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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, January 5, 2004 16:26 EST



    Sedmon the Sixth, the Daal of Uldune, was a lean, dark man, tall for the Uldunese strain, with pointed, foxy features and brooding, intelligent eyes. He was a busy ruler who had never been known to indulge in the frivolity of purely social engagements. Yet he always found time to grant an audience to Hulik do Eldel when she requested it. Hulik was a very beautiful young woman who, though native to Uldune, had spent more than half her life in the Empire. She had been an agent of Central Imperial Intelligence for several years; and she and the Daal had been acquainted for about the same length of time. Sometimes they worked together, sometimes at cross-purposes. In either situation, they often found it useful to pool their information, up to a point.

    Hulik had arrived early that morning at the House of Thunders, the ancient and formidable castle of the Daals in the highlands south of Zergandol, and met Sedmon in his private suite in one of the upper levels of the castle.

    "Do you know," asked Hulik, who could be very direct when she felt like it, "whether this rumored super spacedrive of Karres really exists?"

    "I have no proof of it," the Daal admitted. "But I would not be surprised to discover it exists."

    "And if you did, how badly would you want it?"

    Sedmon shrugged.

    "Not badly enough to do anything likely to antagonize Karres," he said.

    "Or to antagonize the Empire?"

    "Depending on the circumstances," the Daal said cautiously, "I might risk the anger of the Empire."

    Hulik was silent a moment.

    "The Imperium," she said then, "very much wants to have this drive. And it does not care in the least whether it antagonizes Karres, or anybody else, in the process of getting it."

    Sedmon shrugged again. "Each to his taste," he said drily.

    Hulik smiled. "Yes," she said, "and one thing at a time. To begin with then, do you believe a ship we have both shown interest in during the past weeks is the one equipped with this mysterious drive?"

    The Daal scratched his neck.

    "I'm inclined to believe the ship was equipped with the drive," he acknowledged. "I'm not sure it still is." He blinked at her. "What are you supposed to do?"

    "Either obtain the drive or keep trace of the ship until other agents can obtain it," Hulik said promptly.

    "No small order," said Sedmon.

    "Perhaps. What do you know about the man and the girl? The information I have is that the man is a Captain Pausert, citizen of Nikkeldepain, and that the child evidently is one of three he picked up in the Empire shortly before the first use of the drive was observed and reported. A child of Karres."

    "That is also the story as I know it," Sedmon told her. "Let's have a look at those two...."

    He went to a desk, pressed a switch. A picture of the captain and Goth appeared in a wall screen. They came walking towards the observer along one of the winding, hilly streets of Zergandol. When their figures filled the screen, the Daal stopped the motion, stood staring at them.

    "To all appearances," he said, "this man is the citizen of Nikkeldepain described and shown in the reports. But there are still unanswered questions about him. I admit I find those questions disturbing."

    "What are they?" Hulik asked, a trace of amusement in her voice.

    "He may be officially the citizen of Nikkeldepain he is supposed to be, now masquerading with the assistance of my office as Captain Aron of Mulm -- and still be a Karres agent and a witch. Or he may be a Karres witch who has taken on the appearance of Captain Pausert of Nikkeldepain. One simply never knows with these witches...."

    He paused, shaking his head irritably. After a moment Hulik said, "That's what is bothering you?"

    "That is what is bothering me," Sedmon agreed. "If Captain Pausert, alias Captain Aron, is in fact a witch, I want no trouble with him or his ship."

    "And if he isn't?"

    "The girl almost certainly is of the witches," the Daal said. "But I might be inclined to take a chance with her. Even that I would not like too well, since Karres has ways of finding out about occurrences that are of interest to it."

    "May I point out," said Hulik, "that the entire world of Karres was reliably reported to have disappeared about the time this Captain Pausert was last observed in the Nikkeldepain area? The official opinion in the Imperium is that the planet was accidentally destroyed when the witches tested some superweapon of their devising, against the impending arrival of a punitive Imperial Fleet."

    The Daal scratched his neck again.

    "I have heard of that," he said. "And, in fact, I have received a report from one of my own men in the meanwhile, to the effect that Karres does seem to be gone from the Iverdahl System. It is possible that it is destroyed. But I don't believe it."

    "Why not?"

    "I have had dealings with a good number of the witches, Hulik, and for many years I have made a study of Karres and its history. This is not the first time it was reported that world had disappeared. Nor, when it was observed again, was it necessarily within some months of ship travel of the point where it had been observed before."

    "A super spacedrive which moves a world?" Hulik smiled. "Really Sedmon!"

    "As to that, I will say nothing more," replied the Daal. "There are other possibilities. For all I know, Karres still is at present in the Iverdahl System but made invisible, indetectable, by the skills of the witches."

    "That, too, seems rather improbable," Hulik remarked.

    "It may seem that way," said Sedmon. "But I know it to be a fact that, before this, ships have gone to the Iverdahl System in search of the world of Karres and were unable to find it there."

    He shrugged. "In any event, it seems much safer to me to assume that the world of Karres and the witches of Karres have not disappeared permanently...."

    He stared at the frozen figures in the screen, pursed his mouth in puzzled worriment. "And besides..."

    "Well?" said Hulik as he hesitated.

    The Daal waggled his finger at the screen. "I have the strangest feeling I have encountered that man before! Perhaps also the child... And yet I find no place for either of them in my memories."

    Hulik glanced curiously at him. "That must be your imagination," she told him. "But your nervousness about the witches explains why you have been conducting your search for Captain Pausert's mystery drive in what I felt was an excessively roundabout manner."

    The Daal grinned briefly.

    "I have," he said, "great faith in the basic unscrupulousness of Sunnat, Bazim & Filish. And in the boldness of Sunnat. The story that came to her naturally did not mention the possibility that her clients were witches. But she and her partners are completely convinced the superdrive exists."

    "And have been searching most industriously for it in the course of rebuilding the ship," Hulik added. "Sunnat also has attempted to bedazzle Captain Aron with her obvious physical assets... you, in the meanwhile, hovering above all this, hoping they would discover the drive for you."

    "That in part," nodded the Daal.

    "Yes. Sunnat has the greed and fury of a wild pig. I think she is not quite sane. She has not bedazzled Captain Aron, and nothing resembling concealed drive mechanisms has been found so far in the ship. Before the Evening Bird is ready to leave, you expect her then to resort to actions which will force this Captain Aron or Pausert to reveal whether or not he is a witch?"

