Been a hot minute since the last update, eh? I had the holidays and then job hunting to deal with. And then I actually got a full-time job and was busy with training and hitting my pace to fit hobbies in once again. As for most reviews, thank you for the praise. For one in particular, writing takes time if one wants it done right. In the words of Geri the toy repairman, "You can't rush art."

EDIT (9/29/23): Forgot to include Man of Iron in Percy's VIT modifier since the point distribution came after buying the perk.

Chapter 7: Optional Dialogue

The elevator doors opening had me come out of my brief rest and gently shake Piper to wake her up. She jumped slightly in shock but stood up with me as we headed over. To my surprise, Annabeth appeared in front of us taking off her invisibility cap.

Taking a key out of her pocket, she waved it back and forth, "I knew there was trouble when an explosion blasted from up here. When the other tourists came back and you two didn't, I went invisible, lifted the ranger's key for the elevator and slipped in before the doors… shut…"

At that moment, I realized her eyes were looking past us to the "new window" in the observation deck.

"You blew a hole in a national monument?!" Annabeth shouted in scandalized anger.

I felt Piper stiffen and saw her whip flare with fire for a moment before it went out. But I subtly stepped in front of her and replied, "Actually, that was the Chimera. I barely had enough water to protect myself from its poison. Even if I had gotten hit instead of dodging, I'm pretty sure there'd still be a hole there."

"Chimera?" Annabeth asked in fear. "How did- You know what, never mind. We have to get out of here before the staff asks questions we can't answer. You can tell me on the ride down."

After she turned to go back in the elevator, I quietly said over my shoulder, "Calm down, Piper. I appreciate the thought, but picking fights is the last thing we need right now."

She didn't look happy about it, but kept quiet as we followed Annabeth inside and rode the tram down. After fighting for my life along with Piper's, the adrenaline still dying down in my system practically made the nausea a nuisance that I brushed off to talk with Annabeth. I filled her in on what happened after she left. Annabeth had only paled further when I mentioned that Echidna was there too, and I got to explaining how I tried to keep the civilians from panicking too much before leading the Chimera away.

"I used some overacting to make it look like we were shooting a movie, and Piper reinforced it with her special brand of persuasion. But I don't want to explain the 'prop failure' that caused that hole," I finished.

Piper patted me on the shoulder, "I've got your back. A prop failure sounds believable enough that my power should work. Telling them that we have to get to the next shooting location should be enough to keep them busy until we're long gone—not to mention that the observation deck is closed for the day now."

"Excuse me, but how are you two still alive?" Annabeth asked incredulously.

I unzipped my backpack and pulled out the empty water bottle that had its top half burst open, "I was saving them for the road, but I bought a couple of water bottles at the gift shop. Even though I was bitten by the Chimera's tail, I used that opportunity to cut off the snake head and then cured myself of the venom with this one. Only have one more."

"Percy took that bite to save me," Piper added flatly. "After he told me to close my eyes, I was afraid that was it. But it turned out he wanted to use Medusa's head to petrify them. Pretty lucky he still had it on him."

"Luck doesn't even begin to cover it," Annabeth retorted with a shake of her head. "Only one person has slain Echidna and that was in her sleep. Not to mention that person was Argus—an immortal attendant to Hera. Even he knew better than to challenge her directly."

"Ah. I guess her changing her hand to tentacles and her arm into a poisonous snake was only scratching the surface?" I guessed while putting the bottle away.

She looked at me in complete seriousness and said, "Percy, given her diverse brood and that all of them are her children, it can be assumed that she has every power they inherited from her—whether by transforming her own body or naturally. Nobody knows for sure since none of the legends agree on her appearance or abilities beyond poison. There's not even a firm confirmation on who the fathers are for most of them. She's the closest thing to a cryptid we have in our world. There's no doubt that she exists, but nobody knows what she is."

"Well, a lucky win is still a win, so I'll take it," I decided. "Now, we should keep quiet until we're leaving on the train. The air has ears, and I think we're almost to the ground floor. Speaking of which…"

I tapped Piper and pointed down at the whip still in her clenched hand. She let out a quick "Oh" of surprise and hurriedly wrapped it over her shoulder to change it back into a purse. After that, I handed her the horn to also stow back inside.

Annabeth frowned, but nodded and put her invisibility cap back on, "I'll leave the key on the floor by the elevator so the guide will think he dropped it."

After meeting up with Grover – and getting tackled by his version of a bearhug where he picked me up with a bleating cry of relief – we left the Arch. The ranger met with us in time for Annabeth to become visible again, apologizing for losing his key. Some apologetic words by Piper had him blissfully unaware of the damage's scope up top before we left.

We returned to the Amtrak station without further incident, and there was only an hour left to wait. With that, we stayed in our seats on the train not wanting to tempt fate further as I distributed the snacks Grover and I had gotten from my backpack. In addition, I also revealed the cash and drachmas that Echidna had dropped, guessing for appearance's sake that she had been blending in or on vacation before getting called to kill me.

Still, none of us felt like eating until the train started moving and we let out a collective sigh of relief at being out of St. Louis and at least a moving target as far as monsters were concerned. With that, we each began opening our assorted snacks while talking about our next move.

"I guess we might be able to get a little bit further with another set of tickets once we reach Denver," Annabeth supposed while eating a plastic-wrapped sandwich. "But what then?"

Piper didn't respond as she nibbled on her second energy bar, a bag of dried fruit and mixed nut trail mix open in her lap.

Grover was having jellybeans and corn chips along with a couple of his tin cans – passing the blue jellybeans to me at my earlier request – but paused long enough to ask, "How much money do we have in all?"

I set down my half-eaten blueberry muffin and sandwich, looking up as if thinking while actually checking my Status screen.

Money: $58.13; 50 Drachmas

I rattled off the amount of mortal money before discreetly checking to make sure there weren't any nosy passengers nearby. Once I deemed the coast clear, I said quietly, "At this rate, we'll have more drachmas than dollars. Shame we can't melt them down without getting cursed."

"I can see the windows now," Piper chimed in after I was done speaking.

Turning to her, I explained, "Oh, right. While you were out, I checked the backed-up messages from you-know-what. When you tried to save me, and I saved you back, I guess that counted as a special event. You're in the party now with all the benefits. You can say or think 'Status' and click each tab or highlighted word with a thought. The question mark in the upper right corner is the Help screen. If you have any other questions, ask away."

She nodded and her screen appeared in front of her as I turned my eyes away.

"Why would it let her join now?" Annabeth asked.

I replied, "I don't know. But if she already knows about it, there's no point in keeping her out. Pretty sure I could remove someone if I wanted, but that's not important right now. Every bit increases our survivability."

"Percy, some of these have question marks instead of words," Piper told me.

I glanced at her, and she seemed to be on her main status page, but she closed the window once I was looking her way.

"That happens," I explained. "If you have no way of knowing that you have a certain status, skill or perk, then it'll hide the information. In our case, they're usually to do with our divine parents. Some experimenting with water had me reveal a couple of my powers, so it won't prevent you from using them, but they won't be fully revealed until your mom claims you. And if there's a flaw that's locked with a Wisdom requirement, that would be your fatal flaw. Clarisse told me about those appearing in the old myths."

