“This way,” Welch said, turning left.
Jada glanced at Sully as if hoping to share the excitement that seemed to have allowed her to forget her grief a moment, but he didn’t notice. When she turned to Drake, he returned her smile and nodded, a confession that yes, he understood. Then they were hurrying along the tunnel, moving from pools of light to pools of shadow, and the orange walls seemed to close in around them, the dry breath of history soft on their faces.
Drake had questions he wanted to ask Welch about the construction of the labyrinth, but they were moving fast and he decided all such questions could wait. They had come here for a single purpose: to find clues to the secrets that had gotten Jada’s father killed before Tyr Henriksen could do the same thing. If there was a fourth labyrinth, with or without treasure inside it, they had to get there first. More important, whatever mysteries were unraveled, they had to let the world know that Luka Hzujak had been the first to discover the truth and that he had died for it.
And if there was treasure along the way, that would be a nice bonus.
The maze turned in upon itself time and again, offering false paths and optical illusions, but the hard work of solving this part of the labyrinth had been done already. The dead ends had been roped off, the correct tunnels given away by the strings of lights, so they never slowed, even when the floor of the tunnel sloped downward or the maze took them through a door with a massive stone lintel overhead that threatened to come crashing down atop them. In many places, wooden beams had been put into place to support the ceilings and walls, hammered together hastily, and left, as if a construction crew had begun to build something and then walked out on the job.
Twice, they had to go around open shafts in the floor that went down forty feet or more into darkness.
“What’s this for?” Jada asked as they circumvented the first one, a flickering lightbulb casting ghostly shadows into the hole.
“It’s a trap,” Welch replied.
Drake smiled but did not give voice to the obvious Star Wars reference. He doubted any of his companions would get it, even Sully, who he knew had seen the movies.
They passed a pair of archaeology grad students who were carrying a large plastic container in which Drake could see things wrapped in cotton batting.
“Dr. Welch,” one of them—a stout Australian with bright eyes—said in surprise. “Melissa said you didn’t feel well. I figured we wouldn’t see you today.”
He looked curiously at Drake, Sully, and Jada, but Welch trotted out his Smithsonian charade and the grad students seemed duly impressed. If they ran into anyone who was part of the upper hierarchy on the project, it might not fly so easily, but Drake hoped they wouldn’t be that unlucky.
Time seemed to stretch inside the labyrinth. Drake wondered how long they had been inside, realizing they must be beneath the sand now, with thousands of tons of desert on top of them, not to mention the ceilings of the labyrinth. How far behind was Henriksen now? Still pretending to be putting together a documentary? Or would he have hurried Hilary Russo along? Drake thought the latter and began to get anxious. The only thing they had going for them was that it would take Henriksen just as long to make his way through the maze as it was taking them.
“I have no idea where we are,” Jada whispered.
Sully growled. “Ain’t that the point?”
“Seriously,” Jada said. “I tried to keep my bearings, figure out what direction we were pointing in and whether or not we were moving nearer the center or away, but I’ve totally lost track.”
“I didn’t even try,” Drake admitted.
“It would be hopeless without some kind of mapping or a GPS that could transmit through the ground,” Welch said. “Daedalus was smarter than any of us. Probably smarter than all of us combined. From this point, if you tried to make it back to the entrance and the lights weren’t there, there are more than a hundred combinations of turns in the maze. Unless you were very lucky, you would be lost for hours. And we’ve postulated that we’ve only been able to access an eighth of the labyrinth. From the center, you might be lost for days. You could die of starvation and thirst before getting out unless you fell down a shaft or were crushed in a trap first.”
“The places you haven’t been able to access,” Drake said. “Did the ceiling collapse?”
“It buckled in a couple of places, allowing sand in from above. In other spots there are places where what appears to be a dead end is actually a continuation of the labyrinth, but with secret doors to hidden passages. There are portcullis blocks in the walls, but the granite framing is cracked, so the series of weights and levers that would have raised those doors are not sufficient. Essentially, they’re stuck. But we’ll get them open.”
