Chapter no 6

The Burning Maze

Random plumes of fire

Ground squirrels nibble my nerves I love the desert

Even after four thousand years, I could still learn important life lessons. For instance: never go shopping with a satyr.

Finding the store took forever, because Grover kept getting sidetracked. He stopped to chat with a yucca. He gave directions to a family of ground squirrels. He smelled smoke and led us on a chase across the desert until he found a burning cigarette someone had dropped onto the road.

‘This is how fires start,’ he said, then responsibly disposed of the cigarette butt by eating it.

I didn’t see anything within a mile radius that could have caught fire. I was reasonably sure rocks and soil were not flammable, but I never argue with people who eat cigarettes. We continued our search for the army-surplus store.

Night fell. The western horizon glowed – not with the usual orange of mortal light pollution but with the ominous red of a distant inferno. Smoke blotted out the stars. The temperature barely cooled. The air still smelled bitter and wrong.

I remembered the wave of flames that had nearly incinerated us in the Labyrinth. The heat seemed to have had a personality – a resentful malevolence. I could imagine such waves coursing beneath the surface of the desert, washing through the Labyrinth, turning the mortal terrain above into an even more uninhabitable wasteland.

I thought about my dream of the woman in molten chains, standing on a platform above a pool of lava. Despite my fuzzy memories, I was sure that woman was the Erythraean Sibyl, the next Oracle we had to free from the emperors. Something told me she was imprisoned in the very centre of …

whatever was generating those subterranean fires. I did not relish the idea of finding her.

‘Grover,’ I said, ‘in the greenhouse, you mentioned something about search parties?’

He glanced over, swallowing painfully, as if the cigarette butt were still stuck in his throat. ‘The heartiest satyrs and dryads – they’ve been fanning out across the area for months.’ He fixed his eyes on the road. ‘We don’t have many searchers. With the fires and the heat, the cacti are the only nature spirits that can still manifest. So far, only a few have come back alive. The rest … we don’t know.’

‘What are they are searching for?’ I asked. ‘The source of the fires? The emperor? The Oracle?’

Grover’s hoof-fitted shoes slipped and skidded on the gravel shoulder. ‘Everything is connected. It has to be. I didn’t know about the Oracle until you told me, but, if the emperor is guarding it, the maze is where he would put it. And the maze is the source of our fire problems.’

‘When you say maze,’ I said, ‘you mean the Labyrinth?’

‘Sort of.’ Grover’s lower lip trembled. ‘The network of tunnels under Southern California – we assume it’s part of the larger Labyrinth, but something’s been happening to it. It’s like this section of the Labyrinth has been … infected. Like it has a fever. Fires have been gathering, strengthening. Sometimes, they mass and spew – There!’

He pointed south. A quarter of a mile up the nearest hill, a plume of yellow flame vented skyward like the fiery tip of a welding torch. Then it was gone, leaving a patch of molten rock. I considered what would’ve happened if I’d been standing there when the vent flared.

‘That’s not normal,’ I said.

My ankles felt wobbly, as if I were the one with fake feet.

Grover nodded. ‘We already had enough problems in California: drought, climate change, pollution, all the usual stuff. But those flames …’ His expression hardened. ‘It’s some kind of magic we don’t understand. Almost a full year I’ve been out here, trying to find the source of the heat and shut it off. I’ve lost so many friends.’

His voice was brittle. I understood about losing friends. Over the centuries, I’d lost many mortals who were dear to me, but at that moment one in particular came to mind: Heloise the griffin, who had died at the Waystation, defending her nest, defending us all from the attack of Emperor Commodus. I remembered her frail body, her feathers disintegrating into a bed of catnip in Emmie’s roof garden …

Grover knelt and cupped his hand around a clump of weeds. The leaves crumbled.

‘Too late,’ he muttered. ‘When I was a seeker, looking for Pan, at least I had hope. I thought I could find Pan and he’d save us all. Now … the god of the Wild is dead.’

