Savage Miraya


A NOVEL OF ADVENTURE

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA


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EPISODE 18: The Catacombs and the Jakdaks


Rounding a sharp jut in the tunnel, the five men happened suddenly upon their first evidence of battle in the catacombs.

Seagrave grimly surveyed the black seared scars that marked the rough but gleaming stone walls. His features hardened, his knuckles pale as he drew the cutlass from the crudely fashioned scabbard fastened to his belt. His eyes bored into the menacing darkness ahead, beyond the restless play of the globe lantern swinging from Fanas Fel's meaty fist.

"Flash worms?" Seagrave questioned, indicating the burn marks with a loose gesture.

Pallin Pol nodded quickly, his entire attitude tense with fearful apprehension.

"The shots were fired almost randomly," Bishras Bid observed, a cruel smile touching his young lips. "They were panicking -- firing without knowing where to aim. And look at this." He pointed to a jet black smear that glistened like liquid obsidian on the floor. "Trayken blood," he grinned.

There were no bodies, only the flash worm burns and the blood. A skirmish had taken place here, then moved on -- but where? Up ahead?

Seagrave soberly noted the tracks left in the dust by the passage of the heavy worm cannon. He didn't relish the thought of finding himself the target of those weirdly dazzling spirals -- in these close passageways he wouldn't stand a chance. Then too, there were the jakdaks to worry about. The memories bequeathed to him by poor Montaz did not seem to include these jakdaks. Apparently the young slave girl had never had occasion to venture into the catacombs during her too brief life.

Cautiously the party continued on. From time to time, Seagrave observed oddly formed lettering carved into the shining walls. When he questioned the others, they could tell him only that the words had been left by the race of people who had lived beneath Eukara before the Kamir arrived. These same mysterious people had constructed the brick-lined tunnels and carved out the larger chambers like the throne room. The vine-cloaked ruins where the rebels had conspired was their work, as well. No one knew who they were, where they had come from, or where they had vanished to. The gold-veined blue marble used in many of the chambers wasn't even mined on Eukara. It was a puzzle.

Abruptly, the tunnel opened out into a larger chamber. Seagrave stumbled to a halt, his eyes growing wide with amazement -- then wider still with awe.

The walls were thickly crusted with smoldering gem stones that flashed and blazed with their own inner fires. It was as if the pirate suddenly found himself cast deep into a vast treasure chest heaped with burning rubies, vibrant emeralds, cool sapphires, boreal diamonds and a spilling dazzling flow of other nameless priceless gems. Without the lantern, Seagrave knew the five men would find themselves limned by a dreamlike rainbow of dappled lights and shades; as it was, the effect was weird and mesmerizing and it left him momentarily speechless at its indescribable beauty.

Then his gaze fastened on the strange flossy pods ranged around the edges of the chamber. The pods were each the size of a man, with a frosty pink and ivory colouring subtlely lit from within. For a moment, Seagrave regarded the pods with a puzzled knit to his brow; then, suddenly, he understood.

"These are the chrysalises I was told about," he guessed, stepping forward to study the nearest pod more closely. "This is where you Kamir come from, where you 'emerge'?"

Pallin Pol nodded distractedly, his mind obviously on other things. "This is the chrysalis chamber," he acknowledged. "Thankfully there seems to be no damage. I was afraid the Trayken might have continued their fight in here."

"I'm surprised they didn't," Bishras Bid commented bitterly. "They must have been terrified of the jakdaks to miss such an opportunity for destruction."

Fanas Fel ran his thick fingers amongst a fiery cluster of gems on one wall, then glanced at the others and shook his head ruefully. To Seagrave's questioning look, he explained: "This was where we had hidden the Lin tal-stone. I thought just maybe Jakar Jet might have left it here -- but it's gone."

"Your companion wasn't a stupid man," Seagrave muttered. "He wouldn't have left it in the same place for you to find. But, then, neither would he have carried it with him, not if he wanted to bargain with Dol Hashar. He would have hidden the stone somewhere where he could get at it easily after he had made his deal. At least, that's what I'd do."

Bishras Bid ground his teeth in disgust. "To think we entrusted the princess to that monster. How could we have been so blind?"

"Worse," said Pallin Pol bleakly, "we've allowed him to get hold of the Lin tal-stone. No doubt he has already given the stone to the Trayken. Our desire to find allies on the first moon has instead opened the way to that world's own conquest. We've failed both our princess and the Naxas."

"There's no use beating yourself up over it," Seagrave admonished. "You made a mistake. Now you have to do what you can to correct it. Come on -- let's keep moving."

They left the chrysalis chamber and, for a time, they followed the nighted tunnels sunk in sober reflective silence. Twice they crossed short wooden bridges over flashing streams of rumbling water that surged out of the darkness of a side tunnel and swept away into stygian night down another. Seagrave grew cold imagining what would happen to a man who chanced to fall into that ivory torrent; no doubt the water emptied out through the bottom of the island, forming a waterfall like the one Seagrave had bathed in earlier.

