I was still in shock.
Everything had happened so quickly.
We had secured grappling lines to the Athena Parthenos just as the floor gave way, and the final columns of webbing snapped. Jason and Frank dove down to save the others, but they'd only found Nico, Peri, and Hazel hanging from the rope ladder.
Percy and Annabeth were gone. The pit to Tartarus had been buried under several tons of debris. I pulled the Argo II out of the cavern seconds before the entire place imploded, taking the rest of the parking lot with it.
The Argo II was now parked on a hill overlooking the city. Jason, Hazel, and Peri had returned to the scene of the catastrophe, hoping to dig through the rubble and find a way to save Percy and Annabeth, but they'd come back demoralized. The cavern was simply gone. The scene was swarming with police and rescue workers. No mortals had been hurt, but the Italians would be scratching their heads for months, wondering how a massive sinkhole had opened right in the middle of a parking lot and swallowed a dozen perfectly good cars.
Dazed with grief, the crew carefully loaded the Athena Parthenos into the hold, using the ship's hydraulic winches with an assist from Frank Zhang, part-time elephant. The statue just fit, though what we were going to do with it, I had no idea.
Coach Hedge was too miserable to help. He kept pacing the deck with tears in his eyes, pulling at his goatee and slapping the side of his head, muttering, "I should have saved them! I should have blown up more stuff!"
Finally I told him to go belowdecks and secure everything for departure. He wasn't doing any good beating himself up.
The seven of us gathered on the quarterdeck and gazed at the distant column of dust still rising from the site of the implosion.
I rested my hand on the Archimedes sphere, which now sat on the helm, ready to be installed. I should have been excited. It was the biggest discovery of my life—even bigger than Bunker 9. If I could decipher Archimedes's scrolls, I could do amazing things. I hardly dared to hope, but I might even be able to build a new control disk for a certain dragon friend of mine.
Still, the price had been too high.
I could almost hear Nemesis laughing. I told you we could do business, Leo Valdez.
I had opened the fortune cookie. I'd gotten the access code for the sphere and saved Peri, Frank, and Hazel. But the sacrifice had been Percy and Annabeth.
I was sure of it.
"It's my fault," I said miserably.
The others stared at me. Only Hazel and Peri seemed to understand. They'd been with me at the Great Salt Lake.
"No," Peri insisted, grabbing my hand tightly. "No, this is Gaea's fault. It had nothing to do with you."
I wanted to believe that, but I couldn't. We'd started this voyage with me messing up, firing on New Rome. We'd ended in old Rome with me breaking a cookie and paying a price much worse than an eye.
"Leo, listen to me." Hazel looked me in the eyes. "I won't allow you to take the blame. I couldn't bear that after—after Sammy…"
She choked up, but I knew what she meant. My bisabuelo had blamed himself for Hazel's disappearance. Sammy had lived a good life, but he'd gone to his grave believing that he'd spent a cursed diamond and doomed the girl he loved.
I didn't want to make Hazel miserable all over again, but this was different. True success requires sacrifice. I had chosen to break that cookie. Percy and Annabeth had fallen into Tartarus.
That couldn't be a coincidence.
Nico di Angelo shuffled over, leaning on his black sword. "Leo, they're not dead. If they were, I could feel it."
"How can you be sure?" I asked. "If that pit really led to…you know…how could you sense them so far away?"
Nico and Hazel shared a look, maybe comparing notes on their Hades/Pluto death radar. I shivered. Hazel had never seemed like a child of the Underworld to me, but Nico di Angelo—that guy was creepy.
"We can't be one hundred percent sure," Hazel admitted. "But I think Nico is right. Percy and Annabeth are still alive…at least, so far."
"If only I hadn't," Peri shook her head, her grip on my hand growing tighter. "This isn't how it was supposed to go. I wasn't fast enough."
Jason pounded his fist against the rail. "I should've been paying attention. I could have flown down and saved them."
"Me, too," Frank moaned. The big dude looked on the verge of tears.
Piper put her hand on Jason's back. "It's not your fault guys. You were trying to save the statue. We were just too late."
"She's right," Nico said. "Even if the pit hadn't been buried, you couldn't have flown into it without being pulled down. I'm the only one who has actually been into Tartarus. It's impossible to describe how powerful that place is. Once you get close, it sucks you in. I never stood a chance."
Frank sniffled. "Then Percy and Annabeth don't stand a chance either?"
Nico twisted his silver skull ring. "Percy is the most powerful demigod I've ever met. No offense to you guys, but it's true. If anybody can survive, he will, especially if he's got Annabeth at his side. They're going to find a way through Tartarus."
