Percy, Nico and I dragged Lyssan and Alyssa into the nearest supply closet. Which only felt extremely strange. I'd like to say that I've never had to do that before or do it ever again.
We switched trains at Lincoln Nebraska and hopefully left the two demi-gods far behind. We couldn't afford to have them catch up to us. The train was headed for Keystone, Nebraska. The people on the train with us were chatting with each other buzzing with excitement. I wondered what it was all about. Most of them were in their late forties and they all look like history teachers, with very conservative well kept clothes.
I tried to catch as much of their conversations as I could but I could only understand fragments of their conversation.
"I hear that Lincoln was the most well done," said one woman to her husband.
That sentence, being taken out of context, was really strange. Was their a famous wax museum nearby or something."
Then I heard a man in full hiking attire say, "It must have taken them forever to carve out all of that limestone."
I finally got it.
We were headed straight for Mt. Rushmore.
I poked Nico he looked at me his eyes asking the question, "What's up?"
"It seems as if we might have to take a bit of a detour."
"Why?" asked Percy.
"The train is going to Mt. Rushmore."
"Oh, Annabeth would kill to be here right now," said Percy.
"But she's not here," I spat out of frustration, the tiredness getting to me, "Sorry," I murmured.
"It's fine, all of us are tired. But do you mind if I stopped to get some pictures for her?" he asked.
"You brought a camera?" I asked.
"No, but I bet they have some cheap disposable ones in the gift store."
"Okay sure, I guess it would be kinda cool to see it anyways."
The bus dropped us off at the entrance to the park. Tour guides were politely yelling, "United Historical Tour Group this way, come with me!" and other things like that.
I never really got the concept of a tour, I guess you learn about the history of the place, but that would probably bore me to sleep. I would probably end up wandering down the paths and ending at the gift store. I've noticed that all roads lead to the gift store.
Confirming my last thought the end of the pathway we were following lead to a large loop. In the front most area of this loop was, of course, the gift shop.
I didn't dare enter it, I'd go in empty handed and somehow walk out with loads of candy, a new shirt, and a stuffed animal or two. I remember Percy telling me all heroes had weaknesses, mine would probably be stuffed animals. Their huge shiny black button eyes, and furry little faces just strike me to the core. They call my name in sweet little voices, "Lea, come pick me up and snuggle me to your face."
I wondered if that was part of my dad being a Oneiroi, sleep god, the fact that I couldn't resist anything that seems to lull me into sweet dreams.
Percy awoke me from my daze when he loped out of the store, carrying at five dollar arrange and black camera. He began to anxiously twist at the dial-thing, which made a extremely annoying clicking noise, like someone zipping and unzipping their jacket repeatedly.
As we walked in silence past the Restaurant I inhaled the warm salty smell of French fries. Suddenly my stomach growled, no, that's an understatement, my stomach roared. I clutched my belly. When was the last time I had eaten? I had a few cracker on the train, but the last full meal I had was back in Columbus with Thalia and Jason.
Percy turned to Nico and I, "You guys up for some good old fashioned snack bar food?"
"I think it's about time," said Nico.
"Totally," I agreed.
We found a table and Percy dug around in his backpack for a while until he found our money stash. He frowned when he saw it.
"Only fifty dollars left," he said sounding troubled.
Sounded like plenty to me. That's all I get for my birthday and that lasts me about six months.
Percy saw my expression and said, "Train tickets are about thirty dollars, each."
That was quite a shock to me, not only that we were nearly broke but the fact that train tickets were so expensive. I guess I never really had a reason to be concerned about money before.
We all order cheeseburgers, which disappeared into our stomachs after about two minutes. I refrained from letting out a satisfied burp. It only cost us eight dollars, which Percy said was good for National park snack bar food. We sat, content for the next few minutes and then departed from out table.
After squinting at a map for a few minutes Percy led us down the "Nature Trail" which was just a paved cement pathway that wound through a field and a small pine forest. Well the forest was small, the pines on the other hand were gigantic, almost as big a Thalia's tree. They must have been hundred of years old, preserved by the National Park Foundation. I listened in to one of the tours, the lady was saying something about how the workers here back when they were carving the stone almost wiped out all of the forest, using it for lumber. Only then did I begin to noticed the multiple, half-decomposed stumps. She then went on about how dedicated people here nowadays are to preserving the naturally historical place. My mind began to drift after that.
Nico actually looked pretty interested and I could tell by his expression he was storing all of this info in his vast mental library. Percy, was a whole another story, he was looking up in the trees looking at the various colorful birds, completely oblivious to everything else.
Under all of the fighting and valiance, I could see how innocent he really was. Like a ten year old forced into being an adult for the sake of his friends and family.
