Zoe's volcanic eyes stared into mine with a mix of surprise, muted disgust, and curiosity. Her silver circlet sat atop her head like a prize, glinting gently in the light of the shop.

Plop...plop...plop...

Dew drops hung from wreaths of flowers lining the rusted tips of the shop's gutters. They trailed down the side of the shop's wall, dropping gently against the porch.

"You are Percy Jackson, correct?" Zoe asked after a few moments as I inhaled the rest of my donut. Some frosting stained my fingers, so I wiped it on the bag. Her words slurred together as she said, "The leader of this camp?"

"Last I checked, yeah, I was Percy," I wiped some crumbs off my face. Zoe's parka was covered in dirt stains. Had she come straight from training? The sweet aftertaste of chocolate rolled around in my mouth. "Not sure about being the leader of anything, though. How's Artemis doing?"

"Don't use my lady's name," Zoe's voice snapped, her words lancing out of her mouth like the crack of a whip. Khione raised her eyebrows, and her fingers dug into my arm. I wasn't sure if she was impressed or just plain surprised at the emotional whiplash. She was hard to read sometimes. "You're a boy, you ungrateful—"

"We've done this already," I cut her off. I loved being yelled at early in the morning as much as the next guy, but getting dressed down in front of Khione would end up undermining her image of me. I couldn't have that. I could already feel her gaze burning a hole in the side of my head.

She was testing me. Waiting patiently to see how I'd react. I took the bait and growled, "That's enough."

A green aura flared around my body for a second, sending napkins and menus flying everywhere. A cat's bowl, full of milk, careened into the display case and wobbled with a resounding crash.

I raised my hand, and the milk stayed in place. I hadn't seen a cat since I'd walked in here, but the last thing I needed was to take away an animal's food and get PETA back on my case.

I swear they've been building a file on me for years now. With the thing I did in Atlantis with the baby whales, Alycone (if she counts), and the hellhounds that I've killed in front of mortals, I wouldn't be surprised if they put me smack dab at the top of their watchlist.

The Mist probably makes it look like I'm skewering poodles for sport. I'm like the Greek version of Mike Vick.

I can see it now. Kronos won't even have to kill me to get rid of me, he'll just parade around New York with flyers of my face and a donation box telling people, "You see my grandson here? He kills dogs. Donate your soul to me and I'll make sure we get him behind bars."

I raised my wrist and pushed my sweater back a bit to reveal Apollo's bow. Well, it was in watch form, but I was sure Zoe would recognize it. Her eyes widened briefly. "We've met before. I was on a rotation, so my identity and appearance were concealed. So, in lieu of that, I'd appreciate skipping out on the whole spiel. It was great the first time, though. Really threatening and all that. I think I wet myself."

"Hey, Percy," Stephanie called from behind the counter. "Really cool trick and all, but could you maybe not mess up the entire interior of the shop? I have to clean it, you know."

"Right," I said, watching as a napkin zoomed and smashed into the wrought iron sign of Demeter. It covered her body and face, so it looked like a pair of spaghetti noodles picking a flower. "Sorry."

"Orion?" Zoe asked uneasily, the vitriol slowly bleeding out of her words. Khione snorted as my joke took hold. Small wins, I guess. "It's...you were him the whole time?"

I uncapped my hot chocolate and jutted the drink forward. The brown liquid sloshed out and floated at Zoe, who instinctively raised her hands to shield her face.

She almost crashed into the wall of coffee mugs behind her.

"Percy!" Stephanie barked. She was writing something on the back of the to-go cup. The front read WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU but Stephanie didn't look very happy anymore. "What the heck! I just told you to chill!"

"Sorry! Here's your proof, though," I reached out to the liquid and wrapped my will around it, reinforcing my hold on it. The droplets hung in mid-air for a second, before zooming back into my cup. A peal of steam curled around the cup as I closed the lid gently. "Seeing is believing. If it helps, though, Carly was the first one I helped. The little one with the teddy?"

Zoe's shoulders slumped. Her entire demeanor slowly melted like the whipped cream I'd seen before—Zoe's visage of the strong, capable hunter slowly transformed into one of a tired girl who just needed a nap. "That makes...a lot of sense. Do you have a more private place where we could talk?"

An idea formed in my mind. "Actually, I do."


The three of us combed our way down the worn path beside my cabin. My shoes smushed against the pliable mud, squishing indents into the ground.

I grimaced as the mud caked the sides of my shoe. I really needed to get a pair of shoes that wasn't white.

"Where was the last time you saw my lady?" Zoe demanded from behind me, her bow jostling up and down as she trudged along. "Was she alright?"

"She was blasting me out of her chariot," I said. Zoe shot me a dirty look, but her eyebrows creased when she saw my expression. Years of serving as Artemis' lieutenant had probably sharpened her senses—I wouldn't be surprised if she could tell if someone was lying or not. To some degree, anyway. She wasn't a human lie detector like me. "After you set up camp and Apollo took you here, we went to the Lotus casino. The Titans had been harvesting some of Artemis' sacred animals in an attempt to draw out the Ophiotaurus. Artemis knew Nereus was getting married, so we crashed the wedding and got the coordinates for the Ophiotaurus. Lupa had it, we retrieved it, and she blasted me out of her chariot. I haven't spoken to her since."

