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Volume 1745c
Secret Masters of Callisto
By Charles R. Rutledge
Chapters 6 & 7

Chapter 6

   "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 weapon."

   "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 said, proudly.

   "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 of her?”

   “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 sister.

   “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 him down.

   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.”

   “Not really.”

   “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 about America.”

   “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 rolled.

   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 caught.”

   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 dark.”

   “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 certain plant.”

   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 the strands.

   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.

Chapter 7

   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 you can.”

   “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 direction.

   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 abdomen.

   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.

   “We won’t.”

   “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 sister.”

   “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 said.

   “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 this.

   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 case.

   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 ship.”

   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 went black.

Secret Masters of Callisto by Charles R. Rutledge

Intro & Ch. 1
Ch. 2 & 3
Ch. 4 & 5
Ch. 6 & 7
Ch. 8 & 9
Ch. 10 & 11

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