Perseus Jackson laughed as he ran.
Bitter and broken and angry—and still desperately, sharply, happy. Because he was free.
Free from the darkness that it had taken Tartarus to pull him out of, that claustrophobic blackness far worse than the pit, where he'd been thrown. Drowning in rock that he could feel, but not see, barely able to move, to even defend himself as every single person he'd ever trusted, everyone who should've understood, attacked him—
They hadn't really been there, Tartarus told him later. But if they could've been...oh, if they could've had a chance to destroy a traitor, they would've. Every strike they took, it was the desire that lived in their hearts and their minds, the truth of their feelings about Percy. That was the spell of the darkness, he'd said—there could be no lies, not within that. The gods had designed it that way, to learn their enemies' secrets. But now their own power would twist against them, because they had never built it to withstand Tartarus, and he had managed to shatter that place of power.
The truth they had meant to destroy their enemy, (for they had thought of him as an enemy, he could see now—after a single stand against their power), had only given him the strength to end them. Once and for all.
And if he also got to destroy those who had betrayed him, there in the darkness—
Let it never be said Tartarus was unfair.
Perseus laughed again, and this time, the monsters laughed with him, filling the woods with their cacophony. Howls cut through some of it, cold as the moon—but they were few, and so weak, and Perseus commanded so many.
Enough to make Hunters hunted, tonight.
Thalia was out of breath.
Which didn't happen often. She was the godsdamn lieutenant of Artemis, blessed by the wildest of the Olympians. She could outrun any monster that she couldn't outfight.
But she was gasping as she ran. Her lungs and her legs were both on fire, enough that her body was screaming for her to stop. The most pain she'd been in since she became a Hunter, enough that the wind was starting to affect her, that she would have to slow soon—
A clearing opened before her. A massive rock loomed in its center, the promise of a chance at a final stand.
She cursed, summoning the last of her failing strength, and ran.
She slammed into the rock, hard enough to draw blood, tearing through her cargo pants.
She couldn't see any of the other Hunters. No one to stand with her. Not that she was really surprised—they'd been running since Cleveland, and they were somewhere near Maine now. Plenty of time to scatter. Or be killed by whatever it was that was chasing them.
As she was probably about to be.
She slammed her hand against her bracelet, and Aegis spun outwards, glowing softly into the night. Too dark for arrows—and this wasn't a fight she could win. At most, it was one she could outlast until Artemis found her. This would be close and defensive and brutal. Her spear shimmered into existence, and she breathed, raggedly, trying to summon enough focus to begin building a storm.
Footsteps thundered around her, circling her in the clearing—
But nothing attacked. They stayed in the shadows, too far back for her to see. Lurking as a silent promise of what would happen if she tried to escape.
Thalia's heart pounded harder, racing faster than she thought was possible. She forced herself to relax, shake free the tension in her shoulders—fluid and fast and ready to fight—but she couldn't catch her breath.
No—it wasn't her. There was something there in the woods, drawing ever nearer. Something with the same petrifying aura that Kronos had, but a million times worse. Strong enough that she couldn't shake the terror.
But she could use it, she recalled suddenly. It was energy, just like her anger. She fed it into the air around her, until it was charged, on the verge of sparking—and forced the energy up, into the clouds. Draining the fear, along with her strength and breath, clouding her vision, but she forced herself to stay upright, feeding the storm until it surged, ready to break the instant she told it to, the instant—
Thalia slammed to her knees, power ricocheting through the clearing. She'd thought it was bad before, but this…
For a dizzy moment, she sprawled on the rock, world whirling around her. For a moment, all she could do was pray. Not even to a specific god, just whispering please in her mind, again and again.
Her control over the storm snapped, and lightning blazed down, blindingly white, thunder cracking through the trees with enough force to shake them.
And the power vanished, enough for Thalia to heave herself to her feet, leaning on her spear, and stare through the light scorched into her eyes. There was a lanky body sprawled at the edge of the clearing, bronze sword glittering a few inches from the scarred hand. Unconscious face gleaming in the moonlight, sharp featured, half-hidden by messy black hair, and...familiar.
