“I’m not good with children,” the god confessed. “Or people. Well, any organic life forms, really. I thought about speaking to you at your mom’s funeral. Then again when you were in fifth grade … that science project you made, steam-powered chicken chucker. Very impressive.”
“You saw that?”
Hephaestus pointed to the nearest worktable, where a shiny bronze mirror showed a hazy image of Leo asleep on the dragon’s back.
“Is that me?” Leo asked. “Like—me right now, having this dream—looking at me having a dream?”
Hephaestus scratched his beard. “Now you’ve confused me. But yes—it’s you. I’m always keeping an eye on you, Leo. But talking to you is, um … different.”
“You’re scared,” Leo said.
“Grommets and gears!” the god yelled. “Of course not!”
“Yeah, you’re scared.” But Leo’s anger seeped away. He’d spent years thinking about what he’d say to his dad if they ever met—how Leo would chew him out for being a deadbeat. Now, looking at that bronze mirror, Leo thought about his dad watching his progress over the years, even his stupid science experiments.
Maybe Hephaestus was still a jerk, but Leo kind of understood where he was coming from. Leo knew about running away from people, not fitting in. He knew about hiding out in a workshop rather than trying to deal with organic life forms.
“So,” Leo grumbled, “you keep track of all your kids? You got like twelve back at camp. How’d you even—Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
Hephaestus might’ve blushed, but his face was so beat up and red, it was hard to tell. “Gods are different from mortals, boy. We can exist in many places at once—wherever people call on us, wherever our sphere of influence is strong. In fact, it’s rare our entire essence is ever together in one place—our true form. It’s dangerous, powerful enough to destroy any mortal who looks upon us. So, yes … lots of children. Add to that our different aspects, Greek and Roman—” The god’s fingers froze on his engine project. “Er, that is to say, being a god is complicated. And yes, I try to keep an eye on all my children, but you especially.”
Leo was pretty sure Hephaestus had almost slipped and said something important, but he wasn’t sure what.
“Why contact me now?” Leo asked. “I thought the gods had gone silent.”
“We have,” Hephaestus grumped. “Zeus’s orders—very strange, even for him. He’s blocked all visions, dreams, and Iris-messages to and from Olympus. Hermes is sitting around bored out of his mind because he can’t deliver the mail. Fortunately, I kept my old pirate broadcasting equipment.”
Hephaestus patted a machine on the table. It looked like a combination satellite dish, V-6 engine, and espresso maker. Each time Hephaestus jostled the machine, Leo’s dream flickered and changed color.
“Used this in the Cold War,” the god said fondly. “Radio Free Hephaestus. Those were the days. I keep it around for pay-for-view, mostly, or making viral brain videos—”
“Viral brain videos?”
“But now it’s come in handy again. If Zeus knew I was contacting you, he’d have my hide.”
“Why is Zeus being such a jerk?”
“Hrumph. He excels at that, boy.” Hephaestus called him boy as if Leo were an annoying machine part—an extra washer, maybe, that had no clear purpose, but that Hephaestus didn’t want to throw away for fear he might need it someday.
Not exactly heartwarming. Then again, Leo wasn’t sure he wanted to be called “son.” Leo wasn’t about to start calling this big awkward ugly guy “Dad.”
Hephaestus got tired of his engine and tossed it over his shoulder. Before it could hit the floor, it sprouted helicopter wings and flew itself into a recycling bin.
“It was the second Titan War, I suppose,” Hephaestus said. “That’s what got Zeus upset. We gods were … well, embarrassed. Don’t think there’s any other way to say it.”
“But you won,” Leo said.
The god grunted. “We won because the demigods of”—again he hesitated, as if he’d almost made a slip—“of Camp Half-Blood took the lead. We won because our children fought our battles for us, smarter than we did. If we’d relied on Zeus’s plan, we would’ve all gone down to Tartarus fighting the storm giant Typhon, and Kronos would’ve won. Bad enough mortals won our war for us, but then that young upstart, Percy Jackson—”
“The guy who’s missing.”
“Hmph. Yes. Him. He had the nerve to turn down our offer of immortality and tell us to pay better attention to our children. Er, no offense.”
“Oh, how could I take offense? Please, go on ignoring me.”
“Mighty understanding of you …” Hephaestus frowned, then sighed wearily. “That was sarcasm, wasn’t it? Machines don’t have sarcasm, usually. But as I was saying, the gods felt ashamed, shown up by mortals. At first, of course, we were grateful. But after a few months, those feelings turned bitter. We’re gods, after all. We need to be admired, looked up to, held in awe and admiration.”
“Even if you’re wrong?”
“Especially then! And to have Jackson refuse our gift, as if being mortal were somehow better than being a god... well, that stuck in Zeus’s craw. He decided it was high time we got back to traditional values. Gods were to be respected. Our children were to be seen and not visited. Olympus was closed. At least that was part of his reasoning. And, of course, we started hearing of bad things stirring under the earth.”
