Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

´╗┐Title: Sword of the Seven Suns
Author: Fox, Gardner F. (Gardner Francis)
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 "Sword of the Seven Suns" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                        SWORD OF THE SEVEN SUNS

                           By GARDNER F. FOX

                Their world was dark. Their Machine-God
             was dead. Savage hordes threatened to overrun
             them, smash them. What, then, was Flane doing
             out in the desert, alone with the wreck of a
               spaceship--and a strangely-wrought sword?

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Planet Stories Spring 1947.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


The spaceship fled like a silver bullet across black nothingness. Rows
of round windows stared outward from its curved sides. Beyond the
windows whirled clouds of interstellar dust. An occasional lump of
meteoric rock rebounded from the metal hull.

To port shone the triple stars of a constellation utterly foreign to
those in the ship. To starboard gleamed the strangely altered pattern
of the constellation Hercules. Straight ahead lay the great star Deneb,
and circling around it, giant orbs shimmering in its light, were the
planets it held in its awful grip.

Closer and closer swept the ship, trailing billows of spacedust. Over
one of the planets that closely resembled the voyager's home planet in
size and density, the vessel thundered. It rocketed downward, sweeping
sidewise into the gravitational pull of the planet. It dropped into
swirling clouds, swept into sunlighted sky, roaring gustily.

Inside the ship a voice cried hysterically, "Calling captain! Calling
captain!"

"Captain responding. Over to forward jet ports."

"The forward jets are shot, sir! Unused for too long. Ever since we
left Earth, they've remained untested. Can't fix them now. No time.
Inside gravity of planet. Over."

       *       *       *       *       *

The man in the captain's uniform bowed his head, eyes tightly shut.
There was bitterness in his heart, but no despair. Six hundred light
years from Earth, farther out among the stars than any man had ever
trespassed, and now, this! A hand squeezed his shoulder. He glanced
up, found the blue eyes of his wife smiling at him, heard her voice
whisper, "At least we'll go together, darling."

He patted her hand.

Through the compressed quartz panels they stared at the world unfolding
beneath them. Rolling plains covered with long grasses that swayed
gracefully before the wind bordered high, black mountains that cupped
mounds of snow at their peaks. In the distance was the blue of a sea.

"A lovely world," he whispered.

"You were right, Jon. Your calculations proved the habitability of
Deneb's planets. You would have been famous."

He chuckled, "This is one consolation, darling. But I'd hoped for so
much more than that ... a land to bring the restless spirits, where
they could dwell apart from the regimented ones, to form a new country
to call their own...."

He broke off. The ship was quivering, shuddering in the mad pace of its
unchecked flight. Thunder rolled like monumental cannonfire behind it,
as the air was displaced and rolled together.

The captain worked the controls feverishly. His hands sought by their
swiftness, by their strength, to fire those frontal jets, to stop this
deadly dash through planetal atmosphere. He bit his lips and shook his
head, whispering, "No use--no use!"

There was desert under the silvered belly of the ship. Heat waves
glimmered up from the hot sands, distorting everything. Far in the
distance lay a round yellow thing. The spaceship headed toward it, as
though at the bullseye of a target.

"We're going to hit it," said the man.

"What is it, Jon?"

Yellow and glittering, it lay like a giant's plaything, half buried in
the sand. It was a prism with clean, straight facets fitted together
that seemed to stretch out at every angle to gather in the heat from
the desert. Like a yellow diamond, it coruscated in the sunlight.

"I don't know," the man said softly. "It could be something that
dropped from the skies to bury itself in this spot, or it could be
the--the work of intelligent creatures!"

Their trajectory of flight shortened. The nose of the ship fell lower,
aimed at the prism. The noise of its passage startled two white birds
that ran on the sand. The birds ran faster, blurring along on the amber
desert.

From behind the amber prism a two-legged thing came running. In his
hand there was a flash and glitter.

"It's a man!" the woman shrieked, a red-nailed hand to her lips. "And
he has a sword in his hand."

"Poor devil," sighed the captain. "We're heading right at him. He can't
get away."

The ship came down with unbelievable rapidity. The man on the sand had
taken only a few steps from the prism when a black shadow overhauled
him. He had no time even to turn his head.

There was an explosion that ripped metal apart, that tore gaping holes
in the smooth facets of the golden prism, that sent geysers of desert
sand upward in dry showers. When the sands came down, there was only
scattered wreckage.

Like a twisted, broken toy, the spaceship lay on the sand, partially
obscuring the prism. Gaunt girders stuck up through the opened hull.
Smoke swirling from the ship's insides mixed with the falling sand.

Somewhere in the wreckage, a voice wailed in agony and despair.


                                   I

The machine stood in the domed end of the dark temple, gleaming dully.
Above it a hemisphere of translucent metal filtered pale moonbeams that
drew flashes of silvered fire from the great metal bulk. Against the
black basalt walls, the Machine brooded sullenly. It was great, was the
Machine. It was worshipped. It held power of life and death over all
Klarn. It possessed all power. It was god.

And yet, the Machine was--dead.

A figure slipped forward from the shadows that ringed the marble floor.
From pillar to ivory pillar he crept, a hand ever on the stained
leather hilt of his sword. Moonlight flicked over the close-cropped
black hair and the tight uniform of the _dulars_ that moulded his
chest, and sheathed his long, lean thighs. Emblazoned on the chest of
his jacket was the resurgent red dragon with fire spouting between its
fangs, symbolic of his rank. A broad belt suspended his scabbard and
blade, and sweeping upward from his shoulders were the metal epaulettes
that bespoke his connection with royalty.

Flane looked around him, grinning.

He had eluded the _mekniks_. He could keep his appointment with Vawdar,
unless the _mekniks_ got to him first. Most of the _mekniks_ were
celebrating the death of his mother, the Princess Gleya. There would
be rich liqueurs and much singing, and temple harlots to dance on the
planked tabletops, sodden with the lees of spilled wine.

Flane was bitter, and savage. There was a fire in his heart that made
him lust to kill. The _mekniks_ were glad that his mother was dead,
for she was all that held the _mekniks_ and the _dulars_ together. Now
the _mekniks_ would rule Klarn, with the aid of the Darksiders. Only
Vawdar had a chance of keeping peace among the factions. And Vawdar was
a hunted man, even as was Flane.

He came and knelt before the Machine, and touched his forehead to the
cold marble floor. This was the ritual insisted upon by the _mekniks_,
who insisted that the Machine was a deity, and there was enough shrewd
caution in Flane to bow before it, just on the off chance that they
might be right.

Then he rose and went to the grilled metal girdle that kept the Machine
enclosed in its niche. He took out a strangely-wrought key and dangled
it in his hand.

Engraven on the sides of the Machine were a series of symbols.
Diamond-shaped, they were, with the tracery of a star surrounding each
diamond. One of those diamonds was the lock that would restore to life
the dead Machine. Flane hoped that the key he held would unlock the
slumbering power of the Machine. If not--well, Vawdar and he were as
good as dead, themselves.

He inserted the key in the slit-like hole of one of the diamonds and
tried to turn it.

He whispered curses, attempting to move the key by sheer force.

Another failure, he thought bitterly. Just one of the hundreds that
had failed since that day, over a quarter of a century ago, when the
Machine had hummed madly, and stopped. Those others had not mattered;
every _dular_ and _meknik_ who thought he knew the answer had tried it.
There was no penalty for failure. But now, with the _mekniks_ hot after
Vawdar who might still hold _mekniks_ and _dulars_ together, failure
meant death if they should catch him.

Flane ran his fingers over the tiny hole. He saw the star pattern
bordering the lock, like a frieze ornamenting it. He sighed. All the
diamonds had holes.

Sound came to him as he stood before the machine, in the light of
Klarn's three moons seeping in from the dome. He whirled, and half-drew
his sword. Voices floated to him, riotous with laughter and derision.

"Vawdar! They got him at last. As he was trying to get out the Dragon
Gate."

"Good news. Now if we could get the Princess' whelp, Flane!"

The man in the shadows showed his white teeth in a silent snarl of pure
hate. His knuckles tensed on the sword-hilt until they threatened to
burst the tightened skin.

"The _dulars_ would be leaderless, then. They'd have to obey us, or
we'd pull in the Darksiders--let them loot!"

One of the men grumbled, "If we have Vawdar, what use for us to miss
the celebration? Why stand guard at the Temple here?"

"The council thinks Flane might try once more to make the Machine work.
If he succeeded--well, that would mean that Klarn will spring to life.
The Darksiders, though they outnumber us all, will never dare attack.
They remember too well the weapons of the Klarnva."

Flane stirred himself, stepped forward into the shadows, stalking
toward the temple entrance where the guards talked. There were only
two of them, and Flane had a great deal of confidence in his sword-arm,
confidence that had been justified again and again.

He leaped from the darkness, his blade a thing of lightning in his
hand. The guards came around on their heels, yanking out their weapons,
laughing gutturally.

"Flane! We have him, too!" rasped one of them.

"Pig bird!" whispered Flane.

His blade drove in like a beam of light, twirled the blade of the
nearest guard in a circular envelopment, wresting it from his fingers
to send it flashing high in the air. Sidestepping the lunge of the
other guard, Flane slithered his blade through his opponent's neck,
watched him gargle blood in his throat as he plunged.

In a moment the second guard lay beside his fellows, lifeless. Flane
stepped across their still legs, out into the cool night air. Above his
head the three moons of Klarn whirled high in the heavens, flooding the
court with light.

"The Dragon Gate," Flane whispered, and ran.

       *       *       *       *       *

As his feet pounded on back streets and alleys, he dwelt on the threat
of the Darksiders. They were like the Klarn, yet they possessed none
of their scientific ability. Centuries ago, so many that the Klarnva
had lost count of them, the Darksiders ruled all of Klarn. Then had
come the Klarnva, who consisted of the _dulars_ and the _mekniks_, in
ships of the sky, from somewhere beyond the triple moons of Klarn. From
where, had been lost in the shrouding veils of antiquity.

Their leader had been Norda, a thin genius with a mind as curious as a
question. It was Norda who put the machine together, who directed that
the people should live in walled city-states against the inroads of the
vast numbers of barbaric Darksiders. In the machine Norda had stored
power, endless quanta of it. That power gave the Klarnva their lights,
their heat, their luxuries. They grew used to it. The Machine even
furnished them with weapons, so far superior to those of the Darksiders
that the latter looked on them with awe.

