MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 19

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 19

The cafeteria was packed, but I couldn’t think clearly after my run-in with Nyx. Every squeaky step of her red leather shoes was an irritating reminder of her smug face. Why was she so hell-bent on making my life miserable?

Find Bax, my earrings pleaded.

From the entrance, I scanned the table where Bax usually sat. Shawna waved to me from the jock’s table and I smiled back. Daria caught my eye and gestured for me to sit with them, shoving Marco over, but I pointed to my books like I had homework to do and she nodded knowingly.

I retreated to the cafeteria line and saw a thatch of unruly blond hair waiting at the counter. Bax glanced around, bored. When he saw me, his face lit up.

Which was weird because I had the exact opposite reaction. Instead of that girly, nervous thing I used to feel when I saw him, a feeling of dread washed over me. If it wasn’t for Bax, I wouldn’t have been downstairs at the amphitheater, and Troy would still be here, and I wouldn’t be wearing Nyx’s stupid shoes.

As I squeaked toward him in the red loafers, I thought, What if he can’t read the leaf? I was pinning all my hope onto a guy I barely knew, whose advice was questionable at best.

“Hey, I’ve been worried about you,” he said, making room for me in line.

“Yeah, thanks, I guess.” I crossed my arms, struggling against what I really wanted to say: Why did you make me lie?

He gestured to the lunch counter. “Wanna get some lunch? My treat.”

I shook my head. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Sure.” His shoulders fell slightly and he brushed his hair to the side with one hand, pushing his tray toward the cashier. “You can share with me if you change your mind.”

Even though I was still upset at him, I caught myself staring at his twinkling eyes as he paid the cashier. It made no sense – how could I still think he was cute when it was his fault my brother was missing?

My earrings vibrated and spoke to me in that calm, matter-of-fact voice that sounded like me. Except for the matter-of-fact and calm part.

Let it go, they said. Show him the leaf.

“Listen, I need to talk to you,” I said.

Bax folded his wallet and slipped it into his back pocket. “I figured. Where do you wanna sit?”

I browsed the cafeteria, looking for an empty, quiet spot. We couldn’t sit near Daria and expect to have a private conversation, and I wanted to be as far away from Nyx as possible.

A group of 8th grade boys scattered away from a table at the back. “Over there?”

We raked aside the empty Gatorade bottles and chip bags and Bax sat across from me. His chin dipped and he stared at his tray.

“Eden, I’m really sorry about what happened. My dad says they’re trying everything, talking to all the Italian polizia and everything, but so far he can’t find any trace of your brother. And now, the thing with the artifact…” He paused, and when he spoke again, it was more to his sandwich than to me. “I still think we did the right thing, staying out of the way of the investigation.”

“Yeah, about that,” I said. “Nyx knows something.”

His blue eyes grew large and the color drained from his face. “About what?”

“She said she knows we were underground.”

“How?”

“No idea, but she made me give her my shoes.”

“What?” He peeked under the table and returned with a perplexed look on his face. “Why?”

“Because weird is the new normal?” I shrugged. “She told me I still owe her a favor for ‘keeping our secret,’ but first I had to give her my shoes. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here. I need your help for something different.”

I flicked a hot dog wrapper aside and heaved my backpack onto the table, grabbing Notebook 19. As I flipped through the pages, I felt Bax’s eyes on me.

“What?” I snapped.

He blushed and tucked into his turkey sandwich. “Cool earrings.”

“Thanks.” I touched the gold hoops. Calliope’s earrings cooed warmly on my earlobes, radiating heat to my cheeks. “They’ve been in my family for a long, long time.”

Now a deep crimson color, Bax added, “They, uh, they look nice on you.”

There was an awkward silence between us.

Why had I been so furious with him? Why was I sitting here, tongue-tied?

I looked down at Notebook 19.

Right. The leaf.

With a deep breath, I flipped the journal open and took the leaf out.

“Hey,” Bax wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “is that the leaf from the American Hotel? Remember, the night we met?”

Oh god. Did he think I saved it, like a souvenir? I hadn’t considered that I’d seem like an obsessed stalker.

In spite of complete embarrassment, I cleared my throat and said, “Uh, okay, I know this will sound weird, but I got this leaf from this gypsy lady near Squeeze Alley—”

“Humpty Dumpty?” He bit into his sandwich.

“Yeah… how’d you know?”

“She’s always there, bugging the ICR tours.”

“Right… So she gave me this necklace,” I touched the hourglass around my neck, “and wrapped it up in this leaf. I noticed some unusual symbols on the back of it and,” I took a breath, hoping he wouldn’t think I’d lost it, “since you know a lot about history and archaeology, I thought maybe you could tell me if they meant anything.”

Bax took another bite and let a few pieces of lettuce stick to his lips as he considered the leaf. After a few moments, he said, “We should ask Eric. He takes Latin and—”

Across the cafeteria, Eric was hunkered over his tray, deep in conversation with Nyx and her friends. Maybe Eric was okay, but Nyx knew too much already without adding fresh information as kindling to her fire of hate.

Her words echoed in my head: You’ll just have to owe me. I couldn’t begin to imagine what else she might want me to do. Shine her volleyballs? Braid Candace’s ugly red hair? Dive head first into a river of crocodiles?

“No, I’d rather not,” I grimaced. “The Nyx thing.”

He nodded. “I get it. Fair enough.”

“You’re supposed to say something like ‘Nah, she doesn’t hate you,’ or ‘She’s just jealous of your volleyball skills,’” I teased dryly.

