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Storm Over Warlock, Version 2

16. THIRD PRISONER

"Well, it works as good as new." Shann held his hand and arm out into the full path of the sun. He had just stripped off the skin-case bandage, to show the raw seam of a half-healed scar, but as he flexed muscles, bent and twisted his arm, there was only a small residue of soreness left.

"Now what, or where?" he asked Thorvald with some eagerness. Several days' imprisonment in this room had made him impatient for the outer world again. Like the officer, he now wore breeches of the green fabric, the only material known to the Wyverns, and his own badly worn boots. Oddly enough, the Terrans' weapons, stunner and knife, had been left to them, a point which made them uneasy, since it suggested that the Wyverns believed they had nothing to fear from clumsy alien arms.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Thorvald answered that double question. "But it is you they want to see; they insisted upon it, rather emphatically in fact."

The Wyvern city existed as a series of cell-like hollows in the interior of a rock-walled island. Outside there had been no tampering with the natural rugged features of the escarpment, and within, the silence was almost complete. For all the Terrans could learn, the population of the stone-walled hive might have been several thousand, or just the handful that they had seen with their own eyes along the passages which had been declared open territory for them.

Shann half expected to find again a skull-walled chamber where witches tossed colored sticks to determine his future. But he came with Thorvald into an oval room in which most of the outer wall was a window. And seeing what lay framed in that, Shann halted, again uncertain as to whether he actually saw that, or whether he was willed into visualizing a scene by the choice of his hostesses.

They were lower now than the room in which he had nursed his wound, not far above water level. And this window faced the sea. Across a stretch of green water was his red-purple skull, the waves lapping its lower jaw, spreading their foam in between the gaping rock-fringe which formed its teeth. And from the eye hollows flapped the clak-claks of the sea coast, coming and going as if they carried to some imprisoned brain within that giant bone case messages from the outer world.

"My dream——" Shann said.

"Your dream." Thorvald had not echoed that; the answer had come in his brain.

Shann turned his head and surveyed the Wyvern awaiting them with a concentration which was close to the rudeness of an outright stare, a stare which held no friendship. For by her skin patterns he knew her for the one who had led that triumvir who had sent him into the cavern of the mist. And with her was the younger witch he had trapped on the night that all this baffling action had begun.

"We meet again," he said slowly. "To what purpose?"

"To our purpose ... and yours——"

"I do not doubt that it is to yours." The Terran's thoughts fell easily now into a formal pattern he would not have used with one of his own kind. "But I do not expect any good to me...."

There was no readable expression on her face; he did not expect to see any. But in their uneven mind touch he caught a fleeting suggestion of bewilderment on her part, as if she found his mental processes as hard to understand as a puzzle with few leading clues.

"We mean you no ill, star voyager. You are far more than we first thought you, for you have dreamed false and have known. Now dream true, and know it also."

"Yet," he challenged, "you would set me a task without my consent."

"We have a task for you, but already it was set in the pattern of your true dreaming. And we do not set such patterns, star man; that is done by the Greatest Power of all. Each lives within her appointed pattern from the First Awakening to the Final Dream. So we do not ask of you any more than that which is already laid for your doing."

She arose with that languid grace which was a part of their delicate jeweled bodies and came to stand beside him, a child in size, making his Terran flesh and bones awkward, clodlike in contrast. She stretched out her four-digit hand, her slender arm ringed with gemmed circles and bands, measuring it beside his own, bearing that livid scar.

"We are different, star man, yet still are we both dreamers. And dreams hold power. Your dreams brought you across the dark which lies between sun and distant sun. Our dreams carry us on even stranger roads. And yonder"—one of her fingers stiffened to a point, indicating the skull—"there is another who dreams with power, a power which will destroy us all unless the pattern is broken speedily."

"And I must go to seek this dreamer?" His vision of climbing through that nose hole was to be realized then.

"You go."

Thorvald stirred and the Wyvern turned her head to him. "Alone," she added. "For this is your dream only, as it has been from the beginning. There is for each his own dream, and another cannot walk through it to alter the pattern, even to save a life."

