The Engines of Manta-Geth
by Kenneth Mark Hoover
Part 1 appeared in issue 107.
“I served with the Ballista Corps during the siege of Manta-Geth,” the soldier said. “I was but thirteen years old. A babe, seeking foolish dreams of fame and glory.”
We settled ourselves comfortably hoping a good story would follow.
“Gima was at war with the northern kingdom of Ingar,” said the soldier. “Our king, Ronand I, marched us north from Stonekeep. Ingar raiders harassed us every step of the way, striking and melting back into Shan Forest. Three months it took for the host of Gima to cross into Ingar, driving our enemies before us like leaves before a storm. We crossed the raging torrents of the Zephyr River and marched onto the fortress of Manta-Geth, laying siege in the autumn of the year.”
The soldier lowered his head into his hands, lifted it wearily.
“Resplendent in his armor, Ronand positioned his forces in the fields around Tor-Donir, the highest peak in Ingar. There, the star-shaped fortress of Manta-Geth sat as a white jewel, waiting to be taken.
“We knew of the legendary strength of Manta-Geth; it had not fallen during the Elvish Wars. Too, I knew myself as a simple cog in a great war machine. But this was where I wanted to be, even though it might mean my life’s end. Working with my comrades, fighting alongside my childhood friends.
“Know, the fortress of Manta-Geth is a six-pointed star built upon a natural spire named Tor-Donir. From each point emerges a steep road from stone archways that encircle the spire: six roads spiraling down to the base of the peak. No one ascends Tor-Donir except by these roads; the natural face of the peak is filled with impassable crevices and bottomless defiles.
“Thus, using these roads, we pulled the components of our ballistas upwards and came within range of Manta-Geth’s outer perimeter. The hosts of Gima were arrayed behind us, waiting for the walls to be breached.”
“We assembled our ballistas, and after sighting or leveling our machines as need arose, fired upon the fortress. For five days we attacked those walls. Not once did we make any mark which could be seen. Our ammunition, great stone spheres banded by iron, simply shattered into dust upon impact.
“Then, on the morning of the sixth day, the great stone archways opened and there, for the first time ever, appeared to me the legendary death machines of Manta-Geth.
“Great, they were. Monstrosities from Hell that rolled on thick stone wheels, their dread frames fashioned of ironwood; the joints tied with dragon skin; lacquered with resin from boiled dragon skulls so the whole machine gleamed and reflected the blood-red light of the morning sun.
“Yea, I saw great spouts of liquid flame spew forth from nozzles arrayed atop these machines, and others did belch forth green clouds of gas that, heavier than air, followed a man down into the declivities and hollows he tried to hide in. I saw my mates become dancing, gibbering wicks as their flesh bubbled off their skeletons. Those who breathed in the wicked gas coughed up blood and choked upon their own lung fluids.
“But even those horrors did not compare to how the engineers of Manta-Geth oiled the stupendous sprockets and axles of their engines. I saw with my own eyes how the bodies of living prisoners were thrown into a huge maw in the center of each machine. There they were ground into mush that was runneled to the axles and other working pieces of machinery so it would not freeze up. Behind the engines, as they slowly rolled down the roads, lay a wide and glistening blood sheet.
“Together, the machines followed each road, circling Tor-Donir. When the engines reached our ballistas their gargantuan momentum either pushed them aside or crushed them beneath their stone treads like spindly toys. I ran screaming from these hellish monsters, and killed a boyhood friend who got in my way for an instant — so terrified was I to escape.”
Someone coughed. An uncomfortable moment passed before the soldier continued.
“Driven as they were, these machines then trundled across the fields at the base of the spire, killing indiscriminately. We were decimated; the host of Gima wiped clean from the face of the earth. Then, as if by silent command, the engines turned and began their slow climb back to the archways of Manta-Geth. By what black magic they performed this feat is beyond me, unless they somehow stored the energy of their descent and used it again to reach the pinnacle of Tor-Donir. I do not know; it is a mystery for engineers or spell weavers to solve.”
