The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 10: WE PLAY THE GAME SHOW OF DEATH

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Chapter 10: WE PLAY THE GAME SHOW OF DEATH

We did our summons after dark, at a twenty-foot-long pit in front of the septic tank. The tank was bright yellow, with a smiley face and red words painted on the side: HAPPY FLUSH DISPOSAL CO. It didn’t quite go with the mood of summoning the dead. 

  The moon was full. Silver clouds drifted across the sky. 

  “Minos should be here by now,” Nico said, frowning. “It’s full dark. ”

  “Maybe he got lost,” I said hopefully. 

  Nico poured root beer and tossed barbecue into the pit, then began chanting in Ancient Greek. Immediately the bugs in the woods stopped chirping. In my pocket, the Stygian ice dog whistle started to grow colder, freezing against the side of my leg. 

  “Make him stop,” Tyson whispered to me. 

  Part of me agreed. This was unnatural. The night air felt cold and menacing. But before I could say anything, the first spirits appeared. Sulfurous mist seeped out of the ground. Shadows thickened into human forms. One blue shade drifted to the edge of the pit and knelt to drink. 

  “Stop him!” Nico said, momentarily breaking his chant. “Only Bianca may drink!”

  I drew Riptide. The ghosts retreated with a collective hiss at the sight of my celestial bronze blade. But it was too late to stop the first spirit. He had already solidified into the shape of a bearded man in white robes. A circlet of gold wreathed his head, and even in death his eyes were alive with malice. 

  “Minos!” Nico said. “What are you doing?”

  “My apologies, master,” the ghost said, though he didn’t sound very sorry. “The sacrifice smelled so good, I couldn’t resist. ” He examined his own hands and smiled. “It is good to see myself again. Almost in solid form—”

  “You are disrupting the ritual!” Nico protested. “Get—”

  The spirits of the dead began shimmering dangerously bright, and Nico had to take up the chant again to keep them at bay. 

  “Yes, quite right, master,” Minos said with amusement. “You keep chanting. I’ve only come to protect you from these liars who would deceive you. ”

  He turned to me as if I were some kind of cockroach. “Percy Jackson…my, my. The sons of Poseidon haven’t improved over the centuries, have they?”

  I wanted to punch him, but I figured my fist would go right through his face. “We’re looking for Bianca di Angelo,” I said. “Get lost. ”

  The ghost chuckled. “I understand you once killed my Minotaur with your bare hands. But worse things await you in the maze. Do you really believe Daedalus will help you?”

  The other spirits stirred in agitation. Annabeth drew her knife and helped me keep them awayfrom the pit. Grover got so nervous he clung to Tyson’s shoulder. 

  “Daedalus cares nothing for you, half-bloods,” Minos warned. “You can’t trust him. He is old beyond counting, and crafty. He is bitter from the guilt of murder and is cursed by the gods. ”

  “The guilt of murder?” I asked. “Who did he kill?”

  “Do not changed the subject!” the ghost growled. “You are hindering Nico. You try to persuade him to give up on his goal. I would make him a lord!”

  “Enough, Mions,” Nico commanded. 

  The ghost sneered. “Master, these are your enemies. You must not listen to them! Let me protect you. I will turn their minds to madness, as I did the others. ”

  “The others?” Annabeth gasped. “You mean Chris Rodriguez? That was you?”

  “The maze is my property,” the ghost said, “not Daedalus’s! Those who intrude deserve madness. ”

  “Be gone, Minos!” Nico demanded. “I want to see my sister!”

  The ghost bit back his rage. “As you wish, master. But I warn you. You cannot trust these heroes. ”

  With that, he faded into mist. 

  Other spirits rushed forward, but Annabeth and I kept them back. 

  “Bianca, appear!” Nico intoned. He started chanting faster, and the spirits shifted restlessly. 

  “Any time now,” Grover muttered. 

  Then a silvery light flickered in the trees—a spirit that seemed brighter and stronger than the others. It came closer, and something told me to let it pass. It knelt to drink at the pit. When it arose, it was the ghostly form of Bianca di Angelo. 

  Nico’s chanting faltered. I lowered my sword. The other spirits started to crowd forward, but Bianca raised her arms and they retreated into the woods. 

  “Hello, Percy,” she said. 

