Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Trials of Apollo, Book Three: The Burning Maze, Page 2

Rick Riordan

  “K-killing the bird will curse you,” I said finally.

  “And if I don’t kill it?” Meg asked.

  “Oh, then it will d-disembowel you, drink your blood, and eat your flesh.” I grinned, though I had a feeling I hadn’t said anything funny. “Also, don’t let a strix scratch you. It’ll paralyze you!”

  By way of demonstration, I fell over sideways.

  Above us, the strix spread its wings and swooped down.

  “STOP!” Grover yelped. “We come in peace!”

  The bird was not impressed. It attacked, only missing the satyr’s face because Meg lashed out with her scimitars. The strix veered, pirouetting between her blades, and landed unscathed a little higher up the spiral ramp.

  SCREE! the strix yelled, ruffling its feathers.

  “What do you mean ‘you need to kill us’?” Grover asked.

  Meg scowled. “You can talk to it?”

  “Well, yes,” Grover said. “It’s an animal.”

  “Why didn’t you tell us what it was saying before now?” Meg asked.

  “Because it was just yelling scree!” Grover said. “Now it’s saying scree as in it needs to kill us.”

  I tried to move my legs. They seemed to have turned into sacks of cement, which I found vaguely amusing. I could still move my arms and had some feeling in my chest, but I wasn’t sure how long that would last.

  “Perhaps ask the strix why it needs to kill us?” I suggested.

  “Scree!” Grover said.

  I was getting tired of the strix language. The bird replied in a series of squawks and clicks.

  Meanwhile, out in the corridor, the other strixes shrieked and bashed against the net of plants. Black talons and gold beaks poked out, snapping tomatoes into pico de gallo. I figured we had a few minutes at most until the birds burst through and killed us all, but their razor-sharp beaks sure were cute!

  Grover wrung his hands. “The strix says he’s been sent to drink our blood, eat our flesh, and disembowel us, not necessarily in that order. He says he’s sorry, but it’s a direct command from the emperor.”

  “Stupid emperors,” Meg grumbled. “Which one?”

  “I don’t know,” Grover said. “The strix just calls him Scree.”

  “You can translate disembowel,” she noted, “but you can’t translate the emperor’s name?”

  Personally, I was okay with that. Since leaving Indianapolis, I’d spent a lot of time mulling over the Dark Prophecy we had received in the Cave of Trophonius. We had already encountered Nero and Commodus, and I had a dreadful suspicion about the identity of the third emperor, whom we had yet to meet. At the moment, I didn’t want confirmation. The euphoria of the strix venom was starting to dissipate. I was about to be eaten alive by a bloodsucking mega-owl. I didn’t need any more reasons to weep in despair.

  The strix dove at Meg. She dodged aside, whacking the flat of her blade against the bird’s tail feathers as it rushed past, sending the unfortunate bird into the opposite wall, where it smacked face-first into the brick, exploding in a cloud of monster dust and feathers.

  “Meg!” I said. “I told you not to kill it! You’ll get cursed!”

  “I didn’t kill it. It committed suicide against that wall.”

  “I don’t think the Fates will see it that way.”

  “Then let’s not tell them.”

  “Guys?” Grover pointed to the tomato plants, which were rapidly thinning under the onslaught of claws and beaks. “If we can’t kill the strixes, maybe we should strengthen this barrier?”

  He raised his pipes and played. Meg turned her swords back into rings. She stretched her hands toward the tomato plants. The stems thickened and the roots struggled to take hold in the stone floor, but it was a losing battle. Too many strixes were now battering the other side, ripping through the new growth as fast as it emerged.

  “No good.” Meg stumbled back, her face beaded with sweat. “Only so much we can do without soil and sunlight.”

  “You’re right.” Grover looked above us, his eyes following the spiral ramp up into the gloom. “We’re nearly home. If we can just get to the top before the strixes get through—”

  “So we climb,” Meg announced.

  “Hello?” I said miserably. “Paralyzed former god here.”

