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Fliers of Antares

Fliers of Antares by Alan Burt Akers
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The eighth book of the Dray Prescot series.

Dray Prescot, the Earthman who had been brought across interstellar space as the tool of the mysterious Star Lords, confronted his most baffling task while he was a hunted and harried wanderer of the continent of Havilfar. That task was to discover the means by which the aircraft of that continent's most advanced civilization operated. Prescot is no scientist, but fulfill his task he must or he would never return to the princess and homeland he had won. So, for Dray Prescot there was but one course -- with a whole continent against him, with time itself conspiring to balk him, the secrets of an unknown science must be made his...

Mushroom Publishing; February 2006
ISBN 9781843193937
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: Fliers of Antares
Author: Alan Burt Akers

A Note on Dray Prescot

Dray Prescot is a man above medium height, with straight brown hair and brown eyes that are level and dominating. His shoulders are immensely wide and there is about him an abrasive honesty and a fearless courage. He moves like a great hunting cat, quiet and deadly. Born in 1775 and educated in the inhumanly harsh conditions of the late eighteenth century navy, he presents a picture of himself that, the more we learn of him, grows no less enigmatic.

Through the machinations of the Savanti nal Aphrasöe — mortal but superhuman men dedicated to the aid of humanity — and of the Star Lords, he has been taken to Kregen under the Suns of Scorpio many times. On that savage and beautiful, marvelous and terrible world he rose to become Zorcander of the Clansmen of Segesthes, and Lord of Strombor in Zenicce, and a member of the mystic and martial Order of Krozairs of Zy.

Against all odds Prescot won his highest desire and in that immortal battle at The Dragon’s Bones claimed his Delia, Delia of Delphond, Delia of the Blue Mountains, as his own. And Delia claimed him in the face of her father the dread Emperor of Vallia. Amid the rolling thunder of the acclamations of Hai Jikai! Prescot became Prince Majister of Vallia, and wed his Delia, the Princess Majestrix.

Through the agency of the blue radiance sent by the Star Lords, the Summons of the Scorpion, Prescot is plunged headlong into fresh adventures on Kregen. Outwitting the Manhounds of Antares, he rescues Mog, a high priestess, and defeats the Canops who have invaded her country. Forced to fight in the arena of the Jikhorkdun of Huringa he rises to be a hyr-kaidur and at a climactic moment is rescued with Delia by his comrades in a magnificent airboat. Now they are on their way to Migladrin across the Shrouded Sea . . .

Alan Burt Akers




I swim in the Shrouded Sea

“By Vox!” yelled Vangar ti Valkanium above the clamor of the gale. “This would be no time for this flier to break down.”

From the forward starboard varter position I clung to a stanchion with my left hand and peered out and down. The sudden onset of the gale had cast a darkness over the bright day, and the twin Suns of Scorpio were dimmed. Through the drenching lash of rain and the erratic lightning-shot darkness I could see the lacerated surface of the Shrouded Sea. The wind slashed off the tops of the running waves, and the white roar below bellowed and flung wind-tossed spume flat and sheeting.

“This voller was built in Hamal, Vangar,” I yelled back at him. He could barely hear me. “She won’t break down like the rubbish they sell us in Vallia.”

We were both drenched with rain. The decks ran with water which spouted out, foaming, through the scuppers. I had full confidence in the flier, for my men had taken her from a crew of foolish raiders from Hamal, so that they could come to my rescue in the arena of the city of Huringa in Hyrklana; it was now very clear to me that the shipwrights of Hamal applied double standards to their work.

“She flies well, my prince,” shouted Vangar. He felt a particular concern for Delia and me, I well knew, for his appointment as captain of my flier brought him grave responsibilities as well as great joys.

The sea below raged and roared. We were lower than I liked, for we had tried to outrun the gale on our way back to Migladrin to finalize the new arrangements in religious and political matters of that country, and this confounded gale had seized us in its grip as we sped across the Shrouded Sea.