  She looked the same as she had in life: a green cap set sideways on her thick black hair, dark eyes and olive skin like her brother. She wore jeans and a silvery jacket, the outfit of a Hunter of Artemis. A bow was slung over her shoulder. She smiled faintly, and her whole form flickered. 

  “Bianca,” I said. My voice was thick. I’d felt guilty about her death for a long time, but seeing her in front of me was five times as bad, like her death was fresh and new. I remembered searching through the wreckage of the giant bronze warrior she’d sacrificed her life to defeat, and not finding any sign of her. 

  “I’m so sorry,” I said. 

  “You have nothing to apologize for, Percy. I made my own choice. I don’t regret it. ”

  “Bianca!” Nico stumbled forward like he was just coming out of a daze. 

She turned toward her brother. Her expression was sad, as if she’d been dreading this moment. “Hello, Nico. You’ve gotten so tall. ”

  “Why didn’t you answer me sooner?” he cried. “I’ve been trying for months!”

  “I was hoping you would give up. ”

  “Give up?” He sounded heartbroken. “How can you say that? I’m trying to save you!”

  “You can’t, Nico. Don’t do this. Percy is right. ”

  “No! He let you die! He’s not your friend. ”

  Bianca stretched out a hand as if to touch her brother’s face, but she was made of mist. Her hand evaporated as it got close to living skin. 

  “You must listen to me,” she said. “Holding a grudge is dangerous for a child of Hades. It is our fatal flaw. You have to forgive. You have to promise me this. ”

  “I can’t. Never. ”

  “Percy has been worried about you, Nico. He can help. I let him see what you were up to, hoping he would find you. ”

  “So it was you,” I said. “You sent those Iris-messages. ”

  Bianca nodded. 

  “Why are you helping him and not me?” Nico screamed. “It’s not fair!”

  “You are close to the truth now,” Bianca told him. “It’s not Percy you’re mad at, Nico. It’s me. ”

  “No. ”

  “You’re mad because I left you to become a Hunter of Artemis. You’re mad because I died and left you alone. I’m sorry for that, Nico. I truly am. But you must overcome the anger. And stop blaming Percy for my choices. It will be your doom. ”

  “She’s right,” Annabeth broke in. “Kronos is rising, Nico. He’ll twist anyone he can to his cause. ”

  “I don’t care about Kronos,” Nico said. “I just want my sister back. ”

  “You can’t have that, Nico,” Bianca told him gently. 

  “I’m the son of Hades! I can. ”

  “Don’t try,” she said. “If you love me, don’t…”

  Her voice trailed off. Spirits had started to gather around us again, and they seemed agitated. Their shadows shifted. Their voices whispered,

  Danger!

  “Tartarus stirs,” Bianca said. “Your power draws the attention of Kronos. The dead must return to the Underworld. It is not safe for us to remain. ”

  “Wait,” Nico said. “Please—”

  “Good-bye, Nico,” Bianca said. “I love you. Remember what I said. ”

  Her form shivered and the ghosts disappeared, leaving us alone with a pit, a Happy Flush septic tank, and a cold full moon. 

  ***

  None of us were anxious to travel that night, so we decided to wait until morning. Grover and I crashed on the leather couches in Geryon’s living room, which was a lot more comfortable than a bedroll in the maze; but it didn’t make my nightmares any better. 

  I dreamed I was with Luke, walking through the dark palace on top of Mount Tam. It was a real building now—not some half-finished illusion like I’d seen last winter. Green fires burned in braziers along the walls. The floor was polished black marble. A cold wind blew down the hallway, and above us through the open ceiling, the sky swirled with gray storm clouds. 

  Luke was dressed for battle. He wore camouflage pants, a white T-shirt, and a bronze breastplate, but his sword, Backbiter, wasn’t at his side—only and empty scabbard. We walked into a large courtyard where dozens of warriors and dracaenae were preparing for war. When they saw him, the demigods rose to attention. They beat their swords against their shields. 

  “Issss it time, my lord?” a dracaena asked. 

  “Soon,” Luke promised. “Continue your work. ”

  “My lord,” a voice said behind him. Kelli the empousa was smiling at him. She wore a blue dress tonight, and looked wickedly beautiful. Her eyes flickered—sometimes dark brown, sometimes pure red. Her hair was braided down her back and seemed to catch the light of the torches, as if it were anxious to turn back into pure flame. 

  My heart was pounding. I waited for Kelli to see me, to chase me out of the dream as she did before, but this time she didn’t seem to notice me. 

