Monday, 21 May 2012

The Lightning Thief - Chapter 18

Chapter 18

 We stood in the shadows of Valencia Boulevard, looking up at gold letters etched in blackmarble: DOA
 Underneath, stenciled on the glass doors: NO SOLICI-TORS. NO LOITERING. NO LIVING.
 It was almost midnight, but the lobby was brightly lit and full of people. Behind the security desk sat a
tough-looking guard with sunglasses and an earpiece.
 I turned to my friends. "Okay. You remember the plan."
 "The plan," Grover gulped. "Yeah. I love the plan."
 Annabeth said, "What happens if the plan doesn't work?"
 "Don't think negative."
 "Right," she said. "We're entering the Land of the Dead, and I shouldn't think negative."
 I took the pearls out of my pocket, the three milky spheres the Nereid had given me in Santa Monica.
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They didn't seem like much of a backup in case something went wrong.
 Annabeth put her hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Percy. You're right, we'll make it. It'll be fine."
 She gave Grover a nudge.
 "Oh, right!" he chimed in. "We got this far. We'll find the master bolt and save your mom. No problem."
 I looked at them both, and felt really grateful. Only a few minutes before, I'd almost gotten them
stretched to death on deluxe water beds, and now they were trying to be brave for my sake, trying to
make me feel better.
 I slipped the pearls back in my pocket. "Let's whup some Underworld butt."
 We walked inside the DOA lobby.
 Muzak played softly on hidden speakers. The carpet and walls were steel gray. Pencil cactuses grew in
the corners like skeleton hands. The furniture was black leather, and every seat was taken. There were
people sitting on couches, people standing up, people staring out the windows or wait-ing for the
elevator. Nobody moved, or talked, or did much of anything. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see
them all just fine, but if I focused on any one of them in partic-ular, they started looking ... transparent. I
could see right through their bodies.
 The security guard's desk was a raised podium, so we had to look up at him.
 He was tall and elegant, with chocolate-colored skin and bleached-blond hair shaved military style. He
wore tortoiseshell shades and a silk Italian suit that matched his hair. A black rose was pinned to his lapel
under a silver name tag.
 I read the name tag, then looked at him in bewilder-ment. "Your name is Chiron?"
 He leaned across the desk. I couldn't see anything in his glasses except my own reflection, but his smile
was sweet and cold, like a pythons, right before it eats you.
 "What a precious young lad." He had a strange accent—British, maybe, but also as if he had learned
English as a second language. "Tell me, mate, do I look like a centaur?"
 "Sir," he added smoothly.
 "Sir," I said.
 He pinched the name tag and ran his finger under the letters. "Can you read this, mate? It says C-H -A-R-O-N. Say it with me: CARE-ON."
 "Amazing! Now: Mr. Charon."
 "Mr. Charon," I said.
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 "Well done." He sat back. "I hate  being confused with that old horse-man. And now, how may I help
you little dead ones?"
 His question caught in my stomach like a fastball. I looked at Annabeth for support.
 "We want to go the Underworld," she said.
 Charon's mouth twitched. "Well, that's refreshing."
 "It is?" she asked.
 "Straightforward and honest. No screaming. No 'There must be a mistake, Mr. Charon.'" He looked us
over. "How did you die, then?"
 I nudged Grover.
 "Oh," he said. "Um ... drowned ... in the bathtub."
 "All three of you?" Charon asked. We nodded.
 "Big bathtub." Charon looked mildly impressed."  I don't suppose you have coins for passage. Normally,
with adults, you see, I could charge your American Express, or add the ferry price to your last cable bill.
But with children ... alas, you never die prepared. Suppose you'll have to take a seat for a few centuries."
 "Oh, but we have coins." I set three golden drachmas on the counter, part of the stash I'd found in
Crusty's office desk.
 "Well, now ..." Charon moistened his lips. "Real drach-mas. Real golden drachmas. I haven't seen these
in ..."
