Bad; very bad. Smith stopped dead before any one of his eight metal legs could touch the polluted ground. The soil had been churned by heavy tread marks and the grass crushed and covered in a fine patina of Deific exhaust. Smith knew what it was, could feel the not-heat burn of it even through the metal of his new body. It wasn’t a physical sensation; it was something felt in the spirit – the soul.
Madame Fantel deftly stepped over him and crouched down in front of the tracks. Gingerly she reached out to touch the crystallised mud. She drew her hand away a fraction of an inch from touching the ground. “I’ve seen this before, when Vedeca crashed in Aramant. This residue is not phantasma fuel.”
Smith bobbed on his knee joints in exasperation. They’d been chasing Rashari’s trail for the a full day and night already, and in that time their inability to meaningful communicate had started to grate on both of them. Smith had decided that when they retrieved Rashari he was going to insist that modifications be made to his body, starting with functioning vocal cords. Vocal cords and new wings; Smith missed flying. He missed Rashari too, but it was easier to focus on body modifications in a future that would end happily than think on their separation.
Deific residue and Rashari long gone, vanishing northward faster than a human should be able to travel. Smith’s never very great sense of optimism took another blow, one that was very near fatal. The connection between he and Rashari was strung taut, not enough to break (nothing aside from death could do that) but it was painfully strained. Smith felt the distance between them like a drag on muscles he did not have, an ache in bones he lacked, coupled with a quiet, blanketed spasm of fear, beating like a pulse within the depths of his neural interface. Worse than all that though was the sorrow, a surprising current of worry and grief that had nothing to do with his own plight (how long could he survive without Rashari? What would happen to him if this separation lasted much longer?) Instead he found himself worried about Rashari.
Rashari would be afraid, but not for himself. Smith knew that and felt a certain shame that Rashari’s personal bravery was not a trait was greater than his own. Rashari would be afraid of what all this meant – afraid of DeLunde, afraid of deific energy. Smith did not know what manner of contraption could leave tread marks and Deific stains like this behind, but he knew whatever it was, it had been created by Director TreLawn and his cronies. Rashari would know that too, and instead of running, instead of using every weapon at his disposal to escape his captors, Rashari would let them to take him, back to Adaline, back to the place that cast such a shadow over both their nightmares. He would do this so that he could root out and face down the true threat. Rashari would risk all to discover just how far DeLunde’s research had gone in the years since their escape. More than fear, more than vengeance, what drove Rashari was a need to avert catastrophe. Smith could almost hear his voice in his mind: Project Pandora, Smith –there is no point wasting what little firepower we have on a premature engagement. The only thing that matters is shutting Pandora down. We can’t keep running forever.
Run away. They had done that once. Rashari had listened to Smith’s counsel back then, given in to his urgings to run and hide and try and forget all about Pandora and Scarria and everything that may come to pass. Rashari had only ever been waiting though, not truly hiding. Rashari had never wanted to hide, not like Smith. He did not want to bury his head in the sand and ignore the danger they both knew loomed on the horizon. He wanted to fight. Rashari still thought Pandora was his fault, as if a child can be held accountable for the acts of gods and men. It was a noble sentiment, but a profoundly stupid one. Smith had tried to make him see that countless times. Now, cut adrift from his human anchor (his friend; his maker) Smith found his own guilt. He wished he’d spent less time ignoring Rashari’s stupidity and more time trying to turn sentiment into an actual plan. Had he done that, maybe they would not be in this mess now.
Madame Fantel brushed her palm against the metal skin of Smith’s body, the touch a phantom sensation of slight weight and resistance, but the intention was clear. She sought to comfort him. They may not be able to communicate but Madame Fantel was not completely deaf to him. Carefully she reached out and picked him up in both hands, cradling his arachnid body against her right forearm, so his legs dangled down on either side.
“An airship did not make these tracks. These were caused by a land moving vehicle. I can follow them.” She looked north across the plain where the leaden sky dropped like a concrete curtain to meet distant mountains. “They still head north,” she frowned, expression pensive, “toward Djinn territory - and beyond that, the Great Wound.”
It’s not the Wound they care about, Smith started to interject albeit futilely, but stopped when he saw something, felt something, within Madame Fantel. A strange shadow flickered at the back of her eyes; a bloom of not-light; a shape that wasn’t, but still resembled the flutter of a beautiful moth’s wings. Had Smith possessed a heart it would have seized up inside his chest right then and there. Instead his legs twitched all at once and in various different directions. He toppled out of Madame Fantel’s arms, landing on ground polluted with the stain of immortal death.
Sister? He gasped, thoughts prodding outward like the blunted end of an old and rusted sword. Sister is that you in there?
Madame Fantel twitched, one hand lifting to press against the side of her head, as if in sudden pain, but her eyes slanted downward, and the intelligence that looked down on Smith then was not Madame Fantel. There was someone else looking out of her eyes, someone else who blinked down at Smith as if seeing him for the first time, someone else’s surprise that caused Madame Fantel’s face to twist in shock, outrage, and recognition.
