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In Other Worlds

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Being twelve, Call decided, was a lot more difficult than being eleven.

For starters, transferring from elementary to middle school was the worst experience of his natural born life. Everything was different and new and terrifying. He had to change classes every forty five minutes at the bell and only had four minutes to get to his next class, and that's not even factoring in how hard it was trying to find all of the classrooms on his schedule.

It also didn't help that over the summer, it seemed that everyone had taken some sort of grown-up serum that made them act older and more mature, especially the girls, who were all taller than him and seemed to move with a new sort of grace, while Call was still stuck being awkward and strange with his bad leg and heavy limp.

At least now he didn't have to use his crutches to get around anymore. His doctor said that his leg muscles were finally strong enough to support him on their own. Which was nice, he guessed, but the chronic pain and the heavy stares from his classmates didn’t go away like he’d hoped. If anything, it just got worse.

Not to mention that he was quite small for his age, and ambiguously Hispanic, and his messy black hair never seemed to resemble anything close to a style. In a small town like Enoree, North Carolina, where kids who weren't tall and blond and athletic didn't survive the gruel of middle class white America, Call's habit of scowling at the elderly and wearing all black earned him a reputation of being a troublemaker. It also didn't help that he apparently had an “authority problem” because he never did what he was told and disrupted class a lot.

Coincidentally, it was also one of the many reasons why he didn't have any friends.

He breathed out a sigh. The other kids on the bus were yelling and throwing things while the teacher’s assistant nearly blew an artery trying to get them to stop, but Call, for once, didn’t participate in the madness. He was too busy looking out the window and watching the gray scenery of New York City pass by.

He was excited. It wasn’t every day that a small town kid like him had the opportunity to go on a field trip to Manhattan, especially since he was pretty much on his last leg at The Divine Magisterium of Enoree, his sort-of-not-really military school. To be fair, he hadn’t been kicked out yet, but the head dean had made it very clear that if he tried any funny business on this field trip, then he would be hopping on the next train to Reject Town before he could even breathe the word expulsion.

But instead of laughing straight in his face, Call had nodded solemnly and promised his cooperation, scouts honor and everything. Contrary to popular belief, he liked museums. There was just something about history, especially Greek and Roman history, that entertained him to no end. And if there was one thing that kept Call from wreaking havoc and misfortune on those unfortunate enough to live within a five mile radius of him, it was being entertained.

He promised he would be good. He promised he wouldn't ruin the trip for everyone this time.

Things, of course, didn't work out as planned.

By the time they got off the bus and started filing into the museum, Call was in awe. New York was loud and busy, with bustling streets and tall gray buildings and about three taxis for every car he saw. No matter where he looked there was something happening. Street vendors were yelling out prices for their trinkets, teenagers were laughing into their phones, businessmen were bustling past and checking their expensive watches, babies were crying and shrieking, and he’s pretty sure he saw some dude in a fur suit walking his poodle into a nearby deli. It was the complete definition of organized chaos.

And Call loved it.

There were at least ten thousand other kids at the museum, all students, in their dorky color coded t-shirts and wrist bracelets. Call felt exceptionally dorky in his black Catholic school uniform, and he was pretty sure he and the other Magisterium students stuck out like a sore thumb.

This didn’t put a damper on his day though. As they were touring around the building he saw so many sculptures he lost count. There was a golden shield (awesome), and a statue of a goddess (even more awesome), and a plate detailing the three major gods and their domains (the awesomest).

The best part was that no one really bothered him until they made it to the gift shop, which was practically the entire day, so he was feeling pretty good about himself until then. It was one of the more popular girls, Kylie Myles, who’d started slyly making jabs at his uneven gait when she thought he wasn’t listening, and her little friends laughed along with her. He felt like lashing out, but he didn’t so much as look at her.

The other students dispersed throughout the gift shop. Call calmly made his way down the aisles, ignoring the laughter that followed him.

Besides, the last time he’d let himself get mad (like, really mad) over something Kylie said about him, she’d broken her ankle on the jungle gym not even five minutes later and had to walk around with crutches like him for a month. And if he thought even farther back, there was that one time in the fourth grade when a park ranger yelled at him for feeding the squirrels and then immediately turned around and fell into a dirty pond. And if he thought even farther back than that, to when he’d been seven years old and nearly kidnapped by some dude in a trench coat, well, let’s just say that the guy took an unplanned trip in the middle of a busy intersection and that was the end of that.

The worst part was that Call hadn’t seen anything about the incident on the news, which either meant that no one saw it happen, or the dude lived to tell the tale. He wasn’t completely sure, since he didn’t see what really happened, but he did find a suspicious amount of sand on his clothes when he’d gone to bed that night.

Of course, these were all just coincidences. Just some unfortunate events that always happened to occur whenever Call was present. His father said that there was no such thing as karma, and that Call was just imagining things.

Sometimes he wasn’t so sure.

He was busy looking at a snowglobe when he felt eyes on him. At first he didn’t look up, thinking it was just Kylie and her cronies again, but the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck were standing up in warning, like his own internal alarm system was screaming danger! danger! over and over again.

So he looked up-and immediately locked eyes with a boy on the other side of the gift shop, who was staring intently at him.

Call was surprised he didn’t notice him earlier. With that duck-fluff blond hair and soft green eyes of his, he looked like a model or a child actor or something. His blue soccer jersey was a bit on the ratty side, though. Same went for his shoes and pants, which were riddled with holes.

He didn’t look like he belonged to any of the schools here. And he didn’t look away when Call caught him staring, either. If anything, his eyes narrowed.

He made a move like he was going to walk over.

But then one of the boys from his school shoved him with a “Watch it, freak!”, the snowglobe went tumbling to the ground, and Call broke eye contact. By the time he fished the stupid thing off the floor and turned around, the blond boy had disappeared.

“Find everything you need?,” asked the dark-haired cashier when he approached the counter, and Call mumbled his assent and shoved a few crumpled bills on the table. He felt nervous and jumpy and he didn’t know why. He kept looking over his shoulder to where the blond boy had been, but he didn’t reappear.

He wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.

“Were you here for the Greek and Roman exhibit?,” the woman continued, and her smile widened when he nodded. “You’d probably be interested to see some of our undisplayed artifacts. Hang on a moment.”

She disappeared under the counter. Call couldn’t help but look behind him again, but still no blond boy. In fact, it seemed that the rest of his class had left too. Now it was just him, the cashier, and some girl in a cheerleading uniform perusing the back shelves.

“Here we go,” said the cashier, and she popped back up holding what looked like a leather wristband. “You wanna hold it?”

Call was hesitant. “Isn’t it against the rules to touch the artifacts?”

“Hmm, maybe,” she said cryptically. “But it’s healthy to break the rules every once in awhile, I think. The world would be pretty boring if we all did what we were told, yeah?”

True, but he wasn’t sure if that sort of logic really applied in this situation. The cashier slipped the wristband on him before he could say anything, though. There was a slab of iron wound around the leather part, and a large black gemstone sat in the middle of it. It looked super expensive.

“Look at that, it fits perfectly!” She clapped her hands together. “Pretty sure that one’s over thousands of years old. Cool, right?”

That didn’t make him feel better about touching it. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” he admitted after a while, admiring the way the cuff looked on his arm. Then: “Wait, why do you have it? Aren’t the curators supposed to be the only ones who can handle these things or whatever?”

Her gray eyes twinkled mischievously. “You ask a lot of questions.”

“Uh...yeah.” Was it his imagination, or was the black gem pulsing faintly? “What era is this from?”

But when he looked back up again, she was gone.

Which was...odd. Maybe she went into the back room when he wasn’t looking? Huffing, Call stood on his tiptoes and tried to see behind the counter, wondering if she’d just went underneath it again.

At that very moment, all of the lights in the building shut off simultaneously.

The gift shop was plunged into darkness.

Call stopped breathing.

Silence reigned throughout the gift shop. Like, the type of silence where you can only hear your own breathing and nothing else. He slowly backed away from the counter, hands out, but he couldn’t see anything apart from the red exit sign, which was glowing ominously in front of the door.  

But then an array of screams started up from somewhere inside the museum, muffled, but nearby, and that was when he realized something was very very wrong.

Before he could do anything (run, maybe panic a little bit?), there was hot breath on the back of his neck, the smell of sulfur, and he froze.

“Found you,” giggled a female voice. Something slammed into him from behind hard, and he was knocked clear across the store.

He crashed into a rack of greeting cards. An entire display of minotaur figurines fell on his head. Dazed and aching, he tried to sit up, but froze a second time when a pale figure emerged from the darkness.

It was the blond cheerleader that had been shopping earlier; pink uniform as pretty and flowy as it had been before, but there was something...wrong with her. Her painted red mouth was pulled back over her teeth in a snarl. Her eyes were glowing red like hot coals.

And for a second, just a second, it looked like her hair was made of fire. But when Call blinked again, it was back to a normal blond ponytail.

His eyes widened.

“I was wondering when I’d finally get you to myself,” she simpered, limping forward. Her left leg flashed bronze. “Didn’t think I’d find another one of your kind while I was here, but today must be my lucky day!”

Her hair flickered. Sparks flew through the air like fireflies.

Call was very close to wetting his lego ninjago underpants.

She cooed. “Poor little thing. So weak and frail.” Her teeth were elongating right before his eyes. Her fingernails growing jagged. “Don’t worry, hun. If you behave, I’ll be sure to make this quick.”

“Gah!,” he yelled intelligently.

She launched forward, hair blazing, hissing like a rabid animal, and Call, panicking, brought an arm up to protect his face, waiting for her razor sharp claws to slice him to ribbons.

But that’s not what happened.

The wristband, which he’d forgotten about until this point, glowed white where the gemstone was. There was a flash. The demon cheerleader screeched in pain as she ran head-first into something that sounded like a gong.

He blinked.

On Call’s arm, protruding from the wristband, was a large iron shield. It glowed faintly. Greek lettering adorned the sides, and a huge intricate spiral was etched into the front, like some sort of symbol.

Oh, and it was also dented a little where the monster just smashed her face into it.

"You terrible child!,” she screeched, clutching her head. A weird dirt-like substance was leaking from her head. Sand? “How dare you! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you in the worst possible way you can imagine!”

Call didn’t stick around to find out how. He ran for it.

The she-demon’s screams followed him out of the gift shop and into the darkened hallway. It wasn't just the gift shop; the entire museum was empty. The only light was coming from the windows, but even those seemed dulled somehow, like there was a curtain covering the entire building.

Call's leg throbbed in tandem with his pounding heart. For the first time since he got them off, Call wished he had his crutches with him.

He needed to find his class. But where were they? As he ran, he saw some people hiding behind exhibits, but he didn’t see any familiar faces. Everyone looked terrified though. Some of them seemed to register that a young kid was running around in the middle of what looked like an emergency lockdown and beckoned him over to hide, but he kept going, panicked. He didn’t know who he could trust. That cheerleader had seemed normal at first, but then she went turned into a freaking eldritch horror and look where that got him.

He rounded one corner, then the next. His breathing sounded way too loud in his ears. Was the evil cheerleader chasing him? What if she could hear him? Was she going to jump out from behind a corner and eat his face?

What was going on?

After running around like a lunatic for a bit, he found himself nearing the lobby of the museum, where the giant T-Rex skeleton was. It felt more ominous without all of the people mingling around. Like a crime scene, or the after image of an apocalypse.

But then he heard voices coming from the next hall. He slowed to a stop.

Maybe it was security? Police officers? The SWAT team?

More monsters?

Call shook. He didn’t even care anymore. He just wanted to go home. He wanted to see his dad.

After a moment of deliberation, he carefully peered around the corner. He could see three figures standing in the hallway, the dull light casting shadows that looked twisted and gnarled against the walls. They seemed to be locked in a heavy discussion.

Call was .003 seconds away from calling out to them when someone grabbed him from behind.

“Wha-”, he started, ready to fight, but then a hand slapped over his mouth and someone hissed, “Shhh!”

It was the blond boy from before.

“You-” Call started to say again, but he was roughly shushed a second time.

“Are you trying to get us killed?,” the blond hissed in a much lower tone, so quiet that Call had to strain to hear. “Shut up!”

He looked worse than he did earlier. His white-blond hair was caked with blood from a cut on his forehead and it was leaking into one of his eyes, which was bruised black and blue. Despite this, he still looked movie-star material. Call was more than a little irritated by this fact.

They both fell into silence. The voices were still talking around the corner, and it wasn’t until then that Call realized they weren’t speaking English, or even Spanish-it was some sort of weird, rolling language that he’d never heard before.

But the weirdest part was that the longer Call listened, the more he could understand.

“Sweep every floor of the building. Don’t rest until you're certain they're dead,” hissed one of the voices, and he shivered.

Monsters.

“They couldn’t have gotten far. I can still smell them nearby,” said another, cackling. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a demigod. I can already taste their flesh. I can already taste their sweet blood.”

“Patience, Kelli.” This one sounded deeper, older. Clearly the leader. “One wrong move and you could end up in Tartarus again.” A pause. “Don’t give me that look. If you mess up again like you did with that Jackson kid...”

A growl. The sound made Call’s blood curdle. “The next time I see that halfling I’ll tear him limb from limb-”

“Save that for the little pests we have now. Come on, Tammy’s still patrolling. Maybe she found something.”

The boy kept his hand over Call’s mouth until the voices retreated, the figures disappearing down the hallway. They sat there quietly for another moment, waiting, before he let go. Call wasted no time and stumbled away from him.

“I’m sorry,” the boy started, hands up in placation. “I didn’t mean to scare you, but those Empousa -uh, are you okay?”

Call was most definitely not okay. He was practically trembling where he stood.

“Okay,” the blond said, taking his terrified silence as an answer. “You’re okay-there’s no need to be afraid. We’ll get you back with your class in no time, alright? Can you tell me your name?”

Call didn’t want to tell him his name. He wanted to go home. “I-you-why-”

“You’re in shock. Just take a deep breath.” (Call kind of wanted to punch him) “Why aren’t you hiding like the rest? What happened? Are you hurt?”

He didn't say anything, but sagged against the wall, suddenly exhausted. The boy said, "You're limping. Here, why don't you sit down, little guy? It's going to be alright, don't worry."

Before Call could say or do anything, like flip him off or actually punch Wonder Boy over here for thinking he was some little kid (he was average height, dammit), a fireball exploded on the wall next to his head. He wasn't afraid to admit he squealed like a little girl.

“There you are~” crooned a voice from the end of the corridor. He and the other boy whipped around. “Why don’t we play together, little godlings?”

The blond moved protectively in front of him. “Stay behind me,” he commanded, drawing a longsword from a golden scabbard around his waist and Call stared. “On my cue, I want you to run and find a place to hide. If they give chase, try looking for two kids in T-shirts. They’ll help keep you safe.”

Oh right, like there weren’t a million kids here in colored T-shirts. “But what about-”

“Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself just fine,” he said, flashing a disarming smile while Call just stared at him, unamused. He wasn’t worried about him. The kid had a sword for Pete's sake. Call was more worried about himself.

The cue never came. Before either of them knew what was happening, the monster was running at them full speed. The blond was quick to duck out of the way, but Call, once again, froze.

“Move!,” the other yelled, but it was too late. The monster was approaching fast and the next second she would be on him. He briefly entertained the thought of jumping out of the way last minute, but then realized half a second later that he had no physical prowess whatsoever to accomplish a feat like that. So he did the next best thing. He followed his instincts.

Aka: he panicked.

With an aborted move, he squeezed his eyes shut, flung his arm out, and prepared to die. 

The shield flew off his wristband like a frisbee. It banged around a couple of times against the corridor like one of those cartoon bullets ricocheting off the walls, before ultimately smacking the Big Ugly dead in the back of the head with a heavy clang!

She fell to the ground and exploded into golden sand.

Silence. Both boys stared at the pile in disbelief.

"Uh-" Call started. "Did I get it?"

More Uglies came speeding around the corner at the noise. They took one look at the pile of sand and let out a screech of pure rage.

The blond cursed, rushing forward. He swung his sword deftly when one of the monsters got close enough, right through her neck, and after her head flew into the air like a particularly ugly baseball, she also exploded into sand. Two others rushed him, and he, realizing he was outnumbered, didn't hesitate to shove his sword back in its scabbard, turn on his heel, and start sprinting back towards Call.

“Run!,” shouted the boy, and with an embarrassing lack of strain, managed to haul Call to his feet with one strong tug.

He started running. Call had no choice but to follow.

As they ran, Call slipped way too many times on the tiled floor, and he was embarrassingly slow compared to the other boy, but when he darted a quick glance over his shoulder, two cheerleaders turned into three, and he pushed himself to go even faster because he’d rather not be caught and smothered to death by pink pom-poms, thanks.

“In here!,” the boy suddenly hissed, and ducked into another hallway, pulling Call with him.

Footsteps thundered past their hiding place. They collapsed against the wall, heaving. Call’s leg was on fire. He tried to rub it to will away the pain, but it didn’t work.

As they stood there, Call’s wristband glowed again. The shield materialized back on his arm like a projection of light, and the blond stared.

“That shield. You-You’re one too, aren't you?,” he stated. “A demigod.”

Confused, Call said, “A what?  What are you talking about?”

“A demigod. You know like-a half god. Uh-”

“I know what a demigod is,” he told him, annoyed. He didn’t take a European History class for nothing, you know. “But what do you mean that I’m one?”

The blond's eyes were painfully bright and earnest. “I thought so at first, but I wasn’t sure. When I saw you in the gift shop...” He hesitated. “I just found out a couple of days ago myself. Some kids found me. At my foster home. They said my dad-they said they knew my dad was-”

“I know who my dad is,” Call said scathingly, but not really to be mean. He was just really scared. “But I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s going on? Who are you?”

“Oh-I’m Aaron. Aaron Stewart.” He put out a hand for Call to shake, but Call just hid behind his shield. His smile dropped. “Um. I’m not really the one who’s supposed to be telling you this. The others-they’ll explain everything later.”

“I don’t want it to be explained later. I want it explained now.” He clenched his fists. “Why, Aaron Stewart, if that’s your real name-”

“It is,” he assured.

“-am I suddenly being chased by monsters that want to kill me, and what’s with all the fancy weapons? Am I being punked? Am I on TV right now? Did you steal that sword from the museum and this is just your elaborate master plan to escape undetected?”

“No!” Aaron looked appalled. “My dad gave this to me. My dad the god.”

“Right. Of course.” He laughed humorlessly. “Sorry for not believing you straight away, it’s not like you sound totally insane or anything.”

Aaron sighed. He sat down next to Call, who scowled at him. “Look, I know this is all very confusing and terrifying for you, but you have to trust me on this. Haven't you ever, like, felt like you were different from everyone else? That you could do things, amazing things, that no one else could? Haven’t you ever felt like you were destined to be the protagonist of your own story?”

“Uh, no.” He wasn’t exactly what you would call a “protagonist”, per se. He was more like the “overlooked side-kick best friend who turned evil at the end of the story for shock value” type.

“There’s a place for kids like us,” Aaron said suddenly. “A summer camp. I was on my way there too. But we got attacked during our stop here. You should come with us-you’ll be safe there.”

Call shook his head. “Whoa, whoa, who said I was going anywhere with you people? I need to find my class and get home. I have to see my dad. I-”

“You can’t go home,” interrupted Aaron. “They know you exist now. They’ll never leave you alone. If you don’t go to camp they won’t stop hunting until they kill you.”

That bit of information sat heavily between the two. Call sort of wanted to cry.

He inhaled a shaky breath and said as calmly as he could muster: “My dad’ll know what to do. I just need to find a phone and call him. I just need to-”

The smell of burning hair and rot suddenly filled the air. Call and Aaron were on their feet in seconds.

They didn’t make it very far. One of the monsters (what had Aaron called them? Empousa?) stepped out of the shadows in front of them, her form flickering between a pretty dark-skinned girl to a deathly pale monster with a goat foot, and they skidded to a stop, three others closing in behind them. They were trapped.

“Nowhere to run now, godling,” she simpered, brandishing her pom-poms threateningly. Her body finally stopped changing and settled on the flaming-haired, one animal-legged and one bronze-legged demon thing, and Call wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. “You and I are going to have so much fun.”

The one that attacked him in the gift shop was snarling. Her head was no longer leaking sand, but she still looked incredibly angry. Particularly at him.

“Don’t know where this one came from,” said the leader, addressing him. “But you sure have given us a lot of trouble, little one. But no longer. Your time on earth ends now.”

Call’s monster bared her teeth at him. “This one’s mine.”

“Look lady,” he said with a sudden surge of false bravado that was probably most definitely about to get him killed. “I appreciate the sentiment, but you’re not really my type.”

She just chuckled darkly. Oh yeah, he was definitely going to die. “I’ll have fun tearing you to shreds.”

With a sudden movement, she darted forward and dug/tore her claws into his abdomen, ripping his stomach open. He cried out and fell to his knees. The shield clattered to the ground.

Aaron surged forward to help, but the other two monsters advanced with inhuman speed and threw him so hard that he flew against a wall, head cracking loudly against the concrete. He slid down the wall, dazed.

“Be careful with that one!,” one of the monsters warned, but she didn’t really sound that bothered. “We need him alive, at least until the winter solstice.” She grinned ferally in Call's direction. "Do whatever you want with that one. His scent is too weak for him to be a threat."

Call typically had a high pain tolerance, but this was too much. It felt like his insides were spilling out of his gut. Maybe they were. He clutched his stomach to staunch the flow of blood, but it didn’t really help; an alarming amount of wetness was building on his abdomen and when the first monster approached him, cackling, he couldn’t do anything else but look up at her in a haze of pain.

She bent down over Call, and he closed his eyes, thinking he was about to become someone’s Thanksgiving dinner-when her nose twitched. She took a sudden inhale. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

"Definitely a demigod,” she reported. “A weak one. But...” She looked a little confused. “He smells...strange.”

Call didn’t know what she was talking about. None of this was making any sense.

“Get away from him!,” Aaron yelled. He’d pulled himself to his feet, but his head was bleeding from the freshly opened wound. “Leave him alone! It’s me you want!”

“We’ll get to you soon, be patient,” she crooned. Her terrible face swam in and out of focus. Call was losing too much blood, too fast. “I want to have my fun with this one first.”

There was a loud crashing noise from the left. All four monsters hissed and the one bending over Call screamed in frustration before disappearing from view. A golden blur arched over his head, wind pushing his hair back. More crashes. Screams.

Sounds of battle were going on all around him. Call vaguely caught a glimpse of someone standing in the middle of the open hall, arms spread out and something protruding from their back like a shield against an onslaught of fire. Someone was yelling something in a different language. Someone else was trying to pull him to his feet, telling him to stay awake.

And Call, well, he's never really been all that good at following directions.

He let the darkness consume him, eyes rolling into the back of his head, and passed out.

Chapter Text

 

Five hours later Call woke up to utter chaos.

There was yelling, footsteps, the obvious sound of panic as people rushed back and forth and shadows danced across his eyelids. Call felt unnaturally cold, like the air was crisper than it should’ve been. And he was lying on something hard and wet.

