The house of hades, p.15
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       The House of Hades, p.15

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 15


  Just another one of Leo’s stupid jokes, but the comment hit a little too close to home. On the Argo II, Frank definitely felt like the LVP—Least Valuable Player. Sure, he could turn into animals. So what? His biggest claim to helpfulness so far had been changing into a weasel to escape from an underground workshop, and even that had been Leo’s idea. Frank was better known for the Giant Goldfish Fiasco in Atlanta, and, just yesterday, for turning into a two-hundred-kilo gorilla only to get knocked senseless by a flash-bang grenade.

  Leo hadn’t made any gorilla jokes at his expense yet. But it was only a matter of time.

  Kill him!

  Torture him! Then kill him!

  The two sides of the war god seemed to be kicking and punching each other inside Frank’s head, using his sinuses as a wrestling mat.

  Blood! Guns!

  Rome! War!

  Quiet down, Frank ordered.

  Amazingly, the voices obeyed.

  Okay, then, Frank thought.

  Maybe he could finally get those annoying screaming mini-gods under control. Maybe today would be a good day.

  That hope was shattered as soon as he climbed above deck.

  “What are they?” Hazel asked.

  The Argo II was docked at a busy wharf. On one side stretched a shipping channel about half a kilometer wide. On the other spread the city of Venice—red-tiled roofs, metal church domes, steepled towers, and sun-bleached buildings in all the colors of Valentine candy hearts—red, white, ochre, pink, and orange.

  Everywhere there were statues of lions—on top of pedestals, over doorways, on the porticoes of the largest buildings. There were so many, Frank figured the lion must be the city’s mascot.

  Where streets should have been, green canals etched their way through the neighborhoods, each one jammed with motorboats. Along the docks, the sidewalks were mobbed with tourists shopping at the T-shirt kiosks, overflowing from stores, and lounging across acres of outdoor café tables, like pods of sea lions. Frank had thought Rome was full of tourists. This place was insane.

  Hazel and the rest of his friends weren’t paying attention to any of that, though. They had gathered at the starboard rail to stare at the dozens of weird shaggy monsters milling through the crowds.

  Each monster was about the size of a cow, with a bowed back like a broken-down horse, matted gray fur, skinny legs, and black cloven hooves. The creatures’ heads seemed much too heavy for their necks. Their long, anteater-like snouts drooped to the ground. Their overgrown gray manes completely covered their eyes.

  Frank watched as one of the creatures lumbered across the promenade, snuffling and licking the pavement with its long tongue. The tourists parted around it, unconcerned. A few even petted it. Frank wondered how the mortals could be so calm. Then the monster’s appearance flickered. For a moment it turned into an old, fat beagle.

  Jason grunted. “The mortals think they’re stray dogs. ”

  “Or pets roaming around,” Piper said. “My dad shot a film in Venice once. I remember him telling me there were dogs everywhere. Venetians love dogs. ”

  Frank frowned. He kept forgetting that Piper’s dad was Tristan McLean, A-list movie star. She didn’t talk about him much. She seemed pretty down-to-earth for a kid raised in Hollywood. That was fine with Frank. The last thing they needed on this quest was paparazzi taking pictures of all Frank’s epic fails.

  “But what are they?” he asked, repeating Hazel’s question. “They look like…starving, shaggy cows with sheepdog hair. ”

  He waited for someone to enlighten him. Nobody volunteered any information.

  “Maybe they’re harmless,” Leo suggested. “They’re ignoring the mortals. ”

  “Harmless!” Gleeson Hedge laughed. The satyr wore his usual gym shorts, sports shirt, and coach’s whistle. His expression was as gruff as ever, but he still had one pink rubber band stuck in his hair from the prankster dwarfs in Bologna. Frank was kind of scared to mention it to him. “Valdez, how many harmless monsters have we met? We should just aim the ballistae and see what happens!”

  “Uh, no,” Leo said.

  For once, Frank agreed with Leo. There were too many monsters. It would be impossible to target one without causing collateral damage in the crowds of tourists. Besides, if those creatures panicked and stampeded…

  “We’ll have to walk through them and hope they’re peaceful,” Frank said, hating the idea already. “It’s the only way we’re going to track down the owner of that book. ”

  Leo pulled the leather-bound manual from underneath his arm. He’d slapped a sticky note on the cover with the address the dwarfs in Bologna had given him.

  “La Casa Nera,” he read. “Calle Frezzeria. ”

  “The Black House,” Nico di Angelo translated. “Calle Frezzeria is the street. ”

  Frank tried not to flinch when he realized Nico was at his shoulder. The guy was so quiet and brooding, he almost seemed to dematerialize when he wasn’t speaking. Hazel might have been the one who came back from the dead, but Nico was way more ghostlike.

  “You speak Italian?” Frank asked.

  Nico shot him a warning look, like: Watch the questions. He spoke calmly, though. “Frank is right. We have to find that address. The only way to do it is to walk the city. Venice is a maze. We’ll have to risk the crowds and those…whatever they are. ”

  Thunder rumbled in the clear summer sky. They’d passed through some storms the night before. Frank had thought they were over, but now he wasn’t sure. The air felt as thick and warm as sauna steam.

