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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Thursday, February 5, 2004 01:43 EST



    The captain used the ground-level mechanism to close the lock behind them, sealed the mechanism, and added the key to the seal to the assortment of minor gadgetry in his jacket pocket. Then, while Hulik stood looking about the valley, her gun in her hand, he got Goth up on his back and Vezzarn deftly roped her into position there, legs fastened about the captain's waist, arms around his neck. It wasn't too awkward an arrangement and, in any case, the best arrangement they could make. Goth wasn't limp, seemed at moments more than half awake; there were numerous drowsy grumblings, and before Vezzarn had finished she was definitely hanging on of her own.

    "Been thinking, skipper," Vezzarn said quietly, fingers flying, testing slack, tightening knots. "He ought to be able to spot us in the screens--"

    "Uh-huh. Off and on. But I doubt he'll waste time with that."

    "Eh? Yes, a killer robot'd be a good tracking machine, wouldn't it?" Vezzarn said glumly. "You want to pull Yango away from the ship, then angle back to it?"

    "That's the idea."

    "Desperate business!" muttered Vezzarn. "But I guess it's a desperate spot. And he wants Dani -- never'd have figured her for one of the Wisdoms!... There! Finished, sir! She'll be all right now--"

    As he stepped back, Hulik said in a low, startled voice, "Captain!" They turned towards her quickly and edgily. She was staring up the valley between the crowding mountain slopes.

    "I thought I saw something move," she said. "I'm not sure...."

    "Animal?" asked Vezzarn.

    "No... Bigger. Farther away... A shadow. A puff of dust. If there were a wind--" She shook her head.

    The air was still. No large shadows moved anywhere they looked. This land was less barren than it had appeared from even a few miles up. The dry, sandy soil was cluttered with rock debris; and from among the rocks sprouted growth -- spiky, thorny, feathery stuff, clustering into thickets here and there, never rising to more than fifteen or twenty feet. "Let's go!" said the captain. "There probably are animals around. We'll keep our eyes open--"

    As they headed towards the ragged cliffs to the right of the ship, the valley's animal life promptly began to give indications of its presence. What type of life it might be wasn't easy to determine. Small things skittered out of their path with shadowy quickness. Then, from a thicket they were passing, there burst a sound like the hissing of ten thousand serpents, so immediately menacing that they spun together to face it, guns leveled. The hissing didn't abate but drew back through the thicket, away from them, and on to the left. The uncanny thing was that though their ears told them the sound was receding across open ground, towards the center of the valley, they could not see a trace of the creature producing it.

    They hurried on, rather shaken by the encounter. Though it might have been, the captain thought, nothing more ominous than the equivalent of a great swarm of harmless insects. A minute or two later Hulik said sharply, "Something's watching us!"

    They could see only the eyes. Two brightly luminous yellow eyes peering across the top of a boulder at them. The boulder wasn't too large; the creature hidden back of it couldn't be more than about half human size. It made a high giggling noise behind them after they were past. Other sets of the same sort of eyes began peering at them from around or above other boulders. They seemed to be moving through quite a community of these creatures. But they did nothing but stare at the intruders as they went by, then giggle thinly among themselves.

    The ground grew steeper rapidly. Goth's weight wasn't significant; the captain had carried knapsacks a good deal heavier in mountaineering sport and during his period of military training. His lungs began to labor a little; then he had his second wind and knew he was good for a long haul at this clip before he'd begin to tire. Vezzarn and Hulik were keeping up with no apparent effort. Hulik, for all her slender elegance, moved with an easy sureness which indicated she was remarkably quick and strong, and Vezzarn scrambled along with them like an agile, tough little monkey.

    The ground leveled out. They waded through low tangled growth which caught at their ankles, abruptly found a steep ravine before them, running parallel to the cliffs. Beyond it was a higher rocky rise.

    "Have to find a place to cross!" panted the captain.

    Vezzarn looked back at the long shadow-shape of the Venture in the valley below and behind them. "If we climb down there, sir," he argued, "we can't see them when they come out! We won't have any warning."

