Warriors of Latan
Book 37 of the Richard Blade Series
The ballroom of the old country house was large enough to raise echoes. Lord Leighton's voice,J thought, might be powerful enough to raise ghosts, if the old place had any left. Thescientist was past eighty, hunchbacked; his legs were twisted by polio, and he walked with theaid of a cane. He still had a powerful voice, however-not to mention a sharp tongue, which Jhad felt more than a few times.
The two men heard thumpings and footsteps from somewhere above, then a shrill yeeep-yeeep-yeeepthat grew rapidly louder. "He's home," said Leighton.
The scientist appeared to be bracing himself, with his knob-knuckled hands gripping his canetightly. Lately he had taken to using a cane outside his laboratories. Possibly he reallyneeded it, but J suspected it also contained a few disagreeable surprises for any would-bekidnapper or assassin. Tear gas, poison darts, a miniature hand grenade? J wasn't going to askmerely to satisfy his curiosity; as long as he didn't know anything official about the cane, hewouldn't have to answer the questions of nervous civilian authorities.
A loaded cane made excellent sense if Leighton was going to be moving about very much in theworld outside his laboratories. The mind inside that bald head had been one of the greatscientific talents of modern England for half a century. Now it held the most vital secret ofall-the secret of Dimension X. And it was the responsibility of J, as head of security andintelligence, to keep that secret safe, to keep the mission functioning smoothly, preventingthe interference of Russians, Chinese, or anyone else who would want to explore the unknown.
Before J could follow that line of thought any further, something small shot out of a hole inthe ceiling like a missile. It seemed to have homing properties as it shot across the ceilingtoward J, then dropped down on his shoulder.
"Hello, Cheeky," J said.
The missile was a monkeylike creature, about two feet from its head to the base of a long tail.In place of fur, however, Cheeky had glossy blue feathers. In the dusty and decayed grandeur ofthe old house, he was an exotic splash of color.
He started pulling J's hair with one paw while he ran the other through his feathers, combingout dust and bits of plaster. J knew the hair-pulling was a gesture of affection, but stilldidn't want to wind up as bald as a tomato because the feather-monkey liked him so much.
Footsteps sounded behind the two men, and they turned to see Richard Blade striding towardthem. No matter how tired or work-stained or casually dressed he was, Richard always strode,never just walked, unless he was too badly hurt to be on his feet at all. Standing six feetone, he moved his two hundred and ten pounds of muscle and bone with the deceptively easy graceof a tiger on the prowl-a grace that hid more than a tiger's deadliness.
Of course, if Richard Blade hadn't been as lethal as he was, he almost certainly would havebeen dead a long time ago, far away. Richard Blade was the other half of the secret ofDimension X-the only man whose qualities of mind and body let him travel time after time into aseries of deadly and bizarre parallel worlds, the only living human being who could travel intoDimension X and return alive and sane.
Dimension X was discovered quite by accident, like so much else in the history of science. LordLeighton was experimenting with hooking up Richard Blade's brain to what was then his mostadvanced computer, hoping to create a superior combination of human and electronicintelligence. Leighton had, hoped Blade's superior mental and physical abilities would beenhanced by connecting him to a computer, and that Blade would, in turn, improve the computerscapabilities. Direct interaction, it was called, but instead of learning all the informationstored in the computer, Blade was hurled off into the unknown, from which he returned only bythe use of his wits and strength, with a good deal of luck thrown in.
Obviously the ability to explore a parallel Dimension, with lands that mirrored Home Dimension,and use their resources would be enormously valuable to England. So Project Dimension X wasborn.
A few years and a few million pounds later, they'd actually made some progress-although notmuch in proportion to the time and money spent, not to mention the number of scars on variousportions of Richard Blade's anatomy.
As he always did, seeing Blade again after an interval, J studied the younger man closely. Hedidn't expect to see any changes, and didn't. Blade was older, wiser, and more experienced thanhe'd been when they first met. J was head of the secret military intelligence agency MI6A then,and Blade was its newest field agent, straight out of Oxford. Today Blade still walked alone, aman born into the wrong century, better fit for the life of a professional adventurer thananyone else J had ever met.
As Blade appeared, Cheeky let out a wild yeeeep of delight and launched himself from J'sshoulder toward his master and friend. He forgot to let go of J's hair as he did, and a largetuft of it went with the feather-monkey. J winced and rubbed the spot.
