The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Explanations forthcoming

Yvette escorted them back through the tunnel network to the root cellar of the abandoned house. They did not speak at all during the return journey. Fantel watched Rashari carefully. He fairly buzzed with leashed tension, fingers twitching at his sides. She had many, many questions but she had enough practice in holding her tongue to wait until Yvette left them in the over-grown cottage garden, slamming the cellar doors closed behind her, before she voiced them.

“What do we do now?”

“Panic,” Rashari shot her a wide-eyed look. “I have absolutely no idea.”

Fantel gave him a long, hard look in return. “This facility on the Adaline Fault, it is the same one you told me about isn’t it?”

He nodded. “There aren’t that many abandoned Imperial research facilities out on the Steppes.”

“This one is abandoned no longer.” She pointed out, watching his face closely. “It seems unlikely to be a coincidence.”

He laughed; a harsh bark of sound. “No. No I think it is anything but a coincidence.”

“You know who Pandora is, don’t you?” Fantel had been watching his reactions closely throughout the interview with LePortail. He had reacted most strongly to that name.

“Pandora isn’t a person,” He told her almost distractedly as he started down the broken garden path back out onto the road. “It’s the name of the Imperial research project into deific energy.”

Fantel caught his arm, arresting his forward motion and pulling him around to face her. She had the feeling he was one wrong word away from bolting like a startled horse. She waited until he met her eyes. “The same project that made you what you are?”

He twitched, one corner of his mouth pulling up into a grimace. “I thought you might have guessed that.” He pulled away from her and started walking. “What else have you guessed?”

“You said on the train that you are no longer a scion, meaning that at one time you were bonded to a Seraph. Your ship is alive and you can talk to Smith mind to mind.” Fantel said, easily matching her strides to his so they walked abreast. “You are afraid of these DeLunde scientists. I have heard of the DeLunde Institute. It is an Adran college of science. It is also the Empire’s biggest arms manufacturer. What is your connection to DeLunde?”

Rashari shot her a harried look. “That is dangerous to know.”

Fantel blinked, genuinely surprised. “And everything else that has happened since we met has not been; strange that you pick now to become reticent.”

“Everything else that has happened was only life threatening. There are fates worse than death, knowing too much about Pandora might just be one of them.”

“You are afraid.” It was a statement. She could see it clearly in his eyes. “If I am to help you, do I not have to the right to know the danger I face?”

“You want to help me?” Rashari sounded stunned, which was ridiculous considering everything he had dragged her into so far.

“Have I not done so these last few days?” Fantel snapped a little irritated.

“Well yes,” He was forced to concede. “It’s just that, well, I sort of…”

“Manipulated events to force my cooperation?” Fantel suggested when he didn’t seem to know how to finish his sentence.

He winced. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”

“That is because you are a dishonest person.” She told him. “But you have not lied to me as yet and I have chosen to believe that what you tell me is real. I am willing to continue to do so, but only if you tell me the whole truth.” She gave him a hard look. “I do not think ignorance will stand in my defence, do you? You told me that Einar would believe I was your partner and hunt me down. Now you have introduced me as such to both your enemies and your allies. You should treat me accordingly.”

“You want to be my partner?” Rashari lit up like a candle. It would be endearing if he hadn’t contrived to make her so all along. “Madame Chimera…” He began.

“Fantel,” She interrupted him. “My name is Fantel.”

“Oh.” Once again he seemed surprised. “That’s…not actually anything like I was expecting.”

Fantel arched her eyebrow. “You had expectations over my name?”

“No, no. Actually I’ve become so accustomed to calling you Madame Chimera I’d stopped wondering what your name was.” He shrugged apologetically. “Thank you, though, for telling me.”

Fantel refused to allow herself to smile. She nodded gravely. “You need not worry. I do not expect you to tell me your true name.”

“What?” He blinked rapidly. “But I…”

“You own a book, entitled the ‘Scoundrel Rashari’ and a belongings chest engraved with the initials ‘S’ and ‘T’.” She told him calmly. “I understand it is customary for fugitives to change their names when they are on the run, is it not?”

Rashari huffed out a breath, not quite a laugh and not quite a sigh. “Alright, you’ve made your point. If I don’t tell you, you’ll piece it together on your own soon enough.” His smile was self-deprecating. “Still I think we should find somewhere else to talk.” He pointedly looked back toward the abandoned cottage. “The walls have ears around here.”

“The Refuge will not be any more secure.” Fantel pointed out.

“No, and I don’t want to go back to the fifth circle anyway.” Rashari stopped, tapping his fingers against the dirty bricks of the alley wall. His gaze panned up toward the phantasma-lit towers crowding close to the third circle wall and stopped there. “I think I might know a place we can bed down for the night.”

