“Where is it?” Tomah rounded on Rashari. The tattoos covering his face flashed pale yellow in anger. Rashari said nothing. He was staring down at the pieces of Smith on the floor. He was almost panting, quick shallow rasps of breath between clenched teeth.In contrast Fantel was barely breathing at all. All the breath had left her lungs when Armen tossed aside Smith’s broken pieces. Her heart beat loudly in her ears; she’d clenched her fists at some point and her claw tips had pierced the flesh of her palm. Her blood was thick and hot as it seeped through her fingers onto the floor.
“Answer me.” Tomah was incensed. The cool commanding mien he’d maintained throughout the interrogation had evaporated. He advanced on Rashari. “Where is it? Where is the Heart?”
Rashari lifted his head and whatever Tomah saw on his face stopped him dead. Quite abruptly it felt colder in the loft. Fantel drew in a shallow breath. The air seemed heavy, the atmosphere charged. At her back the pipe she was chained to felt like ice. Her ears buzzed, reacting to a near subliminal vibration running through the floorboards. At the edges of the room the scattering of phantasma lamps started flickering. The Dha-hali near the exit hatch shifted nervously, looking around them. The Dha-hali standing near Fantel moved away, eyeing the pipe warily. Fantel wriggled against her chains. The sudden cold radiating from the pipe intensified and the metal reverberated with a force from within. The buzzing in her ears increased and her head throbbed painfully. She sensed a rising swell of death energy in the room. The bulb in one of the lamps popped, and a shower of rainbow sparks rained down onto the floor. The gun toting Dha-hali cursed in Bhuvanti. The creeping cold spread through the room like a thunderhead ready to burst. In dawning horror Fantel realised what was happening.
“You will pay.” Rashari ground out, his voice almost unrecognisable, dragged from a place deep inside of him that was cold and hungry and filled with a voracious, terrible fury. On either side of him the Dha-hali holding him immobile collapsed to the floor like broken puppets. The rich lustre of their chestnut skin now grey tinged and riddled with crawling black lines. Their eyes were clouded white with death.
The Dha-hali with the gun turned, eyes darting from his two dead compatriots to Rashari. He raised his revolver, finger curling around the trigger. Rashari pivoted smoothly, moving with unnatural speed, his motions fast but jerky, almost like a clock-work toy. He threw up his left hand, a corona of deep, pulsing purple energy crackling around his upraised palm. He clenched his fist as if snatching something invisible from the air. Two of the lamps in the corner behind the armed Dha-hali exploded. Sparks flew and the lamps erupted. Raw necrotasmic energy bubbled up from the shattered lamp heads. In the blink of an eye two phantoms had materialised in the room. The phantoms hurtled through the air toward Rashari, their nebulous, gaseous forms burning bright as red hot embers, gaping maws open on hungry roars. The armed Dha-hali didn’t stand a chance.
The phantoms ploughed through the Dha-hali’s back, passing through flesh and bone as easily as air. The Dha-hali went into spasm, arms flung wide, spine arching, head snapping back and mouth falling opening on a wordless scream. His finger jerked on the trigger. There was a flash of black-blue light as the necromantic bullet left the chamber, but instead of striking through the air and into the far wall the ghost bullet changed trajectory, bending toward Rashari, the bullet shining like a winter star. Rashari caught the bullet in his upraised fist, clenching fingers around the ghostly glow.
The stricken Dha-hali continued to convulse on his feet, body rocking and jolting, limbs flailing as the two phantoms ricocheted within. The first of the phantoms burst free of the Dha-hali’s mouth. It ripped itself loose with hook-like claws streaked in blood and ichor. The second phantom seeped out of the man’s eyes, ears, and nostrils like steam rising from a kettle. The Dha-hali crumpled to the floor, well and truly dead.
More bullets flew, this time fired by one of the Dha-hali guarding the exit hatch. Rashari whipped his head toward the bullets. His eyes burned blue; a cold glacial light. Malicious rage had redrawn the lines of his face, sharpening the angles of cheek and chin and bleaching the colour from his skin. Waves of power rose like heat haze from his body, forming a cloak of angry indigo light that spread outwards through the air. The ghost bullets hit that cloak of energy, exploding into blue-black fireworks before their power was absorbed into the pulsing wave.
Chained to the pipe in the corner of the room Fantel could barely breathe. At her back the pipe, a conduit for necrotasmic power running the entire length of the building from the basement to the loft, burned with a flesh withering cold, shuddering and clunking as the converted soul energy running through it strained for release. The same dragging, clawing suction she had felt when Lieutenant Roake had tried to heal Rashari with anima filled the room, only this time it was several magnitudes worse. Fantel writhed in her chains, heart palpitating, lungs straining, limbs twitching. Death energy was everywhere, pulsing through the air, reverberating through the floorboards, drawn inexorably toward Rashari and the great aching void inside him. The void he had deliberately unleashed on everyone in the room.
YOU. WILL. PAY.
