A complex sort of bloke
Rashari woke the next morning aware of two things: the first was that he ached all over and the second was that he’d completely lost track of how many days he’d been in Battlan. Too many, seemed like the right answer even if it lacked scientific precision.
Sitting up was anything but easy. He’d finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep with his hands still bound behind his back and sitting up involved contraction of the muscles of his stomach that did nothing but remind him that he hadn’t eaten in - well, he wasn’t actually sure how long - but it had been long enough that his stomach was loudly proclaiming the fact that it was empty as a pauper’s coffers.
“Morning, sunshine,” Jaquard was seated opposite him in the grass, chewing on a strip of cured meat. He grinned around his mouthful. Rashari ignored him and looked around for Ruthy. He couldn’t see her. He didn’t find this very reassuring. Where Ruthy was concerned out of sight was not out of mind.
A dewy mist hung over the plain, thick and cloudy and faintly tinged lilac. Droplets of water glittered in the hazy light, trailing down the grass stems. The sky above was thick with low hanging cloud, solid as concrete. The sun was hidden but an odd irritating light still pulsed in the clouds, grey and throbbing. The air tasted flat, metallic and enervating. Rashari looked out across the plain toward the mountain range in the far distance; a different range than the Vay Hills. He didn’t know its name, but guessed it marked the far bounds of the plain. There was an odd red stain lighting the sky beyond those mountains.
“Where are we?” He asked. His voice sounded loud in the dull silence of the morning.
“Vladik’s Seat; just beyond those mountains is Djinn territory.” Jaquard shoved his jerky back into the pack at his feet and rolled easily to his feet. He took a deep breath, chest expanding. “It’s going to rain. That’ll bring out the mire serpents.”
Rashari had no idea what a mire serpent was, or who precisely Vladik was or why he needed a seat, but he decided not to ask. He believed it was bad form to ask any question he didn’t already know the answer to especially in this company. Ignorance was excusable, admitting it out loud was definitely not.
“Where’s Ruthy?” He asked instead, contravening his own philosophy on questions without known answers, but he did it anyway. He was fairly confident Jaquard wasn’t going to tell him she’d died or run off in the night, and anything else was just a matter of degrees of bad news. Something he thought he was well prepared for.
“Not supposed to tell you.” Jaquard smiled and reached down into his pack again. He pulled out something that looked like a circlet of thorns; black naked twigs barbed with wicked looking spikes, woven into a circle. Jaquard lightly stroked his fingers over the circlet and the air shimmered around the thorns; magic. The djinn raised his gaze from the circlet to Rashari. He sat back a little, pulling away from the djinn and his magic headband. With a quick tug Jaquard pulled the circlet open, the twigs parting like hinged metal. Jaquard stepped forward, open circlet extended toward Rashari. “Stretch yer neck out mate.”
“No thank you,” Rashari pushed himself backward, boot heels churning the mud. He was still seated on the ground and didn’t plan on getting up. Standing he’d been in easy range of the magic choke-collar.
Jaquard hooked the open circlet around his right forearm and wriggled the fingers of his left hand. A gout of green flame flared to life in his palm. “Don’t make me hurt yer. Neither of us would enjoy that.”
“Liar,” Rashari shot back before he could help himself. He eyed the handful of fire speculatively. Back home this little demonstration of magical pyromania wouldn’t concern him over much. He wasn’t immune to anima magic in the same way he was necromancy, but the fact that his very essence was riddled with death magic most of the time allowed him a certain resistance to anima derived magic most people didn’t have. The magic fire might burn him, but it might not. The odds would be fifty/fifty. Of course that was back home, where the anima content in the air was considerably less concentrated and most mages had to rely on their own innate spiritual energy to cast. He wasn’t sure what a fireball thrown by a djinn deep in magic country would do to him. Still, he was damn sure he’d sooner risk a little singing than wear that collar.
