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Title: Priestess of the Flame
Author: Wright, Sewell Peaslee, 1897-1970
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                         Transcriber's Note:

      This etext was produced from Astounding Stories June 1932.
      Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
      U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.


[Illustration: "_Be still! The power of Liane is absolute here!_"]


                        Priestess of the Flame

                       By Sewell Peaslee Wright

       *       *       *       *       *



[Sidenote: Commander John Hanson recounts the extraordinary story of
Liane, Priestess of the Flame.]


I have been rather amused by the protests which have come to me
regarding the "disparaging" comments I have made, in previous tales of
the Special Patrol Service, regarding women. The rather surprising
thing about it is that the larger proportion of these have come from
men. Young men, of course.

Now, as a matter of fact, a careful search has failed to reveal to me
any very uncomplimentary remarks. I have suggested, I believe, that
women have, in my experience, shown a sad lack of ability to
understand mechanical contrivances. Perhaps I have pictured some few
of them as frivolous and shallow. If I have been unfair, I wish now to
make humble apology.

I am not, as some of my correspondents have indicated, a bitter old
man, who cannot remember his youth. I remember it very well indeed,
else these tales would not be forthcoming. And women have their great
and proper place, even in a man's universe.

Some day, perhaps, the mood will seize me to write of my own love
affair. That surprises you? You smile to think that old John Hanson,
lately a commander of the Special Patrol Service, now retired, should
have had a love affair? Well, 'twas many years ago, before these eyes
lost their fire, and before these brown, skinny hands wearied as
quickly as they weary now....

But I have known many women--good women and bad; great women and women
of small souls; kindly women, and women fierce as wild bears are
fierce. Divinity has dealt lavishly with women; has given them an
emotional range far greater than man's. They can sink to depths
unknown to masculinity; they can rise to heights of love and sacrifice
before which man can only stand with reverently bowed head and marvel.

This is a story of a woman--one of those no man could know and not
remember. I make no apologies for her; I pay her no homage. I record
only a not inaccurate account of an adventure of my youth, in which
she played a part; I leave to you the task of judging her.

       *       *       *       *       *

We were some three days out from Base, as I recall it, on a mission
which promised a welcome interlude in a monotonous sequence of routine
patrols. I was commander then of the _Ertak_, one of the crack ships
of the Service, and assisted by the finest group of officers, I
believe, that any man ever had under him.

I was standing a watch in the navigating room with Hendricks, my
junior officer, when Correy brought us the amazing news.

Correy was my first officer, a square-jawed fighting man if one ever
breathed, a man of action, such as these effete times do not produce.
His eyes were fairly blazing as he came into the room, and his
generous mouth was narrowed into a grim line.

"What's up, Mr. Correy?" I asked apprehensively. "Trouble aboard?"

"Plenty of it, sir!" he snapped. "A stowaway!"

"A stowaway?" I repeated wonderingly. A new experience, but hardly
cause for Correy's obvious anger. "Well, send him below, and tell Miro
to put him to work--the hardest work he can find. We'll make him--"

"_Him?_" blurted Correy. "If it were a him it wouldn't be so bad, sir.
But it's a _she_!"

       *       *       *       *       *

To understand the full effect of the statement, you'd have to be
steeped in the traditions of the Service. Women are seldom permitted
on board a ship of the Service; despite their many admirable
qualities, women play the very devil with discipline. And here were
we, three days out from Base on a tour of duty which promised more
than a little excitement, with a female stowaway on board!

I felt my own mouth set grimly.

"Where is she, Mr. Correy?" I asked quietly.

"In my quarters, under guard. It was my watch below, as you know, sir.
I entered my stateroom, figuring on catching forty winks, and there
she was, seated in my big chair, smiling at me.

"Well, for a second I couldn't speak. I just stared at her, and she
kept smiling back at me. 'What are you doing here?' I managed to ask
her, at last. 'Do you know where you are?'

"'I'll talk to your commanding officer,' she told me, cool as you
please. 'Will you bring him, please?'

"'You'll see him plenty soon enough,' I snapped at her, getting over
my surprise somewhat by that time. I called in a couple of men to keep
her from getting into mischief, and reported to you. What are your
orders, sir?"

I hesitated a second, wondering. From Correy's account, she must be a
rather remarkable person.

"Bring her up here, if you will, Mr. Correy. I'd like to see her
before we put her in the brig." The brig, I might explain, was a small
room well forward, where members of the crew were confined for
discipline.

"Right, sir!" It seemed to me that there was a peculiar twinkle in
Correy's eyes as he went out, and I wondered about it while we waited
for him to return with the prisoner.

"What an infernal nuisance, sir!" complained Hendricks, looking up
from his glowing charts. "We'll be the laughing-stock of the Service
if this leaks out!"

"_When_ it leaks out," I corrected him glumly. I'd already thought of
the unpleasant outcome he mentioned. "I'll have to report it, of
course, and the whole Service will know about it. We'll just have to
grin and make the most of it, I guess." There was still another
possibility which I didn't mention: the silver-sleeves at Base would
very likely call me on the carpet for permitting such a thing to
happen. A commander was supposed to be responsible for everything that
happened; no excuses available in the Service as it was in those days.

       *       *       *       *       *

I scowled forbiddingly as I heard Correy open the door; at least I
could make her very sorry she had selected the _Ertak_ for her
adventure. I am afraid, however, that it was a startled, rather than a
scowling face to which she lifted her eyes.

"This is the stowaway, sir," said Correy briskly, closing the door. He
was watching my face, and I saw, now, the reason for the twinkle in
his eye when I mentioned placing the stowaway in the brig.

The woman was startlingly beautiful; one of the most beautiful women I
have ever seen, and I have roamed the outer limits of space, and seen
the women of many worlds. Hendricks, standing behind me, gasped
audibly as his eyes fell upon her.

The stowaway was regally tall and exquisitely modeled. Her hair was
the color of pale morning sunlight on Earth; her eyes an amazing blue,
the equal of which I have never seen.

She was beautiful, but not coldly so. Despite her imperious bearing,
there was something seductive about the soft curves of her beautiful
body; something to rouse the pulses of a man in the langour of her
intensely blue eyes, and the full, sensuous lips, scarlet as a smear
of fresh blood.

"So this is the stowaway," I said, trying to keep my voice coolly
indifferent. "What is your name?"

"I should prefer," she replied, speaking the universal language with a
sibilant accent that was very fascinating, "to speak with you
privately."

"You will speak with me," I informed her crisply, "in the presence of
these officers. I repeat: what is your name?"

She smiled faintly, her eyes compelling mine.

"I am called Liane," she said. "Chief Priestess of the Flame. Mother
of Life. Giver of Death. I believe my name and position are not
unknown to you, Commander Hanson?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Known to me? If Base was not in error--and for all their faults, the
silver-sleeves are seldom wrong in matters of this sort--this woman
was the reason for our present mission.

"They are known to me," I admitted. "They do not explain, however,
your presence here."

"And yet they should," protested Liane gently. "I was taken from my
own people by those who had no right to command me. I was subjected to
the indignity of questioning by many men. I have merely taken the
simplest and quickest way of returning to my own people."

