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Michael Varus collapsed into dust, and Frank, having waited tactically for a moment of opportunity, followed Jason's lead.
His captor's rotting, sausage fingers released his feathered torso, as Frank morphed and landed on his own two demigod feet. The ghoul didn't have any time to react before being gutted, and Frank was swiftly ambushed by its brethren.
Exhilaration had built in his delicate, bird body as he waited, like a bomb impending explosion, to finally go to battle. It had been days since his last one, against Clytius and other creatures in the House of Hades. Ever since then his waking hours were all flying, all training, or all talking. Barreling from the sky and into a party full of monsters, just waiting to be slaughtered, was a turn of events that only excited him.
How the zombies, ghosts, and other undead things got there- Frank didn't know. He didn't care. He didn't care about the ghoul that had snatched him at random, he just wanted to kill it. Even when the dead demigod in the Roman armor had warned him not to try anything- somehow knowing who and what he was- Frank hadn't worried. Because that meant Jason would arrive and sometime soon, presumably with Piper in tow. And Frank felt that he, Jason, and Piper were becoming an invincible team, under Jason's command.
The days had been a stark difference from Frank's quest with Percy.
Frank hadn't bothered to compare the two, Jason and Percy, in his mind. It had never been called for, where was the contest? Jason had always been too benign and agreeable for Frank to be compelled into thinking about him for long anyway.
But the thought came to him now, as he snatched a fallen sword from one of Jason's defeated ghouls, and began stabbing and slashing away.
Percy never had the hunger for battle- for constant improvement in that capacity, like Jason did. Frank never felt pushed by him. He never felt uncomfortable or under-achieving and the reality was- he didn't grow. Not enough. Percy was a laid-back guy, one who went with the flow and did what he had to, but that was it. He was powerful enough as it was, and so it was a luxury he could afford.
Now as Frank looked back, Percy felt like an underpaid substitute teacher. The one that showed movies in class and gave you a good grade even if you did poorly. Where you did the bare minimum, and didn't really learn anything, but had fun.
Jason wasn't the substitute. Jason was the hard-ass that gave you extra homework, then threw it in the trash for being a minute late. One was harsher, meaner, maybe even ruthless. But an advantage when it came to the final test.
Frank couldn't always rely on a stronger, more powerful demigod, when it came to the final battle.
Screams erupted from all around. Ghosts of maidens and drunkards, unprepared for the turn of events, leaped from their banquet tables or crouched behind columns and braziers. But the mirage of the palace was flickering, and soon wouldn't sustain the spirits' hiding places. Frank could see glimpses of the trees that encircled the clearing, of what the current battlefield, complicated by the mirage, would become.
A whistling sound filled his ears, and his short hair was blown to one side. Jason had sent a tidal wave of ghosts stumbling back, with a harsh blast of air. Right toward Frank.
Jason raised his gladius from afar, sort of like a toast or a salute, and Frank returned the gesture. They locked eyes for a moment, feeling the same thing. They were gonna destroy each and every one of these bastards.
Frank mowed them down with ease, he even stole another sword, both arms moving like machines and tearing the grey flesh of any ghoul who dared get too close. And they all dared. Above, the sky darkened at a rapid pace. Billowing clouds, pulsing with electricity and flashes of blue lightning, swirled into a spiral shape. Ambient light from the once bright afternoon had faded, snuffed out, succumbing prematurely to the blackness of night.
A rough battle cry sounded behind Frank, who turned to see a ghoul with a lopsided grimace and crack in its skull charging right at him. Frank kicked it hard in the breastplate, and sent it flying backwards- toward the border of the clearing. Instead of falling back onto the ground or smashing into a tree, it...vanished?
Frank had fought enough opponents for a moment's peace- to watch the other ghouls and spirits. One ghost, in awe of Jason's ferocity, backed toward the edge of the field, and disappeared. But Frank had watched closely this time- they'd blurred briefly right before, as if being sucked into a vacuum.
