She didn’t finish, but Leo got the message. This was the cabin’s big test. If they could do something only Beckendorf could do, if they could subdue the dragon without killing it, then maybe their curse would be lifted. But they were stumped for ideas. Any camper who figured out how would be a hero.
A conch horn blew in the distance. Campers started putting up their tools and projects. Leo hadn’t realized it was getting so late, but he looked through the windows and saw the sun going down. His ADHD did that to him sometimes. If he was bored, a fifty-minute class seemed like six hours. If he was interested in something, like touring a demigod camp, hours slipped away and bam—the day was over.
“Dinner,” Nyssa said. “Come on, Leo.”
“Up at the pavilion, right?” he asked.
“You guys go ahead,” Leo said. “Can you … give me a second?”
Nyssa hesitated. Then her expression softened. “Sure. It’s a lot to process. I remember my first day. Come up when you’re ready. Just don’t touch anything. Almost every project in here can kill you if you’re not careful.”
“No touching,” Leo promised.
His cabinmates filed out of the forge. Soon Leo was alone with the sounds of the bellows, the waterwheels, and small machines clicking and whirring.
He stared at the map of camp—the locations where his newfound siblings were going to put traps to catch a dragon. It was wrong. Plain wrong.
Very rare, he thought. And always dangerous.
He held out his hand and studied his fingers. They were long and thin, not callused like the other Hephaestus campers’. Leo had never been the biggest or the strongest kid. He’d survived in tough neighborhoods, tough schools, tough foster homes by using his wits. He was the class clown, the court jester, because he’d learned early that if you cracked jokes and pretended you weren’t scared, you usually didn’t get beat up. Even the baddest gangster kids would tolerate you, keep you around for laughs. Plus, humor was a good way to hide the pain. And if that didn’t work, there was always Plan B. Run away. Over and over.
There was a Plan C, but he’d promised himself never to use it again.
He felt an urge to try it now—something he hadn’t done since the accident, since his mom’s death.
He extended his fingers and felt them tingle, like they were waking up—pins and needles. Then flames flickered to life, curls of red-hot fire dancing across his palm.
AS SOON AS JASON SAW THE HOUSE, he knew he was a dead man.
“Here we are!” Drew said cheerfully. “The Big House, camp headquarters.”
It didn’t look threatening, just a four-story manor painted baby blue with white trim. The wraparound porch had lounge chairs, a card table, and an empty wheelchair. Wind chimes shaped like nymphs turned into trees as they spun. Jason could imagine old people coming here for summer vacation, sitting on the porch and sipping prune juice while they watched the sunset. Still, the windows seemed to glare down at him like angry eyes. The wide-open doorway looked ready to swallow him. On the highest gable, a bronze eagle weathervane spun in the wind and pointed straight in his direction, as if telling him to turn around.
Every molecule in Jason’s body told him he was on enemy ground.
“I am not supposed to be here,” he said.
Drew circled her arm through his. “Oh, please. You’re perfect here, sweetie. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of heroes.”
Drew smelled like Christmas—a strange combination of pine and nutmeg. Jason wondered if she always smelled like that, or if it was some kind of special perfume for the holidays. Her pink eyeliner was really distracting. Every time she blinked, he felt compelled to look at her. Maybe that was the point, to show off her warm brown eyes. She was pretty. No doubt about that. But she made Jason feel uncomfortable.
He slipped his arm away as gently as he could. “Look, I appreciate—”
“Is it that girl?” Drew pouted. “Oh, please, tell me you are not dating the Dumpster Queen.”
“You mean Piper? Um …”
Jason wasn’t sure how to answer. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Piper before today, but he felt strangely guilty about it. He knew he shouldn’t be in this place. He shouldn’t befriend these people, and certainly he shouldn’t date one of them. Still … Piper had been holding his hand when he woke up on that bus. She believed she was his girlfriend. She’d been brave on the skywalk, fighting those venti, and when Jason had caught her in midair and they’d held each other face-to-face, he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t a little tempted to kiss her. But that wasn’t right. He didn’t even know his own story. He couldn’t play with her emotions like that.
Drew rolled her eyes. “Let me help you decide, sweetie. You can do better. A guy with your looks and obvious talent?”
She wasn’t looking at him, though. She was staring at a spot right above his head.
“You’re waiting for a sign,” he guessed. “Like what popped over Leo’s head.”
“What? No! Well … yes. I mean, from what I heard, you’re pretty powerful, right? You’re going to be important at camp, so I figure your parent will claim you right away. And I’d love to see that. I wanna be with you every step of the way! So is your dad or mom the god? Please tell me it’s not your mom. I would hate it if you were an Aphrodite kid.”
“Then you’d be my half brother, silly. You can’t date somebody from your own cabin. Yuck!”
“But aren’t all the gods related?” Jason asked. “So isn’t everyone here your cousin or something?”
