Climbing out of the pool proved an ordeal Rashari had little desire to revisit in memory. An expeditious exit became a priority when the quantity of broken trees in the pool created a very real danger of being crushed. Clambering over the logs and trunks to reach (relatively) dry land was awkward and unpleasant but eventually Rashari, Madame Chimera and Smith found themselves on solid ground once more. They promptly collapsed in water logged heaps on the grassy veldt of a seemingly idyllic valley.
Radiating misery Smith scuttled off into the grass a few feet away, clearly wanting to be alone. Rashari could feel his anxiety scratching at his brain. Water and metal joints did not mix well and Smith feared imminent rusting. Fully aware of just how annoying Smith in a sulk could be Rashari let him go without a word.
The pool was so clogged with wood and filth – with a constant flurry of more of the same pouring down from the cliff above – that the water was invisible. Rashari eyed the waterfall (or more aptly the ‘mudfall’) with some scepticism. Given the sheer quantity of water required to drown an entire forest there was no possible way the pool could contain it all. Still the deluge was already slowing. The waterfall thinned out from a solid curtain of water obscuring the rock-face to a wide ribbon of liquid mud. In minutes even that slowed to a mere persistent trickle. Now Rashari could appreciate, on a purely hypothetical level, that things worked differently out on the Steppes, the laws of physics giving way for the chaos of raw magic and what-have-you, but this was all a bit much.
“You can’t mean to tell me this is normal?” He said aloud as he stripped off his sodden coat (it clung to his skin like plate-armour, and came away with a wet sucking noise). His fitted waistcoat squeezed his chest like cement and his shirt itched against his slimy skin. His trousers were stuck to his legs like an icy cast and his boots each held several inches of muddy water. He did not even want to think about the state of his hair. He attacked the laces of his boots, sighing in relief when he was able to yank off the boots and liberate his poor numbed toes from the confines of his dripping socks.
Above their heads the sky was deceptively clear, bright and blue, the sun shining down on them cheerily. There was no hint of miasma, not even a dark cloud on the horizon. In fact they seemed to have pitched up in a rather idyllic little meadow, fronted by the short cliff and waterfall on one side and stretching out in gentle rolling hills at their backs. The grass was long and sprinkled with purple and white flowers, which Rashari eyed suspiciously, but for the moment they did not appear to have violent intentions. He was not fooled. The whole thing seemed a little too pleasant, a little too perfect, especially in comparison to the dark and impenetrable forest they had woken up in. The radical contrast produced a sort of mental whiplash effect. It jarred the senses. He refused to believe that this constant and violent changing of scenery was what passed for normal out here. In fact he knew it wasn’t. This was not the first time he had ever set foot out onto the Battlan Steppes, and while his memories of his first sojourn out here were – incomplete – to say the least, he liked to think that he would remember if the DeLunde expedition he and his father had travelled with back then had experienced anything like this.
“What happened back there?” Turning to face Fantel Rashari waved one arm and pointed vaguely to the top of the waterfall, in the direction of the now extinct forest. “Forgive me Madame, but when you said were going to summon the stream I didn’t think you meant to drown us.”
Fantel, who had said not one word throughout the whole ordeal, now seemed unwilling to meet his eyes. She too had stripped off her long coat and boots, and now sat with her legs lifted toward her body and her hands clasping her shins. Her chin rested on her knees and her gaze flitted over the pool, the waving stalks of grass at her feet and out to brush the top of the waterfall before falling back to the ground once more. “This was not my doing.” She said softly. Rashari frowned, suspicion racheting up another notch. While it must be said that Madame Chimera was not given to a great deal of excessively animation in tone or cadence when speaking, Rashari did not think he had ever heard her sound quite so subdued.
“What do you mean?” Now he would be the first to admit that he had next to no idea what had just happened (actually, no he wouldn’t. He rarely admitted ignorance – even when his staggering lack of understanding was palpably obvious) but he had been fairly sure that he had understood in principle of what Madame Chimera had been attempting to do. “Are you saying you didn’t cause the river to...” - words failed him – “...do whatever that was?”
“I would not do such a thing.” Madame Chimera looked up at him sharply, her amber eyes intent. She seemed hurt by the suggestion. Rashari just stared back at her, at a loss.
“Did you see anything before the waters came?” She asked him, her tone disturbingly hesitant and her gaze still furtive.
