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The Lost Hero
The Lost Hero/37
But as he stared at the embers of the fire, something began to bother him. “Leo … about this fire stuff you can do … is it true?”
Leo’s smile faltered. “Yeah, well …” He opened his hand. A small ball of flame burst to life, dancing across his palm.
“That is so cool,” Jason said. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Leo closed his hand and the fire went out. “Didn’t want to look like a freak. ”
“I have lightning and wind powers,” Jason reminded him. “Piper can turn beautiful and charm people into giving her BMWs. You’re no more a freak than we are. And, hey, maybe you can fly, too. Like jump off a building and yell, ‘Flame on!’”
Leo snorted. “If I did that, you would see a flaming kid falling to his death, and I would be yelling something a little stronger than ‘Flame on!’ Trust me, Hephaestus cabin doesn’t see fire powers as cool. Nyssa told me they’re super rare. When a demigod like me comes around, bad things happen. Really bad. ”
“Maybe it’s the other way around,” Jason suggested. “Maybe people with special gifts show up when bad things are happening because that’s when they’re needed most. ”
Leo cleared away the plates. “Maybe. But I’m telling you … it’s not always a gift. ”
Jason fell silent. “You’re talking about your mom, aren’t you? The night she died. ”
Leo didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The fact that he was quiet, not joking around—that told Jason enough.
“Leo, her death wasn’t your fault. Whatever happened that night—it wasn’t because you could summon fire. This Dirt Woman, whoever she is, has been trying to ruin you for years, mess up your confidence, take away everything you care about. She’s trying to make you feel like a failure. You’re not. You’re important. ”
“That’s what she said. ” Leo looked up, his eyes full of pain. “She said I was meant to do something important—something that would make or break that big prophecy about the seven demigods. That’s what scares me. I don’t know if I’m up to it. ”
Jason wanted to tell him everything would be all right, but it would’ve sounded fake. Jason didn’t know what would happen. They were demigods, which meant sometimes things didn’t end okay. Sometimes you got eaten by the Cyclops.
If you asked most kids, “Hey, you want to summon fire or lightning or magical makeup?” they’d think it sounded pretty cool. But those powers went along with hard stuff, like sitting in a sewer in the middle of winter, running from monsters, losing your memory, watching your friends almost get cooked, and having dreams that warned you of your own death.
Leo poked at the remnants of his fire, turning over red-hot coals with his bare hand. “You ever wonder about the other four demigods? I mean … if we’re three of the ones from the Great Prophecy, who are the others? Where are they?”
Jason had thought about it, all right, but he tried to push it out of his mind. He had a horrible suspicion that he would be expected to lead those other demigods, and he was afraid he would fail.
You’ll tear each other apart, Boreas had promised.
Jason had been trained never to show fear. He was sure of that from his dream with the wolves. He was supposed to act confident, even if he didn’t feel it. But Leo and Piper were depending on him, and he was terrified of failing them. If he had to lead a group of six—six who might not get along—that would be even worse.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I guess the other four will show up when the time is right. Who knows? Maybe they’re on some other quest right now. ”
Leo grunted. “I bet their sewer is nicer than ours. ”
The draft picked up, blowing toward the south end of the tunnel.
“Get some rest, Leo,” Jason said. “I’ll take first watch. ”
It was hard to measure time, but Jason figured his friends slept about four hours. Jason didn’t mind. Now that he was resting, he didn’t really feel the need for more sleep. He’d been conked out long enough on the dragon. Plus, he needed time to think about the quest, his sister Thalia, and Hera’s warnings. He also didn’t mind Piper’s using him for a pillow. She had a cute way of breathing when she slept—inhaling through the nose, exhaling with a little puff through the mouth. He was almost disappointed when she woke up.
Finally they broke camp and started down the tunnel.
It twisted and turned and seemed to go on forever. Jason wasn’t sure what to expect at the end—a dungeon, a mad scientist’s lab, or maybe a sewer reservoir where all Porta-Potty sludge ends up, forming an evil toilet face large enough to swallow the world.
Instead, they found polished steel elevator doors, each one engraved with a cursive letter M. Next to the elevator was a directory, like for a department store.
“M for Macy’s?” Piper guessed. “I think they have one in downtown Chicago. ”
“Or Monocle Motors still?” Leo said. “Guys, read the directory. It’s messed up. ”
Parking, Kennels, Main Entrance: Sewer Level
Furnishings and Café M: 1
Women’s Fashion and Magical Appliances: 2
Men’s Wear and Weaponry: 3
Cosmetics, Potions, Poisons & Sundries: 4
“Kennels for what?” Piper said. “And what kind of department store has its entrance in a sewer?”
“Or sells poisons,” Leo said. “Man, what does ‘sundries’ even mean? Is that like underwear?”
