Leading into the darkness was a twenty-foot-diameter tunnel, perfectly round, as if made by a huge snake. Oh…bad thought.
I didn’t like the idea of walking to the other side of the cave, especially through that flea market of heavy machinery and cow carcasses.
“How did all this stuff get down here?” I felt the need to whisper, but my voice echoed anyway.
Annabeth scanned the scene. She obviously didn’t like what she saw. “They must’ve lowered the bulldozer in pieces and assembled it down here,” she decided. “I think that’s how they dug the subway system a long time ago.”
“What about the other junk?” I asked. “The cars and, um, meat products?”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “Some of it looks like street vendor merchandise. Those purses and coats…the giant must’ve brought them down here for some reason.” She gestured toward the bulldozer. “That thing looks like it’s been through combat.”
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw what she meant. The machine’s caterpillar treads were busted. The driver’s seat was charred to a crisp. In the front of the rig, the big shovel blade was dented as if it had run into something…or been punched.
The silence was eerie. Looking up at the tiny speck of daylight above us, I got vertigo. How could a cave this big exist under Manhattan without the city block collapsing, or the Hudson River flooding in? We had to be hundreds of feet below sea level.
What really disturbed me was that tunnel on the far side of the cave.
I’m not saying I can smell monsters the way my friend Grover the satyr can. But suddenly I understood why he hated being underground. It felt oppressive and dangerous. Demigods didn’t belong here. Something was waiting down that tunnel.
I glanced at Annabeth, hoping she had a great idea—like running away. Instead, she started toward the bulldozer.
We’d just reached the middle of the cave when a groan echoed from the far tunnel. We ducked behind the bulldozer just as the giant appeared from the darkness, stretching his massive arms.
“Breakfast,” he rumbled.
I could see him clearly now, and I wished I couldn’t.
How ugly was he? Let’s put it this way: Secaucus, New Jersey, was a lot nicer-looking than Cacus the giant, and that’s not a compliment to anybody.
As Hermes had said, the giant was about ten feet tall, which made him small compared to some other giants I’d seen. But Cacus made up for it by being bright and gaudy. He had curly orange hair, pale skin, and orange freckles. His face was smeared upward with a permanent pout, upturned nose, wide eyes, and arched eyebrows, so he appeared both startled and unhappy. He wore a red velour housecoat with matching slippers. The housecoat was open, revealing silky Valentine-patterned boxer shorts and luxurious chest hair of a red/pink/orange color not found in nature.
Annabeth made a small gagging sound. “It’s the ginger giant.”
Unfortunately, the giant had extremely good hearing. He frowned and scanned the cavern, zeroing in on our hiding place.
“Who’s there?” he bellowed. “You—behind the bulldozer.”
Annabeth and I looked at each other. She mouthed, Oops.
“Come on!” the giant said. “I don’t appreciate sneaking about! Show yourself.”
That sounded like a really terrible idea. Then again, we were pretty much busted anyway. Maybe the giant would listen to reason, despite the fact that he wore Valentine boxer shorts.
I took out my ballpoint pen and uncapped it. My bronze sword Riptide sprang to life. Annabeth pulled out her shield and dagger. None of our weapons looked very intimidating against a dude that big, but together we stepped into the open.
The giant grinned. “Well! Demigods, are you? I call for breakfast, and you two appear? That’s quite accommodating.”
“We’re not breakfast,” Annabeth said.
“No?” The giant stretched lazily. Twin wisps of smoke escaped his nostrils. “I imagine you’d taste wonderful with tortillas, salsa, and eggs. Huevos semidiós. Just thinking about it makes me hungry!”
He sauntered over to the row of fly-specked cow carcasses.
My stomach twisted. I muttered, “Oh, he’s not really gonna—”
Cacus snatched one of the carcasses off a hook. He blew fire over it—a red-hot torrent of flame that cooked the meat in seconds but didn’t seem to hurt the giant’s hands at all. Once the cow was crispy and sizzling, Cacus unhinged his jaw, opening his mouth impossibly wide, and downed the carcass in three massive bites, bones and all.
“Yep,” Annabeth said weakly. “He really did it.”
The giant belched. He wiped his steaming greasy hands on his robe and grinned at us. “So, if you’re not breakfast, you must be customers. What can I interest you in?”
He sounded relaxed and friendly, like he was happy to talk with us. Between that and the red velour housecoat, he almost didn’t seem dangerous. Except of course that he was ten feet tall, blew fire, and ate cows in three bites.
I stepped forward. Call me old-fashioned, but I wanted to keep his focus on me and not Annabeth. I think it’s polite for a guy to protect his girlfriend from instant incineration.
“Um, yeah,” I said. “We might be customers. What do you sell?”
Cacus laughed. “What do I sell? Everything, demigod! At bargain basement prices, and you can’t find a basement lower than this!” He gestured around the cavern. “I’ve got designer handbags, Italian suits, um…some construction equipment, apparently, and if you’re in the market for a Rolex…”
He opened his robe. Pinned to the inside was a glittering array of gold and silver watches.
