The red light hurt Eddie's eyes. He shut them tight, waiting for death.
The light had no effect.
The snake woman screamed with effort and frustration. The light doubled in intensity. But still, nothing happened.
Eddie shaded his eyes and sat up.
She pushed a moment longer, the red beams blazing from her fingertips. Then it ceased.
The song ended. The phonograph popped rhythmically at the end of the record. All was silent as she glared down at Eddie.
"What are you?" she asked.
Eddie rubbed his elbow and stood up. "I don't know. Nothing special."
"A psychic attack has no affect on you. What about...?"
She snapped her finger, and a blue spark shot from her fingers and hit Eddie's chest. He felt a shocking jolt of pain. He spasmed back.
Her eyes grew more curious than hostile. "Hmm. A physical attack is still effective. But why?"
She lunged forward. Eddie tried to dodge out of the way, but she caught him by the arm, thrust him back and pinned him to the wall once more. She studied him, her nose an inch from his. "I can't read you," she said, her gaze boring into him. "It's like there's no one inside. Are you a zombie?"
Her grip was tight on his jaw. "I hope not," he grunted.
"A tiny golem then? But you're far too weak."
"I'm just... a guy."
She dropped him and slithered away, her snake body undulating beside Eddie as she moved. "I should still kill you," she said. "Do you have any idea how rude it is to walk in on a lady while she's eating?"
"It wasn't intentional, ma'am. I'm sorry."
She turned and leered at him. "At least you're polite."
Eddie tested his elbow. It hurt to move. "I don't want to disturb you, ma'am. I'll go."
"You'll be devoured the moment you leave my abode," she told him. "I don't know how you survived the badlands as long as you did."
"Maybe I could borrow a lantern?"
She scoffed. "You're not leaving, mortal. Until I decide what to do with you, you'll stay in that spot." She switched off the phonograph, wound across the chamber to a bookcase and pulled a volume off a shelf. She flipped through pages and glanced up at him. "What color is your blood?"
"I should check."
Eddie felt along his face and found the bloody abrasion on his forehead. He pointed at it. "See?"
She turned back to her book. "Do you have a tail?"
"No ma'am." He slid along the wall, closer to the exit.
"You're not a vampire, not a warlock. You show signs of having a soul, and yet I can't touch it. Near as I can tell, you're either a demigod that's stripped of your power, or you're... something new."
"I don't think I'm a demigod."
"Who are your parents?"'
"I don't know. I have amnesia."
"It really isn't, ma'am."
"What caused your amnesia?"
"I don't remember."
"Hmm." She reared up, her snake body pushing her almost to the ceiling above. "I can use the head, I suppose."
"The head of the seer." Excuse me. She glided through a stone doorway into another chamber, her tail slithering after her. Eddie took this opportunity to move back towards the corridor, but he found the way blocked by one of the ghostly warriors, his swords held ready, watching Eddie.
She returned a moment later with a dusty ornate box covered in old velvet and ancient tassels. "Haven't used this in many generations. I severed the head myself and enchanted it."
"You keep a head in a box?"
"Keeps it fresh." She pulled the lid off the box and peered into it, chanting words of her unfamiliar language.
"You summon me, your majesty?" asked a voice from within.
"Yes, Darmot. I wish to know what this boy is. What's his history?"
"Yes, the boy."
"I sense no boy, majesty."
She snarled. "This boy," she said, turning the top of the box to face Eddie.
The box contained an animated head, its neck drawn together in a knot of flesh, its dusty eyes permanently open. Eddie made eye contact with the thing for only a moment. Then the disembodied head's eyes opened wider, and it screamed.
"Darmot, what's wrong with you?" She turned the box back to face her. The screaming persisted. She shook the box. She shook it harder. The screaming did not stop. She frowned, put the lid back on the box. The screams continued, muffled now. Finally, she threw the box back through the stone door.
"Well, that was useless," she hissed. She shot out at Eddie once again, grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the ground. "What are you?" she demanded. "Tell me now. Tell me anything you know, or I will crush your skull. You have five seconds."
"Um. Ahhh. There are... a troll once called me... Godsbane."
Her brow furrowed as she stared up at him. "You? The Usurper? I don't think so."
"Since the world has changed, people who can see the future... when they see me, they scream. The only thing any of them said is that I'm the Godsbane. But I don't know what that means."
She dropped him and coiled back a pace. "That's ridiculous. You are the one that ends the world?"
"Some say the world has already ended."
"And yet, here we are." She looked unafraid, but she wiped her hands on her sides as if they were contaminated.
"Things have changed out there on the surface." He explained a few of the things he'd witnessed, the entire landscape having changed, the dragon riders, the impossible structure of Holcomb, Ruby's missing city.
She listened as he rambled for nearly a minute, her eyes growing more concerned.
"I have sensed none of this," she said.
"Ask your seer when I'm not around. He'll tell you everything's different now."
"I've never heard of anyone like you," Eddie said. "Who are you?"
"You've never heard the legends of the Lamia?"
"I'm afraid not, ma'am."
She frowned. "I am called 'The Lamia, Her Infernal Majesty of the Deeps.' But you can call me Sybil."
"It's good to meet you, Sybil."
She leered. "No, it's not. It never is. But for you..." Her face turned thoughtful. She lunged at him again and surrounded him, her coil piling up around him. She drew him into a gentle snake embrace and studied him. "For you, perhaps I can make an exception."
Eddie froze in place. He waited for her to pass judgement. Would she tighten her hold, constrict the life out of his body?
Her coil relaxed, and she looked as if she had made her mind up about something. She swirled away to the next chamber. Eddie waited. There was nothing else he could do.
"I have an idea," she said, returning once again with a velvet pillow held on her palms. "I will not only allow you to leave, I will provide you with an escort to see you safely out of the badlands. In exchange, you will do something for me."
She lowered the pillow in front of him to show what lay atop it. He expected an extraordinary artifact. Instead, he found a common gray rock.
"It's a rock," Eddie said.
"Yes, that's all. And I want you to deliver it for me."
"Once you get back to the surface, place this rock in the first river or stream that you see."
She screwed her face up in thought for a moment and laughed. "I could make up a story, but the truth is, it's none of your business. It's an easy bargain. You get to survive, and all you have to do is place this stone in a river. Tell no one of this agreement. Simply do as you're told."
"Why can't you do it?"
"This is my prison, young man. Those warriors out there may do my bidding, but if I tried to leave, they—along with an army just like them—would cut me to meaty cubes."
"Why can't you make one of them take your stone."
Sybil scowled. "They must not know of this agreement. If you want to survive, take the stone and drop it in a river. That's all there is to this bargain. Do you agree?"
Eddie looked down at the stone. It was smooth and gray, something you might find on a river bank without thinking twice about it. What would it harm if he dropped a stone in a river? He knew she had a nefarious purpose in all this, but for the life of it, he couldn't guess what it might be.
"Is it poison?"
Sybil plucked the rock off the pillow and popped it into her own mouth. She swished it around and pulled it back out. She rubbed it dry on the pillow. "No."
He thought about the darkness outside and the terrifying creature that had nearly killed him. He sighed. "I'll take it," he said.