Catacaen is my first destination.
Using the traveling stone is as easy as Sadi described. I close my eyes and picture the soaring black fortress, and the next moment, I’m there. I’ve swept myself into the guest room from before, knowing it will likely be empty. And it is.
Ocean-touched moonlight washes into the room. I step over to the balcony, knowing Hades’ private quarters with the armory is right below.
I lean out over the edge of the balcony and stare at the terrace below me. If he’s there, would he know I’m here? I have no idea just how good his superior hearing is.
Holding my breath, I stand still for a moment, not quite sure what I’m waiting for. Part of me, I feel, is bracing myself for his appearance.
But he doesn’t come. The room must be empty.
My gaze zones in on the terrace. Concentrating, I will myself to travel there. A split second later, I vanish and reappear on his balcony, miles and miles above the water. I stand tensely, crouched slightly as if I’m being hunted, and stare into the room.
There’s no one there.
I creep into the room, moving on the balls of my feet and dashing to the end of the hall. I make a beeline to the doorway where I saw Hades retreat with the armor. A deep, lengthy corridor brings me to a wide, circular room with a massive, double-gated door stretching far above me. There’s a circular lock that looks just like the one on the doors leading to Tartarus.
A vault. The door has to lead into Hades’ armory.
Ignoring the seal on the door, I touch the traveling stone at my neck and will myself inside. Nothing happens.
Some godly magic must be warding the door. I touch the obsidian wall, pushing against it, grunting with frustration. Willing myself inside again, but all I feel is a pulse of resistance like the weight of a fortress crushing me.
The ward must have been created by Hephaestus or Hades. Damn it.
I push off the door and huff out a breath. If I can’t get the armor, then I’d have to risk stealing the keys and going into Tartarus without protection. Too risky. But it seems that I might have to do that.
A thought suddenly occurs to me. Atteus’ keys.
Scrutinizing the circular mechanism at the center of the door, I spy a small, deep eyelet. A keyhole. Would Atteus be able to get into the armory?
That doesn’t make sense. The other day, when he asked Hades’ to give him the armor, it didn’t seem he had access to it. Hades had to go in and bring it out himself.
The nagging suspicion doesn’t go away. I have to know for sure. I have to find Atteus.
I huff out a breath at the task ahead of me. He could be anywhere. Even if he’s here at Catacaean, the fortress is a city in and of itself.
Without any plan as to how to seek out the Judge and Keyholder of the Underworld, I retreat from the vault and creep back to Hades’ quarters. No one is here, so maybe I can look for clues. I just have to make sure no one catches me sneaking around.
Back in the great hall, I find another doorway and walk through it. At the end of the corridor, I emerge into a private room that I immediately know belongs to Hades; I recognize the set of grey clothes he was wearing earlier in the day, strewn carelessly over a black oak bed carved with images of intertwining serpents.
I freeze when I see the clothes; he must have just been in here. Where is he now?
Not pausing enough to worry about that, I make a quick scan of the room, knowing nothing of value would be in here - it would be in the armory which is so heavily guarded. The furnishings are impressively minimal in classic Hades fashion. But there is one thing that catches my eye.
Like the map of the Underworld at his private manor, there is a map covering the entire upper half of the wall beside his bed. It seems more decorative than anything else. And it’s not a map of the Underworld. It’s a map of Catacaen.
Like a moth to a flame, I draw closer to the map. My eyes cut across the intricate workings and structure of Catacaen, rendered so carefully and precisely in shining black ink. It is a labyrinth with many levels, corridors, and towers.
Without thinking, I reach out to touch it, tracing the canvas with my fingertips. My hand trails over the edge, just below where I think I’m located, somewhere to the left of the entrance on the Bay of Passage. My gaze drifts across the names of different parts of Catacaen. The Grotto. The Atheneum. Spectrum. Skyward. The Knife. The Quill. And many more.
It only takes me a few seconds to find the words that might lead me to Atteus, there, on a stretch of rock jutting out into the bay: the Tower of Judges. The words are scrawled in curled black letters above a domed, circular point at the edge of the sprawling castle.
I spread my hand over the bottom of the tower on the map, the parchment smooth and promising under my skin. Could Atteus be there?
