Chapter no 44

The Burning Maze

Ha-ha-ha, dryads?

That’s straight from the horse’s mouth Goodbye, Mr Horse

‘Hail, the Meg!’ cried the lead dryad. ‘Hail, the solver of the puzzle!’ ‘HAIL!’ the others agreed, followed by much kneeling, banging of spears

on shields, and offers to retrieve enchiladas.

I might have argued with Meg’s hail-worthiness. If I hadn’t just been magically half flayed to death in burning chains, I could have solved the puzzle. I was also pretty sure Meg hadn’t known what an acrostic was until I explained it to her.

But we had bigger problems. The chamber began to shake. Dust trickled from the ceiling. A few stone tiles fell and splashed into the pool of ichor.

‘We must leave,’ said Herophile. ‘The prophecy is complete. I am free.

This room will not survive.’

‘I like leaving!’ Grover agreed.

I liked leaving, too, but there was one promise I still meant to keep, no matter how much Styx hated me.

I knelt at the edge of the platform and stared into the fiery ichor. ‘Uh, Apollo?’ Meg asked.

‘Should we pull him away?’ asked a dryad. ‘Should we push him in?’ asked another.

Meg didn’t respond. Maybe she was weighing which offer sounded better. I tried to focus on the fires below.

‘Helios,’ I murmured, ‘your imprisonment is over. Medea is dead.’

The ichor churned and flashed. I felt the Titan’s half-conscious anger. Now that he was free, he seemed to be thinking why shouldn’t he vent his power from these tunnels and turn the countryside into a wasteland? He probably

also wasn’t too happy about getting two pandai, some ragweed and his evil granddaughter dumped into his nice, fiery essence.

‘You have a right to be angry,’ I said. ‘But I remember you – your brilliance, your warmth. I remember your friendship with the gods and the mortals of the earth. I can never be as great a sun deity as you were, but every day I try to honour your memory – to remember your best qualities.’

The ichor bubbled more rapidly.

I am just talking to a friend, I told myself. This is not at all like convincing an intercontinental ballistic missile not to launch itself.

‘I will endure,’ I told him. ‘I will regain the sun chariot. As long as I drive it, you will be remembered. I will keep your old path across the sky steady and true. But you know, more than anyone, that the fires of the sun don’t belong on the earth. They weren’t meant to destroy the land, but to warm it! Caligula and Medea have twisted you into a weapon. Don’t allow them to win! All you have to do is rest. Return to the ether of Chaos, my old friend. Be at peace.’

The ichor turned white-hot. I was sure my face was about to get an extreme dermal peel.

Then the fiery essence fluttered and shimmered like a pool full of moth wings – and the ichor vanished. The heat dissipated. The stone tiles disintegrated into dust and rained into the empty pit. On my arms, the terrible burns faded. The split skin mended itself. The pain ebbed to a tolerable level of I’ve-just-been-tortured-for-six-hours agony, and I collapsed, shaking and cold, on the stone floor.

‘You did it!’ Grover cried. He looked at the dryads, then at Meg, and laughed in amazement. ‘Can you feel it? The heat wave, the drought, the wildfires … they’re gone!’

‘Indeed,’ said the lead dryad. ‘The Meg’s weakling servant has saved nature! Hail to the Meg!’

‘HAIL!’ the other dryads chimed in.

I didn’t even have the energy to protest.

The chamber rumbled more violently. A large crack zigzagged down the middle of the ceiling.

‘Let’s get out of here.’ Meg turned to the dryads. ‘Help Apollo.’ ‘The Meg has spoken!’ said the lead dryad.

Two dryads hauled me to my feet and carried me between them. I tried to put weight on my feet, just for dignity’s sake, but it was like roller-skating on wheels of wet macaroni.

‘You know how to get there?’ Grover asked the dryads.

‘We do now,’ said one. ‘It is the quickest way back to nature, and that is something we can always find.’

On a Help, I’m Going to Die scale from one to ten, exiting the maze was a ten. But, since everything else I’d done that week was a fifteen, it seemed like a piece of baklava. Tunnel roofs collapsed around us. Floors crumbled.

Monsters attacked, only to be stabbed to death by seven eager dryads yelling, ‘HAIL!’

Finally, we reached a narrow shaft that slanted upward towards a tiny square of sunlight.

‘This isn’t the way we came in,’ Grover fretted.

‘It is close enough,’ said the lead dryad. ‘We will go first!’

No one argued. The seven dryads raised their shields and marched single file up the shaft. Piper and Herophile went next, followed by Meg and Grover. I brought up the rear, having recovered enough to crawl on my own with a minimum of weeping and gasping.

By the time I emerged into the sunlight and got to my feet, the battle lines had already been drawn.

We were back in the old bear pit, though how the shaft led us there, I didn’t know. The Meliai had formed a shield wall around the tunnel entrance.

Behind them stood the rest of my friends, weapons drawn. Above us, lining the ridge of the cement bowl, a dozen pandai waited with arrows nocked in their bows. In their midst stood the great white stallion Incitatus.

When he saw me, he tossed his beautiful mane. ‘There he is at last. Medea couldn’t close the deal, huh?’

‘Medea is dead,’ I said. ‘Unless you run away now, you will be next.’ Incitatus nickered. ‘Never liked that sorceress anyway. As for surrendering

… Lester, have you looked at yourself lately? You’re in no shape to issue threats. We’ve got the high ground. You’ve seen how fast pandai can shoot. I don’t know who your pretty allies with the wooden armour are, but it doesn’t matter. Come along quietly. Big C is sailing north to deal with your friends in the Bay Area, but we can catch up with the fleet easy enough. My boy has all kinds of special treats planned for you.’

Piper snarled. I suspected that Herophile’s hand on her shoulder was the only thing keeping the daughter of Aphrodite from charging the enemy all by herself.

Meg’s scimitars gleamed in the afternoon sun. ‘Hey, ash ladies,’ she said, ‘how fast can you get up there?’

The leader glanced over. ‘Fast enough, O Meg.’

‘Cool,’ Meg said. Then she shouted up at the horse and his troops, ‘Last chance to surrender!’

Incitatus sighed. ‘Fine.’

‘Fine, you surrender?’ Meg asked. ‘No. Fine, we’ll kill you. Pandai –’ ‘Dryads, ATTACK!’ Meg yelled.

‘Dryads?’ Incitatus asked incredulously. It was the last thing he ever said.

The Meliai leaped out of the pit as if it were no higher than a porch step.

The dozen pandai archers, fastest shots in the West, couldn’t fire a single arrow before they were cut to dust by ashen spears.

Incitatus whinnied in panic. As the Meliai surrounded him, he reared and kicked with his golden-shod hooves, but even his great strength was no match for the primordial killer tree spirits. The stallion buckled and fell, skewered from seven directions at once.

The dryads faced Meg.

‘The deed is done!’ announced their leader. ‘Would the Meg like enchiladas now?’

Next to me, Piper looked vaguely nauseous, as if vengeance had lost some of its appeal. ‘I thought my voice was powerful.’

Grover whimpered in agreement. ‘I’ve never had nightmares about trees.

That might change after today.’

Even Meg looked uncomfortable, as if just realizing what sort of power she’d been given. I was relieved to see that discomfort. It was a sure sign that Meg remained a good person. Power makes good people uneasy rather than joyful or boastful. That’s why good people so rarely rise to power.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ she decided.

‘To where shall we get out of here, O Meg?’ asked the lead dryad. ‘Home,’ said Meg. ‘Palm Springs.’

There was no bitterness in her voice as she put those words together:

Home. Palm Springs. She needed to return, like the dryads, to her roots.

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