Chapter Eight: Fly or Die

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It’s the same statue that was in the hallway when they first got inside R8.36, only now it’s wearing the suit of armor from which Septimus' shiny new sword came.

He sheathes the sword, which strikes Jaq as a very silly idea.

“My name is Jaq,” she says, slowly, unsure how to properly address a mobile statue.

“I’m Septimus.” He’s more confident.

“Why are you here?” she asks. Her(?) voice is the voice of Kuda Zloveschiy, though the crackle of film is replaced with a slight echo and ring.

“That’s a harder question to answer. Who are you?”

“Also a difficult question to answer. Since you’re the ones trespassing, why don’t you answer me first?”

“It will be a long story.”

“Tell it.”

Jaq starts. She has trouble at first, dividing her attention between the bronze woman and the story she’s telling. Once she gets into the flow, though, things come faster, then too fast and Jaq starts tripping over words, caught up in working through the events. It’s easy when you’re experiencing it—you can’t make time slow down. But going through the experiences in memory brings up all the normal-weird (water brains), the problems (Curson getting her plane destroyed), and the really-weird (the gift and letter).

Septimus watches the statue’s face. It is stoic and unmoving. Almost statuesque.

Almost statuesque, he thinks, that would be a good joke. But he says nothing.

When the story is told, the statue of Zloveschiy stands silent for a while. Long enough that Septimus and Jaq exchange looks, and Jaq starts to reach out to touch the metal.

“Where is the demon?” the statue finally asks. Jaq recoils, startled by the metallic resonance of the statue’s voice.

“He’s outside, up on the island.”

The statue squints - a truly bizarre image - then speaks.

“No. There’s no one on the island, but there is a presence in the hangar. Let’s go, I need to speak with him.”

“Hangar?”

“Hang on,” Septimus says, “at least tell us something first. I mean, who are you? How are you a statue?”

“I am Kuda Zloveschiy.”

“That part we figured out.” Septimus looks the statue up and down. “But how are you a statue?”

“Save that for later,” Jaq interrupts. “Tell me about the hangar.”

“The statues in the sites were designed to act as shells for consciousnesses. When an alarm is tripped at any site, I’m able to appear remotely, if the situation is dire. When you two tripped a proximity alarm at a dead site, I thought it worth my time to come here.”

“So Kuda Zloveschiy is alive?”

“You are addressing her, so you can refer to her as me. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you’ve been summoning creatures from before time. We’ve met a few, and I’m not inclined to guess that that’s a great way to keep your health intact for too long.”

The statue shrugs, and walks out of the room, into the office, armor clicking all the way.. It (she? Zloveschiy?) goes to the bookshelf Jaq was “investigating”, stepping on the books that have been ripped off the shelf. One unfortunate volume, a slender yellow book, has its spine bent beyond reason. Zloveschiy grabs a gold bust, and lifts the head, revealing that it’s hinged. Inside is a hollow with several cigarettes, and a vintage lighter. On the bottom of the top half of the statue is a square red button.

When Zloveschiy presses the button, it glows softly. A quiet click sounds in the wall, and one of the panels floats away from it, revealing an elevator just large enough for the three of them.

“Told you,” Jaq whispers to Septimus. “Secret elevator, for smoke breaks.”

They take the elevator.

There are birds in the hangar. They’ve made nests, high on the rafters. A few have also taken up residence in disused planes and among bones.

One set in particular, a family of gray birds, has caught Curson’s attention. The family has engaged in a learning activity: flight.

He watches one of the parent birds (the mother, he guesses) jump from the nest, dive, and spread its wings, then fly. This is done several times. She flies a wide circle around the hangar, then returns to the nest. But the little ones (he can only see one from here) don’t seem to get the hint. It watches the whole affair, but doesn’t seem to get the very loud hint. The message of now it’s your turn.

In turn, the course of nature pushes forward. The mama-bird moves to stand behind the child. When she kicks, the child drops. Plummets. Small body writhing in the air, feathers rippling. The chick struggles to gather bearings, unable to even find the ground that will kill it.

Learn or fail.

Fly or die.

At the latest possible instant, the bird’s wings spread. It falters, but finds the angle, and sweeps across the floor, then shifts up, taking to the sky. It flies about a while, testing out its wings.

At the back of the hangar, a rumbling, from one of the elevator shafts he noted earlier. He grips his knees and untwists his legs, moving to his feet without verve.

