MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 28

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 28

The Sibyl’s threat rang in my ears the rest of the school day, overpowering everything else. I didn’t hear Daria’s lunchtime chatter and couldn’t recall Nyx’s pettiness on the volleyball court. As I left practice to meet Bax at the front gate, the Sibyl’s words continued to torment me.

I will send everything you love to the Underworld!

Since the day Troy disappeared, I’d thought Pluto had kidnapped him and taken him to the Underworld like my mother. But it was the Sibyl who haunted my dreams, who said I was the only one who could release her.

She had Troy. I knew it in my gut.

Read the leaf… bring me what I need…

The Oracles.

I breathed deeply, and finally knew what I needed to do: find the Oracles. All I had to go on was the leaf. So if the leaf’s numbers were coordinates for Cuma – and the Sibyl’s cave – that’s where I’d go. But if the Oracles were hidden in Cuma, wouldn’t the Sibyl already have them? Something didn’t make sense.

When I reached the gate, the military guard nodded as I left the base. Bax slouched with his back to me. I tapped his shoulder. “Hey.”

“Oh, hey.” He smiled weakly.

I peered around him, looking for Eric’s bike. “Did you park the Vespa on base?”

“Yeah, well…” Bax grimaced and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I guess Eric has to take Nyx somewhere, so he, uh, couldn’t let me borrow it today.”

I chewed a fingernail. Of course Nyx made up an errand for Eric to run, so we couldn’t use the Vespa. Typical.

Across the street, the lid of a trash can clattered to the ground. A white cat scurried down the street toward Squeeze Alley.

“Isn’t that the gypsy’s cat?” I asked. “You know, Humpty Dumpty?”

The scrawny white cat zipped out of sight and I touched the gypsy’s hourglass around my neck. Why did she give me an hourglass like the one in the Sibyl’s cave? There had to be a connection.

“Huh?” Bax followed my gaze to Squeeze Alley, then turned back to me. “Did you hear me? I couldn’t get the Vespa.”

 “Yeah, but maybe we don’t need it.” I pulled the hourglass away from my neck. “Remember how I said the leaf came from the gypsy? Well, she gave me this necklace, too. It can’t be a coincidence.”

He squinted at me. “You want to go and talk to Humpty Dumpty?”

I shrugged.

“Sure, whatever.” He scratched his head and smiled. “Probably safer than breaking into a warehouse anyway.”

* * *

At Squeeze Alley, we turned right and entered the long dark-green tunnel of trees that led to the gypsy’s sidewalk. The cat was long gone, nowhere to be seen. In the shadows of the low-hanging branches, Humpty Dumpty’s wall appeared vacant. I wondered if she was even there.

Maybe this was a bad idea. I was pinning my hopes on a crazy old woman, but what if she didn’t have any answers to my questions? What if the leaf was just a leaf and the hourglass was a useless cast-off? Her warnings could simply be the ramblings of a woman with mental problems.

But still, in my bones, I didn’t believe these doubts.

Miss DiPaola said the Sibyl wrote her prophesies on leaves, so my oak leaf had to be significant. Whoever had sent it to me, whether it was the gypsy or the Sibyl or Pluto himself, knew what they were doing.

“I’m sorry.”

“What?” I turned to Bax.

He trudged uphill with his eyes on the ground. “I didn’t mean to let you down.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Sorry I’m not talking. I just have a lot on my mind lately.”

“Yeah, me too.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Has anyone told you about my friend John?”

“Uh-uh. Does he live here?”

“He used to… Remember the day your brother went missing, and I told you the Italian government could press charges against our families if we did anything illegal?”

“Mm-hmm.” I trained my eyes on the littered pavement. “Did you, uh, do something illegal?”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Bax grimace. “It wasn’t anything really bad. More of a misunderstanding.” His shoulders sloped forward as he walked. “About a year ago, John and I were searching for a geocache and dug up a box of some cool old stuff. A few coins, a plate, some jewelry. John thought they might be worth something, so he talked me into showing them to an antique dealer.”

He held up a hand, like he was taking an oath. “For the record, I told him it was a lame idea.”

