The Battle of the Labyrinth – Chapter 9: I SCOOP POOP

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Chapter 9: I SCOOP POOP

I lost hope when I saw the horses’ teeth. 

  As I got closer to the fence, I held my shirt over my nose to block the smell. One stallion waded through the muck and whinnied angrily at me. He bared his teeth, which were pointed like a bear’s. 

  I tried to talk to him in my mind. I can do that with most horses. 

  Hi, I told him. I’m going to clean your stables. Won’t that be great?

  Yes! The horse said. Come inside! Eat you! Tasty half-blood!

  But I’m Poseidon’s son, I protested. He created horses. 

  Usually this gets me VIP treatment in the equestrian world, but not this time. 

  Yes! The horse agreed enthusiastically. Poseidon can come in, too! We will eat you both! Seafood!

  Seafood! The other horses chimed in as they waded through the field. Flies were buzzing everywhere, and the heat of the day didn’t make the smell any better. I’d had some idea that I could do this challenge, because I remembered how Hercules had done it. He’d channeled a river into the stables and cleaned them out that way. I figured I could maybe control the water. But if I couldn’t get close to the horses without getting eaten, that was a problem. And the river was downhill from the stables, a lot farther away than I’d realized, almost half a mile. The problem of the poop looked a lot bigger up close. I picked up a rusted shovel and experimentally scooped some away from the fence line. Great. Only four billion shovelfuls to go. 

  The sun was already sinking. I had a few hours at best. I decided the river was my only hope. At least it would be easier to think at the riverside than it was here. I set off downhill. 

  ***

  When I got to the river, I found a girl waiting for me. She was wearing jeans and a green T-shirt and her long brown hair was braided with river grass. She had a stern look on her face. Her arms were crossed. 

  “Oh no you don’t,” she said. 

  I stared at her. “Are you a naiad?”

  She rolled her eyes. “Of course!”

  “But you speak English. And you’re out of the water. ”

“What, you don’t think we can act human if we want to?”

  I’d never thought about it. I kind of felt stupid, though, because I’d seen plenty of naiads at camp, and they’d never done much more than giggle and wave at me from the bottom of the canoe lake. 

  “Look,” I said. “I just came to ask—”

  “I know who you are,” she said. “And I know what you want. And the answer is no! I’m not going to have my river used again to clean that filthy stable. ”

  “But—”

  “Oh, save it, sea boy. You ocean-god types always think you’re soooo much more important than some little river, don’t you? well let me tell you, this naiad is not going to be pushed around just because your daddy is Poseidon. This is freshwater territory, mister. The last guy who asked me this favor—oh, he was way better-looking than you, by the way—he convinced me, and that was the worst mistake I’ve ever made! Do you have any idea what all that horse manure does to my ecosystem? Do I look like a sewage treatment plant to you? My fish will die. I’ll never get the much out of my plants. I’ll be sick for years. NO THANK YOU!”

  The way she talked reminded me of my mortal friend, Rachel Elizabeth Dare—kind of like she was punching me with words. I couldn’t blame the naiad. Now that I thought about it, I’d be pretty mad if somebody dumped four million pounds of manure in my home. But still…”

  “My friends are in danger,” I told her. 

  “Well, that’s too bad! But it’s not my problem. And you’re not going to ruin my river. ”

  She looked like she was ready for a fight. Her fists were balled, but I thought I heard a little quiver in her voice. Suddenly I realized that despite her angry attitude, she was afraid of me. She probably thought I was going to fight her for control of the river, and she was worried she would lose. 

  The thought made me sad. I felt like a bully, a son of Poseidon throwing his weight around. 

  I sat down on a tree stump. “Okay, you win. ”

  The naiad looked surprised. “Really?”

  “I’m not going to fight you. It’s your river. ”

  She relaxed her shoulders. “Oh. Oh, good. I mean—good thing for you!”

  “But my friends and I are going to get sold to the Titans if I don’t clean those stables by sunset. And I don’t know how. ”

  The river gurgled along cheerfully. A snake slid through the water and ducked its head under. Finally the naiad sighed. 

  “I’ll tell you a secret, son of the sea god. Scoop up some dirt. ”

  “What?”

  “You heard me. ”

  I crouched down and scooped up a handful of Texas dirt. It was dry and black and spotted with tiny clumps of white rock…No, something besides rock. 

