Percy, Annabeth, Jason and their friends are copyright R. Riordan.

Yes, this is a continuation of Mark of Athena but it's also a bit of an experiment. Most of the scenes are already written and just need to be put in the right order. I wish I could hammer everything out for another month but something rather important is set to happen on October 8.

This contains spoilers for Mark of Athena and books preceding. Because I have not read House of Hades yet, nothing in here can be called a spoiler, but I might have guessed correctly in a few places. One plot element is based the cover art. You do not need to read "Next of Kin" to understand this story.

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An undulating green light filled the corridor, blazing and dying against what remained of the shell-studded walls. Greek fire. Greek fire and a lot of it. He'd been here before.

Ahead of him, he saw a woman with flowing dark hair and a funny looking crown or tiara. Her feet touched the floor lightly, anchored by the weight of her pearl-embossed armor, but from the way she moved, he could tell she was underwater. Weirder, she didn't seem to stay a woman. Sometimes she appeared to have a rippling octopus body or even the elegant, knifelike tail of a massive eel. This was an immortal who was making no effort to hold on to one visible form. What had his father said that time? He reflected the state of his realm? Wherever this woman belonged, it had downed three triple-caffeinated Big Gulps, stayed up for three nights straight and then read some angry Internet threads.

As his head cleared, she turned around, and he could see that her crown was actually two funny horns like lobster claws. Percy nearly jumped as he recognized her. Somehow, her eyes managed to blaze despite being black as basalt. She was Amphitrite. And she was pissed.

"You said you would never bring any of them here. You said I would never have to look at them."

He turned to see who she was talking to, then felt his throat tighten. Poseidon was worn to the bone. His armor hung off him like a hermit crab's shed skin, and his wrists were thin and bent where they grasped the shaft of his trident.

"It was an emergency, my love. He was injured, and I needed to hear what he had to say for the war effort. I could not leave, so I brought him here."

Amphitrite leaned back, hands on her hips. Weird as it was, Percy recognized that look as the same one his mom had always given Gabe Ugiliano whenever he was lying his ass off. Gabe usually lasted about thirty seconds before either trying to change the subject or coming up with a more convincing story. Poseidon beat Gabe's record by a good minute.

"I wanted you to see him," he admitted.

"Why?"

"I had to know ...if I was imagining something."

"You had to know if you were imagining something," she repeated in a pitch-perfect I-am-not-buying-this that would have made any born Manhattanite proud.

There was a sound outside, and Poseidon's bony fingers tightened around his trident. He turned toward the noise, fixing the ravening sea serpent with eyes sharper than a knife. The water around the trident's tines boiled and a thick, angry humming shook the shaft. Amphitrite moved with a practiced grace, placing her hand on her husband's shoulder with a look of intense concentration, and Percy knew that she was adding her power to his own. He had a sudden flashback to Hazel following his lead as they'd fought back-to-back during the invasion of New Rome. They'd needed no words. There was a blaze of green energy interspersed with dark threads, like a tornado studded with flint shards, and soon the serpent was nothing but shreds of scale and gristle settling to the sea floor.

Amphitrite stepped away, and the two resumed their argument as if nothing had happened.

"When you met him, what did you see?" asked Poseidon.

She shot Poseidon a look that should have speared him straight into the wall. Anyone but a god would have cowered like a scared guinea pig. Even though he'd figured out it was a dream, Percy suddenly wasn't feeling invisible enough.

"Another of your bastards, my lord, and another broken promise," she answered pointedly. "Have you any further indignities before I return to the battle?"

Poseidon stared at her silently for a moment and then raised his chin in what must have been a dismissal, because Amphitrite lifted her own weapon and hurried away, seeming to be a woman with a harpoon, a mermaid with a spear, a thresher shark with a lashing tail. For the moment, there was no one to see him, and Poseidon closed his eyes, looking wearier than Percy had ever seen him. Somehow, his father had lost something, and Percy didn't think it was the war.

Poseidon's face was unreadable when he opened his eyes. He pulled in a breath and let out a defeated whisper, saying the name—

"Percy, wake up!"

And as his eyes opened and consciousness flooded back, he realized that not all of the crushing doom that had permeated his memory had come from the betrayal in Amphitrite's eyes or the fact that his dad had looked like he'd gone twelve rounds with Aqua-Rocky.

Percy almost choked on the air. Every breath seemed to suck at him from the inside, pulling on his will, his identity. A moment of panic, muskeg panic, stiffened his muscles as he realized he couldn't move his arms.

Annabeth was practically on top of him, Riptide braced in both hands as she sawed hard at something pale and giving. "Is that spider silk?" he asked, but it was wrong. Even in his head, it sounded wrong.

"Cushioned our fall," she said quickly, but the words felt off, like a stranger's hands. Percy blinked and saw that she looked wrong. She was Annabeth and everything in his head told him that she should look familiar.

He didn't have time to wonder, hearing a noise off to the side. The voice sent a chill through his already cryogenic bones. You will come too, it had said, only now it was screaming. At first he couldn't make out what was happening. At first it looked like a woman riding a round ball studded with spikes. As his eyes adjusted, he saw she was waving her arms around as something lunged at her from the shadows, something that seemed to be made of teeth. And there was more than one of them.

One of the shadow-mouths clamped down on Arachne's fourth leg and there was a sound like a buffetgoer sucking the meat out of a crab leg. Arachne shrieked and beat at it with her human arms until another one, with the spiked feet of a grasshopper and a round mouth like a lamprey met her left arm with a hideous squelching sound.

"I will suffocate you in webs and feed you to my children!" Arachne threw back her head cried out. "I will weave a tapestry to commemorate your demise. I will spin your shroud!" Her voice broke on a sob as something with claws hooked into one side of her face. "My children! Where are you?"

"Annabeth, what are those?" he said.

"I... I'll have you free in a minute," Annabeth whispered.

Percy looked at her carefully. Gray eyes, blond hair, but...

This was a trick. He was sure of it. He was in Tartarus and this was a trick.

"Hold still or I'll cut your hands off," she said.

He leaned toward her, eyes on Riptide. Whatever this thing had done with the real Annabeth, it was cutting him free. He could grab the sword and turn it to dust in five, four, three...

It stopped moving. Turned its head toward his face. Imitation human eyes, empty as the pit, watched him as if wondering which part to eat first. It was as hungry as those things in the dark and Percy knew down in his guts that Annabeth was trussed up in some cave thinking that he would never find her in time.

Its free hand reached toward him as if to pull his soul from his body, and Percy flinched back as fingers as cold as the Styx clamped down on his cheek.

