache that induces. I grab the glass, already filled with ice cold water—apparent from the condensation on the outside—and gulp it down greedily. I'm not sure water ever tasted so good. "I should get up," I say while I refill my glass.

"Are you sure you're okay to go?"

"Should be fine," I say, then continue my quest to empty the pitcher. He fidgets while I drink, and I watch him through the distortion of the glass. He clearly wants to say something, but he stays silent. "What is it?" I ask finally.

The question spills out of his mouth excitedly. "Do you know who you're going to take?"

I try to put on a smile. "The only ones I've met already left to continue their own quest," I lie.

"Yeah, tough luck, not being able to take Jackson," he says, but then he frowns. "Of course, we could really use him here, too."

Further proof, I think, that I should avoid taking any of their best fighters. Certainly not Clarisse, even though she was there when Percy and Annabeth went to Circe's Island last time. "Who do you think I should take?"

He grins, stands up straighter and slaps his chest. "Well, me, of course! Everybody here has always wanted to go on a quest."

"The prophecy specifically said two heroines," I point out.

He waves off my concern. "Eh, that's only at the end, it sounds like. You're bound to pick up a tag-along or two on the way; those last lines could be them."

"Mmm, fair point," I say, surprised I hadn't thought of it. "But then, we're headed to see Circe first. She doesn't much like males, you know."

"Yeah, I heard," he says, slightly downtrodden. "It's okay, there's plenty here to do, anyway. Kayla and I are helping Cabin Nine—that's Hephaestus cabin, by the way—we're helping them with the traps. I think Chiron has some ideas, but it'll be up to you."

"Any recommendations from you?"

He purses his lips in thought. "A heroine of charm sounds like someone from Cabin Ten—Aphrodite. There's a girl there, Drew, who has the best charmspeak ability. She's...uh...well, she's not very nice." He blushes when he says that, and I get the sense she turned him down rather spectacularly. "Silena probably won't be happy no matter who you take, even though they'll mostly be on evac and medical teams."

That name sends a jolt through my body, though thankfully Austin isn't looking at me at the time. "Silena?"

He looks up at me, surprised. "Yeah, you know her?"

"Heard of her," I say. She ends up being a spy for Kronos! She gets herself killed at the final battle, I also remember, wearing Clarisse's armor because Ares' cabin refuses to fight. That was a rather clever homage to Achilles and Patroclus in the Trojan War, I remember thinking, but that doesn't seem like something I should let happen if I have a choice.

"Cabin Ten head counselor," he says, "kinda strict when it comes to cabin checks, but everybody likes her. She's actually decent in a fight so she wouldn't be a bad choice, though Chiron might not be happy if you take her away. Anyway, if you're ready, we should head over there."

I grunt in assent as I swing my legs over the side and slowly stand, trying to ignore the world swaying around me. Austin clamps a steadying hand on my shoulder, and only then do I realize he's, surprisingly, taller than I am. It makes sense, I suppose, having a god for a father. The height probably helps out when it comes to archery.

"I heard the whole thing, you know," Austin says once we're on our way. "The Oracle of Delphi is Apollo's responsibility, and I was standing watch at the Big House when she came out. Scared the hell out of me when she did! I yelled for Lee—that's our head counselor—and most of our cabin came, too. A bunch of other campers heard, too, of course, so there was a big group of demigods and satyrs just out here."

I senses some hesitation at the end, so I ask, "and what did they think of it?"

He hesitates a moment. "Well, not everybody thinks like this, but some aren't too happy that an outsider got a quest after being here for so short a time again. But it was the same thing when Jackson got here. Just some grumbling, you know? I wouldn't worry about it."

"Anybody want to come to get away from the coming battle?"

Austin looks up in surprise. "I'm sure there are some thinking like that, but not too seriously. I mean, we all know it's bad luck to go out with more than three. And we've got some awesome fighters here, so it'll be fine. Look, there's the pavilion." He grins. "Come on, I'll introduce you to Silena."

I can't help but chuckle. "Why do I get the feeling you aren't doing that for my benefit?"

He affects a scandalized look. "She's kinda with Beckendorf, the head counselor of Hephaestus' cabin. Beck's a good guy...big as a house and ugly as sin, but a good guy. Taught Kayla and me all about traps, after all. 'Course, doesn't mean I can't talk to her, now does it?" He grins once more before turning and shouting, "Silena!"

