“Is that normal?” Piper asked. Mira started, and turned her attention to her friend. “I mean… does she spew green smoke a lot?”
“Gods, you’re dense!” Drew sneered. “She just issued a prophecy—Jason’s prophecy to save Hera! Why don’t you just—”
“Drew,” Annabeth snapped. “Piper asked a fair question. Something about that prophecy definitely isn’t normal. If breaking Hera’s cage unleashes her rage and causes a bunch of death… Why would we free her? It might be a trap, or—or maybe Hera will turn on her rescuers. She’s never been kind to heroes.”
Jason rose. “I don’t have much choice. Hera took my memory. I need it back. Besides, we can’t just not help the queen of the heavens if she’s in trouble.”
Nyssa, Leo's half-sister, stood up. “Maybe. But you should listen to Annabeth. Hera can be vengeful. She threw her own son—our dad—down a mountain just because he was ugly.”
Mira scowled at that. She knew there were people in the world who were that cruel—lived with some of them, in fact—but when it was parents to a child, it broke her heart.
“Real ugly,” snickered someone from Aphrodite.
“Shut up!” Nyssa growled. “Anyway, we’ve also got to think— Why beware the earth? And what’s the giants’ revenge? What are we dealing with here that’s powerful enough to kidnap the queen of the heavens?”
No one answered, but Mira noticed Annabeth and Chiron having a silent exchange. She thought it went something like:
Annabeth: The giants’ revenge… No, it can’t be.
Chiron: Don’t speak of it here. Don’t scare them.
Annabeth: You’re kidding me! We can’t be that unlucky.
Chiron: Later, child. If you told them everything, they would be too terrified to proceed.
That didn't quite instill Mira with confidence. She figured the only reason she knew what they were thinking was because she'd read it hundreds of times before. Not that she remembered—it was more like a weak hit of deja vu.
Annabeth took a deep breath. “It’s Jason’s quest,” she announced, “So it’s Jason’s choice. Obviously, he’s the child of lightning, and Mira's the- the one of the sea." Her voice trembled as she said those words. Mira felt tears spring to her eyes. Poor Annabeth. It was her fault the daughter of Athena had to go through this worry again. Annabeth took a deep, calming breath. "According to tradition, they may choose any two companions.”
Someone from the Hermes cabin yelled, “Well, you, obviously, Annabeth. You’ve got the most experience.”
“No, Travis,” Annabeth said. “First off, I’m not helping Hera. Every time I’ve tried, she’s deceived me, or it’s come back to bite me later. Forget it. No way. Secondly, I’m leaving first thing in the morning to find Percy.”
“It’s connected,” Piper said. Mira turned to face her. “You know that’s true, don’t you? This whole business, your boyfriend’s disappearance—it’s all connected.”
“How?” demanded Drew. “If you’re so smart, how?”
Piper opened her mouth and closed it again. Mira felt a rush of sympathy. She could relate.
Annabeth saved her. “You may be right, Piper. If this is connected, I’ll find out from the other end—by searching for Percy. As I said, I’m not about to rush off to rescue Hera, even if her disappearance sets the rest of the Olympians fighting again. But there’s another reason I can’t go. The prophecy says otherwise.”
“It says who I pick,” Jason agreed. “And Mira, since she's obviously coming. The forge and dove shall break the cage. The forge is the symbol of Vul—Hephaestus.”
Under the Cabin Nine banner, Nyssa’s shoulders slumped, like she’d just been given a heavy anvil to carry. “If you have to beware the earth,” she said, “you should avoid traveling overland. You’ll need air transport.”
No! Mira now knew that she was a child of Poseidon, and that air and her were a huge NO. She didn't want to be electrocuted by Jason's dad. She'd only be able to travel through Pegasi, but she knew she couldn't do that for this quest.
Though clearly it was a useless detail, Mira remembered that (duh!) it was Leo that was supposed to go. She caught his eye. He scowled.
“The flying chariot’s broken,” Nyssa continued, “and the pegasi, we’re using them to search for Percy. But maybe Hephaestus cabin can help figure out something else to help. With Jake incapacitated, I’m senior camper. I can volunteer for the quest.”
She didn’t sound enthusiastic.
Then Leo stood up. "It’s me,” he said.
His cabinmates stirred. Several tried to pull him back to his seat, but Leo resisted.
