Chapter no 4

The Burning Maze

Welcome to my base

We have rocks, sand and ruins Did I mention rocks?

They tell me I reached the surface.

I don’t remember.

Meg was partially paralysed, and Grover had already carried me halfway up the ramp, so it seems wrong that I was the one who passed out, but what can I say? That Fm7 chord on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ must have taken more out of me than I realized.

I do remember feverish dreams.

Before me rose a graceful olive-skinned woman, her long auburn hair gathered up in a doughnut braid, her sleeveless dress as light and grey as moth’s wings. She looked about twenty, but her eyes were black pearls – their hard lustre formed over centuries, a defensive shell hiding untold sorrow and disappointment. They were the eyes of an immortal who had seen great civilizations fall.

We stood together on a stone platform, at the edge of what looked like an indoor swimming pool filled with lava. The air shimmered with heat. Ashes stung my eyes.

The woman raised her arms in a supplicating gesture. Glowing red iron cuffs shackled her wrists. Molten chains anchored her to the platform, though the hot metal did not seem to burn her.

‘I am sorry,’ she said.

Somehow, I knew she wasn’t speaking to me. I was only observing this scene through the eyes of someone else. She’d just delivered bad news to this other person, crushing news, though I had no idea what it was.

‘I would spare you if I could,’ she continued. ‘I would spare her. But I cannot. Tell Apollo he must come. Only he can release me, though it is a …’

She choked as if a shard of glass had wedged in her throat. ‘Four letters,’ she croaked. ‘Starts with T.’

Trap, I thought. The answer is trap!

I felt briefly thrilled, the way you do when you’re watching a game show and you know the answer. If only I were the contestant, you think, I’d win all the prizes!

Then I realized I didn’t like this game show. Especially if the answer was

trap. Especially if that trap was the grand prize waiting for me.

The woman’s image dissolved into flames.

I found myself in a different place – a covered terrace overlooking a moonlit bay. In the distance, shrouded in mist, rose the familiar dark profile of Mount Vesuvius, but Vesuvius as it had been before the eruption of 79 CE blew its summit to pieces, destroying Pompeii and wiping out thousands of Romans. (You can blame Vulcan for that. He was having a bad week.)‌‌

The evening sky was bruised purple, the coastline lit only by firelight, the moon and the stars. Under my feet, the terrace’s mosaic floor glittered with gold and silver tiles, the sort of artwork very few Romans could afford. On the walls, multicoloured frescoes were framed in silk draperies that had to have cost hundreds of thousands of denarii. I knew where I must be: an imperial villa, one of the many pleasure palaces that lined the Gulf of Naples in the early days of the empire. Normally such a place would have blazed with light throughout the night, as a show of power and opulence, but the torches on this terrace were dark, wrapped in black cloth.

In the shadow of a column, a slender young man stood facing the sea. His expression was obscured, but his posture spoke of impatience. He tugged on his white robes, crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his sandalled foot against the floor.

A second man appeared, marching onto the terrace with the clink of armour and the laboured breathing of a heavy-set fighter. A praetorian guard’s helmet hid his face.

He knelt before the younger man. ‘It is done, Princeps.’

Princeps. Latin for first in line or first citizen – that lovely euphemism the Roman emperors used to downplay just how absolute their power was.

‘Are you sure this time?’ asked a young, reedy voice. ‘I don’t want any more surprises.’

The praetor grunted. ‘Very sure, Princeps.’

The guard held out his massive hairy forearms. Bloody scratches glistened in the moonlight, as if desperate fingernails had raked his flesh.

‘What did you use?’ The younger man sounded fascinated. ‘His own pillow,’ the big man said. ‘Seemed easiest.’

The younger man laughed. ‘The old pig deserved it. I wait years for him to die, finally we announce he’s kicked the situla, and he has the nerve to wake

up again? I don’t think so. Tomorrow will be a new, better day for Rome.’