Dirt and calluses. Nails and a pulse. This was the hand he'd held a hundred times (and had smacked him a hundred more times than he'd deserved). When he looked back at her, she hadn't changed. Not a hair of the way she looked had changed, but the meaning was back. He could see fear and hope fighting each other in eyes that were definitely her eyes.

He realized that she knew. She knew what he'd thought and what he'd been going to do about it.

She licked her lip. "Better now?"

"Yes."

"I have to let go to cut you loose."

He nodded. She went back to work on the web strings, and it was as if a film fell over his eyes. She seemed like a copy of herself, weak and warped and poisonous. It's only a trick, Percy told himself as she freed his leg. Annabeth breathed in through her mouth, the tip of one canine showing like a fang.

He tried to shake it off, instead watching Arachne. She was still moving, but he could only tell because of the way the mass of predators around her bunched and recoiled.

"Why are they attacking her?" he asked. Arachne was one of Gaea's crew. She'd hidden the Parthenos and tried to kill Annabeth. She should have gotten a hero's welcome.

"She was human," Annabeth said quickly. "She still has a mortal soul and..." Annabeth breathed in as if the words were hurting her. "It's an artist's soul. She's capable of great beauty, great patience. I think they want to destroy that," Annabeth said with almost no sound, answering the question in his mind.

"But then why did they—behind you." Annabeth whirled, bringing Riptide up just in time to stop a rough-scaled creature with a single long, clawed foreleg from latching on to her neck from behind. It was a direct hit, but it only bounced off the edge of the blade, making a sound like a giant cockroach. The creature rose to its stunted hind feet and made toward them again. Percy yanked at the web behind him and felt it give partway around his left arm. He wasn't sure what he meant to do but he wasn't going to let these two chunks of evil duke it out. He shook himself. One chunk of evil and Annabeth.

Annabeth turned quickly, slicing through the last of the web strands. Percy snatched Riptide out of her hands and brought it down on the beast just as it lunched toward her again. It bounced off again with no damage. Percy swallowed. Arachne's screams had given way to muffled groaning. He didn't want to know what would happen when the rest of the pack got bored.

"Percy," Annabeth murmured, touching his arm so that the words were more than noise. "The doors. We have to get to the doors of death and..."

And they had to be strong enough to actually make a difference once they got there. And they had no food, no help, no idea where to go and only one weapon between them, which wasn't doing much good anyway.

Their eyes met in a moment of perfect understanding. They ran.

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"You knew." The voice was smooth and heavy as a sandbar.

A man turned around and smiled. "Actually I didn't," he said. The face was familiar, and the short black beard, but the statue in Cabin One hadn't shown the elegant smirk in those electric blue eyes.

The air cleared and he could tell that they were in the grandest room he'd ever seen, but the place looked a bit scattered. There was a scaffold against one wall, and several cyclops-sized tools were stacked neatly in the corner. It was hard to tell the time of day this high up, but judging from the light, it might have been the repair crew's lunch break. Zeus had been adjusting the armrest of his refurbished throne, moving an elegant crescent that looked like it was meant as a holder for something heavy. The other man had the same black hair, but his skin was tanner. He looked a bit wilder. And he was holding back anger like a sea wall held back the tide.

"I was as surprised as you were, Poseidon," Zeus admitted. "But it had been a very busy day. Some of us had been fighting Typhon since the Pacific Northwest, and he gets distracting after the first few time zones. That doesn't leave me much energy to wonder about how my brother's children might react to a three-day battle against the Titans."

He watched Poseidon's eyes narrow. The sea god seemed to look straight into Zeus, but instead of organs and bones and nerves, there was courage, ego and craftiness, all slipping against each other like tongues of the same fire. The patterns moved quickly, but it was like Latin. He knew the language without being taught, and what it said was—

"Stop that," Zeus said darkly. "Don't come accusing me and then try to read my soul without my permission. You're not even good at it."

"You're lying," Poseidon said simply.

Zeus held Poseidon's gaze and it was clear why he was king over his two older brothers. Poseidon was powerful, but there was something unstoppable in Zeus' will. Best and greatest. He was not beaten, could not be beaten. He answered because he'd decided to answer.

"I suspected," he admitted. "I didn't know your son would refuse and I would have kept my word if he hadn't. But it truly worked out for the best. If we were going to have a new god, we'd be better off with Athena's girl, set her up as a goddess of builders or the like. It sounds as though she did as much of the work as Perseus did anyway."

"Then why the subterfuge?"

"There was none. Your son was worthy and I rewarded him."

"You practically dared him not to take godhood."

"I didn't need to," Zeus said flatly. The sky god showed a half-suppressed grin, and he could believe he was Athena's only parent. He loved letting people know he knew something they didn't. "He won that battle—survived that battle because he had the blessing of the River Styx, a force so powerful that even its name cannot be broken." He laced his fingers together as if addressing a child. "And what did he need to survive the Styx?"

Poseidon's lips parted. "His connection to mortality."

Zeus nodded. "You're catching on. No one who wasn't profoundly attached to the human condition could have defended Manhattan, at least not the way he managed it. Someone like that does not leave mortality behind lightly." Zeus settled something in the armrest socket. It looked like a metal cylinder with caps on both ends, and it seemed to thrum with energy. "It came back to bite me, if that makes you feel any better. I thought would use his reward undo the damage to his human city." Well that had been a bit short-sighted. Why would someone like Percy waste his one wish asking the gods to do something that people could do for themselves?

"He spent his reward on something that he'd been conditioned to want, not on something that he should have realized was better. Takes after his sire, I suppose."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm saying that your boy thinks like a mortal. They know they're doomed, so they try to find ways to continue to affect the world after they die. For some of them it's having children or conquering empires. For others it's building monuments." He looked out the window to a new statue of Ares, still covered in scaffolding. "And the thing Perseus asked for..." Zeus twisted his lip and trailed off. From what he'd heard, there had been many choices made the day Kronos had attacked Manhattan. Luke Castellan's choice might have been the one foretold in the prophecy, but Percy's would preserve Olympus as well; he'd set it on a path that would make it stronger and more lasting than ever before. And Zeus would never, ever forgive him for it.

Poseidon shook his head. "I may be slower than you are, but I've known you a very long time. You set this up. You were supposed to offer him godhood flat out, not this one-wish nonsense. You manipulated him into giving the answer you wanted."

"I allowed him to choose his own fate," Zeus countered. "That's what these modern humans of ours want, isn't it? It seems an eternity with his father wasn't worth as much to him as a few paltry years with a scrawny blonde."

Poseidon had gone perfectly still. The air around him seemed to tighten as he stared Zeus down.

"You knew what this was to me," he said.

"Stop it, Poseidon. If you wanted this so badly, you could have ordered it."

