Annabeth Chase and the Lighting Thief

(14) I Do Obedience School

We stood in the shadows of Valencia Boulevard, looking up at gold letters etched in black marble: DOA RECORDING STUDIOS.

Underneath, stencilled on the glass doors: NO SOLICITORS. NO LOITERING. NO LIVING. It was almost midnight, but the lobby was brightly lit and full of people. Behind the security desk sat a tough-looking guard with sunglasses and an earpiece.

Percy turned to Grover and I. "Okay. You remember the plan."

"The plan," Grover gulped. "Yeah. I love the plan."

I said, "What happens if the plan doesn't work?"

"Don't think negative."

"Right," I said. "We're entering the Land of the Dead, and I shouldn't think negative."

Percy took the pearls out of his pocket, the three milky spheres the Nereid had given him in Santa Monica. They didn't seem like much of a backup in case something went wrong.

I put my hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Percy. You're right, we'll make it. It'll be fine."

I gave Grover a nudge.

"Oh, right!" he chimed in. "We got this far. We'll find the master bolt and save your mom. No problem." Percy looked at us. I don't really know why we were comforting him. Only a few minutes before, he'd almost got us stretched to death on deluxe waterbeds, and now we were trying to make him feel better.

Percy slipped the pearls back in his pocket. "Let's whoop some Underworld butt."

We walked inside the DOA lobby. Muzak played softly on hidden speakers. The carpet and walls were steel grey. Pencil cactuses grew in the corners like skeleton hands. The furniture was black leather, and every seat was taken. There were people sitting on couches, people standing up, people staring out the windows or waiting for the elevator. Nobody moved, or talked, or did much of anything. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see them all just fine, but if I focused on any one of them in particular, they started looking... transparent. I could see right through their bodies.

The security guard's desk was a raised podium, so we had to look up at him. He was tall and elegant, with chocolate-colored skin and bleached-blond hair shaved military style. He wore tortoiseshell shades and a silk Italian suit that matched his hair. A black rose was pinned to his lapel under a silver name tag. I read the name tag, then looked at him in bewilderment.

"Your name is Chiron?" Percy asked and I groaned inwardly. He leaned across the desk. I couldn't see anything in his glasses except my own reflection, but his smile was sweet and cold, like a pythons, right before it eats you.

"What a precious young lad." He had a strange accent – British, maybe, but also as if he had learned English as a second language.

"Tell me, mate, do I look like a centaur?"

"N-no."

"Sir," he added smoothly.

"Sir," Percy said.

He pinched the name tag and ran his finger under the letters.

"Can you read this, mate? It says C- H-A-R-O-N. Say it with me: CARE-ON."

"Charon."

"Amazing! Now: Mr Charon."

"Mr Charon," Percy said.

"Well done." He sat back. "I hate being confused with that old horse-man. And now, how may I help you little dead ones?" His question caught in my stomach like a fastball. Percy looked at me for support.

"We want to go the Underworld," I said, sounding a lot more confident than I felt.

Charon's mouth twitched. "Well, that's refreshing."

"It is?" I asked.

"Straightforward and honest. No screaming. No "There must be a mistake, Mr Charon"." He looked us over. "How did you die, then?"

Percy nudged Grover.

"Oh," he said. "Um... drowned... in the bathtub."

"All three of you?" Charon asked.

We nodded.

"Big bathtub." Charon looked mildly impressed. "I don't suppose you have coins for passage. Normally, with adults, you see, I could charge your American Express, or add the ferry price to your last cable bill. But with children... alas, you never die prepared. Suppose you'll have to take a seat for a few centuries."

"Oh, but we have coins." Percy set three golden drachmas on the counter, part of the stash he'd found in Crusty's office desk.

"Well, now..." Charon moistened his lips. "Real drachmas. Real golden drachmas. I haven't seen these in..."

His fingers hovered greedily over the coins. We were so close. Then Charon looked at Percy suspiciously.

"Here now," he said. "You couldn't read my name correctly. Are you dyslexic, lad?"

"No," Percy said. "I'm dead."

Charon leaned forward and took a sniff. "You're not dead. I should've known. You're a godling."

"We have to get to the Underworld," Percy insisted. Charon made a growling sound deep in his throat. Immediately, all the people in the waiting room got up and started pacing, agitated, lighting cigarettes, running hands through their hair, or checking their wristwatches.

"Leave while you can," Charon told us. "I'll just take these and forget I saw you."

He started to go for the coins, but Percy snatched them back.

"No service, no tip."

Charon growled again – a deep, blood-chilling sound. The spirits of the dead started pounding on the elevator doors.