Piper let out an "Ah" of understanding and brought up her Skills page, judging from the tab up top that was highlighted.

Annabeth pulled up another window briefly before closing it with a frown, "Now you're ahead of me."

"Sorry that I was ambushed," I retorted sarcastically, making her wince. Then I calmed myself and explained, "If it makes you feel better, using Medusa's head on both of them only gave me a tenth of the XP. The Chimera was around fifty levels higher than me, and his mother was over seventy levels higher. If I could've cheated somehow to legitimately kill them, I'd have probably jumped several levels instead of just two."

"Not like you would've done better," Piper added in a frosty tone.

Annabeth rounded on her, challenge in her gray eyes, "What is that supposed to mean?"

"I tried to backstab Echidna and she caught me without even looking. Your invisibility would've been useless if she or her son could just smell or hear your position," Piper said.

Sitting up and visibly tensing for a fight, Annabeth retorted, "Well some of us actually have training for stealth instead of just tiptoeing and hoping for the best. What would you know about skill, being a damsel in distress?"

Frowning at the rising anger between them, I glanced at Grover, who looked like he was trying to blend in with the upholstery of his seat.

"You're one to talk!" Piper snapped. "I may not have seen everything past the Mist back on the bus, but it's obvious you were caught by the Fury and Percy cut you loose. Not to mention that it was your idea to go to the Arch in the first place!"

Sighing since he wasn't going to help break this up, I decided to nip it in the bud before somebody said something personal.

"I didn't need his help! And you can't understand the oppor-"

"It wouldn't have mattered," I interrupted, drawing both girls' attention to me. From their glares alone, I could see why Grover wanted to stay out of it.

But I had Gamer's Mind on my side as I continued, "Echidna said that His Majesty sent her to 'test' me with one of her children. But, while she kept to that at first and taunted me, it looked like she was going to abandon that plan when I hurt her baby boy."

I turned to Piper, "If it wasn't the Arch, it would've been any number of places while we were stuck in St. Louis for three hours, with him tracking us to set up the encounter. Echidna's manipulation of the Mist was so powerful that it's probably what got Grover and Annabeth inside the elevator at all, much less made them stay. Even I was affected without the Game letting me know since we got separated and I just let them go. You probably weren't because quests are supposed to be a party of three—the man upstairs probably thought you were just another civilian. None of us were at fault for being attacked."

"Z…" Annabeth muttered in shock with her anger forgotten. I looked at her as she tried to compute the actions that I just told her. "It was… But we're… How are we supposed to get the bolt for him if he's sending the Mother of Monsters to try killing you?! I figured it was another of Ha-"

"Shh," I reminded her, snapping Annabeth out of her downward spiral. "Names draw attention. Why do you think I've got a few nicknames for the king?"

Grover looked at me in concern, "Even if you came out on top, that must have been rough. Do you need a minute?"

"I knew from the beginning that there were two major gods that wanted me dead," I deadpanned. Then I tapped the side of my head to subtly indicate Gamer's Mind holding me together during the crises, "I took a minute while Annabeth was riding back up, and I'll take another when I'm not on their hit list."

"Let me get this straight," Piper said, causing me to turn back to her. "I think I might have missed the details of your quest before, besides preventing global divine war. You're traveling to retrieve Z- ahem, the King of the Gods' symbol of power. Whoever stole it wants you dead, since you mentioned two major gods wanting to kill you. And he decided to send a monster that only an immortal hundred-eyed giant has killed – while she was asleep, too – under the assumption that she wouldn't interfere if her son, the Chimera, was killed in battle?"

I shrugged, "That's about the size of it. Big Z is convinced that I'm the thief, so he hates me. But he wants me to get the bolt back to prove my innocence."

"…Why are you fighting for these guys again?" she asked me bluntly.

"They're all we've got," I sighed. "If the sun, moon, rain, seas, and harvest are controlled by them instead of science, then losing the gods would probably destabilize life as we know it. And again, the war itself would put the entire human race at risk."

"What about other pantheons?" Piper retorted while sulking in her chair. "My family has Cherokee blood—are the gods they worshipped back then still alive?"

I blinked in surprise, "Good question. But I'd wager if there are other pantheons, then those that followed Western Civilization here to the US – or never left in the case of Native American gods – probably have clearly defined territories. Whether by divine law or the gods' own actions, that's probably best. And that makes the prospect of a global war even worse if those territories end up crossed. Could you imagine two Gods of Thunder or the Sea duking it out? It'd be a disaster."

"Percy, don't be ridiculous," Annabeth scoffed.

I looked to her with a shrug, "Almost died today, so I'm feeling very open-minded. I'm not saying that I believe it wholeheartedly, just that Chiron himself said 'Immortal means immortal, whether people choose to believe or not.' I didn't believe in any of the Greek myths before fighting one outside of camp, but they still came for me anyway. A python in preschool, a cyclops in elementary, and several other repressed memories that I only remembered the evening right before that time."

She opened her mouth, failed to come up with a counter, and closed it while looking out the window with an annoyed huff.

Piper hummed, not happy, but thoughtful as she mused, "Thinking it over, I guess my dad dragging me everywhere for his job was a blessing in disguise. Even if he had me watched by his secretary unless he had free time, and never turned off his cell phone even when he did watch me. Jane wanted to put me in a boarding school after his career took off, but he said I was too young to leave alone."

I grunted in sympathy since I often had to wait for my mom to get home with only Gabe as unwanted company in between when not at boarding school. Without her, year-round life at Camp Half-Blood was sounding more appealing every day.

Annabeth cleared her throat, drawing my attention along with Piper's annoyance. Grover scooted away, maybe having been whispering to her as he now looked at her meaningfully.

"Percy, there's something that I should say," she began evenly. "I… don't mean to cause so much friction on this quest. It's complicated."

I raised an eyebrow, curious about where she was going with this, "I'm listening."

"First there's you being the son of my mom's rival. But you showed you could give as good as you take in banter, so at least I didn't feel like I was kicking someone while they're unarmed," Annabeth listed. "Then you took the lead both with Piper and Medusa's lair, your power also being a hyperspace storage that saved our supplies and reality warping that reshaped the building before we could be turned to stone."

Piper was still glaring lightly at Annabeth, but she ignored it and continued, "And the instant I found out about this power and how it measures our abilities in stats and skills, I made the connection between it and your crack about my Charisma. For the record, that's why I asked if you controlled what was on the windows."

She sighed, "I'll admit, I envied you for getting this power since it's not related to any gods and could've gone to me. Quests are where you find out if you're any good after all the training done at camp, and I haven't felt very good about myself from what it's said about me."

"It pulls no punches," I explained with a shrug. "It mocks me too sometimes, and if a skill is fatal, it doesn't hesitate to tell me. The Viper-Beheading Strike literally has a caption that says, 'Instant death with successful hit on neck.' Because that's a pleasant image."

"And see, that makes you uncomfortable," Annabeth pointed out. "I wished that I could have the power at first, but after some time to think, it's probably best that I don't. I've seen you go into battle mode—if that comes with the game, then I'd probably never get out of that state."

A small window appeared in front of her, and I averted my eyes out of respect for her privacy, trying to process that she'd deduced the nature of Gamer's Mind when I hadn't mentioned it outright.