 His fingers hovered greedily over the coins.
 We were so close.
 Then Charon looked at me. That cold stare behind his glasses seemed to bore a hole through my chest.
"Here now," he said. "You couldn't read my name correctly. Are you dyslexic, lad?"
 "No," I said. "I'm dead."
 Charon leaned forward and took a sniff. "You're not dead. I should've known. You're a godling."
 "We have to get to the Underworld," I insisted.
 Charon made a growling sound deep in his throat.
 Immediately, all the people in the waiting room got up and started pacing, agitated, lighting cigarettes,
running hands through their hair, or checking their wristwatches.
 "Leave while you can," Charon told us. "I'll just take these and forget I saw you."
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 He started to go for the coins, but I snatched them back.
 "No service, no tip." I tried to sound braver than I felt.
 Charon growled again—a deep, blood-chilling sound. The spirits of the dead started pounding on the
elevator doors.
 "It's a shame, too," I sighed. "We had more to offer."
 I held up the entire bag from Crusty's stash. I took out a fistful of drachmas and let the coins spill through
my fingers.
 Charon's growl changed into something more like a lion's purr. "Do you think I can be bought, godling?
Eh ... just out of curiosity, how much have you got there?"
 "A lot," I said. "I bet Hades doesn't pay you well enough for such hard work."
 "Oh, you don't know the half of it. How would you like to babysit these spirits all day? Always 'Please
don't let me be dead' or 'Please let me across for free.' I haven't had a pay raise in three thousand years.
Do you imagine suits like this come cheap?"
 "You deserve better," I agreed. "A little appreciation. Respect. Good pay."
 With each word, I stacked another gold coin on the counter.
 Charon glanced down at his silk Italian jacket, as if imagining himself in something even better. "I must
say, lad, you're making some sense now. Just a little."
 I stacked another few coins. "I could mention a pay raise while I'm talking to Hades."
 He sighed. "The boat's almost full, anyway. I might as well add you three and be off."
 He stood, scooped up our money, and said, "Come along."
 We pushed through the crowd of waiting spirits, who started grabbing at our clothes like the wind, their
voices whispering things I couldn't make out. Charon shoved them out of the way, grumbling,
 He escorted us into the elevator, which was already crowded with souls of the dead, each one holding a
green boarding pass. Charon grabbed two spirits who were trying to get on with us and pushed them
back into the lobby.
 "Right. Now, no one get any ideas while I'm gone," he announced to the waiting room. "And if anyone
moves the dial off my easy-listening station again, I'll make sure you're here for another thousand years.
 He shut the doors. He put a key card into a slot in the elevator panel and we started to descend.
 "What happens to the spirits waiting in the lobby?" Annabeth asked.
 "Nothing," Charon said.
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 "For how long?"
 "Forever, or until I'm feeling generous."
 "Oh," she said. "That's ... fair."
 Charon raised an eyebrow. "Whoever said death was fair, young miss? Wait until it's your turn. You'll die
soon enough, where you're going."
 "We'll get out alive," I said.
 I got a sudden dizzy feeling. We weren't going down anymore, but forward. The air turned misty. Spirits
around me started changing shape. Their modern clothes flickered, turning into gray hooded robes. The
floor of the elevator began swaying.
 I blinked hard. When I opened my eyes, Charon's creamy Italian suit had been replaced by a long black
robe. His tortoiseshell glasses were gone. Where his eyes should've been were empty sockets—like
Ares's eyes, except Charon's were totally dark, full of night and death and despair.
 He saw me looking, and said, "Well?"
 "Nothing," I managed.
 I thought he was grinning, but that wasn't it. The flesh of his face was becoming transparent, letting me
see straight through to his skull.
 The floor kept swaying.
 Grover said, "I think I'm getting seasick."
 When I blinked again, the elevator wasn't an elevator anymore. We were standing in a wooden barge.
