Author Note: This is only a work of fan fiction, not the real deal. I take no credit for the elements similar to and originating from the book The Lost Hero and the first published chapter of the actual The Son of Neptune; all the credit goes to Rick Riordan alone.
Chapter 1: Lessons Learned
Two months ago, I woke up with a massive headache, throbbing in the darkness of my clamped shut eyelids. I sat up groaning, expecting the bracing scent of sea-salt hanging in the air. Instead, I smelled only the cloying smell of decaying earth. It only made matters worse when I opened my eyes. I don't know about you, but I prefer to wake up in a bed – not on a pad of rotting leaves; in a house – not in the middle of flame-broiled ruins surrounded by looming woods; with some sign of human habitation nearby – not in stone cold silence. The sky seared my eyes with an unforgiving, fierce blue, forcing me to look away.
Not one of my better days.
Of course, I wasn't going to immediately panic. Something told me I was made of sterner stuff – but I couldn't be sure.
That was another thing. It wasn't bad enough that I had no clue where this shimmering – and I mean literally shimmering, like the air couldn't decide whether to be gas or liquid – where this decrepit house was, or how I had gotten here. But I also didn't know my own identity, and that's the sort of thing you don't forget lightly. My headache seemed to be pounding with the name Annabeth, Annabeth, Annabeth, but I figured that probably wasn't my name. I knew Annabeth was important somehow, but couldn't remember why.
I clambered to my feet and examined my clothes, hoping for some kind of clue, but let me tell you – never rely on clothes to tell you who you are. They are not a reliable source. A tattered, mud-streaked and – and – was that blood? The faded t-shirt hung loosely off my shoulders, stains covering the black lettering on the orange field. I rubbed the palm of my hand on the stains, but only made them worse. The letters spelled something along the lines of CAHFLOD, which, to the normal English speaker, didn't mean anything. Perfect. But as I rubbed the shirt, my hand brushed something hard hanging around my neck. I peeled it off my chest, untangled it from under my shirt, and discovered the mystery object to be a twine necklace with several colorful clay beads, all of which meant nothing to me. One black bead covered in miniscule Greek letters gave me a nasty twinge in my stomach and brought on a terrible headache when I tried to remember, which wasn't very helpful.
A breeze skated across my back, and I turned towards it gratefully. The sun was beating down with intensifying heat, and the wind felt awesome; but as I moved, I noticed I was barefoot. Only the icing on the cake of a day full of unpleasant surprises. Speaking of which…
A twig snapped. I twirled towards the noise, and my gut fell through my toes. A massive grey wolf stalked towards me from the other side of the ruined house. It looked poised and graceful, leering as it trotted towards me, like it found teenagers in trashed houses every day, and it knew they made rather tasty afternoon snacks. Instinctively, I stumbled backwards, my right hand searching my pants pocket. I clamped on a small cylinder, and, my hopes high, yanked it into my sight.
A ballpoint pen.
A pen? Really? Still, against all reason, I felt slightly bolstered, like the pen was going to protect me. With this thought, I realized that I might be completely mental. Well, at least if I was crazy, I would feel brave being hunted by a wolf and might die happy. I uncapped the pen, prepared to write my last will and testament on my shirtfront, and blinked several times before my brain processed what it saw. When uncapped, my pen grew into a gleaming bronze sword, its form distinct despite the hazy mist in the air. Suddenly, I sort of remembered: My name was Perseus Jackson, son of Sally Jackson, owner of Anaklusmos – Riptide. Best of all, while I couldn't remember specifics, I knew I had fought things much fiercer (as well as more disgusting, and larger) than a wolf.
"Come on, you mangy mutt," I muttered, a relaxed into a good sword fighting stance. Confidence abruptly boiling in every part of my brain, a crazy grin materialized on my face, and I tossed the sword between my hands a few times to set my grip on the handle. "Let's do this."
The wolf slunk closer, stepping towards me with its body at an angle, as if to size me up. I knew it was measuring how much of a threat I was, and I welcomed it; the next few minutes were promising to be very interesting.
SLAM. With the speed of a snake, the wolf darted forward, crossing the fifteen feet between us in a second, and crashed into my shoulder. Miraculously, I rolled immediately to my feet and resumed my stance before the wolf stuck again, my shoulder and back aching, but adrenaline rushing through my veins. The wolf charged, and immersed me in several minutes of sword fighting – if you could call it that. The wolf used its tail to knock my feet out from under me, met my slices with a chest slam or snapped at my sword hand, glistening yellow fangs reeking of dog breath, knocked me over with massive strength in its clawed forepaws, and sustained several unpleasantly oozing gashes from Riptide's edge. Fear knotted in my throat as I realized the wolf was far from your average predator – it had battle experience and a strangely human-level intellect. It was analyzing my battle-style as much as I used to – used to –
"Argh!" I groaned, grabbing my temple as my headache exploded in a new wave of pain. I shuffled away from the wolf blindly. Why couldn't I remember?
The wolf took advantage of my moment of weakness and downed me with a forceful pounce. I gasped for air, the wind having been knocked out of me, and groaned again, as the fall had slammed my head into the cement floor of the house ruins, which wasn't helping my migraine.
"Excellent, little hero," the wolf growled. For some reason, the wolf having a human voice failed to a faze me. The wolf paused, an intelligent light shining in its eyes, then, very distinctly, grimaced. "Chiron."
"Sorry?" I asked, completely baffled.
"Where did you come from?" the wolf growled in an intense voice.
Startled, I did the only thing I could: answer truthfully. "I don't know, I can't remember anything. I woke up here a few minutes ago. My name's Percy."
"I know, Perseus Jackson, Son of Neptune," The wolf said dismissively, though looked smug for some reason. "I am Lupa. Goddess of wolves and leader of the Roman legion camp."
Wolf goddess glaring down at me from standing on my chest; great. Ancient Roman god of the sea and earthquakes as my dad; spectacular. More pressing though, was the leap my amnesiac mind had just made, connecting with non-existent memories on some level. I paused, my mouth half-open, and stuttered in English, "Did – did I – did I just s-speak in another language?"