  “Those are shells,” the naiad said. “Petrified seashells. Millions of years ago, even before the time of the gods, when only Gaea and Ouranos reigned, this land was under the water. It was part of the sea. ”

  Suddenly I saw what she meant. There were little pieces of ancient sea urchins in my hand, mollusk shells. Even the limestone rocks had impressions of seashells embedded in them. 

  “Okay,” I said. “What good does that do me?”

  “You’re not so different from me, demigod. Even when I’m out of the water, the water is within me. It is my life source. ” She stepped back, put her feet in the river, and smiled. “I hope you find a way to rescue your friends. ”

  And with that she turned to liquid and melted into the river. 

  ***

  The sun was touching the hills when I got back to the stables. Somebody must’ve come by and fed the horses, because they were tearing into huge animal carcasses. I couldn’t tell what kind of animal, and I really didn’t want to know. If it was possible for the stables to get more disgusting, fifty horses tearing into raw meat did it. 

  Seafood! one thought when he saw me. Come in! We’re still hungry!

  What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t use the river. And the fact that this place had been under water a million years ago didn’t exactly help me now. I looked at the little calcified seashell in my palm, then at the huge mountain of dung. 

  Frustrated, I threw the shell into the poop. I was about to turn my back on the horses when I heard a sound. 

  PFFFFFFT! Like a balloon with a leak. 

  I looked down where I had thrown the shell. A tiny spout of water was shooting out of the muck. 

  “No way,” I muttered. 

  Hesitantly, I stepped toward the fence. “Get bigger,” I told the waterspout. 

  SPOOOOOOOSH!

  Water shot three feet into the air and kept bubbling. It was impossible, but there it was. A couple of horses came over to check it out. One put his mouth to the spring and recoiled. 

  Yuck! he said. Salty!

  It was seawater in the middle of a Texas ranch. I scooped up another handful of dirt and picked out the shell fossils. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I ran around the length of the stable, throwing shells into the dung piles. Everywhere a shell hit, a saltwater spring erupted. 

  Stop! The horses cried. Meat is good! Baths are bad!

  Then I noticed the water wasn’t running out of the stables or flowing downhill like water normally would. It simply bubbled around each spring and sank into the ground, taking the dung with it. The horse poop dissolved in the saltwater, leaving regular old wet dirt. 

  “More!” I yelled. 

  There was a tugging sensation in my gut, and the waterspouts exploded like the world’s largest carwash. Salt water shot twenty feet into the air. The horses went crazy, running back and forth as the geysers sprayed them from all directions. Mountains of poop began to melt like ice. 

  The tugging sensation became more intense, painful even, but there was something exhilarating about seeing all that salt water. I had made this. I had brought the ocean to this hillside. 

  Stop, lord! a horse cried. Stop, please!

  Water was sloshing everywhere now. The horses were drenched, and some were panicking and slipping in the mud. The poop was completely gone, tons of it just dissolved into the earth, and the water was now starting to pool, trickling out of the stable, making a hundred little streams down toward the river. 

  “Stop,” I told the water. 

  Nothing happened. The pain in my gut was building. If I didn’t shut off the geysers soon, the salt water would run into the river and poison the fish and plants. 

  “Stop!” I concentrated all my might on shutting off the force of the sea. 

  Suddenly the geysers shut down. I collapsed to my knees, exhausted. In front of me was a shiny clean horse stable, a field of wet salty mud, and fifty horses that had been scoured so thoroughly their coats gleamed. Even the meat scraps between their teeth had been washed out. 

  We won’t eat you! the horses wailed. Please, lord! no more salty baths!

  “On one condition,” I said. “You only eat the food your handlers give you from now on. Not people. Or I’ll be back with more seashells!”

  The horses whinnied and made me a whole lot of promises that they would be good flesh-eating horses from now on, but I didn’t stick around to chat. The sun was going down. I turned and ran full speed toward the ranch house. 

  ***

  I smelled barbecue before I reached the house, and that made me madder than ever, because I really love barbecue. 

  The deck was set up for a party. Streamers and balloons decorated the railing. Geryon was flipping burgers on a huge barbecue cooker made from an oil drum. Eurytion lounged at a picnic table, picking his fingernails with a knife. The two-headed dog sniffed the ribs and burgers that were frying on the grill. And then I saw my friends: Tyson, Grover, Annabeth, and Nico all tossed in a corner, tied up like rodeo animals, with their ankles and wrists roped together and their mouths gagged. 

