F. Paul Wilson
Thanks to the editors who over the years have nursed
The Tery through various iterations to its present form:
THE TERY has had a long strange trip to this place. My science fiction beauty-and-the-beast tale had its start in 1971 as a novelette called "He Shall Be Jon." I'd intended it for John W. Campbell Jr. and Analog, but he died just as I was finishing it. His replacement, Ben Bova, passed on it so I sold it the following year to Vincent McCaffrey at Fiction; it appeared in the fourth issue.
A few years later Jim Frenkel, then science fiction editor for Dell, approached me at Lunacon about a series of books he was putting together called Binary Stars. Each volume would consist of two novellas, much like the venerable Ace Doubles; the books would have interior illustrations and each novella would be introduced by the author of the companion piece.
At that time I was breaking ground on a new house and needed all the cash I could lay my hands on. I signed on and went to work. "He Shall Be Jon" became the basis of the first ten chapters of the novella and I continued the story of Jon the tery from there. I added a new character named Tlad who linked the story to my LaNague Federation future history. I also tried my hand at overt horror for the first time.
I called the resultant novella The Tery. It was twice the length of the novelette and ended with a satisfying catharsis. A bit thin in spots, I thought, but I'd reached the word limit and the submission deadline was upon me, so I had to let it go as was.
The Tery appeared in Binary Stars #2 in 1978 and was graced with five wonderful Steve Fabian illustrations. Unfortunately, only those who have seen the originals know how wonderful they are. Everyone else was subjected to the muddied, almost indecipherable reproductions on the cheap paper Dell used. Fabian's delicate half tones were lost, reducing his illos to elaborate smudges.
In 1989 I went back to the story. I fleshed out the characters and fine-tuned the choices facing them until I finally was satisfied. THE TERY was now novel length-a short novel, to be sure, but I couldn't see padding the story just to bring it up to a certain word count. Some writers are putter-inners. I tend to be a taker-outer. In 1990 Baen published the novel-length version in paperback. The completed THE TERY was finally before the public, although it was the only one of my novels without a hardcover edition.
Dave Hinchberger of Overlook Connection Press said he could rectify that. I jumped at the chance.
But in reviewing the scans I realized that the prose needed work — a lot of work. I was in the middle of three other projects at the time but could not let the book go back into print as it was. So I made time and did an extensive edit. It’s still not perfect, but it’s as good as it’s going to get.
You now hold the definitive edition of THE TERY — the same text as revised for Overlook Connection Press edition.
This is it. No more changes.
As they approached the crude stone chapel, the priest’s hopes became a subvocal litany — A whole planetful of Christians. . too good to be true. . bound to be disappointed — running through his head in a reverberating circuit until it blurred all other thoughts. But its inherent defeatism could not damp the tingling anticipation charging through him.
The planet had been opened only recently to outside contact and trade. Its original settlers had cut themselves off from the rest of humanity many centuries ago. But their descendants — most of them, anyway — had different ideas.
The present population was divided into two nations. The smaller island country — inhabited, it was said, by "Talents," or something like that — wanted nothing to do with the Fed and so was to be left alone. The larger nation, however, welcomed the chance to rejoin the mainstream of interstellar humanity, and it was this segment of the population that interested Gebi Pirella, S.J.
His mission was one of critical importance to the Amalgamated Church of Unified Christendom because the inhabitants here had been described as followers of a distinctly Christian-like religion, complete with crucifixes. Early trade envoys who had been permitted a brief glance inside one of the chapels mentioned that the crucifixes were somehow different, but gave no specifics.
No matter. News of the existence of a planet-wide Christian enclave would prove incalculably important to the stagnating Unified Church, spreading its name and hopefully drawing converts from all over Occupied Space.
"The cross is just a symbol, of course," Mantha was saying as he pointed to the top of the chapel. He was a big, fair-haired man wearing only a loincloth in the heat. His grammar and speech pattern carried an archaic ring. "Not an object of worship. We revere the one who died upon it and hold to the lesson of brotherhood he taught us."
Father Pirella nodded. "Of course"
Heartening to know, and the first exposition of faith he had been able to wrest from this taciturn native who seemed to serve as some sort of ecclesiastical administrator to the locale.
The Jesuit had pushed their initial conversation toward a discussion of theological concepts but soon discovered that he and Mantha did not share the same vocabulary on religious matters. Beyond determining that the religious sect in question was less than two centuries old — unsettling, that, but surely not without a satisfactory explanation — Father Pirella’s most basic questions had been met with an uncomprehending stare. He had suggested that the easiest and most logical solution was to go to the nearest structure and start there with concrete articles. After establishing a little common ground, they could then progress to abstractions.
Mantha had agreed.
The native held the door open for him — hinges…the technological level here was startlingly depressed — and Father Pirella entered the cool dim interior.
He saw seats but no altar. Stark and alone, a huge, life-size crucifix dominated the far end of the chamber. He hurried forward, eager to study it. Merely to find the Christ figure here on this isolated world would be quite enough; but to demonstrate that it held a central position in the culture would be more than anyone in the order or the Church had ever dreamed. It would be the consummation of –
"Mother of God!"
The words echoed briefly in the dimness. Father Pirella's feet began to slide on the polished floor as he recoiled in horror at the sight of the figure on the cross. Crushing disappointment fanned his indignation.
"This is sacrilege!" he hissed through clenched teeth framed in tight, bloodless lips. "Blasphemy!"
For a moment he almost gave in to the urge to hurl himself at the astonished and confused Mantha, then he shuddered and rushed out into the bright, wholesome daylight.
"I did not know what you were looking for," Mantha said when he finally caught up to Father Pirella, "but I had a feeling you would not find it in there."
"Why didn't you warn me?"
Mantha gently took the priest's arm and began to lead him down a path through the trees.
"Come. Come with me to God's-Touch and you will perhaps understand."
Father Pirella allowed himself to be led. God's-Touch? What was that? It certainly couldn't be any worse than what he had just seen.
"Everything starts a long time ago," Mantha was saying. "One hundred and sixty-seven of our years, to be exact. It begins in a field not too far from here…"
They hadn't left him for dead. They had to know he was still alive, had to see the shallow expansion and contraction of his blood-smeared rib cage as he lay on his face in the grass. But they had other stops to make and he took such a long time dying. A tery didn't merit a final stroke to end it all, so they left him to the scavengers.
Consciousness ebbed and flowed, and every time he opened his eyes he found the world filled with flies and gnats. He tried but could not lift his arms to brush them away. Each time he tried, the effort involved dropped him again into oblivion. Which wasn't a bad place to be. Dark and quiet, no pain there.
But he always came back. Soon, if he was lucky, he would remain sunken there forever. Why not stay there? Everyone who meant anything to him had been taken away.
The creak of a poorly lubricated wooden axle pulled him to consciousness again. He heard stealthy footsteps through the ground against his left ear and allowed himself to hope.
Maybe another tery…
Summoning whatever reserve was left in his body, he pushed against the ground with his right arm and tried to roll over. The daylight suddenly dimmed and he knew he was losing consciousness, but he held on and managed to get a little leverage from his left arm, which had been pinned under him. He moved. A shift in his shoulder girdle and suddenly he was rolling onto his back amid a cloud of angry flies.
The effort cost him another period of awareness. When he came to again, the creaking was gone. Despair crushed him. The furtiveness of the footsteps he had heard was proof enough that they belonged to another tery, for stealth simply was not the way of the human soldiers who trampled everything in their path. Now the footsteps were gone and with them his last hope of rescue.
He was dying and knew it. If the hot, drying sun and his festering wounds didn't kill him by nightfall, one of the big nocturnal predators would finish the task. He couldn't decide which he –
The same ones, light and stealthy, but much closer now. The passing creature must have seen some movement in the tall grass and come over to investigate. It had probably crouched at a cautious distance and watched.
The tery lay still and hoped. He could do no more.
The footsteps stopped by his head and a face looked down at him. A human face, bearded, with bright blue eyes. He lost all hope then. If he could have found his voice he would have screamed in anguish, frustration, and despair.
But the human neither ignored him nor further mistreated him. Instead, he squatted and inspected the near countless lacerations that covered his body. His face grew dark with…could it be anger? The tery was not adept at reading human expressions. The man muttered something unintelligible as his inspection progressed.
Shaking his head, the human rose and moved around to a position behind the tery's head. He bent and hooked a hand under each of the tery's arms, then tried to lift him. It didn't work. The human lacked the strength to move his considerable weight, and the slight change in position sent a white-hot jolt of pain through each wound. The tery wanted to scream at him to stop, but all he could manage was a low, agonized moan.
The human loosened his grip and stood up, apparently uncertain of this next step.
"Can you speak?" the man said.
The odd question startled the tery. Yes, he could speak. He tried but his tongue was too thick and dry and swollen for a single word.
"Can you understand?"
The tery closed his eyes. Why the questions? What did it matter, anyway? He was going to die here. Why didn't this strange human just go away and leave him in peace?
After a brief pause, the man tore a strip of cloth from the coarse shirt he wore and laid it over the tery's eyes. Then he strolled away. The sound of his retreating footsteps was soon joined by the creak of the wooden axle. Both eventually faded beyond perception.
It was a small act of kindness, that strip of cloth, and incomprehensible to the tery. Why a human should want to keep the flies off his eyes while the rest of him died was beyond him, but he appreciated the comfort it offered.
The sun blazed on him and he felt his tongue grow thicker and drier during the progressively shorter periods of consciousness. Soon one of those periods would be his last.
He was brought to again by minute vibrations in the ground at the back of his head. Trotting hooves, and something dragging. The soldiers were returning. He was almost glad. Perhaps they would trample him as they passed and quickly end it all.
But the hoofbeats stopped and footsteps approached — many feet. The cloth was pulled from his eyes with an abrupt motion and the faces that leaned over him were human but didn't belong to soldiers. The four of them glanced at each other and nodded silently. One with blond hair turned and moved from view while the others, much to the tery's surprise, bent over him and began to brush the flies and gnats from his wounds. All this without a single word.
The blond man returned with one of the mounts. From a harness around its neck, a long pole ran along each shaggy flank to end on the ground well beyond the hindquarters. Rope was basket-woven between the poles.
Still no word was spoken.
Their silence puzzled him, for they were obviously on their guard. What was there to fear in these woods besides Kitru's troops? And what had these humans to fear from Kitru, who slew only teries?
The appearance of a water jug halted further speculation. Its mouth was placed against his lips and a few drops allowed to trickle out. The tery tried to gulp but succeeded only in aspirating a few drops, which started him coughing. The jug was withdrawn, but at least his tongue no longer felt like dried leather.
With the utmost gentleness and an uncanny coordination of effort, the four men lifted the tery. The pain came again, but not as bad a when the first one had tried to lift him. They carried him and placed him across the webbing of the drag, then tied him down with cloth strips. All without speaking.
Perhaps they were outlaws. But even so, the tery began to think them overly cautious in their silence. The soldiers were long gone.
The humans mounted and ambled their steeds toward the deep forest. The uneven ground jostled the drag and caused a few of his barely clotted wounds to reopen, but the tery bore the pain in silence. He felt safe and secure, as if everything was going to be all right. And he hadn't the vaguest notion why he should feel that way.
The path they traveled was unknown to the tery, who had spent most of his life in the forest. They passed through dank grottos of huge, foul-hued fungi that grew together at their tops and nearly blocked out the sun, and skirted masses of writhing green tendrils all too willing to pull any hapless creature within reach toward a gaping central naw. After what seemed an interminable length of time, the group passed through a particularly dense thicket and came upon a clearing and a camp.
The tents were crude, all odd shapes and sizes, scattered here and there in no particular arrangement. The inhabitants, too, offered little uniformity of design, ranging from frail to obese. This was hardly what the tery had expected. He had envisioned a pack of lean and wolfish outlaws — they would have to be feral sorts to hold their own against Kitru's seasoned troops. But there were women and children here and a number of them took leave of their working and playing to stare at him as he passed. These people hardly looked like outlaws.
And the silence was oppressive.
His four rescuers stopped and untied the drag from the mount, then lowered it gently until the tery lay flat on the ground. One of them called out the first and only word spoken during the entire episode.
A girl with reddish blond hair emerged from a nearby hut. She was young — seventeen summers, perhaps — slightly plump but not unpretty. Seeing the tery, she rushed over and dropped to his side. Gently she examined his wounds.
"He's cut up so bad," she said in a voice high and clear and full of sympathy. "How'd it happen?"
"Those are sword wounds," one of the other men said with some impatience. "That can only mean Kitru's men."
"Why'd you bring him back?"
The first man shrugged. "It was Tlad's idea."
The tery detected a note of disbelief in her voice.
"Yes. He found the beast earlier and somehow convinced your father that we should help it. So your father sent us after it."
Adriel's brow furrowed. "Tlad did that? That doesn't sound like him."
The man shrugged again. "Who can figure Tlad anyway?" He indicated the hut. "Your father inside?"
"No." Adriel rose and pointed to a far corner of the camp. "He's over there somewhere, talking to Dennel, I think."
The men left in silence. The tery watched the girl duck back inside the hut.
Tlad? Was that the name of the man who had spoken to him and placed the cloth over his eyes? Tlad. He would remember that man.
Adriel soon reemerged with a wet rag and knelt beside him.
"Oh, you poor thing."
He was riding the ragged edge of consciousness then, and the last thing he remembered as everything faded into blackness was the cool, wet cloth wiping the dirt and dried blood from his face and a soft, cooing voice.
"Poor thing…poor thing…"
"Think he'll live?" someone said behind her.
The sound of a voice startled Adriel. She gave a small cry and turned. A bearded man, tall and muscular, stood peering over her shoulder.
"Oh. Tlad. You startled me. You shouldn't sneak up on people like that."
"Sorry. How's he doing?"
"I think he'll pull through. If his wounds don't fester too much, he should be all right."
"Good." Tlad gave her a quick nod, then he turned and started to walk away.
"Wait. I don't understand."
He looked back, his eyes flicking over her. "What is there to understand?"
"Why did you bring my father news of a wounded tery? Why convince him to bring it in?"
"He needed help and I couldn't manage him. I figured you'd like the job."
"Oh, you did, did you?"
She resented this relative stranger's presumption in assuming that he knew what she'd like.
"Yes. You both look like you could use a friend. You'll be good for each other."
Adriel stared into his unreadable face. The insight at the heart of his casual statement was so on-target that she was momentarily speechless. She looked at him closely. His light brown hair hung lankly against the darker brown of his beard. He was dirty and he smelled bad and she had never much liked him. He returned her stare.
"That was nice of you," she said, finally.
"Forget it. You and he are running from the same thing — I thought you might want to help him out a little. And he looked like he needed all the help he could get. Do a good job."
"I don't need you to tell me that," she said sharply, showing her annoyance at his remark. Of course she would take good care of the tortured beast.
He barked a short laugh and strolled to his wagon. With a single, smooth motion, he bent, grasped the two handles, and started off into the woods, trailing the wagon behind him. A few shards of broken pottery rattled in the back; the left wheel squeaked on its axle.
She watched until the thicket swallowed him, then returned to her work with a scowl. Tlad had risen in her estimation today by his show of compassion for the poor beast unconscious before her, but she still did not like him. She couldn't pin it down, but something about that man caused her to mistrust him.
Still, in a way she wished he had stayed longer. At least he was someone to talk to.
She went back into the hut to get some clean rags to bind the tery's deeper wounds, and when she returned, she saw her father approaching across the clearing.
"That thing still alive?" Komak said when he reached her side and stood surveying the bulk of the tery.
Her father was a man huge in height, girth, and spirit. He had clear, pale blue eyes and shaggy red hair and beard that encircled his head like a mane; his skin was the type that never seemed to tan, remaining ever red from the sun despite the fact that he spent all of his time outdoors these days. Adriel shared his coloring in hair, skin, and eyes, but was shorter and had a smaller frame.
"Of course he's still alive. And I'll keep him that way."
Didn't anyone have any confidence in her?
Komak lifted the unconscious creature's upper lip to expose its sharp teeth.
"So this is Tlad's tery. Ugly brute."
"He's not so bad. He's just all cut up and his fur's all matted with dried blood. He'll look a lot better when I've had a chance to clean him up."
"Now that we've got him, what're we going to do with him?"
"I want to keep him, father. And don't you ever call him ‘Tlad's tery' again," she said with mock severity. "He's mine now."
"I don't know about that. Look at the size of him — the muscles in those arms. If he should ever turn on you…"
"He won't," she said, and meant it. "He knows I'm his friend. I could see it in the way he looked at me when I started washing off his wounds."
"Well, we'll see."
"Father," she said after a pause while she tied a knot in the bandage, "are Kitru's men hunting and exterminating the forest teries, too?"
She remembered how all the teries in and around the town had been killed or driven off by the Overlord's decree. That had been awful, but at least the soldiers had not gone hunting through the forests for them. That had changed now, it seemed.
Komak squatted beside her. "Yes, I'm afraid they are. Overlord Mekk's new decree applies not only to us but to the forest teries and even to some of the more bizarre plants — at least that's what Rab told us."
"And where is this Rab fellow everybody talks about?"
"I don't know." He let his body slip back and rested on his buttocks. "But I wish he'd get here."
With a slow, almost painful motion, he lay back on the ground and closed his eyes. Adriel stopped her ministrations to the tery and watched her father with concern.
"Exhausted. I'm not cut out for this. I didn't want to be leader of the group. When I agreed to the position, I thought it was only for a few days…only until Rab showed up. Now it's been months."
"Where could he be? Do you think he got caught?"
"Possibly. When he warned us, he said we didn't have much time to get away from the keep. Maybe he tarried too long trying to make sure everybody got out."
Adriel remembered the day. Vividly. Her father had hurried home from Kitru's court where he had long served as an advisor on matters of design and construction around the keep. He was in a state of great agitation. An unknown Talent who called himself Rab had whispered to his mind about secrets in old books and about a messenger on his way from Overlord Mekk with a new proclamation — an addition to the old Tery Extermination Decree. It ordered all the local lords to hunt down and slay all teries everywhere. But that was not what had so upset Rab and all the Talents — it was the second part, which included possessors of the Talent as offenders against God. Possessors of the Talent would thereafter be declared teries and summarily condemned to death without trial.
Word spread rapidly among those with the Talent — Rab, whoever he was, had contacted many of them — and the majority believed him. The Overlord had long been under the spell of a fanatical religious sect which worshipped the True Shape. All deviations from True Shape were considered unholy. Apparently the sect's dogma now included possessors of the Talent as deviants.
There had been doubters among the Talents, of course. Those who claimed that it went against all existing laws to order their deaths merely because they possessed the Talent. These few stayed behind while Komak, Adriel, and the others packed whatever they could and fled into the woods. If they were wrong in trusting Rab, Komak had told them, all it would cost them was a few days of inconvenience and perhaps a little embarrassment. If they were right…
The wisdom of their choice became horrifyingly evident on their third night in the woods when the anguish, pain, and terror of the other Talents left behind in the keep leaped through the darkness to wake them from their sleep. The agonized emotions winked out bit by bit as those trusting Talents were systematically captured in their homes and dragged to the burning pit outside town. Only Adriel had slept on, oblivious to it all.
"I still say it's not fair to call us teries," she said. "We're not! We're people!"
He smiled at her sadly. "My poor little Adriel. I indulged you and spoiled you, and now I've had to tear you away from all the luxuries I worked so hard to give you. I'd give anything to make things right for you again."
Adriel fought the tears. She missed her house, her clothes, her room, her bed, her friends, the shops, the marketplace in the square, people who talked.
Her father sighed and changed the subject. "I don't think Rab is coming."
"Maybe Rab is right here in this camp and we don't know it," she said, hoping to buoy his spirits.
Komak opened his eyes and raised himself up on one elbow. "Not possible. I don't know how to explain it to you but…but once you've communicated with someone via the Talent, you'll always recognize him again. Rab isn't here."
"Maybe he's Tlad, then. We don't know anything about him."
"But Tlad doesn't have the Talent. You said so yourself. And you should know — you're the Finder."
Yes, she was the Finder, all right. Sometimes she wished she weren't.
"Still, there's something about that man I don't like, don't trust."
"Don't trust? He's never harmed you or any of us. As a matter of fact, he's been a good friend to us."
"Perhaps ‘don't trust' isn't exactly what I mean. I don't know. He's sneaky. He always seems to be watching us. Maybe he's working for Kitru, spying on us."
"If that was his plan, my dear, he could have led the troops here long ago. And don't forget how he acted on behalf of the tery here — no man of Kitru's would do that."
But Adriel would not allow her suspicions to be put to rest.
"I can't explain what he did today, but —"
"Don't try to explain Tlad," her father cut in. "He's not like us. He lives alone out here, makes his pottery, and doesn't bother anyone. Doesn't seem to be much afraid of anyone, either. But forget about him now. We have more pressing matters at hand."
She finished up the last dressing on the tery and looked at him.
"Yes. It's rumored that Overlord Mekk is planning a personal inspection of all the districts soon and that's probably why Kitru is sending his men out into the bush to kill off the teries: He wants to make a good impression on the Overlord." He paused for a moment, then: "This creature was found much too near the camp for comfort. Kitru's men might stumble on us next. We must move on. And soon."
Adriel watched him rise to his feet and stand with hands on hips, letting his eyes rove the oppressively silent camp. All motion ceased as everyone turned to face her father. After a short pause, he turned back to her. The camp dissolved into a flurry of activity.
"As soon as you finish with him, start gathering your things. We move at daybreak tomorrow."
They numbered near fifty, these strange, silent folk. As the predawn glow lightened the western sky, the tery watched their wordless coordination in fascination. They broke camp swiftly, loaded their pack animals, and prepared to start off through the forest toward a new and safer location.
Still weak from his wounds, the tery suffered blurred vision and nausea every time he tried to raise himself upright. He had passed the night in a deep, exhausted, untroubled sleep to awaken alert and chilled in the dawn.
Adriel, however, was up before him and ready.
"There, now," she said softly, pressing his shoulders back against the drag on which he had spent the night. "You don't have to go anywhere and you shouldn't." Her voice was soft and reassuring, its tone meant to convey the meaning of the words she didn't know he could understand. "See if you like this."
She placed a shallow earthen bowl filled with milk and bits of raw meat before him. With two or three brisk movements, he shoveled all the meat into his mouth, swallowed convulsively, then drained the milk.
Adriel's mouth hung open.
"You must be famished. But that's all for now — you'll get sick if I let you eat as much as you want." She poured some cool water into the empty bowl. "Drink this and that'll be all until later."
When they were all set to go, the tery's drag was bound again to one of the mounts. Adriel covered him with a blanket and walked beside him, a reassuring hand on his shoulder as they began to move.
The tery considered his benefactrix. She had a clear, open face in which he could read little. She appeared neither happy nor unhappy, neither contented nor frustrated. Lonely, perhaps? He would not have expected the daughter of a chief — at least her father seemed to be the chief — to be lonely. Perhaps she wasn't pretty by human standards.
As they moved through the trees a young man came up and matched his step to hers. He was well built with curly brown hair and an easy smile. A wispy attempt at a beard mottled his cheeks.
"How's the Finder today?" he said.
She sighed. "How do you think, Dennel?"
"Same old problem?"
He grinned. "Won't you ever understand? Speech is such a burden for us: Thoughts flash as entities between us, whole concepts transfer from one to another as a unit, in an instant. We converse in colors and emotions and mixtures I can't even begin to describe. We don't leave you out on purpose. It's just…well, why walk when you can fly?"
"I know all that, Dennel. We've been over this before, but it doesn't help. It doesn't keep me from feeling left out. Back at the keep I could at least go and find some regular folks to talk to. But here…here I'm the only one who was born without the Talent."
"But the Talent came out in you in a different way. You're a Finder."
"I can find possessors of the Talent, sure. But I can't communicate with them. I'm cut off."
"But your ability to find makes you the most valuable member of the group. Through you we can find new members to add to our ranks. And we need every Talent we can find." He glanced up and down the column of travelers. "Every single one."
"That still doesn't keep me from feeling like a cripple." She didn’t want to sulk, but couldn’t help it. "And according to Overlord Mekk I'm still just as much a tery as you are. So he wants to kill me, too. I get all the danger but none of the benefits."
In the silence that followed, the tery had time to ponder what he had just heard. He now understood why these humans were fleeing Kitru. They, like the teries, were now on Mekk's extermination list. His mother had told him that humans had always enjoyed killing each other. This was just another excuse to do more of it. His mother also had spoken of these people once: Talents, or psi-people. That explained the eerie silence of the camp — they spoke with their minds. All except Adriel.
