Oh my gosh, this is now a 70,000+ word story. I'm devoting way too much of my time and energy into this masochistic AU... But it's too late to stop now. :P
Anyway, a Guest asked me how many chapters there will be, and I can honestly say that I have no clue. I am the worst story-planner in history; I didn't even know Reyna was going to show up in Tartarus when I started this fic. :P But I doubt there will be as many chapters as he or she wanted (25-30). I'm thinking closer to 20? Maybe even less, I have no idea. Sorry to disappoint... But this is already longer than any fanfiction story I've ever written. 25-30 chapters would just be outrageous. ;)
Shockingly, this is a fast and long update! (It took less than three weeks! ...But don't expect this much speed/length every time. :P) Also, I think I actually managed to respond to every member who reviewed this time, so I'm feeling pretty proud. ;) However, I can't respond to guests, so extra thanks to all of you, and shout-outs go to two really nice guest reviews that just happened to come right when I needed a confidence boost: IkHUjhuiwdihjukh and Guest that reads, you guys both made my day, so thanks!
Hope everyone enjoys this chapter!
Disclaimer: I own the plot and not much else.
Reyna didn't even hesitate. Within two minutes, she had strapped armor over her t-shirt and shorts, sheathed her dagger and Leo's screwdriver at her side, grabbed a bottle of water and a canteen of nectar that were sitting on her bedside table, and ran out of her room. A few seconds later, she was running for the stables.
Reyna was grateful for the wind that blew into her eyes and dried her tears as she ran. She was grateful that she had braided her hair before she went to sleep, so she didn't have to worry about it now. She was grateful that someone had given her dagger back a short time after she arrived, so she didn't have to waste time figuring out where this camp's armory was. She was not grateful that she had been too stubborn to listen to her instincts that had been screaming that Leo was in danger all day. In fact, she was thinking abou—
"Hang on a second!" Suddenly, something reached out and grabbed Reyna's dagger belt as she flew by, yanking her to a halt that almost sent her sprawling. Reyna barely managed to keep her balance, and she was still straightening up when she heard, "Praetor Reyna? What are you doing out here?"
Reyna glanced up and recognized the Greek camper instantly as Nyssa Steel.
Reyna frowned. She didn't have time for delays. "You're Leo's sister, right?"
Nyssa took a step back. "Yes," she said warily. "What's happened to him?"
Reyna pulled free of Nyssa's grip. "Gaea captured him again," she said shortly. "I don't know how, but he's still in Tartarus."
Shock ran across Nyssa's face, but Reyna didn't have time to console her. With every second she wasted, Leo was being tortured more. Reyna started forward again—but then for some crazy reason, Nyssa blocked her way. The taller girl looked both worried and determined, just like Reyna was feeling, which didn't explain why she was delaying her. Didn't Nyssa want Leo back safely too?
As if she knew what Reyna was thinking, Nyssa frowned. "Are you're going after him?"
Reyna couldn't even believe that was in question. "Of course I am! He's in Tartarus!" Reyna tried to get around her, but Nyssa sidestepped. Being praetor, Reyna was usually a reasonable person, but at this point, she was ready to scream in frustration. "What are you doing? He's your brother!"
"He's in Tartarus!"
"Then let me go after him!"
Nyssa crossed her arms. "Not going to happen."
That pulled Reyna up short. "Why not? Do you want to come too? Because I really don't care if you come along or not, as long as you don't slow me down—"
"It's not that," Nyssa interrupted. "How are you planning to get to Tartarus?"
"I'll take Scipio," Reyna shot back, still trying to get around Nyssa. "He'll take me as far as Central Park. Then I just have to open Orpheus's entrance, which will be easy, and climb down all those steps. It opens up on the far side of the Styx, so I won't even have to threaten Charon again. I'll just sneak through the security guards and get back to the hole that opens into Tartarus. Then I'll—"
"You'll what?" Nyssa snapped. "You'll go down there on purpose, not knowing if you'll even survive the fall? Even if you do, then what? You don't know where they're keeping Leo. Are you going to get yourself captured on purpose? Gaea won't leave you and Leo together again. She might even kill you. And even if, by some miracle, you do manage to find Leo without getting captured, how in Hades are you going to get out of Tartarus again, when Gaea will be twice as prepared this time?"
Reyna was only half-listening. "I'm not going to just leave him down there!" she said, barely managing not to shout. "You didn't see what it's like. You don't know what he's going through right now. I have to go get him, and I have to bring him home, and I have to make sure the godsdamned idiot is okay because my gods after everything he's done I owe him at least that much!" She took a deep breath and pushed down the tears. "You don't know what I just saw!"
