The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Shockingly, things continue to go wrong

A security drone, its propeller blades slicing the air like a threshing machine through wheat, zipped past her along the walkway. Fantel reared back into the spare parts room, but the drone was not focused on her. As she watched the drone swept down the stairs toward the front of the chamber where Fantel had left Rashari. Across the room she heard the rhythmic hum of other drones zipping through the rows of dormant automatons. Fantel ran to the railing and peered down over the edge.

Rashari was no longer slumped by the door. The space where she had left him was marked by a patch of singed concrete. There were several inoperative automatons lying on the ground, some still attached to the chains that had connected them to the ceiling; all of them showing signs of damage. A pair of security drones, propeller-less models of a similar shape to Smith, hovered in front of a thicket of ground-sweeper maintenance automatons. As Fantel watched one of the ground-sweepers shuddered to life, its vaguely humanoid head lifting and blue light igniting behind its twin eye holes. The ground-sweeper jolted forward on a continuous track like that of an armoured tank, its arms, long reticulated double jointed limbs connected to rotating brushes, shot out in front of it as it slammed into the hovering drones. The drones scattered, rising into the air. The ground sweeper crashed forward, careening wildly over the concrete floor. Fantel caught a glimpse of Rashari ducking behind another automaton, using it for cover as his hands dug into the automaton’s insides.

Fantel whirled to run back into the parts room to find more weapons when a resounding boom stopped her in her tracks. She whipped her head around to stare at the sealed doors. A dent had appeared in the metal, bowing the steel inward. The soldiers were trying to break down the massive door with brute force.

“Madame Fantel?” Rashari yelled up at her. “Have you found it yet?”

Before Fantel could reply the security drones dived on his location just as Rashari finished hacking the controls of a very odd looking automaton. The automaton had a small turret gun mounted to its body and an oversized rounded head dotted with eight glittering sulphur-yellow eyes. It also had eight spider legs and as she watched the automaton jumped several feet into the air, used its spindly legs to catch hold of one of the dangling chains and, hanging upside down. It started shooting at the flying drones. Staccato bursts of hot lead peppered the walls and cabinets. The flying drones returned fire, scoring burning lines into the solid concrete walls. The spider drone leapt nimbly from the chain to the rails of the walkway, skittering over the rail as its turret gun rotated three hundred and sixty degrees, firing continuously. Another booming crash reverberated through the room as the door took a second hit.

“Blloooopppppppp.” Smith convulsed hard in her arms and Fantel had to scramble to readjust her grip before dropping him over the side of the railing. Somehow in her distraction she had failed to notice that Smith was still facing backward, toward the parts room. He continued to burble with increasing insistence. Fantel looked from the battered main doors, fit to crash inward at any time, down into the main chamber where two more spider drones had sprung to life, and then back toward the parts room. “Bloooopppppppppppppppp.” Smith wailed. He seemed to want her to go back inside the parts room. Fantel blinked in sudden realisation -not a parts room, but instead a maintenance room. She’d thought it would be larger. She had envisioned a laboratory as large as the storage unit, full of phantasma belching machines towering to the ceiling, not a small and pokey little back office. Rashari had said that inside the maintenance bay she would find the controls to awaken all the sleeping automatons.

“Zweeeeeeee,” one of the spider drones leapt up onto the railing in front of her, its yellow eyes grazing right over her before its turret spun around and opened fire on the security drone Fantel had not even noticed hovering just behind her. Fantel dropped to her knees and covered her ears with her hands as the rapid rapport of automatic weapons fire pierced her eardrums. Below her she could hear a great deal more commotion. Rashari may not have been able to get around all the automatons in storage but he had clearly managed to awaken a fair number. Spider bots skittered up the walls and bounced from the dangling chains hanging from the ceiling chasing after clusters of green-eyed security drones. Outside Fantel imagined dozens of human soldiers swarming around the building, readying their battering ram for one last blow that would bring the door caving in.

“Rashari I have the stone.” She shouted down to him. There was no answer. Fantel doubted he could even hear her over the din. A few feet away a stray beam from one of the attacking drones sliced through a dangling ground-sweeper; the destroyed automaton fell onto the platform, spraying burning metal shrapnel in a wide arc. Fantel covered her head with her arms. There was a flash of heat and a foul burst of phantasma vapour as the remains of the ground-sweeper exploded; liquid flame swept over the metal walkway, glowing green and red and yellow. Fantel scrambled on hands and knees back into the maintenance room, rolling Smith along before her. She kicked the door closed behind her.

