By Alva J. Roberts
Cyrus Pelagious stared at the structure before him. It was a massive looming construction that filled him with a sense of pure dread. It was impossible to imagine men building such a thing. It was larger than some of the small mountains he could see in the distance. His grip tightened on the rough leather hilt of his shimmering bronze sword. Usually the weapon gave him a sense of security, but now it did nothing to calm his frayed nerves.
“Surely this is the palace of Apollo!” Aristokles exclaimed.
Cyrus turned to look at his young cousin. It had probably been a mistake to bring the youth. He was blade thin, with thin scrawny arms. His linothorax armor of pressed linen hung loose on his slender frame, giving little protection. His helmet of boars’ tusk glued to leather kept falling down over his eyes. If it came to battle Aristokles would die, and it would be on Cyrus’ head, but how could he leave the youth behind?
The boy’s parents were both dead; Cyrus was the only family he had. They needed money, so Cyrus had to come, and he had nowhere to leave the boy. His choices had been limited; he could bring the boy, or they could both starve. Food was growing rare and coin even rarer.
“It is not Apollo’s Celestial Palace. This structure was built by men. Foolish men, who dared challenge the gods, and were punished for their hubris,” the old woman said. Her hair was silver gray, and her face was a thin mask of wrinkles. Cyrus would put her age at sixty or sixty-five, making her one of the oldest people he had ever met. Despite her age, Cyrus had to admit she was beautiful.
“What’s hub-wrist?” Aristokles asked innocently.
“Not hub-wrist, hubris. It’s when…oh never mind, it’s not important. Zeus save me from uneducated cretins.” The woman turned away to face the palace. Cyrus stared at her back. He liked the woman less every minute he was around her. “I am not paying you to ask questions, I’m paying you to protect me,” she said after another few moments.
Cyrus sighed and began walking towards the palace. It had been like this for days. The woman, who would not even give her name, seemed to think that all that mattered to Cyrus and Aristokles was gold, that she could treat them however she wanted as long as she paid them. The knowledge that she was right was a bitter lump in the pit of his stomach.
He glanced at the palace, trying to clear his mind. He had been trying to avoid looking at the thing for the past few hours. Despite its size and its former grandeur the structure was in ruins. The thick stone walls were falling inward, and the wood frame roof had collapsed. Graffiti marred the thick granite, and vile things floated in the tepid water of the fountain that decorated the overrun gardens in front of the palace.
The place looked as if it had been deserted a long time. There was nothing unique about its abandonment; villages and towns all over the countryside were in much the same state. Since the troubles began, it seemed as if all of Mycenaean civilization was collapsing.
But there was something ominous about the ruins, something that sent shivers down Cyrus’ spine. The walls seemed to twist and curve, making it hard for his eye to follow the lines of the building. The shadows of dusk crawled across the dark granite stones, making them look like they were covered in dried blood.
"I will light some torches," Cyrus said as they reached the gaping wound in the side of the palace where the gates once stood, "though I do not know why we are entering as the sun sets. I think it would be better to come back at dawn."
"I am not paying you to think. Some things must be accomplished at night. There will be plenty of light once we get inside," the woman replied, her voice full of arrogance.
The interior of the building was in a worse state of repair than the exterior. A thick layer of dirt and rubble covered the floor. Everything of value had long ago been stripped away; someone had even tried to chip the fresco off the wall, and the shattered pieces covered the floor. But Cyrus could clearly see that it depicted a man, a huge man, walking down a hill, carrying a giant torch.
"Who do you think that is?" Aristokles asked in an awe-filled voice.
"It is Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, to give to mankind. He and his brother, Epimetheus, were immortal. To punish him for his transgression, the gods bound Prometheus to a boulder, while a giant eagle eats his liver for the rest of eternity," the woman said, and for the first time since Cyrus met her, she showed an emotion other than annoyance. She sounded sad. “Our destination is far below the earth. The palace stretches almost as far below ground as it does above. Follow me.”
As Cyrus followed the woman through the shattered palace, the light shining through the holes in the ceiling grew dim. It was pure foolishness not to bring torches along, especially if their destination was below ground. But as she liked to remind him, she was the employer, and he would follow her lead. He just hoped he didn’t trip in the darkness and break his leg or worse.
