The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Raiders being Raiders

Her fall from the Dagoman’s window was over before it even began. Fantel twisted like a cat, getting her legs underneath her before landing feet first onto solid ground in a predator’s crouch. The impact thrummed through her muscles, chasing up her spine, but did not hurt her. She raised her head and looked upon a scene of utter chaos.

“Back stabbing arse-licking Imperials – this is your doing.”

Two men grappled for control of a rifle, scant feet from where she had landed. One of the combatant’s was almost as wide as he was tall, a veritable beast of a man, with a mane of wiry salt and pepper hair, thick muscled forearms, and a barrel chest straining to break free of the confines of an ill-fitting bottle-green frock coat. The other man, the one who had hollered the insult, was much smaller. His dusky skin was flushed almost as red as his short cropped hair. He wore the pastel coloured loose cotton shirt and cropped trousers popularised by city dwellers in Remenes and an elaborate set of brass knuckles, spiked like griffin heads, already spattered with blood.

“Haaiiii-yaaaaaaa.” Out of nowhere a small woman in brilliant orange silk robes launched herself through the air hitting the man with the brass knuckles dead in the back. He and the woman fell to the ground, the woman swinging a double ended flail as she rode the man down to the marble inlaid floor. The man with the rifle, who had proved far more nimble than a man of his bulk had any right to, deftly stepped away from the scuffle. He hefted the rifle to one shoulder, his lone jaundiced eye peeping out of a creased and leathery face. He scanned the room, searching for something or someone, then ambled away, slipping around an ornate marble pillar into a shadowed corner of the large chamber.

Fantel looked around. The room she was in must, once, have been a fairly sumptuously appointed gathering place. Now it looked like a freak hurricane had torn through the high-ceilinged chamber, shredding everything in its wake. Exquisitely woven rugs stitched into eye catching geometric designs lay in wrinkled piles over the smooth pinkish-white marble tiles and a number of low to the floor mosaic tables had been overturned. Vibrantly dyed silk cushions lay scattered across the floor and silk drapes hung in tatters from the walls. Puddles of vinegary spilt wine dotted the floor and soaked into the carpets. Wisps of phantasma mist clung to the air, not as thick as in Einar’s private rooms, but still dangerous. Throughout the room strange men and women, almost exclusively human, did their level best to kill each other. Fantel had jumped out of the window of the Dagoman’s private rooms and straight into the midst of his Raider guests, and true to form, as soon as they had heard the commotion coming from above the gathered Raiders had reacted with indiscriminate violence.

“Bloop.”

The automaton hovered above her head, violet eye beam steady on her face; a corona of violet hued energy encircled the machine in a shimmering globe. Fantel’s nose twitched. The power radiating from the automaton was like nothing she had seen or felt before. It made her back teeth ache like low power Phantasma engines but lacked the vicious bite of unrestrained phantom mist. Fantel rose to her feet. The automaton did not appear to mean her harm.

“Bl-bloop,” the automaton blinked at her, its eye beam flashing on and off so fast Fantel almost missed it. A hatch opened in the front of the machine and a small appendage emerged. Fantel hadn’t time to do more than flinch before the wand-like devise with the glowing yellow tip struck the metal cuff of the shackle on her right wrist. A quiver of energy danced up her wrist to her elbow, leaving a flutter of aftershocks in its wake. A second later the shackle popped open falling from her thin wrist to dangle by the connecting chain. Fantel blinked down at her freed wrist in surprise.

“Bloop-bloop,” the automaton bobbed in the air, eye beam swirling excitedly. Fantel could not shake the peculiar sensation that the machine was pleased with itself. There was something like smug self-satisfaction evident in the blinking of that violet beam. She shook her head, dismissing such foolishness from her mind.

“You die now!”

The sound of shattering glass, a stifled oath and a loud crash snapped her attention back to her surroundings. She ducked and rolled as a body sailed through the air and crashed into one of the low tables. The man with the brass knuckles was barely recognisable as human now, lying in a disordered heap of broken limbs.