Annabeth snapped her fingers. “Fakes! I knew I’d seen that stuff before. You got all this from street merchants, didn’t you? They’re designer knockoffs.”
The giant looked offended. “Not just any knockoffs, young lady. I steal only the best! I’m a son of Hephaestus. I know quality fakes when I see them.”
I frowned. “A son of Hephaestus? Then shouldn’t you be making things rather than stealing them?”
Cacus snorted. “Too much work! Oh, sometimes if I find a high-quality item I’ll make my own copies. But mostly it’s easier to steal things. I started with cattle thieving, you know, back in the old days. Love cattle! That’s why I settled in the Meatpacking District. Then I discovered they have more than meat here!”
He grinned as if this was an amazing discovery. “Street vendors, high-end boutiques—this is a wonderful city, even better than Ancient Rome! And the workers were very nice to make me this cave.”
“Before you ran them off,” Annabeth said, “and almost killed them.”
Cacus stifled a yawn. “Are you sure you’re not breakfast? Because you’re beginning to bore me. If you don’t want to buy something, I’ll go get the salsa and tortillas—”
“We were looking for something special,” I interrupted. “Something real. And magic. But I guess you don’t have anything like that.”
“Ha!” Cacus clapped his hands. “A high-end shopper. If I haven’t got what you need in stock, I can steal it, for the right price, of course.”
“Hermes’s staff,” I said. “The caduceus.”
The giant’s face turned as red as his hair. His eyes narrowed. “I see. I should’ve known Hermes would send someone. Who are you two? Children of the thief god?”
Annabeth raised her knife. “Did he just call me Hermes’s kid? I’m going stab him in the—”
“I’m Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon,” I told the giant. I put out my arm to hold Annabeth back. “This is Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena. We help out the gods sometimes with little stuff, like—oh, killing Titans, saving Mount Olympus, things like that. Perhaps you’ve heard stories. So about that caduceus…it would be easier just to hand it over before things get unpleasant.”
I looked him in the eyes and hoped my threat would work. I know it seems ridiculous, a sixteen-year-old trying to stare down a fire-breathing giant. But I had battled some pretty serious monsters before. Plus, I’d bathed in the River Styx, which made me immune to most physical attacks. That should be worth a little street cred, right? Maybe Cacus had heard of me. Maybe he would tremble and whimper, Oh, Mr. Jackson. I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize!
Instead he threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, I see! That was supposed to scare me! But alas, the only demigod who ever defeated me was Hercules himself.”
I turned to Annabeth and shook my head in exasperation. “Always Hercules. What is it with Hercules?”
Annabeth shrugged. “He had a great publicist.”
The giant kept boasting. “For centuries, I was the terror of Italy! I stole many cows—more than any other giant. Mothers used to scare their children with my name. They would say, ‘Mind your manners, child, or Cacus will come and steal your cows!’”
“Horrifying,” Annabeth said.
The giant grinned. “I know! Right? So you may as well give up, demigods. You’ll never get the caduceus. I have plans for that!”
He raised his hand and the staff of Hermes appeared in his grip. I’d seen it many times before, but it still sent a shiver down my back. Godly items just radiate power. The staff was smooth white wood about three feet long, topped with a silver sphere and dove’s wings that fluttered nervously. Intertwined around the staff were two live, very agitated serpents.
Percy! A reptilian voice spoke in my mind. Thank the gods!
Another snaky voice, deeper and grumpier, said, Yes, I haven’t been fed in hours.
“Martha, George,” I said. “Are you guys all right?”
Better if I got some food, George complained. There are some nice rats down here. Could you catch us some?
George, stop! Martha chided. We have bigger problems. This giant wants to keep us!
Cacus looked back and forth from me to the snakes. “Wait…You can speak with the snakes, Percy Jackson? That’s excellent! Tell them they’d better start cooperating. I’m their new master, and they’ll only get fed when they start taking orders.”
The nerve! Martha shrieked. You tell that ginger jerk—
“Hold on,” Annabeth interrupted. “Cacus, the snakes will never obey you. They only work for Hermes. Since you can’t use the staff, it doesn’t do you any good. Just give it back and we’ll pretend this never happened.”
“Great idea,” I said.
The giant snarled. “Oh, I’ll figure out the staff’s powers, girl. I’ll make the snakes cooperate!”
Cacus shook the caduceus. George and Martha wriggled and hissed, but they seemed stuck to the staff. I knew the caduceus could turn into all sorts of helpful things—a sword, a cell phone, a price scanner for easy comparison-shopping. And once George had mentioned something disturbing about “laser mode.” I really didn’t want Cacus figuring out that feature.
Finally the giant growled in frustration. He slammed the staff against the nearest cow carcass and instantly the meat turned to stone. A wave of petrifaction spread from carcass to carcass until the rack became so heavy it collapsed. Half a dozen granite cows broke to pieces.
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