Chapter 25: We had an epic showdown on the beach.

Were they dead?

Annabeth shook her head. She still felt the racing sensation. They shot up at top speed, straight through the rocky ceiling like an air bubble. She couldn't see anything outside the smooth walls of her sphere until they broke through the ocean floor.

Dark patches of red flames covered her sphere, reminding her of Percy's terrible fate. It made her feel guilty—about taking his place, certainly, but there was something else, too.

The water sizzled on the sphere's surface. Despite being surrounded by water, the red flame burned brightly. Annabeth realized it wouldn't last long before she broke the surface. But her worries were meaningless; the flames lost their hold on the surface and had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Hades' palace must have been directly under the sea because the pearls exploded and emerged in the middle of the ocean. Annabeth spluttered and splashed, but luckily Piper hauled her to a life buoy and managed to get a Coast guard vessel to drop them back on Santa Monica beach.

She was sopping wet and felt bone tired. She could probably lay on the beach and curl into sleep if their situation wasn't dire. Los Angeles was on fire, with smoke plumes filling the sky all over the city. Hades' wrath had triggered an earthquake. He'd probably send an army of the dead after them now, but that was the least of her concern.

Piper stared at the sea blankly. She didn't say a word about Percy. The hollow look in her eyes told everything, though.

Annabeth wished she knew what to say to her. There was no way she could even pretend to know what Piper must be feeling. What did she know about sacrificing herself for others? She'd been saved twice and never felt anything like the grief stamped across Piper's face.

"Piper, I'm so sorry about—"

"No, Percy's alive," Piper stated. Annabeth assumed she must have lost it because there was no way he could have survived Hades' onslaught and escaped the Underworld alive. But she didn't say anything out loud.

"You don't believe me, do you?" Piper challenged. She fingered a blue coral from her necklace. "We'll see him soon. There's no way he's going to break his promise and get away from me!" By then she was crying really hard.

Annabeth too wanted to plonk down and bawl her eyes out. She wanted a miracle to happen but knew it was unlikely. They must pull themselves together and complete their quest. But they had left Percy in the Underworld along with the lightning bolt, the item they couldn't complete their quest without.

"The Prophecy was right. You shall go west, and face the god who has turned. But it wasn't Hades. Hades didn't want the war. He only wanted his Helm back. That explains most of it." The Furies, the Minotaur, and the monsters had been after Percy but waited for confirmation before they attacked.

And Ares. They still have to resolve things with him. He had given them the backpack. Ares could've colluded with the Titans against his immortal family. It was a simple explanation, but something was still missing. Ares was still a god. He couldn't usurp another god's symbol of power directly, any more than Hades could. There still had to be a go-between.

Annabeth felt slightly ill as she thought about Clarisse and her ludicrous accusation of Percy when the hellhounds appeared at camp. A ploy to deflect the suspicion of her, perhaps?

The idea of Clarisse as a traitor and spy didn't sit quite right with her. Sure, Clarisse could be a nasty piece of work, but she'd always stuck Annabeth as direct and straightforward, without much stealth and finesse.

Still, the other options were unthinkable too. Steady, good-natured Beckendorf. Travis and Connor Stoll: light-fingered but full of light-hearted mischief that you could never imagine them working for evil. Honest and bright Lee Fletcher. The nimble Dionysus twins. And Luke—no way.

Annabeth devolved into her thoughts while Piper stared at the beach longingly, hoping for a miracle.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the ocean floor in the middle of the Santa Monica Bay, Percy was facing a mortal disaster.

He had been fortunate to be flung in the direction of his friends. Percy had realized the situation couldn't get any better and disintegrated into tiny motes of water to merge with the nearest sphere. To his disappointment, the flames had followed him like moths to a flame. The situation back-pedaled on him; it was the flames that actually clung to him.

His situation remained unchanged even after escaping the Underworld. He faintly noticed when the flames began to erode the magic spheres surrounding Annabeth, causing them to lose speed and durability. He quickly came to a decision and reformed his physical body, separating from the spheres.

The sheer weight of the flames suddenly became apparent that Percy had no choice but to plummet to the sea floor. Fortunately, he was near the shore of Santa Monica Bay. It was the early morning of the summer solstice deadline...

Percy's thoughts about his quest came to an abrupt halt when a heart-wrenching pain shot through his body. Everything in his vision was surrounded by flames. The thin water layer on his body began to sizzle on the edges as they tried to extinguish the flames, which burned brighter, seemingly attempting to evaporate the entire sea. They remained in a stalemate, using Percy's body as a battlefield.

