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.”
As the feed cut back to the logic game. Dante shut down his visor and made for his kitchen. Games wouldn’t cut it now—he needed sedatives, and a lot of them. 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-gramme tab was the recommended dosage, so he gulped back three, then two more to counteract his mother’s genetic blessings. 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’, as he called them.
Dante slammed the cupboard door before temptation overwhelmed him. One thing at a time, he told himself. Maybe, if he was still feeling anxious in half an hour, he would consider it. For now, he would try to relax and let the first batch of sedatives do their job. It was the responsible thing to do.
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 would 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?
Then a bundle of blue blocks fell onto the screen and, for a single instant, Dante saw a face from a forgotten painting, a portrait of a woman majestic in form, a queen whose cascading hair framed sapphires eyes that gleamed with untold knowledge.
Dante ripped the visor from his face and tossed it onto his bedside cabinet, where it landed next to the Theatre’s crystal.
Their crystal! Of course! He didn’t need to go to the Scar. He had quit in the middle of his exams and returned home, crystal in hand. All his worries were for nothing. He was safe.
Or was he? 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 would be 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.