"I can't order my son to—"

"Yes you can," Zeus said, fixing him with suddenly storm-black eyes. "You tell him, 'I am your father and you will do as I say. Now step into the coals and try not to whimper as Hestia burns off your mortality.' For all his impudence, he does as he's told when you spell it out for him. But then of course you'd have to deal with him long-term. They're easier to love when they're only aboveground for sixty years. Trust me."

Poseidon's eyes flashed hurricane-green, and there was a heavy, rock-based rumbling, darker and deeper than thunder. The mountain shook, and a chunk of cornicing fell off the door and shattered on the marble flagstones.

"It's all right. I'll have the girl fix that." Zeus answered, still readjusting his armrest. "Probably install an ice machine in the antechamber while she's at it," he muttered. "We could use one of those."

Jason woke up staring at the planks of the low ceiling above his bunk. He swung his feet to the floor without lingering.

"I think I like you more as Jupiter, Dad," said Jason as he raked his fingers through his hair. The dream had felt real, and it didn't contradict what Annabeth and Chiron had told him about the Battle of Manhattan, but you couldn't take anything for granted in the ancient lands.

Piper was already on deck when Jason got there. The early morning sunlight glittered across Katoptris, showing Rayna still awake at midnight, sharpening her bronze knife the way she always did when she was thinking.

"The closer we get to Greece, the clearer the images are," Piper said softly. "Or maybe it's that we have the Parthenos on board. Sometimes I can almost hear what people are saying. But I can't find them."

Jason squeezed her arm gently. "We'll find a way," he said. The attack on the doors had to be coordinated so that the two armies couldn't help each other. And so Percy and Annabeth would have friends waiting when they escaped from Tartarus.

There was a rustle of paper in the headwinds. Behind them, Nico was rolling out the map that he'd found in Annabeth's cabin. Officially, Nico didn't have a spot on the informal work schedule, but there was an unspoken consensus that he'd contribute as much as he could as soon as he could.

"The temple to Hades and Persephone was in Epirus," he said, voice still hollow. "That's in Albania now. Well, parts of it are."

"Can you find it?" asked Jason.

Nico looked up at him. His eyes were dead, but he had the same way about him as always, sizing things up as if Jason were some exotic plant, and Nico was guessing how much time was left until he could be harvested. Nico looked back at his map and, almost sadly, nodded. "Yes."

Lupa's training had come in handy since Nico had shown up at Camp Jupiter, ambassadors' credentials in hand. Jason always got the feeling that Nico knew something he didn't, something that he wouldn't want to know. It wasn't that Nico was powerful, exactly. Jason had looked on Hera's real form and lived through it. He'd figured out that probably meant he was closer to what the gods were than most half-humans, but he always got the feeling that Nico would know what to do with that kind of power, that he would channel it straight to an edge if he had it himself.

And Jason got another feeling that Nico not having that kind of power was a very good thing.

Piper looked back to Katoptris. Rayna had disappeared, and Jason could only see reflected clouds.

"Do you ever get angry?" Piper asked. "At your father."

"No," Jason answered immediately. "Sometimes I feel... Not angry, no."

Piper got quiet, and Jason tried not to show how uncomfortable he felt. "Maybe the kids like Leo and Thalia have something to be angry about," he admitted, "but my father gave me to Juno and Lupa." And from what Thalia had told him about their mother, getting brought up by wolves was dodging a bullet. "Jupiter sent me somewhere that was... well it wasn't safe but it was good. Rome raised me."

"But he didn't do it himself."

"No, I guess he didn't," Jason said carefully. He knew this was a sore spot for Piper, and he didn't want to make it sound like he thought she was upset over nothing. "Maybe it's that I always had the legion."

Katoptris cleared, showing a tree with a shining fleece in its branches. Clarisse and Nyssa stood over kids in orange shirts as they built earthworks. Jason exhaled slowly. Those defenses wouldn't last long against troops who were used to Roman engineering.

Jason closed his eyes. People kept saying that Percy always put his friends ahead of his mission, but that hadn't seemed true. He'd let Annabeth follow the Mark of Athena alone. He'd let Frank and Hazel take on Alcyoneus without him. But could he have done this? Could he stay away when his home was threatened, trust Clarisse and the others to get the job done without him?

Jason knew the danger. In New Rome and Old, it was dangerous to stay away too long, to let someone else control the narrative. Julius Caesar and Marc Antony had both spent years in the east, lost their Roman reputations and been destroyed.

He looked over at Piper. People blamed Cleopatra for corrupting Antony, but he'd been the instrument of her downfall as much as she'd been his. Her death had been the end of the Greek age, and Olympus had moved from Alexandria to Rome.

First the mission. Then I stop my friends from killing each other.

Jason told the others about his dream later that morning. He tried not to editorialize too much, but the vision had been ...unsettling. Thing was, he couldn't really point to anything that Zeus had done wrong. Zeus had given Percy the chance to choose his own fate. He would have kept his word. Zeus was crafty and sneaky and not too good to pull a fast one to get what he wanted; everyone knew that, but he was also Jupiter, so he was just.

Zues and Poseidon had sniped at each other like teenagers. Jason had been raised Roman, and seeing grown men—gods, whatever—getting emotional made him uncomfortable. Then there was the rest of Poseidon's reaction.

"Why would you see this now?" asked Piper. "Annabeth said that she finished that Ares statue months ago, before we even came to camp."

"Yeah, it's hard to figure out what we're supposed to get from this," said Leo. "That Zeus likes outsmarting other gods? We already knew that."

Jason nodded in agreement. "The only mystery is Poseidon."

"What do you mean?" asked Leo.

"'You knew what this was to me,'" Jason repeated. "What's that supposed to be about?"

Nico, who'd been staring into space where he sat leaning against the mast, slowly sat forward.

"Well... he wanted his kid to be a god," said Frank.

"Yeah, maybe," Jason conceded, "but the point of having a mortal agent is to do things that the gods are not permitted to do themselves. Poseidon doesn't have any other champions. If Percy stops being mortal, then he couldn't..." Jason suddenly faced five sets of empty stares. "What?" he asked.

"Your memory acting up again, Jason?" Leo asked carefully. "There was this whole part with the jumping waves and pretty much the whole Mediterranean freaking out."

"Yes, Neptune was angry that Percy was pulled into Tartarus."

Hazel looked straight at Jason and slowly shook her head.

"All right," said Jason, folding his arms. "Are any of you going to tell me what I'm missing?" he asked. "Look, I'm not saying that Poseidon couldn't also be upset for personal reasons," Jason said. "I'm saying it didn't feel like this was a normal father-and-son thing."

