The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 8: WE VISIT THE DEMON DUDE RANCH

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Chapter 8: WE VISIT THE DEMON DUDE RANCH

We finally stopped in a room full of waterfalls. The floor was one big pit, ringed by a slippery stone walkway. Around us, on all four walls, water tumbled from huge pipes. The water spilled down into the pit, and even when I shined a light, I couldn’t see the bottom. 

  Briares slumped against the wall. He scooped up water in a dozen hands and washed his face. “This pit goes straight to Tartarus,” he murmured. “I should jump in and save you trouble. ”

  “Don’t talk that way,” Annabeth told him. “You can come back to camp with us. You can help us prepare. You know more about fighting Titans than anybody. ”

  “I have nothing to offer,” Briares said. “I have lost everything. ”

  “What about your brothers?” Tyson asked. “The other two must stand tall as mountains! We can take you to them. ”

  Briares’s expression morphed to something even sadder: his grieving face. “They are no more. They faded. ”

  The waterfalls thundered. Tyson stared into the pit and blinked tears out of his eye. 

  “What exactly do you mean, they faded?” I asked. “I thought monsters were immortal, like the gods. ”

  “Percy,” Grover said weakly, “even immortality has limits. Sometimes…sometimes monsters get forgotten and they lose their will to stay immortal. ”

  Looking at Grover’s face, I wondered if he was thinking of Pan. I remembered something Medusa had told us once: how her sisters, the other two gorgons, had passed on and left her alone. Then last year Apollo said something about the old god Helios disappearing and leaving him with the duties of the sun god. I’d never thought about it too much, but now, looking at Briares, I realized how terrible it would be to be so old—thousands and thousands of years old—and totally alone. 

  “I must go,” Briares said. 

  “Kronos’s army will invade camp,” Tyson said. “We need help. ”

  Briares hung his head. “I cannot, Cyclops. ”

  “You are strong. ”

  “Not anymore. ” Briares rose. 

  “Hey,” I grabbed one of his arms and pulled him aside, where the roar of the water would hide our words. “Briares, we need you. In case you haven’t noticed, Tyson believes in you. He risked his life for you. ”

  I told him about everything—Luke’s invasion plan, the Labyrinth entrance at camp, Daedalus’s workshop, Kronos’s golden coffin. 

  Briares just shook his head. “I cannot, demigod. I do not have a finger gun to win this game. ” To prove his point, he made one hundred finger guns. 

  “Maybe that’s why monsters fade,” I said. “Maybe it’s not about what the mortals believe. Maybe it’s because you give up on yourself. ”

  His pure brown eyes regarded me. His face morphed into an expression I recognized—shame. Then he turned and trudged off down the corridor until he was lost in the shadows. 

  Tyson sobbed. 

  “It’s okay,” Grover hesitantly patted his shoulder, which must’ve taken all his courage. 

  Tyson sneezed. “It’s not okay, goat boy. He was my hero. ”

  I wanted to make him feel better, but I wasn’t sure what to say. 

  Finally Annabeth stood and shouldered her backpack. “Come on, guys. This pit is making me nervous. Let’s find a better place to camp for the night. ”

  ***

  We settled in a corridor made of huge marble blocks. It looked like it could’ve been part of a Greek tomb, with bronze torch holders fastened to the walls. It had to be an older part of the maze, and Annabeth decided this was a good sign. 

  “We must be close to Daedalus’s workshop,” she said. “Get some rest, everybody. We’ll keep going in the morning. ”

  “How do we know when it’s morning?” Grover asked. 

  “Just rest,” she insisted. 

  Grover didn’t need to be told twice. He pulled a heap of straw out of his pack, ate some of it, made a pillow out of the rest, and was snoring in no time. Tyson took longer getting to sleep. He tinkered with some metal scraps from his building kit for a while, but whatever he was making, he wasn’t happy with it. He kept disassembling the pieces. 

  “I’m sorry I lost the shield,” I told him. “You worked so hard to repair it. ”

  Tyson looked up. His eye was bloodshot from crying. “Do not worry, brother. You saved me. You wouldn’t have had to if Briares had helped. ”

  “He was just scared,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll get over it. ”

  “He is not strong,” Tyson said. “He is not important anymore. ”

  He heaved a big sad sigh, then closed his eye. The metal pieces fell out of his hand, still unassembled, and Tyson began to snore. 

