The Mark of Athena

Page 9


  Hazel pursed her lips, as if she regretted raising the subject. “Never mind. ”

  That made Leo even more curious, but he decided it might be better not to press her. He knelt and cupped a handful of white sand. “Well…one problem solved, anyway. This is lime. ”

  Hazel frowned. “The whole beach?”

  “Yeah. See? The granules are perfectly round. It’s not really sand. It’s calcium carbonate. ” Leo pulled a Ziploc bag from his tool belt and dug his hand into the lime.

  Suddenly he froze. He remembered all the times the earth goddess Gaea had appeared to him in the ground—her sleeping face made of dust or sand or dirt. She loved to taunt him. He imagined her closed eyes and her dreaming smile swirling in the white calcium.

  Walk away, little hero, Gaea said. Without you, the ship cannot be fixed.

  “Leo?” Hazel asked. “You okay?”

  He took a shaky breath. Gaea wasn’t here. He was just freaking himself out.

  “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, fine. ”

  He started to fill the bag.

  Hazel knelt next to him and helped. “We should’ve brought a pail and shovels. ”

  The idea cheered Leo up. He even smiled. “We could’ve made a sand castle. ”

  “A lime castle. ”

  Their eyes locked for a second too long.

  Hazel looked away. “You are so much like—”

  “Sammy?” Leo guessed.

  She fell backward. “You know?”

  “I have no idea who Sammy is. But Frank asked me if I was sure that wasn’t my name. ”

  “And…it isn’t?”

  “No! Jeez. ”

  “You don’t have a twin brother or…” Hazel stopped. “Is your family from New Orleans?”

  “Nah. Houston. Why? Is Sammy a guy you used to know?”

  “I…It’s nothing. You just look like him. ”

  Leo could tell she was too embarrassed to say more. But if Hazel was a kid from the past, did that mean Sammy was from the 1940s? If so, how could Frank know the guy? And why would Hazel think Leo was Sammy, all these decades later?

  They finished filling the bag in silence. Leo stuffed it in his tool belt and the bag vanished—no weight, no mass, no volume—though Leo knew it would be there as soon as he reached for it. Anything that could fit into the pockets, Leo could tote around. He loved his tool belt. He just wished the pockets were large enough for a chain saw, or maybe a bazooka.

  He stood and scanned the island—bleach-white dunes, blankets of grass, and boulders encrusted with salt like frosting. “Festus said there was Celestial bronze close by, but I’m not sure where—”

  “That way. ” Hazel pointed up the beach. “About five hundred yards. ”

  “How do you—?”

  “Precious metals,” Hazel said. “It’s a Pluto thing. ”

  Leo remembered what she’d said about gold being easy. “Handy talent. Lead the way, Miss Metal Detector. ”

  The sun began to set. The sky turned a bizarre mix of purple and yellow. In another reality, Leo might’ve enjoyed a walk on the beach with a pretty girl, but the farther they went, the edgier he felt. Finally Hazel turned inland.

  “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked.

  “We’re close,” she promised. “Come on. ”

  Just over the dunes, they saw the woman.

  She sat on a boulder in the middle of a grassy field. A black-and-chrome motorcycle was parked nearby, but each of the wheels had a big pie slice removed from the spokes and rim, so that they resembled Pac-Men. No way was the bike drivable in that condition.

  The woman had curly black hair and a bony frame. She wore black leather biker’s pants, tall leather boots, and a bloodred leather jacket—sort of a Michael Jackson joins the Hell’s Angels look. Around her feet, the ground was littered with what looked like broken shells. She was hunched over, pulling new ones out of a sack and cracking them open. Shucking oysters? Leo wasn’t sure if there were oysters in the Great Salt Lake. He didn’t think so.

  He wasn’t anxious to approach. He’d had bad experiences with strange ladies. His old babysitter, Tía Callida, had turned out to be Hera and had a nasty habit of putting him down for naps in a blazing fireplace. The earth goddess Gaea had killed his mother in a workshop fire when Leo was eight. The snow goddess Khione had tried to turn him into a frozen dairy treat in Sonoma.

  But Hazel forged ahead, so he didn’t have much choice except to follow.

  As they got closer, Leo noticed disturbing details. Attached to the woman’s belt was a curled whip. Her red-leather jacket had a subtle design to it—twisted branches of an apple tree populated with skeletal birds. The oysters she was shucking were actually fortune cookies.

  A pile of broken cookies lay ankle-deep all around her. She kept pulling new ones from her sack, cracking them open, and reading the fortunes. Most she tossed aside. A few made her mutter unhappily. She would swipe her finger over the slip of paper like she was smudging it, then magically reseal the cookie and toss it into a nearby basket.

  “What are you doing?” Leo asked before he could stop himself.

  The woman looked up. Leo’s lungs filled so fast, he thought they might burst.

  “Aunt Rosa?” he asked.

  It didn’t make sense, but this woman looked exactly like his aunt. She had the same broad nose with a mole on one side, the same sour mouth and hard eyes. But it couldn’t be Rosa. She would never wear clothes like that, and she was still down in Houston, as far as Leo knew. She wouldn’t be cracking open fortune cookies in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.