"You know, then, our destination?"

"I was informed of that by those who questioned me," nodded Liane.
"Then, since I had been assured I was an honored guest, and no
prisoner, I secreted myself aboard the ship, hiding in a small room
nearly filled with what I took to be spare parts. I had provisions,
and a few personal belongings. When I felt sufficient time had elapsed
to make a return improbable, I donned attire more fitting than the
masculine workman's guise in which I had secreted myself, and--I
believe you are acquainted with the remaining facts."

"I am. I will consider your case and advise you later. Mr. Correy,
will you conduct the stowaway to my quarters and place her under
guard? Return when you have attended to this matter, and ask Mr.
Kincaide to do likewise."

"To your quarters, you said, sir?" asked Correy, his eyes very
serious, but not sufficiently so to entirely disguise the twinkle in
their depths. "Not to the brig?"

I could cheerfully have kicked him.

"To my quarters," I repeated severely, "and under guard."

"Right, sir," said Correy.

       *       *       *       *       *

While we were awaiting Correy and Kincaide, I briefly considered the
rather remarkable story which had been told me at Base.

"Commander Hanson," the Chief of Command had said, "we're turning over
to you a very delicate mission. You've proved yourself adept at
handling matters of this kind, and we have every confidence you'll
bring this one to a highly successful conclusion."

"Thank you, sir; we'll do our best," I had told him.

"I know that; the assurance isn't necessary, although I appreciate it.
Briefly, here's what we're confronted with:

"Lakos, as you know, is the principal source of temite for the
universe. And without temite, modern space travel would be impossible;
we would have to resort to earlier and infinitely more crude devices.
You realize that, of course.

"Now, for some time, those in charge of operations on Lakos have
complained of a growing unrest, increasing insubordination on the part
of the Lakonians, and an alarming decrease in production.

"It has been extremely difficult--indeed, impossible--to determine the
reasons for this, for, as you are perhaps aware, the atmosphere of
Lakos is permeated with certain mineral fumes which, while not
directly harmful to those of other worlds, do serve to effectively
block the passage of those rays of the sun which are essential to the
health of beings like ourselves. Those in charge of operations there
are supplied artificially with these rays, as you are in your ship, by
means of emanations from ethon tubes, but they have to be transferred
at frequent periods to other fields of activity. The constant shifting
about produces a state of disorder which makes the necessary
investigation impossible. Too, operations are carried on with an
insufficient personnel, because it is extremely difficult to induce
desirable types of volunteer for such disagreeable service.

"We have, however, determined a few very important facts. This unrest
has been caused by the activities of a secret organization or order
known as the Worshipers of the Flame. That's as close a translation as
I can give you. It sounds harmless enough, but from what we gather,
it is a sinister and rather terrible organization, with a fanatical
belief amounting, at times, to a veritable frenzy. These Lakonians are
a physically powerful but mentally inadequate people, as perhaps you
are aware.

"The leader of this order or cult call it what you will--seems to be a
woman: a very fascinating creature, infinitely superior to her people
as a whole; what biologists call a 'sport,' I believe--a radical
departure from the general racial trend.

"This leader calls herself Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame, Mother
of Life, Giver of Death, and a few other high-sounding things. We have
called her here to Base for questioning, and while she has been here
some time, we have so far learned next to nothing from her. She is
very intelligent, very alluring, very feminine--but reveals nothing
she does not wish to reveal.

"Our purpose in having her brought here was two-fold: first, to gain
what information we could from her, and if possible, prevail upon her
to cease her activities; second, to deprive her cult of her leadership
while you conducted your investigation.

"Your orders, then, are simple: you will proceed at once to Lakos, and
inquire into the activities of this order. Somehow, it must be
crushed; the means I shall leave to you. You will have complete
coöperation of those in charge of operations on Lakos; they are
Zenians and natives of Earth, and you may depend upon them implicitly.
Do not, however, place any faith in any Lakonians; the entire native
populace may well be suspected of participation in the rites of this
cult, and they are a treacherous and ruthless people at best. Have you
any questions, Commander?"

"None," I had told him. "I have full authority to take any action I
see fit?"

"Yes, at your discretion. Of course," he had added rather hastily,
"you appreciate the importance of our supply of temite. Only Lakonians
can gather it in commercial quantities, under the existing conditions
on Lakos, and our reserve supply is not large. We naturally wish to
increase production there, rather than endanger it. It's a delicate
mission, but I'm trusting you and your men to handle it for us. I know
you will."

He had arisen then, smilingly, and offered his hand to me in that
gesture which marks a son of Earth throughout the universe, thus
bringing the interview to a close.

       *       *       *       *       *

IN talking the things over with my officers, we had decided the
mission promised to be an interesting one, but full of difficulties.
The _Ertak_ had set down on Lakos more than once, and we all had
unpleasant memories of the place.

The sunlight on Lakos, such as it was, was pale green and thin,
lacking in warmth and vitality. The vegetation was flaccid and nearly
colorless, more like a mushroom growth than anything else; and the
inhabitants were suspicious and unfriendly.

Remembering the typical Lakonians, it was all the more surprising that
a gracious creature like Liane could have sprung from their midst.
They were a beetle-browed, dark race, with gnarled muscles and huge,
knotted joints, speaking a guttural language all their own. Few spoke
the universal language.

But Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame! The image of her kept
drifting back to my mind. There was a woman to turn any man's head!
And such a turning would be dangerous, for Liane had no soft woman's
soul, if I had read her brilliant blue eyes aright.

"Rather a beauty, isn't she, sir?" commented Hendricks as I paused in
my restless pacing, and glanced at the two-dimensional charts.

"The stowaway? Rather," I agreed shortly. "And chief instigator of the
trouble we've been sent to eliminate."

"That seems almost--almost unbelievable, doesn't it?"

"Why, Mr. Hendricks?"

Correy and Kincaide entered before my junior officer could reply. I
think he was rather glad of the excuse for not presenting his reasons.

"Well, sir, she's under guard," reported Correy. "And now what's to be
done about her?"

"That," I admitted, "is a question. After all, she's an important
personage at home. She was brought to Base as a guest, probably
something of a guest of honor, of the Council, I gather. And,
considering the work that's cut out for us, it would seem like a poor
move to antagonize her unduly. What do you gentlemen think?"

"I think you're right, sir," said Hendricks quickly. "I believe she
should be given every consideration."

       *       *       *       *       *

Kincaide, my level-headed second officer, glanced curiously at
Hendricks. "I see she's made one friend, anyway," he said. "Don't let
yourself slip, my boy; I've run across her kind before. They're
dangerous."

"Thanks, but the warning's not necessary, Mr. Kincaide," replied
Hendricks stiffly, an angry flush mounting to his checks. "I merely
expressed a requested opinion."

"We'll let that phase of it drop, gentlemen," I cut in sharply, as I
saw Kincaide's eyes flash. Trust a woman to stir up strife and
ill-feeling! "What shall we do with her?"

"I believe, sir," said Correy, "that we'd be nice to her. Treat her as
an honored guest; make the best of a bad situation. If she's what the
Chief thought she is, the boss of this outfit we've got to lick, then
there's no need of stroking her the wrong way, as I see it."

