Prince Dybo was surprised by the scratching of claws on the copper plate outside his cabin door.
"Who’s there?" he asked.
"Var-Keenir. May I come in?"
Dybo had been leaning on his dayslab, snacking on a strip of salted meat. He looked up at the doorway, at the grizzled captain leaning on his walking stick.
"Yes, Keenir, what is it?"
Keenir’s tail swished. "Good Prince Dybo, I — I’m ashamed." He looked at the planks making up the deck. "I have not given proper thought to your safety. We are heading into uncharted waters; we are pursuing a dangerous serpent. My first thought should have been for your welfare."
"Yes," agreed Dybo amiably. "It probably should have."
"This beast has preyed on my mind ever since our last encounter. It’s an ungodly creature, Prince, and we’d be doing a service to all mariners by getting rid of it."
"How long do you anticipate chasing it?"
Keenir shifted his weight. It was clear that he wanted to say, "For as long as it takes." Instead, he said nothing.
"My friend Afsan is pleased that we’re sailing this way."
"What?" said Keenir. "Um, yes, I suppose he is."
"Can you kill this creature? This Kal-ta-goot?"
"Yes. Of that I’m certain."
"You did not succeed before."
"No," said Keenir, "I didn’t."
"But you’re sure you can this time?" Dybo pushed off the dayslab and stood up, leaning back on his tail.
"Yes. The first time I took a handful of sailors out in a small shore boat. That was my error. We tried to overwhelm the creature, but it tossed the boat with one of its flippers. This time, I’ll go right up to it with the Dasheter itself. It’s no match for this great vessel, I assure you."
"I am a member of The Family; I am needed back in Capital City."
Dybo looked at the tough, salted strip of meat he had been eating. Finally: "We would have fresh meat if you killed this serpent?"
"That we would, good Prince."
"How much time do you need?"
"Surely no more than forty days…"
"Forty days! An eternity."
"It’s not easy to close the distance; Kal-ta-goot is swift. But I beseech you, Prince. I want this monster."
"It’s just a dumb animal," said Dybo gently. "To be enraged with a dumb thing seems, well, pointless."
Keenir looked up. "I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. I want this monster."
Dybo looked Keenir up and down. Scarred face, bitten-off tail. He thought of the hunt against the thunderbeast and how, when worked up for that battle, he had wanted the thing dead. And he thought of the sun. At last he said, "I might strike it, too." A pause. "Forty days. No more."
Keenir bowed deeply.
"God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Kal-ta-Goot to its death!" Keenir’s words, presumably meant to inspire, seemed to have the opposite effect. The crew, although fiercely loyal to him, was visibly nervous. The passengers were terrified. But the Dasheter pressed on, Keenir and his walking stick ticking across the deck.
No ship had ever sailed this way before, heading eastward, past the pilgrimage point where the Face of God had hung at the zenith. At each daytenth, Afsan took careful note of the Face’s position as it slipped slowly toward the western horizon, astern of the ship.
Kal-ta-goot stayed maddeningly out of reach. Afsan had only one chance to glimpse it through the far-seer before Keenir demanded it back. He had seen a snake-like neck, and, intermittently, a round hump of a body moving among the waves. At the end of the neck was a long head with — it was difficult to be sure at this distance — dagger-like teeth that stuck out and overlapped even when the thing’s mouth was closed.
Keenir stood constantly at the ship’s bow, occasionally barking an order, but mostly just staring through the far-seer at his elusive quarry, and muttering swear words under his breath.
Afsan spent most of his time up on deck, all but unaware of the chill spray, the biting wind, as he watched the sky with a fascinated intensity that matched Keenir’s own. As day gave way to the ever-so-brief twilight, Det-Bleen, the ship’s priest, approached Keenir within earshot of Afsan. Afsan understood that although Keenir had known Bleen for kilodays, the captain never really liked the priest, considering him a necessary part of the baggage for such journeys, but certainly not a colleague or friend.
"Good Captain," said Bleen, bowing deeply, "our vigil beneath the Face was not yet over. We had three days of prayers and rapture left."
Keenir kept his eye scrunched to the lens of the far-seer, the yellow scar on the side of his head a close match in color for the brass tube. "Does not God hear all?" said Keenir.
Bleen looked perplexed. "Of course."
"Then She will hear your prayers whether we are directly beneath her or not."
"Yes, but, Var-Keenir, for many aboard this is their first pilgrimage. It’s important they stay the twenty days, do the thirty-seven penances, read and understand the nine scrolls of the prophet."