“...can’t believe this,” a voice was saying quite loudly, clearly vexed. “Like, gods, six Empousa? It’s a miracle we even made it out alive! What next, all three Furies and a flock of Stymphalian birds?”

Call’s head hurt. His leg hurt. But, most of all, his stomach felt like someone had ripped it open, laid his organs out, and put them in ascending alphabetical order, leaving only his nerves intact.

“Unclaimed. Greek. Moderately powerful,” a second voice muttered, then went softer as it addressed him, “Hey little guy, it’s alright. How are you feeling? Can you look at me please?”

Call opened his eyes.

Through the foggy vision, he could see an unfamiliar teenage boy bending over him; blond, tan, and who sort of looked like what you would get if you brought one of those Greek statues to life and gave it a military haircut. He also seemed to be covered with some sort of weird yellow blanket.

Wait, no. Not a blanket. As his vision cleared, Call came to the sudden realization that he was, in fact, surrounded by a pair of giant golden wings.

“Oh, thank goodness. You lost quite a lot of blood there,” said the boy, whom said giant golden wings belonged to. And it might’ve been because he still couldn’t see clearly or because the setting sun was providing a lot of good lighting here, but Call could’ve sworn up and down that the boy in front of him looked like a divine being of God coming to take him away to the gates of Heaven themselves.

“Are you an angel?,” Call asked stupidly.

“Uh.” He looked flustered. “What?”

“Oh, give me a break,” someone else said, pushing themselves through until they were standing directly in front of Call, and shoved something under his nose. “Here. Eat this, it’ll make you less stupid.”

He instinctively shied away. “What is that?,” he slurred. “A pot brownie?”

“A pot brownie,” came the incredulous whisper. “Gods above. Kid, just take it.”

Before he knew what was happening, rough hands were shoving a square of food into his mouth and he choked on it before he remembered to chew. An explosion of flavor danced across his tongue, the distinct taste of black coffee and his father’s homemade pecan pie filling his senses. Normally the two flavors together would be terrible, but right now it tasted like the best thing in the world.

He coughed and sat up, feeling marginally less sore. “What was that?”

Ambrosia,” said the second voice briskly. “Food for the gods, good stuff, I recommend it in small servings because big servings will actually kill you. Magical healing properties and all that. Gluten free and non GMO. Probably vegan too.”

Looking around, he noticed that there were two boys in front of him; one tall and blond (the one with wings) wearing a purple t-shirt and some weird looking armor, and the other very short and wearing an orange t-shirt that clashed horribly with his bright red hair. While the blond one was looking at him in worry, the other had just stood up and was scowling down at Call like he’d personally offended his mother.

“Ah. The zombie lives,” Orange T-Shirt said flatly. “You drool in your sleep, did you know that?”

“Who-” Call coughed and winced when his arm twinged in pain. “Who are you?”

The boy snorted. “Good question. Counter argument: who are you?”

The setting sun against his hair looked like fire, and Call was suddenly reminded of what had transpired back in the museum. His hand flew to his stomach, but he was surprised to find it sort of pinkish and a little swollen; definitely not bleeding from gaping, open wounds like it had been earlier. And his guts weren’t spilling out onto the pavement either, which was a plus.

“Elliot over here stitched you up. The Ambrosia healed you the rest of the way,” explained Angel Boy. “You should thank him. If it weren’t for him, you would’ve died.”

“Uh.” Call felt very awkward all of a sudden. “Thanks?”

The redhead, Elliot, puffed up with pride. “No need to thank me, I’m just doing my job. Although, feel free to praise me as much as you’d like, I’m not stopping you. Go on.”

He waited, but Call didn’t say anything. Instead he took in his surroundings and noticed that he was no longer in the museum, but in a dark alleyway somewhere in Manhattan. He was sitting on the ground and the entire upper half of his back was drenched with dirty puddle water, which was gross, but the rest of his uniform was already torn to shreds and covered in dried blood anyway, so he really couldn’t complain.

Elliot said, “Wow, insulting much? I don’t like this one Luke, let’s put him back already.”

Angel Boy, who Call assumed was Luke, rolled his eyes and said, “He’s joking. Ignore him.”

But Elliot wasn’t done. “No, I’m serious. You know we can’t take him back to camp with us, right? We can’t abandon our initial mission just to bring some random kid in, that is not what rational people do in rational situations.”

The bond gave this long suffering sigh that went all throughout his body and ruffled his feathers and tickled the ends of his hair. He was starting to look more like a bird than an angel. A very disgruntled bird. 

He said, “What’s the issue? We were already bringing that one in,” hooking a thumb over to, lo and behold, Aaron what’s-his-face from the museum, who was sitting on a dumpster and staring at Call like a total creeper while all of this was going on.

When he saw him looking he swept his pale blond hair out of his eyes, waved, and gave a very awkward, “Hi.” like they were two kids whose moms had just run into each other at the supermarket. “Glad you’re not dead.”

Call was unamused. He frowned at him before turning back to the two older boys, who were still arguing as if he wasn't there. “Uh, hello? Injured child here? Can someone please explain to me what’s going on-"

“Shh, shh, little boy, the grown-ups are speaking,” said Elliot, even though he couldn’t have been much older than him. He said to Luke, “The plan was to go in, get the kid, get out. It’s bad enough that we got ambushed by six- six! Empousa, but now we have another mouth to feed? I didn’t sign up for babysitting duty, Luke!”

“No one asked you to come,” muttered Luke. He turned back to Call with a kind smile. “Sorry about him. We are taking you with us, where you’ll be safe. You don’t have to be scared anymore.”  

He helped him to his feet, but Call nearly collapsed again when a shooting pain went up his leg, and Aaron was quick to hop off his dumpster and catch him before he fell.

He asked, “Are you okay?” all concerned like they were long lost brothers and not some kids who randomly met 20 seconds ago.

“Peachy,” he grumbled. Stupid leg. He rubbed it to will away the pain, but it lingered. He wanted to ask if they had any more of that Ambrosia stuff, but he remembered Elliot saying something about it killing you in large quantities and decided he was better off without it. Instead, he asked them about the demon cheerleaders back at the museum.

“Oh, you mean the Empousa? They’re long gone, don’t worry. I took care of it.” Luke preened slightly, while Elliot rolled his eyes theatrically in the background. “Me and Elliot came in right when you guys were surrounded, and thank Zeus we did, or else both of you would’ve been goners. Then you passed out.”

He ruffled his hair, which was a complete breach of personal space. “Aaron told us what you did with your shield, Callum. Really cool stuff, little guy. We’ll make a warrior out of you yet.”

Call did not like the sound of that, especially since he didn’t remember telling them his name and yet they knew it. Added with all that talk of “taking you with us”, he was starting to get a really bad feeling. “Warrior? What are you talking about?”

Luke breathed out like he was gearing up to deliver a speech. “I’m glad you asked me that, Callum. You’ve heard of greek mythology, right? Well, you see, the greek gods aren’t just myths. They’re very real and powerful beings that rule over the entire earth. Demigods are real too, and that’s what you are, Callum Hunt. Half god, half mortal.” He clapped a hand on his shoulder. “This might be a lot to take in, but I assure you it’s all very true. You’ve probably noticed that you were different from everyone else or that you had special powers that no one else had. And with those powers comes responsibilities. Responsibilities that you must carry out-”

“Oh no,” Call cut in, coming to a realization. “Is this a Harry Potter thing? This is a Harry Potter thing, isn’t it?”

“A who?,” said Luke, bewildered and a little put off from being interrupted. “A what?”

He made an impatient gesture. “This. This whole thing with the magic food and people with wings and evil monsters that turn into sand. I’ve read enough young adult fantasy novels to know how this goes.” At the blond’s blank look, he explained, “Basically there’s this magical land hiding in plain sight of the real world that only I can see because I’m ‘special’ and at some point the fate of the world will be at stake and only the chosen one will be able to save it and yadda yadda yadda, war, war, teenage drama, more war, romance. And there’s probably a prophecy involved at some point too, isn’t there?”

Luke opened and closed his mouth, but no sound escaped it. Elliot looked like he was having the time of his life.

Call went, “So let me guess. This “summer camp” is kind of like a school right? For magic people? Where you go and learn how to control your ‘special powers’?”

Luke brightened, thankful that they were talking about a topic he knew. “Sort of? I mean, it’s not a school, it’s more like a normal summer camp, but way cooler. We have sword and archery practice every day and war training on Fridays. There’s even a rock wall made out of lava that we have campers climb to test their endurance! Isn’t that cool?”

Actually, that sounded terrifying. “Wait. Is this a military thing? Are we child soldiers?”

“Yes,” said Elliot. “How fun.”

“This is a nightmare.” Alastair would be having a heart attack if he could hear this. “I want my dad.”

“Adults are overrated and they only get in the way,” Elliot said simply. “It’s a kids world out here, Call. Can I call you Call?”

“No.”

“A real spot of sunshine this one is.” He didn’t look that annoyed though. He had this slight smile on his face like they were apart of some weird inside joke that Call wasn’t aware of. “So, what do you say? You ready to be a child soldier?”

Call crossed his arms, slumped his shoulders, and scowled harder than he’d ever scowled before. “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t do that magical mumbo jumbo voodoo stuff.” At all three boys’ matching looks of surprise and confusion, he added, “My dad says people who dabble in black magic are calling on the Devil.”

Luke spluttered, “It’s not black magic-”

“All magic is evil. My dad says so.” He fixed them all with a glare. “And I’m not going anywhere with you people, so you can just take all your magic supernatural crap and shove it. I’m going home.”

He made to leave, but Aaron suddenly grabbed his arm and said, “Wait. You can’t just go. What about the monsters? What about your duty as a demigod?”

He looked at him with those stupid pretty green eyes of his, but Call absolutely refused back down. He was not about to be swayed to do evil witchy magic stuff, not today, not ever. No matter how attractive their recruitment officers were.

He said to him, “So, what, that’s it then? You’re just going to take what they say at face value and go along with it?”

The blond shrugged. “Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve always known something was up with me. I could see and do things no one else could. Supposed it was only a matter of time before I got whisked off to some magical land and started my own young adult adventure, you know?”

“That’s the spirit,” said Elliot approvingly, but Call shook his head. This kid was obviously too far gone, brainwashed into thinking he could get the happy ending he’s always wanted by buying into this nonsense. But this was real life. Fairytales weren’t reality. Happy endings didn’t happen to people like Call.

“What do we do? No one’s ever not wanted to go to camp,” Luke hedged, looking uncomfortable. “They’re always, like, super excited.”

Probably because they were stupid little kids who believed anything you told them. Call wasn’t like them though, he was twelve . That was, like, practically an adult. He was smart enough to question his surroundings, and question them he shall. Loudly and without abandon.

“I don’t care what we do with him, we’re on a schedule,” Elliot said briskly. “I still think we should let him go if he really doesn’t want to come.”

“We can’t do that. It’s against protocol! What if more monsters come after him? You know they will since he knows what he is.” He frowned to himself, looking troubled. “But it’s not like we can force him.”

Elliot was like, “You underestimate my power,” and faced Call with his hands on his hips and tried to look as threatening as possible. “Little boy, I command you to stop being annoying and come with us this instant.”

“No,” Call said.

“Well, I tried,” he said. “Your turn, Luke.”

“You know, it really wouldn’t be hard to take you by force,” he told Call darkly, wings blotting out the sun. “Most demigods are selfless and kind and willing to go to war for their loved ones, but if I have to drag you to camp half blood, then so be it. But I really don’t want it to come to that, so why don’t you just cooperate and make this easier for all of us?”

“I’ll scream,” Call told him flatly. “You try to drag me anywhere and I’ll scream until the cops get here.”

Maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to say in a group full of magic voodoo people. A warm sensation curled around his throat, constricting it, and Call very distinctly felt something in his vocal chords stop.

He was like, “What was that?” only he didn’t say that at all, because he couldn’t say anything at all.

Panicked, he clawed at his throat and tried to scream, but all that escaped was a very violent breath of air. He was mute.

“Holy Hera , Luke. What did you do?,” Elliot yelped. “Did you curse him?”

Curse? Call shot a horrified look over at Luke, who was standing there with his hands held up and eyes wide like he was trying to defuse the situation by looking as harmless as possible. It didn’t work.

Aaron said, “Well, at least you can’t worry about him calling the cops,” and Call has honestly never felt more betrayed in his entire life.


“Me and Luke are going to try and get us some bus tickets,” said Elliot once they were all standing outside the Port Authority bus station in the freezing cold while Call glared all of them down. “Aaron, keep an eye on Mr. Grumpy Violent Child and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”

Aaron saluted. Call couldn’t shout any bad words at them, so he just made an inappropriate gesture and hoped that delivered the same effect.

Ever since they left the alley, Call had been doing everything in his power to be the most uncooperative hostage in existence. When they tried to get him to walk, he locked up his legs and refused to move. When Luke attempted to grab his arm and drag him, he bit his hand. Hard enough to draw blood.

After that (and a lot of cackling from Elliot), Luke just picked him up and carried him while Call thrashed around and kicked his legs, hoping to draw attention to himself. Elliot told him something about how the “Mist” or whatever was going to mask them anyway, but Call didn’t really know what he meant by that, so he kept kicking his legs until he got tired and just lay there in defeat.

Aaron did his best to calm him down, but to no avail. Call was inconsolable.

“It’s for your own good,” he told him, clapping a hand on his shoulder and going for a winning smile while Call just glared at him with a glare to end all glares. He couldn’t really blame him though, the poor kid was delusional. He hoped he wouldn’t be too heartbroken when they finally reached this “camp” and it turned out to be some crazy devil worshipping cult out in the middle of nowhere.

After getting some snacks at a nearby gas station (and Call trying to convey via charades his situation to a teenage cashier who did not once look up from her magazine), they came out to find Elliot mid-argument with one of the bus drivers while Luke stood off to the side twiddling his thumbs with increasing urgency. Aaron dragged him over and he had no choice but to follow.

“What’s going on?,” he asked.

Elliot looked over his shoulder at them, face bright red from exertion. Teeth gritted through his fake smile, he said, “Oh, I was just explaining to this gentleman about the unfortunate situation we’ve found ourselves in. You see, the four of us accidentally missed our train and got separated from our hockey team on the way to our hotel. And we need to get to Long Island as soon as possible or else we’re going to miss the big game!”

Hockey team?, Call thought and shot him a weird look.

Elliot elbowed him discreetly and kept smiling at the driver. “It’s the playoffs tomorrow sir, we can’t let our team down. Look, we even have our tickets!”

He then held up four pieces of paper that were very much not bus tickets, but what looked like coupons for a tanning salon.

For some reason the bus driver didn’t notice this or the swords and various other weapons they were carrying, just scrubbed a hand over his face and down his chin and looked at the sky like he’d find an answer there. “Look, it doesn’t matter if you have tickets, kid. I’ve already told you I can’t let you on without a state I.D or another form of identification. Do any of you have a driver’s license?”

None of them looked old enough to drive, especially Elliot, who looked about 10 years old height-wise. He also looked about 10 seconds away from snapping at him, but Aaron swiftly cut in before they could make a scene. “Please, sir, we don’t have any phones or any money. If we don’t get on this bus we’ll be stranded out in the cold.”

The man’s eyes slid over their entire group: Elliot, who didn’t even look like he could lift a hockey puck, Aaron with his stained soccer jacket and greasy hair, Luke, who was shiftily avoiding eye-contact, and Call who was covered in blood and limping and looked like he’d just barely survived a shark attack.

Please help me, he tried to communicate with his eyes. These people are crazy and they kidnapped me. Dial 911.

“Have a heart, sir,” Elliot said. “It’s Christmas.”

“It’s December tenth,” grunted the man, but he let them on. Call despaired.

Luke did not release him from the curse, even after they found a couple of seats together, settled in, and began driving out of the city. Call watched the scenery change from sweeping, tall buildings basked in sunlight to a winding dark highway barely illuminated by street lamps and mourned the last semblance of normality as they left the city of dreams behind.

His chances of getting home were at an all time low now. He wondered what his dad would be saying if he could see Call now. Probably something very complicated in very angry Spanish. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally, after half an hour of staring out the window, he plopped back in his seat and slumped over, moping. Aaron had settled in the seat next to him and was busy chatting with an elderly woman across the aisle about something dumb, while Luke sat rigidly and surveyed the bus in a paranoid fashion and Elliot grumbled darkly to himself while wrestling with a giant map in the seat behind him.

“Stupid godly parents and their useless gifts,” he muttered. “Annabeth gets a hat that makes her invisible, but what does Elliot get? A stupid map, that’s what. Thanks mom!”

Thunder rumbled ominously overhead and he waved a hand dismissively at the ceiling and muttered, “Yeah, yeah.”

“That’s your sister, right?,” Aaron asked, finally done talking with Doris about knitting needle sizes or whatever the heck they’d been discussing. “How many siblings do you have? Do I have brothers and sisters too?”

“Maybe. It’s usually the Olympians who have more than one kid. Especially Hermes.” He rolled his eyes. “Apollo’s another one you have to watch out for. Hope you don’t mind sharing a room with 500 kids.”

“I grew up in a couple of foster homes. I’m not new to it,” he said. “But how are you so sure my dad’s Apollo? We don’t find out until we get to camp, right? That’s what Luke said.”

“Listen Aaron, I’ve been on hundreds of these recon missions,” Elliot told him briskly. “And when you get to be a seasoned professional such as myself, you start to notice telltale traits of each demigod you come in contact with. Apollo kids are sporty and tall, typically blond, and have an affinity for thinking they’re better than everyone else even if they have no redeemable qualities whatsoever.”

“Hey!,” Luke exclaimed.

“You don’t even count. You’re second generation, so shut up,” he said, then turned back to Aaron like nothing happened. “Apollo’s the god of the arts, which means his kids are good with singing and poetry and musical theater, which is an absolute nightmare on movie nights, let me tell you. You play any instruments?”

“No,” said Aaron, looking uncomfortable.

I can play the drums, Call thought absently, but of course they didn’t hear him.

“Hm, maybe you’re more suited for battle,” Elliot mused. “Are you particularly good with hand-eye coordination?”

“Uh. Maybe? I dunno. I play soccer.”

Call sort of wanted to ask them who they thought his mother was, but curbed that thought quick. Even if he really was a demigod like they said, he didn’t want anything to do with a deadbeat mom who’d left him and his dad when he was a baby. Just thinking about her made him mad.

“I’ve always been good at stuff,” Aaron was saying casually when he tuned back in. “Like, sometimes I’ll get an A on a test that I didn’t study for or I’ll score a goal in soccer at the last minute and win the game. I’ve always thought that having so much good luck was unnatural, but maybe it’s just a trait I inherited from whoever my dad is.”

So, what, his super power was being good at everything? That was quite possibly the worst thing Call had heard today.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was starting to come to the realization that he really was in a young adult fantasy novel, and, even worse, it was looking like Aaron Stewart was the protagonist.

Fantastic. Just. Fantastic.

Wake me up when we get to this hellscape, he thought, because no one could hear him, and sunk down in his chair, wishing he had his hoodie with him so he could pull it over his head and drown out the world around him.

Elliot, because he could not, in fact, read minds, said quite loudly, “Well, I still think you’re an Apollo kid. Not all kids are stereotypes of their godly parentage. Take Luke for instance. He’s half harpy and a second generation demigod, but he’s a better swordsman than anyone I’ve ever seen at camp.”

Luke looked absolutely delighted. “Was that a compliment? Was that an actual, genuine compliment from Elliot Jerome Schafer? Am I dreaming?”

“Shut up, loser, I wasn’t talking to you,” he spat, but Call could see his neck heating up under his massive amount of red hair. “Anyway, all I’m saying is that I’m never wrong about these things, Aaron. Trust me.”

And then he stood. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go pee.”

“Announce it to the whole bus, why don’t you,” Luke muttered, and complained when the shorter boy squeezed past him and jostled his hidden wings in the process.

It was mercifully a lot quieter once the redhead was gone. Call never thought he’d meet anyone more annoying than him, but he’d been terribly mistaken.

Outside it was dark. There were barely any street lamps now, the road almost impossible to see without headlights. Clumps of snow dotted the sides of the highway and Call yawned as he stared at the sky and tried to find constellations he recognized.

But then something strange happened.

A massive black cloud blotted out the moon and the surrounding stars. It happened so fast it was like someone had just flipped a switch and turned all the lights in the sky out. Through the crack in the window he could hear the sound of a thousand little metal pieces scraping together, distant but amassed, and it sounded like it was getting closer.

“Uh, guys?,” Aaron said, noticing it too and scooching away from the window quickly. “What is that?”

“Trouble,” Luke said, deadly serious. He rose from his seat, hand going for his sword. Aaron instinctively grabbed his wrist and Call was too freaked out to shake him off.

“Please remain seated until the vehicle has come to a complete stop,” the bus driver intoned, completely unaware. The black cloud grew bigger and then the moonlight caught it, and Call realized it wasn’t just one big something, but a thousand tiny somethings.

Before anyone could do anything, it hit them.

The bus shuddered and rocked on its wheels like a bomb had exploded next to it and Call was thrown from his seat. Passengers screamed and scrambled to hold on, but some tumbled into the aisle, while the bus driver cursed and struggled to regain control of the steering wheel.

In the midst of all this happening, Elliot stuck his head back out of the bathroom looking harassed. A piece of toilet paper was trapped in his hair. He took one look outside and let out a loud squawk.

“Stymphalian birds?,” he yelped. “Are you kidding me?”

“Everybody down!,” Luke roared, and then stood in the middle of the aisle and let his wings snap out to their full size. The bus riders just screamed even louder at that. Call sympathized.

Luke managed to get the emergency hatch on the roof open and Aaron tugged Call underneath one of the seats, the other passengers following suit. Cold, icy wind whipped his hair back as horrible, bird-like screeches from outside filled the air and he clapped his hands over his ears.

“Hey- hey!,” shouted the bus driver. “Who opened that? Close it right now- sit down!”

Luke did the opposite of that. With a powerful gust of his wings, he flew straight up into the night.

The bus was swerving now, trying to avoid the birds as they continued to attack the windows, razor sharp beaks causing hairline fractures to appear in the glass. Elliot was trying his best to hold onto the seats and pull himself one foot at a time up the aisle, but kept losing balance and toppling over every five seconds.

“We need to do something!,” Aaron yelled over the noise.

Well obviously, but what were they going to do? Neither of them could properly handle a weapon and the only thing Call had on him was a shield. If the bus driver didn’t calm down soon, they would crash.

But then Elliot yelled from the opposite side of the bus, “Aaron, we need to pull the bus over! Our exit is coming up on the right!”

They both looked at the bus driver, who was still panicking at the wheel. “Uh, yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

The redhead fell over again. From the ground, he said, “You’re going to make it happen. Call, you still got your shield?”

Call held up his wrist to show that he did, in fact, have his shield.

“Cover him. Take the wheel from the bus driver and gently- gently pull it over onto the side. It’s the best we can do to avoid crashing.”

Aaron looked at him like he’d completely lost his mind. “I’m twelve. I don’t know how to drive.”

Maybe he didn’t, but Call did. Well, sort of. His dad let him practice on his antique cars sometimes at the junkyard. That was better than nothing, right?

