Something fluttered, flittered, dipped, and bobbed in the clear desert sky like an addled bat driven into sunshine.
Amber eyes tracked the ragged shape struggling to stay aloft. A curious voice purred, 'Keep up, flyer! Keep up, or you're dead!'
The watcher lurked under a canopy of green leaves, for a lush jungle and parched desert lay side by side, their dividing line cut clean as if by a knife. The flyer was a drake, a small, bony dragon clad in fine scales the color of dried blood. Perched atop the drake hunched an equally bony man in dull robes who urged the exhausted beast onward.
No doubt, thought the watcher, the dragon rider wished to reach the safety of the jungle. For to touch the rolling bosom of the Sukurvia was to die.
The drake would never make it. Beyond exhaustion, the creature's wings flailed like rotten cloth. Wracked by fatigue, the dragon steadily sank toward the scorching yellow sand. After flying valiantly too many miles on the hot desert winds, the rider and flyer would fall short of safety by a scant mile.
'Don't!' urged the watcher from the cool jungle depths. 'The sands never surrender-Ach!'
The last was a cat's spit of disgust as the watcher took action. Vaulting from a spur of red rock in a long graceful bound, the jungle warrior landed in a high-canted saddle astride a lumbering monox. Big as a hill, the monox still grunted under the weight of the rider, nine hundred pounds or more.
Catching the reins from the pommel with clawed hands, the warrior called, 'Get up, Questing Lip! A flyer's about to crash on the Sukurvia! Not my father, drat it, but he might know of him! Hie!'
Rider and beast bulled through the jungle, a fantastic sight towering tall as the big-fronded trees. The rider was a cat man, an upright tiger with limbs like a human's and a curving tail with a mind of its own. Splintered sunlight flashed over an orange-black hide and shone on his snow-white breast and belly. The warrior wore only a goat hide loincloth with a crude bronze dagger bobbing at his back. Clearly the weapon was unneeded, for the tiger sported black claws like chips of chert and white fangs that gleamed under the shortened muzzle. Curiously, the eyes were the most startling feature, a vivid glowing amber with vertical green slits. The eyes of this cat brimmed with a man's intelligence.
The monox was an ungainly brute half the size of an elephant with the ugliest features of camel and horse. Its only beauty came from the saddle and harness decorations, fat glyphs embossed and painted in bright colors like an arcane alphabet. The mount stank like burning garbage in the hot jungle air, a stench so bad the tiger's sensitive nose always rebelled. But goaded, the monox could eat up the ground, its thick legs and feet managing a stiff trot that broke brush with a steady crashing and thrashing.
Another advantage of the monox, the rider knew, would be its usefulness on the hot desert sands. The monox wouldn't survive the short journey, likely, but by then the cat warrior would have reached his goal. He hoped.
In a flash, a last wall of greenery burst before the monox's bearded chin and breast. Shreds of leaves spattered mount and rider, then dropped onto hot yellow sand and withered. Just like that, the tiger had invaded the desert, an arena of unseen death.
The failing drake would be the next to touch down. It struggled valiantly to stay aloft, urged onward by its bony rider, but the bird-thing spiraled like a dying leaf toward the scorching sand.
'Hy-aah! Go, Questing Lip!'
If the oncoming cat warrior worried about the dangerous sands, he didn't show it but kept the monox lumbering on like a wooden-legged ship. When he'd jogged within shouting distance, he craned in the tilted saddle, swaying side to side, and called on the thin desert air, 'Make ready to scramble for your life, friend! This demon desert is rife with-'
Probably the rider didn't hear, for the fire drake gave a last gasp and flopped to the desert floor like an arrow-shot duck. Its blood-red scales plowed a furrow of powdery sand as it skidded to a halt. So spent was the creature, it didn't even tuck its leathery wings or coil its graceful swan's neck. It just let its hooked beak and wings drop to the sand for a blissful rest.
The cat warrior astride the thumping monox saw clearly what happened next. The robed rider skipped off the tiny saddle as if it burned his bottom, landed on scorching sands in bare feet, and immediately legged away from the drake. Just in time.
The sand directly underneath the drake suddenly spawned a hole as if a giant plug had been pulled. Disturbed, the drake squawked once as its belly and legs tilted awkwardly on a skittering slope of sand. The hole sported rippling teeth like jagged glass. In the next instant, the rising ring of teeth clashed in a hideous circle on the drake's body. The drake's long-jawed head flipped one way and its spear-tipped tail the other as its body was gnashed to bits. Blood squirted a dozen feet, dark-red drops landing like bizarre rain on the parched desert. The cat warrior, and the running man looking past his shoulder, saw two leather wings fold like torn sails then disappear with the crushed body below the sands.
'Terrent Amese bless us!' called the cat warrior. 'Run, man, and give me your hand!'
The tiger flicked its agile claws to nip the monox's side. As the monox charged, the warrior leaned far from the high saddle to snatch the runner's hand.
The monox had other ideas. Its brain was dim and slow, but it had clearly seen death and smelled blood on the wind. It knew menace lurked unseen. The brute swerved in an ungainly circle that almost tipped it over sideways, partially stumbling over its own feet as it swiveled back toward the jungle and safety. Feet big as barrels pedaled shifting sand in a wind-driven blur.
The abrupt swerve nearly unseated the rider as his foot jerked from the stirrup. Nimble and fast, the cat man hooked clawed toes into the monox's hide, saving himself from pitching out of the saddle but raking the beast, so it jolted and jumped worse than before. The tiger spat and cursed as he struggled to stay mounted. The cat had risked his life to rescue this running stranger, and he refused to surrender him to an underground monster.
Time ran out.
The runner was still thirty feet from the monox, and both were still a mile from the cool jungle, when the sands exploded in three places. A perfect triangle of death boxed in the refugees.
The fiends that burst from the desert's depths might have been geysers of steam, but they were solid as gray-barked trees. The soaring columns were topped by round mouths ringed with fangs and writhing tentacles like obscene fingers. Pink-gray fringes like bat wings backed the tentacles or perhaps shaded tiny blind eyes, if the creatures had any. All three living columns coiled unerringly to pounce upon man, man-tiger, and monox.
Prepared for the onslaught, at least mentally, the cat warrior didn't hesitate. Abandoning the reins, the tiger leaped from the saddle in a long shallow dive. He hit on both hands, rolled on a shoulder, and vaulted upright, already running, claws flicking sand in long plumes behind. Before the running man could even blink, the charging tiger was upon him. A black-clawed hand curled around the stranger's biceps and hoisted him off his feet. When the man's bare toes touched down, he was nine feet closer to the distant jungle.
The inhumanly strong tiger didn't waste breath. 'Run!'
A slobbering groan throbbed as the monox was struck by three hammer blows from the sky. One wurm slammed its ringed mouth onto the monox's broad flank. Hide tore as the mouth clamped like a lamprey's. Jagged teeth punctured the beast's hide, then curled inward to shear away a swath of muscle. As the monox gurgled and squealed, recoiling in pain, another wurm nipped its front leg, clipping the limb off at the breast. Down tumbled the monox onto one bleeding flank, its front leg spurting blood. The third monster, larger than the others, opened a yawning ringed mouth and clapped it over the monox's head, swallowing it entirely. With a jerk of the immense columnlike body, the wurm wrenched backward. Hide, bone, and muscle sheared as the brutish monox was beheaded. Already the other two wurms had consumed most of the bleeding body, ripping away buckets of muscle