Chapter no 36

The Burning Maze

A suspended fourth

The kind of chord you play just Before suddenly –

I woke covered in goo and with aloe spikes (yet again) in my nostrils.

On the bright side, my ribs no longer felt like they were filled with lava.

My chest had healed, leaving only a puckered scar where I’d impaled myself. I’d never had a scar before. I wished I could see it as a badge of honour.

Instead, I feared that now, whenever I looked down, I would remember the worst night of my life.

At least I had slept deeply with no dreams. That aloe vera was good stuff. The sun blazed directly above. The Cistern was empty except for me and

Crest, who snored in his niche, clutching his ukulele teddy bear. Someone, probably hours ago, had left a breakfast enchilada plate with a Big Hombre soda next to my sleeping bag. The food had cooled to lukewarm. The ice in the soda had melted. I didn’t care. I ate and drank ravenously. I was grateful for the hot salsa that cleared the smell of burning yachts out of my sinuses.

Once I de-slimed myself and washed in the pond, I dressed in a fresh set of Macro’s camouflage – arctic white, because there was such a demand for that in the Mojave Desert.

I shouldered my quiver and bow. I tied Caligula’s shoes to my belt. I considered trying to take the ukulele from Crest but decided to let him keep it for now, since I did not want to get my hands bitten off.

Finally, I climbed into the oppressive Palm Springs heat.

Judging from the angle of the sun, it must have been about three in the afternoon. I wondered why Meg had let me sleep so late. I scanned the hillside and saw no one. For a guilty moment, I imagined that Meg and Grover had been unable to wake me and had gone by themselves to take care of the maze.

Darn it! I could say when they returned. Sorry, guys! And I was all ready too!

But no. Caligula’s sandals dangled from my belt. They wouldn’t have left without those. I also doubted they’d have forgotten Crest, since he was the only one who knew the super-secret entrance to the maze.

I caught a flicker of movement – two shadows moving behind the nearest greenhouse. I approached and heard voices in earnest conversation: Meg and Joshua.

I wasn’t sure whether to let them be or to march over and shout, Meg, this is no time to flirt with your yucca boyfriend!

Then I realized they were talking about climates and growing seasons. Ugh.

I stepped into view and found them studying a line of seven young saplings that had sprouted from the rocky soil … in the exact spots where Meg had planted her seeds only yesterday.

Joshua spied me immediately, a sure sign that my arctic camouflage was working.

‘Well. He’s alive.’ He didn’t sound particularly thrilled about this. ‘We were just discussing the new arrivals.’

Each sapling rose about three feet high, its branches white, its leaves pale-green diamonds that looked much too delicate for the desert heat.

‘Those are ash trees,’ I said, dumbfounded.

I knew a lot about ash trees … Well, more than I knew about most trees, anyway. Long ago, I had been called Apollo Meliai, Apollo of the Ash Trees, because of a sacred grove I owned in … oh, where was it? Back then I had so many vacation properties I couldn’t keep them all straight.

My mind began to whirl. The word meliai meant something besides just ash trees. It had special significance. Despite being planted in a completely hostile climate, these young plants radiated strength and energy even I could sense. They’d grown overnight into healthy saplings. I wondered what they might look like tomorrow.

Meliai … I turned the word over in my mind. What had Caligula said?

Blood-born. Silver wives.

Meg frowned. She looked much better this morning – back in her traffic-light-coloured clothes that had been miraculously patched and laundered. (I suspected the dryads, who are great with fabrics.) Her cat-eye glasses had been repaired with blue electrical tape. The scars on her arms and face had faded into faint white streaks like meteor trails across the sky.

‘I still don’t get it,’ she said. ‘Ash trees don’t grow in the desert. Why was my dad experimenting with ash?’

‘The Meliai,’ I said.

Joshua’s eyes glittered. ‘That was my thought, too.’ ‘The who?’ Meg asked.

‘I believe,’ I said, ‘that your father was doing more than simply researching a new, hardy plant strain. He was trying to re-create … or rather reincarnate an ancient species of dryad.’

Was it my imagination, or did the young trees rustle? I restrained the urge to step back and run away. They were only saplings, I reminded myself. Nice, harmless baby plants that did not have any intention of murdering me.

Joshua knelt. In his khaki safari clothes, with his tousled grey-green hair, he looked like a wild-animal expert who was about to point out some deadly species of scorpion for the TV audience. Instead he touched the branches of the nearest sapling, then quickly removed his hand.

‘Could it be?’ he mused. ‘They’re not conscious yet, but the power I sense


Meg crossed her arms and pouted. ‘Well, I wouldn’t have planted them here if I’d known they were important ash trees or whatever. Nobody told me.’