It was getting harder and harder to see, with flashes of electricity in the sky becoming the main source of light. Frank approached the treeline cautiously, and found the trees (and everything deep within the forest), not as clearly defined as they should be. As if it were underwater, unfocused. An almost invisible wall was surrounding the clearing, like a forcefield. A wall of high-speed winds that kept everyone and everything from going in or out. The ghoul hadn't vanished- it had gotten thrown and disintegrated upon the violent impact of its landing.
A contained arena. All the better.
Frank returned to the fray, slashing through ghosts and intangible spirits when he could, while seeking out the fleshy enemies. The ones in Greek and Roman armor. Their numbers were growing fewer and fewer, and less brave.
He couldn't help but notice, during his whirlwind of a kill streak, the nature of the ghouls' bodies- those who remained.
Amputees. Freshly dismembered.
The mirage of the palace had pittered away, leaving a grassy field lit by lightning strikes or small fires from leftover torches, which Frank took care to avoid. The ghouls hadn't just lost bravery, but already wore expressions of horror before he raised his weapon. Feeling safe enough to pause again, he squinted through the darkness and chaos, seeking Jason out. Was he just as confused?
What Frank saw drained the blood from his face, and the elation of battle and victory from his body.
Jason had forgone his gladius, and any weapon. Instead his hands glowed- radiating a static-like bluish tint, sometimes sparking at his fingertips like live wires. He had caught lightning not in a bottle, but his hands.
Those hands burned hot. Jason reached for a ghoul that was missing an arm, stumbling away, and snatched it by the throat. It jolted from the shock, quivering as if it were in a seizure. The bluish tint- a bluish, hot white- glowed brighter in Jason's palms. The cracked, grey skin of the ghoul's neck sloughed off, melted by the heat, and it screamed in agony as Jason tore the head from the body.
A chorus of shrieks came from Frank's left- spirits terrified at the sight. But one voice stood out from the others.
Piper on her hands and knees, frozen, eyes as big as saucers, and mouth agape. Jason didn't notice, and Frank only realized he hadn't seen or given Piper a second thought as soon as Jason had returned and slain Michael Varus. She'd hidden herself, with those special new powers. Frank continued to watch Jason and it almost made him wish he could do the same.
Jason continued to ravage his opponents, seeking them out but repelling them at the same time. A flash of white among the clouds lit his face in a harsh, gruesome manner. It reflected on his bared teeth, making them seem sharper than they were. Wolf-like. Jason seized the limbs of ghouls at random, and tore off what he could- leaving them to stagger around with no escape from the clearing, knowing they'd sooner or later be finished off. He did so in a manic excitement.
Frank made eye contact with one of those ghouls, who'd wandered near him enough to be stabbed in a heartbeat, and with little effort on Frank's part.
But that drive in Frank was gone. That's what the ghoul wanted, to be killed in an instant. With mercy.
Frank tore his eyes away, and found Jason's, who yelled over the high winds, "Kill it!"
But he couldn't. He didn't have a desire to kill anything that wasn't asking for it, that was begging him for refuge from a grisly fate.
Instead Frank shouted back, "Jason, I'll get Piper, let's fly out of here!"
Piper snapped to attention when he said this, then glanced at Jason in trepidation, and let herself disappear once more.
A gust of wind pushed a swarm of ghosts to Jason, who'd found his sword again and in one swipe, removed them from existence before they could even scream. "I'm not leaving until they're all dead, Frank! All of them! For good this time!"
Frank surveyed the battlefield, trying to find an enemy and only seeing frightened beings. Including ghosts of regular people, who'd lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, and had only come that day to seek a new chance at life promised by an ancient goddess.
Frank couldn't predict what Jason would do next- what emotion he was feeling. He'd once told Frank that emotions shouldn't rule your mind, and yet they were almost certainly ruling his own.
"This was a trap!" Frank called back. "We don't need to win, we need to survive!"
They wouldn't have a problem surviving. Frank just wanted to leave, and forget the horror they'd wrought.