The entire contingent of demigods — over a hundred strong, from what I can see, scattered around both the pavillion and the bonfire just to the east of it — turns to look. I resist the urge to throttle Austin.

"Oops," he says with a nervous chuckle. Once we get a little closer, he waves his hand and two of the demigods within the pavilion break off from the others. My eyes immediately pick out the one that must be Beckendorf, who seems to grow larger and larger as he draws near. He's so broad in the shoulders that he didn't seem tall from a distance, but by the time he reaches us, my eyes are just about the level of his chin. His nose is big and crooked; it had obviously been broken before and not set right. He looks like he's angry with me, too, which, based on his professional wrestler-sized bare arms, is not a good thing.

Of course, I have to focus on him to stop myself from staring at Silena. She's not that much shorter than I am, so her toned and tanned legs are about a mile long, and only covered by the shortest of jean shorts...so short the bottom of the pocket lining peaks out below the denim. Her orange Camp Half-blood tee has so much material cut from it that I wonder if it can still be called a shirt; the sleeves are gone, baring slim but toned arms, the collar is now a jagged vee, and the bottom is cut away to reveal a perfectly shapely midriff. The thick leather bracers on either arm are the only things resembling armor on her entire body, though she also wears a heavy-looking and oddly-colored pendant in the shape of a bird around her neck, tied with a double loop of some dark leather or rope. She has big, pouty, pink lips underneath a straight and slim nose, long, flowing dark brown hair that nearly reaches her navel, and dark brown eyes burning with curiosity.

Yeah, I couldn't help staring a bit. She's a godsdamn supermodel.

"Charlie Beckendorf," the enormous, dark-skinned demigod introduces himself. His voice is as deep—but far less hostile—than I imagined it would be. "Head of Cabin Nine. Pleased to meet you."

I discover that perhaps only his voice is kind because he seemingly pours his hostility into his grip, which is like iron. Then again, it's not like I'm in danger of winning any strength competitions, so maybe he's hardly even trying. I try my best to match it, in vain, of course. "William Lerner, likewise."

Silena rolls her eyes. "Boys," she mutters, but somehow her muttering comes out like honey. "Silena Beauregard," she says, her voice delicately caressing her name, "head of Cabin Ten."

"Heard you got a quest not an hour after you arrived," Charlie says with a wide grin. "Crazy stuff!"

"Yeah," I say, fumbling for a way to breach the subject. I decide to just go for broke. "I was thinking of asking Silena to come along."

She jerks upright and Beck's face tightens. "I thought you might say that," he says. "She's the best choice, to be honest..."

"I told him about Drew's charmspeak," Austin offers.

Suddenly I'm struck by an epiphany: Silena is the best choice, but not as a heroine of charm. She's the heroine of deceit! Actually, she could very well be both. "Do you think we could speak in private, Ms. Beauregard?" I regret the formality as soon as I use it...it's a nervous habit from my time in the past universe, but here it seems odd and forced. Could just be the presence of Silena throwing me off, too.

She glances at Beckendorf with an inscrutable expression. "Sure, but it's Silena."

We walk a short distance, and she glances back while I try to order my thoughts. I'm not sure from her reaction if she wants to refuse...or even if she can. Of course, dragging her kicking and screaming on a dangerous quest seems like a rather poor decision.

"I can't go," she blurts out once we're out of earshot.

I turn my eyes to her, and she drops her gaze and bites her lip. "I'm going to make it so nobody can overhear," I say, closing my eyes and prodding at my magic to make sure I can handle this. Then, like I've done dozens of times, I push out a stream of magic to form a bubble of privacy. I almost lose focus when I hear her gasp, and open my eyes to see a not-completely transparent, yellowish bubble expand between us. I'm surprised at the different behavior of magic here, but I'm grateful for the visual cue, because this is taking an alarming amount of magic to expand.

"It's okay," she calls before the bubble reaches her, holding up a hand toward Austin and Beck who are, understandably, far more alarmed than I am.

"Wow," she says when I cut it off and pant slightly. I'm not going to be doing this again if I can help it. "It's beautiful." Delicate, perfectly manicured fingers grasp at the insubstantial barrier that is buzzing lightly at us. "A son of Hecate?"

