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The Lost Hero
The Lost Hero/20
“Hold still!” Leo scolded.
The dragon made another creaking sound that might’ve been a whimper.
Leo examined the wires inside the dragon’s head. He was distracted by a sound in the woods, but when he looked up it was just a tree spirit—a dryad, Leo thought they were called—putting out the flames in her branches. Fortunately, the dragon hadn’t started an all-out forest fire, but still the dryad wasn’t too pleased. The girl’s dress was smoking. She smothered the flames with a silky blanket, and when she saw Leo looking at her, she made a gesture that was probably very rude in Dryad. Then she disappeared in a green poof of mist.
Leo returned his attention to the wiring. It was ingenious, definitely, and it made sense to him. This was the motor control relay. This processed sensory input from the eyes. This disk …
“Ha,” he said. “Well, no wonder. ”
Creak? the dragon asked with its jaw.
“You’ve got a corroded control disk. Probably regulates your higher reasoning circuits, right? Rusty brain, man. No wonder you’re a little … confused. ” He almost said crazy, but he caught himself. “I wish I had a replacement disk, but …this is a complicated piece of circuitry. I’m gonna have to take it out and clean it. Only be a minute. ” He pulled out the disk, and the dragon went absolutely still. The glow died in its eyes. Leo slid off its back and began polishing the disk. He mopped up some oil and Tabasco sauce with his sleeve, which helped cut through the grime, but the more he cleaned, the more concerned he got. Some of the circuits were beyond repair. He could make it better, but not perfect. For that, he’d need a completely new disk, and he had no idea how to build one.
He tried to work quickly. He wasn’t sure how long the dragon’s control disk could be off without damaging it—maybe forever—but he didn’t want to take chances. Once he’d done the best he could, he climbed back up to the dragon’s head and started cleaning the wiring and gearboxes, getting himself filthy in the process.
“Clean hands, dirty equipment,” he muttered, something his mother used to say. By the time he was through, his hands were black with grease and his clothes looked like he’d just lost a mud-wrestling contest, but the mechanisms looked a lot better. He slipped in the disk, connected the last wire, and sparks flew. The dragon shuddered. Its eyes began to glow.
“Better?” Leo asked.
The dragon made a sound like a high-speed drill. It opened its mouth and all its teeth rotated.
“I guess that’s a yes. Hold on, I’ll free you. ”
Another thirty minutes to find the release clamps for the net and untangle the dragon, but finally it stood and shook the last bit of netting off its back. It roared triumphantly and shot fire at the sky.
“Seriously,” Leo said. “Could you not show off?”
Creak? the dragon asked.
“You need a name,” Leo decided. “I’m calling you Festus. ”
The dragon whirred its teeth and grinned. At least Leo hoped it was a grin.
“Cool,” Leo said. “But we still have a problem, because you don’t have wings. ”
Festus tilted his head and snorted steam. Then he lowered his back in an unmistakable gesture. He wanted Leo to climb on.
“Where we going?” Leo asked.
But he was too excited to wait for an answer. He climbed onto the dragon’s back, and Festus bounded off into the woods.
* * *
Leo lost track of time and all sense of direction. It seemed impossible the woods could be so deep and wild, but the dragon traveled until the trees were like skyscrapers and the canopy of leaves completely blotted out the stars. Even the fire in Leo’s hand couldn’t have lit the way, but the dragon’s glowing red eyes acted like headlights.
Finally they crossed a stream and came to a dead end, a limestone cliff a hundred feet tall—a solid, sheer mass the dragon couldn’t possibly climb.
Festus stopped at the base and lifted one leg like a dog pointing.
“What is it?” Leo slid to the ground. He walked up to the cliff—nothing but solid rock. The dragon kept pointing.
“It’s not going to move out of your way,” Leo told him.
The loose wire in the dragon’s neck sparked, but otherwise he stayed still. Leo put his hand on the cliff. Suddenly his fingers smoldered. Lines of fire spread from his fingertips like ignited gunpowder, sizzling across the limestone. The burning lines raced across the cliff face until they had outlined a glowing red door five times as tall as Leo. He backed up and the door swung open, disturbingly silently for such a big slab of rock.
“Perfectly balanced,” he muttered. “That’s some first-rate engineering. ”
The dragon unfroze and marched inside, as if he were coming home.
Leo stepped through, and the door began to close. He had a moment of panic, remembering that night in the machine shop long ago, when he’d been locked in. What if he got stuck in here? But then lights flickered on—a combination of electric fluorescents and wall-mounted torches. When Leo saw the cavern, he forgot about leaving.
“Festus,” he muttered. “What is this place?”
The dragon stomped to the center of the room, leaving tracks in the thick dust, and curled up on a large circular platform.
The cave was the size of an airplane hangar, with endless worktables and storage cages, rows of garage-sized doors along either wall, and staircases that led up to a network of catwalks high above. Equipment was everywhere—hydraulic lifts, welding torches, hazard suits, air-spades, forklifts, plus something that looked suspiciously like a nuclear reaction chamber. Bulletin boards were covered with tattered, faded blueprints. And weapons, armor, shields—war supplies all over the place, a lot of them only partially finished.
