The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 5: NICO BUYS HAPPY MEALS FOR THE DEAD

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Chapter 5: NICO BUYS HAPPY MEALS FOR THE DEAD

At least I got a good night’s sleep before the quest, right?

  Wrong. 

  That night in my dreams, I was in the stateroom of the Princess Andromeda. The windows were open on a moonlit sea. Cold wind rustled the velvet drapes. 

  Luke knelt on a Persian rug in front of the golden sarcophagus of Kronos. In the moonlight, Luke’s blond hair looked pure white. He wore an ancient Greek chiton and a white himation, a kind of cape that flowed down his shoulders. The white clothes made him look timeless and a little surreal, like one of the minor gods on Mount Olympus. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been broken and unconscious after a nasty fall from Mount Tam. Now he looked perfectly fine. Almost too healthy. 

  “Our spies report success, my lord,” he said. “Camp Half-Blood is sending a quest, as you predicted. Our side of the bargain is almost complete. ”

  Excellent. The voice of Kronos didn’t so much speak as pierce my mind like a dagger. It was freezing with cruelty. Once we have the means to navigate, I will lead the vanguard through myself. 

  Luke closed his eyes as if collecting his thoughts. “My lord, perhaps it is too soon. Perhaps Krios or Hyperion should lead—”

  No. the voice was quiet but absolutely firm. I will lead. One more heart shall join our cause, and that will be sufficient. At last I shall rise fully from Tartarus. 

  “But the form, my lord…” Luke’s voice started shaking. 

  Show me your sword, Luke Castellan. 

  A jolt went through me. I realized I’d never heard Luke’s last name before. It had never even occurred to me. 

  Luke drew his sword. Backbiter’s double edge glowed wickedly—half steel, half celestial bronze. I’d almost been killed several times by that sword. It was an evil weapon, able to kill both mortals and monsters. It was the only blade I really feared. 

  You pledged yourself to me, Kronos reminded him. You took this sword as proof of your oath. 

  “Yes, my lord. It’s just—”

  You wanted power. I gave you that. You are now beyond harm. Soon you will rule the world of gods and mortals. Do you not wish to avenge yourself? To see Olympus destroyed?

  A shiver ran through Luke’s body. “Yes. ”

  The coffin glowed, golden light filling the room. Then make ready the strike force. As soon as the bargain is done, we shall move forward. First, Camp Half-Blood will be reduced to ashes. Once those bothersome heroes are eliminated, we will march on Olympus. 

  There was a knock on the stateroom doors. The light of the coffin faded. Luke rose. He sheathed his sword, adjusted his white clothes, and took a deep breath. 

  “Come in. ”

  The doors opened. Two dracaenae slithered in—snake women with double serpent trunks instead of legs. Between them walked Kelli, the empousa cheerleader from my freshman orientation. 

  “Hello, Luke,” Kelli smiled. She was wearing a red dress and she looked awesome, but I’d seen her real form. I knew what she was hiding: mismatched legs, red eyes, fangs, and flaming hair. 

  “What is it, demon?” Luke’s voice was cold. “I told you not to disturb me. ”

  Kelli pouted. “That’s not very nice. You look tense. How about a nice shoulder massage?”

  Luke stepped back. “If you have something to report, say it. Otherwise leave!”

  “I don’t know why you’re so huffy these days. You used to be fun to hang around. ”

  “That was before I saw what you did to that boy in Seattle. ”

  “Oh, he meant nothing to me,” Kelli said. “Just a snack, really. You know my heart belongs to you, Luke. ”

  “Thanks, but no thanks. Now report or get out. ”

  Kelli shrugged. “Fine. The advanced team is ready, as you surprised. We can leave—” She frowned. 

  “What is it?” Luke asked. 

  “A presence,” Kelli said. “Your senses are getting dull, Luke. We’re being watched. ”

  She scanned the stateroom. Her eyes focused right on me. Her face withered into a hag’s. She bared her fangs and lunged. 

  ***

  I woke with a start, my heart pounding. I could’ve sworn the empousa’s fangs were an inch from my throat. 

  Tyson was snoring in the next bunk. The sound calmed me down a little. 

