MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 30

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 30

It was my turn.

Now I understood why the Sibyl had taken my brother, and the only thing standing in the way of getting him back was the Mark.

I chased sleep that night, tossing and turning more than I slept, until my dad’s alarm went off in the dark of the morning. I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling, listening to the early morning rowing crews as they called to each other on the lake. My dad’s heavy boots stomped around the kitchen downstairs. When he shut the front door, I got out of bed.

I couldn’t waste time at school or in volleyball practice. Today, I was going to Solfatara to get my Mark, whatever that meant.

I texted Bax and Daria that I was sick and staying home, then dressed quickly. As I pulled on my sneakers, my phone rang.

I fumbled to answer it. “Bax?”

“No, it’s Daria,” she said, her voice a bit wounded. “Are you really sick, or is it because of Nyx?”

“It’s a stomach thing,” I lied, tying my shoelaces, holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder. “What about Nyx?”

“You know, because she’s captain of the team now.”

“WHAT?!” I shrieked. “She’s team captain?”

“Yeah.” She sounded surprised by my reaction. “Wow, I’m sorry. It happened last night after you left practice. I figured you probably heard by now and didn’t want to come to school.”

I chewed my lip. Sometime after practice, between getting my cards read by Humpty Dumpty and floating through Mercury’s memory, Nyx made captain of the team. If I hated her before this, now I really couldn’t control myself.

“That’s it, then,” I sighed. “She’ll make me sit on the bench at Jamboree or play second string. My volleyball life is over. I should probably make it easy on all of us and quit.”

“Seriously?” Daria asked. “I didn’t think you’d take it like this. I thought you’d be pissed, like I am.”

I threw Notebook 19 into my backpack. “What good would that do? It’s better to just accept that Nyx is gonna bench me for the rest of the season.”

“See, that’s fine for me, but I’m a background player. And I like it that way,” she said. “You’re the star. You can’t go second string.”

I checked my watch. The city bus would be at the end of the Four-Laner in 15 minutes, which meant I had to run to catch it. “Daria, I have so much going on, I’m surprised I’m still on the team.”

“Look,” Daria slowed her words and spoke carefully on the other end of the phone. “You can’t give up, and you can’t go second string for Jamboree. We have a chance to win. I want to win. Do you want to win?”

Since the day I joined the team, all I wanted to do was win Jamboree, but now I didn’t know. I shook my head and stared at the ground. “It just seems sort of stupid now that Troy’s missing.”

“Troy would want you to win. If nothing else, he’d want you to prove yourself. Think your brother wants to come back and see that you’ve been playing second string?”

I waited a beat, stunned by Daria’s pep talk. All this time, I had taken Daria for granted, thinking she’d taken me on as a novelty, rounding out her circle of friends with the new girl. Instead, she knew more about who I wanted to be than I did.

I bit my lip. “Uh-uh.”

“That’s what I thought.” She paused and I detected a tiny smile in her voice. “I’ll tell Coach you’re massively sick today, but you better be here tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay.” Before we hung up, she said, “Eden?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t,” I promised.

* * *

I could hear Alessi’s mom telling her kids to finish breakfast and get their shoes on as I closed our gate. I hurried out of our parco so Alessi wouldn’t see me, breaking into a sprint at the Four-Laner to catch the city bus. There was a short line ahead of me at the bus stop, mostly young guys in white shirts and black jackets on their way to jobs at hotels and cafes, and older women with scarves tied around their hair. I had a few moments to catch my breath and check my phone.

There was a single text from Daria – feel better, k? – but nothing from Bax. I kicked myself for half-hoping Bax would call me, maybe even come with me to Solfatara. The bus filled up quickly so I slid into a seat toward the back.

The city bus lurched up a hill. Our driver honked and cursed at the shoebox-sized cars weaving through traffic. We sped toward a sign for Solfatara and my stomach dropped.

