There was a little wooded area on the border of Mom’s property that could get really creepy at night with its bare branches that reached out like spindly fingers and fallen trunks so deteriorated that they reminded me of skeletons. Vega dragged me deep into the heart of those woods before she released her death grip on my arm. I spun around to face her, wiping my hair from my eyes as I did. Vega scared the crap out of me but I wasn’t going to lie down without a fight. “So what now? Are you going to try and kill me out here?”
Vega kept a perfect poker face. “No. I won’t touch you. But he will,” she added with a slight smirk playing on the corner of her mouth and nodded her head behind me.
I spun on my heel but I only saw the blur of Vega’s monster as it attacked me. It pinned me down under a ton of scales and its sharp claws dug into my arms. I screamed and tried to wiggle free but the creature dipped its great snout down and bared its long, razor-like teeth at me. The monster had a reptilian, snake face with beady, glowing red eyes. If I wasn’t so freaked I might think that seeing a real life dragon was kinda cool.
Its forked tongue lashed out and caressed my neck and jaw. I shuddered and let out a soft, scared cry. I heard Vega make a tsking sound but at the moment she was the least of my worries. “Draco, dear, you know not to play with your food,” she said like a mother scolding her child.
The dragon roared once and reared on its back legs. I took that opportunity to squirm from under the enormous beast. Then I ran like hell. Twigs whipped at my face and arms, shrubs snagged the bottom of the blue dress and the rocks on the ground tried to break my ankles at every step because of the thin heels. The outfit was perfect for one of my mom’s parties but definitely not for running for my life. It wasn’t long before I fell flat on my face.
I slowly crawled to my feet but everything hurt. There were shallow gashes along my cheeks, legs, and hands and the dress and my arms were shredded where Draco’s long claws had dug in. I leaned up against a tree and covered my mouth with both hands to keep the hysterical sob in my throat from bubbling out. I tried to take slow breaths but my heart was racing a million miles a minute and I couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lungs.
And then curiosity killed the cat. I poked my heard around the large oak I was hiding behind to see where the monster was lurking. I followed around the trunk with my fingertips trailing the bark and cautiously peeked out. I didn’t see Vega or Draco so I chanced a step away from my hiding place and a twig snapped under my shoe. The dragon turned its great, ugly face toward me, its red eyes glowing dangerously.
“You can’t run from this, Lyra,” Vega said calmly as her monster once again entrapped me in its scaly claws. “I am going to win.”
I struggled but the dragon had an iron hold on me this time. “I will not stop fighting you,” I declared. “You’re an immortal goddess and I’m human but that doesn’t mean that I am just going to let you win. I won’t give up on humanity.”
Swish. The wind whistled by my ear and the air fluttered excitedly against my cheek. The next thing I knew, Vega’s dragon, Draco, was growling in anger and black blood oozed from its neck.
It let me go and I fell like a sack of potatoes. I started to scramble to my feet when a husky voice shouted, “Stay down!”
My instincts screamed at me to listen to the unseen man and I ducked, throwing my arms over my head. The air whooshed past me three more times and Draco roared each time. I glanced up through my lashes and saw four arrows sprouting from the dragon, black blood staining his silvery scales. Its serpent-like head lashed out at something behind me but the dragon was getting weak. I watched as it suddenly faded into a starry mist.
“Damn you!” Vega screeched. “Damn you, Lyra. These men might be willing to die in your place but mark my words, little sister, you will die soon enough.”
I blinked and she was gone.
I sat up slowly and a large hand rested on my shoulder to steady me. I pressed my fingertips to my temples to keep my migraine from spreading further in my head and glanced up at the man crouched beside me. He was huge, easily seven feet, with medium-length brown hair and a scraggly beard. His eyes were wide and forest green with thick brows hovering over them. He wore a tunic made of animal skin and had a bright belt around his waist. In the hand not holding me up he had a simple wooden bow and a quiver of arrows peeked from behind his broad shoulders.
I groaned. “Uh, thanks.”
He bowed his head toward me. “Of course, my queen.”
I froze. “Queen? Who are you? What are you talking about?”
He blinked his round eyes at me. “Of course, you would not remember. I am called Orion. I am here to serve you.”
“Orion? Like the constellation?” I asked stupidly.
“Lyra? Oh, Lyra, thank goodness.”
Randall ran up and instantly knelt at my side. His hands went on either side of my face as he baby blues flickered all over me. “Oh, you’re alive! I didn’t know if I’d get help in time. Oh damn, don’t scare me like that.”
I smiled weakly at my best friend. “Sorry,” I muttered. “Uh, this is Orion. He saved me. I think.” I was dazed and nothing made sense in my frazzled brain.
Randall nodded at the large man. “Thank you for coming. Did Cassiopeia send you?”
“Yes. She said that the queen was in trouble so I came.”
“Why does he keep calling me that?” I whispered louder than intended.
Randall let out a little giggle. “I’ll tell you later. Right now we have to get the hunter back to his home. We’ll give you a ride to Andromeda’s Alcove.”
