Justin was ready to jump right on a plane again and fly straight to L.A., but he lost his enthusiasm after Sarah and I reminded him of what happened last time we were on a plane. None of us wanted to risk having a run in with another dragon. Of course, getting on a plane wasn’t going to increase our chances of another dragon encounter, but, just in case there was another one after us, we decided to play it safe and avoid traveling through the air as much as possible. Besides, even if Zeus had told me that he wanted me to live, I was still shaken up by my conversation with him.
So, instead of taking a plane, we decided on using the long road to Los Angeles and hopped on a bus instead, which we took as far as we could. We used whatever form of transport we could, buses, trains, sometimes stowing away on a truck, but we found our way from state to state. Even though it would take longer than we would have liked, we knew that we would make it to California eventually. And at least this way we wouldn’t have to worry about dying in a fiery plane crash.
It would take us several weeks to reach Los Angeles and, surprisingly enough, we didn’t run into any monsters. I had a feeling that Hades and Kronos were going to give us as little trouble as possible on this trip. Kronos wanted me in Tartarus, the entrance of which was in the Underworld, and Hades wanted me in the Underworld. Whether they were working with each other or not, I was playing right into both of their hands. I knew that nothing good was going to come from this venture, but I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I had to go to the Underworld one way or another. I had to find Emily…and stop Kronos and Hades, whatever they were planning.
I don’t remember much from the trip. Sarah and Justin were getting into fights like they always did. I was kept in the dark about what they were fighting about, which was unusual since they always looked to me to settle things. All I could figure out was that, whatever they were fighting about, it had everything to do with me. What other reason would they have for hiding it from me?
When Justin wasn’t fighting with Sarah, I would usually catch him staring at something that he was carrying around with him. It looked like a piece of paper, maybe a note or something, but I had never noticed him with it before, so I guessed that he had to have gotten it from camp. Whenever we had some time to kick back, which was usually when we were on a train or bus or whatever, I could catch him staring at it when he thought Sarah and I weren’t paying any attention to him.
I tried to ask Justin about what he was carrying on several occasions, but he would always look over at Sarah before denying that he knew what I was talking about. He wouldn’t talk about it in front of her, but I got it out of him eventually. We were on a train heading for Colorado. Sarah was sitting across from me and Justin and was asleep. Justin must have thought that I was too because he was staring at that piece of paper again.
“What are you always looking at,” I asked him.
Justin let out a high pitched yelping sound, which confirmed my suspicion that he had thought that I was sleeping. He tried to hide whatever he had from me, which was pointless since he already knew that I was aware of the fact that he had it. He looked up at me, his face red, and then at Sarah and then back at me. He was quiet for a moment before he calmed down. He took a deep breath before he spoke.
“It’s umm, it’s just…” he trailed off.
Instead of saying anymore, he pulled the thing out of his pocket and handed it to me. I looked down at a picture of a girl who I could only describe as being incredibly beautiful. At first, I couldn’t tell who I was looking at, but then I realized that it was a picture of Silena Beuregard. I wasn’t exactly sure, but, based on the way she was posing, it looked like it was a school picture, probably from her most recent school year since she looked exactly how I remembered her.
I handed the picture back to him, at a loss for words. We sat there for a long time, listening to the sound of the train as it rolled along the track. I knew for a long time now that there was something between Justin and Silena, but I had no idea that there relationship went that far. Justin must have had a hard time leaving her behind, even if it was to join us on another crazy adventure.
“You miss her that much,” I said.
Justin nodded. “I didn’t want you guys to know that I had this,” he said, “I was uhhh,” his face turned red again, “A little embarrassed.”
“You,” I asked, “Embarrassed about liking a girl?”
“I know, I know,” Justin retorted, “I’ve never cared who knew before. I would flirt with every girl that passed me and blah, blah, blah.”
“Well that’s putting it mildly,” I laughed. I fell silent for a minute. “So what’s special about Silena,” I asked.
Justin wouldn’t answer me right away. He looked out of the window and thought for a long time. “Honestly, she wasn’t at first,” he said, “But then I found out that, she wasn’t like other girls. She was different.”
“Different,” I said like it was a question.
