BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Previously: The pirates searched the Sea Dog for the mysterious orange-skinned girl in the night and her two-headed monster abductor...but without result. They had vanished. Seagrave discovered a strange emerald in his cabin, clearly dropped by the girl. He hid the emerald in his shirt just as his first mate, Hengist, knocked him unconscious. The mutinous Hengist, wanting the treasure map for himself, ordered Seagrave flogged (during which the shirt was thrown into the sea) then thrown to the sharks. In a last minute bid for revenge, Seagrave hurled a dirk at his first mate...but missed. Then he was flung overboard.
Now, in the sea...
Now, in the sea...
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Seagrave plunged limp as a corpse into the waiting sea, somehow managing to keep his grip on his cutlass as he fell. He sank deep amidst a jade froth of mumbling bubbles, nearly passing out from the blinding pain as the water caressed his wounds. In seconds, the sea turned a murky crimson.
Barely conscious, Seagrave's dazed thoughts turned to the beautiful tangerine dream-girl in the night. More than the loss of his ship and crew, more than the regret he felt that his thrown dirk had missed, to die without knowing who she was tore at his very soul. Dimly he recalled what she had said to him: "T'an lac." Though it was in a language unknown to him, her wide, horror-struck eyes had told him well enough what it meant. A plea for help -- for his help.
How? he thought. I can't even help myself.
Through the grisly mist of his own blood, he saw a grey spectral shadow, a sinister ghost gliding smoothly out of the hazy twilight. Its daggered jaws parted in a vast and terrible grin.
Vainly, he sought to raise his cutlass, but his body was numb, ponderous as an anchor. Onward the shark came, closer and closer, until its tiny black eyes shone like ebony beads against the pallor of its snout, until every razor tooth gleamed in the stygian cavern of its gaping mouth --
Abruptly, a green shard of sparkling radiance drifted magically in the murk before Seagrave's eyes -- an emerald gemstone, dazzling him by its reflective brilliance. For a moment, Seagrave was so amazed he forgot even about the terrible grey death hurtling down on him. There was only a moment left, but in that moment his thoughts raced. He eyed the faceted stone, an emerald to be sure. Could it be the jewel dropped by the tangerine girl? But how had it come to be with him in the water? Then, dimly, he recalled: Hengist had thrown his shirt into the sea. The emerald had been in the pocket. But why had it not sunk like a normal gemstone should? What weird mystery was this?
Without knowing why, he reached out wonderingly, clutching the shining gem in one fist, smothering the light with his hand. Even as his eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness, he saw the shark's yawning jaws looming barely a yard away. Immense and horrible, it thundered titanically out of the gloom, filling his vision, swirling the veils of blood. He closed his eyes --
Then opened them again. He was blind -- or so he thought, at first. All was unrelieved darkness to his sight. Only slowly did he think to wonder how it was he could open his eyes at all, blind or not.
He struggled to make sense of the situation. Had he lost consciousness? He didn't think so -- and yet, he knew he was no longer under water. He lay on his side, cool stone against his skin, the cords still knotted about his wrists. That he was still sopping wet proved he could not have been dragged from the sea more than a short time ago. But who had rescued him? And why did he have no memory of the thing?
Then too what had become of the shark? There had seemed no possibility of avoiding those deadly jaws -- yet that he was here proved somehow he had.
Grimly, he sought to sit up -- only to gasp as searing white pain radiated from his flayed back. He collapsed, fighting for breath, shuddering uncontrollably. After a moment, he tried again, this time with greater care. The pain was still blinding, but he set his teeth and determinedly struggled to his knees.
To his surprise, he found he still clutched his cutlass. If he had lost consciousness, could he have held onto the weapon while being dragged from the water? In his other hand, he could feel the emerald gemstone. It felt hot in his palm, like a stone left out in the sun. Surely he couldn't have held onto both his sword and the gem while unconscious?
Nothing seemed to make sense.
Abruptly he froze -- there was a tiny circle of light suspended in the darkness, seemingly far off in the distance. Not blind, then -- just in a dark place. He had not noticed the light before because it was so small and faint, and his eyes had only gradually adapted to the darkness. Now he could see it was some sort of opening -- but how large that opening might be, he couldn't guess without knowing how far away it was.
There was only one way to find out.
Stiffly he struggled to his feet, groaning at the scalding pain racing between his shoulders. Damn that Hengist. With such wounds, he knew his survival was only temporary. No man could endure such a beating and hope to live for long afterward. Soon shock would set in, the wounds would turn corrupted... Still, there was no point in waiting here to die.
He might as well find out where he was.
Tearing the cords from his wrists, he tossed them aside, then began walking with a staggering, drunken gait. He worked his way grimly toward the light, each heavy step jarring loose a black string of curses. The circle of light grew steadily larger until he was certain it was an entrance of some kind. Feeling the walls as he went, he found he was following a brick-lined tunnel. The air was warm but dry, and laden with the luxurious scents of flowers and earth. On land then. But where? How?
