Thalia had thought she was doing well against Percy.
She realized now that, if he'd really fought, she'd have been dead in a minute.
Arrows tore the night to ribbons, whirling from a different corner of the clearing every second. Huge and heavy enough to shatter bones, impale a monster completely, and they fell so thick that the sky was caged in by the streaking silver. Each was shot with impossible skill—the ground around Thalia bristled with them, but not a single one had hit her.
But none of them had hit Percy either.
He moved like a whirlwind, throwing himself around the arrows, slashing them aside with the flat of his blade, completely untouchable.
And then a single arrow grazed his cheek, and blood exploded vivid into the night. Tore through quickly enough that Thalia caught the white gleam of bone beneath it, and as he stumbled another flurry hurtled towards him—
He still dodged quickly enough that they only sliced his arms, not even enough to knock his next swing off-course. It was almost beautiful, Thalia thought, the pain starting to blur her focus on the world. Artemis leaping from tree to tree, haloed by moonlight—gleaming, as though she was made out of it. Percy dark and silhouetted, twisting through the night, impossibly flexible. And the arrows looked just like stars…
She gritted her teeth, trying to fend off the shock that was creeping up on her, now that she no longer had to fight. She couldn't afford to go dazed and dumb—regardless of how much of an escape it would be from the intensity of the agony. She had to focus.
She had to—
Something loomed above her, cutting off the starlight, and slammed a kick into her chest, knocking her backwards, out of the halo of arrows where she'd been kneeling.
Thalia groaned, and tried desperately to force herself up, but only half of her body responded, and she sank back, staring up at the silhouette with bared teeth.
A sword flew upwards, glinting tarnished bronze, and now panic surged through her, giving her enough strength to twist, trying to roll away—
Her limbs blazed again, and she couldn't move, not enough—
Impossibly fast, the moon plummeted from the sky, and met the blow, hurling Percy back.
No, not the moon. Merely her goddess. Shining so brightly silver that it was impossible to make out anything but the light, and the vaguest shape of a girl, brandishing a long knife.
"Lady," Thalia gasped, and the glowing figure glanced down, features visible for an instant. They were set, imperious as they always were during a hunt. But behind that, there was a deep, unsettling sadness. Thalia's breath caught—it almost looked—
"Dear one," Artemis whispered. She reached a hand down. Brushed aside Thalia's hair, traced her cheek, catching tears Thalia hadn't realized were pouring. Bent, and kissed Thalia's forehead.
It was plunging into a mountain pool, cracking the thin ice at the surface as you did so. Scrambling to the tip of a tree to watch the earth shake in the passing of a monster, and feel the wind whisper that it could catch you, tempting you to jump. It was the thrill of the hunt, and the glow of moonrise, and the sheer, simple beauty of the woods. It was almost enough to make Thalia smile.
Until she remembered the blessing that the goddess tried to bestow on each of her hunters before they died, so they could go to Hades in peace.
Thalia tried to force herself back up, to protest, but Artemis straightened, and sprinted for the figure rising on the other side of the clearing, leaving Thalia propped on one elbow, staring.
She watched her Lady falter, too close to use a bow, unable to return to the trees for fear that he would strike at Thalia. Weave desperately back and forth, meeting blows with her knives crossed, slashing for Percy, occasionally making contact…
But she was the goddess of archery, not of swords or knives or even really of fighting.
She met every blow that could've killed her, or whirled aside—barely in time—but there were others that made it through. Feints pulled out impossibly quickly at the last second, blows with enough force to drive her knife aside, until the harsh gold of dripping ichor cut through the halo of moonlight.
Until Artemis began to fail.
Perseus heaved his sword downwards, and, as the silver blade rose to meet it, dragged it around, swinging for the goddess' unprotected ribs instead. Her eyes flashed with sudden resolution—
She leapt—towards him, instead of away as he'd been expecting. Suicide—
Except that she was a goddess, so it wasn't.
She whirled under his sword, quickly enough to stab, uncannily precise, into the artery on his leg, sending blood spurting out. He gritted his teeth and swiped, but his left leg was suddenly unable to hold his weight, and she wrenched her knife free easily, backing away just enough.