"And you, Mr. Kincaid?"

"I see no other way out of it. Under the circumstances, we can't treat
her like a common culprit; both her position and her sex would
prevent."

"Very well, then; we seem to be agreed. We'll find suitable quarters
for her--"

"I'll give her mine," put in Hendricks. "Correy will let me double up
with him, I imagine."

"Sure," nodded Correy.

Kincaide glanced sharply at Hendricks, but said nothing. I knew,
however, that he was thinking just what I was: that my young third
officer was in for a bad, bad time of it.

Just how bad, I think neither of us guessed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Liane became a member of the officers' mess on the _Ertak_. She
occupied Hendricks' stateroom, and, I must confess, with uncommon good
judgment for a woman, remained there most of the time.

She knew the reason for our mission, but this was one subject we never
discussed. Nor did we mention the sect of which, according to the
Chief of Command, she was the head. We did talk freely, when brought
together at the table, on every other general topic.

Liane was an exceedingly intelligent conversationalist. Her voice was
fascinating, and her remarks were always to the point. And she was a
very good listener; she paid flattering attention to the most casual
remark.

It seemed to me she was particularly gracious to Hendricks. Her
strangely arresting blue eyes seldom left his face when he was
speaking, and the greater portion of her remarks seemed addressed to
him. Naturally, Hendricks responded as a flower responds to the
warming rays of the sun.

"We'll do well, sir, to keep a weather eye on the youngster," opined
Correy one morning. (I think I have previously explained that even in
the unchanging darkness of space, we divided time arbitrarily into
days and nights). "Unless I'm badly mistaken, Hendricks is falling
victim to a pair of blue eyes."

"He's young," I shrugged. "We'll be there in two more days, and then
we'll be rid of her."

"Yes," nodded Correy, "we'll be there in a couple of days. And we'll
be rid of her, I hope. But--suppose it should be serious, sir?"

"What do you mean?" I asked sharply. I had been thinking, rather
vaguely, along much the same lines, but to hear it put into words came
as rather a shock.

"I hope I'm wrong," said Correy very gravely. "But this Liane is an
unusual woman. When I was his age, I could have slipped rather badly
myself. Her eyes--that slow smile--they do things to a man.

"At the same time, Liane is supposed to be the head of the thing we're
to stamp out; you might say the enemy's leader. And it wouldn't be a
good thing, sir, to have a--a friend of the enemy on board the
_Ertak_, would it?"

A rebuke rose to my lips, but I checked it. After all, Correy had no
more than put into words some fears which had been harassing me.

       *       *       *       *       *

A traitor--in the Service? Perhaps you won't be able to understand
just what that thought meant to those of us who wore the Blue and
Silver in those days. But a traitor was something we had never had. It
was almost unbelievable that such a thing would ever happen; that it
could ever happen. And yet older men than Hendricks had thrown honor
aside at the insistence of women less fascinating than Liane.

I had felt the lure of her personality; there was not one of us on
board the _Ertak_ who had not. And she had not exercised her wiles on
any of us save Hendricks; with the shrewdness which had made her the
leader she was, she had elected to fascinate the youngest, the
weakest, the most impressionable.

"I'll have a talk with him, Mr. Correy," I said quietly. "Probably it
isn't necessary; I trust him implicitly, as I am sure you do, and the
rest of us."

"Certainly, sir," Correy replied hastily, evidently relieved by the
manner in which I had taken his remarks. "Only, he's very young, sir,
and Liane is a very fascinating creature."

I kept my promise to Correy the next time Hendricks was on watch.

"We'll be setting down in a couple of days," I commented casually.
"It'll be good to stretch our legs again, won't it?"

"It certainly will, sir."

"And I imagine that's the last we'll see of our fair stowaway," I
said, watching him closely.

Hendricks' face flushed and then drained white. With the tip of his
forefinger he traced meaningless geometrical patterns on the surface
of the instrument table.

"I imagine so, sir," he replied in a choked voice. And then, suddenly,
in a voice which shook with released emotion. "Oh, I know what you're
thinking!" he added. "What you've all been thinking; you, sir, and
Correy and Kincaide. Probably the men, too, for that matter.

"But it's not so! I want you to believe that, sir. I may be
impressionable, and certainly she is beautiful and--and terribly
fascinating; but I'm not quite a fool. I realize she's on the other
side; that I can't, that I must not, permit myself to care. You--you
do believe that, sir?"

"Of course, lad!" I put my hand reassuringly on his shoulder; his
whole body was shaking. "Forget it; forget her as soon as you can.
None of us have doubted you for an instant; we just--wondered."

"I could see that; I could feel it. And it hurt," said my junior
officer with shame-faced hesitancy. "But I'll forget her--after she's
gone."

I let it go at that. After all, it was a rather painful subject for us
both. The next day it did seem that he treated her with less
attention; and she noticed it, for I saw the faint shadow of a frown
form between her perfect brows, and her glance traveled meditatively
from Hendricks' flushed face to my own.

       *       *       *       *       *

The next morning, after the first meal of the day, she walked down the
passage with me, one slim white hand placed gently within the curve of
my arm.

"Mr. Hendricks," she commented softly, "seems rather distraught the
last day or so."

"Yes?" I said, smiling to myself, and wondering what was coming next.

"Yes, Commander Hanson." There was just the faintest suggestion of
steeliness in her voice now. "I fancy you've been giving him good
advice, and painting me in lurid colors. Do you really think so badly
of me?" Her hand pressed my arm with warm friendliness; her great blue
eyes were watching me with beseeching interest.

"I think, Liane," I replied, "that Mr. Hendricks is a very young man."

"And that I am a dangerous woman?" She laughed softly.

"That, at least," I told her, "your interests and ours are not
identical."

"True," she said coolly, pausing before the door of her stateroom. Her
hand dropped from my arm, and she drew herself up regally. In the
bright flow of the ethon tubes overhead she was almost irresistibly
beautiful. "Our interests are not identical, Commander Hanson. They
are widely divergent, directly opposed to each other, as a matter of
fact. And--may I be so bold as to offer you a bit of advice?"

I bowed, saying nothing.

"Then, don't attempt to meddle with things which are more powerful,
than you and the forces you control. And--don't waste breath on Mr.
Hendricks. Fair warning!"

Before I could ask for more complete explanation, she had slipped
inside her stateroom and firmly closed the door.

       *       *       *       *       *

We set down on Lakos late that afternoon, close to the city--town,
rather--of Gio, where those in charge of operations made their
headquarters. With Liane and Correy, leaving the ship in charge of
Kincaide, I made my way quickly toward the headquarters building.

We had gone but a few steps when Liane was surrounded by a shouting
throng of her fellow Lakonians, and with a little mocking wave of a
white hand, she stepped into a sort of litter which had been rushed to
the scene, and was carried away.

"For one," commented Correy with a sigh of relief, "I'm glad she's out
of sight. If I never see her again, it'll be too soon. When do we
start something?"

"Not until we've talked with Fetter, who's in command here. I have a
letter for him from the Chief. We'll see what he has to say."