They left the densely packed warren of alleys and sad little houses and headed deeper into the district. They emerged into a glittering oasis of lights and motion, a heaving throng of late night activity. The roads widened and blocky multi-storey buildings sprouted up on either side of the street. Phantasma signs flashed from the sides of buildings and refracted off tinted glass storefronts. Looking up at the brilliant rainbow street lights, illuminated advertisement boards, and flashing shop signs gave her a headache. Above the street power cables dangled like garlands and the grinning leers of the highest buildings were picked out in iridescent relief against the dark sky. There was something garish and unsettling about the place; an uneasy energy that spoke of ill-deeds and bad choices all carried out by people better off asleep.

“Everything here is powered by necrotasm,” Rashari explained. “Not actual phantasma ore. The power and quality is inferior and for some reason only seems to work reliably at night, but there is a fairly consistent supply.”

Fantel twitched, gaze darting around at the flashing signs distastefully. “Using the ghosts of the newly deceased to make phantasma energy is illegal. It’s necromancy. Aramant outlaws necromancy.”

“If you or I did it, yes, if the Provost does it, then it’s perfectly legal.”

Fantel shot him an exasperated look. Rashari shrugged. “I don’t make the law. Look, as I understand it, Aramantine had a problem a few years back when the cemeteries reached capacity. Cremation has never been popular, the miasma can do funny things with the exhaust from the furnaces – and the last thing this city needs is an influx of phantoms. Obviously burying people out on the Steppes isn’t an option either.”

“So the people here choose to burn the ghosts of their dead to power their lamps?” Fantel wrinkled her nose. Now that she was aware of what she feeling her headache increased. No wonder there was such dark energy about the place.

Rashari shrugged again. “Extracting ghosts immediately after death is already common practice in Aramantine, y’know. Given the way miasma can affect things in the city, it was only prudent. No one wants their loved ones popping up as flesh-hungry revenants because the miasma blew in at the wrong time. Before Provost Tuft passed the necrotasm bill the common practice was to destroy the ghost using a blast of pure anima pumped in from the Steppes, which is both costly and dangerous. Anima is unpredictable. Sometimes it doesn’t destroy the ghost, it mutates it instead. Necrotasm is hardly ideal; its inferior in every way to phantasma ore, and the by-products are far nastier, but it does make use of the city’s surplus dead. Each circle stockpile ghosts and manage their own necrotasmic reserves.”

“It is still necromancy.” Fantel replied. “Those ghosts have been denied the chance to return to Aldlis.”

“It is necromancy,” Rashari agreed easily. “But don’t let the Provost hear you say that. People around here associate necromancy with the Adran Empire, and distrust it on principle.”

“And yet the Provost hosts a group of Imperial scientists in his very city.”

“Well,” Rashari smiled slyly. “I hear hypocrisy is all the rage this season.” Fantel shot him a droll look and he smiled a little wider. “Anyway, the upshot of the whole thing is, the cemeteries are no longer in use. Corpses are stored in necrotasmic vaults underground until they’re needed and the remains are disposed of during the conversion process; so all the old cemeteries have become redundant.” He glanced at her. “There’s a very nice one just a quarter mile from here. The mausoleums are secure and offer a degree of privacy.”

Fantel stopped dead. “You want to sleep in a cemetery?”

Rashari stopped walking and looked back at her. “It’s perfectly safe. In fact I guarantee the last place you’ll encounter a phantom in Aramantine will be in a cemetery. I’ve stayed in this one before. Really, we can do a lot worse than a night in one of the mausoleums.”

Fantel was anything but convinced, however she had told him she would trust him and it seemed churlish to start doubting him now. He led the way through the death powered commercial district, deftly avoiding the milling crowds flitting in and out of the eerily lit shops, eateries and taverns. It was well after dark and the night was growing long, yet the crowds only thickened as they pierced the heart of the district. Fantel hunched into her coat and tugged the brim of her hat low on her brow as she followed Rashari. She gritted her teeth against the angry buzz of necrotasm in the air.

Eventually they left the crowds and lurid lights behind and ducked down a dark side street. This one ended in a tall tower block, almost invisible against the night sky, with nary a light shining. There was a hush to the place, a quality of quiet that seemed more a feature of the environment than merely an absence of sound. The tower climbed upward several stories and was built of heavy slabs of green-black granite. There were no windows and the top of the tower was mounted with four giant faces, each looking out to one of the four points of the compass. A double door barred the way. The steel was dimpled with ornate, blunted spikes.

“This is a cemetery?”

“Yes, Aramites use to brick their corpses up in towers; don’t ask me why.” Rashari ignored the imposing front door and led the way around the east side of the building. There was a much smaller, less impressive looking door set into side of the building. A rusted padlock dangled from the door-handle. Fantel was sure she could tear the thing off with her bare hands, but as it happened, she didn’t need to bother. The padlock was unlocked and the door came open easily when Rashari pulled on the handle. Fantel shot him a sharp, questioning look.

