The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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“Oi,” Yvette yelled at them from the far end of the shaft, holding her lantern aloft so that the rainbow light bathed her in burnished shades. “Are you two coming or what?”

Rashari turned to head down the shaft after Yvette. Fantel caught his arm before he could finish a step. “LePortail plans to kill us?”

“Or blackmail me for information, or some other trade.” Rashari shrugged as if walking into a potential death trap was an everyday occurrence for him, which it might well be, given what she had learned about this peculiar human so far. “Death is always a risk when dealing with the Old Man.” Rashari explained. “But I think it’s unlikely that’s what he’s planning.”

“Unlikely,” Fantel repeated flatly. “And why is it that you neglected to mention this before we set out for the meeting?” Truly she was beginning to wonder how he had survived so long on his own. It seemed everyone in his acquaintance might potentially wish to kill him. Surely sooner or later one of them would actually do it.

Rashari grimaced. “I didn’t think it was even a possibility until I saw these tunnels. I wouldn’t have brought you with me if I’d suspected ahead of time. I swear.”

“Hmm,” Fantel sighed. She did not believe him for a moment. It wasn’t that she thought he was wilfully or maliciously attempting to throw her into harm’s way. It was just that he seemed to have a skewed perspective when it came to acceptable risk factors and it must be said, a serious lack of forethought when it came to everything else. Fantel sighed. She supposed she should be grateful at least that she knew ahead of time that they might be walking into a lethal ambush. She really didn’t want anymore surprises.

Yvette led them through the tunnels in silence during which time Fantel paid closer attention to her surroundings. The tunnel they traversed had many similarities to the stair-tunnel they had taken down to the fifth circle. She could well believe they were part of the same system. She wondered how deep these underground shafts went, and if the humans of Aramantine had dug down as many levels under the hill as they had built on top of it. Rashari had said these tunnels were part of the city’s defences in time of attack. Where did they lead? Not out onto the Steppes that was for certain. Did the tunnels run like hollow concrete roots under the ground all the way to the Tabrian border, or perhaps the skyport? Were the humans really so afraid non-humans would overrun their city they had built an elaborate tunnel network as an escape route? It begged the question why they had bothered to found the city at all if they were really so afraid of the people of Battlan.

After a short time she became aware of an odd noise; a rhythmic shush-thump that beat through the tunnel, almost like the echo of a faint heartbeat. There was also a reek of chemicals in the air. Fantel couldn’t quite place the scent but she felt like she should know it. She wrinkled her noise and tried to work out what she was hearing and smelling.

“Industrial printing press,” Rashari murmured under his breath. “I was right. He’s printing something.” There was a door off to the side. Rashari ducked inside before Yvette noticed and Fantel ducked in after him.

The room beyond was dominated by a large mechanised printing press, and piled boxes of paper. There were wire racks bolted to the walls with printed papers drying upon them. Stacks of dried prints had been laid neatly upon a side table. A goblin wearing bright yellow overalls stood on a step ladder in front of the active press watching the printed papers come out along a rolling conveyor belt. The goblin wasn’t wearing a mask and bared a mouthful of needle sharp teeth when he saw them.

Rashari held up his hands. “Don’t worry we won’t touch anything.” The goblint turned back to the press, ignoring them. Rashari walked over to the side table where the finished prints had been stacked. Fantel drifted after him, still not sure exactly what they had stumbled on, or why it was relevant. She looked down at the different stacks of brightly coloured papers. They looked like certificates of some sort. Each had a border around the outer edge in a different pattern and a different shade of ink. One pile of green bordered papers appeared to have Dushkui writing, another with a yellow border and a watermark in the form of the Tabrian royal crest proclaimed the unnamed bearer of the certificate a fully licensed practitioner in the art of animancy as accredited by His Majesty Ifan Cirrosi of Tabris.

“Look at that,” Rashari whistled through his teeth pointing out a blue bordered certificate with not one, but three different crests, and an intricate cross-hatch sketch of Valkieres grand fountain plaza. “They’ve managed to forge the watermarks of the Delunde Institute, the Anima Academy of Valvois and the Orlenaux crest.” Rashari shook his head, clearly impressed. He turned to Fantel eyes bright with excitement. “This is incredible. The Statute hasn’t even passed yet and LePortail’s ready to go. At this rate Banaborra won’t need to wait for the animancy act to be ratified. They can start selling before then; people will buy rather than be caught short, and the other sects won’t have a hope of catching up. Banaborra will have the market on false licences stitched up tight before the first legitimate licence makes its way off a government press.”

