Chapter no 15

The Burning Maze

Grover leaves early Grover is a smart satyr Lester, not so much

‘What is he?’ Meg asked again. ‘He’s fun.’

Fun would not have been my adjective of choice.

The guard lay sprawled on his back, his lips foaming, his half-lidded eyes twitching in a semiconscious state.

Each of his hands had eight fingers. That explained why they’d looked so large from a distance. Judging from the width of his black leather shoes, I guessed he had eight toes as well. He seemed young, no more than a teenager in human terms, but, except for his forehead and cheeks, his whole face was covered in fine white fur that resembled the chest hair of a terrier.

The real conversation piece was his ears. What I had mistaken for a headdress had come unfurled, revealing two floppy ovals of cartilage, shaped like human ears but each the size of a beach towel, which told me immediately that the poor boy’s middle-school nickname would have been Dumbo. His ear canals were wide enough to catch baseballs, and stuffed with so much hair that Piper could have used it to fletch an entire quiverful of darts.

‘Big Ears,’ I said. ‘Duh,’ said Meg.

‘No, I mean this must be one of the Big Ears that Macro spoke of.’

Grover took a step back. ‘The creatures Caligula is using for his personal guard? Do they have to be so scary-looking?’

I walked a circle around the young humanoid. ‘Think how keen his hearing must be! And imagine all the guitar chords he could play with those hands.

How have I never seen this species before? They would make the world’s best musicians!’

‘Hmm,’ Piper said. ‘I don’t know about music, but they fight like you wouldn’t believe. Two of them almost killed Jason and me, and we’ve fought a lot of different monsters.’

I saw no weapons on the guard, but I could believe he was a tough fighter.

Those eight-fingered fists could have done some damage. Still, it seemed a waste to train these creatures for war …

‘Unbelievable,’ I murmured. ‘After four thousand years, I am still discovering new things.’

‘Like how dumb you are,’ Meg volunteered. ‘No.’

‘So you already knew that?’

‘Guys,’ Grover interrupted. ‘What do we do with Big Ears?’ ‘Kill him,’ Meg said.

I frowned at her. ‘What happened to He’s fun? What happened to

Everything alive deserves a chance to grow?’

‘He works for the emperors,’ she said. ‘He’s a monster. He’ll just dust back to Tartarus, right?’

Meg looked at Piper for confirmation, but she was busy scanning the street. ‘Still seems odd there’s only one guard,’ Piper mused. ‘And why is he so

young? After we broke in once already, you’d think they’d put more guards on duty. Unless …’

She didn’t finish the thought, but I heard it loud and clear: Unless they want us to come in.

I studied the guard’s face, which was still twitching from the effects of the poison. Why did I have to think of his face as the fuzzy underside of a dog? It made killing him difficult.

‘Piper, what does your poison do, exactly?’

She knelt and pulled out the dart. ‘Judging from how it worked on the other Big Ears, it will paralyse him for a long while but won’t kill him. It’s diluted coral-snake venom with a few special herbal ingredients.’

‘Remind me never to drink your herbal tea,’ Grover muttered.

Piper smirked. ‘We can just leave Big Ears. Doesn’t seem right to dust him to Tartarus.’

‘Hmph.’ Meg looked unconvinced, but she flicked her twin blades, instantly snapping them back into golden rings.

Piper walked to the metal door. She pulled it open, revealing a rusty freight elevator with a single control lever and no gate.

‘Okay, just so we’re clear,’ Piper said, ‘I’ll show you where Jason and I entered the maze, but I’m not doing the stereotypical Native American tracker thing. I don’t know tracking. I’m not your guide.’

We all readily agreed, as one does when delivered an ultimatum by a friend with strong opinions and poison darts.

‘Also,’ she continued, ‘if any of you find the need for spiritual guidance on this quest, I am not here to provide that service. I’m not going to dispense bits of ancient Cherokee wisdom.’

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘Though as a former prophecy god, I enjoy bits of spiritual wisdom.’

