The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 3: WE PLAY TAG WITH SCORPIONS

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Chapter 3: WE PLAY TAG WITH SCORPIONS

The next morning there was a lot of excitement at breakfast. 

  Apparently around three in the morning an Aethiopian drakon had been spotted at the borders of camp. I was so exhausted I slept right through the noise. The magical boundaries had kept the monster out, but it prowled the hills, looking for weak spots in our defenses, and it didn’t seem anxious to go away until Lee Fletcher from Apollo’s cabin led a couple of his siblings in pursuit. After a few dozen arrows lodged in the chinks of the drakon’s armor, it got the message and withdrew. 

  “It’s still out there,” Lee warned us during announcements. “Twenty arrows in its hide, and we just made it mad. The thing was thirty feet long and bright green. It’s eyes—” he shuddered. 

  “You did well, Lee,” Chiron patted him on the shoulder. “Everyone stay alert, but stay calm. This has happened before. ”

  “Aye,” Quintus said from the head table. “And it will happen again. More and more frequently. ”

  The campers murmured among themselves. 

  Everyone knew the rumors: Luke and his army of monsters were planning an invasion of the camp. Most of us expected it to happen this summer, but no one knew how or when. It didn’t help that our attendance was down. We only had about eighty campers. Three years ago, when I’d started, there had been more than a hundred. Some had died. Some had joined Luke. Some had just disappeared. 

  “This is a good reason for new war games, “Quintus continued, a glint in his eyes. “We’ll see how you all do with that tonight. ”

  “Yes…” Chiron said. “Well, enough announcements. Let us bless this meal and eat. ” He raised his goblet. “To the gods. ”

  We all raised our glasses and repeated the blessing. 

  Tyson and I took our plates to the bronze brazier and scraped a portion of our food into the flames. I hoped the gods liked raisin toast and Froot Loops. 

  “Poseidon,” I said. Then I whispered, “Help me with Nico, and Luke, and Grover’s problem…”

  There was so much to worry about I could’ve stood there all morning, but I headed back to the table. 

  Once everyone was eating, Chiron and Grover came over to visit. Grover was bleary-eyed. His shirt was inside out. He slid his plate onto the table and slumped next to me. 

  Tyson shifted uncomfortably. “I will go…um…polish my fish ponies. ”

  He lumbered off, leaving his breakfast half-eaten. 

  Chiron tried for a smile. He probably wanted to look reassuring, but in centaur form he towered over me, casting a shadow across the table. “Well, Percy, how did you sleep?”

  “Uh, fine. ” I wondered why he asked that. Was it possible he knew something about the weird Iris-message I’d gotten?

  “I brought Grover over,” Chiron said, “because I thought you two might want to, ah, discuss matters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Iris-messages to send. I’ll see you later in the day. ” He gave Grover a meaningful look, then trotted out of the pavilion. ”

  “What’s he talking about?” I asked Grover. 

  Grover chewed his eggs. I could tell he was distracted, because he bit the tines of his fork and chewed those down, too. “He wants you to convince me,” he mumbled. 

  Somebody else slid next to me on the bench: Annabeth. 

  “I’ll tell you what it’s about,” she said. “The Labyrinth. ”

  It was hard to concentrate on what she was saying, because everybody in the dining pavilion was stealing glances at us and whispering. And Annabeth was right next to me. I mean right next to me. 

  “You’re not supposed to be here,” I said. 

  “We need to talk,” she insisted. 

  “But the rules…”

  She knew as well as I did that campers weren’t allowed to switch tables. Satyrs were different. They weren’t really demigods. But the half-bloods had to sit with their cabins. I wasn’t even sure what the punishment was for switching tables. I’d never seen it happen. If Mr. D had been here, he probably would’ve strangled Annabeth with magical grapevines or something, but Mr. D wasn’t here. Chiron had already left the pavilion. Quintus looked over and raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t say anything. 

  “Look,” Annabeth said, “Grover is in trouble. There’s only one way we can figure to help him. It’s the Labyrinth. That’s what Clarisse and I have been investigating. ”

  I shifted my weight, trying to think clearly. “You mean the maze where they kept the Minotaur, back in the old days?”

