MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 12
“Ugh. Why is the bus so late?” Maya smoothed down the black lace of her dress as we waited at the front of the school. “I need to get to Pozzuoli and soak in the disintegration.”
I faked a smile, gnawing on my fingernails as we waited for the bus in the front of the school. I’d woken up with a slight headache and my stomach felt queasy, but I didn’t want to stay home alone. I hadn’t dreamed of the firefly since the day on the roof, but even so, I didn’t want to be far from Troy.
I scanned the history classes. When I saw the thatch of purple hair on the back of Troy’s head, my shoulders relaxed. As if on cue, Troy turned and stuck out his tongue.
Valeria nodded behind dark, saucer-sized sunglasses, her pale skin shimmering. In direct sunlight, she and Maya appeared to glow, their paper-thin skin as translucent as layers of an onion. She tipped her head toward me. “Rumor says the bus had a small accident, but it’s on its way.”
“Is that a bad omen?” I chewed my thumbnail to the nub.
The goth girls giggled.
“Any omen is a good one,” Maya said.
Before I could ask what that means, I heard Bax’s voice. “Eden!”
“Remember that surprise I told you about?” His eyes twinkled as he approached, grinning like a little kid trying to keep a secret.
The weird feeling in my stomach subsided a little. It was hard not to smile back. “Uh-huh. What is it?”
“It’s a surprise, remember?” He pushed the hair out of his face. “Anyway, it’s at the amphitheater.”
A knot coiled in my gut. “Bax, maybe it’s not the best day for it—”
“Boys and girls, your attention!” Miss DiPaola climbed the front steps of the school. She wore a peach skirt and hot pink blouse with matching bow, hair teased up and fastened with a rhinestone-flecked comb. She held up her hands and a stack of gold bracelets chime down her arms.
“See you at the amphitheater, okay?” Bax slunk away.
Miss DiPaola shot me a look. “Attenzione!” she said, voice edged with irritation, and we all quieted down. “As the bus is running a few minutes behind schedule, Dr. Williams and I will begin our lessons here.”
We settled into a group and Miss DiPaola continued. “This field trip is among my favorites, not because it is the prettiest or fanciest or shiniest. There are far more beautiful places in our fair city, as you’ll discover when we study baroque Naples...”
She paused, a gleam in her frost-shadowed eyes. “Oh, but the beauty of Pozzuoli lay in its ruins, in the absolutely dire circumstances of the dead civilizations that fester beneath its modern city. Wouldn’t you agree, Dr. Williams?”
A slight man with graying temples, Dr. Williams scratched his red-tinged beard. “Well, ah, Pozzuoli is rather interesting.” He cleared his throat. “As my history students know, it was founded twenty-five hundred years ago by Greek settlers—”
Miss DiPaola clucked. “So tragic, the Greeks.”
He dismissed her zeal with a cough. “Yes, well, Pozzuoli had its heyday, but eventually declined as neighboring Cuma grew more powerful.”
Maya and Valeria clasped hands, shoulders raised.
“Cuma?” I whispered.
“Home of the Sibyl,” Maya whispered back. Seeing my blank look, she added, “She was a psychic.”
“A mistress of the dark arts,” Valeria corrected her. “And total groupie of the King of the Underworld.”
Dr. Williams cleared his throat, glaring at us. “Due to excavation efforts to recover artifacts, we can’t visit the underground cells this year…”
With a shiver, I lowered my voice even more and asked, “What is the Underworld? Hell?”
Valeria shrugged. “Where you go when you die.”
“Yes, and apparently,” Maya leaned in, “Aeneas—”
“—the hero from Greek myths—” Valeria added.
“—went to Cuma to beg the Sibyl to take him to the Underworld—”
“—so he could see his dead father.”
The girls smiled at how they completed each other’s thoughts, but I could only think of the firefly: if I read the leaf, I could be with my mother. Like Aeneas and his dead father.
“So the Sibyl could take people to Hell and back?” I asked. “Through the tunnels?”
My words came out too loud. Candace snickered at the edge of the group and I felt Nyx’s yellow eyes on me.
Miss DiPaola tilted her head in my direction. “Ladies, do you have a question?”
Across the crowd, Troy made a cutting motion at his neck, his mouth rounded in a “NO.”
But curiosity got the better of me. “Um, Dr. Williams, is there a tunnel from Cuma to the Underworld?”
Candace shoved a fist in her mouth to keep from laughing. Nyx made a subtle “L” with her thumb and forefinger, to Heather’s amusement.
