MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 22
My heart was still pounding as I entered the gym and expected a major backlash from Nyx. The team was in the middle of warm-ups and everyone looked up when I jogged to the back. Nyx and I made eye contact, but her ice queen glare held no hint of our locker room confrontation or of the arrow she’d barely missed. Somehow, that made me even angrier. For a split second, I wished that my arrow, gold dust or not, had pierced her heart.
The thought startled me. Who was I becoming? I shook it off, had to focus my energy. After practice, I’d go to Cuma with Bax, hopefully. For now, I had to concentrate on the one thing I could control: volleyball.
Coach Dino split us into two teams for a scrimmage, naming Nyx and me as opposing team captains. I chuckled to myself as I directed my team into their positions, imagining what I could do with the volleyball now that I knew my special Muse power. Deep down, I actually felt some pity for Nyx’s team. They wouldn’t know what hit them.
On the first serve, I took my time, bouncing the volleyball a few times, steeling my eyes on each of Nyx’s teammates, hoping they’d move out of the way before they got hurt. Finally, I tossed the ball into the air and smacked it with a surge of electric power, aiming directly at Heather in the back row. She had never returned a ball from that position, and this would be no exception. The ball flew over the net and I exhaled smugly, expecting it to smash into the court at her feet before she could react.
But that’s not what happened.
In a matter of microseconds, Nyx leaped across court and was under the ball before any of her teammates had even turned their heads. She grunted as the ball popped into the air. My team moved as though underwater, stunned.
“What was that?!” I screamed.
“I-I don’t even know what’s going on!” Daria said, scrambling, eyes darting from me to Nyx. “Where’s the ball?”
“Look up!” I shouted as the other team’s setter and hitter clambered into place and warbled the ball over the net.
Dona closed her eyes and held out her arms. “Is it close?” she cried. The ball slammed into her shins and she toppled over like a fallen tree.
“Che cavalo!” Dona panted, holding her knees to her chest. “I didn’t even see you serve the ball! And where’d Nyx come from?!”
I helped her up. “Don’t know, but let’s just try to keep up. Va bene?”
My team murmured their weak support. But from then on, I didn’t keep track of the score or the volleys in the scrimmage. Instead, I was fixated on Nyx. Just as in the locker room, Nyx seemed to anticipate my every move and matched every shot I took. When she was a hitter, her palms facing the net, I aimed the ball at the back of the court; from that position, there was no way she could save the ball as it plummeted to the back line. But there she was, skidding on her knee pads, arms outstretched, the ball lobbed into the air.
Our winning shot came by mistake. As our ball screamed toward Candace, she tripped and careened on top of it. Nyx, who had been on the other side of the court, yelped, her wrists somehow trapped under Candace.
All of us stared, dumbfounded.
“Get off of me!” Nyx shoved Candace aside and stormed off the court while my team and I gawked.
Coach Dino blew a short, high whistle. “That’s game, I guess.” He took off his cap and scratched his head. “Um… get out of here while I figure it out…”
I followed my team to the locker room, stupefied. It wasn’t normal. Why was Nyx so fast? And why did she know what I was going to do before I did it?
I couldn’t worry it about, not now. I changed quickly and ran to the afternoon bus behind a few kids with instrument cases and gym bags. Alessi was waiting at the head of a long line with Wayne, chattering loudly. As Donatella and my other teammates approached, Alessi craned her neck. Looking for me, I guessed, and I turned away, pretending to be busy with my backpack. I didn’t want to be rude – Alessi seemed like she genuinely wanted to be my friend and wouldn’t judge me for the latest accusation about the artifact – but I didn’t feel like talking.
I slouched into the hood of my jacket and pulled out my phone, hoping Bax had managed to borrow Eric’s moped.
No texts from Bax.
Stranger still, there were no messages from my dad, either. Which was only odd because bad news usually traveled fast on the base.
Since Bax wasn’t coming, I plugged my ears with earphones before I shuffled up the steps and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. Rather than go to the back of the bus like I normally did, I hunched into the empty front row across from the bus driver.
