The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Aramantine was as different in appearance and ambiance from Remenes as black from white. Remenes wore her history with confident grace; her people were proud of their heritage but gracious to visitors. In contrast Aramantine was a city forever on the brink. The kingdom of Aramant was the last frontier between the human sphere of influence and the wilderness of the Battlan Steppes and the city seemed to have been built to withstand a siege. The city was enclosed by a grand total of five curtain walls. The circular outer-most wall was ten feet thick and carved of the dark, green veined granite the kingdom was famed for. It rose fifty feet into the air. The city itself was built on a high rocky hill, and each of the interior walls, wrapping around the city in concentric circles of decreasing circumference, climbed the hill to the apex, where the wealthiest citizens of Aramantine huddled atop the peak surrounded by massive cannons aimed eternally across the Steppes. The humans resented and mistrusted the non-humans who lived and worked in the lowest circles. Sharp-tipped towers rose as high as the walls in every circle, and the tops of the towers were adorned with massive carven faces, twisted into ferocious, cruel scowls; from the Steppes the city’s spires looked like spearheads rising above the walls, glaring with monstrous faces. It was hardly a welcoming sight.

The view from inside the walls wasn’t much better. The train station was situated in the Third Circle; the production hub. The grey pre-dawn sky turned a sallow eye on smoke stacks and corrugated iron roofs. The station itself was a large imposing building that had seen better days; the green tint in the stone gave the building a sickly aspect. A steady drizzle seeped from the sky and the air was thick with an ever-present humidity oozing in from the Steppes. The sharp-sweet reek of over-ripe garbage wafted from an over-flowing refuse bin and papers littered the foyer floor. A huge brass clock stood sentry in the middle of the station concourse, and the deep rhythm of its pendulum seemed like a particularly ominous omen to begin their stay in the city. The few station guards active at this time eyed them warily, Fantel especially. The station guard made a point of closely scrutinising their papers.

“That’s not allowed here,” he said, rifling through their papers for the third time, not even bothering to look at what was on them. The man, a wet-eared whelp with thin, colourless hair clipped close to his scalp and bad skin stared at Fantel openly, a hairsbreadth from hostile.

“Pardon?” Rashari was groggy and irritable. The hour or two of sleep had just given him a headache.

“That,” the boy pointed at Fantel. “S’not allowed here; it’s got to go down to Fifth.”

Rashari looked from the whelp to Fantel and back again. A muscle in his jaw ticked. “Fine,” he ground out, snatching their papers back. “Do the trams still run down there?”

“Not this early,” the worker replied, smiling unkindly. “And we don’t allow them on the tram anyhow. You’ll have to take the stair tunnel.” He jerked his head indicating a round entranceway set into the far wall of the station. Rashari muttered something impolite under his breath, resettled the satchel strap on his good shoulder and strode off toward the darkened tunnel. Fantel looked back at the worker briefly before falling into step behind Rashari. The worker sneered and made a rude gesture with his hand. Fantel ignored it.

Smelling unpleasantly of urine, the tunnel mouth opened onto a steeply descending stairway. The convex walls and rounded ceiling were painted a drab white and daubed in crude messages and anatomically incorrect pictograms. The phantasma lights set into recesses in the ceiling flickered maddeningly, casting misleading shadows onto the stairs. Five flights later they stepped out into a dimly lit tunnel. There was a derelict slumped against the wall surrounded by filthy bedding. It was impossible for Fantel to tell if the derelict was a man or a woman, or even what species they were. Matted yellow-white hair fell over a craggy, reddened face, and a single milky eye gleamed wetly up at them as they passed. A gnarled, bony hand darted out from the lumpy mass of ragged blankets. The beggar’s fingers twitched arthritically. Rashari dropped a handful of coins into that outstretched palm. The fist snapped closed quickly around the coins before Fantel could work out if the coins were real or not.

At the end of the passageway they came to yet more stairs, descending even more sharply. After the first four flights Fantel’s feet were aching and Rashari’s face was pinched with strain. She did not relish the thought of having to climb back up to the train station.

“These stairs go all the way down to the fifth circle?” Fantel asked simply to confirm her own fears.

“Yes,” Rashari bit out. He started to reach out with one hand to steady himself but jerked his hand back sharply when his fingers brushed the slimy walls.

They continued on in silence. The endless crawl of passageway made Fantel claustrophobic. The walls were dotted with the occasional torn advertisement but even those grew monotonous after a while. She could not hear much of anything and the rainbow glare of the phantasma lights hurt her head. Shadows seemed to crawl across the walls and gather around her feet. Her spine twitched. She did not like being underground, surrounded by tonnes of rock and stone. The sound of music and the hint of rain in the muggy air was the first indication Fantel had that they were close to the exit. Grey daylight - thick and heavy– broke through the haze of phantasma light.

An Ogdegre with shorn horns wrung a whining tune from a wooden flute just outside the tunnel exit. His sat hunched over his instrument, and his dark greenish skin looked very dark against the white cotton of his shirt, his large feet were bare. The Ogdegre’s mournful tune chased her heels as Fantel stepped out into the heart of the fifth circle.