At her back someone roared. Fantel spun around, dodging instinctively as a huge meaty fist arced through the empty space where her head had been a split-second earlier. “I will smash you,” An Ogdegra man, eight feet tall if he was an inch, with arms wider than the average sapling, snarled in her face. The Ogdegre’s green hued skin was mottled and dark with rage, his yellow eyes maddened with blood lust. One of the foot-long horns curving gracefully up out of his brow ridge had been snapped off. No doubt the agony of losing a horn had caused the Ogdegre to go berserk with pain. Fantel dropped to the ground, braced on her elbows and forearms and kicked up with both legs. She drove the balls of her feet into the Ogdegre’s groin. The giant’s mouth fell open in a silent howl of pain and he doubled up, knees crumpling. Fantel rolled smoothly to her feet, side-stepped, raised the dangling shackle in her left hand and whirled it above her head. She brought the make-shift flail down on the back of the Ogdegre’s head before he had chance to stand.

“Bloop-bloop.”

The automaton buzzed at her shoulder, moved off a few feet and then rotated in the air to face her again. Fantel realised that it wanted her to follow it. Lacking viable alternatives Fantel did as bid. Above her head she heard Einar howling with insensate rage. Fantel wasted no more time. A soft breeze rippling a bullet ridden drape denoted the presence of a concealed door. Fantel ended up in yet another windowless corridor, this one painted in shades of eye-watering aquamarine. The angry scowl of a bronze cast Mishman, complete with many limbs and several pairs of painted eyes glowered at her from an altar set up at the far end of the corridor.

“Bloop.” The automaton stopped at another Anima locked door. Fantel’s shoulders sagged in defeat at the sight of the implacable red sensor pad. Had she come this far only to be trapped by a door? “Bloup. Blup. Bloop.” The automaton began to shudder and the odd corona of energy haloing its form rippled, fading away only to shimmer to life again an instant later in a different colour. Fantel gritted her teeth against the ache in her back molars. The automaton’s eye beam blinked out, and a tiny metal object, so small that if Fantel hadn’t been standing right beside it she wouldn’t have been able to see that it was in fact a perfect miniature replica of the automaton, popped out of the eye-slit; the tiny metal sphere, no bigger than a ball bearing, was enveloped in its own bubble of energy. It was one of the same firefly sized projectiles that had attacked Einar’s presence chamber. Fantel watched unblinking as the tiny floating metal sphere drifted down to land on the sensor pad. As soon as it landed the energy surrounding the thing changed colour, from a deep mauve to an almost shocking yellow. The sensor pad whirred and clicked, the surface of the sensor flashing from red to green as the lock released.

“Bloop.” The miniature automaton lifted off the pad and returned to the larger one, disappearing back inside like a honey bee drone returning to the hive. Fantel shook her head to clear it. She didn’t have to time to wonder over what she had just seen. She shoved open the door and dashed through, the automaton buzzing along at her back. She was in the servants’ wing. The tantalising tang of cooking meat and spices tickled her nostrils as she dashed through a large kitchen, ignoring the gasps of startled servants. She burst out of an unlocked door into a small outside courtyard. She skidded to a halt in front of the body of a Dha-hali man. He stared up at her with wide, glassy eyes, his expression frozen into a mask of infinite surprise for all eternity. A tracery of fine black lines, like a mesh of scorched capillaries, ran under his sallow flesh. A starburst of blood covered his abdomen. He’d been shot, but the bullet wound alone was not what had killed him. He’d been killed by a necromantic round; his soul eaten faster than the gut wound could bleed out.

