Lost on the Last Continent III

— Lost on the Last Continent —


In the Days of Pangaea Ultima

By John C. Wright

 Back to Book Two: Terrors of PangaeaUp to Table of Contents On to Book Four: Pirates of Pangaea

*** *** ***

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream

The Diamond Sutra

*** *** ****

Book Three:  Giants of Pangaea

Episode 40 The Desolate Barrens

Colonel Preston Lost, some two hundred fifty million years after his birth, was thousands of feet high in the atmosphere, far above Earth’s final supercontinent, Pangaea, which had emerged from the collision of all previous land masses into one. Somewhere above and behind him, flotilla of glowing, flying disks manned by dwarfish post-humans of the eighth human race to evolve after the extinction of his own, sought Preston relentlessly.

On his finger was an eight-sided ring that had the power to suspend gravity. In his elephant gun were bullets that, no matter how often he fired, somehow were always back in the chamber again. A futuristic technology, which, as far as Preston cared, could have been a magic spell, made it so that the ring would pull him toward wherever his bullet went. So he contrived, without instruments, engine, or airplane, to outfly his pursuit.

When to shoot again?

He estimated, from this altitude, an arched shot would carry the bullet over two miles. He guessed he had roughly three hundred to cover. At his current height (he was thousands of feet lower than when he stood atop Eien’s mountain), his goal was over the horizon. He estimated his flight speed at one hundred thirty miles per hour, more or less.

He wanted to maximize his horizontal velocity, to carry him away from the battle as soon as possible. The screaming of the thin wind in his ears, and the lack of an envelope on whose back to write his calculations, interfered with his ability to do back-of-the-envelope calculations.

He estimated a fall of two minutes would do the trick. This was roughly how long it took a man to fall twenty-five thousand feet. Then he would shoot twice at forty-five degrees above level (once to retrieve the magic bullet by emptying the other barrel, and then to fire it) and find himself ‘falling’ toward the ascending bullet.

Two minutes. The song “Wild Blue Yonder” was two minutes fifteen seconds long (if you remembered the often-skipped third refrain). So he dropped the last four lines. “Off we go, into the wild sky yonder, keep the wings level and true! If you’d live to be a gray haired wonder, keep your nose out of the blue!

Firing every two minutes was very loud, and set up a ringing in his ears that did not stop. The bruised weariness of his adventures, including possible head concussions, sent his attention to wandering without his knowing. Over and over again he fired. In his ringing ears, all was silent. The periodic kick to his shoulder set up an ache throughout his body. The wind in his eyes filled them with tears. All was blurry.

In free fall, a man’s head does not nod forward and jerk him awake when he is nodding off: he just starts to forget what rhymes with “crate of thunder” and then he wonders why his tear-filled wind-burned eyes are shut, and how long they’ve been that way.

It was later, perhaps much later. He came awake with a start. The magic ring was wafting him delicately toward the ground. The sun was on the horizon, swollen and oblate. Below was an expanse of grasses far taller than his head. Gravity returned when his legs brushed the upper parts of the thirty-foot tall grassblades. The ring winked out.

He tumbled and fell, grabbing leaves as he plunged. The lower parts of the plant were bamboo-like stalks. He found himself, feet twisted among the thicker stems higher than the stalks supporting his shoulder and arms, so he was hanging head-downward.

The grass below him rattled. A giant serpent reared its head. Preston recognized it from artist’s conceptions of an extinct monster from the Middle Paleocene, sixty million years before Preston was born: a forty-foot long, two thousand pound monster, called a titanoboa.

His rifle was hanging by its strap about four feet below him, caught on a twig. He looked at the narrow, serpentine skull rising toward him, flickering tongue tasting the scents of the air.

He felt the frail, flimsy weight of the Mauser pistol in his hand. Preston knew from the one disastrous time he had attempted to hunt saltwater crocodile in Bangladesh that his puny 9x19mm Parabellum round could do no damage to a reptile large enough to swallow crocodiles whole. His instincts, acting faster than his mind, froze his limbs in place, halted his breathing.  He did not dare blink.

The scales of the titanoboa’s head glistened as if wet. The triangular skull came closer to Preston’s motionless body. The lidless eyes were glistering gold like amber beads. The nostrils were two small, dark pits. Preston wondered if he could jerk himself free, and grab his elephant gun as he fell, before the monster had a chance to strike.

When the lipless mouth opened, a cold and dank vapor from the creature’s throat tickled Preston’s nose. The head drew closer. The hypnotic, inhuman, unwinking eyes of the monster filled his gaze and petrified his soul. The tip of the flicking tongue brushed his flight jacket.

There was something in the scent of Preston the monster did not like. The snake drew its head back. Perhaps the rotting smell of the Final Men still clung to him.

Or the monster was drawing back its head to strike.

Preston, helpless, petrified, could but watch.

Miraculously, the snake head swiveled away. Its gaze left Preston. He risked a quiet, slow breath. The monster reared its head above the level of the tall grass to inspect something outside Preston’s limited field of view.

A flying disk was suddenly above. Whatever propelled the machine made no noise, and, in the sunlight, the glow from the crystal hull was muted, so there was scant warning.

It came in low, almost brushing the tops of the leafy canopy above. Preston could also see the strange sight of a stern gargantuan with black face and white hands, heedless of gravity, standing head downward on the underside of the hull, scanning the grasses narrowly. He wore a breastplate of woven wooden slats. In one hand was a tall, rectangular shield, in the other, a wand of translucent amber was humming.

The saucer was low enough for the titanoboa to strike. The motion of the giant reptile was too swift to be seen. Its red, lipless mouth, larger than a coffin, closed on the gargantuan.

The giant was quick. He twisted, and managed to plant the huge shield between the striking jaws before the monster could bite him in half; but the jaws closed anyway, snapping the shield in half, engulfing the warrior’s left arm and shoulder. The gargantuan did not cry out, but struck at the eyes of the titanoboa with his electric wand. The energy discharge was a brilliant, silent flash which discomforted the huge reptile in no way. Something must have been anchoring the armored gargantuan in place, for, instead of his body being plucked free, the flying disk continued onward, pulling the giant snake with it.

Like a glistening green rainbow of scaly flesh, a semicircle of the snake’s coils rose into the air and looped around the body of the craft. The man, covered with blood, laughed and roared, and struck and struck again with his weapon. Lightning flares filled the air. The disk wobbled and tilted under the titanoboa’s weight. A second loop of the scaly body was flung around the laboring craft as it rose, and the huge serpent was drawn up into the air.

Preston lost sight of the battle as the wavering disk receded away over the twenty-foot-high grass. He stared in wonder.

Silence fell. Preston wiped sweat from his face. Before him was the task of extricating himself from the bamboo stalks without dropping on his head.

This reedlike plant was strange. It was thirty feet tall, like giant bamboo, but the lower parts were covered with a waxy crust. The upper part of the stalks forked into slender, nearly-vertical branches.

The plant was also malign, or so Preston was convinced. The branches were too frail to support weight, while the forks were narrow enough to trap an unwary foot, but also springy enough to snap back into his face if thrust aside carelessly. The waxy crust coating the lower half of the reeds could have been designed by a practical joker to slip under a man’s frantic grip.

Once down, he found himself in a realm of shadows, standing on a thick carpet of shoots, splinters, small stems, and shed slips of waxy debris the size and shape of bent playing cards. The tops of the tall reeds were broad, flat blades that drooped to the vertical, and blocked sunlight.

A few frustrating experiments told him he could not become airborne again. The highest he could climb in the slippery, bending bamboo was fifteen or twenty feet before the stem bent too far under his weight. A jump down from that height put him in danger of a broken leg, or impaling himself on jagged stalks of shorter plants, but evidently the danger was not enough to stir his magic ring into action.

This was a conundrum he had not foreseen: the only way he knew to take off was to leap from a cliff or tower. He was in grassland, flat as an ice rink.

The light grew dimmer as minutes past. The sunset was hidden behind the bamboo canopy. Darkness came. Now he grew aware of a new threat: the temperature was dropping sharply.

He grimaced, remembering the emergency blanket, chemical handwarmers, sparklighter, and other gear he might need not to die of cold. His roll of toilet paper would also have been nice. But his knapsack and the rest of his gear was still back with the Terrors. When he had raced off after the attacking Winged Men, he had not expected to end up here, in a big, grassy nowhere.

Preston decided it would be safer to keep traveling. Exertion might keep him warm.

But which direction to go? As a graduation gift, his uncle Waldemar had once given him a shockproof and waterproof wristwatch whose band was a folded paracord, carrying a flint firestarter, a thermometer, and, what he needed right now, a compass. He had last seen the watch sitting on his dressing table top in Limpopo, two hundred fifty million years ago.

The tip tops of the bamboo stalks were tiger-striped with red shadows. It was easy enough to see which direction was sunset. He headed oppositely: the great canal he had glimpsed was eastward. It cut across his path, and was a mile wide. If he kept to anything like a straight line, he could not miss it.

The reeds grew together too closely to walk easily, and he had no machete for bushwhacking. Each step promised to catch a foot between two stalks growing too closely together. The thick, rubbery, stubborn stalks could only be bent aside with difficulty, grew more stubborn if pushed too far, and snapped back immediately. He had to push his way through with care, only one step at a time.

On he went as the light died, squeezing and scraping between rubbery, stubborn reeds.

He came into a bit of luck: He stumbled into a wide circle where the stalks had been snapped off and flattened. The giant snake had built a nest, filled with eggs. The eggshells were large as melons. The shells were hard, not leathery and soft as most reptile eggs were. The sight of them made his mouth water, and he was surprised to find that he was starving. When had he eaten last?

He found a small reed the size of his finger, and whittled it to a sharp point, which he used to pierce an eggshell. He sucked up the yolk raw, and felt strength flow into his tired body. Raw egg was not a gourmet meal, but Preston had never had a meal more delicious, no, not in the finest restaurants of Paris. At least he would not die of thirst.

By then night had come. In the open space of the giant snake nest, he could see the stars. It did not help him find his bearings. The constellations of A.D. 250 Million were unrecognizable.

Preston lay down and drove one bamboo splinter into the ground at eye level. Then he drove a second, taller into the ground behind it, and sited on a bright star. He waited patiently. Assuming the rotation of the Earth was the same length as it had been in his day (and with the moon so close, he did not know if such an assumption were trustworthy) a star would move one degree every four minutes, or two times through a lusty rendition of the Army Air Corps song. (Yes, he knew it had been an independent branch of the service since his grandfather’s day, but ‘U.S. Air Force’ did not rhyme with ‘helluva roar’.)

Preston Lost had been a Star scout, thirteen years old, when the Boy Scout organization was officially outlawed. Before he left, the scoutmaster had taught him a mnemonic: If at night a star you site, north is nigh and south is right; east ascend; west alight.

(Even to this day, he thought his scoutmaster was crazy to think that this doggerel was easier to remember than the directions on a map. No boy in the troop, or in Preston’s generation, knew that the “nigh” side of a horse was the lefthand side, or that “alight” meant to descend.)

In this case, the star ascended, which meant he was facing east.

He packed as many titanoboa eggs as he could carry down the front of his jacket, and set out. It was not long before a sharp blow by a vengeful stalk had slapped him in the chest, cracking an oversized egg, and filling his shirt with sticky, dripping muck, which made the cold air doubly cold. He removed his shirt, and, rather than letting food go to waste, licked it clean as he walked.

And, under the leaf canopy, he lost sight of the stars. He pressed on, nonetheless, shivering in the cold, hoping he was still heading east.

A second stroke of luck fell, hours later. He came across a corridor where the stalks had been trampled flat. Preston emerged into the open air, breathing a deep sigh of relief, stretching his arms. The trampled area was yards wide, but extended left and right beyond sight, looking like a road between thirty-foot tall two tall fences of reed. Here he was able to move at a jog and keep warm. He set out, not caring which direction the corridor took him.

Luck did not favor him next: he simply could not keep up his pace enough to warm himself with the snake eggs knocking together in the front of his flight suit. If he had been more awake, he was sure he would have thought of something more clever. As it was, he decreed a feast, and sucked out the remaining eggs he carried. He donned his shirt and fastened up his flightsuit, and continued onward.

Bad luck or poor planning plagued him next. The food in his belly was making him tired. His eyes kept drooping and his feet kept stumbling. But he was convinced that to halt and sleep meant death by freezing.

A third stroke of luck fell when the moon rose. At four times its old size it shed sixteen times is old brightness, bright enough to cast shadows. His shadow was behind him, which meant he was still heading east.

He could see now, here and there where the reeds were less dense, square and semicircular shapes rising through the bamboo groves. Manmade shapes. These were the bases of broken columns, tilted plinths, and crumbling remnants all smothered in bamboo of some long dead town.

As he jogged, he saw a glittering in the soil glimpsed between the trampled stalks. He paused, and stooped. The soil here was mixed with a metallic debris. Coins and beads and irregular fragments of some purple alloy were packed into the soil in straight lines, looking for all the world like tire skids, or lines in a parking lot. Perhaps these were the outlines of ruined buildings from long ago. If the lines of debris formed a pattern, it was hidden by the endless bamboo. He picked up a purple shard no bigger than a seed. It changed shape in his fingers, turning from a triangle into a little pyramid. Preston was startled and dropped it.

He picked up another. This one was round like a coin, and flexed from concave to convex under his touch. Was it technology? Or magic? Or was it alive? He was not sure, in this world, what meaning those words had. He put the curious shard in his pocket.

On he jogged. The moon rose high. Fatigue was like a ball and chain to haul, and his eyes kept sinking shut. But he was afraid to stop and rest.

He passed a paw-print filled with discolored ice. The temperature was below freezing, so he had to keep moving. The eggs had quenched his thirst, so he did not dig up the muddy ice.

Once he saw peering at him through the reeds, a blue, metallic face of some apish being, four feet from chin to brow, lying on its side. The creature’s eyes were open. It was gazing at Preston with a cold, inhuman expression. His Holland & Holland, as if of its own accord, was in his hands and at his shoulder, and his sites were centered between the gigantic, beadlike eyes.

He fired. The thunderclap deafened him.

In the muzzle flash, he glimpsed the target clearly. He had blown half the face off some ancient and colossal monument, no doubt a priceless antiquarian treasure, half-buried in the soil, overgrown by the bamboo forest. Only then did he spot knee-high remnants of walls of whatever temple had once been here.

In the near distance, he heard hoots, yips and yaps, and a rustle running through the bamboo, as a pack of nocturnal creatures fled. Their voices sounded like lunatic laughter. The eerie cries rang from horizon to horizon. From the sound, it was many packs, not one.

That was when he saw two moving lights against the stars. The pair of diamond points emerged from behind the lefthand wall of reeds, traversed the black ribbon of night Preston could see overhead, and disappeared behind the righthand wall.

These were the lights of two flying disks, moving slowly over the endless sea of bamboo, searching for him. The flash and noise of his rifle might have given his position away.

Overhead, the two lights of the searching flying disks came into view again. The disks were now moving parallel to the trampled corridor, following it. He felt horribly naked and obvious.

He ran, he sprinted. He practically flew. Around him, he heard the rustle of some nocturnal predator, packs upon packs of them. To his left and right, dozens of eyes now, golden pupils reflecting moonlight, were running alongside. The reeds rattled and snapped as the beasts slid nimbly through them. None stepped into the open.

Fear expanded his heart. He redoubled his speed. Preston saw the golden eyes falling behind. He was gaining, but only by staying exposed, in the open, between the two walls of standing stalks.

A dark shadow, tall as a hill, loomed in his vision. The corridor of trampled plants ended at the body of a brontosaur, collapsed, a mound of flesh rising into the moonlight. His way was blocked.

He stumbled to a halt. Yapping and hooting from hundreds of unseen beasts was in his ears. Blindingly bright, searchlights stabbed down from the two disks, and began moving methodically back and forth across the landscape, throwing shadows like woven nets from the bamboo canopy.

*** *** ***

Episode 41 The Haunted Weapon

There was no more place to run.

Preston’s only obvious hope of escaping the searchlights from the silent aircraft was to hide in the shadows of the bamboo, where the beasts were. But his only hope of escaping the packs of beasts chasing him was to reach some higher place they could not climb. Even a rifle with conveniently endless bullets cannot hold off an endless horde.

Being seen by the flying disks seemed the less immediate danger. He ran toward the fallen brontosaur. The sheer size of the dead beast was overwhelming. It smelled like the reptile house at the zoo. The curving expanse of its vast belly loomed over him. The flesh was wrinkled, and the scales large as roof shingles. The body was still warm. He made a frantic, quick effort to climb the convex, fleshy surface, but the scales were too slippery, and he could find no purchase for his feet. He fell back.

He began circling the beast, looking for a way up.

He smelled blood before he saw the torn expanse of flesh where carrion had been chewing. The bite marks were recent, the tracks were fresh. Whatever he had just scared away with his gunshot had been feeding here. The torn area went on and on, a tattered red curtain following the ground below waist level, and the beasts had gnawed and burrowed deeply into the flesh. Gobbets of meat and pools of blood splashed against his feet and knees as he ran.

He came to where the elephantine legs, larger than columns, were toppled and motionless on their sides, one above the other. The sagging flesh between the forelegs was wrinkled enough for his boot toes to find purchase. He scrambled, agile as a squirrel, atop the higher leg, and from there reached the shoulder of the beast. The slope of the midriff was even higher. A few steps up the scaly, slippery incline, and he was as high as he could go.

Now what? He was above the bamboo canopy, a man standing on a bald hill. Even if the carrion could climb like great cats, the horde could not rush him here. But the flying disks, glowing as serenely as ghosts, were closing in, searchlights sweeping back and forth methodically.

The lead disk shined a searchlight against the belly of the brontosaur corpse. The swarming beasts gathered there hissed, barked and scattered. They were large as jaguars, but longer and lower, with a slender, weasel-body perfect for wriggling through tight bamboo stands, but they had impressive heads and jaws, and fangs like a wolverine. From some animated documentary he had seen as a child, his memory fished up a name: This was a Miocene creature called Megalictis ferox, a giant weasel, ancestor to martens, minks, otters, and all mustelids.

The giant weasel voices started crying again, this time in hisses and clicks to give each other courage. Down beneath the bamboo leaves, he saw constellations of golden eyes, all reflecting the light from the flying disk, an army. It was hundreds of voices and eyes. To consume carrion this large, the scavengers of this era must travel in packs of thousands.

The searchlight moved up the slope of the carcass, moving left and right. Preston went prone, and began worming backward, keeping himself in shadow. The midriff was a slope, so the lower he inched, the closer he came to the spine of the downed dinosaur, and the closer he came to vertical.

His fingers closed on a leather strap. It was a wide and sturdy, and followed the curve of the brontosaur’s back. The light was playing overhead about the belly and sides of the carcass, which meant the flying disk was about to pass overhead and see him.

Preston moved rapidly down the strap’s length, hand over hand, in an awkward half-sliding, half-scuttling motion. Then he was on the other side of the great beast’s spine, invisible to watchers directly above. The light spilled over the hilltop of the vast corpse, and poured down to its spine. Below that, was shadow. The shadow grew narrower as the disk passed by, but it did not vanish entirely. The disk would have had to land be in a position to send a beam into the tangential gap between the lower half of the dead brontosaur’s curved body and the flat ground.

Even as he thought this, he saw light to the side of him, flicking over the length of flesh where the shoulders and neck of the downed beast rested. The skull and spine of the brontosaur had been stripped of flesh by the megalicts: a grisly sight, partly screened by still-standing bamboo. The second flying disk was coming around the head of the carcass, low enough to shove the crowns of the bamboo stands aside. The round, glowing, silent disk looked like a sea beast trailing its wake in the sea.

In the reflected light, he saw what the huge strap he held led to: a howdah. It was the same sort of boxy carriage seat used for riders to perch on the shoulders elephants, but extravagantly larger. It had stained glass windows and a roof of gold. He swung his feet, and jumped down, slid, grabbed the golden doorframe of the front-facing opening, and flung himself inside.

This was not merely a seat; it was a cabin. It was also on its side. Preston was agile enough to grab one of the several filigreed poles running to the vertical surface of the gilded dome, and so did not fall through the broken window frames piercing what was no longer the larboard cabin wall.

The searchlight beam played over the broken windows underfoot. Preston pulled himself deeper into the shadow, and clung to the divan, whose legs were bolted to the vertical floor.

He saw he was not alone.

A manlike shape, but broader, bigger and hairier than a man, lay crumpled in the angle between the cabin wall and domed roof. The smell of death came from the body, the searchlight glare catching and shining from broken glass and shattered ornaments, gems and plaques richly adorning this cabin, was enough for Preston’s sharp eyes to see the bloodstains coating half the cabin.

Bloodstains of a different consistency and smell reached out from a large round opening in the floor. Gallons of blood had filled this place, sloshing and splashing when the great beast finally succumbed to its wound, and fell.

The searchlight from the other flying disk passed over the windows above. Bright reflections lit the forward opening.

The dead man had the head of an ape with bright red fur, a lion’s mane, and ferocious side whiskers. He wore gold armor made of complex slats and folds of wood and metal. Each slat held several bezants or lozenges, inscribed with eye-defeating designs. The hairy hands were not apish, but delicate and strong, finer than human hands. In one fist was a Frankish axe with a five foot haft. Perhaps with two hands, a strong man could wield it. The blade was coated with dark blood, the same hue as the blood strains issuing from the trapdoor in the floor. The man’s other hand held a cylindrical rod of purple alloy, larger than a flashlight.

Presumably it was a weapon, since just at the spot where the rod’s tip rested, a gaping wound penetrated breastplate and undergarment, breastbone, internal organs, spine, back, and backplate. A self-inflicted wound.

The shadows dipped down, then up, and moved from side to side as the two flying disks maneuvered, and swept searchlights over the scene. Then the shadows reached upward. Both disks were landing. The noise of bending and snapping bamboo filled the air. Then came cries of the dozens of megalicts, soon joined by hundreds. He heard gruff voices shouting commands. Men were emerging from the vessels.

Preston reached for his Holland & Holland, and hesitated. He was outnumbered, so hiding was better than fighting. The divan, when he rapped on the wooden side, sounded hollow. If he could pry or chop open the rear part of the divan, it might prove enough to hold a man.

He looked over the grisly scene inside the howdah cabin once again. Preston could see what had happened here: it was a suicide. The man-ape had killed himself with his own weapon. Long enough ago for bloodstains to dry, but not for the huge dinosaur body to cool. Hours ago, but not days ago.

What was stranger was that he must have slain his mount before doing himself in. If Preston read the signs right, the ape-man had opened a trap door in the floor of the howdah, exposing the spine of the beast to his axe. Preston knew dinosaurs had secondary brains located somewhere along their absurdly long spinal columns: this might have been a more painless death for the great beast than decapitation.

Preston climbed down into the bloodstained corner were the ape-man corpse was heaped. He reached for the ax.

Preston jumped when, out of the dark, a voice spoke. It was cold and flat and dispassionate. “Do not molest the relicts of my master, lest you be destroyed. Looting it impermissible! Irregular! No further warning will be given.”

“Quiet! Be quiet, blast you! Do you want to get us both killed?”

“The question is irregular.”

This did not sound like a living being. The voice was coming from the purple flashlight-shaped weapon in the ape-man’s hand.

Preston whispered, “If you are a unit of the Eternal Machine, you have to obey me. Eien the Immortal, the last of the, ah — well I cannot remember which human race he was, you have so blasted many floating around these days — the last of his kind, put himself under my orders. Listen: men are coming to capture or kill me, and I need to escape.”

The cold voice said, “It is more regular to die fighting. Do you not seek this?”

“I am exhausted, and would make a poor showing.”

“You speak the language of the Persistent Darwinian Concordat. The auranetic imprint surrounding your essence displays peculiar emblems. You are the property of the Third Men?”

“Little redheaded monkeys? They think so.”

“If you are their property, I am obligated to protect you from despoliation or theft.”

Preston heard a commotion starting outside, and saw the reflections, through the windows, of lights in motion. Bamboo stalks crackled and hissed. Mustelid yowls filled the air. Perhaps the expedition was cutting down stems to make a camp. Perhaps the disk crewmen were driving off the megalicts. In either case, they would soon send searchers to examine this howdah: it was the only concealment anywhere around.

He sighed. The words would be a shameful lie, but no one was likely to overhear. “Yes, I am their property. An expensive thrall, worth lots of whatever their money is. Prestige points, or something. You have to protect me.”

“The Fifth Men will not probe the mount body. Climb inside. My master left a wound large enough to admit you.”

“I hope you mean the dinosaur’s body.”

“Make no further irregular comments. They waste valuable vocalization interpretive cognition resources.”

Preston picked up the flashlight and turned it toward the open trapdoor next to him. He said, “Can you emit a beam or something? I do not see the wound.”

“It is a spinal wound, piercing through to the lung cavity. You are not in the correct position.”

Preston realized that this whole howdah must have slid on its straps when the brontosaur had collapsed on its side. Preston reached down, ignored the rod’s protest, and ripped the large cape from the dead ape-man’s shoulders. Gold bezants and buckles adorned the hems. Protecting his head with this fabric, Preston knocked the glass shards out of an upward window, and looked. If there was a wound near the spine of the beast, if was not easy to spot from below.

“I do not see this wound, and I have no way to climb up the back. It curves outward.”

“You will be conveyed.” The purple rod unfolded with a snap. Now it was six feet long. With a second snap, crosspieces emerged from top and bottom, and formed grips and stirrups. The thing now looked like a pogo stick. “Grasp the handholds firmly with both hands. Place your feet on the footholds.”

“How do we do this without being seen?”

“The megalicts here have been modified by the Third Race. This renders them vulnerable to parasympathetic control signals to incentivize aggressive attack. This will preoccupy search party resources.”

The commotion outside grew louder. Now he heard the sound, unchanged over millions of years, he had heard weasels and wolverines make as they closed in for the kill: a bone chilling hiss. Other sounds like shattering glass and buzzing whines filled the air: the strange weapons of Pangaea.

There was no more time for thought or doubt. He mounted up the pogo stick. “Let’s go. But be careful. Remember how expensive I am. Top quality goods, right here. No bruising the merchandise.”

But the rod neither levitated like a broom nor bounded like a pogo stick. Instead, the rod telescoped open so suddenly that Preston had to hang on frantically as he was flung upward like a skyrocket.

*** *** ***

Episode 42 Night Flight

The expanding rod hurled Preston skyward. The metal pole simply kept unfolding yard after yard into the night air. It flexed just enough to form a curve that followed the sloping back of the fallen brontosaur. This kept Preston within the angle of spreading shadow cast by the gold-topped howdah against the glare of the flying disk that rested in the bamboo below, light shining both from crystal hull and open hatches.

The mantle he had taken from the ape-man’s corpse was affixed around his neck and one shoulder, and his Holland and Holland was slung over the other. The cloak flapped in the sudden motion, and the gun barked his hip.

The top of the rod now telescoped out, unfolding into a trio of hooks, and drove itself into the thick dorsal scales running along the dead brontosaur’s spine. The yards upon yards of lower rod retracted instantly. Preston was clinging by a hook embedded in the a vertical wall of scaly flesh, swaying dangerously in the night wind. The hook was not securely seated; it was working itself free. The scales here were loose. A wide gash ran parallel to the spine, a huge wound. The sagging red lips gave forth a putrid smell. Blood and other internal fluids had painted the broken scales with running stains.

The cold voice said, “Property of the Third Men! Thrust yourself into the cleft: part of the lung cavity is beyond, sufficient to contain you.”

Preston was not a queasy man, but something made him hesitate. If only he had been more awake, his brain clear of fog, the hunch holding him back would have been clear immediately.

The rod said, “Pursuit is unlikely to find an organism of your unexceptional dimensions inside a cadaver so extensive, since they lack specialized senses.”

“Wait — hold on —”

“Do not tarry!”

“I said hold on!”

“Debilitating shocks will be administered if you do not act with haste.”

“Hey! I said no damaging the expensive merchandize! Listen. I have a better idea.”

From underfoot, the yapping noises of furious, prehistoric, giant weasels, and the chime and crackle of unearthly weapons, the hoarse cries of anger, were diminishing. Preston was hidden behind nothing. Any searchlight turned upward, or any man with good eyes, would transfix him.

The cold voice said, “I am required to protect Third Man thralls, not to take commands from one.”

