Chapter 3

Torsten Underground

Six years ago, Torhout Forest burned, and I want you to find out why.

Rembrandt Payne’s words echoed around Dante’s head. He didn’t need to take part in these convoluted exercises to discover the truth — because he already knew it. He could still picture the flames licking at the trees, still feel their heat reach across the night, still smell the repulsive odour of life burning to a crisp — and he knew who was to blame, and why they did it.

But he also knew that he couldn’t tell anyone, because he made a promise — and Dante did not break his promises.

Ahead of him, Joel Gibson swaggered down the subterranean tunnel, guitar slung over his shoulder. The instrument’s minimalist, all-neck-and-no-body design evoked the image of an elaborate sword. Joel thought it was one, but then he was also the sort of person to rip the sleeves off his shirt so everybody could see his over-tattooed arms. Right now, under the tunnel’s sickly green lighting, he looked like an emancipated warrior-wizard from some metalic-themed musical troupe.

“So Kao wanted to get some proper opinions from people who, you know, don’t talk outta their arses,” he said, continuing his recollection of the first challenge. “People we could trust, like. Figured we’d head down to the End, get some goss from the locals, maybe sneak in a cheeky drink, you know?” He nudged Byron d’Arcadie with his elbow, flashed his nicotine-stained teeth. It was a surprise he had any left.

“I thought I recognised its stench when we convened,” replied the poet, glancing down at Joel’s elbow from the shadows of his hat. Even when forty metres underground, walking the lonely catacombs, Byron d’Arcadie would not part with his weathered travelling companion. He looked back on Dante with concern. “And did he drag you into the belly of that bloated beast, Orpheus?”

Joel spoke for him, “Nah, man. I tried, but he and Emz went off to do their own thing. Lucky git.”

Dante cringed at the implication, but he expected no less from his raven friend. Joel’s kind lived each day as if it was their last, and concepts like chastity were as alien to them as charity to a Sophist.

“I see,” said Byron. “Well, I can hardly blame them. I have heard the stories that circulate our dear hovel of hedonism, and most would have you believe the forest victim to some vagrant wyvern from beyond the walls.”

Joel sniggered. “That is ‘cause you hang out with some proper weirdos, mate.”

“Unfortunately, our lady friends left me with little choice,” said Byron. Before Joel could recognise the stealth insult, the poet turned to Dante and asked, “And where did you seek answers whilst Gibson here scrounged his way around the World’s End?”

That guitar looks like it belongs to a Power Ranger.