While I waited for the bus to start, I made a mental list of all the things I didn’t know: why my brother was gone, why Nyx hated me so much, why she was so fast in volleyball, why the Goddess Diana showed up in the school hallway, why the gypsy’s leaf was leading me to Cuma, why my mother wanted me to wait until I was “old enough” to understand I was a Muse.
That was the most troubling one. I still didn’t understand anything.
In fact, it made me angry, the way my grandmother had retreated from me as soon as I had questions for her. It didn’t make sense.
Calliope’s earrings buzzed in agreement. With a heavy sigh, I found a good song on my phone. As I pressed play, I pulled my hoodie tighter around my face and leaned against the window.
I was about to shut my eyes when the bus driver swiveled in his chair. Abnormally tall and folded into the cramped seat, he wasn’t our usual driver. As he tapped a foot on the rubber floor mat, I noticed that beneath the heavy blue hem of his ill-fitting trousers were golden sneakers with tiny wings. My own surprised expression stared back at me, reflected in his mirrored sunglasses.
It was the man from the hotel lobby. The janitor. The security guard at the Pozzuoli amphitheater.
It was Mercury, messenger of the Gods, now driving our school bus.
Unlike Diana, he didn’t appear to be a composite of gold dust, but an actual flesh-and-blood person. I stared in disbelief, wondering how I’d walked right past him. It wasn’t so much that he was taller than regular men, which he was by nearly a foot. Rather, he was downright ridiculous, dressed in a rumpled white shirt that didn’t quite meet his wrists and a tight navy-blue vest. A shiny-brimmed cap perched atop his stringy hair. Again there was a thick layer of foundation or powder covering his face.
If I didn’t know he was a God, I’d think he was a hobo.
My earrings buzzed with excitement and I heard his baritone voice directly in my ears.
So you have received your gift, he said, nodding toward Calliope’s earrings. Do you know how to use them?
I concentrated my words into thoughts. I… I think so… I exhaled, feeling my way around this new form of communication. I wondered if he could hear my every thought.
Yes, Eden, I’m afraid so, he responded. At least until you learn to control your thoughts.
Right. Okay, I’ll remember that. My pulse quickened with questions for him. He was there when my brother was kidnapped. What if he knew where Troy was—
A small wad of paper landed on my seat.
“Psssst!” Flavio leaned into the aisle and I took off one headphone. “Is the driver asleep? Why aren’t we moving?”
“Um…” I turned back to the messenger of the Gods.
Oblivious to the murmurs of the students behind him, Mercury inspected the instrument panel of the bus, curiously prodding and poking each knob, touching the various gauges. He reached an elegant finger toward a red button and pressed it, closing the door. He watched, amused, and reached forward to press it again. As the door opened, he smiled broadly and tapped the horn twice.
Fascinating contraption. A sheepish smirk crawled across his lips and he took off the sunglasses, inspecting me with his honey-colored eyes. Do you know how to make it work?
“When are we gonna leave?” Wayne yelled from the back. “Hey, Eden, wake up the bus driver, will ya?”
Panic rose within my chest. Don’t you know this stuff? I mean, as the God of Travel?
Again, Mercury smirked. It has never interested me how mortals travel, only that they do.
I didn’t know how to drive a bus, but if it was the only way to keep Mercury there so I could ask questions, I had to figure it out. Well, my brother got his license last year and my dad let me drive a little, too, I said. But I’ve only driven a sedan.
Excellent. All I need is for you to start it and I will take over.
Okay, I said. Under the watchful eyes of the other students, I leaned across the dashboard and turned the key in the ignition. The bus grumbled to life.
Remarkable. Mercury nodded with admiration.
Gas it with that pedal. I pointed to the accelerator on the right, then the pedal on the left. And you need to push in the clutch, before you change gears.
The wings on Mercury’s gold sneakers whirred as he tapped on the accelerator. The engine revved.
Okay, and the brake’s in the middle. I pointed at the brake pedal for good measure.
He frowned at me. Brake?
