39: Scylla and Charybdis
The prison guard, whose bear-like frame forced him to stoop down to avoid banging his head on the ceiling, stopped before a pair of heavy-set metal doors. As the dungeon rang with the sound of clanking bolts and clicking locks, Ms Espinosa’s aethereal form began to fade, as if she were disappearing into an invisible fog.
“It is one thing to hide from an ignorant oaf,” she explained, “but another to hide from a crowd. Rest assured, however, that we are not about to abandon you here and, should things not go to plan, we will be there for you.”
“Is there a plan?” asked Lance.
“Stall for time,” said Ms Espinosa, and then she was gone.
The prison guard, thinking the question was for him, laughed. “Yeah, the plan is for you to go out there and keep the punters ‘appy,” he said. “And, if you’re lucky, try not to get yerselves killed.”
With a loud creak, the doors ground open, revealing a short tunnel and, beyond it, one of the coliseum arenas Dante had spotted on the screens of Bolventor. As a rush of cool air washed over them and the smell the sea assaulted Dante’s nostrils, the guard stepped aside and gestured the three initiates towards their fate. “Good luck, boys,” he said, face cracking with a malicious, three-toothed grin.
“Orpheus, I am holding you personally accountable for anything that happens beyond this point,” said Byron, nudging the brim of his hat and starting down the tunnel.
“Chill, dude,” said Lance. “Maybe they just want us to play a card game.”
Dante, following behind them, hands in pockets, had doubts it would be that simple. More likely was the Sultan throwing some monster or another at them in the hope Emily would surrender to spare their lives.
Heart pounding, insides twisting, he closed his eyes and wondered where she might be. For all of a moment, for the slightest fraction of an instant, he thought he could see something, another place, a room maybe? Water. There was—
A roar of voices purged the images from his imagination, the whoops and hollers of a hundred — no, more like a thousand — spectators, watching over the arena from the stalls above. Dante had never seen so many people in one place at the same time, and even Byron — no stranger to an audience — seemed to pale at the attention.
“Although I have always desired such a grand audience,” he said, “I doubt this one cares much for poetry.”
The arena itself was about seventy metres across, by Dante’s estimate, not quite the length of a football pitch but somewhat wider and roughly circular in shape. They had emerged on a crescent of a beach, its sands a hard grey, like granite, and scattered with irregular rock formations, some reaching up the walls towards the audience. Twenty or so metres away, the beach dropped into a lake, its waters thick and murky, sloshing with simulated waves. Around the edges of the area, and splitting its audience into even quarters, stood four columns, ten to fifteen metres in diameter. Supports, thought Dante, the elevators Katrina had mentioned that rose through every floor of Avalon’s central tower. At least, then, he had a rough idea of where they were. If only they could reach one of them, then perhaps they could escape to the island above…
There was a crackle of fireworks and a blare of music as spotlights swept across the surface of the lake and up towards a balcony in the far stalls, where a solitary figure in a smart suit lifted his arms to cheers from the watching crowds.
“And now,” intoned a rumbling voice, “your host for this afternoon: Giovanni Veres!”
The man, who Dante presumed to be this Giovanni Veres, let the audience whoop a little longer, then silenced them with a single clap of his hands. “What a sight,” he said, voice rebounding around the arena. “What a sight. I can hardly believe it. Are you sure you’re not just projections?” He looked over his shoulder, “Are they projections?” he asked. “Are you sure? Really?” He turned back to his audience. “People of Bolventor!” he cried to another round of cheers. “At last, after all these years of watching from afar, the walls are down! After all these years of sitting in cramped rooms and run-down bars, gathered around screens and projections, you can witness the might of our finest warriors with your own eyes!”
“That’s strange,” said Byron, as the crowd cheered louder than ever. “Not a short while ago they would never even think to let such a rabble past the tower gates, and yet now…”
Dante noticed it too, how men and women who might never have passed judgement now whooped and hollered alongside a flustered minority of smart suits and pretty dresses. In his obsession to bring Emily out of the shadows, the Sultan had cast aside all the rules of his underground society and opened the gates to anarchy.
“And here,” continued Giovanni Veres, “we present the first of our noble heroes, stepping up to win a fair maiden’s heart. From across the Malebolge and beyond the Wall, it’s the Gooolden Boy, Lance Allllgaaar!”
I only invented Giovanni Veres for the Episode Four interlude. I had no idea he would keep popping up like this.