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Jason tried to make a clean thrust at the centaur with his sword, but his blade slid over Kentauros’ shoulder, only scoring a deep groove in the white flesh. To his amazement, not a single drop of blood sprang from the wound.

“No more of your fleabites!” Kentauros snarled, and reached back, clamping bony fingers around Jason’s throat and hoisting him up. Trained in wrestling, Jason knew that if he tried to resist his opponent’s strength, his neck might snap. He went slack, and Kentauros flung him to the ground, where he rolled with the impact until he slammed against a tree. His sword, shaken loose from his fingers, went clattering down the rocks to land with a splash in the pool far below.

Meanwhile, bruised and bloodied, Acastus had bravely renewed his attack. He lunged at the giant centaur and was able to bury his sword up to the hilt in the pale flesh of Kentauros’ belly. Bellowing his rage, Kentauros swatted the boy aside like a fly.

Acastus fell into the shallow stream and lay there, stunned.

“I didn’t return from the dead to die again so soon!” Kentauros roared. He gripped the sword hilt in one hand and pulled the blade from his body as easily as he would have plucked out a troublesome splinter. Again there was no blood, just a glaring purple bruise around the ugly wound.

Jason realized that Kentauros had been dead for so long, the Gorgon’s blood could not restore him to true life, only to a semblance of it. Though Kentauros moved and spoke, he was no more a living creature than an effigy formed of wax and straw.

Then how can he be killed? Jason thought.

Sure of his triumph, Kentauros tore the stopper from the clay jar. “Do you see, Lapithes?” he cried, taunting his long-dead enemy in his booming voice. “Can you see me from your place in the Land of the Dead? I bring misery and doom to your descendants! I will have my vengeance at last!”

He was poised to pour the Gorgon’s blood into the water, right over the spot where Acastus lay. Acastus turned, groaned, and tried to rise, but it was too late. Jason knew the prince could not get up in time.

Putting a hand on his own sword belt, Jason suddenly felt—Lynceus’ sling! That might give him a chance—the smallest chance imaginable, but it was all he had. Quickly he snatched the sling up, found a stone in the leather pouch, and fitted it into place. There was time for only one shot.

Kentauros had already raised the deadly jar high above his head. In another instant he would pour the blood into the water where Acastus lay, bringing death to the land of Iolcus.

Jason fixed his eyes on his target and whirled the sling so hard, he felt his wrist might snap.

“If any gods are watching over us, may they guide my hand now,” he prayed.

He released the stone, and it shot through the air, striking the jar like the blow of a chisel. The jar shattered, and the Gorgon’s blood burst forth, drenching Kentauros, soaking into his ghastly flesh as though he were an immense sponge. In an instant, the giant centaur’s bones ignited like dry kindling, making a bonfire that consumed him in seconds. With a boom as loud as a thunderclap, he exploded in a blast of flame that shot straight up into the heavens.

For an instant the whole landscape was bathed in a crimson glow, as if drenched in blood. Then it faded, and all that was left of the monstrous centaur was a scattering of white ash blowing about on the breeze.

Nessus stumbled back in shock, and below, a groan of horror and despair rose up from the rest of the centaurs.

Then there came a very different sound, a defiant battle cry from hundreds of human throats. Jason looked down and saw that King Pelias had arrived with his army.

A line of chariots, spread out in attack formation, was already sweeping around the shore of the pool toward the centaurs. Arrows and javelins flew through the air. Then the armored warriors, in perfect synchronization, dismounted and advanced on foot with their long spears and towerlike shields held before them.

After seeing their leader annihilated as if by the wrath of the gods, the centaurs had no heart left for fighting. They turned like a herd of frightened horses, galloping off to the north. Nessus managed to scramble down the slope in time to join his brothers in their desperate and unruly retreat.

Idas helped Acastus to his feet, and the two of them gave a cheer. Jason wanted to cry out, too, but his ribs were too sore.

The charioteers pursued the centaurs for a short while, killing a few and wounding many more. But soon the centaurs outran them, disappearing in the direction of their northern homeland.

At a blast from a great bronze trumpet, the king’s troops were recalled.

By the time the boys had come down from the rocks, the chariots had been drawn into a rough circle. In the center stood King Pelias, acknowledging the cheers of his men with an upraised hand.

Lynceus, who’d been riding beside Pelias, ran to meet his friends, bombarding them with questions about the giant centaur, the jar of Gorgon’s blood, and whether any of the blood had gotten into the water.

“Gone, all gone,” was Jason’s answer. He knew it was the truth.

Alcestis and Admetus came running from one of the other chariots. The friends greeted one another eagerly.

Suddenly Pelias himself was looming over them, two guards standing on either side. Slowly he removed his golden helmet to reveal a tanned, battle-scarred face that was as hard and unyielding as his gilded armor. On his cheek was a purple mark, just as Jason had seen in the vision Hera had sent him. There was no mistaking the man.

Pelias’ gray eyes seemed to bore right through the boys. “We were just in time to see that beacon you lit,” he said. “You looked to be severely outnumbered.”

“That was no bonfire, Father,” Acastus said. “That was Kentauros, the leader of the centaurs. The poisoned blood he planned to pour into the spring destroyed him instead.”

Jason looked from father to son, and he could see the resemblance clearly, though it was less than it would have been a week ago. Acastus no longer carried himself with arrogance, nor did he speak as if his every word were a royal decree. Jason doubted King Pelias would have risked his own life drinking from the pool as his son had done. He would have ordered one of his men to do it in his place. Of that Jason was sure.

Acastus gave his father a brief account of their journey from Lake Boebis, carefully leaving out any mention of Jason.

“I’ve already met Admetus and Lynceus,” said the king, “and now you have told me of this brave warrior Idas, but who is this other youth?”

He fixed his hawklike gaze on Jason.

Jason knew that if King Pelias spotted a resemblance between himself and his father, Aeson, it could be the end of both of them. He bowed his head, like a servant humbled in the presence of his lord.

“He’s an orphan,” Acastus replied quickly, “a servant of Chiron. He acted as our guide. That’s all.”

The other boys looked surprised, and even angry at that, and Admetus started to say something. But Jason shook his head, to let them know that this was what he wanted.

Pelias immediately lost interest in Jason and turned to his troops. “Board your chariots, my warriors!” he commanded. “Let us return to Iolcus and celebrate this victory with feasting and song! Let us praise the name of Prince Acastus, a son of whom any man would be proud!”

“Acastus!” the warriors cheered, drumming the butts of their spears on the ground.

“My companions should be honored,” said Acastus, motioning to them with his hand, “and my sister, too.”

“Of course they are invited to the feast,” said the king. “And what about your guide?”

Acastus shuffled his feet uneasily. “We don’t need him anymore. He should go back to Chiron at once and tell him what’s happened.”

“I’ll have one of my charioteers take him as far as the mountains,” said Pelias. He turned and walked off, duty done.