Cell phone connections are haphazard, at best, in the wild hills of Appalachia. More than a few times, she has had to rescue tourists who mistook one of the state forests for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and got themselves halfway to nowhere and confused as a drunken black bear. Her neighbors, friends and clients, few of whom use cell phones, too, know that the best way to get a hold of Melantha in the mountains to find her in the flesh and talk to her.
And, apparently, strangers as well.
In a grocery store in Waynesville, a tall, thin African-American gentleman in denim jeans and a denim shirt comes up to Melantha in the frozen food aisle.
“Miss Harmon?” he says, with an accent that places him firmly from western North Carolina. "I wonder if I might have a moment of your time. I want to talk to you about the Ghost Town in the Sky, the amusement park that closed down last summer. I represent its owners and a mutual acquaintance suggested you might be the kind of person that could help us.”
Melantha's face screws up into a wry expression. If these owners had talked to her a long time ago -- not that they would've -- she could have told them that those hills were no place for an amusement park. She wasn't surprised when the place finally closed down. Can't they just let the fool thing molder away in peace? Appears not. Still, it probably isn't this man's fault, so there's no reason to take it out on him.
"What is it y'all want help with?"
"Well, it's kind of hard to explain. My wife's sister's family knows more about all this than I do, and at first I refused to believe such things, but I've seen it with my own eyes. And I believe m' own eyes. My sister-in-law told me to come find you."
"Might could be I know your sister-in-law," says Melantha, leaving an obvious opening for the man to provide a name.
"My sister-in-law is Maomi. Maomi Richardson," the gentleman explains.
Yes, the name is familiar to Melantha, especially given its unusual 19th century flavor. There were complaints of vandalism at a small school a couple of years back, vandalism that no one could explain. Maomi, through word of mouth, called Melantha in. Melantha discovered that there was a spirit, of a student who had suicided a year ago, coming back, causing trouble. Melantha convinced him to move on, and the vandalism ceased.
She nods and says, "I remember."
"They say you can see things, talk to things that most people say aren't there. People who haven't, ah, moved on to the embrace of the Lord, yet. Is this true, Miss Harmon?"
"It's been known to happen," Melantha allows. "You tryin' to tell me your 'Ghost Town' has turned up an honest-to-God ghost?"
"Yes, Miss Harmon," the man says. "I am saying that. The workers are getting spooked. Things moved, lost, disappeared. Sounds in the night."
He pauses a moment. "There is one other thing that happened, and the reason why Maomi especially thought of you."
He produces a Polaroid picture. It shows a wooden wall, perhaps of one of the amusement rides or one of the buildings for those who ran the park. There are words on the wall, painted in red, perhaps painted in blood.
"Find the Midwife."
Melantha takes the photo and looks at it. She asks straight out. "Is that red stuff paint or blood?"
Then she notes, "Funny thing for a haunt to be askin' for. Usually it's the other end they're havin' trouble with."
"It's blood as far as we can tell, Miss Harmon," the man replies, nodding his head. "It has that coppery smell of blood, anyway."
Melantha nods in reply. She's plenty familiar with the smell of blood. It's not always something to be alarmed at, but in a haunting it's usually bad news.
"And yes, all who have seen the message have been ..." he bites his lip, "confused as to the meaning of the message. It was just luck, perhaps, that it was brought to the attention of someone who knew who you were and what it might mean."
"Luck. Hmf. Guess we'll find out later what kind of luck we're talkin' about," Melantha observes. "All right, mister, s'pose I come up there and check it out. I got my rounds to do ... Tomorrow night be soon enough?"
"Tomorrow night." The man nods, his eyes blinking rapidly for a few moments. "Come on up, and ask for Tyler Jenkins at the gate, Miss Harmon. That's me. I'll tell the boys to touch nothing. Is there anything you need?" He pauses a beat. "Not sure how to go about paying you, either. Word is you don't exactly take American Express."
"We'll see what needs doing first," Melantha decides, "'fore I reckon up what I'll want in trade. And anything I think I need, I'll bring."
Tyler gives a nod.
"See you tomorrow night, Mr. Jenkins."
"Indeedy do, Miss Harmon." Tyler walks away, down the aisle in the supermarket, and is gone. As Melantha might expect, most of the patrons of the supermarket gave the aisle a very wide berth throughout the conversation. With Tyler gone, a portly woman edges into the aisle and past Melantha, opening the door to retrieve a bag of frozen blueberries.
Melantha grabs her pint of strawberry ice cream -- one of her few indulgences -- pays for it and the rest of her groceries, and goes to eat her ice cream in the cab of her beat-up Chevy truck. She goes on to Sharleen Daniels' house to see how she's doing, the other reason she was in Waynesville today: Sharleen is almost to term and Melantha's been keeping a close eye on her. Sharleen is doing fine and doesn't look like she's going to pop quite yet, so Melantha heads back up the mountain toward home.
Lady, Beau and Whiskers come running to meet her as she climbs out of the truck. She gives the bigger dogs affectionate thumps and scoops Whiskers into her arms to carry him into the house. "Sounds like we got spooks up at that fool amusement park, folks," she tells the dogs. "Whiskers, Lady, you want to come with?" Whiskers cocks an intelligent eye at her and wags his tail. Lady barks and cocks her ears. One reason Melantha adopted Lady out of the animal shelter in the first place is that she could tell the dog was sensitive. Whiskers, too, is a clever little mutt and can often pick up on things even Melantha misses, but he's getting on in years. Beau just hangs his tongue out and pants amiably. The golden retriever is a pretty boy, but dumb as a sack of hammers. He can guard the house tomorrow night while they're gone.
After supper Melantha takes a book out on the porch and studies it in the long light of evening, but it doesn't tell her anything she didn't already know. She sighs and turns in early, seeing as tomorrow promises to be a long night.
In the morning, after breakfast and a good long run with the dogs, Melantha has three patients to visit before it's time to load up the truck for her appointment at the Ghost Town in the Sky. She tosses her first aid kit into the truck, along with an old-fashioned doctor's bag that contains something other than traditional medical supplies. She checks over her rifle and puts it in the gun rack, then gets out her shotgun and loads it up with rock salt. A stinging facefull of salt can drive off most critters -- including humans -- without damaging them too much. It's also one of the best weapons Melantha knows for spooks. Silver works better for some things, but salt purifies -- and is a lot cheaper to boot.
With the shotgun loaded up and racked along with the rifle, Melantha whistles for the dogs. She lowers the tailgate for Lady to jump in the back, and takes Whiskers in the cab with her. Then she guns the engine and heads up the mountain to the old amusement park.
Any time Melantha has been up this way in the past couple of years, the gate in the chain-link fence has been padlocked shut. She pulls up to the gate in the last red light of sunset and sticks her head out. "Anybody home?" she calls.
The chain link fence's gate is closed, but Melantha notices, as she calls out in the dying light, that it is not padlocked. In point of fact, the gravel is recently disturbed, suggesting that someone opened the gate recently, probably in preparation for driving a car through.
A light approaches, and the silhouette of a man, a familiar silhouette at that, comes into view.
Carrying a flashlight dangling from his right hand, its beam casting light on the rock, is Tyler Jenkins. He gives a smile, and a look of relief.
"Evenin', Mr. Jenkins," Melantha greets him.
"I am extremely happy to see you, Miss Harmon," Tyler says, opening and tugging at the gate to open it. "Everyone else has decided to split for the evening. Just you and me, seems like."
"And your dogs, I would guess," Tyler adds. "Didn't hear tell that you worked with your dogs on things like this."
"Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't," Melantha tells him. "Sometimes they're better at pickin' up things than I am, 'specially outdoors. The school, they didn't want pets inside. Rules." She shrugs.
"Couldn't you say they were dem, what do they call them, service dogs?" Tyler says, easily shrugging. "There's probably a law from Washington about that."
Melantha's audible snort expresses her opinion of laws from Washington.
"You can bring your car on in. It's a bit of a piece from the gate to where we've been having the, ah, doings," he says. "Leastways save us both of a walk."
Melantha leans over Whiskers to open the passenger-side door of the truck cab for Mr. Jenkins. "Hop in," she tells him. "You can tell me which way to go."
"Most kindly, Miss Harmon," Tyler says. Whiskers shifts so that Tyler can fit in the front of the truck.
The gravel road beyond the gate goes uphill for a mile or so before leveling out where the attractions are located. There is a service parking lot here, and Melantha can see the funicular railway stop that is the usual way for visitors to come up to the park.
Tyler has Melantha use the service entrance to drive into the park itself. In a couple of minutes more, he tells her to stop front of, perhaps fittingly enough, "The House of Terror."
"This is the place," he says. "Leastways, this is where we've seen the ghost the most, and where the, ah, message was. Figure you'd want to come here, even if the hauntings have been in other places, too."
"Makes sense to me," Melantha allows. She pulls the truck over to the side of the road, not bothering to look for a regular parking space.
Tyler just looks forward at the attraction, clearly nervous.
She opens the door and jumps down, leaving the door open for Whiskers; she figures Tyler can take care of himself. She reaches down the salt-loaded shotgun from the gun rack, then, cradling it in one elbow, lifts the medicine bag out of the back of the truck and lowers the tailgate for Lady.
Thus equipped, she walks cautiously toward the "House of Terror," all her senses on the alert.
Lady and Whiskers trot behind Melantha loyally and protecticely.
Nothing untoward happens to Melantha until she actually reaches the door. She gets a tingling sensation as she reaches the door, which stands unlocked and ajar. A cold breeze, unnatural for spring even in the mountains, comes out of the attraction.
And there is that coppery smell of blood that, even without setting foot inside, she can smell, as if it was freshly spilled.
Not good, she thinks. Not good at all.
Nevertheless she grabs the door handle and swings the door wide. She glances around for a rock to kick in front of it so it won't slam shut unexpectedly.
Then she takes a couple steps inside.
"Somebody here asked for the midwife," she calls. "Well, I'm here."
The cold breeze blows across Melantha. The rock that she left propping the door open keeps it from being slammed shut from the force of the breeze.
This first room, done up as a 19th-century parlor, does have fresh blood spattering the walls, furniture and floor. A mannequin done up as a hanged young woman turns towards Melantha, wiggling on the noose as its mouth moves.
"Melantha Harmon," the voice says, a raspy, hoarse voice. "I am glad that you have come. Your true mother has bidden me speak with you."
A cold chill fingers its way up Melantha's spine. One of the few things she knows about her biological mother is that the woman died in childbirth--at least, so Melantha was told. It was one of the things that made her choose midwifery as a profession, to help prevent such deaths. Nevertheless she knows perfectly well that dead folks can have their own skewed ideas of justice, and if her dead mother blames Melantha for her own death, it wouldn't be the first time.
Her chin tilts up as she regards the talking mannequin. "Fine," she says. "What have you got to say?"
The mannequin's arm raises from its limp position until her pinky points at Melantha.
The two dogs growl protectively but obediently do nothing more as yet.
"Your mother is pleased that you have learned the arts of midwifery and of speaking with the dead, Melantha.
"Even as you are hidden from your true nature and your true heritage, you have followed her example. You have done well, and not rejected your talents.
"Now, as the Midwife of Zeus, the Lady of Fertility and Magic, is also the Lady of Travel, it is incumbent upon you to journey to a place where she will meet you at last. And from there, journey further."
Melantha stares at the mannequin skeptically. "What 'true nature' are you talking about? And I like the land of the living just fine, thanks."
"I am not speaking of Hades' Realm," the mannequin says in a slightly patronizing tone. "Only he and his Queen have true power, there, and that is a journey you are not ready to take, and I am not equipped to lead you on."
"You're tellin' me *you're* supposed to lead me someplace?" Melantha demands, with heavy skepticism.
"I think the Lady of Magic wished the full revelation to be hers," the mannequin continues. "But ask yourself this: Have you never wondered why you can speak to the likes of me? Feel the presence of the dead, when most would consider such arts fakery or worse? You can do what the likes of Sylvia Browne only pretend to. And your arts of midwifery are as much your will and strength as any herb you find in these hills.
"You are descended from more than Man and Woman, Melantha Harmon. Far more."
Melantha's brows draw together. "What's that supposed to mean? I've got elves hidin' up the family tree, or what? Cherokee I can believe ..."
The mannequin laughs harshly. "No, Melantha Harmon, you are not descended of the Daoine Sidhe or their kin." The finger that had been pointing at Melantha drops and starts sketching an invisible shape in the air.
Melantha tenses, not trusting this action at all.
"No, Melantha Harmon, you must trace your descent from the Sorceress of the Dodekatheon ... the Lady of Travelers and Magic, Hecate."
Melantha recalls the name "Hecate" from a production of Macbeth she saw in college. "You're sayin' I'm a witch," she says flatly.
The mannequin laughs again, with the same harsh tones. She continues to draw the invisible shape. Its vaguely circular, but far less smooth than a simple curve.
"Only in the most basic of ways, Melantha Harmon. Your mother would be disappointed in your ignorance. You are far more than a witch. You have the blood of a goddess in your veins, Melantha. You are what those in the Overworlds call a Scion.