Joshua gave her a dry smile. ‘Meg McCaffrey, if these are the Meliai, they will survive even in this harsh climate. They were the very first dryads –seven sisters born when the blood of murdered Ouranos fell upon the soil of Gaia. They were created at the same time as the Furies, and with the same great strength.’‌

I shuddered. I did not like the Furies. They were ugly, ill-tempered, and had bad taste in music. ‘The blood-born,’ I said. ‘That’s what Caligula called them. And the silver wives.’

‘Mmm.’ Joshua nodded. ‘According to legend, the Meliai married humans who lived during the Silver Age, and gave birth to the race of the Bronze Age. But we all make mistakes.’

I studied the saplings. They didn’t look much like the mothers of Bronze Age humanity. They didn’t look like the Furies, either.

‘Even for a skilled botanist like Dr. McCaffrey,’ I said, ‘even with the blessing of Demeter … is reincarnating such powerful beings possible?’

Joshua swayed pensively. ‘Who can say? It seems the family of Plemnaeus was pursuing this goal for millennia. No one would be better suited. Dr McCaffrey perfected the seeds. His daughter planted them.’

Meg blushed. ‘I don’t know. Whatever. Seems weird.’

Joshua regarded the young ash trees. ‘We will have to wait and see. But imagine seven primordial dryads, beings of great power, bent on the preservation of nature and the destruction of any who would threaten it.’ His expression turned unusually warlike for a flowering plant. ‘Surely Caligula would see that as a major threat.’

I couldn’t argue. Enough of a threat to burn down a botanist’s house and send him and his daughter straight into the arms of Nero? Probably.

Joshua rose. ‘Well, I must go dormant. Even for me, the daylight hours are taxing. We will keep an eye on our seven new friends. Good luck on your quest!’

He burst into a cloud of yucca fibre.

Meg looked disgruntled, probably because I had interrupted their flirty talk about climate zones.

‘Ash trees,’ she grumbled. ‘And I planted them in the desert.’

‘You planted them where they needed to be,’ I said. ‘If these truly are the Meliai –’ I shook my head in amazement – ‘they responded to you, Meg. You brought back a life force that has been absent for millennia. That is awe-inspiring.’

She looked over. ‘Are you making fun of me?’

‘No,’ I assured her. ‘You are your mother’s child, Meg McCaffrey. You are quite impressive.’


I understood her scepticism.

Demeter was rarely described as impressive. Too often, the goddess got ridiculed for not being interesting or powerful enough. Like plants, Demeter worked slowly and quietly. Her designs grew over the course of centuries. But when those designs came to fruition (bad fruit pun, sorry), they could be extraordinary. Like Meg McCaffrey.

‘Go wake up Crest,’ Meg told me. ‘I’ll meet you down at the road.

Grover’s getting us a car.’


Grover was almost as good as Piper McLean at procuring luxury vehicles. He had found us a red Mercedes XLS, which I normally would not have complained about – except it was the exact same make and model that Meg and I had driven from Indianapolis to the Cave of Trophonius.

I’d like to tell you I didn’t believe in bad omens. But since I was the god of omens …

At least Grover agreed to drive. The winds had shifted south, filling the Morongo Valley with wildfire smoke and clogging traffic even more than usual. The afternoon sun filtered through the red sky like a baleful eye.

I feared the sun might look that hostile for the rest of eternity if Caligula became the new solar god … but no, I couldn’t think like that.

If Caligula came into possession of the sun chariot, there was no telling what horrible things he would do to trick out his new ride: sequencers, undercarriage lighting, a horn that played the riff from ‘Low Rider’ … Some things could not be tolerated.

I sat in the back seat with Crest and did my best to teach him basic ukulele chords. He was a quick learner, despite the size of his hands, but he grew

impatient with the major chords and wanted to learn more exotic combinations.

‘Show me the suspended fourth again,’ he said. ‘I like that.’ Of course he would like the most unresolved chords.

‘We should buy you a large guitar,’ I urged once more. ‘Or even a lute.’ ‘You play ukulele,’ he said. ‘I will play ukulele.’

Why did I always attract such stubborn companions? Was it my winning, easygoing personality? I didn’t know.

When Crest concentrated, his expression reminded me strangely of Meg’s –such a young face, yet so intent and serious, as if the fate of the world depended on this chord being played correctly, this packet of seeds being planted, this bag of rotten produce being thrown into the face of this particular street thug.

Why that similarity should make me fond of Crest, I wasn’t sure, but it struck me how much he had lost since yesterday – his job, his uncle, almost his life – and how much he had risked coming with us.

‘I never said how sorry I was,’ I ventured, ‘about your Uncle Amax.’

Crest sniffed the ukulele fret board. ‘Why would you be sorry? Why would I?’

‘Uh … It’s just, you know, an expression of courtesy … when you kill someone’s relatives.’