"Teries." Dennel said, his eyes flashing. "This whole situation is so foolish! We're not teries! Everyone knows that teries are a product of the Great Sickness — dumb, misshapen animals, like this brute here."
"And you think you're not?" said another voice.
Adriel and Dennel reacted with surprise, but the tery had heard his approach. His heart warmed at the sight of the human who had caused his rescue yesterday.
"Oh, hello, Tlad," said Dennel. "And yes, I'm sure our special talents didn't come from the Great sickness."
"How do you explain them then?" Tlad's eyes danced. He seemed to enjoy challenging Dennel's conceits.
"Talents are a refinement of humanity, an advancement. I should think that is quite obvious. We can do things no one else can do."
"That doesn't necessarily make you popular with the rest of us who have to communicate by noisier means."
"Nevertheless, we should be courted rather than persecuted. We're the next step up the ladder."
"Maybe so," Adriel said softly. "But maybe Mekk doesn't like the idea of being left on a lower rung."
"By the way," Tlad said. "How's the tery?"
Adriel immediately brightened.
"Coming along, poor thing. He heals fast. Some of his smaller cuts are almost closed up already."
"Thanks to you, I'm sure." Tlad waved. "I'm going ahead to find your father."
Dennel watched Tlad leave. "I'm not sure I like the way he comes and goes. He always seems to know where we are."
"Lucky for the tery that he knew where we were yesterday," Adriel said.
Dennel leaned over to get a better look at the wounds, then quickly turned away.
"What's wrong?" she said.
"Just thinking: That could be you or I some day if the troopers ever catch up with us."
"But they won't," Adriel told him, her optimism bright and genuine. "My father can keep us one step ahead of Kitru's men without even trying. But let's not worry about it — it's too early in the day for that."
"All right," he laughed, and looked at the tery again, this time from a greater distance. "At least he's not a talker and not too ugly. Looks like a cross between a big monkey and some wiry breed of bear."
The tery disliked Dennel's tone but had to agree with the comparison. He was about the height of a man when he walked upright, although he much preferred to go on all fours. His hands were large, twice the size of a man's, and he was covered from head to toe with coarse black fur, short and curly everywhere except the genital area, where it grew long and straight.
"Talker?" Adriel said, glancing between Dennel and the tery.
"Sure. Some teries can be taught to speak, you know. I saw some with a traveling music troupe that came through the keep a few years ago. Some of them sang, some of them danced, and one even gave dramatic readings of poetry. But that was before Mekk declared them ‘unholy.'
"Really? Do you think maybe I could teach this one to talk?"
Dennel shook his head. "I doubt it. First of all, I've been told that you've got to start them young if you're going to have any success. And secondly, you have to be lucky and get one who can be taught. The degree of intelligence varies greatly from one to another."
"Oh," she said with obvious disappointment. "I thought I might have someone to talk to."
"They can't think, Adriel. At the very most, all they can do is mimic sounds. And I'm not so sure you'd want a talker around anyway. Some of them are so good you'd actually think they had a mind."
"I guess it would be a little frightening at that."
The tery could have destroyed Dennel's misinformed theories in an instant, for he was a "talker" and had no doubts about his ability to think. But he kept to himself. If these humans found the thought of a talking tery repugnant, how would they feel if they knew that this animal was listening in on their conversation and understanding every word? He needed them now — especially now — while he was wounded, alone, and helpless. He couldn't risk alienating them, so he remained silent.
Adriel sighed. "By the way, where does the word ‘tery' come from?
Now that she was considered one, she supposed she should know.
Dennel shrugged. "I haven't the faintest idea. As far as I know, they've always been called teries. The name probably originated during the Great Sickness."
Dennel excused himself and walked toward the front of the train. As the tery scrutinized the psi-folk around him, he began to understand Adriel's predicament. Glances would pass between individuals, someone would smile, another would laugh, but speech was used only on the pack animals to keep them moving.
A lonely girl indeed, this Adriel.
When the train halted at dusk, the tery was freed from the drag and allowed to take a few painful steps. At first his joints were stiff, his muscles tight and inelastic, but they gradually loosened. He walked in slow circles. It was good to be up and about again. His spirits rose, but not too far.
When he stopped moving, he noticed that only two of the larger wounds had started bleeding again, and those very little. Adriel had done an excellent job of cleaning and binding the wounds; his animal vitality would do the rest.
She appeared carrying two bowls. The sight of her smiling face warmed him.
"Hungry?" she said as he limped toward her.
He had been given small amounts of milk during the day but now received a portion of raw meat in the second bowl. He ate slowly this time, savoring the flavor of a fleet grazing animal called ma. They were extremely hard to catch and it occurred to him that there must be some good hunters among the psi-folk.
Adriel murmured soothingly and examined each one of his bandages as he ate.
"Looks like you're coming along fine. You'll be back to your old self in no time." She sobered. "Then I suppose you'll take off into the bush again. You don't have to go, you know. We'll treat you well here, really we will. You'll have food and shelter and a friend: me."
The tery considered this. #
Later, well fed and freshly bandaged, he followed Adriel to the community dining area but remained at a respectful distance, accepting the occasional table scraps the psi-folk offered him, almost enjoying the game of playing a dumb animal.
The progress of the meal, however, was an awe-inspiring sight: Bowls went in all directions, crisscrossing the table in dizzying patterns, hands reached and were filled, portions were dispensed into goblets and onto plates — all without a single word. Only Adriel's tiny voice and an occasional belch broke the silence.
When bellies were full, and the tables and pottery cleaned and cleared away, the group gathered around the central fire for what appeared to be some sort of conference. Adriel hung back, looking indecisive, unaccountably hesitant. Finally, after two or three deep breaths, she strode forward to where her father sat in silence. The big man smiled as she knelt beside him. The tery remained in the background at the perimeter of the firelight, watching, listening.
"We were just discussing the future," her father told her, "and it looks as if we'll be spending years in these forests."
He glanced sharply at Dennel, whose face flickered on the far side of the flames.
In Komak's eyes, the tery could almost read his message to the younger man: Haven't I asked you to use your tongue when my daughter is present? If not out of kindness, then at least out of courtesy.
Grudgingly Dennel spoke. "But you haven't given my idea due consideration, Komak. We could make ourselves very useful to Kitru — and to Overlord Mekk himself. Think of the intelligence network we could form for him. Why, he could know what was going on in any one of his provinces at any time."
"Spies for the Overlord?" someone shouted. "Never."
"Listen to me." Dennel said. "It could save us, and be beneficial to Mekk as well!"
"You're dreaming," Komak said. "Practicality can't touch Mekk these days. He's become a religious fanatic. The priests have poisoned him against anything that does not bear True Shape — and that now seems to include our minds. No, Mekk is unreachable, I'm afraid."
"What about Kitru?" Dennel said. "We could make him very powerful lord."
Komak shook his head. "Kitru fears Mekk and dares not disobey him. I should know after spending years as his advisor. Kitru is a cruel, venal, greedy man, hungry for power, but he's a coward where Mekk is concerned. He won't question a single aspect of the new extermination decree. In fact, he'll enforce it with a single-mindedness as fanatical as Mekk's, just to impress the Overlord."
"But we could be useful."
"You mean ‘used,' don't you?"
"No. We're humans. Citizens. We shouldn't be treated like teries! There has to be a way!"
"A man is only what he proves himself to be," Komak said with an abrupt note of finality. "Right now we're fleeing for our lives, but your alternative strikes me as worse. Should we prove ourselves to be slaves? Tools of a tyrant? I think not, even if he permitted us to live that long. We can only run for now, but Rab promised that someday we'd return — and on our own terms!"
Dennel snorted. "Rab! The mystery Talent."
"But where is Rab?" Adriel said. "The answer means more to me than the rest of you. Most of you heard from this man by way of the Talent. I have only second-hand knowledge — yet here I am in the middle of the forest, fleeing from everything I know. Where is he? I thought he was supposed to join us out here."
"He was," her father said. "I don't know what happened to him. It's quite possible he met with the very fate he warned us all against. If only we knew more about him, maybe we could learn if anything happened to him."
"I'm leery of this Rab," Dennel said. "Where did he get all his advance information? And why haven't we ever heard from him before?"
Komak shrugged. "I can't possibly answer those questions. Perhaps he comes from Mekk's fortress — maybe that's where he got his information. One thing we do know: his warning was timely and correct. Need I remind anyone of the slaughter we experienced second hand on the third night after fleeing the keep, the slaughter we might have experience first hand were it not for Rab?"
No one met his searching gaze.
"I'm still suspicious," Dennel said. "How did Rab manage to contact those who were not publicly known to possess the Talent? Adriel is the only Finder in the province…I fear a trap, Komak."
"Well, if there's a trap, Rab will have caught himself — because he contacted us via the Talent, which puts him on Mekk's extermination list along with the rest of us. And there is something you all should know: There are still a number of Talents hiding undiscovered in Kitru's keep."
Dennel gasped. "There are? How do you know?"
"The morning after the slaughter, before we fled the area, I asked Adriel if she could pick up any traces of survivors." He turned to Adriel. "Tell them."
Adriel blushed and cleared her throat. "There were still a few left. Not many. Maybe four, certainly no more than six."
"Kitru has probably found them by now," Dennel said.
"Perhaps not," Komak said. "They may have been latent Talents, unaware of their gift, and therefore not publicly known."
"And to think," Dennel said morosely, "it used to be such a badge of pride to be known as a Talent. Now it's the equivalent of a death sentence."
Someone said, "Kitru will be nailed up outside his own gates if Mekk should come across any Talents in the realm during his inspection tour."
"I'd love to see that!" said another.
Dennel said nothing.
"That won't help us, however," Komak said. "It's best we learn to like the forest. I fear it will be home for a long, long time."
On that depressing note, Adriel retired to her tent and verbal conversation ceased.
The tery considered what he had learned. The world of the humans was in turmoil. He sympathized with Adriel's plight but had little sorrow to spare the rest of them. He had too great a sorrow of his own, and humans were to blame.
He settled near the fire and tried to doze. He would need his strength tomorrow. For tomorrow he would have to go back.
He was well enough to travel on his own the next day, so he slipped away from the train of the psi-folk as it moved deeper into the forest. He was not deserting his rescuers; he intended to stay with them, for he had nowhere else to go now and they seemed fairly well organized.
The raw meat and milk of the night before and again this morning had restored his strength. Moving steadily if not quickly through the lush foliage, he knew where he was going and what he would find. He hadn't wanted to leave Adriel. It would have been so easy to stay by her side and leave all the pain behind. But he couldn't. He had to face the horror.
Memories crowded around him…sights, sound, odors he could no banish… #
The hunting had been particularly good two days ago. The tery hunted with a club. He was fast and strong, and could move as silently as an insect when he wished. A club was all he needed.
That day, he returned early to the clearing around the cave that served as home for him and his parents. He intended to surprise them with the two large dantas he had bagged. But the surprise was his: A squad of steel-capped, leather-jerkined strangers had invaded their clearing.
Keeping low, he crept through the small plot where they tried to grow a few edibles. Halfway through the garden the tery noticed something huddled among the cornstalks to his left. He crawled over to investigate.
His father lay there. A big, coarse brute who was happiest when he could sit in the sun and watch with eternal wonder the growth of the things his mate had taught him to plant. His eyes stared sightlessly from a face frozen in bewildered agony. He had been pierced by a dozen or more feathered shafts and the pooled red of his life was congealing on the ground beside him.
Rage and fear exploded within the tery, each struggling for dominance. But he dug both hands into the ground and held on until the dizzy sick feeling swept over him and passed on, leaving only the rage.
Then he grabbed his hunting club.
Holding it tightly, he kept low to the ground between the rows of stalks and moved slowly toward the cave, following the sound of human voices, hoping…
The soldiers stood around the mouth of the cave, laughing, joking, sampling some of the wine his father had been fermenting.
"I wonder where they stole this," one trooper said, his beard dripping purple fluid. "It's good."
At their feet lay the tery's mother, her head nearly severed from her twisted body.
All control had shattered then. Screaming hoarsely and swinging his club before him, the tery charged. The utter berserk ferocity of his attack was almost as startling to him as it must have been to the soldiers. He heard their shouts of fear, saw the terror in their eyes as he leaped into their midst.
Good! Let them know some of the terror and pain his parents must have felt before they were slaughtered.
The archers were caught with their bows unstrung, but the troopers' swords were already bared and bloody. The tery didn't care. He wanted their blood on his club. The first of the group lifted his blade as the tery closed, but the creature batted it aside and swung his club for the trooper's head. The man ducked but not quickly enough. The club sank into his left cheek. Blood jetted from his nose, and the tery had one less opponent facing him.
Movement to his right. He swung again in a backhanded arc with most of his body behind it. The club connected with the shoulder of an archer, who went down screaming, then a two-handed blow into the throat of another swordsman.
For a moment, he had the advantage as they milled about and tripped over each other. The idea briefly danced in his head that he would kill them all and completely avenge his parents. But there were too many of them, and all were seasoned warriors. Before he could inflict any more real damage, the club was sliced from his hands and a sword point bared three of his ribs.
Wounded, weaponless, the tery ran. And he would have escaped easily had not the captain thought to order his men to their mounts.
"Don't run him through!" he heard the captain yell. "Just keep slicing at him!"
It must have been great sport. The troopers were all excellent riders. They would cut him off, then surround him and slice away. When each had added fresh blood to his sword, they would let him escape the circle and run a short distance, only to cut him off and start slicing again. He was an exhausted bloody ruin by the time he finally collapsed in a field of tall grass.
"Shall we burn him and the others?" he heard a trooper say.
"It will take too long," the captain panted as he stared down from his mount.
"But Mekk's decree is to burn —"
"We don't have time. Besides, if he's not dead now, the carrion eaters will finish him off. They do as good a job as fire, but they're slower."
Laughing, they left him for the scavengers.
The tery remembered that captain's face. #
He found the clearing much as he had left it — except for the scavenger birds. He chased them away from the decomposing, partially devoured things that had been his parents.
His throat thickened and tightened as he stumbled through the clearing. Until now h0e had never realized how much he loved them, how much they meant to him, how much he cherished them. The thousand tiny kindnesses lost among the clutter of the daily routines, the caring, the worries for him — he had never appreciated these things, never realized how much they meant to him until it was clear that there would be no more of them. Ever.
Did they know? Did they know how much he loved them? Did they die unaware of what wonderful parents they had been?
At the risk of reopening some of his deeper wounds, he went about the grisly task of placing the cadavers inside the cave. The stench, combined with the knowledge that these rotting horrors were all that was left of the two beings who had meant everything to him, made him retch a number of times before the task was completed.
As he rested to regain his strength, he thought of his parents, picturing them alive in his mind — he could keep them alive there, at least — and recalling their pasts which he knew by heart from the countless times his mother had sat him on her knee as a child and told him whence he came.
His father had been a wild, bearish creature, born of equally wild parents and raised in the forests where he had spent all his life. Yet he was a gentle sort, preferring berries to meat, and sleeping in the sun to hunting.
His mother was different in both appearance — no two teries were alike unless directly related — and social history. Graceful in a feline way, she had been captured as an infant and brought up in the keep when Kitru's father was lord here. That was in the time before Mekk issued his proclamation calling for extermination of everything that did not bear True Shape. Having a tery or two around the court to speak and recite was considered fashionable then.
His mother was one of those teries. She would delight visitors with her singing, her recounting of history, and the reciting of the many poems she had memorized. But in time, despite the luxuries around her, she tired of the empty existence of a pet and escaped to the forests in her early adulthood.
There she met her mate, who could speak not at all. For although he had the intelligence, he had gone too long without ever speaking. He did manage to communicate in other ways, though, and soon a child was born to them.
The little tery's mother taught him to speak and taught him of his origin — how the Great Sickness had caused changes in many of the world's living things. His ability to think was one of those changes. These were things she had learned during her stay at the keep, and the cub absorbed everything she could pass on to him. He was bright, curious, and eager, and readily learned to speak, although his voice had a gruff, discordant tone.
He said nothing now as he climbed the hillside above the cave and pried loose stone after stone until a minor landslide covered the mouth of his former home. When the rumble of the slide had echoed off into the trees and the dust had settled, he sat alone on the cliff and surveyed the clearing that had been home for as long as he could remember.
So heavy…his chest felt so heavy…like a great weight pressing down on him…
He didn’t understand the turbulent emotions that steamed and roiled within his chest, making it hard to draw a deep breath without it catching halfway down. His placid life had not prepared him for this.
He had been wronged — his parents had been wronged. Injustice. The concept had never occurred to him, and he had had no experience with it during his life. He had no injustices to draw on. For there was no justice or injustice in the forest, only the incessant struggle to go on living, taking what was needed and leaving what was not. Things tended to balance out that way. Carelessness was redeemed in pain and mishap, vigilance rewarded with safety and a full belly.
More stealthy images crept unbidden from the past as he sat there. He had managed to hold them at bay while going about the task of interring his parents' remains, but now that that was done and he was gazing at the cold, dead, empty piece of earth that had once held warmth and security for him, he began to remember hunting and swimming lessons from his hulking father, and sitting curled up at his mother's side at the mouth of the cave in the cool of the evening.
His chest began to heave as a low, broken moan of unplumbed sorrow and anguish escaped him. He began to scramble blindly down the cliffside, nearly losing his footing twice in his haste to reach the clearing.
Once there, he ran from one end to the other, sobbing and whimpering, frantically casting about for something to break, something to hurt, something to destroy. As he approached the garden area, he found one of the crude hoes his father had used for tilling. He grabbed it and scythed his way through the stalks of maize and other vegetables growing there. When that was in ruins, he raced back to the base of the cliff and picked up any stones that would fit into his hands and hurled them with rage-fueled ferocity at the rubble-choked mouth of the cave. Some caromed crazily off the pile, others cracked and shattered with the tremendous force of impact. Whining and grunting, he threw one after another until a number of his wounds reopened and his strength faded. Then he slumped to his knees, pressed his forehead against the ground, and released the sobs that echoed up from the very core of his being.
After a while, he was quiet. After a while, he could think again.
Another new concept for which he had only a name grew in his mind: revenge. Had his parents been killed for food by one of the large feline predators that roamed the forests, he would never have thought of retribution. That was the way things worked. That was existence in the wild. His parents would be dead — just as dead as they were now — but the balance would not have been disturbed.
The tery raised his head. Neither his mother nor his father had ever threatened or harmed a human; in fact, they had avoided any and all contact with them. Yet the soldiers had come and slaughtered them and left them to rot. Such an act was not part of the balance. It skewed everything, and nothing would be right again until the balance was restored.
The tery vowed to remember that captain's face.
He stood and surveyed the ruins of what had once been his home. He would cut all ties with the past now. From this day on, he was a fugitive tery and would stay with the fugitive humans he had met. His parents would be left behind, but he would not forget them.
Nor he would forget that captain's face.
At midday the tery started back. The psi-folk would have been on the move all day, so he traveled on an angle to his earlier path to intercept them. He was moving along the edge of an open field when something made him stop and crouch in the grass. The skin at the nape of his neck drew taut and all his nerve endings buzzed with alarm as he sniffed the air for a scent.
Something had alerted his danger sense — his muscles were tensed and ready to spring, his jaw was tight.
His gaze darted across the field and in among the shadows around the bordering trees, searching for movement, for the slightest hint of a threat.
Taking a few hesitant steps forward, he felt the sensation increase. Fear…dread…foreboding…they wormed into his brain and raced along his nerves. Yet he could find no tangible cause. Although his mind rebelled — There is nothing here to fear — his legs moved him two steps backward of their own accord. Something within him — deep within him — was warning him away from this place.
He crouched again and strained his vision into the shade at the bases of the nearby trees. Perhaps one of the big meat-eaters had a lair there and a subliminal effluvium of death and dung had carried toward him on the gentle breeze.
He saw nothing. Perhaps –
There. In the darkness between the boles of two large trees — something shimmered. Not something…not anything, really. Just an area in the shadows about the size of a large hut that shimmered and wavered as if seen through the heat of a summer day.
Keeping to the open field he made a slow semicircle, at all times staying low and maintaining his distance from the spot. It still shimmered, but he could see no more from the new angle and saw nothing particularly threatening there. Unique and beyond anything he had ever experienced in his short life, yes — but nothing overtly dangerous.
Why then did it terrify him so?
He decided to find out. Slowly, with one reluctant step after another, he forced himself to approach the spot. And with each advance the terror within him grew, gripping him tighter and tighter until he felt as if lengths of vine were coiling around his throat and chest, suffocating him. His heartbeat hammered in his ears like a madman on a drum; the air pressed thick and cold against him. A cloud of impending doom enveloped him until his legs refused to respond to his commands, until his resolve shattered into a thousand screaming fragments and he found himself running, gasping, clawing his way across the open field, away from the shimmering fear.
When he finally managed to bring himself to a halt, he found himself on the far side of the field. He slumped against a tree trunk, trembling and panting while his sweat-soaked fur dried in the breeze.
He had never known such fear. Even when the troopers had chased him and sliced him and he had been sure he was going to die, he had not been so afraid.
What hideous thing hides there?
He waited until his heart had resumed its normal rate and he was breathing easily again. Then he moved away into the trees. He still wanted to know what lay within the shimmering fear and determined someday to find out. Many odd things had been left behind in the world after the Great Sickness, and the shimmering fear was certainly one of the most bizarre. Perhaps he could move through the upper levels of the trees and look down on it from above. That might work…
But not today.
He was too tired and emotionally spent today. All he wanted right now was to find the psi-folk, eat something, and settle near their central fire for the night.
Keeping the sun to his left, the tery moved further into the trees. He had not gone far when he came across an isolated hut. It was deserted. He noticed a kiln off to the side, cold, with clay pots and trays piled all around it. He looked inside the hut — clean, with a pallet on the floor and a small stone fireplace in the corner.
He guessed this must be the home and workplace of the one who had found him after the troopers had had their sport. The man they called Tlad. The tery briefly debated whether or not to sit and wait for him to return, then decided against it. He owed the man a great deal more than gratitude. But how to show it? From listening to conversations between Adriel and some of the psi-folk, he gathered that this Tlad was a solitary sort who did not make friends easily and had little need for the company of other humans. He certainly would not want a tery around, then.
Better to leave now than impose himself on his rescuer.
The tery moved on through the forest, the only place where he truly seemed to belong.
As he continued toward the presumed location of the psi-folk, the physical and emotional stresses of the day began to take their toll. Entering a grassy copse, he stopped to rest. A shift in the breeze brought the human scent and the sound of low voices from not far ahead.
He rose and hurried forward, but stopped abruptly.
It was too soon yet to be intercepting the psi-folk, and idle chatter was certainly not one of their traits. Silently he slithered along the ground to investigate.
A cluster of six humans rested in the shade as their mounts grazed nearby. Leather jerkins…steel helmets…
All his fatigue suddenly evaporated in a rush of blinding hatred. But he held his position. He knew his reserves were low, and even under optimum conditions the headlong rush his emotions demanded would have been suicidal.
Cautiously the tery circled them and continued on his way. His hour would come. He had only to wait. And besides…the captain was not among them.
He came upon the psi-people soon after. Too soon.
For some reason they had stopped their march early and were bustling about, setting up their camp. Adriel spotted him first.
"It's the tery!" she cried, leaping to her feet and almost upsetting the mixing bowl in her lap. "He's come back!"
The other Talents briefly looked up, then went back to their tasks as Adriel rushed forward, fell to her knees beside him, and threw her arms around his neck.
"You came back," she whispered as she hugged him. "They said you were gone for good but I knew you'd come back."
Pleasant as this was, the tery had no time for such a welcome. He had just realized that the probable line of march of the scouting party would lead it close to this site…so close that discovery would be unavoidable. The troopers numbered only six, so there was no danger of an attack; but should they be allowed to return to Kitru's keep with even a general idea of the whereabouts of the psi-folk, extermination would swiftly and surely follow. He had to warn them.
He dared not speak for fear of letting them know he was a talker…and a thinker. That kind of warning would give away his reasoning ability. The tery could not be sure that their sympathy for his aloneness in the vast forests would overcome their suspicion and reticence at having a talking, thinking, comprehending animal in their midst.
He had to find another way.
He broke from Adriel and ran to her father. Wrapping long fingers around the leader's arm, he tried to pull him away from the central pit he was helping to dig.
"Adriel!" Komak shouted, shaking off the tery's grip. "Get your pet away from me or we won't have a fire tonight!"
"I'll bet he's hungry," she said, and went to get some meat.
This approach obviously wasn't working. Short of a shouted message, only one recourse remained.
Bolting toward the trees, he ignored Adriel's pleading calls and disappeared into the brush. It didn't take him long to find the scouts — they were dangerously close and headed on a collision course. He searched the ground and came up with a fist-sized stone, then climbed out on a limb that overhung their path and waited.
