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The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero/30

Page 30

They ate their sandwiches as they flew. Piper had no idea how Leo had stocked up on supplies, but he’d even remembered to bring veggie rations for her. The cheese and avocado sandwich was awesome.

Nobody talked. Whatever they might find in Chicago, they all knew Boreas had only let them go because he figured they were already on a suicide mission.

The moon rose and stars turned overhead. Piper’s eyes started to feel heavy. The encounter with Boreas and his children had scared her more than she wanted to admit. Now that she had a full stomach, her adrenaline was fading.

Suck it up, cupcake! Coach Hedge would’ve yelled at her. Don’t be a wimp!

Piper had been thinking about the coach ever since Boreas mentioned he was still alive. She’d never liked Hedge, but he’d leaped off a cliff to save Leo, and he’d sacrificed himself to protect them on the skywalk. She now realized that all the times at school the coach had pushed her, yelled at her to run faster or do more push-ups, or even when he’d turned his back and let her fight her own battles with the mean girls, the old goat man had been trying to help her in his own irritating way—trying to prepare her for life as a demigod.

On the skywalk, Dylan the storm spirit had said something about the coach, too: how he’d been retired to Wilderness School because he was getting too old, like it was some sort of punishment. Piper wondered what that was about, and if it explained why the coach was always so grumpy. Whatever the truth, now that Piper knew Hedge was alive, she had a strong compulsion to save him.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, she chided. You’ve got bigger problems. This trip won’t have a happy ending.

She was a traitor, just like Silena Beauregard. It was only a matter of time before her friends found out.

She looked up at the stars and thought about a night long ago when she and her dad had camped out in front of Grandpa Tom’s house. Grandpa Tom had died years before, but Dad had kept his house in Oklahoma because it was where he grew up.

They’d gone back for a few days, with the idea of getting the place fixed up to sell, although Piper wasn’t sure who’d want to buy a run-down cabin with shutters instead of windows and two tiny rooms that smelled like cigars. The first night had been so stifling hot—no air conditioning in the middle of August—that Dad suggested they sleep outside.

They’d spread their sleeping bags and listened to the cicadas buzzing in the trees. Piper pointed out the constellations she’d been reading about—Hercules, Apollo’s lyre, Sagittarius the centaur.

Her dad crossed his arms behind his head. In his old T-shirt and jeans he looked like just another guy from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a Cherokee who might’ve never left tribal lands. “Your grandpa would say those Greek patterns are a bunch of bull. He told me the stars were creatures with glowing fur, like magic hedgehogs. Once, long ago, some hunters even captured a few in the forest. They didn’t know what they’d done until nighttime, when the star creatures began to glow. Golden sparks flew from their fur, so the Cherokee released them back into the sky. ”

“You believe in magic hedgehogs?” Piper asked.

Her dad laughed. “I think Grandpa Tom was full of bull, too, just like the Greeks. But it’s a big sky. I suppose there’s room for Hercules and hedgehogs. ”

They sat for a while, until Piper got the nerve to ask a question that had been bugging her. “Dad, why don’t you ever play Native American parts?”

The week before, he’d turned down several million dollars to play Tonto in a remake of The Lone Ranger. Piper was still trying to figure out why. He’d played all kinds of roles—a Latino teacher in a tough L. A. school, a dashing Israeli spy in an action-adventure blockbuster, even a Syrian terrorist in a James Bond movie. And, of course, he would always be known as the King of Sparta. But if the part was Native American—it didn’t matter what kind of role it was—Dad turned it down.

He winked at her. “Too close to home, Pipes. Easier to pretend I’m something I’m not. ”

“Doesn’t that get old? Aren’t you ever tempted, like, if you found the perfect part that could change people’s opinions?”

“If there’s a part like that, Pipes,” he said sadly, “I haven’t found it. ”

She looked at the stars, trying to imagine them as glowing hedgehogs. All she saw were the stick figures she knew—Hercules running across the sky, on his way to kill monsters. Dad was probably right. The Greeks and the Cherokee were equally crazy. The stars were just balls of fire.

“Dad,” she said, “if you don’t like being close to home, why are we sleeping in Grandpa Tom’s yard?”

His laughter echoed in the quiet Oklahoma night. “I think you know me too well, Pipes. ”

“You’re not really going to sell this place, are you?”

“Nope,” he sighed. “I’m probably not. ”

Piper blinked, shaking herself out of the memory. She realized she’d been falling asleep on the dragon’s back. How could her dad pretend to be so many things he wasn’t? She was trying to do that now, and it was tearing her apart.

Maybe she could pretend for a little while longer. She could dream of finding a way to save her father without betraying her friends—even if right now a happy ending seemed about as likely as magic hedgehogs.

She leaned back against Jason’s warm chest. He didn’t complain. As soon she closed her eyes, she drifted off to sleep.

In her dream, she was back on the mountaintop. The ghostly purple bonfire cast shadows across the trees. Piper’s eyes stung from smoke, and the ground was so warm, the soles of her boots felt sticky.