For a moment I lingered. The sea down there aroused strange emotions in me. The Star Lords had prohibited me from shipping in either swifter or swordship; but I admit that, despite the anger of that sea and the fierce and deadly power of wind and water, I stared a little hungrily at the element on which I had lived for so large a part of my life on the planet of my birth, four hundred light-years away.

“Get back to the helm-deldar, Vangar, and lift us. We will have to take our chances with the wind and storm higher up.”

Vangar did not argue but went at once.

To this day I cannot in truth say how it happened. I know the black thought of treachery crossed my mind, for until the conspiracy against the Emperor of Vallia, who was my father-in-law, had been completely crushed, we walked in perilous paths. And his peril also menaced his daughter, who was my wife, the Princess Majestrix Delia, my Delia of Delphond, of the Blue Mountains.

The most probable explanation is that during that brave rescue of me from the arena when the flier was being shot at from all directions, a chunk of rock thrown by a varter had crunched into the stanchion, weakening it.

Now with my weight and the wind and the violent motions of the flier, the stanchion parted.

Instantly I was tumbled headlong into thin air, spinning head over heels, gasping as the wind and rain struck and sent me plunging into that fearsome sea.

I surfaced and dragged in a huge lungful of air; then the waves smashed me over and down and so I began a protracted period of intense struggle to survive. As you know, I am a strong swimmer, and may dive deeply and long, and believe me when I say I needed every ounce of skill and endurance. The flier vanished, whisked away as a clump of thistledown is brushed by the breeze.

I, Dray Prescot, of Earth and of Kregen, battled for my life with the sea — alone.

There are techniques for keeping afloat and I used all my knowledge to remain near the surface and not allow the vicious violence of the sea to weaken and overwhelm me. That I survived is clear in that I am speaking to you on these tapes; but it was a near thing. When I felt myself at last at the end of my strength and saw there low against a level break in the clouds the long line of rocks marking a shore, I knew I had to make a supreme effort. I am not a man who will give in easily. I had been learning caution, and tried to contain that intemperate recklessness that had many times brought me kicks and cuffs, and, may Zair forgive me, so many times failed. But against the insensate violence of the sea I would exert everything of me that is me, that makes me Dray Prescot, and no other in two worlds.

Gradually, with immense effort, I maneuvered myself toward the shore. For a moment or two I thought I would be flung end-over-end onto the black rocks that showed through the gouting spray like decayed teeth; but Zair aided me — for the damned Star Lords would not, and neither would the Savanti — and I felt myself picked up and flung between two jagged rocks and so hurled onto a tiered beach of coarse gray sand. I had to summon up all the reserves of strength I had left to prevent myself from just lying there, prey to the waves, and to force myself to crawl on hands and knees up above the high water mark. Then, between two crumbling rocks, I put my head onto that sand and passed out.

The next thing I recall is being turned over gently and feeling soft hands examining my ribs and arms and legs. I lay still.

A girl’s voice, light and clear, said: “He has no broken bones, for which he may praise Mother Shoshash of the Seaweed Hair, when he awakes. Father Shoshash the Stormbrow has not been gentle with him. His ib is knocked fair out of him.”

Another girl’s voice, a little more giggly, answered. “Come away, Paesi. He looks monstrous ugly. And look at his shoulders!”

“Mmm,” said Paesi, in a way I decidedly did not like.

Thinking it expedient to regain consciousness, I let out a few grunts, heaved myself around, and opened my eyes.

Two Lamnias stared down on me. They had run back a few paces, and now stood, poised for instant flight. I have told you that certain races are famed upon Kregen for the beauty of their womenfolk, and the Lamnias, that gentle, shrewd, yellow-furred folk, are blessed with daughters who are as fair in the eyes of other races as any Fristle fifi, or apim girl, or aephar damsel of far Balintol.