He growled, forced the pain down. Pressed his weight onto the aching leg until he was sure he could bear it.
But he was off-balance now, defensive, and the goddess was charging again, knife outstretched.
Memory twitched at his fingertips, and he laughed.
He swung, slamming the flat of his blade against hers, and twisted.
The knife tore free of her hands, skidding across the forest floor, and she dove for it, but this time, she was far too slow.
This time, Perseus' foot caught her in the side of the head, heavy enough to break the skin, gold streaking down into her eyes. This time, she crumpled, retching with the force of impact with the ground. This time, when she rose, she was unarmed, eyes glazed and dizzy, too dazed to reveal her true form, or try to escape—
Perseus swung again, and Riptide tore through the goddess' neck.
Her head toppled to the ground, ichor spurting bright enough gold that it scorched a supernova against his eyes. And it kept glowing, even as it puddled on the ground, eating away at the dirt and the frosted clumps of grass. Illuminating the desperate anger twisting the dead features, the bloodied girl across the clearing, trying so hard to rise...
Perseus Jackson laughed, deep and bitter and broken, and he found that he could not stop.
He was free. There were stars over his head, keeping the world away from the total blackness that he had known for so long. Wind against his face, cold and clean, and every stroke of his blade was his own. His own hatred for being imprisoned, his own anger, his own selfishness. It felt so good to be selfish. To finally be wholly his own, no more a pawn, but under his own control.
He stood over the body of the fallen god, and laughed.
Thalia gritted her teeth, and hurled herself forward again.
She was crying, so hard her lungs burned, the world blurred around her, and every shattered bone was aching—but she had to get up.
She would reach her Lady, and somehow—there was something—Artemis was a god and a god didn't die like this—a god didn't die—
Percy looked up at her, face still twisted with his awful laughter, and the power surging through him slammed into Thalia again, enough this time to topple her sideways. Her hands refused to catch her, and her jaw cracked as it slammed into the rocky ground.
He reached her impossibly quickly. She couldn't raise her head enough to see anything more than scuffed sneakers, familiar and so incongruous with the golden ichor clinging to their edges, but she could still feel his gaze. Pounding into her, setting her head spinning, making every wrenching breath a hopeless effort.
Agony. Obliterating the rest of the world. The full, undiluted power of something that had killed a god, focused on her, just on her—
She whimpered, trying to curl up, to hide. Her knee erupted with pain at the movement, splintered collarbone screaming—
There was no hiding from this. But there was no way to end it either…
She coughed, lungs suddenly flaming, and blood spurted up into her mouth.
"Not quite as idiotically brave as we thought, huh?" Percy asked, resentment boiling in every word.
"Well, cousin. I suppose it might be good. This way I don't have to kill you to get away. And it'll be much better for them to know who's killing gods if you're screaming when they find you."
The pain wasn't going anywhere. It wasn't growing or fading or changing. It just was. And there was a way around it. There always was.
Whatever the monster pretending to be her friend was saying faded. Lost to Thalia's focus on her own shaky breaths. On the cold ground beneath her. On the world beyond the pain. Because she would reach it—
"You didn't kill her," she gasped, arching back, throat tearing raw with the force of the barely-whispered words.
It took all of the air in her lungs. All the strength she had left. She crumpled again, and still, it didn't stop Percy.
"Oh, you're right," he mused, squatting into Thalia's line of sight—his eyes were still green, but the color was twisting slowly darker, and she couldn't make herself turn away—
"Gods are hard to kill. But I've still hurt her badly enough that, for now, she's gone. And who I send her to next, she's never coming back from."
He reached out, catching under her chin and dragging her face closer to his, so violently a scream escaped her lips. The perfect nose was still shattered, bone gleaming in his bloody cheek, but Thalia couldn't convince herself anymore that that mattered.
"So you tell them that, cousin. If you live long enough."
His smile was crooked and familiar, and Thalia closed her eyes, giving in to the fate it implied.
The sword that slammed through her stomach, hotter and brighter than all the other agony, was almost a relief.
Jason jolted back to life screaming his sister's name.