"You reek of the Styx," Lupa spat at me, her teeth slowly becoming more visible from underneath her black lips and inching towards my throat. I'll admit it, I was nervous now. I fidgeted, pressing my neck hard against the ground and tried to slow my fluttering heartbeat, knowing that if she bit me, I'd bleed slower.
"And you are awfully close to my throat," I commented hoarsely. To my horror, she leaned forward, snapped at my throat, and pulled powerfully.
She used her teeth to clamp onto my shirt and yanked me forward. Propelled by her tug, I landed on my feet. I gasped in a few breaths, and given that I had just thought I was going to die, you have to give me some credit. At least I didn't do anything ridiculous like throw up – which, admittedly, my stomach seemed to be considering. When my head cleared, I saw a grey smear retreating into the woods, abandoning me in the middle of the ruins. Crazy wolf goddess or not, she was the only one that could help me. I jogged after her on trembling legs.
As I forayed into the depths of the wood, the rubble of wolf's house glared forlornly at my back, the crumbling stone chimney standing stoically above its fallen brethren. I tried to ignore the lost and unfortunate air the place exuded, but it was impossible. I had the terrible feeling that hardship would be my companion for a while after being here.
This feeling proved itself true almost immediately: I lost sight of Lupa.
Cursing in the same language I had used earlier, I stared hard around the woods with a creeping urge to yell. Why me? Why did I have to lose the stupid wolf? And why couldn't I remember anything?
My fury faded when I heard a growling voice resonating between the trees. It had no clear point of origin, no matter how I cocked my head and turned, so I was resolved to listening only to the words.
"Follow your instincts," it rumbled.
It wasn't like I had much other choice. I breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and – feeling supremely idiotic – tried to figure out which way to go from sheer instinct. For several seconds, I stood there, my legs trembling from nerves, Riptide weighing heavily in my hand, my feet aching from running with no shoes, and all I could feel was immensely peeved and totally miserable. Yet, a faint tingling in my mind forced my feet to turn and face a direction slightly to my right.
"Might as well," I mumbled, and flicked my eyes open to start chasing Lupa. To my surprise, instead of having only a gut feeling to guide me, my eyes automatically identified a very faint, but very fresh, game trail of broken twigs and barely visible paw impressions in the leaf litter. My crushed confidence returning, I honed in on the newfound skill and jogged along the trail. I jogged for almost twenty minutes, zigzagging as the trail did and listening to the warbling chatter of songbirds.
I took a deep breath and scented wolf on the breeze – and realized I must be getting close. I picked up my pace, my toes digging deep in the dirt and wet leaves, and traced Lupa's path with increasing ease. Unfortunately, she had decided retrace her steps in order to throw me off. I found ways of cutting across to more distinct trails, and followed her general direction. Finally, I saw the fainted flicker of a grey, bottlebrush tail snapping around a tree and out of sight. Breathing hard, I sped up, my legs pounding the ground in a full out sprint.
"Be prepared," the echoing voice growled, but this time, it was closer. "Never charge into battle without a plan."
"I won't," I panted. Man, sometimes I wish I could keep my mouth shut. Just as I managed to spit that out, I turned around the same trunk I'd seen Lupa disappear behind, and swiftly tumbled down a steep cliff face of mud, rocks, and roots. Head over heels, heels over head, tumbling – tumbling – tumbling. I smashed my head on a few roots, jarred my elbow, and melted on the inside from humiliation. Then again, I supposed there was no one around to see it, but that thought didn't help much.
I crashed to a stop, head spinning, aching all over, my butt firmly planted in a mud bank. My feet sunk into the gushing crystalline water of a creek running over the slippery, mossy rocks. Curiously, my toes were cool, but not wet. Then I remembered…
Son of Neptune.
No way. I scooted oh-so-dignified to the water's edge and sat down in the current. The water washed away the mud on my clothes, but again, I stayed dry. With a sigh, I collapsed back on the bank, lying on cushiony ferns, and momentarily forgot about chasing Lupa. I let the water run across my legs and enjoyed the feeling of belonging.
But it was more than that.
Gradually, I felt strength returning to me. I must have run three miles in the woods, the last minute at a full sprint, but my breathing slowed to normal almost immediately. I felt like I could run that again, but faster, much faster. I looked down and realized the mud and blood was washing off my legs – so too were the aches and pains I had gotten by running pell-mell through the woods and fighting a wolf goddess. I noticed that while I hurt, I wasn't actually damaged in any way – no scratches, no bruises, no broken bones. It shouldn't be possible, but I couldn't locate a single injury. I wondered if it was because I was in the water, or something else. My mind cleared, and I hesitantly rose to my feet, realizing what I hadn't noticed before: I was being tested. Lupa wanted to know that I was strong enough before she helped me.
Before I moved or made more mistakes, I scanned the surrounding area for the flash of grey I needed to find. No luck. Then I focused on my instincts, letting them guide me. I saw where they wanted me to go, but I waited, looking for more traps. I breathed a sigh of relief that the water had cleared my mind; the direction I needed to go was covered in bristles, pines, and - discreet in the dappled light - a trip wire on the clearest path. I decided to follow the gushing creek as far as I could. I capped Riptide to free my hands, then moved carefully over the mossy rocks, afraid to fall and hurt myself again, all the while watching the cliff sides for movement.
A mass of black and grey rustled in the shadows up on the ledge to my left. I searched for the clearest route up the muddy slope, scanned for traps, checked with my instincts to be sure it was the proper direction, and, all senses answered positively, made for the top. It took forever, but when I made it to the top of the cliff face, I smiled. I had managed to do something without screwing up. Still, I was tired again, the power of the water having left me.
I was relieved when Lupa approached me out of the woods, instead of me having to hunt her down. Her expression was unreadable, but her inhuman eyes glinted with a fierce light. I took it to be pride, but hey. She could have been planning how best to eat me. I wouldn't have known the difference. I saw what I wanted and was happy with that.
