AoM Chpt 38: Prisoners

Dear Tess,

Here. The rest of the pages in this envelope are a story that continues our adventure. You’ll have to help me figure out what happens next. I want to know more about where you come from and about Megaera. Maybe you can tell me about your mom and dad, but only if you want to.

Best,

Steve

* * *

The underworld has its own day cycle. In Varanor’s courtyards, mushrooms grow bright and dim over slow hours, now flushing light in their caps, now pulling it into a ground web of veinlike hyphae. Likewise, the blue galaxies on the cavern ceiling wax and wane, and also slowly rotate, as the fungal patches shift the balance of their chemical energies. The dimmest period is called night.

Stefan went to Megaera’s bedchamber in the early morning. She had been given an ancient room far up in the central keep. In the upper world, the citizens had to contend with chamber pots and urns of cold water, greasy lanterns, and spitting torches. But the neutral Powers had shared magic and technology among themselves to make life more comfortable. Radiation in the earth powered ingenious pumps and heat exchangers. Hidden vents in the walls bore channels of steam to condensers and cisterns between floors. Of all the magic that Megaera had encountered, the hot and cold running water, showers, baths, and flush toilets impressed her most of all.

Stefan’s heart pounded with excitement as he ascended the stairs and came to stand before the caryatid that served as both door and doorwarden to Megaera’s room. The caryatid bore the likeness of a lady faun luxuriating in an arbor of stone grapes, its leaves strategically placed for modesty. “Tell your mistress that I’m here,” Stefan commanded.

The caryatid yawned and stretched and then faded as if absorbed into her column, leaving him to face smooth marble. Half a minute passed. The column rotated on its hidden gimbal, and Megaera stepped out. “You’re early,” she said. “But I was awake anyway. I have bad dreams.”

“Then let us go somewhere pleasant.”

He had chosen the quietest part of the day, the best time for slipping off unnoticed, though he could feel the restless attention of Varanor following him like a faint heat on his skin. They reached the spiral stair at the end of the hall and wound their way down through many levels, to the ground floor. Megaera fetched up behind him as he stopped.

She began to move toward the central foyer, but Stefan laid a hand on her arm. He smiled to himself in anticipation of his first surprise and turned her to face the wall, knowing they had arrived just in time. Seconds ticked away. Megaera fixed him with a wry, dubious look. Then, from the floor to head high, a rectangle of stone began to bleed light. The glow became so intense, it stung their eyes, and there, revealed beyond the stairwell, a white-sand beach stretched under full sun toward a sapphire bay. “Come!” he said, dragging her firmly by the arm.

They stumbled through the door onto their knees in fine coral sand. Megaera got to her feet and wiped herself off. She glanced back, but the portal had disappeared. “Where are we?” she asked. “How do we get back?”

“This is the Gateway Beach, a world created by Varanor and long-lost allies. We can stay for a while, and when we tire of it, we can reach many other places. Watch.” Stefan pulled the Dragonclaw from his belt and concentrated as he wiped it back and forth across a dune. The claw glowed, and then the sand grains boiled upward to form a tall arch. A brief, watery shimmer within resolved a view into the courtyard back at the keep. He inscribed several characters on the window’s soapbubble surface and the image flickered and changed. Green light poured out as they looked into a rainforest where yellow birds flitted in the distance and huge frogs, banded gold and strawberry, clambered up the trunks of banana palms. “The sands of this beach can form a gate at any point, but the gates on the other side are fixed and look like mirrors until they are opened. I believe that the gate to this world stands on a spike of volcanic glass thrust up through the forest. Shall we go and visit?”

“Wait. I want to try something.” Megaera stepped up, and he complied as she waved him back. His curiosity gave way to foreboding. Megaera took out her flail and its snaky length caressed the air under the arch, claws flexing. The forest went dark; a veil seemed to have fallen over the arch. Stefan came up and saw a dim, expansive chamber, into which the sun would not penetrate. Widely spaced columns rose from a mirror-smooth floor and reflected balls of light, perhaps torches, from myriad points, some reflecting each other in endless recess. Every surface was slick and black as if worked from clean obsidian. At the base of the columns rose statues.

Megaera staggered away, face blank, holding the Bugclaw far out to one side as if to distance herself from it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that would happen.”

Stefan noticed his heart pounding, his limbs cold despite the heat. Had they opened the entire Gateway Beach to the attention of enemies?

“Where is this?” he asked.

Megaera put her free hand to her mouth, where it trembled. “It’s the convent.”

