Read the First Three Chapters
The sky was clear, and the sun was so bright and high overhead that their bodies cast no shadows. Iris and Tycho stood hand in hand at the stern of the ship and looked out over the sapphire sea, the sweet smell of the cedar mast and the saltiness of the breeze welcoming them onboard. There had been a time when a sense of adventure would have overtaken Iris as she took in the beauty of the water, the vastness of the horizon, but today she was too weary to feel it…if it was there at all.
“Just one more time,” Tycho said to her, as if reading her thoughts.
The words were poetry in her ears. It had been nearly three years since she’d slept in her own bed, hundreds of miles away in Eirene. Their young daughter, now drooling as she slept on a blanket at their feet, had seen more of the ocean than dry land, heard more sailors’ shouts and seagulls’ squawks than nursery rhymes and lullabies.
Just one more voyage on the small merchant ship and they could go home: home to picnics on the cliffs, festivals at the temple, and suppers at the table of the old couple that had become grandparents to them.
Iris yawned as she heard the oars drop into the water and the crew become quiet as the captain prayed to Poseidon for fair weather.
“Miss?” a voice whispered.
Iris turned to see a young man, more boy than man, looking up at her with round, frightened eyes. “You’re Iris the Asher, aren’t you, miss?”
Iris nodded as she scanned the deck for eavesdroppers. On a ship full of rough mariners who liked their women weak and docile, a woman with a notorious power had not made her a welcome passenger. But in recent years, people had begun approaching her not with rage and hatred in their eyes, as they would a beast they wished to tame or kill, but with hope and desperation, as they would an angel that might deliver them.
Since the Feast of Therismos almost a decade ago, the name Iris the Asher had become more respected, and indeed more revered, than Iris the Goddess. In fact, many of the mystics were teaching their pupils that she was an Olympian incarnate, perhaps Hera or Athena, a notion that made Iris shudder.
Why couldn’t they believe her when she explained that her power was from the All-Powerful, that her gift was from the One who gave life and took life away? All she was, all she had, and all she had overcome, was by the grace of Duna. Every day she prayed that not one pagan sacrifice would be made to a blasphemous statue of her image.
But apart from the mystics, with their oleander-induced delusions, countless Eusebians and Alphas were listening to Iris and Tycho’s story and accepting their faith as their own. They gathered into the temple courts by the hundreds to hear them, and, yes, to see if they might catch a glimpse of the mysterious fire that dwelled in the palms of Iris’s hands.
She’d mastered the power of her doma so well that she could conjure a flame as easily as she could blink. If providing an exhibition led to further discussion of the might of Duna and the love of Phos, she would happily acquiesce to the crowd’s wishes. But if she sensed that the crowd just wanted to see a show of sorcery, she’d ask Tycho to talk of his own miracle stories while she stayed hidden in the shadows.
Iris had seen what unbridled power could do to people. Each day, she prayed for Duna to use her only as a Vessel of the doma, and to forbid her from ever becoming its overlord, or worse, its slave.
Iris nodded again at the boy, this time remembering to smile. “Can I help you?” she asked.
Tycho squeezed her hand, a habit of his when he could detect her nerves. He often teased her, saying that for one who could destroy a man with a single flick of her wrist she was awfully skittish around strangers.
“I am an Alpha, miss,” the boy said, “but I don’t trust Poseidon for safe passage like my father does.”
“Your father is the captain?” Iris asked.
“Yes. And he knows who you are, but don’t be afraid. Though he won’t admit it, he fears your power. They all do.”
Tycho had been right. The reason it cost them one hundred drachmae each time they boarded a ship was not because they despised her, but because they feared her. If the sailors were going to risk their lives spending hours alone at sea in the presence of a presumed goddess, one likely to prove as testy and capricious as the rest of the pantheon, they insisted they be handsomely compensated. Iris couldn’t blame them. If she believed herself to be at the mercy of a fierce deity that could swim beside their boat as a sprightly dolphin one minute, then spring into the clouds and plague them with lightning bolts the next, she would also expect a wage to match any potential peril.
“Thank you, that is reassuring,” Iris said, expecting that to be all he wished to tell her.
