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´╗┐Title: Dark Destiny
Author: Swain, Dwight V.
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 "Dark Destiny" ***

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                             DARK DESTINY

                          By DWIGHT V. SWAIN

               The Blue Warrior had journeyed far across
            the void in his search for power; but he found
            death along with it--in the eyes of a goddess!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
                              March 1952
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


_Naked, still as death, the veiled woman-goddess men called Xaymar
rested on a gold-draped dais within the great, glowing, crystal globe._

_Xaymar, queen of storms. Ruler of rain and wind and lightning,
empress of all the surging forces that spread their tumult across the
sky. Sainted monster, evil savior. Old as time, and young as folly.
Born of woman, damned of men, wise with dark wisdom gone astray._

_Xaymar, passionate goddess. A word, a myth, a fading picture in
forgotten books. A phantasm rising out of these ghostly, gutted cities,
these ruins dead a thousand years._

_Yet here she lay in this deep-sunk vault, nude save for the short,
jeweled veil that masked the top half of her face. Her body still
gleamed like a supple ivory statue, a vision of sleek, ripe-curved
perfection. Rippling waves of jet-black hair framed the pale, veiled
oval of her face in a darkly radiant nimbus. A faint rose glow touched
lips and breasts. It seemed almost as if she could have been sleeping
here mere hours only, instead of eons; as if she were still alive and
vibrant ... all woman; all terrible, voluptuous promise...._

       *       *       *       *       *

The _Shamon_ priest was bent with age, his face a deep-seamed net
of wrinkles. The short cloak of his order, vivid with a hundred
contrasting shades of blue, covered his thin shoulders, and a _toloid_
tablet emblazoned with a stylized representation of a lightning bolt,
Xaymar's emblem, hung suspended over his bony chest.

He said: "I want you to kill a woman."

Across the table, the blue warrior called Haral sat very still. He did
not speak.

The old _Shamon_ hurried on: "They say the same, all those to whom I've
spoken--that you alone, of all the warriors here on Ulna, would dare
to go against the raider Sark. The rest are brave until they hear his
name; then, quickly, they sing another song. But you--" He hesitated,
fumbling, and peered uncertainly at Haral out of rheumy, fading eyes.
"Tell me, blue one, is it true that you went alone to Eros and slew the
tyrant lord Querroon because he'd dared to put a price upon your head?
And that then you defied the Federation to try to hang you, and slashed
your way through the whole Federation fleet with your single ship?"

"It's true."

"You see--?" the oldster cried in quavering triumph. "You see it,
_Sha_ Haral? You are a warrior worthy of the name! In you there's iron
instead of meal. That is why I come to you to kill this woman--"

"A woman--?" Haral repeated dully. He swirled the fiery _kabat_ in his
glass. "Why should I kill a woman?"

"Because I'll pay you well," the _Shamon_ priest croaked eagerly. Coins
clinked onto the table. "Here, look! Two hundred _samori_, _Sha_ Haral!
So much for such a simple task--enough to send you out again from Ulna,
to put you once more on the road to wealth and power, ambition...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Broodingly, Haral stared down into the _kabat's_ green, too-potent
depths. Of a sudden he was acutely conscious of the smoke and stench
and jarring sound that eddied through the shadows of this filthy,
frowsy deadfall that passed as a cafe. '_Wealth and power, ambition?_'
He laughed aloud, knowing as he did it that his tongue had grown too
thick with _kabat_. This was the road down which ambition led--the road
to stinking drinking dives, and dreary nights and drearier days on an
outlaw world called Ulna. The road to blood and valor, a warrior's
name--and proposals of woman-murder.

Ambition? Two hundred _samori_-worth of ambition! Bitterly, he laughed
again, deep in his throat. There were other, better things to call it:
greed; thirst for blood; a cursed, insatiate lust for power.

The old priest gripped his arm. "Three hundred, then! Three hundred
_samori_, _Sha_ Haral!"

Somberly, the blue man stared off into the crowd and smoke and shadows.
It dawned on him that already new faces had sifted in; new forms, all
arrogance and swagger.

The forms and faces of _Gar_ Sark's raiders.

"Three hundred _samori_? Three hundred--to challenge _Gar_ Sark and all
his crew, as well as murder?" He smiled a thin, bleak, mirthless smile
and shook his head. "No, old man. What you want is a madman, not a
warrior."

"Four hundred--four hundred _samori_ for a single blow!" In his
eagerness the priest was slavering. "No? Five, then, _Sha_ Haral! Five
hundred, all for you. I have no more."

For the first time, Haral looked full at the _Shamon_. "Why do you want
her dead?" he challenged. He brought his fist down with a heavy thud
upon the table. "Why? That's what I want to know! Who is she? What has
she done that calls for killing?"

"Why--?" Sweat came to the ancient's face. Uneasily, he shifted.
"She--she--Sark is a monster, and his men have seized her for
tomorrow's games in the arena. She'll die in agony at their hands. I--I
cannot bring myself to let her suffer--"

"So you'd hire me to kill her instead?" Haral laughed harshly. "I hear
your words, old man--"

"My name is Namboina."

"--Namboina, I hear your words. But I'll rot on your _vidal_ planetoid
before I believe them. Too many other _Shamon_ have died on Ulna for
you to worry about one more." He drained his glass and slammed it down.
"No. Find someone else to do your killing. I like to know the facts
before I murder."

       *       *       *       *       *

The sweat stood out on the priest's forehead in great beads now. With
shaking fingers, he wiped it away. "I--I see I must tell you all,
_Sha_ Haral. The--the woman is Kyla, a virgin priestess to our goddess
Xaymar. Her life, her body, are consecrated to the goddess. She is not
for mortal men. But Sark and his raiders care nothing for our Xaymar.
In their blood-lust and madness they would defile even her priestess,
Kyla. But it cannot be! Better that Kyla die--" He broke off, stared at
Haral. "I, Namboina, am high priest to Xaymar. It is my duty to save
Kyla from shame, our goddess from defilement--"

Haral said: "You lie in your teeth, Namboina! I've heard enough of
your thrice-plagued Xaymar to know that she's called the passionate
goddess--and her priestesses pattern themselves upon her! If there's a
virgin still among them, it's news to the raider fleets that comb these
warrens in search of women."

"No, no--! Not Kyla!" The _Shamon's_ loose mouth worked. His face was a
mask of desperation. "She is a votary, consecrated. She is not as the
others--"

Haral shoved back his chair; surged to his feet. "I've had enough
of your lies, old man!" he slashed. "Sing someone else your song of
murder!"

Namboina's quavering voice rose, thin with fury: "A curse on you,
alien! A curse on all your outland breed that have made a cesspool out
of Ulna--"

But now a new voice cut him short, thundering through the shadows:
"This is the one we want! The old one, the priest they call Namboina!"

Haral spun about.

A dozen fighting men from Sark's raider crews were coming towards him
and Namboina. Spread in a menacing arc, weapons out and ready, they
closed in like cold-eyed, deadly shadows.

Haral fell back a step, till he stood with his back against the wall.
Big-eyed with fear, Namboina slumped in his seat, as if trying to hide
behind the table.

It came to Haral that a hush had fallen over the _kabat_ dive. The
raucous voices had faded into silence. The rattle of glasses was
suddenly stilled.

Then a glowering Martian who seemed to be in charge of the raider gang
snapped orders: "Yes. This is the one. Bring him along!"

A Thorian's tentacle lashed out to grip Namboina and drag him bodily
from his chair.

Now a _Pervod_ jerked his scaly head towards Haral. "What of this one
here? They were together."

The Martian pivoted for a brief, disdainful glance at the blue man.
"That _kabat_-soaked scum?" And then: "But bring him, too. We'll take
no chances."

Almost as if in intentional added insult, he turned away and sheathed
his ray-gun.

       *       *       *       *       *

A hot, tempestuous tide of anger swirled up within the warrior. But he
did not move; he did not speak.

A second Martian caught his arm. "Come along, you _zanat_, before we
stave in your ugly head!"

For an instant, in spite of himself, Haral's arm went rigid. Then,
thin-lipped, he sucked in air, and fell in beside the quaking, shaking
priest.

One of the raiders laughed contemptuously and shoved the pair of them
ahead still faster.

They reached the narrow doorway that led out to the street. Then, while
their prisoners paused, two of the raiders stepped outside.

A knot of tension drew tight in the pit of Haral's stomach. He let his
shoulders slump, and slouched, half-turning.

Namboina stumbled on through the door.

A _Pervod_ pushed the blue man forward.

With studied care, Haral, too, stumbled. He caught the handle of the
open door as if to keep himself from falling.

Then, like lightning, he was turning, kicking. The _Pervod_ crashed
backward with a howl of anguish.

Haral leaped through the doorway, out into the street, slamming the
heavy portal shut behind him. He caught a glimpse of the two crewmen
there--startled, whirling.

But Namboina was between Haral and the raiders. Savagely, the blue man
threw himself against the priest and sent him crashing into the nearest
crewman.

The second of the raiders was a one-eyed, barrel-chested _Malya_. He
leaped back, cat-fast, whipping up his ray-gun.

But Haral dived in beneath its shaft. His shoulder drove deep into the
_Malya's_ midriff, hammering the dark raider down. Clutching for the
ray-gun, he tore it out of the other's hand.

In the same instant, he heard Namboina cry out in panic.

By instinct, pure and simple, he dropped flat on his belly. By
instinct, too, he fired the ray-gun--straight into the face of the
second raider, free now and charging down upon him.

The raider dropped dead in his tracks.

Haral pivoted, just as the door to the _kabat_-dive jerked open. Again
he triggered the weapon.

The charge caught the Martian in charge of the party square in the
belly. The others, behind him, sprang back inside, out of the way.

       *       *       *       *       *

The narrow street echoed with Haral's wild, reckless laughter. Lurching
to his feet, he stood there swaying for a moment, looking this way and
that for old Namboina.

But the _Shamon_ had disappeared as if by magic, and from within the
_kabat-dive_ came sounds that spoke of preparations for another sally.

Whirling. Haral raced full-tilt for the nearest alley.

When he stopped again, he was half a mile and a hundred worlds
away, lost in the tangled maze of passageways that wound through the
crumbling heart of the native town. His legs were shaking, his lungs
afire, and the _kabat_-sickness swirled through him in agonizing,
nauseous waves. Choking and retching, he slumped exhausted in a murky
entryway.

Then that, too, passed, and he lay silent and unmoving in the darkness.
But now another sickness was upon him, the sickness that led him to
seek surcease in _kabat_; the sickness that came with the thoughts he
could not push out of his brain.

Where would it end, this madness that ever drove him on? What prize
lay in power, that he must waste his life away searching, groping,
striving for it? Why could he not live and love and die like other men,
unplagued by the fierce surge of insane ambition that still pursued
him--even here, even now?

_Even here, even now._ That was the acid that gnawed his vitals. What
had it brought him, all his striving? He'd carved a crimson course
across half a solar system, till that very system itself disowned him.
He'd drenched the warrior worlds in blood to no avail.

And the road ended here.

Was this, then, his destiny--to hide here, rotting, beyond the reach of
the Federation, till at last the _kabat_ took its toll? Must he sink
lower and then still lower into the slime of this ugly outlaw world of
Ulna, harassed at will by such scum as Sark?

But at least, there'd be no woman-murder. Not yet; not for a while.
Even five hundred _samori_ could not drag him down that far.

A new spasm of fury shook him, and he cursed Namboina aloud with the
vilest epithets a dozen tongues could offer.

But the inner sickness still lingered with him. Bitterly, he stumbled
to his feet, wondering in the same instant what had led the _Shamon_
priest to lie--why he had really sought to have the woman called Kyla
killed.

It was then he felt the weight in his side pocket.

Dully, he fumbled to find what it might be; then, puzzled, pulled it
out into the open.

But it was only a bag ... a worn, somehow familiar bag.

A bag heavy with five hundred glittering _samori_....



                              CHAPTER II


He rode out at high noon astride the great, blue-scaled Mercurian
_hwalon_ dragon that in itself struck terror into lesser men. The
wars of the void had burned his own skin blue with searing krypton
radiation, and long years of battle service had dulled the polish of
the heavy copronium armor that he wore.

Few knew his name, nor whence he came. He'd buried himself too deep for
that. But then, they did not need to know, for those were unimportant
things in this brutal, brawling world of Ulna, where death walked so
close on every hand.

It was a world of dangerous men, this Ulna; an outlaw world, tumultuous
haven for the hunter and the hunted. The scum of the spaceways had
gathered here, dregs of the void--rabble quick to anger, quick to kill.
_Pervods_ of Venus brushed shoulders with Earthmen. _Chonyas_ and
_Malyas_ stalked among strange mutants, weird life-forms drawn from a
dozen far-flung planets.

Yet none came forth to challenge Haral. For those who eyed and measured
him gave special attention to the slender, deadly, light-lance that was
his weapon. Then, wordless, almost too quickly, they turned away.

So now he rode the filth-choked streets of this slattern town that
served as Ulna's spaceport. And as he rode, beneath the blazing yellow
sky, he smiled his thin, bleak, mirthless smile, and wondered how the
motley mob that thronged these warrens would look if they realized his
real mission.

Then, at last, he came to the plaza and _Gar_ Sark.

Sark, the renegade; Sark, the raider. Sark, who had looted Bandjaran.
Sark, the butcher, with the blood of all Horla on his hands. Sark. A
sinister figure, at best. At worst, a monster to strike terror across
the void.

Ulna was his today, for no creature dared to stand against him. His
ships had blazoned the purple night with streaks of scarlet flame as
they ramped; and his crews too had turned the town scarlet with their
violence, till even the other lawless ones gathered here were cowed to
sullen silence.

This morning, the raiders had seized this ragged, unkempt tract that
passed as a central park--that they might enjoy their own savage brand
of sport, the rumor went.

'Sport?' Haral smiled his mirthless smile again. It was a good excuse,
and Sark's own crews might even believe it. But for Sark himself,
unless the day had come when tigers changed their stripes, grim
business was mixed in with the pleasure. That was Sark's way; he made
no move that did not offer possibilities of profit.

But how? The blue man frowned; then shrugged and urged the _hwalon_ on.
It was enough that Sark was here; that the _Shamon_ priest, Namboina,
had made his murderous proposal. Something was in the wind. He'd have
to bide his time and trust to luck for further details.

       *       *       *       *       *

A shout went up, even as Haral reached the outskirts of the milling
crowd that had gathered in the plaza--a shout and, through it, the
scream of a soul gone mad with pain.

The blue man pressed the _hwalon_ forward, trusting to the difference
the armor made in his appearance to protect him from recognition by
the members of last night's searching party.

The crowd of town rabble and raider crewmen gave way before him,
parting under the menace of the _hwalon's_ claws and collar and horrid,
hook-beaked head.

Sark's crews had set up an arena of sorts, with seats for their chiefs
along one side. In front of the seats a crude ring was fenced in with
posts and thin, resilient duraloid cable.

Within the ring, they had an Ulno--one of the grotesque, two-headed
primitives that were this planetoid's dull-witted subject people.

And there, too, stood one of the scarlet coleoptera, the giant thinking
beetles that were Ulna's plague.

Now, as Haral reached the front of the crowd, the coleopteron stalked
forward, towards the Ulno. Hideous and deadly, it stood nearly three
feet tall at the thorax. Its protuberant multi-faceted eyes glittered
evilly. Mandibles clacking, the misshapen head moved from side to side
in short, menacing arcs.

The crowd roared its blood-lust, its tension.

Revulsion touched Haral. But he gave the sadistic show no heed beyond
it. Bleakly, he looked across the ring, to Sark himself.

Sark: a smirking, bulbous, obscene thing; half humanoid, half
reptilian. _Gar_ of the space-raiders, king of killers. He sat in his
famed Uranian riding-chair like some mad, monstrous potentate upon a
throne. Eyes murder-bright beneath their reptilian lids, gross rolls
of fat aquiver, he leaned far forward, watching the bloody battle
unfold before him.

Here, looking at the raider chief for the first time, a wave of
incredulous loathing, disillusion, rose up within Haral. Was this gross
slug the best the warrior worlds could offer? Could a creature as soft
and slack as this wield the power that had shaken half the void?

The bitter ashes of his own thwarted drive for empire ate at the blue
man. The world swam with a crimson haze of hate and fury.

Then that mood passed, and Haral noticed other things.

For the raider's fat-rimmed eyes were never still, and the lights
that gleamed deep in them told of craft and savage cunning. There was
a brain behind those eyes--a brain so lightning-fast and wary that
against it mere physical strength alone meant nothing. That was how he
ruled this pack; that was why none lived to challenge.

And now, as he watched, Haral observed another thing: though the
webbed fingers of Sark's left hand splayed out along one tree-like
leg, kneading and clenching as if he were at one with the coleopteron,
thirsting for the Ulno's very life, his right hand never moved from a
switch set in the chair-arm.

