26: Y Ddraig Goch
It was almost ten past six when Vincent Masters and Blake Osbourne staggered through the cloaking field, the al-Hakim brothers following like a pair of frustrated parents escorting their wayward children to school. While Master al-Hakim stopped to speak with Chief Payne, his younger brother shooed the straggling initiates towards their peers. Now the only ones missing, besides the Sophist girls and Lira Burn, were Ceres Mendoza and Korrie Wedekind, but they made a habit of late arrivals.
“I hope the rest of you had a good night’s sleep,” said Mr al-Hakim, as Vincent and Blake shuffled through the crowd, a stench of stale alcohol in their wake. “You’ve a long day ahead of you!”
“A long week,” said his brother. The tan suited giant looked down on his students with a frown. Gesturing a line in the grass with his wooden sword, he said, “Form a line here. Single file.”
No one, not even Vincent and Blake, dared disobey him. Dante found himself sandwiched between Emily, silently chewing on her lip, and Katrina. Ahead of them, Theseus Armstrong bent down to pet his spider-robot and whisper some reassurance into its audio receptor.
Master al-Hakim drew the initiates’ attention with a sharp cough. “Once you are aboard the ship, you will leave your luggage with me and head for the main cabin.”
His brother added, “We’re taking the scenic route, we won’t arrive until about nine o’clock. If any of you do need to catch up on any lost sleep, you can use the guest quarters once we’re in flight. I’m sure Winnifred will fill you in on the details. Now, since it looks like everyone is here…”
Ahead of them, the ship’s chest opened like a giant, golden trapdoor. Some of the initiates gasped, others gawped, Chris Shaw said “I knew that was coming” and Katrina whipped out her cellular to record a video. Dante, however, shivered, as if the crimson beast had housed all the winds of winter in its chest and released them in one long sigh.
Six years ago, another such beast, much smaller but just as advanced, had taken his mother away.
The opening led into a small lobby, where Master al-Hakim waited for the initiates to dump their luggage before they disappeared into the ship. While waiting for Katrina to unbuckle her various bags and satchels, Dante took scope of his surroundings. Unlike its menacing exterior, the ship’s insides were all light marble walls and pastel lighting, with curved stairways and velvet carpets that reminded him of the nearby Theatre. At the centre of the lobby, a three-dimensional projection mapped out the ship’s various facilities, from the passenger cabin in its neck to the guest quarters that ran along its abdomen and the recreational lounge where it stomach might be. There was even a small park sprawled across the beast’s back. Finally, at the far end of the ship, lodged between the guest quarters and the engine room, was a bulbous structure labelled ‘Central Matrix’.
A poke in the back reminded Dante that it was his turn to offload his things. Feeling a sudden rush of blood to his cheeks, he dropped his bag onto the pile and hurried after Katrina. As he reached the passenger cabin, a Seelie officer in a crimson-and-gold uniform greeted him with a warm smile. She looked little older than Theseus and, judging from the brooch on her lapel, was a junior lieutenant. Dante shuffled past her.
I must have written at least a dozen versions of this chapter over the past few years. I rewrote most of it yesterday, too…