So much for escape. He needed another swig from Haldor’s flask. “M-maybe?”
Arachne stepped back, her smile as radiant as ever. “Don’t worry about it, you’re in good company. We all know the truth, and we come here to forget about it.” She rubbed his hands in hers. “I’ll help you forget. But, first…”
They had reached the booth. Dante caught the eye of the poor soul relegated to reception duty. They reacted in joint surprise.
“Dant?” Doyle Kennedy almost jumped out of his seat. He was wearing the same t-shirt-and-jeans he’d worn throughout the day, yet still looked like he belonged here in the World’s End. Perhaps it was his swagger, his dirty blond beard, the way he threw himself at every challenge with a heart of fire. “Man, there’s no way—it’s the Dant Man! Come here to celebrate, right? Man, never thought I’d see you here. Yo, Red, this your handiwork?”
Joel smiled, but it was unusually forced. “He needed a break, you know?”
“I know, man. Like I said, it were proper mental.” Doyle plunged a small cylinder onto the back of Shadow’s hand, then onto the pages of a book, which the raven had just signed. “S’why I’m here, ain’t it? Gotta keep my mind off it all. Ron’s inside too. Place proper shook him up.” He stamped Haldor’s hand. “You V.I.Ping?”
“Dunno, mate. Can I bring guests?”
Doyle pushed the book towards them. “Just in case,” he said. “You know what the management’s like.”
As Joel offered his hand to the stamp, Dante’s gaze wandered to the wall behind Doyle. There were more pamphlets for troupes with aggressive names, alongside a larger poster for a ‘Sadomasochist Circus’ and some kind of touring festival that called itself ‘The Black Wings Army’, but it was the list of ‘wanted vigilantes’ that really caught his attention. Amongst the motley line-up of scarred and angry faces was a portrait of a young woman with a sharp, thin-lipped scowl and a tangle of dirty gold hair. Her she was listed as ‘Badb’, but Dante knew her better Lira Burn.
And, there next to her, just as unfriendly, was a woman with silver-blue hair and pale-winter eyes. With skin as white as the paper her face was printed on, she looked near identical to the woman his mother had been friends with, the woman from the photograph he had burned into his memory. The one with Arided.
It also looked a little bit like Emily, but Emily had the rich bronze skin of the Cities and would never think to dress in the black leather, chest-enhancing get-up this woman, called ‘Macha’, thought acceptable.
Doyle noticed his intrigue and glanced over his shoulder at the board. “Yeah, man, that’s our Lira!” he said. “Must’ve been on that list for, what,” he looked to Joel, “two, three years?”
“Something like that,” said the raven. “You’ll have to ask Kao, not that she’ll tell you much.”
“Yeah. Women, ‘ey?” Doyle pushed the book towards Dante. “Just sign something-or-other,” he said. Joel had signed as ‘the Crimson Swordsman’, whilst Arachne was ‘Arachne du Sade’. Next to their names was the same black stamp Doyle pressed into their hands, a speck of bright red at its centre. Dante shrugged and wrote own his name down. Doyle raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Then he took the cylinder from underneath his desk and stamped it down on Dante’s hand—
“Ow!” Dante winced from the sudden pain. The stamp had left behind a black smudge and a pinprick of blood. Doyle grimaced and, after pressing the stamp next to Dante’s name, bundled the cylinder beneath the desk.
“Don’t be a wuss, mate,” said Joel, as Dante stared at the blood on his hand. “You’ll have forgotten about it in five minutes.” With a nod to Doyle, he sauntered over to a door marked ‘V.I.P’s only’, where another of the nightclub’s security officers awaited them. Dante followed his friend, but Arachne stayed behind.
“I’ll go find the others,” she said.
“C’mon,” said Joel, “I’ve got a tab at the bar. What’s your poison?”
But Arachne was insistent and, with a sad frown of apology, left to chase after her companions.
“Don’t worry, mate,” said Joel, “that won’t be the last you see of her.”
Joel’s full pseudonym is ‘Red-haired Roy, the Crimson Swordsman’.