by Den Valdron
BEASTS OF THE DRY ROAD
On my previous passages through the Jagged Lands, I had frequently heard their mournful chitters as they called to each other. I had never seen one this close.
The creature was more than twice the size of Aspar Aguus, the largest among us. Its eight legs were immensely long, splaying out from its body, rather than compactly beneath. This, I learned, was because it was a climbing animal, more at home among the rocks and cliffs than on level ground. These legs, even spead out, allowed its body to hover higher than a man. It might walk right over us, and we would not be able to scratch its belly with our swords, that was how tall it was. It had a heavy jaw with massive crunching teeth and large red eyes. But its chief weapons were its two forelimbs which it held before itself as massive scythes.
“A King,” Aguus whispered. “Do not attack it, or it will call its whole harem down upon us. We are not usual prey. There is a chance that it will go away.”
The creature roared and charged. Ton Sabat, who was the closest to it, leaped away. Distracted, it followed him, roaring. The rest of us grabbed our weapons at hand and readied ourselves. I held a rifle in my grip, hoping that it would be enough to stop this monster.
The monster rushed at Sabat, hissing furiously, but just as it reached him, he jumped again evading its piercing claws. Its jaws snapped with rage, and it wheeled about , but Ton Sabat jumped again. He made for his heavy ship’s gun, but the creature rushed him, forcing him to leap to safety with nothing more than a length of chain. Wielding the chain as a whip, he fetched it a mighty blow across its face. But surprise took the creature only once, and the next time he attacked, it blocked the chain with one of its scythes and rushed forward. Ton Sabat leaped, and leaped again, landing on its back as it wheeled about. He looped the chain around the monsters head as it futilely struggled to dislodge him. With his hideous strength, Ton Sabat drew the chain taut. The creature flailed but could not reach him. One by one, its legs buckled beneath it, its struggles grew weaker. Finally, it fell.
“That,” said Japh Leah with awe in his voice, “is the most amazing feat of strength I have ever witnessed.”
But Ton Sabat relented too soon, as the chain slackened, the creature lifted its head and uttered a piercing death cry. Sabat drew the chains tight again, this time until he was sure it was dead.
But it was too late. From everywhere came the chittering squeals.
“The Harem,” cried Aspar Aguus, “it has been alerted to the King’s death! We must run, and hope to find safety somewhere close.”
“Can we not stand and fight?” Japh Leah asked. Standing and fighting? I didn’t like the sound of that. Running away seemed safer.
“No,” he replied. “they will all come here, and if they find us here, they will attack in numbers until they overwhelm us. The only chance is to flee. Some will follow, but we will have a chance.”
We made haste, pulling together our kits, readying as fast as we could.
But the first spiderlings appeared even before we finished. Two monsters came rushing at the camp. These were smaller creatures, with only six splayed, bent legs. Instead of the long scythes which were the weapons of the king, they sported tusks. Their most remarkable feature was their massive tails, as long as the rest of their body, and so swollen that the thickest part was almost as wide as the tails were long. I learned later that the creatures stored their fat and water in their tails, feeding the tail-less kings from their own bodies. The Kings were the meat eaters, while the harem were gentle erbivores, except when swarming.
As they were doing now.
They chittered angrily and rushed us. I fired a shot downing one. Vadak Eth and Japh Leah dispatched the other with swords as it screamed its death cry.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Japh Leah said.
“Only two,” Aguus said, not even looking up from tying his kit. “But there will be more. Hundreds.”
We fled, carrying what we could. The next hours were a nightmare of panicked flight as more and more of the creatures appeared. They would rush at us with chittering screeches, attacking, only to be cut down. But as they died, their death cries shrieked, and the hills and canyons would ring with clacking calls, more and more each time.
The day wore on, we marched relentlessly. The Archivist fell. His load was shared among the rest, what could not be shared was abandoned. At my insistence, Aspar Aguus hauled him along.
Again and again, we were attacked. The creatures appeared from every direction, even climbing down the sheer cliff faces to drop on us. We fired again and again, saving our bullets to make each shot lethal, but still running out of ammunition. After that, we used the rifles as clubs. There was no rest that night. The spiderlings were less active, but still, a few came on. Others followed at a distance, their calls letting the others know where we were.
“Down this way,” Aguus called, indicating a narrow side canyon. “Whoever came before, their marks lead this way.”
To death or safety, I wondered? There wasn’t much choice.
We followed him down, taking the winding pathway. Behind us, the sounds of frantic chittering mounted, coming closer and closer. The floor of the narrow canyon began to rise steeply.
“Faster,” Aguus exhorted. “They’re gaining on us.”
Abruptly, the canyon opened out into a broad flat valley, the ground beneath our feet turned from naked stone now, to rubble. But that was the least of it. Ahead of us, were a complex of gleaming white buildings. Civilization! Help! We were rescued!
Cheering, we raced for the buildings, kicking up rubble.
“They’re not following,” the Archivist shouted.
I dared to glance back.
He was right. More than a dozen of the creatures had burst out of the canyon, but now they hesitated at the mouth of the valley, milling uncertainly. Some would venture out but then retreat back to their companions shaking their heads.
I did not care. If they hesitated, then it was more precious seconds for us to reach safety.
As we approached the building, it was clear that they’d been long abandoned. Some had fallen into ruins. My heart fell. But we did not slacken our pace until we’d reached the first of the outbuildings, throwing ourselves through an open doorway.
Quickly, Aspar Aguus and Ton Sabat began pushing debris, the remains of ancient machines and furniture up to the open doorway to block it.
They needn’t have bothered, the Spiderlings showed no inclination to pursue. Instead, they continued to mill at the mouth of the canyon. As we watched, one ventured a few paces towards us, its head dropping as if to lick the gravel. Then it scurried back, as its companions milled about with distress.
“It’s as if they’re afraid to come out into the valley,” I said.
“The dust,” Aguus replied. He bent to pick up a handful of loose pebbles and sand that the winds had blown against the edges of a wall. “It’s poisonous to them.”
We watched as more and more arrived, pushing at each other. The creatures kept darting out onto the gravel, and then retreating.
“They’re trying to find a path to us.” Japh Leah observed.
“But they fear the poison dust.”
“Is that safe for us,” I asked, nervously.
Aguus shrugged. “Safer than being torn to pieces.”
Well, that was comforting.
The Archivist spoke up. “It seems that we traveled the Saphek after all. This is Mant.”
“How do you know?” Japh Leah asked.
“There was a sign over the doorway.”
Oh yes, I thought. I’d been running too hard to read it. Catching my breath, I stood up and stretched my legs. We were in no immediate danger, at least. There would be time to think, time to consider our next step. There would be deep wells here. Perhaps they’d not all gone dry, perhaps useable water? I surveyed the great chamber we occupied.
And then I screamed.
We had found the other party who had traveled this path.
Their dismembered, gnawed, skeletons at least.
BACK TO NOVEL INTRO AND CHAPTER NAVIGATION CHART