Drake and the others said nothing. They were all familiar enough with ancient Egyptian builders to know that the great pyramids were replete with hidden chambers and secret passages. Only recently Drake had been having a drink with an old friend in Thailand and discussing the work being done at the Great Pyramid of Giza to confirm the existence of a hidden corridor beneath the Queen’s Chamber there.
“You’ve gotta be careful with that stuff,” Sully said, reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out a half-smoked cigar. “Those things are made to be tricky. One of them closes, you don’t want to be caught on the other side.”
“You can’t smoke that in here,” Welch said. “Poor ventilation.”
Jada frowned. “Not that I want to smell the stinky thing, but actually, the air is moving a little.”
“There is some sifting through cracks,” Welch admitted. “But still.”
“I’m not smoking it, Ian,” Sully growled. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
Welch adjusted his glasses, trying and failing to hide his irritation. Drake just smiled. Sully had his charms when he felt like using them. They were all fortunate that he had foregone the typical guayabera today. When he was clothed in his usual wardrobe, nobody would have believed for a second that he worked for the Smithsonian. The Rat Pack museum, maybe, Drake thought.
They heard activity up ahead, and Welch gave them a warning look. Drake was surprised when they turned the next corner and saw that the lights that were wired together had been split off so that one strand went along the tunnel to the left and one jagged to the right and then continued on ahead. They followed the right-hand path and the echoes of work in progress grew louder as the tunnel sloped downward.
If not for the noise, and the lights, and Welch leading them, Drake would have assumed they were heading for a dead end. The tunnel kept going for twenty feet or so past the opening in the wall on the right, a little zigzag that looked as if it went nowhere. The walls narrowed in the zag, and the illusion that there was no passage there at all was very effective.
When they stepped through, they found themselves in a large octagonal chamber, perhaps thirty feet across. Unlike the main tunnels of the labyrinth, which had very few hieroglyphics, the walls here were covered with paintings and raised images and symbols. Three stairs led down to the sunken floor of the chamber. A stone altar—also octagonal—stood at the center of the room. To the left was a narrow doorway capped with a line of ankhs engraved in the stone.
A camera flash came from beyond the doorway, followed by voices.
“All right, Guillermo, put that aside with the others,” a woman said. “Let’s start brushing the sand away so we can free that vase.”
“Melissa?” Welch said.
Some shifting of equipment and clothing could be heard, and then a woman popped her head out of the side room. She had coppery ginger hair and elfin features with bright, intelligent eyes, and her face lit up with pleasure at the site of Ian Welch.
“Ian!” she said, coming out into the worship chamber. “I’m so glad you’re feeling better.”
“Much better,” Welch lied. He looked like he might be about to become sick for real, perpetuating the fiction of their identities. “Melissa, meet Dave Farzan and Nathan Merrill from the Smithsonian.”
Drake stepped forward to shake her hand. “Nate Merrill. Nice to meet you.”
Sully shook her hand as well, taking the cigar stub from his mouth in an attempt at courtesy.
“And this is Jada Hzujak, Dr. Luka Hzujak’s daughter. You might’ve heard that he passed away not long ago.”
Melissa’s face crinkled in sympathy. “Oh, God, no. I hadn’t heard.” She looked at Jada. “I’m so sorry. Your father was here not long ago. He was such a character, he kept us all laughing and fascinated at the same time.”
Jada let out a shuddery breath and nodded. “Yeah. He had that effect on people.”
Drake had been surprised that Welch had chosen to use Jada’s real name, but now he understood why. Melissa would pay less attention to the fact that they were supposed to be from the Smithsonian if she was distracted by Jada’s identity and the tragedy of her father’s death. It was a crass ploy, but it worked.
A skinny, unshaven man with olive skin and dark bags under his eyes stepped out of what Welch had called the anteroom, glancing at them curiously. New introductions were made. Melissa Corrigan was an archaeologist from Colorado, lower than Welch on the ladder of command but above the grad students, including the slender Guillermo and Alan, a baby-faced black man who turned out to be the dig’s photographer.