“This will protect me! Better than crawling into a filthy corpse! Throw me upward into the air, as high was you can. Let me explain… I have this magic ring…”

The rod was not a living thing, or so Preston assumed. Machines in his day did not talk, make decisions, think, imagine, prioritize, debate, decide, and so on. But he had seen so many shows and films where they did, that it seemed natural. What did not seem natural was that the rod reacted to his plea, before he gave a logical reason.

The rod took his remark on faith.

The lower end of the rod shot out, formed a hook, and embedded itself in the vertical expanse of scaly flesh to which they clung. Then the staff unfolded to hundreds of feet long in an instant. The shock of the acceleration stunned Preston; he clung with frantic strength. At this speed, his arms were wrenched at the shoulders, and his elbows ached.

How tall the wand was able to unfold was unclear. Two hundred yards? Four hundred? More? His eyes were swimming with dark fogs. He was lightheaded from the speed. The lights of the two flying disks were suddenly no bigger than two pennies underfoot. Immediately, the ring on his finger lit up. The now familiar sensation of weightlessness overcame him. Once more, he found himself swimming in the night air.

The rod in his fist snapped shut, no bigger than a flashlight once again.

Preston had not lost his rifle. It was still slung over neck and shoulder securely by its strap. Tumbling without weight, he tucked the rod in his belt, and turned in a slow summersault in the air, unlimbering his gun.

The rod said, “Halt! Discharging your chemically-impelled bullet involves first and second order energy transformations that pursuit will surely detect.”

“I want to go east.” He started to raise the gun to his shoulder, but the rod suddenly expanded, catching him painfully in the armpit, and thrusting the gun from his hands. The shoulder strap was looped around his neck. The gun swung away, choking him for a moment, circled back, and clouted him sharply in the back of the head. He yowled and clutched his head, and this sent him somersaulting dizzily again. Meanwhile the ground below came ever closer.

Preston shouted a swearword.

“I go nowhere. Your desires are irrelevant,” the cold voice replied. “Preserving the interests of the Third Men is paramount. Protecting and retrieving lost property falls within that parameter.”

Preston wrestled his gun back into his hands. “This ring on my finger will carry me safety to wherever my bullet lands. I can use it to fly. Sort of.”

“Irrelevant. Multivariable ambiguous verbalizations waste cognitive resources.”

“How can you not understand what I am saying, you stupid stick! I can fly away if I shoot the gun! They won’t find me!”

“How can you not understand what I am saying, you stupid man?” answered the cold voice in a dispassionate monotone. “Shooting the gun will draw pursuit after you. The energy changes are detectable.”

Preston saw the ground approaching rapidly. There was no time to talk. With one hand, he yanked the rod out of his belt and flung it away into the darkness with a curse.

With his other, he pointed the rifled upward, and thumbed off the safety. But the rod was faster than any human reflexes. As it was spinning away through the air, it expanded suddenly from both ends, and one tip glanced off the metal barrel of the gun. An unseen energy made the barrel and lock pulse under Preston’s grip with a jolt of pain. The muscles in his hand spasmed. The rifle seemed to jump out of his grasp. There was no sensation in his fingers on that hand. The rod continued to expand, but a hook unfolding from the shaft closed on the rifle strap, and yanked it away from him. Preston, screaming in rage, with his one working hand, with both legs, and with teeth, grabbed the length of the rod. The rod had the gun, but he had the rod.

He shimmied up the rod, reaching for the gun, but the rod grew again.

The ground below was now racing toward Preston as if the world were a paddle and he a pingpong ball. So it was a little confusing when the world seemed to topple sideways, the endless canopy whispered as it fled past his ears, and then he was falling upward toward the night sky again.

He blinked and tried to focus his eyes. No, he was not falling toward the sky. He was falling toward his rifle, or, rather, the nose of one bullet loaded in his rifle. Which was just as the magic ring had been mindlessly programmed to do. As long as he held on the rod, and the rod held the gun overhead, the ring would continue to try to draw him toward it. It was sort of like the old trick lazy muledrivers once practiced on mules, urging them along with a carrot dangling from a fishing rod jammed through their own hardness.

“Great,” Muttered Preston. “An airman without his airplane. Up, up and away, junior birdman! How come I am so hellishly beat?” Louder he said, “Can you measure things for us like airspeed, groundspeed, altitude, attitude, all that good stuff? Our bearing is east.”

“South is better in terms of terrain and hunting prospects.”

“I left behind some people I mean to rescue in the Terror camp. They are in the east, if my guess is right.”

“You intend to poach the property of the Third Men? It is violation even to voice such intent.”

Preston was tired, but he would be damned if he let a machine outsmart him. He said, “East is an encampment of Third Men. Take me there, since I belong to them. Agreed?”


“The pursuit can detect when this ring does its mojo, Agreed? But it has to do its mojo whenever I land, because I do not have a parachute. I have to fire a bullet into the ground below in order to land safely. Agreed?”


“Therefore was cannot land in or near the Terror caravan itself, because if we lead the pursuit to where they camp, innocent Terror women and children might be harmed. Agreed?”

“Agreed. You voice an admirable solicitude toward the dams and breeding stock of the Third Men.”

“So the only logical thing to do is head east, mark the position of the caravan, and land far enough away that pursuers reaching the same landing spot afterward will not likely track our path to the caravan. Agreed?”


And with this, the rod flexed, and the rifled dangling at the end of the rod, outside Preston’s grasp, was pointed at another quarter of the sky. He fell that direction.

Preston now grunted. “Good! Now your job is to take care of the livestock, including prize animals like me! So I am going to nap, and by the time I am awake, let’s see you rustle up some provisions, bacon and eggs fried in the same pan as hashbrowns, and a nice cup of joe. Sweet, hot and black. I like my eggs scrambled, and I eat them with catsup. Don’t laugh. Lots of folk eat ’em so. G’night.”

Even a man as tired as he was, on his fourth day without sleep, exhausted and worn, should not have been able to sleep while weightless in the middle of freezing, howling winds. But Preston had two advantages. One, he had been in service, and airmen, sailors and soldiers of all eras know the knack of how to get needed rest under any conditions. Two, he still had the hooded cloak of the apeman, which was bigger than a sleeping bag, and as warm as a seal pelt.

He dreamed about a girl.

It was later. He woke, relieved to find that solid ground was beneath his back. He was not fully awake, for the ground seemed to float and sway, as if he were rocking in a hammock. But he was lying on matted grass that was scented and wondrously soft.

His eyes crept open only the merest slit. A few inches above his nose, green twigs had been woven like a basket, and he could see red sunlight twinkling and playing where the weave was not tight. It was a fine sight.

Preston was warm, comfy, not in pain, and not aware of any immediate threat to life and limb. He wanted to see how long this moment of nirvana might last, so he decided not to stir, not to talk, not to sit up, not to change the slow, even, rhythm of his breathing.

Wrapped around him, luxuriously warm and soft, was the voluminous hooded cloak of the apeman he had looted. Who had tucked him in?

There was one way to find out. All he had to do was move his hand an inch, and he could feel whether his holster or sheath was full or empty. If empty, he was disarmed, meaning he had been captured again. If he was armed, however, that meant he was among friends.

His philosophy was simple: only cowardly foes wanted you disarmed. Your friends wanted you ready to fight. This philosophy made him unsuited to life on the Earth back in his day. Here in the barbaric eon of Pangaea, harsh as it was, at least a man knew where he stood. No one tried to enslave you while pretending it was for your own good.

He wanted to drift back off to sleep again, and see Cynisca. She had been trying to tell him something important, something about deeper level of the mind, where streams of thought merged into a universal consciousness, like rivers diving underground to reach an unseen, sunless sea… and how dreams could cross the boundaries of time and space…

He felt that she was thinking of him, worried about him. Was he in danger?

That thought prodded him awake. His fingers twitched. They closed on the heavy, solid, wonderful grip of his Broomhandle Mauser pistol.

He was armed. He was a free man.

A rustling swell of sound came from without, a sound as large as the sea. The wind was rattling endless acres of grassland. The wind carried smells. The scent of cookfires touched his nostrils, together with frying eggs, savory bacon.

Preston sighed a contented sigh. The only thing better than being armed was having a breakfast waiting!

A cold voice rang out: “Thrall! You are awake. Rise! Dress and make yourself presentable! Your Master and Owner soon returns!”

His sigh, in mid-sigh, turned into a groan. The blasted monkey-men had allowed him to keep his weapons last time. Maybe it was a psychological trick. Maybe they did not fear his ancient and primitive arms. Maybe they were crazy.

But, sadly, it seemed that, even in Pangaea, a man did not know where he stood after all.

Preston decided he did not desire to present himself to any Owner, breakfast or no breakfast. His Holland & Holland was missing. The magic ring was not on his finger. No doubt his Owner — he assumed this was Warden Ahara, or Grandmaster Isrpa — had confiscated both.

He turned on his side. With his knife, in one stroke, he cut a clean slit through the woven mat covering him. The cut was at ground level. He wormed through the slit thus made and belly-crawled out into a world of four and five foot tall grasses. These were soft and pliant, not the stubborn and impassible bamboo of last night. Behind him was a pup tent of woven grass. It blocked his view of whatever was beyond. The querulous voice of the rod issued from that direction.

Preston had done plenty of tracking and stalking in his day, and he knew how to pass unseen into tall grasses without rattling them. Away he crawled. The grass was springy, and straightened up as he passed, hiding his path.

The machine voice was behind him, barking out impatient commands. It diminished in the distance. There was no other sign of pursuit.

“I’ll come back for you…”

Preston muttered under his breath. But whether he meant he would return to recover his gear, or return to exact revenge on whoever dared call himself another man’s owner, was not clear, not even to him.

Away he fled, silently, into the tall grass.

He was once more moving without knowledge of the terrain or sight of any destination. But he was also free.


*** *** ***

Episode 43 Unseen Walls Unscalable

He crawled, then rose, moving through the tall grass carefully. Where the grass was taller then he, he walked upright. Whenever the breeze stopped blowing, and rattling of the grass no longer covered the sounds of his movement, Preston patiently held still.

The long mantle he had stolen from the apeman was made of dark soft stuff, so was not likely to stand out. But the large neck ornament was massy gold, and bright, so he reversed the cloak, and hid the shiny lump beneath the fabric.

Preston did not know by what means the haunted rod of the Third Men had lowered him from the clouds to make a safe landing. At the moment, the sole way to tell his magic ring where to land was to fire a bullet at the ground, which apparently triggered alarms and summoned pursuit. But there were no flying disks visible in the sky. Perhaps the rod had merely lowered the rifle gently to the ground, and let the sleeping Preston float down.

And then it wove a pup tent for him? The thing had uncanny accuracy, and could unfold sidebars from its telescoping shaft, and apparently had both sensors and a way to send signals to animals. But he had not seen any fingers on the thing. Who had provided the woven mat to shade him?

Time passed. In the afternoon, Preston found a bald knob of ground, a small hillock, lifting a bare head above the grass. He patiently gathered gray and fallen grassblades from the dead undergrowth, and wove it into a crude mantle. Another handful of grasses knotted together made a ragged cap. It was the same dun hue as the slope and crest of the hillock. He tied the mat to his cloak, the cap to his hood. Dressed now in an impromptu ghillie-suit, he ventured into the open. He belly-crawled cautiously up the slope, a brown scarecrow blending into brown grass, pausing every yard or so to peer in each direction.

He was rewarded with the sight of thin threads of blue campfire smoke rising up into sky to the south. Above, a locust cloud of insects was hanging like the cone of some slow and murmuring tornado. Larger silhouettes of winged mantichores circled the central cloud. He had marched in the shadow of those flying monsters hour after hour, and he knew them.

The haunted weapon had, it seemed, done exactly as Preston asked, and landed him a short distance from the caravan camp of the Beauty-of-Torment clan of the Third Men.

The next step of his plan was necessarily vague. Much depended on the lay of the land.

An hour or two of stealthy travel through the tall grass brought him to the edge of an immense, sheer drop, deeper than the Grand Canyon. This was the upper lip of the dry canal he had seen from so many miles away. The canal itself was so broad that the opposite wall was a dim line, blue with distance, to the south.

East and west straight as a lance and beyond the limits of vision, ran a wide strip of lower landscape, half-hidden beneath slowly moving fogbanks. Or perhaps those were low-hanging clouds. Between the clouds a dark green reach of swamps could be glimpsed, a wasteland of mossy trees, crooked rivulets, stagnant pools, mounds of sand, beds of reed.

At the foot of the drop a ship larger than an aircraft carrier was aground. It was the size of a small city. It rested at an angle, a wreck ages old. Soil had accumulated along its slanted decks, and generations of tree roots had pierced and eaten away the hullplates of the stern, and submerged the rear of the vessel in green. Another, smaller, forest grew amidships.

Preston could imagine no use for so large a canal-going vessel. For that matter, he could think of no reason for so large a canal.

Broad, straight thoroughfares running on causeways crossed the swampland of the canal bed and met at the prow of this titanic vessel. One thoroughfare was clean of soil and brush: it ran directly south, across the bogs toward the far wall.

Up from the immense wreck of the ship rose curvilinear pyramids and oblong domes built, or perhaps grown, of a waxy material. These domes looked much like gigantic wasps’ nests. They were composed of ovals and ribbons of substance balanced and glued together, tipped with onion-shaped cupolas. The domes were a different material than the ship, and clearly dated from a different era. They were also worn, cracked, and weathered, overgrown with clinging vines. Some had trees broken through their walls.

An even later era had built immense wooden ramps and platforms leading from the tower tops to a pueblo village above — if village was the word for a huge metropolis, now mostly empty, carved into the side of the canal wall using tools and technologies Preston found hard to imagine. The wood ramps were intricately carved and polished. They were wide and sturdy enough for huge sauropods to descend.

At the windows of this vertical stone city, he saw Winged Men entering and departing, singly or in trios, on some business of their own. The wings of the previous group of Seventh Men Preston had seen had sported wings pointed like falcons. These had spread feathers like owls.

Even as he paused to look, from high above, descending from the clouds, came a Seventh Man with falcon wings and a long, split tail. The feathers were the same dark blue hue and dappled pattern Cucuio and his men had worn.

The descending Seventh Man passed unmolested through the cloud of insects and the flock of mantichores and landed to the west, at some spot level with Preston on top of the wall, near the edge.

In that direction, looming above the grass blocking his view, Preston could see the neck and head of the brontosaur he had been marching behind earlier that week. Or, at least, it had the same decorated headgear. The head dipped down, vanishing from sight, and rose again, grass dangling from lips. The jaws worked with slow and contented motions.

Preston moved along the edge of the wall. Above the grass tops now he saw a square tower. It was made of dark, shiny slabs, edged with silvery arabesques, set in the same rectilinear proportions as the city of Winged Men carved into the cliffside directly below it.

He crept closer. Pikestaffs, topped with human or hominid skulls, rose above the tower’s crenels, and long banners, white as snow, flapped in the wind.

Through the grassblades, the Terror camp came into his view one narrow, vertical sliver at a time. Around the square tower were pitched the slatted and brightly colored tents of the Third Men.

There was no ditch nor fence around this camp. No visible barrier prevented him from merely walking in among the wigwams.

There were barriers nonetheless. Preston grimaced at the cloud of insects hanging overhead. He remembered Warden Ahara boasting that any child in the camp could stun or kill someone like Preston. What could a man armed with a pistol and a knife do? Any living thing from bug to brontosaur could be turned into a watchdog, or into a weapon, by the little, red Terrors. They deserved their name.

If every insect was a burglar alarm, as well as being a poisoned dart, approaching the camp undetected was unlikely. With the noses, ears and eyes of the hounds and harts, pangolins and peligrothers, giant sloths and giant bears, anteaters and ankylosaurs, all aiding the watch, it was impossible.

But now what? How could he find Cynisca, free her, and escape? Not to forget Fyodor. And then, escape to where? On the other hand, there was no point in quitting. It might seem strange to yearn with such longing for two people he had met so briefly. But they were the only people even close to being from his home, the only people who treated him like a person. Maybe it was unreasonable, but these two were the only souls he knew.

He crept closer, moving very slowly. No insect descended on him. He was still too far away for that. But then something else came into view, a barrier more deadly than a moat stocked with alligators.

There was a herd of gigantic long-snouted boar in a large meadow between him and the camp. These were ancestors of peccaries and hippo called Entelodonts. They stood seven feet tall at the shoulder, and must have weighed a thousand pounds. A brace of dire wolves, like swineherds, patrolled the area between the meadow and the tall grass.

Preston watched, fascinated, when one of the huge, hellish boars strayed too far from the herd, the gigantic dire wolves closed in, growling and barking, heads low, in threatening postures. The boar dug in its rear hoofs and stiffened stubbornly. The wolves were less than one tenth the mass of this monster, but as they barked, more swineherd wolves came running. The gigantic boar flourished its tusks at a semicircle of dire wolves.

Now the wolves from one side would dart in and nip at the flanks of the giant boar. The boar turned and slashed with its tusks. The blow would have disemboweled the canine had it landed, but the wolf twisted and dodged, nimble as a dancer. The flanking wolf from the other side of the semicircle darted in when the boar turned. The beast was too huge to turn quickly, so when it maneuvered to face the new tormentor, the first dire wolf darted back in. Meanwhile the whole half-circle of dire wolves began barking and closing in.

The boar’s nerve broke. It tossed his head haughtily, and returned to the herd, stepping with slow, dignified steps on its narrow legs.

“I understand how you feel,” muttered Preston. Fate had been biting him from one side then another ever since his advent to Pangaea. But the Entelodonts were numerous enough and fierce enough that they could have broken free of their wolfish guards, had only they acted in concert.

The killer boars were larger than hippopotami, and the dire wolves bigger than timber wolves. It would have been suicide to cross their meadow. Preston began circling the camp, looking for a safer way in.

He soon saw the thing was impossible. The whole camp was surrounded by grazing areas of trampled grass arranged in a vast half circle, one inside the next. Each held another herd of deadly creatures programmed by the Terrors to kill intruders. In effect, these grazing zones were walls. Unseen walls perhaps, imaginary and impalpable. But they could not be scaled.

He continued circling, just for the sake of thoroughness.

By sheer mischance, he avoided a flock of geese that Terrors had set to wander the tall grass outside their camp, birds sure to set up a racket at suspicious smells or movements. Of course. These were the patrols in the tall grass beyond the imaginary walls. He backed away carefully from where the noisy birds were strutting and pecking.

He also came across a print in the dirt he recognized as a smilodon’s. Somewhere in the tall grass, tall and tiger-striped hunting cats were patrolling also, evidently without disturbing the geese. How the two species could dwell together without chasing or fleeing each other was a mystery. It demonstrated yet again what a miraculous degree of control the Terrors had over their servant-beasts.

Preston saw a saber toothed tiger sunning itself lazily on a rock in the middle of the grass. Fortunately, the creature seemed to be napping, and the breeze was in Preston’s face, so he was downwind. He began inching backward.

Of a sudden, the wind shifted, and blew in the opposite direction, from him and towards the great cat. Immediately its golden eyes opened. Preston froze, hoping his straw cap and mat tied to his great cloak would hide him.

The hope was dashed. The smilodon rose slowly, and came toward him on stiff legs, moving hesitantly. Preston drew his pistol, cursing inwardly. Stopping a tiger with a handgun was not a winning proposition, and the sound would carry.

Because of this, he hesitated far longer than was wise. He did not open fire as the great cat draw closer step by silent step. Then it was close enough to reach out and touch. It was at his feet. Oddly, inexplicably, it was not in a posture to spring. Its claws were sheathed. The great beast showed no sign of anxiety, merely curiosity.

It lowered its head and sniffed delicately at the hem of Preston’s mantle. The murmuring tickling sound issued from the monster’s throat. Then, with an air of nonchalance, the great cat swished its tail, turned, and wandered off.

Preston resumed breathing after a bit, his eyes never wandering from the spot in the grass to which the great cat had retreated. Then he raised the hem and sniffed. The musk of ape-man filled his nose. Of course. King Kong had been a Terror also, merely a large, jumbo-sized breed.

Preston continued circling the camp until he reached the brink of the great wall. He came to a path of trampled grass leading toward the camp. It came from a spot where the grass had been close cropped in a large circle, perhaps by goats, and the stubble coated with chalky white powder. A tall flagpole rose above the white circle, tipped with an axehead and topped with three skulls: one human; one humanoid, and one hominid.

The humanoid skull was as delicate and large-eyed as a lemur: an Ipotane. The third was from a thick-skulled, large-jawed and baboon-fanged primate: a Mighty One. A long white banner, free of any charge or emblem, flapped and flew in the breeze.

Just then, a blue-winged Seventh Man fell down from the clouds, beat his dragon-wings furiously, raising a cloud of dust and dry grass blades. He landed in a crouch beneath the white banner. As the dust settled, he rose. His thirty-foot wings shrank into a cape of leather reaching not past his calves.

Before the cape closed, Preston saw the man’s gas-throwing tube-weapon running from hip to knee to ankle. He saw cloud upon cloud of wasps like a living dome over the camp, and he saw his only chance. Preston’s pistol could not fight bug clouds. The gas-thrower could.

He drew his Mauser and stepped through the curtain of grass into the open. “Freeze! Don’t call for help!”

*** *** ***

Episode 44 Beneath the Skull Banner

Preston suspected he did not look very threatening. The heavy apeman cloak was hidden beneath a ragged mat of grass, and the hood was beneath a rough duncecap of grass. But with Mauser in fist, he stepped forth from the concealing curtain of tall grass, into the chalk-coated, smooth-mown circle where the flagpole, the white flag, and the three skulls gleamed.

Preston was wary. The other figure was a head taller than he, but thin as a stick figure. Nonetheless, Preston knew those skeletal limbs packed more muscle power than a plowhorse, enough to lift a hundred pounds or more into the air. This was a dangerous man and proud, not easily to be cowed.

The gargoyle-beaked mask turned. The goggles glinted impassively. In a voice like a horn from a distant world, the man said, “You shall not kill me.”

Preston raised his gun, and lowered his voice. “This is a deadly weapon. It shoots a small, fast-moving bullet that can pierce your heart or shatter your skull. I can kill you, sure enough. Don’t imagine I won’t.”

The Winged Man doffed his gargoyle-nosed mask and pushed his goggles above his brow.

Preston felt disappointed, and felt foolish for feeling disappointed. He had been hoping this might Cucuio. The stranger sported the same fierce, aquiline features, and the same coppery-bronze skin, but it was not he.

The man had narrow, regal eyes. His face was made of harsh planes, a jutting nose, high cheekbones, a protruding jaw. A scowl mark like an exclamation point parted his eyebrows, crow’s feet gathered at the corners of his eyes, and deep lines bracketed the straight, lipless slash of his mouth.

Preston was torn. If he fired, the sound of gunshot would give him away. But if he did not, how could he overpower this man? The Seventh Men were light and frail, but were inhumanly strong.

With admirable sangfroid, the man stared at him narrowly, looking at the triangular shadow of Preston’s hood, paying no heed to the gun in Preston’s hand.

The man spoke. “You can kill. But you shall not.”

“Why not?”

“You are the Last First Man. Rumor tells of you.”

Preston growled, “Do these rumors say I fool around? Or bluff? Does anyone say I am not serious?” He raised the Mauser toward the Winged Man’s face, bracing it with his other hand.

The Winged Man regarded Preston coldly, through half-lidded eyes.

Preston suddenly felt the tension leave the air. This man seemed so certain that Preston would not shoot, Preston was starting to doubt it himself.

“You are most serious. This is why I know you will not kill me, not here.” The Winged Man raised an arm and pointed at the white flag overhead, and the three white skulls adorning the flagpole. “We stand in the shadow of the skull banner.”

Then the man’s words sunk in. Preston said, “What? What is this flag? A truce flag?” It seemed odd, almost uncanny, that after all these years, when so many strange civilizations and races had risen, fallen, and been forgotten, the meaning of the white flag had not been. Suddenly, this flag seemed precious: it was a survival from a quarter million years ago.

The Winged Man said, “You provoke my curiosity. Is it true, what rumor says?”

“Probably not. Depends. What have you heard?”

“It is said that the Last First Man wanders the world, making strange promises and prophecies, blaspheming the many gods, and foretelling the doom of empires.”

“Mm. Doesn’t sound much like me.”

“The Phantoms called him back up into the heaven, with the promise one day to return.”

“I flew to a mountain. I was gone about a weekend.”

“Admittedly, the second advent of the Last First Man was not so soon expected.”

“Why do you call me that?”

“You are fated to destroy the Time Tesseract, then no more First Men will be brought forward to Tenth Earth from First Earth, back when the continents were many, not one. Hence you will be last.”

“I don’t remember making any prophecies.”

“You foretold a truce to quell the feuds between Terror and Ascender, that we should combine against the Empire, which is foe to both, and foe to all. But if you honor truce, you must honor all truces, even in this place. For how can peacemakers be peacebreakers?”

Preston said, “Why? What is so special about this place?”

“This is a place of peace.”

Preston knew he was defeated, but he was not sure exactly how it had been done. Preston holstered his pistol, and thrust out his hand. “My name is Lost.”

“I am Ercinee of the Ascenders, plenipotentiary of the Phratry of Achiyalabopa.”

The Winged Man stared at the outstretched hand quizzically, but made no move to take it. Instead he merely narrowed his eyes slightly. “Lost? Your name is fitting. You know not on what soil you stand, do you?”

“I am new here.”

“New or old, have you heard no pitiful wails, no screams of pain? Cannot you scent the miasma of hopelessness? Ah, but the senses of the First Men are the weakest of all the races! Perhaps this is your good fortune. Underfoot, here, the stubborn are hung head downward in the fumes above hopeless fires until their spirits break, and after are branded with irons heated in them. These are the Cliffs of Fortunate Suicide. So many fling themselves to destruction as their last free act that a lake of blood is below, where carrion bird walk, too fattened to take wing. A thousand feet below is Xurac A’a, the Fortress of Despair.”

“Are you talking about that big ship?”

“Yes. The city is built within the hull of an ancient barge-city of the Descenders. It was made of the imperishable, ever-renewing alloy four ages ago, when this was the Sixth Earth, and all the lands were drowned.”

“The hull has trees growing through it.”

“The imperishable alloy perishes. It has lost its consistency over eons.”

“Who lives below? Winged men? Or Mighty Ones?”

“Both. The Mighty dwell in Despair. Carved into the cliff five hundred feet above them, is the Winged Man citadel called Unsurrendering. It surrendered not long ago. It is the aerie for the Phratry Daramulum. My cousins. They call themselves allies of the Mighty, but they are chattel. They serve the Advocacy as messengers, scouts, and agents.”

Ercinee raised his arm again, and swept his hand grandly toward the north. Preston was a head shorter, so his view whatever distant vista to which Ercinee gestured was blocked by six-foot tall grass.

The Winged Man said, “North is the Land of Lamentation, where Firstlings roam free. At Despair are gathered all the caravan routes running south. This is the chief of all markets for concubines and menservants. The boat traffic…” (now he gestured eastward) “… passes down the River of Weeping to Xurac Cauac, the Walled City of Sobbing Girls.”

Ercinee folded his arms and peered down regally at Preston. He continued: “You understand now why the skull banner stands here? It is the sign of the Merchant Law.”

“So this is a slave market?”

Ercinee nodded. “The First Men have nothing else of value they can do or make. But Firstling women are fair in our eyes, and in the eyes of all higher races save one. No matter how odd our shapes, the oldest and deepest parts of our brain remain unchanged, so the sexual cues and responses and instincts linger. To remove them is folly.”

“What happens if you do? Remove those instincts, I mean.”

“You create the Eighth Men.”

Preston squinted. “Maybe I have lost count, but aren’t you winged folk the Seventh Men? Didn’t you create the Eighth Men?”

Ercinee opened his winged in a shrug of motion, and then wrapped them more tightly about himself. The gesture was so much like a man crossing his arms that Preston grinned, and said, “That bad, eh?”

Ercinee said, “My people enter heightened states of consciousness when in full flight, and, sometimes, when we return to earth, it is hard to remember the difference between daring and folly. When earthbound, we try to carry out plans made when our brains were more awake, and take on faith that we knew what we were thinking.” The look of weary cynicism once more marred the regal features of his fierce face. “Winged Man science advances by fits and starts. Some fits are fits of madness.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have yet to meet anyone from the last century before the Seventh Earth died, or hear the details of what drove the final generation of my race to create their own destroyers. But, oh, I can imagine. I know us too well.” He shook his head mournfully.

