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Storm Over Warlock, Version 2

15. DRAGON SLAYER

"Ayeeee!" Sheer defiance, not only of the beast he fronted, but of the Wyverns as well, brought that old rallying cry to his lips—the call used on the Dumps of Tyr to summon gang aid against outsiders. Fork-tail had crouched again for a spring, but that throat-crackling blast appeared to startle it.

Shann, blade ready, took a dancing step to the right. The thing was scaled, perhaps as well armored against frontal attack as was the shell-creature he had fought with the aid of the wolverines. He wished he had the Terran animals now—with Taggi and his mate to tease and feint about the monster, as they had done with the Throg hound—for he would have a better chance. If only the animals were here!

Those eyes—red-pitted eyes in a gargoyle head following his every movement—perhaps those were the only vulnerable points.

Muscles tensed beneath that scaled hide. The Terran readied himself for a sidewise leap, his knife hand raised to rake at those eyes. A brown shape with a V of lighter fur banding its back crossed the far range of Shann's vision. He could not believe what he saw, not even when a snarling animal, slavering with rage, came at a lumbering gallop to stand beside him, a second animal on its heels.

Uttering his own battle cry, Taggi attacked. The fork-tail's head swung, imitating the movements of the wolverine as it had earlier mimicked the swaying of the disk in the Wyvern's hand. Togi came in from the other side. They might have been hounds keeping a bull in play. And never had they shown such perfect team work, almost as if they could sense what Shann desired of them.

That forked tail lashed viciously, a formidable weapon. Bone, muscles, scaled flesh, half buried in the sand, swept up a cloud of grit into the face of the man and the animals. Shann fell back, pawing with his free hand at his eyes. The wolverines circled warily, trying for the attack they favored—the spring to the shoulders, the usually fatal assault on the spine behind the neck. But the armored head of the fork-tail, slung low, warned them off. Again the tail lashed, and this time Taggi was caught and hurled across the beach.

Togi uttered a challenge, made a reckless dash, and raked down the length of the fork-tail's body, fastening on that tail, weighing it to earth with her own poundage while the sea creature fought to dislodge her. Shann, his eyes watering from the sand, but able to see, watched that battle for a long second, judging that fork-tail was completely engaged in trying to free its best weapon from the grip of the wolverine. The latter clawed and bit with a fury which suggested Togi intended to immobilize that weapon by tearing it to shreds.

Fork-tail wrenched its body, striving to reach its tormentor with fangs or clawed feet. And in that struggle to achieve an impossible position, its head slued far about, uncovering the unprotected area behind the skull base which usually lay under the spiny collar about its shoulders.

Shann went in. With one hand he gripped the edge of that collar—its serrations tearing his flesh—and at the same time he drove his knife blade deep into the soft underfolds, ripping on toward the spinal column. The blade nicked against bone as the fork-tail's head slammed back, catching Shann's hand and knife together in a trap. The Terran was jerked from his feet, and flung to one side with the force of the beast's reaction.

Blood spurted up, his own blood mingled with that of the monster. Only Togi's riding of the tail prevented Shann's being beaten to death. The armored snout pointed skyward as the creature ground the sharp edge of its collar down on the Terran's arm. Shann, frantic with pain, drove his free fist into one of those eyes.

Fork-tail jerked convulsively; its head snapped down again and Shann was free. The Terran threw himself back, keeping his feet with an effort. Fork-tail was writhing, churning up the sand in a cloud. But it could not rid itself of the knife Shann had planted with all his strength, and which the blows of its own armored collar were now driving deeper and deeper into its back.

It howled thinly, with an abnormal shrilling. Shann, nursing his bleeding forearm against his chest, rolled free from the waves of sand it threw about, bringing up against one of the rock pillars. With that to steady him, he somehow found his feet, and stood weaving, trying to see through the rain of dust.

