“That’s bizarre,” Piper said.
“Guess you can’t get cable on a floating island,” Leo said. “Dang, check this guy’s front yard.”
The rotunda sat in the center of a quarter-mile circle. The grounds were amazing in a scary way. They were divided into four sections like big pizza slices, each one representing a season.
The section on their right was an icy waste, with bare trees and a frozen lake. Snowmen rolled across the landscape as the wind blew, so Jason wasn’t sure if they were decorations or alive.
To their left was an autumn park with gold and red trees. Mounds of leaves blew into patterns—gods, people, animals that ran after each other before scattering back into leaves.
In the distance, Jason could see two more areas behind the rotunda. One looked like a green pasture with sheep made out of clouds. The last section was a desert where tumbleweeds scratched strange patterns in the sand like Greek letters, smiley faces, and a huge advertisement that read: watch aeolus nightly!
“One section for each of the four wind gods,” Jason guessed. “Four cardinal directions.”
“I’m loving that pasture.” Coach Hedge licked his lips. “You guys mind—”
“Go ahead,” Jason said. He was actually relieved to send the satyr off. It would be hard enough getting on Aeolus’s good side without Coach Hedge waving his club and screaming, “Die!”
While the satyr ran off to attack springtime, Jason, Leo, and Piper walked down the road to the steps of the palace. They passed through the front doors into a white marble foyer decorated with purple banners that read olympian weather channel, and some that just read ow!
“Hello!” A woman floated up to them. Literally floated. She was pretty in that elfish way Jason associated with nature spirits at Camp Half-Blood—petite, slightly pointy ears, and an ageless face that could’ve been sixteen or thirty. Her brown eyes twinkled cheerfully. Even though there was no wind, her dark hair blew in slow motion, shampoo-commercial style. Her white gown billowed around her like parachute material. Jason couldn’t tell if she had feet, but if so, they didn’t touch the floor. She had a white tablet computer in her hand. “Are you from Lord Zeus?” she asked. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Jason tried to respond, but it was a little hard to think straight, because he’d realized the woman was see-through. Her shape faded in and out like she was made of fog.
“Are you a ghost?” he asked.
Right away he knew he’d insulted her. The smile turned into a pout. “I’m an aura, sir. A wind nymph, as you might expect, working for the lord of the winds. My name is Mellie. We don’t have ghosts.”
Piper came to the rescue. “No, of course you don’t! My friend simply mistook you for Helen of Troy, the most beautiful mortal of all time. It’s an easy mistake.”
Wow, she was good. The compliment seemed a little over the top, but Mellie the aura blushed. “Oh … well, then. So you are from Zeus?”
“Er,” Jason said, “I’m the son of Zeus, yeah.”
“Excellent! Please, right this way.” She led them through some security doors into another lobby, consulting her tablet as she floated. She didn’t look where she was going, but apparently it didn’t matter as she drifted straight through a marble column with no problem. “We’re out of prime time now, so that’s good,” she mused. “I can fit you in right before his 11:12 spot.”
“Um, okay,” Jason said.
The lobby was a pretty distracting place. Winds blasted around them, so Jason felt like he was pushing through an invisible crowd. Doors blew open and slammed by themselves.
The things Jason could see were just as bizarre. Paper airplanes of all different sizes and shapes sped around, and other wind nymphs, aurai, would occasionally pluck them out of the air, unfold and read them, then toss them back into the air, where the planes would refold themselves and keep flying.
An ugly creature fluttered past. She looked like a mix between an old lady and a chicken on steroids. She had a wrinkled face with black hair tied in a hairnet, arms like a human plus wings like a chicken, and a fat, feathered body with talons for feet. It was amazing she could fly at all. She kept drifting around and bumping into things like a parade balloon.
“Not an aura?” Jason asked Mellie as the creature wobbled by.
Mellie laughed. “That’s a harpy, of course. Our, ah, ugly stepsisters, I suppose you would say. Don’t you have harpies on Olympus? They’re spirits of violent gusts, unlike us aurai. We’re all gentle breezes.”
She batted her eyes at Jason.
“’Course you are,” he said.
“So,” Piper prompted, “you were taking us to see Aeolus?”
Mellie led them through a set of doors like an airlock. Above the interior door, a green light blinked.
“We have a few minutes before he starts,” Mellie said cheerfully. “He probably won’t kill you if we go in now. Come along!”
JASON’S JAW DROPPED. THE CENTRAL SECTION of Aeolus’s fortress was as big as a cathedral, with a soaring domed roof covered in silver. Television equipment floated randomly through the air—cameras, spotlights, set pieces, potted plants. And there was no floor. Leo almost fell into the chasm before Jason pulled him back.
“Holy—!” Leo gulped. “Hey, Mellie. A little warning next time!”