Jason stood so still Frank wasn't sure he'd yelled loud enough, but then he felt himself being pushed forward, prodded by pinpricks of air stabbing at his back. He ran to avoid the sting, and the closer he got to Jason, the more clearly he could see the contempt on his face.
Frank stopped a few feet away, and Jason held his arm out to the left, hand open. The spirit of a maiden was summoned to it in an instant, and Jason used his power to keep the spirit from floating away or drifting right through him. She could've been around their age. Maybe closer to Hazel's. She wore a Greek chiffon, with loose, curly hair pulled and mussed from its style by the winds. Like so many others, her fear was palpable.
"This is our world, Frank." Jason said coldly. "They don't deserve to be here. They're parasites, and it's our job to get rid of them."
He tossed her to the ground, where she miraculously stayed, puppeted by Jason through the air, and somehow crushed against the ground despite her weightlessness.
She struggled to lift her head, and look Frank in the eye. "P-please, the Earth M-Mother said-"
Jason waved his hand, and her cheek was forced onto the grass. His stare bore into Frank, just as the maiden's did. "I gave you the rank of praetor. I asked you to earn that responsibility."
He raised his gladius by its blade, offering the handle. "Was I wrong? Are you a coward, Frank?"
The maiden couldn't cry any real tears, but she whimpered loud enough that the effect was the same.
Frank wasn't a coward, and it would be cowardice to let the maiden die a second and worse death at the hands of Jason- who'd somehow been permanently changed, baptized by whatever occurred in the forest. There was mania about him that was new but also genuine. Layers that Frank didn't know existed, removed, leaving the demigod scrubbed raw. In a primitive state of mind.
Frank took the sword, and before the maiden could realize what was about to happen, brought it down upon her. No terror. No pain. She faded away like morning mist.
Jason nodded in approval. "Time to finish this." He raised one hand to the sky, where a vortex loomed with the vastness of an ocean.
On Frank's cheeks and neck and exposed skin, pinpricks stung him like angered bees, and he only saw then the gathering of hail on the grass. It shot down from the sky in a rain of bullets, piercing through ghostly forms, causing the spirits to flinch or recoil as if they still felt pain. Most had lost their minds, trembling in place or running circles, still with no escape through the hurricane-like winds. No escape from Jason.
Frank could see no tactical advantage, no point, in anything but retreat.
His sight had adjusted to the darkness, and he searched for Piper. It was unlikely he'd see her if she was camouflaged, and he'd only practiced recognizing her in that state in daylight. Frank looked to Jason, and followed the direction of his hand, controlling the storm high above. He was brewing something, some phenomenon that would strike down and ravage the last of the ghosts in one fell swoop.
Frank had to find Piper before that happened.
He tore off, or tried to, but was pummeled back by wind and hail to Jason's feet.
"Stay here, Frank." Jason never moved his gaze off the tempest above. "I mean it."
Frank was about to disobey that order, when a flash from his right blinded him. A light that overwhelmed his eye as a lens flare did a camera, but only for a second.
It came from a woman- a living one, not a spirit. She appeared to be in her thirties, and had shock white hair, down to her waist in wild, crooked tangles. Atop her head was a gold circlet- straight-edged and with no adornments. Similar golden bands wrapped around her forearms, below her knees, and on her waist. They flashed at every lightning strike, and it was one of these bright glares that had caught Frank in the eye. The dress she wore was silver- of a flowy, silk-like material, and emitted a soft, pearly glow. He recognized her. From a rare Mythomagic set.
Astrape, the Greek goddess of lightning. Frank let the name, which rhymed with "drape", silently roll off his tongue. Among her abilities, the card game listed her as having a twin. The goddess of thunder, Bronte.
Frank couldn't see the other goddess, who would surely be in company of her sister, and wondered if that was going to be a problem. Their problem.
Astrape made eye contact with Frank, and it stood the hairs of his arms on end, giving him a jolt, as if someone had shaken both his hands with a joy buzzer. Then she turned away, to the ground on her right. But there was nothing there- until Frank saw a red glimmer, and that Astrape's hand was curled around some invisible object.