Dr. Williams coughed into his elbow with a half-hearted nod. “Throughout Naples, there are many underground tunnels, yes. Do they lead to the Underworld?” He opened and closed his mouth a few times, like a fish, as though stuck for an answer. “Well, er,” he said, “my class deals in facts, not myths, so it’s all speculation as far as I’m concerned.” Cough. “So, back to Pozzuoli… I’ll go out on a limb here, and say the city really came into its own under Roman rule, when it was renamed Putèoli… Oh, good, saved by the bus.”
The bus shuddered to a stop and the teachers herded us into lines.
Troy knocked my shoulder. “Are you trying to embarrass me? ‘Coz it’s working.” Hands in a prayer position, he said, “I’m begging you. Try to chill out. Just for today.”
“Sorry, I had questions,” I said.
Grunting, he returned to Shawna. I slumped behind Donatella, my cheeks burning. As we filed onto the bus, Bax gave me a thumbs-up and Dona giggled. “Good thing he likes nerds, right?”
“Sto scorsando!” She grabbed a seat in the middle of the bus. “I’m kidding. He thinks you’re smart, and that’s a good thing. Most boys only joke around on field trips. Like him.” She nodded at Eric, who was busy flexing his biceps for Nyx and Candace. “Why Daria likes him so much, I dunno. It’s so obvious he’s with Nyx.”
“Nyx is such a –” I pursed my lips, unable to find the perfect word. “I mean, what does he see in her?”
“Are you blind? She’s like a supermodel, from her perfect hair down to her perfect shoes.”
I leaned into the aisle and checked out Nyx’s shiny new loafers. Dona was right: they were perfect. And they probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.
She shook her head. “Cool shoes or not, I wouldn’t trust Nyx as far as I could throw her.”
Under my breath, I said, “I bet I could take her.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Donatella arched an eyebrow. “No offense, but Neapolitans know the evil eye when they see it.”
* * *
The bus swerved through timeworn streets, barreling past striped trattoria awnings and displays of cured meats, lacy lettuces and Technicolor produce. Portly shopkeepers swept sidewalks, cigarettes dangling from their lips, and black-vested waiters smoothed wrinkles from crisp linens. Despite the relentless churning in my stomach, I tried to relax, training my eyes on the details of daily life in Pozzuoli.
We sputtered into a dusty parking lot. Miss DiPaola teetered forward and her bangles clinked together. She gripped a seat back for balance, one hand on her hairdo. “Allora, the Anfiteatro Flavio. Dr. Williams’ students may disembark first.”
The entrance to the amphitheater was lined with a dozen rows of disembodied statue heads, marble limbs and columns, like a junk yard of old museum parts, everything laid out haphazardly with no information. The arches of the coliseum rose above us, crumbling red brick weathered gray in spots by age and pollution.
“Isn’t it delightful?” asked Maya. She held a black lace parasol over her head, filtering the sun in delicate patterns. “So much history and ruin.”
For once, I understood her fascination.
In spite of my stomach ache, a surge of excitement overwhelmed me. Before this, the oldest place I’d ever visited was Mission San Diego de Alcalá, California’s first mission; built in the late 1700s, it was practically brand-new compared to this. I grabbed Notebook 19 from my bag and sketched a headless marble goddess while Dr. Williams rambled on.
Each disintegrating brick and curling vine vied for my attention as we moved toward the entrance. I juggled Notebook 19 and a small handful of colored pencils, trying to capture the details of the amphitheater as quickly as I could, but when Dr. Williams’ voice grew too soft to hear, I realized I was the last of our group outside. I tucked Notebook 19 into my backpack and hurried to join a group of girls from Miss DiPaola’s upper-level art class.
The inner corridor of the coliseum was several degrees cooler and shrouded in shadows. I blinked, waiting for my eyes to adjust, and a shadow leaped across the wall. I blinked again. A swath of black –fabric? bats? –fluttered and disappeared around the curve of the hallway.
“Scusa!” A tall guard rushed past me, in the direction of the bats.
I leaned back to catch my breath, brushing my fingertips over the rough stone wall and a shiver danced up my spine, settling at the back of my head, at the base of my violet streak. The wall felt cold and bumpy against my skin, like the tunnel in my firefly dreams.
But it couldn’t be…
Dr. Williams coughed and I edged closer to my group, but the shiver quickly became a fever, then nausea. I’d never had the flu come on so suddenly… maybe it was food poisoning… but I hadn’t eaten. Every step hurt, each movement causing a micro-earthquake in my skull. I wondered how I could get through the field trip, but it was impossible.
