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All my thoughts centered on Hamal. There, in that progressive and yet violently barbaric country, I felt confident that the secrets of the marvelous airboats of Havilfar were to be discovered. And if I, Dray Prescot, of Earth and of Kregen, did not quickly guide this little flier out of the gale hurling me about the sky like a dead leaf, I was likely to discover the biggest secret in two worlds.
Wind-driven rain razored against my face over the smashed windscreen. Rain soaked my hair and face and stung into my eyes. The little flier stood on her nose, dived, swooped sickeningly, flew upward, spun about like a child's kicked top. I clung on, hoping to Zair the leather straps would stand the strain and not snap, to send me pitching into the hard ground beneath.
The darkness of the darkest of nights hung about me, and yet somewhere high above, the twin suns of Antares were flooding down their rich ruby-and-emerald fires. I dashed water from my face, and cursed, and thrust uselessly at the control levers. The flier did not respond.
This was not the swift racing voller I had taken from Sumbakir, where she had been built. With my natural greed I had left that superb craft back home in Valka and had instead taken an ordinary little Hamalese flier, which had seen much use. My frugality was likely to cost me dear.
With a shocked oath I ripped instinctively at the controls as from the gloom ahead a wide-branched tree whirled toward me. The tree appeared instantaneously from the murk and as suddenly was gone. The craft spun end over end above the tree. I felt the gonging blows of branches as they battered thecanvas-skinned wooden frame. A rough-barked branch punched through and beat at my leg before that mad onward movement wrenched the branch free in a weltering sound of ripping canvas.
Everything was streaming water, everything was in violent motion, everything was going up and down; the world spun dizzily about me —that wonderful if terrible world of Kregen, four hundred light-years from the planet of my birth.
In some fashion or other I had to land. More trees flashed past, their gray arms reaching out to destroy my frail craft. I peered ahead, drenched by rain and buffeted by wind, half deafened by the racket.
At any minute I was likely to get myself killed and packed off to the Ice Floes of Sicce. There were certain things I must do before that happened, which, in the ordinary course of events, should happen in a thousand years or so.
"By Zair!" I shouted, and thumped the useless controls. "Go down, you onker!"
End over end the flier whirled from the darkness. Rain fell for a space, and then cleared, and I was blinking in doubled sunshine. A swift look to my rear showed the malevolent stormclouds boiling blackly as they poured over the land, darkening the greens and yellows below. I was low, perilously low. A circling gust had cast me from the main path of the storm. But the controls would not answer and the flier roared on, driven by the breeze, for she was of that build which is susceptible to winds. I looked ahead.
The land spread flat before me, ocher and dun, with scattered clumps of trees, threaded by the sparkle of narrow watercourses. This was grazing land, I considered, and to confirm that observation I saw herds of animals, running. Far on the horizon lifted a range of mountains, glittering under the opaz fire of the suns. These, if my navigation had been correct, were the Mountains of the West of Hamal. I was heading due south, having come over the sea from Valka and penetrating well into the country down the hook-shaped expanse of water of Skull Bay. I'd never lift over those sharp fangs. This little voller would be driven directly onto the rocks. The gale had let me slip from its clutches, but I was still in danger.
The flier remained now on an even keel, but as the wind pushed her, so she swung and drifted aimlessly. This would not do. I had come to this strange country of Hamal to discover what I needed to know about fliers so that my own country of Vallia might construct reliable models. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Here I was, scheming to obtain the secrets of the vollers, being thwarted and threatened for my life by the very Opaz-forsaken monstrosity I wished to discover!
The crystalline glitter in the air with its mingling of streaming colors from the twin suns of Antares that, on a fine day, should be bottled up and shipped to Earth to banish all the fug and despondency —and to make the shipper a fortune —darkened again with sudden and ominous power. A swirling arm of the storm, wind-driven, black and boiling, swooped up abaft of me and in seconds I was once again enveloped in gloom.
The flier pitched about, corklike, and I knew that beneath now the keel, now the stem, now the ripped canvas decking, the ground streamed past, ready to shatter both my craft and me. This second tempestuous whirlwind howled past with maniacal force and rushed away ahead, leaving the flier to be sucked along limping in its wake.
The blackness ahead covered the land.
Rain had formed into torrential rivulets that joined and broadened and foamed in cataracts into the narrow streams. I saw herds of animals rushing in frenzy, their long horns an upthrust and savage forest of spears.
The ground rushed up.
I gave a last frantic belting to the control levers. To this day I do not know if my hammering made the difference, whether something freed itself in the mechanism, whether some other movement helped; but, for whatever cause, the nose of the voller lifted. For agonizing seconds I hung, still going down, still aimed to smash headlong into the earth. The stem rose a little more as I bashed the levers again and we were rising, and the ground sped past below, so close I could smell the scent of fresh rain upon dust.
The voller rose and flew straight.
Maybe it was the merciless bashing I gave the controls; I do not think it was from any actions of the Star Lords or the Savanti.
The mountains were now much closer, the storm coalescing into weird black shapes as the clouds roiled against the rock faces. A column of black smoke attracted my attention, and a single look convinced me I was witnessing an all too familiar sight on many parts of Kregen. The world is beautiful and wonderful; it is also dark and terrible, and I have had my fair share of the vaol-paol —the end and the beginning, the light and the dark.
Copyright © 1975 by Kenneth Bulmer.