One thing was certain; we could look for no assistance of any kind
from the natives. They regarded us with bleak scowls, from beneath
shaggy, lowering brows, our uniforms of blue, with the silver
ornaments of our service and rank, identifying us clearly.

In the greenish Lakonian twilight, they were sinister figures indeed,
clothed all alike in short, sleeveless tunics, belted loosely at the
waist, feet and legs encased in leather buskins reaching nearly to the
knees, their brown, gnarled limbs and stoop-shouldered postures giving
them a half-bestial resemblance which was disturbing. Their walk was a
sort of slow shuffle, which made their long arms dangle, swinging
disjointedly.

We entered the administration building of gray, dull stone, and were
ushered immediately into the office of the head of operations.

"Hanson?" he greeted me. "Mighty glad to see you. You too, Correy.
Terrible hole, this; hope you're not here for long. Sorry I couldn't
meet you at the ship; got your radio, but couldn't make it.
Everything's in a jam. Getting worse all the time. And we're
shorthanded; not half enough men here. Sit down, sit down. Seem good
to feel firm ground under your feet?"

"Not particularly; your air here isn't as good as the _Ertak's_."
Correy and I seated ourselves across the desk from the garrulous
Fetter. "I've a letter here from the Chief; I believe it explains why
we're here."

"I can guess, I can guess. And none too soon. Things are in terrible
shape. Terrible." Fetter ripped open the letter and glanced through it
with harried eyes.

"Right," he nodded. "I'm to help you all I can. Place myself at your
disposal. What can I do?"

"Tell us what's up," I suggested.

"That would be a long story. I suppose you know something about the
situation already. Several reports have gone in to Base. What did the
Chief tell you, Hanson?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Briefly, I sketched the Chief's report, Fetter nodding every few
words. When I had finished, he rubbed his long, thin fingers together
nervously, and stared down, frowning at the littered top of his desk.

"Right as far as he went," he said. "But he didn't go far enough.
Wanted you to find out for yourself, I suppose.

"Well, there _is_ a secret society working against us here. Sect, I'd
call it. Undermined the whole inhabited portion of Lakos--which isn't
a great area, as you know."

"The Chief Priestess is Liane. I believe you said she stowed away on
the _Ertak_ with you?"

I nodded.

"You're keeping her under guard?" asked Fetter.

"No; under the circumstances, we couldn't. We had no authority, you
see. A crowd of natives bore her away in triumph."

"Then your work's cut out for you," groaned Fetter. "She's a devil
incarnate. Beautiful, irresistible, and evil as corruption itself. If
she's back, I'm afraid there's nothing to be done. We've been sitting
on a volcano ever since she left. Pressure growing greater every
instant, it seemed. She's just what's needed to set it off."

"We'll have to take our chances," I commented. "And now; just what is
the set-up?"

"The Worshipers of the Flame, they call themselves. The membership
takes in about every male being on Lakos. They meet in the great
caverns which honeycomb the continent. Ghastly places; I've seen some
of the smaller ones. Continent was thrust up from the sea in a molten
state, some scientific chap told me once; these caverns were made by
great belches of escaping steam or gas. You'll see them.

"She--Liane--and her priests rule solely by terror. The Lakonians are
naturally just horses" (a draft animal of ancient Earth, now extinct),
"content to work without thinking. Liane and her crew have made them
think--just enough to be dangerous. Just what she tells them to think,
and no more. Disobedient ones are punished by death. Rather a terrible
death, I gather.

"Well, her chief aim is to stop the production of temite. She wishes
to bargain with the Council--at her own terms."

"What's her price?" I asked. "What does she want, wealth?"

"No. _Power!_" Fetter leaned forward across the desk, hammering it
with both fists to emphasize the word, his eyes gleaming from their
deep sockets. "Power, Hanson, that's what she craves. She's insane on
the subject. Utterly mad. She lusts after it. You asked her price;
it's this: a seat in the Council!"

       *       *       *       *       *

I gasped audibly. A seat in the Council! The Council, composed of the
wisest heads of the universe, and ruling the universe with absolute
authority!

"She _is_ mad," I said.

"Crazy," grunted Correy. "Plain crazy. A woman--in the Council!"

Fetter nodded solemnly.

"Mad--crazy--use your own terms," he said. "But that's her price. The
Chief didn't tell you that, did he? Well, perhaps he didn't know. I
learned it in a very roundabout way. She'll make the formal demand
when the time is ripe, never fear. And what's more, unless these
Worshipers of the Flame are stamped out--_she'll get what she
demands!_"

"Impossible!"

"Not at all. You know what this place is. Only a Lakonian can stand
this atmosphere long. No vitality to the light that does come through
this damned green stuff they breathe for air; and after a few days,
the acid, metallic tang of it drives you frantic. Never can get used
to it.

"So the Lakonians have to mine the temite. And the universe must have
temite, in quantities that can't be supplied from any other source. If
the Lakonians won't mine it--and they won't, when Liane tells them to
quit--what will the Council and your Service do about it?"

"Plenty," growled Correy.

"Nothing," contradicted Fetter. "You can kill a man, disintegrate him,
imprison him, punish him, as you will, but you can't make him work."
And there that phase of the matter rested.

I asked him a number of questions which I felt would help us to start
our work properly, and he answered every one of them promptly and
fully. Evidently, Fetter had given his problem a great deal of
thought, and had done more than a little intelligent investigating of
his own.

"If there's anything else I can do to help you," he said as he
accompanied us to the door, "don't fail to call upon me. And remember
what I said: trust no one except yourselves. Study each move before
you make it. These Lakonians are dull-witted, but they'll do whatever
Liane tells them. And she thinks fast and cunningly!"

       *       *       *       *       *

We thanked him for his warning, and hurried back to the ship through
the sickly-green Lakonian dusk. The acrid odor of the atmosphere was
already beginning to be disagreeable.

"Decent sort of a chap, Fetter," commented Correy. "All wrought up,
isn't he? Worried stiff."

"I imagine he has cause to be. And--he might have been right in saying
we should have held Liane: perhaps we could have treated with her in
some way."

"No chance! Not that lady. When we treat with her, we'll have to have
the whip hand, utterly and completely."

The heavy outer door of the _Ertak's_ exit was open, but the
transparent inner door, provided for just such an emergency, was in
place, forming, in conjunction with a second door, an efficient
air-lock. The guard saw us coming and, as we came up, had the inner
door smartly opened, standing at salute as we entered. We returned his
salute and went up to the navigating room, where I proposed to hold a
brief council of war, informing Kincaide and Hendricks of what we had
learned from Fetter, and deciding upon a course of action for the
following day. Kincaide, whom I had left on watch, was there waiting.

"Well, sir, how do things stack up?" he asked anxiously.

"Not so good. Please ask Mr. Hendricks to report here at once, and
I'll give you the whole story."

Kincaide pressed the attention signal to Hendricks' room, and waited
impatiently for a response. There was none.

"Try my room," suggested Correy. "Maybe he hasn't moved back to his
own quarters yet."

"That's what he said he would be doing," replied Kincaide. But that
signal too failed to bring any response.

