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´╗┐Title: Voodoo Planet
Author: Norton, Andre, 1912-2005
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Voodoo Planet" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration (Cover):
DUEL OF THE COSMIC MAGICIANS

VOODOO
PLANET

ANDREW NORTH
Complete Novel]


CHALLENGE ME WITH MONSTERS!


"From between the two shuffling dancers padded something on four feet.
The canine-feline creature was more than just a head; it was a
loose-limbed, graceful body fully eight feet in length, and the red eyes
in the prick-eared head were those of a killer.... Words issued from
between those curved fangs, words which Dane might not understand....

"Dane slid his blade out surreptitiously, setting its point against the
palm of his hand and jabbing painfully; but the terrible creature
continued to advance.... There was no blurring of its lines...."

Dane Thorson of the space-ship _Solar Queen_ knew there was only one way
to win out over this hideous thing--a battle to the end between his
rational mind and the hypnotic witchcraft of Lumbrilo, the mental wizard
of the planet Khatka.


CAST OF CHARACTERS


Dane Thorson

He wanted to spend a short vacation on Khatka, not the rest of his life.


Medic Tau

Was he physician or magician--or a little bit of both?


Chief Ranger Asaki

Tracking the forests had taught him that mad animals--whether real or
imaginary--were to be feared.


Captain Jellico

Would his knowledge of alien life-forms help him in his fight against
alien ghosts?


Nymani

Not even this pilot's most scientific skill could overcome a voodoo
charm's ground-drag.


Lumbrilo

On his own planet he was a witch doctor; on Earth he'd have been a
master politician.



VOODOO PLANET

by

ANDREW NORTH


ACE BOOKS, INC.

23 West 47th Street, New York 36, N. Y.


VOODOO PLANET

Copyright (c), 1959, by Ace Books, Inc.

All Rights Reserved


Printed in U. S. A.

  +--------------------------------------------------------------+
  |                                                              |
  |                      Transcriber's Note                      |
  |                                                              |
  | There is no evidence that the copyright on this publication  |
  |                         was renewed.                         |
  |                                                              |
  +--------------------------------------------------------------+



I


Talk of heat--or better not--on Xecho. This water-logged world combined
all the most unattractive features of a steam bath and one could only
dream of coolness, greenness--more land than a stingy string of islands.

The young man on the promontory above the crash of the waves wore the
winged cap of a spaceman with the insignia of a cargo-master and not
much else, save a pair of very short shorts. He wiped one hand absently
across his bare chest and brought it away damp as he studied, through
protective sun goggles, the treacherous promise of the bright sea. One
_could_ swim--if he wanted to lose most of his skin. There were minute
organisms in that liquid that smacked their lips--if they had
lips--every time they thought of a Terran.

Dane Thorson licked his own lips, tasting salt, and plodded back through
the sand of the spaceport to the berth of the _Solar Queen_. This had
been a long day, and one with more snarl-ups than he cared to count,
keeping him on a constant, dogged trot between the ship and the fitting
yard where riggers labored with the slowest motions possible to the
human body--or so it seemed to the exasperated acting-Cargo-Master of
the Free Trader. Captain Jellico had long ago taken refuge in his cabin
to preserve the remnants of his temper. Dane had been allowed no such
escape.

The _Queen_ had a schedule for refitting to serve as a mail ship, and
that time allowance did not allow for humidity playing the devil with
the innards of robot fitters. She _had_ to be ready to lift when the
Combine ship now plying that run set down and formally signed off in her
favor. Luckily, most of the work was done and Dane had given a last
searching inspection before signing the rigger's book and reporting to
his captain.

The air-conditioned interior of the _Queen_ comforted him as he climbed
to his quarters. Ship air was flat, chemically pure but unappetizing
stuff. Today it was a relief to breathe. Dane went on to the bather. At
least there was no lack of water--with the local skinners filtered out.
It was chill but relaxing on his gaunt young body.

He was sealing on his lightest tunic when the ramp buzzer sounded. A
visitor--oh, not the supervisor-rigger again! Dane went to answer with
dragging feet. For the crew of the _Queen_ at the moment numbered
exactly four, with himself for general errand boy. Captain Jellico was
in his quarters two levels above, Medic Tau was presumably overhauling
his supplies, and Sindbad, ship's cat, asleep in some empty cabin.

Dane jerked his tunic into place, very much on his guard as he came to
the head of the ramp. But it was not the supervisor-rigger. Dane,
thoroughly used to unusual-appearing strangers, both human and alien,
was impressed by this visitor.

He was tall, this quiet man, his great height accented by a fit
leanness, a narrowness of waist and hip, a length of leg and arm. His
main article of clothing was the universal shorts of the Xecho settler.
But, being fashioned of saffron yellow, they were the more brilliant
because of his darkness of skin. For he was not the warm brown of the
Terran Negroes Dane had served beside, though he shared their general
features. His flesh was really black, black with an almost bluish sheen.
Instead of shirt or tunic, his deep chest was crossed by two wide
straps, the big medallion marking their intersection giving forth
flashes of gem fire when he breathed. He wore at his belt not the
standard stun gun of a spaceman, but a weapon which resembled the more
deadly Patrol blaster, as well as a long knife housed in a jeweled and
fringed sheath. To the eye he was an example of barbaric force tamed
and trimmed to civilized efficiency.

He saluted, palm out, and spoke Galactic Basic with only a suggestion of
accent.

"I am Kort Asaki. I believe Captain Jellico expects me."

"Yes, sir!" Dane snapped to attention. So this was the Chief Ranger from
fabulous Khatka, Xecho's sister planet.

The other ascended the cat ladder easily, missing no detail of the
ship's interior as he passed. His expression was still one of polite
interest as his guide rapped on the panel door of Jellico's cabin. And a
horrible screech from Queex, the captain's pet hoobat, drowned out any
immediate answer. Then followed that automatic thump on the floor of the
blue-feathered, crab-parrot-toad's cage, announcing that its master was
in residence.

Since the captain's cordial welcome extended only to his guest, Dane
regretfully descended to the mess cabin to make unskilled preparations
for supper--though there was not much you could do to foul up
concentrates in an automatic cooker.

"Company?" Tau sat beyond the cooking unit nursing a mug of Terran
coffee. "And do you _have_ to serve music with the meals, especially
that particular selection?"

Dane flushed, stopped whistling in mid-note. "Terra Bound" _was_ old
and pretty well worn out; he didn't know why he always unconsciously
sounded off with that.

"A Chief Ranger from Khatka just came on board," he reported, carefully
offhand, as he busied himself reading labels. He knew better than to
serve fish or any of its derivatives in disguise again.

"Khatka!" Tau sat up straighter. "Now there's a planet worth visiting."

"Not on a Free Trader's pay," commented Dane.

"You can always hope to make a big strike, boy. But what I wouldn't give
to lift ship for there!"

"Why? You're no hunter. How come you want to heat jets for that port?"

"Oh, I don't care about the game preserves, though they're worth seeing,
too. It's the people themselves--"

"But they're Terran settlers, or at least from Terran stock, aren't
they?"

"Sure," Tau sipped his coffee slowly. "But there are settlers and
settlers, son. And a lot depends upon when they left Terra and why, and
who they were--also what happened to them after they landed out here."

"And Khatkans are really special?"

"Well, they have an amazing history. The colony was founded by escaped
prisoners--and just one racial stock. They took off from Earth close to
the end of the Second Atomic War. That was a race war, remember? Which
made it doubly ugly." Tau's mouth twisted in disgust. "As if the color
of a man's skin makes any difference in what lies under it! One side in
that line-up tried to take over Africa--herded most of the natives into
a giant concentration camp and practiced genocide on a grand scale. Then
they were cracked themselves, hard and heavy. During the confusion some
survivors in the camp staged a revolt, helped by the enemy. They
captured an experimental station hidden in the center of the camp and
made a break into space in two ships which had been built there. That
voyage must have been a nightmare, but they were desperate. Somehow they
made it out here to the rim and set down on Khatka without power enough
to take off again--and by then most of them were dead.

"But we humans, no matter what our race, are a tough breed. The refugees
discovered that climatically their new world was not too different from
Africa, a lucky chance which might happen only once in a thousand times.
So they thrived, the handful who survived. But the white technicians
they had kidnaped to run the ships didn't. For they set up a color bar
in reverse. The lighter your skin, the lower you were in the social
scale. By that kind of selective breeding the present Khatkans are very
dark indeed.

"They reverted to the primitive for survival. Then, about two hundred
years ago, long before the first Survey Scout discovered them, something
happened. Either the parent race mutated, or, as sometimes occurs, a
line of people of superior gifts emerged--not in a few isolated births,
but with surprising regularity in five family clans. There was a short
period of power struggle until they realized the foolishness of civil
war and formed an oligarchy, heading a loose tribal organization. With
the Five Families to push and lead, a new civilization developed, and
when Survey came to call they were no longer savages. Combine bought the
trade rights about seventy-five years ago. Then the Company and the Five
Families got together and marketed a luxury item to the galaxy. You know
how every super-jet big shot on twenty-five planets wants to say he's
hunted on Khatka. And if he can point out a graz head on his wall, or
wear a tail bracelet, he's able to strut with the best. To holiday on
Khatka is both fabulous and fashionable--and very, very profitable for
the natives and for Combine who sells transportation to the travelers."

"I hear they have poachers, too," Dane remarked.

"Yes, that naturally follows. You know what a glam skin brings on the
market. Wherever you have a rigidly controlled export you're going to
have poachers and smugglers. But the Patrol doesn't go to Khatka. The
natives handle their own criminals. Personally, I'd cheerfully take a
ninety-nine-year sentence in the Lunar mines in place of what the
Khatkans dish out to a poacher they net!"

"So that rumor has spread satisfactorily!"

Coffee slopped over the brim of Tau's mug and Dane dropped the packet of
steak concentrate he was about to feed into the cooker. Chief Ranger
Asaki loomed in the doorway of the mess as suddenly as if he had been
teleported to that point.

The medic arose to his feet and smiled politely at the visitor.

"Do I detect in that observation, sir, the suggestion that the tales I
have heard were deliberately set to blast where they would do the most
good as deterrents?"

A fleeting grin broke the impassive somberness of the black face.

"I was informed you are a man skilled in 'magic,' Medic. You certainly
display the traditional sorcerer's quickness of wit. But this rumor is
also truth." The quirk of good humor had gone again, and there was an
edge in the Chief Ranger's voice which cut. "Poachers on Khatka would
welcome the Patrol in place of the attention they now receive."

He came into the mess cabin, Jellico behind him, and Dane pulled down
two of the snap seats. He was holding a mug under the spout of the
coffee dispenser as the captain made introductions.

"Thorson--our acting-cargo-master."

"Thorson," the Khatkan acknowledged with a grave nod of his head, and
then glanced down to floor level with a look of surprise. Weaving a
pattern about his legs, purring loudly, Sindbad was offering an
unusually fervent welcome of his own. The Ranger went down on one knee,
his hand out for Sindbad's inquiring sniff. Then the cat butted that
dark palm, batted at it playfully with claw-sheathed paw.

"A Terran cat! It is of the lion family?"

"Far removed," Jellico supplied. "You'd have to add a lot of bulk to
Sindbad to promote him to the lion class."

"We have only the old tales." Asaki sounded almost wistful as the cat
jumped to his knee and clawed for a hold on his chest belts. "But I do
not believe that lions were ever so friendly toward my ancestors."

Dane would have removed the cat, but the Khatkan arose with Sindbad,
still purring loudly, resting in the crook of his arm. The Ranger was
smiling with a gentleness which changed the whole arrogant cast of his
countenance.

"Do not bring this one to Khatka with you, Captain, or you will never
take him away again. Those who dwell in the inner courts would not let
him vanish from their sight. Ah, so this pleases you, small lion?" He
rubbed Sindbad gently under the throat and the cat stretched his neck,
his yellow eyes half closed in bliss.

"Thorson," the Captain turned to Dane, "that arrival report on my desk
was the final one from Combine?"

"Yes, sir. There's no hope of the _Rover_ setting down here before that
date."

Asaki sat down, still holding the cat. "So you see, Captain, fortune has
arranged it all. You have two tens of days. Four days to go in my
cruiser, four days for your return here, and the rest to explore the
preserve. We could not ask for better luck, for I do not know when our
paths may cross again. In the normal course of events I will not have
another mission to Xecho for a year, perhaps longer. Also--" He
hesitated and then spoke to Tau. "Medic, Captain Jellico has informed me
that you have made a study of magic on many worlds."

"That is so, sir."

"Do you then believe that it is real force, or that it is only a
superstition for child-people who set up demons to howl petitions to
when some darkness falls upon them?"

"Some of the magic I have seen is trickery, some of it founded upon an
inner knowledge of men and their ways which a shrewd witch doctor can
use to his advantage. There always remains"--Tau put down his mug,
"--there always remains a small residue of happenings and results for
which we have not yet found any logical explanations--"

"And I believe," Asaki interrupted, "it is also true that a race can be
conditioned from birth to be sensitive to forms of magic so that men of
that blood are particularly susceptible." That was more of a statement
than a question, but Tau answered it.

"That is very true. A Lamorian, for example, can be 'sung' to death. I
have witnessed such a case. But upon a Terran or another off-world man
the same suggestion would have no effect."

"Those who settled Khatka brought such magic with them." The Chief
Ranger's fingers still moved about Sindbad's jaw and throat soothingly,
but his tone was chill, the coldest thing in the cramped space of the
mess cabin.

"Yes, a highly developed form of it," Tau agreed.

"More highly developed perhaps than even you can believe, Medic!"
That came in a hiss of cold rage. "I think that its present
manifestation--death by a beast that is not a beast--could be worth
your detailed study."

"Why?" Tau came bluntly to the point.

"Because it is a killing magic and it is being carefully used to rid my
world of key men, men we need badly. If there is a weak point in this
cloudy attack shaping against us, we must learn it, and soon!"

It was Jellico who added the rest. "We are invited to visit Khatka and
survey a new hunting range as Chief Ranger Asaki's personal term
guests."

Dane drew a deep breath of wonder. Guest rights on Khatka were jealously
guarded--they were too valuable to their owners to waste. Whole families
lived on the income from the yearly rental of even half a one. But the
Rangers, by right of office, had several which they could grant to
visiting scientists or men from other worlds holding positions similar
to their own. To have such an opportunity offered to an ordinary Trader
was almost incredible.