    "It will not surprise me if that occurs," Sedmon admitted. "If it be comes apparent that he is a witch, I simply will be through with the matter."

    "And still be unimplicated," Hulik agreed. "Of course," she went on, "if he is not a witch and does not have a mystery drive to produce, even if strenuously urged, it's probable that he and the child will be murdered before Sunnat decides she may have made a mistake--"

    Sedmon shifted his eyes from the wall screen to her, said slowly, "This drive, if I can get it -- and have afterwards a little time to work in, undisturbed -- will restore Uldune to its ancient place in the hierarchy of galactic power!"

    "A point," said Hulik, "of which the Imperium is well aware."

    He watched her, his face expressionless.

    "We shall work in different ways," Hulik smiled. "If I get it, it may bring me great honor and rewards from the Imperium. Or it may, which really seems at least as likely, bring me quick death, by decision of the Imperium." The smile became almost impish. "On Uldune, on the other hand... well, I would be most interested in seeing that the House of Eldel is also restored to something approximating the place of power it once held here."

    "An honorable ambition!" Sedmon nodded approvingly. "As for me -- I am perhaps overly prudent and certainly not as young as I was -- I could very well use a partner with youth, audacity, and intelligence, to help me direct the affairs of Uldune. In particular, of the greater Uldune that may be."

    Hulik laughed. "Great dreams! But very well... We shall work carefully. I have not yet made a report that the ship once named the Venture appears to be at present on Uldune."

    The Daal's eyes lightened.

    "But," Hulik went on, "I shall proceed exactly as if I had made that report. If, in spite of Sunnat's efforts and yours, the Evening Bird lifts from Uldune on schedule I'll be on board as passenger.... Now, I believe that little Vezzarn they've signed on for the ship is your man?"

    "He is," Sedmon said. "Of course he doesn't know for whom he's working."

    "Of course. I know Kambine's background. He's nothing."

    "Nothing," the Daal agreed.

    "Laes Yango?"

    "A man to be reckoned with in his field."

    "What specifically is his field? I've been able to get very little information on him."

    "He deals. High-value, high-profit items only. He maintains his own cruiser, makes frequent space trips, uses other carriers for special purposes, as in this case. He banks a considerable amount of money at all times, makes and receives large payments at irregular intervals to and from undisclosed accounts by subradio. Some of his business seems to be legitimate."

    "He should not become a problem then?" Hulik said.

    "There is no reason to assume he would be, in this matter." The Dad looked at her curiously. "Am I to understand you intend to continue your efforts to obtain the drive, even if Captain Aron turns out to be what I suspect he is?"

    "I do intend that," Hulik nodded. "I have my own theory about your Karres witches."

    "What is that?"

    "They are, among other things, skilled and purposeful bluffers. The disappearing world story, for example. Karres has been described to me as a primitive, forested planet showing no detectable signs of inhabitation. There are many such uninhabited worlds. Few are even indicated in standard star maps. It seems most probable to me that the witches, instead of moving Karres through space, themselves move by more conventional methods of travel from one world of that sort to a similar one elsewhere -- and presently let it be known that 'Karres' was magically transported by them to a new galactic sector! I believe their purpose is to frighten everyone, including even the Imperium, into leaving them severely alone. That they are capable of a number of astonishing tricks seems true. It is even possible they have developed a superdrive to transport ordinary spaceships. But worlds?" She shook her head skeptically. "Pausert may be a Karres witch. If so, his mysterious powers have not revealed to him even the simple fact that Vezzarn was planted on him as a spy.... No, I'm not afraid of the witches!"

    "You don't feel afraid of the Chaladoor either?" the Daal asked.

    "A little," Hulik admitted. "But considerably more afraid of not getting the drive from Captain Pausert, if it should turn out later that there really was such a thing on his ship. When the stakes are high, the Imperium becomes a stringent employer!" She shrugged. "And since success in this might be as deadly to me as failure, you and Uldune can count on me... afterwards."



    A colored, soundless whirlwind was spinning slowly and steadily about the captain. He watched it bemusedly a while, then had his attention distracted by a puzzled awareness that he seemed to be sitting upright, none too comfortably, on something like a cold stone floor, his back touching something like a cold stone wall. He realized suddenly that he had his eyes closed, and decided he might as well open them.

    He did. The giddily spinning colors faded from his vision; the world grew steady. But what place was this?... What was he doing here?

    He glanced around. It seemed a big underground vault, wide and low, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet long. Thick stone pillars supported the curved ceiling sections. A number of glowing white globes in iron cages hung by chains from the ceiling, giving a vague general illumination to the place. Across the vault, the captain saw a narrow staircase leading up through the wall. It seemed the only exit.

    On his right, some thirty feet away, was a fireplace....

    He gazed at the fireplace thoughtfully. It was built into the wall; in it was a large, hot coal fire. The individual coals glowed bright red, and continuous flickerings of heat ran over the piled mass. A poker shaped like a small slender spear stood at a slant, its tip in the coals, its handle resting on a bronze fire grate.

    Some feet away from the fire was a marble-topped table. Beside it, a large wooden tub.

    It was an odd-looking arrangement. And why should anyone build such a great fire on a warmish spring evening on Uldune? He could feel the waves of heat rolling out of it from here.

    Warmish spring evening -- the captain's memory suddenly awoke. This was the day they'd made a complete ground check of the Evening Bird's instrumentation. Everything was in faultless working order; he and Goth had been delighted. Then Goth had gone back to the house. Sunnat, who'd attended the check-out with Filish, suggested sociably he buy them a drink as reward for the good job the firm had done so far. But Filish had excused himself.

    He could see no harm in buying her a drink. There'd been a low-ceilinged, half dark, expensive bar off the spaceport. Somebody guided them around a couple of corners, left them at a table in a dim-lit niche by themselves. The drinks appeared -- and right around then that rainbow-hued whirlwind seemed to have begun revolving around him. He couldn't recall another thing.

    Well, no sense sitting here and pondering about it! He'd go upstairs, find someone to tell him where he was and what had happened to Sunnat. He gathered his legs under him, then made another discovery. This one was startling.