  Jason frowned at the horizon. “Maybe I should stay on board. Lots of venti in that storm last night. If they decide to attack the ship again…”

  He didn’t need to finish. They’d all had experiences with angry wind spirits. Jason was the only one who had much luck fighting them.

  Coach Hedge grunted. “Well, I’m out, too. If you softhearted cupcakes are going to stroll through Venice without even whacking those furry animals on the head, forget it. I don’t like boring expeditions. ”

  “It’s okay, Coach. ” Leo grinned. “We still have to repair the foremast. Then I need your help in the engine room. I’ve got an idea for a new installation. ”

  Frank didn’t like the gleam in Leo’s eye. Since Leo had found that Archimedes sphere, he’d been trying out a lot of “new installations. ” Usually, they exploded or sent smoke billowing upstairs into Frank’s cabin.

  “Well…” Piper shifted her feet. “Whoever goes should be good with animals. I, uh…I’ll admit I’m not great with cows. ”

  Frank figured there was a story behind that comment, but he decided not to ask.

  “I’ll go,” he said.

  He wasn’t sure why he volunteered—maybe because he was anxious to be useful for a change. Or maybe he didn’t want anyone beating him to the punch. Animals? Frank can turn into animals! Send him!

  Leo patted him on shoulder and handed him the leather-bound book. “Awesome. If you pass a hardware store, could you get me some two-by-fours and a gallon of tar?”

  “Leo,” Hazel chided, “it’s not a shopping trip. ”

  “I’ll go with Frank,” Nico offered.

  Frank’s eye started twitching. The war gods’ voices rose to a crescendo in his head: Kill him! Graecus scum!

  No! I love Graecus scum!

  “Uh…you’re good with animals?” he asked.

  Nico smiled without humor. “Actually, most animals hate me. They can sense death. But there’s something about this city. …” His expression turned grim. “Lots of death. Restless spirits. If I go, I may be able to keep them at bay. Besides, as you noticed, I speak Italian. ”

  Leo scratched his head. “Lots of death, huh? Personally, I’m trying to avoid lots of death, but you guys have fun!”

  Frank wasn’t sure what scared him more: shaggy-cow monsters, hordes of restless ghosts, or going somewhere alone with Nico di Angelo.

; “I’ll go too. ” Hazel slipped her arm through Frank’s. “Three is the best number for a demigod quest, right?”

  Frank tried not to look too relieved. He didn’t want to offend Nico. But he glanced at Hazel and told her with his eyes: Thank you thank you thank you.

  Nico stared at the canals, as if wondering what new and interesting forms of evil spirits might be lurking there. “All right, then. Let’s go find the owner of that book. ”

  FRANK MIGHT HAVE LIKED VENICE if it hadn’t been summertime and tourist season, and if the city wasn’t overrun with large hairy creatures. Between the rows of old houses and the canals, the sidewalks were already too narrow for the crowds jostling one another and stopping to take pictures. The monsters made things worse. They shuffled around with their heads down, bumping into mortals and sniffing the pavement.

  One seemed to find something it liked at the edge of a canal. It nibbled and licked at a crack between the stones until it dislodged some sort of greenish root. The monster sucked it up happily and shambled along.

  “Well, they’re plant-eaters,” Frank said. “That’s good news. ”

  Hazel slipped her hand into his. “Unless they supplement their diet with demigods. Let’s hope not. ”

  Frank was so pleased to be holding her hand, the crowds and the heat and the monsters suddenly didn’t seem so bad. He felt needed—useful.

  Not that Hazel required his protection. Anybody who’d seen her charging on Arion with her sword drawn would know she could take care of herself. Still, Frank liked being next to her, imagining he was her bodyguard. If any of these monsters tried to hurt her, Frank would gladly turn into a rhinoceros and push them into the canal.

  Could he do a rhino? Frank had never tried that before.

  Nico stopped. “There. ”

  They’d turned onto a smaller street, leaving the canal behind. Ahead of them was a small plaza lined with five-story buildings. The area was strangely deserted—as if the mortals could sense it wasn’t safe. In the middle of the cobblestone courtyard, a dozen shaggy cow creatures were sniffing around the mossy base of an old stone well.

  “A lot of cows in one place,” Frank said.

  “Yeah, but look,” Nico said. “Past that archway. ”

  Nico’s eyes must’ve been better than his. Frank squinted. At the far end of the plaza, a stone archway carved with lions led into a narrow street. Just past the arch, one of the town houses was painted black—the only black building Frank had seen so far in Venice.

  “La Casa Nera,” he guessed.

  Hazel’s grip tightened on his fingers. “I don’t like that plaza. It feels…cold. ”

  Frank wasn’t sure what she meant. He was still sweating like crazy.

  But Nico nodded. He studied the town-house windows, most of which were covered with wooden shutters. “You’re right, Hazel. This neighborhood is filled with lemures. ”

  “Lemurs?” Frank asked nervously. “I’m guessing you don’t mean the furry little guys from Madagascar?”

  “Angry ghosts,” Nico said. “Lemures go back to Roman times. They hang around a lot of Italian cities, but I’ve never felt so many in one place. My mom told me…” He hesitated. “She used to tell me stories about the ghosts of Venice. ”

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