Hellish torture!

A shockwave erupted with him as the center, sending a ripple into the distance. The creatures in his surroundings made a hasty retreat. Percy screamed in agony until he was hoarse. His consciousness became blurry and the impact of the flames caused him to roll to the floor. In a negligent state of mind, his body acted on instincts, trying to save itself. The pain made him feel as if he were being fried in an oil pan and his tongue was being pulled out.

The water healed him while the flames burned his body. It was a gruesome process, and Percy's will to live teetered on the edge. He felt like a helium balloon, barely hanging on by a thin strand of thread.

There were countless crazy anguish figures within the flames that were attacking his body. A faint layer of black smoke shielded his vital organs, but as those figures crazily attacked it grew sparse.

His clothes had disintegrated as soon as he landed on the sea floor. Traces of blood seeped out of his body, causing it to bulge abnormally. Percy's body twitched and became distorted as blood flowed out and surrounded him like a misty fog.

The destructive force of those flames seemed to be too strong for him. It was far beyond his capabilities. The damage caused to his physical body was unexpected and couldn't be compared to his previous injuries. If he wasn't surrounded by water to provide him with vitality, he would have long since turned into cinders.

Percy was almost certain he was done for. Though the water continued to heal him, the flames showed no signs of dying out either. If the impasse continues, he will be unable to turn the tides in his favor. In a hazy state of him, his hand brushed the small vial inside his pocket.

Before he lost his moment of clarity, he pulled out the red vial and drained its content. The red liquid slid down his throat and filled his body with a cool sensation. Percy's senses tingled and a jolt rushed through his body. It felt as if he was injected with liquid caffeine. The entire sea surged and cold currents swarmed from its depths. They surrounded Percy and entered his body through his pores. They circulated through his vital organs and protected them.

It was unknown how much time had passed.

Percy's fingers twitched and he slowly opened his eyes. He craned his neck to the side and yelled. "Holy Poseidon's Pearls! I'm still alive!"

This time, he knew that he could have truly died... He played really big this time around.

Once Percy recovered enough to move, he immediately felt a splitting pain in his head. Veins throbbed on his temples. Though his body was no longer in any pain, his whole body was weak and his head felt like it was being jackhammered.

For a brief moment, Percy was terrified. After all, the present him was well aware of how dangerous their situation had been. He had just walked through the gates of death. Though he was scared, he would still choose to do the same, given the chance.

Definitely without any regrets. Even if it meant his soul would die, disappear, and be lost.

Percy grounded his teeth, still lying on the floor. When he reflected on the events in the Underworld, he realized he'd been used as a pawn on someone else's chessboard. A lot of things became obvious.

For one thing, Hades had been obsessed with the prospect of Poseidon declaring war against Zeus, as if someone had informed him beforehand. He refused to listen and demanded the lightning bolt in exchange for their return. And the lady...

Percy shuddered as he remembered the lady in black, with her obsidian eyes. She had arrived at a precise time to disrupt his aforementioned plans as if someone had directed her to the throne room.

If it hadn't been for all of his sources that led them to Hades, Percy would never have had to descend into the Underworld. And the Nereid, Faora... Although her advice on gifts was vague and delayed, she was the one who insisted they finish their quest in the Underworld. She gave him one less pearl, but a way for others to check his vital status.

If she—or rather, her mistress—had planned everything to get him killed in the Underworld, as he suspected them to be, why did the Nereid give him a magical potion to survive the Underworld's flames? What were her motivations behind the roundabout scheme and the gesture?

And the flames? Hades claimed they were Netherworld Karmic flames, that came for Hell flame purgatory. His surprise and reaction indicated that the god of the Dead was unaware of their existence in the throne room. Someone else had orchestrated the setup, deceiving everyone in the palace.

Percy didn't think too much about it. It wasn't the time or place to ponder over the answers. His friends on the surface needed him. He could think about his other problems once the lightning bolt was safely returned to Zeus.

Bones creaked inside his body as he stood. Percy immediately shot down the idea to rush to the surface after a look at his body. Though all his previous injuries and burn were healed up, he was still weak. Moreover, he was dressed in nothing. He stood in the middle of a sea, butt naked.

The tip of his ears turned red as the image of him flashing before his friends in his birthday suit ran through his head. Fortunately, he still had the backpack Ares had given him with a set of clothes. He quickly changed and shot up for the surface.