       *       *       *       *       *

Correy glanced at me, a queer, hurt expression in his eyes.

"Shall I go forward and see if he--if he's ill?" he asked quickly.

"Please do," I said, and as soon as he was gone I turned to the
microphone and called the sentry on duty at the exit.

"Commander Hanson speaking. Has Mr. Hendricks left the ship?"'

"Yes, sir. Some time ago. The lady came back, saying she had word from
you; she and Mr. Hendricks left a few minutes later. That was all
right, sir?"

"Yes," I said, barely able to force the word from between my lips.
Hendricks ... and Liane? Hendricks ... a traitor? I cut the microphone
and glanced at Kincaide. He must have read the facts in my eyes.

"He's ... gone, sir?"

"With Liane," I nodded.

The door burst open, and Correy came racing into the room.

"He's not there, sir!" he snapped. "But in his room I found this!"

He held out an envelope, addressed to me. I ripped it open, glanced
through the hasty, nervous scrawl, and then read it aloud:

     "Sir:

     I am leaving with Liane. I am sorry. It had to be.

                                                   Hendricks."

"That, gentlemen," I said hoarsely, after a long silence, "will make
the blackest entry ever spread upon the log of the _Ertak_--upon any
ship of the Service. Let us dismiss this thing from our minds, and
proceed."

But that was easier, by far, to propose than to accomplish.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was late indeed when we finished our deliberations, but the plan
decided upon was exceedingly simple.

We would simply enforce our authority until we located definite
resistance; we would then concentrate our efforts upon isolating the
source of this resistance and overcoming it. That we would find Liane
at the bottom of our difficulties, we knew perfectly well, but we
desired to place her in a definite position as an enemy. So far, we
had nothing against her, no proof of her activities, save the rather
guarded report of the Chief, and the evidence given us by Fetter.

There were three major continents on Lakos, but only one of them was
inhabited or habitable, the other two being within the large northern
polar cap. The activities of The Worshipers of the Flame were centered
about the chief city of Gio, Fetter had told us, and therefore we were
in position to start action without delay.

Force of men would avail us nothing, since the entire crew of the
_Ertak_ would be but a pitiful force compared to the horde Liane could
muster. Our mission could be accomplished--if, indeed, it could be
accomplished at all--by the force of whatever authority our position
commanded, and the outwitting of Liane.

Accordingly, it was decided that, in the emergency, all three of us
would undertake the task, leaving the ship in charge of Sub-officer
Scholey, chief of the operating room crew, and a very capable,
level-headed man. I gave him his final instructions as we left the
ship, early the next morning:

"Scholey, we are leaving you in a position of unusual responsibility.
An emergency makes it necessary, or at least desirable, for Mr.
Correy, Mr. Kincaide and myself to leave the ship. Mr. Hendricks has
already departed; therefore, the _Ertak_ will be left in your charge.

"Remain here for five days; if we do not return in that time, leave
for Base, and report the circumstances there. The log will reveal full
authority for your actions."

"Very well, sir!" He saluted, and we passed through the air-lock which
protected the _Ertak_ from the unpleasant atmosphere of Lakos, armed
only with atomic pistols, and carrying condensed rations and menores
at our belts.

       *       *       *       *       *

We went directly to the largest of the mines, the natives regarding us
with furtive, unfriendly eyes. A great crowd of men were lounging
around the mouth of the mine, and as we approached, they tightened
their ranks, as though to block our passage.

"We'll bluff it through," I whispered. "They know the uniform of the
Service, and they have no leader."

"I'd like to take a swing at one of them," growled Correy. "I don't
like their looks--not a bit. But just as you say, sir."

Our bluff worked. We marched up to the packed mass as though we had
not even noticed them, and slowly and unwillingly, they opened a path
for us, closing in behind us with rather uncomfortable celerity. For a
moment I regretted we had not taken a landing crew from the _Ertak_.

However, we won through the mouth of the mine without violence, but
here a huge Lakonian who seemed to be in authority held up his hand
and blocked our way.

"Let me handle him, sir," said Correy from the corner of his mouth. "I
understand a little of their language."

"Right," I nodded. "Make it strong!"

Correy stepped forward, his head thrust out truculently, thumbs hooked
through his belt, his right hand suggestively near his automatic
pistol. He rapped out something in unpleasant gutturals, and the tall
Lakonian replied volubly.

"He says it's orders," commented Correy over his shoulder. "Now I'll
tell him who's giving orders around here!"

He stepped closer to the Lakonian, and spoke with emphatic briefness.
The Lakonian fell back a step, hesitated, and started to reply. Correy
stopped him with a single word, and motioned us to follow him. The
guard watched us doubtfully, and angrily, but he let us pass.

"He told me," explained Correy, "that _she_ had given orders. Didn't
name her, but we can guess, all right. I told him that if she wished
to say anything to us, she could do it in person; that we weren't
afraid of her, of him, or all the Lakonians who ever breathed green
soup and called it air. He's a simple soul, and easily impressed. So
we got by."

"Nice work," I commended him. "It's an auspicious start, anyway."

       *       *       *       *       *

The mouth of the mine was not the usual vertical shaft; as Fetters had
told us, it was a great ramp, of less than forty-five degrees, leading
underground, illuminated by jets of greenish flame from metal brackets
set into the wall at regular intervals, and fed by a never-failing
interplay of natural gas. The passageway was of varying height and
width, but nowhere less than three times my height from floor to
ceiling, and it was broad enough at its narrowest so that ten men
might have marched easily abreast.

The floor, apparently, had been smoothed by human effort, but for the
rest, the corridor was, to judge from the evidence, entirely natural
for the walls of shiny black rock bore no marks of tools.

At intervals, other passages branched off from the main one we were
following, at greater and less angles, but these were much narrower,
and had very apparently been hewn in the solid rock. Like the central
passage, they were utterly deserted.

"We'll be coming out on the other side, pretty soon," commented Correy
after a steady descent of perhaps twenty minutes. "This tunnel must go
all the way through. I--what's that?"

We paused and listened. From behind us came a soft, whispering sound,
the nature of which we could not determine.

"Sounds like the shuffle of many feet, far behind," suggested Kincaide
gravely.

"Or, more likely, the air rushing around the corners of those smaller
passages," I suggested. "This is a drafty hole. Or it may be just the
combined flarings of all these jets of flame."

"Maybe you're right, sir," nodded Correy. "Anyway, we won't worry
about it until we have to. I guess we just keep on going?"

"That seems to be about all there is to do; we should enter one of the
big subterranean chambers Fetters mentioned, before long."

       *       *       *       *       *

As a matter of fact, it was but a minute or two later, that we turned
a curve in the corridor and found ourselves looking into a vast open
space, the roof supported by huge pillars of black stone, and the
floor littered with rocky debris and mining tools thrown down by
workmen.

"This is where they take out the temite ore, I imagine," said
Kincaide, picking up a loose fragment of rock. He pointed to a smudge
of soft, crumbly gray metal, greasy in appearance, showing on the
surface of the specimen he had picked up. "That's the stuff, sir,
that's causing us all this trouble: nearly pure metallic temite." He
dropped the fragment, looking about curiously. "But where," he added,
"are the miners?"