       *       *       *       *       *

Narrow-eyed, the blue man shifted for a better view. As best he could
see, a cable led from the switch down to what appeared to be a bulky,
black, cymosynthesizer box slung beneath the seat.

Frowning, Haral pondered. Almost unconsciously, he caressed his
light-lance.

Then a new shout from the crowd drew his attention back to the arena.

In the ring, the wild-eyed, shaking Ulno was retreating before the
giant beetle. One of his four hands already was shredded beyond all
recognition. Blood gushed from a wound in another arm, slashed open to
the bone. His two heads turned jerkily this way and that, desperately
seeking some avenue of escape, some sign of mercy.

But no sign came. No path appeared.

The beetle poised. The point of its dagger-like antenna dropped a
fraction lower.

With a shrill cry, the Ulno darted along the interlinked cables that
bounded the arena in a last frantic effort to escape.

The coleopteron lunged. Beetle and primitive crashed together in wild,
paroxysmic conflict.

Then, suddenly, the Ulno was reeling, falling. Again, his awful scream
of pain and terror rent the air.

Like great, saw-toothed pincers, the coleopteron's mandibles stabbed
in. The Ulno's cry cut off in bubbling death.

The crowd shrieked savage exaltation.

Once more, contempt, revulsion, gripped Haral. Thin-lipped, he worked
his way around the ring towards Sark.

Laughter--ghoulish, obscene--rocked the raider chief. His rolls of fat
shook. Tears of sheer sadistic glee spilled down his puffy cheeks.

But he still kept his hand on the switch set in the arm of the
riding-chair.

Bleak, watchful, Haral brought the _hwalon_ to a halt in the lee of the
wall nearest the arena. With the casualness of long habit, he surveyed
the crowd, the ground, the disposition of Sark's forces.

In the same instant, he caught himself wondering whether Sark would
laugh as loud by the time this day was done.

Or whether either he or Sark would live to laugh.

He smiled wryly.

But now, for the time, the raider's mirth had passed. A sudden air of
suppressed tension came into his manner. His fleshy hand came up in a
curt, peremptory gesture.

Instantly, two leering reptilian _Pervods_ from his crews dragged
forward another victim.

But this time their prey was no quaking Ulno.

Instead, they held a woman.

A taut, furious excitement surged up within Haral. He sucked in air;
leaned forward, gripping the _hwalon's_ saddle hard between his knees.

Sark gestured. The _Pervods_ dragged their prisoner to him.

       *       *       *       *       *

She was young. Haral saw now; young, and slim, and incredibly lovely.
Hair like spun gold hung to her waist--the silken blonde hair of the
_Shamon_, the race that had ruled Ulna in the days before the renegades
of a dozen worlds poured in from across the void to make the planetoid
a blood-drenched, anarchistic madhouse.

But more than her face or body, it was her garb that held the blue man.

For she wore the blue cloak of Xaymar's order, and against her high,
proud breasts hung the shining _toloid_ metal tablet that signified her
consecration.

Once more, the gross monster that was _Gar_ Sark leaned forward. He
spoke to the girl in a gentle, beguiling voice that struck a clashing
paradox with the fiend's own soul that dwelt within him: "They call you
Kyla, do they not?" He touched the tablet that rested upon her breasts.
A webbed finger traced the lightning-bolt symbol emblazoned on it.
"Kyla, virgin priestess to the veiled woman-goddess Xaymar, the one
your people call the queen of storms...."

The blue man could see the tremor that rippled through the girl at
Sark's grisly touch. But she did not quail. When she spoke, her voice
was steady.

"That is true."

"Xaymar, queen of storms...." the raider chief repeated softly. He
leaned back in the riding-chair, eyes sleepy and low-lidded. "She once
lived, did she not, in mortal form? Here, on your planetoid of Ulna?"

"Yes. That is what the stories say."

"At her command, the storm-clouds gathered? She hurled the lightning
bolts against her enemies?"

"So it is written in our sacred books."

"But then she went away," Sark murmured. "She left all you who were her
people."

The girl called Kyla did not answer.

"Or did she?" Of a sudden the raider's lidded eyes were not so sleepy.
His bulbous head came forward just a fraction. "There is another story,
priestess ... a story that says the goddess Xaymar was truly woman--the
most beautiful woman your world had ever seen. And because she was
woman, human, she could not bear the thought that she must age and
wither. So she commanded that she be placed, still young and in the
full bloom of her beauty, within a secret crypt in frozen sleep, so
that she might live forever as she had been."

       *       *       *       *       *

For an instant Haral thought he could see a new tremor touch the
priestess Kyla's slim young body. But only for an instant. Then her
shoulders straightened. Her tone was cool, disdainful: "These are old
wives' tales our stupid Ulnos tell--empty, without meaning. Xaymar was
not even of my people, if indeed she ever lived. The old books say she
came from a forgotten alien race, long vanished."

Haral felt a sudden rush of admiration--a kinship, almost, born of the
girl's poise and unbending courage.

What path had she traveled to this final meeting? What forces had
driven her to do whatever she had done to catch Sark's notice? Why was
she playing for such stakes in a mad world filled with monsters?

What forces? His jaw tightened. Why had he, himself, come? Why was he
throwing his own life into the balance? There could be no answer; not
really. Not even five hundred _samori_ were enough to account for it.
A man did the things that he must do--played the crazy game as he saw
it and made up the reasons later; that was all. Raider, priestess,
adventurer--each carved his own destiny.

Even Sark....

The raider chief was smiling now--a slow, smirking, secretive smile
that was somehow horrible and loathsome. "But the other part,
priestess? Is it true? Was your Xaymar really sealed in frozen sleep in
a hidden vault here on your pygmy world of Ulna?"

The girl's slim shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Who knows? We _Shamon_
only let the tales go on to satisfy the Ulnos."

"What? You do not know?" Sark's fat-rimmed eyes now were bright and
mocking; and, watching him, Haral gave new weight to the raider's craft
and menace. "But I had heard a different story, Priestess Kyla! They
told me you _did_ know--that you knew more of it than any other."

It was coming now, the moment of crisis. Haral could see it in their
faces.

Grimly, he gripped his light-lance.

But Kyla still faced the raider chieftain boldly. "I cannot help what
others say. I do not know."

The squat monster in the riding-chair leaned back once more, still
smiling his secretive, sinister smile. A strange horror clung to his
very calm, the deadly benignity of his soft-spoken words. It was as if
he were some great toad, toying tenderly with a lovely, captive moth
that its agony might last the longer.

"They say your whole life is given to a search for Xaymar, priestess.
That you dream of the days when the _Shamon_ still ruled Ulna, and so
you seek your goddess's hidden crypt, in order to rouse her from her
sleep and turn her powers against all those whom you call alien." He
licked his lips, and his head seemed to sink between his shoulders.
"Some claim you even know where the crypt is hidden, and could go there
now, were it not for fear of the thinking beetles, the coleoptera."

       *       *       *       *       *

Slowly, the color drained from Kyla's face. A spark close akin to
panic lighted in her eyes. She did not speak.

"Why do you blanch so, priestess?" Sark prodded. "I only seek to help
you. Tell me where your goddess lies and I'll find her for you, in
spite of the coleoptera. I'll bring her here, revive her, let her reign
again among you--"

"You talk nonsense!" the girl cried. But her voice broke. Her whole
body trembled.

Now, suddenly, Sark seemed to grow within the riding-chair, till
he loomed like some gross giant. His lips drew back from his
stained reptilian fangs. His eyes gleamed like burning coals. The
mock-benignity, the gentleness, fell from him like a mask. His words
slashed, low and savage: "Tell me where your bitch-goddess lies, you
she-_sabar_! Tell me now, while you still have a voice to speak!"

"No, no--"

"So, virgin priestess--?" Sark's laugh rang like the mirth of hell.
And then, with furious, fiendish passion: "You'll tell, or you'll not
stay virgin long! There are mutants among my crews who have strange
lusts. Press me too far, and you'll be the one to sate them! I'll turn
them loose with you here in this arena as a show for the rest of us to
see! What's left of your tender flesh when they are through will make a
tasty morsel for the coleoptera!"

Sheer horror flooded Kyla's pale, lovely face. Convulsively, she tried
to tear free from the grip of the two _Pervods_ who held her.

But they laughed aloud and jerked her back; lifted her upright before
their chief, panting and struggling.

Haral sucked in air. In spite of himself, he dug his knees hard into
the _hwalon's_ horny flanks. It took all his effort to hold himself
otherwise immobile and fight down the fury that surged within him.

"Which shall it be, Priestess Kyla?" Sark now mocked with savage
malice. "Do you talk and live, or meet my men? The choice is yours!"

       *       *       *       *       *

For a moment the girl's eyes closed. Then, slowly, they opened once
more, and she stood erect in the _Pervods'_ grasp. Her breath came
faster. "Do you think me so weak that I'd betray my goddess and my
people to save myself?" she cried passionately. A wave of wild,
half-hysterical laughter shook her. "I know what you want! You seek
not Xaymar, but Xaymar's secret--the way she harnessed the power that
lies within the lightning, a power so great that with it you might
rule the universe! But you will not have it! Bring on your crew, your
coleoptera--"

Haral went rigid in the _hwalon's_ saddle. The girl's words rang in his
ears, his brain.

There it was! There lay the secret, the prize that had lured Sark here
to Ulna!

A prize of power.

The search for it had led this slim girl-priestess here, to death,
dishonor.

The fear that such a secret might go to Sark, be lost to Ulna, had
spurred the old high priest, Namboina, to dark plots and plans for
murder.

Power! Haral's fist clenched. The lust for it had driven him on bloody
courses that stretched across half this solar system. It had earned him
a name, that lust; and then it had put a price on his head to match it,
till at last he'd had no choice but to flee out here, beyond all law,
to this mad, twisted world of Ulna.

And now--?

Within him his heart was pounding, pounding, like the beat of one of
Titan's great _corba dia_; and of a sudden he knew it was destiny that
had brought him to the blood and dirt and heat of this foul arena.

His own dark destiny that had marked him out from day of birth to carve
an empire....

As from afar, he heard Sark's furious voice lashing out at Kyla: "Defy
me, will you? Then so be it!" The raider surged up, half out of the
riding-chair. Savagely, he slapped the slim girl-priestess across the
face, so hard that his webbed fingers left great welts of white and
scarlet. "To the ring with her! To the ring!"

The _Pervods_ jerked Kyla back. Roughly, they dragged her to the fenced
ring that served as pit for the arena and threw her in.

In his turn, the blue man shifted. The tension was running high within
him now, locked in the icy bands of iron-nerved control. Once more,
he surveyed the howling crowd and Sark's mongrel raider crewmen, then
smiled to himself with dark, reckless mirth.

Fat face still livid, Sark sank back into the depths of his
riding-chair. "Who's first?" he cried. "Who wants to test the brave
priestess?"

       *       *       *       *       *

A shout burst forth from a hundred savage throats. A churning mass of
nightmare forms of life thrust forward.

But before the raider chief could even make a choice, a huge, hairy,
heavy-thewed Uranian _dau_ was charging to the fence. Full seven
feet tall he stood, and he bowled the others from his path like
_byul_-balls, a living avalanche of lust. Leaping high in the air, he
caught the top strand of the cable and swung up and over, dropping into
the arena like some monstrous, many-armed Earth gorilla.

The girl called Kyla stared at the creature as if paralyzed with
horror. She did not even raise her hands.

"I give you your last thought as a chaste priestess!" Sark cried,
taunting. "You shared your secret with another--the high priest, him
they call Namboina! He, too, knows where Xaymar's crypt lies hidden! So
all your stubbornness has gained you nothing, for I'll tear the truth
from him even though you die here!"

Kyla's tragic eyes went wide--shocked, half-disbelieving.

Haral breathed deep. The tension was a tight knot in his stomach now.
His hand grew sweaty against the light-lance.

Slavering, the Uranian shambled towards Kyla. The mad din of the crowd
grew deafening.

A churning excitement boiled within the blue warrior. This was the
moment for which he'd come; this was the final peak of crisis.

The _dau_ lunged.

In one smooth flow of motion, Haral whipped up the light-lance. Its
beam speared out, stabbing at the _dau_.

The lumbering creature stumbled and swerved, twisting in a sudden,
agonized frenzy. Smoke curled from the matted hair of its massive
torso. It tottered--fell back a step--another--another. Then, arms and
legs jerking spasmodically, head out of control, it crumpled into the
gory dirt of the arena and lay twitching.

A thunderous, stupefied silence fell upon the crowd. Creatures from the
far-flung planets of the whole solar system stared in blank disbelief.

Then, suddenly, the shocked spell broke; and Sark was on his feet and
shrieking, "Seize him! Kill him! Blast him down!"

The mob surged forward.

But now Haral was moving too, booting his great blue _hwalon_ dragon
into the screaming throng, clawing and slashing and trampling. A
force ray struck him a hammer blow between the shoulders, but its
impact broke on the heavy copronium armor and he paid it no heed. His
light-lance blazed--again; again. A _Pervod_ fell. A _Malya_ writhed
back in his death throes.

Then the _hwalon_ was surging against the fence that bounded the arena.
The blue man roared, "Kyla--!" And, to the crowd: "Back! Back--! Stand
back or die!"

The wave of bodies broke. The milling mass gave way.

Savagely, Haral slashed at the cables with his lance-beam.

       *       *       *       *       *

Snapping like tight-drawn strings, they parted. Already, beyond, the
girl-priestess Kyla was running up beside him. Sweeping low in the
saddle, he caught her arm and lifted her bodily to a place in front of
him astride the _hwalon_.

But if the crowd, the rabble, was falling back, Sark's raiders now were
forming.

Again Haral spurred the _hwalon_--driving it forward, straight at the
mutant chieftain.

"You--Sark! Call off your pack if you want to live!" he cried.

He leveled the light-lance, like a helium hammer to drive home his
words.

Sark's face took on the color of the molten purple mud in Mercury's
_sotol_ swamps. Spasmodically, he clutched the switch set in his
chair-arm. His voice, his body, shook with seething fury. "Who are you,
_chitza_, that you should come so long a way to die?"

Haral brought the _hwalon_ to a halt, so close to the raider chief that
the lance's ray-head gouged Sark's gross midriff.

"They call me Haral," he slashed back fiercely. "Perhaps you've heard
the name--if they ever let you pause to listen where warriors spoke. As
for dying, I'll meet that when it comes. But not from you, Sark. Not
here; not now."

The raider's webbed fingers flexed and clenched. His fat-rimmed eyes
glinted like murderous Titanian diamonds set in flesh.

"Haral--?" A sneer contorted his fat face. "A raider without a ship.
A space tramp soaked in _kabat_." He bared his teeth. "You fool! What
chance do you think you have? My men surround you, ready to blast you!"

Haral laughed aloud. "And what happens to the woman--Xaymar's
priestess, Kyla?" he challenged harshly. "Her body's pressed next to
mine. Can your blasters kill me, and let her live? Can they burn my
armor through, yet leave her still unharmed?" Again he laughed, and
the fierce recklessness he felt poured out in hot, slashing words.
"No, Sark! You can't afford to have her die, no matter how you'd shame
her or abuse her to break her spirit and make her speak. For though
you talk of the old high priest, Namboina, you can't know for sure how
much she told him. Your crew hasn't even managed to catch him. So if
this woman dies, it may well be that your only chance for the goddess
Xaymar's secret will die with her!"

In the same instant, he wondered bleakly what would happen if he'd
guessed Sark and the situation wrong.

       *       *       *       *       *

A veil seemed to fall across the raider's eyes. When he spoke, his
voice had lost its fury. Now it was gentle again, almost--low-pitched,
persuasive, as it had been when he first talked to Kyla.

"I've heard the tales they tell of you, Haral, and they all say that
you're mad--mad with ambition, mad with daring. You want the whole
universe for your own, they say, and you'll throw your own life on the
block to claim it. But even ambition and daring can go too far."

He paused and eyed Haral. Then, when the blue man made no answer, he
went on again. The persuasive note in his voice grew stronger.

"Can't you see what you're doing, warrior? I'm _gar_ of the raiders. If
I let you carry off this woman, it means the end of me. Every _stabat_
on the spaceways will say, 'Sark has lost his strength. Sark has let
Haral take a woman from him.' Even my own crews would mutiny against
me."

"And so--?"

"So I cannot let you go, Haral. No matter what the cost, I must kill
you. If not now, then later. If you take the woman, you must die!"

Haral could feel his stomach muscles quiver. The menace that radiated
out from Sark hung over him like some deadly cloud.

Baring his own teeth in a death's-head grin, he dug the light-lance
deeper into Sark's rolls of flesh.

He said: "If the things you say are true, _Gar_ Sark, then I must kill
you now, before you have the chance to slay me." He allowed himself the
luxury of a thin, wry smile. "In fact, perhaps it would be best that
way. With you dead, your men might pick me as their leader...."

Silence echoed for a moment long as eternity, while their eyes locked
in a fierce, interminable battle.

Then, slowly, Sark smiled and shook his head. His webbed fingers
caressed the switch set in his chair-arm.

