27: Nothing But Blue Skies
“I’m afraid I was elsewhere at the time,” he replied. “I only joined this merry little band of ne’er-do-wells a few years back. After that incident with the Donara, Rembrandt Payne thought it might be easier to creatively disobey orders with people like me around.” He flashed another smile. “What do you think happened?”
“The Sophists invaded the forest in search of Branded,” she replied. It was what she had told Rembrandt Payne and, even if she did trust Mr al-Hakim more than most, she didn’t want to mention Pleiades or her mother—or, indeed, Dante’s. The mere mention of the word ‘Branded’ was enough to make his invisible form tremble. “They want to eliminate it, don’t they? They call it ‘Agnoia’, right?”
“So they say, but who knows what they’re really after? Some want to eliminate it; others would rather learn to control it.”
He was, like Emily, being careful not to mention the Erebus by name. He knew, as well as she did, that Dante was there with them, listening to every word. One slip and they risked him fleeing into another illusion, another world of denial. They had to be—
“You mean the Erebus, right?” It was Katrina, wide-eyed, oblivious. “That foggy stuff inside the Scar? What is it, anyway? Phoe says it’s some kind of ancient cult, or something? Like, the ghosts of its members.” She ruffled her unruly hair. Beside them, Dante remained frozen in place, a cold, unreadable statue that made Azhara’d al-Hakim look like Lance Algar.
The younger brother replied with a friendly laugh. “You could say something like that,” he said. “It is a lot of things to a lot of different people. It can be ignorance and it can be knowledge. It can be strength and it can be weakness, it can be darkness and it can be light. All we know for certain, however—and we do not know very much about it at all, I am afraid to admit—is that it is all of these things and it is despair. It is a fear of the future and a rejection of the world. Those who embrace it have given up on life, but they have no desire to see death, either, so they escape to a place where neither has meaning. The Scar is just a symptom. It is a—I guess you could say it is a bandage that prevents the infection from spreading, yes?”
He was drawing a small crowd now, mainly the Veritas team but also Lysander and Angelo, and Hermia, Korrie and Ceres. Even if Dante wanted to escape, it would have been difficult without brushing up against somebody, revealing his presence. Emily wanted to reach out and take his hand, to reassure him that she shared his anxieties, that she was just as trapped, felt just as exposed before the growing crowd.
“It’s because of Theia, isn’t it?” asked Andromeda Blumstein. “It’s because of what happened sixteen years ago.”