"You're right," Kaldar said. "It's unlikely we drifted
more than ten or twenty miles from the source of the fire weapon. If the
fleet comes looking for us, they'll be easy targets. Just as we were."
We were sitting in the royal cabin, Kaldar, Darisha, Darloona,
and I. It was the middle of the Thanatorian night and the room's single
lantern threw long shadows on the walls.
"What can we do?" Darisha said. "We're still a long way
from Shondakor. There's no way we can warn father or the fleet."
Kaldar said. "No, that's not a possibility. The ships will
be in the air within the next few hours, heading this way. But, as I said,
we can't be that far from where we saw the light. Perhaps we could find
the fire weapon and put it out of action."
"That's a lot of distance to cover in a short amount of
time," I said. "And we're not even sure what direction we drifted from
"The helmsman will have his last bearing, and he should
be able to determine the direction using a lodestone."
"A compass? I didn't know you had them."
"One of father's contributions to our knowledge," Darisha
"It's a slim chance, I know," Kaldar said. "But unless
anyone has a better idea, I'm going to try my luck in the Kumala."
"I'll go with you," Darisha said.
"You will not!" said Darloona. "It's bad enough that my
son has to do this. I will not allow my daughter to go as well."
"Mother, I can help. You and father trained me to fight."
Kaldar said, "It's not a question of your ability or your
bravery, Dar. Both heirs to the throne can't go traipsing off into the
jungle on what will probably be a suicide mission."
Darisha started to argue but Darloona said, "The subject
is closed, Darisha. You will obey me in this." Then to Kaldar, "You must
at least take some of the guards with you."
"There aren't enough," said Kaldar. "Those that remain
must stay here to guard you and the nobles. Whoever was behind the attack
on the Avenger may come looking for survivors."
"He's right," I said. "The guards should stay here. I'll
go with Kaldar."
Kaldar said, "It's not your responsibility, Charles. And
what of your friend's daughter? If something happens to you, what becomes
“If the sky navy gets blown to pieces there won’t be anyone
to help me search for Althea,” I said. “Besides, I can’t let the son of
Jandar of Callisto go into danger alone.”
Kaldar grinned. “Can you use a sword?”
“I can, but it’s been a while since I did any fencing.
Better give me a heavy blade. I’ll be better off hacking than stabbing.
And if all else fails I’ll throw my rope at them.”
“Very well then. You and I will go. I’ll find you a sword.”
The blade I ended up with was indeed heavy. It looked like
a cross between a machete and a scimitar. It had a thick, slightly curved
blade. Kaldar found a sheath and a heavy leather belt to hold it.
I had done some saber fencing years ago and I’d studied
Kendo but I had no illusions about my ability with a sword. Hopefully we
wouldn’t run into any master swordsmen. I buckled on my sword and
made my way up to the deck. Kaldar was waiting along with his mother and
“The helmsman thinks we should go North East,” Kaldar said.
“This loadstone will help us stay on course.” In his hand he held a short,
wide, brass cylinder. It had a hinged lid, which opened to reveal a sliver
of metal affixed by a pin to a circular plate. It was a rough compass but
it seemed to function properly. Or at least properly for Callisto.
“We should be on our way,” Kaldar said. “Loathe though
I am to travel in the Kumala at night, we don’t have much choice.”
Darloona stepped up to Kaldar and embraced him. To my surprise
she next put her arms around me and said, “Look after my son. He is as
reckless as his father. I think that you are perhaps more level headed.”
“I have my moments,” I said. “I’ll do my best, your highness.”
Darisha too embraced her brother and them me in turn. To
me she said, “I still wish I was going with you.”
I said, “Staying behind will probably be harder. But your
mother needs you. Your people too.”
Darisha wrinkled her nose at me but she smiled. “Now you
sound like father.”
“All we earthmen sound alike,” I said.
Kaldar said. “We have to go.”
I nodded. I’d changed into a fresh t-shirt and removed
my rope from the laundry bag and coiled it over one shoulder. I handed
the bag to Darisha. “Keep an eye on this, will you? I’ll probably get this
shirt ripped up too.”
“Be careful, Charles.”
One of the crewmen lowered a rope ladder. It didn’t have
far to fall since the partially crushed hull rested on the ground. Kaldar
swung over the side and scrambled down to the waiting jungle. I followed
Kaldar checked the compass and we started in the direction
the helmsman had indicated. Within only a few moments we were out of sight
of the Avenger, deep within the gloom of the Grand Kumala. Most of what
little starlight filtered down was lost in the heavy canopy of leaves,
branches and vines.