  “You have a visitor,” she told Luke. She stepped aside, and even Luke seemed stunned by what he saw. 

  The monster Kampê towered above him. Her snakes hissed around her legs. Animal heads growled at her waist. Her swords were drawn, shimmering with poison, and with her bat wings extended, she took up the entire corridor. 

  “You. ” Luke’s voice sounded a little shaky. “I told you to stay on Alcatraz. ”

  Kampê’s eyelids blinked sideways like a reptile’s. she spoke in that weird rumbling language, but this time I understood, somewhere in the back of my mind: I come to serve. Give me revenge. 

  “You’re a jailor,” Luke said. “Your job—”

  I will have them dead. No one escapes me. 

  Luke hesitated. A line of sweat trickled down the side of his face. “Very well,” he said. “You will go with us. You may carry Ariadne’s string. It is a position of great honor. ”

  Kampê hissed at the stars. She sheathed her swords and turned, pounding down the hallway on her enormous dragon legs. 

  “We should have left that one in Tartarus,” Luke mumbled. “She is too chaotic. Too powerful. ”

  Kelli laughed softly. “You should not fear power, Luke. Use it!”

  “The sooner we leave, the better,” Luke said. “I want this over with. ”

  “Aww,” Kelli sympathized, running a finger down his arm. “You find it unpleasant to destroy your old camp?”

  “I didn’t say that. ”

  “You’re not having second thoughts about your own, ah, special part?”

  Luke’s face turned stony. “I know my duty. ”

  “That is good,” the demon said. “Is our strike force sufficient, do you think? Or will I need to call Mother Hecate for help?”

  “We have more than enough,” Luke said grimly. “The deal is almost complete. All I need now is to negotiate safe passage through the arena. ”

  “Mmm,” Kelli said. “That should be interesting. I would hate to see your handsome head on a spike if you fail. ”

  “I will not fail. And you, demon, don’t you have other matters to attend to?”

  “Oh, yes. ” Kelli smiled. “I am bringing despair to your eavesdropping enemies. I am doing that right now. ”

  She turned her eyes directly on me, exposed her talons, and ripped through my dream. 

  Suddenly I was in a different place. 

  I stood at the top of a stone tower, overlooking rocky cliffs and the ocean below. The old man Daedalus was hunched over a worktable, wrestling with some kind of navigational instrument, like a huge compass. He looked years older than when I’d last seen him. He was stooped and his hands were gnarled. He cursed in Ancient Greek and squinted as if he couldn’t see his work, even though it was a sunny day. 

  “Uncle!” a voice called. 

  A smiling boy about Nico’s age came bounding up the steps, carrying a wooden box. 

  “Hello, Perdix,” the old man said, though his tone sounded cold. “Done with your projects already?”

  “Yes, Uncle. They were easy!”

  Daedalus scowled. “Easy? The problem of moving water uphill without a pump was easy?”

  “Oh, yes! Look!”

  The boy dumped his box and rummaged through the junk. He came up with a strip of papyrus and showed the old inventor some diagrams and notes. They didn’t make any sense to me, but Daedalus nodded grudgingly. “I see. Not bad. ”

  “The king loved it!” Perdix said. “He said I might be even smarter than you!”

  “Did he now?”

  “But I don’t believe that. I’m so glad Mother sent me to study with you! I want to know everything you do. ”

  “Yes,” Daedalus muttered. “So when I die, you can take my place, eh?”

  The boys’ eyes widened. “Oh no, Uncle! But I’ve been thinking…why does a man have to die, anyway?”

  The inventor scowled. “It is the way of things, lad. Everything dies but the gods. ”

  “But why?” the boy insisted. “If you could capture the animus, the soul in another form…well, you’ve told me about your automatons, Uncle. Bulls, eagles, dragons, horses of bronze. Why not a bronze form for a man?”

  “No, my boy,” Daedalus said sharply. “You are naïve. Such a thing is impossible. ”

  “I don’t think so,” Perdix insisted. “With the use of a little magic—”

  “Magic? Bah!”

  “Yes, Uncle! Magic and mechanics together—with a little work, one could make a body that would look exactly human, only better. I’ve made some notes. ”

  He handed the old man a thick scroll. Daedalus unfurled it. He read for a long time. His eyes narrowed. He glanced at the boy, then closed the scroll and cleared his throat. “It would never work, my boy. When you’re older, you’ll see. ”

  “Can I fix that astrolabe, then, Uncle? Are your joints swelling up again?”

