The Eurydice Project Christine Morgan (email@example.com) comments welcome Author's Note: standard disclaimer about whose characters belong to whom, blah, blah blah. This story is a sequel to The Heist.
"I'm really getting worried about Matt," Elisa Maza announced without preamble as she let herself into the gargoyles' quarters. "Maybe he just took a sudden vacation," Brooklyn said. "Not without telling his partner," Broadway immediately replied. "Do you really think he's ... missing?" Angela breathed. Elisa ran her hands through her hair in frustration. "It's been two weeks, _nobody_ has heard from him, and I know Matt. Always before, when he'd go off on some crazy quest, he'd make sure to leave notes with someone to open in case he didn't return. The whole paranoid-conspiracy thing. But there's been no letter, no nothing." Goliath came to her. "We've searched everywhere we could think of." "Yeah. And I'm grateful. I know I can always count on you guys! But I'm running out of ideas, and I don't know what to do next." "Demona?" Brooklyn suggested, smacking a vehement fist into his palm. "She's got to hold a grudge after that apple business." "Are ye sure he's in trouble, lass?" Hudson asked. "Hey, Matt can handle anything!" Broadway declared. "Except maybe the Dracons finding out he was involved in Vito's death." "Or maybe the Quarrymen got him," Lex said. Elisa groaned. "That's the last thing I need!" A knock at the door heralded the arrival of David Xanatos. "Alex has something to show you," he said, setting the boy on the floor. Alex tottered unsteadily to his feet and took several steps before ending up on his diaper-padded rear. He then looked around expectantly. Lexington cheered and turned to the proud papa. "I thought he'd never walk!" Xanatos grinned. "I know. According to the books, he should have been walking months ago, but all he'd do was scoot on his feet and hands. He was fast, I'll give him that, but -- what are the rest of you so glum about?" "Matt's still missing," Elisa said. Xanatos was fast, but not fast enough. Elisa was on his flicker of reaction in an instant. "You know something, don't you?" she pounced. "Nothing I can share, detective." "Dammit, Xanatos!" "If you do know where Matt is, I suggest you tell us," Goliath said ominously. "If I knew anything that I could tell you, I would." "Now, why do I not believe that?" Hudson muttered. Xanatos bent and picked up his son, who was in the process of trying to eat Bronx's ear. "We'll come back another time." Elisa put herself between him and the door, and Goliath was at her side. "He's my partner," she said simply. He sighed. "All right. I'm not even supposed to know about this myself, but I'd bet he's with the Illuminati. I'm not exactly sure what's going on, but he's probably safe." "The Illuminati! What do those creeps want with Matt?" Brooklyn asked. "Matt _is_ one of those creeps," Xanatos said. "As am I." "What, you want an apology or something?" Brooklyn shot back. "No, what he wants is for us to stay out of it," Elisa said bitterly. "Because these secret societies look out for their own, and if one of their own dies on some stupid mission, they hush it up." "That's a harsh but not inapt statement," Xanatos said. "I promise you, though, I'll find out where Matt is and what he's doing." "Yeah, but you won't tell _us_," Lex pointed out. "But at least you'll know that I know, and that should offer some reassurance." "Scant little," was Hudson's opinion. "Damn right," Elisa said. "But," Xanatos said, sounding as if he really earnestly wasn't trying to sound smug this time and mostly succeeding, "it's the best you're going to get." * * Two hours later, David Xanatos stepped into the mahogany- paneled elevator of the manor house that served as a meeting place for the Illuminati. He waited until the doors had sealed him in solitude, then removed his eye-in-the-pyramid lapel pin and pushed it into a matching depression on the lowest button on the control panel. The button flashed green briefly, and the elevator descended. The level he reached was far below the parking garage, even lower than the Hall of Antiquities Arcanum that had once been the target of a thief named Draconi, and more recently the spot where Matt Bluestone had experienced something that only the highest-ranking members of the Illuminati had ever seen, and then only with the aid of ceremonial hypnosis and hallucinogens. Xanatos himself hadn't been through the ceremony, having no fondness for mind-altering substances. He found that unreality tended to pop up often enough in his life without the help of drugs. If it came as a surprise to the Grandmaster when Xanatos appeared in the small room where Matt Bluestone lay, it didn't show. "How is he?" he asked as if he had every right and reason to be here. "David," the Grandmaster acknowledged. "Do come in." They were the only people in the room, and Matt was in no condition to greet anyone. He was laid out on a slab and could have easily been mistaken for dead. His pallor, the slackness of his skin, and the chill in the room all suggested the morgue. Only the steady bleeping of the monitors and the ceaseless rolling of his eyes beneath closed lids proved that he was yet among the living. The medical equipment, only slightly more advanced than would be found in a first-rate hospital, somehow went oddly with the pentagram etched into the slab. Matt's head pointed toward the top of the star, and his pale skin was dusted with gritty powders of many colors. The room was lit by squat candles in brass holders shaped like coiled dragons. "How is he?" Xanatos repeated, picking up the chart that hung on the wall and scanning it. Tension had drawn deep lines in the Grandmaster's hawkish, handsome face. Xanatos knew he'd lost a brother to the very same circumstances, and the stress of those memories combined with concern for the young detective were taking their toll. "His pulse, blood pressure, and physical functions are all remaining within normal fluctuations, but look at these brainwaves!" He held up a long roll covered with spiky etchings. "He's been in a constant state of REM since we put him under, but the pattern, particularly these alpha waves, do not even come close to normal. That cannot be good for him." "He's lost weight." "We've got him on the glucose," the Grandmaster said, tapping the I.V. bottle. "When did he go under?" "Nine days days ago." Xanatos raised an eyebrow. "But he's been missing for two weeks. What happened to the other five days?" "Preparation. Reading. Research. Contemplation. Prayer." "Prayer?" Xanatos echoed, looking down at Bluestone's still features. "I wouldn't have pegged him as a religious man." "You'd be right. That is why it is so unaccountably strange that the woman would appear to him. For all his beliefs in what we _do_, he has a streak of hardheaded realism in him that makes him resistant to the idea of what we _are_. He's no mystic. He scoffs at the paranormal. Haven't you noticed?" Xanatos nodded. "He was always looking for the scientific explanations, the government cover-ups. Real psychic powers, real magic, real divine action, those wouldn't have satisfied him." "Exactly. So why did she appear to him? And will his skeptical streak save him, or damn him? My brother was a mystic, a seminary student, a believer in all things spiritual. He died. Will this young man with his no-nonsense approach survive, even succeed?" "Who _is_ she?" Xanatos asked. The Grandmaster spared him a dry smile. "If you'd taken part in the ceremonies, David, you'd know. Or at least suspect, as the rest of us do." Xanatos chuckled. "Now, I bet this is exactly how Elisa felt two hours ago!" * * The events that would cause such concern among his friends and the police began when Matt Bluestone drove into the underground complex beneath the manor. A woman passed him in the hall, which made him pause in surprise. Not at her beauty, although it was surpassing in its own icy severity. Not at the telltale beginnings of a pregnancy beneath her tailored dove-grey suit. But by the simple fact of her being here. It was, plainly, the first time he'd seen a woman in the Illuminati headquarters, not counting