Chapter no 39

The Burning Maze

Noble sacrifice

I’ll protect you from the flames Wow, I’m a good guy

Under different circumstances, how delighted I would have been to see that


Apollo faces death in Tarquin’s tomb unless …

Oh, happy conjunction! It meant there was a way to avoid potential death, and I was all about avoiding potential death.

Unfortunately, falling into a pit of fire dampened my new-found hope.

In mid-air, before I could even process what was happening, I lurched to a halt, my quiver strap yanked tight across my chest, my left foot nearly popping free from my ankle.

I found myself dangling next to the wall of the pit. About twenty feet below, the shaft opened into a lake of fire. Meg was clinging desperately to my foot. Above me, Grover held me by the quiver with one hand, his other gripping a tiny ledge of rock. He kicked off his shoes and tried to find purchase with his hooves on the wall.

‘Well done, brave satyr!’ I cried. ‘Pull us up!’

Grover’s eyes bugged. His face dripped with sweat. He made a whimpering sound that seemed to indicate he didn’t have the strength to pull all three of us out of the pit.

If I survived and became a god again, I would have to talk to the Council of Cloven Elders about adding more physical education classes to satyr school.

I clawed at the wall, hoping to find a convenient rail or emergency exit.

There was nothing.

Below me, Meg yelled, ‘REALLY, Apollo? You water hyacinths thoroughly UNLESS you are transplanting them!’

‘How was I supposed to know that?’ I protested.

‘You CREATED hyacinths!’

Ugh. Mortal logic. Just because a god creates something doesn’t mean he understands it. Otherwise, Prometheus would know everything about humans, and I assure you, he does not. I created hyacinths, so I’m supposed to know how to plant and water them?

‘Help!’ Grover squeaked.

His hooves shifted on the tiny crevices. His fingers trembled, his arms shaking as if he were holding the weight of two extra people, which … oh, actually, he was.

The heat from below made it difficult to think. If you’ve ever stood near a barbecue fire, or had your face too close to an open oven, you can imagine that feeling increased a hundredfold. My eyes dried up. My mouth became parched. A few more breaths of scalding air and I would probably lose consciousness.

The fires below seemed to be sweeping across a stone floor. The drop itself would not be fatal. If only there were a way to turn off the fires …

An idea came to me – a very bad idea, which I blamed on my boiling brain.

Those flames were fuelled by the essence of Helios. If some small bit of his consciousness remained … it was theoretically possible that I could communicate with him. Perhaps, if I touched the fires directly, I could convince him that we were not the enemy and he should let us live. I would probably have a luxurious three nanoseconds to accomplish this before dying in agony. Besides, if I fell, my friends might stand a chance of climbing out. After all, I was the heaviest person in our party, thanks to Zeus’s cruel curse of flab.

Terrible, terrible idea. I would never have had the courage to try it had I not thought of Jason Grace, and what he had done to save me.

‘Meg,’ I said, ‘can you attach yourself to the wall?’ ‘Do I look like Spider-Man?’ she yelled back.

Very few people look as good in tights as Spider-Man. Meg was certainly not one of them.

‘Use your swords!’ I called.

Holding my ankle with just one hand, she summoned a scimitar. She stabbed at the wall – once, twice. The curve of the blade did not make her job easy. On the third strike, however, the point sank deep into the rock. She gripped the hilt and let go of my ankle, holding herself above the flames with only her sword. ‘What now?’

‘Stay put!’

‘I can do that!’

‘Grover!’ I yelled up. ‘You can drop me now, but don’t worry. I have a –’ Grover dropped me.

Honestly, what sort of protector just drops you into a fire when you tell him it’s okay to drop you into a fire? I expected a long argument, during which I would assure him that I had a plan to save myself and them. I expected protests from Grover and Meg (well, maybe not from Meg) about how I shouldn’t sacrifice myself for their sake, how I couldn’t possibly survive the flames, and so on. But nope. He dumped me without a thought.

At least it gave me no time for second-guessing.

I couldn’t torture myself with doubts like What if this doesn’t work? What if I cannot survive the solar fires that used to be second nature to me? What if this lovely prophecy we are piecing together, about me dying in the tomb of Tarquin, does NOT automatically mean that I will not die today, in this horrible Burning Maze?

I don’t remember hitting the floor.

My soul seemed to detach from my body. I found myself thousands of years back in time, on the very first morning I became the god of the sun.

Overnight, Helios had vanished. I didn’t know what final prayer to me as the god of the sun had finally tipped the balance – banishing the old Titan to oblivion while promoting me to his spot – but here I was at the Palace of the Sun.

Terrified and nervous, I pushed open the doors of the throne room. The air burned. The light blinded me.

Helios’s oversize golden throne stood empty, his cloak draped over the armrest. His helm, whip and gilded shoes sat on the dais, ready for their master. But the Titan himself was simply gone.