Smythion?The thought was less a question than a form of attack, his old name thrust toward him on a razor edged wave of mental energy.
Anoush. Smith’s return parry was weak with shock. Anoush was inside Madame Fantel. How? When? Did Rashari know? These questions were at the forefront of Smith’s mind, but what he said was quite different. Sister, I thought you all but dead.
Smythion, He could feel Anoush’s confusion, her puzzlement and suspicion, but also the same strange softening that Smith himself felt growing within – the recognition of family even after all this time. But then her thoughts sharpened, focused on one aspect alone. Brother, what are you wearing?
Me? Smith squeaked, bobbing on his knee joints. Never mind me. What are you doing inside Madame Fantel? I hope you asked first before you jumped in.
He felt Anoush bristle with a mixture of affront and guilt – which told Smith all he needed to know on that front – but whatever justification Anoush might have intended to offer was cut off abruptly as Madame Fantel swayed on her feet and dropped heavily to her knees, clutching her head, her claws extended, scraping lightly over the skin of her scalp.
“...No...Stop it. You will not make me....” Madame Fantel’s body shuddered with the effort it took to wrest even that much control from Anoush. Smith could feel his sister, lodged deep as a tick burrowed into Madame Fantel’s soul. He could feel the pain Anoush was causing her and his ire rose.
Sister that is quite enough of that, he felt Anoush drawing on Madame Fantel’s inner well of anima to use against her, drawing on it like a parasite might suck blood. It was vile, a horrible violation, and terribly, terribly rude, especially if Madame Fantel had not invited his sister to body share in the first place.
Stop at once! Smith needed to do something about this right away. Readying his limbs he jumped up into Madame Fantel’s lap and then, hooking his sharp leg-points into her clothing, he climbed her chest until his front legs were balanced on her clavicle. He fixed his eight luminous eyes on her face, bathing her skin in purple light. He waited until Madame Fantel’s eyes reflected back to him the violet of his own eye-shine before he pushed his thoughts right inside her mind. He had no idea if this would work. He had never thought to try it before now - it would have been beyond bad manners – but clearly drastic action was necessary. He was appalled a member of his family, no matter how estranged, would do such a thing. Even when he’d taken control of young Sebastien’s body he’d done so with prior consent.
Sister that is no way for a guest to behave! Marshalling what little power he had he funnelled his thoughts down into Fantel’s mind, reaching out to her, making his thoughts a steadying hand she could use to pull herself out of the hole Anoush was trying to push her into. Madame Fantel, you do not have to put up with this nonsense. This is your soul; your body. Take it back.
Stay out of this brother, Anoush snapped, her response striking him like a hot slap and breaking his concentration, but it was too late. Madame Fantel blinked and her vision cleared, Anoush’s shadow falling away from her eyes. Madame Fantel’s expression blanched in shock, lips parting in surprise and she focused on him.
“Smith?” She whispered, startled and soft, and he felt the tentative brush of her thoughts, hesitant and uncertain, reach out toward him.
Had he been capable of it, Smith would have whooped for joy. Yes! Madame Fantel; it is I. He declared somewhat giddy with relief as a connection finally formed between them; a connection that rather neatly cut Anoush out altogether. He could feel his sister seething in the dark corners of Madame Fantel’s soul. It served his sister right. Smith didn’t know why Madame Fantel had tolerated his sister’s rudeness so long – it was almost as if she was unaware of where the balance of power really lay. Smith could not believe that though. Madame Fantel was like Rashari, too strong, too stubborn, too slippery and clever to let herself be used.
“Smith?” Madame Fantel said again, staring at him for a long moment of shock. Her neck was craned back uncomfortably because Smith was still balanced on her chest, his legs dimpling the delicate skin over her collarbone. “I don’t understand. How can I hear you? What happened to...” She trailed off, unwilling to grant Anoush even the small modicum of power her spoken name would bestow.
Oh she’s still there, Smith replied breezily, and not a little smugly, but you’re talking to me now. My sister will just have to wait her turn. Smith angled his thoughts toward his sister, her presence a dark, sulky shadow in Madame Fantel’s mind. That’s what you get for being so rude as to invade a mortal’s soul without permission. Shame on you, sister; I thought you were supposed to be the nice one in the family? Anoush’s response did not come as words but as a wave of pure annoyance, frustration, and hurt pride.
“Sister?” Madame Fantel’s eyes widened in understanding and then her brows creased. “Of course. Rashari told me you were once Seraphim.” She looked at him solemnly. “Thank you for helping me. I am glad that we can now speak.”
In another time and place Smith would be gratified by such an endorsement, but his ebullience at the newly forged connection between them was fast sinking away into worry. Oh Madame, he whisper-thought, the weight of their problems making him droop until his metal underbelly touched the ground. We have so much to talk about and so little time.