the transparent phantom babe in the museum who was the reason he was here today. There were no female Illuminati, which was something that he hadn't realized until just now. He wasn't sure which made him feel more like a sexist rat. That this was a boy's club, or that he'd only really become aware of it as the blond swept by. Whoever she was, though, she wasn't why he was here. It was the other woman, the dusky-skinned brunette who had taken to haunting his dreams. He could have learned about her months ago, by invitation of the Grandmaster himself. But he'd skipped the next monthly Illuminati meeting despite Martin Hacker's objections, still furious and shocked at the way Xanatos had handed over the cassette tape they'd taken from Elisa's answering machine, the tape which held proof of high-level treachery. Everything about it had galled him bitterly. The fate of all civilization, not to mention the lives of Elisa and Goliath, had come _that_ close to oblivion, and he, a cop, couldn't do a damn thing about it! He had to sit quiet and be a good boy because apparently being Illuminatus came before everything else. One more item to add to the list of things they never told you until it was too late. He had been tempted to blow it wide open anyway, but of course anyone he could tell in a position high enough to do anything about it would be connected themselves, and with no fuss or fanfare Matt Bluestone would vanish. He knew these people, had known them most of his life even if he didn't know their faces. He knew their methods. Besides, what was he going to do, press charges against Demona? Get Goliath to testify against her? The talk-show vultures would line up around the block for a shot at that one. Expose her as Donimique Destine and whip the public into a panic over the notion that gargoyles could pass undetected among them? Bad call. The next best step had been to cut off his association with them, even though Martin assured him there was no way to quit being a member once you were in. He'd skipped the meeting and nobody showed up to kill him and make it look like suicide. So he'd skipped another meeting. And then the dreams had begun. Matt had never been much of a dreamer. His dreams were often mundane, rehashing old cases, portrayed in sharp black and white like a 1940's movie. These dreams, though, were exceptionally vivid. He himself never appeared in them, never took a form but was the silent observer. Dreams of a sky so blue it couldn't be real, of a lush countryside unmarred by asphalt and power lines and airplane contrails. Of the woman. Of her violent death. Matt didn't believe in ghosts. Never had. There had to be some other explanation. Hologram, illusion, those made sense, especially given what he knew about some of the more exotic special effects the Illuminati employed. That didn't explain the dreams. He was banking on hypnotic suggestion, and therefore had finally swallowed his gall about the cassette tape and returned to the manor. Only to learn that the Grandmaster had been called away on secret business in France. And so Matt had suffered another few months of the dream, until he started dreading bedtime and even nipping away at Sominex in the hopes that it would sedate him into deeper sleep. Nothing had worked. Elisa pressured him constantly about seeing a doctor, taking a vacation, getting more rest. It was damn hard to hide anything from her, just as she'd been unable to hide the facts, if not the details, of her own secrets from him. Once, he'd almost broken down and told her, but what held him back at the last minute was the memory of a lifetime of people looking at him like he was wackerooni. Elisa had proven to be remarkably tolerant (with good reason, as it turned out) of his beliefs in Loch Ness, Sasquatch, aliens, and the like. But there was one thing that got under her skin, it was the Illuminati. Yesterday, the Grandmaster had called him at work and invited him to meet tonight. Privacy, or the lack thereof, hadn't allowed him to ask any questions over the phone, so he'd just agreed. Last night, for the first time since the craziness began, he had slept peacefully. As if whatever had been causing the dream was relieved by some forward motion, some action. And here he was, feeling anticipation and worry, and a sense of foreboding that prickled the back of his neck. The cool blond was long since out of sight, and Matt realized he'd been woolgathering in the hallway for quite a while. He took off his trenchcoat, draped it over his arm, and knocked. "Come." Matt entered the Grandmaster's office, glanced uninterestedly at the huge lionfish drifting lazily in the aquarium, and finally turned his attention to the man himself. "Detective Bluestone," the Grandmaster said cordially. He scooped up some papers into a neat stack and slipped them into a thick manila folder. As he set the folder aside, Matt saw that the name "Ferguson" was written on it in black marker. "Hello, Grandmaster," Matt said, irked as usual that he didn't even know the guy's name. He doubted if Xanatos himself knew, but that was beside the point. "Please, make yourself comfortable. Tea?" Matt noticed the silver tea set on a nearby table, his sharp eyes taking in the two used cups and plates. There were still some fancy European pastries on a tray, the sort that seemed to be made of air but turned out to have about a gazillion calories. Still, Matt had skimped on dinner and they looked good. "Thanks," he said, helping himself to a plate but passing on the tea. "Any coffee?" "I'm afraid not. In my family, we've always preferred tea." "I saw a lady in the hall," Matt said, glancing deliberately at the two cups and making sure the Grandmaster noticed him looking. "I wasn't aware we had any female members." "We don't, not precisely." He spoke in a tone that, while not rude, strongly hinted the matter was not for further discussion. Matt let it go. The blond wasn't the woman he wanted to hear about anyway. He chomped into a little raspberry pie-thingie topped with a blob of custard. "How was France?" "Exquisite, as always." "I always heard that the French were pricks," Matt observed. The Grandmaster shrugged. "You should hear what they say about Americans. Do you speak French, Matt?" "Jeez, not since high school." "German? Spanish? Russian?" "Nope, nope, and nope. Well, I've picked up a little Spanish from Elisa, but it's probably not anything I should repeat." "Do you know any foreign languages?" Matt bristled slightly at the tone of contempt he heard or imagined he heard creeping in under the Grandmaster's slick accent. "Sure. I've been studying conversational Klingon for the past two years. What's it to you?" "It is just something we're going to have to take into account, if you're still interested in learning more about the woman you saw." "Of course I am. Why do you think I'm here?" "Because you're one of us now, Matt. This is your home. Now, to begin, why don't you tell me about your trouble sleeping?" "Who the hell told you about that?" "No one told me. No one had to. Have you looked at yourself lately?" "Okay, so I'm not Mr. G.Q. So what?" The Grandmaster sighed heavily and fixed Matt with a stern yet fatherly gaze. "I'm not trying to attack you or judge you, Matt. It's important. Have there been ... dreams?" "Yeah! How'd you know?" "As I told you before, my brother once experienced what you did. To my knowledge, there have only been a handful of people over the centuries that have seen the woman, and most of them did so under ceremonial conditions. Guided visions, if you will. Some very few, my brother and yourself included, have seen her spontaneously." "I don't get it," Matt said. "Who is she? What is she? What do you mean, centuries? Are you saying she's a ghost or something?" "That's exactly what I'm saying. A ghost milennia old." Matt snorted. "Hey, I grew up on a steady diet of Scooby Doo cartoons. There's never a real ghost, just someone behind the scenes playing tricks." "We are not living a cartoon!" the Grandmaster said harshly. "Now, tell me about your dream." "Well ..." "Go on." "What the hell. Here goes. I'm not in the dream but I'm there. Can't talk, can't act. Watching it like