The following party had been one of the best parties I'd ever stepped foot in, and by this point, I'd been to a couple of pretty good parties.

The Fall Ball, Midtown High Cotillion, the end-of-year bash for the basketball team- just to name a few. I'd been active this year. Much more active than I'd ever been in the past, for one reason or another.

That's not to say that I particularly enjoyed or even wanted to go to half of these gatherings. But you know, from annoying friends like Gwen and Liz who insisted that I go, to my social butterfly of a girlfriend, I found myself dragged to just about every social event my school had to offer. And trust me, for some Zeus-forsaken reason, my school offered one nearly every month. And so I went, every month, against my choice.

No, if I had my choice, I'd much rather be holed up in my cabin, comic books in hand, R&B in the background. Stuck in the practice battles between Jason, Triton, and I. Baking cookies with my mom. Zeus, I'd probably rather even go swinging through the city with Pete.

Still, I understood and still do understand the importance of showing up to social events. Especially down here. They're all about maintaining an image, sending messages, and keeping the status quo. For example, if the citizens of Atlantis see me looking all spiffy and healthy, that tells them a number of things; it tells them that, besides just looking good, they can still depend on me, now and forever. With something as big as the tournament coming up, that sort of feeling is the kind of feeling any good prince would want to cultivate that sort of feeling.

That's what I'm doing tonight, after all. That, and accepting the seemingly endless stream of gratitude coming my way for getting rid of Oceanus last summer.

Besides, as far as parties go, I could've been stuck in a much worse situation. Poseidon truly had gone all out.

For starters, the palace was overflowing with people.

Now, generally speaking, it's already pretty hard to pack the palace to the brim- it's the length of multiple football fields, with columns so tall you could fit a blimp underneath them.

Everyone from the citizens, some of our neighboring colonies' leaders, the peacekeepers, and Atlantis' commanders- minus Alpha, who was still in a hospital after Triton was done with him- not that it mattered. I was told that he'd be taken straight to the max security prison upon his awakening.

Traitors aside, there were also some minor sea deities, to the Royal Family, like Aithousa, my half-sister- hey, wasn't she at Carcinus' party, too?

Well, different children of Poseidon tended to excel in different areas of life. Some of us took to fighting, while others apparently loved the finer things in life. A lot.

Animals of all sorts jetted around, distributing concessions to everyone in attendance- I'm talking sharks hooked up with trays, eels with soda cans strapped to their necks. At one point, a gigantic sea turtle with a sushi platter accidentally bumped into me and nearly lost his poor mind.

Much to Triton's ire, his band was kicked out, and The Nine Muses took their place. I was informed by a passing spirit that my father had specifically requested them for the night- he even went as far as bribing them to skip a fundraising gala in Olympus.

Those satyrs in need wouldn't be getting the musical support they needed, but I would…so who was the real winner here?

Anyway, having the Muses play was the best idea my dad could've had. The music was whatever you wanted it to be: some of the older folks could listen to classical and the younger attendants heard hip-hop or whatever, and it was all the same soundtrack. No arguments. No fights to change the radio station. Just requests to crank it up. And, of course, I positively tore it up on the dance floor for the better part of three hours, dancing with anyone who walked on over.

Nectar and ambrosia overflowed from golden fountains, and platters of mortal snack food crowded the banquet tables, courtesy of Triton. Golden goblets filled with whatever drink you wanted.

Amphitrite, who'd been trying- and failing, of course, to get me alone all night, sashayed around with a full plate of blue lotus flowers and pickled sea urchin. Her goblet was full of some sort of alcohol that was so strong it smelled like hand sanitizer. I nearly gagged every time she walked by.

People kept coming over to do at least one of three things: congratulate me, thank me profusely, or ask for some sort of picture or autograph. The particularly ambitious ones went as far as asking for a hug, which I was more than happy to provide.

These people were happy! And they were all there to see me! The least I could do was make sure they remembered the night fondly.

Thankfully, they still had some semblance of formality. Most of them looked like they believed I'd order their execution if they got too handsy, so I didn't have too many awkward situations. A few of the older women, though, pushed their luck.

Have you ever heard that old adage: lightning never strikes the same place twice?

First off- it's scientifically incorrect. Lightning can, and often does, strike the same place repeatedly — especially if it's a tall and isolated object.