"Cheeky, that was bad of you," said Blade sharply, lightly slapping the feather-monkey aboutthe head and shoulders several times.
"Mreeeep?" said Cheeky. He sounded contrite, but it was hard to tell what he was thinking. Theonly person who could was Blade himself. He'd found Cheeky in Dimension X, among the warringlords of the Crimson River, and immediately established a telepathic link with the feather-monkey. The two could communicate by sending each other mental images or pictures. Their mindsseemed to communicate without the use of their senses, and this strange bond tied them togetherin a close relationship that Blade had never known with any human.
That telepathic link, J now knew, might be one of the biggest advances the Project ever made.Or at least that was Leighton's best guess-not that he was ever willing to admit that he was"guessing," of course. He regarded "guessing" as an obscene act. Nevertheless, the peculiarbond between Cheeky and Blade seemed to enable the feather-monkey to travel into otherDimensions, too. Maybe now the scientists were close to discovering how to send other humanbeings to Dimension X.
With a subdued Cheeky on his shoulder, Blade led the way to the part of the house that he hadalready cleaned and redecorated. He had bought the country house for himself a short time ago;it was to be his haven in Home Dimension, a place to house the growing menagerie of creatureshe brought back with him from his strange travels. Built in the eighteenth century andneglected since before the Second World War, the house was going to need even more work beforeit was really comfortable. But at least you could move about through it now without fallingthrough the floors or having portions of the ceiling fall on you.
Blade removed dustcovers from three chairs and pointed to a fine mahogany sideboard on top ofwhich were glasses, bottles of liquor, and a dish of dried fruits and nuts. "If you gentlemencan make free with the contents of the sideboard, I'll go take a shower. Cheeky will playhost."
J looked at Blade. "You almost said that with a straight face. "
"Who? Me or Cheeky?"
"Too bad. I didn't mean it as a joke." Blade set Cheeky on the floor and went out. The two menstared at Cheeky, then at each other.
"If I thought Richard was playing a practical joke-" began Leighton indignantly.
J waved a hand in dismissal of that idea. "He's about the last man in the world to do that. No,I think he really does expect us to treat Cheeky as our host." J went over to the sideboard andpoured out two glasses of scotch for himself and Leighton and handed the mixed fruits and nutsto Cheeky. The feather-monkey picked up the dish, yeeeeped something that might have been"Thank you," and then jumped up on top of the sideboard without spilling a thing from the dishand started nibbling.
Leighton was silent as he took his glass, then shook his head again. "If Richard isn't joking,what does he think Cheeky is?"
"Or who. Remember, he always calls Cheeky 'he.' "
"I'm not likely to forget it."
"Oh, confound it, Leighton! Why don't you stop beating around the bush and come out and saythat you think Richard's gone bonkers! You're thinking it so loudly I can hear you, and I'm nottelepathic."
Leighton drained his glass and set it firmly on a closed container of plastering compound, thenmade a steeple of his long fingers. "I'm not worried about Blade's -sanity, J. I hope yourealize that if I were, I would have said so."
J nodded. Leighton wasn't as close to Richard as he was. J had known Richard longer and better,seeing him almost as the son he never had. Leighton, in contrast, had started off seeingRichard as hardly better than some exotic and expensive sort of laboratory animal. He'dmellowed over time, though-it was only a rumor that he had a computer where his heart shouldbe.
"What bothers me is something else," Leighton went on. "Suppose this bond between Richard andCheeky gets so close that it's impossible for Richard to link telepathically with anyone elsewe might want to send to Dimension X?"
"If there is anyone else."
"Now who's being skeptical about telepathy?" said Leighton, with a twinkle in his eye. "Oh, Iadmit I was one of those who dismissed it. So damned many charlatans running around, it washardly worthwhile picking out the real phenomena. But I can face facts. Richard's not asuperman, not a mutant, not some creature from outer space. He's as human as you and I. Wherethere's one like him, there have to be others."
"First catch your rabbit," quoted J.
"Precisely. Unfortunately, because of all those bloody charlatans, we'll have to devise our ownmethods of finding telepaths."
"And I suppose for that you'll be asking the Prime Minister for another hundred thousand poundsfrom the Special Fund?"
"I suppose so," said Leighton bluntly. "Of course, the Russians have done a significant amountof real research into the paranormal. I'm certain my contacts there would give me asubstantial-" He stopped as he heard the spymaster starting to choke at the idea of asking theRussians for help.
