Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 8

Locusts

Though the Medkari was known for their hospitality, the evening meal was very low key. Everyone was worried about the threat of the locusts, though they all avoided that topic of conversation. That gave Raqqub and the twins a chance to get caught up.

At twenty-two Raqqub was still unmarried though that was largely from lack of opportunity given the skewed sex ratio in new Medkari settlements. He fully intended to wed, hopefully within the year and even had a couple of possible matches in mind, a pair of twins who lived in the next oasis north. His problem was which of the two to choose. He couldn't very well marry both, and with identical looks, the choice would come down to personality, charm, and compatibility.

That said, Raqqub was still available and eager for a frolic with the twins though they all agreed to postpone their reunion till after the locusts were dealt with. Then there would really be something to celebrate. The rest of the visitors were circumspect too, though Drew of course, ever the social butterfly, had already picked out a couple of local lads he would like to get to know better.

In the morning all three autogyros took off. Finn and Drew headed out to Dayyub's location in the westernmost oasis. Liam had a different mission, to fly to all eight of the oases strung out along the north south trade road and collect the wind and weather mages and bring them to Amity, the likeliest target hence the logical place to concentrate the defending forces. They had been forewarned via infrasound messaging to stand by for pickup. At least one member of the network would remain at the other seven oases to ensure communications.

Liam's transport aerocraft could not carry all fifteen mages at once, but it didn't have to. At each oasis, Liam opened a portal for Axel to step through just as he had back at the border and again in Amity. That would let him Jump to and from any of the oases. For starters, once they had collected the mages from the first three oases, Axel had them form up and join hands and teleported the group to Amity. Then he did it twice more the last time staying in Amity while Liam flew out to join the other flyers at the isolated western oasis.

That left the twins, Sexton, and Dylan to get defenses organized.

Karel's job was to coordinate the weather wizards, wind talkers, and air wizards of the Medkari. The idea was for the air wizards to concert their powers over the psychic link they all had with their tutelary element.

Under Karel's patient coaching the mages learned to create flat sun mirrors to reflect the light and heat of the sun and parabolic mirrors to concentrate it. The plan was to hold the parabolic mirrors stationary while aimed slantwise to the flight of the locusts. The wizards would change the angle of reflection of the flat mirrors to track the sun as it moved across the sky.

Wind talkers and weather wizards would call winds or jets of air to blow alongside the swarm, shepherding it, pressing the swarm into a more compact mass, hence a more lucrative target for the intense beams of heat generated by the parabolic mirrors. The plan was simple since they had only a couple of days to practice and rehearse their moves.

To Jemsen fell the task of devising passive defenses, earthen berms or walls in the shape of a flat U which encompassed the entrances to houses that faced the prevailing winds, the direction from which the locusts would approaching. Locusts always flew with the wind, so their avenue of approach was predictable.

The hope was that the berms would deflect the wind upward and lift the locusts up with it. Once past the structures the insects would not fly back. That would keep them out of those homes and stables and keep them from the potted plants and flower baskets brought inside for the duration.

As for the food stored in pots in underground granaries, Jemsen deemed them safe enough where they were. Just to be sure he piled a few inches of soil against their doors. Locusts were not burrowers.

Axel was charged with teleporting the weather and air wizards and the wind talkers to their initial posts. As the battle with the locusts developed Axel would shift them around accordingly. No plan long survives first contact with the main strength of the enemy.

After having the men practice falling-in Axel was satisfied that the air and weather wizards would line up, without hesitation or fumbling in proper order whether singly or in teams. Practice jumps got them used to shifting location in an instant without leaving them disoriented.

Meanwhile the wir wolverine and the elf-boy were at loose ends with nothing to do to prepare for the onslaught of the locusts. That didn't bother Sexton at all. His three centuries of life experience gave him the perspective and the equanimity to shrug off any feelings of uselessness he might have had. Sexton was sure that at some point during the mission his powers and physical abilities would be put to good use. Now if only he could convince Dylan, but the elf-boy could only grumble:

"Some use I am with my powers limited to Unerring Direction and Empathy. And what good are my physical skills like archery where we aren't expecting trouble? So far on this journey I have used my powers only during that water fight to sense Liam's presence behind a Concealment. Anyway, as an earth wizard Jemsen could have delved Liam's location for himself."

