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´╗┐Title: What Hath Me?
Author: Kuttner, Henry
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "What Hath Me?" ***

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                             WHAT HATH ME?

                           By HENRY KUTTNER

           The thousand tiny eyes raced past him, glittering
          with alien ecstasy, shining brighter, ever brighter
            as they fed. He felt the lifeblood being sucked
           out of him--deeper stabbed the gelid cold--louder
          roared the throbbing in his ears ... then the voice
         came, "_The heart of the Watcher. Crush the heart._"

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Planet Stories Spring 1946.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


The man running through the forest gloom breathed in hot, panting
gusts, pain tearing at his chest. Underfoot the crawling, pale network
of tree-trunks lay flat upon the ground, and more than once he tripped
over a slippery bole and crashed down, but he was up again instantly.

He had no breath to scream. He sobbed as he ran, his burning eyes
trying to pierce the shadows. Whispers rustled down from above. When
the leaf-ceiling parted, a blaze of terribly bright stars flamed in
the jet sky. It was cold and dark, and the man knew that he was not on
Earth.

_They_ were following him, even here.

A squat yellow figure, huge-eyed, inhuman, loomed in his path--one of
the swamp people of Southern Venus. The man swung a wild blow at the
thing, and his fist found nothing. It had vanished. But beyond it rose
a single-legged giant, a Martian, bellowing the great, gusty laughter
of the Redland Tribes. The man dodged, stumbled, and smashed down
heavily. He heard paddling footsteps and tried, with horrible intensity
of purpose, to rise. He could not.

The Martian crept toward him--but it was no longer a Martian. An
Earthman, with the face of some obscene devil, came forward with a
sidling, slow motion. Horns sprouted from the low forehead. The teeth
were fangs. As the creature came nearer, it raised its hands--twisted,
gnarled talons--and slid them about the man's throat.

Through the forest thundered the deep, booming clangor of a brass gong.
The sound shattered the phantom as a hammer shatters glass. Instantly
the man was alone.

Making hoarse, animal sounds in his throat, he staggered upright and
lurched in the direction from which the sound came. But he was too
weak. Presently he fell, and this time he did not rise. His arms moved
a little and then were still. He slept, lines of tortured weariness
twisting the haggard face.

Very faintly, from infinite distances, he heard a voice ... two voices.
Inhuman. Alien--and yet with a warmth of vital urgency that stirred
something deep within him.

"_He has passed our testing._"

Then a stronger, more powerful voice--answering.

"_Others have passed our testing--but the Aesir slew them._"

"_There is no other way. In this man I sensed something--a little
different. He can hate--he has hated._"

"_He will need more than hatred_--" the deeper voice said. "_Even with
us to aid him. And there is little time. Strip his memories from him
now, so that he may not be weakened by them_--"

"_May the gods fight with him._"

"_But he fights the gods. The only gods men know in these evil days_--"

The man awakened.

Triphammers beat ringingly inside his skull. He opened his eyes and
closed them quickly against the sullen red glow that beat down from
above. He lay motionless, gathering his strength.

What had happened?

He didn't know. The jolting impact of that realization struck him
violently. He felt a brief panic of disorientation. Where--?

_I'm Derek Stuart_, he thought. _At least it isn't complete amnesia. I
know who I am. But not where I am._

This time when he opened his eyes they stayed open. Overhead a
broad-leafed tree arched. Through its branches he could see a dark,
starry sky, the glowing, ringed disc of Saturn very far away, and a
deeply scarlet glow.

Not Earth, then. A Saturnian moon? No, Saturn didn't eclipse most of
the sky. Perhaps the asteroid belt.

He moved his head a little, and saw the red moon.

_Aesir!_

The message rippled along his nerves into his brain. Stuart reacted
instantly. His hard, strong body writhed, whipped over, and then he was
in a half-crouch, one hand flashing to his belt while his eyes searched
the empty silence of the forest around him. There was no sound, no
movement.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sweat stood on Stuart's forehead, and he brushed it away impatiently.
His deeply-tanned face set into harsh lines of curiously hopeless
desperation. There was no blaster gun at his belt; that didn't matter.
Guns couldn't help him now--on Asgard.

The red moon had told him the answer. Only one world in the System had
a red moon, and men didn't go to that artificial asteroid willingly.
They went, yes--but only to be doomed and damned. From Venus to
Callisto spacemen spoke of Asgard in hushed voices--Asgard where the
Aesir lived and ruled the worlds of Man.

No spaceships left Asgard, except the sleek black cruisers manned by
the priests of Aesir. _No man had ever returned from Asgard._

Stuart grinned mirthlessly. He'd learned a lesson, though he'd never
profit by it now. Always before he'd been confident of his ability to
outdrink anyone of his own weight and size. And certainly that slight,
tired-eyed man at the Singing Star, in New Boston, should have passed
out long before Stuart--under normal circumstances.

So the circumstances hadn't been quite normal. It was a frame. A
beautiful, air-tight frame, because he'd never come back to squawk.
Nobody came back from Asgard.

He shivered a little and looked up warily. There were legends, of
course. The Watchers who patrolled the asteroid ceaselessly--robots,
men said. They served the Aesir. As, in a way, all men served the Aesir.

No sound. No movement. Only the sullen crimson light beating down
ominously from that dark sky.

Stuart took stock of his clothing. Regular leatheroid spaceman's rig;
they'd left him that, anyway. Whoever _they_ were. He couldn't remember
anything that had happened after the fifth drink with the tired-eyed
man. There was a very faint recollection of running somewhere--seeing
unpleasant things--and hearing two oddly unreal voices. But the
memories slipped away and vanished as he tried to focus on them.

The hell with it. He was on Asgard. And that meant--something rather
more unpleasant than death, if the legends were to be believed. A very
suitable climax to an unorthodox life, in this era when obedience and
law enforcement were the rigid rule.

Stuart picked up a heavy branch that might serve as a club. Then,
shrugging, he turned westward, striking at random through the forest.
No use waiting here till the Watchers came. At least--he could fight,
as he had always fought as far back as he could remember.

There wasn't much room for fighters any more. Not under the Aesir rule.
There were nations and kings and presidents, of course, but they were
puppet figures, never daring to disobey any edicts that came from the
mystery-shrouded asteroid hanging off the orbit of Mars, the tiny,
artificial world that had ruled the System for a thousand years.

The Aesir. The inhuman, cryptic beings who--if legend were true--once
had been human. Stuart scowled, trying to remember.

An--an entropic accelerator, that was it. A device, a method that
speeded up evolution tremendously. That had been the start of the
tyranny. A machine that could accelerate a man's evolution by a million
years--

Some had used that method. Those were the ones who had become the
Aesir, creatures so far advanced in the evolutionary scale that they
were no longer remotely human. Much was lost in the mists of the past.
But Stuart could recall that much--the knowledge that the Aesir
had once been human, that they were human no longer, and that for a
thousand years they had ruled the System, very terribly, from their
forbidden asteroid that they named Asgard--home of the legendary Norse
gods.

Maybe the tired-eyed man had been an Aesir priest, collecting victims.
Certainly no others would have dared to land a ship on Asgard. Stuart
swung on, searching the empty skies, and now a queer, unreasoning
excitement began to grow within him. At least, before he died, he'd
learn what the Aesir were like. It probably wouldn't be pleasant
knowledge, but there'd be some satisfaction in it. And there'd be even
more satisfaction if he thought he had a chance of smashing a hard fist
into the face of one of the Aesir priests--or even--

Hell, why not? He had nothing to lose now. From the moment he
had touched Asgard soil, he was damned anyway. But of one thing
Stuart was certain; he wouldn't be led like a helpless sheep to the
throat-cutting. He wouldn't die without fighting against them.

The forest thinned before him. There was a flicker of swift motion
far ahead. Stuart froze, his grip tightening on the cudgel, his eyes
searching.

Between the columnar trees, bright amid the purple shadows, a glitter
of sparkling nebulae swept. A web of light, Stuart thought--so dazzling
his eyes ached as he stared at the--the thing.

Bodiless, intangible, the shifting net of stars poised, high above his
head. Hundreds of twinkling, glittering pinpoints flickered there, so
swiftly it seemed as though an arabesque spider-web of light weaved in
the still, dark air--web of the Norns!

