39: Scylla and Charybdis
Emily fell into step alongside him. Between the magic crystal and whatever technology he used to fool the cameras they were pretty much invisible. “And you’re certain the Sultan won’t know where we’re going?” she asked.
“There is a lot our friend the Sultan doesn’t know about our operations here. If he did, he would have remained a lowly gambler hedging his bets on slot machines.”
After a few more twists and turns, and a run in with another security drone, they reached a familiar staircase leading up to a familiar door. Emily’s journey had come full circle.
Meeray played with the panel on the wall, then stepped aside. “After you,” he said.
Steeling herself for a return to the surface and its onslaught of illusions, Emily stepped through the door and into the alleyway beyond.
The first thing she noticed was the smell, thick and stale: the smell of forgotten catacombs, of undertowns left to rot. This was not the alleyway she remembered—nor even the same Avalon. With a knowing smile, Meeray escorted her outside.
“Not what you were expecting?” he asked, as they stepped out of the alleyway and into an abandoned square. Around them, the towers of Avalon’s Recreational District stood silent, no longer promoting sports leagues and martial arts tournaments, their blank faces reaching up towards a tapestry of struts and girders, support columns and maintenance walkways, just like those that hung over the streets of Bolventor. Here, however, the banks of artificial light cast the cavern in a cold, eerie twilight.
“Is this Avalon?” asked Emily. Avalon, she thought, stripped of all its lies.
“It was Avalon,” replied Meeray. “Now, shall we pay a trip to the beach? I hear it’s simply wonderful this time of year.”
As their footsteps echoed down lonely, dust-coated streets lined with the emaciated husks of petrified trees, Emily found herself thankful for Meeray’s magical cloak. Avalon’s aethereal shadow might have left her feeling nauseous, what with the island’s illusions creating an indecipherable, insecure shadow of conflicting ideas and observations, but here, in this forgotten, neglected sanctum there would be nothing but ghosts, scattered remnants of a world that was, drifting like fog. It was, like the Scar, a perfect nesting place for the cursed miasma of the Erebus.
“You said this was Avalon,” she said, trying to distract her thoughts from the simmering fire creeping across her shoulder. “How many more are there?”
“Who can say?” replied Meeray. “All I know is that this Avalon died and a new one emerged from its ashes. The wheel, as they say, never stops turning.”
Emily looked up to the ceiling, to the nest of supports and walkways holding aloft the Avalon she knew. At some point during her descent with Dante she must have passed through here without ever realising it. “But why leave it abandoned like this?” she asked. “There are hundreds of people living in Bolventor who could thrive in a place like this.”
“And that is a very good reason to keep them away, is it not?” replied Meeray without a moment’s pause. “If you hand people luxury, they will only ask for more. Stay your hand, however, and show them what could be theirs if they only try, and they shall aspire to greatness of their own accord.”
“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “People work their whole lives to reach Malkuth, so why should this place be any different?”
“Precisely.” Meeray beamed, seemingly thrilled he had found someone who shared his mindset. “Paradise is not free. Everything has its price.”
Emily wondered what price those women he smuggled to the surface had to pay. How many had he sold on the idea of paradise just so the Fortunate Isles could stick them in scant clothing for some insidious propaganda video? How many had he promised a better life, free of poverty and suffering, if only they would offer their bodies to whoever demanded the pleasure? And how many wore a smile to hide the hatred for their empty, fabricated lives? Of this whole, rotten world?
Erebus, hear our call…
Her shoulder flared, a blazing beacon in the lifeless purgatory, ready to summon an inescapable tsunami of despair, a cursed fog drawn to the cold fire, like-to-like.
But, if the Erebus were here, it did not come.
Nor, it seemed, did the security drones, or any other suggestion of the Sultan’s power. “How can they not see that there’s a whole other world down here?” she asked as they passed through this Avalon’s Residential district, its holiday villas and community plazas little more than lifeless shells and dried fountains. “Or up here,” she added. “I guess it depends on where you’re looking from!”
“Those of us who need to know, know,” replied Meeray. “The Sultan does not need to know.”
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Poor dude’s only had the job six months, after all!