Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
“You will be killed for sure, Med Neemusbane!”
“Oh, no, Med!” A girl leaped to him, clasped her arms about him. He stood there, and for all the ridiculous appearance of the typical Migla morphology, an aura of dignity and determination made him not ridiculous at all.
Planath the Wine said, again, “You will be killed for sure, Med Neemusbane. But if you must go, we will pray for you.”
“Aye,” said the others. “At the temple, among the ruins, we will pray for you.”
“Oh, Med!” moaned the girl, clasping him.
I had no desire to push this youngster into a danger he probably did not understand. I knew from his name that he had already won fame. A large proportion of the economy of Migla revolved around wild-vosk hunting in the back hills. From the vosk came rich and succulent joints, and supple voskskin, and this Med Neemusbane must be a hunter of great repute.
He said, “I shall go.”
Turko said, “A neemu is a most vicious and beautiful beast, a machine of destruction. Even a leem will not willingly encounter two full-grown neemus.”
“So be it,” I said. I had a plan for this headstrong youngster. “And the thanks of us all, Med Neemusbane.”
Although as you know I had figured in a rebellion before, when I had led my old vosk-skulls against the overlords of Magdag, I had been cruelly wrenched away from that final victorious battle by the Star Lords. The rebellion had had no time to flower into a revolution. The time when, as the great song,
The Fetching of Drak na Valka,
says, I had cleansed my island of Valka of the slave-masters and the aragorn did not really count as an organized rebellion. That had been a people aroused in a just anger against rapacious oppressors who raided and reaved. Here, in Migla, the Canops had taken over every aspect of the country and had settled in as the masters. I had no real experience of revolution as I knew it must be handled here. But, as in my avowed way, I would learn.
The problem of returning Saenda and Quaesa worried me; but Planath the Wine assured me he could arrange travel for the two female apims, one to Dap-Tentyrasmot, the other to Methydria, without too much trouble, provided they did as they were told. They had become accustomed to doing as they were told during their period as slaves, when they were being readied to run as quarry for the Manhunters of Faol. Just lately, after our escape, they had tended to revert to their usual hectoring and faultfinding ways. I spoke to them and I deliberately put that old vicious cutting rasp into my voice.
They quailed as I spoke.
“You both claim to be high-born ladies. You have prated on about the kools of rich grazing land and all the merchant agencies your fathers own. This may be so. But if you wish to cross the Shrouded Sea and return to your homes, you will do exactly as Planath the Wine tells you. He is a man to be trusted. If you give any trouble at all, I’ll clip your ears, by Vox, and send you back for sport in the fangs of the Manhounds of Faol!”
“Oh, Dray!” wailed Saenda.
And, “Oh, Dray!” wailed Quaesa.
A vivid image flashed into my mind.
I saw myself in a muldavy with her dipping lug of the Eye of the World, and I heard myself cutting the Lady Pulvia na Upalion down to size. I hate and detest berating women. It is a cowardly pastime. But, here, these two silly gigglers demanded no less than a real honest-to-Zair tongue-lashing. I spared them. I recognized my softness and weakness; but they had suffered, by Zair, and I thought they would understand and respect the risks Planath and the Miglas were taking for them.
“You will need many golden deldys, Planath. These I will secure tomorrow.”
“Hush, Dray Prescot! We will be happy to furnish all the lady apims may require. Also—” Here Planath the Wine rubbed his chin and squinted up at me. “Also, if you knock any more Canop guardsmen on the head and steal their money the whole city of Yaman will suffer.”
“Sink me!” I burst out. “I wouldn’t want that — but, equally, I would not wish to sponge on your charity.”
After a long and pleasant wrangle, during which a great deal more of the beer was drunk, we agreed that Planath and his friends should outfit the girls and buy them passages aboard the most convenient ship or voller traveling to the eastern shore of the Shrouded Sea. There would have to be matters of disguise, and secrecy; all that I left to the Miglas. It was no part of the plans of the Star Lords, I thought, to become embroiled with these two silly gigglers.
The frowning pile of Mungul Sidrath waited.