If this didn’t work, he’d have to speak.
They were walking their mounts single-file through the dense undergrowth and grumbling about the heat and difficult traveling. As the last man passed below, the tery hurled the rock at his head and leaped from the tree. With a dull clank, the missile caromed off the trooper's steel cap and drove it into his scalp. His horse reared as the trooper sagged to the ground. The tery grabbed the helmet off the lolling head and dove into the brush.
Hopefully, the loss of a man — whether temporarily or permanently, the tery could not be sure — would throw the scouts into sufficient confusion to allow the psi-folk time enough to prepare a move against them.
Gripping the rim of the helmet between his teeth and running as fast as his four aching limbs would carry him, the tery burst upon the campsite and went directly to Komak. The sight of a steel cap with fresh blood around the rim was all the big man needed to set him into action. He shot to his feet and glanced around. In an instant the camp exploded into frenzied activity.
"What is it, father?" Adriel asked, aware that an order had been given.
"Troopers! Your pet's brought us a warning!"
"The tery?" She glanced his way with eyes full of wonder as her father guided her ahead of him toward their half-erected tent. "Good boy!"
"I never expected to see any of Kitru's men this far into the forests…but the tery was gone only a few minutes. They must be nearly upon us!"
She blanched. "What'll we do?"
"Only one thing we can do." He bundled the tent fabric into a careless wad and shoved it out of sight behind a bush. "We haven't got time to run — although Dennel seems to think that would be the best course."
He glared across the clearing at the youth who stood uncertainly amid the frustration.
"We can't fight them!" she cried.
"We have no choice! Finding a recently abandoned campsite is the next best thing to finding the group itself. They'll run to the keep and soon a whole company will be charging after us. This is probably just a scouting party. All we can do is set a trap and hope there aren't too many of them."
They struck the tents and sent the women and children from the clearing along with everything they could carry. Twenty men with strung bows concealed themselves in the surrounding bushes and trees.
"You come with me," Adriel said, gripping the fur at the nape of the tery's neck and tugging him along beside her. "It's going to be too dangerous here."
Reluctantly, the tery traveled with Adriel and the other noncombatants for a short distance, then pulled away. He doubled back to the campsite. He had to see what happened.
Komak's plan turned out to be fiendishly simple. As the tery watched from a nearby tree, the scouting party — one member rubbing a bare and bloodied head — entered the clearing in a cautious single file. They made a careful inspection of the half-dug central fire pit and conversed in low tones. The earth had been freshly turned and they were wary now.
The tery spied Komak watching from another tree. Why didn't he give the signal to shoot? What was he waiting for? They were all here.
Then the tery realized that Komak did not know that. He was no doubt waiting until he was certain the entire scouting party had revealed itself.
The tery wondered what he would do in a situation like this if he had command of twenty Talent archers. Probably he would assign each archer a target trooper until each of the invaders was assured of three arrows; he would hold the remaining two archers in reserve. Then he would give the mental command to –
Suddenly came the thrum of many longbows loosing their missiles in perfect unison. Five of the scouts cried out as each was pierced by three arrows from three different directions. They lurched, twisted, fell, and writhed on the ground. The sixth had stooped suddenly to examine the grass and received only a superficial wound in the fleshy part of his upper right arm. Seeing the fate of his companions, he turned and ran for the brush. Two shafts from the reserve archers stopped him before he covered six paces.
No word spoken during the entire episode, and no cheering at its close. If not for the cries of the dying, the rustle of the leaves, the noises of the birds and insects, the tery would have thought he had gone deaf. It dawned on him then that with greater numbers and a greater desire to fight, these psi-folk could rule the forests completely and pose a real threat to Kitru…and perhaps to Overlord Mekk himself.
Perhaps there was more than religion behind Overlord Mekk's inclusion of the Talents in the Extermination Decree.
The tery bounded out of his tree and scurried over to the dead troopers, hoping that these were the ones who had invaded his home and killed his parents. And even if they weren't, he wanted to gloat over them. After all, they were Kitru's men, and deserved the worst that fate could hold for them
But when he reached the bodies and looked into their dead faces, he felt no glee. He found he could not stare long at their frozen, agonized expressions. As vile and threatening as they no doubt had been in life, there was something pathetic about them now in death.
Feeling cold and empty, he moved slowly to the edge of the clearing and settled alone on the grass.
Before the women and children were brought back, the bodies of the troopers were carefully buried in the brush and their mounts added to the Talents'.
Adriel hurried ahead of the rest when she heard that all of the Talents had come through the skirmish unscathed and that it was safe to return to the campsite. The tery had run off again and she hoped he hadn't been accidentally caught in her father's trap.
She sighed with relief when she saw him sitting alone at the edge of the clearing. From his posture, he looked depressed. But that was silly. How could an animal be depressed?
As they all hastily went about setting up camp for the night, she looked around for Dennel but he was nowhere in sight. She asked around but no one had seen him since Komak's decision to ambush the scouts instead of flee them.
"Where's Dennel?" she asked her father. "Was he hurt?"
Komak grimaced through his beard. "Dennel? Hurt? Hardly. He ran off before our little encounter."
Adriel's heart sank. "I hope he'll be all right."
"He'll be back," Komak told her. "He can no more take care of himself than he can fight for himself. He needs us — we don't need him."
"He was always nice to me."
Komak put an arm around his daughter's shoulders and laughed. "For that reason alone, I'll welcome him back."
"But is he really such a coward? He says he's mostly concerned with preserving the Talent."
"I know what he says. But I also know that he's scared to death."
"So am I."
"I know. I'm scared, too."
"You are?" The idea shocked her. "You don't seem scared of anything."
"All an act, my dear. That's why I need all the help I can get. A short while ago when we set the ambush, I was supposed to have twenty-one archers. But one of them ran off. I know he's your friend, and I know you'd like to believe him about the possibility of the Talents coexisting with Mekk, but he's all wrong. Dangerously wrong. He has this idea that we'd be better off if we split up into smaller groups. That way, in the event of an all-out attempt to do away with us, we could be fairly sure that some would survive to carry on the Talent."
"That sounds reasonable."
"On the surface, it does. But I really don't think Dennel's all that interested in preserving the Talent. Preserving Dennel is his main concern."
That remark stung Adriel, but she said nothing.
Komak paused, then grinned pointedly. "Besides — today proves the advantages of moving with a large group of individuals who can communicate silently and instantaneously. I think the lad just wants to run and I wouldn't worry too much about him. I'm sure he's not worrying about us. Your tery is a better friend — worth three Dennels."
Adriel turned and saw that her pet was now ambling on all fours among the psi-folk. Instead of ignoring him or swatting him when he got in the way, they smiled at him, called to him, scratched his back, or gave him bits of food. He had become a hero of sorts and had earned his place in the tribe.
"You're going to have to come up with a name for him," Komak said. "I'm surprised you haven't already."
"I wasn't sure he'd stay. In fact, I was almost sure he wouldn't."
"Well, it looks like he's going to be around for a while, and we can't just keep on calling him ‘the tery.’ "
"I'll think of a name, but I want it to be a good one."
"Fine. We should do what we can to bind him to us. He's proven to be a valuable watch animal."
"Don't you think it strange how he warned us?" she said, watching the creature.
"How do you mean?"
"It was almost as if he knew we were in danger from the troopers and brought that steel helmet to warn us."
Komak laughed. "He might be smart, but he's not that smart. No, I think he showed a natural response to the merciless treatment he received at the hands of the troopers when they cut his flesh to ribbons the other day. The tery came upon the scouts and instinctively attacked one of them, bringing back the helmet as a trophy."
"But he brought it right to you."
"Many pets do the same. No, the good thing about your tery is that he hates and fears Kitru's men as much as we do, but his senses are much keener than ours. He'll spot them long before we can."
"I guess you're right," she said but couldn't shake the feeling that there had been a definite purpose in her pet's actions today.
They broke camp early the next morning and began to trudge still deeper into the sun-filtered forest. Dennel had not yet shown up.
"Don't worry," her father assured her. "He'll catch up to us. We'll bring along his tent for him."
The sun was tangled in the trees by the time they stopped that day. Some of the psi-folk didn't even bother to set up their tents, but ate small amounts of dried meat and fell asleep under the stars. A light drizzle awoke them next morning.
A tired, cold, achy group held a silent conference in a tight knot near the central fire. Finally Komak broke away and strode angrily to where Adriel sat with the tery. The group gradually dissolved behind him.
"What's wrong, father?"
"They want to stay here. We should be moving farther away from the keep than this, but the women are tired and the children are crying and it was the consensus that this is far enough."
"I'm tired, too."
"We're all tired," he snapped, then softened. "Sorry. I told you I never wanted this job. But one thing I'm going to insist on is sending out a few scouts of my own to see what the surrounding area is like before we get too settled."
"Food…" she said in a plaintive voice, holding a small piece of meat before her. "Come, now. Say it: Food…"
The tery said nothing. Instead he merely stared back at Adriel. He liked looking at her. He liked her freckled nose and the red highlights in her blond hair.
The sun was half way to its zenith and Adriel had been coaching him since breakfast. She was nothing if not persistent. The girl seemed determined to teach her new pet to speak.
The tery debated the wisdom of giving in. Something deep within him ached to please her, to make her smile. He finally decided to gamble on a single word. Just for her. He pretended to follow her persistent example.
Feigning great effort, he rasped, "Fud."
Adriel froze in wide-eyed wonder.
"Fud," he repeated.
Komak was sitting nearby and turned his head at the unfamiliar voice. "Was that…?"
"Yes!" Adriel said breathlessly. "It was him! He spoke! Did you hear him? He spoke!"
She quickly gave the tery the piece of meat she had been holding and held up another. But the arrival of one of the point men Komak had sent out halted further demonstration of his newfound ability.
After a few moments of telepathic conversation, her father turned to her.
"Looks like we'll be needing you."
"Oh?" She seemed to have been half-expecting this.
"Seems there's a tiny village a little ways off to the east. Perhaps twenty or thirty inhabitants, and one or two may have the Talent. It's up to you to find them." #
Twelve mud-walled domes sat in a circle around a wide area of bare earth. Adriel motioned the tery to stay back out of sight in the brush.
Tense, not knowing what to expect, she walked toward the circle of huts, holding tightly to her father's arm.
"Hello!" Komak called when they entered the circle. "Hello, inside. We come in peace. We wish to speak with you."
Slowly, one by one, the inhabitants of the miniscule village came out of their huts and stared at the newcomers, whispering and pointing, but saying nothing to them, and not straying far from their doorways.
Adriel left her father at the perimeter and proceeded alone to the center. He couldn't help her with this. Only she could find the Talent.
No one understood the Talent, least of all Adriel. Her mother, before she had sickened and died, had tried in vain to explain it to her. Half of the Talent was another voice, she had said, a separate voice that did not automatically accompany vocal speech. It had to be volitionally activated and projected. The other half was the receptive faculty that operated continually unless consciously blocked out. Most Talents learned of their ability first through the receptive facet.
Adriel understood none of it. She could neither send nor receive. The Talent was little more than a tingling in her mind, a vague sensation she could home in on and almost touch. To those who possessed the full Talent, reception was nondirectional. Images appeared behind their eyes, words sounded between their ears, concepts exploded within their minds. But from where?
Adriel knew where. And that was why she was here. To see if any of these villagers belonged with her group.
Adriel closed her eyes. The Talent was strong here. She could feel it.
She turned in a slow circle. Once. Twice. Then stopped and opened her eyes again. She faced a man, a woman, and what looked like a ten-year-old boy.
She recognized a faint, familiar sensation of the Talent off to her right — her father. But another sensation, a strong tingling in the forepart of her brain, emanated from the trio before her. She moved forward and with every step the sensation became stronger until she stood within arm’s reach.
The man was blank, but the woman and boy were definitely Talents. Strong ones. She placed one hand on the woman's shoulder and the other on the boy's head, then looked at her father.
The two Talents followed her gaze to Komak and that was when he contacted them. With a reassuring smile beaming through his red mane, he motioned them toward him.
"What do you want?" said the uncomprehending husband, glancing nervously between Adriel and her father.
"It's all right, I think" the woman whispered. "Let's go with her."
The trio followed Adriel to where her father waited.
"Now tell us what this is all about," the woman demanded when they were out of earshot of the village.
"We mean you no harm," Komak said.
"We'll see about that."
Her manner was suspicious and hostile. Her features were pinched and her jet hair was drawn back severely. Adriel decided she didn't like her much.
The woman added, "And use your tongues so my husband will understand."
"They're Talents?" her husband said.
"Yes. And I pray they haven't given us away."
"Then you know of the danger," Adriel said.
She nodded. She looked terribly frightened now and Adriel's feelings softened for her.
We're all afraid.
"We're traveling with a group of Talents," Komak said, "the only survivors after Kitru slaughtered all the rest of our kind in the keep. We want you to join us. We number fifty-three now and need every Talent we can find."
"Why?" the woman asked.
"For safety, of course. Overlord Mekk will be visiting the keep, and Kitru has been scouring the forests for teries and Talents in preparation for his arrival."
The man shook his head. "We'll stay right here."
"That could be dangerous," Komak told him. "What's to prevent some of Kitru's men from coming through your village with a Finder and ferreting out your wife and child as we did? He'll show no mercy."
"We're isolated out here," he said. "Almost lost. I've been to the keep two or three times in my life and nobody there even knew this village existed. And no one here knows that my wife and son possess the Talent except me. I think we can risk staying where we are."
Adriel was disappointed to hear that — for their sake, and her own. At least with the husband around, she'd have someone to talk to.
"Very well," Komak said after a pause. "We'll be camped toward the sunset for a while should you change your minds."
"Thank you," the man said. "But the forest nomad life is not for us. We'll take our chances here."
He put one arm around his wife and the other around his son as the trio walked back to their hut.
"Isn't it rare for a psi to marry a non-psi?" Adriel asked her father as they returned to the forest.
"Very rare. The rapport between two lovers with the Talent is far and away more intimate than anything a non-psi can experience. But the woman and her son were the only psis around so it's possible she never had a lover with the Talent. She doesn't know what she's missing." His eyes seemed to glaze as if he no longer saw the forest around them.
"I wish them well," she said at last in an attempt to bring her father back from his reverie. "It must take a lot of courage to stay put in that little village and risk extermination."
"Or a lot of foolishness. The dividing line isn't always clear."
Four days after the ambush, Dennel returned. The tery had sensed his approach for some time before he appeared, but Adriel was the first of the humans to spy him. She ran up to him. The tery followed close behind.
"Dennel! You're back! How'd you find us?"
He did not meet her gaze. "I followed the mental chatter."
"Are you all right?"
"I think so." He seemed uncomfortable. "I…I have to find my tent. Excuse me."
"Poor fellow," Adriel said as she watched him walk away. "He's so ashamed."
The tery wondered if it might be something else, but he had little opportunity to find out. Dennel kept to himself for the next few days.
Adriel and the tery were fast becoming inseparable and took little notice of Dennel or anyone else. He let her "teach" him more words and she devoted most of her day to him, resting her hand on his back and chattering her heart out as they wandered side by side through the leafy glades near the camp.
They stopped and sat on a grassy knoll and watched the brightly colored tree-things go about their daily routines.
"I know you can't understand me," she said, speaking to him as if he could, "but at least I know your ears are for me alone. I know you aren't secretly carrying on a mental conversation with someone else while I'm talking to you."
The tery gathered that was something that had happened more than once.
"You're lucky, you know. Nothing holds you down. You can come and go as you please and you're at home with us or away from us. But me…I'm stuck here with a bunch of people who feel insulted if they have to use their tongues."
She fell silent for a while, then laughed.
"I thought I was going to be a fine lady once — can you believe that? A nobleman's son took a fancy to me and I thought I'd someday be living in the upper levels of the keep. Then Mekk went and issued his new decree and now I’m living like a savage."
The tery had come to think of Adriel as a wonderful creature — yet he pitied her. She was fresh, young, ready to burst into womanhood at any moment with only a fanged, barrel-chested beast at her side to share the experience. She wanted to love and be loved, to stop running. She longed for the stability she would have had had she not been born a Finder.
He desperately wished there was a way he could help her.
As the days went on, the tery became a substitute for everything she desired. A thousand tiny kindnesses were showered upon him. She would put extra time and effort into preparing the meat for his dinner, and she carved and painted a bowl from which he could eat it. She learned the use of the loom so that he wouldn't have to sleep on the bare ground.
The two were driven closer and closer together by the void of silence that separated them from the rest of the tribe. Life became an idyll for the tery, a series of sun-soaked days of easy companionship…
Until the morning by the river when he discovered a dark and frightening hunger lurking within him.
Adriel was modest by nature. Every morning she would retrieve a jug of water from the stream that passed not too far from the camp and sponge herself off in the privacy of her tent. This particular morning was an exception, however, for she left the jug empty and led the tery along the bank of the stream until it widened and emptied into a river.
Pushing through the brush, she stepped down the bank and up to her ankles in the water. The far shore was further than the tery could throw a small stone, but floating leaves moved by at a leisurely pace, indicating a gentle current.
"There," Adriel said with a self-satisfied air, "I knew we'd find a river eventually. This looks deep enough."
She pulled off her blouse and the knee-length pants she had recently made after deciding that a skirt was impractical in the forest. She wore nothing else.
Without the slightest hesitation she made a shallow dive into the clear water, then bobbed to the surface and turned to face the tery.
"Ohhhhh, that feels good!" She dunked her head again and came up gasping. "I thought I was never going to feel clean again!" She motioned to the tery. "Come on — jump in! It's only water!"
But he stayed behind the bushes lining the bank. That much water made him uneasy. He had often waded to his knees while fishing with his father, but the thought of immersing himself to his neck was frightening.
But he had another reason…
The brief glimpse of Adriel's nude form had stirred something within him, something pleasurable and yet uncomfortable. He stayed where he was.
Adriel splashed the water in front of her.
"Oh, come on in! You'll like it! Really!" But her pet made no move to join her. "Looks like I'm going to have to drag you in," she muttered and kicked her way closer to shore.
When she reached the shallows again, she stood and waded toward the bank. Her skin was white and smooth and glistened wetly. Water ran from her hair over her rounded, budding, pink-tipped breasts, down across her abdomen to the red-gold fuzz that covered her pubes.
The same pleasurable something washed over the tery again as he watched her, a warm something that seemed to be centered in his groin. She was completely out of the water now and climbing the bank in his direction. The warmth in his groin increased and the erratic fleshy part of him that usually hung awkwardly between his legs became large and stiff. His breathing was rapid as he tried to look away, but he could not.
This was wrong. He wanted to leap upon her, paw her, press the hungry distended flesh into her…
Adriel leaned over the bushes and extended her hand to him.
"Come on," she said in a coaxing voice. The sunlight caught the myriad droplets of water that had formed on her bobbing breasts, and the cooling effect of a gentle breeze had caused her nipples to harden and stand erect. "I won't let you drown."
With an abrupt motion he wrenched himself around and tore headlong back into the trees. He kept running, concentrating all his physical effort on moving his four limbs as fast as his muscles would allow. Leaping over fallen branches and around earth-sunk boulders, he raced past Tlad's empty dwelling, across the field that bordered the shimmering fear, and didn't stop until he stood in the ruined clearing that had once been his home.
Exhausted, he slumped on the rubble-choked mouth of the cave that held his parents' remains and wished for them to rise and live and comfort him. Life had been so much simpler then. His mother had had all the answers. She would explain this blazing turmoil within him, explain why a tery should have such an unnatural desire for a human.
He waited, but his mother did not rise.
As his strength returned, so did memory of Adriel's glistening naked form, reaching for him. He felt the warmth return, felt himself grow erect again. Enclosing the stiff, enlarged member within both of his fists, he began moving them up and down until a spurting spasm brought a relief of sorts.
The tery returned to the psi-folk camp in the late afternoon. He did not approach Adriel's hut immediately as he would normally do, but wandered the perimeter, wondering if she knew what had happened down by the bank.
Guilt and fear gnawed at him. What if she guessed his feelings? She'd be shocked and repulsed. He couldn't bear the thought of losing her.
Near the center of camp he saw a cart loaded with pottery. Tlad’s. He searched for the man and found him squatting beside Komak in the shade, dickering.
"Then it's settled," Tlad was saying. "A hindquarter of ma for the load. And fresh — none of this dried stuff."
"Agreed," Komak nodded. "You drive a hard bargain, Tlad. You'd never get such a price if we hadn't broken so much pottery in that forced march from the old campsite." His eyes narrowed. "But what I want to know is how you found us? We've come a long way since we last saw you."
"I've lived in the forests longer than you. I have ways."
"I'm sure you do. But we waded down a stream most of the way. We left no trail."
Tlad shrugged. "I have ways."
Komak broke off further interrogation when he caught sight of the tery loping toward them.
"Looking for Adriel?" he said, rising and affectionately roughing up the fur at the back of the tery's neck. "She told me about you — afraid of the water, are you? Well, we're all afraid of something, I guess."
Afraid of the water. So that was how Adriel had seen it. Relief flooded him.
"Where is Adriel, anyway?" Tlad asked. "I want to ask her a few things about this pet of hers."
The tery looked around to find Tlad staring at him. The man's penetrating gaze made him uncomfortable. He looked away.
"Good question," said Komak, his lips tightening into a grimace of distaste. "Off walking somewhere with Dennel. Don't know what she sees in him."
"You don't think too much of him, I take it?"
"I like him not at all and trust him even less. But that is a problem between Adriel and myself. As for you — we have a couple of hunting parties out now. Should be back with a ma or two by sundown."
Tlad nodded. "I saw one of them setting up on my way here. Think they'd mind if I watched?"
"Just stay well back and quiet and out of sight," Komak warned and strolled away.
The tery was about to follow Komak in search of Adriel but was stopped by Tlad's voice.
"They tell me you're a hero around here now, eh? Coming up in the world. Komak says Adriel's even managed to teach you some words. Isn't that interesting?"
He squatted before the tery, putting their eyes on the same level. The tery held his gaze this time.
"Tell me, tery," he said. "Are you really a dumb animal? Or are you playing games with these folk?"
The questions made the tery uneasy. Tlad seemed to know more than he should. He felt his gaze wavering. He growled and turned away.
The man rose and mumbled a few unintelligible words, then walked off toward the trees. Looking over his shoulder as he moved, he slapped his thigh once and called to the tery.
The tery hesitated, unused to being commanded to do anything, and not liking it. But Tlad intrigued him. And since he lacked anything better to do at the time, he drew up alongside him and kept pace. He felt strangely drawn to the man. The fact that he had been instrumental in saving his life was an important factor, but he felt a kinship with Tlad, a certain undefined sharing of a common ground.
They moved side by side through the forest until Tlad suddenly stopped and motioned the tery to stay where he was. Alone, he moved cautiously and silently ahead, briefly disappearing into the undergrowth, then returning with a satisfied smile.
"Want to see how your friends the Talents hunt?"
The tery almost answered, but stopped himself just as the words reached his lips.
"Follow me," Tlad said. "And be quiet."
Without a word he chose a tree and began to climb. The tery followed. When they were five or six man-heights up the trunk, Tlad made himself comfortable on a limb. Shielding his eyes against the late afternoon sun to his right, he peered ahead in the direction they had been traveling.
The tery followed the line of his gaze. When he spotted the object of all this attention, he nestled into the corner of the branch just below Tlad's and set up his own watch.
In a small clearing, eight Talents, five men and three women, stood in a semicircle with arms linked. No one moved, no one made a sound. They stood that way for what seemed an interminable period. The tery began to get restless. What was this all about?
"Be patient," Tlad whispered. "It will happen soon."
The man continued to watch in silent fascination.
Despite Tlad's advice, the tery was about to climb back down to the ground and find something more interesting to do when he noticed a movement in the brush surrounding the clearing. The head of a large buck ma appeared. The tery froze and stared.
Slowly, hesitantly, the ma moved forward until it had fully emerged from the brush. Mas were vegetarians — grazers and leaf-nibblers — and their only defense against the carnivores that craved their flesh was speed. A graceful neck held the creature's snouted head on a level with those of the Talents who faced it; a sleek, short-furred body tapered down to four delicate legs. Mas were skittish and bolted at the slightest provocation, which made the sight of one standing not five paces from a group of humans almost incomprehensible… unless the Talents were exerting some sort of influence over the beast.
The ma continued its cautious forward movement until it stood within the semicircle. It appeared to be half asleep. Then with one abrupt motion, the male Talent on the near end of the semicircle raised a heavy club and brought it down against the slim, sloping neck where it joined the skull. The ma crumpled, instantly, painlessly dead.
