MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 15
The dream was swift.
A grain of sand shimmied through the narrow neck of an hourglass as the firefly’s jar swung from a hook.
Muse warrior, the firefly hissed. Where is the Mark? You must read the leaf. Time is running out...
“Time is running out,” I mumbled.
The rhythmic hum of a low-flying aircraft startled me awake. I blinked my eyes and ran a hand over my cheek, now imprinted by the stitching of the worn leather seats of my dad’s car; I must have fallen asleep in the back. Sunlight fell in hazy peach stripes on the scratchy wool blanket that covered me. My backpack poked out from under the seat.
I peered through the back window at the entrance to the Pozzuoli amphitheater. The school bus was gone, replaced by navy blue polizia sedans, red-striped carabinieri cruisers and camouflaged Humvees. Armed military guards were positioned evenly around the property, rifles in hand. A helicopter circled overhead, casting shadows over the limbless statues and decrepit arches of the coliseum.
Cruel reality seeped in.
They’re looking for Troy.
A group emerged from the entrance, shoes shuffling on the gravel. Grim-faced Italian officials in dark suits shook hands with a tall, barrel-chested and khaki-clad American naval officer. Bax stood beside the officer, eyes downcast, chewing his lip. Behind him, the Millers consoled a red-eyed Shawna, whose stuttered sobs echoed through the parking lot like someone choking. All of it – the American officer, the Italian officials, the guards, Shawna’s choking/sobbing – made me dizzy with fear. A pit formed in my stomach.
They couldn’t find him.
I fumbled with the car door, hands shaking so hard I could barely release the handle.
An Italian guard in a shiny black helmet rushed forward, his hand on a pistol at his waist. He inspected me with suspicious black eyes and shouted, “Chi sei?”
“Eden DellaLuna.” I gripped the blanket around me. “Mio fratello è…” I said, but stopped. My brother is lost, I wanted to tell him, but the memory of my brother falling into the fire unleashed a white-cold wave of nausea. I held one hand over my mouth, afraid I might vomit right there, in front of the guard.
“Attenzione, per favore!” My dad appeared at the front of the amphitheater, face pale, still in his dark blue fire chief uniform.
“That her?” the burly American officer asked him, nodding toward me.
“Yes, that’s my daughter, Eden,” Dad said, crossing the gravel lot in double time to reach me.
“Daddy…” I fell into his arms and pressed my face into his chest. “Did they…” I bit my lip to steady my voice. “Did they find him?”
My dad shook his head and sighed heavily. “They say there’s no trace, no footsteps, nothing on camera, nothing at all. It’s like Troy was never there.” His words were a punch to the gut. I clutched his sleeves to hold myself steady.
“Captain Baxter’s kid was the first to reach you when you fainted.” He nodded toward Bax and I realized the imposing American officer holding court with the Italian officials was his dad. “By the time the teachers got there, you were unconscious. And then, when they tried to find Troy to tell him that you needed help, he was gone.”
Before I could respond, Shawna broke away from her mother and grabbed me. “Eden!” she wailed. Her face was tear-stained and blotchy, her hair a mess. “Where is he? Where is he?”
“Shawna, that’s enough. Let’s leave them be.” Mrs. Miller gently pulled Shawna away from me and led her to the car. Even after the doors were shut, I could still hear her sobbing.
“Honey, I know this is painful, but can you remember anything?” My dad directed his brown eyes at me and lowered his voice. “And, I have to ask… Why weren’t you with your group?”
I imagined the cold sweat of the gold dust streaming from my forehead and the time Bax and I spent wandering the cells of the amphitheater before Troy found us. I could feel the bony grip of the creature’s hands on my skin. I could hear the hiss of flames from the open pit in the floor.
“Dad, I have to tell you something…” My mouth was dry but I needed to be honest, no matter how crazy I sounded. “Right before Troy vanished, Bax and I–”
He interrupted me, squinting his eyes as though trying to piece things together. “Hold up... You saw Troy before you fainted?” My dad’s eyes widened and he held up a finger. “Wait here, I want the captain to hear this. Captain Baxter!”
