Back | Next
Contents

Chapter One


Karl Jaeger was a dead man.

He knew it. The Aensalords, shouting and laughing inhumanly behind him, knew it very well indeed; they knew it as a certainty as irreversible as the rising of the sun. The grim-faced men and women who waited silently in the green-decked halls of Schwäbisch Gmünd knew it, while they waited for his corpse to be dragged back. They had known it all along, in fact, with the resignation that comes of long, painful experience.

The Dktar, the Aensahounds, which salivated in their greedy pursuit, following his track implacably across fen and brush, knew it best of all.

Only Karl Jaeger’s body didn’t know it.

His legs continued to carry him scrambling across the countryside. His body continued to stagger on with idiot energy, long after his mind, trapped within, had given up the fight and settled down blankly to wait for death.

Jaeger’s foot tangled in a thick black root; he went down heavily amid a flurry and rustle of dead leaves. Grimly, mechanically, he raised himself to his feet and stumbled painfully on, hardly noticing or caring that he had fallen.

As he ran, most of his attention was directed to the rear, not forward. Behind him were no natural sounds at all: no owls or nighttime birds, no chirping insect songs, no quick animal scurries among the dead hedges. The landscape was peculiarly silent, black, extinct. The horrible quiet that surrounded him made him feel even more unreal, although the jagged outlines of barren trees leaned against the sky with lunatic clarity. Within the nightmarish prison of the blasted forest he was friendless, but he was not alone.

He strained eagerly, striving to hear the least sound, anything that would tell him that the Dktar were not already upon him, ready to make their silent, fatal leap. And yet he also dreaded hearing a sound, because a noise would mean that they were still behind him, still on his trail, as inescapable as death itself. Jaeger ran hopelessly, trying only to keep the distance between himself and the hunting monsters, knowing that the margin narrowed with every frantic breath.

The Aensahounds bayed. It was a loud note that carried over the dwindling distance between them and their pray: crystalline the sound was, ringing, intelligent—like a bell tolling, a funeral bell, but a chime of indefinite duration. It was a howling noise, wailing, wavering, moaning—unearthly and terrifying under the bright stars of a clear, moonlit autumn night.

As he fled through the skeleton of the forest, Jaeger discovered that he could still observe himself dispassionately. He wondered if that might be a sign of insanity, under the circumstances: the coolness with which he watched his panic build to a final, forlorn scream of surrender. He was muttering now, gasping and whimpering, mouthing strange, unintelligible phrases that only the deep animal core of his mind could interpret.

Yet even while he murmured these words, wrenched right from the basic soul-stuff of his personality, Jaeger, in a small, detached segment of his mind, wondered what the devil he was muttering about anyway; he realized that the scream had built up pressure, was straining against his tightly clenched teeth. It would surely give his position away and bring the Dktar down upon him twice as swiftly, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter anymore . . .

A tremor shook his body; he quivered like a cornered animal and his lips drew back from his teeth in a silent snarl. The Aensahounds bayed again behind him, closer now. The scream was pressing against his teeth, leaking out hissing through the edges of his lips like a whistling teakettle just beginning to boil.

Any second now they would break from cover behind him, and he would see the horrible black shapes begin their deadly leap, and then he would go truly mad—

The trees spun dizzily around Jaeger. For a moment the night seemed to dance, and the cold stars above spiraled into tight, pale coils of light; then he hit the water with a stinging splash and sank down and down. For many seconds he did not understand what had happened. He cried out, choking in the dark water of the stream.

Jaeger floundered, thrashing desperately until his feet found solid bottom, and then he stood, panting.

The water was cold; it stung him like a thousand tiny ice-needles jabbed into his naked flesh, and the sudden shock of it was like a quick, bright light flashed into his eyes. The scream died in his throat and settled reluctantly back into his chest, grumbling.

Like a man waking from a bad dream, Jaeger shook his head. In his panicky flight, he had stumbled over the edge of a weed-choked embankment and fallen perhaps four feet into a small stream. The water ran fairly deep at that point, deep enough that he avoided a serious injury.

