The ruins (an avernus island tale)

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BY JENNIFER KOHOUT

Legend

Untamed

Storm

The Bride of Devil’s Acre

Queen of Souls (Coming in March, 2014)

“Easy is the descent to Avernus, for the door to the underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above–that’s the task, that’s the toil.”

~Virgil

THE MUSEUM OF WORLD HISTORY

“I’m going to kill him,” Julia muttered as she swiped her ID card with a snap and waited the three seconds it took for the security system to recognize her. Hearing the lock disengage, she pushed through the metal door marked “employees only.”

She didn’t like Ted and she certainly didn’t trust him, but she never expected outright sabotage. He reminded her of a Ken doll with his artificial blond highlights and too-white teeth. He was about as substantial as the plastic Mattel toy, and she’d made the mistake of considering him harmless.

Anger clipped Julia’s every step as she headed toward the sorting room. There were no marble tiles in the staff area, that expense was reserved for the museum’s main floor, and the ankle strap sandals were impractical on the cement floor. But the high-heeled shoes brought Julia’s height up to five feet, nine inches and did nice things to her calves. 

Julia found Ted at his workstation. The iPad in his hand was personal, and she caught a glimpse of naked flesh before he darkened the screen.

“You bastard!” Julia hissed. Heart pounding, she braced her palms on his desk and glared at Ted.

“Hello, Jewels,” Ted drawled. “What has your panties in a twist?”

“Don’t play dumb, it doesn’t look good on you,” Julia snapped. “The Cyprus piece wasmyacquisition.”

Ted leaned back in his chair and rested his ankle on his knee. “You must be referring to the package that arrived today.” 

Ted indicated a crate sitting open and empty on Julia’s desk. The Museum of World History, for all its name implied, was a small museum and Julia shared her work space with the other catalogers and restorers. 

“A beautiful piece,” Ted acknowledged but Julia knew he didn’t care. “I didn’t think you would mind my delivering it up to Prestwood. I’m sure we can come up with some way for you to thank me for the favor.”

Julia nearly choked on her rage. “Favor? Is that what you call taking credit for my work?” 

She spent weeks negotiating the loan of the ceramic tankard from Haru Nakano. Nakano owned one of the largest private art collections in the world. The tankard wasn’t the most impressive piece in his collection, but it would make a lovely centerpiece to the museum’s Cyprus section.

“We’re all here to serve the museum, Jewels,” Ted said, parroting Robert Prestwood, the museum curator. 

“You’re here to serve yourself,” Julia said. Ted had grand plans but a lazy work ethic. In a room full of cluttered work surfaces, Ted’s was notably clean.

“I look out for myself.” Ted’s foot dropped back to the floor as he sat forward. “My days of playing with broken bits of junk are over.”

Alarm tingled at the base of Julia’s spine. “What are you talking about?”

Ted sneered. “Preston is making his recommendation for the assistant curator position to the Board of Directors in three weeks.”

Julia’s heart plummeted to her stomach. 

“After I took him the Cyprus piece, Robert all but guaranteed the position would be mine.”

Which was exactly what Julia had been counting on. 

“You slimy son of a bitch,” Julia whispered. The assistant curator position was new to the museum and the next logical step in her career. After five years in the sorting room, cataloging and restoring ancient relics, it was time for Julia to move up or move on from MWH.

Ted’s eyes narrowed. “Be careful how you talk to me,” he warned. “As assistant curator, you will report directly to me, and I can make your time here very unpleasant.”

“Are you threatening me?” Julia asked, incredulous.

“And if I am?” Ted asked. “What are you going to do about it?”

Julia remained silent. They both knew reporting him would make her look weak. The man was an HR nightmare–Julia considered his sexual innuendoes one of his more redeeming qualities–but any complaint on her part would be seen as proof that she didn’t have what it takes to succeed in the male-dominated world of art.

“That’s what I thought,” Ted said. Smirking, he walked out from behind his desk. “But don’t worry,” he said, taking that last step that put him inappropriately close to Julia. “I can also be very generous to the people that please me.”

Julia knew that most women found Ted attractive. He had boyish good looks that would serve him well into middle age. But something oily and slick slithered behind his baby-blue eyes and his smile was always a little cruel. 

She took a step back as Ted’s fingers brushed her waist, uncaring if it looked like a retreat. “You don’t deserve the position.”

“True,” Ted said, unabashed. “But you’re the only one who cares.”

Julia didn’t understand Ted, not really. She loved antiquities. More than art, she loved the glimpses they provided into a time long gone. Both of her parents had been archeologists, and her first memories were of digging in the sand, finding broken pieces of ceramic bowls, and playing house in the crumbled walls of ancient civilizations. 

“Eventually, Robert and the others will realize their mistake.”

“Guess whose’s job it will be to make sure that doesn’t happen?” Ted asked.

