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Storm Over Warlock, Version 2

7. UNWELCOME GUIDE

There was a small eruption of earth and stone as the hound came alive, fighting to reach its tormentors. The resulting din was deafening. Shann, avoiding by a hand's breadth a snap of jaws with power to crush his leg into bone powder and mangled flesh, cuffed Togi across her nose and buried his hands in the fur about Taggi's throat as he heaved the male wolverine back from the struggling monster. He shouted orders, and to his surprise Togi did obey, leaving him free to yank Taggi away. Perhaps neither wolverine had expected the full fury of the hound.

Though he suffered a slash across the back of one hand, delivered by the over-excited Taggi, in the end Shann was able to get both animals away from the hole, now corked so effectively by the slavering thing. Thorvald was actually laughing as he watched his younger companion in action.

"This ought to slow up the beetles! If they haul their little doggie back, it's apt to take out some of its rage on them, and I'd like to see them dig around it."

Considering that the monstrous head was swinging from side to side in a collar of what seemed to be immovable rocks, Shann thought Thorvald right. He went down on his knees beside the wolverines, soothing them with hand and voice, trying to get them to obey his orders willingly.

"Ha!" Thorvald brought his mud-stained hands together with a clap, the sharp sound attracting the attention of both animals.

Shann scrambled up, swung out his bleeding hand in the simple motion which meant to hunt, being careful to signal down the valley westward. Taggi gave a last reluctant growl at the hound, to be answered by one of its ear-torturing howls, and then trotted off, Togi tagging behind.

Thorvald caught Shann's slashed hand, inspecting the bleeding cut. From the aid packet at his belt he brought out powder and a strip of protecting plasta-flesh to cleanse and bind the wound.

"You'll do," he commented. "But we'd better get out of here before full dark."

The small paradise of the valley was no safe campsite. It could not be so long as that monstrosity on the hillside behind them roared and howled its rage to the darkening sky. Trailing the wolverines, the men caught up with the animals drinking from a small spring and thankfully shared that water. Then they pushed on, not able to forget that somewhere in the peaks about must lurk the Throg flyer ready to attack on sight.

Only darkness could not be held off by the will of men. Here in the open there was no chance to use the torch. As long as they were within the valley boundaries the phosphorescent bushes marked a path. But by the coming of complete darkness they were once more out in a region of bare rock.

The wolverines had killed a brace of skitterers, consuming hide and soft bones as well as the meager flesh which was not enough to satisfy their hunger. However, to Shann's relief, they did not wander too far ahead. And as the men stopped at last on a ledge where a fall of rock gave them some limited shelter both animals crowded in against the humans, adding the heat of their bodies to the slight comfort of that cramped resting place.

From time to time Shann was startled out of a troubled half sleep by the howl of the hound. Luckily that sound never seemed any louder. If the Throgs had caught up with their hunter, and certainly they must have done so by now, they either could not, or would not free it from the trap. Shann dozed again, untroubled by any dreams, to awake hearing the shrieks of clak-claks. But when he studied the sky he was able to sight none of the cliff-dwelling Warlockian bats.

"More likely they are paying attention to our friend back in the valley," Thorvald said dryly, rightly reading Shann's glance to the clouds overhead. "Ought to keep them busy."

Clak-claks were meat eaters, only they preferred their chosen prey weak and easy to attack. The imprisoned hound would certainly attract their kind. And those shrill cries now belling through the mountain heights ought to draw everyone of their species within miles.

"There it is!" Thorvald, pulling himself to his feet by a rock handhold, gazed westward, his gaunt face eager.

Shann, expecting no less than a cruising Throg ship, searched for cover on their perch. Perhaps if they flattened themselves behind the fall of stones, they might be able to escape attention. Yet Thorvald made no move into hiding. And so Shann followed the line of the other's fixed stare.

