Evie had one of those nights that seemed to pass in an instant. She wondered if she even dreamed. Usually, she could remember at least a snippet from a dream–one time, a few years back, she dreamed that she had to convince a king to pay his auto insurance. But last night? No dreams. Just a deep slumber until a cool hand shook her shoulder. The hand belonged to Aelia.
“Wake, Evie. There is little time to waste. We have much to discuss.”
Evie opened her eyes. She was so sleepy she could hear the lids parting and coming together again with each blink. “Alright…you don’t have coffee, do you?”
Aelia cocked her head to one side. “Cough-ee?” Her almost-transparent brows pressed together.
“Don’t worry about it. I think it’ll be about another nine hundred years before coffee is even the slightest bit popular. I’m just not a morning person.” She swung her legs off of the bed and stretched her arms over her head.
Aelia smiled. “I see. You have less than a fortnight to complete your quest, Evie. I suggest you be a morning person for the next twelve days.”
“Ah, what’s happening in twelve days?”
Aelia didn’t answer. She crooked her finger, beckoning Evie to follow, and left the room. In silence, they walked through a labyrinth of tunnels. Torches in brackets lit their way until they reached a room with a five-foot brazier in the center. Fire consumed the wood there, peeling back bark, charring each log’s innards. Marcus stood on the far side of the fire; Evie could make out the sharp jaw line and aquiline nose. In the contrast between light and dark, Marcus looked younger, carefree. It was like the fire smoothed out his scars and the cold in his eyes.
“In twelve days time,” Aelia began to speak, rounding the fire to prod at it with a stick, “the volcano will erupt. It will erupt and kill many, unless you stop it.” Aelia pointed the smoking stick at Evie.
Evie’s jaw hung open. “I’m sorry, what? Stop a volcano? I can’t do that. Is this–what year is this?”
Marcus and Aelia shared a look and then Marcus answered, “The year is 79.”
Evie scoffed and held her hands up in surrender. “You’re right. Everyone in Pompeii is going to die. It’d be better to try to evacuate the city. I can’t stop a volcano.”
“To return to your home, to your time,” Aelia lowered the stick and rested it against the side of the brazier, “you must complete the quest the gods have set out for you. But do not fear, Evie. You will have help.”
“Marcus? We’re not exactly buddies. He only brought me here because I paid him.”
Aelia smiled and walked over to Marcus, trailing her index finger across his shoulders. She leaned up and whispered in his ear, kissed his cheek. Marcus pulled his head away like he was disgusted. Aelia laughed. “Oh, he will help you, friend or no. But you two cannot complete this task alone. There is a prophesy.”
“Oh, please. Let’s hear the prophesy,” Evie prompted, unable to hold in the bubble of incredulous laughter.
Aelia’s smile slipped from her lips. “Do not mock the gods.” She cleared her throat. “The prophesy states: Rings of Saturn and companions three, find the strength of Hercules. On the cone of raging fire, soothe the gods’ burning ire.”
Evie perched her hands on her hips. “How does that help? Are you one of the companions, Aelia? Do you, Marcus, and I somehow equal the strength of a demigod?”
“No,” Aelia shook her head. “I will not accompany you. There is a third who will present himself to you. You must journey to find Hercules. Only then can you save the city of Pompeii.”
“This is insane. I’m leaving,” Evie turned and walked away from the fire-room, from Marcus, and from Aelia.
“You will not find your way out, not without my help,” Aelia called after her.
Evie stopped and clenched her fists until she could feel her fingernails dig into the flesh of her palm. Usually, she kept her nails trimmed short, but this was just one more piece of evidence that she’d been away. “How are we supposed to find Hercules and convince him to save Pompeii in less than two weeks?”
“There is a map.”
“Great. Can I see it?”
Aelia laughed. “Evie, you know little of prophesies. I don’t have the map. You must quest for it. Then you must find the demigod. He will know what to do to stop the eruption.”
“Well, why can’t you just ask him directly, then?”
Aelia stared into the flames. “He is trapped. In a place I cannot go. Only the one bearing the marks you now wear on your wrist can find him. My part is to give this information to you. The gods have not designed any other purpose for me. Do you not think I would be grateful to have a larger role to play? Instead, they bring you here. You are reluctant, inept, and not of our time and land.”
Evie turned to look at Aelia. In the midst of her tirade, her ethereal beauty, the softness in her features, disappeared. She looked like she was carved of marble. “What’s in it for me, if I help you by going on this prophesied quest?”
“In it for you? Well, I suppose you get to leave this time and place. But it is not me asking you to do these things. It is the gods. Jupiter is angry, but Venus and Saturnus have the power to calm his rage. Hercules is the key. Fulfilling this prophesy will save thousands of lives. More than that. Is there a greater reward, or are we destined to become selfish beings?”
Evie clamped her mouth shut. Shame swelled in her, heating her face. Or maybe that was just the fire. “I suppose I don’t have much of a choice.”
Aelia’s face softened again and she smiled. “You always have a choice. You can refuse. I will lead you out of the bowels of this temple. Marcus will pay his debt with his life. You can find your way to live in this time, in this place.”
“But if I want to go home–“
“You must complete the prophesy.”
Evie blew out a sigh between taut lips. She flared her nostrils and took in the deep, stinging smell of the smoke from the fire. “Fine, I’ll do it.”
Aelia came forward and grasped Evie’s arm, yanking her toward the brazier. Evie tried to dig her heels in, but her sandals just slipped and slid on the smooth rock floor. Aelia held Evie’s hand over the flames and let out a cry of pain as her own skin bubbled and burned. The fire didn’t touch Evie’s hand, but some of the markings on her wrist began to glow. Aelia released Evie and cradled her hand to her chest, whimpering.
“What are you–what the hell? Why’d you do that?” Evie reached for Aelia. “Marcus, help her.”
Between desperate breaths, Aelia explained, “Now you know how to find the map.”
“I–I don’t understand. Your arm–“
“Look at the glowing symbols. Follow,” she gulped, “follow the zodiac signs to find the map. Two days. You will find it in two days.” She gasped. “Now–now follow me back up through the labyrinth.” Breathing heavily, Aelia led them from the fire room. When the three of them reached the ante room, Aelia disappeared down a long corridor. Three others stepped forward with parcels and held them out to Marcus and Evie.
“Take these with you,” a brunette said. “Clothes, food, water. Some coin. Revere the gods. We shall pray for your success.”