  I tried to fall asleep myself, but I couldn’t. something about getting chased by a large dragon lady with poison swords made it real hard to relax. I picked up my bedroll and dragged it over to where Annabeth was sitting, keeping watch. 

  I sat down next to her. 

  “You should sleep,” she said. 

  “Can’t. You doing all right?”

  “Sure. First day leading the quest. Just great. ”

  “We’ll get there,” I said. “We’ll find the workshop before Luke does. ”

  She brushed her hair out of her face. She had a smudge of dirt on her chin, and I imagined what she must’ve looked like when she was little, wandering around the country with Thalia and Luke. Once she’d saved them from the mansion of the evil Cyclops when she was only seven. Even when she looked scared, like now, I knew she had a lot of guts. 

  “I just wish the quest was logical,” she complained. “I mean, we’re traveling but we have no idea where we’ll end up. How can you walk from New York to California in a day?”

  “Space isn’t the same in the maze. ”

  “I know, I know. It’s just…” She looked at me hesitantly. “Percy, I was kidding myself. All that planning and reading, I don’t have a clue where we’re going. ”

  “You’re doing great. Besides, we never know what we’re doing. It always works out. Remember Circe’s island?”

  She snorted. “You made a cute guinea pig. ”

  “And Waterland, how you got us thrown off that ride?”

  “I got us thrown off? That was totally your fault!”

  “See? It’ll be fine. ”

  She smiled, which I was glad to see, but the smile faded quickly. 

  “Percy, what did Hera mean when she said you knew the way to get through the maze?”

  “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Honestly. ”

  “You’d tell me if you did?”

“Sure. Maybe…”

  “Maybe what?”

  “Maybe if you told me the last line of the prophecy, it would help. ”

  Annabeth shivered. “Not here. Not in the dark. ”

  “What about the choice Janus mentioned? Hera said—”

  “Stop,” Annabeth snapped. Then she took a shaky breath. “I’m sorry, Percy. I’m just stressed. But I don’t…I’ve got to think about it. ”

  We sat in silence, listening to strange creaks and groans in the maze, the echo of stones grinding together as tunnels changed, grew, and expanded. The dark made me think about the visions I’d seen of Nico di Angelo, and suddenly I realized something. 

  “Nico is down here somewhere,” I said. “That’s how he disappeared from camp. He found the Labyrinth. Then he found a path that led down even farther—to the Underworld. But now he’s back in the maze. He’s coming after me. ”

  Annabeth was quiet for a long time. “Percy, I hope you’re wrong. But if you’re right…” she stared at the flashlight beam, casting a dim circle on the stone wall. I had a feeling she was thinking about her prophecy. I’d never seen her look more tired. 

  “How about I take first watch?” I said. “I’ll wake you if anything happens. ”

  Annabeth looked like she wanted to protest, but she just nodded, slumped into her bedroll, and closed her eyes. 

  ***

  When it was my turn to sleep, I dreamed I was back in the old man’s Labyrinth prison. 

  It looked more like a workshop now. Tables were littered with measuring instruments. A forge burned red hot in the corner. The boy I’d seen in the last dream was stoking the bellows, except he was taller now, almost my age. A weird funnel device was attached to the forge’s chimney, trapping the smoke and heat and channeling it through a pipe into the floor, next to a big bronze manhole cover. 

  It was daytime. The sky above was blue, but the walls of the maze cast deep shadows across the workshop. After being in tunnels so long, i found it weird that part of the Labyrinth could be open to the sky. Somehow that made the maze seem like even a crueler place. 

  The old man looked sickly. He was terribly thin, his hands raw and red from working. White hair covered his eyes, and his tunic was smudged with grease. He was bent over a table, working on some kind of long metal patchwork—like a swath of chain mail. He picked up a delicate curl of bronze and fitted it into place. 

  “Done,” he announced. “It’s done. ”

  He picked up his project. It was so beautiful, my heart leaped—metal wings constructed from thousands of interlocking bronze feathers. There were two sets. One still lay on the table. Daedalus stretched the frame, and the wings expanded twenty feet. Part of me knew it could never fly. It was too heavy, and there’d be no way to get off the ground. But the craftsmanship was amazing. Metal feathers caught the light and flashed thirty different shades of gold. 