Preston said, “Well, cheer up. Thanks to the Time Tesseract, the Eighth Men and the Seventh Men and every other son of Adam are all mixed together here on the Last Continent. You can undo your people’s past mistakes. The future is a blank slate. To start with, you can help me break into the Terror Camp, and rescue the girl I am here to rescue.”

Ercinee laughed a single, loud, sharp bark of laughter. “Ha! Are you the Last First Man, indeed? You roam the world seeking unity between the races, but you would break the laws each race upholds? Rumor calls you mad. I see why.”

“It is not insane. The girl’s in trouble. There is a guy also, but I am less worried about him. He is not going to be forced into a forced marriage.”

“You are going to raid the Third Men and steal their property? And yet you expect the Third Men to join with you, and any others you win to your madness, and combine against the Mighty Ones? You seek to gain allies by plundering them? A novel diplomatic tactic!”

“Slavery is one of the things the Third Men have to give up. It is sort of a rule: No liberty from others while fighting to win your own. My people made that error. We corrected it in a bloody civil war, but the scars lingered. Our shame lingered. It fed our enemies and troubled our nation for generations.”

Ercinee scowled. “If that is the rule, enforce it among your own.”

“What do you mean?”

Ercinee pointed at the ground. “Below us are the slave pens. Who sells us the livestock to keep them filled? Armed raids into the Land of Lamentation are rare. More often, merchants arrive at entrepots to find First Men of one millennium eager to sell First Men of another.”

Preston found he had nothing to say.

Ercinee said, “I do not object to your ambition. Wife-stealing is an honorable pastime. Even the Devastators, horrid creatures, abduct nubile Firstling girls when they can. But you cannot practice it here. Whoever breaks the peace, be he slave or demigod, Firstling or Phantom, is put to death. Nothing may interfere with the slave trade. It is the only oasis of peace in this war-torn world.”

“The slave trade must end. Men are born equal in the eyes of God.”

Ercinee said, “We winged men worship the raw power of the Life-Force, which bubbles and blasphemes at the roaring core of infinity. The Life-force demonstrates that equality is impossible, undesirable, and incompatible with race-purity.”

Preston answered with a swearword.

Ercinee adopted a patient tone, as one who explains a difficult thought to a child. “When one weak man joins a strong team, his learns no virtues from them, but, rather, infects them with vice. Our most ancient and sacred chants, pedestrian or airborne, confirm that enslaving the weak is a sacred duty. Our god wills it.”

“Your god can go to hell, then. My God is real, and He is the father of all men. This tells us all men are brothers. This tells us to love our enemies.”

“Love them yet fight them to the death? Insane. How can a man love an enemy?”

Preston shrugged. “I am no preacher. Hell if I can say. But you must know at least one man who turned his own brother into his own worst enemy?”

Ercinee looked glum. “Among the winged men, our princes have that habit. This is why Unsurrending Aerie surrendered.”

“So? How is it done? What turns a brother into an enemy?”


“Good answer. What turns an enemy into a brother? What is the opposite of hate?”

Ercinee shook his head. “Love is weak and foolish and leads to pain.”

Preston had a strange insight. In the instant he had it, he decided to act on it. He grabbed the other man’s arm. Ercinee stiffened in disgust at his touch, offended. Preston said, “You were in the air just now. You said your thoughts are clearer when you fly. What would you have said then?”

A haunted look, almost of guilt, was in the man’s face for a moment. For a moment, he did not look cold and fierce. He was just a man like any other, with a troubled conscience.

The moment passed. He face stiffened. He shrugged. Preston was thrown from his feet. Preston struck the ground with a grunt of pain, astonished by the strength Ercinee displayed in just a casual motion of so thin an arm. Preston was glad he had not tried to wrestle this superhuman creature.

“I am aground now,” said Ercinee. “My interests are pedestrian. Out of deference for my prince, I will not report you to the Terrors, for whom I hold no love. If I followed your madness, and loved my enemies, I would call them down on you before you commit mischief against them! So be glad I am in a mundane state of mind! But ask me for no aid in your criminal enterprise.”

Preston rose as he spoke. “Then sell me your weapon. I need it to escape their bugs.”

“What has a wandering madman to offer a nobleman of an ancient Phratry such as —” But then Ercinee stopped, and his eyes grew wide.

He was staring at the thick gold ornament which had fallen from Preston’s cloak. It had slipped out when Preston fell, and was lying on the grass, shining.

Preston snatched up the fallen ornament and held it up for the other man to inspect, saying, “Let me made you a one-of-a-kind, limited time offer! This precious, priceless relict—”

Ercinee did not need to hear more. He reached down and stroked the intricately carved surface of the gold oval reverently, awed. He yanked his hand back, and snapped, “Name your price!”

“Your leg weapon, any ammo you have, and instructions how to use it.”

Ercinee scowled, then shook his head. “You must ask for more. You are as a child, and have no idea of the value of what you hold. This is a periapt of the Third Men.”

“I know it is worthless to me.”

Ercinee nodded. “Very well. Give me the treasure. I will not only give you my wind-lance weapon, ammunition and instructions in its use, I will escort you to pass the guards of the camp.

“I do not know your god,” Ercinee continued, “who sounds as if he were as mad as you, but even I, fearless as I am, will not provoke an unknown god by cheating a man out of his wits out of his treasures. My oath is spoken. I will aid and abet your crime. Who is the girl you hope to kidnap?”

“Cynisca, daughter of Idmon of Atlantis.”

*** *** ***

Episode 45 The Place of Terrors

The sun was sinking as Ercinee of the Seventh Men and Preston Lost of the First Men came back, and entered the camp of the Terrors.

They had spent the afternoon far outside the camp, while Preston was drilled in the loading, cleaning, and firing of the weapon, which Ercinee called a wind-lance. He had explained that the blue smoke hindered the bioelectric radio-signals shed by the Third Men, by virtue of which their insects were controlled. (“Got it,” had said Preston. “I understand: it’s chaff.”) This smoke was a monadic anti-language, drawn into manifestation through the interstitial subreality between ideal and phenomenal. (“I understand,” had said Preston. “Got it: it’s magic.”)

When, at dusk, they walked into the camp, Preston had donned a mantle and cap of crudely woven grass over the cloak he had looted from the corpse of the ape-man. His flightsuit beneath was soiled and crusted with four days of dried sweat and dried blood. The Third Men would not need the noses of bloodhounds to catch his scent.

Preston grew aware of the magnitude of his folly he had so narrowly avoided. Even had he robbed the Seventh Man of his gas-thrower, entering the Terror camp unescorted yet undetected would have been impossible.

This did not mean hiring the man to escort him, and trusting to the Winged Man’s strange sense of honor, was not a new folly.

Ercinee came to the end of the trampled path and whistled. A dire wolf came forward, sniffed them both warily, and sat on its haunches. Bugs nesting in the wolf’s collar rose into the air, and flew back toward the camp.

Minutes passed. Ercinee waited without speaking or fidgeting.

The bees returned, circled the dire wolf, and hid themselves once more in the creature’s mane. Ercinee said, “Their beast must mark us. It is as a passport. Show no fear.” And with that, the wolf drew close, nuzzled both men, sniffing, and then raised his hind leg. Preston endured it patiently. It could not make him smell any worse.

The wolf then trotted ahead of them.

They came upon the herd of Entelodonts. The terrifying, six-foot tall, two thousand pound boars moved politely aside, snorting softly. They did not trample or gore either man.

The Irish Elk, taller than any bull moose of Preston’s day, did not lower their magnificent horns and charge.

The Ankylosaurs, like monster tortoises large as Volkswagens, did not crush them with tails tipped with bone knobs like mace-heads big as bowling balls.

Saber-toothed tigers, more massive than lions but swifter than leopards, watched them with gold and unwinking eyes from the thatchwork shadows of tall grass, tore neither man to shreds.

Best of all, the clouds of wasps drifting down from directly above the camp itself hovered near, and individual bugs landed to walk with tiny, tickling legs across bare skin, but neither man was stung with deadly neurotoxins.

Ercinee showed no least sign of worry, but Preston was sweating freely. He had seen more than one man, through recklessness or folly, let himself get maimed or slain by jungle beasts. He knew how formidable Mother Nature could be when she designed her perfect killing machines. That the Third Men could simply command all the living things in their purview, like some princess from a Walt Disney movie, was fearsome.

Then they were among the pavilions and wigwams.

Third Men, small as children, walked on hindlegs or loped on all fours between the tents, peering at the pair of taller men with cold, unwelcoming eyes.

More than half of them had neither vests nor bezants, and their fur was close-cropped, like a full body crewcut. These shaved Terrors hooted at the two visitors, or threw twigs or pebbles at them.

Ercinee loftily ignored this rudeness. Any shaved one cringed and bowed in silence whenever a long-haired superior with braided mane strutted near, ornaments glinting like rubies in the cherry light of the setting sun.Preston felt conspicuous and absurd in his ghillie suit, covered from head to toe in grass, and with his face hooded.

But he doubted anyone would recognize him, at least, not by sight.Preston could not recognize their complex flags and heraldic colors at a glance, but the tents were pitched in the same layout as they had been when the tribe had camped at the ruins surrounding Reliable Well.

Instead of surrounding a well, at the center of this campsite rose the square, squat tower flying white banners he had seen from afar.

Now, seen close at hand, he noted the architectural oddities of the onyx tower. It sported elongated eaves jutting from each corner and gable. Circular doorways opened from upper floors into midair, but not at ground level. The slabs and lozenges composing the walls were a glossy black substance that did not look like stone or ceramic or metal.

At the foot of the tower a square, deep, dry, sheer-sided pit dropped into the earth. It was bigger than a swimming pool. A ramp, broad and sturdy enough for dinosaurs to walk, sloped down into the shadows, spiraling down the walls. Midmost, a well of empty air was left open for winged traffic.To the left and right of the square tower were large enclosures Preston recognized as slave pens for First and Second Men. He had seen them before in the previous camp, except now they had been erected with extra panels of wood and fabric to make them larger, and benches had been set up abutting the tent flaps, and facing an auction block.

A Second Man, a long-necked Ipotane with motley skin, came scurrying forward. He was taller even than Ercinee, but he knelt, bowed, and put his head to the ground. Ercinee lifted his foot as if to step on the man’s neck, but Preston quickly reached up with his left hand, grabbed Ercinee by the elbow, and yanked him back, before he could complete the footstep.

The muscles in Ercinee’s skeletal arm were iron-hard, like the muscles of a boa constrictor. His body seemed, under Preston’s fingers, to pulse with energy, as if his heartrate were naturally higher than that of a First Human.

Ercinee stared down his nose at Preston. “You presume on my patience, man of an extinguished race.”

Preston tilted his right hand, so that Ercinee could see the knife he was palming, but no one passing by could see it. Standing as they did, even with his great strength, Ercinee would stand no chance to block or dodge a fatal knife blow below the ribs.Preston caught the other man’s eye and shook his head slowly.

Again, Ercinee displayed remarkable sangfroid. He merely raised an eyebrow at the sight of the threatening blade. “You are in the very palm of your enemies’ right hand. If I raise my voice, they close their fingers, and crush you.”

Preston did not bother to say that if Ercinee meant to do that, he would have done it already. They both knew that. He did not bother to say one of them was bluffing and the other was not. Each saw the resolve, or the doubt, in the other man’s eye.

Ercinee scowled, and lowered his proud gaze. “What is this man to you?”

“My brother. Yours, too. So be a good brother, and don’t step on anyone.” And with that, he hid his knife away, and released the Seventh Man’s arm.

The Ipotane, meanwhile, was warily peering up at the two men, shivering in fear. Ercinee said to Preston, “He will not speak until he is trod upon. So he has been trained.”Preston said, “Time for new training. Lesson one.” He reached down and put his hand under the Second Man’s armpit, as if to help him to his feet.

The Ipotane pulled back, whimpering, and would not stand. Ercinee said, “Terrors are watching. They will punish him if you do not humiliate him.”

Preston let go of the Ipotane and straightened up. “Sorry, buddy. I was trying to make things easier on you. You got a name?”

“The Ascender, who is younger than I, let him call me Hvare-Khshaeta. You are older. You call me Havani.”

The man did not rise, but he did twist his head around on his flexible neck, and look up at Preston. “You are the Lost Man, who speaks to all men? You befriended Ushahin. He is short, so no one befriends him. You saved Lady Sinhika from the Ascenders. She is bitter, and all hate her.”

Preston said softly, “That’s me, but I am in disguise. Where is Cynisca?”

“Be warned!” Rapithwin hissed. “The Mighty Ones seek you! Their disks have been espied from afar, and draw near!”

Before anything more was said, a young Terror loped up. He had a sash adorned with medals and badges, but he was not high enough status to wear a vest. On his head was a pillbox cap, which Preston thought made him look like a bellhop, only furrier.

This was Vkra, the monkey-man who had threatened Cynisca, and looped around her neck a collar-creature shaped like a centipede out of a nightmare.

Preston hoped he would have a chance to murder the little creep in cold blood at some point in the near future. But for now, he pulled his hood a little closer around his cheeks, wondering how the little man could possibly fail to recognize his scent.

Vkra said to Ercinee, “Armistice! We have no quarrel this day.”

Ercinee inclined his head by half an inch, and in a cold, dignified voice replied, “Armistice. My coming was expected. I am the envoy from the plenipotentiary of the Phratry of Achiyalabopa. My father is Simurgh.”

Vkra said, “You are our honored guest. I am the third son of Ahi, of the bloodline of Vakasura, adulterated, and serve as a disciplinarian of underlings. This underling…” he wiped his hindpaw casually on the Ipotane’s face “… was dispatched to escort you and wait on you. If he has displeased our honored guest, the nostril bug implanted in his skull can be stimulated into activity.”

Ercinee looked sidelong at Preston before answering. “That will not be necessary. I wish to send this Firstling man on a separate errand here in your camp. Perhaps your underling can escort him.”

Vkra peered at Preston, nostril twitching. “That is not possible. This Firstling has a haze obscuring his aurenetic markers, which is intensely suspicious. He is scented with the perfume of a Third Man, which is an insult. His stance and mien remind me of a thrall recently lost in combat, carried away by the Ascenders, and so thought dead.”

Ercinee scowled fiercely, half-lifting his leathery wings so as to expand his silhouette. “Thought dead? Thought dead? Whom the Ascenders wish dead, are dead. You belittle our prowess? Where is the auditing clerk who tallies your prestige? What is the prestige loss for slighting an envoy? Should we consult him?”

Vkra quailed, and nearly managed to keep an insincere smile frozen on his monkeylike face. “Unnecessary, honored guest! Utterly unnecessary to disturb the auditor! An infelicitous turn of phrase, gracious sir. I meant to say that I am easily confused, and often mistake strange thralls for each other. How did his aura come to be defaced and unreadable? That is not an Ascender technology. But we cannot give a thrall run of the camp.”

“He is no thrall. Whom we Ascenders call free, is free.”

“You are an honored guest, but what is impossible, is impossible. All is not so…”With these words, Ercinee pulled out the large gold oval ornament and displayed it.

Vkra’s eyes grew wide. He bowed his head until his brow touched the ground. “All is as you say. All shall be done as you say.”

Ercinee tucked the ornament away. “Lead me to the Grandmaster. Give this man leave to go where he will. Assign your servant to wait on him.

“Without rising from his pose with his brow on the ground, Vkra snapped the fingers of his hindpaw at Havani the Ipotane, who crouched even lower, raising his palms in salute.

Ercinee then gestured for Vkra to rise and lead the way. Vkra scampered off, with Ercinee stalking on long strides after.

Preston tossed the hem of his grassy mantle over the neck of the prone Second Man, so that no one could see whether he stepped on the other man or not. He said, “Please stand up.”

Havani stood. His shoulders were slumped and his head was bowed. The cheetah markings under his eyes made him look like a pantomime in mourning. Preston said, “Please stand up taller than that. You don’t have to cringe on my account.”

“The Terrors do not like proud looks, sir. They sense moods.”

Preston sighed. He would be lucky if he freed even one slave this day. He was in no position save them all. Not yet. “As you like. You know the whereabouts of Cynisca the Atlantean? She was working in the infirmary tent, last I saw.”

“The infirmary tent is broken down and hidden whenever visitors are nigh, master. When outsiders see that Terrors are also able to suffer wounds or malaise, this erodes their mystique.”

“Where else might she be?”

Havani said, “Livestock are herded into three pavilions before auction, to allow prospective buyers to examine the merchandize. Look there: The blue awning marks the manservant pavilion; the pink is maidservants; but the white is concubines, who bring much higher prices.”

Preston strode in that direction, his face black with anger. He could hear nothing in his ears but the drum of his own heartbeat. Havani with long, quiet strides came after, his large, sad eyes troubled.

Through the white fabric, a single light could be seen burning, no more. There was no crowd here, merely trampled ground, covered with bits of litter. Preston, dread growing in his breast, flung aside the tent flap.

Inside was gloom. A guttering lantern hung on a chain running between two tall posts. There was hay strewn on the ground here between the tall poles holding up the roof fabric. To one side was a barred cage made of folding segments blocking off half the tent. It was empty.

Havani said sadly, “The girls have been moved to the auction house.”

Preston snapped, “Where?”

“The pit in the center of the camp. It descends to Despair.”

Preston was pleased to find that cocking the wind-lance made the same heavy, satisfying ka-chink as a pump action shotgun. An odd, grim grin appeared on his face, and a glint in his eye.

“Sir, it is too late… ” Havani began to say. But Preston was gone.

*** *** ***

Episode 46 Mayhem at the Chasm Mouth

As Preston Lost strode through the dark night of the enemy camp, thinking dark thoughts, he readied the wind-lance weapon he held hidden beneath his ghillie suit. Strands of grass were shedding from his cloak. Wisps of straw shaken loose from his hood touched his sweaty forehead and clung.

The butt of the wind-lance was strapped to his shoulder and the trigger was in his hand. The weapon was in two sections, connected by a joint that bent like a knee. He cocked it by bringing his gunhand to his shoulder and straightening his arm again. The clack as the round was chambered brought a grim smile to his face. His knife was up his sleeve. He shrugged his shoulder to bring it into his hand.

He had been given a mission he did not understand for reasons that he did not understand, to stop or quell something called the Time Tesseract. But he had no clue even how to begin. His life so far in this era consisted of an endless flight from danger into danger. He was sick of it. Now it was time to turn and attack.

Preston had no illusions. He was surrounded, outnumbered, and outmatched. He did not give a damn about that. They were carrying away Cynisca. He meant to stop them. Failure and death were the likely outcomes. But he was not likely to stand by and do nothing.

The pit leading downward was square and wide, over sixty feet on a side. He saw the two stone lanterns atop concrete posts marking the head of the wide ramp leading down. He circled the pit, approaching the posts.

The ramp clung to the walls, running from landing to landing at each corner of the square. An abyss of air was in the middle, like a square tunnel plunging straight down. From the brink, looking down, Preston could see the dots of yellow lanterns moving down the ramp along the opposite wall, a hundred feet below him, in a thin line. He heard the tramp of large animals, and the sobs of women. His anger grew hotter, and his footsteps grew brisker.

A swarm of wasps, like dim flickering dots seen passing in the light of the stone lanterns, was posted at the head of the ramp. Two young Terrors in baldrics adorned with bezants were seated between the paws of lounging mantichores. One had shod his teeth with metal blades set with diamonds. The other was sharp-faced, and sported a white muzzle with black ears and mittens. This gave him the look of a fox. Perhaps he was a different breed than the others. The two were playing a game with dice cup and dominoes, using as counters strings of beads entwined in double spirals around wands set upright in the ground next to them.

Both bounced to their feet at Preston’s swift approach. The pink one flourished a snake, the iron-fanged one, a pair of scorpions.

The iron-fanged one said to other, “It is a First Man, a stray. See with what fury he comes! He means ill.”

The fox-faced one answered, “He is no buyer, no guest. Paralyze him.”

Preston called softly, “Out of my way, little men!”

The fox-faced one was startled. His ears pricked up. “The biped animal speaks our tongue. How can this be?”

But the iron-fanged one said, “It is Ahara’s mad thrall, the Lost Man!”

“Stand aside, and live!” Preston called. “Or get in my way and die.”

The fox-faced one said rapidly, “Lady Sinhika reported him dead, so there is no price-loss for the auditor to note when we kill him.”

“And our prestige?” The other bared his impressive, jeweled fangs at Preston.

“An escaped stray who was either cunning enough to deceive Sinhika, or magnetic enough to suborn her? Hah! The reward shall be great! Mount up!”

“Your reward is death!” said Preston, who was now close enough to be heard without raising his voice. Nor had he slowed his rapid strides.

But Preston raised and fired the wind-lance before either could mount their mantichores. A line of dark smoke reached out like an elongating finger, smote the ground between the two, and released an explosion of darkness. Thick blue fog swallowed all light.

Preston blinked, and black-and-white images of his surroundings, clear to see but colorless as a lunar landscape, filled his vision.

The dead wasps fell like hailstones, the Third Men groped blindly, coughing, and the mantichores sneezed and yowled. Nonetheless, the monkey-men held their ground. The asp and the scorpions were thrown at Preston. He crushed one scorpion under his boot. The other scuttled away from the commotion, startling the asp, who writhed and jerked as if disoriented by the fall. Both acted just as a natural creature would do, if it were not under control of the Terrors. And Preston laughed.

The two mantichores reared and flailed their wings, clearing some of the purple smoke from their muzzles. The Terrors cried out, ordering the attack. The mantichores were smart enough to follow the command, even when the bioelectric signals the Terrors usually used to control their beasts were blocked. Preston shot a second pellet at point blank range into the open, roaring mouth of the nearest mantichore. The sudden expansion of gas in his throat was like a grenade. A gush of blood and smoke erupted from the creature’s jaws, and blood from its ears.

The second mantichore lashed out blindly with forepaws and scorpion tail, but the first mantichore was in the way, and was stung with the poisonous barb. The waxy bulb of the mantichore’s tail flexed and shrank as pints of venom were pumped into the bloodstream of the wounded brother mantichore. The poisoned mantichore spun and clawed at the unintentional attacker, who fell back, badly slashed and bleeding.

Its rear leg struck the iron-fanged Third Man, who stumbled, and went flying over the brink of the pit. He was not above the ramp head, so the sheer drop swallowed him. His scream diminished in the distance and lingered. The poisoned mantichore, gas still rushing from its mouth, staggered and sank down. The other mantichore, hearing the dying scream of its master, blinked mournfully, tossing its head back and forth. Preston stepped between its deadly paws and slit its throat with his knife in one brisk motion, dancing frantically backward as the monster reared again, slashing and clawing at the empty air. The other Third Man, the fox-faced one, had dropped to all fours and was running away, shouting and shrieking. Preston drew his Mauser, aimed, and shot the man dead with a single shot.

He began jogging down the ramp. The grade was steep and there was no railing on the lefthand brink. Preston wished he still had his magic ring.

He opened the magazine of the wind-lance. The ammunition was a sapphire pellet the size of a golf ball. The propellant force was mechanical, provided by elastic bowstrings run through pulleys. Five shots left. Enough to make it out of the Terror camp? Unlikely. Assuming he survived his planned attack on the party ahead, exiting from the foot of the shaft might afford him a better chance. He would risk sneaking through the city below, where he was less likely to be recognized the moment he spoke.

Down he ran. He was not worried about pursuit from above. Even if someone in the camp heard the gunshot and came running immediately, minutes might pass before a search party could be organized to look for him. He could descend quite a distance in that time.

He started counting his paces. The shaft, he guessed, was six thousand feet deep, dropping down in a straight vertical line through the canal wall. The Winged Man city called Unsurrendering at a guess, was half that. The ramp along the north side of the pit was one hundred feet as best he could measure by jogging. The grade was very steep, a 35 or 36 degree drop.

He did a little back of the envelope trigonometry in his head, as he jogged. He wished he could remember how to calculate an arctangent from an hypotenuse. He wished he had a calculator. He wished he had a slipstick. Heck, he wished he had an envelope.

Preston estimated that he was traveling five feet downslope for every three feet he descended. Ergo the party would reach Unsurrendering after traveling a nautical mile of ramp. They were traveling at about two miles an hour, so he had half an hour to catch up to them and do something. Do what?

As he passed each landing, he noticed something. Where wall met wall, a line of projecting corbels ran up along the angle, rough bricks placed as neatly as steps in a ladder. A decoration? The sight gave him an idea, and a mad grin came to his features.

By his guess, it was one hundred forty-four feet from any landing to the one directly below it. Could he climb down that distance in the amount of time it would take the party to made a circuit of the four sides of the square pit by ramp?

“I hate word problems in math…” Preston muttered. But he estimated he could outdistance them with half a minute to spare.

He approached the group. His footfalls, no matter how loud, were smothered by the many feet of the marchers. Chips of rock, broken tile, and dust accumulated over centuries littered the slope of the ramps, and many little pebbles raced down the smooth stone slope with him.

He got his first clear look at them: a dozen Third Men riding dire wolves were escorting scores of slaves, over a hundred. These shambled four abreast. Menservants were in black tunics, maidservants in red, all marching distinct groups: a score of First Men with a mixture of Chinese and Pacific Islander features, but of what era, whether in known history or out of it, Preston could not guess. Behind them were Progerians, the dark-skinned, white-haired First Men with blue but slanted eyes who hailed from four hundred thousand years before the Second End of the World.

The third group were First Men of a delicate breed. The women were tall, pale as albinos, slender of limb but shapely, with slanted eyes and narrow ears, hair black as India ink that fell in cascades to their hips. The males were stout but no less graceful, and had ferocious beards, black as night, which grew not only from cheek and jaw, but coated the neck and shoulders in a pelt. Despite their milk-white skins, these pale, elfin people were not Caucasians.

Preston had seen some of these folk, at a distance, previously in camp. They were Siberians, and came from an age when war or disaster had rendered the equatorial regions of the Earth uninhabitable. Their last generations were the ones who had created the Second Men, with whom they seemed to have a slight resemblance, sporting long necks and larger eyes than any men of Preston’s day.

Also in the line of march were skunks, pangolins, and tapirs. The tapirs, their absurd noses drooping over their jaws, walked on hindpaws and carried lanterns on poles. The pangolins stepped in pairs, bearing a yoke between them. Paper wasps nests hung from the midpoint of the yoke.

As the weeping procession turned a corner, Preston had a clear view of the six or seven women, dressed in white tunics, who walked just behind the wolfs at the head of the column, evidently a place of honor. Here was Cynisca. Preston saw she still had the monster centipede coiled around her neck, a living slave-collar, ready to poison, shock or strangle her on command.

He ran down the slope. It was pitch dark in here, save a small circle around each lamp, and no one looked up. One stroke of luck was that the rear of the column had no rearguard: a brace of six Entelodonts, as massive and horrid as boars from nightmare, brought up the rear. Their bulky heads could not turn on their thick necks, and so if any of the brutes noticed Preston stealing up from behind, it gave no sign.

Then he was on the landing a stone’s throw behind the rearmost Entelodont. He took one of the pellets out of the wind-lance, doffed the hood of the ghillie suit, and put the pellet inside. Then he dangled the hood over the edge of the landing, so it hung down into the air perhaps four inches. The hood was held in place with a heavy fragment of rock.

He threw himself over the side, grabbed onto the slanting braces holding up the landing, slid down them to the wall, where he began to climb down the nicely-placed stones of the corner as fast as he could go without falling.

Preston soon saw he had overestimated the speed of the column. They were moving at the leisurely pace of the skunks. He reached the landing before them with a half a minute to spare.

As the dim lamps turned the corner up ahead, a hundred feet of the slope, he counted the foes: Twelve Terrors armed with wasp-throwers, thirteen Dire Wolves, six Entelodonts, two pangolins , a dozen tapirs, and a nest of wasps.

He stood on a flat surface a few paces across. There was no place to maneuver, nowhere to hide. There was a wall of stone to his left and a sharp drop into bottomless darkness to his right.

Preston cocked his windlance and drew his Mauser and put his knife between his teeth.


*** *** ***

Episode 47 Carnage in the Chasm

The battlefield was stark. It was a square-shaped unlit well of bare stone walls dropping straight through the bedrock, seventy feet to a side. A stone ramp ten feet wide hugged each wall, going down at a sharp angle from one landing to the next. No balcony, no railing, separated the ramps from the column of emptiness running up the middle.

