Dante screwed his face up in confusion, all thoughts of promotions a distant memory. It was one thing to send them into the forest or down into the catacombs, but the Scar? Nobody entered the Scar. It was a three-hundred metre wide mausoleum, its walls a decrepit stain against the horizon. Even from his window, Dante could spy the Sophist peacekeepers standing guard over it, as they had for the past—
The past six years.
“You have until nightfall,” continued the Chief, whose ashen face now had some understandable context. “Use everything you have learned, and good luck.”
The feed cut back to the logic game. Dante immediately shut down his visor and made for his kitchen. He needed more than puzzle games now — he needed sedatives, and he needed a lot. He could already feel the pounding of his heart, the quickness of his breaths as thoughts tumbled uninvited into his mind, images, memories.
The catacombs, the forest, and now the Scar. The Fates had a perverse sense of humour.
Not there was any such a thing as ‘the Fates’.
A single ten-gram tab was the recommended dosage, but time was not on his side and his body adapted too quickly, so he gulped back three, then two more for luck. As they slid down his throat, he eyed one of the herbal bars Joel had smuggled in a couple of months back. While Byron preached restraint and only supplied Dante with a ‘healthy’ prescription, the redheaded raven was more than happy to slip him some alternative remedies without question. He considered them a ‘last resort’, if all others failed.
Things weren’t quite so bad for him to go gobbling down Joel’s mysterious recipes, however. If he wasn’t feeling better in half an hour, he might consider it, but for now he would try to relax and hope the knot in his stomach would unravel. Besides, he couldn’t risk Katrina finding out; she would throttle him and Joel both.
But, even as he settled down and returned to manipulating virtual shapes, he found his thoughts wandering. Rembrandt Payne was troubled. He didn’t want to send his initiates into the Scar. It was a compromise after a day of compromises. Something — someone — had pushed him to make those changes.
A row of green squares vanished. It couldn’t be Seelie. Back when the Sophists turned on the Donara, Seelie stayed its hand to avoid a ‘diplomatic incident’, which was exactly what this was going to cause. But if it wasn’t Seelie, then who was it? Who had that kind of power over Rembrandt Payne? Power enough to override even Seelie’s orders?
The a bundle of blue blocks fell onto the screen and, for a single instant, Dante saw a majestic face, a face from a forgotten painting, with ocean-blue waterfalls of hair and a crown of shells. A Queen’s face. Who else would have power over Seelie, but the ones who forged it?
The game grid shuddered with failure as shapes overwhelmed the play area. With a grunt of frustration, Dante tossed the visor onto his bedside cabinet, where it landed next to the Theatre’s crystal.
He didn’t need to go to the Scar. He had quit in the middle of his exams and returned home, crystal in hand.
But then, what if this was all a part of their plan? After all, who else could have such influence over Rembrandt Payne but the Saptamatrikas themselves? What if this was Dante’s final test? His final chance to prove himself?
And it wasn’t as if it was difficult. Dante knew the Scar better than most and, thanks to his cloak, the Sophists would never know he was there. He could sneak in, prove to the City and its avatar that he could overcome his childish fears, and be done with this constant struggle for acknowledgement within the hour.
Relaxed at last, he closed his eyes.
Dante clearly doesn’t realise that, when you ingest cannabis through tasty, tasty cakes, it takes an age before you actually feel anything.