  The boy left the bellows and ran over to see. He grinned, despite the fact that he was grimy and sweaty. “Father, you’re a genius!”

  The old man smiled. “Tell me something I don’t know, Icarus. Now hurry. It will take at least an hour to attach them. Come. ”

  “You first,” Icarus said. 

  The old man protested, but Icarus insisted. “You made them, Father. You should get the honor of wearing them first. ”

  The boy attached a leather harness to his father’s chest, like climbing gear, with straps that ran from his shoulders to his wrists. Then he began fastening on the wings, using a metal canister that looked like an enormous hot-glue gun. 

  “The wax compound should hold for several hours,” Daedalus said nervously as his son worked. “But we must let it set first. And we would do well to avoid flying too high or too low. The sea would wet the wax seals—”

  “And the sun’s heat would loosen them,” the boy finished. “Yes, Father. We’ve been through this a million times!”

  “One cannot be too careful. ”

  “I have complete faith in your inventions, Father! No one has ever been as smart as you. ”

  The old man’s eyes shone. It was obvious he loved his son more than anything in the world. “Now I will do your wings, and give mine a chance to set properly. Come!”

  It was slow going. The old man’s hands fumbled with the straps. He had a hard time keeping the wings in position while he sealed them. His own metal wings seemed to weigh him down, getting in his way while he tried to work. 

  “Too slow,” the old man muttered. “I am too slow. ”

  “Take your time, Father,” the boy said. “The guards aren’t due until—”

  BOOM!

  The workshop doors shuddered. Daedalus had barred them from the inside with a wooden brace, but still they shook on their hinges. 

  “Hurry!” Icarus said. 

  BOOM! BOOM!

  Something heavy was slamming into the doors. The brace held, but a crack appeared in the left door. 

  Daedalus worked furiously. A drop of hot wax spilled onto Icarus’s shoulder. The boy winced but did not cry out. When his left wing was sealed into the straps, Daedalus began working on the right. 

  “We must have more time,” Daedalus murmured. “They are too early! We need more time for the seal to hold. ”

  “It’ll be fine,” Icarus said, as his father finished the right wing. “Help me with the manhole—”

  CRASH! The doors splintered and the head of a bronze battering ram emerged through the breach. Axes cleared the debris, and two armed guards entered the room, followed by the king with the golden crown and the spear-shaped beard. 

  “Well, well,” the king said with a cruel smile. “Going somewhere?”

  Daedalus and his son froze, their metal wings glimmering on their backs. 

  “We’re leaving, Minos,” the old man said. 

  King Minos chuckled. “I was curious to see how far you’d get on this little project before I dashed your hopes. I must say I’m impressed. ”

  The king admired their wings. “You look like metal chickens,” he decided. “Perhaps we should pluck you and make a soup. ”

  The guards laughed stupidly. 

  “Metal chickens,” one repeated. “Soup. ”

  “Shut up,” the king said. Then he turned again to Daedalus. “You let my daughter escape, old man. You drove my wife to madness. You killed my monster and made me the laughingstock of the Mediterranean. You will never escape me!”

  Icarus grabbed the wax gun and sprayed it at the king, who stepped back in surprise. The guards rushed forward, but each got a stream of hot wax in his face. 

  “The vent!” Icarus yelled to his father. 

  “Get them!” King Minos raged. 

  Together, the old man and his son pried open the manhole cover, and a column of hot airblasted out of the ground. The king watched, incredulous, as the inventor and son shot into the sky on their bronze wings, carried by the updraft. 

  “Shoot them!” the king yelled, but his guards had brought no bows. One threw his sword in desperation, but Daedalus and Icarus were already out of reach. They wheeled above the maze and the king’s palace, then zoomed across the city of Knossos and out past the rocky shores of Crete. 

  Icarus laughed. “Free, Father! You did it. ”

  The boy spread his wings to their full limit and soared away on the wind. 

  “Wait!” Daedalus called. “Be careful!”

  But Icarus was already out over the open sea, heading north and delighting in their good luck. He soared up and scared an eagle out of its flight path, then plummeted toward the sea like he was born to fly, pulling out of a nosedive at the last second. His sandals skimmed the waves. 

  “Stop that!” Daedalus called. But the wind carried his voice away. His son was drunk on his own freedom. 