Jason took a deep breath. “When in doubt, start at the top. ”
* * *
The doors slid open on the fourth floor, and the scent of perfume wafted into the elevator. Jason stepped out first, sword ready.
“Guys,” he said. “You’ve got to see this. ”
Piper joined him and caught her breath. “This is not Macy’s. ”
The department store looked like the inside of a kaleidoscope. The entire ceiling was a stained glass mosaic with astrological signs around a giant sun. The daylight streaming through it washed everything in a thousand different colors. The upper floors made a ring of balconies around a huge central atrium, so they could see all the way down to the ground floor. Gold railings glittered so brightly, they were hard to look at.
Aside from the stained glass ceiling and the elevator, Jason couldn’t see any other windows or doors, but two sets of glass escalators ran between the levels. The carpeting was a riot of oriental patterns and colors, and the racks of merchandise were just as bizarre. There was too much to take it at once, but Jason saw normal stuff like shirt racks and shoe trees mixed in with armored manikins, beds of nails, and fur coats that seemed to be moving.
Leo stepped to the railing and looked down. “Check it out. ”
In the middle of the atrium a fountain sprayed water twenty feet into the air, changing color from red to yellow to blue. The pool glittered with gold coins, and on either side of the fountain stood a gilded cage—like an oversize canary cage.
Inside one, a miniature hurricane swirled, and lightning flashed. Somebody had imprisoned the storm spirits, and the cage shuddered as they tried to get out. In the other, frozen like a statue, was a short, buff satyr, holding a tree-branch club.
“Coach Hedge!” Piper said. “We’ve got to get down there. ”
A voice said, “May I help you find something?”
All three of them jumped back.
A woman had just appeared in front of them. She wore an elegant black dress with diamond jewelry, and she looked like a retired fashion model—maybe fifty years old, though it was hard for Jason to judge. Her long dark hair swept over one shoulder, and her face was gorgeous in that surreal super-model way—thin and haughty and cold, not quite human. With their long red-painted nails, her fingers looked more like talons.
She smiled. “I’m so happy to see new customers. How may I help you?”
Leo glanced at Jason like, All yours.
“Um,” Jason started, “is this your store?”
The woman nodded. “I found it abandoned, you know. I understand so many stores are, these days. I decided it would make the perfect place. I love collecting tasteful objects, helping people, and offering quality goods at a reasonable price. So this seemed a good … how do you say … first acquisition in this country. ”
She spoke with a pleasing accent, but Jason couldn’t guess where from. Clearly she wasn’t hostile, though. Jason started to relax. Her voice was rich and exotic. Jason wanted to hear more.
“So you’re new to America?” he asked.
“I am … new,” the woman agreed. “I am the Princess of Colchis. My friends call me Your Highness. Now, what are you looking for?”
Jason had heard of rich foreigners buying American department stores. Of course most of the time they didn’t sell poisons, living fur coats, storm spirits, or satyrs, but still—with a nice voice like that, the Princess of Colchis couldn’t be all bad.
Piper poked him in the ribs. “Jason …”
“Um, right. Actually, Your Highness …” He pointed to the gilded cage on the first floor. “That’s our friend down there, Gleeson Hedge. The satyr. Could we … have him back, please?”
“Of course!” the princess agreed immediately. “I would love to show you my inventory. First, may I know your names?”
Jason hesitated. It seemed like a bad idea to give out their names. A memory tugged at the back of his mind—something Hera had warned him about, but it seemed fuzzy.
On the other hand, Her Highness was on the verge of cooperating. If they could get what they wanted without a fight, that would be better. Besides, this lady didn’t seem like an enemy.
Piper started to say, “Jason, I wouldn’t—”
“This is Piper,” he said. “This is Leo. I’m Jason. ”
The princess fixed her eyes on him and, just for a moment, her face literally glowed, blazing with so much anger, Jason could see her skull beneath her skin. Jason’s mind was getting blurrier, but he knew something didn’t seem right. Then the moment passed, and Her Highness looked like a normal elegant woman again, with a cordial smile and a soothing voice.
“Jason. What an interesting name,” she said, her eyes as cold as the Chicago wind. “I think we’ll have to make a special deal for you. Come, children. Let’s go shopping. ”
PIPER WANTED TO RUN FOR THE ELEVATOR.
Her second choice: attack the weird princess now, because she was sure a fight was coming. The way the lady’s face glowed when she’d heard Jason’s name had been bad enough. Now Her Highness was smiling like nothing had happened, and Jason and Leo didn’t seem to think anything was wrong.
The princess gestured toward the cosmetics counter. “Shall we start with the potions?”
“Cool,” Jason said.
“Guys,” Piper interrupted, “we’re here to get the storm spirits and Coach Hedge. If this—princess—is really our friend—”