Cyrus felt a tremor of fear course down his spine, but he ruthlessly forced it down. He needed the woman’s money; he could not afford fear. If he let his own cowardice prevent him from completing his task, both he and Aristokles would starve.
“Down here,” the woman called, lifting a trap door. The orange glow of fire light greeted them from the underground expanse. How had the woman known it would be there?
Cyrus took the lead, heading down the rickety ladder. The lower level of the palace looked much like the levels above, only cleaner, and in better condition. The looters had never found the trap door, and nature had been kept out. Torches in bronze sconces lined the walls. Down the hall he could see small, finely crafted tables, and a huge mirror on the wall.
The place felt eerie. It was like he was invading someone’s home, like they had just stepped out and would be back any minute. At the same time it felt old, like no one had been there in a long, long time.
There was a loud clanking sound to his right. He turned towards the noise, raising his shield. The light wood frame, covered with a thin sheet of bronze, would provide protection from most weapons. His sword was gripped tight in his hand, ready to face whatever dangers the ruins held.
Two figures clanked their way from a room down the hall. They were covered from head to toe in thick sheets of bronze. They moved in a jerky fashion, with their heads cocked at an odd angle. When they saw Cyrus, they surged forward.
Cyrus swung his sword at one of them with all his strength, only to have the blade rebound off of the man’s thick armor. The blade was nearly jarred from his hand, and he had to step back to adjust his grip.
The man took advantage of his inattention and swung one of his huge fists towards Cyrus. Cyrus lifted his shield to block the blow, but the force of it hurled him down the hall and shattered the wood frame of his shield. Cyrus rolled to his feet, his sword at the ready. What manner of men were these?
“Hold! I command you to hold!” the woman shouted as she descended the ladder.
The armored men stopped as if the woman had some magical control over them. Aristokles stared down from the level above with his mouth hanging open. The youth hadn’t even moved. The boy was no veteran and the whole skirmish had only lasted a few moments.
“You know these men?” Cyrus shouted, rage coloring his voice.
“They are not men. They are automontones created by Hephaestus to serve those who once ruled from this palace. They were a wedding gift. I did not think that they would still be operational. The must have found their way down here, to the servants quarters, in the last days before it was abandoned.” The woman walked past Cyrus, motioning for him to follow. The automontones followed her gesture. Cyrus stood rubbing his arm where the broken shield had bruised it. If the automontones served the ruler of the palace, why were they following her? There were too many questions.
Aristokles scurried down the ladder behind the woman. He had finally closed his mouth but his eyes were huge round saucers in his head. There was no hope for the boy.
“Come on, Aristokles. Stay close, there’s no telling what dangers are lurking down here,” Cyrus said.
The woman walked with a fast stride. She knew this place. She knew every twist and turn, leading them to a gigantic staircase that led even deeper into the earth. Tapestries and paintings covered every available surface of the stairwell. They showed hundreds of men and women; every scene was different. The men and women all looked similar. Cyrus guessed that it was some sort of family gallery.
“Look!” Aristokles whispered, pointing to one of the paintings half-concealed by the darkness.
Cyrus glanced at the painting and stopped to give it his full attention. It depicted a wedding. A smile covered the groom’s face, nearly splitting his head in two. But what made Cyrus stare was the bride. It was the woman. Years younger, to be sure, but there could be no mistake; it was her. Cyrus liked this less and less.
They hurried to catch up to the woman, hoping that she did not notice their viewing of the painting. The staircase was long, and led deep into the earth. The sconces on the walls cast a fitful light that did little to illuminate the darkness. It was if the shadows themselves were trying to extinguish the light.
“We are in the wine cellar. There is only one level below this,” the woman said.
Cyrus heard a soft rustle in the darkness and spun to look. Something was scurrying in the shadows, and whatever it was, it was fast. It stayed in the darkness, always just out of sight. There was a strange flapping noise and then something scraped along the ceiling, nearly twenty feet over their heads and shrouded in gloom.
