Savage Miraya


A NOVEL OF ADVENTURE

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA


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EPISODE 32: MONSTERS FROM THE MAELSTROM


The only light strayed up the chute from below, dim and wavering in the narrow confines.  The air was mildly fetid from tossed refuse, and the passage of wind across the bottom created a low, sustained droning.

If the chute had been narrower, Seagrave could more easily have braced himself.    As it was, his breeks-clad legs shuddered as they pressed against the opposite side of the chute, his chest and abdomen gleamed with ridges as hard as marble and, what breath he could find, was taken in tight, stolen hisses.

Abruptly, Shyrin Shas stirred weakly, her lashes fluttering as she licked her parched lips.  She was curled on her side, her smooth hip against his groin, her all-but-naked body molded to the curve of his front.  Her fingers constricted on his chest and she raised her head, eyes blinking, misty with suffering.  Seeing him, she frowned, puzzled.

"Moryan?  What are you doing here?  I thought you had returned to your Earth moon.  I gave you the tal-stone, didn't I?"

For the moment, she seemed to have forgotten she hated him.  He was glad.  He wasn't sure he could survive two women's enmity just now.

"Things didn't work out," he gasped, the words made clipped by his exertions.

Shyrin Shas's frown deepened as she noticed the tension in his voice.  Her eyes slowly drifted downward, curiously surveying the muscular form beneath her -- then flaring as she saw the glimmer of water far below.  She gasped in sudden horror, her body fearfully tensing to match his own.

"Moryan!"

"I know, girl, I know."  Seagrave pulled her closer, afraid she might knock them both loose in her panic.  "Just hold on to me -- I've got you."

His instructions were superfluous.  She already clutched his shoulders with what strength remained in her thirst-tormented form.  Her lips pressed against his collarbone, softly caressing as she spoke.

"But, Moryan, I'm too heavy.  You can't hold me up forever."

"You're not so heavy."  Which was true enough.  But, under the circumstances, even her small body pressed down like a lead weight.  Sensing the lie in his words, she raised her head, and, for the first time, noticed the blood on the wall.

"Your back," she whispered faintly.  "What have they done to you?"  Then, with slitted eyes: "What has she done to you?"

But there was no time to respond.  Seagrave felt his purchase slipping again.

"Hold on tight!" he gasped.

The princess threw her arms around his neck a split second before he began to slide.  Desperately he released her, using his arms to help stop his jerking skid down the chute.  Somehow, miraculously, he managed to catch himself again.

Now they were halfway down the chute and the sunlight was brighter, softly bathing the princess's orange flesh from below.

"I am too heavy!" she sobbed, anguished.  Then, determinedly: "I will jump."

"Damn it, girl -- that wouldn't make any difference!"

Just the same, he found momentary pleasure in her courageous offer; she couldn't hate him that much if she was willing to die for him -- could she?

Thinking to distract her, he said, "Do me a favour.  Fix this damn scarf on my head.  It's falling over my eyes."  As she complied, he continued:"Think, now.  There must be someway out of this."  His eyes cast up the narrow chute, then glanced down toward the eager opening and the waiting sea.  "I wish to God those pretty wings of yours were functional!"

"I'm sorry, Moryan," she cried, sharply stung.  "I am --"

"You're a female and female Kamir don't fly.  I know that.  But Jyleesha can fly, so why the hell can't you?"

"She is a Trayken.  Of course she can fly."  Sudden bitterness edged her voice.  "You prefer a woman who can fly to one who can't?  Perhaps you wish she was down here with you instead of me."

"Under the circumstances, yes!"  Then, seeing her expression, he said quickly: "Oh, don't be so sensitive, girl.  Damn it, you know I don't mean it.  God knows, I haven't been able to catch my breath since I appeared on this insane world of yours.  I'd say I'm handling this whole thing pretty well, wouldn't y --"  Abruptly his eyes dilated.  "Wait a minute."

"What is it?"

"On the wall behind me, below -- can you see it?"  Blindly, his fingers groped at the slick wall beneath.  Shyrin Shas glanced down past him.  She nodded.

"It is a triangular hatch," she said, "for tossing waste into the chute from below decks.  But the hatch is closed and locked from the other side."

"Hold on again."  Shyrin Shas caught his shoulders as Seagrave gingerly lowered himself down until he could better feel the hatch.  "Damn," he hissed.  "It's made of metal."

