The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Ambush

“If you truly do fear DeLunde gaining control of the stone, is it not dangerous to take it out to the Steppes?” Fantel asked.

Rashari rolled his right shoulder in a dilatory shrug, “Now that we know Project Pandora is active again? Yes, I suppose it is. I’m just not sure what else to do. DeLunde might be ahead when it comes to deific research but that doesn’t mean that Adra is the only nation aware of it. You can bet Dushkuland has its own project, and gods alone knows the Suluman would sell the Heart a dozen times over to get out of debt.”

“Then what is your plan? You could have given it to LePortail, but you didn’t. You are determined to take it out to the Steppes, even knowing your enemies wait there.” It all seemed unnecessarily complicated to Fantel. If he trusted his allies so little why had he made the deal with Banaborra in the first place? The more she found out about Rashari the more he confounded her. Logic and sense were clearly alien concepts to him.

Rashari nodded. “Maybe it seems mad to you, but so long as I have the stone, then my enemies don’t. Right now that seems like a very good thing.”

“I do not understand you.” Fantel shook her head. Clearly a proper consideration of consequences could be added to the growing list of concepts Rashari’s convoluted thought processes struggled to grasp.

Rashari sighed. “The stone seems dormant. If the Seraph Anoush is still in there her power is massively diminished. That’s actually worse. It means it will be easy to access the deific power left in the stone. We need to get away from the people chasing us. Dangerous or not, ‘losing’ the stone in Battlan is still our best plan.”

“I sincerely doubt you would know a ‘good plan’ if it bit you,” Fantel tapped her fingers over the cold stone floor. “What about the Seraph, you cannot tell if Anoush remains?”

Rashari shook his head. “No. I know that nothing happens when I touch the stone. Smith thinks Anoush’s consciousness must be in hibernation, weak, but still there. Otherwise I’d be able to feel the deific energy inside the stone.” He shrugged clearly not confident one way or the other.

“Then we must awaken the goddess,” Fantel said. “So long as Anoush is awake the deific energy cannot be harvested, correct?”

“Yes, but I don’t know how. The machinery in the research base could probably do it, if it didn’t kill her, but without that?” He shook his head frustrated. “How do you go about waking up a goddess that has lain dormant for centuries? I don’t think yelling ‘oi wakey, wakey,’ is going to work.”

An idea coalesced in Fantel’s mind, formed from the twisted fragments of everything she had learned since their journey began. She sighed. “Since you are determined to go out to the Battlan Steppes we may as well use it to our advantage. Battlan teems with life and anima. We can take the stone to a wellspring, a place where raw anima rises from the heart of Aldlis. There we can drop the stone into one of the open fissures. If the anima does not awaken the goddess we can at least be sure that the stone will be beyond the reach of human hands.”

“That…” Rashari paused, “is not an altogether bad plan.” A smile spread his lips, “better than my notion of burying the thing in some boggy marsh in the backend of nowhere and hoping for the best, certainly.”

Fantel decided for her own peace of mind not to dignify that with a response. “We still do not know who set you up. Do you think it could be DeLunde and your father?”

“I have no idea. Everything is spiralling out of control. A scion stone becomes available. I make a deal to steal it. DeLunde reopens the Adaline base after ten years of nothing.” He shook his head, striking the air with his hand and rippling the candle flame. “I can’t believe any of this is a coincidence,” He admitted. “Maybe our secret puppet-master is banking on me making a break for Battlan. Running headlong into disaster is something of a habit of mine.” He added dryly.

“I had noticed,” Fantel assured him. “Regardless it seems the only course of action left to us.” As much as she hated to admit it. “The Dha-hali will be watching Vedeca, no doubt. I do not think you would wish to leave your ship behind should we flee Aramantine for another human city.”

“Bloody right I don’t.” He agreed without hesitation and then winced. “Bugger it. I hadn’t even thought of that. Damn-all, we’re like rats in a trap, aren’t we?” He shook his head disgusted. “I wish I knew who was behind all this.”

“You have no idea at all?” Fantel pressed. “You seem to know a great many untrustworthy people.” She added. “Surely a suspect must stand out against the crowd?”

“No,” he looked up at her, frustration writ large across his face. “It could be anybody. Raiders are notoriously untrustworthy; it’s an occupational requirement. Every last one of us is out for ourselves. We might band together for profit but you can be assured we each have a knife ready for a spot of backstabbing when it suits us. That’s just how it is. You learn to accept the fact that a knife might find a home in your kidneys at any moment. It’s like the Idris sweat or Messonyan quincey – death comes and goes with the turning tide.”

Fantel arched her eyebrows both amused and incredulous. If all raiders were really so quick to turn on their allies it was a wonder they had managed to become so credible a threat around Aldlis. “This person must know you well, to so accurately predict what you would do.” She pointed out. “Is there no one you trusted at all?”

“I didn’t trust anyone, that’s the point. Well, except Smith, and he didn’t betray me.”

“Smith?”

