The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Rashari took several hasty steps back from Remus’ corpse. He grimaced, shoving the pouch with the stone into his coat pocket before walking stiff-legged over to where the automaton still lay on the ground. He scooped the unmoving automaton into the crook of his right arm and slowly turned to face Fantel. His skin was ashen and his dark eyes were blown wide with encroaching shock. “Let’s get the bloody hell out of here.”

Fantel stared at him for long moment, until a sudden crash from inside the mansion startled them all into motion. There was a door set into the outer wall of the courtyard, miraculously left unlocked. Fantel dove through the door and immediately fell down the steep and rocky embankment on the other side. She landed heavily on her hands and knees at the bottom of the ditch and barely managed to get out of the way before she was crushed under an avalanche of falling humans.

“Oof,” Tamaki sprawled in the dry red dust at her feet, grazing her chin as she landed. Rashari swore vociferously as his own, less than graceful skid down into the ditch jarred his wounded shoulder. Above them they heard shouting, voices raised in anger and panic and the unmistakable rapport of gunfire.

“Chop, chop ladies, this way.” Rashari jumped up, still clutching the automaton under one arm. He loped off along the dry ditch toward the skeletal mesh of an elaborate scaffold perhaps sixty feet ahead. A half dozen sky ships had been tethered to the top of the scaffolding, which Fantel realised was a makeshift docking platform some thirty feet high. Beyond the dock the sky fell like a curtain. The horizon was so low the ground must give way completely just beyond the scaffolding. Behind her back the sounds of shouting and gunfire grew louder. Fantel stretched her legs and raced to the front, matching Rashari’s stride, as the other women scrambled behind.

“There! Don’t let them get away.” Someone bellowed behind them, the wind bringing the sound of pursuit to them. Fantel risked a glimpse over her shoulder and saw a veritable horde of Dha-hali tumbling down the ditch. She ran a little faster, out pacing Rashari, who seemed to be slowing down, hindered by his injury and the melon sized metal sphere clasped under his arm.

A medium sized private air cruiser was held in docking clamps attached to the top of the nearest scaffold. The ship was an old S-Class Imperial model; the wings arched like those of a swallow, back facing thrusters poking out under each wing. The nose tip was narrow and tapered into a blunt point so that the cockpit was lower than the body of the craft. The underside of the aft section was dominated by the huge circular Phantasma engine and double thrusters fanned out the tail, enhancing the avian appearance of the ship. The outer hull was painted cobalt blue enlivened with lavender shaded arabesques and curlicues, giving the craft a peculiarly whimsical look. Fantel slowed down as they came to the bottom of the scaffold. Rashari stopped at the bottom of a metal rung ladder, waving the rest of the escaping slaves toward him.

“Up, up, up. Come on ladies. We don’t have all day.” Rashari herded the captives up the metal ladder in swift succession, snapping out quick instructions on where to place their hands so they did not stumble climbing up. Tamaki was the first up the ladder. Fantel waited at the bottom as the others climbed and watched the approaching horde. It wasn’t just Dha-hali descending on them. It seemed that the remainder of Einar’s raider guests were also intent on making their escape. Skirmishes broke out between the fleeing raiders and the Dha-hali. Fantel could see flashes of darkling light as ghost bullets flew, and clearly heard the cries of the wounded.

Rashari swore and grabbed her arm pulling her toward the ladder. “You next Madame,” He looked anxiously over his shoulder as Fantel began climbing the ladder as quickly as she could.

The metal ladder was perfectly vertical, each rung only about three inches thick. The small gap between the rungs made climbing awkward for Fantel -her legs were too long and she kept striking her knees every time she hitched her leg up to the next rung. The clamour beneath her – full of profanity and the occasional staccato burst of gunfire – did not help matters one whit. Her shoulders twitched, skin quivering; she held her breath waiting for a lucky bullet to find a home in her unprotected spine. Thankfully the Raider proclivity to attack any other Raider within arms reach meant that the Dha-hali and their guests were too busy slaughtering each other to take shots at them.

“Sodding thing – I’m not carrying you all the way, you lazy bugger.”

A few rungs beneath her Rashari was not finding the climb any easier; hampered as he was by the automaton awkwardly tucked under one arm. Fantel thought that he might find the climb a little easier if he’d only keep his mouth shut. The stream of muttered profanity was a waste of oxygen. “This is not on, Smith. One little deader-shot and you give up the ghost? Who do you think you are?”

Below them the feuding raiders had finally broken apart, various factions now running towards the other docking platforms and the cruisers moored there. Fantel’s head crested the top of the ladder. Small hands grabbed for her as she hauled herself up over the top.

“Quick, quick – lady – hurry,” Tamaki looked around her wildly, wringing her hands. She was almost hopping from foot to foot. Fantel stood. Tamaki grabbed her arm and started to tow her toward the sky ship. She could see the anxious faces of the other women clustered in front of the door.

“Ugh,” Rashari shoved the immobile Smith up onto the platform and dragged himself up afterward. He tried to brace himself with his left arm and gasped. His arm buckled. Fantel hauled him up. She could see the bullet hole in his coat. The lining was exposed and she saw the broken edge of thin wire mesh. The coat was armoured. It hadn’t stopped the bullet from breaking skin, but it had stopped it from punching a hole right through him. Rashari knelt awkwardly and scooped up Smith, the automaton offering up a dilatory “Bloop” in response, the dim light of its eye beam flickering in pitiful fashion.

Rashari staggered, a little ungainly, toward the ship and slammed his left palm into a concealed sensor pad next to the hull door. A sigil shimmered to life under his palm, curling patterns of flashing dark purple energy stretched out across the hull before the boarding door opened with a soft murmur of hydraulics. The rounded door pushed out from the hull and swung outward, a set of three metal steps extended down to the platform automatically. Rashari bounced up and inside the ship. Fantel cast one last look behind her, taking in the blue sky and the sounds of shouting below before hurrying aboard.

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