I emerged from the darkness into blinding daylight, so bright that I had to stop and squint for a moment, my eyes watering as they adjusted. When they did, I realized I was standing on a hillside looking down at a U.S. military facility, with a series of long runways and several hangars.
The Nevada entrance to Tartarus came out overlooking Area 51.
Well, why not. It had to come out somewhere, and the place was – by all accounts – a real weirdness magnet. Speaking of which, I was standing out in the open within sight of a high security military facility. Not wise.
I activated my helmet, closing my eyes briefly as the hairband unfolded and wrapped around my head. A faint blue glow sprang up around my face as the heads-up display quickly assessed my surroundings and equipment, then settled into what I guessed was its ‘resting’ state: time and date in the upper right corner of my field of vision, along with my current location (“Groom Lake, Nevada, USA”).
“Um…how do I turn on the invisibility?” I asked the helmet. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for an instruction book.
The HUD changed slightly, a note appearing in the top left corner: “Invisibility Enabled.” Glancing down, I discovered that my hand and arm – and, presumably, the rest of me – were completely transparent. The helmet provided me with a faint outline of myself in my field of vision.
I’d tried out invisibility a couple of times during my training, and had found it surprisingly disorienting, not being able to tell where my body was by sight. Since my helmet was giving me a visual guide to mitigate that, I guessed I wasn’t the only one with that problem.
Curiously, I took a few steps, then glanced back. As promised, my boots had left no tracks in the sand. I would, as Hades had said, be able to pass without leaving any trace at all. I wondered just how sophisticated the magic making this all possible was, and how far it could be pushed before my tracks and I would become visible no matter what. I made a mental note to ask Mel about running some tests on that later.
So, now what? I had to find a minotaur which had emerged from this entrance about two weeks ago. It took me only a few moments to determine that it had either been using some sort of magic to hide its passage, or its tracks had – more likely – long since been obscured by the weather.
I could go down to the Groom Lake facility and lurk around to see if anyone was talking about a wild minotaur in the area, but somehow that felt like a non-starter. Fortunately, I’d learned ways to track creatures other than by physical means, and I had high hopes that my helmet would facilitate that sort of tracking. While I knew spells which could do so, and how to cast them, it would leave me free to do other things if my equipment were capable. So I gave it a try.
“Activate aura tracking,” I said quietly. “Target is a male minotaur who passed this way about two weeks ago.”
The HUD shifted and changed, and after a moment a series of foot prints began to glow faintly on the ground, heading away towards the west. They were huge prints, and the length of the stride was much larger than any normal human’s. Information flowed down the right side of the HUD in my peripheral vision, telling me that based on the residual life-energy of the tracks, the minotaur was estimated to be about nine feet tall, weighing approximately half a ton.
I swallowed. Well, at least Mom’s gifts were as useful as I’d hoped. How hard could it be to follow and find a half-ton minotaur with this kind of magi-tech at my disposal.
“Extrapolate possible paths from the trail.” I could follow the footprints one by one, but who knew what the creature had been up to. I might not have a lot of time to waste.
The helmet’s HUD displayed a map of the surrounding area, complete with a “You Are Here” marker to show me precisely where I was. The footprints lead away for almost a mile before the helmet wasn’t able to continue tracking them from my location. There was a brief pause, then the trail marked on the map broke into three possible paths. Two of them divided once more each, but the center one remained unbroken. Each path was marked with a percentage, which I took to indicate how likely the minotaur was to have gone that way based on whatever data the helmet was using.
The unbroken path was marked as being the most likely, by a wide margin. I made another mental note to run some tests with Mel to figure out what criteria it was using, but for now, I was on the job. “All right then, I’ll go that way.”
I started jogging along the indicated route, then concentrated and gave a little skip-like jump. In the blink of an eye, I was a hundred yards further along than I had been. Line of sight teleportation was something I’d worked with before, during my training, and I had long-since become an accomplished ‘Skipper’ (the popular modern term for the technique). I made one more mental note to thank Hades for including the ability in my boots’ powers, then set to it.
I travelled like that for an hour, Skipping ahead a hundred yards every few steps and taking occasional pauses for my helmet’s sensors to update the map and trail. It continued unbroken and without diverting at all for the entire hour I followed it.
I finally stopped when the HUD indicated that the direction I was going had reached a 100% probability of being the right path. It displayed more ghostly footprints on the ground where something huge had passed, and indicated that they were only a couple of days old, much fresher than the original ones.
