Fantel shoved her arms into the deep hole and hauled Smith out. Vedeca lay like a beached leviathan in a high walled trench sixty feet away. There was no hint of the winged apparition. The other ship had landed, awkwardly but intact a hundred yards or so away from Vedeca, flickers of sickly phantasma flame sprouted from the back of the enemy airship. Fantel could see no movement from either ship. The savaged moorland glowed like something out of a fever dream.
“Blup,” Smith beeped pathetically. Fantel’s held the automaton tightly to her chest. Anxiety beat a steady tattoo against the inside of her skull. “Blo-oooooop.” Smith’s purple eyebeam blinked at her through a shield of crusted dirt. Its round shell quivered under her palms. Through her skin she could feel little tingles of power, energy seeping through the metal. She had the strangest feeling that the automaton was shaking Fantel rang her palms over Smith’s shell, checking for dents or tears. She couldn’t find any, which was remarkable in and of itself, but Fantel had already come to the conclusion that Smith was no ordinary machine.
She got to her feet, ignoring various protesting muscles. Her senses were primed for danger. She had not forgotten the shock she had received from touching the purple frost from Smith’s crash landing. Vedeca was much, much larger. She imagined the shock from touching the ground near the ship would be much greater. Caution was necessary. She edged around the periphery of the crash site moving toward the enemy craft. She would check to see if their attackers posed any threat before moving on to Vedeca. It would not do to rush to Rashari’s aid only to be ambushed by whoever had attacked them in the first place.
There wasn’t much cover. The moor stretched out like a grassy blanket in a gentle sweep down toward the distant lights of Aramantine. Grass grew to thigh high and Fantel crouched, slinking through the sharp edged blades as quietly as she could. Darkness offered some camouflage, as did the the rocks sprouting from the ground like moss covered warts. The glowing trench cast its own light, but the black night fell like a shroud over the rest of the moor. Fantel navigated using Smith’s eyebeam. She was just edging around the port side of the enemy airship, an ugly pot-bellied craft with none of Vedeca’s streamlined grace, when the whoosh of hydraulics shocked her into utter stillness. On the other side of the craft the boarding door opened. Fantel heard coughing and the thump of feet hitting solid ground. The night breeze carried with it the hint of phantasma fumes and the raw, choking reek of burning oil. A man’s voice spat out a hoarse expletive in Bhuvanti. Fantel recognised the voice: Tomah. She twitched reflexively, and under her arm Smith thrummed with tension.
“What happened?” Tomah demanded. “What in the name of Mishman was that?”
“I don’t know.” Another man replied, sputtering around choked coughs. “The instruments – those readings -.I’ve never seen anything like that. The engines just stopped. I warned you! Every time we passed through those exhaust trails the instruments went haywire. It must be some Veridree trick – something to do with the exhaust gases.”
“Can you fix it?”
“It will take time. The aft thruster blew out on landing; we’re leaking fuel.”
“Then get to it.”
The sound of harried footsteps passed toward the back of the ship. A spill of oily rainbow light scraped over the grass behind the thrusters. Fantel crept backward until she could duck under one of the ship’s wings. She huddled close to the hull and shoved Smith down into the grass so that the light from its eyebeam was hidden. She held perfectly still under the wing as a man wearing a turban and swinging a phantasma lantern fussed around the back of the airship. He didn’t appear to see her.
“Eiran,” Tomah barked from the other side of the ship. Fantel heard another thump as yet another person jumped down from the ship.
“You’re with me. Bring the rifle and the chains.”
“Do you really think anyone survived that crash?”
“I think that the Dagoman ordered us to find the Veridree bastard and the Chimera and bring them to him. I’m going to fulfil my orders. It doesn’t matter to me if I bring them back dead or alive.”
“Of course brother,” Fantel heard something that might have been a fist striking against chainmail and then the tramp of retreating footsteps.
She waited until she couldn’t hear them anymore. Then she burst out from under the wing and dove straight for the oblivious pilot. She grabbed the man by the back of the neck, slamming him against the hull. The man yelped, dropping his lantern into the grass. Fantel smacked his head into the side of the hull, not hard enough to knock him unconscious but enough to stun him into silence. She could see the wet gleam of his too wide eye. She held his head immobile, face turned to the side so he could speak. She pinned him with her body. Meditatively she flexed her claws over the folds of his turban.
“How many crew members remain aboard?” She asked him in Bhuvanti, almost breathing the words into his ear.
“C-crew?” The pilot swallowed convulsively. “N-no one... it’s just me.”
“And the Dha-hali?” Fantel was aware of Smith out of the corner of her eye. The automaton was afloat once more and was rising steadily into the air toward the top of the ship. Fantel bit down on the urge to order Smith to return to hiding.
