“What about you?” Piper cried. “If you can’t reboot him—”
“I’ll be fine,” Leo yelled. “Just follow me to the ground. Go!”
Jason grabbed Piper around the waist. They both unbuckled their harnesses, and in a flash they were gone—shooting into the air.
“Now,” Leo said. “Just you and me, Festus—and two heavy cages. You can do it, boy!”
Leo talked to the dragon while he worked, falling at terminal velocity. He could see the city lights below him, getting closer and closer. He summoned fire in his hand so he could see what he was doing, but the wind kept extinguishing it.
He pulled a wire that he thought connected the dragon’s nerve center to its head, hoping for a little wake-up jolt.
Festus groaned—metal creaking inside his neck. His eyes flickered weakly to life, and he spread his wings. Their fall turned into a steep glide.
“Good!” Leo said. “Come on, big boy. Come on!”
They were still flying in way too hot, and the ground was too close. Leo needed a place to land—fast.
There was a big river—no. Not good for a fire-breathing dragon. He’d never get Festus out from the bottom if he sank, especially in freezing temperatures. Then, on the riverbanks, Leo spotted a white mansion with a huge snowy lawn inside a tall brick perimeter fence—like some rich person’s private compound, all of it blazing with light. A perfect landing field. He did his best to steer the dragon toward it, and Festus seemed to come back to life. They could make this!
Then everything went wrong. As they approached the lawn, spotlights along the fence fixed on them, blinding Leo. He heard bursts like tracer fire, the sound of metal being cut to shreds—and BOOM.
Leo blacked out.
When Leo came to his senses, Jason and Piper were leaning over him. He was lying in the snow, covered in mud and grease. He spit a clump of frozen grass out of his mouth.
“Lie still. ” Piper had tears in her eyes. “You rolled pretty hard when—when Festus—”
“Where is he?” Leo sat up, but his head felt like it was floating. They’d landed inside the compound. Something had happened on the way in—gunfire?
“Seriously, Leo,” Jason said. “You could be hurt. You shouldn’t—”
Leo pushed himself to his feet. Then he saw the wreckage. Festus must have dropped the big canary cages as he came over the fence, because they’d rolled in different directions and landed on their sides, perfectly undamaged.
Festus hadn’t been so lucky.
The dragon had disintegrated. His limbs were scattered across the lawn. His tail hung on the fence. The main section of his body had plowed a trench twenty feet wide and fifty feet long across the mansion’s yard before breaking apart. What remained of his hide was a charred, smoking pile of scraps. Only his neck and head were somewhat intact, resting across a row of frozen rosebushes like a pillow.
“No,” Leo sobbed. He ran to the dragon’s head and stroked its snout. The dragon’s eyes flickered weakly. Oil leaked out of his ear.
“You can’t go,” Leo pleaded. “You’re the best thing I ever fixed. ”
The dragon’s head whirred its gears, as if it were purring. Jason and Piper stood next to him, but Leo kept his eyes fixed on the dragon.
He remembered what Hephaestus had said: That isn’t your fault, Leo. Nothing lasts forever, not even the best machines.
His dad had been trying to warn him.
“It’s not fair,” he said.
The dragon clicked. Long creak. Two short clicks. Creak. Creak. Almost like a pattern … triggering an old memory in Leo’s mind. Leo realized Festus was trying to say something. He was using Morse code—just like Leo’s mom had taught him years ago. Leo listened more intently, translating the clicks into letters: a simple message repeating over and over.
“Yeah,” Leo said. “I understand. I will. I promise. ”
The dragon’s eyes went dark. Festus was gone.
Leo cried. He wasn’t even embarrassed. His friends stood on either side, patting his shoulders, saying comforting things; but the buzzing in Leo’s ears drowned out their words.
Finally Jason said, “I’m so sorry, man. What did you promise Festus?”
Leo sniffled. He opened the dragon’s head panel, just to be sure, but the control disk was cracked and burned beyond repair.
“Something my dad told me,” Leo said. “Everything can be reused. ”
“Your dad talked to you?” Jason asked. “When was this?”
Leo didn’t answer. He worked at the dragon’s neck hinges until the head was detached. It weighed about a hundred pounds, but Leo managed to hold it in his arms. He looked up at the starry sky and said, “Take him back to the bunker, Dad. Please, until I can reuse him. I’ve never asked you for anything. ”
The wind picked up, and the dragon’s head floated out of Leo’s arms like it weighed nothing. It flew into the sky and disappeared.
Piper looked at him in amazement. “He answered you?”
“I had a dream,” Leo managed. “Tell you later. ”
He knew he owed his friends a better explanation, but Leo could barely speak. He felt like a broken machine himself—like someone had removed one little part of him, and now he’d never be complete. He might move, he might talk, he might keep going and do his job. But he’d always be off balance, never calibrated exactly right.
Still, he couldn’t afford to break down completely. Otherwise, Festus had died for nothing. He had to finish this quest—for his friends, for his mom, for his dragon.
He looked around. The large white mansion glowed in the center of the grounds. Tall brick walls with lights and security cameras surrounded the perimeter, but now Leo could see—or rather sense—just how well those walls were defended.