"There will be other trips."
"My fear is that there will not be. You take us into unknown waters. You take us into parts of the River that God Herself has not checked for us."
The ship rocked as it moved against a large wave. "I will have that monster, Bleen. I will have it!"
"Please, Keenir, I beg you to turn back."
The captain swung the far-seer around, trying to refocus on the distant serpent. "I have the authority of Prince Dybo for this journey."
"So Dybo tells me. You’ve got forty days."
"Then talk to me again at the end of that period."
"Keenir, please, it’s blasphemy."
"Talk not to me of blasphemy. Before I’m done, these waters will be red with blood."
Bleen reached out to Keenir, bridging the territorial space between them, and touched the captain on the shoulder. Keenir, startled, at last lowered the eyepiece and looked at the priest.
"But whose blood shall it be, Keenir?" said Bleen.
The captain squinted at the holy one, and for a moment Afsan thought that Bleen had finally gotten through to Keenir. But Keenir shouted out, "Onward!" and went back to peering through the far-seer. One of the officers ran to sound the ship’s beacon of loud and soft bells and drums, and Bleen, tail swishing in despair, moved to the aft deck, turned toward the setting Face of God, and began chanting prayers for mercy.
The Dasheter had chased the serpent for thirty-nine days now. Keenir was more agitated than ever. Sometimes they would lose sight of it for daytenths at a time, but whether because it had dived beneath the water or simply had slipped over the horizon, Afsan couldn’t say. The lookout in the perch high atop the foremast always managed to catch sight of the beast again, and the chase continued. It occurred to Afsan that perhaps the monster was toying with Keenir, that it was deliberately staying out of reach. Regardless, the Dasheter continued its eastward journey, until eventually the Face of God touched the westward horizon behind the ship, a huge striped ball sitting on the water.
At last a cry went up from the lookout officer: Kal-ta-goot had turned around and — no mistake — was barreling toward the Dasheter.
Afsan and Dybo ran to the foredeck, looked out through the choppy waters toward the eastern horizon. Without the far-seer, it was difficult to tell, but, by the prophet’s claws, yes, the long gray neck looked closer.
Keenir, nearby, did have the benefit of the magnifying tube. "Here it comes," he muttered in his gravelly voice. "Here it comes."
Afsan’s first thought was that the Dasheter should turn around, should run from the approaching serpent. But Keenir, perhaps sensing the fear rippling through the passengers and crew, shouted out, "Stay the course!"
Soon the beast was close enough that details could be seen with the unaided eye. The long neck, something like a thunderbeast’s but more flexible, did indeed end in a drawn-out flattened head filled with incredible teeth, teeth that stuck out and overlapped like a spilled drawer full of knives, even when the creature’s mouth was closed.
The monster’s body, round and gray, striped with green, was only partially visible. The bulk of it seemed to be beneath the waves. Periodically, though, Afsan saw parts of four diamond-shaped fins or flippers clearing the water, churning it into foam with their powerful strokes. The tail, only glimpsed occasionally as the creature weaved left and right, was short and stubby, and seemed to have little to do with the beast’s locomotion. The long, sinewy neck and the round, flippered body made Afsan think of a snake threaded through the shell of a turtle, but the thing’s torso seemed unarmored and its head, with those terrible interlocking teeth, was more horrible, more deadly looking, than the head of any snake Afsan had ever seen.
The monster was easily as long as the Dasheter itself, although better than half its length was its protracted neck.
Closer and closer it came, a dynamo charging through the water, a wake of foam trailing behind it almost to the horizon.
And then, suddenly, it disappeared, diving beneath the waves, the tip of its short tail the last thing Afsan saw before it was gone completely from view.
Afsan tried to calculate the thing’s speed and trajectory. At the rate it had been moving, it would only be twenty heartbeats or so before it would reach the ship. He grabbed the railing around the edge of the deck, bent his knees, leaned back on his tail, stabilizing himself with five points of support, waiting, waiting…
Ten heartbeats. Fifteen. Afsan looked left and right. Those who had surmised the same thing he had were similarly bracing themselves for impact. Dybo hugged the foremast. Dath-Katood grabbed the climbing web at the base of that same mast. Bog-Tardlo simply fell prone to the deck.
Twenty heartbeats. Twenty-five.
Keenir was leaning against the railing, too, his extended claws digging into the wood.
Where was the creature? Where was it?
