Fantel snapped awake, a jolt of adrenaline electrifying her muscles. She sprang up into a crouch before her eyes had fully opened; every instinct alive to danger. Something lashed past her feet – a vine. The ground was alive with thick, sinuous vines. Fantel caught a glimpse of trees lining the small clearing and deep shadow waiting in the wings, but most of her attention was taken up with the giant Alraune growing out of a pit in the middle of the clearing. Alraune were cursed creatures, hideous aberrations created by the wild magic of the miasma. Neither animal nor plant, Alraune were carnivorous and fiercely aggressive. This one seemed to be preoccupied. Fantel watched as each of its long flowering tendrils retracted into the ground, drawing away like the many throngs of a sea anemone until only the largest flowering head remained above ground. The flower quivered, belching spores into the air in all directions. It shivered and swayed as if in pain. Fantel edged away from the dangerous spores that several of the Alraune’s floor creeping vines lay dead on the ground, pumping red blood into the purple tinged grass.
She flexed her claws the last clear memory she had was of escaping Aramantine in a stolen glider, Rashari piloting them out toward the wilderness of the Battlan Steppes. Evidently they had reached the outer edge of the Steppes at least. Fantel could taste the faint hint of miasma on the air, and even if she had not been able to sense magic all around her, the presence of the Alraune would be all the confirmation she needed. Such creatures existed nowhere else in Aldlis. Yet that begged the question –where was Rashari?
The Alraune reared, its flowered head thrown back, spewing forth one last, hideous breath of spores and poison. The vines scouring the ground rose, tearing free of the sod, twitching in death throes, as one by one the larger tendrils burst out of the pit, slashing through the air, shedding barbs, blood and petals in all directions. Every last one of its vines and tendrils froze, becoming abruptly rigid, before collapsing to the ground. The main flower head dropped backward onto the ground. It’s wide fleshy purple leaves curled inward at the edges, rolling up and back toward the main body.
There was silence for several seconds after that. Fantel remained on guard at a safe distance, watching the Alraune warily. Alraune could be cunning, retaining a modicum of the intelligence they had possessed before their transformation. It was possible the Alraune was not dead, but merely trying to lure her close enough to ensnare her. Fantel remembered an encounter with an Alraune on the edge of Aashorum, long before her exile from her home. That particular Alraune had been a true abomination, centuries old, and rumoured to have once been Chimera. The Alraune had been cunning indeed. It had learned to hide from her clan, burrowing underground when Chimeri hunting parties passed through. Fantel’s clan might never have discovered the Alraune except that the creature had grown greedy and attacked one of the younger members of her clan during a routine foraging expedition.
The moment the Alraune exploded from the ground at their feet, snatching up the youngest of their party in its tentacle-like vines and dragged her under the ground was still stark in her memory. They’d managed to kill the Alraune, but not before the creature had infected Malin. Lakima had killed Malin there and then, rather than risk the chance that she might transform into an Alraune. They had left Malin’s body lying beside the Alraune’s remains. It was years later that Fantel had learned that the Ogdegre knew of an antidote for the Alraune sickness. It would have taken all of a week for one of the clan to reach the nearest Ogdegre village, yet Lakima had deemed it right to end Malin’s life rather than take the risk that she might transform before the week was up.
A good minute had passed and in that time the Alraune had not twitched a single leaf. Fantel could not sense anything from the creature, no hint of life lurking amid the fallen petals and trailing vines criss-crossing the clearing. The magic flavouring the air was faint, more a memory than reality. Fantel had long since lost her connection to the wild magic of Aldlis, but she felt that if the Alraune had life left in it she would sense it. She crept toward the pit, moving in a crouch, her claws extended. She froze when she heard movement coming from the bottom of the pit. Something was alive down there after all. Fantel tensed, shifting her stance and raising her clawed hands, ready to attack or defend.
Something small and many-legged bounced up over the lip of the pit. The thing had a roughly square body that hung low to the ground. Eight spindly legs rose up from its body, four on either side. The legs were jointed like a spider’s, rising straight up around its body before bending downward and tapering into sharpened points. Fantel could make out the sheen of gold paintwork underneath a dripping patina of blood and thicker, darker fluids covering the metal spider. Eight small round nodes clustered at the front of the spider’s body, like a crown of violet glowing eyes. Those eyes seemed to flash in recognition when they rested on her. Fantel blinked, surprise rushing through her as she realised that glowing stare was familiar to her.
The metal spider scuttled toward her but stopped abruptly, turning back to the edge of the pit. Down in the pit Fantel heard a soft grunt and a muffled curse followed by a series of scuffling sounds, as if someone was awkwardly climbing up the side of the pit. On the ground one of the dead vines quivered, growing taut; Fantel tensed, ready to spring into action. A hand groped over the edge of the pit, fingers curling into the grass and dirt. Strands of metal embedded in the flesh of the hand glinted through the blood. The top of a dark head poked over the edge.
