Seg had run his eye along the true shaft of an arrow, brushed his fingertips lightly over the brilliant blue fletchings. Chyyanists, is it? Roybin is a first-class spy and he has received a certain report. A preacher or a priest or some devil of that kind is loose in Autonne. He holds meetings. I think a little firsthand information will prove of value. So that was why we were here, creeping like a gang of piratical cutthroats through the rain-swept darkness, toward the speck of light over the gateway leading on to what unknown horrors we could only conjecture.
Turko the Shield considered the matter closed. Oby was raging for adventure and Balass the Hawk deserved some fun. So they all came. As to fun, I had said just before we ventured out into the rain from our secluded inn, a place where the attention we attracted had been mitigated by pretenses and stratagems, this Chyyanist nonsense is likely to lead to a few smashed skulls. At least, that is what I feel in my bones. All reports speak of the creed as evil, said Roybin sagely, nodding his head. But they are all outside observations.
No one really knows. As I padded forward through a few opening flurries of rain toward the gateway and the moldering lenken door, I wondered just how much we could hope to discover in there. The center of the new religion lay in Vallia, or so we believed. It had been brought here by a priest or preacher who sought to rouse the simple fisherfolk hereabouts. As an absentee landlord I had no right to criticize my tenants if they rose up against me, in a just cause.
However intolerant and objectionable I may be, I do not think I had given any cause to these people to rise up in justice. Maybe that is just another facet of my supposed megalomania. But the fisherfolk of Autonne made a living and did not starve and were housed. I had ordered the freeing of their slaves.
Secret Scorpio: Dray Prescot #15
This Opaz-forsaken priest of Chyyan sought to stir up trouble out of willful spite, a sullen resentment, a sense of ill-treatment, and if I could not understand and sympathize with feelings like these then no one else in two worlds could do so. And, too, there were far weightier reasons for Chyyanism, as you shall hear Not one of my six comrades appeared to think it strange that Roybin no longer led on, that I had pushed on in the front to take the three guards.
I mention this to indicate that my thoughts had allowed me to act without thinking about the action I was taking. A bad habit. A nasty habit. A habit that had brought me into dire trouble in the past and was to pitch me headlong into further horrors, a habit that was just one against which I continually strove. I looked at my spy. Well, Roybin had dealt with these people before, so he should most likely know. The guards were cloaked heavily, but they wore armor and carried weapons and were not of Autonne.
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Roybin, who was called Roybin Ararsnet ti Autonne, had served me before, in various dubious capacities. I do not mince matters where brave men are concerned. Roybin was a spy.
I gave him credit for that, for credit was due. Around the side of the building the rain spattered more strongly against the corroded brick, lashed on by a rising wind. The darkness was not as absolute now, for the clouds were piling away invisibly above and every now and again a sliver of the Maiden with the Many Smiles, who shines forth most bravely in the night sky of Kregen, glimmered through the rack.
Inch wore a tightly fitting leather helmet and not a scrap of his yellow hair was visible. I looked back at him as I set my hands to the climb. In the fragmentary light his incredibly tall frame looked angular and sinister with the immense long-handled Saxon ax swinging handily from his wrist-thong. We all wore decent Vallian buff tunics and breeches, with rapiers and daggers strapped about us and, therefore, looked like perfectly ordinary Vallian koters, although, of necessity, being marked as apim, for we were all Homo sapiens.
The crumbling brickwork afforded good handholds and in no time we were all on the roof. I had no intention of leaving any one of these bonny fighters alone, below, as a lookout.
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Megalomania, maniacal, vicious, I know, I know. But I harbored frightful suspicions concerning this new creed of Chyyan. Nothing must hinder us tonight. Over the roof where the rain blustered and then fell away, only to return with just that little extra edge in its sting, we crept cautiously.
Roybin led us to the skylight.
The iron was new, replacing worn-down bronze. Young Oby pushed forward, taking a slender tool from his pocket. Opaz knew what deviltry he had been practicing in my absences, but the lock snicked open and with a single heave Turko hauled the iron bars up and out. I looked down. Only darkness, until my eyes picked up a faint glimmer, the merest wraith of an orange glow, and I made out three-quarters of the outline of a door. A well-made and tight fitting door sealing off the lower portions. One after the other we dropped down onto a loft floor where stinking fishnets tangled beneath our feet, and where no doubt the scales clumsily brushed into the corners might once have graced a coelacanth.
