Strange humans falling out of bushes
She was herded out of the cellblock, through the dented steel door, and up a narrow flight of stairs. The Dha-hali kept his gun pressed against the small of her back the entire time, chasing her heels, so close his hot breath scalded the back of her shoulders as she climbed ahead of him. The stairway was narrow enough that two people could not cross on the stairs. The featureless stone walls closed in around her, the air thick and damp, the coolness of the cellblock replaced with a moist heat that made the walls sweat. Above her head a dim red light beckoned – the lockpad to another mechanised door – that single mournful eye was the only illumination as she climbed.
Once they reached the top the Dha-hali made her kneel on the floor facing back down the dark stairway as he retrieved a phantasma key stone from somewhere on his person and unlocked the door. She thought about grabbing his leg as he fiddled with the lock. It would be easy to yank his foot out from under him and cause the man to topple back down the stairs. Then she could search his body for the key stone, run back into the cells, disable the frightened youth, and take the other women with her as she made her escape. Yet some instinct, almost like a whisper of foresight, told her to be patient. The voice whispered that rash action would be fatal but if she waited just a little longer then a chance to free herself would come her way. Fantel recognised the voice of destiny, the voice of her innermost self – the same voice that had kept her alive in those first hideous months of exile. Then the voice had told her that the Echo of Aldlis ringing through the jungle was not the only voice she might hear, if only she could learn to listen and think for herself. That voice had spoken blasphemy then and set her on a course that had led her here to this fate – yet she could not deny that the voice had also set her free. Perhaps it would do so again?
“Up,” The Dha-hali grabbed her arm hauling her to her feet. He pushed her through the now open doorway. Sunlight blinded her. Fantel staggered back, half raising her shackled hands to shield her eyes. Her head reeled, reacting to the sudden wave of sound and scent and taste that hit her like a physical weight. The assault on her senses was dizzying. She heard the cawing of birds in trees, the taste and scent of a hot breeze, the faint, tantalising aroma of spices and rain. Dropping her arms she blinked a few times. All she could see through narrowed eyes was a sea of vibrant green.
Gradually as her eyes adjusted to the light that green haze resolved into distinct shapes; she was standing in a grassy clearing edged by thick forest. Heavy ropes of moss hung from the low hanging branches of the trees, trailing in a hot, humid breeze that swept over the unkempt grass. The door she had stepped out of was set into a sheer cliff. Fantel turned and looked up at the cliff face only to realise that what she was looking at was not a natural cliff at all. The rock was too smooth, tapering toward the tip into a rounded peak. There was something about the way the massive tower of rock stood perfectly erect and straight that did not seem quite right. It looked like a giant pillar, something carved and sculpted. It was too perfect to be natural. Fantel turned her head, looking over the tops of the trees. In the distance she could see a high ridge of mountains. The top of the range was uneven – each individual peak had a curved, rounded top. The peaks rose in ascending order in a series of rounded humps, the shortest on the far side and the tallest in the middle, before tapering off again sharply. There was a deep depression in the centre of the ridge, giving the impression of two uneven arches coming together. Fantel frowned. The unusual formation itched at her brain, almost as though she was looking at an optical illusion. She felt that she should know what it was that troubled her about the mountains but her brain just could not decipher the clues. The strange range of mountains cast a long shadow over the treetops, but to the left and right the sky crashed down so sharply that Fantel realised that wherever she was she must be at some altitude; even the air felt thinner now that she had had time to adjust. It was strange, but she could almost believe that this entire valley was somehow floating on empty air, light and free as a cloud.
“Ahead, Chimera, make for the tree line.” The Dha-hali prodded her with the barrel of his gun once again and Fantel started moving. She took a deep breath of air once they reached the trees, nostrils flaring. The rich dark loam of the woods and the comforting presence of the trees was a balm to her soul. She wished dearly that she could lay hands upon the gnarled trunk of one of the Bloodwood trees lining the path. She was sure that the trees would tell her much about this place, if she could only greet them properly, but instead she had to make do with the faint echo of welcome resonating through the soles of her feet – the Pulse of life was strong here. She could sense the depths the tree roots traversed, and the weight of history hidden under the thick forest canopy; so many secrets, so much power hidden within the language of shivering leaves and swaying boughs -a language no human could hope to understand. The ground sloped noticeably, the path through the woods made treacherous by the uneven ground and exposed roots perfectly placed to snag the feet of the unwary, which is how Fantel and her ‘escort’ came to realise they were not alone.
