The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Very stupid plans

Rashari led them across roof-tops heading until they were directly in front of the wall. The night was cloudy, the moon obscured, and the only light came from the torches of the guards patrolling the top of the wall. They hid from the guardsmen detection by hunkering down behind the roofs wide chimney stack.

“Why are we here?” Fantel whispered, pushing stray locks of hair out of her face as a balmy breeze blew over the rooftops. Rashari had opened the silk sack and the light from Smith’s eyebeam cast a swathe of mauve light over his face. Smith burbled quietly amid plinking noises Fantel realised came from the spheres rattling around inside his broken shell. She watched Rashari’s face and wondered what Smith was telling him. He cast a sharp glance over to the wall, brows furrowing.

“Smith hid the Heart inside the drone storage chamber, within the guards’ barracks.” He said. “Tomah ambushed him when he was trying to find us. Smith was with a group of drones on a fly-by around the wall. He saw Tomah, zipped into the storage chamber, dumped the stone and then made a break for it. He failed, obviously.” Rashari reached out to touch the top of Smith’s shell, lightly rubbing his fingers over the silk striped metal. Fantel wasn’t sure if the gesture was meant to comfort Smith or both of them. “Bloody stupid thing to do,” he muttered. “The only thing playing hero gets you, is the scrap-heap. What were you thinking?”

“Bloop,” Smith burbled indignantly. He quivered a little inside the folds of cloth.

“If the Heart is in the guards’ barracks how are we going to get it back?” Fantel prompted, forestalling another argument between man and automaton. Briefly she entertained the question of whether if it was even worth retrieving the Heart of Anoush. If the stone was well hidden it might not be found, and even if it was, then any guard who found it was highly unlikely to know what he had. Their primary motivation for keeping the Heart was to stop it falling into the wrong hands – might it not be better then, to leave it where it was? She glanced at the imposing façade of the fourth wall. Watchtowers rose from the top of the wall at strategic intervals and cannon poked out between the crenulations. Fantel wasn’t sure what it said about the city that the cannon faced inward as well as out across the slums of the firth circle. A single cannon shot could probably topple a building and the wall was mounted with dozens of them. Aramantine’s five curtain walls were the city’s first and most formidable defence against threats from within and without. They had been built to withstand siege by artillery, magic, and the full weight of hostile hordes thrown against them. Fantel knew that no mere wall was ever truly impregnable, no defence total, but the fourth wall didn’t need to be. It was still more than one lone Chimera exile and a battered, bruised, questionably sane human could hope to breach.

Rashari scraped his palms over his cheeks, the soft rasp of beard stubble against his skin surprisingly loud in the tense silence. She had the feeling his thoughts were running down the same channel as her own. He looked tired and miserable. His hair was a bird-nest halo on top of his head. “We break in and take it.” He said finally.

“The barrack is heavily defended.” And the guards are already out for our blood. She did not say, although the silent admonishment hung heavy in the air between them.

“Most of the guards are out there,” Rashari waved his hand down toward the warren of alleyways below them, “searching for us.” Fantel just looked at him, expression eloquent. She failed to see how anything he had just said stood in their favour. Unless he was advocating giving up and allowing the guard to arrest them, in which case they would be sent to the fourth circle gaol and not the guards’ barracks. Not to mention Fantel had no desire to be trussed up in chains yet again.

“We don’t have time for subtlety.” Rashari insisted, a thread of frustration escaping as he sighed. “We have to get out of this city – tonight.”

“How do you propose to break in?” She asked, carefully. She did not like this plan at all, if ‘plan’ was even the right word. Suicide may well be a more apt descriptor. On the other hand it was par the course of their association so far and he was right about one thing. They did need to get out of Aramantine. Fantel would simply prefer it if they did so alive.

Rashari had his eyes fixed on the wall, expression intent as he plotted their next ill-advised move. He turned that intense gaze on her at her question. “You’re with me, right?”

Fantel was offended. “You would ask me that, even now?”

“No. I mean yes.” He stopped, gathered his thoughts, and started again. “I feel like I should offer you the chance to get out while you can, but the truth is I think that time is long gone.” He pursed his lips, mouth thinning into a tight line of concentration. “We’re unarmed and outnumbered and, quite frankly, completely unprepared for an assault on the wall.”

“I’m aware of that,” Fantel replied drily.

Rashari didn’t hear her. “Which is why that is exactly what we’re going to do.”

“Excuse me?” Fantel twitched, eyes widening.

“Every curtain wall and associated barracks has the same design.” Rashari spoke quickly. “I know where the drone storage is located. There is no way we can sneak in unnoticed. So we’re going to have to draw the guards out. Force them to leave the barracks.”

“How?” This plan seemed, at the very least, counterintuitive, if not doomed to outright failure. Surely the last thing they needed was to attract more attention?

He glanced over at her. “I told you. We don’t have time for subtlety. So I intend to be very, very unsubtle indeed.”

Fantel would have raised further objection – for all the good that seemed to do either of them – but Rashari gave her no time. Yanking the red silk sack closed around Smith he shouldered his burden and scuttled off along the roof top.

“Let’s go. We gain nothing from waiting.”

