The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Bloop!

Fantel was hustled swiftly through the courtyard; she had time to note the large triple tiered fountain, the water splashing down out of a spout shaped like a winged snake and a line of marble benches flanking the portico arched walkways on either side of the courtyard before she was pulled through a side door into the interior of the mansion. She found herself in a narrow, apple green corridor. Gold arabesques trailed from the corners of the ceiling overhead and her feet slapped silently over cool terracotta tiles. There were no windows and the corridor held a close, almost musty heat. A sweet, yet smoky aroma clung to the air, thick and heady. Fantel’s nose twitched; Dreamsmoke, addictive in large doses and foul even in small ones. She detested the stuff. Tomah started to pull her along the corridor at a brisk trot. They made a right turn, and started down another green walled passageway all but identical to the last, save this one contained an alcove in the right wall where a bronze idol of the six armed, serpent headed goddess Lyst sat amid offerings of burning incense and camellia petals.

A peculiar mechanised contraption floated above the alcove and appeared to be...dusting the wall. Fantel craned her neck to stare at the machine as Tomah pulled her past. Humans were forever creating these odd things; automatons they called them. They were half-alive machines, constructs of metal and magic, given the semblance of animation through technomancy. This particular automaton was about the size and shape of a melon and floated several feet off the ground upon a field of faintly glowing Phantasma vapours, so that it appeared to be bobbing up and down on a ghostly rainbow sea. It was made out of dull steel, patched with dark enamelled panels. A miniature feather duster extended from a hatch in the automaton’s rounded surface, held in a pincer like appendage. A single violet beam of light shone from a horizontal slit in the metal front of the construct. Fantel was so busy staring at the automaton – which Tomah paid no mind to whatsoever -that she almost walked into the wall when he drew her to a stop in front of a nondescript door.

Here Tomah placed his palm against a lockpad set into the wall beside the door. Fantel watched as the glowing sensor pad reacted to his Anima signature, shifting through a rainbow spectrum of colours from deep, bruised indigo to cerulean and finally to an almost shocking yellow. Fantel was not surprised that Tomah let her see him use this particular lock; quite simply it made no difference one way or the other. There was no keystone she could steal that would open this door for her. The door reacted to authorised Anima signatures; anyone who tried to unlock the door without authorisation would undoubtedly receive a nasty shock from the sensor. Yet another reason to distrust Technomancy; no mere door should be able to read the truth of a living soul. It was unnatural, and Fantel couldn’t help but think it was also somewhat insulting. She did not like the thought of a door measuring the quality of her soul and finding her wanting.

The door opened and Tomah shoved her up another narrow, steep flight of ill-lit stairs. The door to the corridor slammed shut behind them, but not before Fantel caught a glimpse of the strange automaton hovering just in front of it. The machine’s violet eye beam seemed to look straight at her. The beam flashed once, almost a wink, and then the door fell closed.

Once at the top of the stairs Tomah opened another door and pushed her through into a room thick with the stench of dreamsmoke. More Dha-hali filled the room, perhaps eight in total. The man from the skybarge cargo hold, the one who had almost beat a human woman to death for praying in his presence, reclined upon a gold and cream upholstered chaise, a dreamsmoke pipe held between lax fingers and a kohl-eyed, bronzed skinned woman coiled in his lap. The woman’s lower face was covered by a blue gauze veil that hooked over her nose and around her ears. Her silky black hair was braided in the same style as the Dha-hali men. The fox-fire light and shadow from the many Phantasma lamps and wall sconces scattered around the room reflected off the many gold bangles looped around her wrists. A trio of similarly veiled and gold bedecked women knelt on the floor around the chaise and stared up at Fantel with heavy, drugged eyes. There was a large brazier of dreamsmoke set upon a tripod on the other side of the chaise; several ceramic pipes rested in the bowl and the vaguely nauseating stench of burnt banana made the air in the room greasy. Beyond the red-braided man –Fantel assumed he must be the Dagoman – stood several open archways leading to an interior balcony. Beyond the balcony Fantel could see a huge phantasma chandlier danging from the ceiling and she could hear, from the room below the balcony, the sound of voices and the whining trill of music.

