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Stories from the Verse
Verse Three, Chapter One
Chapter 120, Slade 40
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Previous chapter: Chapter 119, Hastings 41
Kondor knew his stuff, Slade thought. He kept them on the path as it crossed brush-covered slopes and narrowed to a ledge, and they were forced again to travel single file between a high wall and a sharp drop. It wrapped around a curve, and brought back into view a stunning panorama of the lake, the declining sun, the meadow. He had not realized how far they had traveled in so few hours.
A question Lauren had asked echoed in his mind now. How had the sparrows made this trek with a prisoner? Perhaps Speckles was too frightened to resist; but they must have slowed to a crawl here in that case. He was no coward, and not afraid of death, but he could not rush along this ledge and had some difficulty convincing himself to move forward even slowly.
Ahead he heard Joe Kondor say something. He had been lost in his own worries, and didn't catch what it was. "What was that?" he shouted.
"I said," Joe called back, "once again we seem to have arrived at the wrong time of day. Look."
Slade looked, and wished he hadn't. There was something in the air, moving rapidly toward them from between the mountains ahead. It wasn't a bird, exactly, but it was a large flying beast. The closest thing he could think of to what he saw was one of those prehistoric flying reptiles, and even from sixty or seventy yards away he could see a nasty set of teeth.
He heard Joe's gun fire. The explosion startled him, and it echoed off the cliff walls. It also startled the beast, which shifted its direction as if it instinctively knew it was in danger. It climbed up above them, and toward the cliff. This was no place for a sword; Slade drew his blaster, and fired several shots. Joe was also shooting, but the creature was too fast and too far to get a good solid hit. It disappeared above them.
He was tempted to lean out and try to look up; the rock above them did not stick out so far as to block the sky entirely. But he thought better of it. Suddenly the creature appeared, diving close to the rock wall, as if intent on surprising them. It succeeded. Slade heard both Kondor's and Lauren's guns fire before he managed to pull the trigger on his own; but again it seemed everyone had missed. And again it was out of sight.
It reappeared, rising to their level from below, and coming for them--not quite straight for them, but weaving and bobbing as if it were accustomed to dodging missile fire. Lauren emptied both of her revolvers, and Kondor fired at least as many times before his gun jammed. Slade emptied an entire power cell, and was replacing it as the beast came upon them. They were in trouble, pinned against a wall by a foe easily evading their attacks, who might easily wear them down and eat them. They certainly weren't going to move forward for a while.
Lauren said, "We don't have time for this."
Slade looked at her. That seemed to him a rather foolish thing to say, especially with the beast bearing down on them. But as it rushed at the cliff she spoke again.
"Save the girl. This one's mine." And so saying, she leapt from the cliff, grabbing the creature's neck with one arm while holding her staff in the other. The beast screamed as it veered away from the cliff, and started tossing and shaking.
Slade stared; but he heard Joe Kondor shouting at him. "Come on, man, don't stand there. She's done, and there's nothing we can do about that. We've got to save the girl."
He plugged the cell into the blaster, holstered it, and followed his companion a bit more quickly. From time to time he could see the beast out of the corner of his eye, and once or twice he actually looked over at it to see Lauren still clinging to it. But it wasn't long before their ledge turned again, and widened out as it entered some scrub pine, or something like it. It was Lauren's quest, he thought, but they would have to finish it without her.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with five other sequential chapters of the novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #66: Character Quest. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter.
As to the old stories that have long been here: