The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 11: I SET MYSELF ON FIRE

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Chapter 11: I SET MYSELF ON FIRE

I thought we’d lost the spider until Tyson heard a faint pinging sound. We made a few turns, backtracked a few times, and eventually found the spider banging its tiny head on a metal door. 

  The door looked like one of those old-fashioned submarine hatches—oval, with metal rivets around the edges and a wheel for a doorknob. Where the portal should’ve been was a big brassplaque, green with age, with a Greek ?ta inscribed in the middle. 

  We all looked at each other. 

  “Ready to meet Hephaestus?” Grover said nervously. 

  “No,” I admitted. 

  “Yes!” Tyson said gleefully, and he turned the wheel. 

  As soon as the door opened, the spider scuttled inside with Tyson right behind it. The rest of us followed, not quite as anxious. 

  The room was enormous. It looked like a mechanic’s garage, with several hydraulic lifts. Some had cars on them, but others had stranger things: a bronze hippalektryon with its horse head off and a bunch of wires hanging out its rooster tail, a metal lion that seemed to be hooked up to a battery charger, and a Greek war chariot made entirely of flames. 

  Smaller projects cluttered a dozen worktables. Tools hung along the walls. Each had its own outline on a Peg-Board, but nothing seemed to be in the right place. The hammer was over the screwdriver place. The staple gun was where the hacksaw was supposed to go. 

  Under the nearest hydraulic lift, which was holding a ’98 Toyota Corolla, a pair of legs stuck out—the lower half of a huge man in grubby gray pants and shoes even bigger than Tyson’s. one leg was in a metal brace. 

  The spider scuttled straight under the car, and the sounds of banging stopped. 

  “Well, well,” a deep voice boomed from under the Corolla. “What have we here?”

  The mechanic pushed out on a back trolley and sat up. I’d seen Hephaestus once before, briefly on Olympus, so I thought I was prepared, but his appearance made me gulp. 

  I guess he’d cleaned up when I saw him on Olympus, or used magic to make his form seem a little less hideous. Here in his own workshop, he apparently didn’t care how he looked. He work a jumpsuit smeared with oil and grime. Hephaestus, was embroidered over the chest pocket. His leg creaked and clicked in its metal brace as he stood, and his left shoulder was lower than his right, so he seemed to be leaning even when he was standing up straight. His head was misshapen and bulging. He wore a permanent scowl. His black beard smoked and hissed. Every once in a while a small wildfire would erupt in his whiskers then die out. His hands were the size of catcher’s mitts, but he handled the spider with amazing skill. He disassembled it in two seconds, then put it back together. 

  “There,” he muttered to himself. “Much better. ”

  The spider did a happy flip in his palm, shot a metallic web at the ceiling, and went swinging away. 

  Hephaestus glowered up at us. “I didn’t make you, did I?”

  “Uh,” Annabeth said, “no, sir. ”

  “Good,” the god grumbled. “Shoddy workmanship. ”

  He studied Annabeth and me. “Half-bloods,” he grunted. “Could be automatons, of course, but probably not. ”

  “We’ve met, sir,” I told him. 

  “Have we?” the god asked absently. I got the feeling he didn’t care one way or the other. he was just trying to figure out how my jaw worked, whether it was a hinge or a lever or what. “Well then, if I didn’t smash you to a pulp the first time we met, I suppose I won’t have to do it now. ”

  He looked at Grover and frowned. “Satyr. ” Then he looked at Tyson, and his eyes twinkled. “Well, a Cyclops. Good, good. What are you doing traveling with this lot?”

  “Uh…” said Tyson, staring in wonder at the god. 

  “Yes, well said,” Hephaestus agreed. “So, there’d better be a good reason you’re disturbing me. The suspension on this Corolla is no small matter, you know. ”

  “Sir,” Annabeth said hesitantly, “we’re looking for Daedalus. We thought—”

  “Daedalus?” the god roared. “You want that old scoundrel? You dare to seek him out!”

  His beard burst into flames and his black eyes glowed. 

  “Uh, yes, sir, please,” Annabeth said. 

  “Humph. You’re wasting your time. ” He frowned at something on his worktable and limped over to it. He picked up a lump of springs and metal plates and tinkered with them. In a few seconds he was holding a bronze and silver falcon. It spread its metal wings, blinked its obsidian eyes, and flew around the room. 

