It seemed to Eric Nelson that a strange voice spoke in his mind as he lay in drink-drugged sleep, here in the squalid inn of a Chinese frontier village.
"Shall I kill, little sister?"
The voice was mental, not physical. His brain recorded it, not through his ears but directly.
And it was not human. There was an alien quality in its vibration that set even his dreaming mind bristling.
"No, Tark! You were to watch, not to kill! Not yet!"
To Nelson the answering mental voice seemed human enough. But though it lacked the uncannily alien quality of the first, it was chill, silvery, merciless.
He knew that he was dreaming. He knew that he lay here in the battle-wrecked frontier village of Yen Shi, that he had drunk too much to forget the doom that stared him and his companions in the face, that fatigue and too much liquor were doing this to him.
Yet it was creepily real, this swift, urgent dialogue of voices that only his mind could hear. And again his nerves crawled at the non-human strangeness of the first voice.
"They should all die now, little sister! For he even now seeks them out, to hire them as our foes! Ei has brought me word!"
"Tark, no! Watch only till I order?"
Nerve-tension snapped and Eric Nelson found himself scrambling up from his blankets, staring wildly around the dark room.
A black flying shadow leaped for the open window and was gone as his blurred eyes focused--a shadow that was not human!
With a strangled exclamation, Nelson lurched to the window, plucking the heavy pistol from his belt.
Great wings flapped suddenly out there in the night, rapidly receding. He leveled the pistol but he could see nothing, and after a moment there were no more sounds.
Eric Nelson stood bewildered, his skin still creeping from the uncanny terror of the experience. His brain was fogged by sleep and by the sick aftertaste of the previous night's drinking.
Gradually his bristling nerves quieted. There was nothing out there in the dark--nothing but the few blinking lights of the wretched mud village, cowering underneath the silent stars, close beside the black wall, of the great mountains that shouldered all the way to Tibet."
Dawn was coming. Nelson bolstered his gun and ran his hands heavily over his unshaven face. Waves of pain surged up through his eyeballs as he turned from the window.
"Too much to drink," he muttered. "No wonder I'm hearing--and seeing things."
He made a deliberate effort to thrust down the uncanny strangeness of his experience, to forget it. But he couldn't, quite.
It was not the mere fact of the voices that was so weird. The brain heard strange things in dreams. It was the alien, somehow husky quality of that first voice that still shook him.
Nelson fit a clay oil-lamp. Its flickering rays and the growing light of dawn showed nothing unusual in the bare, squalid little room. He put on his uniform jacket and went through a door into the common room of the deserted inn. Three of his four fellow officers were in the room.
Two of them, the big Dutchman, Piet Van Voss, and Lefty Wister, the spidery little Cockney, were snoring in their bunks.
Nick Sloan, the third, stood shaving in front of a tiny steel mirror, his big body easily balanced on firm-set feet, his flat, hard brown face looking coolly over his shoulder at Nelson.
"I heard you yell in there," Sloan said. "Bad dream?"
Eric Nelson hesitated. "I don't know. There was something in the room. A shadow?"
"I'm not surprised," Sloan drawled unsympathetically. "You were pretty stiff last night."
Nelson was suddenly resentfully aware of the contrast of his disheveled figure and tumbled blond hair with Sloan's competent neatness.
"Yes, I was drunk last night," he said harshly. "And I'll be drunk again tonight and tomorrow night also."
A patient voice sighed from the doorway. "Not tomorrow night, Captain Nelson. No."
Nelson turned. It was Li Kin who stood in the doorway. He made an absurd figure, his scrawny little body swathed in a major's uniform far too big for him. His gentle, fine-planed face was sagging with weariness and behind his thick-lensed spectacles his black eyes held sadness.
"A full column of the Chinese Red Army is on its way here from Nun-Yan," he said. "It will be here by tomorrow noon."
Nick Sloan's tawny eyes narrowed slightly. "That's pretty fast action. But it's only what we expected."
Yes, Eric Nelson thought heavily. It was only what they had expected.
They five had been staff officers for Yu Chi, a onetime minor warlord in the old China who had fled the country when the Communists took over. For years, Yu Chi had made his base in the no-man's-land of wild mountains that thrust up like a fist between China, Burma and Tibet, a region where boundaries and sovereignties were shadowy things. Every so often the old warlord, posing as a liberator, had made a foray which pretended to be a guerrilla action against the Reds but which was really a looting raid.
Of the five of them, Li Kin was the only one with any patriotic motives. The others were frankly mercenaries, picking up whatever they could in the troubles of southeast Asia. Nelson had been such a mercenary for ten years, ever since the Korean War ended and he decided that he liked adventure too much to go home. Nick Sloan had been in Asia nearly as long. Van Voss and the little Cockney were fugitive criminals, but tough fighting-men.
But now the five were at the end of their rope. Yu Chi had gone on one "liberation" raid too many, and had walked into a tiger-trap of Red troops here. They had won the battle, and the town. But Yu Chi was dead, his motley army had broken up, and when Communist reinforcements reached the village, there would be short shrift for five mercenaries.
"We've got to get out of here by tomorrow morning or we're cooked," Nick Sloan said curtly.
Lefty Wister had awakened and stood, a cigarette drooping laxly from his thin lips. Van Voss was stretching hugely in his bunk, scratching his enormous paunch as he listened.
"Where can we go without running into the bloody Red troops?" whined the little Cockney.
Nelson shrugged. "North, east and south we'd walk right into their hands. West there's only the Kunlun Mountains, and without a guide we'd merely dodge around in there until the tribesmen got us."