Sexton shook his head.

"You have to believe that they brought us along for a reason. In my case that means my shapeshifting abilities and my prowess in close combat. Also I am now as good with my airgun as I am with a long bow. In fieldcraft even the twins cannot match a wir and an elf. And you and the twins are champion archers thanks to your gift of Unerring Direction. Furthermore just because we are on a peaceful mission doesn't meant that trouble won't find us. We might run into bad people out there. And no one can detect insincerity and treachery better than an empath. Don't worry, Dylan. Your time will come."

"You really think so?"

"Heading into the unknown the way we are, I would say that it's practically inevitable."

Dylan brightened. He knew that Madden Sexton had been around, and he was a man who wasn't given to flattery or loose talk. All right. Dylan would be patient and do what needing doing when it needed to be done. And in the meanwhile he would try to understand his new ability to sense the presence of animate creatures, like with those strange two-humped camels which the Medkari used as draft and pack animals and occasionally as mounts. He got enough from them to know that they were not friendly with strangers and that he should not get too close.

Out west the three pilots conferred with Dayyub and the local headman. This newest man-made oasis of the Medkari was the first built away from the north to south axis of the trade route. Situated below sandstone cliffs to the south and west, it benefited from the shade they cast in the afternoon. Dwellings and workshops had been carved in the soft rock. Still only lightly inhabited, the oasis was a work in progress. The main public works were all in place: two artesian wells which fed impoundments, spillways, and watering troughs for livestock.

A network of bamboo pipes for drip irrigation had been laid out though as yet only a fraction of the fields was under cultivation. The soil there was particularly fertile. With irrigation the harvests would be bountiful.

Unfortunately the fields had been overrun by locusts in their wingless nymph form. The trails of devastation to the west told the tale of how separate outbreaks of nymphs had joined up into one giant mass of insects. There was nothing the small local work force could have done to stop them.

Drew laid about with his fly swatters, squares of matting twenty feet on a side, the sides stiffened with bamboo poles to hold their shape. With two poles slipped out of their sleeves, it had been easy enough to roll the mats up and carry them in Liam's big transport aerocraft for reassembly on site.

Alas it was soon obvious that Drew's fly swatter tactic was hopelessly inadequate. As the swatters approached the ground they blew as many insects away from the impact zone as they caught. Anyway what use was it to crush three or four hundred at a time while ten thousand leapfrogged forward in their place? And it wasn't long before the panels fell apart from the battering they took as Drew repeatedly slapped them against the ground.

Liam did somewhat better with a whirlwind which he called up to sweep the fields and lift the nymphs up to the cold air at height, but many of the locusts survived the cold and the winds and even the fall back to earth. They were so light that the terminal velocity of their fall was not fatal.

The locals resigned themselves to forting up in their dwellings till the nymphs hopped by. At least they had nothing to fear physically from insects which ate only vegetation. The battle of annihilation would have to be fought at Amity against the winged adults using sun mirrors to kill them by the millions in the sky.

Liam's transport aerocraft ferried Dayyub and his team back to Amity where the Medkari would make their stand. If the locusts could not be stopped there, they could fly along the chain of oases the Medkari had constructed in the Hot Lands and consume every growing thing. Later that day Drew's aerial reconnaissance confirmed that the locusts had molted and taken on their adult or winged phase.

As the locusts headed east those in the lead landed to eat the prairie grass while those who had been behind flew on. The approaching swarm looked like a dirty cloud on the horizon though moving in a way no real cloud ever would.

The defenders created a staggered defense strung out several miles to the west of the oasis. Those that got past Finn's first line of defense would ran the gantlet of sunbeams created by the Mekdari gifted with air magic. Some were air or weather wizards though most were wind talkers as was Dayyub himself. Karel would get the next crack at them, and finally Liam would hold up sheets of white fire for them to fly into. The defenders hoped it would be enough.

In his persona as Thor, thunder god of the Norse, Finn raised his war hammer Mjolnir and shouted his battle cry:

"By the power of Thor!"

In response lightning flashed horizontally through the swarm again and again. Finn paused briefly as more locusts flow forward into the space in which their late colleagues had been incinerated then zapped the swarm once again. And so it went till Finn had to break off, temporarily drained by his effort.