  Tyson laughed and clapped his hands. The bird landed on Tyson’s shoulder and nipped his ear affectionately. 

  Hephaestus regarded him. The god’s scowl didn’t change, but I thought I saw a kinder twinkle in his eyes. “I sense you have something to tell me, Cyclops. ”

  Tyson’s smile faded. “Y-yes, lord. We met a Hundred-Handed One. ”

  Hephaestus nodded, looking unsurprised. “Briares?”

  “Yes. He—he was scared. He would not help us. ”

  “And that bothered you. ”

  “Yes!” Tyson’s voice wavered. “Briares should be strong! He is older and greater than Cyclopes. But he ran away. ”

  Hephaestus grunted. “There was a time I admired the Hundred-Handed Ones. Back in the days of the first war. But people, monsters, even gods change, young Cyclops. You can’t trust ’em. Look at my loving mother, Hera. You met her, didn’t you? She’ll smile to your face and talk about how important family is, eh? Didn’t stop her from pitching me off Mount Olympus when she saw my ugly face. ”

“But I thought Zeus did that to you,” I said. 

  Hephaestus cleared his throat and spat into a bronze spittoon. He snapped his fingers, and the robotic falcon flew back to the worktable. 

  “Mother likes telling that version of the story,” he grumbled. “Makes her seem more likeable, doesn’t it? Blaming it all on my dad. The truth is, my mother likes families, but she likes a certain kind of family. Perfect families. She took one look at me and…well, I don’t fit the image, do I?”

  He pulled a feather from the falcon’s back, and the whole automaton fell apart. 

  “Believe me, young Cyclops,” Hephaestus said, “you can’t trust others. All you can trust is the work of your own hands. ”

  It seemed like a pretty lonely way to live. Plus, I didn’t exactly trust the work of Hephaestus. One time in Denver, his mechanical spiders had almost killed Annabeth and me. And last year, it had been a defective Talos statue that cost Bianca her life—another one of Hephaestus’s little projects. 

  He focused on me and narrowed his eyes, as if he were reading my thoughts. “Oh, this one doesn’t like me,” he mused. “No worries, I’m used to that. What would you ask of me, little demigod?”

  “We told you,” I said. “We need to find Daedalus. There’s this guy, Luke, and he’s working for Kronos. He’s trying to find a way to navigate the Labyrinth so he can invade our camp. If we don’t get to Daedalus first—”

  “And I told you, boy. Looking for Daedalus is a waste of time. He won’t help you. ”

  “Why not?”

  Hephaestus shrugged. “Some of us get thrown off mountainsides. Some of us…the way we learn not to trust people is more painful. Ask me for gold. Or a flaming sword. Or a magical steed. These I can grant you easily. But a way to Daedalus? That’s an expensive favor. ”

  “You know where he is, then,” Annabeth pressed. 

  “It isn’t wise to go looking, girl. ”

  “My mother says looking is the nature of wisdom. ”

  Hephaestus narrowed his eyes. “Who’s your mother, then?”

  “Athena. ”

  “Figures. ” He sighed. “Fine goddess, Athena. A shame she pledged never to marry. All right, half-blood. I can tell you what you want to know. But there is a price. I need a favor done. 

  “Name it,” Annabeth said. 

  Hephaestus actually laughed—a booming sound like a huge bellows stoking a fire. “You heroes,” he said, “always making rash promises. How refreshing!”

  He pressed a button on his workbench, and metal shutters opened along the wall. It was either a huge window or a big-screen TV, I couldn’t tell which. We were looking at a gray mountain ringed in forests. It must’ve been a volcano, because smoke rose from its crest. 

  “One of my forges,” Hephaestus said. “I have many, but that used to be my favorite. ”

  “That’s Mount St. Helens,” Grover said. “Great forests around there. ”

  “You’ve been there?” I asked. 

  “Looking for…you know, Pan. ”

  “Wait,” Annabeth said, looking at Hephaestus. “You said it used to be your favorite. What happened?”

