The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Gratuitous destruction of property and personnel

The air-cycle smashed through the window like a war horse rearing, throwing Fantel back against the seat. She clenched her knees, trying to keep Smith lodged safely inside the cab as the nose of the air-cycle dipped perilously close to the ground. The piercing shriek of the sirens tore at her eardrums and the balmy night air slapped her cheeks. She was blinded by the flare of search lights, the world narrowing to a single point – the nose of the air-cycle. Fantel’s whole being was bent on keeping the craft level.

She wrenched the steering bars, never once taking her foot off the accelerator; light and cacophony pushed at the edges of her senses. Whistles and sirens, the thunder of booted feet, the occasional scream; all of it combined with the striation of rainbow beams of light slicing through the night. Fantel steered on instinct, moving too fast to make sense of the danger all around, yet acutely aware of it all the same. The streets around the wall were awash with people; blurred shapes that reared up in front of her without warning. A crackle of staccato popping sounds erupted from a side alley as Fantel swept by and she ducked without looking toward the guardsman who had opened fire on her. More shots rang out as she banked hard to the right, zooming toward the expanse of no-man’s land in front of the barracks.

She tasted her own sweat and the stinging burn of cordite and gunpowder between her teeth as the hot wind caught in her hair, driving it back from her face. The road opened up before her, suddenly free of obstacles. She could see the blazing beacon of the barracks and the rainbow-haloed Wall rising above. Her foot was already pressing the accelerator as far as it would go and in anticipation she leaned forward, pushing on the steering bars. Something sailed through the air; it flashed like a falling star hitting the road directly in front of the air-cycle. Fantel had no time to brake or swerve. The object pulsed once, a cheery bright red, and then exploded. Crimson light ignited behind her eyes and the air-cycle was tossed into the air by the updraft from the explosion. All the breath was sucked from Fantel’s lungs. All she could do was cling on as she was caught in a riptide of burning air and momentum. Everything went white and then red. Silence screamed in her ears, unnatural and agonising. The air-cycle tumbled end over end in the air like an autumn leaf in a storm.

The air-cycle thumped down onto the road, underbelly scraping against the cracked concrete with a bone-jarring thud. Fantel’s eyes flew open. She saw brickwork – a huge solid wall – looming up before her and wrenched on the steering bars. Yowling in protest the engines coughed as the air-cycle jack-knifed, the back end swerving out until the craft was careening sideways toward the building. Fantel slammed her foot down onto the brake pedal, forcing her other foot off the accelerator. She hauled on the steering bars with almost enough force to tear them loose entirely. The air-cycle spun around in a complete circle, the nose facing back the way she had come, the wall of the building behind her. A swathe of brilliant light cut across her vision but not before Fantel saw the swarm of human figures, dark dazzling silhouettes picked out against the kaleidoscope of the night, racing toward her. Fantel took her foot off the brake and slammed down on the accelerator. The air-cycle fought her, for a moment it felt as if she came to a dead halt, then it was as if she was falling backward downhill, unable to stop the impact with the wall that would almost certainly kill her. Fantel drove her foot down on the accelerator pedal, the muscles in her leg clenching with the strain. She pushed as if willing her foot to go through the bottom of the cab, her teeth bared in a savage grimace. The engines screamed and the air-cycle shot forward, barrelling straight toward the line of rifle-men advancing on her. Fantel saw the whites of the eyes of the nearest rifleman as she raced forward. She saw the stark shock writ large on his face as the swirling spotlights converged, and she saw the moment the guardsman realised she would not stop.

“Fire,” One of the guards screamed, his bellow lost under the roar of the air-cycle’s engines. Fantel gritted her teeth, slipped one hand free of the steering bars and slapped her palm over a glowing button on the dashboard. Simultaneously she yanked the steering bar hard to the right with the other hand. The air-cycle keeled over on one side, throwing Fantel toward the ground, her hair brushing the cobbles as the left side of the air-cycle, including the sidecar, rocked upward so that the craft slammed into the wall of rifleman at a near vertical angle. A bullet tore through the bottom of the sidecar cab, punching a hole through the metal and zinging past her head. She heard the cry of one of the guards and the thud of impact as the air-cycle ploughed into the men but she paid them no mind. Slamming the button again the air-cycle dropped horizontal once more, flattening a couple of the stunned guards in the process.