“No, Dad, wait!” As he hurried toward Bax’s dad, I tried to imagine what I could say that would even make any sense. I didn’t know who – or what – had attacked us, or why, or where Troy was.
My thoughts were broken by the crunch of gravel.
“You okay?” Bax approached me, forehead wrinkled with concern.
“I, um… you know, my dad said you ‘found’ me unconscious.” I made air quotes with my fingers. “What did you tell them?” My voice grew louder and some guards turned toward us.
“Wow, you really fell hard,” Bax said, pointing to my forehead.
I flinched and swatted his hand away. “They have to know what we were doing, maybe there’s left evidence—”
Bax shook his head. “Listen, we can’t tell them the truth, at least not now. My dad would kill me – and probably you, too – if he knew we had been underground.”
“What?! I don’t care about that!” My throat constricts. I want to scream. “I want my brother back!”
Bax’s dad turned away from the Italians. In a Texan drawl, he called, “You okay there, son?”
“Yeah, we’re cool.” Bax faked a smile, then shook his head softly at me, blue eyes pleading. “You don’t understand,” he whispered. “You’re not just a tourist here, you’re a dependent of the U.S. Navy. If anyone finds out that we were doing something illegal, like going where we weren’t allowed at an Italian landmark, the U.S. government wouldn’t be any help. The Italian government could press charges against our families because we’re minors and our parents might be fired, and that’d be the least of our trouble–”
“But my brother’s missing,” I said, tears welling up. “If we don’t tell the truth, they won’t find him.”
“No. If we do tell the truth, we’ll be in a lot more trouble. They might stall the search for Troy in order to punish us. They could try to make an example of us and it could turn into something really bad, not only for us but for the base.” Bax ran a hand through his hair and his eyes flicked to the side, toward his dad. “But if we stick to my story, that you and I were in the right places, both the NSA and the Italian government will search for Troy. And they have a lot better chance of finding him than we do.”
I bit my lip, coming to the grim understanding that what was right and wrong didn’t matter. Not in Naples. Not to the government.
I wiped tears away with the back of my hand. “Did you at least tell them about the mist… and the—”
“The nuns?” Bax asked. “Yeah, I did, but they said there weren’t any church groups here today. As for the mist… they think a pipe must’ve broken.”
“Bax, they weren’t nuns,” I said. “I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t human.”
“Okay, maybe you got a good look at them… I didn’t, so I couldn’t tell the police… But I don’t want us to sound like the crazy ones. Remember, we need their help.”
“Did you ask the security guard? The one with the weird wig? He was there when they took Troy—”
He stared at me, the corners of his mouth turned down, his eyes worried. “Eden, none of the guards were downstairs when we found you…”
“Did they look everywhere for Troy? There was a hole… in the floor…” I turned to go back into the amphitheater. “I’m gonna go look—”
Within two steps, I was face-to-face with three armed guards and an Italian police officer.
“Mi scusi, signorina,” the officer said, his gun positioned across his body. “No one is allowed.”
“But my brother—”
Dad appeared at my side. “My daughter is shaken up,” he said, gently, placing an arm across my shoulder.
“Si, certo,” the officer said, nodding. “Mi dispiace.”
“Miss DellaLuna?” Bax’s dad approached us. His eyes were the same blue-green color as Bax’s, set in a pudgy face and framed by bushy eyebrows. He held out his hand; his handshake felt like an earthquake, a little too rough and official considering my brother was missing.
“My sincere apologies,” he said. “From what my son tells us, I understand you were already unconscious by the time your brother was reported missing. Your dad said you may have different information.” Captain Baxter and my dad waited for my response.
I had two options: tell the truth or trust Bax.
I could tell them everything, about the underground cells and how Troy came looking for us and the creatures in the black robes. But what if Bax was right, that they could fire my dad and send us back to the States? Or worse: what if they sent my father to jail because I trespassed in a restricted area?