He screamed; a furious, incensed howl that Fantel felt in her bones – in her very soul. His unreasoning rage lashed out through the loft. The last of the lamps exploded and above Fantel’s head several rivets in the pipe came loose, flying through the air, pushed loose with explosive force by the torrent of necrotasmic energy erupting from the pipe. Phantoms shrieked, echoing their summoner’s rage as they burst into existence and whipped around the loft like a flock of screeching geese. Until they too were sucked into Rashari’s maelstrom and devoured. The floor rocked with an explosion further below. Fantel choked, seizing in her chains, tasting her own blood when her teeth bit her tongue. She was sure she was going to die. Rashari would kill her, as surely as he laid waste to the Dha-hali in the room. The pain and pressure was like nothing she had ever experienced. She felt as though her soul was being torn from her body inch by inch. If she didn’t die soon she was certain she would explode, every last erg of life energy within her loosed into the air in a shower of blood and viscera. She had lost her sight and the shrieking of death was the only thing she could hear, and still the pressure did not diminish. The soul vacuum continued to grow, sucking in everything around it. Fantel tried to find breath to shout. She did not believe Rashari had any desire to hurt her. He would stop if he knew…if she could just call his name…
She shuddered, fighting the chains that pinned her arms to her side. Her efforts were futile; her limbs would not obey her. She could not draw breath to whisper, let alone scream. She managed only to slump to the side, and as she did so something in the inner pocket of her coat jabbed against her ribs. Something with a sharp edge, something that, when it brushed her ribs through the thin inner lining of the coat, sent a jolt through her entire body, like a tiny fork of lightning. Instantly Fantel could breathe, the hideous pressure lifting from her soul. Her eyes flew open, vision dancing with black spots. She turned toward the object in her pocket, curling her body around it as much as physically possible. Whatever the object was, it radiated its own cool power, not cold like the soul vacuum, but sharp like a mountain breeze.
Fantel wriggled in earnest trying to inch down as close to the floor as she could. She rolled her shoulders and twitched her spine slithering underneath the chains wrapped around the ruptured pipe. The pressure from the released necrotasmic energy had caused the metal to dimple and dent, altering the shape of the pipe and granting Fantel just a scant half inch of extra give. Scrambling low, until she was almost supine on the floor, Fantel was able to free her arms, inching the loop of chain up around her neck, past her shoulders. Blindly she reached into the inner pocket and snatched out the small wooden box she found there. She ripped open the lid, fingers brushing against the cool, smooth sliver of glass-like stone inside. The shard fit into her palm easily and when she clenched her fist around it she immediately felt better, as if a switch had been flipped within her body she was no longer fighting against the force trying to suck the life from her. Galvanised Fantel rolled across the floor and into a clumsy crouch. She held the shard of cool stone clenched tightly in her fist and blinked to clear her vision.
Rashari had not moved. He stood in the middle of the floor; he was barely recognisable. A great hulking shadow loomed above and around him, enveloping him inside a hideous skeletal shell. The winged scorpion; the creature he had claimed was his own personal curse. This close Fantel could see that while its body was that of a scorpion its head was a giant human skull. It was only partially formed; Fantel could see the ghost of bone under the cloud of indigo energy. The faint impression of half-furled wings stretched out behind the scorpion’s back, twitching like a fly. Ghastly insect legs reached out across the floor, punching holes in the floorboards. The almost human looking skull adorning the scorpion body glowered down at Tomah, the only Dha-hali left alive. Vicious mandibles curved around the skulls bottom jaw and its empty eye sockets burned with cold blue fire. The barbed tail scraped the ceiling, curving over the scorpions head so that the barb hung over Tomah. On the floor by Rashari’s feet, inside the scorpion’s shell, lay Smith’s remains. The twisted pieces of metal and scattered ball bearings glowed with a bright, almost cheerful mauve light, creating a strange contrast against the ugly darkness of the scorpion’s form. As Fantel watched Rashari knelt down on the ground beside the remains, reaching out and gathering the broken pieces to him. He cradled the bits of Smith to his chest, head bowed, while the scorpion held Tomah at bay.
Tomah was on his knees as well, arms loose at his sides. He stared up at the scorpion, transfixed. Beside him Armen lay on his back, dead. The bodies of the other Dha-hali were strewn around the loft. Clutching the shard of stone in her hand Fantel crawled across the floor toward Rashari. The scorpion ignored her, its focus entirely on Tomah.
“I want a name,” Rashari said, the ordinary timbre of his voice sounding truly bizarre coming from within the scorpion’s shell. “I want the name of the whoever helped you; the name of the person who told you about me, and about Smith. Give it to me.” The scorpion’s tail quivered threat implicit.
“Mishman preserve me…w…what are you?” Tomah whispered in his native Bhuvanti. His tattoos were stark white against his dark skin.
“The name,” Rashari snarled. “Tell me the name.” Reflexively he clutched the still glowing pieces of Smith closer to his chest. The scorpion pulled its tail back, barb arching over its back. It lowered its skeletal head, spirit legs shifting over the floor, leaving trails of violet crystal in their wake. The scorpion was ready to strike, its wings flexing and stretching to brush against the far walls. Fantel froze in place, every muscle tense and waiting.
“Ruthy,” Tomah blurted out. “She calls herself Ruthy.”
Rashari’s eyes widened with recognition and his grip on Smith’s remains relaxed. A handful of ball bearings slipped from his fingers, bouncing on the floorboards. They glowed with a livid fuchsia light. Rashari scrambled to snatch them back up and one half of Smith’s shell slipped from his arms. He looked panicked and wretched as he gathered Smith back into his arms. “Ruthy?” He whispered.
“I’ll tell you everything,” Tomah promised. “Anything you want to know about the woman and what she told me.”
Rashari looked up at that, eyes sharp and expression sour. “You’ll tell me everything?”
“Yes,” Tomah held very still, caught on the sharp edge between hope and desperation.
“You lie.” Rashari told him, tone flat, still holding the pieces of his friend tightly cradled in his arms. Grief left his face stark and cold. His eyes, reassuringly black once more were nevertheless opaque, “you’ll say anything to save yourself.”
The scorpion’s tail plunged downward, barb aimed like a spear. It went through Tomah like a hot knife through butter, passing through his flesh with spectral ease and neatly, deftly, tearing his soul in two.