    A narrow metal ring was closed around his right ankle. A slender chain was locked to the ring, and eight feet away the chain ended in a link protruding from the solid wall. He stared down at it in shocked outrage. Why, he was a prisoner here! Conflicting surmises tumbled in momentary confusion through his mind. The most likely thought seemed then that there'd been trouble of some kind in the bar and that as a result he'd wound up in one of the Daal's jails... but he still couldn't remember a thing about it.

    The captain scrambled to his feet, the chain making mocking clanks along the floor beside him. "Hey!" he yelled angrily. "Hey! Somebody here?"

    For a moment he thought he'd heard a low laugh somewhere. But there was no one in sight.


    "Why, what's the trouble, Captain Aron?"

    He turned, saw Sunnat twenty feet off on his left, standing beside one of the thick pillars which supported the ceiling of the vault. She must have stepped out from behind it that very moment.

    The captain stared at her. She was in one of her costumes. This one consisted of crimson trousers and slippers, a narrow strip of glittering green material wound tightly about her breasts, and a crimson turban which concealed her hair and had a great gleaming green stone set in the front of it above her forehead. She stood motionless, her face in shadow, watching him.

    The costume didn't make her appear attractive or seductive. Standing in the big, silent vault, she looked spooky and menacing. Her head shifted slightly and there seemed to be a momentary glitter in the eyes of the shadowed face. The captain cleared his throat, twisted his mouth into a smile.

    "You had me worried, Sunnat!" he admitted. "How did you do it? I really thought I was waking up in an Uldune prison!"

    Sunnat didn't answer. She turned, started over towards the fireplace as if he hadn't spoken.

    "How about getting me loose from the wall now?" the captain said coaxingly. "A joke's a joke... but there are really a number of things I should be taking care of. And I told, uh, Dani I'd be home in time for dinner."

    Sunnat turned her head, eyes half shut, and gave him an odd, slow smile. It sent a chill down his spine. He wished he hadn't mentioned Goth.

    "Come on, Sunnat!" He put a touch of annoyance into his voice. "We're grown ups, and this game's getting a little childish!"

    Sunnat muttered something he didn't understand. She might have been talking to herself. She'd reached the fireplace, stood staring down at the poker a moment, then picked it out of the coals by its handle and came towards him with it, holding it lightly like a sword, the fiery tip weaving back and forth. The captain watched her. Her eyes were wide open now, fixed on him. The tall body swayed forward a little as she walked. She looked like some snake-thing about to strike.

    He wasn't too alarmed. Sunnat might be drugged or drunk, or she might have gone out of her mind. And he didn't like the poker. This was trouble, perhaps bad trouble. But if she got close enough to use the poker, he'd jump her and get it from her....

    She didn't come that close. She stopped twelve feet away, well beyond his reach.

    "Captain Aron," she said, "I think you already know this isn't really a joke! I want something you have, and you're going to give it to me. Now let me tell you a story...."



    It was the story, somewhat distorted and with many omissions, of his experiences with the Sheewash Drive on the far side of the Empire. It didn't mention Karres and didn't mention klatha. Neither did it mention that he'd picked up three witch children on Porlumma. Otherwise, it came uncomfortably close to the facts.

    "I don't have any such drive mechanism on the ship," the captain repeated, staring at her, wondering how she could possibly have got that information. "Whoever told you I did was lying!"

    Sunnat smiled unpleasantly. He knew by now that she wasn't drunk or drugged. Neither was she out of her mind, at least by her own standards. She was engaged in a matter of business, in the old Uldune style. And she looked the part. The poker was cooling but could be quickly reheated. She might have been some pirate chieftain's lady, who had volunteered to interrogate a stubborn prisoner.

    "No, you're lying," she said. "Though it may be true that the drive mechanism is not on the ship at present. But you know where it is. And you'll tell me."

    As the captain started to speak, she brought some small golden object from a pocket of her trousers, lifted it to her mouth. There was a short, Piercing whistle. Sunnat turned away from him, smiled back at him over her shoulder and returned to the fireplace, the poker dangling loosely from her hand. He heard sounds from the stairway, shuffling footsteps.

    Filish and Bazim appeared, coming carefully down the stairs side by side, carrying a chair between them. Goth was in the chair. There was a gag in her mouth; and even at that distance the captain could see her arms were fastened by the wrists to the sides of the chair.

    "Over here!" Sunnat called to her partners. They started towards her with Goth. She put the poker back in the coals, its handle resting on the grate, and stood waiting for them. As they came up, she reached out and snatched the gag from Goth's mouth. Goth jerked forward, then settled back while the two men put the chair down beside the table, facing the fire. Sunnat tossed the gag into the coals.

    "No need for that here, you see!" she informed the captain. "This is a very old place, Captain Aron, and there's been a great deal of strange noise made down here from time to time, which never disturbed anybody outside. It will cause no disturbance tonight."

    "Now then, we have your brat. You're quite fond of her, I think. In a minute or two, I'll also have a very hot poker. If you don't wish to talk now, you needn't. On the other hand, you may tell me anything you wish -- until I decide the poker is as hot as I want it to be. After that I'm afraid I'll be too busy to listen to what you have to say -- if I'm able to hear you, which I doubt -- for, well, perhaps ten minutes...."

    She swung to face him fully, jabbed a finger in his direction.

    "And then, Captain Aron, when it's become quiet enough so you can speak to me again -- then I'll be convinced that what you want to tell me is no lie but the truth. But that may be a little late for your Dani."

    He felt like a chunk of ice. Goth had glanced over at him with her no-expression look, but only for an instant; she was watching Sunnat again now. The two men clearly didn't like this much -- Bazim was sweating heavily and Filish's face showed a frozen nervous grimace. He could expect no interference from those two. Sunnat was running the show here, as she usually did in the firm. But perhaps he could gain a little time.

    "Wait a moment, Sunnat," he said suddenly. "You don't have to hurt Dani -- I'll tell you where the thing is!"

    "Oh?" replied Sunnat. She'd pulled the poker out of the coals, was waving the glowing tip back and forth in the air, studying it. "Where?" she asked.

    "It's partly disassembled," the captain improvised rapidly. "Part of it is still in the ship -- very difficult to find, of course...."

    "Of course," Sunnat nodded. "And the rest?"

