23: The Night Everything Changed (Part Two)
And, in the blink of an eye, they were stood in a forest clearing at the break of dawn, the morning dew still fresh in the air. Above them, a clear blue sky stretched out to infinity, filled with the chirping of birdsong.
“Dante,” said his mother, “I have to go away for a little while.”
“I—” He felt his throat tighten. He wanted to ask why, but the words came out as “Can I come with you?”
“What happened to you joining Seelie?” she asked. “I thought you wanted to meet Queen Thetis?”
“But I can’t leave you! I have to protect you!”
She smiled, a warn and soothing smile that brought a faint blush to her cheeks. “I can look after myself, Dante. Besides, I won’t be gone for long.”
“But—but why?” He felt the cool prick of a tear emerge from the corner of his eye, followed by another. He wanted to stop them, to twist his insides back into shape and stop the pain, but he couldn’t. His mother was crying too.
“Because I made a promise,” she said, “and I don’t break my promises, do I?”
She reached out to brush the tears from his cheek. “When I’ve done what I have to do, I’ll come back,” she said. “That’s my promise to you, Dante. But you have to make me a promise too, okay? I want you to promise that you won’t tell anyone what has happened tonight. If they find out that I’ve left, they might come looking for me, and that would make things difficult for me. I have to do this alone, Dante. This is something only a Maiden of Orpheus can do.”
Dante clenched his jaw. He knew what he had to say, but they were the hardest words of all. The moment he spoke them, he knew that there was no turning back. Ignoring the tears streaming down his cheeks, he held his chin high and looked his mother in her pale, winter eyes. He had to be brave.
“I promise,” he said.
She smiled. “I’m so proud to be your mother, Dante Orpheus. So very, very proud. And, please, tell your father that I’m sorry.”
Her hand slipped from his cheek, tracing a cold line of tears down his face as she slipped into unconsciousness. Dante tried to keep his dignified expression but, in the end, he was still a child. His sobs echoed through the abandoned house.
“Do not worry yourself, child,” said Arided. “This is for the best.” Then, with a strength that belied her appearance, she scooped Dante’s mother into her arms and started up the stairs.
“W-what’s wrong with her?” he asked through sobs. “Is it the madness?”
“Yes,” replied Arided, pausing at the top of the stairs. “She used up all her strength to fend it off, but now that strength is fading. If she remains here, she will curse this place, too.”
Dante glanced outside, but there wasn’t much to see beyond the thick grey wall of fog, bulging against the purple light. He wondered if Arided knew what they were but, when he turned back to ask, she had vanished back into the shadows. Panic overwhelming his fatigue, Dante lurched up the stairs after her. Before he realised what he was doing, he was charging up the final set of stairs towards the rooftop. The doors crashed open as he stumbled through, breathless, his legs buckling beneath him.
When he finally looked up, he wanted to scream. There was his mother, cloak discarded at her ankles, leaning on Arided for support — and beyond them a thing he had never seen before, not even in dreams.
It must have been the size of a house, a fusion of man, bird, beast and machine, a white giant with a long neck and outstretched wings of feathered rainbows that held it aloft over the silent, singing fogs. Where its chest should have been there was an open cavity, big enough to hold an adult human.
To hold his mother.
It’s her giant robot swan thing!