The cargo hold of the Bhuvanti sky barge stank of fear sweat and mortal waste. Empty eyed women and children huddled in chains and stared straight ahead into a future no less dire than their immediate present. Fantel stood in the midst of the assorted humans, her back pressed against the wall. The steel felt slimy through the sack cloth garments her captors had forced on her when she was dragged aboard the slavers ship. She wore her chains lightly; her back straight, her chin up. She listened to the shifting song of the Phantasmal engines; the susurrus whisper of power seething through hidden circuitry had changed. The barge was losing altitude, slowing down as it descended through the air. After two miserable days in flight they had reached their destination. Soon would be the auction where Fantel and the rest of her – travelling companions – would be sold to the highest bidder.
“Seraphim guide and keep me; by Dalmund’s light I am freed from mortal bondage. I shall fear no torment and know no pain in the arms of my saviour.”
Fantel twitched and looked down at the huddled woman curled up in a ball beside her. the woman’s legs were dragged up to her chest, and she had her arms wrapped around her knees. She rocked back and forth repeating the same tired prayer over and over again. The woman’s lank hair was matted with old blood and under the harsh lights of the hold Fantel could clearly see the scabbed line of a knife wound scouring her scalp. The woman reeked of death and despair; the foul miasma rising from her in almost visible waves. Fantel wrinkled her nose and wished she could move away. There was nowhere to go. The slaves were all chained together, every manacle linked by heavy chain to the manacles of another, and another and another, until each woman and child packed into the hold became the others jailor. The chains wove together into an impenetrable latticework in the centre of the hold, which had forced the slaves to press up against the walls. The floor of the hold was revolting. A slurry of shit and vomit covered every inch of the steel panelled floor. The smell had at first turned the stomachs of everyone packed inside, but now the stench had become merely another prisoner unable to escape.
Fantel had been a wanderer along the path of humans and a stranger in strange lands for the last twelve years. A lone Chimera lost amid the ever shifting tide of human folly. She was no stranger to misfortune. Perhaps she had even sought it; what better fate for a heretic Chimera? This was not the first time she had worn chains, nor, she suspected, would it be the last. Yet she did not consider herself bowed and beaten as these human women were. She was no slave; she was Fantel. Alone and apart from everything that made her Chimera, by choice and penance, but never broken, never defeated. To be defeated suggested that she had once fought, and to fight she would need something to fight for. Fantel had nothing. No cause, no purpose, no Great Pulse to echo. Not anymore.
“Seraphim guide and keep me, by Dalmund’s light…”
Through her skin Fantel could feel the sky barge sigh around her; the steel walls thrummed with the slowing beat of power through mechanical veins. A groan of hydraulics caused the hold to shudder. Fantel’s fellow captives reacted in typical fashion. The children wailed, pitiful animal bleats, and a few of the women, those who still had the mind to be afraid, stifled sobs. Under the rainbow glow of the phantasma lights dozens of filthy faces looked toward the sealed cargo door. To Fantel the sick light in the eyes of the women and children reminded her of the fever hope in the eyes of plague victims. They did not hope for escape, or freedom, or even the promise of a better tomorrow. Instead the women looked toward the door in the hope that death would find them swiftly. Those women who had laid claim to the children swimming in excrement at their feet, clasped their bony shoulders and dragged the little humans up, thrust them forward to meet the knife first. No one was under any illusion; there was no hope here. Fantel felt tired, dreadfully tired. No wonder the Chimeri believed humans were a cursed breed.
The lights flickered, sputtering as the ship docked. Beyond the interior walls Fantel could just pick up the sound of clomping boots as the crew scurried through docking procedures; shouting orders and insults to each other in the sinuous Bhuvanti tongue. The engines clicked and hissed and phantasmal gasses squealed through exhaust pipes overhead. It sounded like whispering, like a gaggle of voices trying to speak to her underwater. If she just listened hard enough she might be able to understand but more likely she would go mad trying. Phantasma fuel was nothing more than the ghosts of the dead, burned up to power the luxuries of the living.
