“The driver’s ready when we are,” Rachel said.
The chauffeur was now talking to another guy in khakis and a polo shirt, probably his client who’d rented the car. The client was complaining, but I could hear the driver saying, “I’m sorry, sir. Emergency. I’ve ordered another car for you.”
“Come on,” Rachel said. She led us to the car and got in without even looking at the flustered guy who’d rented it. A minute later we were cruising down the road. The seats were leather. There was plenty of legroom. The backseat had flat-panel TVs built into the headrests and a mini-fridge stocked with bottled water, sodas, and snacks. We started pigging out.
“Where to, Miss Dare?” the driver asked.
“I’m not sure yet, Robert,” she said. “We just need to drive through town and, uh, look around.”
“Whatever you say, miss.”
I looked at Rachel. “Do you know this guy?”
“But he dropped everything to help you. Why?”
“Just keep your eyes peeled,” she said. “Help me look.”
Which didn’t exactly answer my question.
We drove through Colorado Springs for about half an hour and saw nothing that Rachel considered a possible Labyrinth entrance. I was very aware of Rachel’s shoulder pressing against mine. I kept wondering who she was exactly, and how she could walk up to some random chauffeur and immediately get a ride.
After about an hour we decided to head north toward Denver, thinking that maybe a bigger city would be more likely to have a Labyrinth entrance, but we were all getting nervous. We were losing time.
Then right as we were leaving Colorado Springs, Rachel sat bolt upright. “Get off the highway!”
The driver glanced back. “Miss?”
“I saw something, I think. Get off here.”
The driver swerved across traffic and took the exit.
“What did you see?” I asked, because we were pretty much out of the city now. There wasn’t anything around except hills, grassland, and some scattered farm buildings. Rachel had the driver turn down this unpromising dirt road. We drove by a sign too fast for me to read it, but Rachel said, “Western Museum of Mining & Industry.”
For a museum, it didn’t look like much—a little house like an old-fashioned railroad station, some drills and pumps and old steam shovels on display outside.
“There.” Rachel pointed to a hole in the side of a nearby hill—a tunnel that was boarded up and chained. “An old mine entrance.”
“A door to the Labyrinth?” Annabeth asked. “How can you be sure?”
“Well, look at it!” Rachel said. “I mean…I can see it, okay?”
She thanked the driver and we all got out. He didn’t ask for money or anything. “Are you sure you’ll be all right, Miss Dare? I’d be happy to call your—”
“No!” Rachel said. “No, really. Thanks, Robert. But we’re fine.”
The museum seemed to be closed, so nobody bothered us as we climbed the hill to the mine shaft. When we got to the entrance, I saw the mark of Daedalus engraved on the padlock, though how Rachel had seen something so tiny all the way from the highway I had no idea. I touched the padlock and the chains fell away. We kicked down a few boards and walked inside. For better or worse, we were back in the Labyrinth.
The dirt tunnels turned to stone. They wound around and split off and basically tried to confuse us, but Rachel had no trouble guiding us. We told her we needed to get back to New York, and she hardly even paused when the tunnels offered a choice.
To my surprise, Rachel and Annabeth started up a conversation as we walked. Annabeth asked her more about her background, but Rachel was evasive, so they started talking about architecture. It turned out that Rachel knew something about it from studying art. They talked about different facades on buildings around New York—“Have you seen this one,” blah, blah, blah, so I hung back and walked next to Nico in uncomfortable silence.
“Thanks for coming after us,” I told him at last.
Nico’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t seem as angry as he used to—just suspicious, careful. “I owed you for the ranch, Percy. Plus…I wanted to see Daedalus for myself. Minos was right, in a way. Daedalus should die. Nobody should be able to avoid death that long. It’s not natural.”
“That’s what you were after all along,” I said. “Trading Daedalus’s soul for your sister’s.”
Nico walked for another fifty yards before answering. “It hasn’t been easy, you know. Having only the dead for company. Knowing that I’ll never be accepted by the living. Only the dead respect me, and they only do that out of fear.”
“You could be accepted,” I said. “You could have friends at camp.”
He stared at me. “Do you really believe that, Percy?”
I didn’t answer. The truth was, I didn’t know. Nico had always been a little different, but since Bianca’s death, he’d gotten almost…scary. He had his father’s eyes—that intense, manic fire that made you suspect he was either a genius or a madman. And the way he’d banished Minos, and called himself the king of ghosts—it was kind of impressive, but it made me uncomfortable too.
Before I could figure out what to tell him, I ran into Rachel, who’d stopped in front of me. We’d come to a crossroads. The tunnel continued straight ahead, but a side tunnel T’d off to the right—a circular shaft carved from volcanic rock.
“What is it?” I asked.
Rachel stared down the dark tunnel. In the dim flashlight beam, her face looked like one of Nico’s specters.
“Is it that way?” Annabeth asked.