  “Exactly,” Annabeth said. 

  “So…it’s not under the king’s palace in Crete anymore,” I guessed. “The Labyrinth is under some building in America. ”

  See? It only took me a few years to figure things out. I knew that important places moved around with Western Civilization, like Mount Olympus being over the Empire State building, and the Underworld entrance being in Los Angeles. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. 

  Annabeth rolled her eyes. “Under a building? Please, Percy. The Labyrinth is huge. It wouldn’t fit under a single city, much less a single building. ”

  I thought about my dream of Nico at the River Styx. “So…is the Labyrinth part of the Underworld?”

  “No. ” Annabeth frowned. “Well, there may be passages from the Labyrinth down into the Underworld. I’m not sure. But the Underworld is way, way down. The Labyrinth is right under the surface of the mortal world, kind of like a second skin. It’s been growing for thousands of years, lacing its way under Western cities, connecting everything together underground. You can get anywhere through the Labyrinth. ”

  “If you don’t get lost,” Grover muttered. “And die a horrible death. ”

  “Grover, there has to be a way,” Annabeth said. I got the feeling they’d had this conversation before. “Clarisse lived. ”

  “Barely!” Grover said. “And the other guy—”

  “He was driven insane. He didn’t die. ”

  “Oh, joy. ” Grover’s lower lip quivered. “That makes me feel much better. ”

  “Whoa,” I said. “Back up. What’s this about Clarisse and a crazy guy?”

  Annabeth glanced over toward the Ares table. Clarisse was watching us like she knew what we were talking about, but then she fixed her eyes on her breakfast plate. 

  “Last year,” Annabeth said, lowering her voice, “Clarisse went on a mission for Chiron. ”

  “I remember,” I said. “It was secret. ”

  Annabeth nodded. Despite how serious she was acting, I was happy she wasn’t mad at me anymore. And I kind of liked the fact that she’d broken the rules to come sit next to me. 

  “It was secret,” Annabeth agreed, “because she found Chris Rodriguez. ”

  “The guy from the Hermes cabin?” I remembered him from two years ago. We’d eavesdropped on Chris Rodriguez aboard Luke’s ship, the Princess Andromeda. Chris was one of the half-bloods who’d abandoned camp and joined the Titan Army. 

  “Yeah,” Annabeth said. “Last summer he just appeared in Phoenix, Arizona, near Clarisse’s mom’s house. ”

 “What do you mean he just appeared?”

  “He was wandering around the desert, in a hundred and twenty degrees, in full Greek armor, babbling about string. ”

  “String,” I said. 

  “He’d been driven completely insane. Clarisse brought him back to her mom’s house so the mortals wouldn’t institutionalize him. She tried to nurse him back to health. Chiron came out and interviewed him, but it wasn’t much good. The only thing they got out of him: Luke’s men have been exploring the Labyrinth. ”

  I shivered, though I wasn’t exactly sure why. Poor Chris…he hadn’t been a bad guy. What could’ve driven him mad? I looked at Grover, who was chewing up the rest of his fork. 

  “Okay,” I asked. “Why were they exploring the Labyrinth?”

  “We weren’t sure,” Annabeth said. “That’s why Clarisse went on a scouting expedition. Chiron kept things hushed up because he didn’t want anyone panicking. He got me involved because…well, the Labyrinth has always been one of my favorite subjects. The architecture involved—” Her expression turned a little dreamy. “The builder, Daedalus, was a genius. But the point is, the Labyrinth has entrances everywhere. If Luke could figure out how to navigate it, he could move his army around with incredible speed. ”

  “Except it’s a maze, right?”

  “Full of horrible traps,” Grover agreed. “Dead ends. Illusions. Psychotic goat-killing monsters. ”

  “But not if you had Ariadne’s string,” Annabeth said. “In the old days, Ariadne’s string guided Theseus out of the maze. It was a navigation instrument of some kind, invented by Daedalus. And Chris Rodriguez was mumbling about string. ”

  “So Luke is trying to find Ariadne’s string,” I said. “Why? What’s he planning?”

