The Project Gutenberg eBook of Dark Destiny

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Title: Dark Destiny

Author: Dwight V. Swain

Release date: July 20, 2021 [eBook #65885]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at




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....


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."


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.


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—"


"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."


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.


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."


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."


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!"


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....


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."


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!"


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.


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.


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.


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?"


"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.


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....