"Artemis has always been temperamental," Khione intoned from behind me. She whirled her head at Zoe, and a smattering of snowflakes rested atop her tiara. I wasn't sure if Khione was doing it on purpose or not, but snowflakes formed every time she made the tiniest movement. Literally. I got the ridiculous image of a bikini-clad Khione in a big snow globe, hulu dancing as snow swirled around her. "It's possible she simply had no use for him. I doubt she would have been comfortable in the company of a man for that long."

"Well," Zoe looked like she wanted to agree, but something was holding her back. She chewed her lip. A hint of desperation crept into her tone. I quickly wiped the dancing Khione image out of my head. "I suppose it's possible. Still, you've truly had no contact with her since? None at all?"

"No. Why?" There was a squelching noise as I stopped walking. I turned and looked at Zoe.

For the first time since I'd seen her all morning, I took a moment to analyze the huntress. There was something odd about her—she seemed different, somehow.

I gave her a quick up-down. For starters, her cheeks were slightly flushed. Normally, this would be the part where I take credit because I'm so unbelievably handsome, but I knew a huntress would be above stuff like that.

Kind of, anyway.

Her posture was rigid. That itself wasn't that surprising. In the good old days, maintaining a strong and inflexible posture was associated with qualities like strength, confidence, or authority. I wouldn't be too surprised if Zoe was adopting this posture consciously or unconsciously to convey a certain image or assert dominance—probably even more so in Artemis' absence.

Even then, it was…unnatural somehow. No matter how rigid someone's posture is, there's usually some natural laziness somewhere in the stance. The fact that Zoe's was so perfect meant she was overcompensating.

But for what? Why would a huntress try to compensate for—ah. I got it.

She was nervous. She hid it well, but Artemis' disappearance must've been hitting her harder than I originally thought. Was this really that big of a deal?

I paused, remembering the ache in Artemis' voice. Her silver eyes bled into my vision, kind of like she was standing right in front of me.

Find me.

They melted out of my eyesight as my foot caught on an errant branch and I almost faceplanted into a bed of roses.

"Not here," Zoe urged. She was doing an admirable job of clamping down on her emotions, but it somehow felt like the farther away we got from camp, the more worried she got. My almost-accident brought a small smile to her face. "We need more privacy."

"Right," I remembered. Privacy. So she wasn't exactly trusting of people at camp, either. "Well, here we are."

"Where are we, exactly?" Khione asked. Her pale skin looked near-transparent in the sunlight. I could see a blue vein arcing down her forehead. "I've never been this far down this path before. It seems rather secluded, no?"

She wasn't wrong. We'd gone past my cabin, curled around the dock, and ended up in a small clearing surrounded by trees that used to be infested with monsters before EDEN merged with us.

I was pretty sure they'd cleared out any monsters before construction, but even if they didn't, we'd be fine.

The prince of Atlantis, the goddess of snow, and Artemis' lead huntress. It was like the start of a bad joke.

"It is," I agreed. I spread my arms out wide and grinned, "This is my office. Isn't she pretty?"

A brown and white house stood in the middle of the trees, bathed in the dappled sunlight of early morning. The air hummed with the melody of rustling leaves, and the scent of pine danced on the breeze.

Moss carpeted the ground, and Long Island Sound bubbled behind the house. A brick chimney belched out smoke.

"Your office?" Zoe wondered aloud. She looked impassively at the house. "Why do you have an office here?"

"Because I'm awesome."

"You sound like Apollo," Zoe rolled her eyes as we walked toward the door. She raised her hand as I opened my mouth. "And no, that isn't a compliment."

A sprawling porch wrapped around the front, adorned with rocking chairs and hanging baskets. A coarse, hewn doormat read PLEASE LEAVE in big, blocky letters.

Underneath, there was a small, handwritten note with dainty lettering: Percy Jackson's property. He'll kick your butt if you sniff around here.

Courtesy of Piper, I'd guess. I repressed a smile as we padded up the stairs.

"I'm still going to take it as a compliment," I smirked, rummaging under the mat for a key. Last night, Piper had told me she'd been using my office as a hangout spot. I figured it would work for some privacy. That, and I was also just curious about how it looked. I hadn't really given any input besides I need a gym. "In we go."

Large windows, framed by intricately carved wooden shutters, allowed sunlight to filter through, illuminating the interior with a pinkish hue.

A staircase hugged the wall to my right, and a large, glass-paned door stood to my left. The door right in front of us looked like it was going to the basement.

"I think Piper said this was the office," I said, pushing through the glass-paned door. "Huh. Not bad."

The room itself wasn't that big. A desk crafted from rich, dark wood stood as the centerpiece with a monitor and keyboard. Behind the desk, a portrait—the picture we'd taken before the Fall Ball—hung proudly, covered in a cherry-oak frame.

A vintage rug sprawled across the floor and a plush armchair was tucked into the corner, next to a mini-kitchen that had a soda machine, cupboards of snacks, a fridge, and a stove.

It was perfect.