The men were lifting the hind legs in preparation to drag it back to camp when suddenly all the Talents froze in their places momentarily, then dropped what they were doing and ran back toward the camp, leaving their prize game animal where it had fallen.
"This looks bad," Tlad said and started to scramble down the tree. "Something's wrong!"
The tery followed him to the ground, but once on all fours, he left Tlad behind as he raced for the camp. He found chaos, with silent, grim-faced people running in all directions, grabbing weapons and harnessing mounts. He immediately looked for Adriel and could not find her. A chill of foreboding stole over him as he hunted up Komak.
He finally found him at the weapons wagon, filling a quiver with arrows. The tery hesitated, fearful for Adriel, yet unable to learn a thing about her.
Tlad arrived then, puffing from the run, calling for Komak. The big red-haired man ignored the call and strode toward his tent without answering. Tlad, however, would not be put off. As the tery watched in the waning light, he intercepted Komak and matched his stride. After a brief exchange, Tlad stopped short and grabbed Komak's arm. They seemed to be arguing. Komak finally wrenched free of Tlad's grasp and hurried away.
The tery approached Tlad, hoping he might learn something from him.
"There you are." He squatted before him and put one hand on his shoulder. "Listen, my furry friend, and listen well: Adriel has been captured by Kitru's troops. No one knows how it happened but there are tracks to the south that show Adriel and Dennel walking right into the arms of a squad of troopers."
The tery felt as if he had been hit in the chest with a battering ram. He couldn't breathe.
Not my Adriel!
He turned to head toward the keep but Tlad pulled his head back around and stared into his eyes.
"Listen to me! These fools are going after her — they have some crazy idea about storming the keep. That may be just what Kitru wants. Not only will he have a Finder in his control, but he'll be able to slaughter all the Talents who escaped when the proclamation first came through. You" — he slapped the tery's shoulder — "must get to the keep first. Get in there and get her out. I don't know how you're going to do it, but try. Not only does Adriel's life depend on it, but the lives of everyone in this camp. You owe them, and now it's pay-back time. Get going!"
The tery needed to hear no more. Without a backward glance he turned and trotted into the trees, pacing himself for what he knew would be a long and dangerous journey through the darkening forest. With easy, loping strides, he left the scrambling psi-folk behind. He would get there long before them.
He was well on his way to the keep before he realized that, without the slightest hesitation, Tlad had told him what had happened, what he should do, and why he should do it — fully expecting him to understand every word.
The keep was a darker blot against a darkened sky when the tery reached the edge of the forest. He stole through the narrow streets between the huts and houses of the village that surrounded it. The main gate was well guarded and well lit. Torchlight flickered off the guards and the metal fastenings of the gate itself, and off the rotting crucified corpses nearby, remnants of heretics and criminals and anyone else whose misfortune it was to displease Lord Kitru. The bodies hung and stank until they rotted off the spikes that pinned them there or until the spot was needed for a fresh miscreant.
The tery turned away and moved off into the darkness. Finally, far from the gate, he stood at the base of the high outer wall and gathered his strength and wits. He had never been in the keep before, but that didn't bother him — he had often hunted unfamiliar sections of the forest and come back with game over his shoulder.
This would be like a hunt — the keep would be an unknown section of forest, the troopers would be the big predators with which he was always in competition, and Adriel would be the prey. He geared up his confidence. He could do this. He had been raised in the forest with a club as his only weapon — he learned either to use his strength with stealth and cunning or go hungry. The tery had seldom gone hungry.
He began to climb. The outer wall was crudely made of rough stone, and his long fingers found easy holds as he scuttled upward. He reached the top and raised his eyes above the ledge. A narrow walkway ran all along the outer wall with wooden stairs leading up to it. Sputtering torches and oil lamps placed at odd intervals within the wall showed a number of irregular buildings that made up the keep, one standing noticeably higher than the others.
A bored-looking sentry approached along the walkway. The tery lowered himself and hung by his fingertips just below the ledge until the guard had passed, then slithered over the top, dashed across the parapet, and dropped into the deep shadow under the walkway.
With his heart pounding, he crouched and waited. No alarm sounded, no troopers came running. He had penetrated the first line of defense. The next step was to decide which building to search first.
His gaze was drawn to the tall, imposing structure that stood over the other buildings. That would be where Lord Kitru would reside — it seemed logical that a man who believed himself above other men would want to live where he could look down on them.
With neither weapons nor clothing nor accouterments, the tery was a fleeting shadow among other shadows as he made his way to the base of the tower. Yes, Kitru would dwell here. And who would better know the location of the captured Finder than the lord of the keep? Perhaps he had even quartered her here to assure her safekeeping.
He looked up the face of the tower wall. It was made of the same rough stone as the outer wall, so climbing it would be no problem. The surface was pierced here and there by narrow windows which the tery judged wide enough to allow him entrance. He started up. He had traveled only three man-heights when a shout from below caused him to freeze and hug the wall.
"Ho! You there on the tower! What are you doing?"
The doors to the trooper barracks flew open, followed by the sound of many running feet in the darkness.
The same voice spoke again. "You! Come down from there! I've got a crossbow now…start down now! No tricks or I'll spit you with a bolt!"
Glancing up, the tery saw the lowest window not far above him. He made a sudden frantic leap to reach it. True to his word, the guard below loosed a bolt. The missile grazed the tery's ear and smashed against the wall in front of his face. Fragments of stone and mortar peppered his eyes. Recoiling, he felt his fingers slip off the stone. Despite his best efforts, he lost his precarious grip and fell. He landed on all fours but found nowhere to run — the wall was to his back and two full squads of troopers faced him with drawn weapons.
"Someone get a light and let's see who we've got here."
A torch was quickly brought and the troopers recoiled in surprise at the nature of their captive.
"It's one of those damned beasts!" exclaimed a burly guard with a pike. He drew the weapon back and the tery readied to dodge. "This'll finish —"
"Stop!" cried a voice from somewhere in the dark.
The troopers turned to see who had dared tell them to spare a tery. A young man dressed in civilian clothes stepped into their midst with an imperious manner.
It was Dennel.
The sight of him walking free within Kitru's keep froze the tery in shock.
"Just who are you to be giving orders around here?" said the man with the pike.
"Never mind that," Dennel said. "Just let me tell you that if this tery is killed, Kitru will have your head. This particular beast could be very valuable to him."
The trooper paused, uncertain, looking as if he was considering using the pike on Dennel. The tery sensed his resentment at being told what to do by someone he considered an unblooded, baby-faced, noncombatant upstart. But if this youngster were telling the truth, the trooper might well end up on the receiving end of Kitru's wrath — and that was not a place anyone wished to be.
He turned to the man beside him. "Get Captain Ghentren."
There followed a short period of tense waiting during which the tery put aside his surprise at Dennel's appearance and looked for an avenue of escape. He found none. The troopers formed a tight, impenetrable semicircle around him.
Half-dressed, his eyes puffy from sleep, the captain arrived and the tery felt an involuntary growl escape his throat. His body crouched to spring. He knew this man. This was the officer who had ordered his men to slice but not to kill…this was the parent-slayer!
One of the troopers who was watching him more closely than the others heard the growl and recognized the tery's stance. He raised his crossbow.
The tery forced himself to relax as the troopers pointed their bows and pikes at him, ready to kill at the slightest move. He would never reach the captain.
The officer glanced at the tery without the slightest hint of recognition in his expression, then turned to his men.
"This had better be important enough to wake me — I'm to leave on a mission for Kitru before the first light."
The burly trooper with the pike stepped forward and pointed to Dennel. "This whelp says Kitru will have my head if we kill the tery."
The captain turned to Dennel. "Oh, so it's you. Since when do you speak for the lord of the keep?"
"Because I know this beast," Dennel replied. "It's the girl's pet and she's very attached to it."
"I care nothing about the Finder's pet," he snarled and turned away, throwing a command over his shoulder. "Kill the ugly thing and burn its filthy carcass in the pit."
"You'd better care about the Finder's pet!" Dennel shouted.
The captain whirled, rage blazing in his eyes. "You watch your tongue or I'll have it removed!"
"I–I'm sorry, sir," Dennel said quickly. "But I'm only trying to be helpful. The Finder is immensely important to Kitru. He can try the drugs first, but if they fail, he'll need a lever to get cooperation from the girl. This beast might just be that lever."
Drugs? the tery thought. What are drugs?
But the question washed away in the rush of anger that followed as he realized Dennel had been a party to Adriel's abduction — had planned it, perhaps.
The captain was pondering Dennel's remarks. The tery silently urged him to find some advantage in keeping him alive. For the tery now had two scores to settle.
"If the drugs work on the Finder, you can burn the tery at dawn or whenever you wish," Dennel said to the captain in a low voice. "But if the drugs fail — and I understand they are not too reliable — the tery might prove useful to Lord Kitru, and then you will be glad he is still alive. Then you can take full credit for his capture."
"Perhaps you are right," he said with sudden mildness. He turned to the troopers. "Take the creature below and throw it in with the crazy one. I think they'll make excellent company for each other."
This brought a laugh from all the men and broke the tension. Dennel turned and departed.
"By Mekk's beard, who was that?" one of the pikemen muttered as they watched him go.
"A coward and a traitor to his own kind," Ghentren replied in a low voice. "He thinks he's got Kitru's ear, but the lord himself told me that as soon as he has no further use of the whelp, I can do what I wish with him."
The tery saw the captain's smile and knew from experience what kind of torment it could spell.
A pikeman gave him a poke with the sharp end of his staff and he was prodded toward a sunken stairway that led under a building adjacent to the main tower.
"Below" consisted of a small underground chamber broken up into three tiny cells. Apparently they little need for incarceration facilities at the keep. Executions were far more economical and certainly less time consuming. Sharp, jabbing pike tips herded him into the middle cell and the lone guard locked the door behind him.
Amid harsh barks of laughter someone yelled, "Company for you, Rab!"
The laughter faded as the tery watched the troopers file out. The guard reseated himself by the door and tried to doze. The tery rattled the door and tried to figure out why it wouldn't open. He had heard of locks, but had never seen one. He was peering through the keyhole, trying to see the inner works, when a gentle voice startled him.
"You're a man, aren't you." It was not a question.
The tery whirled to see a filthy, bearded, bedraggled man standing behind him, watching him.
"I can tell by the way you examine that lock that you're more than just an intelligent animal."
He looked old at first, but as he moved forward and came into the faint light from the hall, he appeared to be somewhere between youth and middle age.
"Can you speak?" he asked.
The question was so casual, it took the tery by surprise. The man's attitude reminded him of Tlad. He hesitated a moment, then realized that there was little point in hiding his ability from his cellmate.
"I can speak," the tery said in a slow, harsh, grating voice. "But I'm not a man."
So odd, speaking to this human. He had never really spoken to anyone but his mother and father in his entire life. He had repeated words and sentences to make Adriel happy, but that was hardly speech.
"Oh, you're a man, all right," the dirty one said, looking the tery over. "It's just that nobody ever told you so. My name's Rab, by the way."
"The troopers called you ‘crazy,’ " the tery said pointedly. "Twice."
"And I must look the part, too," Rab laughed. "But anyone who's been locked up in a hole for months without a bath, clean clothes, or decent food will start to look a little crazy" — his voice lowered briefly, almost as if speaking the next phrase to himself — "and perhaps even feel a little crazy at times" — then rose again — "but I assure you I'm not. And I also assure you that you're quite as human as I."
The tery snorted. "Do not play with me. I may not be human but neither am I a fool."
"But you are human."
"I know what I am: I'm a tery, a product of the Great Sickness."
"And I'm a doomed heretic for knowing that you're not!" Rab shouted angrily.
The tery turned back to the lock. The soldiers were right. This man was insane.
Rab eased his tone. "Sit down and let me tell you what I've learned. You'll find it hard to believe because it goes against everything you've been taught since birth. But I can prove it — at least I could when I had my books. Sit. We've got plenty of time."
The tery was not so sure of that. Yet, what else could he do? He had tried the door and knew it was proof against even his strength. The conversation he had overheard between Dennel and the captain had eased his fears about Adriel being in any immediate danger…and perhaps this deranged human could help him if humored.
"Please?" Rab said. "Please?"
No human had ever said that word to him. Reluctantly, he eased himself down onto the damp, straw-littered floor.
"Good," Rab said, squatting opposite him, rubbing his filthy hands together. "First off, I've suspected since my early youth that the tery is not the mutated beast tradition tells us he is. In fact, I more than suspected it — I knew it."
"How could you ‘know’ it?"
"Never mind how. That's not important now. Let it be enough for the moment that I did."
"Everybody knows that teries were a product of the Great Sickness after it swept across the world."
"No-no! That's not true. Listen. You'll see. I was raised a scholar in Overlord Mekk's court and had the training and time to search into the past. I found old manuscripts from as far back as the time of the Great Sickness. Our language has changed much since then but I did manage to decipher them and found many references to a group of people called ‘the Shapers,’ and ‘the Teratols.’ Just who they were and what they did was never explained. It seemed to be taken for granted that the reader knew.
"All this whetted my appetite for more, so I searched deep into the caves and ruins that surround Mekk's fortress. In one I chanced across some old — very old — volumes. They were lovely things, different from all the others, in perfect condition, printed on incredibly thin sheets of metal…five volumes… you've never seen anything like them…"
His voice trailed off as he briefly seemed to relive the find, a scholar's ecstasy beaming through the grime and matted hair that covered his face. Then he shook himself and resumed his tale.
"Yes…five volumes. I finished translating four of them a few months ago and was so caught up with what I'd learned that I ran to tell Mekk himself."
He paused and smiled grimly. "That was a stupid thing to do — for that act alone I deserve to be called Crazy Rab. I didn't get to see Mekk, of course. No one gets to see the Overlord these days since the True Shape priests took over as his advisors. I was shunted off to one of the high priests and should have had sense enough then to keep quiet. But no. Crazy Rab had to lay the entire translation out before the high priest. I was so excited about what I'd found that I never considered what a threat it was to the political power the True Shape cult had acquired."
The tery listened with growing interest. If the True Shape cult felt threatened by Rab's discoveries, perhaps there was something to them.
"You see, I had learned some incredible things in those volumes. I learned that we are just a tiny colony of a larger race, that our ancestors came from the sky and that there are hundreds of other colonies of humans scattered all over the other side of the sky."
"Madness!" the tery growled.
"It sounds crazy, I know, but those volumes are real and obviously not a product of our culture."
"But to live on the other side of the sky!"
"It seems that our ancestors were banned from the mother world and settled here to build their own culture. They were called ‘Shapers' and toyed with the stuff within that gives a thing its shape, that makes a child resemble its parents. They set out with the mission to create a perfect race of perfect humans, each with the power to speak mind-to-mind; the Talents were the high point of the Shaper art.
"But it didn't last. A perverted element, the Teratologists or ‘Teratols,' as they came to be known, came to power and a being's shape became a plaything for the ruling clique. They created monstrous plants, made beasts look like men and men look like beasts."
"No-no. Teries were caused by the Great Sickness."
"Not true. That's a myth. Someone like you and someone with the Talent are both human, and both teries."
"Then you are saying that Overlord Mekk is right in lumping Talents together with teries."
"Yes. Both are products of the Shaper art in the Teratol regime."
"And where is this regime now?"
"Dead. Gone. Wiped out in the Great Sickness. In fact, the five volumes I found were apparently written at the height of the Great Sickness. Their author says in the fourth volume that the Teratols accidentally caused a change in something called a ‘virus,' and a monstrous plague swept the world, reducing our ancestors' civilization to rubble. We are the survivors."
The tery regarded his fellow captive thoughtfully. The man did not rave — seemed quite sane, in fact — and spoke with utter conviction. But it was all so preposterous, so contrary to common knowledge. Everyone knew…and yet, if those volumes truly existed…
"Where are the volumes now?" he asked.
"Kitru has them. It's a complicated story involving incredible stupidity on my part. But briefly: In Mekk's fortress, the high priests tried to get the volumes from me. They were ready to kill me to silence me, but first they wanted those books.
"So I fled, but not before learning of the proposed addition to the old Tery Extermination Decree that would mark all Talents for extinction. I took the volumes and came here, hoping to find someone in power who would listen. I went to Kitru with my translation and he threw me out. I'm ashamed to say that I went back again and that's when he had me thrown in here to await Mekk's arrival, which has been twice postponed — thankfully. So I've moldered for months. When the Overlord finally does arrive, I'm to be nailed up by the gate as a heretic."
The tery shuddered at thought of hanging in the sun to die of thirst and starvation while the crows and vultures waited to get at your eyes. Better a quick, clean death.
Rab sighed despondently. "At least I managed to warn the Talents of the new extermination decree. Most of them fled to safety in time."
The tery's mind made a delayed correlation: "You're Rab!"
"Yes. I believe I told you that a number of times."
"You're the one the psi-folk have been waiting for."
He had heard the name mentioned many times among the Talents but had failed to connect it with this man.
"How do you know that?" Rab asked, rising slowly to his feet.
"I've been living with them. But that must mean —"
"Yes…I'm a Talent. And a Finder, as well. But Kitru doesn't have a Finder of his own so he does not know that I'm either."
"But he does have a Finder!"
The tery briefly recounted the day's events.
Rab was frantic. "You mean the Talents are coming here? Now? They'll be wiped out!" He began to pace the tiny cell. "We've got to stop them!"
The tery remained seated in the center of the cell and watched the man.
"Can we dig out?"
Rab stopped pacing and shook his head. "No. The keep is built on solid rock. The only way out of here is through that door."
The tery returned to the door and rattled it again.
"Too strong," he said.
"You know," Rab said slowly, "I never had the opportunity to get the advantage on one of these guards when I was here alone, but now that there's two of us — and only one of us thought to be human…"
The dozing guard at the outer door was startled to wakefulness by shrill cries of fear and pain from the central cell. Grabbing a torch from its wall brace, he rushed to the door and peered through the grate. The flickering light revealed the tery in ferocious assault upon the screaming Rab.
The guard hesitated briefly, then decided it might be wisest to intervene. Kitru only imprisoned those he thought might prove useful at some time in the future. And such must be the case with Crazy Rab. Even though it hadn't been his idea to put the two of them together, the guard knew that if the prisoner were killed he would end up crucified outside the gates instead of Crazy Rab.
Unlocking the cell door he entered with the torch held before him. His plan was to back the tery away from Rab and then drag the man out and put him in a separate cell.
"Back!" he yelled, thrusting the torch toward the tery's face. "Back, you ugly beast!"
The tery looked up and shrank away from the flames, releasing the moaning human.
"Don't like fire, do you?" The guard pressed his advantage. "Figured you wouldn’t."
What he didn't figure was that Crazy Rab would leap to his feet and grab his sword arm. The guard turned to strike at the human with the torch but felt it wrenched from his grasp by the tery who had suddenly lost his fear of fire. In one motion the tery lifted him off his feet like a child. Suddenly he was tumbling through the air toward the stone wall.
As the guard rolled to the floor and lay still, Rab bent over him, then rose and regarded the tery uneasily.
"He's alive, but barely. I think you broke half his ribs. You're quite as strong as you look, my friend, but you'll have to learn a little restraint."
The tery replied with a low growl. He wanted to find Adriel and could not concern himself with the well-being of those who would harm her.
"I'll show them as much restraint as they showed my parents."
"Oh. I see. Sorry."
The tery’s patience was wearing thin.
"Find Adriel," the tery said impatiently.
Nodding, Rab led him from the cell.
"She must be in the tower. I became fairly well acquainted with this area of the keep while awaiting audiences with Kitru and I think I know how we can gain the stairs of the main tower without being seen. After that we'll have to depend on luck."
Cautiously they emerged into the courtyard. The tery noted the positions of the sentries and pointed them out. He did not want to get caught again. Rab darted along a deeply shadowed wall with the tery close behind; he paused at a flimsy wooden door and peered within.
"This is the kitchen," he whispered, once inside the dark, deserted space. "They prepare the food for the keep's higher-ups here." He pointed to a narrow door off to the left. "That leads to a passage which opens directly onto the stairs of the main tower. The scullions use it to deliver food at mealtime. I doubt very much if anyone will be watching it now."
They opened the door and felt their way along the dank inky passage. Torch light filtered through cracks in another door far ahead and they soon found themselves on the massive circular stairway of the main tower.
Rab glanced above and below, then smiled.
"As I suspected: No guards. No one's looking for danger from the inside. Come. We've got to get to the top unseen if we're to find Kitru."
Wordlessly, the tery pushed ahead and assumed the lead. Adriel was near now — he could feel her presence as he glided up the stairs. He halted as he heard the sound of descending footsteps ahead, up around the curve of the stairway before him. Whirling, he motioned to Rab to stay where he was and went ahead alone. A window opened through the outer wall above him. The tery reached it with a powerful leap and concealed himself within its shadow.
A young man, alone, rounded the curve and came into the light of the sputtering torch attached to the wall.
As the youth passed the window, the tery leaped from his niche and landed behind him with a whisper of sound. Dennel spun in surprise and fear.
Then he recognized the tery. He peered into the darkness beyond the torch light. If looking for signs of a guard or a keeper, he found none.
He approached the tery slowly, cautiously — he did not appear to fear for himself, but seemed to want to avoid frightening a dumb animal.
The tery let him come.
"How'd you get out, boy?" he said in a coaxing tone. "Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you. I'll take you to your friend."
He edged closer, talking continually in a soothing, gentle voice. The tery stared at him, barely restraining the urge to tear into his throat.
"You want to see Adriel?" he went on. "That's who you're looking for, aren't you? She's right up those stairs and you'll probably get to see her tomorrow. That's when —"
The tery could hold still no longer. His right hand shot out and closed on Dennel's throat as he rose on his hind legs and lifted him clear of the steps.
"Traitor," he rumbled in his grating voice. "To save yourself you betrayed all of your kind." He shook him like a limp doll.
Dennel was unable to utter a sound. Even without the tery's huge hand half-crushing his larynx, the sound of coherent speech from the lips of what he had considered a stupid beast, coupled with the naked fury he saw in that beast's yellow eyes, would have struck him dumb.
"Easy, now! Easy!" Rab said, ascending into the light. "Just hold him steady. He's a Talent and I'll communicate that way to save time."
Dennel locked pleading eyes on Rab, obviously looking for a way out of the tery's grasp. But Rab's expression remained cold, his eyes flinty, until he had learned the answers to whatever questions he was asking.
"All right," he said finally. "Set him down and he'll lead us to the Finder."
The tery complied and hovered impatiently over Dennel as the young man leaned against the inner wall, gasping and rubbing his throat. Rab pushed him upward.
"Move. It'll be light soon."
Dennel took two steps, then lurched away and started to run down the steps. The tery caught the back of his tunic in his fist and raised Dennel into the air again. He was about to hurl him against the stone steps when Rab caught his arm and stopped him with an urgent whisper.
"No! Put him down!"
The tery hesitated. He wanted to hurt this human, and he could see in Dennel's wide, terrified eyes that he knew it, too.
Rab stared hard at Dennel. "He won't try that foolishness again — will you?"
Dennel shook his head. The tery hoped the human was now fully convinced that he was not quick enough to elude his reach.
Rab scrutinized the tery as he put Dennel down. "You frighten me, friend."
"You have nothing to fear from me," the tery said in a rough whisper. "Only the captain named Ghentren and those who would hurt Adriel need fear me."
Rab's smile was wry. "That's a relief."
The tery pushed Dennel between them and pointed upward. "Lead."
Rab paused before moving. "I think I'd know you were human now even if I hadn't found those ancient volumes. Since we entered this tower you've displayed craft, deceit, loyalty and outrage at betrayal. For better or for worse, my friend, you're as human as I."
The tery pondered this in silence as a thoroughly cowed Dennel led the ascent. Following almost absently, he tried to sort the confused jumble of thoughts swirling through his mind.
Could Rab be right? Could he be truly human after all? Was it really so preposterous?
He thought back on his brief coexistence with the psi-folk and realized how easily he had accepted their company, as if it were the most natural thing, despite the fact that he had had no previous close contact with humans. Not only had he felt at home, he had been drawn back to them after initial contact. He didn't need them for food or shelter — he simply enjoyed being in their company.
Perhaps the desires awakened in him by Adriel the day before were not so unnatural after all…
Further speculation was terminated by Rab's hand on his shoulder. They had reached the top of the stairway and a great wooden door barred their way. Hearing a voice within, Rab elbowed Dennel aside and gently pushed it open.
A lean, graying man stood in the center of the room, a wine cup in his hand. He was dressed in a soiled tunic girded with a leather belt from which hung a short sword in a scabbard.
