Annabeth Chase and the Lighting Thief

(15) We Find Out The Truth, Sort Of

Imagine the largest concert crowd you’ve ever seen, a football field packed with a million fans. Now imagine a field a million times that big, packed with people, and imagine the electricity has gone out, and there is no noise, no light, no beach ball bouncing around over the crowd. Something tragic has happened backstage. Whispering masses of people are just milling around in the shadows, waiting for a concert that will never start.

If you can picture that, you have a pretty good idea what the Fields of Asphodel looked like. The black grass had been trampled by aeons of dead feet. A warm, moist wind blew like the breath of a swamp. Black trees – Grover told us they were poplars – grew in clumps here and there.

The cavern ceiling was so high above us it might’ve been a bank of storm clouds, except for the stalactites, which glowed faint grey and looked wickedly pointed. I tried not to imagine they’d fall on us at any moment, but dotted around the fields were several that had fallen and impaled themselves in the black grass. I guess the dead didn’t have to worry about little hazards like being speared by stalactites the size of booster rockets.

Percy, Grover and I tried to blend into the crowd, keeping an eye out for security ghouls. I couldn’t help looking for familiar faces among the spirits of Asphodel, maybe somebody from camp, but the dead are hard to look at. Their faces shimmer. They all look slightly angry or confused. They will come up to you and speak, but their voices sound like chatter, like bats twittering. Once they realize you can’t understand them, they frown and move away.

The dead aren’t scary. They’re just sad.

We crept along, following the line of new arrivals that snaked from the main gates towards a black-tented pavilion with a banner that read:

JUDGMENTS FOR ELYSIUM AND ETERNAL DAMNATION

Welcome, Newly Deceased!

Out the back of the tent came two much smaller lines. To the left, spirits flanked by security ghouls were marched down a rocky path towards the Fields of Punishment, which glowed and smoked in the distance, a vast, cracked wasteland with rivers of lava and minefields and miles of barbed wire separating the different torture areas. Even from far away, I could see people being chased by hellhounds, burned at the stake, forced to run naked through cactus patches or listen to opera music. I could just make out a tiny hill, with the ant-size figure of Sisyphus struggling to move his boulder to the top. And I saw worse tortures, too – things I don’t want to describe.

The line coming from the right side of the judgment pavilion was much better. This one led down towards a small valley surrounded by walls – a gated community, which seemed to be the only happy part of the Underworld. Beyond the security gate were neighborhoods of beautiful houses from every time period in history, Roman villas and mediaeval castles and Victorian mansions. Silver and gold flowers bloomed on the lawns. The grass rippled in rainbow colors. I could hear laughter and smell barbecue cooking.

Elysium.

In the middle of that valley was a glittering blue lake, with three small islands like a vacation resort in the Bahamas. The Isles of the Blest, for people who had chosen to be reborn three times, and three times achieved Elysium. All demigods strived to achieve Elysium.

“That’s what it’s all about,” I said. “That’s the place for heroes.”

But I thought of how few people there were in Elysium, how tiny it was compared to Asphodel or even Punishment. So few people did good in their lives. It was depressing.

We left the judgment pavilion and moved deeper into Asphodel. It got darker. The colors faded from our clothes. The crowds of chattering spirits began to thin.

After a few miles of walking, we began to hear a familiar screech in the distance. Looming on the horizon was a palace of glittering black obsidian. Above the parapets swirled three dark batlike creatures: the Furies. I got the feeling they were waiting for us.

“I suppose it’s too late to turn back,” Grover said wistfully.

“We’ll be okay.” Percy said trying, and failing, to sound confident.

“Maybe we should search some of the other places first,” Grover suggested. “Like, Elysium, for instance...”

“Come on, goat boy.” I grabbed his arm. Grover yelped. His trainers sprouted wings and his legs shot forward, pulling him away from me. He landed flat on his back in the grass.

“Grover,” I chided. “Stop messing around.”

“But I didn’t –”

He yelped again. His shoes were flapping like crazy now. They levitated off the ground and started dragging him away from us.

“Maia!” he yelled, but the magic word seemed to have no effect. ’“Maia, already! 911! Help!”

I got over being stunned and made a grab for Grover’s hand, but too late. He was picking up speed, skidding downhill like a bobsled. We ran after him.

I shouted, “Untie the shoes!”

It was a smart idea, but I guess it’s not so easy when your shoes are pulling you along feet-first at full speed. Grover tried to sit up, but he couldn’t get close to the laces.

We kept after him, trying to keep him in sight as he zipped between the legs of spirits who chattered at him in annoyance. I was sure Grover was going to barrel straight through the gates of Hades’s palace, but his shoes veered sharply to the right and dragged him in the opposite direction.