“Yeah,” Justin said. He still wasn’t looking at me. “Usually,” he started again, “Girls won’t even give me a chance. It’s like, well, you know how my luck is.”
“I’ve told you before that you shouldn’t talk to others the way that you do,” I said.
“I know,” Justin said, “But you know that I’m not really like that.”
“I do,” I said, “But that doesn’t mean that everyone else knows that.”
Justin was quiet for a second. He was still looking out of the window at the countryside speeding by. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said, “But I’m just so bad at relating to others. When I talk to someone I’ve never met, I just blurt out the first thing that comes to my mind. It’s usually something inappropriate.”
He was definitely right about that. I still remembered when I first met Justin and how annoying I thought he was. At first, I thought that he just liked to irritate people, but I learned later on that he just didn’t understand how to talk to people and understand others. He wasn’t a bad person if you could get past the fact that he made a horrible first impression.
“There’s no way that me and Sarah would be friends if you weren’t here,” Justin laughed.
I smiled. “You two wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for me,” I said.
“You know what I meant,” Justin retorted. We shared a laugh. “Anyway,” he went on, “Silena, she didn’t blow me off right away you know. She gave me a chance, got to know who I really was.” Justin fell silent again and he looked down at the picture. “The more time we spent together,” he continued, “The more I started to like her…like, really like her…I don’t know, maybe I…”
“Love her,” I offered.
Justin’s face turned red, but he made no effort to hide it from me. “I’m not really sure if I would go that far,” he laughed, “But I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I guess that’s why I was embarrassed about it.” Justin stared at the picture for a while without a word. “I do miss her.”
“You didn’t have to come with us,” I told him.
Justin looked up at me. A smile crossed his face. “Are you kidding,” he said putting the picture back in his pocket, “You two wouldn’t get anywhere without me.”
“I think we could manage,” I laughed, “Besides, wouldn’t you rather have stayed with her? You really didn’t have to come.”
Justin looked down at the ground. “But I did,” he said. I was going to protest, but he wouldn’t give me the chance. “I wasn’t about to let my friends go off on a life threatening journey while I sat around doing nothing,” he said, “We’ve been through a lot in the last two years Hirius, I couldn’t abandon you for a girl that I met just a few months ago.”
I smiled at him. “Well I’m glad to have you with us,” I said placing a hand on his shoulder, “And don’t worry, you’ll see Silena again.”
Justin smiled and continued to look at the ground. “I know,” he said. He stared at the floor for a while. “But enough about me,” he said as he looked up at me, “I want to hear about you and Sarah.”
Now it was my turn to be embarrassed. I felt my face heating up and I looked away from Justin and stared at the ground as I tried to hide the fact that I was blushing, but I knew that I was doing a bad job of it. Where had that even come from anyway? Sure, I had been having some mixed thoughts about Sarah lately, but where in the world did Justin get the idea that there was anything between the two of us? We were just really good friends.
“What do you mean,” I said, “There isn’t really much to hear about.”
Justin stared at me with a look of confusion. I was trying to calm myself down, but my face still felt as hot as a furnace. “Come on,” he said, “I know I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I’m not that dull.”
I continued to stare at the floor as I listened to the sound of the train moving. I finally managed to get myself together and was able to think clearly again. Justin knew me well enough to notice when something was bothering me. Even if I wasn’t thinking about it that much, he must have seen that something about my relationship with Sarah was getting to me. Even if there wasn’t any reason for him to think there was something between us, there was enough reason for him to ask about it.
I took a deep breath before I answered him. “There isn’t much to say,” I said to him. As I spoke, my gaze drifted up from the floor until I was looking at Sarah who was still asleep in the seat across from us. “I’d be lying if I told you that I haven’t thought about her like that before,” I said, “But, at the end of the day, we’re still just friends.”
I kept my eyes on Sarah. I still thought that I had gotten over this whole thing, but I still had a hard time getting her out of my head. The last time I had thought about someone this much was when I was with Sarena in Morenci, but that was different right? Sarena was a girl that I practically fell in love with the moment I met her. Sarah was a close friend that I just couldn’t stop thinking about. This was completely different from what had happened with Sarena…right?
“You’re selling it short man,” Justin said.
I looked over at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Your relationship,” he said, “You’re selling it short.”