She ran to the workstation. She had no idea what the remote control to awaken the automatons would look like. The workstation was empty save for a circular saw and vice clamp built into its frame. She turned in increasing desperation toward the filing cabinet, yanking on drawers that refused to budge.

“Bllluuup!”

Smith’s alarm was the only warning Fantel had. She dropped to the ground and rolled under the workstation as a security drone burst out of the passageway. This drone was a different make to the green-energy drones. This one was elliptical in shape with a long pointed nose that in reality served was the nozzle of a high powered machine gun. A barrage of bullets smashed into the door and the already ruined cubbyholes attached to the far wall. Debris flew and pieces of shrapnel embedded themselves in the wall and the floor. Bullets chewed holes into the door. Fantel wrapped her arms around Smith and tucked her head in, wriggling as far back into the foot-well of the workbench as she could. Her only hope of survival lay in remaining undetected.

The machine-gun drone stopped firing, its rotating nozzle slowing down with a slurring clicking noise. It hovered in the air just above the workstation. It did not seem to have noticed her yet, but the room was small, a simple sweep would reveal her immediately. Silently Smith quivered in her arms, he’d dimmed his eyebeam, but the light of his gaze still paved the underside of the workstation in a violet glow. That glow was angled upward and onto the single matt black button protruding from the underside of the bench. Fantel’s hand darted out before she made a conscious decision to do so. She pressed the button, breath caught in her throat. Something clicked. She felt the metal of the workstation thrum with energy and a mechanism above, on the topside of the workstation, activated. The machine-gun drone reacted to the change immediately. It turned smoothly in the air, the machine gun nozzle spinning back up. Its eyebeam was a horizontal line of hot, angry red. Fantel stared right into it knowing it would likely be the last thing she ever saw.

“Zweeeeeeee!” The bullet ridden door burst open behind the automaton. In a flash of motion almost too fast to see Rashari appeared in the doorway. The automaton spun, sensing a new threat. Rashari’s arm whipped back and then forward and he threw the spider bot in his hand straight at the drone. Long metal legs arced forward like the grabbing tentacles of a deep sea octopus and the spider bot collided with the drone, wrapping its legs around it and dragging them both to the floor. Rashari dived into the room, he ran to the workstation. Fantel sucked in a sharp breath of relief. On the floor in front of her the spider bot drove its serrated legs into the body of the machine gun drone, punching through its metal shell.

Rashari was hunched over the workstation. The plain, scratched metal surface had split open down the middle revealing a control console, which looked a lot like Vedeca’s cockpit. Incomprehensible strings of code scrolled down a black-green glowing screen. Rashari’s fingers flew over the keypad, typing more lines of gibberish onto the screen. On the floor at their feet the spider bot reduced the machine gun drone to so much twisted metal and spilled phantasma fuel. When it was finished it bounced up onto the workbench. Fantel noticed that it was smaller than the other spiders and lacked any armament. Its multiple eyes blinked in sequence. In her arms Smith quivered thoughtfully. He seemed to be appraising the spider bot in a considering fashion.

“There.” Rashari hissed his voice tight with a mixture of restrained triumph and lingering fatigue. Outside the maintenance room sudden silence fell like an iron curtain. Rashari pushed back from the console, staggering a little when the spry spider bot leapt into his arms and then scrabbled up to perch on his right shoulder. Its sharp legs hooked into the fabric of his coat for purchase. Rashari met her eyes, his features drawn with urgency. “Let’s get the bloody hell out of here.”

Outside in the main storage unit Fantel drew to a halt, her breath hitching in her chest. The entire room was full of light from dozens upon dozens of automaton eyebeams in every conceivable shade of the spectrum. Security bots dangling from their chains gazed down at them from the ceiling. Ground-sweepers angled their strangely human heads up toward the platform. Others rolled out across the floor to form ordered rows in front of the battered main door like infantry soldiers lining up for inspection. Clusters of ten or more spider bots bobbed and twitched where they waited hanging from the platform railings or clinging to the walls. Even the drones that had been bent on attacking them moments before now hovered quiescent and patient in mid air.

