The house of hades, p.33
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       The House of Hades, p.33

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 33

 

  JASON FIRST SAW THE ANGEL AT THE ICE CREAM CART.

  The Argo II had anchored in the bay along with six or seven cruise ships. As usual, the mortals didn’t pay the trireme any attention; but just to be safe, Jason and Nico hopped on a skiff from one of the tourist boats so they would look like part of the crowd when they came ashore.

  At first glance, Split seemed like a cool place. Curving around the harbor was a long esplanade lined with palm trees. At the sidewalk cafés, European teenagers were hanging out, speaking a dozen different languages and enjoying the sunny afternoon. The air smelled of grilled meat and fresh-cut flowers.

  Beyond the main boulevard, the city was a hodgepodge of medieval castle towers, Roman walls, limestone town houses with red-tiled roofs, and modern office buildings all crammed together. In the distance, gray-green hills marched toward a mountain ridge, which made Jason a little nervous. He kept glancing at that rocky escarpment, expecting the face of Gaea to appear in its shadows.

  Nico and he were wandering along the esplanade when Jason spotted the guy with wings buying an ice cream bar from a street cart. The vendor lady looked bored as she counted the guy’s change. Tourists navigated around the angel’s huge wings without a second glance.

  Jason nudged Nico. “Are you seeing this?”

  “Yeah,” Nico agreed. “Maybe we should buy some ice cream. ”

  As they made their way toward the street cart, Jason worried that this winged dude might be a son of Boreas the North Wind. At his side, the angel carried the same kind of jagged bronze sword the Boreads had, and Jason’s last encounter with them hadn’t gone so well.

  But this guy seemed more chill than chilly. He wore a red tank top, Bermuda shorts, and huarache sandals. His wings were a combination of russet colors, like a bantam rooster or a lazy sunset. He had a deep tan and black hair almost as curly as Leo’s.

  “He’s not a returned spirit,” Nico murmured. “Or a creature of the Underworld. ”

  “No,” Jason agreed. “I doubt they would eat chocolate-covered ice cream bars. ”

  “So what is he?” Nico wondered.

  They got within thirty feet, and the winged dude looked directly at them. He smiled, gestured over his shoulder with his ice cream bar, and dissolved into the air.

  Jason couldn’t exactly see him, but he’d had enough experience controlling the wind that he could track the angel’s path—a warm wisp of red and gold zipping across the street, spiraling down the sidewalk, and blowing postcards from the carousels in front of the tourist shops. The wind headed toward the end of the promenade, where a big fortresslike structure loomed.

  “I’m betting that’s the palace,” Jason said. “Come on. ”

  Even after two millennia, Diocletian’s Palace was still impressive. The outer wall was only a pink granite shell, with crumbling columns and arched windows open to the sky, but it was mostly intact, a quarter mile long and seventy or eighty feet tall, dwarfing the modern shops and houses that huddled beneath it. Jason imagined what the palace must have looked like when it was newly built, with Imperial guards walking the ramparts and the golden eagles of Rome glinting on the parapets.

  The wind angel—or whatever he was—whisked in and out of the pink granite windows, then disappeared on the other side. Jason scanned the palace’s facade for an entrance. The only one he saw was several blocks away, with tourists lined up to buy tickets. No time for that.

  “We’ve got to catch him,” Jason said. “Hold on. ”

  “But—”

  Jason grabbed Nico and lifted them both into the air.

  Nico made a muffled sound of protest as they soared over the walls and into a courtyard where more tourists were milling around, taking pictures.

  A little kid did a double take when they landed. Then his eyes glazed over and he shook his head, like he was dismissing a juice-box-induced hallucination. No one else paid them any attention.

  On the left side of the courtyard stood a line of columns holding up weathered gray arches. On the right side was a white marble building with rows of tall windows.

  “The peristyle,” Nico said. “This was the entrance to Diocletian’s private residence. ” He scowled at Jason. “And please, I don’t like being touched. Don’t ever grab me again. ”

  Jason’s shoulder blades tensed. He thought he heard the undertone of a threat, like: unless you want to get a Stygian sword up your nose. “Uh, okay. Sorry. How do you know what this place is called?”

  Nico scanned the atrium. He focused on some steps in the far corner, leading down.

  “I’ve been here before. ” His eyes were as dark as his blade. “With my mother and Bianca. A weekend trip from Venice. I was maybe…six?”

  “That was when…the 1930s?”

  “’Thirty-eight or so,” Nico said absently. “Why do you care? Do you see that winged guy anywhere?”

  “No…” Jason was still trying to wrap his mind around Nico’s past.

  Jason always tried to build a good relationship with the people on his team. He’d learned the hard way that if somebody was going to have your back in a fight, it was better if you found some common ground and trusted each other. But Nico wasn’t easy to figure out. “I just…I can’t imagine how weird that must be, coming from another time. ”

  “No, you can’t. ” Nico stared at the stone floor. He took a deep breath.