He stepped into the moonlight, revealing his face – a face I had hoped never to see again.

He was handsome in a thin, angular way, though his ears stuck out a bit too much. His smile was twisted. His eyes had all the warmth of a barracuda’s.

Even if you do not recognize his features, dear reader, I am sure you have met him. He is the school bully too charming to get caught; the one who thinks up the cruellest pranks, has others carry out his dirty work and still maintains a perfect reputation with the teachers. He is the boy who pulls the legs off insects and tortures stray animals, yet laughs with such pure delight he can almost convince you it is harmless fun. He’s the boy who steals money from the temple collection plates, behind the backs of old ladies who praise him for being such a nice young man.

He is that person, that type of evil.

And tonight he had a new name, which would not foretell a better day for Rome.

The praetorian guard lowered his head. ‘Hail, Caesar!’


I awoke from my dream shivering. ‘Good timing,’ Grover said.

I sat up. My head throbbed. My mouth tasted like strix dust.

I was lying under a makeshift lean-to – a blue plastic tarp set on a hillside overlooking the desert. The sun was going down. Next to me, Meg was curled up asleep, her hand resting on my wrist. I suppose that was sweet, except I knew where her fingers had been. (Hint: in her nostrils.)

On a nearby slab of rock, Grover sat sipping water from his flask. Judging from his weary expression, I guessed he had been keeping watch over us while we slept.

‘I passed out?’ I gathered.

He tossed me the flask. ‘I thought I slept hard. You’ve been out for hours.’

I took a drink, then rubbed the gunk from my eyes, wishing I could wipe the dreams from my head as easily: a woman chained in a fiery room, a trap for Apollo, a new Caesar with the pleasant smile of a fine young sociopath.

Don’t think about it, I told myself. Dreams aren’t necessarily true. No, I answered myself. Only the bad ones. Like those.

I focused on Meg, snoring in the shade of our tarp. Her leg was freshly bandaged. She wore a clean T-shirt over her tattered dress. I tried to extricate my wrist from her grip, but she held on tighter.

‘She’s all right,’ Grover assured me. ‘At least physically. Fell asleep after we got you situated.’ He frowned. ‘She didn’t seem happy about being here, though. Said she couldn’t handle this place. Wanted to leave. I was afraid

she’d jump back into the Labyrinth, but I convinced her she needed to rest first. I played some music to relax her.’

I scanned our surroundings, wondering what had upset Meg so badly.

Below us stretched a landscape only slightly more hospitable than Mars. (I mean the planet, not the god, though I suppose neither is much of a host.) Sun-blasted ochre mountains ringed a valley patchworked with unnaturally green golf courses, dusty barren flats and sprawling neighbourhoods of white stucco walls, red-tiled roofs and blue swimming pools. Lining the streets, rows of listless palm trees stuck up like raggedy seams. Asphalt parking lots shimmered in the heat. A brown haze hung in the air, filling the valley like watery gravy.

‘Palm Springs,’ I said.

I’d known the city well in the 1950s. I was pretty sure I’d hosted a party with Frank Sinatra just down the road there, by that golf course – but it felt like another life. Probably because it had been.

Now the area seemed much less welcoming – the temperature too scorching for an early spring evening, the air too heavy and acrid. Something was wrong, something I couldn’t quite place.

I scanned our immediate surroundings. We were camped at the crest of a hill, the San Jacinto wilderness at our backs to the west, the sprawl of Palm Springs at our feet to the east. A gravel road skirted the base of the hill, winding towards the nearest neighbourhood about half a mile below, but I could tell that our hilltop had once boasted a large structure.

Sunk in the rocky slope were half a dozen hollow brickwork cylinders, each perhaps thirty feet in diameter, like the shells of ruined sugar mills. The structures were of varying heights, in varying stages of disintegration, but their tops were all level with one another, so I guessed they must have been massive support columns for a stilt house. Judging from the detritus that littered the hillside – shards of glass, charred planks, blackened clumps of brick – I guessed that the house must have burned down many years before.