  The old man’s jaw clenched. “No. Thank you. Now why don’t you run along?”

  Perdix didn’t seem to notice the old man’s anger. He snatched a bronze beetle from his mound of stuff and ran to the edge of the tower. A low sill ringed the rim, coming just up to the boy’s knees. The wind was strong. 

  Move back, I wanted to tell him. But my voice didn’t work. 

  Perdix wound up the beetle and tossed it into the sky. It spread its wings and hummed away. Perdix laughed with delight. 

  “Smarter than me,” Daedalus mumbled, too soft for the boy to hear. 

  “Is it true that your son died flying, Uncle? I heard you made him enormous wings, but they failed. ”

  Daedalus’s hands clenched. “Take my place,” he muttered. 

  The wind whipped around the boy, tugging at his clothes, making his hair ripple. 

  “I would like to fly,” Perdix said. “I’d make my own wings that wouldn’t fail. Do you think I could?”

  Maybe it was a dream within my dream, but suddenly I imagined the two-headed god Janus shimmering in the air next to Daedalus, smiling as he tossed a silver key from hand to hand. Choose, he whispered to the old inventor. Choose. 

  Daedalus picked up another one of the boy’s metal bags. The inventor’s old eyes were red with anger. 

  “Perdix,” he called. “Catch. ”

  He tossed the bronze beetle toward the boy. Delighted, Perdix tried to catch it, but the throw was too long. The beetle sailed into the sky, and Perdix reached a little too far. The wind caught him. 

  Somehow he managed to grab the rim of the tower with his fingers as he fell. “Uncle!” he screamed. “Help me!”

  The old man’s face was a mask. He did not move from his spot. 

  “Go on, Perdix,” Daedalus said softly. “May your own wings. Be quick about it. ”

  “Uncle!” the boy cried as he lost his grip. He tumbled toward the sea.

There was a moment of deadly silence. The god Janus flickered and disappeared. Then thunder shook the sky. A woman’s stern voice spoke from above: You will pay the price for that, Daedalus. 

  I’d heard that voice before. It was Annabeth’s mother: Athena. 

  Daedalus scowled up at the heavens. “I have always honored you, Mother. I have sacrificed everything to follow your way. ”

  Yet the boy had my blessing as well. And you have killed him. For that, you must pay. 

  ‘I have paid and paid!” Daedalus growled. “I’ve lost everything. I’ll suffer in the Underworld, no doubt. But in the meantime…”

  He picked up the boy’s scroll, studied it for a moment, and slipped it into his sleeve. 

  You do not understand, Athena said coldly. You will pay now and forever. 

  Suddenly Daedalus collapsed in agony. I felt what he felt. A searing pain closed around my neck like a molten-hot collar—cutting off my breath, making everything go black. 

  ***

  I woke in the dark, my hands clutching my throat. 

  “Percy?” Grover called from the other sofa. “Are you okay?”

  I steadied my breathing. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d just watched the guy we were looking for, Daedalus, murder his own nephew. How could I be okay? The television was going. Blue light flickered through the room. 

  “What—what time is it?” I croaked. 

  “Two in the morning,” Grover said. “I couldn’t sleep. I was watching the Nature Channel. ” He sniffled. “I miss Juniper. ”

  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. “Yeah, well…you’ll see her again soon. ”

  Grover shook his head sadly. “Do you know what day it is, Percy? I just saw it on TV. It’s June thirteenth. Seven days since we left camp. ”

  “What?” I said. “That can’t be right. ”

  “Time is faster in the Labyrinth,” Grover reminded me. “The first time you and Annabeth went down there, you thought you were only gone a few minutes, right? But it was an hour. ”

  “Oh,” I said. “Right. ” Then it dawned on me what he was saying, and my throat felt searing hot again. “Your deadline with the Council of Cloven Elders. ”

  Grover put the TV remote in his mouth and crunched off the end of it. “I’m out of time,” he said with a mouthful of plastic. “As soon as I go back, they’ll take away my searcher’s license. I’ll never be allowed to go out again. ”

  “We’ll talk to them,” I promised. “Make them give you more time. ”

  Grover swallowed. “They’ll never go for it. The world is dying, Percy. What you did today—saving the ranch animals from Geryon—that was amazing. I—I wish I could be more like you. ”

  “Hey,” I said. “Don’t say that. You’re just as much a hero—”

  “No I’m not. I keep trying, but…” He sighed. “Percy, I can’t go back to camp without finding Pan. I just can’t. You understand that, don’t you? I can’t face Juniper if I fail. I can’t even face myself. ”

  His voice was so unhappy it hurt to hear. We’d been through a lot together, but I’d never heard him sound this down. 

