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Arena of Antares

Dray Prescot #7

Arena of Antares by Alan Burt Akers
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The seventh book of the Dray Prescot series.

Never a man to leave something half done, Dray Prescot knew his task on the mysterious continent of Havilfar was far from completed. There were cruel conquerors to be overthrown, there was pursuit of the manhounds and their masters, and there was the dreaded arena. Could he survive the life of a gladiator against the killers and monsters of a spoiled queen -- while the Star Lords waited for his mission to continue?

Mushroom Publishing; February 2006
ISBN 9781843193852
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Arena of Antares
Author: Alan Burt Akers
 
Excerpt

Chapter One

The Star Lords command

“What is it the Star Lords command, bird of ill omen?”

“That is better, Dray Prescot! You should know you have not completed your task. Not until the land of Migla is cleansed of the Canops and Migshaanu is returned to her rightful place — for a time only! — will your work be done.”

“I am almost naked, I have no weapons, no money, two girls depend on me, the whole country is up in arms against me. You are hard taskmasters—”

“You have been naked before, Dray Prescot, and weaponless. You will do this thing.”

With a loud and harsh squawk, a cry of triumphant rage, the raptor winged away into the fading suns-glow. Zim and Genodras, which hereabouts I should call with all hatred Far and Havil, sank in a smoldering angry blaze of jade and ruby, dropping down over the horizon. Darkness closed over the land of Migla upon the continent of Havilfar on Kregen.

Stunned at the enormity of the sentence passed upon me I went down to the boat.

In the darkness, before any of the seven moons of Kregen rose, I pushed off and in silence took the looms of the oars into my hands.

What I must do I must do.

Oh, my little Drak, my little Lela!

And my Delia, my Delia of Delphond — when would I see her again and hold her dear form in my arms?

The two girls, Saenda and Quaesa, ceased their silly chattering at sight of my face, and they shivered. Turko looked at me, hesitated, and did not speak, for which I was grateful. Turko had stood upon the bridge there in the great cavern of rushing waters beneath the citadel of Mungul Sidrath and had taken the crossbow bolts on that new shield of his. He was to become a good companion. His superb muscular development and the cunning khamster skills of unarmed combat were to stand me in good stead. But, just then, by remaining silent he did me the best service he could.

His ropy muscles moved with the ease and suppleness that all the bunched and massive bashing power of a warrior’s hardened muscles might never match. He understood at once that we were not to escape easily down the River Magan away from this eerie town of Yaman in the land of Migla.

Out across the water, lights moved in the starshot darkness. The armored men of the Canopdrin army continued to search for us. I pulled down gently, letting the ebb take us. Occasionally a hail floated across the water. The girls shivered in the bottom of the boat. If we were caught their fate would be horrible, worse than it would have been before I rescued them.

They were no longer my concern.

Those aloof beings, the Star Lords, had commanded me to erase the blight of the Canops from this land, and from the very first I had seen the enormous difficulties of that. I had no desire at all to involve myself in fresh fighting and scheming and planning; all I wanted to do was return home to Vallia or Valka, depending on where Delia and the children might be staying, and clasp them in my arms once more.

But if I refused to help the Miglas turn the Canops out, I would be seized up by the ghastly blue lambency of the scorpion-image and hurled back four hundred light-years to the planet of my birth.

That must not be allowed to happen.

Therefore I must begin at once to scheme and plan to aid old Mog the Witch, the old crone who was now the Mighty Mog, to regain her rightful place as high priestess to the all-powerful Migshaanu. Migla was dominated by religion. Mind you, if this Migshaanu was really all-powerful, then she would never have allowed her high priestess to be defamed, her temple razed, and her religion brought into contempt. If Mog or any of her friends and adherents thought of that, I guessed, they pushed the obvious consequences of the thought aside with the kinds of arguments that have sustained proscribed religions through the ages.

