"Oh, it was so awesome!" Niklas' voice was scratching rough.
"Do you want to repeat that now for the whole next half hour?” Emma wanted to know smiling and threw a short glance to the side, where Niklas shifted on the passenger seat.
"No, but... it was just awesome!”
"I was there."
"I know!”, hoarse Niklas began to sing completely crooked one of the songs that they had just heard in the concert hall. Emma hummed half-heartedly, she preferred to concentrate on the street. Sure, it was the middle of the night and the highway was practically empty, but the adrenaline was gone and she got tired. In addition, it began to rain.
"What’s wrong? Why are you slowing down?” Niklas interrupted his singing and looked at the speedometer.
"It is raining. And there are minus degrees." Emma missed his non-verbal reaction, because at the same moment the right headlight of the car went out. "Oh, no..."
"No big deal. Those in the garage know you." She could hear Niklas' grin.
"It's pitch dark, Nik!” When the highway crossed some rails with a bridge, a jeep passed them and reeled in so close in front of them that it sprayed the entire windshield with snow rain.
"Ahh!" The car broke away to the side. Emma tried to keep the steering wheel stable and at the same time stepped on the brake, but they hectically moved from left to right. In the light of the single headlight the guardrail raced towards them.
Dear God, let the airbags open!
Emma tore her arms in front of her face...
When Emma opened her eyes, she looked straight into the bright blue sky; not a single cloud was visible. Under her fingertips she felt damp earth, but it wasn't cold.
Am I dead?
Even before she could answer the question, she heard a voice:
"Hey... are you all right?” Irritated, she blinked, then sat up and gasped for air. She sat in a five-meter-deep crater- with coked pines and four young men on the edge.
"Is everything all right with you?" The speaker - a tall blond - repeated his question.
"I don't know..." Her voice trembled, and so did her hands. "Am I dead?" The taller of the two black-haired men, who was wearing a dark blue T-shirt, laughed.
"Dead? Absolutely not.”
"Won't you come up to us? The crater doesn't look too comfortable," noticed the second black-haired one with the light grey T-shirt, and wrinkled his nose a little.
"Um..." Emma looked skeptically at the steep crater walls from loose earth.
"Aiden, would you give her a hand?" the blonde asked the fourth young man. He had rust-red hair and, unlike the other three, was quite chubby.
"Sure," he replied briefly and stepped on the crater rim. He slipped a bit and then dropped strangely in front and turned into a giant brown bear in front of Emma's disbelieving eyes. She screamed and put her hand to her mouth as the bear trotted towards her. When he nudged her at the knee with his nose, she whimpered quietly.
"Don't worry, the bear won't hurt you." But Emma barely dared to breathe. "If you don't want to stay in the crater, you should take some help."
"He won't hurt you," confirmed the tall black-haired man with a slightly amused tone. "Just climb on his back and hold on tight." But first of all, Emma slowly stretched out her hand, very slowly, until she could touch the straight fur. The bear held very still as she carefully brushed over his head and then crawled behind his ears.
"Good bear..." she whispered. A pleasant hum was the answer. A soft laughter sounded from above.
"I think he likes you." With trembling knees Emma stood up and knocked the earth off the things she had just worn at the concert.
"I was with my best friend! Is he here?"
"No. You were the only one who fell from the sky," replied the blonde one with a frown.
"Fell from the sky?” Emma stared at him with her mouth open.
"We can explain to you, but you're still sitting in your crater." Emma felt hysteria rising inside her, but just as she was about to cry, the bear nudged against her shoulder.
"O-okay..." It took her two attempts until she was on the back of the giant bear - they never really got so big!- and then she clawed her fingers to his fur as he climbed the crater. Arriving at the top, she slid off his back with a still racing heart and was caught by the smaller black-haired one as she stumbled.
"Nice and slow, falling once a day is enough." He smiled at her, his grey eyes sparkled. Emma nodded, unable to answer, and watched the bear turn back into Aiden. He just nodded to her and then reached out to shake her hand.
"Aiden. Or bear."
Emma returned the greeting mechanically. "Emma. Doesn't the bear have a name?"
Aiden shook his head.
"He didn't tell me." That made her giggle a little hysterically.
"C’mon, let's go back to the village. I think you need a hot chocolate... I'm Cullen, by the way," said the blonde young man and smiled encouragingly at her. She nodded to him.
"I’m Matt," the one who had caught her introduced himself, and the last one simply raised his hand to greet her.
"Hi... and... um... thank you...?"
"No problem. The oracle sent us here," Mike said and went off. Emma and the others followed him through the forest.
"Yeah. Muttered something about the time has come and sent us to check. After all, someone doesn't happen to fall from the sky every week..."
"Mike, I guess Emma has no idea what you're talking about," Matt meddled. He walked along the narrow forest path behind her and when she turned around briefly, he smiled at her.
"That would probably be the unfavorable variation.”
"But the most probable," Cullen let himself be heard from behind. Mike shrugged and took a quick glance over his shoulder. Emma didn't know what to say and remained silent.
She couldn't tell how long they walked through the forest, but at some point it opened to a large clearing, the pines were replaced by oaks, birches and other deciduous trees, and you could hear voices and jingling. Through the shimmering green of the leaves Emma saw bright buildings in the background.
"Our training ground begins here," explained Matt, who suddenly appeared next to her. "On the left are the warrior fields and behind them the large mage arena, on the right the shooting ranges." When he noticed her hard grasped expression on her face, he added:
"Just accept it for now." Emma nodded rigidly and they continued. On the right, a wide paved path wound through the bushes.