Keenir let go of the railing, swung around. "It’s trying to get away!" he shouted into the wind. "Paldook, bring us about…"
But then Afsan felt the Dasheter rising as if on the swell of a huge wave. The upward movement continued, higher, uglier still, the ship leaning wildly to port, the side railing dipping beneath the water. It was like being in a landquake, above and below no longer the same as up and down. Afsan saw one crewmember go flying, saw a passenger sliding across the deck, sliding toward the submerged side of the boat.
And then the lifting stopped. The Dasheter rocked back in the other direction, water washing across the deck, spilling against Afsan’s legs. The ship crashed down, and, on the port side, rising out of the churning water like a vision from a nightmare, was the great gray neck, water rolling off it. It rose up and up until it stretched half as high as the Dasheter’s own masts, the mouth now opened wide, screaming a slick and wet reptilian scream, the razor teeth jutting out in all directions.
And then the neck lashed out like a whip, moving with blinding speed, and Tardlo was gone, scooped from the deck. Afsan briefly saw her bloodied form in the thing’s mouth, limbs and tail as askew as the creature’s pointed dentition. The serpent turned its head up toward the sky, tossed the body into the air with a snap of its neck, then caught it again, this time headfirst. The jaw labored, chomping and biting, and Afsan felt his stomach turn as he saw a thick bulge work its way down the serpent’s elongated neck.
Everybody scrambled to the opposite side of the deck, out of the thing’s whiplash reach.
Afsan thought how useful it would be to have a long pointed shaft of wood, or some other implement that could be used to ward off the creature. But such tools had been forbidden by the cult of the Five Hunters, and even in these enlightened days of the prophet, that stricture remained.
A Quintaglio kills with tooth and claw, said the First Edict of Lubal. Only such killing makes us strong and pure.
And, Afsan thought, not for the first time, only such killing releases our inner furies, keeps us from killing each other…
The ship rocked as it hit the waves made by Kal-ta-goot’s flippers slapping the water. The beast maneuvered toward the bow, rushing around in front of the ship, trying to make it to the starboard side where ten tasty Quintaglios were lined up against the railing.
As Kal-ta-goot hurried along, the passengers and crew ran to the port side, their feet and tails slapping the deck in unison like a roll of thunder.
It seemed to be gadkortakdt, the point in a game of lastoon-tal in which neither player can force a win. But then something happened to destabilize the situation. Captain Keenir let out a massive roar and charged across the deck. Without a tail to balance his torso, he could not lean forward into the horizontal running posture, but still, with the aid of his cane, he managed a respectable clip. Shouts went up from the rest of the crew, begging him to stop, but to no avail. Kal began to swing its long neck around to face the captain, mouth open.
Loyalty runs deep aboard a sailing ship. Simultaneously two crewmembers, Paldook and Nor-Gampar, ran out onto the deck, jumping up and down, waving their arms, hoping to make a more tempting target than their captain did. They succeeded in getting Kal’s attention, for the long tubular neck started to swing toward them.
Afsan turned to look at Dybo, but his vision quickly focused on what was going on farther along the deck. Katood and another mate, Biltog, were madly working the ropes that tied off the boom of the foresail. Afsan caught sight of them just in time to see them finish loosening the knots, and suddenly the great corded lines were flying freely through the pulleys, the boom swinging around and across. Passengers and crew hit the deck to avoid the massive log swiveling through the air.
Afsan snapped his eyes back to Kal. The serpent was drawing its neck into a tight curve as if ready to strike. But the boom, barreling with great speed, slammed into the side of Kal’s neck. The beast, taken by surprise, made a sound like "oomph" as its neck bent against the impact. The creature seemed momentarily stunned, and Afsan hoped the crew would somehow get the ship moving again.
But no! Before anyone could react, Keenir leapt over the gunwale onto the creature’s shoulders. Immediately, the old captain brought his jaws to bear, chomping into the thing’s flesh.
Kal’s neck swung as far as it could to the right and tried to curve back upon itself so that its horribly toothed mouth could reach Keenir, but its anatomy wouldn’t allow such a tight coiling of the neck. As Afsan watched, three other sailors ieapt over the side of the boat into the water. They swam toward Kal with powerful side-to-side strokes of their long tails.