"You'll never kill me, warrior," he answered Haral. "I have a reason
for this riding-chair, a reason beyond mere comfort."

Haral said nothing.

"This switch"--the raider closed his hand about it--"connects with the
box that hangs beneath me. A cymosynthesizer box, you may have guessed."

"A cymosynthesizer--?"

"A very special kind of cymosynthesizer, warrior." Sark chuckled
grimly. "The multiplying waves of energy it radiates are synthesized
and focused on the core of this pygmy planetoid of Ulna. When they
strike it, they'll disrupt its whole atomic structure and set up a
disintegrative chain reaction."

Haral stared at him, unbelieving. "You mean--?"

"I mean that I hold the power to destroy this whole world within my
hand!" Sark cried in sudden, explosive anger. "This is my protection
against you and all others! I have but to throw this switch, and Ulna
itself will be torn asunder--and you and the woman and all else with
it! If I die, you die, also! That is my answer to you, _chitza_!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Haral said tightly: "You lie! No cymosynthesizer can set up an
initiating wave strong enough to tear apart a whole planet!"

"Then try me! Make me prove it!" the raider chieftain spat. "It's
simple, warrior! Just trigger a beam from your light-lance through me!
As I die, I'll still throw the switch, and there will be your answer!"

Haral sat very still. He was gripping his lance's shaft so hard that
the very bones of his fingers ached. A thin rill of sweat ran down his
spine. Yet he could not fight off the spell of shock that gripped him.

As if sensing it, Sark spoke once more in coaxing tones: "You make your
task hard, warrior. There is an easier way. Give up this madness, this
trying to beat me and destroy me. Daring is a virtue I, too, admire.
Stay with me and I'll make you a captain in my fleet, give you a ship
so you can raid again. Then, when I've won this thrice-cursed Xaymar's
secret, together we'll reach out across the universe to bring all
planets into our power. Or, if it's the woman you want,"--he laughed
his smirking, obscene laugh--"why, as soon as she's told me the things
I want to know, I'll let you have her--"

Haral felt Kyla's slim body stiffen against him. A tremor ran through
her.

His answer to Sark came almost without volition. "No."

"What--?"

The spell was broken, now. The recklessness was back, and the fierce
surge of ambition.

That, and something more ... a something Haral could not quite touch.

He laughed aloud. "I'm leaving now, Sark!" he cried. "I'm leaving, and
I'm taking the woman with me. Blast us if you will!"

The blandness fell from Sark. He half rose from his seat, his face
contorted. "You _chitza_--!"

Haral laughed again. "Blast, Sark!" he mocked. "But if you do,
remember--your chance for the girl dies with me!"

"_Stabat! Zanat! Starbo_--"

"Go ahead, great _gar_! Blast us! Take your chances on what you can
learn from old Namboina!"

Slowly, then, Sark sank back into his chair. His eyes were like live
coals, incredibly baleful.

"Go!" he choked thickly. "Go, for now, you _chitza_! Take your woman
and your _hwalon_ and your light-lance! My day will come, and when
it does, you'll pray for a death that will not answer! You and the
woman--you'll share your agony together, and in the end I'll still
claim Xaymar's secret--"

Haral said: "Perhaps. Or perhaps it will be you who rots in hell
instead."

Bleakly, he wheeled the _hwalon_; and to the crowd he shouted, "There's
death in my lance for the man that follows!" Then, weapon ready, the
girl close against him, heedless of the steaming hate and curses of the
mob that parted before him, he rode away.



                              CHAPTER III


They rode fast and in silence--first skirting the outskirts of the
town; then plunging full-tilt into the tangled maze that was the native
quarter.

The Ulno Haral had hired on the chance he'd need someone to hide the
_hwalon_ was already waiting at the appointed place.

But the blue man rode on past the primitive with no sign of
recognition, pausing instead around the next corner, by the entrance to
a blackly burrow-like dead-end alley.

There he let the girl called Kyla down. For the first time since their
escape, he spoke to her: "We'll take cover now, for a little while,
priestess. Wait here in the shadows for me till I can hide my dragon.
It won't take long--ten _samori_, maybe."

Wordless, eyes inscrutable, the lovely _Shamon_ nodded.

Haral flashed her a tense smile. Then, wheeling the _hwalon_, he rode
back in the direction from which they'd come.

But the instant he was out of sight around the corner, he dropped from
the saddle and waved up the Ulno to take the nightmare steed.

Another moment, and he was peering warily towards the spot where he'd
left Kyla.

But already the slim young priestess had abandoned her post. She was
hurrying away, instead--running off down the narrow, crooked street,
just as he'd gambled that she would.

It was ever dusk in these cramped warrens, where the yellow sky showed
only straight up. Now, too, the purple Ulnese night drew near at hand.
Black rivers of shadow were taking form at the bases of the buildings.

Taking advantage of every unevenness and entryway and patch of murk,
Haral followed Kyla.

The girl led him a dizzy chase through jumbled streets and alleys,
a world of strange smells and sounds and dull-witted, blank-eyed,
two-headed Ulnos. Twice, only the glint of her long, blonde, _Shamon_
hair kept him from losing her.

Then, abruptly, she halted.

Giving no attention to the vaguely-curious glances of nearby Ulnos,
Haral drew back into the angle where two buildings came together.
Pressed flat to the wall, he watched while Kyla peered this way and
that, as if searching for some sign of pursuit.

A moment later she disappeared into the shadow-shrouded entrance of a
shabby building.

Swiftly, Haral ran after her. But instead of approaching the door, he
slipped down a narrow cleft between the place she'd entered and the one
next to it.

       *       *       *       *       *

A slot of window showed above him. Bracing his back against one wall,
his feet against the other, he levered himself swiftly upward till he
could peer through the casement.

It opened into an empty room.

A kick from one mailed foot burst it open. Another moment, and Haral
himself stood inside.

Across the room was a door. Moving silently to it, he opened it a crack
and listened.

From down the hall that ran outside came faint sounds of movement.
Peering through the gloom, Haral caught a glint of light. Then a door
opened. More light flooded out. He glimpsed Kyla in silhouette as she
left the one room and went into another.

Now light blazed from the second room. Then that door closed, and there
were sounds of running water.

Haral smiled thinly and loosened his ray-gun in its holster. Quickly,
quietly, he walked down the hall to the room from which the girl had
come.

Bleak and bare and windowless, it was sparsely furnished with a cot,
table and two chairs. The clothes Kyla had worn--the cloak, the
tablet, all her priestess' habit--were strewn across the cot. One of
the self-sealing plastic boxes such as was used on Ulna for packing
garments lay open on the table.

Across the hall, the sounds of running water ceased.

Silently, Haral stepped on into the room and behind the door. He caught
the click of a latch: then the firm rhythm of Kyla's footsteps as she
came towards this chamber where he stood in hiding.

She was humming softly as she entered--a weirdly lilting tune Haral had
never heard before. Now, too, she wore the scant, filmy garments so
favored by _Shamon_ women. No indication that she was one of Xaymar's
priestesses remained. While Haral watched in silence, she picked up a
comb and began to smooth her shimmering, waist-long wealth of silken
hair.

Haral said: "You're very lovely, Kyla--you treacherous little _slazot_!"

The girl whirled, her eyes suddenly big with terror. Her hand clutched
her throat. Her breasts rose and fell too fast.

Her lips moved: "You--You...."

Haral poured acid into his voice: "My name's Haral, Kyla. Remember?
I'm the man who saved your pretty carcass from Sark's arena not so very
long ago."

The priestess sank into a chair. Her eyes closed, as if she were
praying, or perhaps trying to blot out the very sight of the blue man
from her brain.

Tight-lipped, Haral strode to her. He caught her chin and tilted back
her head.

"Did you think I risked my life for you for nothing, priestess?" he
clipped grimly. "Some say I'm worthless. But in my way, I still value
my head."

       *       *       *       *       *

Kyla's eyes opened. They were very large and innocent. "Truly, I am
grateful, blue warrior...."

"Grateful--?" Haral brought up the crooked forefinger that held her
chin so savagely her head snapped back. "Yes, you're grateful! So
grateful you could hardly wait till my back was turned before you ran
away! So grateful you'd gladly leave me to face Sark's tender mercies
alone, so long as you got to cover!"

"But, warrior--You do not understand. I have a mission--a duty bigger
than you or me, or the debt of gratitude I owe you--"

"Duty--?" Haral smashed one mailed fist into the palm of the other.
"Will your duty save my neck? Will it halt Sark's crewmen as they haunt
me and harry me and hunt me down?"

The girl's lips trembled. The violet eyes dodged his. "But--but--what
would you have me do--?"

"You know what I want!" Haral gripped her shoulders. "My death
warrant's sealed. You heard Sark say it. I've got just one chance--one,
and one only. With your Xaymar's secret, it may be that I can smash
Sark before he smashes me--"

"No--"

"That's what I want! I want the secret--your goddess, your queen of
storms--"

"But I cannot--"

"You can! You will!" Fiercely, he shook her. "Where is she, Kyla? Where
does she lie, this woman-goddess, Xaymar?"

The girl went limp in his grasp. Tears brimmed her eyes.

Slowly, Haral straightened. He let go the priestess' slim shoulders.
"Can't you see?" he grated tightly. "Can't you understand? Now,
this very moment, Sark's hunting for your doddering high priest,
Namboina. When he catches him--and he will catch him, have no doubt of
that--he'll tear your goddess's hiding-place from him like a tooth from
the socket. Then where will you stand? What good will all your talk of
duty do you? Would it not be better--"

"No." Even though Kyla's lips still trembled, there was no compromise
in her tone. She flicked away her tears, and her back drew very
straight. Her eyes met Haral's--defiant; proud and steady as his own.

"No, blue man," she repeated. "If helping me costs you your life, I'm
sorry. But my duty lies with Ulna and with Xaymar. Do what you will;
I'll tell you nothing."

"And Namboina? What of him? Will his loyalty match yours when Sark
stretches him out for a taste of torture?"

"Sark has not yet caught Namboina."

       *       *       *       *       *

As it had in the arena, admiration now touched Haral. Steel lay
sheathed in the velvet of this _Shamon_ girl's slim, soft body. He
could not but respect its temper.

Yet he dared not let her know his thoughts.

Instead, coldly, he drew his ray-gun from its holster. "Then I have no
choice...."

"You'll kill me, you mean--?" There was contempt in the girl's voice,
the twist of her lips. "So in the end you're not so different from
_Gar_ Sark, after all."

Haral smiled thinly. "Say rather that I know enough to bow to reality
when I face it. If I cannot win this battle, then I must come to terms
another way." He let his smile broaden, building up impact for the
climax. "But not by killing you, Priestess Kyla. That truly would get
me nothing."

"Then what--?"

Haral shrugged. With careful casualness he said, "Sark still might
strike a bargain for you."

"_Sark--!_"

The shock in the girl's voice stabbed at Haral. Fear was in her eyes
now--the bright, shiny fear of those nightmare eternities she stood
helpless in Sark's arena.

But the blue man held his face immobile. "You leave me no choice," he
clipped. "I must either have the lightning-force, the secret of your
goddess Xaymar, or I must buy back my life from Sark. Since I lack the
stomach to force the secret from you, that leaves only Sark for me to
turn to. You surely understand."

He watched the sickness come to Kyla's face, then. Her eyes closed. Her
tongue flicked at her lips.

At long last she looked at him again. Dully, she said, "Put away your
weapon, warrior. I am vanquished."

Wordless, Haral slipped the ray-gun back into its holster.

Kyla said: "I'd hoped this might have another ending, blue man. When
you rode out in the face of _Gar_ Sark and all his might to save me, my
heart leaped, and strange feelings woke within me, here." She touched
her breast. "I saw you as a Galahad of the spaceways, a valiant who
fought for right and honor instead of booty. But now I see you true.
You're as the rest--greedy, blood-thirsty, driven by hate and a lust
for power."

A knife seemed to twist deep in Haral's vitals. He did not speak.

       *       *       *       *       *

The girl's great, tragic eyes stayed set upon him. "Yet, blue man, you
saved my life. There is indeed a debt of gratitude I owe you. I'll pay
it now...."

She rose; came close to him. Her hand touched the heavy copronium
brassart that sheathed his upper arm.

"There's a reason our living goddess Xaymar has lain sleeping through
all these years of Ulna's sorrow, blue man," she told him tensely. "Did
you think my people, my proud, unbending _Shamon_, would have suffered
all the insults and degradation you alien raiders brought here with you
had it not been so? Can you vision us submitting to your despoilment
while we held an invincible weapon in our hands, unless the dangers
that lay in unsheathing that weapon were even more dreadful than the
worst that you, in your crude butchery, could offer?"

Haral shifted. Frowning, he studied the priestess' shadowed eyes and
strain-straught face.

She breathed deep. Her words rushed forth in a flood, a frantic,
half-hysterical jumble:

"I'll tell you the secret, warrior! I'll tell you why we left our
goddess sleeping through all our hour of need!" Her lips parted. Her
voice rose shrilly. "She's mad, that's the reason! Xaymar's mad! Mad
with lust and power, and passion! Her beauty was a thing of shining
splendor that no man could resist or deny. Each night she took a
different lover--and then, at the dawn, at her command, each one
was slain! She harnessed the lightning against our enemies--and when
our own greatest city refused to send more of its sons to her for
slaughter, she smashed it to rubble with her bolts! In her madness, it
was she who gave the power of thought to the coleoptera--"

She broke off, laughing wildly. Her face came close to Haral's, her
body against his.

"Would you waken her, warrior? Would you be the next to share her
couch--and her graveyard? Beside her, Sark ranks as a saint--"

There was a prickling along Haral's spine as he pushed her back. But
she still clung to him. He could feel his tension climbing. It was as
if Kyla had hypnotized him with her rush of words, her fierce burst of
emotion.

He said tightly: "You lie, Kyla! This is some kind of a trick--"

Like magic, her hysteria vanished.

"A trick? Of course! A good one--"

She twisted, and he felt the wrench of his ray-gun being jerked from
its holster.

Before he could move, she had its muzzle between his teeth. Her
triumphant voice echoed like the ring of steel on steel:

"Your first move will be your last, blue man! You'll die if even a
finger twitches!"

Haral stood very still.

From somewhere below came the creak of a door opening, then the
muffled slam of its closing.

Kyla laughed. Her eyes sparkled. "Did you speak of Namboina, warrior?
Of how Sark would catch him? Yet here he comes now!"

Haral spoke carefully: "Wrong, priestess! Those steps are too quick for
old Namboina's!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Watching her eyes, he could see the doubt flicker, then flare into
panic. Her lips parted as she strained to hear. She fell back a step.
The ray-gun in her hand was suddenly shaking.

"If there's trouble," Haral observed, "that gun might prove surer in my
hand than yours."

"No! Stand back!" the girl cried. "I'll shoot for your face! Your armor
won't save you!"

The blue man halted.

The approaching footsteps were closer now--coming lightly, swiftly,
towards this room.

Kyla pushed the door half shut, then stepped to its hinge side,
gesturing Haral to a place before her. Her face was grey.

Outside the room, the footsteps halted. The door pushed open.

"Kyla--"

It was the voice of a woman--a woman in the garb of Xaymar's order who
hurried into the room.

"Lyess--" cried Kyla. The ray-gun sagged in her hand.

The newcomer whirled in fright. Her eyes flicked from the priestess to
Haral.

Kyla cried, "Why are you here, Lyess? Where is Namboina?" Her tone held
a note of desperation.

"I came to tell you, Kyla--to warn you! Sark has found him! They say
the torture is already under way to make him tell where Xaymar lies--"

Unspeaking, Haral looked to Kyla.

Her mouth was working. New tears had come to her eyes. Now, of a
sudden, they overflowed and spilled down her cheeks.

Harshly, Haral slashed: "What now, priestess? Do we wait here while
Sark tears out Namboina's heart, then goes and wakens your mad
woman-goddess Xaymar?"

Slowly, the hand that held the ray-gun lowered, till the weapon
hung loose against Kyla's side. Her shoulders, too, slumped. In the
stillness, her falling tears made tiny splatting sounds as they hit the
floor.

"Kyla, Kyla--!" the other priestess whispered. "You dare not linger!
Sark seeks you, too. That is why I came to warn you--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Again the silence echoed. Then, wearily, Kyla straightened. She shook
away the tears. Her mouth stopped quivering.

Never had she been more lovely.

She turned to the blue man: "Haral...."

It came to him, with a queer sort of shock, that it was the first time
she had ever called him by his name.

"Yes, Kyla...?"

"I've lost. I wanted Xaymar's secret for my people--this world of ours,
this Ulna. But now, that cannot be. The most I can hope is that Sark,
at least, shall never have it."

"Yes, Kyla."

"She--Xaymar--lies in the dead land--the land infested by the great
thinking beetles, the coleoptera. The road to her crypt is a dangerous
road."

"I've traveled dangerous roads before."

"Yes. Danger is in your blood, you aliens. And we of Ulna are weak, so
weak...."

