The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Disturbing occurrences inside an airship

Vedeca was still more or less in one piece. Fantel peered suspiciously up at the bulk of the ship as she picked her way over the still faintly glowing ground. The ship was deeply buried in the trench it had torn in the ground. The hull was in tact, with no obvious tears or dents. The wings were similarly undamaged, the ends just touching the outer edges of the trench walls on either side. She couldn’t see the state of the phantasma coil engines, which were attached to the undercarriage, but had they ruptured the entire ship would have exploded on impact. If she hadn’t seen it fall out of the sky Fantel might almost believe Rashari had meant to land the ship on this moor.

“Bloop,” Smith urged her forward. Fantel saw that the boarding door had been partially forced open; there was just enough space for her to slide in sideways. Fantel reached out to haul open the door so she could climb aboard. The moment she touched the ship a she felt a jolt like a static charge. It stung all the way up to her elbow.

Wrenching her hand away Fantel slipped in the mud and landed on her rump in the trench. The shock of contact with the fading crystals at the bottom of the trench was nothing in comparison to the shock Vedeca had given her. The ship was in pain. Fantel had felt it. She could feel the ship’s pain as clearly as she could feel the hot ache in her shoulder or the bruises blossoming over her ribs and back. No machine should feel pain like this.

“Alive,” she whispered. “The ship is alive.” Helplessly she turned to Smith.

“Bloop,” Smith replied. Fantel remembered the winged scorpion she had seen when Vedeca hit the ground.

“Smith?” Fantel reached out a hand to touch the pitted surface of its – his? – outer shell. Smith thrummed with power, a gentle hum that tickled her palm. She had not noticed it before now how Smith quivered with magic, or rather she had, but had dismissed the significance. Smith was alive with a subtle echo of the same power flowing free of Vedeca even now. It was not natural that constructs of metal and wire should think and feel, yet Fantel could feel nothing malignant about Vedeca’s pain or Smith’s attentiveness. Whatever strange power gave Smith and Vedeca their animation, it was not phantasma.

“What are you doing?”

Fantel leapt up. Rashari slid down into the trench beside her, the space barely able to fit them both. He held a sack in his right hand and his expression was tense and pinched.

“The ship is in pain.” Fantel told him.

He blinked, startled. “You can feel that?”

Fantel stared at him. “Who are you, truly? You pilot a ship with a soul and your automaton is alive. When Vedeca fell I saw a winged scorpion, a creature of magic, protect the ship from harm.” To Fantel it looked as Rashari had stopped breathing, he was so deathly still. “There is but one power that could do such a thing,” she said, “a seraph.”

Silence for a beat of several heartbeats. Fantel could smell blood and sweat and fear rising from Rashari. “What are you?” She asked him, not quite an accusation. He was not human, she thought. Whatever he was he could not be entirely human. There were too many strange things about him. He had survived a necromantic bullet to the shoulder. He knew secrets no one else knew. He flew a magic ship and his robot helpmeet was far more than just a clever machine.

Rashari smiled then, a cold twist of lips. “I am...a long and complicated story, Madame Chimera.” He turned to look over his shoulder at the sky. Distantly Fantel heard the drone of an approaching airship. “One we don’t have time for right now.”

“You will explain,” Fantel told him, very much not a request, but for now she relented and climbed aboard the ship.

There was very little light inside, the glow in the walls had dimmed to a dull throb of dark, dark purple, pulsing intermittently. Smith’s eyebeam illuminated an open doorway – one of only two sleeping cabins aboard Vedeca. Smith seemed to be waiting for her just outside the cabin. Rashari slipped into the engine room without meeting her eyes.

