Chapter no 35

The Burning Maze

If you give a pandos a ukulele, he

Will want lessons. DON’T.

The news simply went from bad to worse.

Neither Meg nor I could make the landline function. Whatever curse afflicted demigod use of communications, it prevented us from getting a dial tone.

In desperation, I asked Crest to try. For him, the phone worked fine. I took that as a personal affront.

I told him to dial 9-1-1. After he failed repeatedly, it dawned on me that he was trying to punch in IX-I-I. I showed him how to do it correctly.

‘Yes,’ he said to the operator. ‘There is a dead human on the beach. He requires help … The address?’

‘Twelve Oro del Mar,’ I said.

Crest repeated this. ‘That is correct … Who am I?’ He hissed and hung up. That seemed like our cue to leave.

Misery upon misery: Gleeson Hedge’s 1979 Ford Pinto was still parked in front of the McLean house. Lacking a better option, I was forced to drive it back to Palm Springs. I still felt terrible, but the magic sealant Medea had used on my chest seemed to be mending me, slowly and painfully, like an army of little demons with staple guns running around in my ribcage.

Meg rode shotgun, filling the car with a smell like smoky sweat, damp clothes, and burning apples. Crest sat in the back seat with my combat ukulele, picking and strumming, though I had yet to teach him any chords. As I’d anticipated, the fret board was much too small for his eight-fingered hand. Every time he played a bad combination of notes (which was every time he played) he hissed at the instrument, as if he might be able to intimidate it into cooperating.

I drove in a daze. The further we got from Malibu, the more I found myself thinking, No. Surely that didn’t happen. Today must have been a bad dream. I did not just watch Jason Grace die. I did not just leave Piper McLean sobbing on that beach. I would never allow something like that to happen. I’m a good person!

I did not believe myself.

Rather, I was the sort of person who deserved to be driving a yellow Pinto in the middle of the night with a grumpy, raggedy girl and a hissing, ukulele-obsessed pandos for company.

I wasn’t even sure why we were returning to Palm Springs. What good would it do? Yes, Grover and our other friends were expecting us, but all we had to offer them was tragic news and an old pair of sandals. Our goal was in downtown Los Angeles: the entrance to the Burning Maze. To make sure Jason’s death was not in vain, we should have been driving straight there to find the Sibyl and free her from her prison.

Ah, but who was I kidding? I was in no shape to do anything. Meg wasn’t much better off. The best I could hope for was to make it to Palm Springs without dozing at the wheel. Then I could curl up at the bottom of the Cistern and cry myself to sleep.

Meg propped her feet on the dashboard. Her glasses had snapped in half, but she continued to wear them like skewed aviator goggles.

‘Give her time,’ she told me. ‘She’s angry.’

For a moment, I wondered if Meg was speaking of herself in the third person. That’s all I needed. Then I realized she meant Piper McLean. In her own way, Meg was trying to comfort me. The terrifying marvels of the day would never cease.

‘I know,’ I said.

‘You tried to kill yourself,’ she noted.

‘I – I thought it would … distract Medea. It was a mistake. It’s all my fault.’

‘Nah. I get it.’

Was Meg McCaffrey forgiving me? I swallowed back a sob.

‘Jason made a choice,’ she said. ‘Same as you. Heroes have to be ready to sacrifice themselves.’

I felt unsettled … and not just because Meg had used such a long sentence.

I didn’t like her definition of heroism. I’d always thought of a hero as someone who stood on a parade float, waved at the crowd, tossed candy and basked in the adulation of the commoners. But sacrificing yourself? No. That would not be one of my bullet points for a hero-recruitment brochure.

Also, Meg seemed to be calling me a hero, putting me in the same category as Jason Grace. That didn’t feel right. I made a much better god than a hero. What I’d told Piper was true about the finality of death. Jason would not be

coming back. If I perished here on earth, I would not be getting a do-over either. I could never face that idea as calmly as Jason had. I had stabbed myself in the chest fully expecting that Medea would heal me, if only so she could flay me alive a few minutes later. I was a coward that way.

