The chase is on
Fantel nodded. “We must rescue Rashari.” She started to rise but a shooting pain like a white-hot poker through her skull stole volition from her limbs, and made her catch her breath in shock.
No. Anoush’s command rang in her mind, her soul, like the roar of an oncoming avalanche, completely inescapable. The boy is lost. You must honour your promise to me.
“I will not leave him.” Fantel was not sure if she spoke aloud or in her head. Her mind felt like a cracked nut, shell broken open and inner meat revealed. She could feel Anoush like a thunder cloud ready to break, but she could also feel Smith, his closeness buzzing against the sensitive edges of her thoughts like a current of electricity.
Madame Fantel, Smith sounded sad, pensive, his thoughts thrumming with worry and the tender edge of grief. We can’t go after Rashari now. Don’t you see? If DeLunde get their hands on you and my sister it will be so much worse for all of us.
Fantel sucked in a breath. “How can it be worse than having Rashari and the empty scion stone alone? When Rashari spoke of DeLunde he made it seem that they had little interest in the Seraphim. They only wanted your power, not you yourself. Surely if Anoush is in me, then she is no longer of use to them?” Fantel could feel Anoush’s thoughts twisting on that point. Anoush was just as eager to know the answer as she was. The goddess feared much, but knew relatively few facts. It made the fear all the worse.
A wave of sadness, fringed with an odd and tired hurt rose from Smith. The glow from his eyebeams seemed to dim a little before he replied. Madame Fantel I was bonded to Rashari when his father started his experiments. It was those experiments that made me this and Rashari a catalyst. If they find you and my sister they will kill her and make you their new catalyst. One will never be enough.
Deep in her mind Fantel felt Anoush shudder, why can they not just extract the energy from the stone – what is this catalyst and why do they need it?
Because power without will does not get them what they want, Smith told them both. DeLunde will take what they can from the stone –they waste nothing believe me; they will harvest the deific power within – but that power is finite. What they want is access to the Void. Deific energy is the power of immortal death. It is powerful because it should not exist. It is limitless because it is a paradox. When you kill an immortal, you invite chaos, you break the natural order - you make the impossible, possible. That is Project Pandora; the power to do anything, to unmake and remake the world. That is what DeLunde want. All they lack are the catalysts to make it happen.
“The Void?” Fantel whispered her breath tight in her chest and not because of the weight of the Seraph in her mind. The Void was nothingness; the infinite expanse beyond the living world. It was the cradle of existence and the darkness at existence end. It was by its nature intangible, formless; impossible to contain or possess.
Yes, Smith said. In the beginning the Seraphim broke free of the Void. We escaped into the world as mere spirits, bodiless and powerless, but with such a hunger for life – for substance. Eons passed and we evolved, we became Seraphim and forgot the empty hunger of our birth. But the Void was always in us – the hunger only quieted. When a Seraph is destroyed the hunger of the Void is released. In its truest form deific energy is a piece of the Void brought into this realm.
“You are talking in circles,” Fantel shook her head. “You and Rashari both speak around the issue, but neither of you can tell me exactly what it is you fear. Tell me plainly now, if you expect me to listen to another word you say.”
Yes, Anoush echoed her demand, and the impatience behind it. For the first time since the uninvited intrusion in her mind she and the Seraph were actually in complete accord. Smythion what has become of you? You power is...diminished, and yet that is not quite right. You are changed. No longer Seraph, yet you are no mere human plaything.
I am Smith now, sister. It is not just a designation but also my nature. I was once Seraph but I am now a ghost. I died but was saved from the Void by the bond with Rashari. I am a ghost that was once a god. Smith said his words reaching both Fantel and Anoush, as if somehow Fantel’s mind had become an open forum, a gathering place for wayward Seraphim. It was almost like the days before her exile, when her mind echoed with the Word of the Mother. Fantel tasted tin and static on her tongue, the taste of fear, but it was not her fear that choked her. Is this the fate these humans would mete out to me? Anoush asked, the beat of her fear pounding inside Fantel’s head like the weight of wings.
