Orphic Phantasia

39: Scylla and Charybdis

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The cell was only two metres square, with a bench along one wall and a bucket in the opposite corner, its rim smeared with dirt. Overhead, a single circle of white light hummed a headache-inducing pitch above silence. Dante, shivering with cold, picked at the Elixium scab on his cheek. His breaths, sharp and shallow, spread across the room, ragged clouds of grey rising to dissipate in the all-consuming light.

This was all his fault.

Byron sat hunched on the edge of the bench, playing with a steel grey figure that hung from a chain around his neck. He had made no efforts to hide his disdain towards Dante since their arrest. Lance, meanwhile, had somehow survived the ordeal with his smile intact. Presently, he was running his fingers along the wall.

“Maybe I should just throw myself at it,” he said, taking a step back before launching himself forward and cracking his arm against a thoroughly solid wall. Byron rolled his eyes in response and muttered something beneath his breath.

Had Dante his cellular, he might have been able to scan the wall for weaknesses, maybe even fool the controls that morphed it into a door, but the men who arrested them had stripped them of all their technological advantages. They had even deemed Lance’s coat, with its neon trimming, a possible threat. Dante was thankful he had left his own in Emily’s hands.

He closed his eyes and tried to picture where she might be, but the smell, the sound, the very room itself crushed any hopes he had of focusing his thoughts. He wondered if they had designed it that way. There wasn’t much point locking somebody in a room if they could just project their consciousness elsewhere.

One person who could do precisely that, Dante now realised, was Captain Espinosa. She had followed them into the dungeon, invisible to their captors, with a stern promise to watch over things and keep them safe. The Sultan wanted to use them to force Emily’s surrender, she explained, insisting, despite Byron’s protests and Dante’s guilt, that there was little they could have done to avoid capture. In fact, she welcomed it.

“Now we’ll see how far he’s willing to go,” she had explained, before stepping through the prison’s wall as if it were an illusion of Aethex.

Lance, whose efforts to emulate her escape had left him rubbing his arm, sat down next to Byron. “I don’t get it, duders,” he said, “Miss E just stepped through that wall as if it wasn’t even there.”

“Astral projection,” mumbled Byron.

“What’s that? Some kind of crazy Malkuth thing?”

Had Dante the skill, had he the knowledge and the power, maybe he could have cast aside the prison’s distractions and opened his eyes to that other, immaterial world. Instead, all he could do was wait for somebody to come and rescue him. He was as useless now as he had been the night his mother surrendered herself to Pleiades. As if he thought he could save her! That he could save anybody.

“Hey, Miss E! Any news?”

Dante looked up; in all of a heartbeat, Ms Espinosa had appeared in the corner of the room. Had he not known better, had he been as blind and in denial as he had been a week ago, he would have thought her there in the flesh, but now he could accept the truth the signs were obvious, no more so than in the colour of her eyes. Where in the material world they were the dull brown of summer soil, here they glistened the vivid green of a ripening apple, bobbing from its stem in the spring breeze.

“The Sultan has decided to put you on display in the coliseum,” she explained, concise as ever. “He believes it will draw Emily out of hiding.”

Byron looked up at mention of Emily’s name. “Has there been no word on her whereabouts?” he asked.

Ms Espinosa shook her head. Her olive skin was perhaps a tone darker than usual, too, but her hair, voluminous and dark, still shimmered with a hint of twilight. “Without a thorough understanding of the arts Jonas Mireille is using to cloak his presence, there is little any of us can do but comb the island one level at a time and hope we chance upon them,” she replied.

Byron returned to his pendant with a pained scowl.

“So, when’s the big show?” asked Lance.

“I would estimate in about forty seconds.”

Dante counted them. The moment he reached thirty-seven, the wall to the prison cell opened and the brute who shoved them inside jerked his thumb towards the corridor outside.

“It’s show time, boys,” he said, and none of them was about to argue with a man who could crush their skulls on a whim.

Beyond his sight, Ms Espinosa kept pace behind her students as they trudged through the dungeon grotty corridors, their feet splashing through pools of water that danced with flickering, synthetic torchlight. The salty, boiled cabbage smell reminded Dante of the underground river that raced through Torsten’s catacombs. It was the scent of the ocean. The real ocean, not Avalon’s fabricated illusion of it. He reached out and ran a finger along the wall. It felt like slime.

Seelie, of course, perfectly happy to let a bungling bunch of initiates get arrested for the greater good!