Meg picked at a callus on her palm. ‘You were right. About Caligula. Nero.

Why I was so angry.’

I glanced over. Her face was taut with concentration. She’d said the emperors’ names with a strange detachment, as if she were examining deadly virus samples on the other side of a glass wall.

‘And how do you feel now?’ I asked.

Meg shrugged. ‘The same. Different. I don’t know. When you cut the roots off a plant? That’s how I feel. It’s hard.’

Meg’s jumbled comments made sense to me, which wasn’t a good sign for my sanity. I thought about Delos, the island of my birth, which had floated on the sea without roots until my mother, Leto, settled on it to give birth to my sister and me.

It was difficult for me to imagine the world before I was born, to imagine Delos as a place adrift. My home had literally grown roots because of my existence. I had never been unsure of who I was, or who my parents were, or where I was from.

Meg’s Delos had never stopped drifting. Could I blame her for being angry?

‘Your family is ancient,’ I noted. ‘The line of Plemnaeus gives you a proud heritage. Your father was doing important work at Aeithales. The blood-born, the silver wives … whatever those seeds are that you planted, they terrified Caligula.’

Meg had so many new cuts on her face it was difficult to tell whether or not she was frowning. ‘And if I can’t get those seeds to grow?’

I didn’t hazard an answer. I could not handle any more thoughts of failure tonight.

Crest poked his head between the seats. ‘Can you show me the C minor six tri-chord now?’

Our reunion in Palm Springs was not a happy one.

Just from our condition, the dryads on duty could tell we brought bad news.

It was two in the morning, but they gathered the entire population of the greenhouses in the Cistern, along with Grover, Coach Hedge, Mellie and Baby Chuck.

When Joshua Tree saw Crest, the dryad scowled. ‘Why have you brought this creature into our midst?’

‘More importantly,’ Grover said, ‘where are Piper and Jason?’

He met my gaze, and his composure collapsed like a tower of cards. ‘Oh, no. No.’

We told them our story. Or rather, I did. Meg sat at the edge of the pond and stared desolately into the water. Crest crawled into one of the niches and wrapped his ears around himself like a blanket, cradling my ukulele the same way Mellie cradled Baby Chuck.

My voice broke several times as I described Jason’s final battle. His death finally became real to me. I gave up any hope that I would wake from this nightmare.

I expected Gleeson Hedge to explode, to start swinging his bat at everything and everyone. But, like Tristan McLean, he surprised me. The satyr became still and calm, his voice unnervingly even.

‘I was the kid’s protector,’ he said. ‘I should’ve been there.’

Grover tried to console him, but Hedge raised a hand. ‘Don’t. Just don’t.’ He faced Mellie. ‘Piper’s gonna need us.’

The cloud nymph brushed away a tear. ‘Yes. Of course.’

Aloe Vera wrung her hands. ‘Should I go, too? Maybe there’s something I can do.’ She looked at me suspiciously. ‘Did you try aloe vera on this Grace boy?’

‘I fear he is truly dead,’ I said, ‘beyond even the powers of aloe.’

She looked unconvinced, but Mellie squeezed her shoulder. ‘You’re needed here, Aloe. Heal Apollo and Meg. Gleeson, get the diaper bag. I’ll meet you at the car.’

With Baby Chuck in her arms, she floated up and out of the Cistern. Hedge snapped his fingers at me. ‘Pinto keys.’

I tossed them. ‘Please don’t do anything rash. Caligula is … You can’t –’

Hedge stopped me with a cold stare. ‘I’ve got Piper to take care of. That’s my priority. I’ll leave the rash stuff to other people.’

I heard the bitter accusation in his voice. Coming from Coach Hedge, that seemed deeply unfair, but I didn’t have the heart to protest.

Once the Hedge family was gone, Aloe Vera fussed over Meg and me, smearing goo on our injuries. She tutted at the red plug in my chest and replaced it with a lovely green spike from her hair.

The other dryads seemed at a loss for what to do or say. They stood around the pond, waiting and thinking. I supposed, as plants, they were comfortable with long silences.

