Chapter no 40

The Burning Maze


You finished the word puzzle You win … enemies

Fine, in this case, meant fine if you enjoy lava, chains and evil magic.

The corridor led straight to the chamber of the Oracle, which on the one hand … hooray! On the other hand, not so wonderful. The room was a rectangle the size of a basketball court. Lining the walls were half a dozen entrances – each a simple stone doorway with a small landing that overhung the pool of lava I’d seen in my visions. Now, though, I realized the bubbling and shimmering substance was not lava. It was the divine ichor of Helios –hotter than lava, more powerful than rocket fuel, impossible to get out if you spilled it on your clothes (I could tell you from personal experience). We had reached the very centre of the maze – the holding tank for Helios’s power.

Floating on the surface of the ichor were large stone tiles, each about five feet square, making columns and rows that had no logical patterns.

‘It’s a crossword,’ Grover said.

Of course he was right. Unfortunately, none of the stone bridges connected with our little balcony. Nor did any of them lead to the opposite side of the room, where the Sibyl of Erythraea sat forlornly on her stone platform. Her home wasn’t any better than a solitary-confinement cell. She’d been provided with a bed, a table and a toilet. (And, yes, even immortal Sibyls need to use the toilet. Some of their best prophecies come to them … Never mind.)

My heart ached to see Herophile in such conditions. She looked exactly as I remembered her: a young woman with braided auburn hair and pale skin, her solid athletic build a tribute to her hardy naiad mother and her stout shepherd father. The Sibyl’s white robes were stained with smoke and spotted with cinder burns. She was intently watching an entrance on the wall to her left, so she didn’t seem to notice us.

‘That’s her?’ Meg whispered.

‘Unless you see another Oracle,’ I said. ‘Well, then talk to her.’

I wasn’t sure why I had to do all the work, but I cleared my throat and yelled across the boiling lake of ichor, ‘Herophile!’

The Sibyl jumped to her feet. Only then did I notice the chains – molten links, just as I’d seen in my visions, shackled to her wrists and ankles, anchoring her to the platform and allowing her just enough room to move from one side to the other. Oh, the indignity!


I’d been hoping her face might light up with joy when she saw me. Instead, she looked mostly shocked.

‘I thought you would come through the other …’ Her voice seized up. She grimaced with concentration, then blurted out, ‘Seven letters, ends in Y.’

‘Doorway?’ Grover guessed.

Across the surface of the lake, stone tiles ground and shifted formation.

One block wedged itself against our little platform. Half a dozen more stacked up beyond it, making a seven-tile bridge extending into the room. Glowing golden letters appeared along the tiles, starting with a Y at our feet: DOORWAY.

Herophile clapped excitedly, jangling her molten chains. ‘Well done!


I was not anxious to test my weight on a stone raft floating over a burning lake of ichor, but Meg strode right out, so Grover and I followed.

‘No offence, Miss Lady,’ Meg called to the Sibyl, ‘but we already almost fell into one lava fire thingie. Could you just make a bridge from here to there without more puzzles?’

‘I wish I could!’ said Herophile. ‘This is my curse! It’s either talk like this or stay completely –’ She gagged. ‘Nine letters. Fifth letter is D.’

‘Quiet!’ Grover yelled.

Our raft rumbled and rocked. Grover windmilled his arms and might have fallen off had Meg not caught him. Thank goodness for short people. They have low centres of gravity.

‘Not quiet!’ I yelped. ‘That is not our final answer! That would be idiotic, since quiet is only five letters and doesn’t even have a D.’ I glared at the satyr.

‘Sorry,’ he muttered. ‘I got excited.’

Meg studied the tiles. In the frames of her glasses, her rhinestones glinted red. ‘Quietude?’ she suggested. ‘That’s nine letters.’

‘First of all,’ I said, ‘I’m impressed you know that word. Second, context. “Stay completely quietude” doesn’t make sense. Also, the D would be in the wrong place.’

‘Then what’s the answer, smarty-god?’ she demanded. ‘And don’t get it wrong this time.’

Such unfairness! I tried to come up with synonyms for quiet. I couldn’t think of many. I liked music and poetry. Silence really wasn’t my thing.

‘Soundless,’ I said at last. ‘That’s got to be it.’

The tiles rewarded us by forming a second bridge – nine across, SOUNDLESS, connecting to the first bridge by the D. Unfortunately, since the new bridge led sideways, it got us no closer to the Oracle’s platform.

‘Herophile,’ I called, ‘I appreciate your predicament. But is there any way you can manipulate the length of the answers? Perhaps the next one can be a really long, really easy word that leads to your platform?’

‘You know I cannot, Apollo.’ She clasped her hands. ‘But, please, you must hurry if you wish to stop Caligula from becoming a …’ She gagged. ‘Three letters, middle letter is O.’

