Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Fiction
Copyright © 1980, Kenneth Bulmer
Alan Burt Akers has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the Author of this work.
First published by Daw Books, Inc. in 1980.
This Edition published in 2007 by Mushroom eBooks, an imprint of Mushroom Publishing, Bath, BA1
4EB, United Kingdom
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Alan Burt Akers
Dray Prescot is a man above middle height, with brown hair and level brown eyes, brooding and dominating, an enigmatic man, with enormously broad shoulders and superbly powerful physique. There is about him an abrasive honesty and indomitable courage. He moves like a savage hunting cat, quiet and deadly. Reared in the inhumanly harsh conditions of Nelson’s navy, he has been transported by the Scorpion agencies of the Star Lords, the Everoinye, and of the Savanti nal Aphrasöe, the Swinging City, to the savage and exotic world of Kregen, under the twin Suns of Scorpio, four hundred light-years from Earth.
Here, in the unforgiving yet rewarding world of Kregen, struggling through disaster and triumph, Prescot has made his home. Called on to shoulder the burden of being the Emperor of Vallia and of freeing the islands from the cruel grip of invaders, he is determined, once the country is once more united and free, to hand all over to his son Drak. But the Star Lords have dispatched him on a mission for them in the southern continent of Havilfar, and Prescot and eight comrades have barely escaped with their lives from an underground labyrinth of horror. Now Prescot must battle his way home to resume his work for Vallia.
Dray Prescot relates his story on cassettes, and each book is arranged to be read as complete in itself.
The gray-beaked fellow flourishing his bronze decapitator fondly imagined my name was written on that wicked curved blade. His one desire in life was to keep my head as a precious souvenir. He even provided himself with a wicker basket swinging at his belt all ready for the trophy.
“Hai! Apim — now you die!”
The path down the side of the artificial mountain led here under overarching branches and the mossy-trunked trees stretched about us, ancient and gnarled, patched and puddled in the light of the suns.
As is my custom in a fight, I do not waste breath replying to taunts or battle chants, unless base cunning indicates the advantage of an even more coarse taunt in return, so I bent my head beneath the horizontal slash of the decapitator. The sword in my fist thrust once. The wicker basket, the bronze-studded armor, the leather boots, and the decapitator all fell away to the side, sloughing like too-wet dough, slid off the path and away down the slope between the trees.
The fellow was not alone.
Other headhunters pressed on, yelling, screeching their taunts, seeking to take the heads of us nine —
who sought merely to escape off the mountain with our lives.
By chance it happened I led the descent of the mound and so these decapitating warriors met me first.
They were not apim like me but those hard, gritty diffs men call Nierdriks, with coarse-skinned, high-beaked, hooded-eyed faces like killer turtles, and compact muscular bodies equipped with only two arms and two legs and no tails. Their bronze blades glimmered molten in the smoky shafts of crimson fire from the red sun, and their hides sheened muddy emerald in the fire from the green sun. With shrill yells of hatred they leaped for me.
My comrades were yelling, hullabalooing to get on along the path and at the Nierdriks. The first two attackers were seen off with no great difficulty. The shifting light and shade beneath the trees and the rutty slope of the path made the action precarious.
My foot turned on a knobby tree root snaking like a swollen vein across the path.
I pitched headlong. My sword switched up instinctively and parried the flurry of blows. The ground came up — hard. The decapitators were held off easily enough; but I was on the ground and smelling the ages-old dust puffing up into my nostrils, feeling that damned tree root gouging into my back.
With a slash measurably faster and more intemperate than those that had gone before, I slashed the nearest fellow’s ankles and then had to twist aside to avoid the thwunking great blow of his comrade’s head cleaver. There was no real danger. In the next instant I would be up, on my feet, and that bloodthirsty head-and-body parter would go tumbling down the slope spraying blood.
There was no real danger — but, in the instant as I gathered myself, a shadow moved over me and two firm, muscular legs straddled me, and Tyfar was yelling and swinging his blade over my head.
“Hold, Jak! I’ll cover you!”
He was remarkably lucky I hadn’t chopped him. He stood over me, swinging and smiting, his shield well up, his axe a silver-stained blur in the dappled shadows.
This was a new and remarkable experience. The sensation intrigued me. Here was I sprawled on the ground in the middle of a fight, and this fine young prince Tyfar stood over me battling off our foemen!
Also — highly amusing.
All the same, by Zair, comical though it was it could not be allowed to go on.
I wriggled away and degutted the Nierdrik who sought to sink his brand into Tyfar’s unshielded side and then sprang up and clouted the next one over the head. His big turtle nose burst and sprayed purple fluids into the shadows.
“You are unharmed, Jak?”
“Aye. Aye, I’m unharmed — Prince.” And then, because he was young and vehement and very much your proper prince of honor, I said — and with warmth, “My thanks.”
More Nierdriks dropped from the trees upon us and for a space we had a merry set-to. In the confusing shadows, twinned in jade and crimson, we fought. Presently the headhunters drew off and gathered in a bunch a few paces below us on the path. Many bodies strewed the ground between, and they must have realized now that they had sought to slay and take the heads of a party unwilling to allow them that liberty.
Abruptly, one of the turtle-faces spun about, silently, and collapsed.
Barkindrar the Bullet said, “They are real, then.” He took out another leaden slingshot and began to fuss with his sling.
Tyfar said, “Yes. It was in my mind they were mere phantoms.”
“Not phantoms,” said Deb-Lu-Quienyin. “I would have known.”