But I wasn't given time as Annabeth let out a more agitated groan and dismissed the window, adding, "This is why I think your game doesn't like me. It just said, and I quote, 'You acknowledged your shortcomings and admitted to being ill-suited for a certain power. You gained +2 to WIS and CHA. But due to [?], one CHA point was diverted to WIS.' It knows, but it won't tell me anything."

I shrugged helplessly, "If I controlled it, I would make it explain Bleeding Heart too. All I know for sure is that my actual, physical heart seems rather sensitive since I feel it throbbing at certain points. I don't think I should have heart problems at twelve years old, but it still happens."

"It's probably metaphorical," Annabeth pointed out. "If your heart was literally bleeding, you'd be dead in seconds to minutes depending on the size of the wound. A 'bleeding heart' refers to being soft-hearted, usually to dangerous levels. I guess the game accentuates that to where you feel your own reactions? It's not realistic anyway—the brain houses the emotional centers of the body, not the heart."

I looked at her incredulously, "You're saying that the Game considers it a flaw – a fatal one at that – for me to care about others?"

She shrugged, "Your flaw, not mine. If anything, I seem to have the opposite problem, and it's not even my fatal flaw."

"Is that why you said it was better that you weren't Player One?" I asked.

She seemed to briefly debate with herself before pulling up a window. I didn't try to read the backwards Greek, but I was surprised when she expanded a particular screen to cover the rest of whatever list she was on and turned it around to show me.

[Child Soldier]

[You've been forced to run and fight for a portion of your formative years, and only threw yourself into training ever since for five years after. While it's given you a boon in tactics and physicality, your social skills have suffered for it.]

- Logistics and Tactics level up 20% faster

- 20% penalty to CHA

- Can be overcome by making peace with the parties involved in the circumstances and yourself

Staring at the flaw for a moment, I sighed, "I can guess there's a story there, but I won't make you talk about it here and now. Just… if you ever want to, don't stop on my account. If my mom were here, she'd have you sat down with a cup of blue hot chocolate in record time. She wouldn't make you talk, but she can sense that sort of thing. And I'm probably biased, but you just want to let it out."

"Sounds like quite the woman," Annabeth replied carefully after closing the screen, fiddling with the ring on her necklace and turning it in her grasp. "Most demigods' human parents can't take the baggage we bring."

I made a point of not pushing the issue, since Clarisse explaining the beads painted a pretty awful picture already. One bead per year spent at Camp Half-Blood, five beads on Annabeth's necklace—and the Game explicitly said that she only got real training after being on the run for a while.

A window appeared in front of me, but Piper audibly took a deep breath and let it out, reminding me that she had been the one taking shots at Annabeth until the subject got changed. I set the notification aside by mentally switching to Focus Interface and glanced between the two, ready to intervene if I needed to.

"Do you have something to say, McLean?" Annabeth challenged, because of course she couldn't make it easy.

Piper met her gaze without flinching, "Yes. You 'don't mean to' cause problems? All I really heard just now were excuses, talking about why you have an attitude instead of admitting that it's wrong."

'Piper!' I mentally cursed as Annabeth's expression went from annoyed to angry. 'That's the W-word!'

"At no point did you actually apologize," she pointed out before Annabeth could say anything. That made her stop in surprise long enough for Piper to continue, "But considering I've literally seen proof of the impact on you from being on the run, I'll admit it's a real reason to have issues with opening up. But you know it shouldn't become another excuse."

Grover had extracted himself from the situation by facing half away from Annabeth and stress-eating jellybeans. He looked ready to start eating the plastic bag they were in as sweat was beading on his forehead. I was half a hair from jumping out of my seat to get between the two if either girl moved a muscle.

After a stare-down that felt like it stretched for whole minutes, Annabeth scoffed and took her architecture book out to resume reading. More than likely, even if it was pointed out to her, apologizing because Piper said she should was too much for her pride to bear.

Not needing to keep my eyes clear anymore, I shifted out of Focus Interface. A window appeared in front of Piper too, but I didn't even try to read it since I was just glad things hadn't escalated to an actual fight.

'Oooo-kay, at least these two have called something like a truce,' I silently reassured myself. 'Situation defused, for now.'

With that, I finally read the notification I got halfway through that chain of conversations.

[While a worldview cannot be completely changed in such a short time, you have proven yourself to be an exception to Annabeth Chase's norm and offered fresh perspective that she wouldn't expect from a child of Poseidon.]

- You have reclaimed +200 reputation with Annabeth Chase

An exception wasn't the highest of achievements, but I would take what I could get. At least it gave me more leeway so I didn't shift to Disliked with Annabeth. Calling up the Reputation page, I picked out Annabeth's name to double-check.

Annabeth Chase – Neutral (300/500)

I nodded in confirmation before closing the menu. Feeling eyes on me, I looked up to see Annabeth go back to her book.

Thankfully, there were no more incidents for the rest of the day and the following morning. I also took the time to buy the Man of Iron perk and distribute my stat points, though I kept the extra perk point in case one of the new perks I got could help out in an emergency. A new Strength perk had appeared on the tree, but it was a bit too focused on a physical build.

[Unstoppable Force]

[Once you get moving, woe to any in your path. The only limit to your charging is your own body's durability.]

- STR added to DEX for any rushes or tackles

While I had accepted that I would be physically-leaning in stats, I didn't want to make that my sole focus. Clarisse would probably be a big fan of this one if she could get it on her perk tree.

As for my base stats, I had fifteen points saved up, so I threw some points into Luck and gave myself a general buff for my other stats.

STR: 30 (+5) – 32 (+5)
VIT: 37 (+8) – 41 (+9)
DEX: 33 (+5) – 35 (+5)
INT: 27 – 29
WIS: 31 – 32
CHA: 26 – 28
LUCK: 17 (+1) – 20 (+1)

HP: 6700 (+1300) – 7300 (+1400)
MP: 2900 – 3050
SP: 7000 (+1300) – 7600 (+1400)

Honestly, reaching fifty points in Wisdom seemed so far away when I started out, and now I was over halfway. But even if the circumstances could be better, this quest was probably why I had so many opportunities to grow—both because of the levels and the extra points from special actions.

We got to Denver on the afternoon of June 14th—seven nights and six days left to the solstice. To save money, we skipped dinner after our snacks and had breakfast in the dining car, but passed on lunch. And while we had managed to somewhat clean ourselves in the bathroom sink on the train, our last full shower was back at Camp Half-Blood, which was probably getting obvious.

All together, we probably looked like a gang of runaway kids in over their heads. Which, to be fair, the second part of that wasn't wrong. At least we had our backpacks visible so we didn't look homeless.

"I need to use the bathroom," Piper abruptly said.

Annabeth turned to her, "Why didn't you go on the train?"

"I can't control when I need to go," she retorted before turning to me. "Percy, come with me and stand guard outside the station's restroom?"

I nodded with a shrug and followed her around the station. Letting any one of us go alone was just asking for trouble. The restroom doors were right beside each other, so it was probably a single-person space for each of them.

