Chapter no 5

The Burning Maze

First-aid succulent,

Heal me of my many cuts! (But no slime trail, please)

Grover led us to the first intact greenhouse, which exuded a smell like the breath of Persephone.

That’s not a compliment. Miss Springtime used to sit next to me at family dinners, and she was not shy about sharing her halitosis. Imagine the odour of a bin full of wet mulch and earthworm poop. Yes, I just love spring.

Inside the greenhouse, the plants had taken over. I found that frightening, since most of them were cacti. By the doorway squatted a pineapple cactus the size of a barrel, its yellow spines like shish-kebab skewers. In the back corner stood a majestic Joshua tree, its shaggy branches holding up the roof. Against the opposite wall bloomed a massive prickly pear, dozens of bristly paddles topped with purple fruit that looked delicious, except for the fact that each one had more spikes than Ares’s favourite mace. Metal tables groaned under the weight of other succulents – pickleweed, spinystar, cholla and dozens more I couldn’t name. Surrounded by so many thorns and flowers, in such oppressive heat, I had a flashback to Iggy Pop’s 2003 Coachella set.

‘I’m back!’ Grover announced. ‘And I brought friends!’ Silence.

Even at sunset, the temperature inside was so high, and the air so thick, I imagined I would die of heatstroke in approximately four minutes. And I was a former sun god.

At last the first dryad appeared. A chlorophyll bubble ballooned from the side of the prickly pear and burst into green mist. The droplets coalesced into a small girl with emerald skin, spiky yellow hair and a fringe dress made entirely of cactus bristles. Her glare was almost as pointed as her dress.

Fortunately, it was directed at Grover, not me.

‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.

‘Ah.’ Grover cleared his throat. ‘I got called away. Magical summons. I’ll tell you all about it later. But, look, I brought Apollo! And Meg, daughter of Demeter!’

He showed off Meg like she was a fabulous prize on The Price Is Right.

‘Hmph,’ said the dryad. ‘I suppose daughters of Demeter are okay. I’m Prickly Pear. Or Pear for short.’

‘Hi,’ Meg said weakly.

The dryad narrowed her eyes at me. Given her spiny dress, I hoped she wasn’t a hugger. ‘You’re Apollo as in the god Apollo?’ she asked. ‘I don’t believe it.’

‘Some days, neither do I,’ I admitted.

Grover scanned the room. ‘Where are the others?’

Right on cue, another chlorophyll bubble popped over one of the succulents. A second dryad appeared – a large young woman in a muumuu like the husk of an artichoke. Her hair was a forest of dark green triangles. Her face and arms glistened as if they’d just been oiled. (At least I hoped it was oil and not sweat.)

‘Oh!’ she cried, seeing our battered appearances. ‘Are you hurt?’ Pear rolled her eyes. ‘Al, knock it off.’

‘But they look hurt!’ Al shuffled forward. She took my hand. Her touch was cold and greasy. ‘Let me take care of these cuts, at least. Grover, why didn’t you heal these poor people?’

‘I tried!’ the satyr protested. ‘They just took a lot of damage!’ That could be my life motto, I thought: He takes a lot of damage.

Al ran her fingertips over my cuts, leaving trails of goo like slug tracks. It was not a pleasant sensation, but it did ease the pain.

‘You’re Aloe Vera,’ I realized. ‘I used to make healing ointments out of you.’

She beamed. ‘He remembers me! Apollo remembers me!’

In the back of the room, a third dryad emerged from the trunk of the Joshua tree – a male dryad, which was quite rare. His skin was as brown as his tree’s bark, his olive hair long and wild, his clothes weathered khaki. He might have been an explorer just returning from the outback.

‘I’m Joshua,’ he said. ‘Welcome to Aeithales.’

And at that moment Meg McCaffrey decided to faint.

I could have told her that swooning in front of an attractive boy was never

cool. The strategy hadn’t worked for me once in thousands of years. Nevertheless, being a good friend, I caught her before she could nose-dive into the gravel.

‘Oh, poor girl!’ Aloe Vera gave Grover another critical look. ‘She’s exhausted and overheated. Haven’t you let her rest?’

‘She’s been asleep all afternoon!’

‘Well, she’s dehydrated.’ Aloe put her hand on Meg’s forehead. ‘She needs water.’

Pear sniffed. ‘Don’t we all.’

‘Take her to the Cistern,’ Al said. ‘Mellie should be awake by now. I’ll be along in a minute.’

Grover perked up. ‘Mellie’s here? They made it?’ ‘They arrived this morning,’ said Joshua.

‘What about the search parties?’ Grover pressed. ‘Any word?’ The dryads exchanged troubled glances.

‘The news isn’t good,’ Joshua said. ‘Only one group has come back so far, and –’

‘Excuse me,’ I pleaded. ‘I have no idea what any of you are talking about, but Meg is heavy. Where should I put her?’

Grover stirred. ‘Right. Sorry, I’ll show you.’ He draped Meg’s left arm over his shoulders, taking half her weight. Then he faced the dryads. ‘Guys, how about we all meet at the Cistern for dinner? We’ve got a lot to talk about.’

Joshua nodded. ‘I’ll alert the other greenhouses. And, Grover, you promised us enchiladas. Three days ago.’

‘I know.’ Grover sighed. ‘I’ll get more.’

Together, the two of us lugged Meg out of the greenhouse.

As we dragged her across the hillside, I asked Grover my most burning question: ‘Dryads eat enchiladas?’

He looked offended. ‘Of course! You expect them just to eat fertilizer?’ ‘Well … yes.’