But he took a breath to say something further, then stopped himself and started again. “Could you…” He almost squeaked the words. “Could you pray for … my father?” He sighed with relief when the question finally escaped his lips. “I heard your letter read in Ourania last year and my life has been changed ever since. I would give anything for him to know the truth as well, but when I told him of the letter, he said that if you had any power, it came from Python, for he is the only god.”
The boy’s sad gaze dropped to the sea. “My father has a stubborn heart. I doubt he’s capable of changing at his age.”
“Trust your father in Duna’s hands,” said Tycho, his voice stern, but his expression gentle. “He delights in doing the impossible, like when he helped a teenaged slave girl named Iris overthrow a tyrant,” he said, raising an eyebrow before kissing his wife on the forehead.
The boy smiled and stared at Iris a moment. She knew he was likely imagining her as that famed warrior-goddess who’d saved the temple from decimation, and mercifully proselytized the heartless maniac who slew his own people for power. But, as everyone knew, Diokles denied Duna to the last, wheezing threats and spewing contempt until his heart had finally stopped beating.
Surely it had crossed the boy’s mind that his father could very well reject Duna, and die proud and blind like Diokles. While the captain didn’t have innocent blood on his hands, how well Iris knew that sometimes the hardest people to reach were the ones who were noble and good in the world’s eyes, those who slaughtered bulls and rams to appease the gods and beseeched them for all to see.
Seeing the worry rise as glistening tears in the boy’s blue eyes, Iris took his hand and bowed her head before another care could invade his mind. “Duna,” she prayed, closing her eyes. “Our king and our protector. Thank you for this boy.”
“My name is Pontus,” he whispered.
“Thank you for Pontus,” Iris continued. “Thank you for the love he has for his father, the captain of this ship. I know, perhaps better than anyone, what it feels like to be utterly far from you, and yet, at the same time, to sense you chasing after me with a relentless fervor no Petrodian will ever fathom.
“Duna, I felt the rebellion in my heart toward you burning hotter than my doma, which can incinerate entire forests if I allow it to. So hostile was my soul toward any sort of love, most of all love from the one who allowed my family to die, leaving me an orphan and a slave to a sadistic soldier. But still…” Iris’s voice cracked as she felt the boat begin to glide out from the pier. “But still you pursued me. Still you brought people into my life to give me hope and show me what true love looks like. Still you set the Moonbow in the sky, not just so I could solve its mystery, but so that I might share its meaning with the world.
“My king, we ask that you would pursue the shuttered heart of Pontus’s father. Use whatever means necessary to melt the ice that covers it. We thank you for hearing our prayer, and we trust you to answer it. Your will be done.”
“Your will be done,” echoed Tycho and Pontus.
Iris and Tycho opened their eyes just in time to see a long, slimy black tentacle retracting fast as a snake’s tongue over the side of the ship, and that Charis, their three-year-old daughter, was missing.
“It’s Scylla!” the sailors cried out.
Iris turned to see them, at least fifty sailors in total, bracing themselves around the mast, holding tightly to the forestays and backstays as all color drained from their faces. They flinched and stumbled as violent movement from the unseen beast rocked the ship, drenching the deck far better than any tempest, and pushing it farther from shore. The pier might as well have been a thousand miles away; no one was brave enough to try swimming back to it.
Tycho lifted his arms, preparing to hurl himself into the ocean after his daughter.
Pontus grasped his hand and yelled, “Don’t! You’ll die in seconds.”
“I know how to swim, Pontus. Let me go!” Tycho shouted back.
“What’s ‘Scylla’?” Iris asked when her breath finally returned, fire already kindling in her fists.
“The sea monster, miss,” said Pontus, as he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled toward a tiny hole in the hull. “A legend, or so we all thought.”
“We never should’ve let her on board,” barked the captain from the bow. “No fortune is worth losing my ship and crew.”
Iris lifted her hands, a thin haze of flame floating before them. A hush fell over the ship as the men stared, transfixed and terrified, at the fire formed from human flesh.
“It isn’t your crew it wants,” Iris said.
She turned away from the crew and captain as the splashing stopped and a shadow the size of a thunderhead stretched across the deck. The first thing Iris saw when she looked up was her daughter Charis, stricken silent with fear inside the clutches of one of the dozen or so tentacles that protruded from the monster’s bloated gray belly.