a movie in really good 3-D and surround sound." He paused, closing his eyes. "The sky is blue. Really, deep, incredible blue. No smog, no jet contrails, just a blue that goes on and on forever. And it's in the country someplace. Way out in the country, because I can't see a power line or telephone pole anywhere. It's green, wild, trees with green things on them ... might be olives or figs. Doesn't look like anything I've ever seen except in travel brochures to New Zealand and places like that. I see a road, but it's really just a pair of tracks, wagon ruts maybe." "Go on," the Grandmaster said again, his voice hushed yet urgent. "I hear something. Splashing. I'm headed that way, except like I said there isn't a me. I see a house, more like a hut, stone walls with mud plastered in the cracks, and a roof made out of hay or straw, can't really tell because it's only in the distance. Then I see a creek. It widens out at one point and flows over some rocks to make a pool with a little waterfall coming into it. There's something on the grassy bank, folded up, a piece of yellow cloth. A pair of sandals. Then there's a ripple and she comes up out of the water." "The woman?" "Yeah. Comes up, and the sun is shining on her wet skin, and she's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, standing waist-deep in the pool and wringing water out of her hair. She's smiling, peaceful, so happy. She walks onto the bank and sits down on the grass, letting the wind dry her off, braiding her hair." "Then what happens?" "There's a rustling in the bushes and she turns that way, not alarmed, like she thinks maybe it's an animal or something, but a man's head appears. Bearded, but a funny beard, coiled like ringlets. She grabs the cloth and I see it's a shirt or a tunic kind of thing. He comes crashing through the bushes, and I know what he wants, she knows what he wants, and she takes off running but doesn't waste breath screaming because there's nobody to hear her. He's after her, he's a hunter, he's faster but she knows the area so she's staying ahead of him, and I'm zooming along, following the chase. She starts toward the house, then doubles back and is running through tall grass along the creek, and he's coming after her, the bastard!" Matt paused, gasping, his heart racing just as it did whenever he awoke from the dream. He poured himself a cup of lukewarm tea and gulped it down. It tasted frigging awful but seemed to help. The Grandmaster, leaning forward intently, motioned for him to continue. "She's running, but she's starting to get tired and he's gaining on her, going to catch her. And then she starts to scream, halts midstride and sort of jerks all over like she's being electrocuted. The guy stops and stares, and I see she's stepped in a snake nest and they're all over her legs, biting and biting, and she's screaming, trying to pull them off, one of them strikes at her hand, fangs sinking into her, and the guy just stands there, stands there and watches while she dies." "And then?" Matt wiped his brow. "And then I wake up, sometimes yelling, always feeling like there are snakes all over the goddam place, and I spend the next hour or two trying to get over it. That's why I look like crap." "Understandable." The Grandmaster dumped a generous splash of brandy into Matt's teacup. "Just talking about it has me all shook up!" Matt shuddered and quaffed the brandy. "Here, have another." "Thanks." When he'd finished that one, he was able to look at the Grandmaster with a fraction of his usual sarcastic humor. "So, going to analyze my dream, Dr. Freud?" "This is not a dream of hidden symbols and unconscious urges," the Grandmaster said seriously. "Okay, so what is it?" "Matt, are you familiar with the myth of Orpheus?" * * "Of course!" Xanatos said as the Grandmaster finished recounting Matt's dream and their conversation. He went to a small table, which held two ancient crumbling scrolls, a bound copy of all the spells from his own Grimorum Arcanorum (and wouldn't Goliath be pissed if he knew about _that_), and a golden musical instrument. "The lyre from the Hall of Antiquities Arcanum. The lyre of Orpheus." "You know the myth, naturally." "Dad was insistent I know my heritage. But ... do you mean that the woman you've been talking about ... is the actual, historical Eurydice?" The Grandmaster nodded slowly. "And Matt, like my brother and others before him, is replaying that myth as we speak." Xanatos looked at Matt, feeling a sudden chill. "He's ..." "Living Orpheus' trip to the underworld," the Grandmaster finished. "And, like Orpheus, if he looks back, he fails and loses her. But, unlike Orpheus, if he looks back and fails, he too will die." "What happens if he succeeds?" Xanatos asked. "I wish I knew, David. I wish I knew." * * "Yoo-rih-duh-see," Matt said carefully. "Is that right?" "Close enough," the Grandmaster replied. "Are you sure you want to follow through with this? It is extremely dangerous to you." "So is having this crazy dream night after night. I'll be ready for the rubber room if I don't do something." "Very well. You've read all the books I gave you?" "Yeah," Matt said, although truth be told he'd really just skimmed them, finding them boring as unbuttered toast and full of unpronounceable names. But he was sick of looking like an ignorant dork in front of this guy. "You've practiced the chords on the lyre?" "Yeah." His gaze shifted guiltily that time. About the only thing he could play on that cockamamie instrument was the first few bars of La Bamba. "And you've prepared yourself through mediation and prayer?" "Yeah," Matt said again, another half truth. He wasn't the praying kind; living next door to his Bible-thumping fanatic Uncle Ray had soured him toward religion at an early age. "Then we're ready to begin." Matt looked around. "Is all this stuff necessary?" "We'll have to monitor your condition. I intend to stop the project at once if you start showing undue amounts of physical stress. The electrodes will be painless." "I didn't mean those. I meant _those_. The mystic witchy shit." "They are a part of the ceremony, a part of the ritual. What you're about to do is much more complicated than a mere hypnotic trance or even a past-life regression." "Past lives? Oh, please!" The Grandmaster set down a thick book with a thump and glared at him. "Matt, your attitude is not making this any easier." "Well, come on, you've been talking about magic spells, secret herbs and spices, ghosts, gods, and now past lives. It's all a little much." "You saw with your own eyes the power of the apple of Eris," the Grandmaster said. "You know about Oberon's Children." Matt started. "Yeah, but I didn't know _you_ did! Not that I should be surprised." "Have you never heard of suspension of disbelief?" "Sure. That was why the English teachers used to call it when there'd be some huge embarrassing blooper in a great literary work." "You're an aggravating man, Matt. You must take this seriously. Your life is going to be very much at risk. My brother never came out of his trance, but suffered a massive stroke and died instantly. The records list others who have died similarly before him. You should not be scoffing." "Well, it'd be easier to believe if you were telling me that the hypnosis was going to do something to my brain instead of saying that Hades is going to rip out my soul like a coupon from the newspaper." The Grandmaster shook his head. "This is a mistake." "Now, wait just a minute! You've had me locked in a room for the past five days, first fasting then eating nothing but that weird food. You made me take a bath in freezing water full of rocks and acorns and who knows what other lumpy stuff, wear this nutball outfit --" he gestured to the simple white linen robe belted with a leather braided cord, "-- and made me practice on that harp thingie. I'm going through with it." "No. You'll never survive. I might as well be putting a knife in your heart." "Look, okay, maybe you're right and there is something to all this. If so, then what about the vision? What about the dream? The woman? She's calling me. Eurydice. She came to _me_, Matt Bluestone, and I have to answer. It's --" he swallowed