Chapter 40

Samsara

Water slopped against the beach as the audience settled into a suspenseful silence. From all around the stands, Dante could hear the babbling of two overeager commentators assessing the situation in the arena. Charybdis, sitting in the middle of the artificial lake, watched the three initiates with large, unblinking eyes.

“So, eh, what do we do now?” asked Lance, invisible microphones picking up his voice and amplifying it through the stands above. “Are we supposed to, like, beat Charlie there up or something? Because there’s no way I’m risking a shirt like this in water like that.”

A murmur spread throughout the crowd, a sharp hiss of shocked gasps and hurried whispers, commentators aghast. Charlie? they were asking themselves. Did he really call him—

“Charlie?” The gruff, disapproving voice echoed around the arena, drowning out the chatter. “Charlie? You’d better watch your mouth, kiddo, or I’ll ‘av ya tongue out!”

“Dude,” Lance looked to Byron, Byron to Lance, Lance to Dante. “If that wasn’t any of us, who was it?”

Byron replied with the slightest nod of the head towards the monster. Lance followed his gaze, then looked back to Byron and shook his head. “No way, dude. I was in the militia. Things like that don’t talk!”

Dante steadied his breathing. He’d seen this before, of course, multiple times now. Common sense told him — as the Saptamatrikas would — that it was an illusion of artificial intelligence, a manufactured personality sealed inside an automatous form, but there was something else, something about the eyes, they way they glowed with a vicious malice, a cruel sentience, a soul.

“Maybe there’s somebody inside it,” he offered. “A pilot.” It was a stupid suggestion, really — the truth was obvious — but he didn’t know what else to say.

“A pilot?” The coliseum trembled with laughter, with the deep and hearty gwa-ha-ha of a drunken oaf, watching events play out across the White Rabbit’s wallscreen. “What’dya think I am, some kind of drakonic? Let me assure you, kiddo,”—the creature whipped its tentacles across the lake and onto the beach, then started to drag itself out of the water—”that this is as real as it gets. Body, tooth an’ nail. Not that I ‘av nails!”

The audience laughed and the beast, eyes creased as if with affection, raised a tentacle in salute. One woman declared her undying love in response.

“Well done, Orpheus,” said Byron with a sad shake of his head. “Once again you have proven your utter and complete ignorance. Would you like to embarrass us further, or shall I fall upon my sword for all our sakes?”

“C’mon, dude,” said Lance, “there’s no need to get all shirty.”

“As if you are much better! All this time in Bolventor and you never thought to notice the pantomime played out across every screen?”

“To be fair, dude, I was too busy learning to play cards.”

Cards?”

With a crack like thunder, a rock struck the wall behind them. “Oi!” bellowed the monster, “you’re supposed to be fightin’ me, not each other!”

Byron huffed and, with a tug of his waistcoat, stepped forward. “I suggest the two of you leave this to me,” he said. “These games are as much a battle of wits as they are brawn, and I doubt you have enough of either to muster up much of a fight.”

Before Lance could protest, the poet swaggered off towards the monster. Halfway there, he removed his hat and bowed. “I apologise for my fellows’ ignorable behaviour,” he said. “Your name is Charybdis, yes?”

“You better believe it!”

“As if I could doubt such a unique moniker. So unique, in fact, that I find myself wondering whether your mother swallowed a little too much of your father’s noxious ink when she chose it.”

If this was the size of a truck and talked like it just stumbled off the set of Eastenders