Hanging from chains far above the dragon’s platform was an old tattered banner almost too faded to read. The letters were Greek, but Leo somehow knew what they said: bunker 9.
Did that mean nine as in the Hephaestus cabin, or nine as in there were eight others? Leo looked at Festus, still curled up on the platform, and it occurred to him that the dragon looked so content because it was home. It had probably been built on that pad.
“Do the other kids know … ?” Leo’s question died as he asked it. Clearly, this place had been abandoned for decades. Cobwebs and dust covered everything. The floor revealed no footprints except for his, and the huge paw prints of the dragon. He was the first one in this bunker since … since a long time ago. Bunker 9 had been abandoned with a lot of projects half finished on the tables. Locked up and forgotten, but why?
Leo looked at a map on the wall—a battle map of camp, but the paper was as cracked and yellow as onionskin. A date at the bottom read, 1864.
“No way,” he muttered.
Then he spotted a blueprint on a nearby bulletin board, and his heart almost leaped out of his throat. He ran to the worktable and stared up at a white-line drawing almost faded beyond recognition: a Greek ship from several different angles. Faintly scrawled words underneath it read: prophecy? unclear. flight?
It was the ship he’d seen in his dreams—the flying ship. Someone had tried to build it here, or at least sketched out the idea. Then it was left, forgotten … a prophecy yet to come. And weirdest of all, the ship’s masthead was exactly like the one Leo had drawn when he was five—the head of a dragon. “Looks like you, Festus,” he murmured. “That’s creepy. ”
The masthead gave him an uneasy feeling, but Leo’s mind spun with too many other questions to think about it for long. He touched the blueprint, hoping he could take it down to study, but the paper crackled at his touch, so he left it alone. He looked around for other clues. No boats. No pieces that looked like parts of this project, but there were so many doors and storerooms to explore.
Festus snorted like he was trying to get Leo’s attention, reminding him they didn’t have all night. It was true. Leo figured it would be morning in a few hours, and he’d gotten completely sidetracked. He’d saved the dragon, but it wasn’t going to help him on the quest. He needed something that would fly.
Festus nudged something toward him—a leather tool belt that had been left next to his construction pad. Then the dragon switched on his glowing red eye beams and turned them toward the ceiling. Leo looked up to where the spotlights were pointing, and yelped when he recognized the shapes hanging above them in the darkness.
“Festus,” he said in a small voice. “We’ve got work to do. ”
JASON DREAMED OF WOLVES.
He stood in a clearing in the middle of a redwood forest. In front of him rose the ruins of a stone mansion. Low gray clouds blended with the ground fog, and cold rain hung in the air. A pack of large gray beasts milled around him, brushing against his legs, snarling and baring their teeth. They gently nudged him toward the ruins.
Jason had no desire to become the world’s largest dog biscuit, so he decided to do what they wanted.
The ground squelched under his boots as he walked. Stone spires of chimneys, no longer attached to anything, rose up like totem poles. The house must’ve been enormous once, multi-storied with massive log walls and a soaring gabled roof, but now nothing remained but its stone skeleton. Jason passed under a crumbling doorway and found himself in a kind of courtyard.
Before him was a drained reflecting pool, long and rectangular. Jason couldn’t tell how deep it was, because the bottom was filled with mist. A dirt path led all the way around, and the house’s uneven walls rose on either side. Wolves paced under the archways of rough red volcanic stone.
At the far end of the pool sat a giant she-wolf, several feet taller than Jason. Her eyes glowed silver in the fog, and her coat was the same color as the rocks—warm chocolaty red.
“I know this place,” Jason said.
The wolf regarded him. She didn’t exactly speak, but Jason could understand her. The movements of her ears and whiskers, the flash of her eyes, the way she curled her lips—all of these were part of her language.
Of course, the she-wolf said. You began your journey here as a pup. Now you must find your way back. A new quest, a new start.
“That isn’t fair,” Jason said. But as soon as he spoke, he knew there was no point complaining to the she-wolf.
Wolves didn’t feel sympathy. They never expected fairness. The wolf said: Conquer or die. This is always our way.
Jason wanted to protest that he couldn’t conquer if he didn’t know who he was, or where he was supposed to go. But he knew this wolf. Her name was simply Lupa, the Mother Wolf, the greatest of her kind. Long ago she’d found him in this place, protected him, nurtured him, chosen him, but if Jason showed weakness, she would tear him to shreds. Rather than being her pup, he would become her dinner. In the wolf pack, weakness was not an option.
“Can you guide me?” Jason asked.
Lupa made a rumbling noise deep in her throat, and the mist in the pool dissolved.
At first Jason wasn’t sure what he was seeing. At opposite ends of the pool, two dark spires had erupted from the cement floor like the drill bits of some massive tunneling machines boring through the surface. Jason couldn’t tell if the spires were made of rock or petrified vines, but they were formed of thick tendrils that came together in a point at the top. Each spire was about five feet tall, but they weren’t identical. The one closest to Jason was darker and seemed like a solid mass, its tendrils fused together. As he watched, it pushed a little farther out of the earth and expanded a little wider.