The convulsions which churned up that concealing cloud were growing more feeble. Then Shann heard the triumphant squall from Togi, saw her brown body still on the torn tail just above the forking. The wolverine used her claws to hitch her way up the spine of the sea monster, heading for the mountain of blood spouting from behind the head. Fork-tail fought to raise that head once more; then the massive jaw thudded into the sand, teeth snapping fruitlessly as a flood of grit overrode the tongue, packed into the gaping mouth.

How long had it taken—that frenzy of battle on the bloodstained beach? Shann could have set no limit in clock-ruled time. He pressed his wounded arm tighter to him, lurched past the still twitching sea thing to that splotch of brown fur on the sand, shaping the wolverine's whistle with dry lips. Togi was still busy with the kill, but Taggi lay where that murderous tail had thrown him.

Shann fell on his knees, as the beach around him developed a curious tendency to sway. He put his good hand to the ruffled back fur of the motionless wolverine.

"Taggi!"

A slight quiver answered. Shann tried awkwardly to raise the animal's head with his own hand. As far as he could see, there were no open wounds; but there might be broken bones, internal injuries he did not have the skill to heal.

"Taggi?" He called again gently, striving to bring that heavy head up on his knee.

"The furred one is not dead."

For a moment Shann was not aware that those words had formed in his mind, had not been heard by his ears. He looked up, eyes blazing at the Wyvern coming toward him in a graceful glide across the crimsoned sand. And in a space of heartbeats his thrust of anger cooled into a stubborn enmity.

"No thanks to you," he said deliberately aloud. If the Wyvern witch wanted to understand him, let her make the effort; he did not try to touch her thoughts with his.

Taggi stirred again, and Shann glanced down quickly. The wolverine gasped, opened his eyes, shook his miniature bear head, scattering pellets of sand. He sniffed at a dollop of blood, the dark, alien blood, spattered on Shann's breeches, and then his head came up with a reassuring alertness as he looked to where his mate was still worrying the now quiet fork-tail.

With an effort, Taggi got to his feet, Shann aiding him. The man ran his hand down over ribs, seeking any broken bones. Taggi growled a warning once when that examination brought pain in its wake, but Shann could detect no real damage. As might a cat, the wolverine must have met the shock of that whip-tail stroke relaxed enough to escape serious injury. Taggi had been knocked out, but now he was able to navigate again. He pulled free from Shann's grip, lumbering across the sand to the kill.

Someone else was crossing that strip of beach. Passing the Wyvern as if he did not see them, Thorvald came directly to Shann. A few seconds later he had the torn arm stretched across his own bent knee, examining the still bleeding hurt.

"That's a nasty one," he commented.

Shann heard the words and they made sense, but the instability of his surroundings was increasing, while Thorvald's handling sent sharp stabs of pain up his arm and somehow into his head, where they ended in red bursts to cloud his sight.

Out of the reddish mist which had fogged most of the landscape there emerged a single object, a round white disk. And in Shann's clouded mind a well-rooted apprehension stirred. He struck out with his one hand, and through luck connected. The disk flew out of sight. His vision cleared enough so he could sight the Wyvern who had been leaning over Thorvald's shoulder centering her weird weapon on him. Making a great effort, Shann got out the words, words which he also shaped in his mind as he said them aloud: "You're not taking me over—again!"

There was no emotion to be read on that jewel-banded face or in her unblinking eyes. He caught at Thorvald, determined to get across his warning.

"Don't let them use those disks on us!"

"I'll do my best."

Only the haze had taken Thorvald again. Did one of the Wyverns have a disk focused on them? Were they being pulled into one of those blank periods, to awaken as prisoners once more—say, in the cavern of the veil? The Terran fought with every ounce of will power to escape unconsciousness, but he failed.

This time he did not awaken half-drowning in an underground stream or facing a green mist. And there was an ache in his arm which was somehow reassuring with the very insistence of pain. Before opening his eyes, his fingers crossed the smooth slick of a bandage there, went on to investigate by touch a sleep mat such as he had found in the cavern structure. Was he back in that web of rooms and corridors?