“See what? You had me hide behind a tree.” He shook his head, swiping his hand through his hair, his hand came away covered in lumps of mud and gods only knew what else. He grimaced and wiped his hand over the grass. Madame Chimera just stared at him. He was still learning to read the minute subtleties of her expressions, but he thought she seemed surprised, sceptical, even disbelieving. He frowned and considered what he remembered of the moments right before he’d turned back to the stream and seen Madame Chimera fall under the rush of oncoming water. “Miasma,” He said. “I saw nothing much of anything –as per your request I’d turned my back on you and the streambed – then suddenly, while I was standing there like a right arse, this thick white mist came down from nowhere.” His frown deepened into a scowl at the memory. “I admit I wasn’t too thrilled. The last time I walked into the miasma I fell off a cliff and ended up almost eaten by a giant plant.” He shook his head to dislodge any unpleasant memories of that incident. “I turned back to the stream, realised I couldn’t see you and broke cover. I’d not taken more than a handful of steps when the miasma cleared like a dream. That’s when I saw all the water everywhere and a single ruddy great wave headed right for you.”
“That is all?” She asked him, clearly incredulous. “You saw and heard nothing before the waters came?”
“No,” Rashari said, somewhat stung by her disbelief. “What is it that you think I should have seen or heard?”
Madame Chimera stiffened, her gaze jerking away from him then. “It is of no consequence.” She spoke almost too softly for him to hear. “I was a vain fool to think that I could call upon the spirits of nature after so long. What happened...happened because I was arrogant.” She looked up then look of meek apology he saw in her gaze disturbed him immensely. “I am sorry.” She said. “A poor guide I have made for you so far. You would do better to secure the services of one of the ogdegre when we find their camp.” She looked in that moment both remote and sad. Her gaze rested forlornly on her bare toes (which were long and equipped with delicate claws). “I fear that I will be of little use to you as guide, navigator, or protector. The Steppes are not my home anymore. I am not welcome here. The land has shown me this.”
Rashari was alarmed, approaching actual distress. He had little idea what had occurred to shake Madame Chimera’s confidence to such a severe degree (beyond their near drowning, and given the number of times he’d almost gotten them killed he was a little miffed that she would think he would hold a near miss against her). He did know that he very much did not like the direction of this conversation. The thought that Madame Chimera might leave him concerned him deeply and not just because he was absolutely certain he’d never make it out of here alive without her aid.
“Pfft,” he scoffed waving one hand in the air as if he could sweep away her sudden melancholy. “Nonsense.” Madame Chimera just stared at him. He realised he had a piece of river weed stuck to his index finger and peeled it off before continuing. “I admit that I usually prefer to bathe in somewhat more sedate manner.” He began because there really was no way to avoid alluding to their near drowning. “However I am at least no longer covered in dead plant blood, and we are free of that bloody forest. Therefore I would say that you have delivered admirably on your word so far, Madame.”
Fantel stared at him, her gaze keen and assessing and just a mite suspicious. It was a look he had become familiar with in their brief acquaintance. Just knowing that she was currently questioning his sanity as well as his integrity was immensely reassuring. “You mean this? You are not angry?” She asked him. “My folly could have killed us both.”
He laughed out loud, partly at the notion that he would be ‘angry’ at her, but mostly at the sheer absurdity of their situation. Madame Chimera twitched a little, and he thought she looked just slightly affronted. Waving his hand again he tried to get his breath back. “Madame,” He hiccupped. “In the past week I have been shot and almost killed by my ex-captain –whom I then shot and killed – escaped a slavers den with a stolen scion stone possessed of unimaginable destructive power. I have survived two crash landings, been beaten up at least twice and arrested once. I then broke into a heavily fortified barracks and proceeded to cause considerable damage to property and personnel, before escaping in a stolen glider out to the Steppes, arguably the most dangerous place in all Aldlis.” He met Madame Chimera’s eyes directly, hoping she could read the sincerity in his. “Honestly, Madame, if that was your best attempt to kill me you are going to have to up your game considerably. A spot of white-water rafting is not even the most harrowing thing to happen to me since we arrived. Or need I remind you that I may start sprouting petals at any moment?” He held out his left hand, peering distastefully at the swollen, purplish skin on the outer side of his palm where the Alraune had stabbed him.
As he had hoped his distraction worked. “Let me see.” Madame caught his hand, tugging it (and by extension the rest of him) closer so she could inspect the wound. Deft and gentle she touched the wound site, pressing down on his swollen flesh. Rashari winced. The inflammation in his hand disturbed the filaments of quicksilver making up the web of his technomancer’s glove. Normally he didn’t feel any discomfort resulting from the network of cobweb fine metal fibres crisscrossing under his skin from fingertip to wrist, but now, thanks to the Alraune’s poison, his whole hand felt hot and tight. The tracery of the glove flexed and pulled against his swollen skin making the throbbing worse. Fantel studied his hand, turning it over palm up and staring down at the fragment of scion stone embedded into the centre of his glove, as if seeking to read his fortune. Her fingers encircled his wrist. She checked the jump and beat of his pulse and the colour of his skin further up his arm.