A gong of thunder echoed as he shouted Piper's name, but he didn't need to say it twice. Piper materialized into view. Her hand was holding Astrape's, and they were saying things to each other that Frank couldn't hear. Piper warily glanced at Frank, as if in apology, then at Jason, but in alarm. She said something, and Astrape nodded, then Frank was blinded again.
When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, all that was left behind of Piper and the goddess was a scorch mark in the grass. That's when Frank realized what Jason was about to do.
At his waist and in its special cloth, his fragile splinter of firewood weighed heavier than ever before. Than he ever thought it would again.
The ground seemed to rumble in anticipation, or it was Frank's own trembling, the weakness in his knees. Jason jerked his hand from the sky, closing it in a fist which he held near his chest. A thick bolt of white struck down in the middle of the field. The blast numbed Frank's senses, echoing in his ears and filling his nose with the smell of burnt wire. All ghost and ghoul activity ceased. They were captivated by the jagged rod of light that would be the last thing they saw on Earth. But Frank wasn't. Frank was looking at Jason.
The mild-mannered demigod Frank had always respected, but never feared, had become the spitting image of his father. But not his Roman form.
Frank knew well enough about Roman and Greek gods alike. He'd heard colorful details about Zeus from Percy- that he was unforgiving, vengeful, merciless. It matched what Frank knew of the god's history and personality, and separated him from the restraint of Jupiter. Jason embodied Zeus now, acting with the same coldness and unstoppable force with which the almighty god secured his place on the highest throne.
But a Roman was strict with bloodshed. Taught to fight with tactics, necessity, and logic. Sometimes that logic dictated a massacre, sometimes retreat. But it was about strategy. There was no strategy in vengeance, rage, and wild emotion. There was no discipline in feral slaughter.
Jason hadn't really chosen a side, as he'd claimed. He'd been born a Roman, fell to the Greeks, then gotten lost amidst a final decision, before returning to his roots. But it dawned on Frank, that he never really did return. He only played the part, advertising himself as a bastion of the Roman empire and its values, leading Frank to follow in his footsteps. Jason couldn't hide now, that what he'd become was a terrible fusion of both the Greek's and Roman's worst qualities- ripped apart by the divide, rather than becoming the bond between the two Frank had thought he was destined to be.
The lightning birthed a roaring fire that rose in a towering wave from the center of the field, and encroached from every direction to the outskirts. It swallowed every dead and living thing in its tide and only left Jason and Frank untouched.
Sweat glistened off Jason's skin, reflecting the orange flames that rolled through the blackened grass. The walls of wind surrounding the clearing were still there, and the fire fed on the oxygen, climbing the walls higher and higher into the sky until they were surrounded on all sides by an inferno that rivaled the pits of the Underworld.
"Don't move," Jason said. Frank couldn't even if he wanted to.
Jason's concentration was the only thing keeping either of them alive. The mania on his face had faded, and he seemed more his older and reasonable self, which calmed Frank. Until Jason again addressed him.
He gestured to Frank's hip, to the firewood tied there, and said impassively, "Give it to me."
The small comfort of Jason's protection vanished. Even if the wood was impervious in its cloth, to both Jason and the flames. It was as if he'd already been cast into the fire. Frank didn't move, but Jason didn't budge.
The blaze seethed on from every angle, having eaten all the grass into the dirt, but blocked from consuming them too by a shield of air Jason kept in place. They were kept in an enclosed circle, in the heat of a boiling pot. Jason continued:
"If you don't let it go now, you never will. You'll always be weak, and I can't have weakness by my side. I can't be equal to it."
The flames clawed at Frank, but never touched him. He understood what Jason wanted, what he was really asking- not for Frank to overcome his fear, but to give Jason his complete trust. Frank would be handing over his life, his most important possession- the singular most valuable object he had or would ever own- for Jason to forfeit into the fire. It would mark a permanent change, create a permanent alliance.
And it would be fine. The fire would die down. Frank would find his cloth and his firewood in the rubble, and secure it once again tightly to his belt, where it would stay.
