Chapter no 21

The Burning Maze

When life gives you seeds Plant them in dry rocky soil I’m an optimist

I slept poorly.

Are you shocked? I was shocked.

I dreamed of my most famous Oracle, Delphi, though, alas, it was not during the good old days when I would have been welcomed with flowers, kisses, candy and my usual VIP table at Chez Oracle.

Instead, it was modern Delphi – devoid of priests and worshippers, filled instead with the hideous stench of Python, my old enemy, who had reclaimed his ancient lair. His rotten-egg/rancid-meat smell was impossible to forget.

I stood deep in the caverns, where no mortal ever trod. In the distance, two voices conversed, their bodies lost in the swirling volcanic vapours.

‘It’s under control,’ said the first, in the high nasal tones of Emperor Nero.

The second speaker growled, a sound like a chain pulling an ancient roller coaster uphill.

‘Very little has been under control since Apollo fell to earth,’ said Python.

His cold voice sent ripples of revulsion through my body. I couldn’t see him, but I could imagine his baleful amber eyes flecked with gold, his enormous dragon form, his wicked claws.

‘You have a great opportunity,’ Python continued. ‘Apollo is weak. He is mortal. He is accompanied by your own stepdaughter. How is it that he is not yet dead?’

Nero’s voice tightened. ‘We had a difference of opinion, my colleagues and

I. Commodus –’

‘Is a fool,’ Python hissed, ‘who only cares about spectacle. We both know that. And your great-uncle, Caligula?’

Nero hesitated. ‘He insisted … He has need of Apollo’s power. He wants the former god to meet his fate in a very, ah, particular way.’

Python’s massive bulk shifted in the darkness – I heard his scales rubbing against the stone. ‘I know Caligula’s plan. I wonder who is controlling whom? You have assured me –’

‘Yes,’ Nero snapped. ‘Meg McCaffrey will come back to me. She will serve me yet. Apollo will die, as I promised.’

‘If Caligula succeeds,’ Python mused, ‘then the balance of power will change. I would prefer to back you, of course, but if a new sun god rises in the west –’

‘You and I have a deal,’ Nero snarled. ‘You support me once the Triumvirate controls –’

‘– all means of prophecy,’ Python agreed. ‘But it does not as yet. You lost Dodona to the Greek demigods. The Cave of Trophonius has been destroyed. I understand the Romans have been alerted to Caligula’s plans for Camp Jupiter. I have no wish to rule the world alone. But if you fail me, if I have to kill Apollo myself –’

‘I will hold up my side of the bargain,’ Nero said. ‘You hold up yours.’

Python rasped in an evil approximation of a laugh. ‘We will see. The next few days should be very instructive.’


I woke with a gasp.

I found myself alone and shivering in the Cistern. Piper’s and Meg’s sleeping bags were empty. Above, the sky shone a brilliant blue. I wanted to believe this meant the wildfires had been brought under control. More likely it meant the winds had simply shifted.

My skin had healed overnight, though I still felt like I’d been dipped in liquid aluminum. With a minimum of grimacing and yelping, I managed to get dressed, get my bow, quiver and ukulele, and climb the ramp to the hillside.

I spotted Piper at the base of the hill, talking with Grover at the Bedrossian-mobile. I scanned the ruins and saw Meg crouching by the first collapsed greenhouse.

Thinking of my dream, I burned with anger. Had I still been a god, I would have roared my displeasure and cracked a new Grand Canyon across the desert. As it was, I could only clench my fists until my nails cut my palms.

It was bad enough that a trio of evil emperors wanted my Oracles, my life, my very essence. It was bad enough that my ancient enemy Python had retaken Delphi and was waiting for my death. But the idea of Nero using Meg as a pawn in this game … No. I told myself I would never let Nero get Meg into his clutches again. My young friend was strong. She was striving to break

free of her stepfather’s vile influence. She and I had been through too much together for her to go back.

Still, Nero’s words unsettled me: Meg McCaffrey will come back to me. She will serve me yet.

I wondered … if my own father, Zeus, appeared to me just then and offered me a way back to Olympus, what price would I be willing to pay? Would I leave Meg to her fate? Would I abandon the demigods and satyrs and dryads who had become my comrades? Would I forget about all the terrible things Zeus had done to me over the centuries and swallow my pride, just so I could regain my place in Olympus, knowing full well I would still be under Zeus’s thumb?

I tamped down those questions. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answers.

I joined Meg at the collapsed greenhouse. ‘Good morning.’

She did not look up. She’d been digging through the wreckage. Half-melted polycarbonate walls had been turned over and tossed aside. Her hands were dirty from clawing at the soil. Near her sat a grimy glass peanut-butter jar, the rusty lid removed and lying next to it. Cupped in her palm were some greenish pebbles.

I sucked in my breath.

No, they weren’t pebbles. In Meg’s hand lay seven coin-size hexagons –green seeds exactly like the ones in the memories she’d shared.

‘How?’ I asked.

