The Stone Heart's Lament

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Omission and crimes thereof

This can’t go on. I refuse to allow you to turn into a plant. What will happen to me? Smith demanded. Rashari fixed him with an aggrieved glare.

“I don’t think the curse works on mechanisms, so you should be fine.” He knelt by the edge of the lake, immobile left arm limp in his lap, palm facing up. He bit down hard on his bottom lip, sucking in a sharp breath as he worked to pry loose the fragment of scion stone embedded in his grossly swollen hand with the fingers of his right. Blood, dark and turgid, welled up around the stone as he worked but he couldn’t really feel it. He was already in too much pain to notice as his fingers scratched bloody furrows in enflamed flesh. The throbbing ache of infection beat its way up his left arm and crawled like an army of fire-ants up his neck to his jaw and inner ear. His chest felt tight and every time he swallowed he tasted bile, lodged in his throat like a boulder.

If you die, I die. That is not acceptable to me. Smith snapped. He was crouched next to Rashari’s left leg, knee joints flexing up and down in agitation. He was literally reverberating with tension.

“It’s not a thrilling prospect for me either.” Rashari said around another hiss of concentration. The swelling in his hand was actually helping as he prized the stone fragment from his palm. The quicksilver casement for the fragment had warped, allowing room for him to peel his flesh away from the fragment with his fingertips. The stickiness of his blood worked as a lubricant. “And it’s not as if I’m fated to die. Just change form. There’s no reason you should be incommoded at all.” His fingernails slipped in the blood and scoured open a new cut in his palm. He winced, a sharp arc of pain slicing through the general milieu of misery pulsing through his hand. His skin was splitting apart; it was as weak as tissue paper. He cursed and squeezed his eyes shut momentarily, angry black and yellow dots dancing across his eyelids. “You’re a robot, it’s not as if you need worry about me getting peckish and eating you. You can live in my leaves and help me lure in unsuspecting prey.”

Now you’re just being ridiculous. Smith told him snottily. You know your mind and spirit will be destroyed once the curse takes hold. The form of your flesh is immaterial; if you cease to be then so too do I.

“I don’t plan to die.” Rashari gritted out between his teeth. He was getting close now. He could feel tiny twinges deep in the meat of his hand – sparks from the nerves telling him the stone fragment was coming loose. He knew that the pain should have been considerably worse than it was, but aching numbness was beginning to ebb into his poor beleaguered arm once again. Paralysis was never a good thing, but right now he could appreciate it somewhat. He’d had his technomantic glove fitted when he was about thirteen (He’d still be dispossessed of his body then, so technically it would be more accurate to say that the scorpion had been fitted with the glove). He didn’t know if the procedure feeding the quicksilver filaments into his nerves and through his veins had hurt. He assumed it must have done, but it hadn’t been him feeling it and the scorpion didn’t react to pain like a human anyway.

Technomancy was the pre-eminent form of magic practiced in Adra, primarily because it had very little in common with the more traditional elemental magics practiced by most human mages (Adra, in contrast to Dushkuland, liked to stress its affinity for science not magic). Technomancers worked with machines, using their powers to imbue metals and circuitry with some semblance of life. It worked on the principle of sympathetic magic, therefore technomancers created their gloves, infusing their bodies with metal elements, to tie them to the metals they worked with. There were more technomancers in the Adran Empire than anywhere else in Aldlis. Rashari had always liked his glove simply because in this one way he was completely unremarkable. Outwardly he was just another Imperial technomancer, just another human with a perchance for thinking machines and talking automatons. Of course most technomancer gloves did not come equipped with a piece of an ancient, shattered scion stone, but Rashari usually avoided mentioning that.

The fragment came free on a fresh up-swell of blood, and Rashari snatched it with his right hand, trying not to look too long at the deep hole in his palm filling up with blood. Ignoring the sharp, animalistic noises escaping his clenched teeth and choked throat he shuffled closer to the edge of the lake and shoved his deadened left hand into the water. Immediately an inky cloud dyed the wavelets red. He couldn’t even feel it; the water offered no relief. He folded over, head and upper torso tipping forward toward the water until he was doubled over in half. He knew his lips were skinned back from his teeth in a savage grimace and his breath was catching in the back of his throat in rasping huffs. His vision went white at the edges, and his pulse screamed in his ears but he could not move. Pain rang through his body like a huge bell, the impact so heavy and deep it was like an earthquake. It went beyond pain into a sort of anti-pain, a place of quiet static where the world fell away into ringing emptiness.

Rashari – wake up! You’ll drown, and then where will I be?