  I didn’t know how Kelli could sense me in a dream, but I’d heard more than I wanted to know. An army was ready. Kronos would lead it personally. All they needed was a way to navigate the Labyrinth so they could invade and destroy Camp Half-Blood, and Luke apparently thought that was going to happen very soon. 

  I was tempted to go wake up Annabeth and tell her, middle of the night or not. Then I realized the room was lighter than it should have been. A blueand-green glow was coming from the saltwater fountain, brighter and more urgent than the night before. It was almost like the water was humming. 

  I got out of bed and approached. 

  No voice spoke out of the water this time, asking for a deposit. I got the feeling the fountain was waiting for me to make the first move. 

  I probably should’ve gone back to bed. Instead I thought about what I’d seen last night—the weird image of Nico at the banks of the River Styx. 

  “You’re trying to tell me something,” I said. 

  No response from the fountain. 

  “All right,” I said. “Show me Nico di Angelo. ”

  I didn’t even throw a coin in, but this time it didn’t matter. It was like some other force had control of the water besides Iris the messenger goddess. The water shimmered. Nico appeared, but he was no longer in the Underworld. He was standing in a graveyard under a starry sky. Giant willow trees loomed all around him. 

  He was watching some gravediggers at work. I heard shovels and saw dirt flying out of a hole. Nico was dressed in a black cloak. The night was foggy. It was warm and humid, and frogs were croaking. A large Wal-Mart bag sat next to Nico’s feet. 

  “Is it deep enough yet?” Nico asked. He sounded irritated. 

  “Nearly, my lord. ” It was the same ghost I’d seen Nico with before, the faint shimmering image of a man. “But, my lord, I tell you, this is unnecessary. You already have me for advice. ”

  “I want a second opinion!” Nico snapped his fingers, and the digging stopped. Two figures climbed out of the hole. They weren’t people. They were skeletons in ragged clothes. 

  “You are dismissed,” Nico said. “Thank you. ”

  The skeletons collapsed into piles of bones. 

  “You might as well thank the shovels,” the ghost complained. “They have as much sense. ”

  Nico ignored him. He reached into his Wal-Mart bag and pulled out a twelve-pack of Coke. He popped open a can. Instead of drinking it, he poured it into the grave. 

  “Let the dead taste again,” he murmured. “Let them rise and take this offering. Let them remember. ”

  He dropped the rest of the Cokes into the grave and pulled out a white paper bag decorated with cartoons. I hadn’t seen one in years, but I recognized it—a McDonald’s Happy Meal. 

  He turned it upside down and shook the fries and hamburger into the grave. 

  “In my day, we used animal blood,” the ghost mumbled. “It’s perfectly good enough. They can’t taste the difference. ”

  “I will treat them with respect,” Nico said. 

  “At least let me keep the toy,” the ghost said. 

  “Be quiet!” Nico ordered. He emptied another twelve-pack of soda and three more Happy Meals into the grave, then began chanting in Ancient Greek. I caught only some of the words—a lot about the dead and memories and returning from the grave. Real happy stuff. 

  The grave started to bubble. Frothy brown liquid rose to the top like the whole thing was filling with soda. The fog thickened. The frogs stopped croaking. Dozens of figures began to appear among the gravestones: bluish, vaguely human shapes. Nico had summoned the dead with Coke and cheeseburgers. 

  “There are too many,” the ghost said nervously. “You don’t know your own powers. ”

  “I’ve got it under control,” Nico said, though his voice sounded fragile. He drew his sword—a short blade made of solid black metal. I’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t celestial bronze or steel. Iron, maybe? The crowd of shades retreated at the sight of it. 

  “One at a time,” Nico commanded. 

  A single figure floated forward and knelt at the pool. It made slurping sounds as it drank. Its ghostly hands scooped French fries out of the pool. 

When it stood again, I could see it much more clearly—a teenage guy in Greek armor. He had curly hair and green eyes, a clasp shaped like a seashell on his cloak. 

