Nayeli left as soon as she was able to, before Marquis could find the note. In those few brief seconds, she walked out into the street and quietly selected a darkened alleyway to disappear into. Then, when no one was looking, she leapt.
For the first few seconds air resistance fought her, but as she neared the apex of her jump she began to float gracefully like a butterfly or a bumblebee in flight, flying over Manhattan high above its towering buildings as she scraped the clouds. She heard his voice crying out for her with the phrases she’d taught him as a child as the cityscape slowly began to disappear underneath the layers of overcast weather, and she screwed her eyes shut, biting her lip so as not to cry.
“πρώτa αγάπη,” she repeated. “πρώτa αγάπη, πρώτa αγάπη…”
Tears fell like rain amidst the dark clouds, and finally, mercifully, her jump ended as she made landfall outside the city limits. She wiped her eyes clean so she could check the road signs.
“New Jersey, seventy miles. Rhode Island, a hundred and sixty-eight miles,” she read aloud. Two options. Go further inland where the feds might be waiting, or head for the Atlantic.
“Guess we’re going home,” Nayeli muttered.
Her destination decided, she set out for New Jersey, headed to the west.
She traveled for a few days after that, slowly making her way to the edge of the continent, giving Arizona a wide berth and stopping only occasionally to see the sights. Or perhaps “visit old haunts” was the better way to phrase it.
Her last major stop was in California, near Lake Tahoe. It was when she saw the trail marker that said “Mt. Reba Scenic Tour”, and wondered why it felt oddly familiar. Her bracelet swung heavily in the breeze.
Ah, that’s right. She remembered now. She didn’t actually fall in New York. It was here, just a few miles out from the city of angels. It was easy to forget that sometimes, with how much of her life she’d spent in New York with Marquis since then. But this is where it happened. Where she was abandoned by her father. Where she’d first discovered her curses.
Life in Olympus was good, while it lasted. Twelve or thirteen years by all accounts, but it felt so much longer. Concepts like age and time meant different things for gods, so she could spend as much time as she wanted there without ever getting the sense that she was growing older, always make-believing that she was daddy’s little girl. But eventually she had to grow up. Everyone does. And one way or another, her time in Olympus had to come to an end.
“But father, why do I have to be your champion? I don’t wanna go to Earth!” she pleaded. “I wanna stay here with you!”
Immediately her father’s stern gaze penetrated her defenses. She couldn’t see him, but then again she never could. The presence of the gods was something you felt, not something you saw. Without the use of avatars, a god could not appear before mortals because their minds could not comprehend the enormity of their true being. Even now she doubted if this room was real or simply something created for her convenience. It had never bothered her before, but now that she risked losing it she wondered if she’d ever belonged here to begin with.
If her father’s reply was anything to go by, the answer to that question was probably “never”.
He grunted. “Why?”
“Auntie Athena says the people there are cruel and disrespectful!” she protested. “It’s cold and dark and filthy… She says Earth is at war!”
“Earth is always at war,” her father said dismissively. “It’s our job to keep it that way.”
“Why not? It’s good for them. Stimulates the economy.” Her father placed a firm hand on her shoulder, a buzzing sensation like static. “Listen to me, Nayeli. There is nothing more glorious than war. Heroes are born there. Civilizations are built, rise, and then fall. All in the course of war. If you want to become great, there is no surer way to do it than in battle. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“But you’re great, aren’t you father?”
“Of course,” her father grunted. What a silly question. As if it was worth asking.
“Then why can’t I live here with you? If you can be up here and still be great, why do I have to go down to Earth?”
“Because you’re not me,” he said, his voice losing what little patience it had. “I had to prove myself in order to be as great as I am. That is the way of a true man, a warrior. And this? This is no place for a warrior. There’s no hunger or strife, everything is warm and safe, and worst of all you’re waited on hand and foot all the time. It dulls you. Paradise is for the weak. You are strong. I made you that way. Now you’re going to prove it. To your grandfather and to everyone else.”
“Nayeli!” he said, raising his voice. “I will hear no more of this! You’re going to Earth, to live amongst the mortals, and become the warrior I meant you to be. This isn’t for you to decide. Do you understand?”
Nayeli lowered her head. “Yes, father.”
With that she felt her father disappear, his presence leaving the room. She sighed.
“Hey. What’s the matter, kiddo? Something got you down?”