In order to rescue Turko and Saenda and Quaesa I had dressed myself up as a Canoptic soldier and marched in boldly. The commandant had been slain; I guessed the new commandant would have tightened up security so that it would be fatuous to suppose we could break in that way again, and, of course, Med could never disguise himself as a Canop, I thought. During the rest of the meeting there was talk of ways and means. I suppose because he looked more and more agitated as the night wore on I took stock of an ugly old Migla called Malkar, who kept rubbing a bald spot on his head, and pulling his flap-ears, and burying his hooked nose in his blackjack, and coming up spluttering to wipe the thin froth away. He had been the old boy charged with the duty of cleaning the drains in the temple. Now the temple of Migshaanu lay in tumbled ruins.
At last Malkar got his courage up, as I thought, although in that I did him an injustice. He took a huge draft of beer, spluttered, choked, and then bellowed so abruptly that everyone fell silent.
“May the divine Migshaanu forgive me, for she will understand why I speak! I know the drains and the sewers, for that is my work, and I joy in serving Migshaanu the thrice-bathed. But — I know more! There is a—” He paused here, screwing himself up to the point. He was, in his eyes, betraying a secret which he should never have known. “I know! Often and often have I seen the king and queen, may Migshaanu enfold her golden wings about them, come to the temple from their palace by the secret way—”
“Ah!” said Turko, leaning forward.
“Yes! There is a way, a tunnel, dark and dangerous, and guarded in a most horrible way I do not know. The king and the queen knew. But they are dead, slain by the Canops, by the foul and rast-loving King Capnon whom the yetches call King Capnon the Great.”
“Show us the entrance, good Malkar!” said Med Neemusbane. He spoke with a quick eagerness that warmed me. If there were other brave young men like him among the Migladorn, the chances of a successful revolution were greater than I had surmised.
So it was arranged. Turko and I said Remberee to the two girls, Saenda and Quaesa, and they were suitably tearful at parting. They were not the shishis they had been called. They were simply two young girls who had fallen on evil times and had tried to retain their sanity by clinging to their own old ways. I was in no real position to pass judgment on those ways, for all that I knew they involved slave management, and, as is notorious, women are infinitely more cruel to slaves than are men.
We slunk through the night streets of Yaman, with the eerie old houses, tall and narrow, crooked against the stars, hemming us in. The ruins of the temple glimmered in the hazy pink light of She of the Veils. The Canops had thrown down the columns and the walls and the roof had fallen. Malkar led us past a black hole that stank of sewage. We penetrated down past stone blocks with weird hieroglyphs incised on their hewn surfaces; but we had not lit our torches and so the secret and magical inscriptions were only fitfully revealed in the pink moonlight. When a stone overhang brought us into deep shadow, Malkar whispered and his voice rustled and echoed among the tumbled stones.
“You may light the torches now, Horter Prescot.”
Flint and steel clicked and scraped, the tinder caught, and a torch flared. I held it aloft. Before us lay a narrow flight of stairs, hewn from the rock, leading down into inky darkness. Weird and ungainly forms of animals and birds crawled in the light across the walls. The atmosphere of decay and of doom hung about this shattered temple, dedicated to gods of a halfling race.
With a screech and a great rustle of membranous wings a Kregan bat fluttered madly in the light. The woflovol chittered and flew in crazy zigzaggings, seeking the darkness. I put my foot on the first step. Turko closed up. Med, also, began the descent.
Malkar hung back.
“It is down there, Horter Prescot. A great bronze-bolted door. And, after that, Migshaanu the All-Glorious alone knows!”
“I thank you, Horter Malkar. Now get you gone in safety.”
“Remberee,” he called; but his voice dwindled and faded, for he was already scuttling back and away from this place where, if I allowed myself the fancy, eldritch horrors awaited us.
We three pressed on, descending that narrow stair in the flare of our torches.
I wore my old scarlet breechclout, for the weather was mild. I carried the thraxter and the crossbow and a quiver of bolts we had earlier relieved of those who had no title in the higher warrior-justice to them. If this sounds a high-handed judgment I stand condemned. I knew what I knew of overfed, pampered, and decadent people who hunted other people with crossbow and spear.
This land of Migla stood on approximately the same parallel south as the parallel north running through the Black Mountains of Vallia. I wondered how Inch was faring. But the dark hole yawned beneath my feet and the steps, greasy and treacherous, trended downward inexorably to that massive bronze-bolted lenken door. I suppressed the instinct to hammer on that portal of ill-omen with the thraxter and I kept the sword in its sheath.