hard and made himself say it, "-- an omen." The Grandmaster gave him a long, hard look, unconvinced. Matt put on his most spiritual expression. "All right," the Grandmaster finally said. "Let us begin." * * The first thing he realized upon awakening was that he'd forgotten the stupid lyre. The Grandmaster had given it to him, showed him how to play, made him practice until his fingers nearly bled, and reminded him again and again that the lyre would be his key to success. And he'd forgotten it. "Shit," Matt said, looking down at his empty hands. He hadn't been thinking of it at all, hadn't even had it in the back of his mind let alone at the forefront, and now he was stuck. He sat up. Since the hypnotism and (snicker) "magic spell" hadn't worked, there was still time to get the lyre. All he had to do was get off the slab and -- He was on a flat stone. All around him, rocky lifeless terrain stretched toward bleak and forbidding mountains. The sky was the color of ash. At the bottom of the slope, a river black as ink, black as oil, flowed smoothly into a cavern. "Son of a bitch, it worked," Matt murmured. "I'm not in Kansas anymore!" Damn, but it looked real! It felt real! The air that he drew into his lungs tasted faintly smoky. If it was illusion, it was the most convincing thing he'd ever seen. Could it really be all in his mind? Or ... _was_ it as real as it looked? What if he'd been drugged, loaded into a helicopter, flown to this strange place? That could explain a lot, and was far easier to accept than the idea that the Grandmaster really had coaxed him into a trance and recreated the myth of the underworld in his imagination. But, if that was true, why hadn't they left him the damned lyre? A boat emerged from the cave, moving against the current. It looked a lot like the skiff Elisa had described, except that it was made of bone and the figurehead was a large skull with one single central eye socket. Riding in the boat was a tall figure shrouded in black. White hands, possibly skeletal but impossible to tell at this distance, handled a steering pole. Charon, Matt remembered. Ferryman of the dead. Over the River Styx and into the land of the dead. He'd read that far, at least. And was wishing now, most sincerely and earnestly wishing now, that he'd studied like he was supposed to. Whoever had set this up obviously wanted him to play by the rules. "Too late now," he said to himself. "Let's boogie." He got up, the sharp stones poking his feet through the thin sandals the Grandmaster had made him wear, and thought in vain of his sensible, hard-soled shoes. Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. He picked his way down to the riverbank and the weathered wooden dock. Ghostly shapes wandered over the gravel and mud, uttering low desolate moans. Holograms. Had to be holograms. Matt thought he recognized some of them. There, a brown- haired man wrapped in a grey sheet, who looked just like a jogger he and Elisa had questioned a few times. A man and a woman, arguing peevishly. And there, a gang of punks that looked awfully familiar. None of them were Eurydice. The bone boat drew up to the dock. The ghostly forms surged forward, clamoring hopefully, and were turned away. Matt approached, remembering that he was supposed to pay Charon. Before he thought about what he was doing, he reached into his pocket and produced a fifty-cent-piece. He stopped, staring at the coin, then checked his robe. No pockets. Yet the coin was real. Down to the 1987 stamped on it. Now the forms moved toward him, smoky fingers reaching for his coin. He shoved through them, literally, since they had no substance. "Jeez!" he declared, reaching the dock. "Worse than subway bums!" The ghosts fell back, and Matt found himself face to cowl with the ferryman of the dead. One slim, pale hand reached up and adjusted the hood, letting some dim light fall on the pallid face within. "Owen Burnett!?" Matt blurted. Ice-blue eyes fixed upon him. Not a flicker of emotion crossed that thin face. It was Owen, all right. "Only the dead may pass this way," Owen intoned. "What the hell are you -- oh, I get it! How'd they get you to go along with this? Xanatos put you up to it?" He started to step over the side, and was stopped by a firm hand. "Only the dead may pass," Owen repeated. "Right, so you've got to play it to the hilt, huh? Come on, Burnett. Don't screw around with me." "Only the dead." Oooh, crapola, Matt thought. This was where he was supposed to win the guy over with a few tunes. Briefly, he considered bursting into song, and quickly rejected that notion. His singing voice was oaky for the shower, but not at all the sort of thing that would win him a boat ride. In all likelihood, Burnett would be so appalled that he'd just knock Matt overboard. Into the amnesia-inducing waters of the River Styx, he recalled as another scrap of his reading came back to him. With the wide array of chemicals and drugs at the disposal of the Illuminati, he didn't want to chance taking a dunking into that, thank you very much. "Uhhh ..." Matt said. "Well, um ..." Burnett stared impassively at him. "Hey!" Matt brightened. "If I blow it, I'm as good as dead anyway! Might as well avoid the rush! What do you say, pal?" A timeless moment went by, and then Burnett extended his hand. Matt dropped the coin into it. The cloaked figure beckoned, and Matt stepped onto the boat. * * Once, the year before what the rest of the family evasively called "John's trouble," his father had taken them all to an amusement park. Matt remembered the cautionary advice of the ride attendants, and heeded it now. Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times. You bet! He had zero desire to dangle his pinkies in the inky water. He sat in the center of the boat, made himself small as possible, and tried not to get splashed when the occasional ripple would break against the hull. Behind him, not making a single sound except for the rustle of his robe, apparently not even breathing, Burnett poled the boat on. The cavern soared overhead, or at least that was how it felt. Matt could see nothing at all. Even the pale glimmer of the bones had vanished a few yards into the darkness. It was not unlike what he imagined one of those sensory-deprivation tanks would be like, except he'd read somewhere that they were kept warm. Body temperature. Of course, given the folks that usually passed this way, it _was_ body temperature. Whoever had set this up had really gone all-out. Matt was seriously impressed. He could almost believe it was real. Finally, ahead, a flicker of flame. The boat pulled up at another dock, this one made of piled rocks and looking older than Stonehenge. The dock extended to a flat, crescent-shaped stretch of uneven gravelly ground and heaps of driftwood or weathered bones. The firelight came from marble basins resting on the gravel, burning some thick oil. Matt got out of the boat and glanced back at Burnett. "Coming along, or you going to sit this one out?" Burnett said nothing but pointed into the shadows at the rear of the widest part of the beach, where the rough cave wall met the ground. There appeared to be an opening, a narrow split in the rock. "Great," Matt muttered. He marched off in the indicated direction, stubbed his toe on a chunk of wood as long as his forearm, and stooped to pick it up. It would do as a club, just in case. The boat, and Burnett, had vanished as if they'd never even been there in the first place. Matt fought down a chill that wanted to scamper up his back. He wasn't going to let this place get to him. No matter how dark and creepy it was. It was all fake. Something growled in the darkness. Matt's teeth clacked audibly. He clenched his jaw and slowly turned. There, in the deepest shadow, he saw a quick, furtive gleam. Like the eyes of an animal, reflecting the firelight. He hefted his makeshift weapon and told his feet to go that way. His feet obeyed, but hesitantly. The growl came again, a menacing and hungry rumble. Gravel grated as if under a heavy weght. Eyes. A pair of eyes, glowing silvery lamps. And then another pair, and a third. A shape, hunched and low-slung, large. The clatter of metal, chains dragging