Preston Lost noted the spacing of the column as they moved along the opposite wall: Ranging down the ramp ahead of the rest of the party was a single dire wolf. Next, a dozen red-furred monkey-men riding dire wolves led the column, followed by four tapirs bearing lamps. Then came the column of slave-women, dressed in white or red. Cynisca was among this group. Four more tapir linkboys followed, and a pair pangolins carrying an oversized wasp nest. Then came male slaves dressed in black smocks, Orientals perhaps contemporary to Preston, Progerians from the near future, and Siberians from the far future. Half a dozen skunks waddled in a stately fashion between the shuffling feet of the male slaves. Four tapirs followed them. Six of the monster swine called Entelodonts brought up the rear.

The column was longer than any given segment of ramp, which meant some part of the column was always at a landing, turning the next corner.

Two or three slaves had the living slave collar about the neck, a hideous creature half electric eel and half poisonous centipede. Cynisca was one of them. Aside from this, the slaves were not chained nor restrained, despite that they outnumbered their escort by ten to one.

The Terrors and the wolves surely had better night vision than a First Man, but since the lamps carried by the column were dimmer and fewer than what First Men would have carried, their range of visibility in this pitch-black mine shaft was perhaps no greater. It seemed as if none could see Preston in his thatch-coated cloak a hundred feet away.

He waited until Cynisca was on the landing above and before him, sixty feet away. He figured that was the safest place for her once the commotion started. Ahead of her, tapirs with torches and riders on wolfback were coming down the steep slope toward him.

Preston raised his Mauser overhead. One hundred and fifty feet directly above him he had left one of his five wind-lance pellets dangling over the edge of the landing, held in the peak of his hood. Thanks to whatever magic mutation had been done to his eyes, he could see in the perfect darkness perfectly, albeit only in black and white. His shot rang out louder than thunder in the enclosed vertical shaft, and deafening echoes reflected from the flat walls.

None of the weapons of the Pangaean Age, the crack of the spline-crystal, the sing of the bowstring, the electric snap of the amber wand, the cough of a wind-lance, the hum of a bee-gun, sounded remotely like this. The animals were startled: dire wolves howled and the Entelodonts reared and plunged, brandishing their tusks.

He missed. Preston’s second shot from his Mauser struck the hood squarely, and the pellet ignited. A cloud of dark gas erupted and formed a ceiling of smoke.

He had endless 9×19 mm parabellum rounds, thanks to the magic of the Last Unit, but only four shots left of the wind-lance pellets. He took the weapon’s grip in hand, and cocked it by bending then straightening his arm. One of his remaining four pellets, he shot directly into the wolf-cavalry squad leading the column. The dire wolves were maddened by the smell, and freed from any bio-electric control impulses the Terrors were using directly on their nervous systems. Both clouds, the one before the column and the one above, spread rapidly. The little pellets contained an absurd volume of opaque gas. In an enclosed space, it was thick and dense, and condensed against the walls, leaving tearlike streaks of tear-gas.

Preston, whose vision was somehow unimpaired, could see the Entelodonts lower their tusks and charge. They trampled the tapirs directly in front of them, whose dropped lamps went dark, but also began trampling and goring the rear rank of Siberian manservants. A dozen men were flung over the side of the unrailed ramp in a second of time, and their eerie wails diminished in the distance.

Skunks panicked, and, freed from remote control, unleashed their spray, blinding and infuriating the giant boars. Preston used his third pellet to shoot diagonally across the shaft, striking the flagstones just at the hooves of first two boars, who squealed and stamped in confusion, blind. The gas pressure of a weapon meant to fill the sky was unimaginable. The hideous boars were wounded, their faces bloodied and bruised as if cut by shrapnel from the fast-moving droplets of dark gas.

When these front two were gored in the flanks by the Entelodonts behind, both somehow twisted their vast and awkward bodies around on the narrow ramp, and slashed at their tormentors. A knotted scrum broke out between the boars. Rough hides were scraped and pierced by tusks, and roaring squeals smote the ears, and blood flew.

A tornado of the bioengineered wasps now emerged from the hive being carried by the pangolins. But by now the three spreading clouds of dark smoke had filled the narrow shaft, and they had no direction in which to fly. The deadly little creatures simply died, and their little bodies pattered like hailstones along the flagstones of the ramp.

Preston released the trigger of the wind-lance, took knife in hand, pulled the collar of his mantle over nose and mouth, and charged up the ramp. A riderless dire wolf, four feet high at the shoulder, emerged from the wall of smoke ahead, barking and snarling, and blocked the path. Preston shot it twice in the chest and once in the head at pointblank range, vaulted the body, and continued running.

He shouted: “It is the Seventh Men! The winged men are attacking from below! Retreat! As you love your prestige, up! Go up!”

The Third Men, of course, heard the words in their own language. In the blindness and chaos, perhaps they did not know it was not one of their own speaking. One of the Terrors, a little furry man whose vests held more bangles and bezants than the others called out, “Halt! Halt! Regroup!” before Preston shot him twice.

The dire wolves might have been cut off from the silent bioelectric signals of the Terrors, but they were still trained to obey. With considerable disorder, the wolves turned and pushed their way up the ramp. Even with their sight impaired, the wolves were surefooted, and no rider was dropped.

The slaves, for their part, were coughing and cringing in the smoke, clinging to the wall, hunkering down. Tears streamed from their eyes. A few unfortunate souls, blinded or dazed by the gas, ventured near the edge, and were shoved into the abyss by snarling wolves or rearing pangolin.

Preston hung on the rear of the wolf before him. Preston started coughing from the gas, and his eyes were watering, but he shot at the misty globes of light above him up the ramp, killing tapirs and dousing their lights.

When the wolf riders fleeing up the ramp encountered the Entelodonts, there was a shock of roars and howls. Preston was not at a good angle to shoot any Terrors without risk of hitting a cowering slave, until he gained the landing. Then his targets were in a line, one before the next, each higher than the one behind him, and only sixty feet away. His eyes by now were watering badly, and the gas was making him lightheaded, so he only got off a few shots at the retreating little monkey-men. Only two were certainly killed, for they went over the edge, mount howling mournfully and rider shrieking in rage.

Then Preston’s vision was beginning to dance and blur in his eyes. The gas was getting to him. He holstered his pistol, and waded among the throng of panicking, coughing, shrieking slave-girls. He found Cynisca at once. She neither moved nor spoke: he feared she was dead. Before he did anything else, he severed the grotesque segmented creature circling her lovely throat with his knife, and peeled it away. Her flesh beneath was reddened and bruised, puncture as if with many tiny pins. With no more ado, he flung her up over one shoulder, his left arm around her upper thighs, and ran back down the slope. Any hand who tried to grab him, he shook away or slashed at with his knife. Any beast, large or small, he saw through the haze before him, he peppered with bullets, glad beyond measure to have no need to reload.

The pleading voices he answered, calling out, “Go down! Follow me down!” But if anyone followed, Preston soon outdistanced him.

On he ran. Cynisca’s head bounced against the small of his back. She made a soft noise, a groan. A short time later, he halted, and lowered her gently to the ground. Her breathing was shallow, her eyes were closed. He touched her brow, which beaded with cold sweat. He touched her wrist to feel her pulse, which was strong. His simple knowledge of first aid was no help: shock or heat exhaustion usually was accompanied by a thready pulse. But sunstroke or head injury usually was accompanied by a high temperature.

As he looked, her skin grew dark and darker, as if with a blush that traveled from cheek to neck to shoulders. Soon it reached her finger tips and legs. Preston had no idea what to make of that.

He had known, of course, that the strangulation-creature had been programmed to poison her if he tried to remove it. He had gambled that the wind-lance gas of the Seventh Men, which jammed the messages of the Third Men and slew their weaponized wasps, would be able to do its work on this nasty little monstrosity before it could harm her. But he had been gambling with her life, not his. And now she was paying the price.

Tears of grief and rage mingled with the tears caused by the nauseating gas running down his cheeks.

He heard a noise above. Up he looked. A wide-winged mantichore, poisoned tail lolling, dove down through the ceiling of gas Preston had left filling the space above him. Clinging to its wind-tossed mane were a trio of Terrors, wizened, white-haired, with knee-length vests and sashes crowded with ornaments: Men of high rank, but old and hence expendable.

The mantichore held burning torches, one in either forepaw. The Terrors held jellyfish as a sort of living gas mask over their muzzles. The mantichore had a similar creature gathered over its muzzle and nose. One had a conch-shell-shaped wasp-thrower in his fist. The other two carried crossbows. When their eyes lit on Preston, one gave a cry, and raised his wasp-gun. The other two began winding back their crossbows, using both hands and both feet.

Preston cocked his weapon by pounding fist to chest, and straightening his arm as if in a Roman salute. The first rider fired his wasp-thrower: a line of deadly insects streaked toward Preston. Preston at the same time fired a gas pellet at the mantichore, drawing a line of smoke up the invisible line down which the wasps flew. None escaped the plume of cloud. His aim was true, for he struck the mantichore in the muzzle, killed the jellyfish-like breathing creature.

The mantichore reared and whirled, wings beating madly in retreat. But as it turned, the mantichore threw one of its torches spinning at Preston. The burning club was the size of a baseball bat, and struck him sharply in the shoulder. The torch rebounded away down the ramp, a fiery wheel.

The mantichore disappeared into the cloud above, and the light from the remaining torch grew small.The blow numbed his arm. A sticky substance coating the torch smeared the thatch of grass he wore over his cloak and lit it afire. He thrust the cloak up over his head and threw it down. The grass flickered and blazed brightly for a moment, and fell into dull and scattered embers.

During that bright moment, his vision returned to normal. Now that he could see color again, he saw that Cynisca’s skin was not blushing pink. It was blushing green. For a moment, from head to toe, she was the color of delicate jade, with the palms of her hands, armpits and soles of her feet a slightly lighter shade. The bruises on her neck simply vanished as if they had never been.

She opened her eyes. The light of the burning grass was dying. Her eyes, her magnificent green eyes, looked up and saw him.”Preston Lost. O, speak! I must hear the mother tongue once more.”

*** *** ***

Episode 48 Descent into Disaster

As the fire died and the light failed, it was hard to be certain, but it seemed as if her green skin was returning to former sun-kissed bronze.

Cynisca unsteadily stood. Her brow came to his chin. Her hair, darker than stormclouds, was piled high on her head, like a large, loose knot held in place with a beaded chain set with a small green stone. This stone was eye level with him, an oval streaked with a swirling pattern, almost like a third eye.

Preston put his left arm around her to support her. He did not want her to stumble and fall over the side of the ramp. His other hand held his Mauser. The barrel and his eyes swept up and down, looking for new threats.

Then he found he could not release her from his arm. It was too pleasant. The only thing he wanted to do was hold her. He turned his head toward her, and looked down into her upturned face, piquant and lively. Her eyes were emerald pools with depth beneath depth. Whatever meaning was there, he could not read.

He lowered his lips toward hers. She lowered her eyes and made a small, preliminary motion, as if to step back.

Suddenly aware of himself again, he cleared his throat, and released her from his arm. Ashamed. Was he supposed to take advantage of a woman who was in need? To press the advantage a rescuer had over a girl he saved? “Miss, I, ah—”The firelight flickered and failed. All was dark as a tomb.

The terrifying howl of a dire wolf came from above, high pitched, growing louder. A noise of motion in the air brushed past them. The howl, now lower in pitch, receded sadly, growing weaker with distance underfoot. She drew a sharp breath, a noise softer than a sigh, and pressed herself into his embrace, clinging to him.

She said, “The manservant said you would return for … for me. I did not believe it. Forgive me.”


“Ahara’s manservant, Maruti.”

Preston did not recognize the name, but there was no time for more questions. His monochromatic vision returned. He peered up.

“A group of escaped slaves are grouping or jogging their way down the ramp toward us, but the giant pigs from hell are in a commotion. Some are goring dire wolfs. Some are going the other way, back up toward the air, which is a lucky break for us. There are three Terrors on a mantichore above us. I drove them off, but they will return. We have to hurry.

“Arm still around her, he began running down the ramp, keeping himself between her and the brink. When it was clear, despite her best effort, she could not run in pitch darkness on the steep ramp and keep pace with him, he said, “Pardon me,” and picked her up in his arms.She twined her soft arm around his broad shoulders and thick neck. If she was alarmed at being blind during a headlong rush down a precipitous slope in the arms of a strange man, she did not show it. She spoke into his ear. “They will be waiting at the bottom.”


“Despair,” she said. “Xurac A’a. A stronghold of the Empire. We cannot escape them.”

His speech was broken by his footfalls. “Don’t… mean… shouldn’t… try.”

Just then a gurgling noise came from underfoot. It grew to a roar. Preston stopped, and with the girl still in his arms, peered over the edge. He saw a straight shaft falling down, and the ramps forming a square spiral like some angular whirlpool or artistic exercise in perspective. The roaring was coming up the shaft, but he saw nothing.

He stepped back just before a sudden gush of roaring wind threw him back. He stumbled, and half-fell, half-slid against the wall, ending up on his rump, with the girl in his lap, his arm pinned under her back and legs. His head ached where it had banged against the wall. For a moment, neither could speak nor hear, since the wind was roaring up the shaft like a blast from a pipe organ going up its pipe. Cynisca held on tightly, and buried her face against his shoulder. The wind yanked on her tunic. Her hair came loose and was flung upright in the stream of air. The hairband twisted and turned and was flung away. There was no sign of the green stone.

The sound sullenly diminished. The air was still once more. Her hair fell down again, forming a mussed half-cape reaching from crown to hips.

“What was that?” scowled Preston.

Cynisca said, “The wrath of the Winged Men. They command wind and rain, even the underground winds that cause earthquakes.”

“That is not what causes earthquakes.

“She could not see his face in the dark, but he could see hers in his.

She raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“So says a man who believes neither in oracle, nor in flying ships in the air.

What does a barbarian know, who comes from the Perioecine lands, the West beyond the sunset?”

“I know we have to try getting out of here. Let’s go.” She and he both tried to stand and help the other up. A moment of clumsy tangle followed. Despite the dire situation, she started giggling. He could not help himself. A chuckle escaped him and grew into a guffaw.

Somehow she ended up with her arms around him again, as if needing to feel the simple physical strength of frame, width of shoulder and hardness of bicep. Her cheek was against his chest.

“Your heart is strong. You are not afraid. How can this be? We are trapped between foes above and foes below. There is no hope.”

“There is hope.”

“How do you know?” Her voice was a mere whisper.

“If I knew, it would not be hope.”


“Common sense!” Preston said, “God knows what’s going to happen. I don’t. I am no god. But I am not a quitter either. I can fight like a devil.”

A hum came from overhead. Preston saw a swarm of insects descending like a thick smog. Preston fired his the last pellet from his wind-lance. It soared up on a plume of smoke, and exploded, plugging the shaft with boiling, dark vapor.

“That was my last shot,” he said.

Some of the insects in the swarm were bio-luminous, so they came down like tiny falling stars, pitter-pattering on the ramp down which Preston ran, or streaming down past them, down into lower depths, as eerie as something seen in a dream.

Where these lightning-bugs and winged glowworms fell, their light glimmered a moment, then faded.

By their snowfall of dying light, other insects, longer, thinner, and winged like dragonflies, could also be discerned as their tiny bodies fell past.

Cynisca said, “Strange. These are far-thought bugs.”

The word she used was Greek, not Atlantean: tele-nous.

“They do not bite, neither do they sting.”

Preston said, “What do they do?”

Cynisca said, “They allow the Terrors to send their mind-speaking farther, as a trumpeter is louder than a herald shouting, and carries wide over the clamor of battle.”

Preston skidded to a halt. “They are trying to punch a signal through my interference. The Winged Men downstairs are helping them by blowing my chaff out of the way!” He put her down. “Quick. Get rid of anything the Terrors gave you, put on you, or made you wear. A bracelet, a pin, anything!”

“They gave me nothing,” she said, running her hands over her tunic.

“It might be woven into the hem of your tunic, or something. Look again!”

“How do I do that, when I cannot see?”

“Could it be hidden in an earring or a belt buckle?”

“I have nothing but a circlet of beads for my hair, and that fell off.” As she spoke, she put her hands into the mass of her hair, which had been tossed and tangled wildly, and teased it with her fingers. “Though I thought I felt—Ah!”

She stiffened, her eyes wide.

“What?” said Preston. “What is it?”

But it was not surprise which paralyzed her. She flung her arms about him once again, clawing at the leather of his jacket.

“Kiss me, quickly, before we are…”Cynisca never finished the sentence. She fell suddenly swayed and swooned, her limbs rigid yet shivering. Her eyes rolled back in her head, so that between the slits of her eyelids was only white. A gargling noise rattled in her throat.

Preston, horrified, caught her in his arms. One hand was around her slender waist, and the other was behind her neck, cradling her head. The hand in her hair was the one struck.

An insect smaller than his thumb dropped out of the ebony masses of Cynisca’s hair, landed on the spot in his wrist where his glove did not quite touch his sleeve, right were his veins were near the surface. It clung to his flesh with crooked feet barbed like fishhooks and drove an oily stinger deep into his flesh.

The insect opened and shut its wing casings. He recognized the swirling oval pattern. It had been the green stone in her headband.

Since he did not have a free hand to crush the poisonous little thing, he closed his mouth on it and bit the thing in two. Which may have been a mistake. An oily taste turned his tongue numb.

Now he began running down the ramp in earnest, trying desperately to put distance between him and whatever was above. His hand was already paralyzed and lifeless. Fortunately, this was his right hand, the one encumbered with the wind-lance. He was able to twist and tighten the straps tourniquet-like, to slow the spread of poison, without having to pause his steps or put the girl down.

But the numbness spread nonetheless. His arm went limp. Gingerly, he eased the girl to the ground. A cold sensation was spreading through his chest. He knelt and raised his pistol in his left hand.

A whirl of wings came from above. Two mantichores carrying torches descended, one above the other. Preston crouched over Cynisca, and drew his pistol.

He fired. The noise in this enclosed space was like a spike in the ear.

Lefthanded, Preston’s aim was off. He struck and drew blood from the two beasts, but no wound was immediately fatal.

The rear mantichore flailed wings and tail, trying to climb back up out of range. Two white-haired Terrors crouching behind the mane of this beast raised their conch-shell shaped weapons.

They directed a stream of bees and wasps down toward Preston. The range of their weapons was less than his, and the muzzle velocity was much lower, but, unlike a bullet, the insects merely continued to dive downward after the weapon impetus was exhausted.

One of the Terrors standing upright on the head of nearer manticore, was carrying an amber wand, the weapon of the Fifth Men. He wore a gauntlet that reached from fingertips to shoulder, and a thing like a giant scarab on his back, evidently able to mimic whatever organs or special nerve cells the Fifth Men used to wield such weapons.

He flourished it. Preston saw no beam, no discharge, but sparks crawled over Preston’s metal pistol, and flickered from his belt buckle and jacket zippers. Powerful magnetic field eddies were inducing deadly levels of electric charge. The palm of his glove was on fire, as were the fingers. The weapon was too hot to hold. Preston’s arm jerked with pain, but he kept the barrel pointed on target nonetheless. He tried to pull the trigger, but his fingers would not move.

A stream of wasps struck his chest. Little insects swirled about him, looking for bare skin. They, being flesh, not iron, were unaffected by the unseen force radiating from the amber wand.

The pistol grew hotter: the heat ignited the primer. The gun went off. Even lefthanded, with his arm twitching from pain, his aim was sure. The Third Man holding the amber wand was struck in the chest. As he toppled from the mantichore’s head and away into the air, he fell past the torch in the creature’s claw, the brighter light allowed Preston to recognize him.

Preston was gratified to see that it was Vkra of Vakasura. Even as a dozen white-hot needles of poison stabbed him at wrist and throat and face, Preston grinned.

Even as he collapsed, he tried to protect Cynisca, and so fell prone atop her. Mantichores landed to his left and right, one above him on the ramp, and one below.

A white-furred Terror with a highly decorated vest dismounted and approached. Preston could not turn his head. It was all he could do, with painful slowness, to blink his eyes. So Preston could only see the man’s feet with their opposable big toes.

But he knew the voice. It was Warden Ahara. “Thus the wandering stray is returned to his owners! I am gratified to see that my prediction of your behavior was true. No chains we put on you could have prevented your escape; but those Cynisca put on you, you cherish, and would not cut if you could.

“He gestured to the mantichore to seize Preston in its paws, and bear him back up the shaft. Because his eyes were not turned toward her, he had no last glimpse of Cynisca.

*** *** ***

Episode 49 No Fate nor Force Unseen

Up rose the mantichore, with Preston’s numb body clutched to its wide and furry chest. Preston was aware, dimly, of the great claws of the winged beast digging into him, the beat of the vast pinions like gusts of wind blowing past him. He heard the great beast’s monster heart beating, or perhaps it was his own, or perhaps hallucination.

Preston’s vision faded in and out. There was nothing to look at: the endless stone slabs of the shaft passing by as they ascended.

Preston’s consciousness faded in and out also. There was nothing to think about, nothing pleasant, at least. How much venom was in his system, Preston did not know. He realized dully that the crude tourniquet on his right arm might have been on too long, and might loose the arm. And if the bugs spread a neurotoxin, it would not be carried by the bloodstream anyway, and the tourniquet had been a meaningless gesture to begin with.

He had vowed to save the girl, and had failed. She would be mad to place trust or hope in him after this.

A shock of cold woke him as the mantichore exited the shaft and rose into the night air above the Terror camp. The little monkey-men clinging to the mane of the mantichore chattered and called out in fear. Preston, with his head hanging low, could not see what it was in the air that alarmed them.

The mantichore landed in a whirl of dust in the open space before the slave pavilion. A line of dire wolves, large as ponies, stood guard in a circle about the pavilion.

Warden Ahara leaped lightly down from the mantichore’s back, his vest of bezants jingling. At his gesture, a giant sloth lumbered forward and tossed Preston over its broad back. He was carried past the line of wolves into the pavilion.

Ahara strolled after, walking with hands clasped behind his back. He was followed by a cringing red-furred thrall with a full-body crewcut. This thrall was unclothed except for a large pouch on a strap about his neck.

From the tentpoles dangled small glass globes filled with luminous eels. Within was a floor of straw where slaves might be displayed before prospective buyers, although, at the moment, the pavilion curtain was drawn, hiding the benches outside where buyers were meant to sit. To the other side was a slave pen, separated by a wall of thorny wooden bars. These bars of thorn were not very stout, so a strong man might have bent or broken them: but brightly colored snakes and centipedes were entwined about them, asps and cobras. A scorpion larger than a man’s hand was coiled about the latch of the barred door.

Behind these bars a group of men was gathered, naked, or dressed in a mere rag or loincloth. Here were First Men. These were albino-pale Siberians, a breed that arose two ages after Preston’s, mingled with dark-skinned; white-haired Progerians, who arose one age after; dark-haired and ivory-skinned Chinamen and Hawaiians, who were perhaps from his own age.

He saw some ruddy, squat, thick-jawed men who might have been half-Neanderthal. Or they may have been Picts. Or Scotsmen. Without tools and clothing, a man of Preston’s generation was not very different from his Neolithic and Paleolithic ancestors.

The tapir carrying him threw Preston down on a heap of straw. A pangolin used its heavy claws to cut the straps on the windlance on Preston’s arm before bearing it off. The tapir sniffed along Preston’s body, and grunted when it found Preston’s knife and gun.

Ahara strolled close, and peered down. He snapped his fingers. The close-shaven thrall removed Preston’s weapons. Then, at Ahara’s gesture, the close-shaven thrall then removed Preston’s bootlaces and belt.

When the thrall was bent over Preston, so that his monkey-face was near to Preston’s face, but his head was turned away from Ahara standing aloof, he stared intently into Preston’s eyes, squinting slightly and nodding. It was a strange moment, and Preston was not sure what to make of it.

The thrall knelt and proffered these things to Ahara, who looked annoyed. “How are you so untrained? My normal body-servant knows his chores. In there! You do not expect me to carry parcels, do you? Outrageous.” Ahara gave the thrall a cruel pinch, and pointed at the pouch the thrall carried.

Preston helplessly watched his gun and knife go into the pouch. The thrall scurried back, cringing.

Ahara stepped up onto Preston’s chest, stared down his nose at Preston, and spoke. “There are some who think their biological conditions, neurochemistry and hormone balance and so on, do not control them. They are, of course, biologically conditioned to think that. Your conditioning drew you back to us: you clearly suffer from a death wish, for you oppose the great powers of the world. You set your face against races more evolved than yours, your superiors mentally and morally, and yet you expect something other than defeat.”

Preston grimaced, but his tongue was numb, and he could not speak. He wanted to spit in the eyes of Ahara, but when he worked his throat, the drool merely dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

Ahara plucked one of the intricate bezants from his vest, studied it, breathed on it, and polished it with the tail of his vest. He then reattached it to his breast in a more prominent position. “Myself, my prestige and status will be elevated almost beyond measure. It will be enough to hire an extensive harem and to return to breeding duties; enough, indeed, to be adopted into the highest genetic clan of all the Third Men of the Land of Lamentation, the Reticent Immaculates. My name will be elevated Chandravimhara, and my rank to prince.

“You see, your worth as a prize to the Watchers has more than doubled due to the events of the last two days. Rumor says the Phantom has passed away. The only member of the undying race of Fourth Men who had not died, now is dead. Perhaps it will be permanent this time.

“But rumor also says the air fleet of the Eighth Men was decimated. This changes the balance of power between the Eighth Men and the Fifth within the Empire, between the Advocates and the Imperial Family. If the Watchers are diminished, the ambitions of the Mighty Ones must grow.

“The Fifth Men are more eager for your company, than even before Lost Man. I confess I do not fathom it. And this is a potion that, like most pharmaceuticals, can be either a medicine or a poison. We, who have you, must increase our demands to the Mighty Ones, who seek you. They will seek to take you without due payment, and brush our demands aside. Some disquiet must follow, but we must bend it to our advantage.

“The Mighty Ones hunt you frantically. I doubt any will look for you in this camp. We will smuggle you to a safer place until negotiations culminate.

“In any case, I tell all this to you so that you might apprize the situation. Submission and cooperation are your only available tactics now. The Immortal is dead. You have no other secret patron seeking to save you, no ancient machines.

“”You have been heard saying that all the men of Pangaea must cease to worship devils, and cease to keep slaves. Both propositions are false. Your inferior neural construction makes you by right to be a slave. Were it not so, you were not be here. And whatever gods your people worship died long ago, and have no power to save you. If they did, you would not be here.”

“Humble yourself! You have no special mission, no fate, and no unseen force protecting you. If you had, I could not do this.” And drawing back his hindpaw, Ahara, with no change of bland expression, kicked Preston sharply below the belt. Even through his numb haze, Preston could feel the pain.

Ahara hopped down to the straw, and raised his hand. A pangolin stepped forward and twined one of the millipede-shaped coercion beasts around Preston’s neck. Preston could feel the barbed legs sink into his flesh, and the poisonous fangs and tail scrape menacingly at his throat. It was a living slave collar. No other guard was posted. None was needed.

Ahara turned and marched out, snapping his fingers for his beasts and servants to follow. The pangolins and tapirs trundled after Ahara. A mantichore, wagging its horrid, poisonous tail, held open the tent flap for him. The close-shaved thrall walked very slowly, and was the last to leave the tent. He paused at the tent flap. Ahara impatiently called for him, but the thrall, for some reason, loitered.

With the speed of a striking snake, the thrall drew a blowpipe from the pouch, and put it to his thick lips, his cheeks puffed out like little balloons. A wasp flew out like a feathered dart. It struck the millipede-creature coiling about Preston’s neck.

A second puff, and this time a fat bee, striped yellow and black, shot through the air, landed on Preston’s right elbow, and stung the large vein there.

Finally, the thrall removed from the pouch what looked like a coiled metal whip, or a snake wearing multi-jointed armor, and he flung it toward Preston. The metal snake fell short, but then it moved of its own accord like a live thing, unwound, and burrowed into the straw under Preston’s back. Preston could feel the lump beneath his spine of the metal object.

Ahara stepped back into the tent. He raised his hand to smite the thrall. But the thrall, without a word, held out his hand. It was one of the bezants from Ahara’s vest. Ahara lowered his hand, frowning. Then he smiled and patted the thrall on his head. He turned and whistled for the other to follow him. The thrall scampered after. Both were gone.

Preston felt a pulse of sensation return to his limbs. His numb face crawled with pins of pain. He flexed his fingers, making fists, and curled his toes. With a groan like the dead coming back to life, Preston flexed and sat up, clutching his pounding head.

The coercion creature released his neck and fell. It writhed on the straw, curled into a small ball like a strip of paper curling in a flame, and never moved again.