Gently, Haral said: "There's little time, Kyla. Namboina may be
babbling all he knows already."

"Yes, and the way is long." Wearily, then, the girl held out the
ray-gun to him. "You'll need this more than I, along the road that we
must travel." She sighed. "You see, Haral? Destiny is on your side. In
the end, you are the winner."



                              CHAPTER IV


The coleoptera were drawing their noose ever tighter now. A killer
cordon, they ringed in Kyla and Haral. The rustle of their giant
wing-sheaths, borne on the night wind, whispered of death. The great,
flesh-rending mandibles clacked like the distant rattle of dry bones.

Flat on his belly amid this rubble that once had been a mighty city,
the blue warrior let his head sink forward onto his arms. He closed his
eyes, and weariness welled up in him, a dull, relentlessly-rising tide.

Pain throbbed along his whole left side, and blood still dripped
from his numb left hand. Silently--absently, almost--he touched the
shoulder-plate of his armor, probing the perforations and the wound.

Then a sound of spilling gravel came through the darkness. He looked up
sharply.

A dozen yards to one side, one of the great scarlet beetles was
clambering atop a heap of crumbling stone. Its wing-sheaths scraped
harshly--a rasping, off-key note.

Kyla leaned close. Her words came, a fearful whisper, barely loud
enough to hear: "Lift your helmet, blue man! Listen to the things the
coleopteron tells--but carefully, lest its mind control should seize
you...."

Cautiously, Haral tilted back his battered copronium headpiece. It
had rendered strange service in its day, that scarred old helm; but
none stranger than this. For by some weird clash between its metal
and certain electrocephalic wave-pulsations, it guarded his brain
from the probing beetle minds, just as Kyla's bucket-like Ulnese
heaume--designed for the purpose--guarded hers.

Now, as Haral lifted the helmet, thought-vibrations washed in on him in
throbbing waves: "Man-things, man-things! Find the man-things! Kill
the man-things! Kill, kill, kill!"

A new vibration slashed through, fiercely urgent: "Blood! Blood! Here!
They came this way!"

"Kill! Kill! Kill!"

Already the coleoptera were surging forward. Antennae outthrust like
lance-points, Q-rays probing, they combed the murky waste--each rise,
each hollow. Their feet slithered through the rubble with sounds like
the writhings of Venus' great snake-things in dry leaves. The acrid
stink of their hate crept on the breeze in biting tendrils.

       *       *       *       *       *

Haral cast a longing glance back towards his _hwalon_, still standing
at bay amid the crags where they had lost it in their last swift,
clashing contact with the beetles.

But darting Q-rays hemmed in the dragon. And here and there between, a
head, a leg, a thorax showed.

Haral bit down hard. The coleoptera were hoping they could tempt him to
try to regain the _hwalon_.

For if he tried, he'd die in seconds.

Kyla crept close against him. Her voice shook: "I've lost my way,
Haral. Even if the beetles were to leave us, I'd not know how to go."

For an aching moment Haral lay still. "I guessed as much," he said at
last. "This running and fighting has pulled us from our path."

"If we could only find one of the pylons of which the old books spoke--"

"Yes. If." Grimly, the blue man fumbled the ray-pistol from his holster
and shoved it into Kyla's hand. He gave no sign that he had even caught
the tears, the desperation, creeping into her voice. "Here. Take this."

"What--?"

Haral held his voice flat, without emotion. "You'll need some weapon.
The ray-gun will do as well as any." He settled the helmet more firmly
on his head and took a new grip on his light-lance. "Come on!"

Twisting, dragging the light-lance beside him, he wormed his way
towards the nearest of the skeletal shafts that rose like gravestones
over this dead city, last monuments to a civilization fallen into dust.

Perhaps the shaft had been part of a building, once--a wall, a
buttress, maybe. Now, pillar-like, it stood alone. Gaping holes showed
through its mass. Great chunks of rock had fallen, here and there
exposing the huge, corroding metal beams that were its core.

They reached its base. Haral pulled himself erect amid the black
shadows cloaking the foundation. Wearily, he leaned against a fallen
column.

The move brought fragments rattling down.

At the sound, a coleopteron in a nearby hollow came to a sudden halt.
For a moment it hesitated, then began to work its way warily towards
the shaft.

Kyla said, "Haral--!" in a voice choked with new panic.

"Stay here. Don't move," Haral clipped tightly. "And don't shoot--not
unless you have to!"

As he spoke, he levered himself up onto the lowest beam.

More broken stone clattered to the ground below him.

The beetle came forward faster.

       *       *       *       *       *

Awkwardly, the blue man climbed upward. His left arm was almost
useless. The light-lance dragged and got in his way.

Below, the great scarlet insect stopped short. Of a sudden its
mandibles clacked wildly.

Haral lifted his helmet a fraction. Vibrations poured into his brain:
"Blood! Here, here, this way--!"

Cursing, Haral whipped up the light-lance and triggered a beam at the
beetle's thorax.

The coleopteron wallowed backward, great wings threshing.

Clutching a vertical girder, again the warrior clambered upward.

Above him, and to one side, a gap that might once have housed a window
loomed. Painfully, he worked towards it. His left arm dragged, less
help than hindrance. He couldn't seem to get in air. His body rebelled
at his brain's commands.

Then, at last, he got a grip on a jagged fragment near the edge of the
slot-like opening. With a final, spasmodic effort, he dragged himself
up and sprawled on his belly across the masonry.

On the other side of the wall, spread out before him in the shadowy
purple of the Ulnese night, lay the heart of the dead city. From this
height he could see its plan, its prospect. There, ragged strips that
once had been broad avenues radiated out from a central park. There, a
spider-web of cross streets showed, linking the great arteries together.

And there, too, were the ruins Kyla called the Triad--the huge,
three-winged structure that rose in the park's heart.

Somewhere beneath it lay the shrine of Xaymar, queen of storms, living
goddess of all Ulna.

Awe gripped Haral. Silent, brooding, he stared across the fallen
splendor.

Such splendor, so far fallen.

These others, who once had walked this mighty city in its day of
greatness--they, too, had been strong. They, too, had felt the drive to
power.

Now they lay in dust beneath his feet.

And here he sprawled, beset and wounded, driven by a dream on a
madman's quest, mayhap to meet death himself in this silent city of the
dead.

His weariness welled up once more; engulfed him.

How had Sark put it--"Why have you come so long a way to die?"

Sark, and a dream turned nightmare.

Yet he'd ridden other nightmares in his time, with less to gain and
more to lose. That was the meaning of life; the challenge.

There below lay a living goddess; and a priestess waited to guide him
to her.

       *       *       *       *       *

A priestess.... He pondered. Already there was a bond between them,
for she had a courage to match her beauty, and courage was one trait
he gave full honor, no matter what the cause to which it rallied. And
it had taken courage to stand in the bloody mud of that arena, defying
Sark.

Sark?... Haral smiled. Sark, too, would have a role to play before this
game was done.

Sark had pledged him death. Sark would keep that pledge, unless he fell
before the might of Xaymar's vaunted secret.

And as for himself, Haral--?

The battle lines were drawn: On the one hand, power beyond his fondest
dreams ... a living goddess ... a lovely priestess.

On the other, Sark and the coleoptera, defeat and death.

What more was there for a fighting man to ask? What better prize for
a wanderer to strive for as he carved his way up from the asteroids'
bleak want and bondage?

He laughed aloud. His weariness fell away.

Sitting up, turning, he once more gave attention to the swarming
scarlet beetles far below him.

Fear of his light-lance was upon them now, it seemed. They hung back,
spread out in a menacing arc that centered on his side of the pillar.

Directly below him, Kyla crouched as if frozen, the ray-gun ready in
her hand. But as yet the beetles had not come close enough to find her.

Haral shifted.

Like lightning, a Q-ray speared up from an ebon crevice to one side of
the shaft.

The range was too great. The beam burned out yards short of Haral. But
a flicker of movement betrayed that one of the monster insects now was
climbing along the other side. The next ray might strike home.

Again, Haral sought out the Triad, and the great arterial avenue that
led to it.

The nearest of the roadways lay within a hundred yards of this column
that was his vantage-point. A pylon still thrust its weathered peak
skyward on the far side of the thoroughfare.

A pylon: the crumbling, truncated pyramid burned into Haral's brain
like a beacon. The very sight of it sent recklessness surging through
him.

To Kyla, below, he cried, "Come round the wall, priestess! Come round!
Quick!"

Then, cat-like, he twisted, swinging his legs up and through the gap
in the masonry. His body arched--catapulting out into space, hurtling
groundward along the towering shaft's other face.

But as he plunged, he shifted the light-lance. Bracing it against his
body, he gripped its head between his feet and triggered it on, full
strength. Its broad force beam blazed forth, straight at the ground
below.

Like a flexible, compressing shaft of radiant energy, it slowed his
plunge. Balancing skillfully, he rode the beam on down.

       *       *       *       *       *

The force of the landing made him wince. But at least, for the moment,
he was free of the coleoptera, though even now he could hear the
scurrying of their hairy feet in the dirt as they raced to head him off.

Whirling, he ran along the base of the shaft.

As he reached the corner, Kyla came stumbling toward him from the other
side of the shaft, scrambling over the ruins, debris, in desperate
haste. Two huge beetles, hot for the kill, bore down upon her from
behind, closing the gap that separated them from her with every
slithering step.

Haral drew back and whipped up the light-lance.

Running full-tilt, the slim girl burst from the shadows, the coleoptera
close at her heels.

Haral triggered the light-lance. Its beam slashed through the night.
The foremost beetle drew into a writhing ball under its impact,
rolling crazily through the rubble. The second fell back, its forelegs
half burned off.

The blue man pivoted and ran after Kyla. Catching her by the arm, he
half-dragged her with him towards the avenue.

Ahead, the ground leveled off. The broad expanse that had been the
roadway spread before them.

Beyond it loomed the pylon.

Behind, the rustle of coleopteron wing-sheaths, the furious fluttering
of the vestigial wings themselves, came loud as the rasp of branches in
a storm-tossed forest, closer and closer.

Haral shoved the priestess on towards the roadway. Then, boldly, he
turned and brought up the light-lance.

The coleoptera broke. Scrambling wildly, they rushed for cover.

"What, you _sabars_? You fear to meet my lance?" Haral shouted the
words, even though he knew the beetles could not hear nor understand.
Laughter boiled up in him--the ringing, defiant laughter that was not
so much mirth as lust for battle.

But already the insects' Q-ray tubes were blinking. He had no choice
but to wheel and again run after Kyla.

And as he ran, a new sound slashed through to him: the familiar keening
blast of space-ship carrier craft lancing through the night.

Haral shot one swift glance upward. He glimpsed slim, silvery
streaks ... streaks that were carriers in flight.

Sark's carriers--?

Haral cursed aloud. Panting, staggering with fatigue and the weight
of his heavy copronium armor, he stumbled through the avenue's broken
stone. Once he fell. But Kyla's ray-gun blazed above him, holding back
the beetles till he could lurch up and wallow onward.

Then, at last, there was the pylon ... the yawning entrance at its base.

"Hurry!" Kyla cried. "They gain upon us!"

A Q-ray sang its shining song of death too near at hand.

       *       *       *       *       *

The blue man threw all his strength into one last effort. Together, he
and the girl ran through the entry, into the blackness.

Haral turned. He laced his back-track with the light-lance's searing
beam.

The beetles halted.

"This way," said Kyla. Her hand gripped Haral's. In silence, he
followed her further and further into the pylon's pitchy depths.

Now they walked on a strange, entangling surface that crunched brittly
beneath their feet.

Haral flicked on his lance's illumination cell just long enough to
glimpse the scene about them.

A prickling ran up and down his spine. For they walked a corridor of
death, a passage carpeted with bones ... the bones of those who once
had ruled this mighty city. A thousand skulls stared up at them, a
hollow-eyed horror. Skeletons spread in heaps and tangles, rising on
all sides like some rank, evil fungus.

Kyla's voice came through the darkness: "You wonder why we hate all
aliens, warrior? Once, a thousand years ago, this was our proudest
_Shamon_ city. Then the first ships came out of space to Ulna. They
hurled down bombs, and my people sought to hide here from them. But
gas came with the bombs--a heavy gas, and deadly. It seeped into these
ancient tunnels, and those who survived the blasts, the radiation, died
by thousands--yes, by millions...."

The girl's voice broke.

Her horror, her pain, pressed in on Haral. But he dared not let himself
think of them.

He said sharply: "This is no time for talk! Any moment, the coleoptera
may be upon us. Those ships that passed above us, too--they may have
been Sark's. If Namboina's told where Xaymar lies, Sark's men may beat
us to her. If we're to find her first, we must go quickly--"

"Yes, quickly!" Again Kyla's trembling hand seized his. She led the way
down a long, steep ramp, then on through what seemed endless blackness.
"The old books say these tunnels end beneath the Triad. And then, below
that--there lies our sleeping goddess, Xaymar!"

On they toiled, and on. Twice, in the ebon murk, they heard the
muffled rattle of coleopteran mandibles. Once, the beetles' acrid
stench rose rank and close into their nostrils.

"Pray to your gods, warrior, that they do not guess our goal in time to
head us off," Kyla whispered hoarsely.

"Pray to your own, and my light-lance!" Haral answered harshly. He
shifted, striving to ease the pain that still throbbed out from his
wounded shoulder. Numbly, he wondered how much longer he could go on.

They came out of the tunnel, then, into a vast, echoing subterranean
chamber.

"Now we must have light to find our way," the priestess said. "Already
we are beneath the Triad."

Haral flicked on his lance's illumination cell.

       *       *       *       *       *

The room stretched as far as its beam would throw. Other tunnels
debouched from the walls on every side.

"This way," said Kyla. "Xaymar's shrine lies beneath the central
staircase."

Together, they picked a path through more jumbled bones to the middle
of the vast concourse, then descended down the stair they found there
in spiral after spiral.

As they went down, the stink of the coleoptera grew steadily stronger.

"If this should be a trap--" Haral began.

"There is no other way," the priestess answered.

The staircase ended in a circular room. High ledges lined its walls.
In the center stood a great bronze ball, high as a tall man's head and
set in a base of polished stone. Markings were etched upon it, markings
that matched the configurations of this wild outlaw world of Ulna.

But slashing even deeper were other markings--the stylized images of
the lightning that were Xaymar's symbol.

"A strong man can roll the globe within its base," Kyla told Haral. She
studied the markings, chose a spot. "Here is the place. Now spin it
upward."

New uneasiness came upon Haral. The muscles along the back of his neck
felt stiff and drawn with tension.

He wondered if it could be his weariness, his wound.

But he could not shrug it off.

He said tightly. "This smells of danger, Kyla. There's trouble here."

Once more, he swept the lance's illumination beam across the room.

A long smear on the floor shimmered. Haral dropped to one knee, touched
it. "Look! This is wet, and not with water! It's more like the blood of
the coleoptera!"

A tremor ran through Kyla. "Then hurry! Quick! Spin the globe!"

The blue man straightened. Narrow-eyed, uneasy, he laid the lance
aside. Then, bracing himself, he put his unwounded shoulder to the
globe and heaved at it with all his might.

It moved a bare inch; then another.

He strained again.

Slowly, the great sphere turned. The edge of a slot cut in its under
side came into view--a crack that widened as the globe rolled within
the base, till an oblong orifice lay exposed like a tunnel mouth
leading down into the footing.

Haral started to step back.

But, of a sudden, a faint sound came--the muffled ring of metal against
stone.

Haral lunged for the light-lance.

But a harsh, unfamiliar voice slashed in upon him--a voice from atop
the high, flat ledge that lined the walls: "Drop it, _chitza_! Drop the
light-lance!"

From a different angle, another voice rang: "Quick! Drop it!"

A third: "Just one false move...."

An icy knot gathered in the pit of Haral's stomach. He let the lance
fall.

       *       *       *       *       *

To his right, a _Pervod_ rose into view upon the ledge, ray-gun
murderously ready. A squat, tentacled Thorian appeared to his left.
Sounds told him others were getting up behind him.

Desperately, he looked to Kyla.

But she stood rigid, fists clenched at her sides. The ray-pistol he'd
given her had disappeared.

He turned back to the _Pervod_. "Well, finish it!" he cried. "You're
here to burn us down. Get it done and be on your way!"

But the _Pervod_ didn't answer.

Instead, there was laughter ... ghoulish, obscene laughter, laughter
Haral had heard before.

A chill shook the blue man.

He wished he could be sure it was only his wound.

Again the laugh echoed; again. It came from the staircase, swelling
louder and louder with each passing second.

And then, there were more _Pervods_, more Thorians, more _Malyas_
and Martians and mutants. There, too, was _Gar_ Sark's famed Uranian
riding-chair sweeping into view on its anti-gravitational direction
beam.

There was Sark.

He leered at Haral. Never had the menace stood out in his fat face more
sharply.