She glanced up. She wore teal camouflage today, which made her look like an entirely different dangerous and scary little girl. Someone had cleaned her glasses (Meg never did), so I could see her eyes. They glinted as hard and clear as the rhinestones in her frames.

‘The seeds were buried,’ she said. ‘I … had a dream about them. The saguaro Hercules did it – put them in that jar right before he died. He was saving the seeds … for me, for when it was time.’

I wasn’t sure what to say. Congratulations. What nice seeds. Honestly, I didn’t know much about how plants grew. I did notice, however, that the seeds weren’t glowing as they had in Meg’s memories.

‘Do you think they’re still, uh, good?’ I asked. ‘Going to find out,’ she said. ‘Going to plant them.’

I looked around at the desert hillside. ‘You mean here? Now?’ ‘Yep. It’s time.’

How could she know that? I also didn’t see how planting a few seeds would make a difference when Caligula’s maze was causing half of California to burn.

On the other hand, we were off on another quest today, hoping to find Caligula’s palace, with no guarantee we would come back alive. I supposed

there was no time like the present. And if it made Meg feel better, why not? ‘How can I help?’ I asked.

‘Poke holes.’ Then she added, as if I might need extra guidance, ‘In the earth.’

I accomplished this with an arrow tip, making seven small impressions in the barren, rocky soil. I couldn’t help thinking that these seed holes didn’t look like very comfortable places to grow.

While Meg placed her green hexagons in their new homes, she directed me to get water from the Cistern’s well.

‘It has to be from there,’ she warned. ‘A big cupful.’

A few minutes later I returned with a Big-Hombre-size plastic cup from Enchiladas del Rey. Meg drizzled the water over her newly planted friends.

I waited for something dramatic to happen. In Meg’s presence, I’d got used to chia-seed explosions, demon peach babies and instant walls of strawberries.

The soil did not move. ‘Guess we wait,’ Meg said.

She hugged her knees and scanned the horizon.

The morning sun blazed in the east. It had risen today, as always, but no thanks to me. It didn’t care if I was driving the sun chariot, or if Helios was raging in the tunnels under Los Angeles. No matter what humans believed, the cosmos kept turning, and the sun stayed on course. Under different circumstances, I would have found that reassuring. Now I found the sun’s indifference both cruel and insulting. In only a few days, Caligula might become a solar deity. Under such villainous leadership, you might think the sun would refuse to rise or set. But shockingly, disgustingly, day and night would continue as they always had.

‘Where is she?’ Meg asked. I blinked. ‘Who?’

‘If my family is so important to her, thousands of years of blessings, or whatever, why hasn’t she ever …?’

She waved at the vast desert, as if to say, So much real estate, so little Demeter.

She was asking why her mother had never appeared to her, why Demeter had allowed Caligula to destroy her father’s work, why she’d let Nero raise her in his poisonous imperial household in New York.

I couldn’t answer Meg’s questions. Or rather, as a former god, I could think of several possible answers, but none that would make Meg feel better: Demeter was too busy watching the crop situation in Tanzania. Demeter got distracted inventing new breakfast cereals. Demeter forgot you existed.

‘I don’t know, Meg,’ I admitted. ‘But this …’ I pointed at the seven tiny wet circles in the earth. ‘This is the sort of thing your mother would be proud

of. Growing plants in an impossible place. Stubbornly insisting on creating life. It’s ridiculously optimistic. Demeter would approve.’

Meg studied me as if trying to decide whether to thank me or hit me. I’d got used to that look.

‘Let’s go,’ she decided. ‘Maybe the seeds will sprout while we’re gone.’

The three of us piled into the Bedrossian-mobile: Meg, Piper and me.

Grover had decided to stay behind – supposedly to rally the demoralized dryads, but I think he was simply exhausted from his series of near-death excursions with Meg and me. Coach Hedge volunteered to accompany us, but Mellie quickly un-volunteered him. As for the dryads, none seemed anxious to be our plant shields after what had happened to Money Maker and Agave. I couldn’t blame them.

At least Piper agreed to drive. If we got pulled over for possession of a stolen vehicle, she could charmspeak her way out of being arrested. With my luck, I would spend all day in jail, and Lester’s face would not look good in a mug shot.

We retraced our route from yesterday – the same heat-blasted terrain, the same smoke-stained skies, the same clogged traffic. Living the California dream.

None of us felt much like talking. Piper kept her eyes fixed on the road, probably thinking about a reunion she did not want with an ex-boyfriend she had left on awkward terms. (Oh, boy, I could relate.)

Meg traced the swirls on her teal camo pants. I imagined she was reflecting on her father’s final botany project and why Caligula had found it so threatening. It seemed unbelievable that Meg’s entire life had been altered by seven green seeds. Then again, she was a child of Demeter. With the goddess of plants, insignificant-looking things could be very significant.

The smallest seedlings, Demeter often told me, grow into century oaks.

As for me, I had no shortage of problems to think about.

Python awaited. I knew instinctively that I would have to face him one day.

