FoF Interlude III

Fabric of Fate

Interlude III

By ACI100

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the PJO universe. All recognizable characters, plots, and settings are the exclusive property of Rick Riordan. I make no claim to ownership.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to my editor Athena, as well as my other betas 3CP, Fezzik, Luq707, Raven, Regress, and Yoshi89 for their incredible work on this story.

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Ace Iverson and the Fabric of Fate

By ACI100

Interlude III

March 4, 2005

The Swordfighting Arena

Camp Halfblood 

8:22 PM

Ace feinted but swiftly changed directions, using his free arm to push Annabeth’s sword away from him as he slashed. The sharp intake of breath marked his target, as did the thin line of blood that began to run down the right side of her body like a crimson waterfall. Ace glanced to Chiron out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t take his attention off of Annabeth; he knew that would be the end of him — too many times he had lost focus for a split second and wound up disarmed and defeated. Chiron nodded curtly. It was a signal to continue, a signal that the sustained injury was minor enough for the duel to go on; him and a number of the nymphs were well-versed in healing so most things like this were no real trouble in the grand scheme of things.

This was the first time Ace and Annabeth had met in the arena during the officially sanctioned sword fights that took place every third or so Friday. It was far from the first time they had sparred. Annabeth had been Ace’s primary partner since he and his friends had arrived at Camp Halfblood almost four months ago now. 

Gods, that just sounded wrong. It had been almost four months since he had arrived at Camp Halfblood. Four months ago, he had been preparing to travel to Los Angeles for the hockey tournament alongside Caleb, Cadmus, and his other teammates. He had been living with his mother and stepfather and had been focused on things like sports and writing essays to acceptable standards at the last possible minute. It was crazy to consider how much had changed in such a short period of time. The months that had passed felt like the blink of an eye, yet they seemed to stretch on for an eternity as well. It was an odd dichotomy that made Ace’s head hurt every time he considered it, yet it floated to the forefront of his thoughts more often than he would care to admit.

Chiron allowed him to call his mother and stepfather once a month using the antique-looking phone situated in his office inside the Big House. Annabeth had a cell phone, but she scarcely ever used it. The signal was said to attract monsters. Even inside of Camp Halfblood and its supposedly impenetrable defences, using things like the Internet and cellular devices was said to be a bad idea. There was Iris messaging. Ace had used that more often than the phones. It had helped with the culture shock; he wasn’t sure how smoothly the transition might have gone without it. Though his mother’s reaction the first time he had Iris called her had been… amusing.

How was he supposed to know she was in the middle of a shift at work? Thank the gods for the Mist or that would have been a disaster. Needless to say, they had convened later for the call and that was when Ace had asked about his father. 

His mother had known something was different. Zeus had told her that there was going to be something special about her son, but he had divulged no more than that. Ace wondered if that had anything to do with Thalia. 

Ace’s thoughts were broken by a swift slash from Annabeth, he parried and slashed back, but she sidestepped and countered. They traded slashes, stabs, and blunt blows with the hilt of their swords so fast that the crowd lost track of who was attacking who. Ace’s legs tingled for every second of it. So badly he wanted to lunge away and use the footwork that helped him so much in unarmed combat, but Annabeth’s words replayed in his mind. The ones she had uttered hundreds of times whilst helping train him properly the past four months.

“Your footwork is a valuable weapon, but that doesn’t mean you can overuse it.”

Ace had frowned the first time she had asked that. “What do you mean? It’s always worked for me before.”

“Unarmed combat isn’t the same as swordfighting.”

“It’s worked in swordfighting, too.”

“That’s because most of the people or monsters you’ve beaten aren’t on your level. Notice how it didn’t work against me? I’m not even the best in the camp. Try leaning on that fancy footwork against Luke and tell me how that exchange ends.” She had given him that knowing look; the smug, superior expression she wore any time she knew she had won an argument yet still felt the need to get the last word in. “It’s like warfare in the mortal world. Yes, it’s a valuable weapon, but the most expensive machines don’t win wars on their own.”

