Percie felt her whole body tense as the words left Annabeth's mouth. "The enchantress wanted to... get rid of Percy entirely?"
Rachel grimaced. "Quite the plan, if that's what she was going for."
"But why to that extreme? What was holding her back from just trying to kill him, like every other monster with a grudge?"
Annabeth turned grave eyes to the daughter of Poseidon. "Because death would only end him there. But... if Percy ceased to exist, what would the world look like now?"
The other girls' jaws went agape at the realization. "If Percy never existed, odds are good Kronos destroys Olympus. The Romans had no idea about the attack; they couldn't fight on two fronts like that," Rachel whispered.
"Exactly," Annabeth continued. "Kronos wipes out Olympus, and Gaea rises not even a year later. The blood of a different demigod would have been required, but I'm sure the prophecy in question would have just selected another unlucky guy."
Percie had to sit back down, her mind struggling to digest this information. "So... Pe- I, would never be born. She... tried to remove the two of us from time, entirely."
"Could magic like that really exist?" Rachel demanded. The Oracle seemed to become more and more irate with every passing moment. "How on earth could anyone, even a god, affect the world like that?"
Sadly, it wouldn't be too hard for Percie to imagine it. "I might not have been her direct target, but I got caught up in the spell anyway," the daughter of Poseidon realized. "The only reason I'm here right now is because the spell itself went wild."
"Seaweed Brain," Annabeth murmured, her eyes far away. Percie could tell she was thinking about her boyfriend. As hapless as their current predicament was, it was only thanks to Percy that she hadn't been wiped from the universe without even being aware of it.
"Did she know about the second world, where this Percie is from?" Rachel asked. "The rage I felt in that vision... I wouldn't put it past her."
The daughter of Athena recovered, shaking her head. "Somehow, I doubt it. I have no idea how she could have learned of it, if she did. It seems more likely that her only real target was my Percy, and you-" she pointed at Percie, "got caught in the misfire."
Well, that didn't make the daughter of the sea feel any better. In fact, it only exacerbated her frustration. "So my being here is what? A mistake?" she asked, her voice growing cold.
Annabeth's response shook her out of it. "No. The exact opposite, actually."
"Your being here is exactly the best thing that could have happened. Percy is the most qualified demigod on the earth when it comes to facing catastrophic events," Annabeth said, her voice unwavering. "From what I've seen and heard, the same title applies to you, Percie. The two of you may have been dropped into this situation without warning, but there's no doubt in my mind that both of you can overcome it."
Annabeth placed a hand over Percie's clenched fist. "We walked through Tartarus, Seaweed Brain. You honestly thought I'd give up on you because of a little mix-up?"
It was a good thing the daughter of Poseidon was sitting down, because she would have melted into a puddle of tears if she'd been standing. Not like her sitting down didn't mean there weren't tears at Annabeth's reassurance. Just that she didn't dramatically fall into the daughter of Athena's arms. That was Apollo's thing.
"You... moving little brainiac," Percie sniffled, rubbing her eyes. "How could I ever say no to you?"
"Ask me again when I tell you to clean out your car," Annabeth joked, cracking that smile again. Gods, Percie could have kissed her. Probably would have, if Rachel wasn't watching with a smile playing on the corner of her lips.
"You two are the sweetest," the Oracle teased, causing both demigods to lean back from each other to look at her. "What? I call it like I see it. Technically, I don't think it's cheating if the other person is literally your partner from another universe."
"Rachel!" both of them exclaimed, turning the same shade as a strawberry.
"Okay, I'll drop it. But keep making goo-goo eyes at each other, and I'll start again full-force."
Percie shuffled to her feet, letting go of Annabeth's hand. "I think I liked you better when you were all wild-eyed and green."
The Oracle only giggled. "Sure, Percie. Whatever helps you sleep at night."
The conversation was cut short a moment later when a beeping sound erupted over the mansion's alarm system. Cursing, Rachel jogged into the hallway outside of the kitchen, both demigods following her.
"Is someone trying to break in?" Annabeth asked when they stopped.
Rachel sneered as she clicked onto the system. "Not in the way you think. After that mess with the giants, I made a few... adjustments to the alarm, with some help from the Hunters and Chiron."
The Oracle scanned through a few shots of the mansion grounds before stopping. "Looks like we have visitors," she said, showing the screen to Percie and Annabeth. A horde of dracaena slithered across the manor's property line. By Percie's count, there appeared to be twelve of them.
"Guess you were right about that spell's lingering effects," the daughter of Poseidon intoned, pulling Riptide from her pocket. "Plans, Wise Girl?"
"Wait!" Rachel cut in, before Annabeth could speak. "They're coming up from the southeastern side of the property. There's a way we can sneak in behind them and take the whole group by surprise."
Both demigods blinked. "How?" Annabeth asked.
Rachel waved for them to follow her. "My dad got nervous after his last fundraising event got ransacked by the Hind, though he thought it was just a rabid deer. No one was hurt, but he decided to install an escape tunnel in the house in the case of any more surprise guests."