"Excellent, little hero," she growled. "I can see it in your eyes."
"Understanding. Now understand this: I am trying to help you. Follow my orders and you have a chance of survival. Fail to, and you will be consumed." She began to glow, her form luminous in the mottled shadows of the woods.
"I hope you don't mean literally consumed?" I said hesitantly.
She didn't answer. "The Doors of Death have been opened. All monsters you face will reform much quicker than you remember. We are in times of strife and upset. Things are stirring in the primordial ooze, and it is crucial that the strongest heroes survive to protect the house of the great Roman gods."
"But–" Monsters? This was starting to sound familiar. Although I didn't like the sound of the stirring in primordial ooze bit, I knew she was telling the truth about the Roman gods existing. I could feel it, somewhere in the shards of memories I had left.
"You must prove yourself to be one of the strongest heroes. You must protect the gods. To do so, you must find my camp. Follow your instincts, be prepared, and always have a plan. Defeat the monsters you meet if you can, but do not waste your time on them. They will rise again. Remember to always help those in need." Lupa's form started to shimmer and fade. She glared, proud and strong, fiercer than anyone I'd ever met, into my eyes, daring me to challenge her. "Join my legion, Perseus Jackson. Fail to and die."
With one final glare, she sat and howled. When her lucent call faded into the air, her form disappeared completely.
From then on, I'd been on the run. I found my way out of the woods with surprising ease, and followed my instincts wherever they led me. They were the only directions I had, and besides, if I didn't at least try to find Lupa again, I would be what? Consumed. Oh yeah, Fail to and die. Wonderful parting words. Very inspiring.
So, regardless of my very dark personal feelings on the subject, I obeyed the seemingly random gravitational pulls and trails that lit up in my eyes whenever I accessed my instincts. I managed to find food along my journey across the countryside, stopping at the occasional gas station and stealing (ouch) or stopping at the occasional farm and stealing (again, ouch. I mean, I'm not a son of Mercury). I picked up plenty of other supplies at Goodwill, like the shoes on my feet and six rolls of duct tape, and kept them all in a very worn backpack that was currently clinging to my shoulders.
I followed major roads and never seemed to run into anyone suspicious. Minus, of course, the hobo with notably bad breath who turned into a hydra; it took me several tries to kill the stupid thing, what with all its regenerating heads that spit acid and fire.
And the large golden retriever with a dog tag labeled "Simba" that I ran into at a gas station. I was innocently browsing through the food aisles and pocketed a burrito (my headache worsened as a voice in my head yelled, "Enchiladas!") when the dog saw me and morphed into a rampaging griffon. The crazed bird-lion monster proceeded to dive bomb me with every wrapped piece of Mexican food in the place until I managed a narrow escape (also known as diving into a truck bed as it pulled onto the interstate).
Oh, and two of the gorgons, who I met in a pet store, selling rats (so they could feed their snake hair, I suppose). They saw me trying to hide from the griffon, then proceeded to set every animal in the store after me.
Fortunately, none of the monsters I faced were able to lay a finger on me. I don't know why, but their teeth and claws and beaks and snakes and swords and flame-breath and acid spit couldn't hurt me. It was awesome to feel invincible. Still, there was this creeping feeling in the base of my spine that somehow, a monster would figure out how to kill me and caput, I'd be dead. All in all, though, I was doing fairly well.
But the griffon and the gorgons were still after me. I had killed the snake-haired women several times in different ways – at least one of which included hacking them to bits with Riptide – but they didn't have the manners to just stay dead. Was that too much to ask? They kept reforming, with increasing speed. The first time I killed them, I drowned them both with a well-timed wave that I summoned from the dry earth below me. It was fortunate they took so long to regenerate really – I was catatonic from exhaustion for almost three hours after pulling that stunt. A day and a half later, they caught up with me, tottering along in bowling shoes and holding festively colored pins to beat me down. When I kicked their butts, they regenerated and were on my tail in six hours; the most recent time I killed them, they regenerated in a few minutes.
This time, they'd brought actual swords. I wasn't liking my chances of survival this time. I was one tired ocean-kid that'd been living on gas station food for six weeks and "borrowing" warm clothes from unattended clotheslines. They were two unkillable snake-haired women with no souls and no sense of remorse, with a burning desire to hack me to pieces for revenge and then consume me into the primordial ooze of eternal darkness.
After a few miles of running, I was too exhausted to do anything more, and turned to make a stand. They were far enough behind, waddling along in their uncomfortable looking iron armor, that I had time to pick a strategically advantageous position on the hillside I'd been climbing all afternoon.
My gut was going haywire, and my instinct told me the place I needed to be was right below me. That couldn't be right though, unless Lupa's legion camp was underground, which I seriously doubted. I took the last few steps up the slope and gasped.
The golden gate bridge rose up and stretched out across San Francisco, the evening mist blurring it slightly and settling across the city. The ocean called me, rich winds kicking up six-foot waves and skiffs humming along the water. I would give anything to make it to the ocean and make a break for freedom, and completely ignore the instincts that had led me to a dead end. The cliff fell away from my feet for almost three hundred feet. It reminded me markedly of the cliff I had fallen down when I was chasing Lupa.
Be prepared. Never charge into battle without a plan.
I turned and faced the gorgons. They had finally trotted to the cliff top, and were watching me hungrily, waiting for my first move. They were dressed in Roman legionnaire armor: loose white tunics, leather and metal chest armor, iron studded leather kilts, knee-high leather sandals, and thick goatskin shoulder armor that protected the back of their necks. Their gleaming golden swords shone in their hands. I hate to say it, but the two hideous snake-headed women looked pretty formidable.
I needed a plan. I tried to think fast, but my mind felt blank, sluggish and hopeless. The shield the shorter and more violent-looking gorgon carried on her left arm was looking like the best plan I had.