    "They won't be out for a while," Hulik told him. "We've been walking only ten minutes so far."

    They turned left along the edge of the ravine. Perhaps half a mile ahead was a great rent in the side of the mountain, glowing with the dim light of the red sun. Cross a few more such rises, the captain thought, then turn right to a point from where they could still see Yango, when he came tracking them with the robot. As soon as their pursuers had followed the trail down into this maze of ravines, they'd have their long headstart back to the ship....

    They came to a place where they could get down into the ravine, hanging on to hard, springy ropes of a thick vine-like growth for support. They scrambled along its floor for a couple of hundred yards before they reached a point where the walls were less steep and they could climb out on the other side. Level ground again, overlooking the valley; they began glancing back frequently at the dim outline of the ship. Something followed them for a stretch, uttering short, deep hoots, but kept out of sight among the rocks. Then another ravine cutting across their path. As they paused at its edge, glancing up and down for a point of descent, Vezzarn exclaimed suddenly, "He's opened the lock!"

    They looked back. A small sharp circle of light had appeared near the Venture’s bow. They hurried on. The light glowed steadily in the hazy dimness of the valley for about two minutes. Then it vanished. "Could he have found a way to seal the lock against us?" Hulik's tone was frightened.

    "No. Not from outside," the captain said. "I have the only key that will do that. I think he's cut off the light in the control section before leaving -- doesn't want to attract too much attention to the ship...."

    Hulik was staring down at the Venture. "I think I see something there!"

    The others saw it, too, then. A small, pale green spark on the ground this side of the ship. It appeared to be moving along the route they had taken.

    "That could be that robot!" Vezzarn said, awe in his voice.

    It might have been. Or some searchlight Yango was carrying. But there wasn't much doubt now that they were being tracked.

    As they turned away, Hulik exclaimed, "What was that?"

    They listened. It had been a sound, a distant heavy sound such as might have been uttered, miles up the valley, by some great, deep-voiced bell or gong. It seemed a very strange thing to hear in a place like this. It died slowly. Then, after moments, from a point still farther off in the mountains, came a faint echo of the same sound. And once more, still more remote, barely audible.



    They were down in the next ravine minutes later, and had worked almost up to the point where spilling dim sunlight flushed a wide cleft in the mountain's flank before they again reached a level from where they could look into the valley. Nothing showed in the sections they could see; and they began doubling back in the shadow of the cliffs to reach a point to the right of their line of approach. Lungs and legs were tiring now, but they moved hurriedly because it seemed possible Yango and his killing machine already had entered the area of broken sloping ground between them and the valley and were coming along their trail through one of the lower ravines.

    And then, lifting over a rocky ridge much closer than the ones they'd been watching for it, was a pale green shimmer of light and the spider robot came striding into view. The captain saw it first, stopped the others with a low, sharp word. They stood frozen, staring at it. It was a considerable distance below them but in all not more than three hundred yards away.

    It had come to a halt now, too, half turned in their direction; and for a moment they couldn't know whether it had discovered them or not. The green light came from the sides of the heavy segmented body, so that it stood in its own glow. Yango became visible behind it suddenly, came up close to its side. The robot crouched, remained in that position a few seconds, then swung about and went striding along the ridge, the great jointed legs carrying it quickly, smoothly, and with an air of almost dainty lightness in spite of its heavy build. Just before it vanished beyond an outcropping of rock, they could see the man was riding it.

    It explained how the pair had followed their trail so swiftly. But now--

    "Skipper," Vezzarn's voice said hoarsely from fifteen feet away, "don't move, sir! I'm pointing my gun at you, and if you move, I'll fire. You stand still, too, for a moment, Miss do Eldel. I'm doing this for both of us but don't interfere.

    "Skipper, I don't want to do this. But the Agandar is after you and the little Wisdom. He doesn't care about Miss do Eldel or myself.... Miss do Eldel, I'm throwing you my knife. Cut the ropes from Dani and put her down. Then tie the skipper's hands behind him. Skipper, if you make a wrong move or don't let her tie your hands, I'll blast you on the spot. I swear it!"