“So glad you approve, Rashari boy,” a new strangely sibilant voice spoke up from the doorway. Fantel was taken aback when at first she saw only an empty doorway before her gaze panned down to the upturned mask of a somewhat grizzled old goblin wearing a perfectly tailored three piece suit including cream waistcoat and sky blue tail coat. The goblin clasped a tiny cane in one hand. Unlike most goblin masks Fantel had seen the new arrival’s mask was not painted with a facsimile of a human smile, but instead was painted as a perfect replica of a goblin’s true face, complete with lipless razor smile and furred, wrinkled skin.

“LePortail,” Rashari bowed to the goblin, clicking his heels in the Adran fashion. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with us – and thank you also for the fascinating tour of your new facilities.”

LePortail snickered, a strange hissing sound, partly muffled by his mask, “Nervous Rashari? No need to be boy. I’ll not kill you or your companion.” The mask swung to face Fantel and she saw dark liquid eyes glittering through the eye holes, “Greetings daughter of the Chimeri, once guardian of the Echo and the old ways. You are far from Aashorum, but I cannot fault your taste in companion. Rashari is nothing if not entertaining.”

Fantel nodded, a little taken aback by the elaborate and surprisingly respectful address, “Greetings to you as well LePortail of Banaborra and Aramantine.”

Once more the hissing snicker escaped the confines of LePortail’s mask. “You’ve been telling her our secrets, Rashari. Shall I assume Madame Chimera will soon be joining our ranks?”

Rashari cast a lightning quick, almost guilty, look her way before addressing LePortail. “I have told Madame Chimera only what was pertinent. She’s been a tremendous help to me and has found herself involved in raider business quite by accident. I trust her to keep what she learns a secret.”

LePortail’s small form rippled with mirth and he dropped his mask to clasp his gut with both hands as a huge belly laugh shook his entire frame. His face, now revealed, was a mottled mass of discoloured grey fur and ridged scar tissue. The left side was almost bold, the skin pulled wrongly over the bones of his skull. He was also missing many of his teeth. The right side of his face was less obviously disfigured. His fur was thick and full if silvered by age, yet that side of his face still showed signs of some old and hideous injury. Fantel realised that this was why he wore a mask bearing the visage of a goblin. He did not fear how humans would react to his face instead he feared how other goblins would react to his disfigurement. Fantel felt a pang of sympathy for LePortail, wondering what it would be like to be doubly shunned for how one looked. LePortail however did not behave like one cowed or shamed by his disfigurement. He laughed long and he laughed hard. Finally the hissing echoes of his laughter died away, drowned out by the rumbling of the printing press.

“Very nervous,” LePortail said speaking clearly despite a tendency to lisp through his remaining teeth. “You’re always most polite when you are nervous, Rashari-boy. A tell you’d do well to rid yourself of.”

“I’ve had a trying few days,” Rashari replied his tone bone dry and just short of stung. “That may have affected my manners. I shall endeavour to be disgustingly rude to you in future to make up for it.”

“‘Trying’ he says,” LePortail grinned, the expression did not sit well on his half-crushed face. “Come then, let’s leave Phillippe to do his printing in peace. I’ve set Yvette to brewing the tea. And I have cream buns.” LePortail shuffled out of the room, his tiny cane clicking on the concrete floor. With one last wistful glance at the fake magic licences Rashari followed him out of the room, and, as was swiftly becoming habit, Fantel found herself following him in turn.

In short order they were situated in a cosy room filled with over-stuffed armchairs, over-burdened bookcases, delicate stain-glassed lamps and thick moss green carpeting. There was a brown glazed tea pot sitting on a tray alongside a plate of cream filled cakes on a low table in the middle of the room. Yvette was curled into one of the armchairs munching on a cream cake and spilling sugar all over the gold tasselled cushions mounded in her lap.

