Chapter no 43

The Burning Maze

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Because only one bad death That is just messed up

Then she died.

I won’t lie, gentle reader. Most of this narrative has been painful to write, but that last line was pure pleasure. Oh, the look on Medea’s face!

But I should rewind.

How did it happen, this most welcome fluke of fate?

Medea froze. Her eyes widened. She fell to her knees, the knife clattering from her hand. She toppled over face-first, revealing a newcomer behind her – Piper McLean, dressed in leather armour over her street clothes, her lip newly stitched, her face still badly bruised but filled with resolve. Her hair was singed around the edges. A fine layer of ash coated her arms. Her dagger, Katoptris, now protruded from Medea’s back.

Behind Piper stood a group of warrior maidens, seven in all. At first, I thought the Hunters of Artemis had come to save me yet again, but these warriors were armed with shields and spears made of honey-gold wood.

Behind me, the ventus unspooled, dropping Meg and Grover to the floor. My molten chains crumbled to charcoal dust. Herophile caught me as I fell over.

Medea’s hands twitched. She turned her face sideways and opened her mouth, but no words came out.

Piper knelt next to her. She placed her hand almost tenderly on the sorceress’s shoulder, then with her other hand removed Katoptris from between Medea’s shoulder blades.

‘One good stab in the back deserves another.’ Piper kissed Medea on the cheek. ‘I’d tell you to say hello to Jason for me, but he’ll be in Elysium. You

… won’t.’

The sorceress’s eyes rolled up in her head. She stopped moving. Piper glanced back at her wood-armoured allies. ‘How about we dump her?’

‘GOOD CALL!’ the seven maidens shouted in unison. They marched forward, lifted the body of Medea and tossed it unceremoniously into the fiery pool of her own grandfather.

Piper wiped her bloody dagger on her jeans. With her swollen, stitched-up mouth, her smile was more gruesome than friendly. ‘Hi, guys.’

I let out a heartbroken sob, which was probably not what Piper expected. Somehow, I got to my feet, ignoring the searing pain in my ankles, and ran past her to the place where Crest lay, gurgling weakly.

‘Oh, brave friend.’ My eyes burned with tears. I cared nothing for my own excruciating pain, the way my skin screamed when I tried to move.

Crest’s furry face was slack with shock. Blood speckled his snowy white fur. His mid-section was a glistening mess. He clutched the ukulele as if it were the only thing anchoring him to the world of the living.

‘You saved us,’ I said, choking on the words. ‘You – you bought us just enough time. I will find a way to heal you.’

He locked eyes with me and managed to croak, ‘Music. God.’

I laughed nervously. ‘Yes, my young friend. You are a music god! I – I will teach you every chord. We will have a concert with the Nine Muses. When –when I get back to Olympus …’

My voice faltered.

Crest was no longer listening. His eyes had turned glassy. His tortured muscles relaxed. His body crumbled, collapsing inward until the ukulele sat on a pile of dust – a small, sad monument to my many failures.

I don’t know how long I knelt there, dazed and shaking. It hurt to sob. I sobbed anyway.

Finally, Piper crouched next to me. Her face was sympathetic, but I thought somewhere behind her lovely multicoloured eyes she was thinking, Another life lost for your sake, Lester. Another death you couldn’t fix.

She did not say that. She sheathed her knife. ‘We grieve later,’ she said. ‘Right now, our job isn’t done.’

Our job. She had come to our aid, despite everything that had happened, despite Jason … I could not fall apart now. At least, no more than I had already.

I picked up the ukulele. I was about to mutter some promise to Crest’s dust.

Then I remembered what came from my broken promises. I had vowed to teach the young pandos any instrument he wished. Now he was dead. Despite the searing heat of the room, I felt the cold stare of Styx upon me.

I leaned on Piper as she helped me across the room – back to the platform where Meg, Grover and Herophile waited.

The seven women warriors stood nearby as if waiting for orders.

Like their shields, their armour was fashioned from cleverly fitted planks of honey-gold wood. The women were imposing, each perhaps seven feet tall, their faces as polished and beautifully turned as their armour. Their hair, in various shades of white, blonde, gold and pale brown, spilled down their backs in waterfall braids. Chlorophyll green tinted their eyes and the veins of their well-muscled limbs.

They were dryads, but not like any dryads I’d ever met. ‘You’re the Meliai,’ I said.

The women regarded me with disturbingly keen interest, as if they would be equally delighted to fight me, dance with me, or toss me into the fire.

The one on the far left spoke. ‘We are the Meliai. Are you the Meg?’

I blinked. I got the feeling they were looking for a yes, but, as confused as I was, I was pretty sure I was not the Meg.

‘Hey, guys,’ Piper intervened, pointing to Meg. ‘This is Meg McCaffrey.’

The Meliai broke into a double-time march, lifting their knees higher than was strictly necessary. They closed ranks, forming a semicircle in front of Meg like they were doing a marching-band manoeuvre. They stopped, banged their spears once against their shields, then lowered their heads in respect.


Grover and Herophile edged into the corner, as if trying to hide behind the Sibyl’s toilet.

Meg studied the seven dryads. My young master’s hair was windswept from the ventus. The electrical tape had come off her glasses, so she looked like she was wearing mismatched rhinestone-encrusted monocles. Her clothes had once again been reduced to a collection of burned, shredded rags – all of which, in my opinion, made her look exactly like The Meg should look.