Even then, there's no way it could hold true here, either- MILFlantis was still in full force, a whole summer later. And I was the tall and isolated object it was trying to strike.

Eventually, though, I made my way over to the Trident of the Sea. Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

They started chatting with me, and Beta was so cheerful and excited at my return that I almost felt bad for all the things I saw in Oceanus' head about him. I shook myself- why was I thinking about Oceanus right now? Back it up, Perce. Party time- it was party time.

I made some excuses and wove through the crowds that were dancing in the palace courtyards. I was looking for MJ. Last I saw her, she'd been dancing with some minor godling.

Then a man's voice behind me said, "Is the party to your liking, son?"

I turned and found Poseidon smiling at me. He looked a bit out of place in his suit and tie, and I got the vaguest sense that he'd worn it just to impress me.

"Dad…hey. Yeah, no, the party's great. There are a lot of people here. I didn't know I was such a hot commodity."

"I had to make sure you got the attention you deserved for ridding us of Oceanus- a feat I'd tried, and failed to do myself," Poseidon said proudly. "You earned it. They're just here to show their gratitude and offer best wishes for the tournament. Especially the guards. Normally, I don't allow them to come to such events, but we're going to be up all night checking on our wards, so I thought I'd permit them this one time."

His praise made me uneasy. I mean, it felt good, but I knew just how easily things could've gone wrong. A missed punch by Triton, Aphrodite's hesitation, or a second longer with Oceanus in my mind, and I would've been toast.

"I won't let Atlantis down," I promised, pushing thoughts of the past away. The future- the tournament, the fate of Atlantis- that was what mattered. And that was something I could focus on. Something I could build toward. "We'll take our place. Well, keep our place. I won't let anyone else take it, I guess, is what I'm getting at."

He nodded. I had trouble reading gods' emotions, but I wondered if he had some doubts. I feel like I would. "Are you alright, Percy?"

"Yeah, just tired," I replied, mentally kicking myself. What was wrong with me? It felt like coming back to Atlantis had spurred up this fog in my head, and I was struggling to get past it. Like there was this block, this unseen dam somewhere in my head.

"Well, I hope whatever ails you is rectified by tomorrow- with the way things are looking, I'd like to teach you at least a thing or two before your tournament," Poseidon commented. He placed a hand on my shoulder, "I know I- we- tend to put heavy expectations on you. It isn't your entire responsibility to shoulder them all, not all the time. Take Luke, for example, he once promised things like that. He was Hermes's pride and joy. Just bear that in mind, Percy. Even the bravest can fall."

"Thanks, I think."

And with that, he walked off. Before I could continue my quest for MJ again, Delta stopped me this time.

"Delta," I tried not to sound too annoyed after he sent Malia at me, but I must not have hidden it as well as I thought.

"Percy," Delta smiled, his eyes still radiating the same coldness they'd always had. He grabbed my arm with his, engaging me in one of those old-timey manly greetings. "Quite the performance. I'm glad to see you haven't allowed your skills to dull."

"You and I both know I could've taken her. Before we even met," I said, a fake smile plastered on my face. "What's your play?"

"Play? Dear prince, I was simply curious, is all."

"Of course, you were."

With that, he turned and headed back toward the crowd. Around the same time, MJ found her way back to me, her face flushed. "Wow. This party is seriously amazing."

"Yeah," I found my eyes trained on Delta's back. "It really is."


The rest of the night was set in stone. We got done with the party around two in the morning, and MJ and I walked over to the room I'd stayed in last time.

This time, Triton got me a goodie basket filled with a bunch of candy and soda. He also told me the room was charmed so that noise didn't travel in or out, waggling his eyebrows like a madman the whole time.

Not that I'd been in need of that function tonight. No, tonight, the plan was simple: get a good night's sleep and wake up sometime before noon, head down to the training area, and work with my dad.

Since you've met me, though, have you known my life to be simple? Yeah, me neither.

Ever since I'd gotten my powers, sleep had become all but a formality for me. Aside from the occasional dream sequence of messages or visions, my body tended to regulate sleep like I had my own built-in alarm clock: I'd go to bed, sleep instantly, and wake up at the exact time I wanted to.

No fuss, no noise. Just rest and perfection. I was like a well-oiled machine.