"You yourself might ascend to godhood, one day, if you live," she adds, matter-of-factly.
"Fine talkin'," Melantha says sarcastically. At the same time she is puzzled. The mannequin, or rather the spirit presently animating it, is not behaving like the spirits of the dead she has tangled with before. Melantha long ago decided that ghosts aren't whole people, only pieces of them. They tend to be obsessive and very limited in their responses. This spirit is different ... which doesn't mean Melantha trusts it an inch.
She levels the shotgun at the mannequin. "Forget what you're sayin' I am. I want to know what you're doin' right now, if you don't want a face full of rock salt."
The Mannequin/ghost stops moving her arm and finger abruptly, as if struck, at the mention of rock salt. The lifeless eyes of the mannequin look at Melantha piteously.
"What I was doing, before you rudely threatened me, daughter of Hecate, was to show you some proof of what I have been saying, and open a way to the Overworld that you and I might travel together, to a realm there to meet your Mother.
"Once that is done, my service to her is complete and I can return to the court of Hades' Queen," the mannequin adds. "Now, may I continue, or are you going to shoot me?"
"I'm fine with it," Melantha says cautiously, lowering the gun barrel a trifle, "'long as I get to kick a rock against the door." She gestures toward the propped-open door of the room that is currently providing her with an escape route.
After all, she reflects, releasing the spirit to go to its own place so it won't haunt the amusement park any more is sort of the purpose of the exercise.
"It would be useless to not provide you a route back to Earth," the mannequin replies. "And even if I did, the Lady your Mother would see to your return, to begin the path you will be set upon."
Her finger and arm continue to move again, sketching the invisible design. After a minute of this, Melantha's two dogs growl. In this 19th century parlor, there is now a doorway, glowing with a dark purple light, where there was no doorway before.
"If you will take me down, Hecate's Daughter," the mannequin says, "I can escort you through the gate. I think you will prefer a guide through the Mittelmarch. If you would rather take your chances and have me remain here, I will understand, even if it is foolishness."
"I don't have any problem with your goin' first," drawls Melantha. She moves to unhook the mannequin from where it is suspended, keeping the shotgun in the crook of her arm.
The mannequin moves slowly and carefully once it is able to stand again. The fact that Melantha's dogs stare at the living doll seems to unnerve the spirit-rode object. With herky-jerky steps, the mannequin moves toward the doorway.
"You may wish to have your dogs remain here," the mannequin adds at the threshold. "Or else they might join the Night Wolves and never be seen again."
And then she steps through, disappearing as she does so. A ripple of coldness, like a cold winter wind, sweeps across Melantha at the same time.
"Whiskers, Lady, stay!" Melantha commands. Wolves of any sort are not something she wants the dogs tangling with.
Then she steps through the purple-glowing doorway.
The other side of the doorway is cold. Not March in the Appalachians cold, but a little colder than that. As cold as the time Melantha made her way all the way to Scranton, Pennsylvania in the middle of winter. That was cold, but the need had been great, and the owner of the coal mine had come all the way to North Carolina to seek Melantha out.
Melantha had obliged him by laying the angry spirits of a number of dead miners, but took the opportunity to give him a piece of her mind about his mine's safety record and how if he cleaned up his act, maybe he wouldn't have this problem and a lot of miners' families would be better off.
This forest clearing, with bare ground untouched by any blade of grass, is as cold as that visit north. There isn't any snow on the trees, but the sky seems strange. There is no moon, and the stars are all wrong. The constellations simply aren't there.
Fortunately, in addition to the glow from the portal, there are a few burning torches along the path that the mannequin has already started down. She gives a satisfied grunt as Melantha comes through.
"Thought you might've changed your mind," she says, as, awkwardly, she heads down the beaten dirt path through the trees.
A distant howl is of, as promised, a wolf.
"Once I'm in, I don't give up easy," Melantha informs the mannequin grimly, and heads after her down the path. As she does so she buttons up her denim jacket, one-handed, while juggling the shotgun in the crook of her arm.
"Clearly not, Hecate's Daughter. You will need that, in the days ahead," the mannequin says.
The trip through the forest is relatively slow. The mannequin's pace is slower than a normal person, for one thing. For another thing, she stops at irregular intervals, and makes more gestures with her hand and finger similar to the ones she performed to create the gate.
There are no forks or sudden changes in the torch-lit path, however, none that Melantha can see.
And, every so often, unseen, there come the howls and cries of wolves, from directions ahead, behind, and to either side. To Melantha, it sounds like a slow, long-distance conversation of some sort.
Which, from everything she knows about wolves, it is.
After what feels like a mile and a half, the path finally opens up out of the forest and onto the bare rock of a bluff. Melantha and the mannequin stand overlooking a wide valley, its size difficult to make out thanks to the gloom and dark. The torches, fortunately, line a path that switchbacks down the cliffside. This is the route that the mannequin takes, but it is a short trip before the path widens around a cave entrance. The path continues, without torches, down the mountain, but it is the cave that her guide is interested in.
"I have brought your daughter, Highness," the mannequin calls into the cave.
There is a pause. and a voice responds, cold and hard.
"She may enter. Alone. Your business is done. Return to Queen Persephone's domain."
If a mannequin can be said to give a look of pity. It is a look of pity that the mannequin gives to Melantha. Melantha returns her a raised eyebrow, wondering if the dismissal of the spirit will make the mannequin disappear, walk off, or collapse like a puppet with its strings cut.
The mannequin slowly and carefully continues on the switchback path, walking with its slow gait, never looking back, although when it rounds the switchback, and is facing Melantha and the cave once again, it does give a glance upward. Even this glance is brief, and the mannequin continues on its way toward some unimaginable end.
Then Melantha turns and walks into the cave--slowly, staying alert, but without hesitation.
The passage in the cave is torchlit, the flames crackling with audible pops, as if burning something other than oil. Pitch, maybe, judging from the smell.
The passage is short, leading into a small, irregular circle of a chamber. Sitting in a rock-hewn chair is a woman who looks like an older version of Melantha. The face is hers, with a couple of decades of lines and age. The hair is white. She's dressed well enough, in robes of black. She looks up as Melantha reaches the entrance.
"You will forgive the theatrics," the woman-with-Melantha's face says. "However, meeting you in a downtown office in Charlotte would not have quite the same resonance."
"Shorter drive up the mountain to the ghost park, too," Melantha responds, deadpan. She still cradles the shotgun in one arm, but at a relaxed, downward-pointing angle that signals no intention of using it anytime soon.
"I suspect the dead one disobeyed instructions and told you all about who and what I am?" she says. "Daughter," she adds for emphasis.
"She would've had to told me something, to get me to follow her," Melantha points out. "I didn't get a chance to talk to nobody else, if that's what you're worried about." She frankly studies the woman -- or goddess -- before her as she adds, without particular heat, "I guess goddesses are allowed to act like cowbirds more'n regular folks. Or might have to.
"I'd be interested to know why, though."
"There are good reasons for me, or any of the other Goddesses, to treat their children in the manner of cowbirds. Cuckoos is what the English call them," Hecate says. Her eyes study Melantha even as Melantha studies Hecate.
"'Cept a cuckoo chick kills all the others," Melantha says. "Cowbirds just crowd 'em." Not that she'd had any siblings to crowd ... not that she recalled, anyway.
"'Course, the men of the Gods might not even know they've sired a child amongst mortals, and the child's mother might have little clue either just who they took a tumble with."
Melantha smiles a little, humorlessly. She's known plenty of women in that position, and sometimes delivered their babies.
"Women are a little bit of a different story, it's true. Why didn't I raise you in this realm? Or one of the other ones? Or raise you as a mother and child in what the Norse call Midgard? Those are fine questions you've packed into your single question and comment, Melantha." For all of her apparent age, her voice is rich and strong.
"First, it is unwise for we Gods and Goddesses to stay long in the mortal world. We can visit it, dally in it, see how things change. But to stand within it long causes ... trouble."
Melantha raises an eyebrow. "But the half-breeds don't?" she queries.
Hecate regards Melantha for a few moments.
"The more essence of the mythic one possesses, the greater the tendency. A scion, like yourself, causes much less trouble than I or my kin would. But you probably have noticed that odd things happen around you, Melantha. Odder than they should be."
Melantha's mouth quirks slightly at this. Her college roommate called it "being an Incident Magnet."
"There are a few deities who raise their children apart from Earth, in realms where they can keep them close. I do not favor this method of rearing. The ultimate war is for Earth, since it is the center of the universe. For any child of mine to be asked to fight in that war, they must have a stake in the world. And so, I saw to it you had a life in the mortal realm, free of my touch. Oh, I watched you now, and again, and have been pleased that your powers have manifested. That's another reason to do it this way -- not all children of the Gods show any of the divine spark. They are born, live and die as mortals. It would be an unkindness to give them false hope."
Melantha nods. Then she asks, "So why now? Something to do with that war you're talkin' about?"
"The War has taken a darker course," Hecate says. "The Titans are freeing themselves, their spawn and agents becoming more and more active on Earth. What was never a truly cold war is heating up. And so a group of deities, across Pantheons, have decided to gather our scions, reveal ourselves to them, and have them aid us in this conflict.
"You had a brother, oh, six centuries ago by Earth time, but he has since ascended to demigodhood."
"A brother, huh? Anybody I'd know about?" Melantha asks. Six centuries back would place the brother's birth sometime in the 15th Century.
"Likely not," Hecate replies. "Zeki was once a soldier in the armies of the Sultan. He left that life, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and then I contacted him. I truly did not think he would be suitable in the role of a Scion, but he prospered beyond my expectations. More than a few of the Jinn plaguing the Arabian desert regret the day I introduced him to his heritage and responsibility."
"Nope, nobody I've heard of. So genies are real, just like ghosts," Melantha ponders.
"Thus, the only child I have that I might lend directly to this cause, Melantha, is you."
Melantha frowns thoughtfully. "I'm not sayin' I don't know how to use this," she says, hitching the shotgun slightly in the crook of her elbow, "but I wouldn't call myself a soldier."
"And I would not expect you to be your brother," Hecate responds. "You are a healer, and have some skill in dealing with the dead. In war, it is knowledge, healing, and diplomacy that are as important as those who can wield a sword or a fist, or a gun. Others who will be joining you have those skills in full measure."
"Others?" Melantha scans their surroundings. "Are you expecting them any time soon?"
"Here?" Hecate replies. She shakes her head. "No. I have not arranged for them to come here. You, Melantha, will go to meet them.
"Even as we speak, my allies are revealing themselves to their own Scions. They are all as ignorant of their heritage as you are, of course." Hecate says. She drums some fingers on the side of her chair. "It is Epona's chancel where most of the scions will eventually all meet. It has rather more comforts of home than my cave."
Melantha scans their surroundings briefly and while she makes no verbal comment, she does reflect that the cave doesn't look as if it's set up for anyone to actually live here.
"The nearest of the other Scions to you, daughter, is another child of the Dodekatheon. Athena's daughter, Ismene. She lives in the city of Nashville."
"I been there once or twice," Melantha allows. "Am I gonna get an address? Maybe a phone number? I s'pose I should ask if she'll be expecting me, too."
"I trust in my abilities more than modern technology," Hecate says. "So you will get neither. Instead, you will receive an enchantment, which will flawlessly allow you to navigate to where she is, wherever she is. Ismene has always believed in who and what she was, even if my divine cousin has rarely spoken to her. She may not expect you, but she will not be surprised by you."
"I thought you just said none of us knew what we were," Melantha objects.
"I did, girl child," Hecate replies patiently, sounding pleased.
"She did not know what she was, but she always believed that she was the daughter of Pallas, without true evidence. As a poor child might believe with all of her heart that she truly belongs to a rich family that will one day find her and take her away from a hardscrabble existence."
Melantha is silent. Somehow, even the series of foster homes that made up most of her childhood never induced in her any such fantasies.
The white-haired woman rises and walks with a slow pace toward Melantha. She extends a hand. "Now, bend your forehead, girl child," she commands. There is the scent of flowering lilacs in the air.
Melantha accordingly bends her head, though she keeps her eyes raised and fixed on Hecate's face.
The old woman's eyes turn to a sharp red color, as she looks at Melantha. The smell of lilacs rises further as Hecate, expressionless, puts a hand on Melantha's forehead. Ten seconds of staring, and she pulls away, abruptly.
It's so subtle that it takes a moment for Melantha to see it. In the corner of her perception, although it is clear when she concentrates on it, is a bird's-eye view of the landscape around her. A red dot sits at the center of this odd perception, and off to the left is a yellow dot.
"There. You can now find her," Hecate says with a smile. "It was an easy enough spell. Humans have the capacity to orient themselves, although few remember how to do it. This just extends that ability."
And indeed, the sense of orientation is, somehow, familiar to Melantha ... as if it were a room in the house of her mind that has always been there, though she hasn't been down that particular hallway or through that door in a long, long time. She does not even have to ask if she'll still have this ability when she returns to the space she knows. She merely nods at Hecate and steps back a pace.
