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Volume 3167c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
INVASION OF THE POD PEOPLE

 

Then, as abruptly as it appeared before me, the horror stepped past me, drawn to the struggle with Ton Sabat.  It passed so close to me, that I could have reached out and touched it.  But it gave no sign of awareness of me or the light.

Of course, I realized.  No eyes, it must hunt by sound.  I had not even breathed, and so it hadn’t known I was there.

I was seized then by a near uncontrollable impulse to flee, to turn from my fallen companions and run as quickly up the great stairway as I could.  I had a visceral certainty that I could easily outdistance the bandy legged horrors.  Indeed, I took a few swift steps, but then halted.

But flee to what?   A barren bleached town, in the midst of a wasteland?   No food, no water, no weapons, surrounded by nothing but jagged rocks and ruins and fierce beasts.  The best I could hope for was to slowly starve to death, gnawing on old bones in futile hunger.  There was no running.

I cast the beam over the scene before me, the hurtling bodies.  Ton Sabat grunted and swore in his alien dialect as the creatures swarmed over him.  A handful held Aspar Aguus down.  The Archivist merely wept.   Japh Leah was closest, and there were only two upon him.

A few steps away was a fallen sword.  Whose?  It did not matter.  I needed that weapon.  With careful steps, I made my way around struggling forms, and with a triumphant bow, retrieved the precious steel blade.

But even as I did so, one of the hideous creatures seemed to sense my presence.  It came towards me.   Silently, not even daring to breath, I stepped backwards carefully.   It came on, seeming to radiate uncertainty.  Could it find me by the sound of my footsteps?

I shone the light hard on its form, but it gave no sign it perceived the light at all.   It stood there, its stance marked puzzlement as clearly as any befuddled clown upon a stage.  Monster it was, but there was something utterly human about its apparent confusion.   It was not truly faceless, I saw now.  The eyes were missing altogether of course, there was only smooth flesh.  But it had a nose, flat against its face, with the nostrils appearing barely above a lipless slash of a mouth.  Had this thing once been human?  Had its ancestors been human?

I hefted the sword in my hand.  With one blow, I could take its head off.  A single thrust, stop its heart, if it had one.

I could not do it.

I could hold my breath no longer, I sucked in air with a gasp.  It straightened, its indecision fell away, and it came towards me, reaching out with those long arms and spiderlike fingers.

I clouted it as hard as I could on the side of its head with the flat of my blade.  It dropped writhing to the floor, screaming in pain.

Other abominations rushed to its aid, as it burbled out complaints and cries of pain.  I slipped past them to Japh Leah, now wrestling with only one of the creatures.   I had no wish to arouse its friends to its rescue, and so I resolved upon the tactics that I had used to defeat the first two.  With careful fingers, I sought out his vulnerable parts, and through deft motions brought his subsequent excitation swiftly to the point of weakness that I had rendered upon the other two.  When he was spent, I quickly rolled him away and pulled the net from Japh, cutting his bonds.

“Quiet,” I hissed, pressing my lips to his ear,  “they are blind creatures that hunt by sound, make no noise.”

Hands freed, he grabbed my head, and pressed his own lips to me in a desperate kiss.  I was shocked.

Men!

“No time for that,” I whispered, breaking away.

The rest was short work.  The blind things were no match for a sighted man with light on our side.   I held the light, and Japh Leah turned their own net upon them, catching up those who swarmed Vadak Eth and freeing him in turn.  Together they turned to Aspar Aguus.  Before long, each of the abominations were either unconscious or bound up together in their own nets.

The tables were now turned, to our considerable relief.  The creatures, whatever they were, set up a gnashing and wailing among themselves.  All the fight seemed to be out of them, and they did not even struggle in the nets.   The sounds were full of clicks and gutturals.

“Silence, damn you!”  Aspar Aguus, put a knife against the throat of one of the captives.  It seemed to push its throat against the knife, as if fascinated by the sharpness.  Aguus swore an oath and cuffed it.

“What are we going to do with these things?”  Japh Leah asked.

“Kill them,” Vadak Eth shrugged.

“But what are they?   Are there more?”

“Kill them,” Vadak Eth said philosophically, “and there will be less.”

“Where did they get these nets,” Japh Leah asked, examining one of them, holding up the edges and fingering the weights at the edge of the mesh.   “Did they make them?  Are these thinking beings?”

The babble of the creatures tugged at me.  Now that they were incapable of harming us they were no longer fearsome.  Indeed, they seemed grotesquely pitiable.  I knelt, to stare at one, watching as its lips mumbled repeating the same sounds again and again, full of clicks and strange intonations.  Almost like words...

Exactly like words.  The accent was muddy, the words slipping and sliding together, new words I’d never heard, strange sounds, clicks, but this creature was speaking a language.  The language of Az-Lium.

“Woe, oh woe, we are doomed, now the demons shall surely eat us,” it seemed to say.

I thought of the gnawed bones up on the surface.

“Eat you?” I replied clearly, “what an utterly disgusting notion!”

And suddenly, there was absolute silence, and I felt an awkward discomfort as the attention of all here, both men and creatures, seemed to focus upon me.  It reminded me of that appalling time when, as a young actress with a supporting role, I had delivered my line and then as the directions required, turned about face and marched offstage... and fell into the orchestra pit.

At least no one was laughing now.

Something seemed called for.  I licked my lip.

