Chapter no 24

The Burning Maze

Ah, Santa Barbara!

Famed for surfing! Fish tacos! And crazy Romans!

Alas for us and Mr Bedrossian, there was no sign of the Cadillac Escalade on the street where we’d parked.

‘We’ve been towed,’ Piper announced casually, as if this was a regular occurrence for her.

She returned to the school’s front office. A few minutes later, she emerged from the front gates driving Edgarton’s green-and-gold van.

She rolled down the window. ‘Hey, kids. Want to go on a field trip?’ As we pulled away, Jason glanced nervously in the passenger-side rear-

view mirror, perhaps worried the security guard would give chase and demand we get signed permission slips before leaving campus to kill a Roman emperor. But no one followed us.

‘Where to?’ Piper asked when we reached the highway. ‘Santa Barbara,’ Jason said.

Piper frowned, as if this answer was only slightly more surprising than

Uzbekistan. ‘Okay.’

She followed the signs for Highway 101 West.

For once, I hoped traffic would be jammed. I was not in a hurry to see Caligula. Instead, the roads were nearly empty. It was like the Southern California freeway system had heard me complaining and was now out for revenge.

Oh, go right ahead, Apollo! Highway 101 seemed to say. We estimate an easy commute to your humiliating death!

Next to me in the back seat, Meg drummed her fingers on her knees. ‘How much further?’

I was only vaguely familiar with Santa Barbara. I hoped Jason would tell us it was far away – just past the North Pole, maybe. Not that I wanted to be stuck in a van with Meg that long, but at least then we could stop by Camp Jupiter and pick up a squadron of heavily armed demigods.

‘About two hours,’ Jason said, dashing my hopes. ‘Northwest, along the coast. We’re going to Stearns Wharf.’

Piper turned to him. ‘You’ve been there?’

‘I … Yeah. Just scouting the place with Tempest.’ ‘Tempest?’ I asked.

‘His horse,’ Piper said, then to Jason: ‘You went scouting there alone?’ ‘Well, Tempest is a ventus,’ Jason said, ignoring Piper’s question.

Meg stopped drumming her knees. ‘Like those windy things Medea had?’ ‘Except Tempest is friendly,’ Jason said. ‘I kind of … not tamed him,

exactly, but we made friends. He’ll show up when I call, usually, and let me ride him.’

‘A wind horse.’ Meg pondered the idea, no doubt weighing its merits against her own demonic diaper-wearing peach baby. ‘I guess that’s cool.’

‘Back to the question,’ Piper said. ‘Why did you decide to scout Stearns Wharf?’

Jason looked so uncomfortable I feared he might blow out the van’s electrical systems.

‘The Sibyl,’ he said at last. ‘She told me I would find Caligula there. It’s one of the places where he stops.’

Piper tilted her head. ‘Where he stops?’

‘His palace isn’t a palace, exactly,’ Jason said. ‘We’re looking for a boat.’ My stomach dropped out and took the nearest exit back towards Palm

Springs. ‘Ah,’ I said.

‘Ah?’ Meg asked. ‘Ah, what?’

‘Ah, that makes sense,’ I said. ‘In ancient times, Caligula was notorious for his pleasure barges – huge floating palaces with bathhouses, theatres, rotating statues, racetracks, thousands of slaves …’

I remembered how disgusted Poseidon had been, watching Caligula tootle around the Bay of Baiae, though I think Poseidon was just jealous his palace didn’t have rotating statues.

‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘that explains why you’ve had trouble locating him. He can move from harbour to harbour at will.’

‘Yeah,’ Jason agreed. ‘When I scouted, he wasn’t there. I guess the Sibyl meant I’d find him at Stearns Wharf when I was supposed to find him.

Which, I guess, is today.’ He shifted in his seat, leaning as far away as possible from Piper. ‘Speaking of the Sibyl … there’s another detail I didn’t share with you about the prophecy.’

He told Piper the truth about the three-letter word that began with D and was not dog.

She took the news surprisingly well. She did not hit him. She didn’t raise her voice. She merely listened, then remained silent for another mile or so.

At last, she shook her head. ‘That’s quite a detail.’ ‘I should’ve told you,’ Jason said.

