Hercules snarled. “Don’t get me started with the movies. Gods of Olympus, they never get anything right. Have you seen one movie about me where I look like me?”
Piper had to admit he had a point. “I’m surprised you’re so young.”
“Ha! Being immortal helps. But, yes, I wasn’t so old when I died. Not by modern standards. I did a lot during my years as a hero…too much, really.” His eyes drifted to Jason. “Son of Zeus, eh?”
“Jupiter,” Jason said.
“Not much difference,” Hercules grumbled. “Dad’s annoying in either form. Me? I was called Heracles. Then the Romans came along and named me Hercules. I didn’t really change that much, though lately just thinking about it gives me splitting headaches…”
The left side of his face twitched. His robes shimmered, momentarily turning white, then back to purple.
“At any rate,” Hercules said, “if you’re Jupiter’s son, you might understand. It’s a lot of pressure. Enough is never enough. Eventually it can make a guy snap.”
He turned to Piper. She felt like a thousand ants were crawling up her back. There was a mixture of sadness and darkness in his eyes that seemed not quite sane, and definitely not safe.
“As for you, my dear,” Hercules said, “be careful. Sons of Zeus can be…well, never mind.”
Piper wasn’t sure what that meant. Suddenly she wanted to get as far from this god as possible, but she tried to maintain a calm, polite expression.
“So, Lord Hercules,” she said, “we’re on a quest. We’d like permission to pass into the Mediterranean.”
Hercules shrugged. “That’s why I’m here. After I died, Dad made me the doorkeeper of Olympus. I said, Great! Palace duty! Party all the time! What he didn’t mention is that I’d be guarding the doors to the ancient lands, stuck on this island for the rest of eternity. Lots of fun.”
He pointed at the pillars rising from the surf. “Stupid columns. Some people claim I created the whole Strait of Gibraltar by shoving mountains apart. Some people say the mountains are the pillars. What a bunch of Augean manure. The pillars are pillars.”
“Right,” Piper said. “Naturally. So…can we pass?”
The god scratched his fashionable beard. “Well, I have to give you the standard warning about how dangerous the ancient lands are. Not just any demigod can survive the Mare Nostrum. Because of that, I have to give you a quest to complete. Prove your worth, blah, blah, blah. Honestly, I don’t make a big deal of it. Usually I give demigods something simple like a shopping trip, singing a funny song, that sort of thing. After all those labors I had to complete for my evil cousin Eurystheus, well…I don’t want to be that guy, you know?”
“Appreciate it,” Jason said.
“Hey, no problem.” Hercules sounded relaxed and easygoing, but he still made Piper nervous. That dark glint in his eyes reminded her of charcoal soaked in kerosene, ready to go up at a moment’s notice.
“So anyway,” Hercules said, “what’s your quest?”
“Giants,” Jason said. “We’re off to Greece to stop them from awakening Gaea.”
“Giants,” Hercules muttered. “I hate those guys. Back when I was a demigod hero…ah, but never mind. So which god put you up to this—Dad? Athena? Maybe Aphrodite?” He raised an eyebrow at Piper. “As pretty as you are, I’m guessing that’s your mom.”
Piper should’ve been thinking faster, but Hercules had unsettled her. Too late, she realized the conversation had become a minefield.
“Hera sent us,” Jason said. “She brought us together to—”
“Hera.” Suddenly Hercules’s expression was like the cliffs of Gibraltar—a solid, unforgiving sheet of stone.
“We hate her too,” Piper said quickly. Gods, why hadn’t it occurred to her? Hera had been Hercules’s mortal enemy. “We didn’t want to help her. She didn’t give us much choice, but—”
“But here you are,” Hercules said, all friendliness gone. “Sorry, you two. I don’t care how worthy your quest is. I don’t do anything that Hera wants. Ever.”
Jason looked mystified. “But I thought you made up with her when you became a god.”
“Like I said,” Hercules grumbled, “don’t believe everything you hear. If you want to pass into the Mediterranean, I’m afraid I’ve got to give you an extra-hard quest.”
“But we’re like brothers,” Jason protested. “Hera’s messed with my life, too. I understand—”
“You understand nothing,” Hercules said coldly. “My first family: dead. My life wasted on ridiculous quests. My second wife dead, after being tricked into poisoning me and leaving me to a painful demise. And my compensation? I got to become a minor god. Immortal, so I can never forget my pain. Stuck here as a gatekeeper, a doorman, a…a butler for the Olympians. No, you don’t understand. The only god who understands me even a little bit is Dionysus. And at least he invented something useful. I have nothing to show except bad film adaptations of my life.”
Piper turned on the charmspeak. “That’s horribly sad, Lord Hercules. But please go easy on us. We’re not bad people.”
She thought she’d succeeded. Hercules hesitated. Then his jaw tightened, and he shook his head. “On the opposite side of this island, over those hills, you’ll find a river. In the middle of that river lives the old god Achelous.”
Hercules waited, as if this information should send them running in terror.