Julia wasn’t surprised by Ted’s assumption. The man was a master at avoiding work all while still looking good. 

“I’ll quit,” she bluffed. She thought about her father and the healthcare benefits that were part of her compensation package. Her grandmother’s death had lessened some of the financial burden of providing for her father’s medical needs, but hospice was expensive and that money wouldn’t go far.

“Without a reference?” Ted asked. “I don’t think so. I think you’ll stay right here and do what I tell you.”

Julia could see that Ted liked that idea. His eyes dropped to where her breasts pressed against her shirt, and his tongue darted out to moisten his lips. Julia suffered his look, gritting her teeth and asking, “Enjoying the view?”

“Not nearly enough,” Ted said. “Why don’t you slip those buttons free and show me those great tits you’ve got hidden under there.”

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself,” Julia snapped before she could stop herself.

Ted grabbed Julia’s arm as she went to move past him and jerked her close. His breath was hot against her face and smelled of the roast beef sandwich he’d had for lunch.

“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Ted said. “Lets see what else you can do with that pretty mouth of yours?”

Julia’s face flamed, but she forced herself to stand still long enough to say, “Be careful, Ted, even you can go too far.”

With that, Julia yanked her arm free and stalked out of the sorting room.

MELISANDRA BLACK

Julia let her anger propel her out onto the exhibit floor. Her arm throbbed where Ted had grabbed her, and she knew there would be bruises. The anger she had been feeling was tempered by the powerlessness to do anything about it.

Tuesday afternoons in the museum were usually quiet. Julia walked by a few tourists, people on vacation and away from work. Thankfully, there were no school field trips on the schedule for this week. She had always loved art, but more and more it seemed like the kids that came to the museum were more interested in a day away from the classroom than with learning about the history of ancient civilizations.

Julia let the peace and quiet of the museum flow over her, let the past lives of people long since gone drown out her modern-day troubles. Stopping at the museum’s small Egyptian display, Julia considered the mummified remains of a female that had lived and died more than three thousand years ago. 

Did they have it easier back then? Life was short. Testing showed the woman had died at the age of twenty-seven, two years younger than Julia was now. Basic healthcare and hygiene had been lacking, and disease and famine were common occurrences. 

No, Julia concluded.It wasn’t easier back then. Their troubles were just different.

She moved on, her steps slowing as her anger went from a boil to a simmer. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the combination of cleaning solution and purified air. She knew every piece on display, each one as familiar and comforting to her as a friend.

Turning a corner, her feet unconsciously took her to her favorite part of the museum. The Greek and Roman antiquities were always a big draw and were staged at the heart of the museum. 

Glancing up, she admired the domed ceiling with its Mount Olympus mosaic that let in natural light and gave the room a warm and inviting feel. 

Except for one other visitor, the area was empty.

Julia circled the room slowly. Her destination was always the same, but she still liked to take her time getting there. 

She enjoyed the black-figured Siana cup, and she appreciated the bronze horse. And what woman wouldn’t love the intricate gold necklace? However, none of them came close to her love for the marble statue of Theseus battling the minotaur. 

Coming to a halt in front of the life-size statue, Julia crossed her arms over her chest, unintentionally accenting the generous swell of her breasts, and stared.

She didn’t try to guide her eyes. Instead, she let her gaze wander, let her look pass over the two combatants locked forever in battle. The statue was exquisite in its detail, the struggle of both man and beast captured in the grimaces on their faces and in their straining muscles. 

Theseus stood naked and proud. Arm raised as he prepared to deliver the killing blow. But it was the minotaur that never failed to captivate and always captured Julia’s attention. 

She caressed the broad expanse of his chest with her eyes, touched on the muscles of his abs that rippled even in marble, and traced the dip of his hips to an impressive groin. 

Naked, his cock hung thick and uncut against his massive thigh. She’d never been with a man who wasn’t circumcised. She wondered what it would be like to suck an uncut cock into her mouth, to feel him harden as she worked him with lips and tongue. Would he taste the same? Would the skin be velvety soft the way so many men were? 

Julia’s eyes drifted closed, and her hand went to the collar of her shirt, her fingers brushing against the small swatch of exposed skin. She imagined she could hear their grunts: Theseus’s human cries of pain and eventual victory against the minotaur’s roar of ultimate defeat. 

But what if the minotaur won the battle and rose from the sun-baked sand victorious? 

High on victory and aroused by the battle, Julia imagined the minotaur wrapping his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. Impatient, he would yank up her skirt and shove one hand between her legs. His thick fingers would seek her out and thrust inside her pussy without warning, only to find her slick and wet.

In her dreams, Julia groaned and arched her back. His cock was hard and thick and trapped between them. A roll of his hips and his shaft would slide between the crease of her ass, his length dragging across her back entrance.