“Rashari?” She barely recognised him.
Fantel watched, incredulous, as he hauled himself up onto solid ground. He was covered head to toe in stinking filth. His dark hair was slicked to his head and dripping dark viscous blood in to his eyes. His pale skin was bathed in dark crimson, like a lumpy mask. His long travelling coat was so sodden with blood, and far worse things besides, that he looked as if he’d stood under the sluices in an abattoir. He dragged himself up onto his knees and patted Smith absently like a man might pat the head of a favoured hunting dog. He didn’t seem to have noticed her at all. The stench of rot and viscera rising off him was appalling.
“Rashari,” Fantel said again, a little louder, even as she edged further away from the horrendous stink.
A pair of dark brown eyes blinked at her from behind the revolting mask of Alraune blood covering his face. “Madame Chimera.” Disconcertingly he smiled, white teeth flashing against all that blood. “I’m glad to see you’re awake. Smith and I were getting worried.” He tried to wipe his face with his hand. All he managed to do was smear the filth around, adding accents of dirt to the mess.
“What happened?” Fantel demanded unsure if she was referring to the Alraune or the fact that they were clearly somewhere in Battlan, yet she had no memory of how they had arrived, or even where here was precisely.
“Oh nothing much,” Rashari told her airily waving one filthy hand around in a a wide arc that managed to encompass everything and nothing all at once, “just had a spot of bother with one of the locals.” He nodded down toward the pit. “I’d heard the plant-life in Battlan could be a bit lively. I suppose almost being devoured by a giant plant monster is just part of the Battlan experience. I may have read a brochure about it.” He trailed off, an expression of acute discomfort crossing his mobile face. His nostrils flared and he swallowed hard enough Fantel could see his throat move. Under the blood mask he seemed to pale. “Excuse me, Madame, but I think I’m going to lie down for a minute.” He sank down onto the ground, cheek pillowed in the dirt. Next to him Smith mimicked his movements, his legs splaying loosely out around him in all directions. Apart from the rise and fall of Rashari’s back as he breathed neither one moved or made a sound for well over a minute.
Fantel poked him with the toe of her boot, “Rashari?” She received no response. Inching closer she crept over to the edge of the pit and looked down. She turned away swiftly. The Alraune was well and truly dead. It looked like Rashari had taken a carving knife to its face. There was nothing but minced meat lying in the bottom of the pit. Bracing herself against the smell Fantel roughly reached for Rashari and shoved him over onto his back.
“Madame...what?” Rashari flailed and stared up at her.
Ignoring him she ran her hands over his torso, head and neck, before checking his arms and legs. The waistcoat and grey shirt he wore under his coat were not nearly as filthy and seemed to be mostly intact, which was a relief. Fantel couldn’t find any evidence of puncture wounds.
“Did it poison you?” She demanded.
“What?” He asked stupidly, waving off her hands as he struggled to sit up on his elbows.
“The Alraune – did it infect you?”
A little of her urgency seemed to register with him. His eyes widened in alarm. “Infect me?” He sat up fully and stared at her. “Wait did you say Alraune? Are you telling me that thing was an Alraune? Those things are real? I thought they were just stories.”
Fantel had no idea what stories a human might have heard about the Alraune and nor did she care. She grabbed both his hands in hers, turning them end over end so she could examine them. His hands were covered in Alraune blood, making it difficult to know if he had any bleeding wounds of his own. Even the chip of scion stone embedded in the centre of his left palm was slick with Alraune filth. She pushed and prodded the flesh of his palms, fingers running carefully over the ridges and grooves of the metal filaments embedded in his left hand. When her fingers pressed down on the soft flesh of the outer side of his hand he hissed, jerking his hand away. Fantel froze, eyes widening in dawning horror as Rashari cradled the hand to his chest.
“I think one of those barbs might have hit me.” He said. He kept his eyes fixed on her face, watching her reaction. “It’s all a bit of a blur. One minute I’m carrying you across a field, with a djinn chasing us, the next minute I wake up in a forest, and a giant plant is trying to eat me.” He stared at her. “It’s not true is it; those stories about people turning into plants? That’s not...I mean that thing down there wasn’t really human once, surely?”
