Silence hung over Vedeca’s cabin like old cobweb. Fantel had decided that silence was her best and only defence, and magnanimous in victory, Rashari had left her to it. Through the wide window Fantel could see a blanket of stars painting the sky. The sun had fallen away and the airship cut through the night like a dart through a bolt of black cloth. Below them lay craggy hills and rough moorland as they travelled westward. Fantel glanced across to Rashari finally breaking her silence, “We make for Aramantine?”
“Gateway to the Steppes,” He agreed calmly, his profile sharp in the light from the flight control.
“You were going to steal the scion stone for yourself, weren’t you?” She asked him. “You never intended to give it back to the Suluman.”
Rashari pressed his lips together into a fine line, still looking straight out into the night sky. He took his time answering. Finally he released a soft sigh, posture relaxing as he came to some sort of decision. He glanced over to her. “No. I intended to give it back to the Suluman. My plan changed when Remus told me he knew what the Heart was – he meant he knew of its power. The only way he could know that is if someone else told him. That’s when I knew the Heart wouldn’t be safe with the Suluman.”
“How did Remus find out?”
“I don’t know,” Rashari’s mouth twisted upward in a bitter smile. He was looking straight ahead again. “I was endentured to Remus. He never trusted me, of course. The man wasn’t stupid, he knew I’d betray him at the first good opportunity, but he needed me. During our time together I set up a number of highly lucrative jobs. Remus got rich off my hard work and I was…” He hesitated frowning over the right words.
“You were what?” Fantel asked, softly. The almost subliminal purring of Vedeca’s engines combined with the dark violet glow coming from the walls made the cabin seem intimate, secluded, creating an aura where secret confessions among strangers seemed easy and natural. Fantel forgot that she wasn’t supposed to care –let alone trust - what this human had to say.
Rashari shifted in his seat, right hand ghosting over the gauges and dials covering the control panel, almost a caress. “I had safety, even if I didn’t have liberty. Working for Remus was the best option I had available to me for a very long time. Plus, working for him brought me and Vedeca together.” He smiled more genuinely. “Vee is the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Fantel frowned. “It’s just an airship.”
Rashari looked over at her sharply. “Bite your tongue. Vee is very far from just an airship.” Fantel arched her eyebrows at his tone. He grimaced. “Sorry. Remus might have been captain – in name only – but Vedeca is my girl. She and I have a connection. She is my home. I know every inch of her. I’ve cared and maintained her for nearly five years.”
“Why not give the Heart back to the rightful owner? Why are you so sure it won’t be safe?” Fantel pressed him. This was the heart of the issue. Rashari knew something, something no one else seemed to know and whatever that knowledge was it motivated his actions now.
“Because now there is demand for it the Suluman will sell it to someone else. Hannick Anoush is this close to losing control of the Bhuvam Isles to the Dha-hali. He’ll sell the Heart to the first person to offer him protection from Einar.” Rashari shock his head. “No. No matter what I agreed, I need to get rid of the blasted thing.”
“It is powerless.”
Rashari laughed darkly. “No it isn’t.”
Fantel looked at him sharply. “You know this for certain?”
“Doesn’t matter one whit; there is power in the stone. It would almost be better if the goddess Anoush was still active; safer, certainly. Humans possessed by wayward goddesses are less than ideal, but at least everyone knows what sort of trouble to expect.”
“I don’t understand.” Fantel frowned. How could the stone be more dangerous than a living goddess? It was just a stone, wasn’t it?
Rashari glanced over to her, half his face blanched in the violet light coming off the console. “Look at it this way: phantasma is the concentrated power of dead mortals. You know what that can do. Imagine the power you could harvest from a stone containing the power of a dead deity.”
Fantel could not imagine any such thing. It was impossible. Gods did not die. Spirits did not die. They could be dispersed and dismissed but they did not die. Only mortals did that. Mortals died and their ghosts returned to Mother Aldlis, resting deep underground, merging with the Mother and becoming veins of phantasma ore. Gods and greater spirits were creatures of Anima, immaterial and ethereal, when they ceased to be they simply returned to the ether, like rain drops evaporating in the air. Yet the Seraphim had found a way to capture part of their essence in stones, just like the one Rashari had stolen. If Fantel was to believe the Seraphim had found a way to do that, was it such a stretch to imagine a seraph could leave behind a ghost to be stolen by greedy humans?
“Such power would be dangerous in the wrong hands,” Fantel ventured carefully. She could not imagine what the ghost of a seraph might actually do. Phantasma was used as fuel; industry and aviation, weapons of war and conquest, even simple household appliances, all dined on a constant diet of phantasma. Phantasma powered almost all aspects of human life. But that was phantasma dragged out of mines all over the human territories, from Bhuvam to the tropical Messonya Isles far, far to the south. A single stone could not compete with that, surely?
“It’s dangerous in anyone’s hands,” Rashari replied shortly. “Which is why I’ve no intention of keeping the damn thing long.” He shook his head. “I thought when I made this deal that Hannick Anoush would lock his family heirloom up in the palace vault and be done with it. The Heart of Anoush would go on quietly gathering dust like all good relics should. But someone else out there knows about deific power. The stone won’t be safe unless it’s well out of human reach.”
Rashari shrugged. “Dead mortals make phantasma; dead gods make deific power. It’s just a name.”
“You know much about this power.” She probed without quite asking a question. She wasn’t sure if her ignorance was due to the fact that she generally tried hard to maintain a certain ignorance of human doings, or if his knowledge was unusual. She suspected the latter, which raised any number of questions she was by no means sure he would answer.