  Grover grimaced at Meg. “Duct tape?”

  “Duct tape,” she agreed.

  May the gods defend me from heroes with duct tape. And heroes always seem to have duct tape. Meg produced a roll from a pouch on her gardening belt. She propped me into a sitting position, back-to-back with Grover, then proceeded to loop tape under our armpits, binding me to the satyr as if I were a hiking pack.

  With Meg’s help, Grover staggered to his feet, jostling me around so I got random views of the walls, the floor, Meg’s face, and my own paralyzed legs manspreading beneath me.

  “Uh, Grover?” I asked. “Will you have enough strength to carry me all the way up?”

  “Satyrs are great climbers,” he wheezed.

  He started up the narrow ramp, my paralyzed feet dragging behind us. Meg followed, glancing back every so often at the rapidly deteriorating tomato plants.

  “Apollo,” she said, “tell me about strixes.”

  I sifted through my brain, panning for useful nuggets among the sludge.

  “They…they are birds of ill omen,” I said. “When they show up, bad things happen.”

  “Duh,” said Meg. “What else?”

  “Er, they usually feed on the young and weak. Babies, old people, paralyzed gods…that sort of thing. They breed in the upper reaches of Tartarus. I’m only speculating here, but I’m pretty sure they don’t make good pets.”

  “How do we drive them off?” she said. “If we can’t kill them, how do we stop them?”

  “I—I don’t know.”

  Meg sighed in frustration. “Talk to the Arrow of Dodona. See if it knows anything. I’m going to try buying us some time.”

  She jogged back down the ramp.

  Talking to the arrow was just about the only way my day could get worse, but I was under orders, and when Meg commanded me, I could not disobey. I reached over my shoulder, groped through my quiver, and pulled forth the magic missile.

  “Hello, Wise and Powerful Arrow,” I said. (Always best to start with flattery.)


  “It’s been about forty-eight hours,” I said.


  “Right.” I resisted the urge to snap the arrow’s shaft. “What can you tell me about strixes?”


  “Because they are about to killeth—to kill us.”


  “I would never have thought of that,” I said. “Do you have any strix-pertinent information or not, O Wise Projectile?”

  The arrow buzzed, no doubt trying to access Wikipedia. It denies using the Internet. Perhaps, then, it’s just a coincidence the arrow is always more helpful when we are in an area with free Wi-Fi.

  Grover valiantly lugged my sorry mortal body up the ramp. He huffed and gasped, staggering dangerously close to the edge. The floor of the room was now fifty feet below us—just far enough for a nice, lethal fall. I could see Meg down there pacing, muttering to herself and shaking out more packets of gardening seeds.

  Above, the ramp seemed to spiral forever. Whatever waited for us at the top, assuming there was a top, remained lost in the darkness. I found it very inconsiderate that the Labyrinth did not provide an elevator, or at least a proper handrail. How were heroes with accessibility needs supposed to enjoy this death trap?

  At last the Arrow of Dodona delivered its verdict: STRIXES ART DANGEROUS.

  “Once again,” I said, “your wisdom brings l
ight to the darkness.”


  “Yes, yes. What else?”

  “What’s it saying?” Grover asked between gasps.

  Among its many irritating qualities, the arrow spoke solely in my mind, so not only did I look like a crazy person when I conversed with it, but I had to constantly report its ramblings to my friends.

  “It’s still searching Google,” I told Grover. “Perhaps, O Arrow, you could do a Boolean search, ‘strix plus defeat.’”

  I USE NOT SUCH CHEATS! the arrow thundered. Then it was silent long enough to type strix + defeat.


  “Grover,” I called over my shoulder, “would you happen to have any pig entrails?”

  “What?” He turned, which was not an effective way of facing me, since I was duct-taped to his back. He almost scraped my nose off on the brick wall. “Why would I carry pig entrails? I’m a vegetarian!”

  Meg clambered up the ramp to join us.

  “The birds are almost through,” she reported. “I tried different kinds of plants. I tried to summon Peaches….” Her voice broke with despair.

