MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 13
We looped around the coliseum, past countless ancient columns lying on their sides. In our big group, I would have missed the details. Instead, everything inspired me: the architecture, the decay, the moody light of the hallway, the packs of tourists snapping photos every few feet. I swept my fingertips across the crumbling tufa walls, imagining a collage spackled with red tempera paint and striped with pearl-gray watercolor columns, paper ripped and glued sideways.
With a glance over his shoulder, Bax stopped at a metal gate and peered down a steep staircase. Above the lock hung a bright yellow sign: ENTRATA VIETATA. No entry.
“Allora,” he said with a wide smile.
I rattled the gate’s thick chain, secured by a large rusty lock. “Oh look, an ancient Roman lock.”
“Hang on, hang on…” Bax pulled a Swiss army knife from his pocket and fiddled with the lock. Within seconds, it clicked open. He pushed the gate and we were in.
He shrugged. “Old cub scout trick.”
The dilapidated stairs were covered in lichens and lit intermittently by weak electric wall lamps that hardly cast any light at all. It reminded me of the tunnel in my dream and the firefly’s words: You will bring me what I need or you will suffer the consequences, like your mother. Death is upon us. Time is running out.
Panic rose in my chest as Bax descended into the belly of the amphitheater. “You sure about this, Bax? Maybe we should turn back…”
Then I thought about the crumbling walls and the history within them. It was one thing to read about Roman architecture or history, but here was the chance to experience it, without a guidebook or teacher. It seemed silly not to just take a peek around.
I skittered forward, calling, “Bax, wait up.”
We reached the bottom of one set of stairs and Bax led me toward another in the center of the corridor, hands in pockets. “So, how do you like Naples so far?”
I shrugged a little. “I miss San Diego, but it’s okay, I guess.”
“You miss your mom?”
The question caught me off-guard, and my eyes stung in that ready-to-cry way. “She died when I was born.”
“Oh.” We walked in silence for a few steps, then Bax said, “I thought maybe your parents were divorced, like mine.” Voice quieter, he added, “Sometimes I forget I even have a mom, since she lives so far away.”
I nodded without saying anything, too ashamed to tell him that I sometimes wondered if my dad and Grandma Cleo had invented her, like a fairytale they told me and Troy when we were children.
The weak light of the wall sconces, spaced every twenty or thirty feet, gave me an eerie feeling of déjà vu. Thinking about my mother – and the firefly’s words – didn’t help.
“You sure about this, Bax?” I asked. “If we go back now, no one will know we were gone…”
“A few more stairs...”
At the bottom of the second staircase, smaller than the first, my eyes adjusted to the light. Dappled sunlight filtered through the metal grates of the amphitheater’s arena, above us. A wide corridor hugged the perimeter, and a long passageway in the center stretched out before us, dividing the amphitheater in half lengthwise.
With a grin, Bax announced, “Siamo qui.”
There was a metallic wheeze behind us and my stomach twisted. “What’s that?”
Bax froze and his eyes darted around us. “Probably nothing. I’ve never seen anyone here, not even a guard.” He nodded toward the center passage. “We’ll stick to the center of the arena, just in case.”
He forged ahead but I waited a beat, listening.
With another glance at the stairwell, and against my better judgment, I jogged to catch up with him. The corridor was a long stretch of thick stone walls partitioned into tiny rooms, like prison cells. The air was dusty and stale. It gave me the creeps.
Afraid to speak in a normal voice, I whispered, “Where are we?”
“This is where they used to keep the cages for the wild animals the gladiators would fight. Elephants, zebras, tigers… anything that the Romans poached from Africa and Asia. You can’t see it now because this place was stripped of its metal and decorations in the Middle Ages, but there used to be metal gears here.” Bax touched a gouged-out spot in the stone wall. “That’s how they raised the cages up to the arena. Until the cage opened, gladiators wouldn’t know if they’d be fighting a man, a wild ostrich or an elephant.”