The door yielded to the forensic ministrations of Oby. I did not shove it open, as a soldier might, the sword mighty in his fist. Gently, I eased the door inward. The orange glow brightened. I put an eye to the crack. For a moment the world consisted of orange whorls of fire, and then I saw that the door opened onto a narrow gallery surrounding the central area.
Here was where the fishermen hung their nets. A low drone of voices lifted. Lights threw orange reflections upon the far wall and struck in slivers of radiance up through the warped planks of the gallery. Chances were that we could open the door and sneak out onto the gallery before the people gathered on the floor below might look up and see us.
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It was the kind of chance that always attracts. I might have listened to Roybin when he made his first report and simply ordered out a detachment of guards. We would have surrounded this odiferous place and swept up all who worshiped here. But then we would catch men and women who had come here out of mere curiosity. We would have taken the priest of Chyyan.
But it was my guess that he would say nothing. Like wraiths we seven slid out onto the gallery. Not a board creaked, not a single item of harness chingled. We were old hands, feral as leems, deadly as Manhounds. My first fears vanished the instant I clapped eye on that scene. Gathered in a mass at the end of the room a crowd of people were in the act of rising from a deep genuflection — we had chosen our time well, the chance swiftly and surely taken — and the priest himself, clad all in black vestments, lifted his arms high, leading the congregation in the opening bars of a chant.
The chant proved to be a moaning, miserable, oafish thing, and most of the people did not know it. But the priest raised his voice to lead them. At all this I glanced with the swift calculating eye of the fighting man, seeking to weigh possible odds. The words of the chant came so garbled they were practically impossible to make out. Over it all I glanced up and to the wall behind the priest. And I let out a soundless puff, and felt vastly relieved. For, set against that back wall draped in its rich cloths and golden tassels, there stood no pagan silver idol of a leem.
A calmness came over me. Whatever vileness this new creed of Chyyan might bring, I did not think it could be as vile as that of the cult of Lem the Silver Leem. Against the rich cloths of the back alcove lifted a bold image of a heavy-winged bird, an image as tall as a man, with feathered wings spread to encompass a full twenty feet. All a rusty black, this bird, save for its scarlet eyes and scarlet claws and scarlet beak. Four wings the chyyan possesses, like its distant cousin, the zhyan. The four wings were undersize in this image for the body size, but the whole effect was at once impressive and ominous.
At once surmises sprang into my brain.
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Native saddle-birds were unknown in Vallia and Loh, being, at the time, generally confined to the hostile territories of Turismond and to Havilfar and islands thereabouts. The mighty continent of Havilfar, south of the equator, was the home of zhyan and chyyan. I frowned. This bore a little more investigation.
Havilfar boasted as its most powerful nation the Empire of Hamal, and the mad Empress Thyllis was sworn to destroy the Empire of Vallia. Was this creed of Chyyan a gambit in that game? Incense rose, stinking and abominable. The chant ceased. The crowd stood to listen as the priest spoke. As I listened I watched their faces as well as I could, and some lapped up the ranting words, but others were more critical. A couple of trident-men near the door came as close as may be to openly jeering. I marked them. This priest had journeyed to Veliadrin from Vallia, and no doubt Autonne was his marked target town.
I tried to size him up, wondering from which city, country or continent, even, he hailed. A full-fleshed man, with the bright staring eyes of the fanatic — or the diseased — he presented an imposing figure. His robes were all of black, relieved by embroidered motifs in golden thread and imitation jewels, motifs mainly of chyyans doing unmentionable things to their victims. The fifteenth book in the saga of Dray Prescot, and the first volume of the Vallian Cycle.
The brightest star in the Constellation Scorpio is the brilliant double sun Antares, around which orbits the inhabited planet called Kregen. Kregen is an Earthlike world, but strange, far stranger, than ours. For it is the scene of a conflict between galactic powers who utilize its many human nations and its astonishing variety of humanoid peoples as their battleground.
Dray Prescot of Earth had been a tool of those powers, but courage and ingenuity had won him a high role in the Vallian Empire and a certain independence of his own. Thus when a mysterious monster cult began to undermine the empire and when his own beloved princess became a victim of those secret schemers, Prescot had to go into action. Secret Scorpio launches a new cycle in the magnificent history of Kregen and brings Prescot at long last into direct confrontation with the forces that had once dared make him their pawn.
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