The calm sea surface exploded into a ten-foot wave as Percy broke the surface. The Los Angeles skyline was engulfed in smoke. But that wasn't Percy's biggest problem. He had to get Zeus' thunderbolt back to Olympus. And more importantly, he had to have a serious conversation with the god who'd tricked him the most.

All debts must be paid on due.

Percy was so incensed about the whole situation that he failed to see two parties in a standoff on the shore. Annabeth and Piper stood with their weapons drawn, facing an adult in a leather duster and sunglasses. He had an aluminum baseball bat propped on his shoulders. The motorcycle beside him rumbled, turning the sand red.

Ares.

"Hey, kid!" he said, trying to act nonchalant, but Percy caught the surprised look on his face. "You were supposed to die."

Percy didn't like his nonchalant tone or the way he just happened to be waiting. He joined his friends and stood before them, facing the god of War. Annabeth and Piper gave him a set of weird looks, their surprise overtaking the joy. Well, he was barefoot and had his hair singed on the end. He still reeked of burnt charcoal and iron. Not the perfect time for a reunion.

"You're the main culprit. You took the master bolt and the Helm."

Ares grinned wickedly. "Well, no. I didn't take them personally. Gods taking each other's symbol of power—that's a big no-no. But you're not the only hero who can run errands."

Annabeth made a choking noise beside him.

"Doesn't matter," Ares continued. "The point is kid, you're impeding the war effort. See, you have got to die in the Underworld. Then Old Seaweed will be mad at Hades. Corpse Breath will have Zeus' master bolt, making Zeus angry at him. And Hades is still searching for this.." he pulled out the missing piece of the puzzle: Hades' bronze helmet, in its all terror-radiating glory. Percy fought the urge to cower under the terrifying light that emerged from the helm.

"Hades will be mad at both Zeus and Poseidon because he doesn't know who took this. Pretty soon, we got a nice little three-way slugfest going."

"But they're your family." Annabeth protested. Percy knew she wasn't making much of an argument. After all, when had the Olympians considered and acted themselves as a family?

Ares kept on boasting about his grand plan—sending the demigods off to deliver the bolt, tinkering with the sheath to hide the bolt until they got to Hades. Except that his strategy—and everything he'd ever heard, Ares wasn't exactly a think tank—sounded it fit very well into what he'd worked out Kronos' to be. And the way they had nearly ended up in Tartarus, along with the bolt.

"But why not keep the bolt to yourself?" he picked on the flaw. "Why send it to Hades?"

The Big Three were so focused on each other that they nearly got blinded by someone else orchestrating the entire debacle under their very noses. They would've likely fought with another small shove in the right direction.

Did Kronos have the power to manipulate a god into betraying his own family?

"Why didn't I...yeah...with that kind of firepower...I could..."

Ares took the same unsettled look he'd had when they had talked in the diner in Denver. Percy had likely missed the smaller details in the anger-induced aura back then, but he watched Ares get lost in trance for a few seconds. It was almost as if the god had lost some information inside his head and was attempting to consult some manual to get it back.

"I didn't want the trouble." he blustered. "Better to have you caught red-handed, holding the thing."

"I recognize a lie when I hear one," Percy called his bluff. "You didn't order the theft. When Zeus sent his subjects on a man—err, weapon—hunt, you caught the thief. However, you didn't turn him over. Something must've convinced you to let him go. You kept the items until another hero came along to complete the delivery. Spot on, right?" Percy smirked at Ares' loss of words.

"Yeah! How do you know that!?" Ares spluttered.

"Please! You're joking, right? Come on, dude. That's the oldest trick in the book. Feed an idiot some lies to get his hopes up, and he'll even jump off a building for you. That thing in the pit is ordering you around like a circus monkey."

"I'm the god of war!" Ares insisted. "I take orders from no one! I don't have dreams!" he bellowed.

Percy hesitated. "Who said anything about dreams?"

That settled it. Even Ares looked somewhat disturbed to think that something had been—or possibly still was—controlling him. There was no prize for uncovering the truth, though.

He suddenly stated letting out a hollow laugh and brushed off everything. "You're alive, punk. And you've heard everything. I can't have you taking the bolt to Olympus. You might make those hardheaded idiots listen to you. So I've got to kill you. Nothing personal."

Yeah, right! Getting killed is kind of personal.