“I could not say if the Alraune you killed was human once,” Fantel said thinking about the ravaged and unrecognisable mass of oozing flesh she had glimpsed at the bottom of the pit. “But the Alraune are cursed creatures created by the wild magic of the miasma.” She looked around them, out beyond the quiet of the clearing to the waiting darkness of the forest beyond. The silence was heavy as a curtain, unnatural even for Battlan. She did not like it. The silence had the feel of an ambush about it, as if something more sinister waited just beyond those shadows, commanding darkness and silence to conceal its presence. “Alraune are a curse set for the unwary, for those unfit to walk the wilds of the steppes. Dark magic flows through their veins, and like poison, that magic seeks to infect others.” She turned back to meet Rashari’s wide eyes. “I do not think it a coincidence that you should stumble into an Alraune ambush while I was unconscious and unable to guide you.”
Rashari met her eyes, swallowing hard. For a split second naked fear glinted in his dark eyes. “That,” he began hoarsely, “is just so bloody typical.” He leapt to his feet, surprising Fantel who rocked back on her haunches at the suddenness of his movement.
He paced away from the pit, throwing up his hands. “Just bloody typical; as if it I don’t have enough problems, now I have to worry about sprouting roots.” He twisted around to throw a glare Fantel’s way. “This is beyond ridiculous.” He told her in deep tones of affront. “I mean really. Even the real bloody Rashari didn’t have to deal with this sort of malarkey.” He paced a tight circle, back and forth across the clearing. After a few moments Smith picked himself up and started scuttling along in his wake. The automaton made no noise but the glow from his multiple eyes seemed to grow dimmer and then brighter, as if he was trying to communicate something through a series of blinks. Rashari stopped pacing to look down on the automaton. “I know Rashari was a fictional character. My point still stands. This is not on Smith. There is only so much misfortune I’m prepared to suffer and I draw the line at germination.” He pursed his lips. “I don’t have time for this.”
Fantel, who had listened to this little tantrum with more than a little bemusement felt that now was the time to take charge. In their short acquaintance Rashari had already proven that he was appallingly bad at recognising the ramifications of the danger he kept putting himself - and by extension Fantel – into. She had agreed, against her better judgement, to assist him in his quest to cross Battlan and dispose of the Heart of Anoush before his enemies could use its power for their own ends. She couldn’t help but feel that this latest disaster was at least partly her fault. She had promised to protect him, and instead he’d had to protect her. The Steppes were her home. She understood the dangers in a way no human could. It was her responsibility to ensure that Rashari didn’t end up like Malin - and that she was not forced to make the same choice Lakima had all those long years ago.
“Enough,” she said interrupting the one-sided and incomprehensible argument between man and automaton that was still going on. Rising to her feet she moved toward Rashari taking his left hand in hers once more – the skin felt hot and swollen. “We must find somewhere for you to wash, so I can examine the wound. Then we must find the nearest ogdegre village. The ogdregre possess the antidote for the Alraune curse.”
“Right,” Rashari nodded seemingly quite happy to take direction from her. “And do you know where we can find the nearest ogdegre village?”
Fantel paused in the mid-step. She had been ready to lead Rashari out of the clearing and into the waiting shadows of the forest, but now she hesitated. “I...must commune with the forest.” She said slowly, realising as she spoke that she had no way of knowing if the forest would heed her. It had been so long since she had last set foot in Battlan and her magic was all but gone. She feared that she may not manage it at all. When she abandoned Aashorum she had forsaken her connection with the land. Rashari was matching her. He couldn’t quite hide his scepticism. His doubt ate at her confidence further.
“This is not a place I am familiar with.” She admitted. “It feels as though the miasma is strong here. The magic is....disturbed by something. It may take some time to find a way out.” She stared him down, tilting her head and forcing confidence into her tone. “The terrain here is not like you are used to. It is tied to the magic in the miasma. The land, the trees, the rocks and the water -nothing is fixed. It changes with the ebb and flow of the miasma. The magic will play tricks on your senses. Time and distance have no real meaning here. Those who can command the spirit of the land can remake the landscape to their heart’s desire.”
“I’d noticed that,” Rashari’s tone was dry. “How long do you think it will take you to find a way out?”
“I...cannot say for sure.” Fantel did not add that she could not even guarantee the forest would answer her call. If it did not, if she could not tap into the spirit of this place and gain its favour, then she would be as much at the mercy of the miasma as Rashari himself.
“I see,” Rashari said slowly, his gaze piercing. She had the feeling that he heard only too clearly the doubt in her tone, and understood only too well her true fears. “And how long, do you think, before I start turning into one of those,” he pressed his lips together in a tight line before continuing “...things?”
Fantel met his eyes, but wished that she could look elsewhere, “That is another thing I cannot say for sure.”
Rashari sighed, “Yes, I was afraid you’d say that.” He shook his head, almost impatiently. “Well, no point crying over spilt milk.” He gestured politely for Fantel to keep moving. “Lead on then Madame Chimera. I’ll be right behind you. And have no fear, should I feel a sudden urge to photosynthesise you’ll be the first to know.”