MY FIRST thought was for Tuarra. I turned my face to see the girl on her feet, shivering in the coldness of the dawn, rubbing her arms and speaking swiftly to the blue man standing over me. There was a hopelessness in the slope of her smooth shoulders that told me better than any words the trouble we were in. Something of loathing touched her face when she looked at our captors. Blue hands reached for me, yanked me to my feet.
I found myself facing the big blue man who had first stood over me and glared. He was a handsome man in a kilt of spotted fur and broad red belt from which hung two handguns and two swords. A thin fillet of gold about his head indicated his high rank above the gilded horns at his temples. Long black hair hung down to his shoulders where the strands were gathered together and twisted into what looked to be heavy gold nuggets.
As I was held upright before him, the man drew back his lips in a savage snarl and drove the back of his hand full against my mouth. Since my ankles were tied, I went over backward into what was left of our fire. One touch of those coals on my naked flesh sent me rolling sideways out of them, after a moment of agonizing pain. I rolled into the ankles of the man who had hit me, driving his legs out from under him, sending him flying. Sharp exclamations of surprise rose up from the others. The blue man lay where I had felled him, oddly limp. Then I saw a trickle of blood at his temple where his head had hit the well wall.
His followers ran to him, bent over him, probing his injury. One of them looked at me where I had risen to my knees and his lips drew back in a silent snarl. He made a motion with his hands and I was lifted bodily into the air and carried to a horned dral. My ankle thongs were cut; I was dumped unceremoniously onto its saddle, with my wrists still bound tightly behind my back.
Tuarra walked to another beast and mounted, urging her dral close to mine. There was fear in her eyes as she watched the unconscious blue man lifted and placed on a sort of stretcher between two drals. From his trappings, I assumed the man I had felled was an important one among the blue men. How important he was I would learn along the route of march, after Tuarra taught me her language.
As I was watching the other blue men mount up, Tuarra toed her dral close to me; reaching out, she caught the bridle of my animal and urged it to a canter beside her own. One of our captors glanced at her and grunted, then turned away. Evidently she was to be my companion on the ride ahead.
The blue men moved out of the ancient ruins and along an unmarked path across the red desert. They went in double file, with the stretcher carrying their unconscious chieftain in the rearguard. There were fifty or more blue men in the cortege. They rode easily, without obvious interest in their surroundings; apparently they were in home country here, with little to fear.
As we rode, Tuarra pointed a finger at the blue men. “Azunn,” she said, and looked at me. I repeated the word dutifully and pointed in turn to our captors.
This was the beginning. All the long day she talked to me, pointing at various objects, at other times making me understand what she meant by gestures. It is not too difficult to learn a language when all you can speak is that language. Besides, I had an intense desire to be able to converse with this girl who cantered so close to me that her leg touched mine from time to time. Her closeness, her interest in teaching as well as my own in learning, made me a good pupil.
The language of Llarn is fluid, filled with soft vowels and few harsh consonants, so that it is a pleasure to hear and, once mastered, a joy to speak. I had no similar Earth speech on which to form a base. I was as an infant; I must learn to talk all over again. Yet Tuarra made my lessons a constant delight with her soft laughter, her gentle teasings at my hesitancy, her soft applause—which she registered by a purring sound deep in her throat—at my few successes.
We stopped for the night camp near a stretch of hardened ground, an oasis of sorts without shrubbery or vegetation of any kind, yet containing water below, which the Azunn reached by sinking a pipe fitted with a boring device. All Azunn expeditions carry a number of these drilling devices, powered by a turn—screw handle; in a matter of minutes they have clear water flowing from an outlet valve into cooking pots and flasks. The water was sweet and cold, a liquid happiness to the throat after a day of riding across barren desert sands.
Tuarra was my maid and my teacher at the evening halt. She roasted my steak and baked a fluffy sort of biscuit that actually melted when held in the mouth. It had a honey taste to it. She kept up her teaching all through the meal; occasionally a curious blue man would come and stand over us listening, make a laughing comment and walk away.