    "One small piece is in the house. Everything else has been locked up in two different bank vaults. I had to be careful--"

    "No doubt," she said. "Well, Captain Aron, you're still lying, I'm afraid! You're not frightened enough yet.... Bazim, get the water ready. Let's test this on the brat's sleeve, as a start."

    Bazim reached into the wooden tub beside the table and brought out a dripping ladle of water. He moved behind Goth's chair, stood holding the ladle in a hand that shook noticeably. Water sloshed from it to the floor.

    "Steady, now!" Sunnat laughed at him. "This won't even hurt the brat yet, if I'm careful. Ready?"

    Bazim grunted. Sunnat's hand moved and the poker tip delicately touched the sleeve of Goth's jacket. The captain held his breath. Smoke curled from the jacket as the poker moved up along the cloth. There was a sudden flicker of fire.

    Bazim reached over hastily. But his hand shook too hard -- water spilled all over Goth's lap instead of on the sleeve. Sunnat stepped back, laughing. Bazim turned, dipped the ladle back into the tub, flung its contents almost blindly in Goth's direction.

    It landed with a splat and a hiss exactly where it was needed. The line of fire vanished -- and Sunnat let out a startled yell....

    The captain found he was breathing again. Crouched and tense, he watched. Sunnat was behaving very strangely! Grasping the poker handle in both hands, she backed away from Goth and the others along the wall, holding the poker out and down, arms stiff and straight. The partners stared open-mouthed. The captain saw the muscles in Sunnat's arms strain as if it took all the strength she had to hold the poker. Her face was white and terrified.

    "Quick!" she screamed suddenly. "Filish! Bazim! Your guns! Kill him -- now! He's doing it. He's pulling it away from me! Ah -- no!"

    The last was a howl of despair as the poker twitched violently, spun out of Sunnat's hands and fell. It twisted on the flooring, its fiery tip darting back up towards her legs. She gave a shriek, leaped high and to one side, looked back, saw the poker rolling after her. She dodged away from it again, screaming, "Shoot! Shoot!"

    But other things were happening. Bazim began to bellow wildly and went into a series of clumsy leaps, turns and twists, clutching his seat with both hands. Filish swung around towards the captain, reaching under his coat... and the captain felt something smack into the palm of his right hand. He wrapped his fingers around it before it could drop, saw with no surprise at all that it was a gun, lifted it to trigger a shot above Filish's head. But by then there was no need to shoot -- Filish, too, was howling and gyrating about with Bazim. And Sunnat was sprinting towards the stairs while something clattered and smoked along the floor a yard behind her.

    There were a couple of light clinks at the captain's feet. Another gun lay there, and a small key. There was a mighty splash not far away. He looked up, saw Bazim and Filish sitting side by side in the tub, their legs hanging over its edge, tears streaming down their faces. Sunnat had disappeared up the stairs. He couldn't see the poker.

    Quite calmly, the captain went down on his left knee, fitted the key into the lock of the metal ring around his ankle and turned it. The ring snapped open. He put the other gun, which would be Bazim's, into a pocket, stood up and went over to Goth. The partners stared at him in wide-eyed horror, trying to crouch deeper into the tub.

    "Thanks, Captain!" Goth said in a clear, unruffled voice as he came up. "Was wondering when you'd let those three monkeys have it!"

    The captain couldn't think immediately of something appropriate to reply to that. He knew it hadn't been some vagrant vatch at work this time -- it had been all Goth. So he only grunted as he began to loosen the cords around her wrists. Then he ran his finger along the burned streak on her jacket sleeve. "Get singed?" he asked.

    "Uh-uh!" Goth smiled up at him. "Didn't even get warm!" She looked over at Bazim and Filish. "Served them right to get hot coals in their back pockets for that, though!"

    "I thought so," the captain agreed.

    "'Fraid that poker didn't catch up with Sunnat," Goth added. She'd got out of the chair, stood rubbing her wrists, looking around.

    "No. I was rather busy, you know.... I doubt she'll get far." If Goth felt it was best to let Bazim and Filish believe he was the one who'd done the witching around here, he'd go along with it. He gave the two a look. They cringed anew. "Well, now..." he began.

    "Somebody's coming, Captain!" Goth interrupted, cocking her head.

    It seemed quite a number of people were coming. Boots clattered hurriedly on the staircase, descending towards them. Then a dozen or so men in the uniform of the Daal's Police boiled down the stairs into the vault, spread out, holding guns. The one in the lead caught sight of the captain and Goth, shouted, "Halt!" to the others and hurried towards them while his companions stayed where they were.

    "Ah, Your Wisdoms!" the officer greeted them respectfully as he approached. "You are unharmed, of course -- but accept the Daal's profound apologies for this occurrence, extended for the moment through his unworthy servant. We learned of the plans these rascals were devising against you too late to spare you the annoyance of having to deal with them yourselves." He gave the partners a look of stern loathing. "I see you have been merciful -- they live. But not for long, I feel! We captured the woman as she attempted to escape to the street.... Now if Your Wisdoms will permit me to speak to you privately while my men remove this scum from your presence--"



    The captain found it difficult to get to sleep that night.

    The policeman, a Major something-or-other -- he hadn't caught the name -- had transmitted an invitation to them from the Daal to attend the judging of the villainous partners at the Daal's Little Court in the House of Thunders next day. He'd accepted. A groundcar would come by two hours after sunrise to take them there.

    Goth had explained the "Your Wisdoms" form of address after they returned to the house and switched on their spy-screen. "It's how they talk to a witch around here," she said, "when they want to be polite... and when they're supposed to know you're a witch."

    Apparently it was regarded as good policy on Uldune to be polite to witches of Karres. And the Daal evidently had intended to let them know in this roundabout way that he knew they were witches.

    He was only half right, of course....

    Did Sedmon the Sixth have something else in mind with the invitation? Goth figured he did but she didn't feel it was anything to worry about. "The Daal wants to get along with Karres--"

    There shouldn't be any trouble with the overlord of Uldune in connection with the Sheewash Drive, of which he would hear from the prisoners tomorrow, if he didn't already know about it. But the captain's thoughts kept veering towards some probably very unpleasant aspects of their visit to the House of Thunders. He realized presently he was afraid to go to sleep because he probably would start dreaming about them.