Nyssa was silent for a minute, and it took Reyna that long to realize Nyssa might be just as upset as she was. "No, I don't know," Nyssa said eventually, "but I can guess. And it doesn't matter. You can't go after him."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because you won't survive!" Just like that, Reyna paused and looked at Nyssa, really looked, for the first time. "You know it as well as I do," Nyssa continued, frowning at Reyna again to make sure she wouldn't interrupt. "And maybe you don't care. Styx, I'd go myself and screw the consequences, but what do you think that would do to Leo? Gaea would tell him, just for the sadistic joy she'd get from it. She might even kill us in front of him, and it doesn't matter what he's facing right now, that would be a heck of a lot worse. He would never forgive himself. The gods know Leo has enough guilt over what happened to his mom. Do you even know about that?"
Reyna hesitated, then nodded. Nyssa looked surprised, but all she said was, "Then you get it. We can't go after Leo because of what it would do to him, not to us."
Without even realizing what she was doing, Reyna sank to the ground, not even caring that this almost total stranger was watching. "I . . . I know what you mean, but that doesn't—I just want—I have to—I can't just do nothing."
"We won't be doing nothing," Nyssa said sharply. "For starters, we can get our camps out of here. There's a boat in Greece that could use our help."
Reyna frowned, feeling fuzzy from sleep and adrenaline and worry. "But that doesn't help Leo at all. I still—"
"Come on, Praetor," Nyssa interrupted, exasperation sliding into her voice. "Think about it. The Argo II's crew needs us to fix their ship so they can go to Athens, return the Parthenos, stop the Greek-Roman schizophrenia the gods are having, and do their best to prevent Gaea's rising. We can't just run off to Tartarus and put that at risk. And anyway . . ." Nyssa's eyes gleamed. Reyna wondered how she could look that pleased about anything right now. "When Gaea does try to rise on August 1st, she's going to need to sacrifice two demigods on Athens's soil. And what does that mean?"
Slowly, Reyna thought through the fuzz in her brain. Then her eyes widened. "She's going to have to bring Leo to the surface."
Nyssa looked triumphant. "Exactly. And that's our chance to rescue him. But we can't do that if we're stuck over here."
Reyna still didn't like it. August 1st was eight days away. Those were eight days of torture Leo was going to have to face before anyone could even attempt to rescue him. But she also knew Nyssa was right. She had responsibilities; she couldn't just leave when the two camps were just starting to get along, and especially when the prophecy demigods needed her help. Leo wouldn't want her to.
Decision made, Reyna rose to her feet and stared Nyssa down. "This never happened," she told her. "I wasn't even a little irrational after learning about Leo. Gods, I wasn't even emotional. Understand?"
Apparently, Nyssa understood a little better than Reyna would have liked her to. She smiled. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Reyna raised her eyebrows. "Then let's get started. We have a lot of planning to do."
Despite her nagging, Percy refused to tell anyone where he'd gone, which both infuriated and worried Annabeth. Still, she couldn't complain because he'd been working diligently ever since Reyna's IM ended. Within an hour, all the water had been drained from the ship. Now Coach Hedge, Percy, Jason, and Frank were cutting some trees into planks to repair the hull (which, as Annabeth kept hearing from all four of them, was not easy to do with swords). Meanwhile, Piper, Nico, and Hazel were digging through the rubble below deck, clearing out most of the debris, and salvaging whatever weapons and supplies they could find.
And Annabeth? Not only was she supervising everyone else, but she was also running several diagnostic checks through Festus and inspecting all of the ship's systems to try to figure out which sections were most crucial to repair. She made several notes about tools and supplies that she would need the Hephaestus cabin to bring over when they arrived, but she wasn't too worried about the magnitude of the work they had to do anymore. After all, she would have hundreds of demigods arriving to help out soon. And Leo would be among them. He would be able to make the repairs that Annabeth didn't have the technical knowledge to do, and even if he was too injured to actually work, he could instruct everyone else. With so many people working, and with all of Leo's skill, they would finish with plenty of time to get to Athens.
Thank the gods Leo was coming.
Annabeth wasn't sure she'd be able to handle all the work otherwise.
Reyna sat on Scipio's back so she could look at both camps gathered on the lawn between the Greek cabins. It was odd to see so many demigods and legacies all in one place, and it was especially strange to see orange and purple camp shirts mixed together. Sure, most of the Greeks kept to the left, and the Romans to the right, but there was some mingling in the middle, and that was enough of a miracle in and of itself.