Lights glimmered upon the water and the two girls crouched down, frightened and shivering, and Turko looked at me. All about us in the moonless darkness lurked danger. No hand would be raised to save us. Darkness and danger and the creeping sense of impending doom cast a shadow upon the boat, a shadow that had not existed only moments before, when I had gone up to the bank for the last time before pushing off.

Our whole situation had changed.

Now I must go boldly ahead into fresh dangers and new adventures, and never reckon the cost until the bidding of the Star Lords had been done.

All that had passed meant nothing.

This was a new beginning, a fresh assault upon the destiny that had brought me to this fantastic planet of Kregen beneath the Suns of Scorpio.

Lights moved upon the waters.

Our little boat drifted with only a faint gurgle and splash, a shadow among shadows.

“They draw close, Dray,” said Turko, his voice a whisper in the gloom.

“Aye.”

Plans and schemes tumbled through my head like a cloud of those infernal midges of the marshes men call kitches, cursing and swiping, and no plan was a good plan.

One of the three lesser moons of Kregen rose and hurtled low over the horizon.

That speck of light racing between the star clusters served only further to enhance my mood of restlessness, of unease, of a mindless shifting of forces I could not control or even come to terms with, and so hated and detested. Water splashed nearby and a voice cursed, the deep rolling cadences of a man who swore by Lem, the silver leem.

We peered in that scant and erratic illumination and made out the dark loom of a boat, ghosting along, low in the water. I could feel the hard lenk of the boat’s gunwales beneath my hands, and I gripped tightly, feeling the frustration choking me. I have told you many times that on Kregen a man must possess a weapon and be skilled in its use if he wishes to survive, and this is no less true for the marvelous skills of the Khamorros, the khamsters famed for unarmed combat, like Turko. I had not revealed all my mind to Turko on the subject of unarmed combat against edged and pointed weapons, and would not do so unless Zair commanded in a moment of intense danger, and so I fretted that I did not grasp a sword or a spear or a bow as that creeping dark boat ghosted over the water as we drifted down.

Those men over there, those Canops, hard tough fighting-men from the devastated island of Canopdrin in the Shrouded Sea who had invaded Migla and made the land their own and subverted the peoples’ allegiances, they would not scruple to kill unarmed men. And I knew they possessed the skill to slay even a great Khamorro like Turko.

Our boat drifted, and I, Dray Prescot, peered over the gunwale at that other craft, and I cursed, and I was very conscious of my shame.

“She of the Veils will be up soon,” said Turko. He spoke low on two counts, as I well knew. One, so that the armed Canops should not hear, and two, so that Saenda and Quaesa should not hear, either, and begin a frightened squeaking.

“There are more of these Opaz-forsaken cramphs about than I had bargained for, Turko.”

“They slink like leem.”

“A leem may be slain with a sword.”

“Morro the Muscle faced and breasted and slew a leem, Dray. It is not left for mortal men.”

“Maybe not.”

He cocked an eye at me sharply. Some of his old quizzical appraisal of my prowess showed through. He must clearly have wondered if I spoke thoughtlessly, or boasted emptily, or — but he could not know of the existence of Sanurkazz and the Eye of the World even as he had been unaware of the unarmed combat disciplines of the Krozairs of Zy.[1]

For a space we drifted silently and the Canops’ boat angled away from us, with an occasional faint splash. The torchlights dimmed. This would not do. I was acting as though I intended to take the two girls to safety, either to the land of Cnarveyl to the north or to the land of Tyriadrin to the south. I had to see them safe. That was a task I had laid on myself, for all their bitchiness and squabbling and their lofloo-like hitchings and squirmings. They were just two silly girls, whom I had happened to rescue from slavery and the Manhounds of Antares, and they could not weigh in the scales against what the Star Lords had commanded me to do.

A faint pinkish wash of light sifted above the eastern horizon, away across the mudflats and rushes fringing the River Magan. The river runs generally in a northeasterly direction into the Shrouded Sea; but in its sluggish windings a reach opened up due east, and She of the Veils rose and cast her streaming pink light full along the length of water.