“Ah Tomah, you bring our treasure at last,” The Dagoman spoke expansively, his broad features lax with too much dreamsmoke. Negligently he shoved the woman off his lap and threw his pipe aside. The spilled ash from the pipe landed on the bare thigh of one of the other concubines, burning her. The Dagoman did not even notice. Sitting forward he gestured with his large hands. “Bring her here. I want a better look.”

Roughly Tomah shoved Fantel in the small of her back. She stumbled forward into the room. Her bare feet ended up sinking into the thick fur pelt stretched out on the floor. The twisting kaleidoscope of shifting colours from the Phantasma lamps hurt her eyes and the pungent fog of dreamsmoke clouded her mind, dulling he senses. The Dagoman’s hot, fleshy hands caught hold of her wrist and she blinked down into his avaricious eyes. Full flips curved up into a slow, hungry smile. “Exquisite.”

“My Dagoman,” Tomah spoke up, his tone firm despite the submissive stance he took, head down, one fist clenched to his chest. “I caught one of the Veridree party wandering the woods as I was bringing the Chimera to you. Somehow he slipped past the guards without notice.” He looked up then boldly meeting the Dagoman’s gaze. “Dagoman this insult to your hospitality cannot be borne. The boy I saw wore a technomancer’s glove – what if...”

“Enough Tomah,” The Dagoman waved one hand, his other hand sliding up over Fantel’s forearm toward her elbow. The clammy heat of his palm made her skin twitch unpleasantly; if it was not for the shackles binding her wrists together she would have already had a hand wrapped around his throat. “You worry too much; none of my guests would dare offer insult to me here. To do so would be suicide. This is our stronghold; we are many and they are few.”

The Dagoman sat even further forward on the chaise until he could plant his feet on the floor (scattering the rest of his concubines in the process). He stood. He had eyes only for Fantel as he ran light fingers over the complicated embroidery covering her throat and upper chest. “Devine,” he breathed in a hot rush into the shell of her ear. “You are beautiful Chimera.”

“Dagoman your guests should not be underestimated.” Tomah continued, a note of frustration colouring his obsequiousness, “What if one of your rivals chooses to strike at you here, despite the risk? The boy could be an assassin; he claimed to be Veridree yet spoke like an Adran. What if he has been sent by Banaborra? They refused your invitation to this auction, but could easily have sent an agent in disguise.”

“Enough I said,” Moving with surprising speed the Dagoman pushed Fantel aside (she staggered and almost fell to the floor) and strode over to Tomah. He struck him hard across the face and the man fell to his knees. “How dare you question your Dagoman? Do you forget your place Tomah? I rule here. And I tell you that none would dare strike out at me.” He kicked the fallen Tomah, using the same vicious, hook-footed technique he had used on the defenceless woman in the cargo hold. “You speak of plots like a coward, yet I tell you, look to those you so fear.” Grabbing Tomah by his hair the Dagoman hauled him to his feet and half threw him across the room out onto the balcony. “Look down there – what do you see?”

“Your guests, my Dagoman,” Tomah answered, his nose bleeding freely, brilliant crimson splotches spattering like liquid starbursts over the smooth tile floor.

“Yes,” The Dagoman hissed a peculiarly sibilant sound for such a big, rough man. “Those men and women down there – my rivals as you call them – Raiders all, yet they come here as my guests -and do you know why?” He shook Tomah, thick knuckled hands fisted in the intricate mesh of chainmail covering Tomah’s chest. “Because I am Dagoman of the great Dha-hali and they know -they know – my power. You speak of Veridree -of Banaborra -well I piss on them!” Spittle flew from the Dagoman’s lips, splattering across Tomah’s bloody face. “I piss on Nylous and his army of Adran turncoats – let him send spies. What care I?” The Dagoman laughed a wild, brash sound that grated on the ears. “I fear them not. I fear no one! After today all the raiders in Aldlis will know that I -Einar -rule the skies.”