But Jason no longer had Frank's trust. He couldn't trust what he didn't know, and the Jason of the months previous, even the Jason of that morning, was gone- he may as well have never existed.
A shadow crossed Jason's face, the dawning of realization, as he lost hope for Frank's compliance. The look of malice he'd shown to Michael, and the scorn he'd shown to the ghouls, was starting to rear its ugly head and set its sights on Frank. But before he could act on Frank's refusal, a massive crash of thunder bellowed into the night, ringing pain into both their heads.
A wave of cold air, not out of Jason's realm of power, surged from behind and cut down the fire in an unnatural, remarkable manner. The clouds parted above, and a sliver of evening light breathed through the sudden stillness, bathing and brightening everything in a sickly grey. Once all smoke and flame was gone, Frank and Jason stood alone on the last patch of green grass, alone among the scorched grounds and charred trees.
Alone, if it weren't for the two goddesses staring them down from the middle of the ruins.
One Frank recognized- Astrape. The other could only be her sister. Bronte shared the same face, presumably the same age, as twins do. Her hair was a washed-out black with streaks and undertones of grey, cut to her shoulders in large curls like cumulus clouds. She wore the same head and arm bands in silver, rather than gold. Her Greek chiffon was the same satin material, but clouded and ashen, in the color of graphite.
Astrape had been with Piper, but she wasn't with her now.
"Hey!" Frank shouted. "Where's our frien-"
The goddess thrust her right hand forward, and a streak of light, electricity, shot out of it- but not at Frank.
Jason came face to face with the blast, but dodged it easily. The bolt flew past either of them, singing the ends of Frank's hair and giving him the pain of a sunburn on his left cheek, then was absorbed into the forest. Astrape and Bronte used the distraction to transport themselves, with the quickness of lightning, to be so close now they could breathe down his and Jason's necks.
Bronte stood in front of Frank, guarding him while Astrape inspected Jason as if he were a rabid animal that needed putting down.
In a smooth, deep voice, Bronte said to her sister: "It could have switched."
"No," Astrape responded. "Look in his eyes. There's something wrong."
They peered at Jason, who remained unaffected under the scrutiny, before his eyebrows furrowed. A look of understanding came over his face, before it was replaced by the anger Frank was starting to really fear.
"Wait..." Jason's eyes flicked between the two of them. "I know those voices…"
A shard of lightning pierced down from the clouds, to where Astrape stood. Frank's vision whited out, but seconds later he saw clearly that the electricity illuminated her from within, making her hair stand on end and golden bands gleam- she absorbed the bolt's energy.
Jason had just tried to smite the goddess of lightning.
Amidst this, two thoughts ran through Frank's mind: that Jason's brazen strike against the goddess was a death sentence for them both, and that Frank should really check up with an eye doctor.
"You think you can strike me down with powers I created?" Astrape snarled. "It is mine and my sister's duty to carry the thunderbolts of Lord Zeus. Where do you think he got them from?"
Frank knew the story, written in short on Bronte's mythomagic card. When Zeus rose to power, receiving the master bolt from the cyclopes, he freed Astrape and Bronte from Tartarus. They gave him the gift of generating thunderbolts in return, and became two attendants of the god's entourage, administering his bolts when needed.
Jason didn't care for her indignance. He said to Frank, "They've been following us since that windstorm, trying to bat us out of the sky. I knew Festus didn't malfunction."
Astrape still had patience, she glared at Jason. "I think we both know what really happened to your dragon. That girl's powers are strong, are they not? I'm sure you're jealous- that she can manipulate more than minds."
Jason ignored her, and Frank could see outrage cloud his wits. Again, this was what Jason had warned him about- being so consumed with emotion it skewed your perceptions. Jason didn't care for the puzzling implications Astrape had just made, that turned gears in Frank's head, he only cared about his own sudden revelations.
"They must've led us here," Jason accused. Then when he spoke to Frank, it was as if the previous moments never happened. He put the question of Frank's loyalty on pause for the new enemy. "That's why you got blown into those ghouls. Right into a trap."
