“What about you?” Piper cried. “If you can’t reboot him—”
“I’ll be fine,” Leo yelled. “Just follow me to the ground. Go!”
Jason grabbed Piper around the waist. They both unbuckled their harnesses, and in a flash they were gone—shooting into the air.
“Now,” Leo said. “Just you and me, Festus—and two heavy cages. You can do it, boy!”
Leo talked to the dragon while he worked, falling at terminal velocity. He could see the city lights below him, getting closer and closer. He summoned fire in his hand so he could see what he was doing, but the wind kept extinguishing it.
He pulled a wire that he thought connected the dragon’s nerve center to its head, hoping for a little wake-up jolt.
Festus groaned—metal creaking inside his neck. His eyes flickered weakly to life, and he spread his wings. Their fall turned into a steep glide.
“Good!” Leo said. “Come on, big boy. Come on!”
They were still flying in way too hot, and the ground was too close. Leo needed a place to land—fast.
There was a big river—no. Not good for a fire-breathing dragon. He’d never get Festus out from the bottom if he sank, especially in freezing temperatures. Then, on the riverbanks, Leo spotted a white mansion with a huge snowy lawn inside a tall brick perimeter fence—like some rich person’s private compound, all of it blazing with light. A perfect landing field. He did his best to steer the dragon toward it, and Festus seemed to come back to life. They could make this!
Then everything went wrong. As they approached the lawn, spotlights along the fence fixed on them, blinding Leo. He heard bursts like tracer fire, the sound of metal being cut to shreds—and BOOM.
Leo blacked out.
When Leo came to his senses, Jason and Piper were leaning over him. He was lying in the snow, covered in mud and grease. He spit a clump of frozen grass out of his mouth.
“Lie still.” Piper had tears in her eyes. “You rolled pretty hard when—when Festus—”
“Where is he?” Leo sat up, but his head felt like it was floating. They’d landed inside the compound. Something had happened on the way in—gunfire?
“Seriously, Leo,” Jason said. “You could be hurt. You shouldn’t—”
Leo pushed himself to his feet. Then he saw the wreckage. Festus must have dropped the big canary cages as he came over the fence, because they’d rolled in different directions and landed on their sides, perfectly undamaged.
Festus hadn’t been so lucky.
The dragon had disintegrated. His limbs were scattered across the lawn. His tail hung on the fence. The main section of his body had plowed a trench twenty feet wide and fifty feet long across the mansion’s yard before breaking apart. What remained of his hide was a charred, smoking pile of scraps. Only his neck and head were somewhat intact, resting across a row of frozen rosebushes like a pillow.
“No,” Leo sobbed. He ran to the dragon’s head and stroked its snout. The dragon’s eyes flickered weakly. Oil leaked out of his ear.
“You can’t go,” Leo pleaded. “You’re the best thing I ever fixed.”
The dragon’s head whirred its gears, as if it were purring. Jason and Piper stood next to him, but Leo kept his eyes fixed on the dragon.
He remembered what Hephaestus had said: That isn’t your fault, Leo. Nothing lasts forever, not even the best machines.
His dad had been trying to warn him.
“It’s not fair,” he said.
The dragon clicked. Long creak. Two short clicks. Creak. Creak. Almost like a pattern … triggering an old memory in Leo’s mind. Leo realized Festus was trying to say something. He was using Morse code—just like Leo’s mom had taught him years ago. Leo listened more intently, translating the clicks into letters: a simple message repeating over and over.
“Yeah,” Leo said. “I understand. I will. I promise.”
The dragon’s eyes went dark. Festus was gone.
Leo cried. He wasn’t even embarrassed. His friends stood on either side, patting his shoulders, saying comforting things; but the buzzing in Leo’s ears drowned out their words.
Finally Jason said, “I’m so sorry, man. What did you promise Festus?”
Leo sniffled. He opened the dragon’s head panel, just to be sure, but the control disk was cracked and burned beyond repair.
“Something my dad told me,” Leo said. “Everything can be reused.”
“Your dad talked to you?” Jason asked. “When was this?”
Leo didn’t answer. He worked at the dragon’s neck hinges until the head was detached. It weighed about a hundred pounds, but Leo managed to hold it in his arms. He looked up at the starry sky and said, “Take him back to the bunker, Dad. Please, until I can reuse him. I’ve never asked you for anything.”
The wind picked up, and the dragon’s head floated out of Leo’s arms like it weighed nothing. It flew into the sky and disappeared.
Piper looked at him in amazement. “He answered you?”
“I had a dream,” Leo managed. “Tell you later.”
He knew he owed his friends a better explanation, but Leo could barely speak. He felt like a broken machine himself—like someone had removed one little part of him, and now he’d never be complete. He might move, he might talk, he might keep going and do his job. But he’d always be off balance, never calibrated exactly right.