Turko, as was his custom, was unarmed. That is to say, he did not carry weapons of steel, edged and pointed. While he had his hands and his feet and his head, he remained a most formidable fighter, a Khamorro and therefore a man to be feared. Med carried eight stuxes in an interesting gadget. From a flat disc of wood eight near-circular notches had been cut around the edge. Each notch had a small spring of carved horn which, when a stux shaft was pressed into the notch, held the stux in place. A simple jerk would flex the spring and release the weapon. There were two discs, and the heads of the spears were so arranged that they staggered downward to give clearance to each fat wedge-shaped blade. A carrying strap could be attached to this stuxcal, when necessary, so that it might be slung over the shoulder and be ready for instant use. Also, Med carried a large hunting knife similar to a scramasax.
The shadows clustered thickly and fled reluctantly before the flare of our torches.
Each individual bronze bolt head of the lenken door gleamed at us like a single malicious eye.
“There,” said Turko, and, stepping forward, seized the sliding bolt. I saw the way his muscles slid and bunched, roping like great cables as he drew back the bolt. It had not been used for some time, and verdigris made that drawing difficult. A stale and musty odor puffed out, fetid with unnameable miasmas. Med coughed. Turko grunted. I stepped in, holding my torch high.
“Malkar prated of a great and horrible danger, Dray. Best tread warily.”
And, as he spoke, Turko moved up and attempted to take the lead.
I simply increased my stride, plunging headlong into the tunnel beneath the ruins. Sink me! I was still young and foolish enough to think it not pride but a proper sense of martial valor that I should go first. Turko muttered something about a Muscle-bound onker, but he fell in to my rear. Our torches threw ghastly shadows fleeting before us, contorted phantasms from jagged edges of rock. I kept up my brisk advance, for I was not willing for Turko, all unarmed as he was, to take the lead.
We were all breathing lightly, tensed up, cautious, and yet anxious to be through this melancholy tunnel with its aroma of death and decay.
Little echoes from disturbed stones beneath our feet chittered ahead, reverberating tinnily, disquietingly. I stopped.
“Let us move quietly, my friends,” I said. “As though we hunted leem.”
The way grew warmer. The fetid breath on the air near choked us. Presently the sound of rushing water trembled nearer, until we came out to a cavern where steaming water, boiling and bubbling, spouted from a cleft in the rock and ran, hot and angry, in a channel cut alongside the path. The channel continued into the tunnel, and steam rose about us, slicking upon our skins, so that we gleamed and sweated as though passing through the baths of nine.
Through the steam I tried to espy what lay ahead. I could hear nothing above the boiling rush of waters. Our torches twirled their flaming hair, dampened and fading, so that the shadows closed in. Was that a movement there, up ahead along the tunnel wall? I slowed down and moved forward warily. Yes . . . that
a movement. Something waited for us at a bend in the tunnel, something I could not make out, something lethal and horrible and waiting to pull us down.
Now I put each foot down soundlessly. The torchlight wavered along the slimy walls. White-yellow vegetation grew here, and at the very corner of the bend a gap in the rock ceiling revealed a chink, and a thin streamer of pink light falling through. We were near the surface, then. I advanced.
Med’s voice, whispering, reached me.
“Dray — there, by the wall! By Migshenda! A syatra!”
The wall writhed. Many thick and fleshy tentacles sprouted from a central trunk, corpse-white, spine-barbed, rippling and writhing and seeking us. I saw the barbed leaves of the trap opening, ready to snap on its victim. Each Venus’s-flytrap would gobble a grown man. The steam rose bewilderingly. The tendrils swayed and writhed like beseeching arms, like the serpent-hair of the Gorgons. But this syatra was no Medusa; rather, it must be one of Medusa’s sisters, Eurale or Sthenno. It lashed its tendrils about and its spined trap yawned, barring our way along one side of the tunnel.
I edged forward on the other, the sword in my fist, the crossbow slung over my back.
The tunnel widened a little. The horror opposite lashed its tendrils at me. I ignored them. Until they reached me I would refrain from smiting.
A few bones crunched underfoot.
I pressed on, the steam swirling confusingly in my face, the swishing, thrashing sounds of the blind tendrils seeking those who passed whistling by my ears. Turko closed up. Med followed.