“You might want to keep your sword handy,” Kaldar said.
“There are many night predators in the Kumala, and there won’t be time
to draw you blade if one attacks you.”
I said, “Will a sword do me much good against most of the
creatures in the jungle.”
“That’s what I thought.” I drew my blade anyway.
We walked for a while in silence, then Kaldar said, “Are
there any jungles near where you live on Earth?”
“Not really,” I said. “I live in a state called Georgia.
It’s in the southern part of the United States. I guess your dad told you
“Many times. If the gate is working again, perhaps I may
yet visit there.”
“Maybe you can. Anyway, Georgia is close to the bottom
of North America. It gets pretty hot there and we do have some heavy forests
and thick vegetation but the climate isn’t tropical and there are no jungles.”
“Are there mountains?”
“Yeah, lots of mountains. There’s a big group of them called
the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from where I live.”
“I’d very much like to see them.”
“I hope that you can, Kaldar.”
Whatever Kaldar was going to say next turned into a yell
and I heard a loud crashing noise as if he had fallen among the trees.
It was too dark to see clearly and as I stepped toward where he’d last
been standing I lost my footing and was suddenly rolling down a steep hill
or ridge. The world went over and over and I could just glimpse Kaldar
tumbling several feet below me. Somehow I managed to keep my grip on my
sword, but I held it at arm’s length so as not to dismember myself as I
My forward momentum was arrested suddenly as I collided
with a firm but yielding surface. It felt as if I’d rolled into a thick
bunch of slender vines. I tried to disentangle myself and found that I
couldn’t. The vines were covered with some gooey, sticky substance that
clung to my skin and clothes. I tried to pull away enough to use my sword
on the strands.
“Be still!” Kaldar said from somewhere to my left. “If
you move the webs too much you’ll only bring the Ximchak all the sooner.”
I suddenly felt cold all over. I said, “This sticky stuff
is the web of the giant spiders.”
“Yes, and it’s almost impossible to free yourself once
The natural reaction to realizing you’re caught in a spider’s
web, when you remember that spiders like to bite their prey and paralyze
them and fill them full of venom that reduces their insides to liquid so
the spider can drink it, is to thrash about like a madman. But I didn’t.
I took several deep breaths and let them out slowly.
I said, “The Ximchak must be different from the spiders
back home. Earth spiders wait in the web and immediately attack anything
that becomes entangled.”
“If the Ximchak were here, they would do the same,” Kaldar
said. “That’s why I cautioned you to remain still. However they also spin
more than one web and will travel about, checking back on their traps as
they go. Since none have attacked us, we can assume they’re away from the
web. It could be a matter of hours before they return or they could be
on their way back here now.”
“Clever of them to build this web at the bottom of
a slope. I’m sure we’re not the first things to blunder into it in the
“They are very efficient killers,” Kaldar said.
“I take it they’re not solitary creatures since you keep
referring to them as they.”
“There will usually be at least two. Sometimes more. I
have heard of great communal webs.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I said, “I can’t see you
clearly, Kaldar. How stuck are you?”
“I can move neither my arms nor my legs. I hit the web
hard. There is little chance of escaping the webs without the oil of a
I said, “I must be close to the edge of the web. My right
arm is still free and I’m still holding my sword. Maybe I can cut the strands.”
“They are tough and very sticky.”
He wasn’t kidding. I carefully laid the edge of my sword
on one of the strands and began to move the blade back and forth in a sawing
motion. It took some time but the strand finally parted. It left the blade
covered with sticky residue. Enough of that and I doubted that I’d be able
to continue cutting. Still it wasn’t like I had anything better to do,
and every stirring of the trees and brush around me reminded me of what
would be coming to find Kaldar and me if I didn’t hurry.
I’m not sure how long I worked on the web. I know that
my wrist began to ache after a while. I managed to free my left hand and
that allowed me to let my right rest for a bit. I was almost completely
free of the strands when daylight suddenly came. It came as quickly as
if someone had flipped a switch. One minute we were in darkness and the
next the sky of Thanator was alight with crawling golden vapor. In some
ways I wished it had stayed dark. What I saw didn’t make me feel better.