Ares snapped his fingers. A wild boar the size of a bull with fiery, hateful eyes erupted from beneath the sand. The beast clawed at the sand, glaring at Percy, and waited for the command to kill. In the myths, Ares had transformed into a boar to hunt down the guys Aphrodite had flings with. He didn't do that now, but the boar had his same ugly grimace.

If Percy had been his rational, calm self, he'd probably have more than ten different ways to get the Helm from Ares with deception and deceit. That would be the most rational choice a hero would've taken, solve the current problems at hand.

But Percy was no hero. He'd never considered himself as one. After the blind game, he'd been forced to play with, and after being treated like a lab rat to one's whim, the murderous intent deeply hidden inside him had been finally provoked. It consumed his entire being.

"Come at me yourself, Ares!" he challenged.

"Percy, no!" Annabeth warned.

Ares laughed wickedly, but Percy heard a little edge to it. "You've got only one talent, kid—running away. You ran away from Echidna. You ran from the Underworld. You don't have what it takes."

"At least, it's better than running away from a couple of cupid statues. Someone had been scared out of his wits that he'd left his shield behind too. Why don't I remember the name..." Percy mocked. "Do you remember the idiot, girls?"

"Uhh, my memory's been a little fuzzy. I shouldn't have forgotten such a silly name!" Piper mock-groaned, playing along with him. Percy turned to Annabeth, silently willing her to go along.

"Umm.." She hesitated.

He didn't mind her follow-up. The damage has been done. Ares' shades melted from the heat of his eyes. They smoldered with pure hate and loathing. The giant boar charged.

Percy stepped forward and clicked his pen. Riptide sprang into life as the boar approached quickly. He slashed upwards in a graceful arc and sidestepped. He quickly caught the severed tusk and slammed on its snout. The disoriented animal charged into the sea.

He didn't give it any leeway. He summoned a couple of icicles from the water onto the charging boar, turning it into a skewered pork. The beast squealed in pain for one last time before it was swept away by the waves. It didn't even survive for more than a couple of seconds.

Percy turned to Ares. "What now? You're going to hide behind another pig?" he asked. "Or are you going to call your family to fight in your stead?"

Ares' face turned purple with rage. "Watch it, kid. I have yet to forgive you for your previous offense. I could turn you into a—"

"Yeah, yeah!" Percy waved him off nonchalantly. "I know. You could spew empty threats all day long. That had saved your godly ass before, hadn't it?"

That did the trick. Flames danced in Ares' eyes. "Oh, man! You want a knuckle sandwich, I see. You're asking to be smashed into a grease spot, kid."

"Let's rumble, Ares. The winner gets all. Do you dare?"

"Dare? Don't make me laugh, kid. If I don't put you in your place today, I'd write my name backward." He swung his baseball bat off his shoulders. "Your choice, dead boy. How would you like to be smashed: classic or modern?"

Percy brandished his sword.

"Cool, classic it is," the baseball bat morphed into a huge, two-handed sword. The hilt had a ruby studded silver skull as a pommel.

Piper unsheathed her bronze daggers on his left. Annabeth pulled out her dagger and invisible cap and stood on his right.

"What are you doing?" he asked them. "No, no. You can't do this. I need you as a backup. Stay out of the battle." he ordered.

Neither of them flinched.

"Fat chance, Percy. I'm doing this with you." Piper declared.

"We're a team," Annabeth reminded him. "Reconciliation, Athena and Poseidon together." He could count on one hand the number of times a mortal had survived a duel with a god. What he did was probably foolhardy as one could get, but for Annabeth to place her trust in him so much...

The gods didn't take lightly to people supporting their challengers either. For her to stand with him on this madness, she'd once again proved her stance on the issue. Truth be told, he needed all the help he could in the challenge. His body was still in the recovery process and he could every other second to recuperate.

The aura he'd been keeping—but failing—in check was left unrestrained. It exploded out, churning the sea into a storm in the summer morning. Bill had taught him that a warrior's exploits and fame increased his presence on a battlefield. That was their confidence to come out victorious. The more one's aura explodes out, the more it exerts pressure on the enemy.

"You two wanna get in on the fun, huh? That's cool." Ares walked towards them, his duster trailing behind him, his sword glistening. "I've been fighting for eternity. My strength is unlimited. I'm immortal, kid. And you? Just a bastard son of an old man past his prime. Yeah, right!"