“Bloop,” Smith attracted her attention. He had floated into the small cabin and the light from his eyebeam revealed a flat bunk bolted to the wall, a small basin adjacent and a built-in wardrobe set into the wall opposite the bunk. The lingering scent of pipe smoke and old leather hung in the air. When she crossed to open the wardrobe she found an array of men’s frock coats, hand-darned shirts, sturdy trousers, and thermal longjohns folded neatly inside purpose built cubbyholes. The size and cut of the clothes did not match Rashari’s build. Pulling out a pair of brown suede trousers, thick yet supple, and a long, well worn cotton shirt, greying and frayed at the edges, the underarms ingrained with yellowed sweat marks, Fantel realised that this must have been Remus’ cabin. She put the shirt back in the wardrobe, sifting through the piles until she found a white shirt with a wide neck that, at the very least, smelled clean. A pair of travelling boots, the soles thick and the leather hardy, sat at the bottom of the wardrobe. Fantel retrieved them and a heavy, waxed travelling coat and stripped off the blood soaked shift. When she had finished dressing she crossed to the mirror set over the sink.

In the light from Smith’s eyebeam Fantel gained her first glimpse of her own reflection. Most of her face was a mask of blood, black as pitch in the eerie violet light. Her eyes were blown wide and her canines were still lengthened. Her hair, cobweb fine, had contrived to stir itself into a writhing mass framing her skull, except for the pieces that had become plastered to her cheeks and jaw with blood. Shame, electric and total, seared through her veins. A Chimera without the Echo of the Mother was little better than a beast after time, that is what she had always been told by those who had sought to keep her from wandering far from Aashorum. She certainly looked the part, but she did not feel like a monster; even as she had torn into Tomah she had felt her ferocity justified. Tomah would not have hesitated to kill her – and Rashari –killing him quickly was only sensible to protect them both. Her teeth and her claws were her best weapons and so she had used them to their fullest. But maybe that was the point; maybe she was a monster and just did not know it.

Fantel shook her head, annoyed at her self. Now was not the time for such thoughts. She had two cuts on her arms. One long slice beginning just above her right wrist and ending at her elbow and another, small puncture in the meat of her upper arm. The longer slice along the inside of her forearm was relatively shallow, and had missed the vein. It stung, as clean cuts always did, but would heal well enough. The wound to her upper arm was deeper, closer to a stab than a cut. It oozed sluggishly. She pressed the flesh around the wound with her fingers and felt an answering jolt deep inside. She found one of Remus’ old shirts and tore it into strips to bind her wounds. She was still tending her wounds when a booming voice rang out from somewhere outside the ship.

“This is the Aramantine Air Patrol,” a loud male voice called, the flat vows of the standard Imperial tongue distorted by loudspeaker, “Is there anyone aboard?”

‘Bl – up,” Smith quivered and zipped toward the outer corridor. Fantel hastily finished wrapping her arm and threw on the heavy coat. She hurried out of the cabin, feet weighed down by the dead man’s boots she wore. Rainbow lantern light flickered around the edges of the boarding door. The patrol was right outside. A moment later a head appeared around the propped open door.

“Gods above,” a young man with a head of golden curls blinked in surprise when he saw her in the corridor. His head ducked away again. “Lieutenant – there’s a survivor!” She heard the clamour as the youth scrambled back up the trench, calling for the rest of the patrol. Fantel hurried down the corridor toward the cockpit.

Rashari was slumped over in the pilot’s chair, cheek resting against the unlit control console. His left arm was crooked at an awkward angle, elbow jutting upright and forearm imprisoned in the technomantic interface. His eyes were closed, lips slightly parted and cheeks scorched red with fever. The hoarse rattle of his breathing filled the silent cabin, and the only illumination came from the interface; every node burned with a dark and angry blue fire. The empty sack lay discarded on the co-pilot’s seat. When Fantel stepped forward the toe of her ‘borrowed’ boot connected with the hilt a necromantic dagger lying on the floor. She spotted a scattering of bullets and a discarded pistol lying under the console.

