A NOVEL OF ADVENTURE
BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
The city of Jinja Khyam floated at least a thousand feet above the sea. Nothing that swam in those distant waters should have posed a threat. But, as Seagrave watched, a fabulous scaly head emerged from the roiling waters below, ivory torrents flowing between its raised brow ridges and streaming down the sides of its gleaming beak.
Then a second head surfaced, just to one side of the first. Both heads glided from the dark sea on slender serpentine necks. As more of the two necks were revealed, the glistening columns gradually came together, merging at their bases to form a single thicker neck that steadily grew from the sea like some impossible pliant tree sprouting grotesquely from heaving white soil. In the fork where the two necks merged, a fabulous sapphire gemstone caught the sunlight, dazzlingly visible even against the manatyr's deep blue scales.
Upward and still upward, the two heads climbed, the main neck swelling thicker and thicker where it slid from the surging foam. Finally the titanic ridge of a vast body breached the surface with a roar like a tidal wave breaking against a sheer cliff -- and the manatyr stood revealed.
Seagrave guessed the thing weighed perhaps a quarter of the weight of the island itself. Most of the thousand foot length from its body to its two heads was taken up with the single cyclopean neck, the smaller necks emerging only near the top. Each head was the size of an elephant and the two flashing beaks hooked upwards instead of down. The leviathan seemed perfectly designed for but one purpose: to feed off the underbellies of the floating islands.
Before Seagrave's horrified eyes, that was precisely what the manatyr did.
Seagrave was facing toward the island's centre where stone and foliage surged suddenly downward, twisting to form the fantastic stalactite-like root. The sun was at his back. He could see terrified crowds of Kamir men and women streaming like ants along the swaying bridges, their screams of horror reaching him as a keening welter of despair. Other Kamir thronged the lower balconies, and, still more, he supposed, were hidden from view by the tangled verdure above.
Suddenly one of the manatyr's heads darted like a chicken pecking scattered grain. The upcurved beak tore away the floor of a suspended cabin like paper, and tiny figures rained from the ragged hole. Some of the figures -- the women, Seagrave thought -- plunged screaming and flailing to a swift shattering death on the water far below. Others, the men, took desperately to the air, their wings serving only to postpone the inevitable horror of their grisly deaths. Before the men could escape, both heads of the manatyr began snatching them from the air, darting and pecking with those giant upturned beaks. In moments, not a single figure remained.
Seagrave barely noticed as Montaz stepped to his side. One glance at the nightmare scene and she seized his arm, thrusting her face to his shoulder with an anguished sob.
Suddenly his attention was drawn by that cracking sound he had heard before. His gaze fastened on the watchtower across the way. The red-skinned manatyr watcher was taking steady aim with the strange gun mounted on the balcony.
The weapon looked as heavy as a culverin, but with a short narrow barrel on the front. It was sumptuously decorated with gold and jewels richly wrought in the form of bizarre serpentine creatures. The heavy cylindrical body opened into two curved doors on top, revealing a slim glittering gemstone the length of a man's arm cradled inside. The watcher gripped two upright handles in his glistening fists -- evidently the weapon's trigger mechanism. As Seagrave stared in amazement, the curved doors dropped shut and, a second later, with that same deafening retort, an incredible segment of spiralling luminance exploded from the barrel.
The dazzling segment glowed with a fiery blue brilliance, with no hint of a solid core. It seemed precisely the same length as the gemstone, but formed a spinning helix that sizzled as it sped in a direct line for the manatyr. Somehow Seagrave realized he knew the spiralling light was called a flash worm -- his knowledge apparently a product of the damash and Montaz's own memories.
The flash worm hit the manatyr just below the juncture of the two necks. A muffled thump and a roiling coil of smoke marked the impact, but the terrible creature was unfazed by the assault. Now Seagrave saw other flash worms streaking from worm cannons mounted on similar watchtowers.
In spite of the gargantuan size of the target, many of the flash worms missed entirely, fading ghost-like into the air a short distance beyond. Some were directed at the neck and some at the body far below, but no aim rose higher than the top of the main neck -- presumably for fear of hitting the crowds above. Yet, for all the bedlam and smoke, the weapons had little effect on the titanic beast.
The mournful sirens continued to wail; but now, above that hopeless din rose the strident peal of a resounding horn. From somewhere behind Seagrave's prison, a tight formation of twenty armoured Kamirs soared on their limbless, dragonfly-winged narses. Behind these came twenty more, and then twenty more again, all three groups banking smoothly as they streamed like angry hornets toward the manatyr.
As impressive as these narsemen appeared at first, resplendent in gleaming shoulder armour and caparisoned mounts, they seemed like insignificant gnats against the fantastic bulk of their hideous opponent. The riders carried heavy spears with sharp clear points that flashed in the sun.
The narsemen broke formation as they approached, each man gliding in where chance and his own courage permitted. At first the manatyr took no notice of these tiny defenders; ruthlessly, the two heads dragged down a ropebridge and began feeding off those who were not plunged to their deaths. The narsemen swooped in close, like diving hawks, thrusting at the two necks with their long spears. With an almost disdainful ease, one of the heads swung from its grisly repast to snatch a passing narseman -- rider and mount -- out of the air.
As if suddenly alerted to this new delicacy, the other head now turned with stunning swiftness, the cruel beak dashing riders from their narses before they had time to wing clear. Some narsemen were killed instantly by the force of the collision, their bodies tumbling away; others sought desperately to regain their terrified mounts, or else to fly beyond the range of those horrible snatching beaks.
For all the terrible drama of the scene, Seagrave's attention shifted to one detail in particular: one of the riderless narses, fleeing in terror, glided steadily nearer.
