Chapter no 16

The Burning Maze

Let’s charmspeak battle You are ugly and you suck The end. Do I win?

Sun dragons … I hate them. And I was a sun god.

As dragons go, they aren’t particularly large. With a little lubrication and muscle, you can stuff one inside a mortal recreational vehicle. (And I have done so. You should have seen the look on Hephaestus’s face when I asked him to go inside the Winnebago to check the brake pedal.)

But what they lack in size, sun dragons make up for in viciousness.

Medea’s twin pets snarled and snapped, their fangs like porcelain in the fiery kilns of their mouths. Heat rippled off their golden scales. Their wings, folded against their backs, flashed like solar panels. Worst of all were their glowing orange eyes …

Piper shoved me, breaking my gaze. ‘Don’t stare,’ she warned. ‘They’ll paralyse you.’

‘I know that,’ I muttered, though my legs had been in the process of turning to rock. I’d forgotten I wasn’t a god any more. I was no longer immune to little things like sun dragons’ eyes and, you know, getting killed.

Piper elbowed Meg. ‘Hey. You too.’

Meg blinked, coming out of her stupor. ‘What? They’re pretty.’ ‘Thank you, my dear!’ Medea’s voice turned gentle and soothing. ‘We

haven’t formerly met. I’m Medea. And you’re obviously Meg McCaffrey. I’ve heard so much about you.’ She patted the chariot rail next to her. ‘Come up, darling. You needn’t fear me. I’m friends with your stepfather. I’ll take you to him.’

Meg frowned, confused. The points of her swords dipped. ‘What?’

‘She’s charmspeaking.’ Piper’s voice hit me like a glass of ice water in the face. ‘Meg, don’t listen to her. Apollo, you neither.’

Medea sighed. ‘Really, Piper McLean? Are we going to have another charmspeak battle?’

‘No need,’ Piper said. ‘I’d just win again.’

Medea curled her lip in a good imitation of her sun dragons’ snarls. ‘Meg belongs with her stepfather.’ She swept a hand towards me as if pushing away some trash. ‘Not with this sorry excuse for a god.’

‘Hey!’ I protested. ‘If I had my powers –’

‘But you don’t,’ Medea said. ‘Look at yourself, Apollo. Look what your father has done to you! Not to worry, though. Your misery is at an end. I’ll squeeze out whatever power is left and put it to good use!’

Meg’s knuckles turned white on the grips of her swords. ‘What does she mean?’ she muttered. ‘Hey, Magic Lady, what do you mean?’

The sorceress smiled. She no longer wore the crown of her birthright as princess of Colchis, but at her throat a golden pendant still gleamed – the crossed torches of Hecate. ‘Shall I tell her, Apollo, or should you? Surely you know why I’ve brought you here.’

Why she had brought me here.

As if each step I’d taken since climbing out of that dumpster in Manhattan had been preordained, orchestrated by her … The problem was: I found that entirely plausible. This sorceress had destroyed kingdoms. She had betrayed her own father by helping the original Jason steal the Golden Fleece. She had killed her own brother and chopped him into bits. She had murdered her own children. She was the most brutal and power-hungry of Hecate’s followers, and also the most formidable. Not only that but she was a demigod of ancient blood, the granddaughter of Helios himself, former Titan of the sun.

Which meant …

It all came to me at once, a realization so horrible my knees buckled. ‘Apollo!’ Piper barked. ‘Get up!’

I tried. I really did. My limbs would not cooperate. I hunched over on all fours and exhaled an undignified moan of pain and terror. I heard a clap-clap-clap and wondered if the moorings that anchored my mind to my mortal skull had finally snapped.

Then I realized Medea was giving me a polite round of applause.

‘There it is.’ She chuckled. ‘It took you a while, but even your slow brain got there eventually.’

Meg grabbed my arm. ‘You’re not giving in, Apollo,’ she ordered. ‘Tell me what’s going on.’