He squinted and blinked until the blurriness left his eyes. No guards were in the pavilion. A few of the sad, dispirited slaves behind the snake-wrapped bars of thorn were looking his way. He stood, he wobbled. He did a few squat-thrusts until feeling returned. He darted over to one flap of the tent, and then one on the opposite side, peering through the smallest of cracks.

He saw the tails and rumps of huge wolf monsters, standing as still as statues, watching all approaches. Without wind-lance, pistol, knife or even a handy bootlace for a strangling wire, he did not see any way out.

He went back to the straw where he had been lying. He rummaged around, looking for the iron snake, or whatever it was. His fingers closed on a familiar shape. Even before he pulled it free from the straw, he recognized it: the talking weapon he had looted from the dead ape-man, the telescoping rod of purple metal.

He held it up and uttered a curse.

The cold, dispassionate voice answered: “Your command is irregular. I do not know where that place is, nor have I means to go there.”

“Hey, Rod, you got a name?”

“My name is one of fame and glory, retained by the honorable suicide of my late Master. It is not regular to allow thralls to address free weapons by name. You may called me Taskmaster, since I am your custodian, and have authority to command and punish you.”

“I will call you Rod. Or Dipstick.”

“Irregular. This may diminish the prestige of my Master’s legacy.”

“Whatever. I have lost my ring, so we cannot fly away. Can you kill some of the wolves outside, and we can make a break for it? Maybe pole-vaulting or pogo-sticking will do.”

“Negative! It is irregular and unlawful! I may not willfully destroy any property or livestock of the Third Men. Moreover, I am authorized to prevent the escape of disobedient and insubordinate thralls, such as yourself. I am not here to aid your escape.”

“Why are you here?”

“I am to give you the message from the Owner.”

“Owner? What Owner?”

“Your Owner. My Owner.”

“Does he have a name?”

“It is not regular that thralls should address him by name.”

“Fine. Give me the message.”

Dust is to be thrown in the eyes of those who watch. You are to stand and wait. You are to be quiet as the cat who hunts. You are to be gentle of heart as the quail. Many foolish things you must no more do. A great confusion, like a mighty wind, will come. Thunder comes. Voices will cry out. Do not flee. Stand and wait. Do you understand the message?”

“I suppose so, but I have some questions. Who is this Owner?”

“It is not regular that I should answer. My instructions are performed.”

And then, no matter how he pled or swore, could Preston get the rod to speak again.

*** *** ***

Episode 50 Voice of Thunder

Preston Lost paced the straw, restless as a caged lion. His eyes swept back and forth, looking for something to use as a weapon, some means of escape, some advantage. He hefted the rod of purple alloy in his hand, wondering if he should trust it, or if he should toss it away.

He stepped over the thorn-covered, snake-entwined bars, thinking that if he could free the slaves, they might run riot, and give him opportunity to escape. He might be able to dislodge a bar and use it as a spiky quarterstaff or something. But if he stepped too close to the bars, the rattlesnakes rattled, and the scorpion nesting on the latch raised its tail menacingly.

There were not even torches nor lamps burning here he might have used to light the straw on fire, or chase the snakes away from the bars.

He looked at the tentpoles and cross beams, wondering if it would do any good to climb up, cut through the fabric, and reach the pavilion roof. Since there were mantichores and insect swarms loyal to the Terrors in the air above the area, perhaps it would not do much good.

As he stood looking upward, he saw movement in the shadows where the fabric formed a peak. Down came a female Terror, head-downward like a squirrel. She wore a garment that looked like a combination of sari and pantaloons, with a bezant-spangled bustier beneath. The lower hems were tied to her ankle-bracelets, so that even though she was inverted, her garb did not fall down around her. A trailing scarf of her garment was wound about her lower face like a veil.

When she reached the level of his head, she was a little ways below the hanging globes of luminous eels. She shrugged the veil aside, revealing her face. “Fear not! It is I!”

The females had less fur on their muzzle and brow than the males, and it was finer and lighter, like pink chinchilla. Their eyes were larger. But, other than that, they looked much the same to Preston.

He said, “Do we know each other? Help me.”

She held up one of her bezants. This was a small gold disk covered with an intricate set of curving lines like Celtic knots. Evidently this was some sort of badge or nametag. Seeing his blank, dumb look, she sighed and said, “I am Sinhika, daughter of Rahu, peeress and matron. I will help you.”

“The creepy female I saved? I thought you hated me.”

“How could I not hate a First Man? Yours is a race of brutal, sadistic, stupid, forgetful, short-lived, short-sighted, disease-riddled, hairless, and malodorous sociopaths. But my prestige will not grow if I indulge mere emotion!”

“Can you sneak me past the watchdogs?”

“No. I do not have the prestige needed to command the dire wolves to step aside. I cannot afford to be seen helping you.”

“But you can help?”

“I can!” she said, “The Fifth Men are sending a party up from their fortress of Xurac A’a. They mean to search the camp, but they will not attack us if they do not know you are here. Warden Ahara has gone to fetch an air palanquin, to carry you to another location, where you can be stored until a bidding war drives your price up. He put you here because the spot is already guarded.

“But his haste made him err,” she continued. “If you strip yourself and mingle with the thralls here, none will notice you. The senses of the Fifth Men are not as acute as ours. Once the Fifth Men searchers leave, I can spirit you away.”

“This, frankly, does not seem like a great plan to me. I have some questions.”

She shook herself from nose to tail. It was a gesture of extravagant exasperation. “Do as I say, or I will stun you, and have the serpents strip you!” She had shaken wasps out of her fur, and now several landed on Preston’s face, head and neck. Their tiny feet tickled as they walked across his flesh.

“I hate these guys,” he muttered. Then, more loudly, he said, “Don’t I at least get a loin cloth?”

Sinhika said, “There is no time for niceties. The thralls here wrestle and beat each other over scraps of food and scraps of clothing. This batch is destined for gladiatorial contests, and so they are given incentives for violent competition.” As she spoke, she put all the snakes to sleep, and with a stroke of a finger quieted the scorpion on the latch.

“Strip and throw your garment into the waste trough there. None will too closely inspect it.”

Preston said, “You don’t think I will stand out among all these long-haired Chinese, black-skinned blondes, and bearded albinos? I have a crew cut.”

She said, “Shorn hair makes you look meek and low. No one looks twice at a shaved man.”

He held up the rod. “Can you order this to serve me? To help me?”

Her eye glittered with fear when her gaze fell upon the weapon. “It is the Compliant Gold-Ringed Cudgel. It comes from a savage era when my ancestors bred themselves for greater strength and stature. I do not speak the ancient language. Cast it aside! Antiques are often unchancy. In forgotten times of old, my peoples brought dead things to life, metals and energies best left alone. Only living things can be loyal.”

She shooed him into the cage with the other thralls. Preston saw dispirited looks and downcast eyes. These were beaten men. None made a rush for the barred door when it opened, even though there was nothing but a child-sized monkey-girl standing in the way.

She gestured. Pythons, rattlesnakes, and anacondas woke, reached, and pulled the barred door to. The scorpion threw the latch and then wrapped its barbed and armored legs about it.

Preston said, “Assuming this actually helps me escape, which seems unlikely at the moment — why? Why are you doing this?”

“You have no love for our kind,” she said. “We are different races. Why did you rescue me?”

“Race does not matter. All men are created by the same God. That means they are all children of the same God. Somehow you mad things living here after the end of time have forgotten that. Your ancestors knew it. I know it. Maybe I was brought back from the past to remind you.

“Your people and the Seventh Men prey on each other,” he continued, “but a common foe laughs at you and slowly conquers you both. If you knew you were brothers with the Seventh Men, you could forgive them, and be friends, help each other, and free yourselves.

“I was sent forward from the past, from your ancestors, to break your chains.” He concluded. “The ones you cannot see, cannot feel, bind you more firmly than any fetter of iron.”

She nodded. “That is why. Cucuio agreed to make alliance. He is a Prince of his city, but I needs must build support among my kind. I need investors with far more prestige than I to make the bargain, though. You might bring me what I need.”

Sinhika then turned and scrambled up the sheer tentpole into the shadows of the pavilion canopy, far above the lamps. She slipped outside and vanished.

Preston was in the slave pen. Now that the Terror was gone, the thralls stood tall, and their eyes grew hard and bright. Preston was the center of hostile stares.

One man stepped forward. He seemed both oddly young and old: He was dark skinned and white haired. It was the thin white hair of an old man, not merely a blond pigment. Nonetheless, his skin was fresh and unwrinkled. His eyes were solemn with a cynical weariness not seen in youth. In one hand, he held a triangle of stone napped to razor sharpness along one side, like a blade without a handle. He flourished this weapon so that Preston could see it.

The man said, “I am the All-Stone here, the Boy who Refuses to Grow. It is the custom to fight for top place. I eat first, and have the best rags.”

Preston hefted the Compliant Gold-Ringed Cudgel, which he had not put down. “Rod, you can help me defend myself, right?”

The cold voice rang out. “If you fight another thrall, I have discretion to attempt to minimize loss of value by employing non-lethal forms.”

Preston pulled on the rod with his fingers. The rod flexed, and became the size of a baton.

The thralls all flinched when the rod spoke. They were spooked. The man, All-Stone, was eyeing the talking rod warily. He hefted his hand-axe thoughtfully. Preston twisted and pulled again, and the rod seemed to understand what he wanted without a spoken command, for the baton became flexible in its midsection, and shaped itself into a flail.

Preston said, “I don’t want to fight you. I’d enjoy it, but I don’t need the trouble right now.”

All-Stone said, “How can this be? You speak the tongue of the Methuseleans of Patagonia, which I have not heard since my waking in this nightmare world.”

“It is something a machine of the Phantoms did to me.”

The man’s alarm changed into something more like awe. “You said all men are children of God. Do you worship the Divine Child? I was two hundred years old when the Watchers kidnapped me and my folk out of the great and shining city of Quivira on the shores of Lake Parima before the volcanoes swallowed her, and have been a slave here for four hundred years. My youthfulness cannot be questioned!”

“Every Christmas, the baby in the manger is a divine child, I guess. Probably not the same person as you mean, actually.”

“Our Creator is a stupid brute, ugly and cruel, from whom by accident sprang the younger self, filled with life and abundant lusts!”

Preston said, “I am spreading the word that will spark a fire to burn the Empire down. The real Creator is wise and just. Heaven created all of us. We are all divine children.”

Tears came into the man’s eyes. Without a further word, he doffed his garb, and used his sharp stone to cut it in half. This length of fabric he offered to Preston, bowing.

Preston was both touched and confused. He said, “I am not from your home. I don’t bow to your god, whatever he is.”

The man said, “We believe all men know something of the Divine Child, like a spark in the heart, and that in the next life, we will all be young again. The confused and stupid men of other eras, who could not stay young as we Methuseleans, have confused glimpses of the overarching truth. You were young for years, not centuries, but it was true youth. We are all divine children!”

Preston took the fabric. He wrapped it around himself as a loincloth. He folded the baton back to the size of a flashlight.

Just then, a commotion came from outside the tent. Four white furred Terrors with elaborate braids and coats overfilled with bezants, riding on the backs of two mantichores entered the pavilion, with pangolins walking ahead to hold open the tent flap. Tapirs and sloths walked solemnly after, carrying lanterns and swinging thuribles.

Between them marched three huge gargantuans, the Mighty Ones, leaning on long amber wands. Their skins were black as sable, save their hands, which were snowy white. Their jacket shoulders extended the stiff fabric far beyond their collarbones, and their coat tails flared outward at the hips.

They were not a lovely race. Their heads were seated deeply between their shoulders. A collar of wattles joined skull to body like an owl’s neck, the same diameter as the head. Their ears were small and fragile, like buds, and their skulls were vast domes above. Their eyes were deep-set, and mouths were long and lipless gashes.

Preston, seeing them close at hand, saw that each iris was colorless, so that their pupils seemed like pinpoints, like the dilated pupils of madmen.

The one in the center was thirteen feet tall and wore a wide disk-shaped hat, that looked to Preston like a lampshade. The hat was as broad as his shoulders. The other two wore hoods. The antlered headgear he had previously seen the Mighty Ones wearing was not in evidence.

The one in the lampshade roared, “You think to deceive? Here are many Firstlings!” He slapped a large pouch at his hip as he spoke so. The pouch moved as if there were a writhing child trapped inside, and the chattered voice of a Third Man said, “Eztli, the Master of Ixquich says you lied. There are many First Men here.”

Eztli spoke again, “We expected demure concubines for sale, frail and fertile, with white, soft skins, and menservants for menial work! What instead? Corpses were flung down the shaft of men and beasts, causing an uncleanness of blood! The Runagate we seek is crazed, unpredictable. Chaos and murder follow him as the extravagant tail of the Jeholornis bird trails after the Jeholornis! Surely this is a sign that he is here!”

The pouch moved again. “The blowing wind is but repeating himself. It is the same rant you heard before.”

Eztli slapped the bag sharply, and the person inside yelped. Eztli said, “You translated all my words? That sounded brief!”

The poor wretch in the bag answered in the grunting, clicking tongue of the Mighty Ones: “Most faithfully translated, mightiest Master of Ixquich! The Lifesmiths have many agile expressions, and allow nuances of meaning to be conveyed swiftly.”

Eztli said, “No matter. Tell them to bring the slaves out. Let us look at them.”

Just then, Preston heard a sound he thought he would never hear again. The thunder of a .700 Nitro Express bullet being shot from the barrel of an elephant gun.

His rifle. The thunder came again. Someone was outside the camp, firing his Holland & Holland.

*** *** ***

Episode 51 Slaying in the Slave Pen

In a moment, all was in uproar. The Third Men, also called the Emim, the Terrors, small, red-furred and monkey-faced, chattered and shrieked. The Fifth Men, also called Gibborim, the Mighty Ones, black, stalwart, and huge, standing twice the height of Preston, roared like elephants.

The Mighty One who stood a foot taller than his fellows, Eztli of Ixquich, clapped huge hands to tiny ears and cried out, “What din is this?” The amber wand in his hand fell to the straw, hissing and throwing off sparks.

Everyone was speaking at once, including the child-sized monkey-man Eztli was carrying in a bag at his waist. He was chattering madly, trying to translate several conversations.

The distant rifle barked again and again, a deafening report chased by its own echoes.

The hooded giant to Eztli’s right had a face crisscrossed by scars and burn marks, forming the shape of a skull around his eyes and cheeks, with the image of teeth above and below his lips. “Highborn Eztli, it is the firearm of the First Man we seek. A spline-gun made entirely of metal that uses chemical propellant to fire a bullet. The thunder is the concussion of the propellant.”

Horns began blowing from without, and voices shouting in alarm.

The other hooded man bore the first facial hair Preston had seen on a Fifth Man: two long strands of blood-red hair ran from nostril to the corners of his mouth, then down across his chin and chest. It emphasized his sneer and exaggerated his scowl. Preston thought it made him look like a biker. He said, “Highborn! One of the bullets acts as an anchor, and he is drawn to it. He comes to where he shoots. It is a second order energy trick. An Advocate could explain it.”

Meanwhile, a monkey-man scampered into the tent, running on all fours. He cringed before the white-furred Terror seated on the head of a winged mantichore. “Preston Lost is outside the camp, firing on us! He is killing mantichore yearlings on the wing, newly hatched! Expensive mantichores!”

Another Terror, seated on the rump of the mantichore chattered, “Woe! Our prestige suffers, if we cannot protect our investments, nor our guests!”

The one standing on the Mantichore’s head spoke. Preston did not recognize him by sight, but he knew the solemn sound of his voice: this was Grandmaster Isrpa. “Dowse all lights. Ground all flying beasts. Have dire wolves converge on the source of the smell of burnt sulfur and charcoal.”

Isrpa glanced up, and caught Preston’s eye. Despite the press of bodies standing between them, despite the bars and the snakes, the two exchanged a glance. Isrpa clearly knew exactly who Preston was, and why he was dressed in rags among the ragged thralls. Preston raised an eyebrow, and gave Isrpa a polite nod.

Isrpa grimaced in frustration. He could do nothing, say nothing, not while the Fifth Men stood close by. Then his eyes grew wide with puzzlement, as if in silent message: If you are here, then who is shooting your gun?

Preston tilted his head slightly, as if listening to the gunfire, then shrugged innocently. Your guess is as good as mine, monkey-man.

Another shot rang out, this time with the crack and whine of a ricochet. A set of roars deeper than any beast of Preston’s era began throbbing through the air. Preston could feel the vibrations through his feet. Preston recognized it. This was the cry of the tribal brontosaur. Their brontosaurus was shot.

Grandmaster Isrpa bared his teeth at Preston, whistled at his mantichore. The beast he rode reared, flailing its massive wings, and filling the air with dust and straw. Beast and rider rushed from the tent, and the other Terrors and servant creatures after.

Preston’s ears perked up. He heard the unmistakable sound of the huge, prehistoric wolves circling the slave pavilion as watchdogs being called away, running off swiftly into the distance.

Meanwhile, Eztli of Ixquich plunged the heel of his amber wand into the ground, wiggled it this way and that, lifted it, thrust the heel into the ground a second time, as if probing for something. Preston was reminded of a man fumbling for a wall socket in the dark. Was the gargantuan trying to plug his walking staff into something? Was there some energy source hidden in the ground?

It must have been so, because Eztli took a small metal instrument from his pouch, the size and hue of a peachpit, and connected it to the wand by a thick strand of spidersilk. He spoke into the peachpit as if it were a microphone. “Summon all flying disks in the region to this area! Home in on any gravitational or ontological anomalies. Destroy any opposition!”

When the Terrors and their creatures all fled from the pavilion, the glowing eels in the glass lamps all flickered and went dark. It was black in the tent.

The three Mighty Ones tapped their wands on the ground. A harsh electrical light, like neon, burned from the top of each staff. With their leader in his broad flat hat, and the other two in hoods, Preston thought they looked like primordial wizards, something from the forgotten past of man, not the far future.

The scarred Mighty One said to Eztli, “Highborn! The one we seek was in the shaft leading to Xurac A’a, but fled upward again. How did he escape the shaft mouth unobserved by Third Men? Ask of the Advocates.”

Eztli disconnected the silk strand from the amber wand and reconnected it at a lower point on the wand shaft. “Advocates, advise us! The situation is known to you.”

A thin, eerie, inhuman voice issued from the wand. Preston had heard this same voice before, barking orders to the gladiators sent to kill him. It had come over the radio of the mole machine. It was the voice of one of the Eighth Men, the Watchers.

“Instrument readings consistent with first-order chemical discharges, accompanied by heat and sound patterns matching known parameters detected atop Customs Tower in the middle of the encampment. Probability is high that the Colonel Preston Lost is using second order effect to move from place to place, that is, by shooting at a distant point, and then being carried there at high speed. Current instrument readings consistent with third-order manipulations accompany the discharges. It is the same bullet being repeatedly reconstituted through a Fourth Man eternity circuit. Conclusion: he is at large within the encampment. When found, he is to be turned over to our agency, alive and unharmed. Is that understood?”

Eztli yanked the wand up out of the ground without signing off, without a farewell. The eerie voice was gone.

Eztli said, “Xic of Xibalba, your advice?”

The scar-faced one was evidently Xic. He sidled up to Eztli again. “Intendant Tlatoc of Nagfual offers yellow gold and fair-skinned women to whomever brings the Runagate to him. It seems the under-human smote out Tlatoc’s eye and disintegrated his sister’s son Chaac. There was no body to preserve. When the day comes when we discover the Fourth Man power of resurrecting the dead, Tlatoc’s nephew will not be among us.”

Eztli turned to the other. “Temicxoch, your eyes are haunted with thoughts! Speak!”

Temicxoch was the one sporting a biker mustache. “In the middle of the night-watch, as I slept, I heard the dream-radio of the Watchers, broadcasting on subconscious wavelengths. The terrible modifications my fathers put into my bloodline and brain chemistry allow me to overhear them. Nine tenths of the flying disks of the Watchers flew northeast, and passed beyond the empty villages, unlit fortresses and well-tended fields in the Country of Dead Immortals, and made impious assault against the very Mountain of the Phantom. The air fleet is shattered. The Eighth Men are startled and scurrying like blind insects. Their omniscience is gone.” He grinned sourly, squinting. “Or it was all a fraud from the start.”

Eztli grinned. “Better to be paid in Tlatoc’s gold than in the Watchers’ utils.” He gestured brusquely. “Go! Follow the sneaking little Terrors. When they find the Lost, kill them, and bring him here to me. I will eat a slave or two, to make the others free of tongue. Slaves always seem to hear whispers long before their masters: all First Men seem to know each other.”

The two gargantuans lumbered out of the tent, taking their lights with them. Only Eztli remained, leaning on his wand of translucent gold. The sounds from outside grew louder. There was a rush of air and a roar of flame, as if some large depot of oil or flammable gas had ignited. The sounds of women screaming joined the cacophony, and brays and howls and trumpets. Still the gunshots, louder than any weapon of this era, thundered from above.

Now there was no light in the pavilion, except that scarlet reflections from a conflagration that now began flickering across the fabric of the tent walls. The reddish light from the fires outside seeping through the tent fabric gave a diffused glow to the scene.

Eztli frowned at the ground, as if steeling himself, or overcoming some inner disgust. He raised his head and laughed a harsh laugh. He muttered, “I have to remind myself, before I eat, that First Men are not human.”

The Fifth Man held up his wand and summoned a dazzling spot of blue-white light from the tip. He stepped toward the spiky, snake-infested bars of the slave pen, slapping the large bag at his belt as he did. “Tell them I mean to have the Lost man! The thralls of the Third Men surely speak your jabber. Tell them!” He glared at the quivering and cowering men beyond the thorny bars.

The voice from the bag called out. The thralls in the pen stared back sullenly, answering nothing.

Meanwhile, Preston held the rod up to his lips and whispered, “This man is about to damage expensive, expensive, Third Man property by eating us. You going to let him get away with that?” He spoke very quietly, but the tiny ears of the Fifth Men apparently were sharp.

Eztli’s head jerked up. “Who is speaking the tongue of Ixquich? Is there a Fifth Man in there with you? Come, child! Step forth! I will free you!”

Preston realized that his voice not only sounded to Eztli as if he were speaking the man’s native language, but sounded higher in pitch than a full grown gargantuan. A child of their race six feet tall would only be waist-high to an adult.

The rod, of course, shouted out its answer loud and clear. Everyone heard the inhuman voice, even if only Preston understood the words. “To consume Third Man thralls without due payment is irregular! It is trespass!”

The rod’s cold tones sounded threatening. Eztli, hearing the emotionless voice, now cried out, “Stand forth, young one! Where are you?” The light at the tip of his staff grew brighter yet, and began hissing and spitting sparks.

Eztli stepped near the bars. The agitated snakes writhed and raised their heads. Rattlesnakes shook their rattles and cobras spread their menacing hoods.

Preston yanked on the rod. It must have been feeling cooperative. The length opened up to something the size of a quarterstaff with a satisfying metallic chime. Preston whispered, “Good. Do you have any sharp points you can make? A spearblade or a boathook or something?”

The rod yelled back, “Existing extensions in the Cababi-Yau manifold can be rotated into three-dimensional space by the proper alignment of second-order energy. New arrangements are not available. Spearblades and hooks are available.”

Eztli roared and struck again and again with his wand at the snake-covered bars. Lightning snapped and flashed. A dozen serpents fell dead to the straw floor, then two dozen, as the giant swept his deadly wand back and forth.

“Child! I am coming to you!” Eztli shouted.

The thralls shouted in alarm and crowded back away from the bars. Preston was suddenly alone, in the open space between two walls of men who had stepped aside.

“Goo-goo, Big Daddy!” Preston said. “Come and get me.”

Eztli’s pinpoint, white eyes grew smaller and hotter. He took the cage door in hand, ignoring the barbs, and tore it off its hinges. Wood splintered and snapped. Eztli roared, and tossed the heavy door aside, snakes and scorpions and all.

Preston meanwhile knelt, setting the butt of his quarterstaff-sized wand firmly in the ground behind him, to brace it. The business end he aimed at Eztli’s center of mass. No one else was near; the frightened thralls were cowering back.

Eztli either did not realize he was in danger, or did not care. He loaded a tiny copper pellet to the tip of his wand, and then swept the wand in a short, sharp arc, flinging the pellet at Preston.

At the same time, at Preston’s command, a boarspear blade snapped into being on the end of the Compliant Gold-Ringed Cudgel, along with a sturdy cross-bar just behind it. The shaft elongated at faster than the speed of sound, so the spearpoint plunged into Eztli’s body before the shockwave, louder than a pistolshot, could be heard.

Only the cross-bar prevented the whole rod from passing through the huge body. The force of the explosively expanding rod picked up the thirteen-foot-tall giant and cast him upward, back across the length of the pavilion. The amber wand flew from his hand as the huge body tumbled through the air. It struck the straw. The burning electric light at the tip went out.

The pellet struck Preston. An electric shock traveled through his body, and threw him onto his face, his limbs twisting and trembling. He lay as one dead.

Outside, the roars and horn-calls continued. The thunder of gunfire sounded again.

The bag at Eztli’s belt writhed and jerked. Slowly the mouth of the bag, its drawstrings gnawed through, worked itself open. A small, clean-shaven monkey-man wormed out, stood for a moment on his hind legs, swaying and blinking in the darkness. Then, on all fours, he ran from the pavilion, away from the smell of blood, howling.

*** *** ***

Episode 52 Duel in the Dark

When the copper pellet struck Preston, an electric shock passed through his body, and all his limbs jerked. He was knocked from his feet to the straw. The spasms of pain lasted only a moment. He raised his head.

The thralls were standing in a fearful huddle near the rear of the cage. It was dark and the shadows were deep where they stood. Despite the fact that the cage door was off its hinges, no one had made a move to escape yet.

Eztli, the thirteen foot tall Mighty One, was fallen. A triangle of flickering red light, the glow from a fire in the camp nearby, fell in a swathe across the huge body.

The Compliant Gold-Ringed Cudgel, now was size and shape of a boar-spear, was protruding from his chest, like the flagpole left by an explorer on a mountain, swaying slightly.

Sighing and slurping sounds came from his mouth. Blood was gushing in ever weaker spurts from his chest, and a pool of blood was spreading, seeming black in the firelight, and the stench of it was in the air.With a cough, he spoke, “Great was I in life; Great shall I be in death. To the dead now I go, where there is neither wine nor water, but bitter thirst forever. Other ghosts shall I terrify, and when the kings of the dead come to condemn me for my sins and crimes in life, I shall kill them and take their crowns for my own.”Eztli spoke no more. He uttered a harsh laugh, and his last breath rattled in his throat.

“Man after my own heart,” muttered Preston.

He limped over to the corpse, stepped into the patch of red firelight. Preston put out his hand, and tugged on the Compliant Gold-Ringed Cudgel. It was wedged fast.

He put his foot against the corpse’s ribcage, and grasped the spear shaft with both hands.

The blade pulled free. More blood gushed forth. The corpse twitched. There came a hoarse cry of alarm.But the cry was not from Eztli. A shadow fell across Preston, blocking the firelight. Preston looked up.

In the opening of the tent flap stood Xic of Xibalba, his face tattooed as a skull. Cold wrath filled his face. He rushed Preston.

Preston was still lightheaded from the electrical jolt. He pole-vaulted backward, using the expanding rod to assist the leap. He was flung many yards through the air, but landed on his feet.

This was the side of the tent away from the firelight shining through the tent fabric. The shadows here were dark. Xic was remarkably agile for a man his size: he whirled in mid-rush, and lashed out at Preston in a two handed overhead blow of his nine-foot long wand. The amber wand missed Preston by inches, struck the straw, sending up a dazzling flicker of white and red sparks.

The firelight from outside began to die down. The dark shadows in the tent grew opaque. Xic halted, his skull-marked face wrinkled with rage and squinting. To Preston, the scene was in black-and-white, but still clear to his view. To Xic, the shadows were opaque.

Xic struck the ground with his amber wand. An acetylene-bright electric pinpoint of light appeared at the tip. Normal vision returned to Preston with this bright light, dazzling him.

Xic saw Preston and lunged, electrified wand raised for the blow. Preston knew he could not survive even a glancing blow from such a wand: the merest brush would send a lethal voltage through him.

Preston braced the butt of the boar-spear on the ground.

The rod expanded at the speed of a rifle shot, a long telescoping line of metal pushing the spearblade forward with a crack of supersonic noise.