I pressed my palm against the rough wall and recoiled. The horror of the arena was still there, trapped under centuries of ruin and disuse. I sensed the fear of the animals, the ferocity of the burly gladiators, the bloodlust of the Roman spectators.
“My friend John and I snuck down here a few years ago and found it.” Bax wandered away to look inside a cell. His eyes lit up, like a kid at the circus. It was probably how I looked when I was at an art store or working on a new collage.
Someone coughed and I nearly leapt out of my skin. Finger to his lips, Bax pointed overhead.
Directly above us, our group was walking across the metal grates, Dr. Williams at the front. I recognized the bustling hem of Maya’s dress and Nyx’s tall lace-up boots. Shawna was at the back of the group, pausing every few steps to look back. I didn’t see Troy.
My stomach pitched. Something wasn’t right.
“Let’s go—” I started, but Bax was already nodding.
He motioned straight ahead. “If we go this way,” he whispered, “we’ll get to the other side at the same time they do.”
We hurried across the arena, tracking Dr. Williams by the echolocation of his phlegmy cough. With his Swiss army knife, Bax jimmied open a lock at the bottom of another flight of moss-covered stairs.
At the top, a collection of footsteps echoed through the corridor, around the corner from us. We flattened ourselves against the wall of the stairway, out of sight. A throng of black robes swept through the hall, away from us, faces obscured by hoods. I counted at least five.
“Nuns,” Bax murmured and my shoulders relaxed.
Nuns. I’d thought they were bats or… who knows what. Leaning against the wall, I wondered about the man and woman in the gold dust. I’d imagined them, too. That made sense.
A knifelike pain stabbed at my abdomen. As the nuns’ footsteps receded, I wiped sweat from my forehead. “Bax, I don’t feel well…”
A new set of footsteps pounded toward us. Bax held his arm across me and tapped a finger to his lips. “Shh…”
Whoever was running down the hallway thundered closer, gaining speed until it sounded like they would race past us. Then, the footfalls came to an abrupt halt, skidding to a stop and pelting our legs with gravel.
“Eden! What the—?”
Troy loomed over us, mouth tight, eyebrows arched into angry upside-down V’s. Even so, a small wave of relief shuddered through me. We weren’t in trouble, at least not yet.
“No, it’s okay, Troy… I can explain,” I said, holding up my hands. “Bax was just showing me the underground cells—”
“Are you kidding?” Troy asked, his face red. “Do you know how freaked out I was?”
Bax stepped forward. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I wanted to show her—”
Troy squared his chest to Bax, nostrils flaring. I’d never seen him like this, eyes wild with anger. For a second, I thought he might hit Bax. “I don’t care, dude! She’s not your responsibility, she’s mine.”
“Responsibility?” Although it felt like a thousand electric eels stinging my internal organs, I bit the pain away and tried to stand up straighter. “You don’t need to take care of me—”
Troy spun toward me. “Seriously? You tell me all that crazy stuff about the Underworld and then you up and disappear…”
My heart sank. He wasn’t angry; he was afraid. “You said you didn’t believe me. You said they were just stories—”
Another imaginary knife plunged into my gut. I stopped to catch my breath but all I could think of was the firefly. “Troy, I was going to tell you this later, but—”
My brother grabbed my arm and pulled me into the corridor. “Talk while ya walk. Shawna has no idea I left and we’ll be in a lot of trouble if they find us under here.”
I tried to keep pace with him, but with each step, a fiery cord twisted my stomach into knots, like skeletal fingers prodding at my ribs, trying to snap them from the inside out. I groaned and slumped against the wall.
“Dude, what happened to my sister?” Troy shouted at Bax.
“I…I don’t know,” Bax stammered. “When we were upstairs, she looked a little nauseous… that’s why I took her for a walk…”
“This keeps getting better,” Troy muttered. “Come on, help me get her out of here before the teachers send out a warrant.”
Each put an arm under me and we shuffled through the dark hallway, which seemed to dissolve every other step. One moment, I felt myself being carried by my brother and Bax. The next, I was on the cliff with the firefly, or climbing the tree, or holding its red-hot jar.
