The hammering in my heart had not yet slowed. Trusting Medusa on the bridge was not something I took lightly. To me, trust was hard-earned. I didn’t have a reason for not trusting her, but it is hard for me to trust anyone. This whole trip has been a mess of challenges, and it scared me a little more than it should.
My feelings already felt frayed from the effects of the potion, and the strange messages and themes it uncovered. I kept playing over one rhyme that had been whispered to me. At first, I thought it referred to Apollo, but the more I recited it, the more I felt it was about someone else.
He devours all things beautiful
grinding ‘em to a meal
in his lust, you must trust
pay a price you must
by fluids, he shall reveal
words he concealed.
I mulled it over as we continued on. Being the odd one out on the journey, I took the lead, walking ahead of the rest of the group. They lagged behind, paired up, talking, and connecting.
The island graced us with beautiful weather. The sun warmed us without being unbearable. A soft breeze lifted grasses and plant leaves, causing a soothing, hushing sound. I would occasionally look back at everyone, making sure I hadn’t gotten too far ahead. We didn’t have far to travel before we came upon the cavern I saw at the end of the potion-inspired vision. The knot in my stomach returned, realizing that I could be leading us into further danger with my piece of the map.
I stood near a small pond of crystal clear water in front of the cavern. If I hadn’t received the vision, I probably would have passed right by it. It didn’t look like much of an entrance. There were two small entry points that curved toward each other, each like the mouth of a shell, but they were nothing remarkable.
“This is it,” I announced. I felt a tingle across my skin as I looked at the rock structure.
“Are you sure?” Persephone asked.
“Yep. You all stay here, and I’ll check it out and be right back.” I tried to sound braver than I felt.
I waded through the shallow water, warm ripples lapping against my legs. Climbing up on the base rock, I took a deep breath. A momentary panic rose within me as I gauged the size of the entrance. Claustrophobia welled up and threatened to spill over. I’d often had nightmares of being trapped in small spaces, and this felt familiar. The left opening appeared larger, so I opted for that one. Scrunching my eyes, I tried to peer into the darkness, but the bright sunlight outside did not allow me to see more than a couple of feet. Waving my hand in front of me to search for possible spiderwebs, I moved toward the opening. I looked over at the group and gave them a little wave before stepping inside the darkness.
Inside the cavern, the ceiling loomed several feet above my head, offering more space than I’d anticipated. The warmth of the air caught me off-guard. It also smelled musty and stale. Every breath I took was an effort as I walked through a narrow passage. Stepping up and over a pass of crumbled stone, I placed my hands along the cavern walls as balance. The rock beneath my fingers felt damp, and algae grew in spots, waist-high, which caused me to wonder about the water and potential tides. Once through the tight tract, the cavern opened up again, and an odd breeze filtered through around me. The sunshine behind me diminished as I made my way further inside. My eyes adjusted to the dimness, and a few feet farther, a hint of light teased me ahead.
Watching where I walked became difficult. As if on cue, the next step, my foot caught. I managed to right myself mid-trip, my foot coming down with a heavy crunch. Bending down, I saw a pile of small white bones, several of which snapped beneath my step. I shuddered at the thought. Inches in front of me, there was another pile. Then another. The smell of decay wafted into my nose, and I gagged. I pulled at Apollo’s t-shirt and raised it to my face as a filter. Unfortunately, after days of wear, it didn’t smell very good either. I breathed in, imagining I could smell his cologne and scent, wishing it was true.
The light in front of me grew stronger, but I held myself back from rushing toward it. With the bones stacked along the walls, I knew there had to be a creature nearby, and I did not want to encounter it. Rays of light widened. Maybe thirty yards ahead, the light streamed down from a hole in the ceiling of the cave.
Slight steady steps kept me moving until a noise ahead caused me to pause. I strained my eyes and ears to their fullest. The sound came again. A snore. I flattened myself against the stone and looked hard into the darkness. Toward the right side of the cavern, the outline of a large nest could be seen. Inching my way forward, I made out the shape of a large animal, curled into the rough bed.
Holy hell. What is it?
My mind spun in multiple directions. I need to go back. We’ll have to try the right entrance.
I backed up. My foot caught one of the bone piles, and they spilled with a slight rattle. Holding my breath, I looked back at the creature. I didn’t see it…until I did. It growled and moved toward me. Another Varulven. Great.