When the Machine went dead twenty-five years ago, the city-states of
the Klarnva went dead, too. There was no light, no heat. Gone were the
power-driven vehicles, the entertaining-screens. People groped upward
as from a fog, seeking the source of that power. They recalled that
the Keeper of the Machine had disappeared around the same time as the
Machine stopped. Moreover, the vast prism in the desert was smashed.
Something from outer space had crushed it.

All knew that there was a key to the Machine that would start it into
motion. Many of them had tried to move it, from the Princess Gleya down
to Flane. None of them were successful.

"Neither was Vawdar," grated Flane, racing beneath a balcony, skidding
on restless feet around a corner.

There was clamour ahead of him. Hearing the hoarse cries of men
fighting, the rasp of blades meeting and falling away, Flane went
forward like the arrow from the bow. His blade was naked in the night,
a length of glittering steel. He could see the Dragon Gates now: tall
red blocks of stone hewn into the royal emblem of Klarn, red dragons,
with real flame spurting from between their teeth to light the gateway
below.

In the crimson glare, men struggled. As Flane shot into the mass of
men, he saw Vawdar, bound at wrist and ankle, leaning against the wall
of a building.

"For Gleya!" snarled Flane, and ran his blade through a _meknik's_
heart.

Now the hands of men were all around him, and their shoulders, smelly
with sweat. He heard curses rasped in his ears, caught the glitter of a
dagger raised to smite. Flane went in low on steel-thewed legs, lurched
a shoulder to catch a _meknik_ off balance and send him reeling into
others with the keen edge of Flane's sword across his throat, severing
his jugular vein.

The sword in his hand sang a strident song as it slithered around steel
and drank from the heart of men. The blade danced and leaped. The best
steel in Klarn was in that sword, and the finest hand for a hilt was
wielding it. The _mekniks_ gave stubbornly, but the dripping point that
sprang out of the night for throat and chest would not be denied.

[Illustration: _In the crimson glare, Flane's sword sang a strident
song as it slithered around steel and drank from the heart of men._]

Flane sliced a dagger across Vawdar's bonds, heard his swift, "They
fight with strangers whom I do not know. Be swift, Flane, that we may
escape!"

For the first time, the swordsman beheld his allies. They were Klarnva,
all of them; muffled in long black cloaks from which only their arms
that held their blades appeared. Klarnva, but unfamiliar to him.

In the press of battle, groups of cursing, fighting men swirled around
Flane and Vawdar as they sought to back away. Five _mekniks_ glimpsed
his lean face beneath the black hair and howled, "Flane! Flane!" to the
starry, three-mooned sky.

Now the _dular_ fought for his life. With his spine to a wooden door,
he snarled softly, green eyes following the points that faced him,
his longsword alive to each thrust. Parry, lunge, recover. Riposte
and thrust. He fought five men in that doorway, and one stepped out
untouched. Over five fallen bodies the swordsman leaped, to keep death
from the throat of Vawdar.

The black-cloaked men reformed their ranks, swept around them as a
shield. There was one of them who did not fight, who stood, still and
silent, looking on. Flane went for him, crying, "Who are you? Why do
you make our fight your fight?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The arm he held in his powerful hand was soft and slender. The hood
fell back, and in the moonlight Flane gazed into a white face in which
red-brown eyes stared back at him. Massy coils of red hair that blew in
the breeze came loose, and flicked across his face. He breathed in the
faint perfume of the girl, and looked at her full, red mouth.

All red, she seemed, and the smooth sheen of her skin was like the
satin-stuffs that came from distant Yeelya. Flane grinned at her.

"Girl," he whispered, "you walk with death tonight!" and drew her with
him out of the path of a thrown knife that clanked against a brick wall
behind where they stood.

"Fall back!" a tall stranger cried to him, and Flane drew the girl and
Vawdar with him into an alleyway.

"We have mounts beyond the Dragon Gate," she said hurriedly, stumbling
along. "We came for Vawdar, knowing the rebellion that threatens his
life."

Flane turned to Vawdar, seeing his face redden in the crimson light of
the flambeau inset in the wall overhead.

"The key you gave me," he said hurriedly. "It didn't work."

"I know. I've learned the real key in the meantime--"

The girl whispered swiftly, "Can you use it? Turn the machine on
tonight? That's why we came, knowing that any hope of using the machine
depends on you, Vawdar!"

The man shook his head. A laugh sat in his throat, almost evil in his
bitterness. Against the background of clashing blades and grated oaths,
and the rasping breathing of men fighting in the street, it was hollow
in despair.

"Tonight? No. And not for many nights after this, and perhaps never.
Because, you see--"

A shout hurtled upwards from the throat of a man who was turning into
their alley. Men raced behind him, shouting. With his naked left arm,
Flane swept the girl behind him, grinning, whispering, "Now they've
caught us. Between two gangs, in this alley."

"Can't we reach that gate with the dragons?" said the girl. "We have
_megathon_ stallions waiting there. We could go across the desert
together, all of us--"

Flane disengaged his blade from the sword of the first _meknik_, and
lunged beneath his guard. As the man fell, Flane shoved him back into
the others, working his blade, butchering calmly. In the closeness of
the mob who rushed him, there was no room for finesse. He shortened his
blade, and stabbed.

"_Megathons_," Flane whispered to the night. "They are native to the
southern regions. One-horned horses."

There was only one city-state of the Klarnva in the south: Moornal. Yet
Moornal was remote from Klarn; so remote that, since the Machine went
dead, it was looked upon almost as a myth.

"Yes," said the girl in answer to Flane's quick questions. "From
Moornal. We, too, have felt the bite of want without the Machine to
feed us. We are desperate."

The last man fell in front of Flane. He whirled and raced toward the
blue-coated men who were fighting at the alley's entrance.

"To the gate!" he shouted, and broke the ring of _mekniks_ and was
in the clear, his redly-dripping blade like the darting tongue of a
swamp-snake.

Flane fought like a man gone mad. His feet danced the _incartata_,
even as his bare left hand swept aside point and blade; with lunge
and _caricado_ he played his blade in the torchlight, engaging the
_mekniks_. They cursed, but in their breath was the fright of grim
death. These men had seen Flane fight before; they knew his reputation,
and the magnificent steel of his sword. They broke slowly, but when
they finally did, they ran.

The girl was staring at Flane with dark moons for eyes, standing
solitary under the stone lintel of the gate. He shot toward her, put
out an arm and swept her up against him, racing beyond the gate.

The hooves of the _megathons_ were stamping on the stone causeway as
they came into the open. Flane saw Vawdar already high in an ornate
saddle, gesturing. A horse reared against a moon, fore-hooves pawing
wildly. A Moornalian shouted something, swinging his mount's head
toward the gate.

But Flane only saw and heard these things dimly. For the girl that
was in the crook of his arm, pressed soft against him, was working a
strange magic on him. He saw her face framed by the wild red hair, and
the dark, mysterious eyes, and the generous mouth. Under moonlight she
was enchantment come to life.

He bent and kissed her.

Dimly, he realized that he was mad to stand kissing this girl while men
shouted and horses whinnied, but he put the thought from him.

The storm broke, then.

There were men with swords all around them, shouting triumph. Shoulders
bumped them, drove them against a horse. Flane heard Vawdar yell, saw
him bend from the saddle and stretch an arm toward them.

"I tried to warn you. The _mekniks_ have come in force. Man, move
yourself!"

Flane threw the girl high in the air, across a saddle. With the flat of
his hand, he slapped the rump of the plunging _megathon_. Then Flane
was leaping, grasping reins with sure hands, his foot feeling for the
carven stirrup.

"We'll divide," Flane yelled to a Moornalian. "The _mekniks_ want us
most of all!"

They were off in a clatter of hooves striking sparks from the
cobblestoned driveway, leaning forward over the necks of the
_megathons_, reins loose. Flane looked at Vawdar, positive that he
grunted, but Vawdar waved a hand, and they went on.

For once in his life, Flane was glad that the Machine was dead. If it
were alive, the _mekniks_ could have swept their group with guns that
would have turned them into drifting powder. But now only a few arrows
fell and bounced on the stones behind them.

They were going away from the Moornalians now. Flane saw them, bobbing
shadows moving into the night. He flung up an arm, and waved. There was
red hair blowing free in the wind, over there, and Flane felt as though
he watched his life ebbing from him, staring across at her.

The _megathons_ were swift. Flane thought with surprise that they
were even faster than the horses of the Klarn. Then he saw the thin
horn protruding up from the forehead of the beast. It was filed to a
fine point, and coated with metal. He grinned. This was a fighting
_megathon_, spawned and bred for a special job. He gave the animal its
head, and let him run into the night.

       *       *       *       *       *

After many hours, Flane became aware that Vawdar rode too silently. He
himself was full of the flame of the red-haired girl, but Vawdar should
be talking, revealing the secret of the key to the Machine.

He turned--and then cursed softly.

Vawdar lay across the neck of his mount. In the moons' light, Flane
could see the haft of a dagger distending from the middle of his back.
Up and down he bobbed, arms interwoven with the reins to prevent his
falling.

With gentle hands Flane drew him down; made him easy on the sands, with
cloak at his neck, and a flagon of wine at his lips.

Vawdar whispered, "They got me in front of the gate, just as we were
clearing them. Someone threw a dagger."

Flane was bitter. "My fault. Fool, fool! Forgive me, Vawdar!"

The older man chuckled softly, "It is good for Klarn that there is one
man who can stop to kiss a wench when men are dying all around him. It
bodes high hope for the future, Flane."

But the dark-haired youth would not be soothed. He said things about
himself until Vawdar writhed suddenly on the ground, back arched.

"I haven't--much time," the man on the sand whispered.

Flane bent, ear to his mouth.

"The key of the Machine, it--it isn't what--we think. It--"

Flane held his breath, staring at the closed eyes. The thought came
to him that this man lying so still and silent on the desert at his
knees was the last hope of the Klarnva. If he dies without speaking,
the Machine will never work. And if the Machine does not work, then the
Darksiders will overrun the city-states of the Klarn. The _mekniks_
may call them in to fight the _dulars_, and that will hasten their
coming; but come they will, some day. For the Klarnva were sliding back
to their level, swiftly, without the Machine. There would be no rays
to wipe out hordes at one swipe. Instead, there must be arrow to meet
arrow, and sword for sword; and there were few of the Klarnva who could
match the Darksiders with these weapons!

He moved Vawdar with an arm under his shoulder, staring at the pallid
face. "Vawdar! Speak to me!"