The slope got steeper. Grover picked up speed. Percy and I had to sprint to keep up. The cavern walls narrowed on either side, and I realized we’d entered some kind of side tunnel. No black grass or trees now, just rock underfoot, and the dim light of the stalactites above.

“Grover!” Percy yelled, his voice echoing. “Hold on to something!”

“What?” he yelled back.

He was grabbing at gravel, but there was nothing big enough to slow him down. The tunnel got darker and colder. The hairs on my arms bristled. It smelled evil down here. It made me think of things I shouldn’t even know about – blood spilled on an ancient stone altar, the foul breath of a murderer.

Then I saw what was ahead of us, and Percy stopped dead in his tracks.

The tunnel widened into a huge dark cavern, and in the middle was a chasm the size of a city block. Grover was sliding straight towards the edge.

“Come on, Percy!” I yelled, tugging at his wrist.

“But that’s –”

“I know!” I shouted. “The place you described in your dream! But Grover’s going to fall if we don’t catch him.”

Grover’s predicament got Percy moving again. He was yelling, clawing at the ground, but the winged shoes kept dragging him towards the pit, and it didn’t look like we could possibly get to him in time.

What saved him were his hooves.

The flying sneakers had always been a loose fit on him, and finally Grover hit a big rock and the left shoe came flying off. It sped into the darkness, down into the chasm. The right shoe kept tugging him along, but not as fast. Grover was able to slow himself down by grabbing on to the big rock and using it like an anchor.

He was three meters from the edge of the pit when we caught him and hauled him back up the slope. The other winged shoe tugged itself off, circled around us angrily and kicked our heads in protest before flying off into the chasm to join its twin.

We all collapsed, exhausted, on the obsidian gravel. My limbs felt like lead.

Grover was scratched up pretty bad. His hands were bleeding. His eyes had gone slit-pupiled, goat style, the way they did whenever he was terrified.

“I don’t know how...” he panted. “I didn’t...”

“Wait,” Percy said. “Listen.” I heard something – a deep whisper in the darkness. This can be... It couldn’t be... could it?

Another few seconds, and I said, “Percy, this place –”

“Shh.” Percy stood. The sound was getting louder, a muttering, evil voice from far, far below us. Coming from the pit.

Grover sat up. “Wh – what’s that noise?”

My eyes grew wide. I guess it could be. “Tartarus. The entrance to Tartarus.”

Percy uncapped Anaklusmos.

The bronze sword expanded, gleaming in the darkness, and the evil voice seemed to falter, just for a moment, before resuming its chant.

I could almost make out words now, ancient, ancient words, older even than Greek. As if...

“Magic,” Percy said.

“We have to get out of here,” I said.

Together, we dragged Grover to his hooves and started back up the tunnel. My legs wouldn’t move fast enough. Percy was falling behind. The voice got louder and angrier behind us, and we broke into a run.

Not a moment too soon.

A cold blast of wind pulled at our backs, as if the entire pit were inhaling. For a terrifying moment, I lost ground, my feet slipping in the gravel. If I’d been any closer to the edge, I would’ve been sucked in.

We kept struggling forward, and finally reached the top of the tunnel, where the cavern widened out into the Fields of Asphodel. The wind died. A wail of outrage echoed from deep in the tunnel. Something was not happy we’d got away.

“What was that?” Grover panted, when we’d collapsed in the relative safety of a black poplar grove. “One of Hades’s pets?”

Percy and I looked at each other. I had an idea to Grover’s question... but maybe I was overthinking it.

Percy capped his sword, put the pen back in his pocket.

“Let’s keep going.”

I looked at Grover. “Can you walk?” He swallowed.

“Yeah, sure. I never liked those shoes, anyway.”

He tried to sound brave about it, but he was trembling as badly as Percy and I were. Whatever was in that pit was nobody’s pet. It was unspeakably old and powerful.

I was almost relieved to turn my back on that tunnel and head towards the palace of Hades.

Almost.

The Furies circled the parapets, high in the gloom. The outer walls of the fortress glittered black, and the two-story-tall bronze gates stood wide open.

Up close, I saw that the engravings on the gates were scenes of death. Some were from modern times – an atomic bomb exploding over a city, a trench filled with gas mask-wearing soldiers, a line of African famine victims waiting with empty bowls – but all of them looked as if they’d been etched into the bronze thousands of years ago. I wondered if I was looking at prophecies that had come true.