Reyna shook thoughts of Greek and Roman cooperation out of her mind and focused on the task at hand.
"As you all know," she began, "we were waiting to leave for the Ancient Lands until—"
"I still don't understand why we're leaving for them at all!" Octavian called out belligerently. "They're still forbidden!"
After the torture she'd seen Leo endure, Reyna wasn't in the mood for idle arguments. "Octavian," she snapped, "if we don't go to the Ancient Lands, the quest of the prophecy will most likely fail, and Western civilization will collapse, and we will all die, and I doubt anyone will care that we followed a rule some uppity Lares made centuries ago. We're going, end of discussion, and the fact that you even tried to argue shows your complete ignorance about real world decisions. If I hear another word from you during this meeting, I am stripping you of your rank as centurion, and Dakota will move up to the First Cohort and replace you."
"Whoa there, Praetor!" Dakota spoke up. "I didn't think this was supposed to be my punishment! I don't want to be in the same cohort as that slimeball!" A few Romans—and more than a few Greeks—snorted. Octavian turned dark red, but he shut his mouth, and that was all Reyna really cared about at the moment.
"As I was saying," she continued, "we had originally planned to wait to leave until Leo Valdez returned. Unfortunately, that is no longer an option."
"Hang on!" Annabeth's brother Malcolm frowned. "You're not saying . . ." Reyna watched as his face shifted from confused to anxious to fearful to terrified. She kept her own expression neutral, mostly so she wouldn't betray how tumultuous her own emotions were. "Oh gods," he said when he saw her face. "You are saying that, aren't you?"
Reyna nodded. "We are no longer waiting for Leo because he will not be returning anytime soon. Gaea has recaptured him."
The lawn became an uproar of protest.
Because the news was so horrible, Reyna allowed five minutes for the assembled demigods to express their shock, fear, anger, and nervousness. When it was time to call for order again, Reyna nodded at Nyssa, who honked a specially-modified foghorn. The blaring noise it made quieted the crowd immediately.
"I understand," Reyna told them. She didn't need to explain what she understood; everybody understood her just as well. "But we can't waste time talking about it. The fact is, Leo is trapped whether we discuss it or not. How and why he came to be captured is irrelevant at this point. What matters is that we take action."
"Yeah, take action!" one Greek shouted. Reyna didn't know his name, but she could tell Hephaestus was his father by his massive build. "Let's form a search-and-rescue party and go after him! I'll volunteer!"
As soon as he finished, other people took up his cry, asking to go look for Leo too. Several Greeks volunteered, and even a couple Romans, to Reyna's surprise. Leo's likability reached farther than she'd realized. However, as more and more demigods offered to help, Reyna knew she had to put a stop to their shouts. For one thing, she couldn't maintain their hopes with a good conscience. Secondly, Reyna was already tethered to her rationality by a thin cord. Listening to these teenagers' resolve was weakening her own. If she waited any longer, she might give into her own desire to help Leo and forgo the good plan—the only plan that had the slightest hope of working, if she was being honest—that she had come up with alongside Nyssa. Speaking of Nyssa . . .
The demigod seemed to reach the same conclusion Reyna had, at the same moment. Just before Reyna turned to make eye contact with her, a ear-splitting honk echoed across the lawn, quelling the crowd.
Reyna took a deep breath. "I know you want to go look for Leo," she told everyone, feeling her stomach—and maybe even her heart—shrink painfully as she spoke, "but there isn't going to be a search party." The protests started up again, but Reyna held up her hand and glared before they could escalate. "Believe me, if I thought it would work, I would have jumped on that idea as quickly as you did. Leo is my friend too. But that course of action won't work. Tell me, how would you plan on getting an entire search party safely into Tartarus without being detected by Gaea?" Silence. "Even if by some miracle she didn't notice you immediately, how would you comb through the equivalent of an entire world—literally—to find him? How would a small search party defend itself against the arsenal of an entire world's worth of monsters that would inevitably come? And even if you managed to do all that—avoid Gaea's notice, avoid major monster attacks, and find Leo—how are you going to get him—and yourselves—out of Tartarus? I barely escaped, and I'm just one person, and it took Leo's and my planning and skills combined to pull it off, and the situation would be a lot hairier this time because Gaea's expecting a rescue attempt like the one you're suggesting." Reyna's eyes skimmed across the crowd, making sure they were all paying attention. "Tell me, how would any of you survive this suicide mission you're proposing? Forget that. How would Leo, while injured, exhausted, and half-starved, survive it?" She didn't wait for an answer. "That's right; he wouldn't. And seeing as saving him is the whole idea behind this search party, I honestly don't see the point of organizing one. We don't need that bloodshed. The situation we're facing is dangerous enough as it is."