  “Let them go!” I yelled, still out of breath from running up the steps. “I cleaned the stables!”

  Geryon turned. He wore an apron on each chest, with one word on each, so together they spelled out: KISS—THE—CHEF. “Did you, now? How’d you manage it?”

  I was pretty impatient, but I told him. 

  He nodded appreciatively. “Very ingenious. It would’ve been better if you’d poisoned that pesky naiad, but no matter. ”

  “Let my friends go,” I said. “We had a deal. ”

  “Ah, I’ve been thinking about that. The problem is, if I let them go, I don’t get paid. ”

  “You promised!”

  Geryon made a tsk-tsk noise. “But did you make me swear on the River Styx? No you didn’t. So it’s not binding. When you’re conducting business, sonny, you should always get a binding oath. ”

  I drew my sword. Orthus growled. One head leaned down next to Grover’s ear and bared its fangs. 

  “Eurytion,” Geryon said, “the boy is starting to annoy me. Kill him. ”

  Eurytion studied me. I didn’t like my odds against him and that huge club. 

  “Kill him yourself,” Eurytion said. 

  Geryon raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

  “You heard me,” Eurytion grumbled. “You keep sending me out to do your dirty work. You pick fights for no good reason, and I’m getting tired of dying for you. You want to fight the kid, do it yourself. ”

  It was the most un-Areslike thing I’d ever heard son of Ares say. 

  Geryon threw down his spatula. “You dare defy me? I should fire you right now!”

  “And who’d take care of your cattle? Orthus, heel. ”

  The dog immediately stopped growling at Grover and came to sit by the cowherd’s feet. 

  “Fine!” Geryon snarled. “I’ll deal with you later, after the boy is dead!”

  He picked up two carving knives and threw them at me. I deflected one with my sword. The other impaled itself in the picnic table an inch from Eurytion’s hand. 

  I went on the attack. Geryon parried my first strike with a pair of red-hot tongs and lunged at my face with a barbecue fork. I got inside his next thrust and stabbed him right through the middle chest. 

  “Aghhh!” He crumpled to his knees. I waited for him to disintegrate, the way monsters usually do. But instead he just grimaced and started to stand up. The wound in his chef’s apron started to heal. 

  “Nice try, sonny,” he said. “Thing is, I have three hearts. The perfect backup system. ”

  He tipped over the barbecue, and coals spilled everywhere. One landed next to Annabeth’s face, and she let out a muffled scream. Tyson strained against his bonds, but even his strength wasn’t enough to break them. I had to end this fight before my friends got hurt. 

  I jabbed Geryon in the left chest, but he only laughed. I stuck him in the right stomach. No good. I might as well have been sticking a sword in a teddy bear for all the reaction he showed. 

  Three hearts. The perfect backup system. Stabbing one at a time was no good…. 

  I ran into the house. 

  “Coward!” he cried. “Come back and die right!”

  The living room walls were decorated with a bunch of gruesome hunting trophies—stuffed deer and dragon heads, a gun case, a sword display, and a bow with a quiver. 

  Geryon threw his barbecue fork, and it thudded into the wall right next to my head. He drew two swords from the wall display. “Your head’s gonna go right there, Jackson! Next to the grizzly bear!”

I had a crazy idea. I dropped Riptide and grabbed the bow off the wall. 

  I was the worst archery shot in the world. I couldn’t hit the targets at camp, much less a bull’s eye. But I had no choice. I couldn’t win this fight with a sword. I prayed to Artemis and Apollo, the twin archers, hoping they might take pity on me for once. Please, guys. Just one shot. Please. 

  I notched an arrow. 

  Geryon laughed. “You fool! One arrow is no better than one sword. ”

  He raised his swords and charged. I dove sideways. Before he could turn, I shot my arrow into the side of his right chest. I heard THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, as the arrow passed clean through each of his chests and flew out his left side, embedding itself in the forehead of the grizzly bear trophy. 

  Geryon dropped his swords. He turned and stared at me. “You can’t shoot. They told me you couldn’t…”

  His face turned a sickly shade of green. He collapsed to his knees and began crumbling into sand, until all that was left were three cooking aprons and an oversized pair of cowboy boots. 

