6: Voices from the Aether
“Dante,” she said, “you betrayed her.”
He didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to see this. He didn’t want to know this. Any moment now, the world would shatter and cast him into the nightmare. He curled himself up into a little ball, pulled his cloak, several sizes too big, over his head, and vanished, cut himself off from the pain, from the failure, from the truth.
Somewhere in the distance, twelve notes began to play. Twelve notes for twelve wings. The curse. The madness. He failed to save her. He had to save her.
“Dante?” A voice, soft, feminine, reached to him across the void. “Dante! It’s okay, I’m here to save you! Take my hand!”
A pale hand. A familiar hand.
“Well,” said the Lord Prince, “that was enlightening, wouldn’t you say?”
Emily stood there, cold as ice, tears frozen on her cheeks.
“Of course,” the Prince grinned, either ignorant of her pain, or ignoring it, “I’m sure you still have plenty of questions, but I’ll leave those for you to answer. I couldn’t let me have all the fun now, could I?”
Dante blinked. He could feel his brain rattling around inside his head with every neuron of a thought, a mummified corpse in a tomb and flesh and bone. His tongue felt like a slab of rock that would crack in two with the slightest of movements. A groan rumbled through his throat, an echo through a desert cavern. The feather-like touch of eight spindly legs tickled his cheek…
The birds above cried out as Dante burst to life, jumping to his feet and swatting his cheek with a heavy slab of meat—his own numbed hand. A rush of dizziness followed, and he grasped for the nearest tree. Wheezing, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his flask, gulped back as much as his petrified throat would allow.
Just another stupid dream.
“See, Princess? I told ya he’d be okay.”
Dante’s breath caught in his throat. The voice came from behind him. The same voice from his dream. But this time it wasn’t alone. Dante closed his eyes, released a ragged breath, drew another. There had to be a logical explanation for this, a reason for him knowing she was there, even before he turned around.
He thought of the synthetic glade, of Lysander Goodfellow’s antics with the aethex, the feeling of the air shifting as the molecular machines moved around him. Maybe he’d recognised that movement subconsciously. That had to be it.
Slowly, he turned around.
She was right there in front of him, her white eyes wide with a childish curiosity, watching him, reading him…
With a squeal, the girl jumped backwards and flung her arms up over her face. “Iamnotgoingtohurtyou!” she cried, words spilling out of her mouth and into Dante’s head, almost indecipherable yet making perfect sense.
“Nice way to great a princess, kid.” The sciurux lounged between the roots of a tree, a half-nibbled leaf in its paws and a wince of embarrassment on its face.
Princess. She stood not more than a metre away, one bright eye watching him from behind her slender arms. This was the moment he’d been waiting for.
“You’re that avatar, aren’t you?” he asked.
Tycho’s been here before.