Megan Arkenberg

Speculative fiction writer, poet, and editor

Story for Haiti

In order to raise money for relief efforts in Haiti, Crossed Genres has come up with a brilliantly simple idea: have authors post free fiction online, and have readers show their appreciation by donating to any number of fine charities. Some suggestions, and a list of other participating authors, appear here.

When it comes to unpublished fiction, I unfortunately don't have any open at the moment (aside from a trunk story or two, and trust me, you do not want to read those). Please enjoy "Panthanatos," which appeared in the 2008 anthology Ruins Metropolis.

Panthanatos

Chrysanthe came for me soon after midnight. She entered the damp holding cell with an oil lamp in one hand and a slender chain in the other, ducking her head to slip through the low doorway. She was tall for a priestess, especially one of the Kyriakos, but she moved with a slow grace for all that. Someone--Leonidas, I suspected--had combed her thick red hair until it shown, and she wore his golden lover's knot around her neck as if it were mere jewelry. It had been a long time, I knew, since one of her students underwent the Panthanatos.

"Sister," she said, slipping the chain over my head. I could feel her fingers trembling as they brushed the nape of my neck. "Have you prepared yourself to go before the Athanasios?"

The question was ceremonial. Chrysanthe knew full well that neither food nor water had passed my lips since the new moon three days before: nor had I slept, or spoken to any save the Despoina herself, or felt the touch of any hands but her own. I folded my hands across my chest and gave the deep bow of a student to her teacher. I knew it was the last time I would ever do so.

Chrysanthe took something from the pouch at her waist and tied it onto the chain. My throat tightened as I realized what it was: the green Eye of Sotiris, the charm given to young women of noble birth before they took the Panthanatos. Her own mother must have set it around her neck on that night so many years ago. With no mother of my own, I would have had to go without its protection. I clutched her hand in thanks, overstepping, for the moment, the fifth law of the Athanasios. She smiled tenderly and smoothed my hair back from my forehead.

"Come, Eleni," she said. "It is time."

I followed her out of the cell into the great hall of the Kyriakos. After so many hours of dampness and enclosure, it felt strange to walk once again beneath the open sky. Chrysanthe lead me past the columns of carved red stone that had been placed there back when the stars were young, long before the first Despoina lead her followers in worship. In those days, the hall was covered with a ceiling, painted on the inside with deep blue in imitation of the night sky. Now, we need no ceiling. With the single exception of the holding cells, the Kyriakos is always open to heaven.

Why had the Despoina chosen these ruins as the home of her temple? They had been a city once: that much was clear from the carvings of armies, merchants, and nobles marching around the columns. The blue-ceilinged hall was the temple: the little rooms now used to prepare initiates once housed priests and priestesses. But the rest was a mystery, and the Thanatorium, the greatest mystery of all.

Its doors loomed up ahead, two blocks of deep red wood set in a wall of blood-colored stone. Chrysanthe gestured for me to stop. Then, raising her hands to her lips, she made a sound like the crying of a hawk about to swoop.

"Who comes before that Athanasios?"

The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. I bowed my head as the doors creaked open and the Despoina herself came out to greet us.

High Maga, Great Priestess, descendant of Dread Sotiris and his Queen, the Despoina was a slight woman of some eighty-odd years, with long white hair and brown eyes that caught the light of the waxing moon like two slivers of glass. She wore a black robe like mine, opened wide from the base of her throat all the way down to the pale skin of her waist. The eye of Sotiris glistened there in its golden triangle as though it too could see through my very soul.

"Eleni Sepraphina, daughter of none, comes seeking Death." Though I knew those words, too, were part of the ceremony, I trembled to hear them from Chrysanthe's lips.

The Despoina smiled and extended her arms to me as if to an equal. "Then come forth, my sister, you who are daughter to none living and thus a child of the Gods."

