“What?” Hedge demanded. But Mellie steered him away and called, “Mr. McLean? She’s on!”
A second later, Piper’s dad appeared.
He broke into a huge grin. “Pipes!”
He looked great—back to normal, with his sparkling brown eyes, his half-day beard, his confident smile, and his newly trimmed hair like he was ready to shoot a scene. Piper was relieved, but she also felt a little sad. Back to normal wasn’t necessarily what she’d wanted.
In her mind, she started the clock. On a normal call like this, on a workday, she hardly ever got her dad’s attention for longer than thirty seconds.
“Hey,” she said weakly. “You feeling okay?”
“Honey, I’m so sorry to worry you with this disappearance business. I don’t know …” His smile wavered, and she could tell he was trying to remember—grasping for a memory that should have been there, but wasn’t. “I’m not sure what happened, honestly. But I’m fine. Coach Hedge has been a godsend.”
“A godsend,” she repeated. Funny choice of words.
“He told me about your new school,” Dad said. “I’m sorry the Wilderness School didn’t work out, but you were right. Jane was wrong. I was a fool to listen to her.”
Ten seconds left, maybe. But at least her dad sounded sincere, like he really did feel remorseful.
“You don’t remember anything?” she said, a bit wistfully.
“Of course I do,” he said.
A chill went down her neck. “You do?”
“I remember that I love you,” he said. “And I’m proud of you. Are you happy at your new school?”
Piper blinked. She wasn’t going to cry now. After all she’d been through, that would be ridiculous. “Yeah, Dad. It’s more like a camp, not a school, but … Yeah, I think I’ll be happy here.”
“Call me as often as you can,” he said. “And come home for Christmas. And Pipes …”
He touched the screen as if trying to reach through with his hand. “You’re a wonderful young lady. I don’t tell you that often enough. You remind me so much of your mother. She’d be proud. And Grandpa Tom”—he chuckled—“he always said you’d be the most powerful voice in our family. You’re going to outshine me some day, you know. They’re going to remember me as Piper McLean’s father, and that’s the best legacy I can imagine.”
Piper tried to answer, but she was afraid she’d break down. She just touched his fingers on the screen and nodded.
Mellie said something in the background, and her dad sighed. “Studio calling. I’m sorry, honey.” And he did sound genuinely annoyed to go.
“It’s okay, Dad,” she managed. “Love you.”
He winked. Then the video call went black.
Forty-five seconds? Maybe a full minute.
Piper smiled. A small improvement, but it was progress.
At the commons area, she found Jason relaxing on a bench, a basketball between his feet. He was sweaty from working out, but he looked great in his orange tank top and shorts. His various scars and bruises from the quest were healing, thanks to some medical attention from the Apollo cabin. His arms and legs were well muscled and tan—distracting as always. His close-cropped blond hair caught the afternoon light so it looked like it was turning to gold, Midas style.
“Hey,” he said. “How did it go?”
It took her a second to focus on his question. “Hmm? Oh, yeah. Fine.”
She sat next to him and they watched the campers going back and forth. A couple of Demeter girls were playing tricks on two of the Apollo guys—making grass grow around their ankles as they shot baskets. Over at the camp store, the Hermes kids were putting up a sign that read: flying shoes, slightly used, 50% off today! Ares kids were lining their cabin with fresh barbed wire. The Hypnos cabin was snoring away. A normal day at camp.
Meanwhile, the Aphrodite kids were watching Piper and Jason, and trying to pretend they weren’t. Piper was pretty sure she saw money change hands, like they were placing bets on a kiss.
“Get any sleep?” she asked him.
He looked at her as if she’d been reading his thoughts. “Not much. Dreams.”
“About your past?”
She didn’t push him. If he wanted to talk, that was fine, but she knew him better than to press the subject. She didn’t even worry that her knowledge of him was mostly based on three months of false memories. You can sense possibilities, her mother had said. And Piper was determined to make those possibilities a reality.
Jason spun his basketball. “It’s not good news,” he warned. “My memories aren’t good for—for any of us.”
Piper was pretty sure he’d been about to say for us—as in the two of them, and she wondered if he’d remembered a girl from his past. But she didn’t let it bother her. Not on a sunny winter day like this, with Jason next to her.
“We’ll figure it out,” she promised.
He looked at her hesitantly, like he wanted very much to believe her. “Annabeth and Rachel are coming in for the meeting tonight. I should probably wait until then to explain …”
“Okay.” She plucked a blade of grass by her foot. She knew there were dangerous things in store for both of them. She would have to compete with Jason’s past, and they might not even survive their war against the giants. But right now, they were both alive, and she was determined to enjoy this moment.
