The house of hades, p.35
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       The House of Hades, p.35

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 35

 

  “Cupid,” Jason called, “where are you?”

  The voice laughed. It definitely didn’t sound like a cute baby angel’s. It sounded deep and rich, but also threatening—like a tremor before a major earthquake.

  Where you least expect me, Cupid answered. As Love always is.

  Something slammed into Jason and hurled him across the street. He toppled down a set of steps and sprawled on the floor of an excavated Roman basement.

  I would think you’d know better, Jason Grace. Cupid’s voice whirled around him. You’ve found true love, after all. Or do you still doubt yourself?

  Nico scrambled down the steps. “You okay?”

  Jason accepted his hand and got to his feet. “Yeah. Just sucker punched. ”

  Oh, did you expect me to play fair? Cupid laughed. I am the god of love. I am never fair.

  This time, Jason’s senses were on high alert. He felt the air ripple just as an arrow materialized, racing toward Nico’s chest.

  Jason intercepted it with his sword and deflected it sideways. The arrow exploded against the nearest wall, peppering them with limestone shrapnel.

  They ran up the steps. Jason pulled Nico to one side as another gust of wind toppled a column that would have crushed him flat.

  “Is this guy Love or Death?” Jason growled.

  Ask your friends, Cupid said. Frank, Hazel, and Percy met my counterpart, Thanatos. We are not so different. Except Death is sometimes kinder.

  “We just want the scepter!” Nico shouted. “We’re trying to stop Gaea. Are you on the gods’ side or not?”

  A second arrow hit the ground between Nico’s feet and glowed white-hot. Nico stumbled back as the arrow burst into a geyser of flame.

  Love is on every side, Cupid said. And no one’s side. Don’t ask what Love can do for you.

  “Great,” Jason said. “Now he’s spouting greeting card messages. ”

  Movement behind him: Jason spun, slicing his sword through the air. His blade bit into something solid. He heard a grunt and he swung again, but the invisible god was gone. On the paving stones, a trail of golden ichor shimmered—the blood of the gods.

  Very good, Jason, Cupid said. At least you can sense my presence. Even a glancing hit at true love is more than most heroes manage.

  “So now I get the scepter?” Jason asked.

  Cupid laughed. Unfortunately, you could not wield it. Only a child of the Underworld can summon the dead legions. And only an officer of Rome can lead them.

  “But…” Jason wavered. He was an officer. He was praetor. Then he remembered all his second thoughts about where he belonged. In New Rome, he’d offered to give up his position to Percy Jackson. Did that make him unworthy to lead a legion of Roman ghosts?

  He decided to face that problem when the time came.

  “Just leave that to us,” he said. “Nico can summon—”

  The third arrow zipped by Jason’s shoulder. He couldn’t stop it in time. Nico gasped as it sunk into his sword arm.

  “Nico!”

  The son of Hades stumbled. The arrow dissolved, leaving no blood and no visible wound, but Nico’s face was tight with rage and pain.

  “Enough games!” Nico shouted. “Show yourself!”

  It is a costly thing, Cupid said, looking on the true face of Love.

  Another column toppled. Jason scrambled out of its way.

  My wife Psyche learned that lesson, Cupid said. She was brought here eons ago, when this was the site of my palace. We met only in the dark. She was warned never to look upon me, and yet she could not stand the mystery. She feared I was a monster. One night, she lit a candle, and beheld my face as I slept.

  “Were you that ugly?” Jason thought he had zeroed in on Cupid’s voice—at the edge of the amphitheater about twenty yards away—but he wanted to make sure.

  The god laughed. I was too handsome, I’m afraid. A mortal cannot gaze upon the true appearance of a god without suffering consequences. My mother, Aphrodite, cursed Psyche for her distrust. My poor lover was tormented, forced into exile, given horrible tasks to prove her worth. She was even sent to the Underworld on a quest to show her dedication. She earned her way back to my side, but she suffered greatly.

  Now I’ve got you, Jason thought.

  He thrust his sword in the sky and thunder shook the valley. Lightning blasted a crater where the voice had been speaking.

  Silence. Jason was just thinking, Dang, it actually worked, when an invisible force knocked him to the ground. His sword skittered across the road.

  A good try, Cupid said, his voice already distant. But Love cannot be pinned down so easily.

  Next to him, a wall collapsed. Jason barely managed to roll aside.

  “Stop it!” Nico yelled. “It’s me you want. Leave him alone!”

  Jason’s ears rang. He was dizzy from getting smacked around. His mouth tasted like limestone dust. He didn’t understand why Nico would think of himself as the main target, but Cupid seemed to agree.

  Poor Nico di Angelo. The god’s voice was tinged with disappointment. Do you know what you want, much less what I want? My beloved Psyche risked everything in the name of Love. It was the only way to atone for her lack of faith. And you—what have you risked in my name?

  “I’ve been to Tartarus and back,” Nico snarled. “You don’t scare me. ”

  I scare you very, very much. Face me. Be honest.

  Jason pulled himself up.

  All around Nico, the ground shifted. The grass withered, and the stones cracked as if something was moving in the earth beneath, trying to push its way through.

