Okay I'm sorry, I totally lied about this chapter having Annabeth and Piper and Leo but NEXT TIME I swear. More immediately, there are some answers and some loose-ends explained and all good things. Have to write this stuff so that the rest of it makes sense. I think.
Oh also sorry for the long gap in updates. I started art school and let me tell you, I now work 8-day weeks and 6 hours of sleep is a nice long luxury. I hope I'll be able to get the next chapter out sooner than this one was, but I absolutely plan on finishing this story, even if it takes a while. Super sorry about that. I hate it too, believe me. But thanks for keeping on this long.
EDIT: What to HECK I absolutely hate FF.N, I'm so sorry for the lack of spacing in the first update. It was perfectly spick and span when I uploaded it, I don't know what happened. Angry about that. Super sorry!
Once upon a time in Austria, (think late 2000,) there was a disaster involving a train, a tunnel, and a lot of toxic smoke. When the train broke down and the hundreds of passengers tried to escape upwards through the tunnel, the smoke rose around them like a chimney and they all asphyxiated. Only 12 people survived.
The story was creeping around the corners of Jason's mind as he moved back into the vertical shaft, blowing the smoke down and away from him. He lifted up, calling on the limited winds in the tunnel to lift him toward the warm light above. They didn't know what was up there; it could be more ogres. But they also couldn't afford to go back the way they had come, and they needed to get away from the smoke. Hopefully, he'd find a way out.
Still, he was worried about the smoke going up with them and suffocating them. When he had landed at the bottom of the shute, Percy was blinded and hacking and wheezing, and he had only been down there a few moments. Leo could have survived it fine, but none of them could withstand fire.
Jason floated up through the shaft until he reached the top. It opened into a cave about the size of the parlor at the Big House back at Camp Half Blood. He swept his eyes around the room and blinked in surprise.
There was a large circular stone standing against the far wall, presumably blocking another tunnel. Blankets and furs were piled over a heap of dead leaves, creating a sort of bed. Strung across the ceiling in neatly-bound bunches was some sort of dried plant that made the room smell safe. In the center, a circle of stones made a fire pit, where a couple of pieces of wood smouldered. One of the walls was lined with more kindling, stacked near to the ceiling. The place was clearly lived-in, but whoever it was had stepped out.
Jason looked upward and found that the shaft he was floating in continued through the room and up into darkness; the smoke from the giant's nasty little trick had gone straight up like a vacuum, instead of filling the small room. Unlike the tunnel in Austria, the smoke had a way to escape without hurting anyone. It was all he needed to make a decision.
Back in the tunnel, Hazel had rested Percy's head in her lap. Nico was huddled beside him, encouraging him to drink some water, but Percy wasn't responding much.
Thalia was waiting for Jason at the mouth of the tunnel. "Well?" Her tone was impatient, concerned. Jason decided not to mention the story about Austria and instead gave her a short nod. "Someone is living up there, but they're not there now. It's our best shot."
Thalia processed this news with an unreadable face before she came to a decision of her own. "Alright," she said, turning back to face the other three. "We go up. How do you want to do this?"
They all turned toward Jason, who set his jaw. Being a taxi service wasn't usually his favorite plan, but it seemed like the only reasonable way to approach it. He took Thalia first, who held on to him with a strange fierceness, as if she were afraid he'd drop her. Once she was settled, and had made a disapproving noise about the living space they had found, he dropped back down into the tunnel. Somewhere below, the ogres were arguing amongst themselves. "I can't see him, where is he," one asked. Another answered, "He's balled on the floor, you're just not tall enough to see." It sparked a petty fight that made them all break out yelling, and Jason lost track of what they were saying. He decided to focus on the task at hand.
Nico and Hazel helped get Percy onto his back, and with great care, he summoned the hazy winds lifted up the shaft into the warm, secret space. Thalia had been studying the dried plants that hung all around the room. When Jason landed and the winds stopped supporting his and Percy's weight, he bowed forward with strain and grunted. "Here," Thalia said, surprising Jason with how soft her tone was. She led him over to the pile of furs and blankets and helped him tip Percy backwards onto them, taking extra care to lay his head down on some sort of pillow. For a silent moment, the two siblings stared down at their cousin, neither voicing the worry that they felt. Then Jason stepped back and went down for Hazel.