over the ground. Matt scanned the cave wall but saw no other openings. The boat was gone, so he couldn't go back. Had to go forward. Besides, it was just a fancy production. He wasn't in any real physical danger. Yeah, right. He took another step, and the stillness was shattered by a baying howl. Matt twitched but held his ground as something came at him with the speed and power of a freight train. The chain yanked it to a stop just a few yards from him, barely within the fringes of the firelight, and Matt laughed in relief. "Bronx! Hey, boy, how'd you get down here?" The big denim-blue doggoyle looked at him. With all three heads. Matt nearly fell on his ass. Three pairs of eyes blazed white. Three mouths gaped wide to issue a challenging bellow. Bronx's body strained against the chain that connected the three collars to the wall. His back claws dug trenches in the gravel. His forepaws raked the air. "What did they do to you, boy?" Matt asked, horrified. "Who did this? Sevarius?" He approached, holding out his hand. "Hey, boy, it's okay. It's me, Matt. Good boy." The centermost head sniffed, then snapped. Matt was thankful for quick reflexes, or he might have lost a few fingers. Beyond the chained doggoyle, a passage curved away into the blackness. It was the only way he could go, but how to get past Bronx? He figured he was supposed to soothe the savage beast with his music. Spiffy. Instead, he waggled the stick in front of Bronx's faces. "Hey, stick, see the stick? Wanna fetch? Wanna get the nice stick?" Bronx snuffled and snarled, but his short little tail flapped excitedly. "Oh, come on, you want the stick," Matt wheedled. "Nice stick!" The left head lunged and tried to seize the stick, but Matt jerked it away. "Here! Fetch!" He threw it one way and himself the other, as Bronx stampeded past him looking roughly the size of a Volkswagon. As soon as the hindquarters were past, Matt leaped over the chain and ran down the passage. He couldn't see an inch ahead of his nose. One pit, or low- hanging outcrop, and it was curtains for Gladys Bluestone's oldest boy. To make matters worse, Bronx realized instantly that he'd been tricked, and whirled to pursue. The only plus side was that his blazing eyes cast enough light to allow Matt to navigate. Just in time, too. There was a narrow but deep crack in the floor. One misstep, and his leg would have gone in to the knee, probably breaking in the bargain. Matt went over, then veered to one side to avoid a spur of rock sticking out of the wall. Bronx's hot breath steamed the back of Matt's neck. He cringed, sensing three pairs of jaws open wide. He dove forward, skinning hands and knees and elbows. The chain yanked taut. Bronx uttered a strangled triple yelp and snapped briskly backward, rolling along his chain like a big blue yo-yo. Matt stood shakily, wincing at the stinging of his abraded flesh. Bronx righted himself, shook all three heads, and charged again. Although he knew the chain wouldn't reach, Matt stepped back anyway. A mistake, as he felt the dropoff, but it was too late to correct. Instead of a shaft, he landed on his back on a steep slope, and shot down it headfirst. He had no trouble imagining a boulder in the middle of his path, and the sound his skull would make colliding with it. And if the Grandmaster was right, if this realm did exist in his mind, he'd better quit thinking about things like that, or they might suddenly come true. He rolled onto his stomach, unable to brake his descent. He had always liked sledding as a kid, but without the cushions of snow, it wasn't nearly so much fun. Besides, in sledding, you could choose your hillside and not be rocketing into the dark wondering if you were going to shoot off the edge of a precipice. A pinpoint of dull light appeared ahead of him, and grew rapidly. Now he could see himself popping out of a cliffside and plunging thousands of feet into a river gorge. He forced that image out of his mind. His wild ride ended when he was tumbled gracelessly onto a forest floor spongy with loam and moss. Tall, coarse-barked trees rose around him. He staggered to an upright position, holding onto a tree until he was sure he was in control of his balance again. "Some fun," he said to himself. Just then, a distant agonized roar echoed from on high. Matt recognized the voice at once. "Goliath?!" * * The forest had changed, becoming a dreary, grey, lifeless mockery of the landscape in his dream. He pressed on, seeking the source of the constant roaring. It sounded like Goliath was being slowly, viciously tortured. He came to a clearing and saw in the cloud-dappled moonlight a small house. It was only then that he realized he could see the moon, a barren ghastly skull shrouded in mist. A woman emerged from the house, and for a moment Matt's heart leapt in his chest, thinking it was Eurydice and his mad quest at an end. But the woman, although dark-haired, although certainly a babe, was not the woman he sought. It was his partner. "Elisa?" he said. She didn't hear him, didn't see him. Her attention seemed fixed on a large flat stone in the middle of the drab garden around the house. She was dressed strangely, as strangely as he was himself. Sandal straps crisscrossed their way up her tawny legs, a plum-colored toga was draped sexily low, and her hair was piled high in a coronet of braids. Somehow, she had gotten caught up in all of this. She must have come looking for him when he turned up missing, and the Grandmaster had either sent her or she'd found her own way. Maybe Owen Burnett would play along, and poor old Bronx didn't know what was going on, but Elisa was different. She wouldn't get involved in any Illuminati mind games. He dashed up to her, trampling the garden, and found her struggling to move the flat stone. "Elisa! Wow, am I glad to see you!" Goliath's roar cut through the night again, and Elisa didn't notice. She looked up at Matt, her eyes haunted. "Help me move the stone," she said. "Why did I bury it? It was a gift, a gift for me, not meant to molder away beneath the earth!" "Say what?" "They must be waiting for me to open it. Surely something so lovely must have even more splendid treasures within, and they're disappointed I haven't properly thanked them." He stared closely at her. She wasn't Elisa. A dead ringer physically, and the voice was the same, but the speech was all off. And the Elisa he knew wouldn't have been scrabbling at a rock while somewhere Goliath was suffering. She dug her fingers beneath the edge of the stone and tried to lift. "Help me!" "Okay," he said uncertainly, and put his own back into the effort. The stone came up, dangling a few worms and sending some beetles scurrying for cover. They tipped it into the weeds and Elisa threw herself at the churned earth, ripping loose huge chunks, her knuckles bleeding, fingernails torn to the quick. "Elisa, what --" She cried out in fevered triumph and withdrew her hands. Clutched between them, clotted with soil, was a dazzlingly beautiful gold box. "Now I will know!" She fumbled at the latch. "Oh, hey!" Matt tried to grab it, suddenly understanding. "Don't open --" Too late. The lid came open. Elisa leaned forward eagerly, eyes alight and expectant. "No!" Matt yelled. Dark shapes swarmed out of the box. Tiny, winged shapes. Tiny gargoyles. A dozen, a hundred, all of them miniature Demonas. Hissing and snarling and spitting hatefully, the swarm settled upon Elisa. She screamed as talons furrowed her skin, pulled her hair. She dropped the box. It landed on its side and Matt saw a final Demona trying to wiggle out. He kicked the lid shut, trapping her. He reached for Elisa, but she was up and running, flailing blindly as Demonas savaged her face. Blood coursed down her cheeks like tears. He went after her. The curtain blocking the doorway of the little house billowed as she fled through it. Matt swept it aside and plunged through the door -- -- and Elisa was gone. The house was gone. He was standing on a mountainside with no idea how he got there. High above him, bound to a rock and circled by a gleaming Steel Clan robot, was Goliath. * * "What _is_ this?" Matt clapped his hands to the sides of his head. "Greek mythology's