Fantel hadn’t thought about him since they’d left the fourth circle wall, and immediately felt a pang of concern (and a smidgeon of guilt). She met Rashari’s eyes and saw a mirror of her own creeping realisation reflected upon his features.

“Should he not have found us by now?” She asked.

“Yes,” Rashari looked worried as he got to his feet. “He knows about this place, and anyway, he can always find me.”

“You think something has happened to him?” Fantel rose as well beating him to the hole in the wall and out into the corridor.

“I think if someone knows me as well as it seems then Smith becomes leverage.” There was a sick look on his face as he snagged the candle from the floor. The flame flickered and almost went out. “We need to find him.”

They were both sticky and sweaty by the time they reached the commercial district, having run more or less the entire way. Under the lurid rainbow lights Rashari’s face was pale and drawn, emphasising the curve of his cheekbones and the darkness of his eyes. He scanned the crowds, tense and wound taut. Fantel shaded her eyes from the harsh lights, gritting her teeth against the unpleasant buzz of phantom energy thrumming through the district.

“Why are we stopping?” They had agreed to start their search for Smith at the fourth wall gate, the last place they had seen him.

“I…” Rashari shook his head, a sharp anguished motion that reminded Fantel of a horse tossing its mane to dislodge flies. “I thought I sensed…no never mind, let’s go.” He started running again, knocking carousing locals out of his way without a backward glance. Fantel plunged into the crowds after him and soon made up the distance.

They ran together; their feet pounding over cobblestones and cracked concrete, the rasp of their breathing echoing harshly in the night. Finally they came to the fourth wall gate, closed and barred for the night. The shadow of the wall rose like a gigantic wave, fossilised to stone, just before it could crash down upon their heads. It was eerily quiet. They skidded to a halt, nervously scanning the battlements and the empty patch of no man’s land right in front of the gate.

“There should be guards…” Rashari began and then stopped, breath catching in a hiss as dark clad figures emerged from the surrounding shadows on all sides. The thin light of the moon caught over the edge of a curved sword and the twisting tattoos decorating the face of the man who strode confidently toward them.

“I warned you,” Tomah said teeth flashing in a fierce, triumphant grin, “that your time would come.” He held his curved sword easily in one hand, stopping several feet away from them. His cold eyes, wreathed in thorny, ember bright markings, fixed on Fantel unblinkingly. He snapped the fingers of his free hand. “Seize them.” The cloaked and hooded men surrounding them closed in. Some brandished swords like Tomah, while others pointed pistols at their heads. The pair exchanged a glance, equal parts frustration and resignation, and both raised their hands in surrender.

Fantel was forced to her knees on the hard, rough stone. A curved blade was pressed to her throat and a pistol muzzle pushed against her temple as her hands were tied behind her back. Beside her Rashari received similar treatment. Tomah stood above them, watching, his gaze cool and careful, not gloating now. Fantel would almost have preferred it if he had crowed about his victory. Complacency could lead to carelessness that she might exploit to free them both. Alas, everything she had learned about Tomah told her that he was not a fool. He would wait to savour his victory until after she and Rashari were either dead or at Einar’s mercy.

Tomah pulled a stoppered bottled from inside his cloak, along with a rag he proceeded to douse in the liquid from the bottle. A sharp, astringent medicinal scent assaulted her nostrils and Fantel instinctively shied away. Tomah noticed. “You remember the smell, Chimera? The Dagoman gave you a dose of the Fire Dream when we first brought you to our enclave.” He handed the rag over to another of his men, pulling yet another fresh cloth from inside his cloak. “You did not like it much then, I hear.” His dark eyes burned into her as he crouched down with the rag and bottle held before him and for the first time Fantel could see the wide square of gauze taped over one side of his neck. “Perhaps you will appreciate the Dreams more now, as I promise you, you will not enjoy waking up.”

Beside her one of the nameless Dha-hali shoved the other soaked rag into Rashari’s face. He reared back instinctively, eyes flaring wide as the foul, stinging liquid scent pervaded his nose and mouth. Fantel could only watch, out of the corner of her eye, as Rashari succumbed to the Fire Dream. Eyelids crashing shut and body slumping forward. The Dha-hali caught him, lowering him to the ground but keeping the rag in place even after he lay still on the ground. Fantel turned back to glare at Tomah, making a promise to herself that should fate be so kind as to give her a second chance at ending this man’s life she would not let anyone stop her. Tomah shoved the rag over her nose and mouth, one hand snaking around the back of her head to stop her pulling away as the other splayed across her face, pressing the cloth against her skin hard enough to push her lips painfully against her teeth. She tried not to breathe but it was impossible. The hot, stinging scent burned up her nose and corroded her senses, setting her sinuses to screaming. Her vision wavered, eyes streaming tears, and her sight fractured into a thousand shattered pieces. The last thing she saw was the broken edges of Tomah’s satisfied leer as the ground fell away beneath her and she plunged down, down, down into an angry black pit of nothingness.


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