Jaquard lunged at him. Rashari twisted but couldn’t wriggle away. He was hauled up by the lapels of his tattered coat. Jaquard pressed his burning left hand to Rashari’s chest. Rashari felt a flare of crackling heat run through him, more like an electrical charge than an open flame. He lost his breath. Pain ignited in his breastbone, running along the cage of his ribs. It crawled up his chest to his neck and then ate at his jaw. He hissed through his clenched teeth, but kept his chin down, hiding his neck and making it difficult for Jaquard to snap the collar in place. The heat was the only part of the magic that travelled. The flames didn’t spread. They remained lapping at Jaquard’s hand, failing to ignite his clothes. The scorpion stirred inside him, suddenly paying attention. He didn’t fight it. A wave of coolness sluiced through him, chasing away the dry, crackling heat of Jaquard’s magic. Shadows swan behind his eyes and he felt the scorpion peer out through his eyes. The scorpion was not impressed by Jaquard’s display. It preferred a diet of death; anima kindled magics tended to irritate rather than entice.
Jaquard cursed in his native tongue and roughly shoved Rashari away. He fell heavily onto his rump on the ground. The impact shook the sense back into him and the scorpion slipped away into the corners of his vacant soul. Rashari took a deep breath visualising that the hole in his soul where the scorpion slept could be covered up and sealed away like sliding a heavy stone lid over a deep well. He blinked a couple of times and looked up to see Jaquard staring at him, his expression not angry but intrigued.
“Riiv,” He breathed, confusing Rashari. “You are Riiv.”
“Excuse me?” Rashari patted his chest. There wasn’t a mark on him, not a single scorch mark. His skin still felt a little cold, his skin creeping with shivers, but that would over in seconds.
“Riiv,” Jaquard said again, face twisting. For the first time in their short acquaintance Rashari could see no hint of a smile on his face. He looked startled, wary. “Never thought I’d see a human Riiv; no wonder DeLunde want yer.” He studied Rashari speculatively, but from a safe distance, before tossing the thorned collar away. “Bah, this ain’t gonna work on yer; wouldn’t work on any of my people either.” He smiled, bladed and cruel and patently false. “The Captain won’t be pleased.”
Rashari ignored that. If Ruthy had failed to recognise his idiosyncratic reactions to magic that was her look out. She’d figured out everything else about him. It seemed doubtful DeLunde hadn’t told her to watch him around magic. If by chance they hadn’t, well, then he could use that to his advantage.
“What’s a Riiv?” He asked, and again he was asking questions without knowing the answers, but this seemed worth it. Jaquard seemed surprised by his magic resistance but not confused by it. Had the djinn met others like him? Was that even possible?
“You are. Though I’ll be buggered if I know how you can be human and Riiv.” Jaquard flopped back down on the ground opposite him. His stare was flat, challenging. “My people live to the north of here, near the Adaline; in the city of Anjenagh. Phantasma country. Poison to most folks, but my people, we found a way to make it habitable. It’s been our secret for centuries.” He paused, and usually this would have been an opportunity for him to show off another of his vicious grins but he didn’t. The grim, blank lines of his face were somehow far worse than any of his repertoire of weaponised smirks. “Not any more apparently. Human Riiv,” he shook his head mouth twisting bitterly. “Well, guess it makes sense. You people have the same appetite for phantasma Anjenagh has. Sooner or later you were going to figure it out.” He laughed a harsh, phlegmy sound.
Rashari chewed on this. Jaquard hadn’t actually told him anything useful. He seemed to assume Rashari would understand, and the only reason he would do that would be if he was talking about something Rashari could personally relate to. In the context the only thing that could be was his magical resistance, but again, he’d talked about phantasma not anima so....
“Riiv – you mean there are djinn that absorb death energy?”
“You slow or something?” Jaquard looked at him flatly, “Course that’s what I mean. What, did you think you’re the only one? Bloody Adrans, you think you’re the only ones who can come up with an idea like that? Let me tell you something. My people were selling our children’s souls to the dead long before your daddy set up shop in Adaline.” This time Jaquard managed a smile. The effort looked like it hurt. “O’course none of my people would threaten a Riiv. Nope, treat ‘em like bloody royalty, we do; too precious not to,” Jaquard’s expression thinned with distant, heated anger – real anger, real emotion. “Precious little monsters, one and all: the treasure of Anjenagh. Take away the blessed Riiv and the city would fall in a day.”