Tuarra paid no attention to the Azunn. It seemed to me that she did not quite consider them her equals. I was to discover that she was intensely proud, that her rank in her home city of Kharthol was that of daganna, or princess, since she was the daughter of Drakol Tu, dagan-overlord of Kharthol.
To augment her spoken instructions, she began after the meal to scratch numbers and symbols in the hard packed dirt of our campsite. These she also assigned names to, with little sighs of exasperation that she could not make clearer to me the ideas which she had in mind. Infinity to an Earth-man is represented by the figure eight lying on its side. The Llarn conception of infinity is a wavy line. Idea, too, is a word with which we had a little difficulty, as was the verb to love.
Naturally, we did not cover all this ground the first night. The Azunn were many miles from the heart of their homeland. This expedition was a stab into the more northerly territory, desert lands which belonged to no one race on Llarn, but that were looked upon as a badlands, where nothing grew except the dry thoril shrubs and few dwarf plants. They were several days’ ride from home.
My lessons went on, day after day, as my body toughened to the hot red sun and grew used to the scorching heat that rose from the red sands. As my muscles hardened to the feel of the dral between my thighs, I began to feel more at ease on this alien planet. Earth and its memories receded in my mind, became like a dream existence known long ago.
We were on the trail close to twenty days when we sighted a distant city. We had come to the edge of the desert and left it behind us, three marches ago; now we rode through a countryside of undulating hills covered with a coarse green grass and here and there sparse groves of trees. A cool wind blew across this ancient land and soothed skins burned dark by the desert sun.
Tuarra lifted her arm, pointing. “Azorra, the home city of the Azunn,” she told me. “Here rules Morlan Az, the man you hit so hard he has not yet recovered consciousness.”
There was pride in her voice, pride that made me flush with pleasure, though I hastened to point out that Morlan Az had cracked his skull on a well wall. She shrugged idly, as if to say that this was a mere formality; what mattered most was that I had done it.
“I’m surprised they’re treating me so well. If Morlan Az is their dagan, I should think they’d have buried their swords in my hide for what I did to him.”
Her faintly slanted eyes studied me. “It is a custom on Llarn among all its people that when a ruler has been harmed, he himself must set the punishment, if he lives.” She made a wry face. “I do not like to think about your punishment, Alan Morgan. It will be a very painful one. Morlan Az is chieftain of all the Azunn. He is a cruel man, hard and overbearing. He had only one weakness, I am given to understand by traders who have come among the Azunn with their wares.”
“And what might that be?” I asked.
I did not understand the word Tuarra spoke then, and apparently she found if difficult to convey any idea of its meaning to me. Even as she was trying to explain, the blue men increased the speed of their canter to a gallop, all except those guarding the stretcher on which Morlan Az lay in a coma. They brought up the rear, moving slowly and sedately. If it had not been for the fact that Morlan Az lay unconscious, we would have made far better time to Azorra. Our fastest pace had been a slow trot and even that had proven too much for the injured man to stand. And so a week long journey had been made into a march that had occupied close to a month.
The Azunn did not separate Tuarra and me, a fact for which I was grateful, as we neared the great gate of the city. There were high walls about the metropolis and people stood upon them, staring and pointing. A few scarves waved; an arm or two was uplifted and moved back and forth; otherwise our progress was awaited without excitement.
It was only when Tuarra came closer that a wave of sound went among the blue people staring over the battlements. They called her name and pointed, and many laughed in delight, as though she were a rare prize for the Azunn to take.
“Azorra is a very old city,” Tuarra told me, riding with her chin high and staring straight ahead. “Some historians among my own people claim it is the oldest city on all Llarn, having been built more than a million years ago, when a great ocean rolled up to its very gates.
Its occupants seem to know you,” I pointed out. She frowned at that, as if puzzled. Her pride did not quite stretch so far as to imagine that her face and figure was known to the crowds on the walls of Azorra. After a moment, she shook her head, admitting that she could not understand it.
