“Well, if you could get us there, too,” Jason amended, “that would be great.”
Mellie clapped her hands in excitement. “Oh, he could do that! He often sends helpful winds—”
“Mellie, quiet!” Aeolus snapped. “I have half a mind to fire you for letting these people in under false pretenses.”
Her face paled. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“It wasn’t her fault,” Jason said. “But about that help …”
Aelous tilted his head as if thinking. Then Jason realized the wind lord was listening to voices in his earpiece.
“Well … Zeus approves,” Aeolus muttered. “He says … he says it would be better if you could avoid saving her until after the weekend, because he has a big party planned—Ow! That’s Aphrodite yelling at him, reminding him that the solstice starts at dawn. She says I should help you. And Hephaestus… yes. Hmm. Very rare they agree on anything. Hold on …”
Jason smiled at his friends. Finally, they were having some good luck. Their godly parents were standing up for them.
Back toward the entrance, Jason heard a loud belch. Coach Hedge waddled in from the lobby, grass all over his face. Mellie saw him coming across the makeshift floor and caught her breath. “Who is that?”
Jason stifled a cough. “That? That’s just Coach Hedge. Uh, Gleeson Hedge. He’s our …” Jason wasn’t sure what to call him: teacher, friend, problem?
“He’s so goatly,” Mellie murmured.
Behind her, Piper poofed out her cheeks, pretending to vomit.
“What’s up, guys?” Hedge trotted over. “Wow, nice place. Oh! Sod squares.”
“Coach, you just ate,” Jason said. “And we’re using the sod as a floor. This is, ah, Mellie—”
“An aura.” Hedge smiled winningly. “Beautiful as a summer breeze.”
“And Aeolus here was just about to help us,” Jason said.
“Yes,” the wind lord muttered. “It seems so. You’ll find Enceladus on Mount Diablo.”
“Devil Mountain?” Leo asked. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“I remember that place!” Piper said. “I went there once with my dad. It’s just east of San Francisco Bay.”
“The Bay Area again?” The coach shook his head. “Not good. Not good at all.”
“Now …” Aeolus began to smile. “As to getting you there—”
Suddenly his face went slack. He bent over and tapped his earpiece as if it were malfunctioning. When he straightened again, his eyes were wild. Despite the makeup, he looked like an old man—an old, very frightened man. “She hasn’t spoke to me for centuries. I can’t—yes, yes I understand.”
He swallowed, regarding Jason as if he had suddenly turned into a giant cockroach. “I’m sorry, son of Jupiter. New orders. You all have to die.”
Mellie squeaked. “But—but, sir! Zeus said to help them. Aphrodite, Hephaestus—”
“Mellie!” Aeolus snapped. “Your job is already on the line. Besides, there are some orders that transcend even the wishes of the gods, especially when it comes to the forces of nature.”
“Whose orders?” Jason said. “Zeus will fire you if you don’t help us!”
“I doubt it.” Aeolus flicked his wrist, and far below them, a cell door opened in the pit. Jason could hear storm spirits screaming out of it, spiraling up toward them, howling for blood.
“Even Zeus understands the order of things,” Aeolus said. “And if she is waking—by all the gods—she cannot be denied. Good-bye, heroes. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ll have to make this quick. I’m back on the air in four minutes.”
Jason summoned his sword. Coach Hedge pulled out his club. Mellie the aura yelled, “No!”
She dived at their feet just as the storm spirits hit with hurricane force, blasting the floor to pieces, shredding the carpet samples and marble and linoleum into what should’ve been lethal projectiles, had Mellie’s robes not spread out like a shield and absorbed the brunt of the impact. The five of them fell into the pit, and Aeolus screamed above them, “Mellie, you are so fired!”
“Quick,” Mellie yelled. “Son of Zeus, do you have any power over the air?”
“Then help me, or you’re all dead!” Mellie grabbed his hand, and an electric charge went through Jason’s arm. He understood what she needed. They had to control their fall and head for one of the open tunnels. The storm spirits were following them down, closing rapidly, bringing with them a cloud of deadly shrapnel.
Jason grabbed Piper’s hand. “Group hug!”
Hedge, Leo, and Piper tried to huddle together, hanging on to Jason and Mellie as they fell.
“This is NOT GOOD!” Leo yelled.
“Bring it on, gas bags!” Hedge yelled up at the storm spirits. “I’ll pulverize you!”
“He’s magnificent,” Mellie sighed.
“Concentrate?” Jason prompted.
“Right!” she said.
They channeled the wind so their fall became more of a tumble into the nearest open chute. Still, they slammed into the tunnel at painful speed and went rolling over each other down a steep vent that was not designed for people. There was no way they could stop.
Mellie’s robes billowed around her. Jason and the others clung to her desperately, and they began to slow down, but the storm spirits were screaming into the tunnel behind them.
