The sun had sunk toward the horizon by the time they reached the Olim’g. It was much as Fantel remembered it; a wide expanse of greenery stretching before them, dotted with the occasional copse of trees and dominated by a kidney shaped lake ringed by trees. Indigo shadow striped the plain and the grasses rippled in the cooling breeze. The waters of the lake glittered with the last sparks of the fading sun and Fantel could just make out the reedy silhouettes of wading birds studding the banks. To the north-east the curve of the Vay Hills wrapped around the plain, encircling the land like the arm of a protective parent. The breeze swept up the plain toward the foothills, redolent with the aroma of resin, salt and untainted air. The echoing cry of a Hoolican bird rang out across the plain, loud and surprising.
“We’ll make camp by the bank of that lake,” Rolling her shoulders Fantel resettled her burden – she had removed her coat so that she could use it like a sack to carry the Yammik’a’lim shell and the last of their supply of nasri stems. Her skin was itchy with dried sweat and dust, and her throat was parched. She glanced over at Rashari when he didn’t reply. He’d been quiet for at least an hour, the sporadic observations and occasional question he had entertained her with throughout their journey had tampered off before the sun had begun its fall toward the horizon. He’d even stopped insisting she let him carry their supplies, an offer she had grown sick of after the umpteenth time he had made it. During the last part of their bone-wearying descent from the hills Fantel had not thought much of his silence –she had assumed he was in wordless conference with Smith – but now it occurred to her to worry. She turned to him, really looking at him for the first time in hours. Rashari had pulled off his coat at some point in the journey and had tied the sleeves together so he could wear the coat like a sort of one-shouldered cape. The thick water-proofed material hung like a drape over the left side of his body, allowing Smith to perch on his shoulder without the inconvenience of his sharp feet ripping through Rashari’s shirt. In the gathering gloom of approaching twilight the glow from Smith’s multiple eyes painted Rashari’s neck and the left side of his face in startling violet light. He wasn’t looking at her, but instead out across the Olim’g, dark eyes trained unblinkingly upon the water of the lake. They were both filthy from a whole day of long travel under a baking sun, not to mention the dried mud and muck from the flooded river the day before. Grime coated Rashari’s face, darkening his complexion and hiding the dark smudges of bruises along his jaw. The cut over his left cheekbone –scabbed over but still angry and red – was rimmed in sweat and his black hair was wildly mussed, plastered to his scalp. Beard stubble covered his cheeks, but Fantel could see the tension in his jaw, the tightness around the corners of his mouth. Beads of sweat gathered on his top lip, glistening.
“Is your left hand paining you?” She asked him softly, moving just fractionally closer, not quite reaching out but ready to. It occurred to her that the way he had draped his coat around him meant that she could not see his left arm at all.
Rashari flicked his gaze to her, briefly, and then away again. “Yes.” He said with brutal brevity, right hand moving toward his left arm, tugging his coat more surely around his him.
“Let me see.” Fantel did not wait for permission. She smacked his right hand away and swept the coat back taking hold of his left wrist. He winced but did not pull his hand away. Fantel stared at his hand, breath catching in her throat. The ends of his fingers were hooked in claws and swollen up like balloons. His fingernails were black and his skin almost purple. His palm was bleeding, thin lines of congealing blood tracing the quicksilver filaments embedded into his flesh; the swelling in his hand had started to contort and warp the lines of his technomantic glove and now the filaments were cutting into his swollen flesh like cheese-wire. There was more blood circling the piece of scion stone embedded in the middle of his palm. Swallowing back her first, appalled, reaction Fantel popped open the buttons of his cuff and wrestled his sleeve up to his elbow. His wrist was discoloured, the skin marred with an angry blackish-red rash climbing up the inside of his arm toward his elbow. His skin felt hot and tight, over-ripe like the flesh of a bruised-black plum ready to burst.
“Why did you not say something?” She demanded heart in her throat. He must have been in pain for hours.
He snorted, gaze averted so he did not have to look at his hand. “To what end?” He asked her, words flat and dead. “There was nothing to be done, and we needed to keep moving.”
He was right but that did not make Fantel feel any better. She did not know precisely what the rash and swelling denoted, aside from the fact that the wound was clearly infected. She did not know if the alraune curse was within him, quietly mutating his flesh inch by creeping inch. She had never seen a complete alraune transformation before and her ignorance made her feel useless, frustrated. The sense of guilt she had been wrestling with all day became that much more acute. Rashari’s stoicism did not help matters. She may only have known him a matter of days but he did not strike her as a man given to resignation. He was not one to go quietly to his death, or to accept a fate that was not to his liking without a fight. She did not know if his quiet fortitude now was merely steely practicality or a symptom of something far worse.
