“You take me to such interesting places,” I said dourly, and stepped around a pile of rotted, stinking something-or-another on the path in the drainage pipe. The scents blanketed our senses, and stuck in the back of my throat like a sickly, viscous mucous. I switched to breathing through my mouth and not my nose, but my brain still screamed that I wasn’t fooling it.
“Well, I had to one-up the diner somehow,” he replied blithely, his broad shoulders leading the way through the semi-dark labyrinth of tunnels.
“A contact of mine lives down here; you’d be surprised what she can hear through the storm drain system throughout the city.”
The thought of visiting down here made my skin crawl, let alone living in a place like this. I get that ideally storm drains are for storm water, but those who dwelt above didn’t seem to care, and all manner of nastiness was collecting along the surfaces.
“Does she hate visitors, or something?” I asked, not being able to fathom who, or what, would voluntarily be here, except someone who wanted to have solitude in the middle of a city.
“She’s in hidin’, and a little shy. Not many know she’s down here, and she’d like to keep it that way, but we need to know why the Strixes attacked the shifter; if for no other reason than to keep them from tearin’ you to pieces. She might have heard somethin’, so we’ll check with her first,” he finished, and the reminder of how close I’d come to being shifter chow shut me up for the remainder of the trek.
Plus, it made it easier to concentrate on not inhaling the smell.
Oliver stopped and half-turned toward me. The side of his face I could see in the low light quirked in an impish smile.
“I’m one of the few people she blessed with the ability to visit her, so you’ll have to hold my hand if you want to come in.”
I scowled, but his grin merely widened in response.
“You’re enjoying this too much,” I said, and folded my arms over my chest, not wanting to reach forward and take his hand. I couldn’t tell if it was because I was feeling persnickety, or on the principle that I wanted so badly to hold his hand, therefore I shouldn’t. Quandaries, eh?
“You could always stay here, alone, with nothing but the muck, rats, and smell to keep you company,” he so helpfully suggested, and an icy finger trailed down my spine, causing me to shiver in response to the word ‘rat’. So I was being a wimp about some rodents, so what? Have you seen the size of the ones that fed off some of the magical runoff in this town? Anyone in their right mind avoided them.
Or, at least that’s what I told myself as I tentatively reached forward and took his hand, my heart now galloping faster than it had all day, and I hoped he hadn’t seen me gulp.
“Only because of the rats,” I said meekly, as his warmth engulfed my chilled fingers. He chuckled, low and softer than a down south summer night full of fireflies. Then, without warning, he pulled me through the wall on our right before I could even think to hold my breath.
It was as if we were moving through a weird kind of water, but thicker, that sucked at my body, and did its best to trap me in its suffocating confines–though nothing tried to enter my mouth or nostrils. After what seemed like an eternity, with lungs screaming in protest, Oliver gave one final pull and I was through.
I let go of his hand and fell to my knees, gasping, while the bastard laughed.
“It’s usually better to do it without warning, since the first thing you want to do when you come out is take a big breath,” he supplied, and in my dimmed, oxygen-deprived vision, I saw his hand as an offering to help me up. Resisting the urge to spit on it, I got a foot to a kneeling position, used my hands to push on my thigh, and stood without help, though I did wobble somewhat.
Oliver didn’t comment, but I could almost feel him roll his eyes, even though I wasn’t looking at him right at that moment; I was too worried about not falling over. He did, however, give me a moment to orient myself, which I was silently grateful for.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of awful smells. In fact, it smelled almost…nice. Looking around the large, circular room, which would have been called a courtyard if it had been open to the sky, I was staggered by the beauty of the fountain sitting in the dead center. Created from the most flawless, snow white marble imaginable, the centerpiece was a beautiful tree of some sort, the trunks and branches curving to form the shape of a running woman. Without realizing I’d done it, I walked in a wide circle to find her face, my sneakers soundless on the cobbled stone floor; a drastic, yet appealing, change from the concrete tunnels.
The tree-woman’s face was turned skyward, eyes scared and pleading, mouth slightly open as one of the openings for the water of the fountain to gently flow out of. It was also coming from the ends of the branches, and created a delicate, soothing sound on the water collecting in the pool at the bottom.
“She’s beautiful,” I whispered as Oliver approached and stood next to me.
“Too beautiful for her own good,” a soft, sorrowful voice stated from behind us, and my heart skipped a beat as I nearly jumped out of my skin. All the fear I was experiencing today couldn’t be good for my health–I needed a vacation.
“Sophie, this is Daphne,” Oliver said, and in a rare show of respect inclined his head in her direction.
Her hair was luscious and long, even though some of it was braided as a crown, while the rest rested over her right shoulder and down to her waist like a thick, overfed snake. Features that were delicate and seemingly sculpted by the gods themselves, held a placid sort of calm that rippled from her in gentle waves. I could almost See it happening, the slight vibrations and disturbance on the air, meant to soothe those around her. She tilted her head on a slender neck, and her liquid, dark, soot brown eyes peered at me curiously, and matched her hair almost perfectly in color. Her supple, lithe body was clothed in a cobalt blue chiton, with enough material to make a traditional kolpos, or blousing, at the waist.
My eyes had widened at the name, and I did a double-take between her and the fountain.
“You mean Daphne the Naiad, as in, Daphne and Apollo?” I asked, stunned to be in the presence of someone from Greek mythology. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they were still around and up to their usual shenanigans, but not here, and certainly not in a storm pipe.
A sad, self-deprecating smile pulled one corner of her full lips. “The very same.”
Oliver cleared his throat. “Daphne, we’ve come–”
“I know why you have visited, Oliver. I have felt the presence of the Strixes over the last few days,” she said, and continued to look at me. I could scarcely breathe at the mention of the Strixes, and the knowing look in her eyes. “Nothing good is coming our way if they are here, and I will help if I can, but in all honesty I’m not sure what I’ll be able to offer,” she finished, and finally broke eye contact with me.
My knees turned to water, as though her gaze had been the only thing keeping me upright, and Oliver put a supportive hand beneath my elbow to keep me upright. I muttered a thanks under my breath, though it likely didn’t sound as appreciative as I meant it to be.
“We would greatly appreciate any insight and help you have to offer,” Oliver said, and bowed his head in deference.
Daphne looked at him for a moment more, thoughts flashing over the face that had garnered unwanted attention from the god, Apollo, and finally nodded.
“As you wish–please, come with me.”