“What do you mean,” I retorted, “Me and Sarah are just friends. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
“Are you kidding me,” Justin asked, “Have you ever seen the way that she looks at you? Have you even told her how you feel about it?” I shook my head. “Then how can you know that you two aren’t more than just friends,” he asked.
“That’s just how it is,” I answered, “And if I say anything to her it could ruin that.”
“Aren’t you listening to me,” Justin asked, “I’m trying to tell you that she’s been thinking the same way about you.”
I looked over at Sarah again. “Maybe,” I said, “But I still don’t think that I should risk it.”
To be honest, I already knew that Sarah was having the same thoughts that I was. The others might have thought that I’m dense, but I did notice that she was acting different lately and that it was only when she was around me that she was like that. I don’t know why, but I really just chose to ignore the change. I knew what it meant, but I was sure that the way that we were thinking was just a phase. It wouldn’t last and eventually we would move past it.
I could tell that Justin wanted to argue his point further, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk about it anymore so we dropped the subject. He tried to bring it up again several times before we made it to L.A., but I would always ignore his attempts to get me to talk about it and the subject would quickly be dropped again. Justin and Sarah stopped with their fights after that night too. That was when I realized that they had been fighting about the same thing that Justin and I had talked about.
The rest of our trip was made with no excitement. We never stayed anywhere long, we slept and ate while we traveled, and we made no stops on the way. Even so, it took us several weeks to reach Los Angeles. We got there just a few days before my birthday. A constant dread was hanging over me as we found our way to DOA Recording Studios and I realized that the prophecy was only a few days from being fulfilled. In all likelihood, whatever I was going to do would be done while we were in the Underworld. I became especially sure of this when it took us several days to find DOA Recording Studios and by the time we were standing outside of the building it was already the day before I turned sixteen.
“Woah,” Justin said as we stood outside of the familiar building, “Anybody else feeling a bit of déjà vu?”
Sarah and I ignored him and we both stared at the studio instead. The windows of the place were darkened the way that I remembered, even I couldn’t see inside. I had to wonder what was inside of the place that was so important that it had to be hidden. I guess the entrance to the Underworld wasn’t the kind of place that you wanted everyone to know about.
The three of us stood silently and stared at the place. I was the first one to move. I walked up to the entrance, Sarah and Justin followed me after a moment. I expected the door to be locked or guarded or something, but getting into the building was as easy as opening an unlocked door and walking right in. I had to guess that the real challenges would come when we were actually in the Underworld.
The inside of the lobby was not what I thought it would be. I should have known that it wouldn’t be, but I still somehow managed to be caught off guard by these kinds of things. The lobby was brightly lit, contrary to the fact that from the outside it looked like lights didn’t exist in this place. Music played softly from speakers that couldn’t be seen. The carpet and the walls were steel gray and pencil cactuses were growing in the corners of the room, each one looking like a skeletal hand. The furniture was black leather and every seat was taken up by a spirit. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell that they were spirits right away. They would have looked normal at first glance, but they would appear transparent to anyone that tried to focus on a single one of them. Of course, being a son of Hades, most of the rules regarding dead people didn’t apply to me. I could see all of the spirits for what they were even if I didn’t focus on any individual.
At the back of the lobby, a security guard stood at a raised podium, so we had to look up at him. He was tall and elegant and had chocolate-colored skin and bleached-blond hair that was shaved military style. He was wearing tortoiseshell sunglasses and a silk Italian suit that matched his hair. A black rose was pinned to his lapel under a silver name tag. I didn’t have to read his nametag to know who he was.
“Charon,” I said, “Ferryman to the Underworld.”
“That’s Mr. Charon,” he said as he leaned across the desk to look at us, “And what can I do for you three? You don’t look dead.”
I gave Charon a look like I was telling him that I wasn’t in the mood for any crap.
“I’m sure you know me,” I said, “My name’s Hirius.” Charon looked at me like I was some kind of ghost, which he should have been used to seeing. “I’m your boss’ son.”
Charon continued to stare at me as he raised an eyebrow. “Yes,” he said, “Hades mentioned something about taking a godling to the Underworld.” He looked over at Justin and Sarah. “But I’m only supposed to take one of you.”
“Come on,” Justin said, “Surely Hades wouldn’t forget about us.”