Each flickering star-fleck--watched. Each was an eye.

And as the thing poised, a horrible, half-human hesitancy in its
stillness, a deep, humming note sounded, from its starry heart.

Star-points shook and quivered to the sound. Again it came--deeper,
more menacing.

Questioning!

Was this one of the--Watchers? Was this one of them?

       *       *       *       *       *

Abruptly its hesitancy vanished; it swept down upon Stuart.
Instinctively he swung his cudgel in a smashing blow that sent him
reeling forward--for there was no resistance. The star-creature was as
intangible as air.

And yet it was not. The dazzling web of light enfolded him like a
blazing cloak. Instantly a cold, trembling horror crawled along his
skin. Bodiless the thing might be--but it was dangerous, infinitely so!

Pressure, shifting, quicksand pressure, was all about him. That
stealthy cold crept into his flesh and bones, frigid icicles jabbing
into his brain. Gasping with shock, Stuart struck out. He had dropped
the club. Now he stooped and groped for it, but he could see nothing
except a glittering veil of diamonds that raced like a mad torrent
everywhere.

The humming rose again--ominously triumphant.

Cursing, Stuart staggered forward. The star-cloak stayed. He tried to
grip it somewhere, to wrench it free, but he could not. The thousands
of tiny eyes raced past him, glittering with alien ecstasy, shining
brighter and ever brighter as they fed.

He felt the life being sucked out of him.... Deeper stabbed the gelid
cold ... louder roared that throbbing tone in his ears.

He heard his voice gasping furious, hopeless oaths. His eyes ached with
the strain of staring at that blinding glitter. Then--

_The heart of the Watcher. Crush the heart!_

The words crashed like deep thunder in his brain. Had someone spoken
them--? No ... for, with the command, had come a message as well. As
though a thought had spoken within his mind, a telepathic warning
from--where?

His eyes strained at the dazzle. Now he saw that there was a brighter
core that did not shift and change when the rest of the star-cloud wove
its dreadful net. A spot of light that--

He reached out ... the nucleus darted away ... he lurched forward, on
legs half-frozen, and felt a stone turn under his foot. As he crashed
down, his hand closed and tightened on something warm and living that
pulsed frantically against his palm.

The humming rose to a shrill scream ... frightened ... warning.

Stuart tightened his grip. He lay motionless, his eyes closed. But all
around him he could feel the icy tendrils of the star-thing lashing at
him, drinking his human warmth, probing with avid fingers at his brain.

He felt that warm--core--writhe and try to slip between his fingers. He
squeezed....

The scream burst out, an inhuman agony in its raw-edged keening.

It stopped.

In Stuart's hand was--nothing.

He opened his eyes. The dazzling glitter of star-points had vanished.
Only the forest, with its purple shadows, lay empty and silent around
him.

Stuart got up slowly, swallowed dry-throated. The creatures of the
Aesir were not invulnerable, then. Not to one who knew their weaknesses.

_How had he known?_

What voice had spoken in his brain? There had been an odd, impossible
familiarity to that--that mental voice, now that he remembered it.
Somewhere he had heard it, sensed it before.

That gap in his memory--

He tried to bridge it, but he could not. There was only a quickening of
the desire to go on westward. He felt suddenly certain that he would
find the Aesir in that direction.

He took a hesitant step--and another. And with each step, a queer,
unmotivated confidence poured into him. As though some barrier in his
mind had broken down, letting some strange flood of proud defiance rush
in.

It was impossible. It was dangerous. But--certainly--no more dangerous
than supinely waiting here on Asgard till another Watcher came to
destroy him. There were worse things than the starry Watchers here, if
legends were to be trusted.

He went on, the curious tide of defiance rising higher and ever higher
in his blood. It was a strangely intoxicating sense of--of pure, crazy
self-confidence such as no man should rightfully have felt on this
haunted asteroid.

He wondered--but the drunkenness was such that he did not wonder much.
He did not question.

He thought: _To hell with the Aesir!_

The forest ended. At his feet a road began, leading off into the purple
horizons of the flat plain before him. At the end of that road was a
thrusting pillar of light that rose like a tower toward the dark sky.

_There were the Aesir...._


                                  II

Every spaceman has an automatic sense of orientation. In ancient days,
when clipper ships sailed the seas of Earth, the Yankee skippers knew
the decks beneath their feet, and they knew the stars. Southern Cross
or Pole Star told them in what latitudes they sailed. In unknown
waters, they still had their familiar keels and the familiar stars.

So it is with the spacemen who drift from Pluto to Mercury Darkside,
trusting to metal hulls that shut in the air and shut out the vast
abysses of interplanetary space. When they work outship, a glance at
the sky will tell a trained man where he is--and only tough, trained
men survive the dangerous commerce of space. On Mercury the blazing
solar corona flames above the horizon; on clouded Venus the green star
of Earth shines sometimes. On Io, Callisto, Ganymede, a man can orient
himself by the gigantic mother planet--Saturn or Jupiter--and in the
Asteroid Belt, there is always the strange procession of little worlds
like lanterns, some half-shadowed, others brightly reflecting the Sun's
glare. Anywhere in the System the sky is friendly--

Except on Asgard. Jupiter was too far and too small; Mars was scarcely
visible; the Asteroid Belt not much thicker than the Milky Way. The
unfamiliar magnitudes of the planets told Stuart, very surely, that he
was on unknown territory. He was without the sure, safe anchor that
spacemen depend upon, and that lack told him how utterly he stood alone
now.

But the unreasoning confidence did not flag. If anything, it mounted
stronger within him as he hurried along the road, his rangy legs
eating up the miles with easy speed. The sooner he reached his goal,
the better he'd like it. Nor did he wish to encounter any more of the
Aesir's guardians--his business was with the Aesir!

The tower of light grew taller as he went on. Now he saw that it was
a cluster of buildings, massed cylinders of varying heights, each
one gigantic in diameter as well as height, and all shining with that
cold, shadowless radiance that apparently came from the stone--or
metal--itself. The road led directly to the base of the tallest tower.

It ran between shining pillars--a gateless threshold--and was lost
in silvery mists. No bars were needed to keep visitors out of this
fortress!

Briefly a cool wind of doubt blew upon Stuart. He hesitated, wishing he
had at least his blaster gun. But he was unarmed; he had even left the
club back in the forest.

He glanced around.

The red moon was sinking. A heavier darkness was creeping over the
land. Very far away he thought he saw the shifting flicker of dancing
lights--a Watcher?

He hurried onward.

Cyclopean, the tower loomed above him, like a shining rod poised to
strike. His gaze could not pierce the mists beyond the portal.

He stepped forward--between the twin pillars. He walked on blindly into
the silver mists.

Twenty steps he took--and paused, as something dark and shapeless swam
into view before him. A pit--at his feet.

In the dimness he could not see its bottom, but a narrow bridge crossed
the gulf, a little to his left. Stuart crossed the bridge. Solidity was
again under his feet.

With shocking suddenness, a great, brazen bellow of laughter roared
out. Harsh mockery sharpened it. And it was echoed.

All around Stuart the laughter thundered--and was answered. The walls
gave it back and echoed it. The bellowing laughter of gods deafened
Stuart.

The mists drifted away--were sucked down into the pit. They vanished.

As though they fled from that evil laughter.

Stuart stood in a chamber that must have occupied the entire base of
that enormous tower. Behind him the abyss gaped. Before him a shifting
veil of light hid whatever lay behind it. But all around, between
monstrous pillars, were set thrones, ebon thrones fifty feet tall.

On the thrones sat giants!

Titan figures, armored in glittering mail, ringed Stuart, and instantly
his mind fled back to half-forgotten folk-lore.... Asgard, Jotunheim,
the lands of the giants and the gods. Thor and Odin, sly Loki and
Baldur--they were all here, he thought, bearded colossi roaring their
black laughter into the shaking air of the hall.

Watching him from their height--

Then he looked up, and the giants were dwarfed.

The chamber was roofless. At least he could see no roof. The pillars
climbed up and up tremendously all around the walls that were hung with
vast stretches of tapestry, till they dwindled to a pinpoint far above.
The sheer magnitude of the tower made Stuart's mind rock dizzily.