"Good," the goddess says. "When you meet the daughter of Athena, your next steps will likely be clear or made clear. I myself can only see so far, with the threads of fate and the future running into darkness and entanglement.
"Do you have any further questions?" she asks.
"How about if I ask how much of a hurry you all are in?" responds Melantha. "If I got to pick up and drive to Memphis tomorrow, then I do, but I'd rather have some time to make arrangements for my patients. There's one or two who aren't far off birthin'."
"Life is not fair," Hecate says, in a spare tone. She pauses a moment and then continues, in a more mild manner.
"However, I am not such a cruel and unreasonable taskmaster as to expect you to leave as soon as you return to the amusement park. The daughter of Athena will expect you, but will as likely need to bow to the necessities of mortal life as you do. But you should not wait, like Frodo Baggins, for months or years before acting."
Melantha shakes her head. "Shouldn't take more'n a few days. I got people who can cover for me." She is already running over in her mind the list of fellow midwives with whom she customarily trades off these kinds of favors. She's covered for each of them more than once. She'll also need to make arrangements for the care of her livestock, since she has a hunch that there'll be no telling how long this all will take. She figures she'll just say "family emergency" and no one will ask too many questions.
The dogs, she decides, will be going along.
"Very well." Hecate regards Melantha for a long moment. "One more thing. It would behoove me not to send you to Memphis, and stranger realms, unequipped for what lies ahead. No, that would not do at all."
She produces and extends an object, about the size of a hand mirror, but it is entirely made out of some metal, bronze or brass, maybe. It is rimmed with some sort of luminous black stone.
Melantha reaches out and takes it carefully.
"This is now in your keeping, Melantha. She did not reveal her name to me, nor to Hephaestus when he forged it for me. Perhaps you will name her. The mirror will show you if something, or someone, is ensorcelled, enchanted, or affected by magic.
"In addition, if you are unfortunate enough that your paths cross a Gorgon or one of their brood, I am certain you are familiar with Perseus' story, even if education in America is not what it once was."
Melantha nods. "We did Greek mythology in English class," she allows, while recalling how, even then, the stories had attracted her. She grins slightly. "I read Harry Potter too."
She looks at her own reflection in the mirror first, then angles it so that she can see Hecate's image.
Melantha has the slightest blur of shape and form around her head.
A look at Hecate, as she speaks, reveals a stronger version of that soft blur all around her. It's impossible to see real colors in the bronze mirror, but the blurring seems to suggest that the Goddess of magic has magic all about her.
That doesn't surprise Melantha too much. She mainly wanted to see what it looked like. She wonders, though, if a person or object that has had magic done to it shows differently from someone who has magic in them, like Hecate or, presumably, herself.
"Yes, Harry Potter," Hecate says. "I understand Queen Hera spent some time as an angel investor in the film version of the novels. Having the populace forget all about their roots, daughter, will not do. If, for instance, the titan Jörmungandr were to be freed from his prison and erupt out of the ocean near Charleston, it would be useful if the populace had some idea of what they were facing, even if it was from a mythological story, don't you agree?"
Melantha twitches a humorless smile. "I'd expect the U.S. Navy to get there quickest. How do you think your Jörmungandr would react to a full-on air strike?"
"Not my Jörmungandr," Hecate responds, amused. "Perhaps the weapons of Man will stand well when the war comes, and perhaps they will not. When last the Titans walked the Earth, humankind had not yet convinced themselves that bronze was a useful material for weapons. And yet, when dealing with the things of myth, often only the things of myth can successfully combat the greatest of them. Although I have heard that Ares once gifted a son of his with a enchanted musket upon anointing him as a Scion."
"What, you mean the thing'd actually hit what you aimed it at?" Melantha says dryly.
Hecate smiles, amused.
Melantha goes on to say, "Sometimes you got to use what's to hand ... but you're right, you do have to know what works." The shotgun in the crook of her elbow, she thinks, is an example: loaded with regular shot, it would be useless against a spirit.
"Wait, are you sayin' this Jörmungandr is trapped under the ocean near Charleston?" she asks Hecate.
"It may be Savannah or Wilmington," Hecate says after a moment's thought.
"The pocket of ocean where Jörmungandr is trapped both is and is not of this Earth, just as the Goddess Epona's personal holding of New Deptford is and isn't a small town in Connecticut," she continues. "We call such places, Melantha, Chancels. The best information I have from my counterparts amongst the Aesir is that is where Jörmungandr currently sleeps, his spawn trying to free him."
"Off the East Coast, anyhow. How long's he been there, that he had a chance to spawn?" Melantha asks.
"As humans reckon time, he has been there since the death of Ymir," Hecate says. "Ymir was one of the Titans we managed to kill rather than imprison. That ended the ice age that he had created ... but resulted in a deluge. Civilizations you have heard of in myth and more you have never heard of were lost when the waters rose."
"Instant global warming," Melantha remarks dryly.
"Yes," Hecate says. "Quite. It was then that Jörmungandr was put in a chancel. It would be nice to think that none of his spawn walk the Earth," Hecate muses. "You should beware, when you visit the shore. As I told you before, the laws of fate and magic would draw them to you, should his spawn exist."
"If they did," Melantha says, thinking aloud, "that'd have to mean either that this Scion business can be passed down in families, or it can make you live a heck of a lot longer than a normal human." She looks at Hecate questioningly.
"Your children themselves would not be Scions, unless you yourself gain more divine power," Hecate says. "You would, like your brother, need to ascend to demigod status before you could birth Scions of your own. But in the meantime, save by calamity or accident, yes, the lifespans of those with a divine spark are longer. But it is often the immortality of Achilles."
"Meaning that you got a choice, glory or length of days?" Melantha asks. Fagles' translation of the The Iliad is among the books on her shelves. "Or just that it always has a weak spot?"
"Both," she replies. "None of us is invulnerable. There are Gods and Goddesses, their names now lost, who died to ensure the victory over the Titans. And to walk this path is to put aside the quiet life that Achilles once sought.
"It is my hope that one day I can welcome you as a full member of the Dodekatheon," Hecate adds. "I have not had a daughter with such promise as you in far too long."
"How many have you had?" Melantha asks her.
"Many, in several thousand years. But I have had four children grow to be Scions besides you, Melantha," Hecate replies. "Your half-brother, grown to demigodhood. Two half-sisters, neither flowering into promise beyond the initial spark you have now. And then there is Lyssa. Lyssa is a lesser goddess, now, her divine estates being those of madness and frenzy."
"She's welcome to that one," Melantha says, not without humor. She's not sure how she feels about the prospect (however uncertain) of godhood, but decides that's not really something she has to worry about at the moment.
Hecate nods. "The choice of estate is by choice and deed."
Melantha holds up the mirror. "I figure this will probably give me a clue about who these spawn of Titans are, same as it'd show me other Scions?" She wonders if there would be a difference in the way the two types of people would manifest in the mirror, or whether it just indicates the amount of magic swirling about somebody.
"Yes," Hecate replies. "Although those children of the Gods who have never met their divine parent and had their potential unlocked, as you have had now, will be more difficult to detect and see. Not impossible, of course." She smiles a wrinkled-mouth smile. "Just more difficult. Practice, my dear daughter, will serve you well. There are few spawn of the Titans who have not had their potential unlocked. I dare say that you will likely know them more easily by their works, rather than needing to see them in the mirror."
"Why, what kind of things are they likely to do that regular old nasty-minded humans wouldn't?" Melantha asks. Living in a part of the world where human beings commonly blow off the tops of mountains for profit, there isn't much she'd put past ordinary humans when it comes to destruction and chaos.
"The banality of evil of ordinary humans is sometimes indistinguishable from that of the Titanspawn," Hecate replies with a resigned tone. "The major distinguishing difference you will find is in the reasons, methods and practices of their works. A human might pollute a river for profit by pouring pollutants from a factory sitting on the riverbank. The Titanspawn might use arcane methods to pollute that same river, in order to midwife the spawning and spread of Kezekli, carnivorous, aggressive eels more like piranha than anything else.
"An ordinary human might be a serial killer or sociopath," Hecate continues. "A Titanspawn might kill the same humans, but do it in a geometric pattern along leylines in order to influence an entire region with negative sympathetic magic.
"Does that make sense, daughter?"
Melantha nods comprehendingly. "Their goals'll be different," she says. "Or at least ... they'll still be looking out for themselves, but they'll figure if they can get the Titans free, any Titanspawn still standing will be on top of the heap."
"Yes," Hecate replies. "You do understand. I suspect that your peers may be more skeptical. You've had an advantage, with the inescapable knowledge that there are more things in the heavens and earth than are dreamt of in the science of modern man. Remember that. Use it.
"And now it is time for you to return to your hounds, and set out upon the road I have laid upon you. My siblings might wish for you to gain Arete, but I merely wish for you to succeed. And to survive. Do both. We shall speak again."
Melantha nods her agreement, thinking to herself that by this time Whiskers is going to be pretty well frantic.
"Is the way out the same as the way in?" she asks Hecate. "Or is there a short cut?"
"It is not a short journey back by the normal road," Hecate says. She pauses a moment and then continues. "If you wish to abandon your ghostly guide and return straightaway ..." She gestures toward a corner of the cave, formerly dark, now illuminated with a orange-yellow light. A pole ladder leans against the wall, rising into darkness. "The pole ladder will return you to Earth, where you entered. She would not use it, even if she could. It is time for her to attend Hades' Queen."
Melantha recalls the mannequin setting off earlier to her appointed place, and nods. After a moment or two of thought she sticks the handle of the bronze mirror through the belt of her jeans, under her jacket, so as to free up one hand for climbing.
"See you, then," she tells Hecate, with a sort of half-salute. Then she crosses over to the ladder and begins to climb, still cradling the shotgun in the crook of her elbow.
Hecate gives a simple nod.
Melantha can feel her gaze as she reaches the ladder and starts to ascend it. It's nowhere as convenient as a real ladder, but the pole ladder gets the job done. Within six or seven rungs, Melantha is enveloped in semidarkness, with a orange-yellow light below her, and above her, a familiar purplish light.
Between the two sources of illumination, there is just enough light to see the ladder and its rungs, but only just.
Five rungs from the top, Melantha can hear barking, of anticipation, from both Lady and Whiskers, and stepping off the top of the ladder puts her back with them, in the room in the Tower of Terror where she met the possessed mannequin. From her point of view, she stepped off of the ladder, and through the purple doorway, back into the room.
The dogs are extremely pleased to see Melantha again, bouncing around her like puppies, continuing their racket.
Melantha hunkers down, letting the shotgun slide to the floor, so she can greet Whiskers and Lady properly. "There now, see, I'm back, I'm okay," she murmurs to the terrier mix frantically licking her face as she cuddles him. She ruffles Lady's ears as she lets the larger, shyer dog take her scent. "The haunt's gone too, right?" she tells them.
A single bark from Lady seems to be in answer to Melantha's question.
The purple doorway, and the ladder, only remain for a minute more, before both fade from sight, like a fog lifting off of the mountains.
Having calmed her companions, Melantha picks up the shotgun, straightens, and walks out the door she propped open with the dogs at her heels.
Outside, the night is quiet. The truck is running, and its headlights illuminate the area in front of the attraction with twin shafts of light, the left shaft somewhat dimmer due to a occluded headlight.
Standing at that side of the truck, giving off a sigh of relief at the sight of Melantha and her dogs, is Tyler Jenkins.
"Miss Harmon?" he asks. "You and your dogs all right? I didn't hear no shotgun blasts or nothin'."
"We're fine, Mr. Jenkins," Melantha tells him. "Didn't need the gun, as it turned out." One corner of her mouth lifts in a half-smile. "Just talkin' did the job ... this time. You shouldn't have any more trouble here, but if you do, you can give me another call." Melantha doesn't actually think that Hecate would use the same methods again if she wanted to contact her daughter, but it's just as well to make sure.
"Just talking, huh?" Tyler Jenkins says.
Melantha nods. "Sometimes that's all it takes."
"Truth be told, I don't feel that creepiness comin' from the haunted house, anymore, leastways the kind of creepiness that's not natural to the place being what it is." He scratches his head. "Almost wish you had fired a round or two, might make it easier to expense this, even if people have trouble believin' it all."
Melantha snorts. Firing off guns without you actually need to is something she doesn't hold with ... even if it's only a charge of rock salt.
"I'll send 'em a bill if you give me the address," she tells Jenkins. "Between you 'n' me, shouldn't be for much more'n a tank of gas. They all can go back to their make-believe spooks 'n' be happy."
"I'd be a sure to give you a call if trouble comes back." Tyler says. "Though if it's all the same to you, I hope not to have to do that." He moves to open doors on the truck.
Melantha puts the shotgun back into the gun rack, lowers the truck's tailgate for Lady to jump in, then climbs into the driver's seat with Whiskers under one arm.
"You want I should drop you at the gate?" she asks Jenkins.
"If you wouldn't mind, Miss Harmon," Jenkins says. "It's a powerfully nasty walk in the dark, otherwise." He scoots around to get in the passenger seat, which Lady was eyeing avariciously, and closes the door shut.