The tery heard Rab mutter, "Kitru."
The lord of the keep swayed as he poured red liquid from a silver flagon. Adriel was bound to a chair before him, her back to Rab and the tery.
Kitru was shouting at the girl. "Fool doctors! Told me the drugs would make you totally subservient to my will — idiots! I wasted the entire night waiting for them to work!"
The tery froze for an instant at the sight of Adriel, then coiled to lunge forward. Rab grabbed his shoulder and signaled him to wait. The tery eased back. He would wait — but not much longer. He watched Kitru sip noisily from his cup and go on speaking to Adriel.
"But when it's light and I've had some rest, we'll try a new approach — the howls of your beloved pet should make you more compliant. And if that fails, we'll make sure to capture your father alive when he arrives to save you. But I will have a compliant — no, enthusiastic — Finder by the time Mekk arrives. Do you understand me?"
The tery dropped all caution then and burst into the room. Startled by the intrusion, Kitru instinctively reached for his sword. The blade had cleared its scabbard by the time the tery reached him, but before Kitru could put it to use, the tery knocked it from his hand and closed long fingers around the keep lord's throat.
"Don't!" Rab cried. "I know what you're thinking, but don't. Just hold him there until I check the girl."
He leaned over Adriel. The tery watched her face. Her expression was blank, her pupils wide. Rab shook her shoulder and her head lolled back, but she did not respond.
The tery growled and tightened his grip on Kitru's throat. Rab turned quickly.
"She's all right. I've seen the effects of this drug before. She'll be like this until about midday, then she'll be sick, and after that she'll be herself again."
Above the tery's constricting fingers, Kitru's face was turning a mottled blue.
"Let him go for now but watch him — we'll use him for safe passage through the gate."
"Who are you?" Kitru rasped as he slumped to the floor and clutched his bruised throat.
"Remember the man you called ‘Crazy Rab' and threw into the dungeon?" Rab said with an edge on his voice as he untied Adriel. "I was a much more presentable member of humanity then, but beneath this beard and filth I am that same naive scholar."
"How did you get up here?"
"The same way we'll get down," Rab said, untying the last knot. "The stairs." He rose to his feet. " Now, where are my books?"
Kitru jerked his head toward a dark corner of the room. "But only four remain."
"I know," Rab said, striding to the indicated spot. "Dennel tells me you've sent one off to Mekk with news that you have a Finder. Your messenger will be wrong on both counts — when Mekk arrives there will be no books and no Finder. And he won't like that at all."
"Ah! Dennel, is it?" Kitru said, his eyes coming to rest on the young man cowering in the doorway. "You have a knack for betraying everyone, it seems."
"No sire! I swear — they forced me into this…"
His voice trailed off. If he was seeking understanding, he found no hint of it in Kitru's face.
The tery glanced at Adriel slumped in her chair. She looked…dead. He took a step toward her, just to check — and that was when Kitru made his move. With a quick roll he grabbed his fallen sword and gained his feet. The tery pivoted to find a gleaming length of sharpened steel hovering a finger's breadth from his throat.
"Rab," Kitru said with a tight smile on is face, "you're not only crazy, you're a fool as well. You should have fled when you had the chance. I'll see you nailed up outside the gate at first light, while your traitorous Talent friend and this beast are roasted alive in the tery pit."
"No!" Dennel cried.
The lord of the keep seemed to have lost all trace of fear now. The tery wondered why. Was it because he considered himself a good swordsman, and all that threatened him here were an unarmed scholar, a coward, and an animal? Perhaps his confidence had been further bolstered by the wine he had consumed.
The tery prepared to attack at the first opportunity.
"We are leaving with the girl," Rab stated coolly.
"Yes. This fellow" — he indicated the tery — "is a friend of hers. He's going to take her back to her people."
Kitru laughed aloud. "Friend? Oh, I'm afraid you're crazier than anyone ever imagined, Rab. This is her pet!"
"I am a man," the tery said.
The tery was not quite sure why he had said it; he could not truly say he thought of himself as a man. The declaration had escaped of its own volition.
Kitru stepped back, shock blanching his face. Then he sneered.
"You're not a man! You're nothing but a filthy animal who can mimic a few words."
"How strange," Rab said in a goading tone. "I was just thinking the same thing about you."
In a sudden rage, Kitru roared and aimed a cut at the tery's throat, no doubt hoping to catch the beast off guard and then dispose of the others at his leisure. He lunged wildly, however, and the tery leaped aside and aimed a balled fist at the back of the keep lord's neck. Kitru went down without a sound and lay still, his head at an unnatural angle.
Rab came over and nudged the body with his toe.
"I wish you hadn't done that. I was going to trade his life for safe passage out of here."
"There'll be no safe passage for us anywhere now!" Dennel wailed.
"We can still get back to the forest," Rab told him.
"The forest. What good is that to me? It's a living hell out there. I can't go back."
"If the other Talents can manage, so can you."
"I–I'm not like others. I can't live like an animal, scrabbling about for food and shelter. The forest has always scared me. I'm frightened every day out there, every minute. I can't eat, I can't sleep."
"But out there you live as a man," Rab said. "Here, you live as a tool, and you're allowed to do that only so long as you prove yourself useful."
"No — you don't understand." A thin line of perspiration was beading along Dennel's upper lip. "I can reason with them…make them accept me."
Rab turned away. "Suit yourself." He indicated Kitru's inert form. "Think you can make them accept that?"
The tery had already forgotten Kitru and was kneeling beside Adriel. The girl stared vacantly ahead but did not appear to be physically injured. The tery lifted her, one arm across her back, one under her knees, and held her tightly against him. She was breathing slowly, regularly, as if sleeping. How strange and wonderful to hold her like this.
After a long moment, he turned to Rab.
"She will be all right?"
"She'll be fine."
Rab was busy wrapping the four remaining books in a wall drapery. Even from across the room the tery could sense something strange, alien about those volumes. Rab tied a knot, then carried them to the center of the room.
"If we get out alive," he said. "And I've got an idea of how we might do that. If we can get downstairs unseen — "
"There is one debt yet due in this keep," the tery said.
He had tasted vengeance tonight and craved more. One more life needed to be brought to an end before the balance would be restored: The parent-slayer dwelt below in the barracks.
"What are you talking about?"
"A captain named Ghentren must die before I leave tonight."
"Ghentren left a little while ago," Dennel said from the doorway. "He was sent to Mekk's fortress with a sample of the books and news of the captured Finder. He's gone."
"Forget him," Rab said, swinging the sack of books over his shoulder.
The tery said nothing, but knew he could not forget him. Balance would not be restored until Ghentren's blood had seeped into the dirt like his mother's and father's.
Rab headed for the steps, pulling Dennel after him. "Come. We'll get you out of here alive."
The tery brought up the rear, carrying Adriel's limp form as gently and smoothly as possible. He kept his eyes on Dennel, directly ahead of him, watching him closely.
Why are we bringing this traitor with us? he thought. He could not forgive Dennel for betraying Adriel. If he wanted to return here so badly, why not let him stay?"
As they rounded a curve in the stairway, he noted a subtle change in Dennel's demeanor. The young man's slumped, dejected posture gradually straightened. He stole a quick glance over his shoulder at the now-burdened beast behind him. The tery sensed trouble brewing.
Then without warning, Dennel leaped for one of the window openings in the wall.
"Guard! Guar —!"
The tery's fury erupted. With one quick movement, his right arm snaked out and lifted Dennel into the air by his throat. He swung him in an arc and smashed the young man's head against the stone wall, cracking it like an egg. A grisly stain remained on the stones as he loosed his grip and let him drop.
Rab's face blanched. "Did you have to do that?"
The tery looked at the limp, twisted form and felt that the balance was a little closer to being restored.
"If his yelling brought the troopers, we'd all be dead. Now only he is dead; we still live, and there are no troopers." He clutched Adriel closer. "If he wishes to be killed, he should not include us."
Rab sighed. "He didn't think he'd be killed. I caught a flash from his mind in the instant he called out — he thought he could use sounding the alarm as a show of loyalty. Poor Dennel. He feared the forest, and they wouldn't let him stay here."
The tery didn't understand. You were loyal to friends and family, you protected them against those who would harm them. Dennel had done none of those things. Why Poor Dennel?
Continuing the descent, Rab grabbed a torch out of its holder on the wall and led the way to the kitchen. The scullions had not yet arrived. Rab found the wood pile for the stove in a corner. He shoved the torch into it.
"What are you doing?"
"Giving Kitru's men something to worry about besides us."
That struck the tery as a brilliant idea, but he feared large fires. Everyone who lived in the forest did.
As the wood started to catch, Rab went to a window and looked outside. The tery followed.
The stars were fading and the sky was lightening beyond the wall. Predawn.
"Good timing for us," Rab said. "It's that hour of the day when consciousness has ebbed to its nadir, when the man awake finds it most difficult to remain so, and when the man asleep is most inert."
The smoke from the fire had filled the ceiling space and was now moving down upon them. The tery's eyes began to burn.
Rab coughed. "Let's go."
Rab and the tery became two wraiths skimming across the courtyard to stand and wait in the shadow under the walkway on the outer wall, each with his own precious burden.
They did not have to wait too long — it only seemed that way. The tery kept looking at the brightening sky, knowing that soon the shadows would fade, exposing them. The initial whisps of smoke from the kitchen went unnoticed. Not until the flames caught the door and licked upward did a groggy sentry sound the alarm.
All available hands rushed to quench the conflagration. As a bucket brigade formed from the well to the kitchen, Rab and the tery crept up the steps to the parapet. Rab threw his books over the side, then reached for Adriel.
The tery held her, unwilling to let her go.
"I'll hold her while you go over," Rab said. "Hurry!"
Reluctantly the tery gave her over, then scurried down the outer wall. Reaching the ground, he lifted his arms, feeling his heart beating in his throat. If he missed her…
Rab dropped Adriel over the edge and the tery caught her. He put her down briefly to catch Rab, then he had her in his arms again.
"Now run," Rab whispered. "Somebody's sure to spot us before we reach the trees, so run like you've never run before!"
The tery found the going difficult. He was built to travel on all fours, yet with Adriel in his arms he had to run in an upright position. Her weight threw his balance off, but he still managed to outstrip Rab in their race for safety.
They were half way to the trees when a call went up from one of the few sentries remaining on the wall. Before many arrows could be loosed, however, they were out of accurate range for even the best of the keep's archers. The trees closed in on them and they were safe.
After putting a little more distance between themselves and the keep, Rab called for a halt and dropped his bundle of books to the sward.
"I don't think there'll be much pursuit, if any," he panted, leaning against a tree trunk. "Once they find Kitru dead, there'll be nothing but chaos in the keep."
The tery stood with Adriel still in his arms, barely listening, his mind racing. Rab's voice trailed off. The tery felt his gaze settle on him, flicking over Adriel and the way he held her.
"Why don't you put her down and we'll see if we can bring her around."
Lost in the sensation of Adriel's inert form against his chest as he clutched her tightly, possessively, it took the tery a while before he could answer. Her warmth, her softness, her scent…all awakening a timeless ache deep within him. He had never been so close to her. Holding her like this…
He had come to a decision.
"That won't be necessary," he told Rab in a dry voice.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"We're not going to rejoin the psi-folk. We'll find a life of our own in the forest. I'll protect her, provide for her, and no one will ever harm or threaten her again."
Rab's expression was sad. "I don't think that would be wise," he said softly.
The tery spoke in a rush, as much in an effort to convince himself as Rab.
"I'm human, am I not? You told me so yourself."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean —"
"Right now I feel very human. She's human, too. And she's lonely and unhappy living with the psi-folk. I could make her happy. She loves me — she's told me so, many times."
"She loves you as a beast. As a pet." Rab straightened and approached the tery. "But will she love you as a man?"
"She will learn."
"You don't know that. It's a choice that only she can make. And if you take her away and try to make it for her, then you're no better than Kitru and the captain who killed your parents." His voice softened. "And there are some hard facts you must accept: If by some wild chance she did accept you as a man and a husband, the offspring of your bonding would carry your shape — or much of it."
The idea startled the tery. He hadn't thought of children. He envisioned horrid mixtures of Adriel and himself that left him speechless.
"Your ancestors were deformed at the whim of some diseased mind. This atrocity has been perpetuated for generations. It might be best for you to decide to bring the Teratols' colossal joke to an end — let it go no further than you."
Anger and bitterness thickened the tery's voice as he spoke.
"I would find that easy to say if, like you, the only mark I carried was the ability to speak with my mind — a 'gift' rather than a deformity. It is easy to speak of letting the curse go no further if someone else must make the sacrifice."
A grim smile played about Rab's mouth. "Why do you think I've spent most of my life looking for a link between teries and humans? I told you I knew there was a link — how do you think I knew?"
Rab nodded. "I was born with a tail, as were my mother and brother and sister, and their mother before them." He shook his head sadly. "What amusement my ancestors must have caused some depraved Teratol. Normal in every way except for a scaly rat's tail."
The tery sensed the pain and humiliation in Rab's voice. It echoed his own.
"So, you're a tery, too."
"Yes. But for generations my family has seen to it that the tail is cut off flush with the body immediately at birth — there's virtually no scar left if done that early in life. And so they have passed for all those generations as humans, yet all the while thinking of themselves as teries, lower life forms somehow altered by the Great Sickness so that they looked and acted like humans. I'm sure some of my forebears suspected that they might be human, but none was ever so sure as I. For I had another birthright besides a tail — I had the Talent. Neither my mother nor my father was so gifted — perhaps each carried an incomplete piece of the Talent within, and those pieces fused into a whole when I came to be. I don't know. There's so much I don't know. But I did know I was a tery with the Talent, and only humans had been known to possess the Talent. So I decided to prove I was human."
"What has this to do with me?"
"I also decided that the Teratols have laughed long enough. I shall father no children."
The tery stood unmoving, eyeing Rab intently. He had known the man only a short while but had come to trust him. He sensed he was telling the truth. Yet he could not bring himself to put Adriel down. He felt he would explode if he did not have her. He had to take her away with him.
"You cannot stop me, Rab."
"That's true. You've killed two men tonight, nearly killed a third. You could kill me easily. But you won't. Because I sense something in you, something better than that. I sense in you most of the good things that are human. And you won't force yourself upon the girl who befriended you."
The tery swayed. The forest seemed to reel and spin around him. He so wanted to be an equal in Adriel's eyes, but he never could be if they stayed with the Talents. What should he do? What was the right thing to do?
Rab emptied his ancient metallic volumes from the drapery that had served as a sack, and spread it on the ground. He stared at the tery expectantly.
After a brief, tense moment, the tery gently placed Adriel on the cloth and folded it over her. Feeling a sob building in his throat, he straightened and started to move toward the forest depths.
"Where are you going?"
"Away. I don't belong here."
"Yes, you do. Or at least, you will. You'll be a hero among the Talents."
"I'll still be a pet."
What had been amusing before seemed intolerable now.
"You don't have to remain one."
"You'll tell them?" Hope began to grow. "Explain to them?"
"I'll help you become a man in their eyes. The Talents won't accept you as one right away, and they may even reject you if we push your humanness on them too forcefully. So we'll start slowly. You'll talk more and more; you'll start to use tools. I'll guide you. Before I'm through I'll have them thinking of you as a man before I ever get around to telling them. And the first thing to do will be to give you a name."
The tery turned and watched Rab's eyes as he spoke. Only one other man had ever looked at him that way.
Rab held out his hand. "Will you stay…brother?"
The tery looked away and said nothing. Moving slowly, almost painfully, he returned to Adriel's side. Lowering himself to his knees, he slumped and hung his head over her, wondering what to do. He remained in that position for a long time. He sensed Rab moving away to sit quietly with his back against a tree.
The tableau was broken by the sound of someone crashing through the underbrush nearby. Both were on their feet immediately: Rab half-hidden behind the tree trunk, the tery crouched over Adriel, ready to spring.
A lone man broke into view. Tlad.
Tlad stopped at the edge of the clearing and stared at Adriel's inert form.
"Is she hurt?"
The tery sensed real concern in his voice.
Rab cautiously stepped out from behind his tree.
"No. Just drugged. Who are you?"
"I'm called Tlad. The tery here can vouch for me."
Rab glanced sharply in the tery's direction. "He knows?"
The tery nodded — a very human gesture he had picked up — and lowered himself to all fours next to Adriel.
"He is a good friend. I don't know how he knows, but he does — perhaps for a long time. Maybe he is a tery, too."
The tery was beginning to feel the physical, mental, and emotional strain of the night's events. His mind and body were numb. A great weight seemed to press down on his chest and shoulders, making it hard to stand.
Everything was coming apart. He wanted to lie down and let it all pass. He felt adrift…lost…stripped of his identity. His place in the world had been torn from him: He was no longer a tery, he was a human. But he could neither live as a human nor be accepted as one. Nothing added up. He knew Tlad should not have been able to find them, yet he had. The tery did not have the will to wonder how.
Not so Rab, who had regained his composure and was wasting no time in satisfying his curiosity. His voice seemed to echo down a long tunnel to the tery.
"How did you know to look for us here?"
"I have my —" Tlad began, but stopped short.
"Is something wrong?"
But Tlad did not answer. Instead, he rushed to where the ancient volumes had been spilled from the drapery and knelt to inspect them in the growing light.
"These are yours?"
"Where did you find them?"
"In the ruins near Mekk's fortress when I lived there."
"Then you must be the one the Talents have been waiting for. Rab, isn't it?"
"Yes, but you're not one of us."
"Right." Tlad continued speaking as he flipped through each of the volumes. "But they're not far behind me. They're heading directly for the keep. I suggest you let them know where you are. They should be in range."
Rab looked off into the forest for a moment, then returned his attention to Tlad.
"There. They know we're safe and where we are. Should be here soon. Now, tell me what —"
"Where's Volume Five?" Tlad quickly ran through the four volumes a second time. "Did you lose it?"
With a dumbfounded expression, Rab sat down with a jolt on the other side of the pile of books.
"Who are you? I'm the only one who can read these things. How could you know that Volume Five is missing? This is the only set."
"Wrong." Tlad said, voice low, words hurried. "I come from a fishing village but never had much of a bent for the sea. So as a boy I used to comb the ruins up the coast. I found a similar set and brought it to the village elder who knew how to read some of the ancient writing. He kept the books for a long time, and when he was finally through with them, he made me row him out past the reef. As we sat in the boat, he swore me to secrecy and told me what the books contained. Then he threw all five overboard."
"Then this is not the only set," Rab said.
"No. And there may be others."
"This means you know about the Shapers and the Teratols, and the truth about the Talents and the teries."
"I also know the contents of Volume Five."
"Then you know more than I do," Rab said. "I never got to translate that one."
"Then it's lost?"
"No. One of Kitru's officers is on his way to Mekk's fortress with it now."
Tlad shot to his feet. "No!"
The violence of Tlad's reaction penetrated the mental fog enveloping the tery. He rose and padded toward the pair.
"What's in the fifth volume?" Rab asked.
Tlad hesitated, then seemed to reach a decision.
"Volume Five tells of the final days of the Teratol society and how they gathered all their records, their techniques, and their hardware into a huge underground cache. Among the items they hid were the super weapons they used to keep the underclasses in line. Volume Five gives the location of that cache."
Rab too was on his feet now. "And it's on its way to Mekk!"
"If that madman gets his hands on those weapons, there won't be a forest left to hide in. He'll have everything that doesn't bear True Shape — whatever that happens to mean at the time — hunted down and destroyed. And a lot of other things will get destroyed along the way. Maybe everything. Is there any way we can intercept that officer?"
"No," Rab said with a quick shake of his head. "Dennel told me that the messenger was scheduled to leave during the night. He's long out of reach by now."
"Dennel?" Tlad said. "Where is he?"
Rab explained what had happened inside the keep.
Tlad nodded and glanced the tery's way. "I suspected Dennel was up to no good."
"He's not important now," Rab said. "I must know: Where is the cache?"
"If the maps were accurate, right under Mekk's fortress. The Teratols seemed to think it was pretty safe — you had to go through the Hole to get to it."
Rab started. "The Hole? Then it's unquestionably safe."
Tlad said, "Surely the Hole is empty now."
"No. The offspring of the original inhabitants still dwell there — no one dares to let them out. And no one enters the Hole willingly. Don't worry: The cache is safe."
"I wouldn't count on it. If Mekk learns that the Hole stands between him and the power to destroy anything that displeases him, he'll find a way around it or through it. He'll get to that cache."
"Then we're doomed."
"Not if we get there first."
"And they call me crazy," Rab said with a humorless laugh. "How do we do that?"
Tlad tugged at his beard. "I can't say. I'm from the coast. I don't know much about Mekk's fortress."
"You certainly know your way around the forest."
"I live in the forest now — I'm a potter, not a fisherman. But there must be some way we can get into the fortress and retrieve that book."
"There is none, I assure you. Mekk dwells in mortal fear of assassination — that's why he's postponed his inspection tour of the provinces so many times. The walls of his fortress are sheer and high — not even our tery friend could scale them."
"How about the main gate? There's got to be traffic in and out of the fortress."
"All civilians must have passes to enter the fortress, and all are sent home at dusk. Mekk's tower is surrounded by troopers day and night. There are no chinks in his armor. I'm afraid we're lost."
"No," Tlad said with a certainty that seemed unfounded, "We're not lost. Every stronghold has at least one weak spot. I'll find it."
He turned and hurried off into the trees.
The psi-folk arrived soon after Tlad's departure, and it was a silently joyous event. They all recognized Rab by his Talent and crowded around him, slapping him on the shoulders and back. Adriel was laid on a drag and had regained consciousness by the time they all returned to the camp area that evening. Rab, Komak, Adriel, and the tery sat apart during the celebratory feast that followed.
Rab gestured to the tery, who had not strayed from Adriel's side during the entire journey, and now listened intently to the conversation.
"This is quite a fellow you have here."
"That he is," Komak agreed.
Rab had made sure to impress upon all the importance of the tery's role in Adriel's rescue. He pressed the point again.
"I can't say it often enough: If not for this fellow, Adriel and I would still be locked within the keep, and the rest of you would be dead at the base of the walls."
"I know," Komak said. "I never thought he would amount to much when Tlad convinced me to bring him into the camp, but he's certainly proved me wrong. He's a smart one — smarter than some humans I've known."
"Is that so?" Rab’s his eyes danced as a smile showed through his freshly washed and trimmed beard. "And you say Tlad was responsible for bringing him into camp?"
"You know Tlad?"
"We've met. A most interesting man. I'm anxious to meet him again. We've many things to discuss. But getting back to our friend here — do you have a name for him, Adriel?"
The girl shook her head carefully; she had complained of a throbbing pain in both temples since awakening.
"No. I was waiting to find a name I like for him but never got around to deciding. He's always been just ‘the tery.’ "
"Then I shall take the liberty of naming him for you. Do you object?"
Adriel did not appear to be in a condition to object to much of anything.
"No. Go ahead," she said. "I could never make up my mind what to call him."
"Good," Rab said, seizing the opportunity. "Then I shall name him Jon."
"Jon is a man's name," Komak said. It was more of an observation than an objection.
"He shall be Jon, nonetheless."
Jon, the tery thought. He liked that name.
Two days later, when Adriel was well enough to travel, Rab assumed the role of leader with Komak’s grateful blessing.
"Which way shall we move?" As always, Komak spoke aloud when Adriel was present.
Jon, the tery, hovered nearby, listening.
"Eastward. That will take us further away from Kitru's realm."
"But it will also bring us closer to Mekk's fortress."
"I know," Rab said.
"Is that safe?"
"Don't worry, Komak. I fully intend to keep a respectful distance between our people and the Overlord's legions. But I'm formulating a plan. It's not fully developed yet. When it is, I'll let you know all the details. Trust me."
"You know I do. We all do."
Later, when Rab wandered off to a secluded spot where they could meet and talk, Jon asked him why he hadn't told the Talents about the cache under Mekk's fortress.
"I don't want to frighten them. Some of them may panic and scatter. That will serve no purpose. We must stick together…and we must have a purpose. Our days of blind flight are over. Our future is tied to what lies hidden under that fortress. So we've got to deal with the problem of Mekk now or spend the rest of our lives on the run."
"I don't know…yet. But I sense that our enigmatic friend Tlad will find that elusive weak spot in Mekk's defenses. And when he does, he'll need help. I want us to be nearby to supply that help."
"Why does Tlad want to help Talents and teries?" Jon asked. The question had been troubling him.
"I don't know. Do you trust him?"
Jon nodded. "I owe him my life."
"Then you have good reason to trust him. I have no such reason, yet something within tells me that the fate of the Talents is in some way tied to Tlad and — stranger still — to you, Jon."