The two girls, Paesi and her companion, wore simple short-sleeved white blouses and knee-length skirts of apple-green, and they carried woven wickerwork baskets over their arms. They stood regarding me uncertainly, a monstrous great hairy apim risen from the sea. Shades of Odysseus and Nausicaa! I was as salt grimed and unkempt, clad only in my old scarlet breechclout, as any shipwrecked mariner. But the two Lamnias stood, open-eyed, regarding me, and beneath the white blouses their bosoms rose and fell perhaps a little faster as I slowly stood up, and stretched, and gave thanks to Zair that I still lived.

Lamnias in youth possess that gorgeous laypom-colored dusting of fur upon their bodies that strokes as light as thistledown. Later in life the fur grows thicker and darker but seldom as thick as, for example, the fur of a Fristle. Now the two girls stared at me and the flush of blood beneath the skin showed clearly through that light yellow dusting of fur.

“I mean you no harm,” I said, trying to make my bear-like voice as friendly as possible. But when I spoke they both jumped and took a step back.

After some time I managed to convince them that I was a human being — and by that I mean a human being, as they were; and not merely apim, which they could see — and we set off to walk to their village.

I had no means of knowing where Delia might be now. What I did know, unshakably, was that she would scour the sea until she found me. She knew of my mysterious disappearances, although not the cause of them, and this time the broken stanchion would show all too clearly what had happened. I fancied then, as I went with the two Lamnia girls up past the gorse-like bushes of the shoreline and through broad-leaved sough-wood trees, that very soon the flier would come ghosting in and my friends would yell and bellow for me and a rope ladder would come tumbling down and I would be rescued again.

If I mention, now, that the broken stanchion dumped me headlong into fresh adventures, I must add that the stanchion also contributed much to the destiny of the planet Kregen itself.

The people of the village greeted me kindly. They must have observed the way I was constantly looking up into the sky as Zim and Genodras sailed past scattered clouds, shedding that streaming mingled opaz light, and perhaps they put down those searching looks to guilt against Havil, or to some religious doctrine, or even — and this would be the nature of the Lamnias — to a stiff neck I was trying to ease.

My previous experiences of Lamnias, notably with Dorval Aymlo, the merchant of Ordsmot, had shown me that they were a gentle people, good merchants, shrewd at bargaining, not warriors. The village had a wooden stockade and was tucked neatly into the crook of a river with a bluff to defend it; but it was a poor place for all that, both in military might and in wealth. It was crowded with people all engaged in running about on tasks of the utmost importance to those performing them but incomprehensible to me at the time. I detected a note of competition in the air, and saw young girls dancing and singing in long lines, and young men running races and hurling blunted wooden javelins, throwing weapons quite unlike the formidable stuxes of Havilfar.

The Lammas seated on wooden stools at the entrance to the largest house, a two-story structure festooned with many varieties of flowers, I assumed to be the village council, and the headman, a shrewd and sad-looking fellow called Rorpal of Podia, greeted me with a punctiliousness I found touching.

“Llahal, stranger who has escaped from the house of Shoshash.”

“Llahal, Rorpal of Podia.”

Podia was the name of the village, and it was situated on one of the innumerable islands of the Shrouded Sea. On the other side of the river a steep, cone-shaped volcano emitted a lazy cloud of smoke. Perhaps the Lamnias thought I kept looking at He of the Yrium, the volcano, in my searching looks at the sky. Yrium is a word with profound meanings of force, meaning power, either power conveyed by office, or by strength of character, or given to a person in any way that unmistakably blesses — or curses — him with undisputed dominance over his fellows. To dub a natural phenomenon like a volcano as He of the Yrium was to convey in the most pungent way all the awful ferocity and power these people regarded as residing in the volcano. The Shrouded Sea is plagued with volcanic activity, as well as earth tremors and earthquakes.

“I am Dray Prescot,” I said. Then, I added, “Krozair of Zy,” because at times I am a boaster as well as an intemperate hothead, and I felt secure in the knowledge that they would not understand what I was telling them anyway.