After a bit, J calmed down and took another swallow of whiskey. He really ought to stop risingto Leighton's baits that way! He sipped more whiskey and considered other possibilities raisedby Blade's telepathic ability with Cheeky. For instance, suppose the bond between Blade andCheeky grew so close that Blade ceased to be interested in forming relationships with those whodidn't have telepathic abilities. Could Blade even lose interest in women? That could be
dismissed as a fantasy. Richard would probably flirt with the nurse watching over his deathbed!
Or suppose Richard got so used to the link with Cheeky that he came to want the same link witha woman? Did that mean their elusive telepath, whom they hoped to send to Dimension X whenBlade could no longer perform, would have to be a woman? And what if the woman was too badlyneeded for traveling into Dimension X to stay close to Blade . . . ? Sooner or later, Bladewould no longer be fast enough and tough enough to survive easily in Dimension X, and he wouldhave to be replaced. When that happened, Blade's life work would be over. If there wasn'tanyone waiting to help him make a new life . . .
Things could get a trifle complicated in that event, J realized. He tried to sort out thepossibilities, conscious as he was of a distaste for speculating on Richard's personal life inthis manner. Richard was, after all, a grown man.
Before J could take this line of thought much further, he was interrupted by the return of afreshly showered Blade. The younger man poured himself a strong whiskey and sat down, thenfixed the other with a wry look.
"Well, what grand plans and schemes do you have for your guinea pigs this time?"
"Actually, Richard-nothing," said Leighton. "Or at least nothing except trying to land both youand Cheeky in the same place this time!"
"I should bloody well hope so!" exclaimed Blade, and Cheeky made emphatic noises of agreement.They both remembered all too well their separation during the transition to Kaldak, when theylanded in separate places in the Dimension. "What do you want us to do to help matters?"
"I think the telepathy is the key to getting you and Cheeky or you and anybody else to landtogether," said Leighton. "If you and Cheeky can concentrate on holding mental contact rightthrough the transition, that will give you a better chance."
"You're assuming the new booth is sufficiently foolproof so that I don't need to be alert forits playing tricks?"
Blade nodded slowly. "That's reasonable enough. In fact, even if it did have some bugs left init, there's not much I could do about them during the actual transition. Much better toconcentrate on staying with Cheeky. Right, little friend?" He scratched the feather-monkey, whoyeeeped in agreement. "Is there anything we should do besides concentrate?"
"I sincerely wish I could suggest something, Richard," said Leighton. He summarized hisconversation with J. "I suspect that the most reliable method we've ever had available fortelepathy is Cheeky himself. Unfortunately, there's only one of him."
"I could leave him behind-" began Blade, but Cheeky interrupted him, squeaking angrily andmaking faces at everybody. Obviously he was determined to stay with Blade, sink or swim.
"Your friend doesn't seem to care for the idea," said Leighton dryly. "If we don't send himthrough this time, we won't be able to field-test the telepathic link. I also suspect that thefirst few times we use Cheeky to test for telepathy, we'll need you around to communicate withhim. I do appreciate your willingness to leave him in our hands, but it's not necessary thistime."
Leighton looked meditatively at the cracked plaster of the ceiling while he sipped more of hisdrink. "Actually, there is one more thing you could do. Would you object to reducing the amountof equipment you take with you? Or at least the amount of metal?"
J started to protest. One of the great blessings of the new booth was that it created anelectrical field that flowed evenly around Blade, undisturbed by anything he wore or carried.This allowed him to go into Dimension X properly equipped for both battle and survival. "Whymetal?" asked J. "Is there something wrong with the electrical field after all?"
"No. It's the telepathy I'm thinking about. Suppose it was all the metal in Richard's gear thatdisturbed the link last time?"
J didn't disagree. At least it was a comparatively reasonable hypothesis. However, he couldn'tresist a chance to twit the scientist. "That sounds rather like the old legends about the fairyfolk who were vulnerable to cold iron. What have you been reading lately?"
Leighton started to glare, then chuckled when he realized that J was pulling his leg. "If oneassumes that paranormal powers exist, and that the 'fairy folk' were a people who had them-well, the legends make a certain amount of sense. Or at least as much sense as anything else inthis whole confounded business!"