Jon was startled. "What can I do?"
"I don't know. But I feel constrained to keep all the pieces at hand until the puzzle can be solved. But as to the here and now," he said, shifting the subject, "I notice you've been avoiding Adriel."
"Yes," was all Jon could say.
Once he had assured himself that she was fully recovered from the drugs, he had kept his distance.
Rab shook his head. "She doesn't understand. I believe she's a little hurt."
"She will recover."
He turned back toward the camp.
The tery stayed with the tribe during its leisurely eastward trek. He continued to avoid Adriel, however, forcing himself to ignore her hurt and spread his company among the rest of the psi-folk. He did so not only because Rab suggested it, but because proximity to Adriel had become so achingly painful.
He would walk beside one of the Talents for a while and pretend that he was practicing his speech. He'd point to an object and call it by name, or point and pretend he didn't know what to call it and induce the Talent to tell him. He was fully accepted by everyone now because of his heroic rescue of Rab and Adriel, and within a matter of days the psi-folk seemed to be subconsciously convinced that he was more of a burly aborigine than an animal. Everyone delighted in working with Jon to increase his vocabulary.
Jon hated it.
Before he had met Rab it had been almost amusing to play the dumb animal. Now things were different. Now he found the role degrading. He wanted to belong, to be accepted as the thinking, feeling, rational being he was. He too awaited Tlad's return to give the psi-folk — and himself — a direction other than flight, a goal beyond survival.
Rab drilled the archers daily. The march would be stopped in mid-afternoon; after camp was set, targets would be raised. Some were suspended on rope with pulleys for practice against moving targets. Simultaneous volleys were rehearsed time and time again.
Jon often heard grumbling over sore fingers, arms, and shoulders, but he saw significant improvement in coordination and accuracy.
At sunset on the eighth day, Tlad walked into the camp.
Rab immediately drew him aside. Jon the tery followed. He wanted to hear what was being planned and, as ever, knew that he liked being near Tlad.
"Well?" Rab said expectantly when they were out of earshot of the rest of the tribe. "Did you find anything?"
"Yes and no." Tlad looked tired and his voice was strained, as if he recently had been under great stress. "There seems to be no way to get into Mekk's fortress other than a full frontal assault, and you haven't anywhere near the numbers for that. Also, there's no way to get to the weapons cache other than through the Hole."
Rab's face showed his disappointment. "So far you haven't told us anything we don't already know."
"Have patience. I have something."
He unrolled sheets of paper covered with incomprehensible wavering lines.
"What are those?"
"Maps. I've been wracking my brain to remember the maps I'd seen in Volume Five, and finally managed to come up with some crude copies from memory. They give us some idea of what the area around Mekk's fortress looked like before everything fell apart during the Great Sickness."
"But that's all changed now."
"Right. But it shows us a way to get into the Hole without going through the fortress.
"The Hole? Who'd want to get into the Hole?"
"We do. So we can get to the weapons."
"Go through the Hole?" Rab said in an awed whisper. "No one goes through the Hole."
"We have to. There's no other way."
"But it's impossible. We'll be torn to pieces."
Jon broke his silence. "What is this Hole?"
He remembered his mother mentioning it from time to time, but she would never explain anything about it.
"Mekk's fortress is built on the ruins of what used to be the headquarters of the old Teratol regime," Tlad said. "That was where they performed most of their shaping experiments. From what I can gather, all their failures, along with their special experiments, the ones they couldn't risk setting free, went into a sealed cavern below. The special teries were the ones they had shaped inside and out — deformed their bodies without, and drained off all decency, mercy, empathy and compassion from within. They let monstrosity mate with monstrosity in the Hole to form new and even more monstrous offspring. It's concentrated depravity down there."
"It's full of teries?" Jon said. "Why doesn't Mekk eradicate them?"
Rab laughed. "I'm sure he'd like to. And I'd wish he'd try. But he can't risk it. His troops won't go near the Hole and he'd risk a mutiny if he tried to force them. So he's left them alone."
Jon was struck by the irony of it: Mekk the tery-killer forced to live over a huge nest of teries.
"It's hell pure and simple in there," Rab said, visibly shuddering. "I once had a glimpse of its denizens through one of the grates that provide ventilation for the Hole."
"Apparently the Teratols enjoyed watching them," Tlad said, pointing to one of his maps. "And this is where they did it."
Rab and the tery crowded around. Rab seemed to understand the squiggles on the map, but they meant nothing to Jon.
"What's that?" Rab asked.
"A viewing chamber. They built an underground corridor with a transparent wall through which they could safely watch the goings-on in the Hole. That corridor is our way to get to the Hole without Mekk's or his troopers’ knowledge. From there it shouldn't be far to the cache."
Rab shook his head. "Do you know what you're asking? I don't care how near or far it is, it can't be done. The foulest, most depraved teries in existence live down there in constant warfare. The only thing that can bring them together is the sight of a normal human — they will act in concert to pull that human to pieces, then resume fighting over the remains." He lowered his voice. "That is how vagrants and petty criminals in this region are executed — dropped through one of the grates into the Hole."
Tlad grimaced. "They throw people into the Hole?"
"Only those not important enough to crucify."
"Still," Tlad insisted, "it's a risk that must be taken."
"Forget it. I can't ask anyone to go in there."
"Then I can't help you," Tlad said angrily and turned to go.
Jon placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"Wait. Perhaps a tery could reach these weapons through the Hole."
"No," Rab said. "Not even you could survive in there, Jon."
"I want to try."
He realized that he wanted very badly to do this.
"Why? You're risking your life."
"It is my life."
Rab waited a long time before answering.
"It could work," he said finally. "But how could one man accomplish anything?"
"He could bring back a few weapons," Tlad replied, "and with those at hand, we could clear a path through the Hole — nothing could stand in our way — and get the rest."
Rab's eyes lit with growing enthusiasm. He put his arm around Jon's hulking shoulders.
"Brother tery, you're about to save the Talents once again." — XVIII-
Later that night, Jon sat by the central fire with Rab and Tlad after the rest of the camp had drifted off to bed.
"Why must it be like this, Tlad?" Rab said softly. He had a pile of small pebbles in his hand and was throwing them into the fire one by one.
"You mean war?" Tlad shrugged. "It seems to be part of the human condition."
"Think so? I wonder. Why must we be out here in the forests struggling to stay alive while Mekk and his priests and his troops are in their fortress scouring their brains for ways to find and kill us?"
"The True Shape sect seems to be at the root of your problem."
"Ah, religion. I could think of a better way to use religion, I assure you. Besides numbers, our greatest disadvantage is that all our religious myths have been turned against us. The True Shape faith says that the Great Sickness was an act of God through which He branded all those who displeased Him. Therefore all those bearing the mark of the Great Sickness are offensive to God and must be eradicated."
"We're all afraid of the strange, the misshapen," Tlad said. "Even you aren't sure your fellow Talents won't reject Jon once you tell them he's human."
"I know. But it used to be considered wrong to hurt or kill others. Then the True Shape priests wormed their way into Mekk's brain and convinced him to order the extermination of all teries. I guess it was inevitable that Talents would be added to the list. So it's now an act of devotion to go out and kill a tery or a Talent. Everything is twisted."
"I'm sure Talents were included in the extermination order for political reasons as well," Tlad said. "If Mekk is as suspicious and fearful as you say, he probably wanted to eliminate those subjects who could plot against him without ever saying a word."
"I suspect that's true. But if the present is bad, the future could be worse."
"Worse?" Jon whispered, unable to stay out of the discussion any longer. "What could be worse than the present?"
"Well, at this point the provinces are complying with the extermination decree out of fear of Mekk's wrath. But as time goes on, the practice of killing on sight anything that doesn't bear True Shape will become traditional and customary and routine. It will continue long after Mekk is gone because it is entwined with religious myth. How do we fight a myth?"
"With another myth," Tlad said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Rab laughed. "Just like that? Another myth? Ah, if I had that power. I'd create a religion that could bring us all together, not drive us apart. Or better yet, I'd do away with all religion and let us live for ourselves."
"That would be unrealistic. Myths exist because people want them, cling to them, need them. To supplant existing religions, you'll have to come up with a bigger and better god, one who could push the others aside, one who could implant the idea that teries and Talents are every bit as human as the rest of us, implant it so deeply that it could never be uprooted."
"If I can get our hands on those weapons," Rab said with sudden intensity, "I'll show Mekk and his priests just how human we teries and Talents can be!"
"Is that what you want the weapons for? To make yourself the Overlord?"
"No, of course not," Rab said quickly. "But we can use them to change things around to our benefit. We won't have to run anymore — from anyone."
Tlad made no reply. As Jon watched him gaze into the fire, he noticed a worried frown on his face.
Jon sought out Tlad the next morning and learned that he had departed at first light, no destination given. He struck off into the forest and made for Tlad's hut. It was already mid-morning but he knew he could easily catch up. No human could move through the forests as quickly as –
He'd have to get used to classifying himself as human. He had come to accept that now, and he wanted the other humans around him to accept it. But Rab said go slow, go slow, go slow.
So he did. But it irritated him more and more each day to hide his intelligence. Previously taciturn by nature, he had now developed an insatiable urge to talk to other humans. But there was no one to listen. Rab was always busy or surrounded by Talents, and when Tlad arrived, he and Rab spoke of things that Jon could not understand. So he was forced by ignorance to remain silent.
So now he sought out Tlad — who was human yet did not seem to require the company of other humans. Perhaps he would accept the company of a tery who craved to be with another human on an equal footing. They were both aliens, outsiders, standing apart from the rest of the culture — Tlad by his own choice, the tery by heritage and decree of law.
Tlad was not at his hut, had not been there recently by all signs. Perhaps they had traveled different paths; the tery passing him on a parallel course. Jon waited for a while, then decided to scout through the area between the hut and the new camp of the psi-folk.
Eventually, he came to a familiar clearing. Looking to his left he saw what he had come to call the shimmering fear. And something else.
Someone was in the field. A man…
Jon watched him approach the shimmering fear. He moved quickly, steadily, like someone who knew exactly where he was going and was anxious to get there. He walked right up to the shimmer — and into it!
The shimmer enveloped him and he disappeared!
Jon ran forward with his heart thudding in his throat. Tlad was in danger and he had to help. But where was he? Had whatever hid inside the shimmering fear drawn him in and swallowed him? Or was Tlad immune to the fear? Was he part of it?
The questions fled unanswered as he felt the first tentacles of terror and revulsion coil around his chest and throat and begin to squeeze. But still he ran. He ran until he felt he could no longer breathe, until his legs became stiff and rigid. And when he could no longer run, he walked — slowly, painfully forcing each limb forward until he entered the shimmer.
Suddenly the forest disappeared. His vision shifted and melted into a blur. All that was left was the fear that buzzed around and through him. Still he forced himself on, one more step…one more step –
The shimmer was suddenly gone.
And with it, the fear.
He stood panting and sweating in a cool, odorless room that seemed to be made out of polished steel.
Not three paces ahead of him, Tlad sat with his back to him. He was staring at a portrait of a man on the wall above him. Jon opened his mouth to speak…
…but the portrait spoke first.
"I regret having to say this, Steven, but I'm going to have to turn down your request. As you well know, the Federation Defense Force intervenes only in strictly limited circumstances, and your request for intervention on Jacobi IV does not meet the narrow criteria set forth in the LaNague Charter. The imposition of a protectorate in this case would be at odds with the very purpose of the Cultural Survey Service, which is to preserve and promote human diversity. The psis you've described on Jacobi IV are well on their way to establishing a truly tangential society; intervention by an interstellar culture at this point would stifle them. Your talented friends will have to find their own way out of this predicament, I'm afraid. I wish them all the luck betweeen the stars.
You may help them, of course, but only with the native materials at hand.
Good Luck, Steve, and out." #
"Damn!" he said through clenched teeth as he angrily cut off the playback.
No sense in running through it again. It was painfully obvious that this was an irrevocable decision on the part of the higher-ups. He had expected a rigid, by-the-rules response, but that didn't lessen his frustration.
"Of all the stupid narrow-minded —"
He turned and froze at the sight of the tery standing in the lock, staring at him.
"You live within the fear?" the tery said, a tone of awed wonder in his gruff voice.
He was so stunned by Jon's presence that he didn't catch the reference.
"The shimmer —"
"Oh, that!" He realized that Jon meant the craft's neurostimulatory repeller. "I use it to keep out people and curious creatures. But how'd you get past it?"
"I thought Tlad was in trouble. I came to help."
He saw how Jon was still panting and trembling, how his fur was soaked with sweat.
"You came through the field?" He was moved. The field induced an almost irresistible flight response in the autonomic nervous system of any mammal within range. Very potent. It took guts to get past it. "Thank you, Jon."
"But you are not really Tlad, are you?" Jon said.
For all his beastial appearance, this tery had such a quick mind. Dalt tried to match his quickness but could come up with no lie that would ring true enough to save his cover. He thought carefully before he spoke. The tery respected him, felt indebted to him — he had come through the fright field because he thought Tlad was in trouble. Why destroy that store of confidence with an obvious fabrication?
"No, I'm really Dalt. Steven Dalt."
"But you are still my friend, are you not?" Jon asked with a pleading innocence and sincerity that Dalt found touching.
"Yes, Jon, I'm still your friend. I'll always be your friend. I'm here to help the teries and the psi-folk, and I'll need your help most of all to do it."
Jon was staring around at the ship's interior.
"Can we leave here? I don't like it here."
"Of course. But first…" Dalt reached a hand toward the tery's right shoulder and removed a fine silver thread. "You won't be needing this tracer any more. I planted it on you before you went to Adriel's rescue. I've got them here and there among the psi-folk. Helps me keep track of things."
He laid the thread on one of the consoles, then picked a small disk from a slot by the lock and placed it in the tery's hand.
"Hold onto this as we walk through the ‘fear.' It will protect you from it. I've got one in my belt buckle."
Together they walked undisturbed through the shimmer that hid Dalt's craft, and the neurostimulatory field that guarded it. They stopped in the shade of some neighboring trees.
Dalt seated himself cross-legged on the grass and motioned for the tery to join him.
"Get comfortable and I'll tell you all about myself. After I'm done I hope you'll know enough to want to keep what you've just seen a secret."
"As long as it helps Adriel and the others."
Where to begin? he thought. This isn't going to be easy.
He started with a historical perspective — how the mother world devised an ingenious method to colonize the stars and get rid of all its malcontents, dissidents, and troublemakers in a single stroke: a promise of one-way passage to an Earth-type planet to any group of sufficient size that wanted to set up the utopia of its choice. It became known as the era of the splinter worlds, and there was no shortage of takers. Soon most of the habitable worlds in a sphere around Earth were peopled with all sorts of oddball societies, most of which collapsed within a few years of landfall.
The Shaper colony proved an exception. Its pioneers were all well-grounded in science and technology and managed to build a viable society. Their goal of a world of physically perfect human telepaths was close to completion when the Teratol clique took over. That was when teries were formed; that was when the Hole was started; and finally, that was when the virus that caused the Great Sickness — the pandemic holocaust — was born.
A small group of the surviving Shapers banded together during the plague. They saw their civilization coming apart and wanted something preserved, so they gathered samples of all the available technology of their time into one spot and sealed it up. They then wrote a brief history of the colony in five volumes and buried it for posterity. Before they, too, succumbed to the Great Sickness, they beamed the contents of the volumes into space.
The message was received. But this was in the days of the beleaguered outworld Imperium that had little interest in rescuing diseased Shapers. So the message was dutifully recorded and forgotten. After the LaNague Federation rose from the ruins of the Imperium, the Cultural Survey teams were started in an attempt to bring surviving splinter worlds back into the mainstream of humanity. That was when the transcript of the five-volume transmission was found.
Steven Dalt, fresh from his infiltration of the feudal splinter culture on Kwashi, was given the job.
"Are you following me so far?"
The tery neither shook his head nor nodded. "What is a planet?" he asked.
"What's a pla —?"
Dalt then realized that for all his native intelligence, Jon's mind was too unsophisticated to grasp cosmological concepts. The stars were points of light, the planet on which they stood was "the world," and the primary it circled, "the sun." Dalt’s talk of the LaNague Federation and splinter worlds and interstellar colonization had been lost on the tery — like discussing the big bang theory with someone who still believed in a geocentric universe.
Yet Jon had listened patiently and with interest, whether through personal regard for Dalt or through a desire to have someone — anyone — address him as a fellow rational being, Dalt could not say.
"Let's put off that explanation for some other time, Jon, and just accept the fact that I was sent from a faraway land to see how things were going here."
Things were not going at all well, as he had discovered soon after landing and camouflaging his craft. A preliminary survey had located the population centers, made language recordings, and returned to Fed Central. Dalt absorbed the language — a pidgin version of Old Earth Anglic — via encephalo-augmentation and was readied to pose as one of the natives to assess their suitability to handle modern technology. Since they favored hard consonants in their male names, he’d turned his own around. And since he did not want too close contact with the locals, he posed as a reclusive potter deep in the forests.
His advent coincided with Mekk's order for extermination of the Talents and he found himself acting as potter and confidant to a unique group of telepaths. Here was something every Cultural Survey operative dreamed of finding: A group of humans split off from the mainstream of the race, developing a separate and distinct lifestyle. This was the very purpose for which the CSS had been formed.
But on this planet they were marked for extinction.
So Dalt had sent an urgent request by subspace laser for an intervention by the Federation Defense Force to protect these psis and let them follow their course. And had been turned down.
"It's up to you and me, my furry friend," he told Jon. "I'll get no help from my friends back in my homeland — and I can't even use a blaster, though I'll be damned if I won't carry one with me when we go to the Hole — so we're going to have to carry the show. Let's go see Rab."
"Here's an entry port to the observation corridor," Dalt said, pointing to a small, dark blot on the map. Then he sketched an arc with his finger. "And here's the perimeter of the routine patrols around Mekk's fortress."
The blot fell between the arc and the fortress.
"We can sneak past the patrols," Rab said.
"We need to do more than sneak. We're going to have to dig our way in. The port is buried."
Rab frowned. "That's a problem. They'll catch us sure."
"That's where your people come in. Can we count on them?"
"Of course. What do you need?"
"Now wait just a —"
"A small war," Dalt said with a smile. "One played by our rules."
The Talents moved their camp deeper into the forest, putting more distance between themselves and Mekk's fortress. Then the archers moved forward and ringed the fortress in small groups.
The war began.
The Talents developed into a perfectly coordinated guerrilla force, striking then disappearing like fish in the sea. When Mekk's generals sent a hundred men out to search the surrounding trees, they found nothing. When they sent ten men out to investigate a minor disturbance, none came back.
The net result of these seemingly random skirmishes was a gradual withdrawal of the patrol lines toward the fortress, a tightening of the perimeters, just as Dalt had intended. This gave him, Rab, and Jon a chance to locate the old entry port.
Working all night and well into the next day, as swiftly and silently as they could, they moved rocks and dug through the dirt until they had made an opening just big enough for the tery to slip through.
Dalt nodded to Rab as he prepared to follow Jon. Rab was to wait by the entrance and use his Talent to summon help if necessary.
He squeezed through the opening –
And entered the anteroom to Hell.
Dalt had been expecting the worst, but nothing hinted at in his transcript of the Shaper history had prepared him for the sights that greeted him.
The forgotten corridor stretched before them with a gentle curve to the left. The left wall was composed of a thick transparent substance that jutted out into the Hole at a forty-five degree angle. A mixture of dried blood, excrement, and dirt, smeared its far surface, traces left by generations of Hole inhabitants trying to claw their way out.
But there was no way out. The rock of the floor, sides, and ceiling of the Hole had been treated by the Teratol clique to make it impervious to any digging or tunneling. The only access to the outside world was through the vertical shafts leading to the ventilation grates, and these were lined with the same impenetrable glassy substance that now separated Dalt and Jon from the Hole.
The porous rock that lined the inner surface of the Hole had been treated in another way: It glowed. The light arose from all sides, totally eliminating shadow, creating an endless twilight that added to the surreal, nightmarish quality of the hellish panorama before them.
For food, the Teratols had developed a rapidly growing fungus that hung from the ceiling of the Hole in stalagtitic abundance. For water there were a number of underground springs that fed into a large pool at the center of the cavern. The temperature was a damp, cool, subterranean constant. For those who required shelter, a hidey-hole could be dug into the porous rock that had not been treated against it. No wood, no fire, no tools of any sort.
None of the Teratol mistakes would ever escape, none would ever starve, none would ever die of thirst, none would ever freeze.
And none would ever know a moment's peace.
The Hole had no social order. The strongest, the fiercest, the ones that hunted best in packs — these ruled the Hole. The weak, the timid, the sick, the lame became either food or slaves. The sense of entrapment and foul living conditions, compounded by generations of inbreeding, had reduced the inhabitants to a horde of savage, imbecilic monstrosities.
"This is the darkest side of the human soul, Jon," Dalt said. "Anything that's good and decent within us has been banished from here."
With Jon gliding behind him, Dalt walked along the corridor, queasily watching as scenes of nightmarish barbarism that were a part of day-to-day existence in the Hole played out before him.
A creature with an amorphous body, six tentacles, and a humanoid head shuffled along, picking up morsels of fungus and stuffing them into its mouth. Without warning, a reptilian creature with horny plates projecting from its back — and again, the humanoid head, always a humanoid head — launched itself from a burrow about a meter off the floor and landed on the tentacled creature's back. With sharp fangs it tore into the
flesh of its victim's neck until blood spouted over both of them. The victim rolled onto its side, however, and managed to wrap one of its longer tentacles around the attacker's throat.
Dalt could not bear to wait and see whether the first's blood supply could outlast the other's oxygen. He left the combatants writhing on the other side of the window and pressed on, trying not to watch the endless variety of depraved forms that skulked, leaped, crawled, shuttled, scuttled, and ran through the small area of the Hole that was visible to them. Yet he was unable to turn away.
"There's a door somewhere along here," he told Jon. "The Teratols made one entry from the corridor into the Hole. I just hope we can open it when we find it."
The tery said nothing and Dalt glanced at his companion, wondering if he could hold his own in there. Jon would have two advantages — his intelligence and his hunting club. Dalt had wanted to give him a blaster, but the tery had been too frightened of its power. He seemed more comfortable with the weapon that had protected him and helped feed him for most of his life. So a club it was.
I wouldn't go in there with two blasters, Dalt thought, glancing into the Hole again.
He estimated from the difference in light levels between the cavern and the corridor that the dwellers on the other side of the window probably didn't know the corridor existed. The light from the phosphorescent stone would reflect off the filth smeared on the window, making it look like an unusually smooth section of the wall. The Shapers had probably wanted it that way so they could watch without being seen.
Jon stopped abruptly and pointed to something on the window.
"What is that?"
Dalt saw a round, dark splotch, about the length of a man's arm in diameter, edging its way down the Hole side of the window. He tried to get a peek at what it looked like on the reverse but it must have been flat and disk-shaped. He could make out no protrusions from the other side.
A movement to the right caught his eye. Down a narrow path came five dark shapes, low to the ground, scuttling. The disk must have had an eye on the other side, too; must have seen the approaching shapes, for it reversed direction.
Then the shapes were close enough for Dalt to make out details: They had normal human heads and torsos, but all resemblance to humanity as Dalt knew it ended there. Each had dark skin and eight legs — four to a side — which were articulated spider-style. But it was the naked hunger-fury in their blank, idiotic faces as they swarmed up to the window and attacked the disk that made Dalt leap backwards and slam against the far wall of the corridor.
An instinctual response. Intellectually he knew he was safe. Emotionally…that was another matter.
Then came a further horror. After the spider gang had peeled the disk from the wall and was carrying it away to wherever it was they lived, Dalt saw its other side. He could make out only a few details, but even in the dim light a fleeting glance showed beyond a doubt the features of a human face.
Jon's eyes snapped to him. He had seen it, too.
"This is how they must live? Why was this done to them? Why must this be?"
Dalt arched himself away from the wall and approached the tery. He had developed a genuine affection for this innocent in beast form. Jon could not comprehend the corruption of spirit that could occur when one human found he had absolute control over the existence of another. Neither could Dalt, but he knew more of human history than the tery.
He put his hand on the tery's shoulder as they resumed their trek.
"Jon, my friend, none of this must be. This is a hideous fabrication, a product of the worst in us. It doesn't have to be, but it is. Nothing that can happen to us by chance is anywhere near as awful as what we somehow manage to do to each other by design."
" ‘We?’ " Jon said. "Who is ‘we?’ I would never do this."
"I was speaking of all humanity in general — and like it or not, that includes you, my friend."