If by some miracle I survived the emperors’ various plots on my life, if I defeated the Triumvirate and freed the four other Oracles and single-handedly set everything right in the mortal world, I would still have to find a way to wrest control of Delphi from my most ancient enemy. Only then might Zeus let me become a god again. Because Zeus was just that awesome. Thanks, Dad.

In the meantime, I had to deal with Caligula. I would have to foil his plan to make me the secret ingredient in his sun-god soup. And I would have to do this while having no godly powers at my disposal. My archery skills had deteriorated. My singing and playing weren’t worth olive stones. Divine strength? Charisma? Light? Fire power? All gauges read EMPTY.

My most humiliating thought: Medea would capture me, try to strip away my divine power and find I didn’t have any left.

What is this? she would scream. There’s nothing here but Lester!

Then she would kill me anyway.

As I contemplated these happy possibilities, we wound our way through the Pasadena Valley.

‘I’ve never liked this city,’ I murmured. ‘It makes me think of game shows, tawdry parades and drunk washed-up starlets with spray-on tans.’

Piper coughed. ‘FYI, Jason’s mom was from here. She died here, in a car accident.’

‘I’m sorry. What did she do?’

‘She was a drunk washed-up starlet with a spray-on tan.’

‘Ah.’ I waited for the sting of embarrassment to fade. It took several miles. ‘So why would Jason want to go to school here?’

Piper gripped the wheel. ‘After we broke up, he transferred to an all-boys boarding school up in the hills. You’ll see. I guess he wanted something different, something quiet and out-of-the-way. No drama.’

‘He’ll be happy to see us, then,’ Meg muttered, staring out of the window.

We made our way into the hills above town, the houses getting more and more impressive as we gained altitude. Even in Mansion Land, though, trees had started to die. Manicured lawns were turning brown around the edges.

When water shortages and above-average temperatures affected the upmarket neighbourhoods, you knew things were serious. The rich and the gods were always the last to suffer.

At the crest of a hill stood Jason’s school – a sprawling campus of blond-brick buildings interlaced with garden courtyards and walkways shaded by acacia trees. The sign in front, done in subtle bronze letters on a low brick wall, read: EDGARTON DAY AND BOARDING SCHOOL.

We parked the Escalade on a nearby residential street, using the Piper McLean if-it’s-towed-we’ll-just-borrow-another-car strategy.

A security guard stood at the front gates of the school, but Piper told him that we were allowed to go inside, and the guard, with a look of great confusion, agreed that we were allowed to go inside.

The classrooms all opened onto the courtyards. Student lockers lined the open walkways. It was not a school design that would have worked in, say, Milwaukee during blizzard season, but in Southern California it spoke to just how much the locals took their mild, consistent weather for granted. I doubted the buildings even had air-conditioning. If Caligula continued cooking gods in his Burning Maze, the Edgarton school board might have to rethink that.

Despite Piper’s insistence that she had distanced herself from Jason’s life, she had his schedule memorized. She led us right to his fourth-period classroom. Peering through the windows, I saw a dozen students – all young

men in blue blazers, white shirts, red ties, grey trousers and shiny shoes, like junior business executives. At the front of the class, in a director’s chair, a bearded teacher in a tweed suit was reading from a paperback copy of Julius Caesar.

Ugh. Bill Shakespeare. I mean, yes, he was good. But even he would’ve been horrified at the number of hours mortals spent drilling his plays into the heads of bored teenagers, and the sheer number of pipes, tweed jackets, marble busts and bad dissertations even his least favourite plays had inspired. Meanwhile, Christopher Marlowe got the short end of the Elizabethan stick. Kit had been much more gorgeous.

But I digress.

Piper knocked on the door and poked her head in. Suddenly the young men no longer looked bored. Piper said something to the teacher, who blinked a few times, then waved go ahead to a young man in the middle row.

A moment later, Jason Grace joined us in the walkway.

I had only seen him a few times before – once when he was a praetor at Camp Jupiter; once when he had visited Delos; then shortly afterwards, when we had fought side by side against the giants at the Parthenon.

He’d fought well enough, but I can’t say I’d paid him any special attention.

In those days, I was still a god. Jason was just another hero in the Argo II’s demigod crew.

Now, in his school uniform, he looked quite impressive. His blond hair was cropped short. His blue eyes flashed behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses.

Jason closed the classroom door behind him, tucked his books under his arm and forced a smile, a little white scar twitching at the corner of his lip. ‘Piper. Hey.’

I wondered how Piper managed to look so calm. I’d gone through many complicated break-ups. They never got easier, and Piper didn’t have the advantage of being able to turn her ex into a tree or simply wait until his short mortal life was over before returning to earth.

‘Hey, yourself,’ she said, just a hint of strain in her voice. ‘This is –’ ‘Meg McCaffrey,’ Jason said. ‘And Apollo. I’ve been waiting for you


He didn’t sound terribly excited about it. He said it the way someone might say, I’ve been waiting for the results from my emergency brain scan.

Meg sized up Jason as if she found his glasses far inferior to her own. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.’ Jason peered down the walkway in each direction. ‘Let’s go back to my dorm room. We’re not safe out here.’

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