He would, too, not a doubt of it. The kharrna, the powers, of a Wizard of Loh would certainly have told Quienyin if we faced hallucinatory projections. He had taken no part in the combat, as was right and proper, and with a typical little hitch to his turban, setting it straight, he was visibly becoming a proper Wizard of Loh, respected and dreaded.
An arrow winged like a sliver of wrath and skewered a Nierdrik through that turtle neck.
“And,” quoth Nath the Shaft, “I’ll have that one back when we go past.”
“You didn’t see where my bullet went, Nath?”
“I did not. If you must sling lead then you must expect to lose it. If you must be a slinger then you must—”
“I’ll knock the next three over before you clear your quiver, you great fambly!”
Well, that was normal. Nath the Shaft and Barkindrar the Bullet arguing over their respective skills, and wagering any and everything on the outcome of their shots, provided a never-failing source of joy and amusement to us through the horrors we had endured. The Nierdriks clustered in a rocky clearing among the trees, a dozen yards or so below us, and the radiance of the Suns of Scorpio fell about them. They provided capital targets.
Another leaden shot and another feathered shaft flew.
“Ha! Your man is only winged!”
“He’ll never fly again, for sure!”
These two, archer and slinger, prepared to cast again. They were Prince Tyfar’s retainers, the only two he had left to him from his father’s expedition. But, for all the fun and frolic, we had to get down off this artificial mountain before nightfall, and that was not too far off...
An abrupt shriek rent the air.
Two shrieks shattered past us as the Pachak twins bounded down the trail. Ordered, methodical, intensely loyal, Pachaks, but when they loose their yellow hair and turn berserk, then it is prudent for any man to guard himself. Screaming war cries, the twins hurtled down the path. Their weapons glittered.
Like maniacal savages of a primitive time before the dawn of civilization, they burst in among the astounded head-hunters.
Barkindrar and Nath held their shots, and only just in time.
“We are with you!” shouted Tyfar. He started in running down the trail after the two Pachaks, whose right arms were going in and out twinkling with fighting fervor. The Pachaks’ two left arms apiece held their shields slanted expertly, and their tail hands swept razor-sharp steel in lethal slashes. The Nierdriks fell back, gabbling, some already turning to run.
So I lumbered down and saw off a man or two and, lo!, the path was clear.
“Well done!” panted Tyfar. “By Krun! That was a sight!”
The two Pachak brothers, Logu Fre-Da and Modo Fre-Da, bent to clean their weapons with methodical care on the scraps of cloth twisted around the corpses. Often it took a considerable time for a Pachak to regain normalcy from that fierce fighting frenzy; but I, like many men, considered that this berserk image of the Pachaks was carefully fostered, designed to impress and intimidate. It formed a part of their life-style only when they chose. All the same, there was no doubt that, often and often, something in that skirling onslaught got into their blood.
The Wizard of Loh, Deb-Lu Quienyin, was looking pleased. So was I. We had arranged with the two Pachaks to look out for the old wizard, and although they had not yet entered his employ and given their nikobi, which code of loyal service would have bound them, they were actively aware of their responsibility.
There were nine of us, nine adventurers seeking to escape from this artificial mound, this Moder which contained treasure and horror, and now I turned to look at my two rascals who came walking down toward us.
Nodgen, the tough Brokelsh, carried a bloodstained spear.
Hunch, the Tryfant, poked apprehensively at one of the Nierdriks, who flopped over, his arms limp.
“Are they all—?” began Hunch.
“You great fambly!” roared Nodgen, in his coarse Brokelsh way.
I did not smile. I was aware of the decline of the suns, and the lengthening jade- and ruby-tinged shadows beneath the trees.
“Let us get on.”
Yes, there were nine of us, and we wended down the side of the Moder and we kept a very sharp eye out for more unpleasantness.
We had chosen to descend by a path different from the one up which the expedition had toiled to the summit, and now as we went down, the sweet scent of twining plants filled our nostrils, and the tinkling sounds of hidden brooks made a mockery of the horror contained within the Moder. Hunch kept on casting glances back up the path. Well, that was fine. That meant we had our backs covered.
To look at us as we came to the base of the descent and surveyed the belt of thorny scrub ahead would no doubt have occasioned either amusement or disdain in any splendid court of Kregen. We had outfitted ourselves with fresh clothes; but now these were ripped and torn and stained. But our weapons were sharp. I noticed with interest that Quienyin continued to carry his shortsword strapped to his waist.
Perhaps his powers had not fully returned? He had lost his powers as a famed and feared Wizard of Loh, and within the lowest depths of the Moder he had regained them. But — perhaps he had not satisfied himself? It seemed to me he was not prepared to put full trust in himself or his powers just yet. That made sense, given the harsh and terrible nature of much of Kregen.
The sense of power being exercised wantonly, the crushing feeling of oppression, and the expectation of impending doom we had lived with during our time in the Moder did not magically lift the moment we stepped off the mountain. Naïve to expect it would. The Wizard of the Moder might have been tamed; now we had to face the terrors of the Humped Land, the sere and unforgiving land clustered and clumped with the artificial mounds, each containing fortune and horror.
The land ahead of us and barring our escape would test us all.
“You two,” said Prince Tyfar with that habitual note of command tempered by the feelings of comradeship, “scout the entrance where we came in. It is just possible a few beasts have been left us.”
“Quidang, Prince!” said Barkindrar and Nath, and they took themselves off, moving very circumspectly among the foliage.
The members of the main expedition, from whom we had been parted in the depths of the Moder, would have been long since gone. They would be spurring back to civilization bearing the loot. I looked at Tyfar and he saw my quizzical glance.
“I know, Jak, I know. But we must try.”