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OLYMPUS WAS UNLIKE ANYWHERE EMILY had ever been before. It was a magical fantasyland filled with people and creatures beyond imagination. A place where rain didn’t fall but the lush green gardens never wilted. Flowers bloomed constantly, filling the air with their intoxicating fragrances. The air itself seemed alive. It was honey sweet and warm and enveloped you in a blanket of peace; it was rich with the sounds of singing birds and filled with insects that never stung. If a bee landed on you, it was only because it wanted to be petted.
The buildings in Olympus were as beautiful and unique as the land itself. Most were made of smooth white marble with tall, intricately carved pillars reaching high into the clear blue sky. There were open theaters where the Muses danced and sang for the entertainment of all.
The wide cobbled streets were lined with statues of the strongest fighters and heroes. There were no cars or trucks pumping pollution into the air. The Olympians walked or flew wherever they needed to go. Occasionally they would ride in a chariot drawn by magnificent horses.
Then there were the libraries, more than Emily could count, containing the texts from the many worlds the Olympians visited and guarded. Some of her favorite books were in the library at Jupiter’s palace, brought in especially for her.
Emily could never have imagined a more perfect place.
But living in Olympus, amid all this splendor, Emily was miserable.
She missed her father. She spent every waking moment thinking and worrying about him. He was back in her world, a prisoner of the Central Research Unit. The CRU was a secret government agency obsessed with capturing aliens and anything out of the ordinary to use as weapons. She had been their prisoner for a short time and knew how single-minded and cruel they were. But they still had her father. What were they doing to him? Were they punishing him because of her escape? Had they killed him? So many fears and unanswered questions tore at her heart that she could never be completely happy or stop worrying about him.
Even spending time with Pegasus didn’t ease the pain. Emily was desperate to get back to New York to find her father, but Jupiter wouldn’t let her go. He insisted her place was here among the other Olympians. And with the invading warrior race of Nirads still posing a threat to Olympus, Jupiter couldn’t risk sending any of his fighters to Emily’s world on a rescue mission. No matter how much she pleaded with the god, he refused to allow her to leave.
Emily paused as she walked through the gardens of Jupiter’s palace. She raised her face to the sun and felt its warm rays streaming down on her. Was this the same sun that shone in her world? Was her father allowed to see it? From her own experience as a prisoner in the CRU’s deep underground facility, she doubted it.
Emily felt even more determined. If Jupiter wouldn’t let her go, she had no choice but to run away and rescue her father herself. Walking along the stream that coursed through Olympus, she saw a group of beautiful water nymphs splashing on the shore. They waved and called their strange greeting. Moments later they slipped beneath the surface, and the water calmed as if they’d never been there.
Lost in thought, Emily wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking and tripped over a small rock. She cursed and righted herself. On top of everything else, she was still getting used to the new gold leg brace that Vulcan, the armorer of Olympus, had made for her. He had constructed it using the same gold as Pegasus’s bridle. A very special gold that was lethal to Nirads. With one brief touch they were badly poisoned. Longer contact proved fatal to the ferocious warriors. With this brace Emily could not only defend herself against the invaders, she could walk and run once again.
But learning to get around with the strange device had taken time and effort. Now she could almost move as well as she had before her leg was permanently damaged by the Nirads in New York.
She walked toward Jupiter’s maze, a large labyrinth built in the middle of a garden and consisting of tall green bushes grown in complicated patterns. It took a lot of practice to navigate it, but Emily and her friends had discovered that the maze was the perfect place to hold private conversations.
Emily found her way through the labyrinth, where Pegasus was waiting for her beside the pedestal at the center. The magnificent winged stallion always stole her breath. Standing quietly in the dark of the trees, he glowed brilliant white. His head was high and proud, and his coat shiny and well groomed. There wasn’t a feather out of place on his neatly folded wings.
When Pegasus saw her, he whinnied excitedly and nodded his head.
Beside the winged horse stood Emily’s best friend from New York, Joel. Joel’s Roman features, black hair, and warm brown eyes always reminded her of the classic Italian paintings she’d seen in the art museum. He was no longer the violent, angry boy she had first met. Spending time in Olympus had softened his outer shell of rage and hurt due to the loss of his family. Now he let others see that he had a deeply caring heart and a ready laugh. Joel spent his days working with Vulcan in the Olympus armory. He had even helped design the brace on Emily’s leg.
Emily looked around. “Where’s Paelen?”
“He’ll be here in a few minutes. He had something to pick up.” Joel reached for her elbow. “Em, you’re absolutely sure you want to do this?”
