Here is the prologue chapter to a YA fantasy/sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. It’s going out as a submission to the publishers and agents this week. I’m excited for it, wish me luck!

 

Prologue

 

            HERMES—the god came to the end of the long concrete flight of stairs that lead down to the opening of the underworld. He had not visited the realm of his older brother in seven human generations, and he was glad he would not have to see his brother today. There were rumors that Hades had gone mad long ago. Instead Hermes had left Olympus to call on a creature who, in her way, was every bit as frightening as Hades, and indeed much older and therefore perhaps more dangerous. A fetid damp wind stirred at the bottom of the long stairway, and the heaviness of the quiet was unnatural. Strange and twisted creatures were known to prowl these corridors that lay at the outskirts of the netherworld. Although he was immortal, Hermes felt fear. It had been such a long time since he had experienced this emotion, and a furtive smile twisted his lips into a grin for a moment. Once I was a hero, he thought, and now I am merely a messenger.

            He found the passageway he was seeking. This far underground, whatever agents of repair that had been programmed to service these tunnels had ceased to function a century ago and it was as dark as the grave. He could feel a slimy cold radiating from a pool of water there in the darkness, and he heard something splash into the chill waters at the sound of his approaching footsteps. Hermes lifted his caduceus. “Light,” he muttered, and the staff bathed the cavern in a pale yellow-gold. He was standing on the brink of a large underground pool, the waters choppy and deep; beneath its surface blind eels, long, thin, and gray, like living ropes, swam in twisting swarms, sensing each other’s movements in the water. They had long ago lost all usage of their eyes down here in the darkness . . . what could they feed upon besides each other? Hermes shuddered. In the middle of the small lake a rotting wooden boat bobbed all by itself, with no passenger or pilot, nor anchor or tether. It seemed the gorgon had long ago given up all pretense at receiving visitors in a civilized fashion. Not surprising, since it’s not like we seek her services often, Hermes thought. Across the pond a waterfall as wide as a road and as thin as a sheet flowed down a steeply terraced slope of crumbling black stone. Who could say, this far underneath the roots of the world tree, whether the embankment was made by man or by nature?

            Hermes raised his staff high above him and pressed a small switch on the side—the soft buttery light emanating from the staff intensified until its glow seemed to fill up the cavern with a projected 3-dimensional grid that danced and glittered over the water’s surface and then disappeared, twinkling underneath the cloak of the waterfall into some hole behind the water’s trickle-tumble. He waited with bated breath for a moment, and then one of the two brass snakes coiled about his staff bent its little head towards him and hissed in its reedy staccato voice, “There is an entrance behind the waterfall, nine meters away. One who knows you are coming waits for you there.”

            “Let us go then,” Hermes said. Raising his staff aloft, he floated into the air, and still standing completely vertical moved above the dark waters and sailed across the pond’s surface. When he reached the waterfall he took a deep breath of air and plunged through the wall of icy plummeting water—it broke about him like a brittle windowpane, and as he came through the other side he landed on a rough hewn floor of dank stone, and without looking about him he knelt, head bowed and eyes closed. He lay his staff before himself in a gesture of submission, and in this unaccustomed posture his knees felt stiff. How unused to this he was, how awkward and uneasy it was for him or any of his brothers and sisters to deal with things as old and as powerful as themselves.

            He waited . . . until an awful voice seemed to crawl out from the darkness, a voice much older than any living thing, a voice that seemed carved with obsidian from the stuff of nightmares and shadows, a voice once velvet and rich but now harsh and cracked as the night itself.

            “Hermessss . . .”

            “My lady,” he replied.

            There came a staccato chuckle, like the sound of breaking pottery.

            “The god of theivesss and poets . . . have you come to steal from me or to flatter me?”

            “Neither of those things dear Euryale, the far-roaming, lovely daughter of the sea,” Hermes recited carefully.

            Another wave of cold laughter, like the brittle breaking of the bones of small animals, washed over him, “Arise, Bold Hermes, you deserve your reputation as an artless flatterer! I don my veil and you may look upon me. It has been centuries since anyone had the gall to call me lovely, yesss . . . I too was once a creature of the light. Many famous men would have given their sight to gaze upon my naked beauty . . . ”

            It took all his willpower for Hermes to raise his head without flinching. He saw that the gorgon Euryale sat enthroned on some stone outcropping before a small pool of water that formed naturally in a cleft of rock at her feet; as was custom she had covered her face in a black veil draped down over her head, and she wore a tattered silken dress of midnight black, that was cut in a fashion which had not been seen anywhere on earth for many years. She leaned forward slightly to watch him and he thought he detected the slightest quiver of movement from the nest of snakes coiled there beneath her black veil.

            “Come sit before ussss,” Euryale beckoned.

            Hermes swallowed his fear and approached the throne of this creature. He wondered if by “us” she was referring to the snakes that sprouted from her head.

            “Yess, Hermesss, my tressesss are still serpentine, I haven’t gone in for any of the changes my sisters have, to become creatures of wasps or tentacles,” she purred.

            Startled, he realized that she had been reading his thoughts. He shifted his focus and put up a mental shield around himself, cloaking his mind; he had forgotten to do so when he came in.

            “Aaaah, thank you for covering yourself up. We rarely get visitors, you know. I didn’t mean to pry, but your mind was clouding the whole place . . . like a bloody fishhh in a pool,” she said.