“No, it’s me. I know it is. I’ve got an idea for the transportation problem. Let me try. I can fix this!”
"Leo's right," Mira blurted out. Everyone turned to stare at her. She felt her face grow warm. "I-I mean, uh... I have a feeling..." she concluded lamely.
Jason studied her for a moment. Mira felt small under his searching gaze. Then he smiled. “I'm with Mira on this one. We started this together, Leo. Seems only right you come along. You find us a ride, you’re in.”
“Yes!” Leo pumped his fist.
“It’ll be dangerous,” Nyssa warned him. “Hardship, monsters, terrible suffering. Possibly none of you will come back alive.”
“Nah, we'll all make it." He grinned. Then he seemed to remember he wasn't supposed to know that. “I mean… Oh, cool! Suffering? I love suffering! Let’s do this.”
Annabeth nodded. “Then, Jason, you only need to choose the fourth quest member. The dove—”
“Oh, absolutely!” Drew was on her feet and flashing Jason a smile. “The dove is Aphrodite. Everybody knows that. I am totally yours.”
Again, Mira wasn't too worried. She knew that Piper would be on the quest, though she didn't quite remember the details of it.
Piper’s hands clenched. She stepped forward. “No.”
Drew rolled her eyes. “Oh, please, Dumpster girl. Back off.”
“I had the vision of Hera; not you. I have to do this.”
“Anyone can have a vision,” Drew said. “You were just at the right place at the right time.” She turned to Jason. “Look, fighting is all fine, I suppose." She glanced at me. "Especially if you have another Percy Jackson by your side. And people who build things…” She looked at Leo in disdain. “Well, I suppose someone has to get their hands dirty. But you need charm on your side. I can be very persuasive. I could help a lot.”
It was strange. Mira had never experienced Aphrodite's persuasion before, though she remembered what it was. And all of a sudden, even though she knew it was supposed to be Piper, she felt herself nodding along with Drew.
“Well…” Annabeth said. “Given the wording of the prophecy—”
“No!” Piper’s voice sounded strange—more insistent, richer in tone. “I’m supposed to go.”
And immediately, Mira felt the difference between persuasion and charmspeak. She turned to Piper, convinced that she should come with her, Jason, and Leo.
“Get over it!” Drew snapped at the crowd. “What can Piper do?”
Mira waited for Piper—confident, take-no-insult Piper—to protest, but it never happened. Piper curled back into herself, seemingly defeated.
“Well,” Drew said smugly, “I guess that settles it.”
Suddenly the air around Piper shimmered. Mira gasped.
Piper's hair was perfect: lush and long and chocolate brown, braided with gold ribbons down one side so it fell across her shoulder. She even wore makeup, which Mira knew that Piper hated—subtle touches that made her lips cherry red and brought out all the different colors in her eyes.
She was dressed in a gorgeous, sleeveless white gown that flowed to her ankles. It had a low v-neck that Mira would never have the confidence to wear. Armbands of a light gold hue circled Piper's upper arms, and an intricate necklace of amber, coral, and gold flowers glittered on her chest.
Piper looked confused. “What?” she demanded. She looked down at herself and yelped.
“Oh, god,” she said. “What’s happened?”
“Beautiful,” Jason exclaimed. “Piper, you... You’re a knockout.”
Ahhh! Mira fangirled despite herself. So cute! He doesn't even know her and he's being so adorable about her! She couldn't wait for the part where Jason said he liked Piper better when she was wearing clothes she was comfortable in. Romance isn't dead.
“This isn’t me,” Piper protested. “I— don’t understand.”
Chiron the centaur folded his front legs and bowed to her, and Mira and everyone else followed his example.
“Hail, Piper McLean,” Chiron announced gravely, as if he were speaking at her funeral. “Daughter of Aphrodite, lady of the doves, goddess of love.”
The meeting dispersed soon after Piper was claimed. Demigods milled about, talking to friends from other cabins. Annabeth Chase came up to Mira before the younger girl could make her escape.
"A-annabeth!" Mira stammered. "Uh, h-hi."
Annabeth looked like she kind of wanted to smile, but held it in. "I just wanted to check in."
"Why?" Mira blurted out before she could stop herself. Her eyes widened and she clasped her hand over her mouth. "I'm so sorry! That was so rude!"
