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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Monday, January 4, 2010 19:12 EST



    Goth found no-shape in the rain was actually one of the most difficult things she had ever had to do. Light was easy enough to bend around her. But the constant moving raindrops meant that there appeared to be a Goth-shaped piece of rain doing the wrong thing. She had to light-shift raindrops onto it. It was tiring and took a lot of concentration.

    Going inside the Megair fortress was at least a relief from that. Of course no-shape had its usual problems there too. People didn’t know you were there, and the entire burden of avoiding collisions fell on you. Not to mention the fact that nothingness should not leave wet footprints. Fortunately those mingled nicely with the rest of the wet footprints. She seriously considered the possibility of becoming, via lightshift, one of the guards. But it was the Leewit who could understand them and speak their language, not her.

    Besides this place was making her feel really, really weird. As if she was having some kind of hallucination. She worked out what it was, after a time. It was touching the walls. Peculiar… hope. Abject terror. Small furry animals with too many limbs…

    Goth shook herself. She didn’t have time for this right now. She held the captain’s hand and walked into the chamber full of Megair muck-a-mucks, lounging about and staring.

    She let go of the captain’s hand and moved about, exploring the room. Always learn as much about your opponent as possible, Threbus said.

    There was a limited amount to be learned here, other than the fact that the ceiling was quite low. She noticed that the guards had to stoop, slightly. This was plainly just a meeting room. All she could say, feeling the surface of the couches, was that the Megair Cannibals didn’t go in for creature comforts much. They were exactly what they looked like. Stone. Carefully indented, polished and carved stone, but still as hard as rock. The only other thing the room contained of interest were vast screens up on one wall. They appeared to show the map of Megair 4 and tiny moving lights — presumably atmospheric craft — moving across its face.

    She listened to the Leewit’s translation of the croaks and whistles, and the last comment.

    She was lucky not to be cut when the vast screens shattered and fell into fragments. Looking at the Leewit’s face, Goth was sure that it had been one of her newest whistles, and that she was quite pleased with it.

    The Megair Cannibals weren’t. There was a lot of noise, shouting, croaking and yelling — but the end result was two things. One was that Goth got knocked tail over tea-kettle by a running Megair Cannibal guard. The other was that the prisoners were hustled out of there.

    It took Goth a few moments to get to her feet and try to set off after them, only to discover the heavy doors of the Megair bunker had shut.

    They plainly thought they were under attack, realized Goth. Well, they were. Just not in the way they thought.

    She had a long and fairly boring wait before she could set off to look for the others. That was when things got really complicated, as she realized that she had absolutely no idea where they’d been taken. She was alone inside the Megair mound with the locals running about as if they were a colony of ants, stirred up by a big stick. To make matter worse she couldn’t understand a word — or a croak or a click or a whistle — that they were saying. And no-shape meant keeping out of their way. Eventually she got tired of it. She found a quiet corner and light-shifted to look like one of the lordly ones who had questioned them, complete with the thoracic collar of wire and finger-bones. She found the other Megair Cannibals avoided her. That helped in some respects. It just didn’t get her any closer to finding the others. She went deeper. Found some strange places — a vast indoor arena — she wouldn’t have thought that the Megair Cannibals were in the least interested in the performing arts, as Dame Ethy would have put it — and other rooms with loot that she recognized — a fire control center, plainly using looted computer elements that must have come from ships plying Empire space. A communications center. Other areas were more mysterious. And the lower she went down the ramps the more Megair Cannibals there were with the same collars. After a while it occurred to her why. In most places deeper was where the dungeons were. Here deeper was where it was safer, and warmer — for the more important people. Here, the prisoners would not be deeper… they’d be shallower… or even outside.

    And that was where she eventually found them.

    Outside, in the rain.

    They had been provided with a roof and walls. Well, one wall.

    And an ample supply of vegetables. Lots of starches to fatten them up.



    Captain Pausert too had expected to be taken down to a cell, somewhere in the bowels of the mound. He had not expected to be marched back outside.

    They were taken to an enclosure on the edge of the swamp.

