XXXIX

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[JASON]

"IS THE FORTRESS ALWAYS hanging there?" Piper asked

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"IS THE FORTRESS ALWAYS hanging there?" Piper asked. "How can people not notice it sitting on top of Pikes Peak?"

"The Mist," Thalia answered, "Still, mortals do notice it indirectly. Some days, Pikes Peak looks purple. People say it's a trick of the light, but actually, it's the color of Aeolus's palace, reflecting off the mountain face."

"It's enormous," Jason commented,

Thalia laughed. "You should see Olympus, little brother."

"You're serious? You've been there?"

Thalia grimaced as if it wasn't a good memory. "We should go across in two different groups. The bridge is fragile."

"That's reassuring," Leo said. "Jason, can't you just fly us up there?"

Thalia laughed. Then she seemed to realize Leo's question wasn't a joke. "Wait ... Jason, you can fly?"

Jason gazed up at the floating fortress. "Well, sort of. More like I can control the winds. But the winds up here are so strong, I'm not sure I'd want to try. Thalia, you mean ... you can't fly?"

For a second, Thalia looked genuinely afraid. Then, she got her expression under control. Jason realized she was a lot more scared of heights than she was letting on.

"Truthfully," she replied, "I've never tried. Might be better if we stuck to the bridge."

Coach Hedge tapped the ice vapor trail with his hoof, then jumped onto the bridge. Amazingly, it held his weight. "Easy! I'll go first. Piper, come on, girl. I'll give you a hand."

"No, that's okay," Piper started to say, but the coach grabbed her hand and dragged her up the bridge.

Jason grabbed Kyra's hand and she gave it a squeeze before they stepped on the bridge. After what's happened the past few days, he was worried she wouldn't be able to keep up.

When they were about halfway, the bridge still seemed to be holding them just fine. Thalia turned to her Hunter friend. "Phoebe, I'll be back soon. Go find the others. Tell them I'm on my way."

"You sure?" Phoebe narrowed her eyes at Leo and Jason, like they might kidnap Thalia or something.

"It's fine," Thalia promised.

Phoebe nodded reluctantly, then raced down the mountain path, the white wolves at her heels.

"Jason, Leo, just be careful where you step," Thalia told them, "It hardly ever breaks."

"It hasn't met me yet," Leo muttered, but he and Jason led the way up the bridge.

Halfway up, things went wrong, and of course, it was Leo's fault. Piper and Hedge had already made it safely to the top and were waving at them, encouraging them to keep climbing, but Leo seemed to have gotten distracted. 

"Why do they have a bridge?" Leo suddenly asked.

Thalia frowned. "Leo, this isn't a good place to stop. What do you mean?"

"They're wind spirits," Leo said. "Can't they fly?"

"Yes, but sometimes they need a way to connect to the world below."

"So the bridge isn't always here?" Leo asked.

Thalia shook her head. "The wind spirits don't like to anchor to the earth, but sometimes it's necessary. Like now. They know you're coming."

"Leo?" Jason could practically see the gears turning in his head, "What are you thinking?"

"Oh, Gods," Thalia interrupted, "Keep moving. Look at your feet."

Leo shuffled backward. And Jason's eyes widened. Leo's pants steamed in the cold air. His shoes were literally smoking, and the bridge didn't like it. The ice was thinning.

"Leo, stop it," Jason warned. "You're going to melt it."

"I'll try," Leo replied,  But his body was overheating on its own, running as fast as his thoughts. "Listen, Jason, what did Hera call you in that dream? She called you a bridge."

"Leo, seriously, cool down," Thalia said. "I don't what you're talking about, but the bridge is—"

"Just listen," Leo insisted. "If Jason is a bridge, what's he connecting? Maybe two different places that normally don't get along—like the air palace and the ground. You had to be somewhere before this, right? And Hera said you were an exchange."

"An exchange." Thalia's eyes widened. "Oh, Gods."

Jason frowned, confused,"What are you two talking about?"

Thalia murmured something like a prayer. "I understand now why Artemis sent me here. Jason—she told me to hunt for Lycaon and I would find a clue about Percy. You are the clue. Artemis wanted us to meet so I could hear your story."

"I don't understand," he protested. "I don't have a story. I don't remember anything."

"But Leo's right," Kyra shook her head, "It's all connected. If we just knew where—"

Leo snapped his fingers. "Jason, what did you call that place in your dream? That ruined house. The Wolf House?"

Thalia nearly choked. "The Wolf House? Jason, why didn't you tell me that! That's where they're keeping Hera?"

"You know where it is?" Jason asked.

Then the bridge dissolved. Leo would've fallen to his death, but Jason and Kyra grabbed his coat and pulled him to safety. The two of them scrambled up the bridge, and when they turned, Thalia was on the other side of a thirty-foot chasm. The bridge was continuing to melt.

"Go!" Thalia shouted, backing down the bridge as it crumbled. "Find out where the giant is keeping Piper's dad. Save him! I'll take the Hunters to the Wolf House and hold it until you can get there. We can do both!"

"But where is the Wolf House?" Jason shouted.

"You know where it is, little brother!" She was so far away now that they could barely hear her voice over the wind. Leo was pretty sure she said: "I'll see you there. I promise."

Then she turned and raced down the dissolving bridge.

Jason, Kyra, and Leo had no time to stand around. They climbed for their lives, the ice vapor thinning under their feet. Several times, Jason grabbed the two and used the winds to keep them aloft, but it was more like bungee jumping than flying.

When they reached the floating island, Piper and Coach Hedge pulled them aboard just as the last of the vapor bridge vanished. They stood gasping for breath at the base of a stone stairway chiseled into the side of the cliff, leading up to the fortress.

Jason looked back down. The top of Pikes Peak floated below them in a sea of clouds, but there was no sign of Thalia. And Leo had just burned their only exit.

"What happened?" Piper demanded. "Leo, why are your clothes smoking?"

"I got a little heated," he gasped. "Sorry, Jason. Honest. I didn't—"

"It's all right," Jason replied, but his expression was grim. "We've got less than twenty-four hours to rescue a goddess and Piper's dad. Let's go see the King of the Winds."

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