It had been awhile since Percy's dreams took his spirit elsewhere while he slept. Things had been quiet since Kronos' defeat. For the most part he'd enjoyed dreamless sleep, but the few times he did enter REM cycles, the dreams that followed weren't sinister and filled with sights of enemies plotting against him or allies in dire straits.
So it surprised him when one night, out of the blue, he found himself walking in his dreams beside Nico di Angelo in Central Park. Nico didn't seem to be in any particular hurry or trouble. Even though it was night, and Central Park was full of muggers and other shady characters, he didn't take pains to cloak himself in shadows either. Percy pitied the man who tried to mug the son of Hades.
The boy was walking casually along the path, hands in his pockets, and relaxed. He tensed suddenly and slowed slightly as he seemed to realize he had company, but relaxed when he realized who his noncorporeal visitor was. "Hello," he said. He looked right at Percy and the older teen could see that his younger friend looked a bit quizzical. "I'd ask what brings you here, but I wouldn't be able to hear your answer."
I'm actually more interested in why you're here, Percy thought, and as though he'd heard Percy telepathically, Nico continued talking.
"You might be wondering why I'm here. Or perhaps you've already guessed." He kicked at a clump of frozen ground. "My stepmother of sorts is being insufferable. Father says Persephone's always like that right before spring. She's stir crazy and can't wait to leave. Father's been sleeping on the couch since the middle of February, and last week I finally had enough."
Why not go to Camp Halfblood then? Percy wondered. And then he had to wonder if Nico really could somehow read his thoughts.
"I thought about going to Camp Halfblood, but none of the people I like are there right now. And to be honest, I'd rather be alone. Not that your company bothers me, beings that you're not really here." Nico gave Percy a crooked smile. "Though I'm really not sure what brought your spirit here. Central Park isn't very lively tonight. To be honest, I'm kinda bored – ah!"
Without warning, Nico was tackled to the frozen ground by a dark shape that catapulted out of the air, presumably from the rocky terrain above him.
"Sadie!" a voice called from the direction the other person had come from. Percy turned to see an African American teenager half sliding, half stumbling down the slope.
"I'm okay, Carter!" shouted the girl who was perched on Nico's chest. Presumably Sadie.
"Ugh. Get off," groaned Nico, wincing as the girl shifted her weight onto his stomach. "Oh! Bloody sorry about that, mate!" Sadie stood up, but unfortunately kept one of her feet on top of Nico, making the boy yowl like a cat whose tail had been stepped on.
If Percy hadn't been worried for his younger parallel-cousin, he would have thought the situation was actually kind of funny.
"Who is that?" Carter asked, finally skidding to a stop at the bottom of the slope.
"Just some random kid I landed on," Sadie said, stepping away from the downed demigod. "Again, sorry mate, but we've got to . . ." she trailed off. It was hard to tell in the moonlight, but Percy was sure that her pale face had gone even paler. He turned to see what she was looking at.
"Not good," Carter said.
Not good was right. In fact, what was slinking out of the shadows was downright bad. At first Percy thought that it was a giant wolf or coyote, but its hair was too short and it was built too lean. It took the two weird kids whipping out strange weapons with hieroglyphics engraved on them for Percy to realize what they were facing. A jackal. Like the ones in the pictures of his history book when his class studied Ancient Egypt. Not that he had learned much from those books or lessons, but the pictures stuck in his mind better than the actual facts.
"Surrender," said a new voice from somewhere behind the jackal. "Submit to the House of Life's judgment and you'll be spared a painful death."
House of Life? Percy wondered. Somehow that sounded like it should be a good organization. Not one that employed enforcers with giant jackals to jump kids in the park at night.
"House of what?" Nico asked, climbing unsteadily to his feet. "By the way, you didn't see that, Percy." He put a hand on the back of his head and winced. Percy frowned when he saw Nico's fingers were darkened by blood, and quite a bit of it. He must have hit his head on a rock when Sadie tackled him.
"This has nothing to do with you, boy," said the mystery speaker. His voice was now layered with a hypnotic undertone. "Run along home. There's nothing of interest to you here."
"Actually, there is," Nico said, wiping his bloody fingers on the leg of his black pants, then reaching inside his jacket. "You said House of Life, right? You're from a house of life and yet you have a pet jackal, which is a symbol of death. I actually find that insulting."
Carter grabbed Nico by the back of his jacket and pulled the smaller boy behind him. "He's obviously got a concussion and he's not involved in this. We should settle this another time, when there are no innocents present."
"I don't think so." Finally the speaker stepped forth from the shadows. He was a nondescript man with brown hair and medium toned skin. Average height, with no distinguishing features, the sort of person you wouldn't remember seeing, even if you walked by him on the way to work every single day. "The boy there perceived my familiar as a jackal. Not a dog, as most would, or a wolf if he was more imaginative. He recognized it as a jackal and is resistant to my hypnotism. He's got a magician somewhere in his family tree. Is he the one you came here to recruit, you heretics?"