  The old man struggled to catch up, gliding clumsily after his son. 

  They were miles from Crete, over deep sea, when Icarus looked back and saw his father’s worried expression. 

  Icarus smiled. “Don’t worry, Father! You’re a genius! I trust your handiwork—”

  The first metal feather shook loose from his wings and fluttered away. Then another. Icarus wabbled in midair. Suddenly he was shedding bronze feathers, which twirled away from him like a flock of frightened birds. 

  “Icarus!” his father cried. “Glide! Extend the wings. Stay as still as possible!”

  But Icarus flapped his arms, desperately trying to reassert control. 

  The left wing went first—ripping away from the straps. 

  “Father!” Icarus cried. And then he fell, the wings stripped away until he was just a boy in a climbing harness and a white tunic, his arms extended in a useless attempt to glide. 

  I woke with a start, feeling like I was falling. The corridor was dark. In the constant moaning of the Labyrinth, I thought I could hear the anguished cry of Daedalus calling his son’s name, as Icarus, his only joy, plummeted toward the sea, three hundred feet below. 

  ***

  There was no morning in the maze, but once everyone woke up and had a fabulous breakfast of granola bars and juice boxes, we kept traveling. I didn’t mention my dream. Something about it had really freaked me out, and I didn’t think the others needed to know that. 

  The old stone tunnels changed to dirt with cedar beams, like a gold mine or something. Annabeth started getting agitated. 

  “This isn’t right,” she said. “It should still be stone. ”

  We came to a cave where stalactites hung low from the ceiling. In the center of the dirt floor was a rectangular pit, like a grave. 

  Grover shivered. “It smells like the Underworld in here. ”

  Then I saw something glinting at the edge of the pit—a foil wrapper. I shined my flashlight into the hole and saw a half-chewed cheeseburger floating in brown carbonated muck. 

  “Nico,” I said. “He was summoning the dead again. ”

  Tyson whimpered. “Ghosts were here. I don’t like ghosts. ”

  “We’ve got to find him. ” I don’t know why, but standing at the edge of that pit gave me a sense of urgency. Nico was close, I could feel it. I couldn’t let him wander around down here, alone except for the dead. I started to run. 

  “Percy!” Annabeth called. 

  I ducked into a tunnel and saw light up ahead. By the time Annabeth, Tyson, and Grover caught up with me, I was staring at daylight streaming through a set of bars above my head. We were under a steel grate made out of metal pipes. I could see trees and blue sky. 

  “Where are we?” I wondered. 

  Then a shadow fell across the grate and a cow stared down at me. It looked like a normal cow except with was a weird color—bright red, like a cherry. I didn’t know cows came in that color. 

  The cow mooed, put one hoof tentatively on the bars, then backed away. 

  “It’s a cattle guard,” Grover said. 

  “A what?” I asked. 

  “They put them at the gates of ranches so cows can’t get out. They can’t walk on them. ”

  “How do you know that?”

  Grover huffed indignantly. “Believe me, if you had hooves, you’d know about cattle guards. They’re annoying!”

I turned to Annabeth. “Didn’t Hera say something about a ranch? We need to check it out. Nico might be there. ”

  She hesitated. “All right. But how do we get out?”

  Tyson solved that problem by hitting the cattle guard with both hands. It popped off and went flying out of sight. We heard a CLANG! and a startled Moo! Tyson blushed. 

  “Sorry, cow!” he called. 

  Then he gave us a boost out of the tunnel. 

  We were on a ranch, all right. Rolling hills stretched to the horizon, dotted with oak trees and cactuses and boulders. A barbed wire fence ran from the gate in either direction. Cherry-colored cows roamed around, grazing on clumps of grass. 

  “Red cattle,” Annabeth said. “The cattle of the sun. ”

  “What?” I asked. 

  “They’re sacred to Apollo. ”

  “Holy cows?”

  “Exactly. But what are they doing—”

  “Wait,” Grover said. “Listen. ”

  At first everything seemed quiet…but then I heard it: the distant baying of dogs. The sound got louder. Then the underbrush rustled, and two dogs broke through. Except it wasn’t two dogs. It was one dog with two heads. It looked like a greyhound, long and snaky and sleek brown, but its neck V’d into two heads, both of them snapping and snarling and generally not very glad to see us. 

