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Authors: Jack Chalker

Charon

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Charon: A Dragon at the Gate

 

A
Del
Rey Book

Published by Ballantine Books

Copyright © 1982 by Jack L. Chalker

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the
United States
by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.,
New York
, and simultaneously in
Canada
by Random House of Canada Limited,
Toronto
.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 82-90379

ISBN 0-345-29370-3

Manufactured in the
United States of America

First Edition: November 1982 Second Printing: June 1983

Cover art by David B. Mattingly

 

For Art Saha, longtime member of First Fandom, anthologist of exceptional taste and discernment, and a Good Man

 

 

PROLOGUE: A Time for Reflection

 

 

The naril circled and positioned themselves for the kill against the backdrop of the onrushing
al
-wind. Opening their razorlike runners, which squeezed out through slits in their skins, the naril started down.

 
The man looked around frantically without breaking his desperate run. There was little shelter in the desolate desert landscape, and the cracked desert floor was harder than concrete.

 
The naril were great creatures of the air, huge, speeding black ovals with great egg-shaped eyes that made up what little face there was, tentacles behind shifting subtly to aid in flight as if a solid tail and rudder. Underneath each black horror were the two curved bony plates, almost like rockers, out of which came the deadly sharp steel-like blades with which it would slash its prey.

 
The man realized that there was no place left to go and decided to make what stand he could here, in the flat open land. One naril swooped down on him, impossibly fast, but he dropped to the ground and rolled an instant before the sharp blades struck, and the naril almost bit into the hard earth and spilled. No such luck, though, and the man
was
quickly to his feet once more, cursing that he had delayed so long. Taking a quick check of both naril, he knew that he needed both of them in front of him, not flanking as they now were, so he summoned a reserve only impending death could call up and ran at an angle to the two circling monsters.

 
The naril were quite intelligent, but also overconfident. They had several square kilometers of open country to play around in and never doubted the final outcome. In the meantime, this was fun.

 
The man stopped once more and whirled again to face his tormentors. As he had hoped, the pair had joined again and seemed to be almost hovering there in the air, their yellow, expressionless eyes watching him and concealing, he had no doubt, some great amusement

 
He knew he had very little time.

 
From the naril point of view he seemed just to stand there, facing them, eyes closed, hands outstretched. They took this act
as
a gesture of surrender and submission, and, since this sort of thing was boring, moved in for the kill.

 
They dropped very low, only a meter or so off the desert floor, and sped toward him, relishing the kill. As they neared their intended victim there was a rumbling sound and the earth itself seemed to rupture. Around the man grew a wall of solid stone as he himself sank down into the earth behind it The predators were so taken by surprise that each struck an opposite side of the still-growing walL There was a shower of sparks as their sharp runners ground into the stone, but both had sufficient balance to stay aloft and veer off.

 
Inside the sudden pit, in the darkness surrounded by four meters of stone wall, the man heard the naril hiss in defiance and frustration. He was nearly spent; he had used up half a day's water. The fort would
have
to hold. He sank
down,
relishing the cool relief his tiny fortress afforded, and listened.

 
The naril adjusted quickly to the new conditions and tried to break down the walls, hitting them hard and at careful angles. While they managed to do some damage to the rocky fortress, they did even more damage to themselves, since their blades were of bone. They soon gave up the attempt.

 
Settling down on top of the structure, they blocked what little light was left to the man. He saw that he had judged the side of the pit well; both were too large to get down the chimneylike opening to him.

 
Ultimately, of course, one of the creatures sat on top of the opening, trailing its long tentacles down into the pit.

 
Again the man had been exacting in his measurements, although it was terrifying to lie there in the bottom, with all light blocked, and hear those tendrils slapping and searching about just a bit above him. Finally that, too, stopped, and he relaxed a bit. He had come so far, so very far, and although momentarily safe, he felt his reserves nearly gone.

 
He heard the naril shift again, and then he was subjected to the ultimate indignity. Unable to reach him in any other way, they were trying to flush him ouf by defecating on him.

 
There was an angry, frustrated growl from above and then the naril moved off, allowing some light inside. He did not kid himself that they were gone. At least one still lurked outside, waiting for him to come up, while the other was most likely now up and away into whatever clouds there might be
,
soaking up moisture as only naril could. He would have given anything for some pf that moisture in a form other than that he now wallowed in.

 
Clouds ... He tried to think. What had the sky been like? His attention had been on more immediate stuff. Still, there were always
some
clouds around. High ones, of course, which contained less moisture than he would like, but
some . . .

 
Concentrate . . . concentrate! If only he had the strength! With supreme effort he closed his eyes and attempted to shut- out all but his sensitivity to the
wa,
an attempt made doubly difficult by the slimy naril feces being baked even more in the heat of the sun and stinking all the worse for it. He too would bake, he knew
,
if he did not succeed, for his crude fortress was also a crude but very effective oven.

 
Think . . . think! Think only of the
wa
. .
.