    He raised his head suddenly from the pillow. There was shimmering motion in the dim-lit hall beyond the open door of the room, a blurred suggestion of a small figure beyond it. The shimmering came into the room, advanced towards the bed, blotting out the room behind it, moved along the bed, passed over the captain's head, and went on into the wall. The room had become visible again and Goth, in her white sleep-pants, was now perched on the foot of the bed, legs crossed, looking at him. She had their spy-proofing device in one hand.

    "What's the matter?" he asked.

    "You're worrying about that pig getting skinned!" Goth told him.

    "Hmm... Sunnat?"

    "Who else?"

    "Well, the others, too," said the captain. "It's a rather horrid practice, you know!"

    "Uh-huh. You needn't worry, though."

    "Why not?"

    "Sedmon isn't having anyone skinned tomorrow, if we don't say so."

    "Why should he care what we say?"

    "We're witches, Your Wisdom!" Goth said. She chuckled gently.

    "Well, but..."

    "Threbus and Toll know Sedmon, Captain. They visited his place four, five times before I was born. They told me about him. He's got a sort of skullcap he uses that keeps klatha waves out of his mind. You can bet he'll wear it tomorrow! But he still doesn't want trouble with witches. He knows too much about them."

    "That's why you got them to think I did those klatha tricks tonight?" the captain asked.

    "Sure. If they found out we got the Drive here, they better think we can keep it. Far as Sedmon is concerned, you're a witch now."

    "What kind of a fellow is he otherwise?" the captain asked. "I've heard stories..."

    "I can tell you stories about Sedmon you won't believe," Goth said. "But not tonight. Just one thing. If we're alone with him -- not if someone else is around -- and it looks as if he's starting to wonder again if you're a witch, call him 'Sedmon of the Six Lives.' He'll snap to it then."

    "Sedmon of the Six Lives, eh? What does that mean?"

    "Don't know," Goth said. She yawned. "Threbus can tell you when we see him. But it'll work."

    "I'll remember it," the captain said.

    "Going to do any more worrying?" Goth asked.

    "No. Night, witch!"

    "Night, Your Wisdom!" She slipped down from the bed, clicking off the spy screen, and was gone from the room.



    Impressive as the House of Thunders looked from a distance, it became apparent, as the military groundcar carrying Goth and the captain approached it up winding mountain roads, that its exterior was as weather-beaten and neglected as the streets of the old quarter of Zergandol. The Daal's penuriousness was proverbial on Uldune. Evidently it extended even to keeping up the appearance of the mighty edifice which was the central seat of his government.

    The section of the structure through which they presently were escorted was battered, but filled with not particularly unobtrusive guards. Several openings and hallways revealed the metallic gleam of heavy armament, obviously in excellent repair. Dilapidated the House of Thunders might look, the captain thought, but for the practical purpose of planetary defense it should still be a fortress to be reckoned with. The escorting officers paused presently before an open door, bowed the visitors through it and drew the door quietly shut behind them.

    This was a windowless room, well furnished, its walls concealed by the heavy ornamental hangings of another period. Sedmon stood here waiting for them. The captain saw a lean, middle-aged man, dark-skinned, with steady, watchful eyes. Uldune's lord wore a long black robe and a helmet-like cap of velvet green which covered half his forehead and enclosed his skull to the nape of his neck. The last must be the anti-klatha device Goth had mentioned.

    He greeted them cordially, using the names with which they had been supplied by his Office of Identities, apologized for the outrage attempted against them by Sunnat, Bazim & Filish.

    "My first impulse," he said, "was to have those wretches put to death without an hour's delay!"

    "Well," said the captain uncomfortably, quickly blotting out another mental vision of the Daal's executioners peeling wicked Sunnat's skin from her squirming body, "it may not be necessary to be quite so severe with them!"

    Sedmon nodded. "You are generous! But that was to be expected. In fact, in the cases of Bazim and Filish Your Wisdom appears to have inflicted on the spot the punishment you regarded as suitable to their offense--"

    "It was what they deserved," the captain agreed.

    The Daal coughed. "Also," he said, "I have considered that Bazim and Filish are, when in their senses, most valuable subjects. They claim they acted as they did solely out of their great fear of Sunnat's anger. If it is your wish then, I shall release them to conclude the work on your ship, as stipulated by contract -- with this condition. They may not receive one Imperial mael from you in payment! Everything shall be done at their expense. Further, my inspectors will be looking over their shoulders; and if they, or you, should find cause for the slightest complaint, there will be additional penalties, and far more drastic ones.... Does this meet with Your Wisdoms' approval?"

    The captain cleared his throat, assured him it did.

    "There remains the matter of Sunnat," the Daal resumed. "Your testimony against her is not required -- her partners' separate statements have made it clear enough that she was the instigator of the plot. However, it would be well if Your Wisdoms would accompany me to the Little Court now to see that the judgment rendered against this pernicious woman is also in accordance with your wishes..."

    A handful of minor officials were arranged about the mirrored expanse of the Daal's Little Court when they entered. Sedmon seated himself, and the visitors were shown to chairs at the side of the bench. A moment later two soldiers brought Sunnat in through a side door. She started violently when she caught sight of the captain and Goth and avoided looking in their direction again. Sunnat had clearly had a very bad night! Her face was strained and drawn; her reddened eyes flickered nervously as they glanced about. But frightened as she must be, she soon showed she was still trying to squirm out of the situation.

    "Lies, all lies, Your Highness!" she exclaimed tearfully but with a defiant toss of her head. "Never -- never! -- would I have wished Their Wisdoms harm -- or dared consider doing them harm if I hadn't been forced to what I did by the cruel threats of Bazim and Filish. They--"

    It got her nowhere. The Daal pointed out quietly it was clear she hadn't realized with whom she was dealing when she turned on Captain Aron and his niece. Malice and greed had motivated her. It was well known that her partners were fully under her sway. Justice could not be delayed by such arguments.

    No mention was made by either side of the mysterious spacedrive Sunnat had tried to get in her possession. It seemed she had been warned against saying anything about that in court.

    Sunnat was weeping wildly at that point. Sedmon glanced over at the captain, then looked steadily at Goth.

    "Since the criminal's most serious offense was against the Young Wisdom," he said, "it seems fitting that the Young Wisdom should now decide what her punishment should be."

