Chapter no 12

The Burning Maze

O, Pinto, Pinto!

Wherefore art thou puke yellow? I’ll hide in the back

Gods of Olympus, had I not suffered enough?

Driving from Palm Springs to Malibu with Meg and Grover would have been bad enough. Skirting wildfire evacuation zones and the LA morning rush hour made it worse. But did we have to make the journey in Gleeson Hedge’s mustard-coloured 1979 Ford Pinto coupé?

‘Are you kidding?’ I asked when I found my friends waiting with Gleeson at the car. ‘Don’t any of the cacti own a better – I mean, another vehicle?’

Coach Hedge glowered. ‘Hey, buddy, you should be grateful. This is a classic! Belonged to my granddaddy goat. I’ve kept it in great shape, so don’t you guys dare wreck it.’

I thought about my most recent experiences with cars: the sun chariot crashing nose-first into the lake at Camp Half-Blood; Percy Jackson’s Prius getting wedged between two peach trees in a Long Island orchard; a stolen Mercedes swerving through the streets of Indianapolis, driven by a trio of demon fruit spirits.

‘We’ll take good care of it,’ I promised.

Coach Hedge conferred with Grover, making sure he knew how to find the McLean house in Malibu.

‘The McLeans should still be there,’ Hedge mused. ‘At least, I hope so.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Grover asked. ‘Why would they not be there?’ Hedge coughed. ‘Anyway, good luck! Give Piper my best if you see her.

Poor kid …’

He turned and trotted back up the hill.

The inside of the Pinto smelled like hot polyester and patchouli, which brought back bad memories of disco-dancing with Travolta. (Fun fact: in

Italian, his surname means overwhelmed, which perfectly describes what his cologne does.)

Grover took the wheel, since Gleeson trusted only him with the keys. (Rude.)

Meg rode shotgun, her red sneakers propped on the dashboard as she amused herself by growing bougainvillea vines around her ankles. She seemed in good spirits, considering last night’s share session of childhood tragedy. That made one of us. I could barely think about the losses she’d suffered without blinking back tears.

Luckily, I had lots of room to cry in privacy, since I was stuck in the back seat.

We started west on Interstate 10. As we passed by Moreno Valley, it took me a while to realize what was wrong: rather than slowly changing to green, the landscape remained brown, the temperature oppressive, and the air dry and sour, as if the Mojave Desert had forgotten its boundaries and spread all the way to Riverside. To the north, the sky was a soupy haze, like the entire San Bernardino Forest was on fire.

By the time we reached Pomona and hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, our Pinto was shuddering and wheezing like a warthog with heatstroke.

Grover glanced in the rear-view mirror at a BMW riding our tail. ‘Don’t Pintos explode if they’re hit from behind?’ he asked. ‘Only sometimes,’ I said.

Back in my sun-chariot days, riding a vehicle that burst into flames was never something that bothered me, but after Grover brought it up I kept looking behind me, mentally willing the BMW to back off.

I was in desperate need of breakfast – not just cold leftovers from last night’s enchilada run. I would’ve smote a Greek city for a good cup of coffee and perhaps a nice long drive in the opposite direction from where we were going.

My mind began to drift. I didn’t know if I was having actual waking dreams, shaken loose by my visions the day before, or if my consciousness was trying to escape the back seat of the Pinto, but I found myself reliving memories of the Erythraean Sibyl.

I remembered her name now: Herophile, friend of heroes.

I saw her homeland, the Bay of Erythrae, on the coast of what would some day be Turkey. A crescent of windswept golden hills, studded with conifers, undulated down to the cold blue waters of the Aegean. In a small glen near the mouth of a cave, a shepherd in homespun wool knelt beside his wife, the naiad of a nearby spring, as she gave birth to their child. I will spare you the details, except for this: as the mother screamed in her final push, the child emerged from the womb not crying but singing – her beautiful voice filling the air with the sound of prophecies.

As you can imagine, that got my attention. From that moment on, the girl was sacred to Apollo. I blessed her as one of my Oracles.

