“Here!” he shouted back, wading a few feet into the shallows. “I’ve got Sully!”
The two beams of light continued down the stairs carved beside the waterfall, and slowly he began to make out the shapes behind them. Jada and Henriksen had managed to defeat the three attackers who had come at them on the plateau with Sully and Ian Welch. One of them had just floated by in the river, dead or dying, and Drake figured the other two were probably dead as well, as was Welch.
“How deep is it?” Henriksen called. “Can we cross?”
Drake thought about that. At its deepest, would Jada’s feet reach the bottom?
“I don’t know. The current’s pretty strong!”
When Jada and Henriksen reached the bottom of the steps, standing on the rocky shelf on the opposite bank of the river, they began to scan the lower cavern with their flashlights, and Drake got a much better idea of his surroundings. The blossoms he still thought of as cave hellebore grew all over the walls on vines and in the moss. Where nothing grew, the cavern walls were carved with octagons, flowers etched inside of them, and ancient Chinese symbols had been painted and repainted over centuries.
“Nate, look!” Jada called, flashing her light on something at the end of the cavern, where the river flowed into the rock face.
It took a second for him to realize that the stony edges that glinted in the light were steps. He frowned, then started along the rock shelf on the riverbank, pacing their progress on the other side. As they searched with their flashlights, Drake saw the steps on his side as well and ran toward them. He passed high, rounded tunnel mouths but could see nothing but deeper darkness inside as he hurried by, and in seconds he had reached the bottom of those steps.
“There’s a bridge!” he called to them, amazed at the way the solid rock above where the river left the cavern had been cut away to form a crossing above the water.
Jada and Henriksen picked up their pace. Drake hesitated. He’d left Sully on the bank and still could make out the silhouette of the man lying in the dark. He went up the half dozen steps to the bridge but halted there. As Jada and Henriksen hurried toward their side of the bridge, Drake studied the tunnel mouths on the other side. Jada barely spared them a glance, but Henriksen slowed and shone his light inside as he went past, searching for the worship chamber they all expected to find.
As Henriksen continued, it seems for a moment that the illumination from his flashlight remained behind in the last of the tunnels. Drake blinked, staring at the phenomenon, and then realized the light inside the mouth of that tunnel was moving, jittering and swinging and growing brighter.
Company, he thought. He was about to shout to the others when staccato gunfire came from the tunnel, muffled but echoing out into the vast waterfall cavern. Drake flinched before he realized that whoever was coming wasn’t shooting at him, Jada, or Henriksen.
Jada turned, pausing on the steps on the other side of the bridge.
“Run!” Drake shouted, racing toward her over the rushing river.
Henriksen did the running for her, linking arms with her and sweeping her along as he bolted toward Drake. They both still had their flashlights and guns out, and it made for an awkward flight, lights bobbing and legs almost becoming tangled.
More gunshots rang out, and then the first of the mercenaries came hurtling out of the tunnel mouth, twisting around to cover the others with both light and weapon. They poured from the labyrinth and into the cavern; Drake counted five, including Olivia, Massarsky, and Garza, and when he saw the hooded men dart from the tunnel, hurling knives and what looked like small, sharpened metal rings, he knew the rest of their team must be dead.
“Go, go!” Jada yelled.
Drake already was turning back the way he’d come. The way Jada and Henriksen’s lights were bouncing, it was hard to make out the top of the stairs, and he had to go slowly. Henriksen had let Jada go, but now she nearly collided with Drake as they ran down the half dozen slippery steps to the rock shelf of the riverbank.
“I thought you were dead!” she said.
“So did I!”
“Don’t do it again!”
Drake had no snappy comeback. His focus was on the tunnel mouths on this side of the river.
“Jada!” he said, pointing. “Check those; see if any of them lead out of here. Olivia and her goons found another path to get into this cavern; there might be more than one way out.”
“I’m not going until I find the worship chamber!” Henriksen snapped.
Gunshots, and they all looked over to see a hooded woman with long black hair streaming beneath her hood drive a long blade through one of the mercenaries, momentum carrying them both into the river. But Olivia and the others were already at the base of the bridge. Drake knew she had spotted them—flashlights were dancing all over the cavern—but she had only three more thugs between her and certain death, and she was running like hell.
