(16) Percy Battles His Jerk Relative
A Coast Guard boat picked us up, but they were too busy to keep us for long, or to wonder how three kids in street clothes had got out into the middle of the bay. There was a disaster to mop up. Their radios were jammed with distress calls.
They dropped us off at the Santa Monica pier with towels around our shoulders and water bottles that said I’M A JUNIOR COAST GUARD! and sped off to save more people. Our clothes were sopping wet. Percy was also barefoot, because he had given his shoes to Grover. Better the Coast Guard wonder why one of us was barefoot than wonder why one of us had hooves.
After reaching dry land, we stumbled down the beach, watching the city burn against a beautiful sunrise. I felt as if I’d just come back from the dead – which I had. And I was furious.
“I don’t believe it,” I said. “We went all that way –”
“It was a trick,” Percy said. “A strategy worthy of Athena.”
“Hey,” I warned.
“You get it, don’t you?” I dropped my eyes, my anger fading.
“Yeah. I get it.”
“Well, I don’t!” Grover complained. “Would somebody –”
“Percy...” I said. “I’m sorry about your mother. I’m so sorry....”
The truth was that I was actually sorry. My heart ached to be back with Chiron, and I’ve only been gone a week.
He pretended not to hear me and instead said, “The prophecy was right, ‘You shall go west and face the god who has turned.’ But it wasn’t Hades. Hades didn’t want war between the Big Three. Someone else pulled off the theft. Someone stole Zeus’s master bolt, and Hades’s helmet, and framed me because I’m Poseidon’s kid. Poseidon will get blamed by both sides. By sundown today, there will be a three-way war. And I’ll have caused it.”
Grover shook his head, mystified. “But who would be that sneaky? Who would want war that bad?”
Percy stopped in his tracks, looking down the beach.
“Gee, let me think.”
There he was, waiting for us, in his black leather duster and his sunglasses, an aluminum baseball bat propped on his shoulder. His motorcycle rumbled beside him, its headlight turning the sand red.
“Hey, kid,” Ares said, seeming genuinely pleased to see Percy. “You were supposed to die.”
“You tricked me,” Percy said. “You stole the helmet and the master bolt.”
Ares grinned. “Well, now, I didn’t steal them personally. Gods taking each other’s symbols of power – that’s a big no-no. But you’re not the only hero in the world who can run errands.”
“Who did you use? Clarisse? She was there at the winter solstice.”
The idea seemed to amuse him.
“Doesn’t matter. The point is, kid, you’re impeding the war effort. See, you’ve got to die in the Underworld. Then Old Seaweed will be mad at Hades for killing you. Corpse Breath will have Zeus’s master bolt, so Zeus’ll be mad at him. And Hades is still looking for this...”
From his pocket he took out a ski cap – the kind bank robbers wear – and placed it between the handlebars of his bike. Immediately, the cap transformed into an elaborate bronze war helmet.
“The helmet of darkness,” Grover gasped.
“Exactly,” Ares said. “Now where was I? Oh yeah, Hades will be mad at both Zeus and Poseidon, because he doesn’t know who took this. Pretty soon, we got a nice little three-way slugfest going.”
“But they’re your family!” I protested. I didn’t understand why Ares wanted to purposely hurt his family. As much as my father and step-mother had hurt me, I wouldn’t wish for harm on either of them.
He shrugged. “Best kind of war. Always the bloodiest. Nothing like watching your relatives fight, I always say.”
“You gave me the backpack in Denver,” Percy said. “The master bolt was in there the whole time.”
“Yes and no,” Ares said. “It’s probably too complicated for your little mortal brain to follow, but the backpack is the master bolt’s sheath, just morphed a bit. The bolt is connected to it, sort of like that sword you got, kid. It always returns to your pocket, right?”
I wasn’t sure how Ares knew about that, but I guess a god of war had to make it his business to know about weapons.
“Anyway,” Ares continued, “I tinkered with the magic a bit, so the bolt would only return to the sheath once you reached the Underworld. You get close to Hades... Bingo, you got mail. If you died along the way – no loss. I still had the weapon.”