 
He felt the
wa
that built his fort from the start, of course, but those he needed now to shut out. He reached out,
wa
to
wa
,
his to those others, and broke free his vision onto the desert floor once more.

 
Of the naril there was no sign, but there were two bar-bushes nearby that hadn't been there before. Inwardly this made him smile, although he had little to smile about. The naril were intelligent animals, it was true, but barely that.

 
It would never occur to them that bushes in a place like this were as conspicuous as the naril themselves—which is what the bushes most certainly were.

 
The fact that both waited, so still and patiently in the heat, confirmed his worst fears about them. Trained and under orders they most certainly were, possibly Yatek Mor-ah's own personal hunters.

 
He felt the
wa
of the thick desert air around them all, but again he ignored it, reaching up, up, ever higher, hoping, praying that somewhere within his range was enough cloud to form what must be made.

 
It was there, of course, but terribly sparse and high up. He hoped it was enough. It
had
to be enough.

 
Slowly, carefully, he reached the
wa
of the cloud, of the water molecules, reached and talked to it and carefully guided and cajoled it into patterns, clumps, groups growing thicker and thicker, bringing it together centered on the tiny instant fort far below.

 
He wasn't sure if he had enough power, but it was all his strength and power could muster. It
had
to be enough. It just
had
to
be ...

 
Now fly,
wa
of the clouds, fly upward, rise toward the sun your nurturer.
Rise . . . rise
. . .

 
The two "bushes" lying in wait outside trembled, shimmered, and were naril once again. They did not quite understand what was happening, but they saw the shadow on the ground and felt its coolness. Great yellow eyes looked skyward and beheld the clouds gathering together, coalescing at hundreds of times normal speed, growing thicker and darker as they did so. The naril did not understand why it was happening, but they knew, could smell and sense, that a small but powerful thunderstorm was building just over them most unnaturally, and they felt real fear. For a moment they were poised between their fear and natural instincts and then* command to pursue and kill this man, but as thunder boomed out of the strange, unnatural cloud and echoed eerily across the vast desert, fear and instinct won out. They rose into the air and sped away, toward the sunlit desert outside the boundaries of the clouds' shadow.

 
The rain came now, falling not heavily but steadily on the small fort and an area of approximately eighty or so meters around it. The man wasted no time in commanding-the
wa of
the walls to return to form, and as the walls shrunk, he rose until he stood once more on the desert floor with no sign of structure. The naril feces still clung to him, and he shed all but his empty water flask and black skin belt, letting the rain wash him. For a minute or two he just stood there enjoying the rain and the cool relief it brought, but he knew he dared not linger. There was not much water up there, and it could give out any time.

 
The recovered naril, understanding that their quarry had somehow caused the storm and regaining their confidence, hovered just at the edge of the clouds, waiting for the rain to end.

 
The parched ground, which had seen rain perhaps two or three human generations ago and not since, could not absorb the water, and this made the hard ground slippery and treacherous going. As the man
moved,
the center of.
the
storm traveled with him, keeping
him
in its center, while at the edges the naril moved at his pace, waiting for the rain to give out. The rain itself would foul the naril's delicate membranous
wings,
invisible in flight or hover, but once the rain stopped they would move once more.

 
The man prayed the rain would hold, and it almost did, getting him to within a hundred meters of the mountains before it started to give out. All the
wa
in the world could not conjure more rain if there was no more water to use, and he hadn't time to take the evaporation from behind him and recycle it into the diminishing cloud.

 
The naril, wary of more trickery and fearful that he had stopped the rain only to lure them in, held back, though, and this extra tune gave him the opportunity to run for the rocky outcrops just ahead.

 
Seeing him sprint, one naril forgot its caution and, hissing, shot out after him, overtaking him just at the base of the rocks and striking him in the back. He flew against the rocks from the force of-.the blow and gave a terrible scream, but the naril had forgotten to extend its blades, and while the blow was crushing, it neither cut nor sliced.

 
Though dazed, he managed to crawl into a cleft in the rocks and wedge himself in as tightly as possible. Even so, he knew he was done in, out of strength at last, his .bag of tricks used up, the cleft far too shallow to protect him ficom the naril tentacles. He was done, though; he almost didn't really care anymore. He passed out there, in the rocks, with a last thought that death at least would give him rest

 
"Jatik?"

 
The voice seemed to come from far away.
Go away!
his
mind shouted. /
am dead! Let me have my peace!

 
"Jatik, you must listen to my voice," it said again, closer now, more commanding, harder to ignore. "Jatik, this is Koril. You must speak to me."

 
"I die," he muttered, almost angrily. "Let me go."

 
"Yes, you are dead," Koril's voice agreed. "You are beyond my power or anyone's to save you. Yet while your
wa
still burns and struggles against extinction within you, we may yet communicate. Please, Jatik, you were a brave man and a loyal one. Do not pass until your bravery is given meaning by your words."

BOOK: Charon
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