Reyna paused for a few minutes and allowed everyone to think about that. When nobody brought up any further protests, she figured they weren't going to try and sneak off without her permission or attempt anything else equally idiotic. Then she moved onto the next topic. "So we're not sending out a rescue party, as tempting as I know the idea is," she began. "But that does not mean that we aren't doing anything." Her eyes hardened, and she regained the confidence that had been shaky while worrying about Leo. "There are still many ways we can help Leo Valdez. For one, we can stop Gaea in her tracks." Again, murmuring rushed through the crowd, but Reyna kept it from becoming a cacophony. "Yes, you heard me correctly. We may not be able to rescue Leo directly at this moment," she said pointedly, "but that doesn't mean we're helpless. Have you forgotten the wrecked warship in Greece that needs our skill to repair it? Don't you think it's about time we got out there and, well, fixed it?"
"Does that mean you have a plan, then?" Malcolm called out. A little of the fire, which had blown out at Reyna's news about Leo, began to reignite in his eyes.
"Of course I do," Reyna reassured him. "Nyssa?"
The demigod in question made her way to the front of the crowd and stood next to Scipio, who was thankfully not trotting in place and making Reyna look ridiculous. "The main obstacle facing us is transportation," Nyssa told everyone. "We debated the best way to get hundreds of people across the ocean in a short amount of time for hours yesterday . . . But the truth is, the answer was staring us in the face the whole time. We can just travel the same way mortals do. In airplanes."
Talking started immediately, but a few questions rose above the rest. "How could we possibly get a pilot to transport four hundred teenagers to a random beach in Greece without becoming suspicious? How would we charter a plane in the first place? How are we going to get the funds to rent a private jet? How are we going to land the plane close to the Argo II without crashing and killing us all? How is this idea possibly going to work out?"
Eventually, Nyssa had to use the foghorn to get everyone quiet again. "It's completely possible," she said, looking determined. "Reyna and I have been doing some research. Annabeth got the GPS system on the Argo II working earlier, and she sent us their coordinates. There's an airport about fifty miles away, so we can easily land the plane there. Then we can charter a few double-decker buses to drive the rest of the way to the ship, and if we run out of road before we get to the beach, we'll walk the rest of the way. We're demigods, not computer-ridden teenagers who haven't stepped outside their bedrooms in days. A hike of a couple miles won't kill us."
"A few double-decker buses?" someone asked incredulously. "You say that like they're easy to come by. Renting those would cost hundreds of dollars—and don't forget the cost of the freaking airplane you're suggesting."
Nyssa's eyes sparkled. "Whoever asked that," she said, "you must be Roman. Otherwise, you'd know that we won't need to rent the airplane or the buses. They'll give them to us for free."
"Oh really?" the same person countered. "How are you planning on pulling that off?"
"Easy," Nyssa smirked. "Drew can charmspeak her way into getting us the transportation."
Almost immediately, the crowd jostled apart, and a beautiful Asian girl pushed her way to the front. "Really?" she demanded. "You planned all this out—relying on the fact that I could get you all this mortal stuff for free—and didn't even ask me about it before announcing it to everyone?"
Nyssa's smirk transformed into a vicious glare. "What? Are you telling me you're not willing to do it? Have you forgotten what Leo and the others have already done for us, as well as what they're going to do? And here Piper was telling everyone that you'd changed—"
"It's not that," Drew insisted. "I'm not a monster. Of course I want to help. It's just . . ." She lowered her voice, so only Nyssa and Reyna could hear. "Well, I haven't exactly been practicing," she admitted. "People are pretty suspicious of my charmspeak, in case you didn't know. After last December, I figured it was best if I laid off it for a while. What if . . . what if I can't persuade the people well enough, and I let everyone down?"
Nyssa snorted. "You once convinced Sherman"—Sherman was one of the more aggressive Ares campers, Reyna remembered—"to hang upside-down from a tree and scream embarrassing facts about himself loudly enough for the whole camp to hear. I think you'll be okay."
"But . . ." Drew raised her voice, so that it sounded like what she said next was what they'd been discussing all along, not the lack of confidence she had in her ability. "Do you really expect me to charmspeak a pilot—and his or her copilot—for an entire transatlantic flight, and then some? That's hours of constant reassurances that they're not crazy for flying a bunch of teenagers to Europe without their parents' permission or at least a truckload of payment. I don't know if my charmspeak would be effective for that long or if the pilots would grow resistance to it and stop being influenced, and that would be a disaster. Or worse, say my charmspeak does work, but it muddles their brains so they can't fly the plane correctly, and we crash. That would be a literal disaster. Have you thought that out at all?"
