The Stone Heart's Lament

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Sibling rivalry, the Mother demands her blood

Time stood still for a handful of heartbeats as Fantel stared at the djinn and he grinned back at her. She could taste the harsh bite of his magic polluting the air and feel the static not-heat of the green fire as it ate away at the trees. Distantly she could hear the members of the O’da tribe shouting orders and warnings to one another, rushing to arms and racing toward the fence, yet for a brief moment none of that mattered. She was struck dumb by a wave of revulsion; profound and intense. The loathing she felt for the djinn was visceral, overwhelming. She felt it in her bones; she felt it in her soul, where once she had felt the all-pervasive power of the Mother. Her claws burst forth from her fingertips and her lips skinned back from suddenly sharpened teeth.

The djinn laughed; a deep, appreciative rumble of sound, as if her hatred pleased him. His smile softened into something approaching intimate and all the more obscene because of it. Pleasure and excitement kindled in his golden eyes, his gaze sweeping over her from toe to crown. “Now then,” he drawled words soft and eager, “Let’s get to it.”

Almost too fast to countenance he whipped his staff around, pointed it toward a group of on-coming ogdegre, armed with spears and javelin, and loosed a jet stream of green fire from the tip. The stream of magic coursed forward to hit the first of the ogdegre. The male, a warrior with only one remaining horn, dropped to one knee and raised a large shield in front of his body. The fire smashed into the shield, exploding over the surface and streaming around the edges like a living creature. Tendrils of liquid flame splattered over the warrior’s face, arms and upper thighs, burning through flesh like molten lead. The warrior screamed but held firm, protecting the rest of the group from the brunt of the attack. His compatriots hurled their javelins, forming a protective circle around their fallen companion. Two of the group charged forward, spears held aloft over their heads.

Again the djinn laughed, spinning his staff around in a circle in front of his body, the green glowing tip creating a lurid contrail outlining the edges of the magic shield the djinn erected to deflect the first of the javelins. The javelin hit the centre of the magic shield and immediately exploded into burning fragments, which flew into the air and set fire to the grass where they landed. The djinn spun his staff in a rapid figure of eight, his body swaying from side to side with the motion. Green light blazed. Fantel hit the ground, throwing her hands up over her head. The rest of the javelins exploded as they hit the whirling edges of the magic shield and then the djinn was running, charging, forward to meet the ogdegre attack. Laughing in wild abandon, lithe body twisting with ferocious, sinuous grace, the djinn aimed his staff at the roof of one of the larger huts and set it alight. Green fire erupted across the canvas, devouring the waxed hide-skin like air. Sparks flew and jumped from one hut to the next. Screams rose from the settlement. Some of the ogdegre broke off from charging the djinn to rush to the well for water. A futile effort; water could not quench the magic in the flames.

A rain of arrows battered down around the djinn, yet somehow none hit him. Gleefully he danced out of the way of the lethal rain, almost prancing. He kept smiling all the while. Whirling around he spun his staff and launched a series of emerald fire balls in the direction the arrows had come from, where a group of archers – I’tan among them – stood poised on one of the still intact rooftops. The hut exploded, sending gouts of magic fire in all directions and flinging the archers to the ground. The djinn was moving again, pirouetting on his toes, whipping the staff up and around across his body before smashing the end into the stomach of one of the ogdegre warriors. The next whip fast blow struck another ogdegre under the chin, knocking his head back with a sickening cracking sound.

The ogdegre were bigger, stronger, and there were more of them. They were also seasoned hunters and warriors. They should have been able to easily overcome one lone attacker. But the djinn had one thing all the ogdegre warriors lacked: magic. Power crackled around him, hot as a furnace, arid and choking like the air in a sandstorm. Fantel could feel the wild, exhilarating pulse of his magic tickling against her skin, playing over her mind like dancing fingers. Every scream, every spark of destruction, every erg of violence fed that power and made the djinn all but unstoppable. He was a force of nature, a force of unbridled, transcendent chaos. If the Chimeri were creatures of order and restraint, bound from birth to observe and uphold the natural order of the world in perpetuity then the Djinn were their opposite, the mirror image of the Chimeri. They were the aspect of Mother Aldlis that had no order, no restraint, no rhyme or reason, and no mercy. The djinn spun and kicked and jabbed at the oncoming ogdegre like a dancing flame, an elemental force that could not be contained. He was playing with them as he burned their homes to the ground.

Fantel gathered her legs underneath her, lips pulled back from her teeth in a fierce, determined snarl, and launched herself at the djinn’s back. She hit him hard, her claws scrambling for his neck even as she knocked him to the ground and rode him down hard. His magic scorched her up close. She felt it wash over her like a wave of red hot pin-pricks, but she did not let it faze her. Her nature was one of magic, and while her own well of spirit power was long dried up Fantel was still better suited to shrugging off the effects of magic than any of the ogdegre. Twisting her body over him, one knee digging into the djinn’s lower back, she stamped down on his hand pinning it and his staff to the ground. Tangling her clawed fists into his long, fine white hair, she slammed the djinn’s head into the hard packed ground, once, twice, thrice. She heard the wet pop as his nose broke with the impact.

