“Still playing pilot in command, Severance? Why can’t you just calm down and admit that we’ve found something absolutely extraordinary. We’re safe enough for the moment. We’ve got time to explore further. If we have to spend another night in the jungle, we might as well spend it here. It’s obvious that nothing violent from outside ever enters. This is one of the last refuges. A safehold.”
“We have no way of knowing just how safe it really is.”
They were almost at the entrance. Cidra resigned herself to being force-marched back to the campsite. “All right, stop dragging me along like a sack of mail. I’m coming with you.”
He shot her an assessing glance and decided that she was going to be cooperative. Severance unholstered the pulser.
“What’s that for?” Cidra asked.
“Just in case we don’t get the same guided tour out that we had coming in. Stay close to me and don’t touch anything you pass if you can avoid it.”
“I’m sure we’ll have no trouble. Whatever protected us on the way here will probably protect us as we leave.”
“Uh-huh.” Severance checked the charge in the pulser. He obviously didn’t believe in the lingering protection of the Ghosts. “All set?”
Cidra reluctantly started through the door and then screamed at the sight of the huge Bloodsucker blocking the entrance. She stumbled backward, frantically trying to put distance between herself and the facet-eyed monster. It was far bigger man the Bloodsuckers she had seen in Desma’s lab.
His hand closed on her shoulder, spinning her out of the way. The pulser came up, and he fired twice. Nothing happened. The Bloodsucker moved forward on its long spindly legs. The mandibles clicked together. Severance fired again, backing slowly. None of the shots were registering. It was as if they passed right through the creature.
“Get back, Cidra. Move toward the back of the room.” Slowly Severance edged backward himself, covering Cidra’s escape.
“They’re not supposed to be that big,” Cidra gasped.
“Maybe you’d better remind it.” He raised the pulser again and aimed carefully at the braincase. Once more the charge passed straight through without doing any damage. “Either this thing is absorbing the charge with no effort or it’s an image, just like the ones we’ve been watching.”
“Nice theory. How are we going to test it?”
The Bloodsucker was still approaching. Cidra and Severance kept backing toward the far wall. Cidra glanced behind her.
“There are some stones back here.”
“Toss one toward this Sucker and see what happens.” Cidra quickly examined the large triangular-shaped pile composed of five perfectly round stones. Each was slightly bigger than a human head. Experimentally she lifted the top one. It was pleasantly warm to the touch.
“It’s heavy,” she gasped, struggling with the weight of it. “But it’ll roll.” She dropped the stone to the floor and shoved with all her might.
The stone rolled right through two Bloodsucker limbs with no sign of any resistance. The creature didn’t appear to notice, either. It raised its forelegs and reached for Severance.
Cidra shouted, trying to yank him out of the way. Severance swung his arm out in a reflexive movement. The hand holding the pulser passed through the lowering head of the Bloodsucker as if it weren’t there.
“It is just an image, Cidra. Let’s go.” He reached around to catch her wrist with his free hand.
Cidra wanted to scream and claw free of that hold. The Bloodsucker was too terrifyingly lifelike. She had known that the moving mural of the Ghosts was an illusion from the start. But this thing seemed far more real. Its forelimbs were waving around in the air now, seeking the prey in front of it. But she followed Severance as he warily circled the image, tugging Cidra with him. The creature lunged at them, and Cidra shut her eyes, convinced that in another instant she was going to find herself just another victim of Renaissance.
Nothing happened. When she opened her eyes again, Severance had pulled her halfway back toward the entrance. The Bloodsucker had winked out of existence. They were almost at the door when an unnatural light filled the formerly dim room. This was no pale, translucent, filtered sunlight but a searing blaze. Instinctively Cidra closed her eyes, wondering if she’d been blinded. She felt Severance stop and knew it had affected him the same way. “I can’t see,” Cidra whispered.
“Neither can I. It’s probably another illusion, but I can’t see the door. Let’s find the wall. We can follow it around to the entrance.”
Cidra hooked her fingers into his utility loop, and together they groped blindly for the solid wall. The chamber was still filled with the searing light. Whenever Cidra risked a glance through slitted lashes, the unnatural brilliance overwhelmed her. She felt Severance pull up short and mutter a short, expressive oath.
“The wall,” he said grimly. “Now we’ll try following it.” A rush of screaming noise crashed into existence around them. Cidra reeled, feeling Severance stagger under the impact of the wild sounds. She let go of his utility loop to clutch at her ears, but it did no good. Once before she had tried to block out such noise. Frantically Cidra tried to remember when, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything but the agony in her head. “Don’t open your eyes, Cidra!” She heard Severance’s voice without realizing how she could over the strange cacophony. “The light?”
“It’s still there, but it’s full of things.”
“I can’t stand it, Severance. I can’t stand this!” He didn’t answer, and Cidra knew with a terrifying certainty that he wasn’t faring any better than she was. They were both helpless under the bombardment of sensations.
And then the crawling began on her skin. She sensed it first on her legs. Something had gotten under the fabric of her trousers. Something with white-hot pincers and venomous fangs. Screaming, she slapped at her legs. She could feel nothing under the fabric, but that knowledge didn’t lessen the pain.
Suddenly she remembered when and where she had faced this kind of assault.
“The Screamer,” she choked, stumbling against Severance. “It’s like the Screamer.”
“Something’s playing on our nerve endings. All of them,” he agreed.
He fumbled with his utility belt. Cidra didn’t risk opening her eyes, but she could feel him trembling as he fought to master himself. “What are you doing?”