Author: Chris Cook
Danielle watched, in a state of mild shock, while Mem and the 'Lamia' woman had a heated argument. The woman was claiming, Danielle gathered, to have been sent for benign reasons, while Mem was clearly agitated by her presence, as if she posed some particular threat. Between the surreality of what she had witnessed, and the profusion of words they used that she had no idea the meaning of - and a fair few she recognised, places and so on, but that she felt for some reason meant something entirely different the way they used them - Danielle was simply unable to stir herself to action.
"Don't be so melodramatic," Lamia said at last, airily, appearing to grow bored of the conversation.
"T'ain't nuffin' but sense to be wary of a snake!" Mem snapped. Lamia ignored him for a moment, taking a long drag of her cigarette, and finally flicked the ash off the end of it, over the shoulder of Mem's well-worn jacket.
"Dear boy," she said to his challenging glare, "I'll use force if I must." Mem instantly fell back a step, before regaining his composure and advancing again, suddenly fierce.
"You wouldn't dare!" he hissed. "The Earl-"
"Sent me, dearest," Lamia chuckled, unimpressed by his diminutive bravado. "The way you need to bring your, aha, guest, here, isn't safe."
"Says me," Lamia nodded calmly. "Will you bar my way, or will you accede to my wishes?"
Mem hesitated, shot a dark glance at Danielle, then shrugged.
"I'll come wif," he said sullenly.
"I'm sure I couldn't stop you," Lamia sneered sarcastically. She turned to Danielle and extended a hand.
"Come, child," she said with a disturbingly anticipatory smile.
"Don't touch 'er," Mem warned.
"Uh," Danielle said, "are we... is she... Mem, what's... what?" she finished, despairing of even knowing where to begin.
"It's complicated," the boy sighed.
"It's quite simple," Lamia cheerfully contradicted him. "You need answers, and we are here to bring you to the person who can provide them. The route is littered with the needlessly violent detritus of a society suffering some minor upheaval of little consequence, said detritus consisting of many a ne'er-do-well who'd happily waylay an unwary wanderer such as yourself-"
"This is 'er bein' simple," Mem muttered.
"-and, very well, I'm here to be your bodyguard. The man we're going to see sent me to look after you. Shall we go?"
"Bodyguard?" Danielle asked. "Wh-what are we going into? I mean, if this is dangerous, shouldn't we... you know, not?"
"With me, child, I assure you there's no danger," Lamia smiled.
"'Cept from 'er," Mem spat. "A'right, look... best to go wif 'er. I don't b'lieve she's 'ere to do you harm. She's a terror and you'd be well not to touch 'er, but the Earl'd 'ave 'er skinned and drowned if she tried anyfin' on 'er own."
"Ah, the ringing endorsement of a thief," Lamia chuckled. "Come then, the pair of you - lost child and child lost. Down Street will serve."
"Mem, where are we?" Danielle insisted, as they followed the strange woman down one of the medieval-like tunnels.
"My my, quite the stranger," Lamia answered instead. "What's the matter Mem, why didn't you tell her? Perhaps he just wanted to see the look on your face when you saw, he's a child of endless jest. Right up to the point where you wish it weren't so infernally difficult to slit his throat."
"I don't reckon you'd want ter try," Mem glared.
"Not simply for fun, no," Lamia agreed. "And so long as we both serve the same master, I doubt anyone could offer me enough to betray both of you. My dear child," she glanced over her shoulder at Danielle, "you are in London Below."
"This is under London?" Danielle asked.
"This is London," Lamia said. "Countless years of hopes and dreams and cast-off memories and legacies. All the shed skins and skeletons of bygone eras and nostalgic ages, all the rubble and ruin and the gleaming fantasies of one of the greatest cities in the world... London Below, child, is the truth atop which your London sits like the new season's coat of fresh paint, a facade that thinks it is the thing itself. All the people and ideas above come and go, with fire and fashion... All that remains, becomes London Below, and lives forever."
"Um... what?" Danielle ventured.
"Yes," Lamia deadpanned, "this is a city under London. But, and I hope you will be able to wrap your hopelessly Pavlovian mind around this, the truth is that this is London, and London Above is merely the crustacean that, knowing nothing of beauty, ignorantly builds the scintillating shell that delights any who look upon it."
"But we still call our place London Below," Mem put in, evidently taking some pleasure in undercutting Lamia's lavish prose.
"Yes, well, there's no accounting for moronic habit," the woman grumbled. She led them from the tunnel into what seemed to be a grand staircase, stretching up and down for as far as Danielle could see, in a vertiginous rectangular shaft, with light neither above nor below, but seeming to simply exist everywhere, dim and omnipresent.
"And, people live down here?" Danielle asked, as they started down.
"Oh yes," Lamia smiled. "Live and die, believe me. And among you, up above. Like Mem here, invisible because none of you want to see us. You dismiss us from your minds, forget us as soon as you've seen us. Our camouflage, and I must say the irony is staggering, is not seeming to matter to you."
"Wait..." Danielle almost stopped, but Lamia didn't slow and Mem seemed reluctant to get too far behind, so she hurried to catch up.
"So," she tried agian, "you mean, all the street people, homeless and so on... they're actually-"
"Oh my word no!" Lamia laughed. "No, your lovely city manages to produce its own destitute, in droves. We simply get... overlooked, in much the same way."
"Always wondered," Mem said, "all those big places up top, all the glass towers an' such... 'ow come there's not enough room for everyone?"
"Don't ask me," Danielle shrugged, feeling suddenly alone.
"And you, dear child, are one of us," Lamia said casually.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"You are from London Below," Lamia explained. "You were born here, raised here, engaged, I believe, here-"
"No," Danielle shook her head. "I've never been here before - any of this, I never even knew..."
"I am, thankfully, not responsible for what you believe," Lamia said lightly. "But I am quite certain that you are Willow, and London Below is your place."
"Willow?" Danielle asked. That other woman called me 'Willow.'
"Yeah," Mem nodded. "S'true. I wasn't gonna tell you meself." He shot a glare at Lamia. "Figured mebbe she's prefer hearin' it in a bit more comf'table a setting? Call me a jester..."
"I am entirely unrepentant," Lamia smiled.
Stories below, quite unseen, the ever-present light in the stairwell dimmed further, and gave way to a hooded, cloaked shape. With difficulty, leaning on the scythe in its hands, it began hobbling up the stairs, towards the echoing, drifting sounds of the conversation taking place above.