Then I realized: we must have climbed out of one of those cylinders to escape the Labyrinth.

I turned to Grover. ‘The strixes?’

He shook his head. ‘If any survived, they wouldn’t risk the daylight, even if they could get through the strawberries. The plants have filled the entire shaft.’ He pointed to the furthest ring of brickwork, where we must have emerged. ‘Nobody’s getting in or out that way any more.’

‘But …’ I gestured at the ruins. ‘Surely this isn’t your base?’

I was hoping he would correct me. Oh, no, our base is that nice house down there with the Olympic-size swimming pool, right next to the fifteenth hole!

Instead, he had the nerve to look pleased. ‘Yeah. This place has powerful natural energy. It’s a perfect sanctuary. Can’t you feel the life force?’

I picked up a charred brick. ‘Life force?’

‘You’ll see.’ Grover took off his cap and scratched between his horns. ‘The way things have been, all the dryads have to stay dormant until sunset. It’s the only way they can survive. But they’ll be waking up soon.’

The way things have been.

I glanced west. The sun had just dropped behind the mountains. The sky was marbled with heavy layers of red and black, more appropriate for Mordor than Southern California.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked, not sure I wanted the answer.

Grover gazed sadly into the distance. ‘You haven’t seen the news? Biggest forest fires in state history. On top of the drought, the heat waves and the earthquakes.’ He shuddered. ‘Thousands of dryads have died. Thousands more have gone into hibernation. If these were just normal natural disasters, that would be bad enough, but –’

Meg yelped in her sleep. She sat up abruptly, blinking in confusion. From the panic in her eyes, I guessed her dreams had been even worse than mine.

‘W-we’re really here?’ she asked. ‘I didn’t dream it?’ ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘You’re safe.’

She shook her head, her lips quivering. ‘No. No, I’m not.’

With fumbling fingers, she removed her glasses, as if she might be able to handle her surroundings better if they were fuzzier. ‘I can’t be here. Not again.’

‘Again?’ I asked.

A line from the Indiana prophecy tugged at my memory: Demeter’s daughter finds her ancient roots. ‘You mean you lived here?’

Meg scanned the ruins. She shrugged miserably, though whether that meant

I don’t know or I don’t want to talk about it, I couldn’t tell.

The desert seemed an unlikely home for Meg – a street kid from Manhattan, raised in Nero’s royal household.

Grover tugged thoughtfully at his goatee. ‘A child of Demeter … That actually makes a lot of sense.’

I stared at him. ‘In this place? A child of Vulcan, perhaps. Or Feronia, the wilderness goddess. Or even Mefitis, the goddess of poisonous gas. But Demeter? What is a child of Demeter supposed to grow here? Rocks?’‌

Grover looked hurt. ‘You don’t understand. Once you meet everybody –’

Meg crawled out from beneath the tarp. She got unsteadily to her feet. ‘I have to leave.’

‘Hold on!’ Grover pleaded. ‘We need your help. At least talk to the others!’ Meg hesitated. ‘Others?’

Grover gestured north. I couldn’t see what he was pointing to until I stood up. Then I noticed, half hidden behind the brick ruins, a row of six boxy white structures like … storage sheds? No. Greenhouses. The one nearest the ruins had melted and collapsed long ago, no doubt a victim of the fire. The second hut’s corrugated polycarbonate walls and roof had fallen apart like a house of cards. But the other four looked intact. Clay flowerpots were stacked outside. The doors stood open. Inside, green plant matter pressed against the translucent walls – palm fronds like giant hands pushing to get out.

I didn’t see how anything could live in this scalded barren wasteland, especially inside a greenhouse meant to keep the climate even warmer. I definitely didn’t want to get any closer to those claustrophobic hot boxes.

Grover smiled encouragingly. ‘I’m sure everyone’s awake by now. Come on, I’ll introduce you to the gang!’

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