"Something like that," I say with a shrug. My stomach clenches painfully; it doesn't help that I haven't eaten all day. I force my hand away from my abdomen; it wouldn't be very reassuring to her or any other prospective quest-mates to show any weakness from this little display. "Sorry about the buzzing."

The wonder slowly melts from her face, replaced once again by concern. "It's fine, but...like I said, I can't go." Her eyes plead with an intensity not evident in her voice, so much that it makes me turn away.

"Do you know what happened in the Labyrinth?" I ask.

She cocks her head back at the apparent subject change. "I heard you took out an empousa and a laistrygonian giant with one shot. I kind of doubted that story, but this..." She trails off and gestures at the bubble.

"Not that," I say, waving it off, "I mean with Daedalus."

"They said he helped...Luke...and then was betrayed and attacked."

I nod. "Daedalus gave up Ariadne's string on the promise that he'd be left alone when Kronos won. Luke sent those monsters to attack him anyway. Do you see?" I watch as the blood drains from her face. "How much do you think his word is worth?"

She takes a step back, almost beyond the threshold of the privacy bubble. "H—how...what do you mean?"

"It's fine, I haven't told anybody else," I say, answering a question she hadn't asked. "But I can help you. Come with me, and tell Luke that you didn't have a choice. Chiron insisted, or something. Learn from Daedalus' mistake; Charlie is not any safer with an empty promise."

Her head droops. "I...but...how do you know that? Why are you doing this?" Then she looks up, eyes shining with tears. "Why not take somebody trustworthy?"

I put on what I hope is a reassuring smile. "I already know your deepest, darkest secret and I'll take it to the grave. What else is left for us if we don't trust each other?"

"Blackmail," she says pointedly.

"You wound me, Silena! I would never stoop so low," I lie. "Besides, I've heard you're a deft hand with a spear. I have no doubt that you could silence me without breaking a sweat."

She scoffs and gestures at the bubble around us again. "If this is any indication, I doubt I could even touch you if you didn't want me to."

I know she doesn't mean it like it sounds, but it's still enough to make me nearly choke on my own saliva. "Right," I say eventually. "Well, I certainly don't mind cultivating that reputation, but I have my doubts. All I've got is magic; I'm useless with a weapon. There, now you have a secret of mine as well."

"Somehow I don't think we're quite even," she says wryly.

"Well, I'm sure you'll make it up to me in spades when you have to save me over and over again."

"I suppose..."

"Are we quest mates, then?"

She bites her lip nervously once again, and I think to myself that I really wish she wouldn't do that. "Are you sure? What if...he asks me to spy on you?"

I think that clearly she doesn't have a problem hiding secrets, but I can't think of a nice way to put it, so I shrug. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, and we'll do it together."

She gives me a hopeful, teary-eyed smile, then surprises me with a hug. "Thank you." Her hug inspires uncomfortable memories, so awkwardly I give her a pat on the back or two before she pushes away. "Okay, so maybe your defenses aren't that good after all..." I look down to find a small knife pressed against my chest. "Just so we're clear," she says, her voice clear of the emotion that was there just a moment earlier, "I meant every word I said and I like that you were open with me, but if you try to blackmail me or try to double-cross me in any way, I will not hesitate to slip this knife between your ribs."

Oh, shit. "I hope you'll save that for the ones that deserve it," I say, proud that my voice doesn't break.

Her knife slips back into her bracer almost faster than I can follow it. "I just wanted to show you that I'm not a pushover. I don't know how you found out he approached me, but I'm thankful you talked me into correcting that mistake." I take an involuntary step back when she takes one toward me, and I feel myself flush with embarrassment when I see her holding out a hand. She giggles at me. "There's hope for you, yet."

With a sheepish grin I take her proffered hand. The strength of her grip surprises me. "Don't speak too soon, my fatal flaw is almost certainly a pretty face and a smile."

She attacks my fatal flaw with gusto. "Oh, you are in trouble. Come on, let's go tell Charlie. I think we're making him nervous."

With a nod I hold my hand out and try reattaching to the privacy bubble. Considering the difference in the behavior of my magic, I try drawing the magic back in, but just like in the last universe there is no noticeable effect. Damn.

"So beautiful," she says, grasping at the bubble just before it winks out of sight. "I look forward to seeing more of it."