I tried to hide my excitement. That could be extremely useful on future quests. If your carrying something monsters wanted, sheath it into the bag and they wouldn’t know where it went.
“But why not just keep the master bolt for yourself?” Percy said. “Why send it to Hades?”
Ares got a twitch in his jaw. For a moment, it was almost as if he were listening to another voice, deep inside his head.
“Why didn’t I... yeah... with that kind of fire-power...” He held the trance for one second... two seconds... I exchanged nervous looks with Percy.
Ares’s face cleared. “I didn’t want the trouble. Better to have you caught redhanded, holding the thing.”
Are’s was lying. He was a minion for someone. But who would the god of war would let him be his master?
“You’re lying,” Percy said. “Sending the bolt to the Underworld wasn’t your idea, was it?”
“Of course it was!” Smoke drifted up from his sunglasses, as if they were about to catch fire.
“You didn’t order the theft,” Percy guessed. “Someone else sent a hero to steal the two items. Then, when Zeus sent you to hunt him down, you caught the thief. But you didn’t turn him over to Zeus. Something convinced you to let him go. You kept the items until another hero could come along and complete the delivery. That thing in the pit is ordering you around.”
“I am the god of war! I take orders from no one! I don’t have dreams!”
Percy hesitated. “Who said anything about dreams?”
Ares looked agitated, but he tried to cover it with a smirk.
“Let’s get back to the problem at hand, kid. You’re alive. I can’t have you taking that bolt to Olympus. You just might get those hardheaded idiots to listen to you. So I’ve got to kill you. Nothing personal.”
He snapped his fingers. The sand exploded at his feet and out charged a wild boar, even larger and uglier than the one whose head hung above the door of cabin seven at Camp Half-Blood. The beast pawed the sand, glaring at Percy with beady eyes as it lowered its razor-sharp tusks and waited for the command to kill.
Percy stepped into the surf. “Fight me yourself, Ares.”
He laughed, but I heard a little edge to his laughter... an uneasiness.
“You’ve only got one talent, kid, running away. You ran from the Chimera. You ran from the Underworld. You don’t have what it takes.”
“In your adolescent dreams.” But his sunglasses were starting to melt from the heat of his eyes. “No direct involvement. Sorry, kid. You’re not at my level.”
I pulled out my dagger, but Grover grabbed my arm and shook his head.
The giant boar charged. As it rushed him, he uncapped his pen and sidestepped. Riptide appeared in his hands. Percy slashed upward. The boar’s severed right tusk fell at his feet, while the disoriented animal charged into the sea.
Percy shouted, “Wave!” Immediately, a wave surged up from nowhere and engulfed the boar, wrapping around it like a blanket. The beast squealed once in terror. Then it was gone, swallowed by the sea.
I blinked. Percy turned back to Ares.
“Are you going to fight me now?” He asked. “Or are you going to hide behind another pet pig?”
Ares’s face was purple with rage. “Watch it, kid. I could turn you into –”
“A cockroach,” Percy said. “Or a tapeworm. Yeah, I’m sure. That’d save you from getting your godly hide whipped, wouldn’t it?”
Flames danced along the top of his glasses. “Oh, man, you are really asking to be smashed into a grease spot.”
“If I lose, turn me into anything you want. Take the bolt. If I win, the helmet and the bolt are mine and you have to go away.”
He swung the baseball bat off his shoulder. “How would you like to get smashed: classic or modern?”
Percy showed him his sword.
“That’s cool, dead boy,” he said. “Classic it is.”
The baseball bat changed into a huge, two-handed sword. The hilt was a large silver skull with a ruby in its mouth.
“Percy,” I said. “Don’t do this. He’s a god.”
“He’s a coward,” He told me.
I swallowed. “Wear this, at least. For luck.” And for the first time in five years, I took off my necklace, with my five years’ worth of camp beads and the ring from my father, and tied it around his neck.
“Reconciliation,” I said. “Athena and Poseidon together.”
Percy blushed and smiled. “Thanks.”