She turned around. A cripple in a wheelchair was suddenly behind her, paddling the floor like river water with his walking stick while two metal hounds flanked him on either side. One of his legs was shriveled to the point of hideousness, but his upper body was muscular and well built with strong arms. He had youthful, springy, finely-cared for facial hair (such was the pride of many of the gods), with color that was red and wild like fire, and half his face seemed to sag on the side opposite his crippled leg. The bright blue eye on that side rolled lazily around in its socket while the other one focused mindfully on Nayeli. His overall appearance gave the impression of an outcast or a hermit, a man of knowledge shunned for his physical deformity.
“Uncle Hephaestus,” Nayeli said as he approached in one of his many mortal bodies. “What are you doing here?”
“Just checking up on my favorite niece,” he said affectionately, ruffling her hair. “Word on the grape vine is you’re nervous about making the trip to live on Earth.”
“Mmhmm,” she nodded. “It seems scary.”
Hephaestus chuckled. “Earth isn’t scary! I mean it’s no Mt. Olympus, but that still doesn’t mean you should have to worry. You’re strong, right? I bet you could beat me in an arm-wrestling competition!”
“That’s not true, uncle. You work the forges all day long!”
Nayeli still blushed at her uncle’s praise. He smiled. Uncle Hephaestus had always been like that. Not everyone Olympian was happy about her presence here, but Uncle Hephaestus had always treated her kindly, and maybe even perhaps spoiled her if you asked her father or her father’s father. Her father wasn’t the most well-liked Olympian, but he hadn’t let that stand in the way of being a loving uncle to his niece.
“Well, if you’re still nervous, you wanna see the weapon I’m making you? Your dad had me make it extra special, just for you!”
“Really?” she asked, smiling.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied nonchalantly. “Just don’t tell him, okay? He wanted it to be a surprise.”
The room shifted in dimensions, and a pathway materialized that spiraled downwards into a chthonic forge, its twenty bellows belching with the fires of Tartarus. Nayeli took careful steps down the spiraling staircase while her uncle was carried by the dogs, the metallic beasts never once voicing a single complaint. Metal in motion. That was her uncle’s specialty.
Once his dogs set him down, he rolled himself over to the forge and picked up the crude beginnings of what looked like an axe.
“See this? This used to be a mountain, Nayeli,” he said, lifting it as though it were just any other weapon. “I still have to finish plating it in gold, but this is your weapon now. Think of it as a gift.”
“Really?!” Nayeli asked happily.
“Mmhmm,” Hephaestus said, nodding. “Your father said he wanted something simple and elegant. Of course he understands very little about what actually goes into all those weapons he uses, but I thought this might be a good opportunity to experiment. So I took a mountain, and tried to wring it into the shape of an axe. It has lots of mass, so just swinging it normally can be deadly, but the catch is because it’s so heavy, it can only be wielded by someone with extraordinary strength.”
He offered it to her. “Wanna try?”
Nayeli nodded. Gingerly, she picked up the axe. Almost immediately she felt the handle tingling in her palm, like her hand had gone numb. She quickly let go.
“Uncle, this axe feels… weird,” she said, confused.
“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me our little princess can’t lift it,” Hephaestus said, smiling glibly. “Now that’d make daddy really upset.”
Nayeli pouted, rising to the provocation. She stubbornly grabbed hold of the axe. All she had to do was just power through it, whatever that strange sensation was. She wouldn’t let her father or Uncle Hephaestus down.
The numb feeling quickly spread from her palms up through her arms. In a matter of seconds it felt like her whole body was being pricked with ice-cold needles. The axe had barely budged. So she tried harder, used even more of her colossal strength, until her muscles felt burnt by cold fire.
Hephaestus smiled. Nayeli just took it as a challenge.
“You don’t have to try so hard if you can’t do it, y’know,” Hephaestus said. “I can always make it lighter if you think it’s too heavy for you.”
“I can do it, uncle!” she protested. But she wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel like she had any strength left, and the mountain wasn’t yielding.
Nayeli grit her teeth. If she didn’t have any strength left, she’d just have to find more. For the first time in her life, she gave it everything she had, summoning every last bit of strength she had and exerting herself until she could practically hear her muscles starting to snap like rubber bands. And just like that, the axe-head began to rise.
Hephaestus’ eyes widened. Nayeli grunted with pain, but it didn’t seem to be slowing her down. Finally, she managed to hoist the axe over her head for a proper swing.
“Nayeli!” Hephaestus shouted. “Nayeli stop!”
