‘Good point,’ Skell said. ‘Let’s pile some brush on top of this dead one and then act like nothing important just happened.’
‘I’m not sure if this would work, Cap’n Skell,’ Rabbit said, ‘but it just came to me that maybe fish net would keep those bat-things from getting close enough to bite us, and if they get all tangled up in the net, we could go around when the sun comes up and give each one a poke with our poisoned spears. That should thin them out at least a little bit, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Nice idea, Rabbit,’ Padan said, ‘but where are we going to get that much fish net?’
‘That’s not really much of a problem, Padan,’ Skell said. ‘Every Maag longship has fish-netting on board. If we can catch fish, we don’t have to sail back to port to buy more beans. I’ll talk it over with cousin Sorgan when he gets up here, but after he sees that dead bug-bat, I’m sure he’ll go along with Rabbit’s idea. The notion of a flying enemy probably won’t sit any better with him than it does with me.’
Skell’s brother came up out of the narrow creek bed about mid-morning the following day and joined Skell’s scouting party near the geyser. ‘Now that’s something you don’t see very often,’ he said, pointing at the geyser. ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw a waterspout on dry land.’
‘Strange things happen in strange country, Torl,’ Skell said. ‘Are your men stringing ropes up along that creek?’
‘They’re only about an hour behind me, and cousin Sorgan and the Trogs aren’t very far behind them.’
‘Good. We’re probably going to need some forts in place before too much longer.’
‘Have you spotted any enemies yet?’
‘Oh, yes. We didn’t know that they were enemies right at first, but they’re out there.’
‘Boring holes through the ground again?’
‘Not that we know about. I suppose it’s possible, but the only ones we’ve seen so far have been flying.’
‘You’re not serious!’
‘I’m afraid so, Torl. That Vlagh thing’s been experimenting again, and now we’ve got bats watching everything we do.’
‘Bats?’ Torl said incredulously.
‘It didn’t make me very happy either, Torl. We might just have to hole up until the archers get here - at least after the sun goes down. We haven’t seen any of them in the daytime yet.’
‘Are they poisonous - like those snake-men we came up against back in the ravine?’
‘Red-Beard says they are. Longbow killed one of them so we could take a look at it, and Red-Beard told me he was catching the smell of venom when he got close to it.’
‘How can we possibly hide from them after the sun goes down?’ Torl’s voice was just a bit shrill.
‘Calm down, Torl,’ Skell told him. ‘That clever little smith from the Seagull has already come up with an easy answer. All we’re really going to need is fish net, and every Maag ship in the fleet’s got about a half mile of fishnet stored in the hold. When one of those bat-bugs gets all tangled up in the netting, he won’t be a problem any more.’
‘Sometimes that little Rabbit fellow’s so smart that he makes me sick.’
‘Just be glad that he’s on our side, little brother,’ Skell said.
Cousin Sorgan and Narasan the Trog came up out of the narrow gorge about noon that day and joined Skell’s small group of scouts near the geyser. ‘Ho, Skell!’ Sorgan shouted, ‘have you seen any snake-men up here yet?’
‘Not a one, cousin,’ Skell replied.
‘We got up here before they did, then,’ Sorgan said.
‘I wouldn’t start celebrating just yet, Sorgan,’ Skell said. ‘I think we might end up missing those snake-men before this is all over.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘We’ve got a whole new breed of enemies this time, Sorgan. These enemies know how to fly.’
‘That’s not funny, Skell.’
‘Do you see me laughing, cousin?’
‘You’re just making this up.’
‘Not even a little bit. We’ve got a dead one under that brush pile over by that waterspout. It’s got bat wings and a bug head. Come and look for yourself. There were dozens of bats flapping around one night, and Longbow had one of those hunches he gets all the time, and he picked one of the bats out of the sky with an arrow. As it turned out, that hunch of his probably saved a lot of lives. When it’s flapping around in the dark, it looks pretty much like an ordinary bat, but when you take a closer look, “ordinary” goes right out the window. It’s a bat with a bug’s head, and just to add to the fun, it’s got a strong smell of that venom the snake-men in the ravine had during the war we fought last spring. We kept the carcass, so you can look for yourself.’
Skell led them to the temporary camp near the geyser and uncovered the bug-bat’s carcass. It was starting to get just a bit ripe, so Skell moved around to the upwind side. ‘As you can see,’ he told them, ‘It looks like an ordinary bat - or a mouse with wings - right up until you get to its head. That’s when “bug” takes over.’
‘Are you certain that it’s venomous?’ Narasan asked dubiously.
‘Red-Beard told us that he could smell the venom,’ Skell replied. ‘I’ll take his word for it. I’m not going to touch the silly thing with my bare hands just to make sure.’
‘Have they killed any of your men?’ Narasan asked.
‘Not so far. Longbow thinks that these bug-bats are just scouting for the time being. Bats would make good scouts, wouldn’t they? I’m definitely hoping that scouting around is all our enemy uses these things for. If the whole enemy army’s nothing but bug-bats, we’re in a lot of trouble. Just the thought of an enemy that knows how to fly makes my blood run cold. Rabbit came up with an idea that might work. He suggested that we might want to bring all of our fish nets up here and tent over any place where we’ll be after the sun goes down with netting.’
‘Maybe,’ Narasan said a bit dubiously. ‘How far is it to the most likely invasion route?’
‘Just a few miles off to the north,’ Skell replied. ‘I think it might cause some problems, though. There used to be a ridge-line that had pretty much blocked off that slope that leads down to the Wasteland, but quite a while back it seems that there was an earthquake that opened a gap about a mile wide in the ridge. It’ll take us a long time to build a wall that long, so things won’t be nearly as easy as they were back in the ravine.’