  ***

  I got my friends untied. Eurytion didn’t try to stop me. Then I stoked up the barbecue and threw the food into the flames as a burnt offering for Artemis and Apollo. 

  “Thanks, guys,” I said. “I owe you one. ”

  The sky thundered in the distance, so I figured maybe the burgers smelled okay. 

  “Yay for Percy!” Tyson said. 

  “Can we tie up this cowherd now?” Nico asked. 

  “Yeah!” Grover agreed. “And that dog almost killed me!”

  I looked at Eurytion, who still was sitting relaxed at the picnic table. Orthus had both his heads on the cowherd’s knees. 

  “How long will it take Geryon to re-form?” I asked him. 

  Eurytion shrugged. “Hundred years? He’s not one of those fast re-formers, thank the gods. You’ve done me a favor. ”

  “You said you’d died for him before,” I remembered. “How?”

  “I’ve worked for that creep for thousands of years. Started as a regular half-blood, but I chose immortality when my dad offered it. Worst mistake I ever made. Now I’m stuck here at this ranch. I can’t leave. I can’t quit. I just tend the cows and fight Geryon’s fights. We’re kinda tied together. ”

  “Maybe you can change things,” I said. 

  Eurytion narrowed his eyes. “How?”

  “Be nice to the animals. Take care of them. Stop selling them for food. And stop dealing with the Titans. ”

  Eurytion thought about that. “That’d be all right. ”

  “Get the animals on your side, and they’ll help you. Once Geryon gets back, maybe he’ll be working for you this time. ”

  Eurytion grinned. “Now, that I could live with. ”

  “You won’t try to stop us leaving?”

  “Shoot, no. ”

  Annabeth rubbed her bruised wrists. She was still looking at Eurytion suspiciously. “Your boss said somebody paid for our safe passage. Who?”

  The cowherd shrugged. “Maybe he was just saying that to fool you. ”

  “What about the Titans?” I asked. “Did you Iris-message them about Nico yet?”

  “Nope. Geryon was waiting until after the barbecue. They don’t know about him. ”

  Nico as glaring at me. I wasn’t sure what to do about him. I doubted he would agree to come with us. On the other hand, I couldn’t just let him roam around on his own. 

  “You could stay here until we’re done with our quest,” I told him. “It would be safe. ”

  “Safe?” Nico said. “What do you care if I’m safe? You got my sister killed!”

  “Nico,” Annabeth said, “that wasn’t Percy’s fault. And Geryon wasn’t lying about Kronos wanting to capture you. If he knew who you were, he’d do anything to get you on his side. ”

  “I’m not on anyone’s side. And I’m not afraid. ”

  “You should be,” Annabeth said. “Your sister wouldn’t want—”

  “If you cared for my sister, you’d help me bring her back!”

  “A soul for a soul?” I said. 

  “Yes!”

  “But if you didn’t want my soul—”

  “I’m not explaining anything to you!” He blinked tears out of his eyes. “And I will bring her back. ”

  “Bianca wouldn’t want to be brought back,” I said. “Not like that. ”

  “You didn’t know her!” he shouted. “How do you know what she’d want?”

  I stared at the flames in the barbecue pit. I thought about the line in Annabeth’s prophecy: You shall rise or fall by the ghost king’s hand. That had to be Minos, and I had to convince Nico not to listen to him. “Let’s ask Bianca. ”

  The sky seemed to grow darker all of a sudden. 

  “I’ve tried,” Nico said miserably. “She won’t answer. ”

  “Try again. I’ve got a feeling she’ll answer with me here. ”

  “Why would she?”

  “Because she’s been sending me Iris-messages,” I said, suddenly sure of it. “She’s been trying to warn me what you’re up to, so I can protect you. ”

  Nico shook his head. “That’s impossible. ”

  “One way to find out. You said you’re not afraid. ” I turned to Eurytion. “We’re going to need a pit, like a grave. And food and drinks. ”

  “Percy,” Annabeth warned. “I don’t think this is a good—”

  “All right,” Nico said. “I’ll try. ”

  Eurytion scratched his beard. “There’s a hole dug out back for a septic tank. We could use that. Cyclops boy, fetch my ice chest from the kitchen. I hope the dead like root beer. ”

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