"I'm inclined to believe we'll find out before we get back to the
_Ertak_," said Correy grimly. "Everything's moved along too sweetly;
trouble's just piling up somewhere."

"That remains to be seen," I commented. "Let's move on, and see what's
beyond. That looks like a door of some sort, on the far side. Perhaps
it will lead us to something more interesting."

"I hope it does," growled Correy. "This underground business is
getting on my nerves!"

It was a door I had seen, a huge slab of light yellow-green metal. I
paused, my hand on the simple latch.

"Stand to one side," I said softly. "Let's see what happens."

I lifted the latch, and the heavy door opened inward. Cautiously, I
stared through the portal. Inside was blackness and silence;
somewhere, in the far distance, I could see two or three tiny
pin-pricks of green light.

"We'll take a look around, anyway," I said. "Follow me carefully and
be ready for action. It seems all right, but somehow, I don't like the
looks of things."

In single file, we passed beyond the massive door, the light from the
large room outside streaming ahead of us, our shadows long and
grotesque, moving on the rocky floor ahead of us.

Then, suddenly, I became aware that the path of light ahead of us was
narrowing. I turned swiftly; the door must be closing!

As I turned, lights roared up all around us, intense light which
struck at our eyes with almost tangible force. A great shout rose,
echoing, to a vaulted ceiling. Before we could move or cry out, a
score of men on either side had pinioned us.

"Damnation!" roared Correy. "If I only had the use of my fists--just
for a second!"

       *       *       *       *       *

We were in a great cavern, the largest I have ever beheld. A huge
bubble, blown in the molten rock by powerful gases from the seething
interior of the world.

The roof was invisible above our heads, and the floor sloped down
gently in every direction, toward a central dais, so far away that its
details were lost to us. From the center of the dais a mighty pillar
of green flame mounted into the air nearly twenty times the height of
a man. All around the dais, seated on the sloping floor of the cavern,
were Lakonians.

There were hundreds of them, thousands of them, and they were as
silent and motionless as death. They paid no heed to us; they
crouched, each in his place, and stared at the column of greenish
flame.

"It was a trap," muttered Kincaide as our captors marched us rapidly
toward the dais in the center of the huge amphitheater. "They were
waiting for us; I imagine we have been watched all the time. And we
walked into the trap exactly like a bunch of schoolboys."

"True--but we've found, I believe, what we wished to find," I told
him. "This is the meeting place of the Worshipers of the Flame. There,
I imagine is the Flame itself. And unless I'm badly mistaken, that's
Liane waiting up there in the center!"

It was Liane. She was seated on a massive, simple throne of the
greenish-yellow metal, the column of fire rising directly behind her
like an impossible plume. In a semicircle at her feet, in massive
chairs made of the odd metal, were perhaps twenty old men, their heads
crowned with great, unkempt manes of white hair.

And standing beside Liane's throne, at her right hand,
was--_Hendricks!_

       *       *       *       *       *

His shoulders drooped, his chin rested upon his breast. He was
wearing, not the blue-and-silver uniform of the Service, but a simple
tunic of pale green, with buskins of dark green leather, laced with
black. He did not look up as we were ushered before this impressive
group, but Liane watched us with smiling interest.

Liane, seated there upon her throne, was not the Liane of those days
in the _Ertak_. There, she had been scarcely more than a peculiarly
fascinating young woman with a regal bearing and commanding eyes.
Here, she was a goddess, terrifyingly beautiful, smiling with her
lips, yet holding the power of death in the white hands which hung
gracefully from the massive arms of the throne.

She wore a simple garment of thin, shimmering stuff, diaphanous as
finest silk. It was black, caught at one shoulder with a flashing
green stone. The other shoulder was bared, and the black garment was a
perfect foil for the whiteness of her perfect skin, her amazing blue
eyes, and the pale gold of her hair.

She lifted one hand in a slight gesture as our conductors paused
before the dais; they fell away and formed a close cordon behind us.

"We have awaited your coming," she said in her sibilant voice. "And
you are here."

"We are here," I said sternly, "representing, through our Service, the
Supreme Council of the universe. What word shall we take back to those
who sent us?"

Liane smiled, a slow, cruel smile. The pink fingers of one hand tapped
gently on the carven arm of her throne. The eyes of the semicircle of
old men watched us with unwavering hatred.

"The word you carry will be a good word," she said slowly. "Liane has
decided to be gracious--and yet it is well that you have full
understanding of Liane's power. For while the word Liane shall give
you to bear back is a good word, still, Liane is but a woman, and
women have been known to change their minds. Is that not so, Commander
Hanson?"

"That is so, Liane," I nodded. "And we are glad to hear that your
wisdom has led you to be gracious."

She leaned forward suddenly, her eyes flashing with anger.

"Mark you, it is not wisdom but a whim of mine which causes me to be
graciously minded!" she cried. "Think you that Liane is afraid? Look
about you!"

       *       *       *       *       *

We turned slowly and cast our eyes about that great gathering. As far
as the eye could reach, in every direction, was a sea of faces. And as
we looked, the door through which we had entered this great hall was
flung open, and a crowd of tiny specks came surging in.

"And still they come, at Liane's command," she laughed. "They are
those who played, to disarm your suspicions, at blocking your entry to
this place. They did but follow you, a safe distance behind."

"I thought so," murmured Correy. "Things were going too smoothly. That
was what we heard, sir."

I nodded, and looked up at Liane.

"You have many followers," I said. "Yet this is but a small world, and
behind the Council are all the worlds of the universe."

Liane threw back her head and laughed, a soft, tinkling sound that
rose clearly above the hollow roar of the mighty flame behind her
throne.

"You speak bravely," she said, "knowing that Liane holds the upper
hand. Did your Council take armed action against us, we would blow up
these caverns which are the source of your precious temite, and bury
it so deeply no force that could live here could extract it in the
quantities in which the universe needs it.

"But enough of this exchange of sharp words. Liane has already said
that she is disposed to be gracious. Does that not content you?"

"I will bear back to those who sent me whatever word you have to
offer; it is not for me to judge its graciousness," I said coolly.

"Then--but first, let me show you how well I rule here," she said. She
spoke to one of the old men seated at her feet; he arose and
disappeared in a passage leading from directly beneath the dais.

"You will see, presently, the punishment of Liane," she said
smilingly. "Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame, Mother of Life, Giver
of Death, Most Worshiped of the Worshipers.

"Perhaps you wonder how it came that Liane sits here in judgment upon
a whole people? Let me tell you, while we await the execution of
Liane's judgment.

"The father of Liane, and his father before him, back unto those
remote days of which we have no knowledge, were Chief Priests of the
Worshipers of the Flame. But they were lacking in ambition, in
knowledge, and in power. Their followers were but few, and their hands
were held out in benediction and not in command.

"But the father of Liane had no son; instead he had a daughter, in
whom was all the wisdom of those who had been the Chief Priests. She
gathered about her a group of old men, shrewd and cunning, the lesser
priests and those who would know the feel of power, who were not
priests. You see them here at the feet of Liane.

