The walls were on fire.
Flames climbed to the ceiling, trembled along the rafters, released through a smokestack. They bled to the floor in orderly lines, creating four infernal corridors that crisscrossed the room and intersected at a central bonfire that drew ravers like moths to light. On a stage opposite the entrance, a DJ controlled the music behind a massive sound station, and dancers smeared head to toe in soot pranced wildly around a pale-skinned violinist with shock red hair whose movements in her thin white dress were as elaborate as the most riotous heavy metal guitarist or elegant ballerina. Raw energy abounded in the fiery quadrants below, as ravers in skintight leathers, body paint, or even angels’ wings pulsed to the beat.
Medici grabbed Ana by the waist, pulling her in far too tight for her taste as he threaded through the throngs of ravers in a half dance, half walk. “Stay close!” he said in her ear. “I don’t want to lose you!”
Ana shrugged off her fellow attaché but stayed close nonetheless. An underground club called Inferno was not the sort of place she would have chosen to find their Neapolitan of choice, but sometimes, you just have to accept a meeting in Dante’s second circle of Hell.
Ana navigated the crowd, avoiding a white-eyed sylph and her near-naked boy toy of solid muscle, circumventing a couple locked in a writhing embrace of a dance, and stepping through a trio of glitter-doused angels. One grabbed Ana’s wrist and let loose a joyous whoop before tugging her into their midst, and Ana found herself part of a wild, primal dance of three absolute artists whose limbs and torsos interwove amongst each other so seamlessly that it seemed they shared a single mind. Medici pulled her free, and she parted to a farewell of kisses blown from the glitter angels.
They reached the cross-section of the corridors, entered the second quadrant, and stopped dead in the face of fire.
Two women spun like tops, their skirts flowing wide with hems aflame. A white-clad dervish danced among them, leaping among the skirts, spinning torches in each hand like a showy gunslinger. A third woman swung a ball and chain, the spiked sphere a fiery mass that darted around her body and back, while two others swung smaller fire chains in each hand. Ana and Medici circled around the performance, which dominated the quadrant and forced observers to the perimeter and the heat of the corridor divisions. As sweat slicked her skin, she was thankful she wore a slip dress and rethinking her dogmatism about her beloved combat boots.
A hand pressed against her bare upper back, unwelcome, as breath came against her ear with a voice close enough to be heard above the music.
“I found her,” Medici said. “Follow me.”
They curled back through the center and into a third quadrant bordering the stage, itself separated from the pit by a line of blue flames. Bodies twirled and leapt, swayed and entwined, skin to skin, cloth to cloth, a mass of interlaced humans producing a controlled chaos that was art in itself. Medici waded into the mass and fell into the exuberant embrace of a blonde mix of kewpie doll and Marilyn Monroe, while Ana was enveloped by the crowd. Hands fell upon her. Unintelligible yelps loosed. Bass thumped up her legs. She searched for Medici, but he was lost in the sea of people. She closed her eyes to find him by call, probing the mass of consciousnesses, touching them ever so briefly to identify some familiarity, until —
Sound waves ripple across her in physical form.
The heat peels back her skin, setting her alight.
Liquid humanoids, outlined in kaleidoscopic sparkle.
An elated scream, somewhere.
Liquid Ana slides down the funnel —
Ana opened her eyes with a start, breath caught in her throat, wheezing, desperate for air, elated to find it. The world returned, the surreality replaced with the fiery chaos of the dance pit. Her body moved with the music, as if automated apart from the mind. She sorted out the masses around her into individuals, ecstatics all. The boyish girl with the tomcat hair. The girlish boy as smooth as silk. The schoolgirl twins, with their pleated skirts and pigtails. The hairless beauty with violet cream skin. The sun-drenched adonis with the braided eyebrows. The beautiful dark-haired woman with the light blue, painted-on dress and glitter makeup to match. They all moved with vibrance, with joy, with elation, with fire not just in the club but in their souls. How much time passed on the dance floor, Ana did not know. She knew only that it did, and it was worth passing, for the beat was life and it was bliss to live.
Then the music stopped, and there was air. Onstage, the violinist took her bow, the DJ raised his hands, and cheers and screams rose from the quadrants. The fires dimmed. Ana caught her breath as her legs stopped pumping. The dance floor scattered.
She found Medici among the masses.
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he said, his carefully coifed hair now an airy mess.
“I think I stumbled across a Collectivist,” she said with a laugh, still coming down off the high of adrenaline and possibly more, if the Collectivist was at play. Some in the club looked to be in an ecstatic daze, which Ana suspected to be a hallucinogenic high magnified by the Collective Arts, and they might just be transient, for some places pulled people across the Shroud for a night and no longer. “This place seems full of Visitors too.”
“They’ll be gone tomorrow,” Medici said. “Come with me.”
They ascended a spiral stairway to the balcony, where Ana sidestepped two barely dressed women heading down, avoided a couple climbing all over each other along a near wall, and moved out toward the flimsy railing at the balcony’s edge.
“There she is,” Medici said.