    As prison camps went, it was not particularly bad. There were no watchtowers or huge fences. There was a wall, with an overhanging roof on the inside, but it wasn’t particularly impressive.

    They were pushed in through the gate. The enclosure was quite large, but they didn’t have it entirely to themselves. There was certainly room for a thousand people inside. At the moment, though, it held just three men. They looked at Pausert and his companions with the lifeless eyes of those whom hope had deserted, although they were still alive. They didn’t bother to get up or even say anything as they lounged against the wall underneath a makeshift awning that kept off the rain.

    Other than the three, there were stacks of vegetable matter in troughs next to the wall. Spigots protruded above that.

    The gate clanged shut behind them.

    “I suppose we might as well get out of the rain,” said Pausert. A cold trickle was making its way down his neck. So they moved under the awning. The three old prisoners stared at the newcomers. They still hadn’t said anything.

    “What’s wrong with you?” demanded the Leewit. “Don’t you known how to talk?”

    “What’s there to talk about?” replied one of the man, shrugging. “What’s wrong with you?” He was short and squat, and covered with spectacular tattoos. The other two were rather alike — tall men with deep-sunken eyes. They were skinny to the point of being emaciated.

    The Leewit planted hands on her hips and scowled. “Well, you might say: ‘Hello, where are you from and when are we leaving?’”

    The tattooed man shook his head gloomily. “You only leave here to get eaten, kid. And you don’t want to get to know people too well. Then you get to thinking about it too much.”

    “Huh!” said the Leewit. “You are a bunch of losers. We’re getting out of here and going home, see.”

    “This is Megair, kid. There’s no way out and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

    “I know that accent,” said Vezzarn. “You’re from Na’kalauf, aren’t you?”

    The tattooed man showed the first sign of emotion. Sadness. “Yes. I’d rather not think about it.”

    “We’ll get you back there,” said Pausert, taken aback. Na’kalauf wrestlers were famous. The small planet did not have much in the way of resources, but its men hired out as bodyguards and bouncers across the Empire. They were famed for their courage, their skill at unarmed combat — and their swirling tattoos. Those were part advertisement, and part warning.

    “We’re breaking out of here, soon.” He thought of the threat. “Before this evening.”

    The prisoner shrugged. “Good luck. The back wall is easiest.”

    “What’s wrong with you?” demanded Pausert, exasperated by the man’s behavior. “And what’s your name, anyway?”

    “The name’s Ta’zara. And there’s nothing wrong with me except being here,” said the tattooed man. “If you climb that pole you can get onto the roof and over into the swamps easy enough.”

    The pole in question was not much of a challenge to the Leewit, or Pausert. The wall beyond was not very high either. Pausert could certainly reach the top of it.

    Pausert tugged his chin. “Just what is wrong with you? And your silent friends?”

    One of the two tall men said. “There were twenty of us, once. And when we were brought here there were some others from other ships. Some went over the wall. You can go too.”

    Their tone said they wouldn’t be going along.

    Pausert sighed and sat down. “Look. I know this may seem unbelievable to you, but we are going to get out of here. I’m willing to take you with us. But the more you can tell us about this situation, the more likely that becomes. The Megair Cannibals made some mistakes thinking they could take us captive. They got panicked and they haven’t searched us for weapons.”

    “You don’t understand,” said the tattooed man. “They never do. They don’t mind you breaking out. They want you to run. They want you to try and fight. If one of them gets killed, they don’t care. He was obviously a weakling — and they eat him too.”

    “The only thing you can do is stay thin, and not give them what they want,” said the other skinny man. He cackled suddenly. “Starvation’ll kill you eventually, and Patham have mercy on us for what must seem like suicide. But if you die skinny you deny them what they need.”

    He looked like he was a fair way along toward his goal.

    “Well,” said the captain. “You might as well eat, get your strength up, because we are getting out of here.”

    “No one gets off Megair except inside the Cannibal’s bellies,” said the tattooed man. “Sorry. There is no way out.”

    “If I have to take one of their ships instead of my own, we’re going to prove you wrong,” said Pausert.

    “It’s no good,” said one of the tall thin ones. The two were as alike as two peas in a pod. Pausert wondered if they were brothers.