They plan worse. My survival, such as I am, is an accident. DeLunde will kill you sister and leave a kernel of the Void inside Madame Fantel. It is that piece of the Void that makes a catalyst.
“The winged scorpion,” Fantel said in sudden understanding. “The creature inside Rashari is a piece of the Void?”
Yes, Smith said sadly. Just like the Seraphim were once; it is hungry for life, energy, anything of substance.
Silence then, deep and long; Fantel felt Anoush sink into the depths of her mind, almost cowering away from Smith’s words. Fantel herself did not know what to think. The Seraphim had never had much bearing on her life until she met Rashari. Gods and goddesses had no place in the constant certainty of the turning seasons, or the rise and fall of the Mother’s song. The Chimeri had but one maker, and that was Mother Aldlis. The comings and goings of spirits, even immortal ones who claimed to be gods, were neither here nor there to Chimeri. Fantel had been reared to believe that she herself was equal in esteem to any spirit she might encounter, as she was a vessel of the Mother, the greatest power in existence. DeLunde’s plan was horrifying. The humans had turned their spirits and their souls into commodities long ago, burning ghosts to heat their houses, bartering souls to power their sky-ships. Now they would invite oblivion, in the form of the Void, into the world, as if they sought their own destruction as the ultimate release from the mess they had made of their world.
“I do not see how the threat of capture is worse than the fact of Rashari’s imprisonment.” Fantel said, putting aside the theoretical to deal with the actual. “He is a catalyst already. Leaving him there is not sensible. I have no intention of allowing myself to be captured, but nor do I intend to abandon him.” Fantel was growing annoyed. All this talk felt like procrastination to her. She fixed Smith with a sharp look. “I do not believe that you would abandon him either. You live because of him.”
I will not sacrifice my existence for one mortal boy. Anoush declaration was borne on a wave of her power. Fantel felt her temper flare.
“You are willing to risk your life in the heart of the Great Wound, but you are too afraid to fight against those who would destroy you?” She snapped contempt and incredulity causing her lip to curl into a snarl. “You claim to be a goddess, but you are a coward. The boy you refuse to save risked everything he had to steal you from men who would use you – and now you let your fear rule you.” Anger gave her the strength she had lacked before. She focused that anger on Anoush. “You have no say in this, spirit. I am done listening to you.”
Saying the words was akin to breaking a spell, the pall of her fear burned away like early morning mist. She felt clear eyed and cool headed for the first time since awakening in the Alraune wood. How long had Anoush’s cowardice been poisoning her thoughts? Had she really let this craven spirit control her so long? Fantel was ashamed, and shame bred anger. Anger that once again she had let a voice not her own guide her thoughts and control her actions. Had she learned nothing from her years in exile?
Anoush bridled. The spectral rush of unreal wings beat against her thoughts, angry and scared, like a cornered animal. Underneath Anoush’s commands and violent displays of power lurked a pit of pure, toxic panic that Fantel had just laid bare. Fantel stared down the Sereph in the confines of her own thoughts and felt her conviction grow inch by inch in the face of Anoush’s desperation. If she had to sacrifice Anoush to rescue Rashari she would do so happily. Rashari was worth his weight in dead goddesses, that and more. She made sure that Anoush knew that.
You would not dare... Anoush whispered, fear naked in the thought.
“You will find spirit,” Fantel told her, chin tilting and the arrogance of the Chosen of the Mother dripping from her words, “that it is not just the humans who would dare see troublesome gods thrown down.”
Madame Fantel, Smith exclaimed, you mustn’t do anything foolish. If they can’t use you they’ll kill you – they’ll do it in front of Rashari. They’ll use you against him. Please, do not do anything rash.
