“The syncopator took me a week to make,” he said. “And yes, I made a spare. I always do. But that’s lost too. They were both in Buford’s drawers.”
“Who is Buford?” Piper asked. “And why are you storing syncopators in his drawers?”
Leo rolled his eyes. “Buford is a table.”
“A table,” Jason repeated. “Named Buford.”
“Yes, a table.” Leo wondered if his friends were losing their hearing. “A magic walking table. About three feet high, mahogany top, bronze base, three movable legs. I saved him from one of the supply closets and got him in working order. He’s just like the tables my dad has in his workshop. Awesome helper; carries all my important machine parts.”
“So what happened to him?” Piper asked.
Leo felt a lump rising in his throat. The guilt was almost too much. “I—I got careless. I polished him with Windex, and…he ran away.”
Jason looked like he was trying to figure out an equation. “Let me get this straight. Your table ran away…because you polished him with Windex.”
“I know, I’m an idiot!” Leo moaned. “A brilliant idiot, but still an idiot. Buford hates being polished with Windex. It has to be Lemon Pledge with extra-moisturizing formula. I was distracted. I thought maybe just once he wouldn’t notice. Then I turned around for a while to install the combustion tubes, and when I looked for Buford…”
Leo pointed to the giant open doors of the bunker. “He was gone. Little trail of oil and bolts leading outside. He could be anywhere by now, and he’s got both syncopators!”
Piper glanced at the digital clock. “So…we have exactly one hour to find your runaway table, get back your synco-whatsit, and install it in this engine, or the Argo II explodes, destroying Bunker Nine and most of the woods.”
“Basically,” Leo said.
Jason frowned. “We should alert the other campers. We might have to evacuate them.”
“No!” Leo’s voice broke. “Look, the explosion won’t destroy the whole camp. Just the woods. I’m pretty sure. Like sixty-five percent sure.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Piper muttered.
“Besides,” Leo said, “we don’t have time, and I—I can’t tell the others. If they find out how badly I’ve messed up…”
Jason and Piper looked at each other. The clock display changed to 59:00.
“Fine,” Jason said. “But we’d better hurry.”
As they trudged through the woods, the sun started to set. The camp’s weather was magically controlled, so it wasn’t freezing and snowing like it was in the rest of Long Island, but still Leo could tell it was late December. In the shadows of the huge oak trees, the air was cold and damp. The mossy ground squished under their feet.
Leo was tempted to summon fire in his hand. He’d gotten better at that since coming to camp, but he knew the nature spirits in the woods didn’t like fire. He didn’t want to be yelled at by any more dryads.
Christmas Eve. Leo couldn’t believe it was here already. He’d been working so hard in Bunker 9, he’d hardly noticed the weeks passing. Usually around the holidays he would be goofing around, pranking his friends, dressing up like Taco Claus (his personal invention), and leaving carne asada tacos in people’s socks and sleeping bags, or pouring eggnog down his friends’ shirts, or making up inappropriate lyrics to Christmas carols. This year, he was all serious and hardworking. Any teacher he’d ever had would laugh if Leo described himself that way.
Thing was, Leo had never cared so much about a project before. The Argo II had to be ready by June if they were going to start their big quest on time. And while June seemed a long way away, Leo knew he’d barely have time to make the deadline. Even with the entire Hephaestus cabin helping him, constructing a magic flying warship was a huge task. It made launching a NASA spaceship look easy. They’d had so many setbacks, but all Leo could think about was getting the ship finished. It would be his masterpiece.
Also, he wanted to get the dragon figurehead installed. He missed his old friend Festus, who’d literally crashed and burned on their last quest. Even if Festus would never be the same again, Leo hoped he could reactivate his brain by using the ship’s engines. If Leo could give Festus a second life, he wouldn’t feel so bad.
But none of that would happen if the combustion chamber exploded. It would be game over. No ship. No Festus. No quest. Leo would have no one to blame but himself. He really hated Windex.
Jason knelt at the banks of a stream. He pointed to some marks in the mud. “Do those look like table tracks?”
“Or a raccoon,” Leo suggested.
Jason frowned. “With no toes?”
“Piper?” Leo asked. “What do you think?”
She sighed. “Just because I’m Native American doesn’t mean I can track furniture through the wilderness.” She deepened her voice: “‘Yes, kemosabe. A three-legged table passed this way an hour ago.’ Heck, I don’t know.”
“Okay, jeez,” Leo said.
Piper was half Cherokee, half Greek goddess. Some days it was hard to tell which side of her family she was more sensitive about.
“It’s probably a table,” Jason decided. “Which means Buford went across this stream.”
Suddenly the water gurgled. A girl in a shimmering blue dress rose to the surface. She had stringy green hair, blue lips, and pale skin, so she looked like a drowning victim. Her eyes were wide with alarm.
