Chapter no 27

The Burning Maze

I can kill you all

Or I can sing you Joe Walsh Really, it’s your choice

The children of Demeter are all about flowers. Amber waves of grain. Feeding the world and nurturing life.

They also excel at planting scimitars in the chests of their enemies.

Meg’s Imperial gold blades found their targets. One hit Amax with such force he exploded in a cloud of yellow dust. The other cut through Peak’s bow, embedding itself in his sternum and causing him to disintegrate inward like sand through an hourglass.

Crest fired his bow. Fortunately for me, his aim was off. The arrow buzzed past my face, the fletching scraping my chin, and impaled itself in my chair.

Piper kicked back in her seat, knocking into Timbre so his sword swing went wild. Before he could recover and decapitate her, Jason got overexcited.

I say that because of the lightning. The sky outside flashed, the curved wall of glass shattered, and tendrils of electricity wrapped around Timbre, frying him into an ash pile.

Effective, yes, but not the sort of stealth we’d been hoping for. ‘Oops,’ said Jason.

With a horrified whimper, Crest dropped his bow. He staggered backwards, struggling to draw his sword. Meg yanked her first scimitar from Amax’s dust-covered chair and marched towards him.

‘Meg, wait!’ I said.

She glared at me. ‘What?’

I tried to raise my hands in a placating gesture, then remembered they were tied behind my back.

‘Crest,’ I said, ‘there’s no shame in surrender. You are not a fighter.’ He gulped. ‘Y-you don’t know me.’

‘You’re holding your sword backwards,’ I pointed out. ‘So unless you intend to stab yourself …’

He fumbled to correct the situation.

‘Fly!’ I pleaded. ‘This doesn’t have to be your fight. Get out of here!

Become the musician you want to see in the world!’

He must have heard the earnestness in my voice. He dropped his sword and jumped through the gaping hole in the glass, ear-sailing into the darkness.

‘Why’d you let him go?’ Meg demanded. ‘He’ll warn everybody.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘Also, it doesn’t matter. We just announced

ourselves with a literal thunderbolt.’

‘Yeah, sorry,’ Jason said. ‘Sometimes that just happens.’

Lightning strikes seemed like the sort of power he really needed to get under control, but we had no time to argue about it. As Meg cut our zip ties, Florence and Grunk charged into the room.

Piper yelled, ‘Stop!’

Florence tripped and face-planted on the carpet, his rifle spraying a full clip sideways, shooting off the legs of a nearby sofa.

Grunk raised his club and charged. I instinctively pulled my bow, nocked an arrow and let it fly – straight into the Cyclops’s eye.

I was stunned. I’d actually hit my target!

Grunk fell to his knees, keeled over sideways and began to disintegrate, putting an end to my plans for a cross-species buddy comedy.

Piper walked up to Florence, who was groaning with a broken nose. ‘Thanks for stopping,’ she said, then gagged him and trussed his wrists and

ankles with his own zip ties.

‘Well, that was interesting.’ Jason turned to Meg. ‘And what you did?

Incredible. Those pandai – when I tried to fight them, they disarmed me like it was child’s play, but you, with those swords …’

Meg’s cheeks reddened. ‘It was no big deal.’

‘It was a very big deal.’ Jason faced me. ‘So what now?’


‘Oh, dear.’ I had done what I’d always feared, and sometimes dreamed of. I had mistakenly used the Arrow of Dodona in combat. Its sacred point now quivered in the eye socket of Grunk, who had been reduced to nothing but his skull – a spoil of war, I supposed.

‘Very sorry,’ I said, pulling the arrow free. Meg snorted. ‘Is that –?’

‘The Arrow of Dodona,’ I said.


‘Yes, yes, I apologize. Now hush, please.’ I turned to my comrades. ‘We need to move quickly. The security forces will be coming.’

‘Emperor Stupid is on boat twelve,’ Meg said. ‘That’s where we go.’ ‘But the shoe boat,’ I said, ‘is forty-three, which is in the opposite


‘What if Emperor Stupid is wearing his shoes?’ she asked.

‘Hey.’ Jason pointed at the Arrow of Dodona. ‘That’s the mobile source of prophecy you were telling us about, right? Maybe you should ask it.’

I found that an annoyingly reasonable suggestion. I raised the arrow. ‘You heard them, O Wise Arrow. Which way do we go?’


‘What did he say?’ Piper demanded.

Oh, reader, I was so tempted to lie! I wanted to tell my friends that the arrow was in favour of returning to Los Angeles and booking rooms at a five-star hotel.

I caught Jason’s eyes. I remembered how I had exhorted him to tell Piper the truth about the Sibyl’s prophecy. I decided I could do no less.

I related what the arrow had said.

‘So we split up?’ Piper shook her head. ‘I hate this plan.’

‘Me too,’ Jason said. ‘Which means it’s probably the right move.’

He knelt and retrieved his gladius from the dust-pile remains of Timbre.

Then he tossed the dagger Katoptris to Piper.

‘I’m going after Caligula,’ he said. ‘Even if the shoes aren’t there, maybe I can buy you guys some time, distract the security forces.’

Meg picked up her other scimitar. ‘I’ll come with you.’

Before I could argue, she took a flying leap out of the broken window –which was a pretty good metaphor for her general approach to life.

Jason gave Piper and me one last worried look. ‘You two be careful.’

He jumped after Meg. Almost immediately, gunfire erupted on the foredeck below.