Charon laughed. “He said you would insist on the three of you going,” he said, “And since I’m in no mood to fight about it, I’ll let all three of you through.” He stood up and stepped down from the podium. “Come on,” he said.
We pushed through the crowd of spirits, each of them grabbing at us, but none of them able to touch us as their hands dissipated before they could make contact. I heard a million different voices whispering to me at once. Justin and Sarah wouldn’t be able to hear them clearly, but I could. If there wasn’t so many of them talking, I would’ve been able to tell what they were saying.
Charon escorted us into the lobby’s elevator, which was already packed with spirits, each of them holding a green boarding pass. A few spirits tried to push their way onto the elevator with us, but Charon grabbed them and pushed them back into the lobby. The crowd began moaning and I felt a thousand different voices screaming out in anger. The others didn’t seem to notice the uproar.
“Now, no one get any ideas while I’m gone,” Charon announced to the room. With that, he shut the doors, pulled a key card out, and put it into a slot in the elevator panel and I felt the elevator beginning to descend.
“What happens to all of those spirits,” Sarah asked.
“They wait,” Charon said.
Charon shrugged. “Some of them forever,” he answered, “Sometimes I’ll feel generous and let a few of them through.”
“Only forever,” Justin said, “I guess that’s fair.”
Charon gave him a quizzical look. “I would expect three demigods to know that nothing is fair,” he said, “Just wait until you get the chance to join them. It’ll come soon where you’re going.”
“We’re not dieing here,” I said.
Charon looked at me. “You won’t,” he said like he knew something, “Your friends though? I’m not so sure.”
I didn’t like the way that he said that. I already knew that I was playing into Hades’ hands, as well as Kronos’, but it was obvious that Charon knew something about what one of them, probably Hades, was planning. Of course, the fact that he let us into the Underworld without a fight was evidence enough that he was part of my father’s plan.
I felt dizzy suddenly and the elevator shifted. I realized that we weren’t moving down anymore, but forward. The air around us turned misty and the spirits that were with us began to change shape. Their modern clothes were turned into grey hooded robes. The floor of the elevator began swaying like it had turned into a boat and we were now drifting down a calm river.
I looked up at Charon. His Italian suit had melted away and was replaced by a black hooded robe. His glasses were gone and I could see directly into his eyes, or lack there of. Where his eyes should’ve been, there were nothing but two dark empty sockets. I had seen my father’s skeletons before, but Charon wasn’t like them. His eye sockets were dark, evil, full of night, death, and despair. For the first time, I knew how people felt when they looked into my eyes and saw their own death played out before them. The creepiest part about him was that his skin was transparent and I could see straight through to his skull. Again, it was like the skeletal guards at Hades’ palace, but I couldn’t see their skin.
“Got something to say to me,” Charon asked as he caught me staring at him.
I looked right at him, showing him that he couldn’t intimidate me. “So what’s my father’s plan,” I asked him.
Charon laughed and shrugged my question off. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Don’t take me for an idiot,” I said, “I know that you’re part of his plan, so tell me what he wants from me.”
Charon laughed again. “Look, all I was told was that I should take you to the Underworld,” he said, “Even if I wanted to tell you what Hades is planning, I couldn’t.”
I continued to stare at Charon, looking straight into his eyes, and he held my gaze. I could have easily forced him to tell me what he knew, but it was clear that he was actually telling the truth. I should have known that Hades would make sure that I had no way of figuring out what his plan was. I was hoping that he had slipped up somewhere, but I guess that thousands of years of existence was long enough to teach him how to be careful.
The floor continued to sway. I blinked and the elevator changed by the time I opened my eyes. We were now standing in a wooden barge. Charon was pulling us across a dark, oily river that was swirling with bones, dead fish, as well as a number of other dead things that I would rather not mention, along with a number of still stranger things.
“The River Styx,” I found myself saying out loud.
“Wow,” Sarah said, “I never thought I would see it in person.” She looked over the side of the barge at the murky water. “What is…”
“Pollution,” Charon said, “Humans pass over the river and toss all manner of it in here, hopes, dreams, wishes. You just never seem to run out of things to get rid of when you die.”
