Chapter no 7

The Burning Maze

Family fun packs

Should be for frozen pizzas Not for frag grenades

How hard could it be to find a satyr in an army-surplus store?

As it turned out, quite hard.

Macro’s Military Madness stretched on forever – aisle after aisle of equipment no self-respecting army would want. Near the entrance, a giant bin with a neon purple sign promised PITH HELMETS! BUY 3, GET 1 FREE! An end-of-aisle display featured a Christmas tree built of stacked propane tanks with garlands of blowtorch hoses, and a placard that read ’TIS ALWAYS THE SEASON! Two aisles, each a quarter of a mile long, were entirely devoted to camouflage clothing in every possible colour: desert brown, forest green, arctic grey, and hot pink, just in case your spec-ops team needed to infiltrate a child’s

princess-themed birthday party.


STICKS. At the far end of the store, perhaps half a day’s hike away, a massive yellow banner screamed FIREARMS!!!

I glanced at Grover, whose face looked even paler under the harsh fluorescents. ‘Should we start with the camping supplies?’ I asked.

The corners of his mouth drifted downward as he scanned a display of rainbow-coloured impaling spikes. ‘Knowing Coach Hedge, he’ll gravitate towards the guns.’

So we started our trek towards the distant promised land of FIREARMS!!!

I didn’t like the store’s too-bright lighting. I didn’t like the too-cheerful canned music, or the too-cold air-conditioning that made the place feel like a morgue.

The handful of employees ignored us. One young man was label-gunning 50% OFF stickers on a row of Porta-Poo™ portable toilets. Another employee stood unmoving and blank-faced at the express register, as if he had achieved boredom-induced nirvana. Each worker wore a yellow vest with the Macro logo on the back: a smiling Roman centurion making the okay sign.

I didn’t like that logo, either.

At the front of the store stood a raised booth with a supervisor’s desk behind a Plexiglas screen, like the warden’s post in a prison. An ox of a man sat there, his bald head gleaming, veins bulging on his neck. His shirt and yellow vest could barely contain his bulky arm muscles. His bushy white eyebrows gave him a startled expression. As he watched us walk past, his grin made my skin crawl.

‘I don’t think we should be here,’ I muttered to Grover.

He eyed the supervisor. ‘Pretty sure there are no monsters here or I’d smell them. That guy is human.’

This did not reassure me. Some of my least favourite people were human.

Nevertheless, I followed Grover deeper into the store.

As he predicted, Gleeson Hedge was in the firearms section, whistling as he stuffed his shopping trolley with rifle scopes and barrel brushes.

I saw why Grover called him Coach. Hedge wore bright blue double-weave polyester gym shorts that left his hairy goat legs exposed, a red baseball cap that perched between his small horns, a white polo shirt and a whistle around his neck, as if he expected at any moment to be called in to referee a soccer game.

He looked older than Grover, judging from his sun-weathered face, but it was hard to be sure with satyrs. They matured at roughly half the speed of humans. I knew Grover was thirty-ish in people years, for instance, but only sixteen in satyr terms. The coach could have been anywhere between forty and a hundred in human time.

‘Gleeson!’ Grover called.

The coach turned and grinned. His cart overflowed with quivers, crates of ammo and plastic-sealed rows of grenades that promised FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!!!

‘Hey, Underwood!’ he said. ‘Good timing! Help me pick some land mines.’ Grover flinched. ‘Land mines?’

‘Well, they’re just empty casings,’ Gleeson said, gesturing towards a row of metal canisters that looked like flasks, ‘but I figured we could fill them with explosives and make them active again! You like the World War Two models or the Vietnam-era kind?’

‘Uh …’ Grover grabbed me and shoved me forward. ‘Gleeson, this is Apollo.’

Gleeson frowned. ‘Apollo … like Apollo Apollo?’ He scanned me from head to toe. ‘It’s even worse than we thought. Kid, you gotta do more core exercises.’

‘Thanks.’ I sighed. ‘I’ve never heard that before.’

‘I could whip you into shape,’ Hedge mused. ‘But first help me out. Stake mines? Claymores? What do you think?’

‘I thought you were buying camping supplies.’

Gleeson arched his brow. ‘These are camping supplies. If I have to be outdoors with my wife and kid, holed up in that cistern, I’m going to feel a lot better knowing I’m armed to the teeth and surrounded by pressure-detonated explosives! I got a family to protect!’

‘But …’ I glanced at Grover, who shook his head as if to say, Don’t even try.

At this point, dear reader, you may be wondering, Apollo, why would you object? Gleeson Hedge has it right! Why mess around with swords and bows when you can fight monsters with land mines and machine guns?

Alas, when one is fighting ancient forces, modern weapons are unreliable at best. The mechanisms of standard mortal-made guns and bombs tend to jam in supernatural situations. Explosions may or may not get the job done, and regular ammunition only serves to annoy most monsters. Some heroes do indeed use firearms, but their ammo must be crafted from magical metals –Celestial bronze, Imperial gold, Stygian iron and so on.‌‌

Unfortunately, these materials are rare. Magically crafted bullets are finicky. They can be used only once before disintegrating, whereas a sword made from magical metal will last for millennia. It’s simply impractical to ‘spray and pray’ when fighting a gorgon or a hydra.

‘I think you already have a great assortment of supplies,’ I said. ‘Besides, Mellie is worried. You’ve been gone all day.’