Thalia almost fell again. Almost leaped from the rock and ran to him, almost let herself get carried away with the relief of not having to make her stand alone.
Because that overwhelming fear had stopped when she hit him. Because something had been chasing her Hunters.
Because Riptide wasn't glowing. As though it wasn't celestial bronze anymore.
She stayed on the rock, high above the clearing, and the body of her long-vanished friend. Waiting. Watching. Cursing the fact that all her supplies were in the pack that had been torn from her back somewhere in Pennsylvania.
Percy Jackson's eyes blinked open, and for an instant, they were blinding, blackened night. Swirling pits, drawing her in, mesmerizing. Exactly how Annabeth had described Tartarus, still shaking after a nightmare when she'd needed to talk, and Thalia had been there.
He hadn't escaped. He hadn't beaten Tartarus.
He'd given up.
By the time he stood, his eyes were back to desperately blinding green, but it was far too late. Thalia had seen. And now that she knew to look for it, she could feel the power seeping off of him—restrained, almost hidden, but there.
"Thalia," he gasped, and she had to admire his acting skills. She almost doubted, staring at the panic on his face. "Thalia, you have to help me—I just escaped—"
She snorted, pretending confidence so vividly that she almost felt it.
"I saw your eyes. When you got up."
"Can't blame me for trying, can you?" he taunted, and for a moment it was eerily familiar.
Then his smile became vicious, power lashing back out—Thalia was braced this time, and she still almost buckled. But after that first wave hit, she realized, it was manageable. This, she could fight with.
She bared an angry grin right back at him.
He spun Riptide back into his hands, and slammed the blade against the ground.
Thalia's rock shattered entirely, splintering into clouds of powder and tiny shards that sliced through her skin, and she tumbled to the shaking earth. She twisted, breaking the impact with her shield, so hard it cut into her arm.
She wouldn't let herself be intimidated. She had called down lightning, and it had hurt him. She was standing. She could do this.
Thalia Grace, daughter of Zeus, lieutenant of Artemis, leveled her spear, and charged.
She'd gotten better since the darkness, Perseus thought.
There she'd fought with a bow, from a distance that he couldn't seem to find without slamming up against rock. She hid behind silver arrows that whistled to quickly through the darkness for him to track, and tore open just enough of his flesh to leave him walking, wounded. When he finally dug himself a tunnel to her, she would pull out two knives, that sometimes sparked with electricity, and slash.
Here, the fighting was close and brutal, and there were no guarantees.
She swung that massive shield as gracefully as if it weighed nothing, flipping it quickly enough to keep almost everything essential covered—and sometimes she struck with it, bludgeoning at his arms, his knees, until bones cracked. Her grip on her spear was unshakable, even one-handed, and she thrust with enough force that sometimes it got through, despite his attempts to knock it aside.
She was still weak, of course.
There were a million glimpses he caught of her neck uncovered, her limbs unprotected, her body bent awkwardly enough for a single kick to smash her ribs and stop her heart.
Perseus was the commander of Tartarus, after all. He had surrendered the pathetic gods she still clung to for the power of an entire realm, wild and elemental, and not even the greatest mortal heroes would overcome him.
But it took a little less restraint than he'd been expecting to keep her alive long enough.
Sweat burned down into Thalia's eye, and she gritted her teeth through the pain.
She couldn't look away, not from this battle.
Not if she wanted to live.
Riptide scythed for her head, and she hurled Aegis upwards, ducking and thrusting for Percy's knee. Somehow, impossibly, he stepped out of the way, leaving her off-balance and exposed and—
She sprang away from the kick he leveled at her face, but she was still toppling, and this time she didn't raise her shield fast enough to stop the sword—it slammed into her collarbone, and caught, lodged in the bone.
A scream wrenched unwillingly out of her, pain burning with the white-hot blood that was spurting around the blade as Percy dragged her closer—
She clenched her fists tight around the pain, and forced the searing agony into energy—
The surge of electricity was sloppy and unfocused. Pain always was. But it jolted through the sword effectively enough anyways, hurling Percy back. She almost blacked out with the pain of the metal tearing free, the lightning conjured far too sloppily, stinging her as well.
