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Storm Over Warlock, Version 2

8. UTGARD

A wind from the west sprang up an hour before sunset, lashing waves inland until their spray was a salt mist in the air, a mist to sodden clothing, plaster hair to the skull, leaving a brine slime across the skin. Yet Thorvald hunted no shelter, in spite of the promise in the rough shoreline at their backs. The sand in which their boots slipped and slid was coarse stuff, hardly finer than gravel, studded with nests of drift—bone-white or grayed or pale lavender—smoothed and stored by the seasons of low tides and high, seasonal storms and hurricanes. A wild shore and a forbidding one, to arouse Shann's distrust, perhaps a fitting goal for that disk's guiding.

Shann had tasted loneliness in the mountains, experienced the strange world of the river at night lighted by the wan radiance of glowing shrubs and plants, forced the starkness of the heights. Yet there had been through all that journeying a general resemblance to his own past on other worlds. A tree was a tree, whether it bore purple foliage or was red-veined. A rock was a rock, a river a river. They were equally hard and wet on Warlock or Tyr.

But now a veil he could not describe, even in his own thoughts, hung between him and the sand over which he walked, between him and the sea which sent spray to wet his torn clothing, between him and that wild wrack of long-ago storms. He could put out his hand and touch sand, drift, spray; yet they were a setting where something lay hidden behind that setting—something watched, calculatingly, with intelligence, and a set of emotions and values he did not, could not share.

"... storm coming." Thorvald paused in the buffeting of wind and spray, watching the fury of the tossing sea. The sun was still a pale smear just above the horizon. And it gave light enough to make out that trickle of islands melting out to obscurity.

"Utgard——"

"Utgard?" Shann repeated, the strange word holding no meaning for him.

"Legend of my people." Thorvald smeared spray from his face with one hand. "Utgard, those outermost islands where dwell the giants who are the mortal enemies of the old gods."

Those dark lumps, most of them bare rock, only a few crowned with stunted vegetation, might well harbor anything, Shann decided, giants or the malignant spirits of any race. Perhaps even the Throgs had their tales of evil things in the night, beetle monsters to people wild, unknown lands. He caught at Thorvald's arm and suggested a practical course of action.

"We'll need shelter before the storm strikes." To Shann's relief the other nodded.

They trailed back across the beach, their backs now to the sea and Utgard. That harsh-sounding name did so well fit the line of islands and islets, Shann repeated it to himself. Here the beach was narrow, a strip of blue sand-gravel walled by wave-worn boulders. And from that barrier of stones piled into a breastwork by chance, interwoven with bone-bare drift, arose the first of the cliffs. Shann studied the terrain with increasing uneasiness. To be caught between a sea, whipped inland by a storm wind, and that cliff would be a risk he did not like to consider, as ignorant of field lore as he was. They must locate some break nearer than the fiord, down which they had come. And they must find it soon, before the daylight was gone and the full fury of bad weather struck.

In the end the wolverines discovered an exit, just as they had found the passage through the mountain. Taggi nosed into a darker line down the face of the cliff and disappeared, Togi duplicating that feat. Shann trailed them, finding the opening a tight squeeze.

He squirmed into dimness, his outstretched hands meeting a rough stone surface sloping upward. After gaining a point about eight feet above the beach he was able to look back and down through the seaward slit. Open to the sky the crevice proved a doorway to a narrow valley, not unlike those which housed the fiords, but provided with a thick growth of vegetation well protected by the high walls.

Working as a now well-rehearsed team, the men set up a shelter of saplings and brush, the back to the slit through which wind was still able to tear a way. Walled in by stone and knowing that no Throg flyer would attempt to fly in the face of the coming storm, they dared make a fire. The warmth was a comfort to their bodies, just as the light of the flames, men's age-old hearth companion, was a comfort to the fugitives' spirits. Those dancing spears of red, for Shann at least, burned away that veil of other-worldliness which had enwrapped the beach, providing in the night an illusion of the home he had never really known.

