Don't be sorry, be better
Fantel released her trapped breath in a slow sigh as Tomah’s body hit the floor. Carefully she rose to her feet. The spirit scorpion pulled back its barbed tail, ghostly wings drawing in. Inside the scorpion’s shell Rashari fussed over Smith’s remains, laying them out on the floor where he knelt, running his fingers repeatedly over the two pieces of the shell. He poured half of the metal spheres into each, pushing the two pieces closer together. Then he held his left hand, palm down, over the remains. A dark purple light surrounded his palm, emanating from the piece of stone embedded in his flesh.
“Smith,” He said the name as if it was an invocation.
The ball bearings started to jump inside the shell halves, bouncing around like pebbles in a panhandlers sieve. The pinkish-mauve glow rising from Smith’s remains intensified. A soft hum rose from the remains. Fantel moved closer. So far Rashari had failed to acknowledge her at all. Yet as she stepped forward the scorpion turned to look at her. Fantel froze. The human skull mounted on top of the scorpion’s body fixed her with dark, fiery eyes, but she felt no malice in its regard. She and the spirit regarded each other silently for several heartbeats. Her magic was gone. She could no longer make an invocation and summon a spirit from the anima in the air, but she could still sense the presence of greater magic when it was right in front of her. She could sense nothing from the scorpion. It was as if it was merely an illusion. The scorpion dissolved. Its form collapsed in on itself in a silent implosion of brilliant indigo sparks. In the blink of an eye the fearsome spirit had vanished.
“C’mon Smith; I know you’re still here.”
Fantel sank down onto the floor opposite Rashari, the pieces of Smith between them. There was magic here, she could sense it clinging to Smith’s remains. The same strange, potent magic she had felt coming from Vedeca after the crash. It was different from the hungry, clawing force unleashed with the scorpion. This was not a negative force; it didn’t seek to steal life. Instead Fantel could feel the pulsing strength of anima in the air, radiating from Smith’s remains, as if Smith’s spirit still clung to the broken pieces of his body. Fantel knew then what Rashari was doing, and why he had unleashed the void inside him. He hadn’t been lashing out mindlessly. He’d acted deliberately to steal the soul energy from the Dha-hali so he could give it to Smith.
Power breathed through the room, thick and heavy. It reminded Fantel of Aashorum, and the heavy echo of Mother Aldlis breathing through the jungle. This power was more focused than the raw, omnipresent essence of the Mother. It was not as great and vast as the flow of anima rising from the heart of Aldlis. This power was more personal. It was meant for a single purpose; to knit the tattered pieces of Smith’s spirit back together.
Fantel curled her hands into fists, pressing them tightly against her thighs. The magic in the air called to her, alien but achingly familiar all the same. It itched at her brain and whispered to the hollow place inside her, the wound where her magic used to be. There was a time, a seeming life time ago, when she possessed the power to coax a somnambulant seed to break early into life, deep in its soil bed, or make summer blooms hide their faces from the midday sun. Once she had commanded the rock and the soil and all the creatures that dwelt upon it. Now she could only watch, impotent, as Rashari worked his strange magic in front of her.
The spheres started to rise into the air, caught in the tendrils of glowing vapour emerging from Smith’s shell. The vapour began to coalesce into a roughly spherical shape, still glowing with cheerful mauve light. The little spheres swirled within, whizzing around inside the glowing ball of light. Hastily Rashari snatched up the two halves of the broken shell and held them up around the spinning mass. Smith’s spirit seeped inside, the spheres pinging off the metal as they flew around like a dozen errant moons in a whiplash orbit. Rashari pressed the two halves of Smith’s shell together, but couldn’t seal Smith’s body closed. Armen had warped the metal when he’d twisted the pieces apart, and the seam of Smith’s eyebeam now opened too wide and ran crooked. Wisps of Smith’s spirit seeped free, dissipating in the air. Rashari’s hands shook as he held the pieces in place.
“Blllllll….” Smith burbled, a tiny ghost of sound, more felt than heard. Rashari sagged, holding Smith awkwardly in his lap, trying vainly to stop more of Smith’s spirit from escaping. He’d pulled Smith’s vital essence together again but he could do no more. Without a body to contain it Smith’s life energy would begin to dissipate in the atmosphere. Whatever Smith was now, his spirit was not strong enough to survive without a body to anchor it. Fantel rose swiftly to her feet and stepped over to Tomah’s body. She used her claws to slice long strips from his silk tunic and tugged loose the wide swathe of vivid red cloth he wore like a belt around his middle.