Piper went in and I leaned against the wall nearby to keep watch for any monsters or other outlying levels. I also started using Analyze on random objects (usually getting the model and year of a car) and passersby (name, level and occupation) to try leveling the skill up, but didn't get far before hearing a flush.

With that giving me inspiration, I tapped into Water Control slightly to try sensing out the water lines around me. Being able to draw on water in a city could be handy as an emergency defense. Tapping my foot, I tried to "pulse" my sense down and outward like a repeating wave and felt myself sync with water lines crisscrossing the city. I could even feel the plumbing of the bathroom behind me.

[You learned how to sense water that you cannot see. While not a skill in itself, learning a new facet of Water Control only helps fine-tune your ability.]

- You gained +1 to WIS

- Bonus XP to Water Control

I nodded in satisfaction and pushed off of the wall as Piper emerged from the bathroom. But instead of heading back, she looked around before turning to me.

"We need to talk," she said.

I raised an eyebrow, "About?"

"Annabeth," Piper said, continuing before I could say a word. "Percy, friendship is a two-way street. I haven't seen her give you the same respect you give her. She doesn't acknowledge you as a hero, given how she chalked up your win against Echidna to luck."

"It was lucky that we had run into Medusa first and I still had her head as an instant win," I replied. "If I didn't, we'd have both been dead."

"That's not the point," she continued. "You've saved me twice, you saved her too when Medusa almost turned us to stone, and she still acts like it's some kind of contest she's falling behind in. Almost all of her excuses earlier had you compared to her. And it's not healthy for either of you if you enable her by downplaying yourself. You shouldn't feel like you have to jump through hoops just to keep her from getting mad."

I shook my head, "Piper, what you've seen so far is just me trying to keep the peace and not make waves while we're saving the world. I'll admit that it sounds bad when you put it like that, but we have bigger fish to fry. I didn't think I was giving her any special treatment—just verbal sparring within reason and not picking unnecessary fights."

Piper crossed her arms with a huff, "It's still unequal, and I'm worried about you. Percy, I've already seen that you're willing to take hits just to keep us safe. I don't want you getting hurt protecting her if she gets in over her head just because she has something to prove."

Sighing, I replied, "I'm flattered that you'd defend me, Piper, but we still need to work with Annabeth for the quest. I didn't like her when she joined, and I knew that I could turn her down when she volunteered, but she's at least as invested in this quest as I am. She'd knife any monster attacking us because we're on a mission. I'll work with her now and equal friendship can come later."

"Well, I'm not convinced," she grumbled while lowering her arms. "She could be putting more heart into this team."

"As a tip, something I've found from working with her: You can't just say that she's wrong," I explained. "I'd imagine that's a bad button to push for any child from the Goddess of Wisdom. You need to present your side and support it with facts. She's too smart to cling to outdated or inaccurate information, but she needs to see for herself that it's that way instead of being told to do it."

"How is that supposed to help?" Piper asked.

I shrugged before turning to lead the way back to Grover and Annabeth, "She does care somewhere in that big brain of hers. But from what I've seen, she hasn't really taken the chance to express that. Only one person really softens her guard, and she doesn't seem like she's about to close that gap anytime soon. Knowing a better angle for her to at least hear you out is a start, right?"

We went back to the front of the station, but only Grover was still around, and he looked anxious to see us. It didn't take long for me to put two and two together.

"She slipped away, didn't she?" I asked in a flat tone.

Grover shut his eyes with a regretful mutter of "Sorry… She put on her cap saying she was going to scout the area, and she went downwind to make it harder for me to follow her direct scent. Annabeth knows tricks to losing trackers; she could be anywhere in this city block or the next."

I could feel Piper pointedly looking at me, but ignored that to say, "Well, if looking for her is out, then we wait."

A few minutes passed, and Grover scented the air before turning in a specific direction. Annabeth appeared a moment later, taking off her cap to become visible.

"Find anything of value?" I asked.

She shook her head, "Nothing that would help us move further west. No bounties or cheaper ways of moving on. If your power pulls lost money for the monsters to drop, we might need to get more to use the train again."

"And you didn't take Grover with you, because…?"

Annabeth answered, "For all that demigods' scent can attract monsters, satyrs can too. I could do better invisible recon by myself."

"And you didn't take any detours?" Piper skeptically questioned.

Crossing her arms, Annabeth countered, "Why would you think I was doing anything else?"

"Because I'm getting the feeling that you still don't trust me," I chimed in with an annoyed tone.

Annabeth grimaced slightly, but said, "I do, a little." Then she seemed to mentally kick herself and added, "You're… very forthright and don't strike me as-"

Piper interrupted, "But you don't trust me with him."

The two girls glared at each other, and I spoke up to cut off any argument before it could start, "Girls, focus. The train has gotten us as far as it's going to for now, so we need another way forward."

Annabeth shook her head for a moment and then turned to me, "That report you sent to Chiron should've arrived a while back, his response should already be on its way."

"Then let's see what we can find for dinner around here," I offered. "We still have a bit of money and it's no good monster-hunting on an empty stomach."

We left the station and Annabeth pointed us in the general direction of downtown Denver for the sorts of places we would be able to afford and not stick out too much in general. Piper was as far as she could get from Annabeth without falling behind, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. Having been invisible and prevented Grover from following her, Annabeth could've easily doubled back and followed us.

Looking up into the sky, I silently prayed to no one in particular that the two of them wouldn't wind up actually fighting. But a speck of motion caught my eye and I glanced at it for a moment before immediately looking back. It was too still for a bird and too close to the tops of the buildings to be a plane.

After I had spotted it, the speck in the sky started zooming towards me and became clearer as it approached, drawing the others' attention too. When it revealed itself as a paper airplane with some sort of symbol on one of its wings, I had a moment to remember that Gamer's Mind didn't let hallucinations affect me before it closed the distance. The nose of the plane hit me right on the center of the forehead, dropping to the ground afterwards, letting me see that it had Hermes' caduceus stamp on it.

As I picked it up, the paper unfolded by itself into a crisp envelope that you wouldn't be able to tell was just bent and folded into origami, Hermes' seal in the corner now. The space where the address would be said "Percy Jackson, United States – en route to Los Angeles from New Jersey."

"There's our reply," Annabeth noted. "Not overnight express, but the next best level."

I looked over the envelope and asked, "This has been trying to find us? How would a paper airplane track us down when we're actively traveling?"

"It would've checked every major city between Los Angeles and New Jersey until it found you or just gone back to LA," Annabeth explained. "Specifying the United States and an expected destination actually does narrow it down for the Messenger of the Gods."

"Not as instant as Iris-messaging, but better when the receiver is moving," Grover added.

"The Goddess of Rainbows?" Piper asked. Then she shrugged, "I guess she's a messenger of the gods too."

I opened the envelope and unfolded the paper inside, but made a note to ask about Iris-messaging later.

"Is it from Chiron?" Annabeth asked hopefully.

I glanced at the bottom and answered "Clarisse." With that, I read the letter.

"Jackson, good to hear you're still kicking. Have to say, that's some bad luck even if you made it out the other end.

"Someone blabbed about the standoff between Zeus and Poseidon. Cabins have started taking sides and Chiron has had to break up a fight more than once. I won't get into too many details – you need to keep your head in the game – but Cabin Five's standing with your dad.

