Savage Miraya


A NOVEL OF ADVENTURE

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA


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EPISODE 33: THE SHADOW ON THE SEA


Seagrave set his slim charge down as gently as he could, then bounded recklessly across the deck, snatching a leister from a sailor as he went.

He swarmed up the ladder to the turret, terrified the three-headed bat-thing might carry Jyleesha away during the few moments it was out of his sight.  But, as he clambered to the circular deck, the black monster was just unfurling its wings, cruelly fixing its sharp beaks on Jyleesha's soft shoulders, its claws hooked on her back.

Had Seagrave been given time, he might have thought twice about rescuing her after what she had done to him.  Only a short time before, he had told her he should have strangled her while he had had the chance.  Perhaps Hengist had been right: perhaps he was getting soft.  Just the same, even if he had to kill her later, it wasn't in him to stand by now and watch her carried off to be this grotesque monster's helpless meal.

Yet, even as he raced to her rescue, the bat-thing lifted with a sharp downward pulse of its mighty wings.  Jyleesha was yanked off her feet, hands torn brutally from the shrouds so her arms unfolded down her sides.  The creature bore her easily upward, quickly rising out of reach.  Seagrave cursed breathlessly, then leaped upward, driving furiously with the leister.

It was a blind, hopeless thrust, made in final frenzied desperation -- but Seagrave felt the shaft tremble as the prongs parted and the central spike bit deep.  As he fell back, the shaft was nearly jerked from his fist, the back-jutting side-spikes catching hold.

A chorus of ululating squeals shrilled overhead.  But the bat-thing was not prepared to give up its prey without a fight.  A glance showed his leister had hooked around the creature's keel-like breastbone.  With a furious thrashing of wings, the bat-thing sought to lift both Jyleesha and Seagrave.  The pirate swore in amazed horror as he felt his feet lift from the deck, his damp fists sliding steadily down the leister.

For a numbing space, he swung helpless above the turret, twisting wildly, while the struggling creature bore him toward the rail.  Then, weakened by its wounds, the bat-thing faltered and Seagrave felt his feet touch hard deck just before he would have been carried irrevocably out over the sea.

He caught one of Jyleesha's dangling ankles, only to find her tumbling limply down on him as the bat-thing released its hold.  Still, Seagrave continued to cling to the leister, driven by a fierce, murderous revulsion.  Frantic only to escape now, the creature's three heads snapped and jabbed at the spiked weapon hooked in its breast.

Weakened, it fought to lift the pirate again, but it clearly lacked the strength.  Then, with a sickening lurch, the leister came free, throwing Seagrave hard to the deck. Clambering up, he caught a glimpse of spasmodically thrashing wings spilling past the rail as the thing fell helplessly down to the sea.

During the struggle, Seagrave hadn't noticed that the lightning had stopped.  Now, they passed out of the storm as abruptly as if shouldering through a curtain.  The clouds swirled into the ship's wake to reveal crisp azure sky stretching endlessly ahead.

Looking behind, he could see the storm as a long, white escarpment stretching from horizon to horizon, its top as level as a palisade.  It marched over the rolling sea like a colossal tidal wave.  Idly, it occurred to him that it must pass Eukara if it didn't blow itself out before --

"No!"  It was Jyleesha's astonished cry.

Seagrave whirled, cursing his stupidity.  All over the main deck, the sailors had come back to life.  Some of them had instantly spotted Shyrin Shas, and clustered curiously around her as she feebly struggled to sit up.  She blinked, only semi-conscious, no doubt wondering how she had escaped the chute and now found herself on the deck.

Jyleesha had regained her feet, her sloe eyes regarding Seagrave with something close to supernatural dread.  As far as she was concerned, he had materialized on the turret as if by magic.

"But how?"

A strange quality crept into her voice, as if she was struggling to find a calm middle ground between warring emotions.  She seemed undecided whether to be relieved he was still alive, or furious he had escaped her revenge.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."  Seagrave had dropped the leister in his fall; his eyes flicked to it, measuring the distance.  "The storm," he explained, stalling; "it does something to you people.  It puts you to sleep.  I broke my way out of the chute and got up here before it passed and you woke up."

Her brows knitted, momentarily trying to make sense of his impossible story.

