The house of hades, p.23
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       The House of Hades, p.23

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 23

 

  Annabeth couldn’t tell if it was actually darker, but the air did seem colder and thicker, as if they’d stepped into a different microclimate. Again she was reminded of San Francisco, where you could walk from one neighborhood to the next and the temperature might drop ten degrees. She wondered if the Titans had built their palace on Mount Tamalpais because the Bay Area reminded them of Tartarus.

  What a depressing thought. Only Titans would see such a beautiful place as a potential outpost of the abyss—a hellish home away from home.

  Bob struck off to the left. They followed. The air definitely got colder. Annabeth pressed against Percy for warmth. He put his arm around her. It felt good being close to him, but she couldn’t relax.

  They’d entered some sort of forest. Towering black trees soared into the gloom, perfectly round and bare of branches, like monstrous hair follicles. The ground was smooth and pale.

  With our luck, Annabeth thought, we’re marching through the armpit of Tartarus.

  Suddenly her senses were on high alert, as if somebody had snapped a rubber band against the base of her neck. She rested her hand on the trunk of the nearest tree.

  “What is it?” Percy raised his sword.

  Bob turned and looked back, confused. “We are stopping?”

  Annabeth held up her hand for silence. She wasn’t sure what had set her off. Nothing looked different. Then she realized the tree trunk was quivering. She wondered momentarily if it was the kitten’s purr; but Small Bob had fallen asleep on Large Bob’s shoulder.

  A few yards away, another tree shuddered.

  “Something’s moving above us,” Annabeth whispered. “Gather up. ”

  Bob and Percy closed ranks with her, standing back to back.

  Annabeth strained her eyes, trying to see above them in the dark, but nothing moved.

  She had almost decided she was being paranoid when the first monster dropped to the ground only five feet away.

  Annabeth’s first thought: The Furies.

  The creature looked almost exactly like one: a wrinkled hag with batlike wings, brass talons, and glowing red eyes. She wore a tattered dress of black silk, and her face was twisted and ravenous, like a demonic grandmother in the mood to kill.

  Bob grunted as another one dropped in front of him, and then another in front of Percy. Soon there were half a dozen surrounding them. More hissed in the trees above.

  They couldn’t be Furies, then. There were only three of those, and these winged hags didn’t carry whips. That didn’t comfort Annabeth. The monsters’ talons looked plenty dangerous.

  “What are you?” she demanded.

  The arai, hissed a voice. The curses!

  Annabeth tried to locate the speaker, but none of the demons had moved their mouths. Their eyes looked dead; their expressions were frozen, like a puppet’s. The voice simply floated overhead like a movie narrator’s, as if a single mind controlled all the creatures.

  “What—what do you want?” Annabeth asked, trying to maintain a tone of confidence.

  The voice cackled maliciously. To curse you, of course! To destroy you a thousand times in the name of Mother Night!

  “Only a thousand times?” Percy murmured. “Oh, good…I thought we were in trouble. ”

  The circle of demon ladies closed in.

  EVERYTHING SMELLED LIKE POISON. Two days after leaving Venice, Hazel still couldn’t get the noxious scent of eau de cow monster out of her nose.

  The seasickness didn’t help. The Argo II sailed down the Adriatic, a beautiful glittering expanse of blue; but Hazel couldn’t appreciate it, thanks to the constant rolling of the ship. Above deck, she tried to keep her eyes fixed on the horizon—the white cliffs that always seemed just a mile or so to the east. What country was that, Croatia? She wasn’t sure. She just wished she were on solid ground again.

  The thing that nauseated her most was the weasel.

  Last night, Hecate’s pet Gale had appeared in her cabin. Hazel woke from a nightmare, thinking, What is that smell? She found a furry rodent propped on her chest, staring at her with its beady black eyes.

  Nothing like waking up screaming, kicking off your covers, and dancing around your cabin while a weasel scampers between your feet, screeching and farting.

  Her friends rushed to her room to see if she was okay. The weasel was difficult to explain. Hazel could tell that Leo was trying hard not to make a joke.

  In the morning, once the excitement died down, Hazel decided to visit Coach Hedge, since he could talk to animals.

  She’d found his cabin door ajar and heard the coach inside, talking as if he were on the phone with someone—except they had no phones on board. Maybe he was sending a magical Iris-message? Hazel had heard that the Greeks used those a lot.

  “Sure, hon,” Hedge was saying. “Yeah, I know, baby. No, it’s great news, but—” His voice broke with emotion. Hazel suddenly felt horrible for eavesdropping.

  She would’ve backed away, but Gale squeaked at her heels. Hazel knocked on the coach’s door.

  Hedge poked his head out, scowling as usual, but his eyes were red.

  “What?” he growled.

  “Um…sorry,” Hazel said. “Are you okay?”

  The coach snorted and opened his door wide. “Kinda question is that?”

  There was no one else in the room.

  “I—” Hazel tried to remember why she was there. “I wondered if you could talk to my weasel. ”

  The coach’s eyes narrowed. He lowered his voice. “Are we speaking in code? Is there an intruder aboard?”