“And take this,” Grover said. He handed him a flattened tin can that he’d probably been saving in his pocket for a thousand miles.
“The satyrs stand behind you.”
“Grover... I don’t know what to say.”
He patted Percy on the shoulder. He stuffed the tin can in his back pocket.
“You all done saying goodbye?” Ares came towards us, his black leather duster trailing behind him, his sword glinting like fire in the sunrise.
“I’ve been fighting for eternity, kid. My strength is unlimited and I cannot die. What have you got?”
A smaller ego, I thought, but nobody said anything.
Percy kept his feet in the surf, backing into the water up to his ankles.
He cleaved downward at Percy’s head, but he wasn’t there.
The water seemed to push him into the air and he catapulted over him, slashing as he came down. But Ares was just as quick. He twisted, and the strike that should’ve caught him directly in the spine was deflected off the end of his sword hilt.
He grinned. “Not bad, not bad.” He slashed again and Percy was forced to jump onto dry land. He tried to sidestep, to get back to the water, but Ares seemed to know what he wanted. He outmanoeuvred Percy, pressing so hard his face was already red with concentration. He kept backing away from the surf. There weren’t any openings to attack. His sword had a reach a meter longer than Anaklusmos.
Get in close, I thought. When you’ve got the shorter blade, get in close.
As if reading my thoughts Percy stepped inside with a thrust, but Ares was waiting for that. He knocked his blade out of his hands and kicked him in the chest. Percy went airborne – fifteen, maybe twenty meters. He would’ve broken his back if he hadn’t crashed into the soft sand of a dune.
I looked past Percy and groaned. I saw red lights flashing on the shoreline boulevard. Car doors were slamming.
“Percy!” I yelled. “Cops!”
He managed to get to his feet. He never looked away from Ares but he nodded.
“There, officer!” somebody yelled. “See?”
A gruff cop voice: “Looks like that kid on TV... what the heck...”
“That guy’s armed,” another cop said. “Call for backup.”
Percy rolled to one side as Ares’s blade slashed the sand. He ran for his sword, scooped it up, and launched a swipe at Ares’s face, only to find his blade deflected again.
Ares seemed to know exactly what Percy was going to do the moment before he did it. Percy stepped back towards the surf, forcing him to follow.
“Admit it, kid,” Ares said. “You got no hope. I’m just toying with you.”
My senses were working overtime. I didn’t know how I could help Percy. My ADHD was acting like it usually did when I was in battle, even though I wasn’t actually fighting.
I was wide awake, noticing every little detail. I could see where Ares was tensing. I could tell which way he would strike. At the same time, I was aware of Grover holding my hand so tightly it was numb.
I saw a second cop car pulling up, siren wailing. Spectators, people who had been wandering the streets because of the earthquake, were starting to gather. Among the crowd, I thought I saw a few who were walking with the strange, trotting gait of disguised satyrs. There were shimmering forms of spirits, too, as if the dead had risen from Hades to watch the battle. I heard the flap of leathery wings circling somewhere above. I looked up.
“Grover,” I whispered, “The Kindly Ones are here.”
I heard him gulp. More sirens. Percy stepped further into the water, but Ares was fast. The tip of his blade ripped his sleeve and grazed his forearm.
A police voice on a megaphone said, “Drop the guns! Set them on the ground. Now!”
Guns? I looked at Ares’s weapon, and it seemed to be flickering; sometimes it looked like a shotgun, sometimes a two-handed sword. I didn’t know what the humans were seeing in Percy’s hands, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t make them like him.
Ares turned to glare at their spectators, which gave Percy a moment to breathe. He turned to us and gave us a thumbs up. There were five police cars now, and a line of officers crouching behind them, pistols trained on us.
“This is a private matter!” Ares bellowed. “Be gone!” He swept his hand, and a wall of red flame rolled across the patrol cars. The police barely had time to dive for cover before their vehicles exploded. The crowd behind them scattered, screaming.
Ares roared with laughter. “Now, little hero. Let’s add you to the barbecue.”