His other hand would slip under her shirt and over her bra, tugging down the delicate lace to expose her already hard nipple. Rough from wielding a sword, the calluses of his palm would abrade the tender nub of swollen flesh until she begged for a firmer touch.

He would laugh, a surprisingly human sound, and she would feel the heat of his breath against her neck. His fingers would start to saw in and out of her body making a slick, sucking sound as she grew wetter and drew closer to her release.

Sometimes, in her fantasies, he would finger her until she came, stroking her through her orgasm. Other times he made her wait until she was riding his cock before granting her release.

Today, she knew; it would be his fingers, those thick digits working her clit before delving deep into her cunt. 

She was close, so close; she just needed–

“I always considered Asterion to be such a tragic figure.”

Julia’s eyes flew open and she found herself back in the museum, still standing in front the statue of the minotaur. Heat rose in her face as her fantasy faded away, her orgasm hovering on the cusp of denial.

“Born with the shame of infidelity and abandoned by his mother, is it any wonder he was such a beast.”

Julia glanced over at the speaker, and her blush reached her ears. How long had the woman been standing there while Julia fantasized?

“They say Theseus was sent to slay Asterion in order to stop the sacrifices, but I think that’s a load of bullshit.” Melisandra smiled at the unintended pun. “I believe Theseus was sent to retrieve Cretan’s Heart.”

“The Heart is just a myth,” Julia said, finding her voice at last. Supposedly, Cretan’s Heart was a ruby the size of a man’s fist and had been a gift from Minos to his wife, Asterion’s mother. Pasiphae was said to have given the ruby to Asterion when she left him in the labyrinth.

“And Asterion isn’t?” Mel asked.

“Point taken,” Julia said and considered the woman. If she had to guess, she’d put her age somewhere in the mid-thirties but only because of her eyes. They held the shadows of someone who had seen too much and held more than a hint of pain. 

Everything else was put together beautifully, from her ruby-red lips, to her black hair and pin-striped skirt. The sharp cheekbones would make most models swoon with envy, and the body was worthy of Playboy.

Julia wanted to hate her. 

Her own figure was lush in all the wrong places, and her hair tended to curl in unexpected ways. The only good thing about her appearance was no one ever accused her of trying to trade on her looks. 

“I’m impressed.” Melisandra studied her latest choice and congratulated herself on being right. Again. Julia Davenport was perfect. “Most people have never heard of Cretan’s Heart.”

“I work at the museum,” Julia admitted. “It gives me an unfair advantage, but that’s not where I first heard the story.”

“Oh?” Mel asked politely. 

Julia turned back to the statue. “My grandmother used to tell me the story of Theseus and the minotaur. It was her favorite.” 

Julia felt the usual pang that came with thinking about her grandmother.

“You two were close?” Mel asked, watching Julia’s face darken.

“She raised me after my mother died,” Julia said.

“Where was your father?” Mel asked even though she already knew the answer. There wasn’t much about Julia Davenport Mel didn’t know.

“He’s an archeologist,” Julia said. “Retired now, but he was gone a lot when I was little.” Realizing what she’d just revealed, Julia frowned. She rarely talked about herself, certainly not to strangers. “I’m sorry. I should get back to work. Enjoy the museum.”

“Ms. Davenport, wait.”

Julia stopped at the sound of her name, certain she hadn’t given it to this woman. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” Mel said and put on her best smile. “I’m actually here to talk to you.”

“Me?” Julia couldn’t begin to imagine what this woman wanted with her. 

“Yes, I have a business proposition for you,” Mel said. 

“I’m sorry, but if you came here to talk to me, then you know I already have a job,” Julia said.

“This won’t conflict with your work at the museum,” Mel said. “In fact, I suspect that what I am proposing might just help you in your career.”

“What do you know about my career?” Julia asked, a hint of warning tingled at the base of her spine, right where a human’s prehensile tail used to be. 

This woman reminded her of the samurai sword hanging in the museum: beautiful, but deadly. 

“I did my homework, Ms. Davenport, before deciding on you. You’re smart, graduating near the top of your class with a degree in art history. You recently celebrated your fifth anniversary working at the museum and are being considered for the position of assistant curator.”

Julia decided not to mention the unlikelihood that she would actually be awarded the position.

“Give me five minutes, Ms. Davenport,” Mel said. She wagered she would only need three. “I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

Julia considered. Her instincts warned her to be cautious–but that’s all they ever seemed to say–and warred with curiosity. Curiosity won. “OK, I’ll listen.”

Mel hid her smile. “My name is Melisandra Black. I operate a very exclusive, very private resort on Avernus Island—”

“Avernus?” Julia interrupted, surprised. The Romans thought Avernus was the entrance to the underworld–strange location for an exclusive resort.

Mel smile suggested she knew what Julia was thinking. 