He blinked and tasted wetness on his tongue. He’d fallen onto his side at the edge of the lake and the water was lapping at his face. He must have blacked out for a moment. After a few seconds disordered floundering he managed to lever himself upright once more – the whole left side of his body now wet. Not that he cared; he’d stripped out of his clothes to bathe earlier. His brief spell of unconsciousness seemed to have done him some good. He didn’t feel better, per se, but his head felt a little clearer, or maybe just lighter. He looked down at the scion fragment still cupped in his right hand. Now that it was free from his palm the fragment was an opaque bluish-grey like smoked glass. It was no larger than an Orlen coin and no thicker than the width of his index fingertip. The fragment had no real power in itself. It was just a shattered piece of the stone that had once been Smith’s prison –and his father had placed it in his glove as a sort of circuit breaker, helping to control his power. He’d removed it now to give him some temporary relief from the swelling -but also in preparation for a plan just beginning to formulate in his mind. He’d meant it when he said he had no intention of dying (or germinating – for that matter). Most of his hopes were pinned on finding the ogdegre (imminently he hoped) but that didn’t mean he wasn’t working on a contingency plan.

Why wait? Smith demanded immediately picking up on the direction of his thoughts. Do it now.

“I don’t even know it will work.” Rashari shook his head shuffling back up the bank to where he’d left his clothes. He pulled on his coat, wrapping it around his bare limbs. His left hand dripped a steady flow of blood onto the bank and he regretted not tearing some strips of his shirt earlier to make a bandage. Now if he tried he’d just get blood all over his freshly washed clothes, assuming he could use his left hand at all. “Maybe the scorpion can’t cure me. Maybe the damn thing would be perfectly happy if I became a plant. It could have free reign then.”

The alraune curse is dark magic – an alien entity seeking to possess your body. The scorpion will not tolerate another invading presence. It will fight the curse.

“Yes and what might that do to me?” He demanded, irritated. “What good will it do, if the scorpion destroys the alraune, but I die in the process? I’m not giving my body back to that thing on a whim.”

It is worth a try. Smith’s mulishness was did not hide the current of fear running underneath his words. They were so closely linked Smith would almost certainly be destroyed if Rashari’s spirit waa destroyed. Whatever Smith might think about his present existence -and his dependency on Rashari – he had no desire to meet oblivion. All the same, Smith’s eagerness to risk catastrophe (not to mention his complete lack of sympathy for the considerable pain Rashari was in) was starting to wear on his last nerve.

“Not yet it isn’t.” He snapped back. “I’m not prepared to risk losing control to the scorpion, not until I’ve exhausted all other options.” He glared at Smith. “And you call me reckless.”

“What are you planning now?” Madame Chimera said from somewhere behind him.

Rashari jumped a little and twisted around to look over his shoulder. The Madame was coming toward them, following the curve of the bank from the east. She was carrying a large (presumably dead) lizard in one hand and looked about as pale and shaken as he felt. Rashari felt his brows furrow in consternation. He knew why he felt awful, but he had no idea what calamity might have befallen her.

“Are you alright?” He asked, holding his left wrist aloft with his right hand and ignoring the way blood seeped down inside his sleeve. “You look...pale.” She looked more than that, close to translucent in fact. Her large amber eyes were blown wide and glazed, her expression still and empty, like someone who has just had a terrible shock, and her hair was windblown (despite the fact that there was very little wind this night). Fresh mud and grass stains crusted the hem of her coat and the knees of her trousers.

“I am well.” She replied blankly and without conviction. She looked at him, gaze sharpening as she noticed the blood seeping from his palm even in the dullness of evening. “What have you done to yourself now?” She demanded, irritated, dropping onto her knees in front of him (laying the dead lizard aside) and snatching up his hand. She looked from his hand to him and her brows swooped into a sharp, clean-cut scowl. “Explain.”

“It relieves the tension. My hand’s swollen so much the fragment was going to come loose on its own – or cause my hand to pop like a pimple.” He shrugged with his good shoulder. “In fact,” he said thinking aloud, “You could hold on to this for me.” He dropped the fragment of scion stone into her palm. “You’ve still got the other piece, don’t you? The piece you took from Vedeca’s secret compartment.”

“I – yes.” Madame Chimera nodded and reached into one of the interior pockets of her coat. “I had forgotten.”

Rashari nodded. “Keep them both together. That other piece came in useful before; it can’t hurt to be prepared.” He was thinking of the moment when Tomah and the other Dha-hali had destroyed Smith’s old body – and Rashari had lost his temper - unleashing some of the scorpion’s power. Madame Chimera had been caught in the crosshairs of that confrontation and only the lucky chance of her having his spare fragment on her person had saved her life that time. If there was a chance he’d be forced to use any more of the power inside him in the future then he wanted to make sure Madame Chimera was protected from the fallout.

“Prepared for what?” She looked up at him sharply, suspicion writ large across her face.