Shann grinned crookedly, without humor. "It seems that I'm elected," he said as much to himself as to Thorvald. "But what do I do with this other dreamer?"

"What your pattern moves you to do. Save that you do not slay him——"

"Throg!" Thorvald started forward. "You can't just walk in on a Throg barehanded and be bound by orders such as that!"

The Wyvern must have caught the sense of that vocal protest, for her communication touched them both. "We cannot deal with that one as his mind is closed to us. Yet he is an elder among his kind and his people have been searching land and sea for him since his air rider broke upon the rocks and he entered into hiding over there. Make your peace with him if you can, and also take him hence, for his dreams are not ours, and he brings confusion to the Reachers when they retire to run the Trails of Seeking."

"Must be an important Throg," Shann deduced. "They could have an officer of the beetle-heads under wraps over there. Could we use him to bargain with the rest?"

Thorvald's frown did not lighten. "We've never been able to establish any form of contact in the past, though our best qualified minds, reinforced by training, have tried...."

Shann did not take fire at that rather delicate estimate of his own lack of preparation for the carrying out of diplomatic negotiations with the enemy; he knew it was true. But there was one thing he could try—if the Wyverns permitted.

"Will you give a disk of power to this star man?" He pointed to Thorvald. "For he is my Elder One and a Reacher for Knowledge. With such a focus his dream could march with mine when I go to the Throg, and perhaps that can aid in my doing what I could not accomplish alone. For that is the secret of my people, Elder One. We link our powers together to make a shield against our enemies, a common tool for the work we must do."

"And so it is with us also, star voyager. We are not so unlike as the foolish might think. We learned much of you while you both wandered in the Place of False Dreams. But our power disks are our own and can not be given to a stranger while their owners live. However...." She turned again with an abruptness foreign to the usual Wyvern manner and faced the older Terran.

The officer might have been obeying an unvoiced order as he put out his hands and laid them palm to palm on those she held up to him, bending his head so gray eyes met golden ones. The web of communication which had held all three of them snapped. Thorvald and the Wyvern were linked in a tight circuit which excluded Shann.

Then the latter became conscious of movement beside him. The younger Wyvern had joined him to watch the clak-claks in their circling of the bare dome of the skull island.

"Why do they fly so?" Shann asked her.

"Within they nest, care for their young. Also they hunt the rock creatures that swarm in the lower darkness."

"The rock creatures?" If the skull's interior was infested by some other native fauna, he wanted to know it.

By some method of her own the young Wyvern conveyed a strong impression of revulsion, which was her personal reaction to the "rock creatures."

"Yet you imprison the Throg there——" he remarked.

"Not so!" Her denial was instantaneous and vehement. "The other worlder fled into that place in spite of our calling. There he stays in hiding. Once we drew him out to the sea, but he broke the power and fled inside again."

"Broke free—" Shann pounced upon that. "From disk control?"

"But surely." Her reply held something of wonder. "Why do you ask, star voyager? Did you not also break free from the power of the disk when I led you by the underground ways, awaking in the river? Do you then rate this other one as less than your own breed that you think him incapable of the same action?"

"Of Throgs I know as much as this...." He held up his hand, measuring off a fraction of space between thumb and forefinger.

"Yet you knew them before you came to this world."

"My people have known them for long. We have met and fought many times among the stars."

"And never have you talked mind to mind?"

"Never. We have sought for that, but there has been no communication between us, neither of mind nor of voice."

"This one you name Throg is truly not as you," she assented. "And we are not as you, being alien and female. Yet, star man, you and I have shared a dream."

Shann stared at her, startled, not so much by what she said as the human shading of those words in his mind. Or had that also been illusion?

"In the veil ...that creature which came to you on wings when you remembered that. A good dream, though it came out of the past and so was false in the present. But I have gathered it into my own store: such a fine dream, one that you have cherished."