"No doubt," said J. "And also, if we can equip Richard adequately, so that what he takes withhim will help him to survive but won't look too peculiar to the people of another Dimension, itwill help protect the Dimension X secret."
Blade choked on his drink and muttered something that sounded to J rather like "Bugger theDimension X secret." J almost sympathized with the sentiment. Richard had been through a gooddeal on his return to the Dimension of Kaldak to protect the Dimension X secret. The Kaldakanshad looked upon him suspiciously because of the strange equipment he carried, and in order toavoid interrogation about how he had come to be in Kaldak, he had to go to great pains,including nearly committing incest with his own daughter.
"I dislike admitting this," said Leighton slowly, "but I find myself compelled to suggest thatperhaps there is no such thing as the Dimension X secret." Both J and Blade stared at him.
"Consider the Wizard of Rentoro, who traveled into Dimension X by his own unaided mentalpowers," Leighton continued. "Consider the Menel, the space-traveling aliens who seem to existin more than one Dimension. Consider how little we know for certain about Dimension X and howto get from here to there. Then ask yourself-are we the only people who know about Dimension X?I find it increasingly difficult to be terribly optimistic on that point."
With the proposition stated that way, J found it hard not to agree with the scientist. "Ifthat's the case, we'll have to be particularly careful about security for our research intelepathy. Computers like ours don't exactly grow on hedges, but almost anybody with a thousandpounds' worth of laboratory and equipment can study the paranormal.
"We may not have the only path between the Dimensions. But I'd wager we have the most reliableone. I still want to make sure that everybody else who develops an equally reliable one is onour side."
They could all drink to that.
One moment Blade and Cheeky were surrounded by the wire-mesh booth that was linked up to thecomputer in the Project laboratory. The next moment there was nothing except the indescribableotherness between the Dimensions. Blade lost awareness of his body, and he couldn't tell thathe was gritting his teeth and clenching his fists in an effort to hold the mental link withCheeky so they could land in Dimension X side by side.
The sense of the otherness around him grew stronger, but the sense of Cheeky's mind linked tohis grew no weaker. Blade let himself hope for the best. He also began to expect one of thepsychedelic displays he'd endured in transitions using the old booth with its electrodes,before the KALI capsule and all the changes since then.
Before that happened, there was a sudden pop of changing air pressure, so sudden that Blade hadto swallow to clear his ears. He felt chilly breezes on his face, and underfoot a slopingsurface of loose stones.
Then the stones started to slide, and he started to slide with them. He shouted a warning toCheeky both with his mind and with his voice and threw himself backward, arms outflung toeither side. His head struck the rocks with jarring force, but the downward slide stopped. Therattle and clunk of the sliding stones came to an abrupt end. An unpleasantly long time later,he heard the faint sound of those stones hitting the bottom of something a long way down.
All this happened so fast that Blade hadn't opened his eyes while his trained reflexes wereoperating. Now he looked up to see cold blue sky overhead, and Cheeky's small face peeringworriedly into his own. Since Cheeky's face was completely covered with feathers, it was ratherhard to read his expressions. However, the mental message was clear-a picture of Cheeky sittingand mourning by Blade's corpse, with an implied question added. As clearly as if he'd beenspeaking English, Cheeky was asking, "Are you all right?"
Blade sent a mental picture of himself running around in circles and beating his chest likeTarzan, the picture of health. Cheeky made relieved noises. Then Blade opened the mouth of thenylon carrying bag that held Cheeky snugly on his chest. The feather-monkey scrambled out,jumped up and down to stretch his limbs, then scrambled up the slope to level ground, squeakingin protest as sharp stones bruised his paws. Blade followed Cheeky on hands and knees until hewas sure of his footing, then rushed the rest of the distance.
Blade's rush sent more stones rattling down the slope to vanish into space. The slope lay onthe edge of a canyon, the floor of which was about a mile wide, with a river running throughit. In some places the wall of the canyon was climbable, but where Blade had landed it was morethan a hundred feet straight down. If he and Cheeky had gone over the edge . . .
Leighton and his researchers might someday solve all the problems of reaching Dimension X, butthey still wouldn't solve most of the problems of staying alive once you got there. Blade hopedanyone who went with him in the future would know that, or at least learn it fast. Otherwisethe search for a new Dimension X traveler might have to start all over again right away.