Still, he couldn’t afford to break down completely. Otherwise, Festus had died for nothing. He had to finish this quest—for his friends, for his mom, for his dragon.
He looked around. The large white mansion glowed in the center of the grounds. Tall brick walls with lights and security cameras surrounded the perimeter, but now Leo could see—or rather sense—just how well those walls were defended.
“Where are we?” he asked. “I mean, what city?”
“Omaha, Nebraska,” Piper said. “I saw a billboard as we flew in. But I don’t know what this mansion is. We came in right behind you, but as you were landing, Leo, I swear it looked like—I don’t know—”
“Lasers,” Leo said. He picked up a piece of dragon wreckage and threw it toward the top of the fence. Immediately a turret popped up from the brick wall and a beam of pure heat incinerated the bronze plating to ashes.
Jason whistled. “Some defense system. How are we even alive?”
“Festus,” Leo said miserably. “He took the fire. The lasers sliced him to bits as he came in so they didn’t focus on you. I led him into a death trap.”
“You couldn’t have known,” Piper said. “He saved our lives again.”
“But what now?” Jason said. “The main gates are locked, and I’m guessing I can’t fly us out of here without getting shot down.”
Leo looked up the walkway at the big white mansion. “Since we can’t go out, we’ll have to go in.”
JASON WOULD’VE DIED FIVE TIMES on the way to the front door if not for Leo.
First it was the motion-activated trapdoor on the sidewalk, then the lasers on the steps, then the nerve gas dispenser on the porch railing, the pressure-sensitive poison spikes in the welcome mat, and of course the exploding doorbell.
Leo deactivated all of them. It was like he could smell the traps, and he picked just the right tool out of his belt to disable them.
“You’re amazing, man,” Jason said.
Leo scowled as he examined the front door lock. “Yeah, amazing,” he said. “Can’t fix a dragon right, but I’m amazing.”
“Hey, that wasn’t your—”
“Front door’s already unlocked,” Leo announced.
Piper stared at the door in disbelief. “It is? All those traps, and the door’s unlocked?”
Leo turned the knob. The door swung open easily. He stepped inside without hesitation.
Before Jason could follow, Piper caught his arm. “He’s going to need some time to get over Festus. Don’t take it personally.”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “Yeah, okay.”
But still he felt terrible. Back in Medea’s store, he’d said some pretty harsh stuff to Leo—stuff a friend shouldn’t say, not to mention the fact he’d almost skewered Leo with a sword. If it hadn’t been for Piper, they’d both be dead. And Piper hadn’t gotten out of that encounter easily, either.
“Piper,” he said, “I know I was in a daze back in Chicago, but that stuff about your dad—if he’s in trouble, I want to help. I don’t care if it’s a trap or not.”
Her eyes were always different colors, but now they looked shattered, as if she’d seen something she just couldn’t cope with. “Jason, you don’t know what you’re saying. Please—don’t make me feel worse. Come on. We should stick together.”
She ducked inside.
“Together,” Jason said to himself. “Yeah, we’re doing great with that.”
Jason’s first impression of the house: Dark.
From the echo of his footsteps he could tell the entry hall was enormous, even bigger than Boreas’s penthouse; but the only illumination came from the yard lights outside. A faint glow peeked through the breaks in the thick velvet curtains. The windows rose about ten feet tall. Spaced between them along the walls were life-size metal statues. As Jason’s eyes adjusted, he saw sofas arranged in a U in the middle of the room, with a central coffee table and one large chair at the far end. A massive chandelier glinted overhead. Along the back wall stood a row of closed doors.
“Where’s the light switch?” His voice echoed alarmingly through the room.
“Don’t see one,” Leo said.
“Fire?” Piper suggested.
Leo held out his hand, but nothing happened. “It’s not working.”
“Your fire is out? Why?” Piper asked.
“Well, if I knew that—”
“Okay, okay,” she said. “What do we do—explore?”
Leo shook his head. “After all those traps outside? Bad idea.”
Jason’s skin tingled. He hated being a demigod. Looking around, he didn’t see a comfortable room to hang out in. He imagined vicious storm spirits lurking in the curtains, dragons under the carpet, a chandelier made of lethal ice shards, ready to impale them.
“Leo’s right,” he said. “We’re not separating again—not like in Detroit.”
“Oh, thank you for reminding me of the Cyclopes.” Piper’s voice quavered. “I needed that.”
“It’s a few hours until dawn,” Jason guessed. “Too cold to wait outside. Let’s bring the cages in and make camp in this room. Wait for daylight; then we can decide what to do.”
Nobody offered a better idea, so they rolled in the cages with Coach Hedge and the storm spirits, then settled in. Thankfully, Leo didn’t find any poison throw pillows or electric whoopee cushions on the sofas.
Leo didn’t seem in the mood to make more tacos. Besides, they had no fire, so they settled for cold rations.