We were indeed near one edge of the web. It was about forty
feet wide and stretched between numerous trees. There were two more webs
of similar size not far from us. In all three of these webs hung the remains
of the Ximchak’s recent meals. They were barely recognizable as formerly
living creatures. Most of them looked like a kind of small boar, though
there were some less identifiable animals as well. For the most part they
were partially covered in wispy strands of webbing but the parts of their
bodies I could see looked like Egyptian mummies, all parchment dry skin
and empty eyes. They swung in the morning breeze, grim reminders of the
owners of the webs.
Now that I could see Kaldar I felt even more hopeless.
It had taken me the remainder of the night to saw myself free, and he was
much more firmly enmeshed in the web than I had been. I pulled myself free
of the last strands of webbing and began to work at the filaments that
held Kaldar’s right arm.
“We’ve failed, Charles,” he said. “The sky navy will be
taking off by now. We’re still miles from where we were attacked.”
“We’re still alive,” I said. “And my father always says
you’re never really beaten until you give up.”
“My father will be on one of those ships,” Kaldar said.
“I know. But all we can do is keep moving and fighting.
I’ll tell you something. When I was a kid and I read about your dad here
on Thanator, I wanted to be just like him. Your father was a hero of mine,
Kaldar. And I know he wouldn’t give up.”
Kaldar nodded slowly. “You’re right. Get me out of this
damn web. We’ll push on, no matter how hopeless it seems.”
“Now you’re talking. Your right side is free anyway. I
found your sword below you.”
I handed him the blade and he gripped it firmly. “I feel
better having a sword in my hand.”
“Thought you might. My sword hand is getting a little tired.
There’s so much gunk on the blade it’s taking me forever to cut you loose.”
It was fortunate that my blade was in contact with the
web, because I felt the strands vibrating. Otherwise I might have missed
the approach of the Ximchak. I looked up just as two of the creatures began
scrambling toward us from the opposite side of the web. They were moving
very quickly, doubtless feeling the web bouncing around as I worked on
I heard a sharp intake of breath from Kaldar. He’d seen
them too. And he had to know there was no way I could finish cutting him
loose before the hideous giant spiders were upon us.
They were bigger than I expected. Lin Carter had described
them as the size of dogs but they were larger than that, their bodies being
perhaps five feet long from the head to the back of the swollen abdomen.
The eight, multi-jointed legs easily spanned ten feet. But then Carter
had never seen one up close. Lucky him.
A wave of revulsion swept over me. There is something in
the movement of spiders, in their quick, jerky motions and the disjointed
rhythm of their scrambling walk, which human beings find repulsive on an
instinctive level. Seeing these things scuttling toward me, all I wanted
to do was run away.
Kaldar said, “You can’t fight two of them. Escape while
“No way,” I said. There is no way I’m leaving you to them.”
One of the ximchak was a little quicker than the other.
It reached our end of the web and lunged toward me, clawed front legs upraised
to grasp and mandibles clicking. My stomach clenched. Up close the thing
was even more hideous. The legs were covered with large, spine-like hairs.
At least six glittering eyes were fixed upon me, and droplets of venom
sprayed from the mandibles.
I yelled something unintelligible and struck out with my
sword. The edge was still dulled by the clinging residue from the web,
but the heavy blade sheared through one of the spider’s legs. Suddenly
off balance, the monster heaved to one side and tumbled from the web.
The second ximchak had gone for Kaldar, but he’d used his
free sword arm to slice through the front of its face. The ximchak made
a horrible hissing sound, and sprang back. This brought it close to me
and I aimed a hard slash at the abdomen that sent it scurrying in yet another
The first creature was back up and moving my way. Two of
its good legs lashed out. One of the claws struck the back of my shoulder
and the other caught in my shirt. The ximchak tried to pull me forward
into its mandibles. The slender legs were surprisingly strong. I struck
up with the blade, slicing through yet another leg. The ximchak didn’t
retreat this time but instead leaped forward. I barely got the sword in
place in time to keep the poisonous tips of the mandibles from my throat.
As it was, the weight of the spider drove me to the ground.
As I fell I pulled my knees up to my chest, keeping the
ximchak from settling its weight on my hips. The sword was still lodged
between the spider’s wildly clicking mandibles. Venom dripped down the
blade. I could feel it burn where it touched my skin.
I grimaced and moved my knees so I could get my feet under
the spider’s body. The creature probably weighed a good hundred pounds.