Then I remembered what Bax had told me when we met. If I got in trouble, my dad would be punished, too.
“Troy, we can’t get caught,” I wheezed. “We can’t do that to Dad.”
Troy shook his head. “Should’a thought of that before you decided to skip class with a guy you barely know.”
“Troy, man, I’m so sorry.” Bax shifted his weight under my shoulder. “You gotta promise you won’t tell anyone about this. My dad would kill me…”
“That right?” Troy snorted.
I stared up at Troy, noticing how the purple patch of hair on his head stood out, even in the dim hallway, and thought, He’s such a good brother. “Troy,” I whimpered, “the gypsy we saw during the ICR trip… she said—”
“Hold that thought.” Troy stopped and craned his neck side to side. “Are we walking in circles? And… is that a dead end?”
“I’m pretty sure we came from there.” Bax pointed in the opposite direction.
I winced, holding one arm around my stomach, and tried to steady my breath.
“Pretty sure?” Troy barked. “Or 100 percent sure? Coz Eden’s not gonna make it far.”
Bax’s arm stiffened behind my back. “Uh, 85 percent?”
“Wait… shh!” Troy held his hand up and we fell silent. “Do you hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything,” Bax whispered.
My brother stood still, ears pricked. “It’s hissing… like air escaping from a ball…coming from that way…”
A strange mist had materialized in the hallway a few paces away from us. There was no fire and it didn’t smell like smoke.
Bax waved his hand at the air. “That’s weird…”
“Something’s wrong.” Troy’s arm stiffened and he gripped me tighter. “We shouldn’t be here.”
The mist swelled into a gloomy, sulfurous haze, filling the passageway. It licked at the walls of the tunnel and surged forward with its sooty, vaporous tendrils. The hissing sounded like words: Muse… Muse… Each time the mist lunged, I felt a sharp jab in my gut. I coughed, the sour acid of nausea roiling through my body.
“Bax, come on!” Troy gripped me tighter. “Get us outta here!”
“Uh… that way!” Bax said.
I was semi-conscious as they scrambled away from the mist. “Muse…” I mumbled, my words caught between my dreams and my mouth. “The war of the worlds… begins… with a muse…”
Then my knees buckled.
“Eden!” Troy caught me before I collapsed, but his voice was far away, muffled by the hissing.
I heard the firefly’s laugh inside the mist. Where is the Mark, child?
“Bax, go get help!” Troy ordered.
“Do it!” Troy yelled. “I’ll take the blame, but we need help!”
Bax let me go and I fell against my brother like a sack of sand. As he tore down the hallway at a breakneck sprint, Troy propped me against the uneven wall. My eyes flickered. It was hard to hold my eyelids up. Even so, I could barely see Troy’s outline in the foggy mist.
“Eden, listen to me, you gotta snap out of this.” He shook my shoulders. “Can you hear me? Open your eyes if you can hear me.”
Head lolling, I heaved forward and opened my eyes.
Behind Troy, a pair of skeletal hands pierced the darkness, aiming for Troy’s throat.
The mist swallowed us whole, shrouding everything in darkness. I heard a scuffle, but couldn’t see or feel anything except the wall behind me. “Troy!”
The firefly’s voice buzzed in my head. The Mark, child! Where is it?
I clung to the jagged rock of the wall. “I don’t know what you want!” I screamed. “Where’s my brother?”
A hint of fabric slithered across my arm and I swatted it away. Scaly fingers scraped my neck, squeezing my windpipe. They were bare bones, icy cold and rough.
“Who… are… you?!” I choked.
There will be no more warnings, child. Where is the Mark?
The hands gripped me tighter, twisting my skin in opposite directions until my neck was raw with the searing pain of a rope burn. I struggled to breathe in staccato bursts. “I don’t… have… it!” Blood rushed to my head and oxygen drained from my lungs.
“Let… her… go!” Troy grunted.
A rush of footsteps roared toward me, followed by a series of heavy thumps and punches. Bones snapped. With an unearthly groan, the hands around my neck loosened.
