39: Scylla and Charybdis
The moor stretched out into the grey mists of rainfall, a hilly expanse of overgrown fields littered with clumps of woodland, green and natural, untouched by the hands of human hubris. With a sharp flash, a stream of purple lightning raced across churning storm clouds, a low rumble of thunder in its wake.
“It’s quite the view, isn’t it?” said Jonas Meeray. “A shame about the weather, though. You can see all the way to the ocean on those rare days the sun blesses us with its presence.”
Emily gripped the balcony railing. Given a choice, she would have happily traded the shelter of his little retreat for the tempest outside. It was here, at the very edge of Avalon, in the walls that held the island aloft, that Jonas Meeray had built his shrine—no, his temple—to all she despised, Emily and Macha and Aliza as one. Vendors adorned every corner of the room, between them a host of control panels and computer consoles, simulation chambers and stimulation capsules, podiums and pedestals ready to project detailed schematics of Avalon and Bolventor and all that walked their streets. Besides the view through the window, which stretched the full width of the room, the only hint of the natural world came from the pool below the balcony, shimmering beneath strips of fabricated sunlight—but, even then, its crystal-blue waters stank of noxious chemicals strong enough to strip a body of sweat and dirt and dye within minutes.
But none of that, not the scale of the technology at Meeray’s disposal, nor the scope of its implications, left her feeling as cold as the septet of figures that moved around the room, pale of skin and subtle of form, with only the slightest of silken scraps to spare their modesty. As Meeray took Emily’s arm and led her down the balcony steps, the synthetic dolls moved to greet him, their faces empty of expression, their eyes devoid of soul.
“Girls,” he said, as they gathered around him like children waiting for their master’s instruction, “I would like you to meet A—Emily, our guest for the afternoon.”
One of the girls placed her hand on Emily’s arm. She had the smile of a Maiden, even the voice of a Maiden, and yet… “Would you care for some refreshments?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” replied Emily. Macha, however, wanted to scream, to reach out and grab the girl by her shoulders, to shake her, demand to know her name. Not that she would have a name. That was the problem.
When another girl stepped forward to run a cold finger down her cheek, the Macha almost got her chance. “You should bathe,” said the girl as she studied the sweat and dirt and dye on her finger. “Come, let us cleanse you.”
“Yes,” said the others in unison, as if all their minds were linked as one, “let us cleanse you.”
Meeray cleared his throat. His cheeks flushed red with embarrassment—or was it something else? Of course it was! Only Aliza could be so naïve to think otherwise. The Macha, however, could recognise that look anywhere. It was the look of a man struggling to contain the bulging hot fantasy desperate to escape his pants. “Ladies,” he said, “if you would excuse me, I have a few matters to attend to. In the meantime, Emily,” he inclined his head, tried to hide his true thoughts behind that snivelling smile, “my facilities are at your disposal.”
His ‘facilities’. Macha’s hand reached for her knife, felt its familiar shape fit perfectly between her fingers.
No! They needed him alive! You couldn’t scry a dead man—well, they couldn’t. Macha didn’t care what the other two thought, but they outnumbered her. The knife remained at her side.
Soon, though. Soon.
She watched his back as he moved to an alcove beneath the balcony, leaving her on the edge of his magic field. One step back and she would be free of its influence, free to cast her thoughts into the aether, to scream out and summon all and sundry to her location, Seelie and the Sultan and any others who cared to intervene. Perhaps even Ketos.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t. Whether she wanted to or not, she had to face this trial alone. Only she could do this. Only a seer. Only a Maiden.
Meeray stood before some kind of altar, a shrine of crystal-blue to match the pool behind him. As he picked up what looked like a small statue or idol in one hand, and clasped the magic crystal of Ketos in the other, she realised what he was doing, what this place was, and why it was here, on the border of Avalon. The moment he placed the crystal in the idol, she cast her eyes into the aether to confirm it, just in time to see the sphere of magic that shielded her from the outside world spread wide, its power seeping into every corner of the room. Of the temple. Of the node.
The Macha had seen her fair share of magic circles in her life, most recently within the Scar, but none on a scale such as this, none so vast as to encircle an entire society. Beneath the shadow of the world, in the layers of the aether deeper than dreams, the currents of the world’s soul surged, a cyclone of magic, of words potent and ideas powerful, a storm as violent and unstoppable as the ocean tides. And this place, this temple, was one of the nodes that controlled that flow, focused it, empowered it.
Always seven, there are.