He didn't plan to wait for her scornful laugh.

Half-turning, he sprang for the leister, hearing an angry cry behind.  He landed flat on the deck, his fingers touching the shaft -- then felt a lithe body crash down on his back, crushing the air from his lungs.  As he struggled to breathe, he felt her strong thighs clamp around his hips, and a sharper pain blossomed at the small of his back -- her claws.  She hissed, and dug her talons deeper into his flesh, working them until he screamed.

"Why do you make this so difficult?" she cried, wretchedly pleading even in her fury.  "Why did you have to come back again?  Why?!"

She made him scream again, then leaned forward.  He felt the preparatory flexing of her loins -- and realized with only a heartbeat to spare that she meant to tear out his spine.

"Wait!" he gasped.  "You can't kill me."

The very absurdity of his objection caused her to falter.  He threw out an arm, pointing desperately to the leister -- and pointing to the trail of vivid green blood that led in a grisly path to the turret's rail.

"You owe me for saving your damn life!"

***
After a truly nerve-wracking pause, Seagrave felt Jyleesha rise from his back -- and he breathed again in relief.  Rolling and climbing to his feet, he touched a hand to the small of his back, then grimly eyed the blood that dripped from his fingers.  She had meant to disembowel him from behind, no doubt about that.  Any deeper and she would have reached his kidneys.

He regarded her with a baleful glare.

She stood with her wings turned to him, again clutching the shrouds, her head bent to her knuckles.  He could see the rigid trembling of her long, sapphire legs below her swallow-tail wings, a glimpse of one smooth shoulder quaking as if with cold.  In spite of his anger, his dark eyes softened, unable to sustain any real hatred against a creature capable of such self-induced suffering.

It had taken everything she had to try to kill him just then.  In the war between her two sides, in the moment when her body tensed and her claws began to dig out his back, it had taken all her strength, all her will to submerge that part of her which loved him and wanted him to live.  She had spoken the truth; she would do anything to save him.  And so, to kill him with her hands, she had nearly killed herself.

Now, as if woken from a nightmare, her whole frame shook with a palsied wretchedness.  She struggled to regain mastery of her quivering body, her physical form reflecting the agony of her sundered soul.  Seagrave almost wished he could comfort her.

But then several Trayken sailors alighted around him in a storm of dusky moth-wings, two seizing his arms and holding him fast.  After a moment, Jyleesha turned to face him, her dark lashes sparkling with drying tears.  Her sloe eyes slitted threateningly, but the anger in her voice was a paltry imitation of her former rage.  She sounded drained and hollow.

She eyed the trail of vivid green blood sparkling like scattered emeralds on the deck.

"What madness is this?" she asked.  "How did you save my life?"

In a steady tone, Seagrave told her all that had transpired starting with his escape from the chute.  Her exotic eyes grew gradually wider as he described how the ship's crew had been paralyzed by the storm.  Then her breath caught to hear how one sailor had been carried away by the grotesque, three-headed creature out of the clouds.  As he grimly related the attack on herself and his own battle to free her, her supple flesh shivered involuntarily, a weak gasp starting unconsciously from her lips.

She believed him, aye, he could see that.  But it was an incredible tale just the same.  He wondered how he might react if someone told him a similar story about the storms of Earth.

As Seagrave finished, Jyleesha touched the dark bruises on her shoulders where the beaks had held her.  Her fingers reached behind her neck and came away with black blood left where the claws had clung to her smooth back.

"But these green squalls," she whispered; "they are found on many moons.  They pass over us all the time.  We always thought they were thin, like curtains, because they seemed to pass us in an instant."

"You must have noticed men went missing after these green squalls?"  Seagrave felt the grips on his biceps loosen as his captors too fought to grapple with this weird revelation.

"Certainly, from time to time men vanished," Jyleesha conceded, "but we always assumed they had been blown overboard or knocked from a balcony."

Seagrave nodded soberly.  "I guess a lot of disappearances wouldn't have been noticed until long afterward anyway -- so wouldn't have been associated with these green squalls."  His eyes burned, and he jerked his arms from his captors.  They made no effort to restrain him.  "Those three-headed monsters, whatever they are, have a perfect arrangement.  They follow the squalls, picking up food that can't fight back, and no one even knows they exist."