  “Who are you?” Nico said. “Speak. ”

  The young man frowned as if trying to remember. Then he spoke in a voice like dry, crumpling paper: “I am Theseus. ”

  No way, I thought. This couldn’t be the Theseus. He was just a kid. I’d grown up hearing stories about him fighting the Minotaur and stuff, but I’d always pictured him as this huge, buff guy. The ghost I was looking at wasn’t strong or tall. And he wasn’t any older than I was. 

  “How can I retrieve my sister?” Nico asked. 

  Theseus’s eyes were lifeless as glass. “Do not try. It is madness. ”

  “Just tell me!”

  “My stepfather died,” Theseus remembered. “He threw himself into the sea because he thought I was dead in the Labyrinth. I wanted to bring him back, but I could not. ”

  Nico’s ghost hissed. “My lord, the soul exchange! Ask him about that!”

  Theseus scowled. “That voice. I know that voice. ”

  “No you don’t, fool!” the ghost said. “Answer the lord’s questions and nothing more!”

  “I know you,” Theseus insisted, as if struggling to recall. 

  “I want to hear about my sister,” Nico said. “Will this quest into the Labyrinth help me win her back?”

  Theseus was looking for the ghost, but apparently couldn’t see him. Slowly he turned his eyes back on Nico. “The Labyrinth is treacherous. There is only one thing that saw me through: the love of a mortal girl. The string was only part of the answer. It was the princess who guided me. ”

  “We don’t need any of that,” the ghost said. “I will guide you, my lord. 

  Ask him if it is true about an exchange of souls. He will tell you. ”

  “A soul for a soul,” Nico asked. “Is it true?”

  “I—I must say yes. But the specter—”

  “Just answer the questions, knave!” the ghost said. 

  Suddenly, around the edges of the pool, the other ghosts became restless. 

  They stirred, whispering in nervous tones. 

  “I want to see my sister!” Nico demanded. “Where is she?”

  “He is coming,” Theseus said fearfully. “He has sensed your summons. He comes. ”

  “Who?” Nico demanded. 

  “He comes to find the source of this power,” Theseus said. “You must release us. ”

  The water in my fountain began to tremble, humming with power. I realized the whole cabin was shaking. The noise grew louder. The image of Nico in the graveyard started to glow until it was painful to watch. 

  “Stop,” I said out loud. “Stop it!”

  The fountain began to crack. Tyson muttered in his sleep and turned over. Purple light threw horrible, ghostly shadows on the cabin walls, as if the specters were escaping right out of the fountain. 

  In desperation I uncapped riptide and slashed at the fountain, cleaving it in two. Salt water spilled everywhere, and the great stone font crashed to the floor in pieces. Tyson snorted and muttered, but he kept sleeping. 

  I sank to the ground, shivering from what I’d seen. Tyson found me there in the morning, still staring at the shattered remains of the saltwater fountain. 

  ***

  Just after dawn, the quest group met at Zeus’s Fist. I’d packed my knapsack—thermos with nectar, baggie of ambrosia, bedroll, rope, clothes, flashlights, and lots of extra batteries. I had Riptide in my pocket. The magic shield/wristwatch Tyson had made for me was on my wrist. 

  It was a clear morning. The fog had burned off and the sky was blue. Campers would be having their lessons today, flying pegasi and practicing archery and scaling the lava wall. Meanwhile, we could be heading underground. 

  Juniper and Grover stood apart from the group. Juniper had been crying again, but she was trying to keep it together for Grover’s sake. She kept fussing with his clothes, straightening his rasta cap and brushing goat fur off his shirt. Since we had no idea what we would encounter, he was dressed as a human, with the cap to hide his horns, and jeans, fake feet, and sneakers to hide his goat legs. 

  Chiron, Quintus, and Mrs. O’Leary stood with the other campers who’d come to wish us well, but there was too much activity for it to feel like a happy send-off. A couple of tents had been set up by the rocks for guard duty. Beckendorf and his siblings were working on a line of defensive spikes and trenches. Chiron had decided we needed to guard the Labyrinth exit at all times, just in case. 

  Annabeth was doing one last check on her supply pack. When Tyson and I came over, she frowned. “Percy, you look terrible. ”

  “He killed the water fountain last night,” Tyson confided. 

  “What?” she asked. 

  Before I could explain, Chiron trotted over. “Well, it appears you are ready!”