With astonishing, impossible quickness, Xic twisted in mid-leap and parried the blow with his wand. The telescoping shaft sped past his shoulder, the shaft behind the blade continuing to extend.

Xic raced toward Preston, hissing amber wand raised for the death-blow. Preston shouted, “Ladder!” The Compliant Rod obligingly snapped dozens of parallel cross-bars perpendicularly out of the ever-extending spearshaft.

Preston twisted his grip, caught the descending wand between two cross-bars. The shaft continued to open with superhuman force. The wand was jerked out of Xic’s massive hand. The wand flew end over end. The light at the tip went out.

But at the same time Xic closed his hands on the cross-bars of the shaft and yanked the weapon out of Preston’s grip as easily as a grown man pulling a stick out of the grasp of a child.

Xic whirled the rod, now forty feet long, around his head like a helicopter rotor. Preston ducked and rolled. The shaft of the rod passed over his head with a murderous whisper of wind, but missed.

The Compliant Rod jolted Xic with some form of energy attack, but the gargantuan man merely roared in pain, and threw the forty-foot long metal length, away into the air.

Preston came to his feet. He blinked and his night vision returned. Xic had drawn a blade as long as his forearm. To Xic, it was but a long knife; to Preston, a longsword.

Xic stood stock still, arms outspread and fingers wide, head cocked, listening for some rustle in the straw. To him, it was pitch black. Even the slight red glow from the firelight outside by now had died down.

What to do? If Xic got his hands on him, he could tear Preston in pieces easily. The Compliant Rod was at the opposite end of the pavilion. If Preston called out for it, it might be able to flex and jump and move itself back into his hand, but he dared not call out. And the machine intelligence evidently was not going to figure out to do that unprompted.

Preston waited for the next crack of deafening gunfire. When it rang out, he moved, and Xic could not hear his footfall.

Preston did not go where the Compliant Rod rested. It was too far. He moved to the corpse of Eztli.

Eztli, like Xic, was carrying a sword. Preston drew it. The sword seemed made of horn or scale, not metal: a bad material to make into a blade.

But at the moment, the Xic could not see. Preston moved stealthily toward him, breathing with his mouth open. His years of stalking game animals in the wild allowed him to move without sound. Even the straw underfoot did not crackle.

Closer he inched, circling. Preston darted in, striking at the man’s left from behind, where the sword was not.

Xic sensed the motion, and lashed out with his left hand. The blow passed over Preston’s head, for he ducked low, and stuck Xic in the leg. Preston was at an awkward angle, and could not strike with his full strength.

Xic spun, slashing blindly with sword, flailing with his fist. A random backhand motion of Xic’s arm caught Preston across the shoulders and sent him tumbling. Preston grimly retained his grip on the sword.

The sound of his body striking the ground, the flurry of straw flung in the air, were easy for Xic to hear in the dark. The giant rushed down upon him in three huge steps. Preston struck at his ankle and thigh, drawing blood.

Xic struck back blindly. The sword went flying from Preston’s hand, and his arm was numb from the blow. Preston scrambled back, dodging, desperately trying to avoid the huge reaching arm and deadly blade of the gigantic man.

Then he was out of reach. He picked up the sword in his left hand.

Xic was turning left and right, groping with his eyes.

Preston took the sword in both hands, ran, jumped, and struck at the man’s back. Xic heard and turned, raising his sword in a wild parry.

Preston made a deep cut along the man’s shoulder and bicep, and managed to land on his feet, and to run past Xic, out of reach.

Preston darted in again, leaving a long, shallow gash along the man’s belly.

Preston backed away. The noise from outside was getting louder, which should help him, but he was getting winded, and so he was panting. Xic could hear.

Preston could not get close enough long enough to deal any severe blows. The man’s head and neck, which he would have loved to strike, were too high up.

Preston grinned, tightening his grip on the awkward, oversized shortsword. All he had to do was keep striking and dodging, and slowly make his way in a circle to where the Compliant Rod was resting. He was winning. What could the huge man do?

Xic might have been thinking the same thing, for he suddenly let out a laugh. “You wonder why I have not called for aid. No need to call. Aid comes now. The phantom bullets fired from your gun when they reappear in your weapon form a fold in spacetime that the Watchers can detect. That includes the Watchers we engage to ferry our troops.”

Even as he spoke, an eerie light came down from overhead. Through the fabric of the pavilion roof could be seen several large luminous circles passing along the peak of the tent. Light also shined in through the tent fabric.

A sudden wind battered the pavilion. The entrance flap was flung wide. Preston could see the camp outside, the slatted tents, the running animals, the scurrying Terrors.

A flotilla of flying disks, bright as paper lanterns, was descending from low hanging clouds, and landing on the camp. They were careless, and crushed any tent caught underfoot.

An invisible force like wind-pressure from the keels sent dust and litter and unlucky monkey-men flying into the air.

The light was enough for Xic. He rushed toward Preston, roaring in triumph.

Preston called for the rod, and ran toward it. The Compliant Rod bent itself in half, shrank and expanded, and threw itself like a spring across the distance.

Preston grabbed, turned, aimed, and the rod cooperatively opened a blade on its tip and expanded. Xic parried with his bone sword, stepped forward, and clubbed Preston with his off hand. Preston staggered, dazed, but kept his feet.

Xic raised his bone blade high. The rod changed, lengthening the blade, and retracting the hilt, so that it took on the aspect of a sword. It jutted out a crossbar to act as hilts.

Preston parried, disengaged, thrust.

Bone was no match for metal. Xic’s sword was shattered. Preston saw an opening.

The blow struck true. The swordpoint entered Xic’s forearm. The giant’s own strength and momentum drove Preston’s blade cleanly through radius and ulna: a terrible wound. Blood poured out from both sides of the arm. The now-broken bone sword fell from Xic’s now-useless hand.

The gigantic man, roaring, heedless of the wound, pushed forward, and grabbed Preston in a bear hug.

Preston’s ribs bent under the pressure. His feet left the ground.

It was too close for sword work. The blade suddenly bent double so that the rod now had the aspect of a Frankish ax.

He struck at Xic’s neck and face, drawing blood. Xic grabbed the ax haft and twisted it out of Preston’s grip, releasing the bearhug to do so. Preston kicked and struggled. Both men fell.

Outside, screams and roars rose into the air. The light grew brighter as the electric weapons of the Fifth Men discharged bright bolts of lightning. But it was a dizzying, jumping, blinding, nightmarish dazzle, as if rapid whipcracks or machinegun fire were somehow made of light rather than sound.

The two men wrestled a moment. The giant easily threw Preston into the straw, kneeling on him, pinning his arms and closing his fingers on Preston’s throat.

“Don’t kill me!” wheezed Preston. “What about that yellow gold and fair women whatshisname promised for my safe capture?”

Xic said, “Do not disappoint me now. You have drawn my blood. This pleases me, for it means you are a bold and cunning foe.”

“Thanks! Let me — hhrrk!!”

Xic’s grip grew fierce. Preston’s windpipe closed. Xic laughed. “I will tell no one you begged for your life like a coward. I will tell them you spat defiance to the last! I will say that after your head was twisted off your neck, you nevertheless bit me in the toe. Then I will have your head stuffed with sawdust by a taxidermist, and displayed with my trophies.”

Darkness filled Preston’s vision. There was no escape, and no hope, and no air.

*** *** ***

Episode 53 A Curse Before Dying

Preston was about to die. The giant pinning him down had an unbreakable stranglehold on his neck. His lungs ached with pain, and all his muscles began trembling uncontrollably.

“This is unsatisfactory!” said Xic. “Hear me, First Man. I will let you talk, but you must spit defiance like a man, and die a great death. Nod if you agree. I will let you breathe for so long as you continue to curse me.”

Preston nodded. The grip on his throat relaxed. He drew a ragged breath. “Let me get this straight. If I keep cursing you for an hour, you’ll let me live an hour?”

The giant stood, lifted Preston overhead, and slammed his body once more into the ground. This time Preston was face up.

Again Xic knelt on the smaller man, and again took him by the throat. Xic said, “Your question smacks of too much desire for life, which we Fifth Men abhor. Our accursed Makers, the Phantoms, created us to know that there was a higher reality beyond matter, beyond life, and so we treat life with hatred and contempt. Are you so concerned with how long you will live?”

Preston uttered a swearword or two.

Xic slammed his head against the ground. “My nursemaid was better at cursing than that! Do not let this opportunity slip! I am doing you a grace! If you die bravely, you will go among the dead and kill those who come to judge and torment you.”

Preston spat out some choice phrases he’s learned when he was hunting in Siberia. The Russians had absolutely the best language for cussing.

“Those are not real curses! Once enough brave men die, the spirit world will be entirely conquered, and our ancestors will tear open the gates between life and death, and pour forth, shouting in rage! Only then will our vengeance on the Phantoms be complete! Come now, let us hear a true curse!”

Preston said, “Thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee! I curse you with my dying breath! From hell’s heart I stab at thee!”

Xic smiled grimly. “Good! You say well! But that is not, technically, a curse.”

“May you have the life of your enemy in your hand, but then may you yak and yak like a windbaggy idiot long enough for a man to sneak up behind you and put poisonous snakes up your crack.”

Xic then saw that Preston’s eyes were looking at something over his shoulder, above and behind him. He turned and raised his arm to block, but it was too late.

Forty or so of the thralls, led by All-Stone the Methuselean, had dismounted the thorn covered bars from the broken frame of their cage, snakes and all, and had walked up behind the giant most silently while he was otherwise occupied.

Two score thorny wooden bars fell across the head, shoulders and back of the kneeling gargantuan. Roaring, he reared up, sweeping the entire first rank of them off their feet with one wide blow of his mighty arm. But dozens of asps and rattlesnakes were now clinging to his flesh, sinking fangs deeply.

Xic was still a Mighty One nonetheless. He was like a man among pygmies. He picked up the nearest thrall by his legs, and using the whole body of the helpless, screaming man as a bludgeon, he began breaking bones and shattering skulls in rapid, huge sweeps of his arms.

Preston, on the ground between Xic’s feet, called for the Compliant Rod. It bounded over to his hand like a pogo stick. A blade snapped out. Before Xic realized the threat from underfoot existed, an ever-lengthening harpoon caught him from below and lifted him into the air. The weight of his huge body pushed him down on the shaft of the weapon.

Preston, on his back, gritted his teeth, and clutched the shaft of the wand as it expanded, heaving Xic up bodily into the dark air. Xic raised one mighty fist. Had the blow landed, it would have shattered Preston’s skull like an eggshell. But the wand unfolded again, telescoping outward, shoving the awkward mass higher.

Inside Xic’s body, the wand snapped open. It unfolded into a many-pronged weapon with branching blades growing in each direction. Every major organ was pierced, and a dozen spear points and hooks emerged from all parts of his flesh, front and back.

Blood and gore pored down onto Preston.

The noise was horrifying. Not only did Xic’s weak screams gargle in his pierced throat, but air mixed with blood whistled and spurted from his pierced chest.

Xic hung in midair only for a moment. The wandshaft tilted. Preston could hold it upright no longer, any more than he could have heaved a pony aloft. The giant fell to the ground, and the earth shook. Dust and straw flew into the air.

The Compliant Rod retracted its many forks and folded itself up into a baton, breaking bones as it yanked itself free. The thralls swarmed around the fallen man, yelling, and beat the body with their thorn-covered poles like threshers pounding a pile of grain with flails. Blood droplets were scattered like chaff in each direction.

Then silence fell.

Preston lay panting. He staring up at the pavilion canopy overhead. Circles of blue white light were floating by, casting bright shadows that slid up one side of the slatted tent canopy and down the other. It was an air fleet of flying disks descending. He heard hoots and trumpets, roars and battlecries, and he knew that these were the vessels Xic had mentioned, carrying Fifth Men troops to combat.

He was on his back. The men released from the cage were standing silently, clutching the wooden cage bars. They stared at each other in horror and wonder. All had been sprinkled with drops of blood, a grim anointing.

Preston saw that the men of his time, slant-eyed and round-faced men who might have been Chinese, squat and thick-limbed red-haired men who might have been Pictish, were the ones gathered more closely about the fallen gargantuan. They were the ones whose weapons were the most bloodstained. Preston felt the odd sensation of temporal patriotism: the lads from his home era were fierce. Some Siberians from the far future were among those holding clubs, but some were still cowering in the cage, looking woebegone and fainthearted.

All-Stone, the black-skinned silver-haired Methuselean, walked over to Preston and stared down for a moment. His arm was covered with blood up to the elbow, and the flint axehead in his hand was dripping.

“Why?” asked Preston.

“We each have a spark in us,” said All-Stone softly. “You brought it to mind. Speak to the men. We each speak a bit of pidgin, the tongue our masters use to shriek commands at us. Let us hear our own true tongue again.”

“What should I say?”

“Tell them the Divine Child will watch over us, and guard us as we make our escape. The Phantom brought you forth from the far past. They will believe you.”

Preston opened his mouth to say he did not believe in the Divine Child, but then he closed it again. What did he believe, here in a world with dinosaurs and UFO’s, giants and talking monkeys, where he was smitten by a girl from Atlantis who he hardly knew?

Preston felt all the weariness of the last several days of stress, sleeplessness, privation and thirst come upon him like a lead blanket. Nonetheless, he levered himself to his elbow, grunted, and sought his feet. The Compliant Rod perhaps was feeling nice, and unfolded to the size of a crutch, helping to lever him upright.

It was not his best speech. He took a few choice phrases from the Gettysburg’s Address, the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, Shakespeare, his favorite fast food commercial and his most recent speech he had given to his aerospace employees about the future of the firm.

But to these thralls, the idea that they each meant something, well, it meant something.

“…and our sacred honor! You deserve a break today; so get up! And get away! To thine own self be true; thou canst not then be false to any man! A rope made of three strands of cord is hard to break!” He finished with a flourish, raising his fist high overhead. “Let his be our motto: One for all! And all for one!”

Of course, all these hoary old slogans were brand new to this audience. And when was the last time anyone had tried to inspire rather than command them?

The language cast a spell. He saw their spines straighten up and their shoulders lift. A light came into their eyes. They silently saluted with their clubs.

All-Stone now gave a curt order. The group looted the two dead bodies for blades and coins, and began departing the pavilion in small groups.

Preston had unfolded the rod like a crutch and was leaning against it. He flinched when the cold, nonhuman voice rang out, “Irregular! The thralls must return to confinement!”

Preston said to All-Stone, “Where are you going?”

“South away, on the shore of the Sea of the Sea-Crone, a haunted ruins rises, built by Phantoms, called the City of Swift Death. It is said First Men are free there. We will follow the canal, where there is game to eat and travelers to raid, to the Bay of Bitter Tears.”

Preston said, “Rod, did you understand his language? No? Well, since the cage door here is broken, these thralls are going to a secondary location, where they will be safe from Fifth Men predation. You can see the Fifth Men are landing in force.”

The Compliant Rod did not speak, nor did it unfold any menacing new branches or blades. Perhaps it was fooled. Preston watched it warily, knowing there was little he could do if the deadly little spring-loaded gizmo decided to jackhammer him senseless.

All-Stone was the last to leave. “Will you come with us? I will throw the fight to you, and call you leader.” Said the Methuselean, politely offering the stained hand-axe, still warm with the gargantuan’s blood, to Preston.

Preston hefted the Compliant Rod. The Owner of the rod, whoever that was, had sent a message telling Preston to be quiet and gentle. He was not sure what that meant. He was pretty sure the rod would stop him if he tried to run off.

So he said, “There is someone I am waiting to see.”

After the men were gone, he used the Compliant Rod to fish his flight suit, dank with refuse, out of the slavepen’s chamber pot. He spread the unclean garment on the straw to dry. Then he stripped one of the huge corpses of its tunic. The sleeves fell past his knees, and the shirttail to the ground, but he found a way to fold it and knot it to keep it from dragging, and wound a strap from the dead man’s weapon harness around his waist a few times to belt it all in place.

He heaped up some straw into a pile near the tentflap. Down he sat. Preston was chewing on a straw and grinning to himself, as he watched the sight of the Terrors being battered, chased and slain by the looming Fifth Men. The electrical fields given off by their wands seemed to interfere with the silent means the Terrors used to control their insects and other beasts.

A soft noise behind made him turn. A small monkey-man, shaved with a full body crewcut, slipped silently beneath the skirts of the pavilion. He was toting Preston’s Holland and Holland. Over his back was a large pouch.

The little man scampered over, pausing only to sniff at the two giant corpses. His bared his teeth, displaying an alarming pair of incisors.

From the pouch he took Preston’s broomhandle Mauser, his knife and punching dagger. These he laid carefully on the ground near Preston’s feet. Also there, gleaming with unearthly energies, was the flying ring.

Preston merely stared, mute with wonder.

Preston squinted at him. “Aren’t you one of the thralls that serves warden Ahara? Did he send you to me?”

“It has no name. It is bright beyond all names. The Undying One served it and knew. Maruti serves it and knows. The eyes of Maruti are open. All things serve it, but do not know. Their eyes are held.” The nearly hairless monkey-man pointed at the corpses, then at the broken slave pen. “Your ears are held. Is this quiet as a cat? Is this quail-hearted?” The little man bared his teeth, displaying an alarming pair of incisors.

Preston said, “What is Maruti?”

The little man pointed at his own muzzle. “Maruti is the Son of the Wind.”

“That is your name? How do you do? My name is—”

“Your name is Foolish Chatter.” He held up his hand. “Come!” But his command was not meant only for Preston. The rod in Preston’s hand, twisted, expanded suddenly, and kicked itself like a pogo stick into the air. It bounced, folding up as it spun, and landed neatly in the upstretched forepaw of the man called Son of the Wind.

Preston’s eyebrows flew up. This was the Owner of the Rod.

“Are you a thrall here? What is going on?”

“Foolish Chatter is chattering. Can he be silent? Can he go without noise?” And he slipped out of the tent, quiet as a shadow.

Preston grinned. He gathered up his gear, and followed.

*** *** ***

Episode 54 Son of the Wind

The camp was in turmoil. Screams, roars, battlecries, trumpets, chattering and malign laughter made a mad cacophony. The choking smells of burning ash and spilled blood were in the air. Tents were burning, and orange swathes of light were leaping across the black shadows. Flying disks, either overhead or on the ground, were glowing with a colorless, harsh light.

Preston and the close-shaved saber-toothed little monkey-man named Son of the Wind, moved through the camp with caution, at times on foot, at times belly-crawling, moving from shadow to shadow, trying to stay upwind of any dangerous beasts or dangerous men who might scent them.

In the distance, Preston could see the shape of the dead brontosaur on its side. The curve of its belly and flanks were visible above the burning tents and pavilions.

Preston and Son of the Wind had to dart across an open spot between two lines of pavilions. Here were two dead Entelodonts, giant, long-snouted boars, eyes open and glassy, tusks red, bodies still warm, who had collapsed against each other. As Preston and Son of the Wind were halfway between the tents, suddenly there came lights and shouts from one side.

The Mighty Ones were coming down the alley between the two parallel lines of tents, setting them ablaze with bolts from their wands as they came.

A growling and barking, deeper in note than any dog of Preston’s day, the voice of giant wolves, came from up the alley. Yellow eyes glittered in the night gloom.

In the cramped space between the two corpses, the huge hooves had dug up a small hollow space of ground, now filling up with gore from the gutted monsters. There was no other place to hide. Preston and Son of the Wind jammed themselves uncomfortably into this nook, hardly daring to breathe, as the bald, black-skinned, neckless, grinning gargantuans came forward in a line, evenly spaced, tramping in step. Pinpoints of light burned and sizzled from the tips of their amber wands.

The line parted to go around the toppled swine. Preston saw the feet of a gargantuan soldier pass within inches of his nose.

The dire wolves rushed in to attack from the other direction. These wands in the pale hands of the giant men hummed and crackled with power, and scattered the clouds of deadly insects as they came. It looked as if some electric force were jamming with the bioelectric signals the Terrors used to control their bugs.

The clash erupted practically over Preston’s head. Dire wolves and giant swine who rushed in to savage or trample the Mighty Ones were flung from their feet or struck dead by invisible shocks at the slightest touch of amber wand.

A sudden cavalry charge could throw down a Mighty One who was isolated or taken unawares. These died hooting and laughing under a stampede of hoof and claw.

More often, the stampede would be scattered by a fusillade of flung copper pellets. Wolf or swine struck with pellets fell, limbs jerking, and a gargantuan would rush up, and deliver the death blow with a blade of sharpened bone or ceramic.

Preston had no clear idea of how many eons, eras, or epochs separated these two races. To the Fifth Men, the biotechnological accomplishments of the Third Men were not futuristic wonders, but weapons to them as old and out of date as Neolithic flint arrowheads would be to riflemen.

The lumbering gargantuans routed the smaller monkey-men out of their camp. The sounds of battle moved away.

To the north, across a landscape of trampled tents, fallen brutes and wounded men, an eerie, steady light spilled out from the flying disks on the ground where the Fifth Men had landed; to the south, eerie, stuttering light came from the wands of the Fifth Men herding the Terrors toward the cliffside. A dark swath woven of confused shadows reached to the east and west between them like a corridor.

Down this corridor Son of the Wind and Preston passed like shadows, each trying to outdo the other with how silently he could move.

Preston was proud of his stealth and stalking skills. On a good day, he could sneak through tall, dry grass to within arm’s reach of a wary buffalo without alerting it. Now, however, when he stepped on a pine cone, and it made the tiniest creak of noise, the little monkey-men he was following turned, glowered at him in silent contempt.

Son of the Wind put his finger to his lips in a gesture for silence that apparently had survived the endless changes of countless millennia. Then he rolled his eyes in disgust and loped onward.

The two were crawling side by side through a thick patch of shadow, down a slight slope, when Son of the Wind dislodged a pebble. It went skipping down the slope with the smallest imaginable tap of sound. But Preston, feeling mischievous, looked down and caught the other man’s eye. He cocked his head in mock surprise and raised an eyebrow, raising a finger to his lips.

Son of the Wind set his jaw defiantly, and moved forward. He had been quiet before: now he was like a ghost. He slithered past a position where two Mighty Ones stood with their backs turned. He reached the deep shadow behind a standing tent. He turned and stood and spread his hands, daring Preston to do as well.

Preston unwound part of the oversized tunic he wore, threw it over himself, and bellycrawled across the ground. One of the two Mighty Ones turned casually and glanced his direction. Preston ducked his head under the fabric and froze.

In the gloom, the cloak looked like merely one irregular patch of dark ground against a background of dark ground. When the Mighty One again turned away, Preston scampered forward silently, and stood up next to Son of the Wind, spreading his arms theatrically, bowing slightly as if to accept imaginary applause.

The darkness worked against them as well as for them: when the two moved carefully around a half-collapsed tent, one of the lumps of tent fabric turned its head. Here was a Mighty One, kneeling, digging under the tent floor for something hidden there.

Son of the Wind had blindingly quick reaction time. He flicked the Compliant Rod toward the giant soldier’s head. Before the man could so much as blink, the heavy tip of the rod shot out at the speed of sound, and cracked his thick skull in pieces. His face a ghastly ruin, blood and brainstuff gushing and streaming, the Mighty One staggered to his feet, hesitated a moment, and fell like a tree.

Preston caught the falling body, and lowered it silently to the ground.

Looking down at Son of the Wind, Preston grinned maliciously and put his finger to his lips. Son of the Wind scowled impatiently, raised his nose, beckoned Preston to follow, and scampered silently away.

Preston helped himself to the man’s knife, which to him was a longsword. It was made of proper steel, not bone nor stone nor shell. (The amber wand was a more potent weapon, but Preston thought it might electrocute anyone who, like him, knew nothing of how it worked, and tried to pick it up by the wrong end.) Then he followed.

The two men slithered and stalked, crept and scampered to the edge of the camp. Ahead was open grassland. However, a flying disk was sitting on the ground not far to one side. The brink of the cliff was to the other.

But a final Mighty One stood sentry between them and escape.

Son of the Wind nudged Preston, and gestured toward the final guard with both hands, as if offering Preston a gift. Preston grinned, cradled his newfound longsword in his arms, clutched his knife between his teeth, and crept forward on knees and elbows through the grass.

He had done such things before, long ago, during the war, when he had been shot down behind enemy lines. The rush of adrenaline, the intoxication of rage, the thrill of danger brought a sharpness and clarity to the senses, a sense of being alive, he sometimes thought he liked a little too much.

Preston moved through the grass without noise, circling to come behind the sentry.The man was eleven feet tall, and as strong as a bull. The idea seemed absurd that someone Preston’s size and strength could kill the gigantic man before he could make an outcry.

The sentry was wearing a helmet made of boar’s teeth, and a corset of bony scales. It was at least two hundred pounds of armor protecting his head, heart, liver, lungs. Preston was reaching for his pistol, despite his deep doubts that this caliber was heavy enough to kill a man the size of a hippopotamus, when dumb luck suddenly favored him.

Trumpets rang out, and the sound of mingled voices raised in victory. In the distance, the Terrors were surrendering to the Mighty Ones. A few winged forms of fleeing mantichores could be seen against the moonlit clouds. The gargantuan man relaxed, took off his helmet, placed it on the grass, and sat down on it.

The sentry’s head was now not ten feet above him. Preston, silent as a cat, leaped on the man’s back, wrapping both arms about the man’s throat. The gargantuan leaped up, amber wand humming, and an electric jolt passed through Preston’s body. His muscles spasmed, but the jerk as his arms involuntarily clenched drove sword-edge and knife-point into the Mighty One’s throat, cutting his windpipe. Blood formed a red bib spraying down across the corset of scales. The huge man with a shrug threw Preston yards away across the grass. Preston landed heavily, breaking his fall with his arms, but breaking no bones. The wind was driven out of his lungs. For a moment, he lay gasping and lightheaded, blinking at the darkness dancing in his vision.

Preston looked up. The sentry was standing without moving, but his lifeblood was a dark apron coating his front from neck to feet. The Mighty One was dead, but somehow he did not fall down.

Preston gathered up his dropped sword, and moved in a crouch toward the standing corpse. He blinked, summoning his night-vision. In a clear black-and-white picture, he could see that Son of the Wind had braced the Compliant Rod against the ground, and unfolded it up along the giant man’s back to catch the giant form before it fell. A cross bar had unfolded itself beneath the scales running from shoulder to shoulder. The rod held up the corpse like a scarecrow made of flesh and blood.

Preston saw the sense of it. Any casual eye glancing this way, in the dark, would see the silhouette of the sentry still at his post.

Son of the Wind, still bracing the rod, looked up. Preston pointed at the dead sentry, then at himself, and clasped both hands over his head like a victorious prizefighter.

Son of the Wind looked unimpressed, and held up a hand, turning it rapidly palm up to palm down and back again. It could have been an Italian gesture: comme çi, comme ça. Only so-so.

Son of the Wind turned and beckoned Preston to follow. Abandoning the Compliant Rod, the little red-furred man scampered away through the grass. Preston sprinted after.

They came to the brink. Thousands of feet down the sheer cliffside, directly below, could be seen the lanterns and cookfires winking in the portholes of the ancient, city-sized barge where the Mighty Ones had their fortress of Xurac A’a. Son of the Wind whistled sharply. The Compliant Rod, like some comical, self-propelled pogo stick, came bounding rapidly across the grass, and landed in the little man’s forepaw. He used it to polevault himself up onto Preston’s shoulder.

Son of the Wind looked behind. The sentry had fallen. Perhaps no one had seen yet. Or perhaps they had. He must have been willing to risk the noise, for now he spoke.

“Jump,” said Son of the Wind. “Phantoms spoke: made this.” He leaned and touched the eight-sided ring on Preston’s finger. The gems lit up with an eerie glow.

He pointed down again, over the dizzying brink. “Jump! Quick!”

Preston said, “How did you turn this ring on?”

Son of the Wind said, “Phantom, he spoke word. Word, it make ring. Ring, it makes slow fall. Slow fall like maple seed; slow fall like feather. Earth has great hunger: pull all things down. Ring fills earth’s belly. All full, no hunger. Pull down not you.” He looked behind them in agitation, fearful of pursuit. “Jump! No fear! Quick!”

Preston said, “How do you know how this ring works?”

“Mine. Who gave it to you? Me.”

Preston’s mind reeled with the implication. He had found this ring in his knapsack. The only person who could have put it there was the little long-furred red monkey he had met at his crashlanding. The one who had led him past the lava flow to the waterfall and then to the mouth of the cavern where only Firstlings could follow.