I didn’t say anything, but something about this confession didn’t feel right. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk, listening.

Bax continued, “I like finding stuff, but I could kinda care less about the stuff itself. I wanted us to keep it for ourselves, like hidden treasure, maybe make it into an entirely different geocache adventure, just for people like us…”

I bit my tongue. I didn’t want to pass judgment until he was done with his story. “So what happened?”

“The antique dealer called some archeologist and then everything sort of spiraled from there. Turned out, they were ancient Roman artifacts stolen from an excavation site.”

“Jeez.”

“Yeah. And the Italian government thought we’d stolen them. The polizia arrested us, stuck us in jail and called the NSA.”

“Oh my God, Bax… What did your dad do?”

“He was pissed, of course, but he believed we were innocent. He didn’t think we intended to do anything wrong.”

“Really? No offense, but your dad seems kind of suspicious of everything.”

“I know. It’s an occupational hazard. But underneath all of that, he’s a really great guy, I promise.” He shrugged. “Anyway, even though my dad believed us and the NSA closed our case, the Italian government said that John and I were ‘breaches of security.’ They wanted to kick both of us out of the country.”

“Wait a second.” I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “He’s gone, but you’re still here… because your dad’s the head of NSA?”

“No, hang on, hear me out.” Bax winced. “I told my dad everything. And trust me, my dad would have no problem making an example of me. But…” He shook his head and let his hair fall over his eyes. “I know he was relieved when John’s family offered to move back to the States. He said the Italian government was satisfied, so the case was closed.”

“And that seems fair to you?” My temper flared, thinking of his advice to lie to my dad and how he wanted wait until we had evidence against Nyx before he’d make any accusations. Now it felt like a set-up. “You have a history of getting off scot-free! Of letting other people take the blame! Is that why you asked me not to say anything about being under the amphitheater?”

“No, of course not! Don’t you think I feel responsible for this? It’s my fault your brother’s gone!” Bax took a breath and ran and hand through his hair. “Look, I’m just trying to explain why I can’t get in trouble again.”

He turned away, chewing on the inside of his lip. “You, of all people, should understand this,” he said quietly. “It’s just me and my dad here. If something happens to me, he’ll be alone.”

I bristled. I had a hard time empathizing with Captain Baxter, especially when I could still see his angry red face in my mind, calling off the NSA’s search for my brother because I was wearing Nyx’s shoes. He was too stubborn to listen to me and Bax was too afraid to stand up to him.

But then again, I knew what it was like to have an incomplete family, that sense of never truly being whole. It was one thing to have never known my mother, but losing Troy had created an emptiness in my heart. Living without him for a few days had been excruciating. Of course Captain Baxter would do anything in his power to keep Bax with him, even if it meant another family had to move away.

“But wasn’t John mad at you?” I asked.

Bax pushed the hair from his eyes and the corners of his mouth turned down a little. “It’s hard to say. Finding that ‘cache was the best thing we ever did together. I wish you could know that feeling, to discover something so ancient. Those things feel – this’ll sound stupid, but they feel magical.”

I thought about the oak leaf nestled in Notebook 19. I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t answer.

“Anyway, we haven’t really talked since he moved,” Bax said. “But that experience was really hard on me and my dad. I can’t get in trouble like that again.”

“Okay, I understand that, but what I don’t get is,” I tilted my head, “you still hunt for geocaches.”

Bax wrinkled his mouth into a half-smile. “Hard habit to break.”

He was so adorable when he smiled, it made me want to pretend we were just two kids on an adventure, not searching for an old gypsy.

And now that he’d trusted me with his secret about John, I wished I could tell him mine.

But my secret was so much more complicated than getting your best friend in trouble. Even if Bax believed I was a Muse, which was doubtful, how could I explain everything else?

A high-pitched yowl blared at us from the branches above. Within the leaves, I spied a mangy white tail. The gypsy’s cat leaped from branch to branch, growling like it was ready to attack.

Without warning, Humpty Dumpty bounded over the cinderblock. She charged toward us on calloused feet, tying a filthy apron over her shredded gray nightgown.

”Signorina! You come back!”

