A NOVEL OF ADVENTURE
BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
He stepped back several paces, then rushed forward and sprang, kicking off from the rail with all the strength in his weary legs. His leap carried him far out over the whispering void, legs pedalling furiously, arms out-stretched.
Down Seagrave plunged. But his strength had not been enough. Even as he fell, he saw he was not going to reach the curved side of the gasbag...
But then he crashed into the heavy mesh netting by which the wooden ship was suspended. For a terrible moment, Seagrave tumbled uncontrollably down the steep slope of the net -- until brought up short as the fingers of one hand grasped a sturdy ratline. He groaned in agony at the sudden pain in his ravaged shoulder, but managed to stifle the cry in his throat.
There he hung, not daring to move while the wingship cruised steadily on its course. Looking up, he saw Dol Hashar emerge from the prison, the wind tossing the draykhis's ebony cape, his dark moth-wings spread to their fullest as he peered over the rail, hungrily scanning the sea for his quarry. The draykhis was so accustomed to the sight of the wingships that he did not even spare it a glance. In a few seconds, the distance was too great for the Trayken to have spotted Seagrave even if he chanced to look.
Glaring down from his perch, Seagrave saw the tiny figures of Kamir sailors rushing hurriedly about the deck; other figures in brown robes scrambled out along the starboard wing-mast, reefing the sails and making final preparations for docking. Setting his teeth, Seagrave dragged himself heavily up the ratline, then up the netting to the top of the gasbag, where he collapsed exhausted, his ribs heaving as he drank the cool night air in great shuddering sobs...
When he had not heard voices for some time, he finally dared risk descending to the deck. The vessel appeared deserted, but he moved with a stealthy tread, crouched low, his eyes burning warily into the dim light. He crossed a gangplank to a wide platform running parallel to the ship's hull, taking advantage of the cover offered by stacked crates and mountainous heaps of sacks. Montaz had told him how to reach an empty warehouse; following her directions, he ascended a long ladder to another platform suspended higher than the top of the gasbag. Here he was only a short distance beneath the rough stone underbelly of the island, and tangled groves of rich vegetation hung down all around.
Working his way along platforms and bridges, Seagrave silently crept toward his goal. Occasionally he detected the soft dreamy mumble of voices through the thick foliage that breasted the walkways -- each time, freezing as stationary as if sculpted from stone, until certain he had not been spotted.
The walkways were lighted by the same gilt filigree globe lanterns used in his prison -- the mysterious topaz glim-gems throwing scattered illumination so that the bridges seemed impossibly suspended in fragments over the whispering black void.
Gradually he encountered wooden houses, little different from his prison, but with the circular doors closed against intrusion. The cabins were more scattered than he would have expected in a large city, more in the nature of a small country hamlet.
He was not far from his destination when, halfway across a bridge, he halted suddenly. A Kamir guardsman had emerged from a cabin onto the open platform ahead. The guardsman stretched languorously, both his arms and his wings, obviously merely having stepped out for some fresh air. Urgently Seagrave glanced back over his shoulder -- only to feel his pulse begin to race. A second Kamir guardsman was approaching the bridge. His head was bowed and he had not yet seen the pirate, but it was obvious he intended to cross.
There was no time to ponder options; in a moment, Seagrave would be spotted. The pirate had no idea how firmly rooted the trees might be beside the bridge, but he decided to chance it. He sprang from the bridge, catching hold of the nearest branch and drew himself lithely into the concealing verdure. Clambering up onto a sturdy perch, he turned and crouched in breathless anticipation, praying he had been quick enough to avoid detection.
But from the direction of the second guardsman came a startled shout, and the bridge began to quiver with the tread of racing feet. Seagrave swore under his breath and sought to draw back against the cold stone overhead. In a moment, the two guardsmen converged on the bridge, their eyes peering searchingly into the heavy thicket.
"I think I see him," exclaimed the one guardsman excitedly. "Here -- hand me your leister. I'll drag him out."
Seagrave felt a cool rush in his veins; if the guardsman once hooked him with the leister, there would be no escape. He cast hurriedly about, frantically searching the tangled darkness for a means of escape. Too late, he realized he had trapped himself in a niche. The rough stone pressed coldly at his back, leaving little room to maneuver.
He twisted suddenly as the guardsman thrust viciously with the clawed weapon, missing him by inches. The wooden prongs rattled on the stone at his side, and then slid smoothly away. Then again -- this time the weapon passed so near his head it tugged at his scarlet scarf.
Suddenly the other guardsman shouted to someone approaching along the bridge and, a moment later, he was passed a second leister. Simultaneously, Seagrave detected the subtle whirring of wings -- narse wings -- and he swallowed dryly as he saw a mounted narseman peering eagerly upward through the snarl of branches beneath his feet. This man too brandished a leister -- and Seagrave did not relish the rapidly mounting odds.
