Wherein things fail to improve
Fantel dreamed. She dreamed of a world of verdant shadow, phosphor glowing moss, and ancient trees with gnarled black trunks as wide as siege engines. She dreamed of silence that pulsed as loudly as the beating heart of Aldlis. In the dream Fantel was not alone; she did not wander blindly from one calamity to another, but instead walked steadily and assuredly along a path that untold generations of Chimeri had walked before her. Above her head the canopy was so thick the sky could not look in. This was a place of perpetual twilight, the moon glow of the phosphorous moss the only light available. The thick, dark, silky scent of decay filled her nostrils and her feet made no noise as she passed over a springy bed of decomposing leaves and tangled roots. This place was called Aashorum, but Fantel would always know the dense jungle simply as home. Even dreaming the Great Pulse thrummed through her body, echoing in her mind until all thoughts of her own were shaken loose and driven from her mind. She was Chimera. She did not need to think for herself. She was one of many echoes descending from the Great Pulse of Aldlis. She was an empty echo – and she was happy.
“Lady?” Someone shook her, and the Great Pulse grew dim in her ears, the booming echo fading from her mind. “Lady, please. Wake up.”
Fantel’s eyes snapped open. There was a young human girl, perhaps fourteen years of age, crouched beside her; the girl was shaking her by the shoulders. She gasped and jerked her hands away when she saw that Fantel was once more awake.
“Thank Cirroc,” the girl breathed, not irreverently, her large hazel eyes huge with relief. Fantel sat up on the small cot bed and swung her legs over the side. The girl crouched by the cot, watching her. “I thought that ropehead bastard had really hurt you. You were asleep for so long and none of us could wake you.”
Fantel ignored the girl and looked around. She was no longer on the Bhuvanti sky barge. Instead she was in a large room, empty of furnishing or adornment. The walls were solid stone, scratched with tally marks. There were no windows and Fantel could tell they were underground. The air tasted flat and dead; stale like only the air of a cellar or enclosed prison could be. At the front of the room was a solid wall of bars and beyond that a nondescript corridor leading to a door. She and the girl were not the only occupants; at least half the women from the cargo hold sat around on narrow cots or pallet beds scattered around the cell. They were cleaner now than the last time she had seen them. The empty look of dread in their eyes remained unchanged, however. None of the children were present. Fantel did not wish to know what had become of them.
“How long have I slept?” She asked and looked down at her body. Someone had changed her clothes while she slept. She now wore a simple shift of lavender dyed cotton with an elaborate high collar studied with seed pearls and rosy quartz set with delicate gold thread. She was also clean, her skin now a more natural golden hue. She looked again at the other women in the cell; although not as finely attired as she was, they too had been dressed with a mind toward presentation. The auction must be soon.
“I…I don’t know,” the human girl stammered. She had a noticeable Tabrian accent, which wrapped uncomfortably around the Standard Imperial language she had chosen to use. “Hours maybe, or days. I don’t know. It seems like forever.” The girl was a nervous mess, twitching from foot to foot and wringing her hands hard enough to leave red marks. Her eyes were huge, wide and filled with panic, like a flogged horse. “They took Masome and the children.” She babbled. “They took ‘em in little groups, two or three at a time, and none of them came back. Little Raleigh was just six. What kind of monster would do that to a little girl?”
“The human kind,” Fantel murmured, disinterested. She felt a little sluggish after her drugging and the girl’s panic grated on her nerves. This child would gain no insight from her when it came to the whys and wherefores of human cruelty.
Carefully she rose to her feet, amid a smattering of murmurs and gasps from the other captive women. Fantel ignored them as well. She knew that her appearance was striking, even weak and unarmed as she was. She was over six feet tall, her body all limber angles and lithe limbs, her legs long and shapely, her hands deceptively delicate –assuming one ignored the claws. Her face was in some ways too angular to be considered beautiful by human standards – or so she had learned – and her features were small but knife sharp. The irises of her eyes were a tawny gold colour set against black sclera, another mark to distinguish her from human. Yet despite her strangeness she had discovered that humans harboured a peculiar fascination with her appearance. Had she ever had a mind to make herself a possession she could have lived very well off the desires of human men.
