28: An Illusion of Paradise
However, although the station might not have hinted at the world awaiting them, the elevator they rode to the surface did. Where the Theatre used small, featureless cubes to ferry people from floor to floor, Avalon opted for large, luxurious chambers lined with plush white settees and windows playing out a fabricated view of the panoramas to come. While his peers basked in the wonder of it all, Dante retreated into a corner and tried not to think too much about what was waiting for them. For him.
The elevator doors opened onto a spacious foyer, its stainless white walls rising to an arched ceiling where the summer-blue logo of the Fortunate Isles welcomed its guests to Avalon. Beneath it, the path narrowed, funnelling guests towards a single stairway bathed in the light of an unseen sky.
Before they could enter Paradise, however, they had to pass beneath the judgemental eyes of its twin guardians, two marble maidens as tall as a house, arms reaching out across the passageway to form a rudimentary archway. As the group approached, Dante noticed the air shimmering between them, a gentle distortion, as if someone had suspended a slice of water between two panes of glass.
“It’s a basic security measure,” explained Mr al-Hakim, stepping forward to pass through the shroud and turning back to gesture the initiates onward. “You are all registered for entry, so do not be afraid.”
Some were less suspect than others were. Alonie Kent strode through without question, as did Katrina, but Phoenix needed some encouragement and John had to perform several ‘preliminary scans’, as he called them. Theseus Armstrong, meanwhile, was discussing the possibility of climbing over the archway, but a well-aimed projectile from Lysander struck an unseen barrier and clattered back to the floor. Grumbling, the former soldier ordered his spider-like automaton through the barrier, then followed after it. If it was concealing weapons, the barrier did not notice them.
Joel was next to step up and poked the barrier with a bony finger. “This feels like something I’d put on me cock!” he declared to groans and grimaces. With a jab from Kaori’s parasol, he stumbled through. Kaori herself had to prod the barrier from a distance before she followed.
Dante would have waited until last, but he recognised the look on Emily’s face, the same anxiety she wore in the forest, back when she proclaimed the trees cursed with Donaran magic. He had to prove himself to her. He had to prove that there was nothing here but technology, sufficiently advanced.
He reached out and pressed his finger against the barrier. It was as if the air itself were elastic, bending around him, thicker than the illusion that surrounded the Seelie ship, but not nearly as solid as the wall he encountered in the catacombs. There was no need to close his eyes here, no need to suspend his disbelief. All he had to do was step forward and surrender himself to Avalon’s whims.
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The Daughters of Merope.