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Gateway of Her Domain

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The Princess of Hy Brasil was a warrior through and through, and she tamed her flowing locks to keep them away as she hacked and slashed through the steaming jungle. Perspiration stood out on her heaving breast while terrible thorns drew bright red droplets from her lean sinews, each pregnant with weight but loathe to roll away from her tanned flesh.

Grace glared at the text in front of her as though it had personally insulted her entire family and her integrity as a woman, which of course it had, and blatantly.  Her many talents were obviously wasted here. The life of an artist was a harsh one, and just to give a rough translation of that, it really meant that no one else had shown an interest in paying her.

"Your loss, darlings," she said aloud to the empty kitchen, but it really was a trial to have to scrimp on every little thing. The table was chipped, the stove looked as though it had seen better days and it was new; they weren't critical things, certainly, but Grace was tired of making do and being dependent on Sonya's sad little salary at the nameless office job that she hated.

Grace sighed, and turned her attention to the mail she'd been trying to ignore. Yet another manuscript had arrived in plain brown wrapping from the editor's as though the pages weren't fit to be seen by the light of day. Paging through it, she was quick to realize that they weren't fit to be seen in any light, as far as she was concerned. Obviously the editor was having a little holiday, because anyone looking at that tripe with a red pen would have quickly decided the pen was worth more and dropped the whole manuscript in the garbage.

The newly crowned Queen stood at the gateway of her domain. If she only suspected what horrors and pains lay within, she would turn and flee. But she stood firm, a proud Amazonian, and the rising scent of blood on the wind only caused her to lift her chin and drop her hand to her sword.

"Eugh," Grace said aloud, and dropped the manuscript. That was quite enough to be getting on with, and pictures of the scene were already forming in her mind. There should be a great arch, covered in - let's see - poppies, and a signpost bidding the visitor welcome. And beyond the arch, magic. Not the sort that Marto Neptura wrote about, heavens no; green slopes covered in trees and caves promising adventure, fields of strange, exotic animals and a great and prosperous city, full of towers and domes and each done in such beautiful colors. Unconscious of her expression, Grace smiled dreamily to herself.

She didn't even have the luxury of a drawing table, though she secretly would love one; for now she would start her first sketch start right here, at the kitchen table. Black lines flowed across the page to depict the field and hint of poppies while the arch spiraled up in the foreground, and finally she began on the heroine. She was tall and proud, and obviously strong, and if they wanted more than a hint of skin, well, that was all right. In Grace's opinion, the fashions today were all far too conservative, and her heroine wore gladiator-style leather strips and fitted armor, and the simple golden circlet of an Egyptian queen. That, in brief, was how a warrior queen should look. Her hand flew across the paper. Things around her began to fade as her intensity grew. The plants by the window became pale and insubstantial; the chipped table where she worked was forgotten; the odd rattle in the back of the oven as the roast beef cooked faded until it was gone completely, and the scents of strange spices and of poppy blossoms took its place.

She reached up to detail Promethea's hair, and on her own arm, a golden gauntlet came into view. Grace froze.

Well, that was certainly an interesting development for a Tuesday afternoon.

She looked up, and saw the arch. It looked as though it had been there for centuries, crumbling and ancient, here in the middle of her kitchen.

"Wh--" she got out, wide-eyed, and looked back down at her drawing to - perhaps to see that the arch was the same, to confirm it was still there.

It wasn't.

She was standing, suddenly, and taller. And there - oh, there before her was the arch, and the fields and slopes, and the colorful, vibrant city of towers and promised adventure. Her memories went back and back for lifetimes, and it should feel so very awkward but there was only a sense of comfort and rightness with her own body, lean and muscular and perfect. There was a weight at her hip; a sword that she knew as thoroughly as she knew the back of - of Grace's hand.

The newly crowned Queen stood at the gateway of her domain.

She stepped through the arch, and was confronted with the very thing that had eluded her for months: the Aukaden tree.

"That," she said in a voice both strange and familiar, staring at it. It was just how she'd always imagined it. Drawing the thing, she'd always felt it was too top-heavy, and the roots weren't quite right. Fantasy land or no, she'd wanted to get her own creations right. There were certainly few enough of her own things around with that disturbingly prolific group of hacks writing Promethea's every move. But this tree was hers. She walked around the roots until she was satisfied that she knew how the thing worked, and then --

WHAM.

She was looking at the roots from a distance of about two inches, and then a terrible burning pain materialized in the back of her head.