Nico came up last. He didn't look happy about being picked up, and he stepped away from Jason quickly once they landed. When Jason finally relaxed his command of the winds, smoke began to rise out of the dark hole in the floor, and the room began to stink of it.
"We need to block it off," Hazel said. She was crouched down, untying her shoelaces. "If anything, it'll make the smoke back up and get the ogres to leave."
Jason looked around the room, but nothing jumped out at him immediately. Besides the firewood, the bedding, and all of the dried bushels hanging around the ceiling, there wasn't much. A collection of jars sat in one of the corners of the room, adhering to some system of organization that Jason couldn't identify. Otherwise, the space was bare, and he couldn't find anything that would help.
Thalia dropped her bag onto the floor and unzipped it. Inside, she fished out something that looked like a small collapsible umbrella. While she crossed the room toward the smoke, she undid the string that was tied around it, and shook it out. It opened into a billowing silver tarp, about five by five feet, that reflected the dim firelight behind her. Thalia spread it out over the hole and used a few loose rocks to pin it down. Immediately, the smoke stopped flowing into the room, and the air began to clear. The safe smell from the dried plants returned. Jason was about to ask how that worked when his sister gave him a sideways glance and simply said "Hunters." He decided that that was all the answer he needed, and turned back toward where Hazel and Nico had been standing.
Hazel had removed her-Percy's-shoes. She was carefully putting them back onto the feet of their rightful owner, lacing them up loosely just to make sure they stayed on. Then she pulled a blanket over Percy and sat back on her ankles. No one said anything for a few good minutes.
Thalia crossed the cave and sat down next to Hazel. "We should eat," she said. She looked tired, suddenly, as if she was finally relaxing her guard. Jason got the impression that with Percy back, Thalia had just checked a big item off of her To Do list.
From her bag, Thalia found some small energy bars wrapped in foil with no label. They looked like they were about three bites each, but she insisted it would fill them all up. They sat close together and chewed in silence, listening to the crackle of the small fire and the muffled shouts from the ogres below. After a while, Percy shifted. His eyelids fluttered and cracked open, and he made a thin sound, like pieces of paper rustling together. Hazel leaned forward and ran her hand over his hair, smoothing it back.
"Do you think we can give him nectar?" she asked. Using her thumb, she wiped away some of the soot streaks on Percy's cheek. He closed his eyes again.
Thalia was looking around the ceiling at the dried plant clusters. She had an unsettled frown on her face, as if she were trying to identify the muted green leaves. "I don't know if we should risk it. If he really is mortal, it'll burn him up immediately."
"Well we can't leave him like this," Jason sighed. "He's too injured."
He didn't have to point out Percy's swollen knee or his bruised throat. Hazel leaned forward and hovered her ear over his chest, closing her eyes a moment. "His breathing is weird. I think he's sick."
Another silence passed between them. Thalia stood and pulled one of the clusters down from above their heads, holding it to her nose and inhaling deeply. She was still for a moment more, and then her eyes widened.
"This can't be," she muttered, looking back up at the ceiling. Nico shifted, looking away from plants toward her.
"It can't be what?" From his tone, Nico sounded like he was coming to the same conclusion Thalia had just arrived at. She moved to answer him but was cut off by the sound of rock scraping against rock. Jason, Nico, and Thalia jumped to their feet, spinning toward the large circular stone against the far wall. Thalia knocked an arrow; Nico and Jason raised their swords, ready to fight.
When the rock rolled to the side, there were no ogres. Only an average-sized woman, standing in a simple white gown. She had dark shadows under her eyes, and looked just as shocked to see them as they were her. She stood, her hands still gripping the circular rock, and looked at each of them, before her eyes landed on Percy.
"Oh," she exhaled, relief making her voice waver. "Oh, thank the gods."
"Who are you," Jason demanded, testing the weight of his sword threateningly. He stepped between the woman and Percy, blocking him from view.
"I mean no harm," she said, raising her hands in a placating gesture. "Just the opposite. I'm so glad you've found him."
"Who are you," Thalia repeated, grinding out the words and leaving no room for the question to be dodged again. The woman regarded her for a moment, looking nervous and small, before taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders.
"I can't give you my name. If it's said out loud, Circe will know where to find me. That's how she keeps track of her slaves."
Jason had never heard of this magic before, and shot a glance at Nico for some sort of confirmation. The son of Hades looked cautiously accepting of the idea.