Still the laughter roared out. But now it died....

Thundered through the hall a voice ... deep ... resonant ... the voice
of the Aesir.

"_A human, brother!_"

"_Aye! A human--and a mad one, to come here._"

"_To enter the hall of the Aesir._"

A red-bearded colossus bent down, his glacial blue eyes staring at
Stuart. "_Shall I crush him?_"

       *       *       *       *       *

Stuart sprang back as an immense hand swooped down like a falling tree
upon him. Instinctively his hand flashed to his belt, and suddenly the
red-beard was shouting laughter that the others echoed.

"_He has courage._"

"_Let him live._"

"_Aye. Let him live. He may amuse us for a while...._"

"_And then?_"

"_Then the pit--with the others._"

The others? Stuart slanted a glance downward. The silver mists had
dissipated now, and he could see that the abyss was not bottomless. Its
floor was fifty feet below the surface on which he stood, and a dozen
figures were visible beneath.

They stood motionless--like statues. A burly, leather-clad Earthmen
who might have been whisked from some Plutonian mine; a slim, scantily
clad Earthgirl, her hair powdered blue, her costume the shining
sequin-suit of a tavern entertainer. A stocky, hunch-shouldered
Venusian with his slate-gray skin; a Martian girl, seven feet tall,
with limbs and features of curious delicacy, her hair piled high atop
that narrow skull. Another Earthman--a thin, pale, clerklike fellow.
A white-skinned, handsome Callistan native, looking like Apollo, and,
like all Callistans, harboring the cold savagery of a demon behind that
smooth mask.

A dozen of them--drawn from all parts of the System. Stuart remembered
that this was the time of the periodic tithing--which meant nothing
less than a sacrifice. Once each month a few men and women would
vanish--not many--and the black ships of the Aesir priests sped back to
Asgard with their captives.

Not one looked up. Frozen motionless as stone, they stood there in the
pit--waiting.

Again the laughter crashed out. The red-beard was watching Stuart.

"His courage flags," the great voice boomed. "Speak the truth,
Earthman. Have you courage to face the gods?"

Stuart stubbornly refused to answer. He had an odd, reasonless
impression that this was part of some deep game, that behind the
mocking by-play lay a more serious purpose.

"He has courage now," a giant said. "But did he always have courage?
Has there never been a time in his life when courage failed him?
Answer, Earthman!"

Stuart was listening to another voice, a quiet, infinitely distant
voice within his brain that whispered: _Do not answer them!_

"Let him pass our testing," the red-beard commanded. "If he fails,
there is an end. If he does _not_ fail--he goes into the pit to walk
the Long Orbit."

The giant leaned forward.

"Will you match skill--and courage--with us, Earthling?"

Still Stuart did not answer. More than ever now he sensed the violent,
hidden undercurrents surging beneath the surface of this by-play. More
than he knew swung in the balance here.

He nodded.

"He has courage," a giant repeated. "But did he always have courage?"

"We shall see ..." the red-beard said.

The air shimmered before Stuart. Through its shaking his senses played
him false. He knew quite well who he was and where he stood, in what
deadly peril--but in that shimmer which bewildered the eyes and the
mind he was a boy again, seeing a certain hillside he had not seen
except through his boyhood's eyes. And he saw a black horse standing
above him on the slope, pawing the ground and looking at him with
red eyes. And an old, old terror came flooding over him that he had
not remembered for a quarter of a century. A boy's acute and sudden
terror....

Who had opened the doors of his mind and laid this secret bare? He
himself had long forgotten--and who upon this alien world could look
back through space and time to remind him of that long-ago day when the
vicious black horse had thrown an inexperienced boy rider and planted a
seed of terror in his mind which he had been years outgrowing? But the
fear was long gone now, long gone.... _Was it?_

Then whence had come this monstrous black stallion that pawed the floor
of the hall, glaring down red-eyed at him and showing teeth like fangs?
No horse, but a monster in the shape of a horse, a monster ten feet
high at the shoulder, wearing the shape of his boyhood nightmare that
woke in Stuart even now the old, unreasoning horror....

It was stamping down upon him, shaking its bridled head, snorting,
lifting its lip above the impossible teeth. He saw the reins hanging
loose, he saw the saddle and the swinging stirrups. He knew that the
only safety in this hall for him was paradoxically upon the nightmare's
back, where the hoofs and fangs could not reach him. But the terror and
revulsion which the boy had buried long ago came welling up from founts
deep-buried in the man's subconscious mind....

       *       *       *       *       *

Now it was rushing him, head like a snake's outthrust, hissing like a
snake, reins flying like Medusa-locks as it stretched to seize him.
For one instant he stood there paralyzed. He had faced dangers on many
worlds to which this nightmare was nothing, but he had never since
boyhood felt the paralysis of horror that gripped him now. It was a
child's horror, resurrected from the caves of sleep to ruin him....

With a superhuman effort he broke that frozen fear, snatching for
the flying reins, whirling as the monstrous thing swept past him in
a thunder of terrifying hoofs. Desperately he clung to the reins,
and as the thing rushed by he somehow got a clutching hand upon the
saddle-horn and found a stirrup that swung sickeningly when it took his
weight.

Then he was in the saddle, dizzy still with the terrors of childhood,
but astride the nightmare.

And now, with a sudden intoxicating clarity, the fear fell from his
mind. For an instant he sat high on the back of the incredible fanged
thing, an old, old terror clearing from his mind. Confidence which was,
he knew, his own and no bodiless reassurance drawn from dreams, such
as he had felt in the jungle, flooded warmly through him. He was not
afraid any more--he would never be afraid. The festering terror buried
deep in his childhood had come to light at last and was wiped away. He
caught the reins tight and flashed a sudden grin around the hall--

Brazen laughter boomed through the building. And beneath his knees
Stuart felt the horse's body alter incredibly. One moment he was
gripping a solid, warm-fleshed, hairy thing whose body had a familiar
pitch and motion beneath the saddle. Then, then--

Indescribably the body _writhed_ under him. The warm hairy flesh flowed
and changed. Cold struck through leatheroid against his thighs, and
it was a smooth, pouring cold of many alien muscles working powerfully
together in a way no mammal knows. He looked down.

He was riding a monstrous snake that twisted its head to look at him in
the moment he realized what had happened. Its great diamond-shaped head
towered high and came looping down toward him, wide-mouthed, tongue
like a flame flickering....

It laid its cold, smooth cheek against his with a hideous caressing
motion, sliding around his neck, sliding down his arm and side, laying
a loop of cold, scaly strength around him and pressing, pressing....

His hands closed around the thickness of its throat, futilely--and the
throat melted in his grasp and was hairy with a hairiness no mammal
ever knew. The motion of the body he bestrode changed again and was
incredibly springy and light.

He rode a monstrous spider. His hands were sunk wrist-deep in loathsome
coarse hair, and his eyes stared into great cold faceted eyes that
mirrored his own face a thousandfold. He saw his own distorted features
looking back at him in countless miniatures, but behind the faces,
in the great eyes of the spider, he saw no consciousness regarding
him. The cold multiple eyes were not aware of Derek Stuart. Behind
the shield of its terrible face the spider shut away its own arachnid
thoughts and the memories of the red fields of Mars that were its home.
With dreadful, impersonal aloofness its mandibles gaped forward toward
its prey.

Loathing ran in waves of weakness through Stuart's whole body, but
he shut his eyes and blindly struck out at the nearer of those great
mirroring eyes, feeling wetness shatter against his fist as--as--

As the horror shifted and vanished, while rippling waves of green light
darkened all about him. Now they coagulated, drew together into a
meadow, cool with Earthly grass, bordered by familiar trees far away.
Primroses gleamed here and there. Above him was the blue sky and the
warm bright sun that shone only upon the hills of Earth.

But what he felt was horror.

Twenty feet from him was a rank, rounded patch of weeds. His gaze was
drawn inexorably to that spot. And it was from there that the crawling
dread reached out to him.

Faintly he heard laughter ... of the gods ... of the Aesir. The Aesir?
Who--what were they? How had he, Derek Stuart, ever heard of them
except as a name whispered in fear as the spaceships streaked through
the clouds above that Dakota farmstead....