The Medkari were formed up in five teams comprised of an air wizard and either a couple of wind talkers, or a weather wizard. For maximum effect they created sun mirrors pointed northwest slanting their heat beam forty-five degrees across the approach of the locust swarm. The insects died by the millions, not baked liked Finn's victims but literally incinerated, that is turned into ash.

As the tail end of the swarm passed the first team, Axel jumped it to the other end of the line where they set up their sun mirror again and resumed the fight. Most teams got three cracks at the bugs before the swarm arrived at Amity where Karel was determined to stop them. As one of the strongest air wizards on the planet, his sun mirrors were larger and their heat more intense. Taking advantage of the afternoon sun, he shone his heat beam straight down the the approaching swarm, killing them by the million.

Unfortunately a portion of the swarm had broken off from the main body and headed north toward the next oasis along the trade road.

Drew signaled to Axel who jumped next to Drew who asked him to transport Drew and Raqqub and six of his giant fly swatters to where the two fetchers could head off the breakout. They didn't use Drew's fly swatters to bash the insects but rather to wave the squares in the air hoping that their jerky motion and the shadows they cast would unnerved the locusts. To Drew's surprise, his tactic born of desperation actually worked. The locusts mostly turned back to rejoin the main swarm.

As effective as his sun mirrors were, Karel was being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the insects and by the broad front the swarm presented as it approached Amity. That was when Liam stepped in by creating a dozen sheets of white fire a hundred feet on a side. The young wizard, ranged them into a fiery phalanx, and swept it through the swarm utterly disintegrating the locusts it touched. White fire doesn't leave ashes behind.

Axel repositioned the Medkari teams and they joined their powers to Karel and Liam's. Meanwhile Finn defended Amity itself, zapping lightning bolts at the locusts which got past his allies.

In the end the defenders won, but just barely. It was a close run thing, as all would admit. They had been at the end of their strength.

Dayyub summed it up. "So we won after all. I wasn't really sure we would."

The defenders were too tired to cheer and just nodded.

A short while later as they refreshed themselves with soft cider brought by the grateful populace, Raqqub cried out.

"Oh no! Don't tell me that dark cloud is another swarm approaching from the northwest."

Only it was exactly that. And there wasn't just one dark cloud moving their way. There were two of them, the second coming from directly north.

Hearts sinking, the Medkari resigned themselves to utter ruin.

Suddenly Dylan shouted.

"Wait! Don't give up hope just yet. It's not what you think. Sure that cloud to the northwest is another swarm of locusts, but not the cloud to the north."

"What is then?" Finn asked.

"Deliverance." Dylan said with relief then explained.

"That cloud to the north is an immense flock of seagulls which must have flown all the way from the northern ocean chasing swarms of locusts. The gulls will stop the locusts all right. Gobble them up, they will."

Dayyub was happy about the gulls but doubtful about their origins. "More likely the birds flew from a large salt lake which lies some hundred fifty miles north of here, beyond the Hot Lands."

"Dylan, how can you be so sure that those are seagulls and not more locusts? Even through my far-viewer I cannot tell what they are." Jemsen asked.

"I know Jemsen. I just know. It's like when I knew about the panther or sensed Liam behind his concealment. "

"Then you must be manifesting a new gift. And if you can sense the gulls from this far away, Dylan, it must be a powerful one."

"But what gift could it be?" the elf-boy wondered.

"A very rare gift indeed, my young friend." Dayyub said. "It is a gift you share with your friends the druids. You Dylan are becoming a Beast Master."

"A Beast Master?"

"Exactly. Right now you can only sense the presence of animate creatures and project your feelings towards them. Soon your gift will enhance the range of your senses. You will be able to send part of your consciousness into the minds of your animal servitors so you could look through their eyes. With their sharp vision and ability to soar and glide over an area eagles and hawks make excellent agents for aerial reconnaissance."

"For ground reconnaissance or surveillance at ground level you should use wolves. They have excellent visual discrimination and good crepuscular vision. True their acuity is less than your own, and they are partly color-blind so you will have to make allowances. What you see as red a wolf sees as yellow. On the plus side is their olfactory ability. You might set wolves to follow a scent."