“You can do whatever the hell you want!” Drake snapped at Henriksen. “After you help me get Sully to cover!”
Henriksen blinked, but only once, and then they were running along the bank toward where Sully lay sprawled, still unconscious. They grabbed him under the arms as they heard Jada shouting their names and began to drag him toward her. She stood in the mouth of the tunnel closest to the waterfall, and they ran to join her, Sully’s boots trailing across the ground between them.
Back on the bridge, Massarsky, Garza, and a square-jawed black guy Drake thought was named Suarez were making a stand. They stood on the stone walkway above the river and shot the two hooded men who were out in the open on the riverbank. One or two more—perhaps only one or two more; it was impossible to tell—remained in the tunnel they had just vacated, but Massarsky and his people pinned them down. They couldn’t come out without being killed. Olivia stood behind Garza, gun in hand. Her blond hair was a tangled, dirty mess, and her face was etched with grim determination.
Olivia turned and looked right at Drake as he and Henriksen dragged Sully into the open tunnel. He could read the profanity on her lips. Then they were inside the tunnel and out of her sight, and she out of his.
Only when Drake turned to look for Jada did he see that the tunnel rounded a slight curve and then ended just ahead.
With three steps down into a worship chamber.
The octagonal altar sat in the center of the room. Drake felt himself go cold, a numb amazement spreading through him. They had found it. After all this, they were here.
He and Henriksen dragged Sully down the three steps, and then Henriksen let go. Drake had to catch Sully to keep him from crashing to the stone floor of the worship chamber as Henriksen raced around the room, shining his flashlight on the Chinese characters and the symbols and paintings all over the walls.
Jada already had rushed into the anteroom, the ritual preparation space that had been built next to the worship chamber, its design identical to that of the other labyrinths Daedalus had created. In every other way, Diyu was different from the first three labyrinths, but here at its heart, its origins echoed loudly.
Several more gunshots rang out, and then he heard Olivia shouting. He feared they were not going to be alone in the chamber much longer.
“The trigger!” he called to Jada. “Find the—”
“Already on it!” she replied, searching the corners of the anteroom with her flashlight. In the reflected illumination, he saw her eyes light up, and then she bent, pushing and then kicking at a stone block in the wall of the anteroom.
With a loud clunk of stone, the altar shifted a couple of inches. Jada had found the trigger.
Henriksen and Drake stood staring at the altar for a few seconds. On the ground, Sully began to groan and then move as he slowly came around. Drake had no idea which Sully would be waking up, the one he knew or the one the white hellebore poison had made.
He glanced at Jada. Regardless of her intentions toward the flower that had caused so many so much grief and suffering, he could see that she needed to know just as much as he did what they would find in the chamber below.
“Push!” Drake said, glancing at Henriksen.
In the short tunnel behind them, they could hear the footfalls and voices of Olivia and her trio of mercenary survivors. On the floor, Sully groaned louder, and in the most pissed-off, most graveled voice Drake had ever heard, he started muttering colorful curses about the Protectors of the Hidden Word and payback.
Henriksen threw himself against the octagonal altar, and Drake did the same thing; the whole thing slid back with a rumble of stone on stone.
The first thing Drake noticed about the darkness yawning below was the nauseating stink that wafted up at them. Then he saw two yellow eyes gleaming against the black and heard the bestial snarl that grew into a roar as the Minotaur thundered up the steps, slavering and reaching for Henriksen’s throat.
Drake had no gun. He threw the hardest punch he had in him, aiming for the vulnerable muscle cluster under the Minotaur’s arm. He felt his knuckles crunch on impact, and pain shot up his arm as he swore and reeled back. As the Minotaur closed one hand around Henriksen’s throat, it twisted and snarled at Drake. Jada shone her flashlight into its eyes, and it flinched, startled.
Henriksen shot it twice in the chest, and the human monstrosity rocked with the bullets, relaxing its grip enough for Henriksen to shake free. The Minotaur looked down at the holes in its chest, blood weeping and then spilling from the wounds, and Drake had a better look at its face and head. There could be no doubt that this was a man, deformed and hideous to behold but no less human for it. A light coat of hair covered even his cheeks, and ridges of what looked like bone were visible through the hair, but the horns on top of his head were those of an animal, clamped inside a frame of tarnished gold and held there with leather straps. The beast had no clothes, and the matted hair that covered its body had begun to thin in places. It looked almost sickly.
