Something strange falling from the sky
Fantel followed Smith to the back of the ship. She was in two minds about leaving, which was surprising. She had no desire to die in a fiery crash and could do little to help Rashari by staying. Yet somehow it felt wrong to escape knowing he wouldn’t.
“Bloop,” Smith rotated one hundred and eighty degrees until its eyebeam focused on her. The automaton bobbed in the air before an oblong door. Smith gave every indication of impatience. Another shudder rocked Vedeca. Fantel braced her arms against the walls of the corridor to keep her balance. The ship was losing altitude, and the pulsing purple light threading through the walls flickered and shivered in time with the laboured whining of the engines. Smith turned around and focused its eyebeam into a smaller cone of light, sharper and brighter than usual. The light pooled in a tight circle centred on a sensor pad set into the wall. The sensor flashed deep blue and the door opened, pushing up and out with a soft hydraulic sigh. Fantel could see only darkness beyond the doorway until Smith buzzed ahead.
Smith’s eyebeam threw coloured light into the shadows of Vedeca’s underbelly as the automaton cut a path through canvas covered objects of unknown origin. The hold smelled of phantasma, oil, and heavy machinery. A hammock, strung between a hook in the wall and a huge cloth swathed crate, swayed back and forth violently in time with the erratic movements of the ship. A large, sturdy trunk covered in battered wyrm skin had been secured to a support strut under the hammock by a piece of thick rope. Fantel’s keen eyes could just make out a set of embossed initials, worn and faded, on the top of the trunk: S.T. A book slid across the floor. Fantel stumbled, almost tripping over the book. The slim volume was old, the leather cover faded and split in places, the title legend almost illegible: The Cautionary Tale of the Scoundrel Rashari. Another booming shudder hit Vedeca. Smith beeped at her from behind a stack of crates. Fantel kicked the book out of the way and made her way swiftly around the crates.
Smith floated above a wide open hatch in the hold floor. The sharp tang of cold night air hissed past the hatch. Fantel could see the tops of fir trees dart by. She was disturbed to realise that the tree tops were not nearly as far below them as she might have liked. How close to crashing were they?
“Blo-blop,” Smith buzzed close and then veered away moving toward an odd looking contraption pushed up against the wall of crates. It looked like a huge kite; strong canvas fabric stretched over a framework of lightweight metal struts. A series of leather straps dangled from the underside of the giant kite. “Bloooop,” The light from Smith’s eyebeam raked over her. Fantel had the feeling it wanted her to hurry. She approached the kite contraption cautiously. It was a one-man glider. She lifted one end of the pointed wingtip. It was light, as she had half suspected, but too large and unwieldy for her to pick up easily. She tipped up the wing further and reached for the series of straps connected to the metal chassis. She realised that the three thickest leather straps formed a harness. A person could loop their arms through the two uppermost straps, which were actually separate pieces joined together by buckles. The third part of the harness was a leather belt that circled around the waist and could be fastened to fit. The harness connected the person to the glider’s frame. The other dangling cords controlled the wings. Fantel tugged experimentally on one of the cords and the reticulated wings snapped half-closed, like the furled wings of a bird. It was far easier for Fantel to manhandle the glider over to the hatch and wriggle into it with the wings furled.
“Blop,” Smith hovered close to her head, the light from its beam stinging her eyes. The automaton was almost quivering with impatience. Fantel wondered how a spherical lump of metal could so aptly imitate the emotions of flesh and blood beings. It wasn’t even alive. Yet she could feel anxiety rising from its round shell like heat haze. Something screamed through the air, and Fantel watched a white hot comet crash into the forest below. A searing orange-red bloom of flame burst into life and the canopy ignited. Fantel sucked in a harsh breath. The tops of the trees were very close now, the ground reaching up impatiently. She had to jump now before it was too late. She would have to trust that Rashari really could distract their pursuers before they noticed her escape. She jumped.
Ice cold air tore over her body, smashing into her like a giant fist. She started to fall, a gale force shriek howling in her ears. She couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. Desperately she groped at the glider cords, tugging on every single string until finally the glider wings snapped open. There was a ripping sound; it was a horrible, horrible sound, like flesh tearing. The whole world jerked violently, dragging Fantel’s body with it, wrenching her from vertical to horizontal. Starburst explosions of pain ignited behind her eyes. The nature of her descent changed, instead of a cannonball thundering toward the ground, she was now caught in a riptide spiral, tumbling around and around, upside down and down side up like a leaf in a hurricane. The glider wings caught the air, making her fall erratic.