I grimaced at Piper. ‘Those two were our fighters. We shouldn’t have let them go together.’

‘Don’t underestimate my fighting skill,’ Piper said. ‘Now let’s go shoe-shopping.’


She waited only long enough for me to clean and bandage her wounded head in the nearest restroom. Then she donned Florence’s combat helmet and off we went.

I soon realized Piper didn’t need to rely on charmspeak to persuade people.

She carried herself with confidence, striding from ship to ship like she was supposed to be there. The yachts were lightly guarded – perhaps because most of the pandai and strixes had already flown over to check out the lightning strike on ship twenty-six. The few mortal mercenaries we passed gave Piper no more than a brief glance. Since I followed in her wake, they ignored me too. I supposed if they were used to working side by side with Cyclopes and Big Ears, they could overlook a couple of teenagers in riot gear.

Boat twenty-eight was a floating water park, with multilevel swimming pools connected by waterfalls, slides and transparent tubes. A lonely lifeguard offered us a towel as we walked by. He looked sad when we didn’t take one.

Boat twenty-nine: a full-service spa. Steam poured from every open porthole. On the aft deck, an army of bored-looking masseuses and cosmeticians stood ready, just in case Caligula decided to drop by with fifty friends for a shiatsu and mani-pedi party. I was tempted to stop, just for a quick shoulder massage, but since Piper, daughter of Aphrodite, marched right past without a glance at the offerings I decided not to embarrass myself.

Boat thirty was a literal moveable feast. The entire ship seemed designed to provide an all-you-can-eat twenty-four-hour buffet, which no one was partaking in. Chefs stood by. Waiters waited. New dishes were brought out and old ones removed. I suspected the uneaten food, enough to feed the greater Los Angeles area, would be dumped overboard. Typical Caligula extravagance. Your ham sandwich tastes so much better when you know hundreds of identical sandwiches have been thrown away as your chefs waited for you to get hungry.

Our good luck failed on boat thirty-one. As soon as we crossed the red-carpeted ramp onto the bow, I knew we were in trouble. Groups of off-duty mercenaries lounged here and there, talking, eating, checking their phones. We got more frowns, more questioning looks.

From the tension in Piper’s posture, I could tell she sensed the problem too.

But, before I could say, Gosh, Piper, I think we’ve stumbled into Caligula’s floating barracks and we’re about to die, she forged ahead, doubtless deciding it would be as dangerous to backtrack as to bluff our way through.

She was wrong.

On the aft deck, we found ourselves in the middle of a Cyclops/mortal volleyball game. In a sand-filled pit, half a dozen hairy Cyclopes in swimming trunks battled it out with half a dozen equally hairy mortals in combat pants. Around the edges of the game, more off-duty mercenaries were barbecuing steaks on a grill, laughing, sharpening knives and comparing tattoos.

At the grill, a double-wide dude with a flat-top haircut and a chest tattoo that read MOTHER spotted us and froze. ‘Hey!’

The volleyball game stopped. Everyone on deck turned and glowered at us. Piper pulled off her helmet. ‘Apollo, back me up!’

I feared she might pull a Meg and charge into battle. In that case, backing her up would mean getting ripped limb from limb by sweaty ex-military types, which was not on my bucket list.

Instead, Piper began to sing.

I wasn’t sure what surprised me more: Piper’s beautiful voice, or the tune she chose.

I recognized it immediately: ‘Life of Illusion’ by Joe Walsh. The 1980s were something of a blur to me, but that song I remembered – 1981, the very beginning of MTV. Oh, the lovely videos I’d produced for Blondie and the Go-Gos! The amount of hairspray and leopard-print Spandex we had used!

The crowd of mercenaries listened in confused silence. Should they kill us now? Should they wait for us to finish? It wasn’t every day someone serenaded you with Joe Walsh in the middle of a volleyball game. I’m sure the mercenaries were a little fuzzy on the proper etiquette.

After a couple of lines, Piper gave me a sharp glance like A little help?

Ah, she wanted me to back her up with music!

With great relief, I whipped out my ukulele and played along. In truth, Piper’s voice needed no help. She belted out the lyrics with passion and clarity – a shock wave of emotion that was more than a heartfelt performance, more than charmspeak.

She moved through the crowd, singing of her own illusionary life. She inhabited the song. She invested the words with pain and sorrow, turning Walsh’s peppy tune into a melancholy confessional. She spoke of breaking through walls of confusion, of enduring the little surprises nature had thrown at her, of jumping to conclusions about who she was.

She didn’t change the lyrics. Nevertheless, I felt her story in every line: her struggle as the neglected child of a famous movie star; her mixed feelings about discovering she was a daughter of Aphrodite; most hurtful of all, her realization that the supposed love of her life, Jason Grace, was not someone she wanted to be with romantically. I didn’t understand it all, but the power of her voice was undeniable. My ukulele responded. My chords turned more resonant, my riffs more soulful. Every note I played was a cry of sympathy for Piper McLean, my own musical skill amplifying hers.

The guards became unfocused. Some sat down, cradling their heads in their hands. Some stared into space and let their steaks burn on the grill.

None of them stopped us as we crossed the aft deck. None followed us across the bridge to boat thirty-two. We were halfway across that yacht before Piper finished her song and leaned heavily against the nearest wall. Her eyes were red, her face hollowed out with emotion.

‘Piper?’ I stared at her in amazement. ‘How did you –?’

‘Shoes now,’ she croaked. ‘Talk later.’ She stumbled on.

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