Chapter no 17

The Burning Maze

Phil and Don are dead

Bye-bye, love and happiness Hello, headlessness

I enjoy running people over in a chariot as much as the next deity, but I did

not like the idea of being the guy run over.

As the dragons barrelled towards us, Meg stood her ground, which was either admirable or suicidal. I tried to decide whether to cower behind her or leap out of the way – both options less admirable but also less suicidal – when the choice became irrelevant. Piper threw her dagger, impaling the left dragon’s eye.

Left Dragon shrieked in pain, pushed against Right Dragon, and sent the chariot veering off course. Medea barrelled past us, just out of reach of Meg’s swords, and disappeared into the darkness while screaming insults at her pets in ancient Colchian – a language no longer spoken, but which featured

twenty-seven different words for kill and not a single way to say Apollo rocks. I hated the Colchians.

‘You guys okay?’ Piper asked. The tip of her nose was sunburn red. The harpy feather smouldered in her hair. Such things happened during close encounters with superheated lizards.

‘Fine,’ Meg grumbled. ‘I didn’t even get to stab anything.’ I gestured at Piper’s empty knife sheath. ‘Nice shot.’

‘Yeah, now if I only had more daggers. Guess I’m back to using blowpipe darts.’

Meg shook her head. ‘Against those dragons? Did you see their armoured hides? I’ll take them with my swords.’

In the distance, Medea continued yelling, trying to get her beasts under control. The harsh creak of wheels told me the chariot was turning for another pass.

‘Meg,’ I said, ‘it’ll only take Medea one charmspoken word to defeat you.

If she says stumble at the right moment …’

Meg glowered at me, as if it were my fault the sorceress could charmspeak. ‘Can we shut up Magic Lady somehow?’

‘It would be easier to cover your ears,’ I suggested.

Meg retracted her blades. She rummaged through her supplies while the rumble of the chariot’s wheels got faster and closer.

‘Hurry,’ I said.

Meg ripped open a pack of seeds. She sprinkled some in each of her ear canals, then pinched her nose and exhaled. Tufts of bluebonnet flowers sprouted from her ears.

‘That’s interesting,’ Piper said. ‘WHAT?’ Meg shouted.

Piper shook her head. Never mind.

Meg offered us bluebonnet seeds. We both declined. Piper, I guessed, was naturally resistant to other charmspeakers. As for me, I did not intend to get close enough to be Medea’s primary target. Nor did I have Meg’s weakness –a conflicted desire, misguided but powerful, to please her stepfather and reclaim some semblance of home and family – which Medea could and would exploit. Besides, the idea of walking around with flowers sticking out of my ears made me queasy.

‘Get ready,’ I warned. ‘WHAT?’ Meg asked.

I pointed at Medea’s chariot, now charging towards us out of the gloom. I traced my finger across my throat, the universal sign for kill that sorceress and her dragons.

Meg summoned her swords.

She charged the sun dragons as if they were not ten times her size. Medea yelled with what sounded like real concern, ‘Move, Meg!’

Meg charged on, her festive ear protection bouncing up and down like giant blue dragonfly wings. Just before a head-on collision, Piper shouted, ‘DRAGONS, HALT!’

Medea countered, ‘DRAGONS, GO!’

The result: chaos not seen since Plan Thermopylae.

The beasts lurched in their harnesses, Right Dragon charging forward, Left Dragon stopping completely. Right stumbled, pulling Left forward so the two dragons crashed together. The yoke twisted and the chariot toppled sideways, throwing Medea across the pavement like a cow from a catapult.

Before the dragons could recover, Meg plunged in with her double blades.

She beheaded Left and Right, releasing from their bodies a blast of heat so intense my sinuses sizzled.

Piper ran forward and yanked her dagger from the dead dragon’s eye.

‘Good job,’ she told Meg. ‘WHAT?’ Meg asked.

I emerged from behind a cement column, where I had courageously taken cover, waiting in case my friends required backup.

Pools of dragon blood steamed at Meg’s feet. Her flower ear accessories smoked, and her cheeks were burned, but otherwise she looked unharmed. The heat radiating from the sun dragon bodies had already started to cool.

Thirty feet away, in a COMPACT CAR ONLY spot, Medea struggled to her feet. Her dark braided hairdo had come undone, spilling down one side of her face like oil from a punctured tanker. She staggered forward, baring her teeth.

I slung my bow from my shoulder and fired a shot. My aim was decent, but even for a mortal, my strength was feeble. Medea flicked her fingers. A gust of wind sent my arrow spinning into the dark.

‘You killed Phil and Don!’ snarled the sorceress. ‘They’ve been with me for millennia!’

‘WHAT?’ Meg asked.

With a wave of her hand, Medea summoned a stronger blast of air. Meg flew across the parking garage, crashed into the pillar, and crumpled, her swords clattering against the tarmac.

‘Meg!’ I tried to run to her, but more wind swirled around me, caging me in a vortex.

Medea laughed. ‘Stay right there, Apollo. I’ll get to you in a moment.