    "What good will that do?" Hulik's voice asked tightly from behind the captain.

    "You saw them!" There was a brief clatter on the rocky ground to the right as Vezzarn's knife landed there. "You saw how fast it is. The thing's tracking us so it's moving off again. But it will reach this spot in maybe five, six minutes. And the Agandar will see the skipper and Dani lying here. We'll be gone and he won't bother with us. Why should he? All he'll want is to get away with the two of them again--"

    The captain spun suddenly, crouching down and jerking the gun from his pocket. He didn't really expect to gain anything from it except to hear the snarl of Vezzarn's blaster -- and perhaps that of Hulik's. Instead there came a great strange cry from the air above them, and a whipping swirl of wind. They saw a descending shadow, an odd round horned head on a long neck reaching out behind Vezzarn. The three guns went off together, and the flying creature veered up and away in a sweep that carried it almost beyond sight in an instant. Its wild voice drifted back briefly as it sped on into the hazy upper reaches of the valley -- and Vezzarn, turning quickly again, saw two guns pointed at him, let out a strangled squawk, bounded sideways and scrambled and slid away down the rocky slope. He ducked out of view behind a thicket. In a moment, they heard his retreat continue rapidly, farther on from there.

    "Well," Hulik said, lowering her gun, "Old Horny really broke up the mutiny! What do we do now? Do you have any ideas -- except to run on until the Spider comes walking up behind us?" She nodded down the slope. "Unless, of course, Vezzarn's done us a favor and it turns off after him here. Happy thought!"

    The captain shook his head. "It won't," he said, rather breathlessly. "Yango talks to it. He'll know the trail has split and can work out who went where...." Goth was squirming around uncomfortably on his back; he got her adjusted a little until she clung firmly to him again, with a grip as instinctive as a sleeping young monkey's. If Yango had heard the commotion and turned his Sheem Assassin up towards it, they might have less than five minutes before the robot overtook them. But no one had screamed, and blasters weren't audible at any great distance. It should have sounded like simply another manifestation of local life -- one to be avoided rather than investigated.

    In which case Vezzarn, in his terror, had overrated the Spider's pace. It should be close to fifteen minutes, rather than five or six, before it approached again, striding with mechanical smoothness along their trail. Even so, it was reducing the distance between them much too quickly to make it possible to get back to the Venture before it caught up.

    "There is something else we can do," he said. "And I guess we'll have to try it now. I was hoping we wouldn't. It'll be a risky thing."

    "What isn't, here?" Hulik said reasonably. "And anything's better than running and looking back to see if that Sheem horror is about to tap us on the shoulder!"

    "Let's move on while I tell you, then," the captain said. "Vezzarn's right, of course, about Yango not caring too much about you two. He wants Dani. And he wants what I've got here." He tapped the pocket containing the package of small but indispensable items they'd removed from the Venture just before leaving. "He can't use the ship without it. And he'll figure I'm hanging on to that. And to Dani."

    "Right," Hulik nodded. The captain pulled the package from his pocket.

    "So if the trail splits again here," he said, "I'm the one the Spider will follow."

    Hulik looked down at the package. "And what will I do?"

    "You'll get down to the ship with this. There are a few separate pieces I'll give you -- you'll need them all. Get them fitted back in and get the ship aloft. We'll have Yango pinned then. With the nova guns--"

    Something occurred to him. "Uh, you can handle spaceguns, can't you?"

    "Unfortunately," Hulik said, "I can not handle spaceguns. Neither can I get a ship like that aloft, much less maneuver it in atmosphere. I doubt I could even fit all those little pieces you're offering me back in where they belong."

    The captain was silent.

    "Too bad Vezzarn panicked," she told him. "He probably could do all that. But, of course, the Spider would kill you, and Yango would have Dani, anyway, before Vezzarn even reached the ship."

    "No, not necessarily," the captain said. "I've got something in mind there, too.... Miss do Eldel, you could at least get into the ship and close it up until--"

    "Until Yango and the robot come back and burn out the lock? No, thanks! And it isn't just those two. You know something else has followed us up here, don't you?"