Fantel hesitated, eyes rooted upon Rashari’s back. He breathed as if he’d been running. There was a strange chill in the air, emanating from the cockpit. The closer Fantel stepped the colder she became. The chill seemed to reach out to her, wrapping her in tendrils of clinging cold. She sensed the presence of phantasma – or at the very least the aching presence of death. She stared at the interface. Icy blue light traced each filament and set the glassy nodes afire. As she watched the control console began to light up, gauges and dials coming back to flickering life. She heard the engines sigh as a breath of power shuddered through the downed craft, in contrast to the sharp spasm of pain that crossed Rashari’s face. The lights came on again throughout Vedeca, wavering and dim, but Rashari didn’t lift his head. Fantel inched closer and crouched down on Rashari’s right side, wedging herself between the curved wall and his chair, as far from the interface as she could get. She reached out, tentatively, to shake his shoulder.

“Air Patrol – don’t move.” A human man appeared in the doorway to the main cabin. He held a small, high powered phantasma torch in one hand and a pistol in the other. He wore a large bulky canvas satchel across his body and his face was shadowed, the light from his torch blinding. Fantel grasped Rashari’s shoulder to pull his body a little closer to her.

“You there,” the patrolman swung his torch so that the beam fell on her, searing her eyes. “Who are you? What happened here?” Fantel hissed, turning her face from the painful iridescent light. Her muscles quivered with the urge to dash across the cabin and strike the torch out of his hand. Rashari remained insensate. She didn’t know what he’d done to restore power to Vedeca – at least she didn’t want to acknowledge the suspicion bubbling in her mind – but whatever it was it had taken the very last of his strength to do it.

“Lieutenant!” The young man Fantel had seen before, briefly, appeared in the doorway behind the patrolman. Fantel could just make out the glimmer of his curls around the dazzling phantasma glow. “We found another survivor in the other ship. He was chained up in the holding bay – and guess what? It’s a slaver ship! It had cages and everything. Marda says the man we found is one of them Dha-hali – a Raider. And! He keeps ranting about a Chimera. Can you believe it?”

Dane,” The patrolman hissed at the younger man. The youth came to an abrupt halt, words dying on his tongue when he saw her; he sucked in a harsh breath, eyes very wide, he almost choked on a mouthful of spit.

“Wow.”

Dane,” The senior patrol repeated, evident warning in his tone as he thrust the torch into the youth’s hand and pushed the pistol back into the holster hanging from his belt. He took a careful step forward, “You there – Chimera – get away from that man.”

Fantel did the opposite. She seized hold of Rashari and dragged him sideways into her arms. He was heavy and ungainly as only deadweight can be, and his head lolled so that the crown of his skull came to rest in the natural curve of her neck and shoulder. Fantel bared her teeth at the two men, putting her arms around Rashari to keep him in place. Even through his clothes she could feel that his flesh was unnaturally cold, at odds with the rapid beating of his heart and the quick rasp of his breathing. His vest was wet with his blood and he seemed coldest on the side of his wounded shoulder. His left arm stretched awkwardly across the console, his hand and forearm still captured by the interface, which at the very least, had stopped glowing and filling the cabin with the cold light of death.

Her reaction seemed to give the patrolman pause. He stopped and considered her for a long moment. His stance shifted from hostile wariness to something a little more conciliatory. He held up his hands, palm outward. “I’m a trained healer.” he said in a tone so forcibly reasonable it grated on her nerves. “I can help your friend.” He took two steps forward and Fantel could finally see his face clearly. He had a strong boned, honest face, a thick pencil straight moustache and heavy, bushy sideburns. Intelligent eyes flicked from Fantel and over Rashari’s prone form. “I’m here to help.” He repeated carefully. “I’m going to take a look at your friend. He’s hurt and I can help him. But you need to let go. Do you understand me?”