  Since entering the Labyrinth, she had been unable to summon her peach-spirit minion, who was handy in a fight but rather picky about when and where he showed up. I supposed that, much like tomato plants, Peaches didn’t do well underground.

  “Arrow of Dodona, what else?” I shouted at its point. “There has to be something besides pig intestines that will keep strixes at bay!”


  “Our-butt-us shall what?” I demanded.

  Too late.

  Below us, with a peal of bloodthirsty shrieks, the strixes broke through the tomato barricade and swarmed into the room.

  “HERE they come!” Meg yelled.

  Honestly, whenever I wanted her to talk about something important, she shut up. But when we were facing an obvious danger, she wasted her breath yelling Here they come.

  Grover increased his pace, showing heroic strength as he bounded up the ramp, hauling my flabby duct-taped carcass behind him.

  Facing backward, I had a perfect view of the strixes as they swirled out of the shadows, their yellow eyes flashing like coins in a murky fountain. A dozen birds? More? Given how much trouble we’d had with a single strix, I didn’t like our chances against an entire flock, especially since we were now lined up like juicy targets on a narrow, slippery ledge. I doubted Meg could help all the birds commit suicide by whacking them face-first into the wall.

  “Arbutus!” I yelled. “The arrow said something about arbutus repelling strixes.”

  “That’s a plant.” Grover gasped for air. “I think I met an arbutus once.”

  “Arrow,” I said, “what is an arbutus?”


  Disgusted, I shoved the arrow back into my quiver.

  “Apollo, cover me.” Meg thrust one of her swords into my hand, then rifled through her gardening belt, glancing nervously at the strixes as they ascended.

  How Meg expected me to cover her, I wasn’t sure. I was garbage at swordplay, even when I wasn’t duct-taped to a satyr’s back and facing targets that would curse anyone who killed them.

  “Grover!” Meg yelled. “Can we figure out what type of plant an arbutus is?”

  She ripped open a random packet and tossed seeds into the void. They burst like heated popcorn kernels and formed grenade-size yams with leafy green stems. They fell among the flock of strixes, hitting a few and causing startled squawking, but the birds kept coming.

  “Those are tubers,” Grover wheezed. “I think an arbutus is a fruit plant.”

  Meg ripped open a second seed packet. She showered the strixes with an explosion of bushes dotted with green fruits. The birds simply veered around them.

  “Grapes?” Grover asked.

  “Gooseberries,” said Meg.

  “Are you sure?” Grover asked. “The shape of the leaves—”

  “Grover!” I snapped. “Let’s restrict ourselves to military botany. What’s a—? DUCK!”

  Now, gentle reader, you be the judge. Was I asking the question What’s a duck? Of course I wasn’t. Despite Meg’s later complaints, I was trying to warn her that the nearest strix was charging straight at her face.

  She didn’t understand my warning, which was not my fault.

  I swung my borrowed scimitar, attempting to protect my young friend. Only my terrible aim and Meg’s quick reflexes prevented me from decapitating her.

  “Stop that!” she yelled, swatting the strix aside with her other blade.

  “You said cover me!” I protested.

  “I didn’t mean—” She cried out in pain, stumbling as a bloody cut opened along her right thigh.

  Then we were engulfed in an angry storm of talons, beaks, and black wings. Meg swung her scimitar wildly. A strix launched itself at my face, its claws about to rip my eyes out, when Grover did the unexpected: he screamed.

  Why is that surprising? you may be asking. When you’re swarmed by entrail-devouring birds, it is a perfect time to scream.

  True. But the sound that came from the satyr’s mouth was no ordinary cry.

  It reverberated through the chamber like the shock wave of a bomb, scattering the birds, shaking the stones, and filling me with cold, unreasoning fear.

  Had I not been duct-taped to the satyr’s back, I would have fled. I would have jumped off the ledge just to get away from that sound. As it was, I dropped Meg’s sword and clamped my hands over my ears. Meg, lying prone on the ramp, bleeding and no doubt already partially paralyzed by the strix’s poison, curled into a ball and buried her head in her arms.