  “Bad Janus dog!” Tyson cried. 

  “Arf!” Grover told it, and raised a hand in greeting. 

  The two-headed dog bared its teeth. I guess it wasn’t impressed that Grover could speak animal. Then its master lumbered out of the woods, and I realized the dog was the least of our problems. 

  He was a huge guy with stark white hair, a straw cowboy hat, and a braided white beard— kind of like Father Time, if Father Time went redneck and got totally jacked. He was wearing jeans, a DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS T-shirt, and a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off so you could see his muscles. On his right bicep was a crossed-swords tattoo. He held a wooden club about the size of a nuclear warhead, with six-inch spikes bristling at the business end. 

  “Heel, Orthus,” he told the dog. 

  The dog growled at us once more, just to make his feelings clear, just to make his feelings clear, then circled back to his master’s feet. The man looked us up and down, keeping his club ready. 

  “What’ve we got here?” he asked. “Cattle rustlers?”

  “Just travelers,” Annabeth said. “We’re on a quest. ”

  The man’s eye twitched. “Half-bloods, eh?”

  I started to say, “How did you know—”

  Annabeth put her hand on my arm. “I’m Annabeth, daughter of Athena. 

  This is Percy, son of Poseidon. Grover the satyr. Tyson the—”

  “Cyclops,” the man finished. “Yes, I can see that. ” He glowered at me. “And I know half-bloods because I am one, sonny. I’m Eurytion, the cowherd for this here ranch. Son of Ares. You came through the Labyrinth like the other one, I reckon. ”

  “The other one?” I asked. “You mean Nico di Angelo?”

  “We get a load of visitors from the Labyrinth,” Eurytion said darkly. “Not many ever leave. ”

  “Wow,” I said. “I feel welcome. ”

  The cowherd glanced bend him like someone was watching. Then he lowered his voice. “I’m only going to say this once, demigods. Get back in the maze now. Before it’s too late. ”

  “We’re not leaving,” Annabeth insisted. “Not until we see this other demigod. Please. ”

  Eurytion grunted. “Then you leave me no choice, missy. I’ve got to take you to the boss. ”

  ***

  I didn’t’ feel like we were hostages or anything. Eurytion walked alongside us with his club across his shoulder. Orthus the two-headed dog growled a lot and sniffed at Grover’s legs and shot into the bushes once in a while to chase animals, but Eurytion kept him more or less under control. 

  We walked down a dirt path that seemed to go on forever. It must’ve been close to a hundred degrees, which was a shock after San Francisco. Heat shimmered off the ground. Insects buzzed in the trees. Before we’d gone very far, i was sweating like crazy. Flies swarmed us. Every so often we’d see a pen full of red cows or even stranger animals. Once we passed a corral where the fence was coated in asbestos. Inside, a herd of fire-breathing horses milled around. The hay in their feeding trough was on fire. The ground smoked around their feet, but the horses seemed tame enough. One big stallion looked at me and whinnied, columns of red flame billowing out his nostrils. I wondered if it hurt his sinuses. 

  “What are they for?” I asked. 

  Eurytion scowled. “We raise animals for lots of clients. Apollo, Diomedes, and…others. ”

  “Like who?”

  “No more questions. ”

  Finally we came out of the woods. Perched on a hill above us was a big ranch house—all white stone and wood and big windows. 

  “It looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright!” Annabeth said. 

  I guess she was talking about some architectural thing. To me it just looked like the kind of place where a few demigods could get into serious trouble. We hiked up the hill. 

  “Don’t break the rules,” Eurytion warned as we walked up the steps to the front porch. “No fighting. No drawing weapons. And don’t make any comments about the boss’s appearance. ”

  “Why?” I asked. “What does he look like?”

  Before Eurytion could reply, a new voice said, “Welcome to the Triple G Ranch. ”

  The man on the porch had a normal head, which was a relief. His face was weathered and brown from years in the sun. He had a slick black hair and a black pencil moustache like villains have in old movies. He smiled at us, but the smile wasn’t friendly; more amused, like Oh boy, more people to torture!