She hauled me to my feet.

I tried to form words, to comply with her demand for an explanation. I made the mistake of looking at Medea, whose eyes were as transfixing as her dragons’. In her face, I saw the vicious glee and bright violence of Helios, her

grandfather, as he had been in his glory days – before he faded into oblivion, before I took his place as master of the sun chariot.

I remembered how the emperor Caligula had died. He’d been on the verge of leaving Rome, planning to sail to Egypt and make a new capital there, in a land where people understood about living gods. He had meant to make himself a living god: Neos Helios, the New Sun – not just in name, but literally. That’s why his praetors were so anxious to kill him on the evening before he left the city.

What’s his endgame? Grover had asked.

My satyr spiritual adviser had been on the right track.

‘Caligula’s always had the same goal,’ I croaked. ‘He wants to be the centre of creation, the new god of the sun. He wants to supplant me, the way I supplanted Helios.’

Medea smiled. ‘And it really couldn’t happen to a nicer god.’ Piper shifted. ‘What do you mean … supplant?’

‘Replace!’ Medea said, then began counting on her fingers as if giving cooking tips on daytime television. ‘First, I extract every bit of Apollo’s immortal essence – which isn’t much at the moment, so that won’t take long. Then I’ll add his essence to what I already have cooking, the leftover power of my dearly departed grandfather.’

‘Helios,’ I said. ‘The flames in the maze. I – I recognized his anger.’ ‘Well, Grandpa’s a bit cranky.’ Medea shrugged. ‘That happens when your

life force fades to practically nothing, then your granddaughter summons you back a little at a time, until you’re a lovely raging firestorm. I wish you could suffer as Helios has suffered – howling for millennia in a state of semiconsciousness, just aware enough of what you’ve lost to feel the pain and resentment. But, alas, we don’t have that much time. Caligula is anxious. I’ll take what’s left of you and Helios, invest that power in my friend the emperor, and voilà! A new god of the sun!’

Meg grunted. ‘That’s dumb,’ she said, as if Medea had suggested a new rule for hide-and-seek. ‘You can’t do that. You can’t just destroy a god and make a new one!’

Medea didn’t bother answering.

I knew that what she described was entirely possible. The emperors of Rome had made themselves semi-divine simply by instituting worship among the populace. Over the centuries, several mortals had made themselves gods, or were promoted to godhood by the Olympians. My father, Zeus, had made Ganymede an immortal simply because he was cute and knew how to serve wine!

As for destroying gods … most of the Titans had been slain or banished thousands of years ago. And I was standing here now, a mere mortal, stripped

of all godliness for the third time, simply because Daddy wanted to teach me a lesson.

For a sorceress of Medea’s power, such magic was within reach, provided her victims were weak enough to be overcome – such as the remnants of a long-faded Titan, or a sixteen-year-old fool named Lester who had strolled right into her trap.

‘You would destroy your own grandfather?’ I asked.

Medea shrugged. ‘Why not? You gods are all family, but you’re constantly trying to kill each other.’

I hate it when evil sorceresses have a point.

Medea extended her hand towards Meg. ‘Now, my dear, hop up here with me. Your place is with Nero. All will be forgiven, I promise.’

Charmspeak flowed through her words like Aloe Vera’s gel – slimy and cold but somehow soothing. I didn’t see how Meg could possibly resist. Her past, her stepfather, especially the Beast – they were never far from her mind.

‘Meg,’ Piper countered, ‘don’t let either of us tell you what to do. Make up your own mind.’

Bless Piper’s intuition, appealing to Meg’s stubborn streak. And bless Meg’s wilful, weed-covered little heart. She interposed herself between me and Medea. ‘Apollo’s my dumb servant. You can’t have him.’

The sorceress sighed. ‘I appreciate your courage, dear. Nero told me you were special. But my patience has limits. Shall I give you a taste of what you are dealing with?’

Medea lashed her reins, and the dragons charged.

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