Hearing the sound of growling dogs, her eyes traveled up to the mud-colored middle section of the creature and saw that it was surrounded by the heads of wolves, whose sulfurous breath was enough to slay a man. Should that tentacle—now threatening to squeeze the life from Charis’s body—move just inches closer to Scylla’s side, how easily one of those dogs might puncture the toddler’s skull with their sword-sharp teeth.
Iris decided to first send her fire to them.
Twin bubbles, gleaming like gold, broke free from Iris’s palms. She softly pushed them toward the six female heads at the top of Scylla’s body, each one a horror of tangled braids, hissing tongues, and haunting, hollow eyes glazed over from eons spent in Hades’ darkness. Every eye followed the fiery spheres as they traveled slowly over the ship’s edge before quickly swelling to triple their size and spewing sparks into the air.
The monster gave an earsplitting shriek, and the wolves turned their bristling necks and barked, distracted from the child just as Iris had hoped. With the beast’s attention fixed momentarily on the flickering diversion, Iris clenched her fists so tightly that her fingernails drew out drops of blood that worked to kindle the flames all the more.
She opened her red-hot hands and lunged forward, thrusting out her arms as far as they could reach. A string of fireballs rushed toward the wolves in a blazing blur, silencing each one on impact. Smoke settled over their lifeless heads.
“Give me my daughter or I’ll rid you of all your other heads, Scylla!” Iris yelled as she pressed her hands into her thighs, trying to suppress the throbbing pain left behind by the fire.
In perfect synchronization, all six heads spun back toward her. Their forked tongues flashed out and in, smelling the fear of the crew. Their matted braids danced wildly in the wind, and their eyes filled with chilling orbs of light that Iris had seen only once before in the most evil of men.
The tentacles lifted toward the cluster of repugnant faces, the one holding Charis trembling like an ice-laden branch.
“I only wanted to see the magic doma for mysssself. I thought it was nothing but a ssssilly ssssailor’s tale,” said Scylla, all mouths speaking together. “A ssssilly tale like Sssscylla,” she hissed. “We monsters must sssstick together, lest hisssstory forget all about usssss, don’t you think, Irissss?” The tentacle flexed, curling in closer to the monster, causing Charis to squeal with pain.
With no time for them to heal, Iris’s hands birthed two new scorching flames that soared like asteroids straight into the heads’ vile ring. Two of the heads fell limp while the remaining four howled like harpies.
“You’re just making her madder, miss,” whispered Pontus, but the monster’s hearing was keen.
“Lissssten to the lad,” the heads screamed, as the tentacles flailed up and down, plunging Charis’s bare feet into the water.
“Why do you want her?” shouted Tycho. “What’s a three-year-old child to the likes of you?”
The heads rotated three hundred and sixty degrees as they cackled. “I made a little deal with Apollo. I bring him one of the Hodossss, and he givesssss me back my former form. I oncccce rivaled Aphrodite, I did. Thissss runt wassss a mosssst eassssy catch. I’d better be going back to the pit. The Dark Lord hatessss to wait…”
And with that, the squid-like creature lowered herself into the sea as flame after flame escaped Iris’s hands. Each one fizzled in the waves.
“That’s it,” said Tycho, removing his cloak and throwing off his sandals.
“Tycho, don’t!” Iris pleaded. “I can’t lose both of you.”
“Iris, have faith.”
Two tears slipped down Iris’s cheeks as fear and faith waged war within her. Neither she nor Tycho noticed that Pontus was no longer standing at the rail.
“Where’s my son!” shouted the captain, stepping out from his hiding place behind the mast.
For a minute or more, not a sound was heard, only the mournful cry of gulls that flew above the encroaching wall of clouds. The clouds were so thick and tight around the ship that Iris felt as if they were being entombed, slowly suffocating inside Apollo’s well-set snare. She grasped the side of the ship, searing the wood with fresh fire still hungry for a target.
“Duna, help us,” she prayed. “Help Pontus now. Greater are you than any weapon or warrior of Apollo.”
Crimson water appeared and expanded on the surface of the sea. Iris took a deep breath, resolved not to let it go until she saw her daughter alive. A severed black tentacle emerged and bobbed up and down, a dead snake still fearsome to see. Blood flowed from the tendons that had attached it to Scylla’s gut, and it twitched like a fish on the sand.