His wonder was matched by Tau's and must have been plain to read for the
Chief Ranger smiled.

"For a long time Captain Jellico and I have exchanged biological data on
alien life-forms--his skill in photographing such, his knowledge as an
xenobiologist are widely recognized. And so I have permission for him to
visit the new Zoboru preserve, not yet officially opened. And you, Medic
Tau, your help, or at least your diagnosis, we need in another
direction. So, one expert comes openly, another not so openly. Though,
Medic, your task is approved by my superiors. And"--he glanced at
Dane--"perhaps to muddle the trail for the suspicious, shall we not ask
this young man also?"

Dane's eyes went to the captain. Jellico was always fair and his crew
would have snapped into action on his word alone--even if they were
fronting a rain of Thorkian death darts and that order was to advance.
But, on the other hand, Dane would never have asked a favor, and the
best he hoped for was to be able to perform his duties without
unfavorable comment upon their commission. He had no reason to believe
Jellico was willing to agree to this.

"You have two weeks' planet-side leave coming, Thorson. If you want to
spend it on Khatka...." Jellico actually grinned then. "I take it that
you do. When do we up-ship, sir?"

"You said that you must wait for the return of your other crew
members--shall we say mid-afternoon tomorrow?" The Chief Ranger stood up
and put Sindbad down though the cat protested with several sharp meows.

"Small lion," the tall Khatkan spoke to the cat as to an equal, "this is
your jungle, and mine lies elsewhere. But should you ever grow tired of
traveling the stars, there is always a home for you in my courts."

When the Chief Ranger went out the door, Sindbad did not try to follow,
but he uttered one mournful little cry of protest and loss.

"So he wants a trouble shooter, does he?" Tau asked. "All right, I'll
try to hunt out his goblins for him; it'll be worth that to visit
Khatka!"

Dane, remembering the hot glare of the Xecho spaceport, the sea one
could not swim in, contrasted that with the tri-dees he had seen of the
green hunters' paradise on the next planet of the system. "Yes, sir!" he
echoed and made a haphazard choice for the cooker.

"Don't be too lighthearted," Tau warned. "I'll say that any stew which
was too hot for that Ranger to handle might give us burned fingers--and
quick. When we land on Khatka, walk softly and look over your shoulder,
and be prepared for the worst."



II


Lightning played along the black ridges above them, and below was a
sheer drop to a river which was only a silver thread. Under their boots,
man-made and yet dominating the wildness of jungle and mountain, was a
platform of rock slabs, fused to support a palace of towering
yellow-white walls and curved cups of domes, a palace which was also
half fortress, half frontier post.

Dane set his hands on the parapet of the river drop, blinked as a
lightning bolt crackled in a sky-splitting glare of violet fire. This
was about as far from the steaming islands of Xecho as a man could
imagine.

"The demon graz prepare for battle." Asaki nodded toward the distant
crackling.

Captain Jellico laughed. "Supposed to be whetting their tusks, eh? I
wouldn't care to meet a graz that could produce such a display by mere
tusk whetting."

"No? But think of the reward for the tracker who discovers where such go
to die. To find the graveyard of the graz herds would make any man
wealthy beyond dreams."

"How much truth is there in that legend?" Tau asked.

The Chief Ranger shrugged. "Who can say? This much _is_ true: I have
served my life in the forests since I could walk. I have listened to the
talk of Trackers, Hunters, Rangers in my father's courtyards and field
camps since I could understand their words. Yet never has any man
reported the finding of a body of a graz that died a natural death. The
scavengers might well account for the bulk of flesh, but the tusks and
the bones should be visible for years. And this, too, I have seen with
my own eyes: a graz close to death, supported by two of its kind and
being urged along to the big swamps. Perhaps it is only that the
suffering animal longs for water at its end, or perhaps in the heart of
that morass there does lie the graz graveyard. But no man has found a
naturally dead graz, nor has any returned from exploring the big
swamps...."

Lightning on peaks which were like polished jet--bare rock above, the
lush overgrowth of jungle below. And between, this fortress held by men
who dared both the heights and the depths. The wildly burgeoning life of
Khatka had surrounded the off-worlders since they had come here. There
was something untameable about Khatka; the lush planet lured and yet
repelled at the same time.

"Zoboru far from here?"

The Chief Ranger pointed north in answer to the captain's question.

"About a hundred leagues. It is the first new preserve we have prepared
in ten years. And it is our desire to make it the best for tri-dee
hunters. That is why we are now operating taming teams--"

"Taming teams?" Dane had to ask.

The Chief Ranger was ready enough to discuss his project.

"Zoboru is a no-kill preserve. The animals, they come to learn that
after a while. But we cannot wait several years until they do. So we
make them gifts." He laughed, evidently recalling some incident.
"Sometimes, perhaps, we are too eager. Most of our visitors who wish to
make tri-dees want to picture big game--graz, amplet, rock apes,
lions--"

"Lions?" echoed Dane.

"Not Terran lions, no. But my people, when they landed on Khatka, found
a few animals that reminded them of those they had always known. So they
gave those the same names. A Khatkan lion is furred, it is a hunter and
a great fighter, but it is not the cat of Terra. However, it is in great
demand as a tri-dee actor. So we summon it out of lurking by providing
free meals. One shoots a poli, a water rat, or a landeer and drags the
carcass behind a low-flying flitter. The lion springs upon the moving
meat, which it can also scent, and the rope is cut, leaving a free
dinner.

"The lions are not stupid. In a very short time they connect the sound
of a flitter cutting the air with food. So they come to the banquet and
those on the flitter can take their tri-dee shots at ease. Only there
must also be care taken in such training. One forest guard on the Komog
preserve became too enterprising. He dragged his kill at first. Then, to
see if he could get the lions to forget man's presence entirely, he hung
the training carcasses on the flitter, encouraging them to jump for
their food.

"For the guard that was safe enough, but it worked too too well. A month
or so later a Hunter was escorting a client through Komog and they swung
low to get a good picture of a water rat emerging from the river.
Suddenly there was a snarl behind them and they found themselves sharing
the flitter with a lioness annoyed at finding no meat waiting on board.

"Luckily, they both wore stass belts; but they had to land the flitter
and leave until the lioness wandered off, and she seriously damaged the
machine in her irritation. So now our guards play no more fancy tricks
while on taming runs. Tomorrow--no," he corrected himself, "the day
after tomorrow I will be able to show you how the process works."

"And tomorrow?" inquired the captain.

"Tomorrow my men make hunting magic." Asaki's voice was expressionless.

"Your chief witch doctor being?" questioned Tau.

"Lumbrilo." The Chief Ranger did not appear disposed to add to that but
Tau pursued the subject.

"His office is hereditary?"

"Yes. Does that make any difference?" For the first time there was a
current of repressed eagerness in the other's tone.

"Perhaps a vast amount of difference," Tau replied. "A hereditary office
may carry with it two forms of conditioning, one to influence its
holder, one to affect the public-at-large. Your Lumbrilo may have come
to believe deeply in his own powers; he would be a very remarkable man
if he did not. It is almost certain that your people unquestionably
accept him as a worker of wonders?"

"They do so accept." Once more Asaki's voice was drained of life.

"And Lumbrilo does not accept something you believe necessary?"

"Again the truth, Medic. Lumbrilo does not accept his proper place in
the scheme of things!"

"He is a member of one of your Five Families?"

"No, his clan is small, always set apart. From the beginning here, those
who spoke for gods and demons did not also order men."

"Separation of church and state," commented Tau thoughtfully. "Yet in
our Terran past there have been times when church and state were one.
Does Lumbrilo desire that?"

Asaki raised his eyes to the mountain peaks, to the northward where lay
his beloved work.

"I do not know what Lumbrilo wants, save that it makes mischief--or
worse! This I tell you: hunting magic is part of our lives and it has at
its core some of those unexplainable happenings which you have
acknowledged do exist. I have used powers I can neither explain nor
understand as part of my work. In the jungle and on the grasslands an
off-worlder must guard his life with a stass belt if he goes unarmed.
But I--any of my men--can walk unharmed if we obey the rules of our
magic. Only Lumbrilo does other things which his forefathers did not.
And he boasts that he can do more. So he has a growing following of
those who believe--and those who fear."

"You want me to face him?"

The Chief Ranger's big hands closed upon the rim of the parapet as if
they could exert enough pressure to crumble the hard stone. "I want you
to see whether there is trickery in this. Trickery I can fight, for
that there are weapons. But if Lumbrilo truly controls forces for which
there is no name, then perhaps we must patch up an uneasy peace--or go
down in defeat. And, off-worlder, I come from a line of warriors--we do
not drink defeat easily!"

"That I also believe," Tau returned quietly. "Be sure, sir, if there is
trickery in this man's magic and I can detect it, the secret shall be
yours."

"Let us hope that so it shall be."

Subconsciously, Dane had always associated the practice of magic with
darkness and the night. But the next morning the sun was high and hot
when he made one of the party coming down to a second and larger walled
terrace where the Hunters, Trackers, Guards and other followers of the
Chief Ranger were assembled in irregular rows.

There was a low sound which was more a throb in the clear air about
them, getting into a man's blood and pumping in rhythm there. Dane
tracked the sound to its source: four large drums standing waist high
before the men who tapped them delicately with the tips of all ten
fingers.

The necklaces of claws and teeth about those dusky throats, the kilts of
fringed hide, the crossed belts of brilliantly spotted or striped fur
were in contrast to the very efficient and modern side arms each man
wore, to the rest of the equipment sheathed and strapped at their belts.

There was a carved stool for the Chief Ranger, another for Captain
Jellico. Dane and Tau settled themselves on the less comfortable seats
of the terrace steps. Those tapping fingers increased their rate of
beat, and the notes of the drums rose from the low murmur of hived bees
to the mutter of mountain thunder still half a range away. A bird called
from those inner courts of the palace from which the women never
ventured.

Da--da--da--da.... Voices took up the thud-thud of the drums, the heads
of the squatting men moved in a slow swing from side to side. Tau's hand
closed about Dane's wrist and the younger man looked around, startled,
to see that the medic's eyes were alight, that he was watching the
assembly with the alertness of Sindbad approaching prey.

"Calculate the stowage space in Number One hold!"

That amazing order, delivered in a whisper, shocked Dane into obeying
it. Number One hold ... there were three divisions now and the stowage
was--He became aware that for a small space of time he had escaped the
net being woven by the beat of the drum, the drone of voices, the
nodding of heads. He moistened his lips. So that was how it worked! He
had heard Tau speak often enough about self-hypnotism under such
conditions, but this was the first time the meaning of it had been
clear.

Two men were shuffling out of nowhere, wearing nothing on their dark
bodies but calf-length kilts of tails, black tails with fluffy white
tips, which swayed uniformly in time to their pacing feet. Their heads
and shoulders were masked by beautifully cured and semi-mounted animal
heads displaying half-open jaws with double pairs of curved fangs. The
black-and-white striped fur, the sharply pointed ears, were neither
canine nor feline, but a weird combination of the two.

Dane gabbled two trading formulas under his breath and tried to think of
the relation of Samantine rock coinage to galactic credits. Only this
time his defenses did not work. From between the two shuffling dancers
padded something on four feet. The canine-feline creature was more than
just a head; it was a loose-limbed, graceful body fully eight feet in
length, and the red eyes in the prick-eared head were those of a
confident killer. It walked without restraint, lazily, with arrogance,
its white-tufted tail swinging. And when it reached the mid-point of the
terrace, it flung up its head as if to challenge. But words issued from
between those curved fangs, words which Dane might not understand but
which undoubtedly held meaning for the men nodding in time to the
hypnotic cadence of that da--da--da....

"Beautiful!" Tau spoke in honest admiration, his own eyes almost as
feral as those of the talking beast as he leaned forward, his fists on
his knees.

Now the animal was dancing also, its paws following the pace set by the
masked attendants. It must be a man in an animal skin. But Dane could
hardly believe that. The illusion was too perfect. His own hands went to
the knife sheath at his belt. Out of deference to local custom they had
left their stun rods in the palace, but a belt knife was an accepted
article of apparel. Dane slid the blade out surreptitiously, setting its
point against the palm of his hand and jabbing painfully. This was
another of Tau's answers for breaking a spell. But the white and black
creature continued to dance; there was no blurring of its body lines
into those of a human being.

It sang on in a high-pitched voice, and Dane noted that those of the
audience nearest the stools where Asaki and the captain were seated now
watched the Chief Ranger and the space officer. He felt Tau tense beside
him.

"Trouble coming...." The warning from Tau was the merest thread of
sound. Dane forced himself to look away from the swaying cat-dog, to
watch instead the singers who were now furtively eying their lord and
his guest. The Terran knew that there were feudal bonds between the
Ranger and his men. But suppose this was a showdown between Lumbrilo and
Asaki--whose side would these men take?

He watched Captain Jellico's hand slide across his knee, his fingers
drop in touching distance of knife hilt. And the hand of the Chief
Ranger, hanging lax at his side, suddenly balled into a fist.

"So!" Tau expelled the word as a hiss. He moved with sure-footed speed.
Now he passed between the stools to confront the dancing cat-dog. Yet he
did not look at that weird creature and its attendants. Instead his arms
were flung high as if to ward off--or perhaps welcome--something on the
mountain side as he shouted:

"_Hodi, eldama! Hodi!_"

As one, those on the terrace turned, looked up toward the slope. Dane
was on his feet, holding his knife as he might a sword. Though of what
use its puny length would be against that huge bulk moving in slow
majesty toward them, he did not try to think.

Gray-dark trunk curled upward between great ivory tusks, ears went wide
as ponderous feet crunched volcanic soil. Tau moved forward, his hands
still upraised, clearly in greeting. That trunk touched skyward as if in
salute to the man who could be crushed under one foot.

"_Hodi, eldama!_" For the second time Tau hailed the monster elephant
and the trunk raised in silent greeting from one lord of an earth to
another he recognized as an equal. Perhaps it had been a thousand years
since man and elephant had stood so, and then there had been only war
and death between them. Now there was peace and a current of power
flowing from one to the other. Dane sensed this, saw the men on the
terrace likewise drawing back from the unseen tie between the medic and
the bull he had so clearly summoned.

Then Tau's upheld hands came together in a sharp clap and men held their
breath in wonder. Where the great bull had stood there was
nothing--except rocks in the sun.

