"Address Lord Zeus, boy," Poseidon told me. "Tell him your story."
So I told Zeus everything, just as it had happened. I took out the metal cylinder, which began sparking in the Sky God's presence, and laid it at his feet.
There was a long silence, broken only by the crackle of the hearth fire.
Zeus opened his palm. The lightning bolt flew into it. As he closed his fist, the metallic points flared with electricity, until he was holding what looked more like the classic thunderbolt, a twenty-foot javelin of arcing, hissing energy that made the hairs on my scalp rise.
"I sense the boy tells the truth," Zeus muttered. "But that Ares would do such a thing ... it is most unlike him."
"He is proud and impulsive," Poseidon said. "It runs in the family."
"Lord?" I asked.
They both said, "Yes?"
"Ares didn't act alone. Someone else—something else— came up with the idea."
I described my dreams, and the feeling I'd had on the beach, that momentary breath of evil that had seemed to stop the world, and made Ares back off from killing me.
"In the dreams," I said, "the voice told me to bring the bolt to the Underworld. Ares hinted that he'd been having dreams, too. I think he was being used, just as I was, to start a war."
"You are accusing Hades, after all?" Zeus asked.
"No," I said. "I mean, Lord Zeus, I've been in the presence of Hades. This feeling on the beach was different. It was the same thing I felt when I got close to that pit. That was the entrance to Tartarus, wasn't it? Something powerful and evil is stirring down there ... something even older than the gods."
Poseidon and Zeus looked at each other. They had a quick, intense discussion in Ancient Greek. I only caught one word. Father.
Poseidon made some kind of suggestion, but Zeus cut him off. Poseidon tried to argue. Zeus held up his hand angrily. "We will speak of this no more," Zeus said. "I must go personally to purify this thunderbolt in the waters of Lemnos, to remove the human taint from its metal."
He rose and looked at me. His expression softened just a fraction of a degree. "You have done me a service, boy. Few heroes could have accomplished as much."
"I had help, sir," I said. "Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase—"
"To show you my thanks, I shall spare your life. I do not trust you, Perseus Jackson. I do not like what your arrival means for the future of Olympus. But for the sake of peace in the family, I shall let you live."
"Um ... thank you, sir."
"Do not presume to fly again. Do not let me find you here when I return. Otherwise you shall taste this bolt. And it shall be your last sensation."
Thunder shook the palace. With a blinding flash of lightning, Zeus was gone.
I was alone in the throne room with my father. "Your uncle," Poseidon sighed, "has always had a flair for dramatic exits. I think he would've done well as the god of theater."
An uncomfortable silence.
"Sir," I said, "what was in that pit?"
Poseidon regarded me. "Have you not guessed?"
"Kronos," I said. "The king of the Titans."
Even in the throne room of Olympus, far away from Tartarus, the name Kronos darkened the room, made the hearth fire seem not quite so warm on my back.
Poseidon gripped his trident. "In the First War, Percy, Zeus cut our father Kronos into a thousand pieces, just as Kronos had done to his own father, Ouranos. Zeus cast Kronos's remains into the darkest pit of Tartarus. The Titan army was scattered, their mountain fortress on Etna destroyed, their monstrous allies driven to the farthest corners of the earth. And yet Titans cannot die, any more than we gods can. Whatever is left of Kronos is still alive in some hideous way, still conscious in his eternal pain, still hungering for power."
"He's healing," I said. "He's coming back."
Poseidon shook his head. "From time to time, over the eons, Kronos has stirred. He enters men's nightmares and breathes evil thoughts. He wakens restless monsters from the depths. But to suggest he could rise from the pit is another thing."
"That's what he intends, Father. That's what he said."
Poseidon was silent for a long time.
"Lord Zeus has closed discussion on this matter. He will not allow talk of Kronos. You have completed your quest, child. That is all you need to do."
"But—" I stopped myself. Arguing would do no good. It would very possibly anger the only god who I had on my side. "As ... as you wish, Father."
A faint smile played on his lips. "Obedience does not come naturally to you, does it?"
"No ... sir."
"I must take some blame for that, I suppose. The sea does not like to be restrained." He rose to his full height and took up his trident. Then he shimmered and became the size of a regular man, standing directly in front of me. "You must go, child. But first, know that your mother has returned."
I stared at him, completely stunned. "My mother?"
"You will find her at home. Hades sent her when you recovered his helm. Even the Lord of Death pays his debts."
My heart was pounding. I couldn't believe it. "Do you ... would you ..."
I wanted to ask if Poseidon would come with me to see her, but then I realized that was ridiculous. I imagined loading the God of the Sea into a taxi and taking him to the Upper East Side. If he'd wanted to see my mom all these years, he would have. And there was Smelly Gabe to think about.