‘No, I haven’t!’ Hedge protested. ‘Wait. What time is it?’ ‘After dark,’ Grover said.

Coach Hedge blinked. ‘Seriously? Ah, hockey pucks. I guess I spent too long in the grenade aisle. Well, fine. I suppose –’

‘Excuse me,’ said a voice at my back.

The subsequent high-pitched yelp may have come from Grover. Or possibly me, who can be sure? I spun round to find that the huge bald man from the supervisor’s booth had sneaked up behind us. This was quite a trick, since he was almost seven feet tall and must have weighed close to three hundred pounds. He was flanked by two employees, both staring impassively into space, holding label guns.

The manager grinned, his bushy white eyebrows creeping heavenward, his teeth the many colours of tombstone marble.

‘I’m so sorry to interrupt,’ he said. ‘We don’t get many celebrities and I just – I had to be sure. Are you Apollo? I mean … the Apollo?’

He sounded delighted by the possibility. I looked at my satyr companions.

Gleeson nodded. Grover shook his head vigorously. ‘And if I were Apollo?’ I asked the manager.

‘Oh, we’d comp your purchases!’ the manager cried. ‘We’d roll out the red carpet!’

That was a dirty trick. I’d always been a sucker for the red carpet. ‘Well, then, yes,’ I said, ‘I’m Apollo.’

The manager squealed – a sound not unlike the Erymanthian Boar made that time I shot him in the hindquarters. ‘I knew it! I’m such a fan. My name is Macro. Welcome to my store!’

He glanced at his two employees. ‘Bring out the red carpet so we can roll Apollo up in it, will you? But first let’s make the satyrs’ deaths quick and painless. This is such an honour!’

The employees raised their labelling guns, ready to mark us down as clearance items.

‘Wait!’ I cried.

The employees hesitated. Up close, I could see how much they looked alike: the same greasy mops of dark hair, the same glazed eyes, the same rigid postures. They might have been twins, or – a horrible thought seeped into my brain – products of the same assembly line.

‘I, um, er …’ I said, poetic to the last. ‘What if I’m not really Apollo?’

Macro’s grin lost some of its wattage. ‘Well, then, I’d have to kill you for disappointing me.’

‘Okay, I’m Apollo,’ I said. ‘But you can’t just kill your customers. That’s no way to run an army-surplus store!’

Behind me, Grover wrestled with Coach Hedge, who was desperately trying to claw open a family fun pack of grenades while cursing the tamper-proof packaging.

Macro clasped his meaty hands. ‘I know it’s terribly rude. I do apologize, Lord Apollo.’

‘So … you won’t kill us?’

‘Well, as I said, I won’t kill you. The emperor has plans for you. He needs you alive!’

‘Plans,’ I said.

I hated plans. They reminded me of annoying things like Zeus’s once-a-century goal-setting meetings, or dangerously complicated attacks. Or Athena.

‘B-but my friends,’ I stammered. ‘You can’t kill the satyrs. A god of my stature can’t be rolled up in a red carpet without my retinue!’

Macro regarded the satyrs, who were still fighting over the plastic-wrapped grenades.

‘Hmm,’ said the manager. ‘I’m sorry, Lord Apollo, but, you see, this may be my only chance to get back into the emperor’s good graces. I’m fairly sure he won’t want the satyrs.’

‘You mean … you’re out of the emperor’s good graces?’

Macro heaved a sigh. He began rolling up his sleeves as if he expected some hard, dreary satyr-murdering ahead. ‘I’m afraid so. I certainly didn’t ask to be exiled to Palm Springs! Alas, the princeps is very particular about his security forces. My troops malfunctioned one too many times, and he shipped us out here. He replaced us with that horrible assortment of strixes and mercenaries and Big Ears. Can you believe it?’

I could neither believe it nor understand it. Big ears?

I examined the two employees, still frozen in place, label guns ready, eyes unfocused, faces expressionless.

‘Your employees are automatons,’ I realized. ‘These are the emperor’s former troops?’

‘Alas, yes,’ Macro said. ‘They are fully capable, though. Once I deliver you, the emperor will surely see that and forgive me.’

His sleeves were above his elbows now, revealing old white scars, as if his forearms had been clawed by a desperate victim many years ago …

I remembered my dream of the imperial palace, the praetor kneeling before his new emperor.

Too late, I remembered the name of that praetor. ‘Naevius Sutorius Macro.’

Macro beamed at his robotic employees. ‘I can’t believe Apollo remembers me. This is such an honour!’

His robotic employees remained unimpressed.

‘You killed Emperor Tiberius,’ I said. ‘Smothered him with a pillow.’

Macro looked abashed. ‘Well, he was ninety percent dead already. I simply helped matters along.’

‘And you did it for –’ an ice-cold burrito of dread sank into my stomach –‘the next emperor. Neos Helios. It is him.’

Macro nodded eagerly. ‘That’s right! The one, the only Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus!’

He spread his arms as if waiting for applause.

The satyrs stopped fighting. Hedge continued chewing on the grenade pack, though even his satyr teeth were having trouble with the thick plastic.

Grover backed away, putting the trolley between himself and the store employees. ‘G-Gaius who?’ He glanced at me. ‘Apollo, what does that mean?’

I gulped. ‘It means we run. Now!’

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