Inside the courtyard was the strangest garden I’d ever seen. Multicolored mushrooms, poisonous shrubs and weird luminous plants grew without sunlight. Precious jewels made up for the lack of flowers, piles of rubies as big as my fist, clumps of raw diamonds. Standing here and there like frozen party guests were Medusa’s garden statues, petrified children, satyrs and centaurs, all smiling grotesquely. In the center of the garden was an orchard of pomegranate trees, their orange blooms neon bright in the dark.

The tart smell of those pomegranates was almost overwhelming. I had a sudden desire to eat them, but then I remembered the story of Persephone. One bite of Underworld food, and we would never be able to leave.

“The garden of Persephone,” I said. “Keep walking.”

I pulled Grover away to keep him from picking a big juicy one. We walked up the steps of the palace, between black columns, through a black marble portico and into the house of Hades. The entry hall had a polished bronze floor, which seemed to boil in the reflected torchlight. There was no ceiling, just the cavern roof, far above. I guess they never had to worry about rain down here.

Every side doorway was guarded by a skeleton in military gear. Some wore Greek armor, some British redcoat uniforms, some camouflage with tattered American flags on the shoulders. They carried spears or muskets or M-16s. None of them bothered us, but their hollow eye sockets followed us as we walked down the hall, towards the big set of doors at the opposite end.

Two U.S. Marine skeletons guarded the doors. They grinned down at us, rocket-propelled grenade launchers held across their chests.

“You know,” Grover mumbled, “I bet Hades doesn’t have trouble with door-to-door salesmen.”

“Well, guys,” Percy said, catching up to us. “I suppose we should... knock?”

A hot wind blew down the corridor, and the doors swung open. The guards stepped aside.

“I guess that means “entrez,“,” I said.

The room inside looked just like Percy described it from his dream.

Hades was one of the first gods I’d met who really struck me as godlike. He was at least three meters tall, for one thing, and dressed in black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. His skin was albino white, his hair shoulder-length and jet black. He wasn’t bulked up like Ares, but he radiated power. He lounged on his throne of fused human bones, looking lithe, graceful and dangerous as a panther.

I immediately felt like he should be giving the orders. He knew more than I did. He should be my master.

Then I told myself to snap out of it. Hades’s aura was affecting me, just as Ares’s had. The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures I’d seen of Adolph Hitler, or Napoleon, or the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers. Hades had the same intense eyes, the same kind of mesmerizing, evil charisma.

“You are brave to come here, Son of Poseidon,” he said in an oily voice. “After what you have done to me, very brave indeed. Or perhaps you are simply very foolish.”

Percy stepped forward and I prayed he wouldn’t act stupid.

“Lord and Uncle, I come with two requests.”

Hades raised an eyebrow. When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment were stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’s underwear?

“Only two requests?” Hades said. “Arrogant child. As if you have not already taken enough. Speak, then. It amuses me not to strike you dead yet.”

I swallowed. This was going about as well as I’d feared. I glanced at the empty, smaller throne next to Hades’s. It was shaped like a black flower, gilded with gold. I wished Queen Persephone were here. She could calm her husband’s moods. But it was summer. Of course, Persephone would be above in the world of light with her mother, the goddess of agriculture Demeter. Her visits, not the tilt of the earth, created the seasons.

I cleared my throat. My finger prodded Percy in the back.

“Lord Hades,” he said. “Look, sir, there can’t be a war among the gods. It would be... bad.”

“Really bad,“Grover added helpfully.

“Return Zeus’s master bolt to me,” Percy said. “Please, sir. Let me carry it to Olympus.”

Hades’s eyes grew dangerously bright. “You dare keep up this pretense, after what you have done?” Percy glanced back at Grover and I. He looked as confused as I was.

“Um... Uncle,” Percy said. “You keep saying “after what I’ve done”. What exactly have I done?”

The throne room shook with a tremor so strong they probably felt it upstairs in Los Angeles. Debris fell from the cavern ceiling. Doors burst open all along the walls, and skeletal warriors marched in, hundreds of them, from every time period and nation in Western civilization. They lined the perimeter of the room, blocking the exits.

Hades bellowed, “Do you think I want war, godling?”

“You are the Lord of the Dead,” he said carefully. “A war would expand your kingdom, right?”

“A typical thing for my brothers to say! Do you think I need more subjects? Did you not see the sprawl of Asphodel?”

“Well...”

“Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions I’ve had to open?”

Percy opened his mouth to respond, but Hades was on a roll now. I guess living the Underworld meant no therapists.

“More security ghouls,” he moaned. “Traffic problems at the judgment pavilion. Double overtime for the staff. I used to be a rich god, Percy Jackson. I control all the precious metals under the earth. But my expenses!”

“Charon wants a pay raise,” Percy blurted, remembering the fact. I smacked my hand to my forehead.