  “We’ll figure out something,” I said. “You haven’t failed. You’re the champion goat boy, all right? Juniper knows that. So do I. ”

  Grover closed his eyes. “Champion goat boy,” he muttered dejectedly. 

  A long time after he dozed off, I was still awake, watching the blue light of the Nature Channel wash over the stuffed trophy heads on Geryon’s walls. 

  ***

  The next morning we walked down to the cattle guard and said our good-byes. 

  “Nico, you could come with us,” I blurted out. I guess I was thinking about my dream, and how much the young boy Perdix reminded me of Nico. 

  He shook his head. I don’t think any of us had slept well in the demon ranch house, but Nico looked worse than anybody else. His eyes were red and his face chalky. He was wrapped in a black robe that must’ve belonged to Geryon, because it was three sizes too big even for a grown man. 

  “I need time to think. ” His eyes wouldn’t meet mine, but I could tell from his tone he was still angry. The fact that his sister had come out of the Underworld for me and not for him didn’t seem to sit well with him. 

  “Nico,” Annabeth said. “Bianca just wants you to be okay. ”

  She put her hand on his shoulder, but he pulled away and trudged up the road toward the ranch house. Maybe it was my imagination, but the morning mist seemed to cling to him as he walked. 

  “I’m worried about him,” Annabeth told me. “If he starts talking to Minos’s ghost again—”

  “He’ll be al right,” Eurytion promised. The cowherd had cleaned up nicely. He was wearing new jeans and a clean Western shirt and he’d even trimmed his beard. He’d put on Geryon’s boots. “The boy can stay here and gather his thoughts as long as he wants. He’ll be safe, I promise. ”

  “What about you?” I asked. 

  Eurytion scratched Orthus behind one chin, then the other. “Things are going to be run a little different on this ranch from now on. No more sacred cattle meat. I’m thinking about soybean patties. And I’m going to befriend those flesh-eating horses. Might just sign up for the next rodeo. ”

  The idea made me shudder. “Well, good luck. ”

  “Yep. ” Eurytion spit into the grass. “I reckon you’ll be looking for Daedalus’s workshop now?”

  Annabeth’s eyes lit up. “Can you help us?”

  Eurytion studied the cattle guard, and I got the feeling the subject of Daedalus’s workshop made him uncomfortable. “Don’t know where it is. But Hephaestus probably would. ”

  “That’s what Hera said,” Annabeth agreed. “But how do we find Hephaestus?”

  Eurytion pulled something from under the collar of his shirt. It was a necklace—a smooth silver disk on a silver chain. The disk had a depression on the middle, like a thumbprint. He handed it to Annabeth. 

  “Hephaestus comes here from time to time,” Eurytion said. “Studies the animals and such so he can make bronze automaton copies. Last time, I— uh—did him a favor. A little trick he wanted to play on my dad, Ares, and Aphrodite. He gave me that chain in gratitude. Said if I ever needed to find him, the disk would lead me to his forges. But only once. ”

  “And you’re giving it to me?” Annabeth asked. 

  Eurytion blushed. “I don’t need to see the forges, miss. Got enough to do here. Just press the button and you’ll be on your way. ”

  Annabeth pressed the button and the disk sprang to life. It grew eight metallic legs. Annabeth shrieked and dropped it, much to Eurytion’s confusion. 

  “Spider!” she screamed. 

  “She’s, um, a little scared of spiders,” Grover explained. “That old grudge between Athena and Arachne. ”

  “Oh. ” Eurytion looked a little embarrassed. “Sorry, miss. ”

  The spider scrambled to the cattle guard and disappeared between the bars. 

  “Hurry,” I said. “That thing’s not going to wait for us. ”

  Annabeth wasn’t anxious to follow, but we didn’t have much choice. We said our good-byes to Eurytion, Tyson pulled the cattle guard off the hole, and we dropped back into the maze. 

