Chapter no 34

The Burning Maze

Surfing accident

My new euphemism for Worst evening ever

For the next few hours, my mind deserted me.

I do not remember Tempest dropping us on the beach, though he must have done so. I recall moments of Piper yelling at me, or sitting in the surf shuddering with dry sobs, or uselessly clawing gobs of wet sand and throwing them at the waves. A few times, she slapped away the ambrosia and nectar I tried to give her.

I remember slowly pacing the thin stretch of beach, my feet bare, my shirt cold from the seawater. The plug of healing goo throbbed in my chest, leaking a little blood from time to time.

We were no longer in Santa Barbara. There was no harbour, no string of super-yachts, just the dark Pacific stretching before us. Behind us loomed a dark cliff. A zigzag of wooden stairs led up towards the lights of a house at the top.

Meg McCaffrey was there too. Wait. When did Meg arrive? She was thoroughly drenched, her clothes shredded, her face and arms a war zone of bruises and cuts. She sat next to Piper, sharing ambrosia. I suppose my ambrosia wasn’t good enough. The pandos Crest squatted some distance away at the base of the cliff, eyeing me hungrily as if waiting for his first music lesson to begin. The pandos must have done what I’d asked. Somehow, he’d found Meg, pulled her from the sea and flown her here … wherever here was.

The thing I remember most clearly is Piper saying, He’s not dead.

She said this over and over, as soon as she could manage the words, once the nectar and ambrosia tamed the swelling around her mouth. She still looked awful. Her upper lip needed stitches. She would definitely have a scar. Her jaw, chin and lower lip were one gigantic aubergine-coloured bruise. I

suspected her dentist bill would be hefty. Still, she forced out the words with steady determination. ‘He’s not dead.’

Meg held her shoulder. ‘Maybe. We’ll find out. You need to rest and heal.’

I stared incredulously at my young master. ‘Maybe? Meg, you didn’t see what happened! He … Jason … the spear –’

Meg glared at me. She did not say Shut up, but I heard the order loud and clear. On her hands, her gold rings glinted, though I didn’t know how she could have retrieved them. Perhaps, like so many magic weapons, they automatically returned to their owner if lost. It would be like Nero to give his stepdaughter such clingy gifts.

‘Tempest will find Jason,’ Meg insisted. ‘We just have to wait.’

Tempest … right. After the ventus had brought Piper and me here, I vaguely remembered Piper harassing the spirit, using garbled words and gestures to order him back to the yachts to find Jason. Tempest had raced off across the surface of the sea like an electrified waterspout.

Now, staring at the horizon, I wondered if I could dare hope for good news.

My memories from the ship were coming back, piecing themselves together into a fresco more horrible than anything painted on Caligula’s walls.

The emperor had warned me: This is not a game. He was indeed not Commodus. As much as Caligula loved theatrics, he would never mess up an execution by adding glitzy special effects, ostriches, basketballs, race cars and loud music. Caligula did not pretend to kill. He killed.

‘He’s not dead.’ Piper repeated her mantra, as if trying to charmspeak herself as well as us. ‘He’s gone through too much to die now, like that.’

I wanted to believe her.

Sadly, I had witnessed tens of thousands of mortal deaths. Few of them had any meaning. Most were untimely, unexpected, undignified, and at least slightly embarrassing. The people who deserved to die took forever to do so. Those who deserved to live always went too soon.

Falling in combat against an evil emperor in order to save one’s friends … that seemed all too plausible a death for a hero like Jason Grace. He’d told me what the Erythraean Sibyl said. If I hadn’t asked him to come with us –

Don’t blame yourself, said Selfish Apollo. It was his choice.

It was my quest! said Guilty Apollo. If not for me, Jason would be safe in his dorm room, sketching new shrines for obscure minor deities! Piper McLean would be unharmed, spending time with her father, preparing for a new life in Oklahoma.

Selfish Apollo had nothing to say to this, or he kept it selfishly to himself.

I could only watch the sea and wait, hoping that Jason Grace would come riding out of the darkness alive and well.

At last, the smell of ozone laced the air. Lightning flashed across the surface of the water. Tempest charged ashore, a dark form laid across his back

like a saddlebag.

The wind horse knelt. He gently spilled Jason onto the sand. Piper shouted and ran to his side. Meg followed. The most horrible thing was the momentary look of relief on their faces, before it was crushed.

Jason’s skin was the colour of blank parchment, speckled with slime, sand and foam. The sea had washed away the blood, but his school shirt was stained as purple as a senatorial sash. Arrows protruded from his arms and legs. His right hand was fixed in a pointing gesture, as if he were still telling us to go. His expression didn’t seem tortured or scared. He looked at peace, as if he’d just managed to fall asleep after a hard day. I didn’t want to wake him.

Piper shook him and sobbed, ‘JASON!’ Her voice echoed from the cliffs.

Meg’s face settled into a hard scowl. She sat back on her haunches and looked up at me. ‘Fix him.’

The force of the command pulled me forward, made me kneel at Jason’s side. I put my hand on Jason’s cold forehead, which only confirmed the obvious. ‘Meg, I cannot fix death. I wish I could.’

‘There’s always a way,’ Piper said. ‘The physician’s cure! Leo took it!’

I shook my head. ‘Leo had the cure ready at the moment he died,’ I said gently. ‘He went through many hardships in advance to get the ingredients. Even then, he needed Asclepius to make it. That wouldn’t work here, not for Jason. I’m so sorry, Piper. It’s too late.’

