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Volume 6084

Chapter 25: REUNIONS
[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
 Narrative Transmission 24
Troubled Spirits

      FREED AT LAST from the horror that Dalon meant for him, Jer’ok traveled as far as he could at top speed.  The beast-man fairly flew through the trees, moving faster than ever he had before.

      ONCE PAST THE fever’s crisis Amber recovered fully and was soon engaged in all her previous activities.  But beneath the surface calm ran a deep current of disturbing dolour.  Guy suspected Amber herself remained unaware of its source.

      Rand hardly took any note in the change in Amber.  He moved through the daily routine with all the interest and spirit of a second-rate automaton.  Locke’s heart went out to the Tuathan despite his own expectations.  Knowing Rand as he did, Guy kept his silence.  Somehow Southall was managing to keep Amber from suspecting the incurable hurt he had suffered at her hands.  For that feat Locke mentally applauded the Tuathan.

      It was not until many years later that Amber confessed to the Diyalan the strain that had sprung up between Rand and herself on her recovery.  When she wondered aloud how it was that young Rand could have detected her inner sense of imagined betrayal of him, Locke even then held his tongue.  She had no need for any added sense of guilt to sting her conscience.

      THE WOUNDS SUSTAINED at the hands of the Dalonians soon faded.  Jer’ok’s unmarked copper hide glowed again with splendid good health.  But neither distance nor time could cleanse the beast-man’s troubled spirit of the shame clinging to his person as some unwanted companion whom nothing could dismiss.

      Jer’ok was shaken by the awful fury that had claimed him.  Worse still was the memory of that inner daemon which, in a moment of weakness, he had allowed to master him.  Weakness in any form was a novel experience for Jer’ok, and he found it not at all to his liking.

      Never before had the beast-man felt so completely alien.  What he had done was a thing of disgrace not merely among the beasts he honoured but even among the humankind he had reason to despise.  That Reyn had once loved him offered no relief.  Nor did it matter at all to Jer’ok that the she he had ravaged had inflicted upon him merciless cruelty.  In the noble heart of the disgusted son of two worlds there could be no justification for his depraved act of violence against a she, Aranda
or san-k’aranda.

      Jer’ok found himself grateful for his solitude.  There was no other to know of his depraved nature.  Like Reyn the beast-man was utterly unforgiving.  His was a bitterness against his self bordering on hatred.

      Restored to his cherished freedom at a price beyond affording, the beast-man roamed his beloved jungle seemingly at random.  In this newly regained freedom Jer’ok suffered no master, whether it be time, direction, or even his own simple needs.  He acted solely on the whim of the moment without direction or acknowledged goal.  He was unaware that one cannot flee what dwells within.  And then the terrain commenced to take on a familiar aspect.

      At first the beast-man ignored the sense of familiarity, but it persisted in nagging at his stubborn mind until he became quite impatient with himself.  What did it matter in any event?  There was nothing for which he sought.  Where he hunted and where he made his lair had become matters of little consequence.

      All that mattered was that the former be as much a challenge as a means of filling his insistent belly while the latter offer a minimum of security from prowling predators and perhaps even a modicum of comfort.  The beast-man was not so fussy as the tiny k’aranda that constantly scold as they scamper among the treetops in endless search for a particular delicacy or the most comfortable branch on which to curl up for sleep.

      Today the beast-man was in a lazy frame of mind.  His surroundings were of little concern.  The day was unseasonably hot so, after a brief swim and light meal of a variety of items best left unidentified, Jer’ok searched out a tall tree from which he might observe the myriad events that made up his days.  There he set about the repair of his frayed reed rope.  He had been injudicious in attempting the rescue of a fellow predator from a quagmire of quicksand.

      That ungrateful beast had misinterpreted his actions and tried to attack as soon as claw was set on solid earth.  Jer’ok was fortunate indeed that only the rope had suffered for his dangerous lack of discretion.  Sheer luck and a tall tree capable of bearing the weight of a man but not much more were all that preserved his life.  The rope must be repaired before another use, but, in truth, Jer'ok was distracted today.  In the stifling heat his head persisted in falling back against the trunk of the accommodating patriarch of the forest, and his hands would neglect their task while the beast-man dozed fitfully.

      A chill rain commenced to fall in the late afternoon to make first twilight both early and unpleasant.  Jer’ok passed that night in a damp cave that offered scant protection even from so mild a storm.  The disgruntled beast-man emerged in a sullen mood.  He found himself uselessly longing for the heat of two shadows when he would at least be dry.

