The house of hades, p.53
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       The House of Hades, p.53

         Part #4 of The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
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Page 53


  “Very good, Jason Grace,” Notus said. “You are a son of Jupiter, yet you have chosen your own path—as all the greatest demigods have done before you. You cannot control your parentage, but you can choose your legacy. Now, go. Lash your team to the prow and direct them toward Malta. ”

  “Malta?” Jason tried to focus, but the heat from the horses was making him light-headed. He knew nothing about Malta, except for some vague story about a Maltese falcon. Were malts invented there?

  “Once you arrive in the city of Valletta,” Notus said, “you will no longer need these horses. ”

  “You mean…we’ll find Leo there?”

  The god shimmered, slowly fading into waves of heat. “Your destiny grows clearer, Jason Grace. When the choice comes again—storm or fire—remember me. And do not despair. ”

  The doors of the throne room burst open. The horses, smelling freedom, bolted for the exit.

  AT SIXTEEN, MOST KIDS WOULD STRESS about parallel parking tests, getting a driver’s license, and affording a car.

  Jason stressed about controlling a team of fiery horses with wind ropes.

  After making sure his friends were aboard and safely below deck, he lashed the venti to the prow of the Argo II (which Festus was not happy about), straddled the figurehead, and yelled, “Giddyup!”

  The venti tore across the waves. They weren’t quite as fast as Hazel’s horse, Arion, but they had a lot more heat. They kicked up a rooster tail of steam that made it almost impossible for Jason to see where they were going. The ship shot out of the bay. In no time Africa was a hazy line on the horizon behind them.

  Maintaining the wind ropes took all of Jason’s concentration. The horses strained to break free. Only his willpower kept them in check.

  Malta, he ordered. Straight to Malta.

  By the time land finally appeared in the distance—a hilly island carpeted with low stone buildings—Jason was soaked in sweat. His arms felt rubbery, like he’d been holding a barbell straight out in front of him.

  He hoped they’d reached the right place, because he couldn’t keep the horses together any longer. He released the wind reins. The venti scattered into particles of sand and steam.

  Exhausted, Jason climbed down from the prow. He leaned against Festus’s neck. The dragon turned and gave him a chin hug.

  “Thanks, man,” Jason said. “Rough day, huh?”

  Behind him, the deck boards creaked.

  “Jason?” Piper called. “Oh, gods, your arms…”

  He hadn’t noticed, but his skin was dotted with blisters.

  Piper unwrapped a square of ambrosia. “Eat this. ”

  He chewed. His mouth was filled with the taste of fresh brownies—his favorite treat from the bakeries in New Rome. The blisters faded on his arms. His strength returned, but the brownie ambrosia tasted more bitter than usual, as if it somehow knew that Jason was turning his back on Camp Jupiter. This was no longer the taste of home.

  “Thanks, Pipes,” he murmured. “How long was I—?”

  “About six hours. ”

  Wow, Jason thought. No wonder he felt sore and hungry. “The others?”

  “All fine. Tired of being cooped up. Should I tell them it’s safe to come above deck?”

  Jason licked his dry lips. Despite the ambrosia, he felt shaky. He didn’t want the others to see him like this.

  “Give me a second,” he said. “…catch my breath. ”

  Piper leaned next to him. In her green tank top, her beige shorts, and her hiking boots, she looked like she was ready to climb a mountain—and then fight an army at the top. Her dagger was strapped to her belt. Her cornucopia was slung over one shoulder. She’d taken to wearing the jagged bronze sword she’d recovered from Zethes the Boread, which was only slightly less intimidating than an assault rifle.

  During their time at Auster’s palace, Jason had watched Piper and Hazel spend hours sword fighting—something Piper had never been interested in before. Since her encounter with Khione, Piper seemed more wired, tensed up inside like a primed catapult, as if she were determined never to be caught off guard again.

  Jason understood the feeling, but he worried she was being too hard on herself. Nobody could be ready for anything all the time. He should know. He’d spent the last fight as a freeze-dried throw rug.

  He must have been staring, because she gave him a knowing smirk. “Hey, I’m fine. We’re fine. ”

  She perched on her tiptoes and kissed him, which felt as good as the ambrosia. Her eyes were flecked with so many colors Jason could’ve stared into them all day, studying the changing patterns, the way people watched the northern lights.

  “I’m lucky to have you,” he said.

  “Yeah, you are. ” She pushed his chest gently. “Now, how do we get this ship to the docks?”

  Jason frowned across the water. They were still half a mile from the island. He had no idea whether they could get the engines working, or the sails. …

  Fortunately, Festus had been listening. He faced front and blew a plume of fire. The ship’s engine clattered and hummed. It sounded like a massive bike with a busted chain—but they lurched forward. Slowly, the Argo II headed toward the shore.

  “Good dragon. ” Piper patted Festus’s neck.

  The dragon’s ruby eyes glinted as if he was pleased with himself.

  “He seems different since you woke him,” Jason said. “More…alive. ”

  “The way he should be. ” Piper smiled. “I guess once in a while we all need a wake-up call from somebody who loves us. ”

  Standing next to her, Jason felt so good, he could almost imagine their future together at Camp Half-Blood, once the war was over—assuming they lived, assuming there was still a camp left to return to.

