Percy was terrified. In fact, he didn’t didn’t seem to have stopped being terrified since...well, since he lost his memory. This time, though, the danger wasn’t looming in the future, it wasn’t some prophecy to be put off for another day; no, this danger was present, immediate, and quite literally looking him in the face.
“Hello, Perseus Jackson,” Gaea said with a contained smile. “How nice of you to come.”
“Give me back my friends," he said with more confidence than he felt.
Gaea’s smile grew wider. “Yes, your friends. They have been quite useful, indeed. When I am done with them, I’d love to give them back to you, Percy - really, I would - but you see I’ve already promised them to my son.” She gestured with a crumbling hand towards Python, a dull scaled dragon-serpent the color of rust. A wicked intelligence gleamed in his eye, and a forked tongue flickered out from his lips, tasting the air. “He’s the type to get rather angry when he doesn’t get his way. I’m sure you’d hate to have caused his wrath.”
“More likely to be caused by poor parenting,” Percy retorted without thinking. His heart beat louder in his ears than a chariot race, but he was alert, thanks to his ADHD. On one level, he was focused on Gaea, responding to her, watching her. On another, he was planning the best course of action should there be a fight.
With his luck, they were due for one any minute.
“Bring them forward,” Gaea ordered.
A Ipotane shoved Nico and Piper forward, clasping their arms in his iron grip. Ipotanes were weird creatures; they resembled a mix between a centaur and a satyr, with two horse hooves and the torso of a human. It was immediately obvious that they didn’t share the rather friendly personality of many of the satyrs and centaurs with whom Percy was familiar.
Percy’s breath caught as he watched his friends struggle feebly, fruitlessly. They had been snatched from right off of the deck of the Argo II by two griffins so quickly that the others were late to notice their absence. Guilt welled up in Percy’s chest, remembering how they had been forced to watch helplessly as Piper and Nico disappeared into the horizon. If only he had been more attentive, more observant... Jason had taken it the hardest. He had been sleeping below deck, and by the time he was roused, it had been too late for him to fly after them. Percy shook the thoughts away. This wasn’t the time, he reminded himself. Stay in the moment.
As they were pushed past, Nico looked over and locked eyes with Percy. “I’m sorry,” he muttered so quietly that Percy wondered if he had made any sound at all. Ever since he had returned from escorting Reyna to Camp Half-Blood, Nico seemed...different. Maybe they all were.
The Ipotane forced Piper and Nico to kneel in front of Gaea. Percy’s mind whirled. If their blood was spilled onto the earth, it was game over. Gaea would reawaken, she and her children would take over Greece, and Percy and his friends would most certainly die gruesome, horrible deaths.
Percy had to do something. He looked around frantically, feeling the tip of a spear dig into his back, held there by a disfigured cyclops working for Gaea. Annabeth stood to his right, blonde hair disheveled and scratches running up the side of her face. She, too, was guarded by one of Gaea’s minions, and she didn’t look very happy about it. Annabeth turned her head towards Percy, just enough for him to meet her determined eye.
She winked twice with her left eye and gave a sharp nod. That was all the signal Percy needed. He stomped back on his left heel, sending a coil of celestial bronze wire spiraling into the chest of the cyclops behind him. It hit with such force that he was knocked back ten yards, landing with a resounding thud on the ground. Percy made a mental note to thank Leo.
Looking up, Percy saw that Annabeth had successfully incapacitated her guard in the same way. Leo had burst into flames, causing the monster behind him to stumble back, before shooting a fireball at his chest. Frank was presently a cougar, scratching at the face of a fallen monster. Smoke rose from a sizzling crater that sat just behind Jason - no monster to be seen. Hazel stood with her eyes closed in concentration, and the lizard woman guarding her was pointing her spear at the air five feet to the left, as if she were guarding someone invisible. Percy knew better - it was Hazel’s magic at work.
Gaea roared in anger and more of her minions rushed forward. She snapped her fingers at an empousa and pointed sharply at Nico. “Cut them! Spill their blood! NOW!”
Percy and Leo shared a nod and in silent agreement, each took off. Annabeth, Percy and Jason rushed for Nico and Piper while Frank and Leo went to guard Hazel as she concentrated on the planned spell.
A sudden chasm opened up in front of Percy and he vaulted over it just in time, grabbing Annabeth’s hand in midair to help propel her across. Jason landed at a run, pushed forward by the air, and raised his sword, charging a chimera which stepped forward to guard Gaea.
Just as Percy uncapped Riptide, the empousa slashed down with a talon, slicing Nico’s upper arm. He cried out and fell forward, twisting to keep his arm facing up. The earth around him, however, had different ideas. It rose upward in searching tendrils, like the feelers of an insect looking for nectar. The dirt seemed drawn to the blood, the blood that would resurrect its master.
Annabeth drew her dagger and sliced at the manticore which was guarding Nico and Piper. She connected with the flesh of its muscled back, causing him to release his hold on his prisoners’ wrists, and jumped back, dodging the spikes shooting from its tail. Nico took immediate advantage of the distraction, scrambling back, away from the rising ground. Piper shot up, starting to run, before the dirt suddenly encased her feet like boots, stopping her in her tracks and sending her sprawling flat on her face. She gasped in pain as her ankles were twisted at an unnatural angle.
“Nico!” Percy shouted, running towards him and slashing at the dirt tendrils with Riptide. They crumbled under his blade, but there was a more immediate problem. A wall of dirt rose up behind Nico, and he was backing right towards it.
Nico stopped just as the wave of dirt crashed over him, pinning him to the ground. The dirt that encased his wounded shoulder turned blood red, oozing with liquid. Nico’s eyes fluttered closed and he turned even paler than normal. The earth was sucking the blood, and the life, right out of him.
Percy panicked. Ignoring the risk of such an energy consuming task, he pulled on whatever water his senses could find. It gathered under the surface of the earth and exploded upwards, blasting Nico’s dirt shroud to pieces. The water dispersed, forming a thin barrier between the dirt and Nico as he lay still on the ground.
Head suddenly spinning, Percy fell to a knee, feeling weaker than expected. Not only had he pushed the limits of his power distance wise, he could feel Gaea battling the water as it rose up through the earth. The exertion had almost been too much and still she had gotten the blood.
Percy’s vision swam as he crawled over to Nico to see if he was still alive. In his peripheral vision, he thought he saw monsters battling each other, but he couldn’t tell whether or not he was hallucinating. As Percy reached his friend, the rise and fall of Nico’s chest let him know that he was, thankfully, still alive. Granted, he didn’t look to be in the best of shape, but he was alive.
The last thing Percy saw was Nico’s eyes snapping open as he let out a shuddering gasp. The world as Percy saw it spun, sending him spiraling into darkness.