"Scared?"

"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."

Annabeth said, "Percy, run!"

The giant boar charged.

But I was done running from monsters. Or Hades, or Ares, or anybody.

As the boar rushed me, I uncapped my pen and sidestepped. Riptide appeared in my hands. I slashed upward. The boar's severed right tusk fell at my feet, while the disoriented animal charged into the sea.

I 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 turned back to Ares. "Are you going to fight me now?" I asked.  "Or are you going to hide behind another pet?"

Ares's face was purple with rage. "Watch it, kid. I could turn you into—"

"A cockroach," I 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 helm and the bolt are mine and you have to go away."

Ares sneered.

He swung the baseball bat off his shoulder. "How would you like to get smashed: classic or modern?"

I showed him my 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," Annabeth said. "Don't do this. He's a god."

"He's a coward," I told her.

She swallowed. "Wear this, at least. For luck."

She took off her necklace, with her five years' worth of camp beads and the ring from her father, and tied it around my neck.

"Reconciliation," she said. "Athena and Poseidon together."

My face felt a little warm, but I managed a smile. "Thanks."

"And take this," Grover said. He handed me 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 me on the shoulder. I stuffed the tin can in my back pocket.

"You all done saying good-bye?" Ares came toward me, 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 I said nothing. I kept my feet in the surf, backing into the water up to my ankles. I thought back to what Annabeth had said at the Denver diner, so long ago: Ares has strength. That's all he has. Even strength has to how to wisdom sometimes.

He cleaved downward at my head, but I wasn't there.

My body thought for me. The water seemed to push me into the air and I catapulted over him, slashing as I 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 I was forced to jump onto dry land. I tried to sidestep, to get back to the water, but Ares seemed to know what I wanted. He outmaneuvered me, pressing so hard I had to put all my concentration on not getting sliced into pieces. I kept backing away from the surf. I couldn't find any openings to attack. His sword had a reach several feet longer than Anaklusmos.

Get in close, Luke had told me once, back in our sword class. When you've got the shorter blade, get in close.

I stepped inside with a thrust, but Ares was waiting for that. He knocked my blade out of my hands and kicked me in the chest. I went airborne—twenty, maybe thirty feet. I would've broken my back if I hadn't crashed into the soft sand of a dune.

"Percy!" Annabeth yelled. "Cops!"

I was seeing double. My chest felt like it had just been hit with a battering ram, but I managed to get to my feet.

I couldn't look away from Ares for fear he'd slice me in half, but out of the corner of my eye I saw red lights flashing on the shoreline boulevard. Car doors were slamming.

"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."

I rolled to one side as Ares's blade slashed the sand.

I ran for my sword, scooped it up, and launched a swipe at Ares's face, only to find my blade deflected again.

Ares seemed to know exactly what I was going to do the moment before I did it.

I stepped back toward 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 now understood what Annabeth had said about ADHD keeping you alive in battle. 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 Annabeth and Grover, thirty feet to my left. 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.

More sirens.

I stepped farther into the water, but Ares was fast. The tip of his blade ripped my sleeve and grazed my 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 my hands, but I was pretty sure it wouldn't make them like me.

Ares turned to glare at our spectators, which gave me a moment to breathe. 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. I deflected his blade. I got close enough to strike, tried to fake him out with a feint, but my blow was knocked aside. The waves were hitting me in the back now. Ares was up to his thighs, wading in after me.

I felt the rhythm of the sea, the waves growing larger as the tide rolled in, and suddenly I had an idea. Little waves, I thought. And the water behind me seemed to recede. I was holding back the tide by force of will, but tension was building, like carbonation behind a cork.

Ares came toward, grinning confidently. I lowered my blade, as if I were too exhausted to go on. Wait for it, I told the sea. The pressure now was almost lifting me off my feet. Ares raised his sword. I released the tide and jumped, rocketing straight over Ares on a wave.

A six-foot wall of water smashed him full in the face, leaving him cursing and sputtering with a mouth full of seaweed. I landed behind him with a splash and feinted toward his head, as I'd done before. He turned in time to raise his sword, but this time he was disoriented, he didn't anticipate the trick. I changed direction, lunged to the side, and stabbed Riptide straight down into the water, sending the point through the god's heel.

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 fifty feet 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 toward me, 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. Annabeth and Grover stood on the beach, in 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 me. "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!" Annabeth shouted. "Don't watch!"

I turned away as the god Ares revealed his true immortal form. I somehow knew that if I looked, I would disintegrate into ashes.

The light died.

I looked back. Ares was gone. The tide rolled out to reveal Hades's bronze helm of darkness. I picked it up and walked toward my friends.

But before I 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 me for supper, but had decided I might give her indigestion.

"We saw the whole thing," she hissed. "So ... it truly was not you?"

I tossed her the helmet, which she caught in surprise.

"Return that to Lord Hades," I 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 bats' wings, fluttered into the smoke-filled sky, and disappeared.

I joined Grover and Annabeth, who were staring at me in amazement.

"Percy ..." Grover said. "That was so incredibly ..."

"Terrifying," said Annabeth.

"Cool!" Grover corrected.

I didn't feel terrified. I certainly didn't feel cool. I was tired and sore and completely drained of energy.

"Did you guys feel that... whatever it was?" I asked.

They both nodded uneasily.

"Must've been the Furies overhead," Grover said.

But I wasn't so sure. Something had stopped Ares from killing me, and whatever could do that was a lot stronger than the Furies.

I looked at Annabeth, and an understanding passed between us. I knew now what was in that pit, what had spoken from the entrance of Tartarus.

I reclaimed my 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," I said. "By tonight."

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