"In this family? Fat chance of that," Leo said through a chuckle.

"You guys didn't hear him," protested Jason. "Zeus tricking Percy out of godhood wasn't just about Percy. Something else is going on."

"Hey, uh, how many god-level sons does Zeus have?" asked Leo. "Big gods. There's my dad, Hermes, Dionysus... Eight?"

"How do you figure that?" asked Hazel.

"I'm counting Artemis as one and Athena's probably good for two," Leo finished, breaking the tension perfectly. Even Piper laughed. "Poseidon's got Triton, and I guess he's at least as big a deal as Hercules, but except for Demeter and Hades everyone else on the council is either Zeus's wife or kid. Maybe he thought Percy'd make the grade one day. Maybe he thought it would nudge the scales."

Jason wasn't sure about that. It was hard to see a guy with bed hair and cream cheese on his shirt and then think of him becoming a major deity. But then, Bacchus had done it.

"Annabeth said that Percy and his father were close. All that stuff with the waves felt personal," said Hazel. "Frank's right. Poseidon probably just didn't want Percy to end up in the Underworld."

"But Jason's right too," added Frank. "It doesn't meant that Zeus wasn't also trying to pull a fast one."

"There's more to this," said Jason. "I'm sure this is important."

They broke up, Leo taking the wheel. Jason felt hopeful now. Maybe that was why Jupiter had sent him that dream. It had given them a mystery, something to think about that wasn't impossible. And it had shown Jason something important: They were looking to him now. He'd moved the conversation one way, and they'd followed, like wolves in a pack. Leo had been the perfect omega wolf, instigating play, stopping a fight before it became a fight. Losing Percy and Annabeth had made this a different team, but it was one that Jason could lead if he stepped up.

It had shown him something else as well. Nico, the only person present who'd ever spoken to Poseidon directly, who'd seen him and Percy together, hadn't said a word.

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Once the sounds of Arachne dying had faded away, there hadn't been any way to tell where they were going. The ground had sucked at their feet like sand. Worse was the way this place seemed to pull at his head. Thinking was like swimming through tar. The touch of the air felt like a million tiny leeches swimming over him, looking for just the right place to each suck out a piece of his life.

Every now and then, Annabeth would run a hand over her hair, her clothes, his arms, and pull off another chunk of Arachne's silk, throwing it away with a shudder. It was the thick, cable-like stuff she'd used to tie down the Athena Parthenos and drag the two of them after her. Annabeth threw them outside the circle of light with a shudder. Percy raked the fingers of his free hand through his hair and came away with a handful of slightly sticky white thread. He dropped it in the sand and watched the grains move away from it like they were magnetized. Weird. This wasn't even the grossest part of Arachne, and monsters had gone for the rest of her fast enough.

They'd learned not to talk to each other. Every word felt like a piece of himself flaking off into the rift. They were quiet but they weren't lonely. They'd stopped going unnoticed.

The first one was about the size of a Labrador. It leaped in and then out of the dim light cast by Riptide in two perfect arcs, like the ten million camel crickets that had infested the Montauk rental house when he was eight. Percy could hear it chittering in the dark, see the barest hint of a gleam off what turned out to be a set of stepped mandibles, as if it couldn't decide if it were a giant ant, a giant centipede or a giant grasshopper and had gone for all three. Percy could hear clawed feet shifting in the dust, and then it launched itself toward him with no warning.

He sidestepped and slashed, costing it a side leg, but Riptide was no better than any other chunk of metal. The monster didn't even seem to notice, extending three and a half tattered wings too small for its body, whirling back to take a bite out of his free arm. It burned like battery acid, but it only made the thing easier to hit. With the first strike, it let go of Percy's arm. With the second, it lost half a mandible.

But it still wouldn't die. An animal would have been paralyzed. A monster would have dissolved. Maybe an insect brain couldn't get rattled. Maybe it couldn't get scared or feel doubt pressing down on it like a million pages of expulsion letters and abandoned friends. Maybe that was why it could exist here. Eventually, they broke enough of its legs so it couldn't move faster than they did. Annabeth picked up one cut limb, swinging it like a golf club from one hand like an empousa gone mad until she dropped the gross thing and touched his arm. Then he realized she'd hoped to use it as a weapon, but it was ...too heavy? Too light? Too evil?

He felt spent. He felt like the act of wondering how this monster worked and thought had burned up a layer of skin outside his brain.

The second sound was a hungry, snuffling growl, as if someone with the underworld's worst cold were giggling at a car wreck. A thicket-furred beast with five legs like stilts and a lower jaw too big for its head crouched like an eager cat and then sprang forward. But its feet were angled funny, and it had a thick, vulnerable neck. Percy passed Riptide to Annabeth and held on like it was Nereus, pressing its throat into his elbow joint, hoping it had a throat, as she struck at its feet and sides.

He'd figured out that it wouldn't be able to reach him with its feet if he stayed on his back, and part of him had to flicker out and die to do it. Percy had enough energy left to wonder what in Tartarus these monsters were. Then Tartarus obliged him.

The third one almost took Percy's head off. Annabeth ducked, pulling him down with her into the ankle-deep dust that rose in drifts around them. He heard the rush of stale air as he uncapped Riptide and saw the creature bank awkwardly. It had one batlike wing the size of an infantry shield and two on its other side no bigger than an Alaskan raven's. It turned as Percy rolled to his feet, letting go of Annabeth as he did.

The creature came at him, springing open a giant mouth like an umbrella full of mismatched teeth, all canines and molars and fangs. Percy thrust with Riptide, feeling what he hoped was its shoulder bone crunch as he followed through. He looked up in time to see Annabeth whirl her good leg and land a downward kick between its wings, wincing as her weight landed on her injured foot. The creature scrabbled on its belly, clawing at the sand with four clawed feet. Percy recovered and swung Riptide point-first into the back of its neck, putting all his weight behind the blow. Annabeth rushed toward him, doubling her hands on top of his on the sword hilt until they felt the flesh beneath give way.

This thing just snarled. Percy pulled the blade loose and cut what he guessed were the tendons in its wings. He pulled Annabeth by the arm and started to move away before it could follow them, when the sounds coming from its throat changed. It hadn't been scared with a sword through its spine, but now it sounded like Arachne. Annabeth gave his arm a little jerk and pointed at Riptide with her chin. Carefully, one foot at a time, Percy held up the blade so that its shed their only light on the thing that had tried to kill them.

Even though he hadn't eaten since before the nymphaeum, Percy had to fight to keep his stomach down.

It was like ants swarming over a dead dog, but worse.

