Chapter no 33

The Burning Maze

No good news awaits

I warned you right at the start Turn away, reader

One tornado can ruin your whole day.

I’d seen the sort of devastation Zeus could wreak when he got angry at Kansas. So I was not surprised when the two shrapnel-filled wind spirits ripped through the Julia Drusilla XII like chain saws.

We all should have died in the blast. Of that I’m certain. But Jason channelled the explosion up, down and sideways in a two-dimensional wave –blasting through the port and starboard walls; bursting through the black ceiling that showered us with golden candelabras and swords; jackhammering through the mosaic floor into the bowels of the ship. The yacht groaned and shook – metal, wood and fibreglass snapping like bones in the mouth of a monster.

Incitatus and Caligula stumbled in one direction, Medea in the other. None of them suffered so much as a scratch. Meg McCaffrey, unfortunately, was on Jason’s left. When the venti exploded, she flew sideways through a newly made rent in the wall and disappeared into the dark.

I tried to scream. I think it came out as more of a death rattle, though. With the explosion ringing in my ears, I couldn’t be sure.

I could barely move. There was no chance I could go after my young friend. I cast around desperately and fixed my gaze on Crest.

The young pandos’s eyes were so wide they almost matched his ears. A golden sword had fallen from the ceiling and impaled itself in the tile floor between his legs.

‘Rescue Meg,’ I croaked, ‘and I will teach you how to play any instrument you wish.’

I didn’t know how even a pandos could hear me, but Crest seemed to. His expression changed from shock to reckless determination. He scrambled across the tilting floor, spread his ears and leaped into the rift.

The break in the floor began to widen, cutting us off from Jason. Ten-foot-tall waterfalls poured in from the damaged hull to port and starboard –washing the mosaic floors in dark water and flotsam, spilling into the widening chasm in the centre of the room. Below, broken machinery steamed. Flames guttered as seawater filled the hold. Above, lining the edges of the shattered ceiling, pandai appeared, screaming and drawing weapons – until the sky lit up and tendrils of lightning blasted the guards into dust.

Jason stepped out of the smoke on the opposite side of the throne room, his gladius in his hand.

Caligula snarled. ‘You’re one of those Camp Jupiter brats, aren’t you?’ ‘I’m Jason Grace,’ he said. ‘Former praetor of the Twelfth Legion. Son of

Jupiter. Child of Rome. But I belong to both camps.’

‘Good enough,’ Caligula said. ‘I’ll hold you responsible for Camp Jupiter’s treason tonight. Incitatus!’

The emperor snatched up a golden spear that was rolling across the floor.

He vaulted onto his stallion’s back, charged the chasm and leaped it in a single bound. Jason threw himself aside to avoid getting trampled.

From somewhere to my left came a howl of anger. Piper McLean had risen. Her lower face was a nightmare – her swollen upper lip split across her teeth, her jaw askew, a trickle of blood coming from the edge of her mouth.

She charged Medea, who turned just in time to catch Piper’s fist in her nose. The sorceress stumbled, pinwheeling her arms as Piper pushed her over the edge of the chasm. The sorceress disappeared into the churning soup of burning fuel and seawater.

Piper shouted at Jason. She might have been saying COME ON! But all that came out was a guttural cry.

Jason was a little busy. He dodged Incitatus’s charge, parrying Caligula’s spear with his sword, but he was moving slowly. I could only guess how much energy he’d expended controlling the winds and the lightning.

‘Get out of here!’ he called to us. ‘Go!’

An arrow sprouted from his left thigh. Jason grunted and stumbled. Above us, more pandai had gathered, despite the threat of severe thunderstorms.

Piper yelled in warning as Caligula charged again. Jason just managed to roll aside. He made a grabbing gesture at the air, and a gust of wind yanked him aloft. Suddenly he sat astride a miniature storm cloud with four funnel clouds for legs and a mane that crackled with lightning – Tempest, his ventus steed.

He rode against Caligula, jousting sword versus spear. Another arrow took Jason in the upper arm.

‘I told you this isn’t a game!’ yelled Caligula. ‘You don’t walk away from me alive!’

Below, an explosion rocked the ship. The room split further apart. Piper staggered, which probably saved her life; three arrows hit the spot where she’d been standing.

Somehow, she pulled me to my feet. I was clutching the Arrow of Dodona, though I had no memory of picking it up. I saw no sign of Crest, or Meg, or even Medea. An arrow sprouted from the toe of my shoe. I was in so much pain already I couldn’t tell if it had pierced my foot or not.

Piper tugged at my arm. She pointed to Jason, her words urgent but unintelligible. I wanted to help him, but what could I do? I’d just stabbed myself in the chest. I was pretty sure that if I sneezed too hard I would displace the red plug in my wound and bleed to death. I couldn’t draw a bow or even strum a ukulele. Meanwhile, on the broken roof line above us, more and more pandai appeared, eager to help me commit arrowcide.

Piper was no better off. The fact that she was on her feet at all was a miracle – the sort of miracle that comes back to kill you later when the adrenalin wears off.

Nevertheless, how could we leave?

I watched in horror as Jason and Caligula fought, Jason bleeding from arrows in each limb now, yet somehow still able to raise his sword. The space was too small for two men on horses, yet they circled one another, trading blows. Incitatus kicked at Tempest with his golden-shod front hooves. The ventus responded with bursts of electricity that scorched the stallion’s white flanks.

As the former praetor and the emperor charged past each other, Jason met my eyes across the ruined throne room. His expression told me his plan with perfect clarity. Like me, he had decided that Piper McLean would not die tonight. For some reason, he had decided that I must live too.

He yelled again, ‘GO! Remember!’

I was slow, dumbstruck. Jason held my gaze a fraction of a second too long, perhaps to make sure that last word sank in: remember – the promise he had extracted from me a million years ago this morning, in his Pasadena dorm room.

While Jason’s back was turned, Caligula wheeled about. He threw his spear, driving its point between Jason’s shoulder blades. Piper screamed. Jason stiffened, his blue eyes wide in shock.

He slumped forward, wrapping his arms around Tempest’s neck. His lips moved, as if he was whispering something to his steed.

Carry him away! I prayed, knowing that no god would listen. Please, just let Tempest get him to safety!

Jason toppled from his steed. He hit the deck facedown, the spear still in his back, his gladius clattering from his hand.

Incitatus trotted up to the fallen demigod. Arrows continued to rain around us.

Caligula stared at me across the chasm – giving me the same displeased scowl my father used to before inflicting one of his punishments: Now look what you’ve made me do.

‘I warned you,’ Caligula said. Then he glanced at the pandai above. ‘Leave Apollo alive. He’s no threat. But kill the girl.’

Piper howled, shaking with impotent rage. I stepped in front of her and waited for death, wondering with cold detachment where the first arrow might strike. I watched as Caligula plucked out his spear, then drove it again into Jason’s back, removing any last hope that our friend might still be alive.

As the pandai drew their bows and took aim, the air crackled with charged ozone. The winds swirled around us. Suddenly Piper and I were whisked from the burning shell of the Julia Drusilla XII on the back of Tempest – the ventus carrying out Jason’s last orders to get us safely away, whether we wanted it or not.

I sobbed in despair as we shot across the surface of Santa Barbara Harbor, the sounds of explosions still rumbling behind us.

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