“Anything,” He replied, calmly meeting her suspicion head-on. He had no intention of lying to Madame Chimera, but nor did he feel like telling her his plans. It wasn’t strictly speaking a matter of spite (Madame was hiding something from him so he returned the favour in kind) but more ingrained habit. “If our time together has taught me one thing it’s that just about anything could – and probably will – happen. These pieces of scion stone have a natural ability to ward off magics; both necromancy and anima. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine they’ll come in handy.” Rashari actually managed a faint smile. He was quite pleased with that evasion. It was both reasonable and, now he thought about, not bad strategic thinking. The best deceptions were based on more truth than lies, after all. He didn’t think she would appreciate that he was thinking of releasing the scorpion, even as a last resort, so he would not tell her.

“A ward against magic?” Madame Chimera said, thoughtfully, and he saw something spark in her eyes. “They would work against phantasma?” She looked up at him then, oddly intent and yet distracted all at once.

He frowned but nodded. “My immunity to phantasma is partly inherent, but the fragments have always enhanced it.” He studied her curiously. “I’ve never seen fit to fully test their limits, however. Why? We’re a long way from civilisation. I can’t see us running into any malfunctioning phantasma engines out here.”

Madame Chimera did not entirely meet his eyes as she slipped the piece of scion stone he had given her into the pocket with the fragment she already carried. “As you say,” she murmured, “It is better to be prepared for anything.” She turned back to him, thoughts locked away behind a smooth mask. “Now let me see your hand. I’ll make a dressing so you do not drip the last of your blood onto the ground.”

Fantel lay awake in the stillness of the night, the distant calls of wild animals and Rashari’s hitching breath the only sounds. The scent of smoke and cooked meat hung in the air even though the camp fire had long since been doused and the remains of the Breen lizard had been thrown into the lake. Fantel stared up at the starry sky and saw nothing. Her mouth tasted of cotton and static and her ears buzzed with muted panic. Anoush had withdrawn back into the depths of her mind almost immediately after delivering her ultimatum, leaving Fantel blinking dumbly, slumped on her knees in the grass. It had been some time before she’d been able to stand, let alone return to the lakeside. Her thoughts still felt frozen, stuck in that moment. The echo of the seraph’s words rang over and over in her mind. Powerless to stop me, she had said. Fantel had never considered herself powerful, but nor had she ever felt so powerless. She was not afraid of death precisely. But she did fear Anoush. She feared being made mindless, her agency robbed from her by an external force, a power older and greater than she, that sought to use her as its instrument. Fantel had sworn, when she left Aashorum, that she would never allow herself to become a puppet again.

Hours earlier she and Rashari had eaten in near silence. Rashari’s cheeks had burned with encroaching fever and he had managed only a few mouthfuls of meat before nausea overcame him. After that he had huddled in his coat and fallen asleep, shivering, his left arm tucked protectively against his chest. Fantel had torn a strip from her shirt and soaked it in the lake but when she tried to mop his brow Rashari had waved her off, mumbling inaudibly and turning over so his back was to her. In the end she had seen little choice but to leave him be, pushing the damp cloth into his good hand and laying out her coat across the ground like a blanket a few feet from him. There was a distance between them that she knew not how to breach. It was a distance built of mistrust and omissions. The divide yawned wider still under the burden of Anoush’s command. Fantel did not like it, but watching Rashari sicken she had realised that she could not tell him about Anoush now. He was in no position to help her. No, that was not strictly true; he had already helped her, if inadvertently.

Fantel sat up and opened the small wooden box retrieved from the inside pocket of her coat. Inside the box the two fragments of scion stone looked like flattened pearls. They lay quietly in the palm of her hand when she touched them. Her heart thumped in her throat. She did not know if these pieces of stone could help her, or how she could use them to reach the Great Wound. Yet she had hope. She couldn’t help but wonder at the bizarre circumstances that had led to her to this moment. It seemed as if everything that had gone before had happened for the express purpose of ensuring that she fulfil Anoush’s command, even to the point of providing her with a potential means of staving off the worst of the phantasma poison. When Rashari had handed over the second scion piece and reminded her of the first she had wondered, for a split second, if he knew. Yet if he had guessed, if he had somehow realised what had happened to her, she could not begin to understand why he wouldn’t say something. Rashari tended to apply his own peculiar standard of honesty to all things, but Fantel knew, to her chargrin, that he had been much more open with her than she had with him. She did not think he would take Anoush’ presence lightly; It had been on the tip of her tongue to tell him everything, but then she had looked at his left hand and the sluggish trails of blood running down the purplish flesh and bit her tongue. Even in the moonlight she had clearly seen the fever bright shine in his eyes, and heard the hitch of his breathing. She had resolved then to wait, to take his inadvertent gift as the boon it was, and keep her own counsel. Anoush and the task she had been set could wait. Her first priority was Rashari’s survival. Once he was safe and cured, then she would tell him everything.

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