The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero/33

Page 33

LEO STOPPED AT THE DOORS AND TRIED to control his breathing. The voice of the earth woman still rang in his ears, reminding him of his mother’s death. The last thing he wanted to do was plunge into another dark warehouse. Suddenly he felt eight years old again, alone and helpless as someone he cared about was trapped and in trouble.

Stop it, he told himself. That’s how she wants you to feel.

But that didn’t make him any less scared. He took a deep breath and peered inside. Nothing looked different. Gray morning light filtered through the hole in the roof. A few lightbulbs flickered, but most of the factory floor was still lost in shadows. He could make out the catwalk above, the dim shapes of heavy machinery along the assembly line, but no movement. No sign of his friends.

He almost called out, but something stopped him—a sense he couldn’t identify. Then he realized it was smell. Something smelled wrong—like burning motor oil and sour breath.

Something not human was inside the factory. Leo was certain. His body shifted into high gear, all his nerves tingling.

Somewhere on the factory floor, Piper’s voice cried out: “Leo, help!”

But Leo held his tongue. How could Piper have gotten offthe catwalk with her broken ankle?

He slipped inside and ducked behind a cargo container. Slowly, gripping his hammer, he worked his way toward the center of the room, hiding behind boxes and hollow truck chassis. Finally he reached the assembly line. He crouched behind the nearest piece of machinery—a crane with a robotic arm.

Piper’s voice called out again: “Leo?” Less certain this time, but very close.

Leo peeked around the machinery. Hanging directly above the assembly line, suspended by a chain from a crane on the opposite side, was a massive truck engine—just dangling thirty feet up, as if it had been left there when the factory was abandoned. Below it on the conveyor belt sat a truck chassis, and clustered around it were three dark shapes the size of forklifts. Nearby, dangling from chains on two other robotic arms, were two smaller shapes—maybe more engines, but one of them was twisting around as if it were alive.

Then one of the forklift shapes rose, and Leo realized it was a humanoid of massive size. “Told you it was nothing,” the thing rumbled. Its voice was too deep and feral to be human.

One of the other forklift-sized lumps shifted, and called out in Piper’s voice: “Leo, help me! Help—” Then the voice changed, becoming a masculine snarl. “Bah, there’s nobody out there. No demigod could be that quiet, eh?”

The first monster chuckled. “Probably ran away, if he knows what’s good for him. Or the girl was lying about a third demigod. Let’s get cooking. ”

Snap. A bright orange light sizzled to life—an emergency flare—and Leo was temporarily blinded. He ducked behind the crane until the spots cleared from his eyes. Then he took another peep and saw a nightmare scene even Tía Callida couldn’t have dreamed up.

The two smaller things dangling from crane arms weren’t engines. They were Jason and Piper. Both hung upside down, tied by their ankles and cocooned with chains up to their necks. Piper was flailing around, trying to free herself. Her mouth was gagged, but at least she was alive. Jason didn’t look so good. He hung limply, his eyes rolled up in his head. A red welt the size of an apple had swollen over his left eyebrow.

On the conveyor belt, the bed of the unfinished pickup truck was being used as a fire pit. The emergency flare had ignited a mixture of tires and wood, which, from the smell of it, had been doused in kerosene. A big metal pole was suspended over the flames—a spit, Leo realized, which meant this was a cooking fire.

But most terrifying of all were the cooks.

Monocle Motors: that single red eye logo. Why hadn’t Leo realized?

Three massive humanoids gathered around the fire. Two were standing, stoking the flames. The largest one crouched with his back to Leo. The two facing him were each ten feet tall, with hairy muscular bodies and skin that glowed red in the firelight. One of the monsters wore a chain mail loincloth that looked really uncomfortable. The other wore a ragged fuzzy toga made of fiberglass insulation, which also would not have made Leo’s top ten wardrobe ideas. Other than that, the two monsters could’ve been twins. Each had a brutish face with a single eye in the center of his forehead. The cooks were Cyclopes.

Leo’s legs started quaking. He’d seen some weird things so far—storm spirits and winged gods and a metal dragon that liked Tabasco sauce. But this was different. These were actual, flesh-and-blood, ten-foot-tall living monsters who wanted to eat his friends for dinner.

He was so terrified he could hardly think. If only he had Festus. He could use a fire-breathing sixty-foot-long tank about now. But all he had was a tool belt and a backpack. His three-pound club hammer looked awfully small compared to those Cyclopes.

This is what the sleeping earth lady had been talking about. She wanted Leo to walk away and leave his friends to die.

That decided it. No way was Leo going to let that earth lady make him feel powerless—never again. Leo slipped offhis backpack and quietly started to unzip it.

The Cyclops in the chain mail loincloth walked over to Piper, who squirmed and tried to head-butt him in the eye. “Can I take her gag off now? I like it when they scream. ”

The question was directed at the third Cyclops, apparently the leader. The crouching figure grunted, and Loincloth ripped the gag off Piper’s mouth.

She didn’t scream. She took a shaky breath like she was trying to keep herself calm.