“Oh… my… God…” With one eye on the gypsy’s mass, Bax jumped backward, tugging on my elbow. “Is this really happening? Tell me this isn’t happening.”

Out of breath and panting, the old woman crossed her arms and inspected us through thick blue eye make-up. After a moment, she made a clucking noise with her tongue and licked her orange-stained lips. Then she made a flirty face and blew a kiss at Bax.

Bax gagged and wrinkled his nose. Under his breath, he said, “I always thought the smell of Squeeze Alley came from garbage.”

“Shh.” I shot him a look. “We need to see if she can help me.”

The woman’s eyes filled with tears and mascara streaked her cheeks. Her shoulders quaked as she cried. “Fratello…”

“Fratello? My brother?” I stepped forward, eager for any information. “Do you know where he is? You have to tell me!”

Humpty Dumpty wagged her finger at me and opened her nearly toothless mouth. “It is time! Why you wait to come back? I wait for you, but it is almost too late…”

The words were thick on her tongue. Her accent was so heavy it deepened her voice to a low growl. Even so, I could understand her easily, just as I had on the day I met her.

 “What language is she speaking?” Bax scratched his head. “I can’t understand a thing she’s saying. It’s not Italian and it’s not Napoletan. Is it some other dialect?”

“I-I think it’s Latin,” I lied, although I recognized it from the vision of the Sibyl’s cave. I bristled, thinking of the groveling peasants and the fury of the Sibyl. “My grandma taught me some.”

“Huh.” Bax’s eyes darted between me and Humpty Dumpty.

But still, the woman’s ancient language – the same one I’d heard in the Sibyl’s cave – rolled effortlessly out of my mouth. “What do you mean, it’s almost too late?” I asked.

Humpty wiped her tears, smearing blue eye shadow across her face. Then she leaned her face so close to mine, I could see bread crumbs around her lips. Her eyes traveled to the hourglass around my neck and grew wider. “How much time?”

“How much time?” I asked, bewildered. I shook the hourglass and showed her it was still broken. “It doesn’t even work, but I don’t care about that. Where’s Troy?”

She tapped her chin with a pudgy finger, thinking. Under her breath, she muttered, “Yes, yes, it cannot work until you have the Mark.”

“Right, the Mark.” I pulled my violet hair to the front.

“No, no, no. This is not the Mark she wants.” The gypsy clucked.

“Okay, fine. Where do I get the other Mark?” I asked, exasperated.

“You must believe,” she whispered, dark eyes wide.

My head was about to explode. I didn’t have time to stand on a busy street listening to riddles.

“Believe what?” I shouted. “You gave me a leaf and a broken necklace. Where did they come from? Who are you?”

Bax stepped forward and tugged my elbow. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but this was a bad idea. Come on, let’s go.”

Humpty siezed my other wrist. She focused her black pupils on me and an electric charge pulsed from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

The busy street dissolved as I gazed into the gypsy’s eyes, and I was only aware of the beat of my own heart, then a carousel of images. Calliope and her sisters dancing in the meadow with Apollo. A handful of sand slipping from Apollo’s grasp into the Sibyl’s palm. My mother’s sparkling souls vanishing into Pluto’s pillar of fire. The crazed look on the Sibyl’s face when she saw me in the cave.

I will send everything she loves into the Underworld!

My knees buckled and Bax caught me under my arms.

“What happened?” There was panic in his voice. “What did she do?”

“Were you there?” I spat at the gypsy. “Were you in the Sibyl’s cave?”

Meaty hands on her hips, Humpty Dumpty gave me a sidelong stare. “Let me read your cards, Eden DellaLuna.”

On shaking legs, I rounded in on her, narrowing my eyes. “How do you know me?”

“Everyone knows you.” She cackled, revealing a mouth of decaying teeth. “Now, come… I will read your cards…”

“What is it? What does she want?” Bax asked. “Did she tell you about the leaf?”

She mimed shuffling a deck of cards and fanning them out, nodding at me to tell Bax.

“No. She, uh, wants to read my cards first.”