    The Little Court became quiet. Goth remained seated for a moment, then stood up.

    "It would be even more fitting, Sedmon," somebody beside the captain said, "if the Young Wisdom herself administered the punishment...."

    He started. The words had come from Goth -- but that had not been Goth's voice! Everybody in the Little Court was staring silently at her. Then the Daal nodded.

    "It shall be as Your Wisdom said...."

    Goth moved away from the captain, stopped a few yards from Sunnat. He couldn't see her face. But the air tingled with eeriness and he knew klatha was welling into the room. He had a glimpse of the Daal's face, tense and watchful; of Sunnat's, dazed with fear.

    "Look in the mirror, Sunnat of Uldune!"

    It wasn't her voice! What was happening? His skin shuddered and from moment to moment, now his vision seemed to blur, then clear again. The voice continued low, mellow, but somehow it was filling the room. Not Goth's voice but he felt he'd heard it before somewhere, sometime, and should know it. And his mind strained to understand what it said but seemed constantly to miss the significance of each word by the fraction of a second, as the quiet sentences rolled on with a weight of silent thunder in them. Sunnat faced one of the great mirrors in the room; he saw her back rigid and straight and thought she was frozen, unable to move. Sedmon's lean hands were clamped together, unconsciously knotting and twisting as he stared.

    The voice rose on an admonitory note, ended abruptly in sharp command. It couldn't, the captain realized, actually have been speaking for more than twenty seconds. But it had seemed much longer. There was silence for an instant now. Then Sunnat screamed.

    One couldn't blame her, he thought. Staring into the mirror, Sunnat had seen what everyone else in the Little Court could see by looking at her. Set on her shoulders instead of her own head was the bristled, red-eyed head of a wild pig, ugly jaws gaping and working, as screams continued to pour from them. There was a medley of frightened voices. The Daal shouted a command at Sunnat's white-faced guards, and the two grasped the writhing figure by the arms, hustled it from the Little Court. As they passed through the side door, it seemed to the captain that Sunnat's wails had begun to resemble a pig's frightened squealing much more than the cries of a young woman in terrible distress....



    "Toll!" the captain told Goth, rather shakily. "You were talking in Toll's voice! Your mother's voice!"

    "Well, not really," Goth said. They were alone for the moment, in a small room of the House of Thunders, to which they had been conducted by a stunned looking official after the Daal, rather abruptly, concluded judicial proceedings in the Little Court following the Young Wisdom's demonstration. Sedmon was to rejoin them here in a few minutes -- the captain guessed the Daal had felt it necessary to get settled down a little first. Their spy-screen snapped on the instant the room's door closed on the official, who seemed glad to be on his way.

    "It's pretty much like Toll's voice," she agreed. "That was my Toll pattern."

    "Your what?"

    Goth rubbed her nose tip. "Guess I can tell you," she decided. "You won't get it all, though. I don't either...."

    Her Toll pattern was a klatha learning device. In fact, a nonmaterial partial replica of the personality of an adult witch whose basic individuality was similar to that of the witch child given the device. In this case, Toll's. "It's sort of with me in there," Goth said, tapping the side of her head. "Don't notice it much but it's helping. Now here -- Sedmon was checking on how good I was. Don't know why exactly. I figured I ought to get fancy to show him but wasn't sure what I wanted to do. So the Toll pattern took over. It knew what to do. See?"

    "Hmm... not entirely."

    Goth pushed herself up on the edge of a gleaming, blue table and looked at him, dangling her legs. "Course you don't," she said. She considered. "Pattern can't do just anything. It has to be something I can almost do already so it only has to show me. Else it'd get me messed up, like I told you."

    "Meaning you're almost able to plant a pig's head on somebody if you feel like it?" the captain asked.

    "Wasn't a pig's head."

    "Pretty good imitation then!"

    "Bend light, bend color." Goth shrugged. "That's all. They'll stay that way as long as you want. When Sunnat puts her hands up to feel, she'll know she's got her own head. But she's going to look part pig for a time."

    "Can't quite imagine you doing one of those incantations by yourself! That was impressive."

    "Incant... oh, that! You don't need all that," Goth told him. "Toll pattern did it to scare everybody. Especially Sedmon."

    "It worked, I think." He studied her curiously. "So when will you start bending light?"

    Goth's face took on a bemused expression. There was a blur. Then a small round pig's head squinted at him from above her jacket collar, smirking unpleasantly.

    "Oink!" it said in Goth's voice.

    "Cut it out!" said the captain, startled.

    The head blurred again, became Goth's. She grinned. "Told you I just had to be shown!"

    "I believe you now. How long will Sunnat be stuck with the one she's got?"

    "Didn't you hear what the pattern told her?"

    He shook his head. "I heard it -- it seemed to mean something. But somehow I wasn't really understanding a word. And I don't think anyone else there was."

    "Sunnat understood it," Goth said. "It was talking to her.... She's got to quit wanting to do things like burning people and scaring people, like that fat old Bazim. The less she wants that, the less she'll look like a pig. She works at it, she could look pretty much like she was in about a month. And..."

    Goth turned her head. There'd been a knock at the door. She put her hand in her pocket, snapped off the spy-screen, slid down from the table. The captain went over to the door to let in the Daal of Uldune.



    "There are matters of such grave potential significance," the Daal said vaguely, "that it is difficult -- extremely difficult -- to decide to whom one may unburden oneself concerning them. I..."

    His voice trailed off, not for the first time in this conversation. His gaze shifted across the shining blue table to the captain, to Goth -- back to the captain. He shook his head again, bit at a knuckle with an expression of worried irritability.

    The captain studied him with some puzzlement. Sedmon seemed itching to tell them something but unable to make up his mind to do it. What was the problem? He'd implied he had information of great importance to Karres. If so, they'd better get it.

    The Daal glanced at Goth again, speculatively. "Perhaps Your Wisdom understands," he murmured.

    "Uh-huh," said Goth brightly, in her little-girl voice.

    He'd tell Goth if they were alone? The captain considered. There hadn't been many "Your Wisdoms" coming his way since that business in the Little Court! Possibly Sedmon had done some private reevaluating of the events in Sunnat's underground dungeon last night. It would take -- as, in fact, it had taken -- only one genuine witch on the team to account for that.