‘God,’ I said unhappily.

A third bridge formed – three tiles, connecting to the O in soundless, which brought us only one tile closer to our goal. Meg, Grover and I crowded together on the G tile. The room felt even hotter, as if Helios’s ichor was working itself into a fury the closer we got to Herophile. Grover and Meg sweated profusely. My own arctic camouflage was sopping wet. I had not been so uncomfortable in a group hug since the Rolling Stones’ first 1969 show at Madison Square Garden. (Tip: as tempting as it might be, don’t throw your arms around Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during their encore set.

Those men can sweat.)

Herophile sighed. ‘I’m sorry, my friends. I’ll try again. Some days, I wish prophecy was a present I had never –’ She winced in pain. ‘Six letters. Last letter is a D.’

Grover shuffled around. ‘Wait. What? The D is back there.’

The heat made my eyes feel like shish-kebab onions, but I tried to survey the rows and columns so far.

‘Perhaps,’ I said, ‘this new clue is another vertical word, branching off the

D in soundless?’

Herophile’s eyes gleamed with encouragement.

Meg wiped her sweaty forehead. ‘Well, then why did we bother with god?

It doesn’t lead anywhere.’

‘Oh, no,’ Grover moaned. ‘We’re still forming the prophecy, aren’t we?

Doorway, soundless, god? What does that mean?’

‘I – I don’t know,’ I admitted, my brain cells simmering in my skull like chicken soup noodles. ‘Let’s get some more words. Herophile said she wishes prophecy was a present she’d never … what?’

‘Gotten doesn’t work,’ Meg muttered.

‘Received?’ Grover offered. ‘No. Too many letters.’

‘Perhaps a metaphor,’ I suggested. ‘A present she’d never … opened?’ Grover gulped. ‘Is that our final answer?’

He and Meg both looked down at the burning ichor, then back at me. Their faith in my abilities was not heartwarming.

‘Yes,’ I decided. ‘Herophile, the answer is opened.’

The Sibyl sighed with relief as a new bridge extended from the D in soundless, leading us across the lake. Crowded together on the O tile, we were now only about five feet from the Sibyl’s platform.

‘Should we jump?’ Meg asked.

Herophile shrieked, then clamped her hands over her mouth.

‘I’m guessing a jump would be unwise,’ I said. ‘We have to complete the puzzle. Herophile, perhaps one more very small word going forward?’

The Sibyl curled her fingers, then said slowly and carefully, ‘Small word, across. Starts with Y. Small word down. Near or next to.’

‘A double play!’ I looked at my friends. ‘I believe we are looking for yo

across, and by down. That should allow us to reach the platform.’

Grover peered over the side of the tile, where the lake of ichor was now bubbling white hot. ‘I’d hate to fail now. Is yo an acceptable word?’

‘I don’t have the Scrabble rule book in front of me,’ I admitted, ‘but I think so.’

I was glad this wasn’t Scrabble. Athena won every time with her insufferable vocabulary. One time she played abaxial on a triple and Zeus lightning-bolted the top off Mount Parnassus in his rage.

‘That’s our answer, Sibyl,’ I said. ‘Yo and by.’

Another two tiles clicked into place, connecting our bridge to Herophile’s platform. We ran across, and Herophile clapped and wept for joy. She held out her arms to hug me, then seemed to remember she was shackled with blazing-hot chains.

Meg looked back at the path of answers in our wake. ‘Okay, so if that’s the end of the prophecy, what does it mean? Doorway soundless god opened yo by?’

Herophile started to say something, then thought better of it. She looked at me hopefully.

‘Let’s assume some small words again,’ I ventured. ‘If we combine the first part of the maze, we have Apollo faces death in Tarquin’s tomb unless … uh, the doorway … to?’ I glanced at Herophile, who nodded encouragement. ‘The doorway to the soundless god … Hmm. I don’t know who that is. Unless the doorway to the soundless god is opened by –’

‘You forgot the yo,’ Grover said.

‘I think we can bypass the yo since it was a double play.’

Grover tugged his singed goatee. ‘This is why I don’t play Scrabble. Also, I tend to eat the tiles.’

I consulted Herophile. ‘So Apollo – me – I face death in the tomb of Tarquin, unless the doorway to the soundless god is opened by … what? Meg’s right. There’s got to be more to the prophecy.’

Somewhere off to my left, a familiar voice called, ‘Not necessarily.’

On a ledge in the middle of the left-hand wall stood the sorceress Medea, looking very much alive and delighted to see us. Behind her, two pandos guards held a chained and beaten prisoner – our friend Crest.

‘Hello, my dears.’ Medea smiled. ‘You see, there doesn’t have to be an end to the prophecy, because you’re all going to die now anyway!’

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