I returned the following day to the stormwater drain pipe with my two tracking partners, Calli and Ao. They were the best, and both were eager to get started. The bond I had with them was unshakeable, and while they often were busy competing with each other for my attention, when it was time to work, they were deadly serious. My wolf sisters, who spent their life together; they shared everything and work was no different. Each had a role, and they understood just what to do. Ao was the better tracker and usually took point, but Calli was a bit larger and significantly stronger. She would quarterback, off Ao, and watch for danger while Ao focused on tracking the quarry. Together they were a formidable team that worked flawlessly together.
Each of them scented a jacket of Eleni’s before we left the Olympus Administration Building since I wasn’t sure if this thing would have her odor or a unique one of its own. Once we reached the drainpipe and slunk inside, I let each of them sniff several tufts of hair that had been scraped off the creature and left behind. Both were eager to get started, and as I squeezed through the cramped confines of the drainpipe, they often stopped to look back at me irritated.
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” I huffed at them as I shuffled along, hunkered down in the pipe. If I encountered the beast in here, I had no idea how I would be able to defend myself.
My best guess was we had gone several hundred yards straight under an older section of the city when the pipe came to a “T” intersection. To my left, the air was stale and smelled fetid, almost putrid. To the right, a faint breeze hit my face, and while that air was musty and fragrant with decay, it was noticeably less foul. I hoped to go right and was pleased both girls agreed with me. I maneuvered around the corner, and we headed another quarter mile or so before the smaller pipe, thankfully, intersected a much larger underground corridor.
I was grateful to stand and stretch as I stepped out of the narrow drainpipe. I could see now that it was just an overflow, only of use when this main passage was flooded. For its part, the main corridor was cut stone, fitted together with craftsmanship. Even with evidence of its age, the stones still fit together tightly, with cracks that would accommodate little more than the thinnest knife blade. I glanced up; the ceiling was vaulted and well over ten feet. The passage was wide, about six feet across with a two-foot wide groove cut into the center of it. On each side of that was a two-foot-wide raised stone walk. In periods of heavy rain or flooding, I am sure the whole passage was filled, but right now, water flowed only in the groove, leaving the walkways wet and slippery, but not inundated.
We received confirmation we were still on the correct path when I discovered more tufts of hair as well as some scuffed hoofprints near the mouth of the smaller drainpipe. Here the corridor formed a four-way intersection, and there was no clear indication of which way to proceed. I crouched and examined the chunks of fur as the girls sniffed the air to determine which way to go next. I hugged each of them around the neck and kissed them on their muzzles. Both nipped at me impatiently and bared their teeth. They were in no mood for play. They were in hunting mode.
“Alright, alright,” I said as I glanced between them, “you two be careful, this thing is dangerous, and even if you are immortal, you can still be seriously hurt. Do you understand?”
The wolves licked me and pulled away. They understood, and they were ready to get back to work. Ao turned and trotted several steps down one of the passages, then turned and looked back at Calli and me.
“If you say so,” I replied. I stood and followed her into the gloom.
So, we went. The subterranean network was extensive and went on for miles. Corridors branched and intertwined, sometimes looping back on each other. This was the labyrinth, and it extended on a massive scale like a web beneath the city streets. Periodically we would pass a ladder that led to a manhole cover on the surface. Just above my eye level were smaller drain holes, presumably leading up to the storm drains on the street. They let in air, occasional street noises, and just enough light to let us see in the murky gloom. At one point, Ao paused, sniffing a side passage thoughtfully. I paused for a moment, shifting the coil of rope and my sword across my back. I carried a flashlight, a small pack, and my pistols were holstered on my belt. I didn’t want to hurt Eleni. I had to find a way to trap her. I planned to bring Hekate to her and see if she could undo the magic.
A noise from the side passage got our attention just as we were about to move on, and both girls’ hackles stood up. They let out low growls and peered into the gloom as what sounded like footsteps, hard and clicking on the stone corridor, receded away from us. The girls wanted to run, to pursue, but I wouldn’t hear of it.