Shann delayed opening his eyes until a kind of shame drove him to it. He first saw an oval opening almost the length of his body as it was stretched only a foot of two below the sill of that window. And through its transparent surface came the golden light of the sun—no green mist, no crystals mocking the stars.

The room in which he lay was small with smooth walls, much like that in which he had been imprisoned on the island. And there were no other furnishings save the mat on which he rested. Over him was a light cover netted of fibers resembling yarn, with feathers knotted into it to provide a downy upper surface. His clothing was gone, but the single covering was too warm and he pushed it away from his shoulders and chest as he wriggled up to see the view beyond the window.

His torn arm came into full view. From wrist to elbow it was encased in an opaque skin sheath, unlike any bandage of his own world. Surely that had not come out of any Survey aid pack. Shann gazed toward the window, but beyond lay only a reach of sky. Except for a lemon cloud or two ruffled high above the horizon, nothing broke that soft amber curtain. He might be quartered in a tower well above ground level, which did not match his former experience with Wyvern accommodations.

"Back with us again?" Thorvald, one hand lifting a door panel, came in. His ragged uniform was gone, and he wore only breeches of a sleek green material and his own scuffed-and-battered boots.

Shann settled back on the mat. "Where are we?"

"I think you might term this the capital city," Thorvald answered. "In relation to the mainland, we're on an island well out to sea—westward."

"How did we get here?" That climb in the slab, the stream underground.... Had it been an interior river running under the bed of the sea? But Shann was not prepared for the other's reply.

"By wishing."

"By what?"

Thorvald nodded, his expression serious. "They wished us here. Listen, Lantee, when you jumped down to mix it with that fork-tailed thing, did you wish you had the wolverines with you?"

Shann thought back; his memories of what had occurred before that battle were none too clear. But, yes, he had wished Taggi and Togi present at that moment to distract the enraged beast.

"You mean I wished them?" The whole idea was probably a part of the Wyvern jargon of dreaming and he added, "Or did I just dream everything?" There was the bandage on his arm, the soreness under that bandage. But also there had been Logally's lash brand back in the cavern, which had bitten into his flesh with the pain of a real blow.

"No, you weren't dreaming. You happened to be tuned in one of those handy little gadgets our lady friends here use. And, so tuned in, your desire for the wolverines being pretty powerful just then, they came."

Shann grimaced. This was unbelievable. Yet there were his meetings with Logally and Trav. How could anyone rationally explain them? And how had he, in the beginning, been jumped from the top of the cliff on the island of his marooning into the midst of an underground flood without any conscious memory of an intermediate journey?

"How does it work?" he asked simply.

Thorvald laughed. "You tell me. They have these disks, one to a Wyvern, and they control forces with them. Back there on the beach we interrupted a class in such control; they were the novices learning their trade. We've stumbled on something here which can't be defined or understood by any of our previous standards of comparison. It's frankly magic, judged by our terms."

"Are we prisoners?" Shann wanted to know.

"Ask me something I'm sure of. I've been free to come and go within limits. No one's exhibited any signs of hostility; most of them simply ignore me. I've had two interviews, via this mind-reading act of theirs, with their rulers, or elders, or chief sorceresses—all three titles seem to apply. They ask questions, I answer as best I can, but sometimes we appear to have no common meeting ground. Then I ask some questions, they evade gracefully, or reply in a kind of unintelligible double-talk, and that's as far as our communication has progressed so far."

"Taggi and Togi?"

"Have a run of their own and as far as I can tell are better satisfied with life than I am. Oddly enough, they respond more quickly and more intelligently to orders. Perhaps this business of being shunted around by the disks has conditioned them in some way."

"What about these Wyverns? Are they all female?"

"No, but their tribal system is strictly matriarchal, which follows a pattern even Terra once knew: the fertile earth mother and her priestesses, who became the witches when the gods overruled the goddesses. The males are few in number and lack the power to activate the disks. In fact," Thorvald laughed ruefully, "one gathers that in this civilization our opposite numbers have, more or less, the status of pets at the best, and necessary evils at the worst. Which put us at a disadvantage from the start."