The bottle of blackbeer made its rounds again.
“I have little else to tell. Shamed by my cowardice, I never returned home. I instead bought passage on a caravel and sailed across the Channel of Knives to this continent. A great wanderlust then came upon me and I traveled the lands of the earth for many years. But, every night the machines of Manta-Geth enter my dreams, and I see my mates and the army of Gima and my beloved king set afire upon those broken fields of blood.”
The camp fire had collapsed to a bed of coals. The soldier’s voice found each of our hearts and curled into them like a tight worm.
“Thus, in all the years that have passed, though I escaped the carnage, I have never really escaped. As my life nears its end I know I must return to Manta-Geth. There will I meet whatever Fate has mapped out. There will I join my dead comrades and lay my head to forever sleep among their blackened bones.”
After a long silence Flint rose and went quietly to his tent. Nye the Blacksmith soon followed, and others. Only the soldier remained, staring blankly at the smoking fire.
“My good man,” Bayard said, “turn yourself from this quest.”
The soldier shook his head. “Better you ask me to turn the world backwards against the sun, nightcaster. It cannot be done. Tonight, I have spoken aloud thoughts I only carried deep within myself. Now I must see see this play to whatever end Fate has scripted.”
Bayard got to his feet. “Then I wish you luck, soldier, in whatever path you take. Come, Murt.”
Safe inside my bedroll, I asked my master, “Sir, do you think what he said was true?”
Bayard gave a derisive snort. “Death machines that spout flame and belch poison gas? Of course not.” He then whispered, “If so, think what it would mean...! Why, they might someday come here to wreak destruction. How could we possibly stop them?”
“Someday,” I said, “I would like to see these death engines of which he spoke.”
Another snort, followed by a sleepy yawn. “You’re just an ignorant boy. You have no need of death engines, and I dare say they have even less need of you. Go to sleep, Murt.”
I laced my hands behind my head and stared at the stars. But each time I tried to sleep I was awakened by throaty screams and the vision of a great machine relentlessly chasing me across the face of the world.
Soon dawn would come. I would have to wake my snoring master, massage his feet, comb his beard and help him with his toilet. Just as I had done every morning for longer than I cared to remember.
That is why a half hour before sunrise I stole from my bedroll and returned to the central camp fire. The soldier was gone; the bed of ashes gently smoldered. Without thinking of the consequences, I started across the dark heath, hoping to shortcut the main road before sunrise.
I stumbled and clawed my way through thick patches of mist, waded cold meres when necessary until I struck the road. Exhausted, I collapsed under an oak tree. The sun was lighting the tops of the hills when I saw the soldier approach from around a bend, emerging from a fog bank.
“Take me with you,” I said, scrambling to my feet.
He paused. “You were there last night. The boy who offered me the blackbeer.”
“That was I.” I was pleased he remembered.
“Where am I going that you so need to desperately follow?”
“Manta-Geth.” Even in the cold dawn the words held horror.
“I return to honor those friends and comrades I left behind. Why do you wish to accompany me?”
“Because I am tired of massaging an old man’s feet. Because I now see these engines behind my eyelids. All my life I’ve been tied down to a man whom I torment in small ways only to relieve my incredible boredom and personal shame. I am but one of many in a long line of retainers he purchases; he will find another. This, for the first time in my life, is a task I choose; a personal quest I wish to fulfill. Perhaps I will also see something in myself I have never seen before: someone I’m not ashamed of.” I showed him my fifteen coppers. “I will share them with you to buy bread. If not, I march to Manta-Geth alone.”
He pulled his bottom lip. “What is your name, boy?”
“I am called Murt.”
“The engines may not appear. There is no reason they should, you know.”
“They will. They will show themselves because you seek them out, and I for the first time in my life will encounter something few have ever seen before.”
The soldier said low, “And I for the last, I think. Well, each to his destiny, then. Come, Murt.”
I fell into step beside my new companion. Before the morning was done the sun burned the night mists from the cold heath, clearing our road ahead.
Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Mark Hoover