I shifted my weight and thrust my legs up rolling the ximchak off to one
side. I used the force of my roll to get to my feet. The ximchak was only
on its back for a few seconds, but it was enough. I stepped onto its thorax,
pinning it long enough to drive my sword to the hilt into the spider’s
The ximchak thrashed about and I had to lunge back to escape
its claws. I pulled my sword free, sending venom and gore flying. The spider
gave one final, gurgling hiss, and then lay still.
“Charles!” Kaldar called. I turned toward him. The second
spider, seeing that a frontal assault wasn’t working, had climbed back
up the web and was attempting to attack Kaldar from above. With his movements
limited by his still trapped left side, Kaldar was just managing to hold
the monster off.
“Hang on,” I said, running toward him. My hand was still
burning where the spider venom had dripped down my blade. I glanced down
and saw that wherever the venom had fallen on my sword, the thick covering
of web glue had melted away. I used the still dripping blade to slice the
rest of the webbing away from Kaldar. Something in the ximchak’s blood
and venom dissolved the webbing like water on cotton candy.
I wasn’t sure how intelligent the ximchak were, but the
remaining one, seeing both of his enemies were free, turned and scrambled
up the web away from our swords. Kaldar and I didn’t wait to see if there
were any more of the creatures. We moved quickly away from the web and
out of the hollow where the webs were strung.
Kaldar tore some wide leaves from one of the scarlet trees
and handed them to me. “Wipe the venom off. You don’t want to leave it
on your skin too long.”
I believed him. I used the leaves to clean the blood and
poison from my arms. I wiped the blade of my sword as well. Kaldar checked
his compass. Finally he pointed to his right and said, “That way. We’re
hours too late probably, but that’s the direction we need to go to find
the source of the fire weapon.”
I nodded and started in the direction he’d indicated. Kaldar
stopped me by clapping his hand on my shoulder. “You should have left me
in the web,” he said. “But thank you for staying to fight. I won’t forget
it. You’re making a habit of saving the royal family.”
I shook my head. “It took both of us to escape, Kaldar.
And you were absolutely right. I couldn’t have fought both ximchak. If
you hadn’t held the second one off, it would have been on me before I could
kill the first one. I didn’t save you. We saved each other.”
Kaldar said, “We’ll argue about it later. Let’s keep moving.”
When we climbed out of the hollow we found ourselves near
the banks of a wide stream. We stopped to drink and I took the opportunity
to give my arms a more thorough cleansing of the spider gore and venom.
I had no idea how long it had been since I’d last slept.
I’d had a little while to rest on board the Avenger, but otherwise I’d
been in almost constant motion since arriving on Thanator and I was beginning
to feel the effects. Leaving the stream, we stumbled along as best we could.
Kaldar too was tiring. His feet began to drag, and finally, despite the
fact that we were determined to find the energy weapon, we had to slump
to the ground and rest.
Kaldar rested his broad back against a deep black trunk
and I sat cross-legged on the ground.
“We can’t rest long,” Kaldar said.
“Are you a warrior back on Earth, Charles?” Kaldar asked.
I laughed. “Not really. I’ve studied martial arts for years,
but my country is at peace just now.”
He nodded, considering this. “Father says that wars on
Earth are fought with huge machines, something like the fire weapon.”
I said, “Yes we have weapons that kill from a distance.
Guns. And cannons and rockets and missiles.”
“I mean no offense, but it seems…cowardly somehow to kill
a man and never see his face.”
“I agree Kaldar. It probably makes it easier too.”
We were quiet for a while.
I heard voices. I glanced over at Kaldar and he nodded.
We both rose slowly and then moved as cautiously as we could through the
trees towards the sound. Since we’d left the hollow the ground had sloped
gradually upward. We reached the top of a small ridge and carefully peered
over the top. A large crowd was moving through the jungle below us.
I recognized two members of the group. Darloona and Darisha.
They looked to be unharmed, but their hands were bound and they were being
pushed along at a quick pace through the thick underbrush.
The rest of the crowd didn’t seem to be human. Oh they
had human attributes. They had the golden skin tone and red hair of the
Ku-thad. But their bodies were huge and misshapen. Some of them had four
arms. One had an extra head.
Kaldar whispered, “What are those things.”
I had the benefit of having recently read Lanker of Callisto.
I said, “Flesh robots. The genetically altered servants of the Mind Wizards.”