An enormous circular pit plunged into the heart of the mountain. It was probably half a mile deep, honeycombed with caves. Some of the tunnels probably led straight outside. Jason remembered seeing winds blast out of them when they’d been on Pikes Peak. Other caves were sealed with some glistening material like glass or wax. The whole cavern bustled with harpies, aurai, and paper airplanes, but for someone who couldn’t fly, it would be a very long, very fatal fall.
“Oh, my,” Mellie gasped. “I’m so sorry.” She unclipped a walkie-talkie from somewhere inside her robes and spoke into it: “Hello, sets? Is that Nuggets? Hi, Nuggets. Could we get a floor in the main studio, please? Yes, a solid one. Thanks.”
A few seconds later, an army of harpies rose from the pit—three dozen or so demon chicken ladies, all carrying squares of various building material. They went to work hammering and gluing—and using large quantities of duct tape, which didn’t reassure Jason. In no time there was a makeshift floor snaking out over the chasm. It was made of plywood, marble blocks, carpet squares, wedges of grass sod—just about anything.
“That can’t be safe,” Jason said.
“Oh, it is!” Mellie assured him. “The harpies are very good.”
Easy for her to say. She just drifted across without touching the floor, but Jason decided he had the best chance at surviving, since he could fly, so he stepped out first. Amazingly, the floor held.
Piper gripped his hand and followed him. “If I fall, you’re catching me.”
“Uh, sure.” Jason hoped he wasn’t blushing.
Leo stepped out next. “You’re catching me, too, Superman. But I ain’t holding your hand.”
Mellie led them toward the middle of the chamber, where a loose sphere of flat-panel video screens floated around a kind of control center. A man hovered inside, checking monitors and reading paper airplane messages.
The man paid them no attention as Mellie brought them forward. She pushed a forty-two-inch Sony out of their way and led them into the control area.
Leo whistled. “I got to get a room like this.”
The floating screens showed all sorts of television programs. Some Jason recognized—news broadcasts, mostly—but some programs looked a little strange: gladiators fighting, demigods battling monsters. Maybe they were movies, but they looked more like reality shows.
At the far end of the sphere was a silky blue backdrop like a cinema screen, with cameras and studio lights floating around it.
The man in the center was talking into an earpiece phone. He had a remote control in each hand and was pointing them at various screens, seemingly at random.
He wore a business suit that looked like the sky—blue mostly, but dappled with clouds that changed and darkened and moved across the fabric. He looked like he was in his sixties, with a shock of white hair, but he had a ton of stage makeup on, and that smooth plastic-surgery look to his face, so he appeared not really young, not really old, just wrong—like a Ken doll someone had halfway melted in a microwave. His eyes darted back and forth from screen to screen, like he was trying to absorb everything at once. He muttered things into his phone, and his mouth kept twitching. He was either amused, or crazy, or both.
Mellie floated toward him. “Ah, sir, Mr. Aeolus, these demigods—”
“Hold it!” He held up a hand to silence her, then pointed at one of the screens. “Watch!”
It was one of those storm-chaser programs, where insane thrill-seekers drive after tornados. As Jason watched, a Jeep plowed straight into a funnel cloud and got tossed into the sky.
Aeolus shrieked with delight. “The Disaster Channel. People do that on purpose!” He turned toward Jason with a mad grin. “Isn’t that amazing? Let’s watch it again.”
“Um, sir,” Mellie said, “this is Jason, son of—”
“Yes, yes, I remember,” Aeolus said. “You’re back. How did it go?”
Jason hesitated. “Sorry? I think you’ve mistaken me—”
“No, no, Jason Grace, aren’t you? It was—what—last year? You were on your way to fight a sea monster, I believe.”
“I—I don’t remember.”
Aelous laughed. “Must not have been a very good sea monster! No, I remember every hero who’s ever come to me for aid. Odysseus—gods, he docked at my island for a month! At least you only stayed a few days. Now, watch this video. These ducks get sucked straight into—”
“Sir,” Mellie interrupted. “Two minutes to air.”
“Air!” Aeolus exclaimed. “I love air. How do I look? Makeup!”
Immediately a small tornado of brushes, blotters, and cotton balls descended on Aeolus. They blurred across his face in a cloud of flesh-tone smoke until his coloration was even more gruesome than before. Wind swirled through his hair and left it sticking up like a frosted Christmas tree.
“Mr. Aeolus.” Jason slipped off the golden backpack. “We brought you these rogue storm spirits.”
“Did you!” Aeolus looked at the bag like it was a gift from a fan—something he really didn’t want. “Well, how nice.”
Leo nudged him, and Jason offered the bag. “Boreas sent us to capture them for you. We hope you’ll accept them and stop—you know—ordering demigods to be killed.”
Aeolus laughed, and looked incredulously at Mellie. “Demigods be killed—did I order that?”
Mellie checked her computer tablet. “Yes, sir, fifteenth of September. ‘Storm spirits released by the death of Typhon, demigods to be held responsible,’ etc… yes, a general order for them all to be killed.”