What if Bax was right? It was dangerous, showing up unannounced at the entrance to Hell, hoping a rogue God would grant me some prized mark. Would it hurt? How would I get it? What was I expecting to find? Mercury hadn’t offered to meet me at the entrance and introduce me to Vulcan.

The bus crept to a stop at the top of the volcano’s bowl. Solfatara’s burbling mud pits puffed sulfuric vapors into the air like smoke signals of stinging, pungent air.

Too late to turn back now.

I climbed off the bus and shifted my backpack from one shoulder to the other. I knew I should go home, tell my dad everything, beg my grandmother for help, pray that this was a bad dream and that the NSA would find Troy and punish Nyx for stealing the artifact. And then? Then we’d all live happily ever after.

But who was I kidding? None of this had to do with the real world, the mortal world. This was a game of the Gods and I was either going to win, or die. There was no in-between.

I pulled my jacket over my nose and followed a crowd of school kids and tourists down the cactus-laden hillside toward the crater. Tiny vents covered the bleak landscape, stinky bottle rockets popping with steamy vapors of sulfur. Ahead of me, the school kids held their noses and took pictures of each other fanning at the air, accusing each other of passing gas.

I inspected yellow-red rocks and clouds of steam, looking for a sign, a clue, anything. A small crowd gathered around Bocca Grande, “the big mouth,” Solfatara’s largest vent. I wandered over, finding an open spot between a stern-looking teacher and a baseball-capped tourist.

The fissure burst with steam and a plume of ordinary white smoke billowed up. Bocca Grande appeared to be nothing but a big pit. I watched the mud bubble and pop as the teacher directed her students away and a fresh group of tourists angled their phones for good shots.

I leaned my back against the flimsy fence separating us from Bocca Grande, resting my foot on the bottom slat. I touched Calliope’s earrings, hoping to hear Mercury’s voice, or anything at all.

Instead, they were silent.

I chewed my lip. In order to get into Mercury’s memory, I’d drawn a picture of the temple at Olympus. The trouble was, I didn’t know where I was going, except that I had to find the reclusive God of Fire in the middle of a volcano.

Still, it was worth trying. I slipped one hand into my backpack and fumbled for a pencil and Notebook 19. Balancing the book on the fence, I scratched out a basic sketch of the crater. A few Scandinavian tourists peeked over my shoulder and gave me a thumbs-up before moving on to another fissure.

Nothing happened, though. I studied the sketch with a more objective eye. It wasn’t my best drawing, but it was a pretty good representation of Bocca Grande, with steam rising and bubbles bursting and even some tourists wandering around. It was better than the one I’d drawn of Olympus, for sure, but I wasn’t moving and my earrings were annoyingly quiet.

I shut Notebook 19 and stared across the crater.

Mercury had told me to travel by thought. What if that was the way in?

It wasn’t a bad idea. If I concentrated on Vulcan and the inside of the volcano, maybe it would be enough to pull me in.

I waited for a Spanish couple to totter away from Bocca Grande, then I leaned into the flimsy slats of the fence. The dry wood creaked and I wondered if it would hold my weight long enough for me to get a strong connection and travel by thought.

Concentrate, I told myself. Vulcan… volcano…

A breeze rustled around me and I braced for the shudder of flight.

Nothing.

The old fence groaned as I leaned forward. In Mercury’s memory, I drifted through objects and people like they were wisps of air and energy, but maybe in the real world I needed to be closer to where I wanted to be, to get it started. I hoisted one leg over the fence, then the other, balancing myself on the top of the fence. Then I closed my eyes and focused.

The Mark… I need the Mark… Where is Vulcan?

Signorina?” A small girl wandered toward the broken fence, holding on with tiny hands.

Her voice startled me and I teetered on the fence. As the gray wood swayed back and forth, gravity pulled me forward. If I wasn’t careful, I was going to fall in the mud. I ignored the little girl’s curious stare and breathed deeply.

Concentrate… Vulcan… Mark… Get to Vulcan’s lair…

“Che cosa stai facendo?” the girl asked, her chocolaty brown eyes wide. What are you doing?