"Burn you down--?" He repeated the blue man's words as if he liked
their flavor. "No, no, you _starbo_. I'd not do that. Not now; not
ever. It's far too quick a way for you to die."

"You'll do your worst, so do as you like." Haral forced himself to
shrug despite the pain.

Sark smirked. "Of course. But first there's another task we must
attend."

"Another task--?"

"Yes, now that you two have opened up the way." Sark chuckled, deep in
his throat. His fat-rimmed eyes gleamed like tiny, vicious stars. "We
go now to waken the living goddess, Xaymar, queen of storms, so that
she can deliver her secret into my hands!"



                               CHAPTER V


There lay the woman!

Xaymar. Woman and death, the end of a madman's quest.

The great crystal globe that cased her rested atop a dais in the center
of an echoing, high-roofed chamber. Pulsing, aglow with strange life,
its radiance fought back the crypt's impinging gloom.

Haral swayed for a moment under the impact of the sight, his wounds
forgotten. Excitement raced through him.

But Sark's men held him by either arm, and others penned him in front
and behind, and Sark himself sat in the riding-chair mere feet away,
his hand never straying from the cymosynthesizer switch.

And there was Kyla, pale and forlorn, in a Thorian's tentacled grasp.

The end of a quest, indeed. The bitter end.

Sickness came to Haral.

Yet because he was the man he was, such a mood could not last long even
here, even now. Thoughtfully, he gazed about--taking in the vaulted
roof; the walls, honeycombed with coleopteran burrows; the expressions
with which Sark's mongrel crewmen tried to mask their awe.

Above all, he looked upon the woman.

Sark's eyes, too, were gleaming. Drawn as by some mighty lodestone, he
sent his riding-chair scudding forward to the dais on which the globe
encasing the sleeping goddess rested. His web-fingered hand reached out
to touch the crystal.

Then, abruptly, he halted. Slowly, he withdrew his hand and wheeled the
chair about. His eyes sought Haral, and his lips parted in a leer.

He said: "Ulna has little love for strangers, _chitza_."

Haral said nothing.

"Perhaps they thought to trap a few with this pretty bauble," the
raider chief remarked. His smile was sinister. "Perhaps Namboina told
the things he told too easily, in order that he might laugh in hell
because I, too, had died."

Haral shrugged. "You talk in circles, _starbo_."

"You came here seeking to waken Xaymar, did you not?" Sark smirked. "I
merely meant that you should have the chance to do it."

His smile vanished. His words crackled: "Go to the dais, _chitza_!
Awaken Xaymar!"

Haral's captors shoved him forward. Numbly, he clumped across the floor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sark and his men drew back to the protection of the archway. Kyla stood
in the shadows, pressed against a wall.

For the fraction of a second, the blue man thought of calling out to
her to draw the ray-gun she'd hidden in her garments, and blast the
raiders with it.

But the fascination that lay in the sleeping goddess pulled even
stronger.

He ran his tongue along dry lips. It could be as Sark had guessed--that
this was a trap for the unwary; that the first time he touched the
bubble would also be the last.

Yet still he stepped onto the dais. Then, breathing deep, he wiped a
window through the dust that shrouded the shining globe.

Nothing happened.

A mass of valves and tubes and coils of unfamiliar pattern were mounted
high inside the bubble. To one side, a cord like a bell-pull hung
nearly to the floor.

But Haral gave the equipment scant heed. He had eyes only for the woman
known as Xaymar.

Her body gleamed smooth and sleek in this eerie light--voluptuous,
lithe-limbed, perfect. Motionless, naked save for the short, jeweled
veil that masked the top half of her face against a nimbus of jet-black
hair, she lay like some lovely manikin, frozen in a sleep as deep as
death itself. Yet, somehow, there was a warmth and texture to her skin
that seemed to reach out even through the crystal; a melding of curves
and hollows that cried out that once she, too, had been alive.

_And might still live!_

The blue man sucked in air. Pivoting, he studied the panel set in the
great globe's base.

The switch was there, just as Kyla had described it.

And the secret prayer, the call to waken--?

Only the soul of dead Namboina could chant it now.

Haral clutched the lever. Then, stiff with tension, he jammed it shut.

Seconds crept by on leaden feet. He felt a lone drop of icy sweat slide
down his spine.

Then, inside the bubble, greenish mist began to rise. It filled the
crystal casing. Eddying, swirling, it thickened till the woman's
recumbent form grew dim and blurred.

In the vibrant stillness, Haral could hear his own heart beat.

Slowly, the mist within the great globe thinned again. A tube set high
above the woman flashed on. Waves of pale violet light washed over her
smooth, nude, perfect body.

In spite of himself, Haral's tension soared.

Now--abruptly, without warning--a wild, shrill, keening sound rose
thinly. A new light blazed above the woman. Like lightning striking, a
shining, silvery beam lanced down out of a queerly-shaped projector.

       *       *       *       *       *

A sheet of crackling silver flame encased the woman. Her body went
suddenly rigid. She jerked spasmodically, lifting half clear of her cot
in a writhing, twisting arch.

Then, sharply, light and sound cut off again.

The woman fell back limply and lay still.

It dawned on Haral that his nails were rasping against the crystal.

Through an interminable moment, the woman within sagged inert as any
corpse. Then, almost imperceptibly, her lips quivered. The bare breasts
stirred as she drew a shallow, sobbing breath.

In the same instant, it seemed to Haral that he could see her lids open
beneath the veil. But he could not be sure.

She tried to lift herself; fell back.

Fiercely, Haral slashed at the crystal with his elbow.

The heavy copronium elbow-piece of his armor tore through the
globe--puncturing, not shattering. Haral stabbed at the bubble again,
and it ripped, in the manner of some flexible, transparent plastic.
Forcing a hand into the gash, the blue man tore a great chunk loose,
clear to the floor: then another.

Stepping inside, he bent over the woman--gripping her shoulders;
straining for her whisper.

"Quick! The flagon--!" Her hand stretched out in a feeble gesture.

Haral followed the movement to a holder beside the cot. It held a
flask. Snatching up the container, he tore away the seal, then lifted
and held the woman while she drank in great, greedy gulps.

When at last the flask was empty, she sank back once more. But now
color was flowing to her face. Her breathing steadily grew deeper and
more regular.

Haral let his weight rest on the edge of the cot. Very gently, he
reached to lift the goddess' veil.

Spasmodically, her hands came up. "No--!" Nails dug into his wrist.

He started at the tempestuous violence of her; the sudden strength.
Then, wearily, he drew back his hand.

In the same instant Sark's voice lanced in: "Leave her alone, _chitza_!"

Haral turned.

       *       *       *       *       *

The raider chief and his men were back, now. They poured into the crypt
in a rush. Sark himself swept toward the dais in his riding-chair as
on the crest of a wave, ahead of all the others. His thick lips were
working, his eyes hot with excitement.

But his fingers never left the cymosynthesizer switch.

Haral clenched his fist in frustrated fury. Of a sudden his wounds, his
weariness, hung heavy on him.

He glimpsed Kyla. Hesitantly, she, too, was coming towards the goddess.
Her lips were parted as if to cry out in protest against this whole
bizarre affair. Deep lines of strain marred the pale loveliness of her
face.

Sark cried: "Back, _chitza_! Stand clear of Xaymar!"

For an instant Haral stiffened. Then, painfully, he forced himself to
his feet.

But now a new voice interrupted, imperious and vibrant:

"Who are you to give commands, fat beast, here in the innermost
sanctuary of Xaymar, queen of storms?"

Haral pivoted.

The woman on the cot now sat erect, her very stance a mirror of
haughtiness and pride.

Anger flamed in Sark's puffy cheeks. "Who dares to question? I am
Sark--"

"Yes. He is Sark," Haral cut in. He poured savage irony into his words.
"They say you are a goddess, Xaymar. But he--he is Sark, _gar_ of the
space-raiders, a being so fierce and brave he does not even dare to
waken you himself!"

"Silence, _chitza_!" shrieked the raider chief.

Haral mocked him: "He seeks your secrets, Xaymar--if he can pay the
price with someone else's life, and not his own! As for commands--what
does he care that others call you goddess? He is the great _Gar_ Sark--"

Sark cried: "Kill the _starbo_--!"

Now, for the first time, the woman men knew as Xaymar gave the gross
raider heed. Twisting, she faced him. Her hand touched the cord that
hung down beside the cot on which she rested, and even that simple
gesture was somehow pregnant with a nameless menace that halted Sark
and his crewmen in their tracks.

In a voice suddenly cold as Pluto's ice-things, she said, "If he dies,
creature, you die with him!"

       *       *       *       *       *

For an instant there was a silence that echoed vibrant tension. Then,
calmly, Xaymar turned again to Haral. "And you, blue one--?" she
queried. "What of you? Why do you seek me?"

Haral let her words hang for a moment. He looked out across the
crypt ... past Sark, the crewmen, Kyla....

Kyla. She, too, rode with destiny; but it was a different destiny than
his, a destiny that tolled her doom already. The lines that etched
her face seemed even deeper now, set off by the contrast with the
shimmering spun gold of her hair. There was more than beauty in her.
There was spirit, also, born of stark courage, and all at once the very
sight of her brought a poignancy that stabbed him like a knife.

But he pushed it back, and let his laugh ring out. "I seek the only
thing in the void worth seeking!" he slashed recklessly. "I seek power,
Xaymar--the power to fulfill my destiny and carve an empire. But I
never thought to find the key to it locked in the brain of a woman as
beautiful as you, or I'd have sought it sooner!"

Xaymar's ripe lips parted. "Your tongue is skilled, blue man! It alone
should carry you to your empire!"

"But does that skilled tongue have truth, too, my goddess? Or is it so
practiced that now it lies by instinct?" It was Kyla who lashed out,
from a place close by the dais. Passion had brought hot color to her
cheeks.

"They lie, my goddess! All these aliens lie!" she rushed on fiercely.
"Hate and greed are the only creed they know. Already Ulna lies
drenched in the blood they've shed--the blood of your followers, ground
down by these monsters to slaves or less. Now, still thirsting for more
wealth, more power, they seek you, too, my goddess! They would make you
their slave--tear your secrets from you, that they may use the power
that lies within the lightning to reach out across the void for yet
more worlds to conquer--"

The woman who was the living goddess Xaymar, queen of storms, stared
coolly down at her slim young priestess, Kyla.

"You are of the _Shamon_, are you not?" she interrupted, and open
condescension was in her tone.

"Yes, my goddess--"

"A race of stuffy fools, the _Shamon_."

"My goddess--!"

"You prove my point. Who but a race of stuffy fools would try to pass
off a sleeping woman as a goddess? That is, unless they were knaves,
instead, seeking some gain by their deception."

"But these aliens would destroy us--"

"And why not, if the best you can do is pray to me for succor? The
blue one spoke true. Power is the only thing in all the void worth
seeking--for without it, man and race alike are doomed!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Kyla stood very still. But, watching her, Haral could see her lips
begin to tremble. The color was draining from her face again. Her
features had taken on a stiff, unnatural set.

"Then ... Xaymar, queen of storms, deserts her faithful ones for
aliens? She casts off my _Shamon_ people ... me, her priestess--?"

Xaymar tossed her head. "I tire of this dreary prattle!" she cried, and
gestured to a massive, tentacled Thorian at Sark's side. "You! Take
this _Shamon_ drab away!"

For the fraction of a second the Thorian's great saucer eyes rolled
from Xaymar to Sark to Kyla. Then, wordless, he undulated towards the
shrinking girl.

And Haral, too, stared, still not quite believing that this incredible
creature, be she woman or devil or goddess, could so take command even
of Sark's own men.

Then, again, he glimpsed the stiffness in Kyla's face, and a strange
uneasiness gripped him. Perhaps it was the way she stood, almost as if
waiting for the Thorian, with no thought of retreating.

The Thorian whipped a tentacle towards her.

But in the same instant Kyla, too, was moving. Her hair shimmered like
quicksilver as she slid beneath the Thorian's snake-like member. Her
hand darted beneath her filmy outer garment, then out again, jerking
forth her ray-gun. Her body twisted as she stabbed the weapon close to
the Thorian's monstrous bulk.

Then she was blasting, at so short a range that the raider's flesh
burst asunder under the impact of the beam.

The Thorian's tentacles lashed out in frenzy. But already the girl was
leaping back beyond his grasp.

Now, she was turning; springing up onto the dais. Her voice rang with a
fury born of outrage:

"Die, traitor! Die for the _Shamon_ and for Ulna!"

She blazed a ray straight for Xaymar's naked body.

Haral threw himself forward, between the two women. Desperately, he
tried to knock Kyla's ray-gun up with one hand while he swept Xaymar
from her cot with the other.

But his wound-stiffened shoulder caught. The ray-gun's energy bolt
burst on his own chest-plate. Its impact smashed him down. For a
split second he saw the crypt as a blazing kaleidoscope of action, a
maelstrom swirling in on a pain-wracked vortex that was his brain. He
caught the madness in Kyla's eyes; the sudden panic in the way that
Xaymar fell. Beyond them, the space-raiders' faces merged in a weird
blurred jumble.

Then Sark was roaring, "Now! Now! Seize them--!"

Frantically, Haral tried to tear clear of pain and shock and debris.

But before he could move, Xaymar caught the cord that hung beside her.
Spasmodically, she jerked it down.

He knew, somehow, that it was an alarm, even though the sound of its
signal was pitched too high and thin for human ears.

The sight that followed was one of the strangest he had ever seen.

       *       *       *       *       *

For out of the thousands of coleopteran burrows that pock-marked the
walls of this hidden crypt, a horde came leaping--a horde of great
scarlet beetles that hurtled down upon Sark and his raiders before they
could so much as turn. A living wave, they burst over the crewmen and
the dais--clutching the aliens, bearing them down; yet holding them,
not killing.

Haral found himself flat on his back, pinned there by two monstrous
coleoptera. Kyla, too, lay prone, shaking under the touch of another of
the beetles.

Haral twisted, looking for Xaymar.

Alone out of all the throng, she stood erect, untouched. A horde of the
coleoptera had grouped themselves about her. Now they bent low in weird
attitudes of genuflection.

The woman waved them back with a quick, impatient gesture. Swiftly, she
picked her way to Haral.

The beetles that held him gave way before her. Gripping the blue man's
hand, she helped him to his feet.

"You see, warrior--?" She lifted her hand in a sweeping, all-inclusive
gesture. "I know what power means--a power greater than any the void
has ever seen. I, too, have carved an empire: the empire of these
silent ones, the coleoptera. To them, I am truly goddess. They are mine
to command."

Haral swayed a little. Tiny waves of nausea washed over him, rising
like vapors out of the pain flowing from his wound. With a sort of dull
detachment, he observed that blood had begun to drip from his left
hand's fingers once again.

A trifle thickly, he said, "I hear your words. But what good is your
beetle empire? Where can it lead you? How far can you go?"

The woman called Xaymar smiled a smile that was old when this outlaw
world was young. "Did you not say I held the key to your fate, blue
one? The coleoptera are my workers and my warriors. Because I saw the
role that they might play, I helped them gain the power of thought; so
now they help me turn my dreams to destiny."

"Dreams?" Haral muttered. "Dreams indeed! They say you've lain here
sleeping a thousand years."

Xaymar laughed softly, tauntingly. "And why do you suppose I slept so
long, blue warrior? Believe me, it was not out of boredom. No; I, too,
like you, reached out for power. But first I had to fill my legion's
ranks. I needed time for my coleoptera to breed and multiply, in
preparation for my day of conquest...."

She paused, and the jewels with which her veil was set seemed to gleam
so bright that Haral closed his eyes against them. Once again the air
of nameless menace he'd felt before crept through the crypt.

Xaymar's voice came as from afar: "We shall ride together, warrior, you
and I! You've saved my life, and you have a will that matches mine.
I've longed this thousand years and more for a man like you to share my
dreams...."

The words went on and on, but Haral could no longer hear. The sickness
in him grew. He knew of a sudden that he was going to fall.

Words and more words--an incoherent jumble. He was toppling now, yet
there was nothing he could do to stop it. In great, languorous spirals,
the floor of the dais was roaring up into his eyes.

But as it approached, somehow, it grew dimmer ... dimmer ... dimmer....

Then new words came. Or, rather, old words, thundering out of the black
sack of his memory.

Kyla's words:

"_Each night she took a different lover--and then, at the dawn, at her
command, each one was slain!_"

The blackness closed in....



                              CHAPTER VI


Haral woke in the glow of a wondrous iridescent warmth that pulsed
through every nerve and fiber of his body. The pain and weariness were
gone. Surging strength, new vigor, flooded through him.

Slowly, still not quite believing his own senses, he opened his eyes.

He discovered that the iridescence was no mere metaphor, no figment of
his imagination. For he lay in what seemed a boundless sphere of light
that painted his naked body with an interweaving, continually changing
tapestry of glowing color.

