Chapter Two: The Oleander Eaters The five tumbled through an infinite chasm filled with mirrors and tattered sheets. They fell in the reverse order of how they had entered. They fell like this: Cecile (and the coral snake) Sidney Manu Whitey Whitey was the first to sense her coming at them from above, a silent predator gliding through the shapes and the columns. He could navigate the realm between the two cities, but he was powerless to change their trajectory; couldn’t slow his own descent to warn the others as they fell from above him. The ichor swallowed the tunnel above them. The water was different here. They could detect the stench of burning rubber, stagnate water, of bloated decay. Pale ghost shapes lingered beneath its depths, like thousands of gar hovering within the black water. As it neared them, its shape began to morph into a terrifying avian shape. From the globulous flesh sprouted carrion plumes all black save for the red tops of its sharp raptor wings. The face of a woman regarded them with a cunning ferocity in her vulture eyes, before lashing out at Cecile. It was impossible for Cecile to explain how Sidney was able to turn herself mid-fall and then, somehow, it was as if she slowed herself or floated upward... Sidney’s hand gripped Cecile’s, and with a fierce tug, brought her down, saving her from the savage claws. Sidney’s screams of agony shook the mirrored tunnel as a gush of vibrant red bloomed across her chest, where the harpy’s claws had struck. Cecile felt Sidney’s fingers slipping away and clenched her hand in response, bringing the girl closer. Tears sprang to Cecile’s eyes, the droplets were swept up by the wind whipping past them. Even in the freefall, she could see that Sidney was dying. Her skin was turning gray, and Cecile felt the dry paper flesh crack and crumble inside of her hands as she cradled her. The harpy’s pinions flexed, propelling herself down to them for the final swoop. Her lips parted, revealing the swirling blackness within. The shriek she unleashed sent a shockwave of shattered glass down into the depths of the mirrored tunnel. It was the coral snake, tumbling within Cecile’s handbag, that felt the presence of the Loa. In response, the Jericho Root in his belly had resonated with a beat that seared its signature into his guts. Manu’s cries were cut short as her eyes drank in the massive phantom shape as it drifted past her, bathing her vision in neon yellows, purples and oranges. The harpy fought, biting and clawing her way through hundreds of ghostly tentacles, entangled in the delicate, venom-laced appendages. Manu’s screams resumed when she realized that Cecile and the dying Sidney were caught among the fray. Whitey’s eyes widened--oh, how he wanted a smoke right now-- the exit was fast rising to meet them. One of the tentacles drifted toward the two falling girls. Cecile could not close her eyes in terror as the shining, serpentine shape touched Sidney’s forehead. There was a final gasp from Sidney before the two girls were bathed in light. Manu stared, transfixed at the sight of the elephantine jellyfish as it floated above them. The harpy unleashed another shockwave-producing scream. It was coming right for them-- Manu had barely managed to reach Whitey’s hand as they were sent off course, through another exit. *** There was an inhuman shriek, a mixture of voices, followed by a feminine gasp. The Saint Queen of the Gulf gazed into the dark, swirling depths beneath the glass. “This is Medea’s doing.” She hissed as she turned away from the mirror, clutching at her ravaged face with a gloved hand. Strands of her short blond hair stuck out from between her fingers. “When will she grow up?” The exposed flesh of her face had already healed itself. *** Manu sat up with a groan, one hand rubbing her sore backside. Whitey had recovered from their less than graceful tumble sooner than the human girl. While she busied herself with bitching about her various aches, the Lapin had himself a cigarette and a look around the empty street. He waited for Manu to realize that Cecile and Sidney were nowhere in sight. *** Cecile sat up with a groan, one hand rubbing her sore backside. Her other hand was still clutching something, but she couldn't remember what is was and she didn't want to open her eyes, yet. A few feet away lay Cecile's discarded handbag. It stirred for a moment, then went still at the sound of Cecile's gasp. She wasn't holding Sidney, anymore. Instead, someone had given her a leather top hat. The coral snake peeked from the handbag's opening, tasting the charged air of the stairwell with its tongue. They were alone for now.