I remembered Herophile as a young woman wandering the Mediterranean to share her wisdom. She sang to anyone who would listen – kings, heroes, priests of my temples. All struggled to transcribe her prophetic lyrics. Imagine having to commit the entire songbook of Hamilton to memory in a single sitting, without the ability to rewind, and you can appreciate their problem.

Herophile simply had too much good advice to share. Her voice was so enchanting it was impossible for listeners to catch every detail. She couldn’t control what she sang or when. She never repeated herself. You just had to be there.

She predicted the fall of Troy. She foresaw the rise of Alexander the Great. She advised Aeneas on where he should establish the colony that would one day become Rome. But did the Romans listen to all her advice, like Watch out for emperors, Don’t go crazy with the gladiator stuff or Togas are not a good fashion statement? No. No, they didn’t.‌‌

For nine hundred years, Herophile roamed the earth. She did her best to help, but, despite my blessings and occasional deliveries of pick-me-up flower arrangements, she became discouraged. Everyone she’d known in her youth was dead. She’d seen civilizations rise and fall. She’d heard too many priests and heroes say, Wait, what? Could you repeat that? Let me get a pencil.

She returned home to her mother’s hillside in Erythrae. The spring had dried up centuries before, and with it her mother’s spirit, but Herophile settled in the nearby cave. She helped supplicants whenever they came to seek her wisdom, but her voice was never the same.

Gone was her beautiful singing. Whether she’d lost her confidence, or whether the gift of prophecy had simply changed into a different sort of curse, I couldn’t be sure. Herophile spoke haltingly, leaving out important words that the listener would have to guess. Sometimes her voice failed altogether.

In frustration, she scribbled lines on dried leaves, leaving them for the supplicant to arrange in the proper order to find meaning.

The last time I saw Herophile … yes, the year was 1509 CE. I’d coaxed her out of her cave for one last visit to Rome, where Michelangelo was painting her portrait on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Apparently, she was being celebrated for some obscure prophecy long ago, when she’d predicted the birth of Jesus the Nazarene.

‘I don’t know, Michael,’ Herophile said, sitting next to him on his scaffold, watching him paint. ‘It’s beautiful, but my arms are not that …’ Her voice seized up. ‘Eight letters, starts with M.’

Michelangelo tapped his paintbrush to his lips. ‘Muscular?’ Herophile nodded vigorously.

‘I can fix that,’ Michelangelo promised.

Afterwards, Herophile returned to her cave for good. I’ll admit I lost track of her. I assumed she had faded away, like so many other ancient Oracles. Yet now here she was, in Southern California, at the mercy of Caligula.

I really should have kept sending those floral arrangements.

Now, all I could do was try to make up for my negligence. Herophile was still my Oracle, as much as Rachel Dare at Camp Half-Blood, or the ghost of poor Trophonius in Indianapolis. Whether it was a trap or not, I couldn’t leave her in a chamber of lava, shackled with molten manacles. I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Zeus had been right to send me to earth, to correct the wrongs I had allowed to happen.

I quickly shoved that thought aside. No. This punishment was entirely unfair. Still, ugh. Is anything worse than realizing you might agree with your father?

Grover navigated around the northern edge of Los Angeles, through traffic that moved almost as slowly as Athena’s brainstorming process.

I don’t wish to be unfair to Southern California. When the place was not on fire, or trapped in a brown haze of smog, or rumbling with earthquakes, or sliding into the sea, or choked with traffic, there were things I liked about it: the music scene, the palm trees, the beaches, the nice days, the pretty people. Yet I understood why Hades had located the main entrance to the Underworld here. Los Angeles was a magnet for human aspirations – the perfect place for mortals to gather, starry-eyed with dreams of fame, then fail, die and circle down the drain, flushed into oblivion.‌

There, you see? I can be a balanced observer!

Every so often I looked skyward, hoping to see Leo Valdez flying overhead on his bronze dragon, Festus. I wanted him to be carrying a large banner that said EVERYTHING’S COOL! The new moon wasn’t for two more days, true, but maybe Leo had finished his rescue mission early! He could land on the highway, tell us that Camp Jupiter had been saved from whatever threat had faced them. Then he could ask Festus to blowtorch the cars in front of us to speed up our travels.