"I have, actually," Nyssa said, "and I've come up with a solution. You won't have to charmspeak the pilot at all. I'll fly the plane."
Evidently, everyone thought Nyssa was joking. When she stood her ground, frowns, creased eyebrows, and then shouts of protest rippled through the crowd. "Talk about a suicide mission! You want us to put our lives in your hands? Over half of us don't even know you!"
Nyssa didn't bother waiting. She employed the foghorn several times, even after everyone quieted, just for effect. "I can fly this plane," she told them confidently. "It's been my dream my entire life to become a pilot as soon as I possibly could. The legal age for a private pilot's license is seventeen, which I turned months ago, so I've already been studying and practicing to take the piloting test for years and years. I'd have my license by now, but it takes a couple of weeks to drive out to the nearest airfield, fill out the necessary paperwork, take the written test, and perform the practical exam. At the time, the pressing deadline to build the Argo II seemed more important than a personal dream, so I put earning my pilot's license on hold." She rolled her eyes. "Maybe I should have done it so you guys wouldn't be freaking out so much now, but it's too late for regrets. This is all you really need to know: I'm fully qualified to fly a passenger jet, and a little trust and faith would be appreciated."
She stuck her chin up, daring anyone to question her. "Besides," she added with a crooked smile, "Leo once piloted a helicopter across California when he'd hardly even seen one before then. His success relied on instinct and his abilities as Hephaestus's son. If he could fly a helicopter without formal training, I think I'll be able to put years of experience to good use and pilot a plane." She raised her eyebrows. "Anyone else feel like objecting?"
For once, the lawn was silent. Reyna suppressed a smile as she watched Nyssa take charge. She never would have guessed she'd find a kindred spirit in the bandanna-wearing mechanic.
"Good," Nyssa said. "Then we can start laying out specifics and getting all of you working. After all, we have a lot to do before we leave camp tonight."
"Progress reports," Annabeth called out, and the demigods, plus one satyr, gathered around her. "Hazel, you found some of the massive weapons we thought had fallen overboard? That's a relief."
"They were wedged in a stall in the stables," Hazel informed her.
Annabeth rolled her eyes. "No surprise there," she said dryly. "At this point, Zeus's thunderbolt could appear in the dining room and it wouldn't faze me." She turned to the next demigod. "Nico, great job getting all the pieces of splintered wood out of the hold. I know that must have been a pain. The rest of you boys, the planks are looking good, but don't even think about complaining about the efficiency of your swords again. I honestly couldn't care less. Also, don't forget to leave one tree trunk whole for a mast. Percy, planning on cluing us into your adventures from earlier anytime soon?"
Percy smirked infuriatingly. "Not yet."
Annabeth didn't even bother trying to pry it out of him this time. She had no idea why he was being so secretive, but she knew he'd have to tell her eventually. In the meantime, she would just ignore him. "Piper, how are you doing?"
"I attempted to clean the bedrooms," Piper said, wrinkling her nose. "I'm not sure how well I succeeded, but that's due more to the boys' hygiene than any actual damage. Jason, I think the destructive dragon attack might have actually left your room cleaner than it was before."
"That's a lie!" Jason protested. "My room was spotless."
Piper flashed a grin. "Sorry, Annabeth," she said, pointedly ignoring Jason, "but I was just keeping things light. Anyway, I finished. We'll be able to sleep in actual beds tonight."
"Good to know," Annabeth said, already feeling her eyelids drooping from the all-nighter they'd pulled out of fear, worry, and adrenaline last night. She made a mental note to look for the ship's coffee maker as soon as their meeting was over. "All right, so Percy, Jason, Frank, and Coach Hedge, you can keep working on planks for the hull. Nico, Piper, and Hazel, it looks like you've finished with your first jobs, so next you can—"
Just then, the air between the demigods started to shimmer. When Nyssa showed up, a reflexive smile broke onto everyone's faces.
"Nyssa!" Piper said with relief. "Does this mean Leo's come back?"
Nyssa's mouth tightened before she spoke, which instantly made an alarm go off in Annabeth's head. Then Hephaestus's daughter's words increased Annabeth's foreboding even further. "I called to let you know that we'll be leaving tonight at six, which is about eight hours away," Nyssa told them. "That means we'll need the list of repair supplies at least a couple hours before then. Sorry to rush you, but Reyna said we couldn't waste any more time before we came and helped you out, with all the work you'll need us to do."