“No,” Rachel said nervously. “Not at all.”
“Why are we stopping then?” I asked.
“Listen,” Nico said.
I heard wind coming down the tunnel, as if the exit were close. And I smelled something vaguely familiar—something that brought back bad memories.
“Eucalyptus trees,” I said. “Like in California.”
Last winter, when we’d faced Luke and the Titan Atlas on top of Mount Tamalpais, the air had smelled like that.
“There’s something evil down that tunnel,” Rachel said. “Something very powerful.”
“And the smell of death,” Nico added, which made me feel a whole lot better.
Annabeth and I exchanged glances.
“Luke’s entrance,” she guessed. “The one to Mount Othrys—the Titans’ palace.”
“I have to check it out,” I said.
“Luke could be right here,” I said. “Or…or Kronos. I have to find out what’s going on.”
Annabeth hesitated. “Then we’ll all go.”
“No,” I said. “It’s too dangerous. If they got hold of Nico, or Rachel for that matter, Kronos could use them. You stay here and guard them.”
What I didn’t say: I was also worried about Annabeth. I didn’t trust what she would do if she saw Luke again. He had fooled her and manipulated her too many times before.
“Percy, don’t,” Rachel said. “Don’t go up there alone.”
“I’ll be quick,” I promised. “I won’t do anything stupid.”
Annabeth took her Yankees cap out of her pocket. “At least take this. And be careful.”
“Thanks.” I remembered the last time Annabeth and I had parted ways, when she’d given me a kiss for luck in Mount St. Helens. This time, all I got was the hat.
I put it on. “Here goes nothing.” And I sneaked invisibly down the dark stone tunnel.
Before I even got to the exit I heard voices: the growling, barking sounds of sea-demon smiths, the telekhines.
“At least we salvaged the blade,” one said. “The master will still reward us.”
“Yes! Yes!” a second shrieked. “Rewards beyond measure!”
Another voice, this one more human, said: “Um, yeah, well that’s great. Now, if you’re done with me—”
“No, half-blood!” a telekhine said. “You must help us make the presentation. It is a great honor!”
“Gee, thanks,” the half-blood said, and I realized it was Ethan Nakamura, the guy who’d run away after I’d saved his sorry life in the arena.
I crept toward the end of the tunnel. I had to remind myself I was invisible. They shouldn’t be able to see me.
A blast of cold air hit me as I emerged. I was standing near the top of Mount Tam. The Pacific Ocean spread out below, gray under a cloudy sky. About twenty feet downhill, two telekhines were placing something on a big rock—something long and thin and wrapped in a black cloth. Ethan was helping them open it.
“Careful, fool,” the telekhine scolded. “One touch, and the blade will sever your soul from your body.”
Ethan swallowed nervously. “Maybe I’ll let you unwrap it, then.”
I glanced up at the mountain’s peak, where a black marble fortress loomed, just like I’d seen in my dreams. It reminded me of an oversized mausoleum, with walls fifty feet high. I had no idea how mortals could miss the fact that it was here. But then again, everything below the summit seemed fuzzy to me, as if there were a thick veil between me and the lower half of the mountain. There was magic going on here—really powerful Mist. Above me, the sky swirled into a huge funnel cloud. I couldn’t see Atlas, but I could hear him groaning in the distance, still laboring under the weight of the sky, just beyond the fortress.
“There!” the telekhine said. Reverently, he lifted the weapon, and my blood turned to ice.
It was a scythe—a six foot-long blade curved like a crescent moon, with a wooden handle wrapped in leather. The blade glinted two different colors— steel and bronze. It was the weapon of Kronos, the one he’d used to slice up his father, Ouranos, before the gods had taken it away from him and cut Kronos to pieces, casting him into Tartarus. Now the weapon was re-forged.
“We must sanctify it in blood,” the telekhine said. “Then you, half-blood, shall help present it when the lord awakes.”
I ran toward the fortress, my pulse pounding in my ears. I didn’t want to get anywhere close to that horrible black mausoleum, but I knew what I had to do. I had to stop Kronos from rising. This might be my only chance.
I dashed through a dark foyer and into the main hall. The floor shined like a mahogany piano—pure black and yet full of light. Black marble statues lined the walls. I didn’t recognize the faces, but I knew I was looking at images of the Titans who’d ruled before the gods. At the end of the room, between two bronze braziers, was a dais. And on the dais, the golden sarcophagus.
The room was silent except for the crackle of the fires. Luke wasn’t here. No guards. Nothing.
It was too easy, but I approached the dais.
The sarcophagus was just like I remembered—about ten feet long, much too big for a human. It was carved with elaborate scenes of death and destruction, pictures of the gods being trodden under chariots, temples and famous world landmarks being smashed and burned. The whole coffin gave off an aura of extreme cold, like I was walking into a freezer. My breath began to steam.