  “Well, sort of. ”

  Gale peeked out from behind Hazel’s feet and started chattering.

  The coach looked offended. He chattered back at the weasel. They had what sounded like a very intense argument.

  “What did she say?” Hazel asked.

  “A lot of rude things,” grumbled the satyr. “The gist of it: she’s here to see how it goes. ”

  “How what goes?”

  Coach Hedge stomped his hoof. “How am I supposed to know? She’s a polecat! They never give a straight answer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got, uh, stuff…”

  He closed the door in her face.

  After breakfast, Hazel stood at the port rail, trying to settle her stomach. Next to her, Gale ran up and down the railing, passing gas; but the strong wind off the Adriatic helped whisk it away.

  Hazel wondered what was wrong with Coach Hedge. He must have been using an Iris-message to talk with someone, but if he’d gotten great news, why had he looked so devastated? She’d never seen him so shaken up. Unfortunately, she doubted the coach would ask for help if he needed it. He wasn’t exactly the warm and open type.

  She stared at the white cliffs in the distance and thought about why Hecate had sent Gale the polecat.

  She’s here to see how it goes.

  Something was about to happen. Hazel would be tested.

  She didn’t understand how she was supposed to learn magic with no training. Hecate expected her to defeat some super-powerful sorceress—the lady in the gold dress, whom Leo had described from his dream. But how?

  Hazel had spent all her free time trying to figure that out. She’d stared at her spatha, trying to make it look like a walking stick. She’d tried to summon a cloud to hide the full moon. She’d concentrated until her eyes crossed and her ears popped, but nothing happened. She couldn’t manipulate the Mist.

  The last few nights, her dreams had gotten worse. She found herself back in the Fields of Asphodel, drifting aimlessly among the ghosts. Then she was in Gaea’s cave in Alaska, where Hazel and her mother had died as the ceiling collapsed and the voice of the Earth Goddess wailed in anger. She was on the stairs of her mother’s apartment building in New Orleans, face-to-face with her father, Pluto. His cold fingers gripped her arm. The fabric of his black wool suit writhed with imprisoned souls. He fixed her with his dark angry eyes and said: Th
e dead see what they believe they will see. So do the living. That is the secret.

  He’d never said that to her in real life. She had no idea what it meant.

  The worst nightmares seemed like glimpses of the future. Hazel was stumbling through a dark tunnel while a woman’s laughter echoed around her.

  Control this if you can, child of Pluto, the woman taunted.

  And always, Hazel dreamed about the images she’d seen at Hecate’s crossroads: Leo falling through the sky; Percy and Annabeth lying unconscious, possibly dead, in front of black metal doors; and a shrouded figure looming above them—the giant Clytius wrapped in darkness.

  Next to her on the rail, Gale the weasel chittered impatiently. Hazel was tempted to push the stupid rodent into the sea.

  I can’t even control my own dreams, she wanted to scream. How am I supposed to control the Mist?

  She was so miserable, she didn’t notice Frank until he was standing at her side.

  “Feeling any better?” he asked.

  He took her hand, his fingers completely covering hers. She couldn’t believe how much taller he’d gotten. He had changed into so many animals, she wasn’t sure why one more transformation should amaze her…but suddenly he’d grown into his weight. No one could call him pudgy or cuddly anymore. He looked like a football player, solid and strong, with a new center of gravity. His shoulders had broadened. He walked with more confidence.

  What Frank had done on that bridge in Venice…Hazel was still in awe. None of them had actually seen the battle, but no one doubted it. Frank’s whole bearing had changed. Even Leo had stopped making jokes at his expense.

  “I’m—I’m all right,” Hazel managed. “You?”

  He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I’m, uh, taller. Otherwise, yeah. I’m good. I haven’t really, you know, changed inside. …”

  His voice held a little of the old doubt and awkwardness—the voice of her Frank, who always worried about being a klutz and messing up.

  Hazel felt relieved. She liked that part of him. At first, his new appearance had shocked her. She’d been worried that his personality had changed as well.

  Now she was starting to relax about that. Despite all his strength, Frank was the same sweet guy. He was still vulnerable. He still trusted her with his biggest weakness—the piece of magical firewood she carried in her coat pocket, next to her heart.

  “I know, and I’m glad. ” She squeezed his hand. “It’s…it’s actually not you I’m worried about. ”

  Frank grunted. “How’s Nico doing?”

  She’d been thinking about herself, not Nico, but she followed Frank’s gaze to the top of the foremast, where Nico was perched on the yardarm.

  Nico claimed that he liked to keep watch because he had good eyes. Hazel knew that wasn’t the reason. The top of the mast was one of the few places on board where Nico could be alone. The others had offered him the use of Percy’s cabin, since Percy was…well, absent. Nico adamantly refused. He spent most of his time up in the rigging, where he didn’t have to talk with the rest of the crew.

  Since he’d been turned into a corn plant in Venice, he’d only gotten more reclusive and morose.

  “I don’t know,” Hazel admitted. “He’s been through a lot. Getting captured in Tartarus, being held prisoner in that bronze jar, watching Percy and Annabeth fall…”

 
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