She kept going, moving away from the barracks. She could not make a frontal attack on the barracks. She would have to find another way to breach the compound. Ahead of her she could just make out a mass of guards and a hastily erected barricade, before a cascade of star-bright bullets ripped through the air toward her. Fantel ducked again, head down to her knees. The bullets, merely metal and not necromantic, passed by her, although a couple slammed into the sidecar, hitting the metal with a sound reminiscent of hail striking cold steel. She turned the air-cycle down another side street, this time heading deeper into the warren of side alleys and narrow streets between high, brown bricked factories. She needed to gain altitude but was not sure the air-cycle could manage it. She glanced down for just a second to study the controls on the dashboard and a shower of falling shingles rained down on the cycle from the roof of one of the warehouses above.

Fantel whipped her head up to the roofs and caught a glimpse of a fleet footed figure in a long travellers coat bound across the roof, a flock of bleating security drones buzzing around his head. A corona of vivid purple-black light flickered around Rashari’s frame, sparking around the flapping ends of his coat like tongues of ghost fire. Slamming down the brake Fantel once more forced the air-cycle into a gut-churning about-turn. She wrenched a dial on the dashboard and the air-cycle bounced several feet higher into the air. Fantel pulled back on the steering lever, pulling it toward her until her arms ached and the nose of the sky-cycle was pointed straight up like a bird-hound’s on the scent. She forced the craft up and up until she was level with the roof edge.

Rashari was racing across another roof top, a gaggle of guardsman scrambling over the roofs after him. He vaulted over an air vent as a scattering of bullets pelted the ground at his back. He landed in an impromptu roll and bounced back to his feet so fast his legs might well have been strung with springs. He threw out his left arm into the thicket of drones circling him like a swarm. A bolt of indigo energy branched outward from his palm, striking the nearest drone. Immediately the drone’s eyebeam switched from lurid green to deep mauve and it swung around to interpose itself between Rashari and the other drones chasing him, unleashing an energy beam of its own. The beam sliced through the drones like a hot knife through butter. The surviving drones turned on the traitor, multiple beams of energy obliterating the turncoat. Rashari leapt over the lip of the building. He thumped down onto the lower level of the roof five feet below. Fantel forced the air-cycle up onto the roof. She drew level with Rashari.

“Halt!” A particularly energetic guardsman crashed down onto the roof behind them, followed by the remaining drones. The guard aimed his firearm. Rashari threw himself down flat and Fantel veered hard to the side. A bullet bit into the rusted side of the water tank on the roof. The tank haemorrhaged water onto the floor. Rashari twisted, rolling on his back. Fantel saw the muzzle flash as he pulled a pistol from somewhere on his person and fired back at the guardsman. The shot went wide but the guard was forced to duck down behind an air vent. Fantel pulled the air-cycle over to Rashari again. The drones zipped through the air toward them, angry green eyes burning through the night straight at them. Rashari shot one of the drones, hitting the whirring rotor blades. The drone listed dangerously and veered into the others, knocking them both out of the air. They rolled across the roof-top in flames, belching thick oily phantasma smoke in their wake.

Fantel reached down and snatched at Rashari shoulder. “Get in.” The barracks was below them, tauntingly close, yet still so dangerously far. Rashari staggered to his feet. He was bleeding from a cut over his left eyebrow. Trails of blood and sweat ran down the side of his face from his brow and cheek. He threw himself into the sidecar. One of the drones sent a bolt of energy through the air. It scorched the roof where Rashari had been standing. Fantel hauled on the steering bars, pulling free of the rooftop.

“Stop!” The guard fired at them again from the edge of the roof. Fantel pushed the air-cycle forward, Rashari’s added weight taxing the already beleaguered engines to their limits. They started to fall immediately. Below she could see the high barbed wire fence circling the perimeter of the barracks. She could see the dozen blazing points of light from the searchlights, each beam punching through her with tangible force. She could just make out the skittering movements of guards inside the compound as they plummeted toward the ground. She heard Rashari’s wordless shout beside her, part terror, part mad, brilliant exhilaration. Fantel shut her eyes and braced for impact. Rashari grabbed her arm. She felt his fingers clamp around her elbow through the fabric of her coat. A rush of power sang through her blood, electrifying and strange. She tasted static and metal on her tongue and saw a bright bloom of purple light ignite across her closed eyelids in the same instant the failing air-cycle crested the top of the fence on its way to the ground.

