- The Lost Hero
“You’ve doomed us all!” Medea screamed. Smoke was rolling across the carpet as the stain spread, throwing sparks and setting fires in the clothing racks. “You have only seconds before this concoction consumes everything and destroys the building. There’s no time—”
CRASH! The stained glass ceiling splintered in a rain of multicolored shards, and Festus the bronze dragon dropped into the department store.
He hurtled into the fray, snatching up a sun dragon in each claw. Only now did Piper appreciate just how big and strong their metal friend was.
“That’s my boy!” Leo yelled.
Festus flew halfway up the atrium, then hurled the sun dragons into the pits they’d come from. Leo raced to the fountain and pressed the marble tile, closing the sundials. They shuddered as the dragons banged against them, trying to get out, but for the moment they were contained.
Medea cursed in some ancient language. The whole fourth floor was on fire now. The air filled with noxious gas. Even with the roof open, Piper could feel the heat intensifying. She backed up to the edge of the railing, keeping her dagger pointed toward Medea.
“I will not be abandoned again!” The sorceress knelt and snatched up the red healing potion, which had somehow survived the crash. “You want your boyfriend’s memory restored? Take me with you!”
Piper glanced behind her. Leo and Jason were on board Festus’s back. The bronze dragon flapped his mighty wings, snatched the two cages with the satyr and the storm spirits in his claws, and began to ascend.
The building rumbled. Fire and the smoke curled up the walls, melting the railings, turning the air to acid.
“You’ll never survive your quest without me!” Medea growled. “Your boy hero will stay ignorant forever, and your father will die. Take me with you!”
For one heartbeat, Piper was tempted. Then she saw Medea’s grim smile. The sorceress was confident in her powers of persuasion, confident that she could always make a deal, always escape and win in the end.
“Not today, witch.” Piper jumped over the side. She plummeted for only a second before Leo and Jason caught her, hauling her aboard the dragon.
She heard Medea screaming in rage as they soared through the broken roof and over downtown Chicago. Then the department store exploded behind them.
LEO KEPT LOOKING BACK. HE HALF EXPECTED to see those nasty sun dragons toting a flying chariot with a screaming magical saleswoman throwing potions, but nothing followed them.
He steered the dragon toward the southwest. Eventually, the smoke from the burning department store faded in the distance, but Leo didn’t relax until the suburbs of Chicago gave way to snowy fields, and the sun began to set.
“Good job, Festus.” He patted the dragon’s metal hide. “You did awesome.”
The dragon shuddered. Gears popped and clicked in his neck.
Leo frowned. He didn’t like those noises. If the control disk was failing again—No, hopefully it was something minor. Something he could fix.
“I’ll give you a tune-up next time we land,” Leo promised. “You’ve earned some motor oil and Tabasco sauce.”
Festus whirled his teeth, but even that sounded weak. He flew at a steady pace, his great wings angling to catch the wind, but he was carrying a heavy load. Two cages in his claws plus three people on his back—the more Leo thought about it, the more worried he got. Even metal dragons had limits.
“Leo.” Piper patted his shoulder. “You feeling okay?”
“Yeah … not bad for a brainwashed zombie.” He hoped he didn’t look as embarrassed as he felt. “Thanks for saving us back there, beauty queen. If you hadn’t talked me out of that spell—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Piper said.
But Leo worried a lot. He felt terrible about how easily Medea had set him against his best friend. And those feelings hadn’t come from nowhere—his resentment of the way Jason always got the spotlight and didn’t really seem to need him. Leo did feel that way sometimes, even if he wasn’t proud of it.
What bothered him more was the news about his mom. Medea had seen the future down in the Underworld. That was how her patron, the woman in the black earthen robes, had come to the machine shop seven years ago to scare him, ruin his life. That’s how his mother had died—because of something Leo might do someday. So in a weird way, even if his fire powers weren’t to blame, Mom’s death was still his fault.
When they had left Medea in that exploding store, Leo had felt a little too good. He hoped she wouldn’t make it out, and would go right back to the Fields of Punishment, where she belonged. Those feelings didn’t make him proud, either.
And if souls were coming back from the Underworld …was it possible Leo’s mom could be brought back?
He tried to put the idea aside. That was Frankenstein thinking. It wasn’t natural. It wasn’t right. Medea might’ve been brought back to life, but she hadn’t seemed quite human, with the hissing nails and the glowing head and whatnot.
No, Leo’s mom had passed on. Thinking any other way would just drive Leo nuts. Still, the thought kept poking at him, like an echo of Medea’s voice.
“We’re going to have to put down soon,” he warned his friends. “Couple more hours, maybe, to make sure Medea’s not following us. I don’t think Festus can fly much longer than that.”
“Yeah,” Piper agreed. “Coach Hedge probably wants to get out of his canary cage, too. Question is—where are we going?”