“Because the Riiv absorb the excess death energy from the environment, so the rest of the djinn can live there without going mad.” Rashari nodded, but frowned. “How do your people do it? Djinn have magic, anima in your veins, more than a human. Surely that would interfere with the process?”
Jaquard answered him coldly. “They only turn the children. Young bodies, unformed minds – malleable souls. You don’t need me to tell yer how. There’s only one way of turning a Riiv. Yer know how it’s done.” Jaquard looked at him then, really looked at him, hard and speculative. “You must have been turned when yer were no more than a nipper? Nine or ten, right? And yer what, twenty now? You ain’t crazy. You ain’t got a head full of ghosts, all screaming out yer mouth. Yer minds intact.” Something flashed in Jaquard’s eyes, something hot and hungry and perhaps even desperate. He leant forward as he spoke. “It’s fixable, ain’t it; the Riiv madness? You managed to escape, you managed to get yer mind back. You can control it. And yer just a human; there’s got t’be a way.” This last was said almost to himself, Jaquard’s gaze turning inward, abstracted and worried.
Rashari held very still, barely allowing himself to breathe. He was on high alert, every paranoid impulse in his body singing aloud. He couldn’t quite believe his ears. Jaquard had just revealed far more than he could ever know, just given Rashari a piece of an old puzzle that had haunted him for years. Connections blazed in his brain, threads weaving together. There were others like him. The thought alone was terrifying. Rashari had always believed that his ‘condition’ was an accident. His father had exposed him to massive amounts of phantasma radiation when he was a child, but he’d been trying to kill Smith, drive him out of Rashari’s mind and soul. Despite everything that had passed between father and son Rashari had always believed that his father had been trying to save him. Now he realised he’d been blindly, staggeringly naive. His father had known all along. The Adaline Fault research facility was deep in Djinn territory. Father had been negotiating with the locals right up until the djinn had attacked the facility (and Rashari had never doubted that the attack was his father’s fault. Matthias Trelawn was a man who could easily inspire murderous rage in others). His father must have learned about the Riiv, recognised the importance of that discovering in regards his own work, and sought to steal the means of creating Riiv. If the djinn had wanted to keep the Riiv a secret then killing everyone in the research facility was a good way to go about it.
It all made a sick sort of sense now, like dominoes falling in his mind. Jaquard had revealed something else during his rant, something that was either a deliberate trap or a possible advantage. Rashari fixed him with a look and decided to take the risk. “Who did your people turn?” He asked. “Who do you want to save?”
Jaquard smiled, thin and close-lipped, “Don’t know what you mean, mate.”
Rashari arched his eyebrows. “I wasn’t born yesterday. You are renegade djinn, working for DeLunde. You asked me if the phantasma madness was reversible. You don’t really expect me to believe that you asked out of idle curiosity?”
Amusement and something like acknowledgement sparked in Jaquard’s eyes. “Maybe I don’t like the way Riiv are turned. Maybe I’m a political exile; a revolutionary. Maybe I’m looking to cure ‘em all, eh?”
Rashari scoffed. “The remorseless killer-for-hire, the man who set fire to an innocent village as nothing more than a diversion - has qualms against turning children into phantasma addicts?”
Jaquard shrugged easily. “I’m a complex sort of bloke.”
“No,” Rashari said with certainty. “You really aren’t.”
Jaquard might have retorted and tried to control the conversation they weren’t exactly having. He might even have tried to draw Rashari toward the sting in the tail; the veiled truth behind Jaquard’s motives that Rashari could guess at but didn’t want to pursue until he knew more, but the djinn didn’t have the chance. Over Jaquard’s shoulder Rashari could see something approaching across the plain, at some speed. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, staring.
