The giant Polyphemus hung out in a cave on a deserted island, where he herded sheep and enjoyed simple pastoral pleasures, like eating the occasional Greek hero who happened to sail by. (Some monsters never learn.)
SWORD OF HADES
Christmas in the Underworld was NOT my idea.
If I’d known what was coming, I would’ve called in sick. I could’ve avoided an army of demons, a fight with a Titan and a trick that almost got my friends and me cast into eternal darkness.
But no. I had to take my stupid English exam. So there I was on the last day of the winter semester at Goode High School, sitting in the auditorium with all the other freshmen and trying to finish my I-didn’t-read-it-but-I’m-pretending-like-I-did essay on A Tale of Two Cities, when Mrs O’Leary burst onto the stage, barking like crazy.
Mrs O’Leary is my pet hellhound. She’s a shaggy black monster the size of a Hummer, with razor fangs, steel-sharp claws and glowing red eyes. She’s really sweet, but usually she stays at Camp Half-Blood, our demigod training camp. I was a little surprised to see her on stage, trampling over the Christmas trees and Santa’s elves and the rest of the Winter Wonderland set.
Everyone looked up. I was sure the other kids were going to panic and run for the exits, but they just started snickering and laughing. A couple of the girls said, ‘Awww, cute!’
Our English teacher, Dr Boring (I’m not kidding; that’s his real name), adjusted his glasses and frowned.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘Whose poodle?’
I sighed in relief. Thank gods for the Mist – the magical veil that keeps humans from seeing things the way they really are. I’d seen it bend reality plenty of times before, but Mrs O’Leary as a poodle? That was impressive.
‘Um, my poodle, sir,’ I spoke up. ‘Sorry! It must’ve followed me.’
Somebody behind me started whistling ‘Mary had a Little Lamb.’ More kids cracked up.
‘Enough!’ Dr Boring snapped. ‘Percy Jackson, this is a final exam. I cannot have poodles –’
‘WOOF!’ Mrs O’Leary’s bark shook the auditorium. She wagged her tail, knocking over a few more elves. Then she crouched on her front paws and stared at me like she wanted me to follow.
‘I’ll get her out of here, Dr Boring,’ I promised. ‘I’m finished anyway.’
I closed my test booklet and ran towards the stage. Mrs O’Leary bounded for the exit and I followed, the other kids still laughing and calling out behind me, ‘See ya, Poodle Boy!’
Mrs O’Leary ran down East 81st Street towards the river.
‘Slow down!’ I yelled. ‘Where are you going?’
I got some strange looks from pedestrians, but this was New York, so a boy chasing a poodle probably wasn’t the weirdest thing they’d ever seen.
Mrs O’Leary kept well ahead of me. She turned to bark every once in a while as if to say, Move it, slowcoach! She ran three blocks north, straight into Carl Schurz Park. By the time I caught up with her, she’d leaped an iron fence and disappeared into a huge topiary wall of snow-covered bushes.
‘Aw, come on,’ I complained. I hadn’t had a chance to grab my coat back at school. I was already freezing, but I climbed the fence and plunged into the frozen shrubbery.
On the other side was a clearing – a half acre of icy grass ringed with bare trees. Mrs O’Leary was sniffing around, wagging her tail like crazy. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. In front of me, the steel-coloured East River flowed sluggishly. White plumes billowed from the rooftops in Queens. Behind me, the Upper East Side loomed cold and silent.
I wasn’t sure why, but the back of my neck started to tingle. I took out my ballpoint pen and uncapped it. Immediately it grew into my bronze sword, Riptide, its blade glowing faintly in the winter light.
Mrs O’Leary lifted her head. Her nostrils quivered.
‘What is it, girl?’ I whispered.
The bushes rustled and a golden deer burst through. When I say golden, I don’t mean yellow. This thing had metallic fur and horns that looked like genuine fourteen-carat. It shimmered with an aura of golden light, making it almost too bright to look at. It was probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Mrs O’Leary licked her lips like she was thinking, Deer burgers! Then the bushes rustled again and a figure in a hooded parka leaped into the clearing, an arrow notched in her bow.
I raised my sword. The girl aimed at me – then froze.
‘Percy?’ She pushed back the silvery hood of her parka. Her black hair was longer than I remembered, but I knew those bright blue eyes and the silver tiara that marked her as the first lieutenant of Artemis.
‘Thalia!’ I said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Following the golden deer,’ she said, like that should be obvious. ‘It’s the sacred animal of Artemis. I figured it was some sort of sign. And, um…’ She nodded nervously at Mrs O’Leary. ‘You want to tell me what that’s doing here?’
‘That’s my pet – Mrs O’Leary, no!’
Mrs O’Leary was sniffing the deer and basically not respecting its personal space. The deer butted the hellhound in the nose. Pretty soon, the two of them were playing a strange game of keep-away around the clearing.
‘Percy…’ Thalia frowned. ‘This can’t be a coincidence. You and me ending up in the same place at the same time?’