I was looking up, watching the pinkly glowing orb as it rose, and I saw a black and angular silhouette for a moment flitter before the moon, dark and sharp and ominous, and as suddenly flicker away and vanish.

Turko sucked in his breath.

The two girls had not seen, and so were silent.

‘Tell me, Turko.”

“By Morro the Muscle! A volrok, Dray. A yetch of a volrok.”

Many and various are the beast-men and men-beasts of Kregen. Away in The Stratemsk and the Hostile Territories I had encountered monstrous flying animals and reptiles, and here in Havilfar there were many beasts of the air. I kept a wary eye open aloft, and took up into my hands the boat hook. It was a poor thing, with a clumsy bronze point and hook; but it was all we had.

The thing had seen us, that was sure, and it must have correctly surmised we were a small party. In a rush of wings and a harsh clacking cry, it was upon us.

Now Turko had called the volrok a yetch, which is a Havilfarese term of abuse generally used for a human being, and this should have warned me. I was not facing a flying beast.

I faced a flying man.

The volrok had intelligence, and quick wits, and a supple sinewy strength for all that he was lightly built. He was no impiter, no corth, no fluttrell; he was a man, a halfling. His wings beat against the starlight and I caught the gleam of a weapon. She of the Veils threw down a fuzzy pinkish radiance, and in that glow I saw his eyes, glaring at me, as he circled and dived.

“Watch his feet, Dray!”

I grunted and leaned away from that first vicious onslaught. Wings buffeted air and I smashed the boat hook up and caught the descending blow of a long spearlike weapon, something after the fashion of the Ullars’ toonon, and so deflected the blow. The encounter had given me a closer look at the volrok.

He circled, screeching, and his wings folded, and he dived again. He had evolved from an eight-limbed stock, for his back bore real wings, wide and narrow, sharply angled, wings that enabled him really to fly. His arms held the toonon. His third pair of limbs consisted of legs — real honest-to-goodness legs — with attachments that made of them ghastly weapons of destruction and not honest or good at all. His remaining pair of limbs had fused in a fan to form a tail.

Turko brandished an oar above his head.

The volrok dived, and swerved, and the bronze head of the boat hook clashed against the toonon and then I saw the truth of those legs. On each heel had been bound a long and wickedly curved blade, like twin scimitars, and as the volrok screeched and rose so the blades whickered down toward my head. I ducked. I felt a grazing blow across my scalp.

Turko prodded with his oar.

Saenda and Quaesa were screaming. There was no time to do anything about them.

The volrok swerved there in the level air, turned, and I saw his narrow head peering down to regard us more closely. He wore a tight leather tunic, much decorated with feathers, and a belt from which hung a sword in a scabbard whose lockets held it so that it kept out of his way when flying. His legs scissored and the deadly wink of those scimitar blades made me dash the blood from my eyes and take a fresh grip on the boat hook.

The cut I had sustained in Mungul Sidrath had opened again and the bandage could no longer hold back the blood.

Turko was swearing on about the Muscle and swords and spears and devilish flying man-monsters.

The volrok folded his wings and plummeted.

This time I had to ignore his toonon. The spear had to be slipped, as Turko and I knew how, and I had to get those scimitar blades of his in good sight in that treacherous illumination.

I switched grips on the boat hook.

Instead of holding the sturm-wood shaft with my left hand forward, like a spearman, I held it right hand forward, like a swordsman.

A wooden longsword had been used before. This time it was of unhandy length, of ridiculous length; but it had a bronze point and a bronze hook. The volrok dropped down and I had time to realize the scimitar blades had been strapped to his heels to give a straight-line strength and control from his legs; had they been strapped to his feet or toes he would not have been able to deliver the same power. He would not have been able so easily to drag the blades free and lift off after a strike, either. As it was, he couldn’t stand up easily for the blades curved to form a continuation of his legs.

The dark form swept in toward us. The glitter of the spear meant nothing. He would jerk his legs forward in the last moment of his dive, impaling me, or slicing my head open, and then fly on, trailing his legs, and so wrench the scimitars free.

