Joel slapped him on the shoulder. “Mate, you get all sorts down here,” he said. “You can be who you want. People don’t give a shit. This is proper freedom. Now c’mon, there’s plenty more where that came from.”
The raven herded him towards an entrance on the far side of the sinkhole, where a pair of burly security guards looked them over then gestured them inside, where they joined a meandering trail of underworld delinquents making their way down a grotty tunnel rich with the smell of smoke and liquor.
“The others are oughta be waiting for us in the lobby,” said Joel, raising his voice over the violent clash of noise that seemed to grow louder with every step. “That’s when the party really begins.”
Dante tried to distract his sobering mind from the gauntlet ahead by reading the various pamphlets and posters pasted to the tunnel’s walls, but their talk of touring troupes with such unsubtle names as ‘Angel Crusher’ ‘Death Bastard!’ and ‘Doomed Megalopolis’ did little to reassure him.
As they approached the lobby, the vague trail of people solidified into a snaking queue as the would-be revellers lined up to pay their respects at a shrouded booth. Dante, somewhat confused by this sudden display of discipline from such a jittering crowd, moved to take his place in line, only for Joel to grab his arm and hoist him aside.
“I know you’re eager, Dant, but we’ve gotta meet some mates of mine first, y’now?”
There were three of them. The first, with a slicked stripe of black hair, introduced himself as ‘Shadow’ and held out a frail hand, fingers clawed with metal talons. The second, a burly young man with a plaited beard, called himself Haldor Halvardsson and offered Dante a drink from a large flask. Aware of everyone’s eyes upon him, Dante gulped back two whole mouthfuls, earning himself an appreciative handshake from the flask’s owner and a slap on the back from Joel.
“I told you, Dant’s proper hardcore,” he said.
At sight of Joel’s third friend, Dante was glad for the shot of courage. She was a slender woman with a dishevelled mane of fuchsia hair that fell over olive shoulders, where decorative webs of ink trailed a pattern down into her cleavage. Her smile highlighted her sharp cheekbones and brilliant grey-green eyes. “I’m Arachne,” she said, taking his hand in her own. “It’s nice to meet you, Dant.”
Dante returned her smile. There was something about her face that took him back, far back, back to a time of innocence when the only thing he had to worry about was looking after his ailing mother. He wanted to reach out and brush her hair aside, to see if she had the tapered ears of the forest, if she was one of the survivors, but he was too afraid, too in awe to even breathe. He was still lost in her features as Joel’s other friends wandered off to join the queue, and Joel himself had to prise Dante away to join them.
“There’ll be time for that later,” he said.
As the queue shuffled towards the solitary booth, one person at a time, Joel bantered with his friends about his day’s experiences in his usual, exaggerated way. From the way he talked of their earlier foray into the underground, anyone would have thought them exploring its darkest, deadliest recesses, where forgotten horrors still lingered. All Dante could do was smile and nod.
Then he felt something cold brush against his wrist. Arachne studied him with a curious smile. “Did Roy drop you in at the deep end?” she asked.
“Who?” She nodded to Joel, too busy with his storytelling to notice. “Oh, Joel?”
“Joel?” She said it as if it were some strange, foreign word. “So, that’s his name, huh? He really has dropped you in it, hasn’t he?”
The queue moved a few steps forward. “I had beer.”
Arachne took his hand. “Don’t worry. Ro—eh, Joel, said you weren’t the talkative type. He also said you’ve had a tough day and need to unwind. It’s okay, I know what it’s like.” She leaned in close, so her cheek brushed against his. “I went through it myself eighteen months ago. Was this your first time?”
The sensation of her flesh against his made it difficult for Dante to form a coherent thought. “Was why my what?”
The more you try to deny a thing, the stronger it becomes. This includes hormones.