“Niente,” I said. “Nothing.” With a wink, I added, “Shh…”

“Shh…” she repeated, holding a finger to her lips.

With a pop, the fence broke and the wood splintered, jettisoning me into the center of Bocca Grande. My sneakers skidded in opposite directions and I face-planted in the slippery, warm mud. Hot, sulfuric steam hissed all around me and I gagged.

The little girl craned her neck as I crawled between bubbling fissures, trying to get to my feet. “Tutto bene?” she called.

I nodded, but when I moved to stand, my foot slid backward. I plopped, belly first, into the mud again.

The little girl laughed and clapped, and I felt my cheeks getting hot.

What now?

I couldn’t leave. I had to find a way into the volcano and, judging by the size of Bocca Grande, it had to be the largest opening.

Not that I could move. I slid my hands under my chest and tried to push up into a plank position, but my backpack felt like a hundred-pound load. Mud seeped through my clothes and slithered over my skin, matting my hair and covering my face. The volcanic fumes burned my lungs.

I’d never been afraid of confined spaces. But now, as the mud grew heavier around me, I felt faint with fear.

The little girl’s face went pale as I struggled in the gurgling mud, trying to wriggle free. Every movement pulled me deeper into the mud, zipping my arms and legs to my body, like a mummy.

When I was up to my eyeballs in the volcanic mud, I remembered Solfatara wasn’t just Vulcan’s home.

It was an entrance to the Underworld. Pluto’s kingdom. The home of the dead.

It was another trap.

The volcano was burying me alive.

The little girl yelled something to me, but I couldn’t hear her. “Mi aiuta!” I screamed. “Go! Vai!”

Mouth open, I began to hyperventilate, magnifying the metallic, ashy taste on my tongue. The girl turned but I quickly lost track of her. Tears welled in my eyes, blurring my vision even more than the gloppy mud on my lashes.

I couldn’t die. Troy needed me.

But if it was a trap – if Pluto was trying to kill me before I even got to the Mark – if I died, then I’d be with my mother in the Underworld.

It was a strangely comforting thought.

My breathing slowed. The weight of Solfatara closed in on me and I stopped struggling against it.

Bocca Grande released a belch of sulfur and the volcano shook with a ferocious rumble. I sucked in a quick sip of air, and then Solfatara swallowed me whole.

I expected to burst into flames, but instead I found myself sliding through a tunnel that twisted and turned like a volcanic rabbit hole. Heat licked at me from all sides as it pulled me faster and faster into the belly of Solfatara. The slippery walls burned my fingers as I clawed at them, but I was moving too fast to grab hold of anything. When the tunnel gave way to a burst of hot air, I found myself free-falling in the darkness.

I was going to die. I knew it. But how? Would I land on a pit of fire or would Pluto send his hooded creatures to take my soul first?

I took sipped in another sulfuric breath and then crashed into a muddy heap. My bones ached from the fall, my body caked with a thick layer of gooey, warm mud. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t dead.

I peeled myself off the floor and rolled up to standing, taking stock of where I was. A pit? A well? Some kind of prison cell?

Was this Hell?

A pinprick of light streamed through a dirt wall less than two arm lengths away. The volcano shook nonstop, showering loose bits of mud into the pit. The air was oppressively hot, like Palm Springs in August, only worse because of the putrid sulfur.

Through the dirt wall, I heard the sharp sound of metal on metal. It sounded like a team of railway workers hammering railroad ties, rhythmic, unceasing, heavy, toiling. I shimmied across the slippery dirt floor and placed one eye over the opening in the wall, blinking in the heat.

On the other side was an enormous foundry, hundreds of fires blazing around its perimeter. A small metal shovel whizzed past the opening and scooped black coal from a towering pile in the center. Dozens of shovels scuttled through the room like bees in a hive, each scooping coal and feeding it to the fires. They moved like robots, flying to and from the glistening black piles in an endless dance, oblivious to me.