Mist curled off of the river. Above us was nothing but a ceiling of stalactites, a spiky death trap that might end our trip before we reached the shore. Ahead of us, the far shore was glowing an eerie greenish light, the color of poison. I felt a wave of panic wash over the ship, even the spirits were in an uproar despite being dead already. Justin and Sarah closed in around me, reminding themselves that there were others that were still alive on the boat. I even felt Sarah’s hand slip into mine, which might have bothered me under normal circumstances, but I understood how she felt.
The shoreline of the Underworld came into view ahead of us. I saw craggy rocks and black volcanic looking sand that stretched inland about a hundred yards to the base of a high stone wall, which stretched in either direction as far as I could see. Mist crept off of the river and crawled over the shore and crept up the wall. I heard a sound come from somewhere nearby and echo off of the stones. It was the howl of a large animal. I didn’t have to be told that it was Cerberus, the three headed guard-dog of the Underworld.
I marveled at the sight of the place. I had seen the Underworld, or parts of it at least, a million times in my dreams, but now I was seeing it for the first time in person. It was like seeing a place for the first time after looking at pictures of it over and over again, I knew what it looked like, but it still felt like I was seeing it for the first time in my life.
The boat slid onto the black sand. All around us, the dead began to stir and they disembarked. I listened to the sound of their voices as they climbed onto the shore and began to climb up toward the wall. I couldn’t tell if they were relieved or scared or both, but none of them sounded happy. Why would they be? They were dead after all.
We followed the dead. Behind us, Charon pushed the barge back onto the river and began drifting away from the shore. We followed the spirits up to the entrance of the Underworld, which reminded me a lot of airport security. There were three separate entrances all under a huge black archway that said YOU ARE NOW ENTERING EREBUS. Each entrance had a pass-through metal detector with security cameras mounted on top of them and beyond those were tollbooths manned by black robbed ghouls like Charon. Spirits queued up in the three lines, one of which was moving much faster than the others. Cerberus was nowhere to be seen, but the howling of the dog was louder than ever now.
“What’s going on here,” Justin asked, “I feel like were back in Los Angeles International.”
“They’re lining up for judgment,” I said, “The fast line goes straight to the Fields of Asphodel, they don’t want to risk being punished by the court.”
“The dead have a court,” Sarah asked.
I nodded. “There are three judges. They switch around who’s on the bench. King Minos, Thomas Jefferson, and other people like that. Some people are rewarded for the way they lived they go to the Fields of Elysium. Others they think need to be punished for their lives and they’re sent to the Fields of Punishment. The rest, well, they just lived, nothing special about them, they go to the Fields of Asphodel.”
“What’re the Fields of Asphodel like,” Sarah asked.
“Boring,” I answered, “It’s like sitting in a movie theater and waiting for the movie to start, but it never does.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” Justin said.
“It isn’t as bad as the Fields of Punishment.”
“What happens there,” Justin asked.
Sarah and I gave him a look like we were wondering if he was being serious. I answered him anyway. “People are punished there,” I said, “The Furies set up a punishment for them.”
“Oh,” Justin said, “Hope I never have to go there.”
We made our way closer to the gates. The sound of Cerberus’ howling was loud enough that it was shaking the ground now, but I still couldn’t see him. I knew that Cerberus was hidden from anyone that was still alive, but I thought that I should be able to see him at least. I was just starting to think that we might not have to deal with him when the mist in front of us shimmered and the monstrous three headed dog appeared where the path split into three lanes.
I hadn’t seen him before because he was mostly transparent. The only parts of him that were solid were his eyes and his teeth. Otherwise, he blended in with whatever was behind him, until he moved. Cerberus’ three heads sniffed the air and then looked down at the three of us. They showed there teeth and growled. We stopped dead in our tracks.
“Is that,” Justin asked, “A giant three headed Rottweiler?”
“That,” I answered, “Is Cerberus.”
Spirits shuffled around us and walked right up to the beast, almost like they had no idea that he was there. Of course, they didn’t have any reason to be afraid of a giant dog that might kill them. The two lines that passed judgment parted on either side of Cerberus and the Asphodel line walked right under him, which was easy enough for them to do without crouching.
“He’s becoming a little easier to see now,” Sarah commented.