"You don't need to apologize," Annabeth said gently. She peered closely at the (so-called) daughter of Poseidon. "To answer your question... you're Percy's sister." The light in her stormy grey eyes faded a little. "I... wanted to make sure you're okay. How are you holding up?"
Well, let's see. Mira thought to herself. I'm lost in a world that doesn't actually exist where I come from, I'm somehow a demigod, but I'm really useless despite being a Big Three kid, I restarted the Giant War, my favorite character hates me, I have to go on a quest when I have zero experience, I'm forgetting everything about the book, I don't know what's going to happen when it's over.... and I'm forgetting my parents.
"I-I'm fine." Mira forced a smile.
"No, you're not." Annabeth said. "It's okay. I'm sure it must be scary for you. Did you ever tell your mom that you've arrived?" She asked. "Or did you run away?" Her voice was gentle, kind, and despite the bluntness of the question, Mira could tell the blonde meant no harm.
That didn't mean the question didn't hurt.
"My mom's dead," Mira whispered. Funny. That was the first time she'd admitted it out loud.
Annabeth looked aghast. "I'm so sorry—"
"Don't be." Mira said, wanting desperately to get away from the situation. She saw Leo sneaking away from the campfire. "You didn't know."
"Well, if you need anything..." Annabeth trailed off, still looking guilty.
"Yeah." Mira said, and sent her idol a tight smile. "Thanks." She glanced over. Leo was nearly out of sight. "I'm kind of tired, actually..."
"Of course," Annabeth gave her a tiny smile. "You have a long few days ahead of you."
Mira waved, then took off into the woods after Leo.
She caught up to him as he hesitated at the edge of the woods. He glanced to his left and right, but not behind him. Mira watched in shock as Leo opened his hand and flames danced in his palm.
Leo jumped nearly a foot in the air, spinning around so fast he almost tripped and fell. Mira squeaked as he clenched his fire covered fist.
"It's just me!" She said.
Leo stared. Then absolute rage began to take over his features. "You snuck up on me," he snarled. "You followed me! You- you-"
"I know about the dragon!" Mira cried. She did. She remembered the dragon, but not its name and not how Leo fixed it. "I'm just here to help. If you've only got one night—"
"I don't see how you could help," Leo said snidely, "But you might as well come along since you've already followed me so far."
Mira bit her lip. He didn't seem to want her around, but he was letting it happen. She'd take what she could get.
So she stumbled along beside him. He summoned fire. Flames danced along his fingertips, casting enough light to see. Mira watched in awe.
"Leo, that's incredible," she breathed. He glanced at her and his face softened. She could see anguish in his eyes.
"It's destructive," he corrected.
Mira didn't have anything to say to that. She knew fire was a sensitive topic for him—she couldn't remember why, but it had something to do with his mom. She put a hand on his shoulder in comfort.
Leo shook it off. Mira felt a bit hurt, but the Latino boy just clenched his jaw. Mira bit her lip. How awkward.
The two of them kept walking, looking for dragon-type clues—giant footprints, trampled trees, swaths of burning forest. Something that big couldn’t exactly sneak around, right? But Mira saw nothing.
Suddenly, Leo's arm was in front of her, stopping her from moving forward. Mira blinked.
"Look." Leo nodded to a spot ahead of them. Mira squinted and leaned forward, trying to see what it was Leo was talking about. She saw a stream, and immediately felt attracted to it, like it was a magnet. She kept looking, following the brook with her eyes.
Then she saw it. There, at the bottom of a clearing, was the first trap—a hundred-foot-wide crater ringed with boulders.
Mira had to admit it was pretty ingenious. In the center of the depression, a metal vat the size of a hot tub had been filled with bubbly dark liquid. The vat seemed to be unguarded. But Mira looked closely, and in the dim light of the stars and Leo's handheld fire, she could see the glint of metal beneath the dirt and leaves—a bronze net lining the entire crater.
"What is in that?" she wondered.
"Tabasco sauce and motor oil." Leo answered, seemingly impressed. "Look, there's a fan there to spread the fumes around. Can metal dragons smell?"
"I don't know." Mira shrugged. "How does it work?"
Leo's eyes brightened. "It's genius! See those six large strips of bronze stretched out from the vat? They're probably pressure sensored, so it won't matter if you or I touch it. But as soon as the dragon steps on one, the net will spring closed, and voilà—one gift-wrapped monster."
"That's kind of brilliant," Mira said.