  I didn’t ponder that very long, though, because then I noticed his body…or bodies. He had three of them. Now you’d think I would’ve gotten used to weird anatomy after Janus and Briares, but this guy was three complete people. His neck connected to the middle chest like normal, but he had two more chests, one to either side, connected at the shoulders, with a few inches between. His left arm grew out of his left chest, and the same on the right, so he had two arms, but four armpits, if that makes any sense. The chests all connected into one enormous torso, with two regular but very beefy legs, and he wore the most oversized pair of Levis I’d ever seen. His chests each wore a different color Western shirt—green, yellow, red, like a stoplight. I wondered how he dressed the middle chest, since it had no arms. 

  The cowherd Eurytion nudged me. “Say Hello to Mr. Geryon. ”

  “Hi,” I said. “Nice chests—uh, ranch! Nice ranch you have. ”

  Before the three-bodied man could respond, Nico di Angelo came out of the glass doors onto the porch. “Geryon, I won’t wait for—”

  He froze when he saw us. Then he drew his sword. The blade was just like I’d seen in my dream; short, sharp, and dark as midnight. 

  Geryon snarled when he saw it. “Put that away, Mr. di Angelo. I ain’t gonna have my guests killin’ each other. ”

  “But that’s—”

  “Percy Jackson,” Geryon supplied. “Annabeth Chase. And a couple of their monster friends. Yes, I know. ”

  “Monster friends?” Grover said indignantly. 

  “That man is wearing three shirts,” Tyson said, like he was just realizing this. 

  “They let my sister die!” Nico’s voice trembled with rage. “They’re here to kill me!”

  “Nico, we’re not here to kill you. ” I raised my hands. “What happened to Bianca was—”

  “Don’t speak her name! You’re not worthy to even talk about her!”

  “Wait a minute,” Annabeth pointed at Geryon. “How do you know our names?”

  The three-bodied man winked. “I make it my business to keep informed, darlin’. Everybody pops into the ranch from time to time. Everyone needs something from ole Geryon. Now, Mr. di Angelo, put that ugly sword away before I have Eurytion take it form you. ”

  Eurytion sighed, but he hefted his spiked club. At his feet, Orthus growled. 

  Nico hesitated. He looked thinner and paler than he had in the Iris-messages. I wondered if he’d eaten in the last week. His black clothes were dusty from traveling in the Labyrinth, and his dark eyes were full of hate. He was too young to look so angry. I still remembered him as the cheerful little kid who played with Mythomagic cards. 

  Reluctantly, he sheathed his sword. “If you come near me, Percy, I’ll summon help. You don’t want to meet my helpers, I promise. ”

  “I believe you,” I said. 

  Geryon patted Nico’s shoulder. “There, we’ve all made nice. Now come along, folks. I want to give you a tour of the ranch. ”

  ***

  Geryon had a trolley thing—like one of those kiddie trains that take you around zoos. It was painted black and white in a cowhide pattern. The driver’s car had a set of longhorns stuck to the hood, and the horn sounded like a cowbell. I figured maybe this was how he tortured people. He embarrassed them to death riding around in the moo-mobile. 

  Nico sat in the very back, probably so he could keep an eye on us. Eurytion crawled in next to him with his spiked club and pulled his cowboy hat over his eyes like he was going to take a nap. Orthus jumped in the front seat next to Geryon and began barking happily in two-part harmony. 

  Annabeth, Tyson, Grover, and I took the middle two cars. 

  “We have a huge operation!” Geryon boasted as the moo-mobile lurched forward. “Horses and cattle mostly, but all sorts of exotic varieties, too. ”

  We came over a hill, and Annabeth gasped. “Hippalektryons? I thought they were extinct!”

  At the bottom of the hill was a fenced-in pasture with a dozen of the weirdest animals I’d ever seen. Each had the front half of a horse and the back half of a rooster. Their rear feet were huge yellow claws. They had feathery tails and red wings. As I watched, two of them got in a fight over a pile of seed. They reared up on their wings at each other until the smaller one galloped away, its rear bird legs putting a little hop in its step. 

  “Rooster ponies,” Tyson said in amazement. “Do they lay eggs?”

  “Once a year!” Geryon grinned in the rearview mirror. “Very much in demand for omelettes!”

  “That’s horrible!” Annabeth said. “They must be an endangered species!”

  Geryon waved his hand. “Gold is gold, darling. And you haven’t tasted the omelettes. ”

  “That’s not right,” Grover murmured, but Geryon just kept narrating the tour. 

