A/N: I'm baaaaaaaack :D We'll talk more later though, for now, enjoy...
"That…that is just…fire. Everywhere."
"Yes, Luke. It is a river of fire. What were you honestly expecting?"
"…not quite this much of it."
Annabeth shot her companion a glance, one eyebrow raised. "Seriously?"
Luke was too busy staring at the churning surface of Phlegethon to notice her though. "Like, look at that. I can barely even see the far side. And how deep is it? How the hell can there be this much fire?"
"Luke, you have an invincible body that once housed an ancient immortal being that was chopped into tiny bits by his son after he ate his other children, who happened to be all-powerful gods. And a little bit of fire is the thing you choose to take issue with?"
"Seeing as I'm going to be swimming in that 'little bit of fire' very soon, I figured it's probably the more proper thing to worry about at the moment."
"Fair point." They stood and stared at the licking flames for a more moments before Annabeth spoke again. "Well? What are you waiting for? Get to it."
He looked at her like she had grown a second head. "We don't even know where the piece of Apollo is! If you think I'm just go plunging on in without a clue-"
"In Acheron!" Luke threw up his hands exasperation. "Big difference! It didn't want to cook him alive!"
She smirked. "You'd probably taste like chicken."
She stifled a giggle behind her hand. "Sorry, sorry."
"No, you're not," he grumbled.
Her smile grew. "No, I'm not."
He threw her a mock glare before turning back to the river. "But seriously, I'm not going in there until we have at least a rough estimation of where we can find the piece of Apollo. I can guard my weak spot, but probably not for very long. Plus I get the feeling this is still gonna sting like a mother."
Annabeth pursed her lips. Luke had a good point. Without someplace to start, there really wasn't any way for them to track down where Apollo's essence lay within the river. What they needed was some sort of god essence to detector. But that would make things a thousand times easier, and gods forbid anything ever makes their quests easier. That'd be blasphemy.
"Can I help you?" a voice interrupted her thoughts.
Annabeth didn't look up as she replied, "No, Luke, unless you've got some way to find Apollo. Now hush, I'm thinking."
She sighed. "What, Luke?" When he remained silent she finally looked at him, mentally preparing to berate him for dicking about when they had shit to do, but stopped whenever he saw the slightly awed look on his face. His eyes were focused at something above the river, and when Annabeth turned to follow his gaze, she felt her own mouth slide open in wonder.
There, hovering unconcerned above the swirling fires of Phlegethon was a man. He was tall, but not horrendously so, about six and a half feet, if Annabeth had to guess. Olive skin was stretched taut over rippling muscles, and eyes of molten gold set in a sharp face finished off his imposing persona. His long hair the brightest red Annabeth had ever seen and was pulled back in a ponytail. It was his clothes, though, that had stolen Annabeth's attention.
All he wore was an ankle-length skirt, and a small vest that cut off above his abdomen, left open to reveal his chest. The cloth, if it could even be called that, seemed to shimmer and swirl and dance, despite the lack of wind. It shifted colors, from red to orange to yellow to green and blue. It seemed as though he was wreathed in living, breathing fire. It was breathtaking.
The being frowned at them, and Annabeth felt waves of power roll off of him, turning the air around them so hot and dry that it scorched her throat just to breathe.
"Speak, mortals. I am not a creature known for my patience."
Now that she heard his voice again, she had no idea how she had mistaken it for Luke's. It was deep and warm, the rich tone crackling like fire.
"Phlegethon," she breathed, and suppressed a shudder when the golden eyes turned to stare directly at her.
"So you know of me."
"This is the river's spirit?" Luke whispered.
"Yes, half-blood, I am," he spoke loudly, making it clear that Luke's words had not gone unheard. The air around him shimmered with heat. "I would be careful with your skepticism, were I you."
Luke gulped and took a step backward. Curse of Achilles or no, Phlegethon was not a spirit whose bad side he wanted to be on.
"N-No-" he stuttered, "I…I was just-"
"Luke." He looked at Annabeth, and she sent him a warning glare. "Shut up!" He nodded and hung his head.