Suspended in mid-air above the fires, cast iron pots sizzled and crackled, their bottoms blackened by fire. Golden smoke curled up from each pot, glittery clouds rising like stars to the high ceiling.

At the far end of the cave was a hulking man with bulging shoulders. He hunched over a raging fire, black ashes smeared on his dark shoulders, smoke rising all around him. I could only see the side of his face, but I knew him by the way his massive feet twisted grotesquely behind him.

Vulcan. God of Fire.

He was the son of Jupiter and Juno, but he was homely by the standards of Olympus: the pits of his leathery face were streaked with soot and grime, his nose large and flat, his eyes like small, dark olive pits. He had a bushy shelf-like brow and flaring nostrils, thick lips and a squared chin. His giant head was covered in closely shorn stubble that extended onto his face, into a beard.

According to my mythology book, Vulcan was such an ugly infant, his mother Juno tossed him off Mount Olympus soon after he was born. He fell into the sea and broke his legs, which never fully developed. Fortunately, he was found and raised by a sea nymph, but it was hardly a shock that Vulcan chose to keep his distance from Mount Olympus.

One exception was a gift he sent to Juno, a magic gold throne. When she sat on it, however, it trapped her and she was held hostage by the chair for three days. Finally, in exchange for Juno’s release, Jupiter promised Vulcan a wife; soon he was married to the reluctant, unfaithful Venus.

I thought of this as Vulcan plucked a metal rod from the hot coals, stoking the fire until the cinders glowed bright orange. Setting the rod onto an anvil, he pulled a hammer from the wall and battered the red hot tip of the bar. With each strike of Vulcan’s hammer, Solfatara shuddered around me.

With the first blow, a small clod of dirt smacked my forehead and slid down my face. I blinked, wiping it away from my cheek. The second one loosened a larger flap of mud, which plopped to the bottom of the well, next to my feet. Then, with a violent shake, a clump as big as a suitcase pounded me in the head.

The wincing pain startled me and I yelped. “Ow!”

Immediately, I clamped my hands over my mouth, heart racing.

The forge went silent. The shovels stopped moving and the flames of the fires died down.

There was no way he could have heard me over the clamor in the forge, but now it was disarmingly still. Carefully, I crawled my fingers up the wall and peered into the opening.

Vulcan squinted in my direction, gripping the orange-tipped metal rod in one hand and the giant hammer in the other. With a grunt, he hobbled on his backwards feet, toward me.

I pressed myself flat against the wall, pulse quickening. Mercury’s warning came back to me: Old Vulcan doesn’t get many visitors.

But I was the Muse Warrior... He was expecting me, wasn’t he?

The fires roared again, the shovels beginning their dance to the coal piles once more. Solfatara quaked with Vulcan’s massive footsteps, each one growing closer.

I clawed at the walls of the slippery pit as I talked myself down. Vulcan made the Mark… Of course he knew about me… and Troy… He had to help me… Or else…

Or else what?

I scraped the wall, looking for a way out. Mud caked under my fingernails. Every surface slithered with sludge. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

As Vulcan’s foot falls grew closer, a smattering of pebbles pelted me from above. Then a few more.

And then, nothing.

For several seconds, there was no sound. I craned my neck for a glimpse at the foundry. The fires and pots of the forge simmered on, but the shovels were no longer in sight.

Neither was Vulcan.

I leaned back into the darkness of the pit. Sweat dripped into my eyes. Dried mud crackled on my face and I pursed my parched lips together. Anger flared within me.

None of this would be happening if Apollo had fought for Calliope.

A thin veil of gold dust rippled on the wall across from me, forming a shadowy movie of Apollo from Mercury’s memory. The events of that night played in quick succession, ending with the shadow of Apollo staring helplessly after Calliope and the Muses as they left Mount Olympus.

The vision reignited my fury at Apollo. This was his mistake. Even now, as I stumbled through a maze of clues and gypsies and memories – the result of his mistake – he was nowhere to be found.

Why did he let Calliope go?

