6: Voices from the Aether
“Well it’s no good realising that now, is it?” said the sciurux. “How many of those have ya passed through already? Three? Four? Are ya even listening to me?”
He was trying not to, but the creature’s voice still reached his ears, as if it were just the right pitch to slip through an unseen chink in his defences. He tried hurrying his pace to escape it—but the creature was always there, always at his side.
“Ya know what they are, though, right? Ya know who put them there? Of course ya do. It were the Donara. They strung these curses up to keep the forest safe. Can’t have dodgy geezers wandering around these parts, can we?”
“A lot of good it did them in the end.”
“Well that’s the thing, ain’t it? That’s the big question. How? Whole buncha Sophists invade the forest without the Donara even noticing? That’s not right, and you know it.”
Dante jumped into a gully and followed the stream eastward. He wasn’t going to start contemplating paranoid conspiracies; that was Phoenix Rogan’s job.
“You’re thinking it were the tunnels, aren’t you?” The sciurux continued after him, scampering along the ridge to his left. “That the Sophists took control of the local catacombs and used them to stage their attack, right? And that’s why Seelie sent you down there—to work out how the Sophists evaded the Donara’s defences.”
That was the most logical analysis, the one that fit best with established events. While the Sophist executives made their demands to the Donaran leaders, their army snuck into the forest through the catacombs. After all, there had been something in the tunnels that night. As if to validate his point, he passed an opening that led down into the darkness.
The sciurux scurried up to the opening and peered inside. “So what you’re saying is that the Donara, despite all the effort they put in to protecting this forest, left a gaping big hole like this in their defences? Come on, you know they had these tunnels defended better than anything—and that means the Sophists couldn’t have used them.”
Dante pursed his lips and reached into his pocket for the Tablet’s smooth reassurance. “Well how else did they get inside the forest without the Donara noticing?” he asked. “By falling out of the sky? Besides, there was something in those tunnels that night, remember?”
“Exactly. And if it wasn’t the Sophists, and it could sneak past the Donara, then what was it? What can pass through a dozen hexes without disturbing a single one?”
Dante knew the obvious answer, but dared not think it, lest the shadows themselves sprung to life and claimed the forest as their own.
“Can’t be,” the sciurux shook its little silver head. “Even if it’s unreadable, it’s not invisible. It would have left a mark. It always does. It had to be something else. Something that wouldn’t affect the aether.”
“Machines,” said Dante.
“What else could it be? You saw that clone Lysander made of Alonie, right? You saw her dead eyes. No soul. That’s how you tell the fakes from the real deal.” The creature appeared to smile. Dante, disturbed, turned and continued on his way.
Machines can have souls too! Emphasis on ‘can’.