It wasn't sand. They'd been slogging through monster dust. Except there was no malice, no hissing crossflow that promised resurrection and revenge. The pieces that were touching the crippled monster seemed to suck the color and mobility out of it, turning it to a mummified hulk. But even a few inches away, the dust didn't seem to know there was anything there. Instead of re-forming into a gorgon or basilisk, the grains were all shifting and cringing in a hundred directions. Back in biology class, they'd made him look at different kinds of bacteria under a microscope, and these reminded him of the ones that didn't have any little tail whips or cell-oars. They were alive, but they couldn't move on their own, just drift as the world vibrated when some big jerk shook the Petri dish. Somewhere in his guts he knew that this was what happened to beasts who surrendered to the pit or had been defeated by it. That was why the gods had imprisoned Kronos here. He'd been cut into a million pieces, separated even from himself.

That was what it felt like in his head, like his thoughts were losing their oars. Thinking was starting to feel like pushing through tar. He never thought he'd feel sorry for monsters.

Then he realized that they were both breathing them in.

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"What do you know?" Jason asked quietly.

Nico didn't look up from his maps. They'd been at sea and it had been a long day, long and eventful. For Nico, most of that had meant searching Albania for their goal.

"This could be important," Jason said, sinking down onto the deck. "My dream showed me a dispute between Zeus and Poseidon over Percy becoming a god. This is about the fight with the giants, isn't it? Something about one of the gods who's going to fight with us. It's someone who used to be human."

Piper had just finished her turn at the wheel. "Like Hercules?" she asked. From the look on her face, it was clear what she thought of that idea.

"Or Psyche," said Jason. After all, it didn't have to be a major god. Anyone tough enough to tap a giant on the nose with a thyrsus would do. Though if Pelorus was as tough as they said in the ancient stories, maybe it was worth putting up with Hercules's big pile of crazy.

"Could be," Nico said, though Jason could tell he didn't really believe it, "but maybe that's not the part of the dream that's important. Maybe that's not what your dream trying to warn you about."

He was talking into the floor, but he was talking. "What else could it have been?" Jason asked. So there was a dispute between Poseidon and Zeus. That was nothing new.

"Hey guys," said Leo. He crouched down without preamble. "I've been thinking. If Jason can dream what happened in Olympus last summer, do you think Annabeth or Percy might get a message out?"

Nico shook his head. "No dreams."

Jason looked over, "You can't dream in Tartarus?" he asked. He'd heard somewhere that if you couldn't dream, you'd die in a couple of days.

"You can dream in Tartarus," said Nico, "but it slips in. Pushes you in strange directions. I was able to keep from losing myself, barely."

"Okay, so they'll just—"

Nico held up both hands. Jason saw the fingers twitch. It might be a while before Nico could be trusted with a sword.

"I was a prisoner when I was in the pit, a valuable prisoner," Nico said. He looked from one blank face to another. "The giants wanted me to make it through the Doors in one piece. They sealed me in that jar and that kept the ...things away." Nico tucked his arms around his chest and Jason wondered if the bronze of Nico's prison had always been unwelcome. And why there was something in the underworld that Nico didn't have a word for.

"You're saying that Percy and Annabeth won't be able to stop," Jason realized aloud. "They won't be able to sleep."

"They'll have to fight until they escape or die," Nico said. He twisted and glared at Leo. " You can live for a couple of days without water and couple more without sleep. That is why I keep saying 'hurry up.'"

"Percy could find water," Leo supplied hopefully.

"And Annabeth will find a way," said Piper. "She always does."

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.

.

Whatever this thing was, it had long legs like stilts, and it had died standing up. Percy touched one massive leg with the point of Riptide, hearing it scrape against bare bone. The sand scavengers had hollowed out all the parts they could reach. Percy leaned his head all the way back and blinked at the body's meatier bits. In this light, he couldn't tell whether this thing had been a dragon or just a really big dog.

He looked at Annabeth. You sure about this? he asked with his eyes, but it didn't make any difference. Being silent didn't help.

Annabeth braced one foot between the two lower leg bones and pushed herself up. The skeleton creaked but didn't fall. She climbed higher, her fingers seeming like claws in the shadows.

"Ribs?" Percy asked carefully.

He saw her shake her head. "Skull. Sphenoid's fallen."

He couldn't have heard that right. Sfee-noid? It wasn't much harder than the climbing wall at camp, but the climbing wall was sturdy enough that two teenagers could get to the top without almost knocking it over. The hard part was that to move in tandem, they'd had to let go. Annabeth looked like a gremlin as she climbed, like a demon.

Some of the neck bones had cracked or given way, letting the head settle onto the body. They climbed in through the mouth. It should have smelled a lot worse than it did. The dryness down here must've turned it into monster jerky instead of monster worm food. Maybe air didn't work the same way down here. The point was that it smelled more than bad enough, and it was up out of the dust.

It was a tight fit. They twisted for a good three minutes before Percy realized that she wanted him to lie down. He shook his head. "You first." Now that he could see her properly again, she looked so tired. She was the one with broken bones. She was the one who'd been chased through Rome's intestines by an insane spider queen.

Annabeth touched the side of his head, right at the temple. "Empathy link," she told him. Then she squeezed her eyes shut, like she had brainfreeze. It had probably hurt to get that much of an idea out.

Percy wanted to argue that Grover Underwood wasn't with their friends on the Argo II, but then, Grover was a lot closer than they were. A game of dream-message telephone was better than no phone at all. She was right. She was always right. He put Riptide in her hands.

He tried to move so that his head would be at least a little higher than his feet, but she wouldn't get out of the way. Eventually, she rolled her eyes and tugged on his shoulders. He lost his balance and the whole structure gave a sickening creak, but he landed with his head against one of her crossed legs. He figured out that she expected him to fall asleep with his head almost—okay with his head actually in her lap. It was so discordantly normal that he gave a stunted half-snort of a laugh.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"Your mom would throw me in Tartarus."

She tapped him hard on the forehead.

"Ow."

Percy made himself breathe evenly. It was hard to concentrate when her hands were making his scalp tingle, but he didn't want to tell her to stop. He tried to pretend they were back in the stables. He tried to pretend that they were around a campfire on some normal quest when their enemies only wanted to kill them.

As he slipped away, he remembered that his dreams were usually anything but restful even in the normal world. He went under ready for something crushing.

He could hear music. It pushed away the hunger in his stomach, the despair clawing at his skin. It was simply the best thing he'd ever heard, and he'd heard it before.

Olympus. There was a party going on. And over to the left of the stage...

"Dad!" Percy called out before he could stop himself.

When Annabeth had told him about her meeting with Minerva, Percy had felt as if someone had pushed little bits of ice into his guts. He'd kept his worries to himself. He hadn't wanted to make her feel worse. But Poseidon was here, and he was fine.