Iris gasped at the sight of Charis’s head popping out of the water, spitting and coughing, but very much alive. Pontus had the child by her tiny torso. He began kicking frantically toward the ship.
“Turn and hold onto me,” Pontus said to Charis. She obeyed and clung to him like a startled monkey as Tycho threw down a rope and began hoisting them up. The crew, dumbfounded by Pontus’s bravery, simply stared.
Iris hung over the side of the ship and pulled her child into her arms. She snatched Tycho’s cloak from the deck and wrapped it around Charis, making her look like a caterpillar nestled inside its cocoon. Iris kissed her face over and over, and vowed never to board a ship again. If letters needed delivering, she’d gladly let Tycho be the messenger. She doubted she’d ever let Charis out of her arms again.
“Pontus!” Tycho shouted, then jumped back as the ship quaked, the rope falling from his hands.
The captain ran full speed to the stern, and peered over it as a blinding ray of sunlight pierced through the clouds. The waves settled, the whole sea returning to immaculate glass containing nothing but a silver school of mackerel.
“Where is my son!” the captain’s voice boomed.
“He saved our daughter,” said Iris, her voice shaking from the panic and pain still seizing her.
“That isn’t an answer!” When he realized that he indeed knew the answer, the captain turned and slid down onto the deck. He stared up hopelessly at Iris, as if waiting for someone to make sense of what had happened, or to undo it altogether.
He began pounding the sides of his head and cursing under his breath. “What did she want with him?” he bellowed. He staggered to his feet like a drunkard and yelled into the sea, “Take me instead, you reeking wench! I’ll give you all I have.”
Charis stirred and turned toward her father. “That’s what he said, Papa.”
The captain neared the child with a half-curious, half-furious sneer on his lips. “What who said, child?”
“The boy who saved me,” she answered. “He told the monster to take him.” Charis then laid her head on Iris’s shoulder and began sucking her thumb.
“You raised your son well, sir,” said Tycho. “He sacrificed himself for our daughter, just as you were willing to do for him.”
“It was too late for me to do anything,” the captain said. “I was a spineless coward hiding like a rat with all the rest of them.” He motioned toward the crew, who were working at a feverish pace, readying the ship to sail away from Scylla as fast as possible.
“Scylla wouldn’t have accepted your offer anyway, sir,” said Iris. “From what I understand, you’re not a part of the Hodos.”
“And what in Zeus’s name is that?” he demanded, nearly spitting in Iris’s face.
She took a breath, praying silently for patience. “Hodos means ‘the Way.’ You don’t follow the Way of Duna. Apollo—or Python, as you call him—doesn’t trouble himself to capture those who are already on his side.”
“I’m on no one’s side,” the captain snapped.
“We’re all on someone’s side, Captain,” said Tycho, stepping forward. “Whether we know it or not.”
“Do you know what your son was doing before we were attacked?” asked Iris. The captain shook his head, his eyes squeezed closed as if bracing himself to hear what was coming next. “He was praying,” she said. “For you.”
The captain’s eyes opened, pure crystal tears welling in each one.
“He wanted you to believe, as he believed, that Duna is the true god. Pontus was following that example of selflessness. You can trust that he has an eternal reward, sir. He did a great thing. A rare thing.”
The captain’s tears fell uncontrollably.
Iris and Tycho turned aside, letting him have his privacy as the weight of grief fell down on him like an avalanche. Iris knew the feeling too well. And she knew that no amount of pretty words or consoling embraces could lift it.
A few minutes later, the Captain heaved a final sob, and uttered his son’s name as tenderly as a father can.
“I was always hard on him,” the captain said, to no one in particular. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot, his hoary beard wet with tears. His clasped hands shook as the lines in his brow deepened. “He never wanted to be a sailor. Didn’t like the water. But I pushed him…I kept pushing him. He’d only just learned how to swim.” He kicked the ship and buried his head in his hands as rage and regret churned inside him.
Iris’s heart sank at the sight of him. Overcome with empathy so strong that it mimicked nausea, she placed her daughter in Tycho’s arms. She remembered one of the oracles her ancestor, the first Asher, had written centuries ago: Duna comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are afflicted.
“I know words are useless, Captain,” she said, placing a hand on his back. “Nothing I can say or do can make this easier. Your son is a hero, and I pray that one day you’ll be able to celebrate his life as much as you mourn it now.”