Ace had begrudgingly accepted the criticism and had begun improving at a rate so rapid that even the blonde-haired daughter of Athena had been taken aback. He still moved around far more than anyone else he’d ever seen whilst fighting. People in the camp said he feinted so well and so often that one day, he was going to cause someone to fall on their own sword. Yet he planted his feet more often. Never for long, but for brief periods and intense exchanges. It allowed him to put more power into his strikes, but also to be less off-balance. Glancing blows would send him stumbling whilst he moved about in complex patterns. When his feet were planted and his shoulders were squared, he could absorb the attacks more effectively. There was still a place for his unorthodox style, but the trick was in balance and that was a difficult lesson he was still learning.

The opening to move came when Annabeth took a half step back and swung at him again. Ace rolled backwards and sprang up to his feet, sliding just out of range and to the right before slashing at Annabeth’s arm. He drew blood yet again, but she had anticipated being too slow to defend and had gone offence. If that form of offence had come via her sword, Ace would have been prepared for it. His eyes were fixed on the shimmering bronze blade so intently that he missed her lashing out with her foot and before he knew it, he had been swept off his feet and was lying face up as she dove on top of him, forcing her sword against his throat and bringing an end to the longest and most competitive battle any of the spectators had ever seen.

“You’ve gotten much better,” Annabeth said as she stood and offered him a hand up.

Ace took it with a scowl. “I’ll be beating you soon enough.”

“You will.” Ace had to do a double take. Annabeth had never conceded that point so easily before. “Oh, stop gaping like an Ares camper any time someone brings up simple math.” Ace shut his mouth with a snap and looked at her expectantly. “You almost beat me tonight.” She held up her injured arm and winced. Her other shoulder was hardly looking well, either. “You’ll have overtaken me by the summer at this rate if I had to guess.”

“It’ll be a relief.”

Annabeth smirked. “You know, for someone who enjoys challenging themselves as much as you do, you’re an awful loser.”

“What does one have to do with the other? I would think being competitive makes most people awful losers.”

“People who take on unrealistic challenges usually lose often enough that they become used to it.”

“I dislike losing.” 

“Yes, we’ve established that.”

“I dislike it enough that once it happened, I usually did everything I could to become good enough at that thing it didn’t happen again.”

Annabeth sighed. “You do realize that’s unhealthy, don’t you?”

“I think dwelling on failure is unhealthy. Lesser of two evils and all that.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re impossible.”

“No, I’m standing here. Considering my father’s the King of the Gods though, I guess you’re about as close to right as you’ll ever get.”

“You’re infuriating.”

Now it was Ace’s turn to smirk. “That’s rich coming from the one who probably views correcting other people as a hobby.”

“Incompetence is amusing.”

“Whatever you need to tell yourself.”

The crowd was upon them now. “Annabeth,” said Chiron, “come with me. It’s best if we get those cuts taken care of as soon as possible.”

“Sure, Chiron.” She grinned at Ace one final time. “Better luck next time, Twinkle Toes.”

Ace glared at her back as she followed Chiron out of the arena’s centre just as the crowd reached him. Getting that damned nickname to stick was both Annabeth’s greatest accomplishment and her most grievous sin. 

If only that footwork would help him now, but it was going to take a lot more than that to get out of the crowd of praisers and well wishers now swiftly surrounding him.

“It has made you a leader…” 

How he hated thinking of that conversation with his father. None of it was appealing, but all of it was expected. He would be called upon to lead Camp Halfblood by virtue of being Zeus’s son the same way he had been called upon to lead teams of older athletes because of natural talent. 

That was not a position he had filled by fleeing from his teammates and Ace knew to do so now would only make filling that inevitable role more difficult

His lips curved painstakingly upwards as he internally sighed. The things he did for a father he’d met a grand total of once…

Soon after…

“You’re gettin’ there,” Cato said as the two of them walked back towards the cabins. 

“Ish, yeah.”

“You’ve done good, bubba. I don’t think nobody expected you to almost be beatin’ one of the best at camp this soon.”

“Yet people expect me to do a whole bunch of other things. How am I supposed to do any of them if I can’t beat Annabeth?”