Charon was poling us across a dark, oily river, swirling with bones, dead fish, and other, stranger
things—plastic dolls, crushed car-nations, soggy diplomas with gilt edges.
 "The River Styx," Annabeth murmured. "It's so ..."
 "Polluted," Charon said. "For thousands of years, you humans have been throwing in everything as you
come across—hopes, dreams, wishes that never came true. Irresponsible waste management, if you ask
 Mist curled off the filthy water. Above us, almost lost in the gloom, was a ceiling of stalactites. Ahead,
the far shore glimmered with greenish light, the color of poison.
 Panic closed up my throat. What was I doing here? These people around me ... they were dead.
 Annabeth grabbed hold of my hand. Under normal cir-cumstances, this would've embarrassed me, but I
under-stood how she felt. She wanted reassurance that somebody else was alive on this boat.
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 I found myself muttering a prayer, though I wasn't quite sure who I was praying to. Down here, only one
god mat-tered, and he was the one I had come to confront.
 The shoreline of the Underworld came into view. Craggy rocks and black volcanic sand stretched inland
about a hundred yards to the base of a high stone wall, which marched off in either direction as far as we
could see. A sound came from somewhere nearby in the green gloom, echoing off the stones—the howl
of a large animal.
 "Old Three-Face is hungry," Charon said. His smile turned skeletal in the greenish light. "Bad luck for
you, godlings."
 The bottom of our boat slid onto the black sand. The dead began to disembark. A woman holding a
little girl's hand. An old man and an old woman hobbling along arm in arm. A boy no older than I was,
shuffling silently along in his gray robe.
 Charon said, "I'd wish you luck, mate, but there isn't any down here. Mind you, don't forget to mention
my pay raise."
 He counted our golden coins into his pouch, then took up his pole. He warbled something that sounded
like a Barry Manilow song as he ferried the empty barge back across the river.
 We followed the spirits up a well-worn path.
 I'm not sure what I was expecting—Pearly Gates, or a big black portcullis, or something. But the
entrance to the Underworld looked like a cross between airport security and the Jersey Turnpike.
 There were three separate entrances under one huge black archway that said YOU ARE NOW
ENTERING EREBUS. Each entrance had a pass-through metal detector with secu-rity cameras
mounted on top. Beyond this were tollbooths manned by black-robed ghouls like Charon.
 The howling of the hungry animal was really loud now, but I couldn't see where it was coming from. The
three-headed dog, Cerberus, who was supposed to guard Hades's door, was nowhere to be seen.
 The dead queued up in the three lines, two marked ATTENDANT ON DUTY, and one marked EZ
DEATH. The EZ DEATH line was moving right along. The other two were crawling.
 "What do you figure?" I asked Annabeth.
 "The fast line must go straight to the Asphodel Fields," she said. "No contest. They don't want to risk
judgment from the court, because it might go against them."
 "There's a court for dead people?"
 "Yeah. Three judges. They switch around who sits on the bench. King Minos, Thomas Jefferson,
Shakespeare—people like that. Sometimes they look at a life and decide that person needs a special
reward—the Fields of Elysium. Sometimes they decide  on punishment. But most people, well, they just
lived. Nothing special, good or bad. So they go to the Asphodel Fields."
 "And do what?"
 Grover said, "Imagine standing in a wheat field in Kansas. Forever."
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 "Harsh," I said.
 "Not as harsh as that," Grover muttered. "Look."
 A couple of black-robbed ghouls had pulled aside one spirit and were frisking him at the security desk.
The face of the dead man looked vaguely familiar.
 "He's that preacher who made the news, remember?" Grover asked.
 "Oh, yeah." I did remember now. We'd seen him on TV a couple of times at the Yancy Academy dorm.
He was this annoying televangelist from upstate New York who'd raised millions of dollars for
orphanages and then got caught spending the money on stuff for his mansion, like gold-plated toilet seats,
and an indoor putt-putt golf course. He'd died in a police chase when his "Lamborghini for the Lord"
went off a cliff.