She summoned her usual eloquence: ‘Hi.’

Piper’s mouth curved in the ghost of a smile. ‘I met these guys at the entrance to the maze. They were just charging in to find you. Said they heard your song.’

‘My song?’ Meg asked.

‘The music!’ Grover yelped. ‘It worked?’

‘We heard the call of nature!’ cried the lead dryad.

That had a different meaning for mortals, but I decided not to mention it. ‘We heard the pipes of a lord of the Wild!’ said another dryad. ‘That would

be you, I suppose, satyr. Hail, satyr!’ ‘HAIL, SATYR!’ the others echoed.

‘Uh, yeah,’ Grover said weakly. ‘Hail to you too.’

‘But mostly,’ said a third dryad, ‘we heard the cry of the Meg, daughter of the creator. Hail!’

‘HAIL!’ the others echoed.

That was quite enough hailing for me.

Meg narrowed her eyes. ‘When you say creator, do you mean my dad, the botanist, or my mom, Demeter?’

The dryads murmured among themselves.

Finally, the leader spoke: ‘This is a most excellent point. We meant the McCaffrey, the great grower of dryads. But now we realize that you are also the daughter of Demeter. You are twice-blessed, daughter of two creators! We are at your service!’

Meg picked her nose. ‘At my service, huh?’ She looked at me as if to ask,

Why can’t you be a cool servant like this? ‘So, how did you guys find us?’ ‘We have many powers!’ shouted one. ‘We were born from the Earth

Mother’s blood!’

‘The primordial strength of life flows through us!’ said another.

‘We nursed Zeus as a baby!’ said a third. ‘We bore an entire race of men, the warlike Bronze!’

‘We are the Meliai!’ said a fourth.

‘We are the mighty ash trees!’ cried the fifth.

This left the last two without much to say. They simply muttered, ‘Ash.

Yep; we’re ash.’

Piper chimed in. ‘So Coach Hedge got Grover’s message from the cloud nymph. Then I came to find you guys. But I didn’t know where this secret entrance was, so I went to downtown LA again.’

‘By yourself?’ Grover asked.

Piper’s eyes darkened. I realized she had come here first and foremost to get revenge on Medea, secondly to help us. Making it out alive … that had been a very distant third on her list of priorities.

‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘I met these ladies downtown and we sort of made an alliance.’

Grover gulped. ‘But Crest said the main entrance would be a death trap! It was heavily guarded!’

‘Yeah, it was …’ Piper pointed at the dryads. ‘Not any more.’ The dryads looked pleased with themselves.

‘The ash is mighty,’ said one.

The others murmured in agreement.

Herophile stepped out from her hiding place behind the toilet. ‘But the fires. How did you –?’

‘Ha!’ cried a dryad. ‘It would take more than the fires of a sun Titan to destroy us!’ She held up her shield. One corner was blackened, but the soot was already falling away, revealing new, unblemished wood underneath.

Judging from Meg’s scowl, I could tell her mind was working overtime.

That made me nervous.

‘So … you guys serve me now?’ she asked.

The dryads banged their shields again in unison.

‘We will obey the commands of the Meg!’ said the leader. ‘Like, if I asked you to go get me some enchiladas –?’

‘We would ask how many!’ shouted another dryad. ‘And how hot you like your salsa!’

Meg nodded. ‘Cool. But first maybe you could escort us safely out of the maze?’

‘It shall be done!’ said the lead dryad. ‘Hold on,’ Piper said. ‘What about …?’

She gestured to the floor tiles, where my golden nonsense words still glowed across the stone.

While kneeling in chains, I hadn’t really been able to appreciate their arrangement:






‘What does it mean?’ Grover asked, looking at me as if I had the faintest idea.

My mind ached with exhaustion and sorrow. While Crest had distracted Medea, giving Piper time to arrive and save my friends’ lives, I had been spouting nonsense: two columns of text with a fiery margin down the middle. They weren’t even formatted in an interesting font.

‘It means Apollo succeeded!’ the Sibyl said proudly. ‘He finished the prophecy!’

I shook my head. ‘But I didn’t. Apollo faces death in Tarquin’s Tomb unless the doorway to the soundless god is opened by … All of that?’

Piper scanned the lines. ‘That’s a lot of text. Should I write it down?’

The Sibyl’s smile wavered. ‘You mean … you don’t see it? It’s right there.’ Grover squinted at the golden words. ‘See what?’

‘Oh.’ Meg nodded. ‘Okay, yeah.’

The seven dryads all leaned towards her, fascinated.

‘What does it mean, great daughter of the creator?’ asked the leader. ‘It’s an acrostic,’ Meg said. ‘Look.’

She jogged to the upper left corner of the room. She walked along the first letter in each line, then hopped across the margin and walked the first letters

of the lines in that column, all while saying the letters out loud: ‘B-E-L-L-O-N-A-S D-A-U-G-H-T-E-R.’

‘Wow.’ Piper shook her head in amazement. ‘I’m still not sure what the prophecy means, about Tarquin and a soundless god and all that. But apparently you need the help of Bellona’s daughter. That means the senior praetor at Camp Jupiter: Reyna Avila Ramírez-Arellano.’

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