“Bllloooop,” Smith returned to the ship, trumpeting a warning, just as the pilot let her into the engine room. Fantel shoved the pilot ahead of her into the oily, phantasma stinking room and waved Smith over. She pulled the door to the engine room almost closed, pressing her shoulder against the door to stop it from locking in place. She didn’t fully trust the pilot and had no desire to be locked inside this small, machinery packed room all alone.
She heard the sound of heavy footsteps and the scrap of dead weight being dragged through the grass outside. Beside her Smith quivered in the air at her shoulder; his violet eyebeam dimmed to a fraction of its usual brightness. All the same she waved the automaton away from the door as Tomah and the other Dha-hali dragged Rashari into the ship between them. The Dha-hali dropped his limp, bloodied body onto the steel plated floor without ceremony. Rashari struck hard and didn’t even flinch. The only proof he still lived was the slow rise and fall of his back and the soft rasp of his pained breathing.
“Azra? Where are you, you filthy mongrel?” Tomah whipped his head from left to right, looking down the corridor to the cockpit before his eyes fixed on the door to the engine room. Fantel sidled back as the nervy pilot twitched and stared at her with too wide eyes. Fantel jerked her head toward the corridor, reaching out to curl her hand around the pilot’s bobbing throat. She stared into his eyes, not daring to even whisper. Her message was emphatic; if the pilot did anything to warn Tomah she would slit his throat before he could blink.
“H-here...I...I will be right out,” the pilot – Azra – called out, voice quavering. “I was just....checking the engines.”
“Get out here man,” Tomah snarled, lip curling contemptuously. “Open this door.” He and the other Dha-hali reached down to haul Rashari up. Fantel caught a glimpse of his bloodied face as he was pulled up on his knees. Eiran wrenched his head back with a fist knotted tightly in his hair. His throat moved convulsively as his spine was pulled taut. His arms were pulled behind his back, where his hands were tied. A large wet patch had soaked the left side of his vest; the old gunshot wound had opened in the crash.
“I...” Azra stared in panic at Fantel. She thought fast. Rashari was hurt and bound, but he was alive. If Tomah intended to kill him he would have done so already. Both Dha-hali were armed. Tomah wore his curved sword on his belt as well as discreet blades tucked into his armguards. Fantel suspected he had a gun secreted away on his person somewhere. Eiran wore a bandolier festooned with thin throwing blades and necromantic rounds, and a ghost pistol rested snugly in a holster secured to his right thigh. Fantel still did not like her odds if she attacked now. Even if she managed to take one of the Dha-hali the other could easily kill Rashari before she could disarm them both.
She yanked Azra close and whispered in his ear. “Do as he says.” The pilot shivered and jerked away from her when she released his throat. Fantel sidled away from the open door. Azra shoved open the door and almost fell out into the corridor. Fantel waited until the heavy door had fallen all but closed before reaching out to slap her forearm against it, stopping the airtight lock from trapping her inside. She peered out of the tiny slither of a gap, barely able to see a thing.
“Ah,” Azra squeaked, panicked cheer evident in his cracking voice. “You found your man, then, yes?” The pilot grinned down at Rashari, wringing his shaking hands together.
Tomah sneered at him. “Shut up and open the door.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Right away,” Azra skirted around Rashari and Eiran, reaching out to press his palm to the sensor pad in the wall. His darting gaze kept flicking over to Fantel. She stiffened, gritting her teeth. Mercifully neither Tomah nor his compatriot seemed to notice. The door to the hold released with a soft hiss. “There we are,” Azra crowed, inordinately pleased with himself. “It’s open.”
“Hmpf,” Tomah shouldered Azra out of the way. “Bring him.” He threw back over his shoulder to Eiran. He walked into the hold.
“Get up,” Eiran wrenched on Rashari’s hair again. Rashari hissed and staggered to his feet. The Dha-hali released his head – Rashari was taller than him when standing – and pressed a knife to his throat. “Move.” Fantel was relieved to see that Rashari could walk under his own power, even if he was walking into a room full of cages. He stepped into the doorway, the Dha-hali pressed to his back, attention fixed on his captive.
Fantel seized the moment. Throwing open the door she leapt at Eiran’s back, hitting him dead on. She grabbed for the knife he held to Rashari’s throat as momentum carried all three of them back away from the hold doorway and down to the floor of the corridor. The Dha-hali landed on the bottom of the pile, one arm still hooked around Rashari’s throat. Fantel raked at his face with a fistful of claws. Eiran screamed throwing his arms up to protect his face. Wasting no time Fantel seized Rashari by the vest front and heaved, throwing him aside and out of the way before the Dha-hali could retaliate. A line of fire opened up along her shoulder, arcing over the ridge of her collarbone. She rolled to the side, but Eiran grabbed hold of her by her wounded shoulder and slammed her into the wall. Face a mask of blood Eiran reared up in front of her. Red light flashed over steel and Fantel twisted, wrenching her neck as far to the left as she could, spine arching as she wrestled free one arm to block the strike aimed for her throat. The blade scoured a path down her wrist and bit into the meat of her upper arm.