I am a god, I told myself. I can do this.

I strode towards the throne, willing myself not to combust. If I ran out of the palace screaming with my toga on fire the very first day on the job, I would never hear the end of it.

Slowly, the fires receded before me. By force of will, I grew in size until I could comfortably wear the helm and cloak of my predecessor.

I didn’t try out the throne, though. I had a job to do, and very little time.

I glanced at the whip. Some trainers say you should never show kindness with a new team of horses. They will see you as weak. But I decided to leave the whip. I would not start my new position as a harsh taskmaster.

I strode into the stable. The sun chariot’s beauty brought tears to my eyes. The four sun horses stood already harnessed, their hooves polished gold, their manes rippling fire, their eyes molten ingots.

They regarded me warily. Who are you?

‘I am Apollo,’ I said, forcing myself to sound confident. ‘We’re going to have a great day!’

I leaped into the chariot, and off we went.

I’ll admit it was a steep learning curve. About a forty-five-degree arc, to be precise. I may have done a few inadvertent loops in the sky. I may have caused a few new glaciers and deserts until I found the proper cruising altitude. But by the end of the day the chariot was mine. The horses had shaped themselves to my will, my personality. I was Apollo, god of the sun.

I tried to hold on to that feeling of confidence, the elation of that successful first day.

I came back to my senses and found myself at the bottom of the pit, crouching in the flames.

‘Helios,’ I said. ‘It’s me.’

The blaze swirled around me, trying to incinerate my flesh and dissolve my soul. I could feel the presence of the Titan – bitter, hazy, angry. His whip seemed to be lashing me a thousand times a second.

‘I will not be burned,’ I said. ‘I am Apollo. I am your rightful heir.’

The fires raged hotter. Helios resented me … but wait. That wasn’t the full story. He hated being here. He hated this maze, this half-life prison.

‘I will free you,’ I promised.

Noise crackled and hissed in my ears. Perhaps it was only the sound of my head catching fire, but I thought I heard a voice in the flames: KILL. HER.

Her … Medea.

Helios’s emotions burned their way into my mind. I felt his loathing for his sorceress granddaughter. All that Medea had told me earlier about holding back Helios’s wrath – that might have been true. But, above all, she was holding Helios back from killing her. She had chained him, bound his will to hers, wrapped herself in powerful protections against his godly fire. Helios did not like me, no. But he hated Medea’s presumptuous magic. To be released from his torment, he needed his granddaughter dead.

I wondered, not for the first time, why we Greek deities had never created a god of family therapy. We certainly could have used one. Or perhaps we had one before I was born, and she quit. Or Kronos swallowed her whole.

Whatever the case, I told the flames, ‘I will do this. I will free you. But you must let us pass.’

Instantly, the fires raced away as if a tear had opened in the universe.

I gasped. My skin steamed. My arctic camouflage was now a lightly toasted grey. But I was alive. The room around me cooled rapidly. The flames, I realized, had retreated down a single tunnel that led from the chamber.

‘Meg! Grover!’ I called. ‘You can come down –’ Meg dropped on top of me, squashing me flat. ‘Ow!’ I screamed. ‘Not like that!’

Grover was more courteous. He climbed down the wall and dropped to the floor with goat-worthy dexterity. He smelled like a burnt wool blanket. His face was badly sunburned. His cap had fallen into the fire, revealing the tips of his horns, which steamed like miniature volcanoes. Meg had somehow come through just fine. She’d even managed to retract her sword from the wall before falling. She pulled her flask from her supply belt, drank most of the water and handed the rest to Grover.

‘Thanks,’ I grumbled.

‘You beat the heat,’ she noted. ‘Good job. Finally had a godly burst of power?’

‘Er … I think it was more about Helios deciding to give us a pass. He wants out of this maze as much as we want him out. He wants us to kill Medea.’

Grover gulped. ‘So … she’s down here? She didn’t die on that yacht?’ ‘Figures.’ Meg squinted down the steaming corridor. ‘Did Helios promise

not to burn us if you mess up any more answers?’ ‘I – That wasn’t my fault!’

‘Yeah,’ Meg said.

‘Kinda was,’ Grover agreed.

Honestly. I fall into a blazing pit, negotiate a truce with a Titan and flush a firestorm out of the room to save my friends, and they still want to talk about how I can’t recall instructions from the Farmer’s Almanac.

‘I don’t think we can count on Helios never to burn us,’ I said, ‘any more than we can expect Herophile not to use word puzzles. It’s just their nature. This was a one-time get-out-of-the-flames-free card.’

Grover smothered the tips of his horns. ‘Well, then, let’s not waste it.’ ‘Right.’ I hitched up my slightly toasted camouflage pants and tried to

recapture that confident tone I’d had the first time I addressed my sun horses. ‘Follow me. I’m sure it’ll be fine!’

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