“You ain’t been here half a year. It’ll come. Just gotta be patient.”

Ace snorted. “You’re one to lecture me about patience. Wasn’t your solution to most things last fall to just blow them up?”

“Hey, it worked. We’re here, ain’t we?” 

Ace just cast his eyes skywards. The worst part of the whole thing was that he had no doubts Cato wholeheartedly believed every justification he gave for any extreme measure he had ever taken. He reminded him of Caleb in that way. Both of them could bankrupt themselves in a single evening and then convince themselves it had all been for the best by noon the next day.

The grass crunched underfoot as they walked. It was a familiar sound to Ace. It happened every year in Canada when the snow melted but the grass was still frozen and harder than it would otherwise be. The hills around Camp Halfblood were still coated in a thin layer of pearly-white snow that made them look like some misshapen cake topped with vanilla icing from afar, but the little snow that the gods had allowed to fall inside the camp’s borders had melted some time ago.

“Where are Andy and Blaze?” he asked Cato.

“Andy’s off doing somethin’ or other. Hell if I know; you know how she gets. She don’t like watchin’ you fight. Stresses her out and all that.”

“She does realize that Chiron and the nymphs are standing by to heal any injuries, doesn’t she?”

“I’m sure she does, but that don’t mean she likes it. She ain’t like us, bubba. She’s better than we are.”

Ace had become less sure of that since his cross country journey back in November. Andreia was absolutely a better person than any of them, but whether that made her ‘better’ was up for debate. Ace had a feeling that if he or Cato were good people back in November, they would be buried dead in some ditch or else devoured by one of the monsters that had chased them.

“Blaze is with her, I’m guessing?” asked Ace.

“Must be. He finds the fights borin’.” 

“Blaze finds most things boring.”

“Yeah. That one needs to learn to have some fun.”

They walked in silence again for a moment and Ace looked up and around them. One of the thick clouds overhead had jutted across the sky and obscured the moon. It was more difficult to make out the shape of the hills around the camp now, yet the far-off snow still gleamed. Seeing what it covered was difficult, but it still stood out like a pale coloured fog hanging in the air, surrounding the camp as though it was comprised of raw malevolence. 

“You know what I think the key is, bubba.”

Ace nodded, though his expression remained stoic. “We’ve been over this before.”

“We have and you ain’t never told me I was wrong.”

Ace hadn’t. The truth was, he knew Cato was anything but wrong, yet his ideas still worried him. 

“The last time I played too much with my powers, I fell into a coma.”

“That was different. It was your daddy playin’ with your powers, not you. You ain’t never done nothin’ like that before.”

Silence again but for the grass underfoot and the cawing of a crow somewhere above them. “How do I even start?” Ace asked after a long pause. “My father is Zeus, God of the Sky. Where do I even start testing the limits of what I can do? Should I even start? It just seems—”

“I’mma stop you right there,” said Cato with a knowing grin. “Were you really ‘bout a tell me that it sounded dangerous? Bubba, do you got some kinda short-term memory loss? Are we just gonna pretend November never happened?”

“That was different. We weren’t trying to play with fire.” Cato began to laugh maniacally and Ace suddenly realized what he had just said. He scowled with frustration but slowly, his hard expression began showing cracks until he too was in fits of laughter.

“Not the best wording,” he admitted, “but you get the idea.”

“I do,” said Cato, “but can you honestly tell me you don’t wanna learn whatcha can do?” 

Ace grimaced. “Learning how to throw lightning around sounds great, but I’d rather not kill myself or level the camp in the process.”

Cato grinned wickedly as the cabins loomed into sight up ahead of them. “Trust me, if I ain’t killed myself blowin’ shit up yet, you sure as hell ain’t gonna beat me to it. I can promise ya that.”

Ace smiled despite himself. “I’ll think about it,” he said for the dozenth time. “I just…”

“I gotcha,” said Cato with a smile of his own. “You headin’ to bed?”

“I think I will, yeah. Tonight took a lot out of me.”

“I hope so. I’d be houndin’ ya for slackin’ if you weren’t tired.”