“What are they waiting for?” Fantel whispered, unwilling to speak above a murmur in case the sound of her voice might break the spell.

“For the new directive I inputted to take effect,” Rashari replied leaning heavily on the railing as he headed down the stairs. “I sent out a general order to protect the storage unit from intruders –meaning anyone or anything that isn’t presently inside - and disengaged the directive prohibiting them from attacking anyone wearing the Aramantine emblem. Something like that takes a while to process; it’s a fairly profound departure from normal operations.”

Another booming crash reverberated through the door. This time the metal ruptured, splitting like the over-ripe flesh of a dropped peach. Instantly soldiers poured inside. The ground-sweepers surged forward; rolling on caterpillar treads toward the soldiers, smashing into them. The security drones dived down as the mass of soldiers broke through the ravaged door and spilled into the room. Fantel did not spare a glance behind her at the ensuing bloodshed. She ran with Rashari toward the back of the storage unit. A host of security drones and spider bots flanked their retreat.

“This is a dead end,” Fantel reached to catch hold of a fold of Rashari’s coat. The back wall of the storage unit faced them, solid cinderblock packed together without any give. “There is nowhere left to run.” After all they had done it was a bitter pill to swallow, but Fantel could see no way forward. They were surely about to die.

Rashari turned to her, blood and sweat leaking down his face. His eyes were wild. “There is always somewhere left to run.” He said with surprising vehemence. Tugging free of her restraining grip he whipped up one hand through the air, his movement sharp and imperious. Instantly the host of buzzing drones moved in closer, and a small rearguard of ground-sweepers closed ranks around them. At their back Fantel heard shouting, the soldiers were still fighting the rest of the drones at the front of the chamber, but a few had slipped past the melee and were headed their way.

“The wall,” Rashari commanded, using his raised arm to point toward the back wall, “Fire at the wall.”

For a confused instant Fantel thought he was talking to her until the drones rose up into the air, formed a neat, regimented line and, in perfect synchronicity, aimed their energy beams at the back wall of the unit. The dull grey cinderblock glowed lurid green, a hot angry colour that seemed to darken like an advancing bruise. Rashari grabbed her arm and pulled Fantel back toward the adjacent wall. At that moment a splatter of gunfire shredded the back of one of the ground-sweepers. Soldiers pounded forward, their boots thudding heavily over the concrete floor. Ducking behind one of the empty automaton lockers, they wedged themselves in between the locker and the wall. The remaining ground-sweepers rolled forward to engage the soldiers. The defenceless maintenance bots were torn to pieces by the soldiers’ weapons fire in moments. Beside her Fantel heard Rashari suck in a sharp breath, a twitch of regret shivering down his spine. Crouched on his shoulder the small spider bot, its jointed metal legs hooked securely into the folds of his coat, bobbed up and down. Smith was very still in Fantel’s arms. The soldiers turned their fire on the row of drones. The drones, still focused on the wall, were blown to pieces in less time than it took to tell about it. The soldiers ran forward toward Fantel and Rashari. The back wall, pulsing with energy, exploded outward in a shower of super heated masonry. The soldiers screamed as they fell, smothered in a wave of scorching dust and pummelled by lumps of stone.

“Go.” Rashari hissed pushing Fantel out ahead of him. They took off running while the mortar dust was still whirling through the air, dancing with sparks. Fantel jumped over a body moaning pitiably on the floor. Clear night air breathed through the unit, coming in through the gaping hole in the wall. Fantel looked back once. All she could see was the white hot flash of gunfire and the spark of glowing drone eyes through the swirling dust.

Rashari was several paces ahead of her, streaking across the yard toward a nearly identical building to the one they had left. The sound of gunfire chased at Fantel’s heels as she darted across the concrete to catch up. Rashari used the spider bot’s sharp legs to tear through the metal plate protecting the manual controls for the door lock. Fantel heard the lock release a few seconds later. Rashari slumped against the wall and the console, breathing ragged. Fantel had the feeling the only thing keeping him upright was the way he leant against the wall. The massive double doors opened outward. Fantel hauled on them for all her worth. She set Smith just inside the darkened hangar and turned back to Rashari, manhandling him inside as the first wave of soldiers came for them, guns blazing.