"Also, Chiron and I had compared letters to combine our response. He says 'The Fates work in mysterious ways. Keep moving forward with courage in your heart, and the path will become clear.' I mean, he's not wrong, but it'd be nice to have some clear direction sometimes.

"Anyway, between you and me, my prayers are with you—and I guess Grover, Princess and the newbie by extension if they're reading this with you. Chase is certainly nosy enough.


"PS – Castellan heard about my and Chiron's letters and asked me to pass on a message. He hopes that the shoes he gave you are helping."

"Seems that Clarisse is doing what she can," Piper commented. Then she glanced at Annabeth, "Also, 'Princess'?"

"Don't you start," Annabeth warned.

I folded the letter and warped it to my inventory out of habit, "Clarisse didn't seem worried about anybody reading this without me."

"Tampering with the mail is still a federal crime, right?" Annabeth asked.

I raised an eyebrow, "Yeah?"

"So, imagine the fate waiting for the poor fool that tampers with Hermes' mail," she pointed out with a dry look. "After it's opened by the recipient, it's fair game, but not before."

"…Wow, okay. That's fair," I granted. "What happens?"

"Nobody knows," Grover answered. "The most popular theory is lifetime servitude in his mailroom. And for the record, he doesn't just deliver mail. Artifacts, artwork, magic items, monsters—Hermes would deliver anything to anywhere and anyone for the right price. He even tracked down and delivered an escaped soul back to the Underworld once."

Piper nodded, "Oh right, Sisyphus."

Annabeth continued the explanation, "The point is that nobody has the nerve to even try finding out what happens since the best-case scenario is 24/7/365 sorting of such deadly items for divine postage. And it's highly unlikely that they'd be immune to getting hurt even if they wouldn't die from 'occupational hazards.'"

I nodded, "Well, our only advice is to keep moving forward, so I guess we'll just get dinner and hope for the best."

It didn't take much longer to find a diner, even if Piper and Grover weren't thrilled about the main dish being burgers. Piper sat next to me right after I scooted into an open booth, and I felt like it was a girl thing as she smiled a bit too innocently. Annabeth looked a bit annoyed as she scooted in on the other side and Grover got in after her. I could only assume that Piper's goal was either to be closer to me or further away from Annabeth—maybe both.

[You're beginning to understand the subtle and less-than-subtle moves of the opposite gender.]

- You gained +1 to CHA

I quickly closed that window in the hopes that nobody noticed it. It was easy to forget the Game's attitude sometimes.

The arriving waitress was skeptical that we could pay, but Annabeth pulled two fives and a handful of ones from her backpack as proof and she took our order. We were able to order two baskets of fries to fill up—no need to worry about fattening up with all the fighting and running we had to do. Luckily, water was complimentary too.

But when our fries arrived, an engine rumbling blasted through the air and felt like it shook the very building itself. Our attention snapped to the window facing outside as the chatter of various families went silent.

A giant of a man who looked like he could bench-press a bus was riding a Harley at least twice as big as normal. The headlight glowed red and there were actual shotguns fastened to the sides in holsters. By that point, the flames on the gas tank seemed almost unnecessary for intimidation. Especially since the off-white leather on his seat looked like it was made from human skin, even if I couldn't tell how I knew that.

The man got off and approached the diner, making his appearance more visible. A black leather duster that went down to his thighs, leaving a large hunting knife strapped to one side of his black jeans partially exposed and a dark red shirt under the coat. Wraparound sunglasses completely covered his eyes, the lenses dark red, and his clean-shaven face had visible scars on both sides. His black hair was in a crewcut, the top slightly longer.

The instant he opened the door, all the diners stood up as if in a trance while a hot, dry wind blew through. He waved his hand in dismissal, and they sat back down before conversation slowly resumed. Even without that clear show of power, the new arrival was in range for his caption to appear overhead in my sight. He wasn't even trying to hide it.


[Lv. ?]

Walking straight to our booth, he casually tapped a fist on the table – briefly rattling our baskets and cups – and the table and benches on both sides extended. With that, he sat down on the opposite side from me and Piper, ignoring how Annabeth and Grover were pressed closer to the wall even with the extra length.

The waitress, who had been standing nearby after dropping off our food, appeared to treat Ares as if he'd already been there.

"Your order?"

He didn't even look at her as he said, "Put it on my bill."

She stared at him for a moment, and Ares gave her an uncaring glance before pointing a finger at her. The waitress spun on her heel as if forced to and robotically walked away. As the God of War looked at me, even from behind his glasses, a message passed across my vision.

[Effects of Wrath Aura negated by Gamer's Mind.]

"Lord Ares," I greeted while mentally dismissing the window.

Ares let out a chuckle, "Not even a twitch, but cut the 'Lord' business—I don't care about that so long as you know who's in charge. So, you're ol' Seaweed's kid. Don't see why you've got my daughter's eye, but it's the first time in a while I got a prayer for anything but battle."

"Is that why you're here?" I asked.

He snorted, "Hardly. But I can kill two birds with one stone by dropping in."

The waitress returned with two baskets of onion rings along with four chocolate shakes and four cheeseburgers. Even though Grover and Piper didn't look too thrilled, they also didn't seem eager to point out that they were vegetarians to the God of War.

Ares passed some golden drachmas to the waitress, who looked down at them and hesitated, "But, these aren't-"

The god casually took out his hunting knife to clean his fingernails, "Problem, sweetheart?"

She left in a hurry after that, and honestly, at least Ares actually paid for the meal instead of just wiping her memory or worse. Still, I felt like I had to speak up, "Not very warrior-like to threaten civilians."

"What're you talking about? I was just grooming," he replied with a smirk. "It's a dangerous world, and everyone should carry a weapon—one of the reasons I love this country. Not my fault she's spineless."

"If not for Clarisse, why are you here?" I asked, deciding to get to the point.

He sheathed his knife and took off his sunglasses to set on the table, revealing his "eyes" to be literal fireballs, like a constant explosion for each socket, "I've got a proposition for you. I know about your quest and heard you were in town. Do me a favor, and I'll get you further along."

I raised an eyebrow, wondering if this sort of thing was what Chiron meant, "And that favor is?"

"See, I was on a little… date with my girlfriend," Ares explained, the word practically filled with suggestion. "We were interrupted, and I realized that I left my shield behind afterwards."

I met his gaze and thought over my answer, "…Well, if there was a monster that had interrupted or made that park its nest since then, I'm sure you would've gladly killed it yourself and mounted its head on your wall. Is there a particular reason that you don't want to get the shield?"

Ares laughed as he shook his head, "Let me clue you in, seahorse. You'll meet a lot of my extended family and some monsters that only want you to do something 'cause they don't feel like doing it themselves. Sure, a minority of the times it's because of thunderhead's non-interaction laws with our kids that gods can't help directly for free, but don't get your hopes up."

"And if we have a plan to move forward already?" I calmly retorted.

"Quite the balls to try turning down a request from a god. Think I'm starting to get why my daughter's sizing you up," the God of War replied with a toothy grin. "Don't make me think less of you when you haven't backed down yet. I can sense that you've been blooded with life-or-death battle already. Hard to believe you took down both the mutt and his mother, but all's fair in war."

