"There's another experiment you might try," Amerie said, "once you have a strong iron chisel."
"What's that, Sister?" asked the turbaned metalsmith.
"Try removing gray torcs with it."
"By damn!" exclaimed Peopeo Moxmox Burke.
"Iron might short out the linkage between the brains of the torc wearers and the slave-circuitry," the nun went on. "We must find some way of freeing those people!"
One of Burke's fighters, a hefty fellow puffing a meerschaum, said, "To be sure. But what about those who don't wish to be freed? Perhaps you don't realize, Sister, that a good many humans are quite content in their filthy symbiosis with the exotics. The soldiers, especially. How many of them are sadistic misfits, delighting in the rules given them by the Tanu?"
Madame Guderian said, "It is true, what Uwe Guldenzopf says. And even among those of goodwill, even among the bare-necks, there are many who are happy in bondage. It is because of them that the expiation of my guilt cannot be a simple matter."
"Now don't start that again, Madame." Burke was firm. "Your plan, as it stands, is a good one. With the addition of iron weapons, we can shtup it forward that much faster. By the time we've located the Ship's Grave, we'll have enough of an armory to give the scheme a reasonable chance of success."
"I'm not going to wait weeks or months for you people to hatch your plot," Felice declared. "If my dirk killed one Tanu, it can kill others." She held out her hand to Burke. "Give it back."
"They'd get you, Felice," the Native American said. They're expecting you. Do you think all of the Tanu are as weak as Epone? She was small fry, fairly powerful as coercers go, but her redact function wasn't worth much or she'd have smelled you out back at the Castle, even without using the mind-assay machine. The leaders among the Tanu can detect people like you in the same way that they detect Firvulag. You're going to have to keep out of the way until you get your golden torc."
She exploded. "And when will that be, dammit?"
Madame said, "When we manage to obtain one for you. Or when the Firvulag choose to give you one."
The girl replied with a volley of obscenities. Claude went up to her, took her by the shoulders, and sat her down on the soft wood-dust of the floor. "Now that's enough of that." Turning to Burke and Madame Guderian, he said, "Both of you have referred to a plan of action that you seem to expect us to participate in. Let's hear it."
Madame uttered a deep sigh. "Very well. First, you must know what we are up against. The Tanu seem to be invulnerable, immortal, but they are not. They can be killed by Firvulag brainstorms, the weaker ones, and even a powerful coercer-redactor may be over-whelmed if many Firvulag all project together or if one of their great heroes, such as Pallol or Sharn-Mes, chooses to fight."
"What is this bad vibes thing?" Richard asked her. "Can you do it?"
She shook her head. "My latent abilities include the far-sensing function in moderation, a somewhat less powerful coercive ability, and an aspect of creativity that may spin certain illusions. I can coerce ordinary humans, and grays who are not under direct compulsion from a Tanu. I cannot coerce humans wearing gold or silver torcs, except with subliminal suggestions, which they may or may not follow. My farsense permits me to eavesdrop upon the so-called declamatory or command mode of the mental speech. I can hear the golds, silvers, and grays when they call out to one another over moderate distances, but I cannot detect more subtle narrow-focus communication unless it is directed at me. On rare occasions I have perceived messages coming from far away."
"And can you farspeak back?" Claude asked in an excited tone.
"To whom would I speak?" the old woman inquired. "All around us are enemies!"
Amerie exclaimed. "Elizabeth!"
Claude explained. "One of our companions. An operant far-speaker. She was taken south to the capital." He told what he knew of Elizabeth's former life and her regained metafunctions. Madame frowned in preoccupation. "So it was she that I heard! But I did not know. And so I suspected a Tanu trick and withdrew at once from the touch."
"Could you contact her?" Claude asked.
"The Tanu would hear me," the old woman said, shaking her head. "I seldom project, except to sound the alarm to our people. Rarely to call to our Firvalug allies. I have not the skill to use the narrow focus that is undetectable except to the intended receptor."
Felice broke in rudely, "The plan! Get on with it!"
