Nico sighed as another arrow flew over his head.
It had been two days since Lou Ellen froze Clarisse, and Piper still hadn’t returned from Charleston. Cupid was getting more and more aggressive with his attacks, and Camp Half-Blood was is chaos.
Lacy rushed past him, kicking away a lovesick Travis Stoll. Behind him, Nyssa and Jake Mason were screaming at each other, having been cursed with hate. Cupid had also unleashed his fear arrows, resulting in a terrified Pollux fleeing from an obsessed Katie Gardiner.
It seemed like only Nico’s closest friends were still unaffected. Percy and Annabeth were doing okay, and Jason was worried about Piper, so that relationship was alright. Nothing had happened at Camp Jupiter yet, as far as Nico knew, but it was only a matter of time.
Suddenly, Malcolm burst out of Cabin 6, wielding a metal ruler. He turned his head from side to side, a manic look in his eyes. He locked his sights on Nico, and screamed, “For the glory of Athena!” He charged, looking ready to attack.
Nico almost didn’t want to run. Maybe if Malcolm killed him, Cupid would leave the camp alone. But a hand gripped the back of his t-shirt and dragged him away into a cabin.
“Put me down!” he shouted, and the person let go. “Look, I can save myself.”
“Then why didn’t you?” the person said, and Nico realized he knew the voice. He turned around and his suspicions were confirmed.
Will Solace stood there with his arms crossed, glaring at Nico. His skin was flawless and sunkissed, which made sense, what with Apollo being his father. He’d also inherited his father’s unruly golden hair and bright blue eyes. A spattering of freckles dusted his nose, and his muscles were well defined, though not very large. Not that Nico noticed any of that. No one knew how to get on Nico’s nerves more than Will. He just had this annoying way of...caring.
“I’m well aware that you can defend yourself. You carried an enormous statue across the world while fighting monsters the whole time, for Hera’s sake! But you weren’t doing anything, so I stepped in to keep you from dying,” Will explained, his piercing eyes locked on Nico’s.
“This whole thing is my fault. It might be better if I were dead,” Nico mumbled.
“Shut up. That’s not going to solve anything,” Will said. “We should just go to Salona and and take down Cupid.”
“Cupid is a god, we can’t just-”
“Oh, please, we’ve defeated gods before! And he’s just a minor god. We could just grab a ship and sail over there. Or, you know, you’ve recovered. You could shadow-travel us over there. With me healing you along the way, of course. Maybe Reyna could even come and lend you her strength. I’ll Iris-message her,” Will suggested, and started fishing through his pockets for drachmas.
“Will, no. We can’t fix this through violence. We just have to hope that Piper can get Aphrodite to get Cupid under control,” Nico said.
As if on cue, Piper’s voice rang out from outside the cabin. “Nico! Gah, Clovis, go take a nap or something! Malcolm, put down the ruler before you hurt someone. Nico! Where are you!”
Nico pushed the door open to see Piper wandering around outside. She spotted him and began marching over. “Why are you in the Apollo cabin?”
“Will dragged me in here,” he said.
“Oh, Will,” she said, trying to hide her smile.
“Shut up, Piper.” He shut the door behind them. “Now, spill. What did Aphrodite say?”
“Well, she was in her normal spot, having tea in Charleston. I found her there, and she was hysterical. She’s losing her mind; she’s in far worse condition than during the Giant War. Trying to keep Cupid in check is really draining her. She won’t be any help to us,” Piper explained, clearly frustrated.
“Piper, darling! Wait for Mommy!” a shrill voice cried out.
Piper cursed under her breath. “Oh, yeah. She followed me.”
Someone, presumably Aphrodite, started rapping on the door. Will opened it, and the most beautiful woman Nico had ever seen stepped through.