Part of me wanted to cling to Chrysanthe and beg her to come with me, or at least to kiss her farewell. But I was no longer a child to hide behind my teacher: and with mingled pride and terror, I followed the Despoina into the Thanatorium.

The room was circular, its walls tapering up nearly to a point. A hole was set in the very top, the exact size and shape of a full moon at midwinter. The twelve members of the Athanasios stood in a row behind a raised stone platform, men and women alike robed in plain white tunics and hoods. One of them, a young man with hair the color of fine ink, came forward and draped a cloak around my shoulders.

"Do you know what to expect of the Panthanatos?" The Despoina turned to me with a kindly smile. "Many do not. There is no shame in asking questions, now that the time has come."

I shook my head. "Chrysanthe said I would see my death."

"You will," the Despoina said. "See it, hear it, feel it. Oh, yes," she sighed, seeing me start in horror. "If there is pain, you will feel it. Men have gone mad upon finding themselves tortured to death, or set upon by wild animals, or--"

I made a small sound in the back of my throat, and her tone softened. "There, there, child,” she said, laying her hand against my cheek. “This is why we undergo the Panthanatos: so that we are ready to meet death when it comes. Some have left this chamber filled with anger, desperate to escape the trap Fate has set. But this alone is truth, my sister: you will die when the Gods call you, not before, and not after. You cannot alter what you see this night--if it could be changed, you would see something quite different--but neither should you fear it. There is no harm, only great comfort, to be found in knowing when Sotiris will call you to his home."

I bowed my head again, clutching my hands together to hide their trembling. The young man who had brought me my cloak led me to the stone platform, where he lay me down like a corpse prepared for burial. He folded my arms across my chest and chained each wrist to the opposite side of the dais. Finally, he pulled the cloak out from under me and draped it over my body, covering me from head to toe.

"Sleep, my sister," he whispered.

The Despoina's voice came to me as though from far away. "May you find what you seek."

I closed my eyes and knew no more.

* * *

The cold came first--a deep, gnawing chill I felt in my gut just as strongly as on my skin. A loud noise came out of the darkness somewhere nearby: only after a moment or so did I recognize it as my own chattering teeth.

Where am I? The question seemed to come from outside of me. It was as though I were two people at once: one still slept on the stone bed in the Thanatorium, and it was she who wondered at the darkness and the cold. The other huddled in a cave some thirty miles or so from the Kyriakos, struggling to silence her chattering teeth, mulling over the things she had seen as she underwent the Panthanatos a week or so before.

A shock of true pain rippled through my body, the one that slept in the Thanatorium. Was I meant to die so soon?

Then my other body took over, reaching into the darkness of the cave for a handful of snow to suck on. It was cold, so cold, but I needed the water...why had I not taken any from the well at the Kyriakos? I couldn't remember. I knew only that I had run away in great terror, not thinking that at this time of year, I could easily be lost in the mountains and frozen to death.

That it was happening, I had no doubt. Already I had no feeling below my waist. This, surely, was what I had foreseen in the Panthanatos--wasn't it? The dank smell of wet furs as I pulled my robe tighter around me, the dull ache of hunger in my gut, and the slowly spreading numbness of Death. It was not, perhaps, so terrible a way to die.

I only regretted that it had to come so soon.

O, Sotiris! I prayed. Dear Gods, please, don't let me die like this. Don't leave me here to freeze like an orphaned kitten.

As if in answer, a great gust of wind blew past the mouth of the cave. My eyes began to adjust to the faint glow of the stars, and I noticed a patch of lights blazing out from the mountains in the distance. The Kyriakos, I thought, then shook my head. It couldn't be. The temple stood at the easternmost edge of the range, and surely I had rounded too many mountains to see anything of it from this place. Yet even as I watched, the lights seemed to take shape, to form a massive net of columns and domes and roofless vaults. I forced my tired limbs to carry me to the mouth of the cave, and the city began to fade. Was it, then, just an apparition thought up by my dying mind?