I've already made a pretty big fool of myself, so I decide against telling her how much it drained me. She's still smiling, so I also quash my backup idea of saying something fatalistic, knowing what I do of Percy's quests. "You mentioned making Charlie nervous, right? I'd rather keep the number of demigods kicking my ass to a minimum today, if you don't mind."

"Oh, Charlie's just a big teddy bear," she says as we turn to head back.

I laugh. "I suppose I can just tell him that, and explain that teddy bears simply do not beat up people that make him nervous."

She laughs as well. "I amend my previous claim that I will protect you to exclude situations where you deserve to get beat up." I make a pouty face at her and she snorts. "Oh man, what did I sign myself up for?"

"I take it everything's okay?" Beckendorf's deep voice cuts in. I turn to see him scowling, which concerns me for a moment until I remember that's how he always looks.

"Fine, Charlie," Silena replies. "I'm going with him."

"Congratulations!" Austin says, giving her a hug and excitedly telling her all about how he knew I was going to pick her.

In the mean time, Beckendorf claps me on the shoulder and jerks his head toward the pavilion, where the rest of the demigods are talking and pointing in our direction. "You are lucky to have her," he says.

"I know," I agree, proud that my voice didn't squeak from the pain in my shoulder. She might not look the part, but she fought almost as well as Clarisse in the final battle. From what I've seen of Silena so far and what I've read of Clarisse, my quest mate is probably smarter than latter as well.

"Good," he says firmly. "I'm not going to tell you to take care of her, because she can take care of herself. I will only say that she is...important to me."

"She's going to worry about you, too, you know," I say. "It's not like we're leaving you in perfect safety."

The first brings a crooked smile to his face, but it turns grim at the second. "Out of the crucible, into the fire."

"We'll keep each other alive, Mr. Beckendorf," I vow.

He chuckles mirthlessly. "It took me three years to bring her guard down, and you do it in ten minutes, you silver-tongued bastard. Also, Mr. Beckendorf's my grandfather. My friends call me Beck, so you should, too." He claps a big hand on my shoulder. "C'mon, I'll introduce you to the others before Chiron gets here."

Whirlwind introductions go about as well as I expected, which is to say not well at all. Far too many faces and names blur past in far too short a time. It doesn't help that the demigods are milling around and mingling, so they aren't all nicely categorized by their godly parent. And I'm further thrown off by the fact that many of them are as tall as I am. It may seem kind of bizarre how comforting I find it, being able to see over everyone's heads, but I missed it. To make it even worse, there are a big group of undetermined kids who see me as some sort of hero for getting a quest without being claimed. It was almost a relief that the Ares' kids all acted rather surly toward me after Clarisse stormed off, refusing to shake my hand at all.

That's right, her boyfriend...Chris something-or-other...went into the Labyrinth and hasn't fully recovered mentally, and then I just appear in the Labyrinth out of nowhere and rub it in her face. Well, there goes my shot at getting a child of Ares to use the same trick Percy used to get to Circe's island.

We reach a group of chattering, primping Aphrodite girls—they certainly couldn't be mistaken for anyone else—that practically ignore everything else, including Silena. When my self-appointed guide steers me to them, however, the impossibly gorgeous Asian girl introduced as Drew Tanaka smiles at me. My mind trembles at the onslaught. It's like the empousa all over again.

"So, it is our new hero," she says slowly, sexiness oozing out of each word. "Maybe you should reconsider and choose me?" The last word seems drawn out, and the mental tug reaches a crescendo.

"My apologies, Ms. Tanaka," I force out, breaking eye contact with a small bow. It helps. "Your ability is formidable, but I believe I have chosen well."

The other girls hide their tittering behind their hands, while Drew narrows her eyes and flips her hair at me as she turns away. Really, how cliché could you get?

"That was well done," Beckendorf says quietly as we turn away. "Even I found myself agreeing with her."

"Mr. Lerner," Chiron's voice calls over the quieting crowd. The clip-clop of his centaur hooves echo around the pavilion. "I'm pleased to see you getting along well. I understand you've already chosen young Silena to accompany you, and that she has agreed." He nods a shaggy head towards her. "A fine choice indeed. If I may have a word before we begin?"