Before and below them lay a maze of heights and valleys, sharp drops, and saw-toothed rises. But on the far rim of that section of badlands shone the green of a Warlockian sea rippling on to the only dimly seen horizon. They were now within sight of their goal.

Had they had one of the exploration sky-flitters from the overrun camp, they could have walked its beach sands within the hour. Instead, they fought their way through a Devil-designed country for the next two days. Twice they had narrow escapes from the Throg ship—or ships—which continued to sweep across the rugged line of the coast, and only a quick dive to cover, wasting precious time cowering like trapped animals, saved them from discovery. But at least the hound did not bay again on the tangled trail they left, and they hoped that the trap and the clak-claks had put that monster permanently out of service.

On the third day they came down to one of those fiords which tongued inland, fringing the coast. There had been no lack of hunting in the narrow valleys through which they had threaded, so both men and wolverines were well fed. Though animal fur wore better than the now tattered uniforms of the men.

"Now where?" Shann asked.

Would he now learn the purpose driving Thorvald on to this coastland? Certainly such broken country afforded good hiding, but no better concealment than the mountains of the interior.

The Survey officer turned slowly around on the shingle, studying the heights behind them as well as the angle of the inlet where the wavelets lapped almost at their battered boot tips. Opening his treasured map case, he began a patient checking of landmarks against several of the strips he carried. "We'll have to get on down to the true coast."

Shann leaned against the trunk of a conical branched mountain tree, pulling absently at the shreds of wine-colored bark being shed in seasonal change. The chill they had known in the upper valleys was succeeded here by a humid warmth. Spring was becoming a summer such as this northern continent knew. Even the fresh wind, blowing in from the outer sea, had already lost some of the bite they had felt two days before when its salt-laden mistiness had first struck them.

"Then what do we do there?" Shann persisted.

Thorvald brought over the map, his black-rimmed nail tracing a route down one of the fiords, slanting out to indicate a lace of islands extending in a beaded line across the sea.

"We head for these."

To Shann that made no sense at all. Those islands ... why, they would offer less chance of establishing a safe base than the broken land in which they now stood. Even the survey scouts had given those spots of sea-encircled earth the most cursory examination from the air.

"Why?" he asked bluntly. So far he had followed orders because they had for the most part made sense. But he was not giving obedience to Thorvald as a matter of rank alone.

"Because there is something out there, something which may make all the difference now. Warlock isn't an empty world."

Shann jerked free a long thong of loose bark, rolling it between his fingers. Had Thorvald cracked? He knew that the officer had disagreed with the findings of the team and had been an unconvinced minority of one who had refused to subscribe to the report that Warlock had no native intelligent life and therefore was ready and waiting for human settlement because it was technically an empty world. But to continue to cling to that belief without a single concrete proof was certainly a sign of mental imbalance.

And Thorvald was regarding him now with frowning impatience. You were supposed to humor delusions, weren't you? Only, could you surrender and humor a wild idea which might mean your death? If Thorvald wanted to go island-hopping in chance of discovering what never had existed, Shann need not accompany him. And if the officer tried to use force, well, Shann was armed with a stunner, and had, he believed, more control over the wolverines. Perhaps if he merely gave lip agreement to this project.... Only he didn't believe, noting the light deep in those gray eyes holding on him, that anybody could talk Thorvald out of this particular obsession.

"You don't believe me, do you?" The impatience arose hotly in that demand.

"Why shouldn't I?" Shann tried to temporize. "You've had a lot of exploration experience; you should know about such things. I don't pretend to be any authority."

Thorvald refolded the map and placed it in the case. Then he pulled at the sealing of his blouse, groping in an inner secret pocket. He uncurled his fingers to display his treasure.

On his palm lay a coin-shaped medallion, bone-white but possessing an odd luster which bone would not normally show. And it was carved. Shann put out a finger, though he had a strange reluctance to touch the object. When he did he experienced a sensation close to the tingle of a mild electric shock. And once he had made that contact, he was also impelled to pick up that disk and examine it more closely.