Percie was gobsmacked. "An escape tunnel? Where?"
They reached the ballroom in the back of the house, but there was no time to admire the architecture or the luxurious curtains. Rachel ran up to the piano, and played a trio of notes Percie didn't recognize. A second later, an entire portion of the wall folded in on itself, revealing a set of stairs leading downward.
Annabeth whistled. "That's... fantastic, actually."
Rachel shrugged. "The piano trick is too corny for my liking, but it's easy enough, I guess."
Percie broke into a wide grin. "I'm so trying that when I visit River again. I'll have to pretend I don't know, so his reaction when I 'accidentally' open the tunnel is good."
"I'll do my best to imagine it," Rachel responded, leading them down into the passageway. "It splits off, and can go in any direction. We know they're coming from the southeast, so this one is our best choice," she explained, taking the third path on the left and turning down into another smaller set of stairs.
Annabeth kept close to Percie's back while they snuck underground, her brow furrowed. "Where will we come up, exactly?"
"You know the well about one hundred yards from the driveway? That's where this one goes."
The daughter of Athena exhaled in annoyance. "A well? Really? What did your dad base his secret escape tunnel on, Clue?"
Despite her complaints, the system proved rather useful to their current problem. A few steps later, Rachel led them up a ladder, which opened out into the side of the stone well in her yard. Sure enough, the dracaena were ahead of them, crouching behind Percie's car, seemingly planning an ambush.
Percie had to hold back a chuckle. "Not the brightest attack strategy, is it?"
Rachel looked disappointed. "Guess I was expecting more from them. Shame."
Percie glanced over at Annabeth, who looked appalled at the monsters' poor choice of cover. If the girls actually did come out the front door, it wouldn't be hard to spot the mass of snake tails peering out from below Percie's car.
"I take six, you take six?" she asked the daughter of Athena, uncapping Riptide silently.
Annabeth slowly tugged her own sword free with a nod. Wait, sword?
"Where's your dagger?" Percie whispered.
"The one you used before you got the sword?"
The daughter of Athena looked bewildered by the question. "Why are you asking this now, of all times?"
"Alister uses a sword and a dagger together, not just a sword. I thought you'd be the same."
"Well, I'm not! I just use the sword, okay?"
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Ladies, you're both pretty. Please focus on the snake monsters; not your weapon preferences."
"Shut up, Rachel!" they both yelled at her. Yelled. When they were trying to be sneaky.
The dracaena all whirled around, expressions of surprise plastered over their faces. Clearly, they hadn't anticipated that their full-proof ambush could have been circumvented. That surprise only lasted for a second, though, before they recovered and charged, pointing spears at the three women.
"There goes the element of surprise!" Annabeth complained, pulling her blade. "This is your fault, Seaweed Brain!"
"Hey, blame the one who screamed at the top of her lungs when the game plan was stealth!"
"You did that, too, you bonehead!"
Despite their bickering, or maybe because of it, both demigods leapt forward to meet the charge of their enemies: Percie went over, Annabeth went under. Ironically enough, doing so ended up splitting the dracaena hoard in half, Percie's original idea.
The snake-women spun to face Percie as she landed, but she'd thrown off the focus of their charge by spinning them around. Somewhere, Alister smiled at her tactics. The thought filled the daughter of Poseidon with determination, and the dracanae nearest her dissolved into dust before she could lift her spear again. Riptide's first strike continued on its momentum, splitting another one of the monsters in half with a snick.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel went scrambling for the garage at the top of the driveway, presumably to find a hairbrush, or another suitable weapon. The remaining four dracaena facing her tried to use their weapons' reach to their advantage, jabbing at her from beyond her sword's range. But the daughter of Poseidon had fought alongside Romans. She had a counter.
Percie grabbed ahold of one of the spears just below the head, blocking the other three slashes with Riptide and her opponent's ensnared weapon. The long spears all got locked together, and Percie pressed her advantage, pushing the blunt end of the spear into the stomach of the monster unlucky enough to have gotten grappled. The dracanae panted as she got body-checked with her own weapon, and Percie used that to rip the spear clean out of her hands. The resulting force was enough to knock the other three back as well, two of whom had the misfortune to land on their backs instead of catching their balance.
That misfortune would be their end, as Percie skewered both at the same time, with her two weapons. Wielding a spear with a sword might have been unconventional, but the daughter of Poseidon thrived on unconventional. The now disarmed dracanae tried to grab one of her fallen sisters' weapons, only to get rewarded with Riptide in her neck as a reward. As she crumbled to dust, Percie turned to face the final snake-lady.
Now alone against a very well-armed demigod, the monster didn't look quite so confident. Gods love her, she did try. The spinning feint, followed by a low stab might have worked against a new legionnaire, or an actual child. But Percie was a veteran of two wars by this point. Blocking with Riptide, and striking with the spear, the sixth dracanae facing her was gone.