  He tried to sound upbeat, but I could tell he was anxious. I didn’t want to freak him out any more, but I thought about last night’s dream, and before I could change my mind, I said, “Hey, uh, Chiron, can I ask you a favor while I’m gone?”

  “Of course, my boy. ”

  “Be right back, guys. ” I nodded toward the woods. Chiron asked an eyebrow, but he followed me out of earshot. 

  “Last night,” I said, “I dreamed about Luke and Kronos. ” I told him the details. The news seemed to weigh on his shoulders. 

  “I feared this,” Chiron said. “Against my father, Kronos, we would stand no chance in a fight. ”

  Chiron rarely called Kronos his father. I mean, we all knew it was true. Everybody in the Greek world—god, monster, or Titan—was related to one another somehow. But it wasn’t exactly something Chiron liked to brag about. Oh, my dad is the all-powerful evil Titan lord who wants to destroy Western Civilization. I want to be just like him when I grow up!

  “Do you know what he meant about a bargain?” I asked. 

  “I am not sure, but I fear they seek to make a deal with Daedalus. If the old inventor is truly alive, if he has not been driven insane by millennia in the Labyrinth…well, Kronos can find ways to twist anyone to his will. ”

  “Not anyone,” I promised. 

  Chiron managed a smile. “No. Perhaps not anyone. But, Percy, you must beware. I have worried for some time that Kronos may be looking for Daedalus for a different reason, not just passage through the maze. ”

  “What else would he want?”

  “Something Annabeth and I were discussing. Do you remember what you told me about your first trip to the Princess Andromeda, the first time you saw the golden coffin?”

  I nodded. “Luke was taking about raising Kronos, little pieces of him appearing in the coffin every time someone new joined his cause. ”

  “And what did Luke say they would do when Kronos had risen completely?”

  A chill went down my spine. “He said they would make Kronos a new body, worthy of the forges of Hephaestus. ”

  “Indeed,” Chiron said. “Daedalus was the world’s greatest inventor. He created the Labyrinth, but much more. Automatons, thinking machines…What if Kronos wishes Daedalus to make him a new form?”

  That was a real pleasant thought. 

  “We’ve got to get to Daedalus first,” I said, “and convince him not to. ”

  Chiron stared off into the trees. “One other thing I do not understand…this talk of a last soul joining their cause. That does not bode well. ”

  I kept my mouth shut, but I felt guilty. I’d made the decision not to tell Chiron about Nico being a son of Hades. The mention of souls, though— What if Kronos knew about Nico? What if he managed to turn him evil? It was almost enough to make me want to tell Chiron, but I didn’t. for one thing, I wasn’t sure Chiron could do anything about it. I had to find Nico myself. I had to explain things to him, make him listen. 

  “I don’t know,” I said at last. “But, uh, something Juniper said, maybe you should hear. ” I told him how the tree nymph had seen Quintus poking around the rocks. 

  Chiron’s jaw tightened. “That does not surprise me. ”

  “It doesn’t sur—you mean you know?”

  “Percy, when Quintus showed up at camp offering his services…well, I would have to be a fool not to be suspicious. ”

  “Then why did you let him in?”

  “Because sometimes it is better to have someone you mistrust close to you, so that you can keep an eye on him. He may be just what he says: a half-blood in search of a home. Certainly he has done nothing openly that would make me question his loyalty. But believe me. I will keep an eye—”

  Annabeth trudged over, probably curious why we were taking so long. 

  “Percy, you ready?”

  I nodded. My hand slipped into my pocket, where I kept the ice whistle Quintus had given me. I looked over and saw Quintus watching me carefully. He raised his hand in farewell. 

  Our spies report success, Luke had said. The same day we decided to send a quest, Luke had known about it. 

  “Take care,” Chiron told us. “And good hunting. ”

  “You too,” I said. 

  We walked over to the rocks, where Tyson and Grover were waiting. I stared at the crack between the boulders—the entrance that was about to swallow us. 

  “Well,” Grover said nervously, “good-bye sunshine. ”

  “Hello rocks,” Tyson agreed. And together, the four of us descended into darkness. 

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