Later, his neighbors at the apartment complex told the police what a strange boy he was. They talked about the burned handprints on the picnic table. They’d always known something was wrong with Esperanza Valdez’s son.
His relatives wouldn’t take him in. His Aunt Rosa called him a diablo and shouted at the social workers to take him away. So Leo went to his first foster home. A few days later, he ran away. Some foster homes lasted longer than others. He would joke around, make a few friends, pretend that nothing bothered him, but he always ended up running sooner or later. It was the only thing that made the pain better—feeling like he was moving, getting farther and farther away from the ashes of that machine shop.
He’d promised himself he would never play with fire again. He hadn’t thought about Tía Callida, or the sleeping woman wrapped in earthen robes, for a long time.
He was almost to the woods when he imagined Tía Callida’s voice: It wasn’t your fault, little hero. Our enemy wakes. It’s time to stop running.
“Hera,” Leo muttered, “you’re not even here, are you? You’re in a cage somewhere.”
There was no answer.
But now, at least, Leo understood something. Hera had been watching him his entire life. Somehow, she’d known that one day she would need him. Maybe those Fates she mentioned could tell the future. Leo wasn’t sure. But he knew he was meant to go on this quest. Jason’s prophecy warned them to beware the earth, and Leo knew it had something to do with that sleeping woman in the shop, wrapped in robes of shifting dirt.
You’ll find your destiny, Tía Callida had promised, and your hard journey will finally make sense.
Leo might find out what that flying boat in his dreams meant. He might meet his father, or even get to avenge his mother’s death.
But first things first. He’d promised Jason a flying ride.
Not the boat from his dreams—not yet. There wasn’t time to build something that complicated. He needed a quicker solution. He needed a dragon.
He hesitated at the edge of the woods, peering into absolute blackness. Owls hooted, and something far away hissed like a chorus of snakes.
Leo remembered what Will Solace had told him: No one should go in the woods alone, definitely not unarmed. Leo had nothing—no sword, no flashlight, no help.
He glanced back at the lights of the cabins. He could turn around now and tell everyone he’d been joking. Psych! Nyssa could go on the quest instead. He could stay at camp and learn to be part of the Hephaestus cabin, but he wondered how long it would be before he looked like his bunkmates—sad, dejected, convinced of his own bad luck.
They cannot stop me from breaking your spirit, the sleeping woman had said. Remember this night, little hero, when they ask you to oppose me.
“Believe me, lady,” Leo muttered, “I remember. And whoever you are, I’m gonna face-plant you hard, Leo-style.”
He took a deep breath and plunged into the forest.
THE WOODS WEREN’T LIKE ANYPLACE he’d been before. Leo had been raised in a north Houston apartment complex. The wildest things he’d ever seen were that rattlesnake in the cow pasture and his Aunt Rosa in her nightgown, until he was sent to Wilderness School.
Even there, the school had been in the desert. No trees with gnarled roots to trip over. No streams to fall into. No branches casting dark, creepy shadows and owls looking down at him with their big reflective eyes. This was the Twilight Zone.
He stumbled along until he was sure no one back at the cabins could possibly see him. Then he summoned fire. Flames danced along his fingertips, casting enough light to see. He hadn’t tried to keep a sustained burn going since he was five, at that picnic table. Since his mom’s death, he’d been too afraid to try anything. Even this tiny fire made him feel guilty.
He kept walking, looking for dragon-type clues—giant footprints, trampled trees, swaths of burning forest. Something that big couldn’t exactly sneak around, right? But he saw nada. Once he glimpsed a large, furry shape like a wolf or a bear, but it stayed away from his fire, which was fine by Leo.
Then, at the bottom of a clearing, he saw the first trap—a hundred-foot-wide crater ringed with boulders.
Leo had to admit it was pretty ingenious. In the center of the depression, a metal vat the size of a hot tub had been filled with bubbly dark liquid—Tabasco sauce and motor oil. On a pedestal suspended over the vat, an electric fan rotated in a circle, spreading the fumes across the forest. Could metal dragons smell?
The vat seemed to be unguarded. But Leo looked closely, and in the dim light of the stars and his handheld fire, he could see the glint of metal beneath the dirt and leaves—a bronze net lining the entire crater. Or maybe see wasn’t the right word—he could sense it there, as if the mechanism was emitting heat, revealing itself to him. Six large strips of bronze stretched out from the vat like the spokes of a wheel. They would be pressure sensitive, Leo guessed. As soon as the dragon stepped on one, the net would spring closed, and voilà—one gift-wrapped monster.
Leo edged closer. He put his foot on the nearest trigger strip. As he expected, nothing happened. They had to have set the net for something really heavy. Otherwise they could catch an animal, human, smaller monster, whatever. He doubted there was anything else as heavy as a metal dragon in these woods. At least, he hoped there wasn’t.
