Chapter no 11

The Burning Maze

No touchy the god

Unless your visions are good And you wash your hands

You don’t do that.

You don’t just announce that your dad built a mysterious house on a sacred spot for dryads, then get up and leave without an explanation.

So, of course, that’s what Meg did.

‘See you in the morning,’ she announced to no one in particular.

She trudged up the ramp, still barefoot despite traipsing past twenty different species of cactus, and slipped into the dark.

Grover looked around at his assembled comrades. ‘Um, well, good meeting, everybody.’

He promptly fell over, snoring before he hit the ground.

Aloe Vera gave me a concerned glance. ‘Should I go after Meg? She might need more aloe goo.’

‘I’ll check on her,’ I promised.

The nature spirits began cleaning up their dinner trash (dryads are very conscientious about that sort of thing), while I went in search of Meg McCaffrey.

I found her five feet off the ground, perched on the rim of the furthest brick cylinder, facing inward and staring into the shaft below. Judging from the warm strawberry fragrance wafting from the cracks in the stone, I guessed this was the same well we’d used to exit the Labyrinth.

‘You’re making me nervous,’ I said. ‘Would you come down?’ ‘No,’ she said.

‘Of course not,’ I muttered.

I climbed up, despite the fact that scaling walls really wasn’t in my skill set. (Oh, who am I kidding? In my present state, I didn’t have a skill set.)

I joined Meg on the edge, dangling my feet over the abyss from which we’d escaped … Had it really been only this morning? I couldn’t see the net of strawberry plants below in the shadows, but their smell was powerful and exotic in the desert setting. Strange how a common thing can become uncommon in a new environment. Or, in my case, how an uncommonly amazing god can become so very common.

The night sapped the colour from Meg’s clothes, making her look like a greyscale traffic light. Her runny nose glistened. Behind the grimy lenses of her glasses, her eyes were wet. She twisted one gold ring, then the other, as if adjusting knobs on an old-fashioned radio.

We’d had a long day. The silence between us felt comfortable, and I wasn’t sure I could tolerate any further scary information about our Hoosier prophecy. On the other hand, I needed explanations. Before I went to sleep in this place again, I wanted to know how safe or unsafe it was, and whether I might wake up with a talking horse in my face.

My nerves were shot. I considered throttling my young master and yelling,

TELL ME NOW!, but I decided that might not be sensitive to her feelings. ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ I asked gently.


Not a huge surprise. Even under the best of circumstances, Meg and conversation were awkward acquaintances.

‘If Aeithales is the place mentioned in the prophecy,’ I said, ‘your ancient roots, then it might be important to know about it so … we can stay alive?’

Meg looked over. She didn’t order me to leap into the strawberry pit, or even to shut up. Instead, she said, ‘Here,’ and grabbed my wrist.

I had become used to waking visions – being yanked backwards down memory lane whenever godly experiences overloaded my mortal neurons. This was different. Rather than my own past, I found myself plunged into Meg McCaffrey’s, seeing her memories from her point of view.

I stood in one of the greenhouses before the plants grew wild. Well-ordered rows of new cactus pups lined the metal shelves, each clay pot fitted with a digital thermometer and moisture gauge. Misting hoses and grow lights hovered overhead. The air was warm, but pleasantly so, and smelled of freshly turned earth.

Wet gravel crunched under my feet as I followed my father on his rounds –

Meg’s father, I mean.

From my vantage point as a tiny girl, I saw him smiling down at me. As Apollo I’d met him before in other visions – a middle-aged man with dark curly hair and a broad, freckled nose. I’d witnessed him in New York, giving Meg a red rose from her mother, Demeter. I’d also seen his dead body splayed on the steps of Grand Central Station, his chest a ruin of knife or claw marks, on the day Nero became Meg’s stepfather.

In this memory of the greenhouse, Mr McCaffrey didn’t look much younger than in those other visions. The emotions I sensed from Meg told me she was about five years old, the same age she’d been when she and her father wound up in New York. But Mr McCaffrey looked so much happier in this scene, so much more at ease. As Meg gazed into her father’s face, I was overwhelmed by her pure joy and contentment. She was with Daddy. Life was wonderful.

Mr McCaffrey’s green eyes sparkled. He picked up a potted cactus pup and knelt to show Meg. ‘I call this one Hercules,’ he said, ‘because he can withstand anything!’

He flexed his arm and said, ‘GRRRR!’ which sent little Meg into a fit of giggles.

‘Er-klees!’ she said. ‘Show me more plants!’

Mr McCaffrey set Hercules back on the shelf, then held up one finger like a magician: Watch this! He dug into the pocket of his denim shirt and presented his cupped fist to Meg.

‘Try to open it,’ he said.

Meg pulled at his fingers. ‘I can’t!’

‘You can. You’re very strong. Try really hard!’