“Mishman praise the Dha-hali,” Barked the rest of the guards in the room. They had watched the altercation between their Dagoman and Tomah with wary eyes but made no move to intervene. Now they performed the same chest slapping salute Fantel had seen earlier with every appearance of total fanaticism. Fantel stared at the Dagoman -Einar – watching him pant. His large hands clenched into fists as he stared at his subordinate with murder in his eyes. She realised that the man was quite mad.

She also knew that this was no ordinary slave auction. This was a raider conclave. Raiders were a menace to all Aldlis, pirates of the skies, they terrorised trading caravans like the one Tamaki had travelled with, as well as legitimate sky craft. They stole goods and even people to sell on the thriving black market and dabbled in illegal magics. Every nation in Aldlis had its own particular brand of Raider. The Bhuvam islands were almost completely overrun by the Dha-hali, who wrapped their predations up in ancient myth and legend to hide the truth of their crimes. The might of the Adran legions, an army that had conquered most of the eastern hemisphere, could not crush the resistance at the heart of the Kitvik Badlands. Banaborra continued to thumb its nose at the Empire. Fantel had even heard rumour that Adra’s great enemy, Dushkuland, was said to encourage its own breed of raiders to prey on Adran sky vessels to disrupt supply routes. A leaden ball of dread settled in her stomach. It was one thing to be sold to a slave auction but quite another to be sold by one set of Raiders to another. She had told Tamaki that she must hope that her future master would be merciful, but Raiders had no mercy.

“Chimera,” Einar released Tomah and lurched toward her, once again oblivious of the concubine under foot. If the woman had not moved out of the way just in time Fantel had no doubt Einar would have stood on her without a single thought. The lives of others clearly had no value to Einar beyond his own pleasures. Fantel felt the weight of the shackles around her wrists and hoped fervently to kill this revolting man. Her fingers tingled and she had to will herself to calmness; she could not afford to unsheathe her claws unless she had chance to use them. She refused to give ground as the Dagoman stood before her, close enough that his hot breath scorched her skin. Desire caused the rippling tattoos bisecting his face to throb deep mauve, like fault lines scoring grooves of cruelty and sickness into his flesh.

“Do you understand why I brought you here, Chimera?” He asked reaching out to stroke her cheek with his knuckles -and leaving a smear of Tomah’s blood like a brand over her skin. Fantel had too much pride to give any reaction. She stared back impassive and mute, and silently imagined how satisfying it would be to dig her claws into the soft, pliant skin of his neck. His blood would burn hot and bright as it spouted from the hole she would gouge in his throat. “Your beauty calls to me; you are no Chimera – you are a siren of legend. Your silence beckons to me, a clarion call louder than any scream.” Fantel gritted her teeth, her spine rigid and shoulders tensing as the Dagoman trailed his bloody knuckles down her throat to the high neck of the silk shift she wore and continued downward, his eyes making clear his intent. Her restraint broke before his large hand could palm her breast; faster than any human could move she brought up her bound wrists and knocked his hand away.

“Do not touch me human.”

Einar sucked in a sharp breath, echoed by the others in the room. One of the Dha-hali guards reached for the curved blade at his hip, eyes narrowed on Fantel, but Einar waved him off. “Such pride; such fury,” he whispered. “The stories of the Chimeri must be true; you are wild creatures, untamed and savage.” His eyes glowed with disturbing fervour. “You are too fine a creature to be sold like cattle; submit to me Chimera and I will make you mine.”

“Dagoman,” Tomah protested. He was still on his hands and knees where he had fallen, yet now he looked up, appalled. “I beg you, reconsider. You will offer grave insult if you keep the Chimera. Aluhahn Bashi has already bid on her; once we have Bashi’s Phantasma mines our dominance of the sky will be absolute – not even the Suluman will oppose us. Bhuvam will be ours for the taking.”

Einar turned, face twisting in unrestrained anger. His lips curled into a snarl, parting to speak. Whatever he planned to say was lost however when a hole, roughly the size of a human head, was blown out of the door behind Fantel. Smouldering wood splinters sprayed through the air. The concubines screamed. A beam of laser bright light blazed through the hole. Fantel dropped to the ground.