“It does not seem worse.” She said eventually, completing her inspection and releasing his hand. She sat back. When she met his eyes this time she seemed more herself, the ghost of her earlier doubt exorcised from her expression. Rashari was pleased. “The wound is inflamed, but the swelling is localised. It does not seem that the poison has spread.”
“So I should hold off on finding myself a nice plant-pot then?” He asked lightly. “Pity. I’d heard the ogdegre were quite the artisans.”
Madame Chimera shot him another keen, knowing look. “We should still seek out the ogdegre. They will know better than I if you have been infected by the alraune curse.” She paused a moment, thinking. “They will also have food and supplies.” She studied him. “If you still seek to travel north towards the Adaline Fault we will need provisions.” It wasn’t a question, but a hint of doubt echoed the last words anyway.
“It’s not what I want, it’s what I must do,” Rashari said, resisting the urge to reach for his coat and check that the Heart of Anoush was still securely hidden away in his inner pocket. “Everything I have learned since stealing the bloody stone has convinced me that destroying it is the only option.”
Fantel nodded slowly. “And what of the DeLunde scientists LePortail told you were already out on the Steppes? You said that they too would stop at nothing to get the Heart if they knew you had it. Do you not fear encountering them on our travels?”
“Very much,” He said simply, not bothering to deny it. “I’m almost sure DeLunde is mixed up in this mess somehow. Aluhahn Bashi was in bed with DeLunde and the Dha-hali both, using his phantasma mine to experiment on the stone. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve been hounded out here. I just can’t make the pieces of this puzzle align.” He plucked at a few stems of grass with his right hand then made himself stop casually vandalising the environment just in case the environment decided to retaliate in kind. “The Dha-hali; Suluman Anoush; DeLunde; Veridree; LePortail and the Banaborra sect; every last one of them is a thread, coming together like a noose around my neck. I can feel it tightening, and yet I can’t see what connection brings them altogether.” It was galling knowing he was being played like a fiddle and not being able to do a bloody thing about it. Even if he had the means to cut the strings he did not know where to make the first cut.
Madame Chimera was quiet as was her wont. She raked her long fingered hand over the grass at her feet. The sun was warm and the breeze pleasant, drying their clothes without leaving them chilled. “Perhaps it would help to discuss what we do know?” She said after a moment. “Perhaps in revisiting what facts we have we will discover this hidden connection?”
“I suppose we do appear to be in a lull between near-death experiences,” Rashari laughed shortly, “Why not? Although I’m not sure anything we have could be considered a cast iron ‘fact’. Most of what I thought I knew a week ago has been roundly proved false.” He couldn’t help a little bitterness from creeping into his tone. More often than not the only weapon he had against his enemies (and he had so many of those) was his brain. It stung (a lot) to know that someone out there had robbed him of his hard earned intellectual superiority. If he wasn’t smarter than the violent scum he associated with then he was no better than said scum – and that thought made him almost glad he was probably going to be producing chlorophyll and courting passing bumblebees within a week.
“You told me that the Suluman of Bhuvam sold the Heart of Anoush, the scion stone that had been in his family for generations, to Aluhahn Bashi for a stake in his phantasma mine.” Madame Chimera said, shaking him loose of his downward mental spiral.
“To dissuade him from selling shares of the company to a rival nation,” Rashari nodded snatching hold of the conversational like the lifeline it was. “When Suluman Anoush discovered that Bashi was not so easily bought, that he was in fact still intent on working with both the Dha-hali raiders and the Adran Empire, he sought help to take back the stone.”
“You,” Madame Chimera murmured, nodding slightly, as if reminding herself of details that had escaped her mind, which was entirely possible. They had known each other less than a full week, after all, and during that time there had been several more pressing concerns for them to think on than providing the other with a complete list of all known associates. “You made a deal to rob Bashi during the Dha-hali slave auction and return the stone to the Suluman in exchange for protection from your former master Remus.” She looked at him. “I am curious. How did you come to make the deal? Did you do so after you already knew Remus would be attending the auction; how did you know Bashi would be there?”
“Well to start with, I’d been on the look out for a way to get out of my indenture with Remus for sometime. Wherever we went I tried to make as many favourable connections as I could. Not that easy to do, either. Remus wasn’t stupid and the nature of our ‘work’ precluded the making of too many friends.”
“Pillage and mayhem will do that, I imagine.” Madame Chimera agreed drily.
