Var the Stick
scout, but this is dangerous scouting he doesn't know about. You may die violently, but not in the circle. You may be tortured. You may be trapped in lethal radiation. You may have to violate the code of the circle in order to succeed, for we are dealing with unscrupulous men. The leader of the underworld has only contempt for our mores and our honor." -
        The Master waited, but Var did not reply.
        "You may ask what you want in return. I mean to deal fairly with you." - -
        "After I do this," Var enunciated carefully, "then can I join the empire?"
        The Nameless One looked at him, astonished. Then he began to laugh. Var laughed too, not certain what was funny.
        The beginning was only a hole in a pit in a cavity in the ground, where water disappeared during storms. But underneath it expanded into a cavern he could almost stand in. Var remained there for a time, motionless, getting his full night vision and absorbing the smells.
        He knew in which direction the mountain lay. This sense, like that of smell and his sharp night sight and his ability to run almost doubled over, had remained with him after he left the wild life. He was still quite at home in the wilderness.
        He shook off his shoes. He had never been comfortable in them, and for this work his hooflike toes were best.
        Some water still seeped down, but the main section of the cave was clear. The base was caked with gravel; the sides were slimy with mosslike fungus. On a hunch abetted by observation, Var took a singlestick and scraped the wall. As the plant life and grime gave way, metal touched metal.
        This cave - was not completely natural. The Master had suggested that this might be the case. The entire mountain, he had said, was unnatural-though he did not know how it had come about.
        The chances of an unnatural cave connecting to a natural mountain seemed good.
        Var, eye, ear and nose now adjusted to this environment, moved on. His mission was to chart a route into the dread mountain-a route that bypassed the surface defenses, and that men could follow. If he found the route, and kept it secret from the underworiders, the empire could have an almost bloodless victory.
        If there were no route, there would be a much worse battle on the surface. Lives depended on his mission perhaps the life of the Master himself.
        The tunnel branched. The pipe going toward the mountain was clogged with rubble; the other was wide and clear. Var knew, why: when rainfall was heavy, water coursed this way, removing all obstructions. He would have to follow the water, to be sure of getting anywhere but he would also have to pay close attention to the weather, lest the water follow him. Was it possible to anticipate a storm underground?
        The passage widened as it descended. Its walls were almost vertical and metallic; overhead, metal beams now showed regularly. It debouched into an extremely large concorse with a long pit down the center. He peered down, noting how the delta of rubble tipped into that chasm. He did not venture into it himself. The bottom was packed with slick-looking mud, and there were dark motions within that mud: worms, maggots or worse. There had been a time when he had eaten such with gusto, but civilization had affected his appetite.
        He tapped the level surface of the upper platform. Under the crusted grime there was tile very like that of a hostel.
        The footing was sound.
        The Master had told him that there were many artifacts in this region reninining from the time before the Blast. The Ancients had made buildings and tunnels and miraculious machines, and some of these remained, though no one knew their function. Certainly Var could not fathom the use of such a large, long compartment with a tiled floor and a pit dividing it completely.
        He followed it down, listening to distant rustles and sniffing the

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