"Why couldn't you just let us beat you with bowling pins?" The taller, dumber-looking one asked resentfully. "It would have been more fun for everyone involved."
The shorter one hissed agreement. "Believe us; getting sliced to bits with a sword isn't fun." She glowered at me and eyed Riptide meaningfully. "And think of all the bowling puns we could've used as we killed you."
"I think you mean-" the tall Stupid Number One started to correct quietly. Stupid Number Two cut her off with a grunt and eye roll, inching towards me greedily.
"Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, ladies, but I would prefer not to die, regardless of how it happens," I said as politely as I could.
"Well… we don't have to kill him, do we?" mulled Stupid One, mussing her golden brown snaky curls. "He's quite handsome."
"Of course we have to kill 'im, you idiot," answered Stupid Two, hefting her shield. "He's only handsome to you because he's Neptune's son. Remember what he did to Medusa? He'll do the same to us!"
"Whoa, whoa," I said, capping Riptide and holding up my hands in the nationally recognized symbol of peace. "I did what to Medusa? Because I seriously don't remember it."
"All the more reason to let him live," said Stupid Two, completely ignoring me. "He's handsome and he got that momma's girl out of the way for us. Now I can be mother's favorite!"
"I didn't do anything to Medusa!" I protested, though without any memories beyond two months ago, I couldn't be sure.
"You can't be mother's favorite, you dolt, I am!" howled Stupid Two, as if I hadn't said anything. She threw down her shield and dashed at her sister. They landed on the ground and started wrestling, ripping at each other's hissing hair.
I used the scene of sibling rivalry ("Get your filthy snakes off my face!"; "Mother always loved me best!"; "Mother said I was the ugliest!") as the opportune moment to make my get-away. A ran at them, causing them to pause in their fighting and howl in fear at the approaching demigod; I snatched up the thick iron shield that was larger than a car tire, and ran towards the cliff.
I must be insane, I thought, and launched myself off the edge, planting my knees in the center of the concave side of the shield and waiting for the impact. Lupa would be furious. This isn't a plan, I thought, just as my knees slammed into the shield and the shield connected with the slippery muddy slope. I sledded down the slope as best as I could, the iron digging into my hands, my knees grinding into the leather handle straps, the shield ruggedly hurtling down the slope, wind tearing into my eyes and throwing back my wavy black hair. Half blinded by fog, wind, and sunlight, I barely managed to steer the shield away from the worst of the rocks.
"Oh gods," I murmured, seeing the interstate at the bottom of the slope. Cars flew across the pavement and into a tunnel underneath the slope. I would fly out right into traffic. There was no way they would see me before they pulverized me into squishy ocean demigod road kill. Maybe if I died valiantly, rather than screaming as I hit the pavement, Neptune would feel mercy and turn me into a sea anemone or something. Then again, I hadn't ever even spoken to my father, so I doubted he would start communicating by granting me a divine life-saving favor. In a fit of panic, I flung myself from the shield and straight back onto the slope; this hastily made decision probably saved my life.
I watched as the iron disk flung itself from the edge of the hill on the top of the tunnel and crashed rather unpleasantly into the front trunk of a VW bug. The car went spinning into and out of traffic without running into anything else. A few mortals were scared out of their lanes by the revolving car, which was currently emitting dying shrieks louder than a giant's roar and bubbling with melted tar, but they drove past the wreckage of the car, seeming unfazed. I was pleased with this favorable turn of events until I saw the gorgons getting to their feet and starting down the cliff, screeching, "Perseus Jackson! You will die!" in their most snake-like voices.
At that point, I forgot my two-hour training in the woods completely and ran for my life. I hurtled down the slope as fast as I dared, my sneakers smearing the mud behind me and twisting my ankle. I didn't care. I was considering whether to make a break for the ocean or to stay and try to figure out what to do with a faulty internal GPS, when some forgotten synapse connected with my instincts again and the answer struck me.
I ran to the side of the interstate, stopped, and doubled-over, breathing hard. It wouldn't be difficult to find the camp. I would just follow Lupa's instructions and make it there in no time. But as I was about to march off into the half-light, an elderly woman called out to me.
I turned to see her standing, crooked and dilapidated, on the edge of the interstate, like she wanted to cross. And when I say 'her', I'm using this term in the very loosest sense. She was most likely the ugliest woman on earth – she would make the gorgons run for mama, her cold-blooded, wrinkled gaze was so unforgiving. Her skin sagged like grey putty on her bones; she dressed like a hippie, but had none of the youth necessary to pull off the look; her hair registered in acid-burned lumps on her otherwise bald and liver-spotted head; her feet were bare, and utterly hideous. They were scarred, blistered, burned, pus-oozing, broken, and painful-looking affairs barely attached to the end of her legs, necessitating that she lean heavily on a twisted old cane. Though I couldn't look at her mangled body without my eyes watering, I couldn't look away from her intense, rheumy eyes.
"I need help, little hero," she croaked, her voice sounding nearly as frail as her bones. "Carry me to the camp with you."
"Ma'am, I'm not sure – I mean – are you –" I faltered to a stop, nervously glancing at the ever-approaching gorgons, who were howling for my blood. I sufficed with an incredulous "What?"
"You heard me. I obviously cannot make it there on my own." The woman smirked toothlessly, her eyes glinting.
If I left her there, the gorgons would claim her. Then again, they might just pass her by, seeing as she was just a mortal. If I tried to carry her, there was very little chance either of us would make it to camp. I could rush out to the ocean, use its power, and crush the gorgons. But how much longer would they stay dead?
"By all means, little hero. Make your last stand in the ocean. But do you really want it to be that way?" Her beady little eyes glinted in her skull.
'Little hero'… Lupa had called me the same thing.
Suddenly, a horrible thought – yet completely reasonable, given the circumstances – occurred to me: the old woman was a goddess. Of what, there was no telling. Ugly old farts; possible. Hippies; likely. Impossible choices; definitely.