Not wasting a second more, I touch the stone on my neck and travel back to the terrace. There, I lean out over the balcony and peer into the bay.
The moon hangs high above the star-studded sky, and miles to my left, a finger of rock melded with fortress juts into the water. The Tower of Judges is perched at the edge of it, a black cylinder against the velvet blue sky. Purple lights emanate from the windows.
It’s as good a place to start looking as any.
Keeping my focus locked on the tower, I will myself to vanish. The sea and sky turn to a blur. A second later, I reappear on the rock, the world sharp and clear. I am standing before the Tower of Judges.
It’s much bigger up close than far away. Above me, it leans over me like a stern magistrate dressed in black. Challenged, but still undeterred, I inspect the perimeter of the tower, but there is no entryway that I can see. Not that getting in through a door would have been easy. Is there protection around the tower, too?
Concentrating, I try to break inside using the traveling stone, but I stay rooted to the spot. Whatever barrier that was protecting Hades’ vault must also be protecting the tower from intruders.
Looking up, I scale the tower with my eyes. Gulls and pigeons circle the looming spire, and far above, I see a narrow shelf of stone protruding out from beneath one of the windows. From my vantage point, it looks rather precarious, but I might be able to stand on it. But I’ll have to climb up there.
I walk up to the tower and touch the crevices in the stone. They’re wide enough that I can hold onto the rock with my hands. I pull myself up onto the wall, one hand and one foot at a time. The rock, though slippery from the moist air, holds under me. I climb further up, careful not to let my feet slip out.
Soon, I’m halfway up the tower, the birds circling only a short distance away from me. I’m careful not to look down, and when I finally reach the stretch of stone under the window, I hear male voices drifting out.
“...attacking Charon’s fleet, the passengers. I don’t know why they’re acting this way. It’s bizarre.”
When I hear Atteus’ deep voice, I freeze for a moment. My hand is clinging to the edge of the ledge. Would he and whoever else is in there be able to hear me? One wrong move, one slip of the hand, and I’ll be discovered. I have to be silent.
I all but hold my breath, and without looking down, pull myself up onto the ledge. I am a shadow. I tell myself. I am a beetle.
“I have to tell Hades. Do you know where he is?” Atteus continues as I heave myself onto the rock shelf. It takes a considerable amount of exertion, and I have to fight not to grunt out in pain.
With all my strength, I grit my teeth and grimace as I force one leg up onto the platform. Using my knee and my arms, I pull up the other.
Balls of sweat roll down my temples as I pull myself into a stance. Miraculously, the rock does not give way beneath my weight. I lean against the tower wall, trying to collect myself and be quiet about it. The edge of the window is inches above my head.
As quietly as possible, I step onto a crevice just above the ledge and stretch onto the tips of my toes just enough to peek over the edge of the window.
Through a covering of sheer black drapery, I peer inside the room. Shelves of endless books and scrolls press against the walls, and at the center of the room, a man dressed in dark red robes sits at a desk, poring over a scroll. He has dark skin, thick black hair and an impressive beard, and a serious, unsmiling face.
But my gaze only briefly touches on him, because Atteus is standing nearby. He’s wearing the armor.
It’s black as pitch darkness, and I can’t tell if it’s just my imagination, but I swear I see tendrils of inky smoke curling out from the silhouette.
“I haven’t seen Hades in days,” the other man tersely responds to Atteus’ question.
“Well, he’s been preoccupied.” Atteus smirks, then he’s serious again. “We may have to kill the beasts. They’re getting harder to control.”
The other man looks up from his desk and gives Atteus a quizzical look. “And then who guards the gates?”
“Right now, the chimeras aren’t guarding anything. They attack anyone who gets too close.” He shakes his head. “Something is wrong. I don’t know what it could be.”
At this, the other man narrows his eyes thoughtfully. “Perhaps the creatures are aging.”
Atteus frowns as he considers this. “I have to talk to the master of beasts. He wasn’t in his quarters when I looked, and he hasn’t been answering to my hails. I’d hoped he’d be here.”
“Well, he isn’t. Clearly, he wants to be left alone,” the other man says with disinterest, looking away from Atteus and back down at his scroll. Clearly, so does he.