Concentrating, he focused on his wristband and watched the black gem glow a second time that day. The shield materialized on his wrist, but this time he was ready to use it properly.

Thankfully the shield was big enough to cover the both of them as they crouch-ran down the aisle. Aaron grabbed the bus driver and held him back with surprising strength while the man struggled and cursed and more birds crashed into the windshield. Up close, they were terrifying; completely metal and horrible with the same glowing eyes as the Empousa, but somehow meaner and less alive-looking. More dead. More monstrous.

Also, Call may have slightly miscalculated his ability to drive, since he suddenly remembered an antique Rolls Royce Phantom was nothing like a modern bus in terms of mechanics. He had no idea where to start, and because of this, he hesitated far too long.

And then the inevitable happened. They crashed.

Screeching tires, bright lights, and the feeling of weightlessness were all Call remembered before he found himself groaning and peeling his face off of the dirty floor of the bus. Something wet and warm was leaking from his head. All around him he could still hear people screaming, but it sounded muffled now, like there was cotton in his ears.

“...all. Call. Call!,” a voice was yelling. Aaron. “We need to go, now!”

He allowed himself to be lifted up and pulled down the steps of the bus. The bus driver was still in his seat, slumped over. The sight made his stomach seize up.

“He’ll be fine.” Aaron’s face was white though; drawn. He knew just as well as Call did that the bus driver didn’t look too hot, but Call knew just as well as he did that they couldn’t really be worrying about that right now when they had bigger fish to fry.

They’d crashed on the side of a road, which was sort of according to plan, right? And, yeah, the bus was smoking a little at the front, but it was relatively okay. And the other passengers didn’t look too banged up. If this were a test, Call would’ve definitely gotten a C minus.

Luke landed in front of them and Call nearly had a heart attack. “You kids okay? Any broken bones? Anyone dead?”

“We’ll live,” said Aaron. Call begged to disagree.

Then he seemed to do a mental headcount and had to do a triple take. “Wait, where’s Elliot?”

“Um, Luke?,” Elliot yelled from the broken window, still on the bus and holding a large book over his head like that would protect him from the demon birds. “Little help here?”

“Oh my gods,” he muttered. Then, “What are you doing?”

“Oh, I thought I’d just catch up on a bit of light reading, you know. What do you think?” He squeaked as one bird got particularly close. “Save me, loser!”

Luke muttered something in ancient greek that sounded like a prayer, before rounding on the two boys. “There’s too many of them, so don’t try to fight. You see that hill over there?” He pointed down the road to a large mound; at the bottom a sign that said “Strawberry Picking” was stuck in the ground. “Run there as fast as you can. When you reach the top of the hill, go straight through the border and don’t come back, no matter what happens. You understand me?”

“But-” Aaron looked sideways at Call, who was hunched over and wincing, blood leaking into his eyes and legs straining to hold him up.

He yelled, “Go!” And then took off in a flurry of wings. Call and Aaron had no choice but to do as he said and ran down the street as fast as they could.

But the snow was slippery and Call’s leg was already giving out, so he slipped and fell. Aaron stopped and turned around even though the hill was right there.

“Come on!,” he yelled, trying to haul Call to his feet. “You need to keep going!”

“I can't,” Call said, surprised to find his voice was working again. The curse must’ve worn off.

“Yes you can!”

“No, I really can't,” he wheezed. The last time he’d run this far and this long was in gym class, and he was already starting to slip into the same mindset of death being the better option over exercise. “Go on without me, I'll die a martyr.”

But Aaron shook his head. “I’m not going without you. Come on.”

And then there was a yell. Both boys looked up and over, down the hill where Luke and Elliot were running, Luke’s wings splayed out like a shield over the tiny redhead while birds swooped down in modules and attacked. Luke yelled, “The border! Get across the border! Quick!”

Aaron looked at Call, looked at the birds, and then his jaw set. He reached for his sword and pulled it out, gold reflecting in the moonlight.

But then, to Call’s surprise, Aaron re-sheathed his sword. He seemed to realize taking on the birds one on one like that would be futile.

He reached into his soccer jacket instead and pulled out a tiny jar of green light.

“The heck is that?,” Call asked eloquently, but Aaron just tightened his hold on the glass jar. He stood there as the birds advanced and Luke yelled at them to run, still as a statue.

He whispered, “I hope this works,” and then threw the jar with all his might into the air.

It exploded. Green fire bloomed like a mushroom cloud and consumed everything in the sky, and the sudden, dying screeches of the birds made both Aaron and Call clap their hands over their ears. Each of the birds burst apart one by one, sending metal shrapnel all over the place. Call used his shield to cover them, and it was a good thing he did too, because they totally would’ve been impaled if he hadn’t.

And just like that, it was over.

When Call finally let his shield dematerialize, the field was empty. The sky was clear. Smoking debris dotted the snow, but it was dead silent now. Aaron and Call stared at each other, dazed.

“Are you alright?”

Call nodded mutely and allowed himself to be pulled up. From behind them, campers in orange and purple t-shirts ran down the hill as fast as they could, some equipped with supplies and others with various weapons. There wasn't much they could do though, since Aaron had wiped out the entire flock of Stymphalian birds already.

He let that sink in. Aaron Stewart, a twelve year old with little to no training whatsoever, had just obliterated not one, but thousands of monsters single-handedly. And, sure, Call was fully aware that Aaron had Main Character Syndrome big time, but that was just ridiculous.

Elliot seemed to think so too, and was glaring at Aaron as he and Luke made their way up the hill. “I can’t believe you had the audacity to save us all like that without breaking a sweat. How could you. Never speak to me again.”

“What?,” said Aaron, dazed and looking at his hands like he couldn’t believe they belonged to him.

Luke looked like he wasn’t sure if he should praise Aaron or murder him to death with his sword. “The border was right there. Why didn’t you go through it? Are you crazy?”

“I don’t know,” Aaron said distantly, and he really looked like he didn’t know. “I thought I could win.”

“You thought you could win?,” he repeated in disbelief. “Stewart, this isn’t a game. You could’ve died. Call could’ve died. What were you thinking- “

And then he paused. Staring, he pointed at something above Aaron’s head and fell silent. Around them, the other campers who had started to swarm them also fell silent. Someone gasped.

“What?,” said Aaron again. Then he looked up. “Oh.”

“Whoa,” said Call.

It was like a spotlight from the heavens themselves shone down on the blond, illuminating his hair and skin and making him look like a statue made entirely out of solid gold. On his head sat a laurel wreath, also golden, and above that, the spinning holographic image of a palm branch.

Even as the golden glow faded away, the golden laurel wreath stayed. It caught the light of the torches and reflected in the snow, like a crown sitting on the head of a noble prince.

The other campers began to whisper. Call backed away from Aaron, feeling like he was intruding on his moment, but instantly felt bad when the blond turned and shot him a frightened look, like being at the center of so much attention was the scarier than any monster could ever be.

“Nike,” Elliot said, staring as the holographic image dissolved into the night. “Huh. Man, I was way off.”

Chapter Text

Call was at a wedding.

Or, at least, that’s where he assumed he was. It was sort of hard to tell with it being so dark outside in the middle of a wooded area, but the white decorations sort of gave it away. People in white togas were dancing around a fire pit, laughing and singing and making conversation while a beautiful girl with copper curls and a wreath of purple flowers danced intimately with a smiling man in the middle of the festivities. The bride and groom.

Another man stood at the edge of the party. He was tall, imposing, and stood out amongst the other party-goers because of his somber demeanor. His black hair was cropped close to his head. His electric blue eyes seemed to flash in the firelight.

The scene changed.

The girl had strayed from her husband. She was deeper in the forest now, removed from the festivities. The blue-eyed man was with her. He was smiling, but it looked fake. Almost menacing.

“Father?,” asked the girl. Her flower wreath was missing, replaced by a golden circlet. “What is this?”

She held up a jar. It was small and ornate, black with silver linings. On the very top was a silver spiral. It sparkled in the low torchlight.

“A gift. For the newly wedded couple,” said the man.“Take care of it, my daughter. Take care of it well. But heed my warnings.” He looked at her, eyes flashing. “A terrible secret comes with this gift. Break the rules, and the secret will be yours; I promise you that. But you are too young, too naive for the scale of this secret. It is with the love of a father that I order you not to break the rules. Will you promise me this?”

The girl nodded, eyes wide, but they still flicked over to the jar with a mild spark of curiosity. The man’s smile widened. It wasn’t a nice smile.

The scene shifted again.

Blood and fire. Screams. People lying dead on the ground and fire raining down from the sky. Horrible monsters, amalgamations of darkness itself, streaking through the night sky like ink blots in water.

The girl stood in the middle of it all, watching the world fall apart.

You did this, voices seemed to whisper, attached to no one and everyone at once. Your fault. You did this. Your fault. Your fault.

“I’m sorry,” she said, hands clasped over her mouth in horror. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it.”

But it was too late. The deed had already been done.

Call heard the voices build in crescendo, yelling and screaming as tormented souls met their fate. But above it all, in the barest of whispers, came a single sentence:

The winter solstice, it said. And then the world was swallowed up by darkness.


 

Call bolted upright.

He was lying on a cot, his lower half covered in a soft blanket. Rows and rows of other beds filled up the room on either side, curtains drawn on a couple, but the rest of the room, for the most part, empty. Elliot was sitting on the edge of his bed completely unscathed, reading a book, and blinked at him when he sat up in a panic.

“Where am I?,” he asked frantically and then winced when his head throbbed painfully.

“Good morning to you to,” Elliot said, looking back down at his book. “You’re in the infirmary. What’s got you all worked up?”

The infirmary. Relief rushed through him and he relaxed against the mattress. “Nothing. Just a bad dream.” And then: “Wait. What infirmary?”

“The infirmary at camp half blood. Duh.”

Oh right. How could he forget. The settlement of devil worshippers.

“I'm guessing you're not going to take me home, are you?"

“No,” Elliot replied.

Well, it was worth a shot.

“Where’s Aaron,” he asked, tiredly, because he couldn’t be bothered to summon up enough energy to really worry about the blond.

After last night’s debacle (that was what Elliot called it, a debacle), Call promptly passed out right there on the hill and had to be fireman carried to the infirmary (by Luke, no surprises there), where he’d been in a legal coma for approximately two days. Aaron, supposedly, refused to leave his side. Call wasn’t sure what to do with that information.

Speaking of Aaron, the blond had apparently gotten settled in with the Nike cabin already, since he got claimed. Apparently getting a golden wreath on your head was something special amongst Nike children, meaning that you were destined for greatness, so Aaron was sort of a minor celebrity at camp right now. Elliot also sought it fit to mention that Nike had blessed Aaron’s weapon too, so now it glowed every time he used it, which, really? Really? Was that necessary, Nike?

Oh, and also someone had taken Call’s ruined uniform off of him while he was passed out and swapped it for one of those horrible camp t-shirts. Which was just. Great. Awesome. Call wanted to punch himself in the face.

“This is what prison inmates wear,” he said flatly.

“Isn’t symbolism wonderful?” When that only earned him a glare, Elliot said, “You’re not really imprisoned here, just think of it, like, a vacation. We have great food and entertainment. And also sports. Everyone likes a good sport.”

“I hate sports.”

“Same,” he said emphatically. “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

Call frowned as he pulled at the shirt, feeling strange. Orange was definitely not his color. “Do you have this in black?”

The redhead looked at him like he was the stupidest person he’d ever met. “You and I are going to have problems,” he promised, then swung his legs off the bed and gestured to the door. “If you’re healthy enough to be an idiot, you’re healthy enough to get a tour. Follow me.”

The sunlight nearly blinded Call when he finally left the infirmary, bringing up a hand to shield his already light sensitive eyes.

“Whoa,” he whispered.

The scene before him was something straight out of a fairytale book. Lush green trees and an expansive blue sky, puffy white clouds over the most beautiful summer camp set up he’d ever seen. Beautifully architectured buildings sprawled out as far as the eye could see, with hundreds of kids in purple and orange t-shirts running back and forth doing activities that you’d see at normal camps, with a few exceptions. He saw some kids weaving flower crowns in a nearby grove and some other kids sparring with javelins in an arena. He also could’ve sworn he saw a dude with goat legs and another girl with green skin, but maybe that was just the concussion kicking in.

There was also a very sunshiny Aaron Stewart waiting for him on the steps. Along with a somewhat less sunshiny bird boy who was standing awkwardly against the building.

“Luke,” Elliot greeted. “Mini Luke.”

“Hi, Call,” said Aaron with a bright grin, looking unfairly fantastic in the bright sun. He was also dressed in an orange t-shirt but unlike Call, he managed to pull it off flawlessly. “You’re looking well.”

Call eyed him warily. “Thanks. You seem freakishly happy despite the fact that I’ve just been kidnapped and drugged.”

He laughed like Call had just said something funny. He didn’t find anything humorous about this situation at all.

Aaron said, “Aren’t you excited? We finally made it to camp! Isn’t it great?”

“Are they forcing you to say this?,” Call demanded. “Are there hidden cameras somewhere recording this? Blink twice if you’re being held hostage.”

“You know, that’s really getting old,” Luke said, finally pushing away from the wall, just to cross his arms and fix Call with a disapproving look. “When are you going to stop being annoying and accept that this is your life now?”

“Around the same time you fix your attitude problem, bird boy,” he shot back, too irritated to care whether or not Luke punted him into the sun.

Elliot said, “I can’t believe you’re sitting here provoking a child. Have you no shame, Sunborn?,” and Luke gaped at the injustice of it all. “I’m about to give him a tour of the camp so if you would please go away forever I would appreciate that dearly.”

A flying horse flew over the buildings like a great big amusement park ride and Call really, really wanted to go home right now, immediately.

“This is the part where I say something redundant about the situation, right?,” Call said unhelpfully. “Like “this is a pretty big wardrobe” or “looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore”.”

Aaron coughed. Luke looked confused.

Elliot was tired. “Stop making pop culture references and pay attention. You and you, go away. You,” he pointed at Call. “Follow me and shut up. Gods, I hate children.”

“I’m two years younger than you,” said Call.

“Shut up,” said Elliot.

They walked around camp. Call tried his hardest not to do the “character asks questions to establish exposition” thing, but it was becoming increasingly harder to stay quiet the crazier some of the things he saw got. Luke really wasn’t kidding about that lava rock wall. And what was up with that golden fur on that tree right outside the border? And--was that a dragon?

Soon they were at the cabins, so Call missed his opportunity to ask about the dragon. There were a lot of buildings, and all of them were different. Some were painted and some not, some had decorations on the outside and some looked like it was put together by three five year olds with a paint bucket. Call’s favorite was definitely the fire-engine red one that had screamo blasting from the open windows.

“Zeus, Poseidon,” Elliot ticked off briskly, pointing to each cabin in turn. “Hades is at the end there, but its a more recent building compared to the other twelve Olympians. If you walk down even further you’ll see the minor gods cabins, which we just started building a couple of years ago. We didn’t used to have them, but that all changed thanks to Percy Jackson, of course.”

“Who’s Percy Jackson?,” Call asked.

“Not important. Anyway, everyone stays in the cabin that corresponds with their godly parent. Except the Hunters of Artemis, of course, since Artemis is celibate. And Hera since she’s not a cheating piece of crap like the other gods-”

Rumbling thunder.

Elliot plowed forward, “-and some of the Romans are staying with us too, but that’s for the exchange program. And the Amazons.” He frowned. “Now that I think about it, that’s a lot of people. Good gods.”

“But where do I stay?,” Call asked.

“You'll be staying with the rest of your siblings in the- uh." He blinked. "You...haven't been claimed yet. I forgot." He frowned. “That's odd. You should’ve been claimed by now.”

He paused for a moment, as if just saying the word would suddenly make a glowing hologram appear over Call’s head too, but nothing happened.

“Weird,” he said again. “How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

He hummed. Tapped his chin for a bit. Then shrugged. “Well, alright. Guess we’ll just have to do this the old fashioned way.”

The “old fashioned way” meant bringing him to a pretty worn down building located within the crescent moon of Olympian cabins. Silly string and toilet paper and various other debris covered the front lawn. It looked like a mad house.

A boy with tousled brown hair and an impish smile answered the door. His camp T-shirt was covered in paint and various other questionable liquids and when he saw Call looking, he winked.

“What can I do for you on this fine morning, Elliot?,” he asked. “And who’s this? New camper?”

Elliot said, “Hello Cecil. I have a new cabin mate for you.”

“Hermes?”

He shook his head. “Unclaimed.”

Past the door, a chorus of groans was heard, but Cecil waved them off.

“Ignore them. We actually have room now since everyone gets claimed nowadays. Well, not everyone since...” He trailed off awkwardly, making a vague gesture at Call, who just looked at him. “Uh, anyway. Welcome to the Hermes cabin!”

When he walked in, he found dozens of eyes staring back at him. Dozens of calculating, mischievous eyes framed by curly hair and slightly pointed ears, who all simultaneously honed in on Call’s wristband like they were already thinking of pulling off the biggest jewel heist of the century.

Elliot grabbed his shoulder before he could go in further, looking wary. “Bit of advice, don’t leave anything lying around unless you want it stolen.”

“Wait what?,” Call said.

Happy camping!” Then he was off.

Comforting.

Call placed his stuff on the nearest bed and sighed. None of the other kids seemed to pay him a lick of attention, instead busying themselves with their own devices while Call settled down and tried not to feel sorry for himself.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.


 

 

On the first day of his new life at Camp Half Blood, Call realized two things:

1.) If you asked the forest nymphs to make your steak extra rare, they’d do it, but only if you asked very nicely and gave them something in return. Call found out pretty quickly that they liked socks. He was running out of socks.

And 2.) In a world where adventures were at every turn and kids trained to fight monsters with swords, he found it was very difficult to avoid fantasy plotlines.

No, seriously, you’d be surprised at how often he was presented with the opportunity to really get the ball rolling on this stupid plot, but fortunately for him, he was a master at avoiding responsibilities. A master.

If he heard a “hey, let’s go check out that suspicious rumbling over by Zeus’ fist!”, he pretended he didn’t hear. If someone said, “Look, I found this glowing necklace at the camp store, you want to try it on?” he quickly walked in the opposite direction. And if he felt a mysterious compelling urge to walk into the forest surrounding the camp, if he felt a tugging at his heart every time he passed those trees, like something was calling out to him from the darkness...well, you better believe he took his scrawny butt back to his cabin and took a nap.

But he figured those were all just side plots, nothing really important. He was already in deep trouble because he was associated with Aaron, who was quite obviously the hero of the main plot, but he figured that as long as he stayed away from the blond boy and didn’t get involved in his specific story arc, then he’d be free to live out his life as the background character he was always meant to be.

All he had to do was avoid Aaron Stewart. Simple, right?

Wrong.

“Hi, Call,” said Aaron the second the Hermes cabin entered the mess hall for breakfast, plate already filled with varying sweets as he sidled up next to him before he could sit down. “Did you sleep well last night? I did. I mean, I had a nightmare about an abandoned amusement park, and it was so scary, but Lydia--that’s my sister-- gave me this sleeping draught that she got from the Hypnos cabin and I slept through the rest of the night! If you’re having nightmares you should totally talk to Clovis, he’s really cool. Kind of weird and narcoleptic, but he’s warm and smells like milk so he can’t be all bad--anyway, are you going to eat that?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” said Aaron when they reached their first camp activity of the day, which they unfortunately shared, and opened the door for him graciously like he couldn’t do it himself. “Careful you don’t trip on that last step. Oh, and watch that paneling over there, there’s a nail sticking out of the wood. Do you want a chair to elevate your leg? I’ll get you a chair.”

“Call! I saved you a seat!,” said Aaron at arts and crafts, smiling with his eyes all crinkled up while Call cursed every god in the entire universe one by one in alphabetical order. “I already got a second chair for your leg, I hope you don’t mind--oh, hey, have you met Celia yet? Celia this is Call. Oh, and this is Jasper. You can share my stickers if you want!”

Call must’ve been some sort of evil warlord in his past life, because there was absolutely no other reason why he deserved the amount of abuse the Fates were throwing at him right now.

It was like the blond was at every event Call found himself at. All “hey, Call, you look nice today” and “hey, Call, are you going to come watch me at archery?” and “hey, Call, maybe you shouldn’t put itching powder in Clarisse La Rue’s armor because she’s sort of scary--oh my gods”, like a relentless blond puppy.

It was worrying, because at this rate, Call was going to become the brooding side-kick to Aaron’s better-in-every-way main character and that was not how he wanted to spend his winter vacation.

His other friends were pretty chill though. Connor and Travis Stoll, sons of Hermes and Call’s roomies, seemed to have taken an immediate liking to him, taking him with them on their pranking excursions and wreaking havoc on unsuspecting campers when they didn’t have to go to activities. And when they did have to go to activities they always sent him off on his merry way with his pockets full of firecrackers and candy and various other items that they’d “borrowed” from the camp store. They really and truly treated him like a little brother and not just some bummy kid who crashed their cabin because he didn’t have a parent of his own. Call really liked them.

There was also Celia, a very pretty mixed girl with lots of uncontrollable curly blond hair and icy blue eyes that made her look like some sort of supernatural being (although she wasn’t a forest nymph or anything like that, just a daughter of Demeter), who shared an arts and crafts class with Call and always lent him her glue gun because he lost his on the first day.

“Thanks,” he said, accepting the art tool.

“No problem.” She blushed. Call noticed she did that a lot. She must be easily embarrassed.

Behind her, Jasper DeWinter turned fully around in his seat to glare at him. “You can’t even do arts and crafts right, what are you, a mortal? What a loser.”

Celia glared daggers at him.

Jasper DeWinter was a son of Aphrodite who didn’t go a single minute out of a 24 hour day without reminding you of this fact. He constantly went around giving out “love tips” to heartbroken campers, acting like he was doing everyone a great service by letting them be privy to his expertise, even though he was only 12 years old and probably never even had a girlfriend before.

And despite being an (admittedly) attractive Vietnamese boy with swishy hair and a devilish smile, he had a pretty terrible personality. This became apparent when on the first day of activities he took one look at Call, curled his lip, and then announced in a grating voice that he refused to be in the same class as someone who couldn’t even cut their hair properly. No one had laughed at the time, but Call could feel the stares on his back when he walked out afterwards. Call decided right then and there that he hated his guts.

“I like Jasper,” Aaron said. “He’s nice.”

“Not to me,” Call grumbled, rubbing his leg and wincing slightly. That lava rock wall did a serious number on him, although the scorch marks all over his camp shirt sort of looked cool. In a “homeless but not really homeless” Aeropostale look. “Yesterday he tripped me and tried to tell me it was my fault for ‘walking funny’.”

Aaron did frown at that, but he followed it up with, “I wouldn’t take it personally. He just seems to lash out when he’s nervous, that’s all.”

That just raised more questions. “Why would he be nervous around me?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. It might be because he’s jealous too. He likes Celia, you know.”

Call did not know that. He needed to pay more attention to his surroundings, because it seemed like other people’s love lives were having a significant effect on his day to day life at camp. “Well then if he’s so worried every guy is gonna steal Celia away from him, why isn’t he mean to you?”