“What’s that?” Aristokles asked, gripping the hilt of his sword in a white-knuckled grasp.
“It is nothing,” the woman replied. “We should continue on. Your lack of courage must impede you in many tasks, but I will not let your personal inadequacies and failings hamper my plans.”
“No. I’ve had enough of this. Whatever you are doing, you can do it by yourself. We’re leaving!” Cyrus said. He turned, striding purposefully toward the stairwell. Aristokles chased after him.
“You cannot leave me. The task is not done.”
“You can find another lackey!” Cyrus spat. The woman was beyond belief. Did she truly think that her pleading would mean anything to them?
Cyrus stepped onto the first step and rebounded, his head throbbing from the impact. It was like he had walked into a wall.
“Witch! Do you seek to bind us here?” Cyrus leapt to his feet, his sword darting forward to rest in nape of the woman’s neck. “Release us or I will cut your throat!”
“It is not in my power. None of us may leave this dark abode until dawn, when Apollo rides his great chariot across the sky. The creatures of shadow fear his might, but they fear little else.”
“Perhaps you speak the truth, but maybe I should drain the blood from your veins and wait for the dawn!”
The automontones clanked forward, their massive hands raised in aggression. There was no way he could defeat the creatures, but they would be too slow to stop his blade from killing the witch.
“Hold!” the woman yelled to the automontones. “You do not understand. The fault is mine. I have not been forthcoming, but I worried that if you knew the task at hand then you would balk. The fate of the world rests on our shoulders. You have seen the evil encroaching throughout Mycenae, you have seen the cities fall, and the dark things that stalk the night. This is the source of that evil. We must complete our task. I need you.”
Cyrus stared deep into the woman’s crystal blue eyes. She at least believed she was telling the truth. But that did not mean she was correct. Nor did it prove that there was anything he could do about it.
“You have your automontones. Why do you need me?”
“There are some tasks that they cannot perform. I need you. I am requesting your aide to save the earth. Please help me!”
“It seems we have little choice, but if anything happens to Aristokles you will not survive him long.” Cyrus meant every word; if this woman’s schemes harmed his cousin he would not be able to control himself. Aristokles was the only family he had left.
The woman nodded as if agreeing and turned to make her way deeper into the underground complex. Cyrus followed. He should have told her to jump off a cliff. This was pure foolishness. Cyrus had no desire to journey farther into the cursed palace. But what if she was telling the truth? There was no denying that every year brought more dark things that stalked the night.
Cyrus tightened his grip on his sword. The flapping noise was back. Something was flying over their heads, and whatever it was stuck to the darkness above, never entering the flickering torchlight. It was almost as if it was waiting for them, watching.
Moving faster, Cyrus could see something huge dive down from the ceiling to smash into one of the automontones. Cyrus saw a blinding flurry of feathers and pale flesh and then the thing, whatever it was, was gone.
“What in the name of Hades was that?” Cyrus yelled. The automontone hardly looked the worse for the skirmish, but he could see long scratches marring its thick bronze chest plate, and had no doubt that whatever it was would kill him.
“Harpies!” the woman shouted. She had her small dagger drawn and was staring at the ceiling.
“But Harpies aren’t real! They’re just made up stories!” Aristokles protested.
“They travel in groups of three! There are three of them!”
Cyrus heard the sound of flapping wings behind him and spun, thrusting his sword out. He felt the blade strike something, and then sharp claws tore at his flesh. He lifted his arm to shield his eyes and hacked blindly at his attacker. Wings beat at him, sharp claws tore at his flesh, and all-too-human hands pummeled him. The beast cried with a raspy inhuman voice, sounding like a giant bird.
Cyrus stabbed foreword, and the monster’s warm blood sprayed across his face and it fell to the ground. Cyrus fell forward panting, the fear and the adrenaline having taken his ability to stand. He looked down at the dead monster. Just like the stories said, it had the lower body of a massive eagle with razor sharp talons. It upper body was that of a human woman who was grotesquely malformed; sprouting from the woman’s back were two huge wings. It looked like something from a nightmare.
Cyrus glanced around the room. Aristokles stood back away from the fighting, staring in shock at the monsters. Cyrus couldn’t blame the boy; had he not been attacked himself, he might have been doing the same thing.
