The Stone Heart's Lament

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“I hate my life.” Rashari said, with some feeling, grabbing Madame Chimera under the arms and hauling her up until she was slumped against his shoulder before he dropped off the wing to the ground. He fell heavily, Madame Chimera’s dead-weight knocking the wind out of him as his knees crumpled. In stories the suave hero always made toting unconscious damsels around look so bloody easy. The reality was anything but. Madame Chimera was taller than he was by at least two inches and as slender as she was she was also strung with long, lean muscle – and muscle was dense and therefore heavy. Struggling to his knees Rashari did his best to haul her over his right shoulder (there was no way his left could take the strain) and, teeth bared in a savage grimace, he staggered to his feet. Gods damn it. He felt the additional weight all down his spine. He could easily imagine each one of his vertebrae compacting as he stood. He wasn’t weak, nor was he a stranger to the occasional spot of hard physical labour (although, truth be told, he tended to avoid that sort of thing) but he had never been called upon to carry an unconscious chimera while trying to run across a field of thigh high grass either. He sincerely hoped he would never be called to do so again.

This way.

Smith led the way across the rough ground, weaving through thick tufts of bladed grass, scuttling as fast as his many legs could take him. Back bowed and knees straining with every step Rashari did his best to keep up. He didn’t dare look behind him. There was no way the enemy glider could fail to spot their crash site. The land around here was mostly open plain, empty and devoid of any natural scenery of note, save the occasional ugly tree. The broken glider would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Smith broke a path through the grass toward a small copse of stumpy trees. The trees were lousy cover; too short and too far apart to serve as a hiding spot. Strange weeds grew up around the base of their trunks; springy, wiry stemmed plants with bulbous orange flower-heads and unpleasant prickles. They seemed to tangle deliberately around his ankles as he waded through them. When he disturbed a rather thick clump of the weeds by stepping on them, the plants released a wave of orange pollen into the air. It spattered his trousers and stank like an open privy. He coughed, throat clogged with plant spores. Smith continued to set a gruelling pace as they broke out of the trees. The grass locked around his thighs making his progress even harder going. He thought he could hear the enemy glider’s landing wheels rattling along the ground at his back. It raised the hair on the back of his neck and made his scalp prickle. He imagined that if he looked behind him he’d see the glider racing toward him with the speed and ferocity of a hunting hound. Panic gave him the strength to run a little faster.

All he could see ahead was gold streaked blue sky, a vast canvas that stretched impossibly wide and far. Rashari knew they were right on the edge of the steppes. The landscape should undulate in a series of tiered platforms, rocky hills and steep edged valleys populated by thick forest –not to mention the ever present magic miasma. Yet all he could see was pure shining sky and a wall of heat haze rising from the flat horizon like a mirage. It seemed endless, and as empty as an unfinished painting. It didn’t make sense, except that it would be just his bloody luck if the topography of the Steppes changed just to spite him. His foot sunk into an old animal borrow hidden in the long grass and, arms full of unconscious chimera, he plunged forward face first to the ground, managing to twist at the last moment so he didn’t fall on Madame Chimera. The impact knocked the breath from his lungs and sent lightning bolts of fresh pain through his left side, jarring his still healing shoulder. So much for chivalry. He almost inhaled a thistle jabbing out of the ground. The weed struck him in the face as he landed. Even the local flora had it in for him. Too stunned to move, Rashari lay in the grass and waited for his lungs to reinflate.

Hurry; hurry. No time to lie around dawdling! Smith scuttled back to him, lavender eyes burning with exasperation.

“I’m trying.” He gritted out, spitting out bits of grass that had somehow gotten in his mouth as he rolled up onto his knees, pulling Madame Chimera back into position over his right shoulder. “Has the glider landed yet?”

How would I know? Smith answered a little tartly. I can’t see a thing in all this grass. The grass, now tall enough to reach Rashari’s shoulders while he knelt on the ground, completely swallowed Smith.

Rashari stared at him. “If you can’t see where you’re going – why did you tell me to follow you?”

Because I don’t need to see where I’m going; I’m following the magic. Once we hit the miasma no one will be able to follow us. Smith turned and scuttled off through the long, sharp-edged grass once more. He was lost from sight in an instant. Smith wanted to lose their pursuers in the miasma? The idea was just crazy enough to work. Of course, once in the miasma they might never escape it, but at least they wouldn’t be caught. If the choice was guaranteed captivity, or wading into miasma that might, possibly, trap him inside an illusionary world of magic for eternity then Rashari was with Smith. He’d take his chances with the miasma. The threat of possible death was infinitely preferable to the certainty of capture. He’d promised himself years ago that he would never again be a prisoner. It was a promise he meant to keep.

A sound back at the crash site had him freezing like a trapped hare. He peered out over the top of the grass. The hazy light made it hard to focus, the air seeming to shimmer like high noon in the heart of summer, but he could see above the rippling stems of dead grass some sixty or seventy feet away to the wreck of their glider -and the stationary hulk of the enemy glider next to it. Two figures were outlined against the rising sun as they inspected the wreck. He couldn’t make out their features or even tell their gender; all he could really discern was that one was taller than the other by at least a foot. As he watched, the taller one took several steps away from the glider and pointed directly toward him. Immediately Rashari ducked down into the grass. He tried to crawl on his hands and knees, half dragging Madame Chimera with him through the grass. He didn’t get far. He kept getting tangled with Madame Chimera’s long legs, and after the second time he almost dropped her he gave it up as a bad job. Their pursuers were already on to them. Anyone with half a brain cell would know in which direction he had run– there really was only one way to go and that was away from the crash site. Stealth wouldn’t help him.

