Orphic Phantasia

34: Beneath the Surface

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Dante’s mind reeled with explanations for what these creatures might be. Were they machines with rudimentary intelligence, an illusion of sentience? Or were they synthetic beings, their programmed minds deluded into thinking themselves somehow human?

Understandably, Emily had other concerns. “I’ve had a lot of strange men following me around of late,” she said, doing a rather good job of keeping her cool despite their circumstances. “What makes you think you’ll have more luck than they did?”

She shifted closer to Dante, and he felt the tips of her fingers brush against the back of his hand. Get ready, she said, without so much as a word.

“Because, unlike them, we are willing to hurt you,” said the first.

“After all, you can be repaired,” added the second.

“Your friend on the other hand, is only human.”

“If we hurt him, he will feel it.”

You will feel it.”

Dante’s eyes moved around the room, scouring every crack and every crevice with his visor for signs of life, sentient or otherwise, but the creatures were beyond his sight. Pushing thoughts of living shadows—of the dark forces that moved in the catacombs that night—out of his mind, he steeled himself for action. All Emily had to do was give the word.

It came in an instant, an idea, almost a memory, like a sudden bout of déjà vu. Dante knew where the creature was and, the moment it pounced from the shadows, he was ready to meet it. Claws flashed in the light. Dante raised his arm and caught the blow on his cloak’s sleeve. His mother had not worn it that night for nothing. The material absorbed the impact and repelled the claws as if they had struck solid metal. The creature landed a metre away. With a snarl of teeth, it threw its whole body forward.

This time, Dante’s reactions were a slither too slow and the creature’s claw raked across his cheek, leaving behind a gash of violent pain. As momentum carried the beast into the makeshift vendor, Dante turned and ran. He didn’t know what else to do. By the time he reached the platform outside, his cloak was sealing around him.

He was the one they were after. They admitted that much. They wouldn’t dare hurt Emily, but they would hurt him. He could already taste the blood seeping into his mouth and it was only through the sheer miracle of adrenaline that he wasn’t sobbing in agony.

A transport sped past. Trev and Dave were long gone, but their wealth still littered the platform in stones and flecks. Maybe they had the right idea. Maybe running was his only option.

With a chuckle like malice condensed into a sound, the beast stepped out of the storeroom. “Do not think I cannot see you,” it said, its eyes fixing on Dante’s position, their amber glow like fire, wild and untamed. It wasn’t looking for the imperfections in his cloak, or the way it bent the light—it was looking past all of that, looking into a world beyond the material, a world that machines and programs and projections could never hope to touch.

It was looking into the aether. It was looking at his soul.

And then, with no prior warning, it pounced.

Maybe it was the taste of blood urging him on—the taste of failure—but as the beast hurled itself towards him, Dante dived into a moment between heartbeats, into an instant where the outside world did not and could not bother him. It was, he figured, what his mother would do.

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The amount of times I rewrote this scene… Me and action do not mix.