Broodingly, Jyleesha stepped past him to the curved railing.  Her arms hugged closely beneath her breasts as she studied the gouts of damp green blood.  Then her dark eyes rose to the white line of the receding squall on the horizon.  She shivered again.

"I saved your life," Seagrave muttered searchingly.  "Nas Klarak told me, that means you have to save my life."  Then he had a thought.  "By the way, what did you do to Nas Klarak?"

Absently, Jyleesha replied: "His wings were trimmed.  He won't be able to fly until they grow back again."

"Oh."  It occurred to Seagrave that Nas Klarak's punishment had been considerably more lenient than his own.  "So, what about it?  Do you owe me a life?"

Her gaze fixed on him, narrowed and bitter.  "I could have killed you a moment ago.  I could have torn you open, but I didn't.  My debt to you is already paid.  I owe you nothing now."

Seagrave paused, frowning.  He wasn't sure where that left him.  "What happens now then?" he asked.  "You can't throw me back in the chute."

"Why not?"  She gave a quick, self-mocking laugh.  Obviously she herself wasn't sure what to do.  "I've already saved your life by not killing you when I had the chance.  Now I am free to do anything I want to you."

Her eyes flicked past him, down toward the main deck, and she added darkly: "Or to that soft slave girl you cherish so much."

For a moment, her gaze burned on the tangerine figure reclined unconscious again below -- and Seagrave felt a tightening in his chest as he sensed the dark imaginings taking form in the captain's vengeful thoughts.

Under her breath, she mumbled meditatively, "Perhaps the capstans..."

Her eyes lifted in surprise as a sailor landed easily beside her.  She scowled, annoyed by the intrusion.  But, before she could speak, he held out his hands.

He carried some sort of animal, shaped like a leech the size of a cat, scarlet with green mottling.  It had three sets of translucent dragonfly wings, and a star-shaped maw which took up most of the head-end.  A small green jewel glittered incongruously just in front of the first pair of wings.

Jyleesha tensed as she saw the leech-thing, her features puzzled.  Seagrave was glad for anything which might distract the captain from the ghastly revenge she had considered for Shyrin Shas, but her discomfiture concerned him.

"What is it?" he asked, waiting until she had spoken to the sailor in Trayken.

She tilted her head, studying the swollen gasbag poised against the porcelain sky.

Without looking at him, she replied, "One of the Lan'lans found this bizama fastened to the gasbag.  They make small holes with their mouths and feed on the leaking raidraas gas."

"So?  Can't you just patch the holes?"

Her eyes dropped, fixing on him.  "The damage isn't what bothers me," she replied.  "The Lan'lans checked for bizama before we left Jinja Khyam.  On a ship of this size, they're easy enough to spot.  None were found."

Seagrave still didn't understand.  She saw the question in his expression, and explained: "Bizama can only fly short distances.  They're a nuisance for wingships.  When a ship becomes infested, it must signal other ships to keep their distance until all the bizama have been killed.  Still, bizama manage to spread from ship to ship, sometimes in port, sometimes when ships pass at sea."

"Then you must have picked up this bizama from some ship you passed after leaving Eukara."  But, even as he spoke, Seagrave knew what Jyleesha's response would be.

"We haven't passed any ships," she said evenly.  "So where did this come from?"

From the raised deck of the starboard turret, they had an unobstructed view of the open sea ahead.  Jyleesha strolled along the curve of the rail, then paused and studied the sharp meeting of sky and water at the horizon.  The sailors made no move to stop Seagrave as he strode to her side.

There was nothing out there but a vast windy plain of silken waves and stark, cloudless sky.  He might have believed he was back on Earth were it not for the five crescent moons dully showing through the blueness, and the larger, striped crescent of Korash.

"What are you looking for?" Seagrave asked after a moment.  "There's nothing out there.  The sky is clear all the way to the horizon."

"Not the sky."  Her voice was breathless with expectancy, with apprehension.  "Look at the sea -- over there."

She motioned with a tapered finger.  Seagrave looked where she pointed, at first unable to see anything but smoothly rolling waves.

Then he grunted in surprise.

"Something dark under the water," he said, his voice instinctively quieting.  "I can see dull shadow moving under the waves..."



Next episode...The Invisible Armada

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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!)