No: I could see it again, and this time, I knew its streets were crowded with people. I could see them even when I closed my eyes, long rows of men and women garbed in white, carrying branches of white blossoms in their arms, fresh and clear despite the snow that lay about them. Surely I was dreaming, surely this beautiful city of ruins and angels was but a phantasm, created by my poor, broken mind as my body slowly faded. Though I seemed to feel warmth returning to my hands and feet, was that not just the first stage of freezing?

No! I will not die like this, with my eyes pressed shut and my limbs wrapped tightly like a newborn babe...

I forced my eyes open, welcoming the icy sting of the wind because it proved that I was alive, that I wasn't dying or going mad. And suddenly I felt hands on my shoulders, and someone was lifting me up out of the snow...a young man with ink-black hair, like to one of the Athanasios and yet infinitely more beautiful...and he was carrying me over the snow towards the beautiful city of ruins, to the thriving metropolis where the dead and the living were one and the same...

* * *

I woke to find myself in bed. Not my bed at the Kyriakos--and I knew, somehow, that it wasn't over, that there were still two parts of me, and one had just stopped crying out in her sleep at the Thanatorium. But the other me, the one who had just woken in bed, she was the one I could feel. Her bare skin--my skin--was hot as though with fever, and yet I didn't feel ill. A young man lay in bed beside me, his ink-dark hair spread out across the pillow. Iason, I thought fondly, and reached out to stroke his cheek. My husband, Iason.

He moaned softly under my touch and raised his face from the pillow. He was the man from the city, the one who had carried me in from the storm. I had never realized it before, and yet, the information didn't seem to trouble me. It was as though two pieces of my life had just fallen into place. I leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his lips.

"Eleni," he whispered, wrapping his arms around my waist. "What are you thinking about, my darling?"

"The city," I said. "Do you remember it? I seem to have forgotten it until now. The Kyriakos-that-was…”

My words were lost as he covered my mouth with his, kissing me as I could not remember having ever been kissed before. At last I turned my face away to gasp for air, and he raised himself up from the bed.

"What do you know of the Kyriakos-that-was-and-will-be-again?”

I shrugged and reached for him, but he batted my arms away. I set my lips in a pout. “I was only thinking about the day we met, that’s all. You used to live there, didn’t you? We used to live there.”

His eyes widened and he pressed on hand over my mouth. “Hush, Eleni. I told you to forget. You must forget about it, my darling. You mustn’t ask questions—“

Anger flared in me, an anger neither of my selves could account for. “You always say that! You always tell me I shouldn’t ask questions. Why not? What are you hiding from your wife, Iason? Don’t you love me?”

He leapt back as though burned. “Don’t say that! Of course I love you.”

“Then what are you hiding?”

Iason shook his head and lifted his hand from my mouth, bending down to kiss me. I couldn’t fight him. All my anger rushed out of me and he caught both my hands in one of his, and I returned his kiss with fervor, floating on a wave of love and desire. The last thing I saw as I closed my eyes was the flash of candlelight on the blade of a long white dagger…

* * *

Again I woke in bed, if indeed I had ever been asleep. A group of sad-faced women clustered around me, and someone was screaming nearby. Why was she screaming? I struggled to sit up and glance around, only to realize that the screaming was my own, and that my entire body ached with a pain more intense than anything I had ever felt before.

"Hush, my lady!" One of the women took my hand and pressed it, bringing her face closer to mine. "The babe will come soon, you will see. The poppy dust will soon take effect, and the rest will be easy..."

The babe? My free hand flew immediately to my abdomen, where I felt the heavy swelling of my pregnant belly. I could feel the child kicking inside me, each pound of his tiny foot falling like a hammer against my skin.

"He's a lively one, my lady, and that's a good thing," another of my nurses said. She looked barely older than sixteen, the age at which I underwent the Panthanatos...I shook my head to clear it of the memory. I wasn't meant to die here, was I?