Again, he laughed at me. “I’ll explain it all on the way, Lyra. For now let’s get you in the car so we can get you home.”
My head was killing me. You’d think that I’d start getting used to all the weirdness going on around me but every new thing had me reeling. I was tired and sore and just wanted to lie in the tub but first I had to meet Andromeda.
“Are you going to tell me who she is or not?” I demanded of my best friend.
He glanced sideways at me as he drove. “Honestly, Lyra, didn’t you learn anything in class? And here I thought that you used to love all the Greek myths and stuff.”
“I do,” I pouted. “But I don’t see how that’s relevant to my question.”
He rolled his big baby-blues. “Think about it, Ly. Remember the story of Cassiopeia and Andromeda and Perseus?”
“Yeah,” I answered slowly. And then it hit me. Wow, I can be really stupid sometimes. “Oh! You mean that Andromeda is Cassi’s daughter?”
“Yep,” he answered like it was no big deal. “She and her husband Perseus live at Andromeda’s Alcove and guard the doorway to Arcadia.”
My brow furrowed from all the confused clutter rattling around in my head. “How can Cassi have a daughter that’s already married if she’s so young?”
He laughed. “We’re immortal, remember? We can change our form and stuff. Cassi’s really not as young as she looks.”
“Oh,” I muttered stupidly.
I leaned my head back against the seat and tried to drift off to sleep while I waited to get home. I’d almost forgotten that Randall and I weren’t alone when there was a slight chuckle from the backseat. My eyes flew open and I glanced back at the large hunter that looked so out of place in the back of Randall’s Chevy Tracker. He smiled gently at me. “You are quite curious in this life, milady. When we met before you were already familiar with your past lives. “
I blushed red. “I’m kinda new to all of this so I’m sorry for being so out of it. It’s just weird that everyone but me knows about my past selves or whatever.”
He dipped his hairy head in a nod. “No apologies necessary, my queen.”
I let out a deep sigh. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
Randall burst out laughing. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to explain that, didn’t I? Well you’re called queen by all the humans that know the truth about you because that’s basically what you are. You’re the queen of humanity and Vega’s the queen of darkness. You are technically their goddess.”
I slapped his arm. “Ow!” he protested. “What was that for?”
“How hard was that to explain? You couldn’t have told me any of this earlier? I look like a complete idiot!”
“Well, not a complete idiot. Besides, I didn’t think it was important.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Not important or you thought it’d be funny?”
“Uh…” he stuttered stupidly.
I rolled my eyes. “You’re an ass, Randall,” I muttered under my breath.
The next fifteen minutes weren’t nearly as bad now that the awkwardness in the air had been lifted. Before I knew it Randall was pulling into the parking lot for Ricks Spring. I’d been here before when I was younger but I couldn’t figure out what we were doing here at night while I was in heels. “Um, what’s up?”
Randall walked around to my side of the car so that I could lean on him and not fall flat on my ass. “Andromeda’s Alcove is down in the Ricks Spring cave. C’mon. The sooner we get Orion back to Arcadia the sooner we can get you home.”
I rubbed my tired eyes and draped my arm over my best friend’s shoulder. “We’ve been to that cave dozens of times. I’ve never seen any alcove or whatever,” I whined.
“That’s because you didn’t know where to look.” He thumped me on the nose. “Your humanity was clouding your immortality so it was just a cave to you. You’ll see what I’m talking about when we get there.”
I stumbled a ton and my ankles felt like they were made of shattered glass by the time we made it to the cave’s mouth. It was pitch black inside and the flashlight app on Randall’s iPhone only gave off a thin beam of light. I really wasn’t the outdoorsy type and Ricks Spring cave was bad enough during the day. If Vega didn’t kill me then this stupid hike definitely would.
“Hold up for a sec, Lyra. Don’t move.” Randall carefully took his arm from around my shoulders and our sole light source floated away from me as he walked deeper into the cave. I let out a slight whimper and hugged my arms tightly around myself. Now I really just wanted to go home.
“Ready?” Randall’s voice echoed from the darkness.
“Ready for what?”
Crystalized stalactites hanging from the roof glowed softly illuminating the entire cave in blue light. My jaw dropped in a silent gasp as I saw the sparkling stones on every surface. I’d never seen any natural landmark this beautiful. “Whoa.”
“This is nothing, Ly. Just wait until you see the alcove.”
I followed him to the back of the cave where cracks that looked like they were filled with diamonds ran in intricate designs. In the center of the design there was writing in cuneiform. I’d seen the ancient pictographs before but never really noticed them. “Peta babkama luruba anaku,” I muttered under my breath. “Open the gate for me so that I can enter here.”
To my great surprise the designs that decorated the walls glowed brighter and began to fall away like giant jigsaw pieces. The other side was bright and sunny with the taste of summer in the air. I stepped through the gaping hole into a grassy field with Randall and Orion following right behind me. “Oh wow. What just happened?”