A voice from the dark rumbled, “You forget your duty. ”

Piper couldn’t see him, but it was definitely her least favorite giant—the one who called himself Enceladus. She looked around for any sign of her father, but the pole where he’d been chained was no longer there.

“Where is he?” she demanded. “What’ve you done with him?”

The giant’s laugh was like lava hissing down a volcano. “His body is safe enough, though I fear the poor man’s mind can’t take much more of my company. For some reason he finds me—disturbing. You must hurry, girl, or I fear there will be little left of him to save. ”

“Let him go!” she screamed. “Take me instead. He’s just a mortal!”

“But, my dear,” the giant rumbled, “we must prove our love for our parents. That’s what I’m doing. Show me you value your father’s life by doing what I ask. Who’s more important—your father, or a deceitful goddess who used you, toyed with your emotions, manipulated your memories, eh? What is Hera to you?”

Piper began to tremble. So much anger and fear boiled inside her, she could hardly talk. “You’re asking me to betray my friends. ”

“Sadly, my dear, your friends are destined to die. Their quest is impossible. Even if you succeeded, you heard the prophecy: unleashing Hera’s rage would mean your destruction. The only question now—will you die with your friends, or live with your father?”

The bonfire roared. Piper tried to step back, but her feet were heavy. She realized the ground was pulling her down, clinging to her boots like wet sand. When she looked up, a shower of purple sparks had spread across the sky, and the sun was rising in the east. A patchwork of cities glowed in the valley below, and far to the west, over a line of rolling hills, she saw a familiar landmark rising from a sea of fog.

“Why are you showing me this?” Piper asked. “You’re revealing where you are. ”

“Yes, you know this place,” the giant said. “Lead your friends here instead of their true destination, and I will deal with them. Or even better, arrange their deaths before you arrive. I don’t care which. Just be at the summit by noon on the solstice, and you may collect your father and go in peace. ”

“I can’t,” Piper said. “You can’t ask me—”

“To betray that foolish boy Valdez, who always irritated you and is now hiding secrets from you? To give up a boyfriend you never really had? Is that more important than your own father?”

“I’ll find a way to defeat you,” Piper said. “I’ll save my father and my friends. ”

The giant growled in the shadows. “I was once proud too. I thought the gods could never defeat me. Then they hurled a mountain on top of me, crushed me into the ground, where I struggled for eons, half-conscious in pain. That taught me patience, girl. It taught me not to act rashly. Now I’ve clawed my way back with the help of the waking earth. I am only the first. My brethren will follow. We will not be denied our vengeance—not this time. And you, Piper McLean, need a lesson in humility. I’ll show you how easily your rebellious spirit can be brought to earth. ”

The dream dissolved. And Piper woke up screaming, free-falling through the air.

PIPER THUMBLED THROUGH THE SKY. Far below she saw city lights glimmering in the early dawn, and several hundred yards away the body of the bronze dragon spinning out of control, its wings limp, fire flickering in its mouth like a badly wired lightbulb.

A body shot past her—Leo, screaming and frantically grabbing at the clouds. “Not coooooool!”

She tried to call to him, but he was already too far below.

Somewhere above her, Jason yelled, “Piper, level out! Extend your arms and legs!”

It was hard to control her fear, but she did what he said and regained some balance. She fell spread-eagle like a skydiver, the wind underneath her like a solid block of ice. Then Jason was there, wrapping his arms around her waist.

Thank god, Piper thought. But part of her also thought: Great. Second time this week he’s hugged me, and both times it’s because I’m plummeting to my death.

“We have to get Leo!” she shouted.

Their fall slowed as Jason controlled the winds, but they still lurched up and down like the winds didn’t want to cooperate.

“Gonna get rough,” Jason warned. “Hold on!”

Piper locked her arms around him, and Jason shot toward the ground. Piper probably screamed, but the sound was ripped from her mouth. Her vision blurred.

And then, thump! They slammed into another warm body—Leo, still wriggling and cursing.

“Stop fighting!” Jason said. “It’s me!”

“My dragon!” Leo yelled. “You gotta save Festus!”

Jason was already struggling to keep the three of them aloft, and Piper knew there was no way he could help a fifty-ton metal dragon. But before she could try to reason with Leo, she heard an explosion below them. A fireball rolled into the sky from behind a warehouse complex, and Leo sobbed, “Festus!”

Jason’s face reddened with strain as he tried to maintain an air cushion beneath them, but intermittent slow-downs were the best he could manage. Rather than free-falling, it felt like they were bouncing down a giant staircase, a hundred feet at a time, which wasn’t doing Piper’s stomach any favors.

As they wobbled and zigzagged, Piper could make out details of the factory complex below—warehouses, smokestacks, barbed-wire fences, and parking lots lined with snow-covered vehicles. They were still high enough so that hitting the ground would flatten them into roadkill—or skykill—when Jason groaned, “I can’t—”