Derek Stuart ... a boy of eleven....

But--but--that was wrong, somehow. He wasn't a child any more. He had
matured, become a spaceman--

Dreams. The dreams of an eleven-year-old.

Yet the hollow, dreadful laughter throbbed somewhere, in the vaults of
the blue overhead, in the solidity of the very ground beneath him.

This had happened before. It had happened to a boy in South Dakota--a
boy who had not known what lay concealed in that verdant clump of weeds.

But now, somehow--and very strangely--Stuart knew what he would find
there.

He was afraid. Horribly, sickeningly afraid. Cold nausea crawled up
his spine and the calves of his legs. He wanted to turn and run to the
farmhouse half a mile away. He almost turned, and then paused as the
distant laughter grew louder.

_They_ wanted him to run. _They_ were trying to scare him--and, once
the defenses of his courage had broken, he would be lost. Stuart knew
that with an icy certainty.

Somewhere, very far away, he sensed a man standing in a cyclopean
hall--a man in ragged spaceman's garb, hard-faced, thin-lipped,
angry-eyed. A familiar figure. The man was urging him on--telling him
to go on toward that clump of weeds--

Derek Stuart obeyed the voiceless command. His throat dry, his heart
pumping, he forced himself across the meadow till he stood at his goal
and looked down at the bloody, twisted corpse of the tramp who had been
knifed by another hobo, twenty years before, on that Dakota farm. The
old nausea of shocked horror took him by the throat and strangled him.

He fought it down. This time he didn't run screaming back to the
farmhouse....

And suddenly the laughter of the gods was stilled. Derek Stuart, a man
once more in mind, stood again in the tower of the Aesir. The thrones
between the monstrous pillars were vacant.

The Aesir were gone.


                                  III

Stuart let out his breath in a long sigh. He had no illusions about
the vanishment of the Aesir; he knew he had not conquered those
mighty beings. It would take more than human powers to do that. But
at least he had a respite. All but the most stolid spacemen develop
hypertension, and there seems to be a curious mathematical rule about
that; it increases according to the distance from the Sun. Which may
be explained by the fact that environmental differences also increase
as the outer planets are reached--and alien environments breed alien
creatures. A great many men have gone insane on Pluto....

This was not Pluto; it was nearer Sunward than Jupiter, but the utter
alienage that brooded over Asgard was almost palpable. Even the
solidity under Stuart's feet, the very stones of the planetoid, were
artificially created, by a science a million years beyond that of his
own time. And the Aesir--

Unexpectedly his deep chest shook with laughter. The inexplicable
self-confidence that had first come to him in the Asgard forests had
not waned; it seemed to have grown even stronger since his meeting with
the Aesir giants. Now he stared around the colossal hall, his eyes
straining toward the spot of light far above where those incredible
columns converged. His own insignificance by comparison did not trouble
him.

Whether or not he could have the slightest hope of winning this
game--at least he was giving his enemies a run for their money!

A sound from the pit roused him. Stuart walked warily toward the edge.
The dozen motionless figures were still there, fifty feet below, and
among them was one he had not noticed before--an Earthgirl, he thought,
with curling dark hair framing a white face as she tilted up her chin
and stared at him.

At this distance he could make out few details; she wore a
close-fitting green suit which left slender arms and legs bare.

"Earthman--" she said, in a clear, carrying voice. "Earthman! Quick!
The Aesir will be back--go now! Leave their temple before they--"

"Don't waste your breath," Stuart said. "This is Asgard." Whoever the
girl was, she should know the impossibility of leaving the taboo world.
"If I can find a rope--"

She said quickly, "You won't find one. Not here, in the temple."

"How can I get you out of there? And the others?"

"You're mad," the girl said. "What good would it do...." She shook her
head. "Better to die at once."

Stuart narrowed his eyes at the dozen frozen figures. "I don't think
so. Fourteen of us can put up a better fight than one. If your friends
wake up--"

The girl said, "On your left, between the pillars, there's a tapestry
showing Perseus and the Gorgon. Touch the helm of Perseus and the hand
of Andromeda. Then go carefully--there may be traps."

"What is it?"

"It will lead you down here. You can free us. If you hurry--oh, but
it's hopeless! The Aesir--"

"Damn the Aesir," Stuart snarled. "Wake up the others!" He whirled and
ran toward the distant wall, where he could see the Perseus tapestry,
brown and gold, a huge curtain between two columns.

If the Aesir saw, they made no move....

Stuart's lips twisted in a bitter smile. The crazy confidence had not
left him, but he was conscious of a reassuring warmth; at least he
was no longer completely alone. That would help. Between the worlds,
and on the desolate planets that swing along the edge of the System,
loneliness is the lurking terror, more horrible than the most exotic
monster ever spawned by the radioactive Plutonian earth.

He touched the tapestry twice; it swept away from him, and a staircase
was visible, leading down through stone or metal--he could not tell
which. Stuart fought back the impulse that urged him to race down those
curving spiral steps. The girl had spoken of traps.

He went warily, testing each tread before he put his weight upon it.
Though he did not think that the snares of the Aesir would be so simple.

At the bottom, he emerged into a vaulted chamber, tiny by comparison
with the one he had left. It was oval, domed ceiling and walls and
floor shining with a milky radiance--except at one spot.

There he saw a door--transparent. Through it he looked into the pit.
He was on a level with the floor of that shaft now; he could see the
dozen figures still standing motionless in a huddled group, and a few
feet beyond the glassy pane was the Earthgirl. She was looking directly
at him, but her dark eyes had a blind seeking, as though the door was
opaque from her side.

Stuart paused, his hand on the complicated mechanism that, he guessed,
would open the portal. His hard, dark face was impassive, but he was
conscious of an unfamiliar stirring deep within him. From above, he had
not seen the girl's beauty.

He saw it now.

       *       *       *       *       *

She couldn't be an Earthgirl--entirely. She must be one of those
disturbingly lovely interplanetary halfbreeds. Earth-blood she had,
of course, and predominantly, but there was something more, the pure
essence of beauty that blazed through her like a flame kindled in a
lamp of crystal. In all his wanderings between the worlds, Stuart had
never seen a girl as breathtakingly lovely as this one.

His hand moved on the controls: the door slid silently open. The girl's
eyes brightened. She gave a little gasp and ran toward him. Without
question she sought refuge in his arms, and for a moment Stuart held
her--not unwillingly.

He thrust her away gently.

"The others."

She said, "It's useless. The paralysis--"

Stuart scowled and stepped across the threshold into the pit.
Uneasiness crawled along his spine as he did so. The Aesir might be
watching from above, or--or--

There was nothing. Only dead silence, and the uneven breathing of the
girl as she stood in the doorway watching. Stuart stopped before the
leather-clad Earthman and tested a burly arm. The man stood frozen, his
flesh cold and hard as stone, his eyes staring glassily. He was not
even breathing.

So with the others. Stuart grimaced and shrugged. He turned back toward
the girl, and felt a pulse of relief as he stepped into the shining
chamber. He might be no safer here, but at least he wasn't so conscious
of inhuman eyes that might be watching from above. Not that solid stone
might be any barrier to the Aesir's probing gaze....

The girl touched the mechanism; the door slid silently shut. "It's
no use," she said. "The paralysis holds all the others. Only I could
battle it--a little. And that was because--"

"Save it," Stuart said. He turned toward the door by which he had
entered, but an urgent hand gripped his wrist.

"Let me talk," the quiet voice said. "We're as safe here as anywhere.
And there may be a way--now that I can think clearly again."

"A way out? A _safe_ way?"

There was a haunted look in her dark eyes. "I don't know. I've lived
here for a long time. The others--" she pointed toward the door of
the pit. "The sacrifices were brought to Asgard only yesterday. But
I've been here many moons. The Aesir kept me alive for a bit, to amuse
them. Then they tired, and I was thrown in with the others. But I
learned a little. I--I--no one can dwell here in the Aesir stronghold
without--changing a little. That's why the paralysis didn't hold me as
long as it holds the others."

"Can we save them?"