      But Jer’ok’s sleeplessness had not been entirely the result of the dismal rains.  The sensation of familiarity constantly dogging his steps of late was yielding to an equally persistent perception of danger.  As it became stronger Jer’ok deigned to devote a portion of his active mind to it.  It occurred to him somehow that the danger was not to self but to someone he held dear.  The beast-man shrugged off the premonition.  There was none on Ashtar he held dear.

      GUY WAS LOST in his study of several overlooked tapes he had extracted that morning from a small compartment fitted under the command module of the Southerly flyer.  Rand and Amber had embarked upon a hunt for fresh meat.  Guy stretched and yawned as he switched off the console.  Only then did he notice how dark it had become.  His companions had been gone for hours.

      The lieutenant moved to the sturdy door of the shelter.  Across the clearing he could discern nothing of the individual trees.  Locke strained his eyes against the unusual darkness in vain.  He listened, but if there was any sound to reveal the presence of the two, it was beyond the ears of a Jer’ok.

      Locke had to admit there was nothing he could do.  He had to wait out their return.  On an impulse he gathered kindling and enough small branches to burn into the night.  If nothing else, the activity kept him occupied.  When his fire was steadily burning, he lit his pipe and settled back to wait with some semblance of patience.  But it was not a night of calm for the Diyalan.

      A vague uneasiness became more nearly tangible as the Ashtarian night descended.  One by one the sounds of the night issued from the surrounding jungle.  Their exotic chorus was lost on the lieutenant.  Without conscious effort his ears awaited only the discordant note suggestive of the return of his companions.  It came just before dawn.

      In spite of himself Locke had dozed from time to time only to awaken with a start to stare about for visual clues for whatever subtle change had alerted him.  This time there was a difference.

      Locke remained attentive, rising to his feet when one portion of the dark forest was abruptly silenced.  There it was again:  The clumsy brushing of a large body interrupted the gentle swaying of the tangled growth.  A muttered curse followed. It was Rand's voice, but Locke had never known the Tuathan to resort to such language.

      With that, Guy Locke ran across the clearing and into the jungle toward the place from which the sounds of the noisy passage were emanating.  Rand Southall fell heavily against him and would have fallen on his face had Locke not been prepared to support his weight.

      For one insane moment the Tuathan struggled with superhuman strength against Locke's restraint.  Southall's breath was coming in strangled sobs.  He was so badly cut by the tearing thorns and whipping branches through which he had forced his way that the lieutenant at first thought he had suffered some grievous wound.

      “What has happened, Rand?  Here . . . I am not your enemy.  Take care; I don't want to hurt you.”  The two struggled on until it dawned on Locke that the Tuathan was alone.  The lieutenant shook the other in an effort to restore him to rationality.  “Rand, what has happened?  Where is Amber?”

      Either Southall had come to the end of his strength, or he finally recognised as friend the man who was attempting in vain to calm him.  Or perhaps the sound of that cherished name served to restore him to his senses.  He slumped bonelessly to the ground at Locke's feet where he took a deep, shuddering breath.  The Diyalan waited for Southall to regain control.

      “She is gone.”  There was naught but utter defeat in his voice.  “They struck me down and took her before I could do anything to protect her.”

[Log, ON BOARD SHIP {DELETED}, Date {deleted}]
Narrative Transmission 25

      AS SOON AS Rand caught his breath and restored his wonted calm, he and Guy set off in a futile search for Amber and her captors.  Rand was adamant in his insistence they could not be Khazarish.  In fact, the creatures were unlike any he had ever encountered.  They almost seemed like folk, but of smaller stature and far more advanced than the hunterfolk of Jer’ok.

      Neither man held much hope of so much as picking up the trail of Amber’s abductors, but there was a strong need in both of them to take some action, however useless, on her behalf.  Both secretly longed for the intervention of Jer’ok.  Each time one of them found himself indulging in that pointless fantasy, he would steal a glance at his companion in hope the other was not suddenly endowed with the un-Chimurian capacity to read thought.

      Surprisingly, they did find the trail, as the invaders had recognised no reason to take any precaution against pursuit.  The two men were further aided in their search by Amber herself.  They knew she lived and had not yet given up hope of rescue, for she was finding subtle ways to signal her passage as she was borne ever farther from her jungle home and her companions.

      Secretly Rand was touched to learn the woman had sufficient faith in his abilities to assume a rescue effort might have at least some small chance for success.  Guy marveled at her staunch courage under circumstances which would reduce the majority of the fair sex of his acquaintance to stark terror, helpless to act on their own behalf.

      As the two men tracked the invaders deep into unfamiliar territory they commenced to lose ground.  It soon became obvious that those they followed were moving in a single-minded pursuit of a specific destination.  And they were now for some unknown reason making haste.  Guy was galled by his lack of tracking ability.  To think he had been honoured among his fellow officers as the most skillful!