Suddenly the lantern's topaz glow washed over a grotesque clutter of bodies littering their path. The five men halted in a ragged line, studying the grisly carnage with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there was a certain satisfaction to be derived from the sight of so many dead Rayvers; on the other hand, the lifeless bodies might very well serve to foreshadow their own none-too-distant demise. Worse, the gleaming gold-worked worm cannon sat squarely amidst the strewn bodies. It was doubtful the Rayvers would have abandoned their polished weapon -- which suggested a sobering alternative.

No Trayken had escaped alive from this battle.

Seagrave bent and turned over the nearest body. Black blood swilled from the gaping mouth; the tiny eyes glistened like jet beads. Seagrave's brows contracted as he noted a splash of blood on the Trayken's hairy chest. The blood drained from a small perforation no wider than Seagrave's thumb.

"Damned if this doesn't look like a musket wound," Seagrave muttered amazedly. Quickly he surveyed several other bodies; all bore the same strange holes, some having more than one. The pirate glanced at his companions. "These men have been shot, I'd swear to it. Are you sure they were killed by these jakdaks?"

The four Kamirs were obviously shaken by the grisly scene, sweat starting from their brows; and Pallin Pol merely nodded quickly, his white eyes jerking over the surrounding walls as if searching for something.

"Come on," urged Fanas Fel, running his hand over the gold barrel of the worm cannon. "It isn't safe to stay here. This cannon is still warm; it wasn't fired that long ago."

Without awaiting a reply, the brawny man began to move off, taking the lantern with him. Zhanak Zen, Pallin Pol and Bishras Bid hurried to catch up, but Seagrave paused a moment. He could still see by the glow of a lantern dropped by one of the dead Rayvers. It threw its hard rays across the rough walls, raising the broken stone into stark relief.

For the first time, Seagrave noticed crude holes blasted into the living rock of the walls and arched ceiling, openings too small even to accommodate his head. He peered up into the darkness of one hole, but could see nothing. He scowled and glanced down at the scattered corpses...

Then his eyes flashed up again, galvanized by the dry rustle of trickling grit.

He was facing back the way they had come. On the extreme edge of the light, four round eyes, each the size of a Spanish doubloon, shone against the clustered shadows, watching him intently. The eyes were set in two small furry faces with damp black noses and tiny mouths, which seemed to gape in comical surprise. The two heads belonged to a single creature no larger than a cat which hung upside down, peering at the pirate from one of the ceiling holes. The creature's four large bat-like ears twitched nervously, and the thing made a gentle quizzical cooing like a dove.

Seagrave regarded the creature without moving. Could this be a jakdak? It didn't seem possible. The small animal was obviously more afraid of him than he was of it. Slowly he raised his hand, trying not to startle it. In a flash, the creature jerked back up into the safety of its burrow, showering swirling dust from the hole. Seagrave dropped his hand and smiled wryly.

Instantly the two heads reemerged, ears twitching anxiously, huge eyes reflecting the light like amber moons. A delicate hand with two fingers and a thumb stole into view, touching one small mouth as if in wonderment.

In spite of himself, Seagrave chuckled softly at the sight. The deep- throated sound seemed to momentarily startle the creature, but this time it found the courage to remain. It cooed softly.

Another hand appeared, this one clutching a Y-shaped stick. It held the stick in both hands, still watching Seagrave with its unblinking eyes. Seagrave's brows contracted. The creature placed the two branching ends of the stick in the small mouths of either head. It levelled the stick...

"Get down!" Pallin Pol's cry came simultaneously with his hurled impact against Seagrave's back. Even as Seagrave tumbled heavily beneath the blue man, he heard a muted pop -- and then a sharp explosion. Flecks of stone rained on his shoulder. Before he could recover, Pallin Pol dragged at his arm, shouting: "Hurry! We have to get out of here!"

Staggering to his feet, Seagrave heard a second pop, and this time he felt something tug at his breeches as it passed. Behind him, more stone exploded from the wall. Only slowly did he feel the pain in his thigh. A glance showed him a small hole in his breeches, the black fabric darkening with blood. There were two small holes in the stone wall behind him, just like the holes on the bodies of the dead Trayken.

Seagrave cursed in stunned amazement. The creature used some sort of blowgun! But it had the lungs of an elephant! Had Pallin Pol been any slower, the pirate would have died without even knowing what had hit him. Instead, the stone had merely fleshed his leg, coming out the other side. But their situation was still desperate.

Even as Seagrave turned to flee, the two heads of a second jakdak emerged from another burrow in the gleaming ceiling. And then a third appeared, poking sideways from a hole in the wall. All three brandished Y-shaped blowguns which they proceeded to employ with devastating effect.