The captain wiped his face and nose, and then smiled when he saw a dolphin laughing up at them from the ocean. “My boy’s favorite animal,” he said. “The first time he sailed with me it was because I’d promised he’d get his fill of them. He never did see a single one, though. Only heard about them in the myths.”
“He never saw them, but he knew they existed. Like Duna,” Iris mused, watching the dolphin jump and greet two of its pod mates, all chattering together in their high-pitched language.
“Do you…” the captain began, his apprehension reminding Iris of Pontus when he’d asked her to pray for his father. “Do you think I could come with you into to Limén? If you read the letter there, I mean. I think I would like to hear it.” Instantly, his countenance brightened with a mixture of surprise and relief at his own words.
Iris watched the dolphins swim away as quickly as they’d appeared, as though their mission had been completed.
“I would love nothing more, Captain,” replied Iris.
She was tempted to fetch the scroll now and read it from start to finish before the captain changed his mind, but something told her to wait. Faith, she reminded herself, is not knowledge to be acquired, or even a life-shaking event to be experienced. Not at first. At first it is a seed that can’t be forced to germinate and grow.
Iris thought of her beloved brother, Jasper, named after the blood-red rock that always hung around her neck and was now pressed to her lips. He had died a criminal’s death, burned alive on a pyre at sea, yet he had committed no crime.
That night at Enochos was indelibly etched into Iris’s memory. She could recall the sadness, anger, and fear she felt then as readily as she could summon the flames from her hands. Of course she’d been furious at Acheron, the sadistic guardian who’d ordered her brother’s execution. But she’d also developed an intense hatred toward the god Jasper had worshipped so zealously. How could Duna let one of his most devoted followers perish at the hands of an egomaniacal brute? How could he do nothing as he watched an orphan child lose her brother and then become slave to his murderer before the night was over?
Now, every time she thought back to the night when Python intended to destroy her life, she could see Duna’s invisible hands weaving each and every thread—the good and the bad—into a dazzling tapestry. She thought of the beautiful smooth pebbles she and Jasper used to collect from the shores near their home. Their father had said that the reason the stones were so perfect was because they’d been trapped in merciless waves. The constant tossing, rolling, and rubbing together had polished them with more skill than the pagans’ revered Hephaestus.
Iris believed that she was such a pebble. Had she lived a carefree life sheltered in some quiet cove, she would be rough, unpolished, and devoid of compassion.
She left the scroll alone with Tycho, but couldn’t help but recite her favorite oracle of all to the captain before leaving him in peace and scooping up Charis again.
“Captain,” she began, her voice confident and clear, “the oracles wrote this on their tablets thousands of years ago, inspired by Duna to do so. It has proven true time and again in my own life, and in Tycho’s. I believe Duna wants you to hear it now: ‘Python intended to harm me, but Duna intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.’”
Chloe Zacharias forced herself to try to see the good in everything. It was a habit instilled in her as a little girl when, at no older than four or five, her mother showed her a rainbow for the very first time. A summer thunderstorm had been busy shaking the windows and picture frames on the wall all afternoon, and while her brother and father were content playing games on the floor, Chloe couldn’t stop crying.
“Shhhhh, sweet girl, don’t hide or you’ll miss the good part,” her mother had whispered to her as Chloe retreated beneath a threadbare baby blanket.
“It’s all scary,” Chloe said, curling herself up into a ball on her mother’s lap.
“I bet there’ll be sunshine soon. And maybe even a rainbow. You wouldn’t want to miss that.”
“What’s a rainbow?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” her mother said, and winked at her.
Chloe fell asleep a few minutes later, and when she woke up she was in her mother’s arms on the back porch.
“Look, Chloe,” her mother had said, pulling the blanket off her daughter’s warm head.
Feeling a drop of rain from the drip-edge above strike her on the nose, Chloe winced and strained to reach the blanket as her mother set it on the porch swing. “No!” Chloe protested, her body going stiff with antagonism toward the outdoors.
“Just open your eyes and look at the sky.”
It was then that Chloe first beheld the majesty of a rainbow, its vibrant bands of color a most soothing valediction after the clamor of thunder and rain. From that day on, she always looked forward to storms for the chance to see rare beauty unveiled. Even if she didn’t see a rainbow, the end of a storm always reminded her of her mother. And she was happy.
