Chapter no 25

The Burning Maze

All in the same boat

Wait. Two of us disappeared. Half in the same boat

Jason Grace ruined that perfectly good line.

As we marched towards the surf, he sidled up next to me and murmured, ‘It’s not true, you know. The middle of a chain has the same tensile strength as everywhere else, assuming force is applied equally along the links.’

I sighed. ‘Are you making up for missing your physics lecture? You know what I meant!’

‘I actually don’t,’ he said. ‘Why attack in the middle?’

‘Because … I don’t know!’ I said. ‘They won’t be expecting it?’

Meg stopped at the water’s edge. ‘Looks like they’re expecting anything.’ She was right. As the sunset faded to purple, the yachts lit up like giant

Fabergé eggs. Spotlights swept the sky and sea as if advertising the biggest waterbed-mattress sale in history. Dozens of small patrol boats crisscrossed the harbour, just in case any Santa Barbara locals (Santa Barbarians?) had the nerve to try using their own coast.

I wondered if Caligula always had this much security, or if he was expecting us. By now he certainly knew we’d blown up Macro’s Military Madness. He’d also probably heard about our fight with Medea in the maze, assuming the sorceress had survived.

Caligula also had the Sibyl of Erythraea, which meant he had access to the same information Herophile had given Jason. The Sibyl might not want to help an evil emperor who kept her in molten shackles, but she couldn’t refuse any earnest petitioner posing direct questions. Such was the nature of oracular magic. I imagined the best she could do was give her answers in the form of really difficult crossword-puzzle clues.

Jason studied the sweep of the searchlights. ‘I could fly you guys over, one at a time. Maybe they won’t see us.’

‘I think we should avoid flying, if possible,’ I said. ‘And we should find a way over there before it gets much darker.’

Piper pushed her windblown hair from her face. ‘Why? Darkness gives us better cover.’

‘Strixes,’ I said. ‘They become active about an hour after sundown.’ ‘Strixes?’ Piper asked.

I recounted our experience with the birds of doom in the Labyrinth. Meg offered helpful editorial comments like yuck, uh-huh and Apollo’s fault.

Piper shuddered. ‘In Cherokee stories, owls are bad news. They tend to be evil spirits or spying medicine men. If these strixes are like giant bloodsucking owls … yeah, let’s not meet them.’

‘Agreed,’ Jason said. ‘But how do we get to the ships?’ Piper stepped into the waves. ‘Maybe we ask for a lift.’

She raised her arms and waved at the nearest dinghy, about fifty yards out, as it swept its light across the beach.

‘Uh, Piper?’ Jason asked.

Meg summoned her swords. ‘It’s fine. When they get close, I’ll take them out.’

I stared at my young master. ‘Meg, those are mortals. First of all, your swords will not work on them. Second, they don’t understand whom they’re working for. We can’t –’

‘They’re working for the B– the bad man,’ she said. ‘Caligula.’

I noticed her slip of the tongue. I had a feeling she’d been about to say:

working for the Beast.

She put away her blades, but her voice remained cold and determined. I had a sudden horrible image of McCaffrey the Avenger assaulting the boat with nothing but her fists and packets of gardening seeds.

Jason looked at me as if to ask, Do you need to tie her down, or should I?

The dinghy veered towards us. Aboard sat three men in dark fatigues, Kevlar vests, and riot helmets. One in the back operated the outboard motor. One in the front manned the searchlight. The one in the middle, no doubt the friendliest, had an assault rifle propped on his knee.

Piper waved and smiled at them. ‘Meg, don’t attack. I’ve got this. All of you, give me some space to work, please. I can charm these guys better if you’re not glowering behind me.’

This was not a difficult request. The three of us backed away, though Jason and I had to drag Meg.

‘Hello!’ Piper called as the boat came closer. ‘Don’t shoot! We’re friendly!’

The boat ran aground with such speed I thought it might keep driving right onto Cabrillo Boulevard. Mr Searchlight jumped out first, surprisingly agile

for a guy in body armour. Mr Assault Rifle followed, providing cover while Mr Engine cut the outboard motor.

Searchlight sized us up, his hand on his sidearm. ‘Who are you?’

‘I’m Piper!’ said Piper. ‘You don’t need to call this in. And you definitely don’t need to train that rifle on us!’

Searchlight’s face contorted. He started to match Piper’s smile, then seemed to remember that his job required him to glower. Assault Rifle did not lower his gun. Engine reached for his walkie-talkie.

‘IDs,’ barked Searchlight. ‘All of you.’

Next to me, Meg tensed, ready to become McCaffrey the Avenger. Jason tried to look inconspicuous, but his shirt crackled with static electricity.

‘Sure!’ Piper agreed. ‘Although I have a much better idea. I’m just going to reach in my pocket, okay? Don’t get excited.’

She pulled out a wad of cash – maybe a hundred dollars total. For all I knew, it represented the last of the McLean fortune.