    Not so good, perhaps.... He considered again.

    "I really think," he heard himself say pleasantly, "it might be best if you did unburden yourself to us, Sedmon of the Six Lives."

    The Daal's eyes flickered.

    "So!" It was a small hiss. "I suspected... but it was a difficult thing to believe, even of such as you. Well, we all have our secrets, and our reasons for them...." He stood up. "Come with me then -- Captain Aron and Dani! You should know better what to make of what I have here than I do."

    The captain hoped they would. He certainly did not know what to make of Sedmon the Sixth, and of the Six Lives, at the moment! But he seemed to have said the right thing at the right time, at that--

    Sedmon led them swiftly, the hem of his black gown flapping about his heels, through a series of narrow passages and up stairways into another section of the House of Thunders. They met no one on the way. Three times the Daal stopped to unlock heavy doors with keys produced from a fold in the gown, locked them again behind them. He did not speak at all until they turned at last into a blind passage which showed only one door and that near the far end. There he slowed.

    "Half the problem is here," he said, addressing them equally as they came up to the door. "When you've seen it, I'll tell you what else I know -- which is little enough. There'll be another thing to show you later in another place."

    He unlocked and opened the door. The room beyond was long and low, showed no furnishings. But something like a heavy, slowly rippling iron-gray curtain screened the far end.

    "A guard field," said the Daal sourly. "I've done everything possible to keep the matter quiet. In that I think I've been successful. It was all I could do until I came in contact with a competent member of your people." He gave them a sideways glance. "No doubt you have your own problems -- but for weeks I've been unable to learn where somebody who could act for Karres might be found!"

    His manner had taken another turn. He was dropping all formality here, addressing them with some irritability as equals and including Goth as if she were another adult. And he was not concealing the fact that he felt he had reason for complaint -- nor that he was a badly worried man. Reaching into his gown, he brought out a small device, glanced at it, pressed down with his thumb.

    The guard field faded, and the far end of the room appeared beyond it. A couch stood there. On it, in an odd attitude of abruptly frozen motion, sat a man in spacer coveralls. He was strongly built, might have been ten years older than the captain. Goth's breath made a sharp sucking sound of surprise.

    "You know this fellow?" the Daal asked.

    "Yes," Goth said. "It's Olimy!"

    "He's of Karres?"


    She started forward, the captain moving with her, while the Daal stayed a few feet behind. Olimy gazed into the room with unblinking black eyes. He sat at the edge of the couch, legs stretched out to the floor, arms half lifted and reaching forwards, fingers curled as if closing on something. His expression was one of alertness and intense concentration. But the expression didn't change and Olimy didn't move.

    "He was found like this, a month and a half ago, sitting before the controls of his ship," the Daal said. "Perhaps you understand his condition. I don't. He can be shifted out of the position you see him in, but when released he gradually returns to it. He can be lifted and carried about but can't actually be touched. There's a thin layer of force about him, unlike anything of which I've heard. It's detectable only by the fact that nothing can pass through it. He appears to be alive but--"

    "He disminded himself." Goth's face and tone were expressionless. She looked up at the captain. "We got to take him to Emris, I guess. They'll help him there."

    "Uh-huh." Then she didn't know either how to contact other witches this side of the Chaladoor at present. "You mentioned his ship," the captain said to the Daal.

    "Yes. It's three hours' flight from here, still at the point where it was discovered. He was the only one on board. How it approached Uldune and landed without registering on detection instruments isn't known." Sedmon's mouth grimaced. "He had an object with him which I ordered left on the ship. I won't try to describe it -- you'll see it for yourselves.... Are there any measures you wish taken regarding this man before we go?"

    Goth shook her head. The captain said, "There's nothing we can do for Olimy at the moment. He might as well stay here till we can take him off your hands."



    Olimy's ship had come down in a nearly uninhabited section of Uldune's southern continent, and landed near the center of a windy plain, rock-littered and snow-streaked, encircled by misty mountains. It wasn't visible from the air, but its position was marked by what might have been a patch of gray mist half filling a hollow in the plain -- a spy-screen had been set up to enclose the ship. On higher ground a mile away lay a larger bank of mist. The Daal's big aircar set down there first.

    At ground level, the captain, sitting in a rear section of the car with Goth, could make out the vague outlines of four tents through the side of the screen. Two platoons of fur-coated soldiers and their commander had tumbled out and lined up. One of the Daal's men left the car, went over to the officer, and spoke briefly with him. He came back, nodded to the Daal, climbed in. The aircar lifted, turned and started towards Olimy's ship, skimming along the sloping ground.

    There'd been no opportunity to speak privately with Goth. Perhaps she had an idea of what this affair of a Karres witch who had disminded himself was about, but her expression told nothing. Any question he asked the Daal might happen to be the wrong one, so he hadn't asked any.

    The car settled down some fifty yards from the edge of the screening about Olimy's ship, and was promptly enveloped itself by a spy-screen somebody cut in. Sedmon, as he'd indicated, evidently took all possible precautions to avoid drawing attention to the area. The captain and Goth put on the warm coats which had been brought along for them and climbed out with the Daal, who had wrapped a long fur robe about himself. The rest of the party remained in the car. They walked over to the screen about the ship, through it, and saw the ship sitting on the ground.

    It was a small one with excellent lines, built for speed. The Daal brought an instrument out from under his furs.

    "This is the seal to the ship's lock," he said. "I'll leave it with you. The object your associate brought here with him is standing in a plastic wrapping beside the control console. When you're finished you'll find me waiting in the car."

    The last was good news. If Sedmon had wanted to come into the ship with them, it might have complicated matters. The captain found the lock mechanism, unsealed it and pulled the OPEN lever. Above them, a lock opened. A narrow ladder ramp slid down.

    They paused in the lock, looking back. The Daal already had vanished beyond the screening haze about the ship. "Just to be sure," the captain said, "better put up our own spy-screen.... Got any idea what this is about?"

    Goth shook her head. "Olimy's a hot witch. Haven't seen him for a year -- he goes around on work for Karres. Don't know what he was doing this trip."

    "What's this disminding business?"

    "Keeps things from getting to you. Anything. Sort of stasis. It's not so good though. Your mind's way off somewhere and can't get back. You have to be helped out. And that's not easy!"