The cell was large, but twenty people took up a surprising amount of room. Fantel had little space to work out the kinks in her muscles and the nervous eyes that followed her around the cell grew tiresome. The other women flinched if she came too close. She stopped inches away from the bars at the front of the cell. There was no one in the corridor. The walls were made of thick grey stone. The phantasma lighting set into the ceiling cast wavering red, gold and blue reflections across the wall. The light moved constantly over the cold grey surface, like it was alive – or wanted to be. There was a steel door set into the wall at the far end of the corridor; the steel was scuffed, dented in places. Set into the wall beside the door a lock-pad glowed indomitable red, mocking her. She reached for the bars, meaning to test the strength of the iron, but jerked her hand back as if stung. An unnatural chill rose from the metal. It made her back molars throb and her flesh creep. There was phantasma in the bars.
“Technomancy,” she murmured. “They keep us caged with ghost iron, do they?” Touching the bars could be fatal. There was no way of knowing what nasty perversion of magic some clever human technomancer had worked into the iron. Her fingers twitched in annoyance. She had always disliked technomancy more than any other form of human animancy. It was unnatural to force magic into inanimate objects. It was worse by far to power that magic with phantasma. Something only humans, lacking the ability to hear the Pulse of Aldlis, would be foolhardy enough to do. Turning away from the bars in disgust Fantel almost walked into the Tabrian girl.
“Will you help us?” The girl asked her in a rush, the look in her eyes one of hope and desperation. Fantel loathed that look.
“Yes,” She nodded eager like a puppy. “I saw what you did back on the skyship. That ropehead would’ve killed Riswani if you hadn’t stopped him. You’re strong. You can help us escape.”
Fantel shook her head, too jaded to pity the child her naivety. “I cannot help you.”
“But –I saw you,” the girl stammered cheeks staining with a hint of anger. “I saw your hand. You’re not like us. You’re…different. You can fight them.” The girl’s words were less than convincing, but desperation didn’t need logic.
Fantel sighed. “Beasts of burden have claws, horns, and strength to dwarf a man, yet even the poorest of human farmers can break a beast to labour.” She raised her left hand in the air for all to see. Once more her flesh tingled pleasantly as she shifted the form of her hand, letting her fingers lengthen into claws. “Do you believe I have strength enough to tear through stone and steel? Do you believe that my claws mean that I cannot still bleed the same as you should the Dha-hali strike me dead.” She dropped her hand, fingers twitching as her claws retracted. “There is nothing I can do for you. If you wish to survive then learn to live in servitude, and hope that your future master is not given to needless cruelty.”
The girl gaped, mouth opening and closing wordlessly for several heartbeats. “But they’re going to make us slaves. How can you just stand there and do nothing? What about you?” She demanded. “Are you just going to let those ropehead bastards sell you like a piece of meat?”
Fantel looked from the girl to the huddled group of silent women around her. She met several sets of angry, bitter eyes, but none had the courage to confront her directly. Many could not even meet her eyes. Fantel turned back to the girl-child. The girl’s courage deserved some recognition at least. “What is your name?”
“What?” The girl twisted her fingers in and out of a tight, knuckle whitening lattice. Her nails left red marks on the backs of her hands.
“Your name,” Fantel repeated coolly. “What is it?”
“Tamaki,” the girl whispered voice cracking. “Tamaki Innis. I – my father owns the Firefly Tavern in Remenes. Please,” her fingers broke apart and she shoved her light brown hair behind one ear, “I have a family. I have a home. My mother is sick. I begged one of the caravan masters to let me travel with him to Danitz. There’s a healer there – a magic healer. I was going to sell my Birthstone pendant to pay him to help mama.” A single fat tear slid down her cheek. “We were going through the Cerri Pass. Raiders came…We were in the mountains; there was nowhere to run. They killed the traders, stole their wares – I thought for sure they’d kill me too.” Tamaki shut her eyes tightly, refusing to cry. “I wish they had killed me.” She whispered. Fantel watched her breathe, in and out in quick succession. Her story was nothing new; a tale told over and over throughout Aldlis every day. Raiders had been kidnapping people to sell at slave markets across the Tabrian peninsula for months.
“You speak of death without knowing it; you are a child.” She said.
Tamaki twitched like a whipped colt. “What do you know?” She yelled. “You won’t help us. You won’t do anything. You’re useless.” Fists clenched tightly at her sides the girl continued to rail at Fantel. “I know what happens to girls taken by the Dha-hali. I don’t want that to happen to me. I’ll die before I let them touch me.”
