Shadows of the Keepers: Chapter 7
The Red-Masked Man
Screeching bloody murder, the compies set upon Eric before he even hit the ground. His Meridianite robe, and the all-weather clothes underneath, shielded most of his body from their bites, he flipped his hood up and protected his face with his hands, which received several bites. They weren’t just nipping, he screamed and jerked his arm as one tried to rip off a strip of skin.
He staggered to his feet, several pounds of dinosaur still attached, and took off running. These things weren’t like the cute ones Rachel had toyed with, they were vicious. He drew his pistol and cracked a few shots behind his back at them, then up into the air to signal his location. A compy leapt on his head, he tore it off and told it to perform a vile act, then screamed and shook it free when it bit him.
More trees were up ahead, he put everything he had into his speed. Humans were some of the best endurance runners in the Terran animal kingdom, and among the known intelligent species, maybe he could tire them out. He whizzed past an animal he belatedly realized was a landed gryphon, then shoved past a bush and fell again.
With a swishing sound, he heard a compy yelp. It came again, like a piece of metal zinging through the air and, just as quick as they’d attacked him, the compies disappeared.
Standing up, Eric brushed himself off. His hands stung, he felt blood. What had just happened? He spun around, looking for any sign of the little bastards or what had driven them off. More raptors? He gulped. Under the feeble light, he saw something like a little lizard lying still on the ground. Kneeling down, he leaned in closer and stared. It was a compy head, cut off at the neck. The body lay nearby, still twitching. That only meant one thing—
He went to stand again, and was stopped by the cold metal of a sword against his throat.
“Why,” a raspy voice whispered in his ear, “are you here, starman?”
Had he missed him landing only moments ago? Between unsaid prayers, he pleaded, “I’m just here traveling, on a mission!”
A hand felt at his belt, removed his laser pistol. It was keyed to expedition members; he couldn’t fire it. Which was good, he’d be more likely to blow his own head off than succeed at shooting Eric.
The blade tilted ever so slightly, Eric craned his neck back. The man behind him leaned in, so close Eric could feel his breath down his ear. “Lies! What is your true purpose? Answer, and you may as yet win back your pathetic life!”
Amid a rustling of leaves, a dark silhouette appeared at left, arm elevated.
Selva said, “Let him go.”
In the dim light, Eric’s captor seemed unable to tell she wasn’t human. “It appears I have you at a disadvantage.” He pressed on the blade, pain seared at Eric’s throat and he could not help but whimper. “If you value your man’s life, you—”
He never got to finish his sentence. With cold expediency, Selva stunned the both of them. Stars exploded in his vision and he fell down, surroundings wavering and growing dark. He was dimly cognizant of being dragged, then several other people—the rest of the expedition—moving in with lights and more stunners.
Eric blinked his eyes. Professor Temerin was spraying wound sealant on his hands by light of a headlamp while Eric lay propped up against a tree. More light shone off at right.
“How’s my throat?” He asked.
“Just a little cut.” Temerin wiped it with an antiseptic cloth and applied more spray, then helped Eric to his feet as he stood. “Did he do all this do you?”
“Only the throat. The rest was compies. Red ones.” That had to be a genetic engineer’s trick, using red to indicate a deadly creature.
“Take these, too,” Temerin tapped out a pill each from two bottles—a broad-spectrum antipathogen and a trauma blunter.
“What happened to your horse?” Cobb asked.
“T. rex ate it.” Eric washed the pills down with a swig from his canteen.
“No shit.” He patted Eric on the shoulder.
They walked over to where Selva had the man kneeling on the ground, hands on his head. He was short, probably not even five feet if he were to stand, wearing a leather outfit dyed blood-red. His mask was the same color, an angry expression with a beaked snout and eyes filled in with glass. Eric recognized him instantly as one of the hunters from earlier.
