“Well,” Jason said, “at least your mom overlooked me.”
Piper knew that wasn’t exactly true. Looking at him, her heart did a little tap dance. Jason was dressed simply in jeans and a clean purple T-shirt, like he’d worn at the Grand Canyon. He had new track shoes on, and his hair was newly trimmed. His eyes were the same color as the sky. Aphrodite’s message was clear: This one needs no improvement.
And Piper agreed.
“Anyway,” she said uncomfortably, “how did we get here?”
“Oh, that would be Mellie,” Hedge said, chewing happily on his carnation. “Those winds shot us halfway across the country, I’d guess. We would’ve been smashed flat on impact, but Mellie’s last gift—a nice soft breeze—cushioned our fall.”
“And she got fired for us,” Leo said. “Man, we suck.”
“Ah, she’ll be fine,” Hedge said. “Besides, she couldn’t help herself. I’ve got that effect on nymphs. I’ll send her a message when we’re through with this quest and help her figure something out. That is one aura I could settle down with and raise a herd of baby goats.”
“I’m going to be sick,” Piper said. “Anyone else want coffee?”
“Coffee!” Hedge’s grin was stained blue from the flower. “I love coffee!”
“Um,” Jason said, “but—money? Our packs?”
Piper looked down. Their packs were at their feet, and everything seemed to still be there. She reached into her coat pocket and felt two things she hadn’t expected. One was a wad of cash. The other was a glass vial—the amnesia potion. She left the vial in her pocket and brought out the money.
Leo whistled. “Allowance? Piper, your mom rocks!”
“Waitress!” Hedge called. “Six double espressos, and whatever these guys want. Put it on the girl’s tab.”
It didn’t take them long to figure out where they were. The menus said “Café Verve, Walnut Creek, CA.” And according to the waitress, it was 9 a.m. on December 21, the winter solstice, which gave them three hours until Enceladus’s deadline.
They didn’t have to wonder where Mount Diablo was, either. They could see it on the horizon, right at the end of the street. After the Rockies, Mount Diablo didn’t look very large, nor was it covered in snow. It seemed downright peaceful, its golden creases marbled with gray-green trees. But size was deceptive with mountains, Piper knew. It was probably much bigger up close. And appearances were deceptive too. Here they were—back in California—supposedly her home—with sunny skies, mild weather, laid-back people, and a plate of chocolate chip scones with coffee. And only a few miles away, somewhere on that peaceful mountain, a superpowerful, super-evil giant was about to have her father for lunch.
Leo pulled something out of his pocket—the old crayon drawing Aeolus had given him. Aphrodite must’ve thought it was important if she’d magically transferred it to his new outfit.
“What is that?” Piper asked.
Leo folded it up gingerly again and put it away. “Nothing. You don’t want to see my kindergarten artwork.”
“It’s more than that,” Jason guessed. “Aeolus said it was the key to our success.”
Leo shook his head. “Not today. He was talking about… later.”
“How can you be sure?” Piper asked.
“Trust me,” Leo said. “Now—what’s our game plan?”
Coach Hedge belched. He’d already had three espressos and a plate of doughnuts, along with two napkins and another flower from the vase on the table. He would’ve eaten the silverware, except Piper had slapped his hand.
“Climb the mountain,” Hedge said. “Kill everything except Piper’s dad. Leave.”
“Thank you, General Eisenhower,” Jason grumbled.
“Hey, I’m just saying!”
“Guys,” Piper said. “There’s more you need to know.”
It was tricky, because she couldn’t mention her mom; but she told them she’d figured some things out in her dreams. She told them about their real enemy: Gaea.
“Gaea?” Leo shook his head. “Isn’t that Mother Nature? She’s supposed to have, like, flowers in her hair and birds singing around her and deer and rabbits doing her laundry.”
“Leo, that’s Snow White,” Piper said.
“Listen, cupcake.” Coach Hedge dabbed the espresso out of his goatee. “Piper’s telling us some serious stuff, here. Gaea’s no softie. I’m not even sure I could take her.”
Leo whistled. “Really?”
Hedge nodded. “This earth lady—she and her old man the sky were nasty customers.”
“Ouranos,” Piper said. She couldn’t help looking up at the blue sky, wondering if it had eyes.
“Right,” Hedge said. “So Ouranos, he’s not the best dad. He throws their first kids, the Cyclopes, into Tartarus. That makes Gaea mad, but she bides her time. Then they have another set of kids—the twelve Titans—and Gaea is afraid they’ll get thrown into prison too. So she goes up to her son Kronos—”
“The big bad dude,” Leo said. “The one they defeated last summer.”
“Right. And Gaea’s the one who gives him the scythe, and tells him, ‘Hey, why don’t I call your dad down here? And while he’s talking to me, distracted, you can cut him to pieces. Then you can take over the world. Wouldn’t that be great?’”