"I don't know," she said, with a small, helpless shrug. "I don't even
know if we can save ourselves. It's been so long since I was brought
to Asgard that I--I scarcely remember my life before that. But I have
learned a little of the Aesir--and that may help us now."

Stuart watched her. She tried to smile, but not successfully.

She said, "I'm Kari. The rest--I've forgotten. You're--"

"Derek Stuart."

"Tell me what happened."

"We haven't time," Stuart said impatiently, but Kari shook her head.

"We'll need weapons, and I must know--first--if you can use them. Tell
me!"

Well, she was right. She had knowledge that Stuart needed. So he told
her, very briefly, what he remembered.

She stared at him. "Voices--in your mind?"

"Something like that. I don't know--"

"No. No. Or--wait--" He tried to focus his thoughts upon a far, faint
calling that came from infinite distances. His name. An urgent summons--

It faded and was gone.

"There's nothing," Stuart said finally, and Kari moved her shoulders
uneasily.

"No help there, then."

"Tell me one thing. What's the Aesir's power? Hypnotism?"

"No," Kari said, "or not entirely. They can make thoughts into real
things. They are--what the race of man will evolve into in a million
years. And they have changed, into beings utterly alien to humans."

"They looked human--giants, though."

"They can assume any shape," Kari told him. "Their real form is
unimaginable. Being of pure energy ... mental force ... matrixes of
electronic power. They were striking at you through your mind."

Stuart said, "I wondered why they didn't set some of their Watchers on
me."

"I don't know why they didn't," Kari frowned. "Instead, they hammered
at your weaknesses--old fears that hung on to you for years.
Experiences that frightened you in the past. They sent your mind back
into that past--but you were too strong for them."

"Too strong--?"

"Then. They have other powers, Stuart--incredible powers. You can't
fight them alone. And you _must_ fight them. In a thousand years no one
has dared--"

Stuart remembered something. "Two dared--once."

       *       *       *       *       *

Kari nodded. "I know. I know the legends, anyway. About John Starr and
Lorna. The great rebels who first defied the Aesir when the tyranny
began. But they may have been only legendary figures. Even if they were
real--they failed."

"Yes, they failed. And they're a thousand years dead. But it shows
something--to me at least. Man wasn't meant to be a slave to these
monsters. Rebellion--"

Kari watched him. Stuart's eyes were shadowed.

"John Starr and Lorna," he whispered. "I wonder what their world was
like, a thousand years ago? We've got all the worlds now, all the
planets of the System from Jupiter to the smallest asteroid. But we
don't rule them, as men owned their own Earth in those days. We're
slaves to the Aesir."

"The Aesir are--are gods."

"John Starr didn't think so," Stuart said. "Neither do I. And at worst
I can always die, as he did. Listen, Kari." He gripped her arms.
"Think. You've lived here for a while. Is there any weapon against
those devils?"

She met his gaze steadily. "Yes," she said. "But--"

"What is it? Where?"

Abruptly Kari's face changed. She pressed herself against Stuart,
avoiding his lips, simply seeking--he knew--warmth and companionship.
She was crying softly.

"So long--" Kari whispered, her arms tight around him. "I've been here
so long--with the gods. And I'm so lonely, Derek Stuart. So lonely for
green fields and fires and the blue sky. I wish--"

"You'll see Earth again," Stuart promised. At that Kari pulled away.
Her strange half-breed loveliness was never more real than then, with
tears sparkling on her dark lashes, and her mouth trembling.

She said, a catch in her voice, "I'll show you the weapon, Stuart."

She turned toward the wall. Her hand moved in a quick gesture. A panel
opened there in the glowing surface.

Kari reached in, and when she withdrew her arm, it was as though she
held a torrent of blood that poured down from her grip. It was a cloak,
Stuart saw, made of some material so fine that it rippled like water.
Its crimson violence was bizarre against the cool green of Kari's
garment.

"This cloak--" she said. "You must wear it if we face the Aesir."

Stuart grimaced. "What good is a piece of cloth? A blaster gun's what I
want."

"A blaster wouldn't help," Kari said. "This is more than a piece of
cloth, Stuart. It is half-alive--made so by the sciences of the Aesir.
Wear it! It will protect you."

She swung the great, scarlet billows about Stuart's shoulders. Her
fingers fumbled with the clasp at his throat. And then--

_She lies!_

The desperate urgency of the thought roared through Stuart's mind. He
knew that soundless voice, so sharp now with violent intensity. His
hands came up to rip the cloak from him--

He was too late. Kari sprang back, wide-eyed, as the fastenings of the
cloak tightened like a noose about Stuart's neck. He felt a stinging
shock that ran like white fire along his spine and up into his brain.
One instant of blazing disorientation, a hopeless, despairing cry in
his mind--a _double_ cry, as of two telepathetic voices--and then, his
muscles too weak to hold him, he crashed down upon the floor.

It was not paralysis. He was simply drained of all strength. There
was pressure about his throat, cold flames along his spine and in his
brain, and he could feel the texture of the cloak wrapped about him,
striking through his spaceman's garb--tingling, sentient, half-alive!

He whispered an oath. Kari's face had not changed. He read something
strangely like pity in her dark eyes.

From the gap in the wall whence she had drawn the cloak came a figure,
cloaked in black, a jet cowl hiding its head and face completely. It
was taller than the girl by a foot. It shuffled forward with an odd,
rocking gait, and paused near her.

Stuart whispered, "I--should have remembered. The--the Aesir can change
their shapes. Those giants I saw weren't real. And neither are you--not
even human!"

Kari shook her head. "_I_ am real," she said slowly. "_He_ is not." She
gestured toward the black-cloaked figure. "But we are all of the Aesir.
And, as we thought, you were sent by the Protectors. Now your power is
gone, and you must walk the Long Orbit with the other captives."

The cowled creature came forward. It bent, but Stuart could see nothing
in the shadow of the hood. A fold of cloth writhed out and touched
Stuart's forehead.

Darkness wrapped him like the shroud of the scarlet cloak.


                                  IV

For a long time he had only his thoughts for company. They were not
pleasant. He felt alone, as he had never felt so utterly lonely and
deserted before anywhere in the System. Now he realized that even
since his landing on Asgard, he had had companionship of a sort--that
the twin voices murmuring in his brain had been more real than he had
realized. A living warmth, a sense of--of _presence_--had been with him
then.

But it was gone now. Its absence left a black void within him. He stood
alone.

And Kari.... If he saw her again when his hands were free, he would
kill her. He knew that. But--but her shining smile lightened the
darkness that engulfed him now. He had never seen loveliness like
Kari's, and he had known so many women, so many, too many.... A man who
has fought his way Sunward and back again by way of Pluto's chasmed
midnight is not so easily misled by the smile of a pretty woman.

Kari was no ordinary woman--God knew she was not! Perhaps not even
human, perhaps not even real at all. It might be that very touch of
alienage that had stamped her shining image upon his memory, but he
could not put the image aside now. He saw her clearly in the darkness
of his captivity and the deeper dark of his loneliness, now that the
voices were stilled. Lovely, exotic, with the eyes full of longing and
terror--what lies they told!--and that lovely, that dazzling smile.

Bitterness made a wry taste in his mouth. Either she was one of the
Aesir, or she served them. Served them well. A knife in the heart was
the only answer he had for her, and he meant to give her that edged
answer if he lived. But she was so very lovely....

Slowly the veil of darkness lifted. He saw a face he had seen
before--the harsh, seamed features of the burly Earthman in the pit.
And beyond him, the slim Martian girl. All motionless, standing like
statues beside him ... beside him! For Stuart was one of them now. He
was in the pit, with the other captives.

Sensation came back slowly. With it came a tingling, a warm vibration
along his spine ... about his throat ... inside his brain. He
could not move, but at the corner of his range of vision flamed a
crimsonness--the cloak. He still wore it.

He wondered if the other captives could see him, if their minds were
as active as his in their congealed bodies. Or whether the chill of
deathlike silence held their brains along with their frozen limbs.

A slow, volcanic fury began to glow within him. Kari--traitor and
murderess! Was she Aesir? Was she Earth-born? And that black-cloaked,
cowled creature ... which was not real. Another projector of the Aesir,
as the giants had been?