Jaeger wondered how much noise he had made, tumbling and splashing into the water. Had he shouted in fear? He could not remember. He had regained his self-control, but had he also invited his hunters to the capture?

The Dktar bayed one more time, even closer than before. Jaeger felt a brief resurgence of panic, and fought it down grimly. He had gone that way before, and had nearly lost all hope for survival because of it. If anything could get him out of this, it would be a coolly logical brain, not one fogged and muddled with terror.

Jaeger stirred; he ought to be moving. He sloshed his way through the chest-deep stream to the opposite bank. Mere flight wouldn’t help; he had proven to himself that it was impossible to outrun the Aensahounds even when he was urged along by the whips of deepest primal fear. He had been absurdly ill-prepared for this job; in retrospect, his mission in the sector of the Aensa seemed vague and trivial. What real information did he or anyone have about the secretive traders from space? Now his assignment—no, damn it, his life—appeared lost because of the little and useless data that he had.

He had to find a weakness in the Aensa, something that he could exploit. He had to come up with some clever stunt; there might be something easy enough to devise at the worn oak desk in his office, but it was frantically improbable as he ran for his life. If only they hadn’t come upon him so quickly. If only he had known that his blindcoat would fail to deceive the alien eyes of the Dktar. If only his casual habit of traveling light hadn’t persuaded him to leave behind the rifles and grenades he had first considered; not, he reminded himself, that rifles and grenades would have any effect against the electronic defenses of the Aensa or their monstrous servants.

Jaeger scrambled up the muddy bank. He tore his way through the thorny bushes at the top, ignoring the bloody scratches they made. He needed something that he could do here. Something he could do now. Swiftly he evaluated everything that he had brought with him, everything that he was wearing upon his body, everything in the dark forest around him, searching for a weapon.

If the Dktar or their masters, the Aensalords, had no weaknesses that he knew about, perhaps he could use one of their strengths against them. The basic theory of oriental combat; certainly that was a smug enough, glib enough solution. Now find one! Everything so far had failed: the blindcoat had not worked, the white noise generators had not masked the racket of Jaeger’s flight. It was obvious that the Aensa’s senses were either much more efficient or different altogether. It was possible that the Aensa had senses that he could not even imagine.

But it was also possible that some of their senses were like those of Terran creatures. Maybe enough like them, maybe not.

Jaeger had the glimmer of an idea.

He hunkered down on the forest path—taking the chance that the Aensahounds were far enough behind to give him a couple of minutes grace—and unslung the bulky camera bag from his shoulders. How he had cursed the heavy awkwardness of the thing as he ran! If he’d had even one free second to do it in, he would have tossed the bag away as an encumbrance. He had not had that one free second. Now perhaps, the lack of that second would prove to be the thing that saved him, because he still had the camera bag, ready to hand when inspiration struck and required it as its single and indispensable prop.

The camera within the bag was one of the newest models available, able to take hundreds of three-dimensional pictures before it was necessary to reload. It didn’t use film. Instead, the images were etched directly into a tiny, complex crystal filament. When the filament had reached its practical limit of information storage, the photographer removed the filament and dropped it into a small vial of powerful chemical fixative that would freeze the molecular structure of the crystal into the already registered configurations, forever.

Eventually, in twenty years or so, someone would get around to designing a newer model of the same camera that would do all this automatically within the camera casing, at the touch of a button. At present, though, the changing of the filament had to be done by hand, which required the photographer to carry with him a number of screw-top vials of sloppy, strong-smelling fixative.

Jaeger held a vial of fixative up to the wan starlight.

He remembered how overpowering and dizzying the fixative was to even his numbed, city-dweller senses in confined quarters, how its strong chemical reek had bitten painfully into his nose . . .

The Aensahounds bayed behind, the screaming howl of their voices shrill with unspeakable yearning and fierce triumph. Jaeger clutched the small vial even tighter. Its contents grew in importance as he listened to the monsters’ hideous calls. The fixative was his only chance. It was all that stood between him and an unimaginably horrible death. He dared not think about that. He wiped the entire possibility from his mind with an effort of will and concentrated on honing the details of his plan. Nothing else existed for him, not the forest of dead trees, not his cold, wet clothing, certainly not his pursuers.