"Nrrrrg," she mumbled, and rolled to the side to see a terrifying - and to be perfectly frank, rather silly-looking - green creature with the face of a crocodile leering down at her.

"Here's a tasty one," it growled, and through her shock, she knew it for what it was. In a single, unbelievably effortless movement the sword came up, swung into the creature with the sort of clean slicing sound reserved for comic books, and using her momentum, she leapt to her feet. The alligator-creature lay on the ground, beheaded, and its mount, a skittish-looking giant chicken-thing ('blood rooster,' some part of her prompted), high-stepped in agitated circles. Five minutes later, Grace was flying across the landscape on the creature, headed toward that tempting city in the valley.

The transition from brightness to gloom was not especially gradual. It radiated, she could see, from a squatty little building just on the edge of what she'd come to think of as her city.

"That can't be right," she mused, and her mount turned toward the odd building without her conscious encouragement.

The place was completely unidentifiable from the outside. Iron bars over the door had rusted mostly away, however, and the darkness inside was complete. Strange echoes reached her ears, screams and moans and an unpleasant rattling.

"Oh, please," she said, rolling her eyes, and drew the sword once more. Really, if a third-rate hack had dreamed up this place, it could hardly be more clichéd and ridiculous. In point of fact, she realized as she stepped through the huge opening in the bars, one probably had.

She had taken perhaps three steps into the murk before a humanlike skeleton - screeching and rattling and moaning with invisible vocal cords - clattered towards her, arms outstretched. There was no light source anywhere, so how on earth she could see it was impossible to determine, but it was perfectly clear.

There was a shout of disgust which - she was mortified to discover - had come from her own throat. But if a hack writer had really dreamed up these monsters, he'd also dreamed up how Promethea was to defeat them, so she swung the sword so that the skeleton was neatly decapitated, and the bones collapsed into a heap.

There was no time to savor the victory, however, as more skeletons had appeared and were coming her way. And then more, what looked to be an endless stream. She hacked and chopped at them, but this crude warfare was exhausting and she quickly found herself getting overwhelmed.

She began talking to them as they approached, though they were clearly not blessed with the intelligence of a gerbil and did not respond. It was a way of distracting herself which she'd often used when faced with a particularly horrible request or a long afternoon's coloring. Or a meeting with her agent. Or the arrival of a new manuscript. Or anything, really.

"You aren't even anatomically correct, and I don't mean in the fun way, precious," Promethea said to the nearest skeleton, before cleaving its ribcage in two and turning to the next. "Why, you haven't even got any tendons on those bones, to say nothing of muscles. Whoever put you together drew you very poorly."

A slash forward, and-- this felt easier, somehow. Promethea whirled around as the skeleton collapsed in a rattling heap to face the next one.

"Why it is that this sword affects you as though you were actually alive I can't imagine," she said, and hardly touched the skeleton, it seemed, before it, too, fell to pieces.

"If only I could set fire to that manuscript as easily as I can dispatch all of you," she said hopefully, but the skeletons were unfortunately unaffected.

"Ah, well," she said with a rather satisfied smile, and continued her attack.

***

The skeletons must either have vanished or she'd destroyed them all, because none came after her as she found her way back out of the building, though she kept the sword raised. The change in the landscape was stunning: where there had been low fog, murky bare trees and a chill that smelled of rot, there was now sunshine, gently blowing grass, and full trees in glorious shades of lavender and strawberry.

"Much better," she said to the blood rooster, who was pecking amiably at the ground.

"And now," she announced, climbing up into the saddle, "let's see about that city."

But the rooster didn't move. The city, from what she could make out, was fading into light as though the sun was setting right in front of her. The sunlight increased further, turned orange and brilliant, then a warm red brightening until she had to shield her eyes, and when she could take her arm down again --

The gauntlet had vanished. She was in her kitchen, sitting at the table once again, Grace once again, and on the page under her hand her drawing of Promethea, standing proud and poised at the gateway of her kingdom.

There was a banging in the area of the kitchen door, and Sonya came in. Grace looked up in a daze.

"Well, that was just marvelous," Sonya said sarcastically, unwrapping the scarf she'd wound around her neck against the chill. She stalked over to the drinks cabinet, heels clicking on the tile-printed lino.

"I'm making myself a drink to take to the living room; would you like one?" Grace stared at her as though seeing her - as though seeing the world for the first time.

"I. I'm absolutely dying for one," she stammered. "We should have a little chat, darling." She stood, a trifle unsteadily. "Perhaps along with that drink."

Sonya nodded, and pulled out the glasses.