Annabeth huffed, shook her head, and turned back to the still waiting Phlegethon. "Lord Phlegethon-"
"Lord?" he cut her off. "I am no lord, daughter of Athena. I am not a god nor any sort of divine being. I am a river spirit. Flattery in my presence will attain you nothing. Fire burns hot and fierce, but fire also burns true. Now tell me, how is it that you, who are among the living, have found yourselves here in the land of the dead? And why have you come to my river?"
Annabeth bit the inside of her cheek to quell herself. She hated being interrupted. I would've answered your question before you asked it if you had let me, she seethed internally. But no, when dealing with beings such as Phlegethon, Annabeth had long since learned that getting upset got you nowhere. She took a deep breath and pushed her agitation down. "We're here on a quest. We came from the mortal side entrance and paid Charon to ferry us in." Considering what Nico had said about upsetting the river spirit last time he was here, she wisely chose to leave him out of her explanation. "It's not the first time we've done it," she added after Phlegethon raised his eyebrows skeptically at her.
"And the reason you're here?" he asked slowly.
Sweat dripped down her neck and Annabeth nearly growled at his tone of voice. He was treating them like children! And while they might as well be next to him, Annabeth loathed when she was underestimated, especially in terms of intelligence. She wanted to punch this douche right in the face. His skin looked like it would scald her, but she didn't really care. It would be worth it if it got him to stop raising the temperature and being an ass.
But she grit her teeth. Calm, Annabeth. Calm. "We're here because the quest led us here. We seek the essence of Apollo. It's been split into five by an unknown force and hidden here in the underworld. We believe a piece is trapped in your river."
Phlegethon raised a hand to his chin and stroked it contemplatively. Wherever his fingers brushed, a trail of sparks floated closely behind. "And if I were to tell you that you are correct, daughter of Athena? That there is indeed a piece of Apollo's essence housed within the flames of my domain? What then?"
Annabeth looked stunned for a moment. "What do you mean, 'what then'?"
"What would you do?"
"I'd ask you to tell us where it is!"
"And if I refused?"
Annabeth froze. "Excuse me?"
"I won't tell you the location of Apollo's essence."
Rage boiled inside of Annabeth's chest, and she could feel that she was slowly losing control over it. Luke must have sensed it too, because he stepped forward and grabbed her upper arm. "Annabeth," he said warningly, but she shook him off and took a threatening step forward.
"And why, oh great river spirit," she spat angrily, "won't you tell us?"
"I've no obligation to. No compulsion. No reason. I have never met Apollo, nor have I ever cared to. He has never done anything for me or for anyone that I care for. His disappearance affects me not at all, as he exists above and I below. Therefore, I see no purpose in helping you return him."
"Then we'll find him ourselves!" Luke proclaimed when Annabeth was silent.
"By all means," the spirit swung an arm toward the fire beneath him. "Drudge your way through the entire length of my river. You wouldn't get more than fifty feet before it consumed you, regardless of whether you bear my lover's blessing or not." He narrowed his eyes at the son of Hermes. "You may leave now. I suggest you go quickly before I-"
Phlegethon's golden irises widened in surprise, and he looked stunned. "What?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, was that too complex for you?" Annabeth's voice was low and dangerous, grey eyes twin storms of anger. "I'll say it more slowly so you can catch up. Fuck. You." She enunciated each word heavily and deliberately.
I'm gonna fucking die, Luke thought miserably. But Annabeth's rage had snapped. There was nothing he could do now but go along for the ride and hope to god there was a way out of this.
The spirit recovered from his surprise, and his face morphed into a mask of anger. Flame crackled off of his skin, and the smell of sulfur poisoned the air. "You dare-"
"Yeah, I do! You're not a god or a divine being, remember? You're just a river spirit!"
The river grew restless as its guardian shook with rage. "Be careful, daughter of Athena. You travel down a path that has no safe ending for you."
"So what else is new? Also, if threatening me is meant to scare me off, you might want to rethink your strategy. I've told the queen of the gods to go fuck herself to her face, and I'm still standing. So bring whatever you've got, asshat." She crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes up at Phlegethon, who was now bathed in roiling flame.
Luke's hand drifted toward his sword as he watched the two try to glare each other down. It looked like this was going to end in a fight. If he could get the first strike in, it might give them some time to back off and rethink their strategy. They could figure out some other way to get the piece of Apollo.