"You will be able to control them much as the druids do. You could enlist the larger animals such as equines and moose and even elephants as mounts for you and your party. The smaller animals would serve as scouts or as sentries."

"Don't overlook the possibilities of mice and cats as spies. Cats roam about and curl up everywhere and people are comfortable in their presence and talk unguardedly. As for mice and such, they are tiny critters which no one would give a second thought to."

"How is it you know so much about such things, Dayyub?"

The Medkari elder smiled and explained that one of his cousins was a beast master, someone they should look up since they were headed northward anyway.

"His name is Padraig and he lives on the shores of a great lake about four hundred miles from here which is too far for infrasound messaging. I'll write you a letter of introduction. How does all that strike you my young friend?" Dayyub concluded.

"I'm still taking it all in. Me, a Beast Master. I don't know what to say."

"Well you'd better think of something memorable to say pretty darn quick." Drew chided.

"I'll need a quote from you for my next article in the Capital Intelligencer. Or rather the one I write after my report about the battle against the locusts. So say something inspirational."

Dylan rolled his eyes. "Why do journalists always dramatize everything?"

"Obviously it is to sell papers. Why else?" Drew asked with unassailable logic then added.

"News-papers must engage the attention of the public in the first place if they are to convey what people need to know as citizens of a republic."

Sexton smiled at the elf-boy and said: "Your new powers will make you an even more valuable member of the team."

"It's just as you said." Dylan acknowledged.

By the time their conversation was concluded and with the sun near the western horizon, the two clouds converged and interpenetrated. Carried by the prevailing west wind, the swirling mass of flyers drifted ever closer. It time everyone could hear the squawks and calls of the hungry gulls as they greedily gobbled up the locusts.

Afterwards the satiated gulls settled down by the thousands around the central pond of the oasis and drank their fill. Too tired and heavy to resume flight that day, the noisy gulls kept everyone awake the whole night, not that the Medkari complained. It was so much music to their ears, the music of deliverance.

Liam, Finn, Axel, and Karel were drained from using magic so extensively. They had been at it for hours on end which was longer than any of the pitched battles they had fought in the past. Liam especially had over-extended himself with keeping sheets of white fire in place. It would very likely strengthen him in the future but right then he was completely exhausted. All of them actually slept through the racket the seagulls made. Dylan shared Karel's bed though only for sleep that night.

Less tired than the others, Jemsen and Raqqub had the energy to make the most of their opportunity to renew their friendship that very evening. They knew that Karel would be joining them for the rest of their stay in Amity. The young Medkari showed Jemsen the house he and his friends had recently built in anticipation of his taking a bride. It looked comfortable enough though not yet homey, lacking a woman's touch.

Moonlight shone through a skylight in the main bedchamber, bathing the pair in a pearly effulgence. Disporting themselves energetically on the sturdy marital bed the boys went at it hammer and tongs. They had a lot of lost time to make up for. The cultivation of irrigated crops is hard work and the Medkari had the strong bodies to prove it. Even so Jemsen was much stronger. Druidical healing magic and the powers of the New Forest had made him three times as strong as he looked to be.

At twenty-two Raqqub was at the height of his physical and sexual powers and here he was making love with one of the sexiest guys on the planet. It didn't get much better than that, except when he had both twins in bed at once. Both lovers were versatile so they pleasured each other orally then Raqqub mounted Jemsen face to face. He like to see the face of the boy he was fucking and to kiss it as well as play with his erogenous zones like nipples, navel, and earlobes. When they came, their orgasms were synchronized and explosive.

When Jemsen got his breath back he lay flat and had Raqqub straddle him and impale himself on Jemsen's shaft. Raqqub posted his mount as if atop a trotting horse while Jemsen tweaked his nipples and the rubbed the sweet spot on his cock. This time Raqqub came first, shooting his gism over his lover's chest and face. A bit of splooge almost hit Jemsen's left eye but his preternatural quick reflexes shut it in time. Jemsen wiped it off with his finger and offered it to the young Medkari to taste. Raqqub's resumed posting soon brought Jemsen over the edge and he shot his seed into his lover's quim.