Just then a woman, face shadowed, stepped into view, studying the gate from her end, and looked behind her and back as if comparing what she saw to her surroundings. She was middle-aged, tall, with golden hair streaked gray; her long face, no doubt radiant in youth, had become severe and fleshless. Her sable coat opened slightly to reveal a forest-green gown beneath. The woman spoke to someone, and her voice echoed faint and muffled in the chamber as if from far away or behind a door: “I see a light in this mirror,” she was saying, “like a distant hole on a sunlit place…. Tell Sethis…. The light grows. Go quickly!”

The woman leaned forward and then back, her eyes focusing and growing wide; their pupils shrank to points. Like the moon emerging from eclipse, her white face glowed in the sunlight that finally broke into the chamber. Megaera strode forward, her face set hard.

“Hello, Neve.” At the sight of Megaera, the woman’s eyebrows lifted and her jaw went slack, showing a hint of jowl. She turned and ran.

Megaera turned toward Stefan, eyes narrowed. “Neve Anum,” she said. “The Mother Superior.”

* * *

Dear Steve,

The story’s off to a good start! I like the Gateway Beach. Megaera should jump in and get that bitch before she gets away! I’m looking forward to more.

You asked about my mom and dad. I’m not ready to talk about Mom yet. I’ll have a lot to say someday, but right now it hurts too much. She was great. I don’t like thinking about my dad, but that’s easier because so much time has gone by. However cool or pretty or talented I could be, it wouldn’t be good enough for the dad in my head. When you’re little, you think the world revolves around you, so when Mom kicked him out and he never came back to visit, I thought it was because of me. When he was gone, I forgot about his being sulky and aloof and drunk all the time. I remembered him going for walks with me and smiling at me, always a sad smile, and pushing me on the swing.

Maybe you thought that Megaera’s history came from my family. It does, but it’s not real straightforward how they connect. Megaera’s an orphan, but she was raised by a guy like my own dad. He wasn’t directly abusive to Megaera. He criticized her foster mother all the time, though, and called her foster mom lazy when she got sick. Megaera’s foster mother finally ditched him and dropped her off at the convent orphanage. The priestesses taught her black magic and how to be a man-hater. The dark convent feels like a part of my own, real history, but I’m not sure why. My schools were coed and didn’t teach anything dark. But I understand Megaera being in that dark convent haunted by tamed vampires. She had a few friends there, but what she got most out of the convent was how to use evil magic to defend herself. She was good with the putdowns, just like me, and the teachers helped her learn the stuff she wanted to learn.

Mom didn’t help me dream up the dark convent. I blame my dad. I needed him to love me and take care of me. I blame him, but I understand, sort of, where he was coming from. My dad was raised by a real bitch.

Mom told me all about it. His mother got pregnant with him real young, and the guy dumped her, and she took out her frustration on Dad.

Grandma didn’t like Mom, because she stood up for herself and didn’t coddle Dad, and Grandma always took my dad’s side. Grandma never bothered to get to know me. When she gave me presents, they were old Barbies, not the ones with cool clothes that I liked. When Mom kicked Dad out, that was the last we saw of Grandma too. (I wish my other grandma, my Mom’s mom, was still alive. She was a neat lady, a feminist, and took care of me sometimes when I was little, but she smoked too much and died of a stroke a few years ago. Mom’s own dad is in a nursing home; he wouldn’t even recognize me.)

So there, now you know where I came from. And maybe this gives you some ideas.

It’s late, and I need to go to bed.

Take care,

Tess

* * *

Before Stefan could stop her, Megaera turned away and vaulted through the gate. He saw her land on the floor, orient herself, and run off. He knew he should go and warn his master. Varanor would sense something wrong if anything happened to him, but would he know where he’d gone? Regardless, he quickly decided he could not leave Megaera to stumble into a trap. He hefted the Dragonclaw and, cursing under his breath, went after her.

No sooner had he passed the gate than the light from the beach began to fade. He turned just in time to see it iris down to a point within a tall mirror and then wink out. Afterimages of bright sand and water filmed his vision and for seconds he was blind. Then a forest of widely spaced obsidian columns loomed around him. High up on each hung an oil lamp, its fitful light reflecting from dozens of surfaces. He looked the way Megaera had gone but could neither see nor hear her. He padded along cautiously. At the base of each column stood a marble statue: a mother held a sleeping infant; a succubus or angel hung her head in shame or grief between her folded bat wings. As he passed a hooded figure in a cloak, it turned up a face pale as milk, eyes a glinting a faint red.

“Lux!” he shouted, and hefted the Dragonclaw. The weapon flared, and the vampire melted away across the hall like wind-blown smoke. He glimpsed Megaera far up ahead and ran toward her. She had come up short. A dark shadow blocked her path, and she had raised Bugclaw high overhead.