"It's a shame, too," Percy sighed. "We had more to offer."

He held up the entire bag from Crusty's stash and took out a fistful of drachmas and let the coins spill through his fingers. Charon's growl changed into something more like a lion's purr.

"Do you think I can be bought, godling? Eh... just out of curiosity, how much have you got there?"

"A lot," Percy said. "I bet Hades doesn't pay you well enough for such hard work."

"Oh, you don't know half of it. How would you like to babysit these spirits all day? Always "Please don't let me be dead" or "Please let me across for free". I haven't had a pay raise in three thousand years. Do you imagine suits like this come cheap?"

"You deserve better," Percy agreed. "A little appreciation. Respect. Good pay." With each word, he stacked another gold coin on the counter. Charon glanced down at his silk Italian jacket, as if imagining himself in something even better.

"I must say, lad, you're making some sense now. Just a little."

Percy stacked another few coins. "I could mention a pay raise while I'm talking to Hades."

He sighed. "The boat's almost full, anyway. I might as well add you three and be off."

He stood, scooped up our money, and said, "Come along."

We pushed through the crowd of waiting spirits, who started grabbing at our clothes like the wind, their voices whispering things I couldn't make out. Charon shoved them out of the way, grumbling, "Freeloaders."

He escorted us into the elevator, which was already crowded with souls of the dead, each one holding a green boarding pass. Charon grabbed two spirits who were trying to get on with us and pushed them back into the lobby.

"Right. Now, no one get any ideas while I'm gone," he announced to the waiting room. "And if anyone moves the dial off my easy-listening station again, I'll make sure you're here for another thousand years. Understand?"

He shut the doors. He put a key card into a slot in the elevator panel and we started to descend.

"What happens to the spirits waiting in the lobby?" I asked, unable to help myself.

"Nothing," Charon said.

"For how long?"

"Forever, or until I'm feeling generous."

"Oh," I said. "That's... fair."

I imagined waiting in that room when I was older, maybe 15 or so, waiting thousands of years just to probably be sent into the Fields of Asphodel. I couldn't imagine it.

Charon raised an eyebrow. "Whoever said death was fair, young miss? Wait until it's your turn. You'll die soon enough, where you're going."

"We'll get out alive," Percy said.

"Ha."

I got a sudden dizzy feeling. We weren't going down any more, but forward. The air turned misty. Spirits around me started changing shape. Their modern clothes flickered, turning into grey hooded robes. The floor of the elevator began swaying. I blinked hard. When I opened my eyes, Charon's creamy Italian suit had been replaced by a long black robe. His tortoiseshell glasses were gone. Where his eyes should've been were empty sockets – like Ares's eyes, except Charon's were totally dark, full of night and death and despair.

He saw me looking, and said, "Well?"

"Nothing," I managed. I thought he was grinning, but that wasn't it. The flesh of his face was becoming transparent, letting me see straight through to his skull. The floor kept swaying.

Grover said, "I think I'm getting seasick."

When I blinked again, the elevator wasn't an elevator any more. We were standing in a wooden barge. Charon was poling us across a dark, oily river, swirling with bones, dead fish and other, stranger things – plastic dolls, crushed carnations, soggy diplomas with gilt edges.

I recognized the river we were on. "The River Styx," I murmured. "It's so..."

"Polluted," Charon said. "For thousands of years, you humans have been throwing in everything as you come across – hopes, dreams, wishes that never came true. Irresponsible waste management, if you ask me."

I reached over the edge of the boat, and brought my hand close to what looked like a diploma. When I was inches away from it I stopped, and watched it float away.

Mist curled off the filthy water. Above us, almost lost in the gloom, was a ceiling of stalactites. Ahead, the far shore glimmered with greenish light, the color of poison. Panic closed up my throat. What was I doing here? These people around me... they were dead. I grabbed hold of Percy's hand. Under normal circumstances, this would've embarrassed me, but I hoped that he understood how I felt. I wanted reassurance that somebody else was alive on this boat.

I listened to Percy muttering a prayer, though I wasn't quite sure who he was praying to. Down here, only one god mattered, and he was the one we had come to confront.

The shoreline of the Underworld came into view. Craggy rocks and black volcanic sand stretched inland about fifty meters to the base of a high stone wall, which marched off in either direction as far as we could see. A sound came from somewhere nearby in the green gloom, echoing off the stones – the howl of a large animal.

"Old Three-Face is hungry," Charon said. His smile turned skeletal in the greenish light. "Bad luck for you, godlings."