Outside the ruins of Paloranis, this was the first Llarn city I had ever seen. It was built of colored stone, pink and red and brown in alternating slabs that blended together in a pleasing whole. The stone was so old it flaked and crumbled at times so that a fine dust lay upon the streets. Its avenues were wide, paved with stone of varying shades of gray, with Some black streaks running through it. From the walls of the buildings projected solar-grass bubbles that formed viewing screens for the people inside—which afforded glances into their interiors. These solars were crowded with staring men and women.
It was almost as though we were expected. Crowds lined the sides of the wide thoroughfares, silent for the most part, except for that buzz of excitement at first sight of Tuarra. I might also add that I attracted a good bit of notice myself. I was not a dolthos, that much was evident from the heavily tanned state of my skin, and my yellow hair. Every dolthos the people of Azorra had seen, and these were few and far between, had skin the color of a flat white and hair to match. These dolthoin are sea people, dwelling in and about the deepest parts of the twin oceans. They live beneath the sea, they skim the surface of their water world in fleet boats driven by rockets. They want no truck with land people and slay every Azunn or golden skin who falls into their clutches. And so the people stared, first at Tuarra, then at me, all the way to a great building of black marble that Tuarra told me was the palace of Moltan Az. We dismounted, then Tuarra and I were led into this great edifice, side by side, my wrists still manacled by heavy chains.
Through a long corridor set with painted pillars we were conducted into a vast audience hall and toward a massive golden throne on which a blue woman sat. She was in the full ripeness of maturity and her skin was a pastel shade the women of the Azunn have not the darker skins of their men—that might have presented a pleasing sight to my eyes if I had not read the cold hate and bitter anger on her patrician features.
Golden ornaments contained her breasts. About her slim middle was a belt of heavy golden plates from which hung a thin kilt of red silk. Golden sandals, reaching up almost to her calves, completed her garb. The contrast of the gold and the red silk against her pale blue skin was exotic and barbaric in the extreme, an effect added to by her high coiffure in which golden balls were set here and there in thick black hair. The tiny horns projecting from her temples were heavily gilded.
These horns are tiny things, no bigger than the last joint of the forefinger, of white bone and not as ugly to the eye as they might sound. The Azunn often decorate them with bright paints. They are black for mourning, in red and white stripes on festive occasions. Gold is the symbol of royalty among the Azunn, which is why the horns of Morlan Az and his sister, Ulazza, were gilded.
Ulazza was a beautiful woman, for all her pale blue skin, and those golden horns were the touch that added most to her appearance as a barbarian. She was a devil woman, roundly curved and enchanting, despite her inner fury.
In that anger her right fist was taut and hard, beating upon the great golden arm of the throne with monotonous regularity. It was a form of relief for the tension in her, that made her sit upright and glare at us with her emotions clear to read.
“Tuarra of Kharthol,” she said harshly, looking down at the girl to my left. “It was a good day for the Azunn when you were turned over to us.”
Tuarra frowned. “Turned over?”
The woman Smiled. “By the express orders of Gorlun Duv, Overlord of Kharthol.”
“My father, Drakol Tu, is dagan of Khartholl”
The blue woman laughed musically. “You know better than that, daganna. The same coup that pulled your father off the throne and pushed Gorlun Duv onto it will bring better times to my people.”
I could feel Tuarra quivering beside me with curiosity and anger, but it was now my turn to confront this woman of the Azunn. She had been cold toward Tuarra with disdain and dislike. To me she was all hot rage and bitterness. If she could have had her way, I would have been thrown to the torture at once. She leaned forward, thin nostrils faring to her deep breathing. Then she lashed out at me with words. “Decadent child of aporad parents Khorl Son of a thousand dolthoin decayed offspring of a mad ephelos!”
She went on like that for a while. I assume her insults grew more deadly, but I was unable to understand them, my knowledge of the Llarn tongue being still a little vague. I understood enough, however, to know that it would be her pleasure to superintend my dying if Morlan Az failed to recover at the hands of the Azunn surgeons, and that it would take a long time, possibly an entire tarn. The only thing that prevented her from throwing me on the floor and beginning right now was custom. Morlan Az himself must speak the punishment I was to face.