Troy yanked my arm and we ran into the mist. We got about six steps in before the hallway exploded into fire and the ground dissolved into a giant black hole. Flames lapped at the edges, casting grim shadows on the gnarled walls. The pit reeked of death and despair, humming with a chorus of high-pitched shrieks.
“What the—?” My brother froze, the blazing fire reflected in his eyes. I’d never seen my brother scared before. Now that I had, I didn’t know if we’d make it out alive.
A cluster of phantom-like figures drifted out of the mist in flowing black robes. One of them raised its head. Its hood fell backward, revealing a gray, sunken face, flesh hanging loosely from its skull, eyes as vacant as Edvard Munch’s ghoulish painting.
Troy pulled me in the opposite direction. The creature caught our legs, knocking us down. Troy scrambled to his feet, but the creature pierced my legs with its sharp, bony hands. I thrashed against my attacker, but each movement felt as though I was cutting my own flesh in the creature’s vise-like grip.
The phantom dragged me by the legs toward the fire. My thoughts become the firefly’s screeches: Bring me the Mark or you will suffer the same consequences as your mother.
A flurry of black robes descended on Troy and the fire pit blazed higher, buzzing like a hive of bees. The phantom squeezed my legs harder, dragging me toward the crackling flames until I could no longer see my brother.
The metallic taste of pain filled my mouth and thickened my tongue. “I don’t…have…it….” I murmured.
Troy burst through the crush of black robes and kicked the creature. It reeled backward and Troy pulled me onto my shaky legs. “Go!” he yelled. “Run as fast as you can! I’m right behind you!”
Woozy, I scrambled to my feet and ran, even as the flames race through the hallway and lapped at my ankles. When I looked back, Troy had tackled the phantom and pushed him into fiery pit. Flames howled through the corridor.
My shoulders scraped the sides of the tunnel and I tripped on the uneven ground as I struggled to run away. When I turned back, I saw Troy lunge away from the fire. Behind him, the creature rose from the flames, holding something in his bony hands. As he lifted it above his head, I screamed, “Troy!”
The chain came down in a single, terrifying swoop and my brother collapsed. Flames surged up from the pit like fiery tentacles and snatched Troy’s body, pulling him into the hole. With a final sneer, the creature dove headlong into the flames after my brother. The other phantoms plunged into the maw of the pit behind them and the hole sizzled shut.
“NO!” I cried as a spark of light raced past me.
“Firefly?” I ran toward it, trailing the glimmer of light and sound of flapping wings. “Firefly, I’ll give you the leaf! I’ll find the Mark!” Hot, desperate tears streamed down my face. “I’ll do whatever you want,” I whimpered. “Just please… please bring back my brother…”
An eerily familiar deep voice cut through the darkness. “Eden, you must not give away the leaf–”
I’m startled by a security guard, crouched beside the burned outline of a circle. A trace of smoke hovered above the ground.
“Did you see my brother?” I asked. “He was here—” I threw myself on the ground, scraping at the floor with my fingernails. There was no hole, no trap door, no sign of my brother.
“Eden…” the guard said and I recognized him: the man from the lobby, the school janitor. He was dressed as a security guard, a shiny black cap propped awkwardly on his wig-like hair.
“You’re the firefly?” I asked, mind spinning. “You’re the firefly and you want the leaf – that’s why you’re following me?” Salty tears streamed down my cheeks. “I’ll give you the leaf, whatever you want, just let my brother go!”
He stared at me with sad, honey-colored eyes and shook his head. Tiny glimmers of light showered the tufa walls. “This was not in your destiny.”
Body shaking, I stared at him for a long moment, unable to think clearly. “Not in my what?”
“Your destiny,” he repeated, but I couldn’t hear him. Another shot of blinding pain wrapped its vise-like grip around me. I tried to steady myself on the gritty dirt floor, but I couldn’t hold on. It was my fault. I didn’t give the leaf to the firefly and now Troy was gone.