The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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The wrong inside you

A harsh wind tore across the deserted train platform, yanking on the ends of Fantel’s borrowed coat. The last hour had been an education in casual corruption. After leaving Vedeca Fantel had stood back and watched Rashari first slip Arundel a bribe, then pass along smaller ‘tips’ to a number of skyport engineers to ensure Vedeca would be repaired and stored in one of the skyport’s high security private hangars until such time as they were ready to retrieve her. What struck Fantel about the whole affair was how open Rashari was about it. He didn’t even attempt to hide what he was doing, or disguise his actions as anything other than open corruption. Fantel supposed it said something about the state of Aramant’s government that such lazy criminality did not raise a flicker of interest among anyone they passed. She actually wondered why Rashari had even attempted his Lourand Rousseau deception to begin with; clearly everyone in the Aramant Air Patrol was on the take.

Finally they were escorted along a series of long windowless passages out of the skyport and through the subterranean complex to the adjoining train station, etched out of a natural cavern in the side of the mountain. Once there Arundel spoke to the station master and, grudgingly, commanded the man to provide her and Rashari with the necessary paperwork to enter Aramantine. The station master initially resisted, unhappy about providing paperwork for a non-human savage, but was swiftly dissuaded from further objection when Rashari once again dipped a hand into the satchel and handed over more coin.

Now they had nothing left to do but wait for the train. Glittering phantasma lanterns, strung on thick cables hanging above their heads, bobbed in the wind cutting along the tracks. The light behind the glass shell of the lantern changed colour constantly with every shift in the breeze. It hurt Fantel’s eyes to look too long on them. In daylight she might have admired the view; the platform was built out of the mountain side, and the track swooped down at a death-defying angle before twisting around the side of the mountain and out of view, but darkness blanketed the area and fatigue dragged at her mind and body.

“It does not seem very efficient,” she said finally when the silence stretched even beyond her tolerance.

“Hmm what?” Rashari started, glancing over to her as if he’d forgotten she was there. The light from one of the lanterns fell across half his face, casting his features in a wash of angry red and cold blue shadow.

“The bribes,” she elaborated. “All that money you gave away; it does not seem like a very efficient way for a criminal to behave.”

“Oh that,” He smiled, just a little. “It really wasn’t that much. It was counterfeit coin anyway.” He shrugged.

“Counterfeit?” Fantel shifted her weight from one foot to the other. This high up the air was sharp and thin and the wind relentless.

“Adran Orlens are accepted just about anywhere.” He explained. “But your average Aramite is like to see the genuine article once in a blue moon. They see something that looks like an Orlen and they don’t ask questions – they’ve no reason to – and by the time they find out their coin isn’t worth the time it took to smelt it we’ll be long gone already.”

Fantel quirked an eyebrow, she was not quite sure what to make of Rashari’s matter of fact dishonesty. She didn’t know if his honest dishonesty was refreshing or somewhat insulting. She also couldn’t work out why he was so willing to tell her all this. They were all but strangers. How could he be sure she wouldn’t use everything he had told her against him? “What about the skyport employees you bribed to repair Vedeca?” She asked.

“They got the real coin, obviously.” He shrugged again and then winced, rubbing his shoulder. “So did Arundel. And no doubt they’ll be pawing through the cargo hold right now, looking for more of the same.”

“You don’t seem worried.” She pointed out, thinking about the forged bank bonds and weaponry she had seen in the hold. It seemed odd that he would be so blasé about strangers traipsing through Vedeca looking to loot her wares.

“Smith will make sure the important things are kept out of sight,” he stifled a yawn behind his hand, “and if they try to hack my girl’s systems or strip her for parts they’ll be in for quite the nasty surprise.” He turned to face her directly and smiled. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have left Vedeca if I didn’t think she’d be well treated. We had a scare tonight, took a couple of knocks, but my girl will be alright.”

Fantel pondered his words for a moment before asking: “What is Vedeca really? I have heard of ships that can think, but I had not thought they were truly alive.”

“Most aren’t,” he replied easily.

Fantel braced against another blast of cold wind, brushing her hair out of her eyes as the wind whipped it about like a pennant. “Then why is Vedeca different?”

Rashari turned his face away, ostensibly turning his face away from the breeze, but Fantel recognised the action as the delaying tactic it truly was. “I made her,” he said finally so quietly the wind almost stole the truth away before it could be heard, “Just like I made Smith.” He met her eyes, the light of the bobbing lanterns making his eyes look like dark pits bored into his skull. “I’m sure you’ve guessed already. Smith and Vedeca are a part of me and a part of me is in both of them.”

Something settled deep inside Fantel, some nameless, almost formless suspicion relaxing low in her stomach. “This is more than technomancy – what you do is magic I have never seen before. Even phantasma cannot make a machine live. The ghosts of the dead are merely whispers of what was. An airship may fly by devouring the dead, but it cannot gain a soul of its own that way. Even you humans have not managed to subjugate nature to such a degree.”

“Are you sure?” A strange smile danced over the edges of his lips. “We humans are a blasphemous and reckless lot. How do you know we haven’t found a way to manufacture a soul from thin air? Gods alone know we have a natural talent for destroying them. Why is it so hard to believe we can’t counterfeit them too?”