Nyssa's hard, purposeful, and yet somehow lifeless tone of voice physically hurt Annabeth to hear.
Jason frowned and voiced what they were all thinking, but were too afraid to say. "If Reyna had something to say to us, why didn't she IM us and say it? And why didn't you answer Piper's question?"
Nyssa pulled her bandanna off her head and used it to wipe some oil grease off her hands. It was a nervous—and slightly disgusting—habit Nyssa possessed that Annabeth had noticed after spending some time working with her on the Argo II. "Reyna said she couldn't IM you personally," Nyssa hedged, still avoiding Piper's question. "Something about a promise she made you guys last time that she didn't want to break."
Annabeth froze, remembering. "I'll Iris-message you guys again soon," Reyna had said. "And Leo will be with me next time."
Suddenly, Annabeth didn't need the coffee maker to stay awake any more. All her fear, worry, and adrenaline came rushing back.
Leo shivered, closed his eyes, and tried to block out the horrible noises around him—the wails and screeches of unimaginable creatures, a strange woosh-woosh noise that Leo couldn't name, the frantic thumps of his heart, and the pathetic whimpers Leo couldn't manage to suppress. He tried to console himself by remembering that Reyna had reached Camp Half-Blood in time, and she had looked like she was winning her legion over, but it never lasted. Instead he just kept remembering that the Argo II had crashed, and his friends were stranded, and he had no idea if any of them were injured or if they'd be able to fix the warship in time or if they were being attacked by hordes of monsters. Part of him knew that Gaea had told him about his friends with the express purpose of forcing as much anxiety on him as possible, but Leo couldn't help but be terrified. His friends had all come way too far to lose now, and he kept agonizing over the fact that if he were only clever enough to escape a second time, he could help them. He was the Argo II's repair boy, and from what Gaea had said, they needed a repair boy more than ever now. Leo didn't regret his decisions—replacing Percy and Annabeth in Tartarus was the right choice, and allowing Reyna to ride up in the helicopter first was the right choice, and covering up her escape instead of running away was the right choice—but that didn't stop him from feeling awful. If his friends didn't succeed, it would still be his fault. He was supposed to be the clever mechanic. He was supposed to be able to problem-solve and improvise his way out of any problem. But he couldn't see a way out of the Mansion of Night, and he certainly couldn't see a way out of Tartarus.
Suddenly, the woosh-woosh noise started to get louder. Leo still didn't know what it was, but when he realized it seemed to be getting closer, he decided it would be a good idea to get as far away from it as possible. He forced himself to his feet, kept his eyes squeezed shut, and sprinted off. As he ran, the images of the horrors he had seen earlier pushed into the front of his mind. At every sound, Leo was sure something unspeakable was slithering or crawling or creeping or loping or sliding beside him, and every time, his imagination conjured up something more terrifying than the time before. Leo just forced down his screams and kept running, refusing to open his eyes. He knew that whatever he came up with, reality would be worse. The things he had already seen confirmed that.
Leo's fear heightened his senses, attuning his hearing to the slightest noise. It ensured that he heard every possible nasty thing that could be heading his way, which was horrible, but it also ended up saving his life. He was able to hear the rushing water in time to stop just before he ran straight into it.
Of course, no river in Tartarus was just made of water. None of the horrors had followed Leo to the riverbank, which Leo figured probably wasn't a good sign, seeing as it meant that those terrifying monsters were even more terrified of the river. Just after that thought, the voices started, just like they had at the Cocytus, and for a split-second, Leo considered running back into the Mansion of Night, just to get away from them. Then their message took hold, and Leo forgot all about leaving. It was as if nothing existed except for him and the river.
You, Leo Valdez, are a murderer, one voice hissed. Murderer! Murderer! others cried in a chilling chorus. Burned your mother alive in a workshop fire! You think your mother would be proud of you now? How could she be proud? Her son is a murderer!
"No!" Leo yelled out loud. "I saved my camp! She would be proud!"
Murderer, murderer! How many monsters have you killed?
"That's not murder!" Leo argued. "Monsters regenerate! Besides, they were trying to murder me! It was self-defense!"
Murder, murder, murder, the voices taunted. Killed your mother. Killed the seven by getting captured down here. They'll never repair your precious warship without you. You know that, right? You've doomed them. They'll never even get to Athens. They're stranded. Gaea will send some forces, and they won't be able to take to the skies to defend themselves. Your friends won't even make it to August 1st.
"Annabeth is smart," Leo protested, but less certainly this time. They were only voicing his worst fears. "She'll figure out how to repair the Argo II. And anyway, Nyssa and Jake and my other siblings worked almost as hard on that ship as I did. They can help her too."