    “Their ships don’t work the same as ours,” the man continued. “That’s been tried. We can’t fly them. Besides — escape from under those space guns? Ha. We’re here to be food.”



    “I’m here to give indigestion to the first one of them that tries,” said the Leewit. “Why do they want to eat people, anyway?”

    The other tall skinny man cackled again. “They have to. The plants of Megair 4 can’t provide all the micro-nutrients they require. They need meat, and there’s not much in the way of animal life in these miserable swamps except small animals and slugs and bugs.”

    “Yeah?” said the Leewit. “We have news for them. We’re not dinner.”

    Pausert had to agree with her about that. As soon as Goth got here, it would be time to go. With or without these captives — but he couldn’t really leave them to be eaten. The question was, where was Goth? He was starting to get worried.



    Goth, having now applied logic, had finally arrived at the surface, and was making her way to the walled compound. Only, whereas below surface the collar of bones and wire had caused the other Cannibals to avoid her, here it was attracting unwanted attention. Obviously she was in the wrong place at the wrong time — or the wrong place, unescorted. The problem was that changing that her appearance was a bit more difficult. She needed someplace where she was not observed, and the gray-skins seemed to be all over the place.

    Several of them had started towards her, and had then sheered off, as if their courage deserted them. Goth wished that she had a slightly better idea of what was going on! Still, the low-walled compound on the edge of the spacefield was about the only place she hadn’t been, yet. Her sister and the captain had to be there.

    She had barely a hundred yards to go when a big gray-skinned Megair Cannibal lurched out of the rain at her. He was going to attack her! But she’d walked all over the inside of their mound and they’d just gotten out of her way. What was wrong now?

    Whatever it was, she had to deal with it. She decided to do a light-shift split, the trick she’d learned from the vatchlet. There were suddenly four of the nasty looking Cannibals with a collar of bones at their throats — none of which was actually her.

    The attacker paused mid-stride and almost fell over. They he retreated, whimpering. Goth noticed that as well as the teeth being filed, the nails on the Megair Cannibal’s hands had been cut into points. He hadn’t been about to attack her with his weapons, but with his hands and teeth.!

    It started to rain even harder, really sousing down in thick sheets. The sooner they got off this horrible world, the better, Goth decided, as the four images walked toward the stockade. So far, all she could say about the place was that the Megair Cannibals deserved it. They were a problem that Karres needed to turn its attention to. Moander, the Nuri globes, and Manaret had pre-occupied her world’s attention for some time now. But those threats had been dealt with, and it was Megair’s turn soon, if not maybe right next.

    She wondered just how the Cannibals had dealt with the Phantom ships, and how they’d survived the Nuri globes. They weren’t that far from the dead suns of the Tark Nembi cluster, here. She knew that their ships had prowled the edges of the Empire for a long time, even outside the Chaladoor.

    Nearly at the gates now, Goth was wondering how she’d get in. Then she spotted some more dim figures approaching through the rain. Figuring that no one could see her disappear in this rain, good luck to them, Goth slipped away into no shape.

    The party of Megair Cannibals approached. It was one of their high ones, by the collar — and what Goth had plainly been missing, which was an escort of lesser gray-faces. If the rain was bothering them they were certainly not letting on. A lone gate-guard, whom Goth had not even seen in his gate-house, hissed a challenge at them.

    A quick nasty fight ensued. The gate guard was overwhelmed and the collared one left his followers outside. As Goth slipped in behind him, she realized they that were tearing the corpse apart.



    “It’s one of their lords,” said the tattooed Ta’zara in a hushed whisper. “They never come out here,”

    “How do you know?” said Pausert, keeping calm. Could this be Goth? Where was she?

    “The collar. They hang a finger-bone from each kill on it. The more bones, the more rank.”

    “Rank all right. They smell,” said the Leewit, smiling suddenly. The littlest witch had been putting a brave face on it all, but Pausert could tell that this place made her uneasy. That was hardly surprising, really. She’d also plainly found the dispirited prisoners depressing.

