Fantel was dreaming again. Around her the illusion of Aashorum clung close, a thousand shades of green shadow pressing in on her like a spice-scented blanket. She couldn’t turn her head or focus, everything was rent and torn. The world was a slow turning kaleidoscope made of a million shattered memories. Her pulse thudded loud and deep in her ears and the air was thick with humidity. She had the feeling there was something she needed to do, or somewhere she needed to be, but she couldn’t quite remember. The stillness of the jungle was at once familiar and alien. Something brushed against her side. She flinched and looked down. It felt like hands patting down her flank, invasive and unpleasant, yet she was alone in the jungle.
Search the Chimera. She might have the stone on her.
In her dream she batted at shadows, claws scratching futilely at the air. For just a moment she thought she touched something, thought she heard a male voice grunt in surprise and pain as her clawed fingers made contact with pliable flesh.
Ah! The Chimera – she cut me!
The sensation of phantom hands grabbing, poking and prodding faded for a moment before returning once more, the invisible hands less probing and more forceful this time. She felt as if she was being dragged across the ground, but in her dream she remained stationary, trapped in the still embrace of the jungle.
……Chain the Chimera to that pipe. Wrap the chains around her body. I don’t want her getting loose…
There was a buzzing in her ears, insidious and annoying, like a swarm of gnats writhing around her head. She couldn’t locate the source of the noise. It didn’t grow louder or fade away but remained a constant vibration in the bones of her jaw. The small bones in her ear started to ache unpleasantly. When she moved, she felt steel links digging into her stomach.
…Bring the raider to me. Let him see his little toy…
The half-dream dissolved and Fantel came back to consciousness in a disjointed muddle. She blinked heavy eyelids open, catching a glimpse of dusty wooden floorboards and the limp stretch of her own legs in front of her. Her head hung forward against her chest and her hair tangled over her face. A nasty bitter-sweet taste lingered on her tongue. She was aware of movement around her, the shuffle of feet, and the faint odour of unwashed bodies. A double loop of narrow chain had been wrapped around her middle, binding her to an exposed pipe at her back and pinning her arms to her sides. Slowly Fantel lifted her head and saw that she was in a loft. The ceiling was made of sharp angles where the roof sloped and the sky light windows were caked in filth. A handful of flickering phantasma floor lamps had been arranged around the periphery of the room, the light focused into the centre, leaving the back of the loft swathed in deep shadow. The air carried the scent of dust and cobwebs.
Ten Dha-hali filled the loft. Three stood guard by the floor hatch leading down to the rest of the building. Two more lounged against the wall behind her, one to her immediate left and one to her right. Another pair of Dha-hali stood in the middle of the room, they had one of Rashari’s arms pinned, trapping him between them. A third stood to the side, holding a revolver loose in his hands, positioned so that he had a clear shot at either Fantel or Rashari. Tomah stood in front of Rashari and as Fantel watched he delivered a vicious punch to Rashari’s stomach, buckling his knees. Rashari gagged and sagged against the Dha-hali holding him. They hauled him to his feet as he wheezed for breath, a rough gasp escaping him.
“Bloop!” A fourth Dha-hali wearing a moss green cloak and hood obscuring his face, held Smith immobile inside a small cage. Smith’s distress rattled the bars. The light from his eyebeam, broken by the bars into violet spears, fell across the side of Tomah’s face and upper torso mixing with the murky rainbow light coming from the lamps. Fantel wondered, vaguely, how the Dha-hali had managed to catch Smith inside the cage and why the automaton had not already broken free.
“How did you make bail?” Rashari wheezed straightening up slowly from the punch. “You’re wanted in Aramantine.”
“Did you think you were the only one to play the system?” Tomah gestured casually with one hand and the Dha-hali with the revolver stepped up behind Rashari, kicking him in the back of the right knee. Rashari yowled in pain and crashed down onto the floor. The Dha-hali holding him upright released his arms at the last moment. He landed awkwardly. They grabbed him again as he twisted to grasp his leg, hands moving to massage his knee. The one with two-tone white and black braids punched him in the shoulder, knocking him to the ground. The other, his hair caught back in a single thick orange plait, aimed a kick to his ribs, but Rashari managed to weasel away, and the Dha-hali’s boot only grazed his side. The black and white Dha-hali seized Rashari by the back of his coat, hauling him up onto his knees. Orange Dha-hali cocked his fist. Tomah waved him back.
“Enough. We made an agreement not to damage him beyond repair.”
Rashari glared at Tomah and from this angle Fantel could see that the cut he’d received during Vedeca’s crash landing had reopened, and a line of fresh blood streaked down his cheek. His bottom lip was split and swollen. She didn’t know when that had happened. “Who helped you?” He demanded more angry than afraid. “How are there so many of you in the city? Who warned you I’d come here?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” Tomah told him flatly.