Smith’s words broke through her anger and Fantel’s shoulders slumped. She didn’t pretend to understand it, but just as she knew she would risk much to rescue him she also knew that Rashari risk just as much to protect her, even if that meant releasing the winged scorpion. There was a bond, and a weight of obligation forming between them. If Fantel was a different (braver) sort of person, she might have called it friendship, but as it was she thought perhaps their meeting had been fate - that all that had happened was meant to be. She’d believed once that serving the Mother was her purpose but it had not been so. Perhaps this was the reason for her exile, for all her years of loneliness? Perhaps the Mother had meant for her to leave and follow a different destiny? Maybe it was her destiny to stop Project Pandora. It seemed a far worthier task than the life she had abandoned in Aashorum.
“I will not give in,” Fantel warned. “I agree that we must be cautious but that is all. We will go north. That is where the tracks lead. Once we know where Rashari is being held we will find a way to free him.”
I will not give these humans the satisfaction of my destruction. In Fantel’s mind Anoush’s spirit rose like a plume of smoke, spreading outward and taking the form of huge and beautiful moth wings, decorated with two deep and hollow eyes. The fear was still there, but in lieu of courage her desperation was its own sort of strength. I would sooner make my own end than let the humans do it for me.
Sister, Smith spoke up sounding concerned. You speak of death either way. I assure you the Great Wound does not offer a better end. Drowning in shades within the Wound will be a slow and painful demise. Life is always better. No matter the form.
Anoush turned her attention to Smith. Fantel felt something like sadness and revulsion in the beat of those spectral wings. I do not wish to become as you are now, Smythion. You are a being without a place; you are neither god nor mortal. You are a child’s toy; a human’s fancy. You have become what we all fear becoming – a slave to a human, when it should only ever be the other way around. If this is the end of our kind, then I choose to drown. If you were still Seraphim you would understand.
Smith flinched, metal legs jouncing on their hinged joints, underbelly scraping the ground and eyebeams flashing hurt and shame. Fantel felt the last of her patience burn away like smoke up a chimney.
“You speak as if you have a choice,” she snapped rising to her feet, shaking both Smith and Anoush out of her thoughts with a strength of will she had forgotten she possessed until now. The foolishness of humans and spirits alike galvanised her in ways she had not thought possible.
What are you doing? She felt Anoush try and tug on her magic, yanking on it like it was a string connecting directly to her heart, to her nerves, and her muscles. Fantel clenched her teeth, remembered that once she had been equal to any wandering spirit that came her way – and yanked back. “I am done with this foolishness.” She told Anoush, and Smith, and the human scientists of DeLunde she had yet to encounter in person. She felt like a person reborn, suddenly alert and awake for the first time in too long. She did not know if it was fate, or merely the stupidity of those around her responsible for this change, but she felt a gathering sense of impetus. There was a path laid ahead of her, and for once she knew with certainty that it was the right one to follow.
“I am going to find my friend.” She said the weight of the word felt right on her tongue.
(It felt a little like freedom, and a little like courage.)
She bent down to scoop Smith up into her arms. The vehicle tracks in the grass were dark and ugly green crystal melting into colourless slush. She could taste the lingering odour of something sickly-sweet and rotting on the air. It was probably her imagination, but she could almost hear the Mother whisper in her ear, telling her once again to hunt down and rid her land of yet another despoiler come to ruin the Mother’s perfection. It was a strange feeling, an eerie remembrance, and a call to battle that Fantel had sorely missed.
The threatening storm, gathering for hours, finally broke above her head. The sky was sundered wide by a lance of lightning and a roar of thunder. Rain came down in a solid curtain, a furious deluge that soaked her through in moments and welled up in the groves of the track marks scouring the ground. The rain washed away the stain of deific exhaust, melting it away like sugar in a bowl of water. Fantel raised her head and tasted the rain, tasting the magic and the promise. The chase was on, and she was a skilled hunter. These humans did not stand a chance.