"No, he's the guy I landed on when I jumped off that ledge trying to get away from your sleazy partner," said Sadie defiantly. "He has nothing to do with us and nothing to do with you."
"Enough talk," said their antagonist. "This is your final chance to surrender. Will you take it?"
In answer Sadie and Carter tightened their grips on their weapons and shifted into fighting stances. Nico looked amused in a concussed kind of way.
"Sorry," said the son of Hades, "but if I surrendered to an organization called the House of Life my dad would kill me."
"Mutef, bring the smaller male to me," ordered the House of Light member. "Kill the others!"
The jackal bounded forward with a snarl. It didn't make it very far. Nico drew his hand out of his jacket, now holding his sword of Stygian iron, and pointed it at the jackal. The ground beneath the beast began to shake and split apart, like the epicenter of a miniature earthquake. Hellfire sprung from the fissures and engulfed the creature. It whimpered and whined as it was pulled down into the earth, but there was no escape. The jackal and its master had been doomed the moment they pissed Nico di Angelo off.
"What the?" Sadie demanded. "Carter did you-?"
"That wasn't me," Carter told her. With both their backs to Nico they didn't see that the so-called innocent had been the one to summon the hellfire.
"That is beyond mortal powers," growled their enemy. "And thus you have revealed your true colors, godling!"
"I don't get you," said Nico. "Do you know who and what I am or not?"
Carter and Sadie turned to stare at him and started when they saw the dark sword in his hand. "Whoa," Carter said, grabbing Sadie's arm and pulling her a few steps away from Nico.
"I know what you are, but not who. A minor god, no doubt. Foolish to take a child as a host. And one who is so scrawny and obviously anemic at that."
Nico bristled. Percy wasn't sure if he was mad because the man implied he looked weak or because his lineage had been underestimated. What he was more concerned about though, was that Nico's head wound didn't seem to have slowed its flow of blood. Percy could see that it was dripping down the back of his neck and had soaked the collar of his jacket and shirt. Demigod or not, that was never a good sign.
"I sent your dog to meet my dog," said Nico, looking lividly at his attacker. "Cerberus is a good boy. He could teach that mutt of yours some manners. But right now I'm thinking of sending you to meet my stepmother."
Just knock him out and get out of there, Nico, Percy thought at his parallel-cousin, willing the boy to hear his thoughts, but either Nico really wasn't telepathic, or he chose to ignore Percy.
The House of Life man pointed his wand at Nico and a ball of fire shot toward Nico. The boy dropped to one knee and the fireball passed harmlessly over his head. He gave a savage grin and clenched one fist. A skeletal hand suddenly reached out of the ground and grabbed Nico's enemy by the ankle.
"What! Ahh!" The older man panicked and struggled to escape the undead corpse's grip.
"You'd be amazed how many bodies are buried in shallow graves around this city," Nico said conversationally, getting back to his feet. He stumbled a step, but regained his balance fast enough. "Parks and vacant lots are full of them. Most people would find that disturbing, but it actually makes me feel safe. I have allies wherever I go."
He started as Sadie stepped forward to grab his arm. "Anubis?" she asked, staring into his eyes.
Nico shook her off and gave her an unreadable expression. But a smile quickly spread across his face again as he heard his enemy howling as he grappled with his skeletal minion. "Wrong death god," he told Sadie and started to turn away.
He didn't get very far. A forest of reeds sprung up right in front of him as if by magic. Before he could even take a step back more grew behind him, trapping him. Nico cursed and began hacking at the plants with his sword. Carter moved quickly to help, chopping at the reeds with his strangely curved sword.
"Look out!" Sadie shouted.
The next thing Percy knew, a woman had appeared and flung a handful of what looked like streamers at Nico. Within seconds he was tangled up in them like a fly in a spider's web.
"Good try, godling," the woman said, "but not good enough. Now I seal and banish you!"
The ribbons glowed with a soft light that looked almost holy, but Nico's scream of gut wrenching agony detracted from that illusion. Whatever color had been in the boy's skin to begin with fled, making his flesh so translucent that every vein was visible. His blood seemed to darken in them, and his pulse sped up dangerously. His eyes bulged and the vessels in them seemed to all burst at once, spilling black-tinged blood into the whites of his eyes. And throughout it all the boy kept screaming, horrible, pain filled cries, as though his heart was being cut right out of his chest with a plastic butter knife.
There was no doubt in Percy's mind that Nico was going to die.
"No!" he screamed and sat bolt upright in his bed. Sweat ran down his face, much like bloody tears had run down his cousin's. "Nico," he whispered and flung his legs over the side of his bed. He pulled on a pair of jeans and put a jacket on over his pajama shirt, then sprinted to the foyer of his apartment. He stepped into his shoes and paused only to check that Riptide was in his jacket pocket before running outside, determined to save his cousin.
But deep down, he knew that he was already too late.
I hope you liked the first chapter of my new fic! Next chapter, Nico's fate is revealed and we see what the Kanes think of their new ally. Please let me know what you think!