Orphic Phantasia

20: Poison

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When they got downstairs, Dante could see why Joel felt the need to buy drinks in advance. It was hard to tell the queue at the bar from the mob of people socialising. There must have been hundreds — too many to count — and it seemed as if Joel knew at least half of them by name. He danced through the crowd exchanging handshakes and high-fives with a variety of characters, from the youngest of neophytes, their skin still pure of art and augmentation, to the eldest of warriors, their scars plentiful and proud. With each new face and introduction, Dante felt himself slipping further into that comforting world of fuzzy thoughts and carelessness.

Then the raven stopped, shouted in Dante’s ear, “Heads up, mate. Ponce at six o’clock!”

It was hard to mistake Byron’s hat. It perched above the crowd like a ship sailing a multicoloured sea. An old and derelict ship, thought Dante, like the sort that once sailed the oceans and now belonged in a museum. Not that Byron’s tastes in fashion did much to dent his popularity, if the small crowd hanging on to his every word was anything to go by. His voice seemed to penetrate even the loudest of war drums — but it stopped the moment he set eyes upon his fellow initiates.

“And there I was thinking Doyle had inhaled too much of that fog,” he said as he stepped through his crowd of giddy followers — most of them female — to greet them. His dark eyes settled on Dante. “I wager Katrina will not be pleased if she hears of this treachery.” He took a sip from some kind of chalice and fixed Dante with a scowl. “Let us hope, for all our sakes, that she does not awake to find you sobbing into the stench of your own regrets.”

“Come on, mate,” said Joel, “we’re celebrating. No need to get the ladies involved. Besides,” he put an arm of solidarity around his friend’s shoulder, “Dant here can hold his drink better than you ever could. Remember that time you passed out in a bin?”

“I have no memories of such a shambles, Gibson, only your exaggerated recollections. Take that as a warning, Orpheus. Whatever you do this night shall be magnified tenfold.”

The jealousy in his eyes was obvious for all to see. He knew, as Dante did, that Emily could never stand his condescending prattle. She preferred Dante. She always preferred Dante. It was in her smile. He liked that smile. He was making his own as he swigged back the rest of his drink. It felt good to have the upper hand. If Byron’s eyebrow rose much further, it would escape his face. Maybe into his hat. Which belonged in a museum. Dante burst into a fit of spluttering giggles.

With a huff, the pompous poet paced off into the crowd and Dante called after him, “Try not to—to fall into—into a museum!”

No one laughed, but Dante thought it was hilarious. He was still struggling to contain his laugher as Joel guided him through the crowd out into the arena.

“Well,” Joel clasped Dante’s shoulder, “you ready for war?”

“I’m ready for—” Wait, did he say

Dante found himself hurtling towards the crowd, which parted in welcome and closed behind him. Joel appeared overheard, limbs flailing, face maniacal, body swimming across the crowd like the mythical shark. A mythical, ginger-haired shark that reared up to strike then vanished into the waves. Dante started after him, but the mob refused to yield. He felt strange hands paw at him, caress him, tug at his cloak, his clothes, his hair, threaten to drag him down into a darkness where no one cared who he was, only that he was one of them, one with them.

Then a pale hand reached out of the abyss and pulled him free.

“Mate, I proper thought I lost you for a moment,” Joel shouted. “C’mon, the others are just over there.”

How he found his way around the dense thicket of bodies, Dante did not know — especially since his brain was spinning like the point of a confused compass — but Joel soon brought him to a clearing a short ways from the stage and its immodest entertainers. His friend Shadow looked lost to the show, while Haldor stood like a mighty oak in wind-whipped forest. He offered Dante another swig of his flask, which he took without question.

And then there was Arachne.

Byron is so loud, he can even perform in the middle of a nightclub!