‘GRRR!’ said little Meg. This time she managed to open his hand, revealing seven hexagonal seeds, each the size of a nickel. Inside their thick green skins, the seeds glowed faintly, making them look like a fleet of tiny UFOs.

‘Ooh,’ said Meg. ‘Can I eat them?’

Her father laughed. ‘No, sweetheart. These are very special seeds. Our family has been trying to produce seeds like this for –’ he whistled softly – ‘a long time. And when we plant them …’

‘What?’ Meg asked breathlessly.

‘They will be very special,’ her dad promised. ‘Even stronger than Hercules!’

‘Plant them now!’

Her father ruffled her hair. ‘Not yet, Meg. They’re not ready. But when it’s time I’ll need your help. We’ll plant them together. Will you promise to help me?’

‘I promise,’ she said, with all the solemnity of her five-year-old heart. The scene shifted. Meg padded barefoot into the beautiful living room of

Aeithales, where her father stood facing a wall of curved glass, overlooking the night-time city lights of Palm Springs. He was talking on the phone, his back to Meg. She was supposed to be asleep, but something had woken her –maybe a bad dream, maybe the sense that Daddy was upset.

‘No, I don’t understand,’ he was saying into the phone. ‘You have no right.

This property isn’t … Yes, but my research can’t … That’s impossible!’

Meg crept forward. She loved being in the living room. Not just for the pretty view but for the way the polished hardwood felt against her bare feet –smooth and cool and silky, like she was gliding across a living sheet of ice.

She loved the plants Daddy kept on the shelves and in giant pots all around the room – cacti blooming in dozens of colours, Joshua trees that formed living columns, holding up the roof, growing into the ceiling and spreading across it in a web of fuzzy branches and green spiky clusters. Meg was too young to understand that Joshua trees weren’t supposed to do that. It seemed completely reasonable to her that vegetation would weave together to help form the house.

Meg also loved the big circular well in the centre of the room – the Cistern, Daddy called it – railed off for safety, but so wonderful for how it cooled the whole house and made the place feel safe and anchored. Meg loved to race down the ramp and dip her feet in the cool water of the pool at the bottom, though Daddy always said, Don’t soak too long! You might turn into a plant!

Most of all, she loved the big desk where Daddy worked – the trunk of a mesquite tree that grew straight up through the floor and plunged back down again, like the coil of a sea serpent breaching the waves, leaving just enough of an arc to form the piece of furniture. The top of the trunk was smooth and level, a perfect work surface. Tree hollows provided cubbyholes for storage. Leafy sprigs curved up from the desktop, making a frame to hold Daddy’s computer monitor. Meg had once asked if he’d hurt the tree when he carved the desk out of it, but Daddy had chuckled.

‘No, sweetheart, I would never hurt the tree. Mesquite offered to shape herself into a desk for me.’

This, too, did not seem unusual to five-year-old Meg – calling a tree she, talking to it the way you would speak to a person.

Tonight, though, Meg didn’t feel so comfortable in the living room. She didn’t like the way Daddy’s voice was shaking. She reached his desk and found, instead of the usual seed packets and drawings and flowers, a stack of mail – typed letters, thick stapled documents, envelopes – all in dandelion yellow.

Meg couldn’t read, but she didn’t like those letters. They looked important and bossy and angry. The colour hurt her eyes. It wasn’t as nice as real dandelions.

‘You don’t understand,’ Daddy said into the phone. ‘This is more than my life’s work. It’s centuries. Thousands of years’ work … I don’t care if that sounds crazy. You can’t just –’

He turned and froze, seeing Meg at his desk. A spasm crossed his face – his expression shifting from anger to fear to concern, then settling into a forced cheerfulness. He slipped his phone into his pocket.

‘Hey, sweetheart,’ he said, his voice stretched thin. ‘Couldn’t sleep, huh?

Yeah, me neither.’

He walked to the desk, swept the dandelion-yellow papers into a tree hollow and offered Meg his hand. ‘Want to check the greenhouses?’

The scene changed again.

A jumbled, fragmentary memory: Meg was wearing her favourite outfit, a green dress and yellow leggings. She liked it because Daddy said it made her look like one of their greenhouse friends – a beautiful, growing thing. She stumbled down the driveway in the dark, following Daddy, her backpack stuffed with her favourite blanket because Daddy said they had to hurry. They could only take what they could carry.

They were halfway to the car when Meg stopped, noticing that the lights were on in the greenhouses.

‘Meg,’ her father said, his voice as broken as the gravel under their feet. ‘Come on, sweetheart.’

‘But Er-klees,’ she said. ‘And the others.’

‘We can’t bring them,’ Daddy said, swallowing back a sob.

Meg had never heard her father cry before. It made her feel like the earth was dropping out from underneath her.

‘The magic seeds?’ she asked. ‘We can plant them – where we’re going?’

The idea of going somewhere else seemed impossible, scary. She’d never known any home but Aeithales.

