Authors: David Bischoff,Thomas F. Monteleone
beyond the Barrier.
The sound stirred Garr from his thoughts and the dreamy half-sleep which had overtaken him. Guard duty was usually so monotonous, it was easy to not remain alert. A lonely business, being on the night cycle . . . and standing sentry during just that portion of the night when most of one’s fellows had locked themselves in the Dark Fold.
Now Garr was fully awake, listening. Something stamped through thick jungle, the sound of its great hind claws crushing undergrowth harshly. Whatever it was, thought Garr, it was big and it was coming close to the Watchtower. A ravenous cry pierced the blackness. Garr tensed. The beasts were getting bolder. Despite the boring nature of Dark Watch duty, more reports were being logged concerning beasts roaming closer to the Barrier. Though most waited till dark to begin their feeding, several species had begun to learn to feed during the day—much to the distress of the maintenance crews who worked on the fortifications during the hours of light.
No light now, thought Garr as he peered over the edge of the Tower. The thing below neared his position, masked by the darkness. Anxiously, Garr tugged the latch of the Weapons Cage. Wakened, the tiny beasts within chittered and hissed. Garr didn’t like waking them up, they complained so. But he didn’t want to take any chances. With a gloved hand he reached in and grabbed one quickly. Dealing with squaves was second nature to a warrior. Upon detection of his scent, the specially bred lizard quieted, sheathed its needle claws, and wrapped its rudimentary wings close to its narrow body. Upon touching it, Garr felt the immediate subliminal contact of master to beast. Instinctively, the squave stiffened into firing position as it was brought up into the night air. Garr placed it into his Launcher. He cocked the bow, and trained it upon the sound’s seeming origin. The polished wood of its stock felt slippery as he traced its contours down to the trigger. He leaned over the edge of the Tower, which loomed high above the great wall of the Barrier. He wanted desperately to hang his lantern over the edge and shed some light on the creature. Always best to know the enemy, But Headquarters advised against attracting the beasts to lanterns if it could be avoided.
The sounds grew louder. Snapping branches. Muffled clumps of heavy hand-claws. Wheezing, bellows-like breathing. It was down there, coming closer.
Though it was his calling, Garr hated Watch duty in the Towers. You were so confined. So alone. And nobody closer than the next Tower down the line—more than two hundred ems distant on either side. That is, except for the Prowl Beasts, and Garr never felt very comfortable around them without their
There was no communication among the Towers other than by lanterns. A green light flashed each hour, downline to the right, if everything was secure. A red light shone anytime that all hell was breaking loose. You just always hoped there would be time to rig that red light and flash it.
Scraping sounds. The rasp of claws against the wood and stone base of the Barrier.
The damn thing had picked up his scent, thought Garr. It was trying to get up at him. He could hear the beast mewling as it clawed at the base of the great wall. Too dumb to know that Garr was beyond its reach. Garr was grateful the walls of the Barrier were so smooth and steep. However, when any of the big carnivores got worked up into a real feeding frenzy, they did not exhibit such traits as cunning or patience to try to figure out how to deal with a wall. They just hurled themselves against it.
Unconsciousiy, Garr stroked the scales of the squave nestled in the wide groove of the launcher. Garr avoided the sharp spine that grew from the creature’s head, which injected enough poison to stop just about any medium-sized beast. Arrows were available, but the squaves were much more effective. Voracious little creatures, with the help of a Launcher, they could be hurled at beasts at sufficient speed to pierce the toughest of hides. Even if they were not accurately fired, they could use their tiny wings to guide them toward the beasts. As often as not, squaves were killed in the process, but if the beast were not quick enough, a squave could, with the help of its claws and needle-sharp teeth, burrow quickly into a beast and have a marvelous feast.
The really large creatures were fortunately too massive, too ponderous, to attempt any serious climbing of the walls. The only damage the really big bastards ever did was an occasional stumble against the masonry, knocking loose mortar and buttressing. More work for the maintenance crews.