He would have reached up to touch the wound in his shoulder, then, but
when he tried, he found he could not move; that his whole body was
somehow gripped in invisible bonds of force that held and molded him at
will. They twisted him, turned him, flexed and stretched his muscles.
Apparently without support, he moved through space and time--now
flat on his back; now curled first on one side and then the other;
now upright, upside down, cramped or contorted into an infinity of
positions.

When his head rotated as under the pressure of unseen fingers, he at
last glimpsed his shoulder. With a shock, he saw it had grown well and
whole. No wound was visible, no scar apparent.

The blue man relaxed, content to bask unresisting in this wondrous
healing bath of radiant energy.

Then, slowly, the radiance dimmed. Haral felt himself sinking gently.
His back brushed what might have been resilient fabric, and he came to
rest. The last of the light had faded. He lay in utter darkness.

Xaymar's voice reached out of the blackness close at hand: "Is the pain
gone from your body, warrior?"

"Yes. All gone."

"Yet this unit that gives out life and strength is but one of the least
of all my secrets!" The voice of the woman-goddess took on a deeper,
more vibrant timbre. "There are so many things I know--so many secrets
of life and death--But come! You shall see them with me!"

       *       *       *       *       *

A switch clicked as she spoke. Light came--a strange, halo-like glow
without visible source, utterly unlike the shimmering radiance that had
gone before. It formed a lambent wall against the blackness.

Haral sat up. He found himself on a cot much like the one on which the
queen of storms herself had lain, back in the crypt.

She was here beside him now, her lips curved in a smile of welcome
below the veil. She wore a close-fitting, high-necked garment of some
unique material that matched the glistening blue-black of her hair.
Yet, though the raiment masked her body's ripe curves with fabric, the
overall effect became one of accent rather than concealment.

It made Haral suddenly conscious of his own nude frame. He shifted.

Xaymar laughed. "There's a cloak on the rack beneath your cot, my blue
one." She turned. "Follow me."

The note of mockery in her tone jabbed at Haral beyond all reason. But
he swept the cloak about him with one swift, incisive movement and fell
in beside the woman.

He wondered where this road would take him. Whether it led to
destiny ... or death.

Instinctively, at the thought, he shot a narrow-eyed glance at Xaymar,
and his blood quickened. The momentary irritation fell away. Perhaps
even death would not be too high a price to pay for a night as this
strange creature's lover.

But why a single night? Why did she kill when the new day came?

Above all, why did she wear that weird jeweled veil?

For the moment, at least, he could not hope for answers. Shrugging, he
turned his attention elsewhere.

The light was moving with them as they walked, like a torch afloat in
an encroaching sea of blackness. The echo of their footsteps told the
blue man that they must be in some vast, high-ceilinged chamber--a
cave, a hall.

Yet they stood alone. There was no sign of life about them.

Haral said: "What happened to the others?"

"The ... others--?" Xaymar's voice held a curious note of hesitation.

"Sark and his men. The priestess, Kyla."

It was the woman's turn to shrug. "I let Sark go, on his promise that
he'd blast off within the hour he reached his ships."

"You let him go--?" Haral stared. His tension and temper soared. "Are
you mad, woman? Sark's word's worth nothing. He'll blast off, yes--but
only to roar down on you here and smash you!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Xaymar stopped short. Before Haral realized what she was doing, she
lashed a slap out at him. Fire flashed through his face beneath her
fingers. "Have a care who you call mad, blue warrior!" she cried in
fury. "Men have died for less--as you can die--"

The sight of her anger lit a spark within Haral. Of a sudden he did not
care whether this was death or destiny. Before she could escape, he
caught the hand with which she'd slapped him and jerked her to him.

"The blood runs hot in others' veins as well as yours," he rasped out
tightly. "You've gone too long with your arrogance unchallenged. But
I'm the man to break that habit."

Her nails raked bloody paths along his sides. Her feet beat at his
shinbones.

Haral cursed her--and then, bringing her face to his by sheer brute
strength, he kissed her.

Her body went limp against him. Her bruised lips welcomed his.

He breathed deep; straightened. "And now--we'll see what's hidden
beneath that veil!"

Her body went rigid again. She twisted as he clutched for the jeweled
mask. "No, blue man--"

He caught the veil and ripped it off.

In the same instant, before he could see her face, the light snapped
out.

They stood there in the darkness, then, adventurer and goddess, bodies
tight together, the silence broken only by the hoarse rasp of their
breathing.

Then Haral said, "I can wait as long as you can, Xaymar."

She laughed softly. "You leave no doubt about your daring, do you,
warrior? Nor am I even angry with you for it. I like a man with the
strength to take what he desires. But not quite yet. You'll have to
wait a little while."

"Then you'll wait, too--till the light goes on again."

"Must I?" The mocking note crept back into her tone. "Don't press the
gods of chance too far...."

"You'll wait," Haral said.

As he spoke, he felt something touch his backbone a little above his
waist.

The next second two great claws clutched him just below the ribs.

He stiffened.

Xaymar laughed again. "We'll wait!" she mocked him. "We'll wait till
the light goes on--or a coleopteron rips out your backbone!"

Haral stood motionless. His hands all at once were slick with sweat.

Xaymar's ripe body came full against him. Her hands touched his face,
pulled his lips down to hers. Then--fiercely, brutally--as he had
kissed her, she kissed him.

Her words came, a vibrant whisper: "You are the one who's mad, blue
man! But it is a madness that can lead you to your own dark destiny--if
you live!"

She twisted free.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a moment of black silence. Then the light snapped on. Once
more the veil masked Xaymar's face as it had before.

The mandibles let go of Haral. Stiffly, he looked around.

Half a dozen of the great scarlet beetles stood within the lighted
circle, watching him with cold, multi-faceted insectile eyes.

He shuddered.

As if there had been no interruption, Xaymar said: "You wonder why
I let Sark go. But I had no choice. He told of a thing called a
cymosynthesizer with which he could destroy our planetoid of Ulna."

"And if he lied--?"

"He did not. I looked into his brain and saw he spoke the truth as best
he knew it."

"You ... looked into his brain?"

"I have that power." Xaymar's smile was cryptic, whether with dark
mirth or ancient wisdom Haral could not say. "Thoughts to me are things
to grasp like tools or weapons. When I focus my brain I can turn
another mind inside out and drain it dry."

An uneasiness chilled Haral's spine. "You speak in jest...."

"You mean--you wish I did?" The woman laughed aloud, and the light
glinted in her hair as on dark waters. "In jest, then--I looked into
Sark's brain, and when I saw the things I saw, I turned him and his
crewmen free."

Haral grimaced. "And he'll come back."

"Of course. I saw that, too. But I do not care." Again Xaymar smiled
her cryptic smile. "Now, come! You shall see why I await him without
fear!"

They walked on again. Then, at last, there was a door ahead and, beyond
it, a long, dark passageway.

Haral frowned as he strode through the murk beside the woman. Once
more, as he had a dozen times before, he thought of Kyla, with her
dreams and rippling golden hair and slim young body. She was so
different from this dark voluptuary who was a living goddess. Yet she,
too, had shared the dangers of this adventure with him.

What had happened to her? He wondered. But something told him to make
no query.

Another door loomed. Xaymar cried, "Behold my warriors!"

She flung the portal wide.

Haral stared.

For here were no coleoptera. Here lay what appeared to be a mausoleum,
instead--another vast, echoing chamber, dim-lighted and stretching out
as far as the eye could see, with banked, sealed crypts rising row on
row from floor to ceiling, like some monstrous, many-celled honeycomb.

Xaymar asked: "Now do you see why I slept so willingly for a thousand
years, my warrior? In each cell here is sealed an egg, preserved secure
from harm and the ravages of time. From each egg, when the time to
strike has come, will spring one of my fighting coleoptera--"

She broke off; hurried the blue man up a ramp to another level.

Here were stacked Q-ray tubes, light-guns, and blasters, piled high in
bins by millions upon millions.

"Come! There is still more!"

They climbed another ramp.

At the top, before a heavy door, a huge coleopteron waited.

       *       *       *       *       *

The woman who was the living goddess Xaymar paused, head tilted. It was
as if she were listening to some silent message. Then she turned, half
towards Haral, and her lips curved in a strange smile that was somehow
infinitely evil. She spoke no word, but even the blue man could feel
the hammering, affirmative impact of her thought-waves: "Yes ...
yes ... yes...."

The great scarlet beetle moved swiftly off down another corridor.

Xaymar moved close to the door. Like magic, it opened before her.

She said: "Beyond this door, no being but me has ever gone, blue
warrior! But now you, too, shall enter!"

Haral followed her across the threshold.

The door swung shut behind them.

The room in which they stood was cramped and box-like, with walls and
floor and ceiling of dully gleaming metal. As the portal closed, a
feeling of motion pulled at Haral's vitals. It dawned on him that they
had entered some sort of carrier that even now was hurtling them upward
with the speed of lightning.

Then the feeling left him. The door opened once more, and they stepped
out into the hot yellow light of an Ulnese day.

Shielding his eyes against the sudden glare, Haral looked about.

Above them rose a gigantic crystal bubble, a dozen times as large
as the one beneath which Xaymar had lain sleeping. Set high amid
craggy grey and green and purple peaks, it thrust up like a beacon, a
watch-tower, into the yellow sky. Concentric circular tracks on which
were mounted banks of strange, snub-nosed projectors, each set at a
different angle, ran round the globe above his head. Control boards, a
mass of indicator dials and switches, were set at intervals along the
metal-walled, chest-high base.

Xaymar touched his arm. "Your trappings, blue man...."

He turned to her gesture. There, stacked in a niche beside the shaft
up which they'd come, lay his light-lance, his armor, the clothes he'd
worn.

"Your steed, too...." The woman pointed through the crystal, down the
slope.

Haral stared. His great blue Mercurian _hwalon_ dragon moved
restlessly to and fro in a narrow natural yard bounded on three sides
by steep rock walls less than half an Earth mile from them. Two
coleoptera stood guard along the open side.

Narrow-eyed, Haral turned back to the woman. "But why? What made you
bring my gear here, and my _hwalon_?"

"Is it not plain?" shrugged Xaymar. "You are a warrior, and I have need
of such to lead my beetle hordes to battle."

"To battle--?"

"My day has come. In a little while I shall reach out and seize all
Ulna. You know the ways of the aliens who now hold it, so you shall be
in the van of my advancing legions. You'll show them when and where to
strike; how best to meet the alien weapons."

       *       *       *       *       *

Haral tried to probe the blankness that was her veil; to fathom the
mind of this strange woman who hid her beauty behind its jewel-sprayed
folds.

At last he said: "You've picked the wrong man, Xaymar. I'm a warrior,
yes--but not such a fool that I'll try to lead your ground-bound hordes
out to battle against space ships. The wars of the void are fought in
the air, not down in the muck and mire of a pygmy planetoid. Sark would
butcher your beetles from above before they'd marched a mile."

Xaymar's lips curved. The clash of cymbals, of swords and shields, was
in her laugh.

"This one war will be different, blue man! We'll fight to seize and
hold the ground till Ulna's taken. Then will be time enough to talk of
ships that slash across the void, and battles for planets fought in
deep space."

"But Sark's fleet--"

"Sark will have no fleet!" the woman slashed back fiercely. Her whole
body swayed, and even here, in the full light of the blazing yellow
sky, her hair showed black as a Martian _koboc's_ sinister hood. "You
came here seeking my secret, warrior. I mean that you--"

Close at hand, a bell rang shrilly.

Xaymar halted in mid-sentence. Whirling, she flicked a switch on the
nearest of the control boards.

A plate like that of a visiscreen flashed on. Swiftly, the woman
adjusted dials.

Blurs on the plate resolved into a horde of rising silver ships. Like
screaming meteors, they lanced into the sky.

"Sark's ships?" the woman who was a fleshly goddess asked Haral coolly.

He nodded. "Yes. Carriers. Light craft, small and slow enough to fight
close-in on a world the size of Ulna."

"But not all Sark's fleet?"

"No. His great raiders would have no room here to maneuver."

"Then Sark himself still lingers at the spaceport, waiting to see how
I'll meet this latest challenge."

"What--?"

Xaymar laughed. "He fears me, blue man. I read it in his brain as he
sat there in my crypt. And I learned more: this weapon of his you call
a cymosynthesizer is useless once he's in the air. So he'll leave it on
the ground and then stay with it for the sake of the protection that
it offers, instead of risking his own fat neck in one of the ships he
sends against me."

       *       *       *       *       *

The ships on the screen were looming ever larger now. Streaks of silver
light set against dullness, they hurtled closer ... closer....

Forcing casualness into his voice, Haral gestured to them. "And what
will you do when at last they reach us?" He touched what appeared to be
some sort of triangulation finder. "At the rate they're moving, they
should be here within another minute."

Turning, not answering, Xaymar stepped to a huge switch-box set in the
center of the bubble's floor and threw a lever. An eerie, whining sound
rose, and with it a faint smell of ozone.

The woman threw a second lever. A third. A fourth.

The whining grew louder, the odor stronger.

Xaymar moved back to the control board. Almost idly, she said: "They
call me queen of storms."

Haral stayed silent. But of a sudden his heart was pounding.

"Do you know the power of the lightning, blue man? Can you vision the
force that lies locked within it?"

The whining continued to rise. It was almost a thin scream now.

Still Haral waited, wordless.

Xaymar twisted dials again. The warrior saw that her knuckles showed
white through the skin. Her voice took on new intensity, new vibrance:

"You dream of power, blue man--but never can you have imagined power
such as this!" She laughed, a little wildly. "I cannot pretend to
explain these things so you can understand them. But a thousand years
ago I learned how to create what I choose to call an ionic vacuum--an
electrolytic vortex that sucks in electrons from the atmosphere's
neutral atoms. The very process sets up a storm condition. Wind, rain,
turbulence--they all come with it."

Like an echo to her words, a shadow fell across the inverted crystal
bowl in which they stood.

Incredulously, Haral shot a fast glance skyward. An icy knot took form
deep in his midriff.

Where mere seconds before he had gazed up into the bright, clear yellow
of the Ulnese day, now clouds were swirling! Before his very eyes, they
grew and darkened.

Through his haze of shock, Xaymar's words came dimly:

"A storm is a dynamo, blue one--a dynamo greater than it lies within
man's power even to conceive! It generates the lightning. Mighty bolts
crash from it down to earth--spent, wasted. But these projectors,"--she
gestured to the massed banks that lined the tracks overhead--"these
projectors can direct its fury! They focus its shafts, throw out
magnetic targets for it...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Now the whole sky above them had grown dark. For as far as Haral could
see, the storm-clouds gathered. The roar of thunder drowned out the
shrilly keening whine that filled his tortured ears. Lightning leaped
in blinding sheets and chains and flashes.

With an effort, the blue man tore his eyes from the violence overhead
and looked again to the viewer plate by the control board.

It blazed with the glint of Sark's carrier ships. A rushing silver wall
of death, they hurtled ever nearer.

"Twenty seconds more!" Xaymar cried into his ear. "Twenty seconds--and
they perish!"

The hurtling ships overflowed the screen. Hulls blotted out the sky.

"Ten seconds!"

The plate blurred, out of focus.

"Look! They come!" shrieked Xaymar, and there was a vindictive triumph
in her scream that whispered of something close to madness.

Haral followed her sweeping gesture--up, to the sky itself, and the
rocket-borne death that dwelt there.

There were Sark's ships--a fleet, a horde. Now they lanced downward
on their final strike. The roar of their rockets slashed through the
storm.

In spite of himself, Haral felt the clutch of fear.

Overhead, the projector banks were tracking. The lightning was a
blinding, continuous flash.

"Is it power you want?" screamed Xaymar madly. "I'll show you power,
blue warrior!"

Her hand darted out and pressed a button.

The heavens exploded.

Desperately, Haral kept his eyes on the raider fleet. Through the blaze
and glare, he saw great, jagged bolts spear down upon it. Some ships
were split, some torn asunder. A hundred smashed themselves to atoms on
the cruel crags of the mountains.

Others simply disappeared in mid-air.

In ten seconds not one was left still in the sky.

Haral sagged limp against an upright.

How many battles had he seen across the void? How many ships gone down
in blood and flame?

But beside this, all the rest were nothing. Where they left off, this
cataclysmic holocaust began.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was the answer to his dream of power, his pact with destiny. Given
this weapon--yes, this weapon only--the universe was his!

He swayed in the grip of his mad ambition. His heart was a driving,
hammering piston.

Xaymar said: "Throw the switches, blue one. Let the storm pass."

Numbly, Haral stepped to the box and slammed down the four heavy levers.

The whining died away. The smell of ozone faded.

The woman came close to him. "We shall rule the universe together,
warrior...."

He looked at her ... at raven hair and ripe, half-parted lips and
slender fingers ... the temptation, incarnate, that lay in her perfect
body.

She whispered: "Kiss me, warrior!"

A tremor ran through him. He pulled her to him.

Her head went back. Her lips were trembling.

Breathing deep, Haral kissed her. The softness of her mouth made him a
little giddy. Her lips clung to his. He could feel her arms about him,
the pressure of her breasts against him.