Without another word, I scooped up the woman and darted into traffic, cars swerving as best they could and the woman croaking, "Out of my way, mortals! Out of my way!" as she beat on the hoods of cars driving past with the cane. Somehow, probably by her divine power, we managed to not be crushed, and I jumped onto the sidewalk along the partition of the two directions of traffic.
I glanced back long enough to see the gorgons jumping across the roofs of cars to get nearer to us; then I sprinted down the sidewalk, the woman thrown over my shoulder in a haphazard fireman's lift. "Never look back, Perseus," she hissed in my ear, her tone sounding distinctly like that of Lupa's in the woods. "Fear is for the weak."
I grunted a sailor's reply, which may not have been too polite; then again, I was running for our lives, trying to locate a hidden legion camp in modern day San Francisco. Cut me some slack.
Unfortunately, the goddess didn't. She smacked me in the back of the head with something hard until I saw stars and stumbled. "Perseus, unless you want another taste of my gladius, you will show respect," she hissed.
"Right, right," I mumbled deliriously. "Respect. Got it." How she had managed to hide a sword in her skimpy hippie clothes, I wasn't sure. But I didn't really want to know, either. I stopped to look around. My feet were pulling me left, towards the lanes of traffic and straight into the solid brick wall of the tunnel. Turns out my instincts were wrong anyway.
"Put me down," the goddess said, with as much dignity as she could manage. I did so, but it was more out of exhaustion than following the orders of the goddess. I turned towards the approaching gorgons and drew my pen, the tip expanding until it was three feet long, bronze, and perfectly balanced. I waited for the demons to approach, nervously setting my grip in the handle.
When the two snake-haired women jumped to the concrete in front of me, I fell into fighting mode automatically. We parried swipes and jabs, practically dancing with our swords along the sides of the interstate, the dimly lit tunnel reverberating the clashes of metal on metal like the clang of cymbals. I don't know what the mortals saw, but they were swerving two lanes wide around us on both sides of the partition, their brakes squealing and tires streaking the asphalt.
Just when I thought the situation couldn't get any worse, the mad griffon Simba I first encountered a few weeks ago finally caught up with me and swooped into the tunnel from my blind side. He swung around and clipped me on the back of the head with his wing as he let loose a fearsome battle-screech.
"Why do you want to kill me so bad?" bellowed in frustration. The gorgons' hair rose up and hissed at me, independent of their blindingly fast sword strikes.
"Because Gaea needs you dead!" the shorter one cackled.
I wasn't really paying attention. A crazy idea had just popped into my head. With the air of someone grasping at straws, I tracked the flight of the griffon, trying to predict when he would come within throwing distance of me. I had to keep the monsters distracted for this to work, so I asked "Gaea?"
"One of the few beings greater than the giants, or the titans, or the gods. She, along with Ouranos, created the world. She is Mother Earth, maker of everything! She opened the Doors of Death for us, so we can return again and again to try and kill you," the taller one replied.
"Which you aren't doing such a great job with, by the way," I commented off-handedly, my eyes still struggling to pick up the swooping shape of the griffon in the half-lit gloom. I parried both of their thrusts with smooth blocking swipe of Riptide. "What's the score now? Percy, 6, gorgons, 0?" Under my breath, I pleaded with the griffon, "Come on Simba, get down here."
There! The griffon swooped at me, like a bird of prey diving for a fish. I snatched rope from my gaping backpack and flung a length of it around the beast's neck. I let the bird-lion's lift pull me from the ground, up towards the ceiling of the tunnel. I dangled dangerously below the erratically flying monster while I struggled to pull myself up the rope. Just as he launched into a set of extremely unnecessary, irritated acrobatics, landing briefly on car tops and bucking like a wild bronco, I managed to twist onto his back. Squeezing my legs tight to hold on, I worked swiftly to fashion a makeshift harness from the rope. Knots I didn't know I could do formed in my fingers, deftly constructing a working harness with reins around Simba's chest, neck, and head.
Meanwhile, the gorgons stared up at me, frozen, with the most perplexed expressions I've ever seen. The whole time, I tried to calm the griffon by speaking soothing words to it. "Don't throw me off, Simba, or I'll cut off your tail… There we go; just let me tighten this knot and I won't have to feed you to a hydra… Good boy, try not to kill me or the cranky goddess, that's right," I murmured, though I confess, words like that wouldn't have made me feel better about having a ragged demigod on my back. It seemed to work, though, because he didn't buck me off immediately. I directed Simba down to the sidewalk and he obliged – bucking slightly, trying to throw me – but landed with an obedient jolt next to the old goddess.
If a toothless goddess can look surprised, this one did. Then, with a haughty and regal air, she transformed into a beautiful young woman wearing a glimmering white dress, with a cape of goatskin and a shining Imperial Gold gladius swinging on a wide leather belt hung jauntily around her waist. She accepted my hand as I offered it to her, and she stepped up to board the griffon's back. "Perseus Jackson," she said, with a somewhat approving tone, "I am Juno. You may yet be what the gods need. The path you seek is through that wall. Go through it with no fear of being harmed." She pointed at the spot I already knew to be right.
I hesitated. Was she totally nuts? She noticed my pause and snapped, "Go," her voice steely.
I would rather fight a dozen unkillable gorgons than disobey the order of a goddess. I yanked Simba's reins, and he pumped his wings, darting away from the gorgons who had gotten over their surprise and recently discovered they could actually move. He bucked hard against the prospect of slamming into a solid brick wall, but with the harness, he couldn't do much else. I resigned myself to the idea that, if I were going to crumple like a tin can against this wall, at least I would take a crazed griffon and irritating goddess with me. Granted, neither of them could die…
The brick wall phased out of existence just before we made impact, revealing an empty archway large enough for the subway to go through, filled with a blinding light. I squinted as we flew through, unable to see for the brightness. With a woosh, the brick wall reappeared behind us, and I heard the gorgons scream as they pounded their fists on the outside.