A staccato popping filled the air. There was no time to run as the speeding stones whistled venomously all around the two men, peppering the rough walls like hail. Seagrave threw up his hands before his face as flying grit blinded his eyes. Pallin Pol screamed as orange blood blossomed from a wound in his shoulder. Seagrave clutched at his reeling companion, seeking to drag him to safety.

Through the spraying dust and shrapnel, Seagrave spotted a shallow niche in the tunnel wall just ahead. Staggering with the fire in his thigh, Seagrave hurled himself toward the niche, hauling Pallin Pol by the arm. Stones hissed so near he felt the cool wind of their passage. The popping was like the continuous crackle of thawing ice. With a desperate shout, Seagrave tumbled into the slight shelter offered by the niche, pulling his companion with him.

For a moment, the two men pressed back against the wall, panting and blinking against the stinging grit in their eyes. The niche was not deep, but it served to take them out of the direct line of the jakdaks' fire. A risky glance showed Seagrave at least a dozen jakdaks now peered from their many burrows. The stones from their blowguns spattered like grapeshot around the edges of the slight shelter, stray rock fragments stinging the fugitives like buzzing hornets.

Though they were protected for the moment, Seagrave could see other burrows which would afford an easy shot at the two men. It was only a matter of time until the jakdaks thought to use these. Somehow he had to escape -- but how?

The pirate cursed as a stone scorched a scarlet trace across his chest. Coarse grit flew from the wall beside his shoulder. The jakdaks were getting closer with their aim.

Suddenly, Seagrave's eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. He smelled the faint scent of vegetation. How could anything grow in these deep nighted catacombs? Unless...

He glanced at the wall beside his shoulder. Where the stone had so narrowly missed him, there showed a small round hole in the seemingly solid rock. Leaning nearer the hole, he found the green smell wafted thinly through the tiny aperture. Instantly, he struck at the wall with the hilt of his cutlass; but the surface infuriatingly resisted his ringing blows.

He snarled in disgust. A passage to the surface lay just on the other side of that rock barrier. And yet, he would need a battering ram to break through to it.

A battering ram?

A sudden desperate plan grew in his whirling thoughts. Pallin Pol stood on his other side, better sheltered by the edge of the niche. Seagrave glanced at the blue man, who was clutching a wounded shoulder. "That worm cannon," Seagrave shouted; "how does it work?"

Pallin Pol frowned bewilderedly. "What good will that do you?" he asked. "Even if you could reach the worm cannon, the jakdaks are too many and too small to hit with flash worms."

"I don't intend to shoot the damned jakdaks," Seagrave gritted. Swiftly, he thrust his cutlass into his crude scabbard. "Just tell me how to work the thing."

"There's a trigger on the handle," Pallin Pol explained, sceptically. "It causes the upper panels to close over the worm gem inside. While those panels are shut, the gun fires automatically every few seconds as the flash worms form. But --"

"Be ready to jump out of the way," Seagrave shouted, tensing to spring. "I'm going to blast a hole through this wall."

Before Pallin Pol could object, Seagrave hurled himself from the niche, rolling as he hit the ground. His sudden rush took the jakdaks by surprise, and he had time to pounce to his feet, wincing at the flaring in his thigh. Then a flurry of whistling projectiles filled the air around him, smashing stinging spray from the walls and floor. A forward rush, a second lunge and roll, and his fingers clutched the gleaming gold of the worm cannon. Desperately he grabbed the two upright handles, squeezing the trigger even as he heaved the weapon around aiming the smooth barrel on the niche.

He felt flying stone crease his shoulder. Another whipped past his ear. He bounded past the worm cannon; once aimed, there was no need for him to remain with it. He saw Pallin Pol throw himself to the floor, covering his head with his arms. A sharp concussion, deafening in the close tunnel, smote the air like giant hands clapping. A dazzling blue flash blistered Seagrave's vision and the niche exploded into a welter of swirling dust and arcing debris.

The force of the explosion hurled Seagrave from his feet and back against the wall. He lurched up, and stumbled forward into the spilling cloud of grit and dust. Pallin Pol had already staggered to his feet, tottering dazedly, his senses scrambled by the sound of the explosion. Seagrave hauled the blue man through the blasted aperture just as a hail of missiles rattled at their backs like a last reluctant salute.

The two men scrambled up a steep crumbling slope within a black constricted tunnel. Then, suddenly, they clambered up into warm, beating sunlight that dazzled their eyes and breathed on their streaming hides. Together they collapsed exhausted onto the soft jade grass on the edge of the tunnel's entrance.

For some moments, Seagrave lay gulping fragrant air, his nose buried in the rich soil, his eyes closed. His thigh throbbed with excruciating agony, burning as if a red coal smoldered in the wound. Almost unconsciously, he felt the warm sunlight flicker as something passed before it casting a momentary shadow. He raised his head and squinted into the low sun -- then heaved to his feet with a startled curse.

A group of fenoks surrounded the two men in a tight menacing ring...



Next episode...The Pit of Doom


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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 excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)