“W-what is the meaning of this…”

Fantel startled at the sound of voices and ducked behind one of the pillars holding up the portico roof of the partially enclosed courtyard. The automaton buzzed up to the roof of the portico, dimming the light from its eye beam in an attempt to remain unnoticed. Fantel peeped around the pillar toward the two men standing in the centre of the courtyard. The big man with the rifle she had seen in the main chamber stood with his back to Fantel. He had his rifle pointed at a rotund Bhuvanti man wearing a white linen suit and a lurid pink ruffle-necked shirt. Fantel could see the stark fear on the Bhuvanti man’s face. He held a polished teak cane across his body, almost like a staff. The end of the cane was topped with a very large lump of what looked like unrefined Phantasma ore; the stone seemed to burn with a blue black lustre. Four more Dha-hali lay dead at the fat man’s feet; black creeping veins, like cracks in fine porcelain, traced over their dead flesh. They’d all been killed by necromantic ammunition.

“Aluhahn Bashi.” The one-eyed Raider growled, gruff voice mangling the common tongue into something rough and menacing. “This ain’t yer lucky day.”

The fat Bhuvanti opened his mouth, cold sweat breaking out all over his face. “No- don’t.” He stuttered. “Y-you are making a mistake. Do you know who I am? You can’t kill me!”

“That’s where yer wrong.” The Raider shot him. The rifle made no noise, the bullet leaving the barrel silently. The only indication that he’d fired at all was the flash of dark blue-black light from the end of the barrel and the force of recoil racing up the raider’s arms and down his back. Aluhahn Bashi was thrown backward against a small, bubbling fountain. He slid down until his rump, mouth opening and closing silently. His cane slid from his lax grip, the heavy stone striking against the bricks of the courtyard. Desperate fingers groped at the ruffles covering his chest as a blossom of vivid red bloomed across his shirt. A look of unutterable dread, clear as the day was long, spread across the man’s face, leeching all the life from slackening features. His eyes became vacant; staring through his killer at some internal vista so horrifying it robbed him of all volition. His hands dropped away from his chest, flopping bonelessly to the ground. His skin paled, rich walnut complexion becoming tarnished. His eyes filmed over with instantaneous cataract. Climbing upward from under the high collar of his shirt inky black veins crawled beneath his skin, forking like lightning bolts. A low death rattle whistled free of his lungs as he died.

The Raider grunted and shouldered his necromantic rifle. He ambled over to the body and reached down to pick up the cane. Breaking it in two across his thigh he tossed aside the end of the cane and snapped the glowing stone off the top. The man tucked the pilfered stone into a suede pouch and tied it to his thick leather belt. He turned then and pointed his gun straight at the pillar Fantel thought she was safely hidden behind.

“Shoulda run while yer ‘ad the chance.” The Raider growled. There was no time to move, and no chance of evading this bullet. He was using ghost bullets. The bound ghost made each and every necromantic round unstoppable. Even flesh wounds caused by a necromantic bullet were fatal. The malignant ghost tied to the bullet would spread through the body of the victim faster than any poison. Nothing would slow it down; the ghost in the bullet would pass through walls, twist around corners. She could not run, duck, or hide.

The door behind her flew open and Tamaki tumbled out, barrelling into Fantel in her haste. “You,” Tamaki stared at her wide eyed as almost two dozen human woman, freed from their chains and wild eyed with adrenaline and hope, stumbled into the courtyard behind her. They came to an abrupt halt when they saw the dead Dha-hali and the raider standing over him.

“Ladies please, this is no time to dawdle,” the last person through the door was the youth in the bright blue coat, Rashari. He skidded to a halt when he spotted the raider, his eyes skipping from the rifle to the Dha-hali bodies and then to the corpse slumped against the fountain.

“That’s…Bashi.” An expression of horrified comprehension stretched over Rashari’s face. He stared at the one-eyed raider, beginning to raise his hands. “I can explain.”

The raider shifted his lethal focus from Fantel to Rashari. His single eye seemed to take in the crowd of liberated slaves and Fantel in one sweep. She could not imagine what conclusions he drew, but whatever they were they did not please him. He pointed the rifle at the youth in blue, “Traitor.”

“What?” Rashari barely seemed to hear him. He was staring at Bashi, and at the two broken ends of the cane lying in the dead man’s lap. “You have the stone.” He said a certain note of grim resignation in his tone. He looked up at the other man slowly.