The man moved his head from side to side. His eyes opened, staring.
They focused, after a moment. "The prophecy, Flane. The prophecy--"

Flane scowled. Prophecy? He knew no prophecy. Yet wait--

There _was_ something. Crazy words about a man who would come with
stars in his hands, who would unite all Klarn, _dulars_ and _mekniks_
and Darksiders alike, who would bring them the blessings of the
Machine, and lead them to greatness. But such a man must be a giant.
Stars in his hands! Flane grunted disbelief.

There came to Vawdar that false strength that some experience before
death. He said strongly, "The key is lost, Flane. It may never
be found. In certain records that your moth--the Princess Gleya,
rather--kept, there was mention of it. She never knew, apparently. When
the Keeper disappeared so long ago, he had the key with him.

"If you can find the Keeper, he will have the key. Search, Flane,
Search!"

The man stiffened, opened his mouth wide for air.

Flane said softly, "But what is the key like? Is it big? Small? Is--"

Flane opened his eyes wide and put out a hand. The flesh he touched was
yet warm, but--

He sat on his haunches for long minutes, numb. The key was gone now.
Only Vawdar knew what it was like, and he could never tell.

Flane buried him beneath a hillock of sand, with flat stones from a
small mesa to mark the spot. Weary, Flane stood and stared at the
grave, quiet with grief. He had buried the hope of all Klarn here in
this lonely spot. Without Vawdar, the Klarnva were a lost race.

Light glimmered on the horizon. Flane stared at it uncomprehendingly, a
still, lean figure leaning on a sword.


                                  II

For many days, Flane rode across the desert. This was the Barrenland
out here, uncharted, unexplored. For a thousand miles, the dun sands
flung their sheathing blanket over the earth. Only here and there was
anything other than this deadly sand: a rocky escarpment, or a stone
plateau with dry weeds blowing in the breeze. And the rock was as dead
as the sand.

A man could die easily out here, from thirst or hunger, or the terrible
heat. When he was two days on an aimless trail, Flane found water
bubbling under a lip of rock; that gave him strength to run down a
sand-hare and spit it with his blade. After that it was much the same,
for the hares abounded, and there was always Flane's deep spring.

The _megathon_ ate the sparse weeds, and thrived. Flane shared the cool
water with him, and rubbed him down nightly after stripping off the
ornate saddle and blanket. Together, they roved the Barrenland, always
learning. Affection born of the great still places of a world grew
between them, as it will wherever there are planets that bear diverse
forms of life.

On the roan's back, Flane ranged far and wide. He came to know the
vermilion sunset coating the sand in blood and the sunrise tinting it
with gold. In the saddle he stared at strange ruins poking above the
hiding sands, puzzled and wondering. He discovered olden roads beneath
scudding dust, and queer little beasts who scampered from his shining
sword.

Mount and rider grew lean and hard. Flane lost track of the days, being
too concerned with keeping soul fastened to his body to care much about
anything else; though often he sat and brooded on the lost key to the
Machine.

And over the fires that he made from weed-roots at the entrance to his
little cave, he thought of the girl with the flaming hair. Her features
nestled there amid the darting flames, eyes wide and searching as they
met his, her mouth seeming to yearn toward him. Occasionally he would
bury his face in his hands, and shudder.

Then came the morning when he filled his flagons with springwater, and
walked toward the roan _megathon_. Holding the beast's head on his
shoulder, he stroked the satiny jaw and pulled the short ears.

"We rot here, Saarl," he whispered, looking out across the desert. "We
could die as well by riding forward to seek our fate."

The _megathon_ tossed its shapely head and whinnied.

Flane grinned and hit his heavily muscled shoulder lightly. He threw
blanket and saddle on him, and buckled the cinch. Swinging upward, he
kicked a heel into Saarl's ribs.

Flane found the going not too difficult. The months they had spent at
the cave inured them to the mad sun, and to little water. And Flane
already knew the signs that meant the sand-hares were about. They rode
on and on, into the sea of sand, week after week.

It was the stallion that first sensed the thing in the distance. He
stood with nostrils flaring, head up, looking to the west. Flane rose
in his stirrups, staring. There was something yellow and sparkling
there, with something else twisted and caught around it.

"Let's go see, Saarl," he whispered, and let the roan run.

They circled the spaceship warily, the _megathon_ stepping on dainty
hooves, alert to fly. Flane had a hand on his sword-hilt, but when his
eyes beheld the evidence of years that had dwelt here a while and gone
away, he relaxed.

When they were closer to the ship, Flane saw the gigantic prism, and
awareness came upon him.

"It's the Great Prism," he told the animal, in awe. "We always thought
it half a legend, though the Princess assured me that it was real. But,
without the Machine, there were none who dared to seek it, for only a
few knew the way that led here."

       *       *       *       *       *

Flane walked on foot around it. Built of sheets of glass, fitted and
joined together with the cunning of a master scientist, it glowed like
amber fire in the blaze of the sun. Though it nearly blinded him, Flane
went nearer and stared down through the sheets of glass, into the
interior. He saw great whitish globes standing on coiled springs, and
where the whiteness was, was a glowing fire that looked like the heart
of the sun.

Flane rubbed his eyeballs, turning away.

The rusted hull of the spaceship lured him. His gaze found a burst-open
section and he peered within. Backing out, he stared from prism to
ship, and back again.

"This fell from the sky," he mused, in the manner of men long used to
their own company. "It broke the prism, and--"

Flane gasped.

Could it be that this had something to do with the stopping of the
Machine? But no, no. In that event, there would be no need for a
key to operate the Machine. Yet deep inside him, Flane thought that
this tragedy might have to blame itself for what had happened to the
Klarnva. Somehow, at least.

Nimbly he went inside the ship and walked its metal floor. Here was
wonder piled upon wonder. This vessel was a city-state all by itself.
In the domed ceilings were lights, and in the rooms he passed were
machines, many and varied, strange. The lights and the machines were
dead. Had they been alive, it would have been even more miraculous to
Flane, for he had been brought up in a world where everything that
moved by motor depended upon the Machine. Curious, he went and ran his
hands over the smooth sides of the things he saw.

Do they, too, lie quiet because the Machine is dead? he puzzled. Yet
this thing that must have come out of the sky in this deserted place
was not like the magniships that the Klarnva had. It could not depend
on the Machine. No. It must have power of its own.

Elated, he ran from chamber to chamber, until he stood in a small room
with compressed quartz for windows. Dust was piled thickly on floor and
bench, and there were two queerly human heaps of dust sprawled on the
floor. Flane felt that he stood in the presence of a very great sorrow.

Childlike, he searched throughout the ship. In a drawer he found
pictures on paper, pictures far more lifelike than the paintings that
hung in the Museum of Art back in Klarn. He held the photographs to the
light, and gasped.

_He was in that picture!_

Flane felt faint, staring at himself. It was he, it was. The tall man,
lean and dark, with black hair was Flane. He was not mistaken. But the
garments the man wore were so odd! And the woman beside him, with the
tiny baby in her arms--Flane was positive he did not know her.

Flane sat down to riddle himself the question.

He remembered now that all his life he had been a little different from
the Klarnva. Where they were dull and apathetic, he was bursting with
vigour. Curious he had ever been, to the dismay of the Princess Gleya.
Often he was wont to take apart the various machines that the Klarnva
owned; dead machines they were, but exasperating to Flane, who wondered
why they did not work. In those days, he had not understood about the
Machine. He recalled now that Vawdar had said once to the Princess, "It
is his heritage. The space-wanderers' blood is in his veins." That used
to fret him, but now--

Now he understood. That man was his father, and that woman, his true
mother. The hate of the Klarnva for him, that expressed itself when the
_mekniks_ spoke of him among themselves, was explained. He was brood
of those who had smashed the prism. And, possibly, the Machine. They
beheld Flane, a living monument to The Catastrophe, always before
their eyes. Flane chuckled, understanding.

He stood up. If these were his people, then he was home. And, if this
were his home, he should know all he could of it.

His search of the ship was thorough, and it took five days. Some of
that time he spent in the saddle, for he had to eat, and there was
always the problem of water. On the third day he solved that problem.
He discovered hermetically-sealed tanks deep in the bowels of the ship,
and when he learned that they held water, his respect for his race
zoomed skyward. The water was warm, but it was pure.

At last he chanced upon a room that was filled with fascination.
From floor to ceiling, it housed machines. He spent hours over them,
pondering. They were different from the machines of the Klarnva, for
all of their machines had tiny globes atop them. These had no globes.
They had wires connecting them to the walls. Eventually he realized
that their sources of power were dissimilar.

If only he could learn the power of these people! The thought buoyed
him like a drug. After two days spent in the room, he was dispirited.
Whatever power the space-wanderers used was as dead as the Machine.

Flane swore and heaved a wrench at a wall.

The wall opened.

Something tumbled out, and from the mouth of it a purple flame sizzled
and burned, and ate away the wall and the wall beyond that.

Flane yelped and sprang. He stared in numb horror until he saw the
button on the thing, a button as obvious as a trigger. He crept close,
pressed it, and the violet flame stopped.

Flane shook for minutes, kneeling on the metal floor with the deadly
thing in his hands.

       *       *       *       *       *

He knew nothing of atomic power, did Flane, but the quick mind of him
was alert to the power he held in his palms. Tentatively he pressed the
button again, directed the lavender fire, watched it eat up whatever
stood in its path.

"This is a weapon that is a weapon," he breathed, patting its shining
sides, his eyes dancing. With this in his hands, he could remake a
world.

Where the violet flame had been was an empty hole. Flane stared into
it, seeing twisted girders and gaping hullsides, and black sands below.
That was the desert, down there, and--

Something gleamed whitely beneath him. Stretching far out, he
scrutinized it. A skeleton lay there, blasted into fragments, scattered
apart. At one time that had been a man. From his position, Flane
thought that the spaceship must have killed him; caught him on the
sands, and crushed him, throwing his body.

Something else shone and glittered down in the sands. Something long
and bright, and with darkness at one end, although that darkness
glittered.

Flane gasped, "A sword!"

He dropped from girder to girder until he stood in the darkness,
bending and lifting the thing. In his hand the blade made a singing
play, humming vibrantly. The blade was coated with runes, and figures
carved in a delicate frieze in the steel. A craftsman had made that
blade, ornamenting it without weakening it. With a big hand on the
hilt, Flane danced it before him.

The hilt was a dark blue, like a midnight sky. Set inside the
translucent, crystalline stuff were seven tiny globules of light
that glittered eerily. Five of them formed a star at the guard, and
the other two were embedded in the pronged pommel. They made a queer
design, and reminded Flane of a constellation he could see at night
from Klarn.