“It is not that painful now,” he said, studying her as if he could read her mind. He contrived to offer her the ghost of a smile – as if it was she who needed reassurance. “My arm is mostly numb. It just throbs.” He shrugged with just his right shoulder. “All in all that is probably better than the alternative, don’t you think?”
No, Fantel did not think so, but she kept that to herself. “Do you have any movement in your left arm?” She asked instead, needing to know just how badly his wound had incapacitated him.
Rashari shifted a little, twitching his left shoulder and wincing. Fantel, still holding onto his left wrist, noted that his forearm below the elbow did not move at all. Rashari sighed and shook his head. “I can move my shoulder a little, although I’d prefer not to, but I can’t feel anything below my elbow.” He met her eyes. “That’s not good, is it?”
Fantel said nothing for a moment, dropping he gaze. She could feel not just the weight of Rashari’s gaze but Smith’s as well. “No,” she murmured letting go of his hand. “It is not good.” Irrespective of whether the alraune curse had taken hold, Rashari was in danger of losing his hand, or at the very least his fingers, if they could not find something to bring down the swelling. His chances of surviving amputation out here were little better than his chances of surviving the alraune curse without an antidote.
“What –“ Rashari began and then choked off the words, pressing his lips together into a thin line. He rubbed his right hand over his face, palm scratching over the stubble coating his jaw. “How long, do you suppose, until this,” he twitched his left shoulder again, “becomes a problem we can’t solve?”
Fantel met his eyes. “I don’t know.” She owed him this much honesty at least. “There used to be an ogdegre camping ground beyond those trees, where the hills curve westward – there is a pass through there – we will not reach it before nightfall, but tomorrow we should make the pass within a few hours.” Assuming that is that Rashari’s condition did not worsen during the night, and assuming also that the ogdegre still used the pass twelve years on from the last time she was here.
“Right,” Rashari nodded jerkily, a crooked, humourless smile painting his lips as if he knew only too well the doubts circling her mind. She watched his throat jump as he swallowed, and the way his chin tilted upward, proud despite the fear. “We should get going then. Do you suppose the lake is safe to bathe in? I’m getting mighty sick of smelling myself.” He shot her a wry look. “I’m sure you are too.”
“Hn,” Fantel nodded, not at what he said but instead in understanding. There was nothing to be done for him now. Fantel could offer no remedy to ease the pain and no assurance that they could cure him. It was better therefore not to dwell on the matter further. Fantel knew she would not appreciate either sympathy or pity if she were in his place and therefore resolved not to bring his injury up again unless his condition worsened.
They reached the lake just as the first stars bloomed in the night sky. The lake reflected a perfect simulation of the twinkling darkness like a smooth black mirror. Rashari dropped heavily to his knees at the lake edge, heedless of the dark silt and thick mud seeping into his trousers. He scooped up a handful of water with his good hand and licked the droplets from his fingers greedily. Fantel opened her mouth to protest – the water may not be safe to drink – and he must have seen her in the periphery of his vision because he turned back with a grin, water dripping from his chin.
“I’m already infected with one life-threatening contagion, Madame. Don’t spoil this for me too.”
Fantel sighed watching as he splashed water onto his face with enough enthusiasm that Smith prudently leapt from his back and scuttled up the bank, the light from his eyes stretching ahead of him across the grass. She set about setting up camp, dropping her burden and opening the coat to retrieve the Yammik’a’lim shell and a few of the spines. Had she the right tools she could drill holes through the shell at the outer edges and use a strip of cloth from the hem of her coat to make straps so that she could carry the shell like a shield, but as it was the shell was mostly useless. She would leave it behind, and instead make do with her claws and the spines. She shrugged on her coat now that the sun had set and the night chill had arrived. Glancing over to the lake edge she saw that Rashari was already struggling to strip out of his shirt and vest one-handed, with no apparent concern for modesty. Fantel averted her gaze on his behalf, rising to her feet.
“I am going hunting,” she told Smith, who watched her from the grass with steady violet eyes. “I will not be long.” She did not look over to the water where the quality of the splashing suggested that Rashari was already wading. Smith bobbed in the grass, knee joints flexing, in as much of an approximation of a nod as he could manage. Fantel hesitated. “Watch him,” she said low enough she did not think Rashari would hear her over the noise he was making even if he had been inclined to listen in. She wasn’t sure but she thought the light in Smith’s eyes flashed, once, more brightly than before. She took this as assent, and understanding of shared concern, and then headed off swiftly toward the copse of trees on the far bank of the lake.