    Her small face was very serious.

    "Hot witch in a fast ship!" the captain reflected aloud. "And he runs into something in space that scares him so badly he disminds to get away from it! Doesn't sound good, does it? Could he have homed the ship in on Uldune on purpose, first?"

    Goth shrugged. "Might have. I don't know."

    "Well, let's look around the ship a bit before we get at that object. Must be some reason the Daal didn't feel like talking about it...."

    They saw it in its wrappings as soon as they stepped into the tiny control cabin. The large, lumpy item, which could have been a four hundred pound boulder concealed under twisted, thick, opaque space plastic, stood next to the console. They let it stand there. The captain switched on the little ship's viewscreens, found them set for normal space conditions, turned them down until various angles of the windy Uldune plain appeared in sharp focus. The small patch of gray haze which masked the Daal's aircar showed on their port side.

    They went through the little speedster's other sections. All they learned for their trouble was that Olimy had kept a very neat ship.

    "Might as well look at the thing now," said the captain. "You figure, it's something pretty important to Karres, don't you?"

    "Got to be," Goth told him. "They don't put Olimy on little jobs!"

    "I see." Privately, the captain admitted to considerable reluctance as he poked gingerly around at the plastic. Whatever was inside seemed as hard and solid as the bulky rock he'd envisioned when he first saw the bundle. Taking hold of one strip of the space plastic at last, he pulled it back slowly. A patch of the surface of the item came to view. It looked, he thought, like dirty ice-pitted old glacier ice. He touched it with a finger. Slick and rather warm. Some kind of crystal?

    He glanced at Goth. She lifted her shoulders. "Doesn't look like much of anything!" he remarked. He peeled the plastic back farther until some two feet of the thing were exposed. It could be a mass of worn crystal, lumpish and shapeless as it had appeared under its wrapping.


    Studying it, the captain began to wonder. There were a multitude of tiny ridged whorls and knobby protrusions on its surface, and the longer he gazed at them the more he felt they weren't there by chance, but for a purpose, had been formed deliberately... that this was, in fact, some very curious sculptured pattern--

    Within the cloudy gray of the crystal was a momentary flickering light, a shivering thread of fire, which seemed somehow immensely far away. He caught it again, again had a sense of enormous distances. And now came a feeling that the surface of the crystal was changing, flowing, expanding -- that he was about to drop through, to be lost forever in the dim, fire-laced hugeness that was its other side. Terror surged up; for an instant he was paralyzed. Then he felt himself moving, pulling the plastic wrappings frantically back across its surface, Goth's hands helping him. He twisted the ends together, tightly, as they had been before.

    Terror lost its edge in the same moment. It was as if something which had attacked them from without were now simply fading away. But he still felt uncomfortable enough.

    He looked at Goth, drew in a long breath.

    "Whew!" he said, shaken. "Was that klatha stuff?"

    "Not klatha!" said Goth, face pale, eyes sharp and alert. "Don't know what it was! Never felt anything like it."

    She broke off.

    Inside the captain's head there was a tiny, purposeful click. Not quite audible. As if something had locked shut.

    "Worm Worlders!" hissed Goth. They turned to the viewscreens together.

    A pale-yellow stain moved in the eastern sky above the wintry plain outside, spread as it drifted swiftly up overhead, then faded in a sudden rush to the west.



    "If we hadn't put it back when we did--" the captain said.

    Some minutes had passed. Worm Weather hadn't reappeared above the plain, and now Goth reported that the klatha locks which had blocked the Nuri probes from their minds were relaxing. The yellow glow was a long distance away from them again.

    "They'd have come here, all right!" Goth had her color back. He wasn't sure he had yet. That was a very special plastic Olimy had enclosed the lumpish crystal in! A wrapping which deflected the Worm World's sensor devices from what it covered--

    But Manaret wanted the crystal. And Karres apparently wanted it as badly. Olimy had been carrying it in his ship, and for all his witch's tricks, he'd been harried by the Nuris into disminding himself to escape them. Since then Worm Weather had hung about Uldune, turning up here and there, searching... suspecting the crystal had reached the planet, but unable to locate it.... He said, "You'd think Sedmon would blow up half the countryside around here to get rid of that thing! It's what keeps the Nuris near Uldune."

    Goth shook her head. "They'd come back sometime. Sedmon knows a lot! He doesn't have that cap of his just because of witches. He's scared of the Worm World. So he wants Karres to get that crystal thing."

    "Should help against Manaret, eh?"

    "Looks like Manaret thinks so!" Goth pointed out reasonably.

    "Yes, it does...." As important as that, then! The misty screen concealing the Daal's aircar on the plain was still there. The men inside it had seen the Worm Weather, too, had known better than to try to take off. The car would be buttoned tight now, armor plates snapped shut over the windows, doors locked, as it crouched like a frightened bird on the empty slope. But in spite of his fears, Sedmon had come here with them today because he wanted Karres to get the crystal....

    The captain said, "If we can take it as far as Emris--"

    Goth nodded. "Always somebody on Emris."

    "They'd do the rest, eh?" He paused. "Well, no reason we can't. If we just take care it stays wrapped up in that stuff."

    "Maybe we can," Goth said slowly. She didn't sound too sure of it.

    "The Daal thinks we can make it," the captain told her, "or he wouldn't have showed it to us. And, as you say, he's a pretty knowing old bird!"

    A grin flickered on her mouth. "Well, that's something else, Captain!"

    "What is?"

    "You look a lot like Threbus."

    "I do?"

    "Only younger," Goth said. "And I look a lot like Toll, only younger. Sedmon knows Threbus and Toll -- and we got him thinking that's who we are. He figures we've done an age-shift."


    "Get younger, get older," explained Goth. "Either way. Some witches can. Threbus and Toll could, I guess."

    "I see. Uh, well, still--"

    "And Threbus and Toll," Goth concluded in a rather small voice, "are an almighty good pair of witches!"

    For an instant, the barest instant then, and for the first time since he'd known her, Goth seemed a tiny, uncertain figure standing alone in a great and terrible universe.

    Well, not exactly alone, the captain thought.

    "Well," he said heartily, "I guess that means we're going to have to be an almighty good pair of witches now, too!"

    She smiled up at him. "Guess we'd maybe better be, Captain!"

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