Now it was a crisp fall day, with a few white wisps of clouds in the sky but no threat of a storm. But had Chloe, eighteen years old as of eight o’clock that morning, still had her baby blanket, she’d be hiding under it by now.
Her aunt Maggie and uncle Travis had been trying to keep the birthday party under wraps all week, but like all other parenting-related activities, surprise-birthday planning was not their forte. On Monday Chloe’s brother, Damian, had noticed the yellow phone book open at the catering section, and answered calls from three different cake companies while Maggie and Travis were “grocery shopping.” Except for a large plastic bag, they returned that evening empty-handed.
Little clues such as those popped up every day, and Damian and Chloe decided it was best to play dumb. “It’s what Mom and Dad would have wanted,” Damian had said.
For the life of her, Chloe couldn’t figure out why her aunt and uncle were going out of their way to do something nice for their niece and nephew. Since they’d become the twins’ legal guardians, they’d behaved more like bored babysitters than parents. Damian thought their parents must have written something into their wills about mandatory eighteenth birthday parties for their children.
Eighteen was a monumental year for Petrodians, one that distinguished them as official adults. In just a few months, Chloe and Damian would be graduating high school and leaving home to make something of themselves, either at the university or in Limén, where they could learn a trade and start earning money in under a year.
Chloe said to Damian, only half jokingly, that Maggie and Travis were probably in a celebratory mood because they would soon have their house to themselves again. They wouldn’t have to help her with homework, or drive her to doctor appointments when her brother was occupied. Ignoring his own previously stated cynicism, Damian told her to lighten up and enjoy their generosity, whatever the reason for it.
But enjoying a large group of people she hardly knew, who were presumably at her house to celebrate the day she was born, was a Herculean task for Chloe. That afternoon she watched from her treehouse as thirty or forty of her high-school peers stood around in their various cliques, stuffing their faces with the bright blue, fondant-covered kiddie cake and acting a little too chipper after sipping the pomegranate punch—although she couldn’t blame whoever had spiked it with what she guessed was an exorbitant dose of Nirvána, a psychoactive powder meant only for adults whose social anxiety impeded their ability to work.
The party’s only chaperones, her aunt and uncle, had been M.I.A. since the party had started over an hour ago, their absence practically asking for their guests to break the law by braying and prancing about like inebriated donkeys.
Chloe sent a text to Maggie, warning her that the police could have them put in the stocks overnight on grounds of parental negligence, but by the time her aunt had made it to the punch bowl, it had already been drained. At least the evidence was gone.
Chloe watched as Damian waved a group of guys over toward the dinosaur piñata. After they’d demolished it, they stumbled into the castle-shaped bounce house and let the drugs transform them into juvenile chimpanzees. Chloe rolled her eyes. She might’ve actually had fun at this party were she turning eight and not eighteen—and if the punch wasn’t contaminated. She embarrassed her brother enough without the “relaxing” effects of Nirvána.
Chloe leaned against the wall on which at least a hundred homemade cartoons were nailed, most of them posted there during her first summer as an orphaned ten-year-old. Starving to escape the ordinary, she’d created extraordinary best friends for herself: a young yellow-haired girl named Rhoda, and Farley, her imaginary dragon. Like Chloe, Rhoda was always alone because, like Chloe, her parents were dead, too.
Whenever Rhoda was feeling bored or sick or sad, Farley would appear in a puff of smoke, and together the girl and dragon would travel to different places around Petros, stir up mischief, snag a few souvenirs, and then return home in time for dinner.
Chloe thought she was now too old to have imaginary friends, but she still lived vicariously through the old adventures of Rhoda and Farley, preferring their company to real children her own age. She told herself that Damian had enough social interaction for the two of them. He was the quintessential high-school jock whom every girl wanted to date and every boy wanted to be.
Chloe, on the other hand, was the invisible nerd that people talked to only when they needed help with an algebra problem. But she knew she had no one to blame for her lack of a life but herself.
No, that wasn’t true. She could—and often did—blame the car accident that claimed her parents’ lives, and the hit-and-run driver who got away. The first ten years of her life had been an endless daydream, filled with the assurance of safety and sunshine that every child deserves. The day her parents died, a part of her soul crept into an early grave, and every birthday buried it farther down.