  “Give us Diocletian’s scepter,” Nico said. “We don’t have time for games. ”

  Games? Cupid struck, slapping Nico sideways into a granite pedestal. Love is no game! It is no flowery softness! It is hard work—a quest that never ends. It demands everything from you—especially the truth. Only then does it yield rewards.

  Jason retrieved his sword. If this invisible guy was Love, Jason was beginning to think Love was overrated. He liked Piper’s version better—considerate, kind, and beautiful. Aphrodite he could understand. Cupid seemed more like a thug, an enforcer.

  “Nico,” he called, “what does this guy want from you?”

  Tell him, Nico di Angelo, Cupid said. Tell him you are a coward, afraid of yourself and your feelings. Tell him the real reason you ran from Camp Half-Blood, and why you are always alone.

  Nico let loose a guttural scream. The ground at his feet split open and skeletons crawled forth—dead Romans with missing hands and caved-in skulls, cracked ribs, and jaws unhinged. Some were dressed in the remnants of togas. Others had glinting pieces of armor hanging off their chests.

  Will you hide among the dead, as you always do? Cupid taunted.

  Waves of darkness rolled off the son of Hades. When they hit Jason, he almost lost consciousness—overwhelmed by hatred and fear and shame…

  Images flashed through his mind. He saw Nico and his sister on a snowy cliff in Maine, Percy Jackson protecting them from a manticore. Percy’s sword gleamed in the dark. He’d been the first demigod Nico had ever seen in action.

  Later, at Camp Half-Blood, Percy took Nico by the arm, promising to keep his sister Bianca safe. Nico believed him. Nico looked into his sea-green eyes and thought, How can he possibly fail? This is a real hero. He was Nico’s favorite game, Mythomagic, brought to life.

  Jason saw the moment when Percy returned and told Nico that Bianca was dead. Nico had screamed and called him a liar. He’d felt betrayed, but still…when the skeleton warriors attacked, he couldn’t let them harm Percy. Nico had called on the earth to swallow them up, and then he’d run away—terrified of his own powers, and his own emotions.

  Jason saw a dozen more scenes like this from Nico’s point of view. … And they left him stunned, unable to move or speak.

  Meanwhile, Nico’s Roman skeletons surged forward and grappled with
something invisible. The god struggled, flinging the dead aside, breaking off ribs and skulls, but the skeletons kept coming, pinning the god’s arms.

  Interesting! Cupid said. Do you have the strength, after all?

  “I left Camp Half-Blood because of love,” Nico said. “Annabeth…she—”

  Still hiding, Cupid said, smashing another skeleton to pieces. You do not have the strength.

  “Nico,” Jason managed to say, “it’s okay. I get it. ”

  Nico glanced over, pain and misery washing across his face.

  “No, you don’t,” he said. “There’s no way you can understand. ”

  And so you run away again, Cupid chided. From your friends, from yourself.

  “I don’t have friends!” Nico yelled. “I left Camp Half-Blood because I don’t belong! I’ll never belong!”

  The skeletons had Cupid pinned now, but the invisible god laughed so cruelly that Jason wanted to summon another bolt of lightning. Unfortunately, he doubted he had the strength.

  “Leave him alone, Cupid,” Jason croaked. “This isn’t…”

  His voice failed. He wanted to say it wasn’t Cupid’s business, but he realized this was exactly Cupid’s business. Something Favonius said kept buzzing in his ears: Are you shocked?

  The story of Psyche finally made sense to him—why a mortal girl would be so afraid. Why she would risk breaking the rules to look the god of love in the face, because she feared he might be a monster.

  Psyche had been right. Cupid was a monster. Love was the most savage monster of all.

  Nico’s voice was like broken glass. “I—I wasn’t in love with Annabeth. ”

  “You were jealous of her,” Jason said. “That’s why you didn’t want to be around her. Especially why you didn’t want to be around…him. It makes total sense. ”

  All the fight and denial seemed to go out of Nico at once. The darkness subsided. The Roman dead collapsed into bones and crumbled to dust.

  “I hated myself,” Nico said. “I hated Percy Jackson. ”

  Cupid became visible—a lean, muscular young man with snowy white wings, straight black hair, a simple white frock and jeans. The bow and quiver slung over his shoulder were no toys—they were weapons of war. His eyes were as red as blood, as if every Valentine in the world had been squeezed dry, distilled into one poisonous mixture. His face was handsome, but also harsh—as difficult to look at as a spotlight. He watched Nico with satisfaction, as if he’d identified the exact spot for his next arrow to make a clean kill.

  “I had a crush on Percy,” Nico spat. “That’s the truth. That’s the big secret. ”

  He glared at Cupid. “Happy now?”

  For the first time, Cupid’s gaze seemed sympathetic. “Oh, I wouldn’t say Love always makes you happy. ” His voice sounded smaller, much more human. “Sometimes it makes you incredibly sad. But at least you’ve faced it now. That’s the only way to conquer me. ”

  Cupid dissolved into the wind.

  On the ground where he’d stood lay an ivory staff three feet long, topped with a dark globe of polished marble about the size of a baseball, nestled on the backs of three gold Roman eagles. The scepter of Diocletian.

 
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