I frowned since that confirmed that the gods were watching very closely at the Arch.

Ares continued, "How's about I give you some intel to sweeten the deal? When the bolt went missing, Pops sent his best out to find it. Owl-Brain, the Wonder Twins, and yours truly. I have a thing for weapons, and if I couldn't sense it out, you're in an uphill battle. Still, I'm giving you a chance instead of writing you off since your dad and I go way back. I was the one who told him Corpse Breath probably had the bolt. Framing someone to start a war between your enemies is the oldest trick in the book."

Then he shrugged, "But I know what you really care about, and I happen to have some information you could use. It's about your mom."

My heart jumped in my chest before going still. I knew Ares had left that for last on purpose—he wanted a reaction from me.

His smug smirk told me that he knew I was hooked, but he didn't say anything else.

"…Where is it?" I asked.

Ares picked up his sunglasses and pointed them towards the window, "An abandoned water park out west on Delancy—can't miss it. Look for the Tunnel of Love ride."

I looked at him skeptically as he donned his shades again, "If it wasn't a monster, care to share what 'interrupted' your date?"

He just smirked and said, "I'll meet you back here when you're done."

After that, my vision went distorted for a second, but I still saw the moment Ares vanished and the booth returned to its original length. A pair of notifications popped up a moment later.

[Hypnotized status negated by Gamer's Mind.]

[You toed the line of attitude and respect with a god that only values strength and thus can't stand kissing up.]

- You gained +1 to CHA

- You gained +10 reputation with Ares

I closed them and checked out the window to see that even his god-sized motorcycle had vanished. Turning back to the others, I asked, "What do you all think?"

Grover spoke up, "Even if you get along well enough with Clarisse, it's not a good sign that Ares sought you out, Percy."

"I think we don't have much choice," Annabeth replied. "I don't like Ares, but you don't reject quests given to you by gods unless you want to be cursed. You know that."

Her eyes not-so-subtly indicated Piper, and she frowned in response. But that reminded me, and I pulled up my Quests tab to see that there was no new quest, unlike when Piper's mom contacted me. On a hunch I pulled up my Prophetic Quest and found the current objective.

Prophetic Quest: Storms and Shadows

You have been chosen to undertake the quest of retrieving Zeus' master bolt to prevent a civil war of Olympus. The prophecy is thusly:

You shall go west, and face the god who has turned.
You shall find what was stolen and see it safely returned.
You shall be betrayed by one who calls you a friend.
You shall fail to save what matters most, in the end.

Current objective: Continue west to Los Angeles

Reward upon Completion: 1,000 XP, +250 reputation with Camp Half-Blood, Reputation raised to Neutral (50/500) with Olympus

Penalty for Failure: Death – or worse – and the destruction of the world

I closed it after verifying that there was no confirmation of Ares being directly involved with the prophecy. No direction on which to choose—the Game would only give me direct objectives without specifying how.

"This'll be faster than gathering the funds to take the train again, so we'd better eat up and get moving," I decided.

Of course, Piper and Grover didn't want the burgers, so they focused on the sides while Annabeth and I had two burgers apiece. After clearing our plates and putting the leftover fries and onion rings into my inventory – Annabeth wanted to test if they would stay hot in there, something about putting items in stasis – we gave ourselves a few minutes to let the food settle and then headed out in the direction Ares indicated.

It was already almost nighttime when we found the padlocked park gate, metal bar doors with solid walls on either side. Though the barbed wire on top was a bit much, in my opinion. The sign looked like it said WATERLAND once, but with the missing letters, it only read "WAT R A D".

I glanced at Annabeth, "Do you happen to know how to pick locks? Either one of us could just cut down the padlock, but that might draw too much attention."

"I could probably figure it out," she granted. "But why not try using your power? If you change this place like the last one, then we should be able to get past the gate."

"A couple of reasons," I said. "One, this should be a simple sneak-and-grab and doesn't need to be complicated. Two, while there's always a chance we might be watched when the gods are involved, using it right after talking to one of them seems like a bad way to keep secret powers secret."

Annabeth hummed as if willing to give me that and looked around before finding and taking a thin metal nail off the ground nearby. She then rummaged through the outer pockets of her backpack before pulling out a bobbing pin. If she had vials for taking samples and labels for those containers, I could see her taking along a bobbing pin "just in case."

As Annabeth began fiddling with the padlock, I asked, "So this is your first time doing this?"

"I read the theory once a while back, but the only locks around camp are locked for a reason, not to mention property of the gods," she replied.

"That's fair."

After a moment longer, the padlock popped open. Annabeth took it and the chain down before leaving them on the ground. We would probably have to put it back up on our way out. As we walked through the rapidly darkening park, I looked around at the various attractions—Ankle Biter Island, Head Over Wedgie, and Dude, Where's My Swimsuit?

"So, aside from weird ride names, what would keep a god from coming back here?" I asked to fill the silence.

Annabeth replied, "It might be a problem that requires brains. Ares might have strength, but that's all he has. Even power has to bow to wisdom sometimes."

"Putting aside your bias, I wouldn't be so sure about that," I retorted while still looking around. "The guy is the God of War, so he's not just a warrior, he's the warrior. War includes tactics, and it might not be his direct domain, but he wouldn't be a complete meathead either."

I could practically hear her roll her eyes, "You're just saying that because of Clarisse."

I turned to glance at her, "Maybe, but considering I actually took the time to get to know her, which of us has more information in that regard? Assumptions aren't the best source to go off of."

Annabeth frowned while not saying anything. I wanted to make her think, but her cabin's rivalry with the Ares cabin went up to their parents. I wasn't about to poke that hornet nest.

As we passed a souvenir shop that still had merchandise on the shelves and racks inside, Annabeth immediately made a beeline for it. Turned out the door wasn't even locked.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

She looked back at me and pointed inside, "Fresh clothes."

"But we can't just-"

"Watch me," Annabeth interrupted before heading inside. From the doorway, I saw her snag a bunch of shirts and head for the changing room.

"Sorry, Percy," Piper apologized as she hesitantly entered as well. "But I don't even have a spare outfit and have been wearing this for days."

Grover looked at me and shrugged before we waited by the entrance. A notification appeared in front of me as we waited.

[While not actively participating, you let your party members steal clothing for use during your quest.]

- You gained +5 to Pragmatic alignment

I rolled my eyes while dismissing it. At least this place was long-closed and thus didn't have any money in the register. Annabeth probably could and would take it for funds on our quest.

"So, who's the Bachelor of War's choice of date?" I asked Grover.

"Aphrodite," he said a little dreamily. "The Goddess of Love."

That tidbit of information tickled an old memory, and I thought about it, "Isn't she married?"

"Your point?" Grover asked in slight deadpan.

Ah, right. You didn't have to dig far in Greek myth to find affairs. But there was something else that I felt like I was forgetting. Shame there wasn't any way to access my memories and search for the one I needed. Maybe Eidetic Library would've helped with that, but I could probably remember it myself.

'All right, who's Aphrodite's actual husband?' I thought to myself. 'She was causing quite a stir when she arrived at Olympus, all the gods wanted to marry her, even dad and Zeus, who already had wives by then. Except Hades, who doesn't have a full-time throne on Olympus. But who did she wind up with? I remember thinking that it was kind of funny because the hottest goddess wound up with-'

I put the brakes on that train of thought since I remembered and didn't want to insult someone who could find out.