‘Um, yeah.’ She twisted the steering wheel exactly the way one would break the neck of a chicken. ‘Still … if I’m being honest? In your position, I might’ve done the same thing. I wouldn’t want you to die either.’

Jason blinked. ‘Does that mean you’re not mad?’ ‘I’m furious.’


‘Furious, but also empathetic.’ ‘Right.’

It struck me how easily they talked together, even about difficult things, and how well they seemed to understand each other. I remembered Piper saying how frantic she’d been when she got separated from Jason in the Burning Maze – how she couldn’t bear to lose another friend.

I wondered again what was behind their break-up.

People change, Piper had said.

Full points for vagueness, girl, but I wanted the dirt.

‘So,’ she said. ‘Any other surprises? Any more tiny details you forgot?’ Jason shook his head. ‘I think that’s it.’

‘Okay,’ Piper said. ‘Then we go to the wharf. We find this boat. We find Caligula’s magic booties, and we kill him if we get the chance. But we don’t let each other die.’

‘Or let me die,’ Meg added. ‘Or even Apollo.’

‘Thank you, Meg,’ I said. ‘My heart is as warm as a partially thawed burrito.’

‘No problem.’ She picked her nose, just in case she died and never got another chance. ‘How do we know which is the right boat?’

‘I have a feeling we’ll know,’ I said. ‘Caligula was never subtle.’ ‘Assuming the boat is there this time,’ Jason said.

‘It’d better be,’ said Piper. ‘Otherwise I stole this van and got you out of your afternoon physics lecture for nothing.’

‘Darn,’ Jason said.

They shared a guarded smile, a sort of Yes, things are still weird between us, but I don’t intend on letting you die today look.

I hoped our expedition would go as smoothly as Piper had described. I suspected our odds were better of winning the Mount Olympus Mega-God Lottery. (The most I ever got was five drachmas on a scratch card once.)

We drove in silence along the seaside highway.

To our left, the Pacific glittered. Surfers plied the waves. Palm trees bent in the breeze. To our left, the hills were dry and brown, littered with the red flowers of heat-distressed azaleas. Try as I might, I could not help thinking of those crimson swathes as the spilled blood of dryads, fallen in battle. I remembered our cactus friends back at the Cistern, bravely and stubbornly clinging to life. I remembered Money Maker, broken and burned in the maze under Los Angeles. For their sake, I had to stop Caligula. Otherwise … No.

There could be no otherwise.

Finally, we reached Santa Barbara, and I saw why Caligula might like the place.

If I squinted, I could imagine I was back in the Roman resort town of Baiae. The curve of the coastline was almost the same – as well as the golden beaches, the hills dotted with upscale stucco and red-tiled homes, the pleasure craft moored in the harbour. The locals even had the same sunbaked, pleasantly dazed expressions, as if they were biding their time between morning surf sessions and afternoon golf.

The biggest difference: Mount Vesuvius did not rise in the distance. But I had a feeling another presence loomed over this lovely little town – just as dangerous and volcanic.

‘He’ll be here,’ I said, as we parked the van on Cabrillo Boulevard.

Piper arched her eyebrows. ‘Are you sensing a disturbance in the Force?’ ‘Please,’ I muttered. ‘I’m sensing my usual bad luck. In a place this

harmless-looking, there’s no way we will not find trouble.’

We spent the afternoon canvassing the Santa Barbara waterfront, from the East Beach to the breakwater jetties. We disrupted a flock of pelicans in the saltwater marsh. We woke some napping sea lions on the fishing dock. We jostled through roving hordes of tourists on Stearns Wharf. In the harbour, we found a virtual forest of single-mast boats, along with some luxury yachts, but none seemed large or gaudy enough for a Roman emperor.

Jason even flew over the water for aerial reconnaissance. When he came back, he reported no suspicious vessels on the horizon.

‘Were you on your horse, Tempest, just then?’ Meg asked. ‘I couldn’t tell.’

Jason smiled. ‘Nah, I don’t call Tempest unless it’s an emergency. I was just flying around on my own, manipulating the wind.’

Meg pouted, considering the pockets of her gardening belt. ‘I can summon yams.’

At last we gave up searching and grabbed a table at a beachside café. The grilled fish tacos were worthy of an ode by the Muse Euterpe herself.