“Yes,” one of the other women spoke up, she had a long pinched face, red rimmed eyes and the rough diction of a low born Adran. Hot scalding bitterness splintered her voice until each syllable stabbed at Fantel’s ears like hot pokers. “You ain’t like us,” she said. “The Dagoman – the ropehead chief –has a thing for you. You’ll fetch a good price, be bought by some fat lordling. Keep you in a gilded cage, he will, like a fat pampered pet. But us? Ha! We’ll be sold to brothels, or else made to work in the Bhuvam mines. I’ve seen what happens to them what work in the mines.” The woman shook her head and spat on the floor. “The little chit is right; sooner my throat be slit than end up in one of them mines.”
The other women took up the chorus, each speaking over the other as they begged her for either a swift, permanent solution to their predicament or a miraculous escape from a fate they all seemed to believe was worse than death.
“Please...I’m an old woman...what do you think they’ll do with me?”
“....I have a husband...a baby...”
“I’d sooner die than spread my legs in some ropehead brothel...
“...They say phantasma poisoning steals yer soul and turns yer into a ghoul...”
”...I heard ropeheads stick razorblades under the skin of their dicks....that’s why they have to steal women, because they rip up their own whores too quick...”
“....My father has money... if you help me escape I’ll ensure you are richly rewarded...”
The women reached for her, grasping hands and beseeching eyes closing in from all sides. Fantel took a step back toward the phantasma worked bars before she could stop herself. She raised her hands, claws breaking through flesh.
Bzzzzt behind her back the lock pad set against the wall flashed from red to green, and the steel door at the end of the corridor opened with a mechanised sigh. The women shrieked and fled to the back of the cell leaving Fantel alone to face this new threat. Two Dha-hali men walked toward the cell. The one in the lead had rich brown skin and ropey muscles, his long green braids seeded with pearls. He carried a mass of manacles cradled to his chest. Anima tattoos curled around his brow and cheekbones, framing his eyes. They rippled purple-black as he stepped upto the bars. His partner was younger, a mere youth with unmarked face denoting his lack of status among the Dha-hali. His brown braids were short and clustered around his head. He too carried manacles.
“No…” Tamaki whispered, shaking her head back and forth. “No, no, no. Please, please don’t let them take me.” She pressed into the wall, cowering into the far corner with the rest of the women.
“Chimera,” The green-haired Dha-hali barked. “The Dagoman will be pleased to see you awake.” He nodded to the younger man, jerking his chin toward a spot on the outer wall next to the cells bars.
Fantel could not tell what the youth did but a second later there was another soft mechanised sigh and a loud click echoed through the cell. Fantel shifted her weight, balancing evenly on the balls of her feet and spread her fingers, claws extending. She might not be foolhardy enough to believe she could save the rest of the slaves but that did not mean she wouldn’t fight to escape if the chance arose. The green-haired Dha-hali dropped his pile of manacles to the floor and reached to his hip, unholstering a handgun. The handgun was matte black and seemed to gleam wetly under the rainbow glow of the phantasma lights. The Dha-hali made a show of aiming the gun directly at Fantel’s head, his finger curled over the trigger. Fantel had little interest in guns, but she knew well enough that the round fired would make an ugly mess of her head. Fantel held still. The wall of bars shuddered, symbols etched into the metal glowing angry red, like the coals at the bottom of a grate, and a wash of cold air rushed through the cell. Fantel gritted her teeth as the dispersing phantasma throbbed through her veins. The younger Dha-hali grabbed hold of the now harmless iron bars and started to pull them back. Hinges squealed as the wall of bars retracted into a recessed slit in the wall.
“Back against the wall with the others Chimera,” The green haired Dha-hali ordered keeping his gun pointed steadily at her face. “I will not hesitate to kill you if you resist.” Fantel stared past the muzzel of the gun and up into his eyes – she did not doubt him for a moment. The Dha-hali’s eyes were flat and hard, empty of any discernible emotion. She weighed up her options. She was fast; she might be fast enough to dodge even from this range. She might be able to reach him before he could fire again. She could slit his throat with her claws and take the gun before the callow youth had time to react. But she could not disable the lock on the cellblock door. She and the women would still be trapped. She could lay in wait for the next set of guards; maybe she could kill them too. Perhaps the human women would help her, but it would be for naught in the end. She had no way of knowing how many Dha-Hali there were. She did not even know where she was. Her own life might be without meaning. She may be an exile without a people, cut adrift amid a race not her own, but Fantel had no desire to die needlessly. She stepped back against the wall, folding her arms demurely over her stomach.