The burning spirit started shaking, and Luke heard a deep thrumming noise come from him. His sword was out in an instant, ready to defend against whatever attack the spirit seemed to be summoning. It took him by complete surprise whenever Phlegethon's flames dissipated and he got a good look at the spirit's face. He was laughing. A deep, throaty roar of amusement was rumbling from him, and Luke was thoroughly confused. Annabeth was smirking, but she still looked a little unsure.
Eventually, Phlegethon's mirth died down to a chuckle, and he recomposed himself, albeit with a smile now adorning his face. "Thank you, daughter of Athena. It has been far too long since I have laughed like that." Annabeth inclined her head slightly. "You have a strong soul, little one. Full of a fire and passion that is matched by so very few in this world. You quite remind me of my love, Styx. She is headstrong and prideful, but balances it with intelligence and tact. She will never let someone get away with dismissing her though."
Annabeth herself laughed. "I can understand that feeling."
Phlegethon sighed and closed his eyes momentarily. They were smoldering warmly when he opened them again. "I apologize for my earlier actions, young demigods. If my dearest had been here to witness them, she would have been most…vocal of her disappointment."
"It can't be easy to be a spirit of one of the Underworld rivers," Annabeth said, waving off his concern. Now that she had gotten through his thick skull, she didn't really care about the earlier confrontation. His apology had been more than enough.
He sighed, and his clothes switched to a deep, melancholic blue. "No, it is not, and I fear I have been letting my duties get the better of me as of late."
"Your duties? You meaning burning souls down in Tartarus?"
Phlegethon's golden gaze turned to Luke. "That is only but one of my duties, son of Hermes, fulfilled by the portion of my river that drops into the abyss of Tartarus. Up here, my waters serve a different purpose." He shifted, seemingly seating himself on an invisible chair in the air. "Fire is many things. Pain, destruction, death, yes. But also life, passion, energy, hope, warmth. Fire is inspiration and beauty and soul. And that's what I do for any lost wanderers who happen to drink my waters. I inspire them. I breathe life into them. They may be dead, but they can still experience joy. Many of them decide to commit themselves to the process of rebirth. Some set out to explore as much as they can of this new world. I reignite the spark of hope within them, so that they may live again, either here or in the world above."
Annabeth shook her head. "I never knew…"
"Not many do, child. It is why my river rarely sees visitors. And why I was so terse before. Recently I have only been able to burn and torture, and that is not all that fire is meant for. Like all things, it requires balance. Without it, order is lost. I fear I forgot myself for a short time to the negative part of my responsibilities. I think I'll take a vacation. It's been ages since I've spent some time with Styx." He shook himself from the thought and turned to the two half-bloods. "As for your request, daughter of Athena, I shall tell you the location of Apollo's essence within my domain. Not out of respect for Apollo, I stand by what I said, but as a token of my gratitude for shocking me from my pathetic state."
"Happy to help," Annabeth chirped with a grin.
He turned and pointed in the direction the river flowed. "Travel downstream until you find a balanced rock formation. You will find Apollo in the deepest part of the river there, in the center. He is nestled underneath a slab of stone at the bottom."
Luke and Annabeth inclined their heads. "Thank you, Phlegethon," Annabeth intoned.
He nodded, and his face grew serious. "I must warn you, children of the gods, that recovering the essence will be no easy feat." He looked at Luke. "Son of Hermes, while you may bear my love's blessing, its defense is not absolute."
"I know, the weak spot-"
"No," he interrupted Luke firmly. "I do not refer to that vulnerability. My flames consume not only the flesh, but also the soul. While your physical form may be protected by Achilles' burden, your soul will not be. My river feeds on corruption and sins, Luke Castellan, and I fear you have the weight of a great many pressing down on you. You must be swift, and you must not doubt yourself if you wish to escape the waters alive." The blood drained from Luke's face as he nodded numbly. "One is not defined by the past, child. Remember this."
And then he disappeared in a tongue of multicolored flame. They stood there in silence for a bit, staring at the space where he had been.
"Well…that was foreboding," Annabeth commented quietly.