As Tau swung around to face the cat-dog, that creature had no substance
either. For he fronted no animal but a man, a small, lean man whose lips
wrinkled back from his teeth in a snarl. His attendant priests fell
back, leaving the spaceman and the witch doctor alone.

"Lumbrilo's magic is great," Tau said evenly. "I hail Lumbrilo of
Khatka." His hand made the open-palmed salute of peace.

The snarl faded as the man brought his face under control. He stood
naked, but he was clothed in inherit dignity. And there was power with
that dignity, power and a pride before which even the more physically
impressive Chief Ranger might have to give place.

"You have magic also, outlander," he replied. "Where walks this
long-toothed shadow of yours now?"

"Where once the men of Khatka walked, Lumbrilo. For it was men of your
blood who long, long past hunted this shadow of mine and made its body
their prey."

"So that it now might have a blood debt to settle with us, outlander?"

"That you said, not I, man of power. You have shown us one beast, I have
shown another. Who can say which of them is stronger when it issues
forth from the shadows?"

Lumbrilo pattered forward, his bare feet making little sound on the
stones of the terrace. Now he was only an arm's-length away from the
medic.

"You have challenged me, off-world man." Was that a question or a
statement? Dane wondered.

"Why should I challenge you, Lumbrilo? To each race its own magic. I
come not to offer battle." His eyes held steady with the Khatkan's.

"You have challenged me." Lumbrilo turned away and then looked back over
his shoulder. "The strength you depend upon may become a broken staff,
off-worlder. Remember my words in the time when shadows become
substance, and substance the thinnest of shadows!"



III


"You are truly a man of power!"

Tau shook his head in answer to that outburst from Asaki.

"Not so, sir. Your Lumbrilo is a man of power. I drew upon his power and
you saw the results."

"Deny it not! What we saw never walked this world."

Tau slung the strap of a trail bag over his shoulder. "Sir, once men of
your blood, men who bred your race, hunted the elephant. They took his
tusks for their treasure, feasted upon his flesh--yes, and died beneath
the trampling of his feet when they were unlucky or unwary. So there is
that within you which can even now be awakened to remember _eldama_ in
his might when he was king of the herd and need fear nothing save the
spears and cunning of small, weak men. Lumbrilo had already awakened
your minds to see what he willed you to see."

"How does he do this?" asked the other simply. "Is it magic that we see
not Lumbrilo but a lion before us?"

"He weaves his spell with the drums, with the chant, by the suggestion
his mind imposes upon yours. And, having woven his spell, he cannot
limit it to just the picture he suggests if ancient racial memories
raise another. I merely used the tools of Lumbrilo to show you yet
another picture your people once knew well."

"And in so doing made an enemy." Asaki stood before a rack of very
modern weapons. Now he made his selection, a silver tube with a stock
curved to fit a man's shoulder. "Lumbrilo will not forget."

Tau laughed shortly. "No, but then I have merely done as you wished,
have I not, sir? I have focused on myself the enmity of a dangerous man,
and now you hope I shall be forced, in self-defense, to remove him from
your path."

The Khatkan turned slowly, resting the weapon across his forearm. "I do
not deny that, spaceman."

"Then matters here are indeed serious--"

"They are so serious," Asaki interrupted, speaking not only to Tau but
to the other off-worlders as well, "that what happens now may mean the
end of the Khatka that I know. Lumbrilo is the most dangerous game I
have faced in a lifetime as a hunter. He goes, or we draw his fangs--or
else all that I am, all I have labored here to build, will be swept
away. To preserve this I will use any weapon."

"And I am now your weapon, which you hope will be as successful as that
needler you are carrying." Tau laughed again, without much humor. "Let
us hope I shall prove as effective."

Jellico moved out of the shadows. It was just after dawn, and the
grayness of the vanishing night still held in the corners of the armory.
Deliberately he took his own stand before the arms racks and chose a
short-barreled blaster. Only when its butt was cupped in his hand did he
glance at his host.

"We came guesting, Asaki. We have eaten salt and bread under this roof."

"On my body and my blood it is," returned the Khatkan grimly. "I shall
go down to the blackness of Sabra before you do, if the flames of death
are against us." From his belt he flipped loose his knife and offered
the hilt to Jellico. "My body for a wall between you and the dark,
Captain. But also understand this: to me, what I do now is greater than
the life of any one man. Lumbrilo and the evil behind him must be rooted
out. There was no trickery in my invitation!"

They stood eye to eye, equal in height, in authority of person, and that
indefinable something which made them both masters in their own
different worlds. Then Jellico's hand went out, his fingertip flicked
the hilt of the bared blade.

"There was no trickery," he conceded. "I knew that your need was great
when you came to the _Queen_."

Since both the captain and Tau appeared to accept the situation, Dane,
not quite understanding it all, was prepared to follow their lead. And
for the moment they had nothing more in plan than to visit the Zoboru
preserve.

They went by flitter--Asaki, one of his Hunter pilots, and the three
from the _Queen_--lifting over the rim of mountains behind the
fortress-palace and speeding north with the rising sun a flaming ball to
the east. Below, the country was stark--rocks and peaks, deep purple
shadows marking the veins of crevices. But that was swiftly behind and
they were over a sea of greens, many shades of green, with yellow, blue,
even red cutting into the general verdant carpet of treetops. Another
chain of heights and then open land, swales of tall grass already burnt
yellow by the steady sun. There was a river here, a crazy, twisted
stream coiling nearly back upon itself at times.

Once more broken land, land so ravished by prehistoric volcanic action
that it was a grotesque nightmare of erosion-whittled outcrops and
mesas. Asaki pointed to the east. There was a dark patch widening out
into a vast wedge.

"The swamp of Mygra. It has not yet been explored."

"You could air map it," Tau began.

The Chief Ranger was frowning. "Four flitters have been lost trying
that. Com reports fail when they cross that last mountain ridge
eastward. There is some sort of interference which we do not yet
understand. Mygra is a place of death; later we may be able to travel
along its fringe and then you shall see. Now--" He spoke to the pilot in
his own tongue and the flitter pointed up-nose at an angle as they
climbed over the highest peak they had yet seen in this mountainous
land, to reach at last a country of open grass dotted with small forest
stands. Jellico nodded approvingly.

"Zoboru?"

"Zoboru," Asaki assented. "We shall go up to the northern end of the
preserve. I wish to show you the roosts of the fastals. This is their
nesting season and the sight is one you will long remember. But we shall
take an eastern course; I have two Ranger stations to check on the way."

It was after they left the second station that the flitter swung
farther out eastward, again climbing over the chain of heights to sight
one of the newly discovered wonders the staff at the last station had
reported--a crater lake.

And the flitter skimmed down across water which was a rich emerald in
hue, filling the crater from one rock wall to the other with no beach at
the foot of those precipitant cliffs. As the machine arose to clear the
far wall, Dane tensed. One of his duties aboard the _Queen_ was flitter
pilot for planetwise trips. And ever since they had taken off that
morning he had unconsciously flown with the Khatkan pilot, anticipating
each change or adjustment of the controls. Now he felt that sluggish
response to the other's lift signal, and instinctively his own hand went
out to adjust a power feed lever.

They made the rise, were well above the danger of the cliff wall. But
the machine was not responding properly. Dane did not need to watch the
pilot's swiftly moving hands to guess that they were in trouble. And his
slight concern deepened into something else as the flitter began to drop
nose again. In front of him, Captain Jellico shifted uneasily, and Dane
knew that he, too, was alerted.

Now the pilot had plunged the power adjuster to the head against the
control board. But the nose of the flitter acted as if it were
overweighted or magnetically attracted by the rocks below. The best
efforts of the man flying it could not keep it level. They were being
drawn earthward, and all the pilot could do only delayed the inevitable
crack-up. The Khatkan was turning the machine north to avoid what lay
below, for here a long arm of the Mygra swamp clasped about the foot of
the mountain.

The Chief Ranger spoke into the mike of the com unit while the pilot
continued to fight against the pull which was bringing them down. Now
the small machine was below the level of the volcanic peak which cradled
the lake, and the mountain lay between them and the preserve.

Asaki gave a muffled exclamation, slapped the com box, spoke more
sharply into the mike. It was apparent he was not getting the results
he wanted. Then with a quick glance about he snapped an order:

"Strap in!"

His Terran companions had already buckled the wide webbing belts
intended to save them from crash shock. Dane saw the pilot push the
button to release fend cushions. In spite of his pounding heart, a small
fraction of his brain recognized the other's skill as the Khatkan took a
course to bring them down on a relatively level patch of sand and
gravel.

Dane raised his head from the shelter of his folded arms. The Chief
Ranger was busy with the pilot, who lay limply against the controls.
Captain Jellico and Tau were already pulling at the buckles of their
protective crash belts. But one look at the front of the flitter told
Dane that it would not take to the air again without extensive repairs.
Its nose was bent up and back, obscuring the forward view completely.
However, the pilot had made a miraculously safe landing considering the
terrain.

Ten minutes later, the pilot restored to consciousness and the gash in
his head bandaged, they held a council of war.

"The com was off, too. I did not have a chance to report before the
crash," Asaki put the situation straightly. "And our exploring parties
have not yet mapped this side of the range; it has a bad reputation
because of the swamp."

Jellico measured the heights now to their west with resigned eyes.
"Looks as if we climb."

"Not here," the Chief Ranger corrected him. "There is no passing through
the crater lake region on foot. We must travel south along the edge of
the mountain area until we do find a scalable way into the preserve
region."

"You seem very certain we are not going to be rescued if we stay right
here," Tau observed. "Why?"

"Because I'm inclined to believe that any flitter that tries to reach us
may run into the same trouble. Also, they have no com fix on us. It will
be at least a day or more before they will even begin to count us
missing, and then they will have the whole northern portion of the
preserve to comb; there are not enough men here--I can give you a
multitude of reasons, Medic."

"One of which might be sabotage?" demanded Jellico.

Asaki shrugged. "Perhaps. I am not loved in some quarters. But there may
also be something fatal to flitters here as there is over Mygra. We
thought the crater lake district safely beyond the swamp influence, but
it may not be so."

But you took the chance of traveling over it, Dane thought, though he
did not comment aloud. Was this another of the Chief Ranger's attempts
to involve them in some private trouble of his own? Though to
deliberately smash up a flitter and set them all afoot in this
wilderness was a pretty drastic move.

Asaki had started to unload emergency supplies from the flitter. They
each had a trail bag for a pack. But when the pilot staggered over to
pull out a set of stass belts and Jellico began to uncoil them, the
Chief Ranger shook his head.

"With the feeder beam shut off by the mountains, I fear those will no
longer work."

Jellico tossed one on the crumpled nose of the flitter and punched its
button with the tip of the needler barrel. Then he threw a rock at the
dangling belt. The stone landed, taking the wide protective band with it
to the ground. That force field which should have warded off the missile
was not working.

"Oh, fine!" Tau opened his trail bag to pack concentrates. Then he
smiled crookedly. "We aren't signed in for killing licenses, sir. Do you
pay our fines if we are forced to shoot a hole through something that
disputes the right of way?"

To Dane's surprise, the Chief Ranger laughed. "You are off preserve now,
Medic Tau. The rules do not cover wild land. But I would suggest we now
hunt a cave before nightfall."

"Lions?" asked Jellico.

Dane, remembering the black and white beast Lumbrilo had presented, did
not enjoy that thought. They had--his gaze went from man to man checking
weapons--the needler Asaki carried, and another the pilot had slung by
its carrying strap over his shoulder. Tau and the captain both were
armed with blasters and he had a fire ray and a force blade, both
considered small arms but deadly enough perhaps even to dampen a lion's
enthusiasm for the chase.

"Lions, graz, rock apes," Asaki fastened the mouth of his trail bag.
"All are hunters or killers. The graz send out scouts, and they are big
and formidable enough to have no enemies. Lions hunt with intelligence
and skill. Rock apes are dangerous, but luckily they cannot keep silent
when they scent their prey and so give one warning."

As they climbed up-slope from the flitter, Dane, looking back, saw that
perhaps Asaki was right in his belief that they had better try to help
themselves rather than wait for rescue. Putting aside the excuse of
fearing another crack-up, the wrecked flitter made no outstanding mark
on the ground. The higher they climbed, the less it could be
distinguished from the tumble of rocks about it.

He had lagged a little behind and, when he hurried to catch up, found
Jellico standing with his distance vision lenses to his eyes, directing
them toward that shadow marking the swamp. As the younger spaceman
reached him, the captain lowered the glasses and spoke:

"Take your knife, Thorson, and hold it close to that rock--over there."
He pointed to a rounded black knob protruding from the soil a little off
their path.

Dane obeyed, only to have the blade jerk in his hand. And when he
loosened his hold in amazement, the steel slapped tight against the
stone.

"Magnetic!"

"Yes. Which might explain our crash. Also this." Jellico held out a
field compass to demonstrate that its needle had gone completely mad.

"We can use the mountain range itself for a guide," Dane said with more
confidence than he felt.

"True enough. But we may have trouble when we head west again." Jellico
let the lenses swing free on their cord about his neck. "If we were
wrecked on purpose"--his mouth tightened and the old blaster burn on his
cheek stretched as did his jaw set--"then someone is going to answer a
lot of questions--and fast!"

"The Chief Ranger, sir?"

"I don't know. I just don't know!" The captain grunted as he adjusted
his pack and started on.

If fortune had failed them earlier, she smiled on them now. Asaki
discovered a cave before sundown, located not too far from a mountain
stream. The Ranger sniffed the air before that dark opening as the
Hunter pilot shed his equipment and crept forward on his hands and
knees, his head up and his nostrils expanding as he, too, tested the
scent from the cave mouth.

Scent? It was closer to a stench, and one ripe enough to turn the
stomach of an off-worlder. But the Hunter glanced back over his shoulder
and nodded reassuringly.

"Lion. But old. Not here within five days at least."

"Well enough. And even old lion scent will keep away rock apes. We'll
clean some and then we can rest undisturbed," was his superior's
comment.

The cleaning was easy for the brittle bedding of dried bracken and grass
the beast had left burned quickly, cleansing with both fire and smoke.
When they raked the ashes out with branches, Asaki and Nymani brought in
handfuls of leaves which they crumpled and threw on the floor, spreading
an aromatic odor which banished most of the foulness.