“Here,” tying a couple of the strips of tunic together Fantel wound them around Smith’s shell, knotting the ends together in a makeshift bandage. Together she and Rashari criss-crossed strips of dark blue silk around and around Smith before tying them off as tightly as they could, binding the broken pieces of his shell in place. It was far from a perfect solution, wisps of energy continued to seep free of the crooked seam of Smith’s eyebeam, but it was the best they could manage. After they were done Fantel laid out the silk sash on the floor and Rashari carefully wrapped Smith inside, drawing the silk around his shell and tying off the neck of the make-shift sack with the last strip of tunic.
“Bl – oop.” Smith glowed like a beacon through the vibrant silk. He was a very far cry from inconspicuous.
“We need to get out of here,” Rashari said, finally deigning to speak to her, even if he wouldn’t look up and meet her eyes. He threw the sack over his right shoulder and rose to his feet, movements awkward and furtive. Fantel noted the way his gaze skittered over the bodies of the Dha-hali and then swiftly away again, moving in a fast, anxious dance over every inch of the loft.
“Bl-up.” Smith burbled mournfully, the sounds muffled by the silk and his weakened state. A pained look crossed Rashari’s features with every miserable burble Smith made.
Fantel watched them both, still kneeling on the floor. The sliver of stone she had found in her pocket remained palmed in one hand, now slick with her blood and sweat. She was very well aware that without it she would most likely be dead. Rashari would have killed her, not deliberately, not wilfully, but with complete negligence. He was dangerous. He said as much, but now she had seen the proof with her own eyes. She had yet to decide if this changed anything. She opened her hand, holding out the piece of milky white stone so he could see it.
“What is this?”
Rashari flinched, gaze jerking toward her before he could stop himself. A muscle in his clenched jaw ticked. Fantel could see the tension in his body. He wanted to run. His eyes widened when he saw the piece of stone.
“Where did you get that?”
“The compartment inside Vedeca’s hold,” Fantel said twitching her shoulder in a slight shrug. “It was in a wooden box next to the satchel you asked me to retrieve.” It had been an odd and uncharacteristic impulse that had led her to pocket the box at the time. An impulse Fantel could only ascribe to serendipity now.
“You stole it?” Rashari looked aggrieved for all of a half-second before the look Fantel gave him killed any further protest he might have thought to make. He winced, almost shying away, and clutched the neck of Smith’s sack in a white-knuckled grip. He stared determinedly at an innocuous spot on the floor, stubbornly refusing to meet her eyes. “It’s my spare.” He mumbled. “It’s a piece of Smith’s old scion stone. The other piece in is in my hand.” When he waved his left hand toward her, the fragment in his palm was now the exact same shade of white as the piece in her hand. “It’s supposed to be insurance. In case I lose this piece.”
Insurance indeed, Fantel thought dryly. “It saved my life.” She closed her hand around the pebble sized stone. She was, to say the least, reluctant to hand it back to him. She stood up and waited until Rashari met her eyes.
They stared at each other for a long, long moment. Fantel thought about all the trouble he had dragged her into so far, and the number of times her life had been in jeopardy as a direct result of his actions. She thought about the soul void inside him and the spectral scorpion. She thought about her life as a wayfarer; the solitude of the wild roads, the silence of the wilderness. The emptiness of a life spent unnoticed. She had said that she would follow him, only hours before. She had promised him her trust. Now that she had seen and felt what he could do - what he was willing to do - when he lost his temper and gave up his control she wondered if she could trust that he wouldn’t do it again. She could walk away. He would not stop her. She could see that clearly. He was braced for just that. She could walk away, and if more Dha-hali came for her, or if Imperial scientists came for her, she could tell them what she knew, barter Rashari’s secrets for her life, and return to her simple, empty existence. Or she could leave quietly, keeping his secrets, but escaping his fate. She didn’t owe him anything and she was beginning to suspect he was far more dangerous than any of the forces pursuing him. She could walk away. It was good to know, even as she knew that she would do no such thing.
“I am keeping this.” She said placing the piece of broken stone back into its box and tucking the box back into her pocket. “For insurance; though I trust I will not need it again.”
Rashari’s eyes widened, the tense stillness shattering across his face, breaking into an expression of shock – and near painful relief. “Oh,” he breathed out a gusty sigh. There was something very naked in his eyes. It made her uncomfortable. She turned and walked past him toward the hatch leading down and out of the loft. His gaze followed her, the question he would not ask –perhaps in fear of the answer – ringing loud in the silence.
Fantel stopped and made herself turn back to face him. “It was an accident.” She said voice soft. “I…know something of what it is like, to have power and to misuse it.” She stopped, battling with herself. This was a confession she did not want to make, yet for some reason she wanted him to know that she did understand. She understood anger, and power, and the harm that could be done when one had both in ready supply, and too little control.
