|Previously...Fighting his way to freedom, Zen escapes the slave ship by diving into the water and striking out for an isolated island. Meanwhile, Linis escapes the orbiting space ship, avoiding the clutches of the mad Caris Vay, and crashes on the same island...unaware of a menace lurking in the brush...
chapter three: something in the shadows
A piercing scream awoke Zen. Instantly he was on his feet, his sensitive ears pinpointing the source of the wild cry. Who was it? He didn’t know, only knew they needed help. Bursting through the undergrowth the man came upon a frightful scene:
In the creature’s four arms a writhing form struggled desperately, crushed against its serpentine torso. The thing’s flat triangular head, which narrowed to an envenomed proboscis, was now but inches from the victim's throat. Zen sprang upon the vampirish beast, hauled it off; hurled it against a tree. The abax rebounded with amazing rapidity, ominously rattled its crest – a series of spines composed of overlapping bell shaped scales - then sprang upon him with undiminished ferocity.
Linis dragged herself clear, snatched up the fallen shock-pistol. She watched in morbid fascination the unfolding drama, saw Zen force away the beast's stabbing beak, both hands locked about its throat as the abax sought to crush him with its wiry limbs.
The two combatants staggered about the glade like drunken men. Zen hooked one leg behind his adversary's, tripped the thing, pinned it beneath his weight. The abax panicked, sought to break free by pounding his back and head with mighty blows.
Zen felt himself weakening under the savage onslaught, called upon all his strength, felt it flow like a mighty current through his constricting fingers. The thing’s eyes bulged, the thrusting proboscis stilled. It died with a final convulsive twitch.
Climbing unsteadily to his feet Zen turned and gazed in fascination at the strange creature he had rescued – a nature spirit, a goddess perhaps? No, the being was a mortal woman he was sure, but none like he had ever seen before. A ray of sunshine touched the tousled hair, burnishing it with golden light – those long tresses that flowed in aureate cascades over shoulders and full breasts. A rosy nipple, slightly darker than her other flesh, peeked through the curling strands. The girl’s face, pleasantly strange, would have been more so had it not been contorted buy utter fear.
Linis, her heart fluttering like a frightened bird, stared in awe; her eyes darting from the abax’s carcass to its killer. He stood statue still, clad in only a ragged loincloth*, looking every inch the fearsome savage he appeared to be. Mighty thews bulged beneath the slate-gray skin, the torso was broad, the arms and legs thick with muscle, giving him a stocky appearance despite his height. His strong features were not displeasing, though they held something of the beast – the dark amber eyes, the high cat-like ears, the black fur that covered his head and ran from nape to waist in a v-shaped pattern.
*Footnote: The loincloth is standard apparel of the city-states of the Mithaar coast. Elaborately embroidered and fringed by tassels, it is often worn with a kem – a rectangular cloth with a hole in the center that allows it to be placed over the head and fall to the waist at front and back.
Zen, though enthralled by the girl’s alien beauty, was not blind to her terror. He squatted slowly, this beast-man, unconsciously adopting a pose so reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker that its seeming contradictoriness made her laugh.
“Are you badly hurt?” he asked, fearing that terror had unhinged her mind.
Linis relaxed further; relieved she could understand his speech – he was obviously a native of Etru, the city-state she and Vay had studied. The girl re-holstered her weapon, realizing that if he meant to harm her he would have tried to do so by now.
By Reason’s light, came her reproachful thought. This is an historic moment, and I’m acting like a frightened schoolgirl. I must take command of the situation, and quickly.
Then aloud: “I’m unharmed,” she said, standing, only to fall back against a tree with a cry of pain. “My ankle”, she gasped. “I must have twisted it when I fell.”
Quickly stepping to Linis’ side, Zen caught her up in his strong arms. A thousand questions trembled upon his lips, but the girl was hurt - best he give thought to her injuries.
“Don’t struggle, girl,” he said, sternly, stilling her frightened thrashing. “You can’t walk. I’ll find a place where you can rest in comfort.”
Turning, Zen noticed something strange peeking between the mighty boles of the surrounding trees, and walked into the glade to better view this marvel.
“Ah, so this is what I saw last night descending from the heavens.”
She gave him a startled look. “Do you know what that is?”
“I’m not sure, but I think I can guess. Shall I carry you within?”
“I suppose so,” was her weak reply, realizing the situation had slipped completely out of her control. Well, she thought, there go the Exploration Protocols.
At the controls of Daedalus’ remaining module sat Caris Vay, his mind intoxicated by a sense freedom, vengeance burning brightly in his heart. All his life he had been constrained by the dictates of a society that held in check his darkest fantasies.
But on the world below him there would be an end to those restraints. No fear of any Analyst discovering his black thoughts; gone was the threat of drugs that would emasculate his mind, turning him into a dutiful sheep like the rest of humanity.
We’ve achieved peace, he thought, contemptuously. But no empire was ever built by pacifism. Let the fools of Earth have their tranquility. I, by dint of strength and daring, shall carve my name upon this globe.
Adjusting the controls, Vay sent his craft plunging towards the pristine world below, eager to fulfill his desires whose fruition had been delayed by Linis’ hand. The sphere plummeted downwards like a blazing meteor, its glinting hull marred by clinging bombs that would soon fall upon the woman that had spurned him so.
Zen watched Linis walk carefully about the cabin, testing her foot whose injury had been healed by strange medicines from a crimson chest. He had asked her bluntly if she was a dasan – a master of the occult arts from the Ancient Days, but she had emphatically denied this, saying she was just a mortal being albeit from another world, and all about him was not magic, but something she called science. Personally, he couldn’t see the difference.
“So,” she said. “Tell me more about these myths of yours, of mighty dasan and of magic ships that can fly?”
He tilted his head to one side, the equivalent of a nod. “The legends say in the Age of Sorcery all men were masters of the occult arts; that they had unlocked Nature’s secrets from the depths of the world to highest heaven; that they had become like gods. Then the Time of Fire came, and here the stories differ – some say the dasan warred among each other, causing fire to fall from heaven upon their enemies.
Others say (and they are mostly priests) that men had become arrogant, that they sought to challenge the very gods with their power and the gods, in their anger at petty man, drenched the world in flames, destroying nearly all life upon this globe of Naxor. Whether the cause was the foolishness of men or the cruelty of gods I do not know. But I do know there are ancient ruins scattered across the land, broken cities that bear the marks of terrible conflagration.”
Linis paled. Nuclear war, she thought, a chill running up her spine. The poor fools, how far they’ve fallen. At least we avoided that catastrophe.
The alarm’s sudden clamor shattered her musings. The hologram cube flared to life – blue sky, a white sphere, black shapes dropping from it. Explosions rocked the craft, flinging its occupants to the deck.
“It’s Vay, cried Linis, with an oath. “He’s attacking us.”
Above, Vay watched the falling bombs – crude devices, but deadly nonetheless. He grinned maliciously as they exploded, throwing up fountains of dark earth, polluting the air with their turgid smoke. He craned forward. What was that - figures running from the ship? With a curse, he released the final load.
Explosions rocked the world; a storm of flying debris filled the air. Mighty trees toppled, sundered by the fearsome blasts. A cloud of stinking vapors smothered the jungle with billowing veils of turgid darkness.
Could anyone survive such utter destruction? Vay laughed at the very thought – the scene was bereft of human life. The ship departed, gathering speed as it soared through the purity of the azure heavens, leaving below the utter silence of death.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)