Meanwhile, Leo found what he wanted in the pack: a stack of tiny remote control units he’d picked up in Bunker 9. At least he hoped that’s what they were. The robotic crane’s maintenance panel was easy to find. He slipped a screwdriver from his tool belt and went to work, but he had to go slowly. The leader Cyclops was only twenty feet in front of him. The monsters obviously had excellent senses. Pulling off his plan without making noise seemed impossible, but he didn’t have much choice.

The Cyclops in the toga poked at the fire, which was now blazing away and billowing noxious black smoke toward the ceiling. His buddy Loincloth glowered at Piper, waiting for her to do something entertaining. “Scream, girl! I like funny screaming!”

When Piper finally spoke, her tone was calm and reasonable, like she was correcting a naughty puppy. “Oh, Mr. Cyclops, you don’t want to kill us. It would be much better if you let us go. ”

Loincloth scratched his ugly head. He turned to his friend in the fiberglass toga. “She’s kind of pretty, Torque. Maybe I should let her go. ”

Torque, the dude in the toga, growled. “I saw her first, Sump. I’ll let her go!” Sump and Torque started to argue, but the third Cyclops rose and shouted, “Fools!”

Leo almost dropped his screwdriver. The third Cyclops was a female. She was several feet taller than Torque or Sump, and even beefier. She wore a tent of chain mail cut like one of those sack dresses Leo’s mean Aunt Rosa used to wear. What’d they call that—a muumuu? Yeah, the Cyclops lady had a chain mail muumuu. Her greasy black hair was matted in pigtails, woven with copper wires and metal washers. Her nose and mouth were thick and smashed together, like she spent her free time ramming her face into walls; but her single red eye glittered with evil intelligence.

The woman Cyclops stalked over to Sump and pushed him aside, knocking him over the conveyor belt. Torque backed up quickly.

“The girl is Venus spawn,” the lady Cyclops snarled. “She’s using charmspeak on you. ”

Piper started to say, “Please, ma’am—”

“Rarr!” The lady Cyclops grabbed Piper around the waist. “Don’t try your pretty talk on me, girl! I’m Ma Gasket! I’ve eaten heroes tougher than you for lunch!”

Leo feared Piper would get crushed, but Ma Gasket just dropped her and let her dangle from her chain. Then she started yelling at Sump about how stupid he was.

Leo’s hands worked furiously. He twisted wires and turned switches, hardly thinking about what he was doing. He finished attaching the remote. Then he crept over to the next robotic arm while the Cyclopes were talking.

“—eat her last, Ma?” Sump was saying.

“Idiot!” Ma Gasket yelled, and Leo realized Sump and Torque must be her sons. If so, ugly definitely ran in the family. “I should’ve thrown you out on the streets when you were babies, like proper Cyclops children. You might have learned some useful skills. Curse my soft heart that I kept you!”

“Soft heart?” Torque muttered.

“What was that, you ingrate?”

“Nothing, Ma. I said you got a soft heart. We get to work for you, feed you, file your toenails—”

“And you should be grateful!” Ma Gasket bellowed. “Now, stoke the fire, Torque! And Sump, you idiot, my case of salsa is in the other warehouse. Don’t tell me you expect me to eat these demigods without salsa!”

“Yes, Ma,” Sump said. “I mean no, Ma. I mean—”

“Go get it!” Ma Gasket picked up a nearby truck chassis and slammed it over Sump’s head. Sump crumpled to his knees. Leo was sure a hit like that would kill him, but Sump apparently got hit by trucks a lot. He managed to push the chassis off his head. Then he staggered to his feet and ran offto fetch the salsa.

Now’s the time, Leo thought. While they’re separated.

He finished wiring the second machine and moved toward a third. As he dashed between robotic arms, the Cyclopes didn’t see him, but Piper did. Her expression turned from terror to disbelief, and she gasped.

Ma Gasket turned to her. “What’s the matter, girl? So fragile I broke you?”

Thankfully, Piper was a quick thinker. She looked away from Leo and said, “I think it’s my ribs, ma’am. If I’m busted up inside, I’ll taste terrible. ”

Ma Gasket bellowed with laughter. “Good one. The last hero we ate—remember him, Torque? Son of Mercury, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, Ma,” Torque said. “Tasty. Little bit stringy. ”

“He tried a trick like that. Said he was on medication. But he tasted fine!”

“Tasted like mutton,” Torque recalled. “Purple shirt. Talked in Latin. Yes, a bit stringy, but good. ”

Leo’s fingers froze on the maintenance panel. Apparently, Piper was having the same thought he was, because she asked, “Purple shirt? Latin?”

“Good eating,” Ma Gasket said fondly. “Point is, girl, we’re not as dumb as people think! We’re not falling for those stupid tricks and riddles, not us northern Cyclopes. ”

Leo forced himself back to work, but his mind was racing. A kid who spoke Latin had been caught here—in a purple shirt like Jason’s? He didn’t know what that meant, but he had to leave the interrogation to Piper. If he was going to have any chance of defeating these monsters, he had to move fast before Sump came back with the salsa.

He looked up at the engine block suspended right above the Cyclopes’ campsite. He wished he could use that—it would make a great weapon. But the crane holding it was on the opposite side of the conveyor belt. There was no way Leo could get over there without being seen, and besides, he was running short on time.