Timing it so that the truck door is still open and therefore the overhead light still on, Melantha takes the bronze mirror from her waistband and angles it so that she can see Jenkins' reflection briefly before laying the mirror on the dashboard. She wants to get a sense of how a normal person registers in the mirror ... and then there's always the off chance that he isn't normal ...
In the mirror, Tyler Jenkins has no aura, no strange colors. He looks perfectly and safely normal with nothing to distinguish him whatsoever.
Melantha mentally files that away as her "control" image.
He drums his hands on his knees nervously for the trip down to the gate but he keeps words to himself until the truck reaches the gate.
"I want to thank you again," he said. "I wasn't sure about all this, even given what Maomi said, but you seem to have been as good as your word, least as far as I couldn't feel any heebee jeebies from that place. That means a lot."
"Glad I could help," Melantha tells him, somewhat perfunctorily, but putting enough warmth in her voice to maybe calm him a little. "You want to give me that address 'fore I head on down the mountain?"
"Yeah, yeah," he says, reaching into his wallet and fishing for a business card. The mundane act of doing this, in addition to Melantha's soothing voice, relaxes him. He finally pulls a card out and offers it to Melantha. It has gold edging and the typography is an elegant serif font:
A Brand New Day, LLC 'A subsidiary of Wolfram and Hart'
Below this, the card has an address in Winston-Salem, and an address in Los Angeles.
"Thanks." Melantha tucks the card into her jacket pocket.
Tyler opens the door and gives Lady and Whiskers a smile before giving Melantha a nod.
"You take care now, Mr. Jenkins," Melantha tells him. She scoots over to close the door (assuming Jenkins doesn't do that first), but waits there with the lights on till she's sure Mr. Jenkins is safely to his car.
Soon enough, Jenkins is in his car, he starts it, and the headlights shine into the gloom. He remains there for a couple of minutes before he puts the car in motion.
Then she puts the truck in gear and heads down the mountain toward home.
While she does so, she concentrates in order to find out if the "inner compass needle" Hecate gave her is still working, now that she's back out in the so-called real world.
It takes a moment to bring it up, but there it is, on the corners of her perception. The needle steadily and unnervingly points west, toward the mountains. A simple concentration on driving dismisses the distraction with ease. But calling it up again will soon, Melantha figures, be a reflex.
Melantha returns home, gives the dogs some treats (including Beau, while telling him what a good watchdog he is), does a quick check of the house and grounds to make sure everything is secure before heading to bed. For the moment she puts the mirror, face down, on top of her dresser as if it were a normal hand mirror. Tomorrow, she figures, will be time enough to start getting ready for her road trip.
After the strangeness of the day's doings, it might be a relief that her home is, after a check of the grounds and the house, safe and secure. Oh, a piece of the wooden fence is loose and Melantha is going to have to get someone to look at that. But that's a mundane problem, not one having to do with Hecate, ghosts, Titans, or anything else.
Melantha's sleep, her dreams, are a raft of images. A pair of individuals driving through the desert southwest in a car. A young man, putting up a dartboard. A young woman, at the edge of a ballroom where figures in 19th century dress twirl around. A Japanese man, drawing his sword, eyes narrowing at something across the room, out of sight. A stone statue, standing in a room lit only by a shaft of moonlight for a window. A man-sized shadow steps in front of the light to seize the statue.
And one of Melantha herself. She is chasing, no, running after someone, in one of those midwestern corn mazes. Running behind her, visible only by the shadow it casts on the ground, pursuing her, is the shadow of a larger man sized figure - with bull's horns and an axe.
And with that, Melantha wakes up.
She thinks about the dream for a few minutes, more or less to fix it in her mind. She thinks she'd know most of those people, if she saw them again ... and she senses they're important. The chase through the maze is both harder and easier to figure out. Easily interpreted as a warning, it's harder to know how much is symbolic and how much might be literal.
In any case, Melantha makes a mental note to take her hunting rifle along, as well as the shotgun. Never hurts to be prepared.
After breakfast and the dogs' morning run, Melantha starts calling around to the other midwives in the area who she knows can cover for her while she's gone, as well as checking on those patients who she's pretty sure are going to give birth within the week. The reason she gives for being away is a vague (but, she figures, more or less accurate) "family emergency." Folks in these parts know how important family can be.
In between calls, Melantha starts getting together the supplies she figures she'll need for the road trip, including food and other equipment for the dogs. There are neighbors she can make arrangements with to look after the goats and chickens in return for the milk and eggs they'll produce while Melantha is away; she also gets Hank Larkin to come by and fix the fence while she's at it.
As she told Hecate, it will probably be about a week before she's ready to set out.
The week of getting things set up is, for the most part, as if the strange encounter with Hecate never happened. Certainly, her contemporaries and neighbors treat her as they always have. Reluctant to see her go, wheeling and dealing of promises and bargains to get her farm animals looked after and her territory covered and looked over by other midwives. The usual chaos and confusion, including an premature birth by Mrs. Huddard, weeks early. Thankfully, with Melantha not yet gone, and on hand, the birth is not the potentially life-threatening situation it might have been.
As the week draws to a close, all of her affairs are as about in order as she can make them. No doubt things will happen while she is gone, but she has prepared as well as she can.
At least there have been no more of those dreams.
Early in the morning, Melantha loads up the truck and prepares to head out. Along with the usual clothes, toiletries, dog food and dishes, etc., she makes sure to have an up-to-date road atlas (since a compass needle doesn't necessarily tell you the best route to the location it's pointing to), her midwife's bag, her ghost-confronting supplies, two shotguns (one with regular shot and one with rock salt) and her hunting rifle, those last three in the gun rack of her truck. When driving, instead of a purse she usually carries a fanny pack, with such small necessities as money, credit cards, keys and cell phone.
She feeds the goats and chickens one last time, takes the dogs for a brief run, then whistles them into the truck. Whiskers (the smallest) gets to ride in the cab with her; Beau and Lady are in the back unless it starts raining, since they like to let their ears flap in the wind.
Melantha climbs into the truck and lays the bronze mirror face down on the dashboard, where she can get at it easily if she needs it.
And she's off.
With three dogs and provisions to spare, the trip west goes about as well as a road-trip can go, all things considered. Oh, the nasty rain storm that hits the I40/I85 split in eastern Tennessee is no picnic. In fact it's bad enough that road closures require in the end an early stop for the night in a rat trap of a motel, but that is more annoyance than anything. And Melantha is well used to dealing with pounds and pounds of wet dog.
It does mean a shorter day's travel across the remainder of the state and into the city of Memphis. As late afternoon starts to edge into night, Melantha is on the outskirts of the city at last.
Her internal compass is leading her not to Graceland, and not even the big pyramidal building that used to be the basketball stadium, but rather, inexorably, toward the river, toward a park on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.
Melantha drives the truck as far into the park as the road will take her in the direction she knows she has to go, then looks for a place to park.
Once she's found that, she whistles the dogs out of the truck, tucks the mirror into her belt under her jacket, and heads off on foot.
Melantha winds up at a place called Mud Island River Park, on an island in the Mississippi. There is plenty of room in this park, enough that the dogs definitely want exercise time.
Melantha signals them that they're free to run around, but she'll keep an eye on them and whistle them back if they seem to be getting too far away from her.
The person that Melantha is drawn to in the park is a man contemplating the Riverwalk, which is a giant scale model of the Mississippi river that people are walking along. At the end of it is a pond, presumably the Gulf of Mexico, that large enough for paddle boats.
The man has short blond hair and is wearing a collared shirt, buttoned to the top, a dark blue set of slacks, and black shoes.
A book, Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts, sits next to him, closed.
He turns his head and regards Melantha and the three dogs. Although clearly unnerved by the latter, he gives Melantha a smile.
"A daughter of Artemis?" he says questioningly. "I was expecting a scion of Athena and a scion of Hecate."
"You got one out of two," Melantha informs him. "Somebody tell you to meet up here?" She scrutinizes the man closely, though as yet she doesn't reveal the mirror.
"Actually, I was told by our handlers to meet the two of you here for our bit of do-gooding." He studies Melantha in turn. Outwardly, the man looks ordinary. A bit of an odd accent (Italian?), but other than that, there is nothing definitive. It must be said, though, that he does have something to him. Even without a look at the mirror, there is something otherworldly about him.
"Hecate, I would be guessing," he says. "Dogs are part of her Estate too, aren't they?" He gives Lady a long look before looking back up at Melantha.
"You'd be right," Melantha tells him. While he's reacting to the dogs, she takes note of how the dogs are reacting to him.
The dogs seem to be regarding him as they would any stranger--caution, but no outright hostility.
He rises and offers a hand toward her. "My name in this era is Richard Florent. My real name is Flavius Galerius Adranus Westphalius. Demigod of Treaties, son of Aphrodite. Or Venus, if you prefer."
Melantha takes the proffered hand in a firm clasp. "Melantha Harmon," she introduces herself, then adds with a slight smile, "No fancy titles otherwise. Yet. I get the feeling you've been around longer than me."
Richard nods. "I have. I was born in Rome in 1163 Ab urbe condita." He pauses a beat. "410 A.D. in the way things are dated now. Didn't get the Demigod title until the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, though. That's where my agnomen, the last part of my name, comes from." Pride shines in his voice.
Melantha didn't pay attention in Geography class for nothing. "Westphalia ... that's in Germany, yes?"
"Yes, in Western Germany," he replies.
"Please, sit down." He returns to the bench and slides down it, picking up the book. "Tell me about yourself while we see if Athena's daughter shows up on time or not."
Melantha shrugs and takes a seat next to Flavius.
"Not that much to tell. I grew up in North Carolina, mostly in foster care 'cause my uncle was a drunk. Never knew my folks, really ... Pa died when I was too little to remember him and they always told me my mother'd died in childbirth." She makes a face. "Gotta tell a kid something, I suppose. But that was one of the reasons I decided to study to be a midwife. Got my license and moved into Grandpa Harmon's cabin about ten years ago."
She pauses to see what effect her narration is having on Flavius.
Flavius has an attentive ear, his eyes, and body language showing that he is paying attention to Melantha and her words.
"It is the way of many of the Children of the Gods I have met, similar to your story, Melantha," he says. "Raised in sometimes difficult circumstances, rarely if ever knowing who their divine parent is until some event or necessity brings it to the fore, living a mortal life and with mortal concerns."
Melantha nods. "My mother told me something about why gods can't stay long in this world 'thout messing things up."
"It's true," Flavius says. "If I accumulate too much more arete, I will be in that same situation.
"Anyway, I was thirty-three when Venus first revealed herself to me as my mother," he says. "I thought that I was the child of one of Alaric's goons and a, ah, prostitute in the city of Rome. Did a bunch of things until then, and after then. Mostly worked in and around noble courts, royal courts as emissary, ambassador, and other things. Even some stints in armies. Tried to avoid that when I could. Didn't always succeed.
"How did you meet your Mother?" he then asks. "Can't imagine she asked for your services in giving birth to a sister." His eyes study Melantha and the hounds. "You've got some other talents, don't you?"
"I see ghosts," Melantha tells him. "Can talk to 'em, too." She smiles slightly. "So what my mother did to get my attention was cause a haunting near where I live. Then the spirit was able to take me to where she was, so she could explain things."
"So you are attuned to some of the darker worlds in the Mittelmarch," Flavius says, nodding. "That's a useful skill, especially for the project that brings you and I ..." he cranes his head in hopes of spotting someone, "... and no one else, it seems, together."
Melantha frowns slightly. "Wonder what's holding her up."
"I dislike repeating myself, but for the sake of time, perhaps I should explain why your mother sent you here to Memphis." He gestures in the direction of the city to the east. "You no doubt noticed the giant glass pyramid, used to be a sports stadium. Basketball. It's no longer in use, and in fact is between tenants.
"Or should I say, it's in between legal, recognizable tenants that the city fathers of Memphis might appreciate," Flavius says.
"You're not gonna tell me it's haunted too," Melantha says, only half joking.
Flavius shakes his head, but only slightly. "Without Athena's daughter here as the obvious person to talk about this ..." He regards Melantha. "How much do you know of Titanspawn?"
"I know they're the offspring of the Titans the way we are of the gods, and have powers too. And that they'll be trying to do stuff that'll help bring the Titans back, 'cause they figure that'll bring them out on top," Melantha replies.
"And they are often more monstrous, or create or import monsters from the Mittelmarch, or Chancels, or other hidden areas on the Earth," Flavius says, his voice sounding a little relieved. "Good, you do know some of the basics.
"I recently discovered that the location and design of the Pyramid make it surprisingly useful to Gate in monsters and Titanspawn. And preparations to Gate in something large are in process. Our orders are clear: Get in, find out who is there, and stop the Gating from happening."
Melantha nods comprehendingly. "Seems simple enough. Which doesn't mean it'll be easy. We should prob'ly take my truck." She grimaces. "You said you didn't like being in armies, but do you know how to use a gun?"