"Iason!" The pain mounted to an unbearable pitch, and I screamed his name like a curse.    The women beside me exchanged glances, and one of them mouthed something to the others. I couldn't think clearly enough to see what it was.

"Ah!" I bit my lip and felt my teeth go through the skin. Why wasn't the babe coming? I needed him to come, I needed a healthy, lively child to present at the Metropolis, or else they would never permit me--

"Ah!" My muscles seemed to tighten of their own accord, and I felt the babe come forth, just as I felt something tear inside me. "Iason! Chrysanthe!"

Why did I call for her? I had no idea. Indeed, it seemed to me that she would be most displeased with me and the thing I planned to do with the child...

"It's a boy, my lady, a beautiful little boy." The young nurse sat down on the blanket beside me and mopped my brow with a handkerchief. At the foot of the bed, another woman was wrapping my child in lengths of cloth, while a third struggled to staunch the bleeding. I wanted to tell her to stop, that it was no use, that something had broken inside that couldn't be fixed, but the girl beside me was asking questions and I couldn't think but to answer them.

"He looks like his father, doesn't he, my lady? That beautiful hair... yours is lovely too, of course, my lady, but the ink blackness...what will you call him?"

I shook my head. How did it matter what I called him? I would die, or he would, so that I could join the true Athanasios and live with them forever in the Ruins-that-are-whole, the Kyriakos-that-was-and-will-be-again. I shook my head and wept at the pain, until at last the girl left me and took my child and held him at her breast, softly humming an old Priestess tune I remembered from my childhood.

It wasn't long before the pain went away, and I knew that the poppy dust was working, and that once I feel asleep in its grasp I would never wake again.

* * *

"What is the Metropolis, Eleni?"

I pressed my eyes tighter and willed the voice to go away.

"What are the Ruins-that-are-whole? What is the Kyriakos-that-was-and-will-be-again?"

I whimpered and shook my head. My wrists and hands ached where they were chained to the wall above my head.

"Who are the true Athanasios, Eleni?"

"I am," I whispered. "I am the true Athanasios--"

My words ended in a scream of agony as something hot pressed into the skin of my thigh. My eyes flew open, and I saw Chrysanthe standing in a spot of moonlight before me, a red iron brand clutched in her fist. The walls of the Thanatorium stretched in a circle around us like the bloodied teeth of some titanic monster.

"You know I don't want to do this, sister," she said softly. As I fought past the pain, I could see tears clinging to the corners of her eyes. "Only tell us what we ask, and I can make it stop."

Glancing over her shoulder, I noticed Leonidas standing in the shadow behind her. His face, too, was drawn with pain and weariness. How long had they been questioning me?

"You know what the Metropolis is, Chrysanthe," I said.

It was as though someone had opened the flood gates that held back the deluge of her anger. "But I don't know what it is! I don't know you, Eleni!"

"I'm the same girl you taught--"

"No!" The brand came down again, this time on my abdomen, where it seared through the black fabric of my gown. "The girl I taught wouldn't have sacrificed her child to the dead! She wouldn't have murdered the Despoina!"

"But now you are the Despoina," I hissed past the pain. "Haven't I brought you power, my sister?"

"No," she said bitterly. "You've brought yourself power. The Queen of the Dead and the Living, is that what you have your messengers call you?"

I felt my lips curl in a smile. "I am a daughter of Sotiris."

"You have no father!" Chrysanthe flung the brand to the floor and stepped back from me in disgust. "You have nothing, my sis--Eleni. No, not even that name. You have your Metropolis. Tell me, was it worth the price?"

"Always." Behind my eyelids, I saw the flickering lights of the city of the dead. The sheer beauty and power of the vision made my head spin. "The Queen of the Dead cannot die..."

With a cry like that of a damned woman, Chrysanthe took a sword down from its place on the wall and proved me wrong.