“What choice have I got?” Emily answered. “Joel, all I think about is saving my dad. There’s nothing else I can do. We wouldn’t have to sneak around like this if Jupiter would help!” She threw her hands up in frustration. As she brought them down, brilliant flames flashed from her fingertips, hit the edge of her good foot, and scorched the ground around it. Emily howled and hopped in pain.
“Emily, calm down!” Joel warned. “You know it gets worse when you’re upset.”
“Nuts!” she cried. “Being the Flame of Olympus is one thing. But constantly setting myself on fire is another!”
“You’ve got to calm down,” Joel insisted. “Remember what Vesta taught you. You can control the Flame if you remain calm.”
“That’s easier said than done,” Emily complained as she sat down and rubbed her singed foot. Ever since she emerged from the Temple of the Flame, she was discovering powers she couldn’t control. Powers that continually set things alight.
Joel sat down beside her. “We’ll get your dad out of there. I promise. But you can’t help him if you can’t control the Flame.”
“Joel’s right.” Paelen emerged from the trees behind them. In contrast to Joel, he was small and wiry, and he was able to get into the tiniest of spaces. Paelen had a notorious habit of getting into trouble, but with his crooked grin and dark, sparkling eyes, he always found a way to make Emily smile. “And if I were you, I would lower your voices. Half the maze can hear your conversation.” He sat down beside Emily and gave her a playful shove. “Set yourself on fire again I see.”
“No, I tripped,” Emily answered, shoving him back.
Paelen smiled his crooked smile. “Of course you did; which is why your sandal is charcoal and still smoldering.”
In the time they’d spent in Olympus, Emily had really grown to like Paelen. Between him and Joel, she couldn’t have asked for better friends. Paelen was also one of the few Olympians who understood what they’d been through as prisoners of the CRU on Governors Island.
“Speaking of sandals”—Emily changed the subject—“you didn’t steal Mercury’s again, did you?” She noticed the winged sandals on his feet.
“Me? Of course not,” Paelen said in mock horror. “You know I’m no longer a thief. Mercury just gave them to me. He is having another set made for himself.” Paelen paused and frowned. “He said the sandals prefer to stay with me. I do not understand what he means, but I’m not going to say no to such a useful gift.” He petted the tiny wings on the sandals. “These flying sandals saved our lives in your world and helped us escape the CRU. There is no telling what else they can do.” He leaned closer to Emily and eagerly rubbed his hands together. “So, tell me. When do we leave for New York?”
Pegasus stepped forward and started to nicker.
Paelen nodded and translated for the others. “Pegasus heard Jupiter, Mars, and Hercules talking. They are going on an expedition to see if they can discover how the Nirads entered Olympus in such large numbers without being seen. Until they know and can secure the route, we are still in danger. Pegasus suggests if we are going to go to New York to rescue your father, we should leave once they’re gone.”
Emily rose and kissed the stallion on his soft muzzle. “Thank you, Pegasus. That’s a great idea.” She turned to Joel and Paelen. “It’s settled, then. The moment Jupiter leaves, we’re out of here!”
• • •
Quietly they discussed their plans as they strolled through the maze. Emily rested her hand on Pegasus’s neck as he walked beside her.
“We’ll need some human clothes,” Joel mused aloud. “We can’t arrive back in New York dressed like this.”
“What is wrong with these?” Paelen looked down at his tunic. “I have always dressed this way.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Joel smirked. “Paelen, we look like rejects from a gladiator movie! Look at me—I’m wearing a dress!”
“It’s a tunic,” Emily corrected him, “and I think it suits you.” She looked down at her own beautiful gown made from fine white embroidered silk with an intricate braided gold belt at her waist. The material ended above the golden brace on her damaged left leg, leaving it exposed. Emily had never felt embarrassed revealing the deep, angry scars from the Nirad wounds while she was on Olympus. The Olympians regarded them as a badge of honor. She had earned them in the service of Olympus, and she had learned to be proud of them. But as she gazed down at her leg now, she realized that the deep scars and leg brace wouldn’t be viewed as positively in her world.
“Joel’s right,” she agreed. “I can’t go back there like this either. We’ve got to hide this brace.”
Pegasus started to neigh, and Paelen translated. “If anyone should try to steal it from you, Pegasus would defend you, as would Joel and I.” A playful twinkle returned to his eyes. “Of course, should that fail, you could always set yourself on fire again. That would surely scare off any attackers!”
“Thanks, Paelen,” Emily teased as she shoved him lightly. Then she patted Pegasus on the neck. “And thank you, Pegs. But I still think we will need to find other clothing.”
“Other clothing for what?”