  “Is that what you see?” the woman asked. “Interesting. And you, Hazel, dear?”

  “How did you—?” Hazel stepped back in alarm. “You—you look like Mrs. Leer. My third grade teacher. I hated you. ”

  The woman cackled. “Excellent. You resented her, eh? She judged you unfairly?”

  “You—she taped my hands to the desk for misbehaving,” Hazel said. “She called my mother a witch. She blamed me for everything I didn’t do and— No. She has to be dead. Who are you?”

  “Oh, Leo knows,” the woman said. “How do you feel about Aunt Rosa, mijo?”

  Mijo. That’s what Leo’s mom had always called him. After his mom died, Rosa had rejected Leo. She’d called him a devil child. She’d blamed him for the fire that had killed her sister. Rosa had turned his family against him and left him—a scrawny orphaned eight-year-old—at the mercy of social services. Leo had bounced around from foster home to foster home until he’d finally found a home at Camp Half-Blood. Leo didn’t hate many people, but after all these years, Aunt Rosa’s face made him boil with resentment.

  How did he feel? He wanted to get even. He wanted revenge.

  His eyes drifted to the motorcycle with the Pac-Man wheels. Where had he seen something like that before? Cabin 16, back at Camp Half-Blood—the symbol above their door was a broken wheel.

  “Nemesis,” he said. “You’re the goddess of revenge. ”

  “You see?” The goddess smiled at Hazel. “He recognizes me. ”

  Nemesis cracked another cookie and wrinkled her nose. “You will have great fortune when you least expect it,” she read. “That’s exactly the sort of nonsense I hate. Someone opens a cookie, and suddenly they have a prophecy that they’ll be rich! I blame that tramp Tyche. Always dispensing good luck to people who don’t deserve it!”

  Leo looked at the mound of broken cookies. “Uh…you know those aren’t real prophecies, right? They’re just stuffed in the cookies at some factory—”

  “Don’t try to excuse it!” Nemesis snapped. “It’s just like Tyche to get people’s hopes up. No, no. I must counter her. ” Nemesis flicked a finger over the slip of paper, and the letters changed to red. “You will die painfully when you most expect it. There! Much better. ”

  “That’s horrible!” Hazel said. “You’d let someone read that in their fortune cookie, and i
t would come true?”

  Nemesis sneered. It really was creepy, seeing that expression on Aunt Rosa’s face. “My dear Hazel, haven’t you ever wished horrible things on Mrs. Leer for the way she treated you?”

  “That doesn’t mean I’d want them to come true!”

  “Bah. ” The goddess resealed the cookie and tossed it in her basket. “Tyche would be Fortuna for you, I suppose, being Roman. Like the others, she’s in a horrible way right now. Me? I’m not affected. I am called Nemesis in both Greek and Roman. I do not change, because revenge is universal. ”

  “What are you talking about?” Leo asked. “What are you doing here?”

  Nemesis opened another cookie. “Lucky numbers. Ridiculous! That’s not even a proper fortune!” She crushed the cookie and scattered the pieces around her feet.

  “To answer your question, Leo Valdez, the gods are in terrible shape. It always happens when a civil war is brewing between you Romans and Greeks. The Olympians are torn between their two natures, called on by both sides. They become quite schizophrenic, I’m afraid. Splitting headaches. Disorientation. ”

  “But we’re not at war,” Leo insisted.

  “Um, Leo…” Hazel winced. “Except for the fact that you recently blew up large sections of New Rome. ”

  Leo stared at her, wondering whose side she was on. “Not on purpose!”

  “I know…” Hazel said, “but the Romans don’t realize that. And they’ll be pursuing us in retaliation. ”

  Nemesis cackled. “Leo, listen to the girl. War is coming. Gaea has seen to it, with your help. And can you guess whom the gods blame for their predicament?”

  Leo’s mouth tasted like calcium carbonate. “Me. ”

  The goddess snorted. “Well, don’t you have a high opinion of yourself. You’re just a pawn on the chessboard, Leo Valdez. I was referring to the player who set this ridiculous quest in motion, bringing the Greeks and Romans together. The gods blame Hera—or Juno, if you prefer! The queen of the heavens has fled Olympus to escape the wrath of her family. Don’t expect any more help from your patron!”

  Leo’s head throbbed. He had mixed feelings about Hera. She’d meddled in his life since he was a baby, molding him to serve her purpose in this big prophecy, but at least she had been on their side, more or less. If she was out of the picture now…

  “So why are you here?” he asked.

  “Why, to offer my help!” Nemesis smiled wickedly.

  Leo glanced at Hazel. She looked like she’d just been offered a free snake.

  “Your help,” Leo said.

  “Of course!” said the goddess. “I enjoy tearing down the proud and powerful, and there are none who deserve tearing down like Gaea and her giants. Still, I must warn you that I will not suffer undeserved success. Good luck is a sham. The wheel of fortune is a Ponzi scheme. True success requires sacrifice. ”

  “Sacrifice?” Hazel’s voice was tight. “I lost my mother. I died and came back. Now my brother is missing. Isn’t that enough sacrifice for you?”

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