“Why is this the most likely path?” I asked curiously, scanning the horizon and seeing nothing but low scrub, hills, and sand.
The map in my HUD replied by zipping ahead another two hundred miles and showing me a town. Demographic information indicated that it was deserted, and had been for some time. It would be an ideal place for a minotaur to set up camp.
“Reasonable. Thanks, Mom.” I thought about Stepping over to the town, but quickly discarded the idea. I’d much rather approach it slowly, maybe circle around it and have a look from a distance before moving in. So, with a jogging start, I began Skipping my way towards it again.
It took me a little over an hour to get there, pausing a couple of times to take my bearings and make sure I was still on the right path. I was, and ended my trip stretched out on a low rise overlooking the town, peering down through my helmet, which obligingly behaved like a pair of high-quality binoculars for me. There was a single major intersection in the center of town, and it looked like something had been dragged through the dust there not more than a few hours ago.
Definitely the right place, I thought, but where in town would he be hiding?
I lifted my gaze and quickly decided that he wouldn’t be in town at all. There was an old amusement park a half-mile to the west of town, every bit as run down and abandoned as the town itself.
The fresh drag-path, and other similar trails through the dust, all went in that direction. So did the faintly glowing footprints that my helmet was starting to display.
I Skipped over towards the amusement park, taking up a position on a rooftop at the edge of town, crouched down behind the low wall running around the flat roof. I trusted my helmet to keep me invisible to mortal eyes…but too many monsters (and other immortal creatures) had ways of seeing through invisibility. And no form of invisibility was completely fool-proof. Better to be cautious.
Also, it was past time to figure out my sword’s last secret. I unsheathed Cerberus and held it up…then sighed and rapped the side of my helmet with my free hand. Of course I wouldn’t be able to see it. Invisibility, as useful as it was, had its own drawbacks.
I hunkered down a bit lower and made myself visible again so I could examine my weapon in close detail. It would be easy to get lost in admiring the craftsmanship, so I concentrated my attention on the sword’s two-handed grip, where I’d found the pressure-based controls that transformed it into a spear. There had to be another combination.
There was. It took me only a few moments to figure it out, and this time I was ready for it when Cerberus suddenly began to transform. The blade segmented and shortened to the length of the spear blade as the hilt extended and thickened. In an instant, I was holding what looked like a cross between a sniper rifle and an assault rifle.
It had a tubular red body, with a skeletonized triangular shoulder stock made by the shaft folding in two places. The hilt and guard had shifted and reformed to make an angled rifle grip, while the blade had split in half and folded edges-upward to form the grip and handguard. The rifle was finished off with a port on the bottom that looked like it was designed to receive a magazine, and a charging handle on the right side.
At the same time, three new readouts appeared in my helmet’s HUD: the first read ‘Energy Level’ and indicated 100%; the second read ‘Power Level’ and was set to 50%; the third read ‘Ammo Count’ and had a little infinity symbol next to it. I tipped the rifle and found three controls on the left side, just above where my thumb would naturally rest on the grip. One was a shot selector switch (single-shot, 3-round burst, and automatic), with a safety right behind it. The third was a slider (marked ‘Intensity’) that was about halfway along its notched length.
The whole rifle seemed to hum gently in my hands.
Curiously, I pushed the intensity slider up as far as it would go, and watched as the power level readout in my helmet’s HUD shifted to 100%, and the ammo count meter changed to 30. I pulled the slider back down to the halfway mark, and the readouts returned to their original settings.
Interesting. An energy rifle? Then why did it have a slot for a magazine and a charging handle?
I pulled out the magazine of huge rounds that Daedalus had given me and – doubting that the wide magazine would fit into the narrow receiver – brought it to the bottom of the rifle. Cerberus changed shape accordingly, growing thicker so that it could accept the magazine, and the bolt area enlarged to manage the large ammunition. The readouts in my helmet’s HUD changed too: the power level indicator dropped to 0%, while the ammo count changed to 6.
Wow. I wondered just how flexible Cerberus was about taking different types of ammunition – third mental note of the day for testing with Mel – as I pulled the magazine free and returned it to my pouch. Then I shifted Cerberus to its spear form and peered cautiously over the rim of the roof’s low wall at the abandoned amusement park.