  Annabeth shook her head. “I don’t know. I thought maybe he wanted to invade camp through the maze, but that doesn’t make any sense. The closest entrances Clarisse found were in Manhattan, which wouldn’t help Luke get past our borders. Clarisse explored a little way into the tunnels, but…it was very dangerous. She had some close calls. I researched everything I could find about Daedalus. I’m afraid it didn’t help much. I don’t understand exactly what Luke’s planning, but I do know this: the Labyrinth might be the key to Grover’s problem. ”

  I blinked. “You think Pan is underground?”

  “It would explain why he’s been impossible to find. ”

  Grover shuddered. “Satyrs hate going underground. No searcher would ever try going in that place. No flowers. No sunshine. No coffee shops!”

  “But,” Annabeth said, “the Labyrinth can lead you almost anywhere. It reads your thoughts. It was designed to fool you, trick you and kill you; but if you can make the Labyrinth work for you—”

  “It could lead you to the wild god,” I said. 

  “I can’t do it. ” Grover hugged his stomach. “Just thinking about it makes me want to throw up my silverware. ”

  “Grover, it may be your last chance,” Annabeth said. “The council is serious. One week or you learn to tap dance!”

  Over at the head table, Quintus cleared his throat. I got the feeling he didn’t want to make a scene, but Annabeth was really pushing it, sitting at my table so long. 

  “We’ll talk later,” Annabeth squeezed my arm a little too hard. “Convince him, will you?”

  She returned to the Athena table, ignoring all the people who were staring at her. 

  Grover buried his head in his hands. “I can’t do it, Percy. My searcher’s license. Pan. I’m going to lose it all. I’ll have to start a puppet theater. ”

  “Don’t say that! We’ll figure something out. ”

  He looked at me teary-eyed. “Percy, you’re my best friend. You’ve seen me underground. In that Cyclops’s cave. Do you really think I could…”

  His voice faltered. I remembered the Sea of Monsters, when he’d been stuck in a Cyclops’s cave. He’d never liked underground places to begin with, but now Grover really hated them. Cyclopes gave him the creeps, too. Even Tyson…Grover tried to hide it, but Grover and I could sort of read each other’s emotions because of this empathy link between us. I knew how he felt. Grover was terrified of the big guy. 

  “I have to leave,” Grover said miserably. “Juniper’s waiting for me. It’s a good thing she finds cowards attractive. ”

  After he was gone, I looked over at Quintus. He nodded gravely, like we were sharing some dark secret. Then he went back to cutting his sausage with a dagger. 

  ***

  In the afternoon, I went down to the Pegasus stables to visit my friend Blackjack. 

  Yo, boss! He capered around in his stall, his black wings buffeting the air. Ya bring me some sugar cubes?

  “You know those aren’t good for you, Blackjack. ”

  Yeah, so you brought me some, huh?

  I smiled and fed him a handful. Blackjack and I went back a long way. I sort of helped rescue him from Luke’s demon cruise ship a few years ago, and ever since, he insisted on repaying me with favors. 

  So we got any quests coming up? Blackjack asked. I’m ready to fly, boss!

  I patted his nose. “Not sure, man. Everybody keeps talking about underground mazes. ”

  Blackjack whinnied nervously. Nuh-uh. Not for this horse! You aint gonna be crazy enough to go in no maze, boss. Are ya? You’ll end up in the glue factory!

  “You may be right, Blackjack. We’ll see. ”

  Blackjack crunched down his sugar cubes. He shook his mane like he was having a sugar seizure. Whoa! Good stuff! Well, boss, you come to your senses and want to fly somewhere, just give a whistle. Ole Blackjack and his buddies, we’ll stampede anybody for ya!

  I told him I’d keep it in mind. Then a group of younger campers came into the stables to start their riding lessons, and I decided it was time to leave. I had a bad feeling I wasn’t going to see Blackjack for a long time. 

  ***

  That night after dinner, Quintus had us suit up in combat armor like we were getting ready for capture the flag, but the mood among the campers was a lot more serious. Sometime during the day the crates in the arena had disappeared, and I had a feeling whatever was in them had been emptied into the woods. 