“You opened the door into Arcadia. Usually only Andromeda can do that but you are the daughter of a goddess.”
“What language was that I spoke?”
“Sumerian. It’s the oldest to date. That’s from back when people knew your mother as Antu or Aruru rather than Thesis. And you, miss humanity, were known as the goddess of earth- Ki.”
I giggled. “Me? An actual goddess? That’s pretty cool.”
“What’s even cooler is that you actually believe in what you created and gave us a place to call home. Most gods just stay up in the City but you are more hands on.”
I whipped around at the girl’s sudden voice. The woman walking up had a perfect bronze tan, chestnut hair piled loosely on her head and held back with a headband, bright hazel eyes with a golden tint and the same full mouth as Cassi. She looked around 19 and was tall and thin. She walked with a regal air and her long white tunic dress fluttered around her bare feet.
“You must be Andromeda. I’m Lyra-Rose.”
Her smile was kind. “Yes, I know who you are. You are our queen. Those of us here in Arcadia follow you.”
I cocked my head to the side. “What exactly is Arcadia? I’m not really that familiar with it.”
She took my arm in hers and started leading me down a slight hill. At the base was a little village that was perfectly peaceful. “This is where the best of humanity, the ones that were granted immortality go when they die. Those of us granted passage here know about the original immortals like Thesis, Vega, and you. We also know what happened to you those eons ago when you became mortal.”
I snorted. “Sounds like you all know more than I do.”
She laughed. “Sometimes,” Andromeda admitted. “You wanted to be human, Lyra-Rose. To do that you wanted nothing to do with the life you were leaving behind. It all gets erased from your immediate memory so that you can start fresh each time.”
I frowned slightly and thought of Michael. “I was kind of a brat, wasn’t I? I guess I’ve always liked things going my way.”
She gently reached out and touched my arm. “Lyra, it is okay to want something for yourself other than what destiny gave you. All of us here followed your footsteps in creating our own path. Now, you have to make that choice for yourself once again. What do you want to do? Do you want to keep living this life as human or as your original self?”
“It’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” I asked almost bitterly.
She shook her head. “It’s never too late, Lyra-Rose. The choice is always yours.”
I sank down to the soft cushion of green grass. “Yeah, but there’s always a right and wrong one. I know what the right thing here is and something tells me I’ve been putting it off for way too long. I’m going to have to stop running and stand up to Vega.”
She smiled, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to my feet. “Come. There is something you need to see.”
Andromeda led me through the small village full of people of all ages and races. Many of them nodded at us or said hello in dozens of languages I could suddenly understand. Andromeda greeted them each by names I recognized from stories of famous heroes. I tried not to gawk at people but I guess they didn’t feel that it was necessary not to gawk at me. I felt like a monkey at a zoo with everyone staring at me as we passed.
It wasn’t long before we were able to leave the village and its people behind. I followed her to a beautiful lake and a large mansion on the water’s edge. “This is my home. My husband and I have been in Arcadia for centuries and we don’t have any intention of leaving. I do not know if the cupid told you that I am the gatekeeper to Arcadia because of this intention. You and I are the only ones with the ability to open the door.”
“Why only us?”
“Well I can do it because it is the duty I was charged with. You are our goddess so you can do pretty much whatever. Our armies live here so he thought limiting who can allow entrance would help keep Vega and her monsters out.”
A small smile touched her lips and she nodded toward a figure staring out towards the lake. Michael stood shirtless, his perfect bronze abs glistening and his dark brown hair almost black from the water droplets in his curls. And most spectacular of all were the enormous white wings that sprouted from his sturdy shoulders. He embodied everything an angel should look like. Holy damn. He was seriously easy on the eyes.
Wait, what? My cheeks blazed like fire when I realized what crazy thoughts were going through my mind. I wanted to look away but for some reason I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes from his angelic form.
As if sensing my gaze, Michael slowly turned and his face lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw me. His smile was so dazzling that I felt my heart melt inside my chest. He jogged up to where I stood and before I knew it, Andromeda was gone leaving me alone with Michael.
“You are okay.”
“Mostly. I’m tired as hell, thought.”
He frowned at me. “Then why did you not go home and get some rest?”
I rolled my eyes a little and smiled. “Randall,” I said as if that explained it all. “He thought that it’d be a good idea if I met Andromeda. I think he was kinda right because this place is amazing. Who came up with it?”
He smiled fondly at me. “You did. It was during one of your first reincarnations. You were Sumerian back then and you met a little girl who had the gift of Sight much like Cassiopeia’s. She knew that you were the daughter of the creation goddess and the one that made the humans. I was not around to protect you during that time and Vega found you. That little girl tried to help you but Vega was stronger. It was then that you decided you wanted a place for the best humanity has to offer, a place that they would be safe from Vega.”
I frowned. “Who was she?”
“I do not know. Like I said, I was not around so I only know what others told me.”
His silver eyes blazed with something like guilt. He was definitely hiding something that he didn’t want me to know. I was too tired at the moment to press him for more but I was going to get back to that.