Dane, at the stream with the canteens to fill, chanced upon a small pool
where there was a spread of smooth yellow sand. Knowing well the many
weird booby traps one might stumble into on a strange world, the Terran
prospected carefully, stirring up the stand with a stick. Sighting not
so much as a water insect or a curious fish, he pulled off his boots,
rolled up his breeches and waded in. The water was cool and refreshing,
though he dared not drink it until the purifier was added. Then, with
the filled canteens knotted together by their straps, he put on his
boots and climbed to the cave where Tau waited with water tablets.

Half an hour later Dane sat cross-legged by the fire, turning a spit
strung with three small birds Asaki had brought in. One foot closer to
the heat began to tingle and he eased off his boot; his cramped toes
suddenly seeming to have doubled in size. He was staring wide-eyed at
these same toes, puffed, red, and increasingly painful to the touch,
when Nymani squatted beside him, inspected his foot closely, and ordered
him to take off his other boot.

"What is it?" Dane found that shedding the other boot was a minor
torture in itself.

Nymani was cutting tiny splinters, hardly thicker than a needle, from a
stick.

"Sand worm--lays eggs in flesh. We burn them out or you have bad foot."

"Burn them out!" Dane echoed, and then swallowed as he watched Nymani
advance a splinter to the fire.

"Burn them," the Khatkan repeated firmly. "Burn tonight, hurt some
tomorrow; all well soon. No burn--very bad."

Dane ruefully prepared to pay the consequences of his first brush with
the unpleasant surprises Khatka had to offer.



IV


Dane regarded his throbbing feet morosely. Nymani's operations with
burning splinters had been hard to take, but he had endured them without
disgracing himself before the Khatkans, who appeared to regard such a
mishap as just another travel incident. Now, with Tau's salve soothing
the worst of the after affects, the Terran was given time to reflect
upon his own stupidity and the fact that he might now prove a drag on
the whole party the next morning.

"That's queer...."

Dane was startled out of the contemplation of his misery to see the
medic on his knees before their row of canteens, the vial of water
purifier held to the firelight for a closer inspection.

"What's the matter?"

"We must have hit with a pretty hard thump back there. Some of these
pills are powder! Have to guess about the portion to add." With the tip
of his knife blade Tau scraped a tiny amount of pill fragments into each
waiting canteen. "That should do it. But if the water tastes a little
bitter, don't let it bother you."

Bitter water, Dane thought, trying to flex his still swollen toes, was
going to be the least of his worries in the morning. But he determined
that his boots should go on at daybreak, and he would keep on his feet
as long as the others did, no matter how much it cost him.

And when they set out shortly after daybreak, wanting to move as far as
they could before the heat hours when they must rest, the going was not
too bad. Dane's feet were tender to the touch, but he could shuffle
along at the tail of the procession with only Nymani playing rear guard
behind him.

Jungle lay before them and bush knives began to swing, clearing their
path. Dane took his turn with the rest at that chore, thankful that the
business of cutting their way through that mass of greenery slowed them
to a pace he could match--if not in comfort, then by willpower.

But the sand worms were not the only troubles one could encounter on
Khatka. Within an hour Captain Jellico stood sweating and speaking his
mind freely in the native tongues of five different planets while Tau
and Nymani worked as a team with skinning knives. They were not flaying
the spaceman, but they came near to that in places as they worried a
choice selection of tree thorns out of his arm and shoulder. The captain
had been unfortunate enough to trip and fall into the embrace of a very
unfriendly bush.

Dane inspected a fallen tree for evidence of inimical wild life, and
then rested his blanket between him and it as a protecting cushion
before he sat down. These trees were not the towering giants of the true
forests, but rather oversized bushes which had been made into walls by
twined vines. Brilliant bursts of flowers were splotches of vivid color,
and the attendant insect life was altogether too abundant. Dane tried to
tally his immunity shots and hoped for the best. At the moment he
wondered why anyone would want to visit Khatka, let alone pay some
astronomical sum for the privilege. Though he could also guess that the
plush safari arranged for a paying client might be run on quite
different lines from their own present trek.

How _could_ a tracker find his way through this? With the compasses
playing crazy tricks into the bargain! Jellico knew that the compasses
were off, yet the captain had followed Asaki's lead without question, so
he must trust the Ranger's forest craft. But Dane wished they were clear
on the mountain side again.

Time had little meaning in that green gloom. But when they worked
through to meet rock walls again, the sun said it was well into the
after part of the day. They sheltered for a breather under the drooping
limbs of one of the last trees.

"Amazing!" Jellico, his torn arm in a sling across his chest, came
down-slope from the higher point where he had been using the distance
lenses. "We struck straight across and cut off about ten miles by that
jungle jog. Now I believe all that I've heard of your people's ability
to cross wilderness and not lose their built in 'riding beams,' sir.
With the compasses out, I'll admit I've been nourishing a healthy set of
doubts."

Asaki laughed. "Captain, I do not question your ability to flit from
world to world, or how you have learned to set up trade with strange
humans and non-humans alike. To each his own mystery. On Khatka every
boy before he becomes a man must learn to navigate the jungle, and with
no instruments to help him, only what lies in here." He touched his
thumb to his forehead. "So through generations we have developed our
homing instincts. Those who did not, also did not live to father others
who might have had the same lack. We are hounds who can run on a scent,
and we are migrators who have better than a compass within our own
bodies."

"Now we take to climbing again?" Tau surveyed the way before them
critically.

"Not at this hour. That sun on the upward slopes can cook a man's skin
were he to touch any rock. We wait...."

Waiting for the Khatkans was a chance to sleep. They curled up on their
light blankets. But the three spacemen were restless. Dane would have
liked to have taken off his boots, but feared he could not replace them;
and he could tell from the way the captain shifted his position that
Jellico was in pain too. Tau sat quietly, staring at nothing Dane could
see, unless it was a tall rock thrust out of the slope like a finger
pointing skyward.

"What color is that rock?"

Surprised, Dane gave the stony finger closer attention. To him it was
the same color as most of the other rocks, a weathered black which in
certain lights appeared to carry a brownish film.

"Black, or maybe dark brown?"

Tau looked past him to Jellico. The captain nodded.

"I'd agree with that."

Tau cupped his hands over his eyes for a moment and his lips moved as if
he were counting. Then he took his hands away and stared up-slope. Dane
watched the medic's eyelids blink slowly. "Nothing but black or brown?"
Tau pressed.

"No." Jellico supported his injured arm upon his knees, leaning forward,
as intent upon the designated rock as if he expected it to assume some
far more startling appearance.

"Queer," Tau said to himself, and then added briskly, "You're right, of
course. That sun can play tricks with one's eyes."

Dane continued to watch the finger rock. Maybe strong sunlight could
play tricks, but he could see nothing odd about that rough lump. And
since the captain asked no questions of Tau, he did not quite want to
either.

It was perhaps a half-hour later, and the medic and Jellico had both
succumbed to the quiet, the heat, and their own fatigue, when Dane did
sight a movement up-slope. The throbbing in his feet was worse now that
he had nothing to occupy his mind but his own troubles, and he was
sitting facing the finger rock.

Was that what Tau had seen earlier? That quick movement around the side
of the rough pillar? But if so, why the question of color? There it was
again! And now, centering all his attention on that one point, the
Terran picked out the outline of a head--a head grotesque enough to be
something conjured out of Lumbrilo's sorcerer's imagination. Had Dane
not seen its like among the tri-dee prints in Captain Jellico's
collection, he would have believed that his eyes were playing tricks.

It was a bullet-shaped head, embellished by two out-sized prick ears,
the hair-tufted pointed tips of which projected well above the top of
the skull. Round eyes were set deeply in sunken pits. The mouth was a
swinish snout from which lolled a purple tongue, though the rest of that
gargoyle head was very close in color to the rock against which it half
rested.

Dane had no doubts that the rock ape was spying upon the small camp.
Having heard tales of those semi-intelligent animals--the most
intelligent native creatures of Khatka--most of which were concerned
with their more malignant characteristics, Dane was alarmed. That lurker
could be an advance scout of some pack. And a pack of rock apes, if able
to surprise their prey, were formidable opponents.

Asaki stirred, sat up. And that round head above turned to follow the
Chief Ranger's every move.

"Above ... by the finger rock ... to the right...." Dane kept his voice
close to a whisper. When he saw the sudden constriction of muscle across
the Khatkan's bare shoulders, he knew that the other had heard and
understood.

Only, if Asaki had spotted the rock ape, he did not betray his
knowledge. The Khatkan got lithely to his feet. Then one of those feet
stirred Nymani into the instant wakefulness of the wilderness-trained
man.

Dane slid his hand about the bole of the tree and touched Jellico,
watched the captain's gray eyes open with a similar awareness. Asaki
picked up his needler. Weapon in hand, he whirled and fired almost in
one connected movement. It was the fastest shot Dane had ever seen.

The gargoyle head lifted away from the rock, and then turned to one side
as its body, somehow vaguely obscene in its resemblance to the human
form, fell away, to sprawl limply down-slope.

Though the dead rock ape had not had a chance to give tongue, there came
a cry from above, a coughing, deep-throated hawking. Down the steep
incline bumped a round white ball, bouncing past the tumbled carcass of
the ape, sailing up into the air, to strike and burst open a few feet
away.

"Back!" With one arm Asaki sent Jellico, his nearest neighbor, tumbling
back into the jungle. Then the Chief Ranger pumped a stream of needle
rays into the remains of the ball. A shrill, sweet humming arose as red
motes, vivid as molten copper in the sunlight, climbed on wings beating
too fast to be seen.

The debris of the nest smoked into nothing. But no needle ray could hope
to stop all the poisonous army issuing forth from it, fighting mad, to
seek any warm-blooded creature within scenting distance. The men threw
themselves into the brush, rolling in the thick mold of the vegetable
decay on the ground, rubbing its moist plaster over their bodies in
frantic haste.

Red-hot fire, far worse than any of the splinter torment Dane had
undergone the night before, pierced between his shoulders. He rolled on
his back, shoving himself along, both to kill the fire-wasp and coat the
sting with cooling mold. Cries of pain told him that he was not the only
sufferer, as all dug hands into the slimy stuff under them and slapped
it over their faces and heads.

"Apes...." That half shout got through to alert the men on the jungle
floor. True to their nature, the rock apes, now streaming downhill, were
coughing their challenges, advertising their attack. And it was only
that peculiarity of their species which saved their intended victims.

The apes came forward, partially erect, at a shambling run. The first
two, bulls close to six feet, went down under fire from Asaki's needler.
A third somehow escaped, swerving to the left, and came bounding at an
angle toward Dane. The Terran jerked free his force blade as that swine
snout split wide to show greenish tusks and the horrible stench of the
creature's body made him gasp.

A taloned paw clawed at him eagerly, slipped from his slime-covered body
just as he brought the force blade up. Foul breath coughed in his face
and he stumbled back as the heavy body of the ape crashed against him,
cut in half by the weapon. To Dane's sickened horror the paws still
clawed for him, the fangs still gnashed as he rolled free of the mangled
body and somehow got to his feet.

The roar of a blaster, of two blasters, drowned out the clamor of the
apes as Dane drew his fire ray, set his shoulders against a tree bole
and prepared to fight it out. He fired, saw a smaller and more nimble
enemy go down screeching. Then there were none left on their shaggy
feet, though some on the ground dragged themselves forward, still
striving to reach the men.

Dane slapped a fire-wasp from his leg. He was glad of the support of the
tree at his back as the smell of the ape's blood drenching him from
chest level down, and the mess on the ground, made his stomach churn.

When he could control his retching, he straightened. To his relief he
saw that all the others were on their feet, apparently unharmed. But
Tau, catching sight of the younger spaceman, gasped and started for him.

"Dane! What did they do?"

His junior laughed a little hysterically. "Not mine...." He swabbed with
a handful of grass at his bloodied breeches and blundered on into the
sunlight.

Nymani found them a foam-flecked stream below a miniature falls where
the swift current prevented the lurking of sand worms. They stripped
eagerly, cleaning first themselves and then their fouled clothing while
Tau tended the wealth of fire-wasp stings. There was little he could do
to relieve the swelling and pain, until Asaki produced a reed-like plant
which, chopped in sections, yielded a sticky purple liquid that dried on
the skin as a tar gum--the native remedy. So, glued and plastered, they
climbed away from the water and prepared to spend the night in a hollow
between two leaning rocks, certainly not as snug as the cave but a
fortress of sorts.

"And credit-happy space hoppers pay a fortune for an outing like this!"
Tau commented bitterly, hunching well forward so that a certain stung
portion of his anatomy would not come in contact with the rock beneath
him.

"Hardly for this," Jellico replied, and Dane saw Nymani grin
one-sidedly, his other cheek puffed and painted sticky purple.

"We do not always encounter apes and fire-wasps in the same day,"
supplied the Chief Ranger. "Also, guests at the preserves wear stass
belts."

Jellico snorted. "I don't think you'd get any repeats from your clients
otherwise! What do we meet tomorrow? A herd of graz on stampede, or
something even more subtle and deadly?"

Nymani got up and walked a little way from their rock shelter. He turned
down-slope and Dane saw his nostrils expand as they had when he had
investigated the cave.

"Something is dead," he said slowly. "A very large something. Or else--"

Asaki strode down to join his men. He gave a curt nod and Nymani skidded
on down the mountain side.

"What is it?" Jellico asked.

"It might be many things. There is one I hope it is not," was the Chief
Ranger's somewhat evasive reply. "I will hunt a labbla--there was fresh
spoor at the stream." He set off along their back trail to return a half
hour later, the body of his kill slung across one shoulder. He was
skinning it when Nymani trotted back.

"Well?"

"Death pit," supplied the Hunter.

"Poachers?" Jellico inquired.

Nymani nodded. Asaki continued his task, but there was a glint in his
dark eyes as he butchered with sure and expert strokes. Then he glanced
at the shadow extending beyond the rocks.

"I, too, would see," he told Nymani.

Jellico arose, and Dane, interested, followed. Some five minutes later
none of them needed the native keenness of smell to detect the presence
of some foulness ahead. The odor of corruption was almost tangible in
the sultry air. And it grew worse until they stood on the edge of a pit.
Dane retreated hurriedly. This was as bad as the battlefield of the rock
apes. But the captain and the two Khatkans stood calmly assessing the
slaughter left by the hide poachers.

