MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 33
I jolted awake, the hourglass pendant clenched in my hand. Now I knew why the gypsy gave it to me. My hourglass was synchronized with the Sibyl’s.
There was a small handful of sand left. A small handful of time left before time ran out.
Before the Sibyl killed my brother.
If your sister brings the Oracles to me, you may live…If not, you will fulfill your prophecy in death…
Whether I had the Oracles or not, I had to get to Cuma.
I checked my watch. Twenty minutes had passed since I got to the bus stop. How far had the sand already fallen? I pulled a sharpie from my backpack and marked a black line at the sand level.
As I clasped it onto my neck, I wondered: Where was the bus?
I looked in both directions and caught the eye of a shopkeeper across the street. She stopped sweeping and waggled her finger at me, yelling, “Non ci sono gli autobus oggi! C’è uno sciopero degli autobus!”
No buses today. Bus strike.
Of course. The Neapolitans were only predictable in their unpredictability.
I pulled out my phone to check for a train station nearby. There was a text from Daria: where r u? call me!
Actually, as I scrolled through, there were dozens of texts. Mostly, since I was absent, they were about who was doing what at school. But she’d sent 10 in the last half-hour alone, each punctuated by exclamations.
The hourglass whirred on my neck and I snapped back to reality. I had no time for high school drama. I had to get to Cuma.
The train station was about a mile away. Ignoring the messages, I tapped the map. Too late, I saw the screen had changed. I had accidentally picked up a call.
“Eden? Hello? Are you there?”
Shoot. If I hung up, it would drive her insane. Knowing Daria, she’d keep calling until I picked up. Better to get it over with.
I worked up a little enthusiasm and answered, “Hey, Daria.”
“Hey—” She sounded surprised. “I didn’t think you’d answer. I, uh, sent you some texts.”
I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder and started walking. In my hand, I clutched the pizzette, its cheese now congealed. “Yeah, I saw—”
She interrupted, “Look, I know you’re sick or whatever, but Bax is over at Nyx’s house right now.”
I stopped walking. “Wait… what?”
“Yeah. She lives across the street, remember?”
“Right, right,” I said, trying to concentrate on street signs, trying not to jump to conclusions. “So, um, what are they doing?”
“I don’t know!” Daria blurted. “That’s why I called you. It’s really weird, don’t you think? I mean, I heard Eric’s moped come up the street. Not that I know what it sounds like, but I do, you know, ‘coz… Anyway, Bax got to the door and she let him in and I just thought you should know.”
My cheeks blazed and the air left my lungs like I’d fallen from a tall tree. The idea of Nyx and Bax – ick, I even hated putting their names together – made my stomach churn. So Bax wouldn’t talk to me, but he could hang out with Nyx?
No. Uh-uh. Troy was waiting for me, with the Sibyl. The sand in my hourglass was dwindling. If Bax was with Nyx, who cared? I had a date with my Destiny.
“Daria, I’ve gotta go,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll let you know when he leaves.”
We hung up and I kicked the tire of a parked Fiat. The last thing I needed was to worry about Bax going to Nyx’s house, but my imagination flared up as I walked toward the train station. Bax had done enough damage already, starting with his unscheduled tour of the amphitheater, and he had a lot of nerve not returning my texts now that he knew I was a Muse.
Was he playing me the whole time? Was he telling Nyx my secret right now?
But Bax didn’t seem like a traitor. Even when he told me the story about John, he sounded regretful and sad about the outcome. Or was I too blind to see the truth?
A lightbulb went on in my head and my Mark burned, shame prickling my skin like goose bumps.
I’m such an idiot.
Bax had never wanted to be my friend. To him, I was just like John: an easy person to take the fall. I couldn’t believe I’d trusted him with my secret when he’d kept a bigger secret from me all along.
The pieces fell into place with crystal clarity. Bax had lured me into exploring off-limits areas under the Pozzuoli amphitheater as an alibi. It was so obvious now, him showing “the new girl” around on a private tour while Nyx stole the artifact. And while I was with him, my poor brother was looking for me.
I felt like a fool.
But Bax and Nyx were the least of my problems.
I had the Mark, but no Oracles. And, without the Oracles, I had no way to get Troy.
As I walked, another thought occurred to me: maybe I did have a way…
I considered what I really knew about the Sibyl: Apollo sentenced her to die after the last grain of sand falls from the hourglass. She wanted to find the Oracles before she died, as her final gift to Pluto. The Oracles would give Pluto the power to overthrow Mount Olympus in the way the Olympians defeated the Titans.
The Sibyl wanted me to bring the Oracles to her lair and read them. And then, she’d kill me. But was it simply for revenge? Or to appease Pluto’s thirst for another soul in the Kingdom of the Dead?
And the Sibyl won’t live to see it.
I trudged along the road, hypnotized by the swish of cars zipping past me. There had to something else, something I was missing. What did it all mean? What did the Sibyl really want from me?
Sliding my thumb under the hourglass pendant, I felt a tiny shift of the sand, which was now below the black line I’d marked ten minutes before. From that measurement, I estimated I had about twelve more lines – or 120 minutes, two hours – to get to Troy.
And when the last grain of sand finally fell through the hourglass, the Sibyl would kill us and turn to dust.
If I didn’t want to die, there was no way the Sibyl – history’s most powerful mortal Seer, faithful servant of the Underworld – wanted to die. If her desire was to create an army of mortals to follow Pluto’s reign, she was far more useful in the mortal world than she would be in the Underworld, where she would be stuck with other dead souls.
I quickened my pace, thoughts spinning.
If I could stop the sand from flowing through the hourglass, would the Sibyl release Troy?
My Mark tingled. Maybe I was onto something. If I could turn the hourglass over before the Sibyl died – if I could stop time – then I’d have something to offer her, a bargaining chip in the off chance that she’d forget about the Oracles and release my brother.