The window was an arch facing the water, and the morning sun glittered on it like a pile of jewels. A beam of sunlight hit my face as I settled into the chair, and [Horus' Eye] gleamed in the top of my vision.

I closed my eyes and [Mana Detection] erupted around us, fanning out in a radius around the house. We were the only blips of mana, aside from microscopic ones that I assumed were insects and whatnot. "We should have privacy now. What did you want to talk about?"

"This," Zoe said, retrieving a dagger from her parka and placing it on the desk in front of me. The urgency from before was back, and it wrapped around Zoe like a veil. Her voice caught as she said, "Does this mean anything to you?"

The gleam of celestial silver danced upon the ceiling above us as the Sun reflected its polished surface.

A tiny black dot sat on the hilt, and I mentally pushed it. A thin line fared outward, accompanied by a wall of text.


|| Congratulations! You have encountered a legendary weapon. ||

[Artemis's Dagger]

[Rarity:] Legendary

[Description:] Fashioned by the master artisan of the gods, this blade is a celestial masterpiece, blessed by the moon goddess herself. It's tasted the blood of countless beasts, and their blood has only strengthened the blade's power.

The blade, forged from the finest celestial bronze, possesses a keen edge that shimmers with an ethereal luminescence. Its surface is etched with ancient runes, each imbued with the power of the night. When bathed in moonlight, these runes come alive, granting the blade's wielder additional benefits.

[Special Attributes:]

[Moonlight's Embrace:] When wielded under the moon's light, the dagger's power is greatly enhanced, dealing increased damage to foes and granting the wielder heightened agility and speed.

[Lunar Blessing:] Upon striking a foe, there is a chance that the dagger will unleash a wave of lunar energy, causing additional damage over time and temporarily weakening the enemy's defenses.

[Hunter's Respite:] When held, the dagger provides a calming aura that restores the wielder's health and stamina over time (200 HP5/MP5), allowing for sustained combat prowess.


"No. Should it—" I didn't get to finish my question. Silver energy sparked on my fingertips, and the blade hurtled into the curve of my palm like a moth to a flame.

I eyed the blade closely. The grip was new, way newer than it should've been for a dagger this old. I'd wager that Artemis had rewrapped the original hilt with new, more supple leather.

I rotated the dagger, trying my best to identify anything out of place. Grooves in the metal, serrated edges—that sort of thing. I ran my fingernail across the flat of the blade. Artemis' ghostly fingers appeared on the dagger, drawing my attention toward the end of the dagger. I squinted at the deformed metal.

The edge of the dagger was chipped. Bad. It honestly looked like someone had tried taking a bite out of it. And there was this weird material gleaming in the grooves.

What's your game now, Arty?

I balanced the blade on my finger, and it floated effortlessly. The energy from before faded, but the hilt remained glued to my hands. Runes glittered around the handle. "That's some good craftsmanship. Great handle, and balance, and all that."

"Of course it is. Lady Artemis commissioned it herself," Zoe snarked. I raised my hands at the sudden aggression, and Zoe had the good grace to at least look somewhat embarrassed at her outburst. She shifted her gaze and eyed the dagger curiously. "Lady Artemis told me to deliver you the blade and to tell you that you needed to complete your mission. What does that mean?"

"Complete my mission?" A heat haze bubbled to life around the dagger, and it vibrated loudly, sending a mournful warble through the room. I looked at Zoe, my eyebrows furrowed. "The mission is complete. We retrieved the Ophiotaurus."

Zoe pursed her lips. She shook her head and spat, "Was complete. Your mission was complete. Are you not curious as to why we're still here? Why our lady hasn't come to retrieve us?"

"I was hoping it was just a coincidence," Anxiety curled tight, cold fingers into a fist beneath my ribs. I gazed back out at the water. Waves crested deep in the ocean, slowly moving toward me. "That explains my dream, then."

"You had a dream as well? And you waited this long to tell me?" Zoe yelled. She curled a fist and pushed off her chair, leaning across the desk. A wild gleam shone in her eyes, and the muscles in my arm activated in response, ready to block any attacks. "Where is she? Is she alright?"

"I don't think so," I answered truthfully, rubbing the bridge of my nose and blowing a strand of hair out of my face. Zoe's nostrils flared, and I said, "Standing here and arguing with me about it isn't going to help her, either, so take your seat. Did she say anything about this dagger?"

"No," Zoe snapped, sitting back down begrudgingly. Khione, who had gotten up at some point to grab a pack of chips, watched the whole exchange with an amused expression. She opened the bag with a small pop. "Is there anything off to you about this blade?"

"Hm," I picked up the dagger again. I could do another Sherlock Holmes impression. Maybe the Game would help figure this out. "I'll look. No promises, though."

[Detective Mode Engaged]

Dozens of black dots littered the length of the dagger. I made the mental effort to click them, and lines slowly jutted out and surrounded walls of text—enumerated clues. I read the clues aloud, one by one, for Zoe. The important ones, anyway. I figured Zoe wouldn't care to find out that Apollo had actually stolen this dagger a few times to show off for some ladies at a bar, or that a boar had once pooped on it.

Hey, don't look at me. I'm not saying I stole the dagger to show off. I don't even quite know how showing off with a dagger would work—you know what, we're getting sidetracked here.