I swatted at the gold dust, wishing I knew the answers. The gold dust rippled and then grew larger, like an image on my phone. I fanned my hands apart in a wide swoop and Apollo’s image puffed up and out, larger with each swipe.

Weird. I didn’t know I could control the size of the vision.

Adrenaline kicked in and I grabbed the gold dust and stretched Apollo’s face. Why didn’t you come here with me? I thought. Why don’t you talk to me through Calliope’s earrings?

But, of course, my earrings remained cold and silent.

Then, with a deafening boom, Vulcan’s hammer burst through the wall.

I slid behind my vision of Apollo, covered by the gold dust as Vulcan clobbered at the wall. With every thunderous crack, more of the solid rock crumbled.

Vulcan dug with his huge hands, hurling aside chunks of rock and mud. He forced his massive head through the opening and did a double-take at the misty gold image of the Sun God. As far as I could tell, he didn’t see me behind it.

“Apollo?!”

The walls of the pit rumbled with the sound of his voice and I lost my footing, sliding to the ground.

Vulcan shook an immense fist at me. “I won’t be fooled by your witchcraft, mortal!” he snarled in an ancient tongue. “Who are you? Where is Apollo?”

I stood on shaking feet. “I-I’m the Muse Warrior—”

“You? A warrior?” Vulcan boomed. “My hammer is more of a warrior than you!”

He pounded at the wall of the pit until the rock split open. Wielding his hammer, Vulcan climbed over the rubble and studied me through the murky vision of Apollo, as though I were his prey.

I’d come here so he could help me, but I hadn’t anticipated that he could actually kill me. How was I supposed to fight off an anti-social Olympian?

The air in the pit shimmered with gold dust and I braced myself for Vulcan’s hammer. The fading, shrinking image of Apollo was all that stood between me and certain death.

His words – My hammer is more of warrior than you! – echoed in my head.

I needed to convince Vulcan that I was a warrior, and that meant I’d either have to be one, or fake it.

Or create one.

Electricity jolted my ears and my earrings vibrated. A Whim forced its way to the surface of my forehead and escaped in a burst of light, illuminating a larger, more intimidating outline of Apollo.

Using my fingers as brushes, I drafted Apollo into a warrior, following the Whim’s design. I expanded his shoulders and lengthened his body, swelling his flexed muscles so that they filled the dim pit with fierce energy. The Whim’s energy moved through me and I followed it, stretching the vision until it filled the pit with a life-size vision of Apollo, glowing as brilliantly as the Sun God himself. The vision was so lifelike, it seemed to breathe on its own.

Vulcan twitched, hammer still held high over his head, a confused look on his face.

While he hesitated, the Whim shed light on Apollo’s back and I could see the faint outline of Diana’s quiver and bow. I etched them with my fingers, adding Mars’ sword to a sheath slung around Apollo’s hips.

Vulcan aimed his hammer at the vision of Apollo. “Who are you?!” he demanded again.

I planted my feet and yelled, “I’m the Muse Warrior! I’m here for the Mark!”

“We’ll see about that.” Vulcan jerked the hammer backward, ready to strike.

I reached behind my back for an imaginary arrow, just as I’d done on the day I saw Diana in the school hallway. Over my head, the colossal hand of Apollo pulled a gold-tipped arrow from his quiver and placed it on the string of his bow.

Okay. This could work. I aimed my arrow at the God of Fire. Then I tugged the bow taut and released the arrow.

The air above me rippled. Apollo’s arm flexed as he yanked back the string of the bow. The arrow sprang from Apollo’s bow and clipped Vulcan’s shoulder.

The God of Fire grunted and reeled backward, but I didn’t hesitate. I pulled back another arrow, then another and another. The gold dust of Apollo’s muscled arms shimmered with each release, unrelenting.

Vulcan held his hands up, shielding his face with his forearms. “Apollo, it is not my wish to harm my brethren,” he bellowed, “but you leave me no choice.”

Over his shoulder, he shouted, “Attack!”