“Both of you, hold,” I said as I shined my light down the side passage. Their growls turned to whines, but they listened, and we moved into the tunnel together. Fifty feet in Ao began growling again; she had the scent.
“Hold,” I said again as I bent to examine the floor. The moss on the stones had a fresh scrape in it where it looked like something had slipped and lost its footing. I moved forward to find the next footprint and whispered to the wolves.
“Watch the corridor. Make sure nothing comes while I check these prints.” They moved forward, peering intently into the unknown darkness as I examined the next footprint. It was large, extending beyond the palm of my hand. A hoof that size down here could only belong to the Minotaur. I glanced up, suddenly overcome with an eerie feeling of being observed, and I wondered if this was how the prey felt moments before the predator struck. I shined my light both ways in the passage, but everything was reassuringly still as I stood up again.
“Alright, very carefully, you two.” The wolves moved forward in the dark. We were certainly on the right trail. I was just unnerved how close it had been without us detecting it. Was it a better hunter than I had believed? Suddenly I wished I had brought someone along for backup. The passage continued straight for several hundred yards before it reached a short flight of stairs cut into the stone. There had been several side passages, but Ao ignored them. She was confident of the scent, and a scattering of fresh footprints confirmed she was correct. We took the eight or ten steps up, and there was an immediate difference in our surroundings. The stone was dryer, less covered in moss, and the air not as stagnant. Above I could hear the street sounds much clearer, and it was brighter in the tunnel. We moved forward again, Ao still in the lead, and discovered we were right under the street now. At one point, we passed a curbside storm drain, and I peered out to see the ankles of pedestrians and the hustle of cars and trucks on the road.
This was it. This was how the creature hunted. From any one of these vantage points, it could choose its prey from the mortals, exit quickly through a manhole cover for the kill, then drag its victim back into the sewers and all in a matter of just minutes. There it could feast undisturbed while a frantic search was conducted above.
We were close. I could feel it. I was brought back to the moment when Ao, then Calli, each gave low growls. It had always been their way of warning or protecting me. A low guttural growl that didn’t have much force behind it, but just seemed to go on and on. Like distant thunder in the summer that doesn’t crack, but rather rumbles and grumbles just enough to let you know you should beware. We hadn’t gone much farther when we heard the distinct squeaking of rats. Laying on the stone floor, was a chunk of meat, covered in about a dozen of the rodents. They scurried away as the wolves approached, chirping and squeaking angrily as they disappeared down the passage or into smaller drain holes near the floor. When I reached the spot, I looked at the remains and grimaced. I’ve seen a lot of corpses in my life. This was a human leg minus the rest of its body. The girls ignored the rotten meat and stared straight down the corridor, Ao with her left front paw raised on a semi-point.
“Okay, I’ve been saying it for two hours,” I muttered to them, “but now I really mean it. Be careful. We are very close.” Calli let out a small noise, like a bark, but it was down in her throat. The fact that she clearly understood was made even more obvious when she nuzzled her head under Ao’s chin and rubbed her muzzle against her throat. Ao agreed and rubbed her head on Ao’s side. Since everyone concurred, we moved forward cautiously, and in another fifty yards, we reached another ‘T’ in the passage. There was no question or discussion; all three of us could hear the monster breathing to our left. It was a peculiar snorting hiss that was unmistakable in the confines of these underground passages. I shined my light down the corridor, and there stood the creature.
Standing upright, it was easily seven feet tall, and in this tight space, the perspective made it appear even larger than when I last saw it at the museum. Its chest and shoulders were brawny and wrapped in corded muscles that seemed to twist around each other like coiled snakes with every movement. Its neck was thick and squat to support the mammoth head, which sported a mouth full of fangs and razor-sharp teeth. In its hands was an axe, where that came from I have no idea., but history is history. It had carried one in the past, and it found one to carry now. It wasn’t a battle or war axe, but rather a woodcutter’s, with a long oak handle and double-bit head. The Minotaur swiped it through the air several times as a warning not to approach.