I scanned the glittering lights of Palm Springs, trying to imagine Pan in such a place. Humans had done quite a number on the natural world. No wonder Pan had faded and passed on. What remained of his spirit he’d left to his followers – the satyrs and dryads – entrusting them with his mission to protect the wild.

I could have told Pan that was a terrible idea. I once went on vacation and entrusted the realm of music to my follower Nelson Riddle. I came back a few decades later and found pop music infected with sappy violins and backup singers, and Lawrence Welk was playing the accordion on prime-time television. Never. Again.

‘Pan would be proud of your efforts,’ I told Grover. Even to me that sounded half-hearted.

Grover rose. ‘My father and my uncle sacrificed their lives searching for Pan. I just wish we had more help carrying on his work. Humans don’t seem to care. Even demigods. Even …’

He stopped himself, but I suspected he was about to say Even gods.

I had to admit he had a point.

Gods wouldn’t normally mourn the loss of a griffin, or a few dryads, or a single ecosystem. Eh, we would think. Doesn’t concern me!

The longer I was mortal, the more affected I was by even the smallest loss. I hated being mortal.

We followed the road as it skirted the walls of a gated community, leading us towards the neon store signs in the distance. I watched where I put my feet, wondering with each step if a plume of fire might turn me into a Lester flambé.

‘You said everything is connected,’ I recalled. ‘You think the third emperor created this burning maze?’

Grover glanced from side to side, as if the third emperor might jump out from behind a palm tree with an axe and a scary mask. Given my suspicions about the emperor’s identity, that might not be too far-fetched.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but we don’t know how or why. We don’t even know where the emperor’s base is. As far as we can tell, he moves around constantly.’

‘And …’ I swallowed, afraid to ask. ‘The emperor’s identity?’

‘All we know is that he uses the monogram NH,’ said Grover. ‘For Neos Helios.’

A phantom ground squirrel gnawed its way up my spine. ‘Greek. Meaning

New Sun.’

‘Right,’ Grover said. ‘Not a Roman emperor’s name.’ No, I thought. But it was one of his favourite titles.

I decided not to share that information; not here in the dark, with only a jumpy satyr for company. If I confessed what I now knew, Grover and I might break down and sob in each other’s arms, which would be both embarrassing and unhelpful.

We passed the gates of the neighbourhood: DESERT PALMS. (Had someone really got paid to think up that name?) We continued to the nearest commercial street, where fast-food joints and gas stations shimmered.

‘I hoped Mellie and Gleeson would have new information,’ Grover said. ‘They’ve been staying in LA with some demigods. I thought maybe they’d had more luck tracking down the emperor, or finding the heart of the maze.’

‘Is that why the Hedge family came to Palm Springs?’ I asked. ‘To share information?’

‘Partly.’ Grover’s tone hinted at a darker, sadder reason behind Mellie and Gleeson’s arrival, but I didn’t press.

We stopped at a major intersection. Across the boulevard stood a warehouse store with a glowing red sign: MARCO’S MILITARY MADNESS! The parking lot was empty except for an old yellow Pinto parked near the entrance.

I read the store sign again. On second look, I realized the name was not MARCO. It was MACRO. Perhaps I’d developed a bit of demigod dyslexia simply from hanging around them too long.

Military Madness sounded like exactly the sort of place I didn’t want to go. And Macro, as in large worldview or computer program or … something else. Why did that name unleash another herd of ground squirrels into my nervous system?

‘It looks closed,’ I said dully. ‘Must be the wrong army-surplus store.’ ‘No.’ Grover pointed to the Pinto. ‘That’s Gleeson’s car.’

Of course it is, I thought. With my luck, how could it not be?

I wanted to run away. I did not like the way that giant red sign washed the tarmac in bloodstained light. But Grover Underwood had led us through the Labyrinth and, after all his talk about losing friends, I was not about to let him lose another.

‘Well, then,’ I said, ‘let’s go and find Gleeson Hedge.’

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