We came to what Percy announced as the "Borglum Viewing Terrace" and stopped for a few minute to find out where to go next. It was much of a view at all, the trees must have grown a lot since the put it in because all I could see was the top of what looked like a giant granite wall, nothing special. But it did kind of remind me of the granite landscapes back in California. Which made my, now full, stomach yearn for home. I'd never been homesick before and it was a horrible feeling. I managed to ignore it, somewhat.
The map said that it was all a big loop from here, we could either go to our left to the amphitheater or to our right which was something called a "compressor House".
To me that sounded kind of painful, so we decided to go left.
Eventually we found the Presidential Trail, after shoving through a very large mass of people who were trying to watch a show about the flora and fauna of the area. I was tempted to stop and watch when they mentioned a Arachnid, thinking of the story Arachne. But then I realized they were just talking about a spider. I guess my brain has been hard-wired to think Greek automatically.
Twilight quickly began to form on the horizon although it was only like three o'clock the days were dramatically getting shorter and I didn't think it was just because of the approaching winter solstice.
As I was walking down the pathway, kicking my feet as I went, I let the people shove me around. Letting myself drift slowly with the crowd, riding along with their movements.
About half-way down the trail one tourist bumper into me.
"Watch it," he growled in a gruff voice. He was rushing down the Presidential Trail just like the other tourists, except he didn't really seem like a tourist or look like one. We had a scruffy dark coffee colored beard, extremely calloused hands, coated in what looked like axel grease and weirdest of all no backpack or anything. Just a hammer. Also, not that this should make any difference, he was a migit.
He glared at me and continued to shove through the crowd as I stared at him, my eyes following him through the crowd. Eventually he disappeared from site.
Why did he have a Hammer? ,I wondered.
I decided that he probably worked for the park and was doing some sort of construction, but as I continues walking something nagged at the back of my mind.
Without really trying I began to notice, there was an abundance of migits. Like some sort of Migit convention had let out. Although I don't think there is such a thing. That seems kind of demeaning.
When I say there was a lot of migits there, I mean a lot. One out of ten people and all of them were carry strange objects. I saw two hauling two large planks of lumber over their heads. The other tourists were completely oblivious, acting as if they didn't see the little men carrying around things like buckets of nails, hammers, and screwdrivers. Some even had power tools.
I began to suspect something.
My suspicions were confirmed when I overheard one say to another, "I can't believe Lord Hephaestus is making us work overtime just because Victor fell asleep and let that demi-god take the shield."
"Yeah, stupid Victor," mumbled the other angrily, "He's always falling asleep on the job."
I stopped for a minute to think, Hephaestus? Demi-god? Chariot?
Something was seriously up.
For a second I lost the two men in the crowd, when I spotted them I rushed forward and tapped one on the shoulder.
He glared up at me, "What do you want?"
"I heard you say something about Hephaestus."
For a moment he looked panicked and then he tried to put on a suave apathetic face, "Yeah, so?"
I though for a moment about how to reply and then the words rushed out of my mouth, "Loquar in igne deus." Which roughly translates to "I wish to speak with the fire god." In Latin.
He looked shocked for a moment, then he looked at his friends. His friends nodded.
"Just follow us," he replied half-heartedly.
"wait a sec," I said.
I didn't know how, but I knew it would work. I placed my pinkie and forefinger on my lips, ad Henry taught me to do so many years ago, and whistled high and long.
Two seconds later Percy and Nico stumbled through the crowd looking panicked.
"What is it, Lea?" asked Nico, clutching my wrist and looking intensely into my eyes.
"Were going to go visit Hephaestus," I said then jokingly added, "good boys for coming!" as I patted Nico on the head.
He scowled and let go of my wrist.
"You scared me," he murmured.
Apparently, whistling was demi-god code for "HELP!".
"What's going on?" asked Percy looking confused.
"These guys are leading us to Hephaestus, apparently he has some problem with a stolen chariot and sleepy guards," I said but honestly I was just as clueless as he was. But I figured if we just so happened to stumble on a god, it was less of a coincidence than it seemed like.
"Great, last time I went on a mission for Hephaestus I ended up waking Mt. St. Helens from it's dormant state."
"Oooh," I said, "that sounds bad."
Percy rubbed at his neck as if it were sore, "Yeah and it hurt a lot too."
At that moment the dwarfs began to walk away.
We hastily followed them.
After about a hundred feet the trees thinned and then the sky opened up to reveal the attraction. A huge cliff of pure granite stretched up and out in all directions. Carved into it face were the faces of the four presidents. They were giant, and I mean giant; you could park a bus up Lincoln's nose. Although I don't think you'd want to try.
While I was bust staring at the monument and Percy was rapidly clicking away with his camera, I didn't notice the two migit men ditching us until Nico dragged me and Percy off the trail after them.