He shrugged. “There’s a community of vagrants who live here. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.” He led the way inside.

“You seem to know a lot about this city,” Fantel prodded. They entered into a long, nondescript corridor. The only illumination came from the flicker of distant candles set into sconces on the walls. They moved cautiously between patches of candlelight. The interior smelled of dry dust, cold stone and rat droppings.

“Of course, Aramant is where everything happens.” Rashari replied kicking something limp and furry on the floor out of the way. It hit the wall with a soft thud. “You can get almost anything here if you know who to ask. Forget Adra, Aramant and Tabris are the centre of the world. If war breaks out in Aldlis you can bet your last Orlen it will start here or in Tabris.”

Fantel was only half listening. Under her feet small bones crunched; vermin most likely. Rashari snagged a fat candle out of a wall sconce. They climbed a flight of stairs up a floor. She could hear sounds of life along the passage. Narrow doorways lined one side of the corridor. The light from the candle illuminated small cavities in the wall as they passed; likely the alcoves had been used to store bodies when the tower was still in use. Most were empty, some had been vandalised, marred by scrawled profanity etched into the walls, or rubbish dumped into the corners. There was an unpleasant reek of human effluent in the air.

“It gets nicer on the higher levels,” Rashari said catching sight of her face in the candle light. “This floor is mostly used as a midden.”

Fantel scowled. “I do not think much of your choice of accommodation so far.”

“Not up to your usual standards?” He asked her as they started up another set of stairs that made several sharp turns on the ascent. He held the candle aloft as they climbed but it did little to push back the darkness. “I took you for a fellow traveller. Hard days on the dusty roads, nights spent sleeping under the stars, y’know?”

“I do not habitually spend my nights lying amid old bones.” She replied drily. “There is such a thing as travellers’ inns. I have found they tend to contain fewer corpses.”

“I’ll bear that in mind for future reference.” Rashari stopped at the top of the stairs to listen. Fantel listened as well. She could hear voices and the dissonant whine of a fiddle coming from the second floor. The sticky-sweet aroma of cooking meat wafted down the corridor toward them. Rashari pointed to the floor above and Fantel nodded. They climbed the stairs, stopping and listening at each floor until they left behind the evidence of human occupation.

The fifth floor of the tower appeared deserted, perhaps due to the large hole in the ceiling. A pile of debris lay in the middle of the corridor, pieces of the above floor gathered in a heap like a concrete molehill. Rashari clambered over the debris and dropped down on the other side. “This way; there’s a chamber along here wide enough for two people.”

Eyeing the collapsed ceiling warily Fantel skirted the edge of the debris pile, hugging the wall until she was passed. The ceiling did not fall on her head as she followed Rashari down the length of the corridor to a hole in the inner wall between two tombs. The front wall and partition wall had fallen in, creating a double chamber. The interior was at least clean. The floor swept of dust and pieces of bone. There was an old blanket crumpled in one corner, but Fantel had no desire to use it. Rashari hunkered down against the far wall, legs tucked up against his chest. He stood the candle on the floor in front of him. Fantel hesitated a moment before sitting down cross legged before the candle. She looked at him expectantly over the flickering glow.

“Well?”

Rashari sighed but didn’t waste time prevaricating. “What do you want to know?” He asked.

“Which is the Seraph, Smith or Vedeca?”

Rashari laughed, startled. The ripple of air ruffled the candle flame. “I don’t even know why I’m surprised you figured that out.” He shook his head, ruefully. “Do you want the long or short answer?”

“I would like the honest answer.” She replied tartly.

He grinned, the candle casting long jagged shadows over his face, “Smith. But he’s not a Seraph anymore – which is a complicated matter, and truthfully neither one of us are completely sure how it all works.”

“How can a Seraph no longer be a Seraph?”

“Well, he died. Once a thing dies, even if they come back, they’re never quite the same. I came back to find my body inhabited by a malignant spirit. Smith came back....as well...as Smith.”

“You died?” Fantel couldn’t keep the incredulity out of her tone. Magic could bring a person back from near death – it could heal mortal injury and restart a stopped heart certainly - but she didn’t think that was what Rashari was implying. Death only counted as death when the soul was extinct. That usually took three days after the body had expired.

“Yes,” he nodded easily. “It didn’t take obviously. But my soul is gone. I make the best of things, but you know about my...disability.”

Fantel was lost, and annoyed. “Explain.You claim to be soulless yet you still manipulate anima.” She pointed to his technomantic glove. “You have a -power – inside you that is unlike anything I have seen before. You are not merely soulless.”

