Several of the kids blinked uncertainly.
“You mean he’s not her dad?” one asked.
Drew rolled her eyes. “Please. Now, it’s time for breakfast, people, and Piper here has to start that little quest. So let’s get her packed and get her out of here!”
Drew broke up the crowd and got everyone moving. She called them “hon” and “dear,” but her tone made it clear she expected to be obeyed. Mitchell and Lacy helped Piper pack. They even guarded the bathroom while Piper went in and changed into a better traveling outfit. The hand-me-downs weren’t fancy—thank god—just well-worn jeans, a T-shirt, a comfortable winter coat, and hiking boots that fit perfectly. She strapped her dagger, Katoptris, to her belt.
When Piper came out, she felt almost normal again. The other campers were standing at their bunks while Drew came around and inspected. Piper turned to Mitchell and Lacy and mouthed, Thank you. Mitchell nodded grimly. Lacy flashed a full-braces smile. Piper doubted Drew had ever thanked them for anything. She also noticed that the King of Sparta poster had been wadded up and thrown in the trash. Drew’s orders, no doubt. Even though Piper had wanted to take the poster down herself, now she was totally steamed.
When Drew spotted her, she clapped in mock applause. “Very nice! Our little quest girl all dressed in Dumpster clothes again. Now, off you go! No need to eat breakfast with us. Good luck with … whatever. Bye!”
Piper shouldered her bag. She could feel everyone else’s eyes on her as she walked to the door. She could just leave and forget about it. That would’ve been the easy thing. What did she care about this cabin, these shallow kids?
Except that some of them had tried to help her. Some of them had even stood up to Drew for her.
She turned at the door. “You know, you all don’t have to follow Drew’s orders.”
The other kids shifted. Several glanced at Drew, but she looked too stunned to respond.
“Umm,” one managed, “she’s our head counselor.”
“She’s a tyrant,” Piper corrected. “You can think for yourselves. There’s got to be more to Aphrodite than this.”
“More than this,” one kid echoed.
“Think for ourselves,” a second muttered.
“People!” Drew screeched. “Don’t be stupid! She’s charm-speaking you.”
“No,” Piper said. “I’m just telling the truth.”
At least, Piper thought that was the case. She didn’t understand exactly how this charmspeaking business worked, but she didn’t feel like she was putting any special power into her words. She didn’t want to win an argument by tricking people. That would make her no better than Drew. Piper simply meant what she said. Besides, even if she tried charmspeaking, she had a feeling it wouldn’t work very well on another charmspeaker like Drew.
Drew sneered at her. “You may have a little power, Miss Movie Star. But you don’t know the first thing about Aphrodite. You have such great ideas? What do you think this cabin is about, then? Tell them. Then maybe I’ll tell them a few things about you, huh?”
Piper wanted to make a withering retort, but her anger turned to panic. She was a spy for the enemy, just like Silena Beauregard. An Aphrodite traitor. Did Drew know about that, or was she bluffing? Under Drew’s glare, her confidence began to crumble.
“Not this,” Piper managed. “Aphrodite is not about this.”
Then she turned and stormed out before the others could see her blushing.
Behind her, Drew started laughing. “Not this? Hear that, people? She doesn’t have a clue!”
Piper promised herself she would never ever go back to that cabin. She blinked away her tears and stormed across the green, not sure where she was going—until she saw the dragon swooping down from the sky.
“LEO?” SHE YELLED.
Sure enough, there he was, sitting atop a giant bronze death machine and grinning like a lunatic. Even before he landed, the camp alarm went up. A conch horn blew. All the satyrs started screaming, “Don’t kill me!” Half the camp ran outside in a mixture of pajamas and armor. The dragon set down right in the middle of the green, and Leo yelled, “It’s cool! Don’t shoot!”
Hesitantly, the archers lowered their bows. The warriors backed away, keeping their spears and swords ready. They made a loose wide ring around the metal monster. Other demigods hid behind their cabin doors or peeped out the windows. Nobody seemed anxious to get close.
Piper couldn’t blame them. The dragon was huge. It glistened in the morning sun like a living penny sculpture —different shades of copper and bronze—a sixty-foot-long serpent with steel talons and drill-bit teeth and glowing ruby eyes. It had bat-shaped wings twice its length that unfurled like metallic sails, making a sound like coins cascading out of a slot machine every time they flapped.
“It’s beautiful,” Piper muttered. The other demigods stared at her like she was insane.
The dragon reared its head and shot a column of fire into the sky. Campers scrambled away and hefted their weapons, but Leo slid calmly off the dragon’s back. He held up his hands like he was surrendering, except he still had that crazy grin on his face.
“People of Earth, I come in peace!” he shouted. He looked like he’d been rolling around in the campfire. His army coat and his face were smeared with soot. His hands were grease-stained, and he wore a new tool belt around his waist. His eyes were bloodshot. His curly hair was so oily it stuck up in porcupine quills, and he smelled strangely of Tabasco sauce. But he looked absolutely delighted. “Festus is just saying hello!”