“J-just the two of them...they’ve gone to the other ship.” The pilot licked his lips, tip of his pink tongue darting out nervously. “Please don’t kill me. I had no choice. They made me open fire.”
Fantel ignored him. She was thinking. If Rashari had survived the crash he was most likely injured and therefore unlikely to be able to defend himself. If Fantel went after Tomah and his underling she would be fighting two on one. Fantel was a hunter by nature and occupation. She had survived in the human territories working as a wayfarer – a sellsword – but she had always preferred to pick battles where the odds favoured her. The odds this time were stacked against her. Tomah had said his orders were to bring her and Rashari to Einar. Tomah intended to fly back to Bhuvam using this ship. He would have to return once he found Rashari, no matter what condition he found him in. Fantel made her decision.
“You will do as I say,” she told the pilot. “Is that clear?”
“Y-yes, clear, perfectly clear; whatever you say.” Fantel shoved him around the ship to the entrance. Smith had disappeared. She could only hope he hadn’t gone too far. She paused briefly before boarding, looking toward Vedeca, but she could see nothing beyond the eerie glow of the trench.
The inside of the craft was not that dissimilar to Vedeca’s interior; the boarding door opened onto a narrow corridor bookended on either side by a door leading to the cargo hold and the engine room to the back, and the cockpit to the front. The metal walls of the airship were lined with red glowing phantasma conduits and, unlike Vedeca, an unpleasantly astringent stink of phantasma clung to the air. The pulsing light emanating from the walls gave the ship’s interior a dark, hostile feel. Fantel kept hold of the pilot as she looked from right to left, back toward the hold and then toward the cockpit. She could see that the main cabin of the ship was smaller even than Vedeca’s. There was barely room for a pilot and co-pilot and precious little space for Fantel to lay in wait to launch an ambush. Tomah would not bring Rashari to the main cabin. He’d need somewhere with more space to hold either live prisoners or corpses. Fantel shoved the pilot toward the back of the ship.
“Which door leads to the cargo hold?”
“T-this one,” The pilot reached out toward a sensor pad beside the right hand door. The sensor flashed blue-green, lighting up in a serpentine sigil Fantel did not recognise as the pilot pressed his palm against the anima reader. A second later there was a mechanised click and the door unlocked. Fantel kept a tight grip on the back of the man’s tunic as he pulled open the door. Fantel could just see the contours of a large hold, convex walls limned in red light. The hold had been sub-divided into a series of cages. Slave cages; underneath the reek of phantasma she could smell the ghost-hint of fear and human waste. Fantel curled her fingers into the skin of the pilot’s neck, nails just pricking his skin. The man whimpered as his skin broke.
“Please, don’t hurt me.”
She shoved him forward into the hold and wondered briefly how many of the people he had transported to slave auctions in these cages had begged of him the same thing. There was a space at the back of the hold, beyond the last cages that was open. A number of chains and manacles hung from heavy-duty hooks set into the back wall. What there was not, however, was any convenient packing crates or large pieces of machinery for Fantel to hide behind. She frowned. She had been hoping to lay in wait here. Now she saw that there was really no place to hide in this hold, nor could she take any of the chains or manacles on the wall without their absence being instantly noticeable.
She whipped the pilot around to face her, slamming his body against the bars of the nearest cage. She pinned him with one forearm against his windpipe and splayed the fingers of her free hand against his cheek, being sure to extend her claws to the fullest. “You will help me hide. If you do this I will not flay the skin from your bones with my bare hands.” To add piquancy to her threat she lightly stroked the ends of her claws over the delicate skin around his left eye socket.
“H-hide?” The pilot was ashen faced, skin clammy with fear sweat. Fantel was unmoved. Cowardice was not a defence, especially for a slaver.
“Yes,” Fantel paid no attention to the added sibilance to her tone. She could feel the deep baseline ache in her upper jaw as her gums pulled back from lengthening canines and incisors. Her lips stretched back into a wide, wolfish snarl without her conscious thought. The growing terror in the slaver’s eyes as he watched her features shift gratified her. Fantel had been born with sharp teeth and claws, and an innate knowledge of how to use them. She was a creature of the wilderness, of nature, and nature was neither sweet nor kind. She intended to educate Tomah on just how very unkind she could be, and she had no real qualms extending the lesson to this miserable human as well. “I need a place where the Dha-hali will not find me; a place they will not see me before I rend them limb from limb. Help me, and I will spare you their fate.” Sputum flecked his face as she spoke and the pilot flinched.
“Engine room,” the pilot choked out, unable to tear his gaze from the perfect curve of her canines, “It’s the next room over; they won’t go in there. I’ll let you in myself...and...I’ll do whatever you want just please...don’t kill me.”
Fantel could not smile with a mouth full of teeth designed to puncture and tear, but that was probably just as well. The bright, amber glow of vengeance in her eyes was more than fearsome enough.