"You think that they won't take us seriously because we are males?"

"Might just work out that way. I've tried to get through to them about danger from the Throgs, telling them what it would mean to them to have the beetle-heads settle in here for good. They just brush aside the whole idea."

"Can't you argue that the Throgs are males, too? Or aren't they?"

The Survey officer shook his head. "That's a point no human can answer. We've been sparring with Throgs for years and there have been libraries of reports written about them and their behavior patterns, all of which add up to about two paragraphs of proven facts and hundreds of surmises beginning with the probable and skimming out into the wild fantastic. You can claim anything about a Throg and find a lot of very intelligent souls ready to believe you. But whether those beetle-heads squatting over on the mainland are able to answer to 'he,' 'she,' or 'it,' your solution is just as good as mine. We've always considered the ones we fight to be males, but they might just as possibly be amazons. Frankly, these Wyverns couldn't care less either; at least that's the impression they give."

"But anyway," Shann observed, "it hasn't come to 'we're all girls together' either."

Thorvald laughed again. "Not so you can notice. We're not the only unwilling visitor in the vicinity."

Shann sat up. "A Throg?"

"A something. Non-Warlockian, or non-Wyvern. And perhaps trouble for us."

"You haven't seen this other?"

Thorvald sat down cross-legged. The amber light from the window made red-gold of his hair, added ruddiness to his less-gaunt features.

"No, I haven't. As far as I can tell, the stranger's not right here. I caught stray thought beams twice—surprise expressed by newly arrived Wyverns who met me and apparently expected to be fronted by something quite physically different."

"Another Terran scout?"

"No. I imagine that to the Wyverns we must look a lot alike. Just as we couldn't tell one of them from her sister if their body patterns didn't differ. Discovered one thing about those patterns—the more intricate they run, the higher the 'power,' not of the immediate wearer, but of her ancestors. They're marked when they qualify for their disk and presented with the rating of the greatest witch in their family line as an inducement to live up to those deeds and surpass them if possible. Quite a bit of logic to that. Given the right conditioning, such a system might even work in our service.

That nugget of information was the stuff from which Survey reports were made. But at the moment the information concerning the other captive was of more value to Shann. He steadied his body against the wall with his good hand and got to his feet. Thorvald watched him.

"I take it you have visions of action. Tell me, Lantee, why did you take that header off the cliff to mix it with fork-tail?"

Shann wondered himself. He had no reason for that impulsive act. "I don't know——"

"Chivalry? Fair Wyvern in distress?" the other prodded. "Or did the back lash from one of those disks draw you in?"

"I don't know——"

"And why did you use your knife instead of your stunner?"

Shann was startled. For the first time he realized that he had fronted the greatest native menace they had discovered on Warlock with the more primitive of his weapons. Why had he not tried the stunner on the beast? He had just never thought of it when he had taken that leap into the role of dragon slayer.

"Not that it would have done you any good to try the ray; it has no effect on fork-tail."

"You tried it?"

"Naturally. But you didn't know that, or did you pick up that information earlier?"

"No," answer Shann slowly. "No, I don't know why I used the knife. The stunner would have been more natural." Suddenly he shivered, and the face he turned to Thorvald was very sober.

"How much do they control us?" he asked, his voice dropping to a half whisper as if the walls about them could pick up those words and relay them to other ears. "What can they do?"

"A good question." Thorvald lost his light tone. "Yes, what can they feed into our minds without our knowing? Perhaps those disks are only window dressing, and they can work without them. A great deal will depend upon the impression we can make on these witches." He began to smile again, more wryly. "The name we gave this planet is certainly a misnomer. A warlock is a male sorcerer, not a witch."

"And what are the chances of our becoming warlocks ourselves?"

Again Thorvald's smile faded, but he gave a curt little nod to Shann as if approving that thought. "That is something we are going to look into, and now! If we have to convince some stubborn females, as well as fight Throgs, well"—he shrugged—"we'll have a busy, busy, time."



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