Unnaturally calm, Jaeger reflected carefully for a few more seconds, then made up his mind. He spun on his heel, stalking hurriedly away into the brush at a right angle to the trail he had been following.

The howl of the Dktar slashed at his ears, the sound now edged with a terrifying undertone of lustful gibbering and moaning. They were just across the stream. This was it.

Jaeger wrenched the stopper from the vial and dashed its contents on the ground around him. Then in one great leap he jumped far to the side and circled widely to take a concealed position near his original trail. His footsteps had been muffled as well as he could hope for by the needles of the forest’s pine trees. By human standards, he had made no noise. By the standards of the Aensa, it made no difference.

He could run no more. His mind was as exhausted as his body; he could only wait, lying flat on his belly in the tall weeds, watching the trail from behind the gnarled roots of a great old tree. His thoughts drifted in his weariness, and his fatigue smothered even the grotesquely excited cries of the hunting Aensahounds. He remembered what Dark Lightning had shown him the morning before he left on this mission.

The Dark Lightning that Jaeger owned was a Kurasu model, about three years old. It had none of the newer features that had been introduced by Ford, but Jaeger was satisfied with it. He had been more apprehensive about this mission than usual. Dark Lightning had sensed his fear, had measured his heartbeat and respiration as he leaned back in the padded chair, had read his blood constituents through his earlobes, had decided which program would be the most beneficial and therapeutic. In less than five seconds after sitting in Dark Lightning’s comfortable reclining chair, Jaeger was unconscious.

He was walking along a narrow dirt path. The sun was shining, warm and bright in a cloudless blue sky. The air smelled of moist earth and flowers, a smell he remembered instantly from his childhood. The smell and the warm sunshine made him feel filled to the brim with happiness. He was dressed in a loose robe, an old garment, and he was barefoot. His hair was long and unbound, and his beard was in need of a trim. He began climbing a small grass-covered hill, and he leaned on his wooden staff. After a moment, he saw a tall, strong warrior coming toward him on the path. The other man was dressed in the uniform of the Emperor’s guards, and carried a huge, gleaming-bright sword. “Hullo, old man,” cried the soldier, acknowledging Jaeger’s acquired character of age and wisdom.

“Good day, warrior,” said Jaeger. He wanted to continue his walk after the initial greeting, but the man would not step out of Jaeger’s way.

“I would ask you a question,” said the soldier. “It is rare that I meet venerable sages in my occupation.”

“So?” said Jaeger with a brief smile. “I find that it is the same with me.”

“Then tell me, is there really a heaven after death? And a hell? I must be prepared for a sudden and violent departure from this world, but I cannot accept that fact as I should.”

Jaeger laughed derisively. “That is because you are so stupid,” he said. “You are much too brainless even to attempt serious thought. I would wager that you wouldn’t know which end of that sword to use.”

The soldier was enraged. He tore the sword from its place and raised it above his head. Before he began the deadly downward stroke, Jaeger raised a hand and smiled. “There,” he said, “you have opened the gate of Hell.”

The warrior stared, comprehension growing in his expression. He bowed and put his sword back in his sash. “There,” said Jaeger, “you have opened the gate of Heaven.”

Its program completed, Dark Lightning brought Jaeger back to full consciousness, theoretically filling the man with inner peace and confidence. Now, as Jaeger waited fearfully in the damp coolness of the autumn night, he could only frown ruefully at the memory of the vision. “The gate of Hell, all right,” he murmured. “But these bastards will be damned if they’re going to yield to my superior wisdom. I’ll see the gate of Heaven soon enough, but only because I’ll be bouncing off it with my head in my hands.”

The baying of the Aensahounds rose to a deafening pitch, seeming to set Jaeger’s brain echoing painfully. Even if the chemical didn’t work, he could still fight. He would have no chance at all against the Aensahounds, of course, but perhaps he could get his hands on one of the Aensalords themselves. Then at least the odds might be fairly even. Jaeger told himself this, over and over, trying to believe it. He wanted to believe that he could have a chance, at least to take someone with him.