  “Right,” Quintus said, standing on the head dining table. “Gather ’round. ”

  He was dressed in black leather and bronze. In the torchlight, his gray hair made him look like a ghost. Mrs. O’Leary bounded happily around him, foraging for dinner scraps. 

  “You will be in teams of two,” Quintus announced. When everybody started talking and trying to grab their friends, he yelled: “Which have already been chosen!”

  “AWWWWW!” everybody complained. 

  “Your goal is simple: collect the gold laurels without dying. The wreath is wrapped in a silk package, tied to the back of one of the monsters. There are six monsters. Each has a silk package. Only one holds the laurels. You must find the wreath before the other teams. And, of course…you will have to slay the monster to get it, and stay alive. ”

  The crowd started murmuring excitedly. The task sounded pretty straightforward. Hey, we’d all slain monsters before. That’s what we trained for. 

  “I will now announce your partners,” Quintus said. “There will be no trading. No switching. No complaining. ”

  “Aroooof!” Mrs. O’Leary buried her face in a plate of pizza. 

  Quintus produced a big scroll and started reading off names. Beckendorf would be with Silena Beauregard, which Beckendorf looked pretty happy about. The Stoll brothers, Travis and Connor, would be together. No surprise. They did everything together. Clarisse was with Lee Fletcher from the Apollo cabin—melee and ranged combat combined, they would be a tough combo to beat. Quintus kept rattling off the names until he said, “Percy Jackson with Annabeth Chase. ”

  “Nice. ” I grinned at Annabeth. 

  “Your armor is crooked” was her only comment, and she redid my straps for me. 

  “Grover Underwood,” Quintus said, “with Tyson. ”

  Grover just about jumped out of his goat fur. “What? B-but—”

  “No, no,” Tyson whimpered. “Must be a mistake. Goat boy—”

  “No complaining!” Quintus ordered. “Get with your partner. You have two minutes to prepare!”

  Tyson and Grover both looked at me pleadingly. I tried to give them an encouraging nod, and gestured that they should move together. Tyson sneezed. Grover started chewing nervously on his wooden club. 

  “They’ll be fine,” Annabeth said. “Come on. Let’s worry about how we’re going to stay alive. ”

  ***

  It was still light when we got into the woods, but the shadows from the trees made it feel like midnight. It was cold, too, even in summer. Annabeth and I found tracks almost immediately—scuttling marks made by something with a lot of legs. We began to follow the trail. 

  We jumped a creek and heard some twigs snapping nearby. We crouched behind a boulder, but it was only the Stoll brothers tripping through the woods and cursing. Their dad was the god of thieves, but they were about as stealthy as buffaloes. 

  Once the Stolls had passed, we forged deeper into the west woods where the monsters were wilder. We were standing on a ledge overlooking a marshy pond when Annabeth tensed. “This is where we stopped looking. ”

  It took me a second to realize what she meant. Last winter, when we’d given up hope of finding him, Grover, Annabeth, and I had stood on this rock, and I’d convinced them not to tell Chiron the truth: that Nico was a son of Hades. At the time it seemed the right thing to do. I wanted to protect his identity. I wanted to be the one to find him and make things right for what had happened to his sister. Now, six months later, I hadn’t even come close to finding him. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. 

  “I saw him last night,” I said. 

  Annabeth knit her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

  I told her about the Iris-message. When I was done, she stared into the shadows of the woods. “He’s summoning the dead? That’s not good. ”

  “The ghost was giving him bad advice,” I said. “Telling him to take revenge. ”

  “Yeah…spirits are never good advisers they’ve got their own agendas. Old grudges. And they resent the living. ”

  “He’s going to come after me,” I said. “The spirit mentioned a maze. ”

  She nodded. “That settles it. We have to figure out the Labyrinth. ”

  “Maybe,” I said uncomfortably. “But who sent the Iris-message? If Nico didn’t know I was there—”

  A branch snapped in the woods. Dry leaves rustled. Something large was moving in the trees, just beyond the ridge. 

  “That’s not the Stoll brothers,” Annabeth whispered. 

  Together we drew our swords. 

  ***

  We got to Zeus’s Fist, a huge pile of boulders in the middle of the west woods. It was a natural landmark where campers often rendezvoused on hunting expeditions, but now there was nobody around. 

