Vomit splashed the inside of the toilet; the water I drank earlier expelled from my stomach in a violent stream. Tears coursed down my face as I hung over the bowl. My body, wracked with emotion, would not let my stomach relax. My stomach continued to convulse, but there was nothing left but acid. My chest ached. Panic gripped me. A tight black fear clawed its way from the inside out. Tension expanded, spiraling outward and keeping me unbalanced.
I’d cried so hard, everything was now a physical reaction. I tried to slow my breathing and get control, but each time I breathed in, it came out again in ragged sobs.
I had no idea what happened to Apollo or how I would find him. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. I cannot lose him. Each time the realization struck, I’d be hit with a new wave of tears.
I knew several Titans were on the loose, but could not comprehend which one, if any, would have the desire (or frankly, the capability) to abduct Apollo. Part of me felt more than happy to lay this at the feet of Zeus and place the blame on him. The Titans could be using Apollo to antagonize Zeus, but since Apollo had just returned, how would they even know to look for him? My mind spun in useless circles: no answers in sight.
I closed my tired eyes and a flood of moments flashed through my mind. Inspiration jolted my eyes open…Pythia, Apollo’s oracle, might be able to tell me where he was. Rolling on my side, I set Dugo down and I used the toilet to pull myself up. I raced to my room and threw on a pair of yoga pants I’d tossed on the back of a chair. I pushed my feet into a pair of shoes, picked up Apollo’s jacket, and scrambled for my keys. Every minute seemed to take an hour, and it felt like the elevator lowered into the parking garage in slow motion.
Tick-tock, U. Time’s wasting.
I shuddered as I climbed into the car and sped down the ramp onto the street.
After she lied to me about the masquerade ball, I had no reason to trust Pythia, but it seemed she might be my only hope. The panic returned, gripping my heart, threatening to squeeze the life out of it. My vision swam for a second, and I fought to keep the steering wheel straight.
Reaching Delphi, I swung my car against the curb and jumped out. I ran inside the temple, screaming her name as soon as I entered, “Pythia!!!”
Silence greeted me and I yelled again, “For the love of Apollo, get out here, Pythia!!!”
A soft chattering could be heard in the distance, growing louder as it approached. I could barely make out the figures in the dim light, but I recognized Pythia’s gait as she walked in tandem with her sentry.
“Who’s there?” the sentry asked, putting an arm in front of Pythia to keep her behind him.
“Urania, daughter of Zeus,” I replied.
“Step forward,” Pythia stated, a note of disbelief in her tone.
I rushed toward her, and the sentry waved his battleax in my direction.
Pythia took a look at me and could see my emotional state.
“Xander, not now,” she instructed.
“I need your help. Apollo needs your help, Pythia,” I blurted.
“Why?” she arched an eyebrow.
“Don’t you know? He’s been abducted. I don’t know who took him or where he is. Can you find him?” My words tumbled over one another as I tried to explain.
“No. I didn’t…” she trailed off, her eyes looking glassy.
“Focus!” I shouted.
“It’s not a parlor trick,” she countered. “How do I know…?” she began.
“How do you not know?” I yelled. “Obviously, something is wrong. You need to do something. Quick. You owe me.”
She raised the eyebrow again and took a long look at my swollen eyes, smeared makeup, and Apollo’s clothes. She may have even realized I lacked appropriate undergarments. She shook her head and sat down on the end of a bench, Xander not leaving her side. Her eyes fluttered closed and she leaned her head back, stretching her arms out in a semi-circle before sweeping them around and clasping her hands together in front of her.
Tears welled in my eyes as I watched her. I focused my own energy toward Pythia, hoping to amplify her signal. After several moments, she opened her eyes and looked directly into mine.
“Crius,” she stated simply. “The Titan, Crius has him. Apollo’s hurt, but relatively safe at the moment. I’m not sure how long he will remain that way. He’s being tortured.”
“Where?” I asked, barely able to speak over the horror I felt inside.
Pythia pointed a long finger toward the sky.