    The captain grunted. He'd known the slopes had remained unquiet throughout, and in a very odd way. After the first few encounters, nothing much seemed astir immediately around them. But, beginning perhaps a hundred yards off -- above, below, on both sides -- there'd been, as they climbed higher and threaded their way along the ravines, almost constant indications of covert activity. A suggestion of muted animal voices, the brief clattering of a dislodged stone, momentary shadowy motion. Not knowing whether his companions were aware of it or not, he'd kept quiet. A Sheem Spider seemed enough for anyone to be worrying about....

    "Little noises?" he asked. "Things in the thickets?"

    "Little noises," Hulik nodded. "Things in the thickets. This and that. We're being followed and watched. So is Yango. He's had more than one reason, I think, for staying on the back of his Assassin most of the time."

    "Whatever those creatures are, they've kept their distance," the captain said. "They don't seem to have been bothering Yango either."

    "Almost anything would keep its distance from the Spider!" Hulik remarked. "And perhaps it's your little witch who's been holding them away from us. I wouldn't know. But I'm sticking close to you two while I can, that's all.... So what do you have in mind to do about Yango?"

    The captain chewed his lip. "If it doesn't work," he said, "the Spider will have us."

    "I should think so," Hulik agreed.

    He glanced at her, said, "Let's turn back then. We're going in the wrong direction for that."

    "Back along our trail?" Hulik said as they swung around.

    "A couple of hundred yards. I noticed a place that looked about right. Just before we saw the robot." He indicated the cliffs looming over them. "It'll take pretty steep climbing, I'm afraid!"

    "Up there? You're not counting on outclimbing the Spider, are you?"

    "No. It should be able to go anywhere we can, faster."

    "But you've thought of a way to stop it."

    "Not directly", said the captain. "But we might make Yango stop it -- or stop Yango."



    There'd been a time when something had nested or laired on the big rock ledge jutting out from the cliff face and half overhung by it. Its cupped surface still held a litter of withered vegetation and splintered old bones, along with the musty smell of dried animal droppings. A narrow shelf zigzagging away to the right along the cliff might have been the occupant's means of access.

    Winded and shaking, stretched out full length in the ancient filth, the captain hoped so. Almost any way down from here -- except dangling from the jaws or a taloned leg of the Sheem Spider -- must be better than the way they had come up. Peering over one corner of the ledge, he stared back along that route. About a hundred and twenty yards of ascent. From here it looked almost straight down and he wondered briefly again how they'd made it. In a kind of panicky rush, he decided, scrabbling for handholds and toeholds, steadying each other for an instant now and then when a solid-looking point crumbled and powdered as human weight came on it, not daring to hesitate or stop to think -- to think, in particular, of the distance growing between them and the foot of the cliff below. And then he'd given the do Eldel's smallish, firm rear a final desperate boost, come scrambling up over the corner of the ledge behind her, and collapsed on the mess half filling the wide, shallow, wonderfully horizontal rock cup.

    They unroped Goth from him then, and laid her down against the cliff under the sloping roof of the ledge. She scowled and murmured something, then abruptly turned over on her side, drew her knees up to her chin, and was gone and lost again, child face smoothing into placidity, in the dream worlds of Yango's special drug. He and Hulik stretched out face down, one at each comer of the big stone lip, holding their guns, peering from behind a screen of the former occupant's litter at the shadowy thickets and boulders below.

    They had come past there with Vezzarn, not many minutes before, along a shoulder of rock, scanning the lower slopes for any signs of pursuit. And there, in not many more minutes, Yango and the Spider must also appear. The robot might discover the trail was doubling back at that point and swerve with its rider directly towards the cliff. Or stride on and return. In either case the Agandar soon would know his quarry had gone up the rock.

    If he rode the robot up after them, they would have him. That was the plan. They'd let him get good and high. Their guns couldn't harm the Sheem machine, but at four yards' range they would tear the Agandar's head from his shoulders if he didn't make the right moves. Nothing more than the guns would be showing. The war robot's beam would have only the ponderous ledge overhanging it and its master for a target.