Fantel shadowed him as they crept along the edge of the factory roof, scuttling like rats above the guttering. Fantel could see the barracks now, an ugly rectangular building with a flat roof protruding from the side of the Fourth wall like a boil. A barbed wire fence encircled the barracks, jutting out into the cleared ground surrounding the wall. It seemed quiet from the outside and reminded Fantel of a hornet’s nest; restive and dead in appearance until a swift kick sent sentries swarming to protect the hive.

“There will be lookouts,” she murmured. “We will be shot dead before we can make it to the fence.”

“That’s where my distraction comes in.” Rashari murmured back. “We can’t break in so I’m going to force them to open the doors for us.” Fantel looked at him sharply. He deigned to elaborate before she had to make him. “The guards stationed inside the barracks are there to protect the Fourth Circle from attack. It’s what they’re trained for. I think it’s time someone put that training to the test.” He smiled, tight lipped and eager. “I have a lot of excess energy I need to burn off. Think of this as a public service. The good people of Aramantine deserve to know whether their sworn protectors are up to the task.”

Fantel stared at him, aghast. Was he really suggesting what she thought he was suggesting? Was it not enough that two raider factions and a cabal of imperial scientists were after him, did he now want to start a small war as well?

“You are insane.” She told him flatly.

“I know.” He grinned, sudden and bright. “It’s one of my better qualities.”

He shoved Smith’s sack into her hands and caught hold of the gutter pipe. He swung himself over. Fantel peered over the edge. Rashari was precariously balanced on a window ledge, body contorted to fit the shape of the frame. The window was five feet tall and made of two split panes of glass. The bottom pane opened inward pivoting from the top hinges. Some careless soul had left the window open, possibly presuming – erroneously has it happened – that the likelihood of a burglar scaling the three storey building and sneaking in the window was too slight to countenance. Fantel watched, bemused, as Rashari clutched at the window frame with one arm while wriggling, feet first, under the pane from a side angle, all the while twisting his body in a manner that Fantel herself, with all her Chimera dexterity, would hesitate to duplicate. Clearly gaining illegal entry to buildings via implausibly narrow windows was a skill of his. He paused halfway in and out of the window, lying on his back with his legs inside the building, his arms braced against the sides of the frame holding him in place, and his head and shoulders poking out so that from Fantel’s vantage point it looked as if he was about to be bifurcated by the glass pane. That or break his back.

“Madame Chimera,” he actually had the audacity to smile at her. “I’d suggest finding another roof top. I’m about to bring the house down.” He disappeared through the window, leaving Fantel blinking after him.

She didn’t entertain her bemusement for long. Swiftly she moved to the closest neighbouring rooftop. Gripping the neck of Smith’s sack tightly she jumped the ten feet across to the other building, landing neatly on the roof of yet another industrial warehouse. This roof was flat, with a low safety wall running around the outside. There was a small brick oblong hut in the centre of the roof with a single door, presumably leading to stairway access to the main building. Fantel moved toward it. A sudden frission of energy ignited the night air at her back. The whisper of an all too familiar magic tingled along her spine. It was the only warning she had. Without looking back she sprinted across the roof to the door.

There was a loud noise; the rumble of cracking timbers and clatter of exploding roof shingles. Fantel wrapped her hands around the door handle and wrenched, throwing her full weight behind the pull. The door flew open, the lock popping. A tremendous crash filled the night. Spinning around Fantel saw the brilliant glowing barb of Rashari’s scorpion tail rip through the roof of the factory. The bladed tail tore a wide gash through the pitched roof, sending a shower of broken shingles to the ground. Every window in the building burned with a brilliant indigo light, pulsing from within, an instant before the glass bowed outward and shattered in a series of ringing pops. Fantel jerked her head away, squeezing her eyes closed against the burst of brilliant violet light. Superimposed upon her closed eyelids was the image of the great scorpion spreading its wings. It’s ghostly pinions sliced through the sides of the building like scalpels through flesh. Fantel ducked through the door, blinking away dancing afterimages in radiant shades of orange and black, and dove down the stairs. Rashari had kicked the hornet’s nest. She had no time to lose.

She tore down the stairs, passing several floors of storage space, popping the locks on a number of interior doors before she finally reached the bottom. Her mad dash was punctuated by the occasional disorientated burble from Smith inside his sack. Fantel hit the ground floor and stopped. The exit door was secured with an anima sensor pad. She had no way of bypassing it. She looked either way along the dusty corridor. There was another door to the right. Hoisting Smith over her shoulder she ran toward it. This door was also secured with technomancy, but the door itself was simple wood in a wood frame. Fantel delivered one good hard kick to the door, the impact reverberating up her leg. The door burst inward, splintering the frame. From somewhere above an alarm wailed. The anima sensor pad flashed angry red. Fantel dashed through the door an instant before an arc of anima danced around the edge of the doorframe. Bright blue-white tendrils of energy, like the swaying fronds of some strange sea-creature, stretched out across the broken door sealing the threshold and trapping her inside the room beyond.