On the other hand, a lot of people were looking for Troy right now. If I said anything to stop the search or jeopardize his safety, I’d never forgive myself.
Besides, it was my fault he was gone.
Defeated, I said, “Yes, sir. I felt sick and was searching for a bathroom. I must have collapsed. I can’t remember a thing.”
Behind his dad, Bax’s shoulders relaxed.
“Well, I’m here to tell you we will do everything in our power to find your brother. I’ve got our guys and the Italians working on it. And we will find him.” He clapped a beefy arm over Bax’s shoulders. “If anything happened to Christopher, I’d want to know my country was standing with me. That is my solemn guarantee to you, Chief DellaLuna, that we are with you one hundred percent and we will not rest until your son is home.”
“Thank you, Captain. I appreciate your efforts.” My dad shook Captain Baxter’s hand. As he adjusted his glasses, I noticed his eyes were wet. “I’ll get my daughter home now, but I’ll be back as soon as she’s settled. Should I meet you here or at the NSA headquarters on base?”
“For now, it’s best you stay home in case your son turns up. We’ll call with any updates.” Captain Baxter opened his wallet and handed my dad a white business card. “Obviously, if your son gets in touch with you, you’ll be expected to notify me immediately.” He tipped his head at Bax and turned toward the parking lot.
My dad glanced down at the business card, confused. “With all due respect, Captain, you can’t expect me to stay home when my son’s missing. My family is my biggest priority.”
Captain Baxter shifted his weight in my dad’s direction and I noticed the myriad stars and stripes along the front of his uniform. Chin lifted, he was at least five inches taller than my dad.
“Chief DellaLuna, your number one priority is the safety and security of the American government, as is mine. Your son is missing, which puts our mission in great jeopardy. This could be an act of terrorism or maybe your son was poking around in places where he shouldn’t have. Either way, our government is responsible for getting your dependent back where he belongs.” The captain pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. “You know this as well as I do, Chief, but an order’s an order. Go home. Return to work tomorrow. Focus on the mission. Let us find your son.” He touched his hat and nodded, then stalked away.
Bax leaned toward my dad and, hardly lifting his eyes from the ground, he shook his hand. “I’m sorry, sir. If there’s anything else I can do…”
“Just be a good friend to Eden,” my dad answered. “Until we find Troy, that’s what we’ll need. Good friends.”
“Yes, sir.” Bax tried to offer me a half-smile.
I glared at him in response. Would a ‘good friend’ ask me to lie to the government?
The sun set behind the mountain and goosebumps crawled up my arms. My dad held me closer and said, “Chris, it’s been a long day…” Without finishing his thought, he led me to the car.
Out of earshot, I said, “So, that’s it?” The guards in the parking lot tapped their fingers on the barrels of their guns as we passed them. “We just go home, without Troy?”
“You heard the captain,” my dad huffed as he helped me into the car. “It’s out of my hands and into the government’s.” He slid into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut, pausing behind the steering wheel.
He inhaled and held the air for a long time before exhaling. “Doesn’t make any sense.”
Eyes forward, keys dangling in mid-air a few inches away from the ignition, my father opened and shut his mouth a few times before he said, “Eden, I don’t know how to ask this, but… if you had any information, anything at all that might help Troy, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
My pulse quickened. I hated lying to him but what if Bax was right? Would the NSA stop searching for Troy if they knew we’d been in the wrong place and lied about it?
I couldn’t know for sure, but before we moved, my dad had pointed out stories on the news about American kids causing trouble overseas. Not only did American dependents have to deal with consequences from the military base, but they could also be held responsible by the foreign government. And if the dependents were minors, their parents faced punishment, too.
Afraid to say anything, I nodded.
“I’m sorry.” My dad sighed and reached a hand across the front seat to squeeze my knee. “I know you would.”
Where was Troy?
Nauseous guilt shuddered through me and I curled into a ball on the seat, staring out the window. As we drove farther away from Pozzuoli, and farther away from Troy, a single question gnawed at me.
Who is the Muse Warrior?