‘I don’t mind giving up,’ I admitted, spooning some spicy seviche into my mouth, ‘if it comes with dinner.’

‘This is just a break,’ Meg warned. ‘Don’t get comfortable.’

I wished she hadn’t phrased that as an order. It made it difficult for me to sit still for the rest of my meal.

We sat at the café, enjoying the breeze, the food and the iced tea until the sun dipped to the horizon, turning the sky Camp Half-Blood orange. I allowed myself to hope that I’d been mistaken about Caligula’s presence. We’d come here in vain. Hooray! I was about to suggest heading back to the van, perhaps finding a hotel so I wouldn’t have to crash in a sleeping bag at the bottom of a desert well again, when Jason rose from our picnic-table bench.

‘There.’ He pointed out to sea.

The ship seemed to materialize from the sun’s glare, the way my sun chariot used to whenever I pulled into the Stables of Sunset at the end of a long day’s ride. The yacht was a gleaming white monstrosity with five decks above the waterline, its tinted black windows like elongated insect eyes. As with all big ships, it was difficult to judge its size from a distance, but the fact that it had two onboard helicopters, one aft and one forward, plus a small submarine locked in a crane on the starboard side, told me this was not an average pleasure craft. Perhaps there were bigger yachts in the mortal world, but I guessed not many.

‘That has to be it,’ Piper said. ‘What now? You think it will dock?’ ‘Hold on,’ Meg said. ‘Look.’

Another yacht, identical to the first, resolved out of the sunlight about a mile to the south.

‘That must be a mirage, right?’ Jason asked uneasily. ‘Or a decoy?’ Meg grunted in dismay, pointing out to sea yet again.

A third yacht shimmered into existence, halfway between the first two. ‘This is crazy,’ Piper said. ‘Each one of those boats has to cost millions.’ ‘Half a billion,’ I corrected. ‘Or more. Caligula was never shy about

spending money. He is part of the Triumvirate. They’ve been accumulating wealth for centuries.’

Another yacht popped onto the horizon as if coming out of sunshine warp, then another. Soon there were dozens – a loose armada strung across the mouth of the harbour like a string being fitted on a bow.

‘No way.’ Piper rubbed her eyes. ‘This has to be an illusion.’ ‘It’s not.’ My heart sank. I’d seen this sort of display before.

As we watched, the line of super-yachts manoeuvred closer together, anchoring themselves stern to bow, forming a glittering, floating blockade from Sycamore Creek all the way to the marina – a mile long at least.

‘The Bridge of Boats,’ I said. ‘He’s done it again.’ ‘Again?’ Meg asked.

‘Caligula – back in ancient times.’ I tried to control the quavering in my voice. ‘When he was a boy, he received a prophecy. A Roman astrologer told him he had as much chance of becoming emperor as he did of riding a horse

across the Bay of Baiae. In other words, it was impossible. But Caligula did become emperor. So he ordered the construction of a fleet of super-yachts –’ I gestured feebly at the armada in front of us – ‘like this. He lined the boats up across the Bay of Baiae, forming a massive bridge. Then he rode across it on his horse. It was the biggest floating construction project ever attempted.

Caligula couldn’t even swim. That didn’t faze him. He was determined to thumb his nose at fate.’

Piper steepled her hands over her mouth. ‘The mortals have to see this, right? He can’t just cut off all boat traffic in and out of the harbour.’

‘Oh, the mortals notice,’ I said. ‘Look.’

Smaller boats began to gather around the yachts, like flies drawn to a sumptuous feast. I spotted two Coast Guard vessels, several local police boats and dozens of inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, manned by dark-clad men with guns – the emperor’s private security, I guessed.

‘They’re helping,’ Meg murmured, a hard edge to her voice. ‘Even Nero never … He paid off the police, had lots of mercenaries, but he never showed off this much.’

Jason gripped the hilt of his gladius. ‘Where do we even start? How do we find Caligula in all of that?’

I didn’t want to find Caligula at all. I wanted to run. The idea of death, permanent death with five whole letters and a d at the beginning, suddenly seemed very close. But I could feel my friends’ confidence wavering. They needed a plan, not a screaming, panicking Lester.

I pointed towards the centre of the floating bridge. ‘We start in the middle –the weakest point of a chain.’

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