Ace grinned one final time. “Thanks, Cato. We’ll talk tomorrow, I’m sure.”

“Night, bubba, we’ll always talk tomorrow.”

The next day…

The room Ace was in was dark and vast. He thought for a moment that he was revising that horrible chasm for the first time in months, but he wasn’t. There was no gaping pit leading down into the depths of some sort of hell, just a large number of different shapes protruding from the darkness here and there. Ace squinted to see more, but he could hardly see his own hand when he held it up in front of his face.

His other senses worked better. This place had a very distinct smell. Mould, rot, and decay, as though wherever Ace was had fallen into disuse. There was something else, too. Something… harder to place. It was foul whatever it was. It reminded him of how his hockey gear smelled on long drives home after especially difficult practices, but worse and yet not quite the same. A horrible odour that made him want to gag, but one that was vaguely familiar.

He picked his brain for answers just as another of his senses kicked in. 

Something was moving.

It actually sounded as though many things were moving from all around him. It sounded like footfalls, but each step made too loud a sound. If these were footsteps, they were massive and clumsy. Ace heard something gently brush against what must have been one of the shapes on the edges of his vision. There was no sound of impact, but a soft shaking sound as though something hard and metallic had been jostled.

“Who’s there?” Ace asked, raising his hands to suddenly find himself armed with a bronze sword that gleams faintly in the darkness. Against the all-consuming void around him, the blade seemed vibrant and alive with light.

The first of them broke the peace before Ace had time to realize what was happening. It was a hulking humanoid shape. Ace thought for a moment he was being attacked by some kind of giant, disfigured monster made from shadow, but then the first beast got closer and Ace could see by the dim light of his sword the monster’s key distinguishing feature.

A single eye in the middle of its forehead, one filled with vengeful fury as it raised what looked like a broken crane’s arm and swung it towards Ace.

A gasp escaped him as he jolted upright in bed, shaking and breathing heavily as his heart raced so fast in his chest that Ace thought the blood in his veins must be flowing swift as an electric current. 

There was another sound now. A banging sound like the ones the cyclopes had made, but it was louder and more insistent. A banging sound that Ace did not recognize as knocking until a vaguely familiar voice called his name.

Ace was good at remembering the sounds of voices, even if Cato’s affinity for echo location was miles beyond him. This was not one he heard often, but Ace thought it was one of the satyrs. He couldn’t remember the name; the only one he had ever known was a young one named Grover. He had joined them for their trip up to Olympus during Christmas, but he had returned to his placement at a school in upstate New York not long later. Grover thought he had found a demigod and Ace could vaguely remember something about him trying to convince Chiron to come and have a look for himself, but the centaur had insisted he was busy at Camp Halfblood. This had been several days after they returned from Olympus; right around the time the ancient teacher had begun looking troubled. 

It was something Ace and Cato had observed easily enough. Chiron was many things, but he wasn’t the subtlest of creatures. Combine that with the fact that the weather had been abnormal in the months since Christmas and the two of them had decided something must be going on. The gods usually left the weather at camp alone unless they were displeased. 

“What is it?” Ace asked the satyr once he had hastily thrown on an orange Camp Halfblood t-shirt and a black pair of shorts. He regretted the latter as soon as he opened the door and the late-winter chill struck him like a kick to the solar plexus, but they had been the nearest bottoms in arm’s reach.

“Chiron wants to talk with you,” said the satyr. Ace could not help but notice how fidgety he was. Satyrs seemed a nervous bunch at the best of times, but this amount of discomfort seemed excessive.

Until he answered Ace’s next question.

“What does Chiron want to see me for at this time?” he asked while looking past the satyr and to the sky outside. A greyish tinge had begun to break over the horizon in the distance, but it was still mostly dark.

“I don’t know exactly. He never gave specifics, just something about a quest.”

Author’s Endnote:

It was nice to get back to Ace and Cato. I know I reference a number of things that happen off-screen in this interlude, but they will be alluded to as the story goes on. These are here to avoid too much of that, but a necessary four-month time jump does tend to do that. There may be a flashback or two at some point; we shall see.

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