Grover Underwood sat down heavily next to Meg. He moved his fingers over the holes of his reed pipes.

‘Losing a demigod …’ He shook his head. ‘That’s the worst thing that can happen to a protector. Years ago, when I thought I’d lost Thalia Grace …’ He stopped himself, then slumped under the weight of despair. ‘Oh, Thalia. When she hears about this …’

I didn’t think I could feel any worse, but this idea sent a few more razor blades circulating through my chest. Thalia Grace had saved my life in Indianapolis. Her fury in combat had been rivalled only by the tenderness with which she spoke of her brother. I felt that I should be the one to break the news to her. On the other hand, I did not want to be in the same state when she heard it.

I looked around at my dejected comrades. I remembered the Sibyl’s words in my dream: It won’t seem worth it to you. I’m not sure it is myself. But you must come. You must hold them together in their grief. Now I understood. I wished I didn’t. How could I hold together a whole Cistern full of prickly dryads when I couldn’t even hold myself together?

Nevertheless, I lifted the ancient pair of caligae we’d retrieved from the yachts. ‘At least we have these. Jason gave his life for us to have a chance at stopping Caligula’s plans. Tomorrow, I’ll wear these into the Burning Maze. I’ll find a way to free the Oracle and stop the fires of Helios.’

I thought that was a pretty good pep talk – designed to restore confidence and reassure my friends. I left out the part about not having a clue how to accomplish any of it.

Prickly Pear bristled, which she did with consummate skill. ‘You’re in no shape to do anything. Besides, Caligula will know what you’re planning.

He’ll be waiting and ready this time.’ ‘She’s right,’ Crest said from his niche. The dryads frowned at him.

‘Why is he even here?’ Cholla demanded. ‘Music lessons,’ I said.

That earned me several dozen confused looks.

‘Long story,’ I said. ‘But Crest risked his life for us on the yachts. He saved Meg. We can trust him.’ I looked at the young pandos and hoped my assessment was correct. ‘Crest, is there anything you can tell us that might help?’

Crest wrinkled his fuzzy white nose (which did not at all make him look cute or make me want to cuddle him). ‘You cannot use the main entrance downtown. They will be waiting.’

‘We got past you,’ Meg said.

Crest’s giant ears turned pink around the edges. ‘That was different,’ he muttered. ‘My uncle was punishing me. It was the lunch shift. No one ever attacks during the lunch shift.’

He glared at me like I should’ve known this. ‘They will have more fighters now. And traps. The horse might even be there. He can move very fast. Just one phone call and he can arrive.’

I remembered how quickly Incitatus had shown up at Macro’s Military Madness, and how viciously he’d fought aboard the shoe ship. I was not

anxious to face him again.

‘Is there another way in?’ I asked. ‘Something, I don’t know, less dangerous and conveniently close to the Oracle’s room?’

Crest hugged his ukulele (my ukulele) tighter. ‘There is one. I know it.

Others don’t.’

Grover tilted his head. ‘I have to say, that sounds a little too convenient.’ Crest made a sour face. ‘I like exploring. Nobody else does. Uncle Amax –

he always said I was a daydreamer. But when you explore you find things.’

I couldn’t argue with that. When I explored, I tended to find dangerous things that wanted to kill me. I doubted tomorrow would be any different.

‘Could you lead us to this secret entrance?’ I asked.

Crest nodded. ‘Then you will have a chance. You can sneak in, get to the Oracle before the guards find you. Then you can come out and give me music lessons.’

The dryads stared at me, their expressions unhelpfully blank, as if thinking,

Hey, we can’t tell you how to die. That’s your choice. ‘We’ll do it,’ Meg decided for me. ‘Grover, you in?’ Grover sighed. ‘Of course. But first you two need sleep.’ ‘And healing,’ Aloe added.

‘And enchiladas?’ I requested. ‘For breakfast?’ On that point, we reached consensus.

So, having enchiladas to look forward to – and also a likely fatal trip through the Burning Maze – I curled up in my sleeping bag and passed out.

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