That was the real problem, thought Garr. The Barrier itself. It was so old, so terribly old. Built so long ago that even the Priests were not certain of its true age, parts of it were always decaying, weakening. That, plus the prowling of the beasts, had required the systems of Watchtowers, which were strung along the great wall like beads on a string. All the way around the world.
More clawing, snarling, The creature was getting frustrated. He sounded like a good-sized carnivore. Peering over the edge, down into the murky jungle twenty ems below, Garr was unable to see anything. Even when he held the lantern over the edge at arm’s length, there was not enough illumination to penetrate the black night. But the beast needed no light as long as it could smell its prey . . .
The noises from the moist darkness increased. Guttural, slavering sounds. From deep in the thing’s throat came the sounds of mindless hunger, of meat-gulping urgency. Claws scrabbled crazily against the stone.
What was going on? He’d never heard one of them act so persistently, with such determined commotion. Straining, he thought he saw the faintest of reflections and movements, but it was so dark below that the jungle could have been a bottomless pit. A pit of nightmares. They loved the darkness, where they could slither up behind you and
that was the end. Just thinking of it made Garr’s scales sit up on edge, his nostrils flare involuntarily.
Suddenly, the scraping sounds ceased. There was a pause in the beast’s rapid, panting breath. For an instant, there was a silence in the jungle below: no small animal scuttlings, no clicks and murmurings of insects. Nothing. When one of the beasts was stalking, all the crawling and flying things seemed to vanish.
Another sound. It was walking away, Garr thought as he perceived footfalls on the matte of the jungle undergrowth. The footfalls stopped. Garr heard unnatural groaning sounds
the strain of wood and bark as a tree was being uprooted, and the sucking up of thick mud as its roots were pulled from the wet floor. A muffled crash sounded as the tree smashed through the undergrowth. The beast must have been so crazed with hunger it had stumbled into something, thought Garr. Soon it would be lost in the black depths, however, and there would be no danger. He brought the lantern in off the edge of the Tower, easing his grip on the Launcher, but still drumming his three fingers nervously against its solid stock.
Just as he was beginning to relax, new sounds floated up. The beast was still there. Its breathing increased, rasping the air. A new sound. Something was being dragged across the vine-tangled brush of the forest.
His scales tensed once again, his thin tongue whipping constantly in and out of his mouth. Garr listened, wondering what was happening below. Waiting in the darkness was too passive; he had to do something.
Pulling a rag torch from his supply chest, Garr struck his flint. The torch soon blazed with an oily flame, casting a blood-red glow upon the sparse interior of the Tower. Just as he leaned over the edge, holding the torch in his right forelimb, something jarred against the base of the Barrier. Something massive and heavy thundered against the Tower, shaking Garr from head to tail. The rag torch fell from his grip and fluttered downward.
As the fire penetrated the darkness, Garr saw the thick trunk of a tree leaning against the Barrier, extending above the base of the Tower itself. The torch fell to the jungle floor, lighting up lush green surfaces . . . and something else.
A brief glimpse of something tan, or grey, moving quickly to avoid the heat and light, Then scrabbling sounds of claws against rough bark.
The torch flared once before going out. In that instant Garr saw how close the beast was, how terribly close. He felt himself thinking of when he was young . . . just reaching intelligence level after a savage youth surviving the wilds where he’d hatched. He remembered vaguely moments like this, staring into the face of death. Yet somehow, he’d always escaped . . .
Garr stared down at the creature, as if under a spell, his eyes locked in upon the thing which stared up at him with great eyes like flat yellow pools. It lunged forward. The eyes grew wider. Powerful hindlegs gouged into the tree bark. The thing surged upward in a final savage thrust.
Garr raised the Launcher in his hands, knowing he would not be quick enough. There was a flash of white teeth in the dying light, the glow of the lantern. The beast’s mouth opened wide, as if unhinged, and closed quickly, snapping the Launcher and the squave in half, and taking off Garr’s right forelimb in an instant.
The attack had been so swift, so surgically clean, that Garr had felt nothing. His nostrils flared as he took in the full-scent of the beast’s dead-blood breath. The great yellow eyes flicked and the jaws snapped once more.
It was the last thing Garr ever saw.