Still he laughed, wet and bloody. “It’s about bloody time. I thought you’d sit there f’ever, dumb as a stump.” He managed to turn his head, just enough that she could see the gleam of his teeth and the blood smeared across his face. His golden eyes burned with triumph. Fantel had only that split second warning. A surge of searing power burst forth from the djinn; his entire body bursting into blazing green flame. Rearing back Fantel threw herself off the djinn, hands diving down into her pocket. She rolled across the ground, pulling free each of the scion shards as she did so, taking one in each palm and rising to her knees.

Immediately she had to duck and roll to the left, narrowly avoiding a sweeping blow from the djinn’s staff, which cut through the air where her head had been a second before, leaving a liquid trail of fire in its wake. She deflected a vicious, if not well aimed, kick to her gut with one arm, grabbed at his ankle and tried to pull him off balance. She missed but forced the djinn to take a step back all the same. Fantel leapt to her feet, arms held loose at her sides. She and the djinn circled each other. Blood, thick and dark, dribbled down over the djinn’s chin and stained his teeth as he grinned fixedly, like a skull. He aimed his staff and sent a jet of flame toward her. Fantel threw up her arms, palms out, scion fragments clenched between her fingers and did not try and jump out of the way of the blast. The jet of green flame hit her like a spout of water from a high-powered hose. It burst over her hands, raced over her arms, crawled all over her body. She felt the burn, like acid deep in her bones for the space of one heart beat to the next -and then it was gone. The fire extinguished in an instant, the magic evaporating like a bad dream. She blinked away the aftershocks and met the djinn’s startled yellow eyes. For all of a moment he lost his smile completely, his face falling into long, lean lines.

“Ha,” he crowed, lips skinning back from his teeth in an even wider, even more manic grin. “Ha. Yer just full o’ surprises aren’t yer, sister?” His eyes were hard as stone and colder than death. He charged at her head on.

Fantel did not have the time to get out of the way. She threw up her arms to protect her face and twisted with the impact as he smashed the side of his staff into her head, coupling the ringing blow with a vicious punch to her stomach with his free hand. Fantel crumpled to the ground, fists clenched around the precious scion fragments. She brought her knees up to protect her abdomen as the djinn threw himself down on the ground beside her, driving both fists down in rapid succession, pummelling her legs, arms, and head in a seemingly endless rain of blows that left her reeling. All she could do was wait out his fury. He was uncoordinated and undisciplined in his violence, startled out of his control by her ability to deflect his magic. Therein lay her advantage. He would tire quickly. Physically he was no stronger than she was. The Djinn and the Chimeri were cut from the same cloth, even if the design they chose to make of their lives could not be more different, and Fantel well knew just how long, or otherwise, he could maintain this level of sustained attack.

His blows became sloppier, the pounding of his fists slowing down. Fantel uncurled from her protective ball after one weak punch glanced off her ribs, barely grazing her. She returned the volley, striking out with one open palmed chop to his chin. She struck him with the fragment of scion stone pressed snugly against the centre of her palm. The reaction was instantaneous. The fragment burned white hot and a jolt of power raced down her arm as the fragment touched the djinn’s magic wreathed skin. The djinn hissed, golden eyes widening in shock and realisation. He scrambled away.

Fantel lunged up after him, ignoring the screaming protest of her abused body. She grabbed at him two handed, clasping a fragment of scion stone in both fists. She caught him by the side of the head and drove the fragments into his temples. It was like closing a circuit. She felt it when the scion fragments started to suck out the djinn’s magic. She saw his eyes go glassy, horrified, felt his body spasm and his lips part in pain. Digging her claws into the sides of his head Fantel concentrated. She was part of the circuit she had created. She could use the power the scion fragments absorbed in lieu of her own magic. She willed the green fire tearing through the settlement to subside, hijacking the djinn’s control of his magic in the same way Anoush had hijacked Fantel’s control of her own body.

“No,” the djinn snarled, jerking back into life, fear giving him strength. The punch to her jaw stunned her and she lost her grip on his head. He tore free of her and staggered to his feet. He snatched up his staff, red blood staining his hair and scouring down the sides of his face. He swayed on his feet, expression twisting into a mask of absolute savagery and wild, nearly mindless hate. He stared around him at the dirty, greasy smoke rising from the extinguished fires. He raised his staff, the end igniting in flame and narrowed his eyes on a target only to howl in outrage as an arrow winged his arm, queering his aim and opening a deep gash in the meat of his bicep.

