22: The Night Everything Changed (Part One)
“What is it?” asked Dante.
“Trouble,” said his mother. “There’s something in the catacombs, Dante. We’ll have to go through the forest instead.”
If there was anything else to know, his mother kept it secret. After another rush of unspoken words with the Donaran guard, she turned her back on the underground tunnels and made for a dark cleft in the pale green walls. Oihana led the way, the tip of her staff casting a faint glow across the narrow passageway as it wound toward a twilight-pink sky. They emerged along a shallow gully. Dante drew a deep breath of the fresh forest air.
Oihana glanced eastward and closed her eyes. “They have reached the village,” she said.
“Sophists to the east of us, shadows to the west,” said his mother. “How far to the shrine?”
“Half a mile,” said Oihana, and started up the southern embankment.
Ophelia Orpheus turned to her son. He nodded his reply. This was nothing. He could already run half a dozen miles without break, and Seelie would expect far more of him.
Compared to Oihana, though, his skills were nothing. Her feet barely touched the ground. Like all her people, she knew every root of the forest, every twist and turn. She led them along secret paths, through doors of entwined branches and across the bodies of giants fallen into beds of green. Every so often, she would stop a moment, let Dante and his mother catch up, use the opportunity to cock her ear to the wind. Afraid he was slowing them down, Dante doubled his efforts.
He lost track of how far they travelled, but the moment they broke through the wall of hawthorn trees and into the secret glade, he collapsed, his side screaming in pain. Without pause, his mother scooped him up and carried him towards the shrine. It was built from every tree Dante could imagine, their trunks twisted together to form a multicolour gazebo over a circular plinth. Oihana ushered them inside, and Dante’s mother lay him down in a bed of roots.
“You did well,” said Oihana, “but you should not have pushed yourself so hard.”
“Here,” his mother handed him a flask. “It will help you relax.”
Dante gulped back a mouthful of what tasted like cold tea, but with an added tang he didn’t recognise. His mother encouraged him to drink another, her expression hidden in shadow but her concern clear to Dante’s heart. As his body began to sink into the roots, his mother placed a kiss on his forehead, then moved to join Oihana at the shrine’s arched entrance.
As he wondered what they might be talking about, beyond their veil of silence, he started to doze…
And opened his eyes a moment later. An unseen design had sprung to life on the plinth in front of him, a pulsating rainbow of colours in the shape of a flower, each of its four petals distinct, yet balanced. As he crawled over, he noticed that the lines were made from tiny words he did not recognise, a stream of letters and symbols woven together and repeating themselves over and over again. He looked up. Oihana and his mother stood bright against the twilight — and he could hear their words.
I guess you’ll have to ask Emily if you want to know what scared them out of the catacombs…