An updraft of air caught under the glider wings and held. Abruptly Fantel was no longer falling. For one brief and stunning second she was suspended in the air. She forced open her eyes, ignoring the tears streaming past her cheeks. She saw a sweep of moorland underneath her. Rough slabs of rock dotted the moor, gleaming like exposed bone in the greyish blur of feathery grass. The night air was clean and sharp, singing in her ears. Tilting her head up, grimacing at the wind clawing at her numbed face, she could see beyond the rolling sweep of moorland toward the distant lights of Aramantine. The fortress city was built on a natural hill, encircled by numerous concentric tiers of curtain wall. The needle point towers forking up from behind each wall struck out at the night like rapier points. The lights of the city twinkled in the velvet night. Rashari had brought them closer to the city than she had thought. If she was lucky and her landing was kind she might be able to reach the city by daybreak.
The ground swept up to meet her. Fantel pulled on the cords, retracting the glider wings when she was still ten feet or more above the ground. This was a mistake. Immediately she fell, her controlled descent collapsing into a thudding crash landing. Gravity seized her greedily. She hit the ground sideways on, the awkward curl of one reticulated wing striking the ground first. She bounced and rolled. The canvas wings tore, the lightweight struts snapping. Fantel came to a stop, teeth rattled and thoughts jumbled. She breathed through her nose and waited for the world to stop spinning before sitting up. One broken glider wing had sunk into the sod several inches deep. She ended up having to wriggle free of the glider completely.
“Bloooooooooooop.” Smith hurtled toward the ground. A blazing corona of violet light encapsulated its metal form, which stood out against the light like a dark kernel in the heart of a burning comet.
Fantel threw herself to the side, rolling down the slight slope. Smith smashed into the ground, pulverising the remains of the glider. There was a retina searing flash of light. Fantel felt a tremor of energy sing through the ground under her fingertips, something alien and unfamiliar. She lifted her head and stared. She couldn’t see Smith but the ground around his landing site was a glowing crater, five feet across. The grass had been seared away, leaving a veldt of smooth, glassy residue; it looked like lavender frost, shot through with cracks. Hazy purple smoke rose from the middle of the crater, tickling the air with spectral fingers. The smoke smelled wrong, writhing in her nostrils with the promise of magic and power, tasting of life and energy and just a hint of something dark and malign.
“Bl…bl…bo…lop.” A mechanised warbling rose up from the hole. Fantel twitched in surprise. The automaton should have so much scattered metal from that fall. Fantel inched her way forward. She reached out with one finger and poked at the crystallised ground. It felt like she’d shoved her arm, up to the elbow, into an anima wellspring. Her arm was instantly alive with energy, stinging heat soaked into the marrow of her bones, energising every cell in her body, filling her to bursting with raw, unbridled power. Magic; life; energy; a constellation of coruscating lights flared behind her eyes, dazzling her. She hadn’t felt anything like this in over a decade. The ground throbbed with power. Then it was gone. For one transcendent moment there was magic, and then, like a guttering candle in a draft, the power ebbed away. Fantel watched as the carpet of tiny crystals over the ground retreated from her touch like dawn frost under the midday sun.
A mechanical shriek filled the night above her. Vedeca was falling from the sky, screaming all the way. Vedeca wheeled in the air lighting up the dark night and leaving glowing contrails in its wake. No wonder Rashari had been confident their pursuers would not notice her bailing out, she doubted the pilots of the other ship could tear their eyes away from Vedeca, glowing like a falling star, leaking power like a trail blood across the sky.
Vedeca’s fall was mesmerising. The craft rippled in vibrant shades of indigo, violet, lavender and mauve so bright Fantel was sure the play of colours against the night sky played tricks on her eyes. She thought she saw Vedeca transform from airship into a scorpion with a twitching tail and huge, beating wings. As Vedeca rushed the ground, it looked like the scorpion’s eight legs skittered over the moorland, gouging glowing purple pock marks into the ground. She saw its impossibly huge, unreal wings beat against the sky, powdering the night air with sparks. Vedeca scoured the ground, slicing a fifty foot long furrow in the face of the moor. There was a hideous noise, a scream of metal and stone, and in that last instant as Vedeca streaked along the ground, Fantel saw the scorpion strike upwards with its coiled and barbed tail and swipe the Dha-hali craft out of the air.