“You want to drive this thing?” Leo grumbled, but he did what Jason asked.
After a few minutes, Jason spotted the storm spirit again, zipping through the streets with no apparent purpose—blowing over pedestrians, ruffling flags, making cars swerve.
“Oh great,” Piper said. “There’re two.”
She was right. A second ventus blasted around the corner of the Renaissance Hotel and linked up with the first. They wove together in a chaotic dance, shooting to the top of a skyscraper, bending a radio tower, and diving back down toward the street.
“Those guys do not need any more caffeine,” Leo said.
“I guess Chicago’s a good place to hang out,” Piper said. “Nobody’s going to question a couple more evil winds.”
“More than a couple,” Jason said. “Look.”
The dragon circled over a wide avenue next to a lake-side park. Storm spirits were converging—at least a dozen of them, whirling around a big public art installation.
“Which one do you think is Dylan?” Leo asked. “I wanna throw something at him.”
But Jason focused on the art installation. The closer they got to it, the faster his heart beat. It was just a public fountain, but it was unpleasantly familiar. Two five-story monoliths rose from either end of a long granite reflecting pool. The monoliths seemed to be built of video screens, flashing the combined image of a giant face that spewed water into the pool.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it looked like a high-tech, super-size version of that ruined reflecting pool he’d seen in his dreams, with those two dark masses jutting from either end. As Jason watched, the image on the screens changed to a woman’s face with her eyes closed.
“Leo …” he said nervously.
“I see her,” Leo said. “I don’t like her, but I see her.”
Then the screens went dark. The venti swirled together into a single funnel cloud and skittered across the fountain, kicking up a waterspout almost as high as the monoliths. They got to its center, popped off a drain cover, and disappeared underground.
“Did they just go down a drain?” Piper asked. “How are we supposed to follow them?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Leo said. “That fountain thing is giving me seriously bad vibes. And aren’t we supposed to, like, beware the earth?”
Jason felt the same way, but they had to follow. It was their only way forward. They had to find Hera, and they now had only two days until the solstice.
“Put us down in that park,” he suggested. “We’ll check it out on foot.”
Festus landed in an open area between the lake and the skyline. The signs said Grant Park, and Jason imagined it would’ve been a nice place in the summer; but now it was a field of ice, snow, and salted walkways. The dragon’s hot metal feet hissed as they touched down. Festus flapped his wings unhappily and shot fire into the sky, but there was no one around to notice. The wind coming off the lake was bitter cold. Anyone with sense would be inside. Jason’s eyes stung so badly, he could barely see.
They dismounted, and Festus the dragon stomped his feet. One of his ruby eyes flickered, so it looked like he was blinking.
“Is that normal?” Jason asked.
Leo pulled a rubber mallet from his tool bag. He whacked the dragon’s bad eye, and the light went back to normal. “Yes,” Leo said. “Festus can’t hang around here, though, in the middle of the park. They’ll arrest him for loitering. Maybe if I had a dog whistle …”
He rummaged in his tool belt, but came up with nothing.
“Too specialized?” he guessed. “Okay, give me a safety whistle. They got that in lots of machine shops.”
This time, Leo pulled out a big plastic orange whistle. “Coach Hedge would be jealous! Okay, Festus, listen.” Leo blew the whistle. The shrill sound probably rolled all the way across Lake Michigan. “You hear that, come find me, okay? Until then, you fly wherever you want. Just try not to barbecue any pedestrians.”
The dragon snorted—hopefully in agreement. Then he spread his wings and launched into the air.
Piper took one step and winced. “Ah!”
“Your ankle?” Jason felt bad he’d forgotten about her injury back in the Cyclops factory. “That nectar we gave you might be wearing off.”
“It’s fine.” She shivered, and Jason remembered his promise to get her a new snowboarding coat. He hoped he lived long enough to find her one. She took a few more steps with only a slight limp, but Jason could tell she was trying not to grimace.
“Let’s get out of the wind,” he suggested.
“Down a drain?” Piper shuddered. “Sounds cozy.”
They wrapped themselves up as best they could and headed toward the fountain.
* * *
According to the plaque, it was called Crown Fountain. All the water had emptied out except for a few patches that were starting to freeze. It didn’t seem right to Jason that the fountain would have water in it in the winter anyway. Then again, those big monitors had flashed the face of their mysterious enemy Dirt Woman. Nothing about this place was right.
They stepped to the center of the pool. No spirits tried to stop them. The giant monitor walls stayed dark. The drain hole was easily big enough for a person, and a maintenance ladder led down into the gloom.
Jason went first. As he climbed, he braced himself for horrible sewer smells, but it wasn’t that bad. The ladder dropped into a brickwork tunnel running north to south. The air was warm and dry, with only a trickle of water on the floor.