"The tip of the dagger is chipped. Given the material of the blade, and the angle of the chip," My vision hinged on the abrupt chunk out of the edge again. I mimicked a slow slash. The dagger made a whistling noise. "This isn't a question of overuse over time. This happened all in one go. She hit something hard."

"I've never seen one of her daggers chip," Zoe added, exhaling softly. She glanced down at the dagger like it was a stick of dynamite with its fuse lit. "They're supposed to be indestructible. She's carved out mountains with it before."

"Yep. I get that. Like I said, it's great craftsmanship. That's what makes this that much more terrifying. She hit something hard enough to chip it," I held the dagger up in the sunlight. "Look at the edge."

"I don't see anything."

"How about," I slowly lit the blade on fire. A thin tongue of golden fire trickled up the edge. It buffered near the chip. "Now?"

"The fire isn't going as fast?" Zoe mumbled from her chair. She looked at Khione and back at me. "Isn't that, I don't know, gravity?"

"And from the wounds of the fallen Titans, the sacred ichor did spill—a liquid of such potency that even the fiercest flames would falter and die upon contact, a boon to any warrior who could harness its might," I recalled, rotating the dagger. The fire continued stalling. "Hesiod said that. In Theogony, I think."

"You mean—"

"Artemis was fighting a Titan," I confirmed, staring at the flames petering out. They fanned out like a veil of hair. I buried a memory—Gwen's smiling face, with her curtain of bangs. Anger burned through my chest. "And I think I know who."

"The General," Khione intoned slowly. She placed the bag of chips she got on the table, and her eyes widened. The shadows dancing on the ceiling grew a bit larger. How the hell did he even do that? "Right?"

"Right," I leaned forward on the desk. Khione shifted uncomfortably. A tremor wracked her body. "What do you know?"

"Not much. As I've told you...he's...I can't...I'm sorry."

"Please," I urged, grasping her fingers with mine. [Flirt] and [Serenity Inducement] activated together, and she visibly loosened up. "I need to know. We need to know. It's to protect the camp. If we can't stop him, everything will be for nothing. Even your palace. You know that."

Khione's lip trembled. I smothered a stab of surprise as she audibly whimpered for a moment, and craned her neck upward. "I..." Red, angry lines of pure energy wrapped around her throat and curled into her eyes. "Can't."

"Okay. I'm sorry," I said, rubbing her knuckles as the lines faded. She slumped in her chair, heaving. "Thank you for trying. Really."

"You can't go after him," Khione said frantically, grabbing my hand with both of hers. Ice slowly wrapped around my fingers, burning steam into the air. "If he's captured Artemis, there's no telling what he's capable of. Please. I don't want you to go after him."

"Why?" I asked. Khione was almost going through emotions faster than I could keep up. If she'd been wearing a mood ring, I would've been blinded by disco lights. "Khione, what's wrong?"

"Please, please, please don't attempt to fight him," Khione begged. Her hands trailed up to my forearms and she began hyperventilating. "You can't. You can't."

"Khione," I said as gently as possible, pausing for a moment to carefully consider my next words.

Zoe glanced at her, and back at me. Khione's hysteria was spreading like wildfire, and now Zoe looked like I just told her she had a week left to live. Her leg began bouncing up and down uncontrollably. Her eyes glossed over.

I had to regain control of the situation.

At first, I made the mistake of thinking that I was stuck at a crossroads, torn between the lure of stillness and the call to action. I'd come home to relax, right? To train?

Besides, Khione was terrified—genuinely terrified. That sort of emotion on a goddess of all things wasn't exactly the best omen. And yeah, I was still on the outs with Artemis. I was pissed off, hurt, and overall just kind of tired of being pulled in every direction. This dagger was a homing call—she was banking on the fact that I'd still help.

Even then, though, the choice was clear. All because of one silly little reason. Zoe.

Zoe's expression told me everything I needed to know. She reminded me of the oath I swore, the path I vowed to follow. And no, it wasn't just revenge—though that did play a part.

I meant the vow I made all those years ago—the one I'd just reimagined when the Fates had sent me hurtling through the multiverse. The vow to protect demigods. To be a hero, like the demigods of old. The kind of hero who'd do what was right. Even when it hurt.

"Yeah, I'm not worried," I said casually, picking the knife up again. "She probably just got cocky. I'm sure she'll tell you all about it once I find her. May I?"

"By all means," Zoe said. She composed herself a bit. I could tell she was eyeing me, trying to figure out why I wasn't freaking out like they were. "She wanted you to have it for some reason. It sounds complicated."

"I like complicated," I returned. I glanced at Khione. "Complicated means there's depth. It's like a puzzle. I need some time to prepare, but I'll set out in a bit. I'm not too worried, Zoe. Don't lose any sleep over this. Honestly, she's probably still trying to get me back for a joke I made or something."

"Okay. Thank you," Zoe said solemnly. Hurt glimmered in her eyes. My heart went out to her. It probably wasn't easy, being someone's go-to person for years, only for them to choose a man—her mortal enemy, basically—to do your job. "I appreciate your help."