Alas, no bronze dragon circled above, though it would’ve been hard to spot. The entire sky was bronze coloured.

‘So, Grover,’ I said, after a few decades on the Pacific Coast Highway, ‘have you ever met Piper or Jason?’

Grover shook his head. ‘Seems strange, I know. We’ve all been in SoCal for so long. But I’ve been busy with the fires. Jason and Piper have been questing and going to school and whatever. I just never got the chance. Coach says they’re … nice.’

I got the feeling he’d been about to say something other than nice. ‘Is there a problem we should know about?’ I asked.

Grover drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘Well … they’ve been under a lot of stress. First, they were looking for Leo Valdez. Then they did some other quests. Then things started to go bad for Mr McLean.’

Meg glanced up from braiding a bougainvillea. ‘Piper’s dad?’ Grover nodded. ‘He’s a famous actor, you know. Tristan McLean?’

A frisson of pleasure went up my back. I loved Tristan McLean in King of Sparta. And Jake Steel 2: The Return of Steel. For a mortal, that man had endless abs.

‘How did things go badly?’ I asked.

‘You don’t read celebrity news,’ Grover guessed.

Sad but true. With all my running around as a mortal, freeing ancient Oracles and fighting Roman megalomaniacs, I’d had zero time to keep up with juicy Hollywood gossip.

‘Messy break-up?’ I speculated. ‘Paternity suit? Did he say something horrible on Twitter?’

‘Not exactly,’ Grover said. ‘Let’s just … see how things are going when we get there. It might not be so bad.’

He said that in the way people do when they expect it to be exactly that bad.

By the time we made it to Malibu, it was nearly lunchtime. My stomach was turning itself inside out from hunger and car sickness. Me, who used to spend all day cruising in the sun Maserati, car sick. I blamed Grover. He drove with a heavy hoof.

On the bright side, our Pinto had not exploded, and we found the McLean house without incident.

Set back from the winding road, the mansion at 12 Oro del Mar clung to rocky cliffs overlooking the Pacific. From street level, the only visible parts were the white stucco security walls, the wrought-iron gates and an expanse of red-clay-tiled roofs.

The place would have radiated a sense of privacy and Zen tranquility had it not been for the moving trucks parked outside. The gates stood wide open.

Troops of burly men were carting away sofas, tables and large works of art. Pacing back and forth at the end of the driveway, looking bedraggled and stunned, as if he’d just walked away from a car wreck, was Tristan McLean.

His hair was longer than I’d seen it in the films. Silky black locks swept across his shoulders. He’d put on weight, so he no longer resembled the sleek killing machine he’d been in King of Sparta. His white jeans were smeared with soot. His black T-shirt was torn at the collar. His loafers looked like a pair of overbaked potatoes.

It didn’t seem right, a celebrity of his calibre just standing in front of his Malibu house without any guards or personal assistants or adoring fans – not even a mob of paparazzi to snap embarrassing pictures.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ I wondered.

Meg squinted through the windshield. ‘He looks okay.’ ‘No,’ I insisted. ‘He looks … average.’

Grover turned off the engine. ‘Let’s go say hi.’

Mr McLean stopped pacing when he saw us. His dark brown eyes seemed unfocused. ‘Are you Piper’s friends?’

I couldn’t find my words. I made a gurgling sound I hadn’t produced since I first met Grace Kelly.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Grover. ‘Is she home?’

‘Home …’ Tristan McLean tasted the word. He seemed to find it bitter and without meaning. ‘Go on inside.’ He waved vaguely down the driveway. ‘I think she’s …’ His voice trailed off as he watched two movers carting away a large marble statue of a catfish. ‘Go ahead. Doesn’t matter.’

I wasn’t sure if he was talking to us or to the movers, but his defeated tone alarmed me even more than his appearance.

We made our way through a courtyard of sculpted gardens and sparkling fountains, through a double-wide entrance with polished oak doors and into the house.

