Chapter no 26

The Chalice of the Gods

I Negotiate the Terms of My Disintegration

In the demigod business, we call this atrick question.‌

If I refused, I would get zapped to dust. If I agreed, I’d have to wrestle an

old guy. Then I’d get zapped to dust. . . .

Looking at Gary, I found it hard to focus—and not just because of his filthy loincloth or his missing teeth. His presence made me feel claustrophobic in my own body. Blood roared in my ears. My hands turned sweaty. I had to fight a sense of panic, like my flesh had already started to crumble.

I understood why even a goddess like Iris might be scared of this guy. Immortality was one thing. Being old forever . . . that was something else. Other gods preferred to look young and beautiful. Gary owned his age, every millennium of it. I imagined that when the Olympians looked at him, they saw just how ancient they really were. He was like the painting in that story about the guy who never ages, but his portrait does. Earl Grey? No. That’s a kind of tea. Whatever, the story creeped me out.

None of that helped me come up with an answer. Gary was staring at me expectantly, so I fell back on my demigod tool of last resort: procrastination.

“I have conditions,” I said.

Gary tilted his wrinkly head. “Medical conditions?”

“No. Conditions for fighting you. First, if I lose, you only kill me. You leave my friends alone.”

“Old Age never leaves anyone alone.”

“You know what I mean. You don’t dust them now. You let them go.” “Acceptable.”

“Next . . .” I faltered. Come on, Percy. There has to be a next“When you say I have to defeat you, what would that look like? You’re a god. I can’t kill you.”

“Obviously, young fool,” Gary scoffed. “If you can bend even one of my knees to the ground, I will consider that sufficient. I, on the other hand, will win when I flatten your face against the pavement. That is more than fair.”

“That was the first word that came to my mind,” I said. “Fair.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes.” I racked my brain, wondering what other demands I should make. Bottled water? A bowl of only blue M&M’s in my dressing room? I needed Annabeth here to help me think.

Oh. Right. That was a thing I could ask for. “Let my friends go,” I told Gary.

“You already asked that.”

“No,” I said. “I mean let them go from whatever you’re doing to them right now.” I gestured at Annabeth, who was still frozen at the chess game.

“I just slowed them down,” said Gary. “Old Age does that to everyone.” “I want them here,” I said. “To say good-bye, if nothing else. Whatever

happens to me, I want them to see it.”

“This is not a spectator sport,” he grumbled, which was the first time anyone had ever said that about wrestling.

“Do you want to fight me or not?” I asked.

I felt like I could risk saying that, because the gleam in Gary’s eyes told me he was eager to push my face into the pavement. He wasn’t the first person who’d ever felt that way.

“Fine,” he grunted.

He snapped his bony fingers. Annabeth and Grover both unfroze. They turned in my direction, removed their super-attractive menthol Kleenex tusks, and ran toward the playground.

By the time Annabeth reached us, she had drawn her knife. Grover was wielding a black-sesame mochi donut like a shuriken.

“What’s going on?” Grover demanded, hefting his pastry like he was ready to go full donut assassin.

Annabeth sized up Gary, then cursed under her breath. “Geras, I presume? I should have known we were fighting Old Age.”

Gary chuckled. “And I should have spoken to you first, young lady.

You’re clearly the brains of this operation.”

“It’s cool,” I told my friends. “We’ve come to an agreement.”

Annabeth scowled at the god. “Let me guess. A wrestling match? Excuse me. I need a word with my client.”

She grabbed my arm and dragged me to the other end of the playground.

Behind us, I heard Gary ask Grover, “You going to eat that?” Annabeth gripped my shoulders. “Percy, you can’t do this.” “Hey, it isn’t something I want to do.”

“You can’t beat him.”

I wanted to argue that this was our best shot. It was a lot better than all three of us getting turned into grave dust. But I could tell from Annabeth’s expression that she had already run the angles. She was way ahead, as usual. “Hercules wrestled Old Age to a standstill,” she continued. “That’s the

only time Geras has been forced to call a draw. Beating him is impossible.” “What was Hercules’s secret?”