LePortail poured the tea. Fantel perched on the edge of a blue armchair, back ramrod straight. Rashari let himself sink into a brown leather chair, pulling fluffy cushions out from under him as the soft leather endeavoured to swallow him whole. He took his tea with milk and sugar. Fantel declined both tea and cake. Rashari eyed a slice of walnut cake thoughtfully. LePortail helped himself to a scone filled with clotted cream and berry preserve and then proceeded to reduce the scone to crumbs in a matter of seconds with his sharp edged teeth. It was a sight Fantel hoped never to see again.

“To business then,” LePortail said finally after he’d finished and Yvette had wandered off somewhere with a second cream cake. He set his tea cup down on the table and Rashari followed suit, sitting forward in his chair. Yet neither one of them spoke, instead they stared at each other in silence. Fantel looked between them, eyebrow arched, as the silence stretched. They seemed to be waiting for the other to speak first, watching each other like hawks. Fantel tapped her claws against the armrest, her patience waning. They had come all this way to talk to LePortail and now Rashari was wasting the moment.

“Remus is dead.” Rashari said after a long, long moment more of silence. His fingers massaged the chair-arms hard enough to dimple the leather.

“I know.” LePortail nodded. “Congratulations, lad; I didn’t think you had in you.”

“I didn’t plan it,” Rashari snapped, fingers whitening as he clawed the chair arms.

“Now, Rashari-boy, that’s not true. You’ve dreamed of being rid of Remus from the moment he impressed you into service. What you mean is you didn’t think you could go through with it.” LePortail smiled. “There are many different sorts of killer in this world. Some kill for duty. Some kill for money; some for glory; some for pleasure. Others kill when necessary. And then there are those who are simply good at it.”

Rashari said nothing. He had grown completely still. He watched LePortail without blinking, his face expressionless, bleached of all animation and emotion. His fingers lay flat and stiff against the armrests. He didn’t even seem to be breathing. “I didn’t plan to kill him.” He insisted. “I didn’t choose to kill him.”

LePortail snickered, delicately placing his hand in front of his mouth. “Then why is he dead?”

“He shot me first.” The only indication Rashari gave that the words pained him was a tightening around his mouth. “He’d already killed Bashi.”

“Aluhahn Bashi.” LePortail nodded and pressed his long fingers together in a spindly steeple. “His death has made waves Rashari-boy. The ripples have spread far.”

“How far?” Rashari demanded.

LePortail smiled widely. “First answer me this: do you have it?”

“You expect me to believe you don’t know?” Incredulity dripped from Rashari’s words. “Garrick must have told you about our deal. Why else would you be expecting me.”

“Bah, I hear many things.” LePortail waved a hand in dismissive fashion. “I hear word that Bashi held a scion stone. I hear he was experimenting with phantasma in his mines. I hear that the Suluman sold him the stone, only to regret it dearly. I hear whispers that Bashi entertained Imperial scientists from the DeLunde Institute. I hear…”

“Wait stop,” Rashari interrupted sitting forward even further and almost launching himself from the chair. “Bashi was working with the DeLunde Institute? Doing what?”

“Ahh,” LePortail hummed satisfied. “The rumours are true then. Good.” He nodded, big black eyes glittering with secret amusement, “It’s good you came. Garrick thought you’d double-crossed us.”

Rashari looked like he’d swallowed an entire lemon whole. His face was pinched. He stared at LePortail, who gazed placidely back at him. “Funny. I wondered if it was you double crossing me.”

“And you still came here?” LePortail laughed, “Brave boy; foolish, but brave.”

“More like impatient.” Rashari snapped. “I prefer my betrayals to be quick and to the point. Plus I have the stone. Kill me and you’ll never find it.”

“Not completely foolish then,” LePortail replied drily. The old goblin licked bright red jam from his needle point teeth. “Rumour has it the stone has not been recovered. The ripples are becoming a swell.” He waggled his three long fingers as if to imitate the bobbing of ocean waves. “You’ve made quite a mess. Remus is dead, you are running. The Suluman does not have his stone. He’s not happy and neither is Garrick.”

“I’m not thrilled with the situation either.” Rashari snapped. “Remus killed Bashi in the enclave. Then he tried to kill me. Someone has to have told him, someone who knew about the deal we made. Now the Dha-hali are after me. I’m sure someone planned that I’d be in this mess. I just can’t work out who, or why.”

“You’ve become ensnared in a larger scheme.” LePortail seemed highly amused by this observation. “Someone has out played you at your own game. Whoever has done this is clever. They have turned your tactics against you. Veridree know you killed one of their own. Nylous and Einar have struck a deal. They both want you dead and are working together to achieve it.”