Yeah, you know… to stop the bus, I said, but Mercury was hardly listening. He placed one golden winged shoe upon the clutch and the other on the gas pedal.
The tricky part is, you have to let the clutch out slowly – I started, but Mercury had already pumped the pedals.
The bus lurched forward and stalled. A few rows back, Flavio threw his hands into the air. “Pazzo! What, is it his first day on the job?”
Mercury jammed his left foot onto the clutch and squealed the gearshift forward. The bus limped out of the school driveway and into the street.
Simple, no? Mercury turned his entire body toward me. A Ferrari roared toward us.
“Watch out!” I covered my eyes with my hands then peeked through my fingers.
Mercury spun the steering wheel to the left, narrowly missing the car, and then to the right, maneuvering the bus onto the curb next to the American Hotel. A woman on her cell phone outside the building shrieked and tossed her cigarette at the bus. She crossed herself repeatedly as we roared within inches of her body, flattened against the side of the hotel.
“We’re all gonna die!” Wayne shouted from the back of the bus.
Mercury jerked the steering wheel side-to-side like a child on his first bumper car ride. Which would have been all right, if he didn’t have a busload of American kids with him, screaming their heads off.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” I shouted, forgetting the earrings or communicating by thought. My heart was pounding and I felt sure Wayne was right: we were all gonna die, here, at the hands of a crazy God.
With a sly grimace, Mercury flicked his wrist and a mist of gold dust appeared over his head. An instant calm settled over each passenger as the mist moved toward the back of the bus, their terror replaced by a pleasant but vacant smile. The bus fell silent and everyone was happily unaware.
Everyone except me. My eyes were fixed on the massive garbage truck headed straight toward us.
“Turn!” I cried.
There is no danger, Mercury said. He pushed away from the driver’s seat and stood at the window, surveying the commotion on the street with glee.
I didn’t trust him. I jumped up and slid into the driver’s seat, wrapping my fingers around the worn plastic wheel. “You have to help!”
Mercury tilted his head. You must trust that help is all around you, Eden.
With a groan, the bus jerked under us, rattling and shaking like a roller coaster. Suddenly, the front of the bus bucked up into the air, the back wheels bumping on the ground. After a few more bounces, we were airborne, softly careening away from the base.
Squeeze Alley lay below us, a criss-cross of shining metal boxes bordered by anemic trees and groups of Romani huddled around campfires. Up ahead, on the dirty sidewalk, I could see Humpty Dumpty perched on her crumbling wall, the white cat curled up by her feet.
Still there… Mercury mumbled.
“Huh?” I slumped in the driver’s seat to catch my breath.
Mercury stretched from side-to-side like a runner, his baggy clothes rustling with each move. He smiled with satisfaction, hands on his hips as the bus soared effortlessly above the street.
Behind me, the other students wore glassy smiles on their faces, but they didn’t move, eyes trained forward. Dona stared at Flavio with a silly, lovesick gaze on her face. Alessi was stalled in mid-sentence, mouth agape, a wad of gum tucked in her cheek. Even Wayne’s panicked expression had softened into a doughy, zombie-like version of itself.
“What did you do to them?”
Let us converse in thought. You need the… how do you call it? Practice? he said.
“Right, yeah.” I concentrated on my words – what did you do to them? – and my earrings vibrated warmly. Is it a calming spell?
Well done. Mercury smiled. So your grandmother has told you about calming spells?
Not exactly, but she did that the other day.
Mercury surveyed the busload of pleasantly dull students. Yes, if they were all Gods, we could travel by thought. But since we are bound to the ways of the mortal world, I must… he struggled to find the right word and then looked up, improvise.
Alessi’s head bobbed back and forth like a rag doll. Will they be okay? I asked. I mean, after we get wherever we’re going?
Sure, sure, he said. Mortals are accustomed to this.
Mercury pulled the driver’s cap and stringy haired wig off his head. His gold-flecked hair was cropped close to his scalp and his eyes were like deep pools of warm honey. He waved his hand in front of his face in a circular motion and the garish powder disappeared. Without it, his skin glowed, as luminous as polished marble. No wonder he had to cover it with powder.