* * *

And yet I wasn't wrong, not really. Already I could feel strength returning to my limbs. Old limbs, they were, thin and cumbersome, but alive. My skin was sallow and creased beneath the black silk of my robes--the Despoina's robes. I reached beneath them and pulled out the Eye of Sotiris that the old Despoina had given me. The old Despoina, Chrysanthe. My hands trembled. Wasn't that what the Eye was for--protection from the dead? Why, then, was I still so afraid of her?

I stood in the great hall of the Kyriakos. The full moon was high overhead, and all the temple glowed in its light. The sounds of screaming, of metal clashing on metal, the dim roar of battle reached me as though from very far away...and yet, what could that red pool on the floor beside me be if not blood?

I remembered. We had driven them out of the hall, the Athanasios and I, had pushed them out to the holding cells and the high places and that Thanatorium itself. But we could not hold them off much longer. They were, after all, the true Athanasios, the true immortals. They had come out from their ruined city to claim our own.

The Kyriakos-that-was would be again.

I stumbled down the length of the hall to the doors of the Thanatorium. Part of me wished now that I had never betrayed Chrysanthe, that the Athanasios and I had never joined together and tempted her and lead her to her doom. It was foolish to take her into the Metropolis, foolish to spill her blood in the city of the dead. Not even the Despoina's crown could make up for what it had cost me...

The red doors flew open as I approached. They stood within, robed all in white, their swords drawn and bloodied.

"My brothers and sisters," I cried, raising my hands in salute. "Peace! There was friendship once between our peoples--"

"There has never been peace between the living and the dead." The white crowd parted, and a slight figure atop a black horse came forward. Her gown was black linen like my own, but a veil of tight-woven silk covered her face. "Since the first Despoina came out of the Metropolis and sought to build its sister on this mountain, there has been no peace. Only one living woman ever dared to set foot in the true Kyriakos, and she perished long ago."

"I did not perish," I said softly, taking another step towards the doors of the Thanatorium. "I am the Athanasios, the undying. I have looked on the Panthanatos and seen nothing."

The mounted figure shook her head. "We are the Panthanatos: we are the All Dead. You, my sister, are only the Despoina." Her white hands released their grip on the reins and began to lift the veil from her face.

"I am the true Queen of the Dead."

The people of the Metropolis dropped to their knees. Before her unveiled face, even their beauty seemed as dull and unsubstantial mist. The walls of the Thanatorium seemed to fall back around her, and the moon itself turned dim and silent.

I fell to the floor with a scream of bitter agony, covering my face with my hands. I screamed and screamed, until I thought my lungs would burst, and the pain in my chest was too much to bear, and I collapsed senseless on the floor.

The face behind the veil was my own.

* * *

“Eleni?”

I opened my eyes slowly, afraid of what I might find. Through the small hole in the ceiling of the Thanatorium, I could see the first faint pink of dawn. The Athanasios stood in a circle around me, hands folded in their sleeves, their faces composed and solemn.

The Despoina stood at the foot of the bed, and though she extended her arms in greeting as I raised my head from the stone, she made no motion to remove the chains at my wrists.

“Did you find what you sought, my sister?”

I shook my head, speechless. The back of my throat burned with every breath: how long had I been screaming before I finally awoke?

“Eleni.” Chrysanthe had broken through the ranks, both hands twined in the lover’s knot around her neck. “Eleni! What is it? What’s wrong?”

I turned to the Despoina, but she lowered her eyes. She too had undergone the Panthanatos, I remembered. She and Chrysanthe both. My hands to tremble, rattling the chains about my wrists. They had felt themselves die at these hands…

“My lady,” one of the Athanasios said, the one who had lent me his cloak. “Is she…has she gone mad?”

The Despoina merely shook her head.

I nodded mine, and laughed until I wept.

About


Megan Arkenberg is an award-winning writer, poet, and editor of speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and dozens of other places. She blogs sporadically at Bitter Irony.

Megan's new website is www.meganarkenberg.com

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