Yet, when I hit that bed with MJ, I found myself tossing and turning, running through every sleep hack I knew from counting sheep to seeing how far I could count- still to no avail.

Eventually, when I did fall asleep, I woke up almost instantly, and this is where the story really goes sideways- I wasn't alone.

No, right beside MJ was the version of Oceanus I'd seen in my head, down to the last detail; white clothes, man-bun, and spinning pinwheels of death for eyes.

I tensed up for a moment but immediately relaxed. I'd dissolved Oceanus last summer. I knew that for a fact- I'd seen it with my own two eyes.

I must've just been stressed out- yeah, that was it. Just a bit overwhelmed from the day, a bit nervous about the future- those were the kinds of small-time emotions Gamer's Mind didn't bother helping me with.

I flipped over, rationalizing the visage of Oceanus in my head. Stupid, annoying…

HISSSSSSSS…

My eyes snapped open, and before I could think twice, I was standing on the terrace of the palace.


The dark ocean above me was illuminated by the lights of the party below. Well into the night, the city of Atlantis was still roaring with sound, bursting with life.

I remembered learning about Mardi Gras in social studies- the American idea of this big celebration of spring and fertility, where the streets of New Orleans would be overrun by all kinds of people just letting loose.

We watched one of those educational videos, and I still remember seeing the music, parades, picnics, floats- the excitement. People would wear costumes, dress in purple, green, and gold, and adorn themselves with long beads caught from the floats of previous parades.

Even as a kid, the idea of a party like that was mind-boggling. At that moment, I couldn't help but contend that the party going on in Atlantis right now could put every other Mardi Gras celebration to shame.

Oceanus, back in all his ghostly glory, stood by the terrace, his hands gripping the railing of the Royal Terrace- well, trying to grip it, anyway. His hands, despite looking solid, were transparent- the railing passed right through.

There were loud cheers from underneath us. A group of Atlanteans had mounted a blue whale, and they were doing loops in the air, throwing streamers and confetti all around. The whale let out a joyous, low growl, and twirled around past me.

The Game exploded to life around me. I avoided using the big HUD because it was just cumbersome overall, but enough weird shit had gone down that I felt like I needed to be absolutely sure that I wasn't going crazy- and I wasn't.

The ghostly vision of Oceanus faded the moment the Game finished firing up, and there weren't even any wisps of mana nearby. For all intents and purposes, it was as if he'd never been there in the first place.

"You've done it, Jackson," I muttered to myself. "Either you just found proof that ghosts exist, or you've finally lost your marbles. Though, I guess I am talking to myself, so that probably isn't the best sign, either..."

"My lord?" I heard someone ask from behind me. I turned to see a man dressed in teal armor and a white helmet. A bright, glowing number two was emblazoned on his chest.

"Ah. A member of the eirineftés," I said, nodding. If my memory served me correctly, which it usually tended to these days, the two on the man's armor and the slight discoloration of his gauntlets were indicative of his quadrant, the peacekeepers. Basically, a glorified royal guard. "Just had to take a walk to clear my head."

"That's quite reasonable, my liege. There's quite a bit of pressure on you right now, is there not?" The man said in an understanding tone. "Just know that Atlantis believes in you."

"Thanks, man," I grinned at him. Something felt off about this whole encounter, though. There was something nagging at me, "I'll do my best to not let you down."

"I'm not too concerned about that," The guard continued, bowing low. "If I were you, I'd be more concerned about the bombs."

"The what—" I fell to my right knee as a tremendous tremor shook the palace. A humongous plume of Greek fire bleched out behind me, sizzling the very water in front of the palace.

The sounds of party and festivities turned to screams.

I turned back to the man in front of me, and without thinking twice, the water swirled around me, and I slammed into him, my hands flickering with lightning. I grabbed his face and let rivulets of electricity arc into his eyes and mouth. He screamed loudly.

The Game roared to life in my ears, pings and swooshing noises accompanied by lines of sprawling text, bouncing around the man's head like a beach ball.


