The Mark of Athena

Page 10


  Leo could totally relate. He wanted to scream that he’d lost his mom too. His whole life had been one misery after another. He’d lost his dragon, Festus. He’d nearly killed himself trying to finish the Argo II. Now he’d fired on the Roman camp, most likely started a war, and maybe lost the trust of his friends.

  “Right now,” he said, trying to control his anger, “all I want is some Celestial bronze. ”

  “Oh, that’s easy,” Nemesis said. “It’s just over the rise. You’ll find it with the sweethearts. ”

  “Wait,” Hazel said. “What sweethearts?”

  Nemesis popped a cookie in her mouth and swallowed it, fortune and all. “You’ll see. Perhaps they will teach you a lesson, Hazel Levesque. Most heroes cannot escape their nature, even when given a second chance at life. ” She smiled. “And speaking of your brother Nico, you don’t have much time. Let’s see…it’s June twenty-fifth? Yes, after today, six more days. Then he dies, along with the entire city of Rome. ”

  Hazel’s eyes widened. “How…what—?”

  “And as for you, child of fire. ” She turned to Leo. “Your worst hardships are yet to come. You will always be the outsider, the seventh wheel. You will not find a place among your brethren. Soon you will face a problem you cannot solve, though I could help you…for a price. ”

  Leo smelled smoke. He realized fingers on his left hand were ablaze, and Hazel was staring at him in terror.

  He shoved his hand in his pocket to extinguish the flames. “I like to solve my own problems. ”

  “Very well. ” Nemesis brushed cookie dust off her jacket.

  “But, um, what sort of price are we talking about?”

  The goddess shrugged. “One of my children recently traded an eye for the ability to make a real difference in the world. ”

  Leo’s stomach churned. “You…want an eye?”

  “In your case, perhaps another sacrifice would do. But something just as painful. Here. ” She handed him an unbroken fortune cookie. “If you need an answer, break this. It will solve your problem. ”

  Leo’s hand trembled as he held the fortune cookie. “What problem?”

  “You’ll know when the time comes. ”

  “No, thanks,” Leo said firmly. But his hand, as though it had a will of its own, slipped the cookie into his tool belt.

  Nemesis picked another cookie from her bag and cracked it open. “You will have cause to reconsider your choices soon. Oh, I like that one. No changes needed here. ”

  She resealed the cookie and tossed it into the basket. “Very few gods will be able to help you on the quest. Most are already incapacitated, and their confusion will only grow worse. One thing might bring unity to Olympus again—an old wrong finally avenged. Ah, that would be sweet indeed, the scales finally balanced! But it will not happen unless you accept my help. ”

  “I suppose you won’t tell us what you’re talking about,” Hazel muttered. “Or why my brother Nico has only six days to live. Or why Rome is going to be destroyed. ”

  Nemesis chuckled. She rose and slung her sack of cookies over her shoulder. “Oh, it’s all tied together, Hazel Levesque. As for my offer, Leo Valdez, give it some thought. You’re a good child. A hard worker. We could do business. But I have detained you too long. You should visit the reflecting pool before the light fades. My poor cursed boy gets quite…agitated when the darkness comes. ”

  Leo didn’t like the sound of that, but the goddess climbed on her motorcycle. Apparently, it was drivable, despite those Pac-Man–shaped wheels, because Nemesis revved her engine and disappeared in a mushroom cloud of black smoke.

  Hazel bent down. All the broken cookies and fortunes had disappeared except for one crumpled slip of paper. She picked it up and read, “You will see yourself reflected, and you will have reason to despair. ”

  “Fantastic,” Leo grumbled. “Let’s go see what that means. ”

  Chapter 7

  “Who is Aunt Rosa?” Hazel asked.

  Leo didn’t want to talk about her. Nemesis’s words were still buzzing in his ears. His tool belt seemed heavier since he’d put the cookie in there—which was impossible. Its pockets could carry anything without adding extra weight. Even the most fragile things would never break. Still, Leo imagined he could feel it in there, dragging him down, waiting to be cracked open.

  “Long story,” he said. “She abandoned me after my mom died, gave me to foster care. ”

  “I’m sorry. ”

  “Yeah, well…” Leo was anxious to change the subject. “What about you? What Nemesis said about your brother?”

  Hazel blinked like she’d gotten salt in her eyes. “Nico…he found me in the Underworld. He brought me back to the mortal world and convinced the Romans at Camp Jupiter to accept me. I owe him for my second chance at life. If Nemesis is right, and Nico’s in danger…I have to help him. ”

  “Sure,” Leo said, though the idea made him uneasy. He doubted the revenge goddess ever gave advice out of the goodness of her heart. “And what Nemesis said about your brother having six days to live, and Rome getting destroyed…any idea what she meant?”

  “None,” Hazel admitted. “But I’m afraid…”

  Whatever she was thinking, she decided not to share it. She climbed one of the largest boulders to get a better view. Leo tried to follow and lost his balance. Hazel caught his hand. She pulled him up and they found themselves atop the rock, holding hands, face-to-face.