Peri turned. "To the Doors of Death, you mean. But you told us it's guarded by Gaea's most powerful forces. How could two demigods possibly—?"
"I don't know," Nico admitted. "But Percy told me to lead you guys to Epirus, to the mortal side of the doorway. He's planning on meeting us there. If we can survive the House of Hades, fight our way through Gaea's forces, then maybe we can work together with Percy and Annabeth and seal the Doors of Death from both sides."
"And get Percy and Annabeth back safely?" I asked.
I didn't like the way Nico said that, as if he wasn't sharing all his doubts. Besides, I knew something about locks and doors. If the Doors of Death needed to be sealed from both sides, how could we do that unless someone stayed in the Underworld, trapped?
Nico took a deep breath. "I don't know how they'll manage it, but Percy and Annabeth will find a way. They'll journey through Tartarus and find the Doors of Death. When they do, we have to be ready."
"It won't be easy," Hazel said. "Gaea will throw everything she's got at us to keep us from reaching Epirus."
"What else is new?" Jason sighed.
Piper nodded. "We've got no choice. We have to seal the Doors of Death before we can stop the giants from raising Gaea. Otherwise her armies will never die. And we've got to hurry. The Romans are in New York. Soon, they'll be marching on Camp Half-Blood."
"We've got one month at best," Jason added. "Ephialtes said Gaea would awaken in exactly one month."
I straightened. "We can do it."
Everyone stared at me.
"The Archimedes sphere can upgrade the ship," I said, hoping I was right. "I'm going to study those ancient scrolls we got. There's got to be all kinds of new weapons I can make. We're going to hit Gaea's armies with a whole new arsenal of hurt."
At the prow of the ship, Festus creaked his jaw and blew fire defiantly.
Jason managed a smile. He clapped me on the shoulder. "Sounds like a plan, Captain. You want to set the course?"
They joked, calling me Captain, but for once I accepted the title. This was my ship. I hadn't come this far to be stopped.
We would find this House of Hades. We'd take the Doors of Death. And by the gods, if I had to design a grabber arm long enough to snatch Percy and Annabeth out of Tartarus, then that's what I would do.
Nemesis wanted me to wreak vengeance on Gaea? I would be happy to oblige. I was going to make Gaea sorry she had ever messed with Leo Valdez.
"Yeah." I took one last look at the cityscape of Rome, turning bloodred in the sunset. "Festus, raise the sails. We've got some friends to save."
The first night is always the hardest.
I couldn't sleep.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw them. Percy and Annabeth hanging over the edge of Tartarus. My mind kept replaying the scene of them falling into the depths over and over like some fucked up TikTok.
In the end, I gave up on trying to sleep and found myself atop Festus. The sky was littered with stars, but they didn't seem anywhere near as bright tonight. It seemed as though they knew that we were suffering.
I felt so helpless.
I kept trying to summon something, anything, but it seemed like my powers were growing weaker and weaker. In the back of my mind, I knew it had to be linked to Anastasios somehow. I prayed that he would be able to stay strong until I could free him.
Warm tears slipped down my cheeks, my golden hair blowing in the warm breeze.
"How did things get so broken?" I wondered aloud miserably.
"I've never found something broken that I wasn't able to fix," a voice cut through the silence of the night.
I turned and Leo's soft gaze met my own. He climbed up onto Festus behind me wordlessly, arms encircling my waist. I leaned back against him, listening to the beating of his heart. Its steady rhythm had become a soothing lullaby to me.
"I should've been faster," I began weakly, but Leo cut me off with a gentle shush.
"Don't worry, baby," he whispered softly, caressing my hair sweetly before moving it to the side to place his face into my neck. My heart fluttered at the pet name and the feeling of his lips on my skin. "I'm your Repair Boy. That means I'm gonna fix everything."
Gods, was his voice always this deep and gravelly? No, I shook my head internally. This was definitely new. He wasn't the same happy go lucky Leo that I met in Camp Jupiter. . . We had both changed so much, but the feeling inside that drew us close to one another never wavered.
I could hear and feel the determination in his voice, and I knew there was no room to argue. And why the hell would I?
As usual, he was right. He was my Repair Boy.
And I had faith that he would fix everything.
I just have no idea what I did in this life or the last to deserve someone like him.
"Okay, Captain," Despite everything, I managed to smile. "It's a sailor's promise."
Will Leo be able to keep his promise? Will Peri ever find her mom, rescue her dad, and unlock her full powers? Will their relationship last throughout war times?
Are they gonna smush?!
Find out the answer to all these questions and more in the sequel to Storm or Fire, Firestorm!