But the wind and the weather did not keep truce very long. A wailing blast around the upper peaks produced a caterwauling to equal the voices of half a dozen Throg hounds. And in their poor shelter the Terrans not only heard the thunderous boom of surf, but felt the vibration of that beat pounding through the very ground on which they lay. The sea must have long since covered the beach over which they had come and was now trying its strength against the rock of the cliff barrier. They could not talk to each other over that din, although shoulder touched shoulder.

The last flush of amber vanished from the sky with the speed of a dropped curtain. Tonight no period of twilight divided night from day, but their portion of Warlock was plunged abruptly into darkness. The wolverines crowded into their small haven, whining deep in their throats. Shann ran his hands along their furred bodies, trying to give them a reassurance he himself did not feel. Never before when on stable land had he been so aware of the unleashed terrors nature could exert, the forces against which all mankind's controls were as nothing.

Time could no longer be measured by any set of minutes or hours. There was only darkness, the howling winds, and the salty rain which must be in part the breath of the sea driven in upon them. The comforting fire vanished, chill and dankness crept up to cramp their bodies, so that now and again they were forced to their feet, to swing arms, stamp, drive the blood into faster circulation.

Later came a time when the wind died, no longer driving the rain bullet-hard against and through their flimsy shelter. Then they slept in the thick unconsciousness of exhaustion.

A red-purple skull—and from its eye sockets the flying things—kept coming ... going.... Shann trod on an unsteady foundation which dipped under his weight as had the raft of the river voyage. He was drawing nearer to that great head, could see now how waves curled about the angle of the lower jaw, slapping inward between gaps of missing teeth—which were really broken fangs of rock—as if the skull now and then sucked reviving moisture from the water. The aperture marking the nose was closer to a snout, and the hole was dark, dark as the empty eye sockets. Yet that darkness was drawing him past any effort to escape he could summon. And then that on which he rode so perilously was carried forward by the waves, grated against the jawbone, while against his own fighting will his hands arose above his head, reaching for a hold to draw his shrinking body up the stark surface to that snout-passage.

"Lantee!" A hand jerked him back, broke that compulsion—and the dream. Shann opened his eyes with difficulty, his lashes seemed glued to his cheeks.

He might have been surveying a submerged world. Thin streamers of fog twined up from the earth as if they grew from seeds planted by the storm. But there was no wind, no sound from the peaks. Only under his stiff body Shann could still feel that vibration which was the sea battering against the cliff wall.

Thorvald was crouched beside him, his hand still urgent on the younger man's shoulder. The officer's face was drawn so finely that his features, sharp under the tanned skin, were akin to the skull Shann still half saw among the ascending pillars of fog.

"Storm's over."

Shann shivered as he sat up, hugging his arms to his chest, his tattered uniform soggy under that pressure. He felt as if he would never be warm again. When he moved sluggishly to the pit where they had kindled their handful of fire the night before he realized that the wolverines were missing.

"Taggi——?" His voice sounded rusty in his own ears, as if some of the moisture thick in the air about them had affected his vocal cords.

"Hunting." Thorvald's answer was clipped. He was gathering a handful of sticks from the back of their lean-to, where the protection of their own bodies had kept that kindling dry. Shann snapped a length between his hands, dropped it into the pit.

When they did coax a blaze into being they stripped, wringing out their clothing, propping it piece by steaming piece on sticks by the warmth of the flames. The moist air bit at their bodies and they moved briskly, striving to keep warm by exercise. Still the fog curled, undisturbed by any shaft of sun.

"Did you dream?" Thorvald asked abruptly.

"Yes." Shann did not elaborate. Disturbing as his dream had been, the feeling that it was not to be shared was also strong, as strong as some order.

"And so did I," Thorvald said bleakly. "You saw your skull-mountain?"