Percy said nothing in response. No words would solve their problems anymore. It was time for their swords to speak. If there were any sound effects at this moment, it would be the sound of a boiling point reaching its peak.

Without waiting, the demigods lunged at Ares. Annabeth turned invisible. Piper raced ahead of him and launched at the god with her daggers, like a gazelle. Ares deflected her attack with his long sword. Then he cleaved downwards on Percy's head.

Percy's body thought for him. His battle instincts took over his mind. He quickly disappeared from his position and appeared behind Ares to perform a quick slash upwards.

But Ares was quick too. He twisted his body, and the strike that should've him caught by surprise was deflected by his sword hilt. "Not bad, not bad, brat."

He quickly sidestepped and avoided a fatal blow from Annabeth on his side. He swung his sword in a wide arc to force her back.

The trio attacked again. Piper was more agile than the other two. She managed to get past his guard twice, but Ares outmaneuvered and forced her into defense. Percy caught the surprised look on the god at their skill level, since he changed his pace. His attacks became ferocious and pressed the trio into defense.

Percy's ferocity was matchless, while Annabeth was maneuverable. Poseidon and Athena are natural enemies. But these two had combined their attacks in such a manner wherein their weakness was being concealed by the other's strengths. It must be mentioned that these two individuals were coordinating their moves for the first time. So it wasn't fully seamless, to be honest.

But their combined power was still rendering it ineffective against an immortal existence.

Once, they timed their attack perfectly in sync with Piper's agility. Annabeth caught Ares' sword in a deadlock, bearing his full brunt. Percy and Piper's attacks came in succession. When his sword failed to deflect Annabeth and reach Percy, he immediately switched gears and elbowed the latter and deflected Piper.

Percy went airborne and crashed into the sand. He grunted and quickly picked up his sword. A couple of icicles kept Ares occupied while the demigods got into their positions to attack again.

"Right, son of Poseidon," Ares muttered.

Centuries of experience made Ares outmaneuver the trio, but the longer the battle went on, the more they got into the groove. They created and adjusted their strategies on the fly as they fought him. Ares relied on brute force and instincts and had more stamina. But he doesn't use tactics. What the demigods needed was to use their brains and strategies to bypass his strength.

But Ares' sword had a long reach, longer than any of them. The longer they fought, the more he would understand their attack pattern and tire them out.

It's a vicious loop.

"Percy, Cops!" Annabeth warned.

Their fight drew cops to the scene, blaring sirens. Out of the corner of his eye, Percy watched police cars pool around the beach, and mortals gather on the streets because of the earthquake. A band of souls rose from the ground amidst the disturbance. Hades' vanguard army, led by the three kindly Ones. But they stopped in their tracks, and simply watched.

"Officer, there!" A mortal called for the cops to the beach fight. "See?" he pointed at Percy.

"Looks like the kid on TV...what the heck.." a cop mouthed into his handheld.

"That guy's armed," Another cop remarked, pointing at Ares. "Call for reinforcements."

Meanwhile, the battle continued. The demigods attacked relentlessly, but Ares met them with his flurry of slashes and parries. Percy tried an attack with a feint, but Ares seemed to be waiting for it. He parried the strike and deflected the blade out of his hand. He slashed and tore open Percy's sleeve. The tip of the blade grazed his arm.

Percy rolled to the side and picked up his sword. He grunted and stood up.

"You've got spunk, kid. But it's enough. I'm just toying with you," Ares bluffed and charged forward. "I can't have upstarts think they can match up to me because we appear weak. I've to keep my rep."

The mist swirled around the mortals, rendering the cops incapable to join the fray. But they did something really stupid and amazing at the same time.

"Drops the guns." A megaphone voice echoed off the beach. "Set them on the ground. Now!"

Guns?

Percy took the moment of confusion to regroup with others. The announcement made his vision shimmer for a moment. Ares' sword flickered between a shotgun and a long sword. Annabeth's dagger changed from handgun to pistol.

There was a line of police cars surrounding the beach, and the police officers crouching behind them, guns trained at them. Ares glared at them.

"This is a private matter," he bellowed. "Be gone!"

He swept his hand, and a wall of yellow flames rolled across the police cars. They barely had the time to dive for cover before their vehicles exploded. The crowd behind them scattered, screaming.

"Percy, we can't continue like this. He's just playing with us. We need something big and quick to distract him enough for one of us to land a strike in." Annabeth voiced their dilemma.

Percy glanced at the sea. Big and quick, hmm..?

