Orphic Phantasia

5: The Eyes of the Forest

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“Good boy,” she said, running a gloved hand down his arm. “This is sacred territory, not some underground slum. The People walk these woods. A Princess walks these woods. You must be on your absolute-very-best-and-no-excuses behaviour!”

Joel looked back to Dante, still with that apologetic frown. “You coming, mate?”

“I don’t think he should, dear,” said Kaori, before Dante had chance to reply. “He’s a bad influence. If he thinks he can find his way with those silly glasses then let him. What do you think, Emily? Shall we have another race?”

On one hand, it would make Dante’s life easier if he carried on alone, but on the other, it would rob him of the opportunity to prove himself right. After all, even if he did beat them to the shrine — and he was certain he would — Kaori would find some elaborate excuse to explain it. That was what people in denial did, according to the Tablet. It was the reason he couldn’t just show everyone its truths and expect them to understand.

Emily took a step towards him. “I’d better go with him,” she said. “He might get lost!”

Kaori frowned. “You’re too kind, Emily.”

That crescent-moon smile. “You know me!”

As Kaori dragged her boyfriend towards the thicket and its den of shadows, Emily took Dante’s arm in her own. “Since you seem to know everything,” she said with a wink, “how about you lead the way?”

He did, and soon he was veering off the path and into the brush.

“Why are we heading this way?” asked Emily. “That path was turning east, wasn’t it?”

“I thought it would be easier if we pulled a map from the local server,” he replied, gesturing to where the silver bark glistened between pillars of brown and grey. “There’s enough Aethex in the forest to map it down to a pebble.”

With a shiver, Emily tightened her grip on his arm. He could feel her body pressed against him, the tough texture of her leather undershirt. “Doesn’t that bother you?” she asked.

“Why should it?” He tapped his cell reflexively as the screen glitched, turning a portion of the forest to dirt roads and grassland for half a second.

Emily swiped her free hand through the air. “Because billions of invisible machines hovering around, watching your every move is just a little creepy? It was bad enough in those catacombs.”

He recalled Kaori’s mention of a ‘surveillance facility’ and wondered how advanced it had been. Maybe Malkuth had their eyes in the catacombs, too. Maybe they’d been there all along…

“There’s something in the catacombs…”

Dante steeled himself against the sudden wave of paranoia and cast his childish fears back into the shadows where they belonged. He was better than that. He had to be.

“That system was watching your every move,” said Emily. “Doesn’t that disturb you?”

Dante shrugged. Surveillance was a fact of life when you lived in a town overrun with Sophists. “It’s not like somebody’s watching you twenty-four-seven. Besides, if you’ve nothing to hide, what have you got to be afraid of?”

“Everyone has something to hide,” she replied, “and you’d be surprised the lengths some people will go through to know such things.”

Oh, he knew, all right. He knew better than anyone.

There’s surveillance, and then there’s the actual air around you watching everything you do, Dante…