"Zoe," I stopped her as she went to stand. I fumbled around for the right words, "You're...doing the right thing. When I was at your camp, I saw firsthand how much the hunters looked up to you. Artemis isn't choosing me over you—she's making the right call for her hunters as a whole. If something happened to you on the road, what would happen to them? You're a leader, just like she is. They need you, just like they need her. I'll get her back for you, you have my word."

"Prove it," Zoe crossed her arms.

"Prove it?" I repeated. "What do you want me to prove?"

"Lady Artemis trusts you. Apollo trusts you. Everyone here talks about you like you're larger than life," Zoe set her jaw. "There is a Capture the Flag game this afternoon, and I'd like to see you there. I want to see how good you are firsthand."

Capture the Flag? I was probably going to drop into the game anyway, after a morning training session. I grinned, "Consider it done."

"Then I'll take my leave," Zoe gave me a small smile of her own—a gentle curve that I realized I hadn't seen before. "Thank you, Percy. Thank you, Lady Khione."

"I've told you to not go after this monster," Khione snapped as Zoe disappeared in the doorway. Her anger melted into concern that was betrayed by the shaking of her hands. "Why do you continue to go against my wishes? Do you not believe my words?"

"Your words don't stop me from doing what I need to do," I said firmly. "This man has killed my friends, stolen a goddess, and stands to implode the power balance on Olympus. He will die by my hand."

"I need some time to rest," Khione stood abruptly, still trembling. Even though the energy lines from before were still gone, she looked nervous. "Goodbye."

She disappeared on the spot in a flurry of snowflakes.

Now since I was alone, I glanced back at the dagger, where the biggest black dot remained untouched. I pressed it, and the dagger lit up like a disco, shooting glimmering words into the air: Come find me.


Marble flooring, cool and smooth beneath my feet, led the way into the heart of the basement, where the gym was, according to the blueprints I'd looked at with Medea last summer.

At the center of the gym stood a colossal water fountain, its cascading streams choreographed to dance in elegant arcs. To be honest, I thought it was way over the top and pretty unnecessary, but it was kind of pleasant to look at.

To one side, a row of floor-to-ceiling windows bathed the room in natural light, offering panoramic views of the forest outside. I frowned as I stepped closer and watched a few birds fight over a field mouse.

Don't get me wrong, it looks kind of cool right now, but I feel like this is the kind of thing that's super creepy at night. Like, what if I'm working out and I look out the window, and there's someone just standing there, staring? And yeah, I know I'm probably the strongest mortal on the planet right now, and that camp's wards protect against monsters and stuff...but it could still be creepy!

I turned. Against another wall stood a row of sleek, state-of-the-art workout machines.

Medea really thought of everything.

There were a few benches for working out, across from a row of barbells and dumbbells. A gigantic machine in the middle of the room had the necessary equipment for back-focused workouts, and a few more covered every part of my body I could think of.

Adjacent to the workout area, a jacuzzi bubbled. The edge was crafted from the cedarwood that mirrored the wood around the building.

I had a few things to do before training. Starting with...


[PERSEUS JACKSON]

[SON OF POSEIDON]

[HESTIA'S FAVORED]

[ECHIDNA'S BANE]

[GODSLAYER]

[HERA'S BLESSING]

[DIVINE CONSULTANT]

[SPARK OF DIVINITY][OC]

[LVL:] 92 (54,600/77,000)

[HP:] 175,500/175,500 (BOOSTED)

[SP:] 127,000/127,000

[MP:] 220,000/220,000 (BOOSTED)

[FEALTY:] N/A

[STR:] 236 (+5)

[VIT:] 67

[DEX:] 286 (+5)

[INT:] 136

[CHA:] 139 (+5)

[WIS:] 88

[LUC:] 38

[SP:] 45

[PP:] 77

[GP:] 1*

*GP refers to a Godly Perk. You can select this from the part of your perk tree that is denoted by a golden outline.

[$] 89000USD, 689D

|| Son of the legendary God of the Seas and Sally Jackson, Percy is the current [Child of Prophecy]. Despite his murky past, Percy is ready to take on his future with determination. ||

|| The title [HERA'S BLESSING] allows its user to trespass on sacred grounds and feel ambient divine energy! ||

|| The title [DIVINE CONSULTANT] doubles the [EXP] gained by doing a quest given to you by any deity! ||

|| The title [SPARK OF DIVINITY][OC] grants the user echoes of Oceanus' power. This includes enhanced physical gifts, the tongue of the old times, and much more. ||

|| The title [SON OF POSEIDON] permanently grants 1000 [MP] and boosts the rate of mana regeneration. ||

|| The title [HESTIA'S FAVORED] permanently regenerates your health by 30% and increases by a factor of 5% for every 1000 [HP] below half! ||

|| The title [ECHIDNA'S BANE] allows the user to be immune to all poison! ||

|| The title [GODSLAYER] grants the user double EXP when involved in a fight with a deity! This effect scales, doubling for every immortal opponent and tripling for every Olympian! ||


My stats.

The interface glowed with an otherworldly light, casting intricate patterns of light across the room.

"What did Monaxía say again?" I thought back to our conversation. "Become more durable and efficient. Durability is easy enough."

I cranked 33 points into my [VIT] and the screen glowed for a moment. My HP jumped dramatically—it practically doubled, and two banners appeared.