‘Then you’ll have to ask the satyr,’ Piper said.

Grover cleared his throat. ‘Um, recycling is good karma?’ ‘There you go,’ Piper said. ‘Everybody good? All aboard.’

The interior of the elevator was poorly lit and smelled of sulphur. I recalled that Hades had an elevator in Los Angeles that led to the Underworld. I hoped Piper hadn’t got her quests mixed up.

‘Are you sure this thing goes to the Burning Maze?’ I asked. ‘Because I didn’t bring any rawhide chews for Cerberus.’

Grover whimpered. ‘You had to mention Cerberus. That’s bad karma.’

Piper threw the switch. The elevator rattled and began to sink at the same speed as my spirits.

‘This first part is all mortal,’ Piper assured us. ‘Downtown Los Angeles is riddled with abandoned subway tunnels, air-raid shelters, sewer lines …’

‘All my favourite things,’ Grover murmured.

‘I don’t really know the history,’ Piper said, ‘but Jason told me some of the tunnels were used by smugglers and partyers during Prohibition. Now you get taggers, runaways, homeless folks, monsters, government employees.’

Meg’s mouth twitched. ‘Government employees?’

‘It’s true,’ Piper said. ‘Some of the city workers use the tunnels to go from building to building.’

Grover shuddered. ‘When they could just walk in the sunlight with nature?


Our rusty metal box rattled and creaked. Whatever was below would definitely hear us coming, especially if they had ears the size of beach towels.

After perhaps fifty feet, the elevator shuddered to a stop. Before us stretched a cement corridor, perfectly square and boring, lit by weak blue fluorescents.

‘Doesn’t seem so scary,’ said Meg.

‘Just wait,’ Piper said. ‘The fun stuff is up ahead.’ Grover fluttered his hands half-heartedly. ‘Yay.’

The square corridor opened into a larger round tunnel, its ceiling lined with ducts and pipes. The walls were so heavily tagged they might have been an undiscovered Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Empty cans, dirty clothes and mildewed sleeping bags littered the floor, filling the air with the unmistakable odour of a homeless camp: sweat, urine and utter despair.

None of us spoke. I tried to breathe as little as possible until we emerged into an even larger tunnel, this one lined with rusty train tracks. Along the

walls, pitted metal signs read HIGH VOLTAGE, NO ENTRY and THIS WAY OUT.

Gravel crunched under our feet. Rats scurried along the tracks, chittering at Grover as they passed.

‘Rats,’ he whispered, ‘are so rude.’

After a hundred yards, Piper led us into a side hallway, this one tiled in linoleum. Half-burned-out banks of fluorescents flickered overhead. In the distance, barely visible in the dim light, two figures were slumped together on the floor. I assumed they were homeless people until Meg froze. ‘Are those dryads?’

Grover yelped in alarm. ‘Agave? Money Maker?’ He sprinted forward, the rest of us following at his heels.

Agave was an enormous nature spirit, worthy of her plant. Standing, she would have been at least seven feet tall, with blue-grey skin, long limbs and serrated hair that must’ve been literally murder to shampoo. Around her neck, her wrists and her ankles, she wore spiked bands, just in case anyone tried to intrude on her personal space. Kneeling next to her friend, Agave didn’t look too bad until she turned, revealing her burns. The left side of her face was a mass of charred tissue and glistening sap. Her left arm was nothing but a desiccated brown curl.

‘Grover!’ she rasped. ‘Help Money Maker. Please!’ He knelt next to the stricken dryad.

I’d never heard of a money-maker plant before, but I could see how she got her name. Her hair was a thick cluster of plaited discs like green quarters. Her dress was made of the same stuff, so she appeared to be clad in a shower of chlorophyll coinage. Her face might have once been beautiful, but now it was shrivelled like a week-old party balloon. From the knees down, her legs were gone – burned away. She tried to focus on us, but her eyes were opaque green. When she moved, jade coins dropped from her hair and dress.