“Don’t get me started on Charon!” Hades yelled. “He’s been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and I’ve got to handle all of them personally. The commute time alone from the palace to the gates is enough to drive me insane! And the dead just keep arriving. No, godling. I need no help getting subjects! I did not ask for this war.”

“But you took Zeus’s master bolt.”

“Lies!”

More rumbling. Hades rose from his throne, towering to the height of a football goalpost.

“Your father may fool Zeus, boy, but I am not so stupid. I see his plan.”

“His plan?”

“You were the thief on the winter solstice,” he said. “Your father thought to keep you his little secret. He directed you into the throne room on Olympus. You took the master bolt and my helmet. Had I not sent my Fury to discover you at Yancy Academy, Poseidon might have succeeded in hiding his scheme to start a war. But now you have been forced into the open. You will be exposed as Poseidon’s thief, and I will have my helmet back!”

“But...” I spoke, my mind going a hundred miles an hour. “Lord Hades, your helmet of darkness is missing, too?”

“Do not play innocent with me, girl. You and the satyr have been helping this hero – coming here to threaten me in Poseidon’s name, no doubt – to bring me an ultimatum. Does Poseidon think I can be blackmailed into supporting him?”

“No!” Percy said. “Poseidon didn’t – I didn’t –”

“I have said nothing of the helmet’s disappearance,” Hades snarled, “because I had no illusions that anyone on Olympus would offer me the slightest justice, the slightest help. I can ill afford for word to get out that my most powerful weapon of fear is missing. So I searched for you myself, and when it was clear you were coming to me to deliver your threat, I did not try to stop you.”

“You didn’t try to stop us? But –”

“Return my helmet now, or I will stop death,” Hades threatened. “That is my counter-proposal. I will open the earth and have the dead pour back into the world. I will make your lands a nightmare. And you, Percy Jackson – your skeleton will lead my army out of Hades.”

The skeletal soldiers all took one step forward, making their weapons ready. At that point, I could see the anger rolling off of Percy.

“You’re as bad as Zeus,” he said. ’“You think I stole from you? That’s why you sent the Furies after me?”

“Of course,” Hades said.

“And the other monsters?”

Hades curled his lip. “I had nothing to do with them. I wanted no quick death for you – I wanted you brought before me alive so you might face every torture in the Fields of Punishment. Why do you think I let you enter my kingdom so easily?”

“Easily?”

“Return my property!”

“But I don’t have your helmet. I came for the master bolt.”

“Which you already possess!” Hades shouted. “You came here with it. little fool, thinking you could threaten me!”

“But I didn’t!”

“Open your pack, then.” A horrible feeling struck me. Percy was falling behind ever since our encounter with Tartarus, his shoulders drooping has we walked.

He slung it off his shoulder and unzipped it. Inside was a sixty-centimeter-long metal cylinder, spiked on both ends, humming with energy.

“Percy,” I said. “How –”

“I – I don’t know. I don’t understand.”

“You heroes are always the same,” Hades said. “Your pride makes you foolish, thinking you could bring such a weapon before me. I did not ask for Zeus’s master bolt, but since it is here, you will yield it to me. I am sure it will make an excellent bargaining tool. And now... my helmet. Where is it?”

I was speechless. We had no helmet. We had no idea how the master bolt had got into Percy’s backpack. I wanted to think Hades was pulling some kind of trick. Hades was the bad guy. But suddenly the world turned sideways. I realized we’d been played with. Zeus, Poseidon and Hades had been set at each other’s throats by someone else. The master bolt had been in the backpack, and Percy got the backpack from...

“Lord Hades, wait,” Percy said. “This is all a mistake.”

“A mistake?” Hades roared. The skeletons aimed their weapons. From high above, there was a fluttering of leathery wings, and the three Furies swooped down to perch on the back of their master’s throne. The one I had gotten a piggyback ride on grinned at me eagerly and flicked her whip.

“There is no mistake,” Hades said. “I know why you have come – I know the real reason you brought the bolt. You came to bargain for her.” Hades loosed a ball of gold fire from his palm.

It exploded on the steps in front of Percy, and there was a woman who looked like Percy, she would’ve been beautiful if her face hadn’t been frozen in fear. Ms. Jackson was frozen in a shower of gold, just as she was at the moment when the Minotaur began to squeeze her to death.

Percy reached out to touch her, but drew his hand back sharply.

“Yes,” Hades said with satisfaction. “I took her. I knew, Percy Jackson, that you would come to bargain with me eventually. Return my helmet, and perhaps I will let her go. She is not dead, you know. Not yet. But if you displease me, that will change.”

Percy didn’t respond as if he was lost in thought.