"Glam, graz, hoodra," Jellico commented. "Tusks and hides--the full line
of trade stuff."

Asaki, his expression bleak, stepped back from the pit. "Day old
calves, old ones, females--all together. They kill wantonly and leave
those they do not choose to pelt."

"Trail--" Nymani pointed eastward. "Leads to Mygra swamp."

"The swamps!" Asaki was shaken. "They must be mad!"

"Or know more about this country than your men do," Jellico corrected.

"If poachers can enter Mygra, then we can follow!"

But not now, Dane protested silently. Certainly Asaki did not mean that
_they_ were to track outlaws into swamps the Khatkan had already labeled
unexplored death traps!



V


Sitting up, Dane stared wide-eyed into the dark. A handful of glowing
coals, guarded by rocks, was the center of their camp. He hunched up to
that hardly knowing why he moved. His hands were shaking, his skin damp
with sweat no heat produced. Yet, now that he was conscious of the
night, the Terran could not remember the nightmare from which he had
just awakened, though he was left with a growing apprehension which he
could not define. What prowled out there in that dark? Walked the
mountain side? Listened, spied and waited?

Dane half started to his feet as a form did move into the dim light of
the fire. Tau stood there, regarding him with sober intensity.

"Bad dream?"

The younger man admitted to that with a nod, partly against his will.

"Well, you aren't the only one. Remember any of it?"

With an effort, Dane looked away from the encircling dark. It was as if
the fear which had shaken him awake, now embodied, lurked right there.

"No." He rubbed sleep-smarting eyes.

"Neither did I," Tau remarked. "But both of 'em must have been
jet-powered."

"I suppose one could expect to have nightmares after yesterday." Dane
advanced the logical explanation, yet at the same time something deep
inside him denied every word of it. He had known nightmares before; none
of them had left this aftertaste. And he wanted no return of sleep
tonight. Reaching to the pile of wood he fed the fire as Tau settled
down beside him.

"There is something else...." the medic began, and then fell silent.
Dane did not press him. The younger man was too busy fighting a growing
desire to whirl and aim the fire ray into that darkness, to catch in its
withering blast that lurking thing he could _feel_ padded there, biding
its time.

Despite his efforts Dane did drowse again before morning, waking
unrefreshed, and, to his secret dismay, with no lessening of his odd
dislike for the country about them.

Asaki did not suggest that they trail the poachers into the morass of
Mygra. Instead the Chief Ranger was eager to press on in the opposite
direction, find a way over the range to the preserve where he could
assemble a punitive force to deal with the outlaws. So they began an
upward climb which took them away from the dank heat of the lowlands,
into the parched blaze of the sunbaked ledges above.

The sun was bright, far too bright, and there were few shadows left. Yet
Dane, stopping to drink sparingly from his canteen, could not lose that
sense of eyes upon him, of being tracked. Rock apes? Cunning as those
beasts were, it was against their nature to trail in utter silence, to
be able to carry through a long-term project. Lion, perhaps?

He noted that Nymani and Asaki took turns at rear guard today, and that
each was alert. Yet, oddly enough, none of them mentioned the uneasiness
they must all share.

They had a dry climb, finding no mountain stream to renew their water
supply. All being experienced in wilderness travel, they made a mouthful
of liquid go a long way. When the party halted slightly before midday,
canteens were still half full.

"_Haugh!_"

They jerked up, hands on weapons. A rock ape, its hideous body clearly
seen here, capered, coughed, spat. Asaki fired from the hip and the
thing screeched, clawed at its chest where the dark blood spewed out,
and raced for them. Nymani cut the beast down and they waited tensely
for the attack of the thing's tribe, which should have followed the
abortive lunge on the part of their scout. But there was
nothing--neither sound nor movement.

What did follow froze them all momentarily. That mangled body began to
move again, drew itself together, crawled toward them. Dane knew that it
was impossible that the creature could live with such wounds. Yet the
beast advanced, its head lolling on its hunched shoulders so that the
eyes were turned blindly up to the full glare of the sun, while it
crawled to reach the man it could not see.

"Demon!" Nymani dropped his needler, shrank back against the rocks.

As the thing advanced, before their eyes the impossible happened. Those
gaping wounds closed, the head straightened on the almost invisible
neck, the eyes glared once more with life, and slaver dripped from the
swine snout.

Jellico caught up the needler Nymani had dropped. With a coolness Dane
envied, the captain shot. And for the second time the rock ape
collapsed, torn to ribbons.

Nymani screamed, and Dane tried to choke back his own cry of horrified
protest. The dead thing put on life for the second time, crawled, got
somehow to its feet, healed itself, and came on. Asaki, his face
greenish-pale, stepped out stiffly as if each step he took was forced by
torture. He had dropped his needler. Now he caught up a rock as large as
his own head, raised it high with arms on which the muscles stood out
like ropes. He hurled the stone, and Dane heard as well as saw the
missile go home. The rock ape fell for the third time.

When one of those taloned paws began to move again, Nymani broke. He
ran, his screams echoing thinly in the air, as the thing lurched up, the
gory mess of its head weaving about. If his feet would have obeyed him,
Dane might have followed the Khatkan. As it was, he drew his ray and
aimed it at that shambling thing. Tau struck up the barrel.

The medic's face was livid; there was the same horror in his eyes. But
he moved out to front that monster.

A spot of shadow coalesced on the ground, deepened in hue, took on
substance. Crouched low facing the rock ape, its haunches quivering for
a deadly spring, narrowed green eyes holding on its prey, was a black
leopard.

The tiny forward and backward movements of its body steadied, and it
arched through the air, brought down the ape. A pitting, snarling tangle
rolled across the slope--and was gone!

Asaki's hands shook as he drew them down his sweating face. Jellico
readied a second clip in the needler mechanically. But Tau was swaying
so that Dane leaped to take the shock of the other's weight as he
collapsed. Only for a moment did the medic hang so, then he struggled to
stand erect.

"Magic?" Jellico's voice, as controlled as ever, broke the silence.

"Mass hallucination," Tau corrected him. "Very strong."

"How!" Asaki swallowed and began again. "How was it done?"

The medic shook his head. "Not by the usual methods, that is certain.
And it worked on us--on me--when we weren't conditioned. I don't
understand that!"

Dane could hardly believe it yet. He watched Jellico stride to where the
tangle of struggling beasts had rolled, saw him examine bare ground on
which no trace of the fight remained. They must accept Tau's
explanation; it was the only sane one.

Asaki's features were suddenly convulsed with a rage so stark that Dane
realized how much a veneer was the painfully built civilization of
Khatka.

"_Lumbrilo!_" The Chief Ranger made of that name a curse. Then with a
visible effort he controlled his emotions and came to Tau, looming over
the slighter medic almost menacingly.

"How?" he demanded for the second time.

"I don't know."

"He will try again?"

"Not the same perhaps--"

But Asaki had already grasped the situation, was looking ahead.

"We shall not know," he breathed, "what is real, what is not."

"There is also this," Tau warned. "The unreal can kill the believer just
as quickly as the real!"

"That I know also. It has happened too many times lately. If we could
only find out how! Here are no drums, no singing--none of the tricks to
tangle a man's mind that he usually uses to summon his demons. So
without Lumbrilo, without his witch tools, how does he make us see what
is not?"

"That we must discover and speedily, sir. Or else we shall be lost among
the unreal and the real."

"You also have the power. You can save us!" Asaki protested.

Tau drew his arm across his face. Very little of the normal color had
returned to his thin, mobile features. He still leaned against Dane's
supporting arm.

"A man can do only so much, sir. To battle Lumbrilo on his own ground is
exhausting and I can not fight so very often."

"But will he not also be exhausted?"

"I wonder...." Tau gazed beyond the Khatkan to the barren ground where
leopard and rock ape had ceased to be. "This magic is a tricky thing,
sir. It builds and feeds upon a man's own imagination and inner fears.
Lumbrilo, having triggered ours, need not strive at all, but let us
ourselves raise that which will attack us."

"Drugs?" demanded Jellico.

Tau gave a start sufficient to take him out of Dane's loose hold. His
hand went to the packet of aid supplies which was his own care, his eyes
round with wonder and then shrewdly alert.

"Captain, we disinfected those thorn punctures of yours. Thorson, your
foot salve.... But, no, I didn't use anything--"

"You forget, Craig, we all had scratches after that fight with the
apes."

Tau sat down on the ground. With feverish haste he unsealed his medical
supplies, laid out some containers. Then delicately he opened each,
examined its contents closely by eye, by smell, and two by taste. When
he was done he shook his head.

"If these have been in any way meddled with, I would need laboratory
analysis to detect it. And I don't believe that Lumbrilo could hide
traces of his work so cleverly. Or has he been off-planet? Had much to
do with off-worlders?" he asked the Chief Ranger.

"By the nature of his position he is forbidden to space voyage, to have
any close relationship with any off-worlder. I do not think, medic, he
would choose your healing substances for his mischief. There would only
be chance to aid him then in producing the effects he wants. Though
there is often call for first aid in travel, he could not be _certain_
you would use any of your drugs on this trip to the preserve."

"And Lumbrilo _was_ certain. He threatened something such as this,"
Jellico reminded them.

"So it would be something which we would all use, which we had to depend
upon...."

"The water!" Dane had been holding his own canteen ready to drink. But
as that possible explanation dawned in his mind, he smelled instead of
tasted the liquid sloshing inside. There was no odor he could detect.
But he remembered Tau commenting on the powdered purifier pills at their
first camp.

"That's it!" Tau dug further into his kit, brought out the vial of white
powder with its grainy lumps. Pouring a little into the palm of his hand
he smelled it, touched it with the tip of his tongue. "Purifier and
something else," he reported. "It could be one of half a dozen drugs, or
some native stuff from here which we've never classified."

"True. There are drugs we have found here." Asaki scowled down at the
green mat of jungle. "So our water is poisoned?"

"Do you always purify it?" Tau asked the Chief Ranger. "Surely during
the centuries since your ancestors landed on Khatka you must have
adapted to native water. You couldn't have lived otherwise. We must use
the purifier, but must you?"

"There is water and water." Asaki shook his own canteen, his scowl
growing fiercer as the gurgle from its depths was heard. "From springs
on the other side of the mountains we drink--yes. But over here, this
close to the Mygra swamps, we have not done so. We may have to chance
it."

"Do you think we are literally poisoned?" Jellico bored directly to the
heart of their private fears.

"None of us have been drinking too heavily," Tau observed thoughtfully.
"And I don't believe Lumbrilo had outright killing in mind. How long the
effect will last I have no way of telling."

"If we saw one rock ape," Dane wondered, "why didn't we see others? And
why here and now?"

"That!" Tau pointed ahead on the trail Asaki had picked for their
ascent. For a long moment Dane could see nothing of any interest there
and then he located it--a finger of rock. It did not point directly
skyward this time, in fact it slanted so that its tip indicated their
back trail. Yet in outline the spire was very similar to that outcrop
from which the real rock ape had charged them the day before.

Asaki exclaimed in his own tongue and slapped his hand hard against the
stock of the needler.

"We saw that and so again we saw an ape also! Had earlier we been
charged by graz or jumped by a lion in such a place, then again we would
have been faced by graz or lion here!"

Captain Jellico gave a bark of laughter colored only by the most
sardonic humor. "Clever enough. He merely leaves it to us to select our
own ghost and then repeat the performance in the next proper setting. I
wonder how many rocks shaped like that one there are in these mountains?
And how long will a rock ape continue to pop out from behind each one we
do find?"

"Who knows? But as long as we drink this water we're going to continue
to have trouble; I feel safe in promising that," Tau replied. He put
the vial of doctored purifier into a separate pocket of his medical kit.
"It may be a problem of how long we can go without water."

"Perhaps," Asaki said softly. "Only not all the water on Khatka comes
running in streams."

"Fruit?" Tau asked.

"No, trees. Lumbrilo is not a hunter, nor could he be certain when and
where his magic would go to work. Unless the flitter was deliberately
sabotaged, he was planning for us to use our canteens in the preserve.
That is lion country and there are long distances between springs. This
is jungle below us and there is a source there I think we can safely
tap. But first I must find Nymani and prove to him that this is truly
deviltry of a sort, but not demon inspired."

He was gone, running lightly down-slope in the direction his hunter had
taken, and Dane spoke to Captain Jellico.

"What's this about water in trees, sir?"

"There is a species of tree here, not too common, with a thickened
trunk. It stores water during the rainy season to live on in the hot
months. Since we are in the transition period between rains, we could
tap it--if we locate one of the trees. How about that, Tau? Dare we
drink that without a purifier?"

"Probably a choice of two evils, sir. But we have had our preventive
shots. Personally, I'd rather battle disease than take a chance on a
mind-twisting drug. You can go without water just so long...."

"I'd like to have a little talk with Lumbrilo," remarked Jellico, the
mildness in his voice very deceptive.

"I'm _going_ to have a little talk with Lumbrilo, if and when we see him
again!" promised Tau.

"What are our chances, sir?" Dane asked. He screwed the cap back on his
canteen, his mouth feeling twice as dry since he knew he dared not
drink.

"Well, we've faced gambles before." Tau sealed the medical kit. "I'd
like to see one of those trees before sundown. And I don't want to face
another pointed rock today!"

"Why the leopard?" asked Jellico reflectively. "Another case of using
flame to fight fire? But Lumbrilo wasn't among those present to be
impressed."

Tau rubbed his hand across his forehead. "I don't really know, sir.
Maybe I could have made the ape vanish without a counter projection, but
I don't think so. With these hallucinations it is better to battle one
vision against another for the benefit of those involved. And I can't
even tell you why I selected a leopard--it just flashed into mind as
about the fastest and most deadly animal fighter I could recall at that
moment."

"You'd better work out a good list of such fighters." Jellico's grim
humor showed again. "I can supply a few if you need them. Not that I
don't share your hope we won't see any more trigger rocks. Here comes
Asaki with his wandering boy."

The Chief Ranger was half-leading, half-supporting his hunter, and
Nymani seemed only half-conscious. Tau got to his feet and hurried to
meet them. It would appear that their search for the water tree would be
delayed.