Bax slurped his soda, hair falling in his eyes. “While I’m sure you’re kick-ass at volleyball, Nyx isn’t exactly Glinda the Good Witch.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever, forget her. What do you think about the leaf? Am I nuts?”

He held the leaf and studied it, turning it over in his hands. Using his phone, he snapped a picture of the front, then the back. Then he placed the phone on the table and tapped through various applications.

“Okay, it doesn’t look like Latin,” he said seconds later, “so I’ll see if maybe there’s another language…”

Calliope’s earrings cooed and I thought of something Grandma Cleo told me when I was little: the Roman Gods had their roots in Greek mythology.

Maybe Latin was too new.

Maybe the symbols were Greek.

“I have a weird idea,” I said.

Bax looked up, turquoise eyes sparkling. “You tend to, don’t you?”

For the first time in nearly a week, a smile burst across my cheeks. “Okay, it’s just a thought, but what if the symbols are Greek? Can you look that up?”

“Why not?” He tapped and waited, eyes darting over the screen. “Huh. There’re are a bunch of Greek languages. Who’d’a thunk?”

“Lemme see.”

Bax pushed his phone across the table and I skimmed a list of a dozen ancient Greek languages arranged from oldest to most recent. I had no idea where the leaf came from, much less how old the language might be.

“It’s all Greek to me,” I joked weakly, shaking my head. I handed the phone back to Bax.

“Well,” he tapped on the phone, “at least it looks like we’re on the right track. See how the symbols on the leaf curl around like this?” He traced one of the curvy lines on the back of the leaf with his index finger. “Or squiggle like this one? Like, maybe this is pi and that’s signa…”

He paused, color rising to his cheeks. “Stop me if my nerd flag’s flying too high.”

I smiled and my earrings chirped, Ask if they’re numbers.

“Could they be numbers?”

“Anything’s possible.” He typed for another minute and then sat back, wrinkling his forehead. “Huh.”

“What? Did you figure it out?”

“No, but look at this.” Bax got up and moved to my side of the table. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, I got a whiff of apple pie and soap, as soothing as Grandma Cleo’s calming spell.

I shook my head and tried to focus on the leaf. “What am I looking at?”

Bax pointed to the first line on the leaf. “Okay, see how these figures look like the Greek alphabet?”

Even though the squiggles were crudely drawn, I could see he was right. “Why didn’t I see that before? So, they’re letters?”

“Right, but if you forget about that, and you don’t look so hard at the last few lines, what do you see?”

I concentrated on the leaf and didn’t see much of anything at first. But as I relaxed, I realized I could have read the leaf – at least the last few lines – all along. “Are you kidding me?”

“Yep. Good old Roman numerals.” Bax smiled broadly. “These are just numbers, Eden.”

He read the numbers in standard form and I scribbled them into Notebook 19. There were two lines, each with three numbers across.

I squinted at the numbers. “Yeah, but what does it mean?”

Bax put his hand on the page and re-read them, then laughed out loud. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“Crazier than a girl asking you to read a leaf?”

He took my pen and added a degree symbol after the first number in each line. Then he wrote an apostrophe after the second and, finally, quotation marks after the last number.

“Okay, I’m just sort of guessing here, but you know what?” He flipped the blond bangs out of his eyes and tapped the page with his fingers. “Those are longitude and latitude points.”

“How can you tell?”

He leaned back with a smug smirk on his face. “They don’t call me the world’s greatest geocacher for nothing.”

Then Bax opened an app on his phone and held up a map of Naples. “Right, so we’re here,” he nudged a blue pinpoint, “and the numbers on the leaf, if my theory is correct…” He typed the leaf’s coordinates and a red pin dropped onto a little town on the coast, just beyond a blue lake.

“Want us to go there?” I asked.

“Yeah. Let me zoom in and see exactly where it is.” He enlarged the map and squinted at the name. “Cuma? Why would it send us to Cuma?”

Calliope’s earrings jolted with electricity. In the vision Grandma Cleo showed me, Apollo had been on his way to Cuma to meet the Sybil. Why would the gypsy want me to go there?

I pointed to the lake. “Have you been to Lago D’Averno?”

“Yeah, I know that place. It’s a weird area.” Bax closed out of the map and clicked on a new website. “I don’t know if it’s helpful, but here.”

He passed the phone to me and I read:

Lago D’Averno is a volcanic crater lake near Naples, Italy. In recent years, it was used as a hideout for local mafia leaders and consequently confiscated by the police. It is marked by a B&B, disco, and bird sanctuary. Aeneas, the hero in Virgil’s The Aeneid, descends into the Underworld through a cave near Lago D’Averno, in hopes of finding his dead father with the help of the Sibyl of Cumae, whose grotto can be accessed through Lago D’Averno…

A shiver pulsed through me and I couldn’t tell if it was another shock of electricity from my earrings or my own fear. If Cuma was connected to Lago D’Averno, did that mean the leaf was pointing me toward an entrance to the Underworld?

The firefly had told me if I could read the leaf, I could get my mother back, or suffer the same consequences. And just before Troy was taken by the hooded creatures, the firefly had asked me where the Mark was.

Maybe that was it. Maybe the gypsy wanted me to go to Cuma and give the leaf back. And if I gave it to the firefly, maybe it would tell me where Troy was.

It was a crazy idea, but I had nothing else to go on.

“What are you thinking?” Bax asked.

I slid his phone across the table. “When can we go to Cuma?”

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 20

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 20

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 18

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 18