“The Bay Area,” Leo guessed. His memories of the department store were fuzzy, but he seemed to remember hearing that. “Didn’t Medea say something about Oakland?”
Piper didn’t respond for so long, Leo wondered if he’d said something wrong.
“Piper’s dad,” Jason put in. “Something’s happened to your dad, right? He got lured into some kind of trap.”
Piper let out a shaky breath. “Look, Medea said you would both die in the Bay Area. And besides … even if we went there, the Bay Area is huge! First we need to find Aeolus and drop off the storm spirits. Boreas said Aeolus was the only one who could tell us exactly where to go.”
Leo grunted. “So how do we find Aeolus?”
Jason leaned forward. “You mean you don’t see it?” He pointed ahead of them, but Leo didn’t see anything except clouds and the lights of a few towns glowing in the dusk.
“What?” Leo asked. “That … whatever it is,” Jason said. “In the air.”
Leo glanced back. Piper looked just as confused as he was.
“Right,” Leo said. “Could you be more specific on the ‘whatever-it-is’ part?”
“Like a vapor trail,” Jason said. “Except it’s glowing. Really faint, but it’s definitely there. We’ve been following it since Chicago, so I figured you saw it.”
Leo shook his head. “Maybe Festus can sense it. You think Aeolus made it?”
“Well, it’s a magic trail in the wind,” Jason said. “Aeolus is the wind god. I think he knows we’ve got prisoners for him. He’s telling us where to fly.”
“Or it’s another trap,” Piper said.
Her tone worried Leo. She didn’t just sound nervous. She sounded broken with despair, like they’d already sealed their fate, and like it was her fault.
“Pipes, you all right?” he asked.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Okay, fine. You don’t like any of the names I make up for you. But if your dad’s in trouble and we can help—”
“You can’t,” she said, her voice getting shakier. “Look, I’m tired. If you don’t mind …”
She leaned back against Jason and closed her eyes.
All right, Leo thought—pretty clear signal she didn’t want to talk.
They flew in silence for a while. Festus seemed to know where he was going. He kept his course, gently curving toward the southwest and hopefully Aeolus’s fortress. Another wind god to visit, a whole new flavor of crazy—Oh, boy, Leo couldn’t wait.
He had way too much on his mind to sleep, but now that he was out danger, his body had different ideas. His energy level was crashing. The monotonous beat of the dragon’s wings made his eyes feel heavy. His head started to nod.
“Catch a few Z’s,” Jason said. “It’s cool. Hand me the reins.”
“Nah, I’m okay—”
“Leo,” Jason said, “you’re not a machine. Besides, I’m the only one who can see the vapor trail. I’ll make sure we stay on course.”
Leo’s eyes started to close on their own. “All right. Maybe just …”
He didn’t finish the sentence before slumping forward against the dragon’s warm neck.
In his dream, he heard a voice full of static, like a bad AM radio: “Hello? Is this thing working?”
Leo’s vision came into focus—sort of. Everything was hazy and gray, with bands of interference running across his sight. He’d never dreamed with a bad connection before.
He seemed to be in a workshop. Out of the corners of his eyes he saw bench saws, metal lathes, and tool cages. A forge glowed cheerfully against one wall.
It wasn’t the camp forge—too big. Not Bunker 9—much warmer and more comfortable, obviously not abandoned.
Then Leo realized something was blocking the middle of his view—something large and fuzzy, and so close, Leo had to cross his eyes to see it properly. It was a large ugly face.
“Holy mother!” he yelped.
The face backed away and came into focus. Staring down at him was a bearded man in grimy blue coveralls. His face was lumpy and covered with welts, as if he’d been bitten by a million bees, or dragged across gravel. Possibly both.
“Humph,” the man said. “Holy father, boy. I should think you’d know the difference.”
Leo blinked. “Hephaestus?”
Being in the presence of his father for the first time, Leo probably should’ve been speechless or awestruck or something. But after what he’d been through the last couple of days, with Cyclopes and a sorceress and a face in the potty sludge, all Leo felt was a surge of complete annoyance.
“Now you show up?” he demanded. “After fifteen years? Great parenting, Fur Face. Where do you get off sticking your ugly nose into my dreams?”
The god raised an eyebrow. A little spark caught fire in his beard. Then he threw back his head and laughed so loudly, the tools rattled on the workbenches.
“You sound just like your mother,” Hephaestus said. “I miss Esperanza.”
“She’s been dead seven years.” Leo’s voice trembled. “Not that you’d care.”
“But I do care, boy. About both of you.”
“Uh-huh. Which is why I never saw you before today.”
The god made a rumbling sound in his throat, but he looked more uncomfortable than angry. He pulled a miniature motor from his pocket and began fiddling absently with the pistons—just the way Leo did when he was nervous.