“The giants, you mean. Monsters re-forming instantly. The dead rising again. Little stuff like that?”
“Aye, boy.” Hephaestus turned a knob on his pirate broadcasting machine. Leo’s dream sharpened to full color, but the god’s face was such a riot of red welts and yellow and black bruises, Leo wished it would go back to black and white.
“Zeus thinks he can reverse the tide,” the god said, “lull the earth back to sleep as long as we stay quiet. None of us really believes that. And I don’t mind saying, we’re in no shape to fight another war. We barely survived the Titans. If we’re repeating the old pattern, what comes next is even worse.”
“The giants,” Leo said. “Hera said demigods and gods had to join forces to defeat them. Is that true?”
“Mmm. I hate to agree with my mother about anything, but yes. Those giants are tough to kill, boy. They’re a different breed.”
“Breed? You make them sound like racehorses.”
“Ha!” the god said. “More like war dogs. Back in the beginning, y’see, everything in creation came from the same parents—Gaea and Ouranos, Earth and Sky. They had their different batches of children—your Titans, your Elder Cyclopes, and so forth. Then Kronos, the head Titan—well, you’ve probably heard how he chopped up his father Ouranos with a scythe and took over the world. Then we gods came along, children of the Titans, and defeated them. But that wasn’t the end of it. The earth bore a new batch of children, except they were sired by Tartarus, the spirit of the eternal abyss—the darkest, most evil place in the Underworld. Those children, the giants, were bred for one purpose—revenge on us for the fall of the Titans. They rose up to destroy Olympus, and they came awfully close.”
Hephaestus’s beard began to smolder. He absently swatted out the flames. “What my blasted mother Hera is doing now—she’s a meddling fool playing a dangerous game, but she’s right about one thing: you demigods have to unite. That’s the only way to open Zeus’s eyes, convince the Olympians they must accept your help. And that’s the only way to defeat what’s coming. You’re a big part of that, Leo. ”
The god’s gaze seemed far away. Leo wondered if really could split himself into different parts—where else was he right now? Maybe his Greek side was fixing a car or going on a date, while his Roman side was watching a ball game and ordering pizza. Leo tried to imagine what it would feel like to have multiple personalities. He hoped it wasn’t hereditary.
“Why me?” he asked, and as soon as he said it, more questions flooded out. “Why claim me now? Why not when I was thirteen, like you’re supposed to? Or you could’ve claimed me at seven, before my mom died! Why didn’t you find me earlier? Why didn’t you warn me about this?”
Leo’s hand burst into flames.
Hephaestus regarded him sadly. “Hardest part, boy. Letting my children walk their own paths. Interfering doesn’t work. The Fates make sure of that. As for the claiming, you were a special case, boy. The timing had to be right. I can’t explain it much more, but—”
Leo’s dream went fuzzy. Just for a moment, it turned into a rerun of Wheel of Fortune. Then Hephaestus came back into focus.
“Blast,” he said. “I can’t talk much longer. Zeus is sensing an illegal dream. He is lord of the air, after all, including the airwaves. Just listen, boy: you have a role to play. Your friend Jason is right—fire is a gift, not a curse. I don’t give that blessing to just anyone. They’ll never defeat the giants without you, much less the mistress they serve. She’s worse than any god or Titan.”
“Who?” Leo demanded.
Hephaestus frowned, his image becoming fuzzier. “I told you. Yes, I’m pretty sure I told you. Just be warned: along the way, you’re going to lose some friends and some valuable tools.
But that isn’t your fault, Leo. Nothing lasts forever, not even the best machines. And everything can be reused.”
“What do you mean? I don’t like the sound of that.”
“No, you shouldn’t.” Hephaestus’s image was barely visible now, just a blob in the static. “Just watch out for—”
Leo’s dream switched to Wheel of Fortune just as the wheel hit Bankrupt and the audience said, “Awwww!”
Then Leo snapped awake to Jason and Piper screaming.
THEY SPIRALED THROUGH THE DARK in a free fall, still on the dragon’s back, but Festus’s hide was cold. His ruby eyes were dim.
“Not again!” Leo yelled. “You can’t fall again!”
He could barely hold on. The wind stung his eyes, but he managed to pull open the panel on the dragon’s neck. He toggled the switches. He tugged the wires. The dragon’s wings flapped once, but Leo caught a whiff of burning bronze. The drive system was overloaded. Festus didn’t have the strength to keep flying, and Leo couldn’t get to the main control panel on the dragon’s head—not in midair. He saw the lights of a city below them—just flashes in the dark as they plummeted in circles. They had only seconds before they crashed.
“Jason!” he screamed. “Take Piper and fly out of here!”
“We need to lighten the load! I might be able to reboot Festus, but he’s carrying too much weight!”