He gritted his teeth and made a decision. "Get ready then. Something big and fast. I'll surprise him. Make sure to land your blows and get far away. Don't hold back." he put his sword and crouched down.

"Percy, no. You can't do that." Piper warned.

"We've got no choice," he interrupted her and took a sprinter position. He supported his entire frame on his legs and one hand. Despite the lack of wind, his clothes fluttered. He closed his eyes, and his breath began to uneven.

"Dammit," Piper hissed. "If you miss this, I'm coming for you," she cursed and dashed forward, leaving a defenseless Percy. "Annabeth, come with me."

Ares was still fifty feet away from them. The demigods would need a couple of seconds to reach him. Annabeth dashed forward with Piper, brandishing her dagger. "What's going on?" she breathed.

"No time," Piper panted. "Attack him once you see an opening."

"What opening are we talking about here?" she yelled as the wind picked up speed.

"Not bad for a bunch of riffraff," Ares sneered. "Fewer people fought me and lived to tell the tale. I'm the ugly side of the war. The others will mock me if I let you live." he glanced at Percy at the far back and prepared for the incoming attacks.

A huge mistake.

BANG!

A loud bang reverberated on the beach. Ares' clothes billowed when a sudden air pressure locked him in place. He faintly discerned several afterimages of Percy crossing the demigods before the actual body collided with him. He failed to notice the attack until it was almost upon him.

He bellowed loudly and a divine light surrounded his physical form. Centuries of experience saved him from a disgraceful loss. Metal clanged against metal. He parried and deflected Percy's thunderous attacks, which came out of nowhere.

The force behind the attack and the pressure made Ares stagger a bit. He was full of openings. Percy quickly applied a standard disarming technique on Ares' sword. The god of War was no slouch. As soon as his sword left his hand, he deftly pulled out his hunting knife and disarmed Percy.

Ares quickly threw a punch at him. Percy wasn't fast enough to duck, and it grazed the tip of his ear. It sent him flying, not before he slammed the knife out of Ares' grip with another sword that came out of nowhere.

Ares was weaponless, and he was full of openings. The girls reached and swiftly launched their attacks. They didn't attack any vitals—in fear of raising his guard—and slashed at his limbs. Annabeth nicked his leg while Piper grazed his arm with their daggers and dashed past him.

Meanwhile, Percy landed on the sand and summoned a twenty-foot tall wave. It rocketed over Ares, just as the girls raced past him and smashed into his face. He grunted a little and caught his breath from the attack.

He urgently picked up Hurricane and disintegrated into tiny droplets. Pain flared across his body. He quickly reformed behind a spluttering Ares. He hefted his sword and stabbed Hurricane right into Ares' calf. The wave retreated along with Percy.

Ares roared at the sudden burst of pain and swung his fists at his assailant furiously. Mortals and animals fled the scene in terror. Birds flew away from the beach in panic. The water blasted around him, leaving a twenty-foot wet circle of sand. Ichor, the golden blood of immortals leaked down his boots and mixed into the water.

Ares turned towards Percy, his expression beyond hatred and disbelief. There was pain, shock, denial, and loathing that he'd been wounded by a mortal. He limped towards them, muttering ancient Greek curses.

Percy realized Ares was really mad at him and might renege on their previous terms and attack them like he meant business. He was fully prepared to snatch the girls and disappear, disregarding the burden it might place on his physical body. Their situation had turned ugly.

Then the eclipse happened.

It wasn't exactly an eclipse. The sun dimmed down. Light and sound faded away. It was like all the substance in the world was being leeched by a giant vacuum, the same way the pit in the Underworld had tried to inhale them into its bottomless depths. The color drained from their surroundings, leaving dotted outlines, and shapeless drawings.

A cold, heavy presence descended on the beach, freezing both time and temperature, making everyone feel tiny and hopeless. As suddenly as it came, it lifted away. Percy imagined a peal of cold laughter.

The trio stood in a circle of destruction. Police cars overturned and in flames: side casualties from the battle. The large tidal wave carried away ruined beach huts. The three wizened Furies looked absurdly gobsmacked, along with Ares.

He looked as startled as all of them. Part of Percy hoped Ares' had done that to win, but he'd been caught in the spell as well. Whoever had caught the eclipse, was far stronger than Ares. Even just reaching out from his dark prison.

Ares lowered his sword and stepped away. That actually made his sense of danger shoot up within him. the eclipse was an intervention, a warning to the god: leave this half-blood alone. He could only imagine Kronos wanted him for a far more nefarious purpose.