"And under Liane's guidance, the ranks of the Worshipers grew, and as
this power grew, so grew the power of Liane, until the time came when
no man, no woman, on the face of Lakos, dared question the command of
the Chief Priestess. And those who would have rebelled, were made to
feel the power of Liane--as these you see here now."

       *       *       *       *       *

The old man had reappeared, and behind him were two miserable
wretches, closely guarded by a dozen armed men. Liane spoke briefly to
the old man, and then turned to us.

"The first of these is one who has dared to disobey," she explained.
"He brought out more of the ore than Liane had ordered. Do you hear
the multitude? They know already what his fate will be."

A long, shuddering whisper had arisen from the thousands of beings
crouched there in the amphitheater, as the uncouth figure of the
prisoner was led up a flight of steep, narrow steps to the very base
of the flame.

Hendricks, still hiding his face from us, bent over Liane and
whispered something in her ear; she caressed his arm softly, and shook
her head. Hendricks leaned more heavily against the throne,
shuddering.

Slowly, the flame was dying, until we could see that it was not a
solid pillar of fire, but a hollow circle of flame, fed by innumerable
jets set at the base of a circle of a trifle more than the length of a
man across.

Into those deadly circles the condemned man was led. His legs were
bound swiftly, so that he could not move, and the old man stepped back
quickly.

As though his movement had been a signal, the flames shot up with a
roar, until they lost themselves far over our heads. As one man, the
three of us started forward, but the guards hemmed us in instantly.

"Fools!" cried Liane. "Be still! The power of Liane is absolute here."

We stared, fascinated, at the terrible sight. The flame spouted,
streaks of blue and yellow streaking up from its base. Mercifully, we
could not see within that encircling wall of fire.

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly, the flame died down again. A trap-door opened in the circle,
and some formless thing dropped out of sight. Liane questioned the
old man again, her eyes resting upon the other prisoner. The old man
answered briefly.

"This one spoke against the power of Liane," she explained smilingly.
"He said Liane was cruel; that she was selfish. He also must feel the
embrace of the sacred Flame."

I heard, rather than saw, the ghastly drama repeated, for I had bent
my head, and would not look up. Liane was no woman; she was a fiend.
And yet for her a trusted officer, a friend, had forsworn his service
and his comrades. I wondered, as I stood there with bowed head, what
were the thoughts which must have been passing through Hendricks'
mind.

"You fear to look upon the punishment of Liane?" the voice of the
unholy priestess broke in upon my shuddering reverie. "Then you
understand why her power is absolute; why she is Mother of Life, and
Giver of Death, throughout all Lakos. And now for the word I promised
you, a gracious word from one who could be terrible and not gracious,
were that her whim.

"It has been in the mind of Liane to extend her power, to make for
herself a place in this Supreme Council of which you speak with so
much awe and reverence, Commander Hanson. But, by happenchance,
another whim has seized her."

       *       *       *       *       *

Liane looked up at Hendricks, smilingly, and took one of his hands in
hers. It was wonderful how her face softened as he returned, fiercely,
the pressure of her soft hands.

"I know it will sound strange to your ears," she said in a voice
almost tender, "but Liane is, after all, a woman, with many, if not
all, a woman's many weaknesses. And while even in his presence Liane
will say that her lover was at the beginning looked upon as no more
than a tool which might further Liane's power, he has won now a place
in her heart."

I saw Hendricks tremble as she admitted her love, and that portion of
his face which we could see flushed hotly.

"And so, Liane has elected to give up, at least for the present, the
place in the Council which she could command. For after all, that
would be a remote power, lacking in the elements of physical power
which Liane has over these, her people, and in which she has learned
to delight.

"So, Commander Hanson, bear to your superiors this word: Liane will
permit a production of whatever reasonable amount of temite is
desired. She will remain here with her consort, brooking no
interference, no changes, no commands from any person or organization.
Go, now, and take with you the words of Liane!"

I looked up at her gravely, and shook my head.

"We shall go," I said, "and we shall take with us your words. But I
warn you that the words you have spoken are treason to the universe,
in that you have defied the Council!"

Liane leaped from her throne, her scarlet lips drawn back against her
white and gleaming teeth. Her eyes, dilated with anger, blazed down
upon us almost as hotly as the flame which rose behind her.

"Go! And quickly!" she fairly screamed. "If you have no desire to feel
the embrace of the sacred Flame, then _go_!"

I bowed silently, and motioned to Correy and Kincaide. Swiftly, we
made our way down a long aisle, surrounded by motionless figures
staring unwinkingly at the column of fire, toward the door by which we
had entered this great chamber.

Behind us, I could hear Liane's clear voice lifted in her own guttural
language, as she addressed the multitude.

       *       *       *       *       *

Safely within the _Ertak_, we discussed the morning's adventure over a
late luncheon.

"I suppose," said Kincaide, "there's nothing left to do but tell
Fetter as much as seems wise, to reassure him, and then return to Base
to make our report."

"We'll come back, if we do," growled Correy. "And we'll come back to
_fight_. The Council won't stand for her attitude."

"Undoubtedly that's true," I admitted. "Still, I believe we should put
it up to Base, and through Base to the Council, before doing anything
more. Much, if not all, of what she said was perfectly true."

"It was that," nodded Kincaide. "There were scores, if not hundreds of
doors leading into that big chamber; I imagine it can be reached,
underground, from any point on the continent. And those winding
passages would be simple to defend from any form of invasion."

"But could these Lakonians fight?" asked Correy. "That's what I'd like
to know. I doubt it. They look like a sleepy, ignorant lot."

"I think they'd fight, to the death, if Liane ordered them to," I
replied thoughtfully. "Did you notice the way they stared at the
flame, never moving, never even winking? My idea is that it exercises
a sort of auto-hypnotic influence over them, which gives Liane just
the right opportunity to impress her will upon them."

"I wondered about that," Kincaide commented. "I believe you're right,
sir. Any idea as to when we'll shove off?"

"There's no particular hurry; Fetter will be busy until evening, I
imagine, so we won't bother him until then. As soon as we've had a
chat with him, we can start."

"And without Hendricks," said Kincaide, shaking his head sadly. "I
wonder--"

"If you don't mind, Mr. Kincaide, we won't mention his name on the
_Ertak_ after this," I interrupted. "I, for one, would rather forget
him. Wouldn't you?"

"I would, sir, if I could," said Kincaide softly. "But that's not
easy, is it?"

It wasn't easy. As a matter of fact, it was impossible. I knew I would
never forget my picture of him, standing there shaken and miserable,
beside the woman for whom he had disgraced his uniform, hiding his
head in shame from the eyes of the men he had called comrades, and who
had called him friend. But to talk of him was morbid.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was late in the afternoon when I called Correy and Kincaide to the
navigating room, where I had spent several hours charting our return
course.

"I believe, gentlemen," I remarked, "that we can call on Mr. Fetter
now. I'll ask you to remain in charge of the ship, Mr. Kincaide, while
Mr. Correy and I--"

An attention signal sounded sharply to interrupt me. I answered it
instantly.

"Sentry at exit, sir," said an excited voice. "Mr. Hendricks and the
woman stowaway are here asking for you. They say it is very urgent."