    A moment later the captain felt ghostly fingers squeeze his. Goth! His relief was of such an order that he smiled at the oncoming Megair Cannibal lord.

    The Cannibal lord seemed to find that cause for wariness. He stopped short of them and spoke. He did not speak in croaks and whistles, but in heavily accented Imperial Universum. “We find no special things on ship. Ship do not go.”

    “That’s what we told you,” said Pausert.

    “Ship not same as enemy.” He made the statement as if calling for an explanation of that.

    “I could have told you that too. We tried to tell you, in fact.”

    “The enemy still is there. We find nothing — three hunterships try to leave. If you get here, we can go. We can go to hunt. We need meat.”

    “We are busy dealing with them. We are going to get rid of them.” Pausert certainly wasn’t telling the Cannibal anything useful. The one advantage to having the Phantom ships patrolling the Chaladoor was keeping creatures like these from raiding ships in the civilized parts outside it.

    A thought crossed the captain’s mind. They had loot, generations worth of loot, probably including various electronics. Maybe even a multiplier link. The Megair Cannibals were no soft target. But compared to the Nuri globes, or the Phantom ships, easy to deal with. The Daal of Uldune could probably do it, let alone the mighty Empire. The cluster would be hard to capture, and a bad place to fight, but it could be effectively blockaded.

    On the other hand, the Phantom ships could not be blockaded or easily fought..

    “We need a part to fix our ship,” he said, “and we’ll get away and have our people deal with them. We just came to establish what the problem was.”

    “The enemy cannot be escaped,” stated the Cannibal.

    “We got here, didn’t we?” said Pausert reasonably. “Let us go. What do you lose if we don’t succeed?”

    The gray-faced Cannibal lord stood wrinkling his nose, obviously searching for words. Eventually he resorted to grunts, croaks and whistles of his own strange language.

    The Leewit translated. “He says he’s for losing nothing. But the high lord Gwarrr gave the orders about you. He’d have to be for being eaten, first.” The Leewit paused, frowned. “If I’m understanding it right, Captain, these guys are not very good at ever admitting they’re wrong. If a leader gets challenged, well, the challenger has to beat him. And the loser gets eaten.”

    “Literally dog-eat-dog politics!” said Pausert. He smiled thinly. “I wish I could get some of the councilors from Nikkeldepain to visit here for a bit. Ask him what he wants to do. I think it’ll be clearer in his own language.”

    The Leewit did, and then translated the reply. “He says nothing is for the doing, then. The Phantoms ships have got them trapped. Maybe they will find a way to defend against the Phantom ships, just like they did against the Nuris. If not, they’re for eating each other on this terrible planet they’ve been trapped on.”

    Pausert was surprised to find himself agreeing with the Cannibal about anything. And surprised to hear one of them described their home as a terrible planet.

    The Leewit was plainly taken aback herself. She asked something and the gray-faced man with red eyes and sharpened teeth replied. At length.

    “What was that?” asked Pausert.

    “I asked him why they live here, if it’s so miserable. He said when heaven broke — that’s sort of what he said, I think — their fleet was trapped here. At first, they thought this place was like home, just colder. But the prey was slow and stupid and they hunted them all out. What’s left isn’t worth hunting. So now they have to hunt off-world, but they cannot get off because of the enemy.”

    I have to ask,” he said, thinking that once they got out of here they’d have to deal with these… From close up, if you ignored the color of their skins and the red eyes and the sharpened teeth and nails and the receding chins, they looked almost human. “Why do you hunt and eat people? Why don’t you just farm. Or if you have to hunt, hunt animals.”

    The Megair Cannibal drew himself back, obviously offended. He rattled off some words that the Leewit translated as: “Hunting is high honor. Cannot look for prey that is lesser.”

    That was a rather different way of looking at it, the captain had to acknowledge. It still didn’t clear things up too well, as far as what to do with them in the long term, or even how to get out of here in the short term. There was always the Egger route, but not for the dear old Venture.

    Pausert faced the Cannibal lord, with the one question that was still on his mind. “So why did you come and see us then?”

    The red eyed being stared back at him. “To know.” And it turned and walked away, back to the gate.

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