I couldn’t do it. I had to leave.
“Do we start here… or there?” Miss DiPaola asked Dr. Williams, who scratched his beard in response.
I raised my hand, but the teachers didn’t see me. My forehead throbbed and I fell against the stone wall. The sunlight played tricks on my eyes, skipping across dust clouds, sparkling and swaying. I watched it, sure that I was hallucinating.
My forehead throbbed as though someone was pounding on it from the inside, like my brain was being dismantled, piece by piece. With every swell of pain, my stomach turned over on itself. I squeezed my eyes together, hoping I wouldn’t throw up. I couldn’t wait for Miss DiPaola.
Covering my mouth with my hand, I opened my eyes, ready to bolt for the bathroom.
And that’s when I saw the gold dust force its way out of my forehead.
Tiny puffs of gold-flecked air escaped from my head and formed a series of dusty images, like scenes from a movie on an old TV with static. There was a young man with golden hair, hands cupped together, and a wild-eyed maiden with dark skin and messy hair waiting for the gift in his palms…
Then the gold dust swirled into a line of sparkling letters, swirls and dots, an ancient language. The words came to me as plainly as they had when I’d spoken with the old Romani woman.
THE MUSE WARRIOR HAS COME… THE PROPHECY IS IN PLACE
The gold dust faded and I leaned against the wall, clutching my stomach, sure of only one thing: I was totally losing it.
It was definitely not normal, gold dust pounding its way out of my head. Although the pain seemed to subside a little, I knew something was terribly wrong with me. I didn’t have time to wait for Grandma Cleo to arrive and explain her email. I needed to find Troy, tell him everything and pray he could help me, even if it meant committing me to a mental hospital.
“Hey, you okay?” Bax appeared at my side, eyes tight with concern.
“Did you see anything?” I asked Bax, hoping the gold dust wasn’t all in my head. Maybe it was something else, something normal, like the reflection of a watch or a piece of jewelry. But how would that explain the image of the man and woman?
Bax tilted his head to one side, confused. “Uh-uh.”
“I need to find Troy.” I scanned the classes and saw my brother’s lanky frame a few yards away, next to Shawna and Dr. Williams.
Nearby, Dr. Williams droned, “…Could hold up to twenty thousand spectators… largest coliseum of the Roman Empire after, ahem, Rome and Capua…”
The group moved toward the staircase, which opened onto the main arena.
Bax nudged my arm. “I was gonna save this for later,” he whispered, “but you seem like you could use some fresh air.” He nodded toward the inner corridor, away from our group. “We could go for a quick walk…” His eyebrows arched, waiting for me to respond.
I thought about it. Maybe all I needed was some fresh air, some time to get a grip on reality. Then I heard the creepy janitor’s voice in my head: Don’t get lost. Another shiver crept up my spine and I brushed my hourglass necklace with my fingers.
“I don’t know,” I said. Outside, Miss DiPaola was herding the art students to one side of the arena while Dr. Williams lectured his classes on the other side, motioning with his hands, pointing out various details of the coliseum. The small patch of purple hair on Troy’s head blazed in the sunlight as he loped alongside Shawna, his fingers linked with hers. He’d be out of my sight in a few steps. “Maybe after lunch…”
“C’mon, Eden,” Bax urged, his blue-green eyes wide and soft, like a puppy’s. “This is my surprise. An adventure. It’ll take 10 minutes, max.”
“Is there a geocache here?” I asked.
“Nah, even better.” Bax swiped hair out of his eyes. “If we stay with the group, we won’t see anything ‘coz they don’t go downstairs. But I know how to sneak in…”
I sighed. Aside from our group, there were dozens of other tourists and school groups. No one else seemed wigged out. What was I afraid of? Dust?
I’d tell Troy about the weird feeling later. In fact, I’d tell him every detail, even the part about the robed person in chains and the janitor and the gold dust spelling out words. I’d lay it all out and let him decide if I was crazy.
That could wait until after school, couldn’t it?
Besides, inspiration for collages surrounded me: crushed bits of marble, the ridged edges of columns, the abandoned urns of ancient food vendors…
“What if we get caught?” I asked. “Dr. Williams said they’re excavating ancient artifacts.”
“Think I want my dad to find out?” He shook his head. “No way. Watch, we’ll be back before Dr. Williams clears his throat for the hundredth time.”
We laughed and it was the first time I’d felt normal since we’d gotten to the amphitheater. He was right: I needed a break.
“Okay,” I said, “but this better be worth it.”
Bax broke into a wide smile. “Right this way.”