The flesh robots were cobbled together from the Thanatorians unfortunate
enough to become captives of the mind wizards.
Kaldar said, “That’s impossible. The mind wizards no longer
exist on Thanator. They were all wiped out.”
I didn’t say anything. Instead I pointed to the head of
the column. In front of the mob of monstrosities strolled a small, dwarf-like
figure. Even from a distance I could see that the skin of his large, bald,
head was a sickly lemon yellow.
“We’ve got to do something,” Kaldar said, starting to rise.
I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down. “We will.
But not yet. There are too many of those things.”
“That’s my mother and sister down there.”
“I know, Kaldar, but look closely. Do to see any other
Ku-thad?” He admitted that he didn’t.
“Think for a second. The mind wizards must have been the
ones who fired on the Avenger. Then they sent a patrol out to search for
survivors. Do you honestly believe that the guards and nobles on the ship
would have let the flesh robots take Darloona and Darisha without a fight?
But there are no male prisoners.”
A cold light began to dawn if Kaldar’s eyes. “You think
the others are dead.”
“I think it very likely. They’d have fought to the last
man. If we go down there now, we’ll be over run by the flesh robots. We
need to follow them and look for a better chance to save your mother and
“I can see the wisdom of your plan, but I don’t like it.”
“Me either. But I don’t see where we have much choice.”
We waited until the entire group had passed and then we
went quickly down the ridge and fell in behind them. They weren’t hard
to follow. The huge lumbering, flesh robots plowed through the undergrowth
like living bulldozers.
I’d estimated we’d traveled about two miles when another
seemingly impossible thing occurred. I was watching the mind wizard at
the head of the group. He passed between two large trees and simply vanished.
A moment later the flesh robots also began to disappear one by one.
I was startled, but then I remembered that the mind
wizards had camouflaged their base of operations in Kuur with a wall of
seemingly solid rock that was actually an illusion. It was likely something
similar was being used here as well. I told Kaldar as much.
When the last flesh robot had vanished between the trees,
Kaldar and I stepped out of the cover of the trees. “Now what?” Kaldar
“I guess we follow them. With any luck there won’t be a
guard standing inside the entrance. It’s not like they expect visitors
out here in the middle of the Kumala.”
“I hope you’re right.”
We advanced slowly toward the two trees. I stopped in front
of them and extended my right had between the trunks. My hand seemed to
disappear. I knew it was an illusion but it was so convincing that I snatched
my hand back as if I’d been burned. In Lankar of Callisto, Lin Carter had
speculated that the mind wizards used their vast mental powers to create
the illusion that hid their base. Seeing the effect now I was dubious.
I thought it more likely it was a hologram of some sort. And yet, like
the energy beam weapon, that technology seemed beyond any that the mind
wizards had ever demonstrated.
“Well?” Kaldar said, impatiently.
I nodded, took a deep breath and stepped into the space
between the two trees. For a moment I was in darkness and then I was standing
in a wide corridor. The floor, walls, and ceiling were made of a dull gray
metal. Far above, the ceiling held panels that gave off a bright light,
something like florescent bulbs. Something was definitely weird. Even the
mind wizards didn’t have electricity or the ability to work metal like
Kaldar came through and almost knocked me over. His eyes
widened at the sight of the metal walls and high, vaulted ceiling. “What
is this place?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Certainly not what I was expecting.”
We moved cautiously down the corridor. The hall ran straight
for about a hundred feet before turning to the right. I stuck my head around
the corner. That hallway was deserted as well. Kaldar and I made the turn.
I could feel my heartbeat speed up. Sneaking around has never been one
of my favorite things. I usually prefer a direct confrontation, however
having seen the flesh robots, that didn’t seem like a good idea in this
I became aware of a low, hissing noise. I turned to Kaldar
and whispered, “Do you hear that?”
“Yes. It sounds like one of the release valves on a sky
I said, “Christ! It’s gas. We have to go back the way we
came. We must have tripped an alarm of some sort.”
Even as I turned I knew we weren’t going to make it. I
couldn’t smell anything but my legs suddenly felt heavy and the corridor
seemed to be tilting at an odd angle. Kaldar was leaning against one wall.
I tired to say something else and found that my voice wasn’t working. I
dimly heard footsteps behind me. It seemed to take a long time to turn
around and I made it just in time to see one of the scrawny mind wizards
of Kuur and several flesh robots coming toward me. After that everything