"Bring them both here at once, under guard," I ordered. "Be sure you
are properly relieved."

"Right, sir!"

I turned to Correy and Kincaide, who were watching me with curious
eyes. My excitement must have shown upon my face.

"Mr. Hendricks and Liane are at the exit, asking to see me," I
snapped. "They'll be here in a moment. What do you suppose is in the
air?"

"Hendricks?" muttered Correy, his face darkening. "It seems to me he
has a lot of nerve to--"

There was a sharp tap on the door.

"Come!" I ordered quickly. The door opened and Liane, followed by
Hendricks, hurried into the room.

"That will do," I nodded to the guard who had accompanied them. "You
may go."

"You wonder why we're here, I suppose?" demanded Liane. "I'll tell
you, quickly, for every instant is precious."

This was a very different Liane. She was no longer clad in diaphanous
black; she was wearing a tunic similar to the one she had worn on
board the _Ertak_, save that this one was torn and soiled. Her lips,
as she talked, twitched with an insane anger; her amazing eyes were
like those of a cornered beast of the wilderness.

"My council of wise old men turned against me when I told them my
plans to marry the man of my choice. They said he was an outsider, an
enemy, a foreigner. They would have none of him. They demanded that I
give him to the Flame, and marry one of my own kind. They had not, of
course, understood what I had said to you there in the great chapel of
the Flame.

"I defied them. We escaped through a passage which is not known to any
save myself, and the existence of which my father taught me years ago.
We are here, but they will guess where we have gone. My old men are
exciting my people against me--and for that shall all, down to the
last one, know the embrace of the Flame!" She gritted her teeth on the
words, her nostrils distended with rage.

"I--I am safe. I can command them; I can make them know my power, and I
shall. The Flame will have much to feed upon in the days which are to
come, I promise you. But my beloved would not be safe; at this moment I
cannot protect him. So I have brought him back. I--I know he ... but I
will not be weak. I am Liane!"

       *       *       *       *       *

She faced Hendricks, who had stood there like a graven image, watching
her. Her arms went about his neck; her lips sought his.

"My beloved!" she whispered. "Liane was but a woman, after all.
Darling! Good-by!" She kissed him again, and hurried to the door.

"One more thing!" she cried. "I must master them myself. I must show
them I--I, Liane--am ruler here. You promise? You promise me you will
not interfere; that you will do nothing?"

"But--"

Liane interrupted me before I could put my objections into words.

"Promise!" she commanded. "There are hundreds, thousands of them! You
cannot slay them all--and if you did, there would be more. I can bend
them to my will; they know my power. Promise, or there will be many
deaths upon your hands!"

"I promise," I said.

"And you--all of you?" she demanded, sweeping Correy and Kincaide with
her eyes.

"Commander Hanson speaks for us all," nodded Kincaide.

With a last glance at Hendricks, whose eyes had never left her for an
instant, she was gone.

Hendricks uttered a long, quivering sigh. His face, as he turned to
us, was ghastly white.

"She's gone," he muttered. "Forever."

"That's exceedingly unfortunate, sir, for you," I replied crisply. "As
soon as it's perfectly safe, we'll see to it that you depart also."

The sting of my words apparently did not touch him.

"You don't understand," he said dully. "I know what you think, and I
do not blame you. She came back; you know that.

"'You are coming with me,' she said. 'I care for you. I want you. You
are coming with me, at once.' I told her I was not; that I loved her,
but that I could not, would not, go.

"She opened a port and showed me one of her countrymen, standing not
far away, watching the ship. He held something in his hand.

"'He has one of your hand bombs,' she told me. 'I found it while I
was hidden and took it with me when I left. If you do not come with
me, he will throw it against the ship, destroy it, and those within
it.'

"There was nothing else for me to do. She permitted me to explain no
more than I did in the note I left. I pleaded with her; did all I
could. Finally I persuaded her to give you the word she did, there
before the great flame.

"She brought me back here at the risk of her own life, and, what is
even more precious to her, her power. In--in her own way, she loves
me...."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was an amazing story; a second or two passed before any of us could
speak. And then words came, fast and joyous; our friend, our trusted
fellow-officer had come back to us! I felt as though a great black
cloud had slid from across the sun.

And then, above our voices, rose a great mutter of sound. We glanced
at one another, wonderingly. Hendricks was the first to make a move.

"That's the mob!" he said, darting toward the door. We followed him
swiftly to the exit of the ship, through the air-lock, out into the
open.

Hendricks had spoken the truth. Liane was walking, very slowly and
deliberately, her head flung back proudly, toward the city. Coming
toward her, like a great ragged wave, was a mighty mass of humanity,
led by capering old men--undoubtedly the lesser priests, who had
turned against her.

"The portable projectors, sir!" begged Correy excitedly. "A pair of
them, and that mob--"

"We're bound by our promise," I reminded him. "She's not afraid; her
power is terrible. I believe she'll win without them. Look!"

Liane had paused. She lifted one hand in a gesture of command, and
called out to the rabble. Correy translated the whole thing for me
later.

"Halt!" she cried sharply. "Who moves upon the Chief Priestess of the
Flame earns the embrace of the Flame!"

The crowd halted, cowering; then the old man shouted to them and
gestured them onward. With a rush, the front ranks came on.

"So!" Liane called out to them. "You would disobey Liane? Yet even yet
it is not too late; Liane gives you one chance more. You little know
the Chief Priestess of the Flame if you think she will tolerate an
encroachment of her power. Back! Back, I say, or you all shall feel
the might of Liane!"

Before her tirade the mob faltered, but again the crazed old men led
them on.

Liane turned, saw us, and made a regal gesture of farewell. From the
bosom of her tunic she snatched a small black object, and swung it
high above her head.

"The bomb!" shouted Hendricks. "She has it; she--"

At the very feet of the onrushing crowd the black object struck. There
was a hollow roar; a blast of thundering air swept us backward to the
ground.

When we scrambled to our feet, Liane was gone. The relentless mob had
gone. Where they had been was a great crater of raw earth, strewn with
ghastly fragments. Far back toward the city a few straggling figures
ran frantically away from that scene of death.

"Gone!" I said. "Power was a mania, an obsession with her. Even her
death was a supreme gesture--of power, of authority."

"Liane," Hendricks whispered. "Chief Priestess of the Flame ... Giver
of Death...."

       *       *       *       *       *

With Liane gone, and with her the old men who had tried to snatch her
power from her hand, and who might have caused us trouble, the
rebellion of the Lakonians was at an end.

Leaderless, they were helpless, and I believe they were happy in the
change. Sometimes the old ways are better than the new, and Liane's
régime had been merciless and rather terrible.

There are many kinds of women: great women, and women with small
souls; women filled with the spirit of sacrifice; selfish women, good
women and bad.

And Liane? I leave her for you to judge. She was a woman; classify her
for yourself.

After all, I am an old man, and perhaps I have forgotten the ways of
women. I do not wish to judge, on one hand to be called bitter and
hard, on the other hand to be condemned as soft with advancing age.

I have given you the story of Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame.

How, you clever and infallible members of this present generation, do
you judge her?

       *       *       *       *       *





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