_You were sent by the Protectors._

Memory of Kari's phrase came back to Stuart now. And with it, as though
he had somehow unbarred a locked gate, opened it a mere crack, came
a--a whispering.

Not audible. Faint, faraway, like the shadow of a wind rustling ghosts
of autumn leaves, the murmur rose and fell ... calling him.

The scarlet cloak moved ... writhed ... flowed more closely about him.
Fainter grew the voices.

Stuart strained after them. His soul sprang up ... reaching toward
those friendly, utterly inhuman whispers that came from nowhere.

A dull lethargy numbed him. The cloak drew tighter....

He ignored it. Deep in the citadel of his mind, he made himself
receptive, all his being focused on that--that strange calling from
beyond.

And, suddenly, there were words....

"_Derek Stuart. Can you hear us? Answer!_"

His stiff lips could not speak, but his thoughts formed an answer. And,
rising and falling as though the frequency of that incredible telepathy
pulsed and changed continually, the message came--

"We have lost. You have lost too, Stuart. But we will stay with you--we
_must_ stay now--and perhaps your death will be easier because of
that...."

"Who are you?" he thought, oddly awed by the personality he sensed
behind that voice that was really two voices.

"There is little time." The--sound?--faded into a thin whisper, then
grew stronger. "The cloak makes it hard for us to communicate with you.
And now we can give you none of our power at all. It is a monstrous
thing--a blasphemy such as only the Aesir would create. Half-alive--it
makes an artificial synapse between the individual and outside mental
contacts. We cannot help you--"

"Who are you?"

"We are the Protectors. Listen now, Stuart, for soon you must walk the
Long Orbit with the others. We removed some of your memories, so the
Aesir could not read your mind and have time to prepare themselves--we
hoped we might destroy them this time. But--we have failed again.
Now--we give you your memories back."

Like a slowly rising tide, Stuart's past began to return. He did not
question how this was done; he was too busy lifting the veil that had
darkened his mind since--since that night at the Singing Star in New
Boston. A few drinks with the tired-eyed man, and then darkness--

But the curtain was lifting now. He remembered....

       *       *       *       *       *

He remembered a tiny, underground room, with armed men--not many of
them--staring at him. A voice that said, "You must either join us or
die. We dare run no risks. For hundreds of years a tiny band of us has
survived, only because the Aesir did not know we existed."

"Rebels?" he had asked.

"Sworn to destroy the Aesir," the man told him, and an answering glow
burned briefly in the eyes of the others.

Stuart laughed.

"You have courage," the man said. "You'll need it. I know why you
laugh. But we don't fight alone. Have you ever heard of the Protectors?"

"Never."

"Few have. They aren't human, any more than the Aesir are. But they are
not evil. They're humanity's champions. They have sworn to destroy the
Aesir, as we have--and so we serve them."

"Who are they, then? What are they?"

"No man knows," the other said quietly. "Who--and where--they are is a
secret they keep to themselves. But we hear their messages. And once in
a lifetime, not oftener, they tell us where we may find some man they
have winnowed the planets to discover. In our lifetime, Stuart, you are
the man."

He gaped at them. "Why? I--"

"To be a weapon for the Protectors--a champion for mankind. The
Protectors are so far beyond humanity they cannot fight our battles
in their own forms. They need a--a vessel into which they can pour
their power. Or--call it a sword to wield against the Aesir. They have
searched the worlds over for a long while now, and you--" The man
hesitated, looking narrowly at Stuart. "You are the only vessel they
found. You have a great destiny, Derek Stuart."

He had scowled at them. "All right, suppose I have. What do they offer?"

The man shook his head. "Death--if you're lucky. No man before you has
ever won a battle for the Protectors. You know that--the Aesir still
rule! Every chance is against you. In a thousand years no man has won
the gamble. But this is greater than you or us, Derek Stuart. Do you
think you have any choice?"

Stuart stared the other man in the eyes. "There's no chance?"

The leader smiled. All mankind's indomitable hope was in the smile.

"Would the Protectors have spent all their efforts, and ours, to find
you if there were no hope? They have mighty and terrible powers. With
the right man for their vessel, they could be stronger than the Aesir.
No man could stand alone against the Aesir. The Protectors could
not stand alone. But together--sword and hand and brain welded into
one--yes, Stuart, there's a chance!"

"Then why have the others failed?"

"No one has yet been quite strong enough. Only once in forty
years--fifty--is a man born who might, with luck, have the courage
and the strength. Look at us here--do you think we would not offer
ourselves gladly? Instead, the Protectors guided us to you. If you are
willing to let them establish contact with your mind, enter it, possess
it--there's a chance the Aesir can be destroyed. There's a chance that
man's slavery may be ended!" His voice shook with that mighty hope.

Stuart glanced around at the ardent, fanatical faces, and something in
him took a slow fire from the fire in theirs. A deep and vital purpose,
as old as humanity--how many times before in Earth's history had men
of Earth gathered in hidden rooms and sworn vows against tyranny and
oppression? How many times before had Earthmen dedicated themselves and
their son's sons, if need be, to the old, old dream that though men may
die, mankind must in the end be free?

Here in this crowded room the torch of freedom still burned, despite
the hell of slavery under which the worlds toiled now.

He hesitated.

"It won't be easy, Stuart," the man warned. "A sword--blade must be
hammered on the anvil, heated in flame, before it's tempered. The
Protectors will test you--so that your mind may be toughened to resist
the attacks of the Aesir later. You will suffer...."

He had suffered. Those agonizing, nightmare dreams in the forest,
the phantoms that had tortured him--other trials he did not want to
remember. But there had been no flaw in the blade. In the end--the
Protectors had been satisfied, and had entered his mind--maintaining
the contact that still held, though thinly now.

And the voices he heard still whispering within him were the voices of
his mentors....

"We took your memories from you. So that the Aesir could not read too
much in your mind, and be forewarned. Now that does not matter, and you
will be stronger with your memory restored. But when you let the girl
clasp the cloak about you--that was failure."

"If I could move," Stuart thought. "If I could rip it off--"

"It is part of you. We do not know how it can be removed. And while you
wear it, we cannot give you our power."

Stuart said bitterly. "If you'd given me that power in the first
place--"

       *       *       *       *       *

"We did. How do you think you survived the first testing by the Aesir?
And it is dangerous. We must gauge it carefully, so that we do not
transmit too much of our mental energy to you. You are merely human--if
we let you draw on a tenth of our power, that would burn you out like a
melting wire under a strong current."

"So--what now?"

"We have lost again. You have lost, and we are sorry. All we can do
is give you an easy death. We possess you now, mentally; if we should
withdraw from your brain, you would die instantly. We will do that
whenever you ask. For the Aesir will kill you anyhow now, and not
pleasantly."

"I'm not committing suicide. As long as I live, I can still fight."

"We also. This has happened before. We have chosen and possessed other
champions, and they have failed. We withdrew from their minds before
the Aesir ... killed ... so that we could survive to try again. To
wage another battle. Some day we will win. Some day we shall destroy
the Aesir. But we dare not cling to our broken swords, lest we too be
broken."

"So when the going gets tough you step out!"

Stuart sensed pity in the strange twin voice. "We must. We fight for
the race of man. And the greatest gift we can give you now is quick
death."

"I don't want it," Stuart thought furiously. "I'm going to keep on
fighting! Maybe that's why you've always failed before--you were too
ready to give up. So I'll die if you step out of my mind? Well--it's a
lousy bargain!"

There was no anger, only a stronger overtone of pity in the still voice.

"What is it you want, Stuart?"

"Nothing from you! Just let me go on living. I'll do my own fighting.
There'll be time enough to take a powder when the axe falls. I'm asking
you simply this--keep me alive until I've had another crack at the
Aesir!"

A pause. "It is dangerous. Dangerous for us. But--"

"Well?"

"We will take the risk. But understand--we _must_ leave you if the
peril grows too great. And will--inevitably."

"Thanks," Stuart said, and meant it. "One thing. What about Kari? Who
is she?"

"A hundred years ago she was human. Then she was brought here, and the
Aesir possessed her--as we possess you. She has grown less human in
that time, as the alien grows stronger within her. She has only faint
memories of her former life now, and _they_ will vanish soon. Contact
with the Aesir is like an infection--she will grow more and more like
them. Perhaps, eventually, become one of them."