  Hephaestus scratched his smoldering beard. “Well, that’s where the monster Typhon is trapped, you know. Used to be under Mount Etna, but when we moved to America, his force got pinned under Mount St. Helens instead. Great source of fire, but a bit dangerous. There’s always a chance he will escape. Lots of eruptions these days, smoldering all the time. He’s restless with the Titan rebellion. ”

  “What do you want us to do?” I said, “Fight him?”

  Hephaestus snorted. “That would be suicide. The gods themselves ran from Typhon when he was free. No, pray you never have to see him, much less fight him. But lately I have sensed intruders in my mountain. Someone or something is using my forges. When I go there, it is empty, but I can tell it is being used. They sense me coming, and they disappear. I send my automatons to investigate, but they do not return. Something…ancient is there. Evil. I want to know who dates invade my territory, and if they mean to loose Typhon. ”

  “You want us to find out who it is,” I said. 

  “Aye,” Hephaestus said. “Go there. They may not sense you coming. You are not gods. ”

  “Glad you noticed,” I muttered. 

  “Go and find out what you can,” Hephaestus said. “Report back to me, and I will tell you what you need to know about Daedalus. ”

  “All right,” Annabeth said. “How do we get there?”

  Hephaestus clapped his hands. The spider came swinging down from the rafters. Annabeth flinched when it landed at her feet. 

  “My creation will show you the way,” Hephaestus said. “It is not far through the Labyrinth. And try to stay alive, will you? Humans are much more fragile than automatons. ”

  ***

  We were doing okay until we hit the tree roots. The spider raced along and we were keeping up, but then we spotted a tunnel off to the side that was dug from raw earth, and wrapped in thick roots. Grover stopped dead in his tracks. 

  “What is it?” I said. 

  He didn’t move. He stared openmouthed into the dark tunnel. His curly hair rustled in the breeze. 

  “Come on!” Annabeth said. “We have to keep moving. ”

  “This is the way,” Grover muttered in awe. “This is it. ”

  “What way?” I asked. “You mean…to Pan?”

  Grover looked at Tyson. “Don’t you smell it?”

  “Dirt,” Tyson said. “And plants. ”

  “Yes! This is the way. I’m sure of it!”

  Up ahead, the spider was getting farther down the stone corridor. A few more seconds and we’d lose it. 

  “Well come back,” Annabeth promised. “On our way back to Hephaestus. ”

  “The tunnel will be gone by then,” Grover said. “I have to follow it. A door like this won’t stay open!”

  “But we can’t,” Annabeth said. “The forges!”

  Grover looked at her sadly. “I have to, Annabeth. Don’t you understand?”

  She looked desperate, like she didn’t understand at all. The spider was almost out of sight. But I thought about my conversation with Grover last night, and I knew what we had to do. 

  “We’ll split up,” I said. 

  “No!” Annabeth said. “That’s way too dangerous. How will we ever find each other again? And Grover can’t go alone. ”

  Tyson put his hand on Grover’s shoulder. “I—I will go with him. ”

  I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. “Tyson, are you sure?”

  The big guy nodded. “Goat boy needs help. We will find the god person. I am not like Hephaestus. I trust friends. ”

  Grover took a deep breath. “Percy, we’ll find each other again. We’ve still got the empathy link. I just…have to. ”

  I didn’t blame him. This was his life’s goal. If he didn’t find Pan on this journey, the council would never give him another chance. 

  “I hope you’re right,” I said. 

  “I know I am. ” I’d never heard him sound so confident about anything, except maybe that cheese enchiladas were better than chicken enchiladas. 

  “Be careful,” I told him. Then I looked at Tyson. He gulped back a sob and gave me a hug that just about squeezed my eyes out of their sockets. Then he and Grover disappeared through the tunnel of tree roots and were lost in the darkness. 

  “This is bad,” Annabeth said. “Splitting up is a really, really bad idea. ”

  “We’ll see them again,” I said, trying to sound confident. “Now come on. The spider is getting away!”

  ***

  It wasn’t long before the tunnel started to get hot. 

  The stone walls glowed. The air felt as if we were walking through an oven. The tunnel sloped down and I could hear a loud roar, like a river of metal. The spider skittered along, with Annabeth right behind. 

  “Hey, wait up,” I called to her. 

  She glanced back at me. “Yeah?”

