The Gatekeeper's Challenge (18 page)

BOOK: The Gatekeeper's Challenge
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“You know what they say is true don’t you?” a gruff but familiar voice murmured at her ear. “If you die in your dream, you die for real.”

The mention of the word dream reminded her that she could do what she wanted. She elbowed the man and god traveled away from him. Who needed a traveling robe in the dream world? She placed herself in her grandparents’ old house in San Antonio, not sure why she ended up there so often. Maybe it was a place of comfort. Maybe it was because she associated the place with family. She shook her head. Why am I analyzing my dream now, while I’m still in the middle of it? This is crazy. She willed her grandparents on the living room couch, with Blue, their Blue Merle Australian Shepherd, on the green carpet at their feet.

She sensed a presence outside the front door. A quarter-inch gap appeared around the door, through which bright, ominous light spilled in. Therese pushed her full weight against the door, to keep whatever wanted in out, but the door dissolved and she fell against the hard chest of Ares, god of war.

This is a dream, this is a dream, she repeated beneath her breath, as she stumbled back. “Figment, I command you to show yourself!”

“I’m no figment, Therese.”

Therese god traveled from her grandparents’ house to the wooden deck in Colorado.

I’m going to make this a happy dream, she said to herself. She willed a chipmunk to appear on the railing beside her.

“Come here, little fella.”

The chipmunk hopped onto her hand and let her pet him. She fed him a handful of seeds. Then she thought of Puffy, and turned the chipmunk into him. “Puffy! I miss you so much!” She pressed his soft, furry face against her cheek.

Ares appeared at her side wearing a wry smile. “I see why Hypnos and Thanatos admire you. But this won’t help you defeat the Minotaur.”

“Why do you care?” Shut up, Therese thought.

Ares laughed.

Than appeared at her side.

“Than? Is that really you?” She wondered if she should repeat her command for figments. She threw her arms around him instead, needing him, even if it was just a stupid figment. She’d take him any way she could get him.

He cupped her face and showered her with kisses, pressing his warm lips to her eyelids, her nose, her cheeks, her forehead, and her mouth. It felt so real. If only she could make Ares disappear. “Make him disappear,” she prayed to
Than with her eyes closed.

“He’s here to help you.”

She opened her eyes. “What? Why?”

“Can we please get started?” Ares said impatiently. “I don’t have all night.”

“He’s agreed to teach you how to fight.”

“He killed my parents! I don’t want his help!”

Her scabbard and shield appeared strapped to her body, startling her.

Than kissed her once more. “Do this for me.”

Therese’s heart thudded in her ears. She couldn’t believe Than was asking her to work with Ares. Her hands shook—out of anger, not fear, and hatred.

“When you face the Minotaur, have your sword drawn,” Ares said, drawing his own. “If you wait, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Carry it out in the ready position as you make your way through the labyrinth.”

Therese drew her sword, narrowing her eyes at him. She wanted to slice off his head.

Ares faced her. “Spread your feet.
Wider. You’ll lose your balance otherwise. Keep them spread as you walk.”

Therese did as he said.

“Bend your knees and lean forward, like this.”

She copied his stance.

“Hold the sword closer to your body. If you hold it too far out like this, you make yourself vulnerable to attack. There.”

Therese couldn’t believe the god of war was being nice to her, and without realizing it, she said the question in the form of a prayer to him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

He looked down at her, his hand still on hers, adjusting the position of her sword to her body. “I just want to see a good fight.”

She lowered her eyes, the blood rushing to her face. She wanted to kill him.

“Keep your elbows in,” he said, stepping back from her. “Remember, you want to use the sword, not your arms. If your arm goes out like this, it’s easy to get it lobbed off. Repeat to yourself, elbows in. By instinct, you’ll want to keep your body as far away as possible from your opponent, forcing you to reach out with your arms, but don’t. It’s better to get closer, elbows in, so the sword can protect you on your sword side while your shield protects the other. Now, take the shield.”

She did as he said.

Ares transformed into a giant beast with the body of a man and the head of a bull. It charged her. She backed away.

“Stay perpendicular to me,” Ares’s voice shouted through the beast’s ferocious mouth.
“With your shield side toward me.”

She clenched her teeth, accidentally biting hard on her tongue. What had she been thinking when she agreed to fight the Minotaur?

“Feet apart, Therese. Crouch. You want to lower your center of gravity, or he’ll knock you right over.”

It had been a moment of insanity, she thought, crouching.

“Shift back and forth on your feet. Keep your mind clear. Anticipate my every move.”

He lunged for her, and the only thing she could think to do was to
will him into a butterfly.

He fluttered his yellow wings twice, a two-inch creature just above her head, before resuming his form as the god of war in front of her. “I’m impressed. But you won’t be able to do that when you face the real Minotaur.”

She glanced over at Than, the corners of his mouth turned down. “How am I going to do this?” she prayed.

He didn’t reply.









Chapter Twenty-Five: A Labyrinthine Dream


Go straight and down, not right or left, Therese reminded herself as she stepped into her silver robe and strapped on her gear. In her purse, beside a ball of yellow yarn, nestled four cinnamon rolls leftover from that morning’s breakfast and wrapped in paper towels—two for Ariadne and two for the Minotaur. Therese had baked them for today’s purposes. Plus, she knew they were Jen’s favorites.

Inside the rolls were crushed sleeping pills Jen had brought the night before, as a favor to Therese, who said she hadn’t been sleeping well since Vicki’s death, which, although true, wasn’t why she wanted them; she needed them for her third challenge. Once she’d realized the crown wouldn’t work on immortal beings, she came up with plan B: drug her adversaries. This seemed like her best strategy, since she had little experience with the sword—though her success in defeating
Ladon had given her a little more confidence, as had her lessons with Ares.