 I said, "What're they doing to him?"
 "Special punishment from Hades," Grover guessed. "The really bad people get his personal attention as
soon as they arrive. The Fur—the Kindly Ones will set up an eter-nal torture for him."
 The thought of the Furies made me shudder. I realized I was in their home territory now. Old Mrs.
Dodds would be licking her lips with anticipation.
 "But if he's a preacher," I said, "and he believes in a dif-ferent hell... ."
 Grover shrugged. "Who says he's seeing this place the way we're seeing it? Humans see what they want
to see. You're very stubborn—er, persistent, that way."
 We got closer to the gates. The howling was so loud now it shook the ground at my feet, but I still
couldn't fig-ure out where it was coming from.
 Then, about fifty feet in front of us, the green mist shimmered. Standing just where the path split into
three lanes was an enormous shadowy monster.
 I hadn't seen it before because it was half transparent, like the dead. Until it moved, it blended with
whatever was behind it. Only its eyes and teeth looked solid. And it was staring straight at me.
 My jaw hung open. All I could think to say was, "He's a Rottweiler."
 I'd always imagined Cerberus as a big black mastiff. But he was obviously a purebred Rottweiler,
except of course that he was twice the size of a woolly mammoth, mostly invisible, and had three heads.
 The dead walked right up to him—no fear at all. The ATTENDANT ON DUTY lines parted on either
side of him. The EZ DEATH spirits walked right between his front paws and under his belly, which they
could do without even crouching.
 "I'm starting to see him better," I muttered. "Why is that?"
 "I think ..." Annabeth moistened her lips. "I'm afraid it's because we're getting closer to being dead."
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 The dog's middle head craned toward us. It sniffed the air and growled.
 "It can smell the living," I said.
 "But that's okay," Grover said, trembling next to me. "Because we have a plan."
 "Right," Annabeth said. I'd never heard her voice sound quite so small. "A plan."
 We moved toward the monster.
 The middle head snarled at us, then barked so loud my eyeballs rattled.
 "Can you understand it?" I asked Grover.
 "Oh yeah," he said. "I can understand it."
 "What's it saying?"
 "I don't think humans have a four-letter word that translates, exactly."
 I took the big stick out of my backpack—a bedpost I'd broken off Crusty's Safari Deluxe floor model. I
held it up, and tried to channel happy dog thoughts toward Cerberus—Alpo commercials, cute little
pup-pies, fire hydrants. I tried to smile, like I wasn't about to die.
 "Hey, Big Fella," I called up. "I bet they don't play with you much."
 "Good boy," I said weakly.
 I waved the stick. The dog's middle head followed the movement. The other two heads trained their
eyes on me, completely ignoring the spirits. I had Cerberus's undi-vided attention. I wasn't sure that was
a good thing.
 "Fetch!" I threw the stick into the gloom, a good solid throw. I heard it go ker-sploosh  in the River Styx.
 Cerberus glared at me, unimpressed. His eyes were baleful and cold.
 So much for the plan.
 Cerberus was now making a new kind of growl, deeper down in his three throats.
 "Um," Grover said. "Percy?"
 "I just thought you'd want to know."
 "Cerberus? He's saying we've got ten seconds to pray to the god of our choice .After that... well ... he's
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 "Wait!" Annabeth said. She started rifling through her pack.
 Uh-oh, I thought.
 "Five seconds," Grover said. "Do we run now?"
 Annabeth produced a red rubber ball the size of a grapefruit. It was labeled WATERLAND, DENVER,
CO. Before I could stop her, she raised the ball and marched straight up to Cerberus.
 She shouted, "See the ball? You want the ball, Cerberus? Sit!"
 Cerberus looked as stunned as we were.
 All three of his heads cocked sideways. Six nostrils dilated.
 "Sit!" Annabeth called again.