My violet streak tickled the base of my neck and I looked up. In the haze of my thoughts, I’d made a wrong turn onto an unlit, unkempt street lined with dilapidated buildings. A few yards away, a taxi with dark windows idled with its headlights on.
Was the taxi there a minute ago? I couldn’t remember, but now it seemed like a bad omen, its driver’s face obscured by the tinted glass.
I wondered if I should turn back, but the train station was only a few blocks away. If I turned around, I’d be lost in the maze of crooked streets.
With a deep inhale, I charged forward with my head down and arms crossed, still holding the flimsy, cold pizzette in my hand.
As I stumbled on the uneven road, the taxi revved its engine. My muscles tensed and I prepared to throw the cold pizza at the driver. With my other hand, I rooted for Vulcan’s dagger.
The taxi bucked to life and sidled up next to me, a small stripe of the driver’s side window open.
“Get away from me!” Gulping back fear, I gripped the cool metal of the dagger. “I’ll call the cops! Polizia!”
The creaky window rolled down. Mercury squinted at me in the darkness, wearing a stained, light blue short-sleeved shirt with the nametag “Marco.”
“You scared me to death!” I slapped a hand to my chest, heart pounding, as the passenger door swung open.
Mercury scratched the golden skin under his floppy wig. “My apologies. I sometimes forget the codes of mortal conduct.”
“No kidding.” I climbed inside while Mercury fiddled with the instrument panel. Fastening the seatbelt, my thoughts formed into words and my earrings warmed. I asked, Hey, do you need me to drive?
Thank you, Eden, but if there are no mortals present, I can use my thoughts to ferry the vehicle. Mercury waved his long fingers, covering the steering wheel in gold dust. The tiny golden wings of his sneakers fluttered under the hems of his pants. The car hovered off the ground and into the air, soaring above the buildings.
Mercury scrutinized the globby, cold pizza in my hand. May I?
With a shrug, I passed him the pizza. He took a long whiff, his honey-colored eyes rolling back in his head. Is this mortal ambrosia?
I thought of my first taste of ambrosia in Vulcan’s lair, how my head swam in the taste of strawberries and sunshine and victory. Not exactly, but it’s pretty good.
Mercury nibbled the pizzette. I do love mortal food. My siblings would rather starve like Tantalus than eat mortal food, but I find it has a certain… charm. His attention traveled to my arm. Speaking of my siblings, how is gruff old Vulcan in his fiery hovel?
I lifted my sleeve. Gold dust glittered around the Mark. Mercury smiled. It is far more radiant than imagined.
Vulcan’s not so bad, you know. He hasn’t been given a fair chance. Kinda like me. I rolled my sleeve back down. And look – I showed him the hourglass – it’s working. I calculated that I only have about two hours left, but I had a vision of the Sibyl’s cave and I saw Troy. He’s alive! I know where he is. If you steer this thing to Cuma, we can go in there and rescue him—
The smile slid from Mercury’s face.
Now that I have the Mark, you have to help me, right? I asked. Isn’t that how it works?
For advice and counsel between the mortal and immortal worlds, I am unceasingly available. Mercury pretended to wipe the dashboard, rubbing his hand over the cracked plastic without making contact. However, I am forbidden to enter into a conflict that is not my own.
His words stung me.
Not your own? I asked, my thoughts as loud as if I were shouting. If I don’t give the Oracles to the Sybil, she and Pluto will destroy Mount Olympus. This is your conflict, too!
He blinked, surprised at my question. Eden, I am not permitted to meddle in the journey of your Destiny.
I don’t believe this. I turned away, too angry to look at him. As I stared down at the cobweb of streets, I cursed myself for thinking the Gods would help me. So was the Sibyl right? Are the Gods just sitting up on Olympus, waiting for me to do their dirty work? Are there bets on whether I’ll survive?
Eden, my hands are tied in this matter.
I struck the dashboard so hard my palm stung. Merc, I know where my brother is and time is running out. I don’t have the Oracles, but I have a plan, and I have to try. You have no idea how much I miss him…
I chewed the inside of my cheek. I didn’t want to cry in front of Mercury. As much as he pretended to love the mortal realm, he couldn’t understand human relationships or the impermanence of mortal life. He would never have to grieve over losing someone he loved. His family would never die.
The taxi rumbled over clouds as we soared in silence, the dark mass of Lago Patria looming ahead of us.
My earrings vibrated.
Eden, I want to assist you, but you must understand… The Gods cannot disrupt your journey. We cannot accompany you to Cuma. It is your Destiny, and yours alone.
I didn’t answer.
“Allora. We are here,” he said aloud. He lowered the taxi onto the parking lot of Franco’s fruit stand. He studied me with earnest eyes and added, “There may be one small way I can help.”
With a swish of gold dust, his door squealed open. Mercury swiped the pizza from the seat and tucked it under his arm. He slipped out the taxi, leaving the door open, and began to glide away.
“Hey, wait!” I slammed my door and chased him. “Where are you going? You said you’d help me.”
Mercury tilted his head to the sky. “Judging by the constellations, I must hurry to my post for the nine-thirty flight to Vienna.” He snapped his fingers and gold dust showered over his head. The next moment, he was dressed in a crisp red Air Austria uniform.
He gazed at the taxi and sighed. “Therefore, I have no use for this fine vehicle. But perhaps it will be helpful to someone.”
I glanced back at the taxi, its keys dangling from the ignition switch, and a flood of gratitude filled my heart. “Merc, I could kiss you.”
He tipped the shiny brim of his cap to me and the golden wings on his sneakers whirred. A moment later, all that was left of the Messenger was a faint shimmer of gold dust hanging in the light of Franco’s streetlamp.