Something huge and incredibly evil brushed closely by in the dark.

A second later, Jaeger tasted blood and realized that he had bitten his lip. He didn’t remember doing it; all that he could recall was something tall and black, with a sickly blue glimmer from long fangs. The pale light flickered, disembodied, where a head should have been. The thing padded silently past, multiple rows of legs ending in foot-long claws clicking slightly as they bit firmly into the forest turf.

Jaeger forced himself into calmness and fought to remain motionless. The taste of his own blood was salty in his mouth; he wondered if the Dktar could smell it. His plan depended on their unearthly senses being too engrossed in their task, so aroused that they might overlook him just long enough to reach his trap.

Close on the pack of Dktar came something else.

It was tall and black and silent, and moved through the dreadful landscape like a solidified shadow. Only a slight golden glow that played flickeringly about its brow served to mark its presence as it slipped by. The aura that surrounded it was chilling, numbing, almost a physical cold. The Aensalord did not rustle the leaves of the forest in passing.

Another Aensalord separated from the midnight background and spoke to its companion in a rasping buzz. They disappeared in the direction that the Dktar had taken, seeming to glide rather than walk through the night.

After a moment, Jaeger noticed that he was suffocating. He released his involuntarily pent-up breath in an audible sigh.

There was silence.

Jaeger’s fingers curled into tightly clenched fists. He drew his legs under him slowly. The Aensahounds were too close to their prey now for baying; the forest was hushed and still under a brooding cloak of fear.

Soon now the Dktar would be hitting the chemical, and if that failed to stop them, they would break from cover to his right a few seconds later. They would sweep hugely down upon him—

So far, thought Jaeger, the plan was working. So far, the plan meant nothing in the way of his survival. He had no way of guessing what results his action might have; he could not watch the Dktar, he could not listen to them to judge how much longer he might have to live. There was only waiting.

The silence of the hunting beasts was more frightening than their grotesque baying had been. Jaeger chewed his lower lip. He would not have believed, only a few short minutes ago, that he would have been grateful to hear those creatures crying aloud. Jaeger strained his eyes. He thought that he saw pale blue glimmers through the massive black limbs of the dead trees. He told himself that the golden flickers were circling toward him, getting closer. He could not be certain. He squeezed his eyes closed and rubbed the lids. His fingers were stiff. His skin prickled.

There was no movement. There was no sound. A tune ran through Jaeger’s mind, over and over. He smiled coldly; even in this situation, his mind could still find trivial things to occupy itself with. Then, of course, it was possible that replaying the tune was a kind of defense, a distraction to prevent irreparable emotional damage. The tune was simple but elusive; it was the kind of melody that Jaeger could rehearse in his mind easily enough, but which he could never successfully hum or whistle. He heard the tune played on a piano. Jaeger sighed. The fingers on the keyboard were long and slender. The girl was as joyful as the tune, with the same lurking hint of unmeasurable sorrow. The music was “The Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin, an American composer who had lived a little over two centuries before. The girl was Nati. If Jaeger lived through this, he promised himself, the first thing he would do would be to have Nati play the tune for him. Then he’d tell her that he loved her.

He thought he heard a twig snap.

He decided that if he got back to Nürnberg, he could let the piano music wait. Nati seemed very far away.

Never before in his life had Jaeger wanted a drink so badly. He shook his head at that thought, too. He wondered, while he waited helplessly, how much longer his body could go on operating on a full panic-alert. He had been in more than his share of difficult situations before; after all, that was what he was paid for. He had been sure on several different occasions that he would never get out of the dilemma alive; why, then, was he so horribly afraid now? Death was death, and he had never been particularly reluctant before. Why were his legs so weak, his hands so unsteady, his stomach so cold and empty? Was it only that the Aensa were more than human enemies, the monster-shapes of bad dreams? Jaeger couldn’t make that kind of decision, not under those circumstances. He only knew that he was more afraid than he ought to be, and that he would happily trade his entire interest in the Aensa territory for three fingers of Jack Daniels.