She wheeled to assist Annabeth, but saw that said assistance wasn't necessary. Annabeth had six neat little piles of dust scattered around her, and was watching the daughter of Poseidon with amused eyes. "I do believe I win that round," she said, grinning.
"Whoever said it was a competition?" Percie asked, trying to appear nonchalant.
"No one, but I have a feeling you thought you'd deal with your six first. That's what you get for showboating, Jackson."
If it was anybody else, she might have been embarrassed to be called out like that. But Alis- no, Annabeth, managed to make the jab playful.
"Oh, you wound me with your barbs, Chase."
The sound of the garage of the manor drew their attention away, revealing Rachel holding what looked to be a bronze trash can lid. The Oracle's face fell when she saw the lawn clear of monsters. "Oh come on! I went to all that trouble of grabbing this for nothing?"
"Try being faster next time, Dare," Percie smirked, strutting up the driveway. "Here, keep this spear as a souvenir."
Rachel made a face as Percie tossed the weapon to her. "Yuck. No thanks! I'd rather clean up Mrs. O'Leary's trips to the bathroom."
Annabeth snickered, but pulled a straight face. "Nice work, ladies. Now, I do believe we have information that needs to get back to Chiron. Rachel, w-"
"I'm going with you," the Oracle said without hesitation. "Percy might be a hero for the ages, but I can't just sit back and wait for the day to be saved. Again."
"Hey, you did plenty of good. Don't sell yourself short," Percie argued.
"I threw a hairbrush at a Titan, and told a praetor to go to Europe. Not exactly the most thrilling resume."
Rachel wouldn't be persuaded otherwise, so that's how Annabeth found herself riding in the back seat on the way back to Camp Half-Blood. The Oracle had asked to drive, but Percie put her foot down on that one. Shotgun was the only compromise all sides seemed willing to agree to.
Mercifully, no other monsters attacked on the trip back. The evening light had since faded to a starry night sky, which made the camp look even more mysterious than it usually did. "I wonder if Lou Ellen apologized to Cecil for that handcuff accident," Rachel wondered as they pulled in.
The news that Percie and Annabeth were back, along with the Oracle, swept through the camp, resulting in the entire demigod population of the area hovering anxiously around the mess hall as the three delivered their report to Chiron.
No one looked pleased at Annabeth's theory that the sorceress behind this was trying to undo Percy Jackson himself, Chiron especially. "This is worrying," he commented. "We know the motive and the intent, but we still know nothing of the means, or the mastermind behind it all."
"Those clues don't narrow it down for you, either?" Percie asked.
The centaur shook his head. "I could wager a guess, but that's all they would be. And guesses are not going to cut it."
Further discussion was derailed when Mr. D came ambling into the mess hall, sipping more Diet Coke out of a plastic cup. "Ms. Palace, you're back. Hooray," he droned, not one ounce of sincerity in his voice. "Any luck in discovering your heritage, young lady?"
Annabeth and Chiron shared an unsure look with each other, and all the other demigods held their tongues. Percie groaned to herself, affixing the god of wine with a cheerful gaze. "Nope! Not yet, though I do have plenty of guesses myself. Chiron refuses to wager against them, though. I think he's scared of being out-bet, really."
Chiron managed an offended grunt at her false insult. "Quite, Miss... Castle," he said, remembering the fake name she'd given Dionysius.
The god of wine harrumphed at nothing in particular. "Well, somebody better hurry up. All of us swore on the Styx to claim every child at camp before they spent the first night, thanks to Mr. Jackson."
Did... Mr. D just get someone's name right? Granted, Percy technically wasn't here to hear it, but all of the demigods looked befuddled at the god. Percie could hardly believe it, either. Did Dionysus secretly respect her, too, when she wasn't around?
"I'm sure they're working on it, Mr. D," Annabeth soothed, looking nervous. "I'm sure Ophelia's parent is just... waiting for the appropriate moment."
The wine god scoffed. "If that was true, I'd call her a child of Apollo. But somehow I doubt Mr. Sunshine fathered someone as slippery as Ms. Palace."
Okay, this Dionysus didn't respect her, but she had insulted him to his face. Plus, he had no idea who she was. But slippery? Really?
"Maybe they're just savoring the moment before the big reveal," Percie offered. "Or dressing for the occasion, or preparing a big show with fireworks and guns? Oh, or they could be-" Percie's next words faded away as a bright green light erupted from behind her. The light shimmered and waved against the walls of the mess hall, casting the entire room in an aura of water. The light only grew brighter as an all-too familiar shadow emerged right behind her. "Or he's... right behind me, isn't he?"
Amidst the stunned faces of the mess hall, Dionysus included, no one spoke. The only answer Percie got was Annabeth giving the slightest of nods. Swallowing, Percie slowly spun around on her seat to face the man in the Hawaiian shirt, beach shorts, and flip-flops.