Momentarily, he paused and glanced back behind him, thinking he had heard the patter of rapid footfalls echoing in the nighted distance. But, if so, the sound had stopped now. He frowned, adjusting his grip on his cutlass, licking his cracked lips -- then continued on.
Finally he reached the circle of light. As he had thought, it was a narrow circular entrance beyond which warm sunlight breathed in a soothing haze. Raising a hand against the glare, he checked his course abruptly on the verge of the opening.
He gaped, a startled imprecation spitting from his lips.
Outside the opening, a slim wooden ropebridge stretched away across a staggeringly wide gulf of space. Across the chasm, Seagrave could see the distant end of the bridge connected to a wide balcony in front of some sort of square wood cabin.
But none of this was what had so astonished him. What caused the pirate to curse in disbelief was what lay above and below the ropebridge. Peering down from the entrance, Seagrave could see rolling blue waves far, far below, perhaps a thousand feet or more -- not a river, but a vast body of water. More incredible still, above the bridge, instead of blue sky, there loomed a gargantuan roof of rough natural stone. Indeed, the cabin supporting the other end of the bridge hung down from that titanic roof by a wooden framework in which verdant vines twisted and flowered lushly. Beneath the cabin there was only empty air and a long, dizzy drop to the rolling waters.
With astonished eyes, Seagrave stepped cautiously out onto the bridge, grabbing hold of one of the sideropes for support. On either hand, the view was cloaked by a rich tangled wall of emerald forest -- but a forest out of madness and delirium. The lush trees hung upside down, their twisting roots apparently firmly anchored in the stone ceiling overhead. So bizarre was the sight of this inverted woodland that Seagrave might have thought he was upside down without knowing it were it not for the way the heavily laden branches bowed downward under the weight of their rustling leaves.
Feeling very much as if he were wandering in a dream, Seagrave worked his way out to the middle of the bridge. Pausing here, he turned carefully, the bridge swaying unsteadily under his bare feet, and looked back at the entrance to the tunnel. Somehow he was not surprised to find that the entrance was set in a lip of stone that hung down from the ceiling. Beneath there was nothing but the sparkling swells far below.
How was such a thing possible?
He told himself he was beneath some sort of natural bridge, a vast sheet of stone connecting -- what? How could any bridge be so expansive? Or so high? How could it support its own weight over such a great distance?
A whirlwind of questions jostled in his already disoriented mind. He struggled to make sense of his surroundings, but so much had happened to him already, it was difficult to think. Perhaps the flogging had damaged his mind; perhaps this was all a hallucination. He had lost so much blood -- then too, he had been struck on the head no less than twice in the past twenty four hours.
Moving mechanically, Seagrave crossed the ropebridge to its opposite end, dragging himself forward by the sideropes. His passage was hampered by both the cutlass and the gemstone in either hand, but, having somehow managed to keep hold of them this far, he had no intention of losing either now. With relief, he stepped off the bridge onto the wooden balcony.
He studied the hanging house through squinted eyes. There was neither door nor window on the wall facing him, but the balcony continued around either side of the cabin. No doubt there was a door on the other side. First, though, he steadied himself against the balcony's rail, waiting for a wave of nausea to pass. He couldn't afford to pass out -- not until he got inside. A fall from this height would shatter his bones to a paste when he struck the distant water.
He wasn't sure what it was that caused him to glance back at the entranceway. He had not detected any sound, as far as he knew. Perhaps, in leaning against the rail, he felt the vibrations of movement transmitted through the ropes of the ropebridge. Whatever the reason, when he turned, he was immediately galvanized by the sight which met his eyes.
Approaching him along the swaying length of bridge was a man -- and one glance confirmed that his vision in the night had been no hallucination, after all. Like the beautiful tangerine girl, this man too had strange fur-like hair, cut close to the head with a projection down the bridge of his nose. He was clothed only in a short skirt, and his entire body was dyed a dark shade of blue. The man had obviously been running for some time and was nearly at the end of his rope; his compactly muscled body shone with a mantle of sweat and his chest heaved as he gulped desperate breaths. With every gasp, a spectacular ruby flashed in the centre of his chest.
Halfway across the bridge, the blue man noticed Seagrave for the first time. His eyes dilated, and he staggered uncertainly to a halt. Momentarily he seemed to contemplate turning around and retreating back the way he had come -- until events decided him otherwise.
Through the entrance behind, four men poured out onto the bridge in a tight line, obviously in pursuit.
