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Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter VI

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The… jewels…

“Snake!” bawled Geo. “Where the hell are you?” He was still holding his staff, and now he flung it forward, spear-like, into the face of an advancing beast. Struck, it opened up like a black parachute, knocking away three of its companions, before it fell.

In the view, cleared for an instant, Geo saw a slight, spidery form, dart from the jungle edge into the clearing. With his free hand Geo ripped the jewels from his neck and flung the confused handful of thong and chain over the heads of the shrieking beasts. The beads made a double eye in the light at the top of their arc before they fell on the leaves beyond. Snake picked them up and held them above his head.

Fire leapt from the boy’s hands in a double bolt that converged in the center of the dark bodies. A red flair silhouetted the jagged edge of a wing. A wing flamed, waved flame, and the burning beast tried to take air before it fell, splashing fire about it. Orange light caught sharp on brown faces chiseled with shadow, caught in the terrified red bead of an eye or along double fangs behind dark lips.

Burning wings withered on the ground; dead leaves had sparked now, and whips of light ran on the clearing floor. The beasts retreated and the three men stood against the wall, panting.

“Watch out!” Iimmi suddenly called.

Snake looked up as the great wings tented over him, hiding him momentarily. Red flared beneath them, and suddenly the beasts fell away, their sails sweeping over the dead leaves, moved by wind or life, Geo couldn’t tell. Dark flappings rose on the moon, grew further away, and were gone.

Away from the wall, they saw the fire had blown up against the wall and was dying. They ran quickly toward the edge of the forest. “Snake,” said Geo when they stopped. “This is Iimmi, this is Snake. We told you about him.”

Iimmi extended his hand. “Glad to meet you.”

“Look,” said Geo, “he can read your mind, so if you still think he’s a spy…”

Iimmi grinned. “Remember the general rule? If he is a spy, it’s going to get much too complicated trying to figure why he saved us like that.”

Urson scratched his head. “If it’s a choice between Snake and nothing, we better take Snake. Hey, Four Arms, I owe you a thrashing.” He paused, then laughed. “I hope some day I get a chance to give it to you.”

“Where have you been, anyway?” Geo asked. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re wet.”

“Our water friends again?” suggested Urson.

“Probably,” said Geo.

Snake now held one hand toward Geo.

“What’s that? Oh, you don’t want to keep them?”

Snake shook his head.

“All right,” said Geo. He took one jewel and put it around his neck.

Geo took the wrought chain with the platinum claw from his neck and hung it around Iimmi’s. The white eye shown on his dark chest in the moonlight. Now Snake beckoned them to follow him back across the clearing. They came, stopping to pick up swords from the shriveled darknesses on the ground about the clearing. As they passed around the edge of the broken building, Geo looked for the corpse they had left there, but it was gone.

“Where are we going?” asked Urson.

Snake only motioned them onward. They neared the broken cylinder and Snake scrambled up the rubble under the dark hole through which the man-wolf had leaped earlier that evening.

At the door, Snake turned and lifted the jewel from Geo’s neck, and held it aloft. The jewel glowed now, with a blue-green light that seeped into the corners and crevices of the ruined entrance. Shreds of cloth hung at the windows, most of which were broken. Twigs and rubbish littered the metal floor. They walked between double seats toward a door at the far end. Effaced signs still hung on the walls.

N. . SM . . K. . . G

The door at the end was ajar, and Snake opened it all the way. Something scuttered through a cracked window. The jewel’s light showed two seats broken from their fixtures. Vines covered the front window in which only a few splinters of glass hung on the rim. Draped in rotten fabric, a few metal rings about wrists and ankles, two skeletons with silver helmets had fallen from the seats. Snake pointed to a row of smashed glass disks in front of the broken seats.

Radio… they heard in their minds.

Now he reached down into the mess on the floor and dislodged a chunk of rusted metal. Gun, he said, showing it to Geo.

The three men examined it. “What’s it good for?” asked Urson.

Snake shrugged.