Frank decided Bronte was the "good cop" between her and her sister, she turned to Frank and he saw some sort of regret. She said, "I was not aiming for you."
"They're working for Gaea," Jason said.
Astrape's eyes flashed. She seized Jason by his hair, and he winced but didn't yelp. "Don't say that awful name!" She pointed at Frank, and said to her sister, "Hold that one."
Bronte waved a hand, and Frank was swept to his knees, then held in that position by an arresting force of air. Jason lashed out, and Astrape's fingers sparked. She grabbed his shoulder and threw him toward the middle of the clearing. He tumbled on the ground, surprised he could be tossed like a ragdoll.
Astrape's raspy voice aimed at Jason, but stretched loud enough for Frank to hear. "You've caused enough trouble, you've interfered too much!"
Jason got himself up, but waited for her to make another move. "And I won't stop! Not until I tear Gaea apart!"
Astrape's next words were peculiar, and as she spoke, she seemed to be restraining herself. Jason was poised to attack, but she took on a defensive position. As if she weren't trying to really hurt Jason. "I'm not talking to you."
As confused as Frank, Jason didn't respond. But Astrape continued, still addressing Jason despite what she'd said, "You can leave now, and swear on the River Styx to never return, or die in that mortal body."
Jason pulled out his gladius, adjusting himself for a fight. Astrape shared a hesitant look with Bronte, who stood in front of Frank, then warned Jason, "You can go anywhere, be anyone. Is this demigod worth it?"
Frank strained to hear, but thought he heard Jason growl, "I know who I am."
"Sister," Bronte said gently. Her voice was low but soft, and smooth like butter. "His mind is addled."
"Yes, I know," said Astrape. "Why do you think we're-"
"Not like that."
For a moment they all were still. Even Jason, who seemed ready to pounce. Bronte continued, telling her sister: "You said to look in his eyes. I did, and there's only one soul behind them. His thoughts are his own. As are his actions. This is what it wanted."
Astrape turned sharply to Frank, "Then the other boy-"
"Is also alone."
They spoke as if neither Jason or Frank were there, and Frank tried to make sense of their conversation, all while concerned that Jason wasn't. He had that expression on his face- that conveyed all reason had left him, that wrath had taken over. Frank was trying to make sense of that too.
Astrape asked her sister, "When do you suppose it left?"
"It must've passed to the ghost of the boy's mother, possessed her, used her to drive him to the brink. A smart distraction, since our eyes were only on the battle after that," Bronte said.
"Some time ago, then."
"Long enough to find another host."
Bronte shook her head. "No...it wouldn't leave this group now. It must be waiting somewhere, for something, or someone..." Bronte looked at Jason, then back at Astrape. "Where did you take the girl?"
A silent understanding passed between the goddesses. A conclusion about something destined to happen between Piper, Jason, and...whatever the hell else they were talking about. Something that could possess. Something about hiding behind eyes, and Jason's mother. Frank tried to read their expressions and somehow gain the same insight. But that led all of them to neglect Jason, and allow him to go unnoticed for the briefest of moments- enough to gain the upperhand in a duel Astrape hadn't even started, and had likely never even meant to.
They should have all seen the way he was shaking, the manic lividness on his face, the way his eyes twitched and filmed over with a vague but potent hatred. He'd been pulled taut like a bowstring, and finally snapped at Michael Varus and all the other ghouls. Now here he was, not just a rubber band stretched to its limit then broken forever, but like a toy constantly wound up by its gears. Like one of those scary monkeys with cymbals stuck to its hands, clapping away.
The goddess Astrape had found a key on Jason's back, and had kept turning it one, two, three times. She was pushing him at a time when he could not stand to be pushed. And Jason, with the frenzied, wide eyes of that toy monkey, with sword and lightning in his hands instead of cymbals, was primed to go thoroughly apeshit.
Jason understood that lightning would do nothing. That Astrape and her sister's power over the wind, thunder, and storm were the same, if not better than his. But for them and any immortal, Imperial gold remained a danger. One Jason was adept at inflicting. Maybe it was rare, but gods could be killed. Frank could think back to his Mythomagic set, and remember a god of the sea, a son of Poseidon, who had been.
