The automobile bounced over rough terrain, the ground full of ruts and hillocks, throwing the occupants from side to side and into each other like they were at sea in rough weather. Rashari found himself thinking that it could not be clearer that Mother Aldlis did not want them here, and almost laughed. Madame Chimera might be an exile but she had made a convert of him, it would seem.
Panic had given way to leaden resignation as the miles sped by. Rashari distracted himself by gazing out of the window, peering around the bulk of the soldier to his right. He was wedged between the two armed and masked men, with Doctor Baillargeon seated in front of him next to Ruthy in the driver’s seat. A plane of clear glass separated the front and passenger sections of the vehicle. Jaquard sprawled in the back of the vehicle, had started whistling tunelessly about a half hour ago. Rashari suspected he was doing it on purpose. The djinn was probably waiting to see whom would snap first, Rashari, or the guard to his left, whose teeth were grinding so loudly it was audible even behind his helmet. Perversely Rashari almost admired Jaquard. He was a consummate bastard, and indiscriminate when it came to finding victims.
Rain washed down the windows, ruining the view and turning the outside world into a dripping mirage of streaming lines and blurred colours. Every now and again Rashari heard the crash and rumble of thunder, his retinas bleached by the sharp stab of lightning. He was a little disappointed by how normal the storm was; this was Battlan after all. Surely thunderstorms should be a little more exciting. Multi-coloured meterorites should crash from the clouds, and it should rain mushrooms or man eating monkeys. Rashari suspected that had he and Madame Chimera been stuck out in the storm they would be awash with killer monkeys, but, thanks to his accursed luck, when a deluge of homicidal apes might have been useful, there was none to be found.
Rashari sighed and leaned back against the seat. “How long have DeLunde been out here, really?” He asked Jaquard. (If either of his guards could speak they’d shown no inclination to do so. It wouldn’t surprise him if the Marre Noir had their tongues removed to protect the secrecy of the mission).
“What makes yer think I know?” Jaquard asked, sounding amused.
Rashari craned his head back against the seat and frowned upside down at the djinn. He really wasn’t in the mood for coyness. “You mean aside from the fact that you clearly work for the Marre Noir and know all about me?”
Jaquard grinned, bright and patently false. “Yer don’t really understand how spies work, do yer? The Noir don’t go ‘round sharin’ their plans with ‘the help’.”
“No talking.” The guard on his right grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him down into the seat. So the guards could speak then, good to know. Briefly he entertained disobeying the obvious order, but not for long. The only outcome would be a nasty thrashing and he’d need to be in good shape for when they arrived at Adaline.
He sunk into silence. The guards had shackled his hands together in front of him and Rashari now looked down into his left palm. The swelling had gone down a little, the skin discolouration fading. There was a shiny pink scar puckering the flesh just below his littlest finger – the place where the poison barb had struck; the only reminder of his brush with horticultural oblivion. His hand still itched and dried blood still tracked the lines of his palm. The hole in the centre where he’d removed the scion stone fragment stared up at him like a blind eye. The depression itself was nothing more than a rind of old, deadened scar tissue and cauterised meat. It was ugly and unsightly, but painless. Rashari flexed his fingers, and watched the pull of the technomantic glove, each individual strand of quicksilver metal sitting just under his skin, crisscrossing his hand like a network of hair thin capillaries. He was so used to the glove that he barely thought about it, but now he imagined he could feel the tiny particles of anima-imbued quicksilver flooding through his bloodstream, whispering to him, working to make him something not quite human – that bit closer to being a machine. There were a great many things inside him that made him not quite human; things that made him a tool, a weapon, and a commodity to be possessed.
Weariness set in, draping itself around his shoulders like the mantle of a heavy coat. His eyes felt heavy, his thoughts dulled. He didn’t want to sleep in this company, but at the same time he didn’t want to be conscious either. He didn’t want to see the bony spire of the Adaline research facility rushing closer out of the window, or the looming shadow of the mountains forming a crust around the Great Wound far to the north. He didn’t want to listen to the incessant pounding of the rain against the shell of the car, or Jaquard’s tuneless whistling. He shut his eyes and tried to find a better place to be, a happier dream to fall into, at least for a short while.
He must have succeeded, at least in part, because he jolted awake as the automobile bounced over a particularly violent bumb. He opened his eyes and immediately knew they had arrived. The rain had stopped and the view out of the window was dominated by a painful red sky. They were travelling through a natural canyon, the ground black and hard. Strange rock formations burst out of the ground, ragged spears of orange-black stone, rough and gritty in places and shiny like glass in others. The rock formations caught the light, reflecting beams of brilliant orange in all directions. Phantasma; the rock was riddled with veins of pure, natural, unrefined phantasma ore. So much as a nugget of the stuff would fetch thousands of orlens back in the real world. It also rendered the environment entirely uninhabitable. There was so much phantasma in the air and the ground it acted as an airborne contaminant and a contact poison all at once. It was the reason the soldiers wore gasmasks built into their helmets.