Humpty Dumpty clapped her rough hands together. Then she waddled over the low cinderblock wall and began to cut a path into the brush of the hillside. The sun had already dipped lower in the sky, but I couldn’t leave before I heard what the gypsy knew.

I hopped over the wall but Bax hung back. “Come on,” I said. “She might know where Troy is.”

“No way.” He waved his hands in front of his face. “We can’t be here after dark.”

Humpty Dumpty moved toward a thick row of bushes and would soon be out of my sight. Bax still didn’t move, his face serious and scared.

I had to share my secret with him. It was the only way for him to understand why I was chasing a gypsy through the woods. A gypsy who was remarkably quick for her age and size.

“Bax, there’s something I need to tell you, but it has to wait. I promise, after she reads my cards, I’ll tell you everything.”

He blinked, confused, then shook his head. “What? No way. You can’t say something like that and expect me to just chill while we follow a crazy – not to mention smelly – lady into the woods.”

“But—” I glanced over my shoulder. “It’s a long story, and if we don’t follow her—”

Bax planted his feet, arms crossed. “Okay, then, just give me the need-to-know.”

“I just…” I bit the inside of my cheek. “I don’t think you’ll believe me.”

“Seriously? I told you about John.” His blue eyes looked wounded. “Or maybe you don’t trust me?”

He had me there. I was still upset that he’d asked me to lie to our dads. And, honestly, now that I knew the story about John, I had serious doubts about his judgment. Could he even keep a secret like mine?

I could no longer see Humpty Dumpty. There was no more time to waste.

“Okay.” I shifted my weight. “Do you know what a Muse is? You know, from mythology?”

Bax let out a surprised half-laugh. Clearly, he hadn’t anticipated that question. “Um, yeah?”

I blurted, “I-I’m a Muse.” Even though being a Muse was merely the tip of the crazy iceberg of my life, the words, simple and direct, felt like a relief.

He stared at me for several seconds, expressionless, while I bit my lip, waiting.

Then, without words, Bax lifted himself over the wall and motioned to a canopy of trees a dozen yards ahead. “The leaves are tamped down in a line here, like there’s been a lot of weight on them recently. I’ll bet she’s behind those trees.” Then he started down the trail.

I quickened my pace to catch up to him. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”

Bax grinned. “I knew you were special, from the moment I met you.” He touched a strand of violet hair by my neck. “No one has hair that color, Eden. They don’t even make a dye that color. I looked.”

I blushed in the darkening light of the afternoon, confused by the relief of telling him my secret and the giddy feeling of him trying to figure me out.

Bax pulled back a leafy screen of branches, revealing the gypsy’s camp at the end of a small clearing. Decaying food and empty bottles littered the campsite, which consisted of a smoldering fire pit and a few tree stumps. “This must be the place,” he said, holding the branches for me. “To be continued?”

My mouth twitched into a smile. “To be continued.”

We crossed the campsite and Humpty Dumpty popped her head out from under a patchwork sheet tied to four trees. The entire area smelled of sulphur and burning trash. Bax coughed, “After you.” He held the crook of his elbow over his mouth and nose as we entered.

Under the sheet was a make-shift room lined with rough wooden shelves and a collection of mismatched dishes and pots, rusty tools and tarnished jewelry. Old linens spilled out of a burl wood trunk in one corner. Along another side, a group of pillows were arranged in a loose rectangle and covered by a thin blanket like a bed. A thick layer of dust covered everything.

“Venite!” Humpty motioned for us to sit on a faded rug while she rummaged through the wooden chest.

The white cat snarled onto a short table, knocking over a chipped bowl of wilted dandelions. He directed a long, low yowl at me, punctuated by a series of claw slashes in the air, like a prize fighter. Then the cat bounded into Bax’s lap.

“Aww, little guy likes me,” he said, scratching the cat’s ears. It began to purr, forcing its furry head under Bax’s hand.

“Beast,” I muttered. The cat swiped its scrawny paw at me and hissed.

As the gypsy rummaged through the chest, we had a full view of her backside below the threadbare skirt of her dress.

“Can’t unsee that.” Bax shook his head and leaned closer. “Hey, what language is she speaking? Is it really Latin?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I just sort of… understand her. Like it’s in my DNA.”