I stared numbly into the luminous area; despite physics and space-time laws, the archway opened into an open field the size of a state park. The sun shone down through a cloudy blue sky onto seemingly endless acres of rolling plains, woods, and a wind-stirred lake. In the center of it all stood an amazingly restored, full size replica of the Roman coliseum, the clatter of swords and cheering crowds echoing against the blood red fabric roof. I guided Simba into a trotting landing on the cobbled stone road leading to the coliseum, which threaded through the gate of a massive marble structure with heavy wooden doors. Stone torch braziers lined the path, lit despite the evening sun, leading up to the doors. To my left, hidden in the edge of the woods, stood a simple modern house in perfect shape. A familiar wolf faded in the shadows of the big house, watching me carefully.
I got off the griffon and blinked in the impossible sunlight, trying to re-dilate my eyes after the relative darkness of the tunnel. I turned and offered my hand to Juno, who accepted it with a haughty air and disembarked the griffon. Filled with a numb relief – I'm finally safe – I slipped the reins off Simba.
To my surprise, he didn't immediately take wing and disappear into the sky. His dark chocolate eyes stared at me as if waiting for direction.
"Well, go on then, you stupid bird," I muttered at him, and slapped his furry lion butt. With an indignant roar that shouldn't have been possible coming from a bird's mouth, he launched himself into the sky, flying past the coliseum and into the woods behind the house.
Now that I didn't have a bird-brained lion to worry about, I was able to look around; and with a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, I realized that, surmounted upon the massive marble portcullis surrounding the archway and guarding the path into camp, were distinctly human forms, facing me in eerie stillness. I could feel their eyes focused coldly on me, which I only confirmed by squinting into light and seeing fifteen bows trained on my chest.
"Hey, hold on," I mediated, instantly on guard, flinging my hands up in surrender. "Let's not be hasty."
To my surprise, no one looked like they were having any hasty thoughts. The kids' eyes – ranging from six to twenty years old – were locked on me, but their attention was all directed to the girl in the tower of the portcullis, who was deciding her plan of action. These demigods had discipline beaten into them.
"Who are you?" the girl in command demanded coldly. I couldn't see her properly from my position on the ground, but she the measured tones in her voice made her sound about a hundred times more mature than me. "State your purpose."
I felt it best to provide prompt, truthful answers, given the arrows thirsting to pelt my chest. "Perseus Jackson, Son of Neptune," I called out clearly. I didn't mean for my voice to come out so loudly and proud, but there was no helping it now. My voice faded slightly as I stumbled for a good answer to her other question. "And… uh… At the Wolf House, Lupa ordered me to search for this camp. I came here in the hope of finding her and regaining some of my memories. Oh, and I'm trying not to die, I guess…"
I stood there, feeling awkward while the girl sized me up in the cold silence emanating from her guard of archers. I didn't expect her next question at all: "Why are you so old?"
I gazed, perplexed, at the shadow at the top of the tower, and called, "I'm only sixteen."
"Who is your passenger?" demanded the girl in her over-controlled tones.
"I am Juno." The goddess spoke softly, stepping out from behind me and approaching the gated marble barrier purposefully, but the power she emanated amplified the sound until it was booming throatily upon everyone's ears. I could see a unanimous movement up on the wall on the edges of my vision, but I was staring at the goddess, transfixed. "This demigod has proven himself worthy. Allow him entry to your camp," she ordered. "Now rise, and return to your stations." This time I recognized the movement as fifty youths standing up and raising their heads after kneeling honorifically. I watched Juno approach me as the heavy wooden doors opened wide into the camp. Right when I thought she was going to say something deep, philosophical, and godly, she whispered in a dignified voice, "Train hard, little hero," and touched me once gently on the shoulder.
Then she vanished, her form bending the air and sunlight, erasing itself from existence with a slight pop.
Slightly miffed at this lack of advice, I marched into the camp. The cobblestoned path apparently connected all the buildings of the camp, and it continued on to the coliseum. In the grassy fields surrounding the path, four extremely athletic-looking demigods my age stared, leaning lazily on their swords as they analyzed me. I speculated from the intrigued expressions I received from three of them that they were impressed against their will that I had rode a griffon into camp and gotten the queen goddess to vouch for me.
"Back to your training," the tower girl ordered, as if nothing had happened. Immediately, the four demigods training on the open field picked up their swords and resumed their battle with ferocious intensity, hacking at each other with the intent to kill. It was disturbing, how viciously they attacked, even though they appeared to be only warming up for the event in the coliseum. They each had the slightly panicked look of students trying to cram right before a test.
I scanned the camp, not sure what to expect; the empty recesses of my memory banks tingled painfully, threatening to start another headache. It all looked so familiar, but I couldn't place it, like the perfect word that's on the tip of your tongue but simultaneously impossible to recall.
I took it all in hungrily: the thirty identical Roman buildings with gleaming white marble columns arranged in rigidly straight rows behind the coliseum, the showers situated in close proximity; the massive Pantheon-shaped building made of pure obsidian looming dark and impressive in the farthest reaches of the rolling, grassy plains; the windswept lake I had noticed on my right, an impressively wide archery range stretching the length of several football fields along one shore; the roars of threatening creatures in the woods crashing through the trees and echoing hauntingly in the air; and the constant noise of swords clashing. Probably because of the event in the arena, the entire facility – all the buildings, archery ranges, mountain faces (perfect for a deadly climb), and water sport areas – were completely deserted, the lone exceptions being the heavily manned portcullis and the ferocious match waging in the front practice field.
"Welcome, little hero," growled a low voice next to me. I jumped, whipping Riptide out of my pocket and drawing the point of my sword to Lupa's throat before I knew what I was doing. Heart beating wildly, but my expression not betraying the brief flash of fear I had felt, I realized Lupa could have dodged me if she'd wanted to. "Your reflexes are improving," she commented in a slow, clipped voice. "As is your trust of yourself. You have no further duties until dinner, so do whatever you wish. But don't be late when the bells chime," she threatened with a growl and raised lip. "Or you will suffer the consequences, your first day here or not."