[CHELI]

[THE REMNANT]

[BIRDS OF A FEATHER]

[EXORCIST]

[LVL]: 70 (320,000/550,000)

[HP]: 170,000/170,000

[SP]: 500,000/500,000

[MP]: 15,000/15,000

[FEALTY]: N/A

[STR]: 98 (+20)

[VIT]: N/A

[DEX]: 107 (+20)

[INT]: 40

[CHA]: 47

[WIS]: N/A

[LUC]: N/A

[$]: 0D

|| Cheli was created by the [PROTEUS FOUNDATION], a loyal group of lethal assassins that serve [?]. His genes were spliced with DNA from various sea monsters. ||


Okay. So he's dumb, uncharismatic, but can take a punch. Not sure if that's really the kind of high-profile assassin I'd want doing my dirty work.

"Eel?" I translated as I grabbed Cheli by the neck and smashed him into the wall. "What the hell did you do?"

"Welcome back to the ocean, my lord," Cheli grinned, revealing pointed teeth that were growing larger by the minute. "Allow me to properly indulge you."

He raised his hand, his fingers rolling backward and splitting apart to reveal a glinting bronze ball. My eye flicked to it instantly, and I ducked under Cheli's following jab, a palpable chill running down my neck as a blast of ash melted the ceiling behind me.

"A shapeshifter," I growled, throwing him to the ground and pulling out Riptide. The way his hand had rolled back into itself bore a striking resemblance to how Carcinus' body had changed during our fight.

Cheli snapped his hand back, the ball disassembling and quickly reassembling into a glinting celestial bronze cannon. Its tip glowed with a haunting green light, and I only had a moment to react- I willed the water in front of me to harden into ice. Not the frail, thin ice you put into drinks, but a chunk of glacial fury that would've looked right at home in the Arctic. A foot of thick sheet ice.

PSHHHHH!

A wave of energy blasted me backward, and my wall of ice was instantly eviscerated in a haze of heat. The ring of energy was so powerful that the entire floor was superheated, bubbling to the touch like a vat of boiling water.

I flipped Riptide in my hand as I let the currents float me off the ground- dodging would've been easier, but I had to play this conservatively for now. I was still in the palace, and a stray hit like that could melt some of the workers.

BOOM!

I flipped up to the ceiling as another pillar of light shook the palace, melting through the floor and beaming past where I had been standing a moment ago.

This wasn't good. With the level of destruction Cheli was tossing around, I'd have two, maybe three minutes, tops, before one of the points of the trident found us. I needed to get my answers.

"What's the Proteus Foundation?" I asked, snarling, though my voice may not have been able to carry past the series of explosions Cheli was shooting toward me.

If Cheli was surprised that I knew about his buddies- or if he even heard me- he didn't give any indication. Instead, he got back to his feet and charged at me, laughing maniacally. This wasn't the cool, tempered rage I'd seen in Jason's eyes when we first fought. Nor was it the grudging resignation I'd seen with Carcinus.

Cheli was insane. Fully insane.

I sidestepped his wild lunge and swung Riptide with full force. He deflected the blade with his hand. I sidestepped his follow-up and skewered Riptide through his armor, flipping the hilt down and cutting the armor off him like it was made of clay. He blocked my subsequent attempt at his heart, but the force of the slash sent him sprawling- rolling over himself all the way back out to the terrace. If that hit landed...

"He must've snuck in during the party," I muttered to myself, trying to rationalize how it was possible for an assassin to sneak into one of the most secure places in the world- allegedly, anyway. "But he still would've needed a man on the inside to get him the armor."

Before Cheli could finish getting up, I was upon him again. I batted away his hand with the flat of my blade, skipping backward as his second hand flashed upward, sporting a mace that sprung outward like the ball at the end of a paddle ball racket.

It whizzed back past my cheek and I was forced to roll under it as Cheli regained his footing. He twisted forward, faster than most people I'd fought before, but still somewhere underneath the upper echelon, like Triton and Jason.

With the water around me, I evaded his attack pretty easily.

"Proteus Foundation," I reminded him, slashing at his feet. "Get to talking. You attacked my city. I don't take that kind of stuff lightly."

"How do you know of that name?" Cheli finally spoke, an odd accent coloring his tone. The smell of burning flesh wafted up to my nose. I looked down- as he was talking, his midsection was beginning to burn and bubble, splitting at the seams. Bronze metal shone from underneath. "You're a very informed prince."

"Second thought- I'll just beat it out of you."