“Over there,” Annabeth whispered. 

  “No, wait,” I said. “Behind us. ”

  It was weird. Scuttling noises seemed to be coming from several different directions. We were circling the boulders, our swords drawn, when someone right behind us said, “Hi. ”

  We whirled around, and the tree nymph Juniper yelped. 

  “Put those down!” she protested. “Dryads don’t like sharp blades, okay?”

  “Juniper,” Annabeth exhaled. “What are you doing here?”

  “I live here. ”

  I lowered my sword. “In the boulders?”

  She pointed toward the edge of the clearing. “In the juniper. Duh. ”

  It made sense, and I felt kind of stupid. I’d been hanging around dryads for years, but I never really talked to them much. I knew they couldn’t go very far away from their tree, which was the source of life. But I didn’t know much else. 

  “Are you guys busy?” Juniper asked. 

  “Well,” I said, “we’re in the middle of this game against a bunch of monsters and we’re trying not to die. ”

  “We’re not busy,” Annabeth said. “What’s wrong, Juniper?”

  Junper sniffled. She wiped her silky sleeve under her eyes. “It’s Grover. He seems so distraught. All year he’s been out looking for Pan. And every time he comes back, its worse. I thought maybe, at first, he was seeing another tree. ”

  “No,” Annabeth said as Juniper started crying. “I’m sure that’s not it. ”

  “He had a crush on a blueberry bush once,” Juniper said miserably. 

  “Juniper,” Annabeth said, “Grover would never even look at another tree. He’s just stressed out about his searcher’s license. ”

  “He can’t go underground!” she protested. “You can’t let him. ”

  Annabeth looked uncomfortable. “It might be the only way to help him; if we just knew where to start. ”

  “Ah. ” Juniper wiped a green tear off her cheek. “About that…”

  Another rustle in the woods, and Juniper yelled, “Hide!”

  Before I could ask why, she went poof into green mist. 

  Annabeth and I turned. Coming out of the woods was a glistening amber insect, ten feet long, with jagged pincers, an armored tail, and a stinger as long as my sword. A scorpion. Tied to its back was a red silk package. 

  “One of us gets behind it,” Annabeth said, as the thing clattered toward us. “Cuts off its tail while the other distracts it in front. ”

  “I’ll take point,” I said. “You’ve got the invisibility hat. ”

  She nodded. We’d fought together so many times we knew each other’s moves. We could do this, easy. But it all went wrong when the other two scorpions appeared from the woods. 

  “Three?” Annabeth said. “That’s not possible! The whole woods, and half the monsters come at us?”

  I swallowed. One, we could take. Two, with a little luck. Three? Doubtful. 

  The scorpions scurried toward us, whipping their barbed tails like they’d come here just to kill us. Annabeth and I put our backs against the nearest boulder. 

  “Climb?” I said. 

  “No time,” she said. 

  She was right. The scorpions were already surrounding us. They were so close I could see their hideous mouths foaming, anticipating an ice juicy meal of demigods. 

  “Look out!” Annabeth parried away a stinger with the flat of her blade. I stabbed with Riptide, but the scorpion backed out of range. We clambered sideways along the boulders, but the scorpions followed us. I slashed at another one, but going on the offensive was too dangerous. If I went for the body, the tail stabbed downward. If I went for the tail, the thing’s pincers came from either side and tried to grab me. All we could do was defend, and we wouldn’t be able to keep that up for very long. 

  I took another step sideways, and suddenly there was nothing behind me. It was a crack between two of the largest boulders, something I’d passed by a million times, but…

  “In here,” I said. 

  Annabeth sliced at a scorpion then looked at me like I was crazy. “In there? It’s too narrow. ”

  “I’ll cover you. Go!”

  She ducked behind me and started squeezing between the two boulders. Then she yelped and grabbed my armor straps, and suddenly I was tumbling into a pit that hadn’t been there a moment before. I could see the scorpions above us, the purple evening sky and the trees, and then the hole shut like the lens of a camera, and we were in complete darkness. 