All of the action was taking place on the side of the ship opposite Afsan. He wanted to better see what was going on, but wasn’t foolish enough to rush out into the open, making himself an easy target for that dexterous neck. Instead, he hurried to the base of the mast, where the climbing web began. He fought to keep his claws shielded: they would hinder climbing. Afsan scrambled up the webbing, its interlocking network of ropes between him and Kal. The ropes didn’t provide much protection but he doubted that even Kal could bite through them, and the little open squares formed by their crisscrossing were much too small for Kal’s massive head to poke through.
By the time Afsan had climbed high enough to see clearly what was going on over on the far side of the boat, the three sailors who had followed Keenir overboard had reached Kal. Two were clawing their way into the beast’s flank just above its right front flipper. The third had his jaws dug into the trailing edge of that same diamond-shaped fin. Kal began to flap it against the surface in an effort to dislodge the sailor, and Afsan tried to imagine the body slams the Quintaglio must be enduring.
And then Kal dived. Its sleek form cut through the water so smoothly that it was gone beneath the waves in the blink of an outer eyelid, the choppy surface leaving no sign that the beast had ever been there.
Gone, too, were Keenir and his three sailors.
Afsan fought down a wave of panic. Kal was a reptile like himself — an air-breathing creature. It would have to come up for air soon…
Indeed, although Afsan expected that the great and hideous beast could dive for long periods when it had prepared to do so, perhaps by hyperventilating first, perhaps by simply gulping massive amounts of air, this dive had not been premeditated. Rather, it had been a desperate attempt to dislodge the puny creatures clawing and biting into its hide.
Afsan thought he could make out the outline of the beast just beneath the surface, but the bluish-white light from the sun and the red and orange reflection of the crescent Face of God to the stern cast odd tones across the wave caps, making it difficult to be sure.
After a few heartbeats, there was a commotion in the water. Irb-Hadzig, the sailor who had chomped onto Kal’s nipper, had broken to the surface, and was now swimming toward the boat. Afsan, with his vantage point high on the climbing web, realized that he was probably the only one except the lookout at the top of the mast who could see Hadzig, a female perhaps twice Afsan’s age, as she approached the hull. Afsan tried to call out to the sailors below, but there was too much of a ruckus on deck, too much shouting going on. He scrambled down the webbing and, grabbing a lifeline, hurried to the railing around the boat’s edge. Hadzig was still twelve of her body-lengths away from the ship when Afsan tossed the line toward her.
Hadzig’s tail whipped back and forth, sliding her through the waves. She made it to the side of the Dasheter and slipped the lifeline, which ended in a wide loop, over her head and shoulders, then pulled it up under her armpits so that Afsan could haul her aboard.
But from behind her, Kal’s head ascended from the waves, the neck streaming water, the maw gaping. The serpent rose enough that its shoulders were exposed, and Afsan saw Keenir, his claws still dug into the base of his foe’s neck, gasping for air. The other two sailors, who had been farther down Kal’s flank, on the part still submerged, were nowhere to be seen.
Kal’s neck darted, moving with the speed of a snake’s flicking tongue. The mouth, with its horrible splayed daggers, gulped, and Hadzig was caught, her body from tail to waist already within the demon’s gullet. Just as the jaw came down, Hadzig yanked on the lifeline wrapped around her body. Afsan tried with all his might to pull her forward, to reel the line in. but Kal had her firmly, and with a recoil of its neck yanked the rope hard enough to slam Afsan forward into the railing.
Afsan looked up and saw again that hideous sight of a great bulge working its way down the monster’s endless neck.
It was moving slowly down the long expanse, and suddenly Afsan realized that Hadzig’s death might not be in vain. Kal was an air-breather, and Hadzig was quite a mouthful. The serpent couldn’t possibly gulp much air while in the process of the long, horrible swallowing of Afsan’s shipmate.
The rope that Afsan was holding, although it looked more like a thread in comparison to the neck, was still dangling from Kal’s mouth. If it had stopped to chew, it would easily have severed the fibers, but the lump about a quarter of the way down the long neck made clear that Hadzig’s body had moved past the serpent’s teeth — at least Afsan hoped it was her dead form; he shuddered to think that she might still be alive, sliding down that dark gullet toward the acid bath of Kal’s stomach…
Kal’s neck was raised high, held almost straight up, presumably to aid the swallowing. The rope hung down, drawing a line from the creature’s mouth to Afsan. He climbed onto the railing that ran around the edge of the ship, the choppy waves beneath him, and pushed off.
Afsan swung through the air, the waves dizzyingly far below, Kal’s neck, huge and thick and gray, apparently hurtling toward him as the arc of his leap brought him closer and closer.