His fingers skittered urgently around the cool edges, stopping as they touched the stiff windings of fibre which served as hinges on the top edge.  Hope flared in his pounding chest.  With his cutlass he could have cut those hinges away in seconds.  He needed a sharp edge -- and quick.

"Girl," he gasped, fighting to control the quaking in his legs, "we need something with a...a..."  Then he remembered the Kamir had no concept of sharp edges.

Shyrin Shas waited for him to finish, her emerald eyes intense.

"Yes, Moryan -- a what?"

"Damn."  He didn't need a knife, just something with an edge -- anything.  How was he to explain the problem to the princess?  "Look around, girl.  You saw that long piece of metal I had before.  You saw what it did to the fenfyr's arm?"

She nodded vigorously.  "You broke off his arm."

Seagrave groaned in frustration.  "All right, then -- I broke his arm.  Now I need something to break the windings on this hatch.  I need something thin on one side, the way my strip of metal was thin -- really thin.  So thin you can make yourself bleed with it.  Do you understand?"

She stared at him blankly.  "How can something thin make you bleed?" she asked, struggling to comprehend.

It was hopeless.  Even if he were able to make her understand, what could she possibly find in this chute that might by used as a cutting tool?  Still, Seagrave swept the sheer, stained walls one more time, then peered down past his shoulder.

He cursed under his breath.  Could it be?

Even if that was what it looked like, how was he to reach it?  There was no choice; he would have to climb down to the bottom of the chute, then back up again, all with the tangerine princess riding sidesaddle on top.

Still, delay could only make matters worse.  At Seagrave's gritted command, Shyrin Shas molded her body tight to his, her iridescent wings almost poking out his eyes.  Clenching his teeth, he sucked a quick breath, then began working his way down the chute.  His arms reached down and back, his spread fingers finding desperate purchase.  Finally, his hands touched the opening below and he halted.

Wind tugged at the legs of his breeches and soothingly caressed the small of his back.  Urgently, he groped around the aperture, his eyes squeezed closed, concentrating.  His fingers fumbled over something hard jutting from the wood.

With a short jerk, he pulled it free and brought it to his eyes, grinning exultantly.  It was a small fragment of meshmel stone, probably lodged in the wood during their recent passage through the meshmel cloud.  The shard was vitreous, like obsidian -- and a hurried examination turned up a keen edge on one corner where it had stuck in the wood.

Now came the hard part.  With his strength almost spent, Seagrave grimly began to work his way back up the chute.  Sweat trickled down his heaving chest and shivered on his straining features.  Shryin Shas repeatedly scrambled to keep from slipping from his damp rocking thews.  Aware that her weight added immeasurably to his torment, she whimpered again and again, aching for him.

Somehow he made it.  He halted beneath the hatch, his head pressed back against the cool, triangular surface, sucking desperate gulps.  With one arm still extended below, he raised the other, and began sawing at one of the four fibrous hinges.  The windings parted easily under the glassy edge.  In a short time the first hinge was severed, and Seagrave started on the next of three.

Shyrin Shas watched his exertions with wide, amazed eyes.  To her, this seemed little short of magic.  She perched on one smooth hip, arms braced with knuckles against his chest.

"How can you do that?"  Her voice was hushed with awe.  "How can you break those..."

Intent on his task, it was a moment before Seagrave noticed she had not finished her sentence.  He looked at her.

Then his features darkened.

The princess was motionless, her emerald eyes staring sightlessly, her lips parted in the middle of speech.  She was like a figure fashioned of wax.

"Girl?"  His voice provoked no response.  She might have been a statue...or a corpse.

His eyes dropped sharply, his heart pausing.  The up-welling light caught the liquid curve of her flank, shadows trickling in the spaces between her shallowly-breathing ribs.  She wasn't dead.  But, then...what?

Abruptly, a warm, scarlet glow began to burn in the ruby on her chest.  It built quickly, soon casting a smoldering effulgence on the underside of her chin and the inner ridges of her arms.  The surrounding darkness intensified the effect until it seemed a red-white star had settled in the smooth valley between her breasts, hot and dazzling -- too bright to look at for long.

Before Seagrave could wonder at this strange display, he noticed a subtle change in the lighting from below.  All at once, the illumination dimmed, as if a cloud passed over the sun.  Where the light frosted the princess's still flesh, a gentle emerald radiance appeared, contrasting strongly with the light of her heart-gem and the dull orange of her shadowed shoulders.