With a yell to Turko, “Get down, Turko!” I ducked and let the toonon go past. It cracked the lenk gunwale of the boat and skidded on. Then I swung. The boat hook circled and smashed with awful force against the volrok’s thighs. Both his legs broke. The blades abruptly dangled.

He shrieked.

In that tiny moment I was able to drive on and up, hard, and the bronze point tore up into his body.

Turko’s oar battered his wings.

The volrok screamed. His wings churned the air as he sought to drag himself away. The boat hook had caught him. I leaned back, savagely dragging him down. The oar smashed down now on his head. With a convulsive effort, which tore his insides in a shower of blood, the volrok broke free from the bronze hook. He rose unsteadily, shrieking, and his wings beat feebly, and wavering and lurching, he flew away in the moonlit shadows. I was not content to let him go, and cursed.

“We could have used his toonon, and those vicious blades.”

“He was a fighter—”

“Oh, aye, he was a fighter.”

“Vicious, the volroks.” Turko turned back and looked down into the boat. “Stop yelling! He’s gone.”

The girls yelped into snuffled wailings.

“Do they hunt in pairs, Turko, or singly?” I ignored Saenda and Quaesa. This was something a fighting-man had to know. “Or — in packs?”

“It depends entirely on which town or province they come from. I do not claim to recognize all their markings. But, they are men, they have intelligence—”

“I see.”

I scanned the night sky with the warming glow of She of the Veils spreading out upon the dark waters. Our noise had attracted attention. Lights moved across the water, waving, clotting into a bunch, growing in size, nearing.

“They’ve spotted us, by the Muscle!”

“Aye!”

I dropped onto the thwart, chucked the boat hook along the bottom boards and was rewarded by a shriek from one of the girls, and unshipped the oars. Now my training as an oar-slave aboard the swifters of the inner sea and the swordships prowling up along the Hoboling Islands would come into full use — not to mention my early years as a seaman of Earth’s late eighteenth century wooden navy.

The blades bit deeply. Water surged. I put my back into it, uncaring of the blood that clotted on my forehead and stung coldly in the night breeze. I pulled for the north bank. It was the nearer of the two. Coming up fast from astern the long low shape of a galley, a liburna, hauled into just a prow upflung against the stars and what appeared a single oar, rising and falling, each side, starboard and larboard.

I pulled.

But those whipped Miglas slaving aboard the liburna pulled too, and the galley foamed along in our wake, closing.

“Where away ahead, Turko?”

He jumped for the bows, past my back. In a moment he called: “To the left — that is your right, Dray—”

“Aye.”

The little fishing boat, a mere dinghy in reality, surged ahead. If any more volroks attacked now we were done for. We would be done for, too, if I did not reach the shore with time for us to leap out and escape into those alleys of darkness between the mudbanks and the mudflats. I pulled. We had passed a quiet day, and rested, and my strength was restored. I would not tire yet; but there was little chance of a single man in a clumsy boat like this outrunning a galley crewed by oarsmen at forty oars, at the least.

“By the Muscle! Volroks! Scores of the yetches!”

I did not waste effort looking up. I pulled. The water splashed and hissed and at each stroke the boat leaped. The liburna following cleft the water with a fine pink-tinged white comb in her teeth. She gained. I pulled. The boat leaped as Turko, waving his oar, for there were two pairs aboard, leaped and slashed wildly above his head.

A wing buffeted me, over the head and for a moment a dark haze dropped over my eyes; but I fought it. I had to. This was no way for Dray Prescot, Krozair of Zy, Lord of Strombor — and much else besides — to die.

The girls were simply huddled together and screaming in mindless fear. The galley smashed her way after us. And the volroks descended in clouds from the pink-tinged darkness about us.

“This is the end!” shouted Turko, bashing with his oar. “We’re done for!”


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ISBNs
1843193817
9781843193814
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9781843193852