Preston cried, “You are Smiley, the Saber-toothed Simian!”

Smiley, or Son of the Wind, grimaced in silent annoyance, grabbed Preston’s hair with his feet, hung head-downward, and shoved the tip of the Compliant Rod under Preston’s armpit.

The rod then telescoped outward with jarring force, throwing them both off the clifftop and into an abyss of air.

*** *** ***

Episode 55 Bog of Sluggish Death

Down Preston drifted. Son of the Wind stood on his shoulder, like a mariner on a bowsprit, one hand painfully gripping the hair on Preston’s head. Beside them, the vast wall of the ancient canyon went past, fathom after fathom, sliding upward. Strata of stone, each band differing in texture and hue, passed before Preston’s gaze, and here and there tenacious tufts of grass or wiry bushes clung to irregular cracks and footholds.

Son of the Wind said, “Winged Men!” and pointed. Far above, silhouetted against the clouds splashed with light from the flotilla of flying disks, a trio of thin but manlike shapes, born aloft by great owl-wings, passed in swift silence.

Preston grinned and raised his Holland & Holland, delighted to have the familiar weight of the best of big-game rifles in his hands once more. Son of the Wind reached out with a hindpaw and grabbed the barrel with prehensile toes. “Do not shoot!”

The motion sent them both spinning slowly end over end. Preston felt hot-faced and dizzy as he was turned upside down. “Why not?”

Son of the Wind released the gun barrel. With the thumb of his right foot, Son of the Wind tapped the glowing ring on Preston’s finger.

“Nose of bloodhound. Point to bullet.”

Preston spread his arms and legs to slow his tumble. The wind in his face as he drifted downward settled his spinning head. He said, “What bullet?”

“Your mate’s.”

“Cynisca? You gave her the bullets out of my elephant gun?” Then he scowled. “She is not my mate.”

Son of the Wind gave him a knowing grin, displaying his alarming incisors.

“Smells like mate.”

“She’s not.” Preston scowled. Then he smiled. “Not yet.”

“Slow-wit Man is slow with women.” Son of the Wind nodded sagely. “Bullet with her. Ring points. Follow ring to find her.” He pointed. “Also, Winged Men go to fight Mighty Ones.”

It was true. The owl-winged shadows passed before the high clouds and passed over the brink of the canyon walls, heading toward the encampment of the Terrors.

Preston said, “I thought they were allies.”

“No more.”

“Why not?”

Son of the Wind answered with an indifferent shrug.

Preston craned his neck. The Winged Man patrol (if that was what it was) had passed from sight. He inspected the cliffside as his body slowly turned in the wind. He did not see the city of the Winged Men. He knew it was halfway down the cliff, but he must have been toppling down far to one side or the other. He did see a cloud of opaque azure smoke pouring upward from a cluster of dim lights: a sure sign of the Seventh Men.

The spot was not as far away as Preston would have like it.

Preston said, “This means I cannot shoot this gun ever again, until I find her, because that will jump both bullets back into the chamber.”

Son of the Wind nodded sagely. “No more. No more shoot this gun ever again. Foolish Man is Foolish. Gunshots bring Watchers. Watchers bring Mighty Ones.” He pointed back up the cliff. “There; not here. No gunshots here. No bring Watchers here.”

Preston looked down. “Where is here?”

“Bogland of Sluggish Death.”

He was falling no faster than a parachutist with his canopy deployed so he had ample time to inspect the narrow land between the canyon walls.

“What is that River?”

“Water of Sluggish Death.”

With normal vision, the floor of the canal was pitch black, except, in the distance, where the lamps and watchfires of the grounded barge held a fortress of Mighty Ones. When he blinked his night-vision on, he could see monochromatic images of the leafy canopy of a swampy land, bisected by a wandering, mazy river, and crisscrossed with fens, dunes, oxbows, mud sloughs, reed beds and stagnant water. Even from high above, the croaking and peeping of countless night-voices echoes in the air. Warmer air rose up from underfoot as he descended, and a dank, fetid smell.

“Where does it lead?”

“City of Swift Death.”

“No slugs there, eh?”

“No slugs,” nodded Son of the Wind.

Preston remembered that All-Stone the Methuselean had mentioned this city. “It is a place where First Men are free?”

“Free to kill.”

Preston saw patches of sandbar off to one side that looked like a much more inviting place to land than the thick riot of vegetation below. “If I never use the gun, it also means I cannot guide my flight.”

“No flying! Watchers, they are in the sky.”

“They did not catch me before.”

“Phantom before.”


But there was no more time for speech.

The jungle canopy swung up to meet Preston with startling suddenness. As soon as his feet brushed up against the thin and flimsy uppermost layer of leaves, his full weight returned, and he tumbled. Son of the Wind was caught unawares, and could do no more than cling to Preston’s shoulder as the two somersaulted downward through masses of leaf and twig. Small branches struck them like whips; large branches struck like clubs. Dizzy, battered, and dazed, Preston cartwheeled into the mouth of an enormous bloom.

In panic, he flung out his arms legs. Preston managed to slow and then stop his fall as his hands scraped against one side of the cone trapping him, and his boots against the other.

He was in a cone of waxy, slippery plant material tall as a telephone pole and wide as a well. The sides of the cone narrowed sharply toward the bottom, which was filled with a deep pool of some corrosive nectar or digestive acid.

Fumes that stung Preston’s eyes issued from it. It muddied his wits and burned his nose and lungs. The smell was sweet and overpowering. The half-dissolved skeletons of squirrels and snakes floated on the surface of the acid pool. Shadows of larger and less buoyant beasts could be glimpsed below the surface.

His arms and legs were stretched out like those of a mountain climber scaling a rocky chimney. He tried to inch his way upward, away from the fume of the pool, but the cone widened as he moved up, and his aching limbs could not find purchase on the rubbery walls. The burden of Son of the Wind, who weighed as much as a border collie, pressing down on his shoulder-blades did nothing to help.

“Do something, quick!” grunted Preston through gritted teeth. “Can’t hold on long!”

Son of the Wind flourished the Compliant Gold-ringed Rod. Hooks snapped out of tip and heel, and the midsection expanded like a telescope. The rod jammed itself firmly across the throat of the plant cone. The hooks sank into the rubbery flesh of the wall and did not slip. Preston wrapped aching arms and legs about the sturdy rod gratefully.

Preston shimmied across the narrow metal rod. He hung by one hand and both feet, head downward, stabbing and slashing at the waxy substance with his knife. The plant was pliant and tough, and he could not cut through.

Son of the Wind climbed over Preston’s shoulder and head, and sank his six-inch fangs into the plant wall. His teeth were shorter than Preston’s knife, but thicker, and the powerful muscles of his jaw and neck could put more force behind his bites than Person’s knifehand could impart to his knife. In short order, Son of the Wind ripped open a ragged manhole in the sides of the deadly plant. Preston and Son of the Wind wriggled through it, and fell the remaining few feet to the soggy jungle floor. A trio of annoyed snakes were disturbed by the commotion, and raised their heads above the boggy semiliquid floor of the forest. They spread their hoods in menace. Their eyes were like green poison.

Son of the Wind hissed and clicked his tongue at them. He made swaying motions with his forefingers, looking for all the world like a bandleader with a baton. The snakes swayed, lowered their hoods, and slid away through the mire.

Preston stood. His feet were already sinking into the boggy ground, and the muck was up to his ankles. He had to use both hands to pull one leg from the sticky mud, and this shoved his other boot deeper. It was another minute of work to free that foot, during which his first foot starting to sink again. This stirred the muck, and released a stench that also clung.

Preston said, “How in the world are we going to hike out of here?”

He looked up. Son of the Wind was perched in the branches of the overhanging thickets. Son of the Wind looked over his shoulder, as if pondering possible routes.

The jungle trees grew so closely together that the branches were intertwined in crooked and continuous wooden paths above the mire. He turned back and looked at Preston, who was trying once more to pull his feet free.

Son of the Wind shrugged nonchalantly. He did not speak, but Preston could read his monkey expression: Hike? On the ground? But why?

Son of the Wind lowered the Compliant Rod to him, and Preston unglued his boots from the ooze and shimmied up into the trees. The branches were thickly grown with thorns and poison ivy, and Preston could make his way only with tedious difficulty.

Preston said, “How did you drive away the snakes?”

Son of the Wind said, “Some beasts remember the way. They are friends. Some have lost the way. They are not friends.” He jumped to a spiky, poisonous branch in another tree. It was too far away for Preston to leap. Son of the Wind politely extended the Compliant Rod, which telescoped open across the gap. Preston wedged the foot of the rod into the crotch of a split branch and gingerly put his weight on the length.

“Hey, Rod!” Preston said to the haunted weapon, “How did he do that to the snakes?”

The weapon spoke in its cold, harsh voice, “Genetic infections passing through natural selection or disease vectors have spread, over many generations, into wild animal stock, and produces auranetic signatures able to respond, wholly or partly, to Third Men electro-neural signals.”

Son of the Wind scowled. “Chattering Man chatters! Better not to stir shadows of the dead to speak to the living.”

As he was shimmying across the gap, Preston caught sight through the trees of a causeway running across the low and marshy ground. When he joined Son of the Wind, he pointed. “That way. A place to walk.”

The two of them made their way slowly through the trees until they came into the branches hanging above the causeway. Huge blocks of stone, larger than freight cars, were sunk into the mire, and weeds and orchids grew up in the cracks.

Son of the Wind pointed. “No place to walk.” Several corpses were draped in poses of agony across the stones. Here and there in the muck to either side of the causeway a hand or foot or head of a body not fully submerged protruded from the mire.

Preston dropped out of the tree. The fall was high enough that his ring lit up, and he became weightless, drifting down like a balloon. Weight returned as he landed.

Preston bent over the bodies. They were dead; the flesh in places had been burnt and eaten as if with acid. One or two faces were intact. Preston said, “These men escaped from the slave tent with me. What killed them?”

Son of the Wind sniffed. “They walk here.”

“What walks here?”

By way of answer, the little man scampered down the causeway. Preston, wondering, sprinted after. Son of the Wind stopped, stood up on his hindlegs, and pointed.

Preston saw something squatting on the causeway. It was the size and shape of a capsized yacht, complete with a rudder thrust up into the air. It’s flesh glistened and dripped. The thing moved with a menacing slowness. It was not an overturned boat, but a large, low, lump of living flesh. The upjutting shape was not a rudder, but a neck and head. The head was a soft bump with a pucker for a mouth. It had two horns above like snail’s horns.

The smell which came from it was the same as filled the acidic blossom, and coated the leaves here. The thing’s skin was corrosive, and it waddled forward, leaving behind it a slime trail of corrosion.

“Slugs,” explained Son of the Wind. “They walk here. They kill men.”

The blind, glistening, monstrous shape began oozing forward, bearing down on Preston.


*** *** ***

Episode 56 Escape From the Acid Monster

Preston tried to sprint away from the monster slug, but the sticky ground clung to his boots like flypaper, catching at his ankles, releasing foetid smells. He could wade, but not run.

Son of the Wind flipped acrobatically into low-hanging branches. He turned and chattered at Preston, telling him to retreat.

Preston did not. Instead he summoned up his night vision, and inspected the oncoming slug. The thing’s featureless blob of a head was ten feet off the ground, and the flaccid body was thirty feet long or more. It was coated with a glistening ooze that hissed and rotted what it touched, powerfully corrosive. How an invertebrate could hold itself together at that size without a skeleton, much less move, was a mystery. Without lungs, how could it oxygenate its mass of cells?

As the giant slug advanced, Preston’s first instinct was to raise and fire his elephant gun. He resisted that instinct, but he gave into his second instinct, which was to raise and fire his Mauser pistol. Since he could not run out of bullets, shooting eight bullets was the same as shooting eighty. He could fire until his trigger-finger developed a muscle cramp; and then switch hands.

Twenty or so bullets poked into the doughy flesh did not slow the creature. Whether it was in pain or not, whether it was even capable of feeling pain, was unclear. Preston’s ears were ringing from the sharp bark of his pistol: he could not hear what Son of the Wind was saying.

Then, not a dozen steps away, he saw a stand of tall, slender cone-shaped man-eating plants looming. Here also was the one into which he had fallen: a pool of acid had spread from the gaping wound the Compliant Rod had left. Preston, grunting, pulled his sticky boots out of the clinging mud, and sloshed over toward the stand. The slug sensed the motion, and ponderously changed tack to follow. Preston put the giant, acid filled plants between himself and the giant, acid-dripping monster. The mindless creature pushed straight though them, shouldering the stems aside.

Preston fired and fired into the tall cylinders of digestive acid. Wherever a bullet passed through, two smooth parabolas of the colorless, stinking, deadly chemical arched down, dribbling on the slug.

He fired dozens and scores of bullets, grinning with the odd pleasure of never being in need of counting his ammo again. Dozens and scores of tiny holes in the plant walls sent sprinkles and showers of acid over the giant slug. It began to melt. Silently, it writhed in agony.

Preston, yanking his stuck boots with each step, wallowed through the dank bog toward the tree-trunk, and after a laborious climb, during which he was stung with needles and scalded by acidic flowers, he joined Son of the Wind on his branch.

“Foolish Man acts foolishly,” said Son of the Wind.

“Smiley, I think I liked you better when you didn’t talk,” grunted Preston. “So what’s your beef now?”

Son of the Wind pointed at the pistol, and clapped both hands over his ears, looking so much like a See No Evil cartoon that Preston laughed aloud. Son of the Wind said, “Too loud. More come.”

“More slugs?”

“More all. Mighty Ones in city hear. Winged Men in low sky hear. Watchers in high sky hear.” He stood up on his hindlegs and sniffed the air warily. “Slugs closer. Come sooner.” He pointed at the dead one. “When one dies, it screams. All come.”

“I did not hear a scream.”

“Not for our ears. All come.”

“They are slow enough to outrun, if we stay on the causeway.”

“Slugs stay on the causeway. Go through trees.”

“I cannot go through the trees. There are too many thorny vines, poison leaves, poison bugs, and poison flowers. We use the haunted rod and the magic ring and lift ourselves back up the cliffs to the savanna.” The clifftop was a thousand feet above them, which was enough to produce a different climate, one Preston preferred.

Son of the Wind said, “Heretics are there. The birds and beasts are theirs. Son of the Wind can walk unseen there. Not you.”

“Heretics? You mean the Third Men?”

Son of the Wind stood on his hind legs and beat both fists into his narrow chest. “My people are the Third Men! We are true! The wind is my father and the stormcloud is my brother! The tree, the bee, the bird, the roaring lion are my cousins! We kill and we die and we keep to the way!

“Them!” He paused to twist his head and spit. “They are ghosts of the Third Men. Heretics. Betrayers. They make slaves of all. Slave of you. Bee. Bird. Cat. Twist and warp the blood; make monsters. Who is the mother of the mantichore? Tigress and she-hawk? No! Monsters have no mothers, no fathers, so their hearts are dark.” He raised a forepaw and pointed at Preston. “You must know this. For this, you were found. All After-men are monsters. Phantom says.”

Preston could now see pale, oozing, shapeless shapes waddling through the tree boles in the distance, gliding over boggy patches and pools of quicksand. He decided to file that last comment away for a later conversation, assuming both of them lived through the night.

Preston said, “Fine. We use the Rod to throw us high into the air, and go south, and climb the far wall there. Anything to get out of this swampland.”

“Mighty Ones there. Not safe.”

“Fine! Downstream. I can shoot a bullet two miles from a high … oh, no, wait I cannot. Damn. Well, just using the Rod by itself, as a giant pogo stick, and this ring, should be enough to outrun the slugs.”

“Watchers are in the sky! No going through the sky! Go through trees! You are a fool!”

“I told you, I am too big for the trees, you silly monkey! It was much better when you did not talk!”

“Much better! Lost Man followed me through walls of fire and falls of water without fear. Now he is afraid of thorns and pricks!”

Preston looked up. “The ring turns weight off whenever I am falling from any place higher than a high dive. Call it thirty feet. The jungle canopy is higher than that. As long as I am weightless, we can pogo stick out of here. The problem is that my weight returns in full force if I touch anything that is touching the ground, even a small branch. But what about those vines? Must be two hundred feet off the ground. See? Loop after loop, all hanging from high branches up there like an endless swingset. High above the slugs. See them?”

Son of the Wind, instead of answering, leaped to Preston’s shoulder, extended the Compliant Rod to the size of a quarterstaff. The metal length popped stirrups and handgrips into view.

Preston drew his stolen longsword and handed it to Son of the Wind. “The moment I grab the vine, weight will return. Cut the vine behind me. If I am falling, even when holding the vine, the ring might decide that counts as falling, not touching ground, and keep us weightless. See? The canopy above hides us from Winged Men and Flying Disks. We are not on the causeway where the Fifth Men patrol. Slugs are all gathering to this spot here, where the shots were fired. Let us see how fast we can move.”

As it turned out, it was quite fast.

A weightless Preston used the rod to pogo-stick himself hundreds of feet into the air. When he touched a vine, his weight yanked downward sharply. Son of the Wind cut the vine, and the two halves fell away. The vine carrying a grinning, delighted Preston and squinting, grim-faced, and perhaps terrified Son of Wind would swing in a great pendulum arc. The pendulum would carry them down and up again, and Preston would let go. His body would be thrown like a stone from a sling. But the ring would light up, and his weightless body would be carried by the momentum with no downward pull: he would fly in a straight line.

And no next vine loop was ever out of reach, since Preston was holding the Compliant Rod. The rod would send a clawed tip snaking out to clamp on vines that were out of arm’s length, and reel them in.

For Preston, it was a childhood daydream come true. Swinging from vine to vine through the jungle with a monkey clinging to his back, he uttered his best ululating yell. Son of the Wind clucked his tongue ruefully and placed a hand over Preston’s mouth.

“Sorry,” Preston said over the sound of the rushing air, “but, you know, Tarzan and all that. Raised by apes. Talks like you. Something I’ve always wanted to…”

“He listen to apes? Wise. You listen to me.”

After nearly an hour of vine-swinging travel, the trees thinned, and they could not continue. Preston heard the sound of running water: he asked the Rod to pole-vault them over the trees in that direction. They descended like thistles, to land on a small island in the middle of a river. The river was not particularly deep, but Son of the Wind warned him of crocodiles, serpents, and ichthyosaurs.

There was a coppice of trees in the middle of the island, including ash, oak and yew. These temperate and deciduous trees were unexpected, and seemed almost like familiar old friends compared to the acidic, poison-flowered cycads of the jungle growing on either bank. He wondered if these were mutants from some period long after his day, or else plant-horrors that had died out during some forgotten period in the Mesozoic Era.

Son of the Wind with surprising agility plucked and wove grass into a puptent to house them. He used both hands and both feet. Meanwhile Preston fashioned a fire-bow out of a crooked stick and a strip of fabric cut from the stolen garb he wore. Preston was careful to dig a deep firepit, and use only the driest tinder and kindling: there was no smoke. This drew a rare glance of approval from Son of the Wind.

They fished for their supper. Son of the Wind fashioned a fishing trident out of reeds growing at the water’s edge. Preston used the fishhooks and line he was still carrying, one of the few things preserved out of his survival pack. Preston dug up worms for bait.

Preston said, “It would be easier to use the Compliant Rod as a fish spear, wouldn’t it?”

Son of the Wind said, “Easier, not better. Best not to wake ghosts. What of that? What can you catch?” He gave a snort of skepticism at the tiny fishhook.

“Whoever makes the small catch has to clean and gut them all,” Preston announced. Son of the Wind nodded regally, and agreed.

They caught a trio of ugly nocturnal fish with a boxlike heads and thick scales. Son of the Wind called them ‘Hand Fins’. He caught two that were fifteen inches long. Preston caught a larger one, twenty-two inches long. Preston laid his catch with a dramatic flourish next to the two smaller fish. He spread his thumb and forefinger to show the seven inch difference in length. Son of the Wind raised an eyebrow, and placed his two fish tail to head, in a line. He spread his forepaw fingers to show the eight inch difference.

Since Preston was not convinced Son of the Wind knew how to gut and scale a fish, and acceded with good grace. Soon the fish were skewered on green sticks and roasting over the small campfire.

Preston was full of questions. “I thought you were an animal when we met. You had no clothes, you carried no tools.”

Son of the Wind rubbed his close-shaved pelt with evident embarrassment. “No need. Had hair. Cut it off with sharp stone. Go into camp. Find you.” Then he shrugged. “Carry tools? No need.” And he tossed the bamboo fish-trident, which had taken him only moment to make, onto the campfire.

Preston realized that Maruti, or Son of the Wind, must come from a simpler, perhaps more primitive, epoch or nation of Third Men than the Lifesmiths. And the Compliant Rod had come from yet a third epoch, one boasting Third Men larger than gorillas, who made robot-brained weapons of shape-changing, multi-dimensional metal. Preston reflected that his own Pict ancestors, less than a thousand years before his birth, had lived in naked savagery.

For that matter, the Indonesian tribesmen of North Sentinel Island were a group no civilized man had ever successfully contacted, and they came from the same year as Preston. Picts and Preston and Indonesians were all First Men as far as Pangaea was concerned. There was no reason to think the Third Men would not show the same degree of variation.

Preston was impressed. As if an Apache brave or Zulu warrior had stripped himself of proud headdress and war-paint in order to mingle with the slaves and servants working in a Spanish fortress or British outpost and rescued a prisoner kept there. Using the special properties of the magic bullet in Preston’s Holland & Holland to summon a flotilla of flying disks to create the confusion needed to cover their escape had been clever.

Giving one bullet to Cynisca to allow Preston’s ring to keep tracking her was also clever. He had no hope of finding her without this; to him, it was more than clever. It was miraculous.

Preston scowled. Preventing Preston from using his noisy weapon was also clever, too clever by half.

There was more to this little man than met the eye.

A more important question came next. “It cannot be a coincidence that the first person I practically stepped on when escaping the wreck of my spaceplane was you, Smiley. Why were you there?”

He said, “Phantom say.”

Preston said, “You were told to wait for me there? Who knew I would crashland at that spot?”

Son of the Wind shrugged. “Phantom know.”

Preston said, “Then you led me into the underground ruins, to the Final Unit. Why?”

“Phantom say.”

“Phantom? You mean Eien the Immortal?”

Son of the Wind shivered and scowled. “It is not wise for murderer to say the name of man he murders. The ghosts do not like.”

“Murder? Are you kidding? How did I murder Eien?”

“Phantom hid. You jumped to death. Out of hiding the Phantom came. He put out his hand to catch you. He showed himself to the eye of the enemy. He died.” The expression on the little monkey-man’s face was stony. “You did this.”

Preston realized Son of the Wind was speaking of the time when Preston first discovered the properties of the flying ring. Eien the Immortal had indeed activated the ring by remote control and directed it to bring Preston to his mountain, which had been immediately attacked. He said, “I did not mean it! How could I have known?”

Son of the Wind shrugged. “Who makes egg from eggshell? It is done.”

“I still did not know.”

Son of the Wind said, “He wished for death. Long ago, First Men make After-Men. Ipotanes, Terrors, Phantoms, Mighty Ones, Descenders, Ascenders, Watchers, Devastators. All must die.” He pointed at Preston. “You to do this. You!”

“I thought my mission was to get the Time Whatsit away from the Watchers, so they stop kidnapping people from the past.”

“Is same. Is one.”

“Absurd!” said Preston. “I cannot exterminate whole races of men. I would not if I could. Why should I want to?”

“Phantom say. Fate say.” Son of the Wind raised a finger, pointed up. “God say. Man must be made one again.”

“Your god? What god? Which of your mumbo-jumbo tribal gods is this?”

“One. He has no name.”

The conversation flagged. Preston banked the fire and crawled into the tent. His belly was full, he was free and unhurt, and the bed of woven grass was as comfortable as any he had ever known. Nor did he feel alone: Son of the Wind took the first watch.

It was the first time since the crash that he was at ease. Yet it was a long while ere he fell asleep.

*** *** ***

Episode 57 American in Pangaea

Preston woke when the sun was high. He was not shocked to find he had overslept: many days of peril and toil had exhausted mind and body. Hot sunlight was streaming down through the mists shed by the dripping leaf-crowns of the cycads on the shore, and through the clouds of midges, mosquitoes, and flies.

Three pleasant surprises crowded him, one after another, when he climbed from the puptent. First, he found no rash, no itch, afflicting him. No bugs came near him. Preston rubbed his fingers on his face. His skin was coated with some clear, sticky residue.

Son of the Wind was near the firepit, in his hands was a wand of yew-wood a fathom long, and a sharpened flint he was using as a knife. With slow, even strokes, Son of the Wind was peeling curls of wood from the wand.

Preston came through the leaves, moving silently to see how close he could get to the little man before being spotted. He froze when he saw eyes glinting between the leafy reeds beyond the fire pit. Something was approaching Son of the Wind from behind.

A large, brown-red beast slid into view through the reed banks. Preston did not want to startle the creature, but he softly took his pistol in hand just in case. Son of the Wind did not stir as the animal approached, but Preston did not believe the little man was unaware of it.

It was a river otter, with white teeth and webbed feet, but three times larger than any otter from Preston’s day. It looked to be over a hundred pounds. This prehistoric creature was called Siamogale melilutra. In its jaws was a clamshell the size of dinner plate.

But the thing was not dangerous, at least not to Son of the Wind, who petted and spoke softly to it. The creature dropped the giant clam at the little man’s feet, wagged its otter tail, and slid back through the reeds into the river.

Son of the Wind pushed the clam into the ashes. Then he went back methodically to carving the wand. There were several clams already baking, and the scent was mouth-watering: A second pleasant surprise.

Preston stepped into view. Son of the Wind gave him a silent nod of greeting, and perhaps a small smile. Then his eyes dropped to where Preston was holding his pistol, and the small smile vanished.

Preston understood the little man’s smile and why it fled. Preston’s silent caution showed he was not a greenhorn. But to think a Third Man might need First Man help against a wild beast showed he was.

“Didn’t know it was a pet of yours.” Preston holstered his Mauser. “How did you convince the bugs not to bite me?”

Son of the Wind was silent a moment, pondering before he answered. “Once, all this land, my people ruled: From the Mountains of Cruelty to the Impious Mountains, from the Sea Crone’s Sea to the Land of Dead Immortals. In some, the old blood is strong. They hear my voice.”

The Compliant Gold-ringed Rod rested on the ground next to Son of the Wind. Preston prodded the rod with his toe. “Hey. Dipstick. What does he mean?”

The cold, harsh voice of the machine intelligence rang out, “As previously stated: Bioengineered organisms once predominant in this area were able to receive and genetically conditioned to obey to Third Man bioelectric and pheromone command signals. Contamination, diffusion, and uncontrolled cross-breeding introduced these artificial genes into the wild. The more heavily modified descendants retain sensitivity to command signals, and the conditioned response regime is intact.”

Son of the Wind covered the rod with his hand, scowling. “Disturb no ghosts.”

“This insect repellant on me. Is it your spit? You licked me while I slept? Maybe you should have asked first.”

“First Men helpless to tiny bugs. First Men fall sick. Who will carry you? My tongue has use. Has yours?”

Preston raised an eyebrow. “And what does that mean?”

“Your tongue, your gun: too loud!” He handed the wand to a surprised Preston, and proffered him the sharp flint.

Preston inspected the yewwood wand for a moment before he recognized what it was. This was a final surprise. Son of the Wind was making him a gift. Preston said, “I know how to shoot a longbow, but not how to make one. Fletching arrows is also not in my skill set.”

Son of the Wind scowled. “Your tribe large? Like ant-heap?”

Preston thought of the multimillion dollar aerospace company he had left behind. “Very large.”

Clearly, Son of the Wind did not approve of anyone who was not self-reliant. A man who did not know how to make his own weapons, hunt game, skin, cure, and cook his own meat was over-civilized and inept. Specialization was for bugs.

It was an attitude Preston could not criticize. Left to his own devices, Preston would be eating a breakfast of raw worms found under a fallen log, not baked clams.

But the little man’s scowl disappeared when Preston said, “Show me.” The willingness to learn evidently made up for being a greenhorn, if only a little bit.

And so, while the clams baked in the coals, Son of the Wind, in curt words, grunts, and gestures, told and showed him the difference between heartwood (from the tree’s core) and sapwood (from its outer parts) and that the sapwood faces the back of the bow. The back was stronger if carved from a single intact growth ring. Material was only scraped from the belly, never from the back. He showed him how to scrape around the knots.