The raider laughed rough and angry. “Yer damn right I do.” His lips pulled back from large, yellowed teeth, rough whiskers sticking out like razor wire from the leathery creases gouging his face. “Yer fink I don’ know what yer planned t’do? Yer fink I don’t know yer were goin t’betray me? Yer workin’ for the Suluman.”

There was a pause, a beat of silence. Rashari stared at the man. “What – no.” He shook his head. “Remus; I swear to you. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He held up his hands. “What have I done that would make you think that? Alright, yes, I did let the slaves go -but I never planned to betray you. I’m not working for the Suluman.”

“Liar,” Remus growled and Fantel couldn’t help but agree with him. The youth was lying. She didn’t know how she knew, but she did. Remus shifted the rifle, finger poised on the trigger.

Rashari’s eyes widened fractionally and he raised his hands higher. “Remus, stop; think.” Rashari beseeched him dark eyes flashing around the courtyard, looking for something. “There’s no reason to do this. I’m on your side. We can...we can still get out of here. No one needs to know you killed Bashi. We can make it look like Einar wanted Bashi dead all along. We can make this work for us.”

Fink?” Remus snarled viciously, “I am finking. I’m finkin’ you figured yer could get out o’yer bondage by makin’ a deal wit’ the Suluman. Yer had it all planned; yer were goin’ t’fit me up good. Let me take the blame wit’ the Dha-hali. But the joke’s on yer boy. I know what the stone is.” Remus pulled the trigger. There was a flash of blue-black light.

“Bloooop.” The automaton dove down from the portico roof, swooping past Fantel’s pillar and into the space between Remus and Rashari. “Bloo-ooop.” The shimmering field of energy enveloping the automaton expanded outward, flashing the same tumultuous blue-black as the rifle discharge. The bullet passed through the energy shield, and snagged like a fly in amber. Fantel could see it, a dark lump suspended in that cloud of stormy energy, as if time had stopped. “Blooop,” the bubble of energy popped like a balloon, and the automaton dropped to the ground. The ghost bullet tumbled down with it, clattering against the brickwork.

“SMITH.” Rashari yelled.

Remus swore, scrambling to reload the rifle. Rashari jumped forward and scooped the automaton up from the ground. He lunged for Remus and slammed the automaton into the older man’s sternum. The rifle flew from Remus’s hands and fell into the fountain. Remus retaliated with a left hook that caught Rashari in the side as he pivoted away. Remus grabbed for his leg, and Rashari brought the automaton down on the top of his head, a grazing blow. He danced out of the way. Remus whipped out a pistol from inside his ill-fitting frock-coat, whirled around and aimed at Rashari, who froze like a scared rabbit.

“You worthless son-of-a-whore,” Remus growled. “Yer pushed yer luck too far this time boy.”

Rashari, eyes wide, took a half step backward. He set the automaton on the ground and raised his hands in placating fashion. “You’re making a mistake.” He said seriously.

Remus laughed, “Not likely.” He pulled the trigger. Yet again there was a flash of blue-black light and a chill breath of stale air.

The bullet caught Rashari in the left shoulder as he tried to twist out of the way. He staggered back several steps, hitting the curved basin of the fountain and tripping over Bashi’s feet, falling onto his backside beside the corpse. He stared up at Remus with wide, dark eyes, his right hand clamped over his left shoulder; a spatter of brilliant red blood spreading over the sky blue perfection of his coat. A look of brief pain and irritation shivered over his sharp features. “Damn it Remus. This didn’t have to end this way.” He hissed before his eyes closed and his features went slack.

“No, no, no.” Tamaki choked off a scream, shoving shaking fingers into her mouth as she bent double, sinking into a crouch, tiny panicked sounds escaping her throat, muffled by her hands. More than one of the other former captives followed suit. The others simply stared at Remus, waiting for him to turn his gun on them.