“Can’t—hold—long,” Mellie warned. “Stay together! When the winds hit—”
“You’re doing great, Mellie,” Hedge said. “My own mama was an aura, you know. She couldn’t have done better herself.”
“Iris-message me?” Mellie pleaded.
“Could you guys plan your date later?” Piper screamed. “Look!”
Behind them, the tunnel was turning dark. Jason could feel his ears pop as the pressure built.
“Can’t hold them,” Mellie warned. “But I’ll try to shield you, do you one more favor.”
“Thanks, Mellie,” Jason said. “I hope you get a new job.”
She smiled, and then dissolved, wrapping them in a warm gentle breeze. Then the real winds hit, shooting them into the sky so fast, Jason blacked out.
PIPER DREAMED SHE WAS ON THE Wilderness School dorm roof.
The desert night was cold, but she’d brought blankets, and with Jason next to her, she didn’t need any more warmth.
The air smelled of sage and burning mesquite. On the horizon, the Spring Mountains loomed like jagged black teeth, the dim glow of Las Vegas behind them.
The stars were so bright, Piper had been afraid they wouldn’t be able to see the meteor shower. She didn’t want Jason to think she’d dragged him up here on false pretenses. (Even though her pretenses had been totally false.) But the meteors did not disappoint. One streaked across the sky almost every minute—a line of white, yellow, or blue fire. Piper was sure her Grandpa Tom would have some Cherokee myth to explain them, but at the moment she was busy creating her own story.
Jason took her hand—finally—and pointed as two meteors skipped across the atmosphere and formed a cross.
“Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe Leo didn’t want to see this.”
“Actually, I didn’t invite him,” Piper said casually.
Jason smiled. “Oh, yeah?”
“Mm-hmm. You ever feel like three would be a crowd?”
“Yeah,” Jason admitted. “Like right now. You know how much trouble we’d get in if we got caught up here?”
“Oh, I’d make up something,” Piper said. “I can be very persuasive. So you want to dance, or what?”
He laughed. His eyes were amazing, and his smile was even better in the starlight. “With no music. At night. On a rooftop. Sounds dangerous.”
“I’m a dangerous girl.”
“That, I can believe.”
He stood and offered her his hand. They slow danced a few steps, but it quickly turned into a kiss. Piper almost couldn’t kiss him again, because she was too busy smiling.
Then her dream changed—or maybe she was dead in the Underworld—because she found herself back in Medea’s department store.
“Please let this be a dream,” she murmured, “and not my eternal punishment.”
“No, dear,” said a woman’s honey-sweet voice. “No punishment.”
Piper turned, afraid she’d see Medea, but a different woman stood next to her, browsing through the fifty-percent-off rack.
The woman was gorgeous—shoulder-length hair, a graceful neck, perfect features, and an amazing figure tucked into jeans and a snowy white top.
Piper had seen her share of actresses—most of her dad’s dates were knockout beautiful—but this lady was different. She was elegant without trying, fashionable without effort, stunning without makeup. After seeing Aeolus with his silly face-lifts and cosmetics, Piper thought this woman looked even more astonishing. There was nothing artificial about her.
Yet as Piper watched, the woman’s appearance changed. Piper couldn’t decide the color of her eyes, or the exact color of her hair. The woman became more and more beautiful, as if her image were aligning itself to Piper’s thoughts—getting as close as possible to Piper’s ideal of beauty.
“Aphrodite,” Piper said. “Mom?”
The goddess smiled. “You’re only dreaming, my sweet. If anyone wonders, I wasn’t here. Okay?”
“I—” Piper wanted to ask a thousand questions, but they all crowded together in her head.
Aphrodite held up a turquoise dress. Piper thought it looked awesome, but the goddess made a face. “This isn’t my color, is it? Pity, it’s cute. Medea really does have some lovely things here.”
“This—this building exploded,” Piper stammered. “I saw it.”
“Yes,” Aphrodite agreed. “I suppose that’s why everything’s on sale. Just a memory, now. And I’m sorry to pull you out of your other dream. Much more pleasant, I know.”
Piper’s face burned. She didn’t know whether she was more angry or embarrassed, but mostly she felt hollow with disappointment. “It wasn’t real. It never even happened. So why do I remember it so vividly?”
Aphrodite smiled. “Because you are my daughter, Piper. You see possibilities much more vividly than others. You see what could be. And it still might be—don’t give up. Unfortunately—” The goddess gestured around the department store. “You have other trials to face, first. Medea will be back, along with many other enemies. The Doors of Death have opened.”
“What do you mean?”
Aphrodite winked at her. “You’re a smart one, Piper. You know.”
A cold feeling settled over her. “The sleeping woman, the one Medea and Midas called their patron. She’s managed to open a new entrance from the Underworld. She’s letting the dead escape back into the world.”