Seagrave took a moment to glance down.  He could no longer see the sparkling waters below -- a strange white mist scudded beneath the ship's keel, frosted with hints of pale green.  Abruptly, a dazzling emerald flash flared in the aperture.  On its heels, a crack of thunder sounded, resonating deafeningly in the narrow chute.

Then another flash, and more thunder.

Instantly, Seagrave recalled the earlier storm, when he had been tied to the ring in the floor of his cell by his Trayken captors.  There had been this same weird emerald lightning, and a howling gale which had almost torn his hanging prison to pieces.

And then there had been something else...

During that earlier storm, while he sat trussed and helpless, something had landed on his balcony, something glimpsed in silhouette against a snatch of lightning.  Something which had chilled him to the core...

Swallowing stiffly, Seagrave returned to the task at hand.

At last, he cut through the final hinge.  Lifting his head, the triangular hatch slid sideways until one corner thudded dully against the side wall.  The bottom point was locked closed by a metal bar; Seagrave lifted the whole thing out and let the hatch clattered down and out the bottom of the chute.  The meshmel fragment followed.

He moved carefully now, aware every small movement awakened dangerous quaking in his muscles.  This was going to be difficult.  His hands closed firmly under the taut globes of the girl's bottom.  He would only have one shot at this; if he failed to heave her through the hatchway, they would both plunge to their deaths.

Setting his jaw, he counted to three -- then lifted her with one smooth jerk, levering her over his head and through the triangular hole.  Her weight yanked her as she tumbled into the chamber beyond, lithe legs and trim ankles flying past his head.

But the effort upset Seagrave's balance.  He cursed as his feet skidded, dropping from the wall.  He twisted frantically, barely catching hold of the hatchway, his body slapping full against the wall below.  For a moment, he hung, waiting to catch his breath, too well aware how close he had come to falling.  With a groan, he dragged himself up the slick chute, and tumbled through the hatchway.

He landed beside Shyrin Shas, who lay as she had fallen, on her front.  The ruby still glowed beneath her, casting a fan of light from her cleavage.  Breathing hard, Seagrave felt his muscles spasm and knot, his whole body prickling with the sudden release of tension.

Seagrave raised his eyes -- then stiffened.  He was in a small room cluttered with wooden crates and heaped sacks.  A single hanging globe-lantern threw rotating beams through air murky with dust.

A Trayken sailor stood beside the closed door, his tiny black eyes fixed intently on the pirate, a leister in his hands.

For just a moment, Seagrave felt his pulse quicken, his twisting muscles tensing combatively, even though he knew he could barely stand, let alone fight.  But then his gaze fastened on the brilliantly glowing blue heart-gem nestled in the tangled hair of the sailor's chest.  The Trayken was motionless, just like Shyrin Shas -- as if frozen abruptly in the act of coming to investigate the noise Seagrave had made cutting the hinges.

What was going on here?  Something to do with the emerald storm?

Totteringly, Seagrave reached his feet, placing a steadying hand against the wall.  The spasms gradually eased in his calves, his sides unknotting.  The wounds on his back were knitting fast, but the pain remained, a constant reminder of what he might expect from Jyleesha were he recaptured.

His eyes on the sailor, he crossed the room and stealthily slid the door.  Beyond lay the stables, the humming of narse wings a low droning.  In the gloom, the scarlet gems set at the base of their serpentine necks winked like scattered torches through the slats of the pens.  Apart from their shivering wings, the narses were perfectly still, their whip-like tails and long necks frozen as if time had stopped -- yet somehow they continued to hover.

Inwardly Seagrave cursed his ill luck.  He had no doubt now that the entire crew was somehow paralyzed, and yet he couldn't take advantage of the situation without a narse to escape the ship.  His mind awhirl, he considered his options.  If the storm was the cause of this, he might only have a few more minutes before the crew recovered.  If he hurried, he might be able to regain his cutlass -- and the Earth tal-stone.

With the tal-stone, he could escape with the princess.  And whatever her feelings on the subject, escape to Earth was surely better than a return to the chute.

He could make better time without the added burden of carrying the unconscious girl, but he couldn't risk their getting separated.  Hurriedly, he scooped her into his arms and padded out into the stables.  Her body was strangely tense, even as she lolled insensate against his chest.  Her staring eyes bothered him most of all.

He hauled her up the ladder to the small store room above the stables, then slipped cautiously out onto the open deck.

The ship was passing through a storm, all right.  Wildly tumbling clouds spilled in whirling gusts past the curve of the great gasbag and trailed like drawn cotton over the wing-like masts on either side of the ship.  Stuttering bursts of emerald lightning leaped and played, sometimes spreading luridly across the sky like spilled ink.