Afsan felt the air go out of his own lungs as he slammed into the neck. Four of Afsan’s body-lengths below, half submerged, but biting away like a wild animal, was Keenir. Although he’d taken many chunks out of Kal’s muscular shoulder, the bites were insignificant compared to the creature’s great bulk, and each wave that washed over Kal’s back left Keenir gasping and cleared the blood away.
As soon as he hit Kal’s neck, smooth and sticky and wet, Afsan kicked off again, as though he were rappelling down the ragged face of one of the Ch’mar volcanoes. His body swung through the air and then came crashing back toward the neck, but this time Afsan twisted wildly in flight, using his tail held straight out to change his center of gravity, so that he landed on the other side of the neck. He immediately slid around and kicked off again. Kal, alarmed by this creature slamming into it, craned to see what was happening. Perfect: the craning made it easy for Afsan to land this third time near the spot that he’d originally hit. He swung over once more and began to shimmy down the rope toward the waves. Kal was probably too stupid to realize what was going on, but in anger it snapped its jaws shut, the splayed teeth interlocking, the rope shearing.
But it was too late for that. Afsan had effectively wrapped the rope around Kal’s neck, about halfway down its length. Above he could see the bulge of Hadzig’s body still making its way down the throat. The body fit so tightly that Afsan could make out Hadzig’s legs, her torso, and the small depression made by her long, drawn-out face.
Afsan hit the water gasping for air. Keenir looked up briefly and saw him. The other two sailors, missing for some time now, appeared bobbing on the surface. They, too, spotted Afsan. Suddenly they realized what he was up to and began swimming toward him. Keenir, too, slid down Kal’s side and swam in Afsan’s direction as fast as he could with his abbreviated tail. Others jumped off the side of the ship, sending up great splashes where they hit. Everybody grabbed the rope, claws extended, and swam with lashing tails toward the Dasheter.
More and more hands joined in, and the strength and weight of now ten, now twelve, now fifteen Quintaglios, pulled on the rope, dragging Kal’s neck down toward the water.
Afsan looked up, hoping that whoever was left on deck would know what to do. There, against the glare of the sun, a round silhouette: Dybo.
The prince was just standing there, stunned like one whose shell had been too thick.
Afsan called out to his friend, but Kal was crashing its flippers into the waves with such force that the splashing drowned out the words.
Then, at last, Dybo moved, and Afsan could see that he was shouting — but not to him. No, the prince was summoning others on the deck of the Dasheter.
Kal was yanking back on its neck, and Afsan felt himself coming to a halt in the water, then beginning to be pulled backwards.
Come on, Dybo…
Afsan looked up into the glare again. There, the angular shape he’d been waiting for, coming down over the side, black metal, five splayed arms, the anchor.
Dybo and the others were paying out the chain as fast as they could, but still the anchor moved slowly, the ratchet sound of its pulley mechanism like a symphony of cracking
Suddenly Afsan was completely submerged, pulled down fighting Kal. He gulped water. His eyes were wide open, but all he could see were sheets of bubbles. He felt as though his lungs would burst, and his vision seemed to be fading.
Then, at last, the anchor broke through from above, coming beneath the surface. Afsan fought the need to breathe and he and the others wrapped the rope around the anchor chain. Finally, when he was sure it was secure, Afsan let go of the rope and swam madly toward the surface. When he broke through into the air, he opened his muzzle wide and gulped and gulped and gulped.
Suddenly he felt an arm about his waist and then another supporting his elbow. A lifeline snaked down from the Dasheter. Afsan looked over his shoulder. Kal was madly attempting to bend its neck around enough to reach the rope tying it to the anchor chain, but it couldn’t. The chain continued to lower, pulling the great beast down beneath the waves. It fought with its diamond flippers and stubby tail to keep at the surface, but it wasn’t strong enough — especially now, unable to breathe easily with Hadzig’s body lodged above the constriction in its neck where Afsan had tied the rope. The anchor continued to descend as Dybo and the others released more and more chain.
At last the thing’s wicked head, with its jaws full of angled teeth snapping as it tried to draw breath, was pulled beneath the waves. Afsan watched as, for a time, its flippers flailed even more, splashing sheets of water onto him and the others. Then, quite suddenly, Kal’s flippers stopped moving at all.
Afsan, who had finally recovered his breath, let out a deep and long sigh. Dybo and the others pulled on the lifeline to hoist him back aboard the Dasheter.