One of the creatures lay dead at the woman’s feet, its throat cut by the woman’s little dagger. But how had she not been harmed? Cyrus was covered in dozens of scratches, some of them deep. His linothorax armor had done nothing to stop the claws. The enameled linen of the armor was torn into jagged strips.
The automontones had caught the other harpy. They had their huge metal hands wrapped around the creature’s arms and legs. The harpy wailed in pain as the automontones began to pull. Cyrus turned away just before he heard a sickening pop, and the sound of blood pouring out over the floor. Seconds later, the sound of Aristokles being violently ill filled the chamber.
“We should get going. The creatures are immortal; they will rise soon and they will be angry,” the woman said.
“Won’t they follow us?” Aristokles asked in strained voice.
“They fear what is beyond.”
The woman walked from the chamber at a brisk pace, entering the passageway. Cyrus was too numb to speak so he followed after her in silence. There was something strange about the woman. When she spoke everyone around her listened. Maybe she really was a witch.
The small passageway quickly opened up into a single cavernous room. The room was filled with dozens of giant barrels that nearly touched the ceiling and it smelled of old wine and something else, something rotten and putrescent. There were torches near the entrance, and all the way across the massive room Cyrus could see the small pinpricks of light that proved there were other sconces. But by and large the huge room was darker than the darkest night.
“Y-y-you want us to…across this?” Aristokles asked.
“It is the only way. When the inhabitants left they doused the torches here. There were…things residing in the darkness that were drawn to the light. We bound them to this room and they cannot escape.”
The woman walked forward into the darkness, the automontones right behind her. Cyrus glanced at his cousin and gave a little shrug of his shoulders before hurrying on. They had no choice; they could either face the darkness or the angry harpies.
He felt his way forward, gripping his sword. The aisle between the casks seemed clear. Cyrus picked up his pace. He could hear a shuffling noise in the darkness, and low moans that were already growing closer.
“Aristokles!” Cyrus yelled, running to the source of the screams.
“What has happened?” the woman shouted.
Cyrus could see a light coming from where Aristokles had been standing. He rushed to the spot and had to stop suddenly before he fell into a gaping hole in the floor. Bright orange fire light shown up from the chamber twenty feet below. Cyrus could see his young cousin at the bottom of the hole.
“Aristokles! Are you all right? Aristokles!” Cyrus shouted his voice panicked.
“I…I… think I broke my leg,” the boy called up.
“Hold on! I’m coming!” Cyrus shouted, reaching for the edge of the hole.
“Stop! Are you that moronic? You would leap down there? The boy is lucky he only broke his leg. A fall like that can kill,” the woman said. “We will be down there momentarily. As long as he remains in the fire light, he should be safe. Which is more than I can say for us.” The strange shuffling sound grew louder, punctuating the woman’s words.
Cyrus growled in annoyance. She was right; if he leapt down, there was a good chance he would be hurt worse than his cousin. He could not help the boy with a broken neck. “Hold on! We’ll be down in a minute!”
“All right,” Aristokles said in a distracted voice.
Cyrus thought he could hear someone down below talking. “Are you alone?”
“I’ll see you in a few moments,” Aristokles answered.
Something grasped Cyrus’ shoulder in a tight painful grip. He spun around, swinging his sword. Thick black fluid gushed out over his hands. He stabbed the blade upward and more of the thick black liquid poured over him. A body flopped down near the hole, the orange fire light illuminating the creature.
It looked like a man but it was a man who had been dead for days, if not weeks. His skin had a sickly green hue, and his flesh was bloated. Where one of his eyes should have been there was cavernous hole filled with pus.
“What manner of beast is this?” Cyrus shouted.
“The servants of Epimetheus’ palace were transformed into these creatures. Come, if one has found us the others will soon follow! The hole in the floor has broken the enchantment on this room. They are no longer bound!”
Cyrus heard the sound of dozens of feet shuffling through the darkness. He looked at the tiny lights in the distance and jumped to his feet, sprinting towards them. The automontones clanked behind him, their heavy feet slow and cumbersome.