[PASSIVE][VIT]-[Rapid Recovery]-[LV: MAX]- [PROG: N/A]

|| Rapid Recovery boosts your HP5 by 50% and allows minor injuries to fade into insignificance, allowing you to maintain peak performance and focus on the harder hits. ||

[Threshold]: 10% of your MAX [HP]


I raised my eyebrows. That could be interesting. I jogged over to the kettlebell rack and hefted one of them up.

"Please do what I think you're going to do," I muttered, crouching and dropping the metal onto my outstretched pinky.

I winced in anticipation and closed my eyes, but the kettlebell glanced off my pinky without so much as a noise—the only indication I got that it even touched my finger was the cold feeling of metal.

Yep. That would work.


[PASSIVE][VIT]-[Asclepius' Blessing]-[LV: MAX]- [PROG: N/A]

|| Asclepius' Blessing is a passive skill that boosts your [HP] stat by 20,000 points as a one-time benefit for reaching 100 stats points allocated in this category! ||


Huh. Maybe I should've done this a while ago. I was kind of confused as to why I got a special perk for getting my [VIT] up this much but not anything else.

"Help? Kind of confused here, Heket," I mumbled. "Is this a quirky thing related to the game or..."

Hello, Percy. I'm glad to see you've returned to our dimension.

"You know about that?"

Well, I kind of live within the interface. I do travel and see the world, mainly Egypt, but the majority of my essence is tied to you. Kind of like a bear trap. It usually doesn't matter, but when you do something drastic like switch dimensions, I'm forcefully dragged with you.

That made sense. When we first met, Heket had told me she'd been brought back to life specifically to help me understand the Game.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment for a moment. "Huh. Sorry about that, then."

It's alright. To answer your question, though, [VIT] impacts a wide range of aspects like health, endurance, and survivability, unlike [STR] or [LUK] which enhance specific abilities. Reaching 100 [VIT] reflects a holistic enhancement of your abilities. As such, it's rewarded at a higher rate.

I frowned, "How come you never told me that? I could've prioritized it."

You never asked.

I felt like smacking my forehead. I'd forgotten how shrewd Egyptian deities were. "Okay, no point in crying over spilled milk. Now since we're here and talking about it, how do I unlock more of these?"

Hm. Let me pull up the stats. Your next inherent bonus for [STR] is at 250, [DEX] is at 300, [INT] and [CHA] are both at 150, and everything else is at 100. After you unlock your first bonus perk, the rest unlock in increments of 50.

"But—"

Why? You remember how your abilities are crafted from the echoes of other gods, correct?

"Yeah."

Bonus perks have different thresholds according to the stat because the bonus perks are free. It's a more limited pool. When you buy a perk you exchange perk points for it, correct? That's an equivalent exchange. In ancient times, the concept of equivalent exchange was central to mythological beliefs. Especially for the Egyptians. It symbolized fairness and balance in the universe. We liked everything one to one. Life and death. East and West. Sunrise and sunset. It wasn't just us, though. Many cultures, including the Greeks, Norse, Japanese—almost all of them, really—swore by the principle. It was a way for humans to communicate with us. Over time, they began believing that offerings to gods required equal returns in blessings or favors.

This concept underscored rituals, ensuring divine favor and cosmic harmony. Myths often depicted deities enforcing or exemplifying this balance, emphasizing its fundamental importance. And, most pressingly for you, The Game revolves around it. So when it comes to free stuff, well...depending on the deity, it's a steeper cost.

"I guess that's fair," I mumbled. "Hey, while you're here, how would I go about 'improving on the basics' for my skills? I feel like they're high enough but I was shown, um, recently, that I'm not that great."

I suppose I could look. In essence, you'd want to be able to go beyond the bounds of what your skills allow. Is that correct?

"Sort of?"

I see a few essences I could use here. Do you have a preference for Pantheon?

The interface faded and my perk tree pulled up. It seemed to stretch infinitely out now, with trees upon trees of hexagonal perks I could buy.

At the top of the page, there was a radiant banner, shimmering with symbols representing the different perks I'd purchased already.

Beneath the search bar, a constellation of perk icons sparkled like stars in the night sky. "What're the options?"

Norse and Egyptian.

I thought about it for a moment. Normally, I'd just go with Egyptian because it was more known and safer, but I was feeling risky. "Norse."

The tree disappeared, and a blue-green perk with three interlocked triangles appeared.

Is this to your liking?


[ACTIVE][WIS]-[Wisdom's Ascent]-[LV: MAX]-[PROG: MAX]

|| This perk lets you prestige a skill. Upon prestiging, you'll unlock Odin's "Wisdom's Ascent," granting you deeper wisdom and the strength to forge new paths with enhanced abilities. ||

[Runic Mastery:] Prestiged skills unlock rune slots, which allow for customization and powerful enhancements that stack on top of the previous benefits of a skill.

\/

[Valknut's Favor:] When you prestige, choose between two versions of this perk:

[Battle Wisdom:] Increases combat effectiveness by 20% and grants a unique combat ability.

[Strategic Wisdom:] Enhances strategic planning and resource management by 20%, providing benefits like faster cooldowns and increased efficiency in resource use.