  “Something Hephaestus said back there…about Athena. ”

  “She swore never to marry,” Annabeth said. “Like Artemis and Hestia. She’s one of the maiden goddesses. ”

  I blinked. I’d never heard that about Athena before. “But then—”

  “How come she has demigod children?”

  I nodded. I was probably blushing, but hopefully it was so hot anyway that Annabeth didn’t notice. 

  “Percy, you know how Athena was born?”

  “She sprung from the head of Zeus in full battle armor or something. ”

  “Exactly. She wasn’t born in the normal way. She was literally born from thoughts. Her children are born the same way. When Athena falls in love with a mortal man, it’s purely intellectual, the way she loved Odysseus in the old stories. It’s a meeting of minds. She would tell you that’s the purest kind of love. ”

  “So your dad and Athena…so you weren’t…”

  “I was a brain child,” Annabeth said. “Literally. Children of Athena are sprung from the divine thoughts of our mother and the mortal ingenuity of our father. We are supposed to be a gift, a blessing from Athena on the men she favors. ”

  “But—”

  “Percy, the spider’s getting away. Do you really want me to explain the exact details of how I was born?”

  “Um…no. That’s okay. ”

  She smirked. “I thought not. ” And she ran ahead. I followed, but I wasn’t sure I would ever look at Annabeth the same way again. I decided some things were better left as mysteries. 

  The roaring got louder. After another half mile or so, we emerged in a cavern the size of a Super Bowl stadium. Our spider escort stopped and curled into a ball. We had arrived at the forge of Hephaestus. 

  There was no floor, just bubbling lava hundreds of feet below. We stood on a rock ridge that circled the cavern. A network of metal bridges spanned across it. At the center was a huge platform with all sorts of machines, cauldrons, forges, and the largest anvil I’d ever seen—a block of iron the size of a house. Creatures moved around the platform—several strange, dark shapes, but they were too far away to make out details. 

  Annabeth picked up the metal spider and slipped it into her pocket. “I can. Wait here. ”

  “Hold it!” I said, but before I could argue, she put on her Yankees cap and turned invisible. 

  I didn’t dare call after her, but I didn’t like the idea of her approaching the forge on her own. If those things out there could sense a god coming, would Annabeth be safe?

  I looked back at the Labyrinth tunnel. I missed Grover and Tyson already. Finally I decided I couldn’t stay put. I crept along the outer rim of the lava lake, hoping I could get a better angle to see what was happening in the middle. 

  The heat was horrible. Geryon’s ranch had been a winter wonderland compared to this. In no time I was drenched with sweat. My eyes stung from the smoke. I moved along, trying to keep away from the edge, until I found my way blocked by a cart on metal wheels, like the kind they sue in mine shafts. I lifted up the tarp and found it was half full of scrap metal. I was about to squeeze my way around it when I heard voices from up ahead, probably from a side tunnel.

  “Bring it in?” one asked. 

  “Yeah,” another said. “Movie’s just about done. ”

  I panicked. I didn’t have time to back up. There was nowhere to hide except…the cart. I scrambled inside and pulled the tarp over me, hoping no one had seen me. I curled my fingers around Riptide, just in case I had to fight. 

  The cart lurched forward. 

  “Oi,” a gruff voice said. “Thing weighs a ton. ”

  “It’s celestial bronze,” the other said. “What did you expect?”

  I got pulled along. We turned a corner, and from the sound of the wheels echoing against the walls I guessed we had passed down a tunnel and into a smaller room. Hopefully I was not about to be dumped into a smelting pot. If they started to tip me over, I’d have to fight my way out quick. I heard lots of talking, chattering voices that didn’t sound human—somewhere between a seal’s bark and a dog’s growl. There were other sounds too—like an old-fashioned film projector and a tinny voice narrating. 

  “Just set it in the back,” a new voice ordered from across the room. “Now, younglings, please attend to the film. There will be time for questions afterward. ”

  The voices quieted down, and I could hear the film. 

  As a young sea demon matures, the narrator said, changes happen in the monster’s body. You may notice your fangs getting longer and you may have a sudden desire to devour human beings. These changes are perfectly normal and happen to all young monsters. 

  Excited snarling filled the room. The teacher—I guess it must have been a teacher—told the younglings to be quiet, and the film continued. I didn’t understand most of it, and I didn’t dare look. The film kept talking about growth spurts and acne problems caused by working in the forges, and proper flipper hygiene, and finally it was over. 