    With a gun staring at him from either corner of the ledge, caught above a hundred yard drop, Yango wasn't likely to argue. He'd toss up his control devices. They'd let the Spider take him back to the foot of the cliff then before they gave the gadgets the twist that deactivated and collapsed it....

    "And if," Hulik had asked, "he does not come riding up on the thing? He might get ideas about this ledge and wait below while it climbs up without him to see if we're hiding here or have gone on."

    "Then we shoot Yango."

    "That part will be a pleasure," the do Eldel remarked. "But what will the robot do then?"

    They didn't know that, but there was some reason to think the Sheem Spider would be no menace to them afterwards. It must have instructions not to kill in this situation -- at least not to kill indiscriminately -- until the Agandar had Goth safe. The instructions might hold it in check when they shot down Yango. Or they might not.



    Something like a short, hard cannon-crack tore the air high above the valley, startled them both into lifting their heads. They looked at each other.

    "Thunder," the captain said quietly. "I've been hearing some off and on. The sound came again as he spoke, more distantly and from another angle, far off in the mountains."

    "No," Hulik said, "it's them. They're looking for us."

    He glanced at her uneasily. She nodded towards the valley. "It goes with the great, deep sound we heard down there -- and other things. They've been moving around us. Circling. They're looking for us and they're coming closer."

    "Who's looking for us?" asked the captain.

    "The owners of this world. We've disturbed them and they don't like visitors. The things that've been following us are their spies. Old Horny was a spy -- he flew off to tell about us. A while ago a shadow was moving along the other side of the valley. I thought they'd discovered us then but it went away again. It's because we're so small, I think. They don't know what they're looking for, and so far they haven't been able to find us. But they're getting close."

    Her voice was low and even, her face quite calm. "We may stop Yango here, but I don't think we'll be able to get away from this world again. It's too late for that! So it doesn't really matter so much about the Spider." She nodded towards the captain's right. "It's coming now, Captain!"

    He dropped his head back behind the tangle of dusty, withered stuff he'd arranged before him, watching the thickets below on the right through it. For a moment, half screened by the growth, a pale green glimmer moved among the rocks, then disappeared again. Still perhaps two hundred yards away! He glanced briefly back at Hulik. She'd flattened down, too, gun hand next to her chin, head lifted just enough to let her peer out from the left side of the ledge. Whatever fearful and fantastic thoughts she'd developed about this red-shadowed world, she evidently didn't intend to let them interfere with concluding their business with the Agandar. If anything, her notions seemed to be steadying her as far as the Sheem Assassin was concerned -- as if that were now an insignificant terror. She might, he thought uncomfortably, be not too far from a state of lunatic indifference to what happened next.

    No time to worry about it now. The green glow reappeared from around an outcropping; and with a smooth shifting of great jointed legs, the Spider moved into view, Yango riding it, gripping the narrow connecting section of the segmented body between his knees. The Spider's head swung from side to side in a steady searching motion which seemed to keep time with the flowing walk; the paired jaws opened and closed. Seen at this small distance, it was difficult to think of it as a machine and not the awesome hunting animal which had been its model. But the machine was more deadly than the animal could ever have been....

    There was the faintest of rustling noises to the captain's left. He turned his head, very cautiously because the Sheem Spider and its rider were moving across the rock shoulder directly in front of them now, saw with a start of dismay that Hulik had lifted her gun, was easing it forward through the concealing pile of litter before her, head tilted as she sighted along it. If she triggered the blaster now--

    But she didn't. Whether she decided it was too long a shot in this dim air or remembered in time that only if they failed to trap Yango and his machine on the cliff were they to try to finish off the man, the captain couldn't guess. But the robot's long, gliding stride carried it on beyond a dense thicket at the left of the ledge, and it and the Agandar were out of sight again. Hulik slowly drew back her gun, remained motionless, peering down.

    There was silence for perhaps a minute. Not complete silence. The captain grew aware of whisperings of sound, shadow motion, stealthy stirrings, back along the stretch the Agandar had come. Yango had brought an escort up from the valley with him, as they had.... Then, off on the left, some distance away, he heard the heavy singsong snarl of the Sheem Spider.