I stood and listened, marveling that such a beautiful woman could be so deadly. After a while she ran out of words and sat there, panting. Then she spoke crisply to an officer at her elbow.
“They are to be confined in the Hall of Dead Things,” the woman snapped. “Neither is to be mistreated. The woman, because she is a state hostage, the man because I want him fit to endure the death my brother assigns for him.” She stared hard at me, then added, “It had been reported that yours was the hand that killed my nephew, the son of my brother, before the domed dwelling of the pink mists.”
I remembered the blue man who had roped me and come at me before I fell through the transparent walls that had held the pink mists. I told her it was not I who killed her nephew but that his death was a matter of his own doing. “Had he not thrown a rope about me, he would be alive this day, I ended, and no sooner were the words past my lips than Ulazza was off the golden throne and striking my face with the flat of her palm.
She was a blue fury, I give her that; and she was strong, too, for her palm stung when it landed. She was panting heavily in her excess of rage. When she paused in her attack, I smiled down at her.
“You are safe from me because you are a woman, Ulazza,” I told her. “Already the only two Azunn men who have attacked me your nephew and your brother—have paid the penalty for doing so.”
It was sheer bravado. I heard gasps rise from the throats of the blue men and women crowding the throne room. Evidently few of their captives dared to defy the Azunn. Well, I was marked for a long death anyhow. What I said now would neither add to nor subtract from my ultimate end.
Ulazza opened her eyes wide at my words. I saw grudging respect deep in their black depths; respect and—something else to which I could not put a name. She went on looking at me as if her interest had been awakened in me as an individual, rather than as an instrument of vengeance.
“Where are you from?” As I had done with Tuarra, I pointed upward. Ulazza shook her head and her penciled brows puckered. I tried to say, “I come from another world, far away from Llarn,” but I am sure I made a mess of it. She gestured with her hand. Armed men came and took us out of the audience hall. Before the great wooden doors closed behind us, I turned and stared back at the massive golden throne. Ulazza still stood before it, looking after me. It was then that I felt my side pinched, viciously.
Tuarra flushed as she said, “Just because she likes you, don’t think to find mercy in Ulazza, Alan Morgan. She is crueler even than her brother. She takes delight in the tortures she dreams up for captives taken in war. You will curse her name ten times, ten thousand times before she lets you die, if Morlan Az allows her the privilege of acting as your executioner.
“I wasn’t aware that she liked me.” Tuarra scowled darkly. Her full red lips pouted and her eyes seemed to catch fire. She drew herself to her full height and lashed out at me with her hand. She did not have quite the hitting power of the blue woman, but my ears rang with her blow even as she turned and stalked away, head held high.
One of my captors grinned. “This one has the rare ability to make all women mad at him, it seems. Well, rather him than me.”
A hand pushed me forward. I followed Tuarra quietly. The Hall of Dead Things was a museum, a magnificent structure not far from the palace. The blue people did their best to maintain it as it had been a thousand years before, when they had moved in off the grasslands of Llarn to become city dwellers. Originally, the Azunn had been nomads, living in tents and making their livelihood from the vast herds of beef animals they maintained. They sold meat and hides to the gold-skins, together with horns and hooves, accepting in exchange metal with which to make their weapons and loom-woven silks and brocades.
Now the blue people, though still savage, were emerging from their nomadic state to something approaching civilization. As a corollary of that desired culture, they sought to keep alive the knowledge which the ancient ones of Azorra had placed inside the Hall of Learning.
On the floors above the mezzanine, there were many small rooms. Tuarra and I were to be assigned one of these. Guards would be placed outside the building, front and rear, at the oily doors giving entrance and exit from the Hall. Otherwise, we were free to roam the building where and when we would.