The other campers start chatting again as Chiron leads me out the pavilion in the direction away from the bonfire, which leads down the hill toward the lake. He remains quiet for a short time, staring out over the reflected high, thin clouds, streaked with pinks, oranges, and purples from the late afternoon Sun. A light breeze ripples the surface of the water the length of the lake, then I do a double-take at the ripples over near a stand of trees. Some strange, humanoid but obviously aquatic creatures appear to be looking and gesturing toward the forest. Naiads? I can't remember if they were even mentioned in the books at all.

"I was being honest back there," Chiron says finally, breaking me out of my ponderings. "Silena is an excellent choice...a fine fighter if she gains more confidence. Normally I would be disappointed to lose another cabin leader, but she would be underused here." He turns and smiles at me. "Have you given any thought to your other companion?"

I frown slightly. "Not much. It was a bit difficult to get to know anybody in my short time."

He nods. "Yes, I can imagine. Annabeth had a thought before she left, and I must say it seemed quite reasonable. You heard her bring up Lou Ellen; if one of your tasks will be convincing the mother with three smiles..."

"...then having her likely daughter along could prove quite useful," I finish.

"Indeed," Chiron says with a smile. "And she even fits as a heroine of deceit; she has a reputation as quite a prankster in Hermes cabin."

I nod, thinking that she actually fits as a heroine of charm, since that's what some magic was called in the last universe. "And perhaps she can help me deal with her half-sister Circe, as well," I muse. Yes, she has quite a few things going for her. "Have you spoken to her?"

"I have not," he replies, then opens his mouth to speak again, but seems to change his mind and turns his pensive gaze back to the lake.

I give him several moments, but he makes no move to speak. "Is something wrong?"

Without turning to me, he says, "It seems incredible to me that one with a gift such as yours would fall into our laps after evading our notice for so long. The gods never fail to favor us with their assistance in times of dire need, but I cannot shake the feeling that you are not part of that."

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I wish I had some answers for myself. I can say I would be quite surprised if any of them claimed me tonight."

He raised an eyebrow at me. "Your first day here and you know of that tradition?"

I froze a moment before I remembered my first night in the Labyrinth. "Annabeth was distraught over Luke's behavior," I explain, "and Percy wasn't exactly sympathetic. When he and Rachel slept, I asked her to tell me about him back before all this. I got much more than I bargained for."

Chiron's face drew into a frown. "Luke...yes, a most unfortunate situation, especially for her. Well, normally we'd give you a tour, but seeing as you'll be heading out this evening, I don't suppose you'll mind if we postpone it?"

I force out a small smile. "I believe that will be fine."

He bends down to grip my shoulder and give me a firm nod. As a centaur, he's half again as tall as I am, but it still feels weird to me that he has to bend down to do it. "Very well, let's go and begin the feast, and see what Lou Ellen has to say."


"Really? Are y'all serious?" The expression on her oval-shaped face mirrors that of many of the other demigods when I ask her. She's maybe twenty years old, and unlike the typical, statuesque demigoddesses around me, the top of her head is only up to my chest. Her already protuberant, coffee-brown eyes, full of mischief from the food pranks she'd been playing on the other Hermes and undetermined kids only moments earlier, bulged even wider with surprise.

"Quite serious," I say, trying to really ignore the mass of demigods that are only pretending to ignore our conversation.

She shakes her head, her short, light brown pony tail wagging behind her head. "They...you...but...why not someone from Cabin Five or somethin'? Shouldn't you take someone that can fight?" Her Southern accent is unexpected after spending so long hearing British accents, and then the neutral Midwest/California accents since then.

I shake my head right back. I'm fairly certain that's Ares' Cabin, but I don't want to get it wrong with all of these people listening, or, in some cases, pretending not to listen. Plus, saying that they need every fighter they can get here probably wouldn't be very comforting to either Lou Ellen or the rest of them. "Both Chiron and Annabeth have recommended you, and from what I have heard, I believe you are the best one for the job."

She gapes at Chiron, who nods and smiles at her. Then she glances around, and others either mostly look away or shoot half glares at her, likely depending on how much they like the girl. "Well, if y'all're sure..."

In response I reach out my hand, and she grasps it to sudden, scattered applause at which I flush with embarrassment. I guess they've given up on the pretense of not paying attention.