  “Now, younglings,” the instructor said, “what is the proper name of our kind?”

  “Sea demons!” one of them barked. 

  “No. Anyone else?”

  “Telekhines!” another monster growled. 

  “Very good,” the instructor said. “And why are we here?”

  “Revenge!” several shouted. 

  “Yes, yes, but why?”

  “Zeus is evil!” one monster said. “He cast us into Tartarus just because we used magic!”

  “Indeed,” the instructor said. “After we made so many of the gods’ finest weapons. The trident of Poseidon, for one. And of course—we made the greatest weapon of the Titans! Nevertheless, Zeus cast us away and relied on those fumbling Cyclopes. That is why we are taking over the forges of the usurper Hephaestus. And soon we will control the undersea furnaces, our ancestral home!”

  I clutched my pen-sword. These snarling things had created Poseidon’s trident? What were they talking about? I’d never even heard of a telekhine. 

  “And so, younglings,” the instructor continued, “who do we serve?”

  “Kronos!” they shouted. 

  “And when you grow to be big telekhines, will you make weapons for the army?”

  “Yes!”

  “Excellent. Now, we’ve brought in some scraps for you to practice with. Let’s see how ingenious you are. ”

  There was a rush of movement and excited voices coming toward the cart. I got ready to uncap Riptide. The tarp was thrown back. I jumped up, my bronze sword springing to life in my hands, and found myself facing a bunch of…dogs. 

  Well, their faces were dogs, anyway, with black snouts, brown eyes, and pointy ears. Their bodies were sleek and black like sea mammals, with stubby legs that were half flipper, half foot, and humanlike hands with sharp claws. If you blended together a kid, a Doberman pinscher, and a sea lion, you’d get something like what I was looking at. 

  “A demigod!” one snarled. 

  “Eat it!” yelled another. 

  But that’s as far as they got before I slashed a wide arc with Riptide and vaporized the entire front row of monsters. 

  “Back off!” I yelled at the rest, trying to sound fierce. Behind them stood their instructor—a six-foot-tall telekhine with Doberman fangs snarling at me. I did my best to stare him down. 

  “New lesson, class,” I announced. “Most monsters will vaporize when sliced with a celestial bronze sword. This change is perfectly normal, and will happen to you right now if you don’t BACK OFF!”

  To my surprise, it worked. The monsters backed up, but there were at least twenty of them. My fear factor wasn’t going to last long. 

  I jumped out of the cart, yelled, “CLASS DISMISSED!” and ran for the exit. 

  The monsters charged after me, barking and growling. I hoped they couldn’t run very fast with those stubby little legs and flippers, but they waddled along pretty well. Thank the gods there was a door in the tunnel leading out to the main cavern. I slammed it shut and turned the wheel handle to lock it, but I doubted it would keep them long. 

  I didn’t know what to do. Annabeth was out here somewhere, invisible. Our chance for a subtle reconnaissance mission had been blown. I ran toward the platform at the center of the lava lake. 

  ***

  “Annabeth!” I yelled. 

  “Shhh!” an invisible hand clamped over my mouth and wrestled me down behind a big bronze cauldron. “You want to get us killed?”

  I found her head and took off her Yankees cap. She shimmered into existence in front of me, scowling, her face streaked with ash and grime. “Percy, what is your problem?”

  “We’re going to have company!” I explained quickly about the monster orientation class. Her eyes widened. 

  “So that’s what they are,” she said. “Telekhines. I should’ve known. And they’re making…Well, look. ”

  We peeked over the cauldron. In the center of the platform stood four sea demons, but these were fully grown, at least eight feet tall. Their black skin glistened in the firelight as they worked, sparks flying as they took turns hammering on a long piece of glowing hot metal. 

  “The blade is almost complete,” one said. “It needs another cooling in blood to fuse the metals. ”

  “Aye,” a second said. “It shall be even sharper than before. ”

  “What is that?” I whispered. 