‘My friends and I were talking,’ Piper continued, ‘about how hard you guys work, how difficult it must be patrolling the harbour! We were sitting over there at that café, eating these incredible fish tacos, and we thought, Hey, those guys deserve a break. We should buy them dinner!’

Searchlight’s eyes seemed to become unmoored from his brain. ‘Dinner break …?’

‘Absolutely!’ Piper said. ‘You can put down that heavy gun, toss that walkie-talkie away. Heck, you can just leave everything with us. We’ll watch it while you eat. Grilled snapper, homemade corn tortillas, seviche salsa.’ She glanced back at us. ‘Amazing food, right, guys?’

We mumbled our assent.

‘Yum,’ Meg said. She excelled at one-syllable answers. Assault Rifle lowered his gun. ‘I could use some fish tacos.’

‘We’ve been working hard,’ Engine agreed. ‘We deserve a dinner break.’ ‘Exactly!’ Piper pressed the money into Searchlight’s hand. ‘Our treat.

Thank you for your service!’

Searchlight stared at the wad of cash. ‘But we’re really not supposed to –’ ‘Eat with all that gear on?’ Piper suggested. ‘You’re absolutely right. Just

throw it all in the boat – the Kevlar, the guns, your phones. That’s right. Get comfortable!’

It took several more minutes of cajoling and light-hearted banter, but finally the three mercenaries had stripped down to just their commando pyjamas. They thanked Piper, gave her a hug for good measure, then jogged off to assault the beachside café.

As soon as they were gone, Piper stumbled into Jason’s arms. ‘Whoa, you okay?’ he asked.

‘F-fine.’ She pushed away awkwardly. ‘Just harder charming a whole group. I’ll be okay.’

‘That was impressive,’ I said. ‘Aphrodite herself could not have done better.’

Piper didn’t look pleased by my comparison. ‘We should hurry. The charm won’t last.’

Meg grunted. ‘Still would’ve been easier to kill –’ ‘Meg,’ I chided.

‘– to beat them unconscious,’ she amended.

‘Right.’ Jason cleared his throat. ‘Everybody in the boat!’

We were thirty yards offshore when we heard the mercenaries shouting, ‘Hey! Stop!’ They ran into the surf, holding half-eaten fish tacos and looking confused.

Fortunately, Piper had taken all their weapons and communications devices.

She gave them a friendly wave and Jason gunned the outboard motor. Jason, Meg and I rushed to put on the guards’ Kevlar vests and helmets.

This left Piper in civilian clothes, but, since she was the only one capable of bluffing her way through a confrontation, she let us have all the fun playing dress-up.

Jason made a perfect mercenary. Meg looked ridiculous – a little girl swimming in her father’s Kevlar. I didn’t look much better. The body armour chafed around my middle. (Curse you, un-combat-worthy love handles!) The riot helmet was as hot as an Easy-Bake oven, and the visor kept falling down, perhaps anxious to hide my acne-riddled face.

We tossed the guns overboard. That may sound foolish, but, as I’ve said, firearms are fickle weapons in the hands of demigods. They would work on mortals, but, no matter what Meg said, I didn’t want to go around mowing down regular humans.

I had to believe that if these mercenaries truly understood whom they were serving they too would throw down their arms. Surely humans would not blindly follow such an evil man of their own free will – I mean, except for the few hundred exceptions I could think of from human history … But not Caligula!

As we approached the yachts, Jason slowed, matching our speed to that of the other patrol vessels.

He angled towards the nearest yacht. Up close, it towered above us like a white steel fortress. Purple and gold running lights glowed just below the water’s surface so the vessel seemed to float on an ethereal cloud of Imperial Roman power. Painted along the prow of the ship, in black letters taller than me, was the name IVLIA DRVSILLA XXVI.

‘Julia Drusilla the Twenty-Sixth,’ Piper said. ‘Was she an empress?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘the emperor’s favourite sister.’

My chest tightened as I remembered that poor girl – so pretty, so agreeable, so incredibly out of her depth. Her brother Caligula had doted on her, idolized her. When he became emperor, he insisted she share his every meal, witness his every depraved spectacle, partake in all his violent revels. She had died at twenty-two – crushed by the suffocating love of a sociopath.

‘She was probably the only person Caligula ever cared about,’ I said. ‘But why this boat is numbered twenty-six, I don’t know.’

‘Because that one is twenty-five.’ Meg pointed to the next ship in line, its stern resting a few feet from our prow. Sure enough, painted across the back was IVLIA DRVSILLA XXV.

‘I bet the one behind us is number twenty-seven.’

‘Fifty super-yachts,’ I mused, ‘all named for Julia Drusilla. Yes, that sounds like Caligula.’

Jason scanned the side of the hull. There were no ladders, no hatches, no conveniently labelled red buttons: PRESS HERE FOR CALIGULA’S SHOES!

