“Donaran mead,” said the Fiannan with a sniff, “and a little extra too. Have the right mind to be smashing it over that fecker’s head.”
Across the other side of the private bar, the old pimp threw a smile their way. Emily didn’t give him the dignity of a response—she had more important things to worry about.
“Dante?” She brushed the hair from his face. “Can you hear me, Dante?” Never forget their names, Fomalhaut once told her; that’s the most important thing of all. Forget who they are and they’re as good as gone. She clutched Dante’s hands in her own and whispered his name once more. On the other side, in the world of dreams and imagination, his dark shell stirred. “We’re going to get you home,” she said, projecting her smile through the aether, hoping her intentions might find some unseen crack. “Come on.”
He met her eyes with a trembling fear and looked like he wanted to say something, but the only sounds that came out were staggered breaths that stank of alcohol.
Emily stood and, with Leira’s help, pulled Dante to his feet.
“Poor kid was in quite the state when I found him.”
The girls turned on the old pimp in unison. Were Emily not supporting Dante, she would have reached for her knife. He backed away a step, eyes hidden beneath dark glasses, emotions sealed tight behind a practised defence.
“You must be Emily,” he said. “I’m—”
“Going to turn around and get out of our way,” she replied. A Maiden’s scowl was as potent as her smile, but if Emily ever found out that the pimp had used Dante to get to her—or, worse, was in league with those horse-fucking cultists—then a scowl would be the least of his worries.
“I’m just glad the kid has friends who are there to look out for him,” he said, taking a step back towards the comfort of his entourage. “Get him home safe now, won’t you?”
They reached the club foyer without further incident. It looked like Doyle Kennedy was on reception duty, stamping the hands of eager ravens as they signed a guest register. One young boy—he couldn’t have been older than twelve—gasped as Doyle drove the stamp into his hand.
“What the fuck, man? I’m bleeding!”
“Identification, man,” said Doyle, stashing the stamp beneath the counter. “Sorry.”
Emily looked to Leira and Shelley and saw the same suspicion in their eyes. While Dante caught his first breath of fresh air and felt the need to retch up the contents of his stomach, Shelley slipped back inside to investigate.
In the meantime, Emily and Leira began the arduous climb out of the pit, Dante strung between them. His mumblings made little sense, but Emily caught fragments of words, mentions of his mother and the forest, and the one Guirlande had called ‘Arided’. Emily wondered whether he had finally realised the truth, and if this—the World’s End—was his escape. He wouldn’t have been the first to fall victim to its allure.
About halfway up the path, Shelley returned. “They’re keeping a record of everyone who goes inside,” she said, dropping her natural accent now Dante was with them. “Blood samples and all.”
“Definitely dodgy,” said Leira. “Did ye burn it?”
“I don’t think I could’ve gotten away with something like that, but I did, eh, ‘convince’ Doyle to remove some pages.”
“I might have jumped on the counter and ripped them out…” Shelley blushed and produced a sheet of crumpled paper from her coat. It contained a list of names, many of them the usual pseudonyms and stage-names, including Joel’s, but Dante had written his own, true name. “I couldn’t get a hold of the blood samples,” said Shelley, “but maybe this will give you a few clues.”
“The bleedin’ eejits,” said Leira, as she studied the list. “Bet they’ve got some kinda ritual going on.” She slipped the paper into her pocket. “Good work, Shell. It’ll give me something to work on if this bleedin’ holiday turns out to be a load of shite.”
Their holiday… It was getting on for half ten, and Katrina planned to be awake at five. Emily hoped Dante would have sobered up by then. If he was a Maidenblood, despite appearances, now was the time to prove it.
I’m sure all of this will become important in the future!