"The God of Forges," I said to myself before turning to Grover. "She's married to him. Wasn't there some sort of big affair about the whole thing?"

A notification briefly passed across my vision, saying that I got an INT point for recalling the piece of trivia.

At that point, Annabeth exited the doorway with Piper as she apparently caught the tail end of my conversation. Both were dressed head-to-toe in Waterland merch, red shirt for Annabeth and purple for Piper while they wore floral and wave-patterned shorts, respectively. Both had also loaded their bags – Annabeth's backpack and Piper's purse – with more supplies.

"That's three-thousand-year-old gossip, Percy," Annabeth answered. "While both were muscular, apparently Aphrodite prefers roguish warriors to skilled craftsmen."

Piper chimed in distastefully, "The Goddess of Love is that shallow?"

Annabeth briefly turned to her, "Both were pretty much hitched instantly with no chance for feelings either way, mostly to keep the other gods from losing their heads or fighting for her. Anyway, Hephaestus caught her and Ares in the act—literally, with a golden net. When he exposed them to the other Olympians, they just laughed at the compromising and humiliating position the two were in."

"So, he knows about them?" I asked curiously while leading the way to continue.

Grover shrugged, "Not like it's her only affair, just the most widely known."

"I guess that's why they met here instead of for the ambiance," I noted.

Piper was unhappy with the subject as she said, "If the gods are real, maybe there's more to this than the legends? With so many interpretations, the only way to know for sure would be to ask them."

"Depending on the god or goddess and the legend, that's asking for trouble," I replied seriously. "And that's if they'd even tell the truth instead of making themselves look better than they were since even I know in passing that the Olympians in general can be very proud. Some of them might, others might not."

"We're here," Annabeth abruptly cut in.

We stopped and looked forward to see a large bowl that might have been a pool once, at least fifty yards across. Around a dozen bronze cupid statues lined the rim with their wings spread and bows aimed upward. There was a tunnel towards the bottom that the water likely went into for the ride, making this look more like a giant water slide entrance. Sure enough, the sign said, "THRILL RIDE O' LOVE: THIS IS NOT YOUR PARENTS' TUNNEL OF LOVE!"

Grover got my attention and pointed out a pink and white two-seated boat with a canopy up top and hearts painted all over the hull. In one of the seats, there was a glint of bronze that definitely looked like a shield.

"This is too easy," I immediately decided in suspicion.

Annabeth stepped up and approached one of the cupid statues, "Took the words right out of my mouth."

She squatted down next to the statue, looking closely as she activated her Analyze skill. It shouldn't have surprised me that her own window was bigger than any I had gotten since she had more knowledge about construction and probably other trivia. Whatever it was didn't appear to give her any confirmation, so she walked over to the next cupid statue and checked it over before apparently using Analyze again.

I took my own look at the one she left and saw an "Η" engraved on the side.

"I don't see anything out of the ordinary outside of those letters, and that's suspicious in itself," Annabeth grumbled as she returned. "If I took the time to circle around, I bet there'd be the same letter on all of these statues. It could be a brand logo, but none I recognize. Smells like a trap."

Pursing my lips in thought, I added, "You said Mr. Fix-It is Ms. Valentine's husband, and he knows about all this. Could he have gotten here first? H for his name?"

She immediately stood back up and held her arms out to back all of us away from the edge.

"Oh, this is definitely a trap," Annabeth hissed. "This area must have been rigged before Ares and Aphrodite even got here. My best guess would be either pressure plates for weight or… force exerted, or perhaps tripwires attached to select structures for the same. Hephaestus' machines must have been what 'interrupted.'"

"Okay, you're the one who said to not drop names casually, along with Mr. D himself. Could you please take your own advice and come up with some nicknames?" I asked while looking around, expecting to get cursed out of nowhere.

"Using them carelessly or insulting the gods tends to anger them," she retorted with her tone indicating that I should know this. "Past events and habits or legends everyone knows about the gods are fair game."

I sighed in annoyance, "Well, we still need to get the shield or we're not getting anywhere fast."

"Do you happen to have something to yank it out from a distance?" Annabeth asked. "Because if not, we'll be here all night checking every inch forward for any triggers so we don't get tangled up in a trap made to contain gods."

"I could fly in, grab it and leave before the trap can get me," Grover suggested.

"…Last resort," I replied. "Don't want you getting hurt if we can avoid it, Grover."

Thinking over what I could do without being too obvious in case I was being watched, I realized that if this was a water slide, there had to be tanks to fill it up.

"Good thing this is a water park," I muttered before extending my senses to the plumbing of the ride. Breaking open a valve to release water from one of the spouts in the dome, I called it to me and gathered gallons around my forearm all at once. As I pulled more and focused to hold it together, wanting something long, stretchy and flexible, the blob of liquid stabilized into a pillar a little wider than my arm with a tapered end. It also became easier to maintain subconsciously, and a message crossing my vision explained why.

[You've created a new skill through a special action.]

[Water Construct – Tentacle (Lv. 1)—Active]

[Special cost: 50 MP per gallon used, per tentacle created; 1000 MP per tentacle renewed]

[Duration before renewal: 1 minute]

[Embrace your inner cephalopod as you use these liquid limbs to slap, grapple or even drown your foes.]

- Son of Poseidon is active so long as at least one tentacle is formed around limb/body

- Surface tension is controlled by will to grapple target or submerge within

- Maximum length of each tentacle dependent on volume of water

- Warning! Water Constructs conduct electricity

So that meant my Special Status would slow down the depletion of my MP. Good to know, but time was wasting. I dismissed the message and switched to focus interface to be ready if and when the trap sprung. But first, I reached as far as I could to the space beside us to see if I had enough water to get to the boat in the bottom of the bowl. The tentacle thinned as it stretched and I controlled it to bend in multiple places, making sure it wouldn't fall apart on me.

Annabeth apparently was able to calculate the reach I had from my demonstration and said, "You're good. Get the shield and we'll get out of here."

The boat was still stuck with only one spout releasing its water, so I aimed and shot the end of the tentacle towards the seats, wanting to submerge the shield and then hold it inside the water before reeling it in.

Contact was made with no issue, but when I pulled back there was an abrupt grinding noise sounding like hundreds of gears turning all at once. Thankfully, Gamer's Mind kept me from losing focus and I finished retrieving the shield. Dropping it into my hands along with something else that had been floating in the water, I dismissed the tentacle and we immediately ran away.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw the cupid statues firing golden threads in arcs over the pool and was grateful they didn't seem to realize there was nobody there yet. The glare of several spotlights turning on lit up the area above the pool, and a loudspeaker announced, "Live to Olympus in one minute…"

It continued counting down and we were already halfway to the gate. Piper started lagging, but Grover picked her up piggyback style and barely lost any speed. Even with his fake feet in the way, he could run well as a satyr.

When we reached the gate, Annabeth and I closed it and she refastened the chain before clipping on the padlock, not caring that it didn't look exactly as it had before. The countdown reached zero, but there was no further alarm or trap going off. The four of us rapidly hid against the walls on either side of the gate as a pair of spotlights searched through the bars.