Ares met his eyes briefly. "You've made an enemy today, godling," he said. "You've sealed your fate. Every time you raise your blade in battle, every time you hope for success, you will feel my wrath. This, I curse you, sea spawn." Percy smirked at that.

"Beware, Perseus Jackson. Beware.." With a final threat, Ares drew together the scattered elements of his being and his true form lit up the sky.

When Percy opened his eyes, Ares was gone. He stood on the edge of the shore, the waves lapping at his feet, silently willing him to pick the bronze helmet of doom. He picked the helm and walked back.

Percy heard the flapping of leathery wings. The three evil-looking grandmothers—Furies—with lace hats and fiery whips swiped down from the sky and blocked his path. The middle one—Mrs. Dodds—bared her fangs at him. She looked hideous but not threatening anymore. Hades' vanguard army surrounded them on the beach, ready for round two.

"So, you spoke the truth..." she ran a forked tongue over her green lips. "We saw the whole thing." Percy didn't know if she saw the whole thing or not. But for once, he didn't care.

He tossed the Helm, which she caught in surprise.

"Return it to lord Hades," he said. "Tell him he owes me a favor."

Mrs. Dodds hesitated. "Live well, Perseus Jackson. If you ever come into my clutches again.." she left the threat hanging and cackled. The three grandmas rose into the air and disappeared shortly. The skeletal army surrounding them shimmered and disappeared underground.

The trio collapsed on the sand, Percy was far more exhausted than the others. His last attack involved a technique that drew out his physical body's maximum potential for a short burst. He squeezed every ounce of power from his body and overpowered Ares. It had increased his mobility, agility, and maneuverability and heightened his senses.

Even so, the time limit was simply too short and the action was akin to borrowing an overdraft from a bank. Once he relaxed his breath, he was bombarded by the backlash from the violent movements made earlier. The pain was nowhere near the heart-breaking lung-jerking sensation that he'd experienced under the sea, but it wasn't pleasant either.

The technique truly deserved the appellation 'life on the line'. And it was Percy's original.

"That was awesome." Piper wheezed, too tired to stand up.

"No, it was...terrifying." Annabeth amended.

Percy gave a wan smile. "Did you guys feel that...?"

He craned his neck to the side and met Annabeth's eyes. He was sure she knew. She'd figured it all out, too, who had been controlling Ares and breaking their fight. He marveled that she wasn't trembling.

"Percy—" he interrupted Annabeth.

"Sorry, can't hear you. I have a ruptured ear on one side." he pointed to his right ear.

Annabeth simply gawked at him in surprise. "So, you didn't hear anything from Ares." he raised her voice to let him hear.

Percy shook his head. "I managed to get a few words by reading his lips. He lost me halfway."

"And the Furies?"

"Sorry, I've no clue what Mrs. Dodds had said." his sheepish reply made her want to groan and laugh at the same time.

"We have to get back to New York," he informed them. "By tonight."

"Tonight? That's impossible," Annabeth argued. "Unless we—"

"Fly," he agreed.

"Percy, that's suicide. You were warned to never fly lest Zeus strikes you out of the sky."

"Yeah," he nodded. "Pretty much exactly like that. Come on, I believe Zeus will cut me some slack."

oOo

Percy once again got to witness how easy it was to fool mortal minds. It was funny how they can wrap their minds around things and fit them into their version of reality. Truly, the mist was a wonderful convenience for the supernatural to wander the mortal world.

According to the L. A. news, the explosion at the Sant Monica beach had been caused when a crazy kidnapper open fired a shotgun at the police. He accidentally hit a gas main that had ruptured during the earthquake.

Their quest to retrieve the lightning bolt had ignited into a nationwide media spectacle, and the television networks all jumped in for a grand finale. Ares had been accused of kidnapping three adolescent teens and bringing them across the country on a ten-day odyssey of terror.

He was accused of arson at St. Louis Arch, derailing the Amtrak, and mugging the kids in Denver. They had eyewitnesses for everything. Poor little Percy Jackson wasn't an international criminal after all. He'd caused a commotion on that Greyhound bus, trying to get away from his captor. The news station hollered and altered their script that no kid could cause an explosion in a national monument.