He started, “Because he knows I’m not- “ And then stopped. Flushing, he muttered, “I don’t know. Maybe he just doesn’t see me as a threat.”

But he saw Call as a threat? Gimpy-legged Call with the messy hair and the too-intense gray eyes that couldn’t even lift a sword without injuring himself? Literally everyone at this camp could be a Victoria’s Secret underwear model. Jasper should be focusing his attention elsewhere.

But unfortunately Jasper did not focus his attention elsewhere. Not only was he mean to Call when they shared activities, but he also tended to follow Call around camp sometimes, hurling insults and calling him names the entire time. It was so weird. You’d think he’d be busy with his camp activities, or, like, literally anything else, but he seemed determined to make Call’s life a living hell.

“Whatever you do, don’t prank him,” said Connor, shuddering as he lay on the edge of his bunk, upside down so that he could face Call. “I really really do not want to get into a second prank war with Aphrodite.”

Call, frankly, did not want to know what happened the first time. “I could just punch him.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” said Travis. “The Aphrodite kids can get really nasty when you least expect it. Especially if you mess up one of their brothers’ faces.”

“I didn’t say I was gonna punch him in the face,” Call said darkly, and the not-twins exchanged alarmed looks.

Thankfully, Jasper never got physical with him (this was probably because he didn’t want to mess up his perfectly molded acrylic nails), so Call didn’t have to resort to violence to solve his problems. His dad would be so proud.

Sword practice was...interesting. It was held in the big arena he’d passed on his first day, with a bunch of other kids within his skill set. His skill set being the “age five to eight” range.

Aaron was with him on the first day, but that drastically changed after the instructor saw his golden sword. And saw the way he fought. And watched along with the rest of the class as he completely obliterated a training dummy. Everyone clapped. Except Call.

“You’re a natural,” said the instructor. “But then again, that’s to be expected of a Nike kid.”

Aaron beamed.

The same could not be said for Call. He was too scrawny to pick up a sword, even the non-weighted ones you used for practice, and had made a reputation for himself for being supremely uncooperative during sword lessons. Apparently he couldn’t “use the younger campers as human shields” or “call the sword instructors inappropriate names when they were just trying to do their jobs” or “duct tape two knives together to make a double sided dagger”, because this place was a filthy dictatorship that wanted to do away with all means of creativity.

Charioteering turned out to be a bust as well (too many casualties, or as Call liked to call it, collateral damage) as did javelin throwing and pegasus riding (he got about three feet near the horse before it started kicking and bucking like a thing possessed), but of course, Aaron took to everything like a fish to water.

Stupid Nike kids and their unattainable perfection. Call was sort of starting to understand the reason why some of the other campers looked at the Nike children with contempt, refused to allow them to participate in their games. It just wasn’t fair when everyone knew you were going to win at the end no matter what.

So, yeah, Call was kicked out of sword practice. And spear practice. And javelin practice. And Chiron was too wary to let him anywhere near the archery grounds (understandable), so that left him with one other option.

Infirmary duty.

At first he was just manning the reception desk, but when he managed to completely disorganized half the paperwork on Clarisse La Rue’s latest broken arm and then set the other half of the paperwork on fire (don’t ask), he was demoted to organizing the supply cabinet. When he managed to drop several vials of Unicorn Draught (which turned out to be very valuable and in high demand, oops), he was demoted to sweeping the floor. When he managed to mess that up (involving a mop, a bucket, and a surprising lack of wet floor signs), the entire Apollo cabin was both amazed and terrified of his ability to ruin everything within a limited time frame. It didn’t take them long to realize that if he was going to be here he needed to be supervised at all times, otherwise someone would end up dead, or at the very least considerably more damaged than when they’d first entered the infirmary.

“I really really hate this,” he emphatically told the head medic, a blond boy named Will who’s Southern accent could rival Call’s and who had more freckles than there were constellations in the night sky. “If I have to listen to one more medicinal hymn I’m going to eat my own arm and then set something else on fire.”

A young girl who was getting a bandaid on her knee suddenly burst into tears at these words. Will shot him a disgruntled look and he shrugged as if to say “my bad”.

“Look, I don’t like this any more than you do, but we’re going to have to make this work,” said Will sternly. “This is a place of healing, not a circus. If your antics end up harming any of my patients I will curse you to speak in Shakespearean couplets for seven weeks.”

“I’m not doing it on purpose,” he said, half irritated and half frustrated with himself. “I just--sometimes I have bad ideas, okay? And bad karma. Really bad karma.”

“And you’re impulsive,” Will added.

“Yeah, impulsive. That too.”

The boy smiled at him, but it was distracted as he flew about the infirmary checking patient’s vitals and going through his checklist with the speed of a very flustered stay at home mom who’s cookies were burning.

He said, “Not everyone’s cut out for the infirmary, but I don’t really blame you. It’s a tough job. It takes dedication and patience. You always have to be ready for anything that comes through that door. You always have to be prepared to pull all-nighters. I’d do anything for the well-being of my patie--”

“Hey, Will!,” Kayla, one of Will’s sisters from the Apollo cabin, called from the reception desk. “Di Angelo just came back from the Underworld!”

“Here, tell you what.” He handed him a clipboard so fast that Call almost dropped it. “You check up on this last patient and I’ll let you go for the rest of the day.”

“Uh, what am I supposed to do?,” Call asked, but the blond was already hustling through the door, so fast he forgot to take off his scrubs. Kayla was snickering and shaking her head. Call felt like he missed something.

He looked at the checklist. There was a girl in bed number seven who was in need of a checkup on her broken arm. Simple enough. He could do that.

When he entered he saw girl in a purple t-shirt with dark skin and long, ink black hair who was lying propped up on the bed, one arm in a cast and the other attached to a strong hand that was very ominously twirling a knife. The blade caught the sunlight leaking in through the windows.

She looked up through long eyelashes when he approached and Call just sort of stopped at the foot of her bed. Stared.

“Uh, wow,” he said dumbly. “You’re pretty.”

She did not look amused or the least bit flattered. Her gaze hardened like steel.

“If you want to keep your tongue,” the girl said, icily calm. “I suggest you close your mouth.”

Call closed his mouth. He also held the clipboard in front to protect himself.

He said, “Please don't cut out my tongue, witty one-liners are my only selling point.”

“I'll think about it.” She held his gaze for a moment longer and then slumped back against her pillow, exhausted. “You’re not my usual doctor.”

Cautiously, he edged around the bed, still holding up the clipboard in case she decided to attack. “Doctor Solace had an appointment or...something. I’m supposed to, uh...”

He gestured vaguely and she lifted up her arm for inspection, glaring down uncomfortably at her lap with her black hair covering her face like a curtain, making a clear wall between her and him.

He coaxed some stilted small talk out of her as he worked, although it was painfully awkward on both ends. He learned that her name was Tamara Rajavi, she was twelve years old, and that she was a visiting Roman from the second Cohort (whatever that meant). The way she said it made it seem like it was very important though, so Call assumed she was very important too.

“Is it true that Romans have to train with wolves before coming to camp?,” he blurted.

“Yes,” she said. “We train with Lupa and she determines if we are honorable candidates. We also become part of the pack once we pass her testing.”

“Awesome,” he breathed. Tamara looked pleased.

She asked him which cabin he belonged to. He told her that he hadn’t been claimed yet and she looked surprised.

“Is it really that weird?,” he asked. “Being unclaimed?”

“Uncommon at least,” she admitted. “Most kids get claimed by the time they’re thirteen, almost all of them before then. The gods aren’t usually ones to go against pacts. Especially ones made by Percy Jackson.”

There was that name again. “Who’s Percy Jackson?”

“Child of the big three. Went on a quest to Greece or something. Before my time.” She said this all very flippantly, like the topic wasn’t important at all. “But before the pact, you had to do something to get claimed. Like save a mortal or kill a Minotaur. Maybe the reason your mom hasn’t claimed you yet is because she doesn’t think you’re worthy enough.”

Wow, okay. Tamara was pretty, but she obviously seemed to think Call wasn’t anything special, just like everyone else he’d met at this stupid camp. “Oh yeah? Then who’s your parent?”

She drew herself up and Call instantly knew he’d said something wrong. “I come from a lineage of well-established war heroes. Both of my parents are full demigods, my mother a daughter of Fortuna and my father a son of Bellona. But don’t think that just because I’m second generation that means I’m not as powerful.”

Clearly a touchy subject. Call wondered what the Roman camp was like, if they treated you like you were less of a hero just because you weren’t fully half god. It reminded him of back home, where the kids would pick on you just because your skin was darker than theirs, because your hair was coarser and your nose flatter, or because your father worked as a mechanic in the bad part of town while theirs were businessmen with expensive watches.

He said, “I don’t think that makes you less powerful. Wouldn’t it make you more powerful? I mean, you get twice the amount of super powers. You’re like, a double whammy. Demigod times two.”

She was not expecting that, and almost looked taken aback for a moment before regarding him cooly, like a queen watching a court jester fumble his way through a performance.

“I like you, Call,” she told him simply. “You have the eyes of someone who isn’t afraid to kill. I respect that.”

“Wow, that is ominous. Thank you.”

She shrugged, but he could tell that she was smiling under her curtain of hair. He counted that as a win.

“Can I sign your cast?,” he asked. When she granted him permission, he went hunting for a sharpie (thankfully Will kept one in every room like a maniac) and was surprised to find such a lack of names on there. One name stood out though, in bright green highlighter.

“You know Aaron?,” he asked, signing his name in these choppy black letters that were just embarrassing next to Aaron’s loose cursive, but Tamara looked happy anyway. Or at least, he assumed she was happy. It was sort of hard to tell with her hair in her face like that.

“Yes. We have sword practice together.” She admired her cast for a moment. “He’s very good. A natural.”

Call grimaced. “Yeah. I heard.”

He half expected her to call him out on his poorly concealed jealousy, but she just watched him thoughtfully for a moment. “You know,” she began hesitantly. “If you’re having trouble with your training, I wouldn’t mind giving you a few pointers.”

Was Call hearing correctly? Was this really happening right now? “Wait what? Really? You can?”

She nodded. “I may not be as naturally inclined as Aaron, but I do have eight years of practice with the Roman legion. If you don’t mind sneaking into the training grounds after dark I can definitely give you private lessons.”

Private lessons? With a pretty girl? This was too good to be true. “Aren’t there, like, harpies that eat you if you’re out of your cabins after dark? Isn’t it against the rules?”

She looked at him like he was slow. “Who cares?”

“Tamara,” he told her seriously. “I think I’m in love with you.”

“How unfortunate for you,” she said without missing a beat. “Be at the training grounds at 10:00 pm tomorrow and don’t be late.”

For once in his life, Call was exactly on time for something. He waited until everyone else in the cabin was asleep and then snuck out using a hidden trap door Connor and Travis told him about his first week at camp.

Tamara, true to her word, was waiting for him at the practice arena, hair pulled into a severe braid that trailed all the way down to her back, face half-obscured by shadow and moonlight. She looked very pretty with her hair pulled out of her face, so he told her so. She grinned at him.

Unfortunately, Call was not able to have his First Romantic Rendezvous with the Beautiful Female Supporting Character. No, because obviously the Fates had it out for him and wanted him to suffer dearly, they walked in to find a familiar blond boy mid-lunge towards a training dummy, who nearly dropped his sword when the two of them walked in.

“Aaron?,” Call said, incredulous. “What are you doing?”

“Uh, practicing?” The panic from being caught was visibly starting to ebb away, replaced with incredulity of his own. “What are you doing?”

“The same as you,” said Tamara, dutifully ignoring Call’s frantic hand gestures to stop and vamonos , “But why are you practicing? You’re already the best in our class.”

Tamara was beautiful with a sword. Lethally beautiful. She must’ve taken gymnastics or something as a little kid, because she spun and leapt about the arena like a sinuous snake, all liquid movements and perfectly timed grace. It was a completely different fighting style from Aaron, who was deft and light on his feet, but had a brute force about him that made Call wonder where he stored all that energy in that skinny body of his. They were evenly matched.

“And that’s how you disarm your opponent’s sword,” said Tamara while Call gaped at her with stars in his eyes. “Did you get that?”

“Yes,” he said, then shook his head. “Actually no, I wasn’t paying attention to anything you just said.”

She said, “Unfortunate,” and tossed a wooden sword at him which he barely caught. “You should’ve been paying attention. Now we fight.”

“Huh?” Then he yelped when she suddenly swiped at him with her sword.

“Constant vigilance!,” Aaron called out, probably just to mess with him. He watched them run around the arena with a brilliant smile on his face.

“Wait,” Call said, ducking behind a rack of shields and holding up a T sign. “Time out!”

“There are no time outs in war,” Tamara said mercilessly, and lunged for him.

For a moment , panic spiked through his heart. He saw the sword falling towards him in slow motion, glinting in the torchlight, a ringing noise loud in his ears.

What happened next was something none of them could explain.

There was a great sound like an explosion, a loud crack, and the entire training arena rumbled. Swords and other weapons fell from the wall, clattered to the ground, smashed to pieces on the tiled floor. Aaron yelled. Tamara screamed.

Almost as soon as it started, it was over. Call somehow ended up on the ground, and when he lifted his head dizzily, he saw that all of the weapons had landed on the stone floor, leaving a single clear spot where he was sitting.

Dust settled. Silence.

“Wasn’t me!,” Call immediately denied.

“Well it wasn’t me,” Aaron spluttered, emerging from the table with Tamara under one arm. There was dust in his duck fluff hair, making it stand up in all sorts of crazy directions. “And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Tamara, so it had to have been you.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Tamara said, the ever rational goddess that she was. “Maybe...maybe there was an earthquake.”

“In the middle of New York?,” Aaron demanded. His voice had risen a couple octaves to the point where he could communicate with dolphins.

“We’re literally in a magic camp for demigods and you’re questioning the possibility of an earthquake happening in New York?,” Call snarked, but his heart was pounding like crazy, ears filling with static and fingers shaking from adrenaline. Or maybe guilt. He wasn’t really sure.

Both Aaron and Tamara were looking at him suspiciously. But before any of them could do anything, the unmistakable sound of a very pissed off bird woman shattered the peaceful night.

They locked eyes. “Crap!,” they yelled in unison, and then scattered in different directions.


 

 

Call, Aaron, and Tamara were summoned into Chiron’s office at the big house the next day.

“I am very disappointed in you,” he began, pacing up and down the line of three dejected twelve year olds while his horse hooves clopped along the linoleum. “I expected much better- not from you, Callum, obviously, but Mr. Stewart and Ms. Rajavi? Sneaking out after dark and ransacking the training arena? What in the world has gotten into you two?”

“To be fair,” said Tamara, chin tilted upwards. “It was all orchestrated by me. I was the one who convinced Call to sneak out, and Aaron was just trying to practice. It was all my fault.”

They were sentenced to kitchen duty. With the harpies. How fun.

None of them talked about what happened the night before when they all met up for a meeting with the Hunters of Artemis and the Amazons the next day. Call saw Tamara and sheepishly waved at her, but the tall girl just brushed past him and went to stand next to a girl who shared the same dark skin and hair as her, dutifully ignoring him like he was less than a bug under her shoe. She obviously was mad at him, although he wasn’t really sure how that was his fault when she was the one who sacrificed herself in the first place.

Well, there goes his one-on-one sword training.

Elliot was busy chatting up a very tall and beautiful Asian girl named Serene. Serene Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, to be exact. He didn’t know about anyone else, but that sounded like the type of name you’d make your screen name for Wizard101 back in 2011, but after sharing this observation with Aaron (who immediately delved into a laughing/coughing fit that had him removed from the group for an indeterminate amount of time), he decided not to share this with anyone else. Clearly he didn’t know the power of his own wit.

The Amazons were the direct opposite of the Hunters. They stood in groups and predatorily eyed up campers as they practiced (mainly the male ones), making comments about they way they fought or how good some of them looked in their training gear. The guys all ate it up of course. Tamara observed this strange ritual of flexing and hair tossing with a look of utter disgust marring her beautiful features.

“Dating and love are stupid,” declared Tamara. “There are more important things in this world. Like sword practice. Or food.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re still young,” said Jasper airily. “You’ll change your mind when you’re older. Like me.”

“Yeah, no.” Tamara threw her spear into the ground with enough force to crack the earth. “I stand by my statement.”

“I like your perseverance,” said Serene, looking gorgeous as ever in the afternoon sun. “You’d make a magnificent Hunter with that attitude.”

“The whole ‘hatred of men’ thing doesn’t really work for me, sorry,” she said flatly.

“I wouldn’t call it a hatred of men, more like an enlightenment,” she explained. “Men are far less capable of handling situations, as ancient history has proven. Women are simply better suited for battle. Just think about it, has any woman ever started a war in recent history?” At everyone’s stares, she backtracked hastily, “Oh, I’m so sorry, was that insensitive of me? I have a habit of saying things that some people regard as bigoted.”

“I know this and I still love you,” Elliot assured her. She smiled adoringly at him.

“Oh, how pretty,” one Amazon girl said, patting Call’s head like he was a slightly temperamental puppy. “You have eyes like the stars. Are you a child of Artemis by chance?”

One of the Hunters nearby recoiled so violently it looked like she’d walked straight into an imaginary wall. Practically spitting, she said, “How dare you? Our Lady Artemis would never procreate, and even if she did, she wouldn’t give birth to a male.”

“Yeesh, it was just a question,” murmured the blond Amazonian, pouting a little. She turned back to Call and cooed. “So lovely. Oh, if only I was younger-”

Suddenly, Elliot appeared. He shouted, “He is two years old!,” and then sprayed her with a perfume bottle so effectively that she went into a coughing fit and retreated back to her group of friends. “Begone. I will not have this befoolery on my property. Begone thots.”

It wasn’t just the Amazon who had commented on Call’s gray eyes, it was actually a topic of discussion for a lot of people. Different campers had different theories, but the general consensus seemed to think he was a child of Athena, since the eye color was a trait that nearly all of them shared.

And, honestly, he didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but he really really hoped that ended up being his mom. Not because he was wise or smart or felt like he belonged there or anything, but he sort of secretly hoped he was Elliot’s brother. He brought it up to him once when they were hanging outside of his cabin, Elliot translating something fervently out of a book while Call watched.

“No offense, but you don’t really seem like one,” he muttered without looking up. “Not saying you’re dumb, although that is debatable, but you don’t necessarily look like a child of Athena.”

“Neither do you,” Call pointed out, referring to Elliot’s massive amount of red hair, pale unblemished skin, and green eyes.

He made a face. “Well, yes, but that’s all thanks to my father and his horrible, horrible genes that cursed me to this fate.” He stuck a pencil in his hair and Call watched in fascination as it disappeared into its depths, never to be seen again. “I mean, if you’re going to be neglectful to your child and emotionally absent, the least you can do is let him have the blond hair and athleticism. The Jew fro is just plain disrespectful, honestly.”

“I like your hair,” Call said truthfully. “It’s...” He struggled to find the right wording. “Loud and hard to miss? Like your personality?”

He was laying it on thick here, but Elliot let one of his rare, genuine smiles show through. “Thanks.”

“I like your hair too,” Luke said, appearing literally out of nowhere and making them jump. He looked especially surly today, wings tucked in and shoulders hiked up to his ears like he was trying to make himself as small as possible. He was also giving Call some major side-eye for no feasible reason whatsoever.

Elliot’s fleeting good mood vanished into the night. “Shut up, loser, not everything is about you,” he spat, and quickly gathered up his things while Luke gaped at him in disbelief.

Luke was...weird. Call used to be afraid of him (besides the super huge and powerful wings that could probably crush him if he got hit by one, Luke’s entire hand could wrap around Call’s bicep and shatter it with a single flex), but now he was starting to realize that he wasn’t purposefully stand-offish and emotionless; he was just incredibly socially awkward. It sort of reminded him of Alastair, who would freeze up and refuse to talk anytime a pretty woman or handsome man tried to chat him up during a school function or parent-teacher conference.

He was the camp’s golden boy, that much was obvious, but he didn’t seem to like the attention much. People were always trying to get him to hang out with them, but he only made a habit of following Serene around, and when she wasn’t available, Elliot. His tendency to hover was almost cute, but his distressing silence and habit of staring was, well, less cute. And his ability to be good at everything was also decidedly Not Cute, but that might’ve just been because Call was jaded by Aaron and his perfect perfection.

Luke only really seemed to crave Elliot’s approval, though.

Call decided to ask him about it.

“Do you like Elliot?,” Call ambushed him at archery practice one day, making him flub the shot and shoot an arrow into the tree of a very disgruntled wood nymph.

“I...yes?” Luke had impressive muscles for a fourteen-year-old. Call made a mental note to ask him about his training regimen later. “We’re friends...I think.”

He shook his head. “No, I mean do you like like him?”

The sun came out precisely at that moment to illuminate Luke’s brilliant blush. Clearly Apollo was enjoying this conversation as much as Call was. “What?”

“Because I have some very reliable intel that says he likes you back,” Call powered through, leaning against the fence. Intel being his own two eyes and the fact that everyone could see it from three hundred miles away. “So you should ask him out. Right now.”

“What...no. Elliot does not like me.” His expression turned sullen. “He’s made that very clear. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No, he does,” Call assured him. “He just has a hard time showing it because he’s a tsundere.”

Luke looked badly startled. “A what?”

“It means that he pretends to hate you but he really likes you on the inside,” he explained, a little disappointed that Luke wasn’t versed in the wonderful world that was Japanese anime, but whatever. “He doesn’t want you or anyone else to know that he likes you, so he pretends to hate you so you’ll never find out the truth.”

“But...” He seemed hesitant, like he wasn’t sure if Call was messing with him or not. ”If he really likes me, why doesn’t he want me to know?”

Call spread his arms out in a sweeping gesture. “That’s the way of the tsundere. So are you gonna ask him out?”

But just at that moment the conch sounded, signifying dinner, and Luke actually flew out of there in order to get out of answering him. Call stewed about it all throughout his meal, stabbing his fork into his potatoes and cream while his cabin mates laughed and threw paper at each other. He kept an eye on Luke, who’d somehow managed to get an entire table to himself, Serene, and Elliot, and spent most of dinner watching Elliot, but not saying a word to him. Unbelievable.

Clearly Luke was too socially inept to make the first move. Call had to intervene if he wanted to make this work.

Normally things like this wouldn’t matter to Call, but the truth of the matter was, Call liked Elliot a lot. Sure, he could be pretty snooty and mean and his insults sometimes got a little too real for some people’s liking, but his particular brand of humor was something Call could appreciate. Besides, Call was the same way. And they got along well. And if Elliot really was his brother, setting him up with the hottest boy in camp could win him some brownie points, and he might work his way up to being the favorite brother by the time winter break ended. It was a foolproof plan.

So he waited. 

It didn’t take long for Elliot to become infuriated by something Luke said. He stood up and grabbed his things, said something very angrily to the blond, turned and smiled at Serene, and then left with a dramatic heel turn and an imaginary hair flip. Luke watched him go with exhaustion painting his features.