“I,” He licked his dry lips. “I am sorry. I…”
She nodded sharply, cutting him off. “Don’t be sorry; be better. Don’t make the same mistake again.” It was the only advice she could give him. The only warning she would offer. Not that it would be so simple for him. It hadn’t been for her.
Fantel realised something was wrong as soon as they left the building and found themselves back in the commercial district. People still thronged the street but now they congregated at the pavement edge, in front of the dark façades of the once buzzing shops and eateries. There were a number of uniformed guardsmen herding the late night revellers down the street, away from them. Fantel looked to her right and her left up and down the long avenue. The whole of their side of the street was dark, every light shattered. The air was thick and greasy with the reek of death energy. Across the street an Aramantine guardsman turned around and stared at them. There were a great many people staring at them. Fantel glanced back at the building at their back. Every window on every floor was shattered and shards of glass lay at their feet an inch deep. Fantel turned to Rashari.
“Bugger,” He muttered, eloquently. Across the street the guard blew on a whistle and several people started pointing and shouting. Rashari met her eyes. “Run.” He said.
They ran, feet skidding on the quilt of glass. More people shouted at their backs, and a chorus of shrill whistles hounded their retreat. Fantel soon outpaced Rashari, her legs were longer and she wasn’t carrying both Smith and their satchel full of supplies. The dark side of the street had been cleared of people. Fantel caught a glimpse of a cordon stretched out across the other side of the avenue and a number of Aramantine guards keeping the pedestrians back. This was to their advantage as the only objects they had to dodge were inanimate and less likely to deliberately block their path. She glanced back over her shoulder as Rashari jumped over an overturned café table three guardsmen in hot pursuit.
They hit an alley, cutting away from the main avenue, Fantel in the lead. She had no destination in mind other than escape from pursuit. The alley was narrow, and grew narrower still as the walls of the old buildings on either side bowled outward like the pot-bellies of stout old men. A carpet of refuge covered the ground. The crack of breaking glass rang out loud as a bullet as her foot came down on a bottle hidden under a blanket of wet paper. She stumbled and Rashari almost barrelled into the back of her. Behind them the narrowness of the passageway forced their pursuers to chase in single file. What lay ahead remained unknown; escape or a waiting battalion of guardsmen, there was no way to tell.
Fantel looked up, catching sight of an old balcony poking out of the side of the building to the left. The ironwork was rusted and the balcony looked palpably unsafe, but it offered access to the over-hanging lip of the pitched roof of the building and a way of losing their pursuers. Fantel grabbed Rashari’s shoulder, jerking her chin toward the balcony. He needed no further prompting. Scooping up an unbroken wine bottle from the ground Rashari hurled it at the head of the lead guardsman, who ducked, then slipped on the filth and landed in an undignified sprawl across the ground. The bottle sailed clean over the fallen guard, shattering at the feet of the second pursuer, who stopped, throwing up an arm to protect his face from flying glass. The third guardsman ploughed into him from behind.
The distraction bought them scant seconds, but it was enough. Fantel dropped and cupped her hands together into a cradle so she could boost Rashari up enough for him to catch hold of the balcony railing and haul himself up and over, swinging Smith’s sack onto the balcony ahead of him. Then he leaned over the groaning rail to help haul Fantel up, not that she needed much help. She had just swung her last leg over the railing when the first of the guards jumped up with the aid of his compatriot and made a grab for the balcony. Fantel kicked him in the shoulder, not quite willing to kick the man in the face for simply doing his job. He fell heavily onto his compatriot amid considerable cursing.
Rashari was testing the edge of the gutter and the lay of the roof tiles for purchase. He glanced back and nodded sharply, before grabbing hold of the old metal gutter and wriggling up onto the sloped roof. He scrambled over the dull green tiles toward the apex as Fantel finished heaving herself up onto the roof.
What followed next was an undignified scramble over rooftops. They jumped from one roof to another and Fantel was thankful that the buildings were built so close together in this part of the city. They hunkered low, skulking over the roofs and trying to blend into the shadows cast by the sky-reaching towers in the distance. Below they could hear the guards swarming. Shrill whistles and shouts rose up from the streets. Rashari was in the lead now, moving with a purpose that suggested he had a destination in mind. Fantel followed, looking back over her shoulder repeatedly, checking to make sure none of the guards had followed them up onto the roofs. The guards seemed content to wait them out. Sooner or later they would have to come back down. The fourth wall rose up ahead, an impassable blockade drawn like a thick black line across the horizon.