  “Now, over here,” he said, “we have our fire-breathing horses, which you may have seen on your way in. They’re bred for war, naturally. ”

  “What war?” I asked. 

  Geryon grinned slyly. “Oh, whichever one comes along. And over yonder, of course, are our prize red cows. ”

  Sure enough, hundreds of the cherry-colored cattle were grazing the side of the hill. 

 “So many,” Grover said. 

  “Yes, well, Apollo is too busy to see them,” Geryon explained, “so he subcontracts to us. We breed them vigorously because there’s such a demand. ”

  “For what?” I asked. 

  Geryon raised an eyebrow. “Meat, of course! Armies have to eat. ”

  “You kill the sacred cows of the sun god for hamburger meat?” Grover said. “That’s the against ancient laws!”

  “Oh, don’t get so worked up, satyr. They’re just animals. ”

  “Just animals!”

  “Yes, and if Apollo cared, I’m sure he would tell us. ”

  “If he knew,” I muttered. 

  Nico sat forward. “I don’t care about any of this, Geryon. We had business to discuss, and this wasn’t it!”

  “All in good time, Mr. di Angelo. Look over here; some of my exotic game. ”

  The next field was ringed in barbed wire. The whole area was crawling with giant scorpions. 

  “Triple G Ranch,” I said, suddenly remembering. “Your mark was on the crates at camp. Quintus got his scorpions from you. ”

  “Quintus…” Geryon mused. “Short gray hair, muscular, swordsman?”

  “Yeah. ”

  “Never heard of him,” Geryon said. “Now, over here are my prize stables! You must see them. ”

  I didn’t need to see them, because as soon as we got within three hundred yards I started to smell them. Near the banks of a green river was a horse corral the size of a football field. Stables lined one side of it. About a hundred horses were milling around in the muck—and when I say muck, I mean horse poop. It was the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen, like a poop blizzardhad come through and dumped four feet of the stuff overnight. The horses were really gross from wading through it, and the stables were just as bad. It reeked like you would not believe—worse than the garbage boats on the East River. 

  Even Nico gagged. “What is that?”

  “My stables!” Geryon said. “Well, actually they belong to Aegas, but we watch over them for a small monthly fee. Aren’t they lovely?”

  “They’re disgusting!” Annabeth said. 

  “Lots of poop,” Tyson observed. 

  “How can you keep animals like that?” Grover cried. 

  “Y’all getting’ on my nerves,” Geryon said. “These are flesh-eating horses, see? They like these conditions. ”

  “Plus, you’re too cheap to have them cleaned,” Eurytion mumbled from under his hat. 

  “Quiet!” Geryon snapped. “All right, perhaps the stables are a bit challenging to clean. Perhaps they do make me nauseous when the wind blows the wrong way. But so what? My clients still pay me well. ”

  “What clients?” I demanded. 

  “Oh, you’d be surprised how many people will pay for a flesh-eating horse. They make great garbage disposals. Wonderful way to terrify your enemies. Great at birthday parties! We rent them out all the time. ”

  “You’re a monster,” Annabeth decided. 

  Geryon stopped the moo-mobile and turned to look at her. “What gave it away? Was it the three bodies?”

  “You have to let these animals go,” Grover said. “It’s not right!”

  “And the clients you keep talking about,” Annabeth said. “You work for Kronos, don’t you? You’re supplying his army with horses, food, whatever they need. ”

  Geryon shrugged, which was very weird since he had three sets of shoulders. It looked like he was doing the wave all by himself. “I work for anyone with gold, young lady. I’m a businessman. And I sell them anything I have to offer. ”

  He climbed out of the moo-mobile and strolled toward the stables as if enjoying the fresh air. It would’ve been a nice view, with the river and the trees and hills and all, except for the quagmire of horse muck. 

  Nico got out of the back car and stormed over to Geryon. The cowherd Eurytion wasn’t as sleepy as he looked. He hefted his club and walked after Nico. 

  “I came here for business, Geryon,” Nico said. “And you haven’t answered me. ”

  “Mmm. ” Geryon examined a cactus. His left arm reached over and scratched his middle-chest. “Yes, you’ll get a deal, all right. ”

  “My ghost told me you could help. He said you could guide us to the soul we need. ”

  “Wait a second,” I said. “I thought I was the soul you wanted. ”

  Nico looked at me like I was crazy. “You? Why would I want you? Bianca’s soul is worth a thousand of yours! Now, can you help me, Geryon, or not?”