"Trav was to be cherished," he agreed soberly. "I found her in a broken sleep cage at a spaceport when I was a child. We were both cold and hungry, alone and hurt. So I stole and was glad that I stole Trav. For a little space we both were very happy...." Forcibly he stifled memory.

"So, though we are unlike in body and in mind, yet we find beauty together if only in a dream. Therefore, between your people and mine there can be a common speech. And I may show you my dream store for your enjoyment, star voyager."

A flickering of pictures, some weird, some beautiful, all a little distorted—not only by haste, but also by the haze of alienness which was a part of her memory pattern—crossed Shann's mind.

"Such a sharing would be a rich feast," he agreed.

"All right!" Those crisp words in his own tongue brought Shann away from the window to Thorvald. The Survey officer was no longer locked hand to hand with the Wyvern witch, but his features were alive with a new eagerness.

"We are going to try your idea, Lantee. They'll provide me with a new, unmarked disk, show me how to use it. And I'll do what I can to back you with it. But they insist that you go today."

"What do they really want me to do? Just rout out that Throg? Or try to talk him into being a go-between with his people? That does come under the heading of dreaming!"

"They want him out of there, back with his own kind if possible. Apparently he's a disruptive influence for them; he causes some kind of a mental foul up which interferes drastically with their 'power.' They haven't been able to get him to make any contact with them. This Elder One is firm about your being the one ordained for the job, and that you'll know what action to take when you get there."

"Must have thrown the sticks for me again," Shann commented.

"Well, they've definitely picked you to smoke out the Throg, and they can't be talked into changing their minds about that."

"I'll be the smoked one if he has a blaster."

"They say he's unarmed——"

"What do they know about our weapons or a Throg's?"

"The other one has no arms." Wyvern words in his mind again. "This fact gives him great fear. That which he has depended upon is broken. And since he has no weapon, he is shut into a prison of his own terrors."

But an adult Throg, even unarmed, was not to be considered easy meat, Shann thought. Armored with horny skin, armed with claws and those crushing mandibles of the beetle mouth ... a third again as tall as he himself was. No, even unarmed, the Throg had to be considered a menace.

Shann was still thinking along that line as he splashed through the surf which broke about the lower jaw of the skull island, climbed up one of the pointed rocks which masqueraded as a tooth, and reached for a higher hold to lead him to the nose slit, the gateway to the alien's hiding place.

The clak-claks screamed and dived about him, highly resentful of his intrusion. And when they grew so bold as to buffet him with their wings, threaten him with their tearing beaks, he was glad to reach the broken rock edging his chosen door and duck inside. Once there, Shann looked back. There was no sighting the cliff window where Thorvald stood, nor was he aware in any way of mental contact with the Survey officer; their hope of such a linkage might be futile.

Shann was reluctant to venture farther. His eyes had sufficiently adjusted to the limited supply of light, and now the Terran brought out the one aid the Wyverns had granted him, a green crystal such as those which had played the role of stars on the cavern roof. He clipped its simple loop setting to the front of his belt, leaving his hands free. Then, having filled his lungs for the last time with clean, sea-washed air, he started into the dome of the skull.

There was a fetid thickness to this air only a few feet away from the outer world. The odor of clak-clak droppings and refuse from their nests was strong, but there was an added staleness, as if no breeze ever scooped out the old atmosphere to replace it with new. Fragile bones crunched under Shann's boots, but as he drew away from the entrance, the pale glow of the crystal increased its radiance, emitting a light not unlike that of the phosphorescent bushes, so that he was not swallowed up by dark.

The cave behind the nose hole narrowed quickly into a cleft, a narrow cleft which pierced into the bowl of the skull. Shann proceeded with caution, pausing every few steps. There came a murmur rising now and again to a shriek, issuing, he guessed, from the clak-clak rookery above. And the pound of sea waves was also a vibration carrying through the rock. He was listening for something else, at the same time testing the ill-smelling air for that betraying muskiness which spelled Throg.

When a twist in the narrow passage cut off the splotch of daylight, Shann drew his stunner. The strongest bolt from that could not jolt a Throg into complete paralysis, but it would slow up any attack.