“Were getting closer to being dead,” I said. Cerberus’ middle head sniffed the air again, looked directly at us, and growled again. “Oh, by the way,” I said, “He can smell the living.” The massive dog bounded toward us, completely ignoring the lines of spirits moving around him. “MOVE,” I yelled.
The three of us scattered as Cerberus charged past us. I barely managed to avoid being stepped on as I rolled over the ground and got back to my feet right away. I summoned Heartstopper and before I knew it Justin and Sarah were next to me, there weapons drawn. Cerberus charged forward a few more feet before he stopped and turned around. Its three heads focused on us and it snarled.
“Guys,” Justin said, “I don’t think we can win this one.”
I actually had to agree with him there. Cerberus was no bigger or stronger than the dragon that we killed, but at least we could see the dragon. Cerberus was shimmering in and out of sight as we looked at him. Even if we were having an easier time seeing him, it wasn’t like he was completely visible. He still blended in with whatever was behind him. It would be easy for us to lose sight of him, and then what? He could blind side us and kill us in seconds if that happened.
“So what do we do,” Sarah asked.
I looked all around for an answer to her question. As far as I could tell, we were going to have to run, but we needed some kind of distraction, or a trap, something to keep Cerberus busy. My eyes darted around the area and eventually settled on the River Styx behind Cerberus. An idea came to me. It was a long shot, but it just might work. All I had to do was pull it off.
“I have an idea,” I said, “You two just stay alive.”
Cerberus barked at us, all three of his heads doing so in turn. He charged forward, his heads barking and snapping at us. I concentrated on an image of the shore just beyond Cerberus. I imagined myself standing there on the shore. I felt myself melt into the shadows and the world went dark. I shot forward, the feeling of shadow travel so familiar to me now, and before I knew it, I was standing on the shore of the Styx.
I turned around and found that Justin and Sarah had managed to avoid being trampled. Justin tried to fire an arrow at Cerberus, but the dog had disappeared and he lost sight of him. I scanned the area and saw the green mist shimmer as the massive dog turned around. Its three heads looked at us, each one focusing on one individual. Its middle head was staring at me.
“Hey,” I called to Cerberus, “Over here you three headed freak!”
All of the monster’s heads focused on me and growled. Was this the craziest thing I had ever done? Maybe. Was there another way to deal with Cerberus? I was sure there was. Was Sarah going to kill me for putting myself in danger once again? Definitely, but I didn’t see any other way of dealing with this beast, so I would just have to deal with her when the time came.
Cerberus bounded forward and charged straight for me. Its middle head shot forward and tried to snap at me, but I ducked down low enough to avoid getting my head bitten off. I dodged around each of the monster’s paws as it passed me and sliced at each of them, putting a nice sized gash into each of them. Cerberus barked and growled in protest of the pain, but charged forward anyway.
I dodged past his hind legs, slicing at both of them as I did. The monster continued forward and fell right into the river with a loud splash. I turned and watched him thrash around aimlessly in the water for a few minutes before he sank below the surface. I waited several minutes, but he didn’t emerge from the river. I had read a lot of stories about the Styx, how dangerous the waters were, but I didn’t think that any of the dangers applied to monsters. All I had managed to do was injury Cerberus enough that he would have a hard time swimming to the shore. He was stuck until his wounds healed, which bought us a few hours at best. I hadn’t managed to kill him, but at least I bought us time to get away from him.
“Hirius,” I heard Sarah call behind me. I turned around and saw her and Justin walking up to me. Sarah did not look very happy with me.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said before she could scold me, “But I pulled it off right? That’s all that matters right?”
The way that Sarah was looking at me told me that she didn’t agree with my philosophy at all. She was about to speak up, but before she did, we heard the sound of splashing from the river. We looked at the water and saw all three of Cerberus’ heads above the surface. The monster had resumed its thrashing and was now howling and barking at us. I didn’t need to understand it to know what it was saying.
I looked at Sarah. “Talk about it later,” I asked. She nodded.
The three of us turned and ran for the gates, jumping into the fast moving line so we could get through as quickly as possible. Behind us, I could still hear the sound of Cerberus thrashing about in the river and his barking and howling echoed off of the stone. We had made it past the first challenge the Underworld could throw at us. If that was any indication of what we were about to get ourselves into, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t looking forward to the rest of it.