"But I am not a ‘we' for this," Jon rumbled in his deep voice. "I would like to be a ‘we’ with you and Rab and Komak and Adriel, but no…I am not a ‘we’ in this. Never."
The note of finality in Jon's tone made Dalt decide not to pursue the matter any further. They walked on in silence.
The door was unmistakable when they came upon it. The windowed wall of the corridor had been one long, uninterrupted, seamless transparency. After following the curving passage along an arc of approximately forty degrees, they saw the window terminate at what appeared to be a huge steel column, perhaps three meters across, reaching from floor to ceiling. The window continued its course on the far side of the column.
Dalt he inspected the smooth metallic surface.
"This has to be it."
He found a recess large enough to admit four fingers; he inserted them and pulled.
He scanned the door again and found three small disks at eye level.
"The code — I forgot."
He reached into a pouch in his belt and pulled out a slip of paper. The combination was: Clear, 1-3-1-3-2-3-1-2.
"Clear? How do you clear?"
The transcript had never said. It gave the combination sequence, but never explained how to clear the circuit.
Playing a hunch, Dalt pressed all three disks at once and was rewarded by a soft glow within each. He tapped in the sequence. When he put his fingers into the notch and pulled this time, a panel swung out on silent hinges, revealing a small chamber. The ceiling began to glow as they stepped inside.
Before them was another door, a narrow one, secured by four steel bars, each as thick around as a man's thigh. Dalt noticed a wheel on the wall to his left and began to turn it. The bars moved. The first and third bars began to withdraw to the right, the second and fourth to the left.
Dalt stopped turning when the bars had moved half their distance.
"All right," he said. "We know we can get you in. Do we want to?"
Jon cocked his head questioningly.
"I mean," Dalt said, "can you make it? Is there really a decent chance of your getting to the cache and back again through that…that nightmare in there?"
He was having second thoughts about this plan. He had never thought it would be easy, but the Hole had turned out to be a more awesome obstacle than he had ever imagined. So he was offering Jon a way out, and hoping he'd take it.
For despite all Jon's strength and cunning, Dalt seriously doubted he could last very long in there.
"I must go."
"No, you mustn't anything. You…" He paused briefly as his throat tightened. "I don't want you to die, Jon."
He meant it. He sensed something in this misshapen young man that he wanted to preserve and keep near. He didn't know whether to label it innocence or nobility or a combination of both. But it was good and it was alive and he didn't want to see it torn to pieces in the Hole.
Jon tried to smile — it was a practiced grimace that did not come naturally to his face.
"I will not die."
"You may. You may very well die in there. So think hard before deciding."
"There is nothing to decide, Tlad. I am the only one who can go. A human — I mean, one who looks like a human — cannot. Only a tery has a chance of sneaking through. So I must go. There is no one else."
"No! We can find another way. Mekk won't be able to get through there, either. He'll never reach the cache. The Talents can hide in the forests and grow and maybe wait this out. You don't have to die for them!"
"I will not die. I will save them, and then they will have to recognize me as a human. They will have to accord me the honor of thinking of me as a man."
So that's it, Dalt thought.
This was Jon the tery's trial by combat into the human race.
"That's not necessary, Jon. You —"
"I am going, Tlad." Again, that note of finality. "Tell me what to find."
"If you go at all, you're going to have to go twice," Dalt said, then waited for the expected effect.
Jon remained impassive. "Then I shall go twice. But tell me why. I was to find the cache and bring back sufficient weapons for the Talents to — "
"There will be no weapons for the Talents," Dalt said. "I fear the weapons will harm the psi-folk as much as they'll help them. The arms in the cache will give them too much power; they may even lead to the rise of another type of Mekk…a worse type…one with the Talent."
A nightmare scenario had been running through his brain. He saw the Talents overthrowing Mekk with their newfound energy weapons; he saw them executing Mekk's troopers and the True Shape priests. All well and good, all to be expected. But then he saw them eliminating all followers of the True Shape religion as well as all supporters of the Extermination Decree. And after that, all those who hadn't actively opposed the decree. And on and on until only Talents remained.
"You do not trust Rab?" Jon said.
"Rab is a good man. But I don't know if his character — or anybody else's — can withstand the corrosive effect of absolute power. And even if he proves to be a match for it, he will not be the only leader the Talents ever have. The cache must be destroyed."
Jon made no comment; he merely locked his eyes with Dalt's.
"Do you trust me?" Dalt asked finally.
"I would be dead if not for you."
"That doesn't mean I'm right and that doesn't mean you should trust me. It only means I — "
"I trust you," Jon said softly, his voice echoing in the tiny chamber.
"Good," Dalt said in a low voice. "Because I trust you, too. I believe in you."
In the dust on the floor of the chamber he drew a picture of the explosive device he wanted Jon to procure from the cache: ovoid in shape, small enough to fit comfortably in the tery's hand, and powerful enough to set off a chain reaction among the other weapons hidden there. From the inventory described in Dalt's transcript, enough explosive power was stored in the cache to make a shambles of Mekk's fortress above, permanently ending his petty empire of fear.
The device had a timer that could be set only by hand — no capacity for detonation by remote control, unfortunately — and the procedure was too complex for someone who had never handled a timer before. That was why the tery would have to make two trips: The first to bring it back to Dalt for the time-setting; the second to return it to the cache.
"And the Hole dwellers? What happens to them?" Jon asked.
"This entire cavern will collapse. Their misery will be over, along with Mekk's rule."
The tery considered this in silence.
"I think that's for the best," Dalt said. "Don't you?"
"Can we decide this for them?"
The question rattled Dalt for a moment. He had not expected his ethics to be questioned by a forest-dwelling savage like Jon.
But then, why not? Jon killed, but only in defense or out of hunger. And he killed one to one, looking his victims in the eyes. Why wouldn't he question the killing of thousands of creatures who were locked away and posed no threat to him?
Why didn't I question it? Dalt thought, uneasily.
"Jon, if you can see another way, tell me."
"I trust you, Tlad."
That seemed to be enough for Jon, but those four words were dead weight on Dalt's shoulders.
Dalt then showed him how to work the combination studs. Jon would find an identical set on the door to the cache. He drilled him until he had the sequence firmly committed to memory.
After a final run through of the description of the device and the combination, Dalt leaned back.
"That's all I can do for you. A door identical to this outer one here is imbedded in a wall of rock adjacent to the central pool. Head straight out from here and you should find it. And keep moving!"
He turned the wheel until he’d fully retracted the bars on the inner door, then he stepped out to the window to make sure all was clear. Returning to the chamber he grasped Jon's huge right hand in his own.
"Good luck, brother."
Jon growled something unintelligible, then together they pulled the door open. Dank, sour, fetid air poured over them as the tery leaped through and began to run. Dalt pushed the door closed and turned the wheel until the bars just overlapped the edge of the door — just enough to keep some Hole dweller from lumbering through by accident, but not enough to cause any significant delay when Jon returned.
Then he went to the window and watched. And waited.
Jon hadn't been prepared for the stench.
It struck him like a blow. The odors of rotting flesh, stale urine, and fresh feces assaulted his acutely perceptive olfactory senses as soon as the door opened. But above all was the unmistakable scent of kill-or-be-killed tension. It saturated the air, permeated the walls.
He moved straight out from the door and entered a winding passage that curved left, then right. The palm of his right hand was sweaty where it gripped his hunting club.
Jon was frightened. He had disguised his fear when talking to Tlad — had almost hidden it from himself, then — but now it came screaming to the surface. He was trembling, ready to strike out at or jump away from anything that moved or came near him.
This was not the forest. The rules here were all different, as unique as they were deadly. The softly glowing rock walls on either side of him were pocked from floor to ceiling with burrows and recesses. Any mad, frenzied creature of any shape, imaginable or otherwise, could be lurking within, ready to pounce, ready to maim or kill without provocation.
He maintained his pace at a wary trot, first upright, then bent, using his left arm as an extra leg, eyes continually moving left, right, above, and behind. So far, no sign of Hole dwellers. There were dark things pulled back tight into the burrows around him, he knew — things that might rush and leap upon him were he smaller and less sure-footed.
The passage widened ahead and forked left and right. His innate sense of direction led him to the right, but as he started down the new path, he heard a cacophony of scraping feet, growls of rage and grunts of pain from around the bend not far ahead of him. And it was moving closer.
Looking up, he spotted a ledge within reach above his head. He pulled himself up and lay flat on his belly with only his eyes and his forehead exposed. The noises grew louder, and then the source staggered around the bend in the passage.
At first he thought it was a huge, dark, nodular creature with multiple human heads and uncountable black spindly arms waving frantically in all directions. But as it moved closer, Jon realized that it was a gang of the spider like teries he and Tlad had seen earlier — perhaps the same gang, perhaps a new one — attacking another larger creature en masse.
The lone victim suddenly reared up on its hind legs and threw off four or five of its attackers, but an equal number remained attached. Jon saw that this creature was taller than he, and vaguely human in form, although grotesquely out of proportion. Its round, bald head was affixed to its body without benefit of a neck; its shoulders were massive, as were its arms which reached nearly to the ground when it raised itself erect.
From the shoulders the body tapered sharply to a narrow pelvis and ludicrously short, stubby legs.
Jon also saw what the spider gang was after: not the creature itself, but the three small wriggling children clinging to its underbelly. That and its four flattened breasts labeled it a female.
And a female to be reckoned with! Her hugely muscled arms swatted fiercely at the members of the spider gang, keeping them away from her young as she struggled to reach shelter. She was holding her own until two of the spider-men attached themselves to her shoulders and started clawing at her eyes.
This last happened as the group passed below Jon's perch. He knew it would be much to his advantage to let them all move on by and finish their battle further down the passage. But something in that misshapen mother's fierce, selfless defense of her equally misshapen brood touched him. He had to intervene.
Just this once, he promised himself.
He leaned over the edge of the ledge and swung his club at the nearest spider-man on her back, putting all of his arm and a good deal of his back behind the blow. The club cracked across the middle of the creature's spine and it went spinning to the floor where it lay screeching incoherently and kicking — but only the two forward legs were kicking. The second spider-thing looked up at Jon with unfocused fury in the imbecilic eyes of its human face, then launched itself upward with a howl. There was no revenge motive in its action, only hunger at the sight of what appeared to be a vulnerable prey.
The howl caught the attention of the other gang members and for an instant they withdrew from their attack on the mother and her young. She did not hesitate to take advantage of it: a huge arm lashed out and grabbed one of the spider-things by two of its legs, then lifted it and smashed it against the floor again and again until the two limbs were torn free of their sockets and the rest of the pulpy body skidded across the floor to land against a wall and lay still.
Jon stopped watching to deal with the second spider-thing. Its leap had brought it to the ledge and from there it lunged directly at Jon's face. He battered at it before it could reach him. Four wild bone-breaking swings of his club knocked the creature from the ledge. The rest of the gang looked on its three fallen members and fled back the way they had come.
The mother went over to the creature with the injured spine and halted its screeching with two crushing blows to the head. She then checked the body of the one that had fallen from the ledge. Satisfied that none would ever bother her again, she backed up to where she could get a look at Jon.
Standing erect, she stared at him, as if her dull mind were trying to comprehend why he had helped her. Jon wasn't so sure himself, and now wondered if it had been a foolish gesture. She had him trapped here on this ledge and could easily reach up with those long arms and grab him.
They watched each other.
She still clutched the two legs she had ripped from one of the spider-things. The three little monstrosities clinging to her abdomen began to wriggle and squeal. Without taking her eyes from Jon, she put the bloody end of one of the legs up to her wide mouth and nibbled off a piece of raw flesh. She chewed rapidly without swallowing, then took small bits of the masticated meat from her mouth and fed them to her young. With an abrupt motion, she stepped closer to Jon's ledge and held up the untasted leg to him.
Suppressing a retch, he leaped to the ground and fled down the passage.
These were once human? he asked himself when his stomach had settled and he had slowed from a run to a jog. Or are they still human despite what they've become?
And where does Jon the tery fit in?
No answers came.
He arrived at the central pool, a stagnant body of water fed by a slow underground spring. Something on the far side lapped briefly at the pristine smoothness of the water's surface, then scuttled away.
It was dark in this region. Perhaps the excess moisture had a deteriorative effect on the phosphorescence. Whatever the cause, it made finding the door Tlad had described more difficult.
Jon began scouting the water's edge, looking for a rock wall with a door in it. He found it almost by accident — had he not been dragging his left hand against the rock as he searched he would have passed without noticing it. But his fingers felt a long vertical groove and he stopped to inspect.
The notched handle was there. So were the three studs.
Water rippled behind him. He turned and saw nothing at first other than a bubbling disturbance at the center of the otherwise flawless surface. Another ripple and he spotted something floating on — no, rising from the pool. He could not make out the shape and did not care to. Whatever it was, it did not wish him well — not here in the Hole.
Brushing off the studs, he quickly tapped in the code: 1-3-1-3-2-3-1-2,then grabbed for the notch. The door stayed firm. He tried the code again and still no result.
A glance over his shoulder showed something monstrously huge rising from the pool, looming over him. He tried the sequence again but the door wouldn't budge. He was frantically beating his fist against it when Tlad's words came back to him:
Don't forget to clear.
Jon hit all three buttons at once, tapped in the sequence, and pulled.
Dust, dirt, and pebbles powdered him as he dropped his club, thrust both hands into the notch, placed his left foot against the wall, and pulled with desperate strength. He didn't have to look behind now — moist air from the formless behemoth's cold wet surface was wafting around him as it reared over him.
The door suddenly jerked open and he fell back against something cold and soft and slimy, then he catapulted himself into the opening, pulling the door behind him. It closed only half way. Fallen debris was jamming it open. The creature outside, however, solved the problem for him by lumbering against the door and forcing it closed with its weight.
The room seemed to sense Jon's presence. Panels in the ceiling began to glow, adding to the luminescence in the walls. Jon tried to gather his wits. Innumerable crates lined the walls and stood in long rows before him. Where to begin?
After a brief rest — this was the first time since leaving Tlad that he felt safe enough to let down his guard — he started with the pile on his left and moved along the wall, tearing open the crates with his hands. Some held books, others drawings and pictures, but most of the contents were totally incomprehensible to him. More things he didn't understand.
So many things he didn't understand.
Tlad was one. Why did he trust that man? He had lied to everyone he’d met here. Tlad wasn't his real name… he did not come from the coast…he was not a potter.
Why trust a liar?
Tlad had spent days talking to Jon, trying to explain where he came from and why he was here. All Jon could glean from the monologues was that he came from far away and wanted to help the Talents and all other teries.
Why? Did he have reasons he wasn't telling? Had he lied to Jon about his intentions as he had lied about his name?
But Tlad had talked to Jon, treated him as a man, truly seemed to think of him as one. Because of that, Jon would do almost anything for Tlad…even aid him in deceiving Rab and the Talents by destroying the weapons instead of bringing them back.
Tlad said it was for the best and Jon believed him.
Eventually he found the bombs. Crates of them, all neatly stacked against a wall: egg shaped as Tlad had said, with a smooth, shiny surface.
These could kill? These could destroy the Hole and Mekk's fortress as well? It did not seem possible. But he had trusted Tlad this far…
He needed only one. He cupped this in his palm and returned to the door. Pressing his ear against its smooth metal surface he listened for signs of activity outside. All quiet. The door moved easily at his touch and he stepped back as it swung outward. Nothing but the narrow path and a smooth expanse of water awaited.
The inhabitant of the lake was gone.
The lights in the cache room dimmed slowly as he exited and were fully extinguished by the time the door clicked shut behind him. He looked down and saw his club where he had dropped it. It was covered with slime — everything was covered with slime. Wiping the handle of the weapon clean against the fur on his leg, he followed the slime trail along the edge of the pool and noted that it wandered off into the passage he had planned on taking back to Tlad.
He changed his plans. Despite the fact that the path in question was the one that had brought him here and the only one he knew, and despite the fact that his greatest fear in the Hole was to become lost, he decided to take another route.
He would trust his sense of direction on a strange path more than he would trust his club against the dark behemoth from the pool.
The new passage was not very much different from the other and he made good time, loping along on his hind legs with the bomb cradled in his left hand against his chest, his club swinging back and forth in his right.
Rounding a bend in the passage he ran into a pack of nine or ten spider-things.
Without hesitation they were on him with howls of fury, their clawed arms raking at him, their sharp teeth in their all-too-human faces snapping at him. Jon shook them off and backed away, swinging his club sparingly but with telling effect, always keeping it menacingly before him.
After the initial assault, the gang kept its distance, trying to flank him or work one of its members behind him. Jon kept backpedaling, holding them before him, wondering how long he could keep this up.
Suddenly he felt stone against his back and nowhere to go. He had allowed them to corral him into a dead-end branch of the passage. His gut writhed as he glanced around. They had him boxed in. He was trapped.
He looked up and saw the dark mouth of a small cave just out of reach above him. He could climb there easily, but it would mean turning his back on the gang of spider-things, and he didn't dare do that.
Then they attacked in earnest — a suicide charge on three levels with some leaping for his legs, others for his arms, and others for his head. Whirling and swinging his club, kicking when opportunity presented, Jon managed to hold them off for a moment or two, then one of them sank his teeth into his leg.
Jon twisted and lost his balance. He went down on one knee. As the gang swarmed over him, their teeth and claws tearing at him, their loathsome black bodies pressing against him, Jon felt himself start to fall onto his back. He dropped his club and raised his right arm for balance, searching for support, anything to keep him upright. For if they got him down on the ground –
Powerful fingers closed about his wrist.
With a force that threatened to pull his arm from its socket, he was lifted partly free of his attackers. He kicked them off as he was hauled into the air and unceremoniously dumped into the cave above. He whirled, ready to face a threat worse than that below, and was startled to see the mother monster he had aided earlier.
She hissed and pushed him behind her, then returned her attention to the furious spider gang below. As they swarmed up the wall, she sat back and waited. As soon as one poked its head inside the cave mouth, she punched at it with one of her huge fists. Her arms worked like battering rams. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
Jon would have helped her but he had lost his club. With a spasm of shock he realized he’d lost the egg as well. He must have dropped it during the melee. He’d have to go back to the cache for another. He shuddered at the prospect. But he’d worry about that later. Right now he needed a weapon.
As he looked around for something else to use against the attackers, he came across the corpse of one of the spider-things slain earlier. The mother's young were clustered around it, nibbling.
Jon noticed a shaft of light toward the rear of the cave. Curious, he stepped over the younglings’ grisly feast and went to investigate. The tunnel curved sharply upward but the light ahead proved an irresistible lure. He climbed swiftly.
He found a break slightly smaller than his head in the back wall of the cave. Light poured through it — not the sickly phosphorescent glow that permeated the Hole, but a brighter, cleaner, familiar light.
Jon put his face to the opening and peered through. He found he was looking into a large vertical shaft with sheer, smooth, unblemished walls. From above where the sunlight filtered down, a gong clanged and a man began screaming. By leaning his shoulder against the wall, he found he could twist his neck and see to the top of the shaft. A heavy iron grate covered the opening. Above that was blue sky and a ring of humans.
The grate rose and a naked, struggling, terrified man was brought to the edge. His arms were tied behind him; his screaming had stopped, reduced now to pitiful whimpering. A voice was speaking in measured tones, the words indistinct, perhaps praying, perhaps reading a sentence…
Something unsettlingly familiar about that voice…
When it stopped, the man began screaming again. The two troopers holding him gave a powerful shove and he fell free with wildly flailing legs and a cry of utter despair and terror that followed him all the way down the shaft, ending abruptly in a chorus of growls and scuffles from the waiting Hole dwellers below. Jon could not see the floor of the shaft. He did not want to.
He watched instead the vulpine faces of the troopers as they squinted into the dimness below, trying to catch some of the more grisly details of their ex-prisoner's fate. When another face joined them in peering over the edge, Jon felt his hackles rise.
He knew this man. Ghentren, the captain from Kitru's keep.
Suddenly, all the grief, the anguish, the rage, the pain came rushing back. Not that they had faded away, but somehow his close association with Tlad and the Talents has eased them to the back of his mind, layered them over with a soothing salve, and hidden them under clean dressings. He had thought he was healing, but knew now that nothing had healed. The heat from those festering, suppurating wounds was more intense than ever.
He could hear his teeth grinding of their own accord. He wanted Captain Ghentren's blood as much as ever. The balance craved restoration…
…and would have it!
Jon pulled back from the opening and pondered the situation. He could not get to Ghentren on his own. He would need Tlad's help. But how to get it?
The mother creature awaited him with her brood clustered about her. The spider gang was gone — either driven off or finally and forcefully convinced of the futility of trying to gain entrance to the cave. She pressed back against the wall to let him pass and hissed as he did so.
Jon kept his distance and tensed when he saw her reach for something on the floor. But she was only picking up one of the dead spider-thing's legs. She offered it to him once more.
Jon steeled himself and took it from her.
She bared her teeth at him. If it was a smile, it was a ghastly attempt. But in her eyes he thought he detected a sadness that he had to go. Perhaps loneliness was the greatest horror in the Hole.
Jon waved and quickly made his exit, leaving her alone in her little cave with her brood. As he climbed down the wall toward the floor, he realized that if, as Tlad had said, the Shapers had intended the Hole to be peopled by creatures from who every shred of human decency had been removed, they had failed. The mother creature was proof: A favor had not been forgotten, nor allowed to go unrepaid. Amid all this depravity, a spark of fellowship could still glow.
Reaching the floor, Jon paused to get his bearings and noticed two dead spider gang members at the foot of the wall. His club lay between them, untouched — he guessed the hands of the spider-things were not built to wield such a weapon. He kicked one over and sighed with relief when he saw the death egg.
As he hefted it in his hand he realized the egg was the key to assuring Tlad’s help.
Jon made his way out of the cul-de-sac and back down the passage toward the doorway to the observation corridor, toward safety.
When he neared his destination, Jon halted and searched the softly glowing dirt and rock that lined the walls on either side. He located a loose stone at eye level and pried it out. After scraping out a small hollow, he placed the bomb within and pressed the stone back over it, then stepped back and surveyed his work. Satisfied with the job of concealment, he turned and ran the rest of the way back to Tlad.
"He made it!" Dalt shouted to the empty corridor when he saw Jon's familiar form break from a pile of stony rubble and race toward him.
He jumped back from the window and dashed into the lock. Grabbing the wheel, he spun it until the locking bars slid free of the door, then pulled it open. Jon leaped through and helped him close it after him.
"Thank the Core you're all right," he said.
It was all he could do to keep from hugging this big, bearish youth. All the while Jon had been gone Dalt had imagined a thousand gruesome deaths and had sworn never to forgive himself if anything happened to him in there.
But now it was over and the tery didn't look any worse for the wear — no, wait a minute — blood on his face, neck, and back…
"Just scratches," Jon said in his growly voice. He was breathing easily, evenly as he stood there. "Only hurt a little."
"Did you find the cache?"
Dalt sensed an odd tension in Jon. "Yes. Found it. Found the bombs — many of them."
"Well…where is it?"
An instant of hesitation. "Out there."
"You dropped it?"
"I hid it."
Dalt was baffled. "Explain, Jon."
The tery quickly recounted what and whom he had seen in the air shaft. He concluded by telling Dalt what he now desired most in life.
"Captain Ghentren must die."
"Oh, he'll die all right," Dalt assured him. "Everyone up there — Mekk, the priests, the troopers — they'll all go when that one bomb sets off the others."
"No. You do not understand. He must not die without knowing. He must realize that his death restores a balance that he upset when he came to my home and killed my parents. He must know that before he dies."
"It's called vengeance, Jon," Dalt said slowly. "And you've certainly got some coming — generations' worth. But the bombs will provide that with interest."
"No," the tery repeated. "You do not understand. That captain must —"
"He must squirm and plead and beg before you kill him? Is that what you mean? Is that what you want? You want to sink to the level of his tactics, is that it?"
Struck by the vehemence of Dalt's voice, Jon stiffened but made no reply.
"You're better than that, Jon. Rab told me how you killed Dennel and Kitru, but that was different — that was when you were trapped in the middle of hostile territory."
"Yes. And because of men like the captain, the whole world is hostile territory to my kind."
"That may be, but what you're talking about now is not like you. It's cold-blooded and not worthy of you." His voice softened. "You may not know it, Jon, but there's something noble and good and decent about you. People sense it. That's why they like you. This Captain Ghentren is scum, no better and no worse than the others up there who do Mekk's bidding. Don't dirty your hands on him."
"But the balance —"
"Blast the balance! The bombs will take care of that!"