Saarl whinnied alarm somewhere outside.

Flane sprang for the girders, sword in belt. He went up the twisted
steel, hand over hand, and ran for the opening in the hull, snatching
up the flame-weapon as he ran.

A magniship was coming from the south.

The only known mechanism that did not need the Machine to function was
the magniship. It, too, was a discovery of the ancient genius, Norda.
It utilized the polar magnetism that held the planet in its grip; the
red balls that endlessly circled the rim of the ship drew on that
stream of magnetism for its power, sent it toward the motors deep in
the hull which whirled the propellors.

Flane tightened his hands on the gun and waited, watching through
thin-slitted eyes as the ship altered course, observing the great
wreck. He thought, _with this in my hands, I could destroy that ship_.
The knowledge made him feel like a god.

Saarl nuzzled his back as he stood on the sand, watching men walk
toward him.

"Are you suspicious, too, Saarl?" he whispered. "We are alone, you and
I. The Klarnva ran us out of Klarn, and there are no others that we
know. It is best to be careful."

He threw up a palm, calling out, "Stand where you are. You can come no
closer."

A tall man threw back the hood of his cloak and scowled at him.

"You talk big for a man who dwells in a ruined house."

Flane spat, saying, "This is no house, fool. It is a ship that came
from the sky. I talk big because I am big. I bear death in my palms."

The tall man looked interested. Flane saw him study the gun, then look
toward the prism and the ship twisted around it. The man looked back at
him.

"I would search your house, or ship, or whatever it is."

Flane shook his head.

"Step no closer or the colour that sizzles and eats everything in its
path will come out to sear you."

The thin man beckoned and the men with him shed their black cloaks and
came for Flane with naked swords in their hands. Flane grinned as they
ran toward him. He lifted the gun and aimed it at the cloaks that lay
on the sand.

The violet light came forth from the gun and stole all around the black
cloaks that lay on the sand, and ate them up. It ate up some of the
sand, too.

       *       *       *       *       *

The men skidded to a halt in the sand, staring; beneath their white
faces was the pallor of fear. Flane said softly, "Go back to your ship
and be grateful to Flane. If I had wanted, I could have aimed the gun
at _you_."

The tall man started; he stared at Flane with his dark eyes, as though
absorbing his every feature.

He said, "Are you Flane in truth? The Flane who fled from Klarn with
Vawdar?"

"I am that Flane."

"And Vawdar? What of him? Did he give you the key to the Machine?"

"Vawdar died. He said the key was lost, which we knew; but he also said
it was not what we think it is, that key."

"I am searching for that key, even now. If I do not find it, the
Darksiders will overrun Moornal. I am overlord of Moornal. My name is
Harth."

A flame leaped inside Flane, for he thought of the girl with hair like
dancing fire, red as the desert sunset. But months of wandering on the
desert made him taciturn and suspicious.

"How do I know this? You may be a _meknik_ for all you can prove. And I
have learned that the _mekniks_ do not approve of me."

Harth chuckled.

"So I have heard. But, about that weapon of yours. I would like to use
it. It would be a wondrous thing against the Darksiders. They would
never capture Moornal if I had that."

"The weapon is mine. Forget it."

"You are of Klarn, man. In this time of need, you must use that weapon
to save your people!"

"I am no Klarnvan. The blood of the space-wanderers is in my veins. I
am son to those who lie in the big ship. I owe loyalty to none but them
and Saarl--and a girl with red hair."

Harth opened his eyes very wide at that. He grinned, and turned to look
at the magniship. He shouted, "Aevlyn!"

Flane backed against Saarl, ready for attack from the ship. But all he
saw there was someone in a white cloak come through a doorway and stand
at the rail, staring over the sands toward them. It was a girl--a girl
with hair as red as the sinking sun, who looked at him and laughed and
waved a white arm.

       *       *       *       *       *

She was here at last, at arm's length, laughing. The others stayed at
bay, eyeing the flame-gun in the crook of Flane's arm, but the girl
walked toward him, calling out, "Flane! You got away that night!"

He touched her hands with his, gently, and chuckled. "You are real,
then. There were times since then that I thought you something my
brain made up in the fury of battle. Real. You are real."

"Of course, I'm real! And alive, too--though how much longer I'll be
alive, I don't know. Flane, the Darksiders are grown bold. They attack
in the daytime, now. They kill our--my people. No one has learned the
key to the Machine. Without it, the Klarnva will perish."

Flane patted the gun, grinning, "With this, the Darksiders will be no
threat. Just a few blasts of the violet light, and they will run for
shelter."

He told her how he found it. When he concluded, he discovered that the
others had come nearer, listening in amazement. But as they made no
hostile gestures, Flane did not worry. He was once again with Aevlyn.

"You must come on board the ship," she told him, walking toward the
spaceship with him. "You can hold the Darksiders off while the others
continue their search for the key."

Flane showed her around the great vessel, pointing out the machines
that worked through some energy other than the Machine. He dropped into
the hole in the ship and reappeared with an elaborately carved scabbard
into which he slipped the darkly hilted sword.

"What a strangely beautiful weapon," she said when he showed it to her.

They studied the runes engraved on the blade, which told in frieze form
the tale of Norda the genius, of how he and the Klarnva came first to
the planet, of their struggles with the Darksiders, and the erections
of the city-states, and the building of the Machine. With a long
fingernail, Aevlyn traced the outlines of the tiny forms on the blade.

"They stand out from the shaft," she said slowly.

Flane held it to the light that filtered through a cracked window. His
eye went along the keen edge.

"It forms a diamond shape through the middle. If we were to break it
clean, those friezes would form the outer edges of the diamond, and the
two sword-edges, the upper and lower points."

Flane shook his head wonderingly, staring at the blue hilt of the
sword. Glitterings like the sky at night stared back at him, the buried
points of light in the haft winking and twinkling like stars. Like a
beam of silver light, the blade sprang from the star-shaped guard, a
shimmer of deadly steel.

"A sword like this would be famous," he muttered. "People would talk of
it. And yet--and yet I have never heard of any such a sword."

"Nor have I," sighed red Aevlyn.

       *       *       *       *       *

Harth waited for them outside the spaceship, to walk with them across
the sands toward the magniship. As they went, Flane whistled to Saarl,
and drew his reins under his arm. The _megathon_ trotted daintily at
his heels.

Energy surged in Flane's chest, lifting it; like a great wave elevating
itself in a concave greenness lipped with foam-bubbles, it grew in him.
Here before him was a task: To fight the Darksiders. No longer would
his life be a goalless ramble across desert sands. Instead he had a
people who would be like brothers to him, who was an orphan. He stood
a moment, staring at the monument of his own folk, watching sunlight
dapple the silvern hull of the spaceship.

Then he turned his face to the magniship and went up the ladder. He saw
that Saarl was stabled below decks, and walked with Aevlyn toward the
master-cabin.

Here Harth awaited him with maps and charts.

"I want to show you how bold the Darksiders have become," said the
Klarnvan. "Here is Moornal, southernmost of all the city-states of the
Klarn. Beyond Moornal rise a chain of mountains. In those mountains,
and in the plains beyond them, dwell the Darksiders."

"I have never seen a Darksider," said Flane slowly. "I don't know much
about them."

Harth said bitterly, "Klarn itself is too centralized to be aware of
their threat. But we of Moornal and Yeelya--we know! We rim their
perimeter. Us they raid on their fleet _megathons_, stealing our horses
and our women. With lance and arrow they come, shouting _O jho! O jho!_
which is their warcry."

"They are a nomad race," said Aevlyn, seated on a stool of carved
_yxon_. "They live in tents that collapse to fit the backs of their
pack _megathons_. They can cross miles of country in a day, so that
we never find them in the same spot. Some of their men are master
craftsmen. They make lances and bows that we marvel at; we marvel, too,
at their skill with them."

Harth said, "I have heard it rumored that deep in the Darkside country,
they have cities, patterned after ours. Their spies come and go in
Moornal and Yeelya because we Klarnva aren't suspicious enough to look
for them. They learn much, and quickly. It is said they have imitated
our culture to a great extent."

"Are they like us that they can come and go unnoticed?" asked Flane.

"As alike as _khrees_ in a pod. Usually they are browned by the sun,
but then, so are our hunters and herdsmen." Harth sighed, "In the
olden days, when the Machine functioned, we did not need hunters and
herdsmen. But now--"

Flane thought fleetingly of Vawdar. Now that he was dead, all hope
for the key was lost, unless by chance someone would stumble on the
combination of the lock. But so many had tried, for so many years, that
Flane felt positive this was an improbable chance.

He said, to take his mind off the key, "Do you intend moving against
the Darksiders? Attacking them in their own domain?"

"What else can we do? Should we wait for them to attack, we should
never break their power. They swoop on us in few numbers at many
points. If we are too strong at one point, they flee. But one or two of
their bands always makes a killing."

Flane patted the violet-gun in his hands.

"With this we can make a killing ourselves!"

Over a _zeethis_-wood table, Harth planned his strategy. They would go
over Moornal, displaying banners to tell the people below that they
were visiting Darkside to raise an army. High in the air, the last of
the magniships could survey an endless countryside. At the signs of the
gathered Darksider host, the ship could swing into position, and Flane
could sweep their ranks with his weapon. Then the army would attack.

Flane protested, as a thought came to him, "But must we kill these
Darksiders, if they are as ourselves? Perhaps we could reason with
them, teach them our culture, make them as we are."

Harth was horrified, and said so. But Flane felt a sneaking liking
for the nomads; he himself had been one for uncounted months, on
the desert. Besides, he was not a Klarnvan, and neither were the
Darksiders. Without a race, Flane thought momentarily of adopting the
outsiders as his own.

"We could teach them our knowledge," Flane continued stubbornly. "Their
lances and arrows would make good trading material for them. We need
good arrows and spears for hunting. Our ceramics and cities would be
good bartering stuff. If we could instill in them a love for beauty,
art to decorate their homes--"

"Tents!" sniffed Harth.

"Those rumored cities of theirs," said Flane, "will need ornament.
Besides, were we to unite Klarnva and Darksiders, we might build a race
that would develop its own science, so that the Machine would not be
such a necessity."

Aevlyn let her red-brown eyes survey him tenderly. Her ripe mouth
curved into a smile. She said to Flane, "You want to be the giant of
the prophecy, who comes to unite all on Klarn beneath one banner!"

"I am no giant who carries stars in his hands," said Flane soberly,
"but I try to think of the Darksiders. This was their planet. The
Klarnva took it from them, ages ago. The Darksiders have rights."