Fantel sneered, lip curling in disdain but she grudgingly unwound her arms from around Rashari as the patrolman knelt on the other side of the pilot’s chair and reached up to pull open Rashari’s vest. Fantel watched him suspiciously. Rashari’s head was still nestled against her shoulder. The patrolman pulled away the blood-stiffened cloth and the soaked bandages covering the bullet wound. His eyes widened when he saw the wound and he sucked in a sharp breath. The puckered gash was bleeding freely but the truly alarming sight was the discoloured flesh all around the wound. Rashari’s chest was streaked with black lines, marbling the surface of his skin, tracing outward from the wound like the rays of a black-hearted sun. Fantel could barely believe her eyes. There had been no trace of necromantic poison in his veins at the Firefly Inn.

“Necromancy,” The patrol man hissed echoing her own fears, “Pit damn it.” He stripped off his leather gloves, reaching out to check the pulse point at Rashari’s neck. “It can’t be a bullet - he’d be dead by now. Doesn’t look like a knife wound.” The patrolman glared almost accusingly at Fantel, who scowled wordlessly back at him. Her silence wasn’t defiance or even strategy. She simply didn’t know what to tell him. She had heard of wounds from necromantic blades causing lingering death, as the ghost poison spread slowly through the body, but she had never heard of a ghost bullet causing a delayed reaction like this – and Rashari had been completely fine before the crash.

“Dane,” the patrolman snapped, sharp and commanding, “tell Marda we’ve got two other survivors, one with necro wounds – get her to contact command. We’ll need to tow both these vessels back to base. And she needs to let Arundel know. I have a feeling he’s going to want to have a look at these ships – and talk with the survivors.” He pursed his lips tightly. “Assuming any of them will talk,” he added darkly eyeing Fantel even as he pulled a small, delicate looking scalpel from his satchel and ran the blade across his palm.

“R-right,” The youth – Dane – stammered and twisted on his heels, all ungainly enthusiasm and too much haste, dashing off to fulfil his orders. The elder patrolman paid the junior officer no mind. His eyes were closed and he held his cut palm up, the blood welling to the surface. Fantel felt the swell of anima – life energy – stir within the patrolman. He was tapping into his own life-force, using the cut in his palm as a focus for the rejuvenating power within his body. Fantel leaned forward, curious despite herself. Humans, cut off from the greater sources of anima and divorced from a close connection to Mother Aldlis, could only heal through pain. It was dangerous and potentially fatal for the healer, yet many humans had overcome their limitations to wield their life energies to extraordinary effect. Cut off from her own magic Fantel was almost envious as she watched the patrolman rest his uninjured hand against Rashari’s wounded chest, eyes still closed, his expression caught in a mask of quiet concentration.

The patrolman hissed and his expression morphed into a rictus grimace of horror as the pulsing dark pull of ghost poison spread from Rashari’s flesh up into the patrol’s hand and arm, spreading like ink through water. Eyes wide and afraid, the patrolman’s mouth opened in a silent ‘o’ of shock. There was a flash of intense cold and the patrolman cried out, trying to rip his hand free, but unable to.

A wave of power like nothing Fantel had ever experienced before seemed to rise from Rashari. Cold and sucking like a tornado trapped in a bottle it clawed at the air, dragged at the warmth of her breath, dug invisible, intangible, claws into her soul and pulled at the life energy inside her core. Fantel’s vision blurred to grey. She felt something huge and listless stir deep inside Rashari’s body– something beyond hunger, beyond cold. Something without form or dimension, an aching void that longed to fill the world. There was a hole where his soul should be. In that deep and sacred place Rashari had only a hungry, bitter emptiness; an emptiness that threatened to swallow her down into its depths. Fantel slumped, falling forward against Rashari, the freezing chill of his skin holding her like a magnet. Rashari’s eyes snapped open and he surged upright.

“…No! Gods no…get away from me!”

His movement broke the spell. He pulled free of her hold and Fantel fell forward against the chair arm. Rashari struck out with one arm, knocking the patrolman back. The man fell to the floor, gasping like a landed fish.


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