Poseidon's eyes took on a little sadness. "When you return home, Percy, you must make an important choice. You will find a package waiting in your room."
"You will understand when you see it. No one can choose your path, Percy. You must decide."
I nodded, though I didn't know what he meant.
"Your mother is a queen among women," Poseidon said wistfully. "I had not met such a mortal woman in a thousand years. Still ... I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero's fate, and a hero's fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic."
I tried not to feel hurt. Here was my own dad, telling me he was sorry I'd been born. "I don't mind, Father."
"Not yet, perhaps," he said. "Not yet. But it was an unforgivable mistake on my part."
"I'll leave you then." I bowed awkwardly. "I—I won't bother you again."
I was five steps away when he called, "Perseus."
There was a different light in his eyes, a fiery kind of pride. "You did well, Perseus. Do not misunderstand me. Whatever else you do, know that you are mine. You are a true son of the Sea God."
As I walked back through the city of the gods, conversations stopped. The muses paused their concert. People and satyrs and naiads all turned toward me, their faces filled with respect and gratitude, and as I passed, they knelt, as if I were some kind of hero.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, still in a trance, I was back on the streets of Manhattan.
I caught a taxi to my mom's apartment, rang the doorbell, and there she was—my beautiful mother, smelling of peppermint and licorice, the weariness and worry evaporating from her face as soon as she saw me.
"Percy! Oh, thank goodness. Oh, my baby."
She crushed the air right out of me. We stood in the hallway as she cried and ran her hands through my hair.
I'll admit it—my eyes were a little misty, too. I was shaking, I was so relieved to see her.
She told me she'd just appeared at the apartment that morning, scaring Gabe half out of his wits. She didn't remember anything since the Minotaur, and couldn't believe it when Gabe told her I was a wanted criminal, traveling across the country, blowing up national monuments. She'd been going out of her mind with worry all day because she hadn't heard the news. Gabe had forced her to go into work, saying she had a month's salary to make up and she'd better get started.
I swallowed back my anger and told her my own story. I tried to make it sound less scary than it had been, but that wasn't easy. I was just getting to the fight with Ares when Gabe's voice interrupted from the living room. "Hey, Sally! That meat loaf done yet or what?"
She closed her eyes. "He isn't going to be happy to see you, Percy. The store got half a million phone calls today from Los Angeles ... something about free appliances."
"Oh, yeah. About that..."
She managed a weak smile. "Just don't make him angrier, all right? Come on."
In the month I'd been gone, the apartment had turned into Gabeland. Garbage was ankle deep on the carpet. The sofa had been reupholstered in beer cans. Dirty socks and underwear hung off the lampshades.
Gabe and three of his big goony friends were playing poker at the table.
When Gabe saw me, his cigar dropped out of his mouth. His face got redder than lava. "You got nerve coming here, you little punk. I thought the police—"
"He's not a fugitive after all," my mom interjected. "Isn't that wonderful, Gabe?"
Gabe looked back and forth between us. He didn't seem to think my homecoming was so wonderful.
"Bad enough I had to give back your life insurance money, Sally," he growled. "Get me the phone. I'll call the cops."
He raised his eyebrows. "Did you just say 'no'? You think I'm gonna put up with this punk again? I can still press charges against him for ruining my Camaro."
He raised his hand, and my mother flinched.
For the first time, I realized something. Gabe had hit my mother. I didn't know when, or how much. But I was sure he'd done it. Maybe it had been going on for years, when I wasn't around.
A balloon of anger started expanding in my chest. I came toward Gabe, instinctively taking my pen out of my pocket.
He just laughed. "What, punk? You gonna write on me? You touch me, and you are going to jail forever, you understand?"
"Hey, Gabe," his friend Eddie interrupted. "He's just a kid."
Gabe looked at him resentfully and mimicked in a falsetto voice: "Just a kid."
His other friends laughed like idiots.
"I'll be nice to you, punk." Gabe showed me his tobacco-stained teeth. "I'll give you five minutes to get your stuff and clear out. After that, I call the police."
"Gabe!" my mother pleaded.
"He ran away," Gabe told her. "Let him stay gone."
I was itching to uncap Riptide, but even if I did, the blade wouldn't hurt humans. And Gabe, by the loosest definition, was human.
My mother took my arm. "Please, Percy. Come on. We'll go to your room."
I let her pull me away, my hands still trembling with rage.
My room had been completely filled with Gabe's junk. I here were stacks of used car batteries, a rotting bouquet of sympathy flowers with a card from somebody who'd seen his Barbara Walters interview.
"Gabe is just upset, honey," my mother told me. "I'll talk to him later. I'm sure it will work out."
"Mom, it'll never work out. Not as long as Gabe's here."
She wrung her hands nervously. "I can ... I'll take you to work with me for the rest of the summer. In the fall, maybe there's another boarding school—"