Kyra had lived for the day when she would leave adolescence behind, move to New York and start painting full time. She promptly started all three on her eighteenth birthday.

She fell in love with the city, the dreams made concrete, the currents of potential achievement crisscrossing the air like vibrating electric wires. Despite her youth, her certainty about the value of her painting was bone-deep. But the instinct that guided her unerringly when she judged the quality of an art object stumbled where lovers were involved.

So it happened that someone took her love, used it to increase his own strength, and left her diminished and bereft. Suddenly, the canvases that had been absorbing her might as well have been gaping holes in the fabric of the world. She lay on her bed, eyes blank, as if on an operating table where pain wielded the scalpel. When she emerged from her ordeal, still dazed, she found that she had completely exhausted her financial and emotional reserves. To return to her depressed hometown was unthinkable. Nor did she intend to blunt her talent with any form of prostitution.

Thus, one fine fall day, she put her brushes, paint tubes and a change of clothes in her satchel, stole past the superintendent's door and descended into the subway. Once underground, she went to the end of the platform, past the signal forbidding further access, and disappeared into the gloom.

During her long sojourn, Kyra learned that many of the stories whispered above were true, although she did not meet any blind alligators. It took her eyes a while to adjust to the constant semi-darkness; eventually she developed true darkvision -- she could see colors where others would normally only distinguish shades of gray. Many besides her had taken refuge in the relative warmth and safety of the tunnels -- and most were helpful. Kyra found out about the spider's web of passages; where to surface if she needed food, drink, clothing; how to listen, ear against pipe or railing, for signals conducted along the metal; which places were the best for sleep, near the hot air vents. Surely, she thought, Moria at the heyday of the Dwarf empire could not have been livelier.

It startled her to realize that while she had been busy getting familiar with her new surroundings, her heartache had been cured. Now she was eager to resume painting; her retinas were filled with the images of the works she would create. And then she thought -- what better place to test out all her new color schemes and compositions than the endless tunnels?

In the next three months, she literally covered square miles of walls, until the nascent ideas had crystallized. Then, she decided she would venture aboveground and seek a proper backdrop for her first public opus.

Kyra prowled the streets for a long time before she settled on a prosperous looking house whose inhabitants were obviously away for the winter. From an acquaintance underground, she learned all there was to know about alarm systems, bypassed the safeguards, and decorated the main living room wall. She hesitated about signing the work, and finally settled on Asterion. Like her, he had lived in a labyrinth and had no friends in the world outside.

When the owners returned, they were stunned by the vibrant fresco on the previously naked expanse; museum curators and art critics were invited, and gave unanimous, extravagant praise, some of which percolated down to Kyra's sanctuary. Thereafter, she repeated the nocturnal visits, not always to large, well-kept houses. During that winter, many well-to-do New Yorkers disconnected their alarms and risked getting burglarized for the sake of getting a visit from Asterion, whose murals were already worth millions.

One night, she ventured outside and the air smelled different; spring was coming, the trees were hazy with buds. She had already selected her next "canvas", in a small apartment on the top floor of a brownstone, whose inhabitant seemed to have tastes very similar to hers. Made lightheaded from the thaw and the sap rising in the trees, she decided this painting would be a forest scene, something that would evoke half-forgotten myths. But although she worked, as was her wont, with deft fingers and a clear image, for the first time upon leaving she was dissatisfied with her work.

She knew she had to return; to complete the mural, she needed to set a creature roaming in it. While she was furtively nearing the beckoning wall, as if under thrall, there was nevertheless no distinct vision in her mind. But once in front of the fresco, it came to her sharply, a dappled cat barely distinguishable from the background, yet an undeniably sensed presence.

She was finishing the first coat, when the door of the apartment opened and someone flicked a switch. Kyra's eyes, unaccustomed to strong light, temporarily deserted her. She stood blinking, paint dripping from the tip of her brush.

The tenant initially froze, but took the situation in very quickly.

"So this is what Asterion really looks like. Not satisfied with this one yet? I can come back later, you know..."

"No," replied Kyra. "I desire company tonight. Talk to me while I work."

"I'll make us some tea," decided the occupant and explained while doing so: "I am a research scientist at Columbia, the experiments require irregular hours."

They talked -- sentences halting on Kyra's unexercised tongue -- until her hands stopped, and enormous eyes were burning through the underbrush. The first streaks of dawn were coloring the sky as they drifted to sleep, tightly entwined. When they awoke, both puzzled by the unaccustomed weight and warmth upon their bodies, dust motes were dancing in the amber light of afternoon.

The two left the apartment -- her new lover had to return to work that could not be put off. But Kyra, for the first time in many months walked out into the light... The passersby parted to let her through, as if the leopard she had brought forth from the shadows was padding behind her.

Copyright © 1998 Athena Andreadis

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