Madame pursed her lips and lifted her chin. "Eh bien. Let us continue to speak of the potential vulnerability of the Tanu. They kill one another by decapitation during their ritual combats. In theory a human could accomplish this, too, if it were possible to get close enough. However, the Tanu with coercive or reductive functions defend themselves mentally, while the creators and the psychokinetics are capable of physical assault. The weaker among them remain within the protective sphere of their more powerful fellows or else have bodyguards of armed silver or grays. There are two other ways in which Tanu may meet death, both very rare. The Firvulag told me of a very young Tanu who died by fire. He panicked when burning lamp oil spilled upon him and in fleeing, fell off a wall. His human guardians were unable to reach him before he was incinerated. If they had rescued him before his brain burned, they could have restored him to health in the usual Tanu fashion."
"Which is?" Amerie asked.
Chief Burke said, "They have a psychoactive substance that they call Skin. It looks like a thin plass membrane. Tanu healers with a certain combination of PK and redact are able to work through this stuff in some metapsychic way. They just wrap the patient up and start cogitating. They get results comparable to our best regeneration-tank therapy back in the Milieu, but with no hardware. Skin works on human beings, too, but it's worthless without the Tanu operator."
"Do the Firvulag use Skin?" asked the nun.
Burke shook his huge head. "Just old-fashioned frontier doctoring. But they're tough little devils."
Felice laughed. "So are we."
"The last way that the exotics may die," Madame resumed, "is by drowning. The Firvulag are excellent swimmers. However, most of the Tanu are rather more sensitive than humans to the injurious effects of immersion. Still, death by drowning is very rare among them and seems to take mostly certain careless sportsmen of Goriah in Brittany, who are accustomed to carry their Hunt to the sea. Sometimes they are swallowed or carried into the depths by the enraged leviathans that they prey upon."
Felice grunted. "Well, there's not much chance well be able to hold the bastards' heads under water. So how do you plan to get the drop on 'em?"
"The plan is complex, involving several phases. It requires the co-operation of the Firvulag, with whom we have a very precarious alliance. Briefly, we would hope to attack and overrun Finiah aided by the forces of the Little People, who would be able to wreak havoc once they penetrated the city walls. Finiah is a strategic target of prime importance and it is isolated from the other Tanu population centers. Within its environs and protected by its defenses is the only barium mine in the Exile world. The element is extracted with great difficulty from a meager ore by rama workers. It is vital to the manufacture of torcs. All torcs. If we eliminate the supply of barium by destroying the mine, the entire socio-economy of the Tanu would be undercut."
"Kinda long-range for a disaster, isn't it?" Richard remarked. "I should think they'd have stockpiles of the stuff stashed away."
"I have said that the matter is complex," Madame responded in some irritation. "We will also have to find a way of stopping the flow of time-travelers. As you will see, it is the coming of humanity to the Pliocene that has enabled the Tanu to dominate the era. In the days before I began my meddling, there was a virtual balance of power between Tanu and Firvulag. This was destroyed by the human advent."
"I get it," said Richard, the old intriguer. "The Firvulag are willing to help you and your bunch in hopes of restoring the good old days. But what makes you think the little spooks won't turn on us once they get what they want?"
"It is a matter still requiring some reflection," said Madame in a low voice.
Richard gave a derisive snort.
"There's more to the plan," said Peopeo Moxmox Burke. "And don't kick it in the head until you've heard the whole thing. Now down south in the capital . . ." The little cat growled.
All of them looked toward the entrance crevice. There stood a short, broad-shouldered figure in a dripping, mucky cloak. His high-crowned hat leaned lugubriously over one ear from an accumulation of moisture. He grinned at the company through a mask of mud in which eyes and teeth were the only bright points.
"Pegleg!" exclaimed Burke. "For God's sake, bubi, what have you been up to?"
"Had to go to ground. Bear-dogs on my trail!" As he came stumping toward the fire, Madame whispered, "Not a word of the iron."
The new arrival was something under a meter and a half in height, with a barrel chest and a visage that was rosy-cheeked and long-nosed, once the filth had been wiped away. He had lost one leg below the knee, but walked about agilely enough with the aid of a singular prosthesis fashioned of wood. Seating himself by the fire, he swabbed at the peg with a damp rag, revealing carvings of snakes and weasels and other creatures twining about the artificial limb. They had inset jewels for eyes "What news?" Burke inquired.