Behind him, the robotic shovels dumped their coal and raced toward the pit. They swarmed in front of Vulcan like a shield with their handles down, deflecting the arrows with uncanny precision. As each arrow approached, the shovels lashed out, dissolving the gold dust.

Vulcan swiped his hammer at Apollo. If he made contact and the gold dust dissolved, I’d be dead in an instant.

Without thinking, I grabbed for Mars’ sword and lunged forward. Above me, Apollo jabbed at the spaces between the shovels. I could feel the weight of the sword in my hands as I sawed through the air. The shovels clanged and clattered, but the solid form of Apollo charged between them.

I put both of my hands together and held the blade of the sword to Vulcan’s neck. “Where is the Mark?” I yelled.

Vulcan shook his head.

With a quick swipe, I cut the side of Vulcan’s neck. There was no blood, only a swirling wound of gold dust, but the old blacksmith stumbled backward in pain.

“Enough!” Vulcan hollered, clutching his hands around his thick neck. “You may be able to conjure the Sun God, but fancy tricks will not fool me. How can I be sure that you are the true Muse Warrior?”

I stepped to the side of the gold dust, brandishing the sword. Apollo stood darkly over the God of Fire, Diana’s bow pulled taut with glittering gold dust.

Waving Mars’ sword at Vulcan’s chest, I asked, “How can I be sure that you’re the true Vulcan?”

Vulcan stared at me with his dark eyes. His face twisted and his lips curled at the edges. I didn’t move, afraid to loosen my grip on the sword.

Then Vulcan roared with laughter. The deep bellowing sound ricocheted around the wall of the pit.

“I’ve been expecting you,” he said.

The language of the Gods tumbled off my tongue. “Then why’d you try to kill me?”

Vulcan wiped his neck, brushing the gold dust wound away from his skin. “I needed to see if you deserve the honor of your birthright as the Muse Warrior.”

I shifted my weight. “Do I? Where is the Mark?”

“You are clever,” he said, furrowing his eyebrows and squinting. “But we shall see if you are ready for the Mark. Follow me. There is another test.” He limped into the forge, his backward feet stumbling over the rubble.

Another test.

I caught my breath and let Mars’ sword fall from my hands. It shimmered once more and faded before it hit the ground. Above me, the vision of Apollo glimmered and disappeared.

Still shaking with adrenaline, I followed Vulcan over the crumbled rock, wondering what else I would have to prove before I could get the Mark and find Troy.

The God of Fire hobbled to the coal pile and wheeled around, his thick arms crossed. I stepped into the firelight and he gave me a fatherly smile, his eyes lingering on my ears.

I flinched, then realized he was looking at the earrings.

“I must apologize,” he said, shrinking back, eyes drooping to the ground. “It has been a long while since I made them.” He shook his head. “Calliope was special. One lifetime of her gifts was not enough.”

Vulcan motioned for me to follow him through the forge, into the belly of the volcano. Even with his limp, I had to jog to keep up with him.

His lair spilled out in all directions like a factory with machines belching steam into the air. Robots of all shapes and sizes scurried everywhere, oiling machines, tightening rivets, cutting steel.

 We passed dozens of rooms and workshops. Some areas resembled junk shops, with shiny parts and objects lining every surface. Other rooms were filled with drafting tables and drawings and blueprints of inventions.

“My brother would love this place,” I said to no one in particular.

After several more rooms and hallways, we arrived at an ornate gold doorway. A carving of Jupiter jutted out from the top of the door, brandishing a fistful of lightning bolts. The rest of the Olympians were carved below: Minerva and her shield, Mercury and his caduceus, Apollo and his lyre, Mars and his sword. The seductive face of Venus gleamed brighter than the rest.

Heaving a sigh, Vulcan touched her golden cheek with a rough hand before he unlatched the door, leading us to an elaborate foyer with tiled floors and marble walls.

“Is this where you live?” I asked.

Vulcan grunted. “If it were up to me, I’d live in the forge, but my wife has an eye for beauty.”