Li Kin raised his tired head. "That reminds me. A tribesman from those mountains wanted to talk to me last night. Something about hiring us to fight for his people."
Van Voss granted. "Some verdommte Trans-Tibetan tribe that wants a few machine-guns to crush their neighbors."
Sloan's hard face was thoughtful. "It might be an out, though. In those mountains, if we knew our way, we'd be safe. Where is the man?"
"Still waiting outside, I think," said the Chinese. "I'll get him." He went heavily toward the doorway.
Nelson looked after him without interest, simply because he was sick of looking at Sloan and Van Voss and Wister,
Through the open door he watched Li Kin cross the dusty compound to a crumbling mud wall, where another man sat?a bareheaded man in shapeless quilted garments, sitting motionless in the light of the rising sun. He did not sit with the patient immobility of peaceful things but with the tight-coiled watchfulness of a crouching tiger. He rose with a lithe quick movement when Li Kin spoke to him.
Li Kin and the stranger came back across the com. pound. As they entered the room Li Kin said, "This is Shan Kar."
Nelson glanced indifferently. Shan Kar was of his own age and stature but no more like himself than a wildcat is like a terrier. His bare black head was alertly erect as he studied the white men.
Here was no primitive tribesman. The man's handsome olive face and dark eyes had the haughty strength and fire and pride of a prince of ancient blood.
Eric Nelson sat up.
"You're no Tibetan," he said sharply, in that language.
"No," answered Shan Kar quickly. His accent was slurred as though spoken in an obscure dialect of Tibetan.
He pointed through the open door at the gray, sunlit mountains in the distance.
"My people dwell there, in a valley called L'Lan. And we men and woman of L'Lan have--enemies."
There was a flicker of emotion in his eyes as he spoke, fierce as a sword-flash. His eyes were, for that moment, fiery and intense, the eyes of a fanatic warrior, of a man with a cause.
"Enemies too powerful for us to conquer with our own forces! We have heard of the white men's new, powerful weapons. So I came to hire such men and weapons to help us in our struggle."
Nelson felt suddenly certain that Shan Kar referred to no mere petty tribal struggle. This man was not playing his game of war for horses, women or conquest, but for something bigger.
Shan Kar shrugged. "I heard of the warlord Yu Chi and came here to make an offer to him. But, before I arrived he was dead in the battle here. But you who remain know the use of such weapons. If you come with me to L'Lan and use them, we can pay you well."
"Pay us?" Nick Sloan's face showed his sharp interest. "Pay us with what?"
For answer, Shan Kar reached beneath his quilted cloak and brought forth a curious object which he handed to them.
"We have heard that this metal is valuable, to you of the outer world."
Eric Nelson puzzledly examined the thing. It was a thick hoop of dull gray metal, a ring several inches in diameter. Mounted on opposite sides of the metal hoop were two small disks of quartz. There was something odd about the little quartz disks. Each was only an inch across, but each had a carven pattern of interlocking spirals that baffled and blurred the vision.
Lefty Wister whined scornfully, "The bloody beggar wants to hire us with a hoop of old iron!"
"Iron? No," grunted Van Voss. "I see that metal down in the Sumatra mines. It is platinum."
"Platinum? Let me see that!" exclaimed Sloan. He closely examined the gray metal hoop. "By heaven, it is!"
His tawny eyes narrowed as he looked up at the silent, watching stranger. "Where did this come from?"
"From L'Lan," answered Shan Kar. "There is more there--much more. All you can take away will be yours as pay!"
Nick Sloan swung around on Nelson. "Nelson, this could be big. All the years you and I have been out here, we haven't had an opportunity like this."
The Cockney's eyes were already shining covetously. Van Voss merely stared sleepily at the metal hoop.
Eric Nelson fingered it again and asked, "Where exactly did it come from? It looks almost like a queer instrument of some kind rather than an ornament."
Shan Kar answered evasively, "It came from a cavern in L'Lan. And there is much more metal like it there."
Li Kin said slowly, "A cavern in L'Lan? That name sounds familiar, somehow. I think there was a legend once?"
Shan Kar interrupted. "Your answer, white men--will you come."
Nelson hesitated. There was too much about this business that was unexplained. Yet they dared not stay here in Yen Shi.
He finally told Shan Kar, "I'll commit myself to no bargains in the dark. But I'm willing to go to your valley. If the setup is as you say, we'll fight your battle--for platinum."
Sloan planned swiftly. "We can get a few light machine-guns and what tommy-guns and grenades we need from old Yu's arsenal. But it'll take work to round up enough pack-ponies by tomorrow morning."
His face crisped in resolve. "We can do it, though. We'll be ready to start at dawn, Shan Kar."
When Shan Kar had gone Lefty Wister uttered a crow of laughter.
"The bloody fool! Don't he realize that with machine-guns and grenades we can just take his platinum and walk off with it?"
Nelson turned angrily on the evilly eager little Cockney. "We'll do nothing of the sort! If we do agree to fight for this man, we'll?"
Suddenly Nelson stopped short, startled and shaken by abrupt remembrance. Remembrance of his weird dream of only an hour before, the dream in which human and unhuman voices had spoken in his mind!
"They should all die now, little sister! For he even now seeks them out to hire them as our foes!"
That alien, unhuman mental voice?had it been real after all? For Shan Kar had just provisionally hired them to fight enemies of whom they knew nothing! Into what mysterious struggle were they entering?