On his feet, Curson adjusts his shirt to ensure it’s tucked into his waistband, then tugs at his vest to straighten it. Walking to the elevator shaft, he checks his collar and buttons, ensures everything is as perfect as possible.

The doors open. Jaq and Septimus crowd the doorway.

“Curson!” Septimus says with a smile. He and Jaq walk into the hangar, Septimus going for Curson. Jaq grunts in pain as Septimus bumps her arm. She sees Curson, doesn’t smile, and scans the room. When she sees a gleaming, pristine Beechcraft 18, she goes thataway.

Curson doesn’t watch Jaq, and doesn’t notice when Septimus approaches.

”Hey,” Septimus says. “We met somebody up there. She’s involved in what’s going on. This is--”

“Kuda Zloveschiy,” Curson says, locking eyes with the statue that steps into the hangar. His face tightens, and his hands shape to fists.

“Uh. Yeah,” Septimus says, taking a step backwards, watching the demon. “Hey, Jaq?” he calls. “You ever see this?”

Jaq returns, looking back at the plane as she walks over. But when she sees what Septimus is talking about, she forgets the plane.

The air around Curson is crackling, like sparks are firing off all around him. At the same time, everything seems normal, like seeing a double-exposure.

Zloveschiy steps forward.

“Hello Curson,” she says, then hesitates, and looks for the next word. After a few seconds, she says “It’s been a while.”

The effect around Curson deepens, and his eyes change color. The whites and irises disappear, turning matte red.

Smoke begins to rise around Curson.

“Do you know—” Septimus starts.

“No clue.”

The smoke grows in size, wraps around Curson, then grows larger. The demon’s form disappears in the smoke. The smoke shapes into the silhouette of a bear, but the head is of a lion with luminous red eyes.

“Curson,” says Zloveschiy, putting her hands up in front of her, “please, we can talk this out.”

Curson does not wish to talk.

The bear-lion swats. It’s a quick motion, almost a playful gesture, but it sends Zloveschiy flying across the room.

She contorts her body in mid-air, so that she lands by scraping her feet against the ground, dropping almost to hands and knees. She stands, and holds her hands out in front of her, open, trying to show Curson that she means no harm.

“Please, Curson, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I thought,” but the demon cuts her off.

“It doesn’t matter what you thought.” The voice is Curson’s, but not. Like a thousand of Curson speaking from a distance. The sound scratches at the air. Jaq’s whole body tenses at it, Septimus covers his ears.

The bear begins to walk, then hurry, then run, bearing down on Zloveschiy. She bends her knees slightly, bracing for impact, but she has more defenses than just armor. Runes on her arms appear, flare with life and light, pouring white energy which streaks along her arms, and resolves into a beam of energy that pours into Curson’s assumed form.

The light ripples through the shadow, and Curson’s form disappears in a blink. The demon is dropped to the ground, but not thrown.

“What magic is this?” he rages.

“Something beyond you. Now stop this, and we can talk.”

“No.”

Curson kneels, and presses one palm against the ground. The concrete floor ripples like disrupted water. The waves grow as they pulse out from the demon, running the length of the room. Zloveschiy looks at the ground, trying to understand.

The walls and ceiling begin to crack. Stones fall from above, the birds in the rafters screech and take to the air.

A stone falls, and barely misses breaking the Beechcraft in half.

“Curson!” Jaq shouts. “Curson stop this! We only have one way out of here!”

Curson doesn’t hear her. More stones fall. Jaq lifts her pistol, and fires at Curson. She knows it won’t do any good, but maybe the shot will distract him. The bullet strikes his leg, a small hole ripping into the cloth and flesh. Lavender blood wells up inside.

Curson ignores it. The rippling gets stronger, and a chunk of ceiling falls right on top of Zloveschiy, but it stops falling and slides off. The statue walks forward, unfazed by the tremors that shake the room. Focusing on the ground, Curson misses the approaching figure, and she kicks him in the chest.

Zloveschiy kneels over Curson’s prone form. She grabs his throat, but he turns to smoke and rolls away. This movement is slow, though.

The room is still shaking. An iron beam is shaken from its mooring, and falls into the water. The end of it strikes the runway, and the collision rings in their ears.

When he’s away, Curson becomes solid again, and stands. Shoves a foot against Zloveschiy, but her stance is solid. She just stands.

“This armor,” she says, “was made specifically to fight against you, Curson. I can do this forever. I left a copy of it at every one of my projects.”

