MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 31
In the amber firelight, my forearm gleamed with the Mark. It was so exquisite and refined with its gentle, looping lines, I almost forgot its true purpose. Beautiful as it was, the Mark was a reminder that Apollo had cursed me to be the Muse Warrior, the one who would use the Oracles to defeat the Sibyl and save Olympus. He had sacrificed me long before I was born. Apollo had marked me to die.
“This Mark is the reason my mother died,” I said, stomach sick with the memory of her soul being dragged beneath the Earth by Pluto’s creatures. “It’s why my brother’s missing.”
“In a sense, yes.” Vulcan heaved a sigh, nodding his head. “But it was yours before you were born. You were going to arrive here at some point on your journey, Eden. Your Destiny is the responsibility of all the Gods.”
“My grandmother said the same thing. That I can’t outrun my fate.”
“But you shouldn’t want to, not the Muse Warrior. You are the most powerful of Apollo’s progeny.”
His words conjured a new wave of fear and doubt. I didn’t feel powerful, and what did that mean anyway? The Mark shimmered on my arm and I chewed on the inside of my cheek, too ashamed to admit that I thought the Gods were wrong.
“How did you conjure Apollo from thin air?” Vulcan asked suddenly.
I rooted around in my pocket and held up my phone; it, too, had been cleaned by Vulcan’s magic. “I got the idea from my phone…”
As I swiped at the screen with my fingers Vulcan’s honey eyes lit up and I remembered another of his Olympic titles: the God of Technology.
“Here, try it.” I handed him the phone and he wrapped his hulking fingers around the sleek metallic case.
“Remarkable,” he said, his face lit by the blue light of modern tech. After a few clicks, he gave the phone back and I tucked it into my pocket. “The Muses outdid themselves with such an inspired invention.”
My chest swelled with a strange mix of pride and sadness. “I wish my grandmother could tell me more about being a Muse.”
“Being raised as a mortal, there are many things you will not understand, but that is part of your journey. I have long anticipated your arrival. We Olympians are all too old, too comfortable. Our destinies have been set.” Vulcan waved a hand and Steropes refilled our ambrosia.
Although I wasn’t thirsty, I raised the sparkling glass to my lips. The first sip exploded like fizzy pop rocks and the slippery sweet taste of watermelon sour candy. But the second sip was entirely different: smoke and fire, gold, turmoil and triumph.
The fire in the hearth crackled warmly and we sat in a comfortable silence while the ambrosia took hold. I could see why the Gods were reluctant to leave Olympus. Their lives were charmed. But I had things to do.
“I’d better go. My brother needs me. Thank you for the Mark, and the ambrosia.” I stood and tapped my forearm. I wanted to ask, Will it help me find the Oracle? Will it kill the Sibyl? Instead, I said, “By the way, how does it work?”
Without words, Vulcan sprang from his seat and limped away from the fire, hobbling on his backwards feet through the rooms of the palace. I raced behind him, keenly aware of dozens of hulking Cyclopes, each staring at me with a single unblinking eye. They allowed me a wide berth as I ran past them, but shuffled behind us through the factories and into the forge.
I found Vulcan standing before a boiling caldron at the center of the forge. A long-handled spoon stirred itself around the pot, and the metal inside swirled like liquid gold, sputtering with each turn. Vulcan stoked the fire beneath the caldron with an iron rod until it glowed white, and then rested it on an anvil. With a blackened hammer from the wall, he struck the head of the iron rod with enough force to send sparks shooting from the tip.
After several more blows, the iron transformed into a razor-sharp dagger. Vulcan dipped the blade into the cauldron once more, causing the swirling gold to hiss. When dagger reemerged from the cauldron, plated with gold, its tip gleamed like jewelry.
Vulcan busied himself with the handle, moving about the forge and dipping it into various bubbling pots and cauldrons. Then he turned the blade over in his calloused hands, inspecting his work. Abruptly, he called out, “Steropes! Your veins!”
The Cyclops bounded forward and raised one muscled arm, turning his head. Vulcan held the dagger in one hand and grasped Steropes’ wrist firmly with the other. With a flick of the dagger, he pierced the side of the beast’s hand.
I shrieked, holding one hand over my eyes. Carefully, I peeked between my fingers.
Vulcan gripped Sterope’s wrist and a green, glowing liquid flowed from his wound onto the dagger. “A Cyclops’ blood is a powerful serum, Eden. Each one has a unique healing quality.”
Once the tip was covered in Sterope’s blood, Vulcan nodded brusquely. “That will do, Steropes.”
The giant Cyclops pinched his wrist with his other hand and bowed to me. As he stepped back, another Cyclops produced a small vial and dabbed a silver liquid on Steropes’ wound. It sizzled with a tiny spark and the skin of his wrist closed up, as though it had never been pierced.
“You are powerful, Eden, and you may not need this,” Vulcan said, holding the dagger up to the light. Steropes’ blood congealed, a bright glow on the sharp tip. Finally, with a curt bow of chin, the God of Fire grasped the blade of the dagger and offered its golden handle to me. “But just in case.”
* * *
The journey from the center of Solfatara was a blur. I had imagined myself back on the surface and soon I was trudging on a residential street, searching for a bus stop. All around me was the bustling family life of Naples: mothers and fathers returning from work, kids kicking soccer balls in the street, the sumptuous aromas of home-cooked meals. The further I got from Vulcan’s lair and the bubbling pits of Solfatara, the more it felt like a dream I couldn’t shake off. What was “real” anymore, anyway: the world in which I was born, or the world of the Gods?
Vulcan’s dagger was a heavy weight in the front pocket of my jacket as I wandered toward a small row of shops and restaurants at the end of the block. My stomach groaned and I walked into a tiny pizzeria, lured by a glass case of a spongy pizzette smeared with tomato sauce and dotted with burrata cheese. I bought one and gobbled it down before the heavyset pizzaiola had time to count my change. When I asked him for the nearest bus stop, he wiped his flour-dusted hands on his apron and pointed me to the next street corner, passing me another pizzette for the road.
At the bus stop, I kicked aside an empty water bottle and collapsed onto the bench. A twitch of electricity coursed through my left forearm and I rolled up my sleeve to check on the Mark. It was still there, glimmering under a thin layer of gold dust. I exhaled, relieved. Maybe I didn’t know what was “real,” but at least I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
As I touched the strange designs of the Mark, the conflicting feelings of pride and shamed returned. I was chosen, out of all of Apollo’s children, to wear this Mark and to find what the Darkness seeks. But the Oracles were still a mystery to me, location unknown.
I had the key, but where was the lock?
In the quiet, I was aware of a soft clicking sound and a strange whirring sensation at my neck. Something was moving in the hourglass pendant.
I unclasped the chain and peered at the hourglass in the waning sunlight. The sand had shifted, most of it had fallen into the bottom bulb. A steady stream of golden sand shimmied downward, and I guessed there were a few hundred grains of sand in the top bowl. I turned the hourglass upside down, but the sand didn’t change its direction. It continued to flow in a constant rhythm, now upward. I shook the hourglass and twisted it, but still the sand trickled through the glass with sure, measured efficiency.
The Mark pulsed on my arm.
Of course, it made sense; now that I had the Mark, I was the Muse Warrior. I was on the path to my Destiny, so the hourglass worked.
A grain of sand shimmied through the glass neck, landing on the pile below. What else could I learn from the hourglass? Where was Troy? Did it have a map to the Oracles? A secret message?
I spun the pendant around in my fingers, wondering if it held the answer to the most important question.
How much time did I have left?