Ruthy was careful to give a wide berth to each beam of light where it puddle on the ground, burning smoky holes in the rock. The beams would melt through the metal shell of the car like a laser. On either side massive escarpments of land rose straight up, corralling them and forcing them to run the gauntlet of the light beams. The cliff-face was striated with veins of lurid orange phantasma crystal. It looked diseased, like the cliff had an infection of boils and weeping sores. The crystal outcroppings ranged in diameter from a handspan to several feet across. They throbbed with their own inner light; a dark, red-black pulse in each faceted heart. Every window in the car was closed tight, but Rashari could still feel the ache of the raw phantasma beating against his brain. On either side of him his guards shifted and fidgeted in their seats. Jaquard stopped whistling. Through the glass screen Rashari could see that Baillargeon had put on a mask. He couldn’t see Ruthy, but he guessed she too had put on a mask. If the phantasma concentration was bad enough to make him queasy it had to be deeply uncomfortable for everyone else.
Ruthy navigated the canyon with ease of practice and soon they were driving up a narrow incline forming a winding path up the cliff. Peering through the glass barrier separting the passenger compartment from the drivers, Rashari could see through the windshield ahead. He caught his first glimpse of the Adaline research facility. The building had been completely rebuilt, exactly as it had been the first time Rashari had seen it as a child. A collection of small flat roofed shacks and outbuildings gathered around the base of a tall tower, fenced in with blackened, eroded chainlink. The tower pressed against the very edge of a sheer drop-off, standing tall like a lighthouse, peering down into the Adaline Fault. It was built out of the rock of the canyon; orange-black like a mouldy carrot. A series of giant pipes sprouted from the outside of the tower, ruining the sleek silhouette. The pipes, massive veins of quicksilver built to withstand the volatile conditions of the Fault, twisted down toward the base where they disappeared into the ground like the roots of a tree. Each pipe acted as a funnel; pure anima was released through the pipes to react with the crystallised phantasma embedded in the rock face. When the anima and the phantasma mixed it produced a potent and highly combustable gas. This gas was then sucked up through the pipes and used to power the facility and its less pleasant experiments; another one of Director Trelawn’s innovations. When the Djinn attacked the base over ten years ago, they had tried to ignite the gas in the pipes. The explosion would probably have ended up obliterating most of the cliff face– had it not been for Smith.
Soldiers patrolled the perimeter of the base; their faces covered in high-tech respirators and goggles, every inch of skin covered by a hood and protective clothing. The level of phantasma radiation here was almost as high as that of the Great Wound. Breathing in the vapours would drive a human mad within a week and kill them within a month. The burning orange light, fierce enough to have dyed the sky and bleached the clouds, damaged the eyes and burned the skin; touching any of the outcroppings with a bare hand was an instant death sentence. Rashari was not most people. The phantasma radiation wouldn’t kill him. It gave him a queasy headache, gorge rising and forming a lump in his throat, making it difficult to breathe, but not for the reasons it would an ordinary human. His chest hurt, ribs squeezing down around his lungs. His pulse sped up and his mouth was dry. His palms started to sweat. The pounding in his head became white noise, a building wall of static. He was like a man addicted to dreamsmoke. After years of careful abstinence he was suddenly overwhelmed with an abundance of his own particular addiction.
The effect was numbing. He barely noticed that the automobile had stopped. They’d cleared the perimeter without his notice. He stumbled and almost fell when the guard on his left shoved him out of the vehicle. Oh gods it was so much worse outside. No one had thought to provide him with a respirator or a mask. He felt the intense heat of the air. The dizzying light made him reel. The ground under his feet spun as the world suddenly lurched on its axis. He choked down a throatful of bile, shuddering. Too much, too soon; it had been too long. He couldn’t take it, not all at once. He sunk to his knees on the hard, black and scarred ground falling forward until his elbows smacked into the ground and he was kneeling almost like a supplicant, forehead just an inch from the floor, shackled hands clutched together before him.
The scorpion surged upward, out of the fissure in his soul. The icy cold running through his veins was a relief. He felt the hunger awaken and his skin tingled. Every hair on his body stood to attention and his spine grew taut. His nerves felt electrified, his body super-sensitsed until he could feel every pore, every millimetre of his skin stretching open and expanding, sucking in the poisoned atmosphere like a sponge.
Hands roughly hauled him to his feet, and distantly he was aware of voices around him; snapped commands and angry exchanges. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. His brain was scrambled, caught like a badly tuned radio between too many frequencies. He could feel the song of the dead swelling in his ears -coming from the very air, the rhythm matching the staccato pounding of his heart, drowning out the prattle of the living. He was manhandled toward the nearest of the flat roofed buildings, and as he breached the threshold, stepping into the too dark interior, eyes struggling to adjust to the change in lighting, his misfiring brain picked up another errant signal.
Pumping, pumping, pumping...processing, processing...need more data...datadatadatadata...need more data.....processing, pumping, processing, data...