‘Grover’s here?’ She sounded like she was breathing a mixture of cyanide gas and metal filings. ‘Grover … we got so close.’

The satyr’s lower lip trembled. His eyes rimmed with tears. ‘What happened? How –?’

‘Down there,’ said Agave. ‘Flames. She just came out of nowhere. Magic –’ She began coughing up sap.

Piper peered warily down the corridor. ‘I’m going to scout ahead. Be right back. I do not want to be caught by surprise.’

She dashed off down the hall.

Agave tried to speak again but fell over sideways. Somehow, Meg caught her and propped her up without getting impaled. She touched the dryad’s shoulder, muttering under her breath, Grow, grow, grow. Cracks began to mend in Agave’s charred face. Her breathing eased. Then Meg turned to

Money Maker. She placed her hand on the dryad’s chest, then recoiled as more jade petals shook loose.

‘I can’t do much for her down here,’ Meg said. ‘They both need water and sunlight. Right now.’

‘I’ll get them to the surface,’ Grover said. ‘I’ll help,’ Meg said.


‘Grover –’

‘No!’ His voice cracked. ‘Once I’m outside, I can heal them as well as you can. This is my search party, here on my orders. It’s my responsibility to help them. Besides, your quest is down here with Apollo. You really want him going on without you?’

I thought this was an excellent point. I would need Meg’s help.

Then I noticed the way they were both looking at me, as if they doubted my abilities, my courage, my capacity to finish this quest without a twelve-year-old girl holding my hand.

They were right, of course, but that made it no less embarrassing. I cleared my throat. ‘Well, I’m sure if I had to …’

Meg and Grover had already lost interest in me, as if my feelings were not their primary concern. (I know. I couldn’t believe it either.) Together they helped Agave to her feet.

‘I’m fine,’ Agave insisted, tottering dangerously. ‘I can walk. Just get Money Maker.’

Gently, Grover picked her up.

‘Careful,’ Meg warned. ‘Don’t shake her or she’ll lose all her petals.’ ‘Don’t shake Money Maker,’ Grover said. ‘Got it. Good luck!’

Grover hurried into the darkness with the two dryads just as Piper returned. ‘Where are they going?’ she asked.

Meg explained.

Piper’s frown deepened. ‘I hope they get out okay. If that guard wakes up

…’ She let the thought expire. ‘Anyway, we’d better keep going. Stay alert. Heads on a swivel.’

Short of injecting myself with pure caffeine and electrifying my underwear, I wasn’t sure how I could possibly be more alert or swivel-headed, but Meg and I followed Piper down the grim fluorescent hall.

Another thirty yards, and the corridor opened into a vast space that looked like …

‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Is this an underground parking garage?’

It certainly seemed so, except for the complete absence of cars. Stretching into the darkness, the polished cement floor was painted with yellow directional arrows and rows of empty grid spaces. Lines of square pillars

supported the ceiling twenty feet above. Posted on some of them were signs like: HONK. EXIT. YIELD TO LEFT.

In a car-crazy town like LA, it seemed odd that anyone would abandon a usable parking garage. Then again, I supposed street meters sounded pretty good when your other option was a creepy maze frequented by taggers, dryad search parties and government workers.

‘This is the place,’ Piper said. ‘Where Jason and I got separated.’

The smell of sulphur was stronger here, mixed with a sweeter fragrance … like cloves and honey. It made me edgy, reminding me of something I couldn’t quite place – something dangerous. I resisted the urge to run.

Meg wrinkled her nose. ‘Pee-yoo.’

‘Yeah,’ Piper agreed. ‘That smell was here last time. I thought it meant …’ She shook her head. ‘Anyway, right about here, a wall of flames came roaring out of nowhere. Jason ran right. I ran left. I’m telling you – that heat seemed malevolent. It was the most intense fire I’ve ever felt, and I’ve fought Enceladus.’

I shivered, remembering that giant’s fiery breath. We used to send him boxes of chewable antacids for Saturnalia, just to make him mad.