Twin mirrors sprouted next to him, belching out translucent dragons. He went to roll backward, and I grunted, twisting my heel. The water around him exploded in pointy ice shards, and he melted them with an angry roar.

I teleported behind him with a [Death Drop] and smashed my fist into his face as hard as I could. The currents jerked his body back to me, and I grabbed his neck roughly, marking his body with the second stage of [Death Drop]. It burned into his skin like a brand.

Still holding him up with my right hand, I leveraged Riptide against his chin, the tip jabbing into his eyebrow. "Maybe you'll be more willing to talk after this."

Cheli grinned wickedly, "Not likely."

His eyes glowed, and a moment later, his body exploded in a crash of white-hot electricity and ash. I was forced to drop him and teleport backward, and a few coughs forced themselves out of my lungs as I waved my hand, clearing the smoke.

It was going to take a bit more than that to fool me. My mark was still pinging, somewhere off to my right. Cheli wasn't done- and neither was I. This wasn't the kind of battle I'd be able to drag out or enjoy.

I had no idea what Cheli was capable of. If there had been anyone else on this rooftop with me, hell, even in the following hallway, they would've been horribly injured. And that wasn't something I could live with. Something I could fathom.

I was the prince of Atlantis. It was my duty to protect the city. Not the city's duty to protect me.

Once again, I mentally made the effort to activate the ring my dad gave me. I felt the warm waves of energy on my arms and chest, but unlike last time, pink lines of light shone on my skin, crisscrossing and connecting like veins.

The lines gleamed softly, and my arms and chest became coated in smoky water. It traveled up past my neck and around my face, hooking into my ears and eyes. I swear I heard some whispering in my ears- comforting, warm sounds.

It was like there was someone trying to talk to me, but I had cups over my ears. Trippy.

The ring shook heavily, regurgitating more pink lines that cocooned and wrapped around my body like strings of linen. The lines hardened and melted together just as a final layer of bone appeared on my back, forcing me into an upright position. The second layer of bone hardened to life on my chest, framing the pink ball of energy that was still humming.

A small pink visor appeared in front of my eyes, displaying the Game's HUD. I looked back down at the armor with the HUD active, and it read: [VIT][XXXX] Lernean Exoskeleton Ring (Aphroditic Influence)

This definitely didn't happen last time.

I'd need to talk to Aphrodite about this…development soon. I shook myself for now and leaped over the railing, the visor displaying a large white homing circle around Cheli's invisible form. Somewhere off in the distance, I saw the shadow of Gamma shoot out into the crowd of people, beginning a haphazard evacuation. Fuck- they were already on this.

Cheli seemed to pick up on this as well. He appeared again, standing somewhere below me. This time, his entire midsection was torn open in a horrendous mess of flesh and bronze. Little holes began forming, glinting with light. There was a bright flash, and a roar, accompanied by a series of explosions, swarming up to me. I think he thought he'd be able to kill me fast enough if he just put it all on the line.

I tucked my arms into my body and activated [Angelic Trigger]. The white aura swirled to life in the darkness of the explosions, and I barrel-rolled through the smoke, landing in front of Cheli.

Riptide flashed out, slashing one of his legs. As he gasped out in pain and went to grab the wound, I flashed back to his neck and drove Riptide through it.

A geyser of blood exploded, splashing me in the face, but I wasn't done yet. I heightened the gravity on my arms and let the force drive Riptide down his entire body, cutting him in half.

With one final kick, I pushed the two halves of Cheli into the ground in front of me, panting.

The halves stitched together instantaneously, Cheli's half-formed hand pointing another beam of energy at me. I split the beam with Riptide and skewered him again, running Riptide through him over and over again as if he was a kebab.

His body kept regenerating around Riptide, and I tugged against the hilt, growling angrily. I ducked under another wild slash from the assassin, my brain flying through possible next moves. I kicked off of his chest and landed on his shoulders, wrapping my legs around his neck.

Using his neck as a springboard, I tore Riptide out of his chest and turned, raising a hand at him. Water swirled around him, stiffening into shackles that forced him to his knees.

I twirled my sword, and a cocoon of ice began hardening around us, swirling into an opaque dome. I'd noticed the gaggle of onlookers- I didn't need anyone seeing what was coming next.