Poseidon hung back as the muses played, watching someone dance—or more accurately, watched someone do a jerky, adolescent version of what he probably thought was dancing—with a mortal girl with blond hair. Percy felt his arms sink down to his sides. That was him. He was younger and skinnier and still wore those dorktacular middle school jeans, but it was definitely him. He and Annabeth were both a little the worse for wear, matching gray streaks on their heads, but they were happy. Percy remembered it perfectly. The danger was over. The bad guy was defeated, and no one wanted to blast them into moonbeams. They were safe.

Percy stepped back, realizing that everyone was dressed for winter and that he couldn't see any of Annabeths' new buildings. That statue of Hera that had smashed Thalia's fibulas during the battle of Manhattan was still standing.

This wasn't a message. It was a memory.

Past-Percy stepped on Annabeth's foot and Percy and Poseidon winced at the same time. Percy made a mental note to either learn to dance or never do it in public again, ever.

So this was a nice break from being trapped in Tartarus, but it wasn't clear how it was helpful. Beyond that, he felt a little annoyed. He liked to think that his dad didn't spend more time with him because he had super-important god stuff to do. Didn't he get enough of just watching when they weren't within speaking distance?

Poseidon regarded Percy and Annabeth for a moment. "Well she seems reasonably—"

"No," said a cold, female voice at his elbow.

"You haven't heard what I was going to say," Poseidon answered with amusement.

"No." Percy watched Athena fold her arms across her chest.

Poseidon turned toward her. "Is this about his GPA? You pay too much attention to those things." Percy stiffened. Had Poseidon been getting his report cards? Shit. Also, where was this going because it sounded weirder than usual.

Athena looked at him as if he were a fascinating new microbe that she'd never seen before. "Why do you bother thinking about his future?" she asked.

Poseidon's face suddenly got a lot harder to read. "Zeus's girl could change her mind," he said, "break her vows."

Percy updated his weirder-than-usual threshold. It was no secret that Poseidon had always known about the prophecy, but hearing him and Athena talk about it like it was a dip in the stock market was definitely not fun.

Athena smiled with more pride than pity. "I know a few things about the daughters of Zeus, Poseidon. But let's say she isn't steadfast. Then what?" She looked behind her toward the thrones, where Zeus was eying a few of the dancers too approvingly for Hera's taste. "Thalia has a score to settle. Percy could stand to learn some respect, but he doesn't hate us."

Poseidon eyed Athena cautiously. "I suppose he doesn't," he answered. "Still, a lot can happen in two years."

"Don't try to make it overlook him," Athena continued. "The boy Hades tried to hide from us in Nevada would be worse than Thalia. He..." she paused. "He has legitimate grievances."

"That may be, but he doesn't know what they are."

Percy's brain was still catching up to what Athena had said. Had his dad thought about stuffing him in Ogygia or someplace until Nico turned sixteen? That was ...creepy and touching at the same time. He almost missed it when Poseidon continued with, "Besides, he's not necessarily next in line."

Athena fixed him with a stare. "You know that wouldn't be good for us," she insisted.

Percy suddenly realized what they were talking about. He'd spent two years thinking that he'd better not croak because the free world did not need Nico the amazing ticking timebomb boy as its lifeline, but there was someone else in the middle. It all depended on whether "eldest gods" only meant Greek.

There was no doubt in Percy's mind that Jason would have told the Titans to stick it where Hyperion didn't shine, but he'd have done it Roman. Three moldy apples and a toolshed said that wouldn't be a great deal for the sea god. /font

"So you've run your calculations and Percy is our best option?" Poseidon answered with something that might have been bitterness. He didn't like what Athena was saying, but Percy realized with a funny numb feeling that he wasn't disagreeing with her either.

"Since the council decided against eliminating all candidates, yes."

Poseidon went back to watching the two kids dance. Percy didn't remember this song. He was finding out that he didn't remember a lot about that night.

"It's not only mortals who have to make sacrifices, Poseidon," Athena insisted.

"I know," he answered, in a way that sounded like "shut up."

"Where is this coming from?" asked Athena, staring at Poseidon as if he were a trigonometry problem that wouldn't come out. "You're not usually like this about your human children."

"It's been some time since I've had one," Poseidon answered casually.

Athena wasn't buying. "You went over two hundred years without a claim when you were trying to smooth things over with Amphitrite."

"Was it that long? Fortunately, I don't need a reason or your permission to take an interest in my own son."

"You might not need a reason," Athena countered, "but you always have one." She looked at him and smiled, as if she'd finally identified all his moving parts and could disassemble him at will. "Even if you don't know what it is."

Poseidon shot her a look. She'd figured him out, and he didn't like it. "Don't make me your next puzzle, Athena."

"Fine. Keep your sentiments private. Just tell him to stay away from my daughter."

Poseidon seemed to laugh, but it didn't make it all the way out. "How much mischief could they get up to before the clock runs out?"

"He has a hero's doom, Poseidon. I don't want her struck down because she happens to be standing nearby."

Well that was pretty darn ironic. Not that it was Annabeth's fault, but Percy was pretty sure that Arachne hadn't been aiming at him.

The music kept playing, and Percy tried to make sense of what he'd heard. Sacrifices. It sounded like Gaea again. Sacrifices to wake the goddess. Hearing it discussed as if it were something normal was hard for him to handle. "Hello Poseidon; nice day, isn't it? That Percy kid's totally going to bite it in two years." "Sure is. Lunch?" "Starved."

He realized that the dream wasn't over. Poseidon was walking toward the edge of the room. Apparently, he'd had enough of gorgeous, soul-soothing music for one night. Percy tried not to cringe as the Tartarus-cancelling headsounds got softer.

The ophiotaurus was still swimming happily in its bubble, making shadows on the floor underneath, poking its muzzle out at the dancing people, the muses playing their songs. At least someone was still having a good time. Poseidon stared at the creature for a long minute. Was he thinking about what Athena had said about sacrifices?

Eventually, he raised his hand and the bubble started to move away from the crowd. Because of some trick of the dream or because he'd gotten more in touch with his inner sea-cow in the past three years, Percy could understand the ophiotaurus when it spoke.

Hail, lord. Bessie seemed to have a child's voice, like that one kid from first grade who'd had weirdly perfect manners and never complained about having to wait in line. Am I going back to the ocean?

"You must be confined, creature. It is for your own safety."

A hippocampus would have been upset, but Bessie asked, No more bad people?

"You'll be safe from the bad people."