Stuart grimaced. "If the Aesir should withdraw from her--"

"She would die, yes. Her own life-force has been sapped too far. You
and she are kept alive only as long as the bond of possession holds."

Nice, Stuart thought. If the Aesir were destroyed, Kari would die
with him. And if _he_ faced doom, he too would die, as the Protectors
withdrew to avoid sharing his fate.

Hell--what did he care whether Kari lived or died? It was only the
glamor of half-alienage that had drawn him to the girl. A dagger in her
throat--

Besides, he was certainly facing doom now.

"All I can do--" he said--and stopped abruptly. He was speaking aloud.
Patiently the twin voice in his brain waited for him to continue.

Slowly he flexed his arms. He tilted back his head, staring up at the
rim of the pit fifty feet above him. He could see the titan pillars
rising toward the roof of that mighty tower, incredibly far above. But
there was no sign of life.

"I can move," he said. "I--"

Struck by a new thought, he gripped the folds of the cloak. It was
nauseously warm and vibrant. It seemed to move under his hands. He
jerked at it, and felt a twinge of agonizing pain along his spine and
about his throat, while a white-hot lance stabbed into his skull.

"If I could get rid of this--you could help me?"

"We could give you our power, to use against the Aesir. But we do not
know how to remove the cloak."

"I don't either," Stuart growled, and paused as a movement caught his
eye. The muscular Earthman near him was stirring.

He turned slowly. Beyond him the Martian girl swayed her
feathery-crested head and lifted supple, slender arms. And the
others--all about Stuart they were wakening to motion.

But no life showed in their dull eyes. No understanding. Only a blind,
empty withdrawal.

They turned, trooped toward the wall of the pit ... toward an arched
opening that was gaping suddenly.

"The Long Orbit," said the voice in Stuart's mind.

"What's that?"

"Death. As the Aesir feed. They feed on the life-force of living
organisms."

"Is that the only way out?"

"The only way open to you. Yes."

       *       *       *       *       *

Stuart went slowly after the others. They had crossed the threshold
now, and were pacing along a tunnel, lit with cold blue brilliance,
that curved very gradually toward the left. Behind him a panel closed.

The cloak swayed like a great bloodstain behind him, moving in a motion
not entirely caused by Stuart's movements. He tried again to unfasten
it, but the clasp at his throat only drew tighter. And the tingling
sensation increased along his spine.

An artificial synapse ... blocking his nerve-ends so that he could not
draw upon the Protectors' power....

At his left was an alcove in the tunnel wall. It was filled with
coagulated light ... bright with glaring flames ... flame-hot. Within
that white curtain stirred swift movement, like the leaping of fires.
Above the recess a symbol was embossed in the stone. The sign of
Mercury.

"Mercury," said the voice in Stuart's mind. "The Servant of the Sun.
The Swift Messenger. Mercury, that drinks the Sun's fires and blazes
like a star in the sky's abyss. First in the Long Orbit--Mercury."

The crowd of prisoners, dull-eyed, swayed to and fro, a ripple of
excitement rustling through them. Abruptly the Martian girl darted
forward--

Was engulfed in the milky flames.

Stood there, while curdled opalescence veiled her. On her face sheer
horror, as--

"The Aesir feed," the voice whispered. "They drink the cup of her
life ... to its last dregs."

The captives were moving again. Silently Stuart followed them along the
tunnel. Now another recess showed in the wall.

Blue ... blue, this time, as hazy seas of enchantment ... misted with
fog, with slow shifting movement within it....

"The sign of Venus," said the voice. "The Clouded World. Planet of life
and womb of creation. Ruler of mists and seas--Venus!"

The Earthman was drawn into the alcove. Stood there, while azure seas
washed higher and higher about him. Through that glassy veil his face
glared, stiff with alien fear....

The sacrifices went on.

There was no alcove, no symbol for Earth. The Aesir had forgotten the
world that had been their place of birth.

"Mars! Red star of madness! Ruler of man's passion, lord of the bloody
seas! Where scarlet sands run through Time's hourglass--Mars, third in
the Long Orbit!"

The crimson glow of a dusty ruby ... the face of a Venusian, strained,
twisted in agony ... the hunger of the Aesir....

"The Little Worlds! The Great Belt that girdles the Inner System! The
Broken Planet--"

Tiny goblin lights, dancing and flickering, blue and sapphire and dull
orange, wine-red and dawn-yellow--

The hunger of the Aesir.

"Jupiter! Titan! Colossus of the Spaceroads! Jupiter, whose mighty
hands seize the ships of man and drag them to his boiling heart! The
Great One-fifth in the Long Orbit!"

The hunger of the Aesir.

"Ringed Saturn light-crowned! Guardian of the outer skies! Saturn--"

Uranus ... Neptune....

Pluto.

The hunger of the Aesir....

Beyond Pluto, dark worlds Stuart had not known. Until finally he was
alone. The last of his companions had been drawn into one of the
vampire alcoves of the Long Orbit.

He went on.

There was another recess in the wall at his left. It was filled with
night. Jet blackness, cold and horrible, brimmed it.

Something like an invisible current dragged him forward, though he
fought with all his strength to resist. Instinctively he sent out a
desperate call to the Protectors.

"We cannot aid you. We must leave you ... you will die instantly."

"Wait! Don't--don't give up yet! Give me your power--"

"We cannot. While you wear the cloak."

The edge of blackness touched Stuart with a frigid impact. He felt
something, avid with horrible hunger, strain forward from of the
alcove, reaching for him. The cloak billowed out--

Sweat stood out on Stuart's face. For, suddenly, he had seen the way.
It might mean death, it would certainly mean frightful agony--but he
could go down fighting. If the cloak could not be removed in any other
way--perhaps it could be ripped off! He gripped the half-living fabric
at its bottom, brought his arm behind him--and tore the horror from him!

       *       *       *       *       *

Stark, abysmal nerve-shock poured like a current of fire up his spine
and into his brain. It was like tearing off his own skin. Sick, blind,
gasping dry-throated sobs, Stuart stumbled away from the black alcove,
tearing at the cloak. It tried to cling to him--

He ripped it away--hurled it from him. And as it fell--it screamed!

But he was free.

For an instant sheer weakness overwhelmed him. Then into him poured a
racing, jubilant torrent of strength, of mighty, intoxicating power
that seemed to heal his wounds and revivify him instantly.

Into him surged the power of the Protectors!

From the alcove a finger of darkness tendrilled out. He was borne away
from it ... along the passage. Dimly, through drifting mists, he sensed
that he was moving up a ramp ... through a wall that seemed to grow
intangible as he approached it ... up and up....

He was in the hall of the Aesir.

Above him the cyclopean pillars towered, dwarfing the thrones set
between them. Before him hung the shifting wall of light.

He was carried toward it--through it.

He stood on a black dais. Facing him was the cloaked, cowled figure he
had last seen with Kari.

And beside the Aesir stood Kari!

The creature lifted its arm ... a red flame spouted toward Stuart.
Sudden, mocking laughter spilled from his lips. He no longer fought
alone. The tremendous power of the Protectors blazed within him, power
and energy and force that could smash suns.

In midair the fiery lance failed and died. The Aesir drew back a step,
drawing its cloak about it as if in surprise. And Kari--Kari shrank
back, too, and something strangely like hope flashed for a moment
across her dazzling, her more than mortal loveliness. Hope? But she was
of the Aesir now. And if they failed, she died. Then why--

The Aesir's cloak flickered, and a second gush of fiery light
fountained toward Stuart.

Up surged the tide of power in him again. Blind and dazed with his
own tremendous energy, Stuart felt a curve like a dim shield flung up
to meet that lance. The Aesir's fire struck-and flashed into blazing
fragments on the Protector's shield. Each droplet sang intolerable
music as it faded and winked out. And behind the Aesir, more dazzling
than any immortal fire had been, Stuart saw Kari's sudden, shining
smile....

She would die if the Aesir failed. She must know she would die. But the
brilliance of her smile struck him as the Aesir's spear of fire could
never strike. He knew, then. He understood....