I don’t remember the drive home. Every step into the apartment made me feel like I was walking with my feet in wet cement. Near the bed, I saw the errant button from Apollo’s pants and remembered how I promised to sew it on, which brought more tears. I picked up the button and smoothed it between my fingers as I fell onto the bed. My sobbing continued. My mind spun in endless loops trying to figure out a way to get him home. When I wasn’t crying or trying to figure out how to save him, I tried to be calm and send love, energy, and healing to him. I don’t know how long I remained frozen on the bed, in Apollo’s shirt and jacket, but days later, Thalia appeared at the apartment.
“NeeNee, seriously, you need to get out of this bed,” she scolded.
I tried to fight my way out of the numbness, but I couldn’t even speak.
“I know it seems like this is just too much, but it isn’t the end. Things have looked bleaker before.”
I managed a half snort at that remark.
“That’s my girl. Come on.”
Thalia pulled me to a seated position and gave me a once over.
“Not a pretty sight,” she offered.
Tears rolled down my cheeks again. The ache in my chest was so intense, I did not think it would ever stop hurting.
She opened a bottle of Mt. Dew and handed it to me. “Take a drink. I know you’ve got to be dehydrated by now. Frankly, I’m surprised you have enough liquid in your body to actually form tears anymore.”
I glared at her and took the bottle, pulling a small sip in between my lips.
“How could things be any more bleak?” I rasped after swallowing. “Apollo’s been godnapped. Melly is in hiding. I’m not sure about Mom. Titans are on the loose everywhere. And Dad is half-dead, the last I heard.”
“Speaking of Dad, he’s now only ⅓ dead, so things are looking up. Ba-dum-tiss.”
“Oh, come on…a little humor? Don’t you think both Zeus and Apollo would be disappointed to know that you’re not fighting back? That you’ve given up before you even tried? That’s not like you,” she countered.
Her words stung. “I’m not giving up. I just don’t know what to do. There’s a difference.”
“Not much of a difference, if you ask me,” she said.
“Well, I didn’t ask you, did I?” I rubbed my chest, surprised that it could ache and feel completely empty at the same time.
“Either way, you’re not accomplishing anything by holing up in this freezing apartment. Why do you have the roof open?”
I stared up at the sky. “I keep hoping…he’ll come back somehow.” A fresh wave of tears exploded and my breath caught in my chest.
Thalia reached out and held me as I cried.
“Let’s get you out of these clothes and into something clean,” she said, reaching to take Apollo’s jacket off of me.
“No!” I shouted. “Don’t touch it!”
Thalia’s eyes widened, and she pulled her hands away as if she expected me to bite her.
“Well, then, why don’t you try to clean up a little and I’ll get the cats fed.”
She left me alone to compose myself. I didn’t have the strength to clean up. I put on a clean pair of underwear and pants, slipped a bra under Apollo’s shirt and jacket, and called it good. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get a brush through my hair due to the grime and tangles, so I pulled it up into a ponytail.
I wandered out to find my sister cooking me a grilled cheese sandwich. Dugo and Frank were nibbling their cat food at separate ends of the kitchen. Frank, the Cheshire cat Apollo gave me, had come out of hiding. His big blue eyes loomed over the food dish. He still hadn’t warmed up to Dugo, but at least he was no longer trying to eat him.
I picked Apollo’s pants off the floor where he’d dropped them days before and folded them into a tidy stack. I smiled as I caught a scent of him. Then the panic struck again. My stomach lurched, and fear squeezed my insides. I sat on the arm of a chair, waiting for the feeling to pass.
To distract myself, I straightened the magazines on the side table and noticed the box that Apollo brought in with him the night he went missing. I picked it up and went to the drawer for the box opener. I set it on the counter across from Thalia and slid the blade under the packing tape. She flipped my sandwich and watched me with interest.
“What did you order?”
“I really don’t remember,” I answered, opening the box flaps. I lifted the crumpled paper just inside the box and a flash of black and white caught my attention. Two large eyes blinked at me. Mrs. Batchalder’s devil clock stared up from the box. I jumped back, my heart hammering inside my once-empty chest.
“What the heck?” Thalia started. “That’s fun.. not like you at all.”