I tried to read its imagery but saw nothing but red. Fury. It took another stride toward me, and I noticed that its back looked misshapen. It had a severe limp, and its rear hip jutted unnaturally. It snarled, revealing a jaw of jagged teeth, some of which were missing.
Before it came at me, I tried communicating with my own mental images but was met with more of the glaring red. It made a big clumsy leap and was at my feet in an instant, pushing into me and knocking me against the wall. I hit my head and felt tears sting my eyes. The weight of its body crushed me down between the wall and the ground. I kicked at him, connecting with his jutting hip. A loud yelp echoed through the cave before I heard the gnash and snap of its jaws. I dodged and buried myself beneath it, the smelly fur of its chest rubbing against my face. He was filthy and had dirt caked throughout his thick fur. As I lashed out and punched him in the gut, the red block started to dissolve. Images of pirates filled my head: cruel pirates capturing him as a pup, removing him from his family, and burned his skin until he escaped. The pirates were responsible for the damage to his body and spirit. He hid in the cave, growing deformed due to his injuries. He caught bats, rats, and other small animals to feed upon while he was protected inside. He raised himself, went out only when necessary, and was a solitary creature filled with fear.
It’s like the story Brujala told me about Fezwig’s pup.
No sooner did I think about that than the wolf abruptly jumped away, cocked its head, and looked at me.
The image flashed inside my mind.
I conjured up the image of Fezwig, trying to put forward one where he wasn’t snarling or attacking me. This wolf’s ears lowered. He sniffed at me. I put my hand out, but he snapped his teeth at me, a slight growl in the back of his throat. I sent him images of Brujala and her cozy den, of her feeding me and telling me stories of the different tribes. He calmed down again, the fur on his back settling, his tail lowering and moving in what I generously attributed to a slight wag.
I know your tribe. I said to him. I am a friend, I lied, hoping that my deception wouldn’t transfer.
He backed up and sat back on his haunches, wincing as he did.
I tried not to sigh as he blocked my path to the exit. This was not going well.
Sending him other images, I took a couple of steps backward, deeper into the cavern, heading toward the light. I hoped there would be another way for me to escape.
As I moved, he followed, asking me what I knew about the rest of his family. Not having a lot of stories, I drug the details out, giving me a fluff-filled version of my Varulven history. We made it several yards before he bristled again. Looking around, I realized I was probably too close to his nest and adjusted, shifting away from it while approaching the light. He snarled a bit more, and I noticed a trio of bat bodies in a short stack.
Not hungry, I assured him. It gave me an idea to distract him. I questioned him about how he trapped animals and what his favorites were, how often he left the cavern, and anything else I could think of asking. Curiosity seemed to be on my side because he provided me with a litany of answers.
The farther we walked, the more pronounced his limp became. I noticed his back paw was caked with dried blood, and one of his claws looked infected.
We reached the bright spot in the cavern, and there was a sparkling pool of water beneath the open space. Beyond the pool, it looked like the cave split into three different directions. I’d be lost forever if I didn’t figure something out soon.
“Can I sit?” I asked.
He nodded. He rested on his haunches while I took a seat on a small rock at the base of the wall.
“Where do these tunnels lead?” I asked.
He ignored me.
“I mean you no harm,” I assured. “I also have a tribe. They are waiting for me. I don’t think they will come in for me, but I wanted to warn you just in case. I was supposed to find us passage.”
The wolf sat, silent.
“What is your name? I am Urania, the Muse of Astronomy…and kittens.” I smiled, sending him an image of Dugo.
Not impressed by my cat, he just stared before finally responding, “Tuttook.”
He shifted his weight off his bad hip.
“I might be able to help you with that,” I offered.
“How can stars help me?” he asked.
“Not stars. But I can help with energy from the universe. It’s around us all the time. Surely you’ve felt it before.”
He looked at me with what I hoped was interest but remained noncommittal.
“I also see that your paw is injured. Maybe I can help with that too?”
“I can at least wash it, clean out the infection, and see what’s causing the bleeding. I might be able to wrap it for you, and it will start to feel better. It’s the least I can do to thank you for sharing your story with me.”
He considered it for a full minute or two.