  Annabeth shook her head. “They keep talking about fusing metals. I wonder—”

  “They were talking about the greatest Titan weapon,” I said. “And they…they said they made my father’s trident. ”

  “The telekhines betrayed the gods,” Annabeth said. “They were practicing dark magic. I don’t know what, exactly, but Zeus banished them to Tartarus. ”

  “With Kronos. ”

  She nodded. “We have to get out—”

  No sooner had she said that than the door to the classroom exploded and young telekhines came pouring out. They stumbled over each other, trying to figure out which way to charge. 

  “Put your cap back on,” I said. “Get out!”

  “What?” Annabeth shrieked. “No! I’m not leaving you. ”

  “I’ve got a plan. I’ll distract them. You can use the metal spider—maybe it’ll lead you back to Hephaestus. You have to tell him what’s going on. ”

  “But you’ll be killed!”

  “I’ll be fine. Besides, we’ve got no choice. ”

  Annabeth glared at me like she was going to punch me. And then she did something that surprised me even more. She kissed me. 

  “Be careful, Seaweed Brain. ” She put on her hat and vanished. 

  I probably would’ve sat there for the rest of the day, staring at the lava and trying to remember what my name was, but the sea demons jarred me back to reality. 

  “There!” one yelled. The entire class of telekhines charged across the bridge toward me. I ran for the middle of the platform, surprising the four elder sea demons so much they dropped the red-hot blade. It was about six feet long and curved like a crescent moon. I’d seen a lot of terrifying things, but this unfinished whatever-it-was scared me worse. 

  The elder demons got over their surprise quickly. There were four ramps leading off the platform, and before I could dash in any direction, each of them had covered an exit. 

  The tallest one snarled. “What do we have here? A son of Poseidon?”

  “Yes,” another growled. “I can smell the sea in his blood. ”

  I raised Riptide. My heart was pounding. 

  “Strike down one of us, demigod,” the third demon said, “and the rest of us shall tear you to shreds. Your father betrayed us. He took our gift and said nothing as we were cast into the pit. We will see him sliced to pieces. He and all the other Olympians. ”

  I wished I had a plan. I wished I hadn’t been lying to Annabeth. I’d wanted her to get out safely, and I hoped she’d been sensible enough to do it. But now it was dawning on me that this might be the place I would die. No prophecies for me. I would get overrun in the heart of a volcano by a pack of dog-faced sea-lion people. The young telekhines were at the platform now, too, snarling and waiting to see how their four elders would deal with me. 

  I felt something burning against the side of my leg. The ice whistle in my pocket was getting colder. If I ever needed help, now was the time. But I hesitated. I didn’t trust Quintus’s gift. 

  Before I could make up my mind, the tallest telekhine said, “Let us see how strong he is. Let us see how long it takes him to burn!”

  He scooped some lava out of the nearest furnace. It set his fingers ablaze, but this didn’t seem to bother him at all. The other elder telekhines did the same. The first one threw a glop of molten rock at me and set my pants on fire. Two more splattered across my chest. I dropped my sword in sheer terror and swatted at my clothes. Fire was engulfing me. Strangely, it felt only warm at first, but it was getting hotter by the instant. 

  “Your father’s nature protects you,” one said. “Makes you hard to burn. But not impossible, youngling. Not impossible. ”

  They threw more lava at me, and I remember screaming. My whole body was on fire. The pain was worse than anything I’d ever felt. I was being consumed. I crumpled to the metal floor and heard the sea demon children howling in delight. 

  Then I remembered the voice of the river naiad at the ranch: The water is within me. 

  I needed the sea. I felt a tugging sensation in my gut, but I had nothing around to help me. Not a faucet or a river. Not even a petrified seashell this time. And besides, the last time I’d unleashed my power at the stables, there’d been that scary moment when it had almost gotten away from me. 

  I had no choice. I called to the sea. I reached inside myself and remembered the waves and the currents, the endless power of the ocean. And I let it loose in one horrible scream. 

  Afterward, I could never describe what happened. An explosion, a tidal wave, a whirlwind of power simultaneously catching me up and blasting me downward into the lava. Fire and water collided, superheated steam, and I shot upward from the heart of the volcano in a huge explosion, just one piece of flotsam thrown free by a million pounds of pressure. The last thing I remember before losing conscious was flying, flying so high Zeus would never have forgiven me, and then beginning to fall, smoke and fire and water streaming from me. I was a comet hurtling toward the earth. 

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