The forest seemed to explode.

Dead trunks of trees geysered from the forest ahead, uprooted by the scrambling multiple legs of the Dktar, as the Aensahounds went mad. A howl hacked its way through Jaeger’s head like a dull axe, so much louder than any of the others that it seemed to kill all his own thoughts. The leafy top of a small tree some twenty yards to the side quivered, swayed violently, and then toppled with slow-motion grace, tearing a gaping hole in the skyline; one of the Aensahounds must have thrown its full, ponderous weight against it in a blind effort to escape from agony.

Jaeger showed his teeth in a satisfied grimace; the chemical must have had some serious unforeseen effect on the Dktar’s metabolism. All the better. Jaeger was a mouse, an easy prey that had turned a searchlight into the staring eyes of a night-hunting owl. The chemical was unpleasant enough to the dull senses of a human being. For the Dktar, who knew what pain it had caused? Perhaps the fixative was more than an annoyance; perhaps the stuff was as lethal to the Aensa as chlorine gas was to Jaeger. He could not hang around long enough to experiment. The Dktar would be in poor shape to track him now, but they might soon recover. With luck, Jaeger might manage to survive until dawn, after all.

The noise of the Aensahounds and the confused shouts of their masters reached a pain-filled climax; Jaeger slipped quietly through the tangled underbrush until the clamor had dwindled behind. He was fairly confident that his passage could no longer be heard. Then he turned his face to the north and began to run in an easy, loping stride toward the distant edge of Aensa territory—and safety.

When Corcail Sendijen had been younger, his parents had tried to frighten him into obedience with stories of the Aensa. Corcail Sendijen had been frightened, surely enough, just as most of the immature beings on countless worlds were frightened. The Aensa were no fanciful dream-bogey; they were real, they walked the dirt-packed streets or rode the vast highway networks of most of the civilized planets in the galaxy. Of course, the terrible Aensalords had little interest in the behavior patterns of the individual offspring of their host cultures. Corcail Sendijen never thought of that, though. He was always afraid that some moonless night, a tall, black Aensalord would climb through the round ventilator of the nursery and take Corcail Sendijen off to some Aensa fortress, there to spend the rest of his life as a slave of malevolent enchantment. Corcail Sendijen was frightened by his parents, like most of the immature beings in the surrounding segment of the galaxy. And, like his distant cousins, that was not really enough to make him obey.

At the age of forty, when Corcail Sendijen was approaching his sexual maturity, he entered the physical paralysis that characterized the adolescence of his species. It grew on him gradually; he had been warned, of course, of what to expect, by his teachers, by his parents, and by the priests at the temple. But their language had always been vague and evasive. They spoke of a kind of nervousness which he might expect, a not-altogether unpleasant tension. Corcail Sendijen was apprehensive. What did they mean? He wanted to be prepared, if this thing were really inevitable. It was no use. The teachers and the priests all said that further details might be indelicate and referred him to his parents. His parents were disturbed by his questions. They suggested that it was the duty of the teachers and priests to answer them. His father insisted that he did not want to be responsible for providing inexact or misleading answers. Finally, Corcail Sendijen gave up asking.

Over the period of several months the paralysis grew. He was virtually helpless; he remained on his sleeping platform, which was moved from the communal nursery. He was fed by his mother, given water by his father, but otherwise left alone during the long days and quiet nights. Soon his mother and father stopped feeding him completely. They came in at the regular hour, but left the bowls close to Corcail Sendijen’s side, as though he were able simply to roll over and feed himself. He begged his parents to give him food and water; they would not answer. They did not speak to him again for many days.

At last, the hunger and thirst becoming unbearable, Corcail Sendijen struggled to reach the tempting bowls. His tentacles, which for the most part had hung flaccid and useless during his infancy and childhood, waggled in the direction of the bowls. Corcail Sendijen realized that if he could coordinate his movements, he could bring the food and water close enough to eat and drink. He worked for hours on end; soon his tentacles had developed a suppleness and strength he had never known before. He easily reached the bowls which his parents replaced each day. He felt a fulfilling sense of pride and well-being; the paralysis ceased to be a trial. He passed the hours in serious thought; his parents spoke with him during their visits, and answered his many questions.