  ***

  I wish I could’ve put the mechanical spider on a leash. It scuttled along the tunnels so fast, most of time I couldn’t even see it. If it hadn’t been for Tyson’s and Grover’s excellent hearing, we never would’ve known which way it was going. 

  We ran down a marble tunnel, then dashed to the left and almost fell into an abyss. Tyson grabbed me and hauled me back before I could fall. The tunnel continued in front of us, but there was no floor for about a hundred feet, just gaping darkness and a series of iron rungs in the ceiling. The mechanical spider was about halfway across, swinging from bar to bar by shooting out metal web fiber. 

  “Monkey bars,” Annabeth said. “I’m great at these. ”

  She leaped onto the first rung and started swinging her way across. She was scared of tiny spiders, but not of plummeting to her death from a set of monkey bars. Go figure. 

  Annabeth got to the opposite side and ran after the spider. I followed. When I got across, I looked back and saw Tyson giving Grover a piggyback ride (or was it a goatyback ride?). the big guy made it across in three swings, which was a good thing since, just as he landed, the last iron bar ripped free under his weight. 

  We kept moving and passed a skeleton crumpled in the tunnel. It work the remains of a dress shirt, slacks, and a tie. The spider didn’t slow down. I slipped on a pile of wood scraps, but when I shined a light on them I realized they were pencils—hundreds of them, all broken in half. 

  The tunnel opened up onto a large room. A blazing light hit us. Once my eyes adjusted, the first thing I noticed were the skeletons. Dozens littered the floor around us. Some were old and bleached white. Others were more recent and a lot grosser. They didn’t smell quite as bad as Geryon’s stables, but almost. 

  Then I saw the monster. She stood on a glittery dais on the opposite side of the room. She had the body of a huge lion and the head of a woman. She would’ve been pretty, but her hair was tied back in a tight bun and she wore too much makeup, so she kind of reminded me of my third-grade choir teacher. She had a blue ribbon badge pinned to her chest that took me a moment to read: THIS MONSTER HAS BEEN RATED EXEMPLARY!

  Tyson whimpered. “Sphinx. ”

  I knew exactly why he was scared. When he was small, Tyson had been attacked by a Sphinx’s paws and disappeared. 

  Annabeth started forward, but the Sphinx roared, showing fangs in her otherwise human face. Bars came down on both tunnel exits, behind us and in front. 

  Immediately the monster’s snarl turned into a brilliant smile. 

  “Welcome, lucky contestants!” she announced. “Get ready to play…ANSWER THAT RIDDLE!”

  Canned applause blasted from the ceiling, as if there were invisible loudspeakers. Spotlights swept across the room and reflected off the dais, throwing disco glitter over the skeletons on the floor. 

  “Fabulous prizes!” the Sphinx said. “Pass the test, and you get to advance! Fail, and I get to eat you! Who will be our contestant?”

  Annabeth grabbed my arm. “I’ve got this,” she whispered. “I know what she’s going to ask. ”

  I didn’t argue too hard. I didn’t want Annabeth getting devoured by a monster, but I figured if the Sphinx was going to ask riddles, Annabeth was the best one of us to try. 

  She stepped forward to the contestant’s podium, which had a skeleton in a school uniform hunched over it. She pushed the skeleton out of the way, and it clattered to the floor. 

  “Sorry,” Annabeth told it. 

  “Welcome, Annabeth Chase!” the monster cried, though Annabeth hadn’t said her name. “Are you ready for your test?”

  “Yes,” she said. “Ask your riddle. ”

“Twenty riddles, actually!” the Sphinx said gleefully. 

  “What? But back in the old days—”

  “Oh, we’ve raised our standards! To pass, you must show proficiency in all twenty. Isn’t that great?”

  Applause switched on and off like somebody turning a faucet. 

  Annabeth glanced at me nervously. I gave her an encouraging nod. 

  “Okay,” she told the Sphinx. “I’m ready. ”

  A drumroll sounded from above. The Sphinx’s eyes glittered with excitement. “What…is the capital of Bulgaria?”

  Annabeth frowned. For a terrible moment, I thought she was stumped. 

  “Sofia,” she said, “but—”

  “Correct!” More canned applause. The Sphinx smiled so widely her fangs showed. “Please be sure to mark your answer clearly on your test sheet with a number 2 pencil. ”

  “What?” Annabeth looked mystified. Then a test booklet appeared on the podium in front of her, along with a sharpened pencil. 

