The Battle of the Labyrinth
Page 18

 Rick Riordan

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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.