Calli and Ao went on full alert the moment we saw it, with Ao giving a low, curt howl to make all aware the quarry was spotted. The sound only served to agitate the creature more, causing it to hiss and snarl at us. The passage was a dead-end, and it appeared to be cornered, which was both good and bad. Good because it had nowhere left to run, bad because it would certainly charge before all this was over. I dropped the coiled rope and the small pack I was carrying. The stout padlocks and manacles forged by my uncle thunked as they landed against the stone. I drew my sword as both girls eased forward, one on each side of the drainage groove in the middle of the floor. Here in the higher part of the passage, there was little more than a trickle of water flowing, in some places, none at all.
“Ladies,” I said evenly as I eyed the creature swaying back and forth, “his feet. Remember he is unsteady on this damp stone, he has slipped several times.” Neither wolf looked back at me but rather flicked their ears, so I knew they understood. Both were close now, just out of reach if it swung the axe. It was a standoff of standoffs, and I still was wondering how in the world to subdue this thing and shackle it without possibly hurting Eleni. That was when I saw it. Recessed into the stone wall was an alcove set off from the dead-ended central passage by stout iron bars that ran from floor to ceiling. It looked like it once was used for storage, or perhaps to house electric conduit boxes, but now it was empty. There was an open gate, just behind the creature that looked like it might be strong enough to hold him.
“Ladies, in the cage. Get the rabbit in the cage, then get out.” They knew what I meant. Years ago, we would play a game where I would turn a rabbit loose, and they would chase it, then shepherd it back into a cage without touching it or hurting it. It built their endurance, dexterity, and teamwork. Though as I look back on it, I suppose it was a bit nerve-wracking for the rabbit. Nonetheless, the girls now knew just what I meant. The Minotaur seemed to sense something was imminent and shifted his weight from one side to the other, trying to judge where to defend first. My sword drawn, I eased myself forward, and the creature did not like that at all.
“Whenever you are ready, Ladies.”
Calli went first. The wolves are gifted with short bursts of inhuman speed. A blessing bestowed by Hermes after I helped him out of a jam many years ago. Ao followed, and both streaked past the Minotaur only to reappear as women behind him, just inside the alcove gate. I never understood where they could get fashion sense, but both were wearing jeans, close-fitting tops, and snug leather jackets that protected their arms and torso. On their feet were rubber-soled hiking boots, clearly designed for work. The monster roared in frustration as they streaked past, and sparks flew, the axe head striking stone as it swung the weapon wildly.
It raised the axe again, and I stepped forward, striking the handle out of the creature’s grasp with my sword. It clattered sharply to the ground, and I kicked it behind me. Now was the moment of truth, the monster was cornered and disarmed, but by no means unarmed. It still had its razor-sharp teeth and four-inch claws, just no longer the axe. I narrowed my eyes to gauge its next move. Would it come for me, or Ao and Calli? The Minotaur hesitated, looked back and forth, then lunged for the girls in the cage. Both jumped backward to draw it deeper into the alcove. Enraged and frustrated, it stomped after them as I scooped up one of my padlocks and, with a shriek of long unused hinges, slammed the iron gate shut. I paused to lock it as I watched my girls shift back to wolf form, then slip between the bars and back into the central passage, safe from the Minotaur. Once I was sure they were clear, I fastened the padlock, and the creature was caught.
We stepped away from the makeshift cell and waited for the creature to realize what had happened. When it did, it attacked the door with full fury, raging, shrieking, and howling but to no avail. Despite the Minotaur’s best efforts, the thick iron bars refused to bend or break under the onslaught. I watched until I was sure it couldn’t escape. I didn’t like leaving it here unattended, but there was no other way. I needed to find Hekate and get her back here to try and reverse the magic. I quickly gathered my belongings from the floor, and we left the raging monstrosity behind. It was hard to believe Eleni was still in there, yet I had to hope. I simply had to believe that there was some way we would save her from that thing.