“I don’t know whether Toru has an adept working for him at present. But it’s possible. It’s also possible that he feels it would be an effective move to have you two appear to be the victims of sorcery. Frankly, I have no way of knowing whether the talismans actually offer protection against psi forces—but, at least, they can do you no harm. So will you keep them on your persons as a favor to me? I feel we should take every possible precaution available at present.”
He left them at the door to the breakfast room, and Vallain showed them the way down to the gardens and told them how to find him, or Casmard, later when they felt like it. A number of other buildings were visible on the palace grounds, and Telzey asked a few questions about them. Then Vallain excused himself pleasantly and went away.
* * *
“If I were Toru,” Trigger remarked as they started off along a path, “I wouldn’t trust our Lord Vallain without a guard.”
Telzey nodded. “He’s planning something. That’s why he didn’t want us to be around this morning. I’m not sure about Perial Casmard either. He’s really a tough character.”
“What are you planning?” Trigger asked.
“I want to locate that group of psis as soon as possible—they should be in one of the buildings on the grounds. If I can get close to them, I can start doing some precision scanning. It’s not too likely they’d notice that. Until we know something about them, it’s hard to figure out what we can do.”
“The telepaths could spot you if you went to work directly on the Regent?”
“Well, they might. Especially with a number of them around. We don’t know how the group would react to that.” Telzey shook her head. “But Toru could be too tough a job anyway in the time we have left! He and that Servant of the Stone don’t seem to have any illusions about Askanam adepts either—they’ve imported good solid Federation mind shields of a chemical type and are using them. We might get better results if I don’t waste time trying to work through that stuff. At any rate, we have to find out how the psis fit in first.”
“Do Casmard’s talismans do anything?”
Telzey shrugged. “They could make someone who believes in them feel more secure, of course. But that’s all they can do.”
The palace grounds were very extensive and beautifully tended—a varied succession of terraced gardens, large and small. There wasn’t a human being in sight anywhere. They followed curving paths in and out of tree groves, around artificial lakes, up and down terrace stairs of polished and tinted stone. Trigger inquired presently, “Are you working?”
Telzey shook her head. “Just waiting for some indication from the psis at the moment. So far there hasn’t been a sign. What did you want to talk about?”
“Two things,” said Trigger. “I had a notion about aircars—but it seems to me now that aircars aren’t permitted in the balaks.”
“That’s right. No sort of powered flight is,” Telzey said. “They use gliders in some places, and I remember Casmard saying a few Askabs have tried importing a flying animal that’s big enough to carry a man. They’re not very manageable though.”
Trigger nodded. “That kills the notion! I doubt gliders or flying animals would do us much good if we could find them. But then, you know—I’m wondering why no one else seems to be in the gardens at present . . .”
“I’ve wondered a little about that too,” Telzey acknowledged. She added, “Did you hear something a moment ago?”
Trigger glanced at her. “Just the general sort of creature sounds we’ve been hearing right along.”
“This was a spitting noise.”
Telzey broke off, and both of them came to a stop. They’d been approaching a stand of shade trees and, about sixty feet away, an animal suddenly had come out from the trees on the path they were following.
It stood staring at them. It was a short-legged animal some twelve feet long, tawny on top and white below, with a snaky neck and sharp snout. The alert eyes were bright green. It was a beautiful creature and an extremely efficient-looking one.
Trigger said very softly, “It may not be dangerous, but we’d better not count on that. If we move slowly off to the left, away from it—”
The animal bared large white teeth and made the spitting noise Telzey had heard. This time it was quite audible. Then, in an instant, it was coming straight at them. It moved with amazing speed, short legs hurling it along the path like a projectile, head held high above the body. Trigger slapped the side of the cosmetics purse at her belt, and the gun it concealed seemed to leap simultaneously into her hand. She turned sideways, right arm stretched straight out.
The animal made a blaring sound as the green eyes vanished in momentary scarlet flashes of light. The long body knotted and twisted, rolled off the path. The sound ended abruptly. The animal went limp. Trigger lowered the gun, stood watching it a few seconds.
“Five head shots,” she said quietly then. “That’s a tough creature, Telzey! Any idea what it is?”
“Probably something they use in arenas.” Telzey’s breath was unsteady. “It certainly wasn’t a garden pet!”
“No. And I suppose,” Trigger said, “somebody was watching to see what would happen, and is still watching. We pretend we think it was an accident, eh?”
“We might as well. It wouldn’t do much good to complain. They know about your gun now.”
“Yes, that’s too bad. It couldn’t be helped.”
They walked closer to the creature. From fifteen feet away, Trigger put another bolt into the center of its body. It didn’t stir. They went up to it, looked at the blood-stained great teeth.
“At a guess,” Trigger said, “the Regent wanted a couple of mangled bodies to shock Casmard with. Let’s see if we can find out where it came from.”
They followed the path in among the trees. A metal box stood there, open at one end, large enough to have contained the animal. There was no one in sight.
“They brought it up in a car and let it out when we were close enough,” Telzey said. “If it had done the job, they would have knocked it out with stun guns and taken it away again. So it was Toru.”
“You were thinking it might have been the psis?”
“It might have been. But if they were controlling it, it would have been moving about under its own power. And they—”
“What’s that?” The gun was in Trigger’s hand again.
“Psi stuff,” Telzey said after a moment. “Don’t do anything—it can’t hurt us!”
Long green tentacles had lifted abruptly out of the earth, enclosing them and the metal box in a writhing ring. The tentacles looked material enough, and there were slapping, slithering sounds when they touched one another.
There came another sound. It might have been a sighing of the air, a stirring in the treetops above them. At the same time, it seemed to be a voice.
“Don’t move!” it seemed to be saying. “Don’t move at all! Stay exactly where you are until Dovari tells you what to do . . .”
Trigger moistened her lips. “All illusions, eh?”
Someone knew they were here and was manipulating the visual and auditory centers of their brains. Very deftly, too! Telzey held her attention on the thought projections, drifted with them, reached the projecting mind.
Unscreened, unprotected mind, concentrated on what it was doing, expecting no trouble. She reflected, sent a measured jolt through it. Its awareness abruptly went dim; the illusions were gone.
Trigger was looking at her. “What did you do?”
“Knocked out the sender for a little while.”
“I don’t know. The psis have discovered us and are taking an interest in us. I’ve let them know I’m a psi who doesn’t want to play games, but I didn’t do their illusionist any real harm when I could have done it. Let’s go on the way we were going. We’ll see what they try next. Better keep that shield good and tight!”
“It’s tight as it can get,” Trigger assured her. She had no developed psi talents; but she’d been equipped by a psi mind with a shield which was flatly impenetrable when she wanted it that way. They seemed adequately covered for the moment.
* * *
They continued along the path they’d been following. Trigger remained silent, watching the area about them, hand never far from the gun purse. Another sudden onslaught by a loosed arena killer didn’t seem too likely; but the palace grounds almost might have been designed to let danger lurk about unseen.
Telzey said presently, “They’re probing at us now. Carefully, so far, but I’m picking up a few things.”