"I do," Flavius says. "One thing you should know about beings like us, Melantha. The quiet and boring life is something that is of the past. I've managed to get into more trouble than anyone has a right to do so. I usually get out of it with my tongue, not a gun, but sometimes unfriendly folk can't or won't talk."
"Ghosts can be the same way," Melantha agrees. "So are people, if it comes to that."
"Your hounds," he adds, looking at Lady, "do not appear to be shy lap dogs, either. Do you intend to ensorcel them?"
Melantha gives him a puzzled look. "Why would I want to? They're already pretty sensitive -- 'cept for Beau." She grins at the golden retriever. "Nice guy, but not much between the ears. I've known people like that, too."
"I thought you might want to augment them in other ways," Flavius says. He peers down at Beau. "But you are new to your role, and I doubt even your mother could have taught you full sorcery in a short period of time."
Melantha shakes her head. "Not hardly. I got a few things I've learned over the years, mostly charms from the grannies in the hollers, but nothin' like I think you're talking about."
"Doubtless, though," he says. "That is a likely spot for you once we are all assembled for the real problem we are to face as Scions.
"The daughter of Athena has not come," Flavius continues, disappointment in his voice. "It is up to you and me then, Melantha."
"We may as well get going, then," Melantha tells him, gesturing toward her truck. "We can make plans on the way. You know the quickest road to get there?"
She whistles for the dogs and urges them toward the truck as well.
The dogs follow Melantha and Flavius back to the truck, the evening starting into full flower and the cloudy sky darkening further.
He stops at one point, and speaks softly to himself, holding his hands up to the sky and then touching the ground. Melantha can't make out most of the words, but she can hear "Athena" and "Pyramid." After this is complete, he starts moving again.
"I took a bus to get here from my hotel," he says, once he starts walking again. "And the car I borrowed isn't quite mine, anyway," he says, getting into the passenger seat. "You probably saw the Pyramid as you approached the park, it's just a bit upriver. We could practically have walked."
Melantha lowers the tailgate of the truck for the larger dogs to jump into the back, then climbs into the driver's seat, followed by Whiskers. As she sits down she takes the mirror out of her belt and lays it on the dashboard of the truck, contriving in the process to let it reflect Flavius for her.
Tilting her head in the direction of the gun rack, she tells Flavius, "Just so's you know -- the shotgun at the top has shot in it, the other one has rock salt. The hunting rifle has normal ammo."
"We may need all three types of ammunition," Flavius says.
"That's what I figured. You want to be able to grab the right one."
Flavius is something more than human (as opposed to less than human). That is absolutely obvious in the mirror. It's clear to Melantha that Flavius has some sort of spell or enchantment to make him appear more human. In the mirror, he has a slightly inhuman beauty to him.
Given who he said his mother was, Melantha figures that's not surprising.
The soft aura around him is a image of an old-time piece of paper with indistinct black words written on it. It reminds Melantha a bit of reproductions of the Declaration of Independence.
And that would have to do with treaties, Melantha guesses. She can see that the mirror provides more information than simply detecting who's human and who's not.
It is still light when, thanks to Flavius' directions, Melantha takes a turn off of Front Street and finds herself facing the large, glass pyramidal structure. He hands Melantha a striped plastic card as they approach a gate. There is a small keypad and card swiper next to the closed gate.
"This should get us through," Flavius explains. "We'll get in, park, find an entrance and go through the entire complex."
He squints past the gate and points toward a couple of cars parked close to the edifice "Human allies. Maybe."
"We'll see," comments Melantha. She takes the card from Flavius and leans out the window to swipe it.
There is a beep, and with a rumble, the gate creakily rolls backward. It is clearly not in the best of shape, not well maintained or often used, by the way it pulls back. But soon enough, the way is clear and Melantha can pull into the parking lot. Now they can see beyond the gate and there are several apparent entrances, including the one with the Toyota Corolla previously spotted in front of it.
"Showtime is nigh," Flavius says. "You, me, the dogs and the Titanspawn."
"You think that's their car?" Melantha asks. She hands the key card back to Flavius, and grabs the mirror before climbing out of the truck. Stuck in her belt, under her jacket, still seems the best way to keep it handy.
"It's either Titanspawn or security, who may or may not be suborned by them. We should be careful with any of those three choices."
"Maybe try one of the other entrances first," Melantha suggests.
She goes to the rear of the truck to let down the tailgate so Beau and Lady can jump down.
The dogs move to flank Melantha. Whoever and whatever the car portends, it's clear the dogs like it not, judging from their body language.
"Right. Weapons," Flavius says. "Here is where we choose guns. Do you have any weapons besides those?" he asks. "I can provide."
"Depends on what you mean by 'weapons'," Melantha replies. "And what you think we'll be using 'em on. That bag there," she tilts her head toward a battered gym bag, "has my ghost-busting supplies in it."
Flavius gives the bag a glance. "What have we got to work with?"
"Mostly herbs," Melantha responds. "Candles, chalk, my birch rod. Bean rattle, consecrated salt, stuff like that."
"All to the good. We'll need 'em to disperse any magic they are doing," he says approvingly.
Melantha accordingly lifts the bag out of the bed of the truck. She then asks Flavius, "How good a shot are you?"
"Decent, but you might be better," Flavius says. "When a diplomat has to resort to a gun, Von Clauswitz notwithstanding, it means that things have gone straight into the cloaca maxima." He clears his throat. "Pardon my language.
"By weapons, I mean hand weapons of war, of course," he adds. "A sword is always useful. And my dear friend the Countess of Forlì always said that a dagger was a lady's best friend."
Melantha looks doubtful. "I do have an athame in the bag," she allows, "but that's a tool, not a weapon."
"Not the same," Flavius agrees. "Sharp, but not the same."
"No telling what the form of the Titanspawn will be," he says. "If we had the daughter of Athena, we might be going in less blind, but there's no help for it. I have my suspicions, given where we are, though."
"Don't tell me ... let me guess. Zombie Elvis?"
Flavius shakes his head. "Although an Elvis eidolon would not be unexpected." He takes the gun loaded with salt, but he has produced a short sword from somewhere, elsewhere. He wasn't carrying it a minute ago, that is absolutely clear. He gestures for Melantha to follow him.
Melantha grabs the other shotgun, figuring that the two of them can trade off ammunition that way, if necessary. She has extra ammunition for both in the bag, in different color boxes so she can tell which is which at a glance. She zips the bag open and fishes out a handful of the rock-salt-filled shells for Flavius. "These are yours," she informs him. "And these are mine ... for now." She pockets a handful of regular shotgun shells.
"Understood," he says, weighing the shells in his hand before pocketing them.
"No, Melantha, I am expecting unliving malevolent beings powered by strong preservation magics bound in spells and the cloth they are swaddled in," Flavius says.
He gestures to the pyramid. "Mummies."
Melantha looks wry. "Now I wish I'd brought my flamethrower," she quips. "Is there a side door?" she goes on to ask, surveying the building.
"There has to be a couple of entrances," Flavius says. "Besides the main one. And I am not sure about the Mummies, but again, I was relying on Athena's daughter to tell us more. Now, we have to, what is that American expression? Wing it."
"Lot of times, you have to do that no matter how much you know beforehand," Melantha opines, thinking about some of the births she's attended, among other things.
With the dogs following along, a cursory inspection, avoiding attention, Melantha and Flavius can go look about for a better way in.
There might be some better entrances than the main ones, but the only thing that comes to view in a search by Flavius and Melantha is a single maintenance door at the bottom of a service ramp on the side opposite the entrance with the parked car.
It is visibly padlocked with an oversized chain and lock keeping the door shut. On the other hand, the other, main entrances looked even more barred and shuttered than this.
"Fire hazard keeping the door chained up," Flavius grins. "The local fire marshal should cite them for it."
"We'll have to tell him all about it when we're through here," Melantha returns dryly. "Don't suppose you're any good at picking locks?"
At the same time she's watching for the dogs' reaction to the door and what might be behind it.
The dogs are definitely wary, bordering on their hackles being raised. There is something not far away from the far side of that door, that much is clear.
"Lockpicking," Flavius chuckles. "My mother the Goddess is going to look down on me for months for this. She's going to think Hermes' daughter Lea has been a bad influence on me." He does pull out a set of picks, locksmith grade. Lowering the shotgun to the ground he approaches the door and the padlock.
"I do understand that one of the people in our Band-to-be is a talented son of Bast," he adds conversationally as he sets to work. "He probably could look at this lock and it would open up for him."
"Fine, but you might want to keep it down," Melantha advises him, with an eye on the dogs. "No knowing what might be on the other side that could hear us."
Flavius gives a frown in Melantha's direction. "Speaking helps me think," he says, but his voice has dropped some decibels.
A couple of minutes more work, and with a click the padlock opens. Flavius starts undoing the chain to the door in short order, obviously pleased with himself.
The dogs suddenly get extremely anxious, barking up a storm.
Melantha steps forward and puts a hand on Flavius's arm to halt him. "You weren't fixin' to waltz in there without checking things out first, were you?"
"If you have some methods to do so, of course,I will defer to the lady," Flavius says.
She signs to the dogs to be quiet, draws Flavius a little way from the door, then steps back herself. The dogs flank Flavius and look warily at the door, silent but watchful. Flavius has ceased his babble as well.
Drawing the mirror out of her waistband, she angles it so it reflects the door, and takes a look at the reflection. At the same time she's keeping all her other senses alert.
Out of the corner of her eye, Melantha can see Flavius studying her, more than the door itself. As for her, she can see the miasma.
Beyond the door, dark entities, evil, ancient, and hungry. Definitely hungry. Right behind the door, lurking and waiting for the door to open. It's hard to see precisely what they are, without the door open. Or perhaps it's the nature of the place to obscure her sight. But it's clear that there are three of them, man-sized.
"Yep, there they are," Melantha murmurs to Flavius. "Three nasties, just waitin' to have our livers for lunch."
She tucks the mirror back in her waistband, positions herself so that she'll have a good firing angle when the door opens, and aims the shotgun. "Now ease that door open from behind it," she advises Flavius. "And be ready to use the salt if shot doesn't work on 'em."
"Good, bad, you are the one with the gun. At least the first shot," Flavius confirms. He keeps the rifle carefully oriented so as not to shoot himself in the foot (or Melantha), as he walks up to the door. He grabs the handle and pulls gently. The door doesn't move at all with the gentle strength, and so the demigod increases the pull, bit by bit. The door starts to open, revealing the dimly lit interior within.
It is when the door is halfway open that the first of the shambling creatures lurches into Melantha's sight. Five and a half feet tall, the woman was short in life. But she lives no longer, not with that dark grey skin, reddish rheumy eyes and yellow teeth. Rags of some sort of janitorial uniform complete the package.
A zombie. A zombie that, instead of going for Melantha, instead pivots toward Flavius, reaching out to lunge at his throat. Flavius lets go of the door and starts to backpedal. The release of the door stops a second zombie, taller and male, from emerging fully.
Melantha fires at the female zombie as soon as it's visible, aiming for the head. Since she's not more than ten or fifteen feet from the door, the range is pretty short.
Whether or not she manages to hit zombie number one, once she chambers the next round she'll fire at zombie number two.
Melantha gets the drop on the zombie menacing Flavius and takes a shot at it. Her shot is true and strikes the zombie in the back of the head, exploding it like an overripe melon. The zombie is immediately disoriented, but does not (yet) fall.
Flavius pulls out his sword and chops at the headless zombie's arm, which is blindly groping for him. He chops it off, and the combination of the lost head and arm is enough for the zombie to slump to the ground, dead.
The second zombie, in the meantime, uses its turn to get free of the door and bull toward Melantha. Melantha can see a third in the doorway moving out as well.
Melantha works the bolt on the shotgun, ejecting the spent shell and chambering the next round, in the meantime giving the whistle that tells the dogs to cut and run. Then she fires at Zombie #2 which is coming for her, again aiming for the head.
The zombie dodges the shot and lurches forward, and reaching to rake Melantha across the shoulder with its claws.
Melantha also sees Flavius and the last zombie in a parody of a duel, Flavius chopping at a zombie that doesn't get through his guard in turn.
Chambering the next round, Melantha shoves the muzzle of the shotgun into the zombie's gut and fires. It flails as it falls backward, distended guts from the wound leaking out of the creature as it tries to get back up.
In the background, Melantha sees Flavius take a leg off the attacking zombie, and it falls down in turn, unable to get itself up.
"Killed and used as un-dead. A fate I'd not wish even on an enemy," Flavius says, looking up at Melantha. "There is nothing to be helped for them save to still these creatures. Their souls and spirits are long since gone."
"Right," Melantha agrees grimly.
He drives his sword into the eye of his zombie, as deep as it will go, dispatching it.
Melantha steps back a couple of feet to where she left her equipment bag and briefly rummages in it for a vial of consecrated salt. A pinch of that placed in the zombie's mouth should neutralize it, if she can get close enough.
And it is enough to get the zombie to froth at the mouth, briefly, convulsing enough that Melantha and Flavius have to stand back to avoid it all. And then, a stillness comes over the creature. The look on the zombie's face is one of peace, of serenity.
