Scylla and Charybdis
Emily pulled herself out of the hatchway and into another of Avalon’s utility corridors, its cold blue passageways identical to all those that came before it. Jonas Meeray, jaw clenched with determination, yet pale with fear, offered her his hand. She accepted it with a smile and felt, once again, that electric spark of connection race up her arm, illuminating the sphere of magic that surrounded them. Somewhere beyond that shell, through a portal in the crystal that hung from Meeray’s neck, a frail figure stood at the edge of a fog-drenched beach, her trembling voice calling into the wind. Calling for her.
I made a promise, she said. I said I would watch over you. I promised her, and she promised me. She promised me! She promised!
Meeray closed the access shaft. It was the fifth they had climbed since escaping the Sultan — keeping count stopped Emily from dwelling on things elsewhere — and she estimated they were at least halfway to the surface by now. “You do this often?” she asked.
“It’s all a part of the job,” he replied.
“Is that the coliseum job, or the smuggling young girls out of the underground one?”
Out of the underground to sell to wealthy merchants, but she let that slide for now and hid her murderous desires behind a reassuring giggle. She was still Emily Fomalhaut, after all, kind and innocent, a naive idealist who believed she could free Bolventor and its Oracle from the misogynistic sultanate by allying herself with Jonas Meeray and his master, Ketos. Whether Meeray himself believed that, or was playing her as she played him, she did not know; his own mask was still as impenetrable as the walls that kept the ocean at bay. What she did know, however, was that the moment he realised he would not reap the rewards Ketos promised him, it was all over.
He grimaced slightly as he gestured her to take a right turn. “Smuggling is such an unfortunate term,” he said. “I prefer to think of it as relocation, that I am granting them hope when all they have is despair. After all, a life trapped underground is no life at all.”
Emily wondered if the men who raided Aliyah Adel’s temple had that excuse in mind when they slaughtered her followers and sold her off to the highest bidder. Using the thought of her grandmother to entice a tear from the corner of her eye, she took Meeray’s hands in her own. “Jonas,” she began, “I—thank you. I can’t imagine the danger you’ve put yourself in for me. For all of us. If there’s anything I can do to repay you…”
Even as she faked her tears and her appreciation, she cast her eyes into that other world, to the place of dreams and fantasies. What did Ketos promise you? she thought. What do you want?
It was the tiniest of cracks, but it was enough for a single sliver of desire to drift across his face before the desperate hands of denial reached out to drag it back into hiding.
Of course. What else could it be? It was the same thing they all wanted. Her.
“Your thanks are reward enough,” he lied, the slightest of stammers in his voice. Sooner or later, the mask would break, and the moment it did, Emily would tear the truth from his very soul.
No, not Emily. That was the last thing Emily would do. She was a nice girl, a kind, generous girl, the girl Fomalhaut had always assumed her to be. She would never manipulate somebody like this, never hurt them, no matter how vile their heart. The Macha, on the other hand, was no stranger to luring away reprehensible men with false promises and offers of heavenly delights.
But the Macha wouldn’t have played the game this long. The moment she was alone with Jonas Meeray, the Macha would have yanked back his head and drained his knowledge with a knife to the throat. She wouldn’t have cared for breaking down masks or scrying souls. Those were the methods of a seer, and the Macha was most definitely not a seer.
Aliza Adel, however? Aliza Adel, who scried her uncle’s soul? But no; Aliza was too naive, too wrapped up in her own fantasies, too afraid of the outside world and all its dangers to scheme such a thing. If Aliza Adel were here, she would have run into the darkness and cried.
Then who am I?
The words echoed, a scream across the breaking waves to give her a purpose, a place in the world. Who am I?!
A light humming cut through her thoughts and Meeray pulled back from her grasp. Ahead of them, the metallic sphere of an automatous drone spun around the corner and made straight towards them. A red light pulsed around its rim. Security.
Emily stepped back, as did Meeray, and the drone passed by without pause.
“That’s, what, the third one in five minutes?” asked Emily.
“I imagine they have every floor of this facility under surveillance by now,” replied Meeray, casting an eye towards a dark corner ahead of them, where a bulbous black eye surveyed its surroundings in search of irregularities. “Shall we continue?”
Welcome to the longest chapter so far! So long I almost split it in two, but I didn’t want to alter the schedule (and I keep telling other writers that “a chapter should only be as long or short as it needs to be” – and this one needs to be long!)