‘And after you and Jason got separated?’ I asked.

Piper moved to the nearest pillar. She ran her hand along the letters of a YIELD sign. ‘I tried to find him, of course. But he just disappeared. I searched for a long time. I was pretty freaked out. I wasn’t going to lose another …’

She hesitated, but I understood. She had already suffered the loss of Leo Valdez, who until recently she had assumed dead. She wasn’t going to lose another friend.

‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I started smelling that fragrance. That kind of clove scent?’

‘It’s distinctive,’ I agreed. ‘Yucky,’ Meg corrected.

‘It started to get really strong,’ Piper said. ‘I’ll be honest, I got scared. Alone, in the dark, I panicked. I left.’ She grimaced. ‘Not very heroic, I know.’

I wasn’t going to criticize, given the fact that my knees were presently knocking together the Morse code message RUN AWAY!

‘Jason showed up later,’ Piper said. ‘Simply walked out of the exit. He wouldn’t talk about what had happened. He just said going back in the maze wouldn’t accomplish anything. The answers were elsewhere. He said he wanted to look into some ideas and get back to me.’ She shrugged. ‘That was two weeks ago. I’m still waiting.’

‘He found the Oracle,’ I guessed.

‘That’s what I’m wondering. Maybe if we go that way –’ Piper pointed to the right – ‘we’ll find out.’

None of us moved. None of us yelled Hooray! and skipped merrily into the sulphur-infused darkness.

My thoughts spun so rapidly I wondered if my head actually was on a swivel.

Malevolent heat, as if it had a personality. The nickname of the emperor: Neos Helios, the New Sun, Caligula’s bid to brand himself as a living god. Something Naevius Macro had said: I just hope there’s enough of you left for the emperor’s magical friend to work with.

And that fragrance, clove and honey … like an ancient perfume, combined with sulphur.

‘Agave said “she just came out of nowhere”,’ I recalled.

Piper’s hand tightened on the hilt of her dagger. ‘I was hoping I misheard that. Or maybe by she, she meant Money Maker.’

‘Hey,’ Meg said. ‘Listen.’

It was difficult over the loud swivelling of my head and the electricity crackling in my underwear, but finally I heard it: the clatter of wood and metal echoing in the darkness, and the hiss and scrape of large creatures moving at a fast pace.

‘Piper,’ I said, ‘what did that perfume remind you of? Why did it scare you?’

Her eyes now looked as electric blue as her harpy feather. ‘An – an old enemy, somebody my mom warned me I would see again some day. But she couldn’t possibly be –’

‘A sorceress,’ I guessed. ‘Guys,’ Meg interrupted.

‘Yeah.’ Piper’s voice turned cold and heavy, as if she was just realizing how much trouble we were actually in.

‘A sorceress from Colchis,’ I said. ‘A grandchild of Helios, who drove a chariot.’

‘Pulled by dragons,’ Piper said.

‘Guys,’ Meg said, more urgently, ‘we need to hide.’ Too late, of course.

The chariot rattled around the corner, pulled by twin golden dragons that spewed yellow fumes from their nostrils like sulphur-fuelled locomotives. The driver had not changed since I’d last seen her, a few thousand years ago. She was still dark-haired and regal, her black silk dress rippling around her.

Piper pulled her knife. She stepped into view. Meg followed her lead, summoning her swords and standing shoulder to shoulder with the daughter of Aphrodite. I, foolishly, stood at their side.

Medea.’ Piper spat out the word with as much venom and force as she would a dart from her blowpipe.

The sorceress pulled the reins, bringing her chariot to a halt. Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed the surprised look on her face, but it didn’t last long.

Medea laughed with genuine pleasure. ‘Piper McLean, you darling girl.’ She turned her dark rapacious gaze on me. ‘This is Apollo, I take it? Oh, you’ve saved me so much time and trouble. And after we’re done, Piper, you’ll make a lovely snack for my dragons!’

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