Harth growled, "The Darksiders are barbarians. They raid our flocks.
Now they are gathering to destroy all Moornal. Is that just?"

"No," sighed Flane. "We will have to fight them, of course. Still--"

He sighed again, and Aevlyn put her warm hand in his and squeezed it.
Her laughter cheered him, and he grinned at her.

       *       *       *       *       *

Moornal lay on a great wide plain where tall grasses swayed in the
breeze. Far beyond it, a low-lying range of mountains girdled the
plains like a belt. This was the first trip Flane had ever made in the
air; every magniship in Klarn was long since rusted into uselessness,
for lack of the power to repair the ravages of time. It was an eerie
sensation, looking down on rooftops and streets, and domed temples.

Aevlyn stood with her shoulder warm against his, beside the rail. "That
is the culture the Darksiders would destroy," she said softly. "They
would fling the blanket of their ignorance over it, make it as the
ground for their _megathons_ to race on."

Flane shook his head, eyes a little sad. "That is not what the
Darksiders wish, Aevlyn," he frowned. "Put yourself in their place. Let
us pretend that you and I are Darksiders--say, of twenty-five years
ago. We come through the mountain passes on our _megathons_ and sit
looking at that great city. Remember, this is in the days when the
Machine functions. We see that city lighted by the globular lights
my mother, the Princess Gleya, used to tell me of. We see ships rise
and sail majestically through the air. We see houses built so that
sandstorms cannot wreck them.

"What emotions do we feel? Awe. And jealousy, yes. We want the
security, the happiness, of that city. We do not wish to destroy it. We
would be only too willing to be allowed to come and dwell in it. But
the Klarnva will not have us."

The red-haired girl stared up at Flane, a long-nailed hand brushing
back a lock of her russet hair. Her eyes were wide.

"You are strange, Flane. You can see others, and feel for them, as they
themselves. We Klarnva are not like that."

A bit boastfully, Flane said, "That is because I am not a Klarnvan
myself. I am the son of the space-travellers, whom you saw in that big
ship. I wish I knew what my people were like."

"You almost make me feel sorry for the Darksiders," whispered the girl,
standing close to him.

Flane held her soft and warm in the crook of his arm. With his lips he
caressed her cheeks and mouth, tenderly. He whispered, "The union of a
space-traveller and a Klarnvan might bring forth a new breed of men and
women."

Aevlyn flushed and hid her face in his throat, but her fingertips
stroked his jaw gently, lovingly.

"A new race of men," Flane went on dreamily. "Men who would live with
Darksider and Klarnvan in peace, with food for all, and trade to make
all men wealthy."

"It's a good dream," whispered Aevlyn, "but foolish."

It is foolish, thought Flane, because the races on Klarn are sliding
backwards to barbarism. If only the Machine functioned! Why, if he,
Flane, could make the Machine hum, he could unite the men on Klarn.
They would obey his dictates, or he would refuse them the powers of the
Machine! It was as simple as that.

The shouting of a lookout roused him. With Aevlyn at his side, he went
to stand at the rail, staring across the plains toward Moornal. A man
was on a racing _megathon_, bent low across his back, swooping like a
swallow in flight down into gulches, and up across the level plain.
Once he flung up an arm and waved it at the ship.

A rope was flung to him, and he came up it hand over hand.

Panting, the messenger stood before Harth.

"Word has come from Klarn," he sobbed from weariness. "The _mekniks_
have invited the Darksiders to join them in expelling the _dulars_.
They promise the Darksiders that, for their help, they will aid them to
conquer the other cities of the Klarnva!"

Harth grunted curses, looking at Flane.

Flane patted his weapon and grinned mirthlessly, "We'd better hurry,
Harth. Perhaps we can catch the Darksiders before they unite with the
_mekniks_. If ever they join forces, even this violet fire in my hands
may not be enough to stop them!"

He said to the messenger, "How many of the Darksiders go to Klarn?"

"They are as the stars twinkling in the sky on a cold winter night," he
answered. "They have with them many queer engines of destruction. They
march side by side with the mountain chain, so that we of the plains
will not notice them."

"I posted spies on the fastest _megathons_ we owned," said Harth. "Were
they the ones who brought this news?"

"They are. They say that even if we could equip an army with
_megathons_ as fleet as theirs, there would be no chance to overtake
the Darksiders."

Flane walked back and forth, like a caged _valgon_. He saw ruin of
all his hopes crashing around him. No longer was there chance to unite
Darksider and Klarnva, if once the _mekniks_ and the outlanders joined
forces. They would be mad with blood-lust, with the hot urge to kill
and conquer. It was too late. Even the violet weapon could not help him.

Unless--

He whirled on Harth, crying, "Full speed over those mountains! We are
the sole hope of the Klarnva, we in this magniship. Under our feet is
the only power that can bring us to the Darksiders before they merge
with the _mekniks_."

"Are you mad?" whispered Harth, eyes round. "We number a few score on
the ship. Can we stand before the Darksiders in battle?"

"Can't you see? We have to. If we fail, then there will be none to
mourn us, for the Darksiders and the _mekniks_ will sweep over the
cities of the Klarn as a sandstorm sweeps the desert! We can't stop to
reckon consequences. It is all or nothing. We must toss the dice--and
clean our weapons!"

Aevlyn stood by his side, red mouth curving into a tiny smile.

"He asks us to go with him and taste death, Harth," she whispered. "We
have no chance, and yet--and yet, I vote to go with him."

Harth shrugged, "What use for me to speak? If the hereditary princess
of the Moornalian Klarnva says we fight, then we fight."

There were tears in Aevlyn's eyes as she looked at Flane.

She whispered, "If only we had a chance!"


                                  III

For five days and nights, the magniship crept through the mountains.
Over jagged peak and snow-draped hump they floated swiftly. At its
rails stood keen-eyed men who strained their sight peering across the
barren plains beyond, and fingered shining weapons. Occasionally, they
ran wet tongues around dry lips, for the mark of death lay strong upon
them.

There was no jollity at meals, except where Flane ate. Morosely, the
men stared at one another, and bent to their plates. A pall hung over
the ship, bathing those who rode it.

Flane was different. He still laughed and jested, and spent the moonlit
nights walking the deck with Aevlyn.

"What use to brood?" he asked her. "Our fate is written somewhere,
perhaps in that great cave where dwells the All-High that the Princess
Gleya told me of. He sits there and watches all our deeds enacted
before him."

"I would like to go and peer over His shoulder to see our immediate
future," the girl sighed, clinging to Flane.

"Seeing it would not change it," said Flane. "Not knowing, but doing
and fighting every inch of the pathway through life--that's what
counts!"

He looked at the blade with the seven stars in it, holding it up so
that moonlight made it glimmer.

"This is what counts--holding a sword in your hand and using it to
fight for what is right and just. It's like a key to your own future.
When you hold it, you can't fail!"

Aevlyn pressed against him, whispering, "I wish I were of your race,
Flane. You never admit defeat, even if you have already failed!"

Flane grunted, "Failed? Just because we didn't have time to raise that
army at Moornal? We take a different path, that's all. It may lead to
the same goal. Who knows?"

       *       *       *       *       *

On the morning of the sixth day, a lookout yelped. Flane leaped to the
rail, clung to it with strong, supple hands. His eyes glinted with
excitement.

The host of the Darksiders lay like a swollen shadow along the
ground. It seethed and moved in restless waves, flowing forward. Big
vans and wagons were piled high with spears and arrows, pulled by
draft-_megathons_ whose manes flowed in the wind. On war-_megathons_
and on foot the Darksiders surged like an irresistible wave across the
plains. On high waved their _kaatra_-tail banners. Here and there a
pennon whipped like a striking lash in the breeze. And their engines of
war, their catapults and mangonels, trundled along at the same swift
pace.

"They will overflow the Klarnvan cities," whispered Flane to himself.
"There is nothing on all Klarn that can stop that horde--except my
violet-gun. And even that--" he shook his head dubiously, staring at
the vast throng below.

On board the magniship there was great activity. Men ran back and
forth, reaching for weapons, shouting hoarsely.

Now the horde had seen them. A roar went up from the assembled throats,
the howl of a wolf on sighting its prey. Lifted lances shook, sunlight
glistening from their sanded tips. Here and there a bow was raised, and
an arrow fitted to its string. The tailed banners danced in the hands
of the standard-bearers.

"Let me speak to them," Flane said to Harth who nervously fingered a
dagger in his belt. "I may dissuade them from their venture. If only
I had the key to the Machine! Then, indeed, would I have a weapon to
bargain with!"

He wound his legs in a plaited rope and was dangled over the side,
below the flat keel of the ship. He swayed in the wind, the violet-gun
at ease in his hands.

A Darksider with a wolfskin wrapped around him bellowed upwards, racing
underneath him, trying to stab him with his spear. Flane grinned and
shouted, "Peace, Darksider. I come to offer terms."

A group of mounted outlanders rode toward him. They sat their saddles
easily, bending as their steeds curvetted.

"The people of Moornal desire to dwell in peace with the Darksiders,"
shouted Flane. "We look for the key to the Machine. If we find it, the
Machine's power will be given to all."

A Darksider roared laughter, turning to his companions, gesturing a
hairy arm at Flane.

"The hanging one offers peace. We will make peace, after we have wetted
our blades in his flesh, and the flesh of all his kind!"

They laughed hoarsely and took turns heaving war-lances at Flane where
he hung in the ropes. One of the spears came so close to him he could
have reached out and caught it. Flane sighed and lifted the violet-gun.
He did not want to slay these men. But he had to. They needed a lesson.

He sighted along the barrel and pressed the button. From the mouth
of the gun the lavender flame came with a swoosh and dropped around
the outlanders. It lay among them like the overflow of a rainbow,
scintillating and glowing. Then it dissipated.

Where the mounted Darksiders had stood and hurled their spears there
was only a blotch of darkened ground. Even the long grasses were gone.

"Oww!" howled the thousands who watched with fear stamped upon their
faces. "Oww! Here is the magic of the Klarnva come to eat us up!"

Some of them wheeled their mounts to run, but a great fellow whose fair
blonde hair spilled to his shoulders, lifted a gnarled club in his hand
and rallied them.

"What?" he roared. "Do we flee before one man? Feather me an arrow in
his hide so that he will drop that flaming thing he holds. Then _we_
may use it."

Arrows carried farther than did spears. Flane scampered back up the
ropes as shafts started to slither in among the cordage. He put a hand
on the rail and swung over. Panting, he stood and stared at the horde
that raced for them.