"This is perfect, Heket," I said, gleaning over the perk. "How much is it?"

5 perk points.

"Consider it done," I grinned. "Thanks, Heket, you're a lifesaver—"

The door to the gym slammed open, and I quickly swiped out of the interface. A familiar mop of blonde hair passed through the doorway. Thalia's electric blue eyes pierced mine. "Percy."

"Thalia," I whispered. We both surged toward each other, and I wrapped my hands around her waist and pulled her up. "Hey."

"Hey, Seaweed Brain," Thalia mumbled, her nails digging into my neck. Her perfume drifted around my nose like a comforting hug. "It's good to see you."

"Thals," I put her back down. A dozen emotions flashed through her eyes, blazing bright like a crack of lightning. My heart lurched. What could I even say to make this better? All I'd been doing lately was apologizing. To Aphrodite. Piper. Silena. How many times could I say the same words over and over again? "I…"

"I know, sweetie," Thalia whispered back. Static electricity crackled around her head like a halo. It lit her face up. "I know. I heard from Silena and Piper."

My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. "You did?"

"My poor boy," Thalia said gently, pulling away from me. She cupped my face and ran her thumb along the edge of my lip. Her eyes glistened with tears. "You tried so hard, didn't you?"

A tear rolled down my face. White-hot fire flared behind my eyes, and I screwed them shut. "I…did. I tried my hardest. It wasn't enough."

"You did more than enough, Percy," Thalia mumbled, pressing a cheek to mine and running her fingers through my hair. "Jason would've been seriously hurt without you. Piper would've died without you. They said it was a hydra. A hydra. They couldn't have done it, not without being hurt. You made sure they were okay."

"You don't get it—"

"My brother is alive," Thalia said urgently, grabbing my shoulders. She was surprisingly strong. "For years and years all I wanted was to see him again. To hold him. I could've…"

"Thalia, I'll always protect him," I muttered, placing my forehead against hers. "Them. I'll always protect them."

"I know," Thalia sniffed. A small sob escaped her throat. "That's why I'll never fault you for leaving."

There was a brief pause, and then, like a dam breaking loose, more tears rolled down Thalia's cheeks. She began shaking like a leaf, and she wrapped my arms around her even tighter. "Thalia? What's wrong?"

She just shook her head and burrowed her face into my shoulder. I was at a loss for words.

I mean…it…this…it was Thalia! She practically invented being tough! Even without her dark hair, she still cut an imposing figure. Her can of mace and shield made her look intimidating, and her tendency to skewer monsters with lightning, all while laughing manically, had only added to my hypothesis that there were a few screws loose somewhere in there.

I'd seen her in all kinds of situations before. She'd teased me. Hit me. Zapped me. I'd seen her act possessive and jealous. I'd seen her lead people. I'd watched her take care of Jason. I'd seen her stub her toe and walk away like nothing happened!

I'd never, ever seen her this vulnerable. I didn't even know it was possible.

"I'm sorry I left," I muttered. "I didn't mean to make you sad—"

"I'm not crying 'cause you left, you idiot!" Thalia shrieked. A bright light flickered on her fingertips.

"What?" I whispered. Spots danced in my vision. Trails of electricity traveled up my arms. "You're not mad I left?"

"The life of a hero doesn't wait for anyone. I've lived it. I've suffered too," Thalia grabbed the back of my hair and forced my nose against hers. "That's why I don't care how many times you leave. Whether it's in the middle of night, or morning, I don't fucking care, Percy! As long as you come back."

"I will," I promised, kissing the tip of her nose. "To you. I'll always come back. I don't want to leave. You know I have to."

"Percy, I know. You're not…I…I've seen what this kind of life does to other people. And I just don't want it to happen to you," Finally, she settled down. She leaned closer to me, her lips murmuring on mine, and asked me, "Let me ask you this. What do you want?"

"That's a tough question. What I want and what I get," I whispered, as a trickle of water from the fountain inched toward Thalia. Aphrodite and MJ blurred through my mind, and Thalia's raspberry chapstick tasted like dirt. All I did was hurt the people I cared about…could I do it to her, too?

No. That wasn't the right question. I'd already done it to her. The question now was whether I could live with the fact that I did or not. If I could put my selfishness above her happiness—if I could hurt her if it meant making myself feel better. "Are two separate things. I...want you. But I can't guarantee I won't hurt you."

"I want you too. And it's always better when it hurts," Thalia whispered, her gaze shifting to my lips and back up. She bit her cheek and backed up. "But...I can tell you're not ready yet. And until that, I can't do this. Not while you're still hurting. I just can't. I'll wait for you, but, um, we, can still be friends until then."

"Friends, yeah," I nodded. Maybe a bit too enthusiastically. Even though I knew I was doing the right thing, the situation suddenly felt way too awkward for my taste. "That's...great. We've always been friendly. Super, um, nice. To each other. And everyone else."