"Well done, William, and congratulations to both Silena and Lou Ellen," Chiron boomed, to rather more polite and full applause. "Now, let us honor the gods and honor our heroes as they set out to fulfill their destiny." The centaur canters out to the bonfire and the first camper tosses a healthy slab of steak onto it, an action which gnaws my frugal heart, but I squash it quickly. It wouldn't do to be caught showing how wasteful I think this is if Ares is watching. That dude is crazy, as I recall.

The procession continues with my two new companions bringing up the rear, and, after some deliberation, I decide to go all out and toss a full steak on the fire as well. I had already told Chiron I don't expect any of the gods to claim me, but it's difficult not to get swept up in the atmosphere of anticipation. By the time I reach the fire, my heart is pretty much trying to burst out of my chest.

I pause, not unaware of the others holding their breath as well, waiting to see if anything appears above me, as it might if a god or goddess claimed me. No such luck. Lou Ellen, who had slipped behind me in a bid to go last, goes next, but she also fails to be claimed.

"We still love ya, Lou!" The anonymous shout from the large group of Hermes kids makes her cheeks blush furiously before she ducks her head and scampers over behind me and Silena.

Chiron approaches with a smile directed toward Hermes' Cabin and a small, thick, burlap sack. "Gifts for your journey," he announces, then pulls out a folded orange tee shirt and hands it to me. "One XL Tall Camp Half-blood tee," he says. My eyebrows jump in surprise, and he smiles. "A good portion of our campers grow into this size, so we keep a healthy supply."

"Lou Ellen, your brothers and sisters from Hermes' Cabin graciously donate two Celestial Bronze daggers," he says, handing one to Lou Ellen and one to me. They both appear to be in plain leather sheathes with belt clips, but not wanting to look like a fool by putting it in the wrong place, I just place mine on top of my new shirt. I glance questioningly over to Silena, wondering why she didn't receive one.

She apparently mistakes my curiosity as a call for help, because she smiles, picks up the dagger, lifts up the front of my shirt on the left side and easily clips it to my belt. "Tilt inward," she says quietly, "easy to draw in a forward or reverse grip, difficult for someone else to steal."

It's easy to resist the urge to throttle whoever wolf-whistled—probably Austin, that bastard—because shortly thereafter I'm targeted with a dark look Beckendorf shoots in my direction. "Umm, thanks, Silena," I say, leaning away from her in hopes that the giant, iron teddy bear realizes it's not my fault.

She winks, telling me she knows exactly what she's doing before she steps away, bringing Chiron's voice back into focus.

"—wish them speed and success on this critical quest," he says, raising his glass. "Go, my friends, my brothers and sisters—"

Just then a bright flash of light in front of the fire cuts him off. I blink away tears from the intensity of it, and eventually manage a glimpse of a shimmering, shifting female form. "Mother," Silena gasps, identifying the newcomer.

"Hello, my daughter," Aphrodite says, her absurdly sultry voice sending shivers down my spine. I catch a whiff of a light, floral scent that does the same, and involuntarily steal a glance in her direction. Her eyes meet mine and her shifting hair becomes long and dark with not a strand out of place, falling in ringlets over a lean, voluptuous body even taller than my own, covered in a shimmering purple dress that hugs her figure. At the familiar tug on my mind I tear my eyes away from her piercing, unnaturally purple irises before I turn into a blubbering fool. The goddess already exudes every kind of perfection; adding such a pure and powerful version of the mental allure her daughter and the empousa used is just madness. I bite down on my tongue and focus on the pain to keep my head.

"It is an honor, milady," Chiron says formally, bowing his head. Several demigods in my line of sight do the same; the males don't seem as affected as I am, though several of them bow quite low.

Suddenly the goddess simply appears in my line of sight as if she'd been there the whole time, deep purple eyes boring into mine. "Hello," she says, then steps up, tantalizingly close, and whispers in my ear. "Who are you?"

My knees quiver at her proximity, but somehow I manage to keep my feet. "William," I breathe out, trying but failing to remember some kind of honorific. "...uh, Lerner."

She walks around me in a tight circle, and I practically feel her eyes searing into me. "You are the leader of this quest," she says.

I can't tell if that was a question, so I fumble over what to say. My eyes quickly flit around looking for support, but there is so little movement. The only sound in the vicinity is the snapping and popping of the wood in the bonfire, so I can almost hear Silena nodding her head. "At your service, milady," I say, finally remembering Chiron's form of address. Hopefully it's okay for me to use it. My body is practically frozen in place, I'm so terrified.