"It's just us in here now," I said, wiping some blood off my face. "Proteus Foundation. This is your last chance. I know you're a group of assassins, I know you work with genetic modification- connect the dots for me."

Riptide sparked, its tip slowly becoming alight with poisonous green fire. "Or I'll let them know they have a new opening."

Cheli stared at me defiantly. "Pass."

"Yeah, I had a feeling you would- at first, anyway," I said, slamming Riptide through his chest, its fire outworking his regenerative capabilities. As he cried out in pain, I squatted next to him. "See, I can't accept a pass. You tried to hurt a lot of people. If there are more of you out there, I need to know."

"You get that, of course," I laughed, pressing down on one of his wounds with a sparking finger. "War, intel, all of that good stuff. You're a trained guy, I can tell. Unluckily for you, I think I was trained a little better."

His blood tingled on my fingers. Viscous yet thin- it dripped from my fingertips onto the sand. I closed my fist around it, and felt a rush of exhilaration. I could feel the warmth of his blood...that same warmth was in front of me, begging for release.

I imagined his nose and throat filling with his own blood. Deep underneath his metal chest, I imagined his blood beginning to bubble and pop, thrashing like the inside of an angry volcano. The warmth bent to my will, getting hotter and hotter.

Cheli gasped out. "I…I…"

"You what?" I said, scowling deeply. "You WHAT?"

There was a loud whizzing noise from outside my dome. A bright white light shone through for a moment, and the dome melted instantly.

I was out of time.

Delta and Beta stared back at me from outside of the sizzling water, and I was forced to relinquish my hold on Cheli's blood before I showed everyone something I was certain they wouldn't want to see.

Beta cleared his throat, "Well…any chance this is all a big misunderstanding?"

"Doubtful," I said, wiping Cheli's blood on my armor. I declined my head toward the quivering mess beside me, "Be careful with him. He's explosive."

"I think I'll be fine," Beta said dismissively, walking over to the hyperventilating assassin. He clapped his hands, and the water bent. Real handcuffs, tight and glowing, appeared on Cheli's wrists.

My visor told me they were charmed to be unbreakable. Of course.

As Beta led Cheli away, Delta motioned for me to walk with him. We started walking back toward the palace, where repairmen were already working on putting some of the burnt pieces back into place. "Did the assassin say anything?"

"Not of consequence, really," I said, sighing. Truth be told, I was still a bit shook from how easily I'd been able to control his body after making contact with his blood. If learned how to truly optimize that, I could make a skill out of it, and then, every battle I fought in would be decided on the first sign of blood. "There was some mention of the Proteus Foundation, but I couldn't seem to get anything more out of him."

"The Proteus Foundation?" Delta repeated in a bland tone. Much to my chagrin, I still couldn't get the best read on Delta's emotions."Hm. We'll see if interrogation gets anything more out of him, but I'll keep your testimony in mind."

"You don't seem that concerned that an assassin somehow managed to circumvent the wards to one of the most secure places on the planet," I noted, smiling at Delta's smirk. "Isn't that a point of pride for you guys?"

"I suppose it would've been cause for concern, yes, if the breach hadn't been intentional," Delta's smirk transformed into a cold smile. "Why else do you think your father would 'check' on wards that have been keyed to his own power for millennia? It was a deliberate ploy to draw out any potential assassins before the tournament begins in earnest."

Though annoyed, I couldn't deny the effectiveness of the plan, "How were you sure I'd be alright?"

"I trained you," He said as if that explained everything.

"Yeah, but I still could've…" I trailed off as two nuggets of information in my mind connected, almost instantaneously. "Malia. That's what she and that other guy were there for."

"And here I was, wondering if you were ever going to get it," Delta chuckled, his head shaking. "Yes. You said it yourself- I'm well aware of both your limitations and your capabilities. I knew you can do some real damage. So, before we put a plan in action and used you as bait, I needed to be sure you could control that power, that rage. I'm glad to see it worked out."

"You thought the assassin would tell me something, then," I prompted my old teacher. "Or you would've just intercepted him. Why risk property damages and chaos?"

"Fifty-fifty," Delta admitted. "We had some leads, sure, but using you as bait made the process simpler. Again, the interrogation team should be able to turn up some results for us, but you've given me a lead to look into. Go get some rest."