greatest hits?" He got it now. Even woefully undereducated, he had a general grasp of some of the myths. Not enough to do well in Jeopardy, but he at least knew the basics. He'd recognized the Pandora thing, though not in time, and now here was Goliath, playing the part of the guy who'd given fire to mankind and been condemned to eternity having his liver torn out by a bird. The mountain was impossible to climb, and even if he could get up there, the chains holding Goliath were even more formidable than the ones that had held him in the ruined cathedral, during that apple incident. Plus, there was the matter of the robot. For the time being, it seemed satisfied to swoop in and gouge at Goliath's midsection. But Matt had no doubts that, the moment he tried to interfere, it would sprout all manner of deadly devices and flatten him into a grease spot. Night was fading fast, and Matt took some solace in the knowledge that dawn would bring Goliath a respite and a healing. But when the sun came up, Goliath remained unchanged. Matt frowned, until he saw that the sun wasn't a sun at all but a big fireball hooked to a team of horses whose manes and tails streamed flame. He could even make out, by squinting, what looked like a Ben- Hur type of chariot up there. The chariot careened crazily across the sky, out of control. It dove close to earth, and Matt felt his skin tightening from the heat. Trees withered and wilted. A pond began to steam. And then, just as it seemed the very stones would spontaneously combust, the chariot soared high. High, higher, highest, until the fireball twinkled like a distant star. New night fell over the world, and a bitter, Arctic cold. Matt could see his breath, feel his teeth chatter. Then it was coming closer again, and a sudden bolt of lightning seared the sky. Something tumbled from the chariot, something small, spinning helplessly, falling. Something that was Lexington. Matt called out uselessly and started to run, but he was much too far away. He'd only gotten a few steps when the falling figure disappeared behind the mountain. Nothing could survive that kind of fall. Matt turned back to Goliath, hoping he hadn't seen the death of one of his clan, although there was no way he could have missed it. Goliath was gone. The mountain was gone. Now, the scene that lay before him was of a dark and gloomy valley, knee-deep in somber brown grass, the sky a gunmetal grey shell. High cliffs funneled the valley together at the far end. Stooped figures in rags wandered listlessly, poking at the ground with sticks. Not far from Matt was a group of men, weathered and worn but looking more alive than the rag-wearers. They were heading into the valley, led by one tall, powerfully-built man with silver hair and a stern, noble face. He was flanked by a tough-looking woman with short red hair, and a blocky blond man who was leading a shaggy goat. Matt knew all three of them, although only the leader by name. It was MacBeth, and his two flunkies. And a bunch of other guys. They hadn't seen him, so he crouched in the grass and watched as they moved along. When they stopped and appeared to be conversing with one of the rag-wearers, Matt inched closer as stealthily as he could. The rag-wearer was a gargoyle with a strip of cloth tied across his eyes. Hudson. He could just make out MacBeth's strong voice. "I am weary of these travels," he was saying. "I want nothing more than to find peace. My wife waits patiently for me, weaving and re-weaving my shroud." Hudson said something and gestured. The blond man, at a nod from MacBeth, brought forth the goat and in a single brutal motion slashed its throat. Blood, startlingly bright in the gloom, gushed into a shallow trench in the earth. The rest of the rag-wearers gathered around, emitting a wordless, needful keen that put Matt's nerves on edge. Whatever was going on, he didn't want to be a part of it. If they'd kill a goat -- no, _sacrifice_ a goat -- would they draw the line at a human? He had no clue what myth MacBeth was supposed to be re- enacting, or what Hudson's part in it was. All he wanted was to get out of this place and figure out what the hell was going on. He sidled well around them and proceeded down the narrowing valley. He could see the place where the cliff walls came together. A large cave opening loomed before him. A cold breeze breathed from it, carrying the wails of tormented souls and the smell of damnation. * * At some point in his journey, Matt Bluestone had stopped trying to see where the wires were. He no longer thought he was witnessing good special effects. He didn't know how long it would last, but for now, he just decided to go with the flow. He thought he was coping pretty well until he walked into the cave and saw the three massive judge's benches, and peering down from on high the faces of Martin Hacker, and Captain Chavez, and his father. "We are the judges of the slain," John Bluestone said. "Prepare to face us." Matt's mind was reeling. His father was all wrong. This man looked the age John Bluestone would look, if he hadn't died fourteen years ago. The body had been so badly burned that not even Gladys, John's wife, was able to recognize him. A car accident, the police said. Hit by a drunk driver, his own car flipping and catching fire. Due to the condition of the body, the authorities had recommended a quick cremation to finish what the accident had started, and Gladys agreed. So there was no body to exhume, no way to re-check the dental records. Very tidy. Although just a teenager, Matt had known even then what was going on. They'd done something to his father, taken him away somewhere, and made up this phony accident. Here was the truth. His father _was_ alive. Somewhere. Martin Hacker, his ex-partner at the FBI, fellow Illuminatus, and one-time friend, grinned a death's head grin at Matt. "We are the judges of the _slain_," he said. "This one is still breathing." "That will have to be remedied," Maria Chavez said sternly. She beckoned, and Officer Morgan came forth, dressed all in black and carrying a spear. Matt barely noticed. He was still staring at his father, knowing in his heart that he'd been right all along. John Bluestone had been silenced before he could prove the truth. Morgan raised the spear and prepared to strike. Three shrieking hideous creatures swept down on him. The three were identical in their monstrousness except that each had hair of a different color, one white, one dark, and one coppery. Their whips uncoiled, sparkling with barbs of metal woven into their leather lashes. Morgan fled, dropping his spear and holding his hands over his head to ward off the bite of the leather. The moment he had ducked behind Chavez's bench, the winged hags surrounded Matt. He was jerked out of his stunned state by the vicious crack of those whips, not touching him but slicing the air in front of his nose. The three judges watched impassively. He supposed now would have been another good time to have that stupid lyre. "This one judgement shall not stand," the blond hissed. "Drawing breath and mortal hand," the redhead added. "To darksome king and to his bride," the brunette chimed in, "he'll go and they his fate decide!" Matt gaped at them, but before his mind could deal with all of this, the three whips snaked out and flicked almost playfully across his shoulders and back. He bit off a cry of pain although he felt thin streams of blood trickling. The attack ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The hags landed in front of him, folding their attic-smelling feathery wings against their hunched backs. "You will go and you will fail," blondie predicted. "Heart will stop and skin will pale," red said. "Through Tartarus your path does lie, where life must end and love must die" quoth the brunette, nevermore. All three raised their stick-spindly arms and pointed to a flight of stairs beyond the judges' benches. It was probably a little late to wonder if he was cracking up. * * So this was Tartarus. Minus the fire and capering devils, it didn't look all that different from Uncle Ray's descriptions of Hell. He saw Mace Malone, still looking mean as a cat scratch, on a steep hillside. Mace