XXXVIII

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[JASON]

"SO WHAT WOULD LYCAON HAVE to do with it?" Kyra asked

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"SO WHAT WOULD LYCAON HAVE to do with it?" Kyra asked. "And how does it connect to us?"

"We need to find out soon," Thalia admitted. "If your deadline is tomorrow, we're wasting time. Aeolus could tell you—" The white wolf appeared again at the doorway and yipped insistently, "I have to get moving." Thalia stood. "Otherwise I'll lose the other Hunters' trail. First, though, I'll take you to Aeolus's palace."

"If you can't, it's okay," Jason replied, though he sounded kind of distressed.

"Oh, please." Thalia smiled and helped him up. "I haven't had a brother in years. I think I can stand a few minutes with you before you get annoying. Now, let's go!"

When Kyra saw how the others were being treated, she was thoroughly offended. She'd imagined them freezing their hindquarters off in the snow, which was part of the reason why she was glad Jason asked her to stay behind in the first place, but the Hunter Phoebe had set up this silver tent pavilion thing right outside the cave. How she'd done it so fast, Kyra had no idea, but inside was a kerosene heater keeping them toasty warm and a bunch of comfy throw pillows. Piper looked back to normal, decked out in a new parka, gloves, and camo pants like a Hunter. She, Leo, and Hedge and Phoebe were kicking back, drinking hot chocolate.

"Oh, no way," Kyra pouted "We've been sitting in a cave and you get the luxury tent? I want hot chocolate and a parka!"

"You're the one who wanted to stay in the cave." Leo smirked, sipping some more hot chocolate.

Pheobe came over and handed her a coat before picking up a mug and Kyra thanked her. Jason also was soon decked out in new winter clothes,

"Cheers!" said Coach Hedge. He crunched down his plastic thermos cup.

"That cannot be good for your intestines," Leo stated,

Thalia patted Piper on the back. "You up for moving?"

Piper nodded. "Thanks to Phoebe, yeah. You guys are really good at this wilderness survival thing. I feel like I could run ten miles."

Thalia winked at Jason. "She's tough for a child of Aphrodite. I like this one."

"Hey, I could run ten miles too," Leo volunteered. "Tough Hephaestus kid here. Let's hit it."

Naturally, Thalia ignored him. Jason walked over to Kyra, making sure she was warm enough before they exited the tent. It took Phoebe exactly six seconds to break camp. Jason grabbed Kyra's hand, "Are you feeling okay enough to run?" He was worried that in her condition that she wouldn't make it up the mountain.

"I'll be fine, Jason." She smiled up at him, "But thank you for asking."

He squeezed her hand one last time before they started the trek. Thalia ran uphill through the snow, hugging a tiny little path on the side of the mountain, the Hunters left them in the dust.

Coach Hedge leaped around like a happy mountain goat, coaxing them on like he used to do on track days at school. "Come on, Valdez! Pick up the pace! Let's chant. I've got a girl in Kalamazoo—"

"Let's not," Thalia snapped.

So they ran in silence.

Leo fell in next to Jason at the back of the group. "How you doing, man?"

Jason's expression was enough of an answer: Not good. "Thalia takes it so calmly," Jason said, "Like it's no big deal that I appeared. I didn't know what I was expecting, but ... she's not like me. She seems so much more together."

"Hey, she's not fighting amnesia," Leo replied, "Plus, she's had more time to get used to this whole demigod thing. You fight monsters and talk to Gods for a while, you probably get used to surprises."

"Maybe," Jason responded, "I just wish I understood what happened when I was two, why my mom got rid of me. Thalia ran away because of me."

"Hey, whatever's happened, it wasn't your fault. And your sister is pretty cool. She's a lot like you, at least, from what I've seen so far."

Jason took that in silence. He knew Leo was just trying to make him feel better, and it was kind of working. He had Thalia now, but what had they thought during the other thirteen years when he was gone?

He was so lost in thought, Jason didn't realize the Hunters had stopped. Thalia pointed upwards, "That," Leo choked, "is a really large rock."

They stood near the summit of Pikes Peak. Below them, the world was blanketed in clouds. The air was so thin, Jason could hardly breathe. Night had set in, but a full moon shone and the stars were incredible. Stretching out to the north and south, peaks of other mountains rose from the clouds like islands—or teeth.

But the real show was above them. Hovering in the sky, about a quarter mile away, was a massive free-floating island of glowing purple stone. It was hard to judge its size, but Jason figured it was at least as wide as a football stadium and just as tall. The sides were rugged cliffs, riddled with caves, and every once in a while a gust of wind burst out with a sound like a pipe organ blast. At the top of the rock, brass walls ringed some kind of a fortress.

The only thing connecting Pikes Peak to the floating island was a narrow bridge of ice that glistened in the moonlight.

Then Jason realized the bridge wasn't exactly ice, because it wasn't solid. As the winds changed direction, the bridge snaked around—blurring and thinning, in some places even breaking into a dotted line like the vapor trail of a plane.

"We're not seriously crossing that," Leo said.

Thalia shrugged. "I'm not a big fan of heights, I'll admit. But if you want to get to Aeolus's fortress, this is the only way."

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