  “Look…I don’t like talking about it. Honestly, I think Hazel has it worse. She remembers more about when she was young. She had to come back from the dead and adjust to the modern world. Me…me and Bianca, we were stuck at the Lotus Hotel. Time passed so quickly. In a weird way, that made the transition easier. ”

  “Percy told me about that place,” Jason said. “Seventy years, but it only felt like a month?”

  Nico clenched his fist until his fingers turned white. “Yeah. I’m sure Percy told you all about me. ”

  His voice was heavy with bitterness—more than Jason could understand. He knew that Nico had blamed Percy for getting his sister Bianca killed, but they’d supposedly gotten past that, at least according to Percy. Piper had also mentioned a rumor that Nico had a crush on Annabeth. Maybe that was part of it.

  Still… Jason didn’t get why Nico pushed people away, why he never spent much time at either camp, why he preferred the dead to the living. He really didn’t get why Nico had promised to lead the Argo II to Epirus if he hated Percy Jackson so much.

  Nico’s eyes swept the windows above them. “Roman dead are everywhere here… Lares. Lemures. They’re watching. They’re angry. ”

  “At us?” Jason’s hand went to his sword.

  “At everything. ” Nico pointed to a small stone building on the west end of the courtyard. “That used to be a temple to Jupiter. The Christians changed it to a baptistery. The Roman ghosts don’t like that. ”

  Jason stared at the dark doorway.

  He’d never met Jupiter, but he thought of his father as a living person—the guy who’d fallen in love with his mom. Of course he knew his dad was immortal, but somehow the full meaning of that had never really sunk in until now, as he stared at a doorway Romans had walked through, thousands of years ago, to worship his dad. The idea gave Jason a splitting headache.

  “And over there…” Nico pointed east to a hexagonal building ringed with freestanding columns. “That was the mausoleum of the emperor. ”

  “But his tomb isn’t there anymore,” Jason guessed.

  “Not for centuries,” Nico said. “When the empire collapsed, the building was turned into a Christian cathedral. ”

  Jason swallowed. “So if Diocletian’s ghost is still around here—”

  “He’s probably not happy. ”

  The wind rustled, pushing leaves and food wrappers across the peristyle. In the corner of his eye, Jason caught a glimpse of movement—a blur of red and gold.

  When he turned, a single rust-colored feather was settling on the steps
that led down.

  “That way. ” Jason pointed. “The winged guy. Where do you think those stairs lead?”

  Nico drew his sword. His smile was even more unsettling than his scowl. “Underground,” he said. “My favorite place. ”

  Underground was not Jason’s favorite place.

  Ever since his trip beneath Rome with Piper and Percy, fighting those twin giants in the hypogeum under the Colosseum, most of his nightmares were about basements, trapdoors, and large hamster wheels.

  Having Nico along was not reassuring. His Stygian iron blade seemed to make the shadows even gloomier, as if the infernal metal was drawing the light and heat out of the air.

  They crept through a vast cellar with thick support columns holding up a vaulted ceiling. The limestone blocks were so old, they had fused together from centuries of moisture, making the place look almost like a naturally formed cave.

  None of the tourists had ventured down here. Obviously, they were smarter than demigods.

  Jason drew his gladius. They made their way under the low archways, their steps echoing on the stone floor. Barred windows lined the top of one wall, facing the street level, but that just made the cellar feel more claustrophobic. The shafts of sunlight looked like slanted prison bars, swirling with ancient dust.

  Jason passed a support beam, looked to his left, and almost had a heart attack. Staring right at him was a marble bust of Diocletian, his limestone face glowering with disapproval.

  Jason steadied his breathing. This seemed like a good place to leave the note he’d written for Reyna, telling her of their route to Epirus. It was away from the crowds, but he trusted Reyna would find it. She had the instincts of a hunter. He slipped the note between the bust and its pedestal, and stepped back.

  Diocletian’s marble eyes made him jumpy. Jason couldn’t help thinking of Terminus, the talking statue-god back at New Rome. He hoped Diocletian didn’t bark at him or suddenly burst into song.

  “Hello!”

  Before Jason could register that the voice had come from somewhere else, he sliced off the emperor’s head. The bust toppled and shattered against the floor.

  “That wasn’t very nice,” said the voice behind them.

  Jason turned. The winged man from the ice cream stand was leaning against a nearby column, casually tossing a small bronze hoop in the air. At his feet sat a wicker picnic basket full of fruit.

  “I mean,” the man said, “what did Diocletian ever do to you?”

  The air swirled around Jason’s feet. The shards of marble gathered into a miniature tornado, spiraled back to the pedestal, and reassembled into a complete bust, the note still tucked underneath.

  “Uh—” Jason lowered his sword. “It was an accident. You startled me. ”

  The winged dude chuckled. “Jason Grace, the West Wind has been called many things…warm, gentle, life-giving, and devilishly handsome. But I have never been called startling. I leave that crass behavior to my gusty brethren in the north. ”

  Nico inched backward. “The West Wind? You mean you’re—”

 
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