The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Hell is other people

The ship – Rashari called her Vedeca - swept over fallow fields and rolling hills; the landscape of southern Tabris passing underneath them like an unfurled carpet. The colours were bright and dazzling under the warm sun. Fantel had visited the kingdom numerous times in the last twelve years, including the capital city Remenes. Tabris had been a pivotal trading hub for centuries, mostly due to its location situated on a peninsula in the south central region of Tybur. Tabrians often claimed to be the centre of the world. There was some truth to the boast. The Adran Empire threatened to the east, neighbouring Aramant rested to the immediate west, and the Bhuvam islands sat just off the eastern coastline. The southern continent of Dushkuland waited to the south beyond the Verus channel. Remenes had grown affluent due to trade coming in from air, land, and sea routes across all of human dominated Aldlis. Tabris’ location also threatened her sovereignty. Dushkuland had long sought the annexation of the kingdom and a foothold upon the Tybur continent. The Adran Empire likewise, would do whatever it must to ensure that Dushku, its great rival, never gained control of the essential trading routes running like arteries in and out of Remenes. The spectre of invasion forever loomed large upon the green and golden splendour of this ancient kingdom; Fantel had always thought that the shadow of destruction granted an almost ephemeral quality to Tabris’ glorious countryside. It was fleeting and fragile, all the more beautiful because it was inevitably doomed to fall.

The silence inside the main cabin remained unbroken until Vedeca swept northward. Fantel watched undulating green hills and golden bands of arable land give way to clusters of buildings, quaint farming villages and thriving towns, ringed by solid walls. Finally the ground below became rougher, valleys giving way to craggy moors and finally a pock-marked canyon dominated by a deep crater in the ground. Vedeca began to slow, sinking lower to toward the ground as it approached the crater.

The red stone city of Remenes sat within the crater, like a ruby set in earth and shadow. Rashari banked in a lazy arc and Fantel saw the whole of the city laid out before her. The crater formed a natural wall around Remenes, sheltering it in a swath of cooling shade. The city looked like a carving made by a skilled artisan, as unreal as the Aerie of the Gods. The needle-like spire of the temple of Cirroc, patron god and protector of the ancient city, dominated the skyline. The entire city stretched out around this one magnificent structure like the ripples on the surface of a circular pond. Fantel could see wide avenues striking out from the temple at diagonal angles. The royal palace, the oldest building in the city, was carved directly out of the rock of the crater, its enormous pillars and wide walkways wrapping around the city and rising to the very top of the crater. Fantel had heard a rumour that the same ancient race of men responsible for the Aerie of the Gods had also carved Remenes palace out of the solid rock. Having seen both wonders with her own eyes Fantel was willing to give some credence to this belief.

The Vedeca continued to spiral downward in a controlled descent. Fantel could see the oval shaped open roof of the skyport, one of the largest buildings in the city. Rashari carefully brought the ship into dock. The sky above Remenes was congested with a number of private and commercial skycraft; a large lumbering freight ship, built like a floating brick, rose laboriously out of the skyport’s roof, while other smaller craft zipped in and out of docking bays set into the sides of the building. The entire structure reminded Fantel of an anthill.

“You have permission to dock in Remenes?” She asked, her voice sounding inordinately loud in the tense quiet of the cabin.

“In a manner of speaking,” Rashari half-shrugged, as much as he could with his left arm stuck in the interface and his right hand busy twiddling dials and flicking switches. “Remenes is surprisingly accommodating when it comes to unscheduled arrivals, and as I said, I have contacts in the port. Even if a berth is not available for Vedeca the goblins working the bays will let me lay over an hour or two at any rate.”

“Convenient, indeed,” Fantel quirked an eyebrow, “Almost it would seem that you meant to land in Remenes all along.”

“Not at all, actually; I’ve had to grease a good many palms and perform several highly irritating favours to ensure Vedeca’s anonymity in this city – it just so happens that today offers me opportunity to enjoy the rewards of my hard work.”

“This ship is yours?” Fantel reached out to touch the console in front of her, letting her fingers glide over the cool metal.

“Yes,” He said firmly, fingers flipping a number of switches so that Vedeca came to a halt hovering in mid-air, waiting for one of the docking ports to become available. A monitor in front of Fantel swam with incomprehensible lines of text, both letters and numbers. Rashari was keeping one eye on the readout as he held the ship steady. “Tell me Madame Chimera, have you ever flown co-pilot before?”

“No.” Fantel frowned at him. The question seemed absurd to her. The Chimeri had no use for flight; they were creatures born of Aldlis, if they had been meant to take to the sky they would have been born with wings.

“Hmm,” He reached out with his right hand and tapped a finger against the screen in front of her, “Vedeca’s made contact with flight control; they’ll send confirmation about which bay to land in via this screen. I’d appreciate it if you could let me know when they give the all-clear.”

Fantel looked from the screen filled with gibberish to Rashari and back again. She did not try to keep the suspicion from her tone as she asked, “You are incapable of doing this yourself?”