“Hardly mayhem,” he shot back. “I hated the bastard, but to give him his dues, Remus was a professional. We were less about the pillage and more about kidnapping, grand larceny, extortion and racketeering. That requires a little more finesse and organisation than your average smash and grab.”
“You seem almost proud.” Madame Chimera studied him curiously. “You stole people from their homes, stole their possessions and swidled them. That is not admirable.”
“No, but it’s profitable. And it also requires skill. I am a raider, Madame Chimera. I’ve never claimed to be anything but. I might not have chosen the profession, but I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy the challenge. It’s easy to break the law, but it’s harder to do it over and over and get away with it.”
“How did you arrive at your deal with the Suluman?” The Madame asked, pullingt he conversation back on course.
Rashari sighed. “Word gets around. The Suluman needed a thief. You find a lot of those in the raiders. He sent agents to raider strongholds, Veridree, Banaborra - I encountered one of his agents in Danitz, as it happens. I didn’t make a deal at the time. This was before I knew about the auction. I was also in company I didn’t trust. But I kept the line of communication open. Like I said, I was on the look out for useful acquaintances. Making friends with the Suluman’s people seemed prudent.” He frowned. Danitz had not been fun. Remus had been sniffing around that damned harpy Ruthy like a randy tomcat. It had given Rashari a little breathing room but left him on edge. He’d learned to be suspicious anytime anything seemed to be going his way. Ruthy put him doubly on edge. The woman was dangerous. There was something about her he couldn’t put his finger on. More than any other raider affiliated with Veridree he was most wary of Ruthy. When she looked at him he felt exposed. She had a way of flaying a man alive with just her eyes.
“You made the deal eventually.” Madame Chimera prompted him.
“Yes.” He nodded. “The Dha-hali had been causing trouble for Veridree for a while. The Svalin Strait became contested territory. Einar’s auction was supposed to be a raider summit, as well as a slave market. By forcing Veridree to the negotiating table Einar could show off his wealth and influence and cement the Dha-hali’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know why Nylous demanded Remus go as his representative.” He frowned. “Remus was out of favour. There were others Nylous trusted more. That should have been my first clue that something was up. Instead I saw the opportunity to escape, made the deal and like a blind fool ran into a world of trouble.”
“You weren’t troubled by the stone?” Madame Chimera asked. “You have told me much about the danger of the Heart of Anoush poses. I had thought perhaps you acted to stop the experiments into deific power.”
Rashari shrugged. “I do now. But back then I thought if I gave the bloody thing back to the Suluman everything would be well. Hannick Anoush would lock it up in his treasury, and the Heart would be safe gathering dust for the next decade or so.” He met Madame Chimera’s eyes. “I didn’t know about the experiments then. I certainly didn’t know DeLunde were involved.” He scratched at his right cheek – he needed a shave – and sighed. “When I found out that Remus knew about the stone –meaning that someone else knew about it and had told him – I realised I couldn’t give it back. It wasn’t safe. LePortail’s little tale about DeLunde and Einar’s alliance with Veridree simply convinced me that I needed to get rid of the Heart for good.”
“I am troubled by one thing,” Madame Chimera said.
Rashari snorted, “Only one?”
She frowned at him. “Remus shot you with a necromantic bullet. If you were anyone else but who and what you are, you would be dead now. Yet when you revived, Remus was not surprised.” Madame Chimera frowned. “I remember he called you a monster created by the Empire. How could he know that?”
Rashari felt his jaw unhinge in surprise, “Bloody hell. I’d forgotten that. How in all the hells did he know that?” He scrubbed at his jaw again, scrapping both palms over his face. He’d been working off adrenaline and panic during his fight with Remus. Afterward he’d tried hard not to think about what it had felt like to pull the trigger and end Remus’ life. Rashari had done any number of questionable, likely immoral, things during his indenture. He wasn’t foolish enough to believe that his actions had never caused harm. He knew they had. He’d been indirectly responsible for loss of life and probably one or two maimings. But he’d never shot a man at point blank range before Remus. He’d never watched a man die. Any death he may have contributed to before the auction was purely hypothetical. He’d never been right there to see the incontrovertible proof. (He didn’t count Scarria. The scorpion’s crimes were not his, even if the scorpion had used his body as its murder weapon.)
“Before he died, Tomah gave you a name. The name of the one who had conspired against you,” Madame Chimera looked at him. “Who is Ruthy?”
Rashari hissed, sucking in a sharp breath of air through his teeth. “I’m a bloody idiot.” He slammed his right palm into the ground, abruptly and completely furious with himself. How could he have forgotten that? What was wrong with him? Was this part of the Alraune curse, was he becoming a complete imbecile on top of everything else?