She closed her eyes and imagined the ancient city of Knossos on the island of Crete, based on photos she viewed on the web. The palace ruins stretched for acres and acres, so she focused on a group of trees between the “Little Palace” and the “Great Palace.” The invisible plastic wrapped around her, and moments later she emerged beneath a tree beside a bench where two older ladies sat picnicking. They blinked at her. She gave them a friendly wave.

The two ladies looked at one another over their half-eaten sandwiches and then stared, wide-eyed, back at Therese.

“I was in the tree,” Therese said, pointing up awkwardly.

The ladies smiled and nodded, as if to say, “Of course.” Therese wondered what they thought of her robe, scabbard, and shield. At least she wasn’t carrying her flute and crown, though she did have a headlight clipped to her sun-visor. She waved once more, turned from the ladies, and headed toward the Great Palace.

The last bus back to the modern city of
Heraklion would leave in ten minutes, and until then, Therese wandered the grounds, waiting to face the Minotaur alone.

Last night’s dream was a whirlwind of a memory to her now, but bits and pieces of her fighting Ares as the Minotaur throughout the night came back to her as she walked through the ruins. Although her favorite part of the dream had been after Ares had left, when she
and Than spent the rest of the night together in his rooms, she had to admit fighting Ares had given her a thrill. The adrenaline rush had been incredible.

She followed the steps up to the North Entrance and Pillar Hall, the sunset coating the clouds in a backdrop of pink, purple, and orange. Other tourists ambled along the same path as Therese, but in the opposite direction, down toward the buses and cabs. When she reached the Pillar Hall, she was surprised by the fresco painting of a bull. It was larger than life in deep browns and blacks against the white stone. Two huge horns curled and pointed from each side of its ferocious head.

Did it resemble the Minotaur?

Seeing the image of the bull brought another wave of fear to Therese, so she reminded herself that she had to fight to save
Than from an eternity of torment. She had no choice. She couldn’t accept his hand otherwise. As Therese watched the last of the tourists taking their photos of the sunset, her thoughts and prayers went to Than. “I can do this,” she said over and over in her mind. Then, a half hour later, when dusk had fully settled and the grounds were empty except for her, she said it out loud: “I can do this.”

She followed the path past partially fallen stones into the large central court, searching for the Grand Staircase, hoping beyond hope the
drugged rolls would work. It would be hard for her to slay the Minotaur as he lay sleeping, because she didn’t like taking life, any life, but knowing he was immortal and would come back made Therese think she could follow through with it, unlike last summer with McAdams. Uncertainty and doubt pricked at the back of her neck, with questions like, What if he refused the rolls? What if she had to actually fight him? Through the course of her dream, she’d improved with Ares, but the training had all been mental: her physical body had undergone none of it.

To the south of the central court, she found the stairs—refurbished, reinforced, and beautiful. Therese imagined the ancient civilization that once inhabited these walls. A shudder moved through her as she reached the bottom of the Grand Staircase, anticipating a raven-haired goddess to lead her to the ancient entrance. She drew her sword, as Ares had advised, so she was ready for any surprises. With her other hand, she took out the four cinnamon rolls and laid them by the fallen pillar
Than had said marked the entrance. Her hands shook like a starving beggar, and she was suddenly sick. This could be it. Her death. The end of everything.

She took up her shield and waited, sweat forming on her forehead. She chewed on the inside of her mouth. “I can do this,” she said again.

A dark-haired woman appeared.
was hardly the word. She looked the same age as Therese. Her black wavy hair hung over her shoulders and across a white cotton dress that stopped below the knee. She was barefoot and frowning.

“Who are you?”

“Therese. Hades sent me. I brought cinnamon cakes.” Therese tried to keep the tremor from her voice and the quake from her hand as she pointed her sword to the four rolls.

“Why should I trust you when you stand there prepared to kill me?”

Oh, no. Therese sucked in air. What should she do? Ares said to keep the sword in the ready position, but Ariadne wouldn’t eat the cakes as long as it was drawn. If she did put the sword away, the Minotaur could sweep down on her out of nowhere, and it would all be over, just like that. Therese returned the sword to its scabbard.

Ariadne picked up one of the rolls. “It smells delicious. You have one first.”

This was not going well at all. Now what should she do? She prayed to Than and Ares, like that would do any good. Than couldn’t come near her without killing her himself, and Ares
her dead. She took the roll. “I baked these for you, Ariadne, and for your brother, Asterion.”

Ariadne’s eyes lit up. “You’re the first to come here and call him by his rightful name. Most only know him as the Minotaur.”

“It’s not his fault he’s what he is,” Therese said.

The Minotaur appeared at Ariadne’s side. “You seem friendly,” he said, “and yet you arrived ready to attack.”

“To defend,” Therese said. “I just want to negotiate through the labyrinth and prove to Hades I can do it. I don’t want to fight you.”

“Very well,” he said, though she didn’t quite trust him. “I’ll take your cakes in exchange for your entrance.”

“Wait,” Ariadne said. “Make her eat one first. They might be poisoned.”

Therese put the roll to her lips and took a bite, trying to appear more confident than she was. Maybe a small bite wouldn’t affect her. “It’s delicious.” She said. “Please, have one.”

Ariadne took one and gave the other two to her brother. They watched her, waiting for her to take another bite, so she did. Together, the three of them ate the rolls. Therese began to feel sleepy.

“May I enter?” She hoped she wouldn’t fall asleep before making it back out. She had no idea how long the maze was, but she needed to get started right away, though now she realized she would likely fall asleep in the middle of it and never escape alive.

BOOK: The Gatekeeper's Challenge
12.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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