    Hulik twisted her head towards him, lips silently shaping the word "Vezzarn." He nodded. The pursuit seemed checked for the moment at the point where Vezzarn's trail had turned away from theirs.

    The snarls subsided. Silence again... and after some seconds he knew Yango was on his way back, because the minor rustlings below ended. The unseen escort was falling back as the robot approached. Perhaps another minute passed. He glanced over at Hulik, saw a new tension in her. But there was nothing visible as yet from his side of the ledge. The massively curved jut of the rock cut off part of his view.

    Then, over a hundred yards down, on the sloping ground at the foot of the cliff, the Sheem Spider came partly out from under the ledge. Two of the thick, bristling legs appeared first, followed by the head and a forward section of the body. It moved with stealthy deliberation, stopped again and stood dead still, head turned up, the double jaws continuing a slow chewing motion. He could make out the line of small, bright-yellow eyes across the upper part of the big head, but there was not enough of the thing in sight to tell him whether Yango was still on its back. Hulik knew, of course. The robot must have come gliding quietly through the thickets on their left and emerged almost directly below her.

    Shifting very cautiously -- the thing seemed to be staring straight up at him -- the captain turned his head behind his flimsy barricade, looked over at Hulik. She had her gun ready again, was sighting down along it, unmoving. The gun wasn't aimed at the Spider; the angle wasn't steep enough for that. So Yango--

    The captain's eyes searched the part of the thickets he could see behind the robot. Something moved slightly there, moved again, stopped. A half-crouched figure interested in keeping as much screening vegetation as it could between itself and possible observers from above. The Agandar.

    The Spider still hadn't stirred. The captain inched his gun forwards, brought it to bear on the center of the crouching man-shape. Not too good a target in that tangle, if it came to shooting! But perhaps it wouldn't. If the robot's sensor equipment couldn't detect them here, if they made no incautious move, Yango still might decide they weren't in the immediate neighborhood and remount the thing before it began its ascent along their trail....

    That thought ended abruptly.

    The robot reared, front sets of legs spread, swung in towards the cliff face and, with that, passed again beyond the captain's limited range of vision. He didn't see the clawed leg tips reach up, test the rough rock for holds and settle in; but he could hear them. Then there were momentary glimpses of the thing's shaggy back, as it drew itself off the ground and came clambering up towards the ledge.

    Heart thudding, he took up the slack on the trigger, held the gun pointed as steadily as he could at Yango's half hidden shape. When he heard Hulik's blaster, he'd fire, too, at once. But otherwise wait -- a few seconds longer; wait, in fact, as long as he possibly could! For Yango might move, present a better target, or he might discover some reason to check the robot's ascent before it reached the ledge. If they fired now and missed--

    Sudden rattle and thud of dislodged rock below! The section of the robot's back he could see at the moment jerked sharply. The thing had lost a hold, evidently found another at once for it was steady again -- and startlingly close! Already it seemed to have covered more than half the distance to the ledge.

    And down in the thickets, apprehensive over the robot's near-slip, Yango was coming to his feet -- instantly recognizing his mistake and ducking again as Hulik's blaster spat. The captain shot, too, but at a figure flattened down, twisting sideways through dense cover, then gone. He stopped shooting.

    From below the ledge came a noise somewhere between the robot's usual snarl and the hiss of escaping steam. Hulik was still firing, methodically shredding the thicket about the point where the Agandar had last been in view. The captain came up on hands and knees, leaned forward, looked down at the robot.

    The thing had slewed halfway around on the cliff, head twisted at a grotesque angle as it stared at the whipping thicket. The hissing rose to giant shrieks. It swung back to its previous position. From between the black jaws protruded a thick gray tube, pointed up at the ledge. The captain threw himself sideways, caught Hulik's ankle, dragged her back through the lair litter to the cliff wall with him, pulled her around beside Goth.