Chloe scooted into a soft sunray and closed her eyes, basking like a lizard in the mild warmth it offered. She watched the colorful squiggly lines behind her eyelids dance and squirm, an activity that helped her fall asleep when her mind was fixed on problems she couldn’t solve. Soon, the cacophony from the party below faded away, muted by the sweetness of an impromptu nap.
“I know how to swim, Pontus, let me go!”
Those idiots are trying to go swimming in a sixty-degree pool, Chloe thought, her eyes still sealed shut, ready to plunge back into sleep. Then came her second thought: Who in the world names their son Pontus?
“It’s Scylla!” shouted a group of voices, not a single one familiar to Chloe.
Scylla? Chloe groaned and peeled open her eyes. What she saw took her breath away.
There was water all around her, and it definitely was not a swimming pool. She’d never seen the Great Sea in person, but judging by the deep-blue ocean waves, this was it.
She suddenly lost her balance and fell back onto a thick rope. She grabbed hold of it with both hands, only then realizing that she was on a ship that was being tossed like an unruly child’s bath toy.
“Everyone, get down!” yelled a man beside her, whose white knuckles were holding onto the only oar that hadn’t been abandoned. But a few seconds later, he too was on his belly beside a heap of trembling men as whatever was aggravating the ship continued to splash and spin around them.
And then Chloe saw it, the thing the unknown sailors had called “Scylla.”
Chloe squeezed her eyes closed and blinked them rapidly when she opened them again. Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her. She pinched herself. She had to be dreaming. But no matter how many times she squinted or blinked or tapped and slapped her forehead, the terrifying scene stayed put.
Scylla was like no marine animal she’d ever seen, not even in the discovery shows on TV. It was impossible to say how tall it was because its lower half was submerged in the sea. The upper half was a repulsive blend of dog, squid, and woman. The only normal thing about it was a human child with fair skin and red hair. What wasn’t so normal was that this child was wrapped inside one of the animal’s black tentacles.
Wake up, Chloe! Wake up wake up wake up! But it was no use; Chloe felt as awake as she did after three cups of coffee. This was no dream.
Chloe tried to compose herself. She took three deep breaths and crouched down, forcing herself to think optimistically. Just wait it out, she told herself. Once this thing passed by they would get back to land.
Peering around a broad man hiding behind the mast, she could see three people: two men and a woman. They were standing at the stern, holding their ground. The shorter and slighter of the two men began to crawl closer to the edge of the deck as more commotion rang out among the crew, but it was all a muddled noise to Chloe. Why weren’t they afraid?
Chloe watched as the woman slowly raised both of her hands, as if to surrender to Scylla. But when the ship became deathly quiet, Chloe knew surrender was on no one’s mind. She watched carefully as the woman’s palms began to glow with yellow-orange light. Chloe’s mouth fell agape as the pair of lights, now pulsing like flames, proceeded to float languidly out of the woman’s hands like miniature spirits.
Chloe’s eyes darted around the ship. Who knew her here?
She continued to look, but no one was facing her; all eyes were on the woman. More than that, the voice calling her sounded just like her brother’s.
“Gross, Chloe, you’re drooling,” Damian said.
Chloe jumped back to consciousness and wiped her mouth.
Her brother grimaced. “And why are you wet?”
Chloe looked down at herself. She was back in the treehouse, and indeed she was drenched with water, water that smelled to her like salt. She knew why she was wet, but she couldn’t very well tell Damian. He’d have her committed to a mental hospital before the party was over.
“It rained while you were in the bounce house,” she lied.
“Right…” Damian said. “Well, come down now. We’re opening presents.”
“Be right there. Can you grab me a towel?”
Damian rolled his eyes and nodded, then started down the ladder.
Chloe quickly rocked up onto her feet and looked down out of the treehouse. No ocean. No Scylla. She opened her hands; they were rough and red from where she’d been gripping the rope for dear life just moments before.
Chloe turned to the wall of comic strips behind her, to the big-eyed, yellowed-haired girl and her polka-dotted dragon. “Well, guys, I think it’s time I socialized with real people a little more often. Eighteen years old and I’ve already lost my sanity.”
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