Finally the sky barge grew still, like a great beast lulled into hibernation. Moments later the cargo hold door opened. “Lyst’s tits,” the Bhuvanti slaver silhouetted against the open doorway recoiled back into the passageway. He threw up an arm to ward against the smell and the inch-thick river of filth, which rushed forward to lap at his shiny, silver gilded boots. The man’s rich, red-brown complexion paled to something old and yellowed, features twisting under the intricate whorls of his Dha-hali tattoos into a mask of revulsion. He shuddered and his beaded braids shivered. Semi-precious gems – carnelians, opals, and pearls – reflected the oil-slick colours of the lamps while a hundred impossibly delicate silver bells tinkled from the ends of his blood red braids. Snapping out orders to unseen compatriots the slaver stepped back from the doorway. A glare etched his broad features. The green-gold tracery of his tattoos, infused with Anima, danced across his skin, shifting pattern from moment to moment.
A second Bhuvanti male appeared in the doorway, this one dressed in the dull leathers and workman-like brown coveralls of one of the sky barge’s crew. He did not wear Dha-hali marks on his skin. He stared wide-eyed into the hold as he aimed the head of a huge hose through the door, twisted the nozzle, and let loose a torrent of water into the room. The water hit those closest to the door with the force of a battering ram, knocking children to the ground and punching into the empty stomachs of the women. The panicked crewman strafed the hose right and left, up and down, jumping and flinching every time the Dha-hali slaver barked at him from the safety of the passageway. The water diluted the thick sludge of filth, which flowed towards clogged sluice grates set into the floor. The sluices gurgled, spitting up bubbles of gritty brown waste. Fantel refused to give ground when she was hit by the hose. She braced against the water as best she could. The cold blast of water went through her like a shiv to the gut, but under the shock there was relief as well. Some of the filth covering her skin sloughed off with the water.
Finally the slaver was satisfied. Snapping out one final order to cut off the hose, he irritably waved the crewman away and, watching where he placed his booted feet, stepped almost daintily into the hold. He was dressed in typical Dha-Hali attire; a high collared tunic of midnight blue cotton stopped at his knees and left his arms bare. Gold twinned leather armguards covering his forearms and the back of his hands. The man’s ornate cuirass, a complex mesh of finely worked gold filigree and magic weaved leather and mail, covered broad shoulders. At his waist he wore a wide sash of red silk from which hung a spade headed blade. The Dha-hali slaver wore loose silk trousers dyed a brilliant red under his tunic. All in all he cut a dramatic figure, but one hardly suited for stealth or subtlety. Fantel supposed that the Dha-hali had little need for either, at least not in Bhuvam. The Dha-hali raiders more or less ran the Bhuvam Isles. The Suluman of Bhuvam, Hannick Anoush the Fourth, was nothing more than a figurehead caught in the Dha-hali crosshairs. Fantel had not known the Dha-hali dabbled in the slave trade, but she supposed it was no real shock. She did wonder if the Dha-hali would be so brazen as to walk their newly acquired cargo through the streets of Anubad right under the Suluman’s nose.
Her attention was brought back to the present when the slaver stepped into the hold stopping where the spider web of chains had come together in a thick knot. His sharp eyes flicked over the gathered humans, critical and completely devoid of compassion. His full lips curled into a feral sneer when he laid eyes on the praying woman, still rocking back and forth against the wall beside Fantel.
“You - woman – shut up.” He snapped in Bhuvanti. The woman did not look up, but instead ducked her head lower toward her chest and tightened her arms around her knees. The woman had been praying in Dushkui and likely she could not understand the Bhuvanti tongue. Ignorance would not save her, however.
“…I shall fear no torment and know no pain in…”
“Silence,” in two swift strides the slaver reached the woman, ducking under and around the knot of chains. He grabbed the woman by her hair, hauling her to her feet, and smashed his fist into her face. Fantel felt the jerk of the chain connecting them as the woman rocked back against the steel wall of the hull and crumpled to the floor. Brilliant scarlet gouts of blood poured from her nose and split lip. She cowered, throwing manacled hands up over her head.
“Dalmund save me from my mortal bondage…in your light I will be free…Dalmund save me in my torment…in your arms I am…” The woman’s voice rose in her panic, as if she thought volume would bring salvation. The slaver kicked her in the ribs, the toe of his fine boots hooking underneath her torso, lifting her off the ground an inch or more, before the force of the kick slammed her once again against the wall. She gasped, wordlessly, choking on the blood streaming down her face.
“You will be silent.”