    The ledge shuddered in earthquake throes as the Sheem robot's war-beam slammed into it from below. It was thick, solid rock, and many tons of it, but it wasn't battle-steel. It lasted for perhaps two seconds; then most of it separated into four great chunks and dropped. Halfway down, the falling mineral mass scraped the robot from the cliff and took it along. Through the thunderous crash of impact on the slope below the cliff came sharper explosive sounds which might have been force fields collapsing. When the captain and Hulik peered down from what was left of the ledge a moment later, they could make out a few scraps of what looked like shaggy brown fur lying about in the wreckage of rocks. The Spider hadn't lasted either....



    The captain sucked in a deep lungful of air, looked at Goth's face. She was smiling a little, might have been peacefully asleep in her own bed. Some drug! "Better move!" he remarked unsteadily. He fished rope from his pocket, shoved his gun back into the pocket. "Think you hit Yango?"

    Hulik didn't answer. She was sitting on her heels, face turned towards the dim red sky above the valley, lips parted, eyes remote. As if listening to something. "Hulik!" he said sharply.

    The do Eldel blinked, looked at him. "Yango? Yes... I got him twice, at least. He's dead, I suppose." Her voice was absent, indifferent.

    "Help me get Dani back up! We--"

    Thunderclap! Monstrously loud -- the captain had the impression it had ripped the air no more than four hundred yards above them. Then a series of the same sounds, still deafening but receding quickly as if spaced along a straight line in the sky towards the mouth of the valley and beyond. There were no accompanying flashes of light. As the racket faded, a secondary commotion was erupting on the slopes about the foot of the cliff -- hooting, howling, yapping voices, a flapping of wings, shadowy shapes gliding up into the air. And all that, too, moved rapidly away, subsided again.

    "Dear me!" Hulik giggled. "We really have them upset now." She reached for the rope in the captain's hand. "Lift the little witch up and I'll get her fastened. It doesn't matter though. We won't make it back to the ship."

    But they did make it back to the ship. Afterwards, the captain couldn't remember too much of the hike down along the slope. He remembered that it had seemed endless, that his legs had turned into wobbly rubber from time to time, while Goth's small body seemed leaden on his back. The do Eldel walked and clambered beside or behind him. Now and then she laughed. For a while she'd hummed a strange, wild little tune that made him think of distant drum-dances. Later she was silent. Perhaps he'd told her to shut up. He couldn't remember that.

    He remembered fear. Not of things following on the ground or of some flying monster that might come swooping down again. As far as he could tell, they had lost their escort; the gorges, ravines, the thicket-studded slopes, seemed almost swept clean of life. Nothing stirred or called. It was as if instead of drawing attention now, they were being carefully avoided.

    The fear had no real form. There were oppressive feelings of hugeness and menace gathering gradually about. There was an occasional suspicion that the red sky had darkened for moments as if shadows too big to be made out as shadows had just passed through it. The staccato thunder, which had no lightning to explain it, reverberated now and then above the mountains; but that disturbance never came nearly as close again as it had done at the cliff. When they reached the edge of the ravine where, on the way up, they'd stopped to listen to something like a series of deep, giant bells, far off in the valley, he thought he heard a dim echoing of the same sound again. No matter, he told himself -- the Venture still lay undisturbed below and ahead of them in the valley, not many more minutes away....

    "They're waiting for us at the ship," Hulik said from behind him. She laughed.

    He didn't reply. The do Eldel had been a good companion when it came to facing the Agandar and his killing machine. But this creepy shadow world simply had become too much for her.

    Then, on the final stretch down, Hulik faltered at last, started weaving and stumbling. The captain helped her twice to her feet, then clamped an arm around her and plodded on. He began to do some stumbling himself, got the notion that the ground was shifting, lifting and settling underfoot, like the swell of an uneasy sea. When he looked up once more to see how much farther it was, he came to a sudden stop. The bow of the Venture loomed above them; the ramp was a dozen steps away. He glanced at the dark open lock above it, steered Hulik to the foot of the ramp, shook her shoulder.

    "We're there!" he said loudly as she raised her head and gave him a dazed look. "Back at the ship! Up you go -- up the ramp! Wake up!"

    "They're here, too," Hulik giggled. "Can't you feel it?" But she did start up the ramp, the captain following close behind in case she fell again.