He learned that the paralysis had been drug-induced, that the development of his tentacles would have occurred in due time, as the result of normal activity and exercise. The adults of Corcail Sendijen’s world had agreed that the drugged procedure was warranted by the threat of the Aensa. Now the young were encouraged to mature at an earlier age, and with the added effect of increased self-reliance and courage. The best of them were sent off for special training against the Aensa. Those who lacked the will and determination to live were sadly but easily weeded out. Corcail Sendijen understood his parents’ explanations, and he was grateful for the training they had given him as a child, which enabled him to pass the barrier into adulthood.

“Then the bedtime stories of the Aensa weren’t completely untrue?” he asked.

“No,” said Corcail Sendijen’s father. “The Aensa have moved from world to world, stealing the best from each, leaving nothing but dust and ruins behind. Their method is slow. There is little violence—there are more kinds of warfare than mere armed combat. The Aensa prefer psychological and economic destruction. And the Central Council has become weak and divided—they will not interfere with the Aensa without open proof of aggression. They fear to risk war with the Aensa Empire, except as a last resort. So the civilized worlds fall slowly one by one, and our galactic civilization gradually disintegrates. One day the Central Council will no longer be strong enough to make war on the Aensa, even as a threat held in potential. On that day all civilization will end, even as ours is about to be ended. The Aensa have won themselves a beachhead on our world, and it is only a matter of years before we, too, will be mindless beasts whose only purpose is in serving those dark lords.”

“Don’t frighten the boy,” Corcail Sendijen’s mother had said quietly.

“Don’t frighten the boy?” cried his father. “For years that’s all we did. We told him the Aensa would crawl through the drains to snatch him away to their stronghold. We told him they’d sneak up in the night if he wasn’t a good boy, and cut off all his tentacles. We scared him witless, for no good reason. Now we have to scare him again, for the best reason in the world.” Corcail Sendijen’s mother looked like she was about to cry. She turned away. His father touched his two longest tentacles to his son’s, in a gesture of tenderness. “You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?” he asked. “There isn’t much time left for us. The Aensa never give their ‘hosts’ time to prepare a defense. But I want you to remember. Remember your mother.” Corcail Sendijen stared at his mother, who had slumped onto a long divan. He had never seen his mother so weak, so emotional. He didn’t exactly understand what his father was trying to say, but Corcail Sendijen knew that he would never forget that it was the Aensa that had made his mother act so terrified.

Years later, under the strange stars of a strange planet, Corcail Sendijen remembered that scene clearly. “I wish the Aensa had only come to punish bad children and gone away,” he thought. It would have made his life a great deal simpler. He would have gladly exchanged his tentacles to be home with his parents. If they were still alive, still sane.

The noise of the hunt for Jaeger faded gradually away. Corcail Sendijen left his hiding place and scurried across the shadowed courtyard to another shelter in a pool of blackness formed by the angle of two massive walls.

The baying of the Dktar was thin now and far away, but it still caused Corcail Sendijen to shudder; he crouched motionless for a second and stared up thoughtfully toward the cold night stars. The gold-flecked irises of his eyes dilated slowly. He ought to be grateful, he supposed. Some unfortunate creature was buying with its life this precious chance to reconnoiter. The thought of what the Dktar would do with their prey once they caught up with it sent a cold chill rippling along Corcail Sendijen’s scaled spine. He touched one of his tentacles briefly to the short chitinous horn on his forehead (this was the Thirty-First Gesture of the Rites: Sympathy for Those about to Die). Then he turned briskly away. Enough of sentiment. He had a job to do.

This sudden hunt was unexpected luck. Not only were the sleepless Aensahounds gone for once, but those Aensalords—a god shrivel them—that still remained in the citadel all crowded the southern wall, trying to keep track of the chase with infrared scopes and night glasses.

