6: Voices from the Aether
“Which reminds me: you remember that avatar, right? The one assigned to the Torhout network? Merope, wasn’t it?”
“Merope is the ruler of Malkuth,” Dante agreed. “She’s one of the Saptamatrikas.” The Seven Mothers, whose words of wisdom he carried everywhere, whose kindness and understanding would free him from this world of lies. “They emulate her image across all the local networks. It’s a collective consciousness sort of thing.”
They were in one of the earthen tunnels now, scrambling their way down into the catacombs. Dante’s visor projected a simulation of the darkened surroundings, though he knew the way by heart.
“But,” said the voice, “that’s not why she looked familiar, is it?”
Dante entered the catacombs and crossed over to the burrows opposite. The Donaran guard smiled at him, a white gleam on chestnut skin.
“It was her smile.”
“Emily’s smile,” said Dante, reaching for the door handle.
“No,” said the other, “it was—”
Dante’s hand hovered over the handle. All he had to do was open it. She was waiting for him. It had been six years…
“This would be easier if you would just be honest with me, Dante,” said the voice. “Be honest with me, be honest with yourself. Or shall we take this dance elsewhere?”
He turned, slowly, just as he had when he first heard the rustle in the bushes. He was standing there again, scouring the forest for signs of uninvited guests.
There was the sciurux, looking up at him with familiar, black marble eyes.
“Who are you?” asked Dante.
“Who else could I be?” replied the voice. A child’s voice. “Who else knows so much about you? Who else have you been ignoring all this time?”
In the blink, the sciurux was gone and a figure stood in its place, dressed in a cloak several sizes too big. Its white texture clashed against his mop of black hair and his pale copper skin. The child looked up, met Dante’s dark eyes with his own.
“She lied,” said a child’s voice.
A heartbeat, a single, cold thump.
Dante ran, and he didn’t stop running. He ran, even as his limbs screamed for mercy. He ran, even as the forest fell into night and into shadow. It was the only thing he could do; it was the only thing he knew how to do.
Dante ran, and he didn’t stop running. He ran until his limbs rebelled and sent him crashing into autumn leaves, charred leaves, leaves still burning. He ran until the night gave way to an early dawn of raging flames, hungry flames, flames without remorse.
Something moved ahead of him, something charred and bloodied, something that carried with it the stench of cooked meat, raw and dripping, sagging from the bone.
He looked up, looked into her eyes, into the precious green eyes of Donaran royalty, the eyes of the forest, the eyes that would never lie to him—and he saw his childlike face staring back at him.
“Dante,” she said, “you didn’t keep your promise.”
He tried to make his excuses, tried to plead his weakness, tried to convince her that Dante Orpheus was nobody special, but the words dried up in his throat, like the waters of a river trapped beneath scorching flame.
Well, that escalated quickly.