They led deep into the forest on the side of the rock face, I tripped over a "Do not step on the plants" sign, which I found extremely ironic as a collection of dwarfs tromped across the grass.
After the Presidential trail was out of sight the dwarfs collected around a small door way in the side of the rock. It looked like a management tunnel, dark and clammy with dim yellow lights.
We were shoved through the doorway and into he tunnel, about twenty feet into there was a cross road. Each path led off in a different direction, and the small cobblestones that made the floor, were a different color for every direction. It must be how they navigated this underground labyrinth.
The main dwarf that had led us here turned to me, "Just follow the pathway made out of the sulfuric compound blocks till it ends," he said pointing to my right.
"Wait a second," a said, "did you just tell me to follow the pathway made out of the sulfuric compound blocks?"
"Okay," I said exasperated, shaking my head, "A small man telling me to follow the yellow brick road," I sighed, "That is so normal to me now."
He didn't reply, clearly not understanding my allusion. He just walked away in the opposite direction.
Percy chuckled and sighed, "you know of all of the strange situations I've been in, this one tops the charts."
He weaved his arm into mine so that we hooked at the elbow, "Come along Lea, were off to see Hephaestus, the most ugly god of them all!" he cried in a sing-song voice and we began to skip down the pathway. Half-screaming, half-singing, "We're off to see the wizard," and basically embracing our strangeness.
Nico just jogged behind. I wasn't sure if he was just too embarrassed to sing or if he didn't know the song.
After about five minute straight of skipping we were exhausted and our voices were sore so we slowed to a fast walk.
The hallway was dimly lit and eerie. Our shadows stalked us down the path flickering and disappearing completely at moments, which made me feel like Peter Pan. Today was just a fairy tale, wasn't it?
I nearly ran into the door that blocked our path. I would have if I didn't hear Percy thud into it before me. I placed me hand on it, and it began to glow, illuminating our faces. The door was made of steel clearly, because it was beyond solid, but was plated with copper. It was at least twenty feet tall, designed for giants. Intricate designs coated the front, gears and levers twisting around the handle in some strange lock. We were where I estimated to be right behind Lincoln's forehead, lucky us. For some reason it made me feel smarter.
Percy rapped a few times on the metal and then rubbed his knuckles as if they were sore. Nobody opened the door, it just stood there clearly the only thing blocking us from our destination. Nico, Percy and I tried knowing a few more times.
I looked at the lock more carefully.
"It's triggered but something, some sort of key, but not a tangible key, something like a finger scan," I said, tracing my fingers along a large metal dome that emanated from the door.
"Fire," said Percy, "only fire can open it. That's one of the gifts of Hephaestus."
"So any of you guys here, secretly a firebender?" I asked.
They both shook their heads.
"Well there is only one thing left to do," I said shrugging.
"YO HEPHAESTUS, OPEN UP!" I yelled.
For a few minute there was silence then the clicking and whirring sounds of gears turning. The doors glided open to reveal the ugliest and tallest man I have ever seen.
He was teen feet tall, scruffy beard, beady eyes, and bits of fire decked out his curly black mass of hair highlighted the creases in his face. I could believe this is what Ava's dad looked like.
"Hmmph," he said to me, "feisty."
Then he limped back into the room on the other side of the door. I took that as his way of saying "Here come inside, what can I do for you?"
He began to work on a small golden cellphone, his fingers were nimbly moving over the back of it, curling wires and poking at the different little button things, that I have no idea what they are called or what they do, but he looked sad only half interested in his work.
"Sir, "said Percy.
Hephaestus glanced up at him, "Hmm, oh hello Percy," he said awkwardly, "you've grown."
I rolled my eyes, I could tell he was trying to be social but he was utterly failing at it. I've seen cats be more social. Poor Ava and Leo, Christmas dinner must be really awkward.
I slam both my hands down on the table to get his full attention, for some reason I despise the gods, all of them, "I hear you had a shield stolen, sounds like a big deal, do you want us to get it back for you or not."
His eyes widened in shock.
"Yes," he said, "I fear I cannot do it myself for I pity the thief too much. I cannot bring myself to punish my own child, it was my fault for neglecting them."
Oh gods, one of his own children stole from him. Why? Revenge, attention, or was it something else, some other motive? And Who? Ava? No. Leo? Of course not.
"How do we catch them?" I asked, "make it brief."
He glanced around the room, " The thief is lost in the tunnels, I knew you were coming so I set up a navigation device. It follows the footsteps of the thief using radar technology," he pointed to a completely gold, completely awesome sand crawler.
I readjusted my bag on my shoulder, "We'll be back soon, anything else we need to know?"
Hephaestus shook his head.