“Could you be any louder?” she hissed. “They’ll hear you!”
Leo blinked. He never got used to this—nature spirits just popping up out of trees and streams and whatnot.
“Are you a naiad?” he asked.
“Shh! They’ll kill us all! They’re right over there!” She pointed behind her, into the trees on the other side of the stream. Unfortunately, that was the direction Buford seemed to have walked.
“Okay,” Piper said gently, kneeling next to the water. “We appreciate the warning. What’s your name?”
The naiad looked like she wanted to bolt, but Piper’s voice was hard to resist.
“Brooke,” the blue girl said reluctantly.
“Brooke the brook?” Jason asked.
Piper swatted his leg. “Okay, Brooke. I’m Piper. We won’t let anyone harm you. Just tell us who you’re afraid of.”
The naiad’s face became more agitated. The water boiled around her. “My crazy cousins. You can’t stop them. They’ll tear you apart. None of us is safe! Now go away. I have to hide!”
Brooke melted into water.
Piper stood. “Crazy cousins?” She frowned at Jason. “Any idea what she was talking about?”
Jason shook his head. “Maybe we should keep our voices down.”
Leo stared at the stream. He was trying to figure what was so horrible that it could tear apart a river spirit. How do you tear up water? Whatever it was, he didn’t want to meet it.
Yet he could see Buford’s tracks on the opposite bank—little square prints in the mud, leading in the direction the naiad had warned them about.
“We have to follow the trail, right?” he said, mostly to convince himself. “I mean…we’re heroes and stuff. We can handle whatever it is. Right?”
Jason drew his sword—a wicked Roman-style gladius with an Imperial gold blade. “Right. Of course.”
Piper unsheathed her dagger. She stared into the blade as if hoping Katoptris would show her a helpful vision. Sometimes the dagger did that. But if she saw anything important, she didn’t say.
“Crazy cousins,” she muttered. “Here we come.”
There was no more talking as they followed the table tracks deeper into the woods. The birds were silent. No monsters growled. It was as if all the other living creatures in the woods had been smart enough to leave.
Finally they came to a clearing the size of a mall parking lot. The sky overhead was heavy and gray. The grass was dry yellow, and the ground was scarred with pits and trenches as if someone had done some crazy driving with construction equipment. In the center of the clearing stood a pile of boulders about thirty feet tall.
“Oh,” Piper said. “This isn’t good.”
“Why?” Leo asked.
“It’s bad luck to be here,” Jason said. “This is the battle site.”
Leo scowled. “What battle?”
Piper raised her eyebrows. “How can you not know about it? The other campers talk about this place all the time.”
“Been a little busy,” Leo said.
He tried not to feel bitter about it, but he’d missed out on a lot of regular camp stuff—the trireme fights, the chariot races, flirting with the girls. That was the worst part. Leo finally had an “in” with the hottest girls at camp, since Piper was the senior counselor for Aphrodite cabin, and he was too busy for her to fix him up. Sad.
“The Battle of the Labyrinth.” Piper kept her voice down, but she explained to Leo how the pile of rocks used to be called Zeus’s Fist, back when it looked like something, not just a pile of rocks. There’d been an entrance to a magical labyrinth here, and a big army of monsters had come through it to invade camp. The campers won—obviously, since camp was still here—but it had been a hard battle. Several demigods had died. The clearing was still considered cursed.
“Great,” Leo grumbled. “Buford has to run to the most dangerous part of the woods. He couldn’t just, like, run to the beach or a burger shop.”
“Speaking of which…” Jason studied the ground. “How are we going to track him? There’s no trail here.”
Though Leo would’ve preferred to stay in the cover of the trees, he followed his friends into the clearing. They searched for table tracks, but as they made their way to the pile of boulders they found nothing. Leo pulled a watch from his tool belt and strapped it to his wrist. Roughly forty minutes until the big ka-boom.
“If I had more time,” he said, “I could make a tracking device, but—”
“Does Buford have a round tabletop?” Piper interrupted. “With little steam vents sticking up on one side?”
Leo stared at her. “How did you know?”
“Because he’s right over there.” She pointed.
Sure enough, Buford was waddling toward the far end of the clearing, steam puffing from his vents. As they watched, he disappeared into the trees.
“That was easy.” Jason started to follow, but Leo held him back.
The hairs on the back of Leo’s neck stood up. He wasn’t sure why. Then he realized he could hear voices from the woods on their left. “Someone’s coming!”
He pulled his friends behind the boulders.
Jason whispered, “Leo—”
A dozen barefoot girls skipped into the clearing. They were teenagers with tunic-style dresses of loose purple and red silk. Their hair was tangled with leaves, and most wore laurel wreaths. Some carried strange staffs that looked like torches. The girls laughed and swung each other around, tumbling in the grass and spinning like they were dizzy. They were all really gorgeous, but Leo wasn’t tempted to flirt.