Jason studied her warily. His forearm tattoo was faint blue in the sunlight. “You’re in a good mood. How can you be so sure things will work out?”
“Because you’re going to lead us,” she said simply. “I’d follow you anywhere.”
Jason blinked. Then slowly, he smiled. “Dangerous thing to say.”
“I’m a dangerous girl.”
“That, I believe.”
He got up and brushed off his shorts. He offered her a hand. “Leo says he’s got something to show us out in the woods. You coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” She took his hand and stood up.
For a moment, they kept holding hands. Jason tilted his head. “We should get going.”
“Yep,” she said. “Just a sec.”
She let go of his hand, and took a card from her pocket—the silver calling card that Thalia had given her for the Hunters of Artemis. She dropped it into a nearby eternal fire and watched it burn. There would be no breaking hearts in Aphrodite cabin from now on. That was one rite of passage they didn’t need.
Across the green, her cabinmates looking disappointed that they hadn’t witnessed a kiss. They started cashing in their bets.
But that was all right. Piper was patient, and she could see lots of good possibilities.
“Let’s go,” she told Jason. “We’ve got adventures to plan.”
LEO HADN’T FELT THIS JUMPY SINCE HE offered tofu burgers to the werewolves. When he got to the limestone cliff in the forest, he turned to the group and smiled nervously. “Here we go.”
He willed his hand to catch fire, and set it against the door.
His cabinmates gasped.
“Leo!” Nyssa cried. “You’re a fire user!”
“Yeah, thanks,” he said. “I know.”
Jake Mason, who was out of his body cast but still on crutches, said, “Holy Hephaestus. That means—it’s so rare that—”
The massive stone door swung open, and everyone’s mouth dropped. Leo’s flaming hand seemed insignificant now. Even Piper and Jason looked stunned, and they’d seen enough amazing things lately.
Only Chiron didn’t look surprised. The centaur knit his bushy eyebrows and stroked his beard, as if the group was about to walk through a minefield.
That made Leo even more nervous, but he couldn’t change his mind now. His instincts told him he was meant to share this place—at least with the Hephaestus cabin—and he couldn’t hide it from Chiron or his two best friends.
“Welcome to Bunker Nine,” he said, as confidently as he could. “C’mon in.”
The group was silent as they toured the facility. Everything was just as Leo had left it—giant machines, worktables, old maps and schematics. Only one thing had changed. Festus’s head was sitting on the central table, still battered and scorched from his final crash in Omaha.
Leo went over to it, a bitter taste in his mouth, and stroked the dragon’s forehead. “I’m sorry, Festus. But I won’t forget you.”
Jason put a hand on Leo’s shoulder. “Hephaestus brought it here for you?”
“But you can’t repair him,” Jason guessed.
“No way,” Leo said. “But the head is going to be reused. Festus will be going with us.”
Piper came over and frowned. “What do you mean?”
Before Leo could answer, Nyssa cried out, “Guys, look at this!”
She was standing at one of the worktables, flipping through a sketchbook—diagrams for hundreds of different machines and weapons.
“I’ve never seen anything like these,” Nyssa said. “There are more amazing ideas here than in Daedalus’s workshop. It would take a century just to prototype them all.”
“Who built this place?” Jake Mason said. “And why?”
Chiron stayed silent, but Leo focused on the wall map he’d seen during his first visit. It showed Camp Half-Blood with a line of triremes in the Sound, catapults mounted in the hills around the valley, and spots marked for traps, trenches, and ambush sites.
“It’s a wartime command center,” he said. “The camp was attacked once, wasn’t it?”
“In the Titan War?” Piper asked.
Nyssa shook her head. “No. Besides, that map looks really old. The date … does that say 1864?”
They all turned to Chiron.
The centaur’s tail swished fretfully. “This camp has been attacked many times,” he admitted. “That map is from the last Civil War.”
Apparently, Leo wasn’t the only one confused. The other Hephaestus campers looked at each other and frowned.
“Civil War …” Piper said. “You mean the American Civil War, like a hundred and fifty years ago?”
“Yes and no,” Chiron said. “The two conflicts—mortal and demigod—mirrored each other, as they usually do in Western history. Look at any civil war or revolution from the fall of Rome onward, and it marks a time when demigods also fought one another. But that Civil War was particularly horrible. For American mortals, it is still their bloodiest conflict of all time—worse than their casualties in the two World Wars. For demigods, it was equally devastating. Even back then, this valley was Camp Half-Blood. There was a horrible battle in these woods lasting for days, with terrible losses on both sides.”
“Both sides,” Leo said. “You mean the camp split apart?”
“No,” Jason spoke up. “He means two different groups. Camp Half-Blood was one side in the war.”