"Percy you drive," I said nodding to Percy then I strutted over and flung myself into the passenger seat and strapped my self in. Percy and Nico followed suit. Etched into the side of the metal bars was Speed Daemon X, the obvious name for the crawler.
Percy revved the engine, I could feel the godly power rippling through the leather seats. This would be nothing like flying over the sand dunes in Oregon. It would be better. Faster.
If front of us a garage door opened. Percy slammed his foot on the petal and we roared off into the tunnel. The Daemon flew down the hallway, I could see Percy's ADHD working over time as he tried to calculate which way to go. He was set in super speed; flicking the knobs and levers, adjusting level, changing gears. He clearly knew what he was doing. Leaving me to enjoy the ride.
Imagine the fastest roller coaster you've ever been on, now multiply that speed times twelve. Everything was a blur and the car hummed and vibrated as we accelerated. My eyes watered and my face felt as if it were peeling off, so in other words I was having the time of my life. Nico on the other hand looking seasick, he was a lot paler than usual. I only glanced at him for a second because my head was whipped back into the head rest as Percy punched on another dose of speed. I glanced at the dashboard, 159 mph. It read, but of course it felt like we were going faster. I watched as it steadily rose from there up through the hundreds finally topping off at 372 m ph. Was that even physically possible. I don't think it is for mortals, but of course I get to do the cool stuff in life.
All of the sudden we screeched to a halt, and I realized something, the Daemon. It was quiet, very quiet. The only noise it made was a constant humming but other than that the only sound I heard during the entire ride was the wind whistling in my ears.
I turned to Percy, "Let's do that again," I said grinning.
He laughed silently, then put a finger to his lips, "Twenty paces. Let's go see who our thief is."
We left our bags in the car and drew our swords. We creeped slowly down the hall I made I conscious effort to let my feet fall, toe, heel, toe, heel.
Not far down the tunnel I saw the flickering light of a torch.
Who uses torches these days, I mean, seriously?
That's just medieval, and stupid.
I looked at Percy he looked back at me and we nodded, I then did the same to Nico.
Then we sprinted forward, my converse still didn't make a sound as they hit the floor, except a small squeaking as the rubber hit the rocks.
I was fastest, I always have been lean and light on my feet.
As the flame drew closer I remembered what my old guy friends Jesse had taught me back when I lived in Auburn. Aim for the waist.
Then my body made contact.
I heard a strangled scream and an Ummph as we hit the hard packed floor.
"Games over buddy, give me the shield."
"Please," he groaned, "My ribs."
I pressed my sword to his neck but let him stand up.
I let the torch burn out of the ground.
I spun the boy around to face me.
He was about my age fifteen at most. Deep tan skin and puppy dog brown eyes and choppy cut milk chocolate brown hair. He was cute. I reminded me of a chocolate Labrador. But there was something strange about him, he looked frail and tired, he also had multiple scars and burn marks. Tears streamed down his cheeks. I had to pressure myself not to crumble, he looked so innocent.
Percy caught up to me the second he saw the boy he mouth dropped open and he looked as surprised as if I'd just smacked him in the face, "Jake?"
"Percy," said the boy.
Then the boy turned to me, "Please whoever you are, I didn't want to. She made me."
"Who made you steal from your dad?" I demanded clutching at his collar fiercely.
"The woman to woman in the stars," he sputtered, "Please, please, she threatened my sister. She threatened Victoria."
"What?" demanded Percy.
Nico materialized behind me, he looked shocked too, I heard him mouth , "Jake?"
The boy began to sob uncontrollably now, tears salty tears rolling down my wrists, I only caught fragments of what he was trying to say, "she threatened horrible things. I couldn't let her do that to Victoria. I couldn't let her hurt my baby sister. Vicky is harmless. I couldn't. I couldn't.........."
"Lea, let him go," instructed Percy, "I believe you Jake. I know how much you love Victoria."
Jake gazed up at Percy his eyes as big as drachmas, huge and gracious.
I let go of my hold o his collar and he drew in a sharp quavering breath.
"Please help me," he managed.
"Give me the shield first," is aid, "and then I'll do all that I can."
He reached into his pocket and the pulled out what looked like the lid to a basic Kerr jar.
He placed it in my palm.
"What in Hades?" I exclaimed, "You're not serious are you?" Hephaestus sent us after this dinky little thing?"
Jake slid his finger around the rim, and I watched in awe as I spiral out into a gigantic disk bigger than your average umbrella. I dropped it with a loud clang.
Jake stifled a weary laugh and then ran his hand along the rim again. It curled back into the pocket mirror sized trinket.
I put in my back pocket.
"Let's go get this back to your dad," I said, "and then I'm going to have a nice little chat with Nyx."