It was, I saw, less of an amusement park and more of a traveling circus which had set down roots and died with the town. There were the remains of three huge, connected tents, the tent poles still standing and supporting the tattered and faded remains of the canvas. A number of double-sized trailers were set in place with small buildings attached to them, many bowed and rotting with age. A partially collapsed roller coaster stood off to one side, and a Ferris wheel sat not far from that, listing dangerously to one side.
The minotaur’s most recent trail, complete with a still-glistening bloody smear on the ground – led to one of the less decrepit-looking buildings. When I zoomed in on it, I saw that its faded sign proclaimed it to be ‘The Incredible Mirror-Maze Funhouse!’
I sank back down and thumped my helmeted forehead against the edge of the low wall. Of course it had taken up residence in a maze. “For reference,” I said, on the off chance Hades was observing my progress, “I like to eat my crow deep fried, with a side of curly fries. Thank you.”
Peering over the edge of the roof’s low wall again, I took stock of the condition of the buildings on either side of the funhouse. Neither of them looked sturdy enough to risk Skipping to.
“Damn,” I sighed. I really did not want to approach from the street, but it didn’t look like I had much of a choice. Front entrance, or back entrance? Either way, the minotaur would likely spot me and make me enter whatever was left of the mirror maze. Might as well go in the front then.
I didn’t bother making myself invisible again as I rose and hopped lightly over the low wall. Minotaurs generally have lousy distance eyesight to begin with, and do most of their hunting by scent and sound, neither of which my helmet and boots were muffling. At least, that I was aware of, and I wasn’t going to rely on them to do so unless I was certain they were.
The three-story drop to the ground was a short one for a demigod. My natural abilities, combined with my training and the boost given me by my new position as an Avatar, allowed me to land as lightly as if I’d jumped off the last step of a staircase, bending my legs slightly to absorb what little part of the impact I felt. I trotted forward a few steps, unfolding my shield on my left forearm, then Skipped into the lengthening shadows of the small building (“See the Amazing Bearded Lady! The Living Statue! The Three-Armed Man!”) across from the funhouse.
The only sounds I heard were the wind, and the creak of wood and metal from the trailers and buildings. If two Old West gunfighters had stepped out into the street, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
I focused my attention on the still-fresh smear of blood on the ground in front of the funhouse and whispered, “Can you give me an analysis of the blood?”
A readout appeared in the left side of my helmet’s HUD, and scrolled data past too quickly for me to read for a few seconds before informing me that it was deer blood. I blew out a breath and relaxed a little. At least the thing didn’t have a dead or dying hostage I’d need to worry about.
Small favors. Bad enough I was going to have to go in there.
With a flick of my fingers, Cerberus transformed back into a sword, and I gripped it tightly in my right hand. The inside of a building was no place to be fighting with a spear, and I wanted to try to bring the thing back alive, if I could.
I crept forward across the street, keeping my shield in front of me, just in case. Nothing moved as I made my way up the steps, past the drying blood, and into the funhouse.
The interior was unlit, but there were holes in the walls and ceiling that let in just enough daylight for me to see by. There was a brief foyer lined with old posters (“Don’t get lost in the Incredible Mirror Maze!”), then an open doorway with mirrors on either side of it.
I took a deep breath to steady myself, shifted my grip on Cerberus, and hooked my left hand into the leather strap on the inside of my shield. Finally, I took my first slow steps into the maze.
Unprotected mirrors make me a little bit jittery. There’s far too many creatures which can use them as a method of travel, or as a way to eavesdrop on you. That’s why the mirrors in my room – and all of the ones I’d ever seen since being a little girl – were heavily warded. To keep them from being used that way.
These were totally unguarded, and I was surrounded by them. The good news was that they couldn’t be very thick or very strong, and many were clouded with age and caked with dust. And, of course, I had no qualms at all about smashing and crashing my way through them, if I had to. There was nobody to complain about the property damage afterwards.
“I smell you, Avatar,” a deep, rough voice said. It seemed to echo from all around me thanks to the maze’s weird acoustics. “Hear you breathing. See you creeping. Never hunted a minotaur before, have you.”
In point of fact, I hadn’t. I’d gone through simulated hunts against them during training, but the worst thing I’d fought was friendly half-giants and the occasional surly centaur. And none of them had been trying to kill me, just beat me up.
Had I bitten off more than I could chew? No. I was an Avatar, and well trained. I could do this.
“Come out, minotaur!” I called back, pleased to hear no waver at all in my voice. “We can go home quietly.”