"Potent stuff you have there," Flavius says. "Now I see what your mother chose you for this. Shall we get in and find the miscreants responsible for this heinous act? We can contact the authorities anonymously later so that these bodies can be buried or whatever the customs for the dead are here in Memphis."
"I could punch nine-one-one right now, if you wanted," Melantha offers wryly, as she puts the cap back on her vial of salt and tucks it into her fanny pack where she can get at it quicker. "But somehow I don't think we want to haul a bunch of innocent paramedics into this right now."
"Nor do I," Flavius says. "And it will be easier for the mundanes to come up with a story to fit the facts if we and the Titanspawn are not here to shock their sensibilities. Or threaten their lives."
She straightens. "All right, let's do it." She whistles for the dogs, and while waiting for them to respond, she reloads her shotgun.
Flavius checks his gun, sheathing his sword for the moment. The dogs approach reluctantly, sniffing at the bodies of the zombies. Lady gives Melantha a look of confusion and curiosity. Beau just pants and Whiskers watches the door warily.
"Yeah, Whiskers, I agree with you. I don't think we're anywhere near through yet," Melantha says.
Flavius peers inside of the door, gun loaded but pointed down. He motions for Melantha and the dogs to come, and soon everyone can make it inside. In the bowels of the former sports arena, it is almost quiet.
There is the distant sound of prayer, or chanting, echoing down the halls, reverberating and amplified beyond its original volume. The words and meaning are tantalizingly familiar to Melantha, as if she had heard them long ago and far away.
"My guess is we'll find our friends in center court. Biggest space for a ritual, and the acoustics suggest it," Flavius says, looking up and down the maintenance tunnel that seems to make a circuit of the building.
"I think splitting up is a terrible idea, by the way," he adds.
"I agree with you, 'specially since this doesn't seem like a good place for stupid cell phone tricks," Melantha replies sotto voce. "Thing is, I'm not real sure which is the quickest way to the center. I somehow don't think we'd be real happy with lettin' our friends in there make it all the way to 'Amen and Hallelujah brothers!'"
"No, stopping them before they finish is definitely the goal," Flavius says. "Can't make heads or tails of what they're saying. It's not Latin or Greek, I'd recognize either of those for sure. Ancient languages have power, though, so it might be another."
"Don't suppose you'd know Ancient Egyptian if you heard it?" Melantha hazards. "This bein' a pyramid and all."
"I know a little," Flavius says. "Early 7th century I got stationed in the Byzantine garrison in Alexandria just in time to run for my life when the Persians showed up. The locals hated the Persians and Greeks both. Didn't get a chance to go back until I followed Louie's ill fated Crusade six centuries later. By then, Arabic was the language."
She looks down at Whiskers and Lady. "Can you smell 'em, old boy? Where are they, girl?"
Whiskers sniffs around, in vain, giving a plaintive whine. Beau doesn't move, staying close to Melantha. Lady, on the other hand, has a keener nose, or a luckier one. She gives off one relatively muted bark as she turns to the right, straining to let her curiosity lead Melantha and Flavius down the corridor five seconds ago.
"Looks like Lady is onto 'em," Melantha whispers. "Good girl." She ruffles the dog's ears briefly, then gives her a soft pat on the rear to send her off. As Lady starts down the corridor, Melantha follows as fast as she can without clattering too much.
Flavius does clatter more than Melantha manages. Lady manages to avoid outpacing Whiskers, Melantha, Flavius and Beau, skittering around corners and down hallways. The chanting slowly grows louder as Lady navigates the maze. The odds of the group reaching their destination in decent time without her nose, is probably near zero.
Lady finally stops at a door and whines at it, seeking entry. As far as Melantha can figure, they've reached the upper levels of the arena seating. The chanting is definitely distinct and clear, now.
"... be to the, the Pharaoh in, what is that word," Flavius starts translating. "Khenet. Hmm, "Glory be to the Pharaoh in Khenet." Flavius frowns. He looks at his gun. "I suspect I will get a chance to use it this time.
"Whoever they have doing the ritual should be our targets," he adds. "Although they will throw guards in our direction. I'll take one shot and then defend you while you play sniper?" he suggests.
"You've got the salt," Melantha reminds him. "Won't do more than sting a normal person, though that may be good enough to break up the ritual if you can get a good 'Ouch' out of 'em. But if they've drawn a Circle in there ... aim for that. Salt is a purifier."
"See, this is much more your knowledge base than mine," Flavius says. "Break up the ritual. Got it."
In the meantime, she takes the mirror from her belt and holds it ready. When they open the door, she wants to have a quick look at the set-up from the mirror's perspective.
She turns the door handle cautiously at first, and starts opening it slowly to find out if it's noisy. If it's not, she'll go ahead and whip it open.
With the door slightly open, the mirror reveals a few things for Melantha.
Item: There are about a half dozen cultists, for lack of a better word, chanting around an altar down on the old basketball court. The door is not quite courtside, it would be about 10 or 15 rows of steps before getting down to the level of that action. The cultists are hooded and cloaked, and yes, chanting. Drawn around the altar and the cultists in chalk is a circle, a summoning circle.
Item: On the altar is someone, very bound and very gagged, a young man from the looks of it. He is trying to squirm and free himself, and is failing miserably.
Item: The mummies. There are two figures in grey bandages on guard. They look more hale and hearty than the zombies they've already dealt with. They are standing outside of the summoning circle.
And finally, the mirror shows something that can't likely be seen without it, some sort of spirit or ghost, swirling and circling around the arena and the altar area.
Melantha makes a quick decision. "Change guns with me," she whispers to Flavius. She isn't sure if the mirror will work for someone else and now is not the right time to run experiments. From the image in the mirror she has a pretty good idea of where the summoned entity is, and that's what she wants to try to hit with the salt. There's also the factor that the salt shells won't damage the young fellow on the altar too badly, if she misses.
"You go for the mummies," she recommends to Flavius.
Flavius swaps guns without hesitation, hefting the other shotgun and testing its aim.
Flavius nods, and slowly starts creeping into range, picking his way carefully through the seats, keeping low. It's clear to Melantha he doesn't see the spirit around the altar, his eyes are firmly on the mummies and the cultists as he gets closer for a better shot.
The chanting starts rising in volume, as if moving toward a high point, or worse, the finale.
Melantha takes one more quick look in the mirror to determine, if she can, either the thickest spot or (failing that), the center of the cloudy entity hovering in the altar area. Then she aims for that spot and fires the salt. For the moment she's keeping the dogs close to her.
Melantha spends an extra moment to take the shot and make it count, and the salt hits the disembodied entity squarely. The screech of rage from the spirit is audible to all, even if the spirit is still mostly invisible. Its circling ceases and instead it retreats backward. In the mirror it looks like it has a hole in its chest from where Melantha hit it.
Flavius takes the opportunity for the distraction to take a shot at the nearest Mummy. He hits it square in the chest. It does not go down, but the good news for Melantha is that the mummies' primary target is him, and not her. The Mummies lurch in his direction, and not Melantha's.
Melantha's next shot, to disrupt the chant, isn't as spectacularly successful, but combined with it and the screeching of the spirit, the ceremony comes to a halt. Cultists spin around, looking for Melantha, pointing and shouting. One of them produces a revolver.
Melantha ducks down behind the nearest row of seats.
One of the two mummies veers away in a lurch from its beeline at Flavius, who is busy reloading, and lurches in the direction of Melantha instead.
As quickly as she can while holding the shotgun (the mirror has been tucked back into her waistband for the time being) Melantha sidles along behind the row of seats. Having fired both barrels of the gun, she'll take the opportunity to reload once her evasive maneuvers give her breathing space to do so; since she only had time to switch guns with Flavius and not ammo, her next load will be regular shells.
It might be Melantha's imagination, but her physical efforts, including keeping ahead of a Mummy, are perhaps better than she expected. Keeping behind the seats and away from the Mummy is absurdly easy. The cultist with the revolver fires a bullet in the air, but even the cultist doesn't quite realize how far Melantha has gone. In point of fact, Melantha is effective enough at getting far out of reach that she has time to load the shells without any difficulty whatsoever. The mummy is far enough away that she can reasonably take a shot at something else without fear of the Mummy being on top of her.
In the meantime. Flavius fires again at the Mummy approaching him, and it is now visibly slowed. He has taken to moving in the other direction around the arena, as Melantha did, to buy time to reload.
Evil cultists or not, Melantha doesn't particularly want to go blasting away at regular human beings with live rounds, so she uses the breathing space she's gained by evasion to take another look at the casting circle and environs with the mirror. In particular she wants to see what's up with the entity they were summoning.
Having the free moments to do so, Melantha has a chance to put together the ritual and what is happening, by a look and study of the casting circle and the situation. The spirit circling around, the bound victim, the cultists ... it's clear to Melantha that the point of this ritual is to insert that spirit into the victim. The victim is not a sacrifice, but rather a vessel, a container that the now-wounded spirit is to be placed in.
The spirit remains within the bounds of the circle, but seems to be unable to enter the victim himself without the aid of the cultists' incantations. And, truth be told, it does not seem to want or be trying to do so of its own accord. And as those incantations are halted, the spirit remains unbound, and at the same time cannot escape the circle. If the circle was broken, it would be free of this plot.
Melantha definitely doesn't think that putting this spirit into a human being is something she wants to happen. On the other hand, she isn't sure that setting it free to go roaming around on its own is such a hot idea either.
Another gunshot, the cultist taking a futile potshot in Melantha's direction. The mummy approaches and closes on Melantha.
Melantha moves again, away from the mummy and hopefully toward an aisle that will take her down toward the casting circle. She doesn't think she can solve this situation from a distance.
It's a rather ungainly movement on Melantha's part to get down to the floor of the arena. Her clambering over a seat as the cultist takes a pot shot is not a thing of glory, but it puts her out of the reach of the even more ungainly mummy and sends her down to the arena floor and the rest of the cultists.
At that moment, another blast from Flavius knocks his mummy down, and it stays down. He then swings in a smooth fashion and trains the shotgun (although, Melantha notes, it is probably not loaded) in the direction of the cultists.
"Drop the gun or you'll get to meet Elvis," Flavius says. The Mummy is still trying to get down but is nowhere near doing so. The cultists are caught in a state of hesitant panic at the thought of Flavius blasting them with the shotgun, or perhaps of Melantha doing it.
Above her, visible in the mirror, the spirit screams.
Melantha brings up the shotgun to help Flavius cover the cultists and keep them from doing anything stupid. "I dunno," she drawls. "Where these losers are headed, they might not deserve the privilege."
"Veritas," Flavius says.
If she can do so without being blocked, she steps carefully over the casting circle and heads for the bound victim. Her object is to put a pinch of the consecrated salt on the young man's tongue, which should keep the spirit from possessing him. After that will be time enough to figure out how to send the spirit back where it came from.
The aimed shotgun in their direction keeps the cultists from meddling as Melantha gets closer to the bound victim. He looks up at Melantha with a mixture of hope and fear. The hiss of disapproval from the cultists as Melantha produces the pinch of salt is enough to convince him to open his mouth and accept the salt.
There is an audible popping sound, and Melantha can tell the ritual has been disrupted. The spirit is still circling overhead.
In the meantime, the Mummy near Flavius finally gets up, prompting him to turn and swing the gun in his direction and fire. Around Melantha, the cultists seem to be debating whether or not to take the opportunity to rush Melantha, or at least stop her.
Melantha swings up her own shotgun and aims it at the nearest cultists. "Wouldn't try anything funny if I was you," she informs them. "Next time I have to use this, it's gonna do more than just sting."
The cultists waver, thinking about it for a moment. One of them starts to reach for his revolver, slowly. But in the time it takes them to decide, Flavius reloads his shotgun and swings it back around.
"Let's finish this, Melantha," he says. "Probably blast the altar once we're done for good measure. It's likely made out of some resonant material and would be impossible to replace."
One of the cultists gives off a gasp.
"Thought so," Flavius says.
"Deconsecratin' it would work too," Melantha says.
Meanwhile, on the altar, the victim wriggles, trying to get the gag off to talk.
Still keeping a wary eye on the cultists, Melantha moves over to the young man and pulls the gag down to free his mouth.
"Thank you!" the man says in a pronounced southern accent, letting out a held or stifled long breath. "M'name's Peter Aston. Please, you've got to help me. These people kidnapped me just off of Beale and have been keeping me here in the arena every since. And they've got some weird stuff going on with these mummy things right outta that movie walking around. You won't believe the stuff I've seen."
"I somehow doubt that," Flavius says dryly, aiming his gun at a cultist who has attempted to creep toward the exit. He stops his movements at the gesture with the gun.
"Look, you're not going to shoot me or something. You guys are FBI or something, right?" he says, looking at Melantha pleadingly.
"Or somethin'," Melantha half-agrees. "We're here to stop them," she tilts her head toward the cultists, "doin' what they're plannin' on, that's the important part. How are you with a shotgun, Mr. Aston?" she asks him, meanwhile starting to undo the bindings holding him down on the altar.