“We have no intention of eating you,” I told it.  Or at least, I hoped we didn’t.  In the outer world, eating disgusting things seemed to be a national pastime for barbarians.  “We are not demons.”

“But you’re not human,” he responded with something close to reasonability.

Now that I conceived him as speaking language, it was somewhat easier to understand.  Listening to him was like trying to read a sentence with half the words chopped out, you could manage it, with a bit of guesswork.

What could I say to something so nonsensical?

“I,” I told it, “am the Princess Kam Asutra of the Royal House of Az-Lium and these are my guards.   Who are you?”

Best to stick with what seemed to work so far.

“What's a Princess?”  It asked.

Damn.

“They’re not natural creatures,” came from the one Aguus had threatened uselessly.  “They carry the holy metal.”

Holy metal?  Demons?  Obviously, they were religious, whatever they were.  Metal was holy to them?  We had metal.  Therefore...

“We are gods!”  I announced to them.

“There is only one God,” one of the captives said quickly, joined by a muted chorus of agreement.

“Stop interrupting” I snapped, a quick blush breaking out on my forehead.  I replied quickly.  “We are God’s servants, beings carrying out his...  its will, and gifted with its power and authority.   So no more insolence!”

The men remained silent, waiting on me.  I couldn’t decide whether I resented them leaving me hanging out here, or whether I appreciated them shutting up for once.  They had a horrible tendency to say the wrong thing.

Silence stretched.

“Well,” I demanded.

“You said not to interrupt.”

“Well, I’m finished, so you may speak.”

“Oh.”

More silence.

“We have announced ourselves as God’s messengers,” I said.  “Shouldn’t you be kneeling, or praying to us or something.”

“We’re tied up in nets.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“Are you sure you’re not demons?”

“If we were demons,” I snapped peevishly, “we’d be eating you right now.”

There was a sudden babble of anguished wailing from the creatures.  Not again, I thought.

Behind me, I could hear Japh Leah stifle a giggle.  I decided I hated him again.

Why didn’t these things ever go the way they were supposed to.

In a proper stage production, they would all fall down worshipping us on cue, and then take us to their temple, with a lovely round of delicious fruit, and gorgeous naked slaves doing foot massages, or dancing for our pleasure.  And they’d all be good looking.

Real life?  I was stuck with a bunch of haphazardly bound trolls, caught up in netting, who refused to follow a sensible script, while my so called friends stood in the background laughing at me.

“Shut up!”  I said more loudly than I intended.  “We’re not demons!  We’re not going to eat you!  The very thought is disgusting, how could you even suggest that?”

They whimpered a babble of apologies.

"Here we are,” I said, “servants of God--"

“Messengers.”

“What?”

“Just now, you said messengers, not servants.”

“What are you?”  I snapped, “a critic?  Messengers, servants, whatever.  The point is, that we are here from God, doing his... its work, and we are rudely set upon and assaulted.   Well, I can tell you, God is going to be hearing about this.   And he....?”  I paused a heartbeat.  It seemed safe.     “He is not going to be happy with you at all!   I mean, what’s wrong with you?   Are you blind?  Can’t you see...”

My tirade trailed off a little, as I recalled that in fact, they were blind.  I blushed.  Behind me I could hear suppressed giggles, and not just from Japh Leah.

“We are blind,” the captive pointed out.

“Yes,” I replied, “sorry about ....”   I let it trail off.  Should servants of God apologize?  Perhaps not.

“This is a matter for the sighted men,” one said, “the men with eyes.”

Men with eyes?

“Yes,” I agreed.   “It is a matter for them.  Where are they?  Why are they not among you?  We, the servants of the god, Him, are not pleased.  Answer, or his wrath upon you.”

I wasn’t sure that the ‘sighted men’ whoever they were, were anyone I wanted to meet.  I wanted to know where they were, to hopefully avoid going there.  If I could befuddle these primitive creatures into taking us to water first, we could fill our waterskins and be gone from this place.  Hopefully, there’d be enough water to see us out of the Jagged Lands.

“Aiyyah,” they set up another tedious wailing again, “have mercy, have mercy.  We are but poor Mollusk farmers.   We thought you were demons, so we sent for the sighted men, even as we sought to defend ourselves.  We did not realize...”

Wait.

“You sent for the sighted men?  They are coming here?”

“No,” a voice came from behind us, but not from one of my companions.  This voice contained the clicks and muddy sounds of the mollusk farmers, but it was different.  Stronger, bolder, the syllables crisper and more confident, without the querulous whimpering of the captives.

“The sighted men are here.”

We turned as one, the torch lights shining.

We’d made a terrible mistake, allowing ourselves to be distracted by these creatures.  We should have simply turned around and gone back to the surface.  Greed for water, had undone us.

Surrounding us, ringing every entrance to the chamber we resided in, were perhaps a hundred more of the creatures.  Identical to those we’d seen, bone white, bandy legged, with long torsos and long slender arms tipped with spidery fingers.  But the first had been mere mollusk farmers, trawling naked with their nets and a few sticks and bones.  These newcomers wore harnesses and armour, they carried weapons, their nets were weighted for throw and capture.  The differences were obvious, these new creatures were meant for war. Even blind, there were two many of them to overcome.

The one who spoke came forward, their captain or general, if they knew such titles.   As the beams of our torches played upon him, we saw what these creatures meant by sighted man.  For the flesh where his eyes should have been, had been carved out, and resting in the exposed and unblinking sockets were two precious gems, orbs of faceted crystal.


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