“Are there any electricities, or diodes around?” asked Geo, remembering the words from before.

Snake shrugged again.

“Why did you want to show us all this?” Geo asked.

The boy only turned and started back toward the door. When they were standing in the oval entrance, about to climb down, Iimmi pointed to the ruins of the building ahead of them. “Do you know what that building was called?”

Barracks, Snake said.

“I know that word,” said Geo.

“So do I,” said Iimmi. “It means a place where they used to keep soldiers all together. It’s from one of the old languages.”

“Where to now?” Urson asked Snake.

The boy climbed back down into the clearing and they followed him into the denser wood where only pearls of light scattered through the trees. They emerged at a broad ribbon of silver, the river, broken by rocks.

“We were right the first time,” Geo said. “We should have stayed here.”

The sound of rippling, sloshing, the full whisper of leaves and foliage along the edges of the forest—these accompanied them as they lay down on the dried moss behind the larger rocks. And with the heaviness of release on them, they dropped, like stones down a well, the bright pool of sleep.

The bright pool of silver grew and spread and wrinkled into the familiar shapes of mast, the rail of the deck, and the whiteness of the sea beyond the ship. The scene moved down the deck, until another gaunt figure approached from the other direction. The features, though strangely distorted by whiteness and pulled to grotesquerie, were recognizable as those of the captain as he drew near.

“Oh, mate,” said the captain.

Silence, while the mate gave an answer they couldn’t hear.

“Yes,” answered the captain. “I wonder what she wants, too.” His voice was hollow, etiolated like a flower grown in darkness. The captain turned and knocked on Argo’s cabin door. It opened, and they stepped in.

The hand that opened the door for them was thin as winter twigs. The walls of the room seemed draped in spider webs and hangings insubstantial as layered dust. The great desk seemed spindly, grotesque, and the papers on top of it were tissue thin, threatening to scutter and crumble with a breath. The chandelier above gave more languishing white smoke than light, and the arms, branches, and complexed array of oil cups looked like a convocation of spiders.

Argo spoke in a pale white voice that sounded like the whisper of thin fingers tearing webs.

“So,” she said. “We will stay at least another seven days.”

“But why?” asked the captain.

“I have received a sign from the sea.”

“I do not wish to question your authority, Priestess,” began the captain.

“Then do not,” interrupted Argo.

“My mate has raised the objection that…”

“Your mate has raised his hand to me once,” stated the Priestess. “It is only in my benevolence…” Here she paused, and her voice became more unsure, “…that I do not destroy him where he stands.” Beneath her veil, a face could be made out that might have belonged to a dried skull.

“But,” began the captain.

“We wait here by the island of Aptor another seven days,” commanded Argo. She looked away from the captain now, in a direction that must have been straight into the eyes of the mate. From behind the veil, hate welled like living liquid, from the seemingly empty sockets. They turned to go, and once more on deck, they stopped to watch the sea. Near the indistinct horizon, a sharp tongue of land outlined itself with mountains. The cliffs were chalky on one side, then streaked with red and blue clays on the other. There was a reddish glow beyond one mountain, like the shimmering of a volcano. And dark as most of it was, it was a distinct darkness, backed with purple, or broken by the warm, differing grays of individual rocks. Even through the night, at this distance, beyond the silver crescent of the beach, the jungle looked rich, green even in the darkness, redolently full and quiveringly heavy with life.

And then the thin screams…

Chapter VI

Geo rolled over and out of sleep, stones and moss beneath his shoulder. He grabbed his sword and was on his feet instantly. Iimmi was also standing with raised blade. The river sloshed coldly behind them.

The thin screaming came again, like a hot wire drawn down the gelid morning. Snake and Urson were also up, now. The sounds came from the direction of the ruined barracks. Geo started forward, cautiously, curiosity drawing him toward the sound, fear sending him from the relatively unprotected bank and into the woods. The others followed him.

Abruptly they reached the edge of the forest’s wall, beyond which was the clear space before the broken building. They crouched now, behind the trees, watching, fascinated.