The mezzanine itself was part of the museum. As we paced through it, I found my gaze being drawn to the walls which were recessed to form dioramas and tri-dimensional Scenes out of the forgotten past of Llarn. I caught glimpses of strange boats with triangular sails and high, curving rows, of painted oceans with towering mountains in the background. There were no mountains like that on Llarn today, I felt sure, and could only guess at the incalculable age of this world I was on. I gazed on scenes where men and women whose skins were like my own laughed and played at games and walked under three great moons.
There were no moons on Llarn now, only that great band of brilliant matter always circling the ancient planet. I made a mental note to ask Tuarra about this when she got around to acknowledging my existence again. At the moment she was too engrossed in haughtily tossing her head to speak to me. She went into the room assigned to us and lay down on a pile of sleeping silks spread close to one wall. She put a forearm over her face and appeared to sleep. I was too excited, too filled with the spirit of my adventure to doze in the middle of the day.
“Why not walk through the Hall with me?” I asked her. She made no reply, but I saw her lips stiffen. “This is a marvelous opportunity for me to learn more about your world,” I went on. Still there was no reaction. “I’m sorry if I offended you by turning back to look at Ulazza. After all, she’s the first blue woman I’ve ever seen.”
When she remained silent, I said gently. “I’ll leave you alone then, for the spoiled little child you are.” Ah, she quivered to that remark! The forearm came down and she half rose to an elbow. Her lips parted as if to speak, but she thought better of it. Instead she lay down, turning on her side so that her face was to the wall.
I sighed. She was so lovely and so small, so helpless, a captive to the barbaric might of the Azunn, that I wanted to hold her in my arms, comfortingly. Words of apology trembled on my tongue, but I did not speak them.
Instead I turned on my heel and went out in the dimly lighted corridor, closing the door gently behind me. The fact: that I had the run of the building roused a faint glimmer of hope in my chest. Somehow, I had to escape from Azorra. How I could get away from the blue people was a question that seemed impossible of solution. I could not go on foot; the Azunn would soon overtake me on their fleet drals. I could steal a dral, I suppose, but search parties would follow its tracks and recapture me. And there were no fliers among the seven cities that comprised the world of the Azunn.
Nevertheless, I ascended to the rooftops of the Hall, finding them flat in many places, steeply ridged in others. I possessed a clear view of the city and the grasslands that lay in green richness on all sides of its high walls, but found no inspiration in them. Those oceans of grass, where once flowed the waves of a true ocean, were far too vast to be crossed with any hope of success except in a flier.
It was with a heavy heart that I turned back inside the building. I walked more slowly now, for I had no desire to sit back to back with an insulted Tuarra. I moved along corridors fitted out with display cases in which were the ancient costumes, on lifelike dummies, of the people who had lived long ago in Azorra. At one time Llarn must have been a colder world than it was now, for the men and women both wore bulkier garments, of fur and cloth. They were a handsome people, too. I was unable to read the dusty plaques attached to the cases, but the displays themselves were more or less explanatory.
I found a science room and studied the machines and engines which had powered the boats and aircraft of the Ancient Ones, the motors that had lighted and heated their cities and their homes. Some of these I found vaguely familiar, for they were constructed in fairly similar fashion to their Earth counterparts. Others I did not understand at all, for many operated on scientific principles of which I was totally ignorant.
I found paintings and splendid groups of statuary, and an exhibit that held the stuffed remains of what at one time must have been ferocious beasts. Felines with horns, horses with horns, birds with horns, I found in great abundance. All animal life, even the blue people, had horns growing from their skulls. It was the reason Tuarra did not consider them quite human.
In one corner I came upon a family of blue apes. Horns protruded from their foreheads as they did from those of the Azunn and I began to wonder if the blue people had evolved from them. I had no way of knowing. When Tuarra was talking to me again, I would ask her.
One thing alone eluded me in the museum. Usually at least on Earth there is always a wing or a section of a museum devoted to weaponry and armor, to swords and firearms. I found no such display, no matter how hard I looked. Knowing that I could not begin to think of escape until I possessed some means of defense and attack, I searched more carefully.