"Oh, they're out there, all right," Pegleg replied. Somebody passed food and drink, which the little man attacked with gusto, simultaneously talking with his mouth full "Some of the lads drew off a large patrol coming up the Onion River. Finished a good half dozen and sent the rest off with their tails between their legs screeching for Daddy Velteyn. No sign of the Exalted Cocksman himself yet, Té be thanked. Probably doesn't want to get his lovely glass armor all wet in the rain. I had a bad moment when some bear-dogs from the squad that we finished began tracking me unawares. Could've nailed me, the sneaky turdlings, but I happened on a nice stinking bog and hid in it until they tired of waiting." The little man held out his mug to the nun for a refill of wine. Amerie's cat had not returned to her, even though she snapped her ringers in a way that usually brought the animal running. Two baleful glowing eyes watched Pegleg from a dark pile of baggage far from the central fire. The cat continued to utter high-pitched, quavering growls.
"We must introduce our new companions to you," Madame said graciously. "You have seen them, of course. The Reverend Sister Amerie, Professor Claude, Captain Richard . . . and Felice."
"May the Good Goddess smile on you," the little man said. "I'm Fitharn. But you can call me Pegleg."
Richard goggled. "Christ! You're a Firvulag?"
The one-legged man laughed and climbed to his feet. There beside the fire stood a tall, dead-black apparition with coiling tentacles for arms, slitted red eyes, and a mouth full of shark's teeth that slavered foul saliva.
Amerie's little cat let out a spitting screech. The monster vanished and Pegleg resumed his seat by the fire, nonchalantly drinking his wine.
"Impressive," said Felice. "Can you do others?"
The Firvulag's eyes twinkled. "We have our favorites, little one. The visions-of-the-eye are the least of it, you understand."
"I do," said Felice. "Since you had to flee the amphicyons, I conclude that they're not affected by your powers."
The exotic sighed. "A perverse species. We have to watch out for the hyaenids, too, but at least they can't be tamed by the Foe."
"I can control bear-dogs," Felice said in soft persuasion. " If Ihad a golden torc, I could help win this war of yours. Why won't you give me what you've already given Madame Guderian?"
"Earn it," said the Firvulag, licking his lips.
Felice clenched her fists. She forced a smile. "You're afraid. But I wouldn't use my metafunctions against any of you. I swear it!"
"Damn you!" She started toward the little man, her doll-like face twisted with rage. "How? How?"
Madame intervened, "Felice, compose yourself. Be seated."
Fitharn stretched out his peg and groaned. "More wood for the fire! I'm chilled to the bone and my leg-long-gone torments me with phantom pain."
Amerie said, "I have a medication . . . if you're certain that your protoplasm is near-humanoid."
He gave her a broad grin and nodded, extending the stump. As she applied a minidoser he cried, "Ah, better, better! Té's blessing, if you can use such a thing, Sister."
"Masculine, feminine, only aspects of the One. Our races are closer than you think, Fitharn of the Firvulag."
"Perhaps." The little man stared morosely into his winecup.
Madame said, "When you arrived, Fitharn, I was explaining to the newcomers my plan. Perhaps you will be good enough to assist me. Tell them, if you will, the story of the Ship's Grave."
Once again, the exotic's cup was filled with wine. "Very well. Come close and listen. This is Brede's Tale, which was told to me by my own grandfather, gone these five hundred years to Te's dark womb until the great rebirth, when Te and Tana shall be sisters no more, but One, and Firvulag and Tanu cease at last their contention in the truce that shall have no end . . ."
He was silent for a long while, holding the cup to his lips and closing his eyes against the hot wine's rich fumes. Finally he set the vessel beside him, folded his hands in his lap, and told the tale in an oddly cadenced singsong:
"When Brede's Ship, through Té's compassion, brought us here, its mighty striving drained its heart and strength and mind, and so it died that we might live. When we left the Ship our flyers spread their curving wings, and people sang the Song together, friend with foe. We made our weeping way to where the Grave would be. We saw the Ship come burning from the east. We saw it coming through the high air and the low. It howled its agony. As the rising of a planet's sun dismisses night, so did the flaming of our Ship transform the very day, and make the Earth-star dim.