Rashari shook his head, a quick, savage gesture of pure helplessness. “What do you want?”
“The satisfaction of your death at my hand,” Tomah answered him easily. “But that is not the arrangement.” Tomah’s eyes were hard. “You get to live, traitor, to face those you betrayed.”
Rashari bared his teeth in a half-snarl. “Whatever deal you made with Veridree, whatever they offered you, they’ll betray you. You –and your Dagoman – are being played.”
Tomah laughed. “Do you think I’ll believe a word you say? You who murdered your captain? You have no honour; nothing you say can be trusted.” Tomah stepped close, reaching down to drag Rashari to his feet by the lapels of his coat. He clasped Rashari’s head between his palms, his thumbs scraping over Rashari’s cheeks up toward his eyes, digging into the delicate skin of his lower eyelids. Rashari tried to pry Tomah away from him and the monochrome Dha-hali grabbed his arms, twisting them behind his back. Tomah brought his face very close, expression still and intense, as his thumbs scraped at the bottom lids of Rashari’s eyes, teasing the skin back and exposing the vulnerable meat of his eyeballs. “Where is the Heart of Anoush, thief?” Tomah breathed into his face.
“You just said nothing I say can be trusted,” Rashari stuttered, trying to tilt his head back and away as Tomah scratched his rough thumbnails over his eyeballs. “Why…why would you believe me…if I tell you?”
“Because I will hurt the Chimera,” Tomah replied calmly. “The Dagoman wants her alive, but he does not need her alive. His obsessions run hot and cold. He will find a new plaything in time. If I bring him the Heart of Anoush he will forgive me for the Chimera’s death.” Tomah did something with his thumbs that caused Rashari to shudder, his whole body quivering as he tried to stay perfectly still. A strangled gasp escaped him. “I will first break the Chimera’s legs – such long, limber legs. I will have my men stamp on her until the bones shatter and break through the skin. Then, when she cannot run, Armen will take her face between his hands and wrench her jaws to the side until the bones break. She will not die and she will be unable to scream.”
Fantel shifted against the pipe, the chains wrapped around her middle clinking as she moved. To her right the large Dha-hali with dark, murky blue hair grinned and cracked his knuckles.
Tomah released Rashari and turned to look directly at Fantel. “If you can speak Chimera, speak now and save yourself. Tell me where the Heart is and, on my honour, you will not be harmed until we reach the enclave.”
Fantel ignored him. She met Rashari’s wide, frightened eyes. She knew that the fear there was for her. She also knew that he would not tell Tomah where the Heart was. In the cage, all but forgotten, Smith quivered. Tomah could not find out how very close at hand the Heart really was. Carefully Fantel rose, inching her spine up the pipe and pushing up with her legs. There was enough give in the chains to allow her to stand. She tilted her chin up and met Tomah’s eyes head on. He might break her but she would not make it easy. She would not lie on the dusty floor and let them stamp her bones to dust. If she was to be beaten, she would stand and face her attackers until she could stand no longer.
The faintest hint of a smile touched Tomah’s tattooed features. He nodded. “Very well Chimera.” Without the need of words he acknowledged her silent challenge. To break her bones would be easy but to break her spirit was quite another matter. For what she had done to his brother Tomah was willing to meet the challenge on both counts.
On either side of Fantel the two Dha-hali closed in. The blue haired Armen grabbed the back of her neck in one meaty paw. The other Dha-hali, his colourful tattoos pulled out of shape by a long ragged scar scouring the left side of his face from the corner of his eye to the edge of his mouth, came to stand in front and slightly to the side of her, positioning himself so that Rashari, held immobile once more between the orange and monochrome Dha-hali, would see every blow as it landed.
Rashari’s face was a mask of stillness, remote and frozen. His almost black eyes were blown wide. He was barely breathing and his lips were pursed into a thin, bloodless line. He shook his head, a minute, seemingly involuntary motion. His fear hardened her resolve. Broken bones healed with time. She would not surrender to men like this. She would sooner die than become the Dagoman’s new ‘plaything’. The scarred Dha-hali drew his leg back. Fantel braced for the impact.
“Wait,” Rashari tried to fight free of the arms holding him. “Pit damn you, wait.”
Tomah held up his hand, the scarred Dha-hali stepped back. Fantel pulled in a quick shallow breath and stared at Rashari, who met her eyes, his expression tense and angry and on the edge of panic.
“I hid it aboard my ship.” Rashari said, words rushing free in his hurry to forestall the Dha-hali. “There’s a secret compartment in the hold. I put it there.”
Tomah smiled just a little and shook his head. “You lie.”