Finally, brave Percy Jackson (he had to stifle his smirk at that) had stolen a gun from his captor in Los Angeles and battled him shotgun-to-rifle on the beach. The police had arrived just in time and lost five cars in a spectacular explosion before the captor had fled the scene. No fatalities had occurred. Percy Jackson and his friends were safe in police custody.

The reporters fed them the whole story, rendering them to only nod in confirmation and act fearful. They played the victimized kids for the camera, which wasn't hard. Percy hammed it up for the cameras like a pro. If Annabeth had seen the way he managed to play the reporters before her quest, she'd have seriously believed he could have been the duplicitous thief Hades had accused him of being.

And still, she had no leads on who it really was.

Are you sure? All those coincidences... A voice in her head taunted. She shoved it aside forcefully.

Once the legal issues had been taken care of, the trio was left at the airport to fly back to New York. Piper tested her Lotus Cash card in purchasing their tickets, and they waited for any monster intervention before their time. The trio unanimously agreed to keep the cards a secret from the camp, and only use them in emergencies.

"No fair," Percy huffed in indignation.

"Suck it up, you big baby," Piper mock-cooed. They only had two platinum, divided up between the girls, leaving Percy to settle with a limited access green Cash card.

Though Percy had acted cool and calm about boarding a plane, with a nuclear weapon in tow, he was pretty nervous. It had been different before; no one knew about him. He just hoped Zeus would cut him some slack, considering the circumstances. But it was still hard to force himself on board the flight.

The takeoff was worse. It was as if Zeus was debating to strike him out of the sky. Each turbulence was like a death warrant to him. He held his breath and clenched the armrest. Only later did he find out it was Annabeth's arm, and he'd almost cut off her circulation before they touched down in La Guardia.

It was a child's play to distract the eagerly waiting New York tabloid, and reporters, with Annabeth's invisibility cap.

Percy turned to them in the taxi stand. "You guys return to camp."

"What about you?" Piper asked.

Percy patted the master bolt. Its sheath had turned back into a backpack. "I have to return this, don't I?"

"We should go together. We can convince them better. We're a team, remember." Annabeth reminded.

He smiled at her gently. "I know. But this last part...I'm meant to do it alone. If things go wrong..." he gently held their fingers.

If Zeus didn't believe and decided to kill him, he'd have Poseidon as a backup. But his chances were slim if the two accompanied him. If something untoward were to happen to either of them during the scuffle... he couldn't let that happen. Annabeth nodded, silently agreeing with him.

"Sure, get going then," Piper ruefully quipped.

Percy narrowed his eyes. He had known her for the better part of their lives to figure out she had planned out something. If he didn't know any better...

"You're not planning on tailing me to the gods' abode, right?"

"No," Though Piper maintained her nonchalance at the beginning, she squirmed under his hard stare. "Fine! I was planning on coming along with you. You can't make me go to the camp without YOU. I'll charm speak you if I have to even." she declared.

Percy sighed. There was no escaping the threat. "Alright. You can come, but I'm leaving you out of the throne room. No compromises there."

Piper happily jumped and flung her arms around him to hug him tightly. Annabeth resisted the urge to follow through but insisted on following them to Olympus.

They got into a taxi and zoomed off in the direction of the Empire State Building.

"Tell me honestly, you don't want to return to camp, do you?" Piper abruptly asked him.

"What?" Annabeth asked, puzzled. "What do you mean? Are you going somewhere?"

"It's not that." Percy shook his head. "It's just that... the camp wasn't meant for me. I don't belong at camp." he tried but failed to explain.

"You could return to the mortal world for the school term. It's just for summer, right?" Annabeth reasoned.

"Yeah..." he trailed off.

The scene inside the cab turned awkward. No one knew what to say to salvage the situation anymore. Annabeth felt a little hurt. Piper thought about what she should do for the summer break, without Percy at camp. Percy desperately wanted to take back his previous words, but the damage had already been done.

The camp wasn't meant for him. He'd be better off hunting monsters in the mortal world, completing missions from Poseidon, and training with Bill to sharpen his skills. His time at camp would be a complete waste, playing pretend and singing camp songs at night.

After his fight with Ares, he knew there was a lot for him to learn. Sword skills weren't enough to top immortal deities. He needed to channel more into his heritage and sharpen his control over the water element. He needed to push past his limits to get stronger to triumph over his foes.

The taxi abruptly stopped. "We've reached the Empire State Building," the driver said.

The demigods stood before the building. It was his first time, visiting the heavenly abode of Greek immortals.

Time to complete his quest.

xXx