There was rubbish piled high on either side of the unpaved road. A slurry of raw sewage wound its way through the piles like a slow moving river wending through mountains. Lean-to shacks with ply-board roofs and rusted sheet metal walls, sprouted in clumps up in untold numbers on either side. She could feel eyes on her from every shadow. She had forgotten what it was like in Aramantine’s slum, the memory excised from her mind before it could take root. It had been over a decade since she had last set foot in Fifth Circle. It had grown worse in her absence.

They passed an open cesspool, scum swimming on top of the vile waters, and continued on toward the dark and stocky buildings ahead. Everything was brown and grey and dead. There were no trees or greenery. Above their heads the sky lightened fractionally, daylight breaking behind the wall of cloud. A factory whistle bleared somewhere, calling workers to a nearby mill. Phantasma gave way to old-fashioned gas lighting, the blue flames jittering inside glass boxes atop street lamps as they passed. As they left the shanty town the buildings became more substantial, but no less disreputable. The road widened, irregular cobblestones and pot-holes making the ground treacherous. Three human men, unwashed and bleary from a night of too much drink, loitered in the doorway of an abandoned tanner’s shop. The men watched the two of them pass with red rimmed, angry eyes. Rashari ignored them, but Fantel made sure to meet every gaze head on, meeting each insipient challenge directly, communicating with a look that she was anything but an easy mark. All humans in Aramantine were terrible people, Fantel remembered, but the humans trapped in the Fifth Circle were by far the worse. They saw it as a mark of their disgrace that they were forced to live among non-humans. It made them bitter and far more malicious.

“We are attracting notice,” Fantel murmured softly. She flicked her gaze from side to side. People were beginning to filter onto the streets, urchins perching on door stoops, factory workers trooping toward the fourth wall gate, queuing with paperwork in hand to be allowed to pass through, and street vendors pushed barrows toward a makeshift market. “Do you have a plan?”

“No,” Rashari sighed and stopped walking. He watched an ogdegre woman, her horns delicately curved like a young ram’s and painted in shades of pink and blue, lay out a selection of breakfast pastries. “Food,” he said determinedly, “and a bed or a pallet, or somewhere to sleep in this godsforsaken dump. Beyond that, I just don’t bloody care.”

Fantel quirked an eyebrow, amused. He sounded like a petulant child. She steered him over to the low retaining wall encircling the small market place and pushed him down to sit, wrestling the satchel containing all their money –real or otherwise - from him as an afterthought. She walked over to the ogdegre woman, keeping one eye on Rashari the entire time.

“What can I get you?” The woman asked her, low voice sweet to the ear. Her head had been partially shaved at the sides and high up her forehead, and the remaining black hair was tightly plated to hang like a rope down her back. The woman was tall, as all ogdegre were, around six and half feet. Her skin was daubed in blue tribal marks, a large rectangular stripe running down over her right eye and cheek creating a marked contrast to the natural dark green shade of her skin. Her large hands swept over the selection of meat pastries and sugar buns on display. She wore several gold rings on her fingers, the metal tarnished with age and wear.

Fantel picked out two small savoury pies – she was told they were filled with pigeon meat – and two spiced buns filled with almond paste. She scrutinised the coins before handing over what she thought were genuine Aramite sovereigns. “My companion and I are looking for a place to stay.” Fantel said lightly. “Do you know place?”

“One that accepts humans?” The woman flicked her gaze over to where Rashari sat. “Well, you’ve obviously got money – I’d suggest The Last Step, the pub over by the outer wall. Fintan runs it. He’s a bastard, even by human standards, but he’ll do right enough by you if you can pay his prices. Else wise you could try the Refuge, Andras runs that. He’s one of them Cloisterers; he’ll give you a square meal and a safe place to sleep if you can stomach a sermon or two along with it.” She proceeded to give fairly detailed directions to the Refuge. Fantel thanked the woman and walked back to Rashari.

“Eat and then we will find a place to sleep.” She pushed a pie into his hands.

Rashari blinked at her, and then looked down at the pie. He started eating mechanically. Fantel doubted he knew what he was eating. Fantel ate a little more cautiously, but the food was good. Fantel told him what the ogdegre had said.

“I know about the Last Step,” Rashari said when she’d finished. “Bed bugs the size of dinner plates.” He shook his head. “I’m not much for the Cloister but if I’m facing lice infested sheets and questionable hospitality either way I’d rather not add insult to injury by paying for it.” He glanced her way. “What about you?”

Fantel shrugged mildly surprised that he had even asked her opinion. “It matters little to me.” She had nothing in particular against the Cloister. As far as she was aware Cloisterers had no special prejudice against non humans, or non-believers. Cloisterers also tended to be adept healers, and Fantel wondered if a healer might be available to tend to her arm. The cuts were no longer bleeding, and she healed quickly, but the wounds still throbbed and a new dressing wouldn’t go amiss.

The Refuge was situated in an old stone building within the shadow of the fourth curtain wall. Fantel remembered this building. It used to be a bank. Grand and imposing the bass-relief frieze of four wild horses fighting a dragon, the crest of Aramantine, was covered in grime. The broad front steps leading up to the building were cracked and strewn with rubbish and the once ornate columns were covered in peeling posters and scrawled insults. The doors were ajar, a wash of phantasma light spilling out onto the damp grey stone. The sound of several voices carried from within. They slipped inside.