Piper and Leo climbed down after him.
“Are all sewers this nice?” Piper wondered.
“No,” Leo said. “Trust me.”
Jason frowned. “How do you know—”
“Hey, man, I ran away six times. I’ve slept in some weird places, okay? Now, which way do we go?”
Jason tilted his head, listening, then pointed south. “That way.”
“How can you be sure?” Piper asked.
“There’s a draft blowing south,” Jason said. “Maybe the venti went with the flow.”
It wasn’t much of a lead, but nobody offered anything better.
Unfortunately, as soon as they started walking, Piper stumbled. Jason had to catch her.
“Stupid ankle,” she cursed.
“Let’s rest,” Jason decided. “We could all use it. We’ve been going nonstop for over a day. Leo, can you pull any food from that tool belt besides breath mints?”
“Thought you’d never ask. Chef Leo is on it!”
Piper and Jason sat on a brick ledge while Leo shuffled through his pack.
Jason was glad to rest. He was still tired and dizzy, and hungry, too. But mostly, he wasn’t eager to face whatever lay ahead. He turned his gold coin in his fingers.
If you are to die, Hera had warned, it will be by her hand.
Whoever “her” was. After Khione, the Cyclops mother, and the weird sleeping lady, the last thing Jason needed was another psycho villainess in his life.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Piper said.
He looked at her blankly. “What?”
“Getting jumped by the Cyclopes,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault.”
He looked down at the coin in his palm. “I was stupid. I left you alone and walked into a trap. I should’ve known…”
He didn’t finish. There were too many things he should have known—who he was, how to fight monsters, how Cyclopes lured their victims by mimicking voices and hiding in shadows and a hundred other tricks. All that information was supposed to be in his head. He could feel the places it should be—like empty pockets. If Hera wanted him to succeed, why had she stolen the memories that could help him? She claimed his amnesia had kept him alive, but that made no sense. He was starting to understand why Annabeth had wanted to leave the goddess in her cage.
“Hey.” Piper nudged his arm. “Cut yourself some slack. Just because you’re the son of Zeus doesn’t mean you’re a one-man army.”
A few feet away, Leo lit a small cooking fire. He hummed as he pulled supplies out of his pack and his tool belt.
In the firelight, Piper’s eyes seemed to dance. Jason had been studying them for days now, and he still couldn’t decide what color they were.
“I know this must suck for you,” he said. “Not just the quest, I mean. The way I appeared on the bus, the Mist messing with your mind, and making you think I was …you know.”
She dropped her gaze. “Yeah, well. None of us asked for this. It’s not your fault.”
She tugged at the little braids on each side of her head. Again, Jason thought how glad he was that she’d lost the Aphrodite blessing. With the makeup and the dress and the perfect hair, she’d looked about twenty-five, glamorous, and completely out of his league. He’d never thought of beauty as a form of power, but that’s the way Piper had seemed—powerful.
He liked regular Piper better—someone he could hang out with. But the weird thing was, he couldn’t quite get that other image out of his head. It hadn’t been an illusion. That side of Piper was there too. She just did her best to hide it.
“Back in the factory,” Jason said, “you were you going to say something about your dad.”
She traced her finger over the bricks, almost like she was writing out a scream she didn’t want to vocalize. “Was I?”
“Piper,” he said, “he’s in some kind of trouble, isn’t it?”
Over at the fire, Leo stirred some sizzling bell peppers and meat in a pan. “Yeah, baby! Almost there.”
Piper looked on the verge of tears. “Jason … I can’t talk about it.”
“We’re your friends. Let us help.”
That seemed to make her feel worse. She took a shaky breath. “I wish I could, but—”
“And bingo!” Leo announced.
He came over with three plates stacked on his arms like a waiter. Jason had no idea where he’d gotten all the food, or how he’d put it together so fast, but it looked amazing: pepper and beef tacos with chips and salsa.
“Leo,” Piper said in amazement. “How did you—?”
“Chef Leo’s Taco Garage is fixing you up!” he said proudly. “And by the way, it’s tofu, not beef, beauty queen, so don’t freak. Just dig in!”
Jason wasn’t sure about tofu, but the tacos tasted as good as they smelled. While they ate, Leo tried to lighten the mood and joke around. Jason was grateful Leo was with them. It made being with Piper a little less intense and uncomfortable. At the same time, he kind of wished he was alone with her; but he chided himself for feeling that way.
After Piper ate, Jason encouraged her to get some sleep. Without another word, she curled up and put her head in his lap. In two seconds she was snoring.
Jason looked up at Leo, who was obviously trying not to laugh.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, drinking lemonade Leo had made from canteen water and powdered mix.
“Good, huh?” Leo grinned.
“You should start a stand,” Jason said. “Make some serious coin.”