“Always full of solutions, Rhadamanthus.” Atteus strolls around the desk, and I note the glint of the keys shining at the end of his hair. He stops at the end of the desk and plucks up the helmet to the armor. It’s a glorious, sleek black helm with sharp, twisting ram horns.
“Looks like I’ll have to wait for his highness, then,” Atteus says, holding the helmet under one arm.
“You’re keeping the suit?” Rhadamanthus is incredulous.
“Of course not,” Atteus responds. “I know how he gets. Thanks for all your help Rhadamanthus.”
The other judge returns to his scroll and says nothing. A second later, Atteus vanishes.
Quietly, I drop back down to the ledge, Atteus’ last words echoing through my mind. As if by reflex, I turn away from the wall and look out at Catacaen. Somewhere along the cliff-fortress wall above the waves is Hades’ quarters. Will Atteus have gone there? Or to Hades’ private manor? No...if he’s not keeping the suit, he must be leaving it in the armory for Hades.
The minute I realize this, I warp away from the tower and back to his quarters.
I reappear on the terrace again and make sure to stay close to the outerwall. Leaning around the corner, I peer into the great hall, but Atteus isn’t there. He must have gone straight to the vault room.
I whisk myself to the opposite end of the hall, right across from the corridor leading to the gates. From there, I see Atteus’ back as he strides up to the door.
Holding my breath, I creep up to the edge of the entryway with my back against the wall. If Atteus hears me, I’ll have to warp out of the room immediately.
With his back facing me, it’s easier to lean my head around the corner and look without him spotting me. His tall and graceful silhouette glides up to the door at the same time that he reaches for the keys in his hair. He can’t swift travel inside, either.
My heart spurs with anticipation as he unhooks the keys from his braid. I inch forward, watching carefully as he takes one key and sticks it into the lock. He twists it counterclockwise, and a loud click echoes down the corridor.
The circular mechanism slowly turns, and then I hear the groan of cogs as the doors begin to part for him. Through the widening opening, I see another room, and I can’t see much other than a pitch black wall on the other side.
The doors retract into the wall, leaving the entryway wide open for Atteus. He takes a few steps forward and passes through.
I’m watching him with hawk eyes while at the same time trying to understand how the magical barrier works. Atteus bypassed it with the keys, and it seems I can get in while the doors are open, but will I be able to come out if they close? I am almost positive that I won’t.
I have to be fast.
With that in mind, I keep my eyes pinned to Atteus’ back as he enters the room. I realize now that the black wall is not a wall at all; the edges of it ripple like water or tar, like the same substance Hades had to pass me through to get into the Underworld.
The barrier must guard his armory even from the judges, because Atteus doesn’t go near it. Instead, he stops at the center of the room, where a white, waist high pedestal is situated.
He puts the helmet on the pedestal, then begins to take the armor off piece by piece. The gauntlets. The pauldron. The cuirass. I think I understand what he’s doing. This room must give Atteus access to the armor, with Hades’ permission. The space beyond the black barrier must be Hades’ actual armory, and he’s the only one who can go inside. Atteus is leaving the armor for Hades in this vault, which is inaccessible to anyone but himself.
He removes the last piece of armor, the boots, and places them on the pedestal. Underneath, he’s wearing a black tunic and pants of thin, fine material, and sleek leather slippers. His own clothing, separate from the armor.
After placing the boots on the platform, he turns to leave. I pull back so he doesn’t see me, pressing myself against the wall. A moment later, I hear the gears churning, the gates slowly coming together.
Now is my chance. I have to warp myself into the room while his back is turned, grab the armor, and warp out before the doors close.
Without hesitation, I will my body to disappear. The blue hues of the great hall fade away as I envision myself passing through the vault. A second passes, and I reappear on the other side of the door.
The black-tar barrier is behind me. Before me, the doors are churning closer together. Atteus is walking down the corridor on the other side, completely oblivious.
And Hades’ armor sits on the pedestal in front of me like an offering on a silver platter. Just waiting for me to take it.
Wasting no time, I gather all pieces of the suit in my my arms and will myself out the gate before it closes.
The moment before I disappear, Atteus freezes at the end of the corridor as if he heard something.
I am gone before he turns to look.