I thought of Venus trying to dance with Mars at Apollo’s feast. Now that I’d seen the sultry Goddess of Love and Beauty in Mercury’s memory, it was difficult to picture her living in the smelly, sooty underbelly of a volcano, but I played along. “Oh, is your wife here?”

“Not currently,” he said. “She has pressing matters on Olympus.” Almost to himself, he added, “But she visits from time to time…”

His words trailed off as we made our way through the palace, past several finely appointed dining rooms and parlors, immaculately kept, as though no one ever sat in them. At last, we reached a sitting with an enormous fireplace framed by an obsidian mantle.

Vulcan flicked his fingers and a roaring fire appeared in the hearth. A massive stone table appeared in the drawing room and careened toward us on golden wheels, followed by two elaborately carved chairs.

I looked down at my wet, muddy clothes and the trail of mud I’d tracked into the palace. “Maybe I should just stand.”

“Nonsense.” With another flick of Vulcan’s hand, a shower of gold dust descended on me like tiny winged birds.

The caked mud on my skin and clothes evaporated. Instantly, I was clean, my clothes fresher than when I’d put them on, my sneakers a brilliant white. My hair was so clean, it squeaked when I touched it.

“Please.” Vulcan motioned for me to sit.

I sank into the chair and the table wheeled itself in front of us.

Vulcan heaved his body into the chair at the head of the table, its stone crackling under his weight. He ran the back of his hand over his forehead, rubbing off a few layers of grime, revealing the faintest glimpse of sparkling skin underneath. Although he wasn’t in the same category as Jupiter, or Apollo, or even Mercury, there was a certain rugged handsomeness about him, in spite of his deformity and the soot and grime of his work.

“Steropes!” He tapped the table with his fingers.

A giant man appeared with a tray of refreshments, which looked like a doll’s tea set in his mammoth hands. Despite his size, he maneuvered gracefully through the room, setting delicate glasses and small plates of fruit before us. In the center of the table, he placed a carafe of glowing liquid. Like the inside of a pearl, it swirled pink, yellow and blue.

“Ambrosia?” Vulcan asked.

“I, uh, I don’t know what that is…”

“And now I must believe the rumors that Mercury has spun.” Vulcan rubbed his bearded chin with a thumb and forefinger. “You were indeed raised by mortals.” He chuckled and motioned for the giant to pour the liquid into my glass.

As he did, the giant stared at me with a single eye.

I turned away, embarrassed. “Uh, I’m sorry to ask, but what is ambrosia? Nectar?”

“It’s something of a misnomer, ‘nectar of the Gods.’ Ambrosia is different for everyone,” Vulcan said, throwing back a glass in one loud gulp. “Try for yourself.”

The ambrosia swirled in my glass like a rainbow turned to liquid. I lifted it to my lips and it smelled like cotton candy, salt air and orange blossoms. I could feel hot beach sand under my feet. When I sipped from the glass, the ambrosia sparkled on my tongue with the crispness of an autumn apple, the sweetness of a ripe strawberry, and the summery sunshine of a peach. But it was also more than taste and smell. It was Troy coming home and art and volleyball and Bax’s blue eyes and everything I’ve ever wanted.

With my next sip of ambrosia, I tasted victory and my cheeks flushed. “Do you drink this every day?”

“It is a drink for special occasions,” Vulcan tapped his glass and Steropes refilled his glass, “and your long-awaited visit is indeed a special occasion.”

            For a few minutes, Vulcan was silent. I sipped my ambrosia, lulled by the crackling fire. The ambrosia made me feel warm inside, and I found myself asking, “May I ask why you live here, in the middle of a volcano, when the rest of the Gods are on Mount Olympus?”

The God of Fire finished a third glass of ambrosia and waved Steropes away. He studied my face and then stared at the fire. “Although most Olympians live on Olympus, the volcano is my paradise. Here, I am free to invent without the social constraints of my brethren. Often, Mount Olympus can feel more like a gathering of women on washing day than the seat of the all-powerful rulers of heaven and earth.”