 I was sure that any moment she would become the world's largest Milkbone dog biscuit.
 But instead, Cerberus licked his three sets of lips, shifted on his haunches, and sat, immediately crushing
a dozen spirits who'd been passing underneath him in the EZ DEATH line. The spirits made muffled
hisses as they dissi-pated, like the air let out of tires.
 Annabeth said, "Good boy!"
 She threw Cerberus the ball.
 He caught it in his middle mouth. It was barely big enough for him to chew, and the other heads started
snap-ping at the middle, trying to get the new toy.
 "Drop it.'" Annabeth ordered.
 Cerberus's heads stopped fighting and looked at her. The ball was wedged between two of his teeth like
a tiny piece of gum. He made a loud, scary whimper, then dropped the ball, now slimy and bitten nearly
in half, at Annabeth's feet.
 "Good boy." She picked up the ball, ignoring the mon-ster spit all over it.
 She turned toward us. "Go now. EZ DEATH line—it's faster."
 I said, "But—"
 "Now.'" She ordered, in the same tone she was using on the dog.
 Grover and I inched forward warily.
 Cerberus started to growl.
 "Stay!" Annabeth ordered the monster. "If you want the ball, stay!"
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 Cerberus whimpered, but he stayed where he was.
 "What about you?" I asked Annabeth as we passed her.
 "I know what I'm doing, Percy," she muttered. "At least, I'm pretty sure... ."
 Grover and I walked between the monster's legs.
 Please, Annabeth, I prayed. Don't tell him to sit again.
 We made it through. Cerberus wasn't any less scary-looking from the back.
 Annabeth said, "Good dog!"
 She held up the tattered red ball, and probably came to the same conclusion I did—if she rewarded
Cerberus, there'd be nothing left for another trick.
 She threw the ball anyway. The monster's left mouth immediately snatched it up, only to be attacked by
the mid-dle head, while the right head moaned in protest.
 While the monster was distracted, Annabeth walked briskly under its belly and joined us at the metal
 "How did you do that?" I asked her, amazed.
 "Obedience school," she said breathlessly, and I was sur-prised to see there were tears in her eyes.
"When I was little, at my dad's house, we had a Doberman... ."
 "Never mind that," Grover said, tugging at my shirt. "Come on!"
 We were about to bolt through the EZ DEATH line when Cerberus moaned pitifully from all three
mouths. Annabeth stopped.
 She turned to face the dog, which had done a one-eighty to look at us.
 Cerberus panted expectantly, the tiny red ball in pieces in a puddle of drool at its feet.
 "Good boy," Annabeth said, but her voice sounded melancholy and uncertain.
 The monster's heads turned sideways, as if worried about her.
 "I'll bring you another ball soon," Annabeth promised faintly. "Would you like that?"
 The monster whimpered. I didn't need to speak dog to know Cerberus was still waiting for the ball.
 "Good dog. I'll come visit you soon. I—I promise." Annabeth turned to us. "Let's go."
 Grover and I pushed through the metal detector, which immediately screamed and set off flashing red
lights. "Unauthorized possessions! Magic detected!"
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 Cerberus started to bark.
 We burst through the EZ DEATH gate, which started even more alarms blaring, and raced into the
 A few minutes later, we were hiding, out of breath, in the rotten trunk of an immense black tree as
security ghouls scuttled past, yelling for backup from the Furies.
 Grover murmured, "Well, Percy, what have we learned today?"
 "That three-headed dogs prefer red rubber balls over sticks?"
 "No," Grover told me. "We've learned that your plans really, really bite!"
 I wasn't sure about that. I thought maybe Annabeth and I had both had the right idea. Even here in the
Underworld, everybody—even monsters—needed a little attention once in a while.
 I thought about that as we waited for the ghouls to pass. I pretended not to see Annabeth wipe a tear
from her cheek as she listened to the mournful keening of Cerberus in the distance, longing for his new


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