But the jewels in her veil gouged his cheek.

What did that bizarre mask hide?

And there were Kyla's words again:

"_Each night she took a different lover--and then, at the dawn, at her
command, each one was slain!_"

He lifted his head, then, and the living goddess whom men called Xaymar
laughed softly, still in his arms.

"How many men have sought my kisses, warrior? Yet I ask you to claim
them!"

Haral did not speak.

Her midnight hair brushed his face. "There will be nights without
number, blue one--nights when you'll forget even your ambition in my
arms!"

"Yes."

She drew back a fraction. "Why, then, are you so silent? Am I not
beautiful? Can you not feel the warm fire I promise you?" Her voice
took on a sudden edge. "Or--is it that you would rather hold that
blonde _Shamon tirot_ they call Kyla in your arms?"

With an effort, Haral held his face immobile. "Now you speak as a
woman, not a goddess. Kyla was your priestess. I sought her only to
guide me to you."

Xaymar pushed back from him. "Have a care how you lie to me, blue man!
I looked into your mind while you lay unconscious. She was there, that
Kyla! Your first thoughts were of her!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Haral let his words go harsh and angry: "You still talk like a jealous
woman! She gave me only trouble. I care nothing for her."

"Trouble? That was all she gave you?" Xaymar taunted. Her lips twisted.
"Then you'll be happy to hear what I've done with her, warrior!"

"What you've done--?" Haral's words came blurted. In spite of himself,
tension rolled up within him. "What do you mean? Where is she?"

"You'll laugh with me, blue man! She tried to kill me, yet I was
merciful, as a goddess should be. Instead of tearing her heart out, I
freed her, and found a mate to woo her."

"A mate--?"

"A mate fit for her kind of _tirot_." Xaymar laughed, and of a sudden
the spell of nameless menace and infinite evil Haral had caught before
rang in the sound. "I gave her to Sark."

"Sark--!" Haral reeled.

"Yes, Sark." The woman moved back one sinuous step, then another, like
a great cat toying with its prey. "He asked that I let him take her
away from Ulna with him. I said no. But then, later, it came to me that
I could devise no greater suffering for her, so I sent her to him."

"You ... sent her to that creature?"

"Yes. Already she's on her way there." A fiend would have envied
Xaymar's smile. "That was why the coleopteron was wailing for me at the
shaft below here. He sought my last decision--and I said, 'Yes. Good
riddance. Let Sark have her.'"

Through a scarlet haze, Haral cried out, "Curse you, Xaymar!"

He was moving forward in the same instant, lashing out at her, and he
saw her mouth go slack with shock at his sudden onslaught.

Then his fist hammered home on her jaw: The force of it lifted her and
slammed her back across the bubble, to land in a heap on the floor,
crumpled and unconscious.

Then the haze cleared. Numbly, Haral stared down at her.

Why had he done it? What did he care whether Sark got Kyla? He'd meant
it when he said she'd given him naught but trouble. His destiny lay
here--here, with Xaymar, queen of storms; here, with the secrets that
would give him the power to carve out his dream empire. This other was
sheer madness--without sense or logic; without even volition.

Yet he'd done it.

And now--?

Already, out there in the green-grey-purple Ulnese mountains, a slim
_Shamon_ girl was being dragged to a monster.

Almost without thinking, he looked to his armor.

He was half-way down the slope to his _hwalon_ before it dawned on him
that, with Xaymar unconscious and at his mercy, he'd still forgotten
even to look beneath her veil.



                              CHAPTER VII


Bleakly, Haral looked down on the knot of coleoptera moving through the
valley below.

There could be no mistake. This was the party. Even from here, sitting
his _hwalon_ high amid the barren crags above them, he could glimpse
the shimmering gold of the captive Kyla's hair.

He pondered. Nearly a dozen of the giant beetles were in the party,
guarding the girl on all sides.

Further, considering their mastery of mind-to-mind communication, it
seemed impossible that they had not heard by now of his escape and
mission.

Almost affectionately, he touched his own worn helmet. With it to
insulate his brain, at least he had little to fear from the weird mind
control that was their deadliest weapon.

As for the odds, what real difference did it make whether they were a
dozen to one against him, or a hundred? From any angle, his course was
madness, and no calculation could make it otherwise. He'd thrown out
logic when he struck Xaymar down and blasted the two beetles on guard
over his _hwalon_. Now his fate lay with the gods of the void and his
own right arm.

Laughing harshly, he wheeled the dragon. Then, light-lance raised and
ready, he moved on down the rock-strewn defile for a closer survey of
the situation.

When he came out of the gorge, he'd quartered the distance between him
and his quarry. Thoughtful, narrow-eyed, he studied the group in more
detail from the cover of a boulder.

But the coleoptera were obviously on guard. Two ranged ahead as scouts.
Another pair closed up the rear, while one held to either side of the
procession's line of march as outriders. The rest of the party stayed
close-grouped about the girl.

Again the blue man checked the rugged terrain, searching for some
accident of ground that would give him the chance he needed.

Ahead, the valley narrowed sharply, then divided. One of the two spurs,
that on the left, was cramped and tortuous, a cleft-like gully. The
other, smoother and wider, had walls so steep that it could not but
force in the beetles covering the company's flanks.

Haral breathed a fraction faster. Spurring the _hwalon_ forward,
following the high ground and taking advantage of every rise and rift
and clump of cover, he headed full-tilt for the narrow left spur of the
divided valley, racing to reach it ahead of the coleoptera.

       *       *       *       *       *

His mount strained to the task. Clawing through broken stone, around
boulders, up a dozen near-sheer rock faces, it matched the pace of the
beetles as they hurried along the infinitely smoother road that was the
valley. Then, slowly, it began to pull ahead. Rear guard, main group,
scouts--one after another, they were lost to the blue man's view as the
great dragon surged to the fore.

The last rise loomed. Haral pressed the _hwalon_ up it.

A moment later, they were plunging perilously down the steep wall of
the left spur.

At the bottom, Haral wheeled the dragon to the right, back towards the
spot where the two spurs came together. Riding swiftly to its mouth,
he took up a position in a side crevice where boulders permitted him a
view of the valley's main course, while at the same time screening him
from the view of the coleoptera.

A rattle of stones, the rustle of wing-sheaths, warned him of the
beetles' approach. Seconds later, the two advance scouts came into view.

Haral sat statue-still in the _hwalon's_ saddle. He shifted his grip
closer to his lance's trigger.

The scouts came abreast his hiding-place, so close he could catch their
smell and see their ray-tubes' glitter. He held his breath.

Then they passed on. Haral let out air.

Mandibles clacking like deadly castinets, the outriders moved up.

Again Haral froze.

But they, too, passed, unheeding.

Now louder sounds drifted to him. There was a whispering of hairy feet
on sand; a slither of insectile bodies.

And, through it, a silvery voice rose, singing.

The main body of the coleoptera appeared. Kyla pocketed among them.

Her hair was mud-caked now, and streaked and straggling. Her garments,
too, were torn, and bruises and cuts showed through the rents.

Yet still she sang her _Shamon_ song, head high and back unbending.
And if she reeled and stumbled as she walked, it was weariness and not
defeat that caused it.

It came to Haral in that moment that even madness had its glory ...
that even death could be worthwhile.

He leaned forward, lance poised and focused on the coleoptera that
shoved and buffeted her along.

But the time was not yet. Savagely, he fought down the rage that
seethed within him, waiting while the beetles and their captive moved
on past the spur that hid him and the _hwalon_.

Then, swiftly, before the rear guard could appear, he drove his great
blue dragon forward--out of the crevice, out from behind the screening
boulders, out of the spur canyon itself.

       *       *       *       *       *

Like a thunderbolt, then, he charged, straight at the rear of the knot
of huge scarlet beetles. His shout rose, a battle-cry of fury. The
_hwalon's_ rush drummed a death-roll.

A glad cry burst from Kyla's lips. She tried to dart to Haral.

But fatigue slowed her. A coleopteron sprang upon her from behind, and
she crashed to the ground. Great mandibles reached out to crush her.

Haral blazed with his light-lance. The beetle died.

The girl lurched to her knees. But she could not rise. Another
coleopteron rushed in to seize her.

Haral's _hwalon_ lunged to her. Catching her up in one mighty claw, it
dragged her close and stood above her, defying the beetles with all
the menace of its fangs and talons and horrid, hook-beaked head.

Haral whipped round his light-lance just as the pursuing insect flicked
on its Q-ray. The savage jolt of the beam striking home rocked him
in the saddle. But the heavy copronium armor's breastplate held. He
triggered the lance.

The beetle spun crazily, legs kicking, as the life seared out of it.

The _hwalon_ lifted Kyla. Swinging forward, heedless of the other
Q-rays that now appeared close about him, the blue man caught her and
dragged her up beside him.

Already, the _hwalon_ was backing and pivoting with the amazing agility
of its kind.

Again and again, Haral triggered the light-lance, clearing a path for
them. They raced back up the valley in the same direction from which
they'd come.

The two coleoptera of the rear guard, close in now, made one futile
effort to cut them down. But the furious rush of the blue man and his
dragon was too much for them. They broke, scrambling desperately for
safety.

Then Haral, girl and _hwalon_ were out of the narrow part of the
valley. The broad expanse where travel was easier and faster lay before
them.

But instead of taking it, the blue man turned the dragon back into the
bleak, craggy hills. Grimly, he urged his mount on deeper and deeper
into the wild mountains, all ups and downs and steep rock ledges. He
still had not spoken to the slim young _Shamon_ priestess.

He wondered if it were because he was afraid to put into words the
thoughts that gnawed within him.

But now she turned to him. "Where do we go, Haral?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He shrugged and gave her a twisted smile. "Where is there to go,
Priestess Kyla? To the city, the spaceport. It's our only hope."

"The spaceport--?"

"If we stay on Ulna, sooner or later Sark or Xaymar or the coleoptera
will hunt us down. We've got to blast off, somehow, and that quickly."

She looked at him for a long moment, and it suddenly came to him that
he had never realized before that her eyes were blue.

Blue, and calm, and very steady.

She said quietly, "I'll never leave Ulna, Haral."

There were the words he'd feared, already spoken. They tied a knot of
tension in him.

"Not even after all this? Not even with your life at stake?"

"No, Haral. Not even if it means death in Sark's arena."

He smiled again, wryly, because he knew that if he didn't smile, the
dark thoughts that came with his tension would boil over. "It's up to
you. But I've no taste for Sark's tender mercies, and even less for
Xaymar's."

She said, "I'm sorry," and would have turned away. But now he would
not, could not, let her. He lashed out:

"What do you mean, you're sorry? Sorry for what? That not everyone's
fool enough to want to die on your crazy rockpile planet?"

Her eyes flashed. "Are you so afraid of death, then, blue man?"

"You ask it?" His fury ate into his words like acid. "You _dare_ to ask
it, after the blood I've shed just to save your lovely neck?"

The blue eyes lost their fire. "Haral, I'm sorry. Truly sorry--"

But the rage that was in him now would not let him take up the peace he
knew she was trying to offer.

"What do I care for dying? I've gambled my life a thousand times,
a thousand ways. But curse me for a _chitza_ if I want to die for
nothing! What would it gain me or anyone else if I stayed here and
drowned in my own blood in Sark's arena? If I perish, at least let it
be somewhere along the road to empire, not here in the backwash of this
pest-hole you call Ulna!"

The words quenched his fire, and as it died a strange confusion churned
within him, a discomfiture that seemed to come only when he spoke with
this slim girl, Kyla. Furiously, he riveted his gaze straight to the
pathless wilderness ahead, trying to lose himself in scrutiny of the
rocky course the _hwalon_ followed.

But Kyla asked, "Is that, then, your only dream, Haral? A dream of
empire? Is that the height of your ambition?"

"What--?" He turned in the saddle to stare at her, as much for her tone
as for her words. He thought he almost caught a note of sadness.

Or perhaps it was disillusion.

       *       *       *       *       *

In spite of him, it brought back the old, hot-blooded, restless,
reckless fever: the fever that had carried him through all these years
of blood and battle.

He threw out his challenge fiercely:

"What better dream can a fighting man have than one of empire,
priestess? What higher ambition?"

She bit her lip. Her eyes fell before his onslaught.

"They spell out power, my priestess!" he cried in bitter triumph.
"Power, do you hear? Without it, a man's as nothing--sport for the
rabble, fair game for every passing knave. With it--"

"With it, you can be a butcher and a tyrant!" the girl slashed in upon
him. He could see the lines of strain and inner tumult etch deeper into
her face. "You can carve your bloody way like Sark himself, till some
worse monster topples you from your throne!"

Haral clenched his fist. He threw his words like thundering boulders.

"Strength rules the void, woman! Give me the strength to carve my way
and I'll ask no more!"

The girl's face whitened. Her lips trembled. Passion echoed in her
voice: "But ... is strength enough? Can you find the things you really
seek in strength alone?"

"With power, I can do anything!"

"No! Power is not enough--"

"It is! It is!" He could not hold down his heat, his fervor.

But how could he tell her? How could he make her understand?

And why did he care?

He clutched the saddle and stared bleakly off across the crags. A flood
of memories washed through him. And because their roots struck so very
deep, he knew before he spoke that in spite of all his efforts, his
words were going to come out as cold and hard as the stones of these
barren mountains.

He said tightly: "I was born on Pallas. My ancestors came out to the
asteroid belt from Earth as colonists, in the days when Earth still was
mighty."

He could see the girl's eyes widen. "Then ... you are of Earth--?"

"Of Earth?" Haral laughed harshly. "Call it that if you will. But what
place is there for any colonist, anywhere, when the mother planet
falls? The first of my people came out three hundred years ago. But by
the time Earth at last was vanquished, no one cared from whence they
came, or what happened to them. They were left on their own, to stay
and face their troubles. The weak died; the strong survived."

He broke off, and looked away. The memories were roaring now. Emotion
choked him. But it was as if he were a witness, speaking out in behalf
of all his hopeless, derelict kind. Coldly, brutally, he forced himself
to speak on:

"I grew up watching the _Malyas_ come, and the _Chonyas_, and a hundred
mongrel raiders. When I was twelve, Ibarak's killers cut my father
down, so Ibarak could add my mother to his harem."

       *       *       *       *       *

He heard Kyla's low gasp of horror, and the shock that was in the sound
stabbed him with a feeling that held both pain and, somehow, a fierce,
vindictive pleasure.

He said harshly: "It was his mistake. She slit his throat, and then her
own."

"Oh, no--!"

"Yes!" He swung round, and looked squarely into the slim, lovely
_Shamon's_ eyes. "I swore an oath that day, my priestess--because that
day I saw that nothing mattered save the power to take and hold. Love,
honor, duty--what did they count? What had they done for my father, my
mother, a million others like them? So I swore I'd live to see the time
when no living creature in all the universe would dare to strike a blow
against me. I swore I'd have the might to smash them, one and all!"

There was silence, then, for a vibrant moment, broken only by the
scraping of the _hwalon's_ claws as they moved over rock and slides of
gravel.

At last Kyla said, "What can I say, Haral?" And now pain was in her
voice, too.

Wordless, tight-drawn, Haral nodded and turned away.

But then the girl spoke again: "I have long been Xaymar's priestess,
blue one, and a priestess learns many things. Namboina himself it was
who taught me to read men's hearts from the words they speak and the
things they do, no matter how confused and torn they themselves might
be."

Haral shrugged, not turning. Dimly, the priestess' words drifted to him
through the haze of his own dark thoughts and feelings:

"Your life has been bitter, warrior--as empty as the void itself. But
the thing you've sought, the thing you seek, is not an empire, no
matter what you think. Even if fate should give you the power of which
you dream, its savor would turn to ashes in your mouth."

       *       *       *       *       *

A welling anger touched the blue man, and he twisted in its clutches.
He'd saved this slim _Shamon_ girl from the coleoptera; thrown away his
own chance at destiny for her. Why could she not now let him be?

Yet still she spoke, almost as if she'd read his thoughts:

"You care nothing for destiny; not really. For if you did, you'd not be
here with me now. What you truly seek is an excuse for living, a warmth
to fill the void inside you. There lies the root of your recklessness,
your mad ambition."

The anger grew in Haral, and sweat drenched him inside his armor. The
very rocks through which they rode seemed out of shape, distorted.

"Do you think me a fool or a child, then, not even able to see my own
self straight? Or perhaps you believe me mad. Is that it?" He spat.
"Why did you bother to come with me? Why didn't you stay with your
thrice-cursed beetles?"

But Kyla's voice stayed calm ... so calm it sent new fury through him.

She said: "I have no quarrel with you, warrior; and the thing you did
for me is worth more credit than your words would ever give it. That is
why I say that power will never fill the hunger in you. What you need
is a cause to fight for and to live for, not greed and blood and booty."

"So you'd like to see me play the fool for Ulna! You want me,
single-handed, to take on Sark and Xaymar and the coleoptera!"

As Haral lashed out, the _hwalon_ topped another ridge.