“Automontones protect us!” the woman shouted.
One of the pairs of clanking feet stopped following. The sound of thick bronze fists smashing into rotting flesh filled the wine cellar. Cyrus forced himself to sprint faster. Fear curled its way up his spine and churned in his belly. Would one automontone be able to stop the monsters?
As he drew closer, Cyrus could see huge doors ahead of them. He rushed past the door, turning to slam it shut behind him. Bracing his back against it, he screamed, “We need to find a way to barricade this shut!” But he could find nothing that would serve the purpose.
“Move aside!” the woman yelled, reaching into the pouch at her waist to produce a key. Cyrus stepped away, and watched as the woman locked the huge doors.
“Where did you get that key?”
“I’ve had it with me the whole time. I knew I would be venturing into the palace dungeons. It unlocks all of the doors down here. They were very thorough when they built the dungeons; I knew we would need it.”
“That’s not what I asked. Where did you get it? You’ve obviously been here before, when the place was not in ruins. Tell me what is going on!”
“Prometheus was not the only one punished for his crimes; all of mankind was. This is Epimetheus’ palace. In the deepest dungeon there is a box, which holds all the evils of the world. When it was opened, I ran for my life. That vile container is still open, still spewing evil into the world. I am the only one left alive who knows of its existence. It must be closed before the entire world is engulfed in darkness!”
Cyrus stared at the woman, stunned. Even in his backwater village he had heard of the legend. But it could not be true; the tale had been old when his grandfather was a boy, and that would make this woman hundreds years old. It was impossible. “Are you…Pandora?” he asked at length.
“Yes,” she said simply.
“That’s impossible,” Cyrus replied, his mind rebelling against the idea.
“You wanted the truth. If you believe it or not is up to you. Up ahead there is another stairwell. Your cousin should be in the chamber at the base of the stairs.”
Cyrus nodded, unable to speak, his mind racing. He needed to save Aristokles and then he could contemplate this woman’s wild tales. If Pandora’s Box really did lie in the bottom of the complex then he had to close it, but if she was just some madwoman then he should wait until dawn and run for the hills.
They walked down the stairs in silence. The only sounds were the clanking of the automontone and the huffing of Cyrus’ own breath.
His wounds were beginning to ache. Not a single one was serious, but taken as a whole, he had lost a lot of blood. He would need to rest soon. Exhaustion was already weighing down his steps when they reached the chamber.
The room was massive, and in its center there was a huge flame. The fire had no fuel that Cyrus could see. A small pile of rubble lay in the middle of the room where Aristokles had fallen through the floor. Darkness swirled around the edges, as if it was angered by the fire light.
“The flame Prometheus stole from the gods. It is a beautiful as I remember. The fire is what keeps the torches throughout the palace lit. It is our light in the darkness. The Box lies down the last passageway,” Pandora said, pointing to one of the many portals that lead from the room. “Where is your cousin?”
“I don’t know. Aristokles! Where are you?” Cyrus shouted, worry tempering his voice.
Something dark as night, moving faster than the eye could see, scurried from the darkness. The writhing mass of shadow engulfed the automontone. Cyrus blanched in terror as he saw the cloud swirl around the metal. The metal man staggered around the room and fell with a loud clank. Ice covered the thick bronze and the orange glow of the automontone’s eyes was gone. The darkness shrieked in rage and swirled away.
“By the gods! What was that?”
“Evil. Pure, undiluted evil.”
“Did it take Aristokles? Where is my cousin?”
“It would not enter the fire light for him. It saw the automontone as a threat. Your cousin should have been safe. But if you will not complete the quest without him…” Pandora paused, closing her eyes. “Artemis, goddess of the hunt, help us find him.”
“Cyrus? I’m in here!” Aristokles called, as if in answer to Pandora’s prayer.
Cyrus rushed to the room Aristokles called from, and stopped in his tracks. The room was dimly lit by torches. There was a massive bed filling most of the room, covered in fine linens. Aristokles’ half-naked body was sprawled across the bed. But that was not what caught Cyrus’ attention. It was the woman; she was more beautiful than anything that Cyrus had seen before. More beautiful than Pandora. Passion welled up inside of him, a burning hot desire that he could not deny.