She was still standing, and the thing wearing Percy Jackson's face was flying backwards through the air, and she had a chance. She forced herself into motion, sprinting after his writhing form.
Leaped, tackled him to the ground—he may have fought like something more than human, but his body crumpled just like one. His eyes were still rolling, body twitching with the leftover electricity, and as they collided with the dirt, dragged painfully through it, she reared back, slamming Aegis with enough force that she felt his nose snap, until his face was buckling beneath the metal—
She knew she should stop, pull out her knives and pin him, but she was running on nothing but pure, feral instinct, ignoring the pain stiffening her right arm, and part of her was terrified that, if she stopped, she wouldn't be able to get herself to move again.
A different part of her was terrified that pinning him wouldn't matter anyways. That he would be strong enough to throw her back, that she'd have to kill him to stop him—and no matter how gone he seemed, she wasn't willing to risk that. Not yet.
Damn, Perseus thought, starting back to consciousness as pain shot through his splintered nose. That was...unexpected.
That was twice now that her lightning had—
Metal slammed against his face, and he tasted blood, shards of chipped teeth grating painfully against the roof of his mouth, catching in his throat as he swallowed involuntarily.
Alright, he thought, fury blazing up. If her lieutenant's bravery is not enough to call a goddess, perhaps her death will be.
Thalia heaved her arm upwards again.
And Percy twisted beneath her.
He shoved his way to his feet, and she flew back, wrenched into a graceless landing by the weight of her shield, slamming the ground hard enough that her lungs ached, emptied of breath. She gasped, retched, tried to pull herself to her feet—
But now, Percy towered over her, and his blows came too fast to block. She hauled her shield over her head one last desperate time, but there was no strength left in her arms, and the blow of the sword drove the shield back down onto her, slamming against her head and setting her ears ringing.
She fell back from her knees, sprawled empty on the forest floor—her right arm was beyond her control, screaming with pain, left finally too weighed down by her shield to lift again—
Percy towered over her, smashed, bloody face twisted and savage, and she wondered how she'd ever mistaken him for her friend.
His foot stomped onto her knee, and another burst of agony rushed over her with the sound of shattering bones. Thalia snarled, defiant of the pain, the sense that was screaming that he'd been toying with her, and it was finally time for her to die, and, as he drew back to kick again, she moved.
There would be no more lightning. No more tricks. Just one final chance—
She hurled herself sideways, momentum forcing her numb right hand to slam against Aegis. The shield groaned, spiraling back into a bracelet, and she kept moving, rolling unencumbered now. Her spear was lost, and she wouldn't have been able to use it left-handed anyways—
Her fumbling fingers closed around the sheath at her waist, and she swung to a halt, dizzy and gasping, and pulled free the knife.
She couldn't stand.
Could only force herself onto one knee, letting the left drag behind her, throbbing. But she did, staring at Percy, knife held out strong despite the trembling running through her.
"You want to kill me, monster?" she gasped, watching him stalk closer. Pretending, as she had so many times before, at a strength she didn't feel, hoping it would lend it to her. "You're finally done playing?"
Percy's scratched lips curved up in a sardonic smile, a child caught at his game.
Thalia ignored it, kept her eyes locked on those disturbingly green irises.
"Fine. Do your worst. I am the lieutenant of Artemis, and I'll hurt you again before you kill me. That, I swear on the Styx."
"There are far greater rivers in Tartarus," Percy snarled, "than your Styx."
He slashed down—
Thalia hurled the knife. Watched it spin towards him—
Watched him turn ever so slightly, so that the perfect throw barely nicked his side.
She swore, tried to throw herself back, away from the implacable blade. Knowing it was useless—
An arrow tore silver through the night, and slammed so hard into Riptide's blade that the swing careened out of control, spared Thalia's life.
"My lady," she whispered, and looked towards the edge of the clearing, where Artemis stood poised on a tree, bow bent, ready to fire again.