“Aren’t you cute! Sweetie, the godly side of your family doesn’t count except for your parent. So anybody from another cabin—they’re fair game. So who’s your godly parent—mom or dad?”
As usual, Jason didn’t have an answer. He looked up, but no glowing sign popped above his head. At the top of the Big House, the weathervane was still pointing his direction, that bronze eagle glaring as if to say, Turn around, kid, while you still can.
Then he heard footsteps on the front porch. No—not footsteps—hooves.
“Chiron!” Drew called. “This is Jason. He’s totally awesome!”
Jason backed up so fast he almost tripped. Rounding the corner of the porch was a man on horseback. Except he wasn’t on horseback—he was part of the horse. From the waist up he was human, with curly brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He wore a T-shirt that said World’s Best Centaur, and had a quiver and bow strapped to his back. His head was so high up he had to duck to avoid the porch lights, because from the waist down, he was a white stallion.
Chiron started to smile at Jason. Then the color drained from his face.
“You …” The centaur’s eyes flared like a cornered animal’s. “You should be dead.”
Chiron ordered Jason—well, invited, but it sounded like an order—to come inside the house. He told Drew to go back to her cabin, which Drew didn’t look happy about.
The centaur trotted over to the empty wheelchair on the porch. He slipped off his quiver and bow and backed up to the chair, which opened like a magician’s box. Chiron gingerly stepped into it with his back legs and began scrunching himself into a space that should’ve been much too small. Jason imagined a truck’s reversing noises—beep, beep, beep—as the centaur’s lower half disappeared and the chair folded up, popping out a set of fake human legs covered in a blanket, so Chiron appeared to be a regular mortal guy in a wheelchair.
“Follow me,” he ordered. “We have lemonade.”
The living room looked like it had been swallowed by a rain forest. Grapevines curved up the walls and across the ceiling, which Jason found a little strange. He didn’t think plants grew like that inside, especially in the winter, but these were leafy green and bursting with bunches of red grapes.
Leather couches faced a stone fireplace with a crackling fire. Wedged in one corner, an old-style Pac-Man arcade game beeped and blinked. Mounted on the walls was an assortment of masks—smiley/frowny Greek theater types, feathered Mardi Gras masks, Venetian Carnevale masks with big beaklike noses, carved wooden masks from Africa. Grapevines grew through their mouths so they seemed to have leafy tongues. Some had red grapes bulging through their eyeholes.
But the weirdest thing was the stuffed leopard’s head above the fireplace. It looked so real, its eyes seemed to follow Jason. Then it snarled, and Jason nearly leaped out of his skin.
“Now, Seymour,” Chiron chided. “Jason is a friend. Behave yourself.”
“That thing is alive!” Jason said.
Chiron rummaged through the side pocket of his wheelchair and brought out a package of Snausages. He threw one to the leopard, who snapped it up and licked his lips.
“You must excuse the décor,” Chiron said. “All this was a parting gift from our old director before he was recalled to Mount Olympus. He thought it would help us to remember him. Mr. D has a strange sense of humor.”
“Mr. D,” Jason said. “Dionysus?”
“Mmm hmm.” Chiron poured lemonade, though his hands were trembling a little. “As for Seymour, well, Mr. D liberated him from a Long Island garage sale. The leopard is Mr. D’s sacred animal, you see, and Mr. D was appalled that someone would stuff such a noble creature. He decided to grant it life, on the assumption that life as a mounted head was better than no life at all. I must say it’s a kinder fate than Seymour’s previous owner got.”
Seymour bared his fangs and sniffed the air, as if hunting for more Snausages.
“If he’s only a head,” Jason said, “where does the food go when he eats?”
“Better not to ask,” Chiron said. “Please, sit.”
Jason took some lemonade, though his stomach was fluttering. Chiron sat back in his wheelchair and tried for a smile, but Jason could tell it was forced. The old man’s eyes were as deep and dark as wells.
“So, Jason,” he said, “would you mind telling me—ah—where you’re from?”
“I wish I knew.” Jason told him the whole story, from waking up on the bus to crash-landing at Camp Half-Blood. He didn’t see any point in hiding the details, and Chiron was a good listener. He didn’t react to the story, other than to nod encouragingly for more.
When Jason was done, the old man sipped his lemonade.
“I see,” Chiron said. “And you must have questions for me.”
“Only one,” Jason admitted. “What did you mean when you said that I should be dead?”
Chiron studied him with concern, as if he expected Jason to burst into flames. “My boy, do you know what those marks on your arm mean? The color of your shirt? Do you remember anything?”
Jason looked at the tattoo on his forearm: SPQR, the eagle, twelve straight lines.
“No,” he said. “Nothing.”
“Do you know where you are?” Chiron asked. “Do you understand what this place is, and who I am?”