“I have another guest. It has been so very long, and now I have two in a single day!” The woman glided towards Cyrus, her feet barely touching the floor. He felt his sword fall from his nerveless fingers to clang to the floor.
“Stop! Foul demon, Lamiae, I know you, and your wiles will not work on me!” Pandora screamed, rushing into the room with her dagger drawn.
The woman’s countenance changed instantly. Long fangs glistened from her mouth. Claws extended from her fingertips. For the first time, Cyrus saw the blood.
The crimson fluid covered her face and chest. The bed linens were stained red with it as it poured from the gaping wound in Aristokles’ neck.
Her spell broken, Cyrus dived for his sword. He rolled to his feet, the blade held defensively. Pandora lunged at the demon, her dagger sinking into the creature’s unholy flesh. It screamed in pain and swung one of its taloned hands at Pandora. She flew across the room, her blood splattering over the gray stones of the floor.
Cyrus lunged forward, thrusting his bronze sword through the demon’s heart. Its blood splattered across the sword and his hand. Smoke rose from the spots where it landed as the acidic blood ate through the bronze of the blade and the tender flesh of his hand.
Cyrus howled his pain, clutching his injured fist to his chest. The pain was almost unbearable. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the melting flesh and stark white bone showing beneath.
“Aristokles!” he yelled, stumbling forward, falling on the bed, his good hand reaching out to staunch the flow of blood running from the boy’s neck.
“Where is she? She was here just a moment ago,” Aristokles whispered. “She’s very pretty. You’ll like her, Cyrus.”
“I think she left for a moment,” Cyrus whispered, tears running down his face. There was so much blood, blood everywhere. It covered the entire bed.
“It’s very cold. I think I will nap until she returns. It’s too bad mother can’t meet her,” Aristokles said, closing his eyes.
“Aristokles!” Cyrus shouted his cousin’s name, even though he knew it was no use. Tears rolled down his face as he stumbled to his feet. “Pandora?” he called, turning toward the injured woman.
She was lying against the wall. Her hands clutched at her midsection, trying to stuff her bowels back inside her body. Cyrus turned away, closing his eyes, unable to stand the sight.
“But you’re immortal. You can’t die!” Cyrus cried, suddenly feeling very alone.
“I do not age as you, but I am far from immortal. You…have to close…the Box,” she gurgled, as blood ran down her chin.
Cyrus ran from the horrors of the chamber, tears rolling down from his eyes. He could feel the acidic blood of the demon working its way up his arm, slowing eating away his flesh. He staggered to the entrance that Pandora indicated.
They were dead, both of them. Aristokles. Pandora. And the demon’s blood would take Cyrus from the world soon. It would not be for nothing. He would close the Box.
The darkness was thick as he stepped through the portal. It was like walking through mud. He forced his way deeper into the murky depths as it began to swirl around his feet.
He could feel the icy tendrils crawling their way up his legs, freezing his flesh. But he lurched forward. His leg wobbled and he tumbled to the ground, the frozen limb no longer able to bear his weight.
He crawled forward, the darkness so cold it felt like it was burning the skin from his bones. A soft whimpering filled the tiny room. Cyrus barely recognized it as his own voice. The tears rolling from his eyes froze to his face.
His reaching hand felt something square and wooden. He stretched up feeling the object in the empty darkness, until he found what he was searching for, and slammed the lid shut.
“Epimetheus’ Palace” previously appeared in Pandora’s Nightmare: Horror Unleashed from Pill Hill Press.
* * *
Alva J. Roberts (pronounced Al-Vee J. Roberts) lives in Western Nebraska with his wife and two dogs. When he is not writing he works as librarian. He writes in all genres of speculative fiction but his passion is writing fantasy. Visit him online at: http://alvaroberts.weebly.com/.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Don't fear failure. Many of the would-be writers I talk to have a fear of failure that keeps them from writing. Most of my favorite authors could not get their first novel published, but that didn't stop them from writing their next novel. Rejection letters are an opportunity to grow as a writer, and one thing I have in common with my favorite New York Times bestselling author.