The interior of the building was much like the outside, the remnant of former grandeur clinging to the high vaulted ceiling and wide echoing chamber. Wagon-wheel sized chandeliers dangled from the ceiling and strings of phantasma rope lights dangled like moss from the chandelier frames. A horseshoe staircase, grand and sweeping, curled around the back of the room leading to a mezzanine floor above. A huge grime-encrustred window filled the back wall, so filthy the daylight could not break through. A human man stood behind a lectern in front of the window, addressing the crowd.

“Do not be fooled; this law will be our doom. Do not let the serpents of empire pour poison in your ears. Do not believe their honeyed lies.” The speaker, face red with broken capillaries and rough-shaven, had the wild eyed look of a zealot. He flailed his arms and looked perilously close to falling over.

“Anioch and Valkieres conspire against us with every breath; they are fashioning a noose for our necks. Mark my words; the Statute of Universal Animancy Licensing will be the writ of execution for our great nation. It is this law, my friends, which we must fear above all else.”

“This law will help us!” A woman in the crowd shouted back. “It will get the damned necromancers off the streets and all them fake healers as well.” She tossed her head to look around at the rest of the audience, the phantasma light catching on her horns. “Who cares if the Adrans came up with it? There’s too much bad magic on the streets. My boy Idek was cursed by a mage – he’s never been right in his mind since. Enough’s enough. Drive the mages and necros outta of the city.”

There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd. Fantel had heard murmur of the Animancy Licensing law while on her travels. The law was a joint initiative between the great rival empires of Dushkuland and Adra, an unprecedented piece of diplomacy, which had raised more than a few eyebrows. The statute sought to control the use and prevalence of magic in Aldlis. If Dushku and Adra could force the smaller nations into compliance on this matter it would mean a unified cross-borders law controlling the use of magic. Every magic user from Aramantine and down to Cynium would need to be licenced and registered.

Such a thing had never been attempted before, and at present every country had independent laws governing magic, must of which differed dramatically. Necromancy was presently illegal in Tabris, Dushkuland, and Aramant but legal – with certain provisions – in the Adran Empire and Messonya. All magic was completing free and uninhibited in the Kitvik Badlands, which was more or less the reason the region had gained its name. As a wayfarer Fantel had been hired to deal with more than one magical disaster or another, where an insufficiently trained mage had summoned a monster they could not control. There was also a thriving magical black market, mostly for necromantic weaponry but Fantel had once collected the bounty on a rogue mage who had set up a scam business selling spirit familiars to the gullible. The spirit creatures he’d summoned had caused a lot of damage. The trade in smuggling contraband necromantic weapons had given rise to the growth in Raider sects. Outside of the slave trade, magical contraband smuggling was the raider way of life.

“No! Do not let their lies poison your minds.” The man at the lectern shouted, eyes wild with fervour. “Friends hear me! This law will give the imperials control over us! If we accept this law we are throwing open the doors of our great nation to our enemy. The Dushku will rob us of our power through this gods-damned licensing! You wait; soon there will be no Aramite healers left! Because we - the good people of Aramant - will not be able to afford the licenses – we’ll be dependent on the Dushkies and their Pit damned magic.”

More murmurs rose from the crowd, different now, less certain than before. The speaker had struck a chord with his audience. “He’s right,” an elderly ogdegre man murmured, his deep voice rumbling through the crowd. “And it’s not just the Dushkies. Adra will push for the adoption of their necromancy laws. Soon we’ll be flooded with Adra’s cast-off deader guns. They won’t even need to invade; they’ll just sit back and watch us destroy ourselves.”

“So, what?” The same woman who had spoken before demanded, her voice high and strident against the turning tide of the crowd, “We let things stay the same? Let the Raiders walk all over us? Most of the lay-healers are crooks anyway; charge a king’s ransom for a damn salve. The licensing will stop all that.”

Numerous voices erupted from the mixed crowd of humans and ogdegre, dissenting opinion flying thick and fast until the sound of loud clapping silenced them all. A man stood at the top of the staircase, framed by the big window. He wore the off-white robes of an ascetic and his rich dark hair fell over his shoulders in a careless tangle. A luxuriant beard obscured most of his face, but Fantel could see humour in his startlingly green eyes. The man had the dark olive skin tone of a native of northern Dushkuland. “Friends, enough,” the man said. His voice warm and mellow for all that it sounded quite young. “We gather here for debate, not acrimony. Come now, breakfast is ready. We can debate such weighty matters far better on a full stomach, no?” The young cleric descended the stairs, gesturing for the dispersing crowd to pass through a side door and into an antechamber where the welcoming aroma of hot soup escaped.

Fantel and Rashari stayed at the back of the room, watching the crowd trickle through the door until finally it was just them and the cleric. The cleric immediately headed their way, smiling behind his beard, arms held wide in welcome. “Welcome, friends. My name is Andras. How can I help you?”

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