"She bewitched your name?" Nico didn't lower his sword, but he sounded like he believed her. The woman nodded and tried to keep her posture straight, but it was obvious she was nervous.
"I don't care what you're called," Thalia said, glaring. "Why are you here? Why are you happy that we've found Percy if you're on Circe's side?"
Something in the woman's expression cracked and for a moment she looked equal parts heartbroken and angry. "I am not on her side," she said, her words clipped with emotion. "I am the only reason Percy Jackson avoided the ogres as long as he did."
Jason's sword lifted a fraction. "What do you mean?"
"Check around his neck, for a silver pendant."
Hazel, who had been sitting silently beside Percy this whole time, glanced between the woman and Thalia before turning toward Percy. She rested her hand on his chest and felt across the front of his shirt before her fingers found the shape of something small beneath the fabric. Reaching up, she found a silver chain tucked just under his collar, and drew the shape out into the open. A silver locket spun in a slow, lazy circle, dangling from the chain in her fingers. It was inlaid with an intricate greek pattern, and a tiny clasp was on the right side.
"Open it," the woman said, watching Hazel carefully. "Inside you'll find the same plants hanging above you."
Hazel carefully pried the clasp back and let the small locket fall open in her palm. Inside was a pinch of crumbled dried leaves that smelled like the rest of the cave.
"It's kept him hidden from her. The plants absorb magic the same way water absorbs sound," the woman said, glancing at Thalia as if she were expecting an attack. "As long as he wears it, he's near invisible to Circe."
Thalia relaxed a bit, her shoulders sinking down, her arrow dipping as the bowstring lost tension. "So it is moly."
"What?" Jason glanced back at Hazel, at the locket that sat open in her palm, before looking up at the ceiling.
"The plant," Thalia explained, "moly. It died out a long time ago, I thought. Hermes gave it to Odysseus once, to chew on so that he'd be safe from Circe's magic on her island. But I thought it only grew in gardens in Olympus nowadays."
The woman looked a bit more comfortable now, standing in the tunnel opening like a mouse. "Circe managed to keep a few for herself. She's been trying for centuries to use them to create some sort of countermeasure, a way to render the plant useless. But she can't use magic to do it-the plants just absorb it. And Hermes keeps coming up with new ways of using it. I think his most recent idea was multivitamins."
Thalia lowered her bow entirely, but nothing about her body language invited the woman in. "How do you know all this?"
"It… was my job, to tend the plants. I've been sneaking off small bushels for months now, to create a safe place for myself and the others."
The air crackled with tension, and the woman looked for a moment like she was going to cry. Then she forced her back to be straight, and she swallowed hard. Before she could speak, Nico beat her to the punch.
"The sacrifice," he said. "We sensed all that death a few hours ago, in that huge cavern. Circe… killed her other slaves, didn't she." He worded it like a statement of fact. The woman maintained her poise this time, though, and answered with a curt nod.
"I've heard of Percy Jackson's achievements," she said, her voice tight. "He defeated Circe once before. I knew she took him prisoner and that he had escaped. I found him and did what I could to help him. I was so afraid the orgres would find him before you did."
Jason lowered his weapon. He had ample reason to doubt the woman, but his gut told him she was no threat, and Nico apparently felt it too, because he had already resheathed his sword. "You want revenge, then," he confirmed.
She nodded and took a deep breath. "I can help him," she said, glancing between Thalia and where Percy lay. "I have the means to, here. If you'll let me. I've sworn to him on the Styx that I mean him no harm."
There was a tense silence before Thalia nodded, and the woman ducked into the room. She turned to roll the stone back into place, and with Jason's help, it returned to it's spot over the tunnel entrance easily.
The woman moved quickly and cautiously, actively trying to appear as nonthreatening as she could. She glanced toward Thalia frequently to make sure she wasn't about to get shot through with an arrow, but she didn't stop moving. She fluttered to the collection of jars along the far wall and selected a few, and then approached Hazel tentatively. Kneeling down beside the makeshift bed, she set the jars out and took a deep breath, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
"He's not a mortal," she said, breaking the tense silence. "The arrow that Circe pierced him with only represses his divine blood, and it is temporary, connected to Circe only as long as she is nearby. The distance he's put between himself and that witch has weakened the spell already. If he stays away from her long enough, it'll vanish on it's own." As she spoke, she carefully pulled at his shirt collar, trying to avoid touching his bruised neck. She revealed a faded cursive C, right where the arrow had hit him. "Even when it was strong, he was never truly mortal. But it has weakened him considerably, left him vulnerable to exhaustion and sickness that his system would otherwise be unaffected by."