The pair went to sleep but woke up early for a second round and a third before sleeping long past dawn. The next morning their joint shower was alas too short to allow for any fooling around. In the Hot Lands folks did not waste water. As Raqqub dressed Jemsen asked him why he and his folk favored long robes in the intense heat.

"First of all, you must understand that we Medkari don't wear full-length robes because we are ashamed of the human body. Far from it, as I think I demonstrated last night."

"Our robes are actually better for this hot climate than what you call your expeditionary outfit. The cut is loose enough to allow a full range of movement of body and limbs. With the hem at the ankles it doesn't interfere with walking or running for that matter. And with camels you have to ride side saddle anyway since the barrels of their bodies are two wide to bestride which is why we don't need trousers."

"Your preconceptions aside, Jemsen, the robe is an adaptation to the heat. We don't wear a belt or sash so its unconstricted shape acts like a chimney. Air flows in at the bottom to replace air heated by contact with the body which escapes out the collar and sleeves. And the sleeves roll up neatly out of the way for messy work."

"The fabric is a special weave, soft and smooth and with fibers treated alchemically to wick sweat away from the body which also cools the body as it evaporates. And the attached hood gives protection from the burning rays of the sun. So a Medkari robe is actually quite a practical garment. It much better than what you are wearing for this environment."

Jemsen looked critically at his own expeditionary outfit which consisted of short trews which reached to mid-thigh and a sleeveless shirt slashed all the way at the sides, both made of dark green silk plus a pair of the same hobnailed sandals that the infantry wore. The sun really was hot in those latitudes, which was why the twins themselves wore their camouflage cloaks. No running around the Hot Lands skin-clad or even in just sarongs. The twins had learned that lesson years ago while crossing the Hot Lands on foot with Balandur and Randell on a mapping expedition.

The feast of thanksgiving the next day featured baked locusts dripped with honey or chewed with a tasty dip of avocado paste. Drew allowed that they weren't half bad really, so long as you closed your eyes when you popped one in your mouth and didn't dwell too much on what you had just swallowed. Raqqub had to settle for that.

Dayyub spoke for his people thanking their visitors for their help they gave in fighting the locusts.

"The timing of you visit, in our direst hour of need was nothing less than providential, and the help you gave us with your own powers and by aiding us to muster our own made all the difference. In this too as in so much else the Commonwealth of the Long River has acted as a good neighbor to the Medkari."

When it was his turn to speak Finn emphasized the importance the Commonwealth attached to having no problems on its borders. The settlement of the Hot Lands by the Medkari had ensured that a friendly people dwelled on its northern border, one linked by ties of alliance, trade, and communications. The trade route was flourishing. Servicing the caravans provided many Medkari with a livelihood.

Also the constabulary of the Commonwealth and the Medkari's own patrols against bandits and raiders worked well together, sometimes in joint operations. Both sides had the right of hot pursuit, so the territory of neither party would ever become a sanctuary for malefactors no matter what side of the border their crimes occurred.

Moreover the Commonwealth' postal service had only in the last year opened a regular route through the Hot Lands to the countries beyond, facilitating the trade from which so many benefited. The postal authorities were looking into upgrading carriage of the mail from camel to autogyro, a step which would require establishing a airbase somewhere in the Hot Lands.

Over the next two days, the Medkari told the explorers what they knew of the geography of the lands to the north. Beyond the Hot Lands lay a rainier region of tall grass prairie in the midst of which was the great salt lake, then well-watered lands of hills shading into mountains covered by dry tropical forest. The Medkari knew little of the coastal lands that lay north of a rugged dividing range.

The salt lake which Dayyub had mentioned was a landmark the Medkari had noted during their migration to the Hot Lands. A hundred miles north of the salt lake was a much larger body of freshwater lake. This was the region from which the Medkari had come. It was not their original homeland by any means but rather one of the areas they had settled over the centuries. Dayyub gave them a letter of introduction to the local authorities as well as a letter of introduction to Padraig the beast master whom Dylan would consult.

In time the Medkari would set a statue of a seagull atop a memorial to the day the gulls and the Corps of Discovery, and their own wizards and wind talkers had joined their fight to save the Mekdari settlements in the Hot Lands.

A few days later, after celebrations, the Corps of Discovery resumed its odyssey.

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