"I was climbing it when you awoke me," Shann returned unwillingly.

"And I was going through my green veil when Taggi took off and wakened me. You are sure your skull exists?"

"Yes."

"And so am I that the cavern of the veil is somewhere on this world. But why?" Thorvald stood up, the firelight marking plainly the lines between his tanned arms, his brown face and throat, and the paleness of his lean body. "Why do we dream those particular dreams?"

Shann tested the dryness of a shirt. He had no reason to try and explain the wherefore of those dreams, only was he certain that he would sometime, somewhere, find that skull, and that when he did he would climb to the doorway of the snout, pass behind to depths where the flying things might nest—not because he wanted to make such an expedition, but because he must.

He drew his hands across his ribs, where pressure still brought an aching reminder of the crushing force of the energy whip the Throgs had wielded. There was no extra flesh on his body, yet muscles slid easily under the skin, a darker skin than Thorvald's, deepening to a warm brown where it had been weathered. His hair, unclipped now for a month, was beginning to curl about his head in tight dark rings. Since he had always been the youngest or the smallest or the weakest in the world of the Dumps, of the Service, of the Team, Shann had very little personal vanity. He did possess a different type of pride, born of his own stubborn achievement in winning out over a long roster of discouragements, failures, and adverse odds.

"Why do we dream?" he repeated Thorvald's question. "No answer, sir." He gave the traditional reply of the Service recruit. And a little to his surprise Thorvald laughed with a tinge of real amusement.

"Where do you come from, Lantee?" He asked as if he were honestly interested.

"Tyr."

"Caldon mines." The Survey officer automatically matched planet to product. "How did you come into Survey?"

Shann drew on his shirt. "Signed on as casual labor," he returned with a spark of defiance. Thorvald had joined the Service the right way as a cadet, then a Team man, finally an officer, climbing that nice even ladder with every rung ready for him when he was prepared to mount it. What did his kind know about the labor Barracks where the dull-minded, the failures, the petty criminals on the run, lived hard under a secret social system of their own? It had taken every bit of physical endurance and energy, every fraction of stubborn will Shann could summon, for him to survive his first three months in those barracks—unbroken and still eager to be Survey. He could still wonder at the unbelievable chance which had rescued him from that merely because Training Center had needed another odd hand to clean cages and feed troughs for the experimental animals.

And from the center he made a Team, because when working in a smaller group his push and attention to duty had been noticed and had paid off. Three years it had taken, but he had made Team stature. Not that that meant anything now. Shann pulled his boots on over the legs of rough dried coveralls and glanced up, to find Thorvald watching him with a new, questioning directness the younger man could not understand.

Shann sealed his blouse and stood up, knowing the bite of hunger, dull but persistent. It was a feeling he had had so many times in the past that now he hardly gave it a second thought.

"Supplies?" He brought the subject back to the present and the practical. What did it matter why or how one Shann Lantee had come to Warlock in the first place?

"What we have left of the concentrates we had better keep for emergencies." Thorvald made no move to open the very shrunken bag he had brought from the scoutship.

He walked over to a rocky outcrop and tugged loose a yellowish tuft of plant, neither moss nor fungi but sharing attributes of both. Shann recognized it without enthusiasm as one of the varieties of native produce which could be safely digested by Terran stomachs. The stuff was almost tasteless and possessed a rather unpleasant odor. Consumed in bulk it would satisfy hunger for a time. Shann hoped that with the wolverines to aid they could go back to hunting soon.

However, Thorvald showed no desire to head inland where they might expect to locate game. He disagreed with Shann's suggestion for tracking Taggi and Togi when those two emerged from the underbrush obviously well fed and contented after their early morning activity.

When Shann protested with some heat, the other countered: "Didn't you ever hear of fish, Lantee? After a storm such as last night's, we ought to discover good pickings along the shore."

But Shann was also sure that it was not only the thought of food which drew Thorvald back to the sea.