Flares of light flash around Curson, then rip through the air at Zloveschiy. They whip around her, whistling, leaving trails in every color, creating a curtain of light all around her.

She simply steps through it.

Jaq runs aboard the Beechcraft, starts flipping switches. If the iron lady and the creepy librarian want to fight to the death, she’s not getting caught in the process. She doesn’t know the Beechcraft’s controls, and she can only use one arm, so the process is slower than she’d like.

Zloveschiy grabs Curson’s throat.

“The thing is,” she says as if she had just sold him a pack of gum, “this should be much harder.”

Curson tries to get away, but he can’t. He’s stuck in the statue’s grip.

“This armor was meant to fight a demon until the demon ran out of energy. But that’s supposed to take years. Centuries, even.”

She opens her hand, and Curson collapses to the ground.

“You even have a bullet wound,” she says, looking at his blood. “What happened to you?”

Curson rises again, shaking, and even as he rises, he seems unsure that he can stay upright. He forms a fist, and his hand glows red. He swings at the statue, strikes. There’s another flash of light, and Curson cries out, his hand recoils. He backs away.

Zloveschiy follows him.

Septimus steps around a rusting cargo crate to keep line of sight on the two. Behind him, the plane’s engines sputter to life. Jaq appears in the plane’s door, watching.

“Curson,” Zloveschiy says, “I understand your rage. But listen. Just listen.”

The ground shakes, another iron beam breaks from the ceiling, landing flat on concrete.

“This island was already unstable, and your little seismic trick just now—” she’s interrupted by a crack working up the wall behind her. “That trick, Curson, has set this island to go. Now, I’m all for fighting you to the death, but I’m not even really here, and you can’t die. So for right now, let’s get on that plane, and get out of here.”

But Curson still fights, making no sound. He swings at Zloveschiy again, and this time she’s knocked back. The armor and bronze clatter against the ground. She stands again, and grabs Curson’s throat.

Red light glows under the gauntlet and glove, and against Curson’s neck.

“We get on the plane, or we’re buried under the sea.” Behind her, stones destroy a metal structure that once may have been a control tower.

Curson stays silent.

“If you don’t choose, I will.”

Nothing from the demon.

Zloveschiy reaches her arm out, toward Septimus. Septimus starts to walk forward, but before he does, he feels a rattle at his hip.

The sword at his side is pulled away from him, through the air, and lands in Zloveschiy’s hand.

She runs the blade through Curson.

“On the plane,” she announces, carrying the pierced demon.

Septimus and Jaq scurry aboard. Curson writhes on the sword, his rage undiminished.

“Who are you?” Septimus shouts from in the plane as Zloveschiy climbs in. She doesn’t answer, instead pushing Curson into a seat, and pushing the sword through him. She steps behind the seat and kicks the sword. The force bends the sword flat against the back of the seat, securing Curson into the seat.

“Sit,” Zloveschiy says to Septimus. “When we’re in the air, and the demon has realized there’s no point in fighting, we will talk.”

Septimus sits, glad to not be crouching anymore. His height was not meant for the short plane. Nor was Zloveschiy’s, but the bronze form has less difficulty in bending for long times.

Zloveschiy goes to the cockpit and leans through the opening.

“Can you fly this?”

“That’s hilarious,” Jaq says, as the plane begins to accelerate. “The trouble isn’t if I can fly her, it’s if the roof will stay intact long enough for us to leave.”

Stones fall, break the ground. Jaq has to swerve to miss one. Another hits a wing but bounces off.

But, luck is with them. They make it to the air.

Zloveschiy starts to turn, but Jaq stops her by tapping the statue’s shoulder, which is a bad idea, because metal.

“I don’t know this plane,” she says, waving pain from her hand. “Ceiling, range, I don’t know. I can guess, but flying in circles for a few hours isn’t going to help us if we run out of fuel.”

“Do you have any educated guesses?”

“If she’s stock? Like, fresh out of box? Probably a thousand miles before we run out of fuel.” She looks at a gauge. “Five hours maybe. But that’s mostly pulling a number out of thin air.”

Zloveschiy gives Jaq some directions.

“You’re telling me to fly to the north pole.”

“Yes.”

“That’s a day’s flight, and we’re going to run out of fuel long before that.”

“No,” comes another voice. It’s Curson. The snarl is gone, though he’s still full of disdain.