Rashari blinked, shook his head and looked around him. He was inside a small room packed with floor to ceiling machinery. Massive computers, built into giant metal cabinets, lined the walls of the windowless room. Lights and dials flashed and winked at him. One of the gas pipes broke through the ceiling and passed through the floor in the corner of the room, the metal plating rumbling. The machines hummed with contentment, the subliminal murmur of well maintained equipment fulfilling its purpose. Rashari tuned his thoughts toward the machines, able to do so thanks to the quicksilver in his glove and in his blood. The voice of machinery was as clear to him as the sound and substance of his own thoughts; more so right now. Rashari had always found the straightforward certainty and simplicity of machinery a comfort. If it wasn’t for the two soldiers, each with an iron grip on one of his elbows, Rashari would have reached out and touched one of the computer terminals, just to help ground him in the here and now.
“You back with us, mate?” Jaquard appeared in front of him, rictus grin fixed in place.
“Unfortunately,” Rashari muttered before he could think better of it. There was a commotion from just beyond the door and Doctor Baillargeon bustled in, followed closely by Ruthy, who looked anything but happy.
“Is he lucid yet?” Doctor Baillargeon rushed up to him, throwing the question outward like a randomly aimed grenade, directed at no one in particular. Not waiting for a response he snatched at Rashari’s face, pulling his chin up so he could shine a penlight into his eyes. It was only then that Rashari realised he was seated in a swivel chair next to what must be a technician’s desk. “Pupils are responsive, and have returned to their natural colour. Skin is warmer,” Doctor Baillargeon recited for no real reason, turning Rashari’s head from side to side before releasing him and waving two of his fingers in front of Rashari’s face. “Tell me how many fingers I am holding up.”
“Two,” His voice sounded hoarse, and rough. He had to cough to clear it.
Baillargeon studied him with rheumy eyes, but his next question was sharp as a tack. “How long has it been since you last absorbed phantasma energy?”
Rashari kept quiet. He’d made a point of absorbing small amounts of death energy from necromantic bullets or refined phantasma ore whenever he came across it –the better to manage the side-effects of withdrawal –but he hadn’t been exposed to pure phantasma in years; hence his unfortunate reaction just now. He had no intention of telling Baillargeon anything of the sort, though. The man would figure it out, if he hadn’t already, but Rashari saw no reason to make it easier for him.
“Interesting,” Baillargeon blinked at him. “You can self regulate. Thibeaux, make a note: the subject has learned to regulate his need to absorb phantasma energy to sustain optimal physical health. We shall need to test the limits of this control.” A small, mousy looking man in a white labcoat hovering near the doorway scribbled a note on to a clipboard. Baillargeon continued talking, ostensibly dictating to his assistant, but his eyes were rooted on Rashari. “This adds weight to my hypothesis that dependency on phantasma energy is a temporary side-effect of the soul conversion process, and one that can be overcome. Just as phantasma fuel is a byproduct of the catalytic breakdown of raw phantasma, so too is phantasma addiction a byproduct of the synthesis of pure souls.” Baillargeon smiled, his teeth shiny with spit. “Well, my boy, it is good to have you back. Our current batch of test subjects has proved less than ideal. Your presence should help bring the project back on track. This bodes very well for our next venture.”
“Yeah, about that,” Jaquard spoke up. “When are yer going to move on Anjenagh? I’ve already told yer all yer need to know to take the city. Yer’ve got yer human lab rat back – what more are yer waiting for?”
The only indication Baillargeon gave to suggest he’d heard was the tiniest pinching around his thin lips, in every other respect Jaquard might as well have ceased to exist completely for the all the notice Baillargeon gave him. Rashari saw the way the djinn’s smile fell from his face and his yellow eyes fired with anger. Ruthy moved forward. She shot him a warning look and then turned to Baillargeon.
“We are waiting for the Commander-in-Chief and Director TreLawn’s convoy to arrive. Thick miasma close to the Aramant border has delayed their departure. They are expected within the week.” Ruthy cut her gaze between the djinn and Baillargeon. “I hope I don’t need to remind either of you that no further action can be taken until Commander Orlenaux and Director TreLawn arrive. That includes any extensive testing on the director’s son.”
“You do not order me woman,” Baillargeon snapped. “I am in charge of this facility and the soul conversion project. You and your pet savage have already served your purpose.”
Ruthy’s pretty face twisted viciously. She took a step toward Baillargeon, hand resting on the hilt of the knife sheathed to her belt. “I am here on the express orders of Commander Orleneaux as a representive of the Marre Noir. Do not take that tone with me, little man. Or I’ll have you cooling your heels in Fortress Badaille faster than you can blink.”
Baillargeon flushed an unattractive purple, eyes bulging in anger. He turned to Ruthy, ripe retort at the ready. Soon a three-way argument broke out between him, Ruthy, and Jaquard, but Rashari barely caught a word of any of it. He was deafened by a rush of blood to the brain. His father was on his way. Not just his father either, but Theirn Orlenaux himself, the Commander-in-Chief of the Adran Imperial war machine and the Emperor’s first born son. What could be happening here that the heir to the Adran Empire would make the trip? The man was not a scientist, he was a general, a hound of war and a veteran of more successful campaigns than Rashari had had hot dinners. There was only one reason the Adran Empire’s greatest son would come out here.