"That's certainly one way of putting it."
"C'mon, let's go, we need to get this done as quick as we can."
"Yeah." Annabeth glanced at him concernedly, the subdued tone in his voice worrying her.
It didn't take them long to reach the rock formation Phlegethon had them told about. A giant boulder rested atop three smaller ones in what looked to be one of the single most unsafe things she had ever seen, and she had gone on quests with Percy.
"Tread lightly. I really don't trust that thing."
Luke didn't even look. "Alright."
Annabeth sighed. "Okay, Luke, what's gotten into you?"
"You know exactly what."
"What Phlegethon said?" Luke nodded. "He said that if you're quick and don't doubt yourself you'll be fine."
"Annabeth, you heard him. This river consumes corrupted souls!"
"What's your point?"
He shot her a look, knowing that she was purposefully being difficult. "My point is that there isn't a single soul on the planet that is more corrupted than mine. I wouldn't be surprised if I was incinerated the instant I touched Phlegethon."
"Luke," she rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. "This is exactly what he was talking about when he told you not to doubt yourself."
"So? Why does that make any sort of difference? Whether or not I realize or accept it, I did terrible things, and my actions led to more deaths than I can possibly make up for. Rather than lie to myself, I'd prefer to own up to my mistakes. I owe those I hurt that much," he finished bitterly.
Annabeth huffed before smacking him upside the back of the head. Luke stumbled forward, a hand darting to caress the spot she had hit. "Ow! Annabeth, what the shit?"
"Do you remember the last thing Phlegethon said to you? 'One is not defined by the past'." She pointed at him with a fierce glint in her eyes. "So you've done bad things, yes. Awful things. You know that. I know that. Everyone knows that. So what? Stop dwelling on it! You aren't that person anymore!"
"No, shut up! Your past isn't who you are anymore, Luke. You were misguided, yes, and you made mistakes. Lots of them. But you recognize that fact, and I see you striving every single day to correct what you can and undo the damage you've done. I've never once seen you balk or complain about it either. You've taken every bit of spite and hate thrown at you silently. You cannot change what you've done, but you can change who you are. And you have, Luke Castellan. You have become an incredible person. So stop tearing yourself down for who you were, and start believing in who you are."
Luke was speechless. The conviction in her words, the force with which she said them, punched him square in the gut. She was right. Absolutely and completely correct. As she always was. She had undermined his entire argument against himself by using the very thing he used to make it; who he had been and what he had done. Except, unlike himself, she had looked past that, to how he had developed since then, to who he was now.
And he was different than he was back then.
Luke nodded. "You're right. Gods dammit, you're right."
She smiled in return. "Always am."
"Gloating is really unattractive. You know that right?"
"Doesn't seem to bother Percy." She immediately a hand over her mouth upon realizing what she just said.
"Oh? I thought I saw you guys saying something to each other when we were heading out. Something you'd care to share?" he teased as a small blush crept up her neck.
"Nope, nothing, nada. Get in the fiery death river now." She began pushing him closer to Phlegethon.
"Hey, woah, ANNABETH!" she stopped right on the edge, so close the Luke could feel the heat seeping in through his shoes. "Hermes, I thought you were just gonna toss me right in!"
"I was thinking about it."
"Listen," he started teasingly, "if I knew that bringing up Percy was-"
"Still thinking about it," she warned, giving him a light nudge.
"Okay, okay." Luke waved his hands in defeat. He took a deep breath as he watched the fire rush past. "Welp, guess it's now or never."
"Remember to keep your weak spot covered at all times. Can't have you turning to ash on us now, can we?"
He chuckled weakly. "Hopefully not." He turned to her.
"You're going to be fine, Luke," she said gently, before leaning forward and planting a soft kiss on his cheek. "Good luck."
"Thanks." He faced the river. "I'll see you soon." And he stepped forward.
He had been expecting something solid to meet his foot when it came down, but the ground seemingly fell away abruptly, and Luke plunged entirely in the river.
On the plus side, he wasn't dead yet, and as far as he could tell, his soul was fully intact as well. He cracked his eyes open, and was surprised to find that he could see as well as he could in normal water, everything was just tinged orange and red instead of blue or green. It was a surreal experience. He was swimming in fire. Annabeth had been right, his life was full of weird shit.