"There you go to the lake. This here," he nodded to the building that now appeared to their right, "is our fitness oasis. Training equipment, indoor swimming pool, sauna, spa... everything your heart desires." The grey stone building had a small canopy in front of the entrance, which was supported by two blue-grey columns; the floor was covered with a mosaic showing a Roman bath. Emma nodded again.
They passed a few rows of trees and then her mouth opened in surprise when she found herself on a large white paved square. A multi-storey, sand-colored building with many thick columns and crowned by a small clock tower in the middle stood straight up. On the right was a wooden longhouse with a thatched roof and small windows, which in turn contrasted strongly with the huge open pavilion on the left, which seemed to consist only of delicate white columns and a tendril roof, and under which were dozens of round dining tables.
"Where are we?" whispered Emma.
"This is the Great Square of the Warrior Village," Mike said spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture. He pointed from left to right: "Dining pavilion, town hall and hospital."
"Behind the town hall you go to the armory and behind it are the accommodations. Passing the pavilion, we go first to the temples and then to the city," Matt added. Emma swallowed hard. Maybe she was in a coma and fantasized. She hated the German winter, so why not an adventure in a summer environment?
"Why is nobody here?" she then dared to ask quietly.
"It's early afternoon. Everyone is busy learning or training," Cullen replied as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
"C’mon, we'll take you to the oracle." Matt nodded to the left and Emma had no choice but to go with them.
Behind the dining pavilion was a small grove of slender trees hiding a huge building. In amazement Emma stopped and suddenly felt very small. Directly in front of her rose a Roman frontal temple with three rows of four columns, to which six steps led up. Above the columns were the gods who guarded the temple in a bossy pose. Matt touched her gently on the arm. Overwhelmed she followed him and suddenly found herself in front of an Egyptian temple. The large entrance was flanked by two man-high obelisks, with two small sphinxes crouching at their feet. Emma was simply missing the words and a little paralyzed she let Matt lead her past the temple. What at first she thought was another piece of the grove turned out to be a temple consisting of living trees and bushes. Behind it stood a Greek open portico. But instead of passing the other two temples they turned and walked along the side wall of the Egyptian temple, through a small orchard and stood in front of a rustic two-storey log cabin.
"Here lives the oracle," Matt said quietly and Emma looked at him, probably a little disturbed, for he seemed insecure.
"We...", Cullen began, but then the door of the log house opened and a woman stepped out onto the meadow. Her age was hard to guess because her hair was snow-white, but as she approached it was obvious that her face was practically wrinkle-free. She wore a pink shirt with white trousers and smiled warmly at Emma.
"Welcome, Emma. Thank you for bringing her here. I'll expect you at the lake later."
"Good afternoon, Oracle," Mike greeted politely and even bowed halfway.
"We'll be there," Cullen added.
"See you later," Matt turned to Emma; Aiden stayed silent like all the way here.
"Come.” The oracle waved Emma to follow her into the house and Emma entered.
The ground floor was just a single room and was amply stuffed.
"Sit down. Would you like a hot chocolate?" Emma nodded and sat down carefully on the dark red couch. The oracle went into the kitchen corner, poured milk into a pot and placed it on the stove. Then it leaned against a kitchen cupboard and looked at Emma thoughtfully.
"You must have a lot of questions. And no, you're not dreaming. This is reality."
"But... nobody can just fall out of the sky! And... I had a car accident!"
"I know." The oracle threw a short glance into the pot and asked then: "How well do you know about antiquity?”
"Quite well. My mother is a curator at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.”
"Ah, very good." The oracle smiled and Emma wondered what the oracle knew and what it didn't.
"To give you the answer to a whole lot of questions: you are a half-goddess. And your father is a god." Emma opened her mouth, then she started giggling hysterically.
"Sure. And soon Percy Jackson comes around the corner..."
The oracle sighed. "I wish Rick had never written those books."
"Rick Riordan is also a half-god, even the son of Poseidon. And a whole lot of young half-gods who come here are expecting a world like his." Emma lost the giggling. The oracle was far too serious to take her for a ride just like that. With another sigh it took the milk pot from the stove and stirred chocolate drops from a can into it before pouring the hot milk into a large cup.
"Thank you." Emma carefully sipped the chocolate milk and smiled shyly.
"In the world the old gods still exist, Emma. They have withdrawn, have forged new alliances and are still watching over us. Here, in Europe, the alliance consists of Greeks, Romans, Northern Gods and Egyptians. And this warrior village is located in a hidden valley in northern Italy. Until about three hundred years ago it was the base of the Greek and Roman half-gods, before the Nordic and Aegyptic ones joined after a war." The oracle paused.
"I don't know who your father is, we'll probably find out at the ritual tonight. But he protected you and only sent you here when the time was right."
"He let me fall from the sky?" Emma wanted to know skeptically and took another sip. The oracle licked its lips uneasily.
"We have been praying for more than three hundred years that the day when the Black Star falls from the sky may still be far away. Today it has come." Emma opened her mouth, but she had no idea what to say.
"I fear you are the bearer of bad news."
"Is that why I'm being killed?"
"Oh, no! Of course not. You are not only an omen, but..." The oracle paused and crooked its head. "Emma...", she said slowly, "Whatever happens in the next time... you are not alone. You will never be alone.”
"Drink your hot chocolate and then you should rest. I doubt you can sleep tonight."