"Arrows and spears will never take the ship," he said, "but those
war-engines might."

He called to Harth, "Pass the ship over their machines. I must destroy
them."

Flane went to the rail and leaned on it, watching the ground slide
under him. Now they were over the assembled tribes, skimming low. The
war-engines were just beyond them. Flane lifted his gun, held it in
readiness.

He fired once.

A massive catapult went violet, and disappeared.

He fired again, and again.

Mangonels flared, fading.

       *       *       *       *       *

But now the Darksiders were using their rocks against the magniship.
Great jagged stones came crashing and bouncing on the deck. Men
screamed, caught under them. Flesh was mashed, and ran red blood. One
rock pierced the sides of the ship and clattered inside it, rolling and
tumbling. Men moaned in the depths of the vessel, where the stone had
gone.

Flane thinned his lips and fired faster, and faster.

One by one he encompassed the engines with the violet fire, and one by
one they flared and disappeared.

Now there were none left, and Flane turned from the rail with a sigh of
satisfaction.

He stood stock-still, staring.

The deck of the magniship listed at a peculiar angle. It was difficult
to walk on it, for one side was lifted toward the sky, and the other
pointed down toward earth. He had been so engrossed in his destruction
of the war-engines, that he had not noticed.

The horde roared its triumph.

"She sinks! She sinks! She is coming toward us! Now we shall have the
gun!"

Flane went across the deck with flying feet. He caught at a stanchion,
swung in through an open door, shouting, "Lift it! Lift her nose."

Aevlyn was pale, watching him beside Harth who stared unseeingly at the
man in the doorway.

Aevlyn whispered, "It's no use, Flane! Those rocks they hurled swept
away the red magnetic balls on the port side of the ship. We're done
for. We can't stay up much longer."

"We can stay up long enough to get to the mountains," Flane rasped,
pointing to where the green-and-brown hills rose toward the clouds.
"There we can make a stand. The Darksiders can come at us only a few at
a time. We can hold out until help comes from Moornal. It is our only
hope."

Harth slapped the table with the palm of his hand, violently, so that a
quill and an inkbottle bounced a little.

"Sheer madness!" he bellowed, rising swiftly to his feet. "Now I have
listened to you, Flane of Klarn, and I have given you your way. But
from now on, it shall be Harth of Moornal who says what we shall do."

Flane's fingers opened and closed. His green eyes flared hotly, and he
opened his mouth to snarl fierce words. Then Aevlyn was before him, the
perfume of her auburn hair delicate in his nostrils, looking up at him.
Her brown eyes begged with his.

Flane sighed, "And what are those orders, Harth?"

"We flee back to Moornal. We raise an army and--"

Flane chuckled, "Idiot! I thought the ship was broken."

"We can bargain with the Darksiders. They may yet give us terms."

Flane took him by the arm and led him to the port window. They had
an unobstructed view of the plains from there. They saw the shaggy
_megathons_ racing with their bellies to the ground while their riders
shook pennoned lances over their heads, charging. A sword blade glowed
red in the sun, lifted into the air. A thundering of hooves rocked the
ground. Voices bellowed, roared their hate.

"Those are no warriors to give quarter. Not after what we have done to
their leaders and their engines of war!" Flane rasped.

He hit Harth across the chest with the back of his hand.

"Man, man! You bear weapons. Do you know how to use them?"

Harth nodded sullenly, watching the Darksiders come nearer and nearer.
He showed his teeth in a mirthless grin.

"They think us easy meat," Harth said softly. His eyes began to burn.

"We could find a cave somewhere in those mountains," Flane went on,
his eyes keen on Harth's face. "We could make a stand there. It could
be so costly that the Darksiders might leave us, so as not to miss the
_mekniks_."

Harth turned to him with a chuckle. "You are a sly dog, Flane. You
persuade a man that his death is a marvelous thing. Ah, well. You may
be right. We'll do as you say, as usual. I see no other course."

Flane leaped from the cabin, sped along the tilting deck on the
starboard side, half-running on the wall of the cabin. He shouted the
men out of their battle stations, swept them up in the whirl of his own
enthusiasm.

"Overboard with everything movable! Heave it over. Retain only food
and weapons. Everything else goes. We've got to get the ship up that
mountain!"

Aevlyn ran to him, to be near him, and to spur on the men with her
presence. She put soft white hands to lamps and cushions, carrying them
to the rail and casting them. Chairs and tables were borne by the men
who formed quick-moving lines at Flane's directions. Soon the cabins
lay stripped and bare, except for the men who clustered in them,
polishing and sharpening swords and lances.

Flane went with Aevlyn to the prow of the magniship, hearing Harth
bellow orders to the helmsman.

Inch by inch the crippled vessel went up. Scraping past the tops of
trees, grating its keel on a jagged lip of rock, it mounted steadily.
The trees fell away below, yielding place to massive rocks that lay
piled and scattered on one another like sleeping kittens. Like giants
slain and scattered in battle lay the boulders.

"There!" shouted Flane, pointing.

       *       *       *       *       *

A bare space towered above the tossed rocks, flat on top and jagged
at the sides. A steep path rose sharply to the level of the empty
mesa, up which three men could walk abreast. It was the only means of
entrance to the fortress of stone, for behind it, as though sheared
by a gigantic sword, the cliff was cut away. Behind the mesa dropping
thousands of feet straight down, a gorge was sliced into the mountain.

"We could hold that mesa forever," Flane grinned, "given enough food
and water. Only three men can come at us at once. There is no way of
retreat, except by falling to our deaths in the gorge."

Even Harth grunted, "It isn't so bad. A man could die a good death
there, with his weapons red with his enemy's blood. As we all probably
will."

Flane sighed, "If only we could get word to the Klarnva in Moornal and
Yeelya! Then our stand here would be worth while. It would give the
cities time to unite, to put an army in the field."

Aevlyn was buckling on a cape fitted with cabin-mail at breast and
shoulder. She said suddenly, "One man might make Moornal in the
magniship. He could spread word."

"You!" said Flane and Harth in one breath, but Aevlyn came close to
Flane and shook her red mop of hair.

"No. I stay with Flane. I will never be separated from him again. Send
another. I will not go."

Flane cajoled and begged and finally commanded, but Aevlyn bubbled
laughter between her full red lips, and patted his hands. Her fiery
hair swirled as she shook her head, brown eyes a-dance.

"I stay with you, Flane, come death or life! Now stop, for time grows
short. Pick another who knows the ship and let him go."

Harth and Flane shrugged at each other and selected a man whose arm
had been broken by a catapult stone. They gave him food and drink, and
fastened him to the helm of the ship, but his weapons they took from
him. He could not use them, and there were men who would be desperately
in need of extra weapons soon.

"All Klarn rides your ship," Flane told him. "Summon the men of Yeelya,
too. You will not be in time to rescue us, but you may bring the threat
of the Darksiders to a sorry finish."

One after the other they dropped from the ship as it skimmed the mesa.
Swords in one hand and violet-gun in the other, Flane landed cat-like
and was up, racing toward the sloping adit to the level rock. A few of
the Darksiders could be seen in the distance, coming up over a ridge,
pointing lances toward them, shouting.

Aevlyn stood with hands clasped to her breasts, staring after the
drifting ship as it dipped into the gorge. It bounced a little as an
air current caught at it, then slipped along the channel between the
cliffs that an ancient river had eaten away in the solid rock.

"May the All-High have him ever in His sight," she whispered.

An arrow whined past her. She turned, seeing Flane at the approach to
the mesa, deflecting them, one after another, with the glittering sword
in his hand. Now the Darksiders were howling up the slope, racing on
foot, leaping from _megathon_ to stone, waving swords and axes.

Flane met them, grinning. His steel slipped and slithered past their
guards, drinking deep in chests and thighs.

The leading Darksiders would have fallen back, but now the horde was on
them, and a swirling maelstrom of battle-maddened men drove in low for
the kill. Only three of them could come at once up that slope, but they
came on in a steady wave that climbed over the bodies of the fallen,
throwing spears, slashing down and upwards with sword and battle-axe.

Flane fought until the breath whistled in his throat, until his arms
were scarred with wounds, and ran red blood. Someone yanked on him,
pulled him from the press, and he stood sobbing for air as Aevlyn
dabbed a dry cloth at his cuts. When she offered him white wine in a
copper flagon, he drank deep; with the back of his hand he dried his
mouth and grinned at her.

"It will be night presently," she whispered. "Then the men will have a
rest."

"So soon?" questioned Flane blankly, looking at the sun.

"You fought for hours there," Aevlyn smiled, kneeling to ease a dying
man's pains. "Some grumbled that you sought all the glory for yourself."

Flane chuckled, looking out at the tribes that hemmed them in, building
camps and fires, and erecting _kaatra_-hide tents. He whispered
savagely, "Glory enough for all at this fight." He shook his head, and
his green eyes narrowed. "There are many of them," he said slowly. "Too
many."

He lifted the violet-gun and carried it to a jagged edge of rock;
rested it in a crotch of stone, leaning cheek against the wooden stock.
He smiled mirthlessly to himself, thinking: I will reduce some of that
number, now. His finger pressed the button of the gun and a lavender
flame swept from the muzzle toward the assembled horde. Bolt after
bolt he fired, carefully, until the ullulating wail of the stricken
Darksiders reverberated from the cliffs.

The violet-gun clicked and made odd sounds.

       *       *       *       *       *

Flane stared at it, wondering. The thought that it might need fuel to
work never occurred to him. He looked on the gun as supernatural, and
anything as mundane as ammunition for it was as foreign to his mind as
the stars.

There might be one more blast left, he reasoned, and gave it to Aevlyn.

It was dark now, and the three moons of Klarn swam slowly into the sky.
Red fires dotted the stone plateau before the mesa, where Darksiders
squatted or sat, eating. On the mesa, men hastily bolted food and ran
back to the entrance, drying their weapons. There was no concerted
night attack; there was worse, for soon the arrows began to arch among
them. Biting into leg and arm and chest, at random, the steel-tipped
shafts scattered the men, which sword and axe could not do. Soon they
were all huddled behind the uplifting rocks at the mesa-edge, where the
shafts could not follow.

A surprise attack caught a faceful of defending blades, and broke away,
as a wave from the seawall.

Dawn found the men of Moornal bloody and weary, but the hot sunlight
drove new strength into hack-weary arms and they met each new attack
with cries of scorn and defiance. Flane was everywhere: standing for
long hours in the pass, his sword singing; encouraging his men by the
magical slaughter of his blade, slapping them on backs, encouraging,
cajoling, commanding....