“Oh I can do it,” he replied breezily, “but it’s a trifle busy at the moment and unless we wish to be knocked out of the sky by that tub over there I’m going to have to take us out of hover mode – meaning that I’ll have to concentrate on flying instead of watching the port bays or the monitors. Chances are we could lose our docking space to some cheeky Johnny-come-lately should that happen.”

“I do not know how to read the screen.” Fantel admitted refusing to feel in anyway abashed to make the admission.

“Oh there’s nothing to it, really.” Rashari tapped his finger on a scrawling line of text running across the screen, even as he used his left hand to pull Vedeca out of hover mode and banked gently to the right to allow the commercial skyship to pass. “See this line here? When there’s a free spot the readout will give the bay number followed by Vedeca’s ID code – triple seven, one, five, nine, quadruple eight. Just look out for the code and the bay number preceding it and call that out to me.”

Fantel frowned. She wanted to refuse but to do so would be churlish. She gave a short, sharp nod of grudging assent and focused her attention on the screen. She stared at the screen hard enough to make her head hurt as Rashari manoeuvred Vedeca left and right, up and down, to avoid the constant flow of skycraft buzzing in and out of the busy skyport. The cabin hummed with the vibration of the engines, forced to work especially hard to keep the ship aloft while idling in the air. There was a faint tingle to the air inside the cabin, but it was not unpleasant. In fact it reminded her vaguely of the feeling she gained when digging her fingers into fresh tilled soil – the slightest pulse of life-energy rode the air making Fantel doubly curious about this ship and her peculiar master. The energy did not feel like Phantasma to her, but she did not know what else could make a skyship fly.

The monitor screen refreshed, old codes and digit strings wiped clean and replaced by new ones; Vedeca’s code flashed up on the screen. “Bay thirteen.” She turned to Rashari. “You can find it?”

“Mmhmm,” Vedeca glided forward, the engines rumbling as the ship broke out of hover mode and swept toward one of the circular port bays. Fantel watched out of the window as they entered the skyport. Her initial impression of an anthill was reinforced further once she saw the inside of the small craft docking bays. Once through the entrance tunnel they emerged into a huge chamber criss-crossed by layer upon layer of skeletal walkways, gangplanks and platforms. Fantel could see dozens of craft held in huge metal docking clamps. She watched as a light cruiser skyship very like Vedeca came into dock; the ship floated into place between the upper and lower clamps, the upper of which slowly lowered until the ship was pinched between both clamps, held suspended from the edge of one of the platforms. “Vice clamps,” Rashari murmured having noticed her interest in the procedure. “Terribly old fashioned. They favour magnetic clamps in Adra these days – safer on the paintwork.” The Vedeca drifted over to a mid-level bay close to the far wall of the chamber. Fantel noted a small cluster of goblins, dressed in habitual grey cowls, waiting on the bay platform. The upper most vice clamp was already beginning to descend when Rashari brought the ship to a halt and cut the engines. The walls of the cabin shuddered as the ship was caught between the two clamp arms. Rashari pulled his arm free of the interface, almost managing to hide a grimace of discomfort, and the interface retracted smoothly back into the console.

“Right then ladies,” he said brightly, rising carefully from the pilot’s chair and facing the rest of the escapees – who up until this moment had been so silent Fantel had all but forgotten them – “Shall we disembark?”

“What ‘appens now?” The hatchet faced Adran woman who had advocated death over slavery peered at Rashari warily. “Yer just gonna let us go then? No tricks, no nofink?” One or two of the other women murmured in shared sentiment, each face writ large with queasy suspicion. During the chaos of their escape they had been happy to throw in with this extravagant youth but now, so close to freedom, and jaded by their experiences, they questioned his altruism and their own luck.

“Quite so,” Rashari nodded. “I assure you I have no interest in going into business as a slaver. You are free to go.”

“Just like that?” Another woman asked. Her accent marked her as either Tabrian or Aramite. She brushed a curl of mousey hair behind one ear. “Aren’t you a Raider? Why would you help us for free?”

Fantel was also interested in this answer. She turned to Rashari and waited for his response. He shrugged then froze in pain, the gesture clearly not agreeing with his injury. “Why not?” He asked almost flippantly. “You have nothing I want, and really, I only freed you because I thought you might help cover my escape.” He threw up his right hand, made a meaningless circular gesture with his wrist. “It cost me nothing to bring you with me - so I did.” He smirked at the woman playfully. “You can pay me for the rescue if you wish; I certainly won’t stop you.”

The woman opened her mouth to reply but at that moment someone knocked on the outer door. “Ah,” Rashari smiled, “the docking crew is getting impatient.” He bounced up the step from the cockpit to the passenger area and strode toward the back of the cabin, right hand clamped to his left shoulder. “It’s never a good idea to leave a goblin waiting.” At the door to the cabin he turned back to the rest of them. “Ladies, believe of my character what you want, but I will have to ask you to please vacate my ship. I have no intention of taking on excess baggage once I leave Remenes.” He turned and hurried down the corridor to the hull door, to the echo of more knocking, leaving Fantel and the other women to stare mutely after him.

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