He slashed. Percy deflected his blade. He got close enough to strike, tried to fake him out with a feint, but his blow was knocked aside. The waves were hitting Percy in the back now. Ares was up to his thighs, wading in after him.
Suddenly the waves shrunk until they were barely anything.
Ares grinned and raised his sword.
Percy released the tide he was holding and jumped, rocketing straight over Ares on a wave. A two-meter wall of water smashed him full in the face, leaving him cursing and sputtering with a mouth full of seaweed.
Percy landed behind him with a splash and feinted towards his head. He turned in time to raise his sword, but this time he was disoriented, he didn’t anticipate the trick.
Percy changed direction, lunged to the side and stabbed Riptide straight down into the water, sending the point through the god’s heel I realized. The roar that followed made Hades’s earthquake look like a minor event. The very sea was blasted back from Ares, leaving a wet circle of sand fifteen meters wide.
Ichor, the golden blood of the gods, flowed from a gash in the war god’s boot. The expression on his face was beyond hatred. It was pain, shock, complete disbelief that he’d been wounded.
He limped towards Percy, muttering ancient Greek curses.
Something stopped him. It was as if a cloud covered the sun, but worse. Light faded. Sound and color drained away. A cold, heavy presence passed over the beach, slowing time, dropping the temperature to freezing and making me feel like life was hopeless, fighting was useless.
The darkness lifted.
Ares looked stunned. Police cars were burning behind us. The crowd of spectators had fled. Percy stood in hidden shock, watching the water flood back around Ares’s feet, his glowing golden ichor dissipating in the tide.
Ares lowered his sword.
“You have made an enemy, godling,” he told Percy. “You have sealed your fate. Every time you raise your blade in battle, every time you hope for success, you will feel my curse. Beware, Perseus Jackson. Beware.”
His body began to glow.
“Percy!” I shouted. “Don’t watch!” I turned away as the god Ares revealed his true immortal form. If a mortal were to look, they would disintegrate into ashes.
The light died.
I looked back. Ares was gone. The tide rolled out to reveal Hades’s bronze helmet of darkness. Percy picked it up and walked towards us.
But before he got there, I heard the flapping of leathery wings. Three evil-looking grandmothers with lace hats and fiery whips drifted down from the sky and landed in front of me.
The middle Fury, the one who had been Mrs Dodds, stepped forward. Her fangs were bared, but for once she didn’t look threatening. She looked more disappointed, as if she’d been planning to have us for supper, but had decided we might give her indigestion.
“We saw the whole thing,” she hissed. “So... it truly was not you?”
Percy tossed her the helmet, which she caught in surprise.
“Return that to Lord Hades,” he said. “Tell him the truth. Tell him to call off the war.”
She hesitated, then ran a forked tongue over her green, leathery lips. “Live well, Percy Jackson. Become a true hero. Because if you do not, if you ever come into my clutches again...”
She cackled, savoring the idea. Then she and her sisters rose on their bat’s wings, fluttered into the smoke-filled sky and disappeared.
Percy joined us.
“Percy...” Grover said. ’That was so incredibly...”
“Terrifying,” I said.
“Cool!” Grover corrected.
Percy looked like he was ready to pass out. “Did you guys feel that... whatever it was?” He asked.
I nodded uneasily.
“Must’ve been the Furies overhead,” Grover said.
But I wasn’t so sure. Something had stopped Ares from killing Percy, and whatever could do that was a lot stronger than the Furies.
Percy looked at me, and an understanding passed between us. I knew now what was in that pit, what had spoken from the entrance of Tartarus.
Percy reclaimed his backpack from Grover and looked inside. The master bolt was still there. Such a small thing to almost cause World War III.
“We have to get back to New York,” Percy said. “By tonight.”
“That’s impossible,” I said, “unless we –”
“Fly,” Percy agreed.
I stared at him. “Fly, like, in an aeroplane, which you were warned never to do lest Zeus strike you out of the sky, and carrying a weapon that has more destructive power than a nuclear bomb?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Pretty much exactly like that. Come on.”
A/N: this was really hard to write but FINALLY its done