The only light inside the large hangar came from the twin glow of Smith and the spider bot’s eyebeams. The interior smelt of oil and metal. Fantel could just make out the indistinct shapes of various artillery vehicles. She saw something that might have been some manner of tank. It looked only large enough to take a single soldier, and was built like a box on treads. Fantel saw a collection of the same handglider contraptions she had used to jump free of Vedeca during the crash, dangling from the ceiling – and there, at the back of the hangar, two light weight air-craft. Fantel sucked in a sharp breath, hope flaring in her chest. It seemed almost too good to be true. She glanced over at Rashari, who was slumped against the inside wall, arms out to brace him and head hanging. How had he known about this hangar? Had he planned this all along, or was he simply graced with the most peculiar luck?

It did not matter either way. Fantel let Rashari lean on her as she guided him swiftly toward the closest of the small air craft. The craft was not an airship. It was too small, too light weight. Fantel realised that it was a glider; designed with two side propellers under the wings and a small fuel tank just large enough to allow the craft to become airborne. Gliders were designed for low altitude flights of short duration. The fuel tank and engine were designed to cut out when the craft was airborne, which allowed the gliders to fly a short distance out toward the Steppes without fear of the miasma. Fantel eyed the craft appraisingly, larger than an air-cycle its wings stretched out like a crows, black and sharp-angled. The curved nose bristled with the many rounded chambers of a massive gun barrel. The body was just large enough for two, a curved glass and metal dome raised up to allow access to the cockpit. Fantel wasted no more time wondering over their luck and instead helped Rashari – shaking like a leaf – into the cockpit before clambering into the back with Smith snug in her lap. The dome dropped down over their heads, cutting off the noise of the soldiers approach. The glider powered up.

“How are we going to get airborne?” She asked trying to make herself heard over the thrumming engines. “There are soldiers outside; they’ll open fire on the glider as soon as we clear the hangar.”

“This is a military issue Empyrean glider; it can survive a few bullet-holes.” Rashari gripped the steering handles in both hands and pulled back. The glider rolled forward on its wheels. Fantel looked out through the glass dome. The doors to the hangar had closed after them, sealing the soldiers out but sealing them in also. If they tried to open the doors the soldiers would be upon them in an instant. If they did not open the doors the glider would smash straight into them. Rashari powered up the glider’s main gun and Fantel’s stomach dropped as she realised what he meant to do.

The hangar was not that large and the glider picked up speed quickly. A stream of fire burst forth from the nose of the glider, bullets spewing out ahead of them in coruscating waves. The concentrated fire hit the double doors. The force of the bullets chewed the metal bullets to pieces. The doors bounced open. Fantel caught a glimpse of movement, soldiers and automatons, and the wide canvas of stars in the night sky. Rashari kept the glider’s gun focused on that opening, even as they hurtled forward. Fantel shut her eyes at the last moment. There was a dreadful crunching-thud, loud enough that it penetrated the muffling effect of the dome, and Fantel half expected to be engulfed in flame as they smashed into the doors and the glider exploded. She opened her eyes just as they crashed out of the hangar, the doors popping open ahead of them, swinging out in a wide arc that sent the gathered soldiers scrambling backward.

The glider jostled over the ground, bouncing up off its wheels as Rashari wrenched on the steering levers, swinging them around so they faced the open space between the cluster of buildings and the barracks outer fence. The main gates lay in ruins, the remains of the guard house Rashari had blown up earlier lying on the ground beside fragments of the gate. Fantel felt her jaw loosen in stunned surprise. By the Mother he really had planned all this. Fantel had thought Rashari was merely improvising a way to get them inside the storage bay when he used that power cable to cause an explosion. She had never considered that he had been planning ahead for their escape from the barracks all along. Her stomach lurched, ears popping, as they picked up speed, the nose of the glider beginning to lift as they bounced off the ground. The nose gun ran out of bullets, the last spinning wave coughing free to pock mark the courtyard.