“Pit damn it,” Rashari turned his face away quickly, staring at the far wall until he could control his reactions. “I don’t understand this.” Frustration hissed through his teeth as he spoke. He fixed dark eyes on LePortail. “You said Bashi was working with DeLunde –tell me what you know about that.”

LePortail studied Rashari for a few seconds, tapping his long fingers together. “These whispers are soft, distorted, and they do not come from Bhuvam.”

Rashari frowned. He was sitting awkwardly in his chair, hands braced against the chair arms, elbows at sharp right angles as if he was poised to burst up and out of his seat. “What are you talking about?”

“There have been a number of DeLunde scientists passing through the city in recent months. They have made several expeditions out to the Steppes – to an abandoned research facility on the Adaline Fault.” LePortail watched Rashari soberly as he spoke. “My sources cannot tell me what they do out there but I have heard a name: Pandora.”

Rashari stilled so abruptly and so quickly Fantel could almost believe he had been turned to stone. This time she was sure that he really did forget to breathe. Then, slowly, very slowly, he eased back into his chair, clasping his hands together under his nose. He stared into space for several heartbeats. The frantic jump of his eyelids the only movement he allowed himself.

“Rashari?” Fantel caught herself on the verge of reaching out to him. She did not know what was going on, but she could almost feel his distress. He held himself completely still, not stiffly or awkwardly, just motionless. He seemed a million miles outside of his own body. After an age he roused himself and looked at LePortail.

“What is it you want?”

“Want, Rashari-boy?” The goblin continued to regard him with amused affection. “What could I want, I wonder?”

“You’ve put on quite a show Old Man. Letting me see all this,” he gestured around them to the small cosy room inside the underground complex. “Handing over information without bartering any in return; you are not an altruist. You must want something.”

“Sometimes, m’boy, one does not tell secrets in exchange for more secrets,” LePortail shuffled forward so he could pour himself more tea. “Sometimes one passes on information to those who need it so that they can use it.”

“Meaning?” Rashari was frowning suspiciously, but at least he seemed more alive now.

“Do you know why Banaborra deals with you, , even though you are indentured to Veridree?” LePortail asked.

Rashari quirked an eyebrow, “I assumed it was because I am indentured and you hoped to use me against your rivals. That is the purpose of double agents, after all.” He added dryly.

“You are not a double agent. You have never been one to fly any colours but your own. No, lad, you are only part right. Y’see I am an old man, but I have learned to listen and to learn. Things are changing, a dark tide is drawing in; these ripples we speak of will grow until they spread across all Aldlis. This I know. This I prepare for. But right now, these ripples are centred on you. That makes you more than a mere weapon. That makes you a threat.” LePortail bared his half-mouthful of teeth in a fierce grin. “Do you know what I do with threats, Rashari-boy?”

Fantel tensed imperceptibly, shooting a glance over to Rashari. He had not reacted to LePortail’s announcement as if threatened, instead the tiniest of smiles quirked his lips.

He nodded quietly. “You enforce them.” Rashari sat forward in seat once more. “So you’re telling me all this because you think I can turn things around? You really think I can take on the combined forces of Veridree and the Dha-hali? I don’t know whether to be flattered, incredulous, or suspect a trap. Under the circumstances I’m leaning toward the latter.”

“A man must be judged by the calibre of the forces ranged against him, m’boy. I don’t know where you came from, but I know that you’ve set yourself up for a fight with someone – you are a bullet in a gun, boy, and you own your own trigger. Whoever you’re aiming for, perhaps you’ll take out Einar and Nylous along the way, eh? That would help me and mine.” LePortail shrugged while delicately holding his teacup and saucer in two hands.

“And,” Rashari added sardonically, “if I die, you have lost nothing but a handful of secrets a dead man can’t tell anyway.” He nodded finally rising from the chair. “And I suppose Garrick will just have to deal with the Suluman’s displeasure on his own. Y’know considering you are supposed to work together, you don’t seem too concerned about retrieving the stone.” He locked eyes with LePortail. “I don’t like being a catspaw, old man. You’d do well to remember that.”

“Those who would play against fate risk being played m’boy.” LePortail replied easily, taking a dainty sip of tea. “You should remember that.”

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