Seagrave saw at a glance that, whatever they were, they were not men. Their bodies were human enough, and well-muscled at that. But their heads were weird nightmarish visages which, at first, reminded him of mountain goats. They had black fur around the sides of their faces, and goatees on their remarkably square chins. Their bottom jaws were thrust out farther than their upper jaws and lined with a palisade of sharp uneven and yellow teeth -- like bulldogs. In spite of their impressive physiques, their faces seemed gaunt with high cheek bones and narrow snouts; their noses were small slanted nostrils like monkeys; their eyes were tiny, beady chips of black glass deeply sunk beneath beetled brows.
But their strangest feature was what Seagrave had at first taken for heavy mountain goat-like horns curling around the sides of their heads. He saw now that a slitted membrane, like gills, stretched across the curve of these weird growths, and that the tips of the "horns" -- rather than ending in points -- connected with their heads just behind their bottom jaws.
Another man might have shaken his head and given up at that point, convinced he was caught deep in the grip of insanity. But Seagrave was a pirate and, time and time again, his survival had depended upon instinctive response rather than careful reasoning. When faced with a sword wielding antagonist, he had long ago learned to close off all those parts of his mind not concerned with the immediate task of survival. So now, rather than asking how such creatures could exist in a sane world, his mind focused narrowly on the problem at hand, pushing aside all other concerns for a later time. He didn't see the furry outthrust jaws or the curling gilled crests.
Instead his eyes saw only the weapons they carried and the armour they wore.
Three of the creatures were dressed the same -- knee-length skirts around their hips, and tightly strapped boots with jangling spurs on their heels. Their shoulders and upper arms were protected by chains of broad wooden plates, strapped to their biceps. A similar string of wooden plates hung from wide leather girdles down the front of their legs. A circle of wooden petal-like segments formed a heavy protective gorget, tied at either side to the shoulderguards and reaching almost to the sapphire jewel that sparkled incongruously in the tangled hair of each broad chest.
The fourth creature, in the lead, was similarly dressed except his gorget and guard plates were sheathed in dazzling gold and a rich scarlet cloak spilled down his back.
All four creatures wore gloves, and, clutched in those gloves, they carried terrifyingly vicious looking leisters. These were essentially spears, but with clear glass points bound to the haft with cord. The tip was then bracketed by two pliable wooden extensions or prongs, each tipped with smaller glass points directed back toward the shaft. Seagrave had visited islands where such leisters were used to spear fish, the pliable arms spreading to accommodate the thrashing body, where the backward directed points then kept the slippery prey from sliding off the spear. It was a nasty but effective weapon -- and Seagrave didn't relish the prospect of discovering firsthand what one might do to a man.
Like their blue-skinned quarry, the four creatures staggered to a halt as they caught sight of Seagrave. Their prey, meanwhile, apparently deciding he preferred the devil he didn't know to the devil he did, resumed his frantic flight across the bridge.
Seagrave had no real reason to involve himself in this thing; but he saw four armed and armoured monsters chasing one weaponless and armourless man, and, though weak from blood loss, he decided on the instant to do what he could to help the poor wretch.
As the blue man drew closer, Seagrave threw out his hand. The man caught it in a welcome clasp, and Seagrave hauled the fugitive onto the balcony, grinding his teeth against the hot agony of his back. The man sprawled on the boards, gasping and coughing, while Seagrave wheeled back to face the pursuers, who had resumed their race along the bridge.
They had already passed the halfway point; in seconds they would gain the balcony. Seagrave had no illusions over his chances against the four of them in his weakened condition. Desperately, he sought a plan of action; then his eyes alighted on the creaking sideropes of the bridge where they connected to the railing. His response was instantaneous. His cutlass flashed once, twice, three times. On the fourth blow, the right rope parted.
With one voice, the four creatures shouted in surprise as the siderope limply fell away from under their hands and the entire bridge twisted wildly under their boots. With arms spinning, they pitched from the span and plunged from sight.
Even that effort had left Seagrave exhausted, and he stroked the sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand, then turned to see to his blue friend. But even as he turned, his brows arched in surprise. The man had already stumbled to his feet, and, now, as Seagrave watched in disbelief, the fugitive staggered across the balcony and purposely hurled himself over the rail.
Seagrave swore luridly. Had the man been insane? If he had chosen to kill himself rather than be taken prisoner -- or be torn to pieces by the leisters -- that Seagrave could have understood. But, thanks to Seagrave, the danger was past. Why choose death now?
Abruptly, the pirate stiffened. An odd sound reached his ears. It was a soft sustained whirring, like someone stroking their thumb along the pages of a book. The whirring grew quickly louder -- and Seagrave wheeled, his blood chilling.
On either side of the twisted ropebridge, the four creatures rose slowly up from below. Behind their backs, brown wings like the wings of giant moths fanned the air, moving so rapidly their outlines were shimmering dusky blurs. Seagrave tried to swallow but found his mouth as dry as sawdust...