"The passing of the Ship devoured the air. The forests and the eastern mountains fell and thunder rolled around the world. The waters steamed within the brackish eastern seas. No living thing survived along the westward-trending path of death, but we watched sorrowing until the end. The Ship cried out aloud, it burst, it yielded up its soul. Its falling made the planet moan. The air, the waters, planet-crust, and Ship had merged into a glowing holocaust of stormy wound. But we stayed there until the fire was quenched by rain and tears of Brede, and then we flew away.
"Then Pallol, Medor, Sharn, and Yeochee, Kuhsarn the Wise and Lady Klahnino, the Thagdal, Boanda, Mayvar, and Dionket, Lugonn the Shining One and Leyr the Brave, the best of Tanu and of Firvulag, went forth into the setting sun to find a living-place while still the Truce prevailed and none should fight. The Tanu chose Finiah on the riverside; but we, far wiser, took High Vrazel on the fogbound mountain crag. This being done, one task alone remained, to consecrate the Grave.
"In final flight the aircraft took to air. We rode within them to the place, and all embarked to stand upon a rim of land above a cup of liquid sky too wide to see across, while all around the land lay scorched and still. We watched a Great Ordeal, the first upon this world, with Sharn contending for the Firvulag and for the Tanu, bright Lugonn. With Sword and Spear they smote until their armor blazed and birds fell from the sky and heedless watchers lost their eyes. They battled for a month of hours and longer still, until the folk who watched screamed out as one, transfigured in the glory that redounded to the Ship and solemnized its death.
"At last, brave Sharn could bear no more. He fell with Sword in hand, steadfast until the end. The victory was won by bright Lugonn whose Spear had caused the crater's lake to boil and liquefied the rocks and conjured sparkling dew that merged its tears with ours. And thus the votive offerings of Man and Blade were chosen for the consecration of the Grave. We marched away, the voices of our minds raised up in Song for one last time in honor of the Ship and also him who there was offered up to captain it upon its voyage to the healing dark. There, comforted within the Goddess's womb, they wait the coming of the light . . ."
The Firvulag raised his cup and drained it. He stretched his arms with a pop and crackle of ligaments and sat staring at Felice with a whimsical expression.
Madame Guderian said, "Within this ancient tale are certain pieces of information that repay our study. You will have noted the reference to aircraft. These are clearly machines of some sophistication, since they were able to leave the moribund Ship prior to its entrance into Earth's atmosphere. Given the advanced technology implied by the encapsulation of the passengers within the intergalactic organism, one can hardly assume the smaller craft to be simple reaction-engine fuelers. It is more likely that they were gravo-magnetically powered, like our own eggs and subluminal spaceships. And if so . . ."
Richard interrupted, wide-eyed. "They'd probably still be operational! And Pegleg said his people marched away from the Grave, so they must have left the aircraft there. Son of a bitch!"
"Where are they?" cried Felice. "Where's this Grave?"
The little Firvulag said, "When a person dies among us, the remains are taken by the family or friends to a secret place, one that none of the mourners has ever seen before. After the interment ceremony, the grave is never visited again. Its very location is blotted from the mind lest the remains be disturbed by the Foe or by irreverent rascals who would steal the funerary offerings."
"Quaint customs," Richard said.
Felice wailed, "Then you don't know where the Ship's Grave is?"
"It's been a thousand years," the little man replied.
Richard flung the ladle into the stewpot with a dang. "But, dammit, it's gotta be a whackin' great crater! What'd he say? 'A cup of liquid sky too wide to see across.' And it lies east of Finiah."
"We have been searching," Madame said. "Ever since I first heard the tale three years ago and conceived the plan, we looked for the Ship's Grave as best we could. But understand the terrain, Richard! The Black Forest lies beyond the Rhine to the east. In our day it was a minor range, a picturesque parkland full of hikers and carvers of cuckoo clocks. But now the Schwarzwald mountains are younger and higher. There are portions well above twenty-five hundred meters, rugged and dangerous to cross and a notorious haunt of les Criards, the Howling Ones."
"And do you know who they are?" inquired the Firvulag, smirking at Richard. "They're the people like me who don't like people like you. The snotty ones who won't let King Yeo-chee or anyone else tell 'em who their enemies are."
Madame said, "We have, over the past years, done a precarious exploration of the middle portion of the Black Forest range, north of Finiah. Even with the help of friendly Firvulag such as our good friend Fitharn, the project has been fraught with peril. Ten of our people have been killed and three driven mad. Five more vanished without a trace."