The scenery was spectacular but monotonous-alternating stretches of rock, gray-brown hills, anddense blue forest. On the horizon he could make out high mountains, their lower slopes wrappedin more forest and their peaks white with snow.
Blade decided to follow the canyon down to the river, then follow the river wherever it ledhim. Rivers usually led to human beings sooner or later, with fish to eat and water to drink onthe way. He turned left, heading for the nearest place where the side of the canyon lookedclimbable.
The movement dislodged more stones, and Blade climbed a little farther away from the edgebefore going on. Cheeky made approving noises, and sent a picture of Blade lying a bloody andtwisted corpse among the boulders at the bottom of the canyon.
A moment later, Cheeky's squeals and the rattle of falling stones were drowned out by a deeprumbling growl from the depths of the canyon. Before the echoes of the first growl died,another one came, and a whole chorus after that. Other cries followed, sounding more like steamwhistles than anything made by a living throat. Blade and Cheeky both drew their knives andstepped back a few more yards from the canyon.
Gradually the growls and cries died away. Blade listened carefully and sniffed the air. For thefirst time he noticed a faint miasma floating up from the canyon-the unmistakable odor of largequantities of well-rotted meat.
Something-several somethings-had their lair down in the canyon. They were large, they werecarnivorous, and they sounded hungry, angry, or maybe both. Blade decided to stay out of thecanyon. He didn't want anything able to make a noise like that behind him while he wasscrambling over boulders that would keep him from moving fast.
Before he started off again, Blade unslung the light rucksack from his back and pulled out acloth-wrapped bundle. A few minutes' work, and a tangle of fiberglass, nylon, and plastic partsturned into a crossbow with a two-hundred pound pull. It had been decided by Leighton and Bladethat an old-fashioned weapon like this wouldn't arouse many suspicions in the Dimensions, andthough the crossbow wasn't enough for a battle, it was more than enough to give not-too-subtlehints to even the largest and hungriest carnivore or human hunting party.
Blade slung the crossbow across his chest where Cheeky had been, and Cheeky climbed into thespace in the rucksack where the crossbow had been. This kept Cheeky safe and Blade's handsfree. He still didn't have quite the freedom of action he'd had before he teamed up with
Cheeky, but Cheeky was not only a friend and companion, he was also an extra set of eyes andears. He pulled his weight; if a human companion did as well, Blade would have no complaints.
Secure with his weapon and companion, Blade almost felt like whistling as he set off toward theriver.
It took longer to get down to the riverbank than Blade expected. It had been around noon whenhe emerged in this Dimension. It was close to midafternoon when he finally knelt down by thecold, gurgling water. While Cheeky kept watch, Blade drank and refilled his collapsible plasticcanteen, then watched while Cheeky drank. After that they picked a convenient boulder that gavethem a good view in all directions, from the riverbank to the tree-covered hillsides on eitherbank. Blade unslung his rucksack and started sorting through the contents.
It was pretty much the same amount he'd taken on his last trip-freeze-dried food, spareclothing, a sleeping bag, and a disposable cigarette lighter made entirely of plastic. Therewas also a plastic pocket compass, and aside from the magnetic compass needle, the only metalhe was carrying was the blade of his knife. It was a U.S. Marine Kabar, not as elegant as hisold commando knife but a lot more useful for chopping up kindling, gutting fish, and dressinggame. Again, it was not a very incriminating piece of equipment.
Everything was in the right place and in good condition. Blade would have been surprised if ithadn't been. The Project's Field Operations officer was a former Royal Marine Commando who knewhow a leaky cigarette lighter could be a major disaster if you were a long way from home.
Finally he took off his belt and wrist bracers, and inspected them. They looked like they weremade of ordinary pliable plastic from Home Dimension, but it actually was a very special sortof plastic. It was Oltec from Kaldak, part of the harness of the uniform Blade wore back fromthat Dimension on his second trip.
Normal plastic softened when heated and hardened when cooled. This plastic worked the other wayaround. Thrust into boiling water, the belt and wrist bracers hardened until they were nearlyas tough as steel and much lighter. Laid on a block of ice or immersed in cold water, theplastic softened until Blade could shape it between thumb and forefinger and then put it backon. Most of the plastic was still in the laboratories of the Project's Complex Two, beinganalyzed. Blade had kept enough for the specially designed belt and cuffs, which, whenstraightened out and hardened, became a spear and two daggers with sharp points. He could bewearing nothing but his bare skin and the innocent-looking plastic, and still hold a dozenmen's lives in his hands. Cheeky wore a harness and belt of the same material.