Seconds later, he reached her and saw she had locked eyes with an old, pointy-eared vampire much like Karsk. Bugclaw reared and fell slack. The vampire turned and slid ahead.

Megaera’s eyes were wild. “We’re going to lose her. Come on!”

Broad staircases, one on the right going up, the other down, loomed at the end of the hall. The vampire led them down. At the bottom of the stairs, corridors branched left and right and went straight. They turned left, and Stefan saw far off, where the reach of his light was dim, that Neve had come to a statue of a robed lady that almost touched the high ceiling, its giant head inclined over steepled hands. The hands drew apart. The head swiveled up. And a seam split the stone robes from her breast to the floor, leaking daylight from a narrow passage far beyond. The vampire stopped. But Megaera redoubled her run, and Stefan looked back as they passed the monster, to see it cringe from the light, its pale skin steaming.

Before they could reach her, Neve ducked into the gap. The sides of the statue-door began to close. Megaera angled through, and Stefan leapt just in time to avoid being caught, as the heavy stone wings slammed together.

They reached the end of a short tight passage, and then spilled into a small chamber, lit by a Gothic-arched window high in the facing wall. The woman spun to confront them. Megaera menaced her with Bugclaw, its neck rigid and curved backward.

Sweat stood out on Neve’s forehead; beneath the green gown and coat of shiny black furs, her chest heaved. Her eyes were hard, but the skin beneath them was bluish and sagged. She seemed exhausted. “Megaera, you should not have come back.” She cut her gaze to her right. Stefan turned and saw a young, strikingly handsome man lounging in an archway. A bed and nightstand occupied the chamber beyond. The man wore a dark green cape over a white tunic, and his luxurious blond hair fell past his shoulders.

A white scar cut diagonally across one eye socket, and he dabbed at it with a dirty white handkerchief. “Neve?” he asked casually.

Megaera took notice and shifted to keep them both in view.

“Sethis, this is Megaera, the elf-woman I told you about.”

“So, Mother Superior,” Megaera said, “I see why you’ve traded your robes for prettier attire. You have a pet.”

“You don’t understand,” said Neve.

“No, you don’t,” the man agreed, and he straightened, and began walking toward Megaera, not looking at Stefan. “However, I think I understand you two fairly well. Neve, how did they enter?”

“A portal opened in a column of the main hall. I had not known it existed.”

Sethis turned to Stefan at last. “Has the dragon launched an assault, then? How did he track me?” He spoke calmly, seeming more curious than alarmed. Pinching his forehead, he seemed to concentrate for a moment, and then looked up with a smile. “No, I sense that night talon you’re holding brought you here alone.”

He had a high forehead, broad sharp cheekbones, a strong nose, and a wide mouth. As Stefan watched, his scarred eye moistened and then leaked. He dabbed the tear away, and now Stefan could see that the handkerchief was blotched with yellow. A knot of foreboding hardened at the center of his chest. The scar and the lines of the man’s face recalled Zadrian. Suddenly, he understood.

The man nodded and lazily blinked. He turned to Megaera. “And you I recognize too. You and your friends caused me great inconvenience, especially that one with the dagger. What kind of magic was on it, anyway?” Again, he wiped at the corner of his eye.

Megaera glanced from Sethis to Neve. Abruptly Megaera struck out with Bugclaw and encircled the priestess’s neck. Color drained from Neve’s face; blood wept down beside her taut windpipe where the talons pricked her skin.

Indecisive, Stefan brandished the Dragonclaw, but Sethis raised a palm and Stefan’s body went rigid. Desperately straining, he fought to break the spell, to no avail. Sethis advanced and plucked the Dragonclaw from his hand.

“Enough,” said Sethis.

In one fluid move, Megaera released Neve, swung the flail at him, and then back-kicked Neve in the stomach. She was too late. Sethis got his hand up, and Megaera was arrested in mid-lunge. She hung over the floor with panic fixed in her eyes. The flail’s claws raked the air inches from Sethis’s face. He did not flinch.

He dropped the Dragonclaw and wrenched the flail from Megaera’s grip. “This must be from that incompetent moron Vidal. I told Mother not to trust him.”

Neve had been doubled over by the kick; she straightened, her face red, neck swollen and mouth tight. At last she managed to gasp in air. “You fool, Megaera. Cax and the Lady are now aligned.”

“You’ve told them enough, Neve,” he said. “Call in your women. We need to secure the grounds. And you,” he walked up and studied Stefan, “I’m going to take my time with you. An orc survived your slaughter at Davron’s inn. I know who you are. And I know you killed my mother.”

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