There was no time to think or plan; in an instant the narse shot past the balcony -- and Seagrave bounded desperately over the rail, landing full on the affrighted creature's saddle.
The errant narse was already frantic with wild, maddening terror; as it suddenly felt the unexpected impact and added weight on its back, its snake-like head thrust forward on its long neck, the hum of its wings rose in pitch, and it dove abruptly in an effort to dislodge its burden.
Seagrave barely had time to catch up the two side reins and clamp his legs tight around the heaving ribs. His senses spun dizzily as he was carried down, down in a steep, breathless glide.
With a ferocious snarl, he hauled back on the reins. Slowly the steady pressure reached in through the creature's fear-mad mind, taking control as if seizing the whirling wheel of a masterless ship.
The narse began to climb again, then, at Seagrave's urging, it banked gently on a path which, he hoped, might take him back to the prison. The pirate quickly understood the principles required to handle the narse, but the precision of his maneuvers left much to be desired. He sped full into a group of narsemen who parted frantically before him just in time to avoid a collision. Then he hauled on the reins a second time, bringing the narse to a hovering stop next to the balcony where Montaz waited in wide-eyed amazement.
"Come on, girl!" Seagrave shouted, reaching for her hand. "We haven't got all day, and I don't know how long I can keep this beast from bolting. Give me your hand."
The slave girl shook her head quickly. "Don't worry about me, Moryan," she replied. "I'll be all right."
"What are you talking about?" He dragged at the reins as the narse started to drift. "Don't be a fool -- I can't leave you here."
"I can't go," she insisted resolutely, even taking a step back from the rail. "I am Khomas Khan's slave girl -- I belong to him. I can't leave my master. Go without me."
"Of course you can leave him," Seagrave argued angrily.
"I will be all right, Moryan." There was desperate urgency in her voice. "They can't blame me for your escape. Now go, while there's still time. Please. For me -- save yourself."
For a moment, Seagrave considered leaping from the saddle and carrying her away in spite of her protests; but he knew he was more likely to end up plunging them both to their deaths. Her stubborn little mind was obviously set. With a snarled curse, he slammed his heels into the narse's scaly ribs, and the serpent shot forward with a whir of flashing wings.
For a moment, the pirate soared free at last, feeling the numbing rush of wind in his face, the trees passing in an emerald blur overhead. Then, suddenly, the narse reared up, almost throwing Seagrave from the saddle. Struggling to regain his seat, he looked up, then shouted --
Directly in front loomed one of the manatyr's beaked heads. It filled his vision, vast and impassable. With mounting panic, Seagrave glanced back over his shoulder to find the other head just behind. For a moment he was caught between the two heads. Then they swept on like black thunderheads passing against the sun; by some miracle, he had not been noticed. Instead, it seemed, the manatyr's ravenous attentions were fixed on one of the luckless wingships, caught in the midst of its passage into port.
The vessel was manned by Traykens, dressed without armour -- sailors apparently. One Trayken stood atop the tautly gleaming gasbag, trapped there while repairing some damage to the envelop. The two heads of the manatyr surged forward, their upturned beaks aimed cunningly for the bag's soft fabric.
To Seagrave's amazement, the Trayken on top of the gasbag raised his leister, spread his mothwings and rushed to the middle of the bag, intent on trying to singlehandedly ward off the monstrous assault. It was heroism of truly idiotic proportions -- and Seagrave could only shake his head in dumb wonder.
The two heads attacked together, dooming the Trayken's defense from the start. One beak ripped a gaping wound in the top of the bag, which instantly began to deflate, causing the vessel beneath to pitch dangerously at the bow. All along the gunwales, Traykens took to the air as their ship dipped more and more, cargo containers spilling in a thundering torrent down the deck.
But atop the gasbag, the second head had directed its assault at the tiny figure who dared to challenge it, as if determined to set an example. The Trayken thrust upward with his leister just as the beak snapped closed on the shaft. As the manatyr drew back, the Trayken failed to release his grasp on the haft of his weapon still caught in the monster's beak. Instantly the Trayken was hauled into the air, swinging wildly on the end of the leister, before desperately catching hold of the upward curve of the bottom beak. The beak opened and the shattered leister spun away like a blade of straw - - but the Trayken continued to cling desperately to his nightmarish perch.
Seagrave felt grim sympathy for the doomed creature; so long as the Trayken held on, he was safe -- but the minute he tried to fly away, the head would snatch him from the air just like so many before him.
To add to the Trayken's peril, the hissing fire of the worm cannons was finally being directed at the two heads; there was no longer any danger of hitting buildings or innocents in this quarter. The glowing helices erupted in billowing clouds against the monster's two blue faces, at last producing a pained response. Clearly this was where the manatyr was most vulnerable.
And now the other head took note of the tiny morsel clinging to its brother's jaw. It darted at the struggling Trayken, but missed due to an unexpected movement of the first head. At best, the pause merely postponed the inevitable.
Whether the narsemen would have flown in to rescue a Trayken, Seagrave could not guess, but it was certain none of them would dare risk venturing so near the heads in the midst of the deadly hail of flash worms.
Every natural impulse told Seagrave to flee; he had a mount and a distraction. It was madness to do otherwise. Yet the idiotic heroism evinced by the doomed Trayken in trying to defend his ship appealed to Seagrave's sense of comradeship. Seagrave had hardly expected that he might feel admiration for a Trayken -- but that was precisely what he did feel. Now that man was in deadly peril with no one to come to his aid.
With a disgusted curse
at his own foolish weakness, Seagrave goaded his narse into a reckless
dive directly into the shower of flash worms and directly toward the manatyr's
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Savage Miraya is copyright 1998, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short
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