Thalia stifled a giggle behind her hand. "Look, I like you. You're funny. Kind. Strong. But you've been through a lot. Emotionally. And that complicates things. I just don't want us to be complicated. Not with everything else that's going on. Everything else is so complicated. I want us to be the one thing that's not. I've made this mistake before, and I don't want to make it again. Not with you. Maybe when things calm down, and they're less, um—"

"No, no, I get it. Totally get it," I forced out a laugh. "You know, that's actually kind of funny. I was just saying that to someone. I hate complicated. Keep it simple, right?"

Thalia's eyes widened, and she raised her arms. "Okay, great, great."

"Yeah," I nodded, leaning against the wall. "Yeah, yeah. All right."

"I'm glad we're on the same page," Thalia clapped her hands together. "It's good to have you back, Seaweed Brain."

A smile formed on my face. Thalia's cheeks flushed. "Well, I mean...if we're going to be friends, l think we should establish some ground rules."

Thalia scoffed. She rolled her eyes, but a smile still graced her face. "Some ground rules?"

"Yeah, some ground rules. We need order here. If we don't set some ground rules, you're going to be sorry," I said as seriously as I could, and Thalia laughed gently. The noise made my heart beat a bit faster. "Like that."

Her laugh cut off abruptly. "Like what?"

"That laugh. That laugh needs to stop."

"What?" Thalia deadpanned, stepping closer to me again. She narrowed her eyes and locked her lips. "You're kidding. "

"Serious as a heart attack, Grace," I crossed my arms. "That's off the table."

"My laugh is off the table?"

I pointed to the ocean outside the house. "Of the table. Way off the table. It's so far off the table, I can't even see it anymore. You need to figure out a more annoying laugh, or just not laugh. Ever again. Kind of hard around me, I know, but still."

"Oh, yeah, okay, I'll just laugh like this," Thalia returned, dissolving into an over-the-top noise that was somewhere between a snort and chortle.

"Sorry, but nope," I lightly touched her scrunched-up nose. "That whole thing with your nose...still adorable."

"That was not adorable."

"It's adorable."

"No, it's not adorable," Thalia shook her head. Her earrings jingled lightly. Before I could reply, she said, "Okay. I have a ground rule."

I smiled again. "Okay, good. You're taking this seriously. That's what I like to see. What is it?"

"Don't tell me that l look adorable," I scoffed, and she raised her hand. "With your big green doe eyes. Okay? I'm really serious about that one. You do this really intense thing with your eyes when you talk, like I'm the only person in the world that matters or something. No more of that."

I gasped, "Oh, no."

"What?"

"I just figured out the next ground rule," We were so close now. I could still smell the orange juice on her breath. She kept looking at my lips.

"What?"

"No more of this," I ran my tongue over my lower lip. "No more of this little lip thing."

"This?" Thalia slowly ran her tongue over her lower lip, and a shiver of pleasure tingled in my chest.

"Yeah. Don't think I haven't—"

"Okay, that's just unfair. What am I supposed to do?" Thalia argued. She jabbed her finger in my chest. "I have dry lips! It's because of my powers."

"Right."

"The electrical impulses—"

"Mm."

"—and the air pressure—"

"You're full of it, Thalia," I said, resisting the urge to brush her cheek. I turned around and began walking back to the weights. "I'm not going to keep talking to you if you're going to spit in the face of my ground rules like that."

"Okay, fine," Thalia said, with another over-exaggerated lick. "I'll just work out here in peace."

"Will you now?"

"Yep. You won't even know I'm here."

"I doubt that," I returned, making eye contact with her again. She smiled at me warmly. "I'll always know."


AN: Welcome back to another chapter! Some more chill stuff, nothing really crazy, but isn't it fun to have some chill stuff once in a while, instead of world-breaking, people dying stuff?

There is some big news, however! I've added another beta to the story! Her name's Mira! Etko is currently busy with school and stuff, so I needed the extra help, and trust me, Mira's already made a pretty big splash for me plot-wise. She really gets the story and where I want to go with it, and this is actually the first chapter of mine she's done work on. Trust me, if you saw the rough draft, you'd know it took a lot of work. So, if you enjoyed this chapter, definitely thank Mira because I was kind of hopeless about it. I'm looking forward to working with her more, and having all of you suffer- I mean, enjoy the rest of the story.

Second! Not sure if the bot is working now, but chances are, even if it is, it'll go down very soon. So, please follow this link to Discord and more.

I'm going to be doing live writing tallies there. Confused or curious about where the next TFOAC chapter is? You'll be able to see how much of it is written in REAL TIME. Also, I love talking to y'all about the story and getting your takes and whatnot. Plus, I run polls in there, let you guys decide how certain parts of the story unfold, show early chapter previews, and much more!

We just hit 300, and I'd love to get to 500!

A big part of it is, well, TFOAC is now (almost) in the top 5 most followed PJO stories of all time, so I figured it was about time I started building a legitimate community in there, so I would love it if you guys could join! There'll be some exciting updates in there, and since FFN won't tell you when the chapter is coming, you may as well hear it from me directly! Plus, if you're on me about updates, chances are you'll get them faster.

Yes, you read that correctly. I'm bribing you. After all, why would I focus on other stuff if there's ten people telling me TFOAC needs an update, ya know? Even if they're mean about it.

It's easier than ever, too, just take the spaces out of this:

Linktr . ee /maroooon

Peace out!

- Maroon