Rashari shrugged awkwardly. “Sentient creatures that can wield magic all have three component parts: the body, the soul, and the spirit.”

“I am well aware of that.” Fantel snapped. She did not need a lesson on remedial magical theory from a human. Fantel had been born of the Chimeri. Her people could hear the beating heart of Mother Aldlis herself.

“Right,” Rashari winced, but doggedly continued on, “and when the body expires, the spirit becomes a ghost and detaches from the body – but the soul doesn’t. The soul just goes out, like a snuffed candle.” Rashari paused, a troubled expression passing over his face. “My father explained it to me like this: the body is the vehicle, the soul is the engine and the spirit is the driver. The vehicle isn’t going anywhere without an engine and the driver is just stuck, in a useless shell, without the soul to give life momentum.”

Fantel nodded, “I was taught something similar. Magic – anima – comes from the soul, not the mind. Without a soul there is no magic. A mind might dream, but it is the soul that gives wings to dreams. That is why ghosts are craven, bitter spectres -mere memories of what they once were.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m all that bitter,” Rashari objected, crooked smile darkened by the candle shadows. “Smith on the other hand...”

Fantel frowned at him. “You are not a ghost.”

“My soul, the one I was born with, was destroyed. My body and my spirit survived the experience – although everything was a bit sundered for a time. Still, my spirit definitely left my body. I remember what it felt like to get pushed out. I’m not sure what the technical term is for someone like me, because there is no one else like me.” He hitched his right shoulder in a tight shrug.

“You are not a dead thing. You are alive.” Rashari was one of the most animated and lively people she had met in a long time. He was the antithesis of what she thought of as ‘soulless’.

“Do you remember when you touched me, on board Vedeca?” Rashari asked her, carefully averting his gaze.

“Yes.” She thought it unlikely she would forget for sometime. Not much truly scared her.

Rashari nodded. “Ten years ago, when I was just a boy, I went with my father out to the Avaline Fault. My father led the Pandora Project. He’d found a lost scion stone. He experimented on it. He wanted to extract its energy. Instead he woke the seraph.”

“Smith?”

“Yes, but he went by a different name then,” Rashari waved that off. “Things went wrong. Smith and I ended up scion bonded. My father didn’t like that. He tried to break the bond and excise Smith. Things went wrong, again.”

“And?” Fantel prompted. She had waited long enough to get the full story from him. She was not going to let him wriggle out of the entire truth now.

“The machines I told you about -my father created them to destroy the Seraph inside me. It didn’t work. Instead he tore apart my soul – and something else filled the void.” It took effort for Rashari to meet her eyes. “You saw it yourself. You must have done. You saw the scorpion when Tomah shot Vedeca down. The scorpion is...a curse. I don’t have a soul but I have it. It keeps me alive and I keep it controlled.”

“What is it? Is it Seraphim?”

“No, yes; I don’t know.” Rashari shook his head, angrily. “The scorpion controlled my body for years, while I watched but couldn’t do anything – just a ghost haunting my own body. Smith and I, together, managed to take back control, but the scorpion is still inside me.” His eyes were haunted when he looked at her over the flame. “The scorpion devours all energy, anima, phantasma; it doesn’t matter. It hungers for all of it. And it can convert it – change that energy into deific power. My father went out to the Steppes to find a catalyst and he found one alright.” Rashari laughed shortly. “All it cost him was his child’s soul; a small price to pay, by his standards.” Whatever he might have claimed to the contrary, all Fantel could hear in his tone was hurt and bitterness. He lifted his left hand, the one with the technomancer glove. “This glove was made for me by father. Harvesting phantasma from machinery was considered more socially acceptable than draining the living souls from everyone I met.” He pointed to the centre of his palm. “This piece of stone helps me regulate my energy levels and the glove gives me an outlet for the power I absorb.”

“Your father experimented on you?” Fantel shook her head. “But you are barely more than a boy. If this happened when you still lived in Adra then…”

“Oh I was a child when this was done, around twelve, I think. My memory of that time is a little foggy. I wasn’t exactly me back then.” He frowned fixing her with an aggrieved look. “And really, I am hardly a boy. I’ll have you know I’ll be twenty before the turn of the first harvest.”

“A boy,” Fantel repeated firmly. “And you think, should they get the Heart of Anoush, DeLunde will try to make another like you?”

“Absolutely. They were trying to make more deific catalysts while I was still stuck in Scarria. They failed in every attempt because they didn’t have a scion stone. Real scion stones are hard to come by, after all. Now they have a new scion stone in their sights they’ll have a slew of potential hosts lined up to become the next me.” He his mouth twisted in a bitter moue. “They were cultivating Bashi, I’ll bet. They probably had their own plans to relieve him of the stone. They must have been prepping the Avaline facility for months, just waiting to bring the stone out to the Steppes.”


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