"And we lost some of our lads to the Hunt, too," Pegleg added. "Guiding humans just isn't healthy work."
Madame went on, "Forty or fifty kilometers east of the Black Forest begins the Swabian Alb, a part of the Jura. It is said to be full of caves inhabited by monstrous hyenas. Not even the malign Firvulag care to dwell in this territory, although it is rumored that a handful of grotesque mutants eke out a pathetic livelihood in sheltered valleys. Yet it is in this inhospitable country that the Ship's Grave is most likely to be found. And with it, not only workable flying machines but perhaps other andent treasures as well."
"Would there be weapons in the aircraft?" Felice asked.
"Only one," said the Firvulag Fitharn, staring into the fire. "The Spear. But it would be enough, if you could get your hands on it."
Scowling, Richard said, "But I thought the Spear belonged to the guy named Lugonn, and he was the winner of the fight!"
"The winner received the privilege of sacrificing himself," Madame explained. "Lugonn, Shining Hero of the Tanu, raised the visor of his golden glass helmet and accepted the thrust of his own Spear through his eyes. His body was left at the crater, together with the weapon."
"But what the hell good would this Spear do us?" Richard asked.
Fitharn spoke softly. "It isn't the kind of weapon you might think. Any more than the Sword of our late hero, Sharn the Atrocious, which the obscene Nodonn has had in his thieving clutches in Goriah for forty years, is any kind of ordinary sword."
"They are both photoaic weapons," Madame said. "The only two that the exotics brought from their home galaxy. They were to be used only by the great heroes, to defend the Ship in case of pursuit or, later, in the most exalted forms of ritual fighting."
"Nowadays," said Chief Burke, "the Sword only serves as the trophy of the Grand Combat. Nodonn's had it so long because the Tanu have won the contest for forty years running. Needless to say, there's little chance we'd ever be able to get our hands on the Sword. But the Spear is another matter."
"Christ!" Richard spat in disgust "So to make Madame's plan work, all we have to do is mount a blind search over two-three thousand square kloms crawling with man-eating spooks and giant hyenas and find this antique zapper. Probably clutched in some Tanu skeleton's hand."
"And around his neck," Felice said, "is a golden torc."
"We will find the Ship's Grave," Madame stated. "We will search until we do."
Old Claude hauled himself to his feet with some difficulty, limped over to the pile of dry wood, and picked up an armful. "I don't think any more blind hunting will be necessary," he said, tossing the sticks onto the blaze. A great cloud of sparks soared into the Tree's black height.
Everybody stared at him.
Chief Burke asked, "Do you know where this crater might be?"
"I know where it has to be. Only one astrobleme in Europe fits the bill. The Ries."
The stout fighter with the pipe smacked his own forehead and exclaimed, "Das Rieskessel bei Nordlingenl Naturlich! What a bunch of stupid pricks we've been! Hansi! Gert! We read about it in kindergarten!"
"Hell, yes," sang out another man from the crowd. And a third Lowlife added, "But you gotta remember, Uwe, they told us kids a meteorite made the thing."
"The Ship's Grave!" one of the women cried out " Itit's not just a myth, then there's a chance for us! We really might be able to free humanity from these bastards!" An exultant shout went up from the rest of the crowd.
"Be silent, for the love of God!" Madame implored them.
Her hand were clasped before her breast almost prayerfully as she addressed Claude. "You are certain? You are positive that this, this Ries must be the Ship's Grave?"
The old paleontologist picked up a branch from the woodpile. Scuffing an area of dust flat, he drew a vertical row of X's.
"There are the Vosges Mountains. We're on the western flank, about here." He poked, then slashed a line parallel to, and east of, the range. "Here's the Rhine, flowing roughly south to north through a wide rift valley. Finiah is here on the eastern bank." More X's were drawn behind the Tanu city. "Here's the Black Forest range, trending north-south just like the Vosges. Same basic geology. And beyond it, slanting off to the northeast, the Swabian Jura. This line I'm drawing under the Jura is the River Danube. It flows off east into the Pannonian Lagoon in Hungary, someplace over under the woodpile. And right about here . . ."