Chapter no 42

The Burning Maze

You want prophecy?

I’ll drop some nonsense on you Eat my gibberish!

‘Resist!’ Herophile knelt at my side. ‘Apollo, you must resist!’

I could not speak through the pain. Otherwise I would have told her, Resist. Gosh, thanks for that profound wisdom! You must be an Oracle or something!

At least she did not ask me to spell out the word RESIST on stone tiles.

Sweat poured down my face. My body sizzled, and not in the good way that it used to when I was a god.

The sorceress continued her chant. I knew she must be straining her power, but this time I didn’t see how I could take advantage of it. I was chained. I couldn’t pull the arrow-in-the-chest trick, and, even if I did, I suspected Medea was far enough along with her magic that she could just let me die.

My essence would trickle into the pool of ichor.

I couldn’t pipe like Grover. I couldn’t rely on ragweed like Meg. I didn’t have the sheer power of Jason Grace to break through the ventus cage and save my friends.

Resist … But with what?

My consciousness began to waver. I tried to hold on to the day of my birth (yes, I could remember that far back), when I jumped from my mother’s womb and began to sing and dance, filling the world with my glorious voice. I remembered my first trip into the chasm of Delphi, grappling with my enemy Python, feeling his coils around my immortal body.

Other memories were more treacherous. I remembered riding the sun chariot through the sky, but I was not myself … I was Helios, Titan of the sun, lashing my fiery whip across the backs of my steeds. I saw myself painted golden, with a crown of rays on my brow, moving through a crowd of adoring mortal worshippers – but I was Emperor Caligula, the New Sun.

Who was I?

I tried to picture my mother Leto’s face. I could not. My father, Zeus, with his terrifying glower, was only a hazy impression. My sister – surely, I could never forget my twin! But even her features floated indistinctly in my mind. She had silvery eyes. She smelled of honeysuckle. What else? I panicked. I couldn’t remember her name. I couldn’t remember my own name.

I splayed my fingers on the stone floor. They smoked and crumbled like twigs in a fire. My body seemed to pixelate, the way the pandai had when they disintegrated.

Herophile spoke in my ear, ‘Hold on! Help will arrive!’

I didn’t see how she could know that, even if she was an Oracle. Who would come to my rescue? Who could?

‘You have taken my place,’ she said. ‘Use that!’

I moaned in rage and frustration. Why was she talking nonsense? Why couldn’t she go back to speaking in riddles? How was I supposed to use being in her place, in her chains? I wasn’t an Oracle. I wasn’t even a god any more. I was … Lester? Oh, perfect. That name I could remember.

I gazed across the rows and columns of stone blocks, now all blank, as if waiting for a new challenge. The prophecy wasn’t complete. Maybe if I could find a way to finish it … would it make a difference?

It had to. Jason had given his life so I could make it this far. My friends had risked everything. I could not simply give up. To free the Oracle, to free Helios from this Burning Maze … I had to finish what we’d started.

Medea’s chant droned on, aligning itself to my pulse, taking charge of my mind. I needed to override it, to disrupt it the way Grover had done with his music.

You have taken my place, Herophile had said.

I was Apollo, the god of prophecy. It was time for me to be my own Oracle.

I forced myself to concentrate on the stone blocks. Veins popped along my forehead like firecrackers under my skin. I stammered out, ‘B-bronze upon gold.’

The stone tiles shifted, forming a row of three tiles in the far upper left corner of the room, one word per square: BRONZE UPON GOLD.

‘Yes!’ the Sibyl said. ‘Yes, exactly! Keep going!’

The effort was horrible. The chains burned, dragging me down. I whimpered in agony, ‘East meets west.’

A second row of three tiles moved into position under the first, blazing with the words I’d just spoken.

More lines poured out of me:

‘Legions are redeemed. Light the depths;

One against many,

Never spirit defeated. Ancient words spoken, Shaking old foundations!’

What did that all mean? I had no idea.

The room rumbled as more blocks shifted into place, new stones rising from the lake to accommodate the sheer number of words. The entire left side of the lake was now roofed by the eight rows of three tile-wide words, like a pool cover rolled halfway over the ichor. The heat lessened. My shackles cooled. Medea’s chant faltered, releasing its hold on my consciousness.

‘What is this?’ hissed the sorceress. ‘We’re too close to stop now! I will kill your friends if you don’t –’

Behind her, Crest strummed a suspended fourth on the ukulele. Medea, who had apparently forgotten about him, almost leaped into the lava.

‘You too?’ she shouted at him. ‘LET ME WORK!’ Herophile whispered in my ear, ‘Hurry!’

I understood. Crest was trying to buy me time by distracting Medea. He stubbornly continued playing his (my) ukulele – a series of the most jarring chords I’d taught him, and some he must have been making up on the spot. Meanwhile Meg and Grover spun in their ventus cage, trying to break free without any luck. One flick of Medea’s fingers and they would meet the same fate as Flutter and Decibel.

Starting my voice again was even more difficult than towing the sun chariot out of the mud. (Don’t ask about that. Long story involving attractive swamp naiads.)

Somehow, I croaked out another line: ‘Destroy the tyrant.’

Three more tiles lined up, this time in the upper-right corner of the room. ‘Aid the winged,’ I continued.

Good gods, I thought. I’m speaking gibberish! But the stones continued to follow the guidance of my voice, much better than Alexasiriastrophona had ever done.

‘Under golden hills, Great stallion’s foal.’

The tiles continued stacking, forming a second column of three-tile lines that left only a thin strip of the fiery lake visible down the middle of the room.

Medea tried to ignore the pandos. She resumed her chanting, but Crest immediately broke her concentration again with an A-flat minor sharp 5.

The sorceress shrieked. ‘Enough of that, pandos!’ She pulled a dagger from the folds of her dress.

‘Apollo, don’t stop,’ Herophile warned. ‘You must not –’

Medea stabbed Crest in the gut, cutting off his dissonant serenade. I sobbed in horror, but somehow forced out more lines:

‘Harken the trumpets,’ I croaked, my voice almost gone. ‘Turn red tides –’

‘Stop that!’ Medea shouted at me. ‘Ventus, throw the prisoners –’ Crest strummed an even uglier chord.

‘GAH!’ The sorceress turned and stabbed Crest again. ‘Enter stranger’s home,’ I sobbed.

Another suspended fourth from Crest, another jab from Medea’s blade. ‘Regain lost glory!’ I yelled. The last stone tiles shifted into place –

completing the second column of lines from the far side of the room to the edge of our platform.

I could feel the prophecy’s completion, as welcome as a breath of air after a long underwater swim. The flames of Helios, now visible only along the centre of the room, cooled to a red simmer, no worse than your average five-alarm fire.

‘Yes!’ Herophile said.

Medea turned, snarling. Her hands glistened with the pandos’s blood.

Behind her, Crest fell sideways, groaning, pressing the ukulele to his ruined gut.

‘Oh, well done, Apollo,’ Medea sneered. ‘You made this pandos die for your sake, for nothing. My magic is far enough along. I’ll just flay you the old-fashioned way.’ She hefted her knife. ‘And as for your friends …’

She snapped her bloody fingers. ‘Ventus, kill them!’

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