“Ah, welcome back to the land of the sane,” Jaq calls back. She sets the plane to keep cruising in a straight line, and pushes past Zloveschiy. “Well, the land of the people looking for giant aquatic brains, as much sanity as that buys you. Do you have some input for us?”

Zloveschiy stands in the aisle, Jaq sits across from Curson, a small wall-mounted table between them. Septimus sits across the aisle.

His eyes aren’t glowing, but veins have flared on Curson’s skin, and the color has left him.

“This plane,” Curson says, “is a gift from a demon.” His voice is rough, cracked, like he’s just woken up. His muscles are tense, and his veins are flared. They have a slight silver shine to them, but Jaq sets that aside for now. “Valac. We have received instructions from Hell. We are to continue along this path, find the source of the Vodyrazum. The balance of Hell has been disrupted, and the key to fixing it is forward.”

“So I’ve got a demonic Beechcraft Model 18?”

Curson nods slowly, looking out the window.

“Look around for a manual,” he says. “Or a note. Something. Infernal engineers like to leave descriptions of what their toys do, they just often need interpretation.”

“I’ll do that. In a minute. First: what happened back there?”

“I’m—” Zloveschiy starts.

“She,” Curson interrupts, “is the idiot wizard that summoned me.”

“I wasn’t an idiot, I was new. And the instructions were vague.”

“You so thoroughly mangled my summoning that you bound me to this plane. Permanently.”

“Permanently?”

“The engineers of Hell can work out no way to get me back.”

Zloveschiy’s eyes widen.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was that bad.”

Curson chuckles. “Oh that makes it alright then. Permanently isolated from my home. I can’t even summon on my own, can’t contact my people. I have to wait for them to contact me. And now.” He pauses. “Pardon the pun, but now it’s all gone to Hell. War has broken out, and the harmony of the spheres is disrupted.”

“What does that mean?” Jaq asks.

“The power of demons relies on the balanced energies of the infernal spheres. War has disrupted that harmony. This is why my power has waned. And,” he shifts his head to look at Zloveschiy, “this is why you were able to defeat me.”

Jaq settles into her chair, and looks at her hands, thinking. Something is screwy here, and she’s starting to get a handle on it, finally.

“Are you calm now?” Septimus asks. “Be honest, is it safe to unbind you from the chair?”

“Best not,” he says, holding back laughter. “The blade hurts, but seems to have a clarifying effect. I still want to render you into a delicious soup, but I can recognize that it might not be the most beneficial course right now.”

“Good.” Zloveschiy nods.

Septimus, now: “Where are we going?”

“To my base, within the arctic circle.”

“What’s there?”

“Me, for one. Actually me, not this shell. But also, it is the only place in the world that is safe from the Vodyrazum. So, Miss Whatever your name is, if you would care to set us in the right direction?”

Jaq looks up, drawn out of thought. At first she seems to have woken from sleep, but her eyes are keenly focused.

“No,” she says.

Zloveschiy looks surprised. She clearly didn’t expect any kind of resistance from the French girl. “There’s no reason to be antagonistic.”

“What is it?” Septimus asks, reading the look on Jaq’s face. This isn’t just antagonism—he’s gotten used to the girl’s brand of resistance. There’s a reason behind this one.

“Listen,” Zloveschiy says, “whatever you’re concerned about, you’re in danger. The vodyrazum are networked, and so they certainly know who you are now. All of you.”

“Septimus,” Jaq says, locking eyes with him, “have you noticed anything about what we’ve done recently?”

Septimus cocks an eyebrow, but doesn’t answer.

“That base was barely formed, like the collapsed walls were done to lead us in the right direction. The canyon, too. It was a straight line. Curson found the house, but of course he did. The other direction was just water. And now we’ve got a magic statue telling us exactly where we need to go.”

“What are you reaching for, girl?” asks the statue.

“Septimus?”

Septimus thinks, then nods. “I don’t think we’re being controlled, but we’re definitely being led along a path.”

“Right,” Jaq says, standing from her seat. “I think it’s time to take a hard left turn.”

“This is folly,” the statue warns.

“Zloveschiy,” Curson says, his voice weak from whatever heavenly magic is screwing with his bloodstream, “I do not surround myself with fools. Jaq is correct. You’ve given us the location, I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.”

“If you don’t like it,” Jaq says, walking away from the group, “we can shove that statue into the ocean.”

She goes to change course.