The Aesir's cloak whirled like a storm-cloud, in dark, deep billows.
The Aesir itself grew taller for a moment, as if it drew itself up to a
godlike height. And then it did for Derek Stuart what no Aesir had ever
done for a mortal man before. No Aesir had ever needed to. It cast off
the hampering cloak and stood stripped for battle with this primitive
manling whose forebears immemorially long ago had been the Aesir's
forebears. There was in that stripping something almost of kinship--an
acknowledgment that here at last in the hall of the Aesir stood an
equal, sprung of equal stock....

Naked in its terrible power, the Aesir stood up to face the man.

Not human. Not ever human, except in the mysterious basics which these
people of a thousand millenniums in the future had chosen to retain.
The flesh they had cast off, and the flesh the Aesir stood up in to
face his forebear was pure, blazing, blinding energy. Twice as tall
as a man it stood, shining with supernal brilliance, terrible and
magnificent.

The great hall rang soundlessly with the power of the Protectors.

And then from above a streak of light came flashing, and another, and
another. And were engulfed in the one Aesir who stood shining before
its adversary, growing ever brighter and more terrible. The rest of
the Aesir, coming to the aid of their fellow, forming a single entity
to crush the champion of mankind.

Stuart braced himself for the incredible torrent of energy that
would come blasting through him from the Protectors. And in a split
second--it came!

Mind and body reeled beneath the impact of that power as force flared
through him and struck out at the tower of lightning which was the
Aesir. But the force which was trying his human body to its utmost was
not force enough to touch that blinding column. Energy lashed out from
it, struck him a reeling blow--Stuart dropped to his knees, the hall
swimming in fire around him.

But what he saw was not the terrible, blazing image of his adversary,
but Kari's face beyond. His falling meant her life--but when she saw
him go down the brilliance dimmed upon her features. The hope he had
seen there went out like a candle-flame and she was once more only a
vessel of human flesh which the Aesir had possessed and degraded.

In his despair and his dizziness he cried soundlessly, "Help me,
Protectors! Give me your power!"

The still double-voice said, "You could not hold it. You would be
burned out utterly."

"I'll hold it long enough!" he promised desperately. "One second of
power--only that! Enough to smash the Aesir. Then death--but not till
then!"

       *       *       *       *       *

There was one instant when time stopped. That cataclysmic horror that
had risen a thousand years ago and raged through the worlds like a
holocaust stood blazing before Stuart's eyes. It stooped toward him,
poising for the hammer blow that would smash him to nothing--

Then a power like the drive of galaxies through space thundered into
Stuart's mind.

He had not expected this. Nothing in human experience could have taught
him to expect it. For the Protectors were not human. No more human than
the Aesir themselves. And the unleashed energy that roared soundlessly
through Stuart rocked his very soul on its foundations. He could not
stir. He could not think. He could only stay upon his knees facing the
Aesir-thing as galactic power thundered through him and wielded him
like a sword against man's enemies.

Higher and higher rose the crashing tides of contest. The citadel
shook ponderously upon the rocks of the god-made little world. Perhaps
that world itself staggered in space as the titans battled together on
its rocking surface.

Faster spun the core of radiant light which was the Aesir. Faster raced
the tides of power through Stuart's blasted body, seeming to rip his
very flesh apart and blaze in his brain like hammers of cosmic fire.

Terribly, terribly he yearned for surcease, for the end of this
unthinkable destruction that was tearing his brain and body apart. And
he knew he could end it in a moment, if he chose to let go....

Grimly he clung to the power that was destroying him. Second by
second, counting each moment an eternity, he clung to consciousness.
The crashing lances of the Protectors drove on upon the armor of the
Aesir, and the cyclopean pillars of the great hall reeled upon their
foundations, and the very air blazed into liquid fire around him.

He never knew what final blow of cosmic violence ended that battle. But
suddenly, without warning, the vast column of the Aesir pulsed with
violent brilliance and the whole hall rang with a cry too shrill and
terrible for ears or the very mind to hear, except as a thrilling of
despair.

The tower rocked. All the bright tapestries billowed and flowed against
the walls. And the radiant thing that was the Aesir--

Went out like a blown flame. Stuart saw it darken in the quickness of
a heartbeat from blinding brightness to an angry, sullen scarlet, and
then to the color of embers, and then to darkness.

There was nothing there at all.

And Stuart's brain dimmed with it one last glimpse he had of the
shining smile on Kari's face, triumph and delight, in the instant
before the cloudiness of oblivion blotted her features out.

He was not dead. Somewhere, far away, his body lay prone upon the cold
pavement of the Aesir's hall, a hall terribly empty now of life. But
Stuart himself hung in empty space, somewhere between life and death.

The thought of the Protectors touched him gently, almost caressingly.

"You are a mighty man, Derek Stuart. Your name shall not be forgotten
while mankind lives."

With infinite effort he roused his mind.

"Kari--" he said.

There was silence for a moment--a warm silence. But the voices,
speaking as one, said gently, "Have you forgotten? When the Aesir died,
Kari died too. And you, Derek Stuart--you can never go back to your
body now. You remember that?"

Sudden rebellion shook Stuart's bodiless brain. "Get out of my mind!"
he raged at the double-voice. "What do you know about human beings?
I've won for mankind--but what did I win for myself? Nothing--nothing!
And Kari--Get out of my mind and let me die! What do _you_ know about
love?"

Amazingly, laughter pulsed softly.

"Love?" said the double-voice. "Love? You have not guessed who we are?"

Stuart's bewildered mind framed only a voiceless question.

"We know humanity," the twin voices said. "We were human once, a
thousand years ago. Very human, Derek Stuart. And we remembered love."

He half guessed the answer. "You are--"

"There was a man and a woman once," the voices told him gently.
"Mankind still remembers their legend--John Starr and Lorna, who defied
the Aesir."

"John Starr and Lorna!"

"We fought the Aesir in the days when we and they were human. We worked
with them on the entropy device that made them what they are now--and
made us--ourselves. When we saw what they planned with their power, we
fought.... But they were five, and strong because they were ruthless.
We had to flee."

The voices that spoke as one voice were distant, remembering.

"They grew in power on their Asgard world, changing as the millenniums
swept over them, as entropy accelerated for them. And we changed,
too, in our own place, in our different way. We are not human now.
But we are not monsters, as the Aesir were. We have known failure
and bitterness and defeat many times, Derek Stuart. But we remember
humanity. And as for love--"

Stuart said bitterly:

"You know _your_ love. You have it forever. But Kari ... Kari is dead."

The voices were very gentle. "You have sacrificed more than we. You
gave up your love and your bodies. We--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Silence again. Then the woman, serene and gentle-voiced, "There is a
way, John. But not an easy one--for us."

Stuart thought, "But Kari is dead."

The woman said, "Her body is empty of the Aesir life-force. And yours
is burned out by the power we poured through it, so that no human could
live in it again unless--unless one more than human upheld you."

"Lorna--"

"We must part for awhile, John. We have been one for a long while. Now
we must be two again, for the sake of these two. Until the change...."

"What change?" asked Stuart eagerly.

"As we changed, so would you, if our lives upheld yours. Entropy would
move for you as it moved for the Aesir and for us. And that, too, I
think, is good. Mankind will need a leader. And we can help--John and
I--more surely if we taste again of humanity. After awhile--after
millenniums--the circle will close and John and I will be free to merge
again. And you and Kari, too."

Stuart thought, "But Kari--_will_ it be Kari?"

"It will be," the gentle voice said. "Cleansed of the evil of the
Aesir, supported by my own strength, as you by John's. You will be
yourselves again, with the worlds before you, and afterward--a dwelling
among the stars, with us...."

The man's voice said, "Lorna, Lorna--"

"You know we must, beloved," the softer voice said. "We have asked too
much of them to offer nothing in repayment. And it will not be goodbye."

There was darkness and silence.

Stuart was dimly aware of cyclopean heights rising above him.
Painfully he stirred. He was clothed in his own body again, and the
battle-blasted hall of the dead Aesir towered high into the dimness
above him.

He turned his head.

Beside him on the dais a girl, lying crumpled in the shower of her
hair, stirred and sighed.



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