Son of the Wind was delighted with the rasp built into the back of Preston’s knife. This was used to reduce the belly in a gentle taper toward either point. Son of the Wind did not use a tillering stick to measure the bend of the bow or detect hinges that needed smoothing; he merely propped the bow against a tree and stood on the length to bend it, carefully eyeballing the curve.

The bowstring was made of thin fibers of nettle wound together. Each nettle reed had to be plucked, bruised along the whole length by being crushed between two rocks, and peeled carefully apart. Then came the painstaking and lengthy task of twisting the fibers into string. Nettles were poisonous and stung. Preston was glad for his leather gloves. Son of the Wind just used his leathery hands and feet.

Arrowshafts were reed shoots striped of leaf and carefully bisected into long, straight splinters, smoothed with a rough stone.

Preston remembered a useful bit of trivia recalled from his Boy Scout days, or from reading storybooks by Howard Pyle. A longbow arrow, also called a clothyard shaft, was a length of clothier’s yardstick, also called an ell: in the old days, this the distance between his nose and the fingertips of his outstretched arm.

One after another, Preston held the long, straight reed splinters up to his nose. He was struck with the thought that, in the days before the foot, the yard, the cubit or the ell was standardized, each man was his own measure. The ell-length arrows of a big man like Preston would be longer than those of a short man. Of course, Preston was the one who would be shooting them. Standardization of weights and measures might have been useless, or even a hinderance, back in days when a man made his own things himself.

The arrowshafts were bound together in bundles of four to straighten as they dried, and, later, straightened over the campfire by hand.

Preston was surprised that Son of the Wind did not use any of the many bird feathers scattered through the jungle for fletching: he merely carved the rear span of shaft into a flat tail. For an arrowhead, he again carved the tip of the reed to a point, and held it over the campfire to heat and harden. Preston, watching this, realized that this was meant to be a survival bow only: a light pull bow to be used only briefly, then replaced.

They took a leisurely break to eat. The clams were delicious. Son of the Wind had even taken the time to boil crushed hickory root into a black salt to flavor the food. Instead of a pot, the little man folded leaf into a cup. Preston had never seen this trick before: he would have expected a leaf held over hot coals to catch fire. The edges of the cup burned down to the waterline, but no further.

By noon, the bow and arrows were ready. Preston spent some time shooting arrows into a fallen trunk, letting his hands get used to this bow. He drew the nettle-fiber bowstring, feeling the weight of the pull. It was light. Good enough for hunting fish and frogs and rabbits.

Preston said, “This is green wood. It might split as it dries. We could make a more permanent, more powerful one if we took the time to season the wood, or at least coat the tips in watertight glue. We can make glue by boiling hardwood ash and pine resin. This thing might not last a week.”

“Will you?” Son of the Wind said with a soft grunt.

Preston was silent. It was a grim question. Not many days had passed since his crashlanding: most of that time, death had been missing him by mere inches. And in this new landscape of giant slugs and acid-dripping flowers, he was a tyro, a greenhorn. Why spend days or weeks to make a stouter bow for a man not likely to survive days or weeks?

The little man’s doubts were plain. Eien the Immortal had thought Preston was the man to bring down the Empire of the Mighty and halt time-traveling slave trade of the Watchers. Preston himself, a fugitive in stolen clothing hiding in a stinking swamp with a monkey, did not know if Eien had been wiser than mortal men, or just crazier.

Would Preston outlast his longbow? The Last Continent of Pangaea was warlike, cruel, and savage.

Preston grinned to himself. He was a civilized man. It was well known that civilized men could be more methodical, persistent, and rigorous when it came to warfare, cruelty, and savagery, than any savage. Civilization had more manhours to devote.

The thought gave him pause. In theory, all the posthuman races of Pangaea were more advanced, more civilized than he. Even Son of the Wind, traipsing about without a loin cloth or dagger, commanded a knowledge of biotechnology that seemed like magic.

But the glimpses he had seen of Terrors and Winged Men and Mighty Ones, the passive Ipotane, the pathetic Last Men, and the pallid Watchers all betokened an utter breakdown of civilization. What was missing?

It was not courage nor cleverness. The Pangaeans had that. But the men of Pangaea, in all their strange forms, large and small, treated each other like savages, raiding, pillaging, enslaving, and betraying without a qualm.

Civilization was not enough.

Preston was an American, the child of rebels, pilgrims, and pioneers. In all the infinite reaches of history, his were the people who flew the first aircraft, first split the atom, first set foot on the moon. In the tiny slice of history Preston knew, his people had won world wars and cold wars, defeated tyranny, and ended plagues and famine wherever they went.

To be sure, it was madness to dream one man could start the avalanche of events needed to overthrow the tyrants of Pangaea. But if you had to pick one man out of all time, why not an American? Who better? What people had more practice in throwing down despots and kings?

“I am sure the bow, and I, will last until dinner,” Preston decided. “Which it is my turn to catch. Since you provided breakfast.”

The monkey-man’s small, understated smile returned. “You are a baby. Can you tell poison ivy from water cress?”

“You will be the mommy,” Preston said. “And show me all. I want to learn the tracks and spoor of this world. All these game animals, their habits, their habitats, what is eatable and what is not. It is all new to me. ”

Son of the Wind gave a regal nod, and it was agreed.

As it turned out, there was a prehistorical fish called an arapaima running in those waters. It was scaly, and ugly, and too primitive to grow gills. It grew up to eight feet long. It was also easy to fool with any lure that looked like a tasty fly flicking the water surface, easy to shoot with a bow when it surfaced for air, and easy to clean and scale, because the meat was boneless. It was also delicious.

They decided to press on by night. Breaking camp was easy when one had no gear. Son of the Wind tore up the puptent and fed it to the campfire, whose ashes he soaked and buried. He took the time to brush away their footprints with a leafy branch, before he took to the trees himself.

“You think we are still being hunted?” asked Preston.

Son of the Wind answered with a sardonic, silent glance. Of course they were.

Stealthy as shadows, the two men, large and small, departed.

As the sun passed behind the tall walls of the river canyon in the west, and the world grew dark, the unspoken prediction of Son of the Wind came to pass.

Preston and Son of the Wind were wading through a patch of muddy grasses. No trees were near. Through a break in the canopy overhead, Preston saw black clouds trimmed with bright silver in the light of the overlarge moon. Even as he looked, he saw a ghostly glow appear in a cloud above. A flying disk hove into view, silent as a distant star. It moved serenely, without blades or wings, surrounding by the halo of its own light as it passed through the mists and fringes of the cloudwrack.

It paused in its soundless flight, and began to descend.


*** *** ***

Episode 58 The One-eyed Mighty One

To judge from his expression, Son of the Wind had never before seen the trick of making a snorkel out of a river reed. His silent gaze held grudging respect as Preston hurried them both into the muddy reed bed growing in the shallows near the riverbank, and, with a neat stroke of his knife, provided them with a way to stay entirely submerged, safely out of sight.

Here the river consisted of a few inches of clear water tangled in the reed beds, and several feet of clinging mud beneath. Son of the Wind by urgent gesture urged Preston to imitate him as he smeared cold river mud all across face and body. Preston, thinking the flying disc might have infrared gear to detect heat sources, unhesitatingly obeyed. He felt a little sorry for the little red-haired man getting the smelly muck caked through his body fur.

Hiding under the water of this deadly river would have been suicide had Preston been alone. Curious snakes, poisonous fish, and bloodsucking leeches nosed near. Son of the Wind beckoned a ponderous alligator to come and station itself nearby, quiet as a floating log, only its red eyes peeping above the water, keeping these other menaces at bay. The reptilian monster was unchanged by evolution in all the geologic ages since Preston last (quite illegally) hunted them in the Florida everglades: Preston almost felt nostalgic.

Above, the sky was bright with the red sunlight; but the jungle river running along the bed of the ancient mile-wide canal, deeper than the Grand Canyon, was in shadow. It was not yet full night. The gloaming hung hushed and elfin over the shapes of bog-pool and swamp-bush, gnarled stumps, sluggish water, cypress and cycads smothered in thorny vines and Spanish moss.

Ghost-pale, noiseless, the menacing disk settled down. Preston peered through the inch of clear water hiding his head, and through the interstices of the reeds. He had a clear view. The eerie vehicle was alarmingly close.

It was hard to believe this thing was a machine: it looked more like a jellyfish, glowing with its own inner light, but one made of an unearthly celestial metal clear as a living crystal. The inner shell of the hull was coated with an outer layer of what looked and flowed like clear liquid, if a liquid could freeze in place like glass in whatever shape the need required. Through the semi-transparent outer and inner hull, he could see a ring of darker shadow from what looked like a spinning armature circling the inner equator of the craft. A gyroscope? A cyclotron? There was no point in speculating. It could be from a technology whose basic principles had not been imagined until geologic ages after Preston’s birth.

The laws of gravity seemed also to have no power over the machine: what looked like a figure in a child’s high chair was seated on the ventral surface, head-downward, but staring (from his viewpoint) up at the ground descending toward him. The man in the chair was dwarfish, big-headed, bald as an egg, and in the gloom his oversized eyes shined like cold, catlike mirrors.

The craft did not land like an airplane or helicopter, or even like a balloon. It did not land at all. Instead it parked itself at an angle, one rim almost touching the ground, the other in the air. A circle of the inner hull dilated, opening like the pupil of an eye. The semiliquid of the outer hull puckered and formed a ramp touching the ground.

One of the host of the Mighty Ones, a Gibborim, emerged from the hatch and strode heavily down the ramp, leaning on the stout amber wand of his electric weapon. On his shins were greaves of shell. A skirt of studded leather gird his loins. At his belt was a tomahawk. His broad and powerful chest was hidden beneath a sleeveless jacket of animal fangs and flat tusks tightly webbed together. A magnifying lens hung on a thong at his neck. Sleeves of leather affixed with bone studs protected his muscular arms. His shoulderboards were tortoise shells, exaggerating the width of his already monstrous shoulders.

Draped over the antlers jutting from bald oblong of his ungainly head was a veil that fell past his shoulders. Preston thought it made him look like a very ugly Mexican bride in a mantilla. Most likely, it was mosquito netting. Preston could not see if the antlers were headgear or head growths. He was stouter, greater, and taller than most even of his tall race: fifteen feet at least, more than twice the height of a basketball player.

When the giant man turned only one eye was visible, glinting in the twilight-gloom. From beneath an eyepatch, scars ran from brow to cheek to jaw. Preston felt a jolt of surprise run down his spine. He recognized those scars as bullet wounds, made by a 9 x 19mm Parabellum round, the NATO standard round. There was only one weapon within the range of half a million years that fired such rounds, and it was resting on Preston’s hip.

Where had he seen this man before? When had he shot him? Xic, the giant Preston had dueled in the dark of the slave-pavilion, had mentioned this man’s name. Preston, breathing softly through a straw, and shivering in the cold mud of the reedbed, could not bring it to mind.

Down the ramp after the Mighty One came a giraffe-mottled and giraffe-necked Second Man, an Ipotane, with cheetah-marked cheeks and mild eyes. In his hands was a weapon that looked almost like a flintlock musket, if the barrel were made of ceramic, the trigger made of glass, and instead of a musketball, it shot a magnetized javelin of crystal shards. The harquebus was more like a shotgun than a rifle, since the shards broke in flight, forming a cone of sharp darts. He also carried a hooked staff to act as his musket rest, and spyglass made of shell and wood.

The Mighty One made an imperious gesture, and pointed at the ground. The Ipotane slung his weapon, lit a lamp, and crouched down. His long neck allowed him to put his face to the ground from a crouch.

But this was not an elaborate kowtow. The Ipotane was sniffing and scanning the soil, sending the beams of the lamp across the bent grass and broken reeds where Preston had just been standing.

After the Ipotane stepped two child-sized dwarfs with big heads and slender bodies. They were bald and hairless, with no external sexual characteristics. Their eyes were overlarge, and entirely black without schlera or pupil. Their noses were flat and tiny, their jaws nearly chinless, their mouths tiny rosebud puckers.

They were naked save for pouches they carried on baldrics. Or perhaps they wore invisible garments made of energy: A shimmering distortion in the air was coating body and limb, and clung like a halo about each heads.

These were members of the Eighth human race, the Watchers. Cold fury flooded Preston.

They were the enemy. They were the predators he was here to kill. It was their habit to send their flying disks to abduct men and women, using them as subjects to inhuman experiments, or as slaves brought to another world. These disk-vehicles were the UFOs of popular legend, but they came from a world remote in time, not in space. This world: Pangaea Ultima, the Tenth Earth.

From these pouches the two Watchers now drew instruments. One looked like a chordophone or harp. The other drew out caltrop from his bag that expanded into a tripod. This perhaps was the same trick or technology as the Compliant Gold-Ringed Rod used. Atop the tripod he affixed a pair of binoculars (or, at least, some sort of lensed device) and he bent over the eyepieces. The lenses swung methodically back and forth, inspecting something in the distance, out of the Preston’s subaquatic, reedy, and limited line of sight.

The two on the ground spoke no word, but at a silent signal turned and regarded the third Watcher seated upside-down on the hull of the unearthly-looking craft. They had no expression on their faces, but each narrowed his overlarge eyes slightly.

The chair hanging head-downward from the deck unfolded a trio of spidery legs. It was a wheelchair, but moving on stilts, not wheels. The chair stepped delicately from the hull to the ground, rotating neatly during the shift from ship-gravity to earth-gravity. The Watcher in the tripod chair was paler and more wrinkled than the two on the ground. He wore a carpentry apron with many pockets and pouches.

The tripod stalked over to where the Mighty One loomed. The bald dwarf was still expressionless, but perhaps he did not care to have the gargantuan looming over him, for the tripod legs untelescoped until he was the taller.

“Tlatoc of Nagual, hear me!” He said by way of greeting. “The Advocacy must be served! The Lost is to be rendered to the Advocate, alive, unhurt, for invasive examination!”

This was the same harsh, thin voice Preston had heard before. But it was not coming from the Watcher in the chair, who had not moved his lips. The voice was mechanical, coming from the stringed instrument carried by the one of the two younger Watchers on the ground.

“I hear you, Exponent. Doubtless the Advocacy must be served,” rumbled the giant, as his lips and one eye narrowed, perhaps with sardonic mirth. “But agreements are subject to renegotiation when one party weakens! The Advocacy emptied coffers and destroyed airfleets wastefully. Now the Empire will arrange matters, and the current Imperial favorite: me. The manhunt is to find my nephew’s killer, not your scientific curio.”

“The energies of time enter dangerous imbalance! Prognosticative models, once certain, devolve into improbability! Recovery of the Tesseract is imperative!”

Tlatoc raised his jaw, a look of fierce pride on his face. “Soulless creatures! You placed your faith in your sciences, and you forgot the deeper truths my race recalls. You dismiss the afterlife, and so fear death. Fear upsets judgment; so you overcommit troops, you suffer defeat and woe!

“We rejoice at the prospect of extinction, and so we are unafraid. We are afire!” The gigantic man continued, his voice like a bass drum. “Our visionaries and dark prophets speak with shadowed kings from Hell. We learn that, in this generation, all the many races of man die out, save for one: the master race, the sovereign race. Should we yield that place to you?”

“Fiction! Delusion! Superstition!” Answered the harsh voice of the Watcher. “With the Tesseract, a sound means of measuring future eventualities returns!”

“The lordly and undying Phantoms, the Fourth Race, once owned those means, and more. All material creation was theirs: it was not enough! They created us, the Fifth Men, to replace them. We are fated to conquer the uncreated, the eternal, which cannot be seen. Our visions outreach your shallow science: we know why the Lost Man is paramount: you have no guess.”

“There is no immaterial matter; no life after death; no extra-natural nature. These are logical impossibilities.”

“Blind atheist! The whole universe is ruled by a rebellious spirit, a proud and kingly force, vast, immaterial, immortal, invincible, who reared up in endless war against the unnamed source of all creation. Only those who serve such powers prevail!”

“Your words are random, irrational!”

Tlatoc’s lips grew thin, his eyes cold. “The results will testify. The Empire shall find the man the Advocacy cannot, usurp the tesseract, and conquer eternity.”

The Ipotane stood. Tlatoc gestured for him to speak. “Honored master, the results of psychometry are ambiguous. Two men, a large and a small, passed by, but neither leaves behind the energy residue of a Firstling.”

Tlatoc said, “Third Men know how to trifle with such things, just with the circuits in their freakish little brains! Lost just came from the camp of the Terrors. Could one of them be aiding him, erasing all his spoor?”

The Ipotane pondered a moment, and said, “Master! Among the Third Men, there are legends of adepts who forswore all tools to live naked with nature, attuned to all its auras, and of whole nations and generations who followed them. Some legends are real.”

“Is this?”

“Master, the earth is old and sad with many forgotten things. An adept so skilled could be sitting in a branch within arm’s reach, and we would not look.” (Preston tried not to grin at that, so that no bubble would escape his snorkel.) “Master, we would do better to bring a brace of dire wolves, and have them track by scent.”

The Watcher spoke: “Dire wolves are not permitted aboard the levitation vessel! Some have learned human speech, and therefore must be kept out of earshot of sapient machines.”

Tlatoc said, “No matter! Folly to send wolves, or any beast, after one a Third Man aids. We are upstream of the City of Sudden Death, are we not? I have more cunning means and slow.”

It was not until a long time after they departed, and the levitation disk had long since vanished into the night sky, when all the night-birds and insects and all their sounds returned to normal, that Son of the Wind allowed Preston to emerge from the water.

Son of the Wind understood none of the dialog, of course, so Preston recited it to him.

The little man looked grim. “A trap is set. We know not what. To go with haste is the only way. But you are slow. Too slow!”

“I am only slow in the mud, or in the trees. And using the causeway attracts giant slugs.”

“I have failed! There is no escape.”

Preston was staring at a fallen tree. “I have an idea.”

*** *** ***

Episode 59 Assault of the Sea Monster

Hours of misery followed. Swimming, wading, sloshing through the muddy bog, Preston struggled mightily to keep pace with his arboreal comrade afoot. He was too big to move from branch to branch aloft, like Son of the Wind, even if the branches had not been hung with poisonous leaves and thick with thorns.

And Son of the Wind refused to use the Compliant Rod for more vine-swinging. Perhaps it was merely fear of ghosts. Perhaps it was merely common sense. Strange machines working by strange principles might be open to detection by strange instruments. But whether it was superstition or sound experience, Son of the Wind was stubborn.

Preston became equally stubborn. He halted each time they came across a fallen tree. None were the right size. Son of the Wind drove them both onward.

Eventually, after he was coated with mud and red-skinned with rashes and punctures caused by brushes against poison ivy and venomous orchids, Preston found his prize.

Here was a trunk where a lightning stroke, or some futuristic weapon, laid a deep gash along the axis of the trunk. He saw a stone nearby of the right shape and weight to use as a hand-ax. “I am going to make us a canoe,” he announced, “And we can float down the stinking river in style!”

Son of the Wind said, “My people took three months to make a dugout.”

“This will be cruder than theirs. Basically, it will be a log with an outrigger. Little more than a raft. Still be faster than this mud slogging.”

“The river has its own dangers,” intoned the little man solemnly.

“You haven’t mentioned your people before. Who are they? Where are they now?”

“Tribe of the Sunset Wind. All dead.” And he would say no more.

Son of the Wind relented enough to allow the Compliant Rod to take the shape of a proper ax or adze. Nonetheless, hollowing out a tree trunk was not a quick matter. They camped for a day, then another. Preston chopped out parallel notches across the interior span of the wood, then made cross-cuts to remove the wood from between the notches. He left the interior rough, and left the bark on the exterior, since time was short. The removed wood he used to make outriggers to either side.

Their campfire burned in the belly of the dugout, to help hollow it out, and to bake the delicious but ugly arapaima fish Preston was becoming rather adept at shooting with his toy bow.

Hours were spent chopping wood, carving booms for the outrigger, finding nettle reeds, and crushing, peeling, and twisting the reed fibers into rope: All tasks of mind-dulling patience.

At Son of the Wind’s insistence, they spent a day weaving canopy, which was rigged on slim poles above the crude canoe. This was to deceive levitation vessels passing overhead: from above, a leafy mass would seem to be greenery swept into the current. Preston chafed at the delay.

He had taken up the nervous habit of flicking his magic ring into the air like a coin, over and over. The ring would always drift in one direction at the height of its arc: the direction of Cynisca. He wondered what fate she suffered. His imagination produced nightmarish images.

Nonetheless, when the time came, he was glad for the canopy. It provided shade against the sun, which was brutal in midriver at noon, where no trees were above.

The next day they set forth. The current carried them along. Preston had not yet carved out a proper paddle, so he merely used a pole to fend off wandering logs and to shove the awkward craft away from reefs and sandbars.

It was surprisingly wearisome work: they made landfall long before night, and Preston spent the afternoon scraping bark and chopping away at the inner hull, trying to finish the work and smooth it out. Chopping at the prow to carve it to a point also helped, at least to a tiny degree, with its speed and handling.

Several days passed in monotony Preston found restful despite his hard exertions. Nothing had tried to kill him for almost a week, and he was well fed on a diet of nuts, berries, honey, coney, duck, fish and clams, with the occasional snake fried with leeks on an open fire. Serpent meat tasted surprisingly like chicken.

The mornings were spent poling, and, then later, rowing or drifting. The afternoons were spent foraging, trapping, and carving the canoe into shape: the canoe was easier to maneuver the more like a canoe it became.

At night before he slept, and each dawn as he rose, Preston also practiced drills with his stolen blade, stomping his feet in appel, lunge, or fleche, and engaging branches in parry, counter-parry, beat, or bind, spiraling in to smite at heart-shaped targets on tree trucks.

Whenever a branch snapped up unexpectedly and poked him sharply, Preston, rubbing the scratch ruefully, would say “touché” with properly sportmanlike panache, raise his blade in salute, and say, “Point yours, sir.”

Son of the Wind watched these daily antics with unblinking but expressionless eyes.

One humid dawn, after a particularly tiring battle with the nasty, nettle-bearing fronds of a ginko-plant, Preston was coated with sweat and sap, and panting. Looking up, he spied Son of the Wind, who was crouched by the campfire, watching gravely.

“To keep Cynisca off my mind,” Said Preston suddenly. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

The monkey-man nodded noncommittally. “The mate maddens the man. So is life.”

“She is not my mate. Also, might want to kill the man she is sold to with a blade. In case I am standing close enough to look into his eyes as he dies. Feel his last breath.”

The little man nodded again. “Rivals for the mate must die. Teeth are better.”

“But now I need a bath. Can you keep the dangerous river-beasts at bay with your mojo?”

Son of the Wind frowned. “Once, in this land, the Third Men stood at dawn, and their shadows were cast long. Now, it is noon, and the shadow shrinks to nothing. The land forgets our footstep.”

“Was that when this was a canal? When your people were here?”

“Long after. The canal bed has been bog for many lifetimes.”

“Who dug the canal?”

Son of the Wind shrugged. “Who painted the Moon? It is of the long-ago time.” He raised a hand and pointed downstream. “Each day, we are closer to the river mouth. Closer to the City of Sudden Death. Closer we come, more living things forget the old ways. Fewer hear the Silent Speech.”

“Does that mean I can wash off?”

“There is risk.”

“So is life,” grinned Preston. “And I stink.”

Preston lowered himself gingerly into the muddy, opaque waters at the river’s edge. He had a handful of rancid goop he had brewed last night, that he was eager to try out: they had enjoyed wild piglet, using an overlarge clamshell as a frying pan. Preston had mingled ashes from the hardwood fire and a little river water into the clam, to produce a crude lye soap.

But he also kept his pistol on a lanyard around his neck, careful not to wet it as he lathered and rinsed. He also had the stolen tunic he had liberated from a dead gargantuan, just to keep floating leaves or bugs immune to Third Man mojo from brushing his naked flesh. The fabric hung loose on him, and he could easily enough scrub his limbs and armpits underneath it.

No water snakes or shoals of carnivorous fish molested him. He was just congratulating himself on his ablutionary success when, sluicing soapy water from his hair and eyes, he sputtered, and saw a submerged, green, mossy log, covered with barnacles, moving idly against the current toward him. The only part of the log above the water were two rounded reptilian-eyes, glowing like copper mirrors, each with a yellow vertical slit.

Preston uttered an oath, and went for his pistol. The weapon slithered and danced impishly in his soapy grip. Son of the Wind screeched a blood-curdling monkey-shriek by way of warning. With a powerful stroke of its tail, the crocodile — or whatever it was — shot forward through the water toward Preston.

Preston scrambled backward to the shore, water clinging to his legs, trying to trip him. He shot once, then twice, but mere pistol rounds lacked the stopping power to halt the oncoming monster.

The thing reared up. Its red maw was enormous, it jaws longer than those of any crocodile from Preston’s day. Preston shot a third time, but the creature’s head snaked aside as if it foresaw the attack.

The bullet flew high, and made a harmless dimple in the water.

The jaws snapped shut on Preston’s gun hand, or, rather, on the billowing, drippy sleeve of the oversized tunic he wore. The pistol, his beloved broomhandle Mauser, went spinning from his soapy grip as he jerked his hand back. It swung on the lanyard, flew over his shoulder, and struck him painfully in the back.

The jaws closed on empty tunic sleeve. Preston jerked his hand back through the armhole just as the monster spun. This was the death roll, meant to stun, dunk, and pummel helpless prey.

Preston was yanked by the tunic up and over the creature’s back, just as the fabric seams came open. Preston was flung up and over and down into the wet weeds of the river bank. The tunic ripped in half with a loud sound. Half the tunic was dangling from his left shoulder. The other half had entangled itself around the creature’s head.

The reptile stopped its violent spin, bewildered by the twist of fabric blocking its vision. It pulled itself up onto the shore, and thrashed its head, pulling at the fabric with forepaws that looked nearly like stubby human hands. The blindfold started to part.

Preston Lost did not think of himself as reckless, but when he saw the monster cease its death roll, and pause to claw at the blindfold, he leaped on the creature’s back.

His hands closed on the creature’s neck, or, at least the armored space behind its jaws and before where its forepaws jutted from its streamlined, log-shaped body. His full weight crashed on the monster. With all his might, he pushed on the armored neck to force the head to the ground.

Like a crocodile, the upper jaw of this monster was a rigid part of its skull. It could not open its mouth while its lower jaw was pressed against the ground.

His knees pressed in on the creature’s flanks, and his shins were twined around the monster’s hindlegs, forcing its paws off the ground. The creature flexed and groped with its hind claws wildly, scraping at the ground and throwing torn grass into the air. But the creature could not get purchase with its rear legs, and so could not roll and twist out of Preston’s grasp.

Preston pressed down on both eyes with his left hand. Like a crocodile, this creature could retract its eyes deep into bony sockets when they were threatened. With his right, his slid his fingers under the monster’s jaw. He felt soft skin around the jawbone. With his thumb on the rough hide of the snout, he clamped the jaws shut. Quickly he moved his left hand beneath the jaw as well, found the soft flesh his finger could dig into. Now he had both hands on the jaws, and he pushed down with all his weight behind it.

Preston was maddened with an emotion stronger than panic, deeper than hate. His heart was roaring. His limbs were flooded and swollen with vigor. It was a primordial passion always lurking in the depths of his psyche, now brought to the fore: it was battle fury greater than an instinct of self-preservation.

But he could feel the sheer, inhuman strength of the beast pulsing in his grasp. Only the advantage of leverage allowed him to pin the creature down. It was like a child catching a linebacker in a full Nelson. The moment the mighty creature slipped free, Preston was finished.

The monster flexed and writhed but could not rear up, could not dislodge its rider. Its frantic, stubby hands were too short to reach Preston’s fists clamped on the long, narrow jaw.

Preston tightened his grip. The bones in his hand ached in protest; but he could not feel pain now. The pain could come later. Mighty as the monster was, it had this weakness: its powerful jaws could close with the force of a hydraulic vice, but the muscles to open its jaws were feeble.

But now what? If Preston attempted to dismount the creature, it would turn and snap him in half. He dared not move his hands, dared not shift his weight, not even to twist and get his legs under himself, since he would lose control of the animal if he moved at all.

His fingers would weaken in time. Preston called out to Son of the Wind. “Bring my knife! Or use the Rod! Quick! Before I slip! Kill the monster!”

The monster shivered and stopped moving. Its lips writhed under Preston’s grip. Through clenched teeth, a sinister, reptilian, gargling whistle slithered forth.

The hiss held words. “Not monster! Man am I. Sobek, my name. Kill me not, I plead!”

*** *** ***