“No secret. Just brute force.”

I rubbed my biceps and tried not to feel offended. I wasn’t weak, exactly, but superstrength wasn’t on my list of powers. I got breathe underwater and talk to horses instead, which weren’t so useful in a Greenwich Village playground smackdown.

“There has to be another way,” I said. “Your mom told me one time at the Hoover Dam, there’s always a way out—”

“For those clever enough to find it,” she said. “Yeah, I know. But this . . .

Geras is a force of nature. He’s inevitable. You can’t fight Old Age.”

Unless you’re immortal,I thought.

But that was exactly why Geras had stolen the chalice. It let you cheat the system. And he wasn’t wrong about immortality being a curse. The gods were the most messed-up people I’d ever met. They’d had centuries to work out their problems. They just didn’t. Sure, they changed their clothes and modernized their lifestyles once in a while, but at heart, they were still exactly who they had been back in the Bronze Age.

A heavy feeling settled in my gut. . . . I wasn’t sure if it was despair, desperation, or donut. Was I on the wrong side of this fight? If I walked away and let Gary keep the chalice, Ganymede might get shamed and exiled from Olympus. Would that be so bad? The gods would have to pour their own drinks. They’d have one less way of making new immortals. Ganymede could get a job at Himbo Juice. Maybe Gary would even write me a

recommendation letter instead, praising me for embracing my inner cranky old man.

But Ganymede had chosen me for this quest. Putting aside the fact that every god chose me for every quest, I felt obligated to keep my promise. I remembered how nervous the poor cupbearer had looked at Himbo Juice; the way he’d ducked under the table when he thought the golden-eagle-flavored smoothie of Zeus might swoop down to get him.

Yes, he was traumatized and miserable. Maybe he would’ve been better off getting kicked back into the mortal world. But he hadn’t asked me to free him from Mount Olympus. He’d asked me to retrieve the cup. If I chose to wreck his life for his own good, without his permission, I wasn’t much better than Zeus. I believed everyone should have the right to ruin their own life without anyone else ruining it for them.

“I need to do this,” I told Annabeth. “I think I can find a way ”

She studied my face, maybe wondering whether she should try to knock some sense into me with the hilt of her dagger. Finally, she sighed. “It has to be your call. Just . . . don’t underestimate him because of how he looks, Percy.”

It made me uneasy when she called me Percy instead of Seaweed Brain. It meant we were way beyond the point where she needed to criticize how dumb I was being.

We marched back to the play structure. Gary was gumming a Fruity Pebbles donut while Grover looked on in horror. The rainbow sprinkles around the god’s mouth somehow made him look even older.

“Ready to say your good-byes?” Gary asked me.

I shook my head. “No good-byes yet. Let’s confirm the rules of engagement. You and I wrestle one-on-one. You push my face to the ground, I lose, get turned to dust, et cetera. I force one of your knees to the pavement, you give me the chalice and leave us in peace. Either way, when this is over, my friends go free.”

“That is the deal,” Gary agreed. “Although, since you’re going to lose, most of those terms are What’s the word? Moot.

“You’re moot,” I grumbled, because I am deadly with those quick clap-backs.

“Or . . .” Grover said, “you could trade the chalice for these leftover donuts.” He flapped the lid of his box, wafting the scent of mochi toward the

god. “Then we can all go our separate ways. I still have two more black sesame and a pistachio.”

Gary seemed to consider this. In my book, mochi donuts would be pretty close to magic chalices in any post-apocalypse barter system. I thought Grover might actually be onto something. He was about to make my life much easier and also longer.

Then Gary shook his head. “We’ll stick to the original arrangement.” “Fine,” I muttered. “When do we start?”

I didn’t even have time to breathe. Suddenly Gary was on my back, his hands like steel clamps on my shoulders, his legs wrapped around my rib cage, his heels digging into me like I was an uncooperative horse. My knees buckled. The guy weighed a ton. I threw out my hands and broke my fall, my face only inches from the asphalt.

His sour breath made my head swim. He said in my ear, “Oh, we can start whenever you like.”

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