Call chased after him. 

“But he likes you,” Call said for the fifth time on the way back to the cabins, and Elliot made a strangled noise. “I think you should ask him out.”

“Wow, I would honestly rather die?,” said Elliot. “Maybe you are an Aphrodite kid after all. You can always rely on those perfumed idiots to spend way too much time investing themselves in other people’s love lives.”

A pretty Asian girl passing by overhead and frowned fiercely at them. Elliot fluttered his eyelashes endearingly.

“Not you, Drew, you’re looking absolutely lovely today as always!” He turned to Call once she’d passed. “She’s the worst of the lot. Actual Hades incarnate. Pray that you’re not actually in Aphrodite, I’d be obliged to feel bad for you if you had to deal with that all summer.”

“It’s winter,” Call pointed out.

“Whatever. Anyway, I don’t like Luke. Want to know why?” He didn’t wait for a response. “My heart belongs to Serene and Serene only. We’re soulmates, Callum. I guess you’re too young to understand, but she is the light of my life and heart. Luke is good-looking, yes, but he doesn’t come even close to Serene’s beauty and grace.”

Call stared at him. “Serene the Hunter of Artemis?”

“That is correct.”

“But...” The sheer amount of delusion spewing from Elliot’s mouth was enough to make Call clutch his head. “She can’t date you, she swore off boys for all eternity?”

Elliot sighed and shook his head like Call was the one being irrational here. “Like I said, you’re too young to understand the delicacies of the heart. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Did they let societal expectations keep them away from each other? No! They still found a way, and so can Serene and I. It just takes a little bit of dedication and time, that’s all.”

Call quickly realized he wasn’t going to win this one. He watched Elliot walk off in the direction of the library with despair.

“It’s no use,” said a voice behind him, and Call nearly jumped out of his skin when he whirled around to find Jasper DeWinter there. He was leaning up against a tree in that forced casual way that made it obvious he was just trying to look cool, but Call honestly had no idea how long he’d been there or when he’d learned to sneak up on people like that. “Aphrodite and Venus combined have been trying to get that together for years, but Elliot’s just too stubborn and Luke’s too awkward. I mean, even I couldn’t do it, and I’m the best matchmaker in the entire camp! That really says something. It’s hopeless.” He considered his nails with detached interest. “I would give up if I were you.”

“Why are you telling me this?,” Call asked after a moment, bewildered. “We’re not friends?”

His face went red in two seconds flat. “I was trying to have a civilized conversation with you!”

That made even less sense. Call was starting to get the impression that Jasper said weird things on purpose just to confuse and harass him. “Why?”

“Ugh! Never mind!,” he said angrily, and then left with a heel turn almost as dramatic as Elliot’s. What a weirdo. He wondered if all Aphrodite kids were this over the top about everything, or if it was just a Jasper thing.


 

“Capture the flag?,” Aaron said. “I’ve played that before.”

“Not like this.” Luke tossed him his sword and Aaron caught it by the handle effortlessly. With it followed some leather armor.

He explained the rules. There were two teams, a red and a blue, that reigned over opposite sides of the forest. In each team’s territory there was a flag with their color on it hidden somewhere in the forest. The point of the game was to retrieve the flag from the opposing side and deliver it into the initial team’s territory. Whoever’s flag passes the border first wins.

Oh, and swords are involved. Amongst various other deadly weapons.

“Cool.” Call was looking forward to stabbing things. Especially if they were Jasper. “So does this mean I have to go pick out a sword or something?” He picked up a plate of armor and struggled to hold it up. “Where does this go?”

Luke plucked it out of his hands and looked down at him disapprovingly. “Not you, Call. This is a pretty intense game and I don’t want you getting hurt. Sorry, but you’re gonna have to sit this one out until we can be confident you won’t slow the others down.”

That hit him like a blow to the stomach. All of the excitement drained out of him only to be replaced by a cold, empty ice block that sat in his chest. Jasper snickered behind him.

“Hey-” Aaron started, clearly upset, but Call wouldn’t let him finish. He should’ve known this would happen. He should’ve known that in a camp full of warriors Call would be seen as a liability because of his stupid leg. He should’ve known.

“It’s okay,” he said, even though it was most certainly not okay and he could already feel the tears of frustration building up. But he pushed it down, down, down and said, “I’ll just hang out with Elliot. He said he was going to show me how to play pinnacle and cheat Mr. D out of all his money.”

“What?,” Luke asked, utterly baffled, but Call was already walking back to the cabins, fists clenched at his sides. He looked around for the Stoll brothers, but they were participating in the game (of course) so Call couldn’t even pull a good prank to release the anger that was building inside of him. He felt his fingernails digging into his palms and some Hecate girl accidentally dropped an entire bucket of warted frogs nearby, but Call was too preoccupied with his own self-loathing to care about the sudden screams of panic that filled the air.

Elliot seemed to know this would happen, because he was waiting for him outside the steps of the Athena cabin armed with a stack of books.

“Come on, I’m going to read you the entirety of this obnoxiously big novel and you’re going to take notes,” he said, and just like that all the fight drained out of him.

Call let Elliot’s voice wash over him, spinning tales about previous wars and skirmishes in Camp history, some dating all the way back into the fifties. He listened to stories about daring quests, a metal dragon, a boy his age who traveled all the way to California to retrieve a lightning bolt that everyone thought he stole. He couldn’t help but wonder about the background characters in those stories, the little people that everyone else ignored, but who probably played a bigger part than they realized. He listened to the story of a girl who sacrificed herself so that her friend could find the power to end a war, the story of another who sacrificed herself to get her little brother something he really wanted, all of them overshadowed, forgotten.

It didn’t take long for the sound of clashing swords and screams of pain to morph into cries of victory. Campers, purple and orange alike, spilled out from the forest laughing and congratulating each other. The red banner hung high in the sky.

“Did you see?,” asked Luke, out of breath and eyes bright from victory, but those eyes were only trained on Elliot and his reaction, like his approval was more important than any game, any fight, or any medal he might win in his entire future. “Were you watching? Did you see when I-”

“Of course I wasn’t watching. You know I loathe violence in all its forms. Why would you even bother asking me such a ridiculous question?”

He deflated and Call felt really bad for him, seriously, but Elliot was brutal and didn’t have a single drop of mercy anywhere in his 100 pound body.

He looked at Aaron, who was looking a little pale and worn out.

“You okay?,” he asked.

Aaron nodded minutely and gave a tired smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yeah. M’fine.”

“He’s better than fine. He took out two Lycanthropes in one hit!” Luke reanimated as he recalled the events of the fight. Apparently Aaron had led their entire team into battle and had not only located the flag, but managed to make it back to home base mostly unscathed. It was unheard of, especially for someone his age.

Lycanthropes were the wolf monsters, right? Call hoped the smile he had on his face was encouraging and not obviously showing the jealousy he felt inside. “Sounds fun.”

But Aaron didn’t smile back at all. In fact, he looked a little angry “Fun? Rafe Gonzales- he got stabbed in the shoulder. Stabbed . He’s twelve. He could’ve died. So many people could’ve died- kids. So many kids do die. I hear all about all of these wars- all of these wars that children are expected to fight in. It’s sick.”

Luke just said, “Well, the life expectancy of a demigod isn’t very high, so why wouldn’t we have kids fighting?”

Aaron brought a pale hand up to his head and squeezed his eyes shut, but didn’t say any more. Call sort of wanted to comfort him, but he didn’t really know how. Violence wasn’t a stranger to him, but some people just couldn’t handle it.

Elliot was also looking a little on the pale side and swallowed before shaking his head and going on the defensive, eyes narrowed. “Luke, I do not want to hear anymore of your stupid war-mongering exploits and I never will. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have matters to attend to in the library.”

“Fine,” Luke snapped, dejected. “Have fun with your books.”

“I will, thank you,” he fired back, equally irate, and the two stormed off in opposite directions.

Call looked at Aaron. “If you want to be the hero of your own story,” he said, quoting the blond’s own words, “You can’t be like this. You have to fight. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Aaron barked suddenly, clenching his fist. Then, softer: “I know.”

“Okay,” said Call.

“Okay.”

Call didn’t see him until much later, when the two of them and Tamara met up to begin their first night of kitchen duty. She didn’t say a word to him, and neither did Aaron. They both seemed to be mad at him. Wonderful.

Let it be known that kitchen duty was simultaneously everything and nothing Call expected. They were given aprons and gloves and scrubby things, and the cleaning harpies were quite possibly the worst looking monsters he’d seen so far. But he had to remember that they were possibly distant relatives of Luke, so he just had to grin and bear it.

Oh, and also they didn’t clean the plates with water and soap like normal, rational people. Instead, they used molten lava.

The three of them left the kitchens looking like they’d been dumped into a volcano. A strand of Tamara’s bangs had frizzed out and was on fire, and he watched tiredly as Aaron licked his thumb and forefinger and put it out.

On the way back, they passed the forest.

Call stopped where he stood.

The same tugging sensation in his chest from the first day was there, but worse. Leaps and bounds worse. It felt like someone had sewn a rope to his organs and was tugging it hard in the direction of the forest. He felt his feet move forward before his mind could catch up with the action.

“Call?,” Aaron called to him. He and Tamara were a good yard ahead and were staring at him. “What are you doing?”

“Uh, nothing. Why would I be doing anything? I’m not doing anything.” He wanted to turn back around and follow them, but he just...couldn’t. He had to check this out for himself. “Uh, I’m not feeling so good, I might head into the infirmary before bed.”

“The infirmary?,” said Tamara, and it was the first thing she’d said to him in days. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, you guys go on ahead. I’ll catch up with you later,” he said, already backing away, and swallowed nervously when the two narrowed their eyes at him suspiciously, but they let him go. As soon as they were out of sight, he turned to face the forest.

It seemed to stare back at him.

Come closer, it seemed to whisper. Come and face your destiny.

And even though it was against Call’s better judgement, he listened.

The forest was dark. And quiet. Eerily quiet. There were no birds chirping, no squirrels running up and down the trees, no wind blowing the grass- silent. Like the entire forest itself was dead.

This was insane. He should just go back to the cabin before he gets mauled to death out here. Or gets his soul stolen. Were there dementors in this universe? There was probably something equally as terrible, who was he kidding. This place was already nightmarish enough-

A twig snapped.

He spun around, heart racing. It wasn’t until that moment that he regretted not grabbing at least a flashlight or something before venturing out here, but he didn’t really have time to dwell on that when he saw something move in the shadows.

And through the darkness, he saw a pair of glowing red eyes staring back at him.

 

Chapter Text

 

Callum Hunt was going to die.

Up until now, he’d never really put much thought into how he was going to kick the bucket. If anything, he’d always assumed it would be after doing something totally stupid (like slipping on a banana peel in the middle of traffic or accidentally skateboarding off a mountain) but coming to camp opened up an entire new world of possibilities for him. He could get eaten by a Manticore or trapped eternally in the underworld by stealing from Persephone’s garden. Or he could go the classic way: dying in the midst of war like the child soldier he was meant to be all along.

He just never thought it would happen so soon.

He couldn’t remember why he’d gone into the forest in the first place, why he’d ignored the basic rules of camp etiquette which were, en quote, “DO NOT VENTURE INTO THE FOREST ALONE, YOU IDIOT”, but he was definitely regretting that decision right now. Especially because of the red eyes staring at him through the bushes, sparkling unnaturally in the moonlight.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, Call was alone, he was weaponless, and no one knew he was out here. Plus, thanks to the completely stupid no-cellphone rule, he didn’t have any means whatsoever to call for help. Man, he was so dead.

Gathering his courage, he was like, “Who's there? Show yourself!” like every other White girl in a horror movie that was about to get eaten alive.

There was a moment of silence, where it seemed like the forest was holding its breath. And then something lumbered out of the shadows. Something huge , with matted fur and coruscating eyes. Something with a gaping, drooling maw and rows and rows of serrated white teeth.

Call screamed.

Well, okay, he didn’t exactly scream. He at most emitted a very manly and not at all girlish yelp of terror as he tripped over his own feet and landed ungracefully on his butt, while the thing (A wolf, he realized through his panic) advanced with the slow, calculating gate of a hunter closing in on its prey. It had pointed ears and grayish muddy fur and huge paws that left giant prints in the mud. Its mouth was pulled back in a snarl and its eyes swirled in a kaleidoscope of reds and blues and yellows, like tiny explosions of fire.

Rip Call, he thought hopelessly as the monster got closer and closer. He covered his eyes and hoped for a quick end. Cause of death: being an idiot. Lost but not forgotten.

He was fully prepared in that instant to feel razor sharp teeth tearing his guts out, so he was surprised when, instead, he felt something small and wet poke at his jeans.

peeked through his fingers.

The wolf’s wet snout was nosing at his pocket. Wait, no, not nosing, it was sniffing his pocket. Call didn’t dare move. He sat stock still as the thing pressed even closer, half expecting it to just take his entire leg clean off.

But it didn’t do that. It just sneezed, gave a little shake of its head, and looked up at him with imploring eyes. In fact, it kind of looked...friendly? Sort of? It was hard to tell with those eyes, but its tail was thumping slightly on the ground. That had to be a good sign. Right?

Still wary, Call cautiously brought his legs up and sat criss cross in the grass. The monster pressed its nose more insistently at his pocket, and he suddenly remembered the Twix bar he’d gotten from the Stolls yesterday.

He wanted to smack himself. No wonder this thing was sniffing him, it could probably smell the chocolate from ten miles away.

“Nice doggy,” he placated nervously. “Nice boy. You want the candy bar? You want the chocolate? Yeah?”

Call’s hands shook as he withdrew the offending candy bar and presented it for the animal to see, and then nearly crapped his pants when it suddenly darted forward and snatched the thing from his hand with a desperate sort of air. It must’ve been really hungry. It was making these little growling noises as it ate, like it hadn’t eaten in weeks.

As he continued to watch it, he also noticed that it was wounded. One of its paws was held slightly above the ground while the other four stayed planted in the grass. It hung down uselessly, like it was fixed to a broken hinge. There was a dried dark substance on it that might’ve been blood.

The wolf stopped eating. It licked its overly large snout and peered at Call closely, like it was expecting him to magically pull out another treat from his pants.

“I don’t have any more,” he told it. “Sorry. But there’s something wrong with your paw, isn’t there? Can I take a look at it?”

It didn’t budge an inch, so Call continued, “Look, I’m not a doctor or a vet, but you should still let me look at it. I have opposable thumbs and you don’t. No offense.”

He wasn’t expecting it to understand him, really, so he wasn’t that surprised when all he got in return was a blank look. He was surprised, however, when the wolf actually sat obediently in front of him and held its leg out for inspection like a trained show dog.

But, hey. Magical fantasy land, right? A highly intelligent wolf monster was probably the least weirdest thing he’d seen in the past week and a half.

When he turned the paw over, he found a large thorn stuck in one of the wolf’s humongous toes. Grains of golden sand surrounded the wound, imitating blood.

“I hope you’re aware of how painfully cliche this is,” he murmured. “A hurt animal with a thorn in its paw? That’s like, the basis for every fairy tale there ever was. You’re not gonna turn into a fairy godmother when I pull this out, right?”

The wolf, for its merit, managed to look entirely unimpressed with him. In fact, if Call hadn't know any better, he would say that the wolf was giving him one of those “Really, dude?” looks, like Call was the stupidest demigod it had ever met.

“Don't look at me like that, it’s true and you know it.” He gently prodded at the wound and the dog growled warningly and tried to pull away, but Call held fast. “Hey now, if I’m going to help you, you’re gonna have to trust me, okay?”

It whined. He wasn’t sure if that was in approval or not.

“This is going to hurt,” he warned it, before pinching his fingers around the thorn and swiftly yanking it out.

It jerked and yelped, but it didn’t turn into a magical fairy or a genie, which was as disappointing as it was relieving. Call fished in his pocket for a roll of clear tape and scrounged around for some fallen leaves to make a makeshift bandaid for the wolf’s paw, securing it tightly. It was sort of flimsy and probably wouldn’t last a day, but it would do for now. Hopefully.

“There. Good as new.” He sat back on his knees and ran a hand through his hair. “I hope this means we’re cool now. Are we cool? No more murderous intent? No more sudden urges to maim and consume the small child?”

It inspected its paw carefully, and then, seemingly pleased with the results, stood up on all four legs and wagged its tail happily. Call grinned.

It was honestly amazing how different the wolf behaved now that it didn’t have a literal thorn in its foot. It actually let Call pet it, which was way cool. Like, sure, he was probably getting all sorts of diseases and ticks just from touching it, but still, cool. And its eyes closed in pure bliss when Call ran his fingers through its fur, like it hadn’t ever been pet before. It probably hadn’t, now that he thought about it. How often did someone think to befriend a monster before killing it?

The thought made him really sad. All dogs deserved to have loving homes, even if said dog was actually a blood-thirsty wolf monster. But this dog wasn’t blood-thirsty or a monster. He was just a puppy who wanted to be pet.

“But you’re not scary are you?,” he cooed, burying his fingers in thick fur and scrubbing the sides of its face while it panted happily, tongue lolling. “You were just hurt and hungry. Good thing I had candy on me, or else you probably would’ve mauled my face off, huh?”

The dog barked. It was a booming sound, like a gunshot going off. Call thought it was the most awesome thing he’d ever heard.

A distant wolf howl suddenly tore through the night, making them both look up. Call frowned nervously.

“That better not be reinforcements,” he muttered, then blinked when the wolf got to its feet. “Hey, where are you going?”

Unsettling red eyes peered into his own, searchingly, before it gently butted its head into his hand, like it was saying, “Don’t worry, Callum, but I must go now” in a voice that sounded like Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia.

Call was sad. “Will I ever see you again?,” he asked.

He imagined the wolf saying, “Perhaps, young one,” or however magical creatures are supposed to sound. Then it bounded off into the forest, disappearing into the mist.

 


 

Call couldn’t concentrate in Greek History the next day.

It wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t try. He always tried to do things that were difficult for him (fifth grade gym class with a crutch and an entire class of vengeful bullies stacked against him was evidence of that fact), but some teachers didn’t seem to realize that. They took his inability to follow along with lessons or sit still or pretty much behave normally as an act of aggression, and instead of trying to nurture his differentiated way of learning, they simply sent him to the office instead.

Apparently being a nuisance in the classroom was a trait all demigods shared, which he quickly caught onto when he noticed that no one around him ever seemed to pay attention to the lessons. Turned out he wasn’t a troublemaker, he just had a learning disorder.

Who knew, right?

But yeah, anyway, he couldn’t concentrate in class. Neither could the other 23 ADD riddled kids sitting around him, who were all either bouncing in their seats, tapping on their desks, or whispering with one another in voices loud enough to carry. Even Tamara, from where he could see her at the front, was bouncing her knee under the desk as she took notes. Aaron, on the other hand, was staring at the board with a laser-like focus and scribbling down in his notebook at the speed of sound. So maybe not all demigods, then.

Call himself was passing notes back and forth with Celia (who wrote in pink gel pen and always dotted her i’s with hearts), but his heart wasn’t really in it. He couldn’t stop thinking about last night with the wolf. In fact, he even caught himself drawing a little doodle of a wolf in the corner of his note to Celia, which he immediately scribbled over in case she grew suspicious.

This was becoming a problem.

But he couldn’t help it. A little known fact about Call was that he loved dogs, especially really big dangerous ones that could eat cats. He had an “exotic taste”, which was what the pet store owner in his hometown used to say whenever he found Call browsing the Pythons with his nose pressed against the glass. His dad used to say the same thing, except he called it “actively trying to give his father a heart attack”, which didn’t sound nearly as nice.

Call wondered if, when he finally got out of here, he would be able to take the wolf with him. He’d always wanted a dog, but he had a feeling his dad would pop a blood vessel if he walked through the door with a fully grown wolf at his heels. Plus, he was pretty sure he was banned indefinitely from owning pets at this point, especially after last year’s Big Incident when he accidentally-on-purpose released an entire army of naked mole rats onto main street and almost got sent to juvy. Not to mention that dogs were a big No-No in the Hunt household, since his dad was deathly allergic to anything with fur.

“Never feed a street dog,” Alastair used to say with the same gruff tone and hard flinty eyes he always had. “They’ll only grow attached to you and never leave your side. And lord knows you’re already enough trouble on your own.”

He was a strict man, Alastair. Tough as nails, too, but he had his soft moments. Call knew, because no matter how angry he got when Call stayed out too late or when he got a phone call from the school telling him how Call had broken something again, he never lost his temper. More often than not, he’d simply wrap Call in his favorite blanket and hand him a slice of pecan pie before ambling off to bed. He wasn’t a touchy guy, his dad, but he cared. Most of the time.

But Alastair had never said anything about wolves, now did he? Then again, he’d also never said anything about jackrabbits, turtles, quail eggs, or, on that one occasion, baby crocodiles; but he’d still yelled himself hoarse when he found three of the darned things floating in the fishbowl in the family room.

Whatever. Call would just stay at camp and never leave if Alastair wouldn’t let him keep the dog. He got the feeling his dad wouldn’t want to be seeing much of him anyway, since he’d been so eager to ship him off to boarding school in the first place. He would probably be glad when he got the news that Call ran away to live in the forest amongst the wolves. At least then he wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.

He must’ve been making a particularly ghoulish expression, because Celia found it necessary to stab him in the shoulder with her gel pen. “Call, are you okay?,” she asked. “You look, like, constipated or something.”

“I’m fine,” he said, half ecstatic that she was talking to him and half mortified that his brooding face apparently looked like that of a man who was struggling to push out the greatest dump of their natural born life. “Never better. Don’t pay attention to me.”

“I hear whole grain helps,” she continued softly, expression sympathetic. “My mom's the goddess of the harvest, you know. If you ever need some oats--”

“Thank you, oh my God, stop talking,” he interrupted a bit too loudly, and the class erupted into laughter.

The teacher, who was just an older daughter of Hephaestus and not an actual, you know, adult, was not as impressed. She was also less impressed when he brought up the fact that this shoddy excuse for a school was in a direct violation of the Education Act of 1965, and could he please see some form of identification to verify that she was an actual licensed professional? Shortly afterwards, she threatened to feed him to the harpies if he didn’t shut up and pay attention, to which he responded that he very much did not want to be torn to shreds by Luke’s cousins, so he shut up.

For about five minutes.

“Ms. Nyssa,” he said seriously, “If a monster, say, a Lycanthrope, wanted to eat something that wasn’t a demigod, what would you feed it?”

“For the last time,” said the girl, slowly, like she was seconds away from launching across the desks and strangling Call with her bandana. “It’s not Ms. Nyssa, it’s just Nyssa. And if you want to ask a question, please raise your hand.”

Call raised his hand and refused to wait for her to call on him. “Ms. Nyssa, I don’t see how this answers my question.”

Celia muffled her giggles by burying her head in her arms and Call felt strangely giddy about it. Finally, someone who appreciated his humorous wit.

“All I ask is for some cooperation,” she said, fixing her eyes on the ceiling like she was hoping Zeus would come around and strike her down himself. “That’s all I ask. That’s all.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have put a bunch of ADHD kids in a classroom together and expected it to be all sunshine and rainbows,” he pointed out. “Whose genius idea was that anyway?”