Emily looked up at the owner of the new voice. Despite all the time they’d spent in Olympus, she still couldn’t get over the sight of Cupid. Seeing Pegasus’s wings had been strange at the beginning. But somehow they suited him. She couldn’t imagine him without them. But looking at a teenager with colorful, pheasantlike feathered wings on his back was something else.
Cupid pulled in his wings and landed neatly in the maze before them. “So, where are you going that you need new clothing?” he asked.
“None of your business,” Joel shot back. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners? It’s not polite to listen in on other people’s conversation.”
“Of course,” Cupid said. “But she also taught me that when humans and Olympians mix, there is always trouble. And what do I see before my curious eyes? Humans mixing with Olympians.”
Cupid smiled radiantly at Emily, and it set her heart fluttering. She had a terrible crush on him, and he knew it. He was the most beautiful Olympian she had ever met, with fine features, light sandy blond hair, sapphire blue eyes that sparkled, and skin like polished marble. Though Cupid was very old, he looked no more than sixteen or seventeen.
Emily stole a glance at Joel and saw his temper starting to flare. The way Cupid pronounced the word “humans” was always meant as an insult. “Get out of here, Cupid,” Joel warned. “This is a private conversation, and you are not welcome.”
“Is this true?” Cupid said slyly to Emily. “Do you really wish me to go?”
The intensity of his stare kept the words from forming on her lips. Everything about him was trouble. Joel had told her some of the myths concerning Cupid. She knew that, like a coward, he had fled the area when the Nirads first attacked and had stayed away until the danger had gone. Yet despite all this, she couldn’t tell him to go.
Before the moment became awkward, Pegasus stepped forward and snorted loudly.
“Trouble?” Cupid repeated as he turned and feigned innocence to the stallion. “I am not causing trouble. I just wanted to speak with the Flame.”
“Her name is Emily,” Paelen said defensively. He moved to stand in front of Emily to block her from Cupid. “Do not call her Flame.”
“And I told you to leave,” Joel added, taking position beside Paelen and crossing his arms over his chest.
“Or what?” Cupid challenged. “What will you do to me, human?”
Once again Pegasus snorted, and he pounded the ground with a golden hoof. There was no mistaking the warning. Emily saw fear rise in Cupid’s eyes. Even Paelen took a cautious step back from the stallion.
“There is no need to lose your temper, Pegasus.” Cupid held up his hands in surrender. “I shall go.”
His wings opened as he prepared to fly. But before leaving, Cupid plucked a colorful feather from his right wing and placed it in Emily’s hair. “Something to put under your pillow to remember me by,” he said as he jumped into the air and flapped his large wings. “See you later, Flame!”
Pegasus reared on his hind legs, opened his own huge wings, and shrieked into the sky after him.
As Cupid escaped, he turned and waved back at her, laughing as he went.
“I came this close to hitting him!” Joel said, balling his hands into fists.
“Me too,” Paelen said.
Pegasus gently nudged Emily and nickered softly.
“You must stay away from Cupid,” Paelen explained. “Pegasus says he is trouble. Even more than—What?” Paelen turned sharply to the stallion. “Me? Pegasus, how can you compare Cupid to me? We are nothing alike. I may have been a thief, but Cupid is a troublemaking coward, and I resent being compared to him. And what about you?” Paelen turned to Emily. He pulled the feather from her hair and tossed it to the ground. “You should have told him to go. Cupid would think nothing of handing you over to the Nirads if it meant saving his own skin and feathers. Stay away from him!”
Emily watched in complete confusion as Paelen stormed off into the maze and disappeared. Paelen had never shown any trace of anger or raised his voice to her before. “What did I do?”
Joel looked at her in surprise. “You really don’t know?”
When she shook her head, he said, “Never mind. We’ve got bigger things to worry about. You must learn to control those powers of yours before we leave. You’ve got your training session with Vesta. Keep it and learn as much as you can.”
As Joel walked away, Emily turned to Pegasus and shook her head. “You know something, Pegs? The older I get, the more confused I get. Can you please tell me what just happened here?”
Pegasus gently nudged her and led her back toward Jupiter’s palace to find Vesta.
• • •
Emily spent a long afternoon back in the Temple of the Flame struggling to learn how to master her powers. Vesta tried to teach her, but every time Emily summoned the powers, they became uncontrollable.
Vesta patiently explained how to pull back the Flame, to control it. But every time Emily tried, she failed, and flames shot wildly from her hands and around the temple.
“I can’t do it,” Emily complained, defeated.
“Child, you must focus,” Vesta scolded. “I can see your mind is elsewhere. If you are not careful, you will lose control of your powers completely and hurt yourself as you did earlier today.”
Emily’s eyes shot over to where Pegasus stood at the entrance of the temple. He lowered his head guiltily.
“Thanks, Pegs,” she muttered.