Fantel might have demanded he explain what he meant by that but at that moment a shrill whistle screamed through the night. Fantel whipped around as the train chuffed toward the platform. It came to a stop in a deafening screech of heavy brakes and wailing steam, a big heavy black engine almost invisible in the night, dragging behind it wood carriages with curtained windows and brass handles on the doors.

They boarded in silence, walking down the narrow corridor past private passenger cabins, chestnut doors locked tight against intruders and lace curtains pulled closed. They found an empty cabin halfway down the fifth carriage. Rashari collapsed onto the green velvet bench seat. A small, cheerily tasselled lamp bolted down to the table top was the cabin’s only source of light.

“Pit take me, I’m shattered.” Rashari groaned thumping his elbows down on top of the scratched table top, head hanging as if it weighed a ton. “This has been a very, very long day.”

“Indeed,” Fantel snorted, amused at his staggering understatement. She settled herself more gingering in the seat opposite. The curtains were open and she could see the pulsing black night out of the window. The edge of the mountain fell away into a sheer drop allowing an uninterrupted view of the stars winking coldly, and the faint, phantasma tinged swirls of smoke puffing past as the train groaned into life and pushed forward with a jolt. The chunter of the train’s pistons thundered through her ears, a deep, rhythmic backbeat pulsing through her core. Rashari bestirred himself, pulling their freshly acquired paperwork from his pocket and dumping it carelessly across the table. He was propping his head up on one hand, right elbow resting on the table top. One unexpected jolt and Fantel thought he’d fall face first into the table. His left hand lay meek and quiet on the table. She studied the heavy droop of his eyelids, the sleepy softness of his features.

“Are you a scion?” She asked him, voice soft.

“No,” he replied equally softly, eyes almost completely closed. “Not anymore.”

Fantel sat back against the seat. “What are you then?”

“Damaged,” he smiled a sad little twist of his lips. He sounded like he was talking in his sleep. “I’m broken. There was an accident…years ago…a stupid, stupid accident…my father tried to fix me. He blamed himself for what happened.”

“There is a hole inside you.” Fantel murmured very softly. “I sensed it earlier when Lieutenant Roake tried to use anima to heal you. This is your ‘damage’?”

Rashari shifted, folding his arms over the table and laying his head on top. She barely caught his nod. “Anima comes from the soul. You have to have a soul for healing magic to work. I don’t.” He blinked open his eyes and gazed blindly at the door of the cabin. “If I’m not careful I can hurt people. You know how it is with phantoms. They hunger for living souls, because they miss being alive. I’m not dead, but I have the same hunger inside me.” He lifted his head slightly to look up at her. “What I am…what’s wrong with me, it’s so much worse than just not having a soul. All that does is hurt me. I’m used to it now – the emptiness, knowing I’m something less than everyone else around me. I’ve been this way for so long it doesn’t bother me anymore. But what I can do– the harm I can do…” He sighed. “I had to leave –my father, my home, everything. D’you know what it’s like to realise that you’re not right? To look around you and know that you don’t fit and you never will, and the only way to stop the –the –wrongness in you from spreading, from making everything else wrong – is to leave. To run, and turn your back on everything, and just keep running, knowing that it’s pointless, because you can’t outrun what you are, but doing it anyway because…because there is still a part of you, a stupid, selfish part, that refuses to accept that everything in you is wrong?”

Her blood pounding in her ears Fantel couldn’t speak. Her throat felt tight. Her vision blurred, the soft diffuse stillness of the train cabin melting away before her eyes. The green of the seat cushions became a different green, deeper and more vibrant; the verdant glow of thick, dense foliage. The faint lingering scent of smoke and phantasma clinging to the cool air of the cabin became instead the rich, heady aroma of deep, dank soil, black and teeming with life, smelling strongly of the rain that always pattered down from the canopy high above, the air hot and humid, wrapping around her bare limbs like an embrace. The echo of the Great Pulse thrummed through her, reverberating through every ancient tree and fledgling shoot of grass in Aashorum. The echo of the voice of Mother Aldlis was hard and unforgiving in her ears, demanding that the intruders in her jungle be rooted out, driven forth, their polluting taint erased.

Fantel looked down into her clawed hands and saw blood, dark and bright and thick. She saw the bodies of the humans at her feet. The dire wolves she had conjured from the depths of the jungle’s fury snuffled at the corpses, their shadow brindled flanks panting and their snouts scarlet. Fantel crouched down beside the body of a human child she had killed because the Great Pulse demanded it. The law of Chimeri tolerated no intruders into their domain, not even scared and frantic refugees who had begged and pleaded for safe passage through the jungle. Yet something inside her had made Fantel look at what she had done and truly see. She saw, for the first time, her own reflection, not that of Chimera, one and all the same under the sway and roll of the Great Pulse, but instead only herself, alone, a killer of children. The world had shattered then, completely and entirely. Not even the pounding roar of the Great Pulse could drive out the echo of her own horror.

The train whistle shrieked loud enough to tear through the silence of the cabin. Fantel came back to herself with a gasp, chest tight and lungs burning with the need to breathe. Her heart thundered and her eyes burned. She blinked rapidly several times, muscles tense and drawn taut, coppery guilt heavy on her tongue.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I do know.”

Rashari didn’t answer. He was already asleep. Fantel sipped carefully at the air, breath hitching, and stared fixedly out of the window. She tried not to think about what it felt like to be broken.

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