Corcail Sendijen touched the tiny breathing filter concealed beneath his throat membrane with the sensitive tip of a tentacle, making sure that it was still firmly in place; without a device to filter the sulphur compounds from the air on this planet, he would soon lie dead, poisoned. Assured that the filter was still secure, he scrambled across the courtyard, running on his two main locomotive legs, balancing himself with his four large and four small upper tentacles.

About halfway to the broad wall he heard and smelled the approach of an Aensalord. Corcail Sendijen hid himself as best he could in a patch of deep shadow.

There were two Aensa. They glided past slowly, talking in voices that sounded like mixtures of buzzes, crackles, and soft bell-chimes. To Corcail Sendijen’s sensitive ears, their voices were quite audible, though pitched very high and rasping unpleasantly. They were without the defensive devices and offensive weapons that their fellows employed while hunting; thus, they remained ignorant of Corcail Sendijen’s presence. And also, of course, the Dktar were gone. Corcail Sendijen would have been dead hours before if a single one of the hellish Aensahounds had been loose in the area.

The Aensalords talked of death and the dark thrill of the hunt. Corcail Sendijen never heard the Aensa speak without a feeling of revulsion running through him. Now these two Aensalords remarked that it would be best if the trespasser were brought back still half-alive at least. The Aensa Board of Science had developed some ingenious new schedule of torment. Of course, said one of the brutes, even if the subject were dead, there were certain things that could be done to the nerve centers of the body which would provide an effective punishment for the dissociating ego trapped within. This process had to be utilized within an hour of death—

The Aensa chatted of the kill soon to be made as joyously as children discussing a new toy. The other Aensalord hoped that if the trespasser were human, they would vote to keep him this time, instead of sending his body back as a warning. Each Aensa hoped that it would get the heart as its portion when they served the victim; human flesh was one of the more interesting delicacies this world had to offer.

Corcail Sendijen’s body stiffened in the shadows. He wasn’t afraid that they would spot him—his vision in the darkness was much better than even the nocturnal Aensalords. He was only worried that his hatred might make itself too loudly evident. He had been suddenly filled with an almost unbearable loathing for the Aensa, for the castle, and for everything around them.

He knew it was foolish and very primitive to condemn an entire race, or to despise an intelligent species because of its peculiar moral standards. That sort of thinking was prejudicial, less than rational. But yet—Corcail Sendijen narrowed his eyes, listened to the mutter of blood as it coursed through his ears, and thought how very nice it would be to kill these two Aensalords. Very slowly. His strong tentacles curled and uncurled, and the fighting claws at the ends of his outside upper tentacles opened in tense anticipation. And it would be so easy; merely reach out for the slender black figures as they drifted past and then—

Corcail Sendijen shrugged and relaxed. It was a natural enough reaction, he supposed. Disguised as an ignorant laborer, he had worked in the black gang that tended the intricate environment-control machinery buried in the depths of the castle. He had toiled on the planet of the human beings for over three months now. In that time, his hatred for the Aensa had been reinforced a hundred times.

The Aensalords floated silently away and were gone. Corcail Sendijen waved a tentacle in a wide circle (the Sixteenth Gesture of the Rites: Obscene) and scuttled after them like a large, scaled spider. He gained the shadow of the inner keep wall, glanced up along it, and muttered a brief invective. He’d been to the ramparts on top of the wall several times during the daytime on black gang business, but it seemed that there was no way that he could make it now without crossing territory where he would be sure to be seen.

Corcail Sendijen touched the rough stone of the wall with a tentacle tip, briefly considered climbing, then decided against it; a large black blotch against a pale stone background would be too easy a target.

At any rate, he knew that the ramparts only overlooked an extensive lake that lapped peacefully against the ancient walls, surrounding the castle on three sides. The drug that Corcail Sendijen was searching for couldn’t be produced or stored out there, so it had to be manufactured and hidden somewhere within the keep itself.

But where?

It was impossible to produce the stuff in large amounts without leaving some traces here somewhere. Corcail Sendijen made a slow circuit of the inner wall, moving only when flying black clouds shrouded the sky and his scurrying black form might look more like a shifting shadow.