Here and there in my wanderings I discovered doors, some bolted and some open to the touch. These doors led into other wings of the vast building, in some of which I found models of early Llarn cities, steles and artifacts which related the story of the planet when it was young. Someday I would learn to read those carved surfaces, but at the moment I was infinitely more concerned about a weapons room.
I was positive that one existed. The people of Llarn were too warlike not to have a past that was studded with militarism. Somewhere in this great stone pile was a wing that held such weapons.
I wandered far and long. As I walked I noted that the rooms never grew any darker though their windows showed it to be dusk outside. Gradually it was borne in upon me that the metallic strips running about the base of the walls and the edges of the ceilings were emitting a blue glow. The glow was a gradual thing, attuned as it was to the band of brilliant matter eternally circling the planet, which fed the strips with a radioactive form of luminescence. As the day brightened, this radiance died out. As the day darkened, it grew in power so that there was no visible moment when the bands began their glow. Inside the museum, it seemed always to be daylight, even though the windows turned black with night.
Then I chanced upon a corridor I had not as yet been in. At its far end were two great double doors, strongly bolted. The bolts looked as if they had been added long after the doors had been standing. To guard against some terror that lay behind them? To keep out a menace which had no other way of gaining admittance into the building? I had no way of knowing but I was too anxious to find the weapons wing to worry about new dangers.
I slid back the bolts with a creak of metal long unused. I yanked hard at one of the doors and it opened slowly. I stepped into a galleried room, almost as wide as it was long, and pulled the door shut behind me.
The glowing metal strips made this room as bright as the others. My heart lurched in delight. Along every wall were great wooden racks fronted by sliding glass panels. Behind these transparent doors were swords, pole-arms, spears, of every make and variety. My palm itched to open a case and lift out a sword and its scabbard, to hang it to the chains riveted to my wide leather belt.
I merely paced along the walls, studying the weapons hanging in their racks. Finally, when I could resist the urge no longer, I opened a small case and drew out a long dagger with an ornate hilt and crosspiece. The braiding on the hilt crumbled to powder as my hand went around it, leaving only the thin metal tang. This metal was strong, unharmed by time, as I proved by rapping it hard on the marble floor. I thrust the dagger into my belt and moved on.
At the far end of the weapons chamber I came upon another door. It resisted my every effort to open it. Yet it had a lock of sorts and so, thrusting the tip of my dagger into it, I wriggled and rotated the point to such good effect that I heard a protesting creak and the lock slid back. My palm on the door thrust it open.
Ahead of me lay a staircase leading into blackness. The metal strips did not go into the museum cellars. Well, no matter. It was a simple matter to pry a small strip loose and carry it down into those dark subterranean depths.
I found myself in a maze of tunnels. Everywhere there was dust that seemed to have been undisturbed since before the blue men had come to dwell in Azorra.
The metal strip I held gave off its weird blue glow, lighting the way ahead of me for more than fifty feet. There were jars here, laden with gray dust, heavy cases and trunks along the walls. I wondered what strange objects I might find were I to open the lid of one. I did not pause for idle curiosity, however. I was too concerned with finding my way through this underground labyrinth.
Hope was a strong flame in my chest, now. If I could find a way out of these cellars into open country, beyond the walls of Azorra it might be possible to escape. Our captors would not know we were gone until long after the event. Tuarra and I would be on foot, true, but we could still walk the five hundred ern between Azorra and the ruins of Paloranis. I put out of my mind the awful trek across those burning red sands. No need to think of them until we were safely out of this city.
There was a faint blue glow ahead of me. My heart began pounding in my rib case. Had I been walking in a fool’s paradise? If there was a light up ahead, it meant human habitation. I wondered what kind of man would live this far below the metropolis, content with stale air and dust for his only companions. But I was forgetting. These metal strips that afforded light in Azorra were automatic things. They worked with the radiation they received from the band of minute moons that circled Llarn. They could have been operating silently and unseen for half a million years.
