|Previously...Zen and Linis are attacked by the slavers that formerly held Zen -- and triumph, in part with Linis' alien technology. They commandeer the slavers and their ship and put to sea, only to be attacked by a sea monster...
chapter six: monster from the depths
“It’s a neshrin,” cried Thanax in utter horror. “Only the gods can save us now.”
“Damn the gods, and man the ballista,” shouted Zen, as he and Linis ran towards the weapon. “I’ll not resign myself to death so readily.”
Valiant sentiments, true, but inwardly he knew he was just as fearful as the other men.
Two mariner’s ran to the forecastle, grasped the ballista’s windlass, aided Zen and the girl as they drew back the cable of the massive bow. All strained mightily at the mechanism, their fear wide eyes divided between this task and the rushing leviathan.
Other sailors readied their composite bows as the beast surged towards them. A flight of arrows sped out to meet it – mere pinpricks upon its leathery hide. Then the neshrin was upon them, a mindless, ravenous thing of monstrous strength. Its tentacles, thick as hawsers, swept the deck like some dreadful broom. Men screamed as they were caught in the slimy coils, hauled aloft, tossed between its fetid jaws.
Linis paled as she gazed upon the thing, flicked her eyes to the ballista, saw the straining frightened men.
Even my weapons won’t stop that monster, came the frightening thought. What chance have they? Then aloud: “Hurry, its head is swinging this way.”
The bow’s cable engaged its catch as the beast loomed above them, its cavern mouth gleaming wetly, its tentacles writhing with ghoulish eagerness. Zen slammed a barbed projectile on the ballista’s guide rail, swung the weapon upon its pivot. Linis screamed as one corpse-white member whipped towards her. Zen fired, flung himself upon the frozen girl, knocking her to one side.
The tentacle missed, splintered the deck with smashing force. Zen dragged the terrified girl clear; saw his companions snatched up, devoured. Again the neshrin sought them with its ropy limbs. Zen hacked desperately at the slimy things. Linis crouched beside him, sprayed the monster with the shock-pistol’s rays. Neither weapon had much effect.
A noisome tentacle coiled about Linis' waist. She cried in terror, Zen’s sword flashed. The girl fell free, prepared herself for death as other limbs swarmed towards them with overwhelming force.
Suddenly, the neshrin arched backwards, convulsed, fell astern with a titanic splash that drenched the ship with spray. For a time it lay upon the surface of the sea, twitching feebly, then slowly sank from sight, returning to the lightless depths from whence it sprang.
“It’s all over,” said Zen as he supported the trembling girl. “The projectile was filled with a deadly poison, one specially brewed to kill those beasts. It took a little time to work, that’s all. The sailors are looking on,” he continued, gently. “Better stand tall and act the mighty dasan.”
“I don’t feel so mighty just now,” she replied, smiling weakly. “But you’re right, I’d better play the part.”
The last rites had been given to the dead, the ship restored to order. She rode serenely upon the ocean, wind and wave playing their songs upon her – the creak of timbers, the snap of sails, the subtle hum of cordage – a strange symphony all mariners know.
But beneath this seeming calm discord brewed – the battle with the neshrin had shaken Laylia's crew, convinced many their voyage was cursed. Mariners cast wary glances at Zen and the girl, wanting to be rid of them, but afraid to act. Those sailors not on duty gathered below decks, whispered darkly to each other of the strange fate that had overtaken them.
"I say we rush the girl," said Talos, Laylia's First Mate, his scarred visage a mask of livid anger. "Overpower her by weight of numbers, and then attack the man."
"Don't be a fool." said another, boldly. "I was with the party hunting that slave. We were cut down by the chit's magic like nur before the reaper's sickle. You'd never get within striking distance of her.
"Slave? Sorceress?" muttered a third. "If you ask me both are demons from the underworld. We're all sailing into the very jaws of Nofrim."
Someone wailed pitifully at that remark – superstitious men, these Ruminites.
"Silence, you fool," hissed Talos, clamping his meaty hand over the offender's mouth. "I still say we try and kill them, throw the bloody corpses overboard. Their both mortal, I'm sure. But if we fail, then at least we'll have died like men."
"Shouldn't we consult the captain before we act?" queried another.
Talos grunted. "He's watched too well for that. The other officers are dead. We must decide for ourselves. Under these circumstances the Mariner's Articles permit such action."
Debate continued in hushed tones. Light rippled in, reflected from the sea, danced upon the beams, sending shifting shadows crawling like dark spiders across the hard features of the murmuring men.
Time passed. Slowly, fists were raised in silent assent with the First Mate's plan. Talos stood, looked at his followers, saw his own resolve reflected in their grim countenances.
"Follow me," was his quiet command.
The ship was passing a spit – a narrow strip of land projecting into the sea – when Linis saw a flash, like light reflected from a mirror among the trees.
“Over there”, she called, pointing, but when Zen looked it was gone. Then, as they rounded the promontory, the lookout cried: “Pirate off the starboard bow,” just as Talos and his men swarmed out upon the deck.
Zen straightened, ran forward, saw the black ship rushing down upon them, her gleaming ram ploughing through the wine dark sea. The flash had been a signal to the lurking vessel, and now the hunter had become the prey.
Talos cursed, realizing his plans were, for the moment, undone – all hands must now unite against the buccaneers. He said as much to the others.
Thanax cried commands; sails were reefed*, men armed themselves for battle, the mill-salves lashed to motion. A flight of arrows sleeted in. Marines fell, their blood obscenely bright in the harsh sunshine.
*Footnote: Where ramming techniques are employed in naval warfare, sails are unsuitable as a source of motive power because they can’t provide the maneuverability that oars (or in the case of Naxorans, slave powered propellers) can.
Grabbing a shield hanging from the rail, Zen sprinted to Linis. “Keep behind me,” he cried. “From the cover of my screen shoot down the helmsman of that cursed ship.”
“I can't. The distance is too great.”
With an oath Zen gazed at the attacking pirate, and by her colors knew that it was Kasar. The enemy was on a run-in, had extended long claw-armed booms. The Etruan knew their tactic - they’d pass close, rip away the steering gear with these devices, circle back and ram the disabled ship in the stern.
“Hard to port, damn you, captain,” shouted Zen as another storm of arrows swept the ship. But it was too late – Thanax, distracted by the loss of his hebara had gauged speed and distance poorly – the Laylia shuddered as her rudder was torn away. A victory cheer rang out from the attacking craft; it came about, prepared to ram the stricken galley.
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.)