In the distance loomed the squat buildings of the shabby spaceport town
that was their destination.

Haral forgot his fury. Frowning, he headed the dragon down a steep
ravine.

A gnawing doubt was growing in him. This was all so smooth, so easy....

Grimly, he debated the chance of ambush before they reached the town.

Kyla said: "Truly, Ulna needs a champion--"

Haral bared his teeth and cursed aloud.

And as he cried out, the world exploded.

He didn't even see the blaster that knocked him down.



                             CHAPTER VIII


They dragged Haral out of his cell just after noon.

Wearily, he raised his eyes from his shackled wrists and, squinting at
the sudden glare, looked up into the yellow Ulnese sky.

He wondered, bleakly, if he'd ever get another chance to taste its
freedom.

Then a _Pervod_ took one arm, a _dau_ the other. Roughly, they hurried
him into the central park with shoves and buffets.

A shout went up from the lusting crowd--a shout for blood, a shout for
slaughter. A Martian leaped forward to trip him. A Thorian slapped a
tentacle savagely across his face, and he knew from the blinding pain
that flesh had torn away under its suction.

Then he was stumbling through the blood-soaked sand of the arena to the
bank of seats where the raider chieftains waited.

And there was Sark, just as before, sprawled out like some great, slimy
slug in his ornate Uranian riding-chair.

The raider's fat-rimmed eyes gleamed bright with murderous triumph now.
He bared his teeth in a sinister smirk, and his whole gross body shook
with a cruel laughter.

But his hand never left the cymosynthesizer switch.

There, too, sat Xaymar: living goddess, queen of storms, the prize that
had drawn Sark here to Ulna.

Even now, standing there before her, Haral felt the spell of her
vibrant, voluptuous loveliness. With wrenching force, it came to him
what a fool he'd been to go against her; to toss away her favor and all
it stood for in order to take his own mad road.

Her ripe lips curved into a smile.

He wondered if she were laughing at him behind the jeweled veil that
masked her.

But if she were, what did it matter? What difference could it make to
him, in this last hour of his bitter odyssey?

Then, half-unconsciously, he straightened. His thoughts, at least,
were still his own. No one need know that regret, despair, welled high
within him. He could die as he'd lived, by the warrior's creed, head
high and neck unbending.

It was as if the very gesture rekindled some near-dead spark within
him. A little of his feeling of hopelessness and black dejection seemed
to fall away. Coolly, almost, he gazed about him.

It dawned on him, now, that the mob gathered here to watch his downfall
was not quite the same as the one he'd faced that other day when he'd
first blazed his path across Sark's devilish drive for conquest.

For now coleoptera were massed along one side of the arena. A rustling,
eddying sea of vivid scarlet, they crowded close by the chieftains'
stand, as if drawn to the incredible woman who was their ruler by a
magnet.

Then a new, wild shout roared up from the crowd.

Haral shot a quick glance back across his shoulder.

The yelling mob was parting. Two more crewmen drove through the throng,
dragging along another prisoner.

A lovely prisoner.

Kyla.

Or did her beauty now lie only in his own eyes?

       *       *       *       *       *

Blood ran down her face. Her features were drawn to a mask of anguish.
When she stumbled, one of the raiders caught her by the hair and jerked
her upright.

In the stand, Sark rocked with laughter.

Then she was standing, swaying, in the crewmen's grip, beside Haral.

Sark's laughter died. He leaned forward, thick lips working. His fat
face was a study in sadistic fury.

A hush fell over the crowd.

He cried: "So, _chitzas_! Now you die!"

The silence rolled like thunder.

Haral stood wordless. He could barely see Kyla, out of the tail of his
eye.

She did not move. She did not speak. Only the way her breasts rose and
fell too fast whispered of the conflict that churned within her.

Or was it exertion, sheer weariness, that made her breathe so hard?

Now, savagely, Sark turned on the blue man.

"You, warrior!" He spat, and his face contorted. "Warrior? I'll teach
you to call yourself a warrior, _starbo_! You talked bold, you _zanat_,
when you rode in here with your _hwalon_ and your armor and your
light-lance. But there's _kabat_ in your veins instead of blood. Now
you'll learn to crawl, and beg for death!"

Haral stood very still. A haze seemed to hang over the leering crowd,
the blood and dirt, the yellow sky.

How had Sark said it, that other time? "_Why have you come so long a
way to die?_"

Here it had begun. Here it was ending.

This was his destiny.

And here was Kyla. Here was Xaymar....

Xaymar, most beautiful of women, with a body to tempt a man to hell.
Paradise, and infinite evil. His chance for power and glory.

Xaymar, in a clinging scarlet gown.

The smile still lingered on her lips.

How had Sark lured her here, after all his treachery?

But then, hatred made strange partners.

And they were waiting for him to crawl.

Recklessly, then, he laughed aloud. With a twist and a jerk, he tore
free from the grasp of the raider crewmen and strode forward.

He could see Sark's web-fingered hand knot convulsively on the
cymosynthesizer switch.

He laughed again, and made his voice ring: "Bring on your torture,
_stabats_! I'll show you how a warrior dies!"

       *       *       *       *       *

A spasm of rage shook Sark's gross body. His face grew purple as Ulna's
peaks. "You _chitza_--!" His voice rose crazily, shrilly. "Throw him in
the ring! Let the beetles tear his flesh from his bones! Stake him out
and let them feast upon him before he dies!"

A clacking of mandibles rose, a hideous, castaneting rattle. A thousand
protuberant, multi-faceted insectile eyes drew into focus.

In spite of himself, Haral felt the hair on his nape go stiff.

The crewmen moved in to seize him.

"Die with this thought, you fool!" Sark shouted. "Xaymar has pledged
herself to share her secret with me! I'll have the lightning for my
weapon! Die thinking of me with the universe in my power, Haral! Die!
Die--"

And then, for the first time, Xaymar spoke: "No, Sark." Her tone was
flat, decisive, final.

The raider chief went rigid in his riding-chair. His bulbous head
swiveled. "What--?"

She smiled, a lazy, mocking smile. Her hand came up in an easy gesture.
"I said no, he does not die. Not till he's heard a thing I have to say.
That is the only reason that I've come here." Her voice dropped a note.
"Perhaps ... he need not die at all."

"No!" Sark shouted, and even through the fat, muscles stood out along
his neck and jaws. "He dies, I tell you! Here, now, in this arena--"

The woman's lithe body seemed to draw together like that of a tigress
crouching. "I say he lives!" she slashed back fiercely. And then, with
swift, deadly emphasis: "Or ... would _you_ rather die?"

Grey came to Sark's puffed, blubbery face, washing out the purple.
Flecks of foam formed at the corners of his mouth, and his eyes were
suddenly diamond-bright with hate and fear. Snarling, incoherent sounds
bubbled in his throat.

"You may make the choice," said Xaymar smoothly. "Which shall it be
_Gar_ Sark?"

The harsh sounds ceased. The raider chief sank back into his chair.

Still smiling, the woman men called Xaymar turned once more to Haral;
and of a sudden the strange, dark, nameless evil of her reached out to
him in throbbing, vibrant waves.

"Would you live, blue warrior?" she asked softly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Narrow-eyed, wary, he tried to read her face through the masking veil.
His nerves all at once were like groping tendrils, so sharply tuned his
whole body ached with tension.

He said: "Let me hear the price before I answer."

"It is not high...."

"Let me hear it!"

The ripe lips parted. Her sleek, voluptuous body seemed to reach out to
his till, eerily, it was almost as if he could feel it pressed against
him.

She said: "Never before you have I met a man with fire to match my
own, blue warrior! Always, my lovers fawned and flattered, whimpering
phrases that were half fear, half weakness."

"The price!"

"But you--you waded through your own blood to find me! You would have
taken me by force! You dared to strike me down!"

She came to her feet in one lithe movement. Her voice took on new
vibrance.

"You still may have me, warrior--both me, and my secrets! I'll give
them gladly, if I can only share your destiny, travel with you...."

She paused, and the feeling of dark sin and horror that radiated from
her wound round Haral--enveloping, all-pervasive. He swayed, caught up
in the surging power of it as by bonds of steel.

Her words came, dim and distant:

"Grant me only one favor, blue man ... only one, and all shall be
yours!"

Haral did not speak.

"Give me the woman, warrior! Give me the _Shamon_ priestess to do with
as I will, to prove that you are truly mine!"

The horror was no longer nameless. The evil took form in words of fire.

Haral choked. "No! Not Kyla--!"

"Sit here beside me as my lover, while my children feast upon her
body--" Xaymar's gesture took in the whole blank-eyed, slithering,
lusting beetle horde. "Bind yourself to me with this one sacrifice of
passion--"

"No!" screamed Haral. "No, no--!"

The words came from his throat, but it was not his voice. The world
rocked. His body shook, and he could not stop it.

Xaymar's hands, her voice, reached out to him, cajoling: "What can her
one life mean to you, who have carved your destiny in blood? What can
she matter, this _Shamon_ scum?"

"No--!"

"Look deep within you, warrior! Look to your dreams of empire, your
ambition! Look to me--"

       *       *       *       *       *

As she spoke, with one tempestuous sweep, she flung wide her scarlet
gown and stood before him naked, as she had lain beneath the crystal
bubble in her deep-sunk vault. Her hand moved sensually over the sleek
curves of her perfect body. Her midnight hair rippled in the breeze.

"Look at me, blue man! Look--and then tell me you can reject me
for another!" Her voice swelled with a richer timbre. "I am yours,
warrior--and I know you want me, for I have looked into your brain!
It was I who reached out across the miles and found you, through your
_Shamon_ girl's unguarded mind, so that Sark could seize you and bring
you here. I've been inside you all the time you've stood in this
arena--thinking your thoughts, feeling the things you felt. I know you
better than you know yourself. I know how many times you've cursed
yourself for giving me up to save this other creature. Now, at this
very moment, you waver. Why should you die with her, when you can live
and see your dreams of power come true and have me, Xaymar, queen of
storms, most beautiful of women?"

Haral could not make the world stop rocking. His body was a numb,
unfeeling thing. His brain ... his brain--He clutched his head between
his shackled hands and tried to fight, to think, to slash the haze away.

Xaymar cried: "Come to me, warrior!"

Numbly, dumbly, he stared at her, swaying.

She raised her hands. "Come...!" And as she spoke, it was as if her
fingers had reached into his mind--twisting it; pulling....

He stumbled towards her, a single step.

"Come!"

This time the word was in his brain itself, not in his ears. He took
another step. Another.

"Come... come... come...."

It was like that other night--was it a million years ago?--the night
he'd heard the coleoptera calling.

But the thing the beetles called was "Kill! Kill! Kill!"

Kill the man-things.

He staggered forward.

And there was Xaymar, ripe lips smiling. He felt her arms go tight
about him, the pressure of her naked body on him.

He tried to think of Kyla.

But what was Kyla? Why should he die for a girl called Kyla when he
could live and have his dreams and Xaymar?

_Kill the man-things._

Blonde hair, and a slim young body. Courage, and a head held proudly.

Xaymar. Power, and ripe lips, hot with passion.

_Kill the man-things._

"Kiss me, warrior." A jeweled veil-mask.

What did it hide?

_Kill the man-things!_

But Kyla.... No--! Not even for power could he give up Kyla! Not send
her to her death, to the coleoptera--!

       *       *       *       *       *

Something snapped inside Haral. The world went mad. His brain was
on fire, on fire, twisting and turning, turning and burning, pulled
through his skull by sensuous fingers.

He couldn't think. His body was a bursting entity of anguish.

_Kill the man-things!_

Jewels glinting in a filmy mask.

Spasmodically, he jerked away. Convulsive, clutching, without volition,
his hands clawed up into Xaymar's face and snatched away the veil.

The fire in his brain went out. The torment ended. Staggering, he saw
the world without the haze.

Now Xaymar's hands were before her face; her fingers masking, shielding.

Savagely, he caught her wrists and jerked them down ... stared into her
eyes.

He almost screamed aloud.

Because her eyes were not humanoid eyes.

Faceted, fixed, protuberant, glassy, they were _insectile_!

The eyes of a beetle, a coleopteron!

A phrase she'd used came back: "... _while my children feast_...."

Through the horror and shock that froze him, he heard Sark shouting:
"Seize him! Seize him--!"

Hands clutched his arms. They jerked him back and pinned him down.

Xaymar said; "So at last you know ..." and now her voice crawled with
hate and fury.

Haral did not answer.

She raved at him: "Yes! I am of the coleoptera--a mutant, and a hybrid!
Now you know how I gave them the power of thought! Those that think are
my own children, my descendants! And now you know, too, why I took a
thousand human lovers, and slew each one before the dawn. For I have
human passion hot within me, but no man could forbear to look beneath
my veil, and with my brain close-tuned to theirs, I felt the horror
well up in them--the same disgust and loathing that even you cannot
conceal. So I killed them, that they might never tell my secret--"

She broke off. Her hands clenched till blood spurted where the nails
gouged through the palms. Her voice rose--hysterical, vindictive.
"Throw him alive into the arena! Yes, let my children feast upon him--!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The crewmen jerked Haral to his feet again. The coleoptera surged
forward. He glimpsed slim Kyla, with horror written on her lovely
face.... Sark, doubled over, gloating and laughing ... the seething
fury that dwelt in Xaymar.

But now his brain was clear again, the shadow of the nameless evil
gone. Fire surged in his veins, and wild, reckless daring.

The _dau_ and the _Pervod_ dragged him towards the beetles.

He cried, "I'll meet my fate standing, you _chitzas_!" and kicked with
all his might for the _Pervod's_ fragile reptilian ankle.

He heard the bones snap over all the tumult. The _Pervod's_ shriek rang
like the scream of a sky-shell.

He snatched for its ray-gun.

The _dau's_ great arms caught him as the weapon tore loose from the
holster. He felt his ribs cracking as it lifted him--crushed him.

Desperately, he triggered the beam square into its belly.

The hairy arms dropped him. The _dau_ sprawled back, dying.

Haral spun round, still firing.

The beam caught the first of the onrushing beetles. It seared through a
second. A third reeled and stumbled.

Haral lunged for the chiefs' stand.

Sark stood there, stiff-frozen. Xaymar lurched back in terror.

Haral cried: "Die, curse you!"

He whipped up the ray-gun. But Sark shrieked, "Wait, blue man--! You
and all Ulna die here with me!"

His gross body twisted, and Haral saw the fat fingers still locked on
the cymosynthesizer switch.

In the same instant the raider chief's other hand darted beneath his
tent-like tunic, incredibly fast, snatching out a Venusian _xlan_-tube.

Blue fire belched at Haral.

He threw himself flat. But it was the end. It could be no other way.

This was where destiny and the road to empire at last had led him.

To failure. To death. To his blood in the dirt of Sark's arena.

Why had he picked such a road to travel? What good did it do to die,
when even death was empty, without meaning?

Unless, perhaps, he could save Ulna....

He triggered the ray-gun as the fire seared down his back.

But not at Sark. His target was the cymosynthesizer switch; the cable.

Through a haze of pain, he saw them fuse; saw Sark's hand, too, turn to
sifting ashes.

The raider screamed and surged forward.

Haral triggered a final beam.

It tore Sark's bulbous head from his shoulders.

The roar of the mob, lunging in for the kill, came dimly to the blue
man's ears.

He was glad. They'd at least put an end to his agony.

But the roar seemed to die again, and he wondered if perhaps some dark
corner of his brain still functioned in its way after consciousness had
left him.

Then hands touched his face; soft hands, caressing.

       *       *       *       *       *

With a tremendous, wrenching effort, he opened his eyes, and there was
Kyla, with tears on her cheeks and soft lips atremble.

But where was the crowd, the beetles, the cutthroat crewmen?

Another face came ... the face of Xaymar.

As from afar, her words came fiercely: "I hate you, warrior, for you
spurn me for a stupid _Shamon_ child! But I am of Ulna, and again you
have saved my life and planet. So, now, my coleopteran legions shall
protect you till my science can give back your daring and make your
body whole once more. My projectors, too, my secrets of the wind and
rain, the lightning--I leave them in your hands to help you guard this
world of mine, till my own day to strike shall come. But for myself, I
must go back to frozen sleep again, for another thousand years, lest I
should rise and slay you in my fury!"

Her face, her voice, faded into distance; and he wondered if it were
only in his mind that he seemed to hear a final, gentler whisper:
"... And I shall dream of you a thousand years, my warrior...."

Then Kyla's tears were on his cheeks, too; her soft lips pressed
against his. And there was peace in him at last, and he was at one with
his dreams, his destiny.

       *       *       *       *       *

_Naked, still as death, the veiled woman-goddess men called Xaymar
rested on a gold-draped dais within a great, glowing, crystal ball._

_Xaymar, passionate goddess, queen of storms. Ruler of rain and wind
and lightning, empress of all the surging forces that spread their
tumult across the sky. Sainted monster, evil savior. Old as time, and
young as folly. Born of woman, damned of men, wise with dark wisdom
gone astray...._



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