  “Oh, I imagine I could,” the rancher said. “Your ghost friend, by the way, where is he?”

  Nico looked uneasy. “He can’t form in broad daylight. It’s hard for him. But he’s around somewhere. ”

  Geryon smiled. “I’m sure. Minos likes to disappear when things get…difficult. ”

  “Minos?” I remembered the man I’d seen in my dreams, with the golden crown, the pointed beard, and the cruel eyes. “You mean that evil king? That’s the ghost who’s been giving you advice?”

  “It’s none of your business, Percy!” Nico turned back to Geryon. “And what do you mean about things getting difficult?”

  The three-bodied man sighed. “Well, you see, Nico—can I call you Nico?”

  “No. ”

  “You see, Nico, Luke Castellan is offering very good money for half-bloods. Especially powerful half-bloods. And I’m sure when he learns your little secret, who you really are, he’ll pay very, very well indeed. ”

  Nico drew his sword, but Eurytion knocked it out of his hand. Before I could get up, Orthus pounced on my chest and growled, his faces an inch away from mine. 

  “I would stay in the car, all of you,” Geryon warned. “Or Orthus will tear Mr. Jackson’s throat out. Now, Eurytion, if you would be so kind, secure Nico. ”

  The cowherd spit into the grass. “Do I have to?”

  “Yes, you fool!”

  Eurytion looked bored, but he wrapped one huge arm around Nico and lifted him up like a wrestler. 

  “Pick up the sword, too,” Geryon said with distaste. “There’s nothing I hate worse than Stygian Iron. ”

  Eurytion picked up the sword, careful not to touch the blade. 

  “Now,” Geryon said cheerfully, “we’ve had the tour. Let’s go back to the lodge, have some lunch, and send an Iris-message to our friends in the Titan army. ”

  “You fiend!” Annabeth cried. 

  Geryon smiled at her. “Don’t worry, my dear. Once I’ve delivered Mr. di Angelo, you and your party can go. I don’t interfere with quests. Besides, I’ve been paid well to give you safe passage, which does not, I’m afraid, include Mr. di Angelo. 

  “Paid by whom?” Annabeth said. “What do you mean?”

  “Never you mind, darlin’. Let’s be off, shall we?”

  “Wait!” I said, and Orthus growled. I stayed perfectly still so he wouldn’t tear my throat out. “Geryon, you said you’re a businessman. Make me a deal. ”

  Geryon narrowed his eyes. “What sort of deal? Do you have gold?”

  “I’ve got something better. Barter. ”

  “But Mr. Jackson, you’ve got nothing. ”

  “You could have him clean the stables,” Eurytion suggested innocently. 

  “I’ll do it!” I said. “If I fail, you get all of us. Trade us all to Luke for gold. ”

  “Assuming the horses don’t eat you,” Geryon observed. 

  “Either way, you get my friends,” I said. “But if I succeed, you’ve got to let all of us go, including Nico. ”

  “No!” Nico screamed. “Don’t do me any favors, Percy. I don’t want your help!”

  Geryon chuckled. “Percy Jackson, those stables haven’t been cleaned in a thousand years…though it’s true I might be able to sell more stable space if all that poop was cleared away. ”

  “So what have you got to lose?”

  The rancher hesitated. “All right, I’ll accept your offer, but you have to get it done by sunset. If you fail, your friends get sold, and I get rich. ”

  “Deal. ”

  He nodded. “I’m going to take your friends with me, back to the lodge. 

  We’ll wait for you there. ”

  Eurytion gave me a funny look. It might have been sympathy. He whistled, and the dog jumped off me and onto Annabeth’s lap. She yelped. I knew Tyson and grover would never try anything as long as Annabeth was hostage. 

  I got out of the car and locked eyes with her. 

  “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said quietly. 

  “I hope so, too. ”

  Geryon got behind the driver’s wheel. Eurytion hauled Nico into the backseat. 

  “Sunset,” Geryon reminded me. “No later. ”

  He laughed at me once more, sounded his cowbell horn, and the moo-mobile rumbled off down the trail. 

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