She moved at a brisk pace, sinking into the trees and weaving through the darkness sure-footed and confident. She needed to get some distance between herself and the lake. She did not want there to be any chance Rashari or Smith might catch wind of what she was doing. Breaking through the trees she kept walking, wading through the tall grass of the plain and down into a shallow depression in the ground, a place where she would be hidden from view by the bowl like ridge above. The night was quiet, the hum of buzzing insects forming a sonorous base-beat punctuated by the occasional animal call. Above her head the sky was ink-black and undisturbed by even a trace of cloud. The stars spread across the sky in clusters – distant observers to the world below. She had not come out here to hunt for food. She had come looking for different prey.
Closing her eyes Fantel released a breath of pent up air, letting her shoulders sag and willing the tension from her limbs. She had no real hope of clearing her mind as she would need for meditation, but emptying her mind was not her intent. This was not meditation in the usual sense, nor was she seeking communion with the spirits of the plain. She turned her focus inward, imagining that she could climb inside her own mind, retracting her awareness the way a tortoise pulls its head and limbs inside the safety of its shell. She wanted to leave her body behind and the outside world with it. She wanted to reach the dark spaces inside her thoughts and root out the other presence hidden in her mind.
“Anoush,” She whispered, giving a name to her fear. “Anoush of the Seraphim; Anoush of the scion stone; Anoush who is daughter of Dalmund, goddess to the men of Bhuvam, I would speak with you.”
At first her call went unanswered. She did not know how long she repeated her improvised incantation before she felt a shiver creep through her mind like a cool wind. Then it was as before. When the other presence came it came fast, sweeping over Fantel and filling her up like water in a vase. Except this time the presence did not steal Fantel’s body away from her completely. This time the presence was less interested in possession and more inclined toward conversation. Fantel opened her eyes to find that the star-spattered plain was gone and she was face to face with a Seraph.
You have manners, little Chimera. Your summons was not without respect. Fantel saw light and colour and the impression of massive wings, like those of a midnight moth. The wings were shaded with shadow, a deep blue-purple, deepening to black. There was a delicacy to the apparition that belied the sense of power radiating from the two rounded eyes set into those moth-wings. The eyes were rimmed in gold but dark as pits. They seemed to contain a wealth of ancient knowledge and a weary awareness of things Fantel could only guess at. Despite the cool asperity of the words Anoush spoke into her mind Fantel’s first true impression of the Seraph was one of fatigue and a deep, resigned weariness.
“I made no pact with you.” Fantel spoke, her words clear and strong. Now that she was face to face with the Seraph she found her fear seeping away. Despite her power, her quiet majesty, Anoush was still just a spirit, greater perhaps than most Fantel had encountered, but in essence not that far removed from the petulant forest spirit. Spirits were bound by certain rules, and Anoush had broken the cardinal rule. “You have no right to my body.”
Might is right, child. Anoush replied, not with rancour but instead with the vaguest hint of benign amusement. You cannot oust me from your mind. You lack the power, poor lost chimera. This gives me all the right I need. I have use of you. There is a task I would have you perform.
Fantel shivered. Anoush offered no hostility but her utter certainty, her complete confidence in her control was its own threat. Anoush did not need to coerce or threaten. Her subjugation was complete. This meeting was merely a courtesy.
“How?” She demanded. “You have been trapped inside a stone for centuries, without a host and without the means to use your power. How can you have the might to take my body against my will?”
Dear child, Anoush laughed, a warm maternal chuckle that carried with it the static heat and danger of a summer thunderstorm. Do you understand so little? You are broken, child of the Chimeri. A little lost soul cast adrift. You broke your own spirit to free your mind and left a wound within I was only too happy to fill.
Fantel sucked in an icy breath. “My magic,” she whispered in sudden sickened understanding. She thought of how Anoush had swept over her when she had tried to use her magic to summon the forest spirit. She had known that her exile from Aashorum and the Chimeri had caused her magic to dwindle and wane. A fact exacerbated by years spent surrounded by humans and their death powered machines. She had even known that she was broken deep inside. She had just never imagined that the hollowness she felt in her core was a real wound, or that it could be so easily exploited.