We didn’t have much time. We had made it inside the perimeter of patrol vessels and searchlights, but each yacht surely had security cameras. It wouldn’t be long before someone wondered why our little dinghy was floating beside XXVI. Also, the mercenaries we’d left on the beach would be doing their best to attract their comrades’ attention. Then there were the flocks of strixes that I imagined would be waking up any minute, hungry and alert for any sign of disembowelable intruders.

‘I’ll fly you guys up,’ Jason decided. ‘One at a time.’ ‘Me first,’ Piper said. ‘In case someone needs charming.’

Jason turned and let Piper lock her arms around his neck, as if they’d done this countless times before. The winds kicked up around the dinghy, ruffling my hair, and Jason and Piper floated up the side of the yacht.

Oh, how I envied Jason Grace! Such a simple thing it was to ride the winds.

As a god, I could have done it with half my manifestations tied behind my back. Now, stuck in my pathetic body complete with love handles, I could only dream of such freedom.

‘Hey.’ Meg nudged me. ‘Focus.’

I gave her an indignant harrumph. ‘I am pure focus. I might, however, ask where your head is.’

She scowled. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Your rage,’ I said. ‘The number of times you’ve talked about killing Caligula. Your willingness to … beat his mercenaries unconscious.’

‘They’re the enemy.’

Her tone was as sharp as scimitars, giving me fair warning that if I continued with this topic, she might add my name to her Beat Unconscious list.

I decided to take a lesson from Jason – to navigate towards my target at a slower, less direct angle.

‘Meg, have I ever told you about the first time I became mortal?’

She peered from under the rim of her ridiculously large helmet. ‘You messed up or something?’

‘I … Yes. I messed up. My father, Zeus, killed one of my favourite sons, Asclepius, for bringing people back from the dead without permission. Long story. The point is … I was furious with Zeus, but he was too powerful and scary for me to fight. He would’ve vaporized me. So I took my revenge out in another way.’

I peered at the top of the hull. I saw no sign of Jason or Piper. Hopefully that meant they had found Caligula’s shoes and were just waiting for a clerk to bring them a pair in the right size.

‘Anyway,’ I continued, ‘I couldn’t kill Zeus. So I found the guys who had made his lightning bolts, the Cyclopes. I killed them in revenge for Asclepius. As punishment, Zeus made me mortal.’

Meg kicked me in the shin.

‘Ow!’ I yelped. ‘What was that for?’

‘For being dumb,’ she said. ‘Killing the Cyclopes was dumb.’

I wanted to protest that this had happened thousands of years ago, but I feared it might just earn me another kick.

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘It was dumb. But my point is … I was projecting my anger onto someone else, someone safer. I think you might be doing the same thing now, Meg. You’re raging at Caligula because it’s safer than raging at your stepfather.’

I braced my shins for more pain.

Meg stared down at her Kevlar-coated chest. ‘That’s not what I’m doing.’ ‘I don’t blame you,’ I hastened to add. ‘Anger is good. It means you’re

making progress. But be aware that you might be angry right now at the wrong person. I don’t want you charging blindly into battle against this particular emperor. As hard as it is to believe, he is even more devious and deadly than Ne– the Beast.’

She clenched her fists. ‘I told you, I’m not doing that. You don’t know. You don’t get it.’

‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘What you had to endure in Nero’s house … I can’t imagine. No one should suffer like that, but –’

‘Shut up,’ she snapped.

So, of course, I did. The words I’d been planning to say avalanched back down my throat.

‘You don’t know,’ she said again. ‘This Caligula guy did plenty to my dad and me. I can be mad at him if I want. I’ll kill him if I can. I’ll …’ She

faltered, as if struck by a sudden thought. ‘Where’s Jason? He should be back by now.’

I glanced up. I would have screamed if my voice were working. Two large dark figures dropped towards us in a controlled, silent descent on what appeared to be parasails. Then I realized those were not parasails – they were giant ears. In an instant, the creatures were upon us. They landed gracefully on either end of our dinghy, their ears folding around them, their swords at our throats.

The creatures looked very much like the Big Ear guard Piper had hit with her dart at the entrance to the Burning Maze, except these were older and had black fur. Their blades were blunt-tipped with serrated double edges, equally suited for bashing or hacking. With a jolt, I recognized the weapons as khandas, from the Indian subcontinent. I would have been pleased with myself for remembering such an obscure fact, had I not at that moment had a khanda’s serrated edge across my jugular vein.

Then I had another flash of recollection. I remembered one of Dionysus’s many drunken stories about his military campaigns in India – how he had come across a vicious tribe of demi-humans with eight fingers, huge ears and furry faces. Why couldn’t I have thought of that sooner? What had Dionysus told me about them …? Ah, yes. His exact words were: Never, ever try to fight them.

‘You’re pandai,’ I managed to croak. ‘That’s what your race is called.’

The one next to me bared his beautiful white teeth. ‘Indeed! Now be nice little prisoners and come along. Otherwise your friends are dead.’

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