Then I said something really articulate, along the lines of "Uh… okay."
Lupa snarled and downed me in a tackle, her teeth once again two inches from my throat. "Respect the gods," she rumbled. "You kneel and show discipline. Always. Remember it, Jackson." At this point, I think I had that rule figured out. Unless I wanted to be tackled by an angry wolf, beaten over the back of the head with a sword, or vaporized on the spot, I would be respectful. Got it. I was all over that rule.
"Understood, Lupa," I murmured humbly. The weight on my chest and the shadowy form over my eyes disappeared. I sighed weakly, wondering if the invincibility I had against monsters worked against temperamental goddesses too.
I spent the rest of the waning afternoon floating on my back in the middle of the slimy lake. It wasn't exactly fun, what with the gunk I had to siphon off my dry clothing using jets of less-murky lake water, just to still be able to move. Yet it was better than going into the coliseum or wandering around the camp with the hot – was it even real? – sun blazing down. Besides, it cleared my mind, being in the water, though it wasn't as good as salt water. I could feel seawater calling me from miles away, but fresh water still had many of the same effects on me. I discovered quickly that mobility wasn't a problem in the lake – besides being a ridiculously strong swimmer, I discovered an ability that felt extremely familiar. I could direct the currents and waves to carry me in any direction I wanted, faster than most speed boats could go. I strained myself shooting across the entire lake as fast as I could, and amused myself with the bewildered expressions of the Nereids, who were apparently unaccustomed to speed boat children zooming through their reed and slime houses twenty feet underwater.
I stopped immediately when I saw a deep red eyeball the size of a minivan glaring at me from beneath the murk.
Oh yeah, one more semi-important detail – I could breathe underwater. I discovered it when I came up from the bottom, spluttering from seeing the lake monster's massive eye, and accidentally inhaled a lungful of murky foulness. I coughed up the chunks of moss, but the water in my lungs didn't affect me at all. It was the weirdest sensation; my lungs refused the water and it ached slightly, but I still got oxygen from it. Even better, I didn't die.
For what seemed like ages, I laid unmoving in the water, my head submerged below my ears, to muffle to noise of the stadium. I watched the sun creep down the sky and wondered shortly how the entire camp was hidden under a mountain. But that question settled back in my mind quickly, and the thought that had been bothering me ever since I woke up in this mess of a life plagued me again.
I knew she was someone extremely important to me, but honestly, it's hard to feel to forgiving with someone if they're constantly in your head, whispering "You idiot, Seaweed Brain, what are you doing? Think of a plan before you go charging off on you high griffon" and their face refuses to appear in your mind, no matter how many times you think their name. All I felt now was irritation that I didn't know who she was. Every time I thought about her, a tingle started in the small of my back so intense that I shivered, but I couldn't place the feeling. I'd been thinking about her every free moment I had for the past two months – that is, when I wasn't planning food scavenges or battling nutto regenerating beasts of the pit – and I started to get frustrated with how much time she spent in my head, but how little I knew about her. Come on, Wise Girl, who are you…? I thought deeply.
I sat up in the water like I'd received an electric shock. I used to call her Wise Girl! What did that mean? Was she just a good friend, or had she been a demigod? And if she was, that meant her godly parent must have been…
No wait… that was the Greek goddess. The Roman equivalent would be…Minerva?
I felt so excited at my empty brain having made a connection to my past, that I didn't notice at first that the water had solidified and was holding me up like a chair. I also didn't immediately realize that I had sat up abruptly to face three demigods pumping vigorously in a canoe. They stopped paddling but their momentum propelled them forward. The point of the canoe rammed into my chest, forcing I pained grunt from my mouth. I slid back ten feet across the top of the water, like I couldn't sink beneath it – though I knew it was just my willpower holding the waves solid enough to hold my weight. Still, it was a weird feeling.
"Watch where you're goin' there," I complained to the curiously blank-faced campers in the canoe, like Yeah, I get rammed in the chest with canoes all the time. Don't mind me.
"You missed dinner. Lupa wants a word with you." The stony voice issued from the mouth of a twelve-year-old girl, her straight black hair pulled back in a severe ponytail and her eyes boring into mine. If there ever was a child of Hades – no, Pluto – then this girl would be it. Her skin was a deeply tanned olive tone, she wore simple, ragged jeans and the uniform purple t-shirt, and her eyes were black. No iris at all, that I could see. She made me feel so uneasy, I didn't really register what she said, or even look at the other two kids in the boat.
"Sorry?" I asked, and knocked some water out of my ears.
The boy in the canoe – who looked to be fourteen – rolled his eyes and sighed, the first sign of any human habitation in these highly-trained soulless husks that I had seen all day. "Hic fatuus est,"* he complained in a caustic, lilting voice. It sounded like a poorly veiled insult; my suspicion was confirmed when the last camper, a beautiful girl of roughly nineteen, laughed openly and nodded, agreeing,
"Credo in harena morietur statim."** I couldn't even pronounce the words, let alone understand what either of them had said. They saw my confused looks and laughed more, the youngest girl joining in harshly. While I couldn't understand what they were saying, I figured they must have been talking in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire.
"Respice in faciem!" the boy guffawed. "Is vultus amo quia tacta Jovis!"***
The sky rumbled, and I recognized one word. The Lord of the Sky's name: Zeus, or Jupiter, sometimes known as Jove. No matter what they said, though, I knew it couldn't be complementary. I stood on the water, which held firm beneath me, and glared down at the laughing trio. They stopped abruptly, which I found quite satisfying, considering I was threatening them with a wave of repulsive lake water, rising impressively twenty feet high behind me. I forced the water into surrounding the tiny canoe and its inhabitants, and they stood and drew weapons, like they could fight off a tsunami with swords. Pleased to see I had their full attention, I decided to let it drop. Literally. I let the wall of water fall inward and collapse, splattering them with mud, debris, and water, but not drenching them.
"Do you wanna talk in English now?" I prompted them.
