22: The Night Everything Changed (Part One)
And he jerked awake in the shadows of the shrine. Oihana and his mother were nowhere in sight. Mind groggy with half-sleep and side splitting with pain, he pulled himself up and staggered towards the shrine’s entrance.
His mother caught him as he stumbled outside.
“Dante, we have to get out of here,” she said. “Climb on my back.”
She pulled off her cloak and he did as she asked, then she wrapped the white robe around them both. Just as she pulled up the hood, Dante caught sight of Oihana, bloodied blade in her hand, standing before half a dozen armoured bodies. Beyond them, a solitary man adjusted the cufflinks of his smart, neon-trimmed suit. His smooth features reminded Dante of the wax effigies the Donara made of their great heroes.
“Ms Orpheus,” he said, his voice cold, with the hint of an echo, as if he were speaking through a long tunnel, “leaving so soon?”
She didn’t reply. Instead, the cloak closed around them and cast them in darkness.
“Don’t let go,” she said, then lurched forward at such speed Dante wasn’t even sure if her feet touched the ground. He realised then, as they flew through the forest, that this was the woman from his dreams, the hero from the stories, the Ophelia Orpheus who fought in the Apostle Wars at the ends of the Earth. She was everything he ever imagined, and she was more — much, much more.
It was only when a sharp cry of panic jolted him awake that he realised he had been dreaming. The cloak was thick with his mother’s scent, the moistness of her breath, her fear.
“Hold on,” she said, her trembling hands reaching for his own.
Before he could ask what was wrong, a thunderclap of heat roared past them, followed by a wind that would have carried a lesser person away with it. But not Dante’s Mother. Not Ophelia Orpheus. She stood her ground, a calm in the middle of a storm so violent, it were as if Theia itself had fallen from the skies.
Then, as soon as it began, the chaos faded to a whimper.
With a crack of light, the cloak of darkness fell away and Dante saw for himself the extent of the nightmare. It was as if the seasons had changed on a whim, plunging the vibrant summer into a hellish autumn. Trees, once bursting with life, now stood flayed, their boughs plucked clean, some flickering with a dance of firelight. With a heavy thud and crack of bones, a dead bird hit the parched ground at their feet, followed by another, then a third, before the whole sky seemed to rain nothing but death and soot and smog upon them. In the distance, the horizon burned red. Then the stench reached Dante’s nostrils and he started to retch.
His mother placed her hand on his and the nausea disappeared.
“You were wrong,” she said. “I’m not a hero. A hero doesn’t let her friends die.”
There was no escaping the truth in front of them. Oihana was gone, and the shrine with her. Struggling to hold back his sobs, Dante willed his mother to pull up her hood and return them both to that darkened world of ignorance.
“Denial won’t help,” she replied, “and it would dishonour Oihana’s sacrifice. When this is all over, you should paint her portrait. That way, you won’t ever forget who she was or what she did for us.”
“You should paint it,” he replied.
She turned her back on the destruction. “We should get moving. The forest will heal its own wounds. The tribes of the Vanir did not build their empire of trees in fear of a little flame, and there are some things the Sidhe cannot ignore — or forgive.”
Once again, her hood closed around them, but the image of the burning forest refused to leave Dante’s head. It was one of those things, like his mother’s face, he knew he would never forget.
Chapter 22 End
Did she fly, or did she just run really fast? Or was it all in Dante’s imagination? That’s the thing, you see. Does a tree fall in the forest if no one is there to see it? Can fire hurt one who does not believe in it? Is anything real unless we make it real?
Part two next week! That has even more important stuff happening, so that’s another weekend lost to editing…