The ophiotaurus ducked its head, the same head that had rubbed against Percy's hands after he'd untangled those fishing nets. He was so trusting. Poseidon said that everything was going to be okay, and it believed him. The idea of anyone even thinking of hurting Bessie seemed impossible. No one could be that big of a jerk

Will my protector stay too?

Poseidon gave a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Your protector is not with us now, creature. He died long ago."

Bessie's whole body shook as if someone had said the word "entrails." It twisted until its head pointed back toward the dance floor. No! No! There!

Poseidon followed the ophiotaurus' line of sight straight to where Percy and Annabeth were splitting a bowl of chips.

"Do you mean the boy?" Poseidon said sharply.

The ophiotaurus dropped its upper body and made a high-pitched noise. Sorry! Sorry!

Percy got caught up as Poseidon tried to convince Bessie that no one was mad at him. Grover had said that the ophiotaurus had called him its protector. And ...that was bad? It made sense that Bessie would have had guards the last time that he was alive too, and maybe he had gotten Past-Percy confused with this other guy from way back. If Bessie was like most sea creatures, then he probably couldn't see human faces too well, and the interface between water and air meant that it couldn't use scent like Blackjack did, so... How did it tell people apart?

"How do you know that Percy is your protector?" asked Poseidon.

Saved me from the bad weeds. Saved me from the bad people. But they came back. The beast made a frightened sound.

"Bad weeds" was probably ophio-speak for that stupid trawler net. Percy wasn't sure he deserved credit for saving Bessie from Luke and company, but it wasn't too out there that the ophiotaurus would think he did.

"Well that might be..." Poseidon didn't seem satisfied. "What do you see when you look at him?"

The ophiotaurus squirmed in its bubble like a kid who gets called on in class and has no idea what the question means. Then it looked straight at Poseidon with eyes as wide as the world.

Do you mean the curse? it said.

Poseidon covered his mouth with one hand, as if he'd just been told about a terminal disease. Across the wide space, Past-Percy was laughing with Annabeth as if nothing was wrong.

Great, thought Percy. Here he was, finding out that one of his best memories actually pretty darn depressing, and his body was still doing time in Tartarus. Maybe if he concentrated, he could get somewhere more useful, contact Jason or Grover or...

Percy looked up and realized that Bessie was staring right at him. Carefully, Percy looked behind him. Nothing interesting there. Then he slowly leaned left, then right. Bessie tracked him each time.

Hello, it said.

"Uh, hi," Percy answered. "You can see me?"

Yes.

"But I'm kind of... not here. Or now."

Easier.

Okay, he must have lapsed into a real dream. Or maybe this whole thing had been a real dream. No way could Bessie really tell he was here. He was only imagining that he had a body, so there was nothing to see. Kronos and that nutjob empousa Kelli had been able to sense his presence, but that had been happening at the same time.
Whatever. Annabeth was standing over his sleeping body with a sword, possibly fighting off monsters solo so that he could get a message out. It wasn't as if he could afford to be picky about who got it.

Percy pointed to Poseidon. "Can you tell him something for me?" he asked. Bessie turned his head to the side and Percy realized that its ability to do that was probably pretty limited. If it was like horses or hippocampi, then it didn't have such a great concept of time passing. It's-three-years-in-the-future-and-Annabeth-and-I- got-sucked-into-Tartarus-and-need-to-coordinate-a- perfectly-timed-attack-with-friends-on-the-outside -who-don't-even-know-where-to-find-us-and-even-tho ugh-you're-not-allowed-to-help-and-probably-brain- whammied-by-a-new-demigod-civil-war-we-could-reall y-use-a-way-of-killing-Gaea's-minions-got-any-idea s? was probably beyond Bessie's vocabulary. Still, he might as well try.

Before he could speak, Bessie flipped inside his bubble. I already told him, he said. You are not dead.

"Okay," said Percy. "That's good, I guess. I'm not dead." He looked over at Poseidon. He was still staring at Past-Percy and seemed to be thinking hard about something. He either thought that Bessie was talking to himself or just wasn't listening. "Could you tell him that the prophecy won't kill me?" Percy asked.

Prophecy?

"Curse. You called it a curse. Tell him that the curse won't kill me."

Bessie looked serious. Curse, it said.

"Yeah, I know," said Percy. "Tell him I'm going to live through it. I kept my promise. I won't let him down."

Curse, Bessie repeated, looking more agitated.

"I heard you," Percy, said reassuringly. "But can you tell him—"

Curse! Bessie reared back like a deer in the headlights, and Percy realized that it was pointing to something behind him. He turned—

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.

.

Percy threw both arms up in front of his face, which was stupid since he was only imagining that he had arms and a face. The light was blinding, so it blinded him. It was like being swept up in a current that he couldn't control, buffeting him against time and the insides of his skull all at once. Percy emerged blinking in the bright light. He looked left and right, steeling himself against the chill of Tartarus without the Muses.

He was still on Olympus, but the throne room this time. The light was strange, clearly sunlight but more daring and wild. All twelve thrones were occupied and a chair had been set for Hades, he realized as he shielded his eyes, but this wasn't the summer or winter solstice. An emergency meeting.

"The beast has been found," said Poseidon.

"Then it should be killed," said Athena.

"It is an innocent creature, Athena," came a soft voice from a simple carved-rock throne. Hestia, twenty feet tall and in the form of a grown woman, spoke from underneath a brown, hooded cloak. The Olympians quieted to make out her words. "The sacrifice might merely perfect the curse. Its death could be where true power lies. We should not kill it."

Percy gave the room a double-take while the Olympians considered this. None of Annabeth's new buildings were in sight, and there was no Mr. D. Whatever was happening, it had gone down a long time ago, maybe before the end of the Titan War.

They all looked a little different. Maybe it was because there was nothing of Rome or Byzantium or America in them yet. Artemis looked as tough as ever, but she seemed less regal. It took a minute for Percy to realize that her silvery glow was gone. She and Apollo hadn't become the sun and the moon yet. Maybe it was just that he knew his face the best, but Poseidon seemed the most different. There was something missing from his expression, a heaviness that Percy hadn't noticed until it wasn't there.

"We can allow the ophiotaurus to live, under guard," Poseidon was saying. "My own son has that duty."

Ares grunted. "Triton's tough. Good warrior."

"And a child of an elder god," added Hades. "Can we be sure that he will not give in to temptation?"

"Triton could have become very powerful if he'd sided with Oceanus," Hestia pointed out in her soft voice. "If he wanted to betray us, couldn't he have done it already?"

Hera sniffed. "Deformed creature. Honestly, Poseidon, I don't know why you don't follow the human practice and leave them on a hillside when they're born like that. Amphitrite is bound to have a good one sooner or later." She sat forward. "Maybe one with feet."