Remembering the river spirit's advice, Luke began pulling himself toward the riverbed that lay beneath him. He could see it, thankfully, though it was still a distance away. He was glad he had managed to grab a full lungful of air before he had fallen in; he felt drowning would be a lot worse than normal if the water was fire. Luke made sure to keep his one arm pinned tightly against his torso, preventing any fire getting to his weak spot.
He had just reached the bottom when he felt the first burning sensation crawl over his body. He grit his teeth. It was searing, and despite the fact that he knew it wasn't causing his body any real damage, it still hurt. He decided to pick up his pace, scouring the landscape for the rock Phlegethon had mentioned. He spotted a large, jutting slab of black stone a short distance further along, and kicked his way to it in a hurry.
The burning sensation was getting worse, and he could feel his lungs starting to strain. His mind, also, was feeling the stress. The river seemed to have finally started working on his soul, because memories and images flashed through his head. All of the worst things he had done or caused. He watched people he had once called friends die: Beckendorf, Silena, Lee. He saw Nico yell in anguish when he learned of his sister's death. Saw Annabeth lying on her back, face pale from the poison coursing through her system. He saw Percy scream himself unconscious as Kronos carved his arm with a blade.
All of it, the fault of his actions.
He looked under the rock as the pain grew worse. His entire being felt like fire. He could swear his blood was boiling, his brain cooking, muscles melting. Something was glowing softly under the stone, and Luke grabbed at it desperately, managing to clasp it on his second attempt. He pressed it tight to his chest and kicked toward the surface, his feet the only propellant he had now that both of his arms were in use. Almost there, almost there.
Phlegethon seemed to sense his desire to escape, and increased its efforts to burn his soul right out of his body. The feeling of guilt and pain tripled in intensity, and his lungs gave out as he gasped. Water-fire rushed down his throat, leaving him spluttering. He kept kicking to the surface.
His organs felt like they were dissolving. His lungs must surely have burst, his heart burned to ashes.
And then, all at once, his head broke the surface, and he drew the deepest, freshest gulp of air he ever had in his life. His insides cooled, though the rest of his body still felt as though he was being spit-roasted. He pushed his way to the shore, hauling himself from the fire with the last of his strength.
Luke collapsed to the ground and flipped himself over onto his back as he heard Annabeth approach. He panted as he stared in the yawning darkness above him.
"So," Annabeth spoke whenever she stood next to him, "how'd it go down there?"
"Almost had me," he gasped in between breaths. "But..." he held up the glowing ball of amber light.
"We are so gonna win this race."
Maybe it was the relief. Maybe it was the joy and reassurance he could hear in Annabeth's voice. Maybe it was that he had just survived the hardest trial he would ever face for the terrible acts he had committed. Or maybe it was that it was just plain funny.
Either way, Luke couldn't resist laughing, and soon Annabeth joined him.
They, of course, had no idea of the things that awaited them and their friends in the future, otherwise they may not have laughed at all.
A/N: So there you have it folks! Things are happening! Yay! let me know if you guys liked it
Especially let me know what you think of Phlegethon! He was kinda a spur of the moment thing but I was super fucking pleased with how he turned out. I really, really liked him. If anyone's wondering, I made up a lot of his speech about fire and his other duties and stuff. In general mythology, I'm pretty sure Phlegethon doesn't do much else other than roast some bitches down in Tartarus. I just thought it'd be really neat if there was more to the river (and consequentially, the river spirit) than that. I loved writing a lot of the dialogue in this chapter, especially Phlegethon's
Sorry this one took as long as it did. I wasn't quite sure what to do with this next part, but I'm getting it now. I'll try and update faster, I promise.
On a side note, I never thought my story would ever become this popular. I still get new readers and followers all the time, even when I haven't posted recently, and that amazes me. I love every single one of you. You guys are the reason I do this. 3
Anyway, please, review review review guys! Let me know what you think! I love getting feedback.
until next time, my dearest friends!
(psst, if any of you are RWBY fans, go check out my RWBY fic and my RWBY oneshot. If you aren't a RWBY fan, become one :p)