“Why me?” She asked “Why not...” Rashari who is human and responsible for your theft? She almost asked before swiftly biting back her traitorous words. She did not even mean them.
Anoush did not need her to speak aloud to know her mind. I cannot use him. His body is too full already. Anoush’s next words were flavoured with a hint of disquiet, and faint unease. That one is strange. I do not know what to make of him, although I am not ungrateful to him. His actions brought you to me and brought us both out here. For this reason I am prepared to be patient.
“Patient?” Fantel regretted the question as soon as it left her lips. She did not want to grant the Seraph opportunity to tell her what task she wanted undertaken – what task she had the power to force Fantel to undertake – but on the other hand she had little choice but to hear her out.
Yes. I am willing to allow you time to take him to the Ogdegre to see what can be done to save his life, before you complete for me my task. The expansive sense of magnanimous self-satisfaction suggested to Fantel that Anoush expected her to genuflect in gratitude at this show of generosity. Fantel took more than a little pleasure in the fact that, unless she was made to, Anoush would receive no such thing. Broken she might be, but cowed she was not.
I wish to be free. Anoush said on a rising tide of power that tasted like old, tired anger. Her wings grew impossibly large, filling the world with pulsing darkness, those golden-black eyes boring into Fantel until she could not look away. You cannot know what it is to be as I am. You, little creature of flesh and blood, wrapped in your ignorance like a shield, cannot conceive of the torment I have endured. I have been trapped, locked away, imprisoned within cold crystal, crushed and smothered, owned and possessed for more years than you can fathom. I have been used, squandered, formed and reformed by the will and vanity of a hundred tiny human lives. I have known desolation. I have known the void of unknowing, the chaos of unmaking. I have been forgotten and maligned. I have been revered and admired –and I have had enough.
The wings beat against the sky, as if Anoush sort to tear herself free of existence, to beat herself to powder like a real moth thrashing its wings against a closed window. Fantel felt her throat closing against a rage that was so old, so ever-present it choked her. She felt horror unlike any she had known; the horror of powerlessness, the horror of captivity, the horror of knowing that there was no escape. For all the power the goddess possessed, for all the value of her years, when it counted, Anoush was incapable of acting against those who had used her for centuries. The Seraph was truly nothing more than a trinket, a magic trick, to be used by any human with the wit to recognise the power of the stone that was her prison.
Yes, Anoush hissed into Fantel’s mind, her anguish as hot as a savannah wind. And then, when the humans had no more use of me – no more use for their goddess slave – they sought to destroy me; to murder me. They used their filthy dead souls to poison me. To carve me out of my stone, my prison, and leave me with nothing, no anchor, no safe-haven. Do you know what happens to Serephim when we have no anchor holding us to this mortal realm, child? Fantel shook her head, fascinated and appalled in equal measure. The Void, Anoush said those simple words with the same weight humans cursed the Pit. As if it was the deepest of hells. Can you imagine that, little Chimera – you who abandoned one life and have so far failed to find another to fit you? Can you imagine nothingness? I am Seraphim. I cannot die. Yet the humans have found a way to unmake me so completely that should they succeed it will be as if I never existed.
“Deific energy,” Fantel whispered thinking back to what Rashari had told her about the experiments of the DeLunde Institute. How his father had sought to kill a seraph and use the power released when it died to create a new energy source to replace phantasma. At the time she had barely grasped the concept. Human science confused and aggravated her generally and she had at first thought such a tall tale no more than another example of the vaulting hubris of humans. Now, choking on Anoush’s very real fear, Fantel finally understood why Rashari had been willing to go to such lengths to ensure that no one could use Anoush to make more of that power.
I must be free, Anoush insisted, the urgency of her demand screaming across the plain, cracking the sky in forks of lightning and the echoing boom of thunder. I must be free and far from the reach of the humans and their foul alchemy. You must free me. You must bear me to safety, to the place no human can tread. I would sooner take my chances amid the shades than allow the humans to abuse me so utterly.
“A place where humans cannot tread?” Fresh horror bloomed in Fantel’s chest as she realised where Anoush meant her to go – and the exact nature of the task she had been set. “The Great Wound.” A canyon full of phantasma – but not the sort the humans made – this was raw and natural, a place of shades but not of ghosts. “No, no, I cannot. Such a thing is suicide. No living creature can safely enter the canyon.”
Child, Anoush hissed. You have no choice. Bear me willingly or no, it matters not. I will escape my fate, and you, little rebel Chimera –are powerless to stop me.