  Our breathing echoed against stone. It was wet and cold. I was sitting on a bumpy floor that seemed to be made of bricks. 

  I lifted Riptide. The faint glow of the blade was just enough to illuminate Annabeth’s frightened face and the mossy stone walls on either side of us. 

  “Wh-where are we?” Annabeth said. 

  “Safe from the scorpions, anyway,” I tried to sound calm, but I was freaking out. The crack between the boulders couldn’t have led into a cave. I would’ve known if there was a cave here; I was sure of it. It was like the ground had opened up and swallowed us. All I could think of was the fissure in the dining room pavilion, where those skeletons had been consumed last summer. I wondered if the same thing had happened to us. 

  I lifted my sword again for light. 

  “It’s a long room,” I muttered. 

  Annabeth gripped my arm. “It’s not a room. It’s a corridor. ”

  She was right the darkness felt…emptier in front of us. There was a warm breeze, like in subway tunnels, only it felt older, more dangerous somehow. 

  I started forward, but Annabeth stopped me. “Don’t take another step,” she warned. “We need to find the exit. ”

  She sounded really scared now. 

  “It’s okay,” I promised. “It’s right—”

  I looked up and realized I couldn’t see where we’d fallen in. The ceiling was solid stone. The corridor seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions. 

  Annabeth’s hand slipped into mine. Under different circumstances I would’ve been embarrassed, but here in the dark I was glad to know where she was. It was about the only thing I was sure of. 

  “Two steps back,” she advised. 

  We stepped backward together like we were in a minefield. 

  “Okay,” she said. “Help me examine the walls. ”

  “What for?”

  “The mark of Daedalus,” she said, as if that was supposed to make sense. 

  “Uh, okay. What kind of—”

  “Got it!” she said with relief. She set her hand on the wall and pressed against a tiny fissure, which began to glow blue. A Greek symbol appeared: Δ, the Ancient Greek Delta. 

  The roof slid open and we saw night sky, stars blazing. It was a lot darker than it should’ve been. Metal ladder rungs appeared in the side of the wall, leading up, and I could hear people yelling our names. 

  “Percy! Annabeth!” Tyson’s voice bellowed the loudest, but others were calling out too. 

  I looked nervously at Annabeth. Then we began to climb. 

  ***

  We made our way around the rocks and ran into Clarisse and a bunch of other campers carrying torches. 

  “Where have you two been?” Clarisse demanded. 

  “We’ve been looking forever. ”

  “But we were gone only a few minutes,” I said. 

  Chiron trotted up, followed by Tyson and Grover. 

  “Percy!” Tyson said. “You are okay?”

  “We’re fine,” I said. “We fell in a hole. ”

  The others looked at me skeptically, then at Annabeth. 

  “Honest!” I said. “There were three scorpions after us, so we ran and hid in the rocks. But we were only gone a minute. ”

  “You’ve been missing for almost an hour,” Chiron said. “The game is over. ”

  “Yeah,” Grover muttered. “We would’ve won, but a Cyclops sat on me. ”

  “Was an accident!” Tyson protested, and then he sneezed. 

  Clarisse was wearing the gold laurels, but she didn’t even brag about winning them, which wasn’t like her. “A hole?” she said suspiciously. 

  Annabeth took a deep breath. She looked around at the other campers. “Chiron…maybe we should talk about this at the Big House. ”

  Clarisse gasped. “You found it, didn’t you?”

  Annabeth bit her lip. “I—Yeah. Yeah, we did. ”

  A bunch of campers started asking questions, looking about as confused as I was, but Chiron raised his hand for silence. “Tonight is not the right time, and this is not the right place. ” He stared at boulders as if he’d just noticed how dangerous they were. “All of you, back to your cabins. Get some sleep. A game well played, but curfew is past!”

  There was a lot of mumbling and complaints, but the campers drifted off, talking among themselves and giving me suspicious looks. 

  “This explains a lot,” Clarisse said. “It explains what Luke is after. ”

  “Wait a second,” I said. “What do you mean? What did we find?”

  Annabeth turned toward me, her eyes dark with worry. “An entrance to the Labyrinth. An invasion route straight into the heart of the camp. ”

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