The carved pattern was very intricate and had been done with great delicacy and skill, though the whorls, oddly shaped knobs, ribbon tracings, made no connected design he could determine. After a moment or two of study, Shann became aware that his eyes, following those twists and twirls, were "fixed," that it required a distinct effort to look away from the thing. Feeling some of that same alarm as he had known when he first heard the wailing of the Throg hound, he let the disk fall back into Thorvald's hold, even more disturbed when he discovered that to relinquish his grasp required some exercise of will.

"What is it?"

Thorvald restored the coin to his hiding place.

"You tell me. I can say this much, there is no listing for anything even remotely akin to this in the Archives."

Shann's eyes widened. He absently rubbed the fingers which had held the bone coin—if it was a coin—back and forth across the torn front of his blouse. That tingle ... did he still feel it? Or was his imagination at work again? But an object not listed in the exhaustive Survey Archives would mean some totally new civilization, a new stellar race.

"It is definitely a created article," the Survey officer continued. "And it was found on the beach of one of those sea islands."

"Throg?" But Shann already knew the answer to that.

"Throg work—this?" Thorvald was openly scornful. "Throgs have no conception of such art. You must have seen their metal plates—those are the beetle-heads' idea of beauty. Have those the slightest resemblance to this?"

"Then who made it?"

"Either Warlock has—or once had—a native race advanced enough in a well-established form of civilization to develop such a sophisticated type of art, or there have been other visitors from space here before us and the Throgs. And the latter possibility I don't believe——"

"Why?"

"Because this was carved of bone or an allied substance. We haven't been quite able to identify it in the labs, but it is basically organic material. It was found exposed to the weather and yet it is in perfect condition, could have been carved any time within the past five years. It has been handled, yes, but not roughly. And we have come across evidences of no other star-cruising races or species save ourselves and the Throgs. No, I say this was made here on Warlock, not too long ago, and by intelligent beings of a very high grade of civilization."

"But they would have cities," protested Shann. "We've been here for months, explored all over this continent. We would have seen them or some traces of them."

"An old race, maybe," Thorvald mused, "a very old race, perhaps in decline, reduced to a remnant in numbers with good reason to retire into hiding. No, we've discovered no cities, no evidence of a native culture past or present. But this—" he touched the front of his blouse—"was found on the shore of an island. We may have been looking in the wrong place for our natives."

"The sea...." Shann glanced with new interest at the green water surging in wavelets along the edge of the fiord.

"Just so, the sea!"

"But scouts have been here for more than a year, one team or another. And nobody saw anything or found any traces."

"All four of our base camps were set inland, our explorations along the coast were mainly carried out by flitter, except for one party—the one which found this. And there may be excellent local reasons why any native never showed himself to us. For that matter, they may not be able to exist on land at all, any more than we could live without artificial aids in the sea."

"Now——?"

"Now we must make a real attempt to find them if they do exist anywhere near here. A friendly native race could make all the difference in the world in any struggle with the Throgs."

"Then you did have more than the dreams to back you when you argued with Fenniston!" Shann cut in.

Thorvald's eyes were on him again. "When did you hear that, Lantee?"

To his great embarrassment, Shann found himself flushing. "I heard you, the day you left for Headquarters," he admitted, and then added in his own defense, "Probably half the camp did, too."

Thorvald's gathering frown flickered away. He gave a snort of laughter. "Yes, I guess we did rather get to the bellowing point that morning. The dreams——" he came back to the subject—"Yes, the dreams were—are—important. We had their warning from the start. Lorry was the First-In Scout who charted Warlock, and he is a good man. I guess I can break secret now to tell you that his ship was equipped with a new experimental device which recorded—well, you might call it an "emanation"—a radiation so faint its source could not be traced. And it registered whenever Lorry had one of those dreams. Unfortunately, the machine was very new, very much in the untested stage, and its performance when checked later in the lab was erratic enough so the powers-that-be questioned all its readings. They produced a half dozen answers to account for that tape, and Lorry only caught the recording as long as he was on a big bay to the south.