But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. He thought she couldn’t lift it, that it was too heavy for her. But she wouldn’t disappoint her father, and she wouldn’t let her uncle have the last laugh! The strange tingling feeling was gone. The axe’s weight meant nothing.
The bellows belched fire and flame like volcanoes erupting over the plains of the underworld, and Nayeli brought the axe down in an overhead swing that cut right through the furnace, spilling coals and white-hot metal all over the floor. Warm air blasted through the room like a tempest. Hephaestus sighed.
“Well, I guess you proved me wrong. And destroyed one of my forges…”
“Wha-?” Nayeli looked down at the axe she was holding. “Oh no! Oh no I’m so sorry, uncle!”
He chuckled. “It’s fine. Look, see? I’ve already repaired it.”
She looked at the forge again and lo was it so. The power of the gods knew no limits, it seemed.
Nayeli tried lifting the axe again, and found it strangely lighter this time, which is to say it still felt like swinging a sack of bricks. But that was still preferable to what it felt like swinging the first time, which is to say a humpback whale.
“Uncle, why did it feel so weird the first time I picked up the axe?” she asked curiously. “Now it feels so much lighter.”
“Oh, that’s just because you’re not used to it yet, sweetie,” Hephaestus said quickly. “But hey, you proved me wrong. You can swing it, can’t you? That’s a lot better than I was expecting for your first time.”
Nayeli beamed. Hephaestus smiled back.
“Hephy? Are you still down there in that sweatshop you call a forge?” a thick, syrupy voice cooed.
“Yes, dearest wife! I am! I’m a little busy right now!”
“Oh come on! Why don’t you come up here and pay more attention to me for once? Grab a couple of those golems you made – you know, the ones with the really nice asses – and maybe a few of the dogs too, and we’ll have some fun! It’s the least I deserve for being forced to marry a cripple who can’t even make a woman c-”
“You should watch what you say, Aphrodite dear,” Hephaestus said, clearly not sympathetic to her plight. “Nayeli is here with me.”
“Oh,” the voice said, deflating. “Her.”
“Hi, aunt Aphrodite,” Nayeli said timidly. Aphrodite ignored her.
“Heph, whenever you’re done entertaining our brother’s little mistake, come see me up in the bedroom.”
Normally the prospect of being invited to the bedroom of the goddess of love would send heart palpitations through any man. But Hephaestus was not man, nor was he unwise to the games his sister played. Frankly, he’d stopped wanting any part of it centuries ago. The pleasure wasn’t worth the premium.
“I’ll be there once I’m done working on Nayeli’s axe,” he said, lying through his teeth. “Her father wants it done ASAP.”
“Really? That’s your excuse? What a load. And trust me, I know loads,” Aphrodite said scornfully, before her tone took on a cajoling air. “Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve had any proper fun that I might just go and ask Ares to keep me company.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Hephaestus growled. “I know you wouldn’t. Not after the last time.”
The air became frigid with the chill of spousal neglect and cold bedsheets. Sensing her chance, Nayeli pitched in.
“I could keep you company if you wanted, aunt Aphrodite.”
The colors of the room suddenly became vibrantly energetic, like a buzzing bee.
“She doesn’t mean it like that, Nayeli dear,” Hephaestus said, covering her mouth before she could say anything else. “And you’d better not be getting any ideas, Aphrodite. I know lying with children isn’t anything new to the kind of courtships you’ve approved in the last four thousand years, but I’m not having it, understand?”
He turned to face Nayeli, whose face was beet red. Looks like she’d gotten it.
“Tell you what, kiddo. While your aunt and I talk this out, how about you take that axe and practice swinging some more out in the courtyard? I’ll come get it later.”
“You sure, uncle?” Nayeli asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine. Now go out and practice,” he said, giving her a light shove until the entrance to the forge closed behind her.
“That was a good joke, coming from you. Acting all protective like that when you know what’s coming,” Aphrodite said.
“Yeah…” Hephaestus said, watching the spot where Nayeli left. “I guess you’re right.”
He turned back to his forge as Aphrodite’s thoughts and presence drifted away and he himself reverted back to his immaterial form, the forges losing all substance until they smelted nothing but pure thought.
Sorry, kiddo, he thought. This isn’t about you, it’s about your dad. Wish I could tell you that…
Nayeli kept walking. What point was there in remembering that anymore? Except to make her mad, of course. No, she still had much farther to go. And her path would take her right through that place. Through the city of angels, where she first met Marquis.