Another bit of fun at SciFiIdeas.com which has led to the 33rd Tale in the series.
Here’s the picture by Ricardo Juarez:
Here’s the original Starting Point:
“Easy boy.” I loosened the reins and gave my snail a gentle pat on the neck. There was no sense in rushing; he’d only tire himself out, and we had a long journey ahead of us.
It would take us several days to reach Crown City. At least by travelling at a snail’s pace we’d be flying under the radar. They’d be looking for me in the air, checking every jet-wasp and bullet-fly to enter Saxe airspace for the next week. Disguised as a simple herb seller, I could slip into the lower levels without raising so much as an eyebrow.
Clouds gathered all around us. Soon the plain would be awash with rain, and mud, and oily black silt-water. Nice and moist – just the way we liked it.
And my continuation:
The cyber-snail huffed, agitated.
I turned around to watch behind us.
I spied three dirt clouds, mud and dry earth kicked up by something approaching from several directions. In this area, outside Crown City, it wouldn’t be Saxe, it would be something worse. The snail’s artificial senses couldn’t detect anything, its glowing sensory stalks twitching it around. I made sure the physical connection between us was still intact, checking the cable and the data ports.
I had tangled with the bandits of Flat Reach before, though I was far from certain these would be the same group; there was more than one group in existence after all. I didn’t want to do it again.
The cyber-snail’s power core hummed along as I quickened the pace a little.
It wouldn’t be fast, but enough to calm my nerves a little.
The glow-petals followed the road to the city, attracted to the heavy traffic.
Why was it empty now?
Why were the cyber-snail and the glow-petals his only company?
The snail’s sensory stalks picked up something else, but it was gone before it could get a target lock, or an ID. I hoped I was wrong that it was a predator, and not just some passing air cavalry eagle or some such.
The dust clouds were getting closer and signatures were starting to register through the snail’s senses, and thusly through the cyber-mind link. They were getting closer.
They couldn’t possibly know he was here, surely?
There was no way to outrun them.
My auditories picked up something, like the beating of wings.
My heart stopped cold, what was left of it. My cybernetic body whirred and hissed around me.
Why did I choose the snail?
The signatures were indeed some sort of bandits; I could see banners flying from their mounts. Would they see through my disguise? Herb sellers were common enough.
That beating of wings again.
And a roar like nothing I had heard before.
My senses were going crazy now, filled with the incoming bandits on their beetle-steeds; whatever was flapping about up there, it was coming in and out and I couldn’t get a lock with anything at my disposal, the digital parts of my brain working to find a silhouette, anything familiar.
C’mon, he urged the snail, push the speed up a bit.
The snail couldn’t respond. No matter what cybernetic enhancements it had, it was still just a snail.
I heard a whoop of joy, and turned to see the bandits bearing down on me. A full dozen from each direction, all mounted on a wild plethora of beetle-steeds, each plastered with incredibly fantastic colours as the next. I spied enhancements among them as well.
I didn’t know their bands’ names, but I could see the multi-coloured flags sported from the lead steeds.
I had no weapons.
My own enhancements would only do me good if they got close enough to touch. These bandits all acted like the cavalry of Auld Arth.
Whooping and jeering, the first group began circling me.
They knew who I was.
They had to; why bother else?
“C’mon Techsmith; surrender,” the banner bearer shouted with glee. I was their prize, their sure thing at beating the rest. They had got to me first.
“No,” I replied as sternly as I could.
They laughed in response.
I felt myself urging the snail to a defensive standpoint, trying to watch for an opening.
“If you don’t, we’ll hurt you,” another shouted, his voice a cacophony of evil cackles.
“I’d like to see you try,” I said back. It was all false bravado, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t fight and win. I knew I couldn’t let myself be captured, for fear of being indentured, tortured, or worse my remains used by them for gods knew what.
“Techsmith,” another voice shouted. It was the banner bearer of the second group, as they charged towards me and my attackers. This group were not so colourful, but weren’t drab either. They just kept repeating my title over and over again.
The first group turned to meet this threat, still seeing me as the prize they deserve.
The third group, all sporting outrageous feathers and trophies, joined the fray.
It turned into one big mess, as bandit fought bandit. Mud splattered everywhere, across steed and rider alike until it was hard to tell each other apart. Blades severed limbs and separated head from neck. Lances, what few there were, skewered torsos and pierced beetle shell.
The beating wings returned.
This time it was accompanied by a hideous roar.
“That’s no bird,” I murmured.
Fire blossomed down from the sky and engulfed a trio of steeds and their riders, stripping armour and vaporising flesh and tissue. I urged the snail to move, to go now, or we’d both be piles of steaming meat and molten metal.
More fire came down from the clouds, and I caught a glimpse of scales.
Sweat was actually dripping down what little flesh I had left.
I heard one of the bandits shout out a word.
I closed my eyes, not wanting to see the fiery death which I was sure was coming.
Bandits burned where they stood, screaming to the heavens.
The creature –I couldn’t bring myself to call it a dragon- continued its slaughter. It took me ten minutes before I was away from the battle site. Well, at least a few hundred metres.
I looked back and saw the steaming offal and burned armour.
I felt sick.
The creature responsible –how could it be a dragon, they had left eons ago- was nowhere to be seen. Why had it spared me?
Techsmiths were renowned the world over, maybe the dragon had plans?
I kept going, not looking back until I could see Crown City far on the horizon. Every now and then, however, I heard the beating of leathery wings.