The slaver drew his leg back to kick the woman again. This time the kick landed squarely against her breastbone. The woman gagged, all the air leaving her lungs in a pained whoosh. The impact threw her onto her back where she was wedged between the floor and the wall. She stared up at the slaver with blank and uncomprehending eyes. She was scared out of her wits. She reached for the slaver. He stamped on her wrist, grinding the fragile bone against the floor. The sharp snap the bone made rang out like a shotgun rapport in the deathly silence of the hold.
“Filthy cur,” the slaver sneered, pulling a slender dagger from a sheath within his right armguard. Fantel moved. A single side-step placed her between the slaver and the woman. The slaver jerked back a half inch, surprised. He had not even registered Fantel’s presence before now. He blinked. Fantel’s hand was notched snugly under his chin, her palm pressed against his bobbing throat. She curled her fingers, lightly, around his neck. Her claws pricked through the ends of her fingers. She itched to tear open the man’s throat.
“How dare you.” The slaver looked angry, but not afraid. “Unhand me now, woman, or die like this filth.” Fantel saw her own reflection in the slaver’s brown eyes. She barely recognised herself. She looked just like the other miserable wretches in the hold. Her face was gaunt, her yellow eyes sunken, her mouth a thin slash, and her hair was lank and knotted, mussed against her skull and colourless like cobweb. She was caked in filth and drenched like a drowned rat. No wonder the slaver lacked the sense to fear her; she looked human. A spark of anger, dull and stuttering lit deep within her. She would show this man that she was no mere human. She flexed her fingers against his warm skin. She felt his pulse jump. Flexing her fingers again she let her claws extend, the ends of her fingers tingling deliciously.
“Wh-what…” the slaver could not see what had happened to her hand, but he could feel the prickle of her claws against his skin and the ripple of shifting flesh and sinew in the hand wrapped so tightly around his neck. He stared at Fantel, confusion shading toward fear finally. Dispassionately Fantel squeezed down on the man’s neck, fascinated by her own alien reflection gazing back at her from the slaver’s eyes.
“Mishman take me,” he jerked backward, wrenching free of her hand – her nails scouring shallow runnels through his flesh. The slaver slapped one hand against his neck. He drew his hand back and stared at the blood coating his fingers as if he could not fathom where it came from. “Chimera,” he breathed, “you are Chimera.”
Fantel did not deign to reply. She was Chimera, and yet she was not. To this man her appearance would mark her as one of the Chimeri, but to the Chimeri she was not one of them. To be Chimeri was a state of being, not just a particular set of physical traits. The true mark of Chimeri was an adherence to the Great Pulse that Fantel had long ago rejected, and thus in turn the Chimeri rejected her. The Dha-hali laughed suddenly, a vicious bark of noise. Fantel had a split second to react. The Dha-hali slashed at her with the knife in a horizontal arc. Fantel parried. The knife scraped against the iron links of her chain. The slaver laughed as if pleased with her display of reflex.
“Chimera,” he said again wonderingly. “Mishman must smile on me; such an unexpected bounty.” Quick as a striking snake he reached behind his back with his free hand, groping for something hidden inside a pouch hanging from his sash-belt. Fantel shifted her stance, ready to deflect another physical blow – whatever form it took – and was therefore unprepared when the slaver whipped out a small dark glass bottle with a spray nozzle and shoved the bottle straight into her face. Fantel jerked her head to the side, but the slaver was standing too close, and the wall stopped her from moving away. A fine mist of some sort of pressurised liquid sprayed all over her cheek and neck. Immediately her face started to tingle and a deep burn took root under her skin, seeping into the bone of her lower jaw. Her nose ached, reacting to the sharp astringent odour.
The Dha-hali punched her in the stomach. Fantel doubled-up, but managed to keep her lips tight closed. She tried to fall forward onto her knees and protect her face– and therefore her mouth and nose – but was thwarted by the Dha-hali. He snatched up a fistful of her hair, wrenched her head back, and positioned the spray bottle right in front of her face once more.
“You are going to make me a rich man Chimera; a very rich man.” Gold teeth gleamed at the back of his mouth as he grinned. Fantel snapped her eyes tight closed, breath held painfully in her lungs. The stinging spray burned into her flesh and invaded her senses for a second time, scorching her lungs and numbing her brain when it went up her nose. Her last thoughts before she was swept away on the cold, sharp sent of pepper and iron was that she really should stop interfering in the ways of humans.