The bottom of our boat slid onto the black sand. The dead began to disembark. A woman holding a little girls hand. An old man and an old woman hobbling along arm in arm. A boy no older than I was, shuffling silently along in his grey robe.

Charon said, "I'd wish you luck, mate, but there isn't any down here. Mind you, don't forget to mention my pay raise."

He counted our golden coins into his pouch, then took up his pole. He warbled something that sounded like a Barry Manilow song as he ferried the empty barge back across the river.

We followed the spirits up a well-worn path.

I'm not sure what I was expecting – probably something grand that would catch your eye right away. But the entrance to the Underworld looked like a cross between airport security and the Jersey Turnpike.

There were three separate entrances under one huge black archway that said: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING EREBUS. Each entrance had a pass-through metal detector mounted with security cameras.

Beyond this were toll booths manned by black-robed ghouls like Charon. The howling of the hungry animal was really loud now, but I couldn't see where it was coming from. The three-headed dog, Cerberus, who was supposed to guard Hades's door, was nowhere to be seen.

The dead queued up in the three lines, two marked: ATTENDANT ON DUTY, and one marked: EZ DEATH. The EZ DEATH line was moving right along. The other two were crawling.

"What do you figure?" Percy asked me.

"The fast line must go straight to Asphodel," I said. "No contest. They don't want to risk judgment from the court, because it might go against them."

"There's a court for dead people?"

"Yeah. Three judges. They switch around who sits on the bench. King Minos, Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare – people like that. Sometimes they look at a life and decide that person needs a special reward – the Fields of Elysium. Sometimes they decide on punishment. But most people, well, they just lived. Nothing special, good or bad. So they go to the Fields of Asphodel."

"And do what?"

Grover said, "Imagine standing in a wheat field in Kansas. Forever."

"Harsh," Percy said.

"Not as harsh as that," Grover muttered. "Look."

A couple of black-robed ghouls had pulled aside one spirit and were frisking him at the security desk.

"He's that preacher who made the news, remember?" Grover asked.

"Oh, yeah. What're they doing to him?"

"Special punishment from Hades," Grover guessed. "The really bad people get his personal attention as soon as they arrive. The Fu – the Kindly Ones will set up an eternal torture for him."

The thought of the Furies made me shudder. I realized I was in their home territory now.

"But if he's a preacher," Percy said, "and he believes in a different hell..."

Grover shrugged. "Who says he's seeing this place the way we're seeing it? Humans see what they want to see. They're very stubborn – er, persistent, that way."

We got closer to the gates. The howling was so loud now it shook the ground at my feet, but I still couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Charon said old three face was hungry. What had three faces and lived in the Underworld?

"Oh no." I muttered.

Then, about fifteen meters in front of us, the green mist shimmered. Standing just where the path split into three lanes was an enormous shadowy monster. I hadn't seen it before because it was half transparent, like the dead. Until it moved, it blended with whatever was behind it. Only its eyes and teeth looked solid. And it was staring straight at me.

Percy's jaw hung open. The only thing he said was, "He's a Rottweiler."

I'd always imagined Cerberus as a big black mastiff. But he was obviously a purebred Rottweiler, except of course that he was twice the size of a woolly mammoth, mostly invisible, and had three heads. The dead walked right up to him – no fear at all. The ATTENDANT ON DUTY lines parted on either side of him. The EZ DEATH spirits walked right between his front paws and under his belly, which they could do without even crouching.

"I'm starting to see him better," Percy muttered. "Why is that?"

I think..." I bit my lip. "I'm afraid it's because we're getting closer to being dead."

The dog's middle head craned towards us. It sniffed the air and growled.

"It can smell the living," Percy said.

"But that's okay," Grover said, trembling next to me.

"Because we have a plan."

"Right," I said. I'd never heard my voice sound quite so small. "A plan."

We moved towards the monster. The middle head snarled at us, then barked so loud my eyeballs rattled.

"Can you understand it?" Percy asked Grover.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I can understand it."

"What's it saying?"

"I don't think humans have a four-letter word that translates, exactly."

Percy took the big stick out of his backpack – a bed post he'd broken off Crusty's Safari Deluxe floor model. He held it up and waved it around.

"Hey, Big Fella," he called up. "I bet they don't play with you much."

"GROWWWLLLL!"

"Good boy," Percy said weakly as he waved the stick. The dog's middle head followed the movement. The other two heads trained their eyes on us, completely ignoring the spirits. Percy had Cerberus's undivided attention. I wasn't sure that was a good thing.

"Fetch!" Percy threw the stick into the gloom, a good solid throw. I heard it go ker-sploosh in the River Styx.

