Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 5

Centaurs

On their second patrol the hunters encountered manticores who did not run in a feral pack but were under the control of their old masters the centaurs. Those five centaurs sicced more than a hundred manticores on the hunters.

Looking very different from the centaurs of mythology, the creatures on Haven nevertheless walked on their four hind limbs while in front their bodies angled up to a torso with long arms and a head, whence their name. Their four hind limbs ended in hoof-like structures formed from fuzed digits, but their arms had large hands with three fingers and a semi-opposable thumb. They had internal cartilaginous skeletons, unlike insects who wore their skeletons of chitin on the outside of their bodies.

Joined directly to their bodies without a true neck, their heads could not swivel. To compensate, the beasts not only had two large eyes in front for binocular vision, they also had two small eyes in the back of the head. These small eyes could not swerve, but they extended the centaurs' peripheral vision to 360 degrees.

The centaurs were not animals. They had the power of speech and could make and use tools and weapons including javelins for the hunt and the sabers they carried into battle, one in each hand. They did not practice agriculture of any sort but lived entirely by the hunt, a way of life that necessarily limited their numbers as with all apex predators.

Both centaurs and manticores were aliens, two of the very few species of large hexapods on the planet of Haven. Invasive species like them and the reptilian raptors must have been introduced to the planet by some spacefaring race or races in days of yore.

In any event, given the disparity in numbers, the hunters had become the hunted as the manticores and centaurs chased them across open ground with nowhere to make a stand. The hunters had a decent lead of a mile and a half, but that wouldn't last long. Manticores and centaurs were so much faster than anything on two legs could ever be.

Donnar had Hugh Lift him into the air for a look at the terrain. He then led the party to the opening of a narrow canyon in the otherwise impassible mountain wall. Turning to the fetchers Donnar told them:

"I have a plan, but I need you to delay the pack till we get set up at the far end of the passage."

Hugh and Jules nodded. "Can do. The pack is well within our range."

"After you have done what you can fly down the passage either when you hear the signal horn or if they get too close, but don't let them see you doing it. Flying is a trick I want to keep up my sleeve."

The rest of the party headed down the passage while the boys attacked the pack throwing it into confusion as the leaders were killed or wounded. The centaurs responded by halting the pack then directing it along the sunken bed of a dry wash which hid them and gave them cover. No matter. That route was longer than the direct route over open ground. Their job done, the fetchers flew the length of the passage to rejoin their comrades.

What they found surprised them. The far end of the passage opened on a flat plain, leaving nowhere to run or to hide.

"Some escape plan Donnar! What do we do now?" they asked.

"Who said anything about escape? Boys, you might not believe it, but I now have our pursuers right where I want them." he said with a self-satisfied grin.

"I don't get it either Donnar." Otho said in support of the fetcher boys. "You deliberately let them drive us through this canyon, didn't you?"

Donnar nodded. "I saw it as our best chance to even the odds."

"So what is your plan?" Otho asked skeptically.

"Simple. We kill all of them before they kill all or any of us." Donnar told him blandly.

"That's your plan!"

"Rather that is the objective of my plan. Now for the tactical details…"

Donnar explained that the canyon was a wind gap, a valley created by a river which once ran though what was then a water gap before its headwaters were diverted by stream capture. Back when water still flowed in the channel the river had undercut the shale cliffs leaning in from either side.

Donnar's plan was for Corwin to bring the walls of the canyon down on their pursuers. To set the trap he had the hunters form a defensive arc as if they were determined to make a last stand and to sell their lives dearly.

Donnar intended Corwin to use his ball lightning to undermine the unstable shale beds along the final two hundred yards of the channel, finishing this preparatory work before their pursuers reached the canyon and might see what he was up to.

Then Corwin would wait till the manticores and centaurs were actually racing down the last stretch of the channel before attacking the undermined walls with his explosive ball lightning. The hope was that the walls would give way and come down in a landslide to crush and bury the manticores and their masters.

"What if your plan doesn't work, and the walls stubbornly stay in place as they have down the ages?"

"In that case Otho we go with Plan B: the fetchers lift all of us out of this trap to the top of the cliffs then fly up to join us. With that much of a head start, we should be able to get away clean."

"Fiendishly clever. I especially like having a Plan B."

At the urging of their masters the manticores raced forward howling, gnashing their teeth, and whipping their tails back and forth menacingly. Still far out of range at the far end of the wind gap the hunters put on a good show, brandishing weapons, calling out challenges, shooting air guns, and even throwing a few fire balls and levin bolts to make it look good.

In all the excitement the Centaurs did not notice that Corwin had undermined both walls of the wind gap. His ball lightning had swept back and forth to gouge the rock face, extending the overhang of the unsupported shale beds till nothing kept them up except for their adhesion of stone to the stone.

Hugh Lifted Corwin fifty feet into the air for a better view of the attackers. Starting at the back of their column, his explosive ball lightning caught the manticores and centaurs closely packed in the narrow wind gap with nowhere to run but straight ahead. The centaurs worried about the way the explosions were forcing them forward but realized that they and their rabid hunting beasts had little choice but to press the attack.

The wind gap was so narrow that the manticores could advance on a front only two or three across. The defensive arc of the hunters attacked the first few ranks of manticores alternating bullets and arrows with levin bolts, slashing steel disks, and streams of fire arcing over the front two ranks to fall on those behind. That quickly created a pile up of dead and wounded which slowed the rest of the pack as they struggled to clamber over and get past their own dead.

The defenders held the pack off long enough for Corwin's efforts to succeed. The weakened joints in the rock face suddenly fractured and gave way. With a mighty roar great masses of stone detached themselves from the sides of the wind gap and crashed onto the floor of the passage. The fallen rock crushed the manticores and their centaur masters under tens of thousands of tons of stone. After the dust settled the hunters could see no sign of a living foe.

"The landslide got them all. Good work Corwin." Donnar told him. "And good work the rest of you. You held the manticores at bay long enough for Corwin to bring the rocks down on our foes."

"The good news is that this bunch of manticores is no more. The bad news is that at least some centaurs are still alive. My guess is that the reason we were attacked was to keep us from revealing their existence to the outside world. They likely have a hunting camp nearby, something we would have been sure to find if allowed to press on."

"Do you want us to fly and locate this camp?" Jules asked.

"No. They would only move it. Also I don't want the centaurs to know we that we can fly, a capability we did not have in the last war. Let's keep them in ignorance so they won't take measures against aerial observation by our military.

"This information is more important than any number of manticores we might kill by ourselves. We have to get back to Flensborg and tell the authorities to recall the hunting parties and to dispatch a military expedition into these forests and mountains to root out the last survivors of the centaur race as well as kill all the manticores, whether feral or domestic."

At least Corwin and Hugh and Jules had time for romance while the military mobilized for war. The cousins were quite good in bed, making up with teenage enthusiasm for what they lacked in practiced technique. And they introduced Corwin to Flensborg's modest answer to Twinkle Town. Though none of its dining establishments could match the cuisine at the Sign of the Whale, the two dance clubs were lively enough. The bands played the latest tunes from sheet music printed by the Altair plant back in the capital.

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