“That’s a long story.” Rashari began uncomfortably. She had been sitting so she could watch him as they spoke and now she saw him swallow, watched as his throat worked. A tea-kettle wail ripped through the cabin. Fantel rocked back against her seat. A series of red warning lights ignited across the control console. Rashari swore, eyes widening, and wrenched his left arm back. Vedeca rocketed upward, gaining altitude at incredible speed.
Fantel was slammed back against her seat, the pressure squeezing the air in her lungs into a painful, compacted lump. The cabin shook, and Vedeca seemed to wobble in mid-ascent. The console shrieked again. Rashari slammed his right hand down on the console, fingers moving lightning fast over knobs and dials. He wrenched his left arm again and Vedeca went into a barrel roll. Fantel’s claws shot free, ripping into the upholstered chair arms as the sky beyond the wide window spun around and around. She caught a flash of starry night, the grey-black veldt of ragged hills and dales, even the toad-stool cluster of a distant town far below them as the ship pin-wheeled through the air.
“This is just not my bloody day,” Rashari spat out, breaking off his stream of profanity long enough to straighten out Vedeca’s flight before flipping them upside down in a breakneck loop. Fantel clung to the armrests for dear life. At the apex of the loop, just as she wondered if she was going to tumble out of her seat and end up ricocheting off the cabin walls, she saw a streak of light scour through the night sky and explode in a shower of yellow-green sparks in almost the exact same spot Vedeca had been before Rashari threw them into the loop. Vedeca banked sharply to the left, tilting so that one wing was pointing straight up and Fantel was thrown sharply to the side. Through the window she could see a second airship, a dark hulking shadow in the night, only visible in the dying sparks of the missile salvo.
“The Dha-hali?” She demanded astounded.
“Most likely,” Rashari nodded vigorously wrenching the ship side to side as they raced through the air toward the ridge of jagged mountains denoting the border between Tabris and Aramant. The cabin shuddered again and Fantel did not want to think about how close that last missile had come to hitting them. She clenched her teeth, claws embedded in the armrests, and watched Rashari wrestle with Vedeca’s controls as he tried to stay out of the other vessel’s targeting sites.
“Weapons?” Fantel raked her gaze over the console in front of her, wondering which of the dozens and dozens of incomprehensible buttons, dials, gauges and levers related to Vedeca’s armaments.
“None,” Rashari shot back and executed another sickening roll that took them up and over the pursuing craft. “Vee has no cannon. She isn’t that sort of girl.” He dipped the ship low and Fantel clutched tight to the chair arms again as they zipped under the belly of the larger vessel. “We’re going to outrun them, not outgun them.” They flew out from under the other ship and burst forward. Their pursuer lacked Vedeca’s manoeuvrability and speed. Rashari was able to push them forward, slicing over the tops of the mountains and dropping low into the pall of shadow the mountains left in their wake.
“Most of Aramant is a no fly zone. The miasma from the Steppes messes with the engines,” Rashari told her. “I’m going to take us on a little detour, skirt the no fly zone. Hopefully that will dissuade our friends from further pursuit.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Fantel demanded through gritted teeth as they bobbed and weaved above a landscape of boulders and rolling dales. The night sky popped with the light of strafing fire from the pursuing craft.
“Then we hit the miasma and fall out of the sky in a ball of flames.” Rashari said with far too much cheer given the circumstances. Fantel whipped her head around to stare at him. He ignored her, tilting his head back and bellowing at the top of his lungs.
A moment later the automaton buzzed into the cabin from the back of the ship. Its violet eyebeam swept over the cabin before resting on the back of Rashari’s head with every sign of attentiveness. “Bloop.”
“We have company.” Rashari addressed the automaton, craning his neck to grin at Smith, showing far too many teeth in the process, “Our tattooed friends calling at an inopportune hour. Show Madame Chimera to the Baby Bird, would you?”
“Bl-blop.” Smith bobbed in the air, rotating fractionally on its floating axis so that the light from its eyebeam fell upon Fantel.. There was something almost alive in the steadiness of its ‘gaze.’
“What is going on?” Fantel looked from Rashari to the automaton. Something hit the ship, throwing her and Rashari forward against the console and causing Smith to crash toward the floor of the cabin. Alarums rang in the air. Vedeca was wailing in pain. Rashari snarled, a feral light igniting in his eyes as he straightened up and started pressing buttons in sequence. His nose was bleeding, a fast running trail of blood spilled from his right nostril down over his bared teeth before dripping off his chin. Fantel hadn’t seen him hit his head or take any injury. Vedeca started losing speed, her flight uneven.
“We’re going down. That hit was to the thrusters. We can’t outrun them now, and soon we’re going to hit Aramant air patrols. You need to bail out now while I can still give you cover.” Rashari risked turning to face her directly. “Madame Chimera, I swear to you: I would never have asked you along if I’d known we were going to be ambushed. Please, go with Smith. You’ll be safe.”
Another barrage of strafing fire lit up the night sky. Vedeca shuddered as her hull was pelted with tiny holes. Rashari sucked in a harsh breath of air, sounding pained, and his teeth bit down on his bottom lip.
Fantel hesitated. Smith waited in the empty air between their seats, the light from its eyebeam falling on them both. “What about you?”
Rashari shrugged, hunched over the console. “Vedeca and I, we fly or we die together.” He said shooting her a harried look. “Please go. I can keep our friends distracted long enough to cover your escape but only if you go now.”