Trayken sailors were posed about the storm-lit deck, Lan'lans hung high on the ratlines, but not a single figure moved.  Every one of them had frozen suddenly, caught in the midst of whatever they had been doing when the ship entered the storm.

And yet, Seagrave could still move...

Suddenly the pirate had a thought.  This explained why his Trayken captors had tied him down just before that earlier similar storm had hit Jinja Khyam; they knew he would be able to escape while they were paralyzed.  But how could they know?  When Seagrave had asked Montaz about the green lightning, she had reacted as if she had missed the whole thing -- as she obviously had.  But, if everyone -- Kamir, Trayken, even narses -- were rendered insensate by the storm, how had his captors known that he would not be affected?

But this was no time to ponder the mystery.  He had to find the cutlass and the tal-stone.

Quickly, he shouldered drunkenly across the windy deck, barely able to keep his footing against the howling, buffeting maelstrom.  He had just reached the opposite turret when suddenly he sensed movement out of the corner of his eye.

He wheeled -- then swore in amazement.

Out of the flashing, tumultuous clouds something swept on wide, membranous wings, something so black it was like a yawning tear in the roiling sky.  The creature soared in a smooth, cresting arc, completely at ease in the storm's swirling currents, its wings adjusting with amazing speed and precision to each sudden shift of air.

For just a moment, the dark thing circled placidly overhead, spinning in slow, graceful curves, like a leaf dropping from a tree.  Then, all at once, its bat-like wings snapped tight and it plummeted straight down, landing full atop the shoulders of a Trayken standing motionless near the starboard capstan.  Though nearly the size of a man, the creature could hardly have weighed much; the sailor remained upright, unaffected by the huge thing perched grotesquely on his back.

Though now Seagrave could see the creature more clearly, its mat-black hide spurned the flickering light of the storm, revealing more outline than detail in the brief stutters of emerald flash.  The pirate discerned no less than three hideous heads clustered between the gaunt juts of its shoulders, each shaped with a long, wicked beak and a sleek, backward thrusting crest.

Though Seagrave couldn't be sure, he saw no sign of the customary gemstone set in the thing's keeled breast.  That hardly surprised him.  Somehow, this creature, like himself, was immune to the storm's influence -- influence obviously directed through the heart-gems.

Though Seagrave had paused, some small movement caught the bat-thing's attention.  Its middle head jerked up to face him, angling slightly to study him more closely with one side-mounted eye.  For a moment, it seemed uncertain whether Seagrave had moved, after all -- but then he was forced to adjust his grip as the princess nearly slipped through his arms.  Instantly the other two heads flew up, all three beaks opening with a threatening hissing.

Seagrave had the sense the thing was startled to find a conscious animal on the ship -- fearfully so.  As if to prove his sense, the two side heads hurriedly bit the sailor's naked shoulders, fastening tightly.  The translucent wings unfurled with a flag-like snapping, and the bat-thing surged wildly up into the screaming air, bearing the sailor away as if he were cut from paper.  In seconds, both had vanished into the turbulent clouds.

Seagrave felt his skin crawl.  How often had this grisly drama been reenacted?  How common were these storms on Miraya?  How common the loathsome bat-things?  It was a perfect arrangement for the winged creatures -- but a terrible fate for their prey.  No doubt, the things followed the emerald storms, leisurely feeding on the helpless animals within.

Did the Kamir or the Trayken even know these monsters existed -- or did they simply awaken to find some of their peers had vanished inexplicably, their fate never to be known?  And, perhaps more important, were the bat-things alone or were there other monsters lurking in the flashing clouds, other things to take advantage of the paralyzing storms?

His heart pounding, Seagrave eyed the clouds searchingly.  Then he discerned a hazy shadow ghosting high over the starboard turret.  Another bat-thing.

His eyes dropped -- and his chest clenched.

Jyleesha stood on the round deck.

She was leaning against the web-like shrouds, hands clutching the cords, forehead pressed to her knuckles as if abjectly weeping.  Her colourful wings thrummed under the gusting wind, her veils spinning.  The emerald flashes coolly bathed her sleek, athletic lines.

There was no time to think.  Even as Seagrave looked, the shadow over the turret contracted, then plunged from the clouds, hurtling down onto Jyleesha's unresisting shoulders...



Next episode...The Shadow on the Sea

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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!)