Red—pinpoints of red—were edging a break in the rock wall. They were gone in a flash. Eyes? Perhaps of the rock dwellers which the Wyverns hated? More red dots, farther ahead. Shann listened for a sound he could identify.

But smell came before sound. That trace of effluvia which in force could sicken a Terran, was his guide. The cleft ended in a space to which the limited gleam of the crystal could not provide a far wall. But that faint light did show him his quarry.

The Throg was not on his feet, ready for trouble, but hunched close to the wall. And the alien did not move at Shann's coming. Did the beetle-head sight him? Shann wondered. He moved cautiously. And the round head, with its bulbous eyes, turned a fraction; the mandibles about the the ugly mouth opening quivered. Yes, the Throg could see him.

But still the alien made no move to rise out of his crouch, to come at the Terran. Then Shann saw the fall of rock, the stone which pinned a double-kneed leg to the floor. And in a circle about the prisoner were the small, crushed, furred things which had come to prey on the helpless to be slain themselves by the well-aimed stones which were the Throg's only weapons of defense.

Shann sheathed his stunner. It was plain the Throg was helpless and could not reach him. He tried to concentrate mentally on a picture of the scene before him, hoping that Thorvald or one of the Wyverns could pick it up. There was no answer, no direction. Choice of action remained solely his.

The Terran made the oldest friendly gesture of his kind; his empty hands held up, palm out. There was no answering move from the Throg. Neither of the other's upper limbs stirred, their claws still gripping the small rocks in readiness for throwing. All Shann's knowledge of the alien's history argued against an unarmed advance. The Throg's marksmanship, as borne out by the circle of small bodies, was excellent. And one of those rocks might well thud against his own head, with fatal results. Yet he had been sent there to get the Throg free and out of Wyvern territory.

So rank was the beetle smell of the other that Shann coughed. What he needed now was the aid of the wolverines, a diversion to keep the alien busy. But this time there was no disk working to produce Taggi and Togi out of thin air. And he could not continue to just stand there staring at the Throg. There remained the stunner. Life on the Dumps tended to make a man a fast draw, a matter of survival for the fastest and most accurate marksman. And now one of Shann's hands swept down with a speed which, learned early, was never really to be forgotten.

He had the rod out and was spraying on tight beam straight at the Throg's head before the first stone struck his shoulder and his weapon fell from a numbed hand. But a second stone tumbled out of the Throg's claw. The alien tried to reach for it, his movements slow, uncertain.

Shann, his arm dangling, went in fast, bracing his good shoulder against the boulder which pinned the Throg. The alien aimed a blow at the Terran's head, but again so slowly Shann had no difficulty in evading it. The boulder gave, rolled, and Shann cleared out of range, back to the opening of the cleft, pausing only to scoop up his stunner.

For a long moment the Throg made no move; his dazed wits must have been working at very slow speed. Then the alien heaved up his body to stand erect, favoring the leg which had been trapped. Shann tensed, waiting for a rush. What now? Would the Throg refuse to move? If so, what could he do about it?

With the impact of a blow, the message Shann had hoped for struck into his mind. But his initial joy at that contact was wiped out with the same speed.

"Throg ship ... overhead."

The Throg stood away from the wall, limped out, heading for Shann, or perhaps only the cleft in which he stood. Swinging the stunner awkwardly in his left hand, the Terran retreated, mentally trying to contact Thorvald once more. There was no answer. He was well up into the cleft, moving crabwise, unwilling to turn his back on the Throg. The alien was coming as steadily as his injured limb would allow, trying for the exit to the outer world.

A Throg ship overhead.... Had the castaway somehow managed to call his own kind? And what if he, Shann Lantee, were to be trapped between the alien and a landing party from the flyer? He did not expect any assistance from the Wyverns, and what could Thorvald possibly do? From behind him, at the entrance of the nose slit, he heard a sound—a sound which was neither the scolding of a clak-clak nor the eternal growl of the sea.



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