"Then when two check flights came in later, carrying perfected machines and getting no recordings, it was all written off as a mistake in the first experiment. A planet such as Warlock is too big a find to throw away when there was no proof of occupancy. And the settlement boys rushed matters right along."

Shann recalled his own vivid dream of the skull-rock set in the lap of water—this sea? And another small point fell into place to furnish the beginning of a pattern. "I was asleep on the raft when I dreamed about that skullmountain," he said slowly, wondering if he were making sense.

Thorvald's head came up with the alert stance of Taggi on a strong game scent.

"Yes, on the raft you dreamed of a skull-rock. And I of a cavern with a green veil. Both of us were on water—water which had an eventual connection with the sea. Could water be a conductor? I wonder...." Once again his hand went into his blouse. He crossed the strip of gravel beach and dipped fingers into the water, letting the drops fall on the carved disk he now held in his other hand.

"What are you doing?" Shann could see no purpose in that.

Thorvald did not answer. He had pressed wet hand to dry now, palm to palm, the coin cupped tightly between them. He turned a quarter circle, to face the still distant open sea.

"That way." He spoke with a new odd tonelessness.

Shann stared into the other's face. All the eager alertness of only a moment earlier had been wiped away. Thorvald was no longer the man he had known, but in some frightening way a husk, holding a quite different personality. The younger Terran answered his fear with an attack from the old days of rough in-fighting in the Dumps of Tyr. He brought his right hand down hard in a sharp chop across the officer's wrists. The bone coin spun to the sand and Thorvald stumbled, staggering forward a step or two. Before he could recover balance Shann had stamped on the medallion.

Thorvald whirled, his stunner drawn with a speed for which Shann gave him high marks. But the younger man's own weapon was already out and ready. And he talked—fast.

"That thing's dangerous! What did you do—what did it do to you?"

His demand got through to a Thorvald who was himself again.

"What was I doing?" came a counter demand.

"You were acting like a mind-controlled."

Thorvald stared at him incredulously, then with a growing spark of interest.

"The minute you dripped water on that thing you changed," Shann continued.

Thorvald reholstered his stunner. "Yes," he mused, "why did I want to drip water on it? Something prompted me...." He ran his still damp hand up the angle of his jaw, across his forehead as if to relieve some pain there. "What else did I do?"

"Faced to the sea and said 'that way,'" Shann replied promptly.

"And why did you move in to stop me?"

Shann shrugged. "When I first touched that thing I felt a shock. And I've seen mind-controlled——" He could have bitten his tongue for betraying that. The world of the mind-controlled was very far from the life Thorvald and his kind knew.

"Very interesting," commented the other. "For one of so few years you seem to have seen a lot, Lantee—and apparently remembered most of it. But I would agree that you are right about this little plaything; it carries a danger with it, being far less innocent than it looks." He tore off one of the fluttering scraps of rag which now made up his sleeve. "If you'll just remove your foot, we'll put it out of business for now."

He proceeded to wrap the disk well in his bit of cloth, taking care not to touch it again with his bare fingers while he stowed it away.

"I don't know what we have in this—a key to unlock a door, a trap to catch the unwary. I can't guess how or why it works. But we can be reasonably sure it's not just some carefree maiden's locket, nor the equivalent of a credit to spend in the nearest bar. So it pointed me to the sea, did it? Well, that much I am willing to allow. Maybe we'll be able to return it to the owner, after we learn who—or what—that owner is."

Shann gazed down at the green water, opaque, not to be pierced to the depths by human sight. Anything might lurk there. Suddenly the Throgs became normal when balanced against an unknown living in the murky depths of an aquatic world. Another attack on the Throg-held camp could be well preferred to such exploration as Thorvald had in mind. Yet Shann did not voice any protest as the Survey officer faced again in the same direction as the disk had pointed him moments before.



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