Soldiers shouted disjointed orders, chasing the glider. Fantel whipped around to stare when one foolhardy soldier leapt upon the wing and another tried to catch the tail. Rashari kept the glider on a straight course for the gate even as more soldiers tried to block off their escape route, using their own bodies. The glider lifted off the ground, rising several feet into the air. The soldiers clinging to the wing and tail lost their grip falling to the ground. Rashari hauled on the steering levers and the glider tilted to the side, tipping up one wing to sweep neatly through the narrow gate. Underneath her feet Fantel felt the metal of the bottom of the cabin pucker, pelted with dozens of bullets, but none penetrated all the way through.

They were perhaps twelve feet off the ground as they cleared the barracks. The edges of the fourth circle buildings rose up ahead of them; the roofs still far above them. Searchlights blinded and dazzled her eyes. Fantel gasped as Rashari whipped the glider around in a sharp angled arc and she was thrown sharply to the right, her shoulder pressed against the glass dome of the cabin. The soldiers below opened fire. Waves of bullets burst through the night and the blazing brilliance of the fourth wall’s many searchlights chased after them. Rashari had turned them right around. Fantel realised he meant to fly them over the barracks. Had he lost his mind? A mortar shell, fired from atop the fourth wall, narrowly missed the glider. It pounded into the ground just inside the compound.

Rashari pushed the nose of the glider upward, forcing the engine to work to its limit. Fantel’s nose twitched as she sensed the release of phantasma exhaust creating a dark reddish contrail behind them. Above the flat rooftops of the barracks Rashari forced their craft almost vertical, throwing Fantel back against her seat, the sudden pressure of momentum slamming the air from her lungs. The massive fourth wall loomed up directly in front of them, black as pitch and striped in brilliant multi-coloured light. The wall was so massive it seemed to have obliterated the night sky completely. Rashari pushed the glider up, up, chasing higher and higher over the endless expanse of the wall. Stomach and heart lodged in her throat Fantel squeezed her eyes tight shut. Their ascent seemed endless, yet at any moment they could be blasted out of the sky in flames. Abruptly Rasari levelled off their flight. Fantel’s eyes flew open and her stomach plummeted back down where it belonged, with far more speed and force than she was in any way happy about. She blinked amazed to see star speckled sky above and all around. They had made it. It was almost too much to believe.

Below them the slums of the fifth circle looked no less desolate from altitude than they did from the ground. A flash of light had Fantel looking up and straight ahead of her toward the imposing shadow of the fifth and final city wall. Rashari swore and wrenched the glider hard to the port side just as a line of fire opened up along the bulk of the fifth wall and a volley of cannonade blasts ripped through the night. The glider bobbed and weaved, rocked hither and thither in the path of the screaming missiles like a row boat in the wake of a galleon, yet somehow Rashari was able to steer them through the barrage unharmed. He set a course straight for the crest of the fifth wall.

Fantel, unable to do a thing to aid their survival, could only watch in silent horror as the cannon balls fell to the ground, onto the wastes below. She could not see clearly enough whether any of the barrage fell on houses. Fire blossomed. Fantel tried to imagine what it must feel like to be down there, knowing that the cannon falling on her came from Aramantine soldiers, all because of two thieves in the night.

The glider sailed over the top of the fifth wall; the blazing eyes of a dozen searchlights glaring after them as they hit empty sky. They had escaped. They were free; before them lay the Battlan Steppes and untold dangers ahead. Fantel pulled the Heart of Anoush from the pocket of her coat, cupping the rounded stone in her palms. The Heart was dark, reflecting the black expanse of the night sky and the distant cold spark of the stars far, far away. It seemed such a trifling thing to cause so much destruction; was such a thing as this really worth the blood they had spilled?

Life is blood. It is pain. It is the freedom to bleed or make bleed.

In her hands the stone throbbed, and a bloom of darkling light flickered in the centre of the Heart. A voice whispered in her mind. I will be free, little Chimera –you shall release me from this prison. A flare of heat seared Fantel’s palms as a pulse of magic jolted through her. She gasped, breath snagging in her lungs. Pain acute and immediate, blossomed under her breastbone, as if she had been pierced through the heart. Everything went white. She could not move. In her mind she saw a pair of huge, delicate moth wings unfurl.

Yes, The voice of the Sereph Anoush purred, triumphant. You shall make an excellent host indeed.


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