    He felt something, at that. A cold electric tingling seemed to trickle all through his body, as if he'd stepped into the path of a current of energy. And looking up past the ship's bow he'd seen something he was certain hadn't been in view only minutes before -- a great dark cloud mass boiling up over the cliffs on the far side of the valley.

    So a storm was coming, he told himself.

    He hustled Hulik through the lock, slammed it shut behind them before he switched on the control section lights, pulled out a knife on his way over to the couch and cut the ropes which held Goth fastened to him. He slid her down on the couch. When he looked back for Hulik, she had crumpled to the floor in the center of the control room.

    The captain let her lie, pulled the package of wrapped gadgetry from his pocket and dumped it on the control desk. He began moving hurriedly about. Getting the Venture readied for action again seemed to take a long time, but it might have taken three minutes in fact. The electric tingling was becoming uncomfortably pronounced when he finally settled himself in the control chair. He fed the underdrives a warm-up jolt, held one hand on the thrust regulator as he checked the gun turrets, finally switched on the viewscreens.

    A black cloud wall was rising above the cliffs on either side, and the screens showed it also surging up from distant upper stretches of the valley... and from the plain beyond the valley mouth behind the ship. A turbulent, awesomely towering bank of darkness encircling this area -- yes, past high time to be away from here! The captain started to shove the thrust regulator forwards, then checked the motion with a grunt of astonishment.

    The starboard screen showed a tiny man-shape running towards the ship, arms pumping. The captain stepped up the screen magnification. Vezzarn--



    He swore savagely, flicked over the desk's forward lock controls, heard the lock open -- then a new rumbling roar from the world outside the lock. Vezzarn, at least, hadn't much more than two hundred yards to cover, and was sprinting hard. His head came up for an instant -- he'd seen the sudden blaze of light from the lock.

    The captain waited, mangling his lip with his teeth. Each second, the surrounding giant cloud banks were changing appearance, lifting higher... and now they seemed also to slant inwards like dark waves cresting -- about to come thundering down from every direction to engulf the ship! Vezzarn passed beyond the screen's inner range. More seconds went by. The roaring racket beyond the lock grew louder. Those monster clouds were leaning in towards the Venture! Then a clatter of boots on the ramp. The captain glanced back as Vezzarn flung himself headlong through the lock, rolled over, gasping, on the floor. The thrust regulator went flat to the desk in that instant.

    They leaped five hundred feet from the ground while the lock was clicking shut. The Venture’s nose lifted high as they cleared the cliffs and the atmosphere drive hurled her upwards. Three quarters of the sky above seemed a churning blackness now. The ship turned towards the center of the remaining open patch. At the earliest possible moment the captain cut in the main drive--

    The roiling elemental furies dwindled to utter insignificance beneath them as they hurtled off the world of red twilight like a wrong-way meteor, blazing from stem to stem. Space quenched the flames seconds later. The bloated giant sun and its satellite appeared in the rear screens. Cooling, the Venture thundered on.

    "Whooo-oof!" breathed the captain, slumping back in the chair. He closed his eyes then, but opened them again at once....

    It was something like smelling a grumble, or hearing dark green, or catching a glimpse of a musky scent. As Goth had suggested, it was not to be described in any terms that made sense. But it was quite unmistakable. He knew exactly what he was doing -- he was relling a vatch.

    The vatch. Big Wind Voice. Old Windy--


    With that, the control room blurred and was gone. He, too, the captain decided a stunned moment later, had blurred and was gone, at least in most respects. Beneath him still hung a kind of pale, shifting luminance which might bear some resemblance to his familiar body in its outlines. He seemed to be moving swiftly with it through a sea of insubstantial grayness....

    A greater dream game! What was that vatch monster getting him into -- and what would happen to Goth and the Venture? He couldn't--


    The last, at least, was somewhat reassuring.... A game in which he had an interest?

    WORM WORLD! bellowed the vatch-voice delightedly, rolling and tumbling and swooping about him. WORM WORLD... WORM WORLD... WORM WORLD--

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