“That thing is dangerous!” an Ares girl shouted, brandishing her spear. “Kill it now!”
“Stand down!” someone ordered.
To Piper’s surprise, it was Jason. He pushed through the crowd, flanked by Annabeth and that girl from the Hephaestus cabin, Nyssa.
Jason gazed up at the dragon and shook his head in amazement. “Leo, what have you done?”
“Found a ride!” Leo beamed. “You said I could go on the quest if I got you a ride. Well, I got you a class-A metallic flying bad boy! Festus can take us anywhere!”
“It—has wings,” Nyssa stammered. Her jaw looked like it might drop off her face.
“Yeah!” Leo said. “I found them and reattached them.”
“But it never had wings. Where did you find them?”
Leo hesitated, and Piper could tell he was hiding something.
“In … the woods,” he said. “Repaired his circuits, too, mostly, so no more problems with him going haywire.”
“Mostly?” Nyssa asked.
The dragon’s head twitched. It tilted to one side and a stream of black liquid—maybe oil, hopefully just oil—poured out of its ear, all over Leo.
“Just a few kinks to work out,” Leo said.
“But how did you survive … ?” Nyssa was still staring at the creature in awe. “I mean, the fire breath …”
“I’m quick,” Leo said. “And lucky. Now, am I on this quest, or what?”
Jason scratched his head. “You named him Festus? You know that in Latin, ‘festus’ means ‘happy’? You want us to ride off to save the world on Happy the Dragon?”
The dragon twitched and shuddered and flapped his wings.
“That’s a yes, bro!” Leo said. “Now, um, I’d really suggest we get going, guys. I already picked up some supplies in the—um, in the woods. And all these people with weapons are making Festus nervous.”
Jason frowned. “But we haven’t planned anything yet. We can’t just—”
“Go,” Annabeth said. She was the only one who didn’t look nervous at all. Her expression was sad and wistful, like this reminded her of better times. “Jason, you’ve only got three days until the solstice now, and you should never keep a nervous dragon waiting. This is certainly a good omen. Go!”
Jason nodded. Then he smiled at Piper. “You ready, partner?”
Piper looked at the bronze dragon wings shining against the sky, and those talons that could’ve shredded her to pieces.
“You bet,” she said.
Flying on the dragon was the most amazing experience ever, Piper thought.
Up high, the air was freezing cold; but the dragon’s metal hide generated so much heat, it was like they were flying in a protective bubble. Talk about seat warmers! And the grooves in the dragon’s back were designed like high-tech saddles, so they weren’t uncomfortable at all. Leo showed them how to hook their feet in the chinks of the armor, like in stirrups, and use the leather safety harnesses cleverly concealed under the exterior plating. They sat single file: Leo in front, then Piper, then Jason, and Piper was very aware of Jason right behind her. She wished he would hold on to her, maybe wrap his arms around her waist; but sadly, he didn’t.
Leo used the reins to steer the dragon into the sky like he’d been doing it all his life. The metal wings worked perfectly, and soon the coast of Long Island was just a hazy line behind them. They shot over Connecticut and climbed into the gray winter clouds.
Leo grinned back at them. “Cool, right?”
“What if we get spotted?” Piper asked.
“The Mist,” Jason said. “It keeps mortals from seeing magic things. If they spot us, they’ll probably mistake us for a small plane or something.”
Piper glanced over her shoulder. “You sure about that?”
“No,” he admitted. Then Piper saw he was clutching a photo in his hand—a picture of a girl with dark hair.
She gave Jason a quizzical look, but he blushed and put the photo in his pocket. “We’re making good time. Probably get there by tonight.”
Piper wondered who the girl in the picture was, but she didn’t want to ask; and if Jason didn’t volunteer the information, that wasn’t a good sign. Had he remembered something about his life before? Was that a photo of his real girlfriend?
Stop it, she thought. You’ll just torture yourself.
She asked a safer question. “Where are we heading?”
“To find the god of the North Wind,” Jason said. “And chase some storm spirits.”
LEO WAS TOTALLY BUZZING.
The expression on everyone’s faces when he flew the dragon into camp? Priceless! He thought his cabinmates were going to bust a lug nut.
Festus had been awesome too. He hadn’t blowtorched a single cabin or eaten any satyrs, even if he did dribble a little oil from his ear. Okay, a lot of oil. Leo could work on that later.
So maybe Leo didn’t seize the chance to tell everybody about Bunker 9 or the flying boat design. He needed some time to think about all that. He could tell them when he came back.
If I come back, part of him thought.
Nah, he’d come back. He’d scored a sweet magic tool belt from the bunker, plus a lot of cool supplies now safely stowed in his backpack. Besides, he had a fire-breathing, only slightly leaky dragon on his side. What could go wrong?
Well, the control disk could bust, the bad part of him suggested. Festus could eat you.