“Llahal, Dray Prescot, Krozair of Zy. You are welcome to Podia. Will you tell us your story?”

I did not smile at this, for that would have been impolite; I simply sat on the wooden bench indicated and, with a glass of fruit juice and a plate of palines at my side, I told them a little. I mentioned the Canops, that fierce, martial race of people who had been driven out of their island home because of its near-destruction by earthquake, and of their settling in Migladrin, but before I had a chance to say that the Miglas, with the help of my friends, had taken back their own country, the Lamnias reacted.

To my surprise they were disappointed that the Canops had left the Shrouded Sea island of Canopdrin.

“They are honest traders,” said Rorpal, rubbing the laypom-colored fur beneath his chin. “Now there is no one to stand against the aragorn of Sorah.”

Well, as you know, I was acquainted with the evil ways of the aragorn. Slave raiders and slave-masters, the aragorn plunder their way to fortune over the agony and the blood of anyone unfortunate enough to be too weak to stand up against them. The valiant people of my island of Valka had driven out the aragorn of Vallia. I was in the midst of a political campaign to drive them out of Vallia altogether. And now, here in the continent of Havilfar, I found aragorn operating in the Shrouded Sea. This was not surprising. Slaves are required. Slaves are always needed. Slave-masters will always find a calling when there are weak people to be enslaved and strong and unscrupulous people to enslave them.

“You fear the aragorn of Sorah?”

“Aye, Horter Prescot. We fear them.”

I sat back and considered. I had chanced here because a weakened stanchion of an airboat had pitched me into the sea. I might have drifted anywhere, or been drowned and forgotten. I had not been sent here by the Star Lords. No blue radiance had enfolded me, no gigantic representation of a scorpion had borne me away to a desperate mission for the Star Lords. No. No, I had no business here. If I occupied myself in every small corner of Havilfar — let alone Kregen — interfering with the ways of life that had gone on for centuries, there would be no end to it. This business was not my business.

All the same, I felt the thrill of blood through my arteries, and the word aragorn — remembering Valka and that great song, “The Fetching of Drak na Valka” — made my hands close as though they held a sword.

I now know I was wrong in shrugging off someone else’s problems. But you must remember that I was young according to Kregan standards, to which I have become adjusted, and I was newly married with baby twins, Drak and Lela. I wanted to go home to Valka and take my Delia in my arms and forget all about Star Lords and slavery and the other pressing problems of Kregen. I was even considering leaving off my search for the Savanti, those mortal but superhuman men of the Swinging City of Aphrasöe.

It is not easy for a fighting-man to reconcile himself to the philosophy that teaches we are all responsible for each other, and that one person’s loss is a loss to all.

So I changed the subject and said: “I see you hold a great festival, Horter Rorpal. Your young men and your young girls compete against each other.”

Rorpal’s sad face looked sadder than ever and he leaned forward, about to answer me.

An old Lamnia at his side put a hand on Rorpal’s arm. This Lamnia’s yellow fur showed silver tips, a clear indication of his great age, for I guessed he must be well past a hundred and seventy-five. He shook his head in warning.

Whatever Rorpal had been about to say, that hand on his arm and that shake of the head changed his mind.

“Yes, Horter Prescot.” He took a paline and munched it thoughtfully.

I waited politely; but he said nothing more to enlighten me.

Although I wore my scarlet breechclout, cinctured up with a broad leather belt, and a sailor’s knife lay scabbarded back of my right hip, I felt naked. On Kregen, that marvelous world that is so heartbreakingly beautiful and so horrendously cruel, a man must carry a weapon if he wishes to remain free in so very many areas of the globe. The unarmed combat disciplines of the Krozairs of Zy could keep me out of much trouble, but I hanker always for the feel of a sword in my fist.