Fantel lunged forward, claws extended, and smashed into Remus before he knew what hit him. She slashed her claws across his face in a sharp diagonal arc from right to left. The man danced back. He was so much faster than he looked; a bruiser with the feet of a dancer. He struck her with his pistol. Fantel tore it from his hands and threw the gun aside. It skidded over the brickwork out of reach.

“Get away wit’ yer - “

Remus drew a nasty snub bladed dagger from his inside sleeve and stabbed for her abdomen, his movements swift and economically; the actions of an experienced fighter, no unnecessary flourishes or waste of effort, just ruthless efficiency. She twisted aside, avoiding the thrust of the dagger and grabbed his thick wrist, digging her claws into the vulnerable underside, piercing veins. Remus swore ripping his slashed wrist free. Fantel harried him with quick striking slashes of her claws, intent on driving him back into a corner.

Remus managed to slither free, side stepping away at the last instant, and turning the tables. Fantel whipped about, dropping to one knee and sweeping one foot out in a fast arc to unbalance the raider as he tried to push her into the shaded corner of the portico. Remus brought the blade down in a lightning fast arc, aiming to bury the knife in her neck. Fantel rolled to the side at the last instant and Remus staggered, his momentum causing him to lose his balance. Fantel jumped to her feet. Whippet fast Remus regained his footing and turned on her, raising his forearm to block her flurry of blows. Fantel jumped back before he could counter. They circled each other warily, until Remus darted forward suddenly, reaching out to grab his fallen pistol. Fantel dove forward, scrapping her palms on the brickwork as she stretched out one hand to knock the gun away. Remus swore and caught a fistful of her hair, wrenching her head back and then forward, fast enough to induce whiplash. Fantel managed to get both arms underneath her before he could dash her brains out across the ground.

Remus abruptly let go of her hair. Fantel scrambled away until her back hit the wall. Rashari stood behind Remus, the necromantic pistol pressed against the back of Remus’ head. The left breast of his sky blue coat was stained with blood but he was inexplicably alive and wearing a bladed smile on his face.

“You know,” he began cheerily. “Murder is all well and good, but there is just no excuse for ruining a good coat.”

“Pit damn yer,” Remus snarled words tearing free of his throat; anger mangled the syllables until they were almost unintelligible. “Ruthy was right. Yer really are a monster. The Imperials made yer, din’t they? Cooked yer up in some lab and set yer loose to kill us all.”

Rashari scowled behind his back, lips thinning, but he marshalled his anger. “The stone if you please.”

“Kill me an’ be done with it,” Remus tossed his head and sneered.

“The prospect is growing in allure with every passing moment.” Rashari snapped. “But I am willing to let bygones be bygones and attempted murder slide in the name of our past association. Hand over the stone and I’ll let you live.”

Fantel rose to her feet carefully, head cocked as she studied Rashari. She’d been certain that the bullets in the pistol had been ghost bullets and yet he was still alive. How was this possible? Remus was right; no ordinary human could survive a ghost bullet.

“Yer a fool boy; a weak hearted fool,” Remus’ lips twisted in contempt, and even a little pity. “Even if yer don’t kill me; I’m a dead man. Nylous will see to it.” He tilted his head so he could see Rashari with his one good eye. “I woulda shown yer no mercy. An’ neither will he. Whatever yer fink; whatever plans yer got cookin’ in that head o’ yers – yer’ll never be free o’ Veridree.”

“Your lack of faith is touching.” Rashari’s expression hardened. He removed the pistol from Remus’ head and shoved the barrel into his back, between his shoulder blades. “Goodbye Remus. It’s been a singular honour serving under you.” Fantel saw it in his eyes the very moment he pulled the trigger. Remus jerked once and smiled, grim and bitter, as the ghost bullet pierced his back and invaded his spirit. He stayed upright. Fantel watched as his eyes clouded over and his skin marbled with black veins. He died without a sound. Rashari knelt beside him and pulled the pouch from his belt before knocking Remus’ body over. He hit the ground with a solid thump.


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