He picked his way down the crater and approached the vat. The fumes were almost overpowering, and his eyes started watering. He remembered a time when Tía Callida (Hera, whatever) had made him chop jalapeños in the kitchen and he’d gotten the juice in his eyes. Serious pain. But of course she’d been like, “Endure it, little hero. The Aztecs of your mother’s homeland used to punish bad children by holding them over a fire filled with chili peppers. They raised many heroes that way.”
A total psycho, that lady. Leo was so glad he was on a quest to rescue her.
Tía Callida would’ve loved this vat, because it was way worse than jalapeño juice. Leo looked for a trigger—something that would disable the net. He didn’t see anything.
He had a moment of panic. Nyssa had said there were several traps like this in the woods, and they were planning more. What if the dragon had already stepped into another one? How could Leo possibly find them all?
He continued to search, but he didn’t see any release mechanism. No large button labeled off. It occurred to him that there might not be one. He started to despair—and then he heard the sound.
It was more of a tremor—the deep sort of rumbling you hear in your gut rather than your ears. It gave him the jitters, but he didn’t look around for the source. He just kept examining the trap, thinking, Must be a long way off. It’s pounding its way through the woods. I gotta hurry.
Then he heard a grinding snort, like steam forced out of a metal barrel.
His neck tingled. He turned slowly. At the edge of the pit, fifty feet away, two glowing red eyes were staring at him. The creature gleamed in the moonlight, and Leo couldn’t believe something that huge had sneaked up on him so fast. Too late, he realized its gaze was fixed on the fire in his hand, and he extinguished the flames.
He could still see the dragon just fine. It was about sixty feet long, snout to tail, its body made of interlocking bronze plates. Its claws were the size of butcher knives, and its mouth was lined with hundreds of dagger-sharp metal teeth. Steam came out of its nostrils. It snarled like a chain saw cutting through a tree. It could’ve bitten Leo in half, easy, or stomped him flat. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, except for one problem that completely ruined Leo’s plan.
“You don’t have wings,” Leo said.
The dragon’s snarl died. It tilted its head as if to say, Why aren’t you running away in terror?
“Hey, no offense,” Leo said. “You’re amazing! Good god, who made you? Are you hydraulic or nuclear-powered or what? But if it was me, I would’ve put wings on you. What kind of dragon doesn’t have wings? I guess maybe you’re too heavy to fly? I should’ve thought of that.”
The dragon snorted, more confused now. It was supposed to trample Leo. This conversation thing wasn’t part of the plan. It took a step forward, and Leo shouted, “No!”
The dragon snarled again.
“It’s a trap, bronze brain,” Leo said. “They’re trying to catch you.”
The dragon opened its mouth and blew fire. A column of white-hot flames billowed over Leo, more than he’d ever tried to endure before. He felt as if he were being hosed down with a powerful, very hot fire hose. It stung a little, but he stood his ground. When the flames died, he was perfectly fine. Even his clothes were okay, which Leo didn’t understand, but for which he was grateful. He liked his army jacket, and having his pants seared off would’ve been pretty embarrassing.
The dragon stared at Leo. Its face didn’t actually change, being made of metal and all, but Leo thought he could read its expression: Why no crispy critter? A spark flew out of its neck like it was about to short-circuit.
“You can’t burn me,” Leo said, trying to sound stern and calm. He’d never had a dog before, but he talked to the dragon the way he thought you’d talk to a dog. “Stay, boy. Don’t come any closer. I don’t want you to get caught. See, they think you’re broken and have to be scrapped. But I don’t believe that. I can fix you if you’ll let me—”
The dragon creaked, roared, and charged. The trap sprang. The floor of the crater erupted with a sound like a thousand trash can lids banging together. Dirt and leaves flew, metal net flashing. Leo was knocked off his feet, turned upside down, and doused in Tabasco sauce and oil. He found himself sandwiched between the vat and the dragon as it thrashed, trying to free itself from the net that had wrapped around them both.
The dragon blew flames in every direction, lighting up the sky and setting trees on fire. Oil and sauce burned all over them. It didn’t hurt Leo, but it left a nasty taste in his mouth.
“Will you stop that!” he yelled.
The dragon kept squirming. Leo realized he would get crushed if he didn’t move. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to wriggle out from between the dragon and the vat. He squirmed his way through the net. Fortunately the holes were plenty big enough for a skinny kid.
He ran to the dragon’s head. It tried to snap at him, but its teeth were tangled in the mesh. It blew fire again, but seemed to be running out of energy. This time the flames were only orange. They sputtered before they even reached Leo’s face.
“Listen, man,” Leo said, “you’re just going to show them where you are. Then they’ll come and break out the acid and the metal cutters. Is that what you want?”
The dragon’s jaw made a creaking sound, like it was trying to talk.
“Okay, then,” Leo said. “You’ll have to trust me.”
And Leo set to work.
It took him almost an hour to find the control panel. It was right behind the dragon’s head, which made sense. He’d elected to keep the dragon in the net, because it was easier to work with the dragon constrained, but the dragon didn’t like it.