was stripped to the waist, his scrawny old man's body straining with the effort as he braced his shoulders and back against a gigantic round boulder. Step by excruciating step, he shoved the boulder up the slope, but then it broke free, bounced past him, and rolled all the way to the bottom. Mace sobbed once, a horrible defeated sob, and began trudging down the hill to start over. A bunch of women, former girlfriends all, were gathered on the shore of a lake trying to drain it with colanders. A favorite teacher was bound to a wheel, which revolved endlessly, endlessly. Everywhere he looked he saw people he knew caught in a variety of ingenious and cruel torments. "Hey! Matt! Over here!" Deeply shocked by the sound of his name, he tripped on a loose stone and fell to his knees. It was Broadway. Up to his neck in a pit filled with a bubbly, frothy brown liquid. By the smell, rootbeer. A tree stretched its branches over the pit, and food dangled from the branches. Bagels, pizza, a Big Mac, a bag of Fritos, a jumbo- sized Hershey's bar with almonds. Despite this apparant bounty of junk food, Broadway looked haggard, thin, and awful. He reached up, fingers brushing at the candy bar, and the tree moved ever so slightly, enough to shift the treat just beyond his grasp. "Come on, Matt, an assist here!" Broadway grumbled. "Break me off one of those branches, would you?" "Here you go," he said, snapping off a branch with a cluster of egg rolls hanging like grapes. Just as he held it out, he saw something. A castle, towering dark and tall on the far side of the plain. He stood, letting go of the branch. Broadway grabbed for it eagerly, missed, and swore as it splashed into the rootbeer. Matt took a good, long look at the castle. "Why am I not surprised?" he muttered. * * "Welcome to Erebus," Brooklyn called as he landed at Matt's side. The red gargoyle wore sandals with feathery wings, and a helmet with gold wings raked back speedily along the sides of his head. "Erebus," Angela's voice echoed, although there was no sign of her. "The palace of Hades," Brooklyn elaborated. "Of Hades." "What are you two doing here?" Matt asked. "Well, you one and a half." "A half." "I brought you something." Brooklyn held out the shining golden lyre. "You've come so far on your own, you deserve a fair chance." "A fair chance." He accepted it with a wry smile. "Great! I'm sure this will be _loads_ of help!" "Of help." "I wish you'd stop that," Matt snapped irritably. "Stop that." He sighed. So did she. * * He entered the throne room and saw what he should have expected since the moment he laid eyes on the boatman, what he _had_ expected since he laid eyes on Erebus. Or, as it was known in other circles, Castle Wyvern. A woman wearing a skintight black gown sat in one of the thrones. Her red-gold hair framed a beauty only enhanced by the blue foxhead around her eye. In one hand she held a pomegranate, its skin split to reveal the plump wine-red seeds within. A man sat in the other throne, with a velvety mantle flowing from his shoulders. His brown hair was tied back in its customary ponytail, his dark eyes flashed as sharply as ever, and a scepter topped with a grinning skull rested across his knees. "Hello, Xanatos," Matt said. "You speak familiarly to the lord of the underworld, mortal." "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Haven't we played this silly game long enough?" Xanatos scowled. "This is no game!" "Look," Matt said, "I admit it had me going for a while. Pretty convincing stuff. Especially Elisa, because I knew she'd never be in on something like this. But then I got to thinking about all the other illustrious members of our little club. Disney, Lucas, those boys. I bought into it for a while, but what it all comes down to is special effects." "You dare!?" "Oh, for pete's sake, come off it! What I want to know is why. Why me? What is the Grandmaster really up to? None of it was ever real, was it? Tricks. Hypnotic suggestion. Even the dreams. Even the woman." He felt a bitter pang of sorrow as he said it, but he knew it was true. She couldn't be real. It had all been an elaborate setup, a hoax, to get him intrigued and then put him through this crazy experiment. "This woman?" Xanatos asked, making a grand, dramatic gesture. Matt looked. There she was. Nude, eyes demurely downcast, hands clasped in front of her. His throat wanted to close with emotion, he was so glad to see her safe and unharmed. The more he'd gone through on her behalf, the more she'd come to mean to him, until he was practically in love with her although they'd barely met. But he reminded himself that she was just as much a part of this as Xanatos himself. Not a spirit, but an actress. "Who are you really?" he asked. "Eurydice," she murmured. "I'm serious!" Her huge, soulful eyes briefly met his, then dropped. "It is so." He almost believed her. "She belongs to me," Xanatos said. "Her death makes her mine. There will be no more of your tricks, mortal. You think your music will sway me again? Hah! Even were it so, you would never reach the above world without looking back." Matt sighed. "Damn it, Xanatos, do we have to play out this stupid charade? Okay, okay, that's the way you want it, fine." He set his fingers to the lyre strings. Xanatos steepled his own fingers in anticipation. Shrugging, Matt ripped into the opening chords of La Bamba. Xanatos violently recoiled. The pomegranate fell from Fox's grasp and detonated on the marble floor, spraying seeds like shrapnel. Erebus itself seemed to shake. In gloomy Tartarus, Mace Malone's boulder cracked in half. The tree of junk food toppled into the pit of rootbeer. The lake roiled. The wheel stopped its revolutions. The three judges halted in their verdicts. The three hags were knocked from the air as if swatted. All over the underworld, ghostly forms gasped and writhed and cringed. Bronx lifted his three muzzles and howled. The bony craft of the ferryman tilted and nearly capsized. And somehow, as he played, Matt Bluestone knew all of these things happened. "Stop! Stop!" Xanatos commanded. "Take the woman! Take anything! Just cease that loathesome noise and go!" Matt let the music die away. He threw the lyre at Xanatos' feet and thrust an accusing fist under his nose. "I'm ready for some answers now!" "You have your life, and the life of the one you sought. Go and be thankful for those, and do not look back even once! Else you both perish and are condemned to the torments of Tartarus for all eternity!" "I'm warning you, Xanatos!" "Go, fool!" Fox ordered, leaning forward, her lovely face contorted into a snarl. "Your refusal to believe has let you survive, even let you win through, but do not defy us further! Know that none here are what we appear, but only images your own mind has placed over our true forms! Know that we are Hades and Persephone! Know this, and despair!" Matt glared at her. "Well, if that's true, then now that you've told me, I should see what really is real. And all I see is a washed-up television bimbo trying to make like Elvira!" Fox shrieked, and her husband bellowed in rage. And then the world changed. The medieval hall of Castle Wyvern was replaced by a brooding circle of black columns supporting a peaked roof. Xanatos swelled to twice his previous height, his skin darkening, his eyes becoming like molten gold, his body encased in black armor, a fearsome scowl knitting his merciless brow. That was all Matt needed to see. He was, in a word, convinced. "Flee, mortal!" The voice of Hades was thunder and death. "Touch her not, look on her not, until you have reached the upper world!" No problem, Matt thought. * * The underworld was dark and silent. Matt pressed on, eyes grimly forward. He could hear the light step of Eurydice behind him, her faint breathing. All of the other denizens of Tartarus had vanished. Their torments stood desolate and abandoned. Not a single thing moved. "Don't worry," Matt said, then cringed at how loud his voice sounded. "I'm getting you out of here." She didn't answer. He almost turned to see if she was all right, then caught himself. He didn't doubt that Hades, or Xanatos, or whoever, would make him stick to the rules. No looking