“Do not blame Pegasus for telling me what happened,” Vesta said. “He cares about you and does not wish to see you harmed.” Vesta rested her hands on Emily’s shoulders. “Emily, you must understand. You are the Living Flame of Olympus. Your power feeds the Flame here in this temple, and it keeps us alive. Countless generations ago, I took the heart of the Flame to your world and hid it in a child. It has passed from girl to girl throughout the ages until it finally reached you. You were born with this power. I am sorry that we have had to summon it from within you to save Olympus. But the moment you sacrificed yourself in this temple you changed. Emily, you carry the power of the sun deep within you. If you do not harness these powers soon, you may do yourself and everyone around you a great harm.”
Emily looked down at her burned sandal. She already knew how dangerous her powers were. She had accidentally burned up enough items in her quarters to prove it. It was reaching the point where she was running out of secret hiding places for the singed victims of her powers.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said. “I’ll try harder.”
Turning back to the plinth, she looked into the brightly burning flames. They were fed by her and were the only things in Olympus her powers couldn’t damage.
“All right,” Vesta said patiently. “Look into the flames. I want you to focus on what you intend to do. Visualize yourself doing it. Then concentrate and carefully release the power within yourself.”
Emily lifted both her hands and concentrated. She imagined that she was a giant blowtorch turning on the gases. She felt prickles start in her stomach and flow up her spine and flood down her raised arms toward her hands. “Come on, Em,” she muttered to herself. “You can do it.”
Suddenly a wide, wild stream of fire shot out of her fingertips.
“Very good. Now concentrate,” Vesta instructed. “Control the stream, Emily. Make it tighter.”
Emily held her breath as the raging flames shot out of her hands. Concentrating as Vesta taught her, she pulled back and refined them until they became a narrow beam of red light. But the tighter she pulled back, the more intense it became.
The beam of light shot through the flames in the plinth and across the temple until it hit the far wall. It did not stop. It burned a narrow hole right through the thick white marble and continued out into the sky over Olympus.
“Cut if off now, Emily,” Vesta warned. “Just think ‘stop’!”
In her head, Emily imagined shutting off the gases to the blowtorch. But nothing happened. She mentally turned all the dials and flicked all the switches that controlled her powers. But once again, the beam would not stop.
“Cut it off, Emily,” Vesta cried. “You must make it obey you!”
Emily tried again and again, but nothing happened. As her panic increased, so did the intensity of the laserlike Flame. It pulsated as it tore through the skies over Olympus.
“I CAN’T STOP IT!”
A sudden blow from behind sent her tumbling forward, and she fell to the floor. With her concentration broken, the red beam stopped. She panted heavily and studied her hands. No burns, blemishes, or pain. She looked up, and what she saw made her suck in her breath. Pegasus’s whole face and neck were burned bright red. Worst of all, his soft white muzzle was black and blistering. It was Pegasus who had knocked her over and stopped the flames. But when he touched her, her power had singed his beautiful skin.
“Pegasus!” Emily ran over to him. “I’m so sorry. I swear I didn’t mean to do it!”
She felt sick as she inspected his wounds. She had done this to him. “Please, forgive me!” Without thinking, Emily reached forward and gently stroked his burned face. At her touch the skin started to heal. Soon Pegasus was completely restored.
“I can’t do this, Pegs.” Emily sobbed as she stepped away from him. “I just can’t. I hurt you. What if I’d killed you? I’m just too dangerous to be around.”
Emily dashed out of the temple. Tears rose to her eyes as she ran down the tall steps. She cringed as she replayed what happened and, worse still, what could have happened.
At the base of the steps, she looked up and saw Pegasus and Vesta emerging from the temple.
“Emily, stop!” Vesta called.
Emily turned and ran farther away. She couldn’t face Pegasus again, knowing she had almost killed him. She ran past other Olympians on the street, ignoring their curious stares and concerned queries. She had to get away. Away from Pegasus and anyone else her powers could hurt. She was just too dangerous to be allowed in public.
Emily finally ran into the open amphitheater. The Muses weren’t performing that day, so the thousands of seats sat empty and alone. The perfect place for someone dangerous. She ran down the steps, toward the center stage, and threw herself to the ground. It was over. Her life was over. There would be no trip back to New York, no rescue of her father.
All there was now was pain.
Sobs escaped her as she finally realized all the things she’d lost. She wished she’d never emerged from the flames at the temple. Olympus and Pegasus would have been better off without her.
Tears blinded Emily as she looked around in misery at the beautiful marble theater encircling her. She wiped them furiously away. As she flicked the tears off her fingers, there was a blinding flash and a terrible explosion.
Her world went black.