Fantel was wrenched out of the cab and yanked up into the air. The air-cycle smashed into the ground. For a split second she was held suspended in mid-air. Then she dropped. She hit the ground and rolled across the floor in a tangle of limbs, not all her own. She heard the squealing crash of metal as the air-cycle shattered into twisted pieces, breaking apart in flames, liquid phantasma fuel pouring from its ruptured tanks. She came to rest on her back on the ground, Rashari’s weight awkwardly splayed on top of her. His eyes were very wide and very dark, filling her vision, his face hovered only an inch or so above her own. He was braced on his forearms and wings, glittering like a mirage, stretched out from his back, fading even as she blinked up at him in surprise.

“Madame,” Rashari wheezed, sounding winded and in pain, arms trembling as he fought to keep himself from falling on top of her. “Are you hurt?”

Fantel opened her mouth, to say she knew not what, when a new thought intruded, shocking her into action “Smith!” Shoving Rashari off her Fantel rolled onto her hands and knees. She saw the rainbow dark flames rising from the wreck of the air-cycle three feet away. The craft had been reduced to so much dark, twisted metal inside the angry heart of the phantasma fire. Her heart lodged in her throat, choking her. Smith. He had been inside the cab when they crashed....if he was lost...

“Bloop.”

Smith lay on the ground about a foot away from the wreck. His purple eyebeam blinked sporadically and a number of the bindings keeping his broken pieces together had come loose. Fantel sucked in a quick shallow breath, held it, and scrabbled across the hard ground on her hands and knees. The heat from the phantasma flames stung her skin, the fumes clogging her nose even as she fought not to breathe in. A wave of nausea blotted out her vision. She snatched blindly at Smith, fingers hooking around one of the dangling threads of silk. She hauled him toward her and away from the flames. Releasing her breath she coughed, spitting out the vile, noxious taste of burning phantasma until her head rang and her eyes streamed. She’d barely regained her breath when she was grabbed from behind, gloved hands curling around her throat. She reacted instinctively dropping Smith and sinking her unsheathed claws into the hands that choked her. She heard a muffled curse and the grip on her throat loosened. Fantel twisted, rose onto her knees and slammed her clawed thumbs into the soft, pulsing meat of her attacker’s throat. Blood spurted, splashing across her face. Fantel kicked the dying guardsman’s feet out from under him, and leapt up.

They were surrounded. A dozen guards rushed them. Rashari ejected a spent cartridge from his pistol and loaded another, ducking behind a guard box for cover. Chimera fought with tooth and claw and magic; it was not their way to bear arms. Mother Aldlis had gifted the Chimeri with every natural advantage they needed; to fashion weapons from wood or steel would be to offer insult to the blessings the Mother had already granted them. Fantel was no longer Chimeri. Her once-brethren had little cause to fight soldiers armed with guns or automatons with cutting laser beams for eyes, but Fantel did, so she was forced to adapt. She snatched the pistol from the dying guardsman’s holster and wrapped her bloody hands around the grip. Her finger felt strange on the trigger – she was not a natural markswoman, but her night vision and reflexes were far better than a human’s. She fired toward the advancing guard, aiming not to kill but to incapacitate. One of her bullets punched through a man’s forearm – creating a starburst of bright blood against the backdrop of one of the sweeping searchlight beams. Another struck a soldier in the shin. He crumpled to the ground, howling in pain. Fantel did not let herself feel guilt for the pain she caused. Later she would regret; later she would question the choices she had made to reach this point – for now she had only to survive. Guilt was a luxury she could afford only if she managed to live past this moment. She turned, swept Smith up into her arms, and darted toward the guard box. She threw herself down beside Rashari, who was exchanging fire with a trio of guards closer to the main gates.

“What is the plan?” She demanded, short on words but heavy on urgency. Rashari had been mostly correct; the majority of the fourth circle guard were still outside in the streets, but enough remained to keep them pinned down.