She was right. Demigods didn’t have coincidences. Thalia was a good friend, but I hadn’t seen her in over a year, and now, suddenly, here we were.
‘Some god is messing with us,’ I guessed.
‘Good to see you, though.’
She gave me a grudging smile. ‘Yeah. We get out of this in one piece, I’ll buy you a cheeseburger. How’s Annabeth?’
Before I could answer, a cloud passed over the sun. The golden deer shimmered and disappeared, leaving Mrs O’Leary barking at a pile of leaves.
I readied my sword. Thalia drew her bow. Instinctively we stood back to back. A patch of darkness passed over the clearing and a boy tumbled out of it like he’d been tossed, landing in the grass at our feet.
‘Ow,’ he muttered. He brushed off his aviator’s jacket. He was about twelve years old, with dark hair, jeans, a black T-shirt and a silver skull ring on his right hand. A sword hung at his side.
‘Nico?’ I said.
Thalia’s eyes widened. ‘Bianca’s little brother?’
Nico scowled. I doubt he liked being announced as Bianca’s little brother. His sister, a Hunter of Artemis, had died a couple of years ago, and it was still a sore subject for him.
‘Why’d you bring me here?’ he grumbled. ‘One minute I’m in a New Orleans graveyard. The next minute – is this New York? What in Hades’s name am I doing in New York?’
‘We didn’t bring you here,’ I promised. ‘We were –’ A shiver went down my back. ‘We were brought together. All three of us.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Nico demanded.
‘The children of the Big Three,’ I said. ‘Zeus, Poseidon, Hades.’
Thalia took a sharp breath. ‘The prophecy. You don’t think Kronos…’
She didn’t finish the thought. We all knew about the big prophecy: a war was coming, between the Titans and gods, and the next child of the three major gods who turned sixteen would make a decision that saved or destroyed the world. That meant one of us. Over the last few years, the Titan lord Kronos had tried to manipulate each of us separately. Now… could he be plotting something by bringing us all together?
The ground rumbled. Nico drew his own sword – a black blade of Stygian iron. Mrs O’Leary leaped backwards and barked in alarm.
Too late, I realized she was trying to warn me.
The ground opened up under Thalia, Nico and me, and we fell into darkness.
I expected to keep falling forever, or maybe be squashed into a demigod pancake when we hit the bottom. But the next thing I knew, Thalia, Nico and I were standing in a garden, all three of us still screaming in terror, which made me feel pretty silly.
‘What – where are we?’ Thalia asked.
The garden was dark. Rows of silver flowers glowed faintly, reflecting off huge gemstones that lined the planting beds – diamonds, sapphires and rubies the size of footballs. Trees arched over us, their branches covered with orange blooms and sweet-smelling fruit. The air was cool and damp – but not like a New York winter. More like a cave.
‘I’ve been here before,’ I said.
Nico plucked a pomegranate off a tree. ‘My stepmother Persephone’s garden.’ He made a sour face and dropped the fruit. ‘Don’t eat anything.’
He didn’t need to tell me twice. One taste of Underworld food, and we’d never be able to leave.
‘Heads up,’ Thalia warned.
I turned and found her aiming her bow at a tall woman in a white dress.
At first I thought the woman was a ghost. Her dress billowed around her like smoke. Her long dark hair floated and curled as if it were weightless. Her face was beautiful but deathly pale.
Then I realized her dress wasn’t white. It was made of all sorts of changing colours – red, blue and yellow flowers blooming in the fabric – but it was strangely faded. Her eyes were the same way, multicoloured but washed-out, like the Underworld had sapped her life force. I had a feeling that in the world above she would be beautiful, even brilliant.
‘I am Persephone,’ she said, her voice thin and papery. ‘Welcome, demigods.’
Nico squashed a pomegranate under his boot. ‘Welcome? After last time, you’ve got the nerve to welcome me?’
I shifted uneasily, because talking that way to a god can get you blasted into dust bunnies. ‘Um, Nico –’
‘It’s all right,’ Persephone said coldly. ‘We had a little family spat.’
‘Family spat?’ Nico cried. ‘You turned me into a dandelion!’
Persephone ignored her stepson. ‘As I was saying, demigods, I welcome you to my garden.’
Thalia lowered her bow. ‘You sent the golden deer?’
‘And the shadow that collected Nico,’ the goddess admitted. ‘And the hellhound.’
‘You controlled Mrs O’Leary?’ I asked.
Persephone shrugged. ‘She is a creature of the Underworld, Percy Jackson. I merely planted a sugestion in her mind that it would be fun to lead you to the park. It was necessary to bring you three together.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
Persephone regarded me, and I felt like cold little flowers were blooming in my stomach.
‘Lord Hades has a problem,’ she said. ‘And if you know what’s good for you, you will help him.’
We sat on a dark veranda overlooking the garden. Persephone’s handmaidens brought food and drink, which none of us touched. The handmaidens would’ve been pretty except for the fact that they were dead. They wore yellow dresses, with daisy and hemlock wreaths on their heads. Their eyes were hollow, and they spoke in the chittering bat-like voices of shades.