Desperately the pirate twisted and flexed as best he could in the confined space as the three weapons lashed at him repeatedly through the branches. The narseman was forced to reach farthest to thrust up through the foliage, and he gripped his leister precariously low on the shaft. Seeing this, Seagrave waited for the narseman's next attack -- then seized the weapon with a swift grab and wrenched it sharply from the Kamir's astonished hands.
Before the rider could react, Seagrave drove downward with all the strength in his muscular arm. The blunt haft caught the narseman squarely between his upturned eyes, shattering his skull like brittle china and splattering his lacquered shoulder plates with a welter of orange gore. Without a sound, the narseman slumped in his saddle, to be instantly borne away by his blood-startled mount.
Seagrave barely had time to yank up the weapon again before one of the other two leisters speared dangerously for his throat. He blocked the thrust with the wooden shaft, only to have his weapon dragged hard against a branch as it was caught on the retreating spikes. But if he could not free his weapon, neither could the cursing guardsman; nor could the other guardsman jab past the tangle of spears.
It was only a momentary respite, but it was enough.
Seagrave slipped smoothly down to the lower branches, then began to make his way outward. Leaping agilely from branch to swaying branch, sometimes scrambling through thick tangles that clawed his naked hide, sometimes forced to feel his way through the cluttered darkness, he moved with surprising speed and assurance. But, then, Seagrave had been born aboard a barquentine; his childhood had been spent scaling the shrouds and ratlines and prancing carelessly atop the high howling yardarms. If there was anything he knew, it was how to climb a tree.
Angry shouts reached his ears like the distant dismal baying of hounds, telling him that his flight had been noted. For a time, mounted narsemen flashed past in the black void below, their eyes shining whitely as they grimly scanned the shadowed foliage; but eventually Seagrave left even these behind. Onward and still onward he travelled, until the stillness settled luxuriously around him and all signs of pursuit had ended.
Finally he halted, panting and exhausted. For a time, he crouched motionless on a branch, his keen ears questing the nighted wilderness that reached away on either hand. Slowly the truth dawned on him.
He was lost.
Montaz's directions to the abandoned storehouse meant nothing now; he could never find his way back there.
But then a savage smile curled his lips. At least he had escaped. He had survived both Hengist and Dol Hashar and he was free. Now all that remained was to find the elusive Princess Shyrin Shas, rescue her from the hideous two-headed monster, have her return him to Earth, and reclaim his ship from his treacherous first mate.
That was all.
With a pained groan, Seagrave settled down on the heavy branch, stretching out and resting his head on his arm. The air was fragrant and cool; the night was hushed; and, before the sweat had dried on his back ... he was asleep.
Through the snarl of twisted greenery, something was watching him from a distance. For a moment, his mind, seeking to find sound footing in this strange world, identified the monster as a bat -- a bat the size of a tiger, but a bat just the same. Quickly he realized it was not a bat, but the illusion remained difficult to suppress.
The thing had four limbs, two small hind ones, and two gruesomely elongated fore ones, all sprouting from a swollen body thickly covered with matted brown fur. Each limb was tipped with a single fiercesome black talon, by which the creature clung to the overhead stone. Contrary to Seagrave's first impression, the elongated limbs were not folded wings, but were covered in the same brown fur as the body, their pointed elbows jutting hideously downward so that the creature appeared at first to be hanging upside down. And perhaps it was for all Seagrave could tell; the creature's head gave no help on that score.
Because of the long forelimbs, the body hung sloped toward the front; the furry oval head hung even lower. There were no ears or nose, but a wide, ghoulishly grinning mouth split the face precisely in the middle, two pairs of fangs the size of Seagrave's fingers gleaming from the upper and lower jaws. Two glistening frog-like eyes rose like milk-white blisters above the upper jaw and two identical eyes shone below the lower. The face was perfectly symmetrical, making it impossible to tell whether the head was watching him upside down, as the body suggested, or right side up.
Then, to add to the grotesque illusion, even as Seagrave watched, the head rotated sharply, reversing top and bottom.
Warily Seagrave stepped back against the bole of his tree. A name sprang to mind: jampan. Beyond that, he knew nothing.
Abruptly the jampan jerked one grotesque forelimb from the stone ceiling. Loose pebbles rattled on the emerald leaves as grit trickled thinly from the hole left by the claw. The forelimb thrust sharply upwards, sinking its talon into the stone just ahead of the body as if punching a hole in tin. The other forelimb followed and then the hind limbs; and slowly, like a ghastly giant spider, the jampan crawled closer...
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Savage Miraya is copyright 1998, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
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