“Bugger,” the soft curse came from the left, floating over a thicket of brambles. Fantel heard the scuff of heavy feet stumbling through the undergrowth only feet away and then through a gap in the trees she caught a flash of sky blue fabric. The green haired Dha-hali glared at her in warning before turning toward the figure half obscured by brush. He hired a shot through the gap in the trees. The shot bit into the bark of a particularly old bloodwood and Fantel winced. She could feel the rumble of the tree’s pain through the roots webbing the ground under her feet. A male voice yelped and a moment later a young human stumbled out of the trees, looking as startled as a grouse flushed out of the brush by a clever hunter.
Fantel studied the interloper curiously. He was human, young, and of good height and lean build. He wore a voluminous great coat of startling blue with wide lapels festooned with a double row of glittering silver buttons. A windblown thatch of black hair was messily cropped close to his head. The youth blinked dark eyes in surprise as he looked from Fantel to the Dha-hali holding a gun on him.
“Careful,” the youth said, holding his hands out in surrender, “you could have hit me.” He spoke the Imperial tongue with the crystal cut diction and lazy drawl of an Adran aristocrat and he was most definitely not Dha-hali.
“Who are you?” Her Dha-hali captor demanded, in Bhuvanti, finger poised on the trigger. “Who gave you permission to walk these woods?”
The strange youth grimaced, eyeing the man’s gun with distaste more than fear. “Ah, so sorry, but I -ah -don’t actually speak your lingo, could you repeat that perhaps?” He managed a vague, affably baffled smile. Fantel narrowed her eyes. The sunlight slanting through the canopy fell across the palm of the youth’s upraised left hand catching the dull silver glint of metal tracing over his palm and down past his wrist. A technomancer’s glove; only that particular stripe of magic worker took to mutilating their flesh in such a way. Fantel, born with a natural and innate connection to Aldlis, the font of all Anima and magic, found such practice both perverse and perversely fascinating. She could just about make out a thumb sized gem stone – fossilised Phantasma, maybe – set into the flesh of his palm; the interwoven web of fine metal fibres running under his skin sprang from the centre of his palm, striking out from that stone like the spokes of a wheel. She was not the only one to notice. The Dha-hali’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“I said who are you?” He growled in Standard Imperial, the language of the Adran Empire and the most dominant tongue on the continent.
“Oh,” The youth smiled, bright and quick, still blithely unconcerned about his predicament. “I’m Rashari.” He blinked innocently. “I’m part of the Veridree party?”
Fantel had no idea what the Veridree party was (wasn’t Veridree in Dushkuland? Why would an Adran have anything to do with a Dushkui party?) but clearly the Dha-hali did. He grunted, lowering the gun fractionally. He did not look happy. “You are not permitted to be out here.” He growled. “All guests are supposed to stay in the house until after the auction.”
“Really?” The youth –Rashari - once again contrived to look genuinely surprised and abashed. Fantel wondered if he knew that his attempt at sincerity was somewhat lacking in any actual sincerity. “Begging your pardon then. It’s just that – well – all that dreamsmoke starts to get to a man’s head after awhile, you understand? Not to speak out against your Dagoman; this is definitely the most lavish and entertaining slave market I’ve even been to, but I’ve never been overly fond of drugged stupors.” The youth flashed his teeth in another bladed smile. Deliberately he turned toward Fantel, studying her keenly. “Ah, so this is the famous Chimera I’ve heard so much about? No wonder ol’ Bashi’s ready to fork over fifteen thousand Orlen for you, sight unseen. Clearly the Dagoman has not oversold your charms.” He spoke with a knowing smile curling his lips and did not fear to meet her eyes. Fantel frowned but said nothing in response; she had the peculiar feeling that this youth knew that she had no intention of being sold to anyone.
“Leave boy,” The Dha-hali growled. “I do not care who your master is, nor do I care if you serve the Dushku raider king. You are trespassing. Leave now and I will not be forced to kill you for laying eyes on my Dagoman’s prime lot.”