Lurching to his feet, Madame Chimera slung over his shoulder like a roll of old carpet, and started wading through the grass as fast as he could. He thought he heard a woman’s voice behind him shout something, and he broke into a run – or the nearest physical equivalent he could manage given the circumstances. With every heartbeat he expected the crack of a rifle shot and the sudden searing pain of a bullet ripping through his back.

It didn’t come. Instead the ground under his feet started to rise, as if he was running uphill, despite the fact that the horizon remained flat. The grass became sparser, shorter, less a hindrance, but the ground was littered with sharp stones jutting out from the raw, red earth. At his back he could hear the whispering hiss of someone racing through the long grass after him; someone who was making far better work of it than he had. He dared a look behind him and caught a glimpse of something fantastical -a man, but not a human man – floating above the grass and moving at incredible speed toward him. The man’s feet brushed over the tips of the grass stems as he drifted light as a cloud through the hazy air. Long white hair streamed back from a high forward and his lean, golden skinned face was distorted by a wide and feral grim. He wore a loose pair of silk trousers in a lurid shade of green and a gauzy vest made out of black fishnet. He carried a long staff in his right hand. Iridescent light gathered around the head of the staff.

Rashari threw himself down onto the ground, covering Madame Chimera with his body, as a ball of fire screamed over his head and obliterated a nearby tree. Gobbets of green flame splattered the ground, immediately igniting a patch of orange weeds. The fire spread outward like water, devouring everything it touched. It oozed toward him as if it knew where it was going. Rashari whipped his head around to look back at his pursuer. The man – the Djinn - was almost on him. Drifting over the grass like a cloud in a storm he raised the staff again and sent another brilliant green fire ball screeching through the air. This time the fireball pounded into the ground a few feet to Rashari’s left. The thicket of grass exploded into emerald flame, sending chartreuse embers into the air, where they popped like fireworks. Rashari scrambled across the ground, dragging the Madame with him. His fingers closed around a large, heavy rock half embedded in the ground.

The Djinn had drifted closer, stopping within throwing distance. He gazed serenely over the top of the dancing pool of green fire stretching between them. “’Ello there, mate.” He waved. “Yer’ll be Rashari, right? I’m Jaquard. I’m ‘ere t’ capture yer.” He grinned revealing a mouth full of teeth filed down to vicious points. “Course I’m gettin’ paid by the hour –so if’n yer want to make this chase last a little longer I’d appreciate it. Mebbe go a little easier on yer, yeah?”

Rashari hauled his arm back and threw the rock. It sailed through the air and struck Jaquard in the forehead. The djinn’s head snapped back and whatever magic he had employed to levitate evaporated like a bad illusion. Uttering a startled “Oof” Jaquard fell backward into the grass, body crashing through the stems. Rashari grabbed Madame Chimera and staggered to his feet, clambering up the sharp incline of a hill that he swore hadn’t been there moments before. At his back the djinn started laughing.

“Now that’s more like it mate! Love a good chase, me.”

Rashari ignored him, still scrambling up the rough, rocky side of the hill – a hill that seemed to be growing higher as he climbed. He looked up and saw that the sky was no longer flawless blue but instead a pearlescent grey-white, thick like wet cement. Clouds swirled together in twisting, whorled patterns and the entire sky glowed with a painful, murky luminance. When he glanced down he could no longer see the grass filled plain. Instead the ground writhed with mist, a thick soup of blue-green vapour, which surged upward like the convulsions of the ocean surf, tendrils lapping at his ankles as he struggled ever upward. The djinn stood in the centre of that bubbling fog, sickly green and yellow light dancing around his frame, grinning up at him.

“Enjoy yer trip, mate. I’ll see yer on the other side.” He called up to him, offering up a jaunty wave before vanishing in a cloud of green sparks.

Rashari blinked, trying to clear his head and make sense of what just happened. He looked up, expecting to see the ragged hill rising above him, but instead he saw only spinning clouds, swirling around and around into a tight angry knot in the heart of the sky. The ground under his feet rocked and shuddered and he staggered. The world seemed to tilt on its axis and his vision wavered. When this vision cleared he was standing on the cleft of a short cliff, with no idea how he got there. Rough grass sprouted sporadically from the raw earth. Looking in all directions he could see no sign of Smith, or Jaquard, or the grassy plain and the glider crash site. He couldn’t see anything at all except thick soupy fog. There was nothing in the world save this lonely cliff and the tangled sky above. The mist swept toward him. Clutching Madame Chimera close Rashari instinctively stepped back, afraid to let the mist reach him. He watched it pour over the ground, watched the grass and the stones vanish. Rashari took two more large steps back -and suddenly there was no more ground under his feet.

He had time to open his mouth on a short, sharp gasp of shock before he was falling backward, falling through a world of glowing white, the taste of wet cotton filling his mouth and choking off his screams.

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