“The name is somewhat of an inside joke,” Mel said, and her own personal irony. “Anyway, there are some old ruins on the island, up until now, I was content to let them sit, but we’re considering expanding, and I would like for you to come and take a look, tell me if there is anything there worth excavating.”

Julia felt a shiver of awareness. It was the same sensation she got when she handled a particularly intriguing antique, or when she looked at the statue of Theseus and the minotaur. 

“Why me?” Julia asked. 

“Like I said, you’re smart with the right amount of experience. Plus, your father was an archeologist—”

“He still is,” Julia snapped, unable to keep the defensive note from her voice. 

Mel gave a conciliatory nod. “Your father made some amazing discoveries before his condition forced him into retirement.”

“Archeology isn’t genetic,” Julia said, the sting of her father’s recent diagnosis adding a bite to her words.

“No, but you obviously inherited your love of art and antiquities from someone,” Mel said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the Museum of World History.”

Julia looked at Mel sharply and realized the woman was amused by the museum’s attempted bravado.

“My point is that besides your education, you have a lifetime of exposure to the world of archeology,” Mel said. “Surely, you can understand and appreciate the speculative nature of this endeavor.”

Julia understood all too well. She remembered the years of her father putting together excavation trips, hustling for donations, only to come home empty handed. 

“I don’t want to risk the time and expense, not to mention the disruption to my guests, if there is nothing there worth finding.” Mel could see Julia was wavering but wasn’t sure which side the woman would come down on. Making her last pitch, Mel added, “I will pay you for your time, of course, and I would be willing to lend half of any find to the museum. Indefinitely.”

Julia tempered her excitement with a strong dose of her grandmother’s caution. This was how it always started for her father–the promise of a new discovery, a chance to unearth hidden wonders. The high of chasing that dream had led to years of loneliness for Julia. “Can I think about it?”

Mel frowned, and Julia blinked. For a second there were little licks of red flickering in the black of the woman’s pupils. 

But that’s impossible, Julia thought.

Mel realized she had either overestimated her own abilities or underestimated Julia’s conservative nature. 

“This isn’t a good time for me to be away from the museum,” Julia admitted. 

“I can give you twenty-four hours,” Mel said at last. “After that, I’ll have to find someone else. I’m on a schedule and must make a decision regarding the ruins soon.”

Julia nodded and inwardly cringed at the thought of ancient ruins being dug up or plowed under to make way for another swimming pool or golf course.

“My card,” Mel said and handed Julia a small rectangle of expensive card stock. 

Julia didn’t recognize the area code. 

“I’m afraid I can’t be away from Avernus for long,” Mel said. She still shuddered at the memory of the one and only time she’d broken that rule. “That’s my direct line, either myself or my assistant will answer.”

Julia continued to study the card in her hand as Mel left, her heels tapping out a striking tattoo on the museum’s marble floors.

Mel walked out of the museum and stepped into the waiting car.

“Well?” Suri, Mel’s assistant, didn’t wait for her to close the door before asking, “Is she coming?”

“She needs to think about it,” Mel said and poured herself a scotch. The thirty-year-old single malt was one of the many perks of her position.

“They always need to think about it,” Suri said and waved the matter aside with a flick of her hand. 

Mel noticed that her assistant’s fingernails had changed from pink to blue in the time she’d been inside with Julia.

“I was so certain Julia would be different,” Mel said. She didn’t like being wrong, and it wasn’t in her nature to second guess herself. Of course, there were many things that weren’t in her nature. 

Suri pondered that a moment. Mel had a talent for knowing how to handle their guests from first contact through their stay on Avernus to the trip home.

Mel forced herself to relax into buttery-soft leather seats as the sleek sedan pulled away from the curb. She barely heard the purr of the powerful engine as the car slid smoothly out into traffic and the Museum of World History faded into the background.

“How long until the plane arrives?” Mel asked. 

Avernus was calling to her. 

She wanted to get off the mainland, away from the thick swarm of humanity. Mel would never admit it, but the twenty-four-hour rule worked for her, too.

“Tom should be arriving within the hour,” Suri said. The app on her phone indicated their pilot would be landing at the private airfield in fifty-eight minutes, but Mel didn’t require that level of detail.

Suri also had an app that told her the weather in Whistler–she loved the snow–and one for managing recipes. Suri didn’t cook, but she loved looking at pictures of food, and she thought humans were wonderful when it came to their little creations.

“Good, I’ve been away too long.”

Suri checked her alarm–another app–and said, “There’s plenty of time.”

“There’s never enough time,” Mel muttered.

The museum was empty and security was preparing to lock up by the time Julia returned to the sorting room. Ted was gone, and she passed by neat rows of her colleague’s workstations–each one littered with the debris that followed catalogers and restorers alike. 

Julia’s desk was much the same way; her current projects scattered across the scared wooden surface. It was only as she tossed Melisandra’s business card on the desk that she saw the box.

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