      The lieutenant recalled once advising Lee of his awards.  The beast-man had eyed him in protracted silence.  Only excellent manners forestalled a burst of incredulous laughter.  But Locke's ability was no longer the source of the slightest amusement.  Guy fretted over the loss of ground imposed by the constant need to relocate the spoor of the quarry.

      Guy did not advise Rand Southall of the additional fear gnawing at him upon the discovery of the burst of speed exhibited by Amber’s abductors.  He suspected that the Tuathan already suffered from the same foreboding:  Amber’s life depended on their scant skills, and time had suddenly become of the essence.

      As if to mock the inadequate efforts of the Chimurians, it soon became apparent that the rapidly departing intruders had taken to the trees.  Lieutenant Locke at first refused to admit defeat.  But at the, for once, more reasoned arguments of Rand, he finally agreed that their only hope for success required them to proceed on the ground in the direction their quarry had been taking before entering the trees.  It was a slim hope but infinitely better than none at all.

      Nevertheless the two men were bone-tired and needed more than the brief pause for rest they dared steal from the search for their brave Arene companion.  Perhaps each had finally begun to admit to himself that it no longer mattered.  The rescue of Amber Laxton was beyond them in any event.  But, just as neither had admitted his futile fantasy of Jer’ok’s presence, neither of them now admitted to his loss of hope.  After the passage of long minutes they rose of one accord to resume
their disheartened march.

      They walked on with measured pace for the better part of the day before Locke halted Southall with a muttered exclamation and a raised hand.  Rand lifted his eyes in passive curiosity.  What form of violent death accosted them now?  The Tuathan’s tired eyes grew wide with surprise.

      “It cannot be,” he exclaimed hoarsely.

      “But it is,” was the Diyalan's quiet response.  “It can be no other.”

      He raised his arm in greeting.  The dark head turned slowly at the sound of their low voices.

      “Jer’ok!” the lieutenant called in astonished relief.  “It is Guy Locke and your kinsman, Rand Southall!”

      IF JER’OK HAD fairly flown from Dalon, he now called up unknown reserves for an even speedier return in the wake of the Dalonians.  He had no difficulty recognising Amber Laxton’s abductors from the breathless description provided by his exhausted cousin.  Impatiently, the beast-man had commanded the Chimurians to return to their camp.  There was little they could accomplish that Jer’ok could not do at least as well on his own, and they would slow him.  The beast-man knew well the likely fate for which Amber was destined.  He knew he must take Rand Southall’s mate from Dalon before the next full moon.

      It was almost first twilight three days later before Jer’ok surfaced in the familiar pool beyond the walls of Dalon.  He calculated that Amber had been carried into the city sometime during the previous night.  If he was right, he was almost certain second twilight would find her on the altar from which he had so recently made his escape.

      If Amber was to live, Jer’ok-ta, wily son of Ashtar, must come to her aid before near-dark.  His namesake could hardly be expected to effect a second miraculous rescue.  The beast-man did not pause to consider the consequences to himself should he fail in his hazardous mission.  He was haunted by the grim vision of lovely Amber sent to a horrible death by the pitiless hand of High Shamana Reyn.

      Before encroaching darkness could make impossible his ascent, Jer’ok made his stealthy way to a remote section of the city walls.  He knew from his days in Reyn’s company that the Dalonians believed the city impregnable at this aspect.  As a result it was poorly guarded.  Since the section he sought was also in proximity to the remote apartments of the high shamana, it served Jer’ok’s purposes perfectly.  Like second shadow the beast-man dropped to the ground and stole from shadow to dark shadow until he was directly below Reyn's chambres.  Nothing had yet betrayed his presence to the enemy.

      The beast-man was not lured into the slightest misstep.  He tested the air cautiously and listened for the faintest sound to reveal the presence of a guard or some innocent passerby who would might sound the alarm presaging the destruction of both Amber and her would-be deliverer.  He glanced once to the sky and judged there to be plenty of time.  Reyn would not leave for the tower until second twilight had passed.  Amber would still be in the death cell.

      At last satisfied that the way was truly clear, Jer’ok began to ascend the rough wall of the holy ones’ dwelling.  It was not long before the beast-man gained the narrow ledge beneath the openings in the several rooms of the high shamana’s residence.  Carefully he edged his way to Reyn's audience chambre.  A heavy woven hanging had been dropped over the aperture to protect the occupants from storms, but Jer’ok detected the cold voice of Reyn from within.

      He could not make out her words, but it soon became apparent she was interrogating someone who could not or would not reply.  Jer’ok caught his breath as one explanation for the soliloquy occurred to him.