“Now, now, no need to be rude.” Rashari smiled, cheerful and insultingly blasé. “Like I said I only came out here for a bit of fresh air.” The youth dropped his hands and adjusted the sleeve cuffs of his coat. He gave Fantel an odd, curt nod. “I will see you at the auction, Madame Chimera.” Then he turned on his heel with military precision, deftly jumped up onto the slight rise he’d stumbled down before and disappeared soundlessly through the brush. In moments he was lost in the dense wood, his footfalls making no sound – a marked contrast to his arrival.
Fantel cocked her head and pondered the empty space he had previously occupied. What had he meant by his strange farewell? Obviously if he was attending the slave auction then he would indeed see her – should fate be cruel and force her onto the auction block – but still, it almost seemed to Fantel as if he had been saying something else. There had been a strange gleam in his dark eyes, something secret. He had addressed her not like a slave, or an object to be haggled over, but instead as if she was more important than her warden. Yes, that was it. All the while Rashari had been speaking Fantel had sensed that he was almost laughing at her Dha-hali guard. He certainly hadn’t shown any hint of fear during their brief exchange, but instead had smiled as if he knew something the Dha-hali didn’t. Fantel realised that she would not mind seeing him again, if only to find out what his secret was.
“Keep moving Chimera,” her guard once more shoved her forward with the gun. Fantel started walking, trying to prime her senses for any hint of the youth’s footfalls; the trees hummed to her and the leaves rattled, whispering that Rashari was still in the woods – travelling in the direction of the cliff-pillar and the secret entrance to the slave cell. She kept this insight to herself however.
Soon the trees became sparse, causing the canopy to thin and allowing pools of sunlight to gather along the path. The murmur of the trees changed; it was fractious now, speaking of an uneasy truce between the forest and the humans who had made a home for themselves ahead. So it was that Fantel knew they neared their destination long before they broke free of the quietude of the forest and into the shadow of an imposing mansion. The building before her was large, almost palatial. Carved from a rose coloured stone, minarets poked up into the sky at each of the four corners of the wide wall running around the property; the mansion’s huge domed roof poked over the top of the wall like a budding blossom not yet in full bloom. The entire estate sat in the shadow of the strange double humped mountain range and Fantel had to walk up a slight incline to reach the elaborate gates, carved into the visage of a snarling serpent, fang teeth dripping venom. Two Dha-hali stood atop the wall above the gates, leaning out from a rickety look-out booth. Her green-haired guard stepped forward, gripping her firmly by the arm and poking the butt of his gun into her ribs before addressing himself to the two gatekeepers.
“Mishman praise and preserve you brother Alum. I bring the Chimera as the Dagoman commanded; let us through.”
“Mishman grant you favour brother Tomah,” one of the guards at the gate replied, tapping his chest over his chest in the traditional Bhuvam greeting. He nodded for his partner to go back into the booth and flip the switch to open the gates. “Enter and know His grace, my brother.”
Tomah nodded but did not immediately move to drag her through the opening gates. “My brother, did you allow one of the Veridree party to enter our woods?”
“What? No.” The gatekeeper, his form thrown into silhouette by the sun at his back, appeared to shake his head. “None of the Dagoman’s guests are to leave the mansion grounds; those were the orders. I swear by Mishman and his eternal favour that I have seen no one wandering the woods.”
Tomah frowned, his expression dark. “Then you are remiss in your duties because I myself saw a man in the woods. He said he was part of the Veridree party. He should have arrived back here ahead of us.” Tomah looked around, as if straining to catch a glimpse of a bright blue coat in the dense woods at their back. Reflexively his grip on Fantel’s forearm tightened, his thick fingers pinching.
“We will find him brother.” The second guard, silent up until now, spoke up.
“You had better,” Tomah snapped, still looking disturbed. “Our Dagoman’s wrath will be great indeed should he discover this breach in security.”
“We will serve our Dagoman until our deaths.” The two gatekeepers snapped a sharp salute, the hollow echo of fists striking light chainmail ringing loudly in the tense silence.
“It may yet come to that,” Tomah muttered almost inaudibly before pulling her through the now open gates and into the courtyard of the mansion.