She didn’t know about the clock, so it wasn’t surprising that she couldn’t interpret my reaction.
I backed away from the box, my hands covering my mouth. My stomach once again threatening to revolt, this time, from a different kind of terror.
Thalia turned my sandwich onto a plate and cut it, pushing it across the counter toward me. She wiped her hands and reached for the box.
“Nooooo!” I screamed.
Her hand snapped back, and she jumped, finally looking at me.
“What’s wrong? You scared me.”
“It’s fucking evil,” I managed.
“It’s a clock, U. That’s ridiculous. There’s a note.”
She pulled the small white envelope that had been taped to the cat clock’s belly and opened it.
Tick-tock, Urania. I served as a warning, and now it is time for you. Chronos wanted to be sure that you knew that time waits for no one…mortal or god. This is a reminder that you shouldn’t tinker where you don’t belong.
The note fell out of Thalia’s hand and fluttered to the counter.
“For Zeus’ sake, NeeNee, what have you done?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” I answered in all honesty. What could bring me under the radar of Chronos? And what did Caroline have to do with it?
“You’d better figure it out, or you’ll never be safe. Maybe you should go to the Muse realm with Mom and Melpomene. You should be safe there.”
“No,” I barked.
“Why not?” she asked.
I smoothed my hands over Apollo’s crumpled jacket. “I’m not leaving until I know Apollo is back here.”
“That’s crazy. Chronos could show up at any second.”
I couldn’t help myself. I snorted. “Pun intended?” I asked, giving my sister a half-smile.
“It’s not time for jokes,” she said, ignoring my raised eyebrows over her remark. “This is serious. Maybe you should go to Hera.”
“Pfft. Last I heard, she was on that damn flying carpet, smiting people. I don’t know what help she could be.”
“Just think about it. You need help. I hate to leave, but I think I might just pop over to the Muse realm for a bit. I don’t want that nasty Titan trying to get to you through me.”
“Yes, you should go,” I insisted. “I’ll be fine. I need to figure this out.”
Thalia winced as she leaned in to hug me. “At least think about a shower?” She picked her bags up and loaded them onto her arms. “Eat your sandwich…” she started before popping out with a small sound.
I picked up my phone and checked the display. Twenty-six missed calls. Nineteen from Kamlesh at NASA.
NASA. The project I’d been tinkering with for months. Chronos. Oh gods…what have I done?
I had nearly as many texts from Kamlesh. The project was dead. They needed me to start from scratch. All of my work was gone. Someone managed to go through the dark web to sabotage all of the data, and they were also looking for someone on the inside who had destroyed equipment. I ran to the desk. My laptop and files were gone.
Was Chronos responsible?
. . .
For days, I simply paced the apartment, Apollo’s button worn smooth between my fingers. It served as a worry stone of sorts, but it did not ease my mind. My work had been destroyed. The love of my life was missing. Olympus was in an uproar. I felt completely lost.
There were a lot of friends and family searching for Apollo. Even a handful of mortals got involved and tried to track down leads. I wouldn’t let myself give up all hope, but the longer he was gone, the harder it was to try and believe he would return.
My tears returned. Unable to function and feeling completely drained, I crossed to the dark bedroom and collapsed on the bed. I squeezed the pillow to my face and cried. (Editor’s note: Click on the link, and listen to the song as you read the dramatic ending below!)
I heard a pop and then silence.
I lifted my face. “Frank…come here, kitty kitty.” Nothing.
I looked over my shoulder.
In my blurry-eyed fatigue, I imagined Apollo was standing there.
But it couldn’t be…
I turned, and the shadows seemed to move.
My stomach dropped.
Eyes narrowed to a squint, I looked again.
Apollo stepped forward:
Bloodied, bruised, and broken.
He was home.
My tears flowed. A sob escaped my throat. I jumped up and ran to him, stopping inches away, so afraid of hurting him more. His arm was in some sort of chain sling, and he had a big cut across his chest.
He tried to smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
Speechless, I wiped at my tears.
He pulled me forward against his chest and held me as I cried.