The ogdegre had regrouped and now encircled the djinn, spears pointed and arrows notched. The djinn snarled in frustration. He dropped to his knees as the first wave of ogdegre raced in. Slamming his palm against the ground the djinn sent a wave of green fire out across the ground, forcing the ogdegre back. He leapt up, whipped his staff up and across his body, exploding a flurry of arrows aimed for his heart. Throwing one, odd, challenging look Fantel’s way the djinn twisted on the balls of his feet and sprinted for the hole in the fence. Startled by his sudden retreat Fantel leapt up and gave chase before she was even aware of making the decision to do so. She raced after him, diving past the burnt husks of the trees nearest the settlement and deeper into the forest.

The djinn led her on a merry chase through the dense woodland. Low hanging branches scraped her face and neck, clawing at her arms and legs as she jumped over deadfall logs and bramble bushes. She could feel the spirit of the forest, tense and wary; it wanted the djinn gone and it recognised Fantel as an ally against him. As she ran she felt the will of the forest at her back, lending her strength. The ground became easier for her to traverse. She knew where the pitfalls were; where exposed roots broke free from the ground. It was as if a light had come on in her mind, illuminating the perfect path. She could see the entire forest laid out within her mind’s eye. She knew that the djinn raced toward the bank of a shallow stream running through the woods. She knew that with every laboured breath he was slowing down. The forest rose up to hinder his passage. Tree branches reached down to snatch at his hair and claw at his clothes, while the ground crumpled under his feet, slipping away so that he stumbled. She had made up ground on the djinn rapidly, the forest giving her feet wings while it worked to drag him down.

She leapt, bouncing off the trunk of a tree and crashed into the djinn’s back, hauling him down to the ground. They rolled into thick undergrowth. The thorns and prickles of the dense bushes did not scratch or tear at Fantel, but instead the twisted stems of wove around the djinn’s wrists and legs like barbed manacles until he was completely ensnared, trapped on his back, yellow eyes narrowed to furious slits. Fantel straddling his hips, claws extended and reading to split his neck. And still he smiled.

“Ha,” he laughed again, wheezing slightly. “So yer still got some tricks t’yer name, eh, sister? Tell me, d’yer hear the land singin’; d’yer hear the sky screaming? Or has it been too long since yer magic left yer? Tell me, does the silence make yer sick, or does the memory of Her voice drive yer mad?”

“I am not your sister.” Fantel regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. She knew better than to let any djinn goad her, but this one at least was no longer a threat to her or anyone else.

“Is that right?” He grinned, laughing again, bitterly. “Bloody sanctimonious Chimeri; You all think cuz yer do yer killin’ on the Mother’s say so that makes you better than us, eh? You forget that She made us Djinn too.”

“I have no interest in arguing philosophy with you.” Fantel told him wrapping one hand around his neck. “You attacked the O’da. I want to know why.”

He grinned, wide and fierce. “We are the same, sister. Both of us have sided with the humans, both of us have left this damned land behind.”

Fantel ignored his prattle. Right now she did not care what he thought of her. “Who do you work for? Why did you attack the settlement?” Fantel squeezed down on his throat, her claws pricking at his pliant flesh.

“Why’d yer fink I did it?” He sneered, “T’get yer attention.” His grin stretched across his narrow face, wide as a knife wound, “Knew yer wouldn’t be able to resist chasin’ me out here. Part o’ the great design, ain’t it, sister? We were born to hate each other; it’s in our blood. Chimera and Djinn; we’ve abandoned our homes, but our hatreds, eh, those are harder to let of of.”

“Enough,” Fantel jabbed the points of her claws into his flesh, puckering the skin, and felt the jump of his pulse racing through the big artery in his neck. “You will answer me now or I will tear out your throat. The Mother can take tribute from that as she sees fit.”

“Stupid bint,” the djinn laughed at her, even as she tightened her grip on his throat that little bit more and the thorns twinned around his wrists tore into his flesh enough to draw blood. “I already told yer. Yer fink this is m’ idea of a good time? Fink I want t’be out here, back in this bloody place traipsing through miasma and gettin’ the stink eye from uppity Ogs? Bugger that. But I got a job t’do, don’t I?”

“What?” Fantel shifted back a little, her grip around his throat loosening fractionally. A creeping dread prickled against the back of her skull.

Recognising her consternation he grinned brilliantly up at her, teeth stained with flecks of blood and dirt. “Tell me, sister, what exactly did yer promise that human puppy yer left all alone back at the camp, eh? Sure hope it weren’t protection, cuz I ain’t seein’ how yer doin’ him much good while yer out here with me.”

Horror crashed down over her head, horror and sudden blinding understanding. She leapt to her feet, releasing the djinn as if his skin burned her. “A distraction,” She hissed. “You were just a distraction to get me away from the settlement.” Whipping around she looked back toward the ogdegre camp. “Rashari,” she whispered. She had left him back there, still recovering from the alraune infection, alone and unable to defend himself. How could she have been so stupid? She started running back toward the settlement.

“Yer too late, luv,” The djinn called after her, mocking and gleeful. “I hope yer puppy paid yer upfront cuz he’s long gone now. Ruthy will ‘ave seen t’that.”

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