As the fire lapped at the smooth black obsidian of the hearth, Vulcan focused his eyes on the light dancing languidly around it. “In many ways, you and I are handicapped in the eyes of Olympus.”

“Handicapped?” I blurted.

“We both have a great disadvantage. I was not what my mother wanted,” he stomped on the floor with one backward foot, “and was exiled from her. You were raised by mortals. We are both expected to fail.”

A lump formed in my throat. “I can’t fail. My brother—”

“Yes, it’s troubling,” Vulcan said, stroking his beard again. “My proximity to the Underworld allows me to keep my enemies close.”

He nodded to the fire and a caldron appeared, its contents bubbling in the flames.

“Are you familiar with the battle of the Titans and the Olympians?” he asked.

I nodded.

“These pots are the wounds of the Titans. I keep them boiling so that the fire and stench of war is never forgotten. Even though my father and brethren were triumphant, a victor must always beware. Even the King of the Gods is never truly safe from mutiny.”

Vulcan stood and reached for a rod from the wall to stoke the fire under the bubbling cauldron. A small table whirred automatically to his side.

“Steropes,” he called, “bring the cast.”

The giant cyclope appeared in the doorway, lugging a heavy mold. He heaved it onto the table and bowed as he left the room.

Vulcan reached into the fire with his bare hands and grabbed the cauldron. He hobbled to the table and tipped a hot, syrupy gold metal over the mold. The liquid metal snapped and fizzled as it began to cool.

He placed the cauldron back into the fire. “I am not the only God who chooses a life apart from Olympus. There is one other.”

“Pluto?”

With a heavy head, Vulcan nodded. “The King of the Dead has grown weary of the darkness of the world below the surface and of the pain and suffering of those he governs.”

“I can’t blame him,” I said, “but isn’t that his destiny?”

“Yes, but he may have a different plan in mind.”

Vulcan limped to the table and overturned the mold. A glittering brick of gold tumbled out, its surface laden with delicate curlicues and intricate designs. Vines intertwined around letters in an extravagant pattern, like hand-sewn lace.

“The Mark is binding and it is intended solely for one person,” he said, nodding toward the gold brick. “If it is truly yours, it will come to you.”

Shadowy gold dust rose from the surface of the gold block. It glittered through the air and danced around my left arm, warming my skin with a dull heat. “What’s it doing?” I asked.

Vulcan didn’t answer. We watched the smoke settle onto my arm. Quickly, the smoke transformed into a thick, scorching magma.

“Stop!” I screamed.

The God of Fire winced, his eyes softening in the firelight, but he didn’t move.

The metal scalded my skin and my thoughts became whimpers. Stop… stop… it’s too much pain…

My earrings buzzed. Your destiny has brought you this far, but your courage will determine your fate.

I lifted my eyes. Apollo?

The earrings went cold and I felt myself losing consciousness in the searing pain of the metal. The smoke and heat and pain swirled around me and my body went limp.

Vulcan lifted my arm onto the table, heavy under the weight of the scorching gold cuff. In my waning consciousness, I was aware of Vulcan’s limping footsteps as they traveled across the room and back.

There was a clatter of iron and I opened my eyes.

Vulcan stood above me with a giant ax, its sharp blade shining in the glow of the fire.

“No!” I screamed but Vulcan had already released the ax. It splintered the cuff and the gold fell away in two jagged parts.

A cloud of gold dust formed over my arm and the skin of my inner left forearm erupted into a constellation of red bumps. The rash swelled and then receded, settling into unusual shapes: a small crescent moon, an elaborate figure “4,” and a stick figure with cat ears. At the very center, there was a concentric circle; a thickly drawn gold circle surrounding a dot.

And then it was over. The pain and searing heat of the metal disappeared.

Vulcan fell to his knees, the volcano rumbling under the weight of his massive body, the cauldrons along the wall clattering back and forth musically.

I ran the fingers of my right hand along the raised surfaces of the Mark. “So I am...?”

“Yes,” he said. “The Muse Warrior.”

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 31

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 31

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 29

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 29