When he appeared in the vision of Apollo and Calliope in my room, he had been a dusty apparition, a faded memory. In real life – now that I knew he wasn’t some crazy janitor or stalker – he was magnificent and otherworldly, a Renaissance sculpture come to life.
We are very similar, you and I, Mercury said.
There was no way. He was brilliantly gorgeous.
My earrings vibrated, reminding me that my thoughts could be heard. A rash of embarrassment stung my cheeks. I turned away, blushing.
What I mean to say is, Mercury continued, we are both tied to the mortal world. I am tied by occupation, and you, by birth. Many of those who live on Mount Olympus will never understand what it is like to ride on a bus.
Well, this isn’t exactly like a real bus… I said.
Still, a smile crept across my face. It was sort of comforting, the messenger of the Gods trying to find a similarity between us. But it also illuminated our differences.
Mercury, my grandmother said I have powers, but she didn’t tell me what they were.
According to the laws of Olympus, I am not allowed to tell you which powers you may or may not have. However, once you have discovered them…. A mischievous grin flickered across his face. Tell me, have you experienced any unusual abilities recently?
I nodded, thinking of the speed I had on the volleyball court and the way I’d created an arrow from thought.
Yes, he said, and it was clear the earrings enabled him to see my thoughts as well as hear them. Speed and spontaneous creation from thought. Both very useful.
So I can just think of something, anything at all, and it will appear? I asked.
There must be an immediate need to create an object from your thoughts, or else it will not work. You cannot, for instance, imagine a delicious glass of ambrosia merely because your throat is parched.
Whatever ambrosia is, I joked and Mercury smiled. I relaxed a little bit, my breathing restored to almost-normal. The breezy afternoon air whipped the hood off my face and blew my hair around my head. In the sunlight, my violet streak was brighter than usual, practically neon. I pushed it behind my ears and pulled a hairband from my wrist.
While I gathered it into a side ponytail, Mercury regarded me with his beautiful honey-colored eyes. You have the violet hair of your ancestors.
I twirled a purple streak around my finger. I used to think it was some weird birth defect.
Mercury shook his head. Hardly. In Calliope’s time, the Mark of the Muse was a prized symbol of the Muses’ presence on Olympus. The Gods and Goddesses could create anything in heaven or on earth or in the underworld, but the Muses could inspire mortals to create fantastic inventions and works of art and beauty.
His choice of words – “the Mark of the Muse” – reminded me of the firefly’s threats.
Mercury, the firefly in my dreams keeps asking for the Mark. Is this what she means? I held up the violet hair.
Mercury leaned his back against the bus’ handrails. It must have been confusing, growing up in the mortal world, with your pedigree.
I nodded absently, gazing out the window. Far below us, the Neapolitan countryside smoldered with burning piles of rubbish. Fields of fire. Campi Flegrei.
It was hard for me not to think about my brother. Troy was down there, somewhere, waiting for me to find him.
Mercury studied me with a serious expression on his face. I am aware of your brother’s disappearance. Your grandmother is very dear to me and I am pained by her pain.
He seemed sincere, but just like Grandma Cleo, he hadn’t answered my question. I’d had enough of empathy and compassion. What I really wanted were answers.
“Look,” I said aloud, my words coming faster than my thoughts. “I know you were there. I saw you in the guard’s uniform. If my grandmother’s so dear to you—” I made quotes in the air with my fingers “—you should have done something.” I stood and stepped closer to him. “I’m not a God, okay? But you are. And I know you saw those creatures in the black hoods. Why didn’t you stop them?”
His gaze didn’t waver and he answered aloud, “I did.”
“Right,” I scoffed. “If you stopped them, then why’s my brother gone?”
Mercury waved his hand again and the calming gold dust settled over me. “Eden,” he said in a serious tone, “they didn’t come for Troy.”
I snorted. “Right. They didn’t come for Troy. Then who did they come for?”
Mercury didn’t answer, but in the silent pause between us, I felt my throat constrict.
“Eden, perhaps it is time for you to understand who you really are.”