  Hazel’s eyes glittered like gold.

  Gold is easy, she’d said. It didn’t seem that way to Leo—not when he looked at her. He wondered who Sammy was. Leo had a nagging suspicion that he should know, but he just couldn’t place the name. Whoever he was, he was lucky if Hazel cared for him.

  “Um, thanks. ” He let go of her hand, but they were still standing so close, he could feel the warmth of her breath. She definitely didn’t seem like a dead person.

  “When we were talking to Nemesis,” Hazel said uneasily, “your hands…I saw flames. ”

  “Yeah,” he said. “It’s a Hephaestus power. Usually I can keep it under control. ”

  “Oh. ” She put one hand protectively on her denim shirt, like she was about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Leo got the feeling she wanted to back away from him, but the boulder was too small.

  Great, he thought. Another person who thinks I’m a scary freak.

  He gazed across the island. The opposite shore was only a few hundred yards away. Between here and there were dunes and clumps of boulders, but nothing that looked like a reflecting pool.

  You will always be the outsider, Nemesis had told him, the seventh wheel. You will not find a place among your brethren.

  She might as well have poured acid in his ears. Leo didn’t need anybody to tell him he was odd man out. He’d spent months alone in Bunker 9 at Camp Half-Blood, working on his ship while his friends trained together and shared meals and played capture-the-flag for fun and prizes. Even his two best friends, Piper and Jason, often treated him like an outsider. Since they’d started dating, their idea of “quality time” didn’t include Leo. His only other friend, Festus the dragon, had been reduced to a figurehead when his control disk had gotten destroyed on their last adventure. Leo didn’t have the technical skill to repair it.

  The seventh wheel. Leo had heard of a fifth wheel—an extra, useless piece of equipment. He figured a seventh wheel was worse.

  He’d thought maybe this quest would be a fresh start for him. All his hard work on the Argo II would pay off. He’d have six good friends who would admire and appreciate him, and they’d go sailing off into the sunrise to fight giants. Maybe, Leo secretly hoped, he’d even find a girlfriend.

  Do the math, he chided himself.

  Nemesis was right. He might be part of a group of seven, but he was still isolated. He had fired on the Romans and brought his friends nothing but trouble. You will not find a place among your brethren.

Hazel asked gently. “You can’t take what Nemesis said to heart. ”

  He frowned. “What if it’s true?”

  “She’s the goddess of revenge,” Hazel reminded him. “Maybe she’s on our side, maybe not; but she exists to stir up resentment. ”

  Leo wished he could dismiss his feelings that easily. He couldn’t. Still, it wasn’t Hazel’s fault.

  “We should keep going,” he said. “I wonder what Nemesis meant about finishing before dark. ”

  Hazel glanced at the sun, which was just touching the horizon. “And who is the cursed boy she mentioned?”

  Below them, a voice said, “Cursed boy she mentioned. ”

  At first, Leo saw no one. Then his eyes adjusted. He realized a young woman was standing only ten feet from the base of the boulder. Her dress was a Greek-style tunic the same color as the rocks. Her wispy hair was somewhere between brown and blond and gray, so it blended with the dry grass. She wasn’t invisible, exactly, but she was almost perfectly camouflaged until she moved. Even then, Leo had trouble focusing on her. Her face was pretty but not memorable. In fact, each time Leo blinked, he couldn’t remember what she looked like, and he had to concentrate to find her again.

  “Hello,” Hazel said. “Who are you?”

  “Who are you?” the girl answered. Her voice sounded weary, like she was tired of answering that question.

  Hazel and Leo exchanged looks. With this demigod gig, you never knew what you’d run into. Nine times out of ten, it wasn’t good. A ninja girl camouflaged in earth tones didn’t strike Leo as something he wanted to deal with just then.

  “Are you the cursed kid Nemesis mentioned?” Leo asked. “But you’re a girl. ”

  “You’re a girl,” said the girl.

  “Excuse me?” Leo said.

  “Excuse me,” the girl said miserably.

  “You’re repeating…” Leo stopped. “Oh. Hold it. Hazel, wasn’t there some myth about a girl who repeated everything—?”

  “Echo,” Hazel said.

  “Echo,” the girl agreed. She shifted, her dress changing with the landscape. Her eyes were the color of the salt water. Leo tried to home in on her features, but he couldn’t.

  “I don’t remember the myth,” he admitted. “You were cursed to repeat the last thing you heard?”

  “You heard,” Echo said.

  “Poor thing,” Hazel said. “If I remember right, a goddess did this?”

  “A goddess did this,” Echo confirmed.

  Leo scratched his head. “But wasn’t that thousands of years…oh. You’re one of the mortals who came back through the Doors of Death. I really wish we could stop running into dead people. ”

  “Dead people,” Echo said, like she was chastising him.

  He realized Hazel was staring at her feet.

  “Uh…sorry,” he muttered. “I didn’t mean it that way. ”

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