Nobody said anything. Piper’s chocolate chip scone didn’t look so appetizing anymore. Even though she’d heard the story before, she still couldn’t quite get her mind around it. She tried to imagine a kid so messed up, he would kill his own dad just for power. Then she imagined a mom so messed up, she would convince her son to do it.
“Definitely not Snow White,” she decided.
“Nah, Kronos was a bad guy,” Hedge said. “But Gaea is literally the mother of all bad guys. She’s so old and powerful, so huge, that it’s hard for her to be fully conscious. Most of the time, she sleeps, and that’s the way we like her—snoring.”“But she talked to me,” Leo said. “How can she be asleep?”
Gleeson brushed crumbs off his canary yellow lapel. He was on his sixth espresso now, and his pupils were as big as quarters. “Even in her sleep, part of her consciousness is active—dreaming, keeping watch, doing little things like causing volcanoes to explode and monsters to rise. Even now, she’s not fully awake. Believe me, you don’t want to see her fully awake.”
“But she’s getting more powerful,” Piper said. “She’s causing the giants to rise. And if their king comes back—this guy Porphyrion—”
“He’ll raise an army to destroy the gods,” Jason put in. “Starting with Hera. It’ll be another war. And Gaea will wake up fully.”
Gleeson nodded. “Which is why it’s a good idea for us to stay off the ground as much as possible.”
Leo looked warily at Mount Diablo. “So … climbing a mountain. That would be bad.”
Piper’s heart sank. First, she’d been asked to betray her friends. Now they were trying to help her rescue her dad even though they knew they were walking into a trap. The idea of fighting a giant had been scary enough. But the idea that Gaea was behind it—a force more powerful than a god or Titan …
“Guys, I can’t ask you to do this,” Piper said. “This is too dangerous.”
“You kidding?” Gleeson belched and showed them his blue carnation smile. “Who’s ready to beat stuff up?”
LEO HOPED THE TAXI COULD TAKE THEM all the way to the top.
No such luck. The cab made lurching, grinding sounds as it climbed the mountain road, and halfway up they found the ranger’s station closed, a chain blocking the way.
“Far as I can go,” the cabbie said. “You sure about this? Gonna be a long walk back, and my car’s acting funny. I can’t wait for you.”
“We’re sure.” Leo was the first one out. He had a bad feeling about what was wrong with the cab, and when he looked down he saw he was right. The wheels were sinking into the road like it was made of quicksand. Not fast—just enough to make the driver think he had a transmission problem or a bad axle—but Leo knew different.
The road was hard-packed dirt. No reason at all it should have been soft, but already Leo’s shoes were starting to sink. Gaea was messing with them.
While his friends got out, Leo paid the cabbie. He was generous—heck, why not? It was Aphrodite’s money. Plus, he had a feeling he might never be coming off this mountain.
“Keep the change,” he said. “And get out of here. Quick.”
The driver didn’t argue. Soon all they could see was his dust trail.
The view from the mountain was pretty amazing. The whole inland valley around Mount Diablo was a patchwork of towns—grids of tree-lined streets and nice middle-class suburbs, shops, and schools. All these normal people living normal lives—the kind Leo had never known.
“That’s Concord,” Jason said, pointing to the north. “Walnut Creek below us. To the south, Danville, past those hills. And that way …”
He pointed west, where a ridge of golden hills held back a layer of fog, like the rim of a bowl. “That’s the Berkeley Hills. The East Bay. Past that, San Francisco.”
“Jason?” Piper touched his arm. “You remember something? You’ve been here?”
“Yes … no.” He gave her an anguished look. “It just seems important.”
“That’s Titan land.” Coach Hedge nodded toward the west. “Bad place, Jason. Trust me, this is as close to ’Frisco as we want to get.”
But Jason looked toward the foggy basin with such longing that Leo felt uneasy. Why did Jason seem so connected with that place—a place Hedge said was evil, full of bad magic and old enemies? What if Jason came from here? Everybody kept hinting Jason was an enemy, that his arrival at Camp Half-Blood was a dangerous mistake.
No, Leo thought. Ridiculous. Jason was their friend.
Leo tried to move his foot, but his heels were now completely embedded in the dirt.
“Hey, guys,” he said. “Let’s keep moving.”
The others noticed the problem.
“Gaea is stronger here,” Hedge grumbled. He popped his hooves free from his shoes, then handed the shoes to Leo. “Keep those for me, Valdez. They’re nice.”
Leo snorted. “Yes, sir, Coach. Would you like them polished?”
“That’s varsity thinking, Valdez.” Hedge nodded approvingly. “But first, we’d better hike up this mountain while we still can.”
“How do we know where the giant is?” Piper asked.
Jason pointed toward the peak. Drifting across the summit was a plume of smoke. From a distance, Leo had thought it was a cloud, but it wasn’t. Something was burning.