“Huh.” He wrinkled his forehead as he stroked the patchy fur on the cat’s back. “But why does she know you?”

“I haven’t figured that out yet.”

“Allora!” Humpty Dumpty emerged from the chest with a yellowed deck of cards, tattered at the edges.

“How do you know so much about me?” I asked in her language.

The gypsy plopped behind the table and pointed a thumb at her chest. “La mia famiglia. We take care of La Sibylla.” She began to shuffle the cards.

My body stiffened at the sound of the Sibyl’s name. I thought of my brother’s black-robed kidnappers, could feel the weight of the Sibyl’s followers as they pinned me down in the cave. Vision or not, it felt real to me.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” I whispered, scrambling to my knees.

How could I be so stupid, thinking I could trust a gypsy? My eyes darted around the camp. Were we surrounded by the Sibyl’s followers?

Bax looked up with worried eyes and the cat hissed. “Is everything okay?”

My voice trembled and scrambled backward. “It’s a trap! She’s one of the people who took Troy—”

The cards spilled from Humpty Dumpty’s hands and she grabbed my arm. Her face went white and she shook her head. “No! Please, Signorina Eden! I ran away! They will kill me, too!”

“Let go!” I pushed her away.

“Your grandmother is the Record Keeper,” she cried. “It is written in the Scroll. I must help you!”

I swiveled on my heel. “How do you know about the Scroll?”

Her mouth drooped and she hesitated, wringing her hands.

“What’s going on?” Bax asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “She’s not making sense, but she says she knows my grandma.”

“Well, does she know where Troy is, or this is just a big waste of time?”

“I can’t tell—”

“Per favore, Signorina Eden!” Humpty Dumpty hoisted herself up and hobbled to us. “Per favore? Please?” She clasped her hands over the deck of cards, pleading. “The cards know… the cards know…”

“What the heck?” Bax asked.

“She says the answers are in the cards.”

He scoffed. “Right.”

Humpty Dumpty scowled at Bax and shot me a look. “Those from the Third Realm cannot understand! You must remember who you are!”

“But even I don’t know that,” I protested.

Even as the words tumbled from my lips, I remembered something basic, something I should have considered already. Roman mythology was riddled with crazy challenges, obstacles that the Gods placed in front of mortals and Gods alike.

Why would Muses be any different? What if this was one of my challenges? Grandma Cleo had said I should start with the first step and go from there. I had to take the first step, here, with the gypsy.

I studied the eager way Humpty Dumpty held the cards, her dark eyes wavering from me to the campsite and back. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine her as a mystic employed by the Gods to test me; after all, Mercury had been “guarding” me since I moved.

“You said it was written in the Scroll, that you had to help me,” I said.

The gypsy bobbed her head up and down.

“Okay, tell me two things you know about me. Right now. Ten seconds.”

Humpty Dumpty licked her dry lips and sputtered, “You can move in and out of visions with your artwork.”

I patted my backpack to be sure Notebook 19 was safe. How could she know that? With a neutral face, I shrugged. “What else?”

The gypsy leaned in. “You are afraid to go to sleep because you do not want to dream of the firefly.”

A shiver ran down my spine, but I didn’t move.

“So?” Bax asked. I’d forgotten he was standing next to me. “Do you believe her, or are we outta here?”

I chewed my lip. “I’m not sure yet, but let’s see what her cards say about Troy. We can leave if it gets weird.”

“It’s already weird,” Bax murmured. The cat stood on its hind legs and swatted at his hand affectionately.

I reeled toward the gypsy. “If we stay, will you tell us where Troy is?”

Humpty tapped the deck of cards. “We must ask the cards.” She nodded to the table.

We knelt beside it and again the cat curled into a white ball on Bax’s lap.

She resumed shuffling and nodded her chin at Bax. “He knows you are special, but Third Realm cannot easily trust what cannot be seen or touched.” She winked and added, “But soon he will trust.”

I followed the hypnotic rhythm of the shuffling cards. Bax had already tuned us out, directing his attention to the purring cat in his lap. “What are the realms?” I asked.

