6: Voices from the Aether
The girl lowered her arms. “So Lord Dionysus has claimed.”
Dante sighed, a breath he’d held in for half a day. It was a shame Emily wasn’t here to witness the truth first hand. She would never believe his word alone and, were she to meet the girl herself, would surely find some way to twist the truth to suit her own beliefs. Denial did that to people.
“Everyone around here is calling you Phantasia,” he said. Even if he had worked out the girl’s nature, he still didn’t know her purpose. He glanced at her companion, the sciurux, and wondered whether he was in on all this.
“That shall be Princess Phantasia to you,” said the girl, taking on that self-important tone she used when they first met. “You ought to know better than to address me in such a flippant way, especially after I saved you.”
“She did, you know?” said the sciurux through a mouthful of leaf.
Dante steadied himself. He’d collapsed from exhaustion, nothing more. He could still feel the lethargy in his head telling him to get some sleep—or, at least, a stronger dose of stims. His body adapted too quickly; Mother’s blessing.
“You were in quite the state,” said the girl. “Perhaps the worst state I have seen all day. I must admit, when I found you, I thought you already lost. Were I any other, you may well have been—but I am Princess Phantasia Caelestis, of the Court of Queen Thetis Mysticeti. It was my duty to save you, as it is my duty to save this world.”
Dante tried not to laugh as he recalled Byron ranting in the catacombs. Whoever programmed this girl—the one she called Dionysus, perhaps?—had done a good job.
“I’m not sure how loitering around the forest will save the world,” he said. Instinct nudged him to add a ‘Princess’, but he refused to let the illusion sway him.
“I am presently engaged in a diplomatic assignment,” she replied. “I must build a bridge between my world and yours by making friends with all those who enter the forest. When I do, Lord Dionysus shall allow me to assist in his investigation.”
He wondered if this Dionysus was an agent of the Saptamatrikas, a man from atop the Cities as perfect in form as its maidens. The sort of man he might one day become. “Well, I’ve got an assignment of my own,” he said. “I’ve got to find this shrine. It should be around here somewhere.”
He glanced around the forest, but couldn’t place himself on the mental map he’d made before his cellular fell victim to the aethex.
“You are lost,” said the girl. “I would help you myself, but I am needed elsewhere. I must say that this thing you call ‘time’ is most inconvenient. You should learn to ignore it.”
Maybe something like her, an immaterial program locked away inside the datasphere, could shun the flow of time, but Dante was human, and he was its slave.
A flicker of a memory from long ago tried to claw its way into his thoughts, words spoken in a dream of ways to step outside of time, to ignore its flow, but he closed the door before they had a chance to take root. They were only dreams.
Speaking of dreams…