"No." The note of irrevocable finality in the tery's voice brought Dalt's arguments to an abrupt halt. "The bomb will not be replaced in the cache until I have seen the parent-slayer's blood on my hands."
"And now blackmail," Dalt said in a low whisper. "You learn fast, don't you?"
He ached inside as he faced Jon. The poor fellow had been through so much in such a short time. His home, his security, his very identity had been shattered. His world had begun to spin wildly out of control when Ghentren's men spilled his parents' blood, and something within him clung desperately to the belief that all would be set on an even keel again by the captain’s death.
"What do you want me to do?" Dalt said, watching innocence crumble before him.
"Find Ghentren," the tery rasped. "There is still daylight left and you can go above in the fortress and find out where he sleeps."
"And then what?"
"I will visit him tonight and restore the balance."
"You can't even get into the fortress, let alone kill an officer."
"I can. And I will. Then I will return and replace the death egg after you have done what you must do to it."
Dalt considered his options and found he had none. He was bound by the Cultural Survey Service regulations to work within the technological stratum of the society under observation, but that wasn't holding him back now. It was the Hole. It stood between him and the solution to this mess. He stared though the window at the unending nightmare. If he thought he had the slightest chance of surviving in there he'd go himself. But only a full Defense Force combat rig would get him through the Hole alive, and he hadn't brought one along.
He could abort the entire mission. But that was tantamount to handing all those weapons directly over to Mekk, for sooner or later the Overlord would find a way to get to them. And that would be the end of the Talents and anything else that dared to deviate from what the True Shape sect declared the norm on this world.
Damn the Fed and damn the CS Service. Why couldn't they establish a protectorate?
He was getting tired of asking himself that question and receiving no answers… no answers he liked.
"Since you leave me no choice, and since the future well-being of our friends, the Talents, depends on placing that bomb" — he glared at the tery but Jon remained unmoved — "I'll do what I can. But I'll need your help to get to the surface."
Jon stood quiet, waiting for Dalt to get started.
Feeling at once saddened and exhausted, Dalt spun the wheel, locking the door into the Hole, and turned away. The diagrams in his transcript of Shaper history had shown one or two air shafts leading up from the observation corridor, as they did from the Hole. These, however, were equipped with ladders. They found one farther down the passage. Dalt climbed the imbedded rungs and peered through the grate set like a window in the wall of the shaft.
The opening appeared to be situated in the side wall of a two-meter pipe, part of the original city's drainage system. A lever on his right unlatched the grate and it swung open. With Jon close behind, he eased himself through and scuttled around the puddles to where a faint shaft of sunlight cut the gloom at a sharp angle.
Another grate, this one in the roof of the pipe. He clung to its underside and saw that it opened into the floor of an alley. He sensed no one about and all seemed quiet amid the lengthening shadows. Moving his hand along the edge of the grate he found a lever, rusty with disuse. After applying most of his weight to it, there came a creak of metal on metal and the lever moved, releasing the grate.
Moving that was another matter, however. The full force of his muscles was not enough to budge the heavy iron structure. The combination of ponderous weight and rusty hinges was proof against his strongest efforts.
But not against Jon's. The tery glided up beside him and threw his shoulder against the grate. With an agonized whine of protest, it swung upward until there was enough of an opening for Dalt to squeeze through. The tery eased it shut as soon as he was clear.
A quick glance around showed Dalt that his initial assessment had been correct: a deserted alley. He peered down though the grate and saw Jon's face hovering in the darkness on the other side.
"Wait here, Jon. Get ready to open this thing as soon as you see me. I don't know what I'm going to find up here and I may want to get back down there in a big hurry."
"I will wait."
Dalt walked to where the alley merged with a narrow thoroughfare and looked about. Not much traffic this time of day. The civilians from the village down the hill had sold their wares or done their assigned tasks and were gradually filtering out of the fortress and returning to their homes. All were to be out of the fortress by sunset.
He watched two peasant types pass by and fell in behind them, dredging up his mannerism training and putting it to use.
Like most Cultural Survey Service operatives, he had been put through in-depth training in human behavior and mannerisms, the rationale being that humans will behave like humans no matter how long they have been separated from the rest of the race. There would always be exceptions, of course, but in general the CS theory had been proven correct on many a cut-off splinter world. Dalt had been taught to utilize an array of subtle, non-specific behavioral cues to give him an aura of belonging in any milieu. Calling on that training now as he walked the streets of Overlord Mekk's fortress, he appeared to be a civilian who was used to traveling within these walls and who knew exactly where he was going.
But he had no idea where he was going. He knew he did not want to go through the gate and down to the village, which was where the two men he was following were headed. He turned off at an intersection and went hunting for barracks or any other place where the troops might gather this time of day.
Near sunset he found a group of them clustered about the door to a tavern of sorts, sipping mugs of ale and laughing. Probably just off the day watch. Dalt approached and stood slightly off to one side, affecting an air of humble deference to their positions as defenders of the Overlord.
Finally someone deigned to notice him.
"What are you standing there for?" a trooper asked in a surly tone.
He was dark, middle-aged, with a big belly and no hint of kindness or mirth in his laughter.
Dalt avoided eye contact and said, "Sir, I —"
"Looking for a drink?"
The trooper casually flipped the dregs of his mug at Dalt who could have easily dodged the flying liquid, but chose instead to let it spatter across his jerkin.
He carefully brushed himself off while the troopers roared and slapped the fat one on the back. Adjusting his clothes, he checked on the position of the blaster tucked inside his belt. CSS regulations forbade carrying one, but he knew Mekk's troops were selected for their brutality and, regulations or no regulations, he had no intention of letting some barbarian swine stick a dirk between his ribs just for fun.
"I'm searching for Captain Ghentren," he said when the laughter had quieted enough for him to be heard.
"You won't find him here," the fat one said, more kindly disposed now toward a man he had embarrassed and degraded.
"I bring some of his personal effects from Lord Kitru's realm. He is awaiting them."
"Well then you'd better rush off and find him, little man!" the fat one roared and went to refill his mug.
Dalt took a gamble. "I'll find him sooner or later, and I'm sure he'll be glad to learn of all the help I received in carrying out his errand."
This brought a sudden change in mood to the group of troopers. Their laughter died and the fat enlisted man turned and studied Dalt. The gamble had paid off — Ghentren was not known as one of the more easy-going officers.
"He's quartered in the red building over there," he said, pointing. "But he's overseeing wall patrol now. Should be back right after sunset."
Dalt turned to see which building he meant, then walked the other way, leaving an uneasy knot of troopers behind him. Along the way he drew a mental map, picking out easy landmarks for Jon to follow in the darkness. A bell sounded from the direction of the gate — the warning signal for all civilians to leave the fortress.
He quickened his pace.
Jon found waiting for Tlad an agonizing experience. If Tlad was captured by the troopers for being inside the fortress without a pass, he would be dealt with harshly — perhaps lethally — and it would be the tery's fault.
And it had all been a bluff.
If Tlad had held firm and refused to go up into the fortress, Jon knew he would have had no choice but to place the bomb as he’d originally promised. But his intransigent posture, fueled by his genuine craving for revenge, had fooled Tlad.
As he watched the sky darken through the grate, he became increasingly apprehensive. He was about to promise himself that if Tlad returned unharmed he would abandon all plans to kill Ghentren and forget restoring the balance in exchange for Tlad's well-being, when he heard footsteps approaching. Tlad's voice whispered above him.
"Open up! Quick!"
Bursting with relief, Jon strained and pushed the grate upward until Tlad could slip under it, then let it down. For a few heartbeats both huddled in silence in the damp drainage pipe, then returned to the ventilation shaft and descended to the observation corridor.
"You found him?"
Jon’s resolution of a moment before was a quickly-fading memory. Knowledge that the debt incurred by the slaughter of the two beings in the world he had loved most was soon to be settled vibrated through his body, blotting out all other considerations.
Tlad nodded in the dim glow that washed through the wall from the Hole.
"Found him. But I'm warning you — don't do it. You won't be the same man when you come back."
"Tell me where he is." The tery's mind was on a single course now.
With obvious reluctance, Tlad knelt and drew a map in the dust on the floor, showing Jon which way to best travel without being seen.
"He's in a red building here. Just where in that particular building he'll be, I don't know." He looked up and caught the tery's eyes. "It's too risky for you, Jon. Don't go."
"I won't be long."
He turned away from Tlad's troubled face and glided smoothly up the ladder into the growing darkness above. He waited in the storm drain until dusk faded into night, then slipped up into the alley.
A terrible urgency consumed Jon as he moved from shadow to shadow along the narrow, ill-lit streets. He had to find the captain. The end of Ghentren consumed him, obsessed him, inflamed him. Everything would be put right when that man was dead — the sun would move more smoothly across the sky, the breeze would blow cleaner, the world would have brighter days. Ghentren had become a blot on all Creation, a defect that had to be removed.
Then…only then would everything again be as it should be.
He spotted the red building dead ahead, but it lay across a wide courtyard lined with off-duty troopers. Jon had to detour through three back alleys to reach the building from the side. Once there he stole from window to window, listening for a voice, looking for a face when he dared.
He found the captain in a corner room. He was seated on his cot. A woman stood before him.
"Pay me first," she said, giggling as she lifted the hem of her skirt. "That was our agreement."
"I could have you arrested for being within the walls after dark, you little sow," Ghentren said with a playful smile as he reached into the coin pouch at his belt.
"My sisters and I have been an exception to that rule, long before you ever came here."
A table with a lamp and a low wooden stool completed the furnishings of the room. The door to the left was closed and bolted.
Jon was through the window and standing in the middle of the tiny room before either of them noticed him. Ghentren shot to his feet as the girl began to scream but the tery was faster than either of them. With a single motion he shoved the girl back into the corner of the room where she huddled stunned and gasping for breath, then he ripped the captain's reaching arm away from the hilt of his sword. Wrapping the fingers of his right hand around the man's throat, he lifted him clear of the floor and held him there.
"Look at me," Jon said in a low growl, his face a hand's breadth from the captain's.
Ghentren's eyes, already wide with fear, widened further with shock at the sound of coherent speech from the tery's throat.
Jon stared at him. A bloody haze closed in on him, narrowing the world's population to two individuals, the captain and himself. Nothing else existed at this moment, nothing else mattered. He could feel within his body the arrows that had killed his father, feel across his throat the bite of the blade that had cut off his mother's life. How he’d hungered for this moment.
"Do you remember me?" he hissed into the captain's terrified face.
Ghentren's mouth worked but no words passed the lips. He shook his head: No, he absolutely did not remember the beast that held him by the throat.
"Remember the two teries you killed near a cave when you were working for Kitru?"
He wanted Ghentren to remember. He must know why he was dying.
The captain shook his head again.
"Your archers killed the male and your swordsman nearly beheaded the female — remember?"
Still no light of recognition in the eyes.
Jon was appalled. Did it mean so little to this man? He had forever changed Jon's world, made it a dark, lonely and fearful place by killing the two people he had loved most, and Ghentren didn't even remember it! What sort of creature was this?
"And the son, the young tery who charged you with a club — remember what you did to him? Remember how you chased him and sliced him and left him for dead?"
Jon caught an impression of movement out of the corner of his right eye. The girl, still cringing in he corner, was rising slowly to her feet. He ignored her, and brought Ghentren's face closer to his own until their noses almost touched.
"He did not die!"
Ghentren remembered something now. It showed in his eyes along with a kind of disbelief that this could really be happening, that this beastial creature could actually be in his own quarters, speaking to him, threatening him. Jon acted to erase all doubt by tightening the pressure on Ghentren's windpipe.
"And what is more, I am not the dumb animal you thought. I am a man! And I have come to collect on a debt — in kind!"
Horror and mortal fear of a slow, agonizing death accentuated the terror already distorting the captain's features. Jon hoped he was feeling what his mother felt as she saw Ghentren and his men charge into her home with drawn swords.
More movement to Jon's right — the girl was edging the wall toward the door. He was about to reach for her, to thrust her back into the corner, when the man in his grasp did something that took the tery completely by surprise.
The captain began to cry.
Tears rolled from his eyes as his body jerked with deep, pitiful sobs. Jon released him and watched as he sank to his knees and tried to beg in his choked voice for mercy. His pants were soaked with urine down both legs and he shook with unconcealed terror.
Feeling as if he had been doused with icy water, Jon took a backward step and regarded his nemesis. The red haze had melted away, as had the rage. He was aware of the woman somewhere in the room behind him, bending toward the floor, but his mind was filled with wonder at his own stupidity.
Was this the man whose death was to restore the balance? Was this blubbering, groveling creature even worth slaying?
What a fool he had been. Risking Tlad's life and bartering with the lives of all the Talents just to put an end to the days of one man. Tlad had been right — Ghentren wasn't worth it. He was scum. Jon's right hand felt unclean now after touching him…
Turning to go, he caught a blur of movement behind him. Before he could react, the back of his head seemed to explode. His knees gave, and as he fell he saw the girl standing there with the heavy wooden stool in her hand. He tried to rise but Ghentren was up and had grabbed the stool from the girl. Jon saw him raise it, saw it descend, felt a crushing blow to his head, then saw nothing…but he could still hear the captain's voice.
"You think you're a man, do you? We'll have to find a fitting end for a hairy piece of dung like you."
Jon felt another blow, and the voice faded away.
…pain in his hands and in his feet…can't move them… the cool night air on his face…opening his eyes and looking down on a cheering, jostling crowd of troopers…and beyond them, others…all watching him…a loud gong echoing through the darkness…
…wood against his spine and against the backs of his outstretched arms…he looks right and left and sees spikes through his palms, nailing him to the wood…the same with his feet…and there's rope around each of his arms to keep his considerable weight from sagging too much and ripping free of the spikes…
…he hangs outside the fortress on a cross of wood…
…a voice below, taunting him…Captain Ghentren…the man he had spared stands safe now below…
"Are you awake, tery? Good. I don't want you to sleep through this. We're honoring you, in a way. You think you're a man, so we've raised you up like one. Feel the spikes in your hands and feet? That's the way a human heretic dies. Pretending to be human makes you a heretic. But since you're really a tery, we can't just leave you hanging there."
…there's kindling below, around the foot of the cross… Captain Ghentren puts a torch to it and steps back…
"See this? Fire. That's the way we rid ourselves of filthy teries."
…no hope of escape…no one to save him…he sees that now…and resigns himself to what must be…
…light flickers off the faces of the men circled below…Ghentren the parent-slayer grins up at him…his features joyous and hate filled as he cheers the flames upward along with the others…
…men…humans…he had so wanted to be accepted as one of them…
…one of them?…why?
…look at them…look at their glee in the face of another's agony…why had he wanted to be a man at all?…better to have stayed a tery forever…
…and then he remembers Tlad and Komak and Rab…and Adriel, of course…it was their acceptance he had craved…they were the humanity he had sought…
"I AM A MAN!" he shouts to those below as the heat builds…
Suddenly there is silence…awed…shaken.
"I AM ONE OF YOU!"
…someone laughs, nervously…then another…a stone flies out of the darkness and lands on his right shoulder…then laughter and jeering all around…and more stones…
…he has to close his eyes now…the heat is too much…the fur on his legs is burning, but the pain seems far away…the Talents…he failed them…now Mekk will get the weapons and exterminate them once and for all…they counted on him and he failed them…what can they do now?
…the pain comes nearer…each breath seems to contain flame…thoughts run together…
Am I dying as a man or as a beast?…does it matter?…does anyone in the laughing darkness out there know that a man is dying up here?…does anyone care?…will anyone remember me?…does anyone who knows me know that I am dying?…will the Talents curse me and hate me for failing them?…not Adriel…please don't let her hate me…please let someone remember me fondly after I'm gone…
Please let someone say, just once, that here was a good man…
All became pain and confusion, and soon the pain passed beyond all comprehension…
…leaving only confusion.
Jon was late.
The ominous sound of the gong made Dalt uneasy. Jon could have been back and forth to Ghentren's quarters three times by now. Faintly heard laughter drifted in from the far end of the alley as Dalt waited under the grate. A passing voice shouted something about "a special burning."
That did it. He was frightened now. Jon was in trouble — he was sure of it.
He pressed up against the grate but still could not budge it. Leaving the latching lever in the open position, Dalt descended as rapidly as he knew how and hit the floor running. If he was wrong, Jon would be able to lift the grate and get down the airshaft on his own when he returned. If his suspicions were correct and Jon was in trouble…
There had to be something he could do.
The ceaseless struggle for existence in the Hole went barely noticed through the viewing wall to his right as he ran down the corridor. He came to the opening where the rocks had been pulled away and climbed out into the fresh night air.
Rab was gone. He was supposed to be waiting here but Dalt could find no trace of him. He couldn’t waste time looking for him. Dalt ran the two kilometers along a ravine that led up a hill to the fortress.
He saw the flames as soon as he topped the bank, but wouldn't allow himself to think that Jon might be in any way involved. They leaped high, those flames — six or seven meters into the air. The conflagration stood to the right of the gate, a short distance from the outer wall, and was surrounded by a knot of people.
Why the fire? That was the crucifixion spot. They burned teries and Talents in the pit on the far side of the fortress. What was going on?
A trooper shouted to him as he ran up.
"Where have you been? All villagers are to report to the gate when they hear the gong. You should know that by now. Get up there and learn a lesson!"
Dalt made no reply as he hurried on. He noted that the civilians were keeping to the rear of the circle of spectators, most with averted eyes. The front ranks were taken up by troopers, cheering, laughing, and drinking as they watched the burning body affixed to the cross.
He suspended all emotion as he pushed his way to the front to confirm his worst fears. No facial features remained on that charred corpse. But none was needed. The barrel chest, the shape of the head and legs…unmistakable.
Jon, the tery, the man, was dead.
Dalt heard the soldiers’ voices around him as if from a great distance.
"— hear he could have killed the captain but didn't —"
"— and she says he had Ghentren up in the air by the throat and just let him go —"
"— like they say, teries are stupid. Could have killed him clean and got out the same’s he came in but didn't. Deserve to burn, all of ’em —"
"— oughtta crucify them more often —"
"— Yeah. Better'n just running ’em through and then burning ’em —"
Dalt felt his control begin to slip. He feared he might fly into an uncontrollable rage, might grab his blaster and start burning holes in these savages. But he did not touch his blaster. He left it hidden in his belt as an icy calm slipped over him.
He quietly turned away and strode toward the forest.
He felt dead inside. Everything had gone wrong on this accursed planet and this was the final blow. He had grown to love Jon and now he was dead, horribly dead. If only…
If only! There was a long string of if-onlies trailing through his mind, starting with the Teratols and their perversity, on through the CSS’s refusal to authorize a protectorate, up to and including his own attempts to discourage Jon from trying to settle his score with Ghentren.
If only he had tried a little harder, maybe he could have convinced him not to go…if only he hadn't tried so hard, maybe Jon wouldn't have hesitated at the crucial moment, maybe he'd have dispatched that captain and been back in a few minutes’ time. Or perhaps he would have hesitated anyway because of the innate nobility that made him Jon. Dalt didn't know.
One thing he did know, however, was that Jon would still be alive if a protectorate had been set up. The CSS was at fault there. Always hesitating, always stepping back, always mincing around…rotten hands-off policy. Well, he was through with a hands-off policy as of this moment. Those scum back there liked fire, did they? Well, then they'd see some fire, more than they'd ever –
"You're to stay by the gate until you're dismissed!" said a torch-carrying trooper stationed back from the crowd.
He started to move forward to block Dalt's path, then retreated. Perhaps there was something in the way Dalt held himself, something in the way he moved; perhaps the torch light allowed him a glimpse of Dalt's white, tight-lipped face. Whatever it was, the lone sentry decided to let this one pass without an argument.
Not too much further along, Dalt came upon a staring, motionless figure, standing in the darkness, transfixed by the flames.
"Rab!" Dalt shook his shoulder roughly. "Rab, are you all right?"
Rab blinked twice, then staggered. For a heartbeat or two, he didn't seem to know where he was. Then he recognized Dalt.
"Tlad! I saw it all! It was horrible! They're all monsters in that fortress! What they did to Jon…I never dreamed anyone could —"
Dalt put a hand over his mouth to silence him. When he spoke, his voice was cold and flat.
"I know. We've got to tell the rest of the Talents."
"They already know. I made a conduit of myself and transmitted everything back to them. They saw it all through me. They are all witnesses."
Rab glanced back at the dancing flames outside Mekk's gate.
"Komak will tell her. Tonight I was glad she was without the Talent. We've lost a good friend, Tlad — another life Mekk will answer for some day. But for now, what do we do?"
"We split up. You go to your people in the forest and stay there. No one is to venture near the fortress until morning. No one!"
Rab looked at him questioningly, but before he could speak, Dalt hurried on.
"Remember what I told you a while back when you asked me how to fight a myth?"
Rab's brow furrowed momentarily, then he nodded. "Another myth, you said — a bigger and better one."
"Right. And the new one starts here. Tonight. It will concern a rough-looking creature everyone persecuted because he was called a tery. But he was really a man. It will tell how he tried to live in peace as a man. And how one day he was captured and died horribly at the hands of his persecutors. You spread the word about that, Rab. And tell the world what happened to those who killed him."
"But nothing happened to them."
Rab stared uncomprehendingly at the man he knew as Tlad.
"Don't worry, Rab. I'm not mad. Not quite. But something is going to happen tonight, and I don't want it passed off as a natural catastrophe. I want people to remember tonight and know that it happened for a reason."
"What…what's going to happen?"
Dalt's face was a mask. "Something I'm going to have to live with the rest of my life."
As Dalt turned and trotted toward the trees, Rab called after him.
"I won't be seeing you again, will I?"
Dalt didn't reply.
Dalt brought his ship to a silent hover over Mekk's fortress. Except for a few sputtering torches, all was dark below. Perhaps a few embers glowed around the base of the cross that held the tery's charred remains, but Dalt could not see them from where he was. The villagers had returned to their frightened hovels far down at the base of the hill. All was quiet.
He pointed up the nose of his slender craft and aimed his ion drive tubes at the fortress. He had to do this now. If he gave himself enough time to think, if he allowed himself to weigh the risks of firing an ion drive within a planet's atmosphere, he would abandon the whole idea. But Dalt was not thinking now. He was doing.
He realized that during the course of the rest of his life he would analyze and reanalyze the reasons for what he was about to do. Eventually he knew he would conclude that it all hinged upon the uniqueness of Jon the tery. If anyone else in his group of contacts on the planet had been immolated outside Mekk's fortress, he would have grieved, cursed, ground his teeth with the rest of them, and continued the mission.
But Jon's death had unhinged Dalt. He’d found something very special in that rough beast who was a man; something clean, free, and innocent; a certain incorruptible sanity singular and precious in his experience. And now it was gone — lost to Dalt and the rest of humanity forever.
But he would see that it was not forgotten. Jon deserved better than to have his ashes scattered to the wind. He deserved a more permanent memorial, an enduring tombstone. And he would have it.
A long blast from the tubes that drove his craft through peristellar space would prove disastrous here in an oxygen-laden atmosphere; the Leason crystal lining would crack and Dalt and his craft would become a tiny, short-lived sun.
But a short blast…
A short blast would obviate the need for a protectorate; a short blast would also obviate the need for a CS operative. The net effect would be the same as the bomb he had wanted Jon to plant in the cache: Mekk and his fortress gone, his soldiers and the True Shape priesthood gone; gone too the cache of Shaper relics along with all the poor mad creatures in the Hole. All gone.
But Dalt knew he wouldn't be leaving pure destruction below. He would be creating, too.
Creating a myth.
All with one short blast.
As he reached his fingertip toward the sensor that would activate the drive, Dalt mentally began composing his letter of resignation from the Cultural Survey Service
"…with the image of the immolation seared upon their minds, the Talents, led by the Apostle Rab, spread the word: That God had chosen to send his messenger in the form of what was then considered a nonhuman. God did this to show us that teries were men, too, and that we are all brothers."
"Amazing!" Father Pirella said as he followed Mantha toward the place called God's-Touch. "Our ‘messenger’ did the same — he came as a member of a persecuted race."
"And was he killed like ours?"
"Very much so."
"And did God show his wrath then?"
"Wrath? No. God showed his love by forgiving them all."
Mantha considered this briefly. "Perhaps God had less patience with Overlord Mekk. Or perhaps he loved our messenger more."
He pushed aside a branch to reveal a barren expanse. They stood on a gentle rise. Before them lay God's-Touch — a kilometer-wide expanse of green glass. Whatever had once occupied this spot had been melted and fused by a blast of what must have been almost unimaginable heat.
"God left no doubt as to his feelings in this matter. He laid his finger upon Overlord Mekk's fortress and since that day no one has ever persecuted a tery."