“Wise,” The green haired man nodded. “You are dangerous Chimera; but you are alone. You cannot win against us.” Once more he nodded to his younger compatriot to pick up his pile of manacles and enter the cell. The young Dha-hali looked from his superior to Fantel and swallowed audibly. He did not move.
“Go.” The green-haired Dha-hali barked in his native tongue and the tattoos around his eyes darkened like a fresh bruise. The youth jumped and stammered something in Bhuvanti Fantel could not catch. He swept up an armful of manacles and cautiously entered the cell. There was too much white showing in his eyes as he approached Fantel. He held up a set of open manacles. “Put out your hands, woman.” He said in the Standard Imperial tongue. His voice cracked around the failed attempt to sound authoritative. Fantel shifted her weight from one hip to the other, kept her arms crossed, and said nothing.
The green-haired Dha-hali murmured, low and soft, the threat carrying perfectly from the other side of the cell. Fantel felt her lips quiver in a sneer. Uncrossing her arms, she presented the sweating youth with her wrists, fingers curled into loose fists, hiding away her claws. The youth darted forward and snapped the manacles closed around her wrists with fumbling fingers. He almost dropped the pile of manacles when he crouched to shackle her feet together. The green-haired Dha-hali swore at him and the boy flinched, too terrified to look at Fantel as he rose jerkily to his feet and darted away from her.
“Good.” The green-haired Dha-hali nodded never taking his eyes from Fantel. “Now stand against the far wall and do not move.” He flicked his eyes to the wall adjacent to the open front of the cell, opposite to where the other women huddled together. Fantel met Tamaki’s eyes for one brief instant before she turned and strode across the cell to do as bid. The Dha-hali youth advanced on the women, gaining in confidence as he swiftly shackled them. In short order they were all chained. The youth scampered out of the cell and back to his superior, who all but rolled his eyes before pointing at Fantel with the gun. “Chimera, you come with me. Iqbal, watch the rest of these wretches.”
Fantel did not move. She leant against the wall. Her shackles were cold and heavy around her wrists. They pinched her ankles. She and the green haired Dha-hali stared at each other. She had told Tamaki to accept her fate but Fantel had never been very good at living up to her own advice. Fighting was futile when escape was impossible, but that did not mean she would go meekly into slavery. The green haired Dha-hali narrowed his eyes, lips thinning into a tight unhappy line. He still had his gun and she was shackled; there was no contest who would win if she attacked now, yet logic did not matter. She had always been proud; it was pride in a way that had led to her disgrace and exile from Aashorum, and it was pride now that told her to fight even if death would be her only reward. The caged beast, it was said, was always the most dangerous. She hoped for the chance to prove this. The Dha-hali’s finger caressed the trigger, thoughtful, considering. Fantel shifted her weight, pushing away from the wall, almost daring him to shoot. The man smiled; a flash of recognition lighting in his shadowed eyes – the challenge of one warrior to another – and then he turned, extended his arm, and pointed the gun straight at Tamaki. The women cried out. Tamaki froze like a hare in the hunter’s sights. The blood drained from Fantel’s head so fast she felt cold all over.
The Dha-hali smiled. “You are brave Chimera, and you are rare. You are to be the Dagoman’s last and greatest lot – but this child? She is nothing. None of these curs matter.” The Dha-hali met her eyes, cool and mocking. “If I kill you my life maybe forfeit, but my Dagoman will not punish me too severely if I kill one girl. We have several others left to sell, just the same.” He smirked. “I think, though, that your pride is not worth this girl’s life, eh?”
The fight left Fantel in a wash that left her muscles weak; she sagged in her chains. She had far too much human blood on her hands already. She couldn’t save Tamaki, would not even try, but she would not stand by and watch the girl killed. Twelve years ago she had sworn that no matter what she became, whatever should become of her, she would not repeat the same mistake that had cost her Aashorum. She walked toward the Dha-hali, her head high and her gaze steady. He had won this round, but should fate be willing, she vowed to make him pay. She could feel Tamaki staring at her; she could imagine the questions in the girl’s eyes. Why would she surrender to save her life but refuse to help her escape? Why did she care if one human girl lived or died? What Tamaki could not know was that Fantel had no answers to give.
“To the door Chimera,” The green haired Dha-hali turned his gun back on her, aiming at the centre of her back as she led the way toward the cellblock door, pointedly refusing to look back at the other women in the cell.