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[JASON]

JASON'S JAW DROPPED

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JASON'S JAW DROPPED. THE CENTRAL SECTION of Aeolus's fortress was as big as a cathedral, with a soaring domed roof covered in silver. Television equipment floated randomly through the air—cameras, spotlights, set pieces, potted plants. And there was no floor. Leo almost fell into the chasm before Jason pulled him back.

"Holy—!" Leo gulped. "Hey, Mellie. A little warning next time!"

An enormous circular pit plunged into the heart of the mountain. It was probably half a mile deep, honeycombed with caves. Some of the tunnels probably led straight outside. Jason remembered seeing winds blast out of them when they'd been on Pikes Peak. Other caves were sealed with some glistening material like glass or wax. The whole cavern bustled with harpies, aurai, and paper airplanes, but for someone who couldn't fly, it would be a very long, very fatal fall.

"Oh, my," Mellie gasped. "I'm so sorry." She unclipped a walkie-talkie from somewhere inside her robes and spoke into it: "Hello, sets? Is that Nuggets? Hi, Nuggets. Could we get a floor in the main studio, please? Yes, a solid one. Thanks."

A few seconds later, an army of harpies rose from the pit—three dozen or so demon chicken ladies, all carrying squares of various building material. They went to work hammering and gluing—and using large quantities of duct tape, which didn't reassure Jason. In no time there was a makeshift floor snaking out over the chasm. It was made of plywood, marble blocks, carpet squares, wedges of grass sod—just about anything.

"That can't be safe," Jason commented,

"Oh, it is!" Mellie assured him. "The harpies are very good."

Easy for her to say. She just drifted across without touching the floor, but Jason decided he had the best chance at surviving, since he could fly, so he stepped out first. Amazingly, the floor held.

Kyra gripped his hand and followed him. "If I fall, you're catching me."

"Uh, sure." Jason hoped he wasn't blushing.

Leo and Piper stepped out next. "You're catching me, too, Superman. But I ain't holding your hand."

Mellie led them toward the middle of the chamber, where a loose sphere of flat-panel video screens floated around a kind of control center. A man hovered inside, checking monitors and reading paper airplane messages.

The man paid them no attention as Mellie brought them forward. She pushed a forty-two-inch Sony out of their way and led them into the control area.

Leo whistled. "I got to get a room like this."

The floating screens showed all sorts of television programs. Some Jason recognized—news broadcasts, mostly—but some programs looked a little strange: gladiators fighting, demigods battling monsters. Maybe they were movies, but they looked more like reality shows.

At the far end of the sphere was a silky blue backdrop like a cinema screen, with cameras and studio lights floating around it.

The man in the center was talking into an earpiece phone. He had a remote control in each hand and was pointing them at various screens, seemingly at random.

He wore a business suit that looked like the sky blue mostly but dappled with clouds that changed and darkened and moved across the fabric. He looked like he was in his sixties, with a shock of white hair, but he had a ton of stage makeup on, and that smooth plastic-surgery look to his face, so he appeared not really young, not really old, just wrong—like a Ken doll someone had halfway melted in a microwave. His eyes darted back and forth from screen to screen, like he was trying to absorb everything at once. He muttered things into his phone, and his mouth kept twitching. He was either amused, or crazy, or both.

Mellie floated toward him. "Ah, sir, Mr. Aeolus, these demigods—"

"Hold it!" He held up a hand to silence her, then pointed at one of the screens. "Watch!"

It was one of those storm-chaser programs, where insane thrill-seekers drive after tornados. As Jason watched, a Jeep plowed straight into a funnel cloud and got tossed into the sky.

Aeolus shrieked with delight. "The Disaster Channel. People do that on purpose!" He turned toward Jason with a mad grin. "Isn't that amazing? Let's watch it again."

"Um, sir," Mellie said, "this is Jason, son of—"

"Yes, yes, I remember," Aeolus said. "You're back. How did it go?"

Jason hesitated. "Sorry? I think you've mistaken me—"

"No, no, Jason Grace, aren't you? It was—what—last year? You were on your way to fight a sea monster, I believe."

"I—I don't remember."

Aelous laughed. "Must not have been a very good sea monster! No, I remember every hero who's ever come to me for aid. Odysseus—Gods, he docked at my island for a month! At least you only stayed a few days. Now, watch this video. These ducks get sucked straight into—"

"Sir," Mellie interrupted. "Two minutes to air."

"Air!" Aeolus exclaimed. "I love air. How do I look? Makeup!"

Immediately a small tornado of brushes, blotters, and cotton balls descended on Aeolus. They blurred across his face in a cloud of flesh-tone smoke until his coloration was even more gruesome than before. Wind swirled through his hair and left it sticking up like a frosted Christmas tree.

"Mr. Aeolus." Jason slipped off the golden backpack. "We brought you these rogue storm spirits."

"Did you!" Aeolus looked at the bag like it was a gift from a fan—something he really didn't want. "Well, how nice."

Leo nudged him, and Jason offered the bag. "Boreas sent us to capture them for you. We hope you'll accept them and stop—you know—ordering demigods to be killed."

Aeolus laughed, and looked incredulously at Mellie. "Demigods be killed—did I order that?"

Mellie checked her computer tablet. "Yes, sir, fifteenth of September. 'Storm spirits released by the death of Typhon, demigods to be held responsible,' etc... yes, a general order for them all to be killed."

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