Humpty raised her bushy gray eyebrows and shuffled the deck again. “Three realms,” she said. “First Realm is for Gods.”

“Mount Olympus?”

She nodded. “Second Realm for Pluto.”

“The Underworld.”

“Si.” Humpty gestured to Bax with a pinky finger. “Third Realm is for mortals.”

Bax looked up. “Are you guys talking about me?” The cat lolled in his lap, its eyelids lowered to tiny slits.

I shrugged and he smiled, turning back to the cat. Sliding a finger under the chain of my necklace, I asked, “Why doesn’t this hourglass work?”

Humpty clicked her tongue over her stained teeth with a knowing look. “You must get the Mark.”

“What is it? Where do I get—”

“Soon, soon... Now, shh...” She dismissed my questions with a wave and closed her eyes, mumbling under her breath. The brightly painted cards flew back and forth between her hands. Then, with a loud snap, Humpty Dumpty clapped the cards together and thumped them onto the table.

I jumped, accidentally jabbing Bax’s arm with my elbow. With a sharp yowl, the white cat flicked me with its ratty tail.

“Choose,” the gypsy ordered.

“Which one?” I asked. “The top one?”

“It is not my choice. You must pick.” She gestured for me to fan the cards across the table.

As I did, the bright colors of the cards faded until each was blank.

“That’s strange.” I ran my fingertips along the edges of the cards. With a light touch, I tapped the card in the middle. “How will I choose—?”

In the center of the deck, a vapor of smoke curled up. A hazy vision of a person drifted over the table. The cat lifted his face and reached a lazy paw toward the vision.

“Do you see that?” I asked Bax.

He squinted at the table, turning his head side to side. “See what?”

“Third Realm.” Humpty grimaced.

The smoke formed the faint outline of a hooded figure, face obscured by the dark cloth of its cloak.

Come here… release me… Only you…

My stomach dropped and my breathing became shallow at the sound of the Sibyl’s shrill firefly voice.

The gypsy’s dark eyes flashed. “Ahhh, Sibylla!” She leaned closer, sending a chill up my spine with the raspy breath she took between her words. “You alone can use what the Darkness seeks, and so the Darkness seeks you.”

“The Darkness seeks the Oracles,” I said. “That’s what Jupiter said. If I give them to her, will she free my brother?”

“No! You must not give up the Oracles!” The gypsy shook her head adamantly. “They are too powerful! They tell too much. If the Darkness has the Oracles, there will be no light.”

I studied her face, looking for answers in her craggy face. “I don’t understand.”

“Sibylla seeks the Oracles, but they are only meant for one person.” The gypsy lowered her voice. “Muse Warrior.”

“Me?”

She didn’t answer, turning her attention back to the deck of cards. “Choose.”

A wisp of gold smoke curled up from a card at the end of the deck. When I touched it, the smoke became a person crouched in a dark corner, hands and feet shackled to a long chain. The person turned toward me and I recognized the slope of his nose, the lankiness of his limbs.

I clapped my hand over my mouth. “Troy!”

He struggled to stand under the weight of the chains. His mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear him.

“What?” Bax asked, searching the table with his eyes. “What do you see?”

“It’s my brother!” I grabbed the gypsy’s hand. “What’s he saying? Where is he?”

Humpty swirled the gold dust with her fingers, leaning toward the image of my brother. “The boy is caught between realms. He cannot move, he must wait…”

Tears rose from my throat, flooding my eyes. He was waiting for me.

In the smoke, a hulking hooded figure approached my brother. Troy cowered into the corner, his hands over his head. The gold dust swirled and began to fade.

“No!” I tapped the card, trying to bring it back. “Where is he? How do I find him?”

“There is no more.” She nodded to the deck. “Choose last card.”

“But Troy! You promised you’d tell me where he is!” I smacked the table.

“Cards say you must choose last card.” Humpty pointed at the cards.

I felt manipulated and frustrated that I still didn’t know where my brother was. Absently, I tapped the card closest to my hand.

A pillar of fire erupted from the table and I scrambled backwards with a yelp. I threw my hands in front of my face, the heat of the fire burning my forearms.

