One will find at the point of death that thy resistance is gone from thee. Thy strength is sapped like a drop of rain in the heat of summer. Thy dignity is fallen, thy fragility unveiled. And it is thy friends who are revealed as thy enemies, and thy enemies who are, in truth, thy friends.
In my case, I find myself both willing and grateful when Thalia Grace offers to bind my wounds. The history between us has been less than peaceful, but I do not resist. I am tired. I am in pain. Any company is welcome, and I welcome Thalia's without protest.
The daughter of Zeus – the child of the deathless god who rules the lightning, enthroned on the Olympian heights – kneels beside me in the grass, silently wrapping my injuries in soft bandages. I cannot bring myself to protest, but it is impossible to stifle the sharp gasps that emerge from my lips when the bandages come into contact with my dragon-bite.
He was my pet. He used to eat lamb's meat from my hand. I was no stranger upon our arrival, even considering my banishment from the Garden of the Hesperides. Ladon, he could be such a gentle thing with those he loved. How he could attack me –
I catch my breath as the bandages on my side tighten.
Thalia responds immediately, loosening them, but I still can't stifle my jagged gasps of pain. I falter. Something mists my vision. Tears?
I do not cry.
"Be careful, Thalia." The weakness in my own voice frightens me.
"It's worse than you said," Thalia whispers. "You lied."
I know she speaks the truth. Raw flesh rims the gash. Blood and poison stain the clean white gauze with splotches of dark crimson. The edges of the cut sting, sharp pinpricks of pain, but inside is where the toxin is doing its worst work. A slow burn is coursing through my veins, liquid fire roaring inside of me. It is agonizing.
Thalia takes my hand, but she doesn't tell me that all will be fine. She's aware that I know better. But all the same, she gives my hand a tight squeeze.
I swallow. Blink hard. "Thank you, sister."
"I..." Thalia falters. "I'm not..."
"You are," I whisper. "Truly, I am honored to have fought alongside you..."
My voice breaks off. The poison. It's spreading. The anguish deepens, fresh pain flooding out from the dragon-bite in waves. I can't help it – I grip Thalia's hand until it hurts.
"I'm sorry," I say. "The prophecy... it had to be..."
"Annabeth!" Thalia calls, her voice tight and urgent. "Percy!" She turns back to me and whispers, "I'm staying with you. I promise."
I manage a small smile. "I know."
I pity the boy. He cannot understand. He turns to my lady, Artemis – indignant. "Can't you heal her with magic? I mean... you're a goddess."
There is no mistaking the sorrow in my lady's eyes, but she is gentle with the boy. "Life is a fragile thing, Percy. If the Fates will the string to be cut, there is little I can do." Resolve swells in her tone. "But I can try."
Lady Artemis moves to set her hand against my side, but one touch makes me wince, trembling beneath the goddess's touch. Despite the fire inside of me, chills snake down my spine. So cold. My whole body shakes – awful, racking shakes – sobs that can't push their way out of my lungs.
Lady Artemis must sense my pain quite well. Otherwise, she would try to heal me – but instead, she draws back. She takes my hand in hers, and I'm struck by how icy her skin feels to me. I must be terribly overheated for her to feel so cold.
My lady says nothing more.
She just looks into my eyes, and I look back.
I can see so many memories in those eyes. The day she found me, ragged and alone, exiled from the garden of my sisters. The day I pledged myself to her service, felt immortality wash over me like a sparkling white wave. The day I hid from my sisters, the huntresses, so they would not see the tears I shed for Hercules, my betrayer. The day I made my first kill – a hellhound that was tracking a half-blood – and as I retrieved my arrowhead, my lady reminded me of a great lesson, her voice gentle but firm: Daughter, violence is a terrible thing.
I know it so well, now.
Two thousand years. Still, man is bent on violence.
In my lady's eyes, I can see that she bears a burden of endless years that I, blessedly, shall never have to bear. In my lady's eyes, I can see that she remembers much violence.
I remember, too. But it's the good memories that come washing over me, only the good memories, soft whispers of all that I have overcome. Innocents I've saved. Sisters I've raised up from the ashes. Monsters I've slain. My inner demons, beaten into submission.
But beneath the good memories, I remember failure. I remember pain. And now, oh, the pain I feel now, such pain...
Have I failed, after all? Is this how I will die? To leave my lady without a liutenant? To leave Olympus at the mercy of the Titan Lord?
I glance at lady Artemis, fighting back the unshed tears that sting my eyes. "Have I... served thee well?"
She smiles, a golden, deathless smile.
"With great honor," she reminds me. "The finest of my attendants."
My jaw loosens.
The tension slackens.
The anguish deepens, but I close my eyes.
I have done my duty. Two thousand years of violence I have seen, and I spent those two thousand years preserving the flickers of peace.
"Rest," I breathe. "At last."
My eyes are closed, but I hear the goddess's reply. "I can try to heal the poison, my brave one."
Brave? Am I brave?
Yes. I am brave.
It is my bravery that pierced my father. It is my bravery that tore my sisters, the divine Hesperides, away from me. It is my bravery that has destroyed my family.
No. If this is the end, I shall say my goodbyes with dignity.
I turn my head to search for Thalia. She's still kneeling beside me, and I reach for her hand. She takes it without hesitation.
"I am sorry we argued," I whisper. I want to call her sister again, but I fear my lady would not approve. "We could have been sisters," I manage. And I pray that my eyes say, We are sisters, Thalia. Sisters.
In all my years, I have never seen Thalia, Daughter of Zeus, cry. But I can see now that she hovers on the edge of shedding tears.
She blinks hard. "It's my fault."
I open my lips to answer her, but all I can manage is a horrible groan that catches in the back of my throat. The pain. Why can't I breathe? I try to focus my eyes on Thalia's face, on her tears of compassion, but the image blurs. Am I dying? Or just crying? Does it even matter anymore?
"You were right," Thalia sobs. Such broken sobs. "About Luke, about heroes, men – everything."
But I was wrong. I know that now.
"Perhaps not all men," I murmur. I lift my face just enough to smile at Percy. It's a weak smile, it trembles, but it's a smile. And he needs to know that I mean every word I say. "Do you still have the sword, Percy?"
Anaklusmos is placed into my open palm. I run my fingers along its cold surface, letting my memories – how I hated him, how I loved him, how I fled in tears from his presence – I allow all the pain to slip away. I fix Percy with my eyes.
"You spoke the truth, Percy Jackson. You are nothing like..."
I cough. I have to close my mouth for a minute to keep blood and poison from lurching up my throat.
I swallow hard. "...like Hercules," I sigh. "I am honored that you carry this sword."
The worst wave of pain yet rips through me. An unbearable shudder weaves through my nerves. I close my eyes to fight it, but it's over. I'm losing all control. I try to scream, I can't hold it in anymore, I can't. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry it had to end this way. But my voice is gone.
My eyelids flutter, and then I see them. Stars. So many stars. Stars that saw my every heartbreak, my every victory, my joy, my despair, my freedom, my misery.
"Stars," I whisper.
The stars of my garden. The stars I watched late into the night, resting my head against Ladon's scaly hide, clasping hands with my sisters.
"I can see the stars again, my lady."
The voice of my goddess calls to me as though from a great height. "Yes, my brave one. They are beautiful tonight."
"Stars," I repeated.
I smiled up at the tranquil night sky.
The light dimmed. The stars dimmed. Something fluttered inside of me, like a winging spirit as it took flight.
Darkness settled over me.