Blade took off his wrist bracers, straightened them out, held each piece over the flame of acigarette lighter, and watched them begin to harden. Suddenly Cheeky gave a soft yeeep ofwarning. Blade looked up, and saw that he and the feather-monkey were no longer alone.
A number of dark-skinned men were climbing down the slope of the far bank of the river, movingsure-footedly from the cover of one boulder to another. They were closing in on both sides ofthe mouth of a canyon that opened on the riverbank. The canyon's floor was level but it twistedso sharply that Blade could see barely fifty yards into it. From somewhere up the canyon acloud of dust rose.
Blade counted at least twenty men. Fortunately all their attention seemed to be on the mouth ofthe canyon. Blade's camouflage coveralls were also doing a good job of hiding him against thedark gravel of the riverbank. He easily found cover for himself and Cheeky before the menreached the bank of the river.
The men's skins were brown with a tinge of bronze, and their hair long, dark, and glossy. Mostof them wore nothing but sandals and leather loinguards; some were completely naked. The oneswith loinguards seemed to have daggers thrust into their belts; all carried spears with wicked-looking barbed heads and tufts of feather at the butt ends. Some had their hair tied up withvividly colored headbands. More than anything else, they made Blade think of a hunting party ofNorth American Indians before the white man came.
The dust cloud in the canyon seemed to be getting closer and thicker. Now Blade could hear anoccasional bellow and the echoing rumble of many hooves. The hunters hurried out onto the openground along the bank and divided into two parties, one on each side of the canyon mouth. Eachparty formed a line that reached from the base of the slope to the water's edge. All raisedtheir spears, and those with daggers drew them. The sound of hooves swelled to a roar.
Then suddenly the canyon spewed out a solid mass of furious animal life. In the lead were adozen shaggy animals, looking like oversized elk-except that no elk ever had a rack of antlerslike these. The antlers were a deep red, at least seven feet from tip to tip, and so massiveBlade wondered how the creatures ever managed to keep their heads up. He could have chinnedhimself on either side of such a rack! Finding themselves suddenly in the open, the elk sloweddown and began to mill around, bellowing to one another.
Five of the dark-skinned hunters rode out of the canyon after the elk. The hunters were mountedon creatures that obviously must have had lizards somewhere in their family trees. Their scalybodies weren't much larger than a Shetland pony's, but their thick legs were a good five feetlong and ended in splayed, clawed feet. Their eyes swiveled like a frog's, but when they openedtheir mouths they displayed a fine set of teeth. The hunters rode bareback, with only ropes forbridles, and carried ten-foot lances or spiked clubs. Blade wasn't sure if these, weapons werefor their prey or to control the strange-looking members of the hunting party that werebringing up the rear.
There were four of these creatures at the heel of the hunters. They were hairy humanoids thatreminded Blade of the legendary Sasquatch or Bigfoot.
The smallest was at least seven feet tall and four feet across the shoulders, with armsreaching almost to its knees. Both hands and feet were clawed, and their long muzzles werestudded with teeth. Great clumps of matted brown hair sprouted all over them like weeds. Bladeeven caught a whiff of their rank odor, which made him perfectly happy to watch the end of thehunt from a distance.
The lizard-riders slowed their mounts and urged the Bigfeet forward with high-pitched cries andprods from their lances. The Bigfeet threw back their heads and bellowed. Blade recognized thenoise; he'd heard it from down in the first canyon. He realized he'd narrowly escaped meeting aden of these creatures in the wild. Then the Bigfeet shambled forward in a crouch that wasalmost a parody of a karate adept's stance.
Now the elk panicked again. Some of them ran left or right, straight at the hunters waiting forthem. Blade saw a hunter stand up, ignoring the lowered antlers coming at him until the lastmoment. Then he leaped aside, catching the antlers in one hand and swinging himself up on theelk's back. Before the elk could figure out what to do next, the hunter stabbed it at the baseof the neck. The elk reared in one desperate twisting convulsion. The hunter flew off butlanded on his feet as lightly as a gymnast, avoiding the elk as it crashed to the ground.