Eiran snarled, spittle gleaming between his teeth as he bore down. Her arm screamed, muscles locking, as she strained to keep his weight from crushing her. The Dha-hali reached for the pistol holstered at his hip. Fantel dropped her arm, the sudden movement upsetting his balance. He fell forward on top of her. She wrapped her hand around his throat and shoved her claws through the pulsing flesh of his neck. He convulsed as a near scalding rush of blood spilled over her hand. The air burned with the tang of copper. Fantel pushed her fingers deeper, through muscle and tissue. Eiran jerked like a landed fish. His body was heavy against her chest, his blood soaking the thin silk of her shift. Under her palm she felt his pulse stutter and fail. Lip curling in disgust she shoved him off her. Eiran flopped to the metal grated floor, eyes round and wide, mouth moving soundlessly, both hands clapped to his throat. The blood pulsing from between his fingers slowed and stopped pumping.
There was a loud click right behind Fantel’s ear and she felt the cold metal of a gun barrel press against her head, just below her left ear. “Don’t move Chimera.” Tomah rasped silkily. Fantel froze and met Rashari’s gaze across the narrow corridor. He was slumped against the far wall. Azra stood behind him brandishing a long metal tool with a very sharp edge. Fantel was not sure quite what the tool was but she had no doubt it was sharp enough to perforate the big artery in Rashari’s neck just as effectively as her claws had punctured Eiran’s.
Azra grinned. “You thought you could scare me, did you? We shall see how well you do in my cages.” He looked up at Tomah, eyes eager and avaricious. “You see? I tricked the Chimera. She thought that she could threaten me. But it was all a trick. I lured her into the ship – and right to you. The Dagoman will reward me for this, yes?” On the ground at his feet Eiran’s corpse went ignored.
“You bastard – she killed my brother.” Tomah grabbed the back of Fantel’s head, one large hand threading into her hair. He pulled the gun away, aimed over her head, and fired. Fantel flinched, eyes snapping closed reflexively as the ghost bullet tore free of the chamber in a dark flash. She felt a wave of cold lance, stinging her soul. Azra yowled in shock. Fantel’s eyes shot open. Rashari had thrown himself to the side the instant Tomah fired, getting clear of the path of the bullet. He sprawled on his side on the grated floor. Azra still stood above him, his face caught in a look of confusion, the dying edge of his smug smile still clinging to the corner of his mouth. A trickle of blood ran down the bridge of his nose, slinking to the right and chasing down his cheek. Azra collapsed in a heap. Spidery black lines spread out from the hole in his forehead like cracks forming in thin ice, stretching out under his skin and racing down his face. For just an instant his eyes flared with a dark, angry blue light, glowing in their sockets. Then his pupils filmed over, white and dead like a day old fish.
Rashari cursed, breaking the silence. He shoved the dead pilot’s body off him. There was another blue-black flash when he touched Azra. There and gone in an instant, but Fantel saw it. She saw Rashari’s body react, muscles jolting as if he’d received a mild shock. When he looked up Fantel thought she saw a flash of blue in his black eyes. There was a long moment of stillness, a handful of seconds teetering on the edge of calamity.
Rashari was the one to break it. “You do realise you just shot your own pilot?” Sickly sweat limned his papery-pale face, but he stared at Tomah with a look of perfect disdain.
“Silence,” Tomah grabbed Fantel by the hair and shoved the icy barrel of his gun to her temple, “or I shoot the Chimera.”
Rashari looked at him, a long, hard look. “No you won’t.”
“Bloop.” From the ceiling above their heads a swarm of miniature automatons exploded into the air aimed straight for Tomah’s head. He let go of Fantel and fired into the swarm. Fantel ducked and scrambled over Eiran’s body. The bullet passed through the swarm harmlessly, the ghost screaming in impudent fury as the bullet immediately lost power, drained by the swarm. The swarm closed ranks and whirled around Tomah’s head, pelting his face and upper body again and again, opening tiny cuts wherever they hit. Fantel gathered her legs underneath her and kicked. She hit Tomah in the gut. He staggered back and fell through the still open cargo hold door. He hit the ground and the gun sailed from his grip.
Fantel dove into the hold after him; the wave of tiny automaton’s swirling around her body like a cloak of fireflies. She threw herself at Tomah, teeth and claws flashing and slammed him against the bars of the nearest cage. Rearing her head back she drank in the sight of his wide eyed shock before sinking her teeth into the hot skin of his neck. Blood ignited on her tongue and she drew back. His blood scalded her chin as it spilled down her lips. She spat the blood into his face. She’d tear his throat out with her teeth and enjoy it.
“Wait!” Hands caught her shoulders and dragged her back. Fantel whipped around, face transfigured into a snarl of unadulterated rage, claws whipping up through the air to shred whoever dared interfere with her rightful kill.