‘We can’t, Meg.’ Daddy sounded like he could barely talk. ‘They have to grow here. And now …’

He looked back at the house, floating on its massive stone supports, its windows ablaze with gold light. But something was wrong. Dark shapes moved across the hillside – men, or something like men, dressed in black, encircling the property. And more dark shapes swirling overhead, wings blotting out the stars.

Daddy grabbed her hand. ‘No time, sweetheart. We have to leave. Now.’ Meg’s last memory of Aeithales: she sat in the back of her father’s station wagon, her face and hands pressed against the rear window, trying to keep the

lights of the house in view for as long as possible. They’d driven only halfway down the hill when their home erupted in a blossom of fire.


I gasped, my senses suddenly yanked back to the present. Meg removed her hand from my wrist.

I stared at her in amazement, my sense of reality wobbling so much I was afraid I might fall into the strawberry pit. ‘Meg, how did you …?’

She picked at a callus on her palm. ‘Dunno. Just needed to.’

Such a very Meg answer. Still, the memories had been so painful and vivid they made my chest hurt, as if I’d been hit with a defibrillator.

How had Meg shared her past with me? I knew satyrs could create an empathy link with their closest friends. Grover Underwood had one with Percy Jackson, which he said explained why he sometimes got an inexplicable craving for blueberry pancakes. Did Meg have a similar talent, perhaps because we were linked as master and servant?

I didn’t know.

I did know that Meg was hurting, much more than she expressed. The tragedies of her short life had started before her father’s death. They had started here. These ruins were all that remained of a life that could have been.

I wanted to hug her. And, believe me, that was not a feeling I had often. It was liable to result in an elbow to my ribcage or a sword hilt to my nose.

‘Did you …?’ I faltered. ‘Did you have these memories all along? Do you know what your father was trying to do here?’

A listless shrug. She grabbed a handful of dust and trickled it into the pit as if sowing seeds.

‘Phillip,’ Meg said, as if the name had just occurred to her. ‘My dad’s name was Phillip McCaffrey.’

The name made me think of the Macedonian king, father of Alexander. A good fighter, but no fun at all. Never any interest in music or poetry or even archery. With Philip it was all phalanxes, all the time. Boring.‌

‘Phillip McCaffrey was a very good father,’ I said, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice. I myself did not have much experience with good fathers.

‘He smelled like mulch,’ Meg remembered. ‘In a good way.’

I didn’t know the difference between a good mulch smell and a bad mulch smell, but I nodded respectfully.

I gazed at the row of greenhouses – their silhouettes barely visible against the red-black night sky. Phillip McCaffrey had obviously been a talented man. Perhaps a botanist? Definitely a mortal favoured by the goddess Demeter.

How else could he have created a house like Aeithales, in a place with such natural power? What had he been working on, and what had he meant when he said his family had been doing the same research for thousands of years? Humans rarely thought in terms of millennia. They were lucky if they even knew the names of their great-grandparents.

Most important, what had happened to Aeithales, and why? Who had driven the McCaffreys from their home and forced them east to New York? That last question, unfortunately, was the only one I felt I could answer.

‘Caligula did this,’ I said, gesturing at the ruined cylinders on the hillside. ‘That’s what Incitatus meant when he said the emperor took care of this place.’

Meg turned towards me, her face like stone. ‘We’re going to find out. Tomorrow. You, me, Grover. We’ll find these people, Piper and Jason.’

Arrows rattled in my quiver, but I couldn’t be sure if it was the Arrow of Dodona buzzing for attention, or my own body trembling. ‘And if Piper and Jason don’t know anything helpful?’

Meg brushed the dust from her hands. ‘They’re part of the seven, right?

Percy Jackson’s friends?’ ‘Well … yes.’

‘Then they’ll know. They’ll help. We’ll find Caligula. We’ll explore this mazy place and free the Sibyl and stop the fires and whatever.’

I admired her ability to summarize our quest in such eloquent terms.

On the other hand, I was not excited about exploring the mazy place, even if we had the help of two more powerful demigods. Ancient Rome had had powerful demigods too. Many of them tried to overthrow Caligula. All of them had died.

I kept coming back to my vision of the Sibyl, apologizing for her terrible news. Since when did an Oracle apologize?

I would spare you if I could. I would spare her.

The Sibyl had insisted I come to her rescue. Only I could free her, though it was a trap.

I never liked traps. They reminded me of my old crush Britomartis. Ugh, the number of Burmese tiger pits I’d fallen into for the sake of that goddess.

Meg swung her legs round. ‘I’m going to sleep. You should too.’

She hopped off the wall and picked her way across the hillside, heading back towards the Cistern. Since she had not actually ordered me to go to sleep, I stayed on the ledge for a long time, staring down into the strawberry-clogged chasm below, listening for the fluttering wings of ill omen.

You'll Also Like