  The strixes fled back down into the darkness.

  My heart pounded. Adrenaline surged through me. I needed several deep breaths before I could speak.

  “Grover,” I said, “did you just summon Panic?”

  I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel him shaking. He lay down on the ramp, rolling to one side so I faced the wall.

  “I didn’t mean to.” Grover’s voice was hoarse. “Haven’t done that in years.”

  “P-panic?” Meg asked.

  “The cry of the lost god Pan,” I said. Even saying his name filled me with sadness. Ah, what good times the nature god and I had had in ancient days, dancing and cavorting in the wilderness! Pan had been a first-class cavorter. Then humans destroyed most of the wilderness, and Pan faded into nothing. You humans. You’re why we gods can’t have nice things.

  “I’ve never heard anyone but Pan use that power,” I said. “How?”

  Grover made a sound that was half sob, half sigh. “Long story.”

  Meg grunted. “Got rid of the birds, anyway.” I heard her ripping fabric, probably making a bandage for her leg.

  “Are you paralyzed?” I asked.

  “Yeah,” she muttered. “Waist down.”

  Grover shifted in our duct-tape harness. “I’m still okay, but exhausted. The birds will be back, and there’s no way I can carry you up the ramp now.”

  I did not doubt him. The shout of Pan would scare away almost anything, but it was a taxing bit of magic. Every time Pan used it, he would take a three-day nap afterward.

  Below us, the strixes’ cries echoed through the Labyrinth. Their screeching already sounded like it was turning from fear—Fly away!—to confusion: Why are we flying away?

  I tried to wriggle my feet. To my surprise, I could now feel my toes inside my socks.

  “Can someone cut me loose?” I asked. “I think the poison is losing strength.”

  From her horizontal position, Meg used a scimitar to saw me out of the duct tape. The three of us lined up with our backs literally to the wall—three sweaty, sad, pathetic pieces of strix bait wai
ting to die. Below us, the squawking of the doom birds got louder. Soon they’d be back, angrier than ever. About fifty feet above us, just visible now in the dim glint of Meg’s swords, our ramp dead-ended at a domed brick ceiling.

  “So much for an exit,” Grover said. “I thought for sure…This shaft looks so much like…” He shook his head, as if he couldn’t bear to tell us what he’d hoped.

  “I’m not dying here,” Meg grumbled.

  Her appearance said otherwise. She had bloody knuckles and skinned knees. Her green dress, a prized gift from Percy Jackson’s mother, looked like it had been used as a saber-toothed tiger’s scratching post. She had ripped off her left legging and used it to stanch the bleeding cut on her thigh, but the fabric was already soaked through.

  Nevertheless, her eyes shone defiantly. The rhinestones still glittered on the tips of her cat-eye glasses. I’d learned never to count out Meg McCaffrey while her rhinestones still glittered.

  She rummaged through her seed packages, squinting at the labels. “Roses. Daffodils. Squash. Carrots.”

  “No…” Grover bumped his fist against his forehead. “Arbutus is like…a flowering tree. Argh, I should know this.”

  I sympathized with his memory problems. I should have known many things: the weaknesses of strixes, the nearest secret exit from the Labyrinth, Zeus’s private number so I could call him and plead for my life. But my mind was blank. My legs had begun to tremble—perhaps a sign I would soon be able to walk again—but this didn’t cheer me up. I had nowhere to go, except to choose whether I wanted to die at the top of this chamber or the bottom.

  Meg kept shuffling seed packets. “Rutabaga, wisteria, pyracantha, strawberries—”

  “Strawberries!” Grover yelped so loudly I thought he was trying for another blast of Panic. “That’s it! The arbutus is a strawberry tree!”

  Meg frowned. “Strawberries don’t grow on trees. They’re genus Fragaria, part of the rose family.”

  “Yes, yes, I know!” Grover rolled his hands like he couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “And Arbutus is in the heath family, but—”