"My Dad says my shootin' could use some work. Managed to get a wild boar over in East Texas last year with a muzzleloader, though."
"Well, these whackos are beginnin' to bore me, so that may be good enough," Melantha tells him.
Melantha figures if Aston can take over from Flavius in keeping the cultists pinned down, she can send her fellow Scion to fetch her ghostbusting kit. It'll be easier to create a portal to send the spirit through if she has access to her supplies.
"You need your equipment to get this portal closed." Flavius says to Melantha, as if reading her train of thought, as she gets the bonds free.
One of the cultists starts to edge away, and gets the shotgun pointed at him and Flavius taking aim. This cows the cultists, physically anyway, for a little longer, enough to get Aston free and rubbing his wrists without being told. He gets off of the altar, gratefully.
"You're spoiling all of this," one of the cultists wails. "Spoiling it!"
"You best hurry, Soror Minor," Flavius advises to Melantha. "Two shotguns won't cow this lot for long."
"Yeah, well, why don't you hand yours over to Mister Aston here, and make tracks," Melantha replies.
"Oh, you want me to go. Of course," Flavius says. He passes the shotgun to Aston, and heads out of the arena at double time, jogging up the stairs. Aston aims the shotgun.
"The cultists aren't as big as a hog, though," Aston says. "Might hit two at a time if I fire this thing."
"That's the advantage of a shotgun," Melantha agrees, deadpan.
Then she fixes her gaze on the cultist who just spoke and drawls, "Why don't you all tell me why I should care?" She's hoping to tempt them into a nice long rant about their Brilliant and/or Fiendish Plan.
"You are a child of a God, aren't you?" one of the cultists says. "I can practically smell it on you, and I could definitely smell it on the Italian. You should know, God child, that the time of your father's forebears is done. The true heirs and rulers of Earth are nearly free, and those who stand with them, instead of against them, will be rewarded on that happy day. Those who oppose them will die."
Melantha snorts faintly. "Yeah, right. That's what they all say." She also notes to herself that this particular cultist shows definite male-chauvinist leanings. Never forget the motherlines, something inside her whispers.
"Don't you want to live, God child?" the cultist continues. "You would not be the first god child to recognize the truth of affairs, and serve the once and future masters of the world."
"Like that one?" Melantha tilts her head up in the direction of the circling spirit.
"You are perceptive." the cultist says. "But He only will help prepare the way for the Old Ones to rise and return."
"This is crazy as the stuff they were spouting before," Aston comments. "She's with the FBI, or Homeland Security. What's this god child stuff?"
"You know nothing," another of the cultists says. "Nothing. But she does." She raises a hand to point at Melantha. "As did her partner."
"Enough to know that what you're spoutin' is a load of horse puckey," Melantha says. She's still keeping a watchful eye on all her foes, perfectly ready to fire if necessary, but if she can keep them talking instead, so much the better.
"Really." The cultist glances at Aston and then at Melantha. He makes a judgement and takes a half step, hands still up toward Melantha. "Let us be serious. You are a new Scion, aren't you? Probably didn't know until a month ago who and what you were. Some byblow, no doubt. Apollo, maybe? Thor?"
Yep, definitely male chauvinist, thinks Melantha.
"Doesn't matter. You don't owe your parent anything. You came here because you were told you, weren't you? Commanded to stop us from doing harm. Did it never occur to you why your parent didn't show up in panoply and splendor and smite us himself? Did it never occur to you why you, and the Italian were sent to do it instead, with shotguns instead of sorcery?"
"Do tell," Melantha invites him. He sounds like he's gearing up for a lengthy exposition, which is all to the good, and she also might actually learn something.
The cultist laughs. "When the Titans begat the Gods, they instilled and inculcated them, you might today say programmed them, with a geas. A great geas. The Gods are not allowed, by their geas to raise their hands against the Titans and their works. The Goddess of War could not come in here blazing, destroying this work, this summoning. They would be unable to act, paralyzed with that prohibition. That's where you come in. The geas does not extend to the children's children of the Titans, and so the Gods whore and rape their way to having as many children as possible, in the hopes some might prove suitable for their tasks."
"And this makes them different from the Titans how, exactly?" Melantha asks.
"You begin to see," the cultist says. "The Gods are no paragons. They have no moral authority or certitude."
"So, Scion," the cultist laughs. "How does it feel to have to do the dirty work for your Sire? To be cannon fodder for his whims? To be discarded when you are bent and broken? To be a weapon?"
"Everybody needs a hobby," Melantha drawls. "And this is different from *your* situation how, exactly?"
"I choose power and strength," the cultist says. "I choose to win and be at the right hand of the true Lords of the Earth. You are either deluded, or brainwashed into working for a group of entities that are going to be extirpated once the Lords of the Earth are finally free. And it is coming, Scion. You and yours cannot stop it. Even now, the world is turning and changing. The Titans are Returning."
"I don't understand any of this," Aston says. "This is like something out of Lord of the Rings."
"Isn't it, though," Melantha agrees dryly, thinking that the bad guys in that book spouted just the same sort of drivel.
"I have a Fedex package for one scion of Hecate," comes the voice of Flavius from high in the arena. "I need signature confirmation, though."
"Well, come on down and get it, then," Melantha calls back.
"Yes ma'am," Flavius says, picking his way down the staircase toward the scene at the floor of the arena. The cultists hem and haw, looking as if they are going to rush Melantha and Aston, but hold back. Flavius arrives, offering Melantha her pack of supplies and offering to take the gun.
Melantha takes the gym bag from Flavius and hands over the shotgun, after which she immediately opens the bag to rummage briefly inside it.
"Local constabulary is approaching," Flavius says. "Saw the lights of the cop cars headed toward the arena as I headed back from the truck. My guess is one of these folks made a 911 call or something like."
"You are the ones with the guns," the cultist who had debated with Melantha laughs. "You are the ones who will be arrested."
"Best you get this dispelled quickly so we can leave," Flavius suggests.
"Shouldn't take long now," Melantha says confidently, pulling a thick twist of dried plant matter out of her bag, along with a box of wooden matches. "All I really needed was one of my sage sticks to make a portal."
She motions to both Flavius and Aston. "You two get out of the circle and keep an eye on these folks."
"Get out of the circle?" Aston says.
"Back up, son," Flavius says. "Lest you fancy winding up in an underworld. My cousin here would be pretty safe in such an place, given her mother. You and I, not to the same degree."
One of the cultists starts a move toward Melantha, but two shotguns get him to back down.
Melantha draws the mirror from her belt long enough to check once more on the location of the hovering spirit. As long as the circle is keeping it confined, it shouldn't be difficult to turn the circle into a portal back to where the thing came from.
The circle is definitely keeping the spirit handily confined.
Once she and the spirit are the only presences within the circle, Melantha lights the twist of sage and, pacing slowly with the sage stick held high like Liberty's torch, begins to trace a circle-within-the-circle with the aromatic smoke. Eerily, the smoke seems unable to leave the circle the cultists have traced on the floor.
As Melantha paces the circle, she visualizes how the portal will open. It will be like a whirlpool of smoke turned upside-down, a twister stood on its head.
Again, words come into her mind unbidden: I am she who stands at the threshold. I guide those who pass in and those who pass out. Pass through, spirit, to your own place!
Just before the circle of smoke is completed, Melantha steps carefully over the drawn circle, letting the sage stick fall within it to close the ring of smoke.
With the ring of smoke closed, the reverse twister of smoke starts to form without difficulty. The spirit stops its swirling as tendrils of smoke rise up from the base, forming the reverse vortex. Trapped and bound by the circle, there is no room for it to maneuver, no room for it to escape. Into the twister it goes, pulled down and down until it reaches the floor, where the portal lies. It's difficult for the cultists, Aston or Flavius to see through the smoke, beyond, but Melantha's sight is pure and clear. This is her bailiwick. One of the underworlds, one watched by her mother, in this case, awaits the ghost. And, as she intended and expected, the spirit falls into it, banished. The Gate, for the moment, remains open until Melantha wishes to close it.
"Ruined!" one of the cultists shouts as she rushes Melantha. This results in her getting a deafening shot past her left ear by Flavius firing of the gun. He doesn't hit her, but the near-miss causes her to stop in her tracks.
A few of the cultists at this point decide to start running for the doors.
Melantha doesn't allow the commotion to distract her as she prepares to close the portal. Standing at the edge of the circle, she holds her arms straight out at her sides, slowly raises them over her head, then brings them down straight out in front of her, meanwhile visualizing a dome that will flatten and seal.
Even as things happen around her, outside of her attention, the portal remains full in her vision, through the smoke. The spirit has been welcomed into the underworld Melantha has opened for it, already sinking far beyond where the portal opens. A few stray, denizens of the underworld do rise up, watchful, curious. Perhaps even hungry. None try and brave the downward current, however, although their faces do appear in her vision as the dome closes over them, and the portal closes, keeping them on the far side.
Only when she is sure the portal is sealed does she stoop to take her athame from the gym bag, and cut the circle. At that point the sage smoke is released to drift fragrantly (and harmlessly) away.
As the smoke clears, the ritual complete, and the business done, Melantha can take stock of the situation around her. All of the cultists have made it to the doors. In point of fact, aside from the trappings of ritual, and the two dead mummies, there is nothing of their works left.
"Wonder how the police are going to treat the mummies," Flavius says casually.
"Probably'll depend on how long they've been dead," Melantha opines, beginning to pack up her supplies again. "With the wrappings on 'em I can't tell if they're like the zombies outside, or whether the cultists stole 'em from a museum or something."
"They were a little tougher than the zombies," Flavius observes. "So I think they were something more than just local guards transformed."
Taking the vial of consecrated salt from her fanny pack, she steps over to the altar and sprinkles a pinch on the slab to purify it of any lingering malevolent energies.
Flavius looks at Aston. "We probably shouldn't take him with us, though."
"What, you want to leave him here to explain all this?" Melantha asks skeptically.
"The cops aren't going to believe any of this," Aston says, looking at Melantha. "Not a bit. They're going to think I was high or somethin'."
Melantha straightens, gym bag in hand, and looks at him. "What do you want 'em to believe? Seriously," she asks him.
"I don't want to believe I was nearly sacrificed and two strangers fought zombies and babbled about the end of the world. Dooo not want."
"I'll take the gun back if you'd rather not be caught with it," she offers then, holding out her hand for it.
He hands the gun to Melantha without hesitation.
"If you can get me outta here, and I can be on my way, that would be best," Aston says. "Keep this off my record."
"Then we should move quickly," Flavius says to Melantha. "Some fancy driving might be required."
"I'm for that," Melantha tells him. "We're done here." She cradles the shotgun in the crook of her arm, hefts her gym bag, and heads up the aisle toward the exit she figures is closest to where they left her truck.
With Aston in between, the dogs right behind her, and Flavius bringing up the rear, Melantha's instincts are good, leading her to the original door that the two of them used to get entrance into the Pyramid in the first place. By the time they reach the truck, the darkness of the sky allows the flashing lights of the cop cars moving toward the parking lot to be obvious. There are a couple of other roads out of this parking lot, and there are other parking lots around the pyramids, but avoiding notice might take some work.
"Not exactly the Appalachian Hills and a county commissioner's minions," Flavius says. "But perhaps channeling the signature skills of the Duke clan might be necessary," he says.
"First thing is to get loaded up," Melantha says, tossing her gym bag into the back of the truck. She racks the shotgun also, then lowers the tailgate so that Beau and Lady can jump in. Whiskers goes in the cab, and she waves Aston and Flavius in as well before climbing in herself.
She starts up the truck, but doesn't turn the lights on; with her night-sight, she doesn't need them, and they'll only get them seen. She scans the area for the quickest route out that's in the opposite direction from the one the cop cars are coming. It doesn't necessarily have to be paved ...
Melantha's alertness and perception, as she looks around, lets her spot precisely what she is looking for. A gravel road, perhaps used for construction, that is abandoned and unused. And, as it so happens, perfectly useable by Melantha's truck.
The driving is rough by Memphis standards, much to the chagrin of Aston, but it's hardly anything by Melantha's country background. Into the night Melantha drives, escaping the sweeping headlights of the police cars adroitly.
The gravel road finally finds an outlet on a regular road, a couple of miles down from the pyramid. Cars pass by without any clue or sense that there is trouble up at the old stadium, and it is clear to Melantha that they have managed an escape.
"Well done," Flavius says proudly. "No chase necessary"
"I ...I ... think I wanna get out now," Aston, who has turned a bit green, croaks.
"What, by the side of the road?" Melantha asks him, as they watch the traffic whiz by. "No reason we can't drop you at a motel, or a gas station, or something."
"Ah, well, you see, I don't want those people to find me. And they seemed to know who you two were," Aston stammers.
"There's that," Melantha acknowledges, though privately she amends that to "what you were."
Then again, the cultists may not have left Aston with any of the usual trappings of civilization (wallet, phone, etc.) that he could use to get back to where he's going.
"You can use my phone to call someone, if you need to," she offers.
Aston looks at Melantha, and then at Flavius.