‘I never liked him,’ Crest said. ‘My mother sent me to him, said he would make me a real pandos warrior.’ He strummed his chord but got a diminished seventh by mistake. He looked pleased with himself. ‘I do not want to be a warrior. What is your job?’

‘Er, well, I’m the god of music.’

‘Then that is what I shall be. A god of music.’ Meg glanced back and smirked.

I tried to give Crest an encouraging smile, but I hoped he would not ask to flay me alive and consume my essence. I already had a waiting list for that. ‘Well, let’s master these chords first, shall we?’

We traced our way north of LA, through San Bernardino, then Pasadena. I found myself gazing up at the hills where we’d visited the Edgarton School. I wondered what the faculty would do when they found Jason Grace missing, and when they discovered that their school van had been commandeered and abandoned at the Santa Barbara waterfront. I thought of Jason’s diorama of Temple Hill on his desk, the sketchbooks that waited on his shelf. It seemed unlikely I would live long enough to keep my promise to him, to bring his plans safely to the two camps. The thought of failing him yet again hurt my heart even worse than Crest’s attempt at a G-flat minor 6.

Finally, Crest directed us south on Interstate 5, towards the city. We took the Crystal Springs Drive exit and plunged into Griffith Park with its winding

roads, rolling golf courses and thick groves of eucalyptus. ‘Further,’ Crest said. ‘The second right. Up that hill.’

He guided us onto a gravel service road not designed for a Mercedes XLS. ‘It’s up there.’ Crest pointed into the woods. ‘We must walk.’

Grover pulled over next to a stand of yuccas, who for all I knew were friends of his. He checked out the trailhead, where a small sign read OLD LOS ANGELES ZOO.

‘I know this place.’ Grover’s goatee quivered. ‘I hate this place. Why would you bring us here?’

‘Told you,’ Crest said. ‘Maze entrance.’

‘But …’ Grover gulped, no doubt weighing his natural aversion to places that caged animals against his desire to destroy the Burning Maze. ‘All right.’

Meg seemed happy enough, all things considered. She breathed in the

what-passed-in-LA-for-fresh air and even did a few tentative cartwheels as we made our way up the trail.

We climbed to the top of the ridge. Below us spread the ruins of a zoo –overgrown sidewalks, crumbling cement walls, rusty cages and man-made caves filled with debris.

Grover hugged himself, shivering despite the heat. ‘The humans abandoned this place decades ago when they built their new zoo. I can still feel the emotions of the animals that were kept here – their sadness. It’s horrible.’

‘Down here!’ Crest spread his ears and sailed over the ruins, landing in a deep grotto.

Not having flight-worthy ears, the rest of us had to pick and climb our way through the tangled terrain. At last we joined Crest at the bottom of a grimy cement bowl covered with dried leaves and litter.

‘A bear pit?’ Grover turned pale. ‘Ugh. Poor bears.’

Crest pressed his eight-fingered hands against the back wall of the enclosure. He scowled. ‘This is not right. It should be here.’

My spirits sank to a new low. ‘You mean your secret entrance is gone?’ Crest hissed in frustration. ‘I should not have mentioned this place to

Screamer. Amax must have heard us talking. He sealed it somehow.’

I was tempted to point out that it was never a good idea to share your secrets with someone named Screamer, but Crest looked like he felt bad enough already.

‘What now?’ Meg asked. ‘Use the downtown exit?’

‘Too dangerous,’ Crest said. ‘There must be a way to open this!’

Grover was so twitchy I wondered if he had a squirrel in his pants. He looked like he wanted very much to give up and run from this zoo as fast as possible. Instead, he sighed. ‘What did the prophecy say about your cloven guide?’

‘That you alone knew the way,’ I recalled. ‘But you already served that purpose getting us to Palm Springs.’

Reluctantly, Grover pulled out his pipes. ‘I guess I’m not done yet.’ ‘A song of opening?’ I asked. ‘Like Hedge used in Macro’s store?’

Grover nodded. ‘I haven’t tried this in a while. Last time, I opened a path from Central Park into the Underworld.’

‘Just get us into the maze, please,’ I advised. ‘Not the Underworld.’

He raised his pipes and trilled Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’. Crest looked entranced. Meg covered her ears.

The cement wall shook. It cracked down the middle, revealing a steep set of rough-hewn stairs leading down into the dark.

‘Perfect,’ Grover grumbled. ‘I hate the underground almost as much as I hate zoos.’

Meg summoned her blades. She marched inside. After a deep breath, Grover followed.

I turned to Crest. ‘Are you coming with us?’

He shook his head. ‘I told you. I’m no fighter. I will watch the exit and practise my chords.’

‘But I might need the uku–’

‘I will practise my chords,’ he insisted, and began strumming a suspended fourth.

I followed my friends into the dark, that chord still playing behind me –exactly the sort of tense background music one might expect just before a dramatic, bloodcurdling fight.

Sometimes I really hated suspended fourths.

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