      From past experience Jer’ok was virtually certain there would be at least two guards attending Reyn's audience.  If he had been cautious before, the beast-man now became the very essence of stealth.  Careful not to disturb the hanging, he waited for Mael to aid him and slipped into the small space behind the woven material when the accommodating wind next carried it inward.

      A worn spot was located in such a position that the beast-man could observe Reyn herself as she sat in judgment of the one who stood before her raised dais.  By carefully turning his eyes to one side, Jer’ok was able to espy the supplicant before the high shamana.  Only the schooling of years among the Aranda held the infuriated Jer’ok in check.  It was Amber herself whom Reyn questioned.

      While the stunning presence of the exquisite priestess did nothing to rekindle in Jer’ok either his former desire or that other flame the she ignited, the sight of the tiny Arene she replenished in the lonely beast-man all the hopeful dreams of a future among humankind he had thought destroyed for all time.  He closed his eyes to regain control.  The she was not his.  No matter to whom she belonged – if he did not act, she would soon be lost beyond hope of human intervention.

      With the patience of the predator who has chosen his prey and now seeks an opening, Jer’ok waited and listened.  His eyes were fixed on the obscured countenance of the high shamana.  As she spoke they grew colder.

      Reyn had not failed to detect a certain resemblance between the diminuative captive and the outlander who had dared reject her – and worse.  There ensued a series of increasingly crafty questions that went unanswered for the simple reason that the Arene woman had no comprehension of the ancient language of Dalon corrupted with the influx of Aranda.  There was only one word of Aranda that was familiar to Amber's ears.

      When the sound of it emerged from the lips of the haughty barbarian woman in this place of unknown dangers, Amber’s stubborn resolve failed her.  Amber could not keep the pathetic hope from illuminating her features.  Perhaps the name Jer’ok meant that this awesome woman was a friend after all.

      Amber recognised her fatal mistake instantly.  She could not fail to see the change in the alien woman's face.  She wondered how it was the beautiful leader of these hidden people would be jealous of her.

      There was no need to comprehend the spoken language of Dalon to know that a sentence of death was being pronounced.  Jer’ok, too, saw the expression that darkened Reyn’s features upon Amber’s unseen response to his name.  Then he heard the ritual acceptance of the proffered sacrifice and, in that moment of truth, Jer’ok knew that his only wrong in Dalon had been the staying of his hand when Reyn was in his power.  For the first time the beast-man knew the meaning of the odd term “inhuman,” used by san-k’aranda to describe one among them who so wronged others as to be beyond atonement.

      The words of condemnation were still on Reyn’s lips when the chambre was filled with the hideous sound of Aranda challenge.  Then Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda himself filled the room with his physical presence.

      Before the stunned attendants could react or reinforcements summoned, the rampaging beast-man had flung aside the two who guarded Amber and gathered his beloved she into his arms.  He paused before the high shamana, who shrank away from the intensity of his glowering glare, too stunned to take action against him.  But there were no words to express the myriad of confused emotions filling Jer’ok’s breast.  He left as he had entered.

      With a soft word of encouragement Jer’ok enjoined the incredulous Amber to pass her arms over his shoulders and lock her hands below the back of his neck.  When she had obeyed, he reassured her, quite unnecessarily, before commencing the dizzying descent first from the chambre and thence from the city walls.  The fugitives had disappeared amid the complex patterns of shadows of the streets below before Reyn recovered her senses and called for her warriors.

      To the credit of Amber’s sorely abused nerves she did not swoon until Jer’ok of the Aranda set her gently on her feet in a moonlit glade far from the dread Dalon Escarpment.  Though he was sorely tempted to disappear forever into the vast reaches of Ashtarian wilderness with the she who was not his, Jer’ok instead would carry Amber back to his more fortunate kinsman.  Honour demanded no less.

      Nevertheless, Jer’ok moved far more slowly than was his wont as he treasured Amber’s companionship and contemplated with dejection the solitary life he must soon resume.  He rested often without need and despite Amber’s poor effort to conceal from him her terror of the Ashtarian surroundings.

      He and Amber were shy and uncertain with each other.  Their sparse conversation as they returned to her people was stilted and formal in the extreme.  The beast-man did not think to ask Amber whether she might approve his plan to disappear together into his jungle.

      But as they traveled together after their long separation, Jer’ok wondered how he could bear to leave Amber again, once she was returned safely to her waiting mate.  Yet he knew well he must not attempt to remain among the humankind even to renew his friendship with Guy Locke.  Should he dare remain in Amber's presence Jer’ok would certainly challenge Rand Southall.  The Aranda in him would never be sufficiently subdued to permit the easy consociation of humankind in the
forbidden presence of his chosen she.

      And then there was that beast lurking deep within him.  Jer’ok dared not chance the reawakening of that particular daemon to threaten Amber with what he had forced upon Reyn.



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