Out Of The Waters — Snippet 08
As the ocean before them boiled, Alphena leaned forward. She felt an anticipation which she couldn’t understand, let alone explain to anyone else.
A tentacled horror the size of an island rose on hundreds of twisting, serpentine legs. It paused for a moment, then surged toward the city. Two of the flying ships turned toward the creature and sprayed flame from the apparatus in their bows.
An arm hundreds of feet long curled out, coiled around the stern of one vessel, and clubbed it across the hull of the other. Both broke apart, spilling bodies and fragments. The bow of the free-flying ship splashed into the sea and sank. The monster hurled what was left of the ship it held toward the city.
This is wrong! Alphena thought.
As if she had blinked and cleared a distorting film from her eyes, Alphena saw a human giant where she had briefly imagined a monster. His iron gray hair had been caught in a pair of braids that hung down his back. His only garment was a leather breechclout on which colored splints picked out a border and a sunburst design.
The muscles wrapping the giant’s broad, bare chest were as distinct as if a sculptor had chiseled them. Water cascaded from his body; he took another calm step forward.
The giant looked at Alphena. He smiled, the first expression she had seen on his face. He had an enormous dignity, the sort of feeling that the statues of gods should project, but never did in Alphena’s experience.
He’s not a giant! Alphena thought. She was certain of that, for all that he towered over the city walls and the tiny figures on them. He’s my brother’s height!
The four remaining ships flew toward the giant in line abreast. His face lost its smile; his right arm moved as swiftly as that of a gladiator casting his net. His fingers slapped the endmost ship, flinging it into its next neighbor. Both broke apart. The two surviving vessels curved off.
The man reached into the water as if groping for clams at the shore. The remaining ships slanted toward him. One pulled ahead and sprayed flame across the man’s left shoulder.
Instead of reacting to the attack, the man straightened slowly; the muscles of his back and arms bunched with the effort. A plate of rock of rock tilted up in his hands; a section of the city walls lifted with it. The thick metal walls bent like foil, then tore from bottom to top.
Spectators on the battlements, tiny by contrast, had begun to flee from the man’s approach. Those who had not yet gotten clear fluttered away like chaff from a threshing floor.
The vessel which had sprayed fire now sheered away. The second, no longer blocked by its fellow, slid in. As part of the same smooth motion that had torn the slab from ground, the man threw it.
The rock in the air divided like a hard-thrown dirt clod, but each of the pieces weighed tons. The nearer ship vanished like a cherry blossom caught in a hail storm. The more distant might have escaped had not a sheet of gleaming wall tumbled through it lengthwise.
He knew what he was doing from the moment he bent over, Alphena realized. He had decided how to destroy them before they even attacked.
Varus studied history and literature, making connections between separate events in a fashion that astounded scholars far older than he was. Alphena was interested not in books but in gladiators. That might be unladylike, but she had come to suspect that her own mind was as good as her brother’s, or nearly so.
A successful fighter swam through his battles the way a hawk did the air. Alphena had never seen anyone in the amphitheater who displayed more liquid grace than this half-naked barbarian.
He’s magnificent. He’s as old as my father, but he moves like a weasel. A huge, powerful weasel.
The man wriggled his shoulders, loosening his muscles after the effort of moments before. His left arm was angry red, and blisters were popping up on the skin. Alphena thought he might rub the injury, but instead he merely shrugged and grasped another shelf of rock.
This time he rose from his knees instead of lifting with his back muscles. A quarter of the city toppled inward, shattering tower against tower to fill the streets with fragments.
The great slab rolled back. The man caught it, braced himself, then lifted it overhead. It must be as heavy as the cone of Vesuvius, Alphena thought.
She was as thrilled as she had been the afternoon she watched the swordsman Draco defeat seven netmen consecutively, a feat never before accomplished in the amphitheaters of Carce. He’s magnificent!
The giant smashed the slab down onto what remained of the city. The vision was soundless, but pulverized dust exploded outward to settle on the sea and the surrounding forest promiscuously, like a gray pall.
The man turned his head. Alphena thought he was looking straight into the Tribunal. He smiled minusculely–
–and reached down for another mass of rock. The sea behind him bubbled, surging up the passage he had torn into the land.
Varus took notes as he observed the monster. He had filled the four leaves of his first notebook and was already well into the extra one he had brought as an afterthought.
He smiled slightly. Perhaps he could scribe additional notes on the Tribunal’s stuccoed railing. If he had considered that possibility, he would have inked notes on shaved boards instead of scribing them on wax with a bronze stylus. Of course, he would probably have run out of ink by now also.
Pandareus had been making odd motions with his hands, curling and opening his fingers in a complex pattern. Is he praying? Varus wondered. Or is that some foreign gesture to turn away evil?
He was just opening his mouth to ask when Pandareus said, “I’ve counted three hundred and eighteen legs on the side we can see. And we don’t know with a creature like this that the entire underside isn’t covered with legs, instead of them being placed only around the outer rim of the body.”
He’s been counting, using the position of his fingers as an abacus! Varus realized in a gush of relief. He wasn’t as willing to claim prayer and charms were superstitious twaddle as he might have been a month ago, but it still would have been disturbing to see his teacher descending to such practices.
Aloud Varus said, “You said, ‘A creature like this,’ master. You think there are more of them?”
Pandareus laughed. They were probably the only two people in the theater who found humor in the situation. That spoke well for philosophy as a foundation for life, or at least for a dignified death.