Bax watched me with wide eyes. “What happened? I can’t see anything!”

The fire crackled, twisting and turning itself like pulled taffy until it became the image of an hourglass. Most of its sand was on the bottom, and there was a dwindling handful of sand in the top bowl.

“The hourglass.” The gypsy’s eyes widened, the coiling fire reflected in her dark irises. She pointed to the pendant around my neck. “The Sibyl’s days are numbered by the sand in the glass.”

I clasped my hand around the hourglass pendant. “But how does it work? How do I get the Mark?”

Below us, the card ignited once more and the hourglass became a volcano. I sprang backward with a shriek.

“Deep into the earth, go through the fire,” she said. “In the fire, you will find the Mark.”

“In the fire?” I asked. “Is this Solfatara, the volcano? Or the Underworld?”

Humpty’s eyes shot toward the entrance to her campsite. “You must go,” she said, collecting the cards into her hands.

“No!” I slapped the table with my palm. “Where is Troy? Where did you get the leaf?”

“It is from Second Realm,” she whispered then rolled onto her feet. She waved at us with both hands. “Now, you go! Andate!”

I jumped up. “But nothing – no one – can escape from the Underworld. Aeneas was the only exception, but he traveled there with the Sibyl!”

“You go!” She forced me by the arm to the edge of the canopy.

“Where is he?” I demanded.

“Eden, forget it. Let’s get out of here.” Bax stumbled to his feet and dropped the cat on the ground. It yowled as it crisscrossed between his legs.

“But where do I need to go? Solfatara or Cuma?” I shouted at the gypsy. “What am I supposed to do?”

Humpty grabbed my hand and closed her rheumy eyes. The woods swirled viciously around me, dissolving into a dark pit of fire and clanking metal, the smell of charred wood tickling my nose. Darkness closed around me, eclipsing the sound of the traffic beyond the gypsy’s camp and the wind in the trees, the yowling of the cat, the dim light of the setting sun and the smell of the trash on the street…

Overpowering everything was the new sensation of fire burning my forearm, pulsing like a second heartbeat.

“You must get Mark,” Humpty whispered. “Without Mark, you cannot enter Cuma. You cannot read Oracles.”

The vision disappeared and I was back in the woods with the gypsy and Bax.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s enough!” Bax yelled. He wrapped his arms around me and dragged me away from the camp.

“She said to go into the fire, into the volcano, so we have to go to Solfatara,” I said weakly once we were back at the street. “I don’t know if it’s still open tonight, but—”

“No way. We’re going home.”

“But Bax—”

“You already dropped a bombshell on me about being a Muse and I went along with your plan to go to a homeless encampment.” He flicked the hair from his eyes. “You really freaked me out in there, with the weird language and seeing things I couldn’t.”

“But there’s more to the story, Bax.”

“I don’t know how much more I can handle,” he said. “Go easy on me.”

As we walked back to the base, I told him about my mother being killed by Pluto, my visions of Apollo and Calliope and the Sibyl’s plan to kill me.

He didn’t say anything while we waited for my bus, but his blue eyes were worried.

“So we have to go to Solfatara tomorrow after school,” I said. “And maybe you can dig up more info on Nyx and the artifact she stole.”

Bax kicked at the ground as the base bus rumbled toward us in the late afternoon light. “Might have stolen.”

I flinched at his words. “How can you say that? She totally framed me.”

 “Maybe we should slow down and think about all of this.” He fiddled with the zipper on his jacket, avoiding my eyes. “Plus, your story about the Gods is a little… pazzo…” He tapped his temple with his index finger.

I glared at him and set my jaw. “So it’s okay for you to use me and John to take the blame for bad situations you’ve gotten us into, but when I need you, you get all weird?”

“I didn’t mean to say it like that,” he backtracked. “It’s a lot to process.”

“It’s ironic,” I said. “I thought you, of all people, would get it.” I slung my backpack over my shoulder and got on the bus, feeling like he’d punched me in the stomach.

“I’ll call you later, okay?” he said.

I turned and found a seat at the back, on the other side of the bus so he wouldn’t see me crying.

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 29

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 29

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 27

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 27