Orphic Phantasia

16: A Crack in the Mask

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“Because,” he turned to face the Director with a look that frightened Emily with its intensity, in life and aether both, “there’s no such thing as the Erebus. It’s just an illusion, a story people use to explain things they don’t understand.”

The Director’s frown deepened, and he closed his eyes in quiet disappointment. “Denial, Mr Orpheus, is a dangerous thing. The more you deny something, the stronger it becomes. After all, an idea ignored vanishes into history, but an idea opposed takes on as much shape, and as much life, as one embraced.”

“I’m not denying it exists,” replied Dante, his tone growing sharper, his jaw tighter, “I’m saying it’s just some … some faerie tale. It’s a story for scaring children. And … and there are people out there who can’t separate that from reality. There are people who’ll believe in it because they’ve lost all hope and they’re ill—ill in the mind”—he jabbed a finger at his skull—”and the idea consumes them. They actually end up believing that there’s some evil force out there bringing misery to the world when it’s just … it’s just people!”

Kat stood transfixed, and even Byron was silent; no one had ever seen Dante like this, not even his oldest friends.

“And you people”—he thrust his finger at the Director and his entourage—”encourage it. You keep the illusion going because it gives you power. It gives you an excuse to commit genocide. And people buy it, because people are stupid.”

The Director endured Dante’s flurry of accusations like a spire of stone standing strong against a maelstrom, and even his associates remained unmoved—Emily thought they might have drawn their swords by now, or at least threatened to shut Dante up.

“So,” the Director crossed his arms, “what you’re saying is that the Erebus is not this cloud of matter welling up around us, and it is not some spiritual cancer eating away at the souls of our loved ones, but it is simply an idea? A mere illness? Depression, perhaps? Certainly, there is a great deal of that in the world.”

“You only call it Erebus because you don’t understand it.”

“And you, I presume, do?”

Dante replied with a cold stare, but Emily could see behind the mask, see all the tiny little details, the muscular twitches and their aethereal counterparts that told her he was about to crack.

If the Director saw them, he did not care. “And, if I might be so bold as to ask, where did you learn all this?” he asked, continuing his offensive. “After all, if you have such insight into the Erebus, why wouldn’t you share it? If we knew such things fourteen years ago, why, we would never have had to build this”—he waved a hand across the horizon—“delightful blot on the landscape.”

Unblinking, Dante replied, “I have friends in high places.”

“So it would seem. Which leads me to wonder what you’re hiding your pocket. It’s rather obvious, you know. If you truly wish to hide something, you would do better to ignore it.”

“I’m not hiding anything.” He lifted his hand from his pocket, but Emily knew, as the Director did, that it was a poor lie.

“I could take it by force, you know?” The Director gestured to his guards, but they did not move to draw their weapons. “But I would rather you admit it of your own free will.”

“I have nothing to hide.”

“Oh, but you do. It is a small, white device, is it not? About the size of a book? And it proclaims to contain all the ‘truth’”—he sneered—“in the world.”

Emily had never felt so cold. She wanted it to be a lie, some stupid Sophist trick on the Director’s part, but she had seen it in the forest. Now all she could do was hope that there was some mistake, that it was some other white tablet, and not the one she saw consume her uncle’s life.

It had to be different. It had to be a coincidence. It had to.

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Friends in high places, huh?