“I believe you owe us an explanation.” Selva paced back and forth, adjusting her grip on her pistol. The hunter’s steed, his mighty gryphon, hung back in the shadows, watching them with unblinking eyes as it emitted a low hiss.
“I owe you nothing!” he spat from under the plague-doctor beak of his mask, past his necklace of shrunken heads. “You owe us a life, to compensate for our fallen sky-brother! Which one of you shall it be?”
His hand shot behind his back, Selva stunned him again and kicked his limp form to the ground. A glinting blade fell to the grass, she picked it up as he stirred back to consciousness. Stunner shots were temporary disruptions to the brain’s normal functioning, they did not leave a person out for long unless followed up with a neural suppressor. In short order he was awake, yelling all manner of curses in his native language.
“Resistance is foolish, and futile.” Selva threatened to stun him a third time. “My reflexes exceed yours and my abilities will tell me if you are about to strike. Now, who do you work for? It was no coincidence you were right nearby when we touched down, was it? What do you have, some sort of Founder sensor system?”
The red-masked hunter said nothing.
“It’s not just that,” Eric said. “The gate back at the town. It was open when the T. rex came in—it didn’t break it down.” No coincidence there, either.
“Did you have anything to do with that? Answer me!”
He seemed unafraid, or at least protective of his secrets.
“What are we going to do with him?” Temerin asked in Americ.
“It would be wrong to kill him,” replied Selva. “And we should not stay here long, his companions may be near.”
“Did you see them?” Eric asked.
“I saw his gryphon landing before your shots. No sign of the others.” She switched back to Freehold speech. “You say we owe you a life? Then take yours, and leave.”
Still silent, the hunter stood, then fell on his behind as Selva leaned forward to menace him with the pistol. She growled:
“But if you, or your band of little buddies, ever bother us again, you may find my mercy knows limits.”
She leaned back, the hunter returned to his steed and climbed on. Given his small size, Eric wondered if his people might be some kind of gryphon-pilot race engineered, one again, by those mysterious Founders.
On all four limbs, the gryphon charged downhill and built up speed, launching airborne with a quadrupedal leap. Wings pumping, it ascended as a dark patch against the stars.
“What now?” Cobb asked.
“We shouldn’t stay here,” Selva said. “And I’d rather not go back for Matreo and his band, we’re off the road to Marstath’s Rock now. We ought to push north, try to get out of the hunters’ range.”
There’d be no more rest that night, Eric popped a sleep supplement and climbed atop a horse behind Cobb.
It took them two weeks to reach a major city. They lived out of the insta-tents and the other travelers they saw gave them a wide berth. Even a few shifty characters who might’ve been robbers dared not to trifle with the otherworldly starmen.
Finally, they crested a hill which overlooked a field of farms, with a river and stone bridge beyond to a walled city whose fortified citadel rose from a hill at the base of a mountain range. Advanced civilization, at last. Or at least what counts as ‘advanced’ around here, Eric thought. Most recontacted planets didn’t end up quite so far down the technology tree.
The roads here were crowded with peasants pulling carts, farmers carrying bundles of sticks, and women with babies on their backs and buckets of water atop their heads. This was no pipsqueak mud-hut village, or Tyrannosaur-bait little town, but a real city. Smoke wafted from chimneys, and banners hung from walls. In the fields, a few windmills turned—an incongruous technology, Temerin explained. Likely the Founders had been trying to build a particular milieu of civilization, before their disappearance. A few pteranodons and gryphons soared past overhead.
They approached the bridge, a few donkeys stepped along across it pulling carts of produce. Leaning against a wooden post was a veritable giant of a man, at least by Meridian standards. He stood over six feet tall and wore armor made from blackened iron plates sewn together atop leather, and a pair of curved sword sheaths—one long, one short—hung strapped to his belt. Nearby stood three horses as well as two other companions in armor. At the expedition’s approach, he stepped out before the bridge and held open his arms. To no one in particular, he proclaimed:
“Now this looks like a good fight!”