“Bloop.”

The automaton she had seen downstairs buzzed through the hole in the door, haloed in a corona of indigo energy. It bobbed up and down in mid-air, its eyebeam raking over everyone in the room. “Bl-bloop,” a hatch opened atop the automaton. Tiny firefly sized projectiles shot in every direction.

Chaos erupted; the projectiles, self-propelled by some alchemy of science and magic, zinged around the room, smashing into wall sconces and lamps and ricocheting off the walls. The screams of the concubines tore through the air along with the hiss of escaping phantasma vapour from the shattered light fixtures. The Dha-hali guards dropped to the ground to avoid being riddled full of holes as the fast moving projectiles ripped through everything in their path, seeking out any and all sources of phantasma. Soon the room was filled with seeping phantasma. The vapour, a bright shimmering red-gold mist hanging low to the floor, began to spread, moving like a sluggish flood, congealing in puddles that rippled like liquid flame. Fantel’s eyes widened in fear and she crab-crawled away from the spreading vapour.

Phantasma was poison to Chimera. Phantasma was power derived from death. In its rawest form phantasma ore – the root of all human ingenuity – was the fossilised remnant of untold millions of dead creatures, condensed deep in the heart of Aldlis. Anima and phantasma were opposite but equal forces governing the cycle of life on Aldlisr. Yet phantasma was anathema to the Chimeri. Fantel had a greater tolerance than most Chimeri but just being around too much phantasma powered machinery could make her ill – and phantasma lamps invariably gave her headaches. She watched in dawning horror as the phantom mist gathered cohesion, the flame like colours forming strange impressions, like ghostly reflections rippling on the surface of a sulphurous lake. Shades; Pulse save her the mist was forming Shades. Half-formed faces started bubbled up from the surface of the mist -the vestigial memory of the dead rising up, hungry and clawing for the life all around them. Fantel watched gaseous bodies form out of the mist, flickering like sickly flames in shades of brilliant scarlet, pale gold, and fiery orange. The mist writhed and twisted, sometimes forming almost perfect spectral forms, the swirling vapour moulding into the illusion of gaping mouths and empty eye sockets, lolling heads and clawing hands, before collapsing into shapeless puddles that flashed with thousands of faces; human, chimeri, djinn, goblin, ogdegre – the imprisoned echo of untold lives all trapped within the advancing mist.

As quickly as it had begun the automaton’s assault ended. The cloud of glowing projectiles returned in a swarm to the automaton, flowing back inside the hatch, which closed with a snap. “Bloop.” With one last sweep from its violet eye beam the automaton buzzed through the air, swept under the arches and over the top of the balcony, dropping down out of sight before any of the room’s stunned occupants could do more than cautiously lift their heads from the ground. The silence left in the wake of the fierce attack was deafening.

A wounded Dha-hali sat slumped against the wall across from Fantel. He clutched one shoulder, salty blood seeping thickly over his fingers; he’d been hit by one of the glowing projectiles, the thing- whatever it was – had punched through his shoulder and out the other side. His face was slick with sweat and tight with pain. The phantom mist coiled at his feet, slowly rolling up his legs. Ghostly arms burst forth from the mist dragging the man into the writhing mass of vapour so fast he did not even have time to scream. The mist swallowed him whole, enveloping him. His eyes went wide, mouth opening on an agonised scream. He writhed on the floor, beating at the mist with his one good arm. The man convulsed, head cracking against the floor again and again, eyes rolling. Froth started to form at the edges of his mouth, choking off his screams until he could only gargle, insensate -maddened by the cloud of death that now devoured his mind. The other humans in the room started screaming and spitting curses and exhortations to their gods as the mist spread into every corner. Fantel knew she had but moments to act before she was overwhelmed. Gathering her feet underneath her she ran toward the back of the room. The mist rose up behind her, blocking off the route to the shattered door. Fantel leapt off the balcony, casting herself into the void of empty air.


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