VI


They withdrew to a spot hacked from the edge of the jungle, leaving a
screen of green between them and the traitorous up-slope. But within the
few hours of daylight left them, it was proven that Asaki had been
overly optimistic in his hopes of discovering a water tree. They were
now in a narrow tongue of land between the range and the swamps, and
this territory was limited. Nymani, still shaken, was of little help,
and the spacemen did not dare to strike out into unexplored land alone.

So they mouthed dry concentrates and dared not drink. Dane was tempted
to pour out the liquid in his canteen. Water so close to hand was a
continual torment. And, now that they were away from the heights and the
possibility of more finger-shaped rocks, surely the threat in that
moisture was small in comparison to the needs of his body. Only that
caution which was drilled into every Free Trader supplied a brake to his
thirst.

Jellico drew the back of his hand across cracked lips. "Suppose we
should draw lots--some of us drink, one or two not. Could we manage that
way until we were over the mountains?"

"I wouldn't want to chance it, unless we are left with no other choice.
There is no way of telling how long the drug works. Frankly, right now
I'm not even sure I could detect a hallucination for very long under
these conditions," was Tau's discouraging verdict.

If any of them slept that night, they did so only in snatches. The
apprehension which had come with the previous night was back,
intensified, and that lurking, indefinable fear rode them hard.

They were shaken out of their private terrors shortly after dawn. There
were always sounds to be heard in the jungle: the cries of unseen birds,
the crash of some tree eaten alive by parasitic sapping. But what broke
now was no bird call, no isolated tree falling. A trumpeting roar, the
crackling smash of vegetation, heralded a real menace. Asaki spun to
face northward, though there was nothing to be seen there except the
unshaken wall of the jungle.

"Graz! Graz on stampede!" Nymani joined his superior.

Jellico arose swiftly and Dane read on the captain's face the
seriousness of this. The off-worlder turned to his own men with a sharp
order. "On your feet! We may have to move on the double. Up-mountain?"
he demanded of the Chief Ranger.

The other was still listening, not only with his ears but with the whole
of his tense body. Three of the deer-like creatures they had hunted for
food broke out of the green wall, fled past the men as if the latter was
invisible. And behind them, the hunted now and not the hunter, came a
lion, its strikingly marked black-and-white hide dramatic in the light
of the morning. It showed fangs in a snarl and then was gone in one huge
bound. More deer things, scurrying of other small creatures, moving too
fast for clear identification, and behind them the fury of destruction
which marked the headlong advance of Khatka's largest mammals slamming
through the jungle.

They had started up-slope when Nymani cried out. A white bulk, hard to
distinguish in that light against the gray of the earth, headed after
them. Dane had a fleeting glimpse of curled tusks, of an open mouth,
raw-red and wide enough to engulf his whole head, of shaggy legs driving
at an unbelievable pace. Asaki snapped a beam from the needler. The
white monster roared and came on. They dived for the scant cover offered
as the graz bull died, not two yards away from the Chief Ranger, its
heavy body skidding along the earth with the force of its speed as it
went down.

"That did it!" Jellico sighted coolly with his blaster as a second bull,
fighting mad, tore from the jungle and pounded at them. Behind it a
third tusked head thrust out of the brush, large eyes searched for an
enemy. Dane studied the dead bull, but the animal did not come to life
this time. These were not hallucinations. And the malignancy of the rock
apes, the cunning of the native Khatkan lion, were pallid things
compared to a graz herd on the rampage.

The second bull yelped with an almost canine complaint as Jellico's
blaster caught it head-on. Blinded, the beast blundered ahead, climbing
the mountain side. The third met a ray from Nymani's needler. But the
Chief Ranger leaped from behind his sheltering rock to the one where the
captain had taken refuge and pulled him into the open.

"They must not corner us here!"

Jellico agreed to that. "Come on!" he barked to Tau and Dane.

They fled along a rough way, trying to gain altitude, but finding a
rising cliff wall which could not be easily climbed. Two more graz went
down, one badly wounded, one safely dead. Behind them more white heads
came from the brush. What original cause had started the stampede the
fugitives could not guess, but now the fear and anger of the animals
were centering upon them.

And, in spite of their efforts, the party was being herded into a pocket
between the jungle below, where the main body of graz crashed along, and
a steep wall. Given time to find the necessary finger and toe holds, a
man might climb that wall, but they could not attempt it now. The
portion of ledge on which they ran, stopped to fire, and then ran on
again, angled to the southeast. And so they came to its end quickly, a
drop ending in a plain of yellow-gray mud studded with clumps of
bleached vegetation which led, like steppingstones, toward a tangle of
matted, sickly looking plants and reeds.

"All right," Tau faced around, "what do we do now? Space lift? And using
what for wings or jets?"

As if the graz could sense that they now had their victims safely
cornered, what must have been a goodly segment of the herd hooked their
way from the jungle and started up. Puffing, digging in those sturdy
legs which had to take the massive weight of their barrel-shaped bodies,
they made their way determinedly up-grade. One might almost believe that
they had intelligently planned this end for their drive.

"We go down!" Asaki yelled, and used his needler on the leader of that
climbing platoon.

"The brush islands," Nymani amended. "I show you!" He thrust his needler
at Jellico and was over the edge of the ledge, hanging by his hands and
swinging his weight back and forth like a pendulum. At the up-swing of
his body to the right, he let go and plunged out, landing half across
one of the reed islets. The Khatkan clawed his way to his knees, gained
his feet, and leaped for the next bit of solid ground.

"You, Thorson!" Jellico jerked his head at Dane and the younger spaceman
holstered his fire ray, slipped gingerly over the drop and prepared to
repeat Nymani's feat as best he could.

He was not quite as successful with his sidewise swing, landing with
only his forearms across the islet, the rest of his body being swiftly
embedded in what was ooze covered only with a thin crust of dried
matter. The stench of the stuff was sickening, but the fear of being
entrapped in it gave him the necessary impetus to push forward, though
what was meant to be a swift half-dive was more of a worm's progress. He
grabbed frantically at brittle stems, at coarse grass which cut like
knives at his hands. But some of the material held and he lay face down
on a lump which did not give under his weight.

There was no time to linger; he had to get to the next patch, to free
this dubious landing place for the men embattled on the rise above.
Stumbling up, Dane judged the distance with a space-trained eye and
jumped to a knob Nymani had already quitted. The Khatkan was more than
halfway along toward that promise of solid ground which the tangled mass
of leprous vegetation led to, zigzagging expertly from islet to islet.

There was a crash and a roar behind. Dane balanced on the third of the
minute islands to look back. He saw the lash of blaster fire on the top
of the cliff, Tau on his knees on the first of their chain of
steppingstones, and a graz sprawled head and forequarters in the sucking
muck where it had dived past the two defenders above. Needler and
blaster fired together again, and then Jellico swung over the cliff rim.
Tau waved vigorously and Dane took off for the next islet, just making
it by lucky chance.

The rest of the journey he took in a rush, trying not to think of
anything but the necessity of landing on some spot of firm ground. His
last leap of all was too short, so that he went knee deep in a
particularly evil-smelling pool where yellow scum spattered his breeches
and he experienced the insidious pull of the bottomless stuff. A stout
branch whipped across his shoulder and he caught it. With Nymani's wiry
strength on the other end, Dane worked free and sat, white-faced and
shivering, on a mat of brush, while the Khatkan hunter turned his
attention to the safety of Tau, the next arrival.

More fortunate, or more skillful than Dane, the medic made the hop from
the last tuft without mishap. But he was blowing heavily as he collapsed
beside the other spaceman. Together they watched the progress of their
captain.

Safe on the second tussock from the shore, Jellico halted, edged
carefully around and used the needler Nymani had left with him. A shaggy
head tossed and the bull fronting Asaki on the cliff went down. The
Chief Ranger dodged quickly to the right and a second beast rushed out
and over, to join its mired comrade in the swamp below. As Jellico shot
again, the Khatkan slung his needler and went over to gain the first
islet.

One more graz was wounded but luckily it hunched about, turning its
formidable tusks on those that followed, thus keeping the path clear for
its enemies. Jellico was making the journey, sure-footedly, with the
Chief Ranger only one hillock behind. Tau sighed.

"Someday maybe this will be just another tall tale and we'll all be
thought liars when we spout it," he observed. "That is if we survive to
tell it. So now which way do we go? If I had my choice it would be up!"

When Dane pulled himself to his feet and surveyed their small refuge, he
was ready to agree to that. For the space, packed with dead and dying
vegetable matter until one sank calf deep, was a triangle with a narrow
point running east into the swamp.

"They don't give up easily, do they?" Jellico looked back to the shore
and the cliff. Though the wounded graz bull still held the heights
against its fellows, there were others breaking from the jungle on the
lower level, wandering back and forth to paw the earth, rip up soil with
their tusks, and otherwise threaten anyone who would try to return to
the strip they patrolled.

"They will not," Asaki answered bleakly. "Arouse a graz and it will
trail you for days; kill any of the herd and you have little hope of
escaping them on foot."

It would seem now that the swamp was a deterrent to pursuit. The two
beasts that had fallen in the mire moaned in a pitiful rising note. They
had ceased to struggle and several of their kind clustered on the shore
near them, calling entreatingly. Asaki took careful aim with the needler
and put one animal after another out of its misery. But the flash of
those shots angered those on shore to a higher pitch of rage.

"No going back," he said. "At least not for several days."

Tau slapped a black, four-winged insect which had settled on his arm,
its jaws wide open for a sampling bite. "We can't very well perch here
until they forget all about us," he pointed out. "Not without water we
can trust, and with the local wild life ready to test us for tasty
eating."

Nymani had prowled along the swampward point of their island, and now he
made his report.

"There is more high land to the east. Perhaps it will give us a bridge
across."

At that moment Dane doubted his ability to make any more leaps from
island to island. And it would seem Tau shared his discouragement.

"I don't suppose you could discourage our friends on shore there with a
few more shots?"

Asaki shook his head. "We do not have clips enough to settle a whole
herd. These might retreat from sight but they would be waiting for us in
the bush, and that would mean certain death. We shall have to take the
swamp road."

If Dane had considered their earlier march misery, this was sheer
torture. Since footing was never secure, falls were frequent, and within
a quarter-hour they were all plastered with evil-smelling slime and mud
which hardened to rock consistency when exposed to the air. Painful as
this was, it did protect a portion of their bodies from the insects with
which the swamp was well stocked.

And, in spite of their efforts to find a way out, the only possible
paths led them deeper into the center of the unexplored morass. At last
Asaki called a halt and a council to consider retreat. To locate an
island from which they could at least watch the shore appealed very
strongly indeed.

"We have to have water." Tau's voice was a harsh croak, issuing out of a
mask of green mud festooned with trailing weeds.

"This ground is rising." Asaki smacked the stock of his needler against
the surface on which he crouched. "I think perhaps there may be clean
land soon to come."

Jellico hitched his way up a sapling, now bending under his weight.
Through the vision lenses he studied the route ahead.

"You're right about that," he called to the Chief Ranger. "There's a
showing of the right sort of green to the left, about half a mile on.
And," he glanced about at the westering sun, "we have about an hour yet
of good light in which to make it. I wouldn't try such a run after
dark."

That promise of green bolstered their weary spirits for a last
exhausting effort. Once again they were faced with a series of islet
leaps, and now they carried with them brush culled from the bigger
tussocks to aid in times of need.

When Dane scrambled up the last pull, staggered, and went down to his
knees again, he knew he was done. He did not even move at an excited cry
from Nymani, echoed a moment later by Asaki. It was not until the latter
leaned over him, a canteen open in his hand, that Dane aroused a little.

"Drink!" the Khatkan urged. "We have found a water tree. This is fresh."

The liquid might have been fresh, but it also had a peculiar taste,
which Dane did not note until he had gulped down a generous swallow. At
that moment he was past caring about anything but the fact that he did
have a portion of drinkable stuff in hand.

Here the stunted, unnatural growth of the swamplands had given away to
the more normal vegetation of the jungle-clad lowlands. Had they come
clear across the swamp, Dane wondered dully, or was this only a large
island in the midst of the stinking boglands?

He drank again and regained strength enough to crawl to where his
shipmates lay. It was some time before he was interested in much besides
the fact that he could drink when he wished. Then he watched Jellico
waver to his feet, his head turned eastward. Tau, too, sat up as if
alerted by the _Queen's_ alarm buzzer.

The Khatkans were gone, perhaps back to the water tree. But all three of
the spacemen heard that sound, a far off throbbing rhythm which was a
vibration as well. Jellico looked to Tau.

"Drums?"

"Could be." The medic screwed the cap back on his canteen. "I'd say we
have company--only I'd like to know what kind!"

They might have been mistaken about the drums, but none of them could
have been mistaken about the bolt which came out of nowhere to slice
through a tree trunk as a knife might slash wet clay. Blaster--and a
particular type of blaster!

"Patrol issue!" Tau lay flat, squeezing himself against the earth as if
he wished he could ooze into it.

Jellico wriggled toward the bush in answer to a low call from Asaki, and
the others made a worm's progress in his wake. Under cover they found
the Chief Ranger readying his needler.

"Poacher camp here," he explained bleakly. "And they know about us."

"A perfect end to a stinking day," remarked Tau dispassionately. "We
might have guessed something of this sort was waiting." He tried to rub
away some of the dried clay coating his chin. "But do poachers use
drums?"

The Chief Ranger scowled. "That is what Nymani has gone to find out."



VII


Darkness closed in while they waited for Nymani's return. There had been
no further attack from the blaster wielder; perhaps he was only trying
to pin them down where they were. Out over the swamp, weird patches of
phosphorescence moved in small ghostly clouds, and bright dots of
insects with their own built-in lighting systems flashed spark-fashion
or sailed serenely on regular flight plans. At night the wonder of the
place was far removed from the squalid reality of the day. They chewed
on their rations, drank sparingly of the water, and tried to keep alert
to any sight or sound.

That monotonous undertone, which might or might not be drums, continued
as a basic hum to the noises of the night, drowned out at intervals by a
splash, a mutter or cry from some swamp creature. Beside Dane, Jellico
stiffened, moved his blaster, as someone wriggled through the brush,
trilling softly.

"Off-worlders," Nymani reported in gasps to Asaki, "and outlaws, too.
They make a hunting sing--tomorrow they march for a killing."

Asaki rested his chin on his broad forearm. "Outlaws?"

"They show no lord's badge. But each I saw wears a bracelet of three,
five, or ten tails. They are Trackers indeed, and Hunters of the best!"