The lights retreated, and I chanced a peek inside to see the glow reaching a bit into the sky vanish as the cameras apparently turned off. Finally looking down to see what else I had grabbed, I saw a pink silk scarf—probably Aphrodite's.

Piper had gotten down from Grover's back next to me and plucked the accessory from where it was tucked in my arm, "Hey, can I have this?"

Annabeth started crossing over from the other side of the gate and saw the scarf, "That's potent love magic. You shouldn't mess with it."

"I'm not going to wear it," Piper countered while stuffing the scarf into her paisley purse. "But it might come in handy as a distraction if it's really that strong."

Since things seemed to settle down with that, I deactivated Focus Interface and everybody got a notification in front of them. I read my own while everyone else probably did the same.

[By working smarter instead of harder, you avoided a trap and remained undetected.]

- You gained +1 to WIS

[You sprinted for quite a distance in a short period of time.]

- You gained +1 to VIT

I nodded and closed the windows before looking around at everyone else ready to go, "Well, let's return this shield and move on."

As he said he would, Ares was waiting for us in front of the diner, standing beside his bike with a smirk. There was a blue nylon backpack hanging on the handlebar closer to him now.

I tossed the shield at him when we were a few feet away, "Was this whole thing some kind of test, or did you just think it was funny to send us into what you knew was a trap?"

"It can be both," he replied in an amused tone while looking over the shield to make sure it was undamaged. "Gotta say, didn't expect you to dodge it entirely—the ol' grease monkey must be slipping. Given the water running on the broadcast, I'm guessing you snatched it with that from outside the pool, seahorse?"

Ares tossed the shield like pizza dough and it morphed into a bulletproof vest midflight before landing in his hand. Pointing behind us, he indicated an eighteen-wheel truck across the street and added, "There's your ride west. It'll take you all the way to LA with only one stop in Vegas."

There was writing on the back that said KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL: HUMANE ZOO TRANSPORT along with a warning of live animals inside the truck.

I turned forward again to face the god with a deadpan, "You're serious."

As he snapped his fingers to unlock the latch, Ares smirked, "What, were you expecting a limo? It's a free ride west, so don't complain." He took the backpack off of his bike's handlebar and tossed it to me.

After I caught it, I looked inside to see twenty dollars in cash, a set of fresh clothes for each of us, a small bag of golden drachmas and a pack of Double-Stuf Oreos. When I looked back at Ares, he said, "Think of it as a tip for an entertaining evening."

[Effects of Wrath Aura negated by Gamer's Mind.]

So, he was deliberately trying to get a reaction from me now. Well, I wouldn't humor him, so I put the smaller backpack in my own bag while dismissing the message and nodded.

Ares shrugged and turned towards his bike to hang his bulletproof vest on the handlebars, "Oh, just one more thing before I hold up the other end of the deal."

The next instant passed in a blur, even Gamer's Mind not enough to prepare me. Before any of us knew it, Ares closed the distance between us and had his combat knife swinging for Annabeth's neck. The blade froze just in time to lightly brush against her skin, but the wave of force from his speed alone let us know that it had been his iron control that spared Annabeth's life. A tangible wave of his very presence shot out afterwards, leaving everyone else shivering while locked in place.

[Effects of Intimidate were negated due to Gamer's Mind]

I dismissed the message in a hurry and saw Annabeth's eyes dart between Ares' arm and the god's sunglasses.

"Where was your precious wisdom right there, blondie?" he asked with a malicious smirk. "Gotta think faster before you can even be in the same league as a god, because your head was about to become my trophy. At least seahorse managed to draw his weapon."

It was only at that point that I realized Riptide was held in a white-knuckled grip in my right hand, my thumb on the cap to flick it off and unsheathe it.

Ares continued, "Owl-Brain can think several steps ahead of me, and even she knows to never underestimate me in the field of battle. Meanwhile, you're still riding the buzz of a three-year-old victory against my daughter. Try a one-on-one rematch—see what happens."

Ares removed his knife from Annabeth's neck and chuckled when she had to steady herself to stay on her feet. Sheathing his blade, he said, "You're just lucky I happen to like some attitude in small doses. It's entertaining. And you won't be the last to think the God of War is all bloodlust and no brains. Honestly, that reputation just makes it easier for me to kill anyone dumb enough to get in my way."

With that, he turned to walk back to his bike and sat astride on the seat while looking at me, "Now, the news about your mom. You sure you can take it, seahorse?"

"If it's something besides what I already know, then I want to hear it," I replied.

"Suit yourself," the God of War shrugged. "She ain't dead."

My heart didn't react as strongly as before, since Chiron had also avoided confirming for sure that she was dead. Regardless, I took a breath to keep calm and asked, "Then what happened?"

"Unlike monsters, mortals don't turn into anything when they die—just a corpse," Ares continued. "Not unless they're transformed by a third party. Right before she could be killed, she was collected. Three guesses on why."

"A hostage," I noted to myself.

"Got it in one," he waved his finger around in mocking celebration for a moment. "Keep somebody as leverage, and you can control somebody else."

"And I guess it'd be wishful thinking that my dad saved her," I guessed.

Ares laughed, "That's a good one! Try not to die, kid—I'll see you around."

With a rev of his bike that rattled my bones from the sheer noise, the God of War took off down the road. At that point, Annabeth let out a full-body shudder and was the most openly shaken I'd ever seen her.

A notification passed across my view, but I set it aside by switching to Focus Interface and approached her. Grover was already nearby while Annabeth gathered herself, and Piper was keeping a respectful distance.

After managing to bring her shaking under control, Annabeth quietly admitted, "…Okay, you were right, good call about not using you-know-what."

I patted her on the shoulder and idly commented, "Well, if he was listening closely, then he already heard about a secret power. But knowing him – or at least knowing Clarisse – his only concern would be if it could give him a better fight. Being an immortal warrior whose literal lifeblood is battle, I imagine it's been a long time since he's had a challenge."

"Percy, I have to ask," Grover began, "how do you stay so calm? I can sense his emotion aura, so I can tell that he makes everyone around him angry and violent. Heck, he tried directly wrapping it around you just a few moments ago. The only reason I haven't been affected is I'm too afraid of him to get angry."

"Same," Piper admitted awkwardly. Annabeth didn't have to since her experience spoke for itself.

"I have a counter," I replied while tapping my head. I didn't want to say anything else in case Ares or anyone else was listening. Taking a moment to check the logged notification, I saw that it was just a reputation boost.

[You have the passing interest of the God of War, for better or worse.]

- You gained +20 reputation with Ares.

Grover spoke up at that point, "Guys, if we're going to take this ride, we might have to hurry."

Closing the window and following his gesturing hand towards the glass door of the diner, we saw two men in coveralls paying at the register. The emblem on their backs matched the Kindness International truck.

Rushing to the unlocked back doors of the semi, I opened one of them and let everyone else in before closing it behind me. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but it was our quickest option, and we couldn't afford to waste time.

And there we go, another chapter down. Not as much action as the last two, but a lot of character interaction, which is a plus in my book. Not much else to say right now, the next chapter will come when it comes. Until then, I'm posting this during my lunch break.