"Yeah."

Shaking my head at the weird series of events, I turned and eventually walked back toward my room, intent on finally getting some rest, before realizing I had one more loose end to tie up.

Aphrodite, I wondered, pulling on the memories that always seemed to make her respond the fastest. Are you there?

Percy? The response came in around thirty seconds. Yes. What is it?

Do you have a second?

Yes. May I teleport you?

Yep.

Zeus, I forgot how unpleasant this was. All of the water left my body, and I got the sensation of being squeezed really hard. It felt like some giant had picked me up in tried to shove me through a tiny tube.

POP!

The palace faded to darkness.

The squeezing feeling continued for a couple of moments, and suddenly, I was spinning into existence in a bedroom- no, Aphrodite's bedroom.

"I don't think my girlfriend would be psyched to hear I'm in another woman's bedroom," I gasped out, leaning against the wall. My heart was hammering in my chest, "Damn."

Aphrodite, still looking as she did last time, with the exception of her clothes, gave me a soft smile and helped orient me again. "Sorry. The process of transporting you is…difficult."

"How difficult?"

"Well, the other day, I went into this odd shack called an arcade," She said, her eyes gently glowing pink as the rest of my nausea faded. I muttered my thanks as she kept going, "There was a machine there. A large one, with a big metal device that was to be used to retrieve prizes from inside."

"A claw machine. You're talking about a claw machine."

"Well, I did the equivalent of picking you up with one of those, except I pulled you across the entire ocean, into here, all while keeping your bodily functions somewhat intact," Aphrodite smiled pleasantly at me. Her smile turned a bit teasing, "So you'll forgive me, I hope, if there's some residual nausea. What, um, what was it you wanted to talk about?"

"My body," I said, gesturing at myself. "When, uh, you were putting me together, did you notice anything weird?"

"Weird…like?" Aphrodite asked me, walking back over to her closet, where she was in the process of color-coding her shirts. She placed a violet blouse on a hanger.

"I just…my body's been doing weird things lately. I've been having these really weird sensations," I stammered out. "I don't even know how to describe them. I just know you're involved somehow."

"Oh," Aphrodite squeaked, blushing a deep golden and snapping her hanger in half for some reason. "I suppose I could give this a shot. I think I know what you're trying to get at. You see, there's nothing weird about your body at all! Nothing!"

"No? Really?"

"No!" Aphrodite said quickly, raising her hands. She scurried back over to me, comfortingly placing a hand on my shoulder."You're a perfectly normal and healthy boy. These sensations, you're sure I'm involved?"

I was a bit weirded out, but nodded, "100% sure. I can't explain exactly how I know, but you're influencing them."

"Oh, boy," Aphrodite bit her fingers. She started talking so quickly I could barely keep up, "Okay. First off, I'm flattered. Really. I am. I'm sure some people would find it weird, especially given our, well, history and the fact that you have a girlfriend now, but I actually kind of think it's cute, so no worries there, alright? So. Sometimes, when a man finds a woman attractive, there's this reaction–"

"Huh- no! No, no, no," I repeated, waving my hands frantically. "Not those kinds of sensations! I mean, like, in the water! And, uh, seeing ghosts around!"

"Oh!" Aphrodite said as we both tried to talk over each other and clear up the situation. Eventually, she settled for just raising her hand. "Misunderstanding aside, I didn't do anything unusual when I was restoring your body. If you want me to, though, I can check."

"Please."

She nodded, and her eyes glowed pink again as she regarded me. Almost instantly, her face fell, and her eyes returned to normal.

"Well?" I asked quietly.

"I…I don't know how this is possible," Aphrodite whispered. The look in her eyes was scaring me, "You need to come with me. Now."


AN: Well, hello everyone!

Officially done with school now, and I'm ready to crank out some updates again. Thanks again for being so patient in the time in-between, though. I felt a little bit rusty writing this chapter, so please give me a chapter or two to get back into the swing of things. In the meantime, though, I think this chapter will certainly be good enough to get some points across, and maybe even set the tone for the rest of the arc.

Hope everyone enjoys the start of this arc–I'm hoping to keep the heat up! As always, make sure to let me know what you thought. See you guys soon. Like, in a week or so, soon.

:)

- Maroon