"No, you are not," she says as she steps back into view, "and that is what concerns us."

Us...as in the Olympians? Oh damn. "I'm sorry, I—I don't know what you mean..."

She cocks her head back slightly. "You do not," she says, surprise plain in her voice. Then the corners of her lips quirk upward into a slight smile. "Interesting... Very well, William." Her voice caresses the name lustfully, sending another shudder into my very core. She reaches a single finger up toward my chin, and I jerk my head upward and away instinctively, hoping she doesn't notice just how stifling my jeans have become. I have never felt a desire to please so strongly, and I feel like if she touches me I would become her thrall, as I'm sure many mortals have become before me. I feel a spike of fear that I've offended her, but her smile only widens. I get the impression she knows what she could do to me now.

She languidly stretches her elbows upward, pushing her hair back with both hands. My eyes travel downward of their own accord, where only divine intervention keeps her ample bust from completely spilling out the top of her gown. A silvery bronze locket emerges from between her breasts, held up by the thinnest of chains, which I hadn't even noticed before. I'm fairly certain it wasn't there in the first place, but my brain isn't working well enough to try and picture what the goddess looked like moments earlier. "Silena," she says sibilantly, not taking her eyes off me. Then she slips behind me and the heart-shaped locket falls in front of my eyes. I stay perfectly still, terrified that Aphrodite will touch me, as its weight falls onto the back of my neck, feeling both heavy and light, hot and cold. "This man holds my heart," she says, "see that he does not mistreat it, and only breaks it as a last resort."

"Yes, mother," Silena replies, her voice holding a tinge of anger.

Aphrodite must have noticed it, too, because a light, lilting laugh follows immediately after. "Oh, you have chosen well, my daughter." Before I can figure out what all these cryptic statements mean, she finally turns to Lou Ellen. The goddess shifts again; her hair becomes a beautiful blonde but shortens to just below her shoulder. "And you, my dear..." With a wave of Aphrodite's hand, Lou Ellen's hair snaps out of its pony tail and shifts to mirror Aphrodite's current style, even lightening a bit as if sun-bleached. The daughter of Hecate's eyes and nose become less obvious, and her mouth moreso. I realize belatedly that it's magically applied make-up, and thanks to the goddess it's subtly and quite attractively done. "We can't make it too easy on my daughter, now can we?"

"Mother..." Silena says with a half growl.

Aphrodite winks at Lou Ellen, then turns to Silena, quickly becoming a bustier and more muscular version of her. "Now, now, my dear, jealousy is so unbecoming, and I'm sure our new friend doesn't find it very attractive, now do you?"

I grunt intelligently. Thankfully Silena reserves her glare for her mother, who merely smiles back and continues to approach. Silena remains rigid as her mother reaches into her hair, pulls out a dolphin-shaped pin, and uses it to pin some of her hair back.

"There you are, dear," she says, "when you can't see the way ahead, sometimes a nice hairpin is all you need."

"Thank you, mother," Silena replies stiffly, somehow managing to sound like she means it despite her early annoyance.

"Now, I must be off, but I highly recommend Key West Harbor this time of year," Aphrodite says as if she doesn't hear her daughter. "I hear the ride is breathtaking, and you'll have plenty of time to get to know each other." With a final wink in my direction, the goddess glides sensuously toward the fire, and I barely regain my senses in time to turn my head before she disappears in another flash of light.


A/N:

Since the demigods didn't have to escape Daedalus' workshop, they took the Labyrinth straight back to Camp Half-blood. In canon, they go to New York to drop off Rachel.

In some stories, Silenus is a satyr older than the gods, and he did indeed tutor Dionysus.

Apollo children can heal people by singing a song to their father. I figure to heal I need sleep, so that's what happens when Kayla does it. Kayla and Austin both appear in The Last Olympian at the Battle of Manhattan, but that is the only time they are mentioned in canon.

I moved up the timeline for Beck/Silena, who don't really get together until between books four and five, because I'd already come up with a good chunk of the plot before I realized that. Frankly I think it makes more sense this way; why would she agree to spy to protect Beckendorf if they'd only been together for a short time?

Almost every time I try to type 'Beckendorf,' it comes out 'Beckendork.'

I know pretty much nothing about fighting, let alone the names of knife grips.

The Aphrodite scene...yeah.