“Back into a cave? A cell? I want the wind in my face and blood on my horns, stupid girl!”
I glanced left and right, but saw only my own distorted reflections. He had me at an enormous disadvantage, and I knew it. But we were in a confined space, which would limit his ability to use his full speed and strength again…
He crashed through the mirror in front of me and struck my shield with his horns, literally hitting me head on and sending me tumbling back through two rows of mirrors. Shattered glass crashed down around me, and I felt little tugs and stabs as the shards cut across my bare skin.
“Never, ever stay down on the ground,” Heracles had taught us. “Most of the things you might end up fighting are going to be bigger, stronger, and a lot nastier than you are. Lying on the ground, you’re vulnerable. Get back on your feet as quickly as possible.”
I tucked my legs up and rolled to the side, deflecting a kick at my head with my shield and using the impact momentum to spin me back to my feet. I transformed Cerberus into its rifle form as I gained my feet and braced its muzzle against the inward curve of my shield’s front edge. My thumb caressed the selector switch and pushed the intensity up to 75%.
Then I pulled the trigger.
Cerberus made a crackling snap sound and spat three bolts of red-gold energy from its muzzle, followed by three more as I pulled the trigger again. The shots were true, and struck the minotaur in its face and chest.
I got a little lucky, really. His hide was obviously too thick and tough for all but the most powerful blasts from Cerberus to penetrate…but one of my shots struck his left eye squarely and burned it out of his head.
The minotaur threw his head back and howled.
With a quick gesture, I extended Cerberus into its spear form and threw it with all of my not-inconsiderable might. It struck true, the enchanted blade penetrating the Minotaur’s hide where the energy blasts didn’t…but not where I’d been aiming, driving deep into his stomach. The creature’s pained movements had caused me to throw low, but it had reared back when it had looked like it was about to lean forward.
He glared at me with his remaining eye, his left hand covering the side of his face, hiding the damage I’d done. With his right hand, the minotaur yanked Cerberus free and tossed it so that it clattered at my feet. “Lucky shots,” he growled. “Try that again, I dare you.”
I bent and scooped up Cerberus –
A dizzy moment later I was crashing through the side of the building to tumble into the dust-caked street outside.
“Ow,” I groaned as I came to a halt on my back, lying on cracked pavement. “That was really stupid.”
The minotaur appeared in the hole I’d opened in the side of the building, by way of my assisted departure. “That was stupid!” he laughed roughly, unintentionally echoing my sentiment.
“Yeah it was,” I agreed, pushing myself to my feet and gripping Cerberus in my right hand as it changed back into a sword. I held my shield in front of me and braced myself to fight. “Round two?”
He rolled his neck and shrugged his shoulders, and I swear I could actually hear his tendons crackling and popping. “I’ve never killed an Avatar. First time for everything, though.”
“And I didn’t know minotaurs were smart enough to string whole sentences together,” I taunted, though I knew they were. Artemis had told us during training that minotaurs were actually very sensitive about their perceived intelligence. “You learn something new every day.”
Artemis was extremely right. With a bellow of rage, the minotaur jumped down out of the hole in the building, lowered his head, and charged.
I was ready for him this time. I slid to the right and slammed my shield into the injured side of his head as he plowed through the space I’d occupied a moment earlier, moving like a runaway train. The resounding ‘BONG’ from my shield hitting tough flesh and horn was almost comical, though it sent a vibration up my left arm that was momentarily numbing.
At the same time, I stuck out my left foot.
It’s a cheap trick, I know, but you’d be surprised how often it works, especially against an angry opponent. His foot caught on my armor-plated shin and he sprawled face-first into the road, moving so fast that his momentum carried him the rest of the way across to crash into the freakshow building. His horns ended up lodged in the wood.
I Skipped about ten feet into the air above him and came down hard, flipping Cerberus into a reverse grip and driving it at his unprotected back. Once again, my aim was thrown off by his movements as he wrenched his horns free of the building, and my blade struck his shoulder blade and skittered off to the side. A wound, but not even close to a serious one.
He rolled and swatted me off his back. I caught the blow on my shield, but it was still strong enough to send me flying. I crashed through the railing of the freakshow’s steps and tumbled back to my feet on the other side.
Cerberus, however, had lodged point-first in one of the steps as I tumbled over it and had been yanked out of my hand.
“Bad luck, Avatar,” the minotaur growled as he rose back to his feet. “Lost your pretty weapon.”