Your siblings? They scoffed. Your siblings are as doomed as the demigods of the prophecy. Reyna may have stopped the Romans from attacking them, but she only gained them a slight reprieve. Soon enough, Gaea's forces will descend upon Camp Half-Blood, and no demigod will be left, Greek or Roman. You think your siblings will help your friends? They will not even be able to help themselves.
"Stop! They'll be fine!"
They won't be fine. Not with the fates you have consigned them to. You have killed them, Leo Valdez. By being so entirely useless, you have killed them all. Your mother, dead because you tried to stand up to Gaea. Your prophecy friends, stranded, soon to be dead, because you tried to stand up to Gaea. Your friends in New York on the brink of extinction, also because you helped Reyna escape and therefore attempted to stand up to Gaea.
"I had to help Reyna escape! By doing so, I saved everyone! I didn't kill them!"
The voices ignored him. Face it, Leo Valdez. Your actions only get people hurt. Do the right thing. Give into Gaea's commands. Maybe by doing so, less people will get hurt.
"As if," Leo frowned. "Gaea will kill everyone anyway. Our only chance is to stand up to her."
You won't help her? the voices asked. Then you might as well die now. Jump into our river, the River of Punishment. Atone for your crimes. Atone for the murder of your mother, for the murders of the monsters you've killed, for the future murders of your friends and family. Swirl for all eternity in the river of murderers. You belong with us.
Leo took a step back. "No," he murmured. "I don't—I've been doing the right thing. I'm not a murderer. I don't belong with you. I have more important things to do than spend eternity as dirty creek water."
You will wish you joined us! The voices warned him, seeming to jeer as they spoke. When you have to witness the deaths of everyone you care about, you will wish you jumped into this river while it was easy. You will just end up here anyway, once Gaea sacrifices you, and the afterlife judges condemn you for bringing about the end of the world. Come now, before you cause even more damage.
"I . . . I can't," Leo managed. "She'll just choose a new sacrifice."
Go ahead, then. Continue to resist her. You are only causing yourself more pain. You are only setting yourself up for more torture. There was a pause, and then they started up again. You know you are a murderer, Leo Valdez. Come join us here in the river.
Finally, Leo couldn't take it anymore. "STOP!" he screamed. "I'm not a murderer, and I'm not going in there, and I'm not giving into Gaea! I'm not taking the easy way out! My friends are counting on me!"
Very well. Enjoy your misery.
And just like that, the river vanished, and Leo found himself back in the corner he'd just left, surrounded by indescribably awful things.
What the Styx had just happened? How could he have run so far and not moved at all?
Holy Hephaestus, was he going insane?
Annabeth wasn't sure how long they stayed clustered in shock on the deck after Nyssa disconnected, but to everyone's surprise, Coach Hedge was the one who eventually got them moving again. Nyssa had told them that Reyna had a plan to spring Leo on August 1st, when Gaea would finally have to bring him to the surface, and Coach Hedge reminded everyone that they wouldn't even be able to make it to Athens, let alone save Leo, in time if they didn't get the Argo II fixed quickly. At his words, Annabeth had roused herself enough to finish reassigning Nico's, Piper's, and Hazel's jobs, and everyone had dispersed to get working. Annabeth noticed expressions ranging from despair to fury on the rest of the demigods' faces, but as long as they didn't allow themselves to get bogged down in feelings, so they could keep working, Annabeth tried not to worry too much about their emotional states. Personally, Annabeth chose the temporary—but effective—tactic of avoidance. She couldn't save Leo now, so she shut off the part of her brain that was terrified for his safety, as well as the part that was guilty that he was stuck in Tartarus instead of her, and then she tucked all thoughts of Leo into the back of her mind, where she could worry about them later.
Instead, she focused on the task at hand—fixing Leo's warship. She'd been putting off one section of repairs because she thought Leo would arrive soon and do a better job than she could possibly manage, but if he wasn't coming, then she didn't have an excuse. Annabeth started to work on repairing the ship's wiring.
Annabeth had underestimated and under-reported the amount of damage the ship had undergone, that first night after she had crash-landed the Argo II. The network of wires that Festus controlled throughout the ship wasn't just disconnected, it was decimated. A fourth of the wires had been severed, a third had been frayed, another eighth seemed to have disappeared entirely, and whatever was left was flung all over the ship in disarray. Annabeth spent the first two hours cataloging the state of the wiring throughout the ship, taking special notes for missing or damaged wires and collecting any stray wiring she found. Of course, she couldn't even do that comprehensively because as detailed as Leo's notes had been, he obviously hadn't predicted damage of this scale. He hadn't bothered to list every wire in the ship, so Annabeth was forced to make educated guesses concerning many of the necessary repairs. By the time she got through the entire ship, she was frustrated and exhausted. Then she entered the engine room.