"They have huts?"

"Not so. There are no dwellers in the inners courts here." Out of habit
Nymani used the polite term for the women of his race. "I would say they
tarry only for the space of a hunt. And on the boots of one I saw salt
crust."

"Salt crust!" Asaki snapped and half arose. "So that is the type of lure
they use. There must be a saline mire near here to pull game--"

"How many off-worlders?" Jellico broke in.

"Three who are Hunters, one who is different."

"How different?" questioned Asaki.

"He wears upon his body garments which are strange; on his head a round
covering such as we see upon the off-worlders of the ships--"

"A spaceman!"

Asaki laughed harshly. "Why not? They must have some method of
transporting their hides."

"You can't tell me," Jellico returned, "that anyone is able to set a
ship down in this muck. It would simply be buried for all time."

"But, Captain, what type of a spaceport does a Free Trader need? Do you
not planet your own ship on worlds where there are no waiting cradles,
no fitter shops, none of the conveniences such as mark the field Combine
maintains on Xecho?"

"Of course I do. But one does need a reasonably smooth stretch of
territory, open enough so the tail flames won't start a forest fire. You
don't ever ride a tail push down in a swamp!"

"Which testifies to a trail out of here, fairly well-traveled, and some
kind of a usable landing space not too far away," Asaki replied. "And
that could very well serve us."

"But they know we are here," Tau pointed out.

It was Nymani's turn to laugh. "Man from the stars, there is no trail so
well-hidden that a Ranger of the preserves cannot nose it out, nor any
Hunter--be he a two or five bracelet veteran--who can keep pinned down a
determined man of the forest service!"

Dane lost interest in the argument at that moment. He was at the edge of
their line, the nearest to the swamp, and he had been watching patches
of ghostly light flitting above the rank water-weeds. For the past few
moments those wisps of faded radiance had been gathering into a growing
anthropomorphic blot hanging over the morass several yards away. And the
misty outlines were now assuming more concrete shape. He watched,
unable to believe in what he was seeing. At first the general outline,
non-defined as it was, made him think of a rock ape. But there were no
pointed ears above the round skull, no snout on the visage turned in
profile toward him.

More and more patches of swamp luminescence were drawn to that glowing
figure. What balanced there now, as if walking the treacherous surface
of the swampland, was no animal. It was a man, or the semblance of one,
a small, thin man--a man he had seen once before, on the terrace of
Asaki's mountain fortress.

The thing stood almost complete, its head cocked in what was an attitude
of listening.

"Lumbrilo!" Dane identified it, still knowing that the witch doctor
could not be standing there listening for them. But, to shake him still
farther, the head turned at his cry. Only there were no eyes, no
features on the white expanse which should have been a face. And somehow
that made the monster more menacing, convincing Dane against sane logic
that the thing _was_ spying on them.

"Demon!" That was Nymani; and over his sudden quaver, robbed of all the
confidence which had been there only moments earlier, came Asaki's
demand:

"What stands there, Medic? Tell us that!"

"A whip to drive us out of hiding, sir. As you know as well as I. If
Nymani spied upon them, then they have spied upon us in turn. And this,
I think, also answers another question. If there is a canker of trouble
on Khatka, then Lumbrilo is close to its root."

"Nymani!" The Chief Ranger's voice was the crack of a lash. "Will you
forget again that you are a man, and run crying for shelter against a
shaft of light? As this off-world Medic says, Lumbrilo fashions such as
that to drive us into our enemies' hands!"

The shadow thing in the swamp moved, putting its foot forward on surface
which would not bear the weight of a human body, taking a deliberate
step and then another, heading for the concealing brush where the
fugitives lay.

"Can you get rid of it, Tau?" Jellico asked in his usual crisp voice. He
might have been inquiring about some problem aboard the _Queen_.

"I'd rather get at the source." There was a grim note in the Medic's
reply. "And to do that I want to look at their camp."

"Well enough!" Asaki crept back in the brush.

The ghost of that which was not a man had reached the shore of the
island, stood there, its blank head turned toward them. Weird as it was,
now that the first shock of sighting it was over, the spacemen could
accept and dismiss it as they had not been so able to dismiss the
phantom rock ape.

"If that thing was sent to drive us," Dane ventured, "wouldn't we be
playing their game by going inland now?"

The Chief Ranger did not pause in his crawl to the left. "I think not.
They do not expect us to arrive with our wits about us. Panic-stricken
men are easy to pull down. This time Lumbrilo has overreached himself.
Had he not played that game with the rock ape, he might have been able
to stampede us now."

Though the white thing continued to move inland, it did not change
course to fall in behind them on the new route. Whatever it was, it did
not possess a mind.

There was a rustling, faint but distinguishable. Then Dane caught
Nymani's whisper.

"The one left to watch the inland trail does so no longer. We need not
fear an alarm from _him_. Also, here is another blaster for our use."

Away from the open by the swamp, the gloom was deeper. Dane was guided
only by the noises of the less-experienced Jellico and Tau made in their
progress.

They edged down into a small cut, floored with reeds and mud, where some
of the moisture from the soggy land about them gathered into a half
pool. Straight through this swale the Khatkans set course.

The drum beat grew louder. Now there was a glow against the dark--fire
ahead? Dane squirmed forward and at last gained a vantage point from
which to survey the poachers' camp.

There were shelters erected there, three of them, but they were mainly
roofs of leaves and branches. In two of them were stored bales of hides
sewn into plastic cloth, ready to ship. Before the third hut lounged
four off-worlders. And Nymani was very right; one of them wore ship's
uniform.

To the right of the fire was a ring of natives and another man, slightly
apart, who beat the drum. But of the witch doctor there was no sign. And
Dane, thinking of that mist-born thing at the swamp's edge, shivered. He
could believe Tau's explanation of the drug which produced
hallucinations back on the mountain side. But how that likeness
fashioned of phosphorescence had been sent by an absent man to hunt his
enemies was a eerie puzzle.

"Lumbrilo is not here." Nymani's thoughts must have been moving along
the same path.

Dane could hear movements in the dark beside him.

"There's a long-distance com unit in that third hut," Tau observed.

"So I see," Jellico snapped. "Could you reach your men over the mountain
with that, sir?"

"I do not know. But if Lumbrilo is not here, how can he make his image
walk the night?" the Chief Ranger demanded impatiently.

"We shall see. If Lumbrilo is not here--he shall come." And the promise
in Tau's tone was sure. "Those off-worlders will have to be out of
action first. And with that walking thing sent to drive us in, they must
be waiting for us."

"If they have sentries out, I will silence them!" promised Nymani.

"You have a plan?" Asaki's wide shoulders and upheld head showed for an
instant against the light from the camp.

"You want Lumbrilo," Tau replied. "Very well, sir, I believe I can give
him to you, and in the doing discredit him with your Khatkans. But not
with the off-worlders free to move."

The program was not going to be easy, Dane decided. Every one of the
poachers was armed with a Patrol blaster of the latest type, and a small
part of his mind speculated as to what would be the result of that
information conveyed to official quarters. Free Traders and Patrolmen
did not always see eye-to-eye over the proper action to be taken on the
galactic frontier. The _Queen's_ crew had had one such brush with
authority in the immediate past. But each realized that the other had an
important role in the general scheme of things, and if it came to a
clash between the law and outlaws, Free Traders fought beside the
Patrol.

"Why not give them what they expect--with reservations?" inquired
Jellico. "They've set us up to be stampeded into camp, flying ahead of
that tame ghost of theirs. Suppose we do stampede--after Nymani has
removed any sentries--stampede so well we sweep right over them? I want
to get at that com unit."

"You don't think they'll just mow us down as we come in?"

"You delivered a blow to Lumbrilo's pride; he won't be satisfied with
just your burning," the captain answered Tau, "not if I'm any judge of
character. And we'd furnish hostages of a sort--especially the Chief
Ranger. No, if they had wanted to kill us they would have shot us off
those islands when we came here. There would have been no playing around
with ghosts and goblins."

"There is reason in your words. And it is true they would like to have
me, those outlaws down there," Asaki commented. "I am of the Magawaya
and we have pressed always for stronger security methods to be used
against such as they. But I do not see how we can take the camp."

"We won't go in from the front--as they expect us to do. But a try from
the north, getting at the off-worlders first.... Three men causing
enough disturbance to cover operations of the other two...."

"So?" There was a moment of silence as the Chief Ranger evaluated that.
Then he added a few comments of his own.

"That off-worlder who wears spaceman's clothing, his weapon is not
drawn, though the others are ready. But I believe that you are right in
thinking they expect to be warned by sentries. Those we can see to.
Suppose then, Captain, you and I play the fear-crazed men running from
demons. Nymani will cover us from the dark and your two men--"

Tau spoke up, "Give me leave to flush out our other quarry, sir. I
believe I can keep him occupied. Dane, you'll take the drum."

"Drum?" With his mind on blasters, it was startling to be offered a
noise-maker.

"It's your business to get that drum. And when you get it I want you to
beat out 'Terra Bound.' You certainly can play that, can't you?"

"I don't understand," Dane began and then swallowed the rest of his
protest, knowing that Tau was not going to explain why he needed to have
the hackneyed popular song of the spaceways played in a Khatkan swamp.
As a Free Trader he had had quite a few odd jobs handed him during the
past couple of years, but this was the first time he had been ordered to
serve as a musician.

They waited for Nymani through dragging minutes. Surely those in the
camp would expect their arrival soon now? Dane's fire ray was in his
hand as he measured the distance to the drummer's stand.

"It is done," Nymani whispered from the darkness behind them. Jellico
and the Chief Ranger moved to the left; Tau crept to the right and Dane
pushed level with the medic.

"When they move," Tau's lips were beside his ear, "jump for that drum. I
don't care how you get it, but get it and keep it!"

"Yes, sir!"

There was a wailing cry from the north, a howl of witless fear. The
singers stopped in mid-note, the drummer paused, his hand uplifted. Dane
darted forward in a plunge which carried him to that man. The Khatkan
did not have time to rise from his knees as the barrel of the fire rod
struck his head, sending him spinning. Then the drum was cradled in the
spaceman's arm, close to his chest, his weapon aimed across it at the
startled natives.

The crackle of blaster fire, the shrill whine of needlers in action,
raised a bedlam from the other end of the camp. Backing up a little,
Dane went down on one knee, his weapon ready to sweep over the
bewildered natives, the drum resting on the earth against his body.
Keeping the fire rod steady, his left hand went to work, not in the
muted cadence the Khatkan drummer had chosen, but in hard and vigorous
thumps which rolled across the clamor of the fight. There was no
forgetting the beat of "Terra Bound" and he delivered it with force, so
that the familiar da-dah-da-da droned loud enough to awaken the whole
camp.

Dane's move appeared to completely baffle the Khatkan outlaws. They
stared at him, the whites of their eyes doubly noticeable in their dark
faces, their mouths a little agape. As usual the unexpected had driven
them off guard. He dared not look away from that gathering to see how
the fight at the other end of the camp was progressing. But he did see
Tau's advance.

The medic came into the light of the fire, not with his ordinary
loose-limbed spaceman's stride, but mincingly, with a dancing step, and
he was singing to the drum beat of "Terra Bound." Dane could not
understand the words, but he knew that they patterned in and out of the
drum beats, weaving a net between singer and listeners as Lumbrilo had
woven his net on the mountain terrace.

Tau had them! Had every one of the native outlaws ensnared, so that Dane
rested his weapon across his knee and took up the lower beat with the
fingers of his right hand as well.

_Da-dah-da-da_.... The innocuous repetitive refrain of the original song
which had been repeating itself in his mind faded, and somehow he
caught the menace in the new words Tau was mouthing.

Twice the medic shuffled about a circle of his own making. Then he
stooped, took a hunting knife from the belt of the nearest Khatkan and
held it point out toward the dark east. Dane would not have believed the
medic knew the drill he now displayed, for with no opponent save the
dancing firelight he fought a knife duel, feinting, striking, twisting,
retreating, attacking, all in time to the beat of the drum Dane was no
longer conscious of playing. And as he strove it was very easy to
picture another fighting against him. So that when the knife came up in
a vicious thrust which was the finish of his last attack, Dane stared
stupidly at the ground, half expecting to see a body lying there.

Once more Tau ceremoniously saluted with his blade to the east. Then he
laid it on the ground and stood astride its gleaming length.

"Lumbrilo!" His confident voice arose above the call of the drum.
"Lumbrilo--I am waiting."



VIII


Vaguely aware that the clamor at the other end of the camp had died
away, Dane muted the sound of his drum. Over its round top he could
watch the Khatkan outlaws; their heads bobbed and swayed in time to the
beat of his fingers. He, too, could feel the pull of Tau's voice. But
what would come in answer? That shadowy thing which had been loosed to
drive them here? Or the man himself?

To Dane, the ruddy light of the fire dimmed, yet there was no actual
dying of those flames which coiled and thrust around the wood. And the
acrid scent of burning was thick. How much of what followed was real,
how much the product of his tense nerves, Dane was never afterwards able
to tell. In fact, whether all the witnesses there saw the same sights
could be questioned. Did each man, Khatkan and off-worlder, see only
what his particular set of emotions and memories dictated?

Something swept in from the east, something which was not as tangible as
the creature born of swamp mist. Rather it came as an unseen menace to
the fire, and all that fire signifies to human kind--security,
comradeship, a weapon against the age-old forces of the dangerous night.
Was that threat, too, only in their minds? Or had Lumbrilo some power to
so shape his hatred?

The unseen was cold; it sapped a man's strength, bit at his brain,
weighted his hands and feet, weakened him. It strove to soften him into
clay another could remold. Nothingness, darkness, all that was opposed
to life and warmth and reality, arose in the night, gathered together
against them.

Yet still Tau fronted that invisible wave, his head high. And between
his sturdily planted feet the knife gleamed bright with a radiance of
its own.

"Ahhh--" Tau's voice curled out, to pierce that creeping menace. Then he
was singing again, the cadence of his unknown words rising a little
above the pattern wrought by the drum.

Dane forced his heavy hands to continue the beat, his wrists to rise and
fall in defiance of that which crept to eat their strength and make them
less then men.

"Lumbrilo! I, Tau, of another star, another sky, another world, bid you
come forth and range your power against mine!" Now there was a sharper
note in that demand, the snap of an order.