“Chiron’s,” said Jasper DeWinter stiffly.

Call raised his eyebrows and whistled low under his breath. “Oh boy, we’re in trouble.”

“Alright enough,” she hissed. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Gods, I don’t get paid enough for this.”

“It’s just a simple question,” he said diplomatically. “I just wanna know for, like, research purposes. What are Lycanthropes’ main dietary requirements? Their restrictions? Do they prefer chicken over Twix bars or vice versa?”

“Someone shut him up,” Jasper moaned, banging his head repeatedly on the desk. “Please, I am begging you.”

“No one knows what food Lycanthropes prefer, Mr. Hunt,” said Nyssa. “Because we’re too busy trying to kill them to ask what their favorite flavor of Kool-Aid is.”

“See, I think that’s what the problem is,” Call began, and the class as a whole let out a soft groan. “Listen, listen! All I’m saying is that maybe we should try domesticating a few and like, training them or something. To study them. Or to make them friendly so they don’t attack us anymore.”

“That’s impossible, Mr. Hunt.”

“But how do you know?,” he pressed. “Have you ever tried?”

Jasper spoke up, “We don’t need to try because the only thing monsters want to do is kill demigods. Which is why we kill them before they get the chance, not wait around like spineless tree-huggers on the off-chance that they’ll ignore their primary instincts for the power of friendship. Gods, you’re so annoying.”

“Oh, I’m annoying,” he shot back, getting frustrated. “Like you’re such a wonderful fresh ray of sunshine.”

Scattered snickers. Jasper went red. “You’re way more annoying than me. At least I know when to shut up.”

“At least I bring enrichment to the classroom,” he sniffed. “And I have a better grade point average than you too, so who’s the real loser here? All you talk about is makeup and clothes. Talk about a snooze-fest.”

“At least my mom actually cares about me!,” Jasper cried suddenly. “Your mom couldn’t even be bothered to claim you. I don’t blame her, if I had some gimpy-legged freak as my kid I wouldn’t want anything to do with you either!”

The class went dead silent. Looking around the room, Call found that the general reception seemed to be shocked or appalled; even Jasper himself seemed to realize he’d gone too far, because his cheeks immediately drained of color. There were a few satisfied smirks in the crowd of faces though, and that’s what made Call shoot to his feet like his chair was on fire.

“Jasper!,” Tamara gasped at the exact same time Nyssa went, “Mr. DeWinter! You apologize right now!”, but Call wasn’t sticking around to hear anybody laughing at him. He didn’t even pack up his bag or anything.

He just left. He ignored the calls from the teacher and just straight booked it. He could feel the dozens of eyes on him--on his stupid leg --but he didn’t care. He just needed to leave.

The doors blew open before he could touch them, and slammed shut behind him as he ran blindly out into camp. He felt hot all over; itchy, like fire ants were crawling under his skin, but maybe that had to do with the hot sun. The stinging behind his eyes could also be attributed to that, he thought, and also probably the blurriness. It could also be the reason why he didn’t see the person crossing his path until he’d practically bowled them over in his haste.

“OI! What in Hades?,” yelped a familiar voice, and Call, who’d sprawled out on the ground, realized he’d just run into Elliot of all people. “Oh, now look what you’ve done!”

What Call had “done” was cause the redhead to drop two large boxes on the grass. He quickly went on his hands and knees, scrambling to collect the various objects(?) that had just scattered all over the dusty ground. “Watch where you’re going next time, will you?”

“Sorry I--sorry.” He tried to wipe at his face discreetly, but Elliot noticed. He went from looking murderous, to slightly less murderous and also mildly alarmed.

“What the bloody hell happened to you?,” he asked brashly. “Did you get attacked? Are you suffering from blood loss? Is your leg hurting?”

Not trusting himself to speak, Call just shook his head. But it was his leg, it was always going to be his leg, because it wasn’t ever going to heal or get better or easier, no matter how much therapy or how many surgeries he got. He was always going to be different, and people like Jasper DeWinter and Kylie Myles and every other bully in Call’s life wouldn’t ever let him forget that.

A hand touched his shoulder and Call looked up through his bangs to see Elliot pursing his lips, like he was thinking hard about something. Then he unceremoniously dumped the heavy box into his arms.

He said, “I need help carrying this load into the Big House. Grab a box and try to keep up,” and then turned heel and left.

Call didn’t really know what was going on, but he followed.

Elliot led him to the Big House, just as promised, and didn’t say a word to him the entire way. Call was thankful, because it gave him time to compose himself and eradicate any evidence of tears before they got there. He was also thankful that his complexion made it hard to notice any redness of the face, although his eyes felt pretty swollen. Hopefully if anyone saw him they’d just chalk it up to a bee attack and leave it at that.

When they got inside the Big House, Elliot set his box aside and pulled down a rope ladder that was attached to the ceiling. It looked rickety and dangerous, and led up to a trap door that also looked pretty questionable.

Once through the trap door, Elliot said, “Pass me the box and I’ll pull it up through,” and Call obeyed without question. Only once they’d gotten all the boxes to the attic, Elliot appeared again and was like, “Okay, now you come up.”

“I can’t,” he said. “My--my leg. I can’t climb that far.”

“You climbed up half blood hill, didn’t you?,” the older said without remorse. “You climbed out of that bus while it was getting attacked by Stymphalian birds. And you ran around an entire museum while getting ambushed by six Empousa--I think you can climb up a rope ladder.”

Call’s fists shook at his sides. “That’s not the same.”

“Isn’t it?,” he asked then raised his eyebrows, challenging, and Call’s competitiveness won out.

He held his breath and climbed the ladder.

The attic was dusty and dark and covered in cobwebs. It looked like some sort of haunted house attraction; except instead of fake skeletons and strobe lights, there were a ton of ancient Greek nick-knacks dumped all over the place. Against the wall there were shields in all sorts of sizes, colors, and designs; plus an array of beautifully carved knives on a long table in the center of the room. Call even spotted a few large trophies that had plaques on them with things like TANYA COOPER, DAUGHTER OF NIKE, 1999 and CHARIOT RACE #37, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK, 1952, 3RD PLACE.

There was even an old rocking chair tucked into a shadowed corner. It had a tie-dye blanket over it that looked like it was from the 1970’s psychedelic era. And the more Call stared at it, the more he could’ve sworn he saw it move. But maybe that was just the wind.

“Hurry up, will you?,” Elliot called over his shoulder, running his hands up and down his arms to quell his goosebumps. “I don’t want to be in here too long. This place gives me the creeps.”

Call agreed, but probably not for the same reasons as him. Old things always creeped him out, especially things that belonged to people who were long dead. It kind of felt like he was intruding on something private. Like he was walking in on someone else’s life when he had no right to be there in the first place.

“Alright, so, weapons go over here,” said Elliot, pointing. “Trophies here, and photographs here. Any miscellaneous items are to be placed on the table. Got it?”

“Got it,” Call said softly.

They worked in amicable silence for about fifteen minutes before Elliot shattered it with a single sentence, “As much as I want to leave the matter alone--and trust me, I do-- we’re not just going to pretend like you weren’t crying earlier.”

“I wasn’t crying,” he said darkly. “I got dirt in my eye or something.”

The look Elliot gave him let him know how stupid that excuse sounded. “Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night. Now tell me about your woes, small emo child.”

Call tried not to take offense to that (he was not emo, he was punk rock) and was like, “I dunno,” and kicked at a shelf half-heartedly. “Kids are just...mean. You know?”

“That they are, lad. That they are. I’ve had my fair share of bullies in my time. Still do. Why, just yesterday a pair of Roman legions from Luke’s Cahort threw rocks at me until I fell out of a tree!” He nodded emphatically at Call’s shock. “Oh yes, you’d be surprised at how many people dislike me. The other children tend to find me annoying and overly posh, although it’s not my fault I’m so much smarter than 90 percent of the buffoons at this godsforsaken camp--I’m getting off topic. Anyway, when I was bleeding on the ground and about to be further roughed up by the two idiots, do you know what I did?”

“Kicked their sorry butts?,” Call asked hopefully.

“What-- no, you demon. I simply lay there in defeat and let them have their way until Luke showed up.”

He gaped. “What? You didn’t even fight back? Why?”

“Not everything is about violence and bloodshed, Callum,” he said wryly. “Take a good look at me. Do I look like I can throw a punch? Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. The point is, would it have solved anything if I’d gotten violent as well? The answer is no. So no, I did not raise a hand against them.”

“But they hit you!” Call couldn’t wrap his head around this.

“Yes, and then they stopped once they realized I wasn’t hitting back. There’s no glory in going out of your way to hurt someone, even if they strike first, because it just creates a huge dumpster fire of the whole situation. Do you understand?”

Call did not understand. All his life he’d been told by his dad to never let anyone see his weak points, because that was just an invitation to let them walk all over you. Maybe he and Elliot were simply too different. The redhead was like a hissing feral cat at times, but he was also way too compassionate when it came to letting people get what they deserved. It made Call wonder how exactly he came to be this way, throwing hackles up to anyone who got too close emotionally, but refusing to actually put those threats into action when faced with real, tangible danger.

“Look, I’m not very good at comforting,” Elliot said after an awkward pause. “I am a rather abrasive person, I’m afraid. So that bit of advice is probably all you’re going to get out of me. Although it was very good advice in my opinion, so you’re welcome. I expect a payment of three drachmas for our little therapy session by tomorrow.”

“Whatever.” Call rolled his eyes. “Who were the two kids who beat you up anyway?”

He snorted. “What, so you can go after them yourself? Cute, but no thank you. I don’t want your funeral on my conscience.”

“I can take them,” Call assured him. “I’m super tough. One time I gave a kid seventy stitches in his head because he put dog poop in my hoodie.”

The kid had also spontaneously taken a nosedive off the slide and cut his head open before he could even touch him, but Elliot didn’t need to know that.

“The more you talk, the more terrified I grow of your generation,” he said, as if he wasn’t just two years older than him. “Now help me finish sorting through this junk.”

Call helped Elliot sort through the junk. They worked diligently from the time the sun set until it grew dark outside. Call found a bunch of cool things in some of the boxes, like a tiny figurine of Chiron and a picture of two brothers that had been burnt so terribly that the faces were barely recognizable, like it had survived some sort of house fire. At one point, Call even found a super high-tech laptop buried underneath a stack of magazines in one of the boxes, which was weird, but cool.

“Whoa,” he whispered, running his hands over the shiny surface. “Elliot,” he called over his shoulder. “Do expensive laptops go in the miscellaneous pile too?”

“Hah?,” he yelled back, somewhere from deep in the attic. “What’d you say?”

Call rolled his eyes. It’d probably take the other boy four thousand years to make it back to where he was. “Never mind,” he yelled.

He dragged his finger over the strange symbol on the back, wondering why it looked so familiar. It was a series of interlocking circles, kind of like a circular maze. He could’ve sworn he’d seen it before, like in Greek mythology or something, but he couldn’t place it for the life of him.

The symbol started to glow. He snatched his hand back like it was made of fire.

“Uh,” he started, backing up. “Elliot?”

The laptop started to shake, then vibrate. Call’s back hit one of the shelves in his haste to bolt. The the cover suddenly flipped open and greenish light shot up to the ceiling like a spotlight. Then the Windows startup noise drifted melodically from the speakers.

“Welcome to Daedalus’ personal files,” said a robotic female voice. “How may I help you today, Miss Chase?”

“Uhh,” Call said.

The screen flickered, once, twice. “You are not Miss Chase,” said the laptop. If computers could sound disappointed, this lady had it down to a science. Talk about a confidence killer.

He swallowed. “Um, who’s Miss Chase?,” he asked awkwardly. 

Automatically, the computer responded, “Miss Annabeth Magnolia Chase, aged seventeen and four months, daughter of Athena and Frederick Chase, and cousin of Norse Demigod Magnus Chase.” A picture of a really pretty girl with blond princess curls appeared on the screen, next to a giant paragraph of text that grew bigger as the computer added to it. “Skills include dagger work, archery, and soft ball. Social security number 703-XX-XXXX--,” Call raised his eyebrows at that, “--and blood type AB. Spouses: none. Although that may be subject to change in a few years.”

Oh wow. Whoever this Annabeth chick was, Call had some serious blackmail material to use against her. “Jeez, you know a lot about her, huh?”

“I know everything,” it replied simply. “I am all-seeing, all-knowing. Master Daedalus programmed me this way. Now, what is it that you wish to know?”

Before Call could say anything, Elliot suddenly rounded the corner looking frantic. “Call? I heard a loud noise, what’s going on?” Then he took in the scene before him and narrowed his eyes.

“Oh, hey,” Call said, just as the computer girls began,“Elliot Jerome Schafer, aged fourteen and three months, son of Athena and--”

Elliot stalked over in four powerful strides and slammed the laptop shut. The green glow died as it powered down.

Fiercely, he said to him, “I told you not to touch anything!”

“No you didn’t,” Call said, baffled.

“Well, now I just did. You’ve been officially demoted from Object Sorter to Lackey Who Follows Elliot Around Everywhere Because I Can’t Be Trusted Not To Activate Mysterious Magical Objects Wherever I Go.” He grabbed Call by the ear, who protested being dragged away, but mostly because he wanted to play with the laptop some more. It was junk anyway, right? Maybe he could convince Elliot to let him have it if it was only going to be collecting dust up here.

But then Elliot was like, “I have no idea how that thing even ended up here in the first place, but if my sister finds out you’ve been rubbing your grubby little hands all over her laptop, you definitely won’t have hands by the time she’s through with you.”

“My hands aren’t grubby,” Call grumbled, but slumped his shoulders and allowed himself to be dragged away.

Whatever. The laptop wasn’t even that cool anyway.

By the time they finished, Call was surprised at how thoroughly calmed down he felt. Sorting the different antiques into piles had distracted him enough that he no longer felt like punching Jasper repeatedly in the face, which was a miracle in itself, honestly. The nuns at the Magisterium would be proud.

“Thanks,” Call said as they stood outside the Big House. “That helped a lot.”

“Of course it did. I am the best therapist in the entire world and it was only a matter of time before someone noticed my expertise.” Then he smiled genuinely and ruffled Call’s hair. “Take care of yourself, kiddo. The world sucks, but it doesn’t have to suck all the time.”

He frowned. “That didn’t make any sense.”

“Or maybe you’re just stupid. Get out of my sight already, I’m hungry,” he said harshly, and shooed him away.

Dinner that night went normally, or as normally as you can get when you’re sitting with the Hermes cabin. Connor and Travis had already saved him a spot when he arrived, which was nice, but Alice Miyazawa had also placed a whoopie cushion on his seat, which was not as nice. The entire table had a good hoot about it, but Call wasn’t really in the mood. He’d been humiliated enough for the day. He was drained and just wanted to go back to his cabin and never come back out.

But of course he couldn’t do that just yet, because he still had kitchen duty with Boy Wonder and his Miraculous Female Sidekick, and he wasn’t getting out of it unless he wanted to be thrown to the Harpies for real. So he set off in the direction of the kitchens.

Celia caught up with him before he could though.

“I'm really sorry about Jasper today,” she said, eyes wide. Her hair was floofier than usual, and sparkly like she’d put glitter in it, but even that didn’t make Call feel better.  “I don’t know what's wrong with him. He's not usually like this. He's normally really nice!”

Right. He’d believe that when Hell froze over. “Jasper’s a jerk, Celia,” he said morosely. “I honestly don’t know what you see in him.”

She pursed her lips and said, “He has some stuff going on at home,” like that was supposed to suddenly change Call’s mind and make him feel bad for him or something. Call almost died, like, three times in the past week, but you didn’t see him picking on kids for no reason. He only did it to people who deserved it, like jocks and the rich and people that were good at everything. People like Aaron.

“Whatever,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. He didn’t want to deal with this anymore. He just wanted to go home. He just wanted to be with his dad again.

“So, um.” She suddenly looked awkward. “How’s Tamara? I haven’t seen you hanging out with her lately. You guys are friends, right?”

She hesitated on the word friends, like even she knew it sounded stupid. Callum Hunt having friends? Absolutely ludicrous.

Sourly, he went, “We’re not talking at the moment. Her and Aaron are mad at me, I guess.”

“Oh, really?” she said, frowning sympathetically, but the weird way her mouth twitched made Call wonder if it was truly sincere. “That really stinks. Um, you know, if you want, there's a campfire for the Winter Solstice in a few days. If you and Tamara still aren't speaking then, maybe you'd want to go with me...?”

He stared at her incredulously. “Really?”

“Yeah.” There went the blushing again. Seriously, she should get that checked out. “I mean, if you're not busy or anything. There'll be games. And, um, snacks. And I bet we can get a log to ourselves so none of my sisters bother us, so we’ll be alone.”

Call was floored. Man, Celia was so nice . She talked to him, she smiled a lot, and, best of all, she wasn't mean to him. And she laughed at everything he said, which was sort of amazing.

Tamara didn’t think Call was funny--most of the time he got the impression that she thought he was kind of annoying. And Aaron only hung out with him out of obligation, because they came to camp together. Honestly, it was only a matter of time before both of them realized he wasn’t worth hanging out with. It happened too many times to Call in the past; where he made acquaintances, only for them to abandon him shortly afterwards for cooler, more interesting people. He should’ve seen it coming.

Doesn’t mean it still didn’t hurt, though.

But Celia was, well, Celia. She was nice and kind and good. And whenever she walked past, the soft scent of wheat filled the air. She seemed like the type that wouldn’t drop him like a hot potato. And she looked really nice in pink, which was also sort of amazing.

“Sure, sounds fun,” he said, and she smiled brightly.

When Call finally showed up at the kitchens, he found Tamara and Aaron waiting outside for him. Neither of them said hello or offered any form of greeting, so he just brushed past them and tried to ignore their shared glance, like they were communicating wordlessly with each other.

Whatever. He wasn’t even mad that they were getting along so well. Seriously. Clearly Tamara was going to end up with Aaron, because that was how these things worked. The hero got the girl. Not the weird background character who’d be written off after the first few chapters.

After enduring about an hour of excruciating radio silence from the both of them, he started to get annoyed. It was obvious that they wanted to say something to him, probably about what had happened today in class, but Call wasn’t having it. He didn’t want their pity. He didn’t want to see those sad eyes and contorted expressions of concern. Those same expressions he used to get from Student Council Members whenever they saw him struggling down the hallway and asked if he needed help carrying his books. Call was not a charity case. He wished other people understood that.

When it was time to go, Call got ready to put his plan into action. As they walked further and further away from the kitchens, he suddenly announced that he’d left his wristband on the counter and had to go back to get it. The other two didn’t say anything to him, really, apart from Aaron offering to get it for him (because he couldn’t help but be heroic, no matter how mad he was, apparently), but Call declined and doubled back to the kitchens himself. Thankfully, neither of them followed. Which also meant that neither of them saw him heft a heavy burlap sack onto his back and sneak off into the forest.

This time, though, he was prepared. Sure, he didn’t have a flashlight, but he’d always been pretty good with seeing in the dark. And, sure, he didn’t know if the wolf would even come this time, but something was telling him that it would.

He grinned in relief when he saw a large shadow lumbering from out of the brush.

“Hey, boy,” he said, falling to his knees. The dog approached cautiously, but his ears were perked up and swivelling. Call held up a dead chicken. “You hungry?”

Watching a monster eat its food was nothing short of terrifying. The wolf started with the chicken’s neck and worked his way down to its feathery body, tearing into it with a ferocity you’d typically only see from wild animals. It is a wild animal, a part of him hissed, but he shushed it soundly. His dog wasn’t wild. He was clearly intelligent and wonderful and amazing and anyone who said otherwise would catch these hands.

When the wolf finished, he licked his blood-spattered snout and sat, looking up at him expectantly. Call fished out a water bottle from his bag and tipped it over so he could lap it up, then dumped a bunch of dog toys that he’d conned out of various campers (don’t ask) onto the ground. The wolf sniffed appraisingly at some and straight up ignored others. He liked the animal bones, though, even though he devoured most of them within the span of 20 minutes.

“You need a name,” Call told him, pulling at the other end of a lamb’s leg while the dog chewed at it in some weird version of tug o’ war. “Something badass. Like Grenade or Snake Eyes.”

The wolf whuffed at him like he was laughing in his own doggy way. Call let him take the bone and watched as he considered it thoughtfully before stripping it of meat like a frenzied piranha. The sight suddenly gave him an idea.

“‘ Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ ,” he recited aloud, snapping. “That’s from a play my dad likes. That could work.” He turned to the wolf. “What do you think of Havoc? You like that? Has a nice ring to it.”

The wolf paused from chewing the bone to give Call a long, considering look that had him thinking he was going to say something for one wild moment. But then he just sneezed.

“Havoc it is then,” he said. He fished out a large sponge and some soap from his bag. “Now who wants a bath?”

After properly soaping Havoc up and both of them nearly being drowned by a Naiad who didn’t particularly take kindly to having a smelly dirty monster polluting her river, Call was amazed to see that the wolf’s fur wasn’t muddy brown, but a pretty gray, almost silvery color. And when he toweled him off, he was even fluffier than before. It was a gosh darn Christmas miracle.

“Okay,” he told him once he was all dried off. “I’m gonna head back before it gets too late out. I don’t want Connor and Travis coming to look for me. You think you can handle yourself out here another night?”

Not that he really wanted to leave in the first place, but he guessed he couldn’t really camp out here what with all the blood-thirsty monsters and all. Havoc didn’t make things easier. He’d seemed to realize that Call meant to leave again, so he latched onto his pant leg with a fierceness and refused to let go.

“Stop it,” he said urgently, trying to tug his pant leg free. “Havoc, no. I need to leave now.”

With one last harsh tug he freed himself, but then Havoc started whining loudly. It was a pitiful sound. His coruscating red eyes were big and pleading.

“Don’t give me that look,” Call warned. “You know I can’t take you with me. It’s too dangerous.”

More whining. He buried his nose in his paws and let his ears droop, the picture of sadness and woe.

“If someone finds out about you, they’ll kill you,” he continued, but his voice sounded weak even to his own ears. Curse those puppy eyes. “No, Havoc. Stay.”

Fortunately, that seemed to do the trick. With one last whine, Havoc bounded off into the woods. The shadows seemed to bend around him as he left, but maybe that was just a trick of the light. Or maybe Call was just sleep deprived. It was pretty late after all. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he wasn’t going to argue against his intuition. He set off back towards the cabins.

But then a voice called out of the darkness, “Callum Hunt?”

He jolted so hard he almost fell over. Quickly shoving his bookbag behind his back, Call spun around, fully expecting to see a counselor. Or, even worse, a very angry Chiron.

So when he instead found a rumpled-looking Jasper DeWinter sitting underneath a weeping willow in fuzzy bunny slippers, he was, safe to say, extremely confused.

Of all the people to run into in the middle of the night like this, he least expected the son of Aphrodite to be one of them. He was sitting cross-legged with a book open in his lap, a flashlight trained on the pages, and wearing a set of silky purple pajamas that were a little too short around the ankles. The look of complete and utter bewilderment was also a pretty noteworthy feature.