"You're the idiot who rode in on a griffon," spat the youngest girl coldly. Not exactly the warm and breezy "Hello!" I'd been going for, but it would have to work.
"Pleased to meet you too. What'd you say your name was?"
The little girl narrowed her eyes and growled, "Get to headquarters, you lazy weakling."
I frowned. I wanted to crush this little girl's over-inflated head, but then decided she might have a reason to be so cocky. Like, she was actually a good fighter and leader and demanded respect, and some other such nonsense. So, I satisfied myself with surfing to the shore on a board of glassy, hardened water, playfully capsizing the canoe as I brushed past. Tossing a glance over my shoulder, I saw the three demigods come up spluttering and cursing me in Latin. I realized that Annabeth wouldn't have minded – actually, I remembered that she had done it to me once, and offered her hand to get me out of the water… I remembered only the strangely painful stinging of the over-thick water, and her voice: "You are such an idiot sometimes. Come on. Take my hand."
This breakthrough in my own mind, though I couldn't figure out why it was important, made me smile. My stomach gave a lurch of happiness, as though it knew the partial memory was important. My head defied this feeling by rewarding me with a throbbing headache. In pain, I scrunched up my eyes and held my head in my hands as I surfed. Through my headache, I felt happy still: I had remembered something again, the second time in ten minutes; it only added to my happiness as I enjoyed the feel of the wind in my face, the sun on my skin, and the gentle rocking of the board over the windswept waves. When I got to the sandy shore next to the archery range, my headache had passed and I let the waterboard go, it splashing into the ground and dissolving.
I looked at the sky, which was turning pink and purple in the sunset, and noticed that more time had passed than I thought. My stomach was growling and the dinner pavilion next to the big house was empty, the kids having taken up stations in the fields, archery range, mountains, and the black Pantheon in the distance. "Don't be late when the bells chime, or you will suffer the consequences, your first day here or not." Uh-oh. I probably didn't hear the bells from underwater.
As I made my way up to the big house, I wondered if I was immune to being shot in the chest the same way that monsters couldn't hurt me, because I was getting some mean stares from the kids at the shooting range. It didn't make me feel any better when a seven-year-old girl glared at me, then shot a perfect bullseye from a hundred yards. The arrow slammed into the target and buried itself in the tough surface all the way to the fletching.
The other campers, though they were focusing intently on their sword fighting and other activities, seemed to notice me without really looking. It was like they could sense that I was on my way to be punished and they were sending waves of dislike at me. I trudged across the fields on my own until I reached the house nestled in the edge of the woods. It was two stories, plain, with aluminum siding and a black roof. No one occupied the porch under the light of four burning torches, and the woods surrounding the house showed no signs of an angry wolf, so I climbed the creaky wooden steps and used the brass eagle-shaped doorknocker. The sound boomed through the house, and the door swung open.
I stepped over the threshold, peering into the darkness. No one.
"You're late." Lupa rounded a corner and faced me, the only sign of her body in the dark being the gleaming green eyes reflecting the light of the torches.
I knelt impulsively, bowing my head down. "Lupa," I muttered, because I felt like it was the respectful thing to do.
Lupa chuckled, though it sounded threatening in her wolf voice. "Well done, Jackson. Rise." I stood up to see her walking past me, off the porch, and into the woods. I followed the trail of freshly snapped branches she left behind her as she trotted too far ahead to see. I caught up with her when she stopped, standing in a small clearing and facing me. "You failed to come to dinner, as I ordered."
"I know, and I apologize," I said hurriedly, the words tumbling out of my mouth, but sounding strangely formal, like everyone else here. "I was… training… in the lake, and I must have been underwater when the bells chimed."
"You also disregarded the campers I sent to fetch you," she growled, her voice lowering to a dangerous level. "They had to get into a canoe in order to contact you. They thought you were sleeping, laying there on the water. You obviously weren't training at the time, and when they reached you, you threatened them with drowning for disturbing you. Unacceptable behavior."
"I…" I wanted to explain, but couldn't figure out a good way to say I had a vision that a girl I can't remember pulled me out of a lava lake. Instead, I decided to justify my angry behavior towards the campers, even though I knew it would sound whiny. "They provoked me."
"I doubt it. My soldiers have been trained not to act the way you do. They use their skills only when necessary or ordered to, not to intimidate or harm friends. You are disobedient, proud, arrogant, dangerous, and have no respect for rank and orders." She stalked towards me, the growl in her chest growing to a rumble, her teeth bared at me. I stepped backwards, trying hard not to trip over fallen logs and brush.
"You have disrespected my soldiers, my camp, and me. Normally, I would punish you by seriously wounding you and then assigning you to taming a rogue dragon without medical care first, but in your case…" she snarled, glaring at me. At least she'd stop advancing. Then it occurred to me. She couldn't give me the traditional punishment because…
"You can't hurt me, can you?" I asked. "I'm impervious to all attacks, not just monsters."
That stopped her for some reason. "Indeed," she agreed, and then demanded, "Why do you not already know that?"
I didn't answer. "How did I become invincible?" I asked.
The wolf goddess sat down and stared at me, her anger temporarily evaporated.
"How?" I asked again, marching toward her.
"You bathed in the river Styx. It is extremely painful and destroys mortals, unless they preserve their souls and remain vulnerable in one spot on their body. You do not know your mortal point, do you?" she mused.
"No," I said, but I was thinking of Annabeth. She pulled me out of an extremely painful lake after my canoe capsized. Or was it a river that I had intentionally stepped into? "Like I said when you found me, I can't remember."
She stared at me for a little while, during which time my mind raced. "Fine, Jackson. You will receive no dinner or breakfast. For now, you are exempt from further punishment." Then I thought I heard her mutter, "My students will punish you as it is," but I couldn't be sure.
"Come. It's time for the nightly gathering in the arena."
*"This one's an idiot."
**"He'll die in the arena immediately."
***"Look at his face! He looks like he was struck by Jupiter!