back. Or she'd be gone, and it would have all been for nothing. The benches of the three judges were empty. The whips of the Furies lay on the floor. Matt's footsteps echoed in the still chamber. But only his footsteps. He stopped suddenly, straining to hear Eurydice. Nothing. Silence. She wasn't there. He'd been tricked. They'd never had any intention of letting him win. She was gone. No! She was there! It was part of the stupid game. His mind was playing tricks on him, his own doubts were making him think she had disappeared when she was really following him. He just couldn't hear her steps anymore because she was barefoot. That was it. His sandals made more noise. Yeah. Hudson and the shades were no longer in the valley. Of MacBeth and his crew, there was no sign except a shallow trench crusted with dried blood. The grass rustled at his passing, but when he stopped again, so did the rustling. Was she so light that she didn't so much as bend a blade of grass? That twigs didn't snap beneath her feet? She wasn't there. She was. He had to make sure. Just one little peek. Nobody would ever know. Just one quick glance to assure himself that he hadn't been tricked. No! If she was there, and he looked, she _would_ be gone! If she wasn't, he had nothing to lose. He clenched his jaw and kept moving, through the valley, past the mountain where empty chains lay amid the stones. Was that her breathing he heard, or the sigh of the wind? Why wouldn't she say anything? She had to know he was going crazy up here! Why didn't she speak? She was in on it. Toying with him. No. She was innocent. Then why didn't she speak? "Eurydice? You okay back there?" No answer. Because there was nobody there to answer. Because she was being prevented from answering. He passed the tiny house and garden. No Elisa. Just a gold box lying in the dirt. And there, down that path, an opening in a mountainside. The chute, steep and slick, rising into the darkness. Matt paused in front of it, frowning. He'd have to climb it, and if he fell, he would slide right back into Eurydice. Assuming she was even there. She _was_! Dammit, she was! But if he slipped and ran into her, that would count as a touch and she'd be whisked away forever. He had to try. It was the only way back, the only way out. "I'm going up," he said. "Stay close, but not too close. Brace your hands against the sides. And if I fall, try to get out of the way if there's room." He started his ascent. In the close confines of the chute, his own breath was loud as a windstorm. But when he held it, he heard only silence. He'd been tricked. He'd go all the way to the surface, and then turn and see that she had never been there. And Burnett, always the good flunkie, would have been told by Xanatos not to let him back on the boat. There would be no way to return. He had to look. He couldn't look. Still, he _had_ to! It was too dark to see anything in here even if he did look. He promised himself he'd wait until the top, and then if he still had doubts, he would go on and look. His feet slipped once, but he caught himself before he ran into her. If she was even there to run into. She was! She had to be! He got back up and kept going. Now he was at the level corridor, blindly picking his way around the outcrop and gingerly feeling ahead with his toe so that he wouldn't fall in the crevice. All of the inhabitants of the lower regions had been gone, but what about up here? What about Bronx? He didn't have a stick to distract him, and doubted that Bronx would fall for it twice even if he did. He didn't even have the lyre, since he'd chucked it at Xanatos. Now there was a sound, a deep rumbling exhale. And another, and a third, all overlapping. Matt couldn't believe his luck. Snoring. Bronx was asleep. The large body partly blocked the opening, but Matt was able to ease around him without touching. He could only hope Eurydice followed his example. If the three-headed guardian of the underworld awoke, there was no way Matt could even try to fight him without accidentally catching a glimpse of Eurydice. The gravel beach was still lit, but the flames had burned low. Were they far enough yet? They had to be. They'd come out of the underworld. Surely he could look at her now. He didn't dare. The gravel clicked and grated under his feet. Only his. She wasn't there. She had never been there. He had to look. * * "You used the language acquisition spell?" Xanatos asked, sitting back and putting his feet up while he paged through the Grandmaster's notes. "It seemed reasonable." "I cast it -- well, _I_ didn't; Demona did -- on the gargoyles just before their first New York sunset. It seemed quicker and easier than learning Scottish. And do you know, not once did anyone, even Detective Maza, question how it was that we all understood each other?" "I assume you used the same thing on your honeymoon?" "Yes. Dad never wondered about it either." "Matt's journey is in his mind, so he probably won't need to know ancient Greek. But who's to know? I'd hate to have him fail simply because he couldn't understand the language." "I hope he makes it," Xanatos said. "I've always kind of admired the tenacious little bastard." "Funny, I once said the same thing about you." "It's nice to know I'm held in such high regard." "Well," the Grandmaster said, "we are practically family." "How is your niece, by the way?" The monitors began to bleep more rapidly before the Grandmaster could reply. "He's waking up!" Xanatos jumped up and joined him at Matt's side. "Signs of a stroke?" "No, he --" Matt's eyes shot open and fixed on Xanatos. "You son of a bitch!" he yelled, and launched himself off the slab. Xanatos stumbled back, not quite in time. Matt's fist connected solidly with his jaw. "I didn't look! Give her back! Damn you!" "Matt!" the Grandmaster said sharply. Matt leaped on Xanatos, fingers going for his throat. "If I can't have her, I'll take you with me!" Much as he hated to do it, Xanatos was beginning to strangle so he popped Matt neatly in the solar plexus. Matt's grip loosened as he started gasping raggedly. The Grandmaster seized him and hauled him off Xanatos, who got up rubbing his neck. He'd have marks there the next day, and a knot was already rising on his jaw. "Packs a punch," Xanatos remarked, the words feeling like they were made of jagged glass squeezing through his throat. "I won fair and square!" Matt said, struggling with the Grandmaster. "Or do you cheat on your own rules?" "I don't know what you're talking about!" "Don't you, Hades?" he shot venomously. "Enough!" the Grandmaster said. "He cheated! I didn't look! I almost did, yeah, but I stopped myself! I got all the way to the boat. She was there! I know she was! Just ask Owen!" "He's delirious," Xanatos said. "I'm sorry I called your wife a bimbo, if that makes any difference. Now give her back!" "You called my wife a _what_?" "David, please, you're not helping." "Where is she?" Matt demanded. "Right there," the Grandmaster said with sudden awe. His hands slackened, his eyes were wide. "What?" Matt looked. A nude woman was crumpled on the floor. As the three men stared in surprise, she moaned and tried to sit up. Long dark hair, done in many thin braids, fell across her face. Her skin was olive-complected, her figure girlish yet full. Faded scars, tiny round punctures, dotted her lower legs. Snake bites. * * Epilogue: What do you do with a Greek myth brought to life? Matt was _not_ going to leave her at the manor. Not to be studied by the Illuminati like some lab animal. Nor would she be entrusted to Xanatos, no matter how often he insisted that he'd had experience acclimating legends to the 20th century. His apartment was out of the question. Sure, he was mostly in love with her. Sure, he'd saved her life and seen her naked. But that didn't mean they had to rush things. He couldn't ask his family to help him out. He could just imagine Mom and Uncle Ray's reactions. No, when things get weird, there's usually only one person a good cop can turn to. The door opened, and she gaped at him. "Matt?!" "Hi, Elisa. This is Eurydice. Can she crash at your place for a while?" * * The End
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