“What are you doing?,” Jasper asked incredulously.

“Nothing,” Call lied unconvincingly. “What are you doing?”

His expression went guarded. “Nothing.”

They eyed each other up carefully, keeping distance. Jasper snapped the book shut, and now Call could see a swirly green symbol on the front of it. It looked like one of those symbols that were on the Hecate cabin. The ones that shimmered when he walked past.

“That doesn’t look like nothing,” he said, pointing at the heaps of books strewn about the forest floor. “Some late night studying? You know you’re not allowed to be out here after dark, right?”

Jasper suddenly shot to his feet. Call had to backup to avoid the flashlight beam. “What’s it to you? Are you spying on me?” He huffed, but it seemed forced and shaky. “What are you gonna do, report me to Chiron? Like anyone would believe you . Everyone hates you.”

Call bristled, but he couldn’t really disagree. He knew everyone hated him. They all thought he was useless and stupid, but that wasn’t anything new.

“Whatever, Jasper.” And then, because he couldn’t help it. “You know, reading about sword techniques isn’t going to make you a better demigod, right? Some people have to be naturally talented. Which you clearly aren’t.”

The taller boy flushed instantly. Jackpot. “Don’t you dare tell anyone about this,” he warned. “I’ll make your life a living nightmare, Callum Hunt.”

He said, “Oh no, I’m shaking in my boots,” and crossed his arms. “Look, what even is your problem? I’ve never done anything to you. I didn’t even want to be a demigod.”

“That’s the problem,” he sneered, but he seemed to be losing steam, because his shoulders slumped a second later. “You don’t even care because you don’t have to. You don’t know how difficult it is.”

“What do you mean?,” he asked, but Jasper went tight-lipped, refusing to answer.

This whole conversation was making Call feel uncomfortable. He didn’t like seeing Jasper look so defeated, no matter how much he hated him. It felt wrong.

“Whatever,” he said again. “Have fun doing...that.”

If Call had been paying attention as he left, he would’ve noticed Jasper’s narrowed-eyed gaze on his back, and the way he frowned, like he was thinking hard about something.

But he hadn’t been paying attention, so he didn’t see. He went back to his cabin completely unaware.

 


 

Things got a lot harder on the third night.

To be fair, he should’ve been paying better attention to his surroundings when he left the so called “infirmary” that night. He was getting cocky, and didn’t notice when someone followed him to his spot to meet Havoc. Until it was too late.

“Call,” said a voice right behind him and he nearly lept a foot into the air. “What are you doing.”

He spun around and nearly died right then and there when he saw Aaron standing behind him, arms crossed. It only got worse when Tamara stepped out of the shadows, equally disapproving, to stand next to him. They looked like two heroes who had shown up at the villain’s lair for the final battle. And Call was the villain who was awkwardly trying to shove trash under the rug because he forgot to clean the parlor before they arrived.

“Nothing,” he said, recovering at lightning speed and trying (and failing) to hide the bag of meat behind his back. “What are you doing?”

Aaron looked at him incredulously. “Are you trying to lure a monster to you with food?”

“No,” he said, even though that was exactly what he was doing. “What are you guys doing here?”

“Following you,” said Tamara. “We saw you sneak off. After you lied to us.”

“Is this what you’ve been doing every night? ,” Aaron continued. “Call, this is dangerous! You could get seriously hurt!”

All of a sudden, Call got really angry. “Why do you even care? Why don’t you just go on and tattle on me like I know you want to. Then I can get even more kitchen duty. Is that what you want?”

Gosh he was mad. And nervous. He was thinking of ways to push them into the ravine without it seeming deliberate when Tamara suddenly blurted out, “I’m sorry.”

He blinked. She stood with her hands clenching and unclenching, while Aaron shifted uneasily from foot to foot. They both looked strangely guilty.

“Huh?,” he said intelligently.

She breathed out. “I said I’m sorry, Call. For getting you in trouble. It wasn’t fair and we shouldn’t have even gotten caught in the first place. So--I’m sorry.”

Perplexed wouldn’t even begin to describe how Call was feeling right now. “Wait, what? You’re sorry? What are you apologizing for? I thought you guys were mad at me!”

Aaron looked at him funny. “Why would we be mad at you?”

“Because!” He flailed his arms a bit. “I got you in trouble! And then you ignored me!”

“You didn’t get us in trouble,” said Tamara. “It was my fault because I convinced you to sneak out. And Aaron broke the rules by himself.” To his amazement, she shifted guiltily and said, “I wanted to apologize, but you wouldn’t talk to us for days. And you always ran off before we could talk to you properly.”

“And we never saw you outside of kitchen duty,” added Aaron. “You were totally avoiding us.”

“Was not,” said Call. “You were avoiding me.”

“We were not,” Tamara said, disgruntled, but before a full out argument could begin, there was a rustle in the nearby bushes.

He froze. So did the other two.

“...What was that?,” Tamara asked, immediately going for her bow.

Panicking, he was like, “Nothing. Probably nothing. I didn’t hear anything, did you hear anything, Aaron? I didn’t.”

“I definitely heard something,” said Aaron, because he was a traitor. “Call, get behind us. It could be a monster.”

“Or it could be nothing at all and we should all leave and never discuss this again,” he tried desperately.

But Aaron wasn’t the type to fall susceptible to Call’s amazingly persuasive nature. He narrowed his eyes at him suspiciously. “You're hiding something. What are you hiding?”

“Nothing,” he said at the exact moment the wolf came bounding through the bushes.

Aaron made this weird gasping noise and went to stand in front of Call, hand flying to his sword. Tamara shrieked and jumped backwards.

“Callum Hunt,” she said slowly. “What. Is. That.”

“A dog,” he said defensively. “Obviously.”

“Call, that’s a wolf,” said Aaron, still standing protectively in front of him.

Call made a show of squinting at the wolf like he’d never seen it up close before. “Uh, no. I think it’s a Husky.”

Clearly Tamara didn’t agree with him, because she said, “That’s not just any wolf. That’s a Lycanthrope. A minion of Lycaon.” She shook her bangs out of her face. “What in Hera’s name is it doing here?”

“It must’ve been with the pack we fought during Capture the Flag,” said Aaron. “I thought we killed them all, but.” His expression went dark. “Clearly we missed one.”

She gritted her teeth. Her bow glinted in the moonlight as she notched an arrow. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

“NO,” Call yelped, and they jumped, startled. He took their distraction as a chance to race forward and shield the wolf’s body with his own. “Don’t hurt him. He’s just a baby.”

“That is a fully grown monster! Tamara hissed, looking at him like he’d totally lost it. “A dangerous monster. Just one strike from its claws are fatal! Don’t tell me you feel sorry for it!”

“He was starving,” he retorted. “I couldn’t just leave him to die. It goes against my moral code as a demigod or...whatever.”

“Your moral code as a demigod is to rid the world of these pests!,” she spat. “Not--not feed it snacks. Are you out of your mind?”

Depends on who you ask, really. Call looked to Aaron for backup, but the blond’s face was that of a man who had come to a decision; that decision being to murder a helpless animal in cold blood because clearly nothing was sacred in this messed up world.

“Get away from it, Call,” he said flatly, drawing his sword. Call’s heart thudded hard in his chest. “This thing doesn’t deserve your sympathy.”

Call tightened his hold on Havoc’s neck. “This thing is my best friend and I won’t let you kill him. I won’t.”

“They’re monsters,” Aaron said without remorse. “They’re not like humans, they’re not intelligent or civilized. They just kill. That’s all they do. You can’t change that.”

He wondered when had Aaron become the Number One Expert on what monsters could and could not do, and sort of wanted to ask him if he knew that they didn’t think the same about them, but worried that it might come out sounding treasonous. This entire situation was treasonous, actually. If Aaron or Tamara decided it fit to report him, who knows what would happen. He didn’t know how Greeks handled unruly demigods, but at this point he wouldn't put murder past them.

“Havoc isn't a mindless killer,” he said eventually. “He's kind and gentle. He hasn't hurt me yet, has he?”

Tamara looked pensive, but Aaron said, “That's not to say he won't. You can't trust these things, Call. You just can't.”

“You trust Luke,” he pointed out. “And he's half harpy.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it?,” he echoed Elliot. “Why? Because he's only half monster? Or because you know him? If that’s the case, then what makes a man a man and a monster a monster? Where do you draw the line?”

Before Aaron could splutter out a proper answer to that philosophical question, Tamara cut in, “This is important to you, isn't it?”

Call nodded seriously. “More important than my left liver.”

“You only have one liver,” Aaron started derisively, but Tamara held up a hand to silence him.

“And if we kept your secret,” she said slowly. “That means you wouldn’t do anything reckless like run away from camp, right?”

He lifted his shoulder in a one-armed shrug. “Probably.”

The blond made a pained noise. “Tamara, we can’t let him keep it. It’s dangerous!”

“You have to admit it's a bit odd that it isn't attacking Call,” she said diplomatically. “Maybe it is friendly. If that’s the case, what do you think we should do?”

“We should tell Chiron,” he said immediately.

“No!,” Call yelled . “They’ll just kill him!”

“Not if we explain the situation first,” she said. “Once he sees that he’s--well--not exactly murderous, he’ll come around.”

“Sure, if we say he’s Aaron's dog, not mine,” he said sourly. “A Hermes kid would get a butt-whooping, but Chiron would do anything to make his new golden boy son of Nike happy.”

Aaron stopped grumbling to himself. In fact, he looked like he just got smacked between the eyes with a small object. “What?”

“But you’re not a Hermes kid,” said Tamara, a little confused. “You’re still unclaimed.”

For some reason that really stung. He closed his eyes momentarily. “I know, I know. But people still treat me like I’m--like they don’t trust me. If they find out about Havoc...”

“Okay, so we won’t tell,” she said calmly. “Don’t worry, Call. We’ll keep your secret. Right Aaron?”

Aaron was still looking pretty mutinous on his end, but grunted when she nudged him. “Fine. I won’t tell Chiron. Yet .”

“Great,” Call said menacingly. “Now come pet my dog.”

Tamara was the first to brave the unnatural phenomenon that was Havoc the Friendly Wolf, after losing a rock paper scissors tournament with Aaron 3 to none (in hindsight, challenging a child of Nike was a mistake they all should’ve seen coming). Her approach was careful and hesitant, not leaving Havoc’s sight in case sudden movements spooked him into going into a killing frenzy.

She put out a hand to rub his furry side, fingers brushing through his thick hide with caution. And then she smiled. “He’s fluffy.”

“Mm-hm,” Call said proudly. “Like a big shag carpet.”

“With teeth,” Aaron added, then put out a hesitant hand to gingerly pat him on the head. He smiled shakily when Havoc pushed his snout into his palm. “I guess he's not so bad.”

“No, he’s actually really well behaved.” Tamara frowned a little. “Don’t you think that’s strange? That he’s so attached to Call? Monsters aren’t normally like that, right?”

“He’s not attached to me, he just likes Twix bars,” said Call. Havoc padded over to him and flopped his huge body on Call’s legs like he was a yippy lapdog and not a 180 pound wolf. Then he squirmed onto his back and put his paws in the air.

Tamara actually laughed. She had a nice laugh. “I can’t get over how harmless he is. He’s like a puppy.”

“Honestly I think he thinks I’m a puppy,” Call said, sitting there helplessly as the wolf licked a big, warm tongue up the side of his face and into his hair, making it stand on end. “He keeps grooming me.”

“I think he’s testing your flavor,” said Aaron, leaning against the tree with folded arms. “Their main diet is demigod flesh after all.” He shot the wolf a mistrustful glance.

“Well, he’s been doing well with chicken gizzards so far,” said Call. “And if he’s really getting a craving for Demigod, there’s a whole buffet at camp to choose from.”

They stared at him.

“That was a joke,” he said lamely. “You’re supposed to laugh.”

“Wasn’t funny,” said Tamara. Then, “What else does he eat?”

After that, Tamara and Aaron accompanied him on his trips to see Havoc. They took turns raiding the camp store for supplies and donating their own bits of food for the cause. Aaron even brought a pack of bacon with him once, which was weird, but apparently the Nike cabin was always stocked up with random meats and eggs for their world famous “protein shakes”, which they sometimes had instead of meals at the pavilion. Call wasn’t sure what was up with the scare quotes, but Aaron looked particularly green whenever he brought it up, so he decided not to pry.

Aaron also claimed he only tagged along to make sure the monster didn’t suddenly change his mind and decide to make Call a five course meal, while Tamara only seemed to be there to make him happy. It was like she thought if she humored him enough, Call would soon grow tired of Havoc and let her shoot him, which wasn’t ideal, but it was a better attitude than Aaron’s, so he just went along with it.

Days passed like this, and Call soon found himself getting used to a sort of schedule. He, Aaron, and Tamara would meet up for kitchen duty after dinner, go play with Havoc, and then walk back to their cabins together (or in Tamara’s case, a tent that was placed on the outskirts of the Artemis cabin that she shared with her older sister). Sometimes they even found time to slip away during the day, which was a lot more ideal since it wasn't so dark out. Call didn't mind either way, but it seemed to put Aaron on less of an edge, which meant he was less likely to complain about Havoc’s apparently ungodly stench.

“I gave him a bath,” Call said, offended. “He smells wonderful.”

“He smells like death,” replied Aaron, nose scrunched. “Please tell me you didn’t bathe him in the lake.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. And risk being seen by the Naiads? Please.” He lovingly scratched Havoc between the ears. “I bathed him in the forest so only the Dryads saw him. Everyone knows the Dryads don’t talk to humans, so we’re fine.”

“Is that why that Dryad over there has been glaring at us for the past twenty minutes?,” asked Tamara, pointing at a boy with long blond hair who was glaring fiercely at Call from behind his tree.

“Oh, that’s Golden. He’s Elliot’s friend. Hi, Golden!” Call waved exuberantly, but the other boy just huffed and spun on his heel, disappearing in a cloud of mist. “He’s sort of mad because Havoc peed on his tree that one time, but he’ll get over it.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon playing fetch and combing Havoc’s hair with an array of Tamara’s old brushes. Aaron even found it within himself to crack a few jokes even though he was obviously still irritated at Call, but seemed to lighten up a bit at their laughter.

But then a twig snapped, and all traces of happiness disappeared from their faces.

“Well, well, well,” said a voice out of the shadows. They jumped and spun around. A familiar figure was standing on the edge of the clearing. “If it isn’t the three stooges. Fancy meeting you here.”

It was Jasper. Of course it was Jasper. Call wasn’t even marginally surprised to see him there, which was concerning, because Jasper shouldn’t have been able to find them at all. But literally nothing escaped his notice. He was the camp’s biggest gossip next to Celia. Call was half-convinced he actually had hidden eyes all over his body, like Argus the security guard.

“That is such a tired villain line, Jasper, and you know it,” he sighed, already dreading the ensuing conversation.

“What are you doing here?,” demanded Aaron, who, for his merit, looked just about as ready to throw down as Tamara did. “Did you follow us?”

“What, like it’s hard?” Jasper snorted. His body language was languid, but his tone was sharp. “You’re not exactly subtle. And I already knew Callum was up to something.” His eyes strayed to Havoc, who wasn’t exactly growling yet, but had clearly read the atmosphere and realized that an unsafe person was here. Jasper’s eyes widened. “I just didn’t think it was this crazy.”

Tamara gently pushed Call back as she stood in front of him, hand on her bow. “Jasper,” she said, voice hard. “Leave. Now.”

“Or what? You’ll shoot me?” He didn’t even look scared, the smug jerk. “That’ll definitely be hard to explain to Chiron, don’t you think? Especially after he finds out about everything that’s going on here.”

“You’re going to tell Chiron?” asked Aaron. “But why?”

“Because he’s evil, that’s why,” said Call hotly. “Why are you acting like this is brand new information? He’s always been a jerk.”

“Funny you’re calling me evil when you’re the one who’s been training a monster behind everyone’s backs,” he shot back. “And for what? Plan on using it to attack the camp? I wouldn’t be surprised. You’ve always made it perfectly clear you hated it here.”

“He’s not training it to hurt anyone!,” Aaron said, horrified. “Call’s not like that at all, Jasper, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh really? Like you know anything about him. You’ve known him for as long as I have. He could be secretly evil or something.” Call glowered at him, but he continued, “And I bet Chiron’s not going to think he’s so innocent either when he finds out about this.”

Call clenched his fists and took a step forward. “You’re not telling Chiron.”

“What are you going to do to stop me?,” he asked, tilting his chin up in defiance. “Beg? I’d be partial to a bit of begging and grovelling, although I wouldn’t guarantee that would be enough to change my mind.”

Havoc growled. Jasper’s confidence seemed to waver for half a second.

“We could just kill him,” Call suggested.

“Uh, what?,” said Aaron, startled. “What?”

“It’ll be easy. We can, like, sicc Havoc on him. Just a straight bite to the jugular. Then we can bury him in the forest. Or leave him out for the monsters to eat his body so there’s no evidence.” He paused at Aaron and Tamara’s matching looks of horror. “What?”

“What did I say?,” Jasper muttered to himself. “Secretly evil.”

"We’re not killing anybody,” said Tamara, looking ill. “Look, Jasper, clearly you want something from us, or else you wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of coming to find us first before telling Chiron. What is it?”

He at least had the decency to look a little embarrassed for being called out like that. Call seriously would’ve kissed Tamara if he could.

“Fine,” he said slowly, like he was tasting the sentence. “You’re right. I do want something out of this.”

Call rolled his eyes at the dramatic pause. “Well, what do you want?”

He tilted his head to the side. Black hair fell into his eyes. “I want...a favor.”

They exchanged looks. That sounded way too ominous.

“What kind of favor?,” Aaron asked warily.

He smirked. “I’m not sure yet. I’ll think of it later and get back to you.” He levelled a long, challenging look at him. “So, have we got ourselves a deal?”

Tamara and Aaron looked at each other, and then they both looked at Call, clearly waiting for his stance on the matter. He appreciated that they were letting him make the decisions on this one, even if he didn’t necessarily have a choice.

“Sure, we got a deal,” he gritted out. “If you promise to swear on the River Styx.”

The atmosphere in the air shifted. Jasper’s smile slid off his face like melted ice cream.

“Call,” Tamara muttered. “I don’t think it’s that serious.”

Call knew what it meant to swear on the River Styx. It was the most serious oath you could make, one that could result in death if you broke it. But Call was stubborn and angry. If Jasper wanted to play games, Call could play them too.

“Of course it’s that serious. We’re talking about Havoc here.” He didn’t look away from Jasper, eyes hard. “What’ll it be, DeWinter? Swear on the River Styx or no favor.”

See, the thing was, Jasper could just decline. He could decide that his favor wouldn’t be worth entering into a contract that could cost his life, but Call knew he wouldn’t do that. Jasper was prideful and vain. He wouldn’t back down, not when his pride was at stake.

The son of Aphrodite’s back straightened and Call knew he’d won. He said, “Fine. I swear on the River Styx that I won’t reveal your secret to anyone. Deal?”

Thunder rumbled overhead. Tamara and Aaron shot nervous looks at the sky, but otherwise were quiet.

“Deal,” Call said. Havoc whined.

 


 

A few days later was the Winter Solstice.

The campfire was pretty much everything and nothing Call expected. He’d been camping with his dad a couple of times in the past (in their own backyard of course, Alastair had a thing about being outside at night), but their fire pit was nothing like this. This one was huge and blistering, and arced up into the sky like a red hot tower. It looked like how he imagined pillars of fire in Hell looked, back when he still thought Hell existed. Well, actually, apparently Hell still did exist, but it just went by a different name here. As if that wasn’t confusing enough.

And to think Call thought Catholicism was hard. Here, there were a whole new set of rules he had to follow, and instead of getting whooped in front of the entire congregation for breaking them, he had to worry about certain death as a just punishment. And the rules were absolutely ridiculous too, like not being able to say the gods’ names out loud or not being able to go in the big three cabins. The most unnecessary by far had to be the food sacrifices, where you scraped off half your meal into the fire pit for your respective god because not doing so was considered “rude”. But they didn't eat the food, no, they just liked to smell it. Talk about a waste.

Call did this every night, but because today was such a big celebration, you had to give a bigger portion, and could even “pray” to your god if you wanted to. He felt particularly blasphemous during this little ritual, but he supposed it wasn't that different from taking communion at Sunday mass.

When it was his turn, he scraped a pretty big portion of his mashed potatoes into the fire and closed his eyes tight. Hey mom, he thought as loudly as he could. I know you’re pretty busy being a goddess and all, but I still haven’t been claimed yet and I was sort of wondering when that would happen? Send me a sign whenever you can or whatever. Anything would be nice. Thanks. Amen.

Hopefully his mom got his message. He sacrificed a lot of potatoes for it.

When he was finished with his food, he started wandering around the different tables. He saw kids of all ages, sizes, colors and races, but there were some who looked so similar to their siblings that Call had a hard time discerning them from each other. He wondered which of the tables and kids he’d sit with when he finally got claimed, that when people looked at him, would be like, “Yeah, he’s definitely one of them.” He tried looking for other black-haired, gray-eyed kids like him, but didn’t see any.

Celia found him wandering near the campfire and bounced up to him with sparkling eyes. She’d ditched the camp t-shirt for tonight and was wearing a pretty flowery shirt instead.

“Are you ready to go?,” she asked shyly. “I got a log just for us. Over there.”

She pointed to a spot half-obscured in shadows, separated from the rest of the campers. It looked secluded and cozy, apart from the group of giggling Demeter girls who were sitting at the next one over and staring at Call like he was the most entertaining thing they’d seen tonight.

“Thanks for letting me sit with you,” he said gratefully. “But I’m actually sitting with someone else tonight.”

“Oh.” Her face fell.

Feeling like he’d said something wrong, he tried to backtrack. “I mean--Tamara and Aaron are talking to me now, so. I was just going to sit with them instead. If that’s okay.”

Clearly it was not okay, because her cheeks colored again. Although this time it didn’t seem to be in a nice way, because she was frowning too.

“Fine. Have fun with Tamara,” she said, then stomped off.

Call stared after her, confused and sort of shocked. Celia had never gotten mad at him before. Even the Demeter girls were glaring at him. One even made a rude gesture at him as she walked away, which was just simply uncalled for considering he didn’t do anything.

He shook his head. Man, girls were weird.

He wandered around for a bit more, and saw the Aphrodite cabin chatting by the fire. He could tell it was the Aphrodite cabin because it was covered in a cloud of perfume and everyone sitting there looked like a supermodel. Jasper was among them, whispering to a girl who he thought was named Daniella or Drew, grinning and snickering like the evil lunatic he was. He saw Call looking and shot him a knowing look, then grimly mimed zipping his lips shut.

Call only just stopped himself from showing him a particular finger and just decided to keep walking.