The scarred Dha-hali kicked Fantel’s left kneecap, flat-footed from the side so that the impact forced her knee to bend in a way nature did not intend. She crumpled to the floor, catching herself on her good knee, the sharp shock of pain flaring throughout her body. She whipped her head up to glare at the Dha-hali, lips curling back in a snarl.
Rashari was cursing Tomah and fighting against the arms holding him. “Pit take you – I just told you where the stone is. What more do you want?”
Tomah shook his head, almost pityingly. “You will say anything to save the Chimera. You didn’t leave the Heart behind where anyone could find it. It is somewhere close by.”
“What’s the point of this?” Rashari demanded, voice rising. “You won’t believe a thing I say so why go through with this farce? Why hurt her at all?”
Tomah looked genuinely surprised by the question. “Because she killed my brother; because of this,” he clapped a hand to the bandage taped to the side of his neck. “Because you were a fool to bring others into this with you, and before you die like the traitor you are, you will know only despair and grief for the suffering you have brought down upon the Chimera.”
Rashari looked for a moment as if he would be physically sick. He swallowed hard, eyes growing impossibly wide, as if this answer had never occurred to him. It truly seemed as if had not realised that irrespective of what he said or did, Tomah wished only to kill them, and if he could not have that, he would settle for exacting as much pain and suffering as he could wring from them before handing them over. This was not really about the Heart, or Veridree, not for Tomah. This was revenge.
“Blooop – bloop.” Smith jostled in his cage, his spherical body clanking against the bars, forcing the Dha-hali holding the cage to adjust his grip and drawing everyone’s attention to him. “Bloop; bloop; bloop.” Purple light began to gather around Smith’s shell, yet that corona of light did not expand very far. The cage seemed to absorb and dampen Smith’s energy, almost as if it was draining the automaton’s power.
“What’s this?” Tomah stepped forward and took the cage from the Dha-hali. “So your little toy wants to play? I haven’t forgotten its part in the attack against me.” From his belt Tomah detached a slim black tube. It was around four inches long with two prong-like protrusions on the end. Tomah clicked a switch on the matte black tube and a spark of energy crackled to life between the two prongs. He nodded for the Dha-hali holding the cage to set it on the floor. Then he swiftly knelt down and shoved the pronged end between the bars until it touched Smith’s shell. He flicked the switch and an arc of energy jumped from the tube to Smith.
“Blllllllllllppppp.” Smith juddered, bouncing with the current. There was a flash of violet light and then Smith’s eyebeam blinked out. The shimmer of purple energy around his shell disappeared and Smith dropped to the bottom of the cage, looking like nothing more than a badly dented metal ball. Fantel looked from Smith’s inert form to Rashari, who stared down at Smith in anguish before turning furious eyes on Tomah.
“We were told that this thing,” Tomah negligently kicked the cage with toe of his boot, “was the key to capturing you.” Tomah shook his head. “It beggars belief that one such as you could ever be as dangerous as the woman said.”
“Then don’t believe it,” Rashari spat. “Don’t believe what you were told.”
Tomah ignored him, reaching down to send another jolt of energy through Smith. “Everything we have been told leads me to think that you would not discard the Heart. We searched you and the Chimera before you woke. If neither of you have it then there is only one place it could be.” Tomah reached down and unlocked the top of the cage, picking Smith up in his two hands. Smith didn’t even quiver and his eyebeam remained completely dark. Fantel felt her heart lodge in her throat as Tomah rose, Smith still clasped between his palms, a thoughtful expression on his face as he studied the long horizontal seam in the two curved metal plates forming Smith’s shell.
The big, muscle-bound blue haired Dha-hali lumbered forward, his face splitting in a bright white grin. He took Smith from Tomah’s hands. Fantel shot a rapid glance toward Rashari, who appeared stricken, eyes rooted in horror upon Smith and lips parted on a silent exclamation. Fantel strained against her chains, but they were too strong. Armen grasped Smith between his large thick knuckled hands, one on the top plate and one on the bottom and started to twist at the same time he pushed down on Smith’s shell. There was a crinkling sound, soft and almost musical. New dents appeared in Smith’s shell. The muscles in Armen’s forearms bunched and shifted under his dark skin. He readjusted his grip, fingers clawing like spider-legs over Smith’s top plate. The large Dha-hali’s grin became more of a grimace. He strained his arms, fingertips whitening. There was a hideous tearing sound and the two plates of Smith’s shell twisted apart, breaking open in Armen’s hands. Armen grunted in triumph, dug his fingers into the seam of Smith’s eyebeam and ripped Smith in two.
A shower of tiny metal balls and a single reticulated arm rained down onto the dusty floor boards, bouncing in every direction and rolling across the floor. Armen grunted again, peered into the empty space between the two broken pieces of Smith’s shell, and then tossed them down on the ground.
He looked up at Tomah. “There’s nothing in here.”