“Since Nate and Dave are visiting, I thought I’d get a consult on the whole mistress/Minotaur question,” Welch told Melissa. “As you know, it was something Luka had a real passion for, and Jada was curious as well. She’s sort of retracing her father’s steps.”
“A kind of farewell tour,” Jada said, and didn’t have to feign the distress the words brought her.
“Of course,” Melissa said, turning back to Welch. “Do your thing, Ian. We won’t get in your way.”
As Melissa and her team went back to work in the anteroom, Welch showed them the worship chamber. Drake went directly to the altar. Its surface was rough and stained by blood or dye spilled thousands of years before. The base was covered with paintings, many showing crocodiles, the god Sobek, and people kneeling before a robed woman, offering her golden chalices. One painting showed the woman—the Mistress of the Labyrinth, apparently—standing by an altar quite like this one with her hands spread, as if intoning a ritual chant over an array of offerings.
“No doubt about the use of this chamber,” Drake said.
“Look at this,” Jada said.
She had bent over the altar for a closer look at a grouping of lines on the surface. At first glance, Drake had thought it nothing but dirt and a trick of the light, but now he realized there were designs engraved in the stone: three linked octagons, each inside a circle. Drake thought the octagonal shape was very unusual for Egyptian builders, but he didn’t dare ask about it for fear of giving their ignorance away.
“Fascinating,” was all he managed.
“Three octagons,” Jada said, “three labyrinths.” She could get away with such things because no one had claimed she was an expert.
“That was our thinking as well,” Welch agreed.
Sully had been working his way through the room, studying the angles of the joints between stones, searching for any indication of a hidden chamber. This was precisely the sort of place where the Egyptians might have put one—the burial chamber of the Mistress of the Labyrinth, perhaps.
“The mistress—she was a sort of high priestess, then?” Drake asked.
He glanced at the anteroom and saw Melissa moving in there and the flash of Alan’s camera, but no one seemed to think his question absurd.
“We believe so,” Welch agreed. “And yet if she was a priestess of Sobek, what of the other two labyrinths, which had to have been dedicated to other gods? The labyrinths represent the vision of someone thinking much more broadly than a single kingdom or a single theology, but the labyrinth is clearly dedicated to Sobek.”
“Quite a dilemma,” Sully rumbled, cigar stub clenched between his teeth. If these people thought he was some kind of archaeologist or museum curator, they had to be thinking he was a fairly eccentric one.
Drake leaned into the anteroom. “Mind if we take a quick look in here?”
Melissa smiled. “Of course not. Frankly, we were just waiting for the right opportunity to show Dr. Welch our most recent find. But there’s no time like the present, considering the subject matter.”
Welch perked up. “What is it?”
Guillermo stepped back out into the worship chamber to make room. Alan protected his camera as if it were more fragile and valuable than any artifact they might discover, stepping out of the anteroom as well. When Welch, Drake, Sully, and Jada filed in, Melissa had a stone tablet in her hands.
“We found two of these,” she began, looking to Welch for approbation. “Just this morning, in fact. This antechamber seems to have been accessible only to the Mistress of the Labyrinth. So while the paintings and tablets in the worship chamber indicate that the honey was brought to her as an offering—as does the jar we found—these tablets tell a different story.”
Welch took the tablet from her and studied it, surprise dawning on his features.
“What does it say?” Jada asked.
“We’d wondered, my friends,” he said, turning to them with a smile. “And now we know. The honey may have been brought to the mistress, but the offering wasn’t for her. She—I’m not sure if this indicates that she served it, as with a meal, or administered it in some medical fashion to the protector of the labyrinth.”
“That one says something like ‘protector,’ ” Melissa said. “But the other tablet is explicit. The protector was a monster, hidden from the cult of Sobek, known only to those who dared the ‘secret heart’ of the labyrinth and who would never return because the monster would kill them.”