‘No,’ she insisted. ‘No, the Cherokee always taught …’ She took a shaky breath, as if steeling herself for the pain of speaking so many words. ‘One of the most important stories. Back when man first started destroying nature, the animals decided he was a threat. They all vowed to fight back. Each animal had a different way to kill humans. But the plants … they were kind and compassionate. They vowed the opposite – that they’d each find their own way to protect people. So, there’s a plant cure for everything, whatever disease or poison or wound. Some plant has the cure. You just have to know which one!’

I grimaced. ‘Piper, that story holds a great deal of wisdom. But, even if I were still a god, I couldn’t offer you a remedy to bring back the dead. If such a thing existed, Hades would never allow its use.’

‘The Doors of Death, then!’ she said. ‘Medea came back that way! Why not Jason? There’s always a way to cheat the system. Help me!’

Her charmspeak washed over me, as powerful as Meg’s order. Then I looked at Jason’s peaceful expression.

‘Piper,’ I said, ‘you and Jason fought to close the Doors of Death. Because you knew it was not right to let the dead back into the world of the living.

Jason Grace struck me as many things, but he wasn’t a cheater. Would he want you to rend the heavens and the earth and the Underworld to bring him back?’

Her eyes flashed angrily. ‘You don’t care because you’re a god. You’ll go back to Olympus after you free the Oracles, so what does it matter? You’re using us to get what you want, like all the other gods.’

‘Hey,’ Meg said, gently but firmly. ‘That won’t help.’

Piper pressed a hand on Jason’s chest. ‘What did he die for, Apollo? A pair of shoes?’

A jolt of panic almost blew out my chest plug. I’d entirely forgotten about the shoes. I tugged the quiver from my back and turned it upside down, shaking out the arrows.

The rolled-up sandals of Caligula tumbled onto the beach.

‘They’re here.’ I scooped them up, my hands trembling. ‘At least – at least we have them.’

Piper let out a broken sob. She stroked Jason’s hair. ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s great. You can go see your Oracle now. The Oracle that got him KILLED!’ Somewhere behind me, partway up the cliff, a man’s voice cried out,


Tempest fled, bursting into wind and raindrops.

Hurrying down the cliffside stairs, in plaid pyjama pants and a white T-shirt, came Tristan McLean.

Of course, I realized. Tempest had brought us to the McLean house in Malibu. Somehow, he had known to come here. Piper’s father must have heard her cries all the way from the top of the cliff.

He ran towards us, his flip-flops slapping against his soles, sand spraying around the cuffs of his pants, his shirt rippling in the wind. His dark dishevelled hair blew in his eyes, but it did not hide his look of alarm.

‘Piper, I was waiting for you!’ he called. ‘I was on the terrace and –’

He froze, first seeing his daughter’s brutalized face, then the body lying on the sand.

‘Oh, no, no.’ He rushed to Piper. ‘What – what is –? Who –?’

Having assured himself that Piper was not in imminent danger of dying, he knelt next to Jason and put his hand against the boy’s neck, checking for a pulse. He put his ear to Jason’s mouth, checking for breath. Of course, he found none.

He looked at us in dismay. He did a double take when he noticed Crest crouched nearby, his massive white ears spread around him.

I could almost feel the Mist swirling around Tristan McLean as he attempted to decipher what he was seeing, trying to put it into a context his mortal brain could understand.

‘Surfing accident?’ he ventured. ‘Oh, Piper, you know those rocks are dangerous. Why didn’t you tell me –? How did –? Never mind. Never mind.’ With shaking hands, he dug his phone from the pocket of his pyjama pants and dialed 9-1-1.

The phone squealed and hissed.

‘My phone isn’t – I – I don’t understand.’

Piper broke down in sobs, pressing herself to her father’s chest.

At that moment, Tristan McLean should have broken once and for all. His life had fallen apart. He’d lost everything he’d worked for his entire career. Now, finding his daughter injured and her former boyfriend dead on the beach of his foreclosed property – surely, that was enough to make anyone’s sanity crumble. Caligula would have another reason to celebrate a good night of sadistic work.

Instead, human resilience surprised me once again. Tristan McLean’s expression turned steely. His focus cleared. He must have realized his daughter needed him and he couldn’t afford to indulge in self-pity. He had one important role left to play: the role of her father.

‘Okay, baby,’ he said, cradling her head. ‘Okay, we’ll – we’ll figure this out. We’ll get through it.’

He turned and pointed at Crest, still lurking near the cliff. ‘You.’ Crest hissed at him like a cat.

Mr McLean blinked, his mind doing a hard reset.

He pointed at me. ‘You. Take the others up to the house. I’m going to stay with Piper. Use the landline in the kitchen. Call nine-one-one. Tell them …’ He looked at Jason’s broken body. ‘Tell them to get here right away.’

Piper looked up, her eyes swollen and red. ‘And, Apollo? Don’t come back. You hear me? Just – just go.’

‘Pipes,’ her father said. ‘It’s not their –’ ‘GO!’ she screamed.

As we made our way up the rickety stairs, I wasn’t sure which felt heavier: my exhausted body, or the cannonball of grief and guilt that had settled in my chest. All the way to the house, I heard Piper’s sobs echoing off the dark cliffs.

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