The activities of the youngsters, which could be viewed with ease from this high verandah outside the headman’s house, came to a climax with much shouting and hullabalooing, and at last a group of about fifty youths and maidens, their dusting of yellow fur bright in the declining rays of the twin suns, clustered together, entwined with wreaths of flowers. Something of the sadness of Rorpal of Podia must have affected me, for these circlets of flowers could scarcely be wreaths. They must be the victors’ crowns.

And yet the flowers, so brilliant, so beautiful, were linked together in long chains, so that the fifty were in very truth entwined about, bound, almost.

Masses of people moved away from the open space, laughing among themselves, and yet their laughter struck chill. I glanced at Rorpal.

He stood up. At his side a young man with as aggressive a cast of feature as any Lamnia might aspire to handed the headman his spear of office. Around the spear had been entwined flowers. Rorpal lifted the spear, and the gathering crowds below fell silent and shuffled into place before the verandah and the group of village elders, leaving the fifty bound in their flower chains some way off, isolated.

Rorpal was about to say something that might explain these proceedings. A woman ran urgently up and past the crowd’s outskirts, pushed vigorously past the aggressive youth, who made no real attempt to halt her. She stopped in front of Rorpal. She looked agitated and yet determined, and her face, pleasant and mellow in the Lamnia way, set itself in lines of unfamiliar hardness.

“Rorpal! I call on you — Paesi — she it was — and it is decided that Polosi shall go!” She was stammering so much through her assumed hardness that she made no sense. At least, she made no sense to me. But Rorpal of Podia understood what she wanted.

He struck the butt of the spear on the wooden flooring three times. The silence became absolute, except for the evening breeze in the trees and a few dogs howling from the compound where they had been herded during the ceremonies. I noticed particularly, from my already vast experience, that no babies were crying.

“Very well, Mother Mala. Paesi it was, we all agree to that, it is attested.”

“It is!”

Rorpal gestured in a way that might have embraced this woman, Mother Mala, the crowds, the fifty youths in their flowery chains, the elders on the verandah — or me — and he banged his spear down again, four times. Abruptly everyone burst into shouts and cheering. But, even then, that cheering struck a somber note, there on the dusty compound of the little village of Podia. I noticed that most of the cheering came from the young men and women mixed in the crowds before the verandah. The fifty bound in flowers remained silent, although everyone looked toward the elders on the verandah.

Then — one of those fifty burst into hysterical shouting. A young man broke the flower chain by a single movement of his hands and ran and ran and so was swept up into the arms of Mother Mala. I saw the girl Paesi, who had found me on the shore, also hugging and kissing both the boy and his mother.

Lamnias passed among the crowds carrying large gourd-shaped vessels of pottery that are sometimes called amphorae, although they are not strictly of that shape or form, for they have a stoppered spout, and their more proper name is holc. They were mounted on wicker carrying baskets upon the men’s backs and it was remarkable with what nicety and skill the men could tilt the holc and direct a stream of wine into an outstretched cup without so much as spilling a drop. Fresh wine in fresh goblets was produced for the elders upon the verandah, and I took the goblet offered me. Rorpal of Podia banged his spear butt again, twice and a third time, and the silence fell.

Rorpal lifted his goblet.

Everyone raised their goblets or cups high into the air.

“Let us drink the parting toast!” called Rorpal. “The toast of da’eslam! The farewell and the greeting! Da’eslam!”

“Da’eslam! Da’eslam!”

We all drank.

Then, as is the way with Lamnias, everything was over and the people shuffled away. I put the goblet down and looked for the fifty — no, the forty-nine — and saw they were gone from their places.

Only the coiled chains of flowers lay there, abandoned, their petals wilting and losing their color.

One function of the meaning of da’eslam, as I knew even then, rather like the vaol-paol, is the end and the beginning, and equally the beginning and the end. But whereas the circle of vaol-paol encompasses all things, da’eslam contains a narrower vision connected almost always with a person’s fate and destiny.

The Lamnias had summed me up shrewdly.