All day and all night they made their stand. Baked by the day and
frozen by the night, they grew gaunt and haggard, as lean as hunting
wolves, and as dangerous. Men did not talk on the mesa now. They lifted
lips in silent snarls. They cast dark glances from under lowering
brows. Their hands grew used to the hilt of sword and the haft of
lance. Some could scarcely unbend their fingers long enough to eat.

Of the lot, Flane looked most wolfish. His black hair drooped untended,
loose on his shoulders. His uniform was cut and torn, disclosing
blooded skin, brown flesh ripped by axe and sword-edge. But his muscles
still rolled as before, and the blade in his hand was a portal to
beyond for any who came face to point with it.

Aevlyn slept close to him during the night, tending the wounds received
during the day. Under hot sunlight she was always at his call, with
water and with cheer, for the men who were most in need of either.

On the next day, the Darksiders withdrew in order, going down the ramp
and assembling on the flat plateau. Flane leaned on his sword and
stared out over their heads, at a horseman who spurred his mount across
the tumbled rocks, lifting him in a jump.

"A _meknik_," Flane rasped, spitting. "Now the All-High must indeed be
smiling, for the fates could have no worse in store for us. They have
come to join the Darksiders."

A man, naked to the waist and bearing a broken lance in his hand as a
stabbing spear, laughed gutturally, "Good! I've wanted to take a few
of them with me when I went."

Flane smiled mirthlessly, "You'll have your wish, if the water holds
out."

He looked around, biting his lips. The axes and swords and arrows of
the Darksiders had been busy. Of the original forty who dropped to the
mesa, there were but six who stood erect; and of them, one was a woman.
Harth lay shorn from shoulder to navel on the rocks below. He had met
his hero's death. All of them were wounded. Even Aevlyn had a red rag
wrapped about an arm. Flane breathed harshly.

They had made a stand, they had!

_Aie!_ Let the harpers tell of this battle!

       *       *       *       *       *

Flane glanced at his blade. It was chined and nicked, and hung by a
needle of steel to the hilt. Laughing shortly, he tapped it against a
lip of rock and watched it drop onto the stones below. He went and drew
the blue-hilted sword from the ornate scabbard and shook it in the air.

"By the dead hand that held you, you'll quench your thirst this day,
you blue beauty!" he howled.

The _mekniks_ were pouring onto the rocky plain now, and the Darksiders
greeted them with cries of delight. Beside Flane, Aevlyn said bitterly,
"Thousands more against us!"

Flane laughed, "The odds even, darling!"

He rested on his blade, watching the big blonde Darksider who led most
of the attacks with a gnarled club in his hand, walk toward them. Two
_mekniks_ paced at his side.

"Surrender, Flane of Klarn," the blonde said. "We offer safe conduct to
you all."

Flane laughed in his face.

"The _mekniks_ would never let me live, Darksider," he replied. "Better
a death in the open air than a dagger under the ribs on a dark night
while I sleep."

He saw the _mekniks_ scowl at him. The Darksider said, "We will come
and take you!"

"Then come, club-swinger! My sword whispers to me that it wants to look
beneath your skin."

The club-bearer waved an arm, and archers trotted forward, to form a
circle around him. The Darksider waved at the mesa, crying, "Sweep
that spot for me. The time for play has ended!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Flane went white. This was what he dreaded--a flight of war-arrows to
keep the passage clear while the Darksiders attacked. In the press of
battle the archers could not fire, for their arrows would fell their
own men as well as defenders. But with an arrow storm to clear the way,
and then an attack in force--

"Fall back!" he shouted.

The arrows whistled, coming at them. Some broke against rock uprights,
some dropped and skidded along the mesa floor. One or two found flesh
and dead men fell, to fight no more.

Flane whispered, "Four left. Four and Aevlyn."

With his red left arm, he shoved her behind him, blue-hilted sword
deflecting an arrow. Slowly he backed against the sheer gorge. A man
dropped at his feet, the arrow still humming in his back. Another man,
caught by a thrown spear, slipped over the edge of the gorge, and
plunged downward, screaming.

Flane and the man standing beside him looked at each other and chuckled
grimly.

"It was a good fight, Flane."

"We stood them off two days and a night," agreed Flane. "They'll put us
in their legends, the Darksiders will. They like brave men."

The man laughed, "As a ghost I'll come to their winter campfires and
listen to their bards extolling us. It will be a reward, in a way."

Club in hand, the blonde Darksider was leaping toward them, a line of
axemen and archers at his back. Before them the Darksiders saw two men,
and a girl with hair the color of a sunset. In her white hands she held
the violet-gun. The two men were bloody and fierce, unshaven, in rags.
Swords glimmered in their hands as they stood waiting. They had fought
well, but the time for play was over.

"Take them," cried the club-bearer.

But Flane astounded them by coming in himself, bent low, right arm up
and swinging. His blade came and went, and where it had been, the knees
of a dying man buckled. Uniform in tatters, brown skin dyed red, he was
a miracle of speed and sureness--and slaughter.

Behind him Aevlyn watched, dangerous as a tigress whose kittens are
threatened. The violet-gun came up, covering Flane's back.

Men drove in for that unprotected back, daggers lifted. The violet-gun
belched once, and then it died. But that once was enough. The lavender
fire sizzled and flared, and it ate up the men and their weapons. But
Flane had already whirled, and his sword stabbed out, toward the purple
flame.

The blade swam in the amethyst mist; glowed brightly, shimmering with
opalescent hues. With staring eyes, Flane watched the steel dissipate
into drifting powder.

He held half a sword in his hand.

A cry of alarm broke from the lips of the Darksiders. They eyed the
half-blade, mouths open in awe. From guard and pommel it coruscated
blazing whiteness as the sun caught at the seven globes inside the blue
stuff. Like suns those points of whiteness glittered ... _like stars_!

"The prophecy!" howled the Darksiders.

"He bears the stars in his hand!"

"He holds the key to the Machine!"

The blonde Darksider stared at him, frowning. He let the club fall
until its knotted end hit the stone.

"Is it true, Flane of Klarn?" he whispered. "Is that sword the key to
the Machine, as the prophecy has said?"

Flane looked at the sword, at the blue hilt with its blazing pinpricks
of light, at the diamond-shaped blade that was half a blade, now--

It was the truth!

The diamond blade was key to the Machine! Fool, fool, not to have
guessed! Its diamond shape, and the star-formed guard, and the dead
body beneath the spaceship: the Keeper, of course! The stars in the
hilt for the prophecy, and the blade for the key!

"Yes," he cried hoarsely, "oh, All-Highest, yes!"

The blonde Darksider dropped the club and knelt before Flane, lowering
his head. A great rustling was heard, as the other Darksiders knelt
with him. Only the _mekniks_ drew aside, muttering.

"You are him for whom the Darksiders have prayed, year in and year
out," he said. "You are the saviour who is to come, to unite Darksider
and Klarnvan. You bear the key!"

Flane heard Aevlyn sobbing behind him, as he lifted the sword and
stared at it. He felt like weeping, too. For the diamond-shaped blade
was only half a blade, now. The violet fire had eaten it up. The key to
the Machine was in his hand at last, but it was a ruined key!

The Darksider was bowing and saying, "I swear fealty to the bearer of
the sun-starred sword, for he shall be my Keeper."

Behind him the others roared out the ancient oath, their voices lifting
triumphantly.

"By the grip that plunges home the blade, by the hand that is turned
away to ward off evil, by the voice of the Machine, I swear my oath
and pledge my faith. I am obedient. I am true. I am his who bears the
sword!"

The rolling echo of the oath was swept into silence, but still Flane
stared at the broken sword in his hand.

A ruined key!

_There was no hope, now!_

Flane stood with legs apart and flung his head to the blue sky and
howled his laughter like a madman, until froth grew in the corners of
his mouth, and tears rolled down his cheeks....


                                  IV

The sun lay like a crimson ball on the horizon. Flooded with its red
rays were the waving grass fields, and the riders of the _megathons_
that sped across them. Hooves rose and fell, as the stallions' heads
stretched forward, eager for the run.

Flane and Aevlyn rode side by side. There were bandages still on their
arms, on Flane's chest and thigh. Behind them thundered Besl, the
blonde Darksider, and a _dular_ from Moornal.

The cool wind in his face made Flane grin; made him stare, in sheer
gladness at being alive, at the grassy plain, the swollen, crimson sun,
the distant blue mountains.

He had not thought to be alive today.

There had been confusion on the mesa after he had laughed. The
_mekniks_ were all for throwing him into the gorge, but the Darksiders
saw in him the savior of their prophecy, and would not have him touched.

"This is the key to the Machine," Flane informed them, showing them the
ruined blade. "The blade is the key."

"The blade is gone," growled a sullen _meknik_.

"Not all of it. Only the foible of the blade. The forte remains. It may
be sufficient to turn the lock. It is worth a try. Speak out--do I go
to Klarn with a safe conduct, or do you try throwing me in the gorge?"

The giant blonde came to Flane's side and lifted his club.

"I, Besl, promise safe conduct for the Keeper," he roared, looking at
the _mekniks_ with sullen eye, "and any who interferes shall be treated
as enemies."

As sullenly, the _mekniks_ agreed. They could not do otherwise, for
without the Darksiders, they were no match for the _dulars_ of Klarn.

One of them said, "But we cannot vouchsafe a passage through the city
itself. Other _mekniks_ might not agree with us."

"I'll risk that," snapped Flane. "I have gone through them once. I can
do it again."

Later, when they were alone, Flane said to Aevlyn, "It is but a forlorn
hope. When the stem of a key is gone, the lock will not open. And the
foible of this blade is part of the key, too. And it is powder on the
rocks."

"Then why go to Klarn at all?" sighed Aevlyn, out of the weariness of
her spirit, tired of seeing men die and blood run red.

"Because there is still a chance. A slim one, true. But--a chance!"

Her eyes were dark and worshipping, staring up at his grim face. She
whispered, "Brood of the space-wanderers! You never quit, do you,
Flane? You always keep on, even after you've failed!"

"My stubbornness hasn't hurt us yet. I wouldn't give up on the desert,
and thus I won the sword, and you. I kept Harth fighting, and we've
discovered that the sword is a key to the Machine! Now--well, what the
All-High can see in His cave, He shall see!"

The Darksiders provided them with swift, tireless _megathons_. Flane
missed Saarl, but Saarl was in Moornal now, if the magniship got back.
The dun mount he straddled was a good beast. When they were in the
saddle, Besl swung onto a black stallion beside them.