Thankfully, the engine itself didn't appear broken or damaged in any way, and as far as Annabeth could tell, none of the various gadgets that worked in tandem with the engine (including the precious Archimedes sphere) had been lost either. Unfortunately, that was where the good news ended.
The engine room had always been a tangled mess of wires and hardware, but there had been a method to Leo's madness. It may have looked disorganized, but all of those wires had connected the pieces of equipment in very specific ways, resulting in a cohesive, smoothly-running machine. Now at least half of those wires had been jostled loose.
As soon as Annabeth realized the extent of the damage, she leaned back against the wall and slid to the ground. She had helped with the engine room, sure, and so had Leo's siblings, but Leo had been the mastermind behind it all, and he hadn't had time to write an instruction manual. In addition to that, it had taken Leo months to puzzle out the perfect way to connect all of the engine room's components. How could Annabeth accomplish the same feat in eight days?
Percy found her in the same position half an hour later. "Hey, Annabeth," he greeted her nonchalantly, trying not to let his concern for her show on his face. He was shocked that she wasn't working diligently and worried that it meant she was taking Leo's recapture even harder than he was. And as much as he hid his anxiety from the rest of the crew—and he was hiding it because he knew repeating his last impromptu dip in the ocean would not boost morale—he was pretty freaking upset. "So . . . you were supposed to meet us upstairs for a progress check fifteen minutes ago. What are you doing sitting down he—?"
Just then, he noticed what Annabeth was staring at blankly. "Aw, schist," he muttered.
He hadn't meant for Annabeth to hear, but she did, and then whirled to face him. "Exactly!" she said, and he was glad to see she wasn't completely unresponsive. "That's exactly what all that is. A massive pile of schist. A dysfunctional mess of parts. And with my severely limited mechanical knowledge, that's pretty much all it's going to be. How the Hades am I supposed to fix damage this extreme?" She waved her arm vaguely at the room. "How am I ever going to get us flying again?"
Percy figured Annabeth probably hadn't meant for it to, but a little of her anxiety over Leo had crept into her already-anxious voice and expression, and Percy noticed how thinly veiled her frustration, anger, and even despair was. "Hey, it'll be okay," he reassured her, sitting down beside her and putting his arm around her shoulders. "You'll figure it all out. It doesn't have to be perfect."
"But that's the problem, Percy," Annabeth told him slightly hysterically. "If we can't get the hull repaired perfectly, it's okay because we can just make sure we repair the flight stabilizers well and then fly. If we can't get the flight stabilizers repaired perfectly, it's okay because we can just make sure the hull is reinforced, and then we can sail. But without the engine, we don't have anything. We can't sail or fly. Without the engine, we can't even get off this beach."
It was hard for Percy to remain optimistic when Annabeth was so worried, but he did his best. "You helped build this engine too," he reminded her. "You understand how it works—partially, at least," he added, before she could interrupt. "That's more than the rest of us can say. Besides, everyone will get here soon. Leo's siblings helped with this room too, and I'm sure your siblings will be able to offer some advice as well. Then we have the knowledge of all of the Vulcan children and legacies from Camp Jupiter to add to theirs. At the very least, you'll be able to put everything back together then."
Annabeth still looked unconvinced. Percy hugged her tighter. "You're the smartest girl I know, Annabeth," he told her. "If anyone can figure this mess out, you can." When Annabeth didn't answer him, Percy decided to change the subject. "Still, I don't think you're going to work on it much right now, so how about you take a break, and we go upstairs and meet the others? I have some things to tell all of you."
That got Annabeth's attention. "Things? What sorts of things?"
Percy got to his feet. "What you've been begging to find out, Annabeth," he said. "What I found yesterday." Even though Percy still felt frustrated and angry that he hadn't been able to save Leo from the horrible experience he was facing in Tartarus, Percy knew those emotions wouldn't make Annabeth feel any better. Instead, he looked at her and flashed a grin. "So are you coming, or should I leave you down here?"
Finally, a smile flickered onto Annabeth's face. It didn't stay, but seeing it for an instant was better than never seeing it at all. "Yeah, right," she said, standing up as well. "I've been waiting for you to explain yourself all day. If you thought I was going to let you off that easily, you must be a bigger Seaweed Brain than I thought."