In the last of the light streaming and mingling from the emerald orb of Genodras, which is called Havil in Havilfar, and the ruby orb of Zim, which is called Far in Havilfar, I saw a small group of men walk from the stockade past the last of the houses and so come out onto the open space before the verandah and the elders and the headman.

I saw their faces, and instinctively my right hand crossed my waist, groping for the hilt of a sword that was not there.

Yes, the Lamnias understood men, even apims, even apims like myself.

The newcomers stood in the opaz radiance, their shadows long upon the packed dust where the feet of the Lamnias had so lately shuffled. I saw those damned faces. Thick black hair, greased and oiled and curled, hung about their evil faces. These beings were not apim. They were of a race of diffs I had not encountered before, and they were beast-men and men-beasts of so forbidding an aspect I truly thought that a Chulik might think twice before offending one of their number.

Low were their brows, low and wide, above flaring nostrils and gape-jawed mouths in which I saw snaggly teeth bared in grins of anticipation. Their eyes were wide spaced, brilliant, yet narrow and cold. These halflings wore armor, scale armor that was as commonplace as any I had seen. They wore close-fitting helmets which I then thought were brass, and only later discovered to be gold over iron. They carried weapons of the fighting-man of Havilfar — thraxter, stux, shield.

Apart from the impression of evil upon their faces, they would not have occasioned in me any further interest outside my usual fascination with the myriads of types and species upon Kregen, but for their tails. I saw at once that these tails were probably their most formidable armament. Long and whiplike, the tails were carried high and arrogantly, curved over the right shoulder. And every tail ended in a razor-sharp curved blade. The glinting light from the twin suns caught the serried blades, upflung on the flaunting tails, and glittered like a field of diamonds.

The faces of diffs are passing strange in the eyes of a man from this Earth. Some are beautiful, some are ugly, some misshapen in our estimation, others quite unremarkable. Yet how difficult it is to say with complete surety that a certain expression upon the face of a man who is not apim — is not a member of Homo sapiens — means exactly what you think it means. I took the gloating faces to portray evil at that moment, and although I was proved right — to my cost! — the assumption was made so rapidly, so much from instinct, that immediately I forced myself to relax and to believe that an alien’s face cannot show what a man’s face of this Earth would show and necessarily mean the same thing.

Below the scaled corselet each man wore a brilliant scarlet kilt. I stared. I suppose that, too, influenced me, like any onker. The diffs wore the old brave scarlet, the color that had in so many ways become associated so closely with me and mine upon Kregen.

They advanced with a steady step and I saw that they kept in step and to a wedgelike formation. The leader, broad and bulky, wore a multitude of feathers and silks, not on his helmet but about his person. He halted below the verandah and looked up. Once more I had to control myself, to make myself relax. Was I not learning the ways of quietness and peace upon Kregen under Antares?

“Is all ready, Rorpal?”

“All is ready, Notor.”

“Then bring them out, you rast, or I’ll sink my stux in your belly.”

I straightened up at these words, for I understood a little of the thinking behind such uncalled-for insult and arrogance. As I straightened, I felt a hazy qualm or dizziness pass, as though my brain had moved within my skull, fractionally later than I had intended.

So then it was that I understood how easily the Lamnias had read me, how shrewdly they had taken stock of me, and what they had done. I understood now what had transpired here. There was no need for Rorpal of Podia to lean regretfully toward me as I stumbled, and clutched at the railing, and so, stupidly, collapsed to the wooden floor, and for him to say: “We express our deep regret, Horter Prescot. But we are driven by devils. We must send fifty of our youths and our maidens, and the aragorn will welcome you exceedingly in place of Polosi, the son of Mala and sister of Paesi, who found you and so had claim upon you.”

Then Rorpal, who had the good of Podia at heart, called to the aragorn leader: “This apim is a great warrior, a Hyr-paktun. In him you will be well pleased.”

Then the drug in the wine felled me utterly and Notor Zan engulfed me in blackness.