He was answered by another wave of the black negation--stronger, rolling
up to smash them down, as a wave in the heavy surf of a wild ocean
pounds its force against the beach. This time Dane thought he could see
that dark mass. He tore his eyes away before it took on substance,
concentrating on the movements of his hands against the drum head,
refusing to believe that hammer of power was rising to flatten them all.
He had heard Tau describe such things in the past. But told in familiar
quarters on board the _Queen_, such experiences were only stories. Here
was danger unleashed. Yet the medic stood unbowed as the wave broke upon
him in full.

And, advancing under the crest of that lick of destruction, came its
controller. This was no ghost drawn from the materials of the swamp;
this was a man, walking quietly, his hands as empty as Tau's, yet
grasping weapons none of them could see.

In the firelight, as the wave receded sullenly, men moaned, lay face
down upon the ground, beat their hands feebly against the earth. But, as
Lumbrilo came on from the shadows, one of them got to his hands and
knees, moving with small tortured jerks. He crawled toward Tau, his head
lolling on his shoulders as the head of the dead rock ape had done. Dane
patted the drum with one hand while, with the other, he groped for his
fire ray. He tried to shout in warning and found that he could not utter
a sound.

Tau's arm moved, raised from his side, made a circling motion.

The creeping man, his eyes rolled up in his head until only the whites
gleamed blindly in the limited light, followed that gesture. He drew
level with the medic, passed beyond toward Lumbrilo, whining as a hound
prevented from obeying his master might lament.

"So be it, Lumbrilo," Tau said. "This is between you and me. Or do you
not dare to risk your power against mine? Is Lumbrilo so weak a one that
he must send another to do his will?"

Raising both hands again the medic brought them down, curling inward,
until he stooped and touched them to the ground. When he straightened
once again the knife was in his grasp and he tossed it behind him.

The smoke from the fire swirled out in a long tongue, coiled about
Lumbrilo and was gone. A black and white beast stood where the man had
been, its tufted tail lashing, its muzzle a mask of snarling hate and
blood lust.

But Tau met that transformation with laughter which was like the lash of
a whip.

"We both be men, you and I, Lumbrilo. Meet me as a man and keep those
trickeries for those who have not the clear sight. A child plays as a
child, so--" Tau's voice came in a rumble, but Tau was gone. The huge,
hairy thing which swayed in his place turned a gorilla's beast visage to
his enemy. For a breathless moment Terran ape confronted Khatkan lion.
Then the spaceman was himself again. "The time for games is over, man of
Khatka. You have tried to hunt us to our deaths, have you not? Therefore
death shall be the portion of the loser now."

Lion vanished, man stood watching, alertly, as swordsman might face
swordsman with a blood feud lying on their blades. To Dane's eyes the
Khatkan made no move. Yet the fire leaped high, as if freshly fed, and
flames burst from the wood, flew into the air, red and perilous birds,
darting at Tau until they outlined him from the ground under his boots
to an arch over his head. They united and spun faster until Dane,
watching with dazzled eyes, saw the wheel become a blur of light, hiding
Tau within its fiery core. His own wrists ached with the strain of his
drumming as he lifted one hand and tried to shield his sight from the
glare of that pillar of fire.

Lumbrilo was chanting--a heavy blast of words. Dane stiffened; his
traitorous hands were falling into the rhythm of that other song!
Straightaway he raised both from the drum head, brought them down
in a discordinate series of thumps which bore no relation to either
the song Tau wanted or that which Lumbrilo was now crooning.
_Thump--thump--thump_--Dane beat it out frantically, belaboring the
drum head as he wanted to sink his fists home on the body of the
Khatkan witch doctor.

The pillar of fire swayed, fluttered as if a wind drove it--and was
gone. Tau, unmarked, smiled.

"Fire!" He pointed his fingers at Lumbrilo. "Would you try earth, and
water, and air also, wizard? Call hither your whirlwind, up your flood,
summon the land to quake. None of those shall bring me down!"

Shapes came flooding out of the night, some monstrous, some human,
streaming past Lumbrilo to crowd into the circle of firelight. Some Dane
thought he knew, some were strangers. Men wearing space uniforms, or the
dress of other worlds, women--they strode, wept, mingled with the
monsters to laugh, curse, threaten.

Dane guessed that Lumbrilo sent now against the Terran the harvest of
the medic's own memories. He shut his eyes against this enforced
intrusion upon another's past, but not before he saw Tau's face,
strained, fined to the well-shaped bones beneath the thin flesh, holding
still a twisted smile as he met each memory, accepted the pain it held
for him, and set it aside unshaken.

"This, too, has no power any longer, man who walks in the dark."

Dane opened his eyes. Those crowding wraiths were fading, losing
substance. Lumbrilo crouched, his lips drawn back from his teeth, his
hatred plain to read.

"I am not clay to be molded by your hands, Lumbrilo. And now I say that
the time has come to call an end--"

Tau raised his hands slowly once again, holding them away from his body,
palms pointing earthward. And beneath them, on either side of the
spaceman, two black shadows gathered on the surface of the ground.

"You have fettered yourself with your own bounds. As you have been the
hunter, so shall you now be the hunted."

Those shadows were growing as plants might issue from the packed soil of
the camping ground. When his hands were shoulder high, Tau held them
steady. Now on either side of his tautly held body crouched one of the
black-and-white lions with which Lumbrilo had identified his own brand
of magic throughout the year.

Lumbrilo's "lion" had been larger than life, more intelligent, more
dangerous, subtly different from the normal animal it counterfeited. So
now were these. And both of them raised their heads to gaze intently
into the medic's face.

"Hunt well, brothers in fur," he said slowly, almost caressingly. "Him
whom you hunt shall grant you sport in the going."

"Stop it!" A man leaped from the shadows behind the witch doctor.
Firelight made plain his off-world dress, and he swung up a blaster,
aiming at the nearest of the waiting beasts. That flash struck true, but
it neither killed nor even singed the fine fur of the animal's pelt.

As the blaster's aim was swung from beast to man, Dane fired first. His
ray brought a scream from the other, who dropped his weapon from a badly
seared hand to reel back, cursing.

Tau waved his hands gently. The great animal heads turned obediently,
until the red eyes were set on Lumbrilo. Facing them, the witch doctor
straightened, spat out his hate at the medic:

"I do not run to be hunted, devil man!"

"I think you do, Lumbrilo. For you must taste fear now as you have made
other men drink of it, so that it fills your blood and races through
your body, clouds your mind to make of you less than a man. You have
hunted out those who doubted your power, who stood in your chosen path,
whom you wanted removed from the earth of Khatka. Do you doubt that they
wait in the last dark for you now, ready to greet you, witch doctor?
What they have known, you shall also know. This night you have shown me
all that lies in my past that is weak, that was evil, that I may regret
or find sorrow for. So shall you also remember through the few hours
left you. Aye, you _shall_ run, Lumbrilo!"

As he spoke, Tau approached the other, the two black-and-white hunters
pacing beside him. Now he stooped and caught up a pinch of soil and spat
upon it three times. Then he threw the tiny clod of earth at the witch
doctor. It struck Lumbrilo just above the heart and the man reeled under
what might have been a murderous blow.

The Khatkan broke then, completely. With a wailing cry he whirled and
ran, crashing into the brush as one who runs blindly and without hope.
Behind him the two beasts leaped noiselessly together and all three were
gone.

Tau swayed, put his hand to his head. Dane kicked away the drum, arose
from his cramped position stiffly to go to him. But the medic was not
yet done. He returned to stand over the prostrate native hunters and he
clapped his hands sharply.

"You are men, and you shall act as men henceforth. That which was, is no
longer. Stand free, for the dark power follows him who misused it, and
fear no longer eats from your basins, drinks from your cups, or lies
beside you on the sleep mats."

"Tau!" Jellico's shout reached them over the cries of the rousing
Khatkans. But Dane was there first, catching the medic before he slumped
to the ground; but he was dragged with that dead weight until he sat
with the medic's head on his shoulder, the other's body resting heavily
against him. For one horror-filled moment Dane feared that he did indeed
hold a dead man, that one of the outlaw Hunters must have struck a last
blow for his discredited leader. Then Tau sighed and began to breathe
deeply. Dane glanced up, amazed, at the captain.

"He's asleep!"

Jellico knelt and his hand went to test heart beat, then to touch the
medic's worn and dirty face. "Best thing for him," he said briskly.
"He's had it."

It took some time to get the facts of their triumph sorted out. Two of
the off-worlder poachers were dead. The other and the spaceman were
prisoners, while Nymani rounded up in addition the man Dane had burned
to save Tau. When the younger spaceman returned from making the medic
comfortable in the shelter, he found Asaki and Jellico holding an
impromptu court of inquiry.

The dazed native Hunters had been expertly looped together by Nymani
and, a little apart from them, the off-worlders were under examination.

"An I-C man, eh?" Jellico, smoothing a mud-spattered chin with a grimed
hand, regarded the latest arrival measuringly. "Trying to run in and
break a Combine charter, were you? You'd better spill the facts; your
own head office will disown you, you ought to know that. They never back
any failures in these undercover deals."

"I want medical attention," snapped the other, cradling his seared hand
to his chest. "Or do you plan to turn me over to these savages?"

"Seeing as how you tried to blast our medic," replied the captain with a
grin which was close to shark-like, "he may not feel much like patching
up those fingers of yours. Stick 'em in where they have no business, and
they're apt to get burned. At any rate he's not going to look at 'em
until he's had a chance to rest. I'll give you first aid. And while I'm
working we'll talk. I-C going into the poaching trade now? That news is
going to please Combine; they have no use for you boys anyway."

His answer was lurid and uninformative. But the uniform tunic the other
wore could not be so easily explained away. Dane, worn out, stretched
his aching length on a pile of mats and lost all interest in the
argument.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two days later they stood once more on the same terrace where Lumbrilo
had wrought his magic and met his first defeat. This time no lightning
played along the mountain ridges and the blaze of the sun was so bright
and clear that one could hardly believe in the fantastic happenings of
that swamp clearing where men had fought with weapons not made by hands.
The three from the _Queen_ moved away from the parapet to meet the Chief
Ranger as he came down the stairs.

"A messenger has just arrived. The hunter was hunted indeed, and his
going was witnessed by many--though they did not see those which hunted
him. Lumbrilo is dead; he came to his end by the Great River."

Jellico started. "But that is almost fifty miles from the swamp, on this
side of the mountain!"

"He was hunted and he fled--as you promised," Asaki said to Tau. "You
made strong magic, off-world man."

The medic shook his head slowly. "I but turned his own methods against
him. Because he believed in his power, that same power, reflected back,
broke him. Had I been facing one who did not believe...." He shrugged.
"Our first meeting set the pattern. From that moment he feared a little
that I could match him, and his uncertainty pierced a hole in his
armor."

"Why on earth did you want 'Terra Bound?'" burst out Dane, still seeking
an explanation for that one small mystery among the others.

Tau chuckled. "In the first place, that blasted tune has haunted us all
for so long that I knew its rhythm was probably the one you could keep
to without hardly knowing that you were beating it out. And, in the
second place, its alien pattern was a part of our particular background,
to counteract Lumbrilo's native Khatkan music, which was certainly a big
factor in _his_ stage setting. He must have believed that we would not
find out about the drugged water and so would be prepared for any
fantasy he cared to produce. When they saw us coming out over the swamp
they counted us easy takings. His practice had always been with
Khatkans, and he judged us by their reactions to stimuli he knew well
how to use. So he failed...."

Asaki smiled. "Which was good for Khatka but ill for Lumbrilo and those
using him to make mischief here. The poacher and the outlaw Hunters will
meet with our justice, which I do not believe they will relish. But the
other two, the spaceman and the company agent, are to be sent to Xecho
to face Combine authorities. It is my thought that those will not accept
kindly the meddling of another company in their territory."

Jellico grunted. "Kindness and Combine are widely separated in such
matters. But we can now take passage on the same ship as your
prisoners--"

"But, my friend, you have not yet seen the preserve. I assure you that
_this_ time there shall be no trouble. We have several days yet before
you must return to your ship--"

The captain of the _Queen_ held up his hand. "Nothing would give me
greater pleasure than to inspect the Zoboru preserve, sir--next year. As
it is, my holiday is over and the _Queen_ is waiting for us on Xecho.
Also, permit me to send you some tapes dealing with the newest types of
flitters--guaranteed against flight failures."

"Yes, guaranteed," Tau added guilelessly, "not to break down, lose
course, or otherwise disrupt a pleasant excursion."

The Chief Ranger threw back his head and his deep-chested laughter was
echoed from the heights above them. "Very well, Captain. Your mail run
will bring you back to Xecho at intervals. Meanwhile I shall study your
sales tapes concerning the non-expendable flitters. But you _shall_
visit Zoboru--and pleasantly, very pleasantly, I assure you, Medic Tau!"

"I wonder," Tau muttered and Dane heard. "Just now the quiet of deep
space is a far, far more entrancing proposition!"


  +--------------------------------------------------------------+
  |                                                              |
  | Transcriber's Notes                                          |
  |                                                              |
  |                                                              |
  | One copyright symbol was replaced with "(c)".                |
  | The repetition "too too" and the writing of the word         |
  | "steppingstones" without hyphen is as in the original.       |
  |                                                              |
  | The following typos have been corrected.                     |
  |                                                              |
  | Typo         Correction                                      |
  |                                                              |
  | breath       breathe                                         |
  | an           on                                              |
  | Yes. sir!    Yes, sir!                                       |
  | Terran       Terra                                           |
  | visiting;    visiting.                                       |
  | Terran       Terra                                           |
  | qraz         graz                                            |
  | telaported   teleported                                      |
  | Sinbad       Sindbad                                         |
  | supersition  superstition                                    |
  | remarkble    remarkable                                      |
  | was          were                                            |
  | waves        weaves                                          |
  | missive      missile                                         |
  | throbbling   throbbing                                       |
  | "_Haugh!_    "_Haugh!_"                                      |
  | succesful    successful                                      |
  | reading      readying                                        |
  | Nohingness   Nothingness                                     |
  | blatt        blast                                           |
  | pleace       please                                          |
  | Bu           But                                             |
  |                                                              |
  |                                                              |
  | "Andrew North" was one of the pseudonyms used by             |
  | "Andre Norton".                                              |
  |                                                              |
  +--------------------------------------------------------------+





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