There was a roughness underfoot, an uneven area that did not seem natural. He crouched, looking like a frantic octopus, whipping his probe tentacles back and forth over the ground, “seeing” by touch.

Yes, he thought, ah, yes. There—two ruts. Corcail Sendijen traced the ruts back toward the outer wall. They were deep; only something heavy could have made them, and they were pronounced enough so that probably more than one trip had been made over the same route. He scooped up some dirt with a tentacle and held it close to the sensitive olfactory organ near the top of his skull. Yes, the dirt was freshly turned; something ponderously heavy had been along this way within the hour. But what? And which way had it been going, toward the outer wall or away from it?

And what had it been carrying?

It was likely that the tracks were perfectly innocent, as innocent as anything could be that was marked by the Aensa. The ruts could easily have been made by produce wagons or farm machinery, or even by some sort of armored guard robot, though Corcail Sendijen had seen no precautions of this type in use. But, perversely, he hoped that the tracks weren’t innocent, he hoped it fiercely, even though he knew what an unfair and unprofessional attitude it was. Damn it, he hated the Aensalords so intensely, and they were such an ugly, amoral race that they just had to be guilty of something. If only he could find the concrete proof.

Corcail Sendijen froze. He smelled something unusual, too unusual. It was a smell at once acrid and sickeningly sweet, cloying and sharply biting. It was a smell he had known before, one that did not belong at all in the slumbering courtyard. It was very, very near. Corcail Sendijen’s eyes narrowed into hard golden slits, as he probed cautiously with his tentacles. One of his four larger tentacles touched something warm and wet and stinging; he recoiled involuntarily.

A hunter’s moon above had been wrapped in the arms of an approaching storm, but now it peered through a jagged hole ripped in the clouds by wind. Soft light wavered across the castle courtyard. Corcail Sendijen bent forward intently to study what he had touched.

It was a small pool of bright blue liquid; to Corcail Sendijen’s eyes it appeared to be a deep, luminous black.

He knew what it was.

And he knew what it could do.

Corcail Sendijen was slowly filled with a sense of cold, passionless satisfaction; his fighting claws clicked softly together in an automatic reflex. It was true, then, it was all true, and the organization to which he belonged had not been misled. Corcail Sendijen had not wasted months of his life toiling in the black gang for nothing, after all. His job was just beginning, he knew, and the most dangerous part of the game was still ahead. But at least he had proven that there was a job here . . .

Baying. Loud and getting louder; the baying of the Dktar, unusually strident. They were returning.

Corcail Sendijen jerked himself into spring-taut alertness. They shouldn’t be returning this early; they never did. He spat angrily. Maybe they didn’t, but somehow they were. He would have to act. Now.

Abandoning caution, Corcail Sendijen ran straight back across the courtyard; any one at the walls in a position to observe him would most likely be staring in the direction of the racket that marked the returning hunters. But if by chance they weren’t—he rippled his tentacles in his equivalent of a shrug.

As he ran, Corcail Sendijen wondered briefly what could have gone wrong with the Aensalords’ hunt. Perhaps it had all been a false alarm, or perhaps the Aensahounds had missed their prey, though that was a thing unheard of.

The criss-cross grating of a ventilator shaft appeared in the ground ahead. Taking his time, Corcail Sendijen worked with the catch-release and swung the grating open. He was relatively safe now. This was his escape tunnel, a secret route from the depths of black gang territory to the courtyard of the Aensalords’ keep. It was a sheer, vertical shaft falling a great distance into the depths of the castle, and it was as grim and black as the mouth of the Hell Pit itself.

Corcail Sendijen was amused by the thought as he lowered himself over the edge and into the ventilator shaft; luckily he had never been a very superstitious person. Not since childhood, anyway, he added, remembering the old fears of the Aensa.

But before he pulled the grating shut after him, he stared back toward the Aensalords’ keep and remembered the tiny pool of dark liquid. His eyes grew very narrow.

He would be back.



Back | Next
Framed