Now, he wasn’t attracted to women, and he’d come to terms with that. But if he were to fall in love with any woman, it would be this one. He’d heard that Aphrodite’s appearance changed to be the most appealing that she could be to the person seeing them, and he could see that now. Her hair changed from curly and black to straight red and finally to thick, wavy, blond locks. Her skin flashed through nearly every skin tone Nico could think of before settling on a light caramel color. Her nose turned upwards, and her lips became more defined. Freckles appeared on her face, and her wide eyes shined bright blue. She wore a beautiful pink gown like a southern debutante, embroidered with pearls.
“Woah,” he stuttered. “You’re Aphrodite.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” she said, curtsying. Her movements seemed jerky and labored, rather than graceful and effortless like he had expected.
Will kept glancing back and forth between Aphrodite and Nico for some reason. As Nico looked at the two of them next to each other, he realized they could be twins.
“Mom, please go back to Olympus. You need to rest,” Piper pleaded.
“I’m perfectly fine, darling!” she exclaimed. Aphrodite suddenly started coughing, and a dove flew out of her mouth and through the still open door.
“Um...” Will said, clearly as confused as Nico.
“I’m having a bit of trouble holding my powers together, Will, sweetie. But I have maintained my beauty through all of the trouble with Cupid.” She turned to Nico. “After all, image is everything.”
On the word everything, Aphrodite changed again. Her skin broke out in hives and faded to a sickly pale color. Her limbs became gaunt and frail, webbed with veins. Her gums turned black with disease, and nearly all of her teeth vanished. The few that remained rotted until they were nothing but yellow stubs. Her hair fell out in patches, and the hair that remained on her head ratted itself into a tangled mess. Her bright eyes faded to a dull gray, full of melancholy and despair. Her dress fell to pieces, the color fading and the fabric tearing, all of the pearls either cracked or totally smashed.
Nico saw everyone in the room recoil. Clearly he wasn’t the only one seeing this strange version of the love goddess. As quickly as her appearance had deteriorated, though, it returned to what it had been before, her teeth growing back in and her hair reattaching itself.
“What the-” Nico started, but Aphrodite cut him off.
“Like I said, I’m having slight issues with my powers. But it’s all okay. I’m fine,” she said.
“So you can’t stop Cupid?” Nico asked, his hope fading rapidly.
“I’m doing my best, dearie, but-” Suddenly the nightmare Aphrodite was back. “TEA TIME!” she shrieked, and threw a teapot against the wall, where it shattered into sharp shards. She morphed back again, and carried on as though nothing had happened. “-but he is showing more power than I ever knew he possessed. Rest assured, I will have him back in line by the end of the century.”
“The century? But by then Camp Half-Blood will be damaged beyond repair! Camp Jupiter too, maybe. The mortal world isn’t even safe!” Will exclaimed.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Aphrodite snapped. She was flickering between her two forms now, like someone was flipping a switch back and forth and back and forth. She seemed to be a whirlwind of decay and ruin, but also beauty and recovery. It was really disorienting. “You’ll have to deal with it, because I am in no condition to help you. I need to adjust into this new reality, and that will take a few decades at least. It pains me to see love being ripped apart like this, not at all according to plan! I will have Cupid’s head for this, but I am powerless for now. I-” She stopped speaking suddenly, and her transformation stopped to. She was halfway between her two selves; part rotting and unhealthy, part glowing and beautiful. “NO!” she screamed, and her body began to violently shake. “Stop this, Cupid, my son! I say STOP!” All of a sudden, she inflated like a balloon until she popped open in an explosion of rose petals.
“What just happened?” Piper asked after a few seconds.
“I have no idea, but I don’t think it was good,” Will told her.
“Well, duh!” Nico shouted.
“Piper!” someone shouted from outside. It was Jason, his glasses askew and his orange shirt torn.
“Oh my gods, are you okay?” she asked, running over to him.
“I’m fine, but Percy and Annabeth need help,” he said, catching his breath.
“What? Why? Are they being attacked?” Nico asked. They were some of his closest friends, he couldn’t lose them.
“Worse. An attack, I could help with,” Jason said, his tone grave. “They just broke up.”