I thrust my own metal strip into my belt and drew my dagger. As well go armed into that chamber up ahead as blunder in unprotected. I walked on silent feet. I turned a corner.
An old man lay asleep on rotting rags. He must be asleep, but he did not breathe; at least, his chest was motionless, nor did his nostrils quiver to undrawn breaths. He was naked except for a black and silver kilt and a weapons belt that carried nothing on it besides two black leather purses. I came closer and with my dagger poised to strike, put a hand on his chest beneath which his heart should be.
He was cold and still. Dead, then. I breathed easier, wondering how many centuries might have passed since he had lain down to sleep. In this dry cellar air his corpse would remain unrotted until Llarn fell into its sun.
From the body I turned to look about the chamber. On the walls were scrawled odd words and stranger numerals. It was as if the man had spent all his days in calculating abstruse mathematical problems, then had lain down to die. I found a jar or two that held the remnants of what once might have been a liquid. All the jar contained now was a dark, sticky substance with a sweetish odor.
I was sniffing at the stuff when I heard a sound. The dagger came into my hand as I whirled. The body had not moved. Ah! Again. I heard the sound, coming from the tunnel up which I had walked. An Azunn search party, hunting for me? I stepped into the shadows cast by a recessed door and waited.
The sounds were coming faster now, as if someone or something were trotting more swiftly. My hand tightened on the bare metal of my dagger’s tang.
I was bent forward in a crouch, staring straight into the most hideous face I had ever seen. The face was that of a beast—a blind beast to judge by the white eyes that stared at me without moving. There was no iris, no pupil, only that cloudy opalescence. Two great fangs like tusks jutted from a thin mouth that gaped to show big white teeth. I have no comparison by which to measure it with Earth animals. It was a rodent of some sort, as big as a tiger, with a straight hairless tail and sharp talons thrusting from its mighty paws. Its head lifted as it sniffed me out.
Its mouth opened and a high-pitched wail of indescribable malevolence almost shattered my eardrums. At the same moment, the thing charged.
Without the dagger I would have been a dead man almost instantly. I leaped sideways, striking at the paw that came ripping toward my chest even while the beast was in midair. Blade and paw met and the sharp metal of the dagger cut into the flesh of the animal. The rodent screamed in mixed pain and rage. It fell lightly, turned.
Long used only to the narrow tunnels in which it hunted its prey—what prey could there be in these labyrinthine ways for such a meat-eater as this?—the animal was slow in maneuvering. It had counted too heavily on that first piercing scream to paralyze its prey. When its paws failed to sink into living meat, it was baffled.
As it swung about I was moving sideways, dagger at the ready. The thing was fully a hundred pounds in weight and stood close to three feet at his shoulders. It was a mean antagonist, one which I would sooner have given a wide berth, but it was allowing me no choice.
The brute turned, but slowly. Again I danced to one side, knowing now it could not see but that its actions were governed solely by its keen ears. I saw those ears twitching, moving this way and that like antennae.
With a hand that made no sound I lifted one of the dark jars filled with a sticky substance. I tossed it across the room. Instantly as it crashed the beast whirled, its ears vibrating as it gathered muscles to leap.
I hurled myself onto it, stabbing deep behind the left foreleg. Three times I struck before the rodent humped its back and flung me from it. The thing was immensely strong, amazingly fast. I was flying through the air and seeing it whirling and leaping for me—huge pads outstretched, razor sharp claws extended to rip before I knew what was happening.
I thudded into the far wall with the wind knocked from my lungs. The brute dropped on top of me. My every muscle was strutted against the excruciating pain of disembowelment; I had seen it lifting its hindquarters for the movement even as it flew through the air.
The momentum of its body drove me into the wall a second time. My head snapped back against solid stone and I was out only a few seconds. When I came to, I found myself smothering under the weight of the heavy rodent. It was dead—it must have died in mid leap.
I thrust the loathsome thing from me and got to my feet. And the hair lifted on the nape of my neck. The dead man was gone.