Red-Saltillo-tiled floors gleamed. Cream-white walls retained paler impressions where paintings had recently hung. To our right stretched a gourmet kitchen that even Edesia, the Roman goddess of banquets, would have adored. Before us spread a great room with a thirty-foot-high cedar-beamed ceiling, a massive fireplace and a wall of sliding glass doors leading to a terrace with views of the ocean.

Sadly, the room was a hollowed-out shell: no furniture, no carpets, no artwork – just a few cables curling from the wall and a broom and dustpan leaning in one corner.

A room so impressive should not have been empty. It felt like a temple without statues, music and gold offerings. (Oh, why did I torture myself with such analogies?)

Sitting on the fireplace surround, going through a stack of papers, was a young woman with coppery skin and layered dark hair. Her orange Camp Half-Blood T-shirt led me to assume that I was looking at Piper, daughter of Aphrodite and Tristan McLean.

Our footsteps echoed in the vast space, but Piper did not look up as we approached. Perhaps she was too engrossed in her papers, or she assumed we were movers.

‘You want me to get up again?’ she muttered. ‘Pretty sure the fireplace is staying here.’

‘Ahem,’ I said.

Piper glanced up. Her multicoloured irises caught the light like smoky prisms. She studied me as if not sure what she was looking at (oh, boy, did I

know the feeling), then gave Meg the same confused once-over.

She fixed her eyes on Grover and her jaw dropped. ‘I – I know you,’ she said. ‘From Annabeth’s photos. You’re Grover!’

She shot to her feet, her forgotten papers spilling across the Saltillo tiles. ‘What’s happened? Are Annabeth and Percy all right?’

Grover edged back, which was understandable given Piper’s intense expression.

‘They’re fine!’ he said. ‘At least, I assume they’re fine. I haven’t actually, um, seen them in a while, b-but I have an empathy link with Percy, so if he wasn’t fine I think I’d know –’

‘Apollo.’ Meg knelt down. She picked up one of the fallen papers, her frown even more severe than Piper’s.

My stomach completed its turn inside out. Why had I not noticed the colour of the documents sooner? All the papers – envelopes, collated reports, business letters – were dandelion yellow.

‘ “N.H. Financials”,’ Meg read from the letterhead. ‘ “Division of Triumvirate –” ’

‘Hey!’ Piper swiped the paper from her hand. ‘That’s private!’ Then she faced me as if doing a mental rewind. ‘Wait. Did she just call you Apollo?’

‘I’m afraid so.’ I gave her an awkward bow. ‘Apollo, god of poetry, music, archery and many other important things, at your service, though my learner’s permit reads Lester Papadopoulos.’

She blinked. ‘What?’

‘Also, this is Meg McCaffrey,’ I said. ‘Daughter of Demeter. She doesn’t mean to be nosy. It’s just that we’ve seen papers like these before.’

Piper’s gaze bounced from me to Meg to Grover. The satyr shrugged as if to say, Welcome to my nightmare.

‘You’re going to have to rewind,’ Piper decided.

I did my best to give her the elevator-pitch summary: my fall to earth, my servitude to Meg, my two previous quests to free the Oracles of Dodona and Trophonius, my travels with Calypso and Leo Valdez …

‘LEO?’ Piper grabbed my arms so hard I feared she would leave bruises. ‘He’s alive?’

‘Hurts,’ I whimpered.

‘Sorry.’ She let go. ‘I need to know everything about Leo. Now.’

I did my best to comply, fearing that she might physically pull the information from my brain otherwise.

‘That little fire-flicker,’ she grumbled. ‘We search for months, and he just shows up at camp?’

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘There is a waiting list of people who would like to hit him.

We can fit you in sometime next fall. But right now we need your help. We have to free a Sibyl from the emperor Caligula.’

Piper’s expression reminded me of a juggler’s, trying to track fifteen different objects in the air at once.

‘I knew it,’ she muttered. ‘I knew Jason wasn’t telling me –’

Half a dozen movers suddenly lumbered through the front door, speaking in Russian.

Piper scowled. ‘Let’s talk on the terrace,’ she said. ‘We can exchange bad news.’

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