“And… ?” Jason asked.
“And,” Hercules said, “I want you to break off his other horn and bring it to me.”
“He has horns,” Jason said. “Wait…his other horn? What—?”
“Figure it out,” the god snapped. “Here, this should help.”
He said the word help like it meant hurt. From under his robes, Hercules took a small book and tossed it to Piper. She barely caught it.
The book’s glossy cover showed a photographic montage of Greek temples and smiling monsters. The Minotaur was giving the thumbs-up. The title read: The Hercules Guide to the Mare Nostrum.
“Bring me that horn by sundown,” Hercules said. “Just the two of you. No contacting your friends. Your ship will remain where it is. If you succeed, you may pass into the Mediterranean.”
“And if we don’t?” Piper asked, pretty sure she didn’t want the answer.
“Well, Achelous will kill you, obviously,” Hercules said. “And I will break your ship in half with my bare hands and send your friends to an early grave.”
Jason shifted his feet. “Couldn’t we just sing a funny song?”
“I’d get going,” Hercules said coldly. “Sundown. Or your friends are dead.”
The Hercules Guide to the Mare Nostrum didn’t help much with snakes and mosquitoes.
“If this is a magic island,” Piper grumbled, “why couldn’t it be a nice magic island?”
They tromped up a hill and down into a heavily wooded valley, careful to avoid the black-and-red-striped snakes sunning themselves on the rocks. Mosquitoes swarmed over stagnant ponds in the lowest areas. The trees were mostly stunted olives, cypress, and pines. The chirring of the cicadas and the oppressive heat reminded Piper of the rez in Oklahoma during the summer.
So far they hadn’t found any river.
“We could fly,” Jason suggested again.
“We might miss something,” Piper said. “Besides, I’m not sure I want to drop in on an unfriendly god. What was his name? Etch-a-Sketch?”
“Achelous.” Jason was trying to read the guidebook while they walked, so he kept running into trees and stumbling over rocks. “Says here he’s a potamus.”
“He’s a hippopotamus?”
“No. Potamus. A river god. According to this, he’s the spirit of some river in Greece.”
“Since we’re not in Greece, let’s assume he’s moved,” Piper said. “Doesn’t bode well for how useful that book is going to be. Anything else?”
“Says Hercules fought him one time,” Jason offered.
“Hercules fought ninety-nine percent of everything in Ancient Greece.”
“Yeah. Let’s see. Pillars of Hercules…” Jason flipped a page. “Says here this island has no hotels, no restaurants, no transportation. Attractions: Hercules and two pillars. Huh, this is interesting. Supposedly the dollar sign—you know, the S with the two lines through it?—that came from the Spanish coat of arms, which showed the Pillars of Hercules with a banner curling between them.”
Great, Piper thought. Jason finally gets along with Annabeth, and her brainiac tendencies start rubbing off on him.
“Anything helpful?” she asked.
“Wait. Here’s a tiny reference to Achelous: This river god fought Hercules for the hand of the beautiful Deianira. During the struggle, Hercules broke off one of the river god’s horns, which became the first cornucopia.”
“Corn of what?”
“It’s that Thanksgiving decoration,” Jason said. “The horn with all the goodies spilling out? We have some in the mess hall at Camp Jupiter. I didn’t know the original one was actually some guy’s horn.”
“And we’re supposed to take his other one,” Piper said. “I’m guessing that won’t be so easy. Who was Deianira?”
“Hercules married her,” Jason said. “I think…doesn’t say here. But I think something bad happened to her.”
Piper remembered what Hercules had told them: his first family dead, his second wife dead after being tricked into poisoning him. She was liking this challenge less and less.
They trudged across a ridge between two hills, trying to stay in the shade; but Piper was already soaked with perspiration. The mosquitoes left welts on her ankles, arms, and neck, so she probably looked like a smallpox victim.
She’d finally gotten some alone time with Jason, and this was how they spent it.
She was irritated with Jason for having mentioned Hera, but she knew she shouldn’t blame him. Maybe she was just irritated with him in general. Ever since Camp Jupiter, she’d been carrying around a lot of worry and resentment.
She wondered what Hercules had wanted to tell her about the sons of Zeus. They couldn’t be trusted? They were under too much pressure? Piper tried to imagine Jason becoming a god when he died, standing on some beach guarding the gates to an ocean long after Piper and everyone else he knew in his mortal life were dead.
She wondered if Hercules had ever been as positive as Jason—more upbeat, confident, quick to comfort. It was hard to picture.
As they hiked down into the next valley, Piper wondered what was happening back on the Argo II. She was tempted to send an Iris-message, but Hercules had warned them not to contact their friends. She hoped Annabeth could guess what was going on and didn’t try to send another party ashore. Piper wasn’t sure what Hercules would do if he were bothered further. She imagined Coach Hedge getting impatient and aiming a ballista at the man in purple, or eidolons possessing the crew and forcing them to commit suicide-by-Hercules.