It was a vehicle – a motorised automobile. Squat and blocky it sat on a chassis with four huge wheels. The wheels bounced and rumbled over the plain, leaving heavy tread marks scoured into the grass. It had an enclosed carriage and the metal work was grey as the barrel of a gun in the pearly light from the heavy clouds overhead. Rashari could hear the distinctive purr of a powerful engine – a sound very familiar in Adra and the rest of the human world, but one that should have been impossible in the middle of Battlan. Somehow the automobile could run in the miasma choked air, which meant that whatever fuel it used wasn’t derived from phantasma. The automobile jounced up the slight bank toward them. The automobile spewed gusts of greenish-black exhaust from the rear. The exhaust left a crystalline residue over the ground. It spread over the flattered grass and exposed mud like an early morning frost, delicate and shimmering for an instant before the grass turned brittle and died.
The exhaust fumes perfumed the air with a distinctive aroma; it tickled the nose like sugar spice and fresh-baked cinnamon buns – delicious at first inhale, but quickly growing cloying with each whiff. It was a smell Rashari knew well. Vedeca’s engine room smelled the same, and Vedeca’s exhaust fumes left the same stain across the ground anytime he brought her down outside a proper berthing dock. There was only one fuel that left behind a stain like that: deific. They’d done it. The bastards had found a way to synthesise deific energy.
The automobile stopped beside them. The driver and passenger doors swung open in front and back. Ruthy jumped down from the driver’s side, sharp eyes surveying the scene before her, immediately noting the fact that Rashari’s neck was unadorned by any magical choke-collar. She frowned at Jaquard, who shrugged with studied nonchalance. Rashari barely noticed. His attention was on the pair of Adran Imperial soldiers, covered tip to toe in the dull blue grey uniform of infantrymen, disembarking after Ruthy. Their faces were covered in gas-mask helmets, obscuring human features and giving the two soldiers an insectoid appearance. One carried manacles and the other a rifle, pointed at Rashari.
There was one last personage to disembark the automobile. A man wearing a white lab coat, his pomaded silver hair slicked down over a wide head. Rashari recognised him immediately. He bit back a groan. The man only approached after the soldiers had placed Rashari’s hands into a stockade-like set of cuffs. Thin and vibrating with a nervous energy that did anything but inspire confidence, Doctor Baillargeon almost skipped across the grass toward Rashari. His large, round glossy eyes sized Rashari up, gaze acquisitive and eager.
“Good,” he said, “Good. He is intact. That’s good.” Baillargeon nodded rapidly, giant head bouncing on his skinny chicken neck. He flicked his gaze to one of the anonymous soldiers. “Get him in the car. I’ve waited long enough.” He looked back at Rashari, scowling. Rashari stared back, impassive, empty, the stare of a test subject. The soldier with the rifle nudged him toward the back of the automobile. Ruthy smiled at him as the soldiers shoved inside the surprisingly spacious interior of the vehicle.
Rashari shut his eyes, and tried not to breathe in the scent of deific exhaust clinging to the interior. He tried to ignore the fact that he was wedged between two heavily armed soldiers with Jaquard in the seat behind him, his grin felt instead of seen. Ruthy didn’t waste anytime getting the automobile started. He didn’t need to ask where they were going, at least. The automobile rushed along, chewing up the miles as it chewed up the terrain. Vladik’s Seat loomed ahead, getting larger. The closer they came the darker the sky grew, thick grey giving way to angry red – the stain of phantasma in the atmosphere. They were headed directly for Adaline.
Rashari closed his eyes against the view. For the first time he let himself think about Madame Chimera and Smith. He hoped they were safe. He knew he should hope that Madame Chimera was far, far away from here. DeLunde was too dangerous. They had everything they needed to start Project Pandora: a new scion stone, him, and synthesised deific energy. Better by far that Madame Chimera cut her losses and give him up for dead. Rashari knew that he should think only about her welfare. That was the decent, chivalrous thing to do – but he just couldn’t. He hoped instead that Madame Chimera was coming for him. He knew that he had no one else to count on.