Between ape and man, it hovered at the edge of the forest in the shadow. It was Snake’s height, but more of Urson’s build. An animal pelt wrapped its middle and went over its shoulder, clothing it more fully than either of the four humans were clothed. Thick-footed, great-handed, it loped four steps into the clearing, uttered its piercing shriek, and fell on a hunk of flesh that last night’s beasts had dropped from the sky. Its head rocked back and forth as it tore at its food. Once it raised its head and a sliver of flesh shook from its teeth before the face dropped again to devour.

They watched the huge fingers upon broad flat palms, tipped with bronze-colored claws, convulse again and again, reflexively, into the gray, fibrous meat while the fanged mouth ripped.

Whether it was a shift of breeze, or a final reflex, Geo couldn’t tell, but one of the membranous sails raised darkly and beat about the oblivious animal that fed on its corpse.

“Come on,” Urson said. “Let’s go.”

A thin scream sounded behind them, and they whirled.

It crouched apishly, the bronze-clawed fingers opened and closed like breathing, and the shaggy head was knotted with dirt and twigs. The breath hissed from the faintly moving, full lips.

Urson reached for his sword, but Iimmi saw him and whispered, “No, don’t.”

The Negro extended his hand and moved slowly forward. The hulking form took a step back, and mewed.

Geo suddenly caught the idea. Coming up beside Iimmi, he made a quick series of snaps with his fingers and said in a coaxing, baby voice. “Come, come, come.” He laughed softly to Urson back over his shoulder. “It won’t hurt us,” he said.

“If we don’t hurt it,” added Iimmi. “It’s some sort of necrophage.”

“A what?” asked Urson.

“It only eats dead things,” Geo explained. “They’re mentioned in some of the old legends. Apparently, after the Great Fire, so the story goes, there were more of these things around than anything else. In Leptar, though, they became extinct.”

“Come here, cutie,” said Iimmi. “Nice little, sweet little, pretty little thing.”

It mewed again, bowed its head, came over and rubbed against Iimmi’s hip. “Smells like hell,” the Negro observed, scratching behind its ear. “Watch out there, big boy!” The beast gave a particularly affectionate rub that almost upset Iimmi’s balance.

“Leave your pet alone,” said Urson, “and let’s get going.”

Geo patted the ape-like skull. “So long, beautiful,” he said. They turned toward the river again.

As they emerged on the rocky bank, Geo said, “Well, at least we know we have seven days to get to the Temple of Hama and out again.”

“What do you mean?” asked Iimmi.

“Don’t you remember the dream, back on the ship?”

“Who was thinking that?” asked Iimmi.

“Jordde, the first mate.”

“He makes everybody look dead. I thought I was having a nightmare. I could hardly recognize the captain.”

“You see one reason for believing he’s a spy?”

“Because of the way he sees things?” Again he smiled. “A poet’s reason, I’m afraid. But I see.”

The thin shriek sounded behind them, and they turned to see the hulking form crouched on the rocks above them.

“Uh-oh,” said Urson, “there’s your cute friend.”

“I hope we haven’t picked up a tag-a-long for the rest of the trip,” said Geo.

It loped down over the rocks and stopped just before them.

“What’s it got?” Iimmi asked.

“I can’t tell,” said Geo.

Reaching into the bib of its animal skin, it brought out a gray hunk of meat and held it toward them.

Iimmi laughed. “Breakfast,” he said.

“That!” demanded Urson.

“Can you suggest anything better?” Geo asked. He took the meat from the beast’s claws. “Thanks, gorgeous.”

It turned, looked back, and bounded up the bank and into the forest again.

With fire from the jewels, and wooden spits from the woods, they soon had the meat crackling and brown and the grease bubbling down its sides and hissing onto the hot stones they had used to rim the flame. Urson sat apart, sniffed, and then moved closer, and finally scratched his big fingers through his hairy stomach and said, “Damn it, I’m hungry.” They made room for him at the fire without comment.

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