“Ah, the pearls,” Hades said, and my blood froze. “Yes, my brother and his little tricks. Bring them forth, Percy Jackson.”

Percy’s hand moved to his pocket and he took out the pearls.

“Only three,” Hades said. “What a shame. You do realize each only protects a single person. Try to take your mother, then, little godling. And which of your friends will you leave behind to spend eternity with me? Go on. Choose. Or give me the backpack and accept my terms.”

Percy looked at Grover and I.

“We were tricked,” he told us. “Set up.”

“Well duh we were tricked” is what I wanted to say, instead I asked, “Yes, but why? And the voice in the pit –”

“I don’t know yet,” Percy said. “But I intend to ask.”

“Decide, boy!” Hades yelled.

“Percy.” Grover put his hand on my shoulder. “You can’t give him the bolt.”

“I know that.”

“Leave me here,” he said. “Use the third pearl on your mom.”

“No!”

“I’m a satyr,” Grover said. “We don’t have souls like humans do. He can torture me until I die, but he won’t get me forever. I’ll just be reincarnated as a flower or something. It’s the best way.”

“No.” I drew my bronze knife. I didn’t have much left. Only Chiron and two friends I’ve had for a week. I had nothing to lose. “You two go on. Grover, you have to protect Percy. You have to get your searcher’s license and start your quest for Pan. Get his mom out of here. I’ll cover you. I plan to go down fighting.”

“No way,” Grover said. “I’m staying behind.”

“Think again, goat boy,” I said.

“Stop it, both of you!” Percy said, “I know what to do. Take these.”

He handed them each a pearl.

I said, “But, Percy...”

He turned and faced his mother. I could see the desperation in his face. He wanted to sacrifice himself and use the last pearl on her, but he had to get the bolt back to Olympus and tell Zeus the truth. Percy had to stop the war.

“I’m sorry,” Percy told her. “I’ll be back. I’ll find a way.”

The smug look on Hades’s face faded. He said, “Godling...?”

“I’ll find your helmet, Uncle,” he told him. “I’ll return it. Remember about Charon’s pay raise.”

“Do not defy me –”

“And it wouldn’t hurt to play with Cerberus once in a while. He likes red rubber balls.”

“Percy Jackson, you will not –”

Percy shouted, “Now, guys!”

We smashed the pearls at our feet. For a scary moment, nothing happened.

Hades yelled, “Destroy them!”

The army of skeletons rushed forward, swords out, guns clicking to full automatic. The Furies lunged, their whips bursting into flame. Just as the skeletons opened fire, the pearl exploded at my feet with a burst of green light and a gust of fresh sea wind. I was encased in a milky white sphere, which was starting to float off the ground. Percy and Grover were right next to me. Spears and bullets sparked harmlessly off the pearl bubbles as we floated up. Hades yelled with such rage, the entire fortress shook and I knew it was not going to be a peaceful night in L.A.

“Look up!” Grover yelled. “We’re going to crash!”

Sure enough, we were racing right towards the stalactites, which I figured would pop our bubbles and skewer us.

“How do you control these things?” I shouted.

“I don’t think you do!” Percy shouted back. We screamed as the bubbles slammed into the ceiling and... Darkness.

Were we dead?

No, I could still feel the racing sensation. We were going up, right through solid rock as easily as an air bubble in water. That was the power of the pearls, I realized what Percy had said – What belongs to the sea will always return to the sea.

For a few moments, I couldn’t see anything outside the smooth walls of my sphere, then my pearl broke through on the ocean floor. The two other milky spheres, Percy and Grover, kept pace with me as we soared upward through the water. And ker-blam!

We exploded on the surface, in the middle of Los Angeles Bay, knocking a surfer off his board with an indignant, “Dude!”

Percy grabbed Grover and hauled him over to a lifebuoy. He caught me and dragged me over too. A curious shark was circling us, a great white about three meters long.

Percy said, “Beat it.”

The shark turned and raced away. The surfer screamed something about bad mushrooms and paddled away from us as fast as he could.

Somehow, I knew what time it was: early morning, June 21, the day of the summer solstice.

In the distance, Los Angeles was on fire, plumes of smoke rising from neighborhoods all over the city. There had been an earthquake, all right, and it was Hades’s fault. He was probably sending an army of the dead after Percy right now.

But at the moment, the Underworld wasn’t our biggest problem.

I had to get to shore. We had to get Zeus’s thunderbolt back to Olympus. Most of all, we had to have a serious conversation with the god who’d tricked us.

A/N: ANOTHER 4K WORD CHAPTER WE LOVE TO SEE IT😍 and happy early new year everyone!!

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