“Power relay over by the wall there,” Rashari replied, matching her brevity with his own. He nodded his head to the far right and the solid wall of one of the barrack building. Fantel spared a brief second to look. She could just make out a metal box attached to the wall. “That’s the drone storage unit.” He told her, leaning around the guard box to fire a few warning shots, before ducking back into cover. “I can use that to get us inside; once inside I have a way of keeping the guards occupied while we find the Heart and make our escape from this godsforsaken place. Of course that is all dependent on if we can get to the relay without being shot.”

If?” Fantel hissed, firing a few warning shots of her own as she spied movement from the left.

Rashari actually had the audacity to shrug. “There’s an old Adran adage: ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. We’re just going to have to improvise.”

“I begin to question whether any of your plans have actually worked.” Fantel snapped, more annoyed with herself than him. This was what happened when she placed her trust in a madman. She had only herself to blame.

“Madame Fantel,” Rashari shot her a look of great affront. “That’s ridiculous. All my plans succeed; watch.” With that Rashari jumped up onto his feet and darted out of cover. Fantel started, instinctively she reached out to haul him back behind the guard box before he was riddled with a dozen or more bullets, but he was too fast. He wriggled loose with the ease of a greased eel. He leapt up onto the steeped roof of the guard box, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had made of himself a perfect target for the Aramantine marksmen. He reached up and wrapped his hands around a low hanging power cable stretched overhead. The cable ran from one of the squat roofed soldiers’ dormitories behind them out to the guard box near the gate where the soldiers had congregated. Violet light flared around his body. Fantel saw the faint impression of the scorpion’s carapace and shimmering wings coalesce in the air around Rashari like a shield. The guards immediately turned their fire on him, but the bullets failed to find their mark. Rashari stretched on his tip-toes, his body a long lean line limned in the light of numerous searchlights, his hands closed around the power cable. The cable started to glow with that same deep purple energy that seemed intrinsic to Rashari. The power line crackled, the air suddenly charged with static, and the energy chased down the cable. The guard box exploded, erupting in a ball of violent purple flame and throwing the startled guardsmen several feet into the air in all directions. The burned out cable fell to the ground, its frayed end spitting sparks across the concrete. It whipped back and forth like the body of a decapitated serpent.

Rashari leapt from the roof of the guard box, landing a little heavily and catching himself with his hands. “Come on.” He called back to her as he staggered to his feet and sprinted for the drone storage unit. Fantel spared one last glance toward the soldiers, many of whom were already getting up off the floor, and then she too broke cover and dashed toward the storage unit. Rashari had the cover of the relay box open and the metal gloved fingers of his left hand were already poking into the mass of wires inside by the time Fantel made it to the wall, Smith still clutched under one arm. She watched as the wires and dials inside the box started to glow with the same purple light before shorting out in a series of pops and sparks. A few feet away, around the corner of the building, the door opened with a groan. They ran for the door, diving inside while the corrugated metal door was still rising upward, revealing a dark cavernous space beyond. Bullets pelted the wall and the door, denting the metal. Rashari darted over to a sensor pad to the side of the door and once again smashed his fingers into it. The door crashed downward, falling like a guillotine blade and plunging them both into sudden, shocking darkness. A second later the ceiling phantasma lights flickered to life, allowing Fantel her first sight of the interior.

They were in a long, wide room filled with countless automatons hung on hooks from the ceiling or locked into purpose-built containment units. The drone storage was built on two levels and a metal walkway wound around the top level where even more dormant automatons dangled from cables like spiders from webs. The automatons came in all shapes and sizes, some were clearly meant for military use, some for maintenance; others still Fantel did not recognise at all. They were all powered down, empty of animation. Under the bright lights there was something at once eerie and a little sad about the sight of all these dangling or caged automatons. Fantel was almost surprised at her own thoughts. She would never have thought such a thing before meeting Smith.

Rashari turned to grin at her, the phantasma lights striping his face in harsh pink and blue shadow. There was blood flecking the sides of his mouth and teeth. He looked sick and gaunt, and his breathing rasped painfully, yet his grin was triumphant. “You see? My plans do work.” He told her before promptly collapsing in a dead faint on the floor.


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