She was inside some manner of showroom. Huge plate glass windows, so filthy she couldn’t see out of them, filled one whole wall. Dust sheets covered large objects scattered around the room on wide circular plinths and in the far corner a row of counters stood sentry. Sales receipts and scraps of old promotional posters covered the floor. The entire room smelled faintly of metal, machine oil and phantasma.

Outside Klaxons wailed and glaring floodlights stabbed through the night. The swirl of rainbow light smeared across the muck covering the showroom windows, turning the filth into a strange, dream-like work of art. The heavy tramp of booted feet pounded just beyond the windows; the guards from the barracks, swarming onto the streets like angry wasps. Fantel didn’t know how long Rashari could continue to tear down buildings as a distraction, and frankly, didn’t want to know just how much destruction he could reign down on this city. She cast around for something she could use to break the windows. There was another door set into the bank of windows at the front, but even from the back of the room she could see the glittering trail of charged anima pulsing along the frame. She’d set-off the building’s security defences when she kicked down the first door. The anima shock could inflict anything from temporary paralysis to instant death. Fantel would need a battering ram to break out.

Once more her gaze slipped around the room, settling on one of the sheet covered hulks in the corner. She put down Smith’s sack long enough to wrench the weighted dust sheet off. She sucked in a sharp breath. An air-cycle with sidecar in a rather fetching shade of metallic blue and chrome finish stood revealed on the plinth. The air-cycle appeared to be a fairly standard design, resembling a cross between a bicycle and a canoe with a solid tapered body that the pilot sat inside to steer. The sidecar stuck out awkwardly to the left side. Fantel cocked her head thoughtfully. Outside the sharp, rapid tattoo of gunfire joined the cacophony of sirens. Fantel had no way of knowing if the air-cycle had fuel in its tank, nor did she know how to go about checking. She went back to Smith, pulling the beleaguered automaton from its sheath of silk.

“Can you make this work?” She asked him urgently. Rashari was his own energy battery. Was the same true of Smith? Did he have enough energy to spare? Holding Smith up she held him in front of the air-cycle.

“Blup?” She felt Smith stir in her arms, feebly. She was sure he was trying to hover toward the cycle, but couldn’t manage to lift a fraction of an inch out of her arms. “Blup, blup.” Fantel took him closer, holding him so Smith could see the inside of the pilot’s cab and the controls before crouching so he could see the undercarriage and the two long cylindrical fuel tanks running along the outside edge of the chassis.

Smith quivered. “Bllllllllooooo.” A tingle ran up her palms as very faintly Smith started to glow. Intuiting what he wanted Fantel placed the automaton onto the pilot’s seat, the interior bathed in the mauve glow of his eyebeam. Inside his shell the spheres started to rattle, plinking against the inside of his shell so hard he wobbled and teetered on the edge of falling from the seat. Bright light started leaking out from the crack between the two pieces of his shell, worrying Fantel. She was about to intervene before Smith hurt himself, when a spark zapped from Smith’s eyebeam and hit the ignition slot in the control console. The entire console flashed vivid fuchsia. Vhoooooom; the engines whirred to lif and.the air-cycle jolted up into the air five feet, listing from side to side until it stabilised. Fantel could hear the rotor blades creaking toward full speed. A nasty reek of phantasma belched out of the exhaust pipe at the back of the cycle. Fantel wrinkled her nose, and tried to breathe through her mouth only.

“Blooop.” Smith was still rattling inside the cab, but Fantel now thought there was a shade of smug satisfaction to his burbles. She hurried around to the right side of the cab, opposite the cumbersome sidecar wriggled in, scooping Smith up into her lap.She grasped the controls. She had her battering ram, now all she needed to do was work out how to pilot it.

There were levers built into the floor of the pilot’s cab, pedals, perfectly situated so she could push down on them with her feet. To steer she placed her hands on the plastic covered handlebars on either side of the cab. Fantel had never ridden a bicycle but the principle had always seemed straightforward to her, if she bore down on the right side of the handlebar the cycle would veer right, and if she put her weight on the left it would go left. An air-cycle must follow the same principle or why call it a cycle at all? She tried it, bearing down to the right. Nothing happened. The craft did not move. Instead it continued to hover obstinately in thin air.

“Blup.” Smith thrummed in her lap; the light from his eyebeam seemed focused on a bright green button on the control panel. Fantel pressed the button and immediately the cycle dipped alarmingly toward the ground, wobbling from side to side until Fantel braced the handlebars straight with both hands. The engines protested the lack of movement. Fantel pressed down tentatively on one of the foot pedals. Vhooooom. The air-cycle rocketed forward straight toward the solid brick wall.

“Bllllllllleeee!”

Fantel wrenched the handlebars, her foot pressing down on the pedal reflexively until it was to the floor. The cycle sped up, engines roaring, and veered violently to the right, skewing drunkenly across the showroom at a dangerous tilt. Smith wailed. They clipped another of the dust-sheet covered vehicles, careening to one side, the sidecar banging against the wall in a shower of sparks. The air-cycle tore through the air at break neck speed toward the glass front of the abandoned showroom. Scooting as low as she could inside the cab Fantel ducked her head, her body folded protectively over Smith, and slammed her foot down on the accelerator.


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