Astrape was still faced toward Frank and her sister. With the swiftness of an arrow- in the blink of an eye- Jason's gladius punctured through the air, and impaled Astrape through her back. The sword stuck out her chest, smeared in golden ichor, which trickled down her dress. She dropped to her knees.
Bronte burst forth, but as she reached Astrape, Jason summoned his sword back to his hand. The awful, strangled gasp from her sister made Bronte pause, suspended in horror.
Jason didn't aim the gladius at Bronte. She was alert, she could deflect it. He aimed it at Astrape's head, where it would go through her skull if Bronte wasn't fast enough, if she miscalculated in any way.
There was no bargaining. Jason demanded in a controlled voice, pitched low, "You know where Piper is. Don't pretend you don't. Tell me."
Frank couldn't see Bronte's face, not unless he moved, and he didn't want to catch Jason's attention.
He recognized the smell of burnt wire, the prickle in the air. Frank closed his eyes, heard a succinct boom, and when he opened them Astrape and Bronte were gone. That was a trick even Jason couldn't learn.
Jason didn't take any immediate action- what would he do? Where would he go? But his unhinged fervor hadn't passed, lacking a resolution, an answer to his question.
Frank had the answer. If he had any intelligence at all, he had it. But there was a reason the goddesses hadn't said it out loud. He recalled Piper's hand in Astrape's, her desperation. He recalled Astrape's disdain at the name of Gaea, her unwillingness to attack Jason, and the subtle kindness he saw in Bronte. They believed there was something wrong with Jason, and they were trying to help.
Astrape could have only taken Piper back to their campsite, where Leo would arrive to collect her and Festus. It's where Piper would have wanted to go.
Frank had let his gaze sit on the spot the two goddesses disappeared from, thinking over this information, but not realizing Jason was studying him at the same time. When he looked up, Jason was no longer scrutinizing, but daring him to reveal what he knew.
Jason's gladius was now stained with ichor. The clouds parted even further above, and faint light from the setting sun glinted on its sharp edge. Then he walked closer to Frank, stalking forward in the same way he approached Michael Varus. He stopped within a couple feet.
Jason didn't say anything, and he didn't have to. He didn't expect a challenge from Frank, so he only waited, wearing a cold-hearted stare. But Frank felt disillusioned with his prior obedience. Humiliated, even, that he hadn't relied completely on his own judgement. He stared back. He didn't want Piper anywhere near Jason. Frank didn't want to be anywhere near Jason.
In a delicate, sinister manner, Jason tipped his sword at Frank's belt, and stuck the end through one of the loops of the pouch containing his firewood. If Frank grabbed for it now, he might lose a hand.
The pouch's drawstring became untied, looped around the end of the sword, which Jason brought to his other hand. He held the cloth gingerly, pretending to be fascinated by the plain material and not what was inside. The bolded veins on his wrist and the tension in Jason's fingers made Frank think he'd crush it any second, squeezing the life out of him, and crumbling the wood into a fine dust. To ash.
"If fire isn't strong enough to burn this," Jason's voice was casual, like he was talking about sports, or the weather. "I wonder what lightning will do."
Frank smelled burnt wire. He felt the static in the air. And he wasn't ready to die.
"She's with Festus, waiting for Leo."
Jason smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "She's not going anywhere." He tucked Frank's firewood into his back pocket. "And neither are you."
He sheathed his gladius, and took a few steps back, about to take off into the air. "We could've been equals, Frank. You, me, and Piper. But we still have a job to do, and an earth goddess to kill. So I expect you to do it. I expect you to listen to me or die trying, until you can prove yourself. Until I can approve of you."
Jason soared away, over burnt trees and blackened earth faster than Frank could ever fly.
Frank felt pinned to the ground in an anxious dread. The blood drained from his face, his body numb. He felt as though he were on the edge of death.
As far as Jason's temper was concerned, he was.