"I go as a watchdog, Flane of Klarn. If you fail, I carry word to the
Darksiders, to bring fire and steel through the cities of the Klarnva."

"Good enough," Flane grunted, but Aevlyn pressed his hand with hers,
bowing her head, biting her lips until a drop of blood welled.

They crossed the mountain trails, and headed out over the plains. The
great sand-stretches were dotted by eremophytic plants that lifted
thorny branches toward a clear sky. It was a land of peace, where
cactus dwelt with mesquite, and the riotous reds and yellows of the
wildflowers splashed the desert with colour. Flane wondered whether
this peace would soon be shattered by the flaming red clamour of war.

His thought almost came to reality on the third day. At noon the riders
sighted a vast host moving toward them from the west. Flane stood
in his stirrups, staring beneath a palm. Then Aevlyn saw the maroon
pennons fluttering from glittering lancetops and cried, "They come from
Moornal!"

There were golden swans among the maroon banners. She said again, "The
men of Yeelya. Truly, the Klarnva are gathered to fight it out with the
Darksiders."

A cluster of horsemen broke from the array and galloped toward them.
Flane and Aevlyn and Besl met them with palms extended, although the
warriors had long since recognized the fiery red hair of the girl. At
Besl they shot dark glances, and some of them fingered the hafts of
their swords.

Flane told his story, swiftly. The deputation from Moornal and Yeelya
drew away; whispered among themselves with many gestures, once in a
while glancing toward Flane and the half-sword that hung at his side.

An old man with hair the color of mountain snow broke from their group
and came to Flane.

"We will abide by the trial of the sword," he said simply. "If the
Machine works, then we will gladly live in peace with the Darksiders
and the _mekniks_ of Klarn. Aye, we will help establish you as Keeper
of the Machine, Flane of Klarn, that all may share its benefits."

Besl grunted his surprise, "I never thought to hear a man of Moornal
speak words like that."

The warrior smiled grimly, "I am an old man. When I remember how life
was in my youth," he sighed, "I would be friend of any who helped to
bring it back."

The old man flung up an arm to his retainer and wheeled his horse
beside Flane's stallion. He explained, "I go as Besl does. To bring my
people the word. _War--or peace._"

       *       *       *       *       *

They rode for many days, across the grasslands and into the desert,
skirting that until they came to an ancient rock road.

And how they galloped into a red sunset, knowing that before the three
moons rose, they would see the spires of Klarn in the distance. Within
an hour they drew rein; clustered together, silent.

Sitting on their saddles on a hill, they all looked at the black towers
of Klarn crouching below them, at the domed temple, the flat-roofed
houses. The red Dragon Gate seemed covered with blood in the last rays
of the sun.

"We must go unseen into that city," Flane said. "And, as unseen, find
the temple of the Machine. There will be guards at the Dragon Gate.
Leave them to me."

The beacon lights in the dragons' mouths roared gustily, glared scarlet
in the blue darkness where Flane came out of it with a naked dagger in
his hand. His rush toppled both guards. Before their writhing mouths
could make a sound, his right arm lifted, drove downward twice with
slim steel blade.

He straddled the still forms, curving an arm at the others who slipped
from saddle to earth and came toward him.

"We must be swift," Flane said. "The _mekniks_ don't know of the truce
their kind have made. Do not be seen or we'll never reach the temple."

Through side streets and alleyways Flane led them. Where shadows
bulked black and grim, their running forms made odd silhouettes.
Between two columns, they paused to stare at the Temple. It loomed
gigantic in the blackness. Besl grunted softly, "I've never seen
anything like it!" Then they were going across the quadrangle, stooping
low, eyes peering left and right.

The sentry whirled as Flane came for him, but he whirled too slow. A
brawny forearm locked about his throat, and he died with steel in his
chest.

Flane drove into the temple, across its tiled floor.

He came to a stop before the Machine.

The others came softly forward. They stood a little behind him, staring
up at the metal bulk, whose levers and dials shone with reflected light
from the three moons swirling across the skies.

Aevlyn sobbed wearily. Besl whispered prayers to his Darkside gods. The
old warrior whispered, "I have not looked on the glory of Klarn for
many years, but it seems only as yesterday that I saw and heard the
Keeper explaining its function. It works by radiation, you know. The
globes filled with whitish powder store up sun energy, via the yellow
prism in the desert. Solar energy, he called it. The Machine, when it
works, picks up that energy and sends it all over Klarn in bands of
power that drives all engines.

"It heats our cities. It lights our lights. It fires our guns. It even
feeds us by helping to raise food. At least--it used to."

Flane tried not to think of the utter weariness in the old man's voice
as he stepped forward. With his right hand he drew out the ruined
sword, stared down at it; ran a fingertip along the shattered blade.
The old man voiced the weariness of all the Klarn.

If the machine failed to work--

Flane did not like to think of that.

He stepped forward, lifting the blade.

He thrust it home, into the diamond-shaped opening. The blade clicked
in, fitting perfectly.

_And nothing happened._

The Machine was truly dead above them. Aevlyn sobbed. She came to stand
with him, pressing her arm shoulder to his in comfort as he leaned
against the cold metal side of the Machine, hammering his fist against
it until the knuckles bled.

Behind them Besl sighed, "Now that is too bad. I shall hate to order
the _kaatra_-tail banners forward, but I have no choice."

Flane lifted his hand, looked down at the torn flesh, at the dark blood
staining his flesh. Aevlyn was whispering to him but he did not hear.
He was deaf to everything, at that moment.

A hand patted his arm sadly, and then the old man from Moornal turned
on his heel and went out of the Temple, bowed and broken. With him
went Besl. In the quadrangle before the Temple they came to a stop and
stared at each other. The big Darksider saw tears furrowing the cheeks
of the old man.

"I had thought to see a new world, Besl. The old world come to life
again. Gaiety and laughter, play and sunshine. I thought Flane was the
one the prophecy told of, with his foreign blood and his blue sword. I
would have staked my neck on it."

"Yes," grunted Besl. "So too would I."

"War," groaned the old man. "There will be nothing left of Klarn.
Nothing, except a few wandering tribes. The city-states will go.
Darksider and Klarnvan will eat each other up."

Besl nodded glumly.

Heavily they strode to the red Dragon Gate. Swinging into their
saddles, they swung their horses' heads around, and cantered into the
night.

       *       *       *       *       *

From the Temple balcony that overlooked the city, Flane and Aevlyn
watched them. Like toys they seemed, rider and mount blending motion to
infinite grace. They saw Besl and the old man lift their right arms,
salute; saw them take separate paths as they rode on.

"Each goes to summon his people to war," Flane said heavily.

Aevlyn leaned her cheek against his bare, scarred arm.

"Failure!" Flane rasped harshly, with a bitter laugh. "I've failed all
right. Now will there be a war, and nothing but war. The _dulars_ of
Klarn and Moornal and Yeelya against the Darksiders and the _mekniks_.
Few will survive."

Aevlyn turned him slowly, traced the lines of his cheeks and mouth with
quivering fingertips. Two tears glistened beneath her lashes as she
struggled to smile.

"We may still make a new world," she whispered. "It is not too late."

"When those riders reach their armies, a wave of steel and fire will
rise over Klarn."

Aevlyn rubbed her face against his throat. She whispered, "I love you,
Flane. Together we may bring order out of chaos. Somehow. You are still
my Keeper."

"Listen, darling," she went on, raising her glowing face to his. "I
swear fealty to the bearer of the sun-starred sword, for he shall be my
Keeper. By the grip that plunges home the blade, by the hand that is
turned away, by the--"

She broke off alarmed.

Her brown eyes sought Flane's face, read it--saw hope struggling to
rise through bitterness. His green eyes danced. His lips grew slack. He
hugged her to him; kissed lips, and cheeks and chin.

"That's it! That's _it_!" he shouted.

He leaped for the Temple interior, and Aevlyn had to run to keep up
with him. Half-laughing and half-crying, she sobbed, "What is it,
Flane?"

"The way the sword goes home! I was a fool not to have realized it."

"You're going to try the Machine again, with the sword? But it doesn't
work! You saw that."

Flane laughed, "No harm to try once more, is there?" He came before the
Machine and picked up the sword where he had dropped it in his despair.
To the star-friezes in the wall he came and held out the sword to
Aevlyn.

"In holding the hilt of a sword in combat, you usually grasp it with
the ends of the fingers toward you, as in a parry in _tierce_. Now
suppose I turn the hand away, like this, so that the fingertips are
away from me, and the back of my hand is toward me. By the grip that
plunges home the blade, by the hand that is _turned away_--"

With the back of his hand toward him, Flane slammed in the sword.

The five tiny stars imbedded in the star-guard began to glow weirdly in
their blue transparent envelope. Dully they shone at first, then grew
more brilliant until they blazed. Like tiny suns they twinkled, fitted
over the star-shaped frieze in the wall of the Machine. Flane stared at
them.

He knew, suddenly, and laughed aloud.

"It isn't the blade that does it," he cried in his delight. "There
is no key--not a key such as we know. The Machine operates via those
lights in the star-shaped guard of the sword, Aevlyn. They must be bits
of that white powder stored in the prism. They are solar energy! Look
how they shine in the Machine!"

They shimmered magically inside the blue stuff, glowing and pulsating
with white fire.

Aevlyn cried out, a hand lifted, pointing. The lights were going on,
all over Klarn.

One by one they came into being, glimmering fitfully as long-unused
filaments surged with flooded power. Whitely they shone, then grew
bright and still brighter. A pale halo of reflection lifted from street
and house and rooftop, bathing the city in its dim aura.

From the houses came the cries and screams of men and women. The
screams deepened, grew into a roar, a bellow of sheer, unbelievable
joy, of incredulous happiness. Flane and Aevlyn heard the triumphal
peal of it, the hope become reality in its tones. They shivered in
delight, laughing.

Flane drew her, an arm about her lissome waist, out with him onto the
balcony. Beneath them the city was aflame with brilliance.

Aevlyn whispered, "You turned another failure into your biggest
success, Flane. You made the Machine work. If you hadn't--" she
shuddered and crept closer in his arms. Her voice was dreamy as she
went on, "Now your word will be law on all Klarn. The Darksiders under
Besl will see to that. You are their champion. The _dulars_ will be so
happy to have their lights and heat again that they will acknowledge
you, too. And the _mekniks_--well, they are heavily outnumbered, and
when they see what the machine will do for them, they'll agree. Their
power will fade as night when the lights went on."

Dawn was breaking all over Klarn.



*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Sword of the Seven Suns" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home