But the bullets had not stopped it.
A clatter of footsteps came from behind Drake, and he heard Garza swearing.
“Son of a bitch!” Suarez yelled.
Massarsky grabbed Olivia and shoved her behind him even as Garza lifted her weapon, taking aim.
“Get clear of that thing!” Garza shouted.
Drake didn’t have to be told twice. The single glance the Minotaur had given him had chilled his bones, so now he grabbed Jada and backpedaled with her into the wall. Henriksen backed up as well, and Drake wondered why he hadn’t kept shooting. He had his weapon leveled at the Minotaur, but it was almost as if now that its attention was elsewhere, he had no interest in destroying it.
Sully had risen unsteadily, and now he wavered on his feet, half blocking Garza’s aim.
“Get down!” Garza shouted.
“Just shoot!” Olivia screamed at her. “Kill him, too! You’re going to kill them all anyway; just shoot through the bastard!”
The Minotaur roared, batting at the flashlight beams that blinded it for a moment, but the way it twisted, gaze narrowing, Drake thought it had zeroed in on Olivia’s shrill voice, as if it recognized that she was giving the orders. And why not? Once upon a time, it had been just a man.
It barreled toward Olivia despite the others in the way. Sully dived from its path, dropping wearily to his knees as the Minotaur continued past. Garza pulled the trigger, bullets chipping the walls, the echo of the semiautomatic fire assaulting their ears. Three bullets stitched the Minotaur’s hip and arm and shoulder, and it screamed in pain, but it was inhumanly fast and changed direction in an instant.
Garza’s weapon clicked on empty, dry-firing, the clip out of bullets. She might have had another, but her time had run out. Her eyes went wide as the Minotaur reached for her, grabbing her head and giving it a savage twist. The dry snap of breaking bone was like a whip crack in the worship chamber.
“Come on, kid,” Sully said, grabbing Drake’s shoulder, half for support and half to get him moving.
Drake turned and saw that Henriksen already had started down through the secret passage beneath the altar. He slapped Sully’s back and pointed, then called to Jada, and the three of them were following fast. Gunfire ripped the air behind them, and Drake heard the sound of bullets punching through flesh. This time when the Minotaur roared, it came out as a scream, but then they left the sounds of violence behind, descending into the heart of the fourth labyrinth at long last.
In the shadows, with only Henriksen and Jada’s flashlights to guide them, they found the corridor leading from the bottom of the steps. The heavy, musky stink of the Minotaur seemed to coat the walls and floor, so strong that Drake scowled in disgust.
Sully stumbled a bit, and Drake looked at him, still wary of the way the protectors had toyed with his mind and still feeling the bruising on his neck from Sully trying to strangle him. He was alive, and the relief of that still felt like victory, but Drake didn’t want to celebrate just yet.
Then Sully tripped and would have fallen if Drake hadn’t caught him. He ducked under Sully’s arm, helping him stay balanced as they moved down the corridor. Under his breath, Sully grunted something that might have been words.
“What was that?” Drake asked.
“You deaf?” Sully rasped. “I said it smells like your laundry down here.”
Drake blinked in surprise, and then a smile spread across his face. “Glad to have you back, old man.”
Jada caught up to them, then, and they had to stop in the corridor as she threw her arms around Sully. Drake backed away to give them a moment, and for several long seconds they just held each other, Jada’s shoulders trembling with emotion as she buried her face in the crook of Sully’s neck.
“I’m so glad you’re not dead,” she murmured into the collar of his shirt.
“You and me both, darlin’,” Sully replied.
“Look at this,” Henriksen said.
Drake glanced up and saw Henriksen shining his flashlight through an open side passage. When Drake looked inside, he saw a warren of tunnels as well as an opening that seemed to lead into a kind of living space decorated with crude wall paintings that looked as if they’d been made in blood. The stink of filth and death was powerful, and Drake knew it must be where the Minotaur slept.
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