"I thought you said you tended plants," Thalia said dryly, standing over her and watching her movements closely. Jason had knelt down on the opposite side of the woman from Hazel, and watched as she formed a very weak, fleeting smile.
"I assisted Circe's servants in trying to create an anti-moly. I learned much about their poisons, medicines, and magic. The magic-absorbing properties of moly aren't much different from the spell placed on that arrow. They both render something fantastic, like magic and godliness, almost completely void."
"You're awfully articulate," Jason muttered, trying not to sound accusatory. "How long have you been a slave?"
The woman shrugged a shoulder, her face flashing with hardness. "No one chooses slavery." She left it at that.
"So can you help him," Nico implored, squatting by Percy's feet. The woman unscrewed two of the jars and dipped her fingers into both of them. They came up slick with different colored jels, which she slathered together in her palms before rubbing some onto the cursive C on Percy's exposed shoulder. "This will help, initially. A tiny bit of ambrosia won't hurt him, either. But he will not be able to fight for some time."
"How long is some time?" Thalia crossed her arms over her chest. The woman pivoted and looked up at her, frowning.
"Two days, maybe three. You must stay hidden until he's better."
"If we can," Nico said, looking toward the silver tarp. The sound of the ogres had died away for the time being, but where they had gone, they had no idea. "The monsters could find us before Percy even wakes up."
Beside him, Hazel had taken hold of Percy's cold fingers and was trying to rub warmth into them. "Can we stay here," she asked, not looking up from where the small locket sat on Percy's chest. The woman looked down from Thalia at her and shifted.
"Yes. It may be the only safe place in these caves. But I'm afraid my being here will only draw her in."
"You're leaving?" Jason looked up at her, but she avoided his eye. For a moment she said nothing, before she rose to her feet. Her eyes lingered on Percy's face, unable to look at anyone else.
"The women she killed, to bring you here… they were my family. It cannot be helped that you are all here now, but it's my hope that you can avenge them. Please, do not let Circe win."
"But what about you?" Hazel looked up from Percy's hand, searching the woman's face with concern. "If you go out there alone, she could find you. Or the ogres."
"And she'll kill me," the woman nodded. "There is nothing left in this world for me. I will go to be with my family, at peace. I only hope to avenge them by aiding you in defeating that wicked woman."
None of them knew what to say. Thalia placed her hand on the woman's shoulder and fixed her with a gaze from those intense blue eyes. "You can avenge them by surviving and thriving. Don't throw your life away."
The woman dropped her eyes once more to Percy's sleeping face, and for a moment, the sorrow in her expression was interrupted by a small smile. "The Fates will decide what happens to me. I am resigned to it. Please," she said, not looking up, "stay hidden. Stay safe until he is well enough to defend himself. Circe will not stop hunting him; he is bait, to draw in the other girl, the one who sabotaged Circe's island several years ago. She as great plans of revenge for that poor girl, and Percy Jackson is at the center of them. She cannot be allowed to get her hands on him again."
Then the woman turned to leave. They didn't stop her, didn't object to the determination in her eyes as she spoke. Only when she had rolled the stone back on her own did Jason cross the cave and stop with his hand on the stone.
"It's suicide," he said. "We'll protect you. Please don't throw your life away."
The woman regarded him for a moment before she smiled. It was the most heartbreaking smile Jason had ever seen.
"I died along with my sisters in that cavern," she answered, her voice hardly a whisper. "I need only break out of this physical form and go join them."
And with that, she was gone, down into the blackness of the tunnel she came out of. Jason stood by the stone for a long few minutes, staring after her, before he felt Thalia beside him. Together, they rolled the rock back into place and stood side by side, somber.
Behind them, Hazel and Nico silently set to work mixing the contents of the jars the way the woman had, gently applying it to what injuries they could find on Percy. The fire crackled. No one spoke for a long while.
"What now," Jason asked quietly, when the silence grew too heavy. Thalia stood facing the circular stone a moment more before turning around.
"Now we rest," she answered. "We all need it. We come up with a plan. And we stick together." No one was going to argue with that.
Hey, at least the gang is all here.