Cerberus glared at him, unimpressed. His eyes were baleful and cold.

So much for the plan.

Cerberus was now making a new kind of growl, deeper down in his three throats.

"Um," Grover said. "Percy?"

"Yeah?"

"I just thought you'd want to know."

"Yeah?"

"Cerberus? He's saying we've got ten seconds to pray to the god of our choice. After that... well... he's hungry."

"Wait!" I said and started rifling through my pack. I had a crazy idea and I highly doubted it would work, but it was our only chance.

"Five seconds," Grover said.

"Do we run now?"

I produced a red rubber ball the size of a grapefruit. It was labelled: WATERLAND, DENVER, CO. Before anyone could stop me, I raised the ball and marched straight up to Cerberus.

I thought back to how I used to train my Dobermann and shouted, "See the ball? You want the ball, Cerberus? Sit!"

Cerberus looked as stunned as Percy and Grover were. All three of his heads cocked sideways. Six nostrils dilated.

"Sit!" I called again.

I was sure that any moment I would become the world's largest Milkbone dog biscuit.

But instead, Cerberus licked his three sets of lips, shifted on his haunches, and sat, immediately crushing a dozen spirits who'd been passing underneath him in the EZ DEATH line. The spirits made muffled hisses as they dissipated, like the air let out of tires.

"Good boy!" I said and threw Cerberus the ball. He caught it in his middle mouth. It was barely big enough for him to chew, and the other heads started snapping at the middle, trying to get the new toy.

"Drop it!" I ordered. Cerberus's heads stopped fighting and looked at me.

The ball was wedged between two of his teeth like a tiny piece of gum. He made a loud, scary whimper, then dropped the ball, now slimy and bitten nearly in half, at my feet.

"Good boy." I picked up the ball, ignoring the monster spit all over it.

I turned towards Percy and Grover.

"Go now. EZ DEATH line – it's faster."

Percy said, "But –"

"Now!" I ordered, in the same tone I was using on the dog.

Grover and Percy inched forward warily.

Cerberus started to growl.

"Stay!" I ordered the monster. "If you want the ball, stay!"

Cerberus whimpered, but he stayed where he was.

"What about you?" Percy asked me as they passed.

"I know what I'm doing, Percy," I muttered. "At least, I'm pretty sure..."

Grover and Percy walked between the monster's legs.

Please, I prayed. Don't sit down again.

We made it through.

I said, "Good dog!"

I held up the tattered red ball, and probably came to a conclusion I didn't like – if I rewarded Cerberus, there'd be nothing left for another trick.

I threw the ball anyway. The monster's left mouth immediately snatched it up, only to be attacked by the middle head while the right head moaned in protest.

While the monster was distracted, I walked briskly under its belly and joined them at the metal detector.

"How did you do that?" Percy asked me, amazed. "Obedience school," I said breathlessly, my eyes stinging. "When I was little, at my dad's house, we had a Dobermann..."

"Never mind that," Grover said, tugging at my shirt. "Come on!"

We were about to bolt through the EZ DEATH line when Cerberus moaned pitifully from all three mouths. I stopped. I turned to face the dog, which had done a one-eighty to look at us. Cerberus panted expectantly, the tiny red ball in pieces in a puddle of drool at its feet.

"Good boy," I said, but my voice sounded melancholy and uncertain.

The monster's heads turned sideways, as if he was worried about me.

"I'll bring you another ball soon," I promised faintly. "Would you like that?"

The monster whimpered. I didn't need to speak dog to know Cerberus was still waiting for the ball.

"Good dog. I'll come visit you soon. I – I promise." I turned to my friends. "Let's go."

Grover and Percy pushed through the metal detector, which immediately screamed and set off flashing red lights. "Unauthorized possessions! Magic detected!"

Cerberus started to bark. We burst through the EZ DEATH gate, which started even more alarms blaring, and raced into the Underworld.

A few minutes later, we were hiding, out of breath, in the rotten trunk of an immense black tree as security ghouls scuttled past, yelling for backup from the Furies.

Grover murmured, "Well, Percy, what have we learned today?"

"That three-headed dogs prefer red rubber balls over sticks?"

"No," Grover told him. "We've learned that your plans really, really bite!"

I wasn't totally sure about that. I thought maybe Percy and I had both had the right idea. Even here in the Underworld, everybody – even monsters – needed a little attention once in a while.

I thought about that as we waited for the ghouls to pass. I wiped a tear from my cheek as I listened to the mournful keening of Cerberus in the distance, longing for his new friend.

A/N: HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!!

this chapter makes me happy but really sadddd
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