  When the choice comes again, Notus had said, storm or fire—remember me. And do not despair.

  The closer they got to Greece, the more dread settled in Jason’s chest. He was starting to think Piper was right about the storm or fire line in the prophecy—one of them, Jason or Leo, would not come back from this voyage alive.

  Which was why they had to find Leo. As much as Jason loved his life, he couldn’t let his friend die for his sake. He could never live with the guilt.

  Of course he hoped he was wrong. He hoped they both came out of this quest okay. But if not, Jason had to be prepared. He would protect his friends and stop Gaea—whatever it took.

  Do not despair.

  Yeah. Easy for an immortal wind god to say.

  As the island got closer, Jason saw docks bristling with sails. From the rocky shoreline rose fortress-like seawalls—fifty or sixty feet tall. Above that sprawled a medieval-looking city of church spires, domes, and tightly wedged buildings, all made of the same golden stone. From where Jason stood, it looked as if the city covered every inch of the island.

  He scanned the boats in the harbor. A hundred yards ahead, tied to the end of the longest dock, was a makeshift raft with a simple mast and a square canvas sail. On the back, the rudder was wired to some sort of machine. Even from this distance, Jason could see the glint of Celestial bronze.

  Jason grinned. Only one demigod would make a boat like that, and he’d moored it as far out in the harbor as possible, where the Argo II couldn’t fail to spot it.

  “Get the others,” Jason told Piper. “Leo is here. ”

  THEY FOUND LEO AT THE TOP of the city fortifications. He was sitting at an open-air café, overlooking the sea, drinking a cup of coffee and dressed in…wow. Time warp. Leo’s outfit was identical to the one he’d worn the day they first arrived at Camp Half-Blood—jeans, a white shirt, and an old army jacket. Except that jacket had burned up months ago.

  Piper nearly knocked him out of his chair with a hug. “Leo! Gods, where have you been?”

  “Valdez!” Coach Hedge grinned. Then he seemed to remember he had a reputation to protect and he forced a scowl. “You ever disappear like that again, you little
punk, I’ll knock you into next month!”

  Frank patted Leo on the back so hard it made him wince. Even Nico shook his hand.

  Hazel kissed Leo on the cheek. “We thought you were dead!”

  Leo mustered a faint smile. “Hey, guys. Nah, nah, I’m good. ”

  Jason could tell he wasn’t good. Leo wouldn’t meet their eyes. His hands were perfectly still on the table. Leo’s hands were never still. All the nervous energy had drained right out of him, replaced by a kind of wistful sadness.

  Jason wondered why his expression seemed familiar. Then he realized Nico di Angelo had looked the same way after facing Cupid in the ruins of Salona.

  Leo was heartsick.

  As the others grabbed chairs from the nearby tables, Jason leaned in and squeezed his friend’s shoulder.

  “Hey, man,” he said, “what happened?”

  Leo’s eyes swept around the group. The message was clear: Not here. Not in front of everyone.

  “I got marooned,” Leo said. “Long story. How about you guys? What happened with Khione?”

  Coach Hedge snorted. “What happened? Piper happened! I’m telling you, this girl has skills!”

  “Coach…” Piper protested.

  Hedge began retelling the story, but in his version Piper was a kung fu assassin and there were a lot more Boreads.

  As the coach talked, Jason studied Leo with concern. This café had a perfect view of the harbor. Leo must have seen the Argo II sail in. Yet he sat here drinking coffee—which he didn’t even like—waiting for them to find him. That wasn’t like Leo at all. The ship was the most important thing in his life. When he saw it coming to rescue him, Leo should have run down to the docks, whooping at the top of his lungs.

  Coach Hedge was just describing how Piper had defeated Khione with a roundhouse kick when Piper interrupted.

  “Coach!” she said. “It didn’t happen like that at all. I couldn’t have done anything without Festus. ”

  Leo raised his eyebrows. “But Festus was deactivated. ”

  “Um, about that,” Piper said. “I sort of woke him up. ”

  Piper explained her version of events—how she’d rebooted the metal dragon with charmspeak.

  Leo tapped his fingers on the table, like some of his old energy was coming back.

  “Shouldn’t be possible,” he murmured. “Unless the upgrades let him respond to voice commands. But if he’s permanently activated, that means the navigation system and the crystal…”

  “Crystal?” Jason asked.

  Leo flinched. “Um, nothing. Anyway, what happened after the wind bomb went off?”

  Hazel took up the story. A waitress came over and offered them menus. In no time they were chowing down on sandwiches and sodas, enjoying the sunny day almost like a group of regular teenagers.

  Frank grabbed a tourist brochure stuck under the napkin dispenser. He began to read it. Piper patted Leo’s arm, like she couldn’t believe he was really here. Nico stood at the edge of the group, eyeing the passing pedestrians as if they might be enemies. Coach Hedge munched on the salt and pepper shakers.

  Despite the happy reunion, everybody seemed more subdued than usual—like they were picking up on Leo’s mood. Jason had never really considered how important Leo’s sense of humor was to the group. Even when things were super serious, they could always depend on Leo to lighten things up. Now, it felt like the whole team had dropped anchor.

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