  “Make sure you bubble each answer clearly and stay inside the circle,” the Sphinx said. “If you have to erase, erase completely or the machine will not be able to read your answers. ”

  “What machine?” Annabeth asked. 

  The Sphinx pointed with her paw. Over by the spotlight was a bronze box with a bunch of gears and levers and a big Greek letter ?ta on the side, the mark of Hephaestus. 

  “Now,” said the Sphinx, “next question—”

  “Wait a second,” Annabeth protested. “What about ‘What walks on four legs in the morning’?”

  “I beg your pardon?” the Sphinx said, clearly annoyed now. 

  “The riddle about the man. He walks on four legs in the morning, like a baby, two legs in the afternoon, like an adult, and three legs in the evening, as an old man with a cane. That’s the riddle you used to ask. ”

  “Exactly why we changed the test!” the Sphinx exclaimed. “You already knew the answer. Now second question, what is the square root of sixteen?”

  “Four,” Annabeth said, “but—”

  “Correct! Which U. S. president signed the Emancipation Proclamation?”

  “Abraham Lincoln, but—”

  “Correct! Riddle number four. How much—”

  “Hold up!” Annabeth shouted. 

  I wanted to tell her to stop complaining. She was doing great! She should just answer the questions so we could leave. 

  “These aren’t riddles,” Annabeth said. 

  “What do you mean?” the sphinx snapped. “Of course they are. This test material is specially designed—”

  “It’s just a bunch of dumb, random facts,” Annabeth insisted. “Riddles are supposed to make you think. ”

  “Think?” The Sphinx frowned. “How am I supposed to test whether you can think? That’s ridiculous! Now, how much force is required—”

  “Stop!” Annabeth insisted. “This is a stupid test. ”

  “Um, Annabeth,” Grover cut in nervously. “Maybe you should just, you know, finish first and complain later?”

  “I’m a child of Athena,” she insisted. “And this is an insult to my intelligence. I won’t answer these questions. ”

  Part of me wsa impressed with her for standing up like that. But part of me thought her pride was going to get us all killed. 

  The spotlights glared. The Sphinx’s eyes glittered pure black. 

  “Why then, my dear,” the monster said calmly. “If you won’t pass, you fail. And since we can’t allow any children to be held back, you’ll be EATEN!”

  The Sphinx bared her claws, which gleamed like stainless steel. She pounced at the podium. 

  “No!” Tyson charged. He hates it when people threaten Annabeth, but I couldn’t believe he was being so brave, especially since he’d had such a bad experience with a Sphinx before. 

  He tackled the Sphinx in midair and they crashed sideways into a pile of bones. This gave Annabeth just enough time to gather her wits and draw her knife. Tyson got up, his shirt clawed to shreds. The Sphinx growled, looking for an opening. 

  I drew Riptide and stepped in front of Annabeth. 

  “Turn invisible,” I told her. 

  “I can fight!”

  “No!” I yelled. “The Sphinx is after you! Let us get it. ”

  As if to prove my point, the Sphinx knocked Tyson aside and tried to charge past me. Grover poked her in the eye with somebody’s leg bone. She screeched in pain. Annabeth put on her cap and vanished. The Sphinx pounced right were she’d been standing, but came up with empty paws. 

  “No fair!” the Sphinx wailed. “Cheater!”

  With Annabeth no longer in sight, the Sphinx turned on me. I raised my sword, but before I could strike, Tyson ripped the monster’s grading machine out of the floor and threw it at the Sphinx’s head, ruining her hair bun. It landed in pieces all around her. 

  “My grading machine!” she cried. “I can’t be exemplary without my test scores!”

  The bars lifted from the exits. We all dashed for the far tunnel. I could only hope Annabeth was doing the same. 

  The Sphinx started to follow, but Grover raised his reed pipes and began to play. Suddenly the pencils remembered they used to be parts of trees. They collected around the Sphinx’s paws, grew roots and branches, and began wrapping around the monster’s legs. The Sphinx ripped through them, but it brought us just enough time. 

  Tyson pulled Grover into the tunnel, and the bars slammed shut behind us. 

  “Annabeth!” I yelled. 

  “Here!” she said, right next to me. “Keep moving!”

  We ran through the dark tunnels, listening to the roar of the Sphinx behind us as she complained about all the tests she would have to grade by hand. 

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