Chapter no 46

The Burning Maze

Second prize: road trip With Bon Jovi on cassette

First prize: please, don’t ask

The McCaffrey mansion had been reborn.

Or rather, regrown.

Overnight, desert hardwoods had sprouted and grown at incredible speed, forming the beams and floors of a multilevel stilt house much like the old one. Heavy vines had emerged from the stone ruins, weaving together the walls and ceilings, leaving room for windows and skylights shaded by awnings made of wisteria.

The biggest difference in the new house: the great room had been built in a horseshoe shape around the Cistern, leaving the ash grove open to the sky.

‘We hope you like it,’ said Aloe Vera, taking us on a tour. ‘We all got together and decided it was the least we could do.’

The interior was cool and comfortable, with fountains and running water in every room provided by living root pipes from subterranean springs.

Blooming cacti and Joshua trees decorated the spaces. Massive branches had shaped themselves into furniture. Even Dr McCaffrey’s old work desk had been lovingly recreated.

Meg sniffled, blinking furiously.

‘Oh, dear,’ said Aloe Vera. ‘I hope you’re not allergic to the house!’

‘No, this place is amazing.’ Meg threw herself into Aloe’s arms, ignoring the dryad’s many pointy bits.

‘Wow,’ I said. (Meg’s poetry must have been rubbing off on me.) ‘How many nature spirits did it take to accomplish this?’

Aloe shrugged modestly. ‘Every dryad in the Mojave Desert wanted to help. You saved us all! And you restored the Meliai.’ She gave Meg a gooey

kiss on the cheek. ‘Your father would be so proud. You have completed his work.’

Meg blinked back tears. ‘I just wish …’

She didn’t need to finish. We all knew how many lives had not been saved. ‘Will you stay?’ Aloe asked. ‘Aeithales is your home.’

Meg gazed across the desert vista. I was terrified she would say yes. Her final command to me would be to continue my quests by myself, and this time she would mean it. Why shouldn’t she? She had found her home. She had friends here, including seven very powerful dryads who would hail her and bring her enchiladas every morning. She could become the protector of Southern California, far from Nero’s grasp. She might find peace.

The idea of being free from Meg would have delighted me just a few weeks ago, but now I found the idea insupportable. Yes, I wanted her to be happy.

But I knew she had many things yet to do – first among them was facing Nero once again, closing that horrible chapter of her life by confronting and conquering the Beast.

Oh, and also I needed Meg’s help. Call me selfish, but I couldn’t imagine going on without her.

Meg squeezed Aloe’s hand. ‘Maybe someday. I hope so. But right now … we got places to be.’


Grover had generously left us the Mercedes he’d borrowed from … wherever.

After saying our goodbyes to Herophile and the dryads, who were discussing plans to create a giant Scrabble-board floor in one of the back bedrooms at Aeithales, we drove to Santa Monica to find the address Piper had given me. I kept looking in the rear-view mirror, wondering if the highway patrol would pull us over for car theft. That would’ve been the perfect end to my week.

It took us a while to find the right address: a small private airfield near the Santa Monica waterfront.

A security guard let us through the gates with no questions, as if he’d been expecting two teenagers in a possibly stolen red Mercedes. We drove straight onto the tarmac.

A gleaming white Cessna was parked near the terminal, right next to Coach Hedge’s yellow Pinto. I shuddered, wondering if we were trapped in an episode of The Oracle Is Right! First prize: the Cessna. Second prize … No, I couldn’t face the idea.

Coach Hedge was changing Baby Chuck’s diaper on the hood of the Pinto, keeping Chuck distracted by letting him gnaw on a grenade. (Which was probably just an empty casing. Probably.) Mellie stood next to him, supervising.

When she saw us, she waved and gave us a sad smile, but she pointed towards the plane, where Piper stood at the base of the steps, talking to the pilot.

In her hands, Piper held something large and flat – a display board. She had a couple of books under her arm, too. To her right, near the tail of the aircraft, the luggage compartment stood open. Ground-crew members were carefully strapping down a large wooden box with brass fixtures. A coffin.

As Meg and I walked up, the captain shook Piper’s hand. His face was tight with sympathy. ‘Everything is in order, Ms McLean. I’ll be on board doing preflight checks until our passengers are ready.’

He gave us a quick nod, then climbed into the Cessna.

Piper was dressed in faded denim jeans and a green camo tank top. She’d cut her hair in a shorter, choppier style – probably because so much had been singed off anyway – which gave her an eerie resemblance to Thalia Grace.

Her multicoloured eyes picked up the grey of the tarmac, so she might have been mistaken for a child of Athena.

The display board she held was, of course, Jason’s diorama of Temple Hill at Camp Jupiter. Tucked under her arm were Jason’s two sketchbooks.

A ball bearing lodged itself in my throat. ‘Ah.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘The school let me clear out his stuff.’

I took the map as one might take the folded flag of a fallen soldier. Meg slid the sketchbooks into her knapsack.

‘You’re off to Oklahoma?’ I asked, pointing my chin towards the plane.