Hephaestus flicked his eyes toward his mother, beard sparking, but he said nothing.

"I cannot believe you were prevailed upon to marry her."

"Hera," Poseidon began, "you know perfectly well that when I married Amphitrite—"

"—the union won us Nereus's surrender and Oceanus's neutrality," interrupted Zeus. "Amphitrite is a beautiful woman, and from what I hear, she knows how to mind her tongue. If that doesn't bring marital happiness, then I don't know what does."

Hera huffed.

"As fascinating as the two of you seem to find my home life," countered Poseidon, "perhaps the creature whom our enemies could use to destroy us all merits our attention as well."

"Yes, I dislike having such a bargaining chip in your possession, Brother," Zeus said coldly.

"Would you have made the beast common property if my niece had been the first to find it?" Poseidon gestured toward Artemis. "Or one of your followers, Hades? If the ophiotaurus remains in my domain, my forces can protect it. We can keep it moving from hiding place to hiding place. It would be much harder to find than on land or in some lake."

"I don't know," said Hermes, tapping one winged sandal. "I'm pretty sure I could manage something. There are places in this world that even Titans can't find."

"And most of them are underwater."

Zeus nodded. "All in favor of allowing Poseidon to take full responsibility for the bane of Olympus?"

Hands went up. Percy counted the twins, Hestia, Ares, Hephaestus, Demeter, Hera. Guess she didn't mind a "deformed creature" saving her butt.

Zeus fixed his brother with a gaze that crackled like ozone. "You had best be able to back up your claims, Brother."

Poseidon gave a tight smile, as if he knew something that Zeus didn't. "I have complete confidence in my son's skill," he said, "and in his loyalty."

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.

.

The instant he woke, he could feel Tartarus pressing down on him like a hundred lead weights. Annabeth's face was over his, hollow-eyed and streaked with dust.

"Did it work?"

Percy shook his head, hearing the desiccated ligaments of the dead monster creak. Annabeth closed her eyes. Percy put his hand over hers. "Your turn," he said, starting to twist so that she could lie down. Or something.

She shook her head, and even that was enough to make the skull shake. "We need to move." She passed something the size of a lead pipe between her hands, and Percy realized it was a tooth from the monster's jaws. Had she sharpened its edges while he slept? He couldn't even care about dulling his sword's edge. Not now.

"It helps," he said. He was still hungry and he could feel dehydration crawling up his limbs like a kid up a dry waterslide, but the sleep had done some good. "You need to rest," he said. It must have been true because she didn't even argue, just handed him Riptide. The monster bones creaked as the weight inside the skull shifted. With a lot of twisting and painful contortions, they managed to switch positions. Annabeth managed squeezed into a fetal position on her side, and Percy could almost sit up straight.

It was so hard, so hard, to be quiet while Tartarus clawed away at his will. The dream had renewed him—sort of—but that wouldn't last forever. His skin crawled. His joints itched. He wanted to stretch his legs, swing his arms. Percy kept his hand on Riptide and his ears open, but even that felt like he was giving this place a way into his soul. It wanted in. Tartarus wanted to find the fissures in his being and pry open a way inside, like water seeping into cracks in the road so that it could make potholes when it turned to ice.

He tried to focus on Annabeth's breathing, on the distant sounds of monsters searching the sands for food, but he couldn't help going back to his dream. Poseidon had been upset about the prophecy, but not in any of the right places. But his dad hadn't known him that well back then. But he didn't know him that much better now. And what did Bessie have to do with any of it?

He knew that some of this was Tartarus pushing his mind around like a stale burger bun on an air hockey table. Percy tried to shake it off. His dad cared about him. He went over the times they'd talked in his head. His dad cared about him. His dad had claimed him even though he'd known it would get him in trouble. His dad had trusted him to look out for Tyson. His dad had wanted him to be a god.

Annabeth's fingers loosened, and Percy finally noticed what she had in her hands. Some of this monster's teeth were almost the same shape as a good knife. He turned it over in his hands, nearly slicing open a thumb. She'd been sharpening it, but only the lower edge. He hadn't been asleep long, then. Percy counted to a hundred breaths and then a hundred more and he'd lost count of how many times he'd done it. Eventually, Annabeth stirred, one hand going to her face.

"Message?" he asked. Words had gotten hard again.

"No, but I figured something out." Annabeth licked her cracked lips and opened her hand, showing him one last scrap of Arachne's silk.

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.

.

At first, he thought it was a miracle that they made it back. Then he realized that the miracle was that none of the scavengers had tracked them. Every chunk that they'd combed out and left behind left little pits in the sand where all the grains tried to shuffle away. They cast shadows.

But there it was, shining like something pure, scarred only by a single neat cut near the edge.

Arachne didn't like to rip up her work, not even when it had gotten her dragged into Tartarus.

Annabeth knelt down, touching the spider trap gingerly. "Athena couldn't find the Parthanos because Arachne hid it," she said. "She hid us too."

When Percy had woken up after his fall, Arachne hadn't had a scrap of that stuff on her. Maybe it was true that spiders didn't get stuck in their own webs. Once she'd busted out of the spidercuffs, she'd had no shield, but Percy and Annabeth had been covered in 700-threadcount spinneret snot for the first few hours.

"We need to get to the Doors, and it would be a lot easier to sneak there than fight," said Annabeth. She waved him over and he held up Riptide for her to see by as she judged where to cut with her makeshift dagger.

This place hadn't gotten any less unnerving. If there had ever been an opening to the sky, it was closed up now. The only way Percy was sure they were in the right place was by the seven and a half exoskeletal limbs that reached up toward nothing like the twigs of a dead tree. They'd lost a day of time and strength, and they were right back where they started.

"I'll look for your knife," he said. "Your laptop." Seven words. Killer.

She shook her head. "They're gone," she said, sounding sure. "Don't go." Then he moved until he was touching her, just barely. He sat down, did what she told him, but her hands were cleverer than his. There were no needles, so they tied knots to keep the cords from unraveling. Eventually, Annabeth pulled a loose, sleeveless poncho over her head, covering up Rome as if she'd never been there. She took two of the leftover sections and tied one tight around what was left of her splint and the other around her good ankle. Percy smiled. That might keep the dust out, kind of like tucking your pants into your socks to keep out deer ticks the way no one actually ever did. Then she handed him the other one.

"It's not even my size."

"Just put it on—" she stopped short, as if pushing the words out. "Seaweed Brain."

Smiling felt weird on his face, but he did it. The cloth didn't feel right, not even through his clothes, but then nothing else did either.

"Now what?" he asked as Annabeth knotted the last threads into a coil and slung them over her shoulder.

She licked her cracked lips. "Now we find something that can still talk."

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