I clasped my hands in front of me as I waited. I could do nothing but wait. I didn’t think he was going to just let me leave.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him inch toward me. He sat next to me, facing the wall. I kneeled and took a good look at the paw. There was a long hair wound around the pad of his toe, cutting into the flesh.
“Okay, I see what the problem is. I’m going to grab a little piece of bone for a tool and use that to help me to pry the hair out. It might hurt a bit, but I’ll try to be gentle. Trust me.”
I picked up a small bone from a bat wing. It wasn’t much bigger than a needle. I rubbed it against the rock of the wall, sharpening it slightly.
I held his paw between my hands, resting it across my lap. I slid the bone into the soft flesh of his toe, poking it beneath the band of indented hair. He couldn’t help the growl that escaped. I paused for a moment before proceeding, showing him that I didn’t want to harm him further. I sawed through the hair and wiped the blood with my fingers to make sure I got it unwound. Cupping my hand, I scooped up water and washed his foot, stroking his paw and rubbing away layers of blood, dirt, and grime. Soft whimpers erupted as I rubbed his infected skin. As I cleaned him, I worked farther up his leg, noticing the burns that were scorched into his flesh. He pulled away as I touched the marks.
“I’m sorry. I wanted to make sure everything was clean. Please. Let me continue.”
He hesitated, but then allowed me to finish. I thoroughly scrubbed his leg and realized that the burns weren’t just marks…they were letters.
Stunned, I sat back on my heels, trying to hide my thoughts.
Although it made me sad to give it up, I tore off two inches of the bottom of my shirt, using it to wrap Tuttook’s injury.
Minutes later, in the quiet, I concentrated on the silence around us until it was no longer silence. The hum of energy whipped around us, and I channeled it as best I could. I placed my hands above his hip and focused with intensity. I felt the force between my hands and his body. He jumped slightly, distracting me, but I redirected my attention and re-established the connection.
I knew it wasn’t a permanent fix, but I hoped that it would at least help him for a little while. Long enough for us to pass through the cavern and be on our way.
He relaxed under my touch and curled up onto the floor of the cave.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Now that you know about your tribe and their location, will you go to find them?” I asked as he rested.
“I will think about it.”
“You don’t have to be alone. Your father misses you and thinks you are dead. It would mean a lot to him if he knew you were alive.”
“Thinking,” Tuttook stated.
“So, I’d like to tell you about my tribe…” I started.
He looked at me and crossed his paws in front of him. He rested his snout on his paws while I told him about the ups and downs of the Pantheon.
I told him about my family’s beauty and warts. The fights and the love. Ultimately explaining this trip and the quest. As I talked about my tribe, I thought about how much Tuttook’s father missed him and felt envious. There were so many times I wondered why I’d even returned home. What lessons was I supposed to learn? How many times would our family have to go through the same issues? Family members returning and leaving, getting in trouble and doing horrible things to each other. Why didn’t we pull together as a family instead of letting petty grievances and jealousies pull us apart? I felt fortunate for those who were on this trip and did stick it out as family. It was a nice feeling and one that I would miss.
I made my way back out of the cavern and found the others sitting at the edge of the water, feet dangling, sharing stories.
“Urania! Did you find the way?” Persephone asked.
“I think so.” I gave them the Reader’s Digest condensed version of my story and explained that we’d need to be respectful and quiet as we made our way through the cavern.
Once inside, Selene gave us light, and we made our way into the deep cave. Although he was hidden, I felt Tuttook’s eyes follow us as we made our way around his nest and toward the pool. He told me to go through the center tunnel, so we stepped in and felt the path wind down as we went. Darkness hugged us except for Selene’s light. I recognized the familiar tight-chested feeling of claustrophobia again as we squeezed through small spaces and ducked beneath low-ceilinged gaps. I only hoped that Tuttook was telling me the truth, and we’d make our way out.
The things I did for my family. That made me remember the words burned on Tuttook’s hind leg. Words I’d seen before on an ancient scripture. A truth I’d come to learn since my return to the Pantheon. A truth we’d need to remember to finish our quest successfully.
οικογένειά μου είναι η δύναμή μου και η αδυναμία μου
I oikogéneiá mou eínai i dýnamí mou kai i adynamía mou
My family is my strength and my weakness.