Piper laughed. ‘Well, yes. But we’re driving. My dad rented an SUV. He’s waiting for the Hedges and me at DK’s Donuts.’ She smiled sadly. ‘First place he ever took me to breakfast when we moved out here.’

‘Driving?’ Meg asked. ‘But –’

‘The plane is for you two,’ Piper said. ‘And … Jason. Like I said, my dad had enough flight time and fuel credit for one last trip. I talked to him about sending Jason home; I mean … the home he had the longest, in the Bay Area, and how you guys could escort him up there … Dad agreed this was a much better use of the plane. We’re happy to drive.’

I looked at the diorama of Temple Hill – all the little Monopoly tokens carefully labelled in Jason’s hand. I read the label: APOLLO. I could hear Jason’s voice in my mind, saying my name, asking me for one favour: Whatever happens, when you get back to Olympus, when you’re a god again, remember. Remember what it’s like to be human.

This, I thought, was being human. Standing on the tarmac, watching mortals load the body of a friend and hero into the cargo hold, knowing that he would never be coming back. Saying goodbye to a grieving young woman who had done everything to help us, and knowing you could never repay her, never compensate her for all that she’d lost.

‘Piper, I …’ My voice seized up like the Sibyl’s.

‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘Just get to Camp Jupiter safely. Let them give Jason the Roman burial he deserves. Stop Caligula.’

Her words weren’t bitter, as I might have expected. They were simply arid, like Palm Springs air – no judgement, just natural heat.

Meg glanced at the coffin in the cargo hold. She looked uneasy about flying with a dead companion. I couldn’t blame her. I’d never invited Hades to go sun cruising with me for good reason. Mixing the Underworld and the Overworld was bad luck.

Regardless, Meg muttered, ‘Thank you.’

Piper pulled the younger girl into a hug and kissed her forehead. ‘Don’t mention it. And, if you’re ever in Tahlequah, come and visit me, okay?’

I thought about the millions of young people who prayed to me every year, hoping to leave their small hometowns across the world and come here to Los Angeles, to make their huge dreams come true. Now Piper McLean was going the other way – leaving the glamour and the movie glitz of her father’s former life, going back to small-town Tahlequah, Oklahoma. And she sounded at peace with it, as if she knew her own Aeithales would be waiting there.

Mellie and Coach Hedge strolled over, Baby Chuck still happily chewing his grenade in the coach’s arms.

‘Hey,’ Coach said. ‘You about ready, Piper? Long road ahead.’

The satyr’s expression was grim and determined. He looked at the coffin in the cargo bay, then quickly fixed his eyes on the tarmac.

‘Just about,’ Piper agreed. ‘You sure the Pinto is up for such a long trip?’ ‘Of course!’ Hedge said. ‘Just, uh, you know, keep in sight, in case the

SUV breaks down and you need my help.’

Mellie rolled her eyes. ‘Chuck and I are riding in the SUV.’

The coach harrumphed. ‘That’s fine. It’ll give me time to play my tunes.

I’ve got Bon Jovi’s entire collection on cassette!’

I tried to smile encouragingly, though I decided to give Hades a new suggestion for the Fields of Punishment if I ever saw him again: Pinto. Road trip. Bon Jovi on cassette.

Meg bopped Baby Chuck on the nose, which made him giggle and spit grenade shavings. ‘What are you guys going to do in Oklahoma?’ she asked.

‘Coach, of course!’ said the coach. ‘They’ve got some great varsity sports teams in Oklahoma. Plus, I hear nature is pretty strong there. Nice place to raise a kid.’

‘And there’s always work for cloud nymphs,’ Mellie said. ‘Everybody needs clouds.’

Meg stared into the sky, maybe wondering how many of those clouds were nymphs making minimum wage. Then, suddenly, her mouth fell open. ‘Uh, guys?’

She pointed north.

A gleaming shape resolved against a line of white clouds. For a moment, I thought a small plane was making its final approach. Then its wings flapped.

The ground crew scrambled into action as Festus the bronze dragon came in for a landing, Leo Valdez riding on his back.

The crew waved their orange flashlight cones, guiding Festus to a spot next to the Cessna. None of the mortals seemed to find this at all unusual. One of the crew shouted up at Leo, asking if he needed any fuel.

Leo grinned. ‘Nah. But if you could give my boy a wash and wax, and maybe find him some Tabasco sauce, that would be great.’

Festus roared in approval.

Leo Valdez climbed down and jogged towards us. Whatever adventures he may have had, he seemed to have come through with his curly black hair, his impish smile and his small, elfish frame intact. He wore a purple T-shirt with gold words in Latin: MY COHORT WENT TO NEW ROME AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT.

‘The party can now start!’ he announced. ‘There’s my peeps!’

I didn’t know what to say. We all just stood there, stunned, as Leo gave us hugs.

‘Man, what’s up with you guys?’ he asked. ‘Somebody hit you with a flash grenade? So, I got good news and bad news from New Rome, but first …’ He scanned our faces. His expression began to crumble. ‘Where’s Jason?’

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