            Hermes cleared his throat and tried to lean casually against a slimy stalactite, or was it a stalagmite? He had often found that the best way to deal with the violent and the insane was to adopt a nonchalant attitude.

            “I come to ask a boon of you, dear Aunt Euryale,” he said.

            She ignored him, “You were wondering if I still have snakes on my head? We tried to cut them off, the darlingss, and threw them in the pool, but they always grow back. Nasty, resentful little things.”

            He heard a chorus of hissing from her head that didn’t seem to be coming from her mouth; her hair was fighting.

            Suddenly he felt if he stayed in this dank loathsome cave for much longer he would go insane himself. “We have a task for you to perform, Euryale. We need you to go to the surface and fetch something for us,” Hermes said impatiently.

            With a shocking speed the veiled creature shot up to her full height, towering over him, and in a flash he knew fear that he had not known since he was a young boy.

            “AM I SOME DOG THAT YOU COMMAND?” the gorgon’s voice roared like a thousand rolling thunders. Hermes fell to his knees groaning and clapped his hands to his ringing ears.

            “No misstress . . . please! . . .” he gasped.

            “WOULD YOU SPEAK TO ME THIS WAY, IF I SHOWED YOU MY DIVINE EYESSSS?”

            “Stop . . . I beg you, in the name of . . .” The voice was ringing in his skull, and Hermes felt a trickle of warm, sticky blood flowing into his hands cupped around his ears.

            “In the name of who?” the gorgon asked coldly, abruptly calm. She was merely testing him, he realized. Showing him the power she could wield in her realm. Surely even the gorgon would balk at killing a god?

            He gasped and managed to spit out his trump card. “In the name of my father Zeus. There is a plot afoot. He wants to know how far it goes. Foil it and you would dash the plans of Apollo and Poseidon both.”

            At the mention of these two gods, who she hated, the gorgon gave a sharp hiss and then let her long body settle back, coiling itself again on her rocky outcrop. She hissed twice again, but it seemed less angry, and more thoughtful now.

            “Ssssshow me,” the gorgon growled.

            Hermes stood, shaking. He plunged his caduceus into small flat pool of water, it lit up with light and became a rippling screen showing the marketplace of Kallipolis. Merchants and fishwives crowded about, haggling for deals. A young guardian in training and an older guardian, probably her mentor, were standing in the marketplace, watching the crowd. A young girl, tall and skinny as a beanpole, with raven hair in a long cascade of dark ringlets that came down to her shoulders and grey-green eyes that were focused hard on summoning the guardian’s gift: to read and sift through the thoughts of her fellow citizens. Her lips were pursed and her brow knitted in fierce concentration that was unusual to see on the face of one so young. Hermes let the vision fade.

            “In an hour this young girl will come into possession of the Baetylus itself . . . .”

            The black cowled head looked at him at him, tilted curiously, but said nothing.

            “Apollo is somehow responsible for this. Of course it would be easy enough for me to go and get it back myself. But we must know what Apollo is planning by this. Why is he allowing the Baetylus in the hands of a mortal . . . what is he up to?”

            “Yesss, what indeed?” Euryale said thoughtfully.

            “If I spent my time tracking and following this human child, Apollo and Poseidon would quickly find out. But everybody has forgotten about you. You can follow her, hiding in the shadows, and uncover this intrigue.”

            “And why should I?”

            It was time to play his other ace. “Your sister Medusa is involved in this plot. It seems that Apollo paid her something to fetch the Baetylus for him.”

            “Medusa! My slutty sister is cunning and deceitful. Apollo is a fool to trust her,” Euryale hissed.

            “Indeed. But perhaps if we work together we can uncover what—”

            “It’s always about Medusa! Always! That snobby hussy! Ssspiteful! Selfish! Nothing for her sister. Never allowed in on her little schemes!  Well, I would just love to see the look on her face when  . . . .”

            “When her plans are thwarted? If your sister and my brother both seek after the Baetylus, perhaps we could play them off each other?” Hermes said.

            “She always thinks she was the pretty-pretty. Thinks she is the clever one! Sneaky little princess hissy-hiss!” the gorgon clenched her almost human fingers, with their crooked long claws, until it seemed she would draw blood from her palms. Hermes smiled. Hearing her think out loud he knew that she had already accepted.

            “How did she get the Baetylus?” the gorgon asked suspiciously.

            “She has a helper. A little thief. It seems . . . Medusa has somehow made a daughter,” he replied.

            Euryale shrieked with some emotion that Hermes couldn’t even recognize.

            “A daughter? A gorgon’s daughter! Medusa has gone too far this time . . . this daughter will turn against her! She shall know such sadness and misery!” Was she laughing? She curled up, coiling in on herself. Now the gorgon seemed to be receding backwards into the cavern, growing somehow more distant without moving anywhere, preparing to bi-locate.

            “This daughter is going to give the Baetylus to the human girl I showed you. So, you will keep an eye on the Baetylus and report what you see to me?” Hermes said hopefully.

            “Yesss, little Medusa is too deceitful to be trusted. We will watch this human girl, yesssss. And find this gorgon daughter, eat this gorgon daughter up, yesss!” the last sibilant hiss faded to a barely audible ghost of sound.

            “Fine. But don’t kill the human until you know why she has been given the stone!” Hermes called after her, but the gorgon was already gone, and he was standing alone in the dark cave with nothing but silence and the eternally slow and steady trickle, like time itself, of the stalactites’ drip-dropping down onto the stalagmites.

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