He finally spotted Tamara sitting next to a tall girl with the same dark skin and hair as her, and next to her, an even taller Hispanic-looking girl wearing a purple sash. All three of them looked like princesses sitting next to each other, backs ramrod straight as they conversed in low tones. He decided not to interrupt. Partially because Tamara looked busy and partially because the older girls were so pretty it kind of scared him. He also kind of wanted to avoid girls for the rest of the night so as not to repeat the incident with the aggrieved Demeter girls

It wasn’t long before he caught sight of Aaron. He was sitting with a group of about eight or nine other kids that looked like slightly different renditions of him, with the same blond hair, dark eyebrows, and tan skin. The only difference was that instead of sitting with them, Aaron had migrated a little bit away to the edge of the log and was absent-mindedly drawing something in the dirt with a stick. He didn’t even turn around when Call sat down next to him, until he elbowed him in the back.

“Hey.”

“Hi.” Aaron blinked, then smiled. “Why aren’t you sitting with the Hermes kids?”

He shrugged. “Well Connor and Travis got banned indefinitely from the campfire again, and I think Julie has a hand buzzer in her arsenal for me at some point tonight, so I kind of need to get away from them for awhile.” He looked into the fire. “Besides, it’s kind of--I don’t know. It feels weird being around them since I’m not really a Hermes kid, you know?.”

Aaron placed his stick down. When Call looked at his face, his mouth was set in a line. His eyes were dulled. “I get what you mean. About--that thing about not feeling like you belong. I get it.”

Call raised his eyebrows. “But you got claimed,” he pointed out. “And you’re with your brothers and sisters. You’re with your family.”

He huffed. “Right. Family. Did you know that in the Roman camp, you’re not grouped with kids that share the same parent as you, but with members of your Cohort? I think that would be better. I’d rather room with people I’d fight with on a battlefield than the other Nike kids, to be honest.”

“You’re not happy in the Nike cabin,” Call realized. “Why?”

“It’s not that I’m un happy,” he hedged. “It’s just that--well--they’re so loud. And obnoxious. And they’re always competing with each other over dumb stuff and getting into fights. It’s like--it’s like no one cares that we’re supposed to be a family. Everyone just sees each other as competition.”

“Well, isn’t that uh.” He racked his brain for the term. “Sibling rivalry? That’s normal, isn’t it?”

Aaron’s eyebrows scrunched together. “I think it’s a children of Nike thing, actually. At least--to be this competitive. Our mom is the goddess of victory, so it’s in our nature to want to be the best. But,” his expression darkened a bit, “It’s hard when all of your brothers and sisters are also the best. Then it’s not so fun anymore.”

He sounded so bitter. Call hadn't known Aaron for long, but even he knew that it was uncharacteristic for him to sound that way. He was supposed to be the happy-go-lucky hero. Not...whatever this weird mopey version of Aaron was.

A sudden shout arose from the other end of the log, and Call looked over at the cheering Nike kids, who were trying to bait the Nemesis cabin into a rap battle (and succeeding) while the other campers sang off tune to a badly done rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. They looked so happy and carefree and decidedly Not Upset that Aaron’s sullenness stuck out in comparison, like that one dark house in a neighborhood entirely lit up with Christmas lights.

Call wasn’t sure how that made him feel, but it definitely wasn’t a good feeling.

After a minute of staring into the fire, Aaron cleared his throat and asked him, “How’s Havoc?”

“I thought you didn’t like him,” Call said, surprised.

“I don’t,” he said quickly. “But he’s important to you, and you’re my friend, so I thought I’d ask.”

Call blinked. And then he blinked some more. “I’m your friend?”

Aaron stared at him and he stared back, taking in the way his green eyes sparkled in the firelight. Were they friends? He’d never had one of those before, not ones that asked about your pets even if they thought they were the devil incarnate. Did friends do things like that? Did Aaron want to be his friend? Did Call want to be his friend?

Aaron was all like, “Yeah,” all slow and drawn out with wide eyes like he was talking to someone stupid.

“Oh.” For once, Call didn’t have a snappy comeback for that. “Okay.”

When neither of them said anything for awhile, Aaron nudged him with his knee and said, “You didn’t say you were my friend back.” And then, shyer: “Do you wanna be my friend?”

He thought about it. He thought about the way Aaron had saved him the first time they met, fiercely protective even though he was just some kid he ran into on accident. He thought about the way Aaron sacrificed his own safety to stop and help Call get up half blood hill when he fell on the first night. He thought about Aaron and his stupid main character smile and stupid blond hair and his stupid, unyielding loyalty that never faltered, not even when Call did something as crazy as try to raise a wolf monster in the forest behind camp and/or threaten one of their peers with bodily harm via said wolf monster.

“Yeah,” he said eventually. “I want to be your friend.”

Aaron smiled, and it was like that spotlight from the first night at camp was shining down on him again. Call felt inexplicably warm.

“I’ve never had friends before,” he blurted, and then immediately regretted it afterwards because he must’ve sounded like a total loser.

“Me neither,” Aaron said to his surprise. “Not real friends, anyway. I got moved around a lot, so I never really got to know anyone that stuck around for more than a few months.”

Call understood. It was alarming how much he understood, actually. Him and Aaron were a lot more alike than he thought. Which was...a scary thing to think about. He should stop thinking about that immediately, right now.

“So what do we do now?,” he asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah, like.” He gestured vaguely. “Now that we’re friends and stuff. What do friends do?”

Aaron looked comically deep in thought. “I don’t know. Spit in our hands and shake on it?”

“Gross.”

“I’ve seen boys on my soccer team do it before,” he defended. “It’s totally a thing that friends do.”

“Spit is still gross though. We should use blood instead to make it more official. Do you have a knife?”

“Yeah, no.” He shut that down quick. “Maybe we should just make a secret handshake instead. Less risk of disease and blood poisoning.”

The ‘secret handshake’ turned out to be a lot of vicious arm-flailing, mostly because Call was having trouble controlling his motor skills enough to meet in the middle and Aaron couldn’t stop laughing about it, which drew a lot of curious looks. Eventually, though, they settled for a simple fist bump. Call thought it was a bit boring, but whatever.  

“Aaron, I asked you to talk to him, not hit him.” Tamara had snuck up on them. “What in Hera’s name are you two doing?”

“Bonding,” Call answered seamlessly. “This is what boys do, Tamara. You wouldn’t understand.”

She looked unimpressed. “That was clearly a rise to bait and I won’t fall for it. Scoot over.”

Call scooted over. The action forced him to press up against Aaron’s side to accommodate her, but the other boy didn’t seem too bothered. He just steadied a hand on Call’s knee so he wouldn’t pitch off the side of the log.

He had fun singing along to the camp songs, even though there were a few he didn’t know the words to, like “On Top of Mount Olympus” and “Down By The River Styx”. Aaron kept making goofy voices when he sang, which kept launching Call into hysterics. Even Tamara seemed to be having a good time. Someone had handed her a tambourine and she was doing quite the number on it. Like, seriously, he was afraid she was going to break something if she got any more enthusiastic.

At one point, Elliot flitted over to them with Luke in tow, flowers woven into his hair like a crown. His eyes were bright and happy, which was so starkly different from his usual look of Pure Ginger Rage that Call almost collapsed from shock.

“I could hear your voice over the others,” he said to Call, like he was telling him a secret. “You absolute troglodyte, you’ve been holding out on me! I didn’t know you could sing.”

“All the boys had to be in choir at my old school,” he explained with a shrug, embarrassed. “Didn’t really have a choice.”

“You should lead one of the songs,” he said, but Call immediately shot that idea down with a fierceness he didn’t know he possessed. He was a soprano. If Jasper heard him singing like a little bonnet-wearing schoolgirl he would never hear the end of it.

Either Luke was attempting to save him from embarrassing himself in front of the entire camp, or he was jealous that Elliot was paying so much attention to Call and not to him (probably the latter), because he was all like, “Well, if Call won’t sing, I’ll do it for you.”

Elliot was unimpressed. “In case you’ve forgotten, Mr. Sunborn, you can’t sing. Trust me, I’ve heard you in the communal showers.”

“I can do poetry,” he amended.

“Really now?” Elliot spread his hands out in a sweeping gesture. “Well then, be my guest.”

With more than a dozen faces curiously trained on him, the half-harpy cleared his throat and stood. There was a pause in which he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, and then delivered in a stilted, halting voice, a haiku: “The warm summer nights/ Are the eppy-tome of love,” he paused, “I have golden wings.”

The campfire went silent. Someone coughed.

“If you actually never did that again, I’d really appreciate it,” Elliot told him with relish. Then procured a little ukulele that he’d been hiding for the duration of the night. “Also it’s pronounced epitome, but you have my full blessing to say it your way because that was as hilarious as it was embarrassing. Now watch and learn.”

When Elliot sang, everyone paid attention to him. The redhead had a surprisingly calming singing voice for such a brash and irritating person, and nearly the entire camp was enraptured by his (admittedly weird) rock ballad/ ukulele fusion rendition of Here Comes the Sun, where he looked dead into Luke’s eyes the entire time, and the latter, not seeming to understand the irony behind the song choice, blushed bright red from the extended attention. Serene looked totally smitten. Even Call found himself smiling like a sap, but had to fix his face back into a scowl before anyone noticed his soft expression. He had a reputation to uphold after all.

At some point during the night, the focus of campfire songs switched to seeing who could be the most obnoxious when singing The Bohemian Rhapsody (which Nike won), which then evolved into the “who knows the most lyrics to Hannah Montana’s Nobody’s Perfect” game (Apollo won that one), which then of course evolved into a screaming match between the two cabins in the form of Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time that had Aaron laughing so hard that he actually did fall off the log.

And when it got to be late enough that most of the under thirteen crowd was yawning, Aaron’s head came to rest on his shoulder, blond hairs tickling his nose. Tamara’s head soon followed on his other side. Usually Call hated it when people touched him, but he found it wasn’t that bad when his friends did it. It was calming, almost. He wondered if this was how normal people felt things.

For the first time, Call felt like he was somewhere he truly belonged.

 


 

But, as always, even the best things must come to an end.

“Call,” Travis whispered, shaking him awake. Call blinked the sleepiness out of his eyes and was fully prepared to snap at the older boy for disturbing his sleep--until he noticed the panic written across his normally impish features.

He sat up. “What’s wrong?”

The lights flicked on. Around his cot, the other Hermes kids were slowly waking up. Some were already sitting up in their beds whispering to each other and pointing to the windows. Others were already outside.

Connor appeared by his bedside and shoved a jacket and shoes at him. All he said was, “Hurry.” and that was enough to get him to roll out of bed, pull on the shoes, and run outside with everyone else.

It was cold outside, which was the first red flag. It wasn't supposed to be cold. Camp half blood’s borders were magically enchanted to keep it summer weather year round--but tonight instead of clear skies and a galaxy of stars, there were just heavy white clouds. Call’s breath puffed out in icy mist. He rubbed his hands up and down his arms to keep warm, but it was like he’d walked right into a freezer.

Kids were pouring out of their cabins in various states of undress, bleary-eyed and confused. He spotted the Hunters emerging from their tents in silver parkas with fluffy hoodies, fully equipped with bows that sparkled in the moonlight, but everyone else was shivering in their pajamas and just kind of standing around like they were waiting for instructions.

He kept walking until he finally caught sight of Tamara. She was standing with Aaron near the line of cabins, hair braided over her shoulder and trembling in her “Fight Like A Girl” pajamas and fuzzy purple bathrobe. Aaron was just in a faded white T-shirt, stained jogging pants, and socked feet. His hair was static-y and mussed up from sleep, practically standing on end, but his eyes were hard and alert.

“You too, huh?,” he said, voice scratchy, smiling a little at Call’s lego pajamas. Then he put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re shivering. Are you cold?”

Duh, he wanted to say, but then felt bad because Aaron didn’t even have a coat on, and he was worrying if Call was cold. “I’m fine. Do you know what’s going on?”

Tamara shook her head. She looked worried. “No, but--have you seen Kimiya anywhere? Reyna came in to wake us and said something to her, and then she ran out of the tent. She just took off. I haven’t been able to find her.”

“Maybe she had to use the bathroom,” Call said, but she was too busy trying to see over the crowd to pay attention to him. He decided to look as well, trying to spot the tall, graceful figure that was Tamara’s older sister, but the most he saw out of the ordinary were the Naiads, who were all standing by the water’s edge like ghostly wraiths.

“What are they doing?,” Aaron asked, also looking.

“I dunno.” He squinted. “Looks like they’re just standing around like us.”

It was the first time Call had seen the Naiads out of the lake, and up close they looked a lot more terrifying than they did underwater. In the daytime, during water activities, they looked like smiling teenage girls in green t-shirts with flowing brown hair, but in the dark of the night on dry land, their skin was tinted blue, their lips pale and bloodless. And even though their eyes were blank and white, it was obvious they were all looking at the water.

Because there was something floating in it.

“What is it?,” Tamara asked, standing on her tiptoes. “What’s going on?”

Aaron said, “I don’t know.” He rubbed his arms, goosebumps appearing on the exposed skin. “I don’t think--Tamara--”

But the taller girl had already begun to push forward into the crowd. Call exchanged a look with Aaron before following after her. People moved aside surprisingly easily. It was like no one besides them wanted to get closer.

Before they could reach the front of the crowd, they were stopped by a tall figure in Roman armor, sword swinging by his hip. It was Luke, and he looked angry.

“What are you doing here?,” he demanded. His eyes were bright and wild. “Get back to your cabins. You kids can’t be out here.”

“Why? What’s happening?,” Tamara demanded, but Call suddenly felt scratchy all over, like bugs were crawling on his skin. Dread built up in his throat like acid. He wasn’t sure why but--Luke looked so mad . And frightened. Call's never seen him look frightened before. He didn't think Luke could look frightened.

Elliot emerged too and his hair looked even wilder than usual, if that was possible. His face was so white that his freckles stood out like neon orange dots. “Guys, come on--we need to leave.”

“But--” started Tamara.

“Now.” He sounded serious. Too serious. And he looked ready to vomit.

Something was really wrong.

“Go,” Luke commanded. “You shouldn’t look--just go back to the cabins--”

But then a new voice interrupted him, a familiar sounding one. At first, Call thought it was Tamara who’d spoken, but then he realized with a start that it was Kimiya, who had been standing just a few yards away all along. She was at the front of the crowd, hands clasped over her mouth as she stared fixedly out at the water.

“Oh, Hera,” she choked out. She suddenly stumbled, and cries of surprise from the crowd began to sound out like a building whine, “No-- Oh gods--

Tamara’s face drained of color. Someone screamed.

And then Chiron arrived. He pushed through the crowd, not caring if he knocked over a few kids in the process. His eyes flashed with such pure anger that Call’s blood ran cold. Even his hide looked dark, almost black instead of the usual golden color he’d grown so used to seeing around camp. His expression was otherworldly and terrifying.

“Stand back!,” he shouted, using his hooves to stomp the ground. The crowd scrambled apart to let him through to the lake. “Everyone stand back!”

And that’s when Call saw it.

At first, it looked like a white sheet floating on the water’s surface; and then at second glance, like one of those faceless mannequins you’d find at a high end clothing store--like someone had thrown one into the lake or dropped it in there by accident.

Except the limbs were awkwardly splayed out instead of posed, loose instead of rigid. And it looked sort of puffy, which was weird. Black hair spread out in the water like ink around the head, which was face down in the water.

Then Call noticed the purple T-shirt.

Tamara made a retching noise and turned away, hand over her mouth. Aaron released a single, staggering breath and grabbed at Call’s shoulder again like he was trying to pull him away, but Call’s eyes were fixated entirely on the body.

He’d never seen a dead body before. Looking at one now, he realized that it didn’t look so much like a person, rather, a botched version of one. The skin looked kind of soapy, like what you would get if you dropped a bunch of clay in water and left it there for awhile. He found himself unconsciously moving forward to get a better look, but his shoulder was tugged backwards, hard.

“Did she fall in?,” someone was asking somewhere in the crowd. “Who was watching the lake? Is she--”

“--markings on her arms and legs,” said someone else. “Scratches, looks like. Bruises too. Someone must’ve held her under--must’ve drowned her under the water while we were all asleep--”

“We wouldn’t!,” cried the Naiads, pale and ghostly in the moonlight, standing by the lake edge in various states of anger and confusion.“Don’t you dare accuse us--we didn’t see anything--”

“Don’t look,” Aaron begged, trying to tug him away, but Call wanted to look. He wanted to see . “Come on, Call. Don’t--”

Everything was numb and the world was moving too fast and too slow at the same time. Call felt like he was in a trance. He couldn’t stop looking, standing on his tiptoes to see over the heads of the taller campers, some of which, he registered vaguely, were screaming.

Chiron had reached the lake and knelt briefly at the water’s edge with a bowed head. Someone must’ve grabbed an oar at some point, because they were moving the body to the bank like it was a piece of floating trash. And now they were turning the body over, and a shudder ran through everyone who was still watching. Her face--

“Jenny,” Kimiya was saying over and over in this terrible voice. “Oh gods, Jenny. Jenny.”

If he thought the bruises on her body were bad, they were nothing compared to the dark blue and purple bruises on her face and neck. Swollen and grotesque. Striking against her pale skin. However she’d died, she’d died violently, and he felt his eyes glaze over. A weird, nonsensical part of himself thought that they looked sort of pretty in the moonlight, like the strokes of a paintbrush on a canvas.

“Call. Call!, ” Aaron half-shouted, shaking him roughly. “Stop it! You’re freaking me out--”

The jostling snapped Call out of it. He blinked away the fogginess, feeling disoriented. “I--Aaron--”

“Just don’t look,” he breathed. “Don’t. Just--come on, we shouldn’t have come over here. We should’ve stayed at the cabins--let’s go back to the cabins. Tamara--”

Tamara looked like she was going to throw up. She clutched her stomach and stared absently at a spot on the ground. She wasn’t crying, not like her sister, but she looked so scared and small. The body--no, the girl, this had been a person, a kid like him--she was a Roman. Maybe Tamara knew her.

Kimiya definitely had. She was sobbing on the ground now, an entire crowd of girls circling her trying to console her, but not really seeming to know how.

Aaron wasn’t crying either, but that was mostly because he seemed to be in shock. Somehow, he still found it in himself to stand tall next to Tamara, shoulders set like he was trying to be strong for all three of them.

“Come on,” he said, looping an arm around her shoulder, still holding Call’s in his other. “Let’s leave. Come on.”

The next thing he knew, Call was being steered to one of the cabins--he wasn’t sure which one, he was still a little disoriented--and pushed to sit against the wall. Aaron left his peripheral, and so did Tamara. He wondered if she threw up yet. He hoped it didn’t get on his shoes, they were gifts from Travis.

After an indefinite amount of time, Aaron appeared back in his line of sight. He knelt in front of Call, blocking his view of the lake, like he was afraid he was going to take off and dive into the water too.

“Are you okay?,” he asked. His expression was odd and hard to place.

Call nodded. He stared at his hands. They seemed strangely pale, like pieces of lily-white bone. Skeletal. “It’s my fault,” he said, for some reason, which didn’t make a lick of sense. But nothing was really making sense right now. Aaron opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but they were interrupted by a sudden shout.

The crowd by the lake had barely dispersed, if anything, it’d grown larger, more crowded. The younger, newer campers were not so subtly trying to see what was happening at the front, while the older, seasoned campers were standing with blank faces like they’d been through this before. Call realized numbly that they had. This wasn’t anything new. They probably used to see this every day during some of the wars. This was normal.

But there was a bit of commotion going on nearby that was drawing more attention than the body. A girl was sprinting through the crowd, curly blond hair wild like someone had tried to tear it out of her ponytail. Her gray eyes were wide with fear.

“Chiron!,” said Annabeth, out of breath. “It’s Rachel! She--”

Behind her, a horrible, agonised sound echoed over the campground, and everyone shifted their focus to the redheaded girl who was stumbling her way into the clearing. A number of people were trying to restrain her arms, but she bucked and kicked and screamed like the Devil was after her. Mist spilled from her mouth like smoke, and her eyes glowed with a greenish light.

“What in the--” Tamara was by Call’s side, on her feet. She lurched dangerously, but supported herself on the wall. “What is that?”

“Annabeth?,” said Chiron.

“I don’t know sir.” Her face was white as she breathed raggedly. “She’s been like that ever since we got outside--I don’t know what’s wrong--”

Nobody seemed to be able to explain what was happening. Maybe they didn’t know themselves. It didn’t matter anyway, because seconds later, the redheaded girl broke away from her captors. She set off in a dead run across camp. Straight at where they were seated.

“What the hell,” he cussed, shooting to his feet and backing up, but Aaron didn’t. His ashy hair practically glowed white in the moonlight. And he didn’t move an inch, not even when the girl reached him, fell on him, gripped his bony shoulders so tightly that he could see her nails piercing the skin through his shirt.

Call started forward to pull Aaron back, but Tamara held him in place. She said, “Call, no. Look.”

He watched in horrified fascination as the girl lifted her head and stared at Aaron with blank green eyes, mist filling the air between them. Nobody spoke. It was so quiet that you could hear the hearth crackling from fifty yards away.

And then, in an echoing voice, she spoke:

“A child of Glory, plagued with contention.”

“A heart of gold, but a wayward direction.”

The mist swirled around more thickly, collecting in front of Aaron, and suddenly morphed into three figures who were all reaching out to him with ghostly green hands. He flinched, but didn’t back away. He was frozen in place.

The first one, a woman, said, “You shall go East no matter the cost. And restore Hope to a world that is lost.”

The second stepped forward, this time a man. Even with the greenish tint, Call could tell that his hair was as ashy white blond as Aaron’s. “But beware your friends, for chaos shall reign, Over those that deceive for a chance at fame”

“As for the rest: stay alert, look ahead.”

“One will fail.”

“One will die.”

The final woman turned to look directly at Call, her empty eyes sending shivers down his spine. “And one is already dead.”

With that, the mist dispersed and Rachel collapsed. Someone raced forward to catch her before she hit the ground, and the rest of the crowded camp erupted into panicked shouts. Call could practically feel the fear and confusion coming off of them in waves. It was suffocating. It was exhilarating.

“Enough! That is quite enough!,” Chiron shouted, stomping his hoof a few times to bring order.

Everyone quieted instantly. He looked formidable in the moonlit night, face gaunt and drawn and exhausted. “Counselors, get your campers to bed. Now. I’ll deal with this myself.”

“Yes sir,” said the blond girl, who began ushering a horde of other blond children, plus a white-faced Elliot, off in the direction of the Athena cabins. “You heard him. Off to bed, guys.”

Call looked at Aaron. He was still just standing there, staring at nothing. At first glance he simply looked lost in thought, but Call could see that his hands were shaking violently at his sides.

“Call, we need to go.” Tamara was stone-faced again, but there were still tear-tracks on her cheeks. She tugged his arm harshly in the direction of the cabins. “Come on.”

“But what about--”

Aaron wasn’t moving. Chiron walked up next to him and clapped a hand on his shoulder, and Call got a sudden flashback to their first night at camp, when Aaron had defeated all those Stymphalian birds and gotten claimed in front of everyone. Except this time, the surrounding campers weren’t staring at him in awe. The majority was looking at him with pity in their eyes. A few even looked angry.

Whispers of the word prophecy were swirling around the entire camp like a mantra, hushed with reverence, tinted with jealousy.

To Call, it almost sounded like a death sentence.