"All ... all right," he says, accepting the cell phone gingerly, as if it might turn alive at any moment. He starts fat-fingering buttons in an effort to get the number he wants.
"Dementia amicus," Flavius murmurs to Melantha as Aston manages to make a call and start speaking. "When ordinary people just can't handle the mythic side of reality properly. I've heard of cases where mortals start seeing genius loci and other such things everywhere, all the time."
"Ones that are there, or ones just in their heads?" Melantha asks him. "Or both?"
"Both," Flavius murmurs. "It's a reason why your mother and mine don't spend a lot of time on Earth, or do so carefully. Even I'm starting to have that effect when I get careless."
Once Aston is finished with his call, Melantha takes back her phone, at the same time asking Aston, "All set?"
Aston nods. "If you could drop me off two blocks over at a bar called Westy's, that would be fine. My cousin'll pick me up there. A little safer than here on deserted First street, I guess."
"Sounds good," Melantha says, putting the truck in gear and watching for an appropriate break in traffic.
He stammers on, "I guess I have to thank you both for saving me."
Melantha half-grins over at him and Flavius. "All in a day's work," she tells Aston. "'Sides, I don't think any of us would like what would've happened if we let those folks do what they were fixin' to."
"We would not," Flavius agrees.
Aston gets out and heads into the bar, with nary a glance backward. Melantha can see the sigh of relief he exhales as he reaches the threshold of the bar. It is as if he has escaped from durance vile, and now is back in the real world.
While they wait for an opportunity to turn onto the road from the bar, Melantha idly consults the inner compass that Hecate gifted her with, to see where it's pointing now (if anywhere).
"My guess, with Athena's daughter a no show, your Mom and mine want us to head all the way up to New Deptford," Flavius says. "That, or head west and find any of the scions that are on that side of the map. We might," he laughs, "even have a choice in the matter."
Indeed, Melantha is getting a two-sided arrow from her internal compass. One arrow points just a little south of true West. The other arrow points firmly between north and east.
"Seems that way," Melantha informs Flavius.
"Sorceress," he says with a grin.
"That is something we could also do." Flavius says. "Take you to meet my mother. You've not really seen the Mittlemarch except for your mother's realms, after all."
"That doesn't seem to be one of the obvious choices," Melantha observes cautiously. "You said this New Deptford place was where?"
"Western part of Connecticut, or at least the umbilicus to the real world is located there. It's a chancel, so it's part of the real world, and yet not, at the same time. You can get there other ways, if you are extremely clever, but She doesn't approve. Important safety tip, angering full Gods and Goddesses is not something to be done lightly.
"Which is not to say," he adds, "it is something I have not done, even intentionally in some cases."
"You can tell me all about it on the way to Connecticut," Melantha decides. All in all, she figures she'd prefer to head for a specific place rather than toward unspecified persons who might or might not make it easy for her to find them.
"Connecticut it is," Flavius says.
The trip from Memphis to Western Connecticut is more than 18 hours of driving, with stops for gas, to allow the dogs to get out and stretch their legs, bathroom breaks and more. Flavius offers to spell Melantha at several points for driving.
Melantha is more than happy to take him up on it, once she's sure he's got his directions straight. She uses the time to catch some sleep.
Along the way, Flavius feeds Melantha a steady diet of talking and chatting about the Dodekatheon, the nature of reality (far more complicated than even Brian Greene on TV) and history. He cautiously asks about Hecate, a goddess he clearly has not had much dealings with, and Melantha's work and life.
Melantha gives him at least the abridged version of her life story, and about her meeting with Hecate. Flavius clearly takes mental notes on everything Melantha says, asking particularly about Hecate's realm.
"Don't know if you'd call it a realm," Melantha replies cautiously. "I'm not sure if the cave where she met me was part of that, or just a place that both she and I could get to."
"Hadn't been in the Carolinas much," Flavius explains, around the I-40/I-26 junction. "I'd spent a little time in the Carolina Crown Colony, but I really didn't spend a lot of time in the United States until the late nineteenth century, and then, it was in New York and San Francisco. Helped manage Hawaii's annexation by the United States. Not particularly proud of that bit, but I saw the alternatives to American control of the islands were all worse by that point."
"You saw, or you judged?" Melantha asks him, wondering if he had actual glimpses of possible futures or whether he was simply extrapolating from his knowledge and experience.
"I judged," he clarifies. "I have extremely limited gifts in that regard. I've been around too many situations where islands, polities, whole countries get carved up." He launches into a story about the Partition of Poland in the 18th century and his conflicts with other diplomats in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
"There was at least one or two other scions working to make that carving up happen," Flavius says. "I was outgunned, and the country had one of the stupidest models of government I've seen to date. There was little I could do although I slowed the process down, so it took 27 years instead of two or three."
Melantha makes a mental note that all scions aren't necessarily going to agree on everything ... which is not really surprising considering their origins. From what she remembers about Greek mythology, not to mention the scraps of others that have come her way, the gods themselves were often in conflict with each other. Which is not necessarily good when they have to unite against a common enemy ...
Eventually, Flavius offers to spring for a motel around Hagerstown, Maryland, near the Pennsylvania-Virginia border. Melantha is fine with that, as long as they can find one that'll take the dogs. If nothing else, she figures it'd be a good idea to get a night's sleep, a shower and a change of clothes before they go to meet another goddess.
With that in mind, Melantha changes from jeans to a denim skirt and crisp white blouse that nevertheless harmonize with her denim jacket, and arranges her hair in a braided crown around her head.
It is afternoon of the second day of driving when their travels finally bring them across the Tappan Zee and into Connecticut. Eventually Flavius gives some rather odd and nonsensical instructions involving an intersection and walking around a statue. Sure enough, though, the strange grab bag of actions, like magic, reveals a dirt road through the trees and brush where there definitely was not one before.
Melantha figures it isn't any weirder than following directions from a talking mannequin in a haunted theme park.
"Now you see why it's hard to stumble on places like this," Flavius says. "We can now just drive down the path to its end. Should be a bridge over a river into town, but the truck won't work in there. We should park on this side of the river, walk across, and present ourselves to Epona at first opportunity."
"Switch off the cell phone too?" Melantha asks him, as she steers the truck onto the road. There are plenty of spots in her home mountains where she habitually does that anyway, so the device won't drain its battery fruitlessly searching for a signal.
"Best do so. You might even want to leave it in the truck," Flavius suggests. "No one is likely to molest it, and if the Ban is stronger than we think, the phone won't be out and out fried by being in the town."
The drive down the path is straightforward and without incident. Indeed, as night has fallen, and the headlights sweep into the gravel parking lot, there are two cars and a motorcycle parked here already.
Melantha pulls into a parking spot next to one of the cars. Following Flavius's advice, she powers down her cell phone and leaves it in the glove compartment. At the same time she takes the mirror from the dashboard and, as she did before, tucks the handle into the waistband of her skirt so that the mirror is concealed by her jacket. Climbing out of the truck, she decides to leave the guns behind, but when she lets down the tailgate for the dogs, she is careful to snag her gym bag with her magical supplies, along with her soft-sided suitcase.
Across the river is a perfectly pleasant, ordinary looking town ... if by ordinary, the definition includes something out of a 19th century painting.
A man dressed in overalls stands on the edge of the bridge. His gun, an old shotgun, is pointed down as he looks over Melantha and Flavius.
"You must be here for the party," he says. "Don't venture on this side too much. But the High Reeve said to expect you along and we've had some unpleasantness tonight. I'm here to take you to meet her at the Hotel. Your hounds are welcome to New Deptford too. Twould not be right to coop them up here this side of the river."
"No, I don't think they'd stand for that," Melantha agrees. Glancing back toward the parking lot, she ventures, "You've had some others show up already, I take it?"
"Aye. The children of several Gods are here already. The son of Hachiman, the son of the Morrigan, the son of Hermes, and the High Reeve's daughter herself, of course. And you are?"
"I am Flavius Galerius Adranus Westphalius. Demigod of Treaties, son of Aphrodite," Flavius says proudly.
"A Demigod, not just a Scion. The High Reeve will be honored," the man says, clearly impressed.
He waits for Melantha to reply before continuing.
"I'm Melantha Harmon," she tells him, then adds as if she's still not quite used to the thought, "Daughter of Hecate."
"Best we get you to the Ball. It likely has already begun," the man says. He turns, expecting the two of them to follow him across the bridge, and into the Chancel.
"Ball!" Melantha exclaims, looking down at her neat and reasonably professional, but not by a long chalk formal, skirt, blouse, and denim jacket. She frowns over at Flavius. "I don't exactly keep a Cinderella dress stuffed into my gym bag."
"Bide a moment," he says to the townsman, who stops in his tracks. Flavius turns and looks at Melantha. "Well, it's a fair point, but it's something I can fix. One of the Estates that my Mother has is Fashion and Beauty. I've a charm to allow me to be dressed for any occasion, something like a spell, but works on slightly different principles."
He grins. "As my mother's son, and with some practice, I've managed to make it work for others, too. I can put you into a ball gown, Melantha - if you give me the consent to do so." He jerks a thumb at the bridge. "I'd wait to do it until we were closer. I've not yet learned the knack of keeping the clothes permanently clean. Met a Persian Scion once, a fighter of ghuls and other nasties, who managed to always keep his garment pristine, clean and white, despite being the messy sort, in food, fighting ... and other things."
"Like those knights in the stories that always manage to keep their armor shining?" Melantha asks wryly.
Flavius gives a nod. "A handy trick in a messy age."
She prepares to follow the townsman. "Okay, be thinkin' about it," she tells Flavius. "Just keep in mind that I'm no Cinderella -- or Cher neither," she adds with a boding look.
The truth is that Melantha has never worn a ball gown in her life -- she missed out on the senior prom -- and is not quite sure what she'll look like in one.
"I've seen women in dresses for nearly sixteen centuries," Flavius says. "I hardly think that a Disney dress or popular music star's outfits would be the only choices in my imagination. Besides, this is a place a century behind the modern world."
Across the bridge and onto the streets of New Deptford, Flavius' words take life. The buildings do look like something out of a movie set in the 19th century, with wooden buildings, neatly painted, and lanterns in the windows and hanging on poles giving yellowish pools of light to illuminate the landscape. There are more stars visible in the sky than Melantha might expect near New York City, and there is no glow of light from nearby cities, either, on the horizon. There are a few people walking about, all dressed out of time, and all curious about Melantha, Flavius and her dogs.
Their guide is quiet, casually leading them but not engaging in conversation. The occasional look he gives Melantha is one of nervousness if not quite outright fear.
The Hotel Palio is a tall, baroque building, one of the largest buildings in the square that it sits on. A temple sits on a hill on the opposite side of the square, and other buildings suggest a building that might be the town hall or police station. People are walking into the Hotel, all dressed in dresses and suits that definitely are behind the times as Melantha knows them.
"Not quite gingham dresses," Flavius comments. "But not a Disney Princess either. How do you feel about Louis XV? That might go well here."
Melantha gives him the fish eye. "You're kiddin' me, right? I don't think me and anything French go together real well." She frowns thoughtfully, trying to remember what Hecate was wearing when they met.
"Perhaps not," Flavius says, reconsidering, and grinning.
"Just keep it simple," she advises Flavius, "and remember I might need to move in it. And hope to God no one asks me to dance," she adds with a gleam of humor.
"Not even I?" Flavius says. "I have my reputation to uphold as my mother's son," he says.
"What, you want me trompin' all over your feet?" Melantha queries dryly. "I never took no dancing classes, either."
"They will know we are Scions and from outside here. Some might go for more local dress, and had we come sooner, we might have used a local merchant to do so. When we cross the threshold of the hotel, I'll do the spell."
"Shall I bring your dogs to the kennels?" the townsman asks. "They might not like, ah, the hotel surroundings."
"They're housebroken," Melantha informs him, "and they won't chew on the furniture either. But if you don't want 'em in the ballroom, I reckon the kennels will be all right for now." There will be time enough to fetch the dogs to her later, Melantha decides, if she ends up staying at the hotel for the night.
"Whiskers, Beau, Lady, follow," she tells the dogs, pointing to their guide.
After Melantha's response, as they cross the threshold, the transformation is quick and easy. Flavius is now wearing a tuxedo, in dark gray, and a powder blue cummerbund.
As far as Melantha herself, she is now wearing a jet black gown, form fitting, and with a spiderweb sort of motif that makes Melantha look like she is in something that is a cross between Samantha Stevens and Vera Wang.
"Simple," Flavius says with satisfaction as he slows down and looks about the anteroom to the Hotel. He points his head toward the entrance to the ballroom. "And you can move in it. Even dance."
"As much as I ever could," Melantha remarks wryly. The mirror has ended up in her hand, with no good place to put it out of sight; she settles for holding it down at her side, the reflective surface turned inward, as she accompanies Flavius into the ballroom.
Melantha does get a fair amount of attention, certainly more than Flavius, as they make their way into the ballroom. The gentleman at the door looks over Melantha and Flavius. "Ah, more of The High Reeve's special guests. We are honored to have you both here."
(Continued in Scionic Blast)