Don’t worry about Meg. The descendants of Plemnaeus are of hardy stock. I won’t kill her unless I have to. Nero wants her alive.’

The descendants of Plemnaeus? I wasn’t sure what that meant, or how it applied to Meg, but the thought of her being returned to Nero made me struggle harder.

I threw myself against the miniature cyclone. The wind shoved me back. If you’ve ever held your hand out of the window of the sun Maserati as it speeds across the sky, and felt the force of a thousand-mile-an-hour wind shear threatening to rip your immortal fingers off, I’m sure you can relate.

‘As for you, Piper …’ Medea’s eyes glittered like black ice. ‘You remember my aerial servants, the venti? I could simply have one throw you against a wall and break every bone in your body, but what fun would that be?’ She paused and seemed to consider her words. ‘Actually, that would be a lot of fun!’

‘Too scared?’ Piper blurted out. ‘Of facing me yourself, woman to woman?’

Medea sneered. ‘Why do heroes always do that? Why do they try to taunt me into doing something foolish?’

‘Because it usually works,’ Piper said sweetly. She crouched with her blowpipe in one hand and her knife in the other, ready to lunge or dodge as

needed. ‘You keep saying you’re going to kill me. You keep telling me how powerful you are. But I keep beating you. I don’t see a powerful sorceress. I see a lady with two dead dragons and a bad hairdo.’

I understood what Piper was doing, of course. She was giving us time – for Meg to regain consciousness, and for me to find a way out of my personal tornado prison. Neither event seemed likely. Meg lay motionless where she had fallen. Try as I might, I could not body-slam my way through the swirling ventus.

Medea touched her crumbling hairdo, then pulled her hand away.

‘You’ve never beaten me, Piper McLean,’ she growled. ‘In fact, you did me a favour by destroying my home in Chicago last year. Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have found my new friend here in Los Angeles. Our goals align very well indeed.’

‘Oh, I bet,’ Piper said. ‘You and Caligula, the most twisted Roman emperor in history? A match made in Tartarus. In fact, that’s where I’m going to send you.’

On the other side of the chariot wreckage, Meg McCaffrey’s fingers twitched. Her bluebonnet earplugs shivered as she took a deep breath. I had never been so glad to see wild flowers tremble in someone’s ears!

I pushed my shoulder against the wind. I still couldn’t break through, but the barrier seemed to be softening, as if Medea was losing focus on her minion. Venti were fickle spirits. Without Medea keeping it on task, the air servant was likely to lose interest and fly off to find some nice pigeons or aeroplane pilots to harass.

‘Brave words, Piper,’ said the sorceress. ‘Caligula wanted to kill you and Jason Grace, you know. It would have been simpler. But I convinced him it would be better to let you suffer in exile. I liked the idea of you and your formerly famous father stuck on a dirt farm in Oklahoma, both of you slowly going mad with boredom and hopelessness.’

Piper’s jaw muscles tensed. Suddenly she reminded me of her mother, Aphrodite, whenever someone on earth compared their own beauty to hers. ‘You’re going to regret letting me live.’

‘Probably.’ Medea shrugged. ‘But it has been fun watching your world fall apart. As for Jason, that lovely boy with the name of my former husband –’

‘What about him?’ Piper demanded. ‘If you’ve hurt him –’

‘Hurt him? Not at all! I imagine he’s in school right now, listening to some boring lecture, or writing an essay, or whatever dreary work mortal teenagers do. The last time you two were in the maze …’ She smiled. ‘Yes, of course I know about that. We granted him access to the Sibyl. That’s the only way to find her, you know. I have to allow you to reach the centre of the maze –unless you’re wearing the emperor’s shoes, of course.’ Medea laughed, as if the idea amused her. ‘And, really, they wouldn’t go with your outfit.’

Meg tried to sit up. Her glasses had slipped sideways and were hanging from the tip of her nose.

I elbowed my cyclone cage. The wind was definitely swirling more slowly now.

Piper gripped her knife. ‘What did you do to Jason? What did the Sibyl say?’

‘She only told him the truth,’ Medea said with satisfaction. ‘He wanted to know how to find the emperor. The Sibyl told him. But she told him a bit more than that, as Oracles often do. The truth was enough to break Jason Grace. He won’t be a threat to anyone now. Neither will you.’

‘You’re going to pay,’ Piper said.

‘Lovely!’ Medea rubbed her hands. ‘I’m feeling generous, so I’ll grant your request. A duel just between us, woman to woman. Choose your weapon. I’ll choose mine.’

Piper hesitated, no doubt remembering how the wind had knocked my arrow aside. She shouldered her blowpipe, leaving herself armed with just her dagger.

‘A pretty weapon,’ Medea said. ‘Pretty like Helen of Troy. Pretty like you.

But, woman to woman, let me give you some advice. Pretty can be useful.

Powerful is better. For my weapon, I choose Helios, the Titan of the sun!’ She lifted her arms, and fire erupted around her.

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