“Whoa,” Rashari’s eyes widened and he danced back on his toes, letting go of her. “Hold on now. Stop. We need him alive.” He held his freed hands up. Smith hovered over his shoulder. A half dozen of the tiny automatons circled around Smith’s shell like satellite moons orbiting a parent planet. Fantel froze, morbidly aware of the hot blood congealing on her chin and the tatters of flesh caught between her sharpened canines.
“We need him alive.” Rashari repeated voice calm and steady. “The Aramite patrol is coming. If we kill him too they’ll never believe we’re the victims here.”
Fantel looked down at the blood soaking the front of her shift, coating her hands up to the wrists like black tar and causing the ends of her hair to stick to her cheeks. She looked over at Tomah, who was slumped on the ground, back propped up against the bars of the cage. He kept one hand clamped to the bite mark in his throat, blood flowing steadily through his fingers. There were pock-marked burns all over his face, arms, and shoulders. She looked askance at Rashari.
He winced. “It might help our cause if you washed some of the blood off before the patrol arrives.” He admitted. “There are spare clothes on Vedeca. Smith will show you.”
“What about you?” Now that the rush of adrenaline and blood lust had faded Fantel felt more herself again. She cast a sceptical eye over Rashari. He was still slick with sweat. His dark hair was matted to his head. His clothes were almost as bloody as hers, and in his case the blood was his own. He was also listing slightly on his feet. She didn’t know how he’d managed to free himself from the manacles binding his wrists but whatever second wind had given him the strength to pull her off Tomah was clearly ebbing now. He looked like a stiff breeze would flatten him.
“I think I’ll keep the blood,” he crooked his lips wryly glancing down at himself and then over at Tomah. “Balances out the carnage, don’t you think? The patrol is more likely to believe we got the better of our attackers if one of us looks a little the worse for wear. Besides,” He raised his left hand, which shook noticeably, and looked blankly down into his palm. Fantel saw that the stone set into his skin had changed colour once again, and now throbbed with a pale, almost translucent green glow. “I need to set things up here before the patrol arrives.”
“Set things up?” Instantly suspicious, Fantel frowned.
“Mhmm,” Rashari nodded vaguely, barely paying her any mind. “Watch our friend here for a second would you…I’m just going to…” He trailed off limping past her toward the outer corridor. Smith trailed conscientiously behind him. Fantel dearly wanted to follow and find out what he was up to – but she didn’t dare leave Tomah unattended. She scowled down at the man, extending her claws once more. Tomah glared up at her, defiant in his impotence, face ashen from encroaching blood loss. The wound she had inflicted to his neck wasn’t fatal, but it was nasty. She hoped it hurt.
Rashari shuffled back through the doorway gripping his abandoned shackles in one hand. “I suppose it would be too much to hope that the cage is unlocked?” He asked, more or less rhetorically, crouching down - almost over-balancing in the process – in front of Tomah. He frowned. “Don’t try anything or I’ll let Madame Chimera finish the job she started on your neck.” Tomah sneered but said nothing as Rashari opened the shackles.
Fantel ignored the pair of them, refusing to think about the rusty tang of blood still thick on her tongue as she tried the door of the cage. It did not budge. “The pilot might have the key.” She suggested half turned toward the corridor where Azra’s body lay cooling.
“Don’t bother,” Rashari sighed, locking one shackle in place around Tomah’s wrist before looping the coil of chain through two of the cage bars. He locked the second shackle around Tomah’s other wrist, chaining Tomah to the outside of the cage. He then proceeded to swiftly and efficiently relieve Tomah of all his weapons. He tossed them aside disinterestedly and rose to his feet, staggering a little in the process. Fantel watched him swallow hard, his sallow face taking on a greenish tinge.
“Bloop,” Smith buzzed close and Fantel saw that the reticulated arm had extended from the underside of his rounded shell. Smith held Tomah’s gun pinched between his pincers. Rashari snatched the gun away and immediately emptied the chamber, popping out round after necromantic round into his trembling left hand. He clenched his fist tightly around each bullet, so tightly in fact that his bloodied knuckles were white with tension, and then tossed each bullet aside. Fantel saw his eyelids flutter close. Some of the tension left his face. He sucked in a deep breath, held it and then opened his eyes once more.
“Right then, no time to waste,” Abruptly he was more a alert and focussed, even his voice sounded stronger. “Smith –show Madame Chimera back to Vedeca while I finish up in here. Oh and dig out Lourand Rousseau’s paperwork would you? I think he’s the right man to get us out of this mess.”
“Bloop.” Smith bobbed in mid air, zipped over to Fantel and carefully, delicately, closed his pincers around a pinch of tattered silk at her shoulder before tugging her toward the hold doorway. Fantel looked back at Rashari with no little exasperation; a look that was lost on him as he had already turned around to sneer at Tomah.