They crawled back through the bolt hole. The beach of gravel-sand had vanished save for a narrow ribbon of land just at the foot of the cliffs, where the water curled in white lace about the barrier of boulders. There was no change in the dullness of the sky; no sun broke through the thick lid of clouds. And the green of the sea was ashened to gray which matched that overcast until one could strain one's eyes trying to find the horizon, unable to mark the dividing line here between air and water.

Utgard was a broken necklace, the outermost island-beads lost, the inner ones more isolated by the rise in water, more forbidding. Shann let out a startled hiss of breath.

The top of a near-by rock detached itself, drew up into a hunched thing of armor-plated scales and heavy wide-jawed head. A tail cracked into the air; a double tail split into equal forks for half-way down its length. A leg lifted as a forefoot, webbed, clawed for a new hold. This sea beast was the most formidable native thing he had sighted on Warlock, approaching in its ugliness the hound of the Throgs.

Breathing in labored gusts, the thing slapped its tail down on the stones with a limpness which suggested that the raising of that appendage had overtaxed its limited supply of strength. The head sank forward, resting across one of the forelimbs. Then Shann sighted the fearsome wound in the side just before one of the larger hind legs, a ragged hole through which pumped with every one of those breaths a dark purplish stream, licked away by the waves as it trickled slickly down the rock.

"What is that?"

Thorvald shook his head. "Not on our records," he replied absently, studying the dying creature with avid attention. "Must have been driven in by the storm. This proves there is more in the sea then we knew!"

Again the forked tail lifted and fell, the head, raised from the forelimb, stretching up and back until the white underfolds of the throat were exposed as the snout pointed almost vertically to the sky. The jaws opened and from between them came a moaning whistle, a complaint which was drowned out by the wash of the waves. Then, as if that was the last effort, the webbed, clawed feet relaxed their grip of the rock and the scaled body slid sidewise, out of their sight, into the water. There was a feather of spume to mark the plunge and nothing else.

Shann, watching to see if the reptile would surface again, sighted another object, a rounded shape floating on the sea, bobbing lightly as had their river raft.

"Look!"

Thorvald's gaze followed his pointing finger and then before Shann could protest, the officer leaped outward from their perch on the cliff to the broad rock where the scaled sea dweller had lain moments earlier. He stood there, watching that drifting object with the closest attention, as Shann made the same crossing in his wake.

The drifting thing was oval, perhaps some six feet long and three wide, the mid point rising in a curve from the water's edge. As far as Shann could make out in the half-light the color was a reddish-brown, the surface rough. And he thought by the way that it moved that it must be flotsam of the storm, buoyant enough to ride the waves with close to cork resiliency. To Shann's dismay his companion began to strip.

"What are you going to do?"

"Get that."

Shann surveyed the water about the rock. The forked tail had sunk just there. Was the Survey officer mad enough to think he could swim unmenaced through a sea which might be infested with more such creatures? It seemed that he was, for Thorvald's white body arched out in a dive. Shann waited, half crouched and tense, as though he could in some way attack anything rising from the depths to strike at his companion.

A brown arm flashed above the surface. Thorvald swam strongly toward the floating object. He reached it, his outstretched hand rasping across the surface. And it responded so quickly to that touch that Shann guessed it was even lighter and easier to handle than he had first thought.

Thorvald headed back, herding the thing before him. And when he climbed out on the rock, Shann was pulling up his trophy. They flipped the find over, to discover it hollow. They had, in effect, a ready-made craft not unlike a canoe with blunted bows. But the substance was surely organic: Was it shell? Shann speculated, running his finger tips over the irregular surface.

The Survey officer dressed. "We have our boat," he commented. "Now for Utgard——"

Use this frail thing to dare the trip to the islands? But Shann did not protest. If the officer determined to try such a voyage, he would do it. And neither did the younger man doubt that he would accompany Thorvald.



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