‘Stereotyping,’ he muttered.

I decided that was my cue to change the subject.

‘Did I imagine it,’ I asked, ‘or did Meg faint because she heard the name of this place? Aeithales. That’s Ancient Greek for evergreen, if I recall correctly.’

It seemed an odd name for a place in the desert. Then again, no odder than dryads eating enchiladas.

‘We found the name carved into the old doorstep,’ Grover said. ‘There’s a lot we don’t know about the ruins, but, like I said, this site has a lot of nature energy. Whoever lived here and started the greenhouses … they knew what they were doing.’

I wished I could say the same. ‘Weren’t the dryads born in those greenhouses? Don’t they know who planted them?’

‘Most were too young when the house burned down,’ Grover said. ‘Some of the older plants might know more, but they’ve gone dormant. Or –’ he nodded towards the destroyed greenhouses – ‘they’re no longer with us.’

We observed a moment of silence for the departed succulents.

Grover steered us towards the largest of the brick cylinders. Judging from its size and position in the centre of the ruins, I guessed it must once have been the central support column for the structure. At ground level, rectangular openings ringed the circumference like medieval castle windows. We dragged Meg through one of these and found ourselves in a space very much like the well where we’d fought the strixes.

The top was open to the sky. A spiral ramp led downward, but fortunately only twenty feet before reaching the bottom. In the centre of the dirt floor, like the hole in a giant doughnut, glittered a dark blue pool, cooling the air and making the space feel comfortable and welcoming. Around the pool lay a ring of sleeping bags. Blooming cacti overflowed from alcoves built into the walls.

The Cistern was not a fancy structure – nothing like the dining pavilion at Camp Half-Blood, or the Waystation in Indiana – but inside it I immediately felt better, safer. I understood what Grover had been talking about. This place resonated with soothing energy.

We got Meg to the bottom of the ramp without tripping and falling, which I considered a major accomplishment. We set her down on one of the sleeping bags, then Grover scanned the room.

‘Mellie?’ he called. ‘Gleeson? Are you guys here?’

The name Gleeson sounded vaguely familiar to me, but, as usual, I couldn’t place it.

No chlorophyll bubbles popped from the plants. Meg turned on her side and muttered in her sleep … something about Peaches. Then, at the edge of the pond, wisps of white fog began to gather. They fused into the shape of a petite woman in a silvery dress. Her dark hair floated around her as if she were underwater, revealing her slightly pointed ears. In a sling over one shoulder she held a sleeping baby perhaps seven months old, with hooved feet and tiny goat horns on his head. His fat cheek was squished against his mother’s clavicle. His mouth was a veritable cornucopia of drool.

The cloud nymph (for surely that’s what she was) smiled at Grover. Her brown eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. She held one finger to her lips, indicating that she’d rather not wake the baby. I couldn’t blame her. Satyr babies at that age are loud and rambunctious, and can teethe their way through several metal cans a day.

Grover whispered, ‘Mellie, you made it!’

‘Grover, dear.’ She looked down at the sleeping form of Meg, then tilted her head at me. ‘Are you … Are you him?’

‘If you mean Apollo,’ I said, ‘I’m afraid so.’

Mellie pursed her lips. ‘I’d heard rumours, but I didn’t believe them. You poor thing. How are you holding up?’

In times past, I would have scoffed at any nymph who dared to call me poor thing. Of course, few nymphs would have shown me such consideration. Usually they were too busy running away from me. Now, Mellie’s show of concern caused a lump to form in my throat. I was tempted to rest my head on her other shoulder and sob out my troubles.

‘I – I’m fine,’ I managed. ‘Thank you.’ ‘And your sleeping friend here?’ she asked.

‘Just exhausted, I think.’ Though I wondered if that was the whole story with Meg. ‘Aloe Vera said she would be along in a few minutes to care for her.’

Mellie looked worried. ‘All right. I’ll make sure Aloe doesn’t overdo it.’ ‘Overdo it?’

Grover coughed. ‘Where’s Gleeson?’

Mellie scanned the room, as if just realizing this Gleeson person was not present. ‘I don’t know. As soon as we got here, I went dormant for the day. He said he was going into town to pick up some camping supplies. What time is it?’

‘After sunset,’ Grover said.

‘He should’ve been back by now.’ Mellie’s form shimmered with agitation, becoming so hazy I was afraid the baby might fall right through her body.

‘Gleeson is your husband?’ I guessed. ‘A satyr?’ ‘Yes, Gleeson Hedge,’ Mellie said.

I remembered him then, vaguely – the satyr who had sailed with the demigod heroes of the Argo II. ‘Do you know where he went?’

‘We passed an army-surplus store as we drove in, down the hill. He loves army-surplus stores.’ Mellie turned to Grover. ‘He may have just got distracted, but … I don’t suppose you could go check on him?’

At that moment, I realized just how exhausted Grover Underwood must be.

His eyes were even redder than Mellie’s. His shoulders drooped. His reed pipes dangled listlessly from his neck. Unlike Meg and me, he hadn’t slept since last night in the Labyrinth. He’d used the cry of Pan, got us to safety, then spent all day guarding us, waiting for the dryads to wake up. Now he was being asked to make another excursion to check on Gleeson Hedge.

Still, he mustered a smile. ‘Sure thing, Mellie.’

She gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘You’re the best lord of the Wild ever!’ Grover blushed. ‘Watch Meg McCaffrey until we get back, would you?

Come on, Apollo. Let’s go shopping.’

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