The other elk were too confused to run. Or perhaps they thought the Bigfeet were less dangerousthan the human hunters. They were wrong. Blade saw one Bigfoot leap on an elk's back and jerkits head back until the neck snapped. Another grabbed an elk by the antlers, threw it to theground, then tore out its throat. A third waited until the elk in front of it reared. Then itstruck with both hands, claws outstretched. The elk's belly opened in a wound six feet long,and steaming entrails poured out as it fell. The Bigfoot knelt down by its victim, feeding onthe entrails even before the elk was dead. A lizard-rider rode up beside the Bigfoot and nottoo gently prodded it away with a lance.
In a matter of minutes all the elk were dead or dying except two. One had the sense to run backup the canyon; two of the lizard-riders went after it. The other ran at the right-hand line ofhunters, with one of the Bigfoot after it.
A totally naked hunter stood between it and escape. He raised his spear and made a half-heartedthrust. The spear caught in the elk's thick hide and the animal's speed wrenched it out of hishands. He took a couple of steps after the elk, then jumped back as the Bigfoot headed towardhim. For a moment it looked as if the Bigfoot thought the hunter was its prey, and the young
man froze, staring at the Bigfoot. That moment was long enough to let the elk through. Withopen ground ahead, it broke into a run.
Blade saw that its course was going to bring it right opposite him. He unslung the crossbow,dropped a bolt into place, and had it cocked and raised by the time the elk was in range.Sighting carefully for a head shot-he didn't trust anything else to bring down such a largeanimal-he counted to three, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger.
The elk stopped as if it had run into a stone wall. Then it shook its head, and for a momentBlake feared he'd shot only a glancing blow. As he snatched another bolt from his belt he sawthe elk stagger, then topple sideways so violently that part of its antler broke off. As hefinished reloading, the elk gave a final twitch, then lay still.
It was a minute or so before anyone on the far bank noticed either Blade or his work. They wereall standing around the hunter who'd let the elk through, or else guarding the dead elk fromthe Bigfeet. Blade used this time to quickly disassemble his crossbow. He didn't want to takethe chance of arousing anyone's suspicions. At last someone looked along the bank and saw thelast elk lying dead for no apparent reason. He did a perfect double-take and started lookingaround frantically for his gods only knew what. It was then that he saw the tall man standingon the far bank of the river. He started waving his spear and let out a screech that sounded toBlade like a cat with its tail caught in a door.
The others promptly did the same. Blade held out both hands, palms outward, in the standardgesture of peace. As long as the hunters were only waving their spears instead of throwingthem, Blade was inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if they did startthrowing, the closest man was a good fifty yards away.
Eventually several of the hunters put down their spears and matched Blade's gesture. One whoappeared to be in command pointed upstream, then pointed at himself and the men around him.Blade assumed he was indicating a way to cross the river, so he picked up his bow and toldCheeky to climb aboard.
They reached a ford about half a mile downstream, clearly marked by water boiling white aroundhalf-submerged rocks. Blade was glad the river was no more than knee deep here, since the waterwas icy cold and flowing fast.
Three of the hunters met him on the other bank, all with loinguards and daggers. Seen close up,they looked even more like American Indians. They didn't look too well fed-not exactly starved,but with no fat on their lean and sinewy frames. They also smelled as if they hadn't bathedsince the day they were born.
The hunters were silent and impassive all the way back to the main party. Blade began to wonderhow he was going to be able to communicate in the local language if they didn't say anything!
Normally the transition into Dimension X affected Blade's brain so that he understood the locallanguage as English and the natives understood his English words as their tongue. Thisphenomenon probably had something to do with telepathy, and certainly Blade would have beendead a good many times over without it. He was good at learning languages, but not that good.
By the time they got back to the main party, the two riders who'd chased the elk up the canyonwere back, triumphantly waving bloody lances. Everyone else was busily at work, skinning andcutting up the carcasses into manageable chunks. Off to one side, a pile of guts